Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
But the new season invaded these giddy thoughts. It was not a good time to be birthing babies. A Normande client expected timeliness, not time away. The new collection was weeks from being finished; the flood had caused infuriating delays.
From behind a skirt, Pascal took another look outside, then shut his watch. He turned to a passing seamstress.
One more minute or the boy gets nothing, he said.
A small dog waddled around the mannequins’ ankles and under Pascal’s nose. The animal panted in the heat of the window, not knowing it would become a gift for a newborn child, in time a gift named Zouzou. All the dog knew at this moment was its need for relief. It raised a hind leg and pissed into a shoe the colour of ripe strawberries.
Beast! My best Louis heels! Ruined!
Pascal took a breath, steadied his nerves, and gently lifted the pup from the spreading puddle, the messenger ran into the shop. Pulling off his cap, the boy thrust out an expectant palm. The smile on Pascal’s face stretched broad and toothy.
Congratulations, monsieur. You have your girl.
Everyone is fine, monsieur.
Pascal looked at the messenger’s still-extended hand. He handed the dog to the boy and dug into his waistcoat pocket.
Would ten do?
The customers of Atelier Normande were divided. Some maintained that despite the ballooning waist, the swollen feet, the rashes and moods, and the incessant perspiration that ruined one dress after another, Madame Céleste was transformed into an adoring parent because she at last possessed an accessory of her own design.
She will have her mother’s eyes, someone said. The deepest brown or I don’t know my business.
A nose sure to be aquiline, said another, and a mouth that will be the loveliest of budding roses.
The little one’s hair, friends. Like pure cocoa: not so thin as to hang limp but not so thick as to be unruly.
Nature shall see to it. The child will grow to perfection, a sight to behold.
Others were less superficial. For them it was merely nature taking its proper course. No couple, not even one as matched as Céleste and Pascal, was truly whole without children.
Nature has already seen to it.
Madame has been transformed because now she is the complete woman.
A prouder father you will never find.
The child will be a Normande through and through.
And all the better for it.
Pascal thought the name Isabelle was suitable. After my mother, he said.
Nine months had given Madame time to consider other possibilities. An early favourite had been Eugénie, for the tall and elegant wife of Napoleon III, but Madame quickly realized that the resulting nickname—Nenya—would never do. There were the famous actresses of the cabarets: Yvettes and Gabrielles and a singer named Polaire whose picture appeared in the papers almost weekly. The possibility that she might give birth to a boy had never entered Madame’s mind.
No, she said. The name needs to be something distinctive. Feminine. With a note of strength.
Like her mother, Pascal said.
Isabeau Normande’s eyes did indeed become the deepest brown, yet her nose showed a slightly crooked angle. Her mouth did not bloom so much as wander a bit wide and a bit askew. And her hair served as a rich match to her eyes, chocolate to be sure, but invariably in a disappointing tangle.
The seamstresses of Atelier Normande set to work creating miniature versions of Madame Céleste’s wardrobe. Soon enough mother and daughter began their shopping excursions. In the Galeries Lafayette they wandered hand in hand among the mannequins, Isabeau learning to judge quality by removing a glove and running a finger along a seam. In Printemps they sat at the newly created cosmetics counter, Madame guiding Isabeau’s nervous hand as it smudged rouge all over her cheeks. In Samaritaine they took lunch in the rooftop restaurant, the maître d’ suggesting a table overlooking the river.
Madame nodded with pride as the waiter pulled out Isabeau’s chair, as the girl smoothed her dress once she had climbed up and settled herself, as she did her best
to fold a napkin across her lap and asked politely for a glass of milk.
On a window seat in her parents’ apartments Isabeau Normande pulled at her stockings. A pleasant four-year-old by now, bored with watching a summer Sunday pass along the street.
She climbed from the window and bounced to the doors leading to her parents’ study. Balancing on one foot, Isabeau slid the doors apart, the other keeping her dog at bay. Her father shifted in his chair, his snoring interrupted. We are working, child, he said.
Pascal Normande fell back to dozing. His shoes were off, his belly popping through an unbuttoned waistcoat. Madame Céleste was perched on a settee. The newspaper in her hands shouted of political troubles in the Balkans. anarchy in the streets! assassination! war is certain! Without looking up from the paper, she suggested Isabeau run along to see why Cook insisted on lighting the stove when the apartment was already stifling enough and wouldn’t a chilled soup be easier on everyone.
Cook stood at a table slicing carrots, a large pot simmering behind her. Isabeau made a face at the mound of vegetables awaiting the chop. The woman mopped
her forehead and waved the girl and her dog from the kitchen.
In the lounge Isabeau flopped on a chaise, her feet dangling off the edge. She stared at the ceiling, attempted to wiggle her ears, picked at her nose. She rose from the chaise and skated around the room, her stockings sliding on the gleaming wood.
She pulled a fashion magazine from an arranged display on a side table. Lying on the floor, knocking her heels behind her, she pushed the dog away and propped herself on her elbows. She flipped through the pages to an illustration of a young woman, her head veiled in a cascade of lace falling from the brim of her hat. The dog padded across the magazine and licked at Isabeau’s nose. Isabeau pushed the dog off the magazine.
Zouzou! You mustn’t walk on Maman’s women!
The animal persisted, nipping at her sleeve, tearing a seam and leaving a flap of fabric hanging loose.
Isabeau jumped to her feet. Beast! Now look what you’ve done. Maman will be very angry!
The dog crouched in anticipation. Isabeau darted around the chaise, made for the door, pretended a turn for the study, slid to a stop. The dog’s head followed her every move around the room. Isabeau ran from the lounge and headed for the kitchen.
Through the swinging door, Isabeau skipped around
the table, waving her arms above her head. The dog tried to follow, legs churning, claws clicking on the tiles. Cook scraped a mound of celery into her boiling pot and returned to the cutting board. The pot handle hovered over the edge of the stove, a snag waiting for a torn sleeve.
The dog cocked its head at the shrill noise suddenly coming from its playmate. Isabeau stood frozen, her fingers as locked as talons, reaching to tear at her face. Cook dropped the knife, shouting to be heard over the girl’s howls.
The spilt water went cool in an instant on the floor. Curls of onion lay scattered under the table. Zouzou lapped at the puddle as Isabeau was led screaming from the kitchen.
The scald became a scar, an embossed stroke melting down the forehead, looping around an eye still the richest brown, forming an irregular pool on the cheek, dribbling away at the line of the jaw. As though an artist both gifted and unkind had set to work, dabbing varnish on what might best catch the light, beginning a delicate line of white where the scar met the hairline, weaving that thin stroke through long, dark strands.
The scar in turn became a reflex, turning young Isabeau’s head down and away, allowing locks of hair
to fall over the marred side of her face. She learned how to train the errant strands behind her ear, leaving enough slack in the length to distract curious eyes.
On sunnier days she might be found in the apartment’s entry hall, a corridor of mirrors, each in a grand frame, their bevelled edges throwing a rainbow around whatever passed in their reflections. When the low light of afternoon bounced through the hall, Isabeau would select a picture from one of her mother’s magazines.
The model’s head would fill the page, turning to the viewer with a demure lift to her chin and a graceful arc of the neck. Isabeau would fold the page lengthwise, then stand in front of the mirrors. She would bring the magazine to her face, sliding the folded page until the bridge of the model’s nose met the bridge of her own. A new face looked back, reflected in the mirrors on the opposite wall, repeating itself into a chorus of half-smiles.
The fire brigade arrives. A dozen men merge into a single mass of action. They prepare in silence, absorbed in their work, as the captain repeats his Stand Aside Madames, Mind Yourself Little Ones, Make Way Monsieurs. Faced with such resolve, the crowd in front of the cake-slice jostles to clear a path to the bakery’s front step.
To reach the fire on the top floors, the brigade pries open the blue doors and rushes through the shop. They take no notice of the empty display case, the wicker baskets awaiting another day’s assortments, the vignettes
painted on the walls’ yellowing tiles. Heavy boots leave black streaks on the polished marble floors.
Following his men, the captain is momentarily distracted. A portrait sketched in pencil—a young woman—hangs in a simple frame above the door to the cellar. Half the portrait is obscured. A thick curve of hair, streaked with a wisp of white, casts a shadow across the face. Only the subject’s visible eye, glistening and dark, with its brow arched, looks back at him.
Reminding his men to keep their fool heads on their shoulders and their eyes out front, the captain lingers as the brigade stampedes past him. He watches them disappear to the rear of the building, then pulls off his heavy gloves. Kissing the tips of his fingers, he touches them to the portrait.
Wish us luck, mademoiselle.
The brigade climbs the stairwell to the top landing, wrestling hose and axe and each other into what remains of the baker’s apartment. By now roofless and gutted to black wooden bones, venting smoke into the July air and snowing books on the crowd below.
he masters suggested he try working in the open air. A decidedly rougher approach, they said, and certainly not how we did things in our day, but a windy afternoon on the quayside or an evening in the parks picking insects off one’s canvas might focus Monsieur Kalb’s rather vague abilities.
Fog hung over the Pont des Arts. Jacob removed a bundle of sticks from his tattered carpetbag. He loosened the leather straps around the bundle, the masters droning in his ears.
Have it in your mind’s eye, Monsieur Kalb.
Jacob hitched his sagging trousers, opened a few hinges and spread the stick ends. He ignored the stiffness in his joints, the grime under his long fingernails, the evening’s chill. Finally he stood a rickety easel by the railing.
See the truth, Monsieur Kalb.
Jacob pulled a small canvas from the bag—
Art is truth, Monsieur Kalb.
—then placed it on the easel’s shelf.
Square and level, Monsieur Kalb. If your work is to be more than scribble.
Jacob stepped back from the easel, his eyes following the river as it slid into the mist. Buildings, soft blocks of blue-grey, merged with the sky. In the flat light, trees along the quayside became swaths of a darker grey. Staring at the blank canvas, Jacob struggled to summon a finished landscape.
See it, Monsieur Kalb. As though it were finished and put aside to dry.
So here I find my Señor Kalb, hard at work.
Jacob spun around. The one they called el Bárbaro, a classmate from the Academy, stood looking at Jacob’s blank canvas.
And so I am sad for it. My Kalb has found no truth today.
Jacob felt his throat tighten, his hands go clammy. The urge to reach out and touch his friend shuddered through him. The Barbarian smiled.
You are too anxious, mi amigo. That is why tonight we will ignore your worries. We will eat like the monkeys we are, drink to our organ grinders and curse them from the other side of our greasy mouths. They tell us that art is truth as we dance at the end of our leashes. So we will howl that it is life that is true and they will stop cranking their little music boxes and we will do some living. Agreed?
Jacob turned out his pockets.
The weather was miserable today, he said. The gardens were deserted, no one was sitting. I sold nothing.
The Barbarian pulled his mouth into a clown’s pout, his eyes smiling.
But then I am not sad, mi amigo. I hear rumours of a tableau this evening. Free of charge, drinks on the house. Everyone will be there.
There had been other evenings: a week earlier, a month or more perhaps, or in those first days of the Academy. For all Jacob could remember, they may as well have been dreams.
A sticky floor spinning under his feet. Deafening shouts and manic laughter fill his ears. Out of nothing
a painting rushes at him. Manet’s
Déjeuner sur l’herbe
: its every detail as sharp as broken glass. Slices of picnic and bodies float before his eyes. In the foreground, the artist’s pale-skinned nude shifts her pose, her wide black eyes looking directly at Jacob.
Do you enjoy what you see, monsieur?
In the corner of a cellar bar, Jacob’s arm snakes around someone’s waist. They are weaving drunk, taking turns imitating their teachers. The reek of stale bodies and spilt beer makes the air almost solid. A makeshift stage stands empty in the centre of the room. Behind the bar a poster:
ANOTHER LUNCHEON! ONE SITTING ONLY
Two young men solemnly step on stage. Dressed in ragged suits, they arrange themselves in front of a stained bedsheet hung from the rafters, the impression of a forest glade painted across it. Scrounged baskets appear, their contents—rotten fruit, spent corks, stale ends of bread—are scattered around the two men. The audience, crushed into the dim room, whistles and stamps their feet and bellows for more.
A boy, no more than fifteen, shuffles into the scene. He wears a threadbare curtain for a toga. Blinking in the haze of cigarette smoke, the boy poses as if picking a flower from the glade. As he bends forward he fumbles to keep his costume from falling open.