The atrium of the American Embassy was filled with people, as it had been on Clem’s five previous visits since the sortie. All nationalities were present among this crowd, but by far the majority were Germans, the Prussians and Bavarians who’d lived in Paris under the Empire – waiters, jewellers, barbers, locksmiths, along with their wives and children – and been sealed in by their own army. As they lacked official representation, and met only with hostile unconcern from the French, no attempt had been made to secure them safe passage out of the city. They were a miserable, persecuted-looking bunch, gaunt and shabbily clothed even by the standards of besieged Paris. Sticking together in groups of a dozen or more, they murmured in their guttural language and glanced constantly towards the doors, as if expecting National Guardsmen to burst in and start making arrests.
It was around half-past three on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and these German mendicants were gathered for a festive almsgiving. The American minister, the honourable Eli Washburne, had taken it upon himself to care for all who found themselves stranded in Paris without the means to live, sustaining several thousand from his apparently bottomless stockroom. Some Second Empire bureaucrat had thought it a great jest to assign the world’s one true republic a building decorated in the most splendid, palatial fashion. Trestle tables were set out across lush red carpets; boots, blankets and tins of grits were being dispensed beneath gilded archways and pilasters; earnest exhortations not to neglect religious observance at this holy time of year were echoing from ceilings splashed with pastel-hued rococo debauches.
Clem disposed of his cigarette end in a marble urn. ‘Stirs the deuced soul, don’t it,’ he said, scratching his beard. ‘Such disinterested charity. Basic humanity and all that, asserting itself in a time of crisis.’
Besson was peering ahead into the gloomy hall, which was unlit in the late December afternoon – gas had been turned off across the city a fortnight earlier. He was attempting to catch the eye of an official standing at one end of the tables. He didn’t comment.
‘Puts one in mind of Richard Wallace,’ Clem went on, enjoying this rare spot of positive reflection. ‘The only rich Englishman left in Paris, Émile – who’s now feeding all the poor ones. I’ve heard that he’s taken recently to walking from mairie to mairie, leaving packets of banknotes for the relief of the needy. They say—’
The aérostier went forward without a word, snaking through the queues, honing in on his target. Clem wondered briefly if he should follow and decided that there was little point. What could he possibly add to the discussion? He lit another cigarette, slid a flask from his pocket and took a swig; and recoiled with a hard shudder, the hair standing up on his neck and forearms. He’d bought this stuff a few minutes earlier, out in the street. It was rum, he supposed, but had a suspiciously chemical whiff about it – rather like formaldehyde or some kind of preserving fluid. What was a fellow to do, though? The second sip was not so bad; the third actually quite pleasant.
Besson was walking back over – and straight past, towards the doors. Clem followed him out into the street. Thirty or forty Parisians were gathered around a government bulletin that had been pasted to the wall of a church, striking familiar attitudes of dismay and disbelief. This notice told of another decisive defeat, only three weeks and a half after the hammering at Champigny. A few days earlier, the unlikely decision had been reached to attempt a second breakthrough, this time to the north. There had been a surprising amount of enthusiasm for this assault, both in the government chamber and on the boulevards – to cleanse the humiliation of their previous trouncing, Clem guessed, or just to alleviate the stifling ennui. The word at the Grand, however, as the casualties had started to come in, was that the French had been outclassed once more. The National Guard had again fled the field, infecting the reserves with their cowardice and insubordination. Regular troops sent to dig forward trenches had found the earth frozen hard; and had been left shivering on the battlefield, without orders and close to mutiny, until the Prussian artillery had opened up and torn them to scraps.
Clem buttoned the doctor’s green wool suit – now the tone and texture of old moss after an unsuccessful attempt at laundering in the lower reaches of the hotel. The rum sloshed about in his pocket. He would have taken another gulp to rub the edge off the gruelling cold, but was obliged to adopt a sort of half-trot just to keep Besson in sight. He couldn’t tell if the Frenchman was actually going somewhere – or if he was walking at this speed to shake off his emotions, in the way that a man might try to rid himself of a persistent wasp.
‘They haven’t seen him, then?’ Clem called out after they’d covered a couple of blocks. ‘No sign?’
Besson stopped, waiting impatiently for Clem to catch up. There was hatred on his sharp, quick face – hatred for all mankind. He turned, extending his right hand. ‘Sergeant Peabody has disappeared,’ he said.
Clem tossed him the flask. Tracking down the ravenous American had been Besson’s fixation since their return to Paris; Clem had joined him as soon as his headache had subsided to a manageable level. Peabody was the link, Besson was sure of it. He was the only person who’d known of the aérostier’s intention to speak to that American newspaperman in Tours. He must have told someone else, someone who could be traced back to Allix. They were going to find him, Besson had declared, and obtain a confession. This would be the proof they needed, the definite connection between Allix and the demise of the Aphrodite – and enough, surely, to merit a full investigation into the Leopard of Montmartre.
Sergeant Peabody, however, had eluded them utterly. No one had seen or spoken to the embassy night-watchman in weeks. They’d been all over the city, to every one of his haunts; a string of drinking dens and low theatres on the Left Bank; the arcades of the Palais Royal, where he’d apparently liked to linger with his pipe, staring at the shop-girls. It was as if he’d slipped out somehow, run the line, or taken refuge in a private hideaway unknown to any of his countrymen. They were at an impasse.
‘What now, then? A word with Allix himself?’ Clem suggested – seriously doubting as he spoke that he’d have the nerve for it.
This won him a withering look. Besson, like Clem, hadn’t shaved since the doctor’s house in Tournan-en-Brie; there were a couple of new silver hairs in his beard. He drank down a long draught of the rum, not seeming to notice its coarseness.
‘Do you honestly think I have not tried that?’ he said, wiping his mouth on his glove. ‘I could not even get close to him. The mood in Montmartre has deteriorated further since the sortie – grown yet more aggressive towards anyone seen to be bourgeois. If they thought I was attempting to blacken the name of their great chief they would hang me from a windmill sail.’
Jean-Jacques Allix had been far from quiet in the storm of fury and recrimination that had followed the Prussian recapture of Champigny. He’d not been chastened by the devastation he’d helped to bring about. His bereavement, if it had affected him at all, appeared to have only intensified his desire to fight – to lead the National Guard into battle after battle. He’d been one of the louder voices demanding this latest disastrous action, and had continued his one-man raids; several strident calls to arms had been worked into Elizabeth’s accounts in the Figaro. Those daft little red paw-prints and sets of cat-fangs were being painted everywhere, across every arrondissement, alongside slogans that called for the destruction of the Prussians and the destruction of bourgeois Paris as if they were heads on the same monster.
The two men walked onto the place de l’Étoile. The Arc de Triomphe was encased in wooden panels and sandbags to protect its statues, making it resemble a huge gravestone
– appropriately enough, Clem thought. Lengths of cord were strung across the mouths of the avenues leading into the square, from which petroleum lamps had been suspended. These were a common sight in Paris since the end of the gas, casting a thin, insubstantial light that seemed to deepen the murk rather than relieve it. At night you sometimes got the sense of no longer being in a city, surrounded by man-made structures and people; it was easy to believe yourself shut up in a system of giant caverns, far underground.
Several companies of militia milled about near the Arc, lounging on the artillery emplacements around its base. Clem couldn’t tell if they’d been engaged in the recent action, but they’d responded to defeat as the National Guard responded to everything: through the consumption of heroic quantities of hard liquor. Paris had next to no food left, but was still awash with drink of every description, the populace pickling itself to forget its woes, seeking solace in the bellowed certainties of intoxicated patriotism. There was bickering among these guardsmen, though – debates and brawls and defensive declarations. Some passers-by were shouting abuse their way; a group of women in black raincoats informed them that they were la honte de Paris before hurrying off down the avenue de Friedland.
Clem went to a bench beneath a cluster of inert lampposts. ‘Come on, old man,’ he said, ‘let’s rest ourselves for a minute.’
They drank in silence, passing the flask back and forth. This taste for grog was a recent thing for the aérostier. Clem had been unsurprised to discover that the stuff made him a touch surly.
Neither had mentioned her name, not once. They were both united by their grief and completely divided by it. Besson, on the surface at least, was angry. In his mind was a list of the people responsible for what had happened: JeanJacques Allix was at the top, no doubt, and Émile Besson in the first five. He now strove to make things right, as he saw it, despite plainly knowing that this was impossible – and when he was finished and all was over she would still be gone.
For his part, Clem was confused, mainly; numb as well, definitely numb; and more than a little anxious. He did have a sense that he could have done more – insisted that she leave the National Guard or something like that, the way that brothers were supposed to be able to – but was also aware that she’d have just ignored him as always. The situation really was unfeasibly strange. Hannah Elizabeth Pardy, his twin sister, so vital and astounding, had been brought down by a Prussian sharpshooter. She wasn’t away in another city or another country but dead, extinguished for ever, buried by Allix in an allotment on the fringes of Champigny – to spare her the indignity of a soldiers’ mass grave, he’d said. It was beyond anything Clem could bring himself to imagine. He was familiar enough with loss, from the passing of his father and others, to realise that something else was coming, something bad: the blackness that follows the blind shock of impact. Often, as he wandered half-cut about the dreary streets of Paris, he could feel it hovering above his head, ready to drop over him. He was waiting for it.
‘You’d think,’ Clem said at last, indicating the National Guardsmen by the Arc, ‘that our Leopard would have tired of lionising that lot by now. I mean, they’re proving a bit of a bloody disappointment, aren’t they?’
‘He might also be inclined to hesitate,’ Besson remarked, ‘if he appreciated that the provisional government is delaying our surrender in order to kill off as many of his potential revolutionaries as it can in these foolish sorties.’ He paused to drink. ‘Unless, of course, he appreciates this all too well.’
Clem snorted. ‘That scheme hasn’t got much chance of working, has it? The blighters drop their guns and run the instant anybody takes a shot at them.’
Besson had nothing to add and the conversation lapsed. Clem considered broaching the topic of Christmas, now only hours away; the shrivelled turkeys on sale in Les Halles for upwards of two hundred francs apiece, for instance, or perhaps the story of the gent on the rue Lafayette who was fattening his pet cat to serve up in place of a fowl – to be garnished with grilled dormice, it was rumoured, as substitutes for sausages. Right then he found that he regarded Christmas with a certain vague fondness, largely on account of the association with crackling fires and large dinners. As he opened his mouth to speak, however, he saw Hannah, his companion at so many of those festive tables, sitting next to him in her best dress as Elizabeth lectured them on the specious wickedness of Christianity, or relieved their elderly butler of the carving knife so that she could hack at the goose herself. The memory was indescribably painful. He leaped away from it, casting about desperately for something else to say.
‘Have – have you been up to the Gare du Nord, Émile, of late?’
Besson shifted uncomfortably on the bench. ‘I go there, Clement,’ he muttered, pronouncing the name to rhyme with cement, ‘but there is little point to it. They are giving most of the flights to Godard’s men now, over in the Gare d’Orléans. I do not know why. Nadar thinks—’ The aérostierstopped talking and sat very still for a few moments. ‘None of it is any use. We are wasting our time, every one of us. We would be better off surrendering – letting the Prussians march up our boulevards, barrack their soldiers in the Louvre, stable their horses in Les Invalides. If we do not hand Paris over to them they will see her burn. It has all been for nothing.’
He looked away suddenly, towards the Arc, as if disgusted both by his own outburst and the passions that underpinned it. Cursing in French, he rose to his feet and strode off, making for one of the north-eastern avenues.
This had become Besson’s standard leave-taking. Clem didn’t try to follow or find out where he was going. ‘See you later then, old man,’ he said to the pavement, giving the flask a shake to gauge how much was left. ‘You know where I’ll be.’
The gates on the northern edge of the Jardin des Plantes had been left open to admit anyone who cared to enter. Elizabeth went through first, skirting the museums of natural history and mineralogy, striding towards what appeared to be a refreshment pavilion; Clem was a few steps behind, retying the voluminous scarf he’d fashioned from one of his bathroom’s purple velvet curtains. It had been a long walk. There were no cabs or omnibuses in Paris any more; every horse saved from the abattoir was harnessed to a gun-carriage or an ambulance-cart. The morning was clear and not too blindingly cold, meaning that the crowds on the central boulevards were heavier than they’d been for a while. People were stamping up and down the rue de Rivoli, between the Hôtel de Ville and the place de la Concorde, damning Trochu and his wretched failure of an administration, waving their red flags and demanding all sorts of fine-sounding, unachievable things. The boulevards themselves were dirtier than ever, caked in mud as noxious as any found in the back alleys of Limehouse or St Giles. Pasted declarations and counterdeclarations, torn and weather-bleached, hung from every available wall like beggars’ rags.
Elizabeth had maintained a determined pace through all of this, despite her claims of increasing frailty; she’d refused even to let Clem carry the small satchel she’d acquired for her notebook and papers. Now they’d arrived at the Jardin des Plantes, though, her priority was plain. She needed to sit down.
No one had set foot in the iron-and-glass refreshment pavilion for weeks. The potted plants were dead; the mosaic floor was scattered with smashed crockery; the kitchens, located at the back, had long since been broken open and looted. Elizabeth selected a table close to the doors. Clem took the chair opposite her.
‘When is it to happen?’ he asked.
‘Ten, I believe,’ she replied, ‘at the park’s western extremity.’ Composed as ever in a blue winter bonnet, she was
giving the impression of one who might be suffering but would admit no weakness, not to anyone, not for an instant. The spines were up on the Pardy porcupine. She was continuing with her life. Clem was reminded of when his father had died, very suddenly, while he and Hannah had still been children. They’d known widows – the black dresses, the sobbing, the months of seclusion – and had expected that their mother might behave in a similar way. Open expressions of sorrow, however, were few and far between. There had been a round of commemorative dinners and public recitals, staged by his poet friends and a handful of literary societies, at which she’d dazzled all and sundry; and before the season was out she was romantically linked to a rising playwright. Mrs Pardy was not one to languish in desolation.
Elizabeth had come into Clem’s room the previous evening and specifically requested that he accompany her on this expedition to the Jardin des Plantes. He’d considered enquiring why she was prepared to accept him as her assistant once more, having denigrated him so roundly over their wolf steaks – and perhaps mentioning again how she’d abandoned him to the Mazas, or her lack of interest in his balloon crash and the injury he’d sustained, or the possibility that she, through her alliance with Allix and active promotion of these luckless sorties, might actually bear some measure of responsibility for Hannah’s death. Energy was required for this, though, a lot more than he possessed, and an appetite for further confrontation; so he’d merely agreed and started to get ready. There was never any real reconciliation to be had with Elizabeth, just a sort of weary recognition that you’d have to accept what she’d done and carry on. It was ridiculously optimistic to expect her to admit wrongdoing – or even realise that it had taken place.
Also, in truth, Clem had little else to occupy his hours. His room at the Grand was too cold for anything but burying oneself in bed; upon rising that morning he’d had to thaw his toothbrush over a candle. He’d actually made an attempt to start his book, his Daring Airborne Escape, but had quickly given up. The crash had rather attenuated the narrative, and complicated it with suggestions of sabotage; the whole episode now seemed a tragicomic mess, certainly not the stuff from which great adventure stories were made. He had an odd clouded feeling as well, that he couldn’t quite shake
– as if his mind was a sheet of smoke-blackened glass through which only dulled outlines could be seen. He’d begun to fear that his knock to the head had permanently reduced him.
It was good to be out of the blasted Grand, though, and have the pervasive smells of blood, lint, and chloroform washed away by the winter breeze. The hotel had been the setting for by far the most dismal Christmas of Clem’s life. Beef replacing horse in the municipal ration had been the sole official concession to merrymaking. This repast, toothlooseningly tough and totally without flavour, had been eaten in coat and gloves to an unalleviated accompaniment of wails from the hospital in the lobby. What yuletide wishes had passed between the remaining guests had been delivered with bitter sarcasm. Elizabeth had chosen to deal with the occasion by not emerging from her room. Drinks with Besson in the Café de la Paix, Clem’s one slight hope for a spot of jollity, had been an utter failure. The aérostier had been hollow-eyed and silent, his vigorous spirit finally defeated by the disappearance of Sergeant Peabody. Clem had got the idea that seeing him reminded Besson of Hannah – so he’d decided to be merciful and stay away, for a little while at least.
Outside the refreshment pavilion, a gang of obvious newspapermen were advancing into the gardens, loudly disputing the quickest route to the zoological department as they went. It occurred to Clem that he hadn’t heard the gravelly tones of the Sentinel’s Paris correspondent for well over a week. His mother, for all the notice she’d brought upon herself, had been a very solitary figure of late.
‘Doesn’t Mr Inglis want to witness this event?’ he asked, taking out a cigarette. ‘I’d have expected him to be here.’
Elizabeth pulled her cloak tighter around the shoulders. ‘We have decided to spend less time together, Mr Inglis and I,’ she replied. ‘He’d been tiring me most dreadfully, Clement, with his despairing pronouncements. As his beloved Empire is gone, he is quite happy to will absolute destruction on France and her people.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t honestly know what I was thinking. It was the result of simple boredom, I suppose, like that wretched carrot-topped cocotte of yours.’
Clem lit up, looking away; the tobacco was stale, like that of every cigarette left in Paris. Laure Fleurot was a delicate subject. Four days earlier, while at a particularly low ebb, he’d resolved to find her. Her treatment of him, he’d decided, hadn’t actually been so very bad; he’d convinced himself that there might be some chance of reunion if he apologised profusely enough. All he’d wanted was to lie alongside her and feel her copper hair against his cheek.
Montmartre, however, had refused to give Mademoiselle Laure up – her or anyone else Clem knew. The atmosphere in those lanes, as Besson had warned, had been most unsettling. Quarantine notices for smallpox were everywhere, disease being the inevitable corollary of the extreme hunger that gripped the poorer arrondissements; truculent queues wound away from the shops designated as cantines municipales; every other door-knocker was wrapped in black crêpe. He’d gone down to that apartment on the boulevard de Clichy, of which he had so many potent, precious memories, to find it serving as a kennel to half a dozen slack-jawed Breton reserves. He’d retreated, deeply perplexed, unsure of what to do next.
‘Probably for the best,’ he said. ‘Mr Inglis, I mean.’
Clem’s own guess was that Han’s art had been involved in the rift between his mother and the journalist. The contents of Madame Lantier’s shed had been brought in its entirety to Elizabeth’s rooms at the Grand. Clem recalled Inglis’s powerful scorn for these paintings on that first night; it was easy to imagine this overcoming his lover’s docility or respect for Elizabeth’s loss and some disparaging comment leaking out. Such a slip would have earned him a prompt excommunication. Han’s works had been made sacred by her death. Elizabeth would talk about them with the faintest justification; she was talking about them right now, in fact.
‘She made several very accomplished en plein studies here, you know. They depict crowds, naturally, rather than beasts in their cages or anything like that. People, ordinary folk, experienced as we truly experience one another in these places. Chance encounters. A glimpse – a passing gesture. Momentary fragments of other lives. No story, Clement, no forced meaning or trite little tale, just what we observe as we move through the world.’
Clem nodded, studying the tip of his musty cigarette; any second now she’d get onto the portrait.
‘Obviously they are not as considered as the large portrait. There we have the chef d’oeuvre. To think that she would not have embarked upon it had Jean-Jacques and I not urged her to! He is before you, Clement – brought directly before you.’
I should bloody hope not, Clem thought; he mumbled something that could have been interpreted as concurrence. Elizabeth had made it plain that she didn’t believe he’d been anywhere near vocal enough in his praise of Han’s productions. He had to admit that he was rather reluctant to admire a portrait of the Leopard – the man who’d brought down the Aphrodite and set his sister, his artist sister, on the route that had led to her death on a battlefield. The thing stood over Elizabeth’s fireplace, in her sitting room. He’d glanced at it once, agreed it was excellent, and not looked its way since.
‘I am sure that when my book is published,’ Elizabeth continued, ‘interest in her work will soar. That such a talent was permitted to flourish without encouragement, unacknowledged, will be seen as a monumental sin – emblematic of all that was rotten about the Second Empire. Monsieur Manet and his set at the Café Guerbois will never forgive themselves.’
She was growing agitated. She’d been facing across the pavilion; now she turned sharply towards Clem, the legs of her iron chair scraping on the floor.
‘It was true dedication, Clement. She felt the world so keenly. This was why she could give so much of herself to Jean-Jacques and the ultras. Theirs is the cause of the people
– the wider world. She wasn’t interested in the theoretical assertions of Herr Marx or Monsieur Blanc or any of them. For her it was simply a question of justice, of the poor being allowed their rightful freedoms.’
Clem kept his eyes down. ‘Justice, yes,’ he said. ‘Freedom.’
‘You don’t understand, of course,’ Elizabeth pronounced with some contempt. ‘You were always opposite twins, were you not? You are like your father, a glib being at heart, inclined towards whimsy. Hannah was a serious soul, a dedicated soul. We were so alike, she and I. It is why we could not be together, ultimately – why we squabbled so.’
Clem had heard this many times before. His own view was a little different. There were certain similarities between Han and their mother, but it was their father she really resembled: they’d both been artists to the marrow of their bones. Seeing something of the life she’d built here in Paris had made that abundantly clear. Where this left him and Elizabeth, as distinct from one another as ink and engine oil, he couldn’t begin to say. He accepted, however, that in times of bereavement the dead have their lives and characters remoulded to meet the needs of those still living; so he nodded again, doing his best not to listen to what his mother was saying.
Elizabeth rose from her chair. ‘Come now,’ she said abruptly, as if it had been Clem’s idea to sit in the first place. ‘It is almost time.’
They went outside. The drumming of shell-fire was louder and more insistent here on the Left Bank. The Prussians were finishing off the year with a sustained bombardment of the southern forts. It seemed that they were becoming tired of swatting back these risible sorties, and were preparing to get serious.
Before Elizabeth and Clem was a network of tarmacadamed paths, winding off around clumps of trampled shrubbery. The fingerposts had been removed for firewood, but Elizabeth appeared to know where she was going. Soon they began to see the cages, as fine as miniature exhibition halls. Roofs bulged into exquisite onion domes; slender bars were painted white with red and gold capitals. Some had perches or hutches, or small ponds for swimming, while others opened onto landscaped paddocks. Every one was empty.
‘I’ve heard that some beasts have been spared, thus far at least,’ Elizabeth said as she led them on, deeper into the zoo, ‘notably the simians. The directors know their Darwin, I suppose, and judge it to be a shade too close to cannibalism.’
A male crowd, both military and civilian, was gathering up ahead around an outsized stable, twice as tall as normal, on the edge of a straw-strewn enclosure. Elizabeth was recognised as they approached and the men parted, making a passage to a place at the front. They were greeted by a terrible bellow, a screeching blast of distress from a very large animal: the cry of the elephant. Through the stable’s open doors Clem could see two huge forms, shifting in their separate stalls. Manacles and chains were being prepared on a paved section of the enclosure. An address was underway, a grizzled fellow in a broad-brimmed hat holding forth with his hands clasped behind his back. At first, Clem couldn’t catch much of what he was saying and assumed that he was a keeper – the elephants’ custodian, perhaps, paying the unlucky creatures a final tribute. He came to realise, however, that this was actually the man who was to shoot them, describing in some detail the special ammunition he’d selected for the task. Theatrically, this executioner produced a bullet for their inspection: a chrome cone the size of a two-shilling cigar.
The first elephant was led out, surrounded by keepers and park officials.
‘Castor,’ said Elizabeth, her notebook at the ready. ‘His brother Pollux is to follow – they are twins, you see. I hear the butcher Deboos on the boulevard Haussmann has bought them both for eighteen hundred pounds. He plans to have skinned trunk in his window by the end of the day.’
Clem swallowed, digging his chin into the curtain-scarf, suddenly appreciating what he was about to see. He’d never been to Regent’s Park Zoo and certainly never to Africa or anywhere like that. All he’d experienced of elephants were etchings and paintings, and a skeleton, once, in the Oxford museum. He’d never set eyes on a live specimen before; and now he was to watch one be put to death.
Castor was an unlikely-looking jumble of parts – legs awkwardly long, shoulders hunched, bundled together under a loose, colourless skin. He knew that danger was close, but he evidently trusted a couple of the people around him and allowed himself to be manacled without complaint. Clem was struck by the tiny, swivelling eye in the enormous skull; the hairs and pale spots on his crown; the shrunken, wrinkled ears. The elephant’s tusks were mere stubs, all but buried in the folds of his face. He was adolescent, Clem estimated, still a distance from full maturity. The famous trunk was feeling the air with gentle caution, searching for something that plainly was not there. It was positively ghoulish: a genteel crowd of natural scientists, reporters, sportsmen and soldiers congregating to end this gigantic lump of life. Clem ground his teeth, wondering what the devil he was doing. He really hadn’t thought this one through properly.
The shot was startling, a flat, ringing bass note, deeper and more penetrating than a standard discharge. Castor was hit beneath his right shoulder, the bullet leaving a coin-sized hole in his hide; he barely flinched, blinking in the powdersmoke as his executioner lowered his double-barrelled sporting gun. Rooted to the spot, Clem was seized by the mad hope that the shot might have been absorbed somehow – that Castor’s immense bulk might render him indestructible, at least to the weapons of man. But then one leg wobbled, giving out; and the stricken creature started making this horrible gargling noise, choking from an internal haemorrhage. Butcher boys rushed forward with buckets to catch the blood that was now pumping from the bullet-hole, spurting to the slowing rhythm of the elephant’s heart. Several among the crowd let out exultant exclamations, those closest to him jumping clear in case he toppled over. Castor dropped to his knees; Pollux let out another plaintive cry from inside the stable. The first bucket was taken away, filled to the brim, the blood-flecks on the butcher boys’ wrists bright and rich as fresh blackberries. The elephant slumped onto his side, head lolling and trunk gesticulating weakly. The second bucket was soon full as well.
Clem’s paralysis eased. He tried to breathe. For Christ’s sake, he told himself, it is only a blessed animal, a beast like any other – like all the horses and dogs and God knows what else we’ve killed for their meat. He felt intolerably stifled, though, as if he was drowning in the open air. Turning to go, anxious to escape before the dispatching of Pollux, he noticed that Elizabeth was no longer next to him. This was strange. Why had she dragged them both halfway across Paris only to skip out just before the main event? He scanned the edges of the crowd, catching sight of her blue bonnet as it disappeared behind a screen of laurel bushes. Glad to have a decent reason for getting well away from the dead elephant and its doomed brother, he went after her.
Past the laurels was a broad courtyard. Elizabeth was at its opposite side, entering an austere neo-classical building. Three large cages were attached to its eastern wall, constructed not from bars but a sturdy grille. There wasn’t a soul around; everyone was at the elephant enclosure. Clem hurried across the courtyard and followed his mother through the doors. Beyond was a wide central corridor, running between reinforced panels of the same grille as outside. It was dark and barn-like, the dusty atmosphere soured by the rancid odour of cat urine.
Elizabeth was halfway down this corridor, talking with a tall, clean-shaven man. Clem swore under his breath. It was Jean-Jacques Allix. He was leaning slightly towards her, listening carefully to what she was telling him, an expression of profound concern on his face. The Leopard of Montmartre was not in his signature black for once, but a grey overcoat and a kepi, pulled low over his eyes: the disguise of a wanted man. This was clearly a pre-arranged meeting and the real reason for their visit to the Jardin des Plantes that morning. Allix passed his mother a packet of papers. They embraced, speaking earnestly as if reaffirming a vow; then he gave a shallow bow and started for the doors.
Allix showed no surprise upon seeing Clem. Coming to a halt, the Leopard considered him calmly, his gaze lingering on the patchy beard and the purple curtain-scarf. Clem felt about four feet high.
‘I am pleased to see that you have recovered from your accident,’ he said.
Clem glared back, imagining what Besson would do in his place – the furious accusations he would level. He began to tremble. ‘Yes, well,’ he managed to reply, ‘no bloody thanks to you.’
The Leopard’s smile was pitying; he patted Clem’s shoulder with his crippled hand, the wooden fingers rattling inside the glove. ‘Take care, Mr Pardy,’ he said as he went. ‘There is much still to come.’
Elizabeth was close behind. Clem’s headache was returning, welling around his eyes. He pushed up his hat, mopped his brow on the sleeve of the green wool jacket, and attempted to regain his equanimity. It was pointless to try to talk to his mother about Allix. Everything had gone too far. Hannah’s lover, like her paintings, was completely beyond question, as was the radical cause they’d shared. Any allegations against him were seen as a conspiracy; Émile Besson she regarded as a government man through and through, out to damage Jean-Jacques with baseless lies. She looked rather pleased that Clem had witnessed her little tête-à-tête. It served as an effective declaration of her continuing stake in Allix – of her determination that the Pardy connection with him would last beyond Hannah’s death.
Staying quiet was undoubtedly the best course, but Clem couldn’t help himself. ‘I thought these interviews took place in your sitting room at the Grand,’ he said. ‘Tales of bloody mayhem by the fireside, that sort of thing.’
This earned him a warning glance. ‘It is too dangerous. The link between us is too widely known. They tricked Gustave Flourens during the first sortie, Clement – arrested him when he came forward to join his Tirailleurs and threw him in the Mazas. A similar trap could easily be laid for Jean-Jacques.’
‘But he came to you before the sortie, didn’t he?’ Clem insisted. ‘A visit for every article, you said.’
Elizabeth harrumphed and sighed, waving this away; and Clem realised that the time Allix had come to tell her about Han had actually been the Leopard’s sole appearance at the Grand. These packets were their main means of communication, and the raw material from which the Figaro articles were formed. Growing defensive, his mother now treated him to a dollop of her usual rhetoric, rambling on about how the government was planning to starve the people into submission; how the army was effectively colluding with the Prussians; how Allix and his guardsmen were burning for action; how Paris must save Paris and restore the martial honour of France.
Clem remembered what Besson had said, in the place de l’Étoile and elsewhere. ‘Surely, though, these lunatic sorties play straight into the provisional government’s hands? Every red guardsman gunned down by the Prussians is a troublemaker they don’t have to worry about any longer.’
This made Elizabeth angry. ‘Do you propose, then, that we sit here and do nothing?’ she snapped. ‘Many in Paris want revenge, Clement, Jean-Jacques included. The Prussians are a merciless, dishonourable foe. Did you know that they frequently surrender on the battlefield, only to open fire when the French approach them? They have raped and torched and shot their way through huge swathes of this country. Countless innocents have fallen.’ She stepped towards him. ‘Can you forget so easily that they killed your sister?’
This stunned them both into silence; it was harsh, even by Elizabeth’s standards. Clem turned to one of the grille partitions. A shape moved behind it, against the far wall. The size of a large gun dog, the animal kept close to the ground as it passed through a bar of daylight. Clem saw matted fur the colour of old hay, a dozen faded black spots and the ribs standing out beneath them; the starving cat paused, baring its fangs with a feeble hiss before slipping back into the gloom.
‘By Jove,’ he said, struggling to seem unaffected, ‘a leopard. What was Mr Inglis’s term? Pantera pardus. An apt meeting place, I must admit – although this poor puss is rather less alarming than your creation.’
Elizabeth knew she’d gone too far, but was incapable of framing an apology. She would just do nothing, as usual, and let Clem deal with her remark however he chose. ‘It lives,’ she said, ‘as no hunter in Paris will get in the cage.’ She reached for her satchel, fumbling with the buckle. ‘I have to return to the Grand. I have writing to do.’
For a moment Allix’s packet was face down against the satchel’s leather flap. Between the binding ribbon and Elizabeth’s gloved fingers Clem glimpsed part of a paragraph, written in English: ‘ . . . the sergeant saw me framed in the doorway and attempted to alert his comrades, but my blade found his heart before . . .’ The hand was scrupulously neat, black ink with a faint leftward slope, laid out evenly across the paper. Clem recognised it immediately.
‘The letter!’ he cried, pointing. ‘The bloody letter!’
Elizabeth was mystified. ‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’
‘The letter that brought us here!’ Clem stared at her. She really seemed to have forgotten. ‘The one urging us to rescue Han. I’d convinced myself that it was Besson’s doing, a bit of well-intentioned meddling – but it’s the same writing, Elizabeth! Allix bloody well sent it!’
Elizabeth frowned; she put the packet away and fastened the buckle. ‘I don’t see why he would. What could he possibly stand to gain from such a move?’
The scheme fell open in Clem’s mind, unfolding like the panels of a map. ‘He knew who you were, and that you were Han’s mother. He knew it from the very beginning. He wanted to draw you over here – get you caught up in the siege. Get the famous Mrs Pardy on his side. He knew what you could do for him, in the press and so forth. He’s
– he’s been using us all.’
‘How absurd,’ Elizabeth retorted. ‘Your alcoholic indulgences are taking their toll on your reason, Clement. Jean-Jacques couldn’t have written any letter. His handwriting is next to illegible, on account of his American injuries. He told me that he is forced to dictate his reports to an adjutant.’
Clem became exasperated. ‘It doesn’t matter exactly who wrote them – they came from the same damned place. I’ll show you. I still have the letter, back at the Grand. Hell’s bells, d’you honestly not see it?’
His mother returned the satchel to her shoulder. ‘A good part of your problem, Clement,’ she proclaimed, gliding towards the doors, ‘is that you have never been able to tell what is important and what is not.’
The bath, Hannah’s first since her capture, had left her feeling raw, freshly peeled, the chill morning air stinging her skin. She adjusted her kepi, tightened the knot of damp hair at the nape of her neck and surveyed the square. It was another dull, frozen day, but the Prussian-held village of Gagny was turned out in honour of an extremely important guest. The horizontal black, red and white tricolour of the Northern German states had been hung from the eaves of every house. Several infantry companies were arranged in parade order on the frosty green. A small regimental band was parping away before the town hall, playing something that conjured an image of portly couples dancing a waltz.
The stock of a Prussian rifle pressed into Hannah’s back, directing her towards three close ranks of prisoners, several hundred of them at least, who’d been assembled for inspection on the far side of the green. This was a surprise: she’d had no idea that there were so many others being held in Gagny. Every other day she’d been brought out here for a half-hour’s perambulation. She’d taken the opportunity to memorise what she could of the village’s layout, observe its routines and patterns, anything that might prove useful should she manage to work open her cell door or give her ever-vigilant guard the slip. In all that time she hadn’t seen a whisker of these fellow captives, yet here they were – men of the line, Zoaves, militia – a full sample of the defenders of Paris. Like Hannah, they’d been permitted to bathe, but were still a scruffy lot, their uniforms filthy and torn and their beards overgrown. Around a third bore wounds of various kinds. Their role that morning, she supposed, was to look defeated, and they were fulfilling it admirably.
Laure Fleurot was the only woman among them. She slouched at the right end of the formation, furthest from the town hall, her orange hair hanging over her face and her hands deep in the pockets of her greatcoat. The vivandières had been led off in different directions as soon as they’d arrived in Gagny. Laure had struggled hard against this, thinking that there might be some safety in numbers.
‘That’s my sister!’ she’d cried, bucking against the soldiers’ arms. ‘You Prussian bastards, that’s my damned sister! You can’t part us, you can’t!’
Hannah had been prepared for the worst. They’d locked her in a tiny storeroom in the cellar of an occupied townhouse, empty save for a cast-iron chamber pot. For the first few days she waited, her ears straining for the first scrape of a military boot on the basement steps, intending to use her teeth and nails – and her chamber pot – to protect herself as best she could. No boots came, however; no drunken soldiers bent on violation threw back her door. Neither did anyone attempt to interrogate, torture or starve her. The daily prisoner’s ration turned out to be more than a Montmartre resident had in half a week. Her cell’s high, brick-sized window was glazed against the weather; a hotwater pipe in a corner even kept her reasonably warm. Her guard had lowered.
Another week had passed. Hannah’s isolation, the lack of anything, soon became tormenting. She was determined not to give up. Jean-Jacques had survived the sortie – she was convinced of it. The only acceptable explanation was that he’d become separated from the 197th on the Villiers Plateau and had fought his way back to the French line. Buried in her storeroom, surrounded by enemy troops, Hannah had to believe that he was alive and free – and very probably out searching for her. It was her duty to rejoin him. She’d resolved to escape from Gagny as soon as she could.
Initially, Hannah hadn’t thought that this would prove too difficult. She was in a village, for God’s sake, not a gaol. There were no towers, moats, gates or anything like that; a little boldness and she’d be away. In practice, of course, it was not so simple. She was always either locked up or under close watch. They shot people, these Prussians – bothersome prisoners or saboteurs brought in from the surrounding countryside. She sometimes heard the rifle reports in her cell. A poorly thought-out plan and she’d meet her end against a wall with a Prussian handkerchief bound around her eyes. She was stuck, for the time being at least.
At a loss, Hannah had taken to sketching on the cell’s earth floor with her fingertip. Relying on memory, she composed a series of siege vignettes – guardhouse scenes, the storming of the Hôtel de Ville, Jean-Jacques addressing the Club Rue Rébeval – erasing each one with her coat-cuff as evening arrived. She found herself dreaming of colour: gleaming caterpillars of ivy, cream, russet and jet that squeezed out through cracks in the plaster, blending and spreading to form sunlit vistas of parks and boulevards – modern Paris bustling around her.
Morning would often fail to break in that deadly winter, the black cold of night never fully lifting. Too late, Hannah came to understand why convicts keep tallies of their internment. Her days became a disorientated muddle, drawings in the dirt that were effaced at dusk and gone for ever. Christmas caught her unawares – simultaneously amazed that she’d been imprisoned for so long, and that it had only been three and a half weeks since her capture. All it meant, at any rate, was the smell of roasting meat seeping down through the floorboards, accompanied by raucous laughter and carols sung in German.
Outside the storeroom’s high window was a lane, running from the village into the surrounding countryside. It was usually fairly quiet, the view of the mildewed wall opposite only occasionally interrupted by a column of marching soldiers or the steel-rimmed wheels of a military supply wagon. With the New Year, however, came a marked increase in traffic. Monstrous artillery pieces blocked Hannah’s light; shell-carts creaked by constantly. She’d quickly deduced what this surge of munitions meant. Gagny was close to the main eastbound railway, the Strasbourg line; men and equipment arriving from Prussia or the occupied territories passed through the village to deployments elsewhere. Preparations were underway for the bombardment of Paris.
This realisation had jolted Hannah from her torpor. It seemed unfathomable at first, a crime of bewildering magnitude. The Kaiser’s men were about to turn the most devastating artillery ever created on Paris, an ancient seat of beauty and enlightenment – and the two million civilians sheltering within it. Unexpectedly, along with everything else, Hannah found that she was worried for her mother. Jean-Jacques and her friends in Montmartre would know how to manage this latest hazard. Clement had left Paris with Émile Besson, floating over the Prussians into another part of France. Elizabeth, however, would be drawn irresistibly into the heart of the barrage. She’d be taking all manner of foolish risks for the sake of her book.
There was absolutely nothing Hannah could do. She paced her cell; she kicked at the walls. This was her time. Her home was under attack, under fire, and she was locked in a cellar in Gagny. The frustration was excruciating. When on her allotted constitutional, she tried to detect some change in the ubiquitous shell-fire, some slight shift in pitch or reverberation that might tell her whether the onslaught had begun, but without success. Gagny was seven or eight miles from the wall. Held out here she was as good as dead – of no use to anyone.
Hope had returned in the form of laundered flags, drilling soldiers and a general frenzy of cleaning and polishing. Arrangements of a rather different sort were being made, and Hannah heard the word Kaiser often enough to be able to guess the occasion. A final royal tour of the line was being undertaken, before the imminent collapse of France and the Prussian victory. At dawn the next morning she was led upstairs, shown to a room containing a bath, towels and plentiful hot water, and left to wash. The visit was happening that day. Here was her chance, a distraction better than anything she could have imagined. She’d bathed and informed her guard that she was ready to be taken outside
Laure’s incarceration had obviously not been as eventless as Hannah’s. Her face was bruised and her coat missing several buttons. Hannah’s guard stood them together and went to the front of the prisoners’ formation. Their eyes met.
‘Holy Christ, Mademoiselle Pardy,’ Laure whispered, as if they’d only been apart a few moments, ‘we really need to get out of here.’
Before Hannah could reply, every Prussian soldier in Gagny stamped to attention. A detachment of cuirassiers swept in from the west, silver breastplates and Pickelhauben shining, the hooves of their huge chargers pounding through the village. In amongst them was a carriage, a fine navyblue landau with its top open; and within was Kaiser Wilhelm, an elderly man in a general’s cap, whiskers framing his precise white moustache. Wrapped in a greatcoat and scarf, he had a rather businesslike aspect, like a proprietor touring a factory. A high-ranking aide was at his side; both sitting upright and serious, their hands folded, taking in Gagny’s modest parade as they were driven around the green to the town hall.
Across from them was a fleshy man in the same white uniform as the cavalry, with a fur-lined cloak instead of the breastplate: Chancellor Bismarck, famed mastermind of the war, responsible for many of Prussia’s more nefarious strategies and the resultant suffering and humiliation of France. Hannah could scarcely believe it. What Jean-Jacques would give to be standing here with a Chassepot in his hands! Prussia could be laid low in a heartbeat.
At once vigorously healthy and bloated by indulgence, Bismarck wore a long moustache upon a dogged, jowly face. French cartoons of him depicted a bulbous aberration, a slavering beast, a rampaging, rapacious boar. Like his king, however, the chancellor bore a closer resemblance to a tycoon – a fast-living magnate clad as a cuirassier for a fancy-dress ball. Puffing on a cigarette, slumped in his seat, he appeared profoundly uninterested in the outpost at Gagny, but sight of Hannah and Laure made him lean over the side of the landau for a closer look. The expression he fixed on them was both predatory and strangely playful, as if the three of them were sharing a lewd joke.
‘Voilà,’ he announced as he rolled past, ‘les Amazones!’
A second carriage came behind, larger and less fine, bearing attendants and a couple of lesser dignitaries. Both vehicles pulled up before the town hall. There was a round of sharp salutes as Wilhelm climbed from the landau. The band began a new tune, a lurching, martial number that could have been the Prussian national anthem. Before they’d played a bar the Kaiser had gone indoors, the rest of the royal party close behind him. Chancellor Bismarck was more leisurely, pausing to finish his cigarette and exchange a few words with the band leader. He was making a request; as he followed Wilhelm in the music changed again, to an up-tempo hunting song.
The soldiers stood easy. Hot drinks were brought for the cuirassiers, who dismounted and were soon laughing with the infantrymen. A relaxed, distinctly celebratory air spread across the green. The French prisoners were largely forgotten. Their ranks loosened, threatening in places to dissolve completely. A few of them grumbled; someone said ‘À bas Wilhelm!’, although not very loudly. Hannah watched the town hall. She could see Bismarck through one of the tall ground-floor windows, in his white tunic. He was making an expansive declaration, his arms thrown open.
‘Now,’ she said.
Laure snorted. ‘You’re not serious.’
Hannah glanced about. Her guard was turned away from
her, chatting with his comrades-in-arms. No one was monitoring them. By way of an answer she stepped backwards, into the second rank. Laure was regarding her with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and fright, as one might an especially daring feat by a circus acrobat. She wasn’t going to be left behind, though, and a moment later they were both at the rear.
Some of the Frenchmen noticed what they were doing. ‘Don’t,’ said a regular with his arm in a sling. ‘We’ll all pay for it.’
‘If you were a man,’ Laure hissed at him, ‘you’d be doing the same.’
The soldier stayed put. ‘Stupid bitch.’
A few yards of open ground separated the prisoners from a tavern courtyard. Hannah knew from her walks that it contained a large stable with a door on its far side. She crossed it in six swift strides – expecting shouts, shots, the pounding of boots. They did not come. The band played on, a good number of the Prussians breaking into song. The tavern was closed up, its windows shuttered. Hannah approached the stable, thinking that it could easily be locked as well, leaving her and Laure cornered in this courtyard. The past ten seconds had changed them irreversibly from prisoners into fugitives. They’d surely be executed.
The stable was open. Hannah rushed past the stalls, colliding heavily with the far door. Her hands were numb, her fingertips tingling; she fumbled with the bolt, unable to get a grip on it. A terrible pressure was building in her chest, making the task many times more difficult – making it impossible.
Laure stumbled into her, all elbows and knees and panicked panting. ‘Can we do this?’ she asked. ‘Really?’
The bolt banged back. ‘We’re doing it,’ Hannah replied. ‘It’s done.’
Beyond was a crooked lane filled with French peasants, diverted from their usual course through Gagny by the Kaiser’s visit. Everyone stared at them; no one made a sound. An old woman pointed towards a low door. This led into a walled orchard, the bare branches of its pear trees dusted with frost. A gate at its end opened onto an icy meadow, past which was the border of a wood. Hannah made a last check for guards. None could be seen. She took hold of Laure’s hand and ran.
* * *
‘I don’t like the woods, really I don’t,’ said Laure, hugging herself. ‘Fuck the woods.’
The vivandières were in a hunter’s hut, discovered after several hours of wandering through the limitless, misty forest. It was well hidden, tucked in a stand of ancient oaks, and hadn’t been used for some time. They’d agreed to take shelter there until dark, when there would be less chance of them being spotted. Their exultation at having escaped had long since worn off. Both now saw that the more arduous part of this challenge still lay before them; both also wanted very much to rest. Hannah had eased the door open a few inches, taking care not to disturb the weeds growing over it, and they’d slid inside. The hut was the size of a double bed, and only very slightly less cold than the forest. Moss carpeted the walls; toadstools dotted the floor. Above the door a stag’s skull hung on a nail, one of its antlers snapped back to a stump.
Hannah stood at the filthy window, watching for Prussians. Laure took this as a good sign, assuming that she was thinking things through – plotting their next step. Her mood began to mellow; she sat down, taking off one of her battered bottines and holding it up to release a trickle of water.
‘Everything will be all right,’ she said. ‘I know it. We’re lucky together, Mademoiselle Pardy, dead lucky. Something about you makes up for me in the eyes of God.’
Hannah was weary and cold, and very nervous; she had no time for tarts’ superstition. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked testily.
‘We made it through Champigny, didn’t we,’ Laure answered, ‘when all those men were killed. We escaped just then, something few would have dared to try – or got away with.’ She rubbed at her bruises. ‘And I wasn’t so very fortunate while we were parted.’
Her meaning was plain enough. Hannah’s impatience vanished. ‘Was it the Prussians?’
The cocotte shook her head. She suddenly looked very young; Hannah realised that she probably wasn’t even twenty. ‘Men of the line. Even guardsmen, a couple of times. They’d get me in the mornings, when we were let out for exercise. Fritz didn’t interfere. Didn’t much care, I suppose.’
Hannah cursed every one of them. This was what she’d been expecting herself, albeit from enemies rather than alleged comrades, yet it hadn’t happened. She’d been closely guarded when walking outside and had been kept in complete isolation. It was as if someone had been trying to spare her – to protect her. It made no sense.
Laure shrugged. ‘Nothing I haven’t had before. My own brothers gave me worse.’ She tugged her boot back on with a shiver. ‘Christ, what I wouldn’t do for a damned cigarette.’
They fell silent. Hannah felt shame and a tense, directionless anger. She thought of the frequent complaints she’d made about her own upbringing. Elizabeth might have perplexed her, smothered her, annoyed her beyond endurance, but what was that next to this? She was particularly upset by the offhand way Laure had spoken, as if what she’d been through was unremarkable – a banal ordeal, part of her earthly lot. It made Hannah want to knock out the window with her fist. Could this ever be stopped? Would their socialist revolution, with all its talk of workers’ rule, of federalism and freedom, be able to end such basic human misery? Would a commune? She stared at the floor, mired in troubling reflections.
‘We’ll get back,’ she said at last. ‘I think I know where we are. I have a plan.’
Laure was smiling. ‘Mademoiselle Pardy,’ she said, her tone almost affectionate, ‘I’m sure that you do.’
They left the hut at nightfall. Hannah’s guess was that they’d originally fled to the north. Earlier, she’d decided that their best bet had been to move in a broad westwards arc, meeting up with the Strasbourg line and following it back into the city. This had been proving harder than anticipated; she’d grown worried that they were going in a circle rather than an arc, half-expecting the spire of Gagny’s church to emerge among the trees ahead. Now, though, the forest’s disorientating similitude was punctuated by the flashes of distant explosions. Hannah guided Laure towards them. The ground grew firmer and began to tilt, as if they were rounding the side of a gentle hill. A village appeared between the trunks – not Gagny, to Hannah’s relief – clearly occupied, but unlit so as not to attract French artillery-fire; and past this, beyond the artless heaps of the forts and redoubts, was bombarded Paris.
The barrage was being concentrated on the south of the city. Several ranks of heavy guns were sparking up on the Châtillon plateau, lobbing shells over the wall into the dark streets of Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter. From where Hannah and Laure stood, looking across from the north-east, they could see buildings burning near the Jardin de Luxembourg; the flames were sharp specks of colour, lending a pinkish tint to the snow-covered rooftops around them. A railway station was ablaze beside the Seine – the Gare d’Orléans, Hannah thought – the fire lighting up the iron-and-glass hall like an enormous lantern.
‘Oh God, my beautiful city!’ Laure moaned, turning away, ‘I never thought it’d come to this, honest I didn’t. Damn them, damn them to hell!’
Hannah said nothing, refusing to react to this sight. The most uncertain stage of their escapade had arrived. Follow the railway in: it sounded so simple. Sneaking out through the Prussian investment was believed by most to be impossible. Only a couple had ever managed it; a number of attempts were rumoured to have ended before a firing squad. Hannah had persuaded herself that it would be easier going the other way, breaking into Paris, but had no idea if this was really the case. Disaster could be close; the luck Laure had claimed for them was sorely needed.
The forest narrowed into a triangle, with a railway bridge at its apex where the Strasbourg line crossed a canal. Somewhere away from the tracks a light was burning. Hannah could see a low parapet of sandbags, but no soldiers.
‘We’ve got to go over,’ she said to Laure. ‘We’ll run – take it in turns.’
They drew closer, moving around a small headland. The source of the light came into view; a lamp was propped on one of the concrete supports beneath the bridge, illuminating a scene of striking stillness and symmetry, the mirror-like canal reflecting the massive iron lattice suspended above it. Standing on the bank, gazing into the water, was a tall, black-clad man. It was Jean-Jacques Allix.
Hannah and Laure laughed; they joined in an amazed, joyful embrace. Salvation was at hand. They were as good as back in Montmartre, telling their story over drinks in the Danton. It was a truly astonishing coincidence. The perimeter of Paris was more than forty miles long; the two siege lines and the no-man’s-land between them a tangle of ruins, trenches and redoubts. Hannah had imagined a chance encounter such as this, of course, during the hundreds of hours she’d spent alone in that storeroom. She’d concluded that it was beyond all likelihood, not worth hoping for – but there he was. He’d take them home. Their trial was over.
‘Quickly,’ said Hannah, ‘before he moves on.’
They had to clear a hundred yards of loose woodland and then slide down an embankment to the canal path. Hannah began to run, lifting her boots clear of the undergrowth. She was nearly halfway there when Laure grasped hold of her arm, dragging her down into a bed of brambles. The cocotte pointed to the right: a detachment of Prussian infantry was trudging along the canal path, rifles on their shoulders, heading directly for Jean-Jacques.
‘Dear God!’ Hannah exclaimed, trying to shake off Laure’s hand and get back to her feet. ‘We must warn him!’
‘No.’ Laure was adamant. Her grip grew tighter. ‘No.’
Hannah fell quiet. Laure was right: it would be better if they didn’t intervene. This, after all, was the Leopard of Montmartre. A trap had probably been set. At any second he would make his move – draw a pair of revolvers and start shooting, or perhaps trigger a hidden bomb. Hannah had read her mother’s articles in the Figaro. She knew what to expect.
Jean-Jacques was cutting it very fine, though, standing there in the light of that lamp. He must be using it as a lure
– the Prussians would approach to investigate, moving out of the darkness, laying themselves open to his attack. They were thirty yards away, then twenty, and still he didn’t shift. The soldiers disappeared behind one of the other bridge supports. Hannah realised that he wasn’t going to hide from them. He’s pretending to surrender, she thought, to get them close, too close to use their rifles – and then the bayonet will slide from his sleeve.
They were around him now, five of them in their helmets and brown coats. Surely he couldn’t hope to win against so many. Hannah tried to stay calm, but couldn’t help thinking that he might have misread the situation. Was she about to watch her lover die instead of their enemies?
But no; it was far, far worse than that. Jean-Jacques was talking to them. Even at fifty yards’ distance, Hannah could tell that he was speaking their language, and fluently. He was speaking German. Stepping back, he made a wide gesture with his arm, then pointed near to where they were hiding. Directions were being supplied; a route estimated.
Hannah blinked. Her beloved Jean-Jacques, the man she’d thought would prove their saviour, was assisting the search party dispatched to hunt them down. Deadness spread through her stomach, up into her lungs, closing around her heart. At her side, in the brambles, she could hear Laure muttering out furious curses.
‘It’s a mistake,’ Hannah said. ‘He’s – he’s tricking them. This is part of it.’
Jean-Jacques gave a couple of further instructions. When he’d finished, the men saluted and began fanning out into the woods.
‘There’s no damned mistake,’ Laure spat. ‘Christ Almighty, he’s in charge.’
The forest floor tipped away, pitching like the deck of a ship. Brambles scratched Hannah’s cheek; she struck against a tree trunk, crumpling among its roots. A hard, nauseous convulsion shuddered through her. She coughed, rocking forward, her splayed fingers crunching into a pocket of frozen snow.
Laure tore her greatcoat from the brambles and hauled her upright. ‘Come on,’ she said.
‘I – I don’t understand . . .’
‘You don’t need to understand.’ The cocotte spoke harshly. ‘He’s a damned spy. Can’t you see?’
Hannah shook her head. It was absurd. Spies were stooped men in strange hats who lurked around mairies and barrackhouses, trying to overhear the conversations of soldiers; or elegant ladies versed in seducing government officials, obtaining secrets in exchange for their attentions. They were not radical orators, or veterans of the American War, or committed socialists hell-bent on revolution. Jean-Jacques had gone into battle against the Prussians, for God’s sake
– had killed dozens on those raids of his. How could he possibly be one of them? It was absurd.
‘That can’t be true,’ she said. ‘It can’t. I would have known. Otherwise I am the greatest fool to – to have—’
‘You’ve been used, Mademoiselle Pardy,’ Laure told her. ‘Lied to on a grand scale. It’s the way men are: they fuck us and then they knife us in the back.’ She peered towards the bridge. ‘Of course, this evil bastard of yours has knifed us all. And he’ll suffer for it, I promise you. But they’re getting close. We have to go.’
Hannah realised what Laure was saying. She meant to expose Jean-Jacques – to throw him open to the wrath of the people. The revelation that a great popular hero of the siege was a fraud, one of the enemy no less, would cause wild outrage in the workers’ districts. There would be reprisals; the red leaders, Blanqui, Pyat and the rest of them, would be desperate for scapegoats. Hannah herself would top their list – was she not an untrustworthy foreigner, one of the loathed English no less? – but anyone who’d been close to Jean-Jacques would surely be in danger as well. His former comrades would turn rabid, eager to demonstrate their own lack of involvement and hatred of betrayal.
And then there was Elizabeth. Those articles in Le Figaro had plainly been based on falsehood, but they’d made Jean-Jacques Allix famous, transforming him from an obscure rabble-rouser into the Leopard of Montmartre. Mrs Pardy was one of his known allies. The reds would certainly come for her as well.
‘Wait,’ Hannah said.
Laure studied her, the old contempt returning. ‘You’re afraid for yourself,’ she declared, her voice rising slightly. ‘You’re afraid for your stupid old mule of a mother. This man has lied to you, to everyone, and you are thinking only of the precious Pardy family. Want to plan your way out, do you? How to get back to London?’
‘We must be careful,’ Hannah said. ‘We can’t just blunder in and—’
‘To the devil with that!’ Laure turned to leave. ‘This damned Leopard is Montmartre’s error, and he is Montmartre’s to correct!’
Hannah reached for Laure’s wrist, thinking to hold her in place for a second longer; the cocotte pushed her away and their whispered argument became a grapple. Any warmth that had developed between them evaporated. Laure dug at Hannah with a bony hip and then took a swing, her fist driving into Hannah’s left eye. It was a good punch; Hannah staggered and tripped, tumbling through a screen of dead ferns into a shallow ditch.
By the time she’d recovered Laure was gone. She looked through the ferns, flinching as she touched her fast-swelling eye. Mist hung among the trees, infused with pale yellow light from the lamp at the railway bridge. The Prussian soldiers were crashing about in the undergrowth somewhere off to the right. They might have heard something – Jean-Jacques might have heard something – and be coming to investigate. This thought made her sick with horror; collecting herself, she retied her bootlaces and buttoned her coat. She had to get out of this ditch. She had to keep moving.
The declaration, a day old and signed by a long list of provisional government ministers, was posted on every corner:
CITIZENS, the enemy kills our wives and children, bombards us night and day, and pelts our hospitals with shells. One cry – To Arms!’ – has burst from every breast. Those who can shed their life’s blood on the field of battle will march against the enemy; those who remain, jealous of the heroism of their brothers, will, if required, suffer with calm endurance every sacrifice as their proof of devotion to their country. Suffer, and die if necessary, but conquer! Vive la République!
Hannah walked on, her arms crossed tightly. This explained the lack of crowds in the avenues, the empty tenements and cafes – and her straightforward passage through the siege line she’d feared would be so impregnable. Another sortie was underway. She’d been alert for mention of the Leopard or any other sign that Laure had got through and started spreading word of their awful discovery, but the few people who stood on corners or outside the cantines municipales spoke only of this latest French attack. The sortie was being made westwards, towards the enemy headquarters at Versailles. The defenders of Paris had learned that at some point in the past week Kaiser Wilhelm had been declared Emperor of the Germans in Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors, to fanfares and great celebration; it was the reason, Hannah realised, for the triumphal tour of the line that had brought the king to Gagny. The Parisians saw this as a direct and deliberate insult, staged to display the continuing power of that which they’d just rejected with such earnest. Honour demanded a mighty assault on Versailles, the old men on the corners agreed, to let Fritz know precisely what Republican France thought of his new emperor.
‘He’s done it now, that Kaiser,’ they told each other. ‘Oh yes, he’s pushed us too far this time. He’ll see what Paris is really made of!’
Hannah listened with acute disquiet. Jean-Jacques would have been calling vociferously for this sortie, as he had for the first one. His intention from the start had been to get as many Frenchmen as possible sent out before the Prussian cannon, in as disorganised and reckless a manner as possible. The radical cause, the cause of freedom and the French people, had been exploited to bring about their destruction. And Hannah hadn’t seen it, not for a moment. She’d supported him openly and enthusiastically, accepting every unlikely thing he’d presented to her – cheering as this lunatic situation had grown steadily worse. She’d been revealed as what she’d always despised, what her detractors had so often accused her of being: a silly bourgeois girl playing at revolutions, striking a pose, her head as empty as that of any society miss or drawing-room habitué.
In the side streets of La Villette were the consequences. Hannah saw at least thirty children’s coffins, pitifully small and crudely made, being carried from the houses of the poor and loaded onto the handcarts that were to take them away for burial. Distraught mothers huddled around them, most too weak for any display of sorrow; sallow and desperately thin, they’d been left to manage as best they could whilst their men went to serve in the militia. These were the ordinary working families Hannah had wanted to help
– to liberate from the impoverishment and brutalisation they had endured under the Empire – yet here they were starving, watching their offspring perish from hunger and disease whilst the radical socialists, their supposed champions, urged the continuation of the war at all costs.
Hannah paused on the place de la Rotonde, leaning heavily against a lamppost. She’d been up for more than thirty hours. Following the canal towards Paris, she’d crouched for much of the night at the head of a storm drain, waiting for a chance to sneak by a heavily guarded Prussian position. At dawn, however, the majority of the soldiers had suddenly departed, marching north – to assist with the repulsion of the westward sortie, as she now knew. Slipping into French territory, then convincing a gaggle of bored sentries that she’d escaped from a Prussian gaol and was on her way to rejoin her battalion, had been surprisingly simple.
This meant, of course, that Laure would very probably have got through too. Hannah considered heading to Montmartre to tell her side of things and protest her innocence
– but she couldn’t honestly pretend that she’d succeed in swaying anyone. Without Jean-Jacques Allix, her influence was negligible. She’d only ever been tolerated by the working people; they’d turn on her willingly. All she could do was warn others who were at risk – warn her family. Clem was gone, thankfully, off with Besson in his balloon. This left her mother. Elizabeth would take Allix’s unmasking in her stride; she’d be issuing instructions and conceiving plans within minutes of her daughter’s arrival. Hannah was so reduced that this thought brought her relief rather than vexation. She straightened up and made for the Grand Hotel.
The centre of Paris was given over to the ambulance-carts. Perhaps a dozen of them were unloading outside the Grand. Casualties had already been coming in for several hours; Hannah passed through the bloody turmoil of the lobby entirely unnoticed. The door to her mother’s suite was ajar. Elizabeth’s sitting room was light after the murky hallway, and rich with colour – the kind of colour Hannah had longed for whilst locked up in Gagny. It was her colour, in fact: the room was filled with her work, more or less every painting she’d done since arriving in Paris. This was mystifying. Madame Lantier’s shed was quite secure. Why had Elizabeth thought it necessary to take such a step?
The portrait, hung in pride of place above the mantelpiece, made Hannah start so violently that she almost knocked over a chair. She took a few deep, steadying breaths, unable to look elsewhere. More than ever she was struck by the picture’s vacuity. It no longer seemed so strange. That which she’d been searching for, that which had caused her such frustration, simply hadn’t been there; it couldn’t be. JeanJacques Allix was not a person, not a human being with a mind and a soul and a heart, but a worthless counterfeit. Hannah strode towards the fireplace, flushed with rage, intending to break the frame over her knee and then tear the canvas into a hundred ragged strips.
He was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, ducking slightly to fit his head within it. She stopped on the oval rug, caught between the portrait and actual man. One seemed scarcely more real than the other. He couldn’t have slept, but you wouldn’t know it; that serious, handsome face was freshly shaved and formidably alert.
His expression was one of deep joy, mingled with a trace of puzzlement. Hannah went cold; he was in character, as an actor might say. It was unspeakably sinister. He was watching her closely, plainly intending to let her reactions show how much she’d discovered during her time outside the wall. Hannah considered attempting to fool him – pretending she had no notion of what he really was and then using this to steer him into some kind of trap. To work such a trick, though, she’d have to go to his side, return his kisses and hear his false words of concern. She couldn’t do it.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked.
‘I was out in no-man’s-land last night,’ he told her. ‘I heard a Prussian patrol talking of an escape in one of their villages – a vivandière, they said. I could only hope it was you.’ He looked around the room. ‘I had a feeling that you’d come here first.’
Dear God, he was so damned obvious. This was almost an admission. A wince pinched at Hannah’s brow; she tried to hide it, glancing at the rug, but it was too late. She’d given herself away. He was walking over to her, the joy and the puzzlement quite gone. She darted for the door and he lunged to intercept her, scooping her clean off the carpet. She struggled and his grip became unbearable, stopping her breath; she went limp and he loosened it by a tiny fraction.
‘Who have you told?’
Everything was changed. The arms around her were those she’d yearned for in the storeroom at Gagny. Never, though, had they held her like this; it felt as if her ribs were about to snap. His smell was the same, tinged still by the scent of the irises in the windmill, yet what had once been intoxicating revolted her. This man clenching her to him was not her beloved Jean-Jacques; indeed, Jean-Jacques could not even be his real name.
‘What do you mean?’ she gasped.
‘Don’t make this difficult. Who have you told?’ His voice, at least, sounded different now, the accent a degree harder
– Alsatian shifting to Prussian.
Hannah stared at the ceiling. He didn’t know about Laure. She herself was finished, at the mercy of an enemy spy; that which she’d fought to prevent out in the woods was now the best she could hope for. She wasn’t going to give this man a chance to escape from Paris and disappear into the Prussian line. Elizabeth would just have to rely on her wits
‘No one,’ she said.
His hold relaxed further; then he dropped her in an armchair and went to a window. Hannah couldn’t tell if he believed her or not. She looked to the door. There was no hope of her reaching it before he caught her again. He appeared to be weighing his options: a professional adapting coolly to a shift in circumstances. Hannah dug her fingers into the chair’s upholstered arms to stop them from trembling. She was determined to keep silent, to match his composure. She would not scream about the love he’d betrayed – faked for the purposes of conquest. She would not level any of the livid accusations that were heaping up inside her mind. And she most certainly would not allow a single tear to be shed.
It was no use.
‘How could you?’ she asked him, rather more loudly and angrily than she’d intended. ‘What are you?’
He turned, standing calmly in the grey light. Hannah had gazed into those dark eyes so many times, convinced that all manner of noble feelings could be seen within. Now they seemed inscrutable, beyond divination, malign in their blankness.
‘Everything I have done,’ he said, ‘has been to end this war.’
Hannah almost laughed. ‘How you can say that misleading us all, that – that lying will bring about—’ She stopped. This was pointless. ‘What now, then? Do you intend to shoot me? Return me to one of your prisons?’
‘No.’ He flicked back the curtain to broaden his view of the place de l’Opéra and the boulevards that bordered it. ‘We are going to wait for your mother.’
Elizabeth rose from the empty ammunition crate she’d been perched on for much of the afternoon. ‘We’ve seen enough,’ she announced over the shell-fire, lifting the hem of her dress to nudge Clem with her boot. ‘Brandy at the Grand, I think.’
Clem knotted his curtain-scarf and climbed to his feet. There had been a thaw that morning, turning the frozen ground to sludge, but as the sun sank it was turning arctic again. The prospect of hard liquor – of the good stuff from Elizabeth’s private supply, imbibed in the comfort of her sitting room – was welcome indeed.
‘Hear, hear,’ he said. ‘Right behind you.’
They left the western terrace of Mont-Valérien, picking their way around its outer wall to the track that led to Paris. The fort, largest and best-loved of the fourteen that encircled the city, loomed beside them in the misty twilight. General Trochu’s idea had been that it would serve as an anchor to the sortie, providing the soldiers with a symbol of French steadfastness and strength. In this it had most certainly failed.
The day’s action had been focused on the Buzenval Ridge, the natural barrier between Paris and Versailles and the site of numerous unassailable Prussian positions. It had been a thoroughly depressing spectacle, bloody and futile. From the western terrace Clem and Elizabeth had watched the French battalions trudge up the muddy slopes, through the remains of farmsteads and orchards; grind to a halt under a punishing barrage, dropping in their dozens, unable or unwilling to advance any further; and then eventually start to break apart, drifting back down, defeated once more.
As a sign of Parisian desperation – or perhaps in line with Besson’s theory about the government’s plan to prune the city’s reds – the National Guard had been allowed a much greater role than in previous attacks, accounting for nearly half the total force. In addition to their usual heavy drinking, cowardice and insubordination, the citizen-soldiers had also displayed a panicky impulsiveness with their rifles that had led to the accidental killing and wounding of scores of their own countrymen. Clem had even witnessed a band of stragglers blast away at General Trochu’s staff after mistaking the mounted officers for a party of Uhlans; at least one had died in his saddle, slumping onto his horse’s neck as it galloped off towards Saint-Cloud.
Neither could the militiamen be convinced to remain on the ridge overnight, abandoning footholds for which so many of their comrades had fallen without a thought. To the rear of Mont-Valérien Clem and Elizabeth encountered a swollen river of deserters, inching through the ruined village of Puteaux to the Pont de Neuilly. Elizabeth was soon recognised and the Leopard remarks began. Once again, her Monsieur Allix had been a vocal advocate of a largescale sortie, with the National Guard as its spearhead; and once again he’d been conspicuous by his absence when the fighting had actually started. Elizabeth put on her usual show of faith. She’d made excuses for him on previous occasions, supplying suitable tales of derring-do to explain why he’d removed himself at the critical moment, and she did the same here. On she chattered, her hands working through their repertoire of Gallic gesticulations, trying to stay genial in the face of queries that ranged from amused and faintly indignant to downright hostile.
‘Good Lord,’ she murmured to Clem at one point, ‘I am not responsible for the man.’
Civilians thronged around the gate at the head of the avenue de la Grande Armée, lining the road down to the place de l’Étoile and beyond. They were genuinely shocked to behold the heroes they’d cheered out that morning returning to the city with nothing to show but a long list of the dead and maimed. These people, drunk on their own patriotic bombast, had plainly expected the day to close with National Guard singing the ‘Marseillaise’ in the courtyard at Versailles. Many women were anxiously inspecting the soldiers as they passed, asking every moment after missing husbands and sons. Clem felt a keen longing for his bed; he’d burrow down among the sheets like a mole, pull the eiderdown over his head and not come out until there was a train waiting to convey him directly to Calais.
‘Mrs Pardy! I say, Mrs Pardy!’
A corps of newspapermen was standing in the greenish light of a petroleum lamp, casting questions into the returning militia in an attempt to gather details of the battle. Montague Inglis was on the margins of this group, bent over slightly with one long arm raised into the air. The Pardys stopped and he came to meet them, giving Elizabeth a bow and Clem a quick nod. Little remained of the smooth, adversarial, slightly suspect fellow who’d met them in the lobby of the Grand the previous September. His beard was reaching mad hermit proportions, and his clothes bore evidence of heavy repair. There was a nervousness about him, also – Elizabeth had evidently cut him loose rather against his will.
‘Mr Inglis, did you not venture outside the wall today?’ she asked. ‘Whatever will the readers of the Sentinel do, deprived of your first-hand observations on the sortie?’
The journalist laughed, a sad croak from somewhere inside his beard. ‘That is more your style, Lizzie, than mine. Besides, the outcome of this piece of idiocy was never in doubt. The rabbit, for some unknown reason, decided to leave his hole and scamper about before the stoat.’
Even with everything they’d seen that day, Elizabeth could not let this stand. ‘How very like you to pour disdain on the sacrifice of those—’
Inglis lifted a palm. ‘My dear woman,’ he interrupted, ‘I really don’t want to run through this debate again. I came to speak with you with a particular purpose in mind – a warning, if you like, to impart to one I still consider a friend.’
Elizabeth’s stare said: Well?
‘There is talk,’ Inglis glanced back at the newspapermen, ‘of something building up in the northern arrondissements. They say the rappel is being beaten from Montmartre to Ménilmontant.’
‘Perhaps not, but several of the ringleaders are apparently naming your man – your Leopard. They are claiming that he is a traitor.’
Clem tensed. He’d all but given up on Jean-Jacques Allix. Besson had seemed indifferent to the discovery he’d made in the Jardin des Plantes. Clem got the feeling that he’d already guessed Allix was the author of the letter – that he’d been sure of it from the beginning. Clem himself had not seen Allix since that meeting before the leopard cage, nearly a month ago now. He was beyond reach, beyond investigation, popping up unannounced at the odd ultra rally, but existing principally in the sensational paragraphs of Elizabeth’s reports. Clem had imagined many different motives for Allix’s mysterious behaviour. Outright treachery, though, alleged by his own people – this was new.
‘Inevitable, I suppose,’ Elizabeth sighed. ‘There is no medium in this blessed city between the Capitol and the Tarpeian Rock: if you do not exist in a state of continual triumph you must be enacting a betrayal. They will rage and rant until he returns from his mission – and then none of them will even have the backbone to repeat their baseless slander to his face.’ Her features softened very slightly. ‘But I thank you for your concern, Mont. It is always helpful to hear of these little stupidities.’
Inglis bowed again. Clem attempted to learn more about the accusations against Allix, but he had nothing to tell. It became increasingly clear, in fact, that he was in a state of some distress; the Marquis de Périchaux, an old friend of his from the Jockey Club and a colonel in the loyalist militia, had been killed that day near the Château de Buzenval. Inglis had seen the marquis’s body being borne into the city, off to his mansion on the boulevard Haussmann. The sight had plainly staggered him. Although capable of great hardness, Elizabeth Pardy was not a hard soul; laying her fingers on Inglis’s forearm, she asked him to the Grand for a glass of brandy. He accepted at once, and the three of them carried on towards the centre of the city.
They were walking along the Champs Elysées, almost at the place de la Concorde, when the opening shots of that night’s bombardment rumbled through Paris. The Buzenval sortie clearly hadn’t affected it at all; it was a different, entirely independent part of the Prussian siege machine. The atmosphere was already turbulent, thousands of civilians and militia thronging in the near-darkness, jostling, arguing and sobbing. As the barrage settled into its bludgeoning rhythm the people let out an enormous, weary groan. Some began to wail uncontrollably; others scaled lampposts and Morris columns, screaming slogans or launching into tirades.
‘It really does beggar belief,’ said Inglis over the noise. ‘These Prussians must have lumps of deuced granite where their hearts should be. They are deliberately aiming for our hospitals and churches, you know. Towers, domes, steeples
– the blackguards are using them as targets.’
‘It’s a crime, Mr Inglis,’ Clem agreed. ‘A bloody crime.’
The Pardys, of course, had undertaken a full journalistic tour of the bombarded arrondissements. Elizabeth had insisted on it, both to assess the destruction being wrought and to experience what it was like to be under fire; and Clem, reinstated as the default assistant, had been obliged to accompany her. Despite the smashed paving stones in the place du Panthéon and the single hole punched in the golden dome of Les Invalides, the general level of damage had struck Clem as surprisingly light – but the mad fear he’d felt when a salvo of shells had shrilled overhead, cracking and rattling in an adjacent street, had certainly been great enough. It had been another hour, however, an endless, nerve-racking hour, before he managed to persuade his mother to stop conversing with the dazed-looking locals and return to the safer side of the Seine.
‘Little wonder that they’ve murdered so many innocents,’ Inglis continued with uncharacteristic feeling, ‘so many damned children. I went to the funeral, Lizzie, of those poor little fellows from the Lycée Saint-Nicholas. I knew one of their fathers – a big name at the Bourse. The anger at the graveside, the sheer incomprehension . . . it was beyond words. That Kaiser is a Herod, a blood-soaked modern Herod, and History will judge him accordingly.’
This incident had occurred some days earlier at a boarding school on the rue de Vaugirard, just by the Luxembourg Palace. A shell had flown in through a dormitory window, killing four young boys as they slept. Righteous fury had swept the city; a great boost had been given to those calling for another sortie.
They were crossing the Concorde now, past the statue of Strasbourg with its lapful of withered garlands. Inglis accepted one of Clem’s stale cigarettes, exhaling a long feather of smoke. He appeared close to tears.
‘Have you been keeping up with your animals, Mont?’ Elizabeth asked, trying to soothe him with a favoured topic. ‘We went to see the elephants slaughtered – but for some reason my foolish son then refused to queue up at Voisin to purchase us a portion of their meat.’
The journalist stayed quiet for a few seconds, squeezing the bridge of his nose and taking another drag on his cigarette.
‘Oh yes,’ he replied, his voice lighter and a touch forced, ‘I certainly had me some elephant. Had to try it, didn’t I? Trunk of Pollux, I believe it was, for no less than forty shillings a pound. I went at it like Pickwick’s fat boy, Lizzie, but I must confess that I found the stuff far from toothsome
– damnably coarse and oily. The stranger the beast, it seems, the worse the dinner. Still, allowances must be made.’ He indicated the string of petroleum lamps running from the Concorde along the rue Royale. ‘Our cooks are running out of fuel, and the only solution this blockheaded government can advise is that they use those ghastly contraptions as an alternative source of heat. The chefs of Paris can work wonders with very poor materials, but when they are called upon to cook an elephant with a spirit lamp the thing is almost beyond their ingenuity.’
The entrance of the Grand was the only bright spot on the boulevard des Capucines, dozens of lanterns hanging from its porch to aid the medical personnel passing continually beneath. A terrible scene no doubt awaited them within. Clem had grown accustomed to much about life in besieged Paris, from the hunger and cold to the oppressive boredom; the constant cannon-fire was to him like the ticking of so many clocks. The horrors of the hotel lobby, however, especially in the aftermath of a battle, could never be diminished. He peered apprehensively at the canvas curtains, already hearing the shrieks and the pitiful, childlike whimpers – smelling the torn flesh and exposed organs. Don’t look, he instructed himself; just don’t look.
There were three militiamen, perhaps four; they barrelled into Clem, catching him completely unawares, shoving him to the ground and kicking at him with all their strength. Elizabeth was on them immediately, pushing them back and demanding an explanation. From the pavement, he watched his attackers yell and jab their fingers; they were reds, Montmartre men with little brass 197s on their kepis, and they were talking about Allix. Elizabeth protested, delivering her standard defence. Before she could complete it one of them struck her so hard around the face so hard that she stumbled to her knees.
Clem tried to get up. Inglis appeared beside him, shielding Elizabeth and bellowing for assistance. An officer of the line strode from the Grand with a handful of orderlies. There was more shouting and some threatening gestures; and then suddenly the red guardsmen took to their heels, running off across the place de l’Opéra.
Elizabeth was already standing again, a gloved hand laid against her cheek. Without speaking, she made an adjustment to her hat and went in through the hotel doors.
‘What – what the deuce was that?’ gasped Clem.
‘We should get inside,’ Inglis said as he helped him to his feet. ‘I really think it’s wise.’
‘What did they want?’
‘Blood, Mr Pardy,’ the journalist told him. ‘They wanted blood. And they will most assuredly be back.’
There was a thin crack of light beneath Elizabeth’s door. This was odd; surely nothing left burning that morning would still be alight. Clem was about to remark on this when his mother, who was half a dozen steps ahead, opened it and went through. On crossing the threshold she cried out and dropped to the floor as if she’d been shot. Clem rushed over to her: a stone-cold faint. He glanced up to see what had prompted it and almost joined Elizabeth on the carpet.
It couldn’t be true.
Hannah Pardy was dead. She’d been buried somewhere on the Villiers Plateau for almost two months now. Was this some kind of dream-vision, brought on by hunger and an overdose of death and doom? Clem had heard of such things, among the hardy community who still ate their ration in the Grand’s dining room. Only the day before a lady had confided to him that she’d heard her pet poodle yapping at the foot of her bed in the night, despite the poor creature having been given up for dinner several weeks before. These, though, were particular to one person. Elizabeth had plainly seen Han as well; Inglis, too, was gaping at the figure across the room.
‘Dear Lord,’ Clem said.
Hannah Pardy was alive. She was sitting in an armchair in the Grand Hotel, a candle on the table at her side. She wasn’t starved, but in every other respect appeared pretty wretched. Her militia uniform was filthy and growing threadbare; her pale skin was marked by anxiety and exhaustion. As she moved forward in her chair, looking with concern at their unconscious mother, he saw that her face was bruised, as if someone had socked her in the eye.
‘Is she all right?’
Clem checked Elizabeth’s pulse. ‘Merely a swoon.’
Hannah’s attention shifted to Clem. ‘What the devil are you still doing in Paris?’ There was conflict in her voice; she was both glad to see him and dismayed that he was there. ‘I was told you’d flown off in a balloon with Monsieur Besson.’
Clem got up from the carpet. Allix had lied. He’d let them suffer a devastating grief for nothing. Why had they taken him at his word – and why had he deceived them? What on earth was going on? Clem felt a strong need to tell his sister everything he knew.
‘We were brought down,’ he said, ‘by your man Allix, according to Besson – reckons he loosened the stitching of the envelope.’ He took a breath. ‘There is something very wrong with that fellow, Han, something—’
Hannah slanted her head ever so slightly towards one of the windows; and Clem saw him standing in the shadows, watching the streets below. The situation between them was plain. Han’s lover, the famous Leopard of Montmartre, was keeping her in the Grand Hotel against her will.
A gasp from the floor signalled Elizabeth’s revival. Before Clem could even look down she was across the room, arms clasped around her daughter.
‘My girl, my dearest girl! I thought you were gone for ever – I thought you were lost to me! My sweetest, most precious one!’
Hannah returned this embrace a little awkwardly, unable to match her mother’s effusiveness. Things were not as joyous as they seemed. She’d returned from the dead, Clem saw, straight into a nasty bit of trouble.
‘Mr Inglis,’ said Allix, ‘be so good as to shut the door.’
‘What the deuce happened, then?’ Clem demanded, determined to have it out. ‘What’s the story here, Allix? Did you rescue her, pray, from some Prussian dungeon? Or just dig her up and breathe life back into the body? Explain yourself!’
Allix turned to the room. Sight of that scarred visage, the eyes so still and evaluating, nearly caused Clem’s courage to fail.
‘He’s a Prussian,’ Hannah said. ‘He’s a spy.’
For several seconds nobody spoke or moved.
Perspiration broke out across Clem’s upper lip, tickling in the bristles of his beard. He was acutely aware, all of a sudden, of the closed door behind him.
Elizabeth rose from the side of Hannah’s chair, wiped the tears from her cheeks – one a mottled red from where the militiaman had struck her – and fixed her Leopard with a cool stare. She wasn’t outraged or mortified; Christ above, Clem thought, she isn’t even particularly surprised.
‘That,’ she said, ‘is disappointing.’
Clem couldn’t help it; he laughed. ‘Had your suspicions, did you?’
‘I knew that he wasn’t what he claimed, certainly,’ Elizabeth replied. ‘He couldn’t have been. One simply needs to consider the other red leaders – that old pipeclay Blanqui, that posturing dandy Flourens, the idiot Pyat – to realise that this man has no natural place among them. He is of an altogether different stripe. I had imagined that he might be a radical from the east, from Russia perhaps; a true libertarian socialist, an anarchist in the mould of Bakunin, brought in from outside to help this city towards its revolutionary commune.’ She lifted her chin. ‘To learn that he is only a Prussian, however, an obedient servant of the old world, is quite upsetting.’
This finally goaded the fellow to speak. ‘There is nothing old,’ he said quietly, his English now accentless, ‘about the united Germany.’
‘Hell’s bells, Elizabeth,’ blurted Clem, ‘your man is a spy! A bloody spy! D’you realise what this means for us?’
His mother gave him a level look – a restraining look. They needed to remain calm. ‘Provocateur is a more accurate term, I think, Clement,’ she said. ‘The gentleman before us now, Herr . . .’
She hesitated, inviting this person to provide a genuine name. He declined to take it. He clearly wasn’t going to tell them anything.
‘Our former Monsieur Allix,’ Elizabeth continued, ‘is a rare creature indeed. Many do not believe they exist. The provocateur is the tool of the most rapacious, the most devious nations; small wonder that Chancellor Bismarck has cultivated them. Men like this one have altered the course of history. They have performed roles that have passed without record – without credit or blame. That is their great skill. Theirs is the hand that angles the lens so that it starts the fire; that unlatches the gate so the bullocks can run wild. I should think that there are men like Jean-Jacques Allix throughout Paris, in all manner of places. There’ll be one in the Hôtel de Ville, close to Trochu and Jules Favre; one holed up with the Bonapartists at the Jockey Club; one with the Orléanists, even, bolstering their hopes for a new monarchy.’
The Leopard crossed his arms, neither confirming nor denying any of it.
‘Villain,’ muttered Inglis. ‘I always knew there was something rum about you. Those tall tales of Lizzie’s in the Figaro – those ludicrous, pantomime politics. I always knew that something was off.’
Clem’s mind started to settle – to process this revelation. Many nagging questions had been answered. This spy or provocateur or whatever he was had been aggravating the divisions of the city in order to weaken it. He’d encountered Han when he’d arrived in Montmartre to embed himself among the northern ultras. Recognising her name at once, along with the singular opportunity she represented, he’d seduced her and won her trust with his show of committed radicalism; and then, when the moment was right, he’d penned that letter. And it had been a stunning success, you had to admit. Only now, with Paris on the brink of capitulation, were people beginning to query him
– with the exception, of course, of Émile Besson, his consistent and tenacious enemy. This was why the Aphrodite had been sabotaged. This was the secret Allix had been willing to kill for.
Han’s face was in her hands. She had it worst of all. Strip away the verbiage about wartime exigency and the fate of nations and the whole affair had the aspect of a loathsome confidence trick. It was maddening to think of what had been done – the liberties that had been taken with his sister’s feelings and her person. A true gentleman would insist on fighting a duel over this sullying of her honour, or at least break the nose of the fiend responsible. Clem looked warily at the Prussian. It didn’t seem like a very good idea in this instance. Neither could he just turn the scoundrel in. The Pardys had been chosen carefully. Foreigners, and the English in particular, were already considered highly suspect by most in Paris. They were implicated; if caught they’d probably be subjected to the same prompt punishment as the Leopard himself.
Staying in the darkness by the window, the Prussian agent laid out his demands. Firstly, and without delay, he wanted an article published in the Figaro: an account of an audacious one-man raid on the northern positions beyond Saint-Denis, designed to hinder the arrival of Prussian reinforcements at Buzenval, that would explain his absence from the attack. He wanted Elizabeth to stress that he held no formal rank in the National Guard, and that the provisional government continued to seek his arrest: appearing on the front line was therefore a serious risk to his liberty.
‘I can supply proof of the action,’ he added, ‘in the usual manner.’ There was a trace of irony in his voice. He was referring to the helmets and other trinkets brought back from previous forays – obviously taken direct from the Prussian commissariat.
Elizabeth did not react; she appeared, in fact, to be ignoring him. Some kind of contest, subtle but profound, was underway. She was stroking Hannah’s hair, demonstrating more tenderness than Clem had seen pass between them in years.
‘Where have you been, girl, for all these weeks, while I was mourning you so bitterly? Were you taken prisoner?’
Hannah nodded. ‘They kept me in a village, off to the north-east. I was well treated.’ She glared at the Leopard. ‘His doing, I suppose. Other girls were not so fortunate.’
‘Other girls?’ Elizabeth’s brow furrowed. ‘Do you mean Clement’s cocotte – the one Mont and I saw leave with you at the Porte de Charenton?’
The Leopard’s eyes were on them both.
Hannah opened her mouth, then shut it again. She looked at her boots. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘We were separated in Champigny, during the battle. I – I don’t know what happened to her.’
She was lying. The Leopard stepped towards her, passing before the candle, his shadow sweeping around the room. Elizabeth drew her daughter close, murmuring a warning; but he wished only to ask a question.
‘Did she run off at the same time as you? From Gagny?’
Hannah wouldn’t answer. She was attempting to remain impassive, to give nothing away, but there was a cruel imbalance here. While she couldn’t even call this man by his real name, he knew her with the intimacy of a lover.
‘The cocotte is back in the city as well,’ the Leopard said, ‘and has been telling everyone she can about me for some hours now.’ He almost sounded impressed. ‘You have killed us all.’
Clem had taken a cigarette from the doctor’s jacket; it remained unlit between his fingers. Mademoiselle Laure was alive – alive and in Paris. He might feel those copper locks against his cheek once more.
‘Perhaps that is what we deserve,’ Hannah said. ‘What do you think?’
‘Now hang on a minute,’ Inglis protested, standing forgotten by the door, ‘I don’t believe that I—’
‘I could try to talk to her,’ Clem broke in. ‘To Laure, I mean. It might not be too late. We were friends for a while. I might be able to make her see sense – or at the very least slow her down a little.’
Hannah shook her head. ‘She won’t listen to you.’
‘I can’t imagine that you’d find her, Clement,’ said Elizabeth, ‘before it could make a difference, at any rate.’
The Leopard retreated to the hearth, to the boundary of the candlelight, turning around again as he arrived at a new decision. He was standing with his back to that damned portrait; it looked as if he was sneaking up on himself.
‘I want asylum at the British Embassy,’ he said. ‘It should still be secure. Paris is spent. She will fall in a matter of days – and then I’ll depart.’ He went to Elizabeth’s desk. ‘I shall write a note informing my superiors of the situation. There is a locker in the Gare de l’Ouest from which correspondence is collected and conveyed to Versailles – if you, Mr Pardy, would be so good as to take it there.’
He took hold of a pen with his undamaged left hand, dipped it in the ink pot and started to write with swift fluency. Clem stared: there it was, the hand that had written both the letter and Elizabeth’s Leopard reports. The best ruses, he reflected, were often the most straightforward. Allix had presented himself as a man impaired, and there had been no reason to disbelieve him. Han had seen it too. She didn’t move, but the self-control she’d upheld to that point was buckling; she looked as if she’d happily overturn the desk and go at the brute behind it with the poker.
‘We’ll never reach the embassy,’ Elizabeth told the Prussian. ‘It’s too far. The streets are packed with National Guard, the Champs Elysées especially. Someone is bound to recognise us.’
Clem caught something in his mother’s tone – a hint of excitement. Dear God, he thought, she’s actually relishing this awful turn of events. She’s probably started to construct the narrative in her head: a daughter dramatically returned, a family held prisoner, a mother cast into a battle of wits with an impossibly cunning Prussian agent. You had to hand it to her – Elizabeth Pardy was certainly adaptable. Any ordeal one cared to name was just so much grist to her mill.
‘Mont, how about your place? The rue Joubert is a fraction of the distance. No one would think to look there. We’d be safe until morning.’
Inglis pushed up his kepi. ‘No, Lizzie,’ he answered, ‘I will not knowingly help this man. How could I? It would render my life in Paris untenable.’
Elizabeth pursed her lips. ‘You are my friend, though, are you not?’
The journalist let out a tired sigh. ‘I am.’
‘Then I ask that you do it for me. My family’s safety is at stake – the safety of my dear daughter, so miraculously restored to me. This man has deceived us most despicably, that I cannot dispute, but I’m afraid we need to ensure that he reaches the embassy.’
Inglis thought for a moment. Unwilling to look at the Leopard himself, he scowled at the portrait behind him. ‘Very well then,’ he said. ‘For you, Lizzie. I must say, however, that my concierge is quite the gatekeeper. I cannot guarantee that he’ll prove amenable.’
‘He will,’ said the Leopard.
Clem returned his unlit cigarette to his pocket and looked at his mother and sister, arranged stiffly around that armchair as if waiting to have their photograph taken. It was up to him to act – to save the three of them. A lightness fluttered through his belly; a hot prickle crawled up his spine. Amazed by his own daring, he took a step towards the door – the Leopard was busy interrogating Inglis, discovering exactly where the journalist kept his apartment – and then he was against the varnished panels, scrabbling with the handle, out in the hallway and at the first staircase. The stairs flew beneath his boots; he jumped down the last half-dozen, nearly falling when he landed, skidding off towards the next flight.
The lobby was a hellish, bloody blur, the air alive with yelling and the dreadful rasp of the bone-saws. Clem raced along its edge and plunged onto the boulevard. Only then did he risk a backward glance. There was no sign of the damned Leopard; he was plainly a lesser concern, of no real consequence to the scoundrel’s escape plan. He’d been allowed to get away.
It was a little lighter outside than before, the crowds and towering buildings touched with silver. Clem looked for the source; above was a glorious spread of stars. National Guardsmen, both red and bourgeois, were everywhere. He worried briefly that he might be recognised again and set upon with more effectiveness, but he’d made his move; he could only turn up his collar and press onwards.
It really was too much. The dead brought back to life; the Pardys’ position in Paris turned on its head; a close friend – of Han and Elizabeth’s, at least – revealed as an extraordinary and devious foe; and all before he’d had a chance to remove his hat. More than anything he wanted to stop, to smoke a cigarette and think it over.
There was no time. He cut to the left, heading for the northwards diagonal of the rue Lafayette.
They needed help.
The Prussian, the man who was not Jean-Jacques, had returned to the window. He appeared to be monitoring the crowds; Hannah assumed he was waiting for a lull during which it would be safe – or at least safer – for them to leave for Mr Inglis’s apartment on the rue Joubert. Focused on reaching the embassy, he’d barely reacted when Clem had taken flight. There was no point in a pursuit; it wasn’t as if Clem could damage the name of Jean-Jacques Allix any further.
Hannah wanted to die. She was certain of it. Shame seethed in her; it clogged her veins and choked her heart. She’d bound herself to Jean-Jacques, blended herself into him, and now she had nothing. Her life was founded on deceit, empty, flimsy and improbable, and now it had been stamped flat. The only thing left was death.
‘Where has Clem gone, do you think?’ she asked Elizabeth. ‘To find the cocotte,’ her mother replied, ‘where else? The little minx has him in thrall. He’s been pining for her all blessed winter. His father was the same – easily infatuated. It will burn itself out eventually.’
Recovered from her swoon and everything that had followed it, Elizabeth was now a model of dignity. Her arm remained firmly wrapped around Hannah’s shoulders; her narrowed eyes were glued to their captor. Mr Inglis, the final occupant of that plush, shadowy sitting room, had sat down in a chair opposite them. He was shifting about impatiently like someone being forced to miss the start of a muchanticipated concert; were it not for aging limbs and rheumatic joints he’d have probably made a break for it too.
‘I am hateful,’ Hannah murmured, ‘the worst kind of fool.’
Elizabeth’s hold tightened. ‘Do not think that. You must never think that. I will not permit it. You are my daughter and you are exceptional. When I believed you dead I almost died myself.’
Hannah scarcely heard her. She looked at the black back before the window. ‘He knew exactly what to tell me – how to act with me. Even the way he pretended to be fighting against his feelings. He saw straight away that I was a callow girl with a head full of stupid romantic notions, and he used it to the full.’ She put a hand to her face, across her eyes. It was already damp with her tears. ‘I didn’t suspect a thing, Elizabeth. Dear God, I defended him when others voiced their doubts.’
‘His actions were those of a thoroughgoing cad,’ Inglis declared stoutly. ‘Beyond anything I have encountered during fifteen years of life in Paris – the supposed capital of this kind of roguish behaviour. These blasted Prussians really are a breed apart.’
‘True enough, Mont,’ said Elizabeth, ‘but this man is no predator, seducing and deceiving for amusement alone. There was a goal very much in sight.’ She addressed the Prussian. ‘Tell me – I shall keep calling you Allix, I’m afraid, as I must call you something – was absolutely all of it feigned?’
Hannah cringed, grasping at the armchair, thinking for a second that her mother was going to talk of love; of intimate matters. Elizabeth was more than capable of it. But no, thank God, she meant the politics, the creed of the International: Jean-Jacques Allix’s commitment, stated so often and with such commanding eloquence, to the cause of the workers, to fighting the evils of the bourgeois state, to establishing a commune in Paris and thus bringing about freedom and equality for her citizens.
‘It was false, Elizabeth, plainly,’ she snapped; she was beginning to sense something like admiration in her mother for this provocateur. ‘Dissemblance, every last word. This is a man prepared to urge factory lads and shop assistants onto the battlefield to see through the designs of a king – and employ socialistic doctrine to do it. He is a charlatan, dedicated to a wicked cause.’
Elizabeth was smiling, pleased by this resurgence of her daughter’s spirit. ‘I suppose that the extremes of opinion are easier to simulate.’
The man turned from the window. His efforts to remain detached were faltering again; creases had appeared between his eyebrows, a reliable indication that Jean-Jacques was becoming riled. But this was not Jean-Jacques. The familiarity was misplaced. Hannah glanced away in confusion. How much else of her lover lingered in this Prussian agent? Would he dress with the same precision and care? Would he also refuse all drink but strong coffee and cold water? Would he kiss with the same unhurried passion?
‘As I have already told you,’ he said to Hannah, ‘I acted only to stop the war. My aim was to speed the surrender
– to rob the reds of their will to keep fighting. I knew that the sorties would fail, but also that they had to happen. Paris had to be bled. Once the reds were reduced, so we thought, the bourgeois would lay down their arms. It was believed in Versailles that Trochu was only staging a resistance at all because he was afraid that there would be a revolution if he didn’t.’
‘A fair analysis,’ opined Mr Inglis, ‘although to be truthful—’
‘I desired a rapid conclusion,’ the Prussian continued. ‘Painless, without occupation or bombardment. There are men close to my emperor who wished Paris to suffer for her decadence and abandonment of Christian morality. I was never one of those.’
This frustration seemed genuine. The siege had not gone as the provocateur had planned. There was no gloating here; no pride in his manipulations. He just wanted it to end.
Hannah wasn’t mollified. ‘At what point would you have left,’ she asked, ‘if Trochu had surrendered in September, or in October? Would you have told me, or simply melted away?’
The Prussian didn’t reply. ‘We must go,’ he said, moving from the window. He wouldn’t look at Hannah; he clearly wished that he hadn’t broken his silence. ‘Mrs Pardy, can I trust you to impress upon your daughter the need for quiet?’
Elizabeth relaxed her embrace; she laid her hand on the back of the armchair. ‘Will you stay quiet out there, Hannah?’
Hannah hadn’t yet decided what she would or wouldn’t do. She looked around the room. Against the far wall, between the door and a chest of drawers, were a number of her café-concert canvases: Elizabeth had been grouping them by subject. Foremost was a scene from the Danton. Lucien, a dent in the sheen of his silk top hat, was reading a morning paper in a shaft of sunlight. On the stool behind him was Laure, clad in a short-sleeved scarlet polonaise, smoking a cigarette. Drawn loosely, coloured luminously, they appeared to have wandered in after a night in the dance halls. It was an image from a different life entirely.
Her mother leaned in. ‘My dearest girl,’ she said gently, ‘you owe it to yourself to leave this mess as cleanly as you can. You think that revenge will ease your pain, but it will not. You must trust me. The best you can do is start anew. Will you stay quiet?’
Hannah met Elizabeth’s grey eyes – eyes identical to her own. The Leopard put out the candle, dropping them into darkness.
‘I will,’ she replied.
A swell of dirty militia uniforms was blocking the boulevard des Capucines, the guardsmen drowning the humiliation of their latest defeat in gallons of cheap wine. Angry songs were sung and glass was broken; an order to disperse was met with a roar of rowdy, embittered laughter. Hannah realised that they were not leaving the Grand because the time was right, but because it was running out. Whatever was building up in the north would soon be upon them.
‘Listen to that!’ exclaimed Mr Inglis. ‘The people of Paris might be done with Fritz – but by Jove, they ain’t quite finished with each other yet!’
Infantrymen had been stationed on corners to keep the more boisterous guardsmen at bay. More than ever, the regulars and irregulars looked like two separate forces – forces that were on the verge of opposition. The Leopard was recognised before they’d even moved out from under the Grand’s porch. He’d taken a cloak from a dead Zoave to cover his black suit, but he could not disguise his height, or the four-inch scar on his cheek – or the distinctive English trio trailing behind him. The soldiers began to shout things, asking him where he’d been during the battle, or calling for an officer to place him under arrest.
Elizabeth had remained by Hannah’s side, an arm linked through her daughter’s.
‘This is my fault,’ Hannah said to her. ‘I should have spoken up sooner. We could have been ready to leave as soon as you arrived at the hotel.’
‘You wanted to punish him. That is perfectly understandable.’ Her mother looked down the boulevard Madeleine. ‘Besides, my dear, they don’t have us yet.’
They turned left, heading north onto the place de l’Opéra. There were more soldiers here, queuing in their hundreds outside the military supply depot that had been set up in the opera house. A single petrol lamp burned above the entrance, its sooty glow failing even to reach the edges of the square. The Prussian tried to take advantage of this gloom, but it was no use; within moments shouts of ‘Le Léopard!’ were echoing between the opera house and the Grand Hotel.
They skirted the hall at a brisk pace. Away from the square, the only light came from the stars and a low halfmoon, cut to a crisp oval by the shadow of the earth. Everything was black or a metallic, bluish grey; above, beyond the columns and domes, the winged statues on the opera house roof were taking flight into a shimmering sky. Two infantrymen sidled into their path, greeting the Leopard by name with suspicious overfriendliness. He shouldered them aside without speaking.
The boulevard Haussmann was a good deal emptier. Over a mile long, this colossal Imperial thoroughfare was lined with iron-shuttered shops. In front of one of these, just beyond the intersection that connected the boulevard to the rue Lafayette and a few smaller avenues, a crowd was assembling. It was made up of a hundred or so working people, supplemented by the usual contingent of National Guard, and was growing fast. Hannah spotted Laure close to the centre, swigging from a bottle of spirits. She’d done as she’d promised out in the woods. Montmartre had been raised to deal with the Leopard.
The Prussian led them across the road, out of the starlight into deep shadow. They needed to pass through this intersection, only twenty yards or so from the crowd, in order to reach Mr Inglis’s apartment. Someone launched into a speech from the lip of a water trough. It was Raoul Rigault, dressed as a militia major – although he certainly hadn’t been out to fight on that day or any other. He was preparing those around him for a run at the Grand; a bastion of obscene Imperial inequality, he proclaimed, that should be thrown open to residents from the mills and the workshops. And then he mentioned Elizabeth by name.
‘This old Anglaise, this Madame Pardy, is the great supporter of the damned Leopard – the Judas of the 18th arrondissement. She made his name in the Figaro. She backed up his lies and spun new ones to gain him more followers. She must now be subjected to the same revolutionary justice!’
The crowd bayed, waving cudgels and blades in the air. Someone shouted that they despised the English; that they would burn them all on a bonfire if they could, and dump the ashes into the Seine. There was agreement, and cheers, and yet more extravagant threats – and the man they sought slipped straight past them, escorting his accomplices through the dark intersection. One word from Hannah could have seen the Leopard destroyed. She remembered the promise she’d made to her mother and said nothing.
‘We are safe,’ whispered Elizabeth. ‘My goodness, we are safe.’
They’d almost reached the mouth of the rue Joubert when a dozen pairs of boots hammered from a side street: a party of men with Émile Besson at their front. Clem was among them as well. This was what her brother had fled the Grand to do. The rest were clad in sheepskin jerkins and brimless caps – sailors from the Gare du Nord balloon factory. Several were carrying municipal-issue rifles.
‘Stand there!’ Besson yelled. ‘You stand there!’
The Prussian regarded him steadily. ‘I will not, Monsieur Besson. You will have to shoot me down.’
Besson advanced – and without warning the two men were fighting in the gutter. They were not as mismatched as might have been assumed. Although smaller by five inches at least and lacking his opponent’s broad build, Besson was spurred by fury; head lowered, he drove the Prussian against some railings with wide swings of his arms. Elizabeth went to intervene, endeavouring both to pull Besson off and keep the sailors at a distance. This, of course, made everything worse.
‘Dear Lord,’ she wheezed, ‘you infernally stupid man!’
There were cries from the boulevard. Besson’s attempted arrest had drawn the attention of Rigault’s mob; a number were coming to investigate. Hannah walked back towards them, not knowing what she might actually do when they met. Clem rushed up beside her. She stopped to look at him. Her twin brother had been refashioned by the siege, his form and features trimmed down to the quick. This leanness lent him a new significance. His costume – that shabby green suit, the length of curtain wrapped around his neck, the tall, discoloured hat – belonged on a Westminster thief-master; yet for the first time something in his bearded face reminded her of their father.
Remorse drew around Hannah like a net, swift and tight. It was because of her that Clem had come to Paris; because of her that he’d suffered prison and hunger and who knew what else, and now faced the most dreadful danger. The sounds of the street seemed to dim. She took his hand.
‘I’m sorry, Clem,’ she said, ‘for leaving you as I did. You didn’t deserve it.’
He blinked in embarrassment. ‘Oh God, Han, that was all me. I tripped on a kerbstone, didn’t I – went down like the ass I am.’ He squeezed her fingers, his forgiveness so immediate that it didn’t register in his mind; he didn’t even recognise that there had been an offence in the first place. ‘You could hardly have come back. Why, we’d have both been tossed in the Mazas.’
This was only part of Hannah’s meaning. ‘No, I – you don’t—’
At least thirty people were now heading their way. Hannah turned; Besson and the Prussian were being held apart by the sailors, Elizabeth haranguing in the background. They had him.
‘I went as fast as I could,’ said Clem quickly; he was apologising to Hannah now. ‘I ran the whole bloody way. I wanted to nab him in the Grand.’ He looked around. ‘This really is no good at all.’
Hannah collected herself. ‘I’ll talk to them.’
Clem nodded, moving closer; the twins stood together before the approaching mob. She started to speak – to explain that the spy had been caught and justice would be served. Then they saw him.
‘There he is!’ someone bawled. ‘Traitor! Traitor!’
The crowd broke into a charge, running for the Leopard. Hannah was buffeted and barged; she called Clem’s name, but couldn’t even hear her own voice in the clamour. Hands were grabbing at her, holding onto her – apprehending her, she realised, as one of the guilty parties. She was shoved down, pressed hard against a lamppost. A man threw an arm around her neck and squeezed, trying to work her legs open from behind. The shouting was furious and continual: ‘Vive la France! Vive la Commune! Get him! Get the traitor!’
Suddenly her neck was released – her attacker sent sprawling. She was rescued, just as she’d been on the quay beside the Tuileries; she coughed, gasping for breath, unable to see anything but boots and pavement. A hand took hold of hers, hauling her from the mob into darkness. The index finger of this hand was inflexible, a solid piece of wood; and for an instant, without thinking, she was reassured.
They were in an alleyway. Émile Besson was there also, at her other arm. A truce had plainly been called for the purposes of mutual survival; the Prussian and the aérostier were virtually carrying her between them.
‘Clem,’ she said, ‘they have Clem. We must go back.’
‘We cannot,’ Besson replied. ‘I am so very sorry, Mademoiselle, but we cannot.’
Elizabeth was in a moonlit courtyard, a long rectangle to the rear of a parade of shops. They’d come around in a circle; they were behind the boulevard. One side was a blank wall, the other a row of padlocked double-doors. At the far end were four broken supply-carts. There was no other gate. They were trapped.
Her mother came over. ‘Where is Clement?’
‘I saw him go down,’ Hannah gasped, ‘oh God, Elizabeth, they have him!’
‘There is hope,’ Besson said. ‘The sailors will help if they are able. And he is not the one they want.’
The aérostier was staring at her, his hated Leopard all but forgotten. His expression was almost of wonder; his eyes glistened. He too had believed her dead, she realised – had been mourning her while she drew on a dirt floor somewhere beneath Gagny. Right then, at that moment, this left her utterly unmoved.
‘Could you not have helped him, Monsieur Besson?’ she asked. ‘I thought you were his friend!’
Besson’s dazed half-smile disappeared. ‘I will find him, Mademoiselle. I promise you that.’
Shouts were gathering out in the alley; their location had been discovered. They rushed into the shadows, to the nearest set of shop doors. Besson drew a clasp-knife from his jacket pocket and started to force the lock.
Hannah looked around. The Leopard was with them no longer. He’d walked to the centre of the courtyard, into the full glare of the moon. He was standing very straight, calmly tugging the black leather gloves tight on his hands. The urgency that had infused him since they’d left the Grand had disappeared. He removed the Zoave cloak and dropped it by the wall. He was preparing himself.
The Prussian agent glanced over at her. After Hannah’s incredulity and grief, and then her agonising anger, had come a straightforward desire for answers. She wanted to know everything about the deception that had been worked on her – the level of premeditation; exactly how detached he’d remained while she’d thought herself in love; how he’d imagined it might end. He seemed to recognise this. His face, previously unreadable, opened up by the smallest amount, the brow lifting almost imperceptibly. He was ready to speak to her.
The first of his pursuers, a gaggle of militiamen, loped noisily into the courtyard, cutting across Hannah’s line of sight. They closed around their erstwhile champion, keeping him at arm’s length as if containing a dangerous animal. The main body of the mob was directly behind, piling in through the gates, streaming past the doorway where Hannah huddled next to Besson and her mother. A ring of bodies formed around the Prussian, spitting and swearing and promising terrible violence.
Raoul Rigault appeared. He was enjoying himself immensely; this was precisely the sort of thing he’d been hoping for since the beginning of the siege. That his victim was a man he’d recently considered a useful ally didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
‘We have before us an enemy of the people, citizens!’ he cried. ‘An enemy of Paris, of socialism! A traitor to France!’
‘I am not French,’ the Leopard replied. ‘I am Captain Johann Brenner of the Imperial Prussian Army.’ He paused. ‘I am one of those who have bested France.’
There were hisses and jeers, and the spitting grew more intense; the black coat now sparkled with spittle in the cold white light. The Prussian – Brenner – was goading them, guiding them to an increasingly certain result.
Rigault’s satisfaction had vanished. ‘You have bested the Empire,’ he corrected hotly, ‘and the Empire only! We have not been defeated, damn you, but betrayed – by our coward governor and his band of coward ministers! The workers of France remain valorous; they remain bold; they remain unconquered, furthermore, and will show—’
‘I have worked to reduce Paris,’ Brenner interrupted, easily talking over Rigault, ‘solely by drawing on what is already within her. You must question these leaders, these drunks and lunatics who have assigned themselves the power to command you. You must ask how much blood – how much of your blood – they will see spilled to achieve their ends.’
Rigault was scowling now. ‘Who the devil are you,’ he declared, ‘to talk of our blood? Enough of this! The sentence is death – this foul spy must die, at once!’
‘Death!’ howled the mob. ‘Death to traitors and spies!’
Besson broke the lock.
Brenner went to the wall, offering no resistance. Without ceremony, rifles were raised and fired at little more than point-blank range. Any flash from their muzzles was smothered by the press of smocks and National Guard tunics; the three overlapping reports were almost lost in the cheers. The tall, black-clad man fell dead on the cobbles of the yard, the crowd swarming around his body as if they meant to devour it.
Hannah was in a shop, an upmarket dressmaker’s. It was very dark; there was a smell of lavender and fresh cotton. Naked clothes dummies stood in the slivers of moonlight that crept between the shutters. She fell to her knees, an outstretched palm slapping against the polished wooden floor, and retched up a bitter strand of bile. Elizabeth and Besson eased her up and on through the shop, towards the boulevard on its other side. Behind them, back in the yard, the mob began to chant.
‘À bas les Prussiens! Vive la Commune!’
Smaller than most steerage cabins, the attic was crammed with mismatched furniture, some of it rather fine; ladies’ dresses in a range of sizes and styles; more pairs of shoes and boots than could easily be counted; and a pawn-shop assortment of random semi-valuables, including a large quantity of exotic feathers.
Besson lowered the hood of his pea jacket. ‘Much of this,’ he said, ‘is looted.’
Clem sat up on the chaise longue and adjusted his foot, wincing at the movement of the cracked bones beneath the bandage. He took a sip of rum and then leaned forward to have a good scratch.
‘I daresay that opportunities have been taken,’ he replied. ‘Have you seen any food yet, down in the centre?’
‘We have had our share. A convoy of wagons arrived this morning.’
‘Dairy has been the big success here. You’d think it’d be a leg of lamb or a minute steak, but no – butter is what the people most want. And milk! By Jove, who’d have thought one could miss it so badly? Yesterday I drank a quart, old man, a bloody quart, as if I was a calf long separated from its mother. You could hear it sloshing whenever I moved.’
‘Such things are a slight consolation for the people of Paris.’
Clem nodded; what a blabbing blockhead I am, he thought. The official announcement of the armistice – the French capitulation – was over a week old now. The disaster of Buzenval had finally unseated Trochu, and after a frank assessment of the supplies at their disposal, the provisional government had dispatched Jules Favre to Versailles to negotiate terms for their surrender. The bleakest few days of the entire siege had followed. Prussian soldiers occupied the forts around Paris; its inhabitants were transformed from combatants to mere captives, still starving, still freezing, but denied the slightest scrap of hope.
Even the reds had gone into an ominous hibernation. In the wake of the last sortie there had been a final small-scale revolt: Gustave Flourens had been broken out of the Mazas and once again an armed force had marched on the Hôtel de Ville. This time, however, the government response had been rapid and unequivocal. The infantry guarding the building had returned a desultory militia fire with deadly accuracy, killing several of their attackers and injuring scores more. This incident, French regulars shooting down French National Guard, had changed the game. The lanes of Montmartre went silent, and the avenues of Belleville were left to its children, but there could be little doubt that in the red clubs fresh plans were being prepared.
‘How’s Han doing?’ Clem asked.
Besson’s head fell. ‘She says little,’ he replied after a short pause. ‘She has been sleeping a good deal. The loss of the paintings was difficult, also, coming – coming when it did.’
‘How did it happen? The paintings, I mean?’
‘They said they were looking for a spy’s accomplice. They went up to your mother’s rooms. The next anyone knew burning canvases were landing in the place de l’Opéra. Troops were summoned to eject them, but it was too late.’ Besson looked away, over at a spiral of dress-hoops dangling from a nail. ‘I’ve heard that they paraded a portrait of the Prussian around for hours. Blanqui himself is said to have put a match to it.’
This wasn’t surprising. From one of the attic’s windows Clem had been able to watch the mob gutting the Danton, ripping out the bar whole and casting the Leopard’s fake trophies into the street. That shed of Hannah’s had been torn down too, the planks borne off to fuel honest proletarian fires. A campaign had plainly been waged to wipe every trace of the Leopard and his unwitting English accomplices from Paris.
‘It’ll be better when she can get out of this city.’ Clem held up his glass. ‘Are you sure you won’t join me?’
Besson declined; he would soon be leaving. For a short while neither of them spoke. Without cannon-fire, without street-corner orators, without horses or dogs or cats, Montmartre was deathly quiet. Eventually, an infant cried out thinly somewhere below, followed by a splash as someone threw out a basin of water.
‘I can get you to the British Embassy,’ Besson said suddenly. He indicated his pea jacket – the sort currently being worn by the Parisian police. ‘I can procure a disguise like this one. Nobody will think anything of your wound. They will assume you are a casualty of the last battle. It is possible.’
Clem puffed out his cheeks as if astonished; he’d been expecting this. ‘Heavens, Émile, I don’t—’ He stopped. ‘I can’t ask you to take such a risk. I simply can’t. Moreover, this damned thing,’ he gestured contemptuously at his foot, ‘is rather worse than it appears.’ He gave a second’s thought to broken ankles and how bad they could be. ‘The, ah, the bone pierced the skin, don’t y’know. The doctor who came up here to see me said I really shouldn’t move it for a month.’
The aérostier smiled. He glanced at the feminine items piled around them; he could see the truth clearly enough. ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘but you should really keep to yourself as much as possible. You are known to the ultras, Clement, and they will not forget. The trials of Paris have not ended with the siege. Something else is coming. You must remain alert.’
This was parting advice. ‘You’re really going, then? Leaving Paris? It seems impossible, old man, that you could exist anywhere else.’
‘I must,’ Besson replied, ‘for the time being. I was seen by the reds helping the Leopard of Montmartre escape apprehension. I am French, also, a Parisian; this makes me a genuine traitor. I will be at the very top of Raoul Rigault’s list.’ He spoke matter-of-factly, without bitterness. ‘The last post balloon has flown. The workshops have been closed. There is nothing to hold me here.’
Clem opened his mouth to deliver the stunning argument that would induce Besson to stay. Nothing came. He frowned, swirled the liquor around in his glass and took another gulp.
The aérostier got up from his chair. ‘I must be off. I should be back at the Champs Elysées before dark.’
‘Tell them that I’ll return to London after the elections,’ Clem said. ‘Before the end of February, at any rate. Or March, at the latest.’ He hesitated. ‘Tell them I’ll write.’
A last look passed between the two men. Clem felt an urge to embrace this fellow, this dear friend who’d done so much for his family; rising would be a challenge, though, and might somewhat undermine his claims to immobility. In this instant of indecision the chance was lost. Besson put a hand on his shoulder, uncommon warmth in his eyes; and then he ducked through the low attic doorway.
At the click of the latch Laure’s face appeared at the nearest window, tobacco smoke trailing from her nostrils. She’d slipped out when Besson had announced himself outside the door, cursing the concierge who’d directed him to them, and had spent the last quarter of an hour perched on the roof. Since that night she’d refused to see anyone save her patient. There had been numerous knocks and shouts up from the street – the vivandières of the 197th, Raoul Rigault, one of those painters who used to hang around with Han – and she’d ignored them all. Clem’s French wasn’t good enough for him to be able to question her very closely about this reclusive behaviour, but it was pretty obvious that she didn’t want much more to do with the reds of Montmartre.
The conversation with Besson had given Clem an uneasy feeling – a faint sense of being left behind. Sight of Laure relieved this at once. He pulled open the casement; she hitched up her skirts and climbed in, a cigarette poking from her red lips. Her gown was an iridescent, silky green, well cut and certainly expensive, lifted from God knows where. The cocotte had taken to sloping out while Clem was asleep, returning each dawn with provisions and an armful of swag. A National Guard greatcoat was draped across her shoulders; the copper hair, longer now, was coiled in a loose bun. She sat down heavily in the chair Besson had just vacated, swearing under her breath, rubbing her frozen hands together and then holding them to the grate of their potbellied stove. After a few seconds, she noticed that he was staring at her. She leaned over to the chaise longue and gave him a sharp dig in the ribs.
It was almost like an act of penance. Laure had dragged Clem single-handed from beneath the boots of those set on kicking him to death for the crime of being his mother’s son. He’d been insensible, covered in blood, but somehow she’d got him to this garret – owned, Clem later learned, by a friend of a friend long since fled from the city. The following day he’d come round to discover her bandaging his broken foot, looking so beautiful, so pale and fine, that tears had sprung to his eyes.
‘Mademoiselle Laure,’ he’d mumbled. ‘Where the devil have you been?’
She’d turned towards him with distinct irritation, releasing a barrage of words that he’d struggled to understand – although he gathered that he and his family had disappointed her in some heinous way, landing her in a terrible, irresolvable dilemma. Even now, two weeks later, having tended to him devotedly, she still shot him the odd glance of annoyance.
‘Elles vont,’ Clem told her. ‘Ma mère et ma soeur.’
Laure thought about this for a moment, then shrugged and picked up an empty glass from the floor. Looking around for the bottle, she reached across to slide a hand inside his shirt; he jumped at the touch of her icy fingertips.
‘Alors,’ she said, ‘nous sommes seules ensemble.’
Hannah looked out at Saint-Denis as it crawled past the window of their carriage. Heavily bombarded in the siege’s final weeks, the town was a wreck adrift in a sea of mud. Many of the houses lacked roofs; the cathedral had a yawning hole in its façade in place of a rose window. She caught a glimpse of the statue in the main square, its head sheared clean off. There were harsh voices nearby. Down beside the tracks, a detachment of Prussian infantry was pushing around some French railway workers, jabbing at them with their rifle-butts.
‘I could tell from the accent,’ Mr Inglis was saying. ‘Alsatian my eye! It was obvious, quite frankly. That the reds managed to overlook it is a clear indication of how credulous and ignorant they are.’
Elizabeth glowered at him. ‘What in heaven do you mean, Mont, you impossible beast? The man spoke French like a native. No one saw through him. Mr Blount at the embassy told me that every officer in the Prussian army has been required to learn French since the early sixties. And the captain was plainly an extraordinary officer. His mastery of that tongue, and our own as well, is really no marvel.’
For a fortnight or so Elizabeth and Mr Inglis had steered their conversation clear of Captain Brenner, to spare Hannah’s feelings. In time, though, the boredom of confinement to the British Embassy and the sheer fascination of the subject had rendered it irresistible. One day it had been broached, rather cautiously; now they talked of little else. They’d combed over every detail of Brenner’s great trick, from the scar and damaged hand – wounds most probably inflicted during the Prussian campaign against Austria, it was concluded – to the sources of his rhetoric. Her mother always made much of the perfection of the illusion, whilst the newspaperman insisted that he’d been thoroughly sceptical from the start.
The sixteen days cooped up in the embassy waiting for news had weighed heavily on Elizabeth and Mr Inglis, but Hannah had barely noticed their passing. She’d laid out a bed for herself in the corner of a clerks’ office and stayed there. Confusion had dogged her. She’d felt like one under the influence of a powerful narcotic, experiencing disorientating, contradictory emotions; and then, for long periods, nothing at all. France’s surrender, once an inconceivable tragedy, meant little. The destruction of her work, even, had been merely another blow landed on someone completely stupefied. Jean-Jacques Allix was written into the best of it, a glaring falsehood undermining those earnest attempts at truth; that the canvases had been burned was almost a relief.
The train rounded a corner and slowed to a long, squealing halt. Outside now was a redoubt, the Prussian flag floating above its walls. Mr Inglis got to his feet. The newspaperman had made it safely to his apartment that night, having fled when the mob charged. So certain did he become, however, that the reds had taken note of him – that he would be dragged from his study and decapitated on the pavement
– that he’d joined them at the embassy anyway. He’d written to the editor of the Sentinel the same hour that the armistice was declared, offering his resignation from the Paris desk and announcing that he would be returning to London as soon as he was able.
‘I’ll see what the delay is,’ he said, opening the compartment door. ‘Honestly, this confounded country.’
Alone with her daughter, Elizabeth began to talk of her book. She’d soon dismissed suggestions that it would have to be abandoned, or even that there would have to be an alteration of subject.
‘We are not French,’ she’d said, ‘as the residents of Paris never tired of reminding us. We owe them no loyalty – no consideration of what might offend. Interest in this character, this provocateur of ours, will be intense.’
‘You took up his cause, though,’ Hannah had pointed out. ‘You are hardly a dispassionate voice. Those articles of yours—’
‘—were anonymous, my girl. Anonymous. Only rumour connects me to them. And I am as dispassionate, Hannah, as the day is long. It is an ideal subject for me. The mystery of it, with so much left unresolved; a man who put us both at such awful risk, who attempted to kill Clement in that balloon to protect his secret, only to sacrifice himself at the final moment so that we might escape. The sheer nobility implied by this, despite everything. It is intriguing, you must admit.’
There was one significant change to Elizabeth’s literary plans: a marked increase in her daughter’s proposed contribution. She envisaged sections narrated by one who’d been in the thick of it – at the Leopard’s side. As usual, she’d tried to initiate a bargaining process: a slice of the proceeds, naturally, with the chance of a co-author’s credit on the front page if Hannah could bring herself to attempt a likeness from memory – and perhaps, again if she were amenable, a couple of key scenes from the Leopard’s astonishing career.
Hannah remained noncommittal. It still seemed ridiculous that she was doing this; it still felt as if she was giving in. But she’d seen Rigault that night, marshalling his murderous mob. No mercy would be shown to her. The despair that had gripped her in the Grand Hotel had lifted: she wished to live. She’d let her mother run on for now. A proper discussion of this book could wait until they were in London.
And London, of course, was Elizabeth’s other great topic. She’d shown an unheard-of willingness to admit mistakes – what she termed ‘the well-intentioned errors of the past’ – and wanted to describe how very different everything would be when they were back.
‘You are older, Hannah; you have lived a little. Your gifts have developed. You can meet the metropolis on a more equal footing. Taking you to Gabriel as I did that night was utterly wrong. I can see that now, all too clearly. He is far too fragile for one of your robust tastes. But his wider circle really does contain some fascinating people. There’s one gentleman I think you’d particularly like, an American painter – quite the wit, and very familiar with these French ideas of yours. I believe he is even applying them to his own renditions of the Thames.’
Hannah shifted in her seat. ‘Elizabeth . . .’
‘London is changing, my girl. Gabriel’s friends talk constantly of setting up their own place – to exhibit foreigners and women and all sorts. If you are astute – if you take the chances offered, who knows what—’
Elizabeth stopped talking; she opened her notebook and began to write. Émile Besson had appeared in the doorway of the compartment. He’d been at the end of the carriage, standing out in the open air, watching Paris sink into the Seine valley. The unmasking of Jean-Jacques Allix had failed to prompt a reassessment of the aérostier. Elizabeth didn’t trust him; she didn’t like him; she suspected him of conservative leanings and a cramped imagination. As he was a friend of Clem’s she’d felt obliged to offer him a few days’ accommodation in London, but clearly meant to chase him off as soon as she could.
‘What is happening, Monsieur Besson?’ Hannah asked.
‘They are checking papers again,’ he replied. ‘It is unnecessary. I believe the Prussians enjoy demonstrating their control over us.’
‘And this is the city in which we have left my son. Who knows what these tedious occupiers might decide to do next?’ Elizabeth laid down her pencil. ‘Monsieur Besson, are you absolutely positive that he could not be brought down to the embassy?’
Besson had been asked this twenty times at least in the past day, but he showed no vexation. This was how he dealt with Elizabeth; she found it utterly exasperating. ‘The ankle was badly broken, Madame. Transporting him would have been difficult, and would surely have drawn the notice of the reds. I judged it too dangerous to risk. Your son is being well cared for, though. You need not worry. He will be safe.’
Elizabeth gave an exaggerated sigh and closed her notebook. Besson sat down, glancing across at Hannah; she hid her smile behind her hand and turned to the window.
Tiny raindrops stippled the glass; a porter shouted something further up the train; and Hannah had an impulse she hadn’t felt for weeks, not since the cellar at Gagny. She made a quick survey of the compartment. Her mother and the aérostier were at opposite ends of their seat, wrapped in scarves and heavy jackets, four feet of empty upholstery between them. Both were sitting up straight, hands folded in their laps, looking off in different directions. A timetable, out of date and useless, lay on the cushion beside her, its back page blank. Angling it on her thigh, she took a stub of pencil from the pocket of her embassy-supplied coat and started to draw.