A faulty rhythm clattered from a silver tray, packed tightly with sugar, cream, tea, and iced almond cakes. A ribbon of copper danced around the frilled edge of the teacups. Images of pink roses faded on the bulging sides, exposed on the coffee table to the afternoon sun glaring through the window. The bells were ringing at Ste-Marie-Madeleine, but the children playing in the square drowned them out. Religion had yet to recover from the 1789 revolution: ecrasez linfame, crush the infamous thing. That had been sixteen years earlier, but still the bells called only distantly to Jean Badeau, as though he were submersed in the near River Aix.
Beneath the murky water of a wash tin, Nikolai Volkovs screams rose in bubbles. Jean watched the young actors whole body flail as if in another epileptic fit, struggling against Meursaults weight. Why hadnt they just waited for the man to fit? It was a test
to see if he would actually stand there, stand idly and watch until the flailing ceased.
Across the table, Sylvestre Basset sipped at his tea and brushed aside the stacks of scrawled-on parchment battling the intruding tea tray. A few pages fluttered to the floor near Jeans feet. Sylvestre paused, craned his head forward
but received even less of a reaction from Jean than the papers. Pursing his lips, he shuffled the papers again before adding another lump of sugar to his tea.
Bassets writing had lately proved quite successfulsuccessful enough for an extra lump of sugar despite Englands Barbadian monopoly. But he considered his true calling the circling of subversive pamphlets like those now decorating his drawing room floor. Such writing was very popular in Provence, so distant from the political center of France, a hotbed of infamous tradition. But such writing rarely paidand, when it did, more commonly in beheading than livres. Instead, it was Sylvestres plays that provided the extra lump of sugar. The Emperor had recently visited Provence himselfduring a brief reprieve in his lusty accumulation of German lands. With the states patronage, Sylvestres work paid graciously. Patriotism always did, however secretly sarcastic.
You arent looking well, Sylvestre observed as he finished stirring. He leaned away from the window to ensure the light had not produced the hauntingly sallow countenance before him. But the light was not alone to blame. It blazed amber in Jeans black eyes, and he would have appeared feline, contently sunbathing, were it not for the weak trembling in his legs, the burdened breath struggling against his disheveled lace cravat.
I maintain you are not well enough to travel, especially so far as Prussia. Im surprised you survived the journey from Paris in your condition, what with the roads in just as poor condition! You never have cared for yourself properly.
The light shifted in Jeans eyes, dark again as he met Sylvestres gaze with a heavy-lidded stare. The playwright only smiled, jerking a hand toward the untouched tea across the table. Jean refocused his attention to the teacup before him, studying the stained rim inside. He shook his head, sinking further into the soft armchair that embraced him, stroking the fat pillow nuzzling against his leg. The crocheted filigree scratched pleasantly against his touch, but glancing to examine it, he caught sight instead of his pink, nail-less fingers. They grew stiff under his eyes. He swallowed thickly, as if choking down some invisible gruel, and turned away toward the window again.
Sylvestre huffed, gulping at his tea before cupping it in both hands. Im glad you agree then! And its not only Paris; your brother said youve been ill ever since your return from England. His fingers ground at the faded roses on the teacup. Speaking of brothers often proved uncomfortable between them. Neither had ever outwardly recognized the similarity in their black eyes and long noses, or the fondness Jeans father had shown toward Sylvestres mother when his own wife had left for Bordeaux. As a catholic divorce hadnt been an option.
How you will bear without him, I dont know, Sylvestre continued. Im not as willing to let you do as you please without some rebukesome attempt to redirect you! Especially when you come around just to brood on your losses.
waited, sweet steam curling from the tea to his nostrils, carrying a smell like sawdust until he exhaled it violently again. How could you send Estelle away, Jean? At last she genuinely cares for youhaving your childwhom you shall never know! Do you truly think shes any safer in America, Jeffersons French-loving haven, when the Secret Police are all over England? Think of all the lives you took in Portsmouth! Think of Meursault drowning poor Volkov in broad daylighta wash tin in an alleyway!
You can insist time and time again that youre not a pouffe, but I can tell theres some big, dark secret youve got. Nikolai grinned, powdering his face in the poor lighting behind the stage. And Im just dying to figure out what it is.
Youre just dying to get into trouble, I think. Jean tucked his hair under a blonde wig cut like a medieval page. What does Mr. Dillon think of all this flirting youve been doing? Or are you trying to make him jealous enough to come after me?
Matthew? Oh, hes always jealous. Nikolai dismissed the mention of his Irish lover with a wave of his hand, dusting the mirror with the lead face powder. Now, whats all this trouble about? It sounds fascinating, and Ill bet it has something to do with that fellow you keep meeting up withthe tan one.
Jean met Nikolais crystal eyes in the mirror. Who?
Mmm. You tell me, since youre supposedly not a pouffe, haha!Anyway, if I wanted to get into trouble, I would just get into politics like my father wanted. Did you hear another fellow was stabbed to death last night? In his own bed, too. Rather amusing with the play: Come, thick night! He proclaimed. And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife not see the wound it makes, nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark to cry Hold, hold!
Jean jumped as the teacup clattered where Sylvestre stood it on an empty saucer, freeing and flailing his hands. They whipped along with his tongue like a navy cat. And was your loyalty not uncertain enough? Not to mention the morality of it! Yes, you Jacobins must always consider the morality of your immorality! Sums you send from some distant country will not bring the child to love you, and you will regret not knowing it, just as you come to regret each of your numerous mistakes.
The silence overwhelmed the laughter of the children.
Jean sneered out the window, hand closed into a fist on the pillow. Be quiet, Sylvestre, he murmured at last. This isnt one of your plays. Theres no need to over dramatize everything. Be happy with your wife and children
You criticize me for treasuring ideals more than life, but you do the same damned thing. Estelle is safer now than she would have been here, but you endanger your family every day with those pamphlets and never think twice about it. He waved a hand at the mess of papers. Ideals, he scoffed. Im finished with them. What good have they ever done? I thought I could change the world, but democracy, equalityjust an excuse for new tyrants to wage new wars and repress the exact same people. I am sick of ideals.
But you agree that you are sick. Firing an apprehending finger, Sylvestre smirked and snatched up his teacup again. So you should not go to Prussia. See here, Jean, you appear twice your age already, and your poor disposition hardly helps
The hair cut helps some, of course, but I fear it will not cure you.
This hair cut had been quite against Jeans will, but Sylvestre had insisted then as he did now, Success in espionage hinges on ones ability to blend. You know the Parisian trends are always adopted in England and Germany by the time they reach Provence, and they have! Grecian locks are everywhere. Grecian locks abound! The pope has Grecian locks! That long mop would have made you far too recognizable, and if the government is so eager to reassign you, then clearly your success shall reassure Fouché of your loyalty.
Jean exhaled sharply, shaking his head. Then why are you badgering me about going to Prussia? If I reject the assignment, then Im a dead man. Im certain they still suspect me for Meursaults death, too, and doing anything out of the ordinary will only prove the point. Im sure its exactly what they want. He raised his hand for a moment before employing it to rub his brow. Perhaps theyve run out of ideas now that Ive run out of fingernails.
But if you just
No, dont even bother with your schemes, Jean snapped. Ive already made up my mind, so leave it at that. Its not like talking me into your damned Grecian locks.
I know youre truly quite fond of the style, no need to confirm or deny. Sylvestre smiled. The stretched lips relaxed after a pause, sucked into his mouth. I
have been meaning to speak with younow that you are speakingmore about your brother than your hair. Surely youve noticed by his letters that hes been spending a great deal of time in Marseilles with Mademoiselle Laurent.
I have. Jean shrugged one shoulder, sighing.
Sylvestre lifted his brows. Has he resolved to tell you then?
Tell me what?
Yes, I thought not
You seemed so assured of his company here
but theyre to be married. It seems hes not so shy and self-absorbed as you believed, at least not enough to ward Laurent away.
Jeans lips parted for a moment, but he drew them back together, looking out the window.
He did worry you may not be keen towards the idea, Sylvestre continued, or may somehow be forced into giving his whereabouts. He received a notice of impressment, you see, and I helped him make preparations to leave France. He would have been killed certainly... In any case, hes taken a fair amount from your fathers account to start his life in America. With Estelle already gone and now this, you have to admit things already appear rather suspicious.
Sylvestre watched the bony fingers begin to rub circular patterns on the pillow again, watched the dark eyes stare through the stagnant cup of tea under brows that knitted and unknitted.
I cant just leave, Jean muttered. Its like you said. Theyll find me in America. Theyve already found plenty of rebels in England to cart back here for trial.
For heavens sake, Jean, think of it! Prussias so very cold. Youll catch your death. Come back to the theatre, he begged, punctuating each word with a bob of his head. You were content there once, and an appearance in one of my plays may help restore your reputation. They have to understand if you refuse for your health. Christ, you just got out of prison!
Jean lulled his head to the side, resting it heavily against the side of the armchair. I simply think my health would improve more through years in Prussia than in prison
His eyes wandered, avoiding Sylvestres. All of France is a prison. I need the relief of foreign soil again, for however long it is foreignnew people who can still admire me
who dont know theyve befriended a murderer.
Nikolais blue eyes fixed on his, frozen wide in fear even as he gasped and sputtered, shivering in his sopping shirt. He tried to push Jeans hands away as he helped him sit against the alley wall
but stiffened as he met Meursaults gaze instead. The mans eyes stared unfocused from his tan face. Blood crept up his baby blue vest and white lace cravat.
Sylvestre sighed, filling his teacup again, stirring his sugar. Out the window, he watched the children race around the trickling fountain, listened to their high-pitched laughter. That is a short-lived happiness, Jean, as are the foreign friends you make.
Jean woke to the sound of his own breathing: the rough, quiet sighing as his chest fell, a faint whistling as he inhaled again. It was relieving after so many weeks on the run, but it quickly began to annoy him, as he struggled to keep his eyes shut against the growing light. He rubbed the back of his hand against his nose, sniffling from the irritating hay. Neither the Hanover sun nor her people had roused just yet, though a speckled mare whinnied softly in the blue-grey haze of dawn below the loft where he lay. The sanctuary differed little from the peasant farm he had occupied in Prussia, yet he could feel every difference shooting up his spine, in his bloody, blistered feet, in hisno, that pain he would ignore
That pain he had outrun, outsmarted far too long to consider now.
In his stomach, deep in his stomachonly gnawing hunger. His whole body shook with fatigue from weeks of struggling across the European countryside on scraps. Closing his eyes, Jean plunged a hand into his pocket, withdrawing the last remains of crumbling, spoiled sausage and devouring them, licking the grease from his fingers. His stomach gurgled, burned still, and grunting he squirmed to the edge of the loft, peering over the edge at a wall of burlap bags, corn and oats, standing beside the barn door. He sighed, staring up at the beams again, at the silver glimmer of spider webs in the wan light. His eyes fluttered open and closed, eager to return to effortless sleep, but the pain and banter from his middle interrupted every attempt.
At last scowling and sucking in a preparatory breath, Jean turned quickly on his side, kicking lead-heavy feet onto the first rung of the ladder beside him. Startled, the mare whinnied again and stamped a hoof in her stall. He clung to the ladder, gritting his teeth and shivering with exertion, droplets of sweat appearing on his brow and the back of his neck. Already it ran in his eyes as his arms trembled with the weight of his body, legs clumsily searching for each rung. Halfway down, he cried out, biting onto his bony wrist. Chest heaving, crushing against the wood, Jean muffled himself with a stained cravat, descending swiftly now, desperately now. Andspitting out the filthy raghe gasped as he sprawled at last on solid ground, clutching at his side.
Prussia. Three men in thick black weather coats stood at the door, only one of whom he recognizedfrom the Consulates ball a few years earlier. A haughty scowl, the same the man had worn then, now deepened the manikin lines framing his chapped lips and grey-grizzled chin. In the front of the group stood a younger man with pert features. Carefully arranged brown locks accented the childish snub nose, wide olive eyes, and hairless oval jaw, crafting an image equally deceitful and effeminate. Together, the two men only partially blocked a tall, broad-shouldered man from view, his shadow looming over the threshold.
Allow me to introduce myself, the young fop offered, though he thrust a hand forward toward the entry hall beyond rather than outstretching it to Jean. May we?
Yes, yes, of course. Jean stepped aside quickly to allow them, nodding and smiling to each. May I hang your coats, gentlemen? The weather has proved rath
That wont be necessary. The fop spoke again for the group, leading them into the drawing room and scrutinizing every detail with his olive eyes, trailing well-manicured fingers over newspapers and notes.
Jean interrupted the search as he brought up the end of the procession, crowding the small space. Gentlemen, please tell me if I can be of any assistance. A white sheen spread smoothly down his long nose, across his forehead, where waves of tousled black hair began to stick to his skin. Are we being withdrawn already? Ha, I never thought Id live to see the conquest of all Europe! The Prussian will regret those preparations, I imagine. Shall I fetch a bottle of wine? Its hardly French, Im afraid, but
Monsieur Badeau, the fop interjected. His smile stretched thinly, the exaggeration causing his youthful cheeks and chin to bulge, pinken. Our observations here are not yet complete. Now, youre an intelligent man; youve been expecting this. Your surprise is unconvincing at best. He stooped to sift through the papers on the table, raising his brows as he smirked up at him. Despite what the people in Aix claimed, it seems to me that your acting iswell, lets say quite like your work for the state
You will be returning to Paris for trial and interrogation given a few new developments in your case: the flight of your wife and brother from the country, your leaking of information. Yes, now you are really starting to realize, I think.
Blanching, Jean stuttered to deny the accusations, interrupted by a sardonic laugh. I trust that shackles wont prove necessary to escort you home, Badeau! The fop snapped clapped his hands together in prayer.
I trust you can expect that much, yes! Jean answered curtly, pursing his thin lips. I am as innocent now as you people found before when you released me from prison! My wife, Monsieur, the contemptible whore, left meand stole a great sum of money, I might add. My brother was a loyalist to the monarchy all through the Republic and a Catholic, so I imagine his fondness for the Consulate fell along with Italy. And considering his fondness of my wife, I wouldnt be surprised if that proved the source of this leak and theyd eloped together!
Jean smoothed his hands down his front, exhaling his frustration sharply. Now, gentlemen He licked his lips, smiled.I would be more than happy to produce documentation in Paris to support my claims. If you will excuse me, I will gather my things and leave notice for Monsieur Marot.
Wonderful. Monsieur Gautier will accompany you.
The tower of a man watched him from the center of the floor, nostrils flaring occasionally as Jean played about his bedroom, packing clothes, important papers, unimportant papers. The remaining few he straightened into a stack on the desk, staring out the window into the maze of muddy Prussian streets.
There is one day no dawdling can delay, Badeau, Gautier grumbled at last, checking his pocket watch.
Yes, of course. Jean turned from his scrounging with a sigh, clasping his hands regretfully behind his back. But theres no need to lecture, Monsieur. Im a married man, ha; I know all about the end of days. Even as Jean watched the silver pocket watch, unfolded in Gautiers palm, and listened to the steady ticking, time dragged with his hesitation. The mans other hand, like Jeans, gripped the hilt of a Belgian flintlock.
Resonating over the crackling of paper, the thumps of useless journals against the floor, a pair of gunshots stirred the other visitors from their search. Both drew their own weapons as they raced to the bedroom, thunder echoing hollowly along the wooden floors. There, clawing at the gaping wound in his throat, Gautier slumped in the center of the room, blood dribbling off his lips and chin. A muddy shoe lay abandoned on the top of the desk below the open window, through which Jean Badeau could be seen stumbling and clutching his side as he faded into the faceless market crowd.
Hanover. All this long journey he had struggledthrough all of Prussia and the German principalities, through sending gluttons to the guillotine and murdering like a coward in the darkthrough self-depravation and utter depravity
all to reach this place, Hanover. In the North ships would be departing, Jean imagined, as he stared up at the spider webs glistening in the rising sun
ships destined for every corner of the world.
Perhaps to America, to Louisiana. His brother would glower and roll his eyes over the top of some thick, Greek text, while Jean preached self-righteously on slavery and Estelle complained about the mosquitoes, bouncing their gurgling cherub in her arms.
To start again
Jean smiled as a cock crowed outside the barn. A sandpaper tongue scraped along his numb, nail-less fingertips for the last traces of sausage. Church bells rang out over the hillside, all but hidden by the low, yawning German slurs beyond the door, the busy squealing of the pulley at the well. Everything sounded so distant
as though he were submersed in a nearby stream.