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THE DISAPPEARANCE AT PÈRE-LACHAISE.
Four months later…
‘Lord, he was so good and kind. We loved him so dearly! Lord, he was…’
The words, tirelessly repeated, filtered through the veil masking the face of a woman who sat huddled against a carriage window. From time to time, another woman, seated opposite, emphasised them with a hurriedly executed sign of the cross. This litany, barely audible above the screech of axles and the clatter of wheels over paving stones, had long since ceased to have meaning, like a monotonous nursery rhyme.
The cabman pulled on the reins and the carriage came to a halt beside the entrance to the Père-Lachaise cemetery on Rue de Rondeaux. He came down from his perch to settle up with the gatekeeper and, having slipped the man a coin, clumsily heaved himself back on to his seat and gave a crack of his whip.
The carriage entered the cemetery gates moments ahead of a funeral cortège and proceeded down one of the looped avenues. The rain formed a halo of light above the vast graveyard. On either side of the avenue was a succession of chapels, cenotaphs and mausoleums adorned with plump cherubs and weeping nymphs. Among the tombs was a maze of footpaths and avenues invaded by undergrowth, still relatively sparse in these early days of March. Sycamores, beeches, cedars and lime trees darkened an already overcast sky. On turning a bend, the carriage narrowly avoided colliding with a tall, white-haired man who was engaged in contemplating the ample posterior of a bronze nymph. The horse reared up, the cabman let out a stream of oaths and the old man shook his fist and cried out: ‘Damn you, Grouchy!1 I’ll cut you down!’ before stumbling off. The cabman muttered a few threats, reassured his passengers and, with a click of his tongue, calmed his horse, which set off towards an avenue running southwards, where it stopped beside the tomb of the surgeon Jacques René Tenon.
A very young woman in simple black clothes consisting of a woollen dress, a waisted jacket covered with a shawl, and a cotton bonnet from which a few strands of blonde hair had escaped, opened the carriage door and jumped to the ground to help another woman, also blonde, but more buxom, of heavier build, and in full mourning. It was she who had invoked the Lord from behind her veil. In her chinchilla hat and astrakhan coat she looked more suitably dressed for a polar expedition than a visit to a cemetery. The women stood side by side for a moment, staring at the carriage as it gradually darkened into a silhouette against the fading afternoon light. The fur hat leaned towards the cotton bonnet.
‘Tell him to wait for us in Rue de Repos.’
The younger woman passed the order on to the cabman and paid him. He doffed his oilcloth topper and with a loud ‘Gee up!’ hastened away.
‘I ain’t waiting about for queer birds who don’t know ’ow to tip a bloke. They can go ’ome on foot!’ he muttered.
‘Denise!’ cried the woman in the fur hat.
‘Yes, Madame,’ the young girl replied, hurrying to her side.
‘Come along now, give it to me. What are you gaping at?
‘Nothing, Madame. I’m just a bit…scared.’ She pulled a flat rectangular package out of her basket and handed it to her mistress.
‘Scared? Of what? Of whom? If there’s one place where the Almighty is sure to be watching over us, it is here in this cemetery. Our dear departed are close by, they are all around us, they can see us and speak to us!’ cried the woman.
Denise grew more flustered. ‘That’s what scares me, Madame.’
‘You poor, foolish child! What am I to do with you? I shall see you shortly.’
Alarmed, the young girl grasped her mistress’s arm. ‘Am I not going with you?’
‘You will remain here. He wishes to see me alone. I shall return in an hour and a half.’
‘Oh, Madame, please. It’ll be dark soon.’
‘Nonsense, it’s not yet four o’clock. The gates close at six. If you don’t want to die ignorant, you’ve plenty of time to visit the tombs. I recommend Musset’s, over there in the hollow where they’ve planted a willow. It isn’t very grand but the epitaph is most beautiful. I don’t suppose you know who he is. Perhaps you’d better go up to the chapel. It’ll do you no harm to say a prayer.’
‘Please, Madame!’ implored the young girl. But Odette de Valois was already walking away briskly. Denise shivered and took shelter under a chestnut tree. The rain had turned to drizzle and a few birds had resumed their singing. A ginger cat moved stealthily amongst the tombstones, and the lamplighter, carrying his long cane in one hand, crossed the avenue and winked at the young girl. Telling herself she couldn’t stand there for ever, she tied her shawl over her bonnet and wandered about beneath the gas lamps, around which raindrops formed haloes.
She tried to put her mind at ease by recalling the walks she’d taken in the Forêt de Nevet with her cousin Ronan, with whom she’d been in love when she was thirteen. How handsome he had been and what a shame that he had chosen another! Lost in thought, she gradually forgot her fears as she relived the few happy moments of her childhood: the two years spent in Douarnenez with her uncle the fisherman, her aunt’s kindness, her cousin’s attentiveness. And then the return to Quimper, her mother’s illness and death, her father’s increasing violence after he took to drink, and the departure of her brothers and sisters, leaving her all alone at home, dreaming that a prince would come and whisk her away to Paris…
She was suddenly reminded where she was when she came upon a dilapidated, pseudo-Gothic mausoleum adorned with interlocking names. She walked over to it and read that the remains of Hélöise and Abélard had lain there since the beginning of the century. Was it not strange that her memories of Ronan had brought her to the tomb of these legendary lovers? And what if Madame was right? What if the dead…
‘Soldiers, your general is relying on your bravery! It’ll be a bloody battle, but we’ll take this enemy stronghold and plant our flags here! Zounds! Let them have it!’ roared a drunkard, popping out from behind the monument.
Denise recognised the old man who’d nearly been knocked over by the carriage. Arms flailing, he rushed towards her. She turned and ran.
Odette de Valois stood motionless in front of a funerary chapel that was more substantial than its neighbours, its baroque pediment decorated with acanthus and laurel leaves in bas-relief. After looking around to make sure she was alone, she placed the key in the lock of the fine wrought-iron gate. The hinges creaked as it opened. She entered and descended the two steps that led to an altar at the back of the chapel. She placed her package between two candelabra and proceeded to light the candles. She looked up at a stained-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary, and crossed herself before kneeling on a prayer stool. The candles illuminated the stucco plaques with their gilded names and dates:
Antoine Auguste de Valois
High-ranking officer of the Legion of Honour
Eugénie Suzanne Louise
Courtin de Valois
Pierre Casimir Alphonse
Armand Honoré Casimir
Straightening up, Odette read out in a low voice the words inscribed on a marble tablet:
Lord, he was so good and kind!
We loved him so tenderly!
You have given him eternal rest
In the bosom of a strange land.
We are stricken by your justice.
Let us pray for him and live in a way
That will reunite us with him in heaven.
She placed her hands together and, raising her voice, began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Then she stood up and, unwrapping the package, cried out excitedly:
‘Armand, it is I, Odette, your Odette! I am here, I have brought what you asked for in the hope you might forgive the past. Give me a sign, my duck. Come to me, come, I beg you!’
The only reply was the sound of rain splashing on stone. She sighed and knelt down again. The shadow of a tree, resembling a Hindu goddess with many arms, danced between the candelabra. Her eyes glued to it, the woman moved her lips silently. She stared in wonder, hypnotised by the dancing shape that grew and grew, until it reached the stained-glass window. She wanted to cry out but could only find the strength to whisper, ‘At last!’
Denise was wandering, lost, in the Jewish part of the cemetery. She walked past the tombs of the tragedienne Rachel, and Baron James de Rothschild, without noticing them. She was afraid of bumping into the old drunkard again, and had only one desire: to find Tenon’s tomb.
Finally she got her bearings. There in front of her stood the memorial cenotaph to André Chenier, built by his brother Marie-Joseph. She read one of the epitaphs, finding it beautiful: ‘Death cannot destroy that which is immortal.’
Musing over the words in an attempt to forget how dark it was becoming, she turned right. She had no watch, but her inner clock told her it was time to go to the meeting place. When she arrived, there was no one there. She stood for a while, shivering with fright and cold. Her shawl was soaked through by the fine rain. Finally, she could wait no longer. She ran back up the avenue. She remembered from a previous brief visit with her mistress that the chapel dedicated to the de Valois family was a little further up, a few yards from the tomb of the astronomer Jean-Baptiste Delambre. She cried out as she ran:
‘Come back, Madame, I beg you! Saint Corentin, Saint Gildas, Holy Mother of God, protect me!’
At last she could see the funerary chapel where a faint light was glowing. Looking anxiously around, she began to walk cautiously towards it. All of a sudden, a shadow darted out of a bush, chased by another. She recoiled in terror. Two cats.
‘Madame…Madame. Are you there?’
It was raining more heavily now and she couldn’t see. She slipped, grabbing hold of the open gate to stop herself from falling. The chapel was empty. One of the two candles, burnt half down, dimly lit the altar where a lifeless object, resembling a sleeping animal, lay. In spite of her terror, she leaned closer and recognised the puce-coloured silk scarf her mistress had used to wrap the package she had brought with her. She was about to pick it up when something struck her wrist. A stone bounced on to the altar.
She turned round. There was no one there. She rushed out into the avenue. It was empty. Scared out of her wits, she ran as fast as her legs would take her towards the Rue de Repos exit with only one thought in her head: to alert the gatekeeper.
She had scarcely left when a man’s figure emerged from a corner of the chapel by the gates through which she had just hurried. A gloved hand gathered up the puce scarf, seized the flat, rectangular object lying between the candelabra, and slipped them swiftly into a shoulder bag slung over a dark frock coat.
The man walked round the funerary monument to a grove of flowering elder trees. He took off his gloves, placed them on a tombstone and crouched down. He seized the ankles of a woman dressed in full mourning who lay senseless on the ground and dragged her over to a handcart that leant against a crypt. Catching his breath, he straightened up and began to remove a tarpaulin from the cart, which contained a strange assortment of objects: chisels, a parasol, a cabman’s frock coat, two dead cats, a woman’s ankle boot, a battered top hat, a fragment of tombstone, some scattered white lilies, the hood of a perambulator and sundry other items. The man tipped out the bric-à-brac and raised the handles of the cart to make it easier to slide the body in from the front. He had to struggle to lay the woman’s inert body out on the cart, then he concealed it under the frock coat and the perambulator hood, piled the parasol, top hat, flowers and cats on top, higgledy-piggledy, and covered everything with the tarpaulin.
Only then did he look around him. And satisfied that there was nothing but bushes and statues, he picked up his cane and slipped away.
Sitting at a table cluttered with papers, Denise was dabbing at her eyes, unable to regain her composure. The gatekeeper, a small, lean man with a large moustache in cap and uniform, was doing his best to calm her by patting her on the shoulder. If he’d been more daring, he’d have put his arm round her.
‘You must have missed each other, or maybe she took the other exit, on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. A lot of people do that around closing time. They’re afraid they’ll get locked in and rush out in a panic, forgetting there’s this exit. That must be the explanation. Don’t you think I’d have seen her going past otherwise?’
‘But what if…something’s happened to her?’ Denise sniffled.
‘Now, my dear, whatever could have happened to her? Surely you don’t think the good Lord took her straight up to heaven? Or a ghost spirited her away? You’re young all right, but not young enough to swallow that nonsense!’
Denise smiled weakly.
‘That’s more like it!’ said the gatekeeper, in an approving voice, squeezing her shoulder lustily. ‘It’s a shame to spoil that pretty face of yours with tears.’
Denise blew her nose.
‘The best thing for you to do is go straight home. I’ll wager your mistress is there already making you a drink of hot milk.’
Denise felt her pocket to check she had the spare key to the apartment. Like the man said, Madame probably was at home. Even so, she persisted.
‘I told the cabman to wait for us on Rue de Repos.’
The gatekeeper frowned.
‘I went out to smoke my pipe on the pavement and I didn’t notice a carriage. He must have cleared off. Those fellows have no patience at all. Don’t you worry, there’s a cab stand not two minutes from here, on Rue de Pyrénées. I suppose you have some money?’
‘Yes, I’ve got the week’s grocery money that Madame gave me.’
‘Well, off you trot, young lady!’
Denise blushed and grew a little flustered as she waited for him to let go of her shoulder. But, rather than letting go, the gatekeeper tightened his grip. She was about to make her escape when a rasping voice made the moustachioed man jump.
‘If you go to Place Vendôme, don’t forget the noble conqueror of kings!’ declaimed the white-haired old man lurching through the doorway.
Denise used this opportunity to escape. The old man addressed her, hiccupping, ‘Whoa, camp follower! All quiet here in the bivouac, soldier Barnabé?’
‘Busy actually, Père Moscou, we’re about to lock up,’ the gatekeeper replied, in a haughty voice.
‘Hold your horses, Barnabé, hold your horses. Didn’t you promise me a tot of rum a moment ago if I could catch you a dozen? Well, here they are!’ cried the old man triumphantly, brandishing a battered basket full of snails. ‘Nothing like a rainy day to bring these fellows out. We’ll run ’em through, cut their little throats!’
The gatekeeper grumbled into his moustache and filled a small glass, which the old man knocked back in one go.
‘This is hardly generous of you, Barnabé. The Emperor will be most displeased!’
‘Go on and fetch your things; I’ve got to ring the bell. We’re closing in fifteen minutes!’
‘May glory and prosperity be yours!’ cried the old man, giving a military salute.
Doing his best to walk in a straight line, Père Moscou weaved between the tombs, leaning on them to the left and the right, and carrying on an indignant conversation with himself: ‘Five petit-gris and seven Bourgognes! Lovely, especially with a bit of garlic and parsley butter, and some shallots! Worth more than one for the road! Never mind, we’ll make up for it! Ah, I hear the signal!’
There was a clanging noise as the gatekeeper began to ring his bell in Avenue du Puits.
‘It’s time to launch the attack, Major…’
He leant over and read the name on a tombstone.
‘Major Brémont, assemble two companies of hussars and reconnoitre the area as far as those woods on the hill. As for you General…General…’
Another tombstone provided a second name.
‘General Sabourdin, take your regiment to the bridgehead. We must hold it at all costs! Get rid of this lot and bring on the artillery. Cannons, we need cannons! Oh! A pair of gloves…A challenge? Who dares challenge Père Moscou? Is it you, Grouchy? You’ll have to wait! Bang, bang, boom. We’ll run ’em through! Prepare to die!’
He thrust his arms forward, imitating a bayonet charge, and took off at a gallop through the pouring rain until he reached the grove of elder trees where he had left his cart.
‘Victory!’ he roared. ‘We’ve saved the city. We can return to camp, heads held high!’
After stuffing a glove into each pocket, he positioned himself between the handles of the cart, strapped the leather harnesses over his shoulders and, heaving himself upright, lifted his cargo, which moved off with a jolt and bounced along behind him.
‘Damnation! Why’s this thing so heavy? It’s Grouchy’s doing. He’s loaded me down with bricks. I couldn’t care less, Emmanuel. You didn’t deserve to be a peer of France! Softly does it, cut their throats then how we’ll laugh!’
At this last roar a startled ginger cat scurried off.
Père Moscou reached Boulevard Ménilmontant as the bumps and hollows of the graveyard began to vanish in the twilight. With a little luck and a lot of effort he hoped to make it back to his bivouac by nine o’clock.
Denise could hear the clock in the sitting room chime seven times. She had rung and knocked on the door, but there had been no reply. The concierge, Monsieur Hyacinthe, was adamant that Madame hadn’t returned but she had refused to believe it.
She was seized again by panic, and her hand shook so much that she could barely put the key in the lock. What had become of her mistress? Perhaps she’d had a dizzy spell after leaving the funerary chapel and was still in Père-Lachaise cemetery? If so, she was sure to die of fright in that terrible place. She said she wasn’t scared of ghosts but she’d be singing a different tune tonight…Denise hesitated, her hand gripping the key. Should she go back there and knock at the gatekeeper’s lodge? Would anyone be there? What if it were the skinny man with the moustache and he pounced on her? Or the old drunk with the wild eyes? She thought better of it. There were other possible reasons for Madame’s absence. She might have gone to see that woman, for instance, that…Denise could feel her pulse racing.
The corridor yawned before her, pitch black. She recoiled and propped open the door with a chair so that the light from the gas lamp on the landing shone into the hallway. She reached for a small box that lay on a pedestal table next to a petrol lamp, struck a match and lit the wick. The smell made her feel queasy. She pushed the chair away, closed and bolted the door and hurried into the sitting room where she lit all the candles in the candelabra. Too bad if Madame accused her of being wasteful and scolded her – she was never satisfied anyway. She had regained her composure enough to pick up the lamp and have a look around the apartment. It occurred to her that Madame de Valois might have had time to come back and leave again without being seen by the concierge. If so, she might have left a note – unless she felt unwell and was lying down. These possibilities jostled for position in the frightened girl’s head as she made her way tentatively towards the bedroom.
‘Madame, Madame. Are you asleep?’ she whispered.
All was quiet. She decided to go in, not really knowing what she was frightened of finding. The room was in disarray. Since her husband’s death, Madame only allowed it to be cleaned fortnightly. Otherwise it was strictly out of bounds, though Denise flouted this rule as soon as her mistress’s back was turned.
She was familiar with every inch of the room’s décor: the black veil hanging from the canopy of the four-poster bed; the ebony crucifix recently purchased at auction; the palm tree festooned with black crêpe like a funereal Christmas tree; the mirror in the bathroom draped in black gauze…Even the bed was in mourning, as Madame had chosen black for her sheets and silk quilt, which she slept under every night and tucked in every morning. The thick, velvet curtains drawn across the windows were also black. Only the mauve wall hangings with their motif of violets had escaped the macabre choice of colour, but Madame was already planning to replace them with charcoal grey. Near the ottoman where Madame sat for hours reading her missal, stood a small, mahogany table she had converted into an altar, upon which she had placed a photograph of her husband flanked by candleholders and incense sticks.
But most terrible was what Madame kept locked up in the enormous rosewood wardrobe with the full-length mirror, acquired shortly before her husband’s death. Besides her mourning clothes, it contained a skull, various lithographs illustrating tortures inflicted on heretics and books. The books! How they’d horrified Denise when she’d been foolish enough to glance through them one day! Even more than the skull with its hollow eye sockets.
She shivered. Although it was draught-proof, the apartment was cold and damp. Anxious to economise, her mistress had turned off the heaters the week before, declaring that spring was round the corner and it would soon warm up.
Denise explored the room, forcing herself to open the wardrobe and peek into the bathroom.
She took a quick look in the dining room, Monsieur’s bedroom, the linen room, the galley kitchen, the tiny boudoir, the storeroom and even the water closet. The apartment was empty. She stood for a moment on the sitting-room balcony trying to calm herself. She leant on the guard rail and observed how the glare of electric street lamps had transformed Boulevard Haussmann into a glittering palace. She felt calmer, but as soon as she set foot on the parquet floor her fears came rushing back.
She snuffed out the candles, picked up the lamp and walked down the corridor – looking away as she passed Madame’s bedroom – and hurried to her room at the far end next to the kitchen, where she threw herself on to a small iron bed, hoping to sink into sleep. The light from the lamp cast ghostly shapes on the ceiling. She put it out.
‘Hell and damnation! It’s darker than a tomb! Who blew out the candle?’ Père Moscou roared, shaking his fist at a roving cloud that had eclipsed the crescent moon.
He was worn out from his slog across the eleventh and twelfth arrondissements and along the Seine. He was also hungry and cold. It had stopped raining some time ago, but the wind was blowing from the north now, which meant frost.
He crossed Pont Royal and standing before him, on Quai d’Orsay, were the ruins of a vast building occupying a quadrangle that stretched from Rue de Poitiers to Rue de Bellechasse: the palace that housed the Conseil d’État and the Cour des Comptes,2 and which was burnt down by the communards in 1871 and left to fall into decay.
The ruin, whose windows no longer contained a single pane of glass and whose roof had caved in, was reminiscent of a modern Pompeii reclaimed by nature. Badly lit by the widely spaced street lamps, a jungle had grown up around the charred stones, creating a patch of virgin forest in the heart of the capital.
Père Moscou walked along the side of the building and turned off into Rue de Lille to come round to the front. Behind him, a shadow with no shoulders and a tiny ball for a head stretched out in the light of a street lamp before contracting into a grotesque silhouette and vanishing into the night. Père Moscou did not notice it. Leaving his handcart unattended, he climbed up a flight of steps to the ground floor of the main building, which was slightly set back from the street, and pulled on a cord. There was the sound of shuffling feet and a plump and greying woman, bulging out of a fluffy, purple housecoat, opened the door cautiously.
‘Oh it’s you! About time. I was just off to bed.’
Père Moscou went back down the steps to fetch his cart.
‘I hope your wheels are clean after all that rain. My word you’re puffing like a pair of old bellows. Hold on, I’ll help you. What’ve you got in here? Lead?’
‘Don’t know. The usual. I’ll just put it at the back of the yard and I’ll be right with you.’
A few moments later he opened the door to the small cosy kitchen that smelled pleasantly of cooked vegetables. Madame Valladier, the concierge who reigned over the crumbling building, stood in front of her stove, moodily stirring some soup.
‘That bread soup smells good,’ Père Moscou said, leaning over the pot.
‘Not so fast, you dirty old man. Go and wash your paws at the pump before you sit down to eat. God knows what you’ve been fiddling with in that graveyard of yours!’
When she turned round with a steaming bowl in her hands, the old man was already seated, a greedy look on his face and a bunch of lilies lying beside him on the table.
‘Where’d that come from? You been to a wedding?’
‘Comrade Barnabé told me I could take them. Some toffs buried a newborn. There were flowers everywhere, enough for a regiment.’
‘That’s terrible! You ought to be ashamed!’
‘Bah! You’ve got to look at it this way. The lad’s dead. He has no need of flowers, so why not offer them to a beautiful woman, eh, Maguelonne?’
‘I’ve told you a thousand times that my name’s Louise!’
‘I know, but Maguelonne is more noble,’ the old man replied, cutting himself a large chunk of bread. ‘I found that name on a lovely pink marble tombstone.’
‘Oh, you and your graveyard!’ cried the concierge. ‘Get a move on, will you. I’m worn out. I’ve spent the whole day running from courtyard to courtyard chasing away those rascals who want to kiss the girls. Ah, young people today!’
Père Moscou lapped up his soup noisily.
‘Don’t be such a prude, Maguelonne. Let the boys make their final assault. If they’re victorious it’ll produce little conscripts for the army of the Republic. Empire and kings may be dead but the army is still alive and kicking!’
‘Why don’t you go and get some sleep instead of talking drivel!’
As soon as the old man had left, Madame Valladier’s expression softened. She gathered the lilies and arranged them in an earthenware jug before burying her face in them.
Lighting his way with a lantern tied round his neck, Père Moscou hitched himself to his cart at the foot of a colossal stairway with a rusty, twisted banister. He groaned as he crossed the main courtyard that had once been covered in sand and was now a field of wild grass with a street lamp protruding from it. Amidst the wild oats and sweet clover the old man had planted a little vegetable garden whose harvest he shared with the concierge.
He continued along an arcaded gallery overrun by climbing plants that had broken through the floors and thick walls, until he reached a hallway strewn with rubble that crunched beneath the wheels of his cart. He stopped at the doorway of a square-shaped room, formerly the secretariant for the Conseil d’État, and lifted a moth-eaten curtain that covered the entrance.
He entered what he called his bivouac. The dividing walls of the room were riddled with cracks stuffed with bits of old newspaper. The ceiling was missing and the loose floorboards above let in dust and draughts. The ground was covered with coarse matting and in one corner an acacia tree served as a coat stand. The bivouac also contained a wood-burning stove that he used in mid-winter, a mattress piled high with quilts, a pair of rickety old chairs and a stack of wine crates filled not with bottles but with Père Moscou’s carefully arranged treasures. There was a crate for odd pairs of shoes, another for hats, a third for walking sticks and umbrellas, all destined for re-sale at Carreau du Temple. It was what the old man called his retirement capital. Once a week he went looking for treasure in Père-Lachaise cemetery, where for many years he had been employed as a gravedigger and occasional stone mason, and now and then, during good weather, he would take visitors on a guided tour.
‘I’ll sort this lot out tomorrow,’ he told himself, parking the cart, ‘but these tomcats can go in the cooler.’
He lifted the tarpaulin and seized the two carcasses lying on the frock coat, two black cats he’d found behind Parmentier’s tomb, already dead. Père Moscou was too fond of animals ever to kill them. He stuffed them in a box, which he covered with a piece of sacking.
‘I’ll offer Marcelin the skins on Sunday and then sell the rest to Cabirol as hare’s meat. But first I’ll have to get hold of some rabbit heads at Les Halles. I’ve got a lot on my plate!’
Père Moscou lay down. He was exhausted, but pleased with what he’d achieved. He snuggled under the quilts and smiled at a plaster bust sitting on a chair.
‘Goodnight, my Emperor,’ he mumbled, ‘and death to Grouchy!’
He put out the lamp and was soon snoring.
Although her brother Erwan had been dead for three years, Denise found herself walking with him beside the sea, and was surprised to see him looking so well. A sudden crash woke her from her dream and she curled up in bed, terrified.
What had roused her was only a creaking sound magnified by the silence. She heard it again, and then again. It was too evenly spaced to be the furniture shifting, she decided. It was coming from the corridor, muffled and menacing.
Mastering her emotions, she got out of bed and dragged her washstand against the door after first removing the jug and basin. She listened. Silence. Trembling with fear and cold – her room faced north and was not heated – she curled up on the narrow iron bed. A pale light shone through the window. Denise fixed her eyes on the door handle and saw it move slowly downwards. Someone was trying to get in. A chink appeared as the door opened slightly and was blocked by the washstand, which stood firm. The intruder gave a slight push, to no avail. The door closed and the handle went back to its original position. The unseen visitor moved stealthily away.
Denise relaxed her jaw and lowered her hand, which had been pressed against her mouth. She made herself count up to two hundred. Vaguely reassured, she got up and hurriedly straightened her clothes and hair. The large purple cotton shawl that had carried her meagre belongings from Quimper three years earlier was spread out on the bed. Behind a worn curtain, two patched dresses and the velvet skirt that Madame de Valois had given her hung on a clothes rail. She placed them on the shawl with some stockings, a petticoat and two carefully folded white blouses and, before tying the four corners of the shawl together, she added a tarnished silver crucifix, a mirror and an embroidered tucker – objects that had once belonged to her mother and which constituted her entire inheritance.
On her guard, Denise listened carefully and, hearing nothing, decided to slip on her coat and put back the washstand. She was just about to leave the room when she realised she had forgotten something. She lifted the mattress and pulled out a chromolithograph fixed to a thin piece of wood, which depicted the Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue robe, standing in front of some yellow rocks. She wrapped it quickly in a pillowcase, wedged it under her arm and, picking up her bundle, opened the door.
The grey dawn hadn’t dispelled the menacing gloom of the apartment. Denise held her breath as she had before plunging into the River Odet as a child, and raced down the corridor. She had to get out of that haunted place as fast as possible. When she reached the landing she hesitated. The keys! What had she done with the keys? Had she put them above the fireplace in the sitting room before lighting the candles or mislaid them in her room? It was too late! She slammed the door impulsively, tore down a flight of stairs, then stopped dead in her tracks. Where would she go? The only money she had was the change from the grocery money. She ought to have left it on the hall table, or she might be accused of stealing. But then again Madame de Valois owed her some wages. The money could be considered an advance payment. In any case she did not have the courage to go back up there.
She carried on down the stairs. Where would she go? She didn’t know a soul in Paris. Was there a place that took in homeless young women? Then she remembered Madame’s former lover, Monsieur Victor Legris, the attractive gentleman with dark eyes who always had a kind word for her and occasionally slipped her a coin. She remembered having accompanied Madame de Valois to his bookshop on the Rive Gauche, near the Seine. What was the name of that street? It began with Saint…and there was a hospital nearby.
As she crossed the entrance hall Monsieur Hyacinthe called out to her.
‘You’re abroad early this morning, Mademoiselle Le Louarn. Is anything the matter?’
She shook her head and walked out into the deserted boulevard, unaware that the door to the building had opened behind her and a young boy wearing a gilt-buttoned tunic and a peaked cap had slipped out.
The sun’s early rays shone through a grove of plane trees on to a ruined ivy-covered baluster and lit up a copper brazier that suddenly glinted, startling a small, slender animal with a pointed nose.
‘Come back here, Madame Stone Marten, you coward. Come back, my pretty one, and I’ll give you a big chunk of this crispy pork rind! An offering from Mother Valladier, that paragon among women who still has a fine bosom despite her age…You refuse? You’re a fool. Victory is ours, boom, bang, boom!’
Père Moscou combed his fingers through his hair as he waited for his coffee to boil. He had slept soundly and was fully sober. He wished he had a drop of something with which to toast the beautiful dawn, but it was his principle never to drink anywhere but leaning against the bar of a tavern or, if pressed, at a friend’s house.
‘Being drunk on one’s own patch is unworthy of Antoine Jean Anicet Ménager, otherwise known as Moscou the Brave, grandson of the Emperor of the grognards3 and of the grognard of the Emperor. Remember, I am accountable to the nation for the lives of my men. If the enemy attacks, we’ll run him through, we’ll slit his throat!’
This speech was directed at a few pigeons and a crow attracted by the breakfast scraps. Père Moscou rubbed his neck.
‘Speaking of throats, mine’s a little rough this morning. I must have had a bit of a tipple last night. Moscou, you’re an old lush and for your trouble not a drop of plonk before midday! Come along, it’s time you got to work.’
He poured the remains of his coffee on to the brazier, which billowed with smoke, and made his way through the undergrowth and wild lilies, disturbing a flock of sparrows as he went. He tripped over a pile of plaster debris, bounced off a fig tree and landed in a tangle of clematis.
‘Prepare to die!’ he cried, rushing at the invisible enemy.
He charged across his bivouac, sabre to the fore, then stopped in his tracks and walked nonchalantly over to his cart, which was standing by the wall. He lifted the tarpaulin, and glanced at the contents for a moment.
‘What a load of old rubbish!’
Seizing the parasol, the ankle boot and the top hat, he went to deposit them in their appropriate boxes.
‘It wouldn’t surprise me if people left their underwear behind in that cemetery.’
He returned to the cart.
‘Not to mention their children. First they dump the pram,’ he said, dropping the hood of the perambulator on the floor, ‘and then they toss the brat in the nettles!’
He was anxious to try on the coachman’s frock coat and grabbed it, twirling it around as he threw it over his shoulders.
‘I should dye it green or red or the second coachman will jeer at me. It’s not bad, it’ll make a nice coa–’
He stood rooted to the spot with his mouth wide open. A woman dressed in black was lying on the cart, her head resting on a piece of tombstone and a closed umbrella on her chest. Her eyes were shut and her cheeks deathly pale.
‘Well, I’ll be damned! A stowaway!’ He brushed the anonymous woman’s forehead with his hand and cried out as though he’d been stung. There was no doubt about it, she was quite dead. He noticed a brownish stain on her coat collar and pulled it back to reveal a patch of dried blood on the nape of her neck. He lifted her fur cap and pushed her head to one side. The back of her skull had been smashed in. A murder. He let go of the woman’s head in alarm.
‘That’s a serious corpse. I’ve seen enough to know and never balked at burying them. But…a murdered woman on my cart! That’s going too far! I know I didn’t do it, that’s for sure. I’ll fight anything that moves, like a lion I am when I’ve had a few and I’m fired up for battle. But never a woman. Never! Who’s trying to lay the blame for this wickedness on Père Moscou?’
With trembling hands he replaced the tarpaulin and harnessed himself to the cart, which he dragged to the far side of the courtyard and left in a tangle of elder and viburnum bushes while he ran to fetch a spade from his bivouac.
‘Lucky it rained last night so the ground’s soft…’
Removing the tarpaulin again he examined the corpse carefully. He decided he would take the hat but not the coat – too much blood. There was a chain round the woman’s neck with a silver locket on it. I’ll sell that to the jeweller on Rue de Pernelle together with this diamond ring, he thought, as he slipped it off the third finger of her left hand. The wedding ring proved more stubborn and he gave up, considering it improper to deprive a dead person of such a sacred ornament.
Having pocketed the jewellery, he spat on his hands, rubbed them together, picked up the spade and began digging, whistling a marching tune to give him courage. He tried to convince himself the dead woman was a soldier killed in battle and that he, the man’s general, was burying him on the battlefield. It took him a good hour to dig a deep enough hole, and when he stood up straight he was dripping with sweat despite the chill in the air. He pulled the dead woman by the feet. As she slid off the cart her coat and dress became hitched up, exposing her silk-stockinged legs. Père Moscou turned away in embarrassment. The body fell to the ground with a thud. He rolled it into the pit with his umbrella, hurriedly shovelling back the loose earth. When he’d finished, he flattened the grave and scattered it with stones, bits of rubble and grass. He cast a critical eye over his work and found it wanting. The most important thing was missing. He went off, inventing another story to reassure himself.
‘I’m certain it was he, Emperor. Emmanuel Grouchy’s behind this. Remember Waterloo? If he’d stopped Blücher from joining forces with Wellington, victory would have been yours. I reported it to you. He found out, and has hated me ever since. This is his revenge.’
Père Moscou returned carrying two uprooted lilac bushes, which he very carefully replanted. After he’d finished, he thrust his fists in his pockets and stepped back to consider his work.
‘No one, not even Grouchy, would say a woman’s buried there, God rest her soul. I’m not done yet; I need a pick-me-up after that, a drop of hussar’s elixir.
The overgrown garden was so serene he might almost have imagined the strange ceremony. But the jewellery he was rolling between his fingers was real enough.
Copyright © 2003 by Éditions 10/18, Département d’Univers Poche. English translation copyright © 2007 by Gallic Books. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.