Authors: Jean-FranCois Parot
âThe period detail is marvellously evocative, Le Floch is brave and engaging â¦'
âParot succeeds brilliantly in his reconstruction of pre-revolutionary Paris, in splendid period detail.'
âA solid and detailed evocation of pre-revolutionary France â the poverty and squalor, side by side with the wealth and splendour, are brought lovingly to life. And the plot has all the twists, turns and surprises the genre demands.'
Independent on Sunday
âJean-FranÃ§ois Parot's evocation of eighteenth-century Paris is richly imagined and full of fascinating historical snippets.'
ââ¦ the superb Parisian detail and atmosphere â¦ truly beguiles.'
âAn interesting evocation of place and period.'
The Literary Review
Translated from the French by Howard Curtis
Ouvrage publié avec le concours du Ministère français chargé de la culture – Centre national du livre.
This work is published with support from the French Ministry of Culture/Centre national du livre.
For Monique Constant
For those readers coming to the adventures of Nicolas Le Floch for the first time, it is useful to know that in the first book in the series,
The Châtelet Apprentice
, the hero, a foundling raised by Canon Le Floch in Guérande, is sent away from his native Brittany by his godfather, the Marquis de Ranreuil, who is concerned about his daughter Isabelle’s growing fondness for the young man.
On arrival in Paris he is taken in by Père Grégoire at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites and on the
of the marquis soon finds himself in the service of Monsieur de Sartine, Lieutenant General of Police in Paris. Under his tutelage, Nicolas is quick to learn and is soon familiar with the mysterious working methods of the highest ranks of the police. At the end of his year’s apprenticeship, he is entrusted with a confidential mission, one that will result in him rendering a signal service to Louis XV and the Marquise de Pompadour.
Aided by his deputy and mentor, Inspector Bourdeau, and putting his own life at risk on several occasions, he successfully unravels a complicated plot. Received at court by the King, he is rewarded with the post of commissioner of police at the Châtelet and, under the direct authority of Monsieur de Sartine, continues to be assigned to special investigations.
: a police commissioner at the Châtelet
: Lieutenant General of Police in Paris
: Criminal Lieutenant of Police in Paris
: Minister of the King’s Household
: a police inspector
: an usher at the Châtelet
: a police spy
: a police spy
: a former procurator
: his cook
: his servant
: a former canteen-keeper, Nicolas Le Floch’s maid
: a naval surgeon
: the public executioner
: a brothel-keeper
: a prostitute
: the apothecary of the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites
ONSIEUR DE LA
: First Groom of the King’s Bedchamber
: Archbishop of Paris
: the diocese exorcist
: a major in the City Guards
: a Marshal of France
: the city historiographer and librarian
: the King’s mistress
ESTIF DE LA
: a writer
: a dancer
: a furrier, aged 43 years
: his second wife, aged 30 years
: his son from his first marriage, aged 22 years
: his daughter from his second marriage, aged 7 years
: his elder sister, aged 45 years
: his younger sister, aged 40 years
: his niece and ward, aged 19 years
: a Micmac Indian, Élodie’s servant,
: an assistant in the Galaines’ shop, aged 24 years
: the Galaines’ cook, aged 63 years
(known as M
): the Galaines’ maid, aged 17 years
What should have been a day so fair
Becomes a day of mourning.
The smell of death pervades the square
Before the next day’s dawning
A sneering face topped by a red bonnet appeared at the door of the carriage, and hands with blackened nails clutched the lowered window. Beneath the grime, Nicolas recognized the already wizened face of a little boy. This sudden apparition took him back almost ten years to a certain Carnival night just before Monsieur de Sartine, the Lieutenant General of Police, had given him his first case. The masks that had surrounded him then had remained in his memory as death’s heads. He dismissed these thoughts, which merely added to the gloom he had been feeling since the morning, and threw a handful of coins into the air. Delighted with the alms, the apparition disappeared: leaping backwards from the running board of the carriage, it landed on its feet and made its way through the crowd in search of the coins.
Nicolas shook himself like a weary animal and sighed, trying to shrug off his nagging sense of melancholy. It was clear that the
past two weeks had exhausted him: too many sleepless nights, constant watchfulness and the nagging fear that he might be caught unawares by some unforeseen incident. Since the assassination attempt by Damiens, security had been tightened around the King and his family. It was an endless struggle to remain vigilant, and for nearly ten years the young Châtelet commissioner had been in the front line of this struggle, closely involved with matters of state, often secret matters, on whose mysteries he had thrown light. Monsieur de Sartine had entrusted him with keeping a close watch on the royal family on the occasion of the wedding of the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette, archduchess of Austria. Even Monsieur de Saint-Florentin, Minister of the King’s Household, had urged him to give of his best, reminding him, affably, of his past successes.
Beyond the Vaugirard toll-gate, serried ranks of people filled the roadway, frequently impeding the disorderly stream of carriages. Nicolas’s coachman kept yelling warnings, punctuated by sharp cracks of his whip. From time to time, the carriage came to a sudden halt and tipped forward, and Nicolas had to reach out a protective hand to stop his friend Semacgus from smashing his nose against the partition. He could not have said why, but nothing had ever caused him as much anxiety as this unruly multitude converging on Place Louis XV. A wave of impatience seemed to run through this great mass of people, like a nervous shudder through the flank of a horse, as they hurried towards the celebration, eager for the pleasure they had been promised: a great firework display organised by the city authorities in honour of the Dauphin’s wedding. Rumours were rife, and Nicolas was listening out for what people around him were saying. The
provost of the merchants, who was providing the festivities, had announced that the boulevards would be lit up after the display. As if he had read his neighbour’s thoughts, Semacgus belched a few times and woke up, then pointed at the crowd and shook his head.
‘Look at them, so confident in their provost’s generosity! Let’s hope they’re not disappointed!’
‘What makes you think they might be?’ Nicolas asked.
After all these days of anxiety, it had been a pleasure for him to go and fetch Dr Semacgus from the depths of Vaugirard. He knew that the doctor was fond of such great occasions, and had invited him along to Place Louis XV to watch the festivities from the colonnade of the new buildings on either side of Rue Royale. Sartine was expecting Nicolas to report on the event, even though, for once, the city authorities had not called on the services of the police.
‘Jérôme Bignon is not known for caring much about the populace, and I fear these good people may be bitterly
by the celebrations. How times change! You can’t imagine the feasting when the father of our present Dauphin remarried. The provost at the time sent out wagons carrying horns of plenty overflowing with sausages, saveloys and spicy leeks, not to mention the drink … Damn it, people knew how to live in those days, and they really indulged themselves, I can tell you!’
Semacgus clicked his tongue at these pleasurable memories, and his face, already naturally ruddy, turned quite purple. He ought to be careful, Nicolas thought. The man was still true to form, still greedy for the pleasures of life, but he was becoming a
little fatter with every year that passed and tended to doze off more and more frequently. His friends were starting to worry about him, although they did not dare to offer him advice. In any case he would never have consented to lead a more careful life, a life more suited to his age. Nicolas measured his friendship for Semacgus by the degree of anxiety the old man caused him.
‘It’s very kind of you, Nicolas, to have come and fetched this old bear from his den …’ He raised his big, bushy eyebrows – increasingly white these days – in a gesture of interrogation or puzzlement. ‘But … you seem to be in a sombre mood for such a festive day. I’d wager you’re worried about something.’
Beneath his dissolute exterior, Semacgus concealed an acute sensitivity towards his fellows and a great concern for their welfare. He leaned towards Nicolas and placed a hand on his arm.
‘You mustn’t keep things to yourself,’ he said in a graver tone.‘You seem to have something on your mind …’ Then, reverting to his usual manner, ‘Some pox-ridden beauty who left you a souvenir?’
Nicolas could not help smiling. ‘Alas, no, I leave that to my more boisterous friends. But you’re right, I am worried. Firstly, because I’m about to attend a great public gathering merely as an observer, with no mission to accomplish, and no means at my disposal, and secondly—’
‘What do you mean?’ Semacgus interrupted him. ‘Is the finest police force in Europe, held up as an example from Potsdam to Saint Petersburg, at a loss, with its hands tied, incapable of doing anything? Couldn’t Monsieur de Sartine have sent his best investigator – what am I saying, his extraordinary investigator – into action? I can’t believe it!’
‘I see I shall have to tell you everything,’ Nicolas replied. ‘Naturally, Monsieur de Sartine is somewhat anxious – quite rightly, since there are precedents …’
Semacgus looked up in surprise.
‘… Yes, when our Dauphin’s father married the Princess of Saxony. I heard it, of course, from Monsieur de Noblecourt. It happened in 1747, and he was there. There was a firework display in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, which went well, but, because there was an unexpectedly large number of spectators, the streets became congested with carriages and many people died, crushed and trampled. Monsieur de Sartine, who’s always sending for files from the archives, must have read about this and drawn the obvious conclusions.’
‘Of course! So what’s the problem?’
‘The problem is that nobody is prepared to take drastic action.’
The carriage swerved to avoid an old man who was singing, hopping on one foot and accompanying himself on a bird-organ. He was surrounded by a small crowd, who took up the refrain:
We shall give subjects to France
And you will give them kings
Someone in the crowd whistled, and a brawl broke out. Nicolas was about to intervene, but the culprit had already fled.
‘My deputy, Bourdeau, often says Parisians are capable of the best and the worst, and when their patience … Anyway, His Majesty decided to ignore Monsieur de Sartine.’
‘The King is getting old and so are we. La Pompadour used to watch over him. I don’t know if the new concubine is so
thoughtful. He’s in decline, and that’s a fact. Last year, when he reviewed the French Guard, everyone was struck by how changed he was, bent over his horse – he used to be so upright. In February, he had a bad fall while hunting. These are difficult times. But how to account for such a strange decision?’
‘He was anxious for the wedding celebrations to pass off without incident. There are too many sinister omens hanging over this marriage. Have you heard about the horoscope by the Tyrolean astrologer, Dr Gassner?’
‘You know I’m a philosopher. Why should I concern myself with such nonsense?’
‘He cast the Dauphine’s horoscope when she was born, predicting a terrible end for her. And there have been some curious incidents. Our mutual friend Monsieur de la Borde, First Groom of the King’s Bedchamber, told me that the pavilion in Kehl intended to welcome the princess was decorated with a Gobelins tapestry depicting the bloody wedding of Jason and Creusa.’
‘A remarkably tactless thing to do, to say the least. A deceived woman who takes her revenge, Creusa burned to death by a magic tunic, and Jason’s two children with their throats cut.’
‘Well, Sartine was hoping – since it is his prerogative – to have control over the Parisian part of the celebrations. But Bignon had already engineered it so that the responsibility fell to him. The King didn’t want to antagonise the magistrates of a city he hates and which feels the same way about him.’
‘All the same, Nicolas, we shouldn’t judge the city authorities too harshly before seeing them in action.’
‘I admire your confidence. Provost Bignon, whose motto is
has a reputation for being incompetent, vain and stubborn. Monsieur de Sartine told me that when he was appointed the King’s librarian, his uncle, Monsieur d’Argenson, is supposed to have said, ‘What an excellent opportunity, nephew, now you can learn to read.’ The fact that he’s now a member of the Academy has of course only added to his conceit. But that’s nothing compared with how little thought has gone into the preparations for these festivities.’
‘That’s as may be. But are things so bad that you must get into this terrible state?’
‘Judge for yourself. Firstly, these gentlemen of the city haven’t taken any security measures. The whole thing is potentially like a rush of blood to the heart of the capital. Nobody’s even thought about how the carriages are going to gain access, whereas for the least performance at the Opéra, we carefully regulate the traffic on the approach roads. Remember when the new auditorium was inaugurated? We were there together. Remember all the measures we took to avoid congestion and disorder? The French Guards stationed all the way from Pont Royal to Pont Neuf? Traffic flowed easily all the way up to the immediate vicinity of the building. We had thought it all through, down to the smallest detail.’
Semacgus smiled at this royal ‘we’, encompassing both the Lieutenant of Police and his faithful deputy.
‘Secondly, the architect given the task of building the structure for the fireworks didn’t even bother to level the area, which was a building site not so long ago. In places, there are still trenches in the ground, and that’s very worrying. The crowd could easily fall
in. Thirdly, no provision has been made for allowing the distinguished guests – the ambassadors, the aldermen, the city authorities – to gain access. How will they get through this flood of people? And lastly, in defiance of custom, the provost has refused to grant a general bonus of a thousand crowns to the French Guards. So the streets are left to the City Guards, whose one concern over the past few days has been to show off the spruce new uniforms they’ve been given for the occasion by the municipality.’
‘Come now, don’t get so worked up. It may not turn out as badly as you think. The people will probably end the evening making merry on the victuals and wine provided by the provost.’
‘Alas, no! That’s another thing. According to my sources, the city authorities, in their anxiety to put on a firework display even more lavish than the King’s at Versailles, first tried to skimp on the food and drink and finally decided to do away with it altogether.’
‘No food and drink for the people! How stupid can they be?’
‘Instead, there’s to be a fair on the boulevards, but the stallholders have had to pay dearly for their pitches in order to meet some of the cost of the fireworks. You know how expensive such displays are. In short, the omens are not good. What annoys me is that I’m powerless to do anything. I’m here to report on what I see, nothing more.’
‘What on earth is the provost for, anyway?’
‘Not very much. Ever since His Majesty’s grandfather created the post of Lieutenant of Police, he has lost most of his prerogatives. He has a few trifles left, above all managing city property and taking out loans. He also cuts a decorative figure at
ceremonies, with his red satin robe, his split gown – half red, half tan – and matching hat.’
‘I see!’ Semacgus said. ‘He’s like one of those pins or nails that are considered absolutely essential for holding together the parts of a building, but which in themselves are probably worth precisely nothing.’
Nicolas laughed heartily at this jibe. A long silence ensued, during which the noise of the carriages, the cries of the coachmen and the shuffling of the advancing crowd filled the carriage like the sound of rising waves in a storm at sea.
‘You haven’t said anything about the past two weeks, Nicolas. Nor have you told me what impression our future queen made on you.’
‘I accompanied His Majesty to Pont de Berne, in the forest of Compiègne, to greet the Dauphine.’ He lifted his head somewhat boastfully. ‘I rode beside the royal coach, and even received an amused smile from the princess when my horse reared and I almost fell. The King cried, “Steady, Ranreuil, steady!” as if we were out hunting.’
Semacgus smiled at his friend’s youthful enthusiasm. ‘Hard to find anyone more in favour than you!’
‘On the evening of the wedding, there was gambling in the King’s apartments, and the firework display was postponed until the following Saturday because of the storm. It was a great success, a dazzling sight. Two thousand giant rockets and an equal number of bombs. The whole park was lit up, all the way to the Grand Canal. There, a structure a hundred feet high representing the Temple of the Sun, exploded into a thousand extravaganzas. There was an enormous number of spectators, and the official
responsible for the ambassadors had to settle endless quarrels of precedence among the notable guests on the balconies of the palace.’