Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
Jacob began rummaging through the bag at his feet. Henri knew what was coming. He was embarrassed for the man, but didn’t want to offend.
Monsieur Kalb, please.
Call me Jacob.
Monsieur Kalb, I am a humble bookseller. Once in a very long while, yes, I manage to sell a postcard.
If you don’t think my work has merit, Monsieur Fournier—
—I can move along and try another stall. But I doubt I would find one painted such a remarkable shade of green.
The others will rob you blind, Henri said.
Then I am in the right place, Jacob said.
Henri hesitated. Very well. One look.
Jacob pulled his sketchbook from the bag. He removed the drawing of the boy with the sailboat.
An honest opinion is all I ask, he said.
Henri held it at arm’s length, wondering whether such an opinion would involve turning one’s head or stroking one’s chin or both.
Every day he could see the Louvre from his stool. Yet the thought of locking up the stall for an afternoon, of actually visiting the museum, had never
occurred to him. He was a sole proprietor of a bookstall; there was no time for anything else. He knew nothing of art, good or bad. What he knew was life on the quay: selling books to people who did not want them, watching homeless souls emerge every day from under the Pont des Arts, wishing he had not been born a Fournier.
Jacob proposed an arrangement. They would split the earnings. If his work was still hanging in the bookstall after a month, he would put it back in his sketching book and move on.
Henri examined the detail in the drawing. There was a twinkle, rendered with a tiny spot of white, in the little sailor’s eye. He shook Jacob’s hand.
We have a deal, my friend. One month. What do you call this piece?
The boy claimed he was an admiral, Jacob said.
The partners—Jacob at his spot on the bridge, Henri on his stool—would acknowledge each other with a distant wave, a shrug and a better-luck-tomorrow shake of the head. The Admiral managed to stop a few passersby but no one dug into their pockets or fumbled through their purses.
One day, after weeks of grey skies, the bridge became almost impassable with people enjoying some
sun and warmth. Henri watched as Jacob packed his easel and carpetbag and headed in the direction of the Tuileries.
As Henri locked up the stall that evening, he realized that Jacob had not returned.
Days passed without any sign of the painter.
Henri’s eyes drooped shut, his head flopped to one side. He caught himself falling off the stool. As he found his balance Jacob was standing in front of him, a sheet of paper rolled under his arm.
I was beginning to think you had found another bridge, Henri said. Where have you been?
Jacob looked up and down the quay as though he had awoken from a nightmare and did not know where he was.
Working, he said. He handed Henri the paper. I’ve been working—trying—to eat.
Henri had never seen someone so pale and withered. He thought his friend’s voice had changed. There was a stumble, a stutter. He realized Jacob was having trouble finding the words.
been busy, Henri said.
He held the paper at arm’s length. It was the face of a young woman, shadowed by a curve of hair, one visible eye looking back at the bookseller.
She looks familiar, Henri said, popping his head above the drawing. Have I seen her before?
—a customer—yours? Jacob mumbled.
I don’t think so, said Henri. Now wait a moment. I know where.
Henri handed the portrait back to Jacob and began running his hand along the row of books in the stall.
Here it is, he said, pulling out a book of ancient myths. He flipped back and forth through the pages. Yes, I was right. You see here? Fortuna, the goddess of luck.
Jacob looked at the book, then at his drawing. He wavered on his feet, catching himself against the stall.
When did you last eat? Henri said.
Henri tacked Fortuna beside the Admiral, taking care to smooth the corners of her paper. He reached into the stall, removed a metal box, handed Jacob a few francs.
An advance, my friend.
The crowd is gone. The young woman stands alone in front of the dark windows of the bakery.
Through her reflection she sees at first only shapes and outlines: a display case, a monstrous cash register, empty wicker baskets. She cups her hands to her face, pressing her nose against the glass. As her eyes adjust to the dimness within, she pictures how the bakery might once have appeared. The buxom woman with her armload of wheat, the cherubim and their trays of pains au chocolat, the laughing baker, all would be looking down on a morning of jostling
customers. The aromas would be something she could only dream.
The street is still now, empty but for the scattering of ashes, yet the young woman senses something else. As if she had walked into a darkened room, could hear the sound of breathing. She cannot bring herself to turn around.
hat it would come was inevitable, yet for Emile Notre-Dame it would take its own time. Death would not arrive quick and merciful. It would be his memories that would take their invisible toll. What he had felt: the wet and cold of the mud pulling him back into the trench, the stumble, the fall into blind terror as he managed to finally crawl out and run. What he had seen: his friends running in the other direction, into the metal hail pouring from the sky, running until the ground swallowed them up. What he had heard: their agonies fading as he disappeared into the dawn mist.
Their Sunday walks continued. All weathers, all seasons. Emile and Octavio’s outings became a habit for the entire neighbourhood, as ordinary as dawn breaking in the east. So ordinary that when Mondays arrived, customers had stopped asking if father and son had seen anything new at the Louvre the day before or if they were offering a new story this morning.
And no one save for Blind Grenelle and Madame Lafrouche noticed as Emile began to fade away altogether, his face a deepening hollow, his once agile fingers curling into awkward fists.
In those last weeks the watchmaker wanted to remind Octavio that he was his own man, that his father had taught him well. Madame Lafrouche wished she could find a way to tell him that his father’s stories would carry on. But both of them sensed that Octavio did not want to hear such things. He wanted still to be his father’s son.
The walks grew shorter and all but ended. The Sunday stories dwindled to a few scattered words, then stopped altogether.
One evening after locking up, Octavio found his father lying on the table in the cellar, his hands at last unclenched and resting on his chest.
With the ovens ticking in the darkness, Octavio sat through the night, watching over the Thinnest Baker in All Paris. He imagined the marble table making one more journey. His father would have loved a return ride across a sea teeming with sharks and mermaids, and a wife standing in a Tuscan quarry to greet him with raspberry tarts, a treat after such a long journey.
With the first hints of sunrise, Octavio turned the sign in the window of the bakery.
WE ARE SORRY TO BE CLOSED. PLEASE CALL AGAIN
To the gravediggers, it looked as though half the eighth was standing at the graveside when they lowered Emile into the ground.
Grenelle opened the family bible. Squinting behind his spectacles, in a clumsy Italian he read a passage about casting one’s bread upon the waters. Amid the circle of mourners one of the gravediggers mumbled to himself. Are we sure the fellow is in there, he said. I’ve planted heavier coffins in my time.
When the service ended Grenelle invited everyone to return to the bakery. To dry our eyes, he said, and raise a glass to the man who made our breakfasts all those years. Octavio said he would be along soon. As it began to rain, Octavio took shelter under a large plane tree, green with the buds of spring leaves.
He remembered walking with his father. He stepped back into the rain, straightened the flowers on the grave’s mound of freshly dug earth and turned in the direction of the trees of the Tuileries.
Walking along the garden’s promenade overlooking the river, Octavio heard a gravelled voice behind him.
The name’s Le Drop, monsieur.
The small man perched on a child’s stool. He wore the remains of a tuxedo, the ends of his trouser legs trailing bits of thread and bunching around his shoes. Long fingers peeked from the sleeves of his jacket. A plank painted with piano keys was balanced across his knees. He bowed his head and with a quivering hand touched the brim of an invisible cap.
Requests taken and requests played, monsieur. Toe-tapping tunes and tales of wonder, yours for the asking.
Le Drop gathered his sleeves around his elbows, locked his hands together and stretched his arms in front of him. He danced his fingers from one end of the painted keys to the other. As his hands leaped off the end of the plank, Octavio noticed their tremors had disappeared. Play your best, he said.
I happen to know just such a tune, Le Drop said. He started with a double chord, his thumbs stretched long and thin, straining for the octaves. He talked as he played.
Came over in ’18 I did, one of the Harlem boys. Hellfighters they called us, keen as flip knives. Keen to do our bit, maybe dance with old Fritz a step or two. But the generals said music was our bit. Shipped us over as an orchestra, yours truly handling the accordion duties. So we arrive in your fair city and march up and down the Champs, looking sharp, playing tight. Tight as new shoes. Ceremonials, hymns, the ragtime when the sweat was up. Folks loved us jazzy joes. But it was the white boys doing all the fighting and we wanted in. Get us up front, we said, take us to the dance. So the generals said well if you’ve got the itch then we will surely scratch it. And they sent us off to the sharp end. You’ll tango with old Fritz now, they said.
Le Drop paused, lingering in the middle keys.
I guess you were too young, boy, for all that fuss.
Octavio nodded. But my father fought. He never talked about it though.
No surprise there, Le Drop said as his fingers wandered through the high notes. Not much to recommend it. Mile after scummy mile it was, all stumps and mud and bones. But we were ready to give old Fritz some of his own. Ready like when you’re on the dance floor, one hand cradling your honey’s soft soft fingers, your other hand looping round that silky silky waist.
And she’s got that look and you’ve practised the steps a hundred times. Your toes are tapping like they’re burning inside your boots. You wait on that downbeat, praying your honey is a real twirler. Then the sergeant puffs his cheeks. You cock your heel and squeeze those fingers. He blows that damn whistle and you’re over the top. All the while your honey’s spinning like one of those dervishes and you hold on to that waist for dear life. That was how ready we were.
A right-handed progression, soft touches through the black keys, one foot nudging invisible pedals.
I’ll wager he was a dancer, your father. Gave your mother a turn no doubt, back in the day. We soldiers knew how to treat the mademoiselles.
Octavio pictured his parents waltzing at a street party, patriotic banners strung above their heads. The figures were fleeting, the flags out of focus. He rubbed at his eyes.
What was it like? he said. Your war.
Le Drop leaned in close to the keyboard. A bit different from your father’s, if he was lucky. We dug a lot of trench. Slopping rats and freezing water. Hard labour it was. Coloured labour. Doing our bit, the generals said. So one morning we were shovelling and old Fritz started throwing shells our way. Maybe he was aiming at someone else but with the ground torn up and the front
zigging and the wire zagging and the vermin and the dead bodies and all, well old Fritz’s aim became a slippery thing. But he just kept on throwing. Screamed those shells did, flying through the air like cats pushed off a ledge.
Le Drop’s wrists crossed, hand over hand, climbing through the middle keys. Tears ran down Octavio’s face. He saw his father crouched in the cellar of a bombed-out building, mice scurrying over mouldy loaves of bread. Le Drop played on.
Now I’d rather be called a dumb-ass ape than be pruned at the shoulders Hun style, so when those cats started screaming I dropped in six-eight time and buried my face in the slop. Sergeant said it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. Called me the Chocolate Drop. Hey Drop, he’d say, you hear that cat? Just to see me jump. I didn’t hear anything but came up with a mouthful all the same. He was most annoying, the sergeant was. From Baton Rouge as I recall. Played everything in a minor key, mournful stuff. Last I saw of him his horn and him were heading home. But he left a little something behind for old Fritz. I couldn’t say what the loss of that arm did to his playing. Not much I suppose. Like I said, we were tight. Tight as new shoes.
His fingers splayed wide, Le Drop landed the heavy chords.
My father had a nickname, Octavio said. People used to call him the Thinnest Baker in All Paris.
A fine name hard earned no doubt, Le Drop said, then carried on.
The shells were persistent but I managed to keep all my pieces nonetheless. The gas though, that was something else. There’s no hole deep enough to get Le Drop out from under that creeping yellow shit, if you’ll pardon the expression. So I came back with these weepy eyes. Now there isn’t much call for a keyboard boy who can’t read the sheets but this city knows how to treat someone of my particular shade. So when old Fritz finally went home I planted some roots right where you see me. Been here most every day since. Requests taken and requests played.
Le Drop held a final note, one finger deep in the low keys.
He came home, Octavio said.
Le Drop smiled. Like I said, one lucky fellow. What was his proper name?
Octavio choked as he said it.
It’s good to remember the real man, Le Drop said. Mine is Walker in case you were wondering. Abraham L Walker, at your service. Mother named me for the great emancipator but she and Mr Lincoln are long passed so I doubt they’d notice the change. She would
have liked it though. That’s a fine one, she’d say. My boy Le Drop. A fine name hard earned.