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Authors: C. S. Richardson

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BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
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Betrays
, thought Henri. Good word.

The skies above the couple released a torrent.

——

Henri looked up. His father was tossing books from the cart into the stall. His grandfather gathered lyric sheets in his arms. Within minutes the three Fourniers were drenched through. Henri’s father threw up the front of the stall, dropped the lid and fumbled with the locks. The grandfather wiped his face with his sleeve and looked at the book in Henri’s hands.

What happened to her?

To who? Henri said.

To
whom
, young man. The woman in the yellow dress.

I don’t know. They were about to get caught in the rain.

His grandfather turned his grizzled face to the sky. Imagine that, he said.

The floods of 1910 would crest at the tops of the bookstalls. As the Seine retreated, a few hardy souls would return to tiptoe their way through the mud along the quays. They would find most of the green boxes closed: lids beginning to warp and strain at their locks, corners and seams oozing sludge, the rotting libraries within raising a gagging stench.

One stall appeared far from abandoned, its lid propped open. A pair of legs could be seen rising from its empty depths. Attached to the legs—thin ankles
bare and pale in the cold air, splattered trousers bunching at the knees—a pair of feet in a young boy’s boots, each dripping with black slime.

Head down in the stall, Henri shouted to his father. Dead, Papa!

Monsieur Fournier tipped his cap to a confused passerby and yelled back. Who’s dead?

A cat, Papa! Drowned! Under Voltaire!

Which edition?

The fat one!

A mercifully instant death, then. Out you come. Bring the poor beast with you.

Henri wriggled free from the stall, his boots squishing on the quay. With the tail of the lifeless stray in one hand, he pushed his glasses against his nose with the other.

And so we get back to work, Monsieur Fournier said. The books return today.

They had left on the advice of the grandfather. The old man knew the river like a harbourmaster knew his shoals. A week before the water began rising, he asked if anyone could smell it. Smell what? Henri had said. Trouble, came the answer.

The books were packed, the postcards bundled, the newspapers baled with twine. Everything was piled on
the family cart and the Fourniers, men and boy, pushed and pulled their way over the Pont des Arts. As they crossed they heard whirlpools foaming around the bridge’s footings. Henri noticed his grandfather looking back across the river.

We saved them all, didn’t we, Grandfather?

All but the unicorns, my boy.

Not every book would escape the flood. Those that at first glance had appeared like any other in the stall but on closer reading were different. Their magical plots and strange grammars had marked them, like a horn in the middle of an otherwise normal forehead. Different and misunderstood: thumbed briefly only to be put back, ignored altogether, and in the end left behind to be swallowed by the rising waters.

Unicorns? Henri said.

Your bible, Henri. Remember the story of Noah.

And the Ark?

Precisely. Which animal did not make the voyage?

You told me the unicorns had survived. They may be hard to see, you said, but they were still with us.

The grandfather smiled. That they are, Henri. And where would you find one, now that the river has carried them off?

Henri tapped a finger against his temple.

Precisely, the old man said.

 

The young woman hurries, her strides determined. Garlands of patriotic flags and bare light bulbs, limp and dismal in anticipation of the coming week’s celebrations, stretch from building to building above her head. She realizes she is sweating.

Must you rush around, my dear? Have you forgotten what becomes of little girls who are not calm and careful?

She ignores her mother’s voice, keeps her head down, breaks into a run; the scarf catches a puff of wind. She clutches at the fabric and returns it to cover her cheek.

Her other hand presses the parcel—a book of ancient tales, inscribed in a childlike hand—against her breast as though it were stolen treasure.

 

A
n infant, one always hoped, would bring change to any household. Certainly there would be more fatigue yet there would be more energy. There would be more laughter and more worry, one arriving hard after the other, and there would be warm naps under soft blankets and cold nights steaming away the croup. At the top of the cake-slice, life for the Notre-Dames did change, but hope had little to do with it.

As Octavio grew, his mother began to shrink. Madame picked at her meals, eating only a mouthful or two. Her dresses hung loose and wrinkled, her collars
bent and crooked. She rarely slept, tossing and weeping quietly beside her husband. Dark circles appeared under her eyes. She had always carried herself with purpose; now she moved as if dazed, unsure of what to do or where to go next. Her smile, if one were to appear at all, was at best a thin stretch of lips. One minute she would plead with Monsieur to not open the bakery that day: the child was sure to fall out a window or be kidnapped by thieves or drown as she bathed him. The next she wouldn’t hear Octavio’s cries as he stumbled taking his first steps. There were days, however, when she found the will to work and brought the boy down to the shop. He would nestle in a basket or crawl around behind the counter. And it would be the customers who kept an eye on Octavio, fawning over every gurgle and coo, making sure no one stepped on his fingers if he ventured too close to the blue doors.

Sundays in the cake-slice had changed as well. Few could remember the last time they had seen Madame at mass. When Monsieur finished with his newspaper he would return upstairs and find his son under the kitchen table, banging wooden spoons or wobbling between the table’s legs. Madame would be sitting there, turning a cold cup in her hand, absently moving a foot as the toddler Octavio careered past.

As though they were acrobats beginning their best
encore, Monsieur would tug Octavio out from under the table and onto his shoulders. We’ll be out of your way, Monsieur would say to his wife, no trouble at all. Father and son would duck their heads as they climbed the circular stairs to the attic.

No trouble at all, Madame would say as she returned to staring out the window. Much as her husband had left her hours earlier, when he had gone to fetch his newspaper.

At ten minutes to eleven on the morning of the 21st of January, 1910, with a wondrous scientific precision, the gears and wheels of the city’s public clocks stopped turning, their compressed-air power station flooded in the rising waters. Two days later the platforms of Gare d’Orsay were drowning in an oily pool ten metres deep, with unclaimed luggage bobbing through the water like rootless archipelagos.

Monsieur Notre-Dame leaned against the bakery doors. His newspaper offered readers a history of the floods that had inundated the city a month earlier.

Under the Pont des Arts the bloated river poured through the bridge’s iron braces, the resulting
whirlpools hissing, it was claimed by eyewitnesses, with the laughter of demons. By the 24th, seamstresses of the most elegant establishments along avenue Montaigne were being ferried to their sewing tables in skiffs poled by brave and noble watermen.

On the 29th the Seine began to fall.

Monsieur read none of it, content with his front page: today the Lady France, crowned in gold, cloaked in ermine, and wearing what the baker thought might be an expensive velvet gown. The woman towered over a flotilla of citizens, her outstretched arms inspiring them on as they rowed to the aid of flood victims trapped on the roofs of passing houses.

Swept up in the heroics, Monsieur did not notice a frown rising above his newspaper and creasing the face of Madame Lafrouche, concierge to an apartment house near the Boulangerie Notre-Dame.

The Lafrouches, husband and wife, had been devoted customers at the bakery since Monsieur was a teenager. Both were pleasant enough, though there seemed a touch of melancholy about the wife. When Madame Notre-Dame’s pregnancy had grown too large to ignore, Madame Lafrouche had mysteriously stopped calling in for her daily order. In the months since, the woman
had been seen trudging across the district to buy her breads from a bakery near the river. This excursion, she would bluster nervously to anyone that recognized her, was no less than cruelty, a strain on her swollen knees, and an insult to what had once been an unflagging loyalty to the Notre-Dames.

You are aware, monsieur, that the flooding has destroyed my bakery?

Monsieur looked up, then returned to the Lady France. How nice to see you again, Madame Lafrouche. It has been too long.

A bakery, I will remind you, that was clear across the district.

I am truly sorry, madame. My wife and I had no wish to offend.

Shameful it was, monsieur. To think that your marble produced the finest breads in the neighbourhood only to be reduced to a birthing table.

Indeed, madame, unforgivable. But I am afraid it was unavoidable.

Madame Lafrouche tapped her foot. I am now ready to return, she said.

Time heals all wounds, madame. You are most kind. I look forward to serving you tomorrow morning.

Kindness has nothing to do with it, monsieur. I return only because of my Alphonse. The man is beyond hope.

Monsieur repeated that he was sorry. Madame Lafrouche raised an eyebrow.

As you should be, monsieur. After all it is your sourdough that infects my husband’s brain. Where else will I find such a loaf, he moans. Return to Notre-Dame’s, he cries. I implore you, he pleads. Why, were it up to me Alphonse would be fetching his own bread or going hungry. But I am not one to shirk my wifely duties.

You are an honour to the profession, madame.

Madame Lafrouche pulled a package wrapped with purple iridescent paper from her handbag. Her voice quivered and caught in her throat.

I wish I were, monsieur. Nonetheless, I hear you have a fine son.

Monsieur’s ink-stained fingers smudged the shining paper as he opened the gift: a book, bound in green linen, its endpapers a garden of floral purples and yellows. The end of a red satin ribbon peeked from between the pages. Wiping his hands on his trousers, Monsieur fanned through the book, stopping here and there at an illustration.

Madame Lafrouche rearranged the contents of her handbag. The
Arabian Nights
, she said. Alphonse’s idea, of course.

Monsieur studied the illustrations. In one an old
fisherman dressed in rags clutched at a basket spouting a whirlwind of strange smoke; in another a black-skinned giant, one eye glowing in the middle of his forehead, wiped his greasy lips as he crouched on a pile of human bones.

All very fantastical, I am sure, Madame Lafrouche said. Hardly readable at all. Still, it did come from Printemps.

As you say, madame. Hardly readable at all.

Monsieur retreated into the bakery. He returned with a golden loaf, its dome scored with the initials
N-D
.

Yesterday’s best batch, madame. With my compliments to your husband.

The woman tucked the loaf under her arm and spun on her heel, leaving Monsieur to admire a fellow like Alphonse Lafrouche, still doting on a wife who had lost two pregnancies to fevers and miscarriage. A fellow who without a second thought would send his darling Geneviève shopping along the boulevards. All on a taximan’s wages.

Sitting in the attic window with his son nestled in his lap, Monsieur Notre-Dame would slowly turn the pages of the
Arabian Nights
. When he reached an illustration, Octavio would laugh and point.

A beginning then, Monsieur would say.

He told the boy his stories. They were conjured out of his head, tales that had little to do with the pictures in
the book, the flying horses or the thieves in their treasure caves or the scruffy boy with his magic lamp. Monsieur told them not as the book might have, but as
he
saw them, jumping to life before his own eyes.

Leaving Madame tossing under the duvet and his son murmuring in the armoire drawer, Monsieur Notre-Dame slipped out of bed.

From the back of a kitchen cupboard his wife had never been able to reach, Monsieur retrieved Octavio’s book. He opened it to the back and found a spot in the bottom corner of the endpaper. He scrounged a nub of pencil, sat at the kitchen table, and waited for his writing hand to stop trembling.

F F F From teh the liba library fo of Oct a v oi io ND
.

Boula ger ieNoterNotreDame. 8th. Parsi Par ppp Paris
.

 

The baker turns a last corner and finds the pavement blocked by a rag woman pushing a cart piled high with clothes. She wears a leaning tower of three hats, each progressively smaller than the one beneath.

As he steps aside to let the woman pass, something unfamiliar flares the baker’s nostrils.

His legs ache as he runs for home. The smell of smoke closes in with every breathless stride.

 

M
onths after the Seine had burst it banks, sodden rubble and drowned rats were still being swept from the streets. The stench of manure sluiced from upriver farms had slowly faded to a telltale sniff. Shoppers had returned to the boulevards, a new season appeared in the shop windows, life was once again anticipation.

Pascal Normande stood in the doorway of his shop working his watch chain like a string of prayer beads. He checked the time, squinted into the sky. Events, surely, must have progressed by now. He could barely contain himself. The madness of being master of his
domain yet completely at the mercy of a woman’s natural ways made his head pound.

He kept up appearances by pacing the fabric tables and snapping at assistants, mopping at his brow and spying out from between the legs of the mannequins in his windows. He regretted promising a sou to the messenger, who—if the boy knew what was good for him—would arrive in the next ten seconds with news that Monsieur was at last a father and Madame would soon return to the business of the shop. Very well, he thought. Perhaps a franc, should the news grant his secret wish.

BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
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