Clem studied his hands, rotating them slowly. They were trembling so much that they seemed almost to blur. Half an hour’s scrubbing with the Grand’s carbolic soap had failed to shift the dirt; it was ingrained in the skin. There was an ugly line between the thumb and forefinger of the left one that he could swear hadn’t been there a month earlier. The nails were all gnawed down to raw stubs. He plucked the linen napkin from his shirt, brought it below the level of the table and twisted it as tightly as he could.
Montague Inglis sat next to him, chewing thoughtfully, his head angled towards the gilded ceiling of the hotel dining room. Clem had been surprised to find Inglis at the Grand when he returned; and more so when he stayed to dine with them. There was something different about both the conduct and the demeanour of the Sentinel’s Paris correspondent. His beard had been left wild, never recovering its courtier’s precision, and he was thinner too, of course – everyone was thinner – but it ran deeper than this. The rivalry had receded; that ancient row with Elizabeth, whatever it was, had been laid to rest. He was more a familiar now than a competitor. Then, as they’d taken their seats in the empty room and Elizabeth had asked about the day’s special dish, Clem had spotted a complacent look passing between them. Oh Christ, he’d thought, not that. Anything but that.
‘So this is canis lupus,’ declared the newspaperman. ‘Mother of Rome, slavering nemesis of countless bedtime stories, reduced to the status of luncheon.’ He regarded his plate without enthusiasm. ‘Rather horrible, ain’t it?’
Clem studied his own portion: a steak the colour of damp rosewood, withered coins of carrot, nubs of potato in a thin white sauce. It wasn’t very enticing, even for a man just out of prison.
‘There is not much to be said, certainly,’ Elizabeth observed, ‘for the tenderness of wolf.’
His mother was opposite him in a new dress, a practical but fetching chocolate-coloured gown. She looked poised, redoubtable – honed by the siege and the role she’d taken in it. A notebook was open on the table beside her; she was writing as she ate. Along with her unsparing exposure of frippery, corruption and cant, and her unconventional mode of living, Mrs Elizabeth Pardy had been famous for her iron constitution. It was like that of a wild boar, they’d said, a hippopotamus made from stone; the reading public had delighted in the contrast with her elegant appearance. When on her adventures of yore, she’d been able to digest the most dubious of local delicacies – to thrive on them, even. Details of her gastronomic experiences had been a much-loved element of her books. It was obvious that siege cuisine was to have its place in the current one.
‘A step too far down the carnivorous path, perhaps,’ Inglis continued. ‘It is no accident, Lizzie, that the more appetizing beasts are those whose natural diet most resembles that of standard livestock.’
Clem winced at that Lizzie. Its meaning was unmistakable.
‘We covered the equines long ago, Clement,’ Elizabeth explained, without looking up from her notebook, ‘and the domestic pets. We have had our share, also, of rat and mouse.’
‘Oh, one must try rat,’ interjected Inglis. ‘One cannot say one has truly been besieged otherwise. And it ain’t nearly so bad as you’d think, once chef has chopped it into a nice salmis.’
‘Within the past fortnight, however, the Jardin des Plantes has opened up its zoological department to the butchers of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Many intriguing morsels have become available. What have we had so far, Mont? Bear, reindeer, dromedary . . .’
‘All of which were superior to the poor wolf – vastly so. And everything I’ve tasted pales beside kangaroo. I dined on a length of tail, don’t y’know, at Brebant’s the other night. Dashed expensive – something like eight shillings a pound – but I have to say that it was the very best game I’ve ever eaten.’ Inglis paused, a smirk tugging somewhere beneath his beard. ‘Strange, though we ate a good deal of it, none of us felt at all – ahem! – jumpy afterwards.’
The newspaperman laughed loudly, glancing at Elizabeth; this joke had plainly been one of the evening’s gems. She granted him a measured smile.
‘I’ve been among National Guard for the past several weeks,’ Clem said. ‘I didn’t see any of them sampling such exotic fare.’
‘Well no, boy,’ chuckled Inglis. ‘Highly unlikely that the blighters can afford it. They’ll be sticking to their horse, I should think.’
Elizabeth caught the meaning behind her son’s comment. They had yet to speak of what had befallen him on the day of the red revolt, and his ensuing absence. Meeting upstairs in the corridor outside her suite, she’d merely asked if he was well – and then instructed him to bathe and shave before luncheon.
‘You blame me for your incarceration,’ she said matterof-factly, setting down both fork and pencil; Mrs Pardy did not beat around the bush. ‘Need I remind you that we were deliberately waiting by the Tour Saint-Jacques. We were maintaining what my military friends refer to as a safe distance. It was entirely your choice to scamper off after your harlot.’
Inglis tilted in towards him. ‘I might well have done the same, in your shoes,’ he murmured. ‘A true nymph of the pavé, that one. Why, before I—’
Elizabeth silenced the journalist without moving, speaking or even looking in his direction. ‘You knew that a riot was possible, Clement, and you went on regardless. You cannot hold me responsible for the loyalist militia placing you under arrest.’
Clem had rehearsed many cutting lines in the Mazas, enough for an entire stage-play of recrimination and wrath, but right then he couldn’t remember any of them. Setting down his twisted napkin, he readied himself to speak as best he could. ‘Elizabeth, I was in there for nearly four weeks. You didn’t visit. You didn’t enquire after me.’ A fat tear popped into his eye, wobbling at the edge of his sight. ‘You didn’t try to – to get me out.’
They’d put him in a cell on his own, a deathly cold box with an unglazed window that showed only a square foot of sky. He’d been fed weak broth and bread that appeared to have been made from straw. Twice in the first few days a pair of National Guard officers had come in and told him he was to die – forcing him to kneel and pointing revolvers at his head, laughing as he begged for mercy. Everyone he’d encountered claimed not to understand English, refusing to listen to his explanations for his presence in the Hôtel de Ville that day, or his pleas for word to be sent to his mother. Eventually he’d just been released, turned loose carelessly, nobody bothering to tell him why.
Elizabeth’s one chance had been that she didn’t know where he was – that she’d been hunting for him across the city, her book and her Leopard forgotten. This clearly hadn’t been the case. It was futile to try to make her feel guilt or shame, however, or to extract any form of apology. There was a silence. Clem wiped his eyes on his cuff. He picked up his knife and fork; his hands were behaving themselves, so he sliced off some of his steak and put it in his mouth.
‘I knew that they would not dare to shoot you, Clement,’ Elizabeth told him, a single atom of conciliation in her tone, ‘and that they could not reasonably hold you for more than a few weeks.’ She looked at her notebook, rereading the last few lines, reaching for her pencil to cross out a word and write its replacement in the margin. ‘To be quite honest, I felt that a spell in gaol might be just punishment for your idiocy.’
Clem almost choked on his wolf. Inglis was right; it was revolting, pungent and stringy. He spat it into his napkin. ‘Just punishment?’
‘You are back now, though,’ Elizabeth went on, ignoring him, ‘in the shelter of the Grand, and I suggest you stay here. Things are about to heat up. Our lily-livered General Trochu finally appears to be steeling himself for serious action. The Leopard’s example is being heeded at last. My reports are having their intended effect.’
Sheer astonishment overwhelmed Clem’s anger. ‘How the devil did he get away? It’s – that’s—’ He struggled to imagine it. ‘The last time I saw him he was before the government’s soldiers. Between two great mobs of armed men. How did he escape arrest – or injury, for that matter?’
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, as if to say well, that’s just the kind of fellow he is. ‘Monsieur Allix slipped the clutches of the government and went into hiding. He continues his raids on the Prussian positions, providing invaluable scouting information as well as eroding enemy morale. And then he comes to see me, in my sitting room upstairs, to give me what I need for the Figaro.’
Clem felt as if he’d been pummelled about the head. ‘What happened to Han?’ he asked faintly. ‘We got split up when I was—’ He glimpsed the stamping boots and grimacing faces, and tasted the blood in his mouth. ‘When I was detained.’
‘She’s quite safe,’ said Elizabeth. ‘In hiding. Not with Monsieur Allix, but he knows where she is. The reds went too far that night. He acknowledges this. They allowed themselves to be carried forward by their less rational members. I am assured that the politicking will be played down for a while. There will be no more revolts, but the ultras cannot recognise the plebiscite. Their view is that there can be no fair elections in a city under attack by a ruthless foreign enemy. They are focused upon the sortie
– which was one of their central demands, after all. They intend to show bourgeois Paris what her working people can do. What they are owed by their fellow citizens.’
Inglis restricted himself to a single cynical grunt.
‘Troops are being moved around the city,’ Elizabeth enlarged, ‘from north to south. The National Guard is being asked for active volunteers – men who will serve outside the wall, who will fight rather than merely stand upon a rampart.’
‘Needless to say,’ Inglis added, ‘very few of those noble warriors have availed themselves of the opportunity as yet.’
Elizabeth pretended not to hear. ‘But you mustn’t concern yourself with any of this, Clement. You’re not suited to it
– that has been demonstrated conclusively. You’ll be safe enough here in the Grand, helping the orderlies or something similar, provided the blood doesn’t prove too much for you. There shouldn’t be more than a week left in this siege now.’
‘Good Heavens, old chap,’ grinned Inglis, leaning in again, ‘I do believe that she’s confining you to quarters.’
Clem knocked over his chair as he stood. He decided that he would shout; it came out like the yelp of a petulant adolescent. ‘You can stuff the Grand, Mother. You can stuff my room. You can stuff your wolf steaks. And you can stuff your bloody Leopard.’
Inglis failed to smother his laugh. ‘Stuff your leopard! Oh my word!’
Elizabeth stared at her son. She was not visibly cross, but her voice was at its very firmest. ‘Sit down.’
‘No. Not this time. I will not.’
Clem strode from the table, his fury driving him through the makeshift hospital in the lobby and onto the boulevard des Italiens. Elizabeth didn’t believe he was serious; she seldom did. She considered him utterly ineffectual. He began recounting everything he should have said to her in a low mutter, resentment prickling against his skin like new tweed. The stone of the barren boulevard glowed coldly in the late November sunshine; there was a smell of burning leaves. A circuit of the arrondissement was required, to clear his head – to rid him of this corrosive bitterness.
Swerving to the right, Clem entered the Passage des Panoramas, a narrow, famously garish arcade that led away from the grand boulevards. That afternoon it was grey with shadow, dirty and deserted. Shattered glass crunched underfoot; several of its fine shops had been broken open and ransacked. Laure had brought him here one night in the early days of the siege. The Passage had still been partially lit then, multicoloured transparencies projecting images of clocks, hats, fans and other goods across the shop-fronts. Chains of white and red lamps had hung from the glass roof, lending the air itself a luminous haze. They’d been drunk on absinthe, so much so that they could hardly stand. She’d insisted that he take her right there in the doorway of a closed-up confectioner’s. Clem could just about remember the bunched folds of her satin dress; the pale flash of the legs beneath as they wrapped around him; the nudge of a passer-by’s elbow against his.
Approaching that doorway now, he felt the smart of betrayal, painfully enough to send him weaving across to the other side of the passage. It was Laure Fleurot who’d landed him in that trouble at the Hôtel de Ville – whose absurdly disproportionate prank had led straight to his stretch in the Mazas. He’d cursed her name with each drop of frozen dew he’d picked from his whiskers; each mouthful of that foul straw bread; each precarious bowel movement over the drain in the corner of his cell. It was impossible for him now not to view the whole liaison through a lens of regret. What the hell had he been thinking, gadding around with a scarlet woman – copulating in the street like a dog? Had he actually been insane, his mind upset by the drinking, the lovemaking, the hashish and everything else?
Clem emerged gratefully from the arcade’s other end and began to walk south-east down the rue Montmartre. Amidst the various declarations painted on walls – mostly communistic and anti-Trochu in tone – was a Vive le Léopard! in a toxic shade of yellow. The watery sun had disappeared; it was barely two o’clock, yet night was already on its way. The jacket of his trusty brown travelling suit flapped baggily around him. It had been waiting in a Grand Hotel wardrobe, some kind soul having even attempted to give it a clean. It seemed to have doubled in size since he’d last worn it, though, so much of him had dropped away in the Mazas. He put his hands in the pockets, trying vainly to gather it in.
The rue Montmartre brought him to the great market of Les Halles, the so-called belly of Paris, its wide iron-andglass aisles busy with a drab siege crowd. Old people – why was everyone in Paris suddenly so old? – haggled like cawing crows. All pretence that the meat on offer had come from anything but beasts of burden had been abandoned. Stall after stall was decorated with the heads of horses, asses and donkeys, tongues lolling from their blackened lips. It was truly nauseating; Clem tapped a cigarette from a pack bought with one of his last French coins, thinking to block the stench with tobacco smoke. This is ridiculous, he told himself, directing his gaze towards the grimy skylights. You know what to do; you made your decision in the Mazas. Why delay it any longer?
Clem lit his cigarette and went on through the market to the boulevard de Sébastopol. He paused to get his bearings; then he turned up his jacket collar and headed north.
The Gare du Nord was filled with sounds that had no natural place in a railway terminus – the constant rainstorm of pedal-driven sewing machines; hammer-blows and sawrasps; the lilting shanties of the sailors as they toiled over their ropes, nets and baskets. As Clem walked in there was a sudden swell of cooing and the cramped half-beat of confined wings: a dozen cages of carrier pigeons were stacked against the station’s far wall, before a hand-painted advertisement for a boot-maker in the Passage de l’Opéra. The gloomy hall ahead of him was dominated by a row of balloons, laid out where the locomotives had once idled. Some were being inflated, others let down, the bulging white envelopes rising and falling like the bellies of snoring giants.
In the centre of it all was Émile Besson, dressed in his grey suit, standing on a train-rail with his arms crossed. He was overseeing the installation of a gas-valve on a completed envelope – an especially large one with a blue stripe painted around its base. The tin funnel was being fitted onto the balloon’s mouth, being made airtight with a thick rubber band; Besson shouted a direction, repeated it, and then stepped from his rail to take over.
Clem stopped by one of the station’s iron lampposts, watching them work. After a few minutes someone noticed him and alerted Besson. Their last parting, Clem remembered, had not been the friendliest, the aérostier cutting him off mid-sentence to go to his meeting with Sergeant Peabody. There was no guarantee that he’d be greeted with any warmth at all – but Besson actually broke into a smile as he walked across the concourse. Clem smiled back, despite feeling very far indeed from any kind of contentment. He put the remainder of his strength into their handshake: Besson had to think him fit and able.
‘By Jove, old man,’ he said, ‘what an astounding operation! Why, it must be three times the size of the dancing school. Whole balloons, from start to finish, fashioned before one’s very eyes! Books will be written, my friend. Songs will be sung.’
‘Mr Pardy,’ said the Frenchman, ‘you do not have a coat or hat.’
‘Oh . . .’ Clem glanced at his suit, as if noticing this for the first time. ‘I left the Grand a little impulsively. A disagreement with my mother.’
Besson seemed to understand. ‘You look well, I must say. All things considered.’
So much for the display of robust good health. ‘You know, then? Where I’ve been?’
‘More than that. I tried to see you – to find out why you were being held. The Marais militia would not allow me past the gate. They saw that there had been a mistake, I think, but would not admit to it. I am sorry.’
‘That is—’ Clem’s chest tightened; he began to tremble again. He looked at the station’s cracked marble floor. ‘That is dashed decent of you. Dashed decent.’ He could feel Besson’s concerned expression on the top of his head. ‘I am tired, I must say . . . I thought I’d catch pneumonia in that place, at the very least. I suppose I’m fortunate.’
‘Many are finished by a stay in the Mazas. You are a resilient man, Mr Pardy.’
Enough wallowing, Clem thought. It was time to get to the point. ‘Listen, Besson, I need your help. I wish to enrol. I want to pilot one of your balloons – to become a . . . what d’you call it?’
‘Aérostier.’ Besson had been expecting this. ‘That is the term favoured by the Société d’Aviation.’
‘You need volunteers, do you not?’
‘Indeed we do. They are usually men with some ballooning experience, though, or sailors. You have only ever flown in a fixed balloon, is that correct?’
Clem nodded. They’d discussed this before his incarceration. He’d exaggerated wildly about both the number of ascents he’d made and the role he’d performed during them. Besson was under the impression that there had been over a dozen, and that he’d manned the valve for at least half of these, expertly controlling the return to earth. In reality he’d gone up just once, on a foggy summer morning over the Crystal Palace. He’d been a mere passenger, kept well away from the valve-cord and everything else. They hadn’t gone very high, scarcely a hundred yards by Clem’s estimation. Views had been restricted by the weather conditions: a silhouetted steeple, a few dull lanes, the glint of glass from the palace roof. Clem had found it rather disappointing.
‘Free flight is different. It is dangerous. The balloons can go in any direction, any direction at all. We talk much of winds, of pressure, but once you’re up there . . .’ Besson shrugged. ‘You must be ready to improvise.’
‘I don’t mind the risk.’
The aérostier studied him. ‘You think you have something to prove.’
‘I just have to get out of this city. I’ve had enough, old man – far more than enough.’
‘Well, yes, she is pretty central to it all.’ Clem’s bitterness returned. ‘She could have freed me from that damned cell any time she chose, but she left me to bloody well rot – to freeze and starve. I swear, Besson, she was on the verge of forgetting me altogether. She only cares about this accursed Leopard business. The Figaro, her damned career, the stupid books she’s going to write.’ Railing against Elizabeth felt good – a relief, like tearing off a stifling collar on a hot afternoon. ‘She’s taken Montague Inglis as a lover, too. I’m certain of it. I have to get away from that. Her affairs are always an absolute ordeal, believe me – epic bloody dramas in which everyone in the vicinity is impelled to play a part.’
‘I thought they were lovers already,’ Besson said, ‘or had been, perhaps, in the past. Such shows of contempt suggest great intimacy, no?’
‘I really have no idea.’ Clem reached for a cigarette but the pack was empty. ‘Something is up, though, and I don’t want to see any bloody more of it.’
Besson hesitated. ‘What of your sister?’
Clem pushed the empty pack to the bottom of his pocket. ‘Han has no need of me. I am nothing but a nuisance to her. We had words in the Hôtel de Ville during the uprising. She made it pretty clear that she judged my presence in Paris to be a comical mishap.’
‘She was worried for you when you were in the Mazas. She would have come to you had she been able.’
‘You’ve seen her, then? Since my arrest?’
The unthinkable occurred: Émile Besson became distracted. ‘Mademoiselle Pardy came to me that night,’ he admitted, ‘looking for somewhere to hide. We’d spoken, you understood, when I—’ He stopped. ‘I found you for her. She was afraid that they might shoot you. She stayed a good while, in the end, in case the police were searching for her. More than three weeks.’
Surely this episode would have been a great gift for Besson
– his beloved at his mercy, requiring his help and left for ever in his debt – but something told Clem that it hadn’t gone well. Before he could work out how best to extract the details Besson moved their conversation into another area completely.
‘A massed sortie is coming in the next few days,’ he said. ‘We have received word from General Trochu. The attack was to be mounted in the north-west, near Neuilly, where the Prussian line is known to be weakest. There has been an upset, though – a change in strategy.’
‘Elizabeth mentioned this. A troop movement.’
‘Reports from the provinces claim that Minister Gambetta has been distinguishing himself as a field commander. His army is apparently winning victory after victory and will soon be in a position to relieve us.’ Besson looked back at his balloons. ‘I do not trust it myself, but our leaders are desperate for a French triumph. The main force for the sortie is in the process of being relocated to the south-east. They are going to push through the woods at Vincennes and then loop around to meet Gambetta as he advances from Orléans.’
Clem was doubtful. ‘I’m no soldier, Besson, God knows,’ he said, ‘but that sounds pretty damned ambitious to me.’
Besson agreed. Clem had heard him criticise Trochu before; the provisional government, in his view, had yet to make a single right step. ‘Nonetheless,’ he said, ‘several highly important flights have to be made, to convey details of our intended actions, and coordinate the two armies as closely as possible. They have us working night and day, dispatching our creations as fast as we can make them.’
Clem saw a chance – saw Besson dangling it purposefully in front of him. ‘So you’ll be needing all the pilots you can get.’
Besson was shaking his head. ‘It would never be allowed
– not an amateur, and an Englishman as well.’ Besson became conspiratorial. ‘But I have a suggestion. They have ordered me to make one of these flights myself. I am the most experienced balloonist left in the city, you see, excepting Nadar and Monsieur Yon. A package of the most vital communiqués has been prepared, and another manager trained to replace me here in the Gare du Nord.’ The aérostier moved a step closer. ‘Nadar knows that I have a basic knowledge of the camera. He wants photographs of the Prussian positions, taken from the air as I leave Paris. He insists that this is possible. There are men in Orléans, he says, who will miniaturise the results so they can be sent back in by pigeon. Should the siege run on they could prove invaluable.’
This scheme had an immediate appeal. Clem gave his whiskers a ruminative stroke, his excitement building; he could tell what was coming. ‘Fascinating notion.’
‘If you truly wish to leave, Mr Pardy,’ Besson said, meeting his eye, ‘you could join me.’
Clem grinned. ‘I do,’ he replied. ‘Christ Besson, I do and I will. I accept!’
The aérostier’s lip curled the tiniest fraction. ‘We need not train you. There is no time, anyway. You know balloons, in theory at least, and you know cameras – so you can assist me with both. It is good luck, in fact, you emerging from the Mazas when you did. For the pair of us.’
Besson’s enthusiasm was slightly overdone; Clem perceived that he was concealing something, leaving an aspect of their proposed expedition unmentioned. He made no attempt to discover it. This was a friend, despite his secrets – someone who’d been trying to help him while his own mother sat eating cats and camels in the Grand. It would be nothing sinister. Clem wanted to cheer. He’d just secured a route out of Paris, and one that promised a thrilling exploit to boot. This could be a book, he thought suddenly: ‘An Airborne Escape from the Siege of Paris’, by Clement R. R. Pardy. This could be a bloody book. That would show her, and no mistake!
‘When are we scheduled to leave?’
‘Tomorrow – the day after at the latest.’ Besson pointed out the balloon he’d been working on earlier, the large envelope with the single blue stripe. ‘That is our craft there. Aphrodite, Nadar has called her. Come, I will show you the car.’
The two men started to walk back over the concourse. Besson looked at his new comrade, a curious, almost amiable expression on his face.
‘Are you really ready to abandon everything here in Paris, Mr Pardy?’ he asked. ‘What of your cocotte?’
Clem saw Laure Fleurot outside the Hôtel de Ville on that tumultuous afternoon, laughing and smoking under a black umbrella, indifferent to his fate. ‘We are done, old man. Played out. Dead and bloody well buried.’
‘It is often the way with such women,’ said the aérostier.
‘An affair that intense,’ Clem mused, ‘can’t hope to endure for very long.’
Besson put a commiserative hand on his shoulder. ‘Or perhaps she realised that you have no money.’
The commanders of the 197th had provided wine for the four hundred or so who’d volunteered for the battle-group
– but from the liberality with which Laure Fleurot was distributing it you’d be forgiven for thinking that she’d laid it on herself. She whirled through the Moulin de la Galette with a bottle in each hand, overfilling cups, splashing wine on the dulled parquet, instructing everyone to drink and be happy. In return, the tipsy militiamen promised her dozens of kills; a land cleansed of Fritz; France liberated before the week was out. It would be five minutes at most, Hannah guessed, before Laure made it to where she was sitting. She wondered what she was going to say.
The Galette had been shut since late summer and was going the way of all Paris’s amusements, from the grandest to the most humble. Hannah had visited it from time to time, in her life before the war – before Jean-Jacques Allix. It had been the kind of place you might drop into on a Sunday afternoon to chat about the previous night with your friends; taking the edge off, perhaps, with a glass of vermouth and a few gentle waltzes. Now, though, it was dark and slightly dank, the fading furnishings creating a disheartening atmosphere.
Hannah was up on the bar, sitting in a line with Benoît, Lucien and Octave. The three artists had joined the National Guard shortly after her, driven by a sense of duty she’d scarcely imagined that they possessed. A few days had passed since her return from the balloon factory. The 197th had welcomed her back without a word of rebuke; the Leopard’s girl, it appeared, could absent herself indefinitely and suffer no penalty. The circumstances of her life had been oddly unchanged. Rather more of the shed’s damp-warped exterior was visible due to the seasonal ebb of the vegetables planted around it, but everything inside was exactly as it had been left. Someone had paid her rent for the month, sliding the money under Madame Lantier’s door; as a result, the landlady hadn’t even realised that her tenant had been away. Nobody had come looking for her, no soldiers or bourgeois militia or secret policemen. All that caution had been for nothing. Her stay in the Gare du Nord with Monsieur Besson had just been so much wasted time.
Everyone out in the cafes and bars had been talking of the sortie. The National Guard would lead it, they’d declared, and it would be a massive victory, ushering in a new age for Paris and for France as a whole; the working man would become the hero of the nation and would finally be given his due. There’d been no trace of Jean-Jacques. It seemed that Elizabeth now had truly exclusive access to the Leopard of Montmartre, in order to produce those articles of hers. The thought made Hannah want to bite her hand until it bled.
Once word had got around that she was back, Hannah had assumed that Jean-Jacques would come to her, or at least make contact somehow. Nothing had happened. The only explanation she’d been able to entertain was that he was still in hiding – still under some kind of threat from the provisional government. Lying on her mattress in the shed, she’d found herself imagining his reappearance so keenly that she could almost bring him into being: walk him in through the door, shed his coat and boots and shirt, slide him under the blanket and arrange him around her.
Hannah was not the sort, however, to become lost in longing sighs. Growing impatient, she’d risen, cleared a space in the middle of the shed and set the ruined picture of the Club Rue Rébeval on an easel. She’d stared at it for a moment, fixing its failures in her memory; then she’d scraped off the paint with her canvas knife, using a pumice stone afterwards to rub the surface clean. Taking up a length of charcoal, pinning her preparatory studies to the wall, she’d begun her portrait of Jean-Jacques. It was against her method to work without a model, but she’d pressed on regardless. Strange times called for adaptability.
It hadn’t been right. This much had been plain within an hour of starting. Something hadn’t been flowing through properly. Errors were frequent and clumsiness rife; it had been like trying to play the piano in thick winter gloves. The fundamental problem, she’d decided, was the absence of Jean-Jacques. How could she strive for naturalism without the living man here before her? How could she hope to show him as he was, honest and whole? She’d dropped her brushes back into their jars. Elizabeth’s commission would have to wait.
No one in the Moulin de la Galette that afternoon knew why they’d been called there. The battle-group had already been given its orders for the following day: they were assembling two hours before dawn at the Pont de Charenton to march out alongside General Ducrot’s regulars and break through the Prussian defences to the south-east. Lucien, Benoît and Octave smelled trouble. Set apart from the rest of the hall, gripped by a black recklessness, they were trying to outdo each other in their predictions of defeat.
‘When men in uniform are given free drink by their commanders,’ said Lucien, ‘you can bet that things are bad.’
‘The gates have been shut, did you see?’ muttered Octave. ‘Every blasted one of them. There was a stampede to get back in – people out foraging beyond the wall and so forth. I heard some old fellow was trampled to death.’
‘Surely the Prussians will guess that an attack is coming?’ asked Benoît nervously. ‘Surely the shutting of the gates is an obvious sign – as good as sending up a damned signal rocket?’
Lucien threw out a bony arm towards their comrades. ‘These idiots don’t care either way. Nothing but socialist fanatics, drunks and simpletons – many all three at once.’ He sucked hard on his cigarette, the spark creeping between his paint-stained fingers. ‘And the attack plans are already widely known. Paris a very leaky vessel. You’d be foolish indeed to believe that Marshal von Moltke doesn’t have them on his desk at Versailles, with a crushing retaliation prepared.’
There was a tense silence; they’d postured themselves into a corner. Octave lowered his head, linking his hands. Across the hall some of the other guardsmen started to sing the ‘Marseillaise’.
‘Why the devil did you volunteer, then?’ Hannah asked them, failing to keep the exasperation from her voice. ‘If you’re so sure that we’re doomed, that this sortie will fail, that these brave men whom you hold in such contempt are wasting themselves, then why are you here? Plenty aren’t! You could leave now, if you so wished!’
‘Our country is under attack,’ Octave replied. ‘We must defend France.’
The painters nodded, smoking and scowling as if they thought their position – this noble campaign to which they had pledged their lives – utterly ridiculous.
Hannah banged her heel against the panels of the bar. ‘But how can you expect to be beaten? Haven’t you been listening to all that’s been said? We outnumber them massively. And we are defending our home. This gives us a natural advantage. This gives us a motivation that—’
They weren’t listening. Hannah realised that Laure was weaving her way towards them. There was sash of plum silk around the waist of her National Guard tunic, and a pair of patent-leather bottines on her feet – dainty ankleboots several leagues above the scratched workhorses Hannah was wearing. She’d slept with Benoît, this was common knowledge, and very probably Lucien as well; she hailed the men with a languid tilt of the head, ignoring Hannah completely.
‘Mademoiselle Laure!’ Benoît cried, grasping at this distraction. ‘How strange to see you in the Galette. I always think of you as a lady of the Mabille. For you to be here, well, it’s rather like putting a shark into a duck pond.’
Laure set down one of her wine bottles and slapped his arm. ‘Quiet, you beast. I come to the Galette on occasion. I rather like it.’
‘We were talking about the sortie,’ Lucien told her, ‘and why we’ve joined up. Hannah here thinks that only the most devoted reds are qualified to fight.’
Laure snorted as she filled Benoît’s cup, emptying the bottle. ‘Not a surprise. There are ultras who wear it lightly, aren’t there, and then there are those who become the most incredible bores . . .’
‘That’s not what I said, Lucien, and I don’t like—’
‘Why did you join up, Mademoiselle Laure?’ Benoît interrupted.
The cocotte shrugged, tossing the bottle behind the bar. ‘My boys love me. I can’t let them down, now can I?’ She met Benoît’s stare. ‘You got a cigarette for me, black-eyes?’
The young painter took one from his jacket, lighting it between his own lips and then passing it over with a flourish. ‘For ever your slave.’
Laure winked at him as she inhaled. ‘There’s a rumour,’ she said, quite pointedly not to Hannah, ‘that a certain spotted cat has been sighted around here – this afternoon, in broad daylight and everything.’
Hannah sprang down from the bar. ‘Where did you hear that?’ She barely stopped herself from seizing the cocotte by the shoulders and shaking her. ‘Answer me!’
Laure’s right eyebrow rose a cruel inch, her red mouth parting at the corner to release a coil of smoke. ‘Sounds to me as if someone’s feeling a little neglected.’
Hannah stepped back, regaining her composure – cursing herself for having handed Laure an advantage. ‘He needs to stay hidden,’ she said, ‘to keep striking at the Prussians and supplying stories to the Figaro. You know this.’
‘To your mother, you mean,’ corrected Laure, acting as if she was trying to get the situation straight in her head. ‘To keep supplying stories to your mother. You don’t see him for weeks but he can go to the centre of the city, into the Grand Hotel no less, meet with that famous old mother of yours and gab away quite happily about all the Prussians he’s killed. Isn’t that right?’
Hannah looked to her artists for support. None was forthcoming. Benoît and Lucien were grinning; Octave didn’t seem to be enjoying himself, but he wasn’t about to intervene. ‘He has his reasons,’ she said. ‘He does what is best for our cause. For this city and everyone in it.’
‘And he is a hero. A hero! Don’t be coy about it, Mademoiselle Pardy! The slogans are everywhere. And the paw-prints. Have you seen that? Red paw-prints on the side of buildings? So sweet.’ Laure flicked ash onto the floor. ‘Nobody knows where he is. Nobody knows what he’ll do next. All very exciting. For everyone, that is, but you,’ she took a drag before adding, ‘the forgotten lover.’
The anger felt physical, like a blow to the stomach; Hannah blinked, slightly winded. She clenched her fists. The blood surged beneath her skin, pressing around her fingernails. ‘Enough. I won’t hear this. You are an enemy of my family. You led my brother into the heart of a riot and then you abandoned him to his fate. Did you know that he was arrested – thrown in the Mazas? That he rots there still?’
Laure rolled her eyes. Hannah couldn’t tell if she’d already known Clement was in prison; she obviously didn’t care much anyway. ‘Your brother,’ she replied, ‘is a hopeless horse-prick who deserves whatever happened to him. He dropped me, Mademoiselle Pardy, like men spit into the gutter. Like I was nothing.’ She gave Hannah a meaningful look as she picked tobacco from her teeth: Like your lover has dropped you.
Hannah was consumed by the desire to fight. She was aware that Laure would be by far the more experienced brawler, but this didn’t check her. She wanted to act, to hurt – to punch this callous bitch on the chin.
A murmur rose from the back of the hall, gathering quickly to a cheer. The commanding officer of the 197th, a local apothecary turned colonel named Chomet, had climbed up onto the bandstand to address the company. Benoît and Lucien hopped off the bar, blocking Hannah’s path to Laure. It was useless to protest. Hannah crossed her arms, biting hard on her lower lip. She resolved to leave the second Chomet had made his proclamation.
The colonel, a stocky, moustachioed man with a ponderous manner, began by announcing a twenty-four-hour delay to the sortie. This elicited a disappointed groan from his militiamen. He told them that the recent rainfall had swollen the River Marne, making General Ducrot’s planned pontoon crossing to the Villiers Plateau impossible. All arrangements were to be put off by a day.
‘One good thing, however, has come from this,’ Chomet continued, starting to smile. ‘It means that we have an opportunity to salute the very best among us – a champion of the common man, of the worker, who has evaded the policemen of our weak and compromised government for well over a month . . .’
The battle-group shifted; Hannah forgot Laure Fleurot immediately. She looked over to the edges of the bandstand
– to the doors of the hall. He was here.
‘. . . who returns to lead us in this crucial hour. Our wretched government may have stripped him of his rank, of his official post in our battalion, but they cannot stop him from taking up arms beside his fellow citizens. They cannot stop us from following his noble example.’ Chomet paused, beaming now, savouring the moment. ‘I present to you: Monsieur Jean-Jacques Allix.’
The militiamen lost themselves in cheering. A fast chant shook the hall: Vive le Léopard! Vive le Léopard! Hannah stood up on a chair to get a proper view and there was JeanJacques, thanking Colonel Chomet and wrapping him in a brotherly embrace. The sight untethered Hannah from the earth. Her breath felt shallow; her vision seemed to drift. Octave planted a broad palm on the middle of her back, steadying her as she teetered atop her chair.
Jean-Jacques was the same. His clothes were plain but immaculate; his hair was swept from his brow, as always; his broken jaw-line was freshly shaved. Paris was slowly coming apart, weathering, fraying, crumbling; yet amongst all this Jean-Jacques Allix was like a polished black stone, perfect and immutable, proof against any hardship. He faced the hall, his posture opening, drawing everyone to him as he prepared to speak. If he saw Hannah, he gave no sign of it. The speech was typical of him: it appeared spontaneous yet appealed powerfully to his audience in terms they understood at once. After extolling their bravery, he told them of the pitiful numbers who’d volunteered to fight from the bourgeois militia divisions. So keen to gun down their fellow Parisians at the Hôtel de Ville, they would not now take this great chance to turn their weapons on the Prussians!
‘And I’ll tell you this,’ Jean-Jacques went on, ‘if the saviours of Paris are her ordinary working people then Paris will afterwards be obliged to give us a proper hearing. To give us the fair, free society that we deserve.’
‘They’ll give us fairness!’ someone cried. ‘They’ll have to!’
‘Prepare yourselves, my fellow citizens, for what lies ahead of you. Our foe is ruthless. His stranglehold upon our city is strong. But we will break it – we will inflict a defeat that will be remembered for centuries. This coming day is your last as untried militia. By the end of the next you will be soldiers, heroes of France!’
‘That,’ muttered Lucien, ‘or cadavers.’
Hannah did her best to disregard him, to applaud and cheer, but something felt wrong. The exhilaration that usually came when she heard Jean-Jacques speak was missing. Had she been infected by the artists’ cynicism – by Émile Besson’s senseless doubts? Was her commitment weakening? She’d always taken these speeches as the earnest avowals of a man of deep conviction. Now, though, she saw a clear end to the oratory – a manipulation, almost. It was a performance as expert as that of any professional stage-actor, intended to stoke up his audience: to get them running out gladly before the Prussian guns.
Few others in the Moulin de la Galette shared her uncertainty. Jean-Jacques’s words met with a roaring affirmation, the battle-group declaring that it would follow him to death. He was mobbed as he left the bandstand, dragged into a lengthy round of embraces, toasts and congratulations. They were asking him about this Leopard mission or that, so he began to retell a story from the Figaro with understated verve; soon there was laughter and exclamations of praise.
It was growing dark. Candles were lit – there had been no gas in the Galette for several weeks – and more wine poured. Hannah got down from her chair and waited by the bar. The others talked on, Laure needling her again; and then their conversation stilled. Jean-Jacques was approaching. Laure slid herself before him – hip and head cocked at opposing angles, fingers splayed along her collarbone – and attempted to launch into a flirtatious exchange. His response, although friendly enough, presented her with an unmistakable dead end.
Hannah could tell from his face that he’d known where she was from the start and had been gradually working his way over to her. The artists greeted him, offering vague words of admiration. Jean-Jacques had caused them enough disquiet before the siege, when they all used to gather in the Danton; now he was the far-famed Leopard of Montmartre they hardly dared to look his way.
He nodded at them. ‘Will you come outside with me, Hannah?’
The courtyard of the Moulin de la Galette had been its great attraction before the war, the outdoor dances attracting revellers from across the arrondissement. That evening, however, jackdaws flapped through the splintered remains of its acacia groves, and dun-green mould striped the glass globes of its lampposts. It was bitterly cold. Hannah hugged herself, saying nothing. There was an unfamiliar smell about him, sharp and floral. She didn’t know what she was going to do or what he expected from her. Why, she nearly shouted, did you abandon me?
After a minute or so Jean-Jacques said, ‘I have been here, Hannah, since that night in the Hôtel de Ville. Up there, to be exact.’ He turned, looking beyond the dance hall to a tall shape behind, rising from the roof of an adjoining building: the windmill from which the Galette took its name. ‘Would you like to see?’
Hannah followed him into the lane, through a small door and up a tight, musty stairwell. The windmill was about ten foot square and twenty-five tall. In the darkness she could just make out the cluster of gears behind the sails and the central column of the driving shaft. It was filled with the same raw, flowery smell that clung to Jean-Jacques’s suit. He lit an oil lamp, shuttering the flame to prevent light escaping through the many cracks in the walls. The wood of the mill was old, the bleached beams full of knots and fissures; what metal parts there were had rusted over entirely. He’d bedded down by one of the circular millstones. There was a blanket-roll, a small sack of clothes, two spare pairs of boots and an assortment of military equipment, both Prussian and French from the look of it, including a shining revolving pistol. It was neat, Spartan: a soldier’s bolt-hole. Hannah wondered how he stayed so clean. She couldn’t even see a mirror. Opposite where he slept was a bale of dried plants – the source, she realised, of that odour.
‘Iris root,’ Jean-Jacques said. ‘The owners grind it for a perfumer in Les Batignolles. Everything I possess reeks of it.’
Hannah sat on the millstone. She was going to get an explanation. ‘Where have you been, Jean-Jacques? Why didn’t you try to find me?’
‘I knew you’d be well.’
‘But why didn’t you look? Didn’t you care what had happened to me?’
‘The provisional government is on my heels, Hannah. They would have thrown me in prison, or worse. Several of them are rabidly opposed to socialism – or at least what they imagine socialism to be, in their ignorance and cupidity. I’ve not been in a position to wander the city. I’m not now.’
‘You’ve been going to my mother, though,’ Hannah countered, thinking of Laure’s sneers. ‘You’ve been managing to get to her.’
Jean-Jacques moved closer, taking three slow steps through the creaking mill. The cramped surroundings made him seem astonishingly tall, his shadow stretching up among the sail-gears. His hands were crossed in front of him, the left holding the damaged right at the wrist. He wore a slight, patient smile.
‘I’ve been sending her written accounts. Chomet has them taken down into the city for me. I can’t risk the Opéra quarter, Hannah. I only go north – past the wall, out of the city.’
Hannah glanced at his crippled hand, motionless within its glove. ‘That must be difficult. For you both.’
The smile slipped; there was a faint contraction of the skin around the scar. ‘I have a guardsman to whom I dictate. One of Chomet’s adjutants – a lawyer’s scrivener.’ JeanJacques stopped for a moment; he plainly felt that he’d revealed enough. ‘But you must tell me where you went after you left the Hôtel de Ville. Everyone said it was as if you’d dived into the Seine and swum out to the ocean.’
Hannah told him about the Gare du Nord and Émile Besson – omitting to mention their argument on the day she’d left.
Jean-Jacques understood; he showed no surprise or jealousy. ‘You did what was necessary. It is the same for us all.’
‘My brother was arrested as we fled, though, by some bourgeois guardsmen. He’s been in the Mazas ever since. Can anything be done for him?’
‘He’s out,’ said Jean-Jacques simply. ‘He was released at the same time as several of our comrades.’
Hannah stared; a laugh burst from her lips. ‘Thank Christ,’ she exclaimed. ‘Thank Christ. I – I was afraid that he’d die in there. That they’d let him starve.’
‘I hear that he is with your aérostier now, as a matter of fact, in the Gare du Nord. The odd fellow appears to have swapped one Pardy twin for the other. They’ll soon be leaving Paris – flying out in a post balloon.’
Hannah’s happiness was marred by confusion. Jean-Jacques seemed rather well informed about her brother’s movements. ‘Are you having Clem followed?’
‘No. No, of course not.’ He was beside her now, blocking the lamp’s light. ‘Rigault told me. The fool wants us to bring down the balloon post. He has people watching both the Gare du Nord and the Gare d’Orléans. I tell him that it’s a waste of time, but you know how he can be.’ He sat beside her. Their legs pressed together; his thigh felt hard and warm against hers. There was deep tenderness in his eyes, along with the first stirring of desire. ‘It’s the truth.’
Hannah felt a spike of guilt so abrupt and painful that she almost looked away. How could she ever have doubted this man – this remarkable man who’d shared so much of himself with her? It was Besson’s fault, Besson and her stupid, detracting friends. Merely hearing their utterances had altered her in some way, sending her scouring through Jean-Jacques’s words and deeds, hunting for duplicity where there was none – whipping up needless conflict in the one calm part of her soul. Well, no more. All this noxious suspicion would be uprooted and cast aside. The siege might force them down strange and onerous paths, but they would endure. Hannah was sure of that now.
‘I know,’ she said.
Their foreheads touched; her shoulders sagged with relief at his kiss. He lifted her from the millstone to his place on the floor, settling over her, enveloping the two of them in his black coat. The shape and weight of his body, so familiar yet absent for so long, made Hannah squirm with bliss. She opened his jacket, tugging his shirt free from his belt and coiling her arms around his naked waist; then she slid a hand up, over his flank and ribs until she could feel his heart, beating quickly against her fingers.
‘Jean-Jacques,’ she murmured, ‘I love you.’
He pulled back; his hair fell onto his face, hiding it. ‘Please, Hannah,’ he said. ‘Don’t.’
They rose at dawn the following day and went together to the rue Careau. Jean-Jacques gave Hannah three hours; he was an excellent model, sitting completely still, barely seeming even to breathe. She concentrated on the face and especially those fine dark eyes, knowing as she worked that she was capturing a clear likeness. The setting she’d chosen – a spot beneath the window, well lit by the morning sun – was being painted as it was, and her sitter precisely as he appeared in it. She didn’t break off to make a considered assessment until after he’d gone, off to a last meeting with some senior ultras. Setting down her palette, she walked over to the shed door; she folded her arms, the rounded end of her paintbrush poking into her ribs; then she took a breath and turned.
Still it was no good. The best naturalist portraits Hannah had seen – Edouard Manet’s of his journalist friend Monsieur Zola, Edgar Degas’s of his sister and her husband – had immediacy, and realism purged of affectation or contrivance, but they had something else as well; a suggestion of private meditations, of human complexities; an inner light that revealed a life rather than just a form. Nothing lay beneath the surface of Hannah’s portrait of Jean-Jacques. This subtle illumination was absent. Her image was a shadow, a shell, as empty as a photograph.
I could go to them, Hannah thought suddenly. Monsieur Manet and Monsieur Degas have remained in Paris – they are in the artillery division of the National Guard. I could go to them and ask for guidance. Their whereabouts are common knowledge. Manet was up in the north, past Montmartre, in Bastion 40; Degas to the East in Bastion 12. I could cast off my objection to such obsequiousness and use this damned siege to get ahead. Why on earth shouldn’t I? Degas was a renowned misanthrope with an especial hatred for women and foreigners; trying to speak with him would most probably be a waste of time. Monsieur Manet’s reputation, though, was quite the reverse. Much was said about his fashionable attire, debonair manners and sophisticated conversation – and his notable fondness for assisting young female painters. All it would take was a walk out to the fortifications. The scene was easily imagined. Hannah could see the parapet, with its row of cannon; the artist at work in a quiet corner, sketching men stacking sandbags perhaps; herself approaching under some pretext or other, and making a comment; the instant affinity between them.
The paintbrush clattered against the floorboards; Hannah swore, jerked from her daydream. This was the exact strategy her mother had proposed on the day of that march to the Strasbourg. Taking on this commission had evidently tainted her with Elizabeth’s reasoning. She stooped with a grimace, retrieved the thin, foot-long brush and snapped it in half, casting the pieces across the room. She was not that desperate; she would never be that desperate. She wasn’t going to offer herself to Edouard Manet or anyone else.
Hannah wiped the paint from her hands and looked again at the painting. More work was needed; whether it was a few small corrections or another task for the canvas knife she couldn’t tell. It felt as if she’d been driving in a nail that had gone fractionally off-centre with the hammer’s first stroke, every subsequent blow making things worse until all she’d got was a chipped wall, a bruised thumb and a bent, useless nail.
It would have to wait. Hannah was due at her guardhouse in less than ten minutes. She located her vivandière’s satchel and ran for the door, leaving the portrait gazing out from its easel.
Clem was shaken awake, none too gently. He rolled over. It was still dark. There was snoring around him and the distant sound of cannon-fire. His throat was dry, his head swimming; he picked a speck of sleep from his eye with the tip of his forefinger.
‘Pardy,’ said Émile Besson, close to his ear. ‘ Nous allons.’ After a second’s blankness Clem remembered what they were to do that day. He bounded from his pallet, all thoughts of bed banished, wobbling only slightly as he pulled on his trousers and worked his feet into the heavy boots supplied by the Balloon Commission. A minute later he was fully dressed, his long navy-style coat buttoned and belted, striding from the sailors’ dormitory four paces behind Besson. He felt alert, immensely capable, powerful almost. For the first time in his life he was part of something righteous and important. The gold ‘AER’ embroidered on the front of his leather flying helmet seemed to glow like a miner’s lamp, guiding him across the cold tiles of the Gare du Nord. Thirty yards into the concourse they peeled apart, Besson heading straight to the balloon, while Clem went to where they’d stowed the borrowed Dallmeyer. Slinging a large canvas sack over his shoulder, he heaved up the camera, the plate-box and the doctor’s bag of photographic solutions, and edged out backwards through the main doors. The Aphrodite stood in the square before the station façade. Fully inflated and upright, it looked far larger than it had inside, easily five storeys tall. In the low light of early dawn the envelope was a flat grey; like a whale, Clem thought, or an outsized elephant. A breeze crept in from an intersecting boulevard, and the Aphrodite quivered and veered, straining against its cables. This was a rather different proposition to that fixed balloon he’d ridden in at the Crystal Palace: bigger, certainly, but also somehow fiercer. He’d always conceived of balloons, even free balloons, as essentially tranquil: soap bubbles, dandelion seeds, that sort of thing. The Aphrodite, however, verged on the monstrous. That bulging envelope had a pent-up energy that was completely its own, beyond all control, easily enough to tear down a house or capsize a boat – or dash the hapless idiots attached to it against a remote, airless mountaintop.
‘What the devil am I doing?’ he muttered under his breath, equally amused and apprehensive. ‘This is madness.’
There were no lamps lit in the square, due to the danger of igniting the coal-gas. Everyone there was relying on their eyes and their extensive experience with the procedures underway. Sailors worked in the murk around the basket, winding in the gas-pipe, attaching the ballast sacks and fighting to keep the whole contraption secured to the ground. No one paid Clem any notice; the arrival of the crew was routine, without interest. A handful of officials were huddled a few feet from the car, conferring with Besson as they partook of some light refreshments. The aérostier, standing there in his flying garb, was a reassuring sight. Their impending escapade did not appear to be bothering him in the least. His lean, precise face was composed; he actually seemed in significantly better spirits than usual. Anticipation, Clem supposed. He went over, set down the camera equipment and accepted a glass of what turned out to be brandy-and-water.
One of the officials, still tending to fat despite the siege’s privations, was dressed in an unlikely mauve greatcoat and a broad-brimmed hat. It was the great Nadar himself, come to see off his protégé. Spotting the Dallmeyer, he swivelled his bulk towards Clem, took hold of his hand and pumped it up and down as if he was working an uncooperative machine.
‘My friend,’ he said in an extravagant French accent. ‘My friend, so very good to meet you.’ He released the hand as suddenly as he’d seized it and turned to Besson. ‘Émile tells me that you are a genius with the camera – among the best of your nation. An apprentice of Mr Fenton, no less?’
Clem turned to Besson as well; the aérostier was smiling thinly. ‘Ah, indeed. Mr Fenton, yes,’ he said. ‘A capital fellow. Taught me everything I know.’
‘Well, I certainly look forward to seeing what you can capture with that device there. You have not been in a free balloon before, I understand?’ Nadar tutted at Clem’s reply. ‘Then you have not flown, Monsieur. That is all I can say. It is like comparing a horse at a circus, on a—’ he made a circular motion, describing the path of a merry-go-round, ‘with being on a living animal, charging over the fields. And a lively animal at that!’ He let out a classic fat man’s laugh, throwing back his head with a fist on his hip. ‘C’est vrai, Émile, oui?’
Besson agreed. ‘Speaking of which,’ he added, peering past the Aphrodite to the surrounding rooftops, ‘we must soon be off. The sun will be up in minutes, and we have a favourable wind.’
Clem’s palms began to sweat inside his heavy gloves. He longed to request a brief postponement – a little more time to talk with the great Nadar (an encounter he could make much of in his book, he reckoned) and study their balloon. Instead he downed his drink, nodded in what he imagined was a suitably manly, no-nonsense manner and started to load up the Dallmeyer. A pigeon cage was strapped to the outside of the basket, the fifteen or so birds inside staying still and silent. This was surely an ill omen. Didn’t pigeons have some kind of instinct for disaster? Hadn’t he heard that somewhere?
Besson exchanged a few final words with the assembled officials. A packet of documents was handed over and secured inside the aérostier’s coat – the orders and plans for Gambetta. As Clem tried to slot the plate-box beside the bulky mailbags that had already been piled into the basket, he noticed that the Frenchmen were saying ‘daguerre’ rather a lot: it seemed that they were presenting a concern to Besson that he was brushing off. Clem knew that a balloon of that name had been launched earlier in the month from the Gare d’Orléans. When Besson came to the car he asked what had been under discussion.
‘Nothing of importance,’ was the aérostier’s reply. ‘Come, let us get inside. It will be easier to pack if we are in our places.’
They both climbed in, squeezing between the ropes. There was barely enough room; the valve-cord dangled in Clem’s face, through the reinforced wooden hoop that anchored the netting. The basket itself seemed appallingly flimsy, making a really quite loud noise every time he or Besson moved.
‘It can’t be done, old man,’ Clem said – hoping rather ashamedly that this would lead to the mission being cancelled, or at least delayed by a day or two whilst a larger car was weaved. ‘We’re not going to be able to do it.’
Besson wasn’t deterred. ‘Move that bag there,’ he instructed, ‘the one in the corner. I will lift in the tripod.’
Clem bent down; the sack was immoveable. ‘I’ll try, but—’
‘Vive la France,’ said the aérostier, out into the square.
Many voices, Nadar’s among them, repeated the slogan back to him. ‘Bonne chance, Monsieur Besson,’ someone called.
The weight in the basket increased – a rapid doubling of gravity. Clem lurched forward; beneath him the wickerwork squeaked and shifted. He stood with difficulty, his legs straining. A half-sized Nadar, standing at the front of a similarly diminished crowd of sailors and officials, was kissing his hands and throwing them open in an operatic gesture of farewell. The square around them was contracting, shrinking in on itself. The Aphrodite was off and climbing fast.
‘You demon, Besson!’ Clem cried, clutching for the basket’s rim – and realising for the first time how bloody low it was
– just over waist height, for Christ’s sake. ‘You – you damned villain! You pulled the old dentist’s trick on me! We were to go on three – but you yanked the bloody tooth on two, didn’t you!’
Besson was unrepentant. ‘You were losing your nerve, I think,’ he said. ‘It was for the best.’
They were six storeys up, seven – catching the wind, clearing the rooftops, moving out over Paris. The sound of the guns, of the eastward forts firing ahead of the morning’s sortie, grew louder as they rose from among the buildings. Clem closed his eyes and tightened his grip. He had an acute, sickening sense of the space yawning above them, its absolute endlessness, and the yards of empty air opening up beneath.
‘The Daguerre,’ he said. ‘What happened to it?’
‘The Prussians shot it down near Ferrières,’ Besson replied, prepared to talk now that they were away. He made a contemptuous sound. ‘You know how they adore their heavy guns. The Balloon Commission has heard that Herr Krupp, the German cannon-maker, has made a gun especially for shooting at our balloons. A compliment of a kind, no? It pivots, you see, like a telescope, so it can track a balloon, and is mounted on its own special cart.’
Clem swallowed hard. ‘And you aren’t at all concerned by this?’
‘I know the risks of what I am doing, but I do not think we need to fear Herr Krupp. Not today.’ Besson breathed a sigh of liberation – of a man returned to his element. ‘You really should open your eyes, Pardy. It is an unbeatable sight.’
Gingerly, Clem lifted his eyelids and came very close to a dead faint. His knees buckled; he stumbled to his haunches. Outside the Aphrodite, beneath a glassy, silver-blue sky, was Paris in miniature – a model rendered in squares of slate, copper and sandstone, glimmering points of gaslight edging the main thoroughfares. The effect was stately, supremely ordered, the grand blocks, boulevards and starburst intersections like symbols in some monumental formula. As Clem watched, the Seine caught the first of the day’s sun; the whole length of the river exploded with light, engulfing its islands and reducing its bridges to a series of thin black lines.
‘I must say, though,’ Besson declared, glancing at the valve, ‘we are not quite high enough.’
Clem was incredulous. ‘Look over there! Look!’ About sixty yards to their left was a woolly, golden shape. ‘That, Besson, is a bloody cloud. If I had a cricket ball I could hit the damned thing from here. How can you possibly say we’re not bloody high enough?’
Besson shook his head. Any pleasure he’d been taking in their flight was gone. The fellow cannot stay satisfied, Clem thought; there is nothing he cannot spoil. The aérostier placed a boot on the rim of the basket and hauled himself up, clasping the netting hoop as he checked the valve. Then, after wrapping a rope around his wrist, he hung over the side, leaning at a diagonal so he could examine the envelope. The basket tipped horribly; Clem grabbed at the doctor’s bag to stop it tumbling out. His heart expanded in his chest, squashing his lungs, hindering his breathing with its thick thuds. He stared at his companion in amazement, framed there against the winter dawn. This was no sailor, clambering on the rigging of his ship – beneath a sailor was only the ocean, in which you could bob quite merrily until someone fished you out. If Émile Besson happened to lose his hold on the Aphrodite he’d be smashed to paste against the stones of Paris.
Clem turned back to the view, not wanting to risk distracting the aérostier in any way. The solitary golden cloud had moved, falling away to the west. It was impossible to say how fast they were travelling. He could almost believe that they were stationary, simply suspended two thousand feet above the city streets. The Gare du Nord was already remote, though, its tubular roof disappearing in the haze of distance; and now the Aphrodite was passing over a large cemetery, the tomb-rows rising and falling across the roll of a hill. They were drawing close to the fortifications, to the limits of the capital. From the air these appeared impregnable; the Prussian decision to stay back and not chance an all-out assault seemed a sensible one indeed. Huge numbers of people were swarming in the lanes between the embankment of the circular railway and inside the enceinte – well-wishers there to see off the troops and be the first to hear news arriving from the battlefield.
Besson slipped inside the car. ‘I cannot see anything, not from here.’ He plucked something from his moustache: a pellet of ice. Clem’s own whiskers were similarly matted. His nose, cheeks and even his forehead were totally numb. He rubbed his hands together, thinking to generate a bit of heat between his gloves and then put them to his face. It did nothing.
‘Look.’ Besson was pointing east, past the wall. ‘The army of General Ducrot.’
Columns of soldiers and guns were forming up, preparing to launch their attack. For several minutes Clem watched them wheel about and march off through a bleak landscape of earthworks, swampy fields and decimated woods. It was a vast military diagram brought to life, a lesson in logistics and strategy played out before them. He honestly hadn’t expected to see everything so clearly. You could tell the line regiments from the militia; the field-guns from the mitrailleuses. He looked around, towards the centre of the city. That lone cloud was some distance back – and significantly higher up.
Besson was at the valve again, standing on a mailbag this time. ‘I know,’ he said, guessing Clem’s question. ‘We are losing altitude. It should not be happening.’ He murmured something to himself in French. ‘We will be over the Prussians fairly soon, Pardy. You should get the camera ready.’
Clem was aware that he was being given a job to stop him worrying, but found that he didn’t object to this at all. The two men worked silently on their different tasks until Besson jumped back to the floor of the basket. The wickerwork cracked loudly; Clem’s stomach flipped over like a performing dog.
The aérostier was mystified. ‘I can find nothing wrong with this valve,’ he said. ‘Not even the smallest leak. The wind is good. We should be twice as high – twice as far. I do not understand it.’
The two men looked at each other over the top of the Dallmeyer. They were going down over what would shortly be a full-blown battle. The descending balloon would be a magnet for Prussian fire. They were very probably going to die.
‘The ballast,’ Clem blurted.’ Surely we could jettison some bloody ballast.’
Besson undid the buckle of his flying helmet, running through the possible causes of their predicament. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘not yet. Not until we are only fifty metres up. We might still rise. There may be some atmospheric explanation for this.’
The Aphrodite crossed the wall, and a good portion of the French army. They seemed to be gaining speed as they got closer to the ground, whipping over a fort the shape of a Christmas star. All of its south- and east-facing guns were firing, the battlements lost beneath a white mantle of gunpowder smoke.
Kneeling between two mailbags, Clem arranged a length of tarpaulin above him to create a cramped, improvised darkroom. They’d rehearsed this operation in the Gare du Nord and declared it viable. Now, though, in the sinking Aphrodite, it seemed positively ludicrous. At least twice the available room was required. It was too bloody cold to remove your gloves – and who could take a photograph in gloves? The silver nitrate, one of the hardiest stains there was, would spill over everything. And they were about to damn well crash, for God’s sake! What was the point of taking a photograph if the plate was to be destroyed along with the rest of the basket’s contents, the bloody photographer included?
Clem stopped himself. He rested his hands on his thighs. This was not heroic thinking. Émile Besson, his companion and partner on this mission, was certainly not surrendering to despair. He appeared to be considering a leap up onto the netting, in fact, so he could climb around the side of the envelope. Clem thought of his mother, how she’d attempted to confine him to a hotel room to wait out the siege. If he was going to go down with the Aphrodite, he would take the best bloody aerial photographs in human history before he perished. He put in a focusing plate and dragged the Dallmeyer onto the edge of the basket.
The photographer’s hood provided Clem with a momentary illusion of warmth and sanctuary; then he removed the lens cap and was presented with a crazy, plunging view of a battalion of French infantry, waving their kepis at the balloon as it glided overhead. He angled the camera up, towards the heights to the east. General Ducrot’s advance force was concentrating in a loop in the River Marne, beside an old stone bridge that linked the two halves of what had recently been a peaceful village. Three broad pontoon crossings were standing ready, a first wave of red-trousered Zoaves assembling before them.
And up on the Villiers Plateau were the Prussians. Clem had been keen to set eyes on the besiegers after all these weeks, but actual sight of them brought only blackest foreboding. The view of their defences from the basket of the Aphrodite was startlingly clear: a loose system of earthworks, fortified farms, churches, and houses, populated by a serious amount of men and artillery. They knew what was coming from Paris and were fully prepared to deal with it. Clem perceived a number of traps – false outposts, hidden emplacements – designed to encourage the poor eager French to push forward and overextend themselves. Untouched by the bombardment from the forts, they were firing not a single shot in response. They were waiting, biding their time until their attackers had crossed an invisible line – a point of no return.
‘Christ Almighty, Besson,’ he said, coming out from under the hood, ‘your lot don’t stand a damned chance. It’ll be butchery, old man, bloody slaughter!’
Besson saw it too. ‘A photograph,’ he said, ‘quickly.’
The aérostier crouched among the bags, taking out a plate and searching for the bottle of collodion; this would be a joint effort. Clem lined up a shot and made an adjustment to the Dallmeyer’s lens.
The basket shivered beneath their boots. Clem assumed that it was the wickerwork shifting again; then, through the camera, he saw the puffs of rifle-smoke coming from the Prussian positions. He threw back the hood and a bullet clipped past him to the right. Another struck the car only a foot from where he was hunched, ripping through the rim.
‘Damn it all!’ he shouted, starting to panic. ‘The fiends’ll hole us for certain!’
Besson was rolling the collodion over the plate; he’d wedged himself into a corner to keep steady, and was frowning at the fluid’s unpredictable path. ‘They will not do any serious damage, Pardy,’ he said. ‘I think they are aiming for the basket.’
The Aphrodite was now past the Marne, above the plateau
– officially in enemy territory. They were welcomed by a massive blast from somewhere below. The next instant a shell streaked past about twenty yards to the left, rocking the car on its ropes. Clem ducked, cursing; and the Dallmeyer slipped from his grasp, toppling over the side. He lunged forward, hands outstretched, but it was no use. The camera was a spinning mahogany cube, dwindling down to nothing; it landed in the courtyard of an occupied farmhouse, breaking into so many different pieces that it seemed to vanish.
Besson showed no anger at the Dallmeyer’s loss. ‘That should keep us airborne a while longer, at least,’ he said. ‘Get us well past the Prussian lines.’
‘What – what was that? What fired at us?’
‘The special artillery I was talking of before.’ Besson answered as if this was obvious. He pointed. ‘There it is.’
A huge gun was squatting on a village green, directed up at them – or at where they’d been a few seconds before. The brown-uniformed crew was working hard to rotate it, but they hadn’t a hope; the low-flying Aphrodite was really racing along now, faster than Clem had ever travelled in his life. If it weren’t for the prospect of my imminent death, he thought, this would be tremendously exciting.
With swift efficiency, Besson began to bundle the rest of the photographic equipment out of the basket, unleashing a hail of bottles, boxes and trays. The tripod rattled into a cafe garden, scattering some breakfasting officers. Ahead of them, past one last village, was open country: occupied France, and very peaceful it looked too. Purple-grey fields were dappled with snow; here and there smoke rose from the chimney of a sleepy farmstead. If we can make it far enough, Clem dared to speculate, Besson might be able to use the trail-rope to land us without mishap. We might stand a chance after all.
‘Horsemen,’ announced Besson as he jettisoned the doctor’s bag. ‘Uhlans, if I am not mistaken.’
There were a dozen of them, leaving that last village at full pelt, ahead of the Aphrodite, but going in the same direction – intending to get them the moment they hit the ground. They were only a couple of hundred feet up now, the envelope visibly flabby, weakened by the loss of gas. The balloon passed over the cavalry; sunlight glittered across their helmets and bridles and the scabbards of their sabres.
Besson’s coolness was finally starting to ebb away. ‘This can only be one thing,’ he said, but did not reveal what. ‘I believe that it is time for the ballast to go.’
The dumping was done methodically, in stages, half a sack of coarse sand at a time. Clem willed it into the eyes of their pursuers, but it dissolved into the air like salts in a glass of water. A more or less level height was sustained and the chase began. The perspective from the Aphrodite was a fascinating one, he had to admit: galloping horsemen seen from above, held in place it seemed, the fields and lanes flowing beneath their hooves. He wondered why more artists didn’t exploit the possibilities of flight. An hour’s work up here would make your name. The notion led him to Hannah, the astonishing talent she’d always had; and how she was enrolled in that army he’d just seen queuing by the Marne to meet its ruin. He sat heavily on the basket floor. This cold November day might well see the last of them both.
Besson let the final empty sack leave his fingers and twist away on the wind. He moved across the basket, stepping over Clem’s legs, taking hold of the side as he surveyed the landscape ahead of them. ‘Look here, Pardy,’ he said. ‘Get up. Come on.’
Clem struggled to his knees. ‘What?’
Besson indicated a dark mass, low-lying, moving out from the mists of the horizon. ‘A forest.’ He reached for the rope and grappling iron fastened to the basket’s exterior. ‘We can land there. Lose the Prussians.’
‘Surely the blighters’ll still track us down. This thing we’re riding in is rather conspicuous, you know.’
‘It is better than a field.’ The aérostier opened his coat, drew out a revolving pistol and handed it to Clem. ‘Hold this.’
Firearms were one of the few areas of human mechanical ingenuity that had never attracted Clem’s interest. He was no pacifist, but the idea of applying his powers of invention to more effective methods of killing and maiming was devoid of appeal. The device in his hands was unfamiliar, ugly, unpleasantly weighty; he lowered it into his lap.
‘Wait a bloody second, old man,’ he said hastily, ‘I’m not shooting at anyone. I’m not a damned soldier. When I volunteered I didn’t—’
‘I will take it back when we land.’ Besson gripped Clem’s shoulder. ‘We are going to run, Pardy. We must. We can avoid them.’
The forest was evergreen, pines it looked like, the trees carpeting a long dip in the countryside. The Uhlans pulled up at its periphery; Clem could hear somebody shouting what sounded like orders and they split up, one party urging their mounts among the trees, the other commencing a patrol of the borders. The pine-tops were closing in, a bed of black-green spikes rising to meet them; the pigeons on the side of the basket came alive, scratching and pecking at their cage. Besson lowered the rope, the grappling iron spinning at its end. Clem rifled through his brain for something profound and meaningful to reflect upon in the last minute of his life. All that came to him was Mademoiselle Laure, crying out in French at the height of one of their embraces; the feel of her heel pressed against his cheek, slick with perspiration. Ah well, he thought with a distracted flush of arousal, that’ll just have to do.
There was a snap, followed by rustling – the sound of the iron dragging through the trees. Clem saw a doe on the forest floor, looking up in alarm before taking flight. He searched about for a solid handhold.
The iron caught. The rope flew through Besson’s grasp. Six loops left; five; four.
‘This is it,’ said the aérostier.
Clem shut his eyes again. ‘This is madness!’
* * *
A single bin of autumn fruit remained in the apple cellar, filling the room with its sweet, earthy smell. Clem opened his eyes. He was lying amongst an assortment of farmyard detritus: broken machinery, old barrels, coils of rope and chain. His head ached something ferocious, as if his skull was slowly being tightened – a screw turned at the top of his neck. He touched the spot near his temple where he’d bashed against that low branch, shearing it clear from the tree; there was a swelling the size of a ripe plum, squashed against his skin. He was extremely lucky to be alive, Besson had told him. An inch or two to the left and it would have been curtains. Clem looked around. He had a vague memory of entering the cellar, but it had been lighter then; he must have fallen asleep.
They’d staggered around for a day and a night, attempting to lose their pursuers. Those reinforced aérostier boots Clem had been so proud of in Paris had become like lead ingots strapped to the feet; he’d cursed them a little more vehemently with every mile they’d covered. It had been desperately close on a couple of occasions, Uhlans passing within a few yards of where they’d been hiding. The Prussian horsemen had been a fearsome sight – terrible, Clem had thought, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. These were men who really knew how to use their swords and guns, and enjoyed using them to boot: actual, proper soldiers, a stark contrast to the green regulars and strutting militia of Paris. He’d worried anew for the sortie, for his sister – who must have been in the very act of crossing the Marne as he cowered there among the ferns, praying not to be discovered.
Besson was on the other side of the cellar, sitting against a wall. Seeing that Clem had woken, he struck a match and lit a small white candle. He was dressed in peasant clothes: a smock, a shapeless woollen cap and a canvas jacket. A similar outfit had been piled before Clem, along with a bread roll, a pitcher of water and a wedge of cheese.
‘Eat something,’ he said. ‘Change your clothes. And hurry
– we cannot risk keeping the candle burning for too long. The flame might be seen.’
Clem scrabbled over to the pitcher. He took a long, gulping drink and then turned his attention to the bread. For one accustomed to a Parisian diet, the taste was overwhelming, fresh and full, a moment of ecstatic revelation; five bites and it was gone. He noticed that Besson was nursing a bird in his lap, stroking it softly. It was one of their carrier pigeons. It looked rather dead.
In the minutes directly after the crash, while Clem had crawled among the browned pine needles thinking that his head was cracked open and it contents dripping out, the aérostier had been occupied completely with his fallen Aphrodite. He’d pulled at the envelope, bringing it down from the trees, rummaging through the deflating folds until he’d found what he was hunting for. He’d stopped, his face cold – then he’d attacked the calico, fists thrashing, disappearing in the sagging remains of the balloon.
The next Clem had known the Frenchman was over at the flattened basket, the pigeon cage open at his feet. He’d been surrounded by escaping birds, grabbing at them as they flapped past him into the air. Incredibly, he’d managed to get hold of one, arranging its wings and tucking it inside his coat. Only then had he come to Clem’s aid, helping his stricken partner to his feet before looking around briefly for the pistol – which was long gone, catapulted into the undergrowth. They’d left the Aphrodite just as the first hoof-falls sounded among the pines.
‘That poor creature isn’t going anywhere.’
Besson made a hopeless gesture. He set the body beside him; you could almost believe that the bird was sleeping but for the curled claw that poked out from under its plumage. ‘It must have suffocated in my pocket.’ He stared at the candle. ‘We have to get word back to Paris. Tell them what happened.’
Clem started on the cheese: firm, nutty, utterly delicious. He just managed to prevent himself cramming it all in his mouth at once. ‘About the orders for Gambetta, you mean
– how they haven’t got through?’
Tension carved a line through Besson’s brow. ‘About that, certainly,’ he answered, ‘but also about the Aphrodite. She was sabotaged, Pardy. A seam in the envelope had been worked loose so that we would come down early – a seam close to the top, where it stood less chance of being noticed. They probably hoped to drop us among the Prussians.’
This was a shock; Clem almost stopped eating. ‘Who would do such a devilish thing? The – the reds?’
‘It was not the reds. It was Jean-Jacques Allix.’
‘But Allix and the reds are one and the same, ain’t they? He’s their Leopard, their general, their inspiration and—’
‘Pardy,’ said Besson wearily. ‘Listen for a moment. After all this you deserve an explanation. Allix is not what you imagine. Something about this man has troubled me from the start. I have gone to the red clubs and seen him standing before them – this brave, idealistic orator, this battle-hardened soldier, prepared to do anything – and it is too perfect. Do you understand?’
‘Too perfect,’ repeated Clem around his cheese.
‘Allix was exactly the man these ultras needed to rid them of their squabbling and their inaction. The only thing he lacked was people who knew him, but his natural gifts have made him plenty of friends since. They have won him Hannah Pardy, la belle Anglaise, who had rejected so many others.’ Besson hesitated. ‘And then this business with your mother in the Figaro, this name he has made for himself
– the timing just so – as if it had been engineered somehow. Guided from on high.’
‘I know how I sound,’ the aérostier said. ‘Bitter. Envious. Perhaps I am both. But this is real.’
‘You’ve been asking questions about Allix, haven’t you? Around the city?’
‘You mean my meetings with Sergeant Peabody.’ Besson was unsurprised; a note of irony had crept into his grim expression. ‘However did you learn about that?’
Clem realised he’d been spotted that afternoon. Of course he had. Stealth was hardly his strongest suit. ‘You led me to that old Yankee on purpose. You wanted me to find out what you were doing.’
‘How much did Sergeant Peabody impart?’
‘Barely anything, I’m afraid. I only had a few sous on me. I don’t believe the fellow’s overly fond of the English, either. He fought in the American war, didn’t he?’
‘For the Union. He is a veteran of the RichmondPetersburg campaign. He was with General Miles at the battle of Sutherland’s Station.’
Clem saw where this was headed. Allix was supposed to have particularly distinguished himself during this engagement, as a lieutenant in one of Miles’s battalions. Elizabeth had mentioned it several times in her reports; how he’d broken the Confederate line single-handed, taken more than thirty prisoners despite terrible injuries, and then stood on the station roof, waving the enemy’s colours in the air.
‘And the good sergeant doubts our Leopard’s version of events.’
Besson nodded. ‘I have questioned him closely on several occasions. He has no memory whatsoever of a Lieutenant Allix performing the great acts accredited to him in Paris
– or serving in the Union forces at all. No memory whatsoever.’ The aérostier was growing animated. ‘Jean-Jacques Allix is no hero of the American Civil War, as everyone loves to say. He wasn’t even there.’
‘What of those injuries of his, then? The scar – his mangled hand?’
‘A tavern brawl. A riding accident. There are many possible explanations.’
Clem finished off the cheese. He wasn’t enjoying it quite so much now. ‘This is all based on the word of one man,’ he said, ‘and a rather strange man at that. Your Peabody may be mistaken, you know. He may be lying himself.’
‘I quite agree.’ Besson sat up, preparing for a further disclosure. ‘That is why, after we had made our delivery to Minister Gambetta, I was intending to call on a certain American resident of Tours.’
Here it was: the hidden aspect of Besson’s mission that Clem had detected during his recruitment in the Gare du Nord. ‘Another veteran?’
‘A man who knows veterans – many veterans. A newspaper reporter. Peabody gave me his name. I was going to request that he telegraph his contacts in Washington, so that I could learn exactly what Jean-Jacques Allix did over there. Where he fought, if anywhere.’ He glanced across at Clem. ‘My hope was that you would witness any reply I received.’
Clem raised his eyebrows, unsure if he’d been lied to and manipulated or admitted into Besson’s closest confidence. He decided to stick to assembling the aérostier’s story. ‘Allix found out, though, and tried to kill you. To kill us both.’
‘He has been watching the factory. I am sure of it. He knew that I was asking questions about him and he has some very serious secrets to protect. I was safe while your sister was at the Gare du Nord. As soon as she left, however, he was looking for his chance to be rid of me.’
Clem considered this; he said nothing.
‘Who else could have done it, I ask you? Who else would want me dead?’ Besson took the packet of orders from his smock. ‘Even those reds who hate the balloon post know that the fate of France could have rested on Gambetta. They might want the provisional government to fall, but they do not want defeat.’
The case was a pretty convincing one. ‘What are these secrets, then?’ Clem asked, laying a hand across his clammy forehead. ‘What is Monsieur Allix hiding?’
‘He is no ultra, that much is definite. I suspect that he is an agent for General Trochu, or a hidden faction that supports the return of Louis Napoleon – or even the House of Orléans. Some of these people do not care if France is beaten. They would prefer it, even, imagining that they can deal more successfully with a conquering king than a popular republic.’
‘Are you really saying that he opposes the reds?’
‘Jean-Jacques Allix is undermining the socialist cause, Pardy. That is his purpose in Paris. He has gained their loyalty, their adoration, in order to destroy them – to convince them to commit massed self-slaughter before the Prussian army.’
‘You must think of your family.’ Besson’s voice was insistent. ‘They are very close to this man. Think of your sister.’
Anxiety brought Clem’s headache to a new, excruciating pitch. Something inched across his lip: blood was seeping from his nostril. He climbed awkwardly to his feet, dabbing at his face. The food he’d gobbled down sat in his belly like a heap of cold rocks. Trying vainly to blink away the pain, he managed to pick up the peasant clothes left for him, but couldn’t even begin to start changing into them.
‘But we’re – we’re . . . where the hell are we?’ ‘Tournan-en-Brie, they told me.’
‘We’re in Prussian-controlled land, Besson. Would they even give us a trial if they caught us – us or the folk who stowed us in here? Wouldn’t they just shoot us all against the nearest bit of wall?’ Clem shielded his eyes; the dim cellar had grown unbearably bright. ‘And have you thought about Paris? It’s sealed tight. There’s no way in. The balloon was a one-way ticket, old man. You knew this – you of all bloody people.’
‘Calm yourself.’ Besson rose to his haunches and pinched out the candle. ‘I have an idea.’
They were seen about forty yards out. The Prussians tumbled from the low stable they’d been sitting in and formed an impromptu firing line.
‘Lift your hands,’ said Besson. ‘Now.’
Clem obeyed, thrusting his arms up to their full length. He linked his thumbs to make a bird and let out a hoarse whistle. ‘Recognise it?’
Besson ignored him; his eyes were fixed on the Prussians. ‘Come on, Émile old man, it’s a nightingale. A bloody nightingale. You have ’em, don’t you, here in Frog-land? Light winged Dryad of the trees, in some melodious plot of beechen green, and . . . erm . . . dah-da-dum, something something of summer in full-throated ease.’ Clem had never been very
good at remembering poetry, to his mother’s oft-stated disappointment. It felt uncommonly important, however, to press on now. ‘Oh for a draught of vintage! that hath been—’
‘Keep quiet.’ Besson was impassive. ‘Remember the plan. You are English. There was field artillery. A farm girl. You need to see the front.’
They’d burned their aérostier uniforms the previous evening, heavy boots, embroidered flying helmets and all. Clem had been too groggy and nauseous to care. Besson had added his packet of special orders to the flames – useless now, founded as they were on an impossible French victory at the Villiers Plateau. He’d then talked their way up the hierarchy of Tournan-en-Brie until they were sitting in the parlour of the village doctor. A long, very French conversation had ensued: much impassioned gesticulation with a round of handshakes and embraces at the end. Clem’s wound had been cleaned and dressed, the physician passing him a phial of clear liquid once the bandages had been pinned in place.
‘For the pain,’ Besson had explained.
Clem had drunk it at once. It had no real taste, but there was a redolence of peaches – or rather of an artificial, peachlike flavour. Soon afterwards his head, so leaden and agonising, had lifted clean off his shoulders. That parlour, he’d decided, was the cosiest, most comfortable little corner he’d ever been in his life; he’d snuggled down in his armchair, wishing that he could be buried for ever among its tasselled cushions.
Then he’d been in a bedroom, a matronly woman undressing him in the straightforward manner one undresses an invalid, replacing the smock and canvas jacket with a suit of dark green wool. He’d closed his eyes and found himself in the back of a cart, bumping along a chalky road through fields of blackened corn-stubble. A second later and he’d been sitting with Besson in a small, close wood, having their plan of action explained to him in terms his addled brain could absorb. Everything had been bright, colourful, unaccountably amusing. He’d been warm as toast despite the dead white frost. All around them invisible birds had trilled in the trees; for a single instant he’d caught the sound of a choir, sliding somewhere beneath the wind. As soon as they’d got it all reasonably straight, Besson had led him over a grassy rise to the outer edge of the Prussian line.
One of them – a corporal or sergeant or something, with the most shockingly yellow set of stripes on his arm – stepped to the end of the stable, shouting back towards a small house. An officer emerged, shaving soap on his jaw, pulling on a pair of pebble spectacles. It was the funniest damned thing Clem had seen in a while; he had to bite his cheek to stop himself from laughing. In a flash, this officer was standing in front of him, brandishing a pistol rather like the one briefly entrusted to Clem in the doomed Aphrodite. The shaving foam was gone, wiped away with a handkerchief; he was round-faced and ill-tempered, with the smell of fresh bacon on his greatcoat. Clem’s eye was drawn to his beltbuckle: a huge silver eagle, fantastically detailed, literally every feather on the creature’s breast picked out. He stared at it, dumbfounded.
The man demanded something of Clem in accented French. Besson shifted at his shoulder, waiting for him to deliver the response they’d rehearsed.
With mammoth difficulty, Clem tore his gaze away from the eagle and lowered his arms. ‘English,’ he managed to say. ‘Ing – glish. Reporters. From a newspaper. Here.’ He took a notebook from his pocket, the pages covered with a fake narrative penned by Besson the previous night in his mechanical-looking hand. ‘That’s what we do. Write things. About you lot.’
The Prussian relaxed a little, but remained hostile. He asked Clem a question in German – and sighed at his friendly, uncomprehending smile. ‘Namen?’
‘My name? Mr Inglis. I, my dear fellow, am the English Inglis. English the Inglisman.’ Clem glanced at Besson. Be unashamed, the aérostier had instructed him; be assertive. That is what they will expect. ‘I am Montague Inglis of the Sentinel and I want my bloody breakfast.’
A runner was sent off down a lane to another position. Clem looked between the farm buildings towards Paris. Smoke was trailing from unseen fires, melting into the overcast sky; and another Prussian officer was before him, a man who could speak his language. He had a quieter manner than the shaving-soap chap, along with a light beard and large, faintly amphibian eyes. His uniform, too, was different – less bellicose, lacking all the spikes and eagles that festooned the others. This, Clem reckoned, was a species of intelligence officer. He delivered the explanation drilled into him in the wood: they’d been covering the sortie until some French field artillery had fired on them, forcing them to take flight into the countryside. Now, having finally found their way back, they were eager to see the results of the battle for their paper, the Sentinel.
The Prussian was flipping through the notebook, reading Besson’s work. ‘What happened to your head, Herr Inglis?’
‘Farm girl,’ Clem answered promptly. ‘Approached this plump Juno for directions, didn’t I. Some mistake that was
– the prim young madam mistook my intentions and pushed me into a ditch.’ He touched the bandages that wound around his crown, under one of the doctor’s hats; he could feel the dampness of blood beneath them, but no pain at all. ‘A deuced rocky ditch, as it turned out. If it hadn’t been for Graves here I’d have been done for.’
The Prussian returned the notebook, smiling dryly. He plainly had no trouble believing the violent tendencies of French farm girls – or that Clem was a bumbling cad. I’m quite the liar, Clem reflected, when I apply myself to it; that all came out as smooth as bloody silk.
‘This man is your servant, I take it?’
Besson was dressed in brown tweed. The village doctor had been closer to Clem’s size; the aérostier’s trousers bunched on top of his shoes, and his coat hung emptily around his shoulders. He’d shaved himself clean in an effort to seem more English, and the removal of his beard had altered his appearance quite profoundly. He looked younger and paler, as people always did; and the revelation of a slight fall to his lower lip lent him a studious, cerebral aspect. He resembled a professor more than any kind of servant
– but damn it all, Clem thought, we must work with what we are given. We are a pair of survivors, Émile Besson and I. We are like brothers.
‘My clerk, yes. Mr Graves – and never did a chap have a more apt moniker. Oh yes! No more words from Mr Graves than are strictly necessary.’
The Prussian kept on smiling. Clem decided that they could be fast friends. If only they could sit down for a proper chinwag – a bit of schnapps, perhaps, with some roast chicken or duck. It occurred to him that he was perishingly hungry.
‘And you want to see the front line?’
‘Indeed we do, sir, and post-haste. Got to keep the blasted editor off my back, you understand. Can’t afford to dillydally. It has to be current.’
This was at the heart of their plan. Back in the wood, Besson had explained to him that the Prussians would be keen to get reports of Parisian defeats into neutral newspapers – papers that would be sure to find their way through the blockade and weaken the defenders’ morale. They would surely want to help an unlucky English reporter get to his story; and Clem was so very English that no Prussian could possibly doubt that he was what he claimed to be.
‘You are a good distance from the Villiers Plateau,’ their officer told them, ‘but the French were also crushed at Choissy-le-Roi – just over there, where I am stationed. My name is Major Hempf. I will escort you, and will endeavour to answer any questions you might have for your report.’
The major shook their hands and led them across a field. It seemed to spring beneath Clem’s feet like a fluffy sponge cake, the cracking frost a drizzle of lemon icing. He was about to remark on this to Hempf – thinking it a rather diverting observation – when the word crushed suddenly registered. The French had been crushed. Han had been crushed. Struggling to keep his voice casual and his bouncing boots under control, he asked about the sortie. In short, economical sentences, Hempf told him that the French had been allowed to advance a certain distance out of the Marne valley – where they’d been halted, contained and soundly beaten, before finally being allowed to crawl back again. Something dark awoke within Clem and started trying frantically to scratch its way out. Hempf offered him a cigarette; he accepted with gratitude. Besson had prepared him for this. I can do nothing for her, he recited inwardly, sucking down smoke. We are going to Paris as swiftly as we can. We will learn everything then; we will help her then. We must stay focused on our goal.
They arrived in Choissy-le-Roi. Signs of savage fighting were everywhere. Twenty or so dead Prussians lay in a back garden, awaiting burial by a dilapidated clapboard fence. Clem coughed and looked away.
‘The French lost far more,’ Hempf assured him. ‘Over one thousand shot down in this engagement alone – and it was merely a diversion. The main sortie was a massacre. A farce. Is that the word, in English? A stupid performance – a debacle?
‘Yes,’ Clem replied, dropping his cigarette. ‘Yes, that is a farce.’
‘Marshal Moltke felt obliged to declare a short cease-fire so they could come out to collect their dead and wounded. Although I must tell you that their orderlies were considerably more interested in digging up cabbages and potatoes from abandoned vegetable gardens than removing their fallen comrades.’ There was disgust on Hempf’s face. ‘I saw men ignoring the injured to strip the carcass of a dead horse. No Prussian would ever behave with such dishonour.’
‘Where?’ said Besson, his voice lowered to disguise his accent.
‘Er, yes,’ Clem added. ‘Where indeed. Show us, major, if you’d be so kind. We’d like to see where the Frenchies advanced, poor devils.’
Hempf led them to the northern edge of town, past bare backstreets, burned-out houses, a ruined church and some of the most gob-smacking artillery Clem had ever laid eyes on. The black guns seemed otherworldly – engines of hell transported to the outskirts of Paris. The shells alone were the size of beer barrels. He slowed, gaping; it took several sharp prods from Besson to move him on. Those Prussian soldiers not at the guns or in the trenches were sitting around fires, feeding on fried eggs and mutton cutlets. Clem watched them enviously, a loud growl rising from within the doctor’s green waistcoat. There was nothing like that where they were headed.
Paris and her forts were hidden in the morning mist. The fields before the city were dotted with figures and carts, trailing around with little visible purpose. Besson tugged Clem’s sleeve, offering him a pencil to remind him who and what he was supposed to be. Gamely, Clem attempted to make an entry in the notebook, but his hand was not quite his own. His letters resembled those of a small child, huge and misshapen. Hempf looked over; he quickly turned the page.
‘The fabled franc-tireurs tried to get by us there,’ the major told him, pointing eastwards, ‘down by the river. Their abilities, we found, have been rather exaggerated. Come, I will show you.’
They left the main roads, starting along a mean, rutted lane. Besson was hanging back a step or two; something was about to happen. Clem felt sick behind his amiable smile. Hempf was chatting away about the progress of the siege, how it couldn’t possibly go on for much longer now and the men were hoping that they would be home by the year’s end – and then he was groaning on the ground, his cap knocked off, writhing in the frozen mud. Besson crouched over him, a brick in his hand, striking him again at the top of his neck. There was a quick, wet crunch; Hempf’s movements stopped abruptly.
The aérostier took Clem’s arm and dragged him away a rubble-filled yard, out through a gate, towards the sloping bank of the Seine. Above was a raised section of railway, running parallel to the river. They passed underneath it, going to the waterside.
‘What – what did you do?’ Clem stammered. ‘Did you kill him?’
‘He was a Prussian. My enemy.’
‘Yes. I know that. He just – seemed like a decent sort . . .’
‘Do not waste any more thought on it. You did well,’ Besson glanced around, ‘given the circumstances.’
Clem was about to thank him when he slipped, flopping through leathery reeds into a bed of silt. It was soft as custard and not at all cold; its rich, rotten odour rushed up his nostrils as he floundered onto his back. He began to laugh.
Shouts came from Choissy-le-Roi; the alarm was being raised. Major Hempf had been discovered.
Besson’s hands hooked under his shoulders. ‘Come on, Pardy,’ the aérostier hissed as he started to pull. ‘Come on.’
The Grand’s heavy glass doors had been replaced with canvas curtains, in order to assist the constant passage of stretchers. The lobby beyond, that luxurious lobby with its columns and glass dome and patterned marble, was a gaslit abattoir, glaringly bright after the dull boulevard; the screams, the pleading, the sound of bloody sawing, was past nightmares. Clem headed directly for the stairs, Besson half a stride behind him.
They reached the sixth floor and crossed the landing to Elizabeth’s suite. Clem paused to recover his breath. The narcotic glow imparted by the doctor’s solution was almost gone. Textures had changed; that which had been smooth and shiny was now coarse as a whetstone. Greyness was seeping into everything. Pain bloomed once more in the seat of his skull, gripping the stem of his brain and buzzing in his ears. His clothes, so comfortable that morning, were like ill-fitting sackcloth, encrusted with mud that reeked of the river.
Besson was regarding him with concern. ‘Are you well?’ he asked. ‘Do you—’
‘Wait here, old man,’ Clem muttered. ‘I’ll be out again as soon as I know what’s what.’
Elizabeth’s sitting room was dark. Only a single candle had been lit against the evening, standing on a small round table between the two windows. His mother sat on one side of the tiny flame; and on the other was Jean-Jacques Allix, huge and still, dressed as usual in one of his spotless black suits. Their hands were linked, resting before the candle. Clem saw that Elizabeth had been weeping. He didn’t know whether she’d heard he was leaving in the Aphrodite, but she showed no surprise at his return. She sat up straight, attending to a loose curl. Without releasing Allix’s fingers, she turned a part of the way towards him, her face directed at the carpet.
‘Clement,’ she said in a voice three hundred years old, ‘your sister is dead.’
Laure had got herself a small handcart from somewhere, of the sort used by flower-girls or lemonade sellers, upon which she’d mounted a cask of brandy. In a basket underneath were a dozen loaves of indigestible municipal-issue bread; God only knew how she’d managed to get her hands on so much of the stuff. It was a symbol, this cart – a demonstration of Laure’s commitment to the 197th. Hannah found it equally admirable and irritating. The wheels were a touch narrow, designed for short shunts along the Champs-Elysées rather than cross-city marches. The cart kept coming to jarring halts against even the lowest kerbstones; and then, no more than a hundred yards or so from the Porte de Charenton, it became firmly wedged in a drain grate. The battle-group, now part of a column of National Guardsmen several thousand strong, carried on into the earthworks of the Bois de Vincennes. Their vivandières were being left behind.
‘Here,’ said Hannah, going to the cart’s other side, ‘let me help.’
Laure didn’t look at her. ‘If I needed any damned help I’d ask someone else.’
Hannah put her hands on her hips. ‘And who else is there, precisely? The battalion’s marching out the damned gate!’
Laure fought with the cart for a second, but to no avail. She turned around. ‘Well, how about this fine gentleman?’ she cried, suddenly friendly. ‘How about it, colonel? Lend a girl those strong arms of yours, will you?’
Chomet was walking towards them. He did not reply or smile. Unlike the majority of his men, the 197th’s colonel was completely sober; his wide face was ashen and his voice, when he spoke, was tissue-thin. He looked exactly like a man who three months ago had stood behind the counter of a shop – yet this morning somehow found himself going out to face the Prussian army.
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said, ‘but you must wait for us here, inside the wall. Word has just arrived – General Ducrot’s specific orders. A condition of the National Guard participating in the sortie. No women on the field of battle.’
Laure slammed down the handles of her cart. ‘Now they say! Now they damned well say! Look at this here – all this bread! Do you think it dropped from a damned cloud? Do you, Chomet, you fat worm?’
She’s overdoing it, Hannah thought; in truth she’s relieved. ‘What about our friends, colonel? We haven’t even wished them goodbye.’
‘It’s not my decision, Mademoiselle Pardy. There’s nothing I can do.’ Chomet started after his troops. ‘Be thankful. Believe me, it’s a real piece of luck.’
This was no comfort. What point would there be to staying safe and well if Jean-Jacques was to receive another crippling injury, or to die? He was at the head of the National Guard column, dressed in black: the deadly Leopard of Montmartre. During the march across the city he’d walked back for a minute to see how Hannah was faring. There had been a short conversation; an arrangement to meet at the shed later; the briefest touch of hands. That, she supposed, would have to serve as their farewell. She remembered the night in the windmill – the way he’d deflected her declaration of love. Jean-Jacques would hardly want an emotional leave-taking. Besides, he didn’t share Chomet’s apprehension about the coming battle. He’d told Hannah that the Prussian positions to the south-east were scattered, undermanned and uncoordinated; he’d patrolled around there extensively and was confident that a path could even be found between them, with a bit of good fortune. The fighting of which so much was being made would not be very severe.
Hannah had tried to be reassured, but the militia force now disappearing through the Porte de Charenton had made this impossible. None of them had slept the previous night; almost all were steaming drunk. The red guardsmen frequently fell out of line, laughing as they tripped over their own boots. Greatcoats hung open; cross-belts were removed and left in the road; kepis sat awry on overgrown, unwashed hair. The Montmartre mairie had managed to obtain the 197th’s battle-group a full supply of American Remington rifles. These were dropped on toes, waved around wildly or lifted into shoulders for mock pot-shots at the sergeants. Watching from the rear, Hannah had heard Émile Besson, as clearly as if he’d been standing beside her: All a sortie will achieve is more dead men. The doubts she’d felt in the Moulin de la Galette had returned, had multiplied many times, but what could she do? It was too late.
Field artillery was coming up behind the National Guard column. Ignoring Laure’s protestations, Hannah took hold of the cart and yanked it free. Together they wheeled it to a doorway close to the gate. The artillerymen whistled as they passed; Laure found it in her to blow them a kiss.
For the better part of an hour, the two vivandières stood silently at opposite ends of the cart, listening to the rolling crash of cannon-fire and doing their best to ignore one another. The morning sun struck the fortifications, a bright band advancing down the inside of the wall. National Guard, men from the bourgeois arrondissements who had declined to volunteer for battle, began to assemble in the surrounding streets. Several approached the cart, spying the brandy barrel; Hannah and Laure united temporarily to drive them back, telling them that their provisions were for the warriors of France, not gutless, bragging cowards.
A carnival atmosphere developed despite the cold. Hundreds of civilians joined the bourgeois guardsmen, many in their Sunday best as if to attend a grand public demonstration. A boiler-cart selling hot sirops arrived and did a roaring trade; several men with telescopes set up on the embankment of the circular railway, charging a sou for a peek at the Prussians. The loyalist militia smoked and drank, dancing polkas as if the ferocious cannonades that shook the city were nothing but the timpani of an enormous dance hall orchestra. There was a cheer from further along the wall as a postal balloon drifted by. Hannah hurried to catch a glimpse of it, hoping that this might be the craft Clem was flying out in, that he might be waving over the side, but could see only rooftops and empty sky. She’d wanted to go to him the morning after the Moulin de la Galette, to find out how he was and apologise for deserting him on the Pont d’Arcole. Jean-Jacques had discouraged her.
‘Seeing you might convince him to stay,’ he’d said. ‘The situation in Paris looks set to escalate. You must be honest with yourself, Hannah: your brother is not a serious man. It is better that he leaves.’
Runners passed through on their way to the Louvre and Hôtel de Ville, bringing word that Ducrot had crossed the Marne without significant loss. The mood around the Porte de Charenton grew positively jubilant, the crowd convinced of the sortie’s impending success. Their liberation was at hand; Paris had set her disputes aside and was taking the bold steps that her destiny required. There was much talk of French nobility, their superior civilisation, and the barbarism of the German states. We are sublime, the people agreed; we are valorous. We must prevail.
Laure smoked cigarettes, scanning the street as if on the fringes of a huge party. Other vivandières had appeared, along with an assortment of nurses and female orderlies. A fair number were drawn from the demi-monde – cocottes who’d lived in debauched plenty during the Empire, only to be left to fend for themselves when their rich protectors fled the city. Like Laure, they’d gravitated towards the militia, finding ready accommodation caring for the guardsmen. She seemed to know most of them, in fact; boredom soon overrode her enmity and she began to talk, listing names and exploits. One arrival in particular aroused her interest.
‘Cora Pearl,’ she said, pointing with her cigarette. ‘Lord, she’s looking thin.’
This notorious courtesan hailed from Plymouth; joking comparisons with her had been the bane of Hannah’s first couple of months in Paris. Short and slender, she was strolling beside a dainty ambulance drawn by two white stallions. These were the healthiest, fleshiest horses Hannah had seen in weeks; those they trotted by eyed their haunches covetously, no doubt imagining them roasting on a spit. The courtesan’s outfit was like a saucy, ostentatious version of the Lady with the Lamp, all sable trim and décolletage; her hair was of an unnatural hue, a fiery auburn that could only have been the result of chemical experimentation. So much jewellery dripped from her person that she glinted and glittered with every movement.
‘Princes and barons have grovelled at those feet,’ Laure said. ‘They say the emperor himself once sent her a vanload of orchids – which she had strewn across the floor so she could dance a can-can on them. A can-can, on the emperor’s orchids!’ The cocotte sighed. ‘She may be an Anglaise, but she’s definitely got style. A friend of mine once—’
‘Vive la France!’ cried the crowds. ‘Vive la République!’
The first injured were being brought in through the gate
– soldiers of the line, struck by bullets in their arms and shoulders. They were given over immediately to the courtesan’s ambulance. One of the bourgeois militia declared that he’d gladly shoot himself to earn a place alongside them. His comrades laughingly agreed.
‘Here’s a way to get in an ambulance, if that’s really what you want,’ Laure shouted. ‘Get off your arses, go through that gate there and fight our damned enemy!’
The ambulance undertook a laborious turn, Cora Pearl appealing in mannered, harshly accented French for her dear friends to clear the way. As Hannah looked on she noticed Elizabeth edging along the rue de Charenton, the bearded Mr Inglis at her side. Her mother was dressed for action in a heavy black cloak and a flat-topped hat tied around with red ribbon; she’d be aiming to get outside the wall and have a perilous experience on the battlefield. This was her method, part of her mythology almost: the fearless Mrs Pardy chancing life and limb, then fashioning the experience into a heart-pounding narrative. Hannah gauged the depth of the doorway behind her, wondering if there was room enough for her to hide.
Laure saw what was up. ‘I wouldn’t bother,’ she advised. ‘The old trout’s looking for you.’
It was true. Elizabeth was paying special attention to the vivandières as she neared the gate, checking each one. Hannah went to the front of the cart, accepting her fate. Her mother didn’t hurry over. An expression that hinted at maternal warmth flitted across her face; but then her grey eyes darkened, expecting something that could not be delivered.
‘Where is my portrait, Hannah?’ she asked, in English. ‘I will need it, you know, within the next fortnight.’
A tearing, metallic sound came from outside the wall, distant but very loud. Much of the street turned in its direction.
‘That’ll be the mitrailleuses,’ said Mr Inglis, attempting a surreptitious leer at Laure – who’d lit a fresh cigarette and was considering the pair with guarded contempt. ‘The French army’s rapid-firing field-gun, don’t y’know – in German hands as well by now, of course. Thirty-seven rifles bundled together and worked like a barrel-organ. An impressive contraption, to ordnance enthusiasts at least. They say—’
The indifference with which Elizabeth spoke over him revealed at once that an affair was underway, the poor newspaperman being led by the nose. ‘After this battle,’ she said, ‘Jean-Jacques Allix will be a great hero of France, and the appetite for a volume will be keen. We must act. I know you don’t care a fig for my fortunes, Hannah, but think at least of yourself. This will make you. Think straight for once.’
Hannah met Elizabeth’s gaze. ‘I have nothing. Nothing whatsoever.’ Saying this, seeing her mother’s dismay, brought her a furtive satisfaction. ‘I can’t seem to find him.’
‘Find him? What in heaven’s name are you talking about, girl? Did he not sit for you?’
‘You know my meaning, Elizabeth. In my painting. He
– there isn’t anything there. It’s empty.’
Elizabeth’s remonstrations were halted by the arrival of more casualties. It was not a couple of stretchers this time but a veritable train, Zoaves from the look of them; the blackened, shredded state of their uniforms made identification difficult. Hannah had seen her share of wounded around the city, at ambulances in squares and parks, or limping around on the arms of nurses and doctors. She’d never encountered anything like this, though: splashing, spurting injuries, the colours simultaneously raw and rotten, lurid and charred, revealed in all their horror as the men they’d been inflicted upon sobbed and screamed and wailed for their mothers. The crowd’s cheers faltered. A few rushed forward, searching for relatives and friends or to ask questions about the fighting.
‘This is the beginning of it, Lizzie,’ said Mr Inglis gravely. ‘This is all that can happen today. Unless those Prussian outposts are actual fakes, that is – cardboard cannon manned by tailors’ dummies in Pickelhauben. Which doesn’t strike me as very likely.’
Elizabeth pursed her lips, taking a pencil from under her cloak. She was wearing a new-looking dress, Hannah noticed: a durable garment in a deep brick-red, with a light bustle and black piping. Mrs Pardy was one of very few in Paris who was enlarging their wardrobe for the winter.
‘Mont, will you please be quiet? You’ve trotted out these dire predictions of yours many times before. Paris will save Paris. These brave men here believe that – they went into battle believing that. Your beloved emperor isn’t coming back, you know. The people of this city are going to show their worth. It is the noblest of causes and you are naught but a sceptical Imperialist fiend.’ She requested her notebook – which he’d been carrying for her, in an outside pocket of his coat – and began to write, effectively ending the discussion.
Hannah’s unease grew. Elizabeth was using the same line of argument that she had with Émile Besson back in the Gare du Nord. Now, though, on the day of the sortie, it struck her as markedly inadequate – a position based on faith rather than reason and evidence. It wouldn’t be enough.
The wounded kept coming: fifty, sixty. Some had obviously died on their stretchers. Hannah spotted a National Guardsman, pasty and still, missing his right foot. The number on his kepi revealed that he was from the 254th, a Belleville battalion – one of those the 197th had been merged with. Jean-Jacques was fighting. Men around him were falling to Prussian shells. It was more than she could bear.
‘I’m going forward,’ she said to Laure. ‘I can’t wait here.’
Laure wasn’t surprised. She looked around her queasily, as if hoping that a way out would reveal itself. ‘They won’t let you on the battlefield. You heard Chomet.’
‘Forget Chomet! I can’t just stand about doing nothing. Our friends are under fire, Laure. They’re being injured. Don’t you understand?’
‘I don’t see what we—’
Hannah picked up her vivandière’s bag from the doorway. ‘I’m going to the Marne at least, so that I can get a better idea of what’s happening. It’s no use. I have to know.’
Laure muttered something, threw away her cigarette and got behind the cart. She stared at Hannah, hiding her fear behind an indignant pout.
‘Help us push then, will you?’
Together the two women crossed the Bois de Vincennes, moving as fast as the handcart would permit them. They passed drained ornamental lakes laced with muddy snow; entire woods reduced to foot-high stumps; a steeplechase track being used as a camping ground. The soldiers manning the Porte de Charenton had let them through for a tot of Laure’s brandy, happy enough to disregard General Ducrot’s orders concerning vivandières. Elizabeth and Mr Inglis had not been so fortunate when they’d tried to follow. All civilians, they’d been told, had to remain within the city walls.
‘Be careful, girl,’ Elizabeth had shouted after Hannah. ‘I’ll want a full account, do you hear?’
A fort came into view on the right, over the Marne, spikes of red fire darting from its guns. The noise of battle was now truly horrific; Hannah felt as if she was creeping onto the floor of an infernal factory, its rasping, clanking, booming machines all working out of time. They reached a crossroads on the borders of the park, past a set of rusting iron gates. The fighting had consumed the entire landscape in sparks and smoke; ambulances were moving off in every direction, their attendants hurriedly swapping information about concentrations of casualties.
‘Which way?’ asked Laure, wincing a little at the pinch of her bottines.
‘Straight ahead. Towards Saint-Maur.’
Jean-Jacques had spoken of this, describing the loop and thrust of the main French attack. They would march down into a bulge of open land encircled by the river, cross via the pontoons, then sweep up through the hillside town of Champigny to the Villiers Plateau. Ducrot’s regulars were going to lead the assault, but the National Guard would be there as well, in support, showing their worth – Jean-Jacques would see to it.
Saint-Maur, like most of the villages outside Paris, was now a ragged cluster of ruins, the buildings burned and blasted beyond any hope of repair. A couple of hundred French infantrymen had taken cover in the shattered houses. Every eye was fixed on Champigny, now visible across the Marne, spreading from the valley floor to the heights. A frenzied fight filled its streets, bleeding into the paddocks and gardens along its northern edge. Banks of smoke rose and drifted off, glaring white in the sunshine. Beneath them, Hannah could see soldiers swarming through gates, into outbuildings, over fences. She heard the rising crackle of a rifle fusillade; a bugle-call halting abruptly mid-bar; the nerve-rending grind of the mitrailleuses. Each instant brought a dozen more deaths. Hannah watched men stumble and disappear under the boots of those behind. She stopped walking. Something was being piled onto her, it seemed, in great shovelfuls; she was being suffocated, slowly buried alive.
‘Wake up, Mademoiselle Pardy!’ Laure yelled.
Inhaling sharply, gripping the handcart for balance, Hannah forced her attention back to the road. The pontoon crossings were close. They’d been moored beside the old stone bridge of Champigny, using it as a shield against the Prussian artillery fire. This was much needed – shells whistled down constantly from the plateau, their paths marked by arcing trails, cracking against the bridge’s granite flank. Non-combatants were being held on the southern bank until word came through that the town had been captured. Hannah and Laure joined a queue of ambulances and ammunition wagons waiting in the remains of a farmyard. The drivers were discussing a diversionary attack that had been made towards Choissy-le-Roi a while earlier – an absolute disaster, apparently, hundreds upon hundreds killed with nothing whatsoever to show for it.
Half an hour later the bugles started playing a new refrain, and semaphore flags appeared amongst the rubble: Champigny was under French control. There were no cheers or patriotic exclamations at this news. All it meant out here was that the army would now have to attack Villiers. The battle would continue into the afternoon and evening. Many more would fall.
Cleared to advance, the ambulances and wagons formed two lines and started across the pontoon bridges. Under their weight the floating platforms sank down almost to the surface of the still-bloated Marne; the Prussian artillery picked up, sending splinters from the bridge splashing in the water. Hannah led the handcart onto the right-hand crossing, closest to the cover of the bridge. Laure was virtually dragged behind, tottering on her bottines, swearing loudly with each tremble and rock of the boards beneath them.
A number of the ambulances parked on the Marne’s opposite bank, discovering an immediate supply of wounded. It was unclear whether these men had been brought back from the town or had simply fallen moments after stepping from the pontoons. The suffering was beyond comprehension. Hannah and Laure focused on negotiating the handcart over the churned ground.
Soon they reached the outskirts of the town. Officers, regular army types in smart jackets and red trousers, were striding about, searching for their men – hauling them from shelter, trying to assemble them for the next stage in the advance. The two vivandières attracted the odd curious glance, but no one had the time either to answer their questions or ask any back. They were moving along the broad street that formed the spine of Champigny when a small hotel not thirty yards from them took a direct artillery hit, exploding into a stretching star of powdered plaster, brick and glass. Hannah felt an unbelievable wrench, both her arms whipping away from the blast and wetness flicking across her cheek. For a petrifying splitsecond she thought she’d been caught by shrapnel, but no: it was the handcart. A fragment of either shell or hotel had bashed it to bits, blowing Laure’s bread hoard apart, splattering them both with brandy and leaving them holding only broken lumps of wood. Laure was too stunned even to curse. She dropped the pieces in her hands, blinking; the next instant she’d scampered across the road into a deep gutter.
‘I don’t even like you,’ she screamed at Hannah, curling into a ball, ‘I never have. Why’d you make me do this? Why? It is insanity, the most ridiculous, the most stupid damned thing I have ever . . . have ever . . .’
Hannah’s body seemed horribly light, made of hay, as if the breeze alone might knock her down and send her skittering along the pavement. A bullet zipped by, smashing a shop window, reflected light flashing crazily over the cobbles as the shards fell; and she was down with Laure, wrapped tightly around her, face pressed against the cocotte’s greasy copper plait.
How long they lay like this Hannah couldn’t say. Laure’s limbs shivered next to hers, her breaths heaving and huge; she was mumbling some kind of incantation or prayer. The vinous stench of brandy filled Hannah’s nostrils. She moved her head a little. A rivulet of blood was running thickly beneath them, half an inch from their pantaloons, dripping into the drain.
Eventually Champigny grew a little quieter. The fight had moved on, further up the hill. Hannah got them both to their feet and looked around. They were the only people standing upright in the entire street. Recovered from her shrieking fit, Laure set about salvaging what bread she could, filling her pockets with dirty crusts.
The two women made their way towards the town’s upper edge, climbing through lanes littered with snappedoff rifle stocks, bent blades and bits of bloody uniform. A number of houses and shops were occupied, rifles jutting from windows and holes knocked through roofs. Runners dashed past, taking reports back from the front; several Zoaves sat slumped against a wall, hands clamped hopelessly over mortal wounds. They reached a modest square set out around a dry-stone well. Beneath a row of cherry trees, a chaplain was attempting to tend to twenty or so of the badly injured, the dying men clawing at his robes as they begged him to hear their confessions. The battlefield was close; the din of heavy gunfire was shaking streams of dust from between the stones of the buildings. Bugles sounded beyond the rooftops, followed by cheers and a howl of agony.
‘There’s a whole damned army out there,’ Laure said, her voice hoarse, ‘two damned armies, and all mixed up. We’ll never find them.’
‘We will. Stay with me.’
Hannah was certain that she’d be able to spot Jean-Jacques. He’d be conspicuous, even in the chaos of a battlefield. She could envisage his situation clearly: he’d be throwing himself into the worst of the fighting, trying single-handedly to turn the tide. It would only be a matter of time before he caught the attention of a Prussian sharpshooter, or happened to be standing in the wrong place when a shell landed. She had to reach him as quickly as possible; she might be the only one who could convince him that the sortie had been a dreadful error and that they had to retreat to Paris.
On the other side of the square several teams of horse artillery were preparing to move forward. The vivandières went over, intending to follow them onto the field. Just as they were leaving, however, this column came to a sudden halt, the drivers at the front shouting that they needed to reverse. Hannah looked around the rearmost gun-carriage. A great stampede of French infantry was cresting a rise, pouring back into Champigny. A few dozen of the fastest sprinted past, on towards the centre of town; and then there were thousands thronging across the cobbles, ramming the square full. They packed around buildings, startling horses, overturning cannon and trampling the wounded. Laure pulled Hannah to the well; by clambering onto it they managed to avoid being immediately swept away. Most of the men were reserves from the north, but Hannah saw significant numbers of militia, including some familiar faces from the 197th. Every one of them was in a state of absolute panic.
‘They are here, they are here!’ somebody yelled. ‘Oh God! Oh Christ!’
A neat line of Prussian artillery appeared on the rise, the crews rotating their firing platforms. One, a captured mitrailleuse, opened up with that grating rattle they’d been hearing all morning, a jet of flame stuttering before it like fat spitting from a griddle; down on the square a flailing, bloody corridor was struck through the routing Frenchmen. Next came the field guns, firing with a series of flat crumps, splitting a cherry tree to the base of its trunk. The chaplain, still standing nearby appealing for calm, was among those felled by the flying slivers of wood. An officer shouted for his men to hold their ground, to aim for the crews – to give some account of themselves. He was ignored.
Bodies were pressing hard against the well on every side. Hannah and Laure jumped off as it started to collapse, the stones leaning inwards and then coming apart, toppling into the shaft. Swallowed by the tide of soldiers, they were carried irresistibly downhill.
‘The Leopard!’ Hannah cried. ‘Has any of you seen the Leopard?’
The faces around her were blank, glazed with terror, staring straight ahead. Nobody answered.
* * *
By the time Hannah and Laure had struggled back up to the square the short winter day was over. High cloud hid the stars and it was brutally cold, frost sparkling over the debris and the heaps of dead. The French had rallied, after a fashion; they’d been repulsed from the plateau, having failed signally to punch through the blockade, but they were clinging onto Champigny. That little square was effectively the front line. Barricades had been thrown up and there were soldiers in many of the buildings, vainly scouring the heights for a lantern or campfire that might indicate the location of the Prussians. Only a single cherry tree had survived, the demolished well had been filled in and one of the larger houses on its outer edge was on fire. No one chose to stand near it, though, despite the freezing temperature. That would make a man an easy target for a sniper; and although a cease-fire had been instated for the collection of casualties, the regulars posted in the square weren’t about to trust their enemy after the day they’d just endured.
The two vivandières hadn’t eaten or slept now for twentyfour hours. Hannah felt spectral, barely there, forced onward by the sole purpose of finding Jean-Jacques. Laure was grumbling to herself about the blasted Anglaise and her interfering ways – about how, if it wasn’t for her, she’d be back in Montmartre by now, her belly full of liquor and a nice young guardsman at her side. Not once, however, did she talk of leaving. Duty to the 197th held her in Champigny; and it was she who spotted Octave.
The sculptor sat on a kerb next to a long row of corpses. He was weeping, one of those wide, rough hands held over his eyes. As they approached they saw that the body directly beside him was Lucien’s. The painter’s mouth was slightly open, as if drawing breath in the middle of one of his acerbic discourses; but there was a tiny, precise hole in his left cheek, and a second, far larger, behind his right ear. His beard was white with frost; his skin the colour of clay. The sight left Hannah numb, her mind wiped clean. She heard herself say ‘no’, but had no sense of having said it. The last time she’d met with her three artist friends they’d been at the rear of the National Guard column, lit up by absinthe, reciting Victor Hugo’s latest siege-verses in less than reverential falsettos.
‘We couldn’t even see them,’ Octave said. ‘Not one Prussian soldier. The bullets were coming in from all over.’
Laure sat beside him, putting her arm around his shoulders and offering him a grimy hunk of bread. He acted as if she wasn’t there.
‘Where’s Benoît?’ the cocotte asked. ‘Is he well?’
Octave uncovered his eyes, his brow furrowing. ‘I should think so. He fled the very instant the Prussians opened fire
– him and half our wretched battle-group. Back to Paris they went, and wouldn’t be told otherwise.’ He stared at Lucien. ‘We were the committed National Guard – the brave ones. Remember us in the Galette? We were going to fight for France. We were a damned joke.’
Hannah fastened both hands around her satchel strap, bracing herself. ‘What of Jean-Jacques?’
‘Our Leopard?’ The sculptor shook his head. ‘He talked up a storm, I’ll give him that, all the way through Champigny. Once we were at Villiers, though, trying to reach the château along with Ducrot’s lot, he just vanished.’
A frozen bolt was driven straight through Hannah’s chest, leaving her quivering upon it. ‘He vanished,’ she repeated.
Octave wouldn’t look at her. He wiped his mouth and chin. ‘I don’t know what else to tell you, Hannah. No one saw what happened to him or where he went. We were by these bales of straw, ready to charge. There was rifle-fire. A few shells. And he was gone.’
Without another word or thought Hannah strode from the square, past the barricades, into the sloping, undulating fields that lay between Champigny and the Villiers plateau. The orange dots of oil lamps marked out the French ambulances as they toiled to remove the dead and rescue the wounded. Hannah peered into every waxen, contorted face she came across; in almost total darkness, she searched copses, bushes and hollows for that tall, spare frame, those broad shoulders, that black coat and hat.
It was futile. Hannah’s muscles were stiffening, protesting against the effort and the cold. She turned back, smothering a sob, took a single step and then turned back again. She couldn’t leave. A tear crept over her jaw and raced down her neck, under the collar of her tunic. He’d fallen. It was the only explanation. He’d been at the head of the militia column. The Prussians had known who he was; Elizabeth’s Leopard articles were bound to have found their way into enemy hands. They’d have been hunting for him, looking out for the man who’d so humiliated them over the past months and killed so many of their sentries. He’d been shot down, rolled aside; or far worse, taken as a trophy, overpowered somehow and dragged away for a public execution at the Prussian headquarters at Versailles. Hannah saw JeanJacques on the scaffold, a noose being readied for his neck
– standing before a firing squad like Manet’s Maximilian. She tore off her kepi with a cry. It was too much, too much! The very worst had happened, the unthinkable. She’d pressed for this, shouted for it, demanded it, and here was the result: a failed attack, a minute, tenuous extension of the line and the death of her love.
No – this was not known for certain. There was still hope. Hugging herself, stamping her boots, Hannah formed a tiny gap between her lips and exhaled hard. She tried to be scientific, to deduce the course of the doomed French advance so that she could identify the best areas left for her to search, but it was no use. The Prussians had been coming from all sides, manoeuvring the French into a killing ground, a massive trap. It had been folly, in short – folly on a calamitous scale.
Hannah began to lose her place in the landscape. The dim glimmer of Champigny was behind her, then to her left; she seemed to have been set adrift on the grey hillside. She tripped on a rock, stumbling to her hands and knees. The long grass beneath her crunched with frost yet was inexplicably inviting. She lay down, resting her head on the icy ground; sleep crept through her, warming her, sinking her into the earth.
Something hard poked against her hip, testing for life. A pair of patent bottines, scuffed and crusted with mud, completed a sauntering circuit of her body.
‘You’re an idiot,’ said Laure. ‘A sick-hearted fool. I told you this was pointless. You’ll never find him. You’re wasting your damned time, and mine too. Risking our lives.’
She’s been following me, Hannah thought, ever since I left the town. ‘I didn’t ask you to come,’ she replied, without moving. ‘Go, go on.’
The cocotte sighed, drawing on a cigarette; she’d recovered a good deal of her Parisian poise. ‘He could well be alive, I suppose – in Paris, or Champigny, or Saint-Maur. He could even have got past Fritz, knowing him, and be halfway to Tours by now. But he sure as hell isn’t out here.’
‘Let me be, will you?’
Laure didn’t respond; she’d noticed something. Hannah pushed herself up onto an elbow. The lanterns of the ambulances were moving downhill, heading for the French line like fishing boats returning to shore. Laure had thrown away her cigarette and was holding out a hand.
‘Mademoiselle Pardy,’ she said, ‘I do believe that we should go back. This minute.’
They were about fifty yards from Champigny when the shouting started, countless male voices joined in a mad battle roar. Hannah looked over her shoulder, into the darkness. The horizon itself was shifting, the heights rising and sliding towards them – the entire Marne valley trembling. The two women broke into a run, all tiredness forgotten. Their greatcoats flapped around them, Laure’s shedding ragged chunks of siege-bread. One of the bottines suddenly gave way; Laure caught hold of Hannah’s sleeve and they staggered into the square, clutching onto each other tightly.
The French soldiers stationed there were checking rifles and strengthening barricades with the grim concentration of the condemned. All were men of the line, with their Chassepots and red trousers – there was no sign of any militia, Octave included. A couple were complaining about the limited supply of bullets; that it wasn’t yet dawn, the agreed end of the cease-fire; that they hadn’t been reinforced, as had been promised by General Trochu. Others were saying their prayers.
Hannah and Laure ducked into a ruined shop, a bakery that was missing half of its upper floor. Seven regulars were already inside. They managed some laughter at the appearance of women at this point, but the firing started before anyone could ask a question or make a crude remark. Bullets sliced through plaster – pinged off metal and stone. The vivandières hurried behind the shop counter, crouching together on the chipped floor tiles. Through an open doorway Hannah saw several hundred brown greatcoats rushing in the side of the square, charging around the sole surviving cherry tree.
‘We’re being overrun,’ shouted one of the soldiers, his voice wavering. ‘Damn it all, my friends, we’re being overrun!’
Then there were Prussians in the bakery. The first was shot down; those coming in behind him bayoneted the shooter and shot two more. The remaining four French regulars ran upstairs, bellowing oaths as they went. Rifles were trained on Hannah and Laure, a semicircle of alert young faces staring in at them. The cocotte screamed at the top of her voice. One of the soldiers yelled out a question, and a sergeant strode over, an older man with a long, ruddy face and drooping moustaches. He leaned across the counter and slapped Laure hard about the head, knocking off her kepi. She fell silent immediately.
More enemy troops entered the shop. Orders were given, two staying with Hannah and Laure while the rest piled up after the Frenchmen, the sergeant in the lead. There were cries; furious scuffling and four or five shots; the thud of bodies hitting floorboards. The survivors, all of them Prussian, descended the stairs.
It was finished. The firing was already subsiding, or at least shifting down the hill into Champigny’s centre. The French had been driven back in moments, swept from their positions, leaving Hannah and Laure at the mercy of their enemy. Hannah had heard many times what happened to female prisoners of the Prussian army. She tried to watch every man in the bakery, to be ready for whatever move they might make; her eyes darted about so much that they started to ache with the strain. The infantrymen seemed huge, barbarian-like, menacing despite their youth; they wiped the blood from their bayonets and straightened their spiked helmets. Hannah attempted to compose an insult, something they would understand – something that might goad the soldiers into killing them then and there. Invention deserted her, however, so she simply threw out her arms, across the dazed Laure, jamming them both into the right angle between the counter and the wall and preparing to kick, gouge and bite. If this was to happen, if they were to be ravished and murdered, she was going to make it as difficult for these Prussian devils as she possibly could.
The sergeant regarded Hannah for a few seconds and then lunged forward. His grip was improbably powerful; he hauled her up onto the counter in a single movement, pinning her to it and pointing in her face. His manner was one not of malice or lascivious excitement but immense boredom.
‘You are prisoner of Kaiser,’ he told her in careless, makeshift French. ‘You fight us, you die.’