The heat had finally broken, ushering in what the Parisians were calling “le répit.” The reprieve. If spoken in another context, it meant grace, though there was little of that to be had in the city that summer. Not now—now that the new invention had been permanently installed in La Place de la Révolution. Crosses had been torn from the altars of churches, cross-shaped pendants ripped from women’s breasts and tossed into the filthy gutters that emptied red into the Seine. In many public places, the image of the cross was replaced by the nation’s new holy icon: the guillotine.
On the Left Bank, in a narrow street of sunbaked houses, every window was ajar, so that any resident could tell you with some precision about the comings and goings of each occupant in the adjacent flat or home. On this morning, the couple living on the east corner, above the tavern, was quarreling—fighting over money, or the heat, or the stale bread that was supposed to have lasted for days. The couple across from them, based on the sounds issuing from their bedchamber, had made up from last night’s quarrel. And a dog on the street, its ribs jutting out from under its tawny coat, had found a prize stew bone, which it had dragged out of the tavern and onto the street, where it now sat gnawing, hoping to coax every last bit of marrow from within.
“Why, you mangy beast, that’s where it’s got to!” Madame Grocque, the wife of the tavern keeper, lurched out of her door and swiped at the dog with her broom. Seizing on the mutt’s momentary shock, she stooped down and snatched the bone with her thick, dirty fingers. The dog, recovered from its beating, jumped at the woman, fixing his teeth on the treat she would deny him.
“You worthless creature, I’ll skin you and throw you in the stew alongside this bone! It’d do us good to get a bit o’ fresh meat.” Madame Grocque kicked at the animal, but the mutt refused to release the first morsel it had scrounged in days.
From a window on the top floor of this dwelling, a young man, not quite thirty years of age, dropped his quill and listened to the raucous activity below. Rubbing his eyes, he sighed. “Soon. Someday soon we’ll get out of this neighborhood.”
“Jean-Luc?” his wife called from the other side of the door, her voice mixing with the familiar morning sounds of clanging dishes and the crying baby. “Won’t you have any breakfast before you leave?”
“Coming, Marie.” The lawyer pushed himself away from the desk in the corner of the bedroom. Standing, he rolled up his papers and loaded them into his satchel. He crossed the small room in two strides, reaching for the vest and threadbare jacket that she had set out for him. When he had dressed in his plain gray suit, he checked his reflection in the filmy glass of the cracked mirror. Was that a gray hair he spotted? He leaned in closer, sighing. After the year he’d had, he wouldn’t be surprised if there were quite a few gray hairs streaking his dark ponytail. His hazel eyes now stared back at him from within a thin web of unfamiliar lines, a new one seeming to appear each week.
In the other room, the chamber that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room all in one, Marie stood with the baby balanced on her hip. She smiled when she spotted Jean-Luc in the door. “Will you take some coffee?”
“Hmm?” He leaned in and kissed them both, first his wife and then his son.
Marie leaned her head to the side, lifting the pot with her free hand.
“Oh, right. Coffee, yes. Please.” Jean-Luc sat at the table before a plate of black bread, the remnants of yesterday’s loaf, and a square of hard cheese. Marie served him watered-down coffee as he cleared the papers that he had left strewn across the table. She had every window open, but the air in their top-floor flat hung stale and oppressive from the months of thick heat.
“You were tossing and turning all night.” Marie shifted the baby and sat down across from her husband at the small table. “Trouble sleeping again?”
He swallowed a piece of the hard bread, nodding. Outside, the old Grocque woman still hollered at the dog, the beast yelping in response to another swipe of her broom. Marie looked from her husband to the open window and rose to close it.
“No, leave it open.” He reached for her hand and kept her at the table.
“Next time you decide to work in the middle of the night, you might try moving out here to—”
“I know. I should come out here so that I don’t wake you and Mathieu. I’m sorry.” He sipped the thin coffee as she sat back down. “Will you forgive me for imposing my accursed sleeplessness on you?”
She narrowed her eyes and reached for a piece of his cheese, which she broke off between her fingertips and began to nibble. “I suppose. But it’s getting worse, you know.”
She leaned her head to the side. “Your accursed sleeplessness.”
“I know,” he replied. They sat opposite each other in silence, he eating his breakfast, she nursing the baby. After several minutes, he propped his elbows on the table and cleared his throat. “I think I’m going to take the Widow Poitier’s case.”
Stroking the baby’s cheek, Marie lowered her eyes, and Jean-Luc waited for her reaction. After a pause, she said: “She can’t pay, can she?”
He shook his head, no.
She looked up at him, her brown eyes serious. “You’re a good man, Jean-Luc St. Clair.”
He took his coffee in his hands, concealing his grin. Her approval, these days so difficult to get, always elicited that grin from him. He looked at her now, her arms full with his baby, her eyes holding his own steadily. “So then, my beloved wife, you’ve forgiven me for removing you from your beloved south and bringing you to languish in this cramped garret?”
“Forgiven you?” Her lovely eyes widened, her lashes fluttering a few times, reminding him of the girl who had bewitched him. How glorious she was, still. “Who said anything about forgiving you?” She offered half a grin, and he couldn’t resist the urge to lean forward and kiss her.
He had moved her from the south of France just over a year ago, only a few months after they had been married. Her father had a steady, if not excessively lucrative, legal practice just outside of Marseille, not far from the village where Jean-Luc’s family had owned a small plot of land since the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
The St. Clair family had sustained the comfortable farmhouse on the small but fertile plot for centuries. It wasn’t until his father’s assumption of the property that the fortunes of the family—and indeed of the region, and all of France—had deteriorated so drastically. They had been forced to sell off most of the property, keeping only a half acre with one milk cow, a handful of chickens, and the house for the widower and his son, Jean-Luc. It wasn’t from a lack of industriousness that Jean-Luc’s father had lost the family land; old Claude St. Clair had been a faithful steward of his family’s assets. He was simply another victim of the droughts and crippling financial circumstances that had plagued the rest of the country under the latest Bourbon king, the heir of the Sun King’s heir, the most reviled man in France: Louis XVI. Yet, His Majesty could not be considered the most reviled monarch in France; that moniker went to his Austrian-born wife, Marie-Antoinette.
When it had come time for Jean-Luc to plan his own future, he’d taken his father’s advice and had applied himself to the study of law. What else was there for him? The land was gone; there was no longer wealth to be had in farming, unless you were a nobleman who skimmed the profits from the peasants and then paid no taxes on that bounty. His mother had died in his early boyhood; his only sibling, a sister five years older, had married at the age of sixteen and had been living an ocean away in the New World colony of Saint-Domingue. Other than the handful of letters he’d received from her over the years, Jean-Luc St. Clair, prior to beginning his legal studies in Marseille, had been occupied chiefly by attending to his elderly father.
Jean-Luc had enjoyed his time at school, which offered more excitement and opportunity than he could find in his lonely, quiet home. Having excelled in his studies at Aix-Marseille University, the ambitious young lawyer sought something greater than the small hometown magistrate’s office. He applied for a position as a low-level attorney at a reputable law practice closer to Marseille. Meeting and falling in love with Marie Germaine, his employer’s pretty daughter with thick brunette curls and quick, pert opinions, had been an unexpected but happy windfall.
Jean-Luc had been employed in his new office, his bride happily installed in their comfortable cottage on her father’s estate, when the news reached Marseille that King Louis and Queen Marie-Antoinette had been plucked from their gilded palace at Versailles and moved back to Paris, where they’d been forced to live among their people. Jean-Luc, a budding idealist whose family’s hopes had been nearly extinguished under an inept monarch, and who had followed with great interest the crafting of a nascent republic in the American colonies, had longed to ride to Paris like so many of his young fellow countrymen. He did not hide his desire to join the people and sacrifice his worldly comforts and, if necessary, his life, in the name of liberty. Would it not be shameful, he asked Marie, to be born in this era of history and yet shrink from the glorious undertaking of a free people rising up in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity?
Mathieu arrived six months after their relocation to Paris, and Jean-Luc had been grateful of it. Marie was less lonely with the dark-haired little boy, who shared her coffee-colored eyes and spirited personality, to fill the long hours while Jean-Luc worked as a low-level administrative attorney for the new government. They had settled in this two-room garret—drafty in the winter, stifling in the summer—as it was all that his modest government salary could afford. His father-in-law, furious at Jean-Luc for taking his daughter so far north, had refused to support the move. If he could only see how she was living now, Jean-Luc thought, looking around at their cramped quarters. They, being from the south, had never known the bitterness of a northern winter until this past year. Nor had either of them ever passed a summer without the salty sea breezes and shade of the fragrant citrus trees. It had been a trying year for both of them.
But Marie, bless her, never complained; she never held it against Jean-Luc that he had removed her from her father’s comfortable home to this loud, dirty city. A place where, on more than one occasion, they’d had to choose between food and fuel. She was tough, yes. But that was also because she was, Jean-Luc suspected, as much of an idealist as he was, even if she would never have dared admit it.
“Mr. Bigwig, you are, with your own carriage this morning.” Marie had risen from the table and was looking out the small window, Mathieu fussing as she tried to burp him.
Jean-Luc took a last bite of rough bread and drained his coffee. “It’s Gavreau. He plans to send me out on one of his cases. Knows I won’t mind as long as I’ve got the carriage.”
“What’s the case?”
“Another mansion. This one belonging to a nobleman who lives . . . well, used to live, in Place Royale.” Jean-Luc collected the remaining papers strewn across the table and stuffed them into his packed portefeuille. “The Jacobins want to use the house.”
Marie nodded, arching an eyebrow. “So they’ve sent the carriage for you.” He was privileged to have the job he had, even if the salary was insufficient. More than half of Paris was starving, and he rode a carriage to work some days.
His work dealt in cataloging property as it was seized from the wealthy families, former treasure of the ancien régime, now as obsolete as the old order itself. Daily inventory of seized goods—perhaps it was not as stimulating or significant as the work he had hoped to find; perhaps he was not playing a tremendously important role in building the new France—at least not yet. But before they could build the new country, someone had to figure out the proper way of dismantling the former one. For now, that was his work, to manage the spoils until the state had decided what to do with them. As for the former proprietors whose treasures he now catalogued, Jean-Luc rarely heard mention of them, and perhaps he did not want to.
“What happened to the family?” Marie, as usual, had reached directly into his mind and plucked out his thoughts with her uncanny insight. She held his gaze with her earnest brown eyes as the baby began to cry on her hip.
“Pardon?” Jean-Luc tugged on the hem of his jacket.
“You said you’re going out to a nobleman’s house in Place Royale to collect the family’s goods. What happened to the family?”
“I’m not sure.” He shifted his weight, looking back down toward the papers. “They are already gone, from the sound of it. Prison?” Fortunately, he usually visited the grand houses after the occupants had been dragged from their chambers and thrown in the dungeons at the Conciergerie, La Force, or Les Carmes. He’d heard the rumors—reports from colleagues who had visited the prisons. He suspected that if he were to witness the conditions for himself, his current troubles sleeping would grow much worse. Best not to dwell on such negative thoughts, he reminded himself. Best to remember the noble work they were doing, bringing liberty, equality, and fraternity to a people long subjugated by inept Bourbon despots and their callous aristocrats.
Sighing, he looped his portefeuille under his arm and crossed the room toward his wife. “I’m late.”
“We could always go . . . back . . . you know.” Marie avoided her husband’s gaze now, bouncing the baby in an attempt to calm him. “If it’s getting to be too much. If it’s not what you thought it would be.”