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Authors: Zillah Bethel

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BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
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She scanned the crowd, hoping to catch sight of Laurie and Alphonse with the other National Guardsmen in the choristers' stalls; but they were not amongst them. The candlelight played over a multitude of faces, some animated, some thoughtful, some cheerful, some emaciated; and the stained-glass windows glowed vividly above the stinking mass of warm, wet flesh. If God were a Belleville revolutionary, Eveline decided, what a following He would have! She spotted Laurie and Alphonse next to Tessier the bookkeeper who always kept the minutes in his small, neat handwriting. A table had been brought out of the chancel for him to make his job a little easier; and Laurie and Alphonse were crouched down beside him, presumably keeping his spirits up. Eveline felt her heart beat a little faster and, adjusting her blue merino dress, she cut across an empty pew and approached them via the chancel itself.

‘You look like a drowned rat!' Laurie teased kindly, his eyes sparkling at the sight of her.

‘Thank you very much!' she replied, slipping her hand into his and nodding at Alphonse who raised an eyebrow and enquired if it was raining outside. She was trying to think of a sharp retort when a woman behind told them all to shut up because Citizen Roly was about to take the floor.

‘There have been two denunciations already,' Laurie whispered in her ear, his fair hair tickling her neck. ‘A woman on the Rue Belhomme has been feeding bread to her four dogs. Four, mind! And General Thomas has been accused of playing billiards all day in his luxury apartments on the Champs Élysées.'

Citizen Roly took to the floor, a dapper little man in a black suit with a képi perched on his head. He took out a handkerchief, mopped his brow and began.

‘We are in the 94
th
day of the siege!'

‘
Hurrah
!'

‘And I would like to make it clear first of all that I do not believe the government to be composed entirely of evil-minded untrustworthy criminals. I believe it to be entirely composed of a bunch of incompetent imbeciles!'

There were titters at that and Tessier scribbled furiously, beads of sweat breaking out on his brow. He had developed his own peculiar form of shorthand – the system Léon as he called it – which replaced words with symbols of his own choosing. For example, enemy was a cross, friend was an upturned smile, hurrahs were upturned pointing arrows, boos were downward, hello was a pair of eyes and the government a question mark. Unfortunately, because he had never produced a comprehensive guide to the system Léon (and in any case was adding to it day by day) his shorthand was completely indecipherable to anyone but himself

‘We've been hearing about Trochu's plan for the last three months,' Citizen Roly went on. ‘Well, where is it? What has happened to it? Has it flown off in a balloon?'

‘
Ha Ha
!'

‘Being a Roman Catholic, does General Trochu think he ought to run it past God before he puts it into action?'

There was general hilarity at that and the woman behind Laurie and Eveline slapped her thighs. ‘Run it past God,' she guffawed. ‘Did you hear that!'

Laurie squeezed Eveline's hand and she managed to keep a straight face by concentrating hard on Citizen Roly.

‘Let us hope a pigeon brings it home before a Saxon eagle swoops,' he concluded sombrely.

‘
Hear Hear
!'

‘And what of the armies that were supposed to come to Paris' rescue? Have they all flown off in a balloon? Presumably they haven't starved to death like the 15,000 inhabitants of the city have done in the last three months!'

Shocked exclamations. Tuts. A barrage of boos.

‘We were told yesterday that operations were suspended because of the ice. Ice, ladies and gentlemen! We are not trains running on timetables! We do not need to suspend operations because of the ice. Our forefathers fought at Sébastopol. I think we can suffer a few chilblains and chapped lips for the sake of our nation, for the sake of liberty!'

‘
Hurrah! Hear Hear
!'

The organist struck up a few bars of the
Marseillaise
and Citizen Roly climbed down to great applause. Laurie took the opportunity to whisper in Eveline's ear that he'd missed her terribly and wanted her to come to his rooms after the meeting; she coloured up and nodded in agreement. Then he went off to get her a drink and maybe a bite to eat if there was anything remaining on the altar table other than crumbs. She felt quite lost without him, standing in between Alphonse and Tessier. Tessier was huffing and puffing over his minutes and Alphonse was looking very earnest and attentive though at one point she could have sworn he was staring at her legs. They felt very hot and pink in the warmth of the candlelight and she wished for the second time that night she'd wrung the little urchin's neck.

Next up was a very serious and sober-looking gentleman who worked at the Cail engineering plant, so he said, and was a father of four. He thought that the problem was not (as Citizen X had claimed the other week) a lack of weaponry or even an old and dilapidated arsenal. After all, statistics showed – if the audience would just bear with him he had the statistics at his disposal though he could not quite say where they came from – Ah yes: 300,000 cartridges were being produced every day; 300 cannon had already been manufactured in Paris which worked out at about 21 a week; and a large number of
mitrailleuse
6
 
– he could not say quite how many but it was a great many and they must take his word for it. And if you did not believe the statistics which were ahem perhaps a little inconclusive… well… everyone knew that the bells of St Denis cathedral had been melted down for cannon and you only had to walk down the Rue de Rivoli and hear the hammering from the basement windows to know that work was afoot. No, it was not, he felt, the weapons so much as the training that was the problem. After all, they were a nation of shopkeepers, artisans, factory workers, artists… they had not been taught how to fight. With the best will in the world they were not trained soldiers. A small point, he knew – coughing and aheming – but worth making all the same.

‘That was short and sweet,' muttered Laurie as the man climbed down, inclining his head to the muted applause.

‘He's a good sort,' the woman behind remarked knowledgeably. ‘You can tell by the state of his breeches.'

‘I've got a statistic for him,' an old man growled under his breath. ‘10,000 Remingtons imported from America each week that were used in their civil war. If that's not old and dilapidated I don't know what is. I bet the only weapon he's fired is his own ruddy pencil. Training? He wants potty training!'

‘Why didn't you say something,' demanded the woman behind. ‘It's no good blathering about back here. No one can hear you!'

Eveline took a gulp of the fiery liquid Laurie had brought in a dirty wine glass and watched Alphonse take the floor. The church quietened down at the sight of him for he was well known and well liked and many believed he had a glittering political career before him.

‘I agree with all the points that have been made so far this evening,' he began softly, his hands resting on the lectern, his strong face calm and composed. ‘It is true that this government is at best incompetent; that our generals issue orders and counter orders and in their arrogance carry maps of Germany in their pockets when they couldn't even find their way around the Place Vendôme. I imagine Bismarck is laughing his head off.'

‘
Hear Hear
!'

‘We wait for Trochu's plan, for the government to act, to be attacked. We stand at our fortifications, look through our telescopes and wait.'

Eveline wanted to shout out that it was the women who queued for hours and hours in the snow, the rain, the mud, for a measly ration of soup; that it was the women who waited always, always waited for the men… and her eyes blazed with the fiery liquid and the thoughts his words provoked in her.

‘This government would wait till doomsday and then say the course of events had been inevitable. The course of events is NOT inevitable. The course of events is NEVER inevitable. We are masters of our own destinies.'

Thunderous applause. Bravos. Hear Hears.

Alphonse held up his hand. ‘We have come so far. We have a Republic, it is true.'

Cries of
vive la République
.

‘The monarchy has gone. The Tuileries is now the Property of the People. We have come so far. We have rid this country of a noxious weed, a regime based on corruption and greed. Luxury built on rottenness.'

‘The Duc de Morny's hair all fell out!' an old gentleman in a waistcoat shouted out. ‘That's a sure sign of the pox!'

There was wild cheering at that though nobody quite knew what they were cheering for.

‘Indeed it is,' smiled Alphonse. ‘A sure sign of the profligacy of the rich who take their pleasures with YOUR gold. A sure sign of the oppression of the poor. A luxury built on YOUR sweat, YOUR toil, YOUR blood. Do you want to have a decent share in your own wages?'

‘
YES
.'

‘Then you must stop waiting and start acting. This government – this government would make a deal with the Prussians and restore the monarchy. WHY? Because most of its members served under it. Nepotism, sinecures, flatterers down to the lowliest most obsequious boot licker. And that is why the members of this government are pussyfooting round Prussia like a bunch of cats who've grown fat in their mistresses' laps!'

‘Mistresses,' shouted the old gentleman in the waistcoat again. ‘I've counted them up. He's had more than has ever been recorded in the annals of history ever. Sixty-six to be precise and those are the ones accounted for. Who knows what goes on in his
loge intime
. A few one-night wonders I shouldn't wonder!'

‘We are no longer talking about the Emperor,' the old woman behind remarked a little tartly. ‘We are on to the Republic now.'

‘Republic, yes,' agreed Alphonse. ‘But we might as well call it the Emperor for all the difference it makes. We've come so far but we must take the next step. Do you want to be masters of your own fate?'

‘
Yes
!'

‘Then wake up! It's a new day! Wake up!'

Laurie smiled to hear their old wake-up call. The one they had used to wake the factory workers and fruiterers, market traders and fancy hat-box makers in the early hours of the morning.

‘We must stop waiting and start acting. This day. This moment. It is time to take the next step. We must form an assembly and elect an executive body…'

‘
Hear Hear
.' A burst of feeble applause.

Alphonse stopped, as if he felt he'd gone too far and his voice changed, becoming softer, more compassionate, on intimate terms with his listeners. ‘We live in changing times. Strange and puzzling times. But that does not mean that we need to be afraid. It is only when we wait that we are afraid. It is only when we let others take charge of our own destinies that we need to be afraid.'

The audience was hushed, hanging on to his every word. Even the drunk and disorderly Guardsmen were standing to attention in the choristers' stalls and the ragamuffins in the lonely back pews were swaying but still awake.

Alphonse's voice changed again. ‘Alright. Enough,' he almost barked as if he had grown tired of his own high-flown words. ‘While the government sings the praises of Trochu's plan yet never puts it into action; while the men in white coats at the academy work on smallpox germs to send to the Prussians; and while the great minds of the university debate the provisioning of besieged towns in antiquity… we had better get on with starvation and reality as best we can!'

The relief was palpable. Nerves strung up like violins were let down and subsided into laughter. The
Marseillaise
struck up again and everyone broke into song.

‘Well done!' Laurie congratulated his friend, his eyes full of admiration. ‘That was grand, really grand. You had them in the palm of your hand.'

Alphonse shrugged. ‘Could have been better – but I got a little distracted by one or two members of the audience!' He patted Tessier on the back and grinned at Eveline. ‘Don't have apoplexy over it old man. It doesn't really matter.'

Eveline stood weak kneed with the fiery drink and the thoughts his words provoked in her; and she watched him disappear into an admiring throng.

The mood in the church seemed quite changed after that. What had started off as a sombre, almost pessimistic little affair had turned into a festival, a free for all. Képis were flung in the air, eloquent gestures bandied about. A group of National Guardsmen made a ridiculous spectacle of themselves by doing the can-can down the nave and around the altar table though nobody seemed to care. Friends swore loyalty through thick and thin; enemies shed tears, embraced, broke up again all in a matter of minutes while sweethearts promised love and favours for an eternity. After the fiery drink and fiery words, any obstacle seemed surmountable. In the warmth of the candlelight, every battle won.

BOOK: Le Temps des Cerises
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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