Excerpt: Chapter One
A WOMAN IN DISTRESS
Paris, 31 May – 1 June 1791
'Madame Cartier, there's a priest to see you.' The servant's voice registered a note of surprise. Clerical visitors rarely came to call on Anne Cartier, never in the morning and unannounced. For a moment she was taken aback. Her mind was occupied with household duties. Neither she nor her husband moved in ecclesiastical circles, nor were they "devout." So why would a priest appear at her door?
'Did he give his name?' Anne asked.
'O'Fallon,' the servant replied. 'Father Denis O'Fallon from the Oratory at the Louvre on Rue Saint-Honoré. His servant Patrick is with him.' 'Show them into the parlour. I'll meet them in a few minutes.'
Anne knew Denis O'Fallon, and his servant. Nonetheless, she was apprehensive. The priest was a reserved man and this was the first time he had ever called on her. What could be the matter?
While dressing, she called him to mind. A friend and patron of the late Abbé de l'Épée, founder of the institute for the deaf, O'Fallon also supported his successor, the Abbé Sicard. Anne had made O'Fallon's acquaintance at the institute, where she tutored young deaf children how to sign. Initially, he kept her at a distance, probably mindful of her previous career as a London music hall entertainer. Then, one day he came to a public program where Anne and a young deaf girl demonstrated Épée's method of instruction in signing. Afterwards he had complimented her.
Receiving a favourable report from Épée, he began to treat her with respect, greeted her with a smile when they met, and questioned her on problems that deaf students faced. Finally, he had asked her to tutor his deaf servant Patrick at the institute. The priest had legally adopted the young man and given him the O'Fallon name. For the past two years she had taught him to sign. The priest seemed genuinely pleased with his progress. As she entered the parlour, he was standing with Patrick in front of a map of the British Isles, aiming his cane at London. Anne had hung the map on the wall as a reminder of where she came from and a starting point of conversation with visitors.
Anne nodded toward the map. 'It reminds me of home in Hampstead near London. You may know that my family is Huguenot. They fled from Normandy, the French king's dragoons snapping at their heels.'
The priest smiled wryly. 'Yes, the Abbé de l'Épée told me your story. He was sympathetic, having experienced persecution himself.' Anne recalled that, due to theological differences, the Archbishop of Paris had barred Épée from serving as a priest and prevented his institute for the deaf from moving into the more spacious rooms of an abandoned convent.
O'Fallon pointed to Ireland on the map. 'It's almost forty years ago to the day when I left, a lad of fifteen, to escape English oppression of Irish Catholics. The English king confiscated my family's estate and turned us out penniless. I found a new home in the French king's service.' His tone was nostalgic. Still he glanced at her with a hint of mischief in his eyes. They knew each other well enough to tease on the sensitive subject of religion. O'Fallon was a tall, gaunt man and looked much older than his fifty years. In his youth he must have been strikingly handsome. His facial features still had a classic structure. His body, once robust, was now frail and bent. A plaster cast supported his badly damaged spine and stiffened his neck. This added to the impression that he was aloof in his manner and rigid in his convictions. Frequent pain had deeply creased his brow.
With the aid of his servant, the priest let himself down into a chair and went directly to the point. 'Madame, I'm seeking help for Marthe Boyer, a deaf woman in a difficult marriage. Her husband is a violent, domineering man, an impious atheist, and founder of a small radical political club, "Citizens for Equality." Yesterday, my servant heard of her distress and brought her to me. Unfortunately, I can't be helpful to her. I'm involved in public controversy with her husband. He would strongly object to a priest, especially me, becoming involved in his private affairs. He's also jealous and spies on her. I don't want to make her situation worse. He would surely beat her.'
'Poor woman! Tell me more.'
'She's twenty-five years old, the daughter of a prosperous butcher in Rouen. She had worked alongside her father until his death. He left the business to his son and provided a dowry for her. Five years ago, Monsieur Jacques Boyer married her for the dowry and to cook and clean. A year or two into their marriage, a sickness took away her hearing.'
'What can I possibly do for her?'
'I'm not sure. However, you have often helped other deaf persons in distress. Would you look into this matter?'
'Be cautious. Avoid her husband. Today, my servant will contact the woman and arrange a meeting with you. Where should it be?'
'Tomorrow at midmorning, I'll be at the little Puppet Theatre in the Camp of the Tatars in the Palais-Royal. She'll be safe there. We'll get to know each other and I'll find out if I can help her.'
* * *
The next day, the Palais-Royal's ramshackle commercial gallery known as the Camp of the Tatars seemed busier than ever. Shoppers thronged through the narrow aisles between its wooden stalls and shacks. At midmorning, the puppet theatre was usually closed. Anne opened it now-she was its co-owner and a partner in its productions. She and her deaf artist friend Michou had arrived a few minutes early to observe Madame Boyer as she arrived.
At the door the woman threw a quick look over her shoulder, then slipped inside. A minute later, Anne and Michou introduced themselves and sat opposite her on a wooden bench. She understood their simple signs. Since she had lost her hearing only recently, she could still speak well. Anne detected a Norman accent.
The woman was petite and lively, and seemed resourceful. Her features were plain, her manner awkward. After all, she had spent much of her life before the marriage slaughtering chickens and chopping meat in her father's shop. She appeared ill at ease with Anne, a police colonel's wife. Her eyes had a wary look.
Michou leaned forward and offered her a sketchbook and a pencil for comments. She accepted them with a grateful smile and a conversation got underway. The woman was intelligent, could read and write, and was well informed. In the early years of their marriage-before her deafness-her husband was eager to educate her. They discussed books, heard lectures, and went to theatres. Now, she and her husband communicated rarely-and mostly by simple written notes and gestures.
'Alas,' she exclaimed, 'He treats me with contempt. I protest in vain that being deaf is not my fault. We haven't slept together in months. When he looks at me, his eyes are so hateful. I'm afraid of him. Sometimes he beats me.' She pointed to an ugly bruise on her cheek. 'I think that he would like to get rid of me. He says that he wishes he could live with a real woman.'
'How did you come to meet Patrick?'
'He's deaf, like me. Patrick and I used to see each other in our parish church, Saint-Eustache. I went there to pray when my husband was out of the house. We'd meet also in the garden of the Palais-Royal. Patrick always greeted me with a smile. His good humour put me at ease, cheered me up. Unlike my husband, Patrick was always patient and helpful even if I misunderstood his signing and gestures. With him I felt like a normal person again.'
'On Monday, Monsieur Boyer beat me again. When he left the house, I went to Saint-Eustache and met Patrick. This time I confided in him and he brought me to the priest O'Fallon at the Oratory.'
'Do you have friends or family to whom you could turn?' Michou asked. A sadness dulled the luster of Marthe's eyes. 'I have few acquaintances in Paris, and no close friends. Since I've lost my hearing, my brother in Rouen regards me as a useless burden.'
'What's Monsieur Boyer's Christian name?' Anne asked.
'Jacques.' She explained that he was thirty-five years old, the illegitimate son of a brilliant, dissolute lawyer. 'My husband is very touchy about his birth. He claims it's as honourable as anybody else's. Even a hint of disrespect makes him angry and quick to strike back. He was proud of his father who gave him a good education in languages, law, literature, and philosophy.
Madame Boyer frowned. 'He has good manners, fancies himself a gentleman, and he's bright. But his character is another matter. He's conceited and headstrong. His ambition is one day to play a leading role in Paris. He claims to speak for the oppressed common people of the city.'
Anne raised a sceptical eyebrow. 'Really?'
'Yes,' Marthe replied. 'He can be persuasive and has a small following in his club. Some of the city's poorest, most ignorant and desperate people trust him. He can actually speak their jargon.'
Anne cast about in her mind for the right way to help this woman. Could her marriage be saved? Or was a legal separation the only reasonable solution?
Michou looked up from her sketchbook, wrote a quick note, showed it to Anne, and handed it to Marthe. 'How do you feel toward him?'
The woman's jaw stiffened, her eyes narrowed. 'I hate him and wish he were dead,' she exclaimed, then wrote it out in large, bold letters in the sketchbook.
Anne and Michou flinched together at the woman's vehemence. 'I must study your situation,' Anne said. 'Let's meet here again in two days.'
Madame Boyer shrugged agreement. Still there was a glint of hope in her eyes.
'Father O'Fallon mentioned that your husband spies on you. Could you tell me how? For safety's sake, I had better know.'
Marthe nodded. 'A month ago, Monsieur Boyer hired this little man. I call him, Monsieur Rat-face. He's very short and bandy-legged, with a long pointed nose and a small, receding chin, a thin grey moustache and narrow, squinting eyes. He wears a shabby grey coat, soiled grey breeches, and a grey knit cap. He usually stands across the street from our entrance. I can see him from our window. Whenever he thinks Boyer isn't watching, he tipples. By nightfall, he's often wobbling drunk.'
'Appearances can deceive,' Anne cautioned. 'He may only pretend to be drunk and may notice more than you think. He also may have associates whom you don't recognize.' Anne suspected that the spy's slovenly appearance and his apparent inebriation could be meant to lull Marthe into feeling safe and tempt her into careless, unguarded actions.
For a moment Anne's remark seemed to give Marthe pause. Then she signed, 'He just can't be that clever.'
It was time to leave. The women got up from the benches and Anne led Marthe to the door. 'By the way,' Anne asked. 'Where might we find your husband this afternoon?'
'He usually meets with acquaintances at a table in front of Café de Foy in the garden of the Palais-Royal.'
After she left, Michou and Anne remained in the theatre for a few minutes. Michou had sketched the woman. Now she showed the sketch to Anne. A toxic mixture of bitterness, desperation, and resentment seethed in her eyes.
'Her husband could indeed be the devil's nephew,' Michou signed. 'But she might exaggerate.'
Anne nodded. 'We'll gather more information about him and form our own opinion.'
* * *
Anne and Michou left the puppet theatre and walked across the garden of the Palais-Royal toward Michou's studio. She would put the finishing touches on her sketch of Marthe Boyer. Suddenly, Anne heard a man's voice calling out to her from a distance. At first she couldn't recognize him. As he came closer, she saw that it was Dr. Philippe Pinel, the city's most respected expert in the treatment of mental illness. He seemed anxious to speak to her. Michou excused herself and continued on her way.
'Madame Cartier,' the doctor began, 'I'm sorry to intrude, but I need to speak to you.'
'Of course, doctor. I have time.' He rented a couple of chairs and they sat in the shade of a tree.
Pinel began. 'You surely recall Mademoiselle Renée Gros. I'm concerned about her.'
'I remember her very well, a small, wiry, clever young woman with a troubled spirit.'
A prostitute and petty thief, Renée was beaten by the police, imprisoned, and nearly died. Anne rescued her from the infamous Salpêtrière hospital and put her in Pinel's hands. He diagnosed her as suffering from mania and depression, brought her to his clinic and treated her according to his enlightened, humane views on mental illness. That was almost three years ago. Anne had recently wondered how she was doing.
'What has happened?'
'She ran off-about a month ago. I've lost touch with her.' Pinel explained that Renée had greatly improved under his regime of baths, good food, music, engaging work, exercise, and compassionate counseling. 'After a year, she was feeling healthy and became restless, so I found work for her as a maid in the hôtel of Marie Brignoles, the Princess of Monaco, on Rue Saint-Dominique. When the princess fled the country last year and leased the hotel to the British ambassador, I persuaded his steward to continue to hire Renée. I don't know why she left. Her work seemed to please her. The steward thinks a man lured her away.'
'That's likely,' Anne agreed. 'Old habits are hard to break, even vile, degrading ones like prostitution. I fear for her. I'll inquire among her former associates and let you know if I learn anything.'
'She's been a challenge,' said Pinel. 'I'd hate to lose her. That would truly be a pity.'