The platform was packed with people, well dressed and wealthy for the most part, jostling for places on a train that was about to leave for the provinces. They yelled and shoved, hitting at one another with fists, canes and umbrellas. Banknotes, bribes for the attendants, were being waved in the air like a thousand tiny flags. To Clem, fresh from the Calais express with a valise in each hand, the scene was positively apocalyptic. He stopped and tried to get his bearings.
‘Head left,’ Elizabeth shouted in his ear, pushing him forward. ‘We want the rue Lafayette.’
The cab smelled of rice powder and a sickly citrus perfume. Clem heaved the bags up on the luggage rack and flopped into a corner, reaching inside his pocket for a cigarette. Opposite him, his mother had arrayed herself in her customary fashion: perched in the exact centre of the seat so that she had a clear view from both windows, with a notebook in her lap to record her observations. She began to write, lips slightly pursed, the pencil scurrying from one side of the page to the other and then darting back. Clem pulled open the window next to him and lit his cigarette. His ribs were sore, bruised most likely; he’d been elbowed a good few times as he struggled across the seething concourse.
‘Deuced keen to get off, weren’t they? One would think the city was already burning.’
‘Those who grew fat under the Empire,’ declared Elizabeth, ‘who benefited the most from all that corruption and carelessness, are scattering like geese now that something is being asked of them in return.’
‘Well,’ said Clem, ‘that’s certainly one way of looking at it.’
A vast military camp had been established in the streets around the Gare du Nord. Once-elegant avenues were choked with tents and huts, their trees stripped bare to fuel the fires that dotted the promenades, blackening the stonework with smoke. Soldiers sat in their hundreds along the pavements; peering down at them, Clem saw teenaged farmhands in ill-fitting blue tunics, their grubby faces vacant, rifles propped against their shoulders.
‘Lord above,’ he murmured, ‘there must be an entire division out here.’
Elizabeth glanced out at the mass of infantry for a couple of seconds and then resumed her note-taking. ‘Efficiency must be our watchword,’ she said as she wrote. ‘We’ll meet with Mr Inglis, we’ll go to Montmartre to find her, and then we’ll bring her straight home. Do you hear me, Clement? The three of us will escape this city together.’
‘How much does your Mr Inglis know?’
‘Simply that I have some urgent business to attend to before this situation with the Prussians comes to a head.’ Her brow furrowed. ‘He isn’t someone I would necessarily choose to place my trust in, but the streets of Paris have been quite transformed since I last numbered among its residents. I doubt I could even find my way from the Madeleine to Notre Dame after Louis Napoleon’s barbaric interferences.’ She finished a page and flipped it over, the flow of words barely interrupted. ‘Mr Inglis, however, has lived on the rue Joubert for longer than anyone cares to remember. His assistance can only speed things along.’
The cab turned a corner, wheeling from sunlight into shadow; a detachment of field artillery clattered past, the crews shouting to each other from their positions on the mud-encrusted guns.
Clem had lost the taste for his cigarette. ‘Whatever’s best for Han,’ he said, leaning forward to drop it out of the window.
They carried on into the heart of fashionable Paris. Clem marvelled at the crisp geometry of the streets, the monumental ranks of six-storey buildings, the endless rows of tall, identical windows; to one used to the crumbling muddle of London, the effect really was staggering. A neat enamelled sign, its white letters set against a peacock blue ground, informed him that they had reached the boulevard des Capucines, generally considered to be among the most splendid of the emperor’s recent redevelopments. It had been kept free of soldiers, but in their place was an atmosphere of singular desolation. The magnificent shops had their shutters down and their awnings rolled; the gutters were clogged with mud and litter; the strolling, stylish crowds had long since fled. Hardly anyone at all could be seen, in fact, and Clem searched about in vain for a porter when they alighted before the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth went inside directly, pushing apart the heavy glass doors, leaving him to pay their driver and carry the bags.
Clem had friends who swore by the Paris Grand, waxing lyrical about its delightful society and many modern luxuries. That afternoon, however, it was like stepping into the atrium of a failing bank, the air charged with impending disaster. The crystal chandeliers were turned down low to conserve gas. Several of the public rooms had been roped off, the main bar was closed and a sign in front of the lifts informed guests in four languages that they were out of use until further notice. Only a handful of people were passing time there; exclusively male, soberly dressed or in uniform, they conversed quietly over their coffee cups.
Elizabeth was standing by the reception desk with a tallish man at her side. Some way past forty, with a sandy beard, he was wearing a green yachting jacket and shooting boots. He’d just kissed her hand and had yet to release it; she’d adopted a classic, much-employed pose, angling her head carefully to display her nose and jaw-line to their best advantage. Both were smiling.
‘Mr Montague Inglis of the Sentinel,’ Elizabeth said as he arrived before them. ‘Mont, this is Clement Pardy, my son.’
Clem knew the Sentinel. A popular, rather frivolous paper with pretensions to being upmarket, it catered to those who aspired to a life of dandified loafing. He studied Mr Inglis more closely. The journalist’s practical costume was belied by the costly gloss of his boot leather, the expert barbering of his beard and the diamond in his tiepin: the size of pea, this stone was surely worth more than the Pardy family had to its name. Clem set down the bags and the two men shook hands. Inglis’s oar-shaped face was strangely vicarish, but weathered by fast living; his probing, watery eyes appeared to be running through some unknown calculation.
‘Heavens,’ he said, his voice low and slightly hoarse, ‘the last time I sawthis young buck he was still messing his britches. First trip to La Ville-Lumière, Clement?’
‘It is, Mr Inglis.’
‘Damn shame – it’ll very probably be your last as well.’ The journalist switched his attention back to Elizabeth. ‘My dear Mrs P, I must insist that you tell me more about why you’ve picked this moment for a visit. You are aware, I take it, that my poor Paris is doomed?’
He said this casually, as if confirming a dinner arrangement. Elizabeth’s response was equally light-hearted; she twisted a dyed curl around her finger as she spoke, resting her elbow against the reception desk.
‘That would seem to be the case, Mont, would it not? Why, in all my travels I have never seen so many blessed soldiers!’
‘Awfully depressing, ain’t it, to see the boulevards defaced by that rabble. And the Grand! My God, look at the place! A brilliant company used to assemble here every evening for champagne, billiards, some gossip before the theatre; now they’re all either on the wing or in uniform, out filling sandbags by the city wall.’ He clapped his hands, raising his voice in sardonic triumph. ‘Another capital result for the new republic! Vive la France! Vive la liberté! Bless my soul, I hope that villain Favre and the rest are pleased with all that they’ve accomplished.’
Elizabeth’s smile had grown strained. They were political opposites, Clem realised, despite the show of friendship; Inglis was a supporter of the Empire whose collapse at the beginning of the month had brought his mother such satisfaction. This flirtatious performance would only withstand so much before she felt compelled to strike out. Clem decided that he would change the subject.
‘What news of the Prussians, Mr Inglis?’ he asked. ‘How close do the latest reports put them?’
Inglis ignored him. ‘Madam, I do believe that you have yet to answer me. Why are you in Paris? Is it a new project, a new Mrs Pardy volume after all these years of inaction, so tormenting for your public? An account of my city’s final hours, perhaps?’
Elizabeth was being goaded; her laugh had an edge. ‘Goodness no, this is not a writing expedition. I am here for my daughter, Mont. Hannah, Clement’s twin. She lives in Paris – has done so for nearly two and a half years.’
Inglis was unconvinced, but he let the matter go for now. ‘Is she married to a Frenchman? An Englishman with business interests over here?’
‘No, she is not.’
‘A school, then – some manner of ladies’ college?’
Clem dipped his head, squinting at his boots; they looked scuffed and cheap against the Grand’s patterned marble floor. This Mr Inglis knew very well that Han had run away to Paris and was feigning ignorance so that Elizabeth would have to recount the details for him. For all his sociability he was trying to embarrass her.
Elizabeth, however, refused to be embarrassed. ‘Hannah is a painter,’ she said, her nose lifting, ‘of quite extraordinary ability. She came here because she felt that female artists are taken more seriously in France than in England. She had – she has my complete support.’
Inglis took this in. ‘And she wishes to return home, does she, to escape the coming trials?’
‘I honestly don’t know,’ Elizabeth replied, remaining matter-of-fact. ‘She hasn’t contacted us for some months now. But we did receive this.’
She nodded at Clem, who reached inside his jacket for the letter – a single sheet covered on both sides with measured handwriting, making its case, in English, with eloquent directness. Both of them knew it almost word for word. Hannah was out of money, it claimed, friendless and quite destitute, trapped in Paris as the city faced a devastating ordeal that it might not survive. Her nationality would be no guard against a rain of explosive shells, or the lances of the Uhlans as they charged along the boulevards. They were her last and only chance; if they had any love for her they would go with all haste to No. 34 rue Careau, Montmartre, Paris. It was unsigned, and offered no clues as to the author’s identity.
‘That is what brought us to Paris, Mont,’ Elizabeth said. ‘That is why we’re taking this risk.’
Inglis skimmed the letter, a corner of the page pinched between his immaculately manicured fingertips. ‘She is in Montmartre,’ he said.
‘A recent change. The address we had for her was in the Latin Quarter. I don’t know why she has moved.’
The journalist handed the letter back to Clem, as one might to a butler. ‘Dear lady, you’re in luck. I’m well acquainted with the 18th arrondissement and would be happy to accompany you on this mission of yours. I was up there only yesterday afternoon, in fact, to pay a call on a photographer I know – an associate,’ he added, ‘of the great Nadar.’
Clem had been hoping that Mr Inglis would reveal himself to be of no use, allowing them to dispense with him and get on with their search alone. Now, though, he regarded the Sentinel’s correspondent with new curiosity. Photography was among his keenest interests; he’d even thought for a while last winter that he might have a proper go at it, until he’d discovered the prohibitive cost of the materials. Still, Nadar was a big beast – among the very biggest.
‘Have you met Nadar, Mr Inglis?’ he inquired, trying not to sound too impressed. ‘Have you been to his studio?’
Again, Inglis acted as if Clem hadn’t spoken. He turned towards the reception desk. No clerk could be seen. There were signs of neglect; dust was gathering in the pigeonholes and the brass counter-bell was dappled with fingerprints.
‘Do you have a reservation?’ he asked Elizabeth.
‘We do, but I doubt we will sleep here. We are intending to be on the early-morning train back to Calais. With Hannah.’
‘Wise, Mrs P, very wise. The Prussians will soon be blocking the railway lines. I understand that it’s an initial stage in the process of encirclement.’ Inglis straightened up. ‘I’m rather surprised, actually, that it didn’t happen this afternoon.’
Clem stared over at Elizabeth. She’d predicted confidently that it would be two more days before the invaders reached Paris. He felt sick, his collar tightening. This was a mistake of epic proportions. What on earth did they think they were doing?
Elizabeth remained composed. ‘Is that possible?’ she asked, sounding only mildly irked by the journalist’s revelation. ‘Can a city that is home to millions really be placed under siege? Is this some kind of joke, Mont?’
Inglis was grinning. ‘No joke, Mrs P, upon my honour. All the experts are agreed. The Prussians are more than capable of organising such an operation. That is why the French have been crushed so absolutely – why their best legions have been knocked to bits in a matter of weeks. This is the modern way, you see. Valour and courage have been displaced by planning and logistics.’
‘It seems improbable, to say the very least.’
‘Perhaps, madam, but the strategies are well established. Roads will be barricaded, batteries built, trenches dug. They’re going to lock us in, starve us down to nothing, and deliver a final humiliation so complete that the new republic will agree to whatever peace terms they propose.’ Inglis struck the counter-bell, its sharp chime cutting through the lobby. ‘The siege of Paris is about to begin.’
Evening had arrived whilst they’d been in the Grand. Ornate cast-iron lampposts lit expanses of empty pavement; a soft autumn mist was drifting down through the denuded trees. Inglis hailed them a cab, stopping to give the driver his instructions as Clem and his mother climbed inside. Elizabeth had entrusted Clem with her notebook; he went to draw it from his pocket and pass it over to her.
‘No, Clement,’ Elizabeth said, ‘I fear that would only provoke him. Lord above, I’d forgotten how trying the man can be. Memory is too forgiving at times.’
‘He isn’t easy to like, I have to say.’
‘Liking him isn’t necessary. He might be able to help us locate Hannah. All we have to do is put up with him until then.’
Inglis folded his long limbs into the cab, settling himself at the opposite end of Clem’s seat. The journalist was in high spirits, glad to have been liberated from the dullness of the Grand. He took a squashed-looking cap from his jacket and stuck it on his head. It was a kepi, he informed them, headwear of choice for partisans of the new republic
– which made it an essential item for any man who wished to walk about the city and not be lynched either as a Prussian spy or an Imperialist.
‘The latter,’ he confided, ‘for the shabbier class of Parisian, is by far the more grievous offence.’
They went north, passing through yet more roadside army camps, the fires now casting tangled shadows over the fine buildings behind. Inglis held forth on the incompetence of the new republic, the destructive savagery of the masses, the immense wrongs done to the noble, fallen emperor; Elizabeth stayed very still, gazing out of the window.
Their arrival in Montmartre felt abrupt, like walking behind a section of stage-set. The scale and precision of the boulevards disappeared, the cab creaking its way up into a web of crooked, sloping lanes. No one had fled this district; Montmartre was truly alive that night, crammed with its inhabitants. The mood was oddly jubilant, the erratically lit streets resounding with songs and laughter. Every man was in uniform, but not one worn by any of the regular troops; their simple blue outfits were halfway between those of soldiers and policemen, topped off with a kepi just like Inglis’s. The majority were drinking hard. They dominated the cafes and restaurants, debated on corners, and lounged around shop fronts. Countless flags and banners were on display. The tricolour was the most popular – but another, plain red, was so common that it could easily have been mistaken for the standard of a new army, separate from that of France.
‘National Guard,’ Inglis said, his voice loaded with disdain. ‘The Parisian militia. Louis Napoleon had the good sense to suppress them, but they’re back with a vengeance now, claiming that they’re the ones to save the city.’ He pointed at a particularly large red flag, propped above the door of a bar. ‘And as you can see, in humble districts such as this, the units are already thoroughly infected with socialistic doctrine.’
‘The International?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Among others. Reds of every stripe were all over Paris the moment the emperor was captured, spreading their sedition – sowing disinformation and slander.’ Inglis smiled bitterly. ‘Disaster piled upon disaster.’
The cab became caught in a herd of goats that was being driven into the city from the surrounding countryside. Inglis opened the door, leaned out to survey the brown, bleating backs, and suggested that they continue on foot.
‘I know the way from here, Mrs P,’ he said. ‘It ain’t far.’
Skirting the herd, he led them up a steep alley and across a courtyard. A good deal could be seen of the hilltop village Montmartre had been before it was swallowed by the expanding capital. Many of the houses were little more than cottages; whitewashed walls hemmed in gardens and orchards. Between a butcher and a tool shop Clem caught a glimpse of a broken-down windmill, the sails silhouetted against the darkening sky.
The rue Careau lay a short distance beyond the courtyard. No. 34 was one of the larger buildings upon it, standing at the junction of two quiet backstreets, its floors stacked untidily like books on a scholar’s desk. A portly, middle-aged woman in a grey dress was climbing down from a stool, having just lit the gas lamp above the door. Noticing their purposeful approach, she wiped her hands on her apron and prepared to meet them. Inglis began to speak, assuming command, but Elizabeth stepped smartly in front of him. They had arrived at Hannah’s address; his usefulness was almost at an end.
Elizabeth bade the woman good evening and launched into a double-time explanation of their presence in Montmartre. Her French had remained remarkably fluent
– whereas Clem’s, only ever schoolroom level, had rusted to the point of uselessness. Following the conversation was a struggle, but he managed to grasp that this woman was Hannah’s landlady – a Madame Lantier. Utterly overawed by Elizabeth, she was listening closely to what she was being told, her eyes open wide. She’d realised that they were relations of Hannah’s due to the family resemblance, the blonde hair and so forth, and that they had travelled to Paris to affect a reunion; Elizabeth’s talk of her tenant being in some kind of distress, however, came as a complete surprise.
‘Les Prussiens, oui, c’est très grave, mais Mademoiselle Pardy . . .’ Madame Lantier shrugged. ‘Mademoiselle Pardy est la même.’
Elizabeth shot Clem a glance; this was not the author of their mysterious letter. She asked another question and an agreement was reached, the landlady nodding as she turned to open her front door.
‘She’ll show us Hannah’s room,’ Elizabeth said. ‘The blessed girl isn’t there, of course – she’s off in the city somewhere. But Madame hasn’t noticed anything wrong at all.’
Clem considered this as they followed Madame Lantier into her hallway. It made sense that she was unaware of his sister’s troubles. Who would want their landlady to know that they were out of cash, if they could possibly help it?
They were taken past the main staircase, through a pristine parlour and outside again, into the walled garden at the rear of the house. The air smelled of autumnal ripeness, of fat vegetables and soil; an abundance of tall plants thronged around a brick pathway, their leaves turning blue in the fading light. Madame Lantier had already started up this path, pushing through the press of vegetation. A little bemused, Elizabeth, Clem and Inglis went after her, holding onto their hats to stop them being dragged from their heads. After a few awkward yards they were back in the open. In front of them, set against the garden’s rear wall, was a small wooden outbuilding. The landlady was at the door, fumbling with keys.
‘Good Lord,’ Elizabeth exclaimed, ‘Hannah is living in a shed.’
The room beyond reeked of linseed oil, acrid and disagreeable after the sweet scents of the garden. It was dark; the single high window had been firmly shuttered. Clem could just discern a table, a stove, several easels and a number of black rectangles he took to be canvases.
‘Stay where you are, Mrs P,’ instructed Inglis. ‘Madame has found a lamp.’
An oil flame flared, illuminating the modest room. It was filled with paintings. There were views of sunlit boulevards, of cafes buzzing with people, of skiffs on the Seine – of Paris in 1870. The compositions were irregular, lop-sided, done with apparent disregard for both the conventions of picture-making and the symmetries of the remade city. Clem took a few steps towards one of the larger boulevard scenes. The image grew less precise the nearer he got to it. He saw how little detail there was, and how few definite lines; its forms were on the verge of coming apart, of dissolving into each other. Brush marks had been left openly visible throughout. Buildings were pale tracks of grey; trees feathery flurries of green and yellow; the crowds on the pavements nothing but a profusion of intermingled smears. Madame Lantier carried the lamp to the table. The light glistened across the surface of the canvases, catching on tiny beads and ridges of pigment.
‘My dear Mrs Pardy,’ Inglis said, ‘I am so very sorry. Your poor daughter, bless her soul, has obviously gone mad. The seedier side of Paris has corrupted her completely.’
Elizabeth had been making an initial survey of the paintings; now she turned on Inglis, dropping any pretence of friendship. She would never permit anyone to criticise her children. That right was hers alone.
‘This blinkered response does not surprise me, Mont. How could someone like you possibly appreciate such boldness and originality?’
Inglis appeared unconcerned by this shift in her attitude. He was well used to hostility, Clem perceived – welcoming it, even, as a sign of the merciless veracity of his observations. ‘What is so original, pray, about painting like a drunk with a broom?’
‘This is the real world, not the finely finished fakery of your beloved Empire, with its voluptuous come-hither nudes and slave-market scenes. This is art swept into the present.’ Elizabeth looked over at her son, inviting him to rally to his sister’s defence. ‘Don’t you agree, Clement?’
Clem’s interest in painting was pretty casual, inclined towards the more technical side of things. The only time he’d become truly enthusiastic had been a few years previously when he’d developed a fascination with the actual manufacture of the paint – how the stuff was mixed and squeezed into those metal tubes. He’d even taken a couple of cautious steps towards setting up his own factory, an artisanal operation catering only to the first rank of painters, but the finances had quickly become impossible and he’d been forced to abandon it.
‘They’re very fresh,’ he said.
Elizabeth liked this. ‘Aren’t they? Why, the effect is like a spring breeze – a ray of living sunshine.’ She paused significantly. ‘Pass my notebook, would you?’
Inglis was clearly the sort who picked his battles carefully; sensing a disadvantage, he produced a cigar and pointed to the door. ‘I think I’ll wait outside, Mrs P – all this churning paint is making me nauseous. I’ll be ready when you wish to resume the search.’
Clem handed the notebook to his mother. She started writing straight away, angling the page towards the lamp. ‘I mean they’re recent,’ he enlarged. ‘Not wholly dry. Some are less than a week old, I’d say.’
The room was clean and as orderly as an office. Sketches were stored away in folders, brushes and palette knives in jars, paint tubes heaped in a large cardboard box. A bookcase held a modest library – works on art mostly, but also histories and a couple of slim volumes that looked like political tracts. There was no trace either of the corruption Inglis had mentioned or the miserable poverty described in the letter. Off to the side was a Japanese screen printed with a pattern of swooping swallows; behind it Clem could see a mattress, the corner of a battered chest and two winter coats, one black and the other blue, hanging from a nail in the wall. The black one, he realised, was made for a man.
‘Elizabeth,’ he said, ‘I don’t believe that Han is the only person living here.’
His mother followed his gaze. Such a discovery would have left any normal parent mortified, furious, raving about scandal and disgrace. Elizabeth, however, merely blinked; then she turned to study the paintings again.
‘This is how artists are,’ she said. ‘It has always been thus, in Paris especially. Perhaps this friend is the reason she has moved out here, to Montmartre – although of course such a contrary step is typical of her.’
Their eyes met. For all Elizabeth’s offhanded tolerance, the same questions were occurring to them both. Was it this other resident, this man, who had written to them? Or was he the true source of danger?
Elizabeth resumed her grilling of Madame Lantier, rather more intently than before; Clem, meanwhile, walked further into the outbuilding, hunting for clues. Several unfinished works were propped away in a corner. Two were portraits: a young woman dressing, and a man sitting beside a window. The style was strikingly intimate and informal. The woman was perched on a wicker chair, a satin ballgown hitched up to her knees. She had an angular, impish face that hinted at an appetite for pleasure of all kinds; her tongue poked out between her lips as she reached for a stocking that lay crumpled on the floorboards. The skin of her bare shoulders had been painted in broad, butter-like strokes, the different tones left unblended beside one another. Just two shades of orange had been used to render her short coppery hair, and the bunched fabric of her gown was but a mesh of purple-pink diagonals.
The portrait of the man had a more considered effect. Clean-shaven and gravely handsome, he was sitting forward on a bench, his thick black hair brushed back from his brow. His coat was black as well, and his gloves; this raven-like figure, equal parts preacher, lawyer and soldier, had been set against a stretch of plain cream wallpaper, a contrast that fixed the eye upon him completely. In his hand was a slim green tome that Clem recognised as one of the political volumes from his sister’s bookshelf. He was looking out at the viewer, his expression resolute but also reassuring, caring even, as if he was alone with a close comrade-in-arms.
Clem crouched to examine the picture further. Something he had taken to be a flaw, a crack in the paint, was no such thing. A dark scar ran down the left side of the sitter’s face, running like a tear-track from his eye socket to the line of his jaw.
Over by the door, Elizabeth’s voice was growing louder and more impatient. Clem stood up, thinking to go to Madame Lantier’s aid, when he noticed a black strip on one of the other paintings in that corner, behind the two portraits. He pulled it out. Little more than a sketch, largely uncoloured, it depicted what looked like the inside of a small common theatre. An audience had gathered in the murky atmosphere, faces and hats and jackets blurring into an indistinct mass. Before them was an imposing, blackcoated orator – the man from the portrait. He’d struck a simple pose, chin raised and right arm extended; his glove was a black V in the middle of the canvas, rendered with a single mark of the brush. Someone, Hannah it looked like, had scrawled a date along the bottom: 12th Septembre, 1870.
Clem held it up for his mother and the landlady to see. ‘Madame,’ he called, ‘où est ça, s’il vous plaît?’
The landlady told them that it was the Café-Concert Danton, a place of indifferent reputation only a few streets away. She pointed to another cafe scene, saying that it showed the Danton also; and another, over on the far side of the room.
‘We should go there,’ Clem said. ‘Han’s clearly a regular. If we don’t find her we can come straight back.’
Elizabeth agreed. Madame Lantier provided directions and they left the shed at once. Inglis claimed to have heard of the Danton; he slowed his pace, though, dropping to the rear as they went down to the centre of Montmartre. His usefulness had expired, they all knew it, but he clearly had no desire to return to his lonely table in the lobby of the Grand. Clem suspected that they were stuck with him until they left the city.
Once on the busier lanes they soon began to attract unwelcome attention. Clem and Elizabeth’s travelling clothes, although hardly ostentatious, were enough to draw unfriendly stares from nearly everyone they passed. Insults were hissed, the word bourgeois spat out as if it was the worst curse imaginable; children trailed behind them, sniggering and asking rude-sounding questions. Inglis wasn’t nearly as comfortable in Montmartre as he’d implied. His proletarian disguise, with its various quality touches, was largely ineffective; Clem saw him remove the diamond tiepin and secure it inside his jacket.
Madame Lantier’s directions brought them to the place Saint-Pierre, the square at the heart of the district, and on past the derelict merry-go-round in its centre. The northern side of the place had been left empty of buildings, a chain of gas lamps tracing a path up the last stretch of the hill to the signalling tower at its summit. An electric searchlight was trained on this structure; as Clem watched, a soldier stepped into its white beam, held up a series of semaphore flags and then withdrew into the darkness.
The Danton lay to the east, on the rue Saint-André. It was mean and rather dingy – nothing much to look at. Clem felt the deadening cramp of nerves, his breath catching in his throat. He hadn’t seen Hannah for more than two years now, but that wasn’t the reason for his unease. It was more like an intimation of doom – a profound sense that things weren’t going to go as planned. This bothered him. He really wasn’t the sort for such handwringing; indeed, he tended not to have the slightest inkling of doom’s approach until he was sunk in it up to his neck. Nothing could be done, at any rate. Elizabeth was steaming past the gaudy street women sitting around the pavement tables and in through the doors. There was no time to reconsider.
Conditions inside were very close to the undignified crush represented in the paintings. The theatre itself was shut, the customers restricted to the narrow bar. A large proportion were National Guard, red flags and all; the rest were clerks, shop assistants, off-duty waiters and waitresses, with a scattering of trollops and pickpockets. Everyone was laughing, singing, arguing at the tops of their voices. Elizabeth jabbed a finger towards one end of the room and then started in the opposite direction, worming her way between the swaying guardsmen.
Clem pushed on along the bar as politely as he could manage. His ribs, still aching from the Gare du Nord, were barged anew; sour, boozy breath washed over his face as various unpleasant comments were muttered; tobacco ash was flicked on his coat and wine splashed on his shoes. Ten minutes passed and he saw no one who looked remotely like an artist, or even like they might know an artist. He’d almost finished his search when a fight broke out nearby among a group of shrieking laundresses, forcing him against the marble bar-top. There was a mirror behind the rows of bottles: Clem contemplated himself as the brawling women were bundled into the street. How bloody wrong I am here, he thought, in my brown flannel and my squat English hat
– wearing trimmed whiskers in this land of beards and drooping moustaches. He closed his eyes, sorely tempted to marshal his French and order a large brandy.
Upon opening them he saw someone familiar in the mirror, past his shoulder – a young woman. The image was itself a reflection, he realised, caught in a glass door panel and made especially sharp by the darkness outside. An arm nudged against this panel; it moved very slightly and the woman disappeared. He glanced around, judging the angles. By his estimation she was in a small area beyond the end of the bar. He started working his way towards it.
The woman from the painting was sitting at the edge of a candlelit booth, watching the barroom with an air of total boredom as a cigarette burned between her velvet-gloved fingers. She was almost as alien to the Danton as Clem – a more natural inhabitant of flash dancing halls than the drinking dens of Montmartre. Her dress was dark blue, extremely tight above the skirts and cut low to put as much of her pale flesh on show as possible. The copper hair, longer than in the portrait, was gathered up and adorned with black ribbon and lace. Her legs were crossed carelessly, revealing patent leather ankle boots and a few inches of silk stocking. She noticed Clem, acknowledging him with a beat of her turquoise eyelids. There was sly recognition in her smile. She beckoned for him to approach.
Hannah was in the rear of the booth, engaged in a lively conversation. It was an uncanny moment – gratifying and mystifying in equal measure. Her silver-blonde hair was tied beneath a length of red muslin. She was thinner than Clem remembered, but in a way that suggested vitality and energy rather than privation. And how like them she was! He’d never paid it much mind before, but there in that booth he saw his mother’s oval face and clever grey eyes; the gentle point to the chin that he’d never cared for on himself, but on Hannah was nothing short of beautiful. There was his sister, his twin, for many years his closest friend. He’d found her.
This relief was tempered with disquiet. She was surrounded by men, all of them wearing simple, faded clothes. They looked more like a band of revolutionaries than artists. Han had never been one for gangs, being an impatient, solitary type; yet here she was holding court, telling these moustachioed fellows what was what in French that sounded even better than Elizabeth’s. She didn’t need rescuing, by Clem or anyone else. The letter was a lie. His sister was neither friendless nor destitute; she wouldn’t be leaving Paris, no matter what danger the city might be in. They’d been misled.
The copper-haired woman reached out to Hannah, attracting her attention and jerking a thumb towards Clem. His sister’s astonishment seemed to smack against her, knocking her back in her seat.
‘Dear God!’ she cried. ‘What – what the devil are you doing here?’
The booth went quiet.
‘Well, Han,’ Clem began, ‘with everything that’s going on, it was felt—’
Hannah got to her feet. ‘Please, Clem,’ she said, ‘just tell me she isn’t with you.’
Hannah took hold of Clement’s lapel and pulled him away from the booth, into a doorway beside the bar. The material was well worn; it was the same coat he’d been using when she went, and it hadn’t been new then. The fortunes of the Pardy household had plainly not improved. He’d started talking in his old manner, rambling on about how very well she looked and how much this place seemed to suit her; hearing and speaking English again after so long felt strange, a little wrong, like walking in someone else’s boots.
‘Shut up, Clem,’ she said, ‘for pity’s sake.’
She considered him for a second: a guileless boy still, largely unchanged by the two years that had passed. His face, freckled by another idle summer, lacked the pinched quality Hannah had grown used to in Montmartre. Poor he might be, but he had food; he had a good bed and an easy mind. A flicker of contempt gave way immediately to guilt. Clement had been her sole regret when she’d fled from London. She’d abandoned her brother to Elizabeth. This could not be ducked or denied. He had every right to resent her – to demand that she explain herself and listen to the suffering he’d endured in her absence – but he was grinning, saying how pleased he was that they’d been reunited, whatever the circumstances. She released his coat.
‘Is she here with you? Answer me.’
Clem’s grin fell. He scratched at his blond whiskers and glanced along the bar. ‘Over there somewhere, I’m afraid. Her blood’s up something awful, Han. You’d better get ready.’
Hannah stepped back, glad of the anger that gripped her; it at least dictated a clear course of action. ‘Why have you come? Why now?’
A letter was produced from his coat pocket, written in an official-looking hand. She read it with gathering dismay.
‘But this is quite untrue. It’s nonsense.’
‘Who could’ve sent it, do you reckon?’
Hannah thought hard. This letter was obviously intended to humiliate. The arrival of her family from London at this pivotal time would make her seem like a hopeless ingénue
– no different from the hundreds of hare-brained English girls who ran away to Paris every year, only to be retrieved by their relatives. It labelled her a tourist, an outsider, someone not to be taken seriously. The list of suspects was long. She’d learned that camaraderie between artists was a fragile thing, in constant danger of tipping into rivalry. They might share a philosophy of painting, but each one of these professed comrades, in some private chamber of his heart, desired the ruination of the rest. There were others as well; impatient creditors, a handful of rebuffed suitors, and the likes of Laure Fleurot, who’d pointed Clement in her direction with such malevolent delight. Any of them could be responsible.
Some ingenuity had been required, of course, both to discover the St John’s Wood address and compose a letter in such good English. Nobody of Hannah’s acquaintance had ever admitted familiarity with her mother tongue. Translators and draughtsmen could be found throughout the city, though; and besides, who could say what knowledge people chose to keep hidden?
‘I’ve no idea,’ she said.
‘Things are getting bad here though, aren’t they? It’s like the city has been given over entirely to soldiers. I’ve heard that there’s to be a siege, Han – a bloody siege.’
Clem’s experience of Paris had plainly unnerved him. Her brother led a sheltered life, seldom straying from longestablished paths; he was singularly ill-equipped to cope with the upheaval that had come to define the city. The past few months had seen wild jubilation at the outbreak of war, the misery of subsequent defeat and then a bloodless revolution, swift and uproarious, unseating an empire in a single day. And now, almost impossibly, events were escalating yet further. The end of Napoleon III had not brought the end of the war he’d started. The Prussians were coming for Paris – set on razing her to the ground, it was rumoured, and then remaking her in their own forbidding image.
Hannah shook her head, remembering Jean-Jacques’s words. ‘These invaders do not see what Paris is,’ she said. ‘They think we’ve been cowed by the fall of the Empire and the destruction of the Imperial armies, but the opposite is true. Our city has been liberated.’
‘Our city? Quite the loyal Parisian these days, Han, ain’t you?’ Clem’s laugh was tense. ‘I mean to say, that’s all well and good, but these Prussian blighters are approaching in their hundreds of thousands. They have guns like you wouldn’t believe. I read in The Times that at the battle of Sedan they—’
Hannah wasn’t listening. She looked again at the letter
– at her address on the rue Careau. ‘How did you find me? Here in the Danton, I mean?’
Clem stopped; he grinned again, pride in his detective powers displacing his apprehension. ‘Why, from your paintings. This fine establishment features in a good few of them. I asked your landlady about it and she was kind enough to provide directions.’ He looked towards the booth. ‘And then I recognised that girl, the one in blue, from your portrait of her. Simple stuff, really.’
‘You went into my home? What were you thinking, Clem?’
He became defensive. ‘We were worried, Han. We thought you might be poorly, or starving, or—’
A murmur of excitement spread through the Danton, rippling out from the doors to the furthest corners. Many turned to stare; Hannah overheard a nearby labourer say ‘l’Alsatian’ to his companions. Jean-Jacques had arrived. Two inches taller than the next tallest man, black hat still on his head, he was slowly working his way to the bar, shaking hands and giving nods of acknowledgement. A squad of National Guard pulled him among them, hailing him as a brother as they poured him a glass from their wine jug.
‘I say,’ Clem remarked, craning his neck, ‘isn’t that the black-suited fellow from your paintings – the orator? Is he going to speak?’
Hannah didn’t answer. Exactly how much had her brother deduced? She tried to remember what had been left in the shed – and suddenly realised that if Clem could recognise Jean-Jacques, Elizabeth might be able to as well. A situation too awful ever to be anticipated was unfolding around her. She stepped away from him, hurriedly plotting the best path through the crowd whilst trying to think of an excuse that would get Jean-Jacques back outside.
‘What news, Alsatian?’ someone shouted. ‘Where are the pigs now?’
Jean-Jacques addressed the room. His voice, accented slightly by his home province, was not loud, but it blew away the bar’s chatter like a March wind. ‘The latest sightings are of Crown Prince Frederick, crossing the Seine to the south. The Orléans line has certainly been severed.’ The Danton let out a groan. ‘Do not lose heart, friends, it is but a minor loss. The Prussians will be driven back across the Rhine before a single week has passed. We will beat them.’
Those around him managed an embattled cheer, the National Guard raising their glasses to the coming victory; and between the uniformed arms was Elizabeth Pardy, poised to introduce herself to this noteworthy gentleman and ask him about her daughter. Like Clement, she seemed eerily the same – a figure from Hannah’s past transposed awkwardly onto the present. Her hair was tucked up beneath a fawn travelling hat; her expression amiable yet glassy, concealing a deeper purpose. And now Jean-Jacques was turning towards her, listening as she leaned in to speak.
The next Hannah knew she was before them, quite breathless, grasping his left hand in both of hers. There were exclamations of surprise. Elizabeth planted a kiss on Hannah’scheek; her face was cold and heavily powdered, and the most extravagant praise, in French, was pouring from her lips. It took Hannah a moment to understand that the subject of this laudation was her paintings. She’d expected some overwhelming line, delivered with chilly calmness – a statement of disappointment and distress, perhaps, intended to floor her with shame. She hesitated, completely wrong-footed.
‘Wonderful,’ Elizabeth was saying. ‘Extraordinary, beyond anything I had hoped for. I see what you are doing, Hannah, I see it so clearly. It is close to genius. You are on the verge of something great, my girl. I predict a—’
Hannah recovered her wits. She cut her mother short. ‘You’ve made a mistake,’ she said, in English. ‘That letter is false. I don’t need your help, Elizabeth. Go back to London. Go before it’s too late.’
* * * The alleyway smelled of pears and neat alcohol. It led downhill, away from the rue Saint-André; a stream of inky liquid was crawling through a central gutter. This was Hannah’s short-cut to the rue Careau, skirting the place Saint-Pierre to the south. She’d covered a dozen yards before she realised that home was useless. Elizabeth knew where she lived. She’d been to the shed and seen what was inside. She could return there at any time.
Hannah stopped beneath a lamp set in a rusted wall bracket. She’d released Jean-Jacques as soon as they’d left the Danton, running off to the right and into her alley. He’d followed, keeping up easily; he was only a couple of yards behind her now. She crossed her arms and glowered at him. His instinct for people was strong; he should have seen through Elizabeth at once, yet they’d been talking quite happily when Hannah had snatched him back. It felt almost as if he’d been an accessory to her mother’s ambush – to that contemptible attempt to disarm her with flattery. He was watching her, waiting for her to speak. Their sudden exit from the Danton hadn’t perturbed him; Jean-Jacques Allix was a man beyond alarm. Throughout the summer, as France had been shaken to the brink of collapse, Hannah had found this absolute steadiness reassuring. Right then it made her want to knock off his hat.
‘What did she say, Jean-Jacques? What was under discussion?’
He was quiet for a few more seconds. ‘Only you, Hannah,’ he said. ‘Only you.’
His voice was tender; Hannah remembered the day she’d just passed, sitting at her easel on the place de l’Europe with her brushes in her lap, longing for the moment when they would be together again. But she steeled herself. She would not be lulled.
‘I can’t believe she’s here in Montmartre. I can’t believe it.’
‘She told me that she’d come to ensure that you were safe. A mission of mercy.’
‘Elizabeth came to fetch me,’ Hannah snapped, ‘to reclaim her wayward child and return her to London.’ She covered her brow. ‘I fled my family, Jean-Jacques. I climbed from my bedroom window in the dead of night and travelled alone to Paris. There it is. That’s what I am. A runaway.’
Jean-Jacques nodded; up until now, Hannah had let him infer that she was an orphan, without any surviving relatives in England, but he didn’t seem surprised or affronted by the truth. ‘We all must adapt ourselves,’ he said. ‘It is part of life. The timing of this visit is strange, though. Surely any person of sense can see that there’s a good chance of becoming trapped – that our foe is nearly upon us?’
Hannah sighed; she calmed a little. ‘An anonymous letter was sent to London. It informed her that I was in urgent trouble and needed to be collected before the Prussians arrived.’
Jean-Jacques considered this. ‘A low trick,’ he said. ‘The act of a coward. Do you know who was responsible?’
‘I have my suspicions.’
‘Your mother has been cruelly deceived – fooled into coming to Paris at a most hazardous time. You must be worried for her.’
Hannah glanced at him; his humour could be difficult to detect. ‘That woman is why I am in France. It was her manipulations, Jean-Jacques, her interferences and lies, that drove me from my home. And she is more than capable of looking after herself. Why on earth should I worry for her?’
Jean-Jacques looked away; a line appeared at the side of his mouth. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘She’ll be well. Bourgeois like her always are. A comfortable haven will be found. She’ll wait out the assault in perfect safety.’
A barrier ran through the population of Paris, according to Jean-Jacques and his comrades, separating the bourgeoisie from the workers. It rather pleased Hannah to hear Elizabeth placed on the wrong side of their great boundary; it gave her a sense that she had allies, not least Jean-Jacques himself. Directly next to this, however, sat the uncomfortable knowledge that but for a change of clothes and lodgings she was certainly as bourgeois as her mother.
‘Such a simple path would never do for Elizabeth. She isn’t one to hide away.’ Hannah paused. ‘It doesn’t matter, at any rate. She’ll have to leave Paris. She puts on a good show, but she hasn’t had a real success in over a decade. There’s no money, Jean-Jacques, not a sou. A stay in a hotel, even for a single night, is completely beyond her means. To be quite honest, I’m surprised that she managed to find enough for her and Clem’s passage.’
Jean-Jacques had been gazing at the surrounding rooftops, his hands in his pockets; now his dark eyes flicked back to her. ‘Clem?’
Hannah cursed under her breath; she was being careless. ‘Clement,’ she admitted, ‘my twin brother. He lives with Elizabeth still, back in London. And has come to Paris today.’
‘You have a twin brother.’ Jean-Jacques said this with gentle wonderment. The line at the side of his mouth deepened again. ‘Another of Hannah’s secrets is revealed.’
‘It is not what you might think. He and I, we are too different to—’
Hannah gave up. It was no use. Everything was overturned. In the space of ten minutes the life she’d crafted in Paris had been irreversibly altered. Jean-Jacques had found out that she’d misled him and had glimpsed the troubles of her past. The Danton regulars, her supposed friends, would be extracting all they could from poor Clem; they’d probably discover even more than Jean-Jacques had. She’d been exposed. Whatever chance she’d had of being taken on her own merits was gone. She might as well walk back to the Danton and surrender herself to Elizabeth. Her mother had won. She leaned against a wall, pressing her damp palms against her forehead. She was finished in Paris.
‘Hannah,’ said Jean-Jacques. ‘Look there.’
Lucien and Benoît, two of the painters she’d been talking with when Clem had appeared, were strolling past the alley mouth: thin men smoking short cigars, sharing a drunken laugh as they headed towards the place Saint-Pierre. Octave, a sculptor, was a few feet behind. Hannah straightened up. Clem might be with them. She strode past Jean-Jacques, back out onto the rue Saint-André. There was no sign of her brother; the painters, however, gave a ragged roar of salutation.
‘Why Mademoiselle Pardy,’ Lucien proclaimed, twisting his moustaches, ‘what the devil is going on? You leap from the middle of a really quite stirring account of Courbet’s decline to converse with a young gentleman who, from the brilliant yellow of his hair . . .’
‘The delicacy of his nose and brow,’ inserted Benoît, who fancied himself a portraitist, ‘the fullness of his lips . . .’
‘. . . can only be your brother. And then, even though this fellow has come all the way from the soot and smoke of London, you run from him after a few seconds, grabbing the fine Monsieur Allix for a – a turn beneath the stars, I suppose I should call it, for the sake of decency . . .’
‘. . . leaving your brother entirely alone: a whiskery Anglais in an old suit, adrift in the Danton, too scared even to bleat for help.’
Lucien’s cackle would have curdled milk. ‘So we wave him over. What else could we do for the brother of such a dear friend? I have a little English,’ he confessed with a modest shrug, ‘sufficient, at any rate, to learn that he is not the only member of the Pardy family in Montmartre tonight. There is a mother also, standing at the bar. A woman who, although undoubtedly mature, is still worthy of the attentions of any man who—’
Jean-Jacques didn’t speak with any force or volume. His tone was that of an equable schoolmaster who’d let his pupils run loose for a while, but had reached the limit of what he would allow. The half-cut painters were halted
– stopped dead. Lucien looked off down the street; Benoît, frowning slightly, fiddled with his cigar.
A smile crossed Hannah’s face. It had been six weeks now since Jean-Jacques had first walked into the Danton, but these Montmartre artists had yet to accept that their blonde Anglaise was theirs no longer. Although Jean-Jacques was always cordial, he made them both jealous and nervous; when quite sure that he wasn’t around, Lucien would sometimes refer to him as ‘the killer’.
‘What has drawn you gentlemen from the Danton?’ Jean-Jacques asked them now. ‘Surely you still have wine to attend to?’
Octave, the least waspish and inebriated of the three, spoke up. ‘Everyone is coming outside, Monsieur Allix. They say that the forest of Saint-Germain is burning – put to the torch by the Prussians.’
Jean-Jacques was starting for the place Saint-Pierre before Octave had finished his sentence. Hannah and the artists fell in behind. Her immediate impression as they reached the square was that Paris had somehow circled the Buttes Montmartre – that the central boulevards, normally seen glowing in the south, had been rearranged to the north-west. This light was different, though, a shimmering, acidic orange rather than the flat hue of gas; it was alive, expanding, slowly draining the darkness from the night sky.
The once-distant war had reached them. Hannah’s pace slackened; her hands hung at her sides. She was not afraid. Jean-Jacques had prepared her for this. A magnificent resistance lay ahead. There would have to be sacrifices, of course, but the result would be a better Paris – the beginnings of a better world. It brought her relief, in fact, to see these fires. Over the past few days, as the city’s anticipation and dread had mounted, a part of her had grown impatient for it all to begin.
A restless crowd filled the place Saint-Pierre. People squabbled and brawled, and shook their fists at the tinted horizon; scattered individuals raved and railed, predicting doom; mothers gathered up their children and hurried off in search of shelter. It felt like the moments before a riot. Jean-Jacques was a good distance away from Hannah now, pressing onto the merry-go-round in the square’s centre – which was little more than a gaudy shell, its horses stowed away somewhere and its brass poles bound in sackcloth. Around him the appeals had already started.
‘How bad is it, Monsieur Allix? Tell us what you’ve heard!’
‘My saints, will the city really be next?’
A lanternwas hoisted up onto the merry-go-round. Jean-Jacques climbed into its light and faced the place SaintPierre. Word went around; dozens turned, then hundreds more. The Alsatian was assured, unflappable, with a speech at the ready that needed only to be unfurled on the sharp evening air. He lifted his hands and the multitude fell quiet.
Jean-Jacques Allix had been speaking in bars and cafes since his return from the fighting in the east. That he was a veteran of some renown had all but guaranteed him an appreciative audience. Across the northern arrondissements, his persuasive, uncomplicated eloquence had soon resulted in him being adopted as a spokesman and leader – roles he seemed to relish. Paris was glutted with paper tigers; its halls resounded with bold claims and pledges that were wholly without substance. Jean-Jacques Allix, however, had acted. He had struck at the invader and bore the scars of conflict. He knew of what he spoke. He would not disappoint them.
‘It is true,’ he began. ‘We have the evidence of our eyes, do we not? The Prussians are burning our ancient forests. Trees that have withstood the passage of many centuries – that are as much a part of our brave city as the buildings around us now – will tomorrow be but smouldering stumps. It is another shameful crime to add to the Kaiser’s tally.’
‘They mean to do the same to Paris!’ someone shouted. ‘Reduce her to ashes!’
‘A fiery death!’ wailed another. ‘Oh Lord, a fiery death!’
‘Do not be afraid, citizens,’ Jean-Jacques instructed. ‘Be angry. The reason for this burning, for this obscene devastation, is to deny us an escape route through the woods. They want to keep us here, every man, woman and child, to weather their assault. That is the nature of our enemy.’
There was a surge of profanity, every conceivable curse crashing and foaming between the bar-fronts.
Jean-Jacques raised his voice. ‘But what they do not understand – what they do not understand and what we will demonstrate to them very clearly in the days to come – is that we have no wish to escape them. That we welcome their arrival and the great chance it gives us for revenge. Our bloodthirsty foe is blundering into a trap. Kaiser Wilhelm and his soldiers have travelled hundreds of miles to be destroyed at the gates of Paris. They will face the wrath of the workers – a million French souls – a mighty citizen army hardened by labour and united by a single righteous purpose!’
The crowd’s fearfulness had departed. ‘Vive la France!’ they cried, lifting their flags once again; and the Marseillaise, banned under the Empire, swelled up powerfully from the back of the square.
Hannah, stuck on the fringes, was quite light-headed with pride and love; she struggled to keep Jean-Jacques in sight as he dropped from the merry-go-round into the throng. He was making for a nearby hut, built to stow Nadar’s spotting balloon – the contraption itself, a common spectacle during the last week, had been deflated and packed away at sunset. Before this crude, windowless cabin Hannah could see a group of Jean-Jacques’s political associates. Dressed largely in black, these ultras ranged in appearance from thuggish to almost professorial. Another orator, meanwhile, had taken to the merry-go-round, a National Guard captain who set about urging every able-bodied man who had not already done so to enlist for service in the militia. In seconds, an entire division’s worth of would-be recruits was pushing forward across the place Saint-Pierre, rendering it impassable.
At the balloon hut, Jean-Jacques was shaking hands and sharing embraces. His comrades were proposing that they all leave the square, no doubt to attend some red club or debating hall. He looked around, running his gaze over the crowds. Hannah waved and he saw her at once. His eyes could have held yearning, an apology, a promise; she was too far from him to tell. The next moment he was gone.
Hannah was not upset. Their partings were often like this. True ultras frowned upon romantic attachment; they were supposed to give themselves completely to the revolution. That Jean-Jacques chose to stay with her regardless, despite his deepest convictions, brought her a shiver of delight whenever she thought of it.
The balmy late-summer afternoon had cooled to an autumnal night. Hannah hugged herself, wishing for the coat and cap she’d left behind in the Danton. She couldn’t think of returning for them now, though – not while her mother might still be inside. The despairing fatalism of earlier had passed. She was not going to surrender to Elizabeth. She would find a way to continue. Uprooting again, finding a room over in Les Batignolles perhaps, might be the answer.
Lucien and Benoît were talking across Hannah with exaggerated nonchalance, as if unimpressed, knowing that they had been rendered yet more minuscule by Jean-Jacques’s address. She wouldn’t be any the worse, frankly, for leaving these fools behind. Both were members of the same radical naturalist school as Hannah – committed to an art founded entirely in their experience of the modern world. Benoît, however, was more notable for his May-queen prettiness and estranged millionaire father than any picture he’d produced; while the stooped, liquor-soaked Lucien, although possessing a touch more intelligence than his friend, was scarcely more capable with the brush. Octave had talent, at least, but the cost of stone had prevented him from ever properly expressing it. Of late, in fact, the taciturn sculptor had been reduced to making plaster angels to sell to tourists.
Recalling Lucien’s claim to be able to speak English, which he’d definitely never mentioned before, Hannah wondered if he could be responsible for the letter Clem had shown her. Straightforward envy would be the motivation, complimented by a desire to punish her for neglecting them and becoming involved with Jean-Jacques. She quickly dismissed this theory. Lucien was not genuinely spiteful, for all his caustic posturing; and in any case, he had struggles enough of his own – high-minded ones against the artistic establishment, more basic ones with bodily need – to embark upon such a painstaking prank.
Consideration of the letter led Hannah back guiltily to Clem. She asked the artists if they knew what had become of him. They looked at each other.
‘As we were stepping out of our booth,’ said Benoît, ‘Mademoiselle Laure was stepping in. Pretty smartly, I have to say.’
‘Heart the size of a houseboat, that girl,’ Lucien declared. ‘Handsome lad like your brother – he couldn’t be in better hands. I watched them, actually, for a short while. Neither has much knowledge of the other’s language, but some kind of communication was being achieved. If you catch my meaning.’
Hannah swore. Laure Fleurot was a cocotte, a dancer and gentleman’s companion, exiled to Montmartre from the central boulevards – not a whore, not exactly, although she was said to have accepted money for her favours in certain situations. Hannah knew to her cost that she wasn’t to be trusted for an instant. What could such a woman possibly want with Clement?
Interest in the Pardy family dwindled, thankfully, the well-oiled artists moving onto discussion of their own siblings. Benoît had four sisters, it emerged, who insisted that he dine with them every week; whereas Lucien had a brother in Lille who he had not seen for more than a decade. Octave declined to contribute.
It proved a rather sobering topic. Lucien, seeking to reverse the tide, suggested another drink. Hannah glanced over at the mouth of the rue Saint-André, aware that she should extricateher brother from the Danton – and that she wasn’t going to. The risk of encountering Elizabeth was too great. It wasn’t as if Clement was actually in danger, after all; he was a grown man now, surely capable of fending off a hard-bitten Parisian tart. Like many ashamed by their selfishness, Hannah sought solace in swearing later action: I will write to him in London, she vowed, the letter I never wrote him when I first fled – a long letter that will explain everything. I will write to him as soon as this war is done with and our new lives have begun.
‘Somewhere downhill,’ she said, starting to walk. ‘On the boulevards.’
The knocks shook the shed, rattling the paintbrushes in their jars and sending the Japanese screen toppling to the floorboards. Hannah woke; she was curled up on an old wicker chair, fully clothed, off in a shadowy corner. The morning was full-blown, lines of sunlight blaring in through the slats of the warped window-shutter. Gingerly, she eased her stiff legs around and set about untangling her boots from the hem of her dress. Down in the city a bugle sounded, distant and mechanical, playing out its call and running through an immaculate repetition.
The second round of knocks, even louder than the first, dragged Hannah from the chair into the middle of the room. Staring at the door, she imagined the person who was surely on the other side: head cocked, hair and hat just so, listening intently for any movement within. The moment had arrived. Elizabeth Pardy had come back to the rue Careau.
Returning home in the blue gloom of two o’clock, filled with cheap wine and belligerence, Hannah had actually been disappointed to find the shed empty. She’d decided to stay awake and wait. Elizabeth had journeyed all the way from St John’s Wood; she would never admit defeat so easily. Hannah had lit her lamp and scoured the shed for any sign of her mother’s earlier inspection. None could be found, not even a whiff of face powder, yet everything had seemed altered somehow – diminished by her scrutiny. The shed had looked smaller, dirtier, more wretched; the paintings inadequate, dull, lacking a critical element. Hannah had barely managed to prevent herself from taking up her canvas knife and scraping them clean.
Instead, she’d attempted to amend a scene of the midday crowds promenading on the Quai de la Conférence, to put in what was missing. Luckily, next to nothing had actually been done; but she’d been drunk enough to forget her smock, and as a result there was paint smeared on her sleeves and front. In the pocket of her dress, also, was a flat-headed brush, one of her best, its bristles encased in a hard clot of yellow pigment. She’d plainly sat down to assess what she was going to do and stumbled immediately into sleep. There wasn’t any money to replace this brush. Cursing her stupidity, she started to pick at the dried paint with her thumbnail.
The third salvo was impatient, with emphatic pauses left between each knock. Hannah consigned the ruined brush to a jug of soft-soap. Her will to fight was utterly gone; her eyes were raw, and her head ached a little more with each movement she made. She wondered if she could hide, pretend to be elsewhere – or perhaps slip out of the window.
‘It’s me,’ said Jean-Jacques, ‘Open the door.’
Hannah snapped back the bolt and he rushed in on a gust of fresh, cold air; his kiss was hungry and tasted of strong coffee and aniseed. A hot, unthinking joy flooded through her, washing away her tiredness and her pain, fizzing in her toes and fingertips. She kissed him again, more passionately, trying to unbutton his jacket; but he moved around her and carried on into the room.
It was obvious that Jean-Jacques hadn’t been to bed and didn’t intend to now. Some of his usual self-possession was absent, lost in exhilaration. A lock of black hair had escaped his hat, curving across his brow – connecting, almost, with the line of the scar on the cheek below. He went towards the mattress and reached for the black coat he’d left hanging on the wall.
Hannah watched him search through its pockets – and realised that her mother and brother were sure to have seen this coat when Madame Lantier showed them the shed the night before. She recalled the speed and certainty with which Clem had identified Jean-Jacques in the Danton. They’d worked it out. They knew everything. She shut the door; so let them know, she thought. Let them form whatever conclusions they please. How can it possibly matter now? Jean-Jacques had taken a small notebook from the coat and was attempting to make an entry inside. Writing posed a steep physical challenge for him. The hand within his right glove was a mottled, broken thing, missing both the index and middle fingers, torn to pieces several years ago and clumsily reassembled. He’d told Hannah that this terrible injury had been inflicted at the same time as the slash to his cheek, while he’d been fighting in America against the Southern Confederacy. Assisted by the wooden digits sewn into his glove, he’d managed to develop a scrawl that was just about legible. That morning, however, his distraction proved too much; he’d dropped his pencil before a single word was complete. Kneading the crippled hand, he asked for her assistance.
Hannah gave it gladly. Jean-Jacques dictated a list of names, dates and directives, rapidly covering three pages. It felt unexpectedly intimate. He was trusting her with the ultras’ secrets, their plans, the lifeblood of their campaign; whereas she hadn’t even been able to reveal the most basic facts of her life before Paris, leaving him to discover them by accident the previous evening. Hannah longed to explain how badly she’d needed to flee from London – to shake off her tired role as the oppressed daughter and begin again
– but she knew that this would have to wait. She closed the notebook and handed it back.
Jean-Jacques put it in his jacket. ‘The army is marching from their camps in the centre of the city. They’re going beyond the wall – to engage Prussian advance forces to the south.’ His attempt at a businesslike bearing failed; he hugged her, another tight, three-second clasp, and then held her out at arm’s length. A thin ribbon of light wound over his face, striping his irises with crimson. ‘It is starting, Hannah, at long last. The fight is finally starting.’
Hannah swallowed; when she spoke, her voice sounded hoarse and heavy, as if it belonged to someone far older. ‘What – what are we to do?’
Jean-Jacques let her go. ‘We must gather everyone,’ he said. ‘Everyone. We must march on the boulevards and show our numbers – our willingness to meet our enemies in battle. We must show that we are ready.’
He walked to the shed door and pulled it open. Dazed by what he proposed, by what he was already putting into action, Hannah didn’t move; several seconds passed and she heard him ask, ‘Are you ready, Hannah?’
She grabbed a cloth from an easel and tried to wipe the paint from her fingers. ‘I am,’ she lied. ‘I was about to leave myself, actually, for the place Saint-Pierre. I only took so long to open the door because I thought you might be my wretched mother, come to deliver the lecture I denied her last night.’ She smiled at her own foolishness. ‘But she’ll be on a train by now, halfway to Calais – a hundred miles from here.’
Jean-Jacques turned in the doorway; behind him, a bank of sunlit cauliflower leaves dipped in the breeze. ‘What do you mean?’
Hannah’s headache twitched back to life. ‘If we are engaging the Prussians,’ she said carefully, ‘then Elizabeth will have taken flight. The final trains will have gone.’
‘Forgive me, Hannah,’ Jean-Jacques replied, ‘I thought you’d already know. The last railway lines were cut long before dawn. No one made it out this morning.’ He paused. ‘Your mother is caught.’
‘What sort of a fellow is he, though?’ Clem asked, lighting another cigarette. ‘What exactly are we talking about here?’
Elizabeth brushed at the front of her slate-grey gown. She had an impatient look to her that morning; in more ordinary circumstances Clem would have stayed out of her way for at least another eight hours. ‘He is venerated as a hero,’ she replied, ‘and a champion of working Paris. I barely spoke to him, of course – Hannah has retained that possessive streak of hers – but his story is common knowledge in the northern arrondissements.’
‘You asked after him in that place, did you – the Damson, or whatever it was called?’
His mother glanced at him testily across the cab. ‘The Danton, Clement. And yes, I did. Jean-Jacques Allix appears to be a man of rare principle. He travelled to America to side with the Union in the late war, set on ridding that nation of the evil of slavery. It was on an American battlefield that he received the wound on his cheek. Half of his right hand is said to be missing as well.’
Clem blew out smoke. ‘Hell’s bells.’
‘In the present conflict he has served as a free-roaming irregular,’ Elizabeth continued, ‘a franc-tireur, the French call them. He fought in Alsace, his home territory, before falling back to Paris in August to assist with the defence. There’s a good deal of chatter about his valiant deeds in the Vosges mountains: enemies slain, outpostsdestroyed and so forth.cros
This confirmed what Clem himself had learned – the expressive faces and gestures that had met any mention of Monsieur Allix’s name. He nodded; it actually reassured him a little to know that a man like Allix would be watching over Hannah during the horrors that were sure to befall Paris in the coming weeks. Leaving without her felt disgracefully negligent. Upstanding brothers did not do such things, but Clem honestly couldn’t see what further action he might take. He’d heard of certain Englishmen – aristocrats for the most part – having their stray females returned forcibly to the family home, carted away in the manner of lunatics or escaped convicts. Clem’s soul recoiled from the very notion; he was ashamed even to have thought of it.
Elizabeth was acting as if impressed by Monsieur Allix
– as if she was intrigued and amused to be uncovering the exploits of her remarkable daughter. There was something darker in her too, though, that she could not fully conceal: the umbrage and injury of a rejected parent, made to see the extent to which their child has cast off their influence. Clem recalled the suitors Hannah had endured back in London – a procession of fey artistic types, selected by their mother, as different from this scarred Frenchman as could readily be imagined. He tapped his cigarette into one of the brass ashtrays fitted to the cab door.
‘It isn’t just a question of soldiering with this chap, though, is it? He’s one of that crew we saw shouting in the lanes. He’s a red.’
For a couple of seconds Elizabeth said nothing, staring straight ahead at the empty seat before her; then she drew in a breath and brushed again at her now spotless gown. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it would seem so. But “red” is a designation that encompasses nearly all of those who dwell away from the grand boulevards. There is much discontent after the perversions of the Empire – much desire for change, for a fair society. Monsieur Allix will certainly be among those demanding to be heard once the war is over and a permanent mode of government needs to be put in place.’
Clem turned to the window. They were moving at speed along the rue Lafayette. All of the soldiers they’d seen there the afternoon before were gone; out at the wall, he assumed, or off parading somewhere. ‘So you’re quite . . . happy with Han’s situation in Paris?’
‘Lord above, Clement, is this really how I raised you? To be passing judgement like a table-thumping paterfamilias? This is not London, my boy. Such matters are viewed very differently here – more sensibly, in a manner that accords with the workings of the human heart.’
‘That wasn’t my meaning,’ Clem said hastily, ‘not at all. I was merely checking that you’d reached the same conclusion as me about that deuced letter – that it was nothing but a mean trick, a hoax. Han thinks that it was the work of her rivals, trying to embarrass her. She said that there were many possible suspects, and that—’
Elizabeth was no longer interested in the letter. ‘You must tell me how you got on last night. Why, I hardly saw you after we arrived at Danton.’ There was a pointed pause. ‘You seemed to be getting on rather well with those people.’
‘Against all expectation, I have to say. It—’
‘I took the liberty of looking in your room before I left the Grand. The bed hadn’t been slept in.’
Clem was growing uncomfortably warm, as if he sat before a roaring grate on a midsummer afternoon. ‘Yes, well, my attempts to converse with Han’s friends proved rather more—’
‘Then,’ Elizabeth went on mercilessly, ‘you meet me in the lobby, barely able to contain your glee. And I recall that in fact I did catch sight of you somewhere in the back of the café-concert, just as I was leaving with Mr Inglis. You were in the company of a flash young thing in the most revealing dress, who—’
‘We’re there.’ Clem ground out his cigarette and struggled to his feet. ‘Come on, we’ve no time to lose.’
He hauled their bags down to the pavement, handed a coin to the driver and went on ahead. Elizabeth had seen through him at once, of course she had, and would now be making allusions to his Parisian adventure for months to come. It was hard to be annoyed by this; indeed, as Clem strode through the station doors a grin broke across his flushed face. A night with a Parisian cocotte was a seamy enough experience, he supposed, but he felt transformed by it – as if Mademoiselle Laure and her perfumed lair on the boulevard de Clichy had left a sizeable dent in his being.
And a dent it most certainly was. Clem’s body was etched with fresh scratches; there was a bite-mark on his shoulder that he was pretty sure was bleeding beneath his shirt. His left elbow, too, was burning with the weight of Elizabeth’s bag. At one point Laure had rolled them over with such force that they’d tumbled off the side of her bed, wrapped up together in her fine cotton sheets. They’d landed heavily, bashing joints and bruising muscles, but her lips didn’t leave his for an instant. He’d never been kissed with such determined ferocity; it was almost like being attacked, but with an end so sweet it made him quite breathless to remember it.
The concourse was deathly quiet. Clem’s grin disappeared. The only people to be seen were a scattering of worried-looking civilians and some army officers gathered around a map. Overhead was clean air, free from all trace of smoke and steam. Every rivet along the iron girders could be picked out; the morning sun laid a chain of bright rectangles across the limestone floor. The ticket-gates were locked, the booths closed up; and past them, at the platforms, was a long row of dormant locomotives. Clem heard a distant creak and some shouting. Teams of labourers were derailing carriages, turning them sideways to block the station’s mouth.
Elizabeth had stopped by the entrance.
‘We’re too late,’ he said.
‘I can see that.’
Perspiration prickled across Clem’s skin, stinging in his various Laure-inflicted lesions. He set down their bags. In no time at all they had gone from a position of reasonable hope and security to one of total, unsalvageable disaster. He was not going home to his attic study to hide himself away among his designs and models; he was staying in Paris to be shelled and shot at by the Prussian army. It was a bizarre sensation, something like the bottom falling from a pail.
‘So what the devil do we do now? There’s no other way out. We’re trapped, Elizabeth – we’re bloody well trapped.’
Cool as a country church, Elizabeth Pardy swivelled on her heel and started back to the cab stand. ‘The Embassy,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘They will be able to advise us.’
The British Embassy was located in a large mansion-house behind the Champs Elysées. There was no flag above the door; a number of windows had been smashed and a detachment of French soldiers stood at the gate.
‘Your nocturnal antics aside,’ Elizabeth told Clem, ‘we
British are not popular in Paris at the moment. I’ve been hearing about it all night. The Queen is known to be on confidential terms with the Prussian royal family – Kaiser Wilhelm is her daughter’s father-in-law, for God’s sake – yet she has done nothing whatsoever to rein them in as they rampage through France and menace the capital.’ She asked directions from a soldier before heading inside. ‘I really can’t blame them for hating us, can you?’
Clem, lugging their bags, had no reply.
The embassy was extremely busy. Several dozen anxious Britons, mostly shop-keepers from the look of them, had collected in the ambassadorial courtyard, talking loudly of the Prussians and their famous guns. Elizabeth led Clem through a set of double doors, up a staircase and into a crowded reception room. Everyone was yelling and fuming and throwing their arms about. They demanded action, threatening all manner of repercussions; they called for their ambassador as one might for an insubordinate servant; they offered bribes, money, jewels, even houses, in exchange for safe passage out of Paris. Elizabeth was attempting to discover if any form of queue was being observed when a man climbed onto a chair on the other side of the room and asked for quiet. Straw-thin with a very English pair of mutton chops, he looked both harried and rather bored.
‘My name is Wodehouse,’ he announced in a flat voice. ‘I am in charge here in the absence of—’
‘Where’s that wretched ambassador?’ someone shouted.
‘Lord Lyons left for London yesterday.’
This provoked an explosion of discontent. ‘Treason!’ they cried. ‘Cowardice!’
‘And he advised you, ladies and gentlemen, he advised you in the strongest terms to do the same. You were given plenty of notice to leave. You have chosen to remain at your own risk.’
‘Well then, sir,’ a stout lady declared, ‘I shall go! I am an Englishwoman, and I shan’t be shut up like a beast in a pen! I shall just walk out of the nearest blessed gate, and let’s see our Fritz try to stop me!’
This met with a cheer. In moments a company of twenty or so had assembled, readying itself for a march through the Prussian lines.
‘Madam, before you take such a step,’ interjected Mr Wodehouse, ‘I must advise you that the provisional government has implemented a strict system of checkpoints, to be observed by all regular soldiery and militia of the French army. If you are apprehended outside the enceinte – either by them or by the Prussians – you might or might not be shot, depending on the circumstances.’
The bold company dissolved; the clamour around Mr Wodehouse resumed. Clem and Elizabeth looked at each other. This was useless. Without an ambassador to helm negotiations or petition the French authorities, none of them was going anywhere – via the official channels at least.
‘The Grand,’ Clem said. ‘We’ll keep our rooms on credit. Perhaps a scheme will be established for this very purpose. It’s worth a try. We can lie low and maybe in a few days they’ll—’
‘Credit that will be repaid how, Clement, exactly? A place like that will want some kind of guarantee.’
‘Surely your Mr Inglis would vouch for us. He’s well known there, isn’t he? Couldn’t we call on him and—’
His mother shook her head. ‘Out of the question.’
‘Why not? I mean, the fellow’s an absolute arse, that’s manifestly obvious, but we’re running rather short on options, wouldn’t you agree?’
Elizabeth made for the stairs, not speaking again until they had passed back through the embassy gate. The Champs Elysées lay across some litter-strewn gardens. It had the appearance of a drab, dusty fairground, its broad avenue jammed with stalls and carts, all draped in discoloured bunting. Many hundreds were milling about, mostly women and children from the workers’ districts, playing games and swapping gossip. Elizabeth came to a halt on the pavement. Eyes fixed on the crowds, she explained her refusal.
‘Last night, after we left Montmartre, my intercourse with Mr Inglis became a little difficult. A little heated. You may have gathered that there is a modicum of ill feeling between us; buried, perhaps, but very much present. He imagines that I once did him an injury, you see, decades ago now. It is complete claptrap – I was far more sinned against, Clement, than sinning – yet he insists on regarding me with a degree of bitterness, and welcomes any chance to disparage me.’
Clem was gaping at her, on the verge of revelation. Could Inglis be responsible for the letter – for their current peril? Had the Sentinel’s correspondent come across Hannah up in Montmartre, and then lured them there so that he might address this unfinished business with Elizabeth? More peculiar things had been done by men seeking to gain Mrs Pardy’s attention.
‘What – what did he say?’
Elizabeth sighed. ‘Mont made it clear that he thought I meant to remain in Paris – that our talk of departure was entirely false. He knows that I still have my contacts among the Parisian press, even after all these years. He believes that I came here to claim this siege as my next subject, and that this might draw notice from his own work.’ She pinched the wrist of her right glove, pulling it tight. ‘Apparently he has plans to publish a diary.’
Clem’s excitement ebbed; he put their cases on the pavement and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Inglis didn’t want Elizabeth in Paris – quite the opposite. He would hardly pen an anonymous letter urging her to visit.
‘An open exchange of views ensued, I take it?’
His mother’s expression grew positively icy. ‘You might say that. The scapegrace told me that I intended to take what was rightfully his in order to buff my faded star, as he put it. He informed me that all right-thinking people considered me to be—’
From over the treetops came the thud of a heavy impact. The chattering crowds went quiet. Several seconds passed, everything held in a strange suspension; then there was another, then three more, the sounds shaking through the bed of the city.
‘That’s cannon-fire,’ said Clem quickly. ‘That’s where all the bloody soldiers had gone, back on the rue Lafayette. Dear God, Elizabeth, the battle has begun.’
The Champs Elysées was defiant. The people gathered there were not fragile bourgeois worried about their personal safety or the preservation of their property. Liberated from factories and workshops and stoked with patriotic fervour, they were eager for a confrontation with the enemy. Bonnets emblazoned with tricolour cockades were launched into the air; young boys scaled trees in their dozens, barking like baboons.
‘À bas les Prussiens!’ everyone cried. ‘Vive la France!’
Clem took hold of his mother’s arm. ‘We need to find somewhere to stay. This is the best course open to us. Forget your rivalries for the moment. We need to talk with Mr Inglis.’
Elizabeth was gazing skyward, anger and pride wrestling with her common sense. Common sense prevailed; she removed her arm from Clem’s grasp and set off towards the boulevards.
Montague Inglis lived in a splendid apartment building barely a hundred yards from the boulevard des Capucines. He would not see them there, however; a note was sent down to the concierge’s desk saying that he would be in the lobby of the Grand Hotel at ten, where he was due to meet with a friend.
‘See how he tries to put me in my place,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Pathetic man.’
They passed an hour in a large cafe opposite the hotel. It was an elegant establishment, all polished brass, potted ferns and mosaic table-tops, and it was devoid of both waiters and customers. Their order was served by a woman in a brown velvet dress who Clem guessed was the proprietor’s wife; she quivered at each distant rumble of artillery, spilling his coffee into the saucer as she poured.
Little was said. Elizabeth wrote in her notebook, filling several pages. Clem sat staring out at the boulevard, paralysed by imaginings of the cafe’s wide windows shattering; the ornamental stonework being blown to powder; the great block of the Grand cracking and crumbling apart. His coffee went cold in its cup, a pastry lying untouched on a plate beside it.
Inglis was twenty minutes late for his meeting. They cornered him at the reception desk, at almost exactly the same spot where he’d greeted them the afternoon before.
‘Still in Paris then, Mrs P,’ he observed. ‘Can’t say I’m much surprised.’
The journalist’s clothes were smarter today, his coal-black coat cut long in the Imperial style. Clem, in his faded travelling suit, felt humble indeed beside him – as was surely Inglis’s intention. Elizabeth was not cowed in the least, though, stating without preamble that they had little money, nowhere to stay and required his assistance. Inglis’s eyes held a hint of scorn, but he seemed to find it amusing to play the charitable gentleman. Clem looked from one to the other, wondering what had happened between them. Could it have been some form of writers’ quarrel, back at the height of Elizabeth’s renown – or a romantic entanglement, after she’d been widowed? Inglis hardly struck Clem as his mother’s choice of paramour. Perhaps this had been the problem.
A manager was summoned with whom the Sentinel correspondent was particularly friendly. The two men reached an agreement and the Pardy luggage once more vanished behind the desk of the Grand.
Elizabeth’s gratitude was restricted to a brief nod. ‘You will lose nothing, Mont,’ she said. ‘I promise you that. I have funds enough in London to cover any bill that might be run up.’
This was patently untrue. Clem had been forced to pawn a pair of his late father’s silver ink pots just to pay for their travel and a single night’s accommodation. He began a silent inventory of their remaining possessions. By his reckoning, a stay in the Grand of anything over a fortnight would have them down to bedsteads and door handles.
The thump of faraway cannon sent a vibration through the hotel’s glass doors. Without speaking, the manager gathered up half a dozen ledgers and a cash-box and retreated to a backroom.
‘Mrs P,’ said Inglis, ‘since you are to remain with us, I must absolutely insist that you come on this morning’s jaunt. My friend and I are heading south, outside the wall. Word is that there’s quite the skirmish being fought up on the Châtillon plateau. What d’you say?’
Clem nearly grinned; this was an obvious ploy, designed to draw Elizabeth out into the open. By accepting Inglis’s invitation she would be effectively admitting a professional interest in the siege, confirming the suspicions he’d voiced the evening before. Clem thought of the notebook, of the many pages that had already been covered, and knew what her answer would be.
‘What else do I have to occupy me, Mont, now that you have been so kind as to help us secure our rooms?’ Elizabeth’s tone was good-humoured and utterly unapologetic. ‘I find that I have a keen desire to see something of these Prussians who are causing so much blessed inconvenience.’
Inglis laughed, a little too loudly; a contest had begun. ‘How wonderful,’ he said.
‘Shouldn’t we unpack first?’ Clem asked Elizabeth. ‘Take stock of the situation – get word to Han, maybe?’
His mother didn’t think so. ‘This may be a deciding moment, Clement. We must leave this minute. You can return to your new friend in Montmartre later on.’
Clem looked off into the hotel, a blush creeping up his neck. She’d seen through him yet again. He had indeed been thinking of slipping away to the boulevard de Clichy at some point, just to let Mademoiselle Laure know that he was still in town. If Elizabeth was going on this expedition, though, he would stick with her instead. Spectating at a battle sounded perfectly insane to him; he vowed to keep them within dashing distance of the French fortifications.
A man was watching them from the far side of the lobby, almost hidden behind a column. He wore a modern grey suit with a short jacket and a round-topped hat. At his feet were several bags and cases – more than one person could reasonably hope to carry. He appeared to be waiting.
‘Mr Inglis,’ Clem asked, ‘is that the fellow you’re here to meet, by any chance? Your friend?’
Inglis turned. ‘Why yes, so it is. Dear Lord, what’s he doing over there, lurking in the shadows?’
The journalist took a step in the man’s direction and launched into a stream of imperious French, his voice amplified by the lobby’s marble-clad emptiness. Clem could understand little of it, but Inglis sounded more like a displeased employer than any kind of friend. The man emerged from behind his column and went about picking up his baggage. He did this quickly and methodically, as if following a system. Across his back went a canvas sack containing what appeared to be tent poles; under his arm was tucked a black leather doctor’s bag; in each of his hands was a sturdy wooden box.
Clem suddenly realised what all this gear was. ‘A photographer,’ he said.
‘Indeed.’ Inglis moved closer to Elizabeth. ‘This is the chap from Montmartre I mentioned to you yesterday, Mrs P, the associate of the great Nadar. I have it in mind to commission him to capture certain scenes from the siege – views, key personages and so forth.’
Elizabeth responded with a taut smile. Photographs meant illustration; prints could be sent back to London, engraved and then reproduced in this diary Inglis was planning to publish. The inclusion of pictures brought a strong commercial advantage. Elizabeth, if she did put together a book of her own, couldn’t hope to do anything similar. She’d just been obliged to beg for Inglis’s help in securing her accommodation; she certainly wasn’t in a position to pay for original photographs. Inglis was well aware of this, of course. He was revelling in it.
The photographer drew near. Around thirty years old, he had the compact build of an athlete and bore his weighty equipment easily. His features were sharp and dark; his moustache long but neat, bleached a dusty brown by the sun. Inglis introduced him, in English, as Monsieur ÉÉmile Besson.
‘This fine lady here, Besson, is Mrs Elizabeth Pardy, the famous adventurer and authoress. You may recall her Notes and Reflections on the French Nation – caused quite a stir it did, back in the late forties.’ The journalist’s beard twitched. ‘And this is Clement, her son.’
Monsieur Besson’s small blue eyes went from Elizabeth to Clement. It was plain that he’d never heard the Pardy name before in his life. ‘Enchanté, Madame,’ he said. ‘Monsieur.’
Inglis ushered them towards the boulevard. Clem attempted to help Monsieur Besson with his camera – a solid Dallmeyer Sliding Box that looked like it had seen a lot of service – but was politely refused. Taking care to speak clearly, he revealed that he’d dabbled in photography himself and mentioned his regard for the portraits of Nadar. The Frenchman made a noncommittal reply. Photographers tended to come on a scale and Clem perceived that Inglis’s man fell very much at the scientific end. This Monsieur Besson’s interest was in chemical formulas and the specifics of lighting rather than aesthetical or theoretical matters. Clem could appreciate this; it was his inclination as well.
They ended up in opposite corners of the cab, one facing his mother and the other his prospective patron. Elizabeth and Inglis began a lively dialogue, discussing tactics and probable outcomes with an assurance that belied their obvious lack of knowledge. Any further communication with the photographer was impossible. Clem watched his mother for a minute as she talked, so ardent and so engaged with it all – and suspicion snapped open inside him like a spring lock. Had there been some truth to Inglis’s accusations? Had Elizabeth been intending to stay from the beginning and deliberately allowed them to become shut in? At that moment it seemed horribly likely. This warranted a reaction – a barbed comment if nothing else. Clem shifted on the cab’s thin cushions; he had no aptitude whatsoever for that sort of thing. He took out a cigarette and opened the window.
The sandbagged Louvre passed to the right; and then they were on a bridge, cutting across the nose of the Ile de la Cité. Clem smoked nervously, glancing at the barges and dredgers moored along the stone channel of the Seine. When he looked around again Besson was sketching in a pad of squared technical paper. The cab turned left, rocking on its suspension; Besson paused in his work and Clem glimpsed of some kind of valve, drawn with extraordinary exactness. What this might have to do with photography he hadn’t the faintest idea.
They wound through the lanes of the Latin Quarter, skirted the deserted gardens of the Luxembourg Palace and rolled over a series of broad starburst intersections. The streets grew busier as they got closer to the cannon-fire; it was as if Paris was being tilted gently southwards, its inhabitants rattling down through the boulevards like ball bearings in a child’s wooden maze. The cab slowed, taking its place in a long queue. By the time they were in sight of the enceinte they were hardly moving at all, caught in a jam to rival anything on Ludgate Hill. Farm carts loaded with forage were failing to get into the city; tumbrels loaded with cartridges were failing to get out. National Guard were everywhere. They stood about the streets like striking workers, drinking cups of wine in their spotless uniforms. Amid the general restlessness and impatience some were making strident declarations of their desire to die for their country, beating their chests as they demanded to be sent into battle.
‘Look at these fellows,’ sneered Inglis, ‘bright and clean in all the bravery of just-served-out clothing.’
Leaning from his window, he hailed a group of militia and asked a question. They answered him with vehement energy; even Clem could tell that things were not going well for France.
Elizabeth held out her hand for the notebook. ‘Clement, if you please.’
‘It would seem that a French division attacked a column of Prussians, but then broke apart when their fire was returned,’ his mother told him. ‘They are now fighting simply to retain their original position.’
She began to write and was soon absorbed. The cannons picked up beyond the wall, eliciting an anxious murmur from the crowds outside and a whinny from the cab’s horse, yet she barely reacted. What have you done, Clem wanted to shout at her; what have you let us in for, merely to boost your damned career? Last night had been a marvellous adventure, one to cherish, but this – the artillery, the bawling militia, the hordes of rampaging Prussians – this was really getting to be too much. The carriage had grown intolerably hot and cramped. He noticed that he was trembling; disposing of his cigarette, he placed his palms firmly on his kneecaps and splayed his fingers as wide as they would go. This brought no steadiness.
Inglis sat back from the window. ‘Dear me,’ he chortled, ‘not a very promising start! This’ll put a crack in the Parisians’ rather exalted sense of themselves.’ He nodded at his photographer. ‘No offence, Monsieur Besson.’
Besson wasn’t listening. ‘Mr Inglis,’ he said in accented English, putting away his sketch, ‘I have a notion. I shall head up to the circular railway. I can get a good view from there – of Montrouge, of the plateau. A fine picture could be taken in this light.’
Spying Elizabeth’s industry, Inglis had dug out a pencil of his own and was scribbling in the corner of an old theatre programme. ‘Capital, capital,’ he said. ‘Just be sure that you’re at that church on the rue du Château within the hour, d’you hear? I know what you’re like, Besson, wandering off wherever your fancy takes you.’
Dislike flickered across the photographer’s face as he slid a case from the luggage rack. He said nothing.
Clem saw a chance for escape. ‘I’ll come along to assist you, Monsieur Besson. I’ve put up a few photography tents in my time. I – I could use the air, to be quite honest.’
Elizabeth made no comment; she turned a page, touching the tip of her pencil against her tongue.
Besson eyed him with a marked lack of enthusiasm, but couldn’t come up with a reason to refuse. ‘Very well,’ he said.
The Paris circular railway ran along a steep-sided embankment a short distance from the city wall. Besson’s pace didn’t change as he went from the street to the slope; Clem, despite having only been given the doctor’s bag to carry, soon fell far behind. When he reached the top Besson had already assembled his tent poles and was shaking free the canvas cover. Clem panted across the train tracks towards him.
‘So there it is,’ he gasped, setting the doctor’s bag down next to the camera, ‘a deuced battle.’
They were up above the rooftops, perched on the very edge of Paris. Directly in front of them were the fortifications, heavy ramparts of earth and stone crowded with National Guard. Just outside the city gates lay a village, Montrouge Clem assumed, its lanes blocked by stationary carts. Beyond, perhaps a mile away, was the chain of forts on which the defence of the capital depended. He could see three of them, brownish mounds heaped upon the smooth farmland like shovelfuls of clay. Past this everything grew indistinct, enveloped in a haze of sunlight and vapour; but off to the west a low plateau was boiling with dust, threads of black smoke trailing from the village atop it. Around the buildings was the shifting grey-blue stain of a large body of men, moving at speed as they obeyed some unknown command. Rifles crackled; artillery hammered out a lopsided beat. It was easier to take than Clem had anticipated. The alarm he’d felt in the carriage was allayed, more or less; he even felt an odd invigoration. He lit a cigarette and watched.
Beside him, Besson was hard at work. The Frenchman’s suit rustled as he moved. It was made from some kind of fire-retardant material, with scorch-marks on the jacket cuffs and waistcoat – curious garb for a photographer.
‘Tell me, Monsieur,’ Clem asked, ‘what particular composition do you have in mind? The action seems a touch too distant to me.’
Besson just waved vaguely at the landscape before taking a mallet and tent pegs from his canvas sack. There was something hurried about his actions; this was a man eager to dispense with a chore.
‘How many images is Mr Inglis planning to include?’
The photographer crouched to knock in a peg. ‘Who can say what that fool might want?’
Clem smiled. ‘He’s an old acquaintance of my mother’s, you know.’
‘They are opponents. It is plain. He plans to keep her close to make sure she does not get ahead of him.’
The smile faded. ‘Yes, well, you may be onto something there . . .’
‘Both are here to feast on our defeat, our misery.’ Besson moved from one corner of the tent to another. He sounded more sad than angry. ‘Vultures on the carcass of France.’
‘I suppose that I am a vulture too then, Monsieur Besson?’
‘I don’t know what you are,’ Besson said. He drove the final peg all the way into the ground with a single blow from his mallet. ‘What are you?’
Clem raised his hands, indicating his harmlessness. ‘Merely a brother, Monsieur, motivated by concern for his sister. She lives in Montmartre – that’s why we came. Why I came, at least. And I thought I’d be long gone by now, believe me.’ A shell sparked in the distance, the sound of the blast reaching them a second later. ‘I certainly never imagined that I’d be seeing anything like this.’
The photographer walked around his tent: basic enough, but it would serve. He took in the view for a few moments, then he set up a tripod, attached his Dallmeyer and slotted in a focusing screen.
‘She is not with you, though, this sister,’ he said, ducking under the hood to operate the sliding-box mechanism. ‘Could you not find her?’
‘Oh, we found her all right, tucked in the seediest corner of the seediest dive – and having a bloody whale of a time.’ Clem’s laugh rang hollow. ‘We thought that she might have need of us, Monsieur, but it swiftly transpired that she very much did not. There’s a man involved, you understand. Some red from the provinces named Jean-Jacques Allix.’
The hood was whipped back. Besson looked at him with new interest. ‘I know of him. I have heard him speak.’ He made a connection. ‘Your sister is his Anglaise. The painter.’
‘That she is.’ Clem drew on his cigarette. ‘I suppose she must cut a pretty distinctive figure.’
‘Plein-air painters are becoming common in Montmartre. It is a cheap place to live.’ Besson worked a leather cap over the camera lens and picked up the doctor’s bag. The faintest patch of colour had appeared on his cheek. ‘But a woman, and a foreigner as well – this is not so common.’
‘Have you actually met Hannah, Monsieur Besson? Are you two acquainted?’
‘Yes – no.’ The photographer started for the tent, avoiding Clem’s eye as he passed. ‘We have spoken on a couple of occasions. Only pleasantries. I see her, though, in the lanes and gardens. At her easel.’
Besson was talking quickly, as if attempting to deny something. Clem hid his amusement. It could safely be asserted that this photographer numbered among his sister’s Parisian admirers; the poor cove couldn’t even begin to disguise it. He turned to the tent. Besson was kneeling within, frowning slightly as he mixed his solutions. Keen to advance the conversation, sensing that he’d given himself away, he asked about Clem and Elizabeth’s original plan.
‘You meant to leave today, did you not, but have been trapped in with us.’ The Frenchman slid a glass negative plate from its case. ‘Why did you arrive in Paris so late, Mr Pardy? Surely you could have come for your sister a week ago. Why take such a risk?’
‘We wouldn’t have come at all had we not been summoned. Han is not overly fond of surprise visits.’
Clem paused; he tapped off a half-inch of ash and gave Besson the whole sad story, from the arrival of the letter in St John’s Wood to their restitution in the Grand Hotel that morning. He’d never been one for holding things back; and besides, he’d gained a definite impression that this fellow might be able to help. The photographer was pretty astute, that much was clear, despite his curtness. His perspective, as a resident of Montmartre who knew a little of Hannah’s life, could be exactly what was required.
If any original observation occurred to Monsieur Besson, however, he kept it to himself. While Clem rambled on he set about preparing his negative plate, coating it with treaclelike collodion, dipping it in silver nitrate and transporting it carefully to the camera.
‘It is good that you are still here, Monsieur,’ he said when Clem had finished, as he pushed in the plate. ‘Your sister may have need of you yet.’
Clem remembered his minute-long exchange with Hannah the previous evening. ‘She would disagree with you there, old man,’ he replied with a rueful chuckle. ‘She would most certainly disagree.’
Besson said no more. Taking off the lens cap, he wordlessly counted down the five seconds needed for an exposure; then he replaced the cap, slid out the plate and retreated again to his tent.
A cry rose from the gates, down in front of their position. Between the houses and the fortifications, Clem could see a dozen or so French infantrymen being led back into the city. They were young, as was every regular soldier in Paris it seemed, and they were plainly under arrest, their hands bound and their faces raw and bloody. Some had placards around their necks; they were deserters, those who’d fled under fire, being returned for punishment. The crowed jeered and spat, throwing whatever bits of rubbish they could find. Clem dropped his cigarette into the dirt and scraped over it with his boot. The battle had been brought disconcertingly close.
Besson emerged from the tent with the dripping negative in his hand. The image captured on the glass was visible against the pale canvas of the tent-flap. It was a failure, the contrast too strong: black rooftops and fortifications in the foreground with little else but whiteness beyond. Besson flexed his wrist and spun the plate towards the railway line, where it shattered against an iron track. He unbuttoned his jacket and sat down heavily on the grass.
‘It is no use. I am no photographer.’
‘Come now,’ said Clem, trying to be consolatory, ‘you know the process well enough. And you have this fine camera.’
‘It is not mine. I borrowed it. I needed the money.’ Besson laughed mirthlessly. ‘Foolish.’
‘But you’re an associate of the great Nadar, are you not? Surely that counts for something?’
‘Not with photographs. I let the idiot Inglis think this so that he would employ me. My association with Nadar is in a very different sphere.’ Besson pushed back his hat and with some pride said, ‘I am an aérostier, Monsieur. A member of the Société d’Aviation.’
Clem was dumbstruck. Why the devil hadn’t he realised this sooner? It was virtually bloody signposted. The brittle Monsieur Besson had a clear scientific leaning, yet was also practical in manner and rather weather-beaten: the exact type drawn to ballooning. That strange suit had obviously been made to withstand the mishaps commonly endured by the aeronautical gentleman. The sketch he’d been working on in the cab had been of a gas valve for a balloon.
And then there was his link with Nadar, who had once been quite a name in ballooning circles, almost as prominent as he was among photographers. An exhibition of his innovations at the Crystal Palace a few years ago had inspired in Clem a brief mania for all things air-bound; a bundle of designs for winged dirigibles was still stowed under his bed in St John’s Wood. At the peak of his accomplishments, however, Nadar had been forcibly and very publicly removed from the heavens. There had been an accident on the North Sea coast, with serious injuries – Madame Nadar had only just escaped with her life. Many had chosen to regard it as divine punishment for hubris; Nadar had gone back to his photographs like a man chastened.
‘I thought he’d given it up. You know, after the crash.’
‘He has recovered his nerve,’ Besson said. ‘Nadar considers the balloon, the French mastery of free ballooning, to be a valuable weapon against our enemy. More so, certainly, than the photograph.’ The aérostier turned towards the city. ‘He is airborne now. Right there, above the Buttes Montmartre.’
Clem followed Besson’s pointing finger. Suspended over Paris, over the golden domes and ancient spires and grand boulevards, was a single white sphere, so tiny that it hurt the eyes to pick it out. The basket beneath, the men inside, could not be seen. It looked like a moon that had been fished from the firmament and roped to the earth. Clem stared; he took off his hat. Merely thinking of what it might be like up there, floating alone in that boundless sky, left him dazzled with terror and elation.
‘That one is fixed, of course – for observation only,’ Besson told him, ‘but we have our plans.’
‘Such as what?’ Clem demanded. His mind teemed with visions of bombs being tossed from baskets into the depths of the Prussian positions; of crack troops being delivered straight into the enemy’s headquarters; of cavalry detachments strapped beneath balloons, their hooves dangling in the air. ‘Do tell, Monsieur Besson!’
The Frenchman’s mouth curved downwards, forming a sort of reluctant smile – the first indication that anything resembling a sense of humour might exist within him. ‘We will fly out letters, dispatches, orders to the armies in the provinces. We will bring France together. The Prussians will not silence us, Mr Pardy. We will get word to the world of what they are doing.’
Clem nodded, a little disappointed by this answer. ‘And will you pilot one of these craft yourself?’
‘I will not. We are going to launch a great many balloons, more than the Prussians can count – or chase. Several shops are being set up to make them. There is to be one close to the place Saint-Pierre, in fact, in an abandoned dancing school. That is why I am living there. I shall oversee the work. Train the men who are to fly.’
A balloon workshop in a Montmartre dancing school! It was like one of Clem’s own schemes brought to life. He held out a hand to help the aérostier back to his feet.
‘Monsieur Besson,’ he said, ‘this I really have to see.’
The Café Géricault was on the rue des Acacias, a hundred yards from the place Saint-Pierre. Time was short – the march would be leaving for the boulevards at any moment
– but Hannah could not ignore this. It was Lucien who’d directed her there. She’d encountered him in a bustling passage, quite by chance; clothing in disarray, missing his hat and one of his boots, he’d been so battered by drink that he appeared close to expiration. Having rejected her proposal that he join the march in the bluntest terms, he’d informed her that her twin brother had popped up again, not two streets away.
‘He’s with somebody, over in the Géricault,’ the painter had croaked. ‘One of Nadar’s men, I believe. Now please, Hannah dearest, could you possibly lend me five sons?’
The long room was so full that the bar itself was hidden from sight. Between the cafe’s peeling walls the noise of the lanes was concentrated, amplified fourfold; the mostly male clientele were drinking wine, coffee and spirits, and smoking as if the city’s tobacco reserves faced imminent confiscation. Clement wasn’t difficult to locate. Off to the left, against one of the frosted front windows, he stood out from the locals like a dusty brown beagle in a pack of whippets. There it was – Hannah’s mother and brother were still in Paris. They had been caught in the Prussian encirclement, as Jean-Jacques had said back in the shed. The sense of overpowering calamity she’d been expecting did not come. Given everything that was happening, in fact, their presence seemed almost inconsequential. Even Elizabeth Pardy would surely be dwarfed by the siege of Paris.
Clem was talking earnestly with a grey-suited man who had the look of a railway engineer or the humbler class of physician. This person was familiar – Hannah felt that she’d seen him about Montmartre, maybe even spoken with him
– but he didn’t really seem to belong in the Géricault either. Clem and he were a pair of misfits together. Hannah started pushing towards them. They noticed her when she was about halfway over – and to her surprise the man in grey promptly took his leave. Their eyes met as he crossed to the door. He lifted his hat; his expression was hard to read, somehow both evasive and enquiring.
Clem arrived before her. ‘Don’t be cross, Han. Promise you won’t. We missed the train, that’s all. Well – to be honest, I’m not wholly sure that there was a train to miss. Stupid, I know, damned stupid. And now we’re in for it, along with the rest of you.’
‘What are you doing in Montmartre?’ Hannah was calm
– very slightly apprehensive, but nothing more. ‘Shouldn’t you be trying to find shelter in the centre of town?’
‘All sorted out.’ Clem laughed. ‘Two good rooms at the Grand Hotel on an indefinite lease. Conjured, I might add, from thin bloody air.’
Hannah recalled Jean-Jacques’s prediction in that alleyway across from the Danton: She’ll be well. Bourgeois like her always are.
‘I’ve just had the most extraordinary morning, as a matter of fact,’ Clem continued. ‘I saw a battle, Han. I saw it unfold right there in front of me.’ He peered after his departed companion. ‘And I made the acquaintance of a truly fascinating fellow. He’s an aérostier, would you believe, an honest-to-God balloonist. Émile Besson is his name. He lives here in Montmartre – says he’s talked to you before, actually, while you’ve been out painting.’
This was feasible. Many on the Buttes assumed that an artist at an easel must be lonely and would insist upon supplying conversation. Hannah thought of the letter. She’d been abrupt with a couple of these people in the past, and may well have caused offence. Had she acquired a foe in Clem’s Monsieur Besson without realising it – without really knowing who he was?
‘I remember those plans you used to draw,’ she said, ‘the bat-wings and screw propellers and so on. It was a fixation, Clem, even for you.’
‘Yes, well, Elizabeth wasn’t keen on that one. Not at all. Far too much cash involved.’
Hannah crossed her arms. ‘Where is she?’
‘Back at the Grand, writing away busily I expect. She sees a book in this little episode – one that will prise her from the doldrums at last.’ Clem hesitated. ‘D’you know, Han, I can’t help but think that she might have anticipated our present predicament and not done . . . overmuch to prevent it.’
Hannah agreed. ‘She’ll have had this outcome in mind from the very beginning. From the moment she decided to make the trip.’
There was a roar in the street, and a discordant blast from a trumpet. Heads turned; the patrons of the Géricault raised their fists and shouted their support.
‘What about you?’ Clem asked over the noise. ‘Where’s that man of yours – the revolutionary?’
Hannah could tell from his voice that Jean-Jacques had been discussed in some detail. ‘He’s outside, gathering our friends – the people of Montmartre. We’re going to the place de la Concorde. To the Strasbourg.’
Clem’s face was blank. ‘Another bar?’
‘A statue,’ corrected Hannah with a smile, ‘representing the city. It’s the capital of Alsace, a province occupied by the Prussians. Strasbourg has been under a heavy siege for the past four weeks yet is holding fast. She is an example
– a noble example for Paris to follow.’
A party of guardsmen, overhearing the Alsatian city’s sacred name, began to bellow it up at the ceiling, along with extravagant boasts about their fortitude and the pain that awaited their enemy. This served as a signal; customers began to flow from the Géricault, adding themselves to the current that coursed along the rue des Acacias.
‘I shall come,’ said Clem impulsively. ‘I shall come with you, Han, and see what all this is about. You can introduce me to your Monsieur Allix.’
Hannah’s smile grew uneasy. Seeing Clem like this, talking with him after such a long absence, had reminded her that she loved her brother, but what he was suggesting would surely ruin everything. She’d strived to disguise her background, modulating her accent and every aspect of her behaviour, smoothing herself into this community as best she could. The sight of Clement Pardy parading at her side, so genial and curious and so very English, would undo her labours at once. She didn’t have it in her to send him back to Elizabeth, however; heart like a lump of pig iron, she nodded towards the door.
Raoul Rigault was passing on the rue des Acacias – a stocky, full-bearded man of twenty-five in a discoloured black suit, loudly promising the crowds all manner of unlikely things. Rigault was a radical agitator from Montparnasse, a political ally of Jean-Jacques’s, renowned both for his dedication to their cause and his casual mistreatment of women. He always paid Hannah a little too much attention
– standing too close when they spoke, holding onto her hand for a few seconds too long, touching his tongue against his upper lip as she answered his questions. Spotting her now he sidled over, flanked by a mixed gang of black suits and militia uniforms, and tried to snake an arm around her waist. She squirmed away with a curse, tearing off his kepi and casting it on the cobbles.
Rigault bent down to retrieve it. ‘Citizen Pardy,’ he grinned, slapping the cap into shape and fitting it over his shaggy, unwashed head, ‘are you ready for what needs to be done?’
Hannah had lost count of the number of times she’d been asked this. ‘I am, Rigault. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.’
The agitator regarded her with mock admiration. ‘If only the rest of Paris could partake of your bravery. Why, this very morning French soldiers fled from the enemy – Imperial Zoaves no less, casting aside their rifles and running like chastened children. The curs should be bound to posts atop the enceinte, should they not, and made to weather the Prussian artillery.’ He turned to Clem, who was trying in vain to follow their conversation. ‘This must be your brother. I’d heard he was in the city. Quite the rosbif, isn’t he – rosbif to the damned bone!’ A bushy eyebrow arched. ‘Makes one wonder how you yourself must have been, before Paris sank her teeth into you.’
As Hannah was considering her response, a young woman shoved her way through Rigault’s gang and leaped onto Clem. They collided heavily with the window of the Géricault; she began to kiss him with an abandon that anywhere else would have been thought nakedly indecent, but here met with claps and whistles. It was Laure Fleurot, dressed in an approximation of National Guard uniform: a kepi, double-breasted tunic and pantaloons, all in dark blue. One of Clem’s hands remained outstretched, the fingers slowly contracting, as if half hoping that someone would seize hold and drag him to safety.
Hannah’s guilt returned. She’d left Clem at Laure’s mercy and this was the result. She’d been quite wrong: of course her feckless brother had been unable to repel such a woman. The cocotte had worked her devices – bound Clem up in grubby silken cord. It felt deliberate, as if he’d been singled out. It felt suspicious.
There was a coldness between Hannah and Laure, growing slowly closer to open enmity. The origins of it were in that portrait, now more than two months old. Laure had come to the rue Careau to sit, and it had gone well indeed. The cocotte had talked about her time in the ballet schools; how she’d been expelled after one of the masters had seduced her, forcing her to adapt both her style and her expectations to the dancing halls. There’d been no self-pity to this tale. Laure had seemed largely satisfied with her lot. Hannah had respected her resilience and enjoyed her coarse humour – only discovering after she’d gone that fifteen francs had been taken from her drawer, along with several pairs of stockings and an ivory comb. Laure had denied this theft vehemently when they’d met by accident in the Moulin de la Galette a few days later. There had been a brand new hat perched on her head, though, and paste diamonds glinting in her ears.
Hannah caught her breath: Laure Fleurot sent the letter that had summoned her family to Paris. It was obvious. The cocotte was certainly capable of such a step. Numerous morsels of Montmartre gossip attested to her malicious, unforgiving nature. She’d have hired someone to pen the letter itself, naturally; she no doubt pulled tricks like this all the time and would know the best people in the city for such work. The purpose would have been the mortal embarrassment of Hannah – the humbling of one who’d besmirched her name, albeit with complete justification. Upon Clem and Elizabeth’s appearance, Laure had plainly decided to seduce the brother to cement the scheme. What better way to ensure that a gauche English brother would be hanging around Montmartre throughout these critical days, making Hannah look ridiculous? Like most of her kind, the cocotte was also an out-and-out mercenary; she’d be watching for a chance to wring whatever she could from the Pardy family. While investigating Hannah’s past she’d have learned that Elizabeth had once been rich and famous, and had probably assumed that there’d be gold for the taking. In that, at least, she was in for a disappointment.
Hannah resolved to haul Laure off her brother and demand a confession. Before she could act, however, a company of drunken National Guard burst from the Géricault. They hailed Rigault with great enthusiasm, sweeping the agitator and his gang back into the main body of the march. Hannah was carried along with them; there were three bodies between her and Clem, then three dozen. She could see him still, just about – the kiss had finished, but he was utterly upended, protesting his innocence as the cocotte accused him of something, stabbing her forefinger against his chest.
Rigault was eyeing Laure approvingly. ‘Conquered,’ he declared, ‘by a warrior princess. By an angel in uniform.’
Hannah turned away, pulling her canvas jacket tightly around her and buttoning it to the neck. ‘Why is she in uniform? Are the National Guard taking women now?’
‘She’s a vivandière. They’re attached to Guard companies to supply food, wine, bandages . . . and various other services. Their recruitment is a priority, I understand. Someone of Mademoiselle Laure’s indisputable abilities was not about to go to waste.’
‘You know her well, then?’
Rigault chuckled. ‘Citizen, Laure Fleurot is a celebrated lady in Montparnasse – a celebrated lady indeed. Circumstances may have compelled her to move on, but the mere mention of her name is still enough to make grown men weep with longing.’ He looked around again. ‘I suppose it’s the turn of Montmartre now. Or rather your brother, the lucky dog.’
‘She’s using him,’ Hannah said.
The agitator straightened his necktie. ‘I was once used in that fashion,’ he confided. ‘It was divine.’
From the outset this march was different. The sky had clouded over, bleeding what light and colour was left from the lanes. Beneath the pounding of the marchers’ drums was the dull boom of cannon-fire; no longer confined to the south, it now came from every direction, gathering in both pace and volume. As Hannah left the Buttes Montmartre, moving onto broader, straighter streets, she saw teams of military engineers felling trees to widen the thoroughfares for the passage of heavy guns. She heard the rasp of long saws, along with shouts and sudden cracks; a shudder ran through a mature beech and it toppled over, its globe of golden leaves collapsing as it crashed into the mud.
The people were unbowed, but in place of their usual jubilation and patriotic fervour was an angry unrest. There was just one topic of conversation among them: the crushing defeat dealt to the French forces at Châtillon . Details of the action were sketchy. Hannah heard it said that the French regiments had fired on each other in their panic; that they’d bolted at the first peal of the Prussian artillery, as Raoul Rigault had claimed. All sorts of retribution were being promised, against Prussian and cowardly Frenchman alike.
Hannah had marched more times than she could recall; it was one of the experiences barely known to her before Jean-Jacques that was now among the better parts of her life. She found an intense joy in surrendering herself to the multitude, blurring into an entity that was huge and ancient and unstoppable. That afternoon, however, she was distracted, beset with fears for Clement. Her twin had become doubly ensnared. He was caught in besieged Paris, a city in which he really didn’t belong; and he was caught between the thighs of a deceitful cocotte who sought only to bend him to her wicked ends. She expected them to be at the front of the procession – Laure displaying her prize, inviting him to wave at his sister and show everyone what Hannah Pardy really was. They weren’t there, though; no one she asked had seen them. It was as if they’d been lost, left back on the Buttes. This would surely run against Laure’s plan. It defied understanding.
Jean-Jacques appeared through a screen of banners, about halfway down the rue des Martyrs. They’d missed their rendezvous in Montmartre; the crowds had simply been too dense, too determined in their progress down to the centre. He was in conference with some well-known radicals – ageing veterans of the 1848 uprising, peripatetic speakers from the provinces, the proprietors of red newspapers banned under Louis Napoleon – a ragtag group of extremists and eccentrics over whom he towered in every sense. Noticing Hannah, he made an excuse and came to walk alongside her.They met as comrades but stood very close, his arm brushing gently across her back. There was a new pin in his lapel, enamelled with the number 197 – a battalion number.
‘I have accepted a commission,’ he said. ‘I am a major in the National Guard.’
Hannah looked up at his face – at the scar carved so deeply into his jaw that it had nicked the bone beneath. She found herself imagining what fresh injuries might await him outside the city wall, but buried these thoughts immediately: she would not play the hysterical lover, screaming and begging and tearing at her hair. Jean-Jacques was a soldier and the battle for Paris had begun. He had to fight.
The march cut across the rue Lafayette, merging messily with another coming down from the north-east. They’d reached the boulevard des Italiens – the grandest part of town. The workers’ chants echoed off the massive buildings; their boots rumbled over acres of smooth asphalt. Off to their left was the premises of a picture dealer Hannah had petitioned for several months soon after her arrival in Paris, trying without success to get the man to take on a single small canvas. The once-sumptuous shop now had a barren aspect, its wide window iron-clad and blank. Across the door, in red letters a foot high, someone had daubed the old revolutionary slogan: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Jean-Jacques was up on a bench. ‘The Imperial army may have failed today,’ he proclaimed, ‘but the people have not failed. We will save this luxury and bourgeois wealth from the Prussians. We will save it, my friends, and then we will see it apportioned fairly, for the benefit of all!’ He pointed along the boulevard, in the direction of the place de la Concorde. ‘To the Strasbourg! City of my forefathers – a steadfast people, inspiring us with their resistance! Showing us what can be done – that these Prussians can be held back! To the Strasbourg!’
Those around echoed his call: To the Strasbourg! Their black-clad leader returned to the street, unruffled by his impromptu address; Hannah felt his hand rest briefly on her hip.
‘We should hurry,’ he said.
Ahead of them now, on the western corner of the place de l’Opéra, was the Paris Grand. The hotel looked deserted, a majestic hulk adrift among the crowds. They pushed on past the long row of plate-glass doors, already opaque with grime; and then a voice sliced through the shouts and the singing, calling Hannah’s name with commanding clarity. Elizabeth.
Hannah hadn’t been worried. She’d assumed that her mother would still be somewhere in the outer regions of the city, seeking adventure and noteworthy sights – that the chances of them seeing her were simply too remote to bother about. This had obviously been a mistake. A neat blue-grey hat was moving around a Morris column covered with tattered theatre bills; Elizabeth had been lying in wait outside her hotel and must have seen Jean-Jacques make his pronouncement from the bench. Behind her was a lean, bearded man, smartly dressed, wearing a jet topper and an aloof air. They closed in fast, preventing escape. Elizabeth kissed Hannah’s cheek and shook Jean-Jacques’s hand – appearing to note the feel of his artificial fingers as she did so.
‘Your scheme worked,’ Hannah said, scarcely keeping her temper in check. ‘You are here with us after all.’
Elizabeth gave her a cool smile before addressing Jean-Jacques. ‘Monsieur Allix, I must ask – are the workers marching against the Prussians today, or the men who have set themselves up in the Hôtel de Ville?’
To Hannah’s surprise, Jean-Jacques answered in serviceable English. ‘We wish to beat our enemy, Madame. We wish for revenge. It can be done.’
His accent was strange, a mix of Alsatian and American; Hannah guessed that he must have learned something of the language while fighting for the Union. Elizabeth tried to revert to French – which she clearly spoke better than he did English – but he insisted with a politeness that was faintly confrontational.
Hannah could only watch helplessly. The conversation that she’d managed to prevent in the Danton was coming to pass. The two great figures of her life were meeting on a Paris pavement. They made for a peculiar pair. The authoress and lady traveller, polished and poised despite her poverty, seemed as always to have some other goal in mind, some hidden purpose; whereas the political visionary was being courteous but distinctly guarded, his hands crossed before him like a stone knight in a crypt. Hannah honestly couldn’t foresee how their exchange might unfold.
‘Our government, however,’ Jean-Jacques continued, ‘this provisional cabinet who have taken over from the emperor
– they are not so determined.’
Elizabeth had assumed an absorbed expression, ignoring the jostling of passing workers. ‘Do you think they will attempt to make peace with the Prussians, Monsieur?’
‘They are rich men. Rich men never wish to fight. They care only for gold – for their business.’
This was said briskly, as if Elizabeth was a part of the problem he described, but she was nodding along in agreement. ‘What action will you take if the provisional government does move towards surrender?’
Jean-Jacques inclined his head, as if to say: there would be consequences. ‘“The goddess of revolt”,’ he recited, ‘“is the mother of all liberty.”’
As Elizabeth tried to place this quote, dropping a sheaf of famous socialistic names in the process, a vigorous new chant started up around them, telling Prussia to prepare coffins for her sons. The march gathered speed.
‘We must get to the Strasbourg,’ said Jean-Jacques. ‘Excuse me, Madame Pardy.’
And so their discussion ended. Jean-Jacques was away, catching Hannah’s eye for an instant as he stepped from the kerb; he’d been civil but dismissive, as if Elizabeth Pardy was not in the least bit interesting or important. Hannah made to bid her mother farewell and follow him – but as she opened her mouth to speak Elizabeth’s grey-gloved fingers locked around her arm.
‘Lead on, girl,’ she said. ‘You must show me the best place to stand.’
Hannah stiffened, cursing inwardly; she should have anticipated this. Elizabeth had attended many popular demonstrations during her career, in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere – her published accounts of them, of her intrepid exploits at the heart of them, had been one of the pillars of her fame. If Jean-Jacques’s manner had offended her she gave no sign of it; she had the firm satisfaction of somebody for whom everything was going to plan. Her top-hatted companion positioned himself to their rear. He was markedly less pleased to be joining the procession. Hannah knew his kind – he was one of Elizabeth’s journalists. Men like him had once dandled her on their knees; quizzed her constantly on topics of general knowledge; and then, from her early adolescence, subjected her to a barrage of lechery, often before her mother’s unconcerned gaze.
‘Montague Inglis of the Sentinel,’ Elizabeth informed her. ‘He’s proving a little more useful than he looks.’
Mr Inglis touched his hat-brim. ‘Charmed, Miss Pardy,’ he said. ‘Truly.’
Hannah didn’t react. She was stuck with her mother once again: pinioned to her side as they marched down the boulevard des Capucines. It was almost too ghastly to be real. The hopes she’d entertained in the Café Géricault now seemed quite ridiculous. Elizabeth Pardy would not be dwarfedby the siege of Paris. She’d strut about the beleaguered city as if it was a private pleasure park.
National Guard were everywhere, uniformed men saluting, hugging, making the usual pledges of brotherhood until death. Jean-Jacques was soon off among them. Left behind with Elizabeth and Mr Inglis, these bourgeois foreigners, Hannah weathered more slurs and hostile stares than she’d done for some months.
‘Heavens, Hannah,’ Elizabeth said, oblivious to this antipathy, ‘I do believe that you have fallen in with an authentic socialist revolutionary!’
‘Told you, Mrs P, didn’t I,’ chipped in Mr Inglis, ‘there’s a red plague in Paris, a regular contagion. Just look at this rabble.’
‘They want change,’ Hannah told him tersely. ‘A purging of the old evils. Fairness after the Empire.’
Inglis snorted. ‘A purging indeed!’
Elizabeth squeezed her arm. ‘I appreciate that, my girl. I applaud it, most enthusiastically.’ She glanced at the inflammatory phrases scrawled on the buildings; the shuttered windows and barred doors; the multitude of red flags. ‘But this is beginning to look rather serious. It might proceed in all manner of grave directions.’
‘Are you trying to scare me, Elizabeth? Was that to be your strategy to convince me to return to London?’
A tiny line bisected Elizabeth’s brow. ‘I made my journey because I believed you were in trouble. Any mother would have done the same.’
‘You are not any mother. You are not—’ Hannah took a breath. This wouldn’t help. ‘You must see that I’d never have gone with you. Paris is my home now.’
‘I can see, certainly, that there is much to keep you here.’ Elizabeth looked at Jean-Jacques. ‘He’s a fine one, I must say. Quite extraordinary. Mars in a plain black suit.’ Her lip curled. ‘Your virtue, I suppose, is but a fading recollection?’
Hannah flinched; she’d grown unused to such questions. Elizabeth’s attitude towards intimate matters had always been stark in its pragmatism – and far more direct than anyone who believed themselves respectable would accept. There had been a couple of uncomfortable incidents in Hannah’s youth, errors made while conversing in general society, before she’d fully understood how irregular her upbringing had been. Her mother plainly remained beyond shock or embarrassment and was expecting a full disclosure. She decided that she would not provide it.
Elizabeth was studying her with shrewd fondness. ‘I thought as much,’ she said, as if an answer had been supplied. ‘This is Paris, after all. Was Monsieur Allix actually the one to—’ She stopped, seeming to rebuke herself. ‘It is not my place to ask. I only hope you have obtained the correct preparations.’
‘You’ve been to my house, Elizabeth. You’ve poked through my things. What do you think?’
‘By Jupiter,’ murmured Mr Inglis, ‘what kind of a family is this?’
‘I think,’ Elizabeth said, ‘that your bond with this man is still recent, and perhaps a little cautious. He doesn’t actually live in the shed with you, does he? No, of course he doesn’t
– a noble specimen like that would hardly consent to dwell among Madame Lantier’s courgettes.’ She took Hannah’s hand in hers; the palm of her old suede glove was rubbed smooth. ‘You are grown at last. It is so marvellous to see. Returning to Paris has brought back such memories of my own residence here . . . dear Lord, more than twenty years ago now. We weren’t in Montmartre, but somewhere very like it. A band of us occupied the same house. It was a heady time – the country was changing fast, as it is today, despotism giving way to freedom, and we gave everything we had to it.’
Hannah snatched back her hand. ‘Are you honestly saying that I remind you of yourself? I came here to work, Elizabeth, not be passed around by long-haired poets!’
Her mother’s smile didn’t waver. ‘And what work you have done. You are thriving in Paris, my girl. The liberty of the place has nourished you.’ She surveyed the march. ‘There are real benefits to be derived, you know, from situations such as these. I don’t suppose that you have considered this.’
And there it was, exactly as Hannah would have forecast: they’d been together for less than five minutes and Elizabeth was attempting to reclaim control. The procession had slowed to a halt before the columns of the Madeleine, too swollen to fit down the rue Royale. As they waited for this jam to clear Elizabeth imparted her advice. It took a predictable path. For one who hadn’t set foot in France for almost twenty years she knew a great deal about the Paris art world, the naturalist style Hannah had adopted and the whereabouts of its most prominent practitioners.
‘The grand prize, naturally, is Monsieur Manet. He is the head of your school, is he not? Creator of the Olympia? I gather that he does much to promote women artists – even ensuring that his female protégés are exhibited alongside him in the Salon.’ Elizabeth’s tone grew reproving. ‘To be frank, Hannah, you should really be on friendly terms with him already.’
Hannah kicked at a fresh crack in the asphalt. She’d vowed that the only way she’d ever encounter Edouard Manet and his set would be if they sought her out after noticing her pictures at the Salon exhibition – for which her submissions had now been rejected two years in a row. There was no chance at all of her mother being able to understand this. She said nothing.
Elizabeth let it pass. ‘Never mind, this could more than compensate. Sieges tend to break down the barriers of ordinary acquaintance. Now, Monsieur Manet used to be commonly found in the Café Guerbois in Les Batignolles. I believe that it has closed, however, and its regular patrons taken flight, a fair number of Manet’s friends among them. They say that he has enlisted in the National Guard, in the artillery – I’m sure we can discover where he is stationed. He’ll no doubt be feeling isolated and starved of artistic conversation. Obtain a pretty gown, Hannah, and perhaps the services of a hairdresser. Take along one or two of those canvases I saw in that shed. It could transform your fortunes entirely.’
This speech was unpleasantly familiar. Hannah shrugged off her mother’s arm. ‘Do you mean that I should offer myself to him, like you offered me to that painter-poet of yours in Chelsea? Do you think Manet might fancy having Mrs Pardy pen a book about him as well?’
Elizabeth frowned, feigning forgetfulness. ‘What on earth are you—’
Hannah pointed at the red banners cramming into the rue Royale. ‘A war is being fought here – a war – and you are plotting my next strategic seduction. Monsieur Manet has set aside his brushes, Elizabeth. He has joined the militia. And I intend to do the same.’
She said this in anger, simply to oppose her mother, but knew immediately that she meant it. Here was the answer. She thought of Jean-Jacques’s lapel pin; of Laure Fleurot in her vivandière’s uniform. It was so simple, so absolute and perfect, that she wanted to jump in the air.
‘You aren’t in earnest,’ Elizabeth pronounced, the smallest hint of uncertainty in her eyes. ‘You can’t be. I don’t for a second presume to tell you what to do, Hannah, but you are quite unquestionably English. This is an affair for the French. You might feel very close to this dashing demagogue of yours, but in the end we can only hope to be spectators.’ ‘Too bloody right,’ said Mr Inglis, biting the tip off a cigar.
Hannah faced her mother. ‘What, then, of your time in Paris twenty years ago? What of giving the cause of liberty everything you had?’
‘I meant marching and writing – making speeches and singing songs. Excuse me if I didn’t take up the flag of a citizen army! Goodness, girl, how can you be so perverse? And what in heaven’s name makes you think they’ll have you?’
The crowd began to move again.
‘They’ll have me,’ Hannah said, ‘I’m sure of it. I’m going to enlist the next chance I get. Look at these people, Elizabeth. Listen to the guns, for pity’s sake.’ She walked forward. ‘Paris no longer has any need for painters.’
The workers’ march emerged onto the place de la Concorde. Dusk was approaching, grey and flat after the overcast afternoon. Someone beside Hannah sang the first words of the ‘Marseillaise’, and the next instant the whole parade was belting it out as loudly as possible. Elizabeth and Mr Inglis were lost behind a wall of bellowing militia. Hannah was caught in a rush of bodies; she couldn’t see her mother or anyone else she knew. She was alone, suddenly vulnerable, hemmed in by National Guard. Fingers were soon pinching at her thighs and waist; drunken propositions were barked in her ear. A lamppost passed and she grabbed for it, hooking an arm around its iron stem and climbing up to safety.
The Strasbourg statue occupied a plinth on the Concorde’s eastern side. It depicted a seated woman in a toga, rendered in pale stone; the statue’s lap was heaped with flowers, a victory garland had been placed on its head, and around its feet glittered hundreds of candles. A huge congregation had assembled before it, enclosing the gold-tipped obelisk in the centre of the square, reaching all the way back to the Seine. There were chants – Vive la France! À bas les Prussiens! – and the impassioned cries of a dozen competing speakers. Hannah was amazed. She’d visited the Strasbourg statue on many occasions, but never before had there been such numbers, such an armada of banners and flags. All Paris had turned out in defiance of the Prussian guns. Automatically, she began to arrange a composition – the bloated sea of hats and bare heads; the first few torches held aloft; the white statue, lit from beneath, luminous against the heavy sky.
This remarkable solidarity was short-lived. The working people from the north of the city, conditioned by lifetimes of antagonism and oppression, were soon harassing those around them. As evening came they roared out songs that exalted the poor and damned their masters; shoved and spat at the frock-coated bourgeois who’d gathered at the mouth of the Champs Elysées; hissed the arrival of ministers from the Hôtel de Ville. Hannah looked for Jean-Jacques, expecting him to be raised above the crowds, working as hard as he could to bring focus to the aggression and ill-will
– to correct the pervasive feeling of anticlimax. He was nowhere to be seen.
Across the square, a detachment of mounted soldiers appeared on the Quai des Tuileries, heading for the Strasbourg. To the workers they represented the regular army, the men who’d routed in the face of the enemy that morning; the hoots and jeers reached an incredible level, obscuring even the Prussian artillery. Word spread that among these soldiers was General Louis Trochu, president of the provisional republic and governor of Paris, the man who was leading them against the Kaiser. Hannah craned her neck, leaning out from her lamppost; and there he was, a tiny uniformed shop dummy atop a skittish bay, trotting behind a torch-bearer with his right arm lifted in salute. Some sections of the Concorde applauded, but the workers, who’d welcomed Trochu’s appointment a fortnight earlier, now judged him a coward and a fraud. As his party drew closer to the statue it was pelted with litter, rotten vegetables and balls of manure, obliging the general to curtail his observances and withdraw from the square.
The satisfaction of having vanquished Trochu did not last long. The men and women beneath the red banners had lost interest in paying tribute to the Strasbourg. Many were spoiling for further confrontation – and Raoul Rigault was on hand to offer it to them. From another lamppost back towards the rue Royale, he announced that a column of the morning’s deserters was being brought up from 14th arrondissement for interrogation in the Louvre – and that it was their patriotic duty to ensure the worthless pigs never got there.
‘Enough of Imperial justice,’ the agitator cried, his full cheeks scarlet, ‘that miserable sham, where cowards prospered and traitors were given generals’ epaulettes! It is time, my fellow citizens, for revolutionary justice! It is time for the enemies of the people to get what they truly deserve!st l
This met with a frenzied yell: Death to the enemy! The most rabid and reckless of the reds thronged to Rigault, who threw out a few dramatic gesticulations before leaping among them. They circled the Strasbourg statue, plainly intending to cut across the Jardin des Tuileries – the shortest route to the bridges that connected the Louvre with the Left Bank. These gardens, until recently the outdoor lounge of fashionable Paris, were being converted into a barracksground and artillery park. Army-issue lanterns glowed along the promenades; teams of soldiers were at work among the parterres and fountains, putting up dormitory sheds and hacking back the fragrant shrubs.
Rigault barrelled by Hannah’s lamppost, continuing with his overheated oratory as he went. Among his followers, hanging to the rear, was a familiar black hat – Jean-Jacques. Why, after his earlier absence, had he joined this vengeful mob? It made no sense. Hannah called to him, but he didn’t hear; she dropped from the lamppost and gave chase, shouldering her way through the baying crowds.
The reds ran forward through the main entrance of the Tuileries, flowing around an ornamental pond and starting down the bright central avenue. Ahead was the emperor’s palace; site of a thousand luxurious debauches, it now stood empty and unlit, its broken windows gaping blackly, another husk of Louis Napoleon’s Paris. The soldiers stationed in the gardens watched these intruders with a mixture of amusement and circumspection. They’d heard the songs in the Concorde; they’d witnessed the dismissal of Trochu and his escort. Hannah saw a number reach for weapons, mallets and tent pegs, and turn to a sergeant for instructions. They were ready to box ears.
‘You are slaves!’ Rigault called to them. ‘Slaves of the state, paid killers! Cast off your shackles and be free! Reclaim your citizenship – your brotherhood!’
This of course provoked the opposite response; a loose company formed and advanced with menaces. The reds scattered, reversing course or scrambling for cover. A woman screamed, twisting out of her jacket as a gunner gripped the sleeve. Everywhere people were ducking and cursing as they tried to escape. Hannah broke into a run, a blind dash that took her off into an area of the gardens still awaiting military renovation. It was dark here; she fell to a crouch by a stand of slight, well-pruned trees. For several minutes she stayed very still, her heart beating thick and raw in her throat, trying to remain as quiet as possible.
Searching soldiers pushed through foliage; shadows slid across the tree trunks at Hannah’s side. She placed a hand on the gravel beneath her, sinking her fingers among the stones. This could be ended at any time. She could stand up and tell these men that she was English; that she’d entered the Jardin des Tuileries by mistake, and then fled from them in a fit of feminine distress. She could even reveal that her mother was a guest at the Grand Hotel. More than likely, they’d assume that she was what she’d been taken for by so many – an indulged daughter playing at artistic life in Paris – and escort her back to the gate.
No. It was too late. Jean-Jacques was nearby; he wouldn’t have fled the soldiers, that much was certain. Hannah had made her choice. Among the noises of the gardens she heard Raoul Rigault, delivering his spiel with more vehemence than ever. He was behind her, towards the river. Several pieces of gravel had stuck to her palm; she brushed them off, gathered her breath and ran.
They were on the quay, at the corner of the vandalised palace: a couple of dozen militia and male civilians standing in a dense ring, lit from within by a lantern stolen from the camp. Rigault himself had stopped talking. He’d been challenged by one of his comrades – who was telling them all something they didn’t want to hear, to judge by their shifting and scowling. Hannah came closer. It was Jean-Jacques.
‘We cannot do this,’ he was saying. ‘We cannot beat men to death in the street, or string them up from lampposts. We cannot take our revenge in this way.’
Striking and severe, he projected an authority that made Rigault seem like a clownish parody. Hannah wanted to laugh with relief. Jean-Jacques was not lending himself to the agitator’s violence. He was halting it.
‘You all know me. You know what I’ve done. Nothing disgusts me more than a coward. But Frenchmen should not be killing Frenchmen, not when there are Prussian divisions massed at our doorstep. That is madness.’
Hannah left the gardens. She saw that they were encircling three or four kneeling soldiers. These prisoners had been beaten into submission; their faces, glimpsed between the reds’ legs, were smeared with fresh blood.
‘They fled when they should have fought,’ a guardsman said.
‘They are dogs,’ stated another.
‘I don’t dispute that,’ Jean-Jacques replied, ‘but we must not become distracted by punishing the weak in our own ranks. This is not the right time. There are too many of them – too many tainted by the Empire and its corruptions.’
There was a murmur of agreement. ‘True enough.’
‘We, though, we are not tainted. We are working people, my friends, pure of heart and pure of soul. The Imperial army has shown today how it got us to this miserable point
– where we stand by the Seine, by the damned Seine, and can hear the guns of the enemy. It has shown very clearly that the salvation of France will fall to us. We need a sortie.’
‘Yes,’ said the reds. ‘Yes.’
‘We need to fight. Every one of us. A mighty counterattack. Paris in all her ferocity. This is where our energies should be directed.’ Jean-Jacques gestured contemptuously at the soldiers. ‘Not here. Not at these poor fools.’
The point was conceded; the mob deterred. Rigault, off to the side, had lit a cigarette and was affecting nonchalance. The battered prisoners were dragged to their feet. Hannah noticed that they weren’t even from Zoave regiments; actual guilt was plainly irrelevant when administering Rigault’s revolutionary justice. Before they could be released, however, a curt command sounded from the darkness of the gardens.
‘Stay where you are. If you’ve harmed those men, by God you’ll hang for it.’
Soldiers charged onto the quay – at least fifty of them in open order, dressed for battle with rifle-butts raised. They reached Hannah first, engulfing her. She tripped and landed badly, slapping hard against the stones. As she tried to move a knee was planted between her shoulder blades. Someone started to rummage in her skirts; she felt hairy knuckles rubbing at her thigh.
‘See this, lads,’ growled a voice above her, in a thick southern accent. ‘See what a pretty prize I got myself here!’
Hannah managed to look up. There wasn’t a single red among the infantry tunics. Discouraged from acting against the regular army, and outnumbered two to one, they’d clearly opted to flee. Her fright turned to terror. They hadn’t seen her approaching from the gardens. They wouldn’t know she’d been caught. She could barely move or breathe and she was alone, the sole captive, at the mercy of the regular army. These fighting men – this wiry, foul-smelling man crouched atop her now, running his callused palms up her legs – were said to be little more than beasts, brutalised by their experiences on the battlefields of the east and brimming with resentment towards the ungrateful city they were being forced to defend. Laid out on the quay, there was no limit to the punishment Hannah could imagine them inflicting upon her. She bucked and writhed, screaming through her gritted teeth.
‘Quiet now,’ ordered her captor. ‘It’s over.’
And then he was off her, wrenched off it seemed; she scrabbled onto her elbows and gulped in a desperate breath. The soldier was on his back, covering his face, moving with the slowness of someone who’d just been hit immensely hard. A black-gloved hand extended towards her.
‘Hannah,’ said Jean-Jacques, ‘quickly.’
They ran. Another soldier attempted to block their path; Jean-Jacques felled him without interrupting his stride, his arm whipping around in a tight arc. Beside them was the endless flank of the Louvre, its upper windows illuminating the quay. Hannah was steered to the right, onto the Port Saint-Nicholas, and down a shadowy flight of steps. A row of shuttered laundry boats were roped to the moorings; beyond, dim fragments of lamplight blinked across the surface of the Seine. They pressed themselves against a damp stretch of wall. This was a risk. If they’d been spotted their only options now would be to submit to capture or plunge into the water.
No one appeared. There were shouts from the Tuileries, soldiers calling to each other to report a lack of success; a faint ‘Marseillaise’ from those who’d remained at the Strasbourg; the stuttering thuds of the Prussian guns. After a few minutes they sat, their boots only two steps from the lapping river. Hannah was panting, trembling; Jean-Jacques drew her close. She couldn’t help smiling as her head dipped towards him. This man had conversed with Elizabeth, in English, and ceded no advantage; he’d calmed a vicious gang; he’d knocked down soldiers with rapid ease. There were parts of him she was only just beginning to see.
‘You – you came for me.’
‘Of course. Always.’
The kiss was urgent, like one of reunion after many
perilous months apart. Hannah felt dizzy, as if she was slipping – tilting from a ledge into empty space. She pulled back very slightly and opened her eyes..
‘Where were you before?’ she murmured. ‘I thought I’d see you at the Strasbourg.’
Jean-Jacques hesitated, reluctant to answer. ‘I was searching for your mother,’ he admitted, ‘over on the rue Royale. I didn’t find her.’
‘For my mother? For Elizabeth?’ All happiness vanished. Their embrace went cold; Hannah struggled from it and edged a few inches along the step. ‘Why would you do that? Isn’t she a bourgeois, Jean-Jacques? Isn’t that what you said?’ ‘Please, Hannah – listen. I was with Félix Pyat, an important man for our cause, recently returned from exile.’ He was speaking carefully, as if still trying to comprehend it himself. ‘I mentioned that I had met Mrs Pardy and he urged me to introduce him. He claimed that she was a great opponent of the Empire in the English press, and in her books – that she was calling for justice in France while your Queen was showering the tyrant Napoleon with gifts of friendship.’
Hannah knew all this. Although her primary motive for settling in Paris had been artistic, she’d been well aware of Elizabeth’s public pledges – as a true friend of the French people – to stay away in protest for as long as Napoleon III was their ruler. Consequently, Mrs Pardy’s works had been banned from sale or public loan by the Imperial censors, and her presence declared officially unwelcome; liable, even, to result in deportation. Paris under the Empire had not been somewhere she could come to look.
‘That was merely a pose,’ Hannah said, ‘designed to foster ties in the literary circles of London. That is how Elizabeth operates, Jean-Jacques. Her postures are hollow. The end is always the same.’
Jean-Jacques nodded; he didn’t quite believe her. ‘Pyat said that she could help us. He was sure of it. He said that she still has an international audience, and is known at several of the main newspapers here. Apparently they’ll print anything she chooses to write.’
Hannah looked out at the river. Something terrible had been set in motion. ‘Your Monsieur Pyat exaggerates,’ she said angrily. ‘And besides, Elizabeth is not interested in helping anyone. She wants only to resurrect her career.’
‘But she’shere for you. That letter is the reason she travelled to Paris.’
‘She wrote it. She wrote the letter. Or had it written.’ This notion had been forming in Hannah’s mind since the march; voicing it now made her certain. ‘I had thought it was Laure Fleurot, but that doesn’t fit. She’d be wanting to embarrass me as publicly as possible, not just turn my brother into her latest pet. No – it was Elizabeth.’
Jean-Jacques remained sceptical. ‘How did she do this?’
‘Her friends in Paris would have sent the letter itself. These newspaper contacts your Monsieur Pyat mentioned, perhaps; or Mr Inglis, the Englishman who was with her earlier. They found me in Montmartre. They chose the moment for her. It’s all a trick, Jean-Jacques, a plan for a damned book.’
‘You really think her so devious?’
‘She knows too much.’ Hannah was becoming exasperated. ‘About you, about my painting. She wanted me to go to Edouard Manet, would you believe, and flash my petticoats. This is the sort of thing she proposes. This is why I had to leave London. Don’t you understand?’
Jean-Jacques glanced over his shoulder, towards the quay; he’d talked about Elizabeth Pardy enough. ‘You mustn’t be upset by Pyat’s interest, Hannah. It is nothing, really it is. Before very long we will have our sortie. The Prussians will be driven off. Your mother will return to London. France will be free again – we will be free. Everything will change.’
Hannah hugged her knees, suddenly spent, too tired to argue or think. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It will.’