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"A Dog's Profession"
La ville lumiere never glowed more brightly than in that last spring of the Second Empire.
It was almost twenty years since Louis-Napoléon, nephew of the original Bonaparte, had elevated himself from President to Emperor in the December coup, and begun to re-create the grandeur of half a century earlier. For nearly two decades now, he had succeeded. For nearly two decades Paris had been the most glamorous capital in the civilized world.
There were treasures on view in the remodeled and expanded Louvre. There were delightful public concerts in the garden of the Tuileries palace. There were thousands of lanterns and gas jets to bedazzle the eye on the night of the Emperor's birthday, and the greatest courtesans of Europe stopping at the Meurice and the other fine hotels. There was a wink at financial chicanery, and a forgiving shrug for sexual excess or deviation—and there was plenty of each to be found.
There was an opulent court that moved annually from Paris to Saint-Cloud to Fontainbleau to Compiègne to Biarritz and back to Paris. There was a splendid new look to the central city, which had literally been ripped apart under the supervision of the Prefect of the Seine, Haussmann. At the Emperor's behest, he envisioned and created new plazas and broad new boulevards and installed a much needed new sewer system. He turned a dark, tangled forest into the Bois de Boulogne. Medieval Paris vanished and what replaced it was much finer—never mind the carping of those who said Napoléon III was the worst of dictators, and essential freedoms were gone, and Haussmann had only made the new avenues broad and straight so that Imperial troops could easily rush down them to crush a radical rebellion of the kind which had terrified the bourgeoisie in 1848 and put it in a mood to eagerly accept Louis-Napoléon's discipline. Those on the left used the term repression, but seldom in public.
For those totally uninterested in politics—and Matthew Kent was one—Paris offered a different sort of ferment. The art world was in a continual uproar. Each year's government-sponsored exhibition, the Salon, brought new assaults on the accepted and the conventional. The bemused public didn't know whether to be appreciative of all the new forms of art being displayed, or outraged by them, and so held several contradictory attitudes at once. Thus the shockingly realistic paintings of Mart's friend Edouard Manet could be denounced as "the art of democrats who don't change their linen," or it could be dismissed simply as "nasty," while Edouard himself was treated almost as a celebrity. There were a dozen practicing painters who were intimates in Manet's circle, or on the fringes of it. Matt was privileged to be one of them and to join their gatherings around the marble-topped tables of their favorite café several times a week.
Of these men, some were dignified and some were just the opposite—like Mart's good friend Paul Cézanne, who the critics said "painted with a pistol." Collectively they were rocking and destroying the foundations of established art. They were throwing safe historical and religious and allegorical subjects into the dustbin and painting what they saw in the contemporary world. Peasants tilling a field. An audience awaiting a Tuileries concert. Or just the artist's impression of a light-splashed dirt road in the country. Content was radical, technique was radical, and Matt thought it was the most perfect time in all of history to be in Paris learning to be an artist.
Never mind that Bismarck's ambition lay like a dark cloud over Europe, and that the Prussian generals were perfecting a new, lightning-swift style of warfare based on use of the railroads and the telegraph, two innovations employed for the first time in the American civil war. Never mind that behind the brilliantly lit façades of the public buildings lay seething slums where rats crawled over the cribs of infants. Never mind that angry proletarians held endless meetings in Belleville and quoted the first volume of Das Kapital by the journalist and social thinker Marx, or the older but not much less radical pamphlets of Proudhon attacking the concept of private property. The poverty, the fear, the rage went all but unseen in the festive glare of the lanterns and the shimmering gaslights. Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie, had created a gaudy show to divert the attention of both the French and the world.
But what was unknown to a majority in that last, lovely spring was the fact that the Second Empire had been created fifty years too late. It was obsolete the moment it came into being, and that it had survived for almost two decades was a remarkable piece of luck. Now, in Berlin and Belleville and across the world, forces were moving which would bring it down. Those forces would touch even the Americans who thought themselves safely isolated behind an ocean. They would touch even Matt Kent, who thought nothing could touch him except his two loves—his chosen profession and a young woman named Dolly Stubbs.
Like the Empire itself, one of those loves would be blown away before the winter came.
Out in the stubbled field, the brewer's boy scowled. The stoop-shouldered man crouching on the bare patch of ground glared right back. He gripped the piece of tree limb so hard, his knuckles turned white.
The man's sagging trousers were shiny with grease and daubed with paint. The sun lit a bald spot at the back of his head and the warm wind played with his jutting beard. Some four feet behind him, Matthew Kent knelt in the dirt. He was supposed to be catching for the game, but right now he was hurrying to finish his sketch. Asking his friend to come along on the regular Saturday excursion had been a disastrous idea. Paul was just not the sort who could function as a member of a team. The game was liable to end in a riot.
"Come on, throw it, you piece of moldering bird shit!" the batter cried, thumping the tree limb on home base and raising dust. The brewer's boy who was pitching bent over and spat on the ground with studied contempt.
"We know you can curse, Paul," he called. "We know you have a large vocabulary of filthy words, and are passionately fond of every one. You don't need to spout them to make me dislike you, though. I already dislike you as much as I could possibly dislike anyone."
Ignoring the scarlet that rushed into Paul's cheeks, the brewer's boy turned his back on him and began tossing the ball up and catching it. One by one, he surveyed his four teammates. Two were in the outer field. One stood close to the rock serving as first base. The other had his pants open and was urinating on third. The three players on Paul's team had returned to their watercolor easels and wine bottles. They had no interest in encouraging the bearded man, even though he was on their side.
Frowning, Matt pushed a strand of sun-bleached brown hair away from his pale forehead. Dolly was returning from her holiday late this afternoon, and before meeting her, Matt wanted some advice from his friend. Paul was certainly the last man on earth to ask about personal relationships, but Matt did respect his opinion of artistic talent, bizarre though Paul's own work sometimes was.
Paul had come up from Aix-en-Provence in preparation for the wedding of his good friend Zola, a pugnacious little journalist who wrote everything from art criticism to melodramatic novels. On the spur of the moment, Matt had invited Paul to join the group of students, practicing artists and working-class boys who tramped out from Montmartre every Saturday for an American-style baseball game. He'd been surprised when Paul accepted the invitation. But then Paul was moody and given to impulses. Matt definitely felt his own impulse had been ill-advised. Paul was at bat for only the second time, and the other team was baiting him unmercifully. Of course Paul's bad manners and utterly foul language begged for it.
"Come on, come on!" he screamed.
The brewer's boy glanced over his shoulder. "When I'm good and ready."
Paul gritted his teeth, plainly wanting to rush out to the pitcher and throttle him.
While the deliberate delay continued, Matt's right hand kept moving, making slashing strokes with the lump of charcoal. At least the antagonism of the other team gave him a chance to finish his sketch. It was a recognizable likeness of the batter, but no one would have called it a faithful portrait. It was done in Matt's usual style—a blend of a few graceful, flowing lines and sudden, interrupting angles which perfectly abstracted the essence of the subject and conveyed Matt's highly personal impression of it.
He had put Paul in profile, facing an invisible pitcher. He'd exaggerated the jutting beard so that it resembled a cluster of stiff horizontal wires. Shading heightened the dark quality of Paul's face, and a highlight in the pupil of the eye glowed like a tiny fireball, suggestive of hostility or madness. As drawn, Paul resembled a furious Italian peasant more than what he actually was—an unsuccessful thirty-year-old painter whose father was an altogether proper banker and landowner.
Quickly he put a last shadow on the temple and, at the lower margin, jotted l'écorché, wondering if he'd spelled the word properly. He was usually too busy to worry about correct spelling. But he wanted Paul's nickname on the picture. Man without any skin was an apt description of his highly sensitive friend.
He added Paul—June 1870, and then M. Kent, just as Paul bellowed, "If you don't throw that thing, I'll come out there and shove this piece of wood straight up your backside!"
With his left hand, the brewer's boy made a contemptuous gesture. "Your mother is an old whore so ugly the moths nest between her legs!"
Paul screamed another obscenity and started to charge into the field, brandishing the bat. He'd taken two steps when the pitcher threw the ball.
It whizzed past the astonished artist. He stopped and goggled. Matt dropped his charcoal and shot his right hand over his head. The pad slid off his knee as he caught the ball in long, thin fingers.
"Out! Paul? You're out."
Paul spun around. "What does that mean, out?"
"I told you the last time you were up and the same thing happened. He struck you out—your turn's over." Matt stood up. The sleeves of his loose white silk blouse flapped in the wind. He waved at the team in the field, all of them clustering around the pitcher as if ready for a fight. "You were the last batter, so that ends the inning and begins a new one with the other team at bat."
One of Paul's own teammates called from his easel, "Ah, he's too stupid to ever understand it."
Matt's friend looked increasingly furious. "I demand to know how my turn can be over. I didn't hit the ball! That turd-eating, lice-ridden little nitwit was distracting me!"
The brewer's boy took a step in toward home base. Matt held up a hand and he stopped reluctantly. "You can be put out on strikes, Paul. We go into the next inning now. They're ahead, two aces to none."
Paul looked at Matt as if he wanted to assault him. Sometimes Matt thought his friend was quite mad. The very names of his dark, troubled pictures suggested it. The Orgy. The Autopsy. The Strangled Woman. Even in the circle of friends and acquaintances who'd been christened the Batignolles group, Paul was only marginally accepted—and the group wasn't exactly made up of what could be called conservative men. Still, Matt was absolutely convinced the bad-tempered Frenchman possessed a gigantic talent. He saw it particularly in Paul's paintings of his uncle Dominique.
"You absolutely mean to say I'm finished?"
Matt nodded. He was a slender young man of twenty-six with an oval face said to resemble his late mother's. He had large brown eyes and a scraggly mustache as sun-streaked as his hair. Wide, solid shoulders offset the slimness of the rest of his body and saved him from any hint of effeminacy.
"Yes, Paul, I'm sorry." He started to clap a hand on his friend's shoulder, then remembered Paul despised having anyone touch him.
At the pitcher's mound, one of the other team shouted, "Hey, let's play, uh?"
"A bloody wasted day," Paul grumbled, shuffling away.
The brewer's boy heard. "Come on, thin skin. You had nothing better to do. Certainly your work's just as much of a waste of time."
His teammates laughed and applauded. Paul went rigid. He shoved a hand into the pocket of his soiled trousers.
"You whoresons!" Paul cried, and jerked out a clasp knife. He opened it with his teeth and walked rapidly toward the members of the other team, the blade flashing in the sun.
Panicked, Matt flung himself against Paul and held him back. "Look, it's only a game. I'm sorry I got you involved!"
"Let me pass!" Paul pushed, strong and wild-eyed. "I've had enough of their insults." Which Paul himself provoked, Matt thought sadly. It was almost as if the artist wanted people to despise him, so that he would have proof that he was rejected, isolated, special.
No one on Paul's own team made any move to help him. They clearly wanted him to fight with the five players huddled at the pitcher's position. Two had picked up rocks. Matt shoved at Paul with all his strength, aware of the brandished knife just a few inches from his arm. The members of the other team didn't help matters.
"What's that you're brandishing, sweetheart, one of the tools you use for painting?"
"Oh no"—came another jibe—"he uses brooms and trowels, that's what all the critics say—"
"Everyone, calm down!" Matt shouted. "This has gone too far."
The brewer's boy shrugged. "Tell that to your crazy friend. If he wants to end an inglorious career right here, we'll accommodate him."
Paul let out another enraged growl and shoved Matt's shoulder. As the younger man staggered back, Paul bolted around him. The knife glinted and flashed. Desperate to prevent a brawl, Matt lunged and caught Paul's free hand. He hung on with all his strength, braced his boots in the stubble and yanked.
Paul swung around to curse Matt, flailing wildly. Suddenly he stumbled. He started to fall forward, the knife inadvertently aimed at Matt's midsection.
Only Matt's clumsy leap backward kept the blade from ripping his belly. As it was, Paul gashed Matt's blouse, then toppled to the ground, nearly impaling himself as the knife slipped from his fingers.
In a sudden burst of temper, Matt grabbed the knife and flung it away. Paul seemed to come to his senses and realize what he'd done. Matt glared at him, then at the other team. "I'm the umpire and I say the game's over."
"Splendid!" the pitcher responded. "It's ruined anyway."
"You won, for God's sake," Matt exploded. Then he too began to calm down.
"We'll play again next Saturday, as usual," Matt said.
"All right," the brewer's boy agreed. The thought of the victory seemed to mollify the rival team. "But not if you invite him."
Cursing under his breath, Paul climbed to his feet and stormed off to collect his easel.
Excerpted from The Lawless by John Jakes. Copyright © 1978 John Jakes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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