© Angela Elliott
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In the Sun King’s Paris - 17th Century
The ex-haberdasher, Antoine Montvoisin lay on his belly, shears in hand, screwed up one eye and snipped the tops off a few obliging blades of grass. At this level he saw only the miniature green forest and smelled only the damp rich earth. He inched forward and came up against a small eruption of soil.
He raised his head above the offending molehill and scowled at the undulating green sward. The fifth this week. The scullery door banged and his plump wife rounded the corner of the house and left via the garden gate.
Now where was she going? To see her lover?
Antoine stabbed the shears angrily into ground and struggled to his feet. He needed a drink.
“Damned pests” He’d see to them. He’d see to them good and proper. It wasn’t that he had anything in particular against the innocent little creatures; it was just that they were messing up his grass and he couldn’t have that.
The sun hung low over Paris: twilight threatened. Antoine went into the house and came back out with two rotund bottles of rough wine clasped by their necks between the grimy fingers of one hand. Positioning himself on the bench by the scullery door, he lay his spade across his lap and set one of the bottles down, so as to swig from the other. He had a powerful thirst on him, did Antoine. He could drink wine like water.
The sky turned a delicate shade of pastel pink. The swallows dipped and wheeled. The light faded. Antoine gulped down the contents of the first bottle, belched and started on the second. Soon, his head nodded, his chin rested on his chest and the bottle slipped from his grasp. It rolled beneath the bench, the last dribble of wine dampening the stones.
The night curled cool fingers around the snoring gardener and it wasn’t until women’s voices pierced his befuddlement that he came to. He sat in the dark, wondering if his imagination had the better of him.
“There’s no room for another. Take it to La Lepère.”
Was that his wife, Catherine?
“I can’t do that. Please take it. I’ll pay whatever you want,” came a second voice.
Antoine squinted. Two shadowy figures, one short and voluptuous, the other thin and tall, moved towards the end of the garden. Ah, yes, the garden – the moles. That was it, but where had the afternoon gone? What time was it?
“Give it here then,” said the shorter of the shadows.
Antoine wished he could work out what was going on, but the moon was not being kind - behind clouds one minute, out the next, and really, his wife’s business was none of his. He was tempted to go back to sleep, and yet, as soon as the mysterious visitor had gone, he cleared his throat and bellowed out into the gloom, “what you got there my dear?”
Catherine flinched and attempted to hide something behind her back. Her arms were too short and her hips too wide.
Now what was that all about? Hiding something from him? But what?
Antoine made his way across the garden, using the spade as a walking stick.
“It’s none of your concern, old man,” said Catherine.
“Ah, but you have something. What is it?”
“Nothing. You go to bed now.”
“You found a mole?”
Curiosity killed the cat, but not Antoine. He grabbed. Catherine pulled away.
“I said, go to bed.”
Too late, a bundle of uncertainty slipped from Catherine’s hands and fell into a neatly kept row of hyssop.
Antoine exclaimed: “Now you’ve gone and dropped it. Darned thing’ll be off down a hole, wreaking havoc with the grass.”
He raised his spade. As he did so, the moon came out from behind a cloud and illuminated the contents of the bundle: a tiny dead baby lay swaddled in its winding sheet, its eyes black and empty. Antoine recoiled, horror and anger itching at him in equal measure. His mind whirled and clacked, creaked and spun. His stomach churned and leaped. His bowels threatened to empty but thankfully held on. He remembered the conversation that had woken him earlier, and managed to turn away, just in time, as a stream of vomit shot out of his mouth and sprayed the trunk of the apple tree. He hadn’t felt this worked up in… well… he’d never felt this worked up.
“No room for another?” he bellowed. “There are more?”
“Of course there are, you fool,” snapped Catherine. “What do you think your precious molehills are?”
Antoine sat up all night at his scullery table, musing over his terrible discovery. The garden lay beyond the pile of dirty plates: beyond the hazy leaded window: beyond the path hugging the house.
The garden was sacred.
The garden was full of dead babies.
Well, not the vegetable plot or he’d have turned a corpse over with his spade, but certainly the grass - the grass he’d tended with loving care, in the garden dedicated to his despicable unloving mother.
The garden? His mother? Antoine hit his head with the heel of his hand. Perhaps the garden was consecrated ground. Perhaps the land had once belonged to the church, and perhaps it contained other bodies, older and deeper than the little molehill babies.
Hmm… a garden for the dead: every blade of grass a green memorial. Fitting really. The church was right next door after all, and certainly it might account for some of the visitors: sad-eyed merchant women, lost looking courtiers, highborn mistresses. Oft-times they filled the garden with their weeping and wringing of hands. Lord, but the city was a veritable hotbed of sickness. Death stalked even the healthiest of individuals, and it surely explained the money for the novenas. Every couple of weeks Catherine would come up with a purse of coins and tell him run to the Abbé Davot. Antoine didn’t have much to do with the church and even less with the superstitious nonsense of saying prayers for the dead, when no one he knew had died. Not recently at any rate.
Oh yes, it was all starting to make sense: the babies, the burials, the prayers. Catherine had opened a cemetery and not told him. Nothing new there: she was a law unto herself was dear Catherine, but a cemetery? No, no, no.
Dawn lent its soft light to confuse the shadows. Antoine squinted at the lumpy, dew-covered grass. He upturned his palms. It was too dark to see them, but he knew they were as rough as old wood; knotted and peeling. Once they’d been soft. He rubbed them on his chest.
He’d done what he could to make his wife happy. While he could, he’d pandered to her pleadings for gemstones and gold, for lavish furnishings and a big house. That was then. This was now. Now he had nothing but a heart full of sorrow.
The creak of the bed.
Footsteps on the boards.
If the church had paid her for the use of the garden, then he wanted his fair share. It was his garden, after all. It was his grass. This business with the moles had irked him and he wasn’t used to being irked. Unhappy yes, irked no. Memories surfaced briefly. Memories he’d rather forget: his mother’s death had always been painful; the loss of his son tortured him still; the flood.
The flood. Five whole years ago. A lifetime washed away in an instant.
He couldn’t… he wouldn’t…
He had to stop being a mole of a man.
Antoine’s zeal took him up from his seat.
The stairs groaned.
Antoine sat back down. If he questioned Catherine she’d lie; she’d fill his mind with half-truths and desultory promises. She’d ever been a duplicitous and manipulative woman. He loved her but…
The rustle of petticoats.
She was almost on him. Her, or the maid, or his daughter, Marguerite. God, a house full of women.
Right then, he’d ask Abbé Davot. It was as simple as that. He’d know what was going on. The afterlife was his territory. Antoine abandoned his post at the table and made off for the church.
Catherine pushed the door open and stood in the empty scullery, queen of all she surveyed.
The interior of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle was dark save for shafts of incense-dusted light filtering through the high mullioned windows. The great stone pillars of the nave rose to the clerestory: the high vault a chamber of whispering echoes where cherubs played amongst intricate decorations and shadows hid a secret gallery.
“Monsieur Montvoisin. To what do I owe this pleasure? You wish to make a confession?” The Abbé Giles Davot was a giant raven of a man.
Antoine waved the idea away.
“I’ve come about the graveyard.”
“Graveyard? You wish for a plot? There isn’t much room.” Abbé Davot’s brows knitted.
“No, not the one here. The one next door, in my garden. They have to be buried somewhere but they’re messing up my grass.” Antoine peered at the priest. The man was an idiot. “It’s quite simple. You’ve been paying Catherine to use the garden and I want it to stop. It’s not right – not in a private garden.”
“Yes, damn you,” and here Antoine glanced over his shoulder, before lowering his voice to a whisper. “Little babies no more than a few hours old. Perhaps even… unborn.” Horrified, Antoine put a hand to his mouth. What had he said? For certain they were there in the ground, so they must have been born, but had someone done away with the contents of each woman’s belly before…. before… He couldn’t bear to think about it. Each new consideration gave him even more grief. Not his Catherine, no, not her. She wasn’t capable. She couldn’t do it. She was a good woman - a good woman with a fierce desire for money.
The priest nodded, as if he knew all.
“I would remain silent on that matter, if I were you,” he said.
Where to go when you need to hide from the world? Antoine knew of nowhere better than the Court of Miracles. This ramble of old houses, dingy courtyards and dubious twisting thoroughfares occupied but a tight couple of acres two streets to the south of Antoine’s home in the Rue Beauregard. A foetid miasma hung in the air like the sulphurous fumes of hell. Most of the ramshackle dens were occupied by cutpurses and thieves, coiners, beggars and fakers. Here, a man could disappear with no questions asked.
Antoine entered beneath the sign of the fan-maker, followed the barrel-vaulted alley with the overflowing conduit, and soon came upon his regular haunt: the cellar of Monsieur Fagioli, an Italian crook of a wine merchant with a penchant for fat women and stinking sausages. Installing himself between barrels and benches, Antoine proceeded to drink himself into a fine stupor. No one bothered him. No one asked to join him, or commented on the weather. In fact, no one cared one jot what he did. It suited Antoine just fine. At around three in the afternoon, with the fog of drunkenness lying heavy on his brow, he sank into a deep sleep and dreamed of dancing girls and acres of silk that wound round and over and under their naked bodies. Several hours later Fagioli rested his hand on Antoine’s shoulder and it was enough to wake the inebriate from his boozy slumber.
“You got a nice fat wife, why don’t you go home?”
Antoine belched. Fagioli removed his hand and wiped it on his apron.
“She’s got herself a cemetery, that’s why,” Antoine muttered. Misery rose in his caw.
Antoine wasn’t sure what he’d said. The world was now a blur of dancing bottles and a whore with more than her fair share of breasts. He half wished she’d swing his way so he could check her out, but then… he waved his hand… maybe not.
Fagioli shrugged. “It’s up to you.”
Antoine closed his eyes. It was warm here. Warm and… He drifted and dreamed and drifted some more.
The very first time he’d met Catherine she’d offered to read his palm. Smitten, he’d charmed her with promises of great fortune, of a big house and a beautiful garden. She reminded him of his mother. She had the same cold eyes.
“When my father dies, I’ll be a rich man,” he’d said.
“It’s not yours then?”
Catherine had given him the fakest of smiles which, nevertheless, had sent shivers down Antoine’s spine. She’d run her fingers through his fine dark curls and kissed him full on the lips. She wasn’t as plump then: voluptuous, but not plump.
“I have the gift, you know.”
“The gift?” Antoine grunted in his sleep.
Fagioli nudged the barmaid. “One too many,” he said.
“What kind of a gift?” Antoine muttered, and in his dream nuzzled the place behind Catherine’s right ear. Her skin was so soft, and her scent so delicious – like roses.
“I read the stars. I consult with the spirits,” said the illusory Catherine.
Antoine laughed. “And what do they say?”
A whiskery old grandfather, sitting at the next table, stroked his beard and gave the dreamer a grave look. Imprisoned by his alcoholic memories, Antoine sank deeper.
“You don’t believe me?” Catherine ran a finger down the stack of ribbons and stopped at the one shot with gold. “Our future has been mapped out for us. There’s no escape.”
The dreamer caught her up and whirled her round. He could do that then. He’d been virile once.
“I believe you, my darling. I believe you.”
Gold ribbon sailed from the roll. A glass-jewelled purse fell open at Catherine’s feet and a bolt of iridescent blue silk unfurled overhead, like the skies of high summer.
“You know your father isn’t long for this world, don’t you?” said Catherine, the riches reflecting in her eyes.
“It’s true. It’s true. He drinks too much.”
The ribbon, snaking long, wound round the gold-digger’s arms.
“There’s more where that came from,” said Antoine.
What a creature. Life couldn’t get much better.
A fat tear ran down Antoine’s face. The vision dissolved. He thumped Fagioli’s table. It was too much to bear. A man shouldn’t have to suffer so. He opened his eyes. The face of the whiskery grandfather swam into view.
“What d’you want?” growled Antoine.
“Nothing at all,” replied the grandfather. “Absolutely nothing.”
“So why the garden? Why? I bought her the house. She wanted to tell fortunes. Said she couldn’t do it in the shop on the bridge. She didn’t need the garden as well.”
The grandfather nodded, sagely.
“I looked for it, I did. But I never found it.”
“What was that?”
“Not a glimmer, not a spark, not any kind of love,” said Antoine. “Cold eyes, she has. Cold.” He raised a finger and pointed it vigorously at his right eye. “I love her though. I do. I love her more now than I ever did, so why the garden?”
The barmaid slammed a jug of rough wine down on the table. Antoine twitched in anger, and poured himself a mug of courage.
He had to do something… say something, but what? He supped his wine. The priest had said to keep his mouth shut, but he couldn’t. Not about this. They were born before their time.
Born before their time! Mon Dieu!
Antoine knocked the jug of wine flying and sent the mug spinning across the table as he rose to his feet. It couldn’t go on. It wasn’t right. Babies were sacred, precious little bundles of joy. God, but he wished he’d been able to save his own son. So many years ago now - so many and yet the pain still remained. Tiny little thing he’d been – hands like perfect pink scallop shells – robin’s egg blue eyes. Died in his sleep Catherine said, but had he?
Antoine made for the door.
What an idiot he’d been.
What a stupid… drunken…
He stepped outside.
A cantering horse almost mowed him down, but due to some as yet unrealised ability on his part to survive any and all predicaments unscathed, it did naught but cause him to fall back into Fagioli’s arms. Twenty or so armed foot soldiers thundered past.
“Mon Dieu. De La Reynie,” said Fagioli. He pushed Antoine aside and shut and bolted the door fast. “Clean. Clear. Secure. That’s the motto of the gendarmerie.”
“The gendarmerie. Come to clear out the old Court of Miracles and make it safe, so they say. Well we don’t want them in here.”
“We don’t. Have another drink,” said Fagioli, and he set Antoine’s mug to rights and poured murky wine into it. Antoine really wanted to go home and confront his wife, but it was a shame to waste good alcohol, and he had a niggling doubt that anything he said would make any difference to Catherine.
“Oh, alright then. Just the one.”
He took the mug from Fagioli, as a knock came on the door.
Fagioli dropped his jug. It smashed on the floor; the wine blackening the stones like old blood.
“The game’s up,” he said, putting his finger to his lips to hush his customers. The grandfather with the whiskers cocked an eye at Antoine.
“You in trouble with the law?”
“I don’t think so.”
Fagioli opened up a trapdoor in the corner of the room. A fusty smell rose from it like old farts. He proceeded to usher everyone down into the black hole.
“Careful now,” he whispered, as assorted crooks tripped and cursed and disappeared into the nothingness.
“Open up,” came the voice from outside.
Antoine peered into the hole. It gave him the shudders and no mistake.
“You too,” said Fagioli. “Hurry up. Hurry up.”
Antoine shook his head. He was no criminal. He had nothing to fear from the gendarmerie. Oh, Catherine… the dead babies… the garden…
No, not even that would do it. Let the gendarmes do their worst.
Fagioli shouted, “I’m coming. I’m coming.”
Barely had he time to throw back the bolts, before a contingent of gendarmes burst in and lay waste to the cellar, overturning and emptying barrels of vinegary wine, smashing plates and glasses, upending benches and tables, and threatening all who remained, save for the whiskery grandfather, who remained seated, a twinkle of amusement in his rheumy eyes.
Fagioli tried to protest, but his cries were wasted on the intruders and so he hid beneath the one table that still stood on four legs. A stool flew at Antoine. He ducked and fell against the barmaid. Lieutenant General Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie strode through the mess his men had created. He cut an impressive figure: tall and well-muscled, but saturnine of face. His bloodhound of a Sergeant-at-Arms followed closely on his heels: Gendarme François Desgrez.
“Who’s the owner of this hovel?” Desgrez bellowed. His face wore battle scars and his eyes pierced the gloom like red hot pokers.
Antoine felt the wall at his back and tried to melt into it. The barmaid buried her head in his chest.
Nervously, Fagioli put a hand up, above the table top. Desgrez reached down and dragged the poor wine merchant out.
De La Reynie stared imperiously at the man now before him.
“You’ve one day to get out.”
“But you promised...”
Desgrez struck Fagioli on the chin. He tottered backwards, collided with a bench and sat down with some force.
De La Reynie gave the cellar a final sweeping look, before he strode from the wine cellar, his men pouring after him like a flood of rats.
Antoine waited for a couple of minutes and then pushed the barmaid to one side. He picked his way across the wrecked cellar and peered out into the alley. The barmaid crept in his wake.
Outside, all was silent, but for a flapping canopy and the caw of a bird.
“Take me with you,” hissed the barmaid in Antoine’s ear.
“Ha,” said the whiskery grandfather. “I wouldn’t hitch your cart to that horse.”
The barmaid cocked her head, hands on hips.
“And why not? We’re finished here.” She nodded at the dazed Fagioli, still slumped on the bench.
“You know who his wife is don’t you?” said the grandfather, thumbing at Antoine.
The bankrupt haberdasher frowned. What did this old man know of his wife?
“You’re married?” The barmaid said to Antoine.
He shrugged. It wasn’t as if he’d never had the opportunity to take a mistress, what with all the women who used to visit his shop. His shop. His kingdom. For a moment his mood brightened. The shop had been gone these five years past. He sank.
“Oh, he’s married alright,” came the grandfather. “And to the most feared woman in all of Paris.”
Feared? What did the old man mean, feared? Antoine closed on the grandfather. Their eyes locked.
“Oh yes. The whole of Paris knows who his wife is.”
The whole of Paris? Antoine twitched. The barmaid took a step back. Fagioli raised his head. Antoine’s chest tightened. Why was it so hard to breathe, all of a sudden?
The whiskery grandfather smiled, his twinkle still bright.
“You’re married to the Angel-Maker La Voisin. Isn’t that right Monsieur?”
Suddenly, the cellar seemed very small. Antoine fled.
In a narrow thoroughfare, close to the river, where the all-pervading stench of the tanneries poisoned the air and seeped into the very fabric of the houses, lived a strange man by the name of Lesage. The environs suited him very well because he fancied himself as something of an alchemist, and where better to obtain the stuff of experiment than a tannery, with its ease of access to all manner of diabolical ingredients?
The nature of business on this forgettable street was so repulsive that few deigned to walk its length. Thus, the scuffed blue door, with the sign of a pentacle scratched on its surface, for the most part, went unnoticed. Behind this door lay Lesage’s laboratory, where he laboured with ambit, cucurbit and retort to manufacture magical substances he said would set the world to rights. For the most part he produced naught but venomous clouds and deadly powders.
Up one flight of steep stairs was his sleeping chamber and up a second, to the eaves, a blackened room, where no light ever seeped. Set against the far wall of this attic space, Lesage had gathered the accoutrement of religious practice. Upon an oaken altar table lay a cloth of thick dark velvet. Atop this rested the chalice, the paten, ciborium, monstrance, luna, theca, ablution cup, pyx, holy water container, an incense boat, bobache and a missal stand. At the rear of the altar stood the tabernacle and either side, lavender coloured candles of pure wax. Finally came a Crucifix, which for the most part remained hidden beneath a silken cloth. Occasionally, for the sheer hell of it, he turned it upside down.
Lesage didn’t just fancy himself as an alchemist: he pretended to be a religious man of the highest order, although he had never been ordained and relied entirely on those of the clergy he could persuade with ready cash to do his evil bidding.
He was expecting five guests, one of whom was his mistress, the Angel-Maker, Catherine Montvoisin. The two masked women that accompanied her were ladies of the court. The remaining two visitors arrived on the heels of the women. These were the officiating priests engaged for the ceremony. While Lesage lit the candles, the priests disappeared into an adjoining room to don their vestments and make ready.
Magical hazel staff in hand, Lesage beckoned Catherine forward and whispered in her ear, “Do you have it?”
She nodded and drew forth a heavy purse, which disappeared beneath Lesage’s grey cloak.
“She must state her desire before the Lords of the firmament. She knows that, doesn’t she?” He nodded at one of the women.
“She is ready.”
“And what of your husband? Have you done the deed yet?”
“Get rid of him,” hissed Lesage. He pursed his lips, as if to kiss Catherine, but thought better of it.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Ridiculous. You poison husbands every day. Why can’t you poison your own?”
The priests walked in and stationed themselves either side of the altar. Even in the low light, one would have been instantly recognisable to Antoine, had he been there, for he was none other than the raven from Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle: the Abbé Davot. The other was the priest from Saint-Severin, Abbé Mariette.
Lesage waved Catherine away and turned to his altar. He muttered a few prayers, tapped his hazel staff on the floor, and beckoned forth the woman he’d indicated earlier.
“You are here to pledge yourself to Satan. In return for your obedience, he will grant your desire. Bare yourself before him.”
The woman unlaced her mask and handed it to her friend, before taking a few steps forward, into the candlelight. Lesage let out a momentary gasp, but covered it well with a cough. He had never before set eyes on Madame de Montespan. Reports of her beauty had preceded her arrival. She was fair of face, with lively eyes and clear skin. Caught in the candlelight she seemed curiously young. Now stepped forward her companion; the willowy Madame Des Œillets. Together with Catherine, they divested the King’s would-be mistress of her clothes. Lesage offered his hand and Madame de Montespan allowed him to drape her across the altar. Madame’s companion then sank away to Catherine’s side. The priests stepped up and began their incantations. Lesage lit a black candle and dripped wax over the naked woman, whilst taking in every aspect of her perfect form. He read the Veni Creator, but paused when he heard whispering. Catherine and the Des Œillets woman had sequestered themselves at the back of the room. He strained to hear their discussion, while all the time making signs of the demons over the supplicant.
“She would rather her enemies die than live to perpetrate further indignities,” hissed Madame Des Œillets to Catherine.
Madame De Montespan moaned.
“What is it you desire?” Lesage muttered.
“The King’s love,” replied De Montespan.
“Nothing more?” Not a death? A death would be quite something. A royal death… well that would win him a place in Hell next to his dark Lord.
“The King’s love is all I desire.”
Lesage sighed. Damn it, but the time was right for murder.
Antoine avoided going home for as long as he could. He wandered the grubby streets and worried about the parlous state of his marriage and about how he still missed his mother - though she’d been dead so many years he couldn’t remember much about her, save her cold eyes.
Cold eyes - like Catherine’s.
The light faded and the bustle of the daytime city made way to that of the evening. Out came the nightwalkers: cavorting prostitutes, dashing young men, drunken cutpurses, and ancient crones. Antoine felt right at home.
A peel of laughter.
Light flooded the footpath.
A door slammed the brightness out.
Murder and mayhem, right under his nose and he’d not noticed. Or perhaps he had. Perhaps he’d just made a choice not to register its existence. He’d been so unhappy since the loss of his shop, it had been hard to notice anything much. He should have paid more attention, but for God’s sake, he’d been born in that shop. He could still see it now: standing midway across the bridge, with its neat frontage, small windows, and solid oak door: business-like with the constant footfall of passers-by. The shop had been a constant and then it was gone - just like that.
Antoine lingered beneath an archway leading to a bakery yard, where the smell of fermenting yeast took him back to his childhood. His mother once sent him for a hot loaf, and he’d eaten most of it on the way back home. He touched his cheek. She’d hit him so hard the half-masticated lump had flown right out of his mouth.
Love of a kind, but not real love. He knew that much.
Rumour had it; on the day of his birth he’d been put in a basket and shoved to the back of a shelf. An old lady told him so, years later. She said he’d been born on finest linen, right there in the shop. “When her time came, she closed up and prepared a cot in the corner.” Here, the old lady had pointed to nowhere in particular and Antoine had turned to look.
“Yes, she cursed and screamed, pushed and panted, while we all cupped our hands to the window and tried to see what was going on. We banged on the door and shouted Are you alright? Do you need help? I saw her face. As red as the King’s heels, it was.”
Antoine had hung on every word the old lady had said.
“When you slipped out, she snipped the cord with her dressmaker’s scissors and dropped you carelessly into a basket of the softest Fontainebleau wool, as if you were no more than an unwanted skein.”
“And then what?”
“And then she opened up the shop, that’s what, but don’t you worry yourself about it, dearie.”
It was at this point that the old lady had given him such a glorious smile he didn’t know what to make of it, save he supposed it was what real love looked like. Certainly, his mother had never smiled like that - not in the way that made the corners of her eyes crinkle and a radiant light shine forth.
The old lady has shown him her heart.
Antoine kicked the wall. A moonlight mouse, its whiskers twitching, peeked out from between a stack of empty flour sacks. It blinked out of sight as a cloud filled the night sky.
There’d been mice in the shop on the bridge. His mother had hated them – had tried to kill them with an iron skillet, running every which way, screaming and shouting fit to bring the shop tumbling down around their ears.
God knew it, but Antoine had tried his hardest to charm a love-filled smile from his mother. For fourteen years, birth to young man, he’d tried, and then she died and his father turned into a raging drunk, and… and… and then, Catherine. She’d had the same eyes as his mother. The exact same cold eyes.
Antoine slid down the wall and sat in a crumpled heap. He trailed a finger between the cobbles, dredging up thick black dirt he couldn’t see properly for his tears and the evasive moon.
“Why did you have to die, Maman?” Why?” Antoine flicked the dirt in the direction of the mouse, who’d long since sniffed out richer pickings elsewhere.
Antoine spat into the cold yeasty air, let out a little sob, found his feet, weighted himself against the wall for a moment and then took off in the direction of the Rue Beauregard and home.
If his mother hadn’t have died, then perhaps he’d not have met Catherine and the flood wouldn’t have come and…
The flood: what a day that had been. He recollected thinking he’d treat himself to a nice quail’s egg and Lord but the shelves had started to wander across the room all by themselves. He’d barely had time to stay their progress when a gulf had opened up in the floor, the roaring water below threatening certain death.
He’d never seen water like it. One plank, then another and another just disappeared – gone! He couldn’t remember how he’d escaped, but he had. He’d stood high and dry on the northern side of the Seine, with his newly developed dread of bridges and a thirst that knew no slaking, watching the river’s filthy tumult, whilst swearing he’d never step foot on a bridge again.
No bridges. Not ever.
Antoine stumbled across a road, the stars glimmering like new cut diamonds in the velvet sky, the air redolent with the acrid aromas of chimney smoke and dung. He rounded the corner and spotted his house: a rambling old place with lime-washed walls and an air of respectability that belied its location. It was something at least. The street was wide and long and angled south-west to north east. The church loomed large at one end and at the other the city petered out, hit the ramparts and passed into countryside.
A good house with a good garden. Never mind the shop, or the bridge, he should be pleased to own such a house.
Antoine crossed the street and slipped inside the gate. He noted the creaking hinge and promised, silently, he’d oil it soon. He skirted the lumpy grass - moles or babies, neither should be there - to listen outside the scullery door.
Perhaps Catherine was abed. If so, then he wouldn’t wake her. He’d leave it until the morning. This house, at least, wasn’t going anywhere. He glanced up at the twinkling firmament. He missed his old life and that was the truth of it. He let himself inside and started up the stairs. Giggles came to him. Joviality? At this hour? He waved it away – took another step. More giggles. Who? Catherine? Had she dared to bring a lover into the house and were they, even now, in the process of…
No! Impossible! Not here! Never! She wouldn’t do it.
Antoine almost fell back down the stairs. The offending fun originated in the fancy receiving chamber. He threw open the door. The sound of furtive fumbling and a shushing greeted his entry.
Someone leapt to their feet. the darkness hid their identity.
“Papa. I thought you were…”
“Marguerite? What are you…”
In the past, Antoine would have turned tail and left his daughter to it, but not now.
“Tell him to come out.”
“Papa,” pleaded Marguerite.
“Young man, make yourself known.” Antoine spoke into a void of withheld breath. The man was there, just a few feet from him. Marguerite’s beau cleared his throat.
“Right now,” repeated Antoine.
“Monsieur, I can explain. I was going to come and speak to you. Only…” A dark-skinned young man stepped out of the gloom.
A stranger? Marguerite’s taken up with a stranger?
“Papa. This is Romani. We’re going to be married.”
Marguerite’s words were too hurried for Antoine’s liking.
“Married? Does your mother know?”
“What does that mean?”
“She knows Romani. She doesn’t know we are to wed.”
“Hmm. Well Romani, you better get going before my wife wakes up. She’s an Angel-Maker. You know that don’t you? Yes. The whole city knows that.” Antoine was amazed by his own sarcasm.
“Thank you Monsieur. Thank you,” said Romani.
Yes, you little bastard, thought Antoine. Romani slipped from the room.
“Why did you say that about Maman?” said Marguerite.
“Because it’s true. Who is this Romani? What does he do for a living?”
“Are you drunk again?”
“Papa, you’re always drunk.”
Antoine sensed her frustration. This too amazed him. Usually, he didn’t sense anything much. Had he believed more strongly in God, he would have looked to the heavens at this point.
“Come sit with me,” he said.
“Because we don’t talk anymore and I miss my darling baby.”
“I’m nineteen years old. I’m not a baby anymore.”
Nineteen? How long had she been a woman?
“You’ll always be my baby,” he said.
There were babies in the garden. Dead babies.
“Yes, well. I will away to bed,” said Marguerite, eventually. She gathered her shawl.
“How long have you known?” Antoine said, when she came level with him.
“Your mother’s sorcery.”
“Well? How long?”
Marguerite nodded and hugged her shawl close.
“Can I go now?”
“Yes, go. Go.” Antoine waved a dismissive hand.
The door shut, the house as fell as quiet as the grave, Antoine sat, broken-hearted, in his wife’s fancy receiving room. It wasn’t enough that she’d taken a lover - and who was he, by the way? No, and it wasn’t enough that she’d turned the garden into a cemetery. No, she had to be the most feared Angel-Maker in all Paris.
A tear rolled down Antoine’s left cheek. He sniffed. He’d sleep walked through the last five years. What he wouldn’t give to see Catherine’s smile.
The flood of tears came and he did nothing to stop it.