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Authors: Jean-FranCois Parot

The Man with the Lead Stomach

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Praise for The Châtelet Apprentice

 

‘Reading this book is akin to time travel: it is an exhilarating portrait of the hubbub and sexual licence of Paris during an eighteenth-century carnival … The period detail is marvellously evocative, Le Floch is brave and engaging, and even though the story takes place almost 250 years ago, it is curiously reassuring that in many ways, Paris, and human nature, have not changed at all.’
Economist

 

‘Parot succeeds brilliantly in his reconstruction of pre-revolutionary Paris, in splendid period detail.’
The Times

 

‘A solid and detailed evocation of pre-revolutionary France – the poverty and squalor, side by side with the wealth and splendour, are brought lovingly to life. And the plot has all the twists, turns and surprises the genre demands.’
Independent on Sunday

 

‘Jean-François Parot’s evocation of 18th century Paris is richly imagined and full of fascinating historical snippets … the first in a promising series of French period mysteries, and if the other titles are half as good as this one, they will certainly be worth looking out for.’
Mail on Sunday

THE
MAN WITH THE
LEAD STOMACH

JEAN-FRANÇOIS PAROT

Translated by Michael Glencross

For Marcel Trémeau

In the first Nicolas Le Floch investigation,
The Châtelet Apprentice
, the hero, a foundling raised by Canon Le Floch in Guérande, is sent away from his native Brittany by his godfather, the Marquis de Ranreuil, who is concerned by his daughter, Isabelle’s, growing fondness for the young man.

On arrival in Paris he is taken in by Père Grégoire at the Monastery of the Discalced Carmelites and on the
recommendation
of the marquis soon finds himself in the service of Monsieur de Sartine, the Lieutenant General of Police of Paris. Under his tutelage, Nicolas is quick to learn and is soon familiar with the mysterious working methods of the highest ranks of the police service. At the end of his apprenticeship he is entrusted with a confidential mission, one that will result in him rendering a signal service to Louis XV and the Marquise de Pompadour.

Aided by his deputy and mentor, Inspector Bourdeau, and putting his own life at risk on several occasions, he successfully unravels a complicated plot. Received at court by the King, he is rewarded with the post of commissioner of police at the Châtelet and, under the direct authority of Monsieur de Sartine, continues to be assigned to special investigations.

N
ICOLAS
L
E
F
LOCH
: a police commissioner at the Châtelet

P
IERRE
B
OURDEAU
: a police inspector

M
ONSIEUR DE
S
AINT-
F
LORENTIN
: Minister of the King’s Household

M
ONSIEUR DE
S
ARTINE
: the Paris Lieutenant General of Police

M
ONSIEUR DE
L
A
B
ORDE
: the First Groom of the King’s Bedchamber

A
IMÉ DE
N
OBLECOURT
: a former procurator

The V
ICOMTE
L
IONEL DE
R
UISSEC
: a lieutenant in the French Guards

The C
OMTE DE
R
UISSEC
: a former brigadier general and father of the vicomte

The C
OMTESSE DE
R
UISSEC
: the vicomte’s mother

The V
IDAME
G
ILLES DE
R
UISSEC
: the vicomte’s brother

L
AMBERT
: the Vicomte de Ruissec’s manservant

P
ICARD
: the major-domo of the Ruissec household

A
RMANDE DE
S
AUVETÉ
: the vicomte’s betrothed

M
ADEMOISELLE
B
ICHELIÈRE
: an actress

T
RUCHE DE
L
A
C
HAUX
: a Life Guard at Versailles

P
ÈRE
M
OUILLARD
: a Jesuit, Nicolas’s former teacher in Vannes

J
EAN-
M
ARIE
L
E
P
EAUTRE
: a fountaineer

J
ACQUES
: Le Peautre’s deaf-and-dumb helper

G
UILLAUME
S
EMACGUS
: a navy surgeon

C
ATHERINE
G
AUSS
: Monsieur de Noblecourt’s cook

P
ÈRE
G
RÉGOIRE
: the apothecary of the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites

C
HARLES
H
ENRI
S
ANSON
: the hangman

O
LD
M
ARIE
: an usher at the Châtelet

P
ELVEN
: the doorkeeper at the Comédie-Italienne

R
ABOUINE
: a police spy

L
A
P
AULET
: a brothel-keeper

G
ASPARD
: a royal page

M
ONSIEUR DE
L
A
V
ERGNE
: the Secretary to the Marshals of France

M
ONSIEUR
K
OEGLER
: a jeweller

‘The laws in Europe are ferocious towards those who kill themselves: they are made to die twice, as it were; they are dragged in ignominy through the streets; they are branded with dishonour; their property is confiscated.’

M
ONTESQUIEU

Tuesday 23 October 1761

Carriages were streaming on to Rue Saint-Honoré as Nicolas Le Floch advanced cautiously over the slippery cobbles. Amidst the din of the vehicles, the shouting coachmen and the whinnying horses, a coach arrived at great speed and almost overturned in front of him, one of its metal wheels sending up a shower of sparks. Nicolas negotiated his way with some difficulty through the forest of blazing torches, which a host of manservants was waving aloft in the darkness to provide their masters with as much light as possible.

How much longer, he thought, would such ostentatious and dangerous displays be tolerated? Candlewax ran down clothes and hairstyles; wigs and hair were in danger of being set alight – there had already been numerous fatal incidents. The same scene would be repeated on the steps of the Opéra at the end of the performance, but then there would be even
greater chaos with the wealthy spectators trying to hurry home.

Nicolas had made his thoughts on the matter known to Monsieur de Sartine, who had merely rejected his remarks in a way that was both evasive and ironic. However committed he was to the common good and to public order in the capital, the Lieutenant General of Police had no desire to antagonise the Court and the Town by regulating a practice that he occasionally found convenient himself.

 

The young man pushed his way through the crowd blocking the steps of the great staircase. There was an even greater crush in the confined space of the foyer of this grand edifice, which had been built for Cardinal Richelieu and in which Molière himself had performed.

Nicolas always experienced a thrill on entering this temple of music. The audience recognised and greeted one another. They spoke of the forthcoming performance, as well as of the latest news or rumours, which in a time of war and uncertainty were the subjects of animated debate. On this particular evening, talk was divided between several topics: the recommendation that the bishops of France were due to submit to the King concerning the Society of Jesus,
1
Madame de Pompadour’s fragile state of health, and the generals’ recent military successes – in particular those of the Prince de Caraman, whose dragoons had pushed the Prussians back beyond the Weser that September. There was also mention of a victory by the Prince de Condé, but the news had not been confirmed.

All these people, shimmering in silk, waded through dirt. There was a disconcerting contrast between their luxurious clothes, and the foul-smelling remnants of wax, earth and horse droppings with which they were soiled.

Trapped in the middle of this throng, Nicolas felt his usual disgust at the mixture of odours filling his nostrils. The stench wafting up mingled with the smell of face powder and
poor-quality
candles but still did nothing to cover up the sourer and more obtrusive smell of unwashed bodies.

Some women looked on the point of passing out and were frantically waving their fans or sniffing perfume bottles to revive themselves.

 

Nicolas managed to extricate himself by slipping behind the French Guards on duty on the staircase. He was not attending the Opéra for pleasure but had been sent on official business. Monsieur de Sartine’s orders were to watch the audience. It was no ordinary performance that evening. Madame Adélaïde, the King’s daughter, together with her retinue, was due to attend.

Since Damiens’s attempt on the King’s life, a general sense of anxiety had haunted the royal family. In addition to the spies positioned in the theatre stalls and the wings, the Lieutenant General of Police wanted to have his own man on the spot who was totally dedicated and enjoyed his complete trust. It was Nicolas’s role to hear and observe everything whilst remaining visible to his superior in his box. As a commissioner from the Châtelet he was entitled to call in the forces of law and order, and to take immediate action if necessary.

To carry out his duties Nicolas had chosen to stand near the stage and orchestra where he could be sure of a full view of the auditorium without losing sight of the stage, another possible source of danger. This location had the incidental advantage of putting him in the best possible position to judge the quality of the orchestra, the performance of the actors and the tessitura of the singers, whilst avoiding the vermin that infested the
woodwork
and the velvet seats.

How often on returning home had he needed to shake out his clothes over a bowl of water to rid himself of those wretched jumping and biting insects …

No sooner had the young commissioner taken up his place than the match-cord began to rise up slowly, like a spider swallowing its thread. Once it was high enough, it moved across the candle wicks of the great chandelier, lighting them one after another. Nicolas loved this magical moment when the
auditorium
, still dark and buzzing with conversation, emerged from the gloom. At the same time a stagehand lit the footlights. From the boards to the flies shades of gold and crimson appeared in all their splendour, along with the blue of the French coat of arms decorated with fleurs-de-lis, which dominated the stage. Coils of dust, now made visible, filtered the light that spread softly across the clothes, the dresses and the jewellery, in a silent prologue to the magic of the performance.

Nicolas berated himself. When would he grow out of his habit of daydreaming? He shook his shoulders. He needed to keep an eye on the auditorium, which was filling up now, the volume of noise rising.

*

One of Nicolas’s main concerns on duty at the Opéra was to establish exactly who was present or absent, as well as to spot any strangers and foreigners. This particular evening he noticed that, unusually, given the generally blasé nature of the public, the boxes were nearly all taken. Even the Prince de Conti, who often made a point of arriving, with the majestic indifference of a prince of the blood, when the performance was already under way, with the majestic indifference of a prince of the blood, was already seated and talking with his guests. The royal box was still empty but servants were busy making it ready.

Nicolas only fulfilled this duty when members of the royal family attended a performance. On other evenings his colleagues were assigned to this task. The police’s priority was to seek out and keep a watch on agents suspected of trading with or spying for countries currently at war with France. England in particular was flooding Paris with hired emissaries.

 

Feeling a light tap on the shoulder, Nicolas turned and was pleased to see the friendly face of the Comte de La Borde, First Groom of the King’s Bedchamber, dressed magnificently in a pearl-grey coat embroidered with silver thread.

‘What a doubly happy day! Nicolas, my friend, I am so pleased to you again!’

‘And may I ask what other agreeable event is implied by your greeting?’

‘Aha! You devil … What about the pleasure of an opera by Rameau? Does that mean nothing to you?’

‘It certainly does, but you’re rather a long way from your box,’ said Nicolas, with a smile.

‘I like the smell of the stage and enjoy being near to it.’

‘Near to it, or near to someone?’

‘All right, I’ll confess. I’ve come for a closer view of a most gentle and graceful creature I admire. But, Nicolas, I must say we feel you’re being very elusive at the moment.’

‘We?’

‘Don’t you try to beat me at my own game. His Majesty enquires about you often, in particular during the last hunt in Compiègne. I do hope you have not forgotten his invitation to join the royal hunt. Because he never forgets anything. Show your face soon, for goodness’ sake! He remembers you well and frequently mentions the account you gave of your investigation. At his side you have a most powerful advocate: the Good Lady thinks of you as her guardian angel. Believe me, you should make use of such rare influence and not cut yourself off from your friends. Such elusiveness harms nobody but you, as your friends will not easily tolerate it.’

He pulled a small gold watch from his coat pocket, looked at it and went on: ‘Madame Adélaïde should be here very shortly.’

‘I thought our princess and her sister Victoire were
inseparable
,’
2
said Nicolas. ‘However, if my information is correct she is attending tonight’s performance alone.’

‘How very astute of you. But there has been a row between the King and his second daughter. He refused her a set of jewels and out of annoyance Madame Victoire retorted with some biting remark about how the King would have treated a similar request from Madame de Pompadour. There’s a Court secret for you, my
dear fellow, but as you are the soul of discretion … That said, Madame Adélaïde will not be alone; she will be chaperoned by the Comte and Comtesse de Ruissec. Members of the old military nobility, as stern, pious and doddering as you could wish. They are part of both the Queen and the Dauphin’s entourages, which says it all. Though the comte—’

‘What a sharp tongue you have today!’

‘The Opéra inspires me, Nicolas. I assume our friend Sartine will be coming?’

‘He will indeed.’

‘Madame will be well protected. But nothing ever happens when our lieutenants of police are present. Our performances are so uneventful. Only the cabals and the claques liven them up a little, and
Les Paladins
by the esteemed Rameau should not cause a storm. Both the Queen and the King’s corners will be content.
3
Le Mercure’
s account says that it combines Italian and French tastes very skilfully, even if the daring mixture of comic and tragic may go beyond propriety.’

‘It won’t go too far; the passions in it are quite innocent.’

‘My dear friend, have you ever been to London?’

‘Never. And with things as they are, I fear that I may not have that opportunity for some time.’

‘Don’t be too sure. But what I was going to say is that a visitor from France is always astonished when he enters a London theatre to find there is no police presence. Of course, the price of this freedom is uproar and fighting.’

‘It must be the sort of country our friends the philosophers dream of; they say our theatres have the “foul smell of despotism” about them.’

‘I know who said that and the King did not appreciate the remark,’ said La Borde. ‘Discreet as ever, Nicolas, you did not name him. But please excuse me: I am off to pay court to Madame Adélaïde. And quickly, because the object of my attentions appears in the prologue.’

He sauntered across the stalls, bowing this way and that to the beauties of his acquaintance. Nicolas was always pleased to see the Comte de La Borde. He recalled their first meeting, and the dinner when La Borde had kindly rescued him from an awkward situation. Monsieur de Noblecourt, the elderly procurator with whom he lodged and for whom Nicolas was like a son, had often emphasised that such heartfelt affection was a privilege and could be useful. The young man went back over the rapid succession of events since the beginning of the year. The First Groom of the King’s Bedchamber would always be associated in his mind with his extraordinary meeting with the King. He knew the secret of his noble birth; he knew that he was not only Nicolas Le Floch but also the Marquis de Ranreuil’s natural son. However, he remained convinced that this fact had played no part in La Borde’s spontaneous friendship for him.

A loud roar brought him back to reality. The whole house had risen to its feet and was clapping. Madame Adélaïde had just appeared in the royal box. Fair-haired and shapely, she had an air of grandeur. Everyone agreed that she was far more beautiful than her sisters. Her profile and eyes resembled the King’s. She smiled and gave a courtly bow, to even louder cheers. The princess was very popular: her affability and friendliness were well known. She seemed to be enjoying the prospect of an evening on her own and, after bowing, continued to nod
graciously. Nicolas saw Monsieur de Sartine enter his box after accompanying the King’s daughter to her own.

 

The curtain rose for the prologue, and La Borde hurriedly rejoined Nicolas. To the accompaniment of a triumphant chorus, the goddess of Monarchy appeared on the steps of a classical temple. Young children held her train, which was decorated with fleurs-de-lis. Suddenly the figure of Victory, in breastplate and helmet, emerged on a chariot pulled by the spirits of war; she stepped down from it to crown the goddess with laurels. The chorus rose to a climax and repeated its refrain:

We pay this homage

Worthy of our King,

To crown his glory

And proclaim his might.

Deities waved palm branches. Monsieur de La Borde squeezed Nicolas’s arm.

‘Look, the fair-haired girl on the right … the second one wearing a tunic. That’s her.’

Nicolas sighed. He knew as well as anyone the sad fate awaiting these young girls from the Opéra. They began their careers in the chorus or as dancers, but then, still barely more than children, fell prey to a world in which loose morals and the power of money prevailed. Unless they managed to navigate the dangerous waters of libertinism, which required skill and caution, and reached the privileged status of kept women,
inevitably once the charms of their youth had faded they were condemned to lives of squalor and degradation. At least this pretty little thing might fare rather better with a decent sort like La Borde. Perhaps.

The splendid strains of the prologue continued to ring out. This style of composition had gone out of fashion years ago: Rameau himself had ended it, replacing this standard device with an overture linked to the entertainment. Nicolas had been
surprised
by this spectacular opening, which lauded the monarchy and glorified its military successes, when the reality was a series of short-lived victories and uncertain setbacks, hardly a reason for bombastic celebration. But carried away by force of habit, everyone continued to pretend. It was not a bad policy in the view of those in authority who looked on from the shadows for any hint of public disaffection. The curtain fell and Monsieur de La Borde sighed; his goddess had disappeared.

BOOK: The Man with the Lead Stomach
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