Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
He concluded with a yawn. My apologies, madame. It is very early.
It was my husband, wasn’t it.
He only meant well, madame.
Madame brushed the front of her apron. I have no doubt he did. Then so be it. We will be easier to watch over if you are here. I take it you have never made a proper loaf of bread?
Then you can mind the shop. Thankfully my boy has a head for numbers, he’ll help you settle in. In the meantime, I’ll thank you to stay out of my cellar.
Grenelle put his arm around Octavio’s shoulder. The pair stood at attention.
We shall not fail you, Grenelle said.
Madame thanked him for the news about the croissants.
One less thing to worry about, she said.
The customers were patient with Grenelle’s apprenticeship, forgave him his confusions over who had selected the sourdough and how many loaves of rye—I assure you mademoiselle they will be ready at any moment—were due out of the ovens. A few of the gossips moaned about the wait, or the incorrect price, or the forgotten change, but Octavio would step in and whisper in Grenelle’s ear.
Pay them no mind, monsieur, they always complain.
Near the Métro the young woman pauses for a moment to watch as a man, perhaps her own age, appears from nowhere and greets a lady friend. He hesitates, then leans in to kiss her cheeks. She seems unsure in a pair of new shoes; she nervously fingers her hair. The man’s face gleams with sweat. Tugging at the short legs of his trousers, he offers her a bouquet of drooping flowers. She smiles as she accepts them. The young woman looks away and walks on.
ore than four years of rumours and speculations, anxious headlines and invented illustrations, half-truths and certain lies flowed around the Boulangerie Notre-Dame. This sea of war would lap at the bakery’s doorstep or lift itself as black walls, threatening to drown all within. But inevitably to pass, leaving bits of hearsay and fact in its wake as it radiated from a distant storm.
What Madame Notre-Dame would remember of those years, or what others hoped she might remember, were
the politicians reinstating the making of croissants. She would come to produce her own version, a fine balance of butter and dough, and no one would fault her for showing them off to her husband were he ever to return.
She might have remembered the evenings spent helping her son organize the growing pile of newspapers he was saving for his father, or the Sunday when Octavio would teach Blind Grenelle the story game. It was the first Christmas of the war: the two of them on the front step shivering in the cold and mimicking an illustration of soldiers huddled around a trench fire. They were a happy group, the poilu on the front page, a few of them singing, one fellow enjoying a pipe and a steaming mug, a pair dancing what appeared to be a jig.
Or she might have remembered the knot loosening in her stomach as she pictured her Emile, warm and safe like the scene in the newspaper; or as she stood watch at the top of the cake-slice, her son and Grenelle linking elbows and twirling across the cobbles below.
What Madame Lafrouche would remember was 1916. Soldiers returning to Paris on leave, but not her Alphonse. Hollow men slumped in doorways, broken men struggling with new crutches. But no sign of Alphonse. The postman knocking at her door that summer; the way he took off his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he
handed her the telegram. The word that had hovered over the eighth since the winter:
. Then the instructions as to where Madame might find her husband’s resting place, once the fighting had moved on and the army could arrange suitable memorial plots. She would remember the darkness of that summer and the mad hope that the army had made a mistake. Most of all she would remember the pain in Madame Notre-Dame’s eyes, worrying that her own man had met such a fate, and Grenelle’s quiet reassurance to the baker’s wife. No news is good news, he had whispered.
Blind Grenelle would remember the spring of 1918. Bread finally rationed. Everyone now complaining, standing in day-long queues for meagre allotments, that such privation meant a slow and certain death for the country’s soul. He would remember the low thudding of heavy guns outside the city, the catch in people’s throats as they talked of the enemy massing on the outskirts, the story he conjured to distract Octavio as news of bombs landing in the city spread through the shop. Pay no attention, he told the boy. That is our army, not theirs. Our boys are setting off fireworks, practising for when victory comes. Imagine the celebration we will have when your father marches through those doors.
Octavio would remember his tenth birthday, August 1918, and his mother asking him for a story. Something from your book, she said. He was stunned. He ran up the spiral staircase to the attic and returned with the
, opening it to the picture of a man in a turban and elegant robes riding a flying horse. He couldn’t tell the same story he and his father had told each other. He wanted something special for his mother, she had never asked for a story before. This is one of Papa’s horses, he said, knowing how she would reply. But your father hasn’t got any horses, she said. Is he hiding them, somewhere in the cellar perhaps? Octavio chuckled. That would be silly, he said. No, Maman, this horse is one of the kings who pulled the cart delivering Papa’s marble. I see, she said, pretending to be surprised. And who is the fellow riding this Louis?
Octavio would remember his response. That is Papa. Flying over the war and on his way home.
What a birthday present that would be, Madame said.
And then the final November. There had been murmurs for weeks. The city vibrated with them, daily, almost hourly.
Madame was sitting in the cellar, flour dusting her arms white, her face glowing in the heat, her back feeling the first chills of winter seeping through the old stone walls farthest from the oven doors. In this lull after the day’s first rush of customers she tried, as she had every morning since Emile had turned the corner that afternoon four years earlier, to remember his face. The silly grin as he marched backwards and out of sight. The picture had gone soft now, more a flicker than anything she might reach out and hold. Lately she had begun working herself into fits of panic as she imagined a bullet thumping into her husband’s chest, or a table where a doctor was frantically trying to stop his bleeding, or him stumbling along a stretch of road, all alone, the trees on either side blown to stumps.
It was then she heard the bells of Saint-Augustin.
On a Monday? Madame thought.
The sounds of running footsteps came next, on the street outside the cellar window. There were muffled shouts. She couldn’t make out what they were saying. She thought she heard singing. The shop’s floorboards above her head began creaking more than usual. Something was going on upstairs.
As she moved toward the stairs, Octavio’s face appeared at the top.
Come quick, Maman. It is all true. The war is over. Papa is coming home.
By noon Madame Notre-Dame was elbowing her way through drunken, dancing streets to the war department.
She stood in a long queue of women. When she reached the counter Madame informed a small man that she had heard nothing from her husband since the war began. The clerk moved his bottle of brandy to one side, asked a few questions, scribbled notes in a ledger, explained the unfairness of the tens of thousands of such cases and the handful of clerks assigned to resolve them. He advised that patience and celebration were the order of the day, madame; the matter would be looked into. In the meantime did she care to join him in a toast to peace?
Day after day, Madame would close the bakery during the afternoon lull and return to the war department. The queue outside, the hundreds of wives and girlfriends and mothers and children huddled in hope, would only grow longer.
The young woman turns a corner and bumps into a rag picker, knocking into the gutter the three hats the old woman wears. Her cart is overflowing with clothes. The young woman apologizes and bends to pick up the hats, no worse for their fall.
There is no need to rush, mademoiselle, the old woman says. Her voice softens. Whatever you are late for, my dear, will still be there when you arrive.
he letter came months later, the return address a hospital near Amiens.
—your husband has been under our care. He was discovered some two years ago now, starving in the ruins of a village near here. How he had managed to survive in the cellar of a bombed-out bakery we will never know. When he was brought to us he barely spoke. He seemed not to hear when we asked him to write his name. For a while we thought he might have gone deaf, what with the shelling you understand.
Apart from his tag number we have had no way of knowing who he is or where he came from. We sent letter after letter to the war department inquiring about our brave number 6694. Just imagine our pleasure at finally learning his name. Be at peace, madame, knowing your man is well and whole if still very thin. His voice has returned and he tells us the most remarkable stories. We are further pleased to inform you he will shortly be returned to you by train. We shall miss our Emile Notre-Dame, infantry first-class. He has been a most cooperative patient and has lightened our burden through these dreadful years.
Soldiers crowded the station platform, shuffling into ragged formation, their faces unshaven, dirty, old before their time. Madame clutched the letter, searching each blank stare as the men marched past, their double ranks parting around her. Emile Notre-Dame was not among them. When she realized she was alone on the platform, she began to panic, her hands trembling as she unfolded the letter and read for the hundredth time the hospital’s instructions regarding the train from Amiens.
Madame saw him from the corner of her eye. Monsieur Notre-Dame stood under the station clock, fidgeting with the one remaining button of his tunic. Had she not turned her head she would have passed him altogether,
another soiled uniform in a grimy ocean pouring off the trains. His face had gone as white as cotton, his eyes shrunk into his head; streaks of grey ran through his shaggy hair. His trousers hung from him as though he were a boy playing in his father’s clothes. A stamped square of paper—
—had been pinned to his chest.
Madame stepped in front of her husband, her eyes searching to meet his. She reached for his face.
Monsieur let go of the button and looked up. A smile was slow to appear.
I am sorry, mademoiselle, he said. I was looking for someone.
You were looking for me, Madame said.
The grey in his eyes caught the light. Then you must be the Lady France. I am your servant, madame.
He struggled to bow from the waist.
Octavio watched a man who looked like his father slump into a chair. He couldn’t make sense of it. He tried starting a story. Home, he said. His father didn’t respond. He felt his face grow hot. He couldn’t stop himself from pulling on his father’s sleeve.
But, Papa. This is wrong! Home! With a goose under your coat, you said. You would be the fattest baker in all Paris! You’re not fat at all. Where are your medals? It was all numbers and legs, you said. Onetwothreefour.
I saved your newspapers and I was good! I helped Maman. It’s not fair, Papa!
Octavio felt his eyes filling with tears. You promised, Papa. You promised a Christmas goose.
Madame took hold of her boy’s hands. Go and find Grenelle, she said.
Grenelle cleaned his spectacles and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim of the shop.
Octavio wiped his runny nose on his sleeve. Maman has tried all she can, he said. Papa doesn’t want to eat. I brought him one of his papers. He wasn’t interested in that either. I think we need help, monsieur.
Monsieur had fallen asleep where he sat, his uniform covered in crumbs. A newspaper lay across his lap. Grenelle told Octavio to open the curtains, then asked where his mother was.
Octavio moved from window to window. Upstairs, he said.
Sunlight poured into the shop, stirring the sleeping baker. Monsieur jolted upright, his gaunt face twisted in fear.
Welcome home, my friend, Grenelle said. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable upstairs?
Monsieur’s eyes darted back and forth as though he had been struck blind.
Safer in the cellar, he said, a hand digging into his trouser pocket, searching for a watch Grenelle knew was long lost.
Monsieur looked outside. Any minute now. The guns will start. We are dead men if we stay here.
Grenelle turned to Octavio. We’ll need a blanket and something for his head, he said.
In the cellar Grenelle fashioned a bed on the table in front of the ovens. Octavio brushed away a few nuggets of hard dough and flour dust. I was born on this table, he said.
Then if it is good enough for babies, Grenelle said, it is good enough for their fathers.
Helping the baker to his feet took little effort. The thinnest for certain now, Grenelle thought, guiding the man down the narrow stairs into the cellar. Monsieur curled himself on the marble table. Octavio pulled the blanket over his father’s shoulder.
Grenelle left the cake-slice and returned within the hour, carrying a wheel of cheese, a tin of sardines and a few bits of fruit in a string bag. Lunch for the four of us, he said. He asked if Madame had come down at all.
Octavio went to the rear of the building, stood on the bottom step and called up the stairwell, straining to hear the scrape of chair legs, the shuffle of feet. There
was none. He returned to the bakery. She must be very tired, he said.
We’ll keep the bakery closed for now, Grenelle said. Everyone is tired.
That night Octavio lay on the floor under the table and his snoring father, the cake-slice creaking and moaning above them. Drifting in and out of sleep, he thought he heard footsteps on the stairs. Our Lady Herself then appeared at the cellar door, her glowing hands holding a tray heaped with pains au chocolat. Octavio rolled over. The dream faded as Mary spread her arms and smiled.