Excerpt: Chapter One
PARIS, PALAIS-ROYAL, AUGUST 1785
Antoine leaned out the window and smiled with relief. The leaden sky over the city had begun to clear in the late afternoon, offering him hope of escape from a pall of warm humid air. He turned to his companion, who sat listlessly fanning herself, a frown on her face. Something was bothering her, but she refused to talk about it. He was sure it had to do with this evening's scheduled visit to the palace theater in the Palais-Royal. Copywork for him, a meeting with the theater's directeur for her.
"Let's walk to the river, Lélia. It'll do us good."
With a heavy sigh she rose from her chair. "I suppose it would. I feel like I've been in prison."
A few minutes later, Antoine Dubois and Lélia Laplante left their stuffy apartment and strolled in the direction of the Seine. Rain had kept them indoors most of the day. As they reached the left bank, they breathed deeply, taking in fresh summer air scented by pungent whiffs from the city's slaughter house that stood on the opposite bank. Ferries scurried like water bugs back and forth over the glistening surface of the river.
On the Quai de Conti, they stopped for a view of the Pont Neuf, the New Bridge. The broad stone roadway, uncluttered by houses or shops, crossed the downstream tip of the city's central island. Jostled by the crowd coming off the bridge, Lélia gripped her purse with mock anxiety and began recounting an episode she had witnessed a few days earlier in the Palais-Royal, the daring theft of a duke's gold watch in broad daylight.
Antoine listened attentively, relieved that, at least for the moment, she'd forgotten whatever disturbed her.
Arm in arm, they continued along the river on the Quai des Grands Augustins. The book stalls were doing a brisk business now that the rain had ended. Antoine stopped at a stall and began to browse, looking for comic stories he could adapt for the stage. But, Lélia was soon sulking. She had little interest in books. Clothes were another matter. He took her hand. "We have time. Let's go to the Palais-Royal. Look in the shops, have a bit of supper at Café Odéon."
She hesitated for a moment, then agreed. "I'd like that." The lines of worry faded from her brow. Her back straightened. She looked years younger. Nothing satisfied her more than to seek out the latest fashion in the arcades of the Palais-Royal, where celebrated ladies came to be seen. It was enough to gaze at them and to admire or condemn what they wore. They rarely tempted her to buy anything for herself. She had already gathered a large collection of wigs, paste jewelry, and expensive gowns. From admirers, she would say, without blushing.
A flash of doubt seared Antoine's mind. Did he really know her? She hid part of her life from him. Then he gazed at her lively brown eyes, smooth olive skin, full sensuous lips, ample figure. His affection for her flamed up again, as it had in the days of their youth together in Rouen. They locked arms and set off.
Two hours later, they sat themselves down wearily at an outdoor table of Café Odéon, dabbing perspiration from their brows. They ordered wine and cold soupe aux cerises. From their vantage point, midway in the Montpensier Gallery, the vast enclosed garden spread out before them. An evening crowd strolled beneath its ordered rows of trees. Lamps were lit. Shops began to close their shutters. Fashionable men and women gathered in elegant cafés in the Valois Gallery, on the far side of the garden, or in the Beaujolais Gallery, off to the left. Common folk thronged to the low wooden stalls of the Camp of the Tatars, off to the right. Antoine could hear barkers calling out their wares. In windows above the arcades, tiny points of light appeared. There the Palais-Royal indulged every taste from chess clubs to richly furnished brothels.
Some of the fashionable crowd drifted into the Odéon. Lélia glanced with interest at a pair of women in the latest striped silk gowns à la bergère, their hair worn loose, unpowdered. She preferred a more soignée look in this setting.
Antoine finished his soup and leaned back, twirling the last drops of wine in his glass. He glanced to the right. At the far south end of the garden stood the duke's palace. Through breaks in the foliage, Antoine picked out the top floor of the palace theater and counted the windows to where its office was located. He had to spend a couple of hours there this evening copying script while Lélia talked to the directeur. About what? he wondered. He stole an anxious glance at her. She seemed absorbed in picking up scraps of gossip from nearby tables. But a few minutes later, she glanced at her watch, then frowned. "Time to go."
* * *
"Where's Pressigny? That man! He should be here by now." Lélia's voice echoed in the empty rear entrance hall of the palace theater.
Antoine tried to placate her. "Perhaps he's already in the building. The watchman should know. I'll find him."
"Don't be long," she cautioned. "I don't feel safe here."
"I'll be quick." He set off in the direction of the stage. Though he didn't say so, he placed little hope in the watchman, who had left the outside door unlocked and a pair of oil lamps burning on the wall. The man was known to seek out the theater's nooks and crannies to snatch a drink or a nap.
After a brief, fruitless search, Antoine returned to Lélia. "The watchman has probably left. The building seems deserted."
"I don't want to stand here waiting." Lélia tapped her foot impatiently. "Let's go to the fitting room."
With a lamp in his hand, Antoine led the way down the narrow corridor, then opened the door for Lélia. She smiled as she entered the room and inspected a rack of clothes. "Very good! Michou's altered my costumes for tomorrow's dress rehearsal." The actress glanced toward the adjacent dark wardrobe room. "She must have come and gone."
At the open door behind him, Antoine heard a rustle of silk and swung around. In a pale rose suit richly embroidered with silver, his thick curly hair lightly powdered, Chevalier de Pressigny sauntered toward them with studied nonchalance. "I've come from the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes. Devilishly hot. Let's get on with our business." He bowed deeply to Lélia. "Madame Laplante." Mockery danced on his lips. "You wished to speak to me?"
The actress took his measure with cold regard. "Yes, Monsieur le Directeur! We need to clear up a few matters. Right here will do."
Antoine frowned. Lélia surely didn't have just gowns in mind. Her knotted brow was set for battle. With Pressigny it seemed. An uneasy, helpless feeling crept into the pit of Antoine's stomach.
Pressigny sat down, then beckoned the actress to another chair with a crude jerk of the head. Lélia stiffened, her lips tightened. She took off her hat and jabbed the long, sharp pin into the great pile of her hair.
The directeur swung round to Antoine. "Upstairs with you and get to work."
Antoine hesitated, glancing with suspicion at Pressigny. Something was wrong. He searched Lélia's eyes for a clue. "Can I help you, my dear?"
"You'd better leave." She shot him a quick, nervous smile and followed him to the door. It shut with a sharp click behind him.
Antoine climbed the narrow stairway to the first floor and walked out onto the stage. The boards felt gritty beneath his feet, the air musty. The stage hadn't been swept for weeks. He wouldn't complain for fear he'd get the task. He had enough to do. At tomorrow's rehearsal, he'd play the part of a cuckolded clown. He smiled sardonically. Close to the role he played with Lélia at home.
Lifting his lamp, he peered out over the orchestra pit, barely discerning the upper and lower balconies in the distance. During performances, blinded by footlights, he couldn't see them much better. But he'd know an audience was there by the buzz of their conversation, their laughter when amused, their hisses when displeased. After many years on stage, he still found it strange that he couldn't see the faces of the people he entertained, though they could see his.
He glanced into the wings. Dark also. But as he stared, he imagined Annie, his stepdaughter standing there as if waiting for her cue—a willowy young woman in a long shimmering gown. Yielding to the illusion, he put the lamp aside and beckoned her. He lifted his chin, held out his hand, and began a country dance he'd learned in England. He whirled about the stage, round and round until he felt dizzy . . . and realized her presence had left him.
For a moment he stood still, sensing the emptiness of the place. How was Lélia doing with the directeur? They were too far away, the walls too thick, to be heard. With a sigh, he picked up the lamp, climbed the stairs to the first, then to the second balcony and made his way to the theater's office. He sat down at the table, mopped sweat from his brow, and picked up his pen.
* * *
The clock on the office wall struck ten. Antoine sat still, listening to the resonance of the chimes in his ears and then to the faint, eerie creaking of wooden beams and floorboards. Uneasiness crept over him. Nothing was quite so desolate as an empty theater late at night.
The sultry air dampened to a murmur the sounds from crowds milling in the shopping arcades and gardens in the distance. He walked to an open window. Dark clouds hung low over the city, hiding a crescent moon. He looked down into a deserted palace courtyard, a deep, black pit in the heart of Paris. Beads of light from lanterns at the gate below accentuated the darkness. He felt trapped in this place.
Why did the theater's office have to be on the top floor? In the winter, he froze; in the summer, he baked. Drawing a deep breath, he returned to the table, dipped his pen in the ink, and went back to copying the script for tomorrow's rehearsal. He had no choice. Part-time actor, he needed the extra money. He heard his stomach growling.
He bent over the paper, carefully inscribing each letter. The faint light from the oil lamp tired his eyes. He preferred to copy by daylight, but the script had to be ready early in the morning. He finished a line, leaned back, stretched, and glanced round the dingy room, cluttered with unmatched cabinets. Sweat oozed from his body, although he had removed his coat and was working in shirt-sleeves. He had left the door open but the air didn't move. He wiped his hands again, always taking care not to smudge the paper. When Jean de Pressigny directed productions of the Société des Amateurs, he demanded pristine text.
"Finished!" Antoine at last exclaimed. He shuffled the freshly copied papers into a folder and placed it in Pressigny's box. He tapped nervously on the table. It seemed like hours since he had left Lélia and the directeur downstairs. "Need to check my wardrobe," she had said on their way to the theater. He recalled, with a stab of shame, previous evenings when she and the directeur had checked her wardrobe. Tonight seemed different somehow. Lélia was so tense, so angry.
Antoine had worn himself out protesting. She would never mend her ways. Last week he had shouted at her so loudly the neighbors had called in the watchmen and sworn they thought he was murdering her. But, he still loved her. Besides, she brought home more money than he did, and she had persuaded Pressigny to hire him. Seasoned flirt. She could be very persuasive.
Was this the life he wanted, he asked himself. His love for Lélia seemed so one-sided. She used him as she liked and left him for days at a time. And kept much of her doings secret. If he complained, she reminded him they weren't married. She could do as she pleased.
He should have known better than to join her in Paris three years ago, as if he could renew their old romance. It wasn't working out. Perhaps he should leave her and return to London. He felt a stir of hope. His wife Pauline had died years ago, but his stepdaughter Annie still performed in the city and was his best friend. They could be partners again, side by side on Vauxhall's stage, her supple body sheathed in a bright red acrobat's costume. Together they would bow to loud applause like they used to. If only it were not too late. He might be too old, too lacking in confidence to begin again.
He pulled a leather pouch out of his coat pocket, retrieved an oval silver case, and opened it to a pair of miniature portraits. Pauline seemed to meet his gaze as he would always remember her in the first years of their marriage—a kind, intelligent, and healthy woman. He touched the broad gold band on his finger, slowly tracing the intertwined P & A engraved on its flat surface.
His gaze shifted to the portrait of his stepdaughter, Annie. Ten years old then. So much like her mother, fair-haired and comely. And brave. Antoine's mind drifted back to an early summer morning at Sadler's Wells. He had gone to the theater to practice his routine for the evening. Annie had come with him, for she liked to try on costumes in the wardrobe room or play Punch and Judy with the puppets.
As Antoine walked the tight rope, a long pole in his hands for balance, he noticed little Annie watching him, eyes wide, lips parted.
"Can I try it, Antoine?" she called up to him.
Why not, he thought. For her age, she was a strong, agile girl. He found a costume for her and tied the rope a foot above the floor.
She began a slow walk, her face screwed up with determination. She had been watching him more closely than he had realized, for she handled the pole expertly. He stayed near her, steadying her with his hands. After a few successful attempts, she tried to increase her speed. Halfway across, her foot slipped off the rope. With a little shriek she fell into his arms.
Startled but smiling, she looked up at him. "I'll try that again." She didn't fall the next time. Nor the next. She insisted he raise the rope. Before the morning was half over, he had set the rope at twelve feet and tied a net beneath it. She fell a few times but climbed back up to the platform and on to the rope.
At noon, Antoine announced, "Time to go home."
She pouted. "Once more. Let's do the rope together."
He paused for a moment, then consented. It began to dawn on him that he and the girl were becoming partners. He wasn't sure what Pauline would make of it.
Annie went first off the platform, staring straight ahead, body erect. The muscles of her back tightened, working against the weight of the pole. She glided without a misstep to the opposite platform and threw the pole aside. With a squeak of delight she swung around, smiling ecstatically. Her face glistened with sweat.
Suddenly, the vision vanished. "Damn! Today's August ninth! Her birthday's next week!" Antoine struck his forehead a glancing blow. "I'll write to her now." He closed the case, caressing it with the tips of his fingers, and replaced it in his coat pocket.
From a drawer in the table he retrieved the small box of writing paper he stored there. He drew out a sheet and stared at its blank surface. Slowly a feeling of great loss swept over him. How he missed her! He cupped his head in his hands, closed his eyes. Felt pain, felt despair.
Eventually, he straightened, reached out for the pen, dated the paper, and wrote a few lines. Annie seemed so near and yet so far away. A wave of fatigue buffeted him. He was tired and hungry. The pen faltered. He laid it in the ink stand, tucked the letter into the box. He would finish it later.
He drew a fresh sheet of paper from the drawer and initialed it in case the directeur wanted to dictate a new passage for the play. He was usually in such a hurry, so impatient. Antoine bent over the sheet, conjuring up the image of Chevalier de Pressigny. Spoiled, arrogant pup! What on earth could he and Lélia be doing downstairs? In the next moment, he thought he heard footsteps in the hallway. He called out, "Lélia?"