Octave adjusted his white English-style wig, which was combed back with fake nonchalance. He studied himself in the mirror. Pale grey eyes, pinched nostrils, a lipless mouth. His neutral face lent itself to change, and it made him smile. “I can play any part I like,” he thought with satisfaction.
Just then there was a knock at his door and someone called his name. Octave drew back the bolt and opened the door to reveal Marquis de la Grange, the former commander of the Vendeé, who had been involved in several failed conspiracies and who was now plotting in Paris, beneath the very noses of the imperial police. Tall, lean, rather severe, wearing a blue woolen frock-coat with an astrakhan collar, the Marquis had not visited Octave’s apartment before.
Octave occupied a long and sparsely furnished room on the first floor of the Hôtel de Salerne, in the rue Saint-Sauveur: a candlestick on the pine table, a bed, an enormous wardrobe. The velvet of the armchairs was as faded as that of the canopy of the bed, and Octave had to make do without a valet or chambermaid, with logs piled up beside the fireplace.
The velvet of the armchairs was as faded as that of the canopy of the bed, and Octave had to make do without a valet or chambermaid, with logs piled up beside the fireplace.
“But they are both temporary and discreet.”
“I grant you that, and in any case I’m not here to inspect you but to give you a warning.”
“Has someone spotted me?”
“No, no, don’t worry about that. The bluebottles down at the Préfecture are far too stupid to do anything of the sort. I wanted to tell you that we appear to have managed a complete revolution.”
“A revolution . . .”
“In the astronomical sense: the return of a planet to the initial point of its orbit.”
“Meaning that we are about to return to our startingpoint: the monarchy.”
“I still don’t get what you’re on about.”
“I’ll take you there, and then you’ll understand.”
The Marquis lifted Octave’s three-cornered hat from a peg, threw him his coat, thrust his own wide-brimmed black felt hat back on and dragged Octave to the staircase.
Outside the front door, in the rue des Deux-Portes, a rented cabriolet awaited, a large number painted on its door. The coachman asked no questions, since the journey had already been decided: the coach—amid a great din of wheels, tinkling bells, hoofs and curses, all of which discouraged conversation—was taking them to the Louvre.
On that Monday, 29 March, the weather was finally clear after weeks of fine and freezing rain. Once they had reached their destination, the Marquis took Octave’s arm and the two men passed beneath the arch, a crowd of a hundred or so onlookers stood and watched.
Squat, melancholy and austere, the Tuilerie Palace completed the two wings of the Louvre Palace and separated it from the Jardin des Tuileries. That morning, the Place du Carrousel was filled not with its usual parades, but with a great hustle and bustle. As always, there were large numbers of grey-caped cavalrymen in attendance, but they stood motionless, impatient, alert for an order.
As Octave and La Grange mingled among the spectators, a fellow with greying sideburns, dressed as a bourgeois, came over to them and murmured by way of explanation, “Marquis, the ground-floor French windows, towards the Pavillon de Flore, were lit before dawn . . .”
“And where does that leave us, my dear Michaud?”
“The move is happening, and happening quickly, as you can see.”
In Empress Marie-Louise’s apartments, valets in green livery were wrapping chandeliers, while others carried numbered cases, clocks, tables, passing gilded chairs to men clad in overalls, who were loading them on to vans and wagons. Further behind, lancers and grenadiers of the Guard stood around the twelve berlins, harnessed since morning, and the coronation carriage, covered with tarpaulins. The Marquis was delighted.
“They’re sneaking off with all the silver and the crockery, like thieves.”
“But they are thieves, Marquis.”
La Grange turned towards Octave.
“Michaud’s a printer, an active member of our Committee.”
“Very well,” replied Octave, “but if the Empress is leaving Paris, does that mean the end of the Empire?”
“Of course it does, my dear sir, of course it does, because the government will come apart at the seams.” Then, to Michaud: “The Chevalier de Blacé is arriving from London, he’s been following our dealings from a distance.”
“Ah!” said the printer deferentially.
Standing next to them, a red-haired man in a patched waistcoat muttered, “Off they go.”
As he spoke, a yellow-faced, bent-backed beanpole dressed in an embroidered outfit from another era descended the palace steps, accompanied by his two confidants. The three climbed into the first berlin, followed by a young woman with hollow cheeks and fat lips, and a fair-haired child who struggled in the arms of an equerry before clutching the wrought-iron railings and howling at the top of his voice. For the benefit of the London envoy, the Marquis leaned forward and commented: “The one with the wig is Arch-Chancellor Cambacérès, the second most important person in the regime. The lost-looking young woman with the hood is Empress Marie-Louise . . .”
“And the child is the King of Rome,” said Octave.
With the armoured berlins at its head, the procession now passed slowly through the gate of the Pont-Royal, followed by the luggage carts and the vans and their cavalry escort. The onlookers dispersed, their faces uneasy; some—Octave and the Marquis among them—strolled towards the Quai to see what was left of the Imperial court leaving for Rambouillet.
“That’s the end of the usurper,” said the Marquis. “But you don’t seem all that convinced.”
“Where is he?”
“Bonaparte is finished, my dear sir. So let’s get going! He’ll pick up a reduced and exhausted army between the Marne and the Seine; after three short-lived attempts at grand gestures he’ll hesitate, he’ll make a wrong move, then he’ll push into the devastated Champagne region with a few children who couldn’t load a musket if you paid them to, with the dubious support of a few goat-whiskered veterans. They’re finished, I tell you!”
“But we haven’t won yet.”
“We’ll see about that. We’ll run and tell our friends about the flight of the Empress, and then we can discuss what to do next.”
“You’ll have to guide me, I’ve forgotten my way around Paris.”
“You’ll see, it’s filthier than London.”
“I already have: take a look at my boots.”
* * *
Although La Grange was delighted with a situation which he believed served the interests of the royalists, most of the rest of the population lived in fear of invasion. Carried on the north wind, the sound of cannon seemed to be getting closer from one hour to the next; gangs of beggars and wounded men wandered the streets of Paris, and contradictory rumours circulated. One newspaper supplied the name of Russian generals killed in combat, another called the people to resist, to protect the capital: “Arm yourselves with arsenic, poison the fountains and wells, slit the throats of the Prussians in their beds with your cutlasses!”
On the Pont-Neuf, at the Palais-Royal, conmen in the pay of the police tried to mobilize people by fear, like this hoarse old man, standing on a stepladder: “I was in Rheims, I saw the Cossacks, they’re raping the women over their husbands’ bodies, they’re getting the girls and children drunk before grilling them over their bivouac fires and then throwing in exploding cartridges!” The theatres and shops were closing; bricklayers and joiners hurried through the streets to install hiding-places for jewels and gold in the homes of the bourgeoisie. Crowds gathered around the proclamation that Joseph Bonaparte—who was now in charge of Paris—had ordered to be posted on the walls: “The Emperor,” it read, “is marching to our aid!” One sceptic improvised a song:
Good King Joseph, pale and wan, Stay a while and save us! And if you don’t, then leg it While the foreigners enslave us!
One had to go to the boulevards to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Thousands of peasants were flooding towards the capital, driven out of their homes by the advancing allies who were ravaging the countryside, and Octave and the Marquis found their progress hindered by a crush of carts piled high with pots and pans, furniture and blankets. Strapping young men in straw-covered clogs led herds of cattle and sheep through the chaos. Weeping women and children bunched up in a horse-drawn wagon. The most fortunate rode on donkeys but most were on foot, all of them lamenting the loss of their homes and fields. The sound of mooing, baaing and sobbing swelled the hubbub of wheels and clogs. A man carrying a mattress over his back rebuked La Grange, calling him a toff; laments turned into insults directed against the luckier ones.
Clinging to the door-handle, a peasant woman set her little boy on the footplate of the cabriolet: “The Cossacks are at Bondy! And you’ve no idea what them Cossacks are like!”
“We went and hid in the woods!”
“We’ve nothing but the shirts on our backs!”
“They’re going to come to Paris and torch the place!”
“It’s going to be like Moscow!”
“They’re going to take their revenge!”
Just before they reached the unfinished Temple of the Madeleine, a shady-looking fellow in blue overalls climbed on to one of the horses pulling the cabriolet. About to whip him for his insolence, the coachman suddenly found himself threatened by a great giant of a man brandishing a pitchfork. Turning to ask his passengers for some advice, if not an order, the coachman found that they had disappeared, and his vehicle was filling up with bundles and exhausted children.
Octave and the Marquis had dodged into the rue Basse-du-Rempart, down on the north side of the boulevard. “I caught a strong smell of the cowshed there,” said the Marquis, taking a deep breath from a little vial of eau de Cologne and pointing towards a three-storey townhouse on the corner of the rue de la Concorde. Its shutters were closed and it appeared to be deserted, but the Marquis opened the door a crack and they slipped through. Inside, a big cartload of victuals sat beneath a vaulted ceiling; porters carried bags of flour and rice up stone staircases. Provisions were piled on the landing and in the corridors—enough to get them through several weeks of siege. The first-floor drawing-room was in semi-darkness. Silhouetted in the tremulous light of the chandeliers, beneath hams suspended on ropes from the ceiling, grave-looking men and terrified ladies prattled, agitated as sparrows.
“Europe is bringing us the disasters that we have imposed upon it,” announced a pointy-nosed viscount.
“Nonetheless, we do have some friends.”
“That’s true, Rochechouart was on the Tsar’s administrative staff.”
“And Langeron, too!”
“That didn’t stop their Cossacks disembowelling decent folk who refused to serve them raw herring.”
“Raw herring? How perfectly frightful!”
“The Empress will protect us from those savages!”
Everyone thought the presence of Marie-Louise—Napoleon’s wife by an arranged marriage but daughter of the Emperor of Austria—would be enough to restrain the allied armies if by any misfortune they should take the capital. The Marquis de la Grange firmly shattered these illusions.
“Alas, your ladyship, the Empress has just left Paris.”
“Go and tell my husband!”
“So the Count of Sémallé is back?”
* * *
In point of fact, the Count of Sémallé had just returned from a perilous mission with an Austrian passport that had led him along various byways to a hostelry in Vesoul where he had met up with Louis XVIII’s turbulent brother, “Monsieur,” the Count of Artois, who had entrusted him with the royalist proclamations printed in Basle and a recommendation written in his own hand: Those who see this paper can and may place full trust in everything that Monsieur de Sémallé will tell them on my behalf.
Sémallé had drooping shoulders, a large head, and fair hair parted in the middle; he was wearing a dressinggown, but with a tie twisted around his neck as though preparing at any moment to throw on a frock-coat to escape the merest hint of danger. For prudence’s sake, he was not living in his town house near the boulevards where his wife still dwelt, but in his old, more modest house at 55 rue de Lille. He was writing and drinking hot chocolate when a valet ushered La Grange and Octave into his office.
“Empress Marie-Louise has left with her son, Cambacérès, and some members of the government.”
“That changes nothing, La Grange. The foreign forces will be making their way towards Paris as we speak. Bonaparte is away in the East, the meagre troops of Mortier and Marmont are about to reach the tollgates, but they’re starving, and have no straw or wood. They won’t withstand this terrible advance.”
“And what if the Parisians rise up?” asked Octave.
“Who are you?” asked Sémallé, who had until that point paid no attention to the Marquis’s companion.
“The Chevalier de Blacé,” replied La Grange. “On Wednesday he was still living in his house in Baker Street. He comes with Lady Salisbury’s recommendation.”
“Fine.” And then, to Octave: “How did you get here?”
“Via Brussels, your grace.”
“He has a Belgian passport,” added the Marquis, “and he’s registered as a lace trader.”
“What’s the word in London?”
“The English are inclined towards the Bourbons, my lord.”
“I know that, Chevalier, but the Tsar has his eye on the King of Sweden, and the Austrians are looking to the King of Rome. In Rome, we failed to provoke an uprising in our favour. Last week the Prince of Hessen-Homburg, who is in charge of the city, had our partisans arrested for wearing white cockades: he saw it as sedition. In Bordeaux, Wellington is keeping the Duke of Angoulême at arm’s length; he has just joined him in Saint-Jean-deLuz . . . At any rate, the King mustn’t be imposed by the allies, but chosen by the French.”
“Easier said than done,” grumbled La Grange, disappointed by the Count’s revelations.
“Everyone has forgotten the Bourbons,” Sémallé went on. “What do they look like? Where are they? After their twenty years in exile, the people know nothing about them. But I do know one thing and one thing alone: We have two days to create a popular movement.”
“With whom? With what?”
“We have to simulate a vast royalist movement.”
“Simulate?” said Octave in astonishment.
“We must persuade the allies to support the legitimate monarchy, and the people as a whole to accept it. La Grange, have our Committee assemble tomorrow. We should be able to see things more clearly by then.”
In December, at the request of Louis XVIII, who had sought refuge in Hartwell, Sémallé had begun to put together a royalist Committee of about forty people. Having been rejected by the aristocrats, who were suspicious of police informers, he had recruited his partisans from officers, civil servants, the hardline bourgeoisie and businessmen craving peace. The committee met in the rue de l’Échiquier, in the town house of a certain Lemercier—a former banker who liked to think of himself as a man of letters—where they talked a lot, did little, and contented themselves with hoarding quantities of white cockades in all kinds of hidey-holes.
As he led Octave back, Sémallé questioned him. “I knew a Blacé in the Tuileries, when I was one of Louis XVI’s pages.”
“You don’t look like him.”
“I’ve been told that before, my lord.”
“What became of your father?”
“The last image I have of him is his head on the end of a pike.”