#40 In The Arcade Of The Palais Royal
Morning all, happy publication #40 day! It’s kind of surreal to think I’ve written 40 of these. Glad to have kept it up every fortnight for 18 months, and gladder still to have shared the journey with so many of you.
To celebrate #40, I thought I’d share an old vignette I wrote 7 or 8 years ago, having stumbled across a surreal encounter in Vincent Cronin’s biography of Napoleon from 30 years ago. Enjoy!
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#40 In The Arcade Of The Palais Royal
22 November 1787
Dark winter had a hold. It oppressed the people of Paris and the city’s little insignificant souls scurried to pockets of warmth wherever they could find it. Many of those were as lonely as they come, and lonelier still if you searched down by the Palais Royal, for that is where you go in search of company.
Among those searching: our hero. A young man, boyish, striding with his hands deep in his near-empty pockets thinking of his small society and small value. He walked beneath bright lights that cast long shadows in the bowls of his wan cheekbones. So short and pale and unprepossessing was he that he would have done well to be noticed by anybody - and he rarely was. He may just as well have been a ghost. He did not feel the cold but the cold did try. It danced in a cloud about his lips as he furtively scanned his surroundings. He saw the cafés Mécanique, with their round tables that forced out mocca through its central, hollow leg, and debated whether or not to spend his small money this way. In the deliberation his mind froze and he continued into the arcades and towards a café.
At the entrance, however, our hero stopped. Something made him stop and, not knowing exactly what it was, he turned to that something with great curiosity. That something was a woman. She was a woman with a good figure, a young woman. She was clearly a prostitute.
Our poor lonely hero looked at her a while and she stopped to look back. He was moralistic. He found such women detestable and could not recall a time when a feeling other than scorn was aroused by looks shared with one of their type. But now he was rendered speechless by her grace. Her blanched skin turned purely white in the light and her thick mass of dark hair about her head never ended but reached out into the far corners of the night. She was to him a dream on legs with life and breath.
Our hero said to himself, ‘She will have something interesting to say or she’s just a blockhead.’
But it was above all her fragility that he drew upon for conversation.
‘You’re going to catch cold,’ he said. ‘How can you bear to walk in the arcades?’
And she returned softly, ‘Ah, sir, I keep on hoping. I have to finish my evening’s work.’ She was calmly indifferent in her response to him and this he liked. He began to walk humbly beside her.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
He thought hard for a second as he studied her before saying decidedly, ‘I will call you Emma.’ And they walked a little way side by side enjoying what there was plenty of to see. She did not look at him but at the surroundings. For him there were only flashes of light, reds and blues from the other places but really there was only her. He studied closely her hands that were embraced in one another palely like streams of colliding milk.
‘And what is your name?’ she asked.
‘Nabullione Buonaparte.’ You could hear the pride in our hero’s voice.
‘I’m as French as they come.’ She looked at him, bewildered. He continued: ‘You don’t look very strong. I’m surprised you are not exhausted by a life like this.’
‘Heavens, sir, a girl has to do something.’
‘Maybe. But isn’t there some other job better suited to your health?’
‘No, sir,’ she went on unwavering, ‘I’ve got to live.’
He was beguiled both by her willingness and her boldness in answering his questions. Women never answered his questions.
‘You must be from the north to brave a cold like this,’ he continued.
‘I’m from Nantes in Brittany.’
He looked at her shyness like it was a glimpse of a lithe limb beneath her dress. He spoke now with his hands firmly behind his back and his chest filled with air.
‘That part I know… Mademoiselle. Please tell me how you lost your maidenhood.’
He thought his brusqueness might throw her but she responded flatly through dim eyelids. ‘It was an army officer,’ she said.
‘Are you angry?’
‘Oh, yes, take my word for it.’ Our hero noticed a new sourness in her voice. ‘Take my word for that. My sister is well set up. Why aren’t I?’
‘How did you come to Paris?’
He expected her to sigh or cry or something but she went on with no falter. Perhaps it was the cold that froze her. ‘The officer who did me wrong walked out,’ she said. ‘I loathe him. My mother was furious with me and I had to get away. A second officer came along and took me to Paris. He deserted me too. Now there’s a third; I’ve been living three years with him. He’s French, but has business in London, and he’s there now.’ Then as though telling the next chapter in her story she added, ‘Let’s go to your place.’
‘What will we do there?’ our hero asked.
‘Come on, we’ll get warm and you’ll have your fill of pleasure.’
He said little more. He did not want to frighten her off with his questions or for her to say that she did not sleep with strangers. That was the whole point of this, after all. Instead they slunk away through the wretched Parisian streets, from darkness to darkness, and dared to venture forward into our hero’s France.