Read The Emperor of Paris Online
Authors: C. S. Richardson
Have you seen them!
In broad daylight!
The Austrians won’t stand for it!
The Serbs will catch it now!
Russia will jump in!
Watch out for the Germans then!
At precisely 9:16, Monsieur Grenelle squeezed into the bakery. A bachelor who lived two floors below the Notre-Dames, Grenelle spent his days tinkering with watches and clocks. He chose his usual order—two brioche—by peering through his thick spectacles and sliding a callused finger down the glass case. Octavio
took up his position: following the finger, removing the chosen buns, lifting the order to his mother waiting behind the till. The boy looked through the case at the sagging knees in the fellow’s trousers. Grenelle’s head appeared from above, his eyes magnified through his spectacles like blinking balloons. Everyone called him Blind Grenelle.
Quickly, young fellow, he said. Bag them before the Kaiser shows up.
Meanwhile talk in the shop continued in hushed tones. It was scandalous what a newspaper would print these days and the archduke and his wife well it certainly was a tragedy no matter what you think of their country and if it comes to war well then the eighth will be ready even if the politicians are not and those damned Boche can send us their worst and by God they will meet our best and be all the sorrier for it.
Monsieur’s pictures had always been of worlds out of his reach, comings and goings and people and places that had little to do with his own life. Troubles, even when they happened in the city, seemed to be far away. Listening to the chatter in the bakery only reminded him that he had worries of his own. His son was becoming more like him with each passing day.
Even more so with the boy out of school. And try as she might to pull herself from her moods, his wife had become a woman he barely recognized. They both needed him and now this soup-splattered soldier had arrived on his doorstep. Monsieur knew his customers were right: every man in the eighth would be expected to do his duty. He looked at his wife and son. But my duty is here, he mumbled.
Our very best, someone shouted. Even our brave thin baker.
Monsieur Notre-Dame swallowed hard.
If the Lady France calls, he said.
Notre-Dame is it? Like the cathedral?
Monsieur took the recruiting clerk’s pen and scratched
, as though he were marking a country loaf for the ovens.
Having left his wife to mind the bakery, he hurried back to the cake-slice. But instead of striding through the blue doors, a fearless poilu now, he crept unnoticed into the building from a rear laneway.
Grenelle looked up from a stubborn hairspring, unsure whether he had heard the knock at his door or not. He seldom had visitors, once in a while a neighbour with a slow minute hand. He expected no one this day. He paused before turning the latch,
took off his spectacles and put his better eye against the peephole.
I’m not sure Madame is up to this, Monsieur said after Grenelle had let him in. The bachelor sensed the shame as it bent his baker’s shoulders.
up to it, monsieur?
Did you—join up? the baker said.
I tried the mechanized division. Wonderful things these motor cars; practically drive themselves, so I’m told. The recruiting fellow took one look at my spectacles and laughed me into the street. He said they didn’t need someone making a wrong turn and ending up in the English Channel.
Grenelle forced a smile. Monsieur only looked at his feet.
I don’t how to ask you this.
Of course I will, Grenelle said. It would be an honour to serve a fighting man.
But I haven’t asked you anything.
Well now that you know the answer, it should be an easy question.
Will you keep an eye on things, on my wife and boy? I’ll worry less if I know a friend is watching out for them. I’ll be home as soon as I can.
As I said, an honour. But even honour comes at a cost, my friend.
I don’t understand, Monsieur said.
An extra brioche should do it, Grenelle said. Added to my usual order. Free, of course. For that you can stay away until they make you a general.
The morning his regiment was due to report, Monsieur cinched the belt in his uniform trousers to its last hole, floundered inside his infantry coat, straightened his tag number 6694, and descended to the bakery. He snapped a salute and announced to all that their loyal Notre-Dame, freshly scrubbed and polished, would not be away long. Passing among his customers, pumping arms and kissing cheeks, he saw his son standing at the doorway, the boy’s hand stiff and proper in its own salute. Monsieur took hold of the boy’s elbows. After a few grunting attempts he hoisted his son onto his shoulders.
Not to worry, Monsieur said. We’ve seen the pictures in our paper, haven’t we? So many of us marching off that the trains are full, like a regular August holiday. The army has even hired taxis to chauffeur us all to the front. So it’s off for a drive in the country to meet the noisy neighbours and home before you know it with a German goose under my coat. At last, the fattest baker in all Paris.
Monsieur lowered his son to the floor. He gave the counter a swipe with his sleeve, wiped a smudge from
his boot and embraced his wife long enough to bring a blush to her cheeks. Madame dug her fingers into the rough fabric of his coat, feeling for his bony shoulders. She whispered in his ear.
I am lost now. Come home and find me.
She knew she would see no letters from her husband.
With two pairs of thin legs pumping high and out of sync, father and son marched into a blistering summer sun. Blind Grenelle stood on the cobbles outside. He bowed as the Notre-Dames passed, a finger to the side of his nose.
Monsieur turned and began marching backwards, his arms waving back and forth as though conducting an orchestra.
It is all numbers and legs, he shouted. Keep the feet moving, one two one two. They will take you anywhere, left right left right. Across the Rhine, three four three four. And back with Christmas dinner, left, right, left, right.
A gentleman on a café terrace gestures for the waiter and then throws his mangled newspaper into the street. Dropping his money on the tray, the man does not notice the young woman stepping over the discarded paper as she hurries past.
In a small park a line of giddy children stretches across the path, waiting for the carousel to open. As the young woman makes her way through the line, she overhears one of the children mention a circus strongman. With one hand! the little girl squeals, her friends sputtering into fits of laughter.
On a bench nearby, two women read copies of the same book. One suddenly closes hers and elbows her friend. Did I not tell you? she says. I knew he had done it. Knew it from page one.
The pair looks up to see the young woman rush past. They return to their reading.
Another block and the young woman stops to catch her breath. She waits for a gap in the crush of automobiles circling the roundabout.
he Pont des Arts was no less boisterous for the wildfire rumours coming from foreign parts. Crowds of people crossed the iron span as if they were on some sort of perpetual mechanism, their only destination one end of the bridge or the other; their only worry that they might trip over their feet as they changed direction.
Henri Fournier turned his back to the flowing crowd and leaned against the railing. He worked up a mouthful of saliva. Slouching beside him, his friend Mabillon, a fellow son of the trade.
Father thinks the war will be over in a month, Mabillon said.
Henri took aim at a passing barge. He squeezed out a thread of spit and wiped his chin.
What does your father know? He’s a bookseller.
The spit vanished in the churning wake of the barge. Mabillon examined a cloud passing overhead.
What’s wrong with being a bookseller? Your father is, my father is. You will be, I will be. Such is life.
Henri looked to the stalls lining the quay. He brought his father into focus, fat even at that distance, surrounded by a circle of browsers and gesturing with his hands.
Bookseller, he said. I hope not. There’s no money in it.
He leaned his back against the railing and turned to his friend.
Think you’ll join up?
Mabillon looked upstream toward the cathedral. A river taxi sat low in the water, smoke swirling from its funnel. The boat was jammed with people clutching hats, pointing fingers, consulting guidebooks.
Doubt it, Mabillon said. Too short. A few centimetres taller and I might pass for eighteen. You?
Henri pressed his spectacles against his face.
Doubt it, he said. Bad eyes.
A man in a threadbare sweater and wearing fingerless gloves stepped from the passing crowd and stopped at the railing opposite Henri and Mabillon. The man, tall and sickly pale, gazed downstream, then dropped the carpetbag he was carrying. He pulled a bundle of sticks from the bag. With a swirl of his arms he unfolded an artist’s easel, spreading the legs and nudging them into position. A small canvas appeared from the bag. A box of paints, a jar of water and a handful of brushes came next. The man placed the canvas on the easel, stepped back and looked into the distance. After a moment he selected a brush and made a few cautious strokes.
August was not a month for wearing gloves, thought Henri. He wondered how the jar had left the bag without spilling a drop.
Father says the Germans can’t swim, Mabillon said. They’ll have a hell of a time trying to cross the Rhine.
As the painter added the outlines of the buildings along the quay, the river taxi chugged toward the bridge. Mabillon leaned against the railing next to his friend. They watched the painter construct a sky: layers of grey upon blue upon grey. Watery trails ran down the canvas.
Mabillon turned to watch the taxi approach the bridge.
Henri saw the greenish squares of bookstalls emerge on the canvas, shaded by the blobs of trees.
Mabillon filled his mouth with spit.
Henri turned, crossed his arms on the railing and rested his chin on his hands. What does your father know, he said.
Mabillon jerked his body against the railing. A white glob arced out over the river and broke apart in the breeze. Henri shrugged and put his forehead on his hands. Through the gaps in the bridge’s wooden planks, he saw the taxi pass unharmed beneath his feet.
Beside the roundabout a woman folds a stool while a boy packs a row of chipped teapots into a suitcase. He places a handwritten card,
5 centimes thank you
, in the case and shuts the lid. There is a pause in the traffic and the young woman steps from the curb.
Passing a church, she notices a bent old fellow sitting on the front steps. A bible lies in his lap, a gnarled finger marking a page. By the look of his red-rimmed eyes, she knows the man has been weeping. Her throat tightens. She remembers reading to herself, how it had kept the loneliness at bay.
He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds
But time presses. She cannot stop.
ank after rank of soldiers, awkward in stiff uniforms and double-skip strides as they struggled to keep in step, marched the boulevards. A grand show, daily performances, each joyful parade bound for the trains and taxis that would carry them off. Tricolours that had been packed away a month earlier were unfolded and re-hung from railings, children lifted on shoulders startled the horses of the cavalry regiments, young women offered flowers to passing lovers. Old men steadied themselves on their canes, blank stares betrayed dark memories.
August 1914: the city seemed to empty out; the boulevards finally fell silent. As though waiting.
Madame Notre-Dame stood in front of the cellar ovens, her arms folded across an apron dusted in flour, her eyes following thin trails of steam escaping around the oven doors. The first lot of baguettes had gone in. She breathed heavily, impatient for smells she would know as well as her own odour, those fresh-baked aromas that had clung to Emile even as he crawled into bed each night. The rising heat in the cellar became oppressive, the air too thick to breathe. Madame staggered and caught herself as she slumped against the marble table.
The past days pressed down on her. She had watched her husband and son march out of the bakery. She wanted so much to run after them, to take her son’s hand and hold him back, to tell him to be as brave as his father. Imagine eating that goose, she would have said. But it was Madame Lafrouche who had caught up with Octavio.
She had spent the previous night writing out every recipe she could remember. The sourdoughs, the croissants, the herbed brioche. She checked and rechecked the cellar stores: the bins of flour, the number of eggs, how much starter was left. She mixed two mounds of baguette dough before she thought her Emile might approve of the proportions. She left a third batch to proof
and went upstairs, waking Octavio and telling him to wait for her in the shop. Exhausted now, she realized that she could not keep the bakery going on her own.
A crouched figure, silhouetted against the early-morning light, appeared at the cellar window. Blind Grenelle tapped on the glass and shouted. He said he was reporting as ordered.
In the shop Octavio had fallen back to sleep behind the counter. As Madame nudged the boy, she looked up at Grenelle and asked him why on earth was he standing in the shop at this hour. Had he lost his sense of time with all this war madness? And just who had done the ordering?
Grenelle thought fast.
No one—not even you madame—can make all the breads then run upstairs and sell them—which is not to say that you are weak or infirm—in fact quite the contrary madame—but would it not be easier—if you had some help in that regard—not the baking of course—the selling I mean—after all how hard could it be—taking someone’s money and handing them a loaf—which does not imply that your work in the shop has ever been easy—I only meant that you and Emile were such good partners—and it would be a shame if things floundered in his absence—I mean to say—that someone—with
a bit of knowledge as to how things work—who knows most of the customers—could even manage the one-franc key—might help out upstairs—mind the boy you understand—leave the important work to an expert—such as yourself madame—and by the way have you heard—the government is banning croissants—something to do with the city’s supply of butter—but of course you would know this already—