“They've been banging away for a while,” Albert remarked.
His companion grunted. It was cold. They had both been up all night, unexpectedly, Albert thought. He had been heading home at an already ungodly hour of the morning when the gents had hailed him, and he thought, well, one fare more, they're heading home, too. But they weren't heading home. They were heading for the Bois de Boulogne, and he couldn't legally refuse a fare he'd already accepted.
He tried again for conversation. “Where'd they get the swords?” This time his companion shrugged. “We didn't stop anywhere. Did you?”
“No. I didn't notice the swords.” It was the first real exchange of words they'd had in the grey, predawn forest.
The driver took out his pipe and a pouch of tobacco. “Got extra?” Albert asked excitedly. A smoke would help pass the time, and his pouch was empty. The other man filled his pipe silently. Albert waited in expectation. And the pouch was offered him in the end. Whether it was from fellow feeling or from an inability to be distinctly rude did not really matter to Albert. A breach had been made.
They lit their pipes at the lantern of the other carriage, burned down low. It was a nice enough carriage, Albert supposed, but there was no hiding the little red hire numbers. The lamps on Albert's fiacre had long since gone out waiting for dawn. The horses fidgeted. Bored they may well be, Albert thought. He was, too. They all should be asleep rather than watch the gents banging on, metal ringing in the frosty air.
“What d'ya think it's about?” The other driver shrugged. “Must've come on quick, them all still dressed from the Opera Ball. Someone insult the other's wife?”
“Which one you for? Harlequin or Indian?”
“Who knows? I just go to the address and do what I'm told.”
They smoked a while in silence. The gents were a long time at their business. Albert thought of his warm bed and wondered if his wife worried about him or if she slept soundly, snoring like the devil. “Maybe it's over someone's mistress,” he mused aloud. That's what you saw in the vaudevilles.
His companion scoffed. “They don't risk shit for the likes of us.”
Albert held back his curiosity. If you give a man space at the café, the stories come out, while if you push him with questions, he just leaves. Albert loved a good story. His wife said he should have been a concierge, always up in all the business of everyone in the building, but that could wait a while. Albert liked driving better. He got stories from all over the city, all different people. One day, when he couldn't take the cold and wet anymore, he could be a concierge and console himself with the same stories about the same people.
The Indian parried a thrust from the Pierrot.
The other driver finally spoke, if only half-aloud. “I told my wife we should keep the girls at home, but everyone has to pull their own weight.” Albert waited for more, and the driver must have noticed, because he asked, “How many you got?”
“Four.” All of them half grown, out to work themselves, but it didn't feel any easier. A fifteen year old could never keep himself in food – that boy was all stomach. That was Albert's youth, and it didn't change for his boy: a gaping hole never to be filled.
“Told my wife we should have kept the girls at home,” the driver repeated. Albert waited, but the story never came.
Their pipes went out. It was light enough now that the lanterns did no good. Albert helped the driver snuff them out.
As he turned back to see what the gents were up to, he saw the Pierrot fall. He may have gasped; he told his wife later that he had gasped to see a man collapse like that. The Indian dropped his sword and came their way, arm in arm with the Harlequin.
Albert had no words. He was usually ready with a quip, but now, nothing came. Was the Pierrot dead? What should a person do when his fare has been killed? What will the police do? It was highly irregular, a duel so precipitate that they were all still in fancy dress. They could all be under arrest.
The other driver wished him luck. Snidely? Maybe. Maybe it was relief or gratitude it wasn't his fare that would leak out his bloody life all over the upholstery. If it was an insult, what did that matter? What did anything matter now?
It was oddly damp. Snow on the ground. Bafour had been hired for the night. Go to this address: they want a carriage for a ball and dinner and who knows what else? Could be until dawn, you know how it goes, but they've prepaid the extra fees. There were worse nights to be out, Bafour supposed. The snow was yesterday's, and tonight was a bit warmer. The night was still cold, of course, but it was still, and he got to drive one of the nicer carriages. Going around in one of these rather than in a fiacre with its giant gold number splayed across the back, a man might be taken at first for someone of note.
At the address he had been given, he picked up a man in a light-coloured bicorn and a woman with flowers just visible under her hood. They had him go to another, just down the street, where they picked up a man and woman in feathers. To the Opera Ball they were bound, Bafour decided. Those were real flowers in the middle of February.
But first he drove them to dinner at the Frères Provençaux in the Place Royale, the night made almost day by the lights of the shops and even the heat of the crowds. The dinner seemed to go on and on; Bafour gave them an hour, then two, then took to circling the Place slowly until his fares appeared.
“On to the Opera. We may only stay an hour, I think,” one of the men said from inside the carriage, his voice thick.
“Very good, monsieur,” Bafour was careful to reply. The order for the carriage had come from the club, and the club men were very touchy about being treated as noblemen with retainers, Bafour's boss had told him the first time he filled such an order. “I'm not a bloody actor,” Bafour had considered complaining, but he had held his tongue. Complaints led to trouble, never to satisfaction. The fares that time hadn't even tipped, but the club had made up for it. If the gentlemen tonight were already drunk, it could loosen their pockets, Bafour thought.
They stayed at the ball far longer than an hour. All night, Bafour remarked later to his wife, though that wasn't really quite the case. He joined a number of other carriages parked in the allées that led to the Boulevard des Italiens since the shops were closed in the middle of the night. The close allées let everyone stand together and find some warmth amongst themselves while still being within call of the Opera. But the gentlemen came running down the street like their hair was on fire, shouting the number of his carriage and looking into every one they passed, trying to find him.
“Is madame ill?” Bafour thought to ask in his guise of retainer.
The man in the bicorn waved off his concern, and waved a third man into his carriage. “Take us to the Bois.”
Bafour had no desire to drive out into the woods in the middle of the night. “But the ladies?” he tried to stall.
“They've been put into a cab. The Bois de Boulogne, I tell you!”
Bafour sighed and snapped the reins. They were from the club. When the freak proved boring, he would be ordered to turn around and take them back to their warm beds.
“Faster, man!” one of them bid, but Bafour made the excuse that the horses could do no more than walk in the dark with the uneven snowy ground.
Bafour drove into the tree-lined drive. One of the gentlemen bid him stop, and he mounted the box with Bafour. The gent with the bicorn. “Go on. I'll tell you where to drop us.”
Bafour rather feared the lights ahead – the gents were up to no good – but the gent in the bicorn urged him on. The lights belonged to another carriage, this one a cheap fiacre, and the gents in each carriage greeted each other formally. They walked out into the glade, the dark coats and the brilliant red robe of one man stark against the snow in the feeble light of the carriage lamps. They talked and paced until the sky began to lighten.
The cab driver had climbed down and was pacing back and forth, stretching his legs. Bafour joined him, less for the company than for the example. The gents were out on mischief, and they could not properly begin until a little more light appeared, so it would be a long, cold morning unless he thawed his stiff limbs through his own labours. His boss would hear about this nonsense. Not on his account, but for the horses. You don't drive the horses out into the woods in the middle of the night and let them stand there without blankets or water or oats or anything all night. It wasn't right. The wrong had to be paid for. And Bafour wouldn't complain if a trickle came into his own pocket that way.
The cab driver wanted to talk. Bafour just wanted to stretch his legs and smoke. What did it matter that a couple of gents wanted to kill each other? Men of real honour didn't drag hired tradesmen into the woods at dawn after keeping them up all night, no matter what the provocation had been.
Coats had come off, so Bafour could now see that his feathered man was an Indian, fighting a man all in white.
“Maybe it's over someone's wife,” the cab driver suggested. Bafour grunted.
The man in white lunged hard at the Indian, but the Indian dodged away. It looked like a hard fight.
“Or maybe someone's mistress.”
“They don't risk shit for the likes of us,” Bafour spit out. Did they? Maybe? No, she'd be a cause of someone else's dishonour, not a victim in need of defending. “I told my wife we should have kept the girls at home.” He caught himself. No good musing on these things. “How many you got?”
Nothing more followed. Damn him. He wanted to talk and now he wasn't talking. Damn him if he thinks he'll get anything out of me. Marthe isn't anyone's damned business. “I told my wife we should have kept the girls at home.”
It had sounded so good at the time. The Beautiful Gardener, the shop was called, and she would live in, and they'd even look to her clothes. Such opportunities behind the big glass windows of the City never just came along, so you can't say no to such things. He had to let Marthe go, because his judgment of what the girls were worth seemed to have been wrong, but he hated that she proved him right after all. Eight months was all it took, up from nothing into the great glass vitrines then out again into the demimonde, kept by a gent like the useless bastards at the club, like these bastards hacking at each other with swords when a real man used his fists. Look at them, drunk on what they thought was their power and they thought was their honour, but none of them stood up when a waiter was sacked over glasses they broke. They wouldn't do this for a girl like Marthe.
They were certainly out to get each other over something, though, Bafour had to admit. Each thrust was hard and the one in white, hard to see against the snow, was flailing desperately. He couldn't keep up much longer, and he couldn't even get in a scratch. It must be over someone's wife. One of the ladies earlier? Or the man in white's wife? What did it even matter?
His pipe out, Bafour put it back in his pocket and snuffed the carriage lamp. It was decidedly morning, and still these rich fools kept their anger hot.
The cab driver gasped, and Bafour turned to see what was the matter. The man in white had fallen, and his fares were returning. Not all – the third man was running toward the wounded man, and his original fares did not seem to mind if they left behind a distraught witness. Now he had to take a murder home. Or would they want a champagne breakfast? Damned bourgeois. Where the hell had the swords come from if neither of them had noticed swords brought into their carriages? This couldn't be a normal duel. He'd have to give evidence in court, wouldn't he? God damn it. The prospects for lost pay and the shame of it all were intolerable.
The cab driver was ashen. As well he should be. Was his fare a wounded man to ruin the upholstery or a corpse to ruin his reputation?
But Bafour's masters were hastening to the carriage. He had to go. “Good luck,” he bid the cab driver. He had need of it.
“It's not going to fit,” Cassel complained, holding the heavy red robe at arms length.
“It'll be fine,” Elodie insisted. “It's plenty roomy.”
“I'll look like a fool.”
“Everyone looks half a fool at the Opera Ball. What time are we expected to meet the Jolivets at Véry's?”
“Not until 11.”
“It's half past now. Come on, Charles. Put it on. Everyone at Véry's is going to the Opera Ball, too.”
“I don't know.”
“Alfred Tousis is fatter than you are now, and he wore it just fine last year.”
Cassel laughed and kissed his wife. “A flatterer, you are.”
“Put it on before we are late!”
The robe fit; it was the cap that was too big. Tousis had a big head in more ways than one, though Cassel tried to put the joke out of his mind. It was not dignified for a fashionable physician to make fun of a noted jurist.
Véry's was crowded and very loud. Cassel and Elodie greeted a number of acquaintances as they made their way to the table they shared with the Jolivets. It was hard to chat amidst the din. Cassel thought himself already bored, but Elodie liked going out again now that the children did not need her so much. She was softer now than she had been, and like his costume, she had had to borrow from a friend because nothing from the early days of their marriage still fit her. And the styles had changed; their last Opera Ball before the first child came had been in those odd, heady days of the Revolution, but one selected different costumes with an Emperor at the helm of state. That was the sort of thing that could bother Tousis or Jolivet; Cassel was merely a doctor who did not even teach at the medical faculty. Politics did not touch his life.
The food at Véry's was more his taste than the general company, and the Opera Ball promised to be crowded and boring if he saw no scandalous costumes and could not meet his wife's sparkling eyes often enough. But he ran into Etival, an attorney he knew from Tousis' circle, and they found a quiet enough place to chat while their wives gawked at the younger women in far more daring costumes. Cassel hadn't actually asked what Elodie was supposed to be. Someone historical in a great deal of damask. Etival had some sort of a frill around his neck.
It was hot and crowded and hardly anyone was dancing, but Elodie looked to be having a good time. That was all that really mattered, Cassel thought. She doesn't shine like this anymore. It's good to see her shine.
So when Herbecq, white in more than just his floured face like a potted Deburau, fell on Etival in distress, Cassel saw no reason he shouldn't slink away with his friends. The Jolivets would keep Elodie in better company than he ever could.
Real provençal waiters would bring more wine, Drunat thought. What were the four of them supposed to do with a bottle at a time? Caroline was barely drinking, but that still left three of them. At least they were not the only fools in fancy dress. Half the dining room looked decked out for the last week of the Opera Balls.
Caroline had selected their costumes, so while she was playing the virgin in white flounces that looked indistinguishable from half the good looking women in Paris last summer, he was stuck looking the motley fool. Colombine and Harlequin they were. Too damned apt for the state of their marriage.
Her brother, Frostin, and his wife were in buckskin and feathers, though Drunat thought the whole thing could have been better done if one were to embarrass oneself in buckskin. He remembered the Catlin Museum from a decade ago, even if Frostin seemingly didn't, and every last one of those Indians had his face painted. But that was Frostin all over, always doing things only halfway.
He had been feeling rather cool towards Frostin since the summer, anyway. When family promises to assist you in a speculation, and that assistance never materialises, what do their excuses matter? It was well enough that he blame Herbecq. Everyone knew it was Herbecq at the head of the budget hawks, the papers were full of it in as many words as they could legally print, but the deputies had no powers and the Council could do whatever it liked, so Frostin shouldn't deny his own hand in the failure. Herbecq chose to rub it in publicly, to both their shame, as if they were trying to profit from the floods that had destroyed their own home villages, but Frostin had lost both his nerve and the earmark that would have reset their finances. These damned costumes they were all wearing, and those flowers in Caroline's hair, would have felt less ridiculous if he felt he could afford a laugh.
Maybe that was why the waiter was so slow to bring more wine. Everyone in Paris knew of Frostin's attempt and failure because Herbecq, the republican he was no matter what he pretended to profess to keep his seat, had spread it far and wide.
I hate the moor, Iago says in the play. The moor stayed his ambitions and fucked his wife. Herbecq tried to do the same to me, and it is intolerable that these days a republican can still block my advancement. And Frostin has taken the direct hits in the salons and the oblique ones in the press, but he's too much the coward to call out the insult. What is a man to do when this is his family?
What was a man to do with this family? Drunat asked himself again once they were inside the hot, crowded Opera House. Caroline greeted everyone whose name she could remember as if they were the best of friends. Frostin and his wife were gladhanding like politicians. Politicians were out of date. And then suddenly Caroline stopped and stared at someone or something, so Drunat turned around, and across the whole damned theatre there was Herbecq making the disgustingly audacious statement of having dressed as Pierrot.
He had been performing Drunat's office between the sheets. It wasn't just the old flirtation from the early Paris days before Caroline married Drunat, no, there was collaboration between them. This was the proof. He knew Caroline was coming as Colombine and he fitted his costume to hers. Or she had fitted their costumes to his. This insult could not be borne. But Herbecq was clever. There must have been eight other Pierrots just at a glance, Drunat saw. An honourable man could not call a man out for wearing the same costume as everyone else. What, would his wounded honour call attention to his wife's hitherto quiet adultery? No. Iago never made mention again of what his wife may or may not have done with the moor. And he won.
Caroline will pay for her audacity with the damned costumes, Drunat promised himself. Later. The legislative session is early this year, so he's stuck in town starting next week. Our season is done. We'll go home to Allemans. See how she likes what the Dropt left of the old place. Flooded out loneliness will serve her right.
The Opera Ball was not Etival's preferred way to spend a midnight in February, but Herbecq had returned to town sooner than expected, and if Herbecq wanted to look for a woman, Etival wanted to see what was up. The new legislative session was to begin early, mid-February rather than the more traditional May, and Herbecq was going to need a woman if he wasn't going to eat all his dinners for the next three months at the homes of his friends with wives. The Opera Ball wasn't quite where one went to find a wife – a wife would calm him in rather more appropriate ways – but it wasn't a bad place to start in search of a new mistress. He can pine after every Colombine in the place and maybe one will take pity on him, Etival thought.
They were getting too old for these japes, perhaps. Men with their names in the papers shouldn't be at the Opera Ball dressed like pantomine actors. He saw a familiar bearded face and realised Cassel had got off far better in Turkish dress or whatever the hell it was. The gilt embroidery might have been rather effeminate in this day and place, but it betokened wealth and influence of an ancient, Eastern variety, and there's a sort of dignity in that.
Herbecq had the politician's skill of ingratiation in any company that Etival lacked, but they shared an appreciation of a bon mot, the sharper the better. The latter wasn't the sort of trait that wins a wife, but as a man reaches middle age, he is less in need of sharp edges. Wisdom is prized more than wit at that age, and only men with a family have the variety of experience that can make a man truly wise. Sidonie was a gift, and Herbecq would do well to find a wife even half so good. A mistress for three months in town could never provide the comfortable home a middle aged man truly needed.
But Sidonie was at home, asleep, where Etival would have preferred to be, and he was following in Herbecq's brilliant wake because he did not wish to be an old man who asserted his desire for a warm bed over an Opera Ball. Etival was far from unsuccessful – indeed, his influence seemed to be rising as the role of the legislative assembly declined even from its poor rebirth five years earlier – but Herbecq shone in all companies, in all positions. The unaffiliated deputy from the Pas-de-Calais had himself a name from the beginning, and all his sharpness was a thorn in the Emperor's side. The real liberals had gone into exile, and that was probably as it should be because they could not seem to stop short of anarchy, but what was the use of a legislative assembly without men like Herbecq to ask pointed questions and insist on a defence of principles? He seemed to merely play the devil's advocate half the time, and as a lawyer, Etival could respect that.
At some point in the evening they drifted apart. Etival found Cassel in a quiet corner, better suited to the two comfortably married men they were, and they chatted for a while about their wives and children. It was not the conversation of a Opera Ball, but neither of them had the appetite for mistresses. They were here to see others have their pleasure.
It was not a pleasure that Herbecq came to them nearly shaking with rage. “I need you,” he said sharply to Etival. “Ah, Cassel, you can come, too. That impertinent, corrupt bastard Frostin found his tongue at last, and frankly, it has ended in him finding his fists and me finding a challenge. You'll have to be my witnesses.”
It was never a dull evening with Herbecq.
Herbecq has a lot of nerve parading around here, Frostin thought. Drunat's right about that. He'll never keep his seat, the way he's always making those obnoxious, sharp little jabs at the Emperor. He can't keep his tongue under control. Never could. No idea why he was always trying to flirt with Caroline. She never wanted anything to do with him.
It was plenty hot and crowded by the time they reached the Opera, and Frostin was rather afraid he'd had too much to drink at the Frères Provençaux. Thank god they had thought to get the club to hire them a carriage for the night. They could stay just long enough for the women to get the first taste of boredom, and then they could all be borne back home before the ladies rallied.
Drunat had been sulking all night, and now he was complaining about Herbecq. Frostin could not blame him for his ill humour. There was obviously something wrong between him and Caroline, and Frostin would never get a word with his sister that made any sense. Drunat was his oldest friend. He was practically a brother even before he married Caroline. And even that relationship had grown cold since summer because of the unholy farce that was the budget fight after the floods. Herbecq had been trying to destroy the Empire, but the only thing he was wounding was Frostin's family.
Frostin didn't much mind than Drunat took Caroline by the arm and pulled her deep into the crowd, ostensibly to find the dance floor, but he did mind the parting word Drunat left in his ear. “Look to Herbecq. He'll destroy what's left of us if you don't take care.”
It wasn't Drunat's business that Herbecq had a feud with the entire Council of State. Since the Constitution permitted deputies to offer amendments even to budgetary bills, the deputies took every opportunity to inundate the Council with amendments and then tell the press all about their care for the people's welfare to try to score political points that did not even matter. None of these men would have official sanction next year, and the Council would help redraw the electoral districts. It was a fool's errand, calculated only to make a man famous for a short time, but one could not make a career in opposition. The Emperor had rightly put a stop to that. Herbecq would feel the effects of his own audacity soon enough. The men who knew loyalty simply had to bide their time.
But Drunat was convinced Herbecq's antipathy towards them was personal, and perhaps it was because Caroline had never encouraged him. Herbecq hadn't married in all these years. And there was certainly something perverse in the way he came over to greet Frostin and his wife the moment Drunat had left them.
“You remember my wife, Anne.” Frostin's courtesy was mechanical, he knew, but one had to make the appropriate social pleasantries, especially in his position.
Anne found a way to drift off with another friend, leaving him alone with the supposed family enemy. “Early session this year. Something's up. Is he going to call elections early?”
“Why would I know?”
“True, if you had the Emperor's trust, you wouldn't have been so upset about a bit of politicking.”
“A bit of politicking?” Frostin rather took exception to that characterisation of Herbecq's behaviour.
“I'm bound to represent the Pas-de-Calais, and we're just about the only people in the country who weren't flooded out. You know as well as I do that the speculators who hadn't lost their tracks to the floodwaters were salivating over the prospect of building new ones on the state's account. My duty lay in insisting the money was spent for the benefit of trains, not for the Emperor's train. If you wish to ride another man's coattails, what business is it of mine?”
“I ride no one's coattails!”
“Of course you do. You always did. Tabourel. Drunat. Bonaparte. If you find shame in it, that's your problem. You've had a good career out of it. How's Caroline?”
“She's fine. What do you care?”
“Something seemed off in her last note.”
Note? They were in correspondence? Why on earth were they in correspondence? “She's fine,” Frostin insisted. He couldn't help looking around to see where she had gone.
“She's over against the second box stage right,” Herbecq told him. Frostin didn't like how calm he was. Herbecq was following his sister – a married woman – with his eyes all night, and now taunting her brother over his shameful career as a toady. Caroline was looking their way, but Drunat suddenly stepped in front of her, cutting off her sight of them and their view of her. Frostin suddenly realised he was looking at a pantomime triangle: here was Pierrot, pining after Colombine who had been won by his rival, Harlequin. How did Herbecq know to come as Pierrot? Or how did Caroline know to come as Colombine? They were in correspondence. Why were they in correspondence? Half the company were in some pantomime costume, but this was not coincidence.
He'll destroy what's left of us, Drunat had just said. What's left. Finances were teetering since Frostin had fallen on his sword and withdrawn the earmarked funds he had written into the reconstruction bill. Three of the councillors had made adjustments to generalise some funding to the departmental level rather than the commune level, and he and Meugnier had failed to grab their intended capitalisation. They had their excellent salaries, at least, and could hold on. But Herbecq had certainly attempted to ruin them. He was nearly successful. And he had been in secret correspondence with a married woman. And he had just called Frostin's entire life shameful, this man who trafficked in innuendo and rumour in order to have his name in the newspapers because no one could publish direct criticism of the Emperor.
Looking back, Frostin never knew what he said that precipitated the real quarrel. He distinctly remembered Herbecq's reply. “The real problem with your career is that you married your sister off too early to the wrong strongman. You'd be happier if she'd been free to flirt with the Emperor, though, indeed, she still has some small interest in anything on two legs who isn't the arse she's married to.”
A more experienced man would have issued a challenge to defend the family honour, insulted three times in a mere two sentences. Frostin, however, acted on instinct rather than consideration and punched Herbecq in the face with all the force he deserved. “That's so you'll leave my sister alone, and you deserve the worst thrashing I could possibly give you. She never wanted your disgusting attentions.”
Herbecq rubbed his injured jaw. “That is a lie,” he began calmly. “And an insult. Accompanied by a blow. An errant lie defended with the words and tactics of a schoolboy. I don't know that you're even fit to give satisfaction, but I demand it for the lie, the insult, and the shame of taking a blow like that in public.”
Frostin accepted with an alacrity that frightened him later. “Name your weapon.”
“Epée. Only to first blood. I seek satisfaction, not your life,” he finished sarcastically.
“Now. Let's have this over with. Drunat's my witness,” Frostin insisted.
“Of course he is.” More sarcasm. “I'll send mine to him to arrange the details.”
“Paris sometimes feels cold and grey and lacking in sensation when one returns from the sun-burnished Orient,” Gérôme found himself explaining to Ida. “And it's no good working at night. So I come here to look around.” It is necessary for an artist to see the Opera Ball at least once a year. The colours, the noise, the heat, the patterns made by bodies in movement, bodies crushed together by the press of the crowd. It is an experience. A necessary one – one can't get models for crowd scenes, so one has to see crowd scenes. And the Opera Ball has such diversity of costume one can see crowds of Roman drapery or Florentine velvets instead of just modern dress trapped behind the rails when queuing for the theatre. That was more than a model-mistress could really understand, but she needed some reason for why he was looking at everyone else more than he was looking at her.
Some people mind the heat and the crush of the crowd, but the same people talk about how magnificent the East looks. It's hotter there than it is in here, and the markets are just as crowded, but at least at the Opera Ball no one is picking your pocket. That happens afterward.
Gérôme had been known to a number of men connected with the government ever since the St-Sévérin commission a couple years earlier, so it wasn't surprising that Edmond Frostin might come up and greet him, though it was rather odd that a member of the Council of State was dressed like a Red Indian. One saw the most idiosyncratic things at the Opera Ball.
“Gérôme will do,” the Harlequin with him said, apropos of some strange happening. Gérôme could not quite place the man's name – he was a businessman, connected with the government, but his name absolutely escaped memory.
The men pulled him away from Ida. “Your Emperor needs your help,” the Harlequin told him.
“It's not quite like that,” Frostin complained.
“It is, even if you won't admit it. Frostin has been challenged to a duel by Martin Herbecq. You can see the obvious political antecedents. The man has been singling out Frostin from among the entire Council of State as a profiteer over the tragic floods last summer.”
“When I saw the news in Cairo, I was saddened and appalled. It was an immense tragedy.”
“Precisely. And what kind of man would leverage his position on the Council to profit from such a tragedy? It is an insult not only to Frostin, but a bald-faced lie about the Emperor's intentions, a public quarrel carefully couched as a private one in order to get it published.”
“Absolutely. But a duel? M. Herbecq merely wants his name in the papers again. Who these days does not seek a touch of fame? Surely he will apologise.”
“It's far too late for that,” Frostin told him. “I'll feel better having a second witness. We'll do this by the book.”
“Then let us adjourn to someone's house to talk this through and write a correct challenge.”
“The challenge has been made and answered and his witnesses are looking for Drunat as we speak.” Drunat! That was his name. “Go with him and do what's necessary.”
That was not a duel by the book, Gérôme felt certain. He had hoped that in leaving to write an appropriate challenge, someone would have a copy of Chatauvillard. Who other than officers and students still dueled these days without a reference to hand?
Herbecq's witnesses were a bearded doge and a Crispin. “Would an apology be acceptable?” Gérôme asked the doge hopefully.
But the doge shook his head. “Your man accompanied his insult and his lie with a blow. Not just a perfunctory slap, but a punch in the face like a schoolboy. It is a double insult not to be borne. What apology could be made for a public brawl between gentlemen in the middle of the Opera Ball?”
“Don't act the innocent,” Drunat complained. “Your man insulted our entirely family, and we should be the ones in control here.”
“But your man gave up his control over the manner of satisfaction when he satisfied himself with the blow. You know in a situation such as this, the man who received the blow may set whatever terms he likes.”
“Epées to first blood. I know. We wish to settle this matter as soon as possible.”
“One cannot settle a duel immediately,” Gérôme complained. “There are forms to be observed.” Why was Drunat careering forward so precipitously? “Each man must go home, rest, retrieve his sword.”
“Why should we trust Herbecq with his own weapon?”
“They aren't pistols,” the doge reminded all the witnesses. “What could he possibly do to a sword that would benefit him? This isn't Hamlet.”
“I live but two streets away,” Crispin informed the company. “I can return with matched arms inside of ten minutes.”
“It's four in the morning.” Gérôme felt as if he were the last sane man in the assembly. Weren't witnesses to commiserate about the insult and come to an agreement for an apology? Or at least to go home and conduct the forms in writing like the sensible men of business they must be despite their motley costumes?
“Go,” Drunat ordered. “Retrieve your arms. Send the women home, those who have them, and we'll convene again in front in twenty minutes. Then to the Bois de Boulogne.”
The four men shook hands in agreement. Gérôme had come looking for spectacle, and he had run directly into it.
If one had to miss a legislative session, Herbecq told himself later, this was the one to miss. Keradennec brought the news that evening that the Emperor's opening speech had declared this the last session of their legislature, and there it was the next morning, printed in black and white in the Journal des Débats. No one knew when the new election would be, but now it was certain that no one was finishing out the ostensible six year term.
Herbecq had thought he could take Frostin. The real hate and the real power were always Drunat's. But now he was lying in bed, missing a legislative session, lucky to be in bed at all. Who even fought duels anymore? But then, who thought he could punch a man in the middle of the Opera Ball with impunity? It was supposed to have been a liberal glory, the man who still spoke for the people despite his oath of loyalty to the Emperor standing up in Pierrot like Deburau himself. Instead, he was felled by a sword thrust from the Council of State. If Cassel hadn't been there that night, he wouldn't have survived it.
And of course Caroline had not written a thing. It was Caroline's fault, really. She had married that oaf Drunat, but they were patently unhappy. So when she sent a note to his Paris address saying, “Come to the Opera Ball. Colombine awaits,” he came. In Pierrot. Because she had demanded it, really. But there had been no opportunity to satisfy his heart, and now she did not even write. Who knew what gloss her brother had put on the whole mess? Or her husband. If they thought him dead, they were very much mistaken.
Perhaps the outcome would have been better had he died despite Cassel's best efforts. A Councillor of State, the one most implicated in the overpayment to the Lot-et-Garonne that was such a scandal after the tragic floods that destroyed most of France, murdered the leading budget hawk in a decidedly irregular duel. A new martyrdom that would label him a liberal again rather than a collaborationist. But what had Carnot and Cavaignac done in the past five years? Herbecq had swallowed the oath, kept his fingers crossed, and pushed every day of every session against those who knelt to the Emperor. He had no chance of re-election, but he had fought, and everyone knew it. The fight did not matter if no one knew it.
This fight was not even in the papers. He was half dead, and it was not in the papers. If the quarrel had been openly about Caroline, it would have been all over town. But he had fought the Council of State, even if in its weakest member, and no one had had the grace to die, so it was an embarrassment for the Emperor. He should have openly challenged Drunat, but that would have damaged Caroline, and Herbecq would never touch her already wounded honour. Marriage to Drunat was wearing enough on her without more provocations.
Etival thought he should get married. Perhaps he was right. A wife would smooth out of some of those sharp edges, Etival said, and Etival had got on much better in life after marriage. A wife would be a nice thing to have when lying wounded in bed after defending the honour of the respectable opposition. With a wife, perhaps he would not have been at Caroline's beck and call and ended up in a confused battle of old wounds and family ties. With a wife, he would not have had this squandered opportunity at martyrdom.
One of them paid the cab driver for all the blood, didn't he? The champion of the people couldn't leave them with the payment for his failure. That should be in the papers – wounded nearly to the death in a duel to defend the welfare of the French people, he still thought to recompense the driver for all his trouble. He would be sure Etival spoke to Havin, and once the Siècle had it, the provincial papers would take it up as well. There were still possibilities even from his sickbed.