Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
Blind Grenelle sat in a corner of one of the shop windows. Knees pulled to his chin, head lolling against his arms, he fought the exhaustion clouding his head. He wanted to stay awake; dawn would come soon enough. He imagined various excuses and apologies, ones he would tell in quiet tones when he peeked out from the blue doors and greeted the day’s first customers. I know how much we’d like matters to get back to normal, he would say, and Madame has asked me to thank you all for your concern. It’s been quite a journey for our baker. There’s much catching up to do. We’ll just leave them alone for a day or two, shall we? Let them get reacquainted. I am sure you understand.
By noon the next day Madame had still not come down to the bakery. Grenelle told Octavio to keep an eye on his father. I’ll go upstairs to fetch a few things from my place, he said. Back in no time.
Grenelle reached the top-floor landing. The door to the Notre-Dame apartment was open. He called out to Madame. He could hear something coming from the bedroom. He stepped inside and called again.
He found Madame sitting at the side of the bed and staring into nothing. Grenelle’s first thought as he saw her swollen eyes and raw cheeks was that she hadn’t stopped crying since yesterday. In front of her the armoire door was ajar, wedged against the bed.
Madame? Grenelle said.
Leave me alone.
Why don’t you come downstairs. I’ll make us some coffee.
Madame turned to the blind watchmaker.
I wanted to change, you see. Wear something nice. To welcome him home. But I couldn’t move the bed. Now I’ve gone and jammed the drawer and—
Let me help you, Grenelle said.
—now it’s too late. I don’t think Emile will notice anyway.
I’m sure he will, Madame. He simply needs time to adjust.
Please go away.
If you’ll allow me, Grenelle said.
Madame finally screamed at the blind watchmaker.
As you wish, Madame. I’ll come back later.
Grenelle gently closed the bedroom door behind him.
Late afternoon the following day. Grenelle checked his watch. It had been another twenty-four hours. Or more, by his reckoning, and still Madame had shut herself away. He was about to leave the shop and go upstairs when a uniform appeared at the bakery doors.
The police inspector explained the reason for his visit.
I know the Notre-Dames, Grenelle said. Monsieur is not well and Madame is not yet awake. You may leave your report with me.
The inspector said it was most irregular and he was behind in his rounds and had a full morning of notices to deliver but under the circumstances he would be on his way and please express the department’s condolences and have a pleasant day monsieur goodbye.
In the cellar, Grenelle pulled the report close to his face, searching for the focus. He cleared his throat, and began to read aloud.
It is this officer’s duty to record that one Madame Immacolata Notre-Dame, lately of the eighth district, was pronounced dead at thirteen minutes after two o’clock yesterday morning, in the vicinity of the Church of Saint-Augustin, having succumbed to grievous injuries suffered while being trampled by a horse which was engaged at the time of the incident in pulling the delivery wagon of one Monsieur Philippe Lecler, resident of Courbevoie, eel monger and documented owner of the aforementioned animal. Despite a variety of testimonies regarding the moonless night and the resulting blackness, the weight of the eels, the momentum of the wagon, as well as the victim’s observed agitation and depressed physical nature at the time, testimonies that were duly obtained during an exhaustive examination of the scene and through notarized eyewitness accounts, as included herewith, the incident was determined by this officer to be an unavoidable and unfortunate accident. No further action was deemed necessary and the aforementioned Monsieur Lecler, having been declared by this officer innocent of any negligence or wrongdoing, was permitted to return to his residence with the animal and cart in question. Signed and dated et cetera.
Grenelle looked up from his reading. Monsieur had said nothing. Apart from one eyebrow cocked a little higher than the other, there was no expression on Octavio’s face. As though the watchmaker had been speaking a foreign language.
Searching Monsieur’s face for any sign of understanding, Grenelle could only find what was in his own mind’s eye. Madame gathering her shawl around her head. Finding a dark gap between the street lamps. Waiting for Lecler’s old mare to gather speed. Timing her step off the curb. Closing her eyes.
Monsieur smiled. He asked if anyone would like a story.
He has been in there a long time, someone says. Do you think he is all right?
Would you be? comes a reply.
The crowd assures itself that with the brigade already at work, the baker is in the best hands he can be.
Heads tilt back as the brigade appears amid the ruins of the top floor of the cake-slice. One or two of the younger firemen forget themselves, wave their helmets and puff their chests, roll their shirtsleeves to pump sooty muscled arms. A few in the crowd, eager
to be characters in a dangerous tale of city life they will tell their disbelieving country relatives, forget themselves and wave in return.
renelle stooped to pick up the flowers that had begun to accumulate on the bakery’s doorstep. Madame Lafrouche approached, in her hand a red carnation. I believe they were a favourite of hers, she said.
Certainly the colour, Grenelle said.
How is the boy?
Good days and bad, madame. Like yourself, I suspect.
Madame Lafrouche drew a deep breath. My Alphonse—yes—two years ago now—feels like
yesterday—loved his sourdough—sorry—yes—the boy—you say he is well?
He will be, madame. He is a strong boy. It is a great comfort to his father.
Are they reading his book? Madame said. It was a gift, you know—Alphonse’s idea of course—still—
Grenelle took the carnation from the woman’s hand. A lie would do no harm, he thought. They read it every day, madame.
Madame Lafrouche wrung her hands. This may not be—the right time—but I was wondering—if—when—the bakery might open again. It would lighten all our burdens.
Soon, Grenelle said, soon. And you are right to ask, madame. It would be good to return to normal. I will see that Monsieur gets your flower.
The Boulangerie Notre-Dame had managed on meagre supplies for much of the war. It was the city’s good fortune that apart from brief restrictions on butter, there had never been an outright loss of essentials. The display case sat half empty most of the time—Madame had kept the varieties of breads to a minimum—but customers of the Boulangerie Notre-Dame had never gone truly hungry.
I am a pilgrim in a strange land, Grenelle thought as
he leaned against the marble table and tried to make sense of what remained of the stores. Octavio pulled himself up and sat on the table. Grenelle turned to the boy.
Your father was always bragging about his apprentice. That Octavio has the gift, he would say, a Notre-Dame through and through. So how gifted are you, exactly?
Octavio shrugged. Papa let me work at the ovens sometimes, he said. I helped him with the easy breads. We would make brioche all the time.
Not your mother’s brioche, I hope, Grenelle said.
No, monsieur, Papa’s special variety. The one with the herbs.
Octavio looked over at his father and smiled. Monsieur Notre-Dame was sitting in his corner of the cellar, staring up at the window.
Those I have missed, Grenelle said.
Dumping flour, yeast and water into a bowl was easy enough; it required no more than a dozen tries before Octavio and Grenelle thought the portions of salt and sugar looked correct. The boy thought hard to remember his father’s way with the eggs: the graceful toss, like a juggler, from one hand to the other; the tentative tap against the rim of the bowl, the final swift and sure blow. By his fifth attempt, Octavio had found the
miraculous force: opening the egg against the rim of the bowl, letting the contents drip into the mixture, keeping the shell in his hands. By the seventh egg he managed the process one-handed. With the tenth and eleventh he could crack an egg in each hand.
Your father’s son, Grenelle said.
Mixing became a struggle, the watchmaker cursing as more dough stuck to his fingers than stayed in the bowl. Octavio climbed on the marble table. On his knees he pushed and pulled at the dough until his wrists ached. Grenelle stood by, tossing flour across the table, dropping in handfuls of butter. They finally produced a glistening globe of dough. Grenelle, covered in flour, and Octavio, panting and red-faced, stared at their creation as though it were about to explode.
Monsieur suddenly rose from his corner. Unsteady on his legs, he gripped the edge of the table. My marble, he said.
Octavio and Grenelle looked up at Monsieur’s beaming face.
Did you know, gentlemen, that it was cut in the quarries of Tuscany? A slab as tall as the cake-slice. Shipped across a sea broiling with sharks and mermaids, you know, and loaded onto a fire-breathing train, non-stop, to the banks of the Seine. They winched it onto a barge rowed by a hundred men. A
full day before it entered the city. It was hoisted to a cart pulled by five stallions named for kings, four Henris and a Louis. From the quayside to here you could hear twenty hooves shaking the cobblestones from their mortar. And now here it sits,
mia bella Italiana
, waiting for my dough.
As he spoke Monsieur made a circular motion with his hands, rolling an invisible ball between his palms.
Grenelle began pulling handfuls of dough. He followed Monsieur’s movements, rolling each handful smooth in his own hands. Octavio found the brioche trays. Each lump became a ball; each ball was tucked in its mould in the trays. The glaze, Octavio said.
He broke an egg into another bowl, added a splash of water. With the softest of strokes, remembering how his father would guide his hand, Octavio painted the top of each ball of dough with a golden wash.
He pointed to a jar tucked in the cellar’s rafters. Papa’s secret, he whispered.
Grenelle placed the jar on the table; the smell of rosemary filled his nostrils. Octavio scooped out a fistful. Hovering over the trays, he rubbed the dried herb between his hands. A dusting of green flakes fell, like the softest snow, across the little jewels of bread.
Fourteen minutes, thirty-two seconds, Grenelle said. He slid the trays of brioche onto the table: two dozen domes, some perfectly round, others deflated and burnt, all tinged with a hint of green.
Can you hear them? Monsieur said.
Octavio fumbled a brioche between his hands until it cooled. He held it to his father’s ear. The boy tapped the bread with his thumb. Monsieur grinned.
They sang, you know. The mermaids. With my marble sailing over them.
The next morning the Please Call Again sign was gone from the windows of the Boulangerie Notre-Dame. Madame Lafrouche was among the first to be served.
There were nights when Octavio would lie under the table in the cellar, listening as the oven doors shed their heat, their metallic ticks mingled with his father’s snores as the baker drifted into sleep.
Monsieur would talk in his slumber, mumbling about dry boots or warm blankets or trees that still threw shade. Octavio would then tiptoe out of the cellar and climb the stairs to the apartment at the top of the cake-slice. He would pull one of the under-stuffed chairs to the window and watch the street below.
The street was so narrow that it seemed always in shadow. Doors and windows became black holes; the
surrounding buildings leaned like drunkards. A few figures—night workers, insomniacs, vagrants—would sometimes appear. To Octavio they looked to be nothing more than hats or the tops of heads. The same heads, the same hats, the same umbrellas when it was raining. Octavio thought the darkness was playing tricks: black shapes emerged from doorways and disappeared around a corner, only to tiptoe their way back to their doorways, wait for him to fall asleep, then repeat the process. The hats, the heads, the umbrellas seemed always to be leaving, never returning.
Octavio had never ventured farther from the bakery than his school. Now, watching the street from the top of the cake-slice, he wondered where everyone went as they vanished around the corner. His hands grew clammy at the thought of walking away from the bakery’s front step.
As the first streaks of morning lightened the sky, a rag woman might appear, her cart heaped with blankets, old coats, bedsheets, curtains, quilts, hats, shoes, gloves, stockings, dresses, trousers. She was a bundle of rags herself: layer on layer, socks over shoes, stockings over socks, skirts on top of trousers, scarves over coats over jackets over sweaters over vests over shirt. On her head she balanced a few hats, each brim narrower than the one beneath. The old woman would
step into the light under each street lamp, then glide from one lamp to the next, disappearing only to reappear, eventually to reach the corner and be gone.
Octavio had no wish to follow any of them: the night wanderers, the rag woman. The thought of leaving the cake-slice, and what had happened to his mother and father after they left, turned his stomach over and left him in a nervous sweat.
But by then it would be time to get back to the cellar, fire the ovens and wake his father.
A barely visible haze stings the young woman’s eyes as she rounds a corner. The smell of smoke fills her nostrils. She pulls up, startled by a mass of people that seems to have risen fully formed out of the cobblestones. She keeps her head down, her hair falling out of her scarf.
No one takes any notice of her as she hovers at the edge of the crowd.
Madame Céleste convinced herself, as any parent might, that the accident had never happened. She gently guided a new dress over young Isabeau’s outstretched arms, she patiently directed the girl’s fingers as they practised bow after bow in her hair, she smiled and nodded when Isabeau, reading her magazines, would offer a little girl’s opinion on this hat or those shoes or that chemise.