‘Six hours, Clement.’
Elizabeth was in front of him. He moved his hand, peering between his fingers. She’d opened the velvet curtains, her back to the window; she seemed almost to dissolve in the late afternoon sunlight.
‘Six hours confined to a prison cell with only Montague Inglis for company. Can you imagine how aggravating he became?’
Clem swallowed. His tongue was an alien object, something dead and dry lying in his mouth. ‘What happened?’
His mother paused, considering how to begin. ‘We were outside the wall, on the west of the city, taking a morning drive through the Bois de Boulogne. It is in an awful, awful state – a plain of shattered stumps and shredded grass, utterly demolished. The generals intend for it to serve as a buffer against the Prussians, should they attack from that direction. Many of the ancient trees are down. Soldiers are billeted in the restaurants and camped upon the racecourse. Now, I have fond memories of the Bois, of summer evenings when I was younger; and that Imperialist rake Inglis plainly regards it as his personal property. I suppose we both grew quite animated, which won us the attention of a detachment of National Guard. They took a single look at our notebooks, at Mr Inglis’s binoculars, and demanded the right to conduct a full search. Naturally we refused, and made it clear that we resented the impertinence.’
The scene was easily pictured, even in Clem’s present condition. ‘So they arrested you.’
‘It was absurd, Clement – spiteful. Motivated by hatred towards the English, nothing more. Would real spies be so stupid as to actually look foreign? Would they behave in a way that might attract notice? Of course they wouldn’t.’
‘I really don’t know.’
Elizabeth became magnanimous. ‘I cannot blame the Guard. They are under siege, for goodness’ sake. Their regular army, what remains of it, has shown itself to be worse than useless. They are bound to be sensitive. Overcautious.’ The storm clouds returned; she began to talk very quickly, caught up in her narration, reliving her infuriation. ‘What is harder for me to excuse is Montague Inglis keeping me in a cell with him for six hours when all the while he had papers in his coat from none other than the Prefect of Police. Six hours of him droning on about the damned emperor. Sniping at the labours of my pen. Making hamfisted attempts to revisit the love affairs of the past – matters involving a number of departed souls that are best left alone.
‘And when the dolt finally deigned to produce his papers we were released at once, with all sorts of bowing and scraping. The militia over at the Bois are certainly of a less radical complexion than those in Montmartre, I have to say. When I requested that he explain himself he told me that he wanted to see if they’d try to shoot us.’ She let out a short, high laugh. ‘He was awaiting our execution! There are stories going around about Prussian spies being put to death, you see, and the brilliant Mr Inglis thought that this was a good way to find out if there was any truth to them. The man really is the most insufferable idiot I have ever known.’
Clem’s forehead touched the side of his armchair; he hadn’t been aware that he’d even been leaning towards it. He made a noncommittal noise. Elizabeth stepped left, intentionally exposing him to the full blast of the sun. He covered his face with his hands, but the mere fall of light upon his skin caused him pain.
‘Dear God, Clement, what happened to you yesterday? Where exactly did you go off to with that odd photographer?’
‘Montmartre,’ he replied, his voice a hoarse whisper. ‘A
– a balloon factory.’
‘I see.’ Elizabeth was doubtful. ‘Yes, I’ve heard about this endeavour – the aerial post that’s being set up by Nadar and the rest. It can’t hope to be much more than a sideshow, I’m afraid.’ She launched into a fresh discourse, distracted briefly from her son’s wretchedness. ‘France needs precise and careful coordination if she is to save herself. The armies trapped at Strasbourg and Metz need to break free and march west. The scattered forces around the Loire must be gathered and brought north. And of course this has to be tied in with whatever actions are mounted out of Paris. Balloons, though – it’s like casting message-bottles into the sea.’
‘That may be so,’ was all Clem could manage.
His mother sat on his unmade bed, perching elegantly on the edge of the mattress. She was wearing the other dress she’d brought to Paris; coral silk with a bustle and cream bows, it would have done for a top-drawer supper party. Clem guessed that she’d been reserving it for a time like this. Elizabeth’s aim was to recreate the Mrs Pardy of her heyday: a lady of matchless poise and intelligence, as comfortable in the luxury of the Grand as in the salons of the bohemian elite, ready to astound the world with her observations.
Slumped opposite, Clem was in his nightshirt, socks, and a quilted dressing gown he’d found in his bathroom. In a corner was his only suit, screwed up in a heap. He couldn’t see his boots anywhere. His head was wrapped in a damp Grand Hotel towel. It felt as if it was the only thing holding his throbbing skull together. His eyeballs seemed to have been taken out, boiled in vinegar and reinserted; his lungs ached; his fingertips and ears were tingling, the poisoned blood crawling through his veins. He hadn’t had one this bad for a while.
His mother was considering him with that familiar combination of pity and dissatisfaction. ‘And you were in this balloon factory all evening, were you?’
‘No, I – we—’
Clem drew a breath. The previous night was a raw, mysterious thing. Thinking back to it was like removing a bandage from a wound you couldn’t recall being inflicted. His towelled head rang with shouts and delighted moans, screams and snatches of speech; his memories were little more than a lurid mess of sights and sensations.
This much he knew. After Han’s disappearance into the crowds, Mademoiselle Laure had led him from the rue des Acacias, through the lanes to a cellar bar. He’d gone gladly, all thoughts of marching forgotten – quite entranced by her uniform and the view it afforded of her lissom limbs. Tucked away in a corner, he’d watched as she mixed them absinthe with casual expertise. This little ritual had fascinated him
– the slotted silver spoon, the tiny blue flame melting the sugar cube, the pearly hue of the end result – and he’d reached eagerly for his glass.
‘La fée,’ she’d said, lifting hers up with mock solemnity. ‘Vive la fée verte.’
The taste was so disagreeable that Clem nearly spat it out: cloying like sweetened liquorice, floral somehow, but with the rabbit-punch aftertaste of deadly strong liquor. To please Laure, however, he forced himself to stick with it, assuming that they’d have a couple more and then retreat to her rooms on the boulevard de Clichy. Sure enough, they had a second, and a third, Laure drinking the stuff down like watered wine, smiling evilly as she urged him to do the same. Clem’s mouth went numb and he could taste almost nothing. He was happy to be with her again, though, and excited at the prospect of what must lie ahead. They moved closer; she threw her leg over both of his and started to kiss him.
Then her friends began to arrive. Clem did his best not to be cross, chuckling along with the collection of tarts and thieves as if he understood what they were talking about. Slowly, however, he came to realise that they were in fact talking about him, and not in an entirely flattering way. Laure said a few lackadaisical words in his defence, elbowing him in the ribs with what he supposed must be affection. He swallowed a great gulp of absinthe to cover his discomfort.
At some point the venue changed. They were in a dingy attic, some kind of studio perhaps, with two huge windows that looked out over the rooftops of the newly encircled city. Most of it was dark and quiet as a graveyard; there were some dregs of light lingering in the main squares, but nothing else. Fear of the Prussian artillery, of the legendary range of their guns, had fastened the Parisians’ shutters, blown out their candles and switched off their lamps. This view had a sobering effect, reminding them of what the coming days and weeks would hold. The revellers soon turned away from it, moving off to refill their cups.
More people crowded into the attic and the night altered, accelerated, began to grow strange. Among the newcomers was the thickset chap from outside the Café Géricault, the one who’d seemed to know Hannah. Clem had found him rather appealing – a true Parisian character, he’d thought. A lot of fuss was being made of him; he’d been involved in some sort of righteous fracas after the march into the centre, from which he’d apparently emerged the victor. Seeing Clem, the fellow swept aside his admirers, came over to the fireplace where he was standing and introduced himself, in English, as Raoul Rigault. There was a shade of the secret policeman about him, combined with a roué’s dissipation and the menace of a seasoned thug. He’d put on spectacles since the afternoon, presumably to make himself appear more intellectual; instead, it just looked as if he’d stolen them from someone.
‘Your sister and I are good friends, Mr Pardy,’ he said, his voice heavy with innuendo. ‘She is a fine woman.’
Christ, Clem thought, this cove’s completely roasted. ‘Is that so?’
Rigault narrowed his eyes. ‘You are fortunate,’ he declared. ‘You will be here when we destroy.’
‘The Prussians, you mean?’
The Frenchman made a sweeping gesture. ‘Everything, Monsieur. France is rotten. You see it everywhere you look
– and so all of it must be destroyed.’ He said this with careless pride, as if it was both terribly impressive and nothing very significant. ‘The workers must be given their freedom. And this is how it will be done.’
Clem grinned, reckoning that a French joke was being played on him. ‘By heaven, Monsieur Rigault,’ he said, ‘I do believe that you are some kind of radical. A socialist, I dare say!’
Rigault stepped back and gave him a shallow bow. ‘As is every man with a brain, with a heart, with a stomach that needs his share of food. Your sister’s lover, Jean-Jacques Allix – he is the greatest socialist, as you call it. Blood, Mr Pardy, is nothing to him – not the blood of his enemies, the enemies of his cause. He is born for the revolution.’
There was no joke here. ‘Well, yes,’ Clem murmured, looking around for Laure, ‘I’m sure you’re right.’
‘But enough of this serious talk,’ Rigault said. ‘The revolutionary must be well rested, no? His passion is fuelled by the pleasures he tastes, so I always say.’
The orator took out an object, a bar of something wrapped in grease-proof paper, and slapped it down on the mantelpiece beside them. This was done with a flourish, attracting attention throughout the room. Several clapped their hands in anticipation and came over; Laure, nowhere to be seen a second earlier, floated to Rigault’s elbow. He undid his little parcel, sliding a knife from his sleeve. Within the paper was a dark green block, set from a liquid from the look of it. He began carving off chunks and distributing them freely.
‘Hashish,’ he explained, presenting one to Clem. ‘Les richesses du monde.’
Clem held this slimy sliver between thumb and forefinger. All around him people were gobbling it up, Laure included. He considered the situation. Rigault was a weasel, certainly, with some alarming views – but this was an extraordinary moment. Paris was facing its end. God only knew what ordeals lay ahead. If there was a chance for some fun he’d better bloody take it. He put the hashish in his mouth. The texture was soft, like pork fat, the flavour acrid and herbal. He got it down as quickly as he could.
For a while there was nothing; and then, quite suddenly, the night unbuttoned itself, its contents falling out in a gaudy jumble. A lot more absinthe was drunk, the party abandoning the preparation ritual to swig the jewel-green spirit straight from the bottle. Clem’s hands pulled at doors; his feet tripped down staircases. The night air splashed across his face. There were horses close by, their hooves clopping on cobblestones. He was lying in the street, Rigault pulling playfully on his whiskers; an instant later he was propped up on a pile of cushions, laughing hard, feeling as if he was drifting down a warm river. The light was low and orange-red. Laure was on him, her National Guard tunic opened to show a purple bodice beneath. She wriggled inside his jacket, biting his lower lip, purring like a cat. Two of the girls, Laure’s friends, were stretched out on a divan, kissing and undressing each other, sharing an intimate caress to the appreciative hoots of the company. Laure had left Clem’s side to join them; he remembered seeing her running her tongue along another girl’s naked shoulder as she popped the laces of her corset.
‘The sight of women making love,’ he’d heard Rigault proclaim, ‘is the one good argument I know of for the existence of God.’
The next afternoon, in the plush surroundings of the Grand Hotel, Clem could almost convince himself that it hadn’t happened – that it had been the product of his intoxicated imagination. He stared at the carpet pattern between his socks. After this was only blackness. He’d come to with a cheek pressed against the Grand’s cotton sheets. How he’d got back from wherever he’d been he hadn’t the foggiest idea.
‘I saw Han yesterday,’ he said, dodging his mother’s question.
Elizabeth turned to the window. ‘So did I. The girl is as impossible as ever. Her petulance will pass, though. I am confident that she will prove an asset to our investigations.’
‘I – I beg your pardon?’
‘I have commenced a new work. I expect you have deduced this already. As we are detained here it would be foolish of me not to take the opportunity. There will be such interest in the plight of Paris – in England, in America, across the civilised world. It could be exactly what we need.’
Clem wiped a tepid drip from his brow. He waited for her to continue.
‘But there will be competition. Montague Inglis. Labouchêre from the Daily News. Whitehurst from the Chronicle. A horde of gentlemen correspondents writing siege diaries in their clubs, planning to get them on the sales racks the same week the blockade lifts. In short, an edge is required. A quality to distinguish my volume from the others.’ Elizabeth checked her hair – which was worn up that day, in a more Parisian fashion. ‘Something is stirring among the ordinary working people of the city, those neglected and exploited by the Empire. You’ve seen it – their spirit, their desire to resist. Not only to defend their homes and families against the enemy, but rebuild their country as a better, fairer place.’
Clem heard Rigault’s voice, vowing destruction and bloodshed. ‘It might not be quite so noble as you make out.’
Elizabeth ignored him. ‘I require your help, Clement. So much is happening. Your youth conveys advantages, not least of which is stamina – that dreadful parade yesterday, and the prison this morning, are experiences I have no desire to repeat. You have no real grasp of the language, it is true, but you are making friends regardless. Your sociability has always been your great gift; you are very like me in that respect. You could be there, in the lanes and the debating halls and the assommoirs. At the marches. It would give my account an immediacy – a realism that Mr Inglis and his kind can’t hope to match.’
There was a silence; soldiers’ boots tramped along the boulevard outside. Elizabeth had never asked for assistance before, from Clem, Hannah or anyone else. Those Mrs Pardy books – towering triumphs, moderate successes, unmentioned failures – had always been hers alone. Was this a genuine admission of frailty, of encroaching old age? Clem glanced up. Elizabeth was studying him, divining his thoughts, everything about her businesslike and utterly formidable.
‘I will pay you, of course,’ she added, ‘and ensure that your contribution is known. A mention in the text, perhaps
– or even a note on the title page.’
Clem shifted in his armchair. A joint clicked; a belch bubbled somewhere inside him, bringing the taste of liquorice to the back of his mouth. He held it in, fighting down a strong surge of nausea. ‘Hell’s bells, Elizabeth,’ he replied eventually, ‘I’m no deuced writer.’
His mother’s expression said I’m well aware of that. ‘You wouldn’t actually need to put pen to paper in any considered way,’ she said. ‘Simply tell me everything about what you see, where you go and who you speak to. Hannah’s sweetheart, our Monsieur Allix, would be a good place to begin. He speaks some English.’ She smiled, her lips compressing into a narrow line. ‘I have a sense that he doesn’t much like me – thanks to Hannah, no doubt. But with you it might be a different story entirely.’
‘I’m not sure if he and I—’
‘Consider what I am proposing. Such an endeavour could lead to any number of other things. It will be a proper accomplishment for you, Clement, at long last, after all your tomfoolery. It will show the world that you are a person of substance.’
Clem nodded. He was a regular victim of his mother’s honesty – those succinct, devastating assessments that came disguised as advice or support. Lacking the energy to make a response, or even to think through her offer, he shut his stinging eyes and leaned back into his armchair.
Elizabeth rose from the bed. She placed a hand upon her son’s shoulder. ‘You may let me know your decision in the morning.’
* * * The main hall of the Elysées-Montmartre was rather run down – cracked plaster, signs of rodents, warping floorboards
– but its mirrored walls were reflecting some truly astonishing activity. When Émile Besson had brought Clem up there two days before, the hall had been empty; you could almost still see the tutus lined along the practice bar. Now, though, it was every inch a balloon workshop. The heady smell of varnish hit you as soon as you opened the doors; the rattle of sewing machines made it impossible to converse in much less than a shout. Patterns had been laid out across the floor, to which vast white sheets of treated calico were being cut. The finished pieces went over to the sewing benches, where a hundred seamstresses were stitching the balloon envelopes together under the direction of a patrolling supervisor. Ahead, in the dancing school’s modest courtyard, Clem could see a few dozen sailors, part of the contingent sent to Paris from the northern ports, fighting to inflate a completed balloon with a hand-driven metal fan; the thing rose and collapsed, wheezing like an expiring sea monster, while naval officers strolled around it on the lookout for holes.
Besson stood with his arms crossed, in the same grey suit, radiating quiet pride. Clem couldn’t tell if the aérostier was glad to see him again, but he was certainly relishing the chance to show off the transformation of the dancing school. No word of explanation or apology had yet been given for his departure from the cafe on the day of Châtillon . He’d made his exit the very second that Hannah had appeared. If the fellow was infatuated with her he had a decidedly unusual way of expressing it.
The aérostier glanced towards the hall’s entrance. ‘I must watch for Monsieur Yon. He had to attend a meeting with Colonel Usquin of the Balloon Commission, but he will soon be back. We are not supposed to allow anyone inside, you see. Especially not foreigners.’
Clem smiled. So this spiky customer is taking a risk having me here, he thought; he must value my company a little. ‘A superior, Besson? Why, I thought this was to be your place.’
‘Gabriel Yon is an experienced balloonist and an old friend of Nadar. It is an honour to work with him. I am learning much.’
‘Of course you are. Of course.’
Clem put his hands in his pockets. The brown flannel suit was creased and dirty, with a new tear in its jacket lining, but nothing he couldn’t live with. The after-effects of the absinthe and the hashish had almost lifted; all that remained was fatigue and an odd hollow feeling. He put this from his mind. It was time to begin.
He’d agreed to Elizabeth’s plan over breakfast, in the echoing splendour of the Grand’s dining room. He wasn’t one to hold out through either pique or principle; that was more Hannah’s style. What else, anyway, was he to do with himself? He was stuck in Paris – for how long was anyone’s guess. The days had to be filled somehow. And besides, if Elizabeth was correct, if there was really a chance for her to resurrect her career with a bravura account of the siege of Paris, then why the devil shouldn’t he partake of the spoils? Clem found that he was sick of poverty. Elizabeth might be right: this could be the start of something good. It could be that he had a knack for investigation – that he, like his mother, was an observer. After all those experiments, all those failures, had the solution been directly under his nose?
Elizabeth had been unsurprised. She’d produced some cash, a loan from Inglis she’d said, and had issued him with ten francs for his expenses; hardly a fortune, but it gave him a few more options. Clem had quickly decided that he wouldn’t seek out Jean-Jacques Allix that morning, as she’d suggested. Hannah’s black-suited, battle-scarred beau was far too daunting for a first foray. A return to Besson’s balloon factory was more manageable; he’d walked from the Grand full of purpose, ready to start his enquiries into the daily progress of the siege.
‘So this is where it happens, eh?’ he asked. ‘This is where the balloons are made?
‘Well, the rope-work is done upstairs. The netting, the tackle – the baskets and ballast also. The sailors’ skills are proving most useful.’ Besson started towards the courtyard. ‘But this room is inadequate. We need more height to hang the calico properly. A second factory has been founded in the Gare d’Orléans – there they can hang it from the roof, from the iron girders. Far better to see imperfections in the material.’
They stopped in the courtyard’s open doorway. Clem took out a cigarette, offering one to Besson. ‘When will the first siege balloon actually be ready?’
‘Our first launch is scheduled for the day after tomorrow, in the place Saint-Pierre,’ the Frenchman replied, refusing it. ‘The Neptune – the old spotter balloon Nadar has been running up for the past fortnight. They have made some repairs and say it is good enough for the flight. A few others have been located as well, about the city, and are being inspected.’
‘How about these, though?’ Clem nodded towards the balloon outside, which billowed briefly only to catch a breeze and be flattened against the façade opposite. ‘The ones you’re making here?’
‘Two weeks, perhaps. They must be thoroughly tested, you understand.’
‘My dear chap,’ Clem said with a grin, ‘the war might well be over and done with in two weeks, if your newspapers are to be believed. They’re full to bursting with reports of French heroism. Two hundred Prussians captured in the Bois de Vincennes. A fourteen-year-old boy from La Villette killing a giant of an enemy sentry with his own rifle. Letters found on dead Uhlans revealing how the poor fellows just want to pack up and head home. The blighters are all but beaten, surely?’
Clem hadn’t read any of this himself, of course; he’d sat across from Elizabeth that morning as she’d translated from the heap of papers she’d had brought in. The Parisian press was in a funny fix indeed. Censored to the quick by Napoleon III, it now flourished like weeds in springtime, new papers sprouting up daily. However, a mere forty-eight hours into the siege, this profusion of organs was already running short of real news; and as a result no piece of baseless conjecture, no ludicrous boast or lie, was too outrageous for them to print.
Besson did not rise to it. ‘It is talk only,’ he said. ‘You know this. The Prussians have whipped us back – contained us. They are waiting to see what we will do.’
Clem adopted a thoughtful look. ‘I hear that Trochu has sent Vice-President Favre through the lines to Bismarck, to discuss terms for peace.’
The aérostier dismissed this. ‘A formality. It will come to nothing. The Prussians will demand too much, and Jules Favre is not a weak man.’ He smiled grimly. ‘Besides, the government is terrified of how the ordinary people might react if they surrendered. And any terms acceptable to Bismarck would definitely be seen as surrender.’
‘They’ve been too stoked up by the reds, haven’t they?’ Clem flicked ash through the doorway. ‘Tell me, what do you make of those types – the radicals and ultras?’
There was a pause. Clem thought he’d been being pretty slick so far, extracting information with deft delicacy; now, though, Besson was staring at him as if he was an absolute imbecile.
‘They will finish us, Mr Pardy. Surely you see this. Les Rouges will end all hope of a fair and enduring republic, with their Marx and their Proudhon and whoever else. Freedom is what they want, so they say, but it is not a freedom that I recognise.’ He looked back at the pattern cutters, guiding their shears through creamy folds of fabric. ‘The old ones are veterans of the revolutions of ’48 and ’51. Many were exiled or put in prison, and they have their scores to settle. As for the younger ones – who knows? Every society has its madmen. And they have influence in the poor districts, as you say. Here in Montmartre, for example. The workers suffered under Napoleon. They have nothing to lose.’
‘I met one of these Rouges the other night, you know, after we parted ways in that cafe. Raoul Rigault, his name was.’
Besson was growing angry now; his slight, hard-won amiability disappeared. Clem remembered the spoiled photographic plate – the shattering of the glass against the track. ‘Rigault is among the worst. They say he wants to set up a guillotine in every square – a guillotine, Monsieur. The Jacobin fool would return Paris to the darkest days of the Terror.’ The aérostier snorted. ‘That is a strange kind of freedom.’
‘What about our Monsieur Allix, then?’ Clem asked. ‘How does he compare? Rigault couldn’t praise him highly enough.’
This was a further mistake. Besson lowered his eyes; he pulled at his sandy moustache. ‘Him I do not know about,’ he muttered. ‘You should ask your sister.’
Clem threw his half-smoked cigarette into the courtyard. He thought of their first conversation, as Besson had prepared his camera on that railway embankment. The Frenchman hadn’t given an opinion on Allix then either, merely performing a subtle sidestep. The reason for this was suddenly clear.
‘You’d say he was a bad lot though, wouldn’t you? A source of danger? Worth removing Han from, maybe, should the opportunity arise?’
Besson did not look up. ‘You are talking about that letter,’ he said. ‘You think that I wrote it.’
An incisive fellow indeed. ‘You speak English pretty damn well, Monsieur Besson. You plainly care for my sister and know a fair bit about her sweetheart and his friends. What would you think?’
The picture was compellingly complete. This intelligent, awkward man had watched from the wings as Jean-Jacques and Hannah paraded around Montmartre. He’d seen the situation get more dramatic, and the rhetoric more heated
– with Hannah caught right at the heart of it. Delving into her past, he’d found out about Elizabeth and penned the letter. Perhaps he’d even discovered the connection with Montague Inglis, contriving a professional link in order to monitor Mrs Pardy’s movements. Perhaps their acquaintance had been no accident.
‘If I cared for her as you claim,’ Besson asked, ‘why would I want her gone? Why would I want her back in London?’
‘To know she was safe,’ Clem replied, ‘well away from Allix and Rigault and their revolution. It was pretty selfless, I’ll give you that. You’re a decent man, Monsieur Besson.’
‘If you were a decent man, a decent brother, you would take action. You would separate them. You would do it today.’
Clem was incredulous. ‘Lord Almighty, what the deuce d’you think is going to happen here? What do you—’
Besson shook his head; he walked off, back into the busy hall. ‘I have duties to attend to,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘You must leave, Mr Pardy. At once.’
* * *
Clem stepped into the street outside the dancing school, imagining Hannah on the barricades, waving an enormous tricolour; sitting on a revolutionary committee, at Allix’s right hand, sending scores to their deaths. Comrades, inevitably, would turn on each other – those types always did. He saw Han climbing the scaffold; saw the great angled blade rising in its frame, catching the light; heard the flat thunk as its lever was released.
No, Clem told himself sternly – none of this was on the cards. He’d become infected by Besson’s melodrama. Han was a sensible girl, for the most part; she’d run a mile from such lunacy. Still, it might be wise to pay her a brotherly visit, just to get the lie of the land. He stood for a few seconds, trying to remember the way to the rue Careau, then fastened his jacket and started uphill. It was a glorious day of blue skies and sharp shadows. Cannon-fire sounded in all directions, but it was no longer causing much alarm among the few who milled on the pavements around him. Give people twenty-four hours, he supposed, and they’ll get used to more or less anything.
As he approached a corner someone rushed up behind him, grabbed his buttock and squeezed hard; He spun around. Laure was giggling, chewing, lunging in for another pinch. She was in her vivandière’s uniform, but bare-headed, her orange hair loud in the sunshine. In her left hand was a roll, missing a couple of bites; a thin cigarillo smouldered between her fingers. Her eyes shone with delight at having caught him unawares. She certainly isn’t angry with me, Clem thought as he hopped to the side; I can’t have disgraced myself too badly.
Laure said something in her deep, tarnished-sounding voice. Clem understood none of it. He stopped weaving about, his mind brimming with questions. What exactly had happened that night? What did he do? What did she do? How in God’s name did he get back to his room in the Grand? He hadn’t a hope of putting these in comprehensible French, though, or of following her replies.
Seeing that he’d lost interest in their game, Laure halted her attacks and offered him her roll. He shook his head so she took another bite herself. Around her mouthful she said something else, nodding back towards the school; she’d spotted him going in, it seemed, and had waited in the street for him to emerge. From her gesticulations Clem gathered that she’d once been a pupil of the Elysées-Montmartre, until an unknown circumstance had obliged her leave. To prove this she threw the remains of her roll into the gutter and performed a pirouette in the middle of the pavement, the cigarillo still poking from her fingers; and although hampered by her ankle-boots, she pulled the move off with remarkable grace.
Clem smiled and clapped, but his mystification was growing. What was going on here? What could she possibly want from him? They were long past the point where she might ask for money; besides, he’d never felt that what was happening between them was any sort of transaction. He’d assumed that they had simply ended – that it had gone as far as it could. He really couldn’t be sure of what he’d seen or experienced in the later stages of that night, but he had a distinct sense that he’d drifted a good few feet out of his depth. Watching Laure now, in fact, triumphant after her pirouette, caused a memory to resurface: her lying in the arms of her friends, her blouse open, laughing like a docker as one of them licked her nipple. Could a girl really share the embraces of other women and then return to her lover afterwards without a care? Was it just how things worked in Montmartre – the habit of a certain class of Parisienne? Clem considered himself a thoroughly liberal-minded chap, but this made him pause for thought.
Laure had no time for his confused deliberations. She sucked a last drag from her cigarillo before reaching out to take his hand. ‘Viens.’
Her skin was cool and slightly damp; its touch negated every question, every other concern. The events of that night were plainly nothing to her, so they were nothing to him. It was as simple as that. Clem looked at her again, the mischievous, voracious smile, the perfect line of her nose, the fine china complexion, and knew that he’d do pretty much anything she wanted him to. She tugged him downhill, towards the boulevard de Clichy. A few more steps and she’d moved to his side, her breast pressed against his upper arm. Before very long her hand settled on his midriff, soon finding its way through both his waistcoat and shirt; and then Laure changed her mind, altering their course, steering them to the nearest alley-mouth.
‘Mademoiselle Laure,’ said Clem as they stumbled inside, her lips seeking his, ‘you are completely bloody amazing.’
The Neptune could be seen from several blocks away, huge and dirty white between the buildings, bulging like a sack of flour. Laure squealed, removing the cigarette from her mouth to plant a smacking kiss on Clem’s cheek. It was only a few minutes after seven, the sun just breaking over the rooftops, but many hundreds had already arrived in the place Saint-Pierre. A good number had come up from other districts, filling Montmartre to capacity; balloons were common enough in Paris, but this first expedition of an aerial post, in a city still reeling after its encirclement, was being exalted as a grand act of defiance.
Clem and Laure hadn’t slept. They’d stayed in bed all of the previous day, emerging at last in the early evening. The cafes had been starting to close, operating on an austere siege timetable. Laure had convinced the owner of a small place on the rue Pigalle to serve them an entrecôte, which they ate as he mopped the floor around them. The main streets were soon dark and dull so they’d returned to the assommoirs, embarking on a second tour of backrooms, attics and basements. There had been demonstrations against the government that afternoon, they’d learned, down in the square before the Hôtel de Ville. National Guard battalions from the northern arrondissements – the red battalions
– had come out to demand that none other than Victor Hugo be given a seat in Trochu’s cabinet, to serve as their voice. Clem had felt a vague guilt at having missed this – that instead of fulfilling his role as Elizabeth’s eyes and ears he’d been engaged in vigorous and ever more inventive fornications – but he couldn’t honestly say that he regretted it. There’d be another protest soon enough.
They approached the southern side of the place SaintPierre. The Neptune seemed almost to block out the sky. Recent repairs marked the side of the old balloon – sections that had been patched up like the elbows of an old coat. Clem took Laure’s cigarette and puffed on it happily. He’d avoided absinthe, hashish, and any other strange pipes or powders – he was just drunk, and proudly so. Laure was still in uniform, trading flirtatious salutes with passing guardsmen, although he had yet to gain any idea of what her actual duties were or when she might be required to perform them.
In Clem’s hands was a bottle of champagne, bought in the last bar they’d visited. It was for Émile Besson; Clem envisaged them toasting the balloon post as the Neptune rose into the air. He was determined to make amends for that unfortunate conversation in the balloon factory – and to demonstrate that if the aérostier had sent the letter, he admired him for it more than anything else. The bottle had been out of ice for over an hour and was starting to lose its chill. For the fourth or fifth time Laure indicated that he should just open it, turning away with an exaggerated sigh when he refused.
A detachment of National Guard – not from the Montmartre battalion – had cordoned off an area beside the merry-go-round. Arrayed around the Neptune were several ranks of dignitaries, many in uniform, lending the launch a ceremonial atmosphere. To his excitement, Clem spied the great Nadar among them, a corpulent, pale-suited impresario with an impressive waxed moustache, beaming at everyone as if savouring a moment of vindication. And there was Besson, one of a small team carrying out the final operations – winding back the coal-gas pipe that had been used to inflate the envelope, checking the valve at the base of the balloon, loading on the ballast. He was doing all this with the same precise, measured manner he’d gone about his photography.
Clem pointed him out to Laure. ‘ Mon ami,’ he said. She nodded absently, kissing him again before joining in the inevitable ‘Marseillaise’ that was building around them. A tent had been pitched nearby, behind the dignitaries; the crowd cheered as several large canvas mail-sacks were carried from it and secured in the Neptune’s basket. Besson was now standing to one side, his work done. Clem tried to lead Laure towards him, within earshot at least, but with no success. There was much he wanted to ask. Could the Prussians try to shoot the Neptune down? Could they send their own aerial contraptions after the balloons of Paris – mount an airborne pursuit? Would the Parisian aérostiers be able to outmanoeuvre them?
The Neptune’s pilot appeared from the tent, causing a surge towards the cordon. Clem felt a sudden impact, liquid gushing across his thighs and stomach – the champagne cork had popped out. He swore, searching about for it, thinking that he could maybe work the damned thing back into the bottle neck. When he gave up a minute later the pilot was in the basket. The fellow was young, no more than twenty-five, and looked undaunted by the voyage ahead of him; his jacket was made of heavy brown leather and the letters ‘AER’ had been stitched in gold on his flying helmet. Raising a gloved fist, he shouted ‘Vive la République!’
As the crowd roared it back the tethers were released; and very slowly the balloon left the ground, like an oceangoing steamer easing from its berth. The pilot let down two of his ballast sacks, then two more. This accelerated his ascent dramatically; in two seconds flat the balloon had cleared the rooftops of Montmartre and was breaking out into open sky, the morning sun blazing against the envelope. Clem watched it get smaller and smaller, gaping with tipsy exhilaration. Standing on the stones of the square, it seemed to him that gravity had been reversed – that the balloon was actually falling upwards, away from the earth, a bright white ball plummeting into the heavens with some brave fool roped to its underside.
A breeze caught the Neptune and it was carried off to the west – prompting massive movement in the place SaintPierre as many made to follow. Across the square, among the blues, greys and browns of the remaining crowd, Clem noticed a spot of coral. It was Elizabeth, up from the centre of the city to witness the launch. In her hands were her notebook and a pair of binoculars. Inglis was at her side, feigning an aristocratic boredom with the whole business. Clem got an uncomfortable sense of how he must appear: pink-cheeked, clothes dishevelled, a bottle in his hand. He wanted to look away, to pretend he hadn’t noticed her, but he couldn’t.
Elizabeth had seen him too, of course, and Laure; she knew very well that he’d been neglecting his task – taken on barely a day before – to romp about with his cocotte. A cold nod directed her son’s attention to the opposite side of the square. Jean-Jacques Allix and some others were at the mouth of the rue Saint-André, surrounded by a company or two of the Montmartre National Guard; Clem recognised a couple of faces from the evening after Châtillon . They were standing apart from the rest of the crowd – watching the event rather than participating in it.
Hannah stood on the edge of this group, dressed in a uniform similar to Laure’s. This was alarming; Clem recalled an intention to call on her, smothered by recent distractions. It was clear, anyway, what Elizabeth expected of him now. He assessed his wine-drenched trousers: nothing could be done about it. Laure was still staring after the Neptune, a hand over her eyes, squinting as she tried to keep the minuscule sphere in sight. He touched her shoulder.
‘Ma soeur,’ he said.
His lover turned neatly on her heel. She glanced at Hannah with magnificent disdain before plucking the champagne bottle from his hand, firing out a half-dozen words as she lifted it to her lips. Clem didn’t understand them, but her meaning was plain enough: Off you go then.
Hannah sat in a corner of the Club Rue Rébeval, a gas jet hissing at her ear, sketching the left-hand section of the stage with a piece of charcoal. She worked fast, the brittle black stick scratching into the paper, attempting to cast off her intellect, her artistic training – to make the act of drawing as instinctive and unthinking as she possibly could. The effect of the hall was what she sought: the effect of being in the hall at that precise moment, rather than a mere record of its appearance. A rapid touch was vital. She drew an elbow, the back of a hat and the hair poking beneath it, hatching in shadows, not labouring the lines or dwelling on details. All of it would pass – the knot of kepis and cheap bonnets by the stage, the fall of the light – shifting about then breaking apart for ever. She had to be quick.
The Club Rue Rébeval was in the north-east of Paris, amongst the serried tenements of Belleville. The hall had been used for dancing before the war – decorative tin stars were still nailed around the gas fittings – but like hundreds across the city it was now given over to political debate. It was full, the air close with the heat and stink of several hundred clustered, unwashed bodies. Most were red National Guard or their wives, many of whom had infants on their hips and children clinging to their skirts. These women participated in the evening’s discussions with even more energy than their husbands, cheering riotously when the government or the clergy were denounced – which was often.
Hannah grinned with every shriek. She wore the uniform of the 197th – Jean-Jacques’s battalion, and as red as ripe tomatoes. They’d taken her almost without question, not even commenting on her nationality. She’d told her recruiting officer that she’d lived in Paris for a decade, considered France her mother country and would willingly die for the cause of French honour; he’d murmured bravo, made an entry on her form and waved her through to collect her uniform. She hadn’t expected to be so affected by the sensation of belonging. Strangers who might have sneered a week earlier now smiled and saluted as they hailed her as a brave citizen – a sister-in-arms.
The day after she joined had been the 22nd September: New Year’s Day by the Republican calendar of ’93 and a sacred date for any French revolutionary. It had been marked by a demonstration before the Hôtel de Ville, attended by ten thousand red guardsmen and as many civilians. Their initial demand had been a seat for an ultra on Trochu’s cabinet, in the hope that such a representative might be able to challenge the hesitancy that was already coming to define his administration. When they arrived before that great palace of a building, however, with its statues and grand gates, it soon became plain that this wouldn’t be enough. Chants against the Prussians became chants for the resignation of the entire provisional government – and then, for the first time, for a people’s commune like that established during the first revolution. The commune was a precious idea to Jean-Jacques and his comrades: a society turned on its head, arranged from the bottom up, with administrative power shared between large numbers of citizens drawn from all stations in life. Hannah had added her voice to the chorus. It seemed like a clear improvement to her.
Guardsmen from the Marais battalions, local to the Hôtel de Ville, had appeared along the rue de Rivoli. Their uniforms were different, a little lighter, and all of them were armed
– unlike the red units, who had at best one aging rifle for every four or five fighting men. Hannah had taunted them along with the rest of her company, telling these petitbourgeois soldiers to put on their aprons and return to their shop-counters and stock-rooms. As the insults had sailed across the square she’d felt a crazy flutter of joy. This was progress; this, at last, was action.
The protest had come to a disappointing end, guttering before it had a chance to flare. Someone had lost their nerve when a few stones were thrown, issuing the order to disperse. Nothing had been accomplished; no real statements had been made or concessions won. They were left simply to begin planning the next demonstration, endlessly formulating and debating their demands.
This night in the Club Rue Rébeval was no different from a half-dozen others Hannah had been to since that march on the Hôtel de Ville. Five speakers sat up on the stage, behind a table that had been put there solely to be struck by determined fists. It was a rogue’s gallery of Parisian radicals. In the chair was Auguste Blanqui, wizened and white-bearded, an elder statesman of the ultras known for his uncompromising views; he was said to advocate the shooting of some forty thousand men who’d been involved in the running of the Second Empire, for the good of the French state. To his right was Raoul Rigault, a little out of his league, blustering and boasting to compensate for his inexperience; and beside Rigault was the veteran journalist Félix Pyat, staring into the club as if searching for someone who’d done him a great wrong. This was the man who’d made Jean-Jacques search the rue Royale for Mrs Pardy on the opening day of the siege. He hardly seemed like Elizabeth’s typical reader, but Hannah had avoided him nonetheless. She had no desire to hear his laudation of her mother first hand.
On Blanqui’s left were the military men. Gustave Flourens, self-appointed battle chief of the reds, cut a splendid figure in the most embellished version of the militia uniform that Hannah had ever seen; his commitment to socialist principles clearly did not preclude lavish displays of rank. Willowy, well-groomed and effeminate, with a faintly ironical expression fixed to his face, he looked like a highly improbable warrior. Jean-Jacques sat at the end of the table. He was out of uniform, his black jacket melting into the shadows, his hat in his hands as if he was about to make for the door. The tendency of Parisian radicals to plot and pontificate irritated him. He’d told Hannah that he came from a different tradition: he would argue his point when necessary, but like her he always favoured decisive deeds over this endless talk. Their eyes met for a second; they shared an unsmiling smile. The discord of the Port Saint-Nicholas hadn’t lasted. They’d been reconciled, in fact, by the time they’d returned to Montmartre, and Jean-Jacques hadn’t mentioned Elizabeth since. Why am I not just drawing him? Hannah asked herself. Why do I ever draw anything else?
Under discussion was the provisional government’s failed attempt to negotiate peace with the Prussians. Pyat was recounting in his nasal voice how Chancellor Bismarck had reduced Vice-President Favre to tears with the harshness of his terms. The Prussian had demanded the ceding of Alsace and Lorraine, the immediate surrender of holy Strasbourg, and a host of other painful concessions. Hearing this, the crowd looked across to Jean-Jacques: his home province, the land of his forefathers, was under threat. He made no reaction.
‘A brave soul,’ the people agreed. ‘A truly brave soul.’
‘The demon Bismarck wants to ruin France!’ somebody shouted.
Rigault jumped at the chance to air his favourite theory. ‘But citizens,’ he cried, getting to his feet, ‘surely France should be ruined! What is she to us, as she stands? Look at this government of ours, these so-called republicans! What are they doing now, I ask you?’
‘Nothing!’ cried the hall obligingly. ‘Nothing at all!’
Blanqui raised a hoary hand. ‘They are waiting, my friends,’ he said portentously. ‘Trochu and Favre paste up their defiant declarations across the city, but they want to surrender. This is certain. They know, however, that if they do so now we will not stand for it – that they will have a revolt to deal with. So they are waiting. Our food is running low. Prices, already, are starting to rise. Little thought has been given to how the supplies we have will be shared out. You can be sure that it is us, the poor, who will go hungry if the siege drags on.’
‘True,’ said the crowd. ‘It’s always this way.’
‘This is what Trochu wants,’ Blanqui continued. ‘He wants us weakened. My friends, he is counting on it. He wants us half-starved – too wretched and frail to prevent the complete re-establishment of bourgeois rule. He will set up a society much the same as the last: all power in the hands of a corrupted elite, all wealth in the pockets of the bourgeoisie. They will turn on the workers. They always do, in every revolution this country has ever seen. The bourgeoisie use us to rid themselves of the undesired leader, and then they turn us back into their slaves. We are promised liberty – and are rewarded with further tyranny!’
Flourens stirred, spurs and scabbard jangling in a fine impersonation of a noble spirit roused. ‘Then we must act.’ His voice was cultured, soft; not for the first time Hannah wondered at the influence he’d gained with the ouvriers of Belleville. ‘We must make them hear us. Paris must save Paris.’
‘Paris must save Paris!’ thundered the Club Rue Rébeval.
Rigault and Pyat leaped from their chairs, applauding this stock phrase as if it wasn’t repeated at every meeting they attended. Various dramatic steps were proposed and debated. Rigault wanted bloodshed, Trochu’s head on a spike; Pyat wanted rifles, a Chassepot for every red guardsman; Blanqui favoured seizing food stores so that the government could be held to ransom.
After a few minutes Jean-Jacques stood like a man who’d heard enough. At last, Hannah thought, finishing off her drawing. The Alsatian loomed over the table; Rigault and Pyat sank back into their seats. The hall fell quiet.
‘My fellow citizens,’ he began, ‘this is all well and good, but we must act against the Prussians. If we can beat them then Paris would be ours. The government seems to think that our foes are invincible. I tell you that they are not. They are just men. The people need to be reminded of this. They need to be reminded that a sortie,’ – the hall muttered at the word – ‘a sortie would bring us certain victory. We are told that the enemy has encircled our city. I ask you: can this really be so? How many men can Prussia and Bavaria spew forth? Are they not also besieging the cities of Strasbourg and Metz – and occupying several other large territories as well?’
‘It is ridiculous,’ interjected Flourens, keen to show something of his own bravery and strategic insight. ‘It can’t be done.’
‘A fortnight ago we were saying that cutting off Paris was impossible. Well, my friends, perhaps it is. Perhaps this mighty siege is nothing but an illusion. What do we know
– I mean truly know? A single minor victory has been won against the scum of the Imperial army. Some woods have been put to the torch. These events prove nothing. I put it to you that large stretches of the Prussian line are all but unmanned. It would be easy for us to break out and end this siege. The 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements alone could field a hundred thousand men. We could do it tonight!’
His audience growled its agreement; the other men on the stage struck the table and stamped their boots.
‘This is what the government tries to hide from us. They want the siege – Citizen Blanqui is right. They want to wear us down with hunger. They want to drain the lifeblood from the revolution. And if we are not brave, citizens, if we are not determined, they will surely succeed. We must—’
A commotion at the side of the hall forced him to stop. ‘Spy, spy!’ the people there yelled. ‘Hold him – don’t let him escape!’
This was common in the Club Rue Rébeval, a favourite bit of theatre; the reds, mistrustful by nature, were constantly rooting traitors from their midst. Hannah climbed on her stool to get a better look. The interloper was dressed in a grey suit, his arms lifted over his head to fend off the slaps that were coming in from every direction. It was Clem’s new friend – Monsieur Besson, the aérostier from the ElyséesMontmartre who’d run out of the Café Géricault in that unaccountable manner. Since that day, Hannah had begun to notice him in the place Saint-Pierre and the lanes around it; he seemed to be slipping into a shop or cafe whenever she turned around. She’d actually started to suspect that he was a government agent of some sort, planted among the balloonists to observe red Montmartre. Instead of fleeing or pleading innocence, however, as those accused of spying tended to do, this Monsieur Besson shouted out a rebuttal.
‘I am an honest republican,’ he stated in a loud, clear voice, ‘and I say that those up on that stage would be ten times more tyrannical than Louis Napoleon – him there with the scar worst of all! They are your enemies, can’t you see? They would soak Paris in Parisian blood! They would—’
The aérostier’s words were buried under a landslide of taunts and curses. The Club Rue Rébeval closed in, punching him to the floor. A signal was given from the stage; a few of Gustave Flourens’s personal guard, a crack militia detachment known as the Tirailleurs, were tasked with ejecting Monsieur Besson from the building. Hannah watched them haul him to the street, afraid that she might see her brother. She did not – but there was a chance that he’d been standing further back and was already outside. She put the drawing in her knapsack, got down from her stool and started to push her way to the exit. She had to be sure.
Clem was troubling her. The last time they’d met, at the balloon launch, he’d been wretched to behold: dirty and steaming drunk, slurring his words, his trouser-leg dark with an unmentioned dampness. Introduced to Jean-Jacques, he’d spluttered and rambled, spouting a variety of half-baked notions about socialism and the International, making a thoroughly disastrous impression. It had been obvious, also, that he’d come to an arrangement with their mother. Her twin was the least cunning creature alive; his attempts at leading questions were so clumsy they’d made her wince. Hannah had got rid of him as quickly as she could, revealing nothing, but it had pained her to see him so reduced. She felt that he was losing his way in Paris, surrendering to his basest appetites, taking up with the likes of Laure Fleurot whilst the city around him grew more hazardous by the day. How it might end, though, or what she might do to help him, she really didn’t know.
Four large guardsmen were beating Monsieur Besson in the gutter, by the grimy yellow light that spilled from the club’s windows. He was lashing out at his attackers whenever he could, but it was futile; he fell to his knees, then onto his side. The militiamen showed no sign of relenting.
Hannah rushed over. ‘Stop, stop! Christ above, what’s wrong with you?’
The guardsmen backed away, glancing into the shadows; Rigault stood there, down from the stage, smoking a cigarette. Their victim rolled over, panting as he checked himself for injury. Hannah crouched before him and laid a hand on his forearm. He flinched at her touch.
‘Are you all right, Monsieur?’
The aérostier nodded, keeping his head bowed; he seemed ashamed and would not meet her eye. He pressed the cuff of his grey jacket to his lip, a black blood-spot spreading across the fabric.
‘Mademoiselle Pardy, please,’ he whispered, ‘you must get away.’
Hannah blinked, startled by the feeling in his voice. She recognised it; they’d definitely spoken before, a couple of cordial exchanges as she’d painted around Montmartre. She glared at Rigault, covering her perplexity with anger. ‘What is this?’ she demanded. ‘What were you going to do – kill him?’
‘The man makes balloons, Rigault! What possible threat does he pose?’
‘Those balloons could connect Trochu with the rest of the French army,’ the agitator replied, ‘with the machinery of national government. And anyway, citizen, surely you know that there is more to our Monsieur Besson than that. He is an enemy of the revolution. I hear that he’s been asking about Jean-Jacques all over the city. We can’t permit this. The revolution requires—’
‘You are insane,’ Hannah broke in, rising from the gutter. ‘You are a murderous pig, a—’
The doors of the hall banged opened and Jean-Jacques strode across the street towards them. ‘Damn it, Rigault,’ he said, ‘must I always be on hand to halt your cruelties?’
Hannah let out an exclamation of relief: reason was restored. Without looking at her, Jean-Jacques ordered the Tirailleurs to set Monsieur Besson free. Rigault protested, but to no avail. The aérostier was pulled to his feet; the hat that had been dislodged during the fight was handed back to him and he was shoved away down the unlit avenue. Despite the punishment he’d suffered, and the further damage that would doubtless have been inflicted had he stayed, Monsieur Besson limped off with distinct reluctance.
‘Bravo, Jean-Jacques,’ said Rigault, ‘you’ve just turned loose a government spy. And one, furthermore, with a particular interest in you.’
Jean-Jacques’s expression was suitably contemptuous. ‘That man is no spy. Would one of Trochu’s men really make such a spectacle of himself in a red club?’ He turned to Hannah. ‘No, there is a different explanation here. I believe that Monsieur Besson is rather taken with Citizen Pardy.’
Hannah saw at once that this was true. ‘How can that be so?’ she said. ‘I – I don’t know him at all.’
The slightest touch of amusement entered Jean-Jacques’s voice. ‘Yet somehow you have won his devotion. This aérostier is an old-fashioned sort, I think. He no doubt imagines that he must rescue you from my clutches. From the clutches of the socialist cause.’
Rigault chuckled. ‘Tragic.’
‘It’s harmless enough,’ Jean-Jacques added, ‘but he must be discouraged. We cannot look vulnerable, not to anyone. Not now.’
Hannah supposed that she understood, but this incident had left her confused – almost as if she and Jean-Jacques were a party to Rigault’s violent excesses. Suddenly she remembered Clem, anxiety surging up and then subsiding just as quickly. He plainly hadn’t come to Belleville with Monsieur Besson. Of course he hadn’t; he’d be drunk somewhere, wrapped around his cocotte.
The meeting in the Club Rue Rébeval was still in full flight, Blanqui’s voice booming out through the doorway. Hannah, though, had heard enough. She told Jean-Jacques that she was going back to Montmartre. He didn’t object, smiling gently as he bade her goodnight.
‘I wouldn’t really have let them kill him, citizen,’ Rigault called after her. ‘Not here in the street. How stupid do you think I am?’
Puffing out his chest, thumbs hooked in his braces, the militia sergeant launched into his song. Before the siege he’d been a professional, working on the café-concert circuit, and his strong tenor filled the room. He’d chosen a recent success called ‘The Walrus and the Langoustine’.
Laure Fleurot emerged from the kitchens. Uniform gone, she was down to her corset and petticoats – practically undressed by the standards of polite society. To the fast rhythm being clapped by the guardsmen, she put her hands on her slender hips and shimmied across the floor, poking out her rear twice to the left, then twice to the right. One patent boot was planted on a chair, the other onto the top of the long table, and she was up before them all, throwing herself into an energetic dance. She raised her knees as high as they would go, flashing naked thighs and lacy undergarments; she made snipping movements with her hands, mimicking the claws of the poor little langoustine; she screamed along with the song’s refrain, giving it a breathless lift.
‘He’ll gobble me up! He’ll gobble me up!’
Hannah watched from a bench set against the far wall.
She was in good spirits; even learning that Laure was the other vivandière on duty that night had done little to spoil them. Some hours earlier, in an inevitable contradiction of the claims she’d made to Elizabeth, she’d gone back to her easel to start a canvas based on her study of the Club Rue Rébeval. Although wary of self-praise, Hannah couldn’t deny that it was turning out brilliantly well, far beyond her hopes. She was improving. It excited her just to think that this painting existed – that it would be standing there when she next opened the door of Madame Lantier’s shed. That she had done this, created this picture, infused her with energy and purpose; the itch was building now, in fact, as she looked at Laure whirling and bobbing with a dozen guardsmen slavering around her ankles. She took out her sketchbook and charcoal.
‘The Walrus and the Langoustine’ ended to hearty cheers. Laure fell backwards from the tabletop into the arms of the militiamen, who held her aloft, carrying her on a lap of the room. This guardhouse had been a private residence before the siege, that of a wealthy merchant; he’d fled several weeks previously, leaving the city to claim his property for the billeting of her troops. It had been ransacked, stripped of everything of value. The walls were covered with slogans and crude cartoons. Hannah’s contributions – a forlorn Louis Napoleon being led to captivity on a donkey, a globular Bismarck eating a baby on a spit – were rather more expert than the rest and had won her some grins, but she could hardly compete with Laure for popularity. She did her duties, which revolved around collecting rations from the mairie and then distributing them in the guardhouse kitchen, and stayed on the margins. Her well-known connection with Jean-Jacques spared her the harassments endured by the other girls. No one wanted to cross Major Allix. They simply left her alone.
Laure was deposited in a large armchair. ‘Which of you dogs,’ she demanded, still panting with exertion, ‘was feeling my arse? Whoever it was owes me ten sous!’
‘Is that the rate?’ asked one of the guardsmen. ‘Why, I’ve got it right here!’
‘So have I!’
A second later Laure was standing on the chair, her elbows on its back, presenting herself to the room. The men formed a line, but she lost interest just as the first one was about to lay his hands upon her. She turned, pushing him back a few steps; she’d noticed Hannah.
‘Mademoiselle Pardy,’ she called out, ‘are you a spy? Only you certainly look like one with that there drawing in your lap.’
Hannah worked on, shading the cocotte’s stockinged calf. She’d resolved to be distant, contained – to get through the shift and hope that this situation didn’t recur. It wasn’t likely to; Laure’s record of attendance was something of a joke in the 197th. This was actually the first time Hannah had seen her in the ten days that she’d enrolled.
‘Why would a spy be here?’ she said. ‘What is going on that could possibly be of any interest to anyone?’
Laure tossed her head; some of her hair had come loose and was clinging to her sweaty neck. ‘Your brother is a lot more fun than you are, I have to say. He knows how to take his pleasure – and give it too.’
Hannah sighed. This is provocation, she thought; this is not my fault. She put down her charcoal. ‘What are you doing with him, Laure? What do you want?’
The cocotte perched on the back of her armchair, crossing her legs, dismissing the still-hopeful queue with a single flick of her boot. ‘Just to fuck. He ain’t afraid of a little spice, your brother. Big cock as well.’ The guardsmen sniggered like schoolboys. ‘You understand this, Hannah, I know you do, somewhere in that frosty English heart of yours. It’s what you get from your Jean-Jacques, after all.’
‘How do you have the first idea what I—’
‘Now there’s one I’d like to try out. Me and every other girl in Montmartre, eh? Tell us, what’s our Major Allix like, you know, in the act? I’ve had my share of soldiers. They’re always a bit strange, aren’t they? Rough, sometimes?’
‘You are unbelievable.’
‘So I’m told – by your brother, among others. Ay-may-sing.’ Laure’s pronunciation of the English word was deliberately laboured. ‘That’s what he calls me, over and over.’
The last glimmer of Hannah’s good mood disappeared. ‘God above,’ she said, louder than she’d intended, ‘do you even know his damned name?’
The guardsmen were silent, totally agog. This was a rare show indeed and they weren’t going to miss a second of it.
Laure buffed her fingernails against the frilled strap of her corset, acting as if she hadn’t heard the question. ‘Have you ever thought why he likes you?’ she asked. ‘Jean-Jacques, I mean? Why you, rather than anyone else? You’re pretty enough, I suppose, but that can’t be it. This man could have anyone, so why choose a bony Anglaise who lives in a shed, putting out these ugly damn pictures that don’t even look properly finished? It don’t make sense to me. Perhaps you can explain.’
Hannah was on her feet now, thinking how easily she could tip that armchair over and send the dirty slut rolling into the fireplace, when their singer-sergeant came forward to propose another number: ‘The Cockerel’s Lament’. He did this as a diversion, to avoid further upset to an important man’s girl, and had started the opening line before his squad properly realised what was going on.
‘No one heeds my cry, in Paris this fair morning . . .’
There were disappointed groans; the guardsmen wanted to see a fight and at first the clapping was reluctant. When Laure hopped back onto the table, however, hoisting up her petticoats, they forgot about her confrontation with Hannah completely.
Hannah sat down again. She stared hard at her drawing. Something was there, a dash of Laure’s lithe vigour, but she couldn’t continue with it now. She was thinking of Clem
– wondering where he was at that precise moment. If he and Laure could speak the same language it would never even have got close to this. She folded the page in two, and then again, sliding the quartered sketch behind the bench.
‘The Cockerel’s Lament’ concluded with the unfortunate fowl going into the cooking pot, put there by Parisians sick of being disturbed during their amours. Laure dropped a deep curtsey and shouted for wine. It was all gone, the guardsmen told her; and what was worse it was past midnight. The liquor seller over on the rue Oudot would have packed up for the night. Someone would have to go down to the place Saint-Pierre.
Hannah went to the table. ‘Give me the money,’ she said. ‘I’ll do it.’
The squad reached gladly into its pockets, counting out coins and placing orders.
Laure, unimpressed, broke into an impromptu jig. ‘See how the mouse tries to make you her friends!’ she gasped as she kicked up her heels. ‘Oh, see the dreadful burdens she’ll carry!’
There was more laughter; the guardsmen looked to Hannah, thinking they’d been granted a second bout.
‘No, Laure, honestly,’ Hannah replied, collecting the money, ‘I just want to get away from you.’
The cocotte stopped her dance, crossing her bare arms, abandoning her jibes for a full-on assault. ‘What are you even doing here, you English bitch? This is Paris. We are all Parisians here. Go back to London, back to your coal and fog, your—’
Hannah slammed the door behind her. The guardhouse yard was dark; the lane beyond little better. Above, the stars were brighter and more numerous than she could ever remember seeing in Paris, swirls and fronds spreading deep into the heavens. She walked through the streets, concentrating her thoughts on the painting of the Club Rue Rébeval. She recalled how she’d captured the play of gaslight upon the coarse fabric of National Guard uniforms; the blending and jumbling of forms, exactly as a common audience might appear; the charged feeling of the whole, the sense of urgency that ran through it. Her earlier enthusiasm began to return.
There was a screech ahead – a cry of grief and horror. Hannah rounded a corner expecting an accident, an overturned cart or someone flung from a horse, yet all she saw was a group of people before the mairie of Montmartre – the offices of the Mayor. Above the doorway, a large red flag almost concealed the hole in the architrave where there had until recently been an Imperial eagle. A bulletin from the Hôtel de Ville had obviously just been read; a fresh bill was pasted to the noticeboard. Hannah hurried towards it.
‘It’s over!’ an old woman wailed, slumping onto the kerb. ‘We’re finished now – undone!’
‘Cowards!’ spat a National Guard corporal. ‘How could they let this happen? Did they not think of Paris, of what was at stake here?’
The sheet of paper was in the standard official format. One word was struck across the top in the largest type, legible even in the murky street: Strasbourg.
There it was. Hannah looked up again at the night sky. Holy Strasbourg had fallen.
* * *
Relieved at seven the next morning, Hannah went straight to the central boulevards to see what more she could discover. Huge numbers were out, but to mourn rather than demonstrate; the prevailing mood was one of dazed disbelief. She followed the old current onto the place de la Concorde. So many flowers had been piled upon the Strasbourg statue that the figure itself was almost lost to sight.
Nestled amidst this sorrow and sympathy was a canker of selfish fear. An entire division of Prussians, emboldened by victory, would be on their way to Paris, to bolster the besieging forces. They would be there in a couple of weeks at most. There would be no glorious fight – no heroic triumph. All the Parisians’ patriotic vows and brave words would count for nothing. The few details that had reached them about Strasbourg’s end fuelled dire predictions of the fate that awaited their own city. Many ancient buildings, including a library famous throughout learned Europe, had been destroyed by Prussian bombardment. This is what they are prepared to do, people were telling each other – what they will surely do to us. Soon Notre Dame will be in flames, the Pantheon in ruins!
It had also been reported that the defenders of Strasbourg had been starved into submission rather than defeated in battle, emerging from their long confinement in a condition of wretched emaciation. Everyone was now certain that this would be the course of the siege of Paris as well. Hannah overheard much intense discussion of how long they could hold out; of how many sheep and oxen were grazing in the city’s parks, and how much grain there was in the government’s stores; of what foodstuffs were already becoming scarce. She thought of Auguste Blanqui in the Club Rue Rébeval, predicting that Trochu would use the hunger of a lengthy siege to suppress the reforming poor, and headed for Montmartre to find Jean-Jacques.
No one had seen him. He’d been with some other officers from the 197th when the news about Strasbourg had broken, but had disappeared shortly after. This wasn’t uncommon; Hannah gave up and went to the rue Careau. Her painting was there in the shed, propped on its easel. It was now unsatisfactory in a host of different ways. A whole section close to the bottom – part of the audience, the passage she’d thought so successful – would have to be redone. She snatched her palette from the wicker chair and set to work without even taking off her National Guard jacket.
The arrival of dusk finally forced her to stop. She stepped back and squinted at the canvas: she’d knocked it off balance, labouring some aspects and effacing its best qualities in the process. She swore and threw down her brushes, standing for a moment with her face in her hands; then she went to bed, too tired to do much more than remove her boots. She was asleep in seconds.
A creak woke her; she stared at the rafters, her body rigid. Someone, a man, had crept in through the door, over on the other side of her Japanese screen. She’d forgotten to fasten the bolt again. Dawn was close, a soft light filling the shed; the shutters must be open as well. Her eyes went to the shelf where she kept her canvas knife. Could she reach it before he reached her?
The intruder shut the door behind him. He put something on the floor, several metal objects; a chain rattled into a bowl.
She let out her breath. ‘Here.’
Jean-Jacques came straight to her and lay down heavily, on top of the blankets. She put an arm around his shoulders. Something had happened; his clothes were damp and carried the fresh odour of the countryside, of leaves and dewy grass, underlaid with the tang of sweat. They stayed like this for almost a minute.
‘Where have you been?’ Hannah asked.
He didn’t answer, burying his face in her neck instead. His nose was cold against her skin; she could feel the scar and the bristles of a three-day beard. She sat up, folded back the Japanese screen and looked over at the objects he’d dropped by the door. Three metal helmets shone dully in the early dawn. The six-inch spikes set in their crowns caused them to lean to the side, resting on the floorboards like spinning tops. She recognised them from countless cartoons published in Paris since the start of the war: they were Pickelhauben, the helmets of the Prussian infantry.
‘I killed them.’ His voice was quiet – grim yet unashamed. ‘I went out alone, yesterday evening. Slit their throats at a watch post near Le Bourget.’
Everything shifted. Hannah made an involuntary sound, close to a laugh. She put a hand over her mouth. Her head went light, red spots fanning across her vision; her limbs began to tremble. He rose beside her and she found herself wondering if he still had the blade on him – if there was any blood on his jacket or trousers, soaked into the black material. All she could see of his face was part of the split cheekbone. She felt like a child, petrified before something obscure and monstrous.
‘You killed them,’ she said at last. It sounded absurd. It couldn’t be true.
‘I’ve killed many, Hannah. Thirty-six over in America. Seventeen in the Vosges Mountains.’ He turned away. ‘Such is war.’
Hannah tried her hardest to push the abhorrence from her mind – to recover her perspective. She knew this: not the facts, perhaps, but she knew what he must have done. She’d talked about it with her friends, even, on at least one inebriated night in the Danton. It was thrilling, she’d told them, to be held by a man who’d fought in battles; who’d done great and serious things. Thrilling – that was the very word she’d used.
But this was different. They weren’t talking about another continent or a distant province of France: this was Le Bourget, for Christ’s sake. Hannah had visited the village only that spring, to paint with Benoît and Lucien; they’d eaten sheep’s feet in a cafe before catching the train back into Paris. And now Jean-Jacques, the lover she adored and had given herself to completely, had killed three men there. He’d cut throats in the corner of one of those pretty meadows. This deed wasn’t somewhere in the past. It was hours old. The bodies might still be warm, their blood still flowing. She squirmed from under the blankets and stood up, looking around for a basin. She was going to be sick.
Jean-Jacques stood as well; his elbow struck against the Japanese screen, sending it clattering against the bookcase. ‘This has to happen, Hannah,’ he said, taking hold of her wrists. ‘The people need to be shown that the fight is not lost – that these men, these Prussians, will die like anyone else. It has to be done. You saw the city yesterday, how shaken it was.’
Hannah squeezed her eyes shut, shivering as she gulped down her nausea. She nodded; he was right. They were at war and this had to happen. Jean-Jacques guided them back down onto the bed, relaxing his hold on her a little but not letting go. Hannah was weak; her head ached and her mouth was sour. She realised that she hadn’t eaten since the guardhouse. She longed to lay her head on his shoulder, but she couldn’t. Something was sticking her in place – keeping her sitting stiff and upright on the edge of the mattress.
‘Everyone says we are doomed,’ she murmured.
‘This will show them that there is still hope. It is terrible, I know it is, but it will work.’ Jean-Jacques’s manner became more efficient. ‘It must go into the papers, into as many papers as possible. I’ll talk to Pyat and Blanqui; they’ll put it in theirs, that’s certain. But this is only the red press. We need to speak to all Paris. The northern arrondissements can’t prevail alone, not any longer. We’ll need the National Guard of the whole city, and the regulars and marines as well, if the circle is to be broken. There must be a massive sortie, a single overwhelming attack. Everybody out at once.’
Hannah guessed what he was about to ask. ‘No,’ she said. ‘No. You cannot expect that. Please, Jean-Jacques.’
‘We need your mother, Hannah. We need the famous Mrs Pardy. She is already writing for the French papers – for ones we can’t get even remotely close to. The Figaro. The Gaulois. You must take me to speak with her.’
‘You don’t understand, you or your friend Monsieur Pyat. She will use you for her own ends. She will—’
‘I know that this is difficult. I’ve seen how things are between you. But we have one final chance to strike at the Prussians before they become unbeatable – before our government can starve the strength from the ordinary people. We must act quickly or we will be lost.’
Jean-Jacques tightened his grip again, fixing her with an unwavering stare. Hannah glanced at him and was caught. She could feel herself beginning to yield – literally giving in like crumbling mortar. This, she thought, is the price.
‘Very well,’ she said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’
They were walking side by side up the main staircase of the Grand, from floor five to six: Hannah and the blackclad Monsieur Allix, on their way to Elizabeth’s rooms. A prisoner and her guard, thought Clem, ducking behind a column. He didn’t want to encounter them any earlier than he had to. Raindrops tapped against the glass dome overhead; Paris’s Indian summer, all that radiant sunshine and infinite blue sky, had come to an end. The bad weather was beginning.
There were shouts somewhere below, and a piteous scream. Clem peered over the balustrade, down into the lobby. Doctors in surgical gowns were rushing through the grid of iron bedsteads that had been set out across the marble floor, receiving a wounded soldier from the fortifications – the victim of a sniper, most likely. Clem leaned back. He’d witnessed several impromptu operations in the week since the lower floors of the Grand had been made a hospital, and had concluded that he was most definitely not of a medical inclination.
The rain grew harder. Clem didn’t know what to make of this visit. His attempt to question Hannah about red activity had been a bit of a debacle. It still made him blush to think of those wet trousers. She’d sent him packing, clearly indicatingthat there was no place for him or their mother in this Montmartre life of hers. And yet here they were, in the heart of the Opéra district, calling on Elizabeth at Hannah’s own request. The previous morning a few of the ultra newspapers had trumpeted a deadly raid that Major Allix of the National Guard had made against the Prussian encampments at Le Bourget – apparently he’d slain several men single-handed and claimed their helmets as trophies. Later that day, a Montmartre guardsman had delivered a note to Elizabeth from her daughter, asking for an audience. The two things were certainly connected, any blockhead could see that; quite how, though, Clem wasn’t sure. He smoked a quick, apprehensive cigarette and followed them in.
Elizabeth’s suite was larger and finer than his. The central sitting room, lit against the rainy gloom by half a dozen bronze gas fittings, was richly papered and carpeted, and filled with heavy furniture. There was a warm smell of sandalwood; in the grate rippled a jolly little fire. Two tall windows offered a commanding view of Garnier’s opera house. That gilded heap of Imperial extravagance was now being used as a military depot, its stone eagles shrouded in sackcloth. Inscribed in gold across its façade was the legend Académie Nationale de Musique – the Nationalesomewhat fresher than the rest, having only recently been painted over the original Imperiale.
Hannah, Allix and Elizabeth sat in a triangle, his sister and her lover forming the base with his mother at the apex. Only one chair was left, in a far corner. Clem picked his way to it like a latecomer at the theatre. Rather unexpectedly, the Frenchman was talking in English, and acquitting himself well. An affective radical must speak many languages, Clem reasoned, the better to disseminate his incendiary creed. Right then, however, he was querying the necessity of Clem’s presence; the fellow plainly thought him a liability, a drunken joke. Clem could understand this. He hovered by the chair, awaiting judgement.
‘Clement is in partnership with me,’ Elizabeth replied; Clem saw a sneer dart across Hannah’s face. ‘Anything that concerns my work concerns him as well. Don’t worry yourself, Monsieur Allix, he can be trusted completely.’
Allix wasn’t pleased, but he accepted it. ‘If you say so, Madame.’
Clem took his seat. That was one mystery solved, at any rate: it was the services of Elizabeth’s pen that they were after. The partnership she’d mentioned was actually in doubt due to his rather woeful performance up to that point, but this was his mother’s way: a unified front before outsiders. Settling down, unbuttoning his jacket, he looked over at her guests.
Jean-Jacques Allix had a near-invisible hint of supplication about him, but otherwise remained as impressive as ever – if anything lent a dark gravitas by his lethal actions in the field. Hannah, meanwhile, sat with her legs and arms crossed, making it very clear that she was there against her will. Clem had been told by Laure – through disconnected, emphatic words and a range of scornful gestures – that his twin had been the cause of much annoyance at their guardhouse. Her militia uniform, creased and baggy with paint stains on the cuffs, was worn with none of Laure’s insolent panache. She’d lost yet more weight, gaining a skinny, unapproachable look, and her blonde hair was tied up in a greasy knot. He remembered the moment he first saw her in the Café-Concert Danton, little more than a fortnight earlier, and how enormously happy she’d seemed. That, he supposed, was the real change. Hannah was no longer happy.
‘And to answer your question,’ Elizabeth said to Allix, ‘I certainly saw them. Every one of this city’s journalistic efforts finds its way into this room. I have an example here, in fact.’ She plucked something from the small table beside her chair: two sheets of folded, membrane-thin paper swarming with words. It was La Patrie en Danger, a red rag printed up in Belleville, the entirety both written and edited by the same barmy old fanatic. She put on her spectacles and began a bone-dry translation.
‘We, the working people of Paris, unite in praise of the brave efforts of Major Jean-Jacques Allix of the 197th Battalion. Alone he slashes into the Imperial oppressors, a humble man bringing down the servants of a king with the fire of righteous patriotic anger. In him we witness the power of an honest soul, and are reminded yet again that the emancipation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.’ Elizabeth stopped. ‘He goes on in a similar vein for another nine paragraphs.’
Allix sat up, placing those black-gloved hands – the right one a touch rigid – on the arms of his chair. His embarrassment did not suit him. ‘Citizen Blanqui means well,’ he said, ‘but we want this to awaken Paris – not to speak only to those in Belleville and Montmartre who are already eager to act. I did not undertake it lightly, Mrs Pardy. I want it to have meaning.’
Elizabeth removed her glasses, listening closely, a tiny seed of flirtation in her manner. The ultra held her gaze, as serious as can be; Hannah stared at the opera house, ignoring them both.
‘We will demonstrate, of course,’ Allix continued. ‘Further marches are planned. But time is running out. They have taken Strasbourg. Metz, our one surviving fortress in the east, could fall at any time – the commander, Marshal Bazaine, is an old Imperialist and will not give his best fight. Food prices are rising, and we—’
‘Indeed they are,’ Clem interrupted, searching his pockets for cigarettes. ‘Why, a pat of butter already costs more than a lawyer’s letter.’
There was a pause. Why the devil did I say that? Clem wondered. Why can’t I stop myself confirming their low opinion of me?
Elizabeth lifted a thoughtful finger to her lips. She was loving every damned second of this. Here, in the handsome and enigmatic Major Allix, was an alternative to her unreliable son – a source of information far more compelling and authentic than anything Clem could hope to provide. And beside him, of course, was Hannah, the prodigal returned. It didn’t matter how unwilling she was, or ungracious: she had returned. She’d run away to Paris, and now she was sitting in the Grand. For her mother it was quite the result.
‘I have some sympathy for your cause, Major. I am no radical myself, you understand; well,’ she qualified, ‘not an active one at least, not any longer. But I respect what you are doing, you and your comrades. I see the lassitude, the empty bombast of the central arrondissements – and I see the workers of Belleville and Montmartre, trying to hold your timorous politicians to account and demanding the chance actually to fight against your invaders.’ She tossed La Patrie en Danger back onto the table. ‘I realise, also, that the deed reported so impressively by Monsieur Blanqui and his peers is a part of this . . . programme of action. What is it, though, that you could possibly require of me?’
Clem lit a cigarette, looking from his mother to the Frenchman opposite her. Elizabeth had worked it out, probably before they’d even arrived, but she was going to make him say it. Clem recalled his mother mentioning that Allix didn’t like her, that he’d been set against her by Hannah. Something had happened when they’d met on the day of that march – a slight, perhaps, or a show of indifference. This was Elizabeth settling the score.
Allix met it head on, delineating his proposal with direct clarity. The famous Mrs Pardy would become his champion in the moderate press – the papers that catered to the broad middle class of Paris. With each day of isolation the city’s news hunger grew more acute. Both of them knew that a Parisian hero, a man seen to be striking hard against the Prussians, would be seized upon and lauded to the heavens. Major Allix of the 197th battalion could be fashioned into a powerful example of French courage – a tool to be used against the hesitant Trochu.
Elizabeth adjusted the fall of the coral gown, acting as if she was preparing to grant Allix a grand favour; although in truth this had come to her like an answered prayer. She’d managed to get a couple of pieces in the major papers, trading on those connections of hers, but it had been far from easy. There was too much competition, she’d complained to Clem, boredom having swollen the ranks of the Parisian press to an almost unsupportable degree, and her oncerenowned name had counted for very little. Privileged access to a tale like this, however – backed up with hard proof, unusual indeed in besieged Paris – would surely lead to her being sought out rather than obliged to seek. And then there was the book. Even Clem could see that this might serve as its backbone, and distinguish it at once from the other siege diaries crowding the bookstalls.
‘I could do this, certainly,’ she said. ‘Remove some of the socialistic rhetoric, if that is what you want – give the whole a bit of dash. I’d need regular reports, though, on your activities and everything that frames them. And perhaps some details about your background, Major; your noble actions, love of your country, and so forth. The part you played in the American war.’
‘Naturally, Madame,’ Allix replied. ‘Shall we start now? There is not a minute to be lost.’
Elizabeth had one more request to add. ‘I will need a portrait,’ she said, without looking at Hannah, ‘for the illustrated papers both here and abroad. A more considered version of the one in that shed, perhaps.’
Oh God, thought Clem, just about suppressing an urge to hide behind a cushion, here we bloody go.
Hannah turned from the windows. Her expression served as an unwelcome reminder of those last months before her departure from London – of epic clashes that had run on for hours, with much slamming of doors and shattering of china; of a red hall in Chelsea, filled with parakeets, gentlemen in evening dress chortling in the background.
‘I brought Jean-Jacques here at his request,’ she said in a hoarse voice, ‘but so help me, Elizabeth, if you think that I’m going to—’
Allix spoke over her, covering her hand with his. ‘This can be discussed later. What is important now is that we reach as many as possible. We need to act.’
Hannah whipped away her hand and sprang from her chair. She started for the door but seemed to hit the end of a tether, swinging back around until she stood fuming silently by the fireplace. Elizabeth wore a detestable smile. Her notebook was at the ready; she’d just finished writing a heading when the gas lights flickered out, dropping the room into shadow.
‘It must be nine o’clock,’ she said. ‘They started doing that yesterday. Everything, I suppose, must soon be rationed.’ She laid down her pen. ‘Clement, be so good as to fetch us a candle.’
Two squads of militia met at a narrow junction, one red and the other bourgeois; after swapping a few insults the former went for the latter as if confronted by a mortal foe. Clem was walking past, thinking about Laure in his usual state of intermingled confusion and desire, when one of the reds, a typically lean, shabby specimen, spotted him and seized his arm. An awkward dance began, Clem lunging across the pavement whilst the scrawny guardsman held onto him, boots scrabbling for purchase, shouting at the top of his voice. Clem’s jacket began to slip from his shoulder. He was wondering how long this tug-of-war could reasonably go on when Émile Besson appeared, detached the red from his sleeve and sent him tumbling to the ground, followed by a few harsh-sounding words.
‘Come, Mr Pardy,’ he said, turning to Clem, ‘this way.’ They walked off quickly.
‘What – what was he saying?’
‘That you were a dirty foreigner, eating food meant for
Frenchmen.’ Besson glanced behind him. ‘That you should be shot.’
As if on cue a pistol was raised in the air and discharged. Clem started, almost breaking into a run; the red guardsmen scattered with a flurry of oaths. The bourgeois officer who had fired, a sleek grocer type in a lieutenant’s uniform, lowered his smoking gun and began yelling at the men sprawled around his feet.
‘Lucky for me you came along, then,’ Clem remarked, straightening his jacket.
Besson didn’t respond. He looked down the street; having untangled Clem from the brawl he plainly wanted to be away.
‘Join me for a brandy, Monsieur Besson. I owe you that at least.’
‘I regret that I cannot. I have an urgent appointment.’
‘Come on, old man, it’ll take a minute only. I’ve been looking for you, as a matter of fact – I’ve something to show you. This is a fine coincidence.’
It was anything but, of course; Clem had taken to patrolling this street at lunchtime, knowing that Besson ate his meals in a restaurant halfway down. Through sheer persistence, he’d managed to get himself and the aérostier back on a broadly amiable footing after their misunderstanding over the letter; Besson remained Clem’s prime suspect, but it no longer seemed of any great consequence. He was determined to develop their acquaintance into a proper friendship. After nearly a month in Paris he was beginning to feel seriously lonely, Laure’s attentions notwithstanding.
Seeing that it was easier to consent than resist, Besson indicated a small restaurant with a laurel green front – his establishment of choice. Several joints of aging meat were arranged on plates in the window. The aérostier was welcomed by name; he selected a table close to the door, ordering coffee, and a brandy for his companion. Clem grinned, but felt a little crestfallen; this conversation was sure to be a brief one.
Besson took off his round-topped hat and set it on the table, exposing a head of dark, close-cropped hair. The crescentshaped bruise on his face was almost gone. Over the past fortnight, at intermittent meetings in and around the balloon factory, Clem had watched it change from black through dark blue to purple; now it was a greenish yellow, the colour of herbal soap, a ghost of what it had once been. Clem had made a couple of attempts to extract an explanation for this lurid wound, but had come to realise that none would ever be given. ‘They attacked me near the Elysées,’ was all Bessonwould say. ‘I don’t know why.’
The aérostier’s restaurant was a pleasant enough place, clean and unpretentious; a single room kept quite dim, it had a low ceiling, polished floorboards and plain white tablecloths, and was infused with the smell of fried mushrooms. As unobtrusively as he could, Clem examined the diners’ plates. Only one dish was on offer that lunchtime, an oblong of greyish flesh served with some withered beans: the municipal meat ration. Introduced a week or so before, it had already been cut to a hundred grams per person per day. Clem had partaken of this stuff at the Grand. Beef was the official description , but it had a gamey sweetness quite unlike any cow he’d ever tasted; and it could hardly escape one’s notice that the boulevards were being increasingly left to pedestrians, the horses of Paris disappearing in order of palatability.
Poking from the inside pocket of Clem’s jacket was a sheaf of designs for aerial contraptions. He’d felt positively inspired of late, his old imaginings reanimated by what he’d been seeing in the Elysées-Montmartre. His particular obsession at the moment, having heard of the difficulties in guaranteeing both the direction and duration of flight when free ballooning, was with the notion of actually powering a balloon – of making a kind of aerial steamship with an engine and propellers. He was desperate to discuss this idea with Besson. As soon as the drinks arrive, he told himself; that is when I shall produce my drawings.
The aérostier took out a copy of that morning’s Figaro, pushed aside their cutlery and spread it on the tablecloth in front of him. Clem’s face fell. He’d been hoping that this development might have passed Monsieur Besson by. But no – the aérostier’s sharp features were angled towards an article in the bottom right corner. It was large, six or seven inches long, and was headed Encore Saute le Léopard.
‘You know about this?’ he asked. ‘The expolits of this so-called “Leopard”?’
Clem nodded; he had in fact been given a complete English rendition of this particular piece – Elizabeth’s third on JeanJacques Allix – a few hours earlier, before he’d even risen from his bed. She’d come in, prodded him awake and started to read. It told of an excursion made the night before last into the Prussian-held village of Pierrefitte. A field gun had apparently been spiked, two Prussians killed by Allix’s blade, and two more injured by an explosion of powder. All exciting stuff, to be sure, and Elizabeth’s triumph knew no bounds; she was especially pleased with this character she’d created.
‘I thought of Le Loup first,’ she’d confided, ‘but they are pack creatures; it is the Prussians who are the wolves here, wouldn’t you say, circling us as they do? No, I wanted a beast that creeps, that stalks, that pounces with deadly force
– that has a beauty to its actions, even as it kills. In short: Le Léopard!’
Clem had tried to talk to her about Hannah and her obvious despondency, how she seemed trapped by the whole business, but Elizabeth had been without mercy.
‘I will not try to rescue the girl for a second time, Clement,’ she’d said. ‘This is what she wanted. Don’t you recall how angry she was to see us here? Besides, that sweetheart of hers is about to become a hero. She’ll soon be the most envied woman in Paris.’
Besson smoothed his Figaro and translated a few sentences aloud. ‘The great gun stood useless, so much dead metal, robbed forever of its fire. Its operators, coming to investigate, met their ends without ever seeing their assailant. Major Allix, our Leopard, having primed a powder keg to burst, slid back soundlessly over the emplacement wall; and by the time it blew, knocking down two more of the foe, he had vanished. A relief party arrived, searching this way and that for the saboteur; but all they could do was curse the night
– curse fate and the greedy Kaiser who had led them on this needless, ignoble invasion.’ The aérostier was impassive. ‘Quite an adventure, no?’
‘Somewhat over-dramatised, perhaps . . .’
‘It is signed only “a friend of free Paris”, but everyone knows it is your mother. She is famous once again. And this creation of hers, this Leopard, is being talked of in every arrondissement.’
The coffee and brandy were brought. Clem frowned; there was accusation in Besson’s voice. ‘What can I tell you? It has absolutely nothing to do with me. He sneaks up to talk with her while I’m out in the city. I know literally as much as you do – as any reader of the Figaro does.’
Clem had been pushed to the sidelines, required only to admire. Elizabeth, having Allix at her disposal, no longer troubled herself very much to learn what he’d seen. ‘If I ever pen a report on harlots’ boudoirs or low drinking dens, Clement,’ she’d told him, ‘I’ll be sure to consult you.’
Besson was eyeing him steadily; he had more to say, but was holding his tongue. Sipping his coffee, he allowed Clem to switch the subject to ballooning – even to get out his designs and lay them over Encore Saute le Léopard.
‘Changes are coming to the balloon post,’ he said, picking up the topmost. ‘Nadar has decided to move all operations from the Elysées-Montmartre to the Gare du Nord. Clem was impressed; this would be a significant undertaking. ‘A question of space, perhaps? I recall you bemoaning the height of the ceilings in the dancing school.’
‘In part. There is a feeling, also, that Montmartre is turning against us. Our position has become fragile since the evacuation of Monsieur Gambetta. Les Rouges now believe that we are merely an arm of the government.’
Just over a week earlier Leon Gambetta, Trochu’s Minister of the Interior, had flown out from the place Saint-Pierre, with instructions to head for Tours and assemble an army that could come to the aid of Paris. Clem had been in the crowd that gathered to cheer Gambetta’s departure. The brave statesman had looked distinctly sick as he climbed into the tiny wicker basket – and close to fainting as he was carried up and off, away into the dreary October sky.
The reds hadn’t liked this development at all. It was said that they wanted Paris to be left entirely alone and unaided, their leaders convinced that they could vanquish the Prussians with their ragtag militia battalions and then establish their socialistic commune before anyone from outside had a chance to stop them. The radical agitations were becoming more violent and determined by the day; the brawl in the street just then had been the smallest taste of the discontent that seethed across the city, boiling down from the north. Clem thought it pretty obvious that these rampaging ultras would single out the ElyséesMontmartre as a target. Perhaps this was the story behind the aérostier’s beating.
Besson was studying Clem’s design: the best one in its author’s opinion, detailing a two-tier steam propeller mechanism. He didn’t reel with amazement or anything like that, but his half-smile held genuine approval.
‘There is work here,’ he said, ‘serious work. I take it you are not so committed to your cocotte as previously?’
The aérostier had seen Clem and Laure together at the launch of the Neptune. He derived some mysterious amusement from the thought of their liaison.
‘Don’t, old man.’ Clem knocked back the brandy. ‘Things in that quarter, to be quite frank with you, have grown somewhat strange. I’ve been trying to stay away a bit, in fact, as much as she lets me, in the hope that this might cool it all down a fraction. I don’t know if it’s the boredom of the siege or just the normal course of things for a woman such as her, but . . .’
Besson returned the propeller design to the pile, looking over as if inviting him to go on. Clem put his glass on the table and sighed. There really was no one else he could tell about this.
‘God knows, I am no prude,’ he began. ‘Oral pleasures I can deliver, enjoy even. Her apparently quite pressing need to insert her finger into my . . . well, you know . . . may not be something I’ve encountered before, but I can submit to it.’ He cleared his throat. Besson was sitting very still. ‘Her wish to bring others into the room, however, of both sexes, and involve them in the proceedings – or to introduce these . . . objects of hers . . . These things I find more difficult to accept. Why, only the other day she commanded me to push a hen’s egg up her—’
Besson rose suddenly from his chair. ‘I must go,’ he said. ‘Really I must. My appointment – time has run on. I apologise, Mr Pardy. I will see you before long, I am sure.’
The aérostier pressed a coin into the hand of the nearest waiter and put on his hat. Clem, left sitting alone, had to laugh; he tried to make an affable protest, to plead a few more minutes, but found himself addressing the inside of the restaurant’s door. He stared at his designs; at Besson’s forgotten newspaper; at the starched tablecloth beneath them both. His confessions had been too graphic. He should catch the fellow up and apologise for his thoughtless crudity. The aérostier’s meeting was sure to be at the offices of the Balloon Commission, near the Gare d’Orléans. It occurred to Clem that he could tag along – ask for an audience with whichever official was available and present his designs to them. He smiled, his belly warm with brandy; this was a brilliant idea. He gathered the balloon drawings and hurried into the street.
The grey-suited aérostier was heading in altogether the wrong direction forthe Balloon Commission. Clem gave chase anyway, and was soon walking along the boulevard de Clichy
– passing Laure’s place and looping westwards into Les Batignolles. Besson led him down avenues of looted townhouses; around a park packed with tents; over intersections barricaded with prised-up paving stones. Whilst turning a corner the aérostier looked back – and without thinking Clem ducked behind a cast-iron water fountain. Nose to nose with an oxidised angel, he admitted to himself that he was now tailing Besson rather than pursuing him.
The walk continued. Clem’s thoughts went to his luncheon, which was getting later by the yard; even the prospect of his horsemeat ration became appealing. The mystery of it spurred him on, though – the thrill of detection. This siege had focused people. No one strayed from the path dictated by their duty; yet here was Émile Besson advancing into a quarter uninvolved in the balloon post, miles from his designated place. Clem resolved to know why.
They arrived in a long street of mansion houses. One of the grandest was festooned with flags, half a dozen Old Glorys, and had a queue of civilians stretching from its doors: the American Embassy. Besson approached a man standing outside and engaged him in conversation. Dressed in a porter’s uniform, this person was grey-bearded and bandy, with a leathery, well-smoked look. His coat and cap were smart but there was something of the stray about him, as if he was no stranger to sleeping under bridges and carts. After a few seconds they crossed the road, going down a side street and into a cafe.
Clem took up a position opposite, beside a green barouche that seemed to have been parked there for several weeks. The lane was dark, its buildings tall and close. He peered into the cafe’s front window; each occupied table was picked out by a candle. Those he sought were over in a corner. Besson had obtained this porter a plate of meat – his own ration, it had to be – and a carafe of wine. Ignoring his cutlery, the man drew a clasp-knife from his pocket and hewed the unappetising lump apart; he then speared a large piece and worked it into his mouth, chewing industriously, inserting a second chunk before the first had been swallowed. Clem watched with some fascination. Christ, he thought, is the fellow actually starving?
Besson was asking questions, jotting down the porter’s monosyllabic answers in a notebook. The aérostier appeared to be verifying things he already knew, checking facts rather than discovering them. This interview did not last long. Once he’d reached the bottom of his page Besson prepared to leave, laying a banknote on the table. The porter barely glanced up from his plate. The cafe door opened; Clem pulled back behind the barouche. Besson didn’t see him. He strode towards the embassy and went north.
Clem thought for a moment. In all likelihood, Besson was the one who’d sent that anonymous letter – the one who’d brought Clem and Elizabeth to Paris. He plainly had a new operation underway, a secret scheme that might very well involve the Pardy family again. Clem straightened his hat; he collected his wits. He had to find out what it was.
The porter was devouring the last of his meat, wiping up gravy with a tendril of fat. Clem stopped at his shoulder; he decided not to sit.
‘Excuse me, sir, could you—’
‘A John Bull, by God.’ The man gulped down the fat and turned without interest. Clem had taken him for about sixty; he now saw that he was rather younger. ‘What the devil d’you want?’
‘Are you an employee of the American Embassy, might I ask?’
‘I am. Sergeant George Peabody is my name.’
Sergeant. He certainly had the manner of a veteran – an uneasy, faintly angry quality. ‘You were once a military man, I take it?’
Peabody cleaned his knife on the tablecloth, folded it away and returned it to his jacket. ‘What goddamn business is that of yours?’
Clem produced a silver ten-sou piece and placed it beside the prongs of the American’s unused fork. ‘Did you fight in the late war, by any chance?’
Peabody took the coin; he shook his head. ‘I ain’t going through all that again. Not in one goddamn meal. Not unless you got a huge stack more o’ these.’
There could be no doubt: Émile Besson had been questioning a veteran of the American Civil War. It was true that balloons had been used widely in that conflict, for artillery spotting mostly, and a number of sieges had been fought. The aérostier’s interest could be wholly professional. But if this was the case, why had he been so damned secretive – so abrupt in his departure? Clem couldn’t explain it. Then he thought of that rainy morning a week or so before; the black-gloved hand lying rigid on the arm of one of Elizabeth’s parlour chairs. Jean-Jacques Allix had been in America. He’d fought heroically for the Union – endured horrible injuries for the cause of liberty. Elizabeth referred to this often in her Leopard articles. Could it be that Besson, so convinced of the danger Allix posed to Han and others, had started an investigation into his past? What on earth, though, could he be hoping to discover? And had he found anything?
Clem searched through his empty pockets. ‘Would you accept a note of credit, sergeant? I can guarantee—’
‘You got nothing, John Bull.’ Peabody stood, studying Clem scornfully; he swiped the wine carafe from the table and started for the door. ‘I believe I’ll bid you good afternoon.’
Three days later a soft ruby light spread out across the evening sky, hiding the stars; it was as if Paris had been transported to the bed of a claret sea, a tinted sun shimmering down through the waters. The various residents of the Grand Hotel – guests, nurses, and walking wounded
– clustered in the middle of the boulevard des Capucines to gaze up in wonderment.
Elizabeth identified the phenomenon immediately. ‘ Aurora borealis,’ she said, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders. ‘I saw one in Norway, back in fifty-seven. That, though, was aquamarine; I suppose red is more appropriate for our current circumstances.’
Those around them were chattering excitedly in French. ‘Our friends here think that the Prussians must be responsible – that they must be testing a new weapon of some kind, or setting the whole of the French countryside on fire.’ Elizabeth listened again and made an impatient sound. ‘Now they are claiming that it is a sign from God, warning of some imminent disaster. Honestly, the popular imagination is so shockingly confined.’
‘It’s the result of natural electrical activity on the surface
of the earth,’ Clem volunteered. ‘Or so I’ve read, at any rate.’ His mother regarded him with condescending pride – see,
Clement, said her eyes, you are not a total loss – before
addressing the other spectators. Clem understood enough
to know that a forceful appeal was being made on behalf
of science and rationality.
It was a chilly night; realising that nothing was going to
happen beyond the spectacle itself, most of the hotel’s inhabitants went back inside. Elizabeth soon followed, declaring
that she had deadlines to meet. Clem sat on a bench, staying
out in the street long after the aurora had faded away. He
stared along the boulevard; once the world capital of luxury,
Paris was now as barren and dirty as a failing port-town.
The sense of imprisonment had grown unexpectedly
profound. Many people lived through their entire lives
without leaving their home city; Clem himself had seldom
wandered far from London. To have the option of departure
removed, however, to be forcibly confined to the six square miles of Paris, was beginning to feel intolerable – and the
glorious French capital cramped beyond belief.
Worry didn’t help. Clem had tried repeatedly to meet
with Besson, to see if he could learn any more about the
aérostier’s clandestine conversation with Sergeant Peabody.
He’d remained out of reach, though, occupied day and night
with the relocation of his workshop to the Gare du Nord.
Serious thoughts about Jean-Jacques Allix, about what his
ultimate goal might be, had started to gnaw at Clem; it
seemed pretty clear to him that the black-clad radical and
his friends were building towards something that would
count more than Prussian sentries among its victims. He’d
considered arguing for a little bit of distance, but knew that
neither his sister nor his mother would heed him. Elizabeth’s siege was going very well indeed. For the first
time in many years her words were reaching a large and
enthusiastic audience; the people of Paris all but tore papers
from the stands when they carried a new Leopard article.
Major Allix was fast becoming a legend, celebrated in
scrawled slogans across the city. Since Clem’s exchange with
Peabody, Allix had killed his first officer, a captain, returning
with his sword. The Leopard’s grim tally was now well into
the twenties; the Café-Concert Danton, his personal stronghold, had a small armoury of enemy equipment on display.
And he spoke only to Mrs Elizabeth Pardy, the ‘friend of
free Paris’. Any volume assembled at the siege’s conclusion
would make her rich – as famous and admired as she’d ever
been. She would hardly agree to break off midway and
leave the story unfinished.
Hannah was a rather different matter. She’d been a
sobering sight back there in the Grand, so bloody miserable
– appalled both by the course her lover was taking with
this Leopard business and the part she was being made to
play in it. The memory weighed on Clem’s conscience; once or twice he almost reached the point of going up to find her on the rue Careau. He’d stop though, as he reached for his hat and coat. He was certain that she’d be unreceptive, perhaps actually hostile, to anything he might say. These are my decisions to make, she’d shout; it has nothing whatever to do with you. So Clem stayed around the Grand, biting his nails and smoking endless cigarettes, forever on the verge of
In the week after the red aurora the siege went through
several swift, lurching turns. The first was an advance, a
victory so surprising that at first Paris scarcely dared believe
it: the French army, the regulars camped outside the walls,
retook Le Bourget from the Prussians. News of the conquest
was announced from the door of every mairie and emblazoned
across the top of that evening’s Gazette Officielle. Elizabeth was
quick to remind her readers that Le Bourget had been the
site of Allix’s first raid. She statedthat the French government
had been obliged to act by her Leopard’s gathering fame –
ignoring a rumour that the village had in fact been attacked
impulsively by the commander of Saint-Denis, against General
Mere hours after this article was published, Le Bourget
was claimed again by the invaders. Word went around that
the French soldiers had got blind drunk on wine found in
the village’s cellars, fallen asleep at their posts, and been
caught unawares by a Prussian force more than twenty
thousand strong. Their resistance was accordingly brief; the
14th battalion of the Seine and a legion of francs-tireurs
were annihilated. Le Bourget had been held for just under
two days. Elizabeth went back to her desk. The Prussians
had planned the whole misadventure, she asserted, as
punishment for the Leopard’s stunning depredations; he
very obviously had the enemy scared, and would keep
striking at them as long as there was breath in his body. On the same day as the rout at Le Bourget came confirmation that Metz, the final point of French resistance in the east, had surrendered the week before, along with one hundred and eighty thousand troops. Allix’s prediction had been correct. Marshal Bazaine, the commander of the town, had made no attempt to break out, simply sitting behind the walls until his supplies had dwindled away. The battlehardened Prussian Second Army was at liberty to join
the siege of Paris.
‘That’s it,’ said Elizabeth when the news reached the
Grand. ‘Something is bound to happen now.’
‘Have you noticed, Mrs P,’ asked Montague Inglis, ‘the change that has come over the dogs of this city? No longer will the happy stray sniff around your boots as you wait to cross the road. The pets of acquaintances recoil from a oncewelcomed hand, scampering beneath the nearest piece of furniture. They have become wary. They have seen the first pick of horses vanish from the streets and stables, and somehow they know that they’ll be next – that the stranger approaching with an open palm and a kind smile could very easily have a kitchen knife concealed behind his back.’
Clem tried in vain to move his knees into a comfortable position. The cab was too small, the seats too narrow and close together; it was all they’d been able to find, though, even on the grand boulevards. ‘I’m not sure I could eat a dog,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t seem decent.’
Inglis sighed, vexed as usual by Clem’s presence. ‘Yes, well, the rawness of want, Master Pardy, is rapidly banishing the qualms of habit. Only last night, for instance, I dined on ragout of cat. It was so delicious that it made me wonder why the creatures aren’t consumed more generally. I mean, they’re common enough, easy to rear – and a dashed nuisance, for the most part . . .’
‘Gustave Flourens,’ said Elizabeth. ‘The Belleville swashbuckler.’
Inglis peered out of the window. ‘Ah yes, with those men of his: the Tirailleurs, they call themselves. What a confounded booby.’
They were parked at the base of the Tour Saint-Jacques, the single surviving part of an ancient cathedral destroyed in some previous expression of French revolutionary wrath. This disembodied bell tower, rendered in the stark angles of the Gothic age, rose up eerily from the middle of a trampled, denuded garden. Past it filed a crowd of thousands, heading east along the rue de Rivoli towards the Hôtel de Ville. Their driver had advised them not to get any closer to the demonstration, intimating that his vehicle, modest though it was, could serve as a magnet for the mob.
‘He’s quite right, Mrs P,’ Inglis had opined. ‘Wouldn’t be the first time that a carriage was flipped over by frenzied socialists.’
It was raining, the cab windows misting over almost as fast as they could be rubbed clear. Elizabeth and Inglis were trading observations like a pair of cagey poker players, taking care to keep their best cards hidden. The Sentinel correspondent looked positively scruffy that morning, his beard even having been allowed to overgrow; some pains had been taken, he’d said, to create ‘a toilette sufficiently canaille for the communists’. Clem, too, had invested some of the meagre allowance still granted to him in some second-hand clothes. He was dressed in a simple woollen coat, a worker’s blouse and linen trousers, bought from a stand on the Quai Voltaire and carrying a faint redolence of onions. On his head was the obligatory kepi.
The three of them studied Flourens as he marched by: a tall, pale man, girlishly slender, kitted out as if he was the grandest field marshal in Europe. A force of several hundred militia, distinguished by a special scarlet sash, were arrayed behind him in close order.
‘These red guardsmen are having the time of their lives, aren’t they?’ said Inglis. ‘They play at soldiers, doing no work, all the while plotting to overthrow the very government that is paying and feeding them. Amazing behaviour.’
Elizabeth refused the bait. She opened her notebook and started to write.
‘How about your Leopard then, Mrs P, the legendary pantera pardus?’ Inglis spoke lightly, but there was strain around his eyes – something very like a wince. ‘Is he due to make an appearance today? He must be, surely, man of action that he is. Why, after reading that last piece of yours in the Figaro I wouldn’t be surprised if the blighter leaped down from the rooftops and ousted Trochu’s men with a flourish of his bayonet.’
Inglis’s jealousy at Elizabeth’s recent success was too enormous and too agonising to be hidden. This was sweeter to her than either the restoration of her name or the riches to come. She was envied by her rivals, by Montague Inglis of the Sentinel: her satisfaction was complete.
‘Major Allix will be here,’ she said, ‘supporting the people of Paris as always.’
‘The people of Paris!’ Inglis exclaimed, seeking solace in angry bluster. ‘What is it that they want, these people of Paris? What is this damned commune that they shout for at every opportunity?’ He began counting items off on his fingers. ‘They would do away with all worship and appropriate church property; stop all the theatres, gag the press, and dismiss the army; repudiate all engagements entered into by previous governments; and, in a word, do everything to prove once more to the civilised world that there is no such tyranny as absolute liberty – the motto of which is “if you do not do as you like, I’ll make you.”’
Elizabeth wouldn’t hear this. ‘You seem to imply that I am taking their side, Mont,’ she said, snapping her notebook closed, ‘that I am calling for a commune through my sponsorship of Major Allix. This is simply untrue. Do you think for a second that Le Figaro would publish me if I was? No, I merely sympathise with the plight of those who your beloved emperor overlooked entirely and allowed to languish in the most terrible deprivation. It is high time that Paris listened to her workers and permitted them their proper freedoms.’ She lifted her chin with unimpeachable, queenly authority. ‘Besides, you foolish man, in order to have tyranny there must be a tyrant. These people marching today want democracy, a body of elected officials who represent their views, with power shared among ordinary men
– rather than that puffed-up libertine you so adore, who appointed himself ruler and then used soldiers and secret policemen to silence any opposition!’
Clem had heard several versions of this argument already that morning. He moved closer to the window, ignoring it as best he could, scouring the passing multitudes. If Allix was there, Hannah would be as well. Sight of his sister, he hoped, would show him what he should do.
Suddenly he was pitched forward into the rain. The door he’d been leaning against had been opened from the outside. He just managed to grip the frame, halting his fall; but then his collar was seized and twisted, someone pulling him the rest of the way down. Stumbling to an ungainly crouch, he looked up to see Laure in her vivandière uniform, framed by one of the Tour Saint-Jacques’s pointed archways. Her arms were crossed, two fingers drumming on an elbow. It was more than a week since they’d last seen each other; she was waiting for an explanation. Clem got to his feet. Now, standing before her, he couldn’t begin to account for all this time. Absence had only sharpened her appeal – refreshed that misleadingly delicate beauty of hers. What, precisely, had he been thinking? The reservations he’d tried to communicate to Besson were lost to him completely. Her unimpressed expression, even, was beguiling: very slightly ironic, as if on some level this lovers’ confrontation amused her.
‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘truly sorry. Um – désolé. It was not my intention to—’ He stopped. ‘I simply needed to be by myself for a while. You understand, don’t you? I needed to clear my thoughts, to—’
Laure rolled her eyes, miming a yapping mouth with her hand; then she moved in, step by step, putting on a mockinnocent smile as she fitted her body against his. Clem’s mind emptied. She kissed his neck, pressing their hips together. He was being reclaimed.
Something caught her attention, past his shoulder. She shifted to one side, drew in her breath and blew the most enormous raspberry Clem had ever heard. He looked around to see Elizabeth and Inglis watching them through the cab’s open door; and when he turned again Laure had gone, making for the rue de Rivoli. It was plain that she wanted him to follow her. He told his mother that he was going to get a better look at the demonstration. She sat back in her seat, shaking her head.
All along the avenue were signs that trouble was brewing. Concierges were at their gates; shutters were going on shop windows; demagogues were doing their level best to whip those who passed them into a state of violent dissatisfaction. The narrow square in front of the Hôtel de Ville was crammed with workers and red militia, at least ten thousand of them. Many held umbrellas; their flags and banners hung limp, heavy with rainwater. The Hôtel itself, a vast baroque manor house, sat solid and splendid before their chants.
‘Vive la France!’ they cried. ‘Vive la commune!’
There was an authentic revolutionary crackle in the air: the peasants were about to storm the castle. This is a tale for the memoirs, thought Clem – how I once pursued a girl into the heart of a genuine French revolt. Laure was worming further away from him, though, showing no actual desire to be caught. Keeping her in sight wasn’t too difficult; the plait of hair that poked from under her kepi stood out like orange-peel on asphalt. Her kiss lingered on Clem’s neck, tingling against the skin. He pushed after her as politely as he could manage, ‘pardon’ constantly on his lips. The sheer density of people was astonishing, a warm, breathy crush, rich with human smells. Along with the umbrellas were a good number of rifles, worn with their stocks upward: a gesture with its origins in the first revolution, Elizabeth had informed him earlier, to display support for the people. Frock-coated speakers, ministers of the provisional government Clem guessed, appeared at first-floor windows to appeal to the crowds. They could barely be heard over the calls for their downfall.
A battalion’s worth of regular soldiers was guarding the Hôtel’s grand double-doors, arrayed on the steps with guns ready in their hands. Clem heard singing, in Italian it sounded like; a man in militia uniform was up on a stone bollard, treating them to a solo in a professional-sounding tenor. A senior army officer slid out through the doubledoors and attempted to make a speech from the top step. It was none other than General Trochu, Governor of Paris and acting President of France, coming before them without ceremony or escort – without even a cap to keep off the rain. Bald, with a pristine little moustache, Trochu spoke like a man who imagines that he is popular, easily capable of winning over a mob with his oratory. Those massed before the Hôtel de Ville disabused him of this notion at once.
‘À bas Trochu!’ they screamed, surging forwards. ‘Vive la commune!’
The governor promptly disappeared back into the building. Clem tried to remain calm, to preserve a sense of detachment. This is not your fight, he told himself; you are here for Mademoiselle Laure and that’s all. But Trochu had distracted him at a critical moment – he’d lost sight of her. She’d been ducking beneath an umbrella over to the left, and now she was gone. His beacon was put out. What the devil was he to do now?
The pushing got stronger, more determined, the red militia snarling and sloganising as if girding themselves for a great collective effort. Clem abandoned the chase, deciding to return to the neutral ground of the rue de Rivoli; he could track Laure down later. Upon turning, however, he discovered an impassable barrier of kepis and dirty blue jackets, hemming him in on every side. Pleas and protestations yielded no results. He wasn’t going anywhere.
A shot sounded up ahead, then two more; there were fearful cries and yells of baissez-vous, baissez-vous! The crowds heaved away from the Hôtel like a wave thick with flotsam retreating messily from the rocks. Clem struggled to stay on his feet, grabbing at arms and shoulders. As he lifted his head to gasp in a lungful of air he spotted Laure. She was off safely to the side, under a large black umbrella with three or four others; they were laughing at something, passing around a cigarette. He wiped the rain from his eyes. She’d done this on purpose.
They were moving forward again, breaking the line of soldiers and bashing apart the double-doors, funnelling into the Hôtel de Ville. Clem was caught in the mob, unable to do anything to alter his course. One moment he was out in the driving rain; the next he was in a high stone corridor, deafened by a thousand echoing shouts, charging into darkness.
The cordon around the Hôtel de Ville opened immediately to admit Jean-Jacques. Hannah stayed directly behind him, barely resisting the urge to hold onto his coat. Something white flapped past her face; stacks of government papers were being thrown from the windows of the Hôtel, scattering onto the National Guard below and being tramped to mush beneath their boots. They advanced through several layers of armed men into the covered central courtyard. The first of the occupiers had already been inside for a couple of hours. Everyone was talking very loudly. Militia were present in large numbers, of course, but Hannah also saw workers in blouses and a handful of better-dressed gentlemen she took to be newspaper correspondents. Women were a distinct yet vocal minority; hard-eyed, dressed in rough peasant clothes, they were trying to outdo each other in their declarations of revolutionary zeal. Lists were being drawn up of those who might serve in a new socialist administration. The air was full of names both familiar and unfamiliar – Pyat, Delescluze, Rollin – whilst off in a corner a lone trumpeter was sounding a flat reveille.
Jean-Jacques was given an enthusiastic welcome. He was saluted, slapped on the back, offered weapons; there were cries of ‘Vive le Léopard!’ The general assumption was that he was there to cut down Trochu and his ministers – to serve as their executioner. He went to the grand staircase in the centre of the courtyard, stopping on the landing to address the crowd.
‘We will shed no blood today,’ he announced. ‘We are here to negotiate.’
A few booed or groaned, but someone said ‘he’s right’; another ‘it’s necessary’.
‘We will get fairness, however. I promise you that. We will secure the freedom of the people. And we will get action against the invader. We will get our sortie.’
This word was gaining in power; mere mention of it was enough to prompt a cheer and a spirited rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’. Jean-Jacques carried on up the staircase as they sang, covering three steps with each stride. As Hannah went to follow, someone grasped the leg of her pantaloon through the balustrade and would not let go. It was Clem, wearing the panicked expression of someone who’d accidentally boarded the wrong ship. Rather less surprised than she might have anticipated, she ran back down the steps and punched him on the arm.
‘You really are an idiot, Clem,’ she hissed. ‘You are too thick-headed to live. You are like an exceptionally stupid child.’
‘Please, Han,’ he begged, ‘please listen to me. I’ve been stuck in here for an absolute age. The blighters on the door won’t let me out. All they’ll tell me is that I need to see somebody called Blankey – Blankey, for Christ’s sake!’
A grin nudged through Hannah’s exasperation. ‘Blanqui, you dolt. Auguste Blanqui. He’s one of the red leaders.’ She glanced around. Nearby, two guardsmen were bashing in some ornamental stonework with their rifle-butts, apparently just to pass the time. There was no Elizabeth, though, or anyone else she recognised. Her brother was alone. ‘Did she send you in here?’
Clem had always blushed easily; a deep beetroot colour was now spreading out from beneath his blond whiskers. ‘No, I – I actually came in after Laure. Well, I followed her to the gate. She gave me the slip, though, and I was swept inside. It’s all been a terrible mistake.’
‘Laure Fleurot still. Honestly, you goose.’ Hannah sighed. ‘I should leave you here. That’s what Elizabeth would do. Let you learn your lesson.’
He clutched at her sleeve. ‘Oh dear God, Han, please don’t. I need to get out. This place isn’t for me, it really isn’t.’
The sound of English was beginning to draw unfriendly attention. Hannah affected confidence, as if this was her element and she was in complete control – as if she was not almost as apprehensive as Clem was.
‘Very well,’ she said, lowering her voice. ‘Stay close – keep quiet. We’ll go to Jean-Jacques. He’ll be able to help you.’
Clem scratched his head. There was a reluctance about him; Hannah saw that her twin would never be comfortable with Jean-Jacques. Perhaps he’d developed a misguided sense of brotherly protectiveness, as everything started to gather pace – or was simply aware of how insufficient he seemed by comparison. It passed, at any rate; Clem recognised that he was in no position to be particular.
‘I’d be most grateful,’ he said.
They set off up the staircase. At its top was a shadowy labyrinth of tiled landings and marble-clad corridors. Hannah couldn’t tell which way Jean-Jacques had gone. Red militia were everywhere; whatever loyalist force had been guarding the Hôtel had long since departed. On these upper floors the disorder of the courtyard was turning into something darker. Looting had begun, any objects of value vanishing into National Guard knapsacks. Furniture was being overturned and stamped to bits. The few remaining symbols of older regimes, imperial, royal or otherwise, were meeting violent ends – stone torn down, portraits shredded, wood scored and scratched.
‘We have to get out, Han,’ Clem whispered. ‘We have to get out before they burn the bloody place to the ground.’
Gustave Flourens marched by with a company of his Tirailleurs, all flashing brass buttons and brightly coloured sashes. Although he’d met Hannah on numerous occasions he showed no sign of recognising her. He’d certainly be heading towards the centre of things – towards Jean-Jacques.
‘This way,’ she said, starting after them.
Flourens and his men burst into a large oak-panelled room, poorly lit and packed with people. The provisional government, caught by surprise, had been trapped in their seats; twenty or so ministers and their aides were still in place around a baize-topped conference table. Only VicePresident Jules Favre was on his feet, dapper in a grey frock coat, arguing fiercely with the intruders. In front of him were the socialist leaders; Blanqui was foremost, a tricolour cockade pinned to his kepi, shouting at Favre with as much strength as he could muster. Jean-Jacques had taken up a position nearby, applauding Blanqui, watching everything.
Flourens didn’t speak or wait for a moment to introduce himself to the debate. Instead he pulled out a chair, using it as a step to climb onto the table. This won him the attention of the room; he paced back and forth, kicking over inkwells, crunching pencils and pens beneath his boot-heels, all the while reeling off his demands with aristocratic carelessness. There was nothing surprising in what he said – dismissal of the current cabinet, immediate municipal elections, expedited planning for a massed sortie against the Prussians – but his swaggering delivery served as an additional provocation. Favre went scarlet; several other ministers rose from their chairs. Many among the reds were also displeased by Flourens’s performance, Blanqui looking as if he’d gladly shove the dandy guardsman from the table and bloody his nose. The only person to remain calm and quiet was General Trochu, the target of so much of his fellow citizens’ wrath, who smoked a cigar as if he sat by his parlour fire.
Hannah and Clement squeezed into the chamber. Moving towards the table was impossible; they had to settle for a place beside a window. Hannah’s thoughts went to her drawing materials, stowed as always in her vivandière’s bag. This frantic scene was worthy of a study, but there wasn’t enough room even to raise a piece of paper before your face; and the National Guard were continuing to jam themselves in, clambering up on bookcases and sideboards. Hannah could no longer see the conference table, catching only occasional glimpses of Flourens’s wagging, oversized head as he sauntered around firing out more orders and ultimatums. She turned to the window; the day’s light was fading.
‘He’s arrested them,’ reported a tall man in front of her. ‘Colonel Flourens has arrested the provisional government for failing to resign. Blanqui’s accepting it. The mayors are to be summoned. We have a commune. By the devil, citizens, it’s done!’
The red guardsmen congratulated one another, making themselves believe it. Hannah was unconvinced; it couldn’t be this easy. More would be asked of them than a few bold words. Sure enough, before the celebrations had properly begun there was a new commotion over by one of the other windows. A battalion of loyalist militia had been sighted: they were cutting across the square towards the Hôtel, forcing the red guards back to the very steps of the building.
‘Les Batignolles!’ someone cried. ‘It’s the men of Les Batignolles, damn them, come to the aid of their false president!’
The shouting grew louder. A dozen men joined Flourens on the conference table, insisting that they be heard. It was proposed that Trochu be taken to the entrance of the Hôtel and held at rifle-point – prompting a fresh storm of disagreement and dispute.
‘Heavens, Han,’ muttered Clem, ‘will you just call your man over? It ain’t right, us being shut in here with these fanatics. We need to leave.’
‘You’re assuming that I’m here against my will.’
‘Come off it, you’re a bloody painter – an English painter, not some blasted French revolutionary. This is all absolutely ridiculous.’
Hannah began to bristle. ‘That doesn’t matter a jot. I believe in what’s being done here, Clem. The people of Paris were promised elections when the Empire fell. These have been denied – postponed indefinitely. They were promised decisive action against the enemy, and this has failed to happen too. It’s becoming plain that this provisional government, these so-called republicans, are going to betray the people and instate another dictator like Louis Napoleon. Paris needs this change. She needs these brave men.’
This little speech left Clem mystified. ‘What the deuce are you on about? Another Napoleon? Do you really think that’s likely?’
Hannah considered her brother in his fake ouvrier’s outfit and felt a stab of disdain. ‘Look at yourself, Clem, will you? Stuck in Paris because you followed Elizabeth on a whim. Tangled up in this action because you were panting after that slut Laure and got lost. Everything in your life is a damned accident. You believe in nothing – you commit to nothing. Why exactly should I heed your opinion?’
Clem met her denunciation with infuriating good humour. ‘You may be onto something there,’ he agreed, taking out a cigarette, ‘but don’t try to pretend that you’re a proper part of all this. I saw you in Elizabeth’s suite in the Grand
– your reaction to this Leopard business. Your face when she instructed you to make his portrait.’ He lit up, adding his smoke to the dense cloud overhead. ‘It took me back to those times in London where she’d have you paint some old lecher of her acquaintance to further the cause of Mrs Pardy. Or that evening in Chelsea just before you left – the one with the wallaby.’
Hannah frowned; this, she thought, is the true meaning of family. Your relations can instantly revive your most dismal, humiliating moments, the moments you long to forget. Like no one else, they can remind you what a wretched creature you really are.
‘We only went to her because we had to,’ she replied. ‘Some use may as well be made of her presence in Paris. It’s Elizabeth you have to thank, you know, for all of this. She was responsible for that letter. I’m sure of it. It’s been her doing from the start – one of her stratagems.’
Clem coughed on his cigarette; he shook his head. ‘Impossible. No Han, you’re wrong there. I saw it arrive. I saw her open it. Elizabeth is no actress. We were at breakfast – she was so startled she dropped the bloody teapot. Leaves everywhere.’ He took another drag, the ember glowing in the murky chamber. ‘You’ve no proof, I suppose?’
Hannah admitted that she did not. ‘She knows a great deal about my life, Clem. Things she shouldn’t. As if she’s been studying me.’
‘Yes, well, that’s just Elizabeth, isn’t it? It pains me to say so, Han, but you’re being unfair. That letter came from someone in Paris. In Montmartre, like you originally thought.’
Hannah saw that he was right; this intensified her annoyance. ‘Do you know who, by any chance?’
Before Clem could answer those around them began to step aside. Jean-Jacques had noticed the twins from the conference table and come over, that famous black coat quickly clearing a path through the militia. Hannah’s irritation lifted, dispersing in the smoke. He embraced her and laid his forehead briefly against hers. Never had he done such a thing in public; our situation, she thought, must be serious indeed. His skin was cool despite the room’s choking heat, a single bead of sweat rolling down the channel of his scar. He gave Clem a fleeting look of distaste – the kind you might direct towards a drunk who’d strayed into a library.
‘This is no place for you,’ he said. ‘Either of you.’
‘What’s happening?’ Hannah asked. ‘Is there really to be a commune?’
‘There has been some overstatement. We are negotiating. We want municipal elections, which will surely lead to a commune.’ Jean-Jacques glanced at the window and the ranks of loyalist militia outside; they’d come to a halt and were standing ready, waiting for an order. ‘I don’t like this, though. They’re trying to hold us here. Something is wrong.’
Hannah straightened her tunic, squeezing the material to stop herself trembling. ‘They’re going to retake the building.’
‘You must leave. There will be arrests. If you are caught, as a foreigner, you’ll be accused of spying.’
‘I want to stay,’ Hannah protested. ‘I’ll fight them if I must. I want—’ I want to stay with you.
‘They’ll put you before a firing squad.’ Jean-Jacques touched her cheek with his good hand; his eyes were black in the gloom. ‘I could not forgive myself if you were to be hurt because of this.’
‘I can take you as far as the square outside. Go somewhere they would not think to look. Stay hidden for a few days.’
Hannah managed a nod. ‘Very well. A few days.’
‘What now?’ asked Clem; his dalliance with Laure Fleurot had plainly not improved his French. ‘What are we to do?’
‘Your wish has been granted,’ Hannah told him curtly. ‘We’re leaving.’
Jean-Jacques led them back to the summit of the grand staircase. The revolutionary clamour of earlier had subsided, the central courtyard taking on the character of a rowdy tavern, with laughter, songs and drinking. They were halfway down, crossing the landing, when the jollity around them was suddenly disturbed. There were shouts of alarm; the sound of doors being flung open; the thunder of boots somewhere below, in the base of the building. Jean-Jacques increased his pace, moving onto the floor of the courtyard floor.
‘This is it,’ he declared to everyone around him. ‘They are coming for us. It is time for us to show these bourgeois that we are the true men of Paris.’
Regular infantry began to appear from behind the staircase, red and white stripes emblazoned upon their dark blue tunics, beating people back with their rifles. The crowd dissolved at once, civilian and militiaman alike flying in every direction.
Jean-Jacques did his best to rally them, pointing at the staircase. ‘To the top of the stairs!’ he cried. ‘Form a line, like you’ve been taught! Ready yourselves!’
Some of the red guardsmen obeyed, loping past Hannah and Clement, fumbling with their guns. ‘They’re coming in through a damned tunnel,’ one of them yelled, ‘a tunnel in the cellars! There’s hundreds of the bastards!’
More and more soldiers were entering the courtyard, like a torrent of seawater flooding the hold of a sinking ship. Jean-Jacques got the Pardy twins to the double doors and then leaned in to kiss Hannah farewell; it was quick, three seconds only, but she felt it throughout her body, in every pore and strand of hair, down to the soles of her feet. By the time she’d opened her eyes again he was already striding back towards the stairs. The two sides were mounting up, the reds and the regulars, massing in formless gangs at either end of the grand staircase. Insults filled the air. Cartridges were loaded into rifles; stocks fitted into shoulders. In the middle stood Jean-Jacques and a civic official of some kind, both of them unflinching and stern, commencing a heated altercation. Hannah watched from the doors, faint with dread. You are about to see him die, she thought, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. For ten seconds nothing happened, besides more shouting; then twenty; then a full half-minute.
‘Time to go, Han,’ said Clem at her elbow, his voice quavering. ‘Now or bloody never.’
Hannah turned away sharply and hastened from the Hôtel. Out in the night she waited to hear the fusillade – the cascade of gunshots that would signal her lover’s demise. Still nothing came. The loyalist National Guard had received their order and were slowly closing in. She went left, towards the river, her brother close behind.
A squad peeled off to apprehend them. ‘Stop!’ cried their sergeant. ‘Stop there!’
‘They think I’m one of you,’ said Clem. ‘They think I’m a bloody red!’
‘That’s a risk you run, Clement,’ Hannah snapped, ‘when you attend a socialist demonstration in working man’s clothes.’
Their hurried walk became a sprint, across the quay and onto the Pont d’Arcole. Hannah heard a huff and a scraping thud: Clem had stumbled, falling sprawled out across the pavement. She shouted his name with a mixture of dismay and frustration. Three loyalist guardsmen were on him, kicking eagerly. Dashing back, she pushed one of his attackers into the gutter and took a determined swing at another, her fist connecting with the man’s ear.
‘Red bitch!’ he grunted, his arm flailing. ‘You’ll get yours!’
A second squad arrived from the square, joining the man she’d struck as he advanced on her. The ultras liked to say that the militia from other districts were nothing but soft bourgeois – fat, cowardly shopkeepers waiting out the war, full of brave utterances but secretly very pleased with the provisional government’s passive stance. These men, however, were not at all soft or fat: they looked more like railway workers or market-porters, definitely not to be trifled with. Poor Clem was lying there like an empty coal sack. If Hannah stayed she’d be beaten or worse. They’d arrest her; they’d try to execute her. Her nerve failed. She started running again.
The life of a plein-air painter – carrying easels up hills and across large sections of the city – had made Hannah strong and fast. The guardsmen couldn’t catch her; she was even extending her lead as she reached the Ile de la Cité. This island, Jean-Jacques had once said, was the oldest part of Paris, the bud from which the rest had flowered. In recent years Louis Napoleon’s planners had razed its winding medieval streets, setting down an ordered grid in their place, as they had done to so much of the city; the cathedral of Notre-Dame, its jagged profile jutting up ahead, was almost all that remained. Hannah headed for the nearest building
– the Hôtel Dieu. Four storeys high, and plain, there was a bright light on its river-facing side that threw a deep shadow over the rest. She slipped around a corner into absolute darkness. Her pursuers, losing sight of her, soon turned back.
She leaned against a wall and put her face in her hands. Everything was in ruins. The red coup had been a disaster. What was going to happen to Jean-Jacques now – to her brother? Where could she possibly go where the provisional government’s men wouldn’t find her?
What was she going to do?
The door opened inwards, pressing Hannah against a framed print of a famous locomotive. Monsieur Besson walked through, reading that morning’s copy of the Gazette Officielle. The aérostier noticed her at once; the room, tucked beneath a girder at the top of the Gare du Nord, was so tiny that he could hardly do otherwise. He stood still for a few moments, the folded newspaper lowering slowly in his hand. Like many men in Paris he had put away his razor, allowing a thin dark beard to form around his moustache. He tossed the Gazette onto his cluttered desk and removed his hat. Hannah noticed that he was only an inch or two taller than she was.
‘The riot,’ he said. ‘The occupation of the Hôtel de Ville.
You were involved. They’re after you.’
‘It was not a riot, Monsieur. We had to act before the
new Prussian army arrives from Metz. We—’ Hannah
stopped herself. This was not the way to secure the aérostier’s help. ‘I apologise for creeping in like this.’
‘How did you do it, exactly?’
‘I forced the window of the lost property office and found
my way up.’ She paused. ‘Your name is chalked on the
‘You’re quite the housebreaker, Mademoiselle Pardy, I must
‘I need to hide. I can’t go home, or to my mother. I
thought of you – of this place. Nobody knows that we are
Monsieur Besson closed the door behind him, hanging
his hat on a peg. ‘We are acquainted, Mademoiselle?’ ‘We’ve spoken a couple of times. In the lanes, back in
Montmartre. And I’ve seen you at the launches of your
He didn’t react. The devotion to Hannah identified by
Jean-Jacques was nowhere to be seen. Right then, in fact,
it seemed entirely possible that he might eject her – even
alert the authorities.
‘You came to the Club Rue Rébeval that night.’ ‘I remember. I still have bruises.’
Hannah’s cautious smile disappeared. ‘I halted it as soon
as I could. Please believe me, Monsieur. If I—’
‘Do you imagine that I went to that meeting for you?’ This question was a touch too abrupt. There is Monsieur
Besson’s love for me, Hannah thought: an awkward,
burdensome thing that keeps starting into view despite his
best efforts to hide it. He’d obviously been worrying that
he’d given himself away with his foolhardy behaviour in
Belleville. A pained look crossed his face; he knew that he’d
just made it worse.
‘The notion never entered my mind,’ she said. The aérostier went to the office’s single, rounded window,
staring out at the early morning sky. ‘I was there,
Mademoiselle, to hear what the radicals were debating. To
get an idea of their intentions. I was curious.’
‘Yet you did not simply listen, Monsieur Besson, did you?
You made a rather prominent contribution.’
He bowed his head, bringing it close to the glass. ‘I
didn’t plan to do that. My anger got the better of me.
I couldn’t stand in that hall and be accused of spying. Those
people speak of Paris as if everyone within the wall was a
socialist. As if—’
Monsieur Besson was growing angry again now. Hannah had wanted to ask him about what had happened afterwards, what he’d said to her in that alley, but decided to return the conversation to more immediate matters. g skThey arrested my brother last night,’ she interrupted. ‘He was caught on
the Pont d’Arcole, just outside the Hôtel de Ville.’ The aérostier was taken aback; some sort of attachment
had plainly formed between him and Clement over the past
six weeks. ‘But he is no radical. He has no political sense at
all that I have seen. How on earth could this have happened?’ ‘An accident, of course – a mistake. Typical of Clem.
Something to do with that damned cocotte.’ Hannah drew
in a breath. ‘It’s being said that any foreigners apprehended
by the government are to be shot.’
‘Dear God.’ Monsieur Besson ran a hand through his
thick, short hair. ‘You must not worry about this,’ he said,
trying to be reassuring. ‘There is much talk of shooting, of
summary executions for minor crimes. It is heavily exaggerated. When this war finally ends we will no doubt
discover that very few were actually put to death – that
hardly any of the grand, bloody deeds laid claim to by the
men of Paris were actually performed.’
There was a veiled reference here; Hannah regarded
Monsieur Besson tentatively as he gestured for her to sit at
his desk. He turned to his small fireplace, crouching down
to scrabble beneath the grate, picking out crumbs of
unburned coal and arranging them in a pyramid. This modest
pile was supplemented with just two fresh lumps from the
scuttle. The aérostier was rationing himself. Fuel was set to
become scarce – which could lead to a terrible crisis indeed
if the coming winter was as harsh as predicted. He twisted
a piece of blotting paper, pushed it into the pyramid and lit
it with a match. The glow of the fire spread over him, over
the green rug beneath his knees, colouring the chilly,
Monsieur Besson rose from the hearth, edged around to
the other side of the desk and opened a large entry book.
‘Are you quite sure that no one saw you come in?’ Hannah nodded; he was going to let her stay, for Clem’s
sake if nothing else. ‘The street was quiet.’
‘Then tell me, Mademoiselle Pardy,’ he asked next, sliding
a pen from between two piles of papers, ‘can you work a
Monsieur Besson, it turned out, had his contacts; by the end of the day he’d learned that Clement was being held in the infamous Mazas prison in the 12th arrondissement, a short distance upriver from the Hôtel de Ville. Reliable information was hard to come by, but it didn’t seem that he was in any immediate danger of execution. Furthermore, the stand-off on the grand staircase had somehow been resolved without bloodshed. The subsequent negotiations between the provisional government and the rebels had carried on until the early hours of the morning. All hostages had been released, and Flourens’s declaration of a commune retracted, on the understanding that elections would be held within a week – and no reprisals would be made. After the pandemonium of the day everyone simply went their separate ways.
This news left Hannah dazed with relief. ‘I can go, then,’ she said. ‘I don’t need to hide.’
Monsieur Besson begged to differ. ‘There are men in the government who won’t accept these terms, and the lack of arrests in particular. Edmond Adam, who brokered the truce with Blanqui and Delescluze, resigned this afternoon as the chief of police. Nobody knows why. His replacement, though, is a Monsieur Cresson, who is said to lack Adam’s conciliatory attitude. I would advise you to stay out of sight a while longer.’
Reluctantly, Hannah admitted the sense of this and agreed to remain for a few more days. They established a routine, fitted around that of the balloon factory. A bed was made beneath his desk from coats brought up from the lost property office that had first granted her access to the station. Besson would come in with a lantern at around half-past five, bringing her food for the day – rice, cabbage, coarse brown bread, sometimes a few scraps of boiled meat. She’d change into the work gown he’d found her while he waited outside; he’d unlock the station bathrooms for her to use; then they’d go down together through the empty tiled stairwells to the concourse.
The lampposts were dark, the ticket barriers gone and the tracks beyond obscured by swathes of calico that hung from the rafters like waterfalls of hardened wax. The two of them would head across the weaving area, between rolls of netting and the wild stalks of half-spun baskets, to the sewing benches that lined the far wall. Hannah would take her place at one of these, Besson walking off to begin his endless round of checks and inspections. It was carefully timed; within five minutes the other workers would start to arrive, the seamstresses, sailors and other aérostiers, complaining about the cold and swapping the latest rumours. For the next twelve hours or so – with a half-hour for lunch – she would do her part in fashioning the balloon envelopes, stitching and double-stitching under the direction of Madame Vuillard, the overseer.
There was an unexpected peace in this noisy, repetitive labour. Hannah’s thoughts would wander far into the past, to places and people she hadn’t seen for a decade or more. In particular, she found herself returning to a train journey she’d once made with her father – to Guildford or Reading or somewhere like that, where he was due to give a lecture on his poems – when she’d been eight years old. As she worked her machine’s foot-pedal, running cloth beneath the stuttering needle, she recalled the way the countryside had unfolded around them; and the great wash of contentment she’d felt as he’d taken hold of her hand.
The other women on the sewing benches were told that Hannah’s name was Jane Ashford and that she was the daughter of a coachman employed at the British embassy, but they clearly had their suspicions. It was not lost on them that this Anglaise had appeared the morning after that business at the Hôtel de Ville. Wages in the balloon factory were good, though, and had never been needed more; Émile Besson’s standing there was strong; and Nadar, who wielded ultimate authority, was said to be a communist sympathiser who’d once had Félix Pyat over for supper. The seamstresses decided that he must be in on it, whatever it was, and that they’d better stay quiet. They kept Hannah at a distance, eyeing her warily, making their excuses if she ever tried to strike up a conversation – leaving her well alone.
Monsieur Besson himself behaved with perfect honour. Hannah hadn’t known quite what to expect from the aérostier, but he never so much as hinted at the precariousness of her situation, or her dependence upon his goodwill. There were no lunges for a kiss; no lingering sadly in doorways; no excruciating attempts to enquire whether romance between them was truly beyond hope. His conduct was so restrained, in fact, that it made her wonder if she’d been mistaken. Perhaps this man was not so smitten by her after all.
Each morning, along with her food, her host would hand her a small sheaf of newspapers. It was in his office, therefore, only two days after the occupation of the Hôtel de Ville, that she learned of the arrest of several dozen prominent reds and the dismissal of sixteen battalion commanders of the National Guard for their radical activities. Monsieur Besson had been right. This was a barefaced betrayal, showing total contempt for those betrayed. Hannah’s sole consolation was that Jean-Jacques hadn’t been among those taken. Along with Flourens, he’d escaped Cresson’s policemen, disappearing, the moderate papers claimed, into the lawless ultra underground that spread across the northern arrondissments.
Then came the miserable sham of the elections. Rather than a proper municipal vote that could deliver a commune, the city was granted a plebiscite. They were asked merely to answer the question: Do you support the continuance of the authority of the provisional government? A ‘yes’ was widely viewed as a vote against unrest and disorder, against the red insurgency – and a vote for peace, as a story was going around that negotiations were again underway with the Prussians. Hungry bourgeois longing for normality turned up at the ballots in droves, whilst left-leaning Paris stayed away in protest. Trochu’s government won by a staggering majority; Jules Favre made a public declaration that this meant the negation of the commune.
After reading this Hannah stood up at Besson’s desk and threw her newspaper at the wall. In the Gare du Nord, however, her fury could not be bolstered or magnified by that of like-minded comrades; it felt disconnected, uprooted somehow, and soon subsided into brooding. No one here cared. They were concerned instead with the confirmation that armistice talks had indeed been conducted with Chancellor Bismarck – and had already collapsed for a second time. The siege was to grind on. This brought dejection to the sewing benches; the women employed there, like so many in the central districts of Paris, were ready to give up.
Hannah grew convinced that Jean-Jacques must be trying to find her – to get word to her about what was to happen next. She took to sitting at the office window long into the night, watching for a signal or a figure on the tracks below. There was a store of candles and matches in the desk meaning she could read or draw after dark. She’d get out her sketching materials, thinking to ease her tormenting sense of impotence with work, but more often than not she’d just stare at studies she’d made of her lover in the last days before the march on the Hôtel de Ville, in preparation for Elizabeth’s portrait. There was Jean-Jacques seated with his arms crossed; leaning forward, reading a pamphlet; standing with his head lifted, as if about to speak.
Having had the task forced upon her, Hannah was now determined to make this portrait the best thing she’d ever done. She wanted to shame Elizabeth – to have her admit how wrong she’d been to treat her daughter like a ten-a-penny illustrator. She could picture the end result very clearly: a half-length likeness on a five-foot canvas, an interior in natural light that would present Jean-Jacques in such a way that no one who saw it could possibly doubt his conviction or his visionary intelligence. This was rather more ambitious than any of her previous portraits. The prospect was daunting, and a tiny part of her was relieved that circumstances had denied her the means to begin.
Hannah usually had no difficulty with solitude; before Jean-Jacques, she’d painted alone in Madame Lantier’s shed for days on end. Here in the balloon factory, however, she found that she had a keen desire for company. She began to look forward to the short conversations she had with Monsieur Besson as they paced through the station corridors or tried to warm themselves by his meagre fire. At first he simply updated her about Clement – who was well, as far as he could ascertain; safe from firing squads, at any rate.
‘Elizabeth will be attending to this,’ Hannah said, to convince herself as much as Besson. ‘She won’t let them keep him locked up in there for long.’
Gradually, though, they moved onto other topics. Hannah discovered that the aérostier possessed a sceptical wit; she came to enjoy dispelling his habitual terseness and drawing it out. Judging her work to be an uncontroversial area, she showed him the couple of sketches she’d managed to set down since her arrival – views from the office window, depicting the twelve sets of empty rails running into the station and the tall weeds growing around them.
‘I depict what I see, Monsieur,’ Hannah explained, ‘what is before me, shorn of contrivance. We naturalist painters want to bring about an age of freedom, in which a sincere art can be nourished – a true art. No more nonsense from the Bible, or Ovid, or French history, or anywhere else. Nature without invention or manipulation is the goal – thrown raw upon the canvas.’
‘So it is a scientific approach, in essence.’ Besson said. ‘You make yourself like a photographic plate, devoid of preconception, merely setting yourself before your image
– awaiting the impression the light will make upon you.’
Hannah conceded that there might be something in this, but her brow was furrowed; she’d always considered photographs to be dull, mechanical things, lacking any real creative power. She decided to steer them away from artistic theory from then on.
They spoke of their lives. Besson made his revelations in plain, compact sentences; this was not a man comfortable with talking about himself. Hannah learned that he’d been born in the Marais, the son of a cabinetmaker, and had trained as an engineer in the Imperial schools before devoting himself to aeronautics. During the Exposition Universelle of 1867 he’d worked as a pilot for the gigantic balloon Captive, taking visitors up fifteen times the height of the exhibition hall, over the green and golden sprawl of Napoleon III’s Paris. Strangely enough, on one ascent he had stood but four feet from Crown-Prince Frederick of Prussia – who now directed the besieging armies from a state room at Versailles.
‘Several among his party were terrified, but the Crown prince surveyed the city without a tremor.’ Besson shook his head. ‘Many times since have I wondered what he was thinking.’
In return, Hannah told him about her last years in London
– about her mother’s attempts to direct her life, to interfere at every stage and in every area. Hannah wanted to paint; so Elizabeth immediately produced these artist friends of hers, stolid old Royal Academicians stuck firmly in the thirties and forties, to whom she could be apprenticed. She’d barely turned fourteen when various eccentric gentlemen
– poets, musicians, radical philosophers – began to call at the Pardy home for no obvious reason. She came to realise that these were suitors, of a sort, candidates for the first of her public affairs; a vital component, apparently, of a Pardy woman’s renown.
Besson gave her his uneven smile. ‘So instead you choose to live in Montmartre – in a shed, your brother tells me.’
‘I do,’ Hannah answered proudly. ‘Every year I submit my work to the Salon, and every year I am rejected. I live off vermicelli and day-old bread. I once found a toad croaking beneath my pillow. I fail, Monsieur Besson, but on my own terms. I wouldn’t go back to England for anything.’
Their connection could only ever be a fragile one, though, no matter how many private recollections they shared. Both of them felt it: a great subject sat unmentioned between them. Hannah was careful to conceal her sketches of Jean-Jacques when Besson was in the office, but she knew that he couldn’t stay hidden for long.
* * * One painfully cold morning almost three weeks after Hannah first sought refuge at the station Besson strode straight into the office without his customary knock. He dumped the day’s newspapers on the desk and went to the window. At the top of the pile was the Figaro. Emblazoned across its front page was the headline Le Léopard Est En Retour. Hannah sat down; she glanced at Besson’s back and read on.
This true hero of Paris is once again spilling the blood of the enemy that so cruelly confines her. This newspaper can reveal that only last night he was out stalking his prey in the forest of Bondy
– snaking between the trees, eyes fixed on the lights of a Prussian outpost glimmering up ahead. Gunpowder is tipped from a cartridge at the base of an oak; a match is touched to it and it fizzes furiously, sending a white flash across the canopy of branches above. The sentries are sent out to investigate. Our Leopard strikes with all the grace and savagery that Paris has come to expect. It is knife-work, requiring an expert hand; and the second man dies before the first has fully collapsed among the fallen leaves. The unlucky third has seen nothing, but he senses that danger is near; the trees around him seem to be moving, closing in around him. He offers a last prayer to his German God, firming up his grip on his rifle, and he advances to his end. Later, the Leopard slinks back to Aubervilliers, and then to the wall, seen by no one, three brass helmets stowed in his haversack.
There was more, several paragraphs in fact. The only reference to the recent red ructions and the role the Leopard might have played in them was Jean-Jacques’s drop from ‘Major Allix’ to a mere ‘Monsieur’; he’d evidently been stripped of his rank along with so many of his Montmartre comrades. Numerous allusions were made to a sortie, Elizabeth stressing that it was the patriotic duty of all Frenchmen to follow the Leopard’s bold example. Prussian morale, she claimed, was desperately low due to the coming winter and their fear of Parisian might. There was no better time to strike.
The invaders are like beaters standing fearfully around a thicket heaving with wild beasts, the article concluded, of which our Leopard is just one. They know that at any second thousands of ferocious fighters could pour out through those gates, their bloodlust sharpened by their deep and abiding love for their land. They know, in short, that they would be massacred – lashed back to Prussia with their brave Kaiser leading the retreat!
‘It’s going to happen,’ said Besson. ‘There will be a sortie now. You reds made Trochu look weak, holding him hostage for half a day in his own inner chamber. Our hesitant general has been shamed into action. Gambetta has managed to assemble an army, out in the countryside somewhere to the south-east, and is reputed to be doing great things. Trochu imagines that a coordinated action is possible – that the forces of Paris will be able to break through the Prussian line and link up with this other army.’
‘You know this, Monsieur?’
‘Men close to the cabinet have all but confirmed it.’ The Figaro was shivering in Hannah’s hands. One of their
aims, at least, would be met. ‘It will turn the war,’ she said. ‘It will give us our chance.’
‘You cannot think that.’ Besson looked over at her. ‘Mademoiselle Pardy, you are a clever woman. You cannot honestly think that a sortie is the best course.’
Hannah put down the newspaper, stung by the trace of condescension in his manner. ‘What would you do, then?’
‘Surrender,’ the aérostier replied, ‘at once, on any terms. They have won. We are beaten. Can you really not see it? All a sortie will achieve is more dead men. If the government and the generals honestly think that the Prussians won’t work out this plan of theirs – won’t see it coming a hundred miles away – then they are fools who deserve their doom. The tragedy is that so many will be made to follow them.’
Disagreement surged through Hannah so strongly that it propelled her from her chair. ‘A sortie can succeed, of course it can!’ she cried. ‘There are millions of us, far more than there are of the Prussians. How can it possibly fail?’
‘It is too late. Our enemy is dug in. They have been adding to their forces for two months now. Perfecting their strategies. How many sieges have they won so far, in this poisonous, pointless war? Three, four? And they have the men from Metz, don’t forget – two hundred thousand experienced troops.’
They faced each other over the desk. Hannah knew then that it would be bad – a collision between immoveable objects.
‘You talk like a bourgeois defeatist,’ she told him. ‘A man who just wants to get back to his damned shop.’
‘Perhaps I am. What is so wrong with that? And why do you care so much, anyway? You are English. Why have you adopted the cause of France with such passion?’
‘Christ Almighty, I am so very tired of hearing that! The question, Monsieur Besson, is why you have abandoned it!’
Besson stopped for a second; this had struck home. ‘Life would be hard for a while if we surrendered,’ he admitted, ‘and our pride would suffer a grave blow. But we would go on. We would rebuild.’ He nodded at her drawing folder. ‘You could resume your work – properly, I mean, without all this distraction.’
Hannah glared at him. He doesn’t believe that I mean any of it, she thought; he thinks that my politics are an affectation that I will shrug off, as one might an obsessive interest in Italian opera or the modern novel. ‘You underestimate the people of Paris. You don’t realise what they are capable of.’
‘I am a Parisian, Mademoiselle Pardy, and I realise it very well. It is one thing to proclaim a wish to die for your country – and quite another to actually risk doing it. Your Leopard should know all about that.’
Silence and stillness filled the tiny office, like that which follows the smashing of something valuable. Hannah blinked. ‘What – what do you mean?’
The aérostier appeared momentarily regretful, as if impatience had led him to speak out of turn; then he pressed on. ‘These heroics – this prodigious murder of Prussians. Does it not seem improbable to you?’
Hannah controlled her anger; she wanted to hear what he had to say. ‘Elizabeth dramatises,’ she replied. ‘She exaggerates. That is her style. The Prussians are definitely dying, though, if that’s what you are implying. Jean-Jacques brings back the helmets of the men he has killed – and their weapons, letters, anything he can carry. I’ve seen them.’
This did not persuade him. He crossed to the mantelpiece; then he was at the desk again, trying to frame a difficult question, unable to phrase it to his satisfaction. Hannah remembered the alley outside the Club Rue Rébeval – what he’d whispered when she went to assist him.
‘Do you still think I should leave Paris?’
Besson misunderstood her; he paled a little. ‘You have been talking to your brother,’ he said. ‘I did not write that letter. I would never do such a thing.’
So this was Clem’s Montmartre suspect. It certainly made sense. The aérostier was resourceful enough, and headstrong as well – utterly set on doing what he thought was right. Five minutes previously Hannah would have been convinced by his denial. Now she wasn’t so sure.
‘What on earth do you think Jean-Jacques is up to, Monsieur Besson?’
The only reply he’d give her was another question. ‘Have you ever wondered exactly how well you know him – this man on whom you have staked your entire existence?’ ‘How well I know him?’
‘I am an aérostier, Mademoiselle Pardy. I design and fly balloons. You draw and paint – your work, even the quickest sketch, shows a lifetime’s training. These are facts about us. What facts are there about your Monsieur Allix?’
‘He is from Alsace,’ Hannah answered, as if talking to an idiot, ‘a village near Strasbourg. He fought in America, and was injured there. He killed many Prussians in the Vosges Mountains and now he has come to defend Paris – to help lead her people to freedom.’
Besson’s expression hardened. ‘That is his account, Mademoiselle. There’s no evidence to support it. I grant you that he seems to be a soldier of some kind, but have you ever met anyone who served with him? Any old friends from before the war – any family?’
Hannah could think of no one. ‘Many revolutionaries are like this,’ she said. ‘They move constantly from place to place. It is how they must live in order to spread their ideas and avoid imprisonment. They deliberately sever their attachments to the ordinary world.’
The aérostier leaned forward, his blue eyes looking intently into hers. ‘Then why,’ he asked, ‘has Allix attached himself to you?’
Hannah balked; she felt sick, hollowed out, giddy with rage. She edged around the desk, knocking against a stack of ledgers. ‘Now we get to it, Monsieur Besson, don’t we!’ she shouted. ‘You are jealous, here in your tiny office, surrounded by your plans, with seamstresses who laugh at you behind your back and call you names, and balloons that vanish into the clouds never to be heard from again!’
Besson backed from her path. There was resignation on his face; he’d known it would come to this. ‘That is not true. I wanted to—’
‘I thought you were a friend. I was wrong. A friend would never say these things – would never even think them.’ Hannah set about gathering her things. It didn’t take long. Besson watched her in silence. ‘What am I even doing here?’ she asked herself, snatching up her vivandière’s uniform from beneath the desk. ‘They’ll hardly be looking for me now, after all this time. You’ve kept me with you, haven’t you Monsieur Besson, on false pretences. You’ve been biding your time, weaselling your way into my confidence, waiting to deliver this speech about Jean-Jacques – a more decent and brave and principled man than you could ever hope to be!’
Besson’s voice was quiet. ‘Mademoiselle—’
Hannah threw open the office door. ‘I have to find him,’ she said. ‘I have work to do.’