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Authors: C. S. Richardson

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BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
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An older man, dimpled plump and naked, jumps into the scene. Covered in white powder, he tiptoes to the centre of the group. He curtsies and takes his place, reclining in front of his picnic companions. He places one elbow on an upturned knee, rests his chin in his hand and turns to the crowd. He becomes Manet’s nude, if only for an instant, his lips slick with rouge and widening into a theatrical smile.

Do you enjoy what you see, my friends?

The cellar explodes in applause.

Jacob stumbles from an alleyway, pulling up his trousers. It is minutes or hours later. The sound of the Barbarian calling his name echoes off the walls behind him.

Jacob was asked to leave the Academy later that term, the masters explaining that, while your portraiture shows promise, Monsieur Kalb, your landscapes lack even a basic vision. They said his prospects for improvement appeared equally dim. He was wished well in finding another occupation, perhaps drawing posters for the theatre marquees or cartoons for the newspapers. In these pursuits the masters expressed confidence that he could apply their lessons regarding the art of the face. It is the eyes, they reminded him, where all would be revealed.

Jacob said nothing throughout the meeting. None of the masters looked directly at him.

On the landing outside the attic room of a traveller’s hotel, the manager’s wife stood with her hands buried in the pouch of her apron, silently cursing her husband for not having the backbone to deliver eviction notices himself.

She watched Jacob Kalb pack his tools: a paintbox, three brushes, a few pencils, one stick of charcoal, a dulled penknife, the folding easel, a small square of rolled canvas, his sketching book.

It is a black day, monsieur. But the rent, you see. You and I are months behind.

I wish my skills had paid better, Jacob said.

The manager’s wife looked into the room. Tacked to the ceiling was a jumbled gallery of small landscapes, half-finished watercolours, oil sketches, drawings in ink and pencil. All lights and tones and weathers, every manner of sky, the same view along the Seine. In each a few birds hovered above the river, and barely visible, the same silhouetted figures walked beneath the trees.

Where will you go? the woman said.

Under the stars for a while, I think.

The manager’s wife poked Jacob in the ribs.

You are too thin for the bohemian life, monsieur.
Sell a few pictures. For once carry some coins in your pocket. Pay some rent.

He lived near the food markets for a time. He wanted to paint the noisy chicken men, the overflowing mounds of vegetables, the fat and happy fishwives, the porters with their enormous mushroom hats. But when the smell of rotting cabbages and yesterday’s cheese seeped into one hovel after another, Jacob moved on. It was the scalded piglets, their eyelashes caught in mid-flutter, their tails still curled in death, that forced him from the markets for good. He found a dry corner tucked high under the arches of the Pont des Arts, staking his claim with all he owned.

All contained in his carpetbag. The paint supplies, the remains of a woollen sweater, a pair of fingerless gloves, mismatched socks, the thick corduroy jacket he had worn on his first day in Paris, a tin of scrounged cigarette ends. Only his sketching book, refreshed with the money he made touting portraits, was stiff with blank pages. A square of canvas, rolled so it might not crease, nestled between the bag’s handles.

On this one canvas Jacob would make a fresh attempt each day. And if the sun clouded over or the winds picked up, he would unclamp the day’s work from his easel and make his way to the river’s edge. Laying it on
the surface of the water, he would slide the canvas back and forth in the current. As tendrils of colour wafted downstream, the numb in his fingers would creep to his wrists. The tints of green he had used to render the bookstalls were the last to dissolve.

At night he would lay the blank canvas beside him as he slept. If the river mist lay low, it might be dry by first light. Dry enough for another day and another start on the bridge.

For Jacob the booksellers along the quays became a variety troupe of live models. Some went bare-headed; some wore hats. Some pushed spectacles to their foreheads; others slumped and snored. There were thick scarves around scrawny necks, too-small overcoats over too-wide shoulders, old boots and rope shoes. Each guarded his stall with everything from walking sticks and dusters to well-aimed tobacco spits and loud curses. Each had peculiar rituals of opening for the day or closing up for the night. They may have squirmed on the same stools or smoked under the same trees or wished with one mind that the occasional passerby would just move along and stop disturbing them, yet each was as different as the books they offered.

Not long after moving to the river, Jacob noticed a particular bookstall. It was the colour that caught his
eye: how the green changed the higher or lower the sun, the duller or brighter the sky. He tried including the stall in his landscapes, spent weeks adjusting his mixes: Prussian blue and Indian yellow for the evening shades of deep green; thalo blue, cadmium yellow, a drop of alizarin crimson for its morning sage; its midday lime green requiring a generous brushful of lemon yellow.

The stall appeared to have three proprietors. One was old and bent, the second flabby and middle-aged, the third a young man, perhaps in his teen years. Jacob assumed it was a family-run concern; the young one had drawn the short straw. He occupied the stool most every day.

In the evenings, as the sun dipped behind the buildings along the quay, Jacob would watch as the young bookseller removed a large volume from the stall. The boy would peer up and down the quay, satisfy himself that no one was approaching, and place the book on the pavement. Sliding his spectacles to the top of his head, the bookseller would plant his feet on the book’s open pages, lift his arms out from his sides and turn his face to the sky.


The baker drops his books, searches frantically for a path through the crowd. As they move aside some turn away, ashamed they could do nothing, unable now to watch a man they have known all his life meet such a tragedy. A few call out that they are with him.

Remember who you are, monsieur. Remember your father. Be a Notre-Dame.

The old fellow with the thick spectacles steps into the baker’s path.

I am sorry, my friend. They are all gone now.

The elderly woman who had been shouting
directions reaches from the edge of the crowd.

My dearest boy, thank the Lord you are safe.

The baker sees no one, hears no comfort.

He shrugs the old man’s hand off his shoulder and reaches the blue doors. He cannot remember leaving them open. Running past the counter and the empty baskets, he follows a trail of boot prints to the rear stairwell and takes the steps two at a time.


ctavio Notre-Dame was as thin as his father, though his hands were strong and nimble for one so young. His mother had given him a head of black hair that behaved only when oiled and pushed under a hat. Yet the boy’s eyes were his own; as small as collar buttons, the brightest grey, one crowned with a brow that arched slightly higher than the other. As though he were about to share a secret.

In a stifling room of six-year-olds, each scratch and twitch pushing faith in the innocence of boys to its
edge, a Sister of Grace chalked numbers on a blackboard: 1349; 1431; 1572; 100,000; 1793; 16.

The nun turned to face her students. Gentlemen, she said, we will now review our histories.

Octavio sank his chin deep into his collar; his fingers clenched under the desk. He whispered to himself.

Monsieur Notre-Dame? the Sister said. She drew a line under 1349.

Fingernails digging into his hands, Octavio muttered the word

LOUDER, MONSIEUR. That God might hear you.

1349, Sister. The Black Death.

Continue, the woman said. She stamped at each number with her chalk.

1431, Sister. Joan of Arc burned alive.

1572. Saint Bartholomew’s Day. 100,000 killed by the Catholics.

1793. King Louis guillotined.

Which Louis would that be, monsieur?

16, Sister.

Very good. And the 100,000?

Octavio watched the nun’s wrinkled face melt into that of Saint Joan. The girl’s pale skin crackled in the fire while her dripping armour formed a pool at the front of the class. She kept asking Octavio why. Why so many had to perish.

Notre-Dame? the Sister said.

Octavio wished they had not shaved poor Joan’s head.


The maid of Orléans vanished in a burst of flame.

Because they were Protestants, Sister.

It is the boy’s shoes, madame.

The school’s curé had summoned Madame Notre-Dame. Sitting in the young priest’s office, her eyes wandered over a map of the holy lands pinned to the wall behind him.


Shoes, Father. You were saying.

On the wrong feet, I’m afraid. It is a sign.

Madame felt the cool of Gabriel’s whisper on the nape of her neck.

Let this be a lesson, Immacolata

Madame flicked a hand at her ear as though brushing away a bothersome fly.

A message, Father?

You could say, madame. Or a symptom.

His shoes. On the wrong feet.

Constantly, said the curé.

It is hard enough to remind him to wear shoes at all.

Madame, this is not about being forgetful. It is about Octavio’s word-blindness.

Blindness, Father? My boy sees well enough.

True, but what he does not see is his left from right. Somewhere between his eyes and his feet the signal goes astray. His brain does not connect the two. He sees his feet and he sees his shoes but he does not see them fitting together.

Madame turned her head sideways, following the Jordan as it disappeared into the Dead Sea. The curé continued.

The boy knows his letters. He knows the words they should make but cannot put them in order. His brain mixes them up, or turns them backwards or upside down. Sometimes he loses them altogether. Trust me, madame, I have made inquiries, read the studies, consulted the latest theories. The experts call it the word-blindness. It is something quite new in the field.

Madame creased her brow. You are saying he does not read like the other boys?

Cannot read, madame, cannot. Not much more than his own name. I am afraid his letters are also beyond hope.

Madame Notre-Dame felt her eyes welling again. The crying came on almost daily now.

You will not feel as mothers feel

The curé handed her a sheet of paper splattered with ink, tiny fingerprints, a scrawled mess of handwriting.

The students have been studying their Genesis, madame. Your son wrote this.

in hte degining

In the beginning dog

In the beginning god God crates the hevens the heavens

and the eart earth in the beginning God

in the deginning

in In the beginning God created the hevens heavens and the earth. the the The earth was wtout without form anb void, and the bark bar darkness was uq upon upon the face of the deeq pppp Beginning Beginning Beginning

His father’s son, Madame Notre-Dame said. She handed the paper to the priest.

And a good and pleasant boy, madame. Small for his age, keeps to himself, but clever in his own way. He does very well with his sums. Shows a true gift for numbers and dates. He constantly amazes the Sisters with his memory. Historical events, battles, conquests, the reigns of kings and queens, that sort of thing. It is all most remarkable, considering.

Considering, Father?

He will never learn like other children. The boy falls further behind every day. Numbers and rote have their place but they cannot stretch a brain so
disconnected. Art, literature, philosophy—none of these will be Octavio’s. He will never lead what they call a life of the mind.

Madame’s eyes spilled over.

My dear woman, the curé said, there is no need for tears. Keep your faith in the Lord. Like all our sins, the boy’s weakness is simply part of a greater plan.

Madame groped at her sleeves for a handkerchief. Father, when I met my husband I was content with what heaven had in store. My Emile’s stories were charming; they made me laugh, they made me fall in love. I did not care that he could not read. In fact I loved him all the more. He was not ashamed of—what did you call it—his weakness. How then could I be? He said the Notre-Dames were always too busy working to be reading books. So God gave me my proud Emile and I accepted him as he was. With all my heart. Is that not faithful enough?

One does not bargain with one’s duty to God, madame.

All I wanted in return, Father, was that the Lord bless me—bless Emile and I—with a child. It seemed so little to ask. To be given as you give. Are children not a gift from God? I knew the risks and I told Gabriel as much. I knew a child might inherit his father’s fate, as Emile had inherited his. And I have tried with every
waking moment since to be a good mother. But now for my selfishness my boy is to be punished. To have no mother at all and now to be sent away. You must not do this, Father. None of this is his sin, it is mine.

Madame, I am certain you are a fine mother and that you only want what is best for your son. Then trust us to do this for him. Octavio will do better to stay at home. When he comes of age he will take up your husband’s trade and no doubt do it proud. Be assured that Gabriel has heard you. He knows what you have done. It is up to us to see His plan through. We need only give Octavio a situation with, shall we say, less intellect. The boy will thrive; I promise you. And the Lord will be pleased.

A lesson, Immacolata, to the selfish

Walking home, Madame thought about the marble table in the cellar of the bakery. Emile’s worried face, the last searing contraction, the sound of her child’s first murmur. Then the darkness closing in as she tried to claw out of a hole only to slide deeper. The wet earth under her fingernails.

BOOK: The Emperor of Paris
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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