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THE DEGAS MANUSCRIPT

A Novel

by

Brian A. Oard
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE

The following manuscript, consisting of 281 handwritten pages of unlined drawing paper, was discovered in the studio of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) shortly after his death. Recorded as Lot 49 in the legendary 1918 auction of Degas’s collection, the manuscript was purchased by economist John Maynard Keynes, who attended the sale as a buyer for the London National Gallery. The pages apparently remained in Keynes’s possession until his death in 1946. Why the noted economist and intellectual decided not to publicize the manuscript is only one of the many unanswered questions surrounding this strange and singular work. For a period of seventeen years following Keynes’s death, the ownership of the papers remains obscure. (For an attempt–only partly successful–to elucidate this obscurity, see my article, ‘The Degas Manuscript: Investigating the Missing Years,’ in The Journal of Art History, No.109, May-June, 2002.) In 1963 the manuscript was rediscovered in a London bookshop by contemporary painter and book collector P.B. Patel. "It was purely fortuitous," Patel recalled in a telephone interview conducted shortly before his untimely death. (The reader will recall news reports of his tragic fall from atop a London double-decker bus.) "I was on my knees rummaging through this tattered cardboard box that had been pushed under a table in the back of the shop. The box was full of American novels from the 1930's, mostly mysteries, nothing of great interest to me, but at the bottom of the box I found this thick stack of old papers bound with a single silk ribbon and covered with tiny French writing. As soon as I read the first three words, "Mon Cher Manet," I knew I’d stumbled upon something very interesting. Below the large bundle I discovered a few other pages that I later understood to be a kind of prologue and epilogue to the main work. Needless to say, I bought the whole box, and the bookseller seemed rather amused at my excitement about acquiring such a lot of old junk." The original manuscript, repeatedly authenticated by handwriting experts, remains in the Patel Foundation collection in London. (Concerning the authenticity of the manuscript, the reader is directed to my cover story in Art News, May 2003, where the arguments of a few conspiracy theorists that the present manuscript is a forgery perpetrated by Mr. Patel are definitively refuted.) The editor and publishers thank the foundation’s trustees for permitting this first publication.

It appears from internal evidence that the work was composed sometime between 1910 and 1913, a period when declining vision and other problems of old age had slowed Degas’s artistic production. By this point in his life, the painter was both revered and reviled. Acknowledged as a master draftsman and a founding member of the Impressionist group, he was also derided by the younger Modernists as a member of the conservative old guard. More troubling to us today are the painter’s often-expressed anti-Semitic and reactionary political views. Forged during the 1890's in the crucible of the Dreyfus Affair, a protracted and complex political scandal in which an innocent Jewish officer of the French Army was convicted of espionage and imprisoned on Devil’s Island, Degas’s despicable opinions had alienated him from many close friends, leaving him increasingly bitter and resentful as his own artistic powers began to flag. Fortunately, the present manuscript contains hardly any of the vicious anti-Semitism and xenophobia that characterized much of the elderly Degas’s ‘political’ thought. It might be surmised that the artist’s concentration on events of the 1860's allowed him to recapture some of the more liberal spirit of his earlier years. One might even speculate that this act of recapturing was one of Degas’s motives in undertaking the composition. And it is perhaps not entirely irrelevant to recall that while Degas sat writing these pages at the foot of Montmartre, another and much greater French writer was toiling away in a cork-lined room above the Boulevard Haussmann, trying to recapture his own lost time.

As to the veracity of the story narrated herein, expert opinion remains mixed. (See my article, ‘Fact and/or Fiction: The Degas Manuscript Narrative and the Historical Record,’ Proceedings of the Suwanee College Degas Conference, April 20-23, 2003.) The archives of the Paris Opera tell us that a dancer named Lisette Leblanc was indeed employed there until late May 1867, at which point her name disappears from the payment rolls without explanation. The log book of the Opera’s porte de communication does record several visits to the foyer de la danse by one ‘E. de Gas’ during the period of the story, but there is no mention of a ‘Count Polonsky.’ The strange and still-unexplained mutilation of Degas’s portrait of Manet and his wife took place a couple of years prior to 1867, while the murder of Victor Noir occurred three years later and none of the surviving records places Degas or Manet at the scene of the crime. In other cases Degas seems to have changed the names of historical figures, and he may even have completely invented a few of his characters. Regardless, the scholarly search for originals will surely continue. Personally, I prefer to consider the text neither a memoir nor a work of fiction, but an artful amalgam of both, a literary work in which the painter-author treats history and time with the same freedom that characterizes the representation of space in his paintings and pastels. Caveat lector.

Professor James W. Russo

Chairman, Department of Art History

Oklahoma State University
 
 

 
 
 
PROLOGUE: THE CURRENT
 

They threw her body into the river at the Quai Saint Bernard. The black water swallowed her with barely a splash, and she spun toward its depths like a stick of driftwood, trailing a veil of bubbles downward into darkness. When buoyancy bounced her to the surface again, ten feet from the quai, the only sound was the crackle of carriage wheels on gravel as the men drove away.

She floated face-up, sightless eyes open to the sky. Tiny waves slapped her body as she drifted toward the bridges at the end of the Ile St. Louis. Her blonde hair fanned out on the water like the tentacles of an exotic sea creature, some squid or octopus caught in the nets off Tahiti and shipped to Paris for display in the markets at Les Halles. One fair tentacle reached out and entangled a floating cigar end, a brown stub that still bore the toothmarks of the solitary stroller who had absent-mindedly flicked it off the Pont D’Austerlitz half an hour earlier during his journey from somewhere to somewhere in the city at night.

The river branched into channels and the current quickened. She was drawn under the bridges, past the island of silent mansions and toward the Ile de la Cité, where the low walls of the Morgue stood sentinel before the soaring buttresses of Notre Dame. Pulled by contending currents, her body was tossed for a time against the embankment below the Morgue, her arm and forehead striking the cold stone again and again as if obstinately demanding entry. Ultimately, the swifter current prevailed and she floated spinning like a pinwheel along the southern edge of the Cité. She spun past Notre Dame, its towers rising into blackness; past the large barracks that faced the cathedral and seemed equally silent and uninhabited; under the Pont St. Michel, stamped with the wreathed N’s of the ruling Bonapartes; past the Palais de Justice, the Préfecture de Police and the blood-stained prison of the Conciergerie; under the Pont Neuf, where an empty bottle tossed from the bridge splashed and bobbed near her head; past Henri IV sitting obliviously astride his bronze horse, and into the wider, calmer waters at the end of the island.

For a long time, her body bounced against the sides of barges and bathing platforms moored along the quais. And then she floated onward, under the bare metal frame of the Pont des Arts and along the endless, gaslight-splashed walls of the Louvre. The shattered, shimmering reflection of the palace walls in the river bathed her in the sparkle of a thousand yellow diamonds.

The current drew her body down, pulled her into the darkness, into an alien world. But the flitting fish seemed accustomed to her species, not frightened as they darted above and below her body and passed through the flowing folds of her gown. She floated with the fish past a massive bridge pier that stood like a lone, ruined tower in a land of inky blackness. She was dragged down until her shoulder hit the bottom, stirring an invisible cloud of gravel and mud. She bounced upward, began to rise, but her motion was checked by a jagged pile of refuse, a mound of old wood and fragments of stone thrown off the bridge two years before when a wagon overturned during Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of the Louvre. Her arm caught on a board jutting out from the pile, and her body curled around this piece of wood, enclosing it in a lifeless embrace. Its sharp nails snagged her dress and held her motionless amidst the rushing water.

She hung suspended there for hours. The current eventually pulled her body horizontal and drew her arms out, but the dress remained caught on the nails. She seemed to ride the passing river as a falcon sails on waves of wind across the sky.

Slowly the river’s surface brightened into wavering day, and weak sunlight filtered down to find her lying there, unmoving in the ever-flowing water. The commotion of a passing boat pushed her body down and loosened the dress. But only when two paddlewheel steamboats splashed closely overhead, stirring the water to a froth, was she jarred completely free. She floated up to break the surface on a sunny Paris morning.

The current carried her past the Tuileries Palace and its adjoining garden, where top hatted promenaders trod on their shadows in the morning light. Near the Pont de la Concorde, she was caught in the wake of a boat ferrying tourists from the Louvre to the Universal Exposition. Her body was set spinning by its force, turning clockwise with arms and legs outspread. On the bridge, a well-dressed man leaned over the rail and rubbed a wind-blown cinder from his eye. The girl’s legs floated into the reflection of his top hat as if attempting to kick it off.

She drifted under the bridge and past the lush green trees of the Champs-Elysées. She proceeded slowly, rising and falling in the water. When she passed the garden of the Invalides and reached the Pont de l’Alma, she looked like a sleeper floating face-up on a watery bed, but a sleeper with eyes open and far past awakening. She would not be jarred into consciousness by the piercing screams of the Englishwoman who paused on her way to the Exposition, looked down into the smoky mirror of the Seine, and saw the eyes of a young girl staring back at her.
 
 

 

CHAPTER ONE
 

My Dear Manet,

Yes, I am telling this story to you, my dear fellow and sometime-friend. Now that you have been dead for three decades, my secrets should be safe with you. Listen closely. Did you enjoy that introductory lyrical effusion? I wrote it entirely for your benefit. You were always a great admirer of poetic morbidity, especially when it flowed from your friend Baudelaire. (I remember the day you took me to see Baudelaire in the nursing home; that sad afternoon will be part of this story.) But I can confess to you now that I never shared your poetic enthusiasms, and the process of writing those preceding three pages has caused my estimation of poets to sink even lower. It is easy, Edouard–too easy–to rhapsodize about the beautiful and the dead.

For mine is a story of beauty and death, of art and murder, and of you and me. It is the answer (long delayed; forgive me) to the question you asked outside the old Opera at the end of that summer masked ball back in 1867. Do you remember? Of course you don’t. Your memories are dust now, like the skull that contained them. You asked me who the killer was, and I lied to you. Now I have finally decided to tell you the truth, to answer your question honestly and in detail. My answer (and the reason I lied) can only be understood when the story has been told in its entirety, so I must write the whole thing, from the day I held her body in my arms to the day we both traveled out to Asnières and saw our futures floating in the river.

It’s a mystery story, then, like those of your beloved Edgar Poe. I still have the volume of Poe you gave me many years ago. It’s lying on my desk right now in the same condition as those unfortunate victims in the author’s ‘Rue Morgue’: spine broken, skin torn, insides spilling out. But I guess none of us is what we used to be. Berthe, Caillebotte, and even The Immortal Pissarro are all dead; Renoir is a cripple; Monet, your dark doppelganger, is almost as blind as I am; and as for Mary, the rich American–well, noon is like midnight for her, too. Why does age so often attack painters in the eyes? Are we all like Oedipus, cruelly punished for some unknown transgression? (You have made the Odyssean journey to the Underworld, Edouard, so answer me, answer me.) Simply to see these words as I write them, I’m forced to bend down until my eyes are almost resting on the surface of the paper (this hurts my back, but that’s another volume of stories), and if I could see well enough to catch my reflection in the studio mirror I would probably be mildly amused at the sad irony of the spectacle: the famous artist, the highly respected draftsman, rendered incapable of drawing anything, reduced to wasting good paper by covering it with words.

I try to resist the tar pit of self-pity, but sometimes it’s insufferably boring to be a blind and bitter old man. It’s a hellish kind of life when half the world hates you and the other half are damned fools.

To the story, then, the mystery. I’m sure you remember the day it begins, the day I visited your exhibition on the Place de l’Alma. It was the last week of May in 1867. Across the river from you on the Champ de Mars, Napoleon III’s Universal Exposition was drawing hordes (or should I say ‘herds’?) of tourists from around the world, but very few of those cattle wandered into your little building to see the show you mounted in protest when the officials refused to hang your paintings in the Exposition Palace. It was a pleasant, sunny day, but was it a Tuesday or Wednesday? Or Thursday? I can’t recall. I do know that before leaving my studio I would have paused to play Narcissus for a moment, checking my image in the mirror. What did I see? A young bourgeois in a black frock coat and top hat, a painter who dressed like the wealthy banker’s son he was. Yes, I’m beginning to see myself now. I was 33 that year and looked even younger, although in some undefinable way I already felt like an old man. Because my deep-set eyes gave me an expression people considered ‘melancholy’ and ‘Romantic,’ I was in the midst of a multi-year campaign to erase this Italian inheritance from my face. For fifteen or twenty minutes every morning I would stand before the mirror and direct at my reflection gazes that were ‘piercing,’ ‘ironic,’ even ‘furious,’ and which no soft-hearted soul would dare call ‘Romantic.’ My efforts were at best an incomplete success, and as I stood there that morning I surveyed through ‘sleepy’ eyes the fashionably loose cut of my coat, the immaculate white of my shirt collar, the carefully careless appearance of my cravat. I admired the way my face-framing fringe of black beard looked like a chin strap attached to my hat. And I was satisfied that the image in the mirror agreed substantially with the recent self-portrait hanging beside it on the wall.

I walked down four flights of creaking stairs from the top-floor studio, gave the concierge my customary nod, and stepped out the doorway into the Rue de Laval. It was a quiet street in those days, a jagged little rue of four- and five-story apartment buildings a few minutes’ walk from the city center and as close to Montmartre as any sensible man would want to live. Alfred Stevens’s studio topped the building across the street, and as I walked down toward the Rue des Martyrs, shaking my head every few steps to check for the presence of those annoying transparent shapes that sometimes floated slowly across my inner eyes and clouded my vision, I tried to remember the subject of a Stevens painting I had seen at the Salon a week earlier. The picture had been a success with the crowd, and I had stood before it for a few minutes, but now I couldn’t remember it at all. It had been a typical genre scene hanging in the S room next to...but no, the memory was gone. Stevens is an impeccable technician, I told myself, but his works are as memorable as wallpaper. Turning the corner, I wondered if I could transform that observation into a bon mot.

The Rue des Martyrs was noisy and crowded with people and wagons coming down from Montmartre. A horse cart heavily laden with red tomatoes almost collided with another carrying stacks of conical, wheat-colored Tonkinese hats. On the sidewalks, workers in blue blouses jostled shopkeepers in frayed coats. Street vendors shouldering sacks of fruits and vegetables cut contrarian paths through the southbound crowd as they walked north to the poorer neighborhoods. Stevens’s paintings are like wallpaper, I thought as I dodged the bulging sacks and strolled among the blouses and the coats. They are absolutely competent and perfectly forgettable. No, it needs more concision. Make it a single sentence. Stevens’s paintings are as competent as they are forgettable. That’s acceptable, but what about the wallpaper? The horse pulling the tomato cart shied suddenly away from a man trying to cross the street. Two large tomatoes rolled off the pile, bounced bruisingly upon the paving stones and splashed into the soup of horsepiss and rainwater that collected in the gutter. Without breaking stride, a passing worker bent down, scooped them up, and dropped them into his pocket. Stevens’s paintings are– My work was interrupted by the sight of Nadia. You remember Nadia, the model who posed for one of the nudes in my medieval war scene and spent the next several years begging me for a few francs every time we happened to meet? Here she was again, half a block ahead and walking directly toward me. Luckily, she hadn’t spotted me yet, so I was able to turn into a narrow side street and stand with my back to the sidewalk, pretending to be engrossed by a particularly gruesome-looking calf’s tongue hanging in the window of a butcher shop. I performed the role of tongue connoisseur so convincingly, I now recall, that the shopkeeper appeared and began to bargain with me. I allowed him to mutter and ramble for a moment, but once I had memorized the details of his face (jowly cheeks, bulldog nose, gray whiskers covering his lower ears) for use in the background of a future painting, I cut the little man short and continued on my way.

Wagons and carriages passed before me in a noisy blur of horses and wood as I made my zigzag way across the busy intersection behind the church of Notre Dame de Lorette. ‘Our Lady of the Trollops,’ as the more knowledgeable English tourists translated it. The prostitutes who worked the streets behind the church had long been called ‘lorettes,’ and every time I passed the building I reflected that it was the most genuinely Christian church in Paris: like Jesus himself, it was surrounded by whores. But is it proper, I wondered (not for the first time), to mock the building where one was baptized? On the Rue Lafitte I turned to look back at the church’s fake classical facade rising incongruously at the end of a street of artist supply shops and picture dealers. It was as if a cliched classical building from the background of one of the paintings in the shopwindows had magically leaped from its canvas and come gigantically to life. It was an undeniably impressive fraud. Fortunately, the baptism didn’t take. I’m Catholic the way that building is ancient. Religion, like the facade of the Lorette, is something no intelligent man should take seriously. The last sentence pleased me; it would bear repeating. Stevens’s paintings are like fine wallpaper: perfectly competent and perfectly forgettable. That’s it.

I walked quickly past the picture shops, seeing little of interest in the windows: landscapes after Claude, histories after David, still lifes that tried too hard to be Dutch. Why couldn’t the painters of 1867 paint the world of 1867? Glancing toward the street I saw a coachman sitting erect atop his parked carriage. Alert and waiting, his attitude communicated all the stoical readiness of the greatest Greek sculpture, and his hard, black silhouette begged for a draftsman’s pencil. Why couldn’t this be a painting? Why must we lock ourselves in the Louvre and leave the modern world to merchants and magazine illustrators? I was stopped suddenly (so suddenly that the man walking behind me was forced to execute a swift sidestep to avoid a collision) by something on display in Pillet’s shopwindow. It was a lithograph by Daumier that I had never seen before, a street scene from 1848 (I guessed) showing a crowd of Parisians–mother and child, top hatted bourgeois, fierce-looking old woman–gathered around a central worker with his fist in the air. Old Pillet must have kept this lithograph in storage for years, waiting for a change in the law or government that would permit its safe display. With Napoleon III’s easing of censorship during the Exposition, the dealer had apparently decided to take his chance. I studied the print more closely, noting the anger and indignation in the faces, the bulging tendons on the central figure’s neck. It was a compressed, exciting composition, a portrait of a crowd ten seconds before the revolution, just before the pent-up energy explodes. My own excitement, my collector’s thrill, held me there before the window. I felt my heart beating, I heard the blood throbbing past my ears, and I knew immediately that, regardless of Pillet’s price, this piece would very soon join my collection of choice Daumiers.

I vanished into the shop and made my purchase.

Thirty minutes later, holding the print in its stiffened envelope like a large book in my hand, I turned down another narrow street and emerged on the Rue Le Pelletier directly in front of the Opera. Gloomy by gaslight, the old facade looked dull and desolate in the morning sun. The stark row of doors at street level was as unadorned and functional as the entrance to a market somewhere in the provinces, and above it a row of squat classical columns and arched windows seemed to bear down on the building with all the weight of a dead past. And now that its garish Bonapartist replacement was being born a few blocks to the west, the Opera itself was almost as dead as that past. Standing before it, I could become dangerously sentimental: my family’s third-level loge in a corner near the back, my first experiences of Don Juan, The Magic Flute, Faust, Delibes’s La Source (the inspiration for my current painting-in-progress), all of those memories were inseparable from this dingy old building. I crossed the street and walked past the closed doors, noticing at various places in the walls the pockmarks left by Orsini’s bombs. When the Italian revolutionary had attempted to assassinate Napoleon III here, he had succeeded only in killing a few innocent people and ringing an explosive death knell for the old Opera. The Bonapartes were perfectly content to let the evil place fall into disrepair; they were allowing it to die slowly, waiting for the inevitable fire to purge it from the earth. Until then, however, performances continued. The emperor needed his spectacle, and even a cursed opera house was better than none. Passing the south corner, I was cheered by a poster announcing a performance of Don Juan with your friend Faure singing the title role.

As I stepped out of the Rue Le Pelletier into the dramatic space and sunlight of the Boulevard des Italiens, I witnessed yet again one of those once-humorous incidents of the new Paris that, like a joke repeated too often, had lost its comic flavor. On the opposite sidewalk a man dressed much like myself, but obviously less experienced with this part of the city, strolled down the boulevard with carefully studied nonchalance. Suddenly, without warning, a powerful gust of wind rolled down the straight, canyon-like street and plucked this faux-flaneur’s top hat from his head. The gentleman was suitably shocked. He turned to pursue his fleeing headgear, but I had seen so many similar incidents on these streets that I did not pause to observe his efforts. I had learned long ago to pull my hat down more firmly before venturing into Baron Haussmann’s neighborhoods. Now, as I tightened my grip on the envelope and joined the host of other walkers following their top-hatted shadows down the morning sidewalk, I was forced to grudgingly admit the pleasant visual effect of Haussmann’s boulevard. It was an artistic effect, albeit an unoriginal one: the wide, tree-lined street with its identical sides diminished into the distance like a perspective construction in a Renaissance painting; at the vanishing point, I could just make out the columns on the corner of the Madeleine. Walking down this new street reminiscent of old paintings, I cast a passing glance at the new Opera, the perpetual project which had already been under construction for four years. The outer shell of the building, minus its encrustations of ornament, stood essentially finished, providing Parisians with an appropriately theatrical illusion of a work nearing completion. (As we now know, the interior wouldn’t be ready for almost another decade.) The street opposite the Opera looked much more hopeless. Not yet a street at all, it was a long, open corridor filled with piles of rubble, earth and gravel stretching all the way down to the wall of the Louvre.

When I came to the long facade of the Grand Hotel, my impression of the boulevard darkened in a way that I found deeply satisfying. One should accept nothing uncritically, and we should always be suspicious of too-easy pleasures. I now saw Haussmann’s architectural uniformity as a visual drug, an opiate for the eye. The numbing sameness of the buildings, the straightness of the street, the regular repetition along the sidewalks of the series tree-bench-streetlight, tree-bench-streetlight...all of this served to narcotize the stroller, to produce a sensation of walking in place. The very structure of the boulevard induced a state of boredom that could only be alleviated by entering one of the shops and buying something, anything. The object purchased was unimportant; the act of purchasing was all. Was I being paranoid? Sometimes paranoia is a synonym for perception. And sometimes it isn’t. The buildings I passed were not entirely the same. And Nadar’s photography studio certainly broke the monotony, its front wall almost entirely glass, its steel frame painted red to match the owner’s hair. Everything about Nadar was red: hair, clothes, studio, even the large gaslit sign on the front of the building, fashioned in the shape of his flamboyant signature. Nadar was our man of the future, more self-promoter than artist and much more visionary than practical. We all thought he was a little crazy, with his gigantic red balloons and his Jules Verne dreams of flying machines, but he was more right than we could ever have imagined.

At the Madeleine, that imitation Parthenon the first Napoleon had dropped into the middle of Paris, I experienced another attack of Haussmann-induced paranoia. Looking up the Boulevard Malesherbes, I saw the dome of St. Augustin rising at the end of the street and I wondered why all of Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards seemed to culminate in grand monuments to the ruling order, symbols of church and state. Haussmann and Napoleon III were determined to remake Paris in their own dictatorial image. Their city would be a monument to themselves, Parisians be damned. I turned down the Rue Royale and walked toward the old Place de la Revolution, the guillotine site, now unconvincingly renamed Concorde. The columned facade of the Corps Legislatif, Napoleon III’s rubber stamp assembly, stood at the far end of the street like a confirmation of my worst suspicions.

Whenever I came to the Place de la Concorde I remembered the day in my ninth or tenth year when my Grandfather Degas, visiting from Naples, took me down to play in the Champs-Elysées and paused at the top of the Place to tell me a story that was already part of family legend. "This is an evil place, Edgar," the old man began portentously. "Remember that." Obviously, I did remember it, although to my ten year-old eyes the dusty square with carriages speeding across it looked neither more nor less evil than any other intersection in the city. Grandfather continued: "On a cold day in ’93, I stood on this very spot, right here, and watched five young women go to the guillotine, one after another. Five young women whose only crime was to take a few pieces of food out to the German soldiers at Verdun who were coming to save our country from the revolutionary rabble. For the crime of giving candy to Hessian soldiers, they were locked up in the Conciergerie, brought down here in a cart and marched to the scaffold and executed, one right after the other." His wrinkled hand became the guillotine blade, chopping the air before him. When it had fallen for the fifth time, he said, "One of them was my fiancee." He looked toward the center of the square, seeing the past in his mind. "I didn’t recognize her. I couldn’t tell which one she was because I was standing so far away, and all of the girls had had their hair cut off. And she had beautiful brown hair, Edgar. But they cut it off and brutalized her. All of the girls had been so brutalized that they all looked alike. Their flesh was gray like death, and they already had death in their eyes when they walked up the steps to the guillotine. It was over there," he pointed with his walking stick, "in front of a statue of Liberty seated on her throne. The executioner grabbed them and threw them onto the plank, and their heads were fixed in the guillotine and the blade came down." Grandfather drew his finger across my throat while making a ‘ffft’ sound with his lips. "Just like that. Murdered. She would have been your grandmother, Edgar. Murdered in front of all of Paris. They did the same to the king and queen not long after. Murdered before my eyes, and I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t even tell which one she was." In my naivete, I asked Grandfather why the people didn’t rise up and stop the executions. "The people!" he snorted. "They were too busy cheering." His voice had an edge of anger that I had never heard before. He paused a moment, then finished the story. "When the killing was over, one of my friends came up to me in the crowd and whispered in my ear, ‘Get out of the city immediately. The Committee is searching your house.’ So I borrowed a horse from that good man and said a permanent goodbye to Paris." "Where did you go?" I asked. Receiving no reply, I repeated the question. He said, "To Naples, eventually...where I got rich. So, there’s a happy ending. Let’s go." He put his hand on my shoulder and guided me into the park.

I recalled being vaguely disappointed at the abrupt conclusion of Grandfather’s story, and now as I passed the obelisk at the center of the Place, I wondered if he had been, in an uncharacteristically subtle way, schooling me in the art of literary criticism. These ruminations were interrupted when a small cyclone of dust whirled down the Champs-Elysées and sent a tiny cinder into my eye. I paused on the Pont de la Concorde to rub it out. (If I had looked down into the river, I might have seen a young girl’s body turning clockwise, its legs passing under the reflection of my hat.) My vision restored, I realized that I was surrounded by foreigners: fair-skinned denizens of the distant north and darker ones from the Mediterranean south. All the languages of Europe and a few from Asia blended to a cosmopolitan cacophony on the bridge, and I felt uneasy without knowing exactly why. They were tourists, of course, walking to the Exposition. But why did they make me feel like a stranger in my own city? Looking to the southwest I could see their destination: the enormous Exposition Palace rose above the rooftops, a Roman Colosseum built out of gray steel. Its massive manufactured ugliness drew the tourists onward like a distant steeple beckoning the devout.

I turned back and walked against the human current, back to the sun-soaked Concorde. For the first time, I was struck by the emptiness of the square. The Place was actually very busy, crossed by carriages, wagons, people, all moving in different directions, but for some reason the sight gave me an overall sense of emptiness, blankness. I thought it fitting that a place of death should seem sterile, a vast blank that people passed over without stopping, as if desperately trying to ignore it.

As for me, I avoided the historical reality of the square by seeking shelter under the cool trees of the Champs-Elysées. There, amidst the playing children, watchful adults and, yes, tourists moving toward the Exposition, it was easy to wipe Grandfather’s five headless virgins from my mind. I followed a slow, serpentine path through the trees and emerged at the Palais de l’Industrie, where this year’s Salon was attracting only a fraction of the usual crowds. Despite the fact that two of my own paintings were hanging in the Salon, the low turnout almost pleased me. It supported my often-stated contention that the conservatism of the Salon jury was rendering the exhibition irrelevant. People preferred basking in industrial modernity at the Exposition to spending a couple of hours staring at the same old academic shit in the Salon. I held out a faint, naive hope that this disappointing year would convince the jury that it must either change or die; in my more realistic moments, however, I knew that only death would change it. Avoiding the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and the multiple goads to paranoia I would find there (With the Arc de Triomphe at one end, the Tuileries Palace at the other, the Elysées Palace to the north and the Salon to the south, the street was Haussmann’s ultimate triumph, a veritable cage of the ruling order.), I walked around the back of the Palais de l’Industrie and followed the Rue Jean Goujon down to your exhibition on the Place de l’Alma.

***************

I can still see you sitting there, Edouard, in the middle of that ugly barn of a gallery your mother’s money built for you, surrounded by your paintings. You were sitting in profile, as motionless as a haughty portrait subject, looking at nothing and lost in thought. Your light-brown beard, which tended to give you an angelic appearance, was trimmed to two sharp satanic points; it looked like a large, bushy letter W hanging from your chin. Your lustrous black top hat and thin walking stick, the props of your public persona, lay at your feet like fallen masks.

Your son Leon, a teenager then, sat behind a table near the door, positioned to collect the fifty-centime admission fee. I call him your son–something you never did–because it’s time to put an end to the absurd pretense that he was your wife Suzanne’s younger brother. You must have realized that no one was fooled. Who cares if the boy was born out of wedlock? You eventually married Suzanne, and surely that act ‘legitimized’ him. I often wondered if Leon knew the truth. Was he the only person deceived, or was he a willing participant in a deception that deceived no one? Sometimes, Edouard, you could be very tiresomely bourgeois.

(As I wrote that last word, I remembered the day in your studio during the 1870's when we argued about the Salon–what else?–and I called you a bourgeois. You replied by calling me a Jew. I never forgave you for that. What you don’t know, however, is that after I marched from your studio and slammed the door behind me, I stood in the hallway for a while and listened. I heard you say, "Exit Degas, in his usual huff." And I heard the laughs of those talentless toadies who always came to watch you paint. One of them asked, "Is Degas a Jew?" You answered, "I don’t know. He hates Jews enough to be one of them. And his family are bankers, international bankers." "Aha!" pronounced M. Toad. "A touch of Rothschild, eh?" You laughed and said nothing. Well, Edouard, I have been accused of many things, but–But it’s a dangerous subject.)

"Any business today, Manet?" I called out, my voice echoing in the almost empty building.

You broke your profile pose and turned to me. "Only a couple of English tourists. They walked the perimeter and then asked for their money back. I pretended not to understand them."

"Vive la France," I said.

I walked to the center of the room and turned slowly around, examining the walls, every inch of them from floor to ceiling covered with your paintings. Although I would never have admitted this to you, it was an intimidating experience to stand there with your work confronting me wherever I turned. For me, your exhibition was not so much a challenge as an accusation, your way of saying, "Over the last ten years, I have completely revolutionized the art of painting. What have you done?"

I must have successfully dissembled my intimidation, because your complaints continued: "...Only a few people came in yesterday, even fewer the day before. Just look at them!" You gestured contemptuously at the steady stream of pedestrians who marched past your open door on their way to the Pont de l’Alma and the Exposition across the river. "I thought this would be an excellent location–and it is–but they’re only interested in going to that... carnival." You spat out the final word with near-comic disgust.

"Well, it is a Universal Exposition, isn’t it? Surely you didn’t think one man could compete with the entire universe? I wonder how many of the exhibits are from Mars or Aldebaran. I understand the people of Venus have been doing amazing things with fine lace."

"The newspapers have barely mentioned me," you lamented. "Even a bad review is preferable to total silence."

"Isn’t Zola writing you up?"

"Oh, yes. You can always count on Zola. Until you can’t."

"I thought the two of you were great friends."

"We are, we are. But Zola confuses painting with writing and tries to make me a storyteller. I don’t have any stories to tell."

"I don’t believe that at all." As my eyes rushed again around the room, I perceived the countless narratives implied by your work. Each painting was like a scene from an unknown story, a chapter from an unwritten novel. Standing in your gallery was like being in the Vatican Library, surrounded by more books than anyone could read in a lifetime. "We are always telling stories, whether we know it or not–telling them or acting in them, which is the same thing."

You looked up at me. "You’re even worse than Zola. Are you talking about painting, Edgar, or is this the beginning of another pointless philosophical excursion?"

"I’m talking about life," I said, "and that’s what you’re painting." I handed you the envelope with the Daumier inside. "Look at what I just bought, while I look at Victorine."

Walking toward the wall where Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass hung side by side, I thought back to the spring of 1863: the Luncheon was the central object of ridicule in the Salon des Refusés that year, and in your studio across town you responded to the critics by painting an even more unconventional and uncompromising work, a full-length study of Victorine Meurent stretched out nude like the Venus of Urbino–or rather, like a modern courtesan posing as the Venus of Urbino; your Olympia was a real nude, a woman in the flesh, not some airy academic fantasy.

Your whistle interrupted my recollection. I turned back to see you staring at the Daumier with an expression of wonder. "Where on earth did you find this?"

"I’ve often wondered if the Rue Lafitte should be considered part of the Earth. It was in Pillet’s window this morning."

"That bastard!" You laughed. "I was there yesterday. A day early, I see."

I looked closely at Olympia and the Luncheon, trying once more to understand them. Did you understand exactly what you were doing in 1863? I doubt it. You probably had some kind of inexpressible understanding (whatever that might mean), but the paintings were so entirely original in their relationship to past art, witty and ironic rather than solemn and worshipful, that you probably couldn’t have stated your intentions in words. Your irony elevated the frock-coated bourgeois and the contemporary courtesan into the world of high art even as it deflated the pretensions of that world. You simultaneously invoked the artistic past and undermined it to create something entirely new. And that was the difficulty. It is impossible to think about the truly new; we don’t have any cliches for it yet.

I stared at Victorine’s eyes in Olympia and then caught the same gaze staring back at me from the middle of Luncheon on the Grass. "I saw Victorine the other day," I said.

"What was she doing?"

"Modeling for Stevens, I think. We didn’t meet; I saw her from my window, leaving Stevens’s house."

I think I detected a smirk on your face as you said, "Degas, the voyeur of the Rue de Laval. One of these days your neighbors are going to put your eyes out."

"You were incredibly lucky to find her." I decided to ignore your remark. "That face, that body. A real Parisian woman. You are the first man ever to paint a true Parisienne."

"And no one gives a shit."

"They will," I said. "Cheer up, Edouard. The future is yours."

"I would prefer the present."

"The present is a syphilitic whore, and Bouguereau can have her."

You finally rose from your chair. I heard your voice approaching behind me. "The sight of a cynic like you trying to raise my spirits makes me feel much worse. I must look like a candidate for the Morgue. Which is what they said about Olympia, as you will recall."

I vaguely remembered that bit of typically ignorant Salon criticism and was surprised that you took it so personally. "You know they’re fools, Edouard, nothing but bad writers and failed painters. We don’t exactly have Diderot reviewing the Salons anymore."

"And thank god for that! Diderot would really hate me."

Standing shoulder to shoulder before Victorine’s bed, we studied the lights and shadows, the curves and valleys, of her painted body. You said, "Have you been across the street to Courbet’s exhibition?"

"The Pavilion of Realism? No, I’m boycotting it, like you and the Salon. Has Gargantua been attracting crowds?" By the late 1860's, as you will recall, Courbet’s legendary appetites had given him a body almost large enough to contain his ego.

"He’s doing better than I am. Do you remember what he said about Olympia?"

"‘The Queen of Spades leaving her bath,’ or something like that. Really, you should let the remarks of fools slide off of you like water."

"Courbet’s a fool?"

"Sometimes."

We walked over to your crowded painting of Parisians gathered for a concert in the Tuileries Gardens and I asked you to point out Baudelaire. Indicating a figure in the middle distance, you said, "Baudelaire’s still holding on, but it doesn’t look like he has much time left. He’s in a nursing home just a few blocks from here. Suzanne and I visit him sometimes." As if to lighten the mood, you pointed to another man in the painting. "That’s Offenbach, there by the tree. He’s packing them in with The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, the bastard."

"Maybe you should paint operettas," I said.

"Or operas, like you."

"Actually, I’m working on a ballet scene, not an opera. And I should correct something else you said. That man is not Baudelaire; Baudelaire is right here." I put my finger on the neck of your self-portrait, looking out at the viewer from the left edge of the Tuileries crowd. "‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ That’s you. And soon everyone will understand that–sooner than you think."

"I’m heartened by your conversion to faith in human progress. Aren’t you a bit young to be getting sentimental?"

"It’s neither optimism nor sentimentality, merely the belief that even human stupidity has a limit."

We moved to a group of still lifes. I noticed a bowl of plums that was new to me. It was an amazingly well-painted work, even beyond your usual excellence. The texture and volume of each fruit was evoked almost palpably in brushstrokes of breathtaking freedom. Immediately, I was overcome by the same emotion I had felt earlier upon seeing the Daumier print. My heart beat faster; there was a dampness in my palms. This collector’s urge was a physical thing for me, a form of desire, almost erotic. I wanted to possess your little still life of plums the way most men want to possess a beautiful woman. I had always secretly admired the vigor and spontaneity of your attack, but this work showed me something more. The ease with which you handled paint in this canvas made me feel like a plodder. (Obviously, I would never have admitted any of this to you while you were still alive and able to repeat it against me.) "This comes close to Chardin," I said, carefully controlling my praise. "It’s quite good."

Through the open doorway, over the noise of footsteps and carriage wheels, I heard several short, unmistakable screams. You remarked, "She’s screaming bloody murder, as the English say."

"Do they really say that?" I was pleased by the timing of this interruption, coming just as I was in danger of revealing the extent of my admiration for your work. The screams started again, other voices cried out, the people passing your doorway quickened to a running blur. "Whatever it is, it sounds interesting," I said, putting on my hat. "I’ll investigate."

A growing crowd was swarming around the Pont de l’Alma. On the bridge a middle-aged woman stood pointing into the river and screaming while two men tried unsuccessfully to calm her. With unforgivable obnoxiousness, I jostled my way down the steps and through the mass of people on the quai until I stood at the water’s edge and saw the cause of this commotion. About three meters from the riverbank, a young girl in a dark dress was floating face-up; her arms were extended like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, and her blonde hair spread out like a ragged halo upon the swiftly moving surface. Acting automatically, without a single conscious thought, I slipped out of my coat, laid it on the quai, placed my hat on top of it, and leaped into the Seine.

The water was shockingly cold, so cold it seemed to burn my skin. I was completely submerged for a few silent seconds, and upon resurfacing I gasped at the air like a landed fish. A few voices on the quai tried to call me back. From the bridge overhead I could hear the original woman–surely hysterical by now–still screaming. The girl was only a couple of meters away, so I paddled out to her, feeling surprisingly little current. The water flowed past, but it seemed to part and move around me. The greatest resistance to my efforts came from the steadily increasing weight of my soaked clothes and the shoes that I had–absurdly– neglected to remove. The small waves created by my motion washed over the floating girl, dragging strands of yellow hair across her face. I put one arm around her waist (she felt weightless in the water) and held her to my side as I slowly splashed the short distance back to the riverbank. Many arms lifted us up onto the gravel.

Chilled, soaked and dripping, I knelt over her body on the quai. Water droplets fell from my hair to her face and ran down her cheeks like tears. Involuntarily, I saw myself from a distance, as the history painter I had once tried to be would have imagined the scene: a composition out of Poussin, a figural group derived from Michelangelo, a background borrowed from Claude. Somebody Saved From Drowning. But there was no saving this body. The girl, whoever she was, lay motionless on the gravel. I put one hand around her neck, felt her throat for a pulse, but she was as limp and lifeless as a lay figure. The crowd moved back, cowed by the presence of unexpected death. I leaned down closer, inhaling the wet, sour odor of her body and looking at every detail with a painter’s memorizing eye: the deep gash like a channel cut into the back of her head, her wet hair the color of tarnished gold in the sunlight, the fingertip-sized bruises at her throat, her blue satin dress darkened by the water and torn at the back, and hanging from a thin black chain around her neck, an unusual jeweled pendant in the shape of a butterfly.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER TWO
 

The next day at the Morgue she was one of a dozen corpses identically laid out for public viewing on a dozen identical marble tables. Naked except for leather straps covering their genitals, they lay back limply on their beds of stone, male and female together in the promiscuity of death. Steady streams of cold water poured onto their foreheads from shiny, curving faucets and ran in rivulets down their inclined bodies. The water was intended to slow decomposition, but it appeared to be having little effect on the middle-aged man at the end of the back row. He was disgustingly bloated, blown up like one of Nadar’s balloons, the skin stretched drum-tight across his abdomen. I wondered if the attendants would remove him before he exploded like an overcooked sausage. Beside him lay a tall, thin Black African, his bony legs so long that his feet protruded over the end of the table. The horizontal slit across his abdomen spoke of an agonizing death. Did he call out to his tormentors for mercy as he tried to hold his guts in? Did he cry out finally to no one at all in the incomprehensible language of his birth?

The Morgue was not designed to answer such questions. All the unidentified bodies discovered in Paris were displayed here behind the glass partition of the Viewing Room in order to answer one question and one question only: Who? And when an answer was received, when an angry or grieving relative stood before the glass for a few seconds and then walked over to the desk at the end of the room and identified one of the bodies, the attendant would produce the proper form, the answer would be written in the proper blank, and body and paper would be released to their respective oblivions. The Viewing Room was thus a bureaucratic necessity, but for as long as anyone could remember, it had also been a public spectacle, one of Paris’s more ghoulish attractions, an ever-changing carnival sideshow of death. Men, women and children crowded into the long room to gaze through the glass at the corpses. They passed slowly along the partition like strollers on the boulevard looking into a shopwindow. They whispered comments, made comparisons. Some of them were blasé connoisseurs, looking not at death but at an image of it under glass. A few others were more excited by the vision; they were like cannibals at a marketplace, inspecting the meat.

I stood close to the window, directly in front of the girl’s table, and felt the people moving behind me. By slightly de-focusing my eyes, I could see their transparent reflections in the glass. (I wondered for a second about the painterly possibilities of transparent reflections in window glass. Something like that could be technically impressive and maybe even beautiful.) They were mostly couples, tourists enjoying another Parisian sight so they could check it off the list in their guidebooks. They came here after visiting Notre Dame: Gothic architecture followed by Gothic fiction. It was a rare instance of Haussmannian genius to place this new Morgue directly behind the cathedral; after the fantasy of resurrection, pilgrims could witness the reality of putrefaction. Small groups of boys periodically ran through the room. Loud and enthusiastic, they squeezed between the slower adults and looked with frank pleasure upon the bodies. Most of them were drawn to the black man, a curiosity, but I remember one boy who stood close to me and stared at the dead girl. He made no comments; his child’s face wore an expression that mixed fascination with incomprehension. One of his friends eventually came over and asked, "What’s so great about her? She doesn’t even have any tits. Look at the tits on this one over here." The boy glanced up at me and allowed himself to be dragged across to where a plump woman of about thirty was laid out, her large, useless breasts sagging down toward the tabletop.

I looked at my girl. My girl. That was how I thought of her now. By virtue of pulling her from the river I had made her mine. And the Parisian Anecdote Machine was currently running at full steam to ensure that everyone who knew me knew of yesterday’s incident at the Pont de l’Alma. The previous evening at Madame de Saint Pierre’s salon, I had paused in the anteroom before entering (I always arrived late) and had heard the nasal voice of Butot recounting the latest transformation of my exploits: "...and so Degas dived into the river, frock coat and all, and the current nearly carried him away. He was bobbing up and down in the water, waving his arms and screaming for help. Somehow he flailed around to the body and managed to push it back to the riverbank. And then he climbed out of the water with the child in his arms, a great hero! But his shoes were a little squishy–" "He didn’t remove his shoes?" Madame de Saint Pierre asked disapprovingly. "Not our Degas!" Butot continued. "Our hero would never do such an uncouth thing in public. But anyway, there he was, the great hero, dripping with filthy water and holding in his arms the object of his heroism, the creature he had risked his own life to save–a corpse!" Laughter sounded around the room, but it was instantly choked back when I appeared in the doorway.

I looked at her. My girl, my corpse. I put the Morgue tourists out of my mind and tried to ignore the man in rags who proceeded slowly across the window from body to body, mumbling to himself. Her skin looked paler today, but that might have been the effect of the black marble on which she lay. Her blonde hair, pulled back to conceal the deep cut in the back of her head, was matted against the tabletop by the running water. Ugly black semicircles had formed below her eyes, and the bruises at her neck now looked larger and darker. My eyes traveled down her child’s body (she couldn’t be older than thirteen, I guessed) and came to rest on the small concavity at the bottom of her breastbone. This place where bone gave way to flesh seemed especially fragile. If I touched her there, she would break in two. I asked myself if the slight discoloration in this area was a bruise or a birthmark. And then something else entered my mind. My glance returned to her throat and then went up to the metal bar near the ceiling where the clothes and other items found on the bodies were hung. I saw her blue dress with the jagged tears in back, her corset, her underclothes. But no necklace.

"Not yet," the old man in rags said softly as he stepped sideways toward me. He looked through the glass, repeated "Not yet," and sidestepped again until he stood at my shoulder, too close to ignore. I turned my head and found him staring back at me as if I were also a body on display. I raised my eyebrows enquiringly. "Not yet," he told me at last. I must have looked puzzled, so he condescended to explain himself in a calm, almost serene voice. "I’m not in there yet. They haven’t found my body. It’s been five years since I died, and they haven’t found my body yet." I was not completely surprised by these words. Like everyone else, I had heard the story of the madman who went to the Morgue every day hoping to find his own corpse, but I had always thought it apocryphal. Was this walking skeleton with tattered clothes and unkempt, wine-stained beard really the inspiration for the story? Or was he just another madman, a blasted brain without a story of his own who had appropriated the ‘Madman of the Morgue’ persona for his own purposes? Was he the original or a copy–or perhaps a bit of both?

"Do you know how I died?" he asked. I shook my head, and his expression suddenly changed from an almost naive calm to annoyance and anger. He turned quickly away. "It must have been you," I heard him mutter as he crossed behind me. Standing now at my other shoulder, he stared at the next body, scratched his ratty hair, mumbled, and moved on.

With almost painful slowness, I made my way through the crowd to the attendant’s desk. He was busily copying the contents of several loose pages into a large record book, so rather than interrupt him, I looked out the window at the back of Notre Dame and obstinately refused to compare its network of buttresses to the rigging of a sailing ship. "Pardon me..." I finally began. His pen stopped moving and his head shot up as if jolted by electricity. "Yes?" His eyes, magnified by thick spectacles, cast a penetrating, suspicious gaze.

"I’m sorry to disturb you," I said with forced sincerity, "but I have a question about one of the bodies."

"Yes?"

"The girl. When her body was discovered she was wearing a necklace, a jeweled metal butterfly on a black chain. I don’t see it among her effects."

"I don’t know anything about a necklace." He looked toward the partition but could see nothing through the crowd. "Which body was it?"

"The girl with blonde hair. Discovered yesterday."

"Number Four," he said to himself and pulled a file folder from his desk drawer. Holding the folder open at an angle so I could not see its contents, he scanned the papers inside. Upon completion his head jerked up at me again. "There was no necklace, no jewelry of any kind."

"Of course there was." I kept my voice calm, matter-of-fact. "She was wearing a necklace exactly as I described."

His enlarged, insect eyes met mine. "No," he said flatly, "unfortunately not."

I camouflaged my anger behind a smile. "I must insist..."

He laid the closed folder on his desk and tapped it with his finger. "There is no necklace in the inventory. If it is not in the inventory, it does not exist." He swept the folder off his desk, returned it to the drawer and closed the drawer with a slam. The sound was doubtless intended to put a period to our conversation.

"Certainly it exists. I saw it."

The attendant appeared to think about this. "Can you identify the body, monsieur?"

"No," I said, caught off guard by the non sequitur.

"Then what is your concern? What is your connection to this person?"

"I...I–" I paused, halted by the absurdity of what I was about to say. All the appropriate verbs seemed to have fled from my brain. "I rescued her...I pulled her from the Seine."

The attendant’s laughter was abrupt and loud. He laughed uncontrollably, and the crowd found this sight even more diverting than the corpses they had come to see. I could feel all of their eyes focused on the back of my neck. "I’m sorry, monsieur." The attendant spoke between bursts of laughter. "You rescued her!...And a fine job you did!...Give me your name, monsieur, so I can call on you the next time one of my enemies needs to be rescued!" He leaned back in his chair and laughed like a man who had not laughed for years.

****************

"I’m not going to lie to you and say I wish I could help," said Inspector Henri Boulle of the Paris police. "This is exactly the kind of case we don’t want anything to do with." Henri sat behind his desk and I sat across from him in an armchair that had only recently been relieved of its burden of file folders and large envelopes. Henri’s entire office, in fact, was filled with bulging dossiers. They were scattered across his desk, thrown on the floor, piled onto a side table and even stacked neatly against the walls in rectangular towers that resembled the skyline of a medieval Tuscan hill town. It all seemed carefully calculated to give the impression of a man struggling valiantly not to be overwhelmed by his duties.

Henri was one of my oldest friends. We had known each other since our student days at the Lycée Louis le Grand, that decrepit, spartan boarding school on the Left Bank where boys of the monied classes were given a supposedly salutary taste of powerlessness and filth. After the lycée, we had both followed our parents wishes and enrolled at the law school. While Henri had actually attended classes there, I had disappointed my father by spending most of my time at the Louvre or the Bibliothèque, copying engravings after the Italian masters. Upon his graduation from the Ecole de Droit, Henri had sealed our friendship by duly disappointing his own father with the announcement that he was joining the Préfecture de Police. Boulle père, a successful stockbroker, had hoped his son would become a business attorney or magistrate, but too many youthful hours spent reading Vidocq had determined the son on a different course. So Henri’s father had hung his head and grudgingly accepted a police inspector, just as my father had hung his head and silently accepted an artist. Henri, as you know, also painted, and I considered his work good for an amateur. His small, tidy landscapes were derived from Corot, but were brighter and more colorful than the old man’s works.

"Isn’t there anything you can do?" I asked.

Henri swept a hand over his prematurely bald head. The gesture was a survival from his earlier, hairier days. "Certainly. We can wait until the body is identified, and then we can put it in the ground and forget about it."

I said flatly, "I know she was murdered, Henri."

"Oh, so you’re an expert on murder now." He was amused. "How do you know she didn’t kill herself?"

I described the gash in the back of the girl’s head.

"She probably hit her head on something in the river," was Henri’s unimpressed reply. "A boat could’ve struck her; she might’ve been hit by the blade of a paddlewheel –those things are very heavy–maybe she hit her head on a pier of the bridge she jumped off of. There are any number of possibilities."

"She has bruises around her neck, too. It looks like somebody choked her."

"That’s more troubling, yes. Suppose she tried to hang herself and failed. Maybe the rope broke, or the knot slipped or the beam couldn’t hold her weight, something like that. Or maybe at the last moment she had a failure of nerve and worked the rope loose. And then she jumped into the Seine in despair and hit her head on the way down. That would explain the bruises and the head wound." He leaned forward with his elbows on the desk and spoke confidentially. "I’m not making any of this up. Everything I’m telling you is something I’ve seen before in other cases of suicide. The body almost always shows evidence of more than one attempt. And we see many bodies of suicides in much worse condition that the one you’ve described. The ones that have been in the river for very long are the worst. They’re too badly decomposed to be shown at the Morgue. They don’t even look human. They’re just lumps of bloated flesh, torn open. Some of them are really horrible; they look like they’ve been turned inside out. But even suicides that don’t go for a swim can be pretty bad. Two years ago we had an old woman, an Italian, Andreotti was her name, Francesca Andreotti. She slit her wrists in her apartment and died on the kitchen floor. I guess she was very quiet even when she was alive, because nobody noticed anything for about three weeks. Anyway, she lay there for a long time, and since her dog didn’t have anything to eat, he did what animals will do and acquired a taste for a new kind of meat. By the time the neighbors finally smelled something, there wasn’t much left to smell."

"This girl wasn’t eaten by a dog, Henri."

"No, she was lucky. Hardly disfigured at all, as you say. But there’s no compelling evidence of murder here." When I said nothing, he elaborated, slipping into his Didactic Detective voice. "When one person kills another, his most immediate concern is to conceal his crime from the rest of the world. He wants to erase the body, to make it disappear. He doesn’t want it to be found floating on the river a few hours later. He wants it to vanish beneath the surface and remain underwater for as long as possible. So he will weigh the corpse down with heavy rocks, an old millstone, anything he can find that’s heavy enough to keep it under. Your body was found floating as light as air and in fairly good condition, suggesting a recent immersion. No weights, no murder." His tone was conclusive. "She jumped into the river. A suicide. A sad girl in the Seine. It’s an old story, too sentimental for my taste."

"That’s very good, Henri," I said. "You’ve convinced yourself, but not me."

He sighed like a parent arguing with an obstinate child. "All right. Let’s assume she was murdered. But don’t start smiling yet, Degas. I’m going to make you hate these cases as much as we do. So, first of all, when did the murder take place? The body’s not decomposed, so it was a recent event. You found her yesterday. So was she killed yesterday morning? The day before? The day before that? The temperature of the river water retards decomposition, so it’s possible she was dumped a day or two before the body was discovered. Where was she killed? Where did her body enter the Seine? Charenton? Farther upriver? This question needs to be answered because murderers tend to dispose of bodies in familiar locations, places where they feel safe. Once you know where he dumped her, you’ve taken an important step toward determining who he is. And along with all of these unanswered and unanswerable questions, there’s still the most important question of all: Who is she? Without an identification we don’t know where to begin. And many of these Seine women are never identified."

"What happens to those bodies?"

"The unidentified? I don’t know. I assume the Morgue buries or cremates them or something." Henri’s voice trailed off into thought, but he quickly caught himself and reassumed his hardened policeman persona. "Look, do you know how many bodies are pulled out of the Seine every week?"

"No."

"Neither do I. Think about that." He paused to let me think about it, and I spent the seconds thinking that Henri was an annoyingly literal man. "You and I will never end up in the Morgue, Degas, because we have money and we have families who care about us. The family thing is not absolutely necessary, but the money part is crucial. If you have money, even if you’re a horrible bastard despised by the world, people will still care when you die, because there’s always the slim possibility that they will receive some of your money. You end up in the Morgue when no one cares whether you’re dead or alive. Nobody cares. Not even your family, if you have one. And if your own family doesn’t give a damn about your pathetic life, why should the Préfecture de Police waste its time?" He gestured at his impossibly cluttered surroundings. "Look at this place. Every dossier has some connection to a case under investigation. And Bellanger’s office next door is even messier. Take a look on your way out. He has cleared a narrow path through the piles of dossiers so he can get to and from his desk. And then there’s the central archive. One of these days I’ll show you the central archive. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we have down there: surveillance reports on Victor Hugo, an account of the Duc de Morny’s bathroom habits. Even I don’t know how we get these things. Did we have a spy in his bathroom? Who knows? Anyway, do you propose that I take time away from–" He opened a folder at random on his desk. "–the case of Monsieur Reverdy, the respected trader in furs, who was stabbed in broad daylight on the Boulevard Sebastopol, in order to investigate why this little girl killed herself?"

"If, Henri. If she killed herself."

"It’s hopeless, Degas. Leave murder to the experts–and Edgar Poe. Did you see my painting at the Salon?"

Over the years, I had become inured to Henri’s lightning-fast changes of subject. "I gave the Salon a very quick walk-through this year. I must have missed it."

"Because it wasn’t there," he said bitterly. "The sons of bitches refused me. Can you believe that?"

"I’m well beyond being surprised by the idiocy of the Salon jury."

"But they accepted you. Your portraits are wonderful." I received this obligatory compliment with an obligatory grateful nod. "I heard that some of the jurors thought my landscapes were too bright. What would those fools do if they saw a Turner, eh? I guess I have to paint my skies with charcoal to be accepted now."

"Or paint nymphs in your landscapes."

Henri looked at me suspiciously, probably wondering if my comment was a veiled insult to his idol, Corot. I said, "She was wearing a necklace."

"A nymph?" Henri could deftly turn a conversation down an unexpected path, but whenever I did the same he was invariably left walking alone on the straight main road.

"No," I explained, "the girl. When I pulled her out of the river she was wearing a necklace, a rather gaudy thing, a butterfly covered with gemstones. Now it’s missing. I asked the Morgue attendant, but he had no knowledge of the necklace–or of much else, it would seem." The man’s laughter still gnawed at me.

"The necklace was on the body but it wasn’t entered in the Morgue inventory?"

"Exactly."

Henri clapped his hands. "Theft! Wonderful! Now we have a crime, a real crime that can be investigated. See how easy that was? I’ll look into it." He made some notes on a slip of paper. "You didn’t happen to notice the number of the body, did you?"

"Four," I said.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER THREE
 

Despite my suspicions, I decided to take Henri’s advice and leave criminal investigation to the police. I had other work to do. Alone in the studio, I spent my mornings and afternoons before a large canvas depicting the popular ballerina Eugénie Fiocre and two other dancers in a scene from La Source. The underdrawing was completed, the background was blocked in, and now my figures awaited the solidity and life that oil paint would bring. I had always taken a stance of bored agnosticism in the old Ingres versus Delacroix debate; what was the point of setting drawing and painting in opposition when any picture that didn’t exhibit both was worthless? But now, as I stood in my long, white housepainter’s smock and carefully brushed blue pigment into the pleats of Fiocre’s gown, I began to argue with myself. The drawings at the Ingres memorial retrospective that spring were a revelation to me; the self-assurance and fluidity of Ingres’s lines could be as sensual as any coloristic effect. At their best, Ingres’s lines were more like caresses than boundaries. And yet, even as I stood in the gallery looking at the drawings, I felt another emotion playing like a bass tone beneath the melody of my admiration: a sense of sameness and sterility. The artist’s sitters seemed like beautiful dolls, like wax figures modeled by an obsessive sculptor attempting to give form to his idée fixe. I had always valued the objectivity of Ingres’s eye, his coldness and detachment, but objectivity, like anything, could be taken too far–it could become, in fact, subjectivity: the artist stamping all of his creations with the unchanging, unmistakable mark of his mind. Leaving the exhibition, I turned down the Rue Bonaparte and walked to St. Sulpice where I spent a few moments alone in the chapel painted by Delacroix: an antidote of color after an overdose of line.

Line, color. It’s an argument of the past, I told myself as I colored my lines. Why should we waste our time with a debate between dead men? It was time to combine the extremes, to make something new and move on. That’s what I wanted to do. In some vague, uncertain way, I was trying to make extremes meet.

I stepped away from the canvas and rested my eyes by looking out the studio window. Beyond a jumble of jagged rooftops, the white blades of windmills slowly turned atop Montmartre. I thought I would paint a landscape of that scene, a view taken from inside the studio, framed by the sides of the window and overlaid with the grid pattern of the metal strips between the window panes. The illusion of depth would be counteracted by the flattening effect of the grid, so the viewer would feel simultaneously pulled into space and pushed back to the plane of the canvas. Now that would be something new and different. But who would understand it?

Turning back to the painting I let my mind drift to its inspiration, the first night of La Source at the Opera a few months earlier. I was sitting beside my father in our loge when the curtain parted and expressions of surprise filled the house. There was a mountain on the stage. This was no sham peak painted illusionistically on a flat; it was a bona fide three-dimensional mountain–built of wood, of course, but painted and sculpted convincingly enough to resemble stone and grass. While the audience was still marveling at the mountain, a single jet of water shot up from its summit, and the violins began their melody. The water filled a small pool on the mountaintop, overflowed into a waterfall down the side of the mountain, and collected in a larger pool on the stage. Falling and splashing water sparkled in the gaslight as Fiocre and two other women, all costumed in flowing full-length gowns, danced slowly across the stage. One dancer held the reins of an exceptionally tame horse. They danced to the edge of the pool and rested there. I raised my opera glasses: Fiocre was in the center, wearing a light-blue gown and sitting on a rock in an attitude of pensive melancholy; behind her, the second dancer stood playing a lute, softly serenading; the third woman kneeled in the foreground, on the other side of the drinking horse, and seemed to stare at her reflection in the water. I thought it odd that this last woman’s reflection was barely visible to me, while Fiocre’s blue dress and the horse’s golden mane shimmered on the liquid surface. When I lowered my glasses I knew I would remember the scene; I knew I would paint it.

Now, before the canvas, I wondered how my Fiocre’s dress would look with a splash of red at the waist–a rose, perhaps, or even a bouquet. The color would both harmonize her with the other reds and reddish browns of the painting and emphasize by contrast the jewel-like blue of her gown. I dabbed some red on the end of a clean brush and made a few swift strokes at the small side easel that held my oil sketch. The effect was good. I would add some red to the final canvas.

Reaching inside the smock for my watch, I remembered once again that it was still at the jeweler’s shop. For two days after my spontaneous swim in the Seine, I had been repeatedly startled when I had pulled out my watch in the morning and evening and read 12:23 on the dial, as if time had stopped at the very moment I had touched the girl’s lifeless body. The curt jeweler had required no explanation; he had held the watch to his ear, shook it and said, "Water. I can fix it. Come back in three days." End of interview.

Gustave Moreau was coming at three to sit for his portrait, and it was surely past two by now. That was another of my current projects, a series of portraits of painter friends, unexpected images of fashionable artists. I was limiting myself to successful Salon painters: Tissot, Moreau, Stevens, etc. None of that Monet-Renoir-Pissarro rabble (as I occasionally thought of them and sometimes still do). A bon mot suggested itself: if anyone asked why I wasn’t painting Monet or Renoir, I would reply, "I leave the peasant studies to Millet." Tissot’s portrait was already finished and leaning against the wall to dry. The composition was as crowded and prop-laden as the artist’s own works, but I thought I captured the man. Indeed, there may even have been a spark of cruelty in my portrayal of him as a dandy sitting in my studio rather than a painter working in his own. But it was an acceptable cruelty, born of honesty rather than malice. For Moreau I was contemplating a different tactic. The painter of colorful fantasy whose Oedipus and the Sphinx had been the star of the Salon three years earlier would be pictured in my most stodgily realistic manner. The work would be as dark and earnest as a portrait by Courbet. Maybe it would even skirt the edge of parody. But a parody of Courbet’s painting or Moreau’s personality? I didn’t really care.

I felt a familiar pressure in my bowels. A late-morning piss was pushing against the dam of my distended bladder. Shaking my head in irritation, I put down my palette and walked into the bedroom. I held the chamberpot in one hand and with the other pulled out my penis, a limp, pathetic piece of meat with a white bandage encircling its tip. I bounced up and down on my heels, produced a few preliminary squirts, and then let fly while gritting my teeth against the pain and cursing for the thousandth time the bitch of a whore who gave me the English Disease. Two years ago I had had her for a few francs and a few minutes in an alley behind Notre Dame de Lorette, and she had had me ever since. I had tried every pill, powder and potion the quacks could offer, but the condition was as resistant as it was agonizing. It felt like I was pissing razor blades. As the last few painful drops rolled out like beads of liquid fire, I peeked under the bandage and saw a nasty wet sore shaped like a cyclops eye staring up accusingly. (But surely I need not remind you, Edouard, of the pains of syphilis. You were also a secret sufferer, and the disease eventually took your life. I must remember to destroy this page.)

When I returned to the studio, I paused for a moment in front of a work of the previous year, a portrait of my father’s friend Monsieur Dury, an obsessive collector of prints and animalier bronzes. I had pictured him seated and staring suspiciously at the viewer, his print portfolio held protectively between his legs. The work satisfied me. I thought it was the best thing I had yet done. But I had decided against sending it to the Salon because it seemed somehow too good, too revealing, so honest it was almost offensive. As a child, I had always been a little frightened of M. Dury, and some of that childish fear had found its way into the painting, transformed into the ruthless acquisitiveness of the true collector. I wondered if I looked like that when I saw a desirable painting or print. I hoped I dissembled my emotions more effectively than old Dury.

I spent a few minutes applying blue paint to the bottom of Fiocre’s gown. To use the pompous military metaphors so beloved by our Salon nonentities, this was neither a campaign of work nor an attack. It was merely a minor skirmish before I laid down my arms for the day and beat a strategic retreat to the drawing table.

I had promised Henri a drawing of the dead girl’s necklace, and I would have just enough time to dash something off before Moreau arrived. I laid a sheet of paper flat upon the tabletop, dipped my pen in ink and began to draw. As soon as I heard the penpoint scratching softly against the paper, the necklace appeared with photographic clarity in my mind. My hand copied out the mental image. First, an outline of butterfly wings; next, the shapes of the jewels set among them (curiously, I remembered the shapes but not the colors of the individual gemstones); then the chain that held it snugly around her neck. I drew two vertical lines to represent the sides of her neck and two diagonals for her sloping shoulders, extending the lines to the edges of the paper. Without stopping to question my actions, I took another piece of paper from the neat stack at the corner of my table and laid it beside this one. I continued the line of the shoulder and arm. On a third sheet I drew the lower arm and part of the hand, then laid a fourth sheet below that to finish the fingers. I put down three pieces of paper on the opposite side and drew the right arm in the position it had taken lying limply on the quai. On papers laid between the arms, I drew the body and legs covered by the wet, clinging dress (I thought involuntarily of the clinging drapery on the Elgin Marbles); and last, on a single sheet at the top, I drew her head with its open, lifeless eyes and dark, gaping mouth.

I put down my pen and sat back with the feeling that something had invaded my studio. She was an unexpected, uninvited guest, this ink and paper person, this dead girl lying on my drawing table. It was a bizarre portrait, an image of death as detachment–the girl’s detachment mixed with my own. Too objective for pathos or beauty, it was more like a photograph than a drawing. It was a record, not a work of art. If Moreau sees this, I thought, I’ll be the subject of yet another unamusing anecdote in the salons of Paris. Degas the Haunted, they will call me behind my back, The Painter of Modern Death. I opened one of my Japanese fans and passed it swiftly back and forth over the sheets until the ink was dry. Then I took the girl’s body apart, stacked the pages together and hid them in the bottom of a drawer.

************

It was a typical evening at the Café Guerbois. Amidst the boisterousness of nine o’clock we sat at our customary table in our usual formation: you and I facing Monet and Renoir, wealthy Parisians across from impoverished provincials. Cézanne, a banker’s son like me who enjoyed playing the Provencal peasant, sat on your right; Inspector Henri Boulle, who rarely participated in our arguments unless they touched upon the sacred figure of Corot, sat drinking and listening on my left. At the next table, the photographer Nadar, dressed in one of his many red suits, pulled his red hair as he lost yet another card game to the journalist Victor Noir, the dashing, dark-haired Don Juan of our little circle.

I was launched on one of my apocalyptic sermons about the future of painting: "Whether we know it or not, we are destined to be the decorators of the bourgeoisie. I am not saying this will be a positive development. In fact, the idea disgusts me, because the bourgeoisie, the class into which I was born, is uniquely devoid of taste. Only the poor and the rich have taste. The poor have bad taste and the rich have good taste. The bourgeoisie has no taste at all. So the fact that they are destined to be our patrons should give us pause."

"I don’t paint for the bourgeoisie," you objected. "I paint for the Louvre."

"No," said Monet, "you paint in the Louvre–not exactly the same thing." There had been a genteel, low-level animosity between you and Monet for several years, since the time one of his paintings had been ignorantly attributed to you by some know-nothing Salon critic. I enjoyed reminding you of the incident by referring to Monet as ‘your doppelganger.’

Renoir spoke up. "What’s wrong with painting something the bourgeoisie wants to buy, as long as you don’t compromise your principles?"

"What principles?" I said. "Once we’ve become decorators we’ll have no principles left except that of painting whatever the tasteless bourgeois will pay for. What I’m really saying, though, is that we’ll have no choice in the matter. If the Salon doesn’t accept our paintings, we will either find our patrons among individual, forward-thinking members of the bourgeoisie or we will starve."

"You, starve?" said Monet with a hint of provincial contempt. "I’d like to see that."

"I bet you would," I replied.

"Since I’m destined to spend the rest of my life painting for the bourgeoisie," Renoir said jovially, "would the great prophet Degas please tell me exactly what I will be painting. This information could be quite useful, I think."

"Oh, nothing very interesting," I said, "nothing too intelligent. The bourgeois does not wish to be challenged. Anything that challenges him–in art, in politics, in conversation–is seen as evidence of a revolutionary impulse and is thus anathema. I suppose you, we actually, will paint subjects the bourgeoisie can easily recognize and understand, scenes from their own lives: their offices, their homes, their resorts, their entertainments and, of course, their portraits."

"So you think we’re going to re-invent Courbet’s Realism," Cézanne said in his oddly Italianate southern accent, "but our huge ‘modern history paintings’ will be filled with Parisians instead of people from the Jura." He paused a beat. "That’s the kind of idea I would expect from someone who rarely ventures outside the city walls."

Monet and Renoir laughed.

"No," I said, seeing an opportunity to steer the conversation toward more familiar ground. "I think the question of realism or artifice is really a false choice. There’s no such thing as a realistic painting. Everything we do is artifice, making people and buildings and trees and sky out of pigment and oil. There’s nothing real about it. Every Realist painting is a lie, just like every Salon nude. Courbet and Bouguereau are two admirals in the same navy."

"I’ve never painted a fantasy in my life," Monet said. "I paint exactly what I see as faithfully as I can."

"Oh please. You’re the biggest fantasist of all," I told him. "You talk about Manet painting in the Louvre. Two weeks ago I saw you there. You set your easel up beside a window on the second floor and painted a view of St. Germain l’Auxerrois."

"Yes, and when I asked you for five francs you only gave me two."

"That’s irrelevant. My point is that you didn’t include the window frame in your painting. That makes your painting dishonest, fantastic, as if you painted it from some impossible position high above the ground, floating in the air like one of those Cupids that decorate so many of our ugly new buildings. You are a fantasist, Monet."

The fantasist put his tobacco pouch on the table and began to fill his pipe. "I’ve been called many things–and by better painters than you, Degas–but this is the first time I’ve ever been compared to Cupid."

There was laughter around the table.

"The week before that," I continued, "you did a canvas of the Tuileries Gardens. There you were, standing in the middle of Paris painting a landscape. What could be more artificial than that?"

Monet had his answer ready. "Standing in the middle of Paris and copying Velasquez."

"Please don’t speak so lightly of my second-favorite pastime," you said.

"What’s number one?" asked Monet.

"Copying Goya." You turned to me, one hand stroking half of your two-pointed beard. "I must differ with you on this embrace of artifice, Edgar. I’m trying to make paintings that are intelligent and honest. If the results look artificial to some people, then so be it. It looks good to me, or I wouldn’t have signed it. At least, I wouldn’t have signed it ‘Manet.’ I might have put ‘Degas’ on there, and then they would’ve given me a medal at the Salon."

"You’ll get your precious medal," I told you, "and if you don’t, you can have mine."

"Your generosity breaks my heart, Degas."

Renoir began speaking of ‘artificial landscapes’ and said he had painted one in the Champs-Elysées the previous week.

"On what days?" I asked.

"I stood beside the Ambassadeurs on Tuesday and Wednesday and painted the trees looking toward the Palais de l’Industrie. The sunlight made it look almost tropical."

"It seems I walked through your painting on Wednesday around eleven." That was about an hour and a half before I discovered the body.

Cézanne said to Renoir, "Quick! Run home and paint Degas into the background. If he’s not there, the painting won’t be honest."

Monet joined in. "Yes, paint him pissing against a tree."

"I’ll paint him doing something against a tree," Renoir said.

A roar erupted from the next table. Nadar had lost once more to Victor Noir. The photographer threw down his cards and cried out, "I’ll have to take flattering pictures of Bonapartists for the rest of my life to pay off what I owe you already!" Noir smiled as he shuffled the deck.

Behind the bar, the owner coughed loudly. Nadar looked up, and the owner tilted his head toward a far table occupied by two unknown men. They wore identical gray suits and sat hunched over their drinks. One of them was writing in a small notebook.

I nudged Henri. "Are those two gentlemen associates of yours?"

"Hardly," he answered without glancing at them. "Why would the police hire spies who look and act so obviously like police spies?"

"To throw us off," I said.

Next to the men, at a table beside the door, sat three prostitutes dressed in the gaudy, striped colors favored by streetwalkers. Looking bored and disappointed, they appeared to be commiserating on the night’s slack business. As I watched, a man passing on the sidewalk glanced through the window at their table. A second later, one of the women stood, nodded to her companions, and walked out the door, following the man at an innocent distance. A signal had been passed, but I had missed it.

Cézanne was suddenly very talkative. He agreed with me about the essential artificiality of painting, and this vaguely annoyed me. I was still undecided on the subject of Cézanne. The man did not appeal to me, and his work–thick, ugly portraits of thick, ugly people (the beautiful Cézanne was still years in the future)–left me puzzled at the time. He shared my take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the Salon, but I was far from comfortable with this smelly, ill-groomed Provencal ally. He droned on and on, saying nothing memorable until he concluded with the words, "...regardless, I consider myself essentially a history painter."

"What?" I asked with genuine disbelief. "I think Couture would disagree."

"Only because he doesn’t know any better," said Cézanne.

You visibly bristled at Cézanne taking this liberty with your old teacher, but I gently touched your arm to keep you silent while the Sage of Aix explained himself: "I’m painting the dark side of mythology. The rapes, the murders, all the things in the old books that our Latin Masters skipped over in school. We need a violent history painting as black as Goya to fill in the blanks, to tell the stories M. Couture will never get around to illustrating."

To my surprise, you said, "I can almost agree with that. The works you speak of may be necessary, but I wouldn’t want to paint them. I don’t even know if I’d like to see them. History for me isn’t something to be painted. It exists to be used, exploited, ransacked."

"To what end?" Cézanne and I asked almost in unison, like characters in a bad play. Monet and Renoir were overtaken by table-slapping laughter.

You spoke above their mirth. "The expression of the truth of the present. That’s what I’m painting. The rest of you can fantasize and paint as many trees and ballets as you wish. My painting is right there." You pointed to the section of the Grand Rue des Batignolles framed in the large café window: a carriage drove by; on the opposite sidewalk a prostitute made her lonely progress from lamppost to lamppost. "Look at the rhythm of the streetlights, the rhythm of the facades–"

"The rhythm of that girl’s ass," said Renoir.

"That too," you said. "A carriage can be cropped at the edge of the canvas, driving out of the frame. It has possibilities, doesn’t it? Or even here inside the Guerbois–"

Now it was my turn to interrupt you. "Yes, I can see it. A scene of revelers in a bar by Jan Steen. Very modern."

You ignored my sarcasm. "Jan Steen may be behind the painting somewhere, but if you’re good enough you can conceal him so well that people will never notice. And then the strength of Steen becomes your strength. Wouldn’t you like to paint this place with the strength of Jan Steen?"

"You sound like Mephistopheles, Edouard. Are you making me an offer?" It took me a while to understand that you had just given me a key to understanding your own most important works.

"I’m offering you a way to paint the present," you said, "a way that isn’t old-fashioned, even though it’s steeped in old fashions. Do you know what my next painting will be? I’m going to do a view of the Exposition from the Butte de Chaillot. The background will be like a city view in an old engraving, but the foreground, where the old engravers placed their allegorical figures, will be a panorama of the people of Paris: workers, soldiers, tourists of course, a woman on horseback. That’s what my present looks like."

Monet stood up and announced, "My present looks like a game of billiards. Renoir?"

We all rose and moved toward the back room, where three billiard tables waited. Smaller round tables (some occupied by solitary drinkers) lined the walls. Henri took my arm and guided me to one of these.

"We’ve identified the body you pulled from the Seine," he said quietly.

Controlling my curiosity, I said simply, "Yes?"

Henri produced a notebook from his pocket and leafed through it. "Here it is. Her name was Lisette Leblanc. Thirteen years old. She was a dancer at the Opera–a ballerina, if you can believe it. She lived with her parents in Montmartre. They claimed the body at the Morgue a few days ago." He put his notebook away.

A ballerina. Had I seen her before? Surely I had. I had probably watched her countless times through my opera glasses as she danced across the stage. But she had been just another dancer, without a name or identity beyond the costume she wore and the movements she made. I had completely failed to recognize her as she lay on the quai or in the Morgue or even as I drew her from memory in my studio.

"Since you’re so interested in what happens to bodies after they leave the Morgue," Henri continued, "I should inform you that this girl had a fine funeral, paid for by Baron Haussmann in his capacity as a patron of the Opera."

Although I said nothing to Henri, I was somewhat surprised by this information. Haussmann’s name was synonymous with ruthless efficiency, not generosity.

"I know you’ve been working on a ballet painting," Henri said. "You never met her, did you? Lisette Leblanc." He repeated her name as if to jar my memory and promptly apologized for playing the detective and ‘questioning’ his friend.

"‘Questioning’?" I said. "Are you investigating her death?"

"No, Degas. We don’t investigate suicides."

Not in the mood for an argument, I said, "I never met her."

"That’s good. She’ll be easy to forget."

I couldn’t help grinning at his policeman’s callousness. "Not the sentimental type, are you, Henri?"

"Not at all," he said.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER FOUR
 

Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the Prefect of the Department of the Seine, the architect of the new Paris, a man with unlimited power to build and destroy, appeared that Thursday at Madame de Saint Pierre’s soirée and held forth on his favorite subject: Baron Haussmann. As the guest of honor, he stood beside Madame’s chair and was the focus of the room’s largest and most important conversational group. I sat across from him on a divan beside a plain-looking Mademoiselle Something de Something with whom Madame had paired me off for the evening. Every week Madame presented me with a different partner, each as aristocratic and undesirable as the last. Unfortunately, our hostess was not to be deterred by repeated defeats in matchmaking.

Haussmann performed for us. Telling of the tribulations that accompanied the construction of the Exposition, he occasionally mimed the motions of a shoveling worker or a hammering builder. I looked closely at the stocky, energetic baron, at his oddly childlike clean-shaven face, at the thin veil of black hair combed across the top of his head in a failed attempt to conceal his baldness, and I wondered if this was the new Bonapartist tonsorial fashion, replacing the now-comical long waxed mustache of Napoleon III. Or was it evidence that Haussmann’s enthusiasm for redesign and modernity extended even to his own body? I mused upon this. Having straightened the streets of Paris and regularized their facades, Haussmann was now attempting to re-route the flow of his own hair and impart to his cheeks the smoothness of pressed steel. Haussmann himself would be Haussmann’s most radical innovation. My attempts to construct a fitting bon mot were frustrated by the baron’s inescapable monologue: "...and after all of that, after the rain and the mud and the complaints and the delays, when all of that was behind us and the beautiful, modern, steel-and-glass Exposition Palace rose above the Champ de Mars (Surely you agree that it is the most beautiful building of the modern age, yes? Of course it is. It is without competition.), when that beautiful Palace was completed, the emperor himself went one morning to the Butte de Chaillot to view the spectacle. And he was not pleased." Haussmann paused to let these words take effect. "No, ladies and gentlemen, the emperor was not pleased. The next morning, at our regular daily meeting–" He emphasized this last phrase to impress his audience with his incomparable access. "–the emperor informed me that when he stood on the butte and looked across the river toward the Exposition, his attention was distracted by the traffic of boats and barges passing on the Seine. Instead of being enraptured by the beauty of the Exposition, he was distracted by the sight of black barges loaded with coal. ‘I want you to solve this problem, Haussmann,’ the emperor told me. ‘I don’t care how you do it, but I want you to make that river disappear. The next time I stand on the Butte de Chaillot, I want to look directly across to the Exposition as if the Seine does not exist.’

"So that was my commission: I must make a river disappear. Well, if I were a character from the Arabian Nights it would be no problem. I could snap my fingers and say the magic words and poof!–no more river. But sadly, my friends, I am only a poor prefect. How was I to accomplish this impossible task? That is the question I asked myself as I walked on the Butte de Chaillot that afternoon. I must have spent an hour walking back and forth along the top of the hill, mumbling to myself like a madman." He paced the carpet in imitation of his anxious outdoor ramble. "How does a man make a river disappear? I thought of diverting the Seine to the west. Yes, my friends, I actually considered digging a channel through Passy and along the city wall by the Bois de Boulogne. Once the Seine had been dammed and diverted, I could have filled in the riverbed at the Champ de Mars and–voila!–the river would have disappeared. I considered this for a few minutes and then dismissed it as impractical. From an engineering point of view it made perfect sense, but such a project would require months of work, and the Exposition was scheduled to open in two weeks. What was I to do?

"In despair, I began to walk down the hill toward the river–maybe to throw myself in." He smiled at his witticism. "But when I had walked down about twenty feet from the summit, I noticed an amazing thing. From that level on the butte, the river seemed to disappear within its banks. I could look straight across to the Champ de Mars as if the Seine and its boat traffic did not exist. Oh, ladies and gentlemen, I became so excited I could feel my heart beating in my chest." To demonstrate, the baron beat his chest like a one-armed gorilla. "Thump, thump, thump. I suddenly saw that the way to make the river disappear was to make the top of the hill disappear. I broke into a run and ran across the side of butte. From that level, no matter where I stood, I couldn’t see the river. I was ecstatic. Now I must have truly looked like a madman. I stomped across the side of the hill–" He stamped his shoes soundlessly on Madame de Saint Pierre’s carpet. "–drawing a line across it with the soles of my boots.

"I sent for my assistant, Favre, and when he arrived I pointed to the line of bootprints and told him, ‘This will be the new summit of the hill. I want you to remove everything above this line. Cart it away. I don’t care what you do with the earth. We will deal with that later. For now, just remove it. And then landscape the new summit so it looks natural. You have five days.’ My man Favre is an exemplary subordinate, an excellent man. He asked no questions and made no complaints. He did his job and did it admirably. The workers were brought in and they shoveled out the earth, and we carted the top twenty feet of the butte away. And then we brought in turf and flowers and smoothed down the paths. And on the sixth day, the emperor returned. He stood on the new top of the butte and looked across at the Exposition over the river that flowed invisibly between its banks, and the emperor turned to me and said, ‘It is good, Haussmann. It is good.’ And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how our emperor became a Mohammed who moves mountains."

Haussmann fell back into his chair as some of the guests applauded and called out bravos. "It seems to me, baron," one man said over the acclamatory noise, "that you are the true Mohammed. You are the mover of mountains."

The prefect took this opportunity to gently correct anyone who, like this man, might have been given the right impression by his monologue. "No, my friend, there is only one Mohammed in our empire, and I am merely his servant. Napoleon III is the Mohammed who moves mountains."

And you, I thought, nauseated by his false modesty, are a baron who burrows into buttes. I had wanted to ask Haussmann if he could tell me anything about the dead dancer, Lisette Leblanc, but I now saw that my chances of engaging the baron in a private conversation were minuscule. He had come here solely to perform for Madame de Saint Pierre and her upper-class guests, and any time when he was not the center of their attention was, for Haussmann, wasted time.

I took advantage of the conversational lull to excuse myself and walk over to a smaller group clustered in a corner of the salon, a minor planet of guests distantly orbiting the central Haussmannian sun. One member of this group had looked familiar from across the room, but due to Baron Haussmann’s incessant monologue, I had been unable to ask Madame his identity. Now, as I approached the man, his vague, blurry head resolved into the still-recognizable face of my childhood friend Georges de Chaillot.

"Edgar," he said warmly, motioning me to sit, "It’s been years."

"Too long," I agreed, lowering myself into a chair across from him.

"Entirely my fault. I went to St. Petersburg for two months and stayed ten years."

"I assume you enjoyed the place."

"I am proud to report that I spent almost none of my time on business." He flashed a smile that two decades had barely changed. Like Henri and myself, Georges had also been a student at the Lycée Louis le Grand, but he had been a member of the more elite, aristocratic stratum of the student population. I still remember feeling thrilled on that day in my thirteenth year when Georges inexplicably approached me between lectures and said that he had heard I appreciated fine art and would I like to see his father’s collection? I gushingly replied in the affirmative. Our subsequent afternoon among the paintings at the Hotel de Chaillot was my first significant contact with a bona fide aristocrat (as opposed to those members of my own family who had illegitimately ennobled themselves by splitting our last name into ‘de Gas’), and as Georges and I became friendlier over the next few months, I grew to admire–and, yes, to envy–the grace and elegance that informed even his slightest gestures. He seemed to possess naturally the kind of suave, aristocratic persona that I was still busily constructing for myself. My pose, I understood, was his birthright. Georges’s father was the Duc de Chaillot, and Georges was the sole heir to the lands, wealth and prestige associated with that name. The large signet ring which he now wore on his index finger and tapped softly against the wooden arm of Madame de Saint Pierre’s divan suggested that the title had been passed. As I looked at his mildly amused, friendly face, his wavy blonde hair, his long, thin fingers curled around a glass of dark liquid, I saw a man perfectly at ease with himself, a man who embraced his inheritance and seemed determined to enjoy it.

"Russian society is pleasant," he told me, "but the weather is unbearable. Even after ten years the winters still chilled me. So I have followed in the footsteps of the illustrious first Napoleon and retreated to Paris."

"I’m following the example of Louis XVI," I said. "I plan to remain in the city eternally."

"I’ll probably be spending more time here than I would like. My father’s affairs are a labyrinth. He died a year ago, you know, and we’re still discovering slips of paper secreted away in drawers stating that I own a porcelain factory outside Orléans or several acres of farmland around Amiens. Just the other day my lawyers informed me that I am the principal member of a syndicate that owns a significant portion of a city called Saigon. I believe it’s in Asia somewhere."

"Where so much of the world seems to be," I said.

"Happily, such matters take up only a small portion of my time. The lawyers handle everything; I just sign the papers and spend the money–like the emperor, I suppose. And I do find Paris diverting. I guess being away for so long makes everything seem more wonderfully new than it is."

"If you love our new city so much, you should be over there–" I jerked my thumb toward the center of the room. "–lighting a candle before the altar of Baron Haussmann. He was just bragging about his mutilation of your family’s ancestral butte."

"Yes, I heard about that. Pity." Georges took a drink. "Someone was telling me something about you the other day..."

"Did this someone tell you that I was the greatest French painter since Poussin?"

Georges raised his eyebrows and curled his mouth into a slight smile. "I don’t believe those were his exact words."

"Then I must raise his salary, whoever he is."

"He told me you were the one who found the Leblanc girl’s body."

"That’s right."

"She was a good dancer." Georges set his glass on the tabletop. "I used to see her around the Opera. My father was one of the founders of the Jockey Club, you know, and I inherited his membership along with his title. We Jockeys are allowed to go backstage and meet the dancers between scenes, because our money practically keeps the place afloat. Without us, there would be no Opera. That’s what we tell ourselves, and I believe it’s only a slight exaggeration." He leaned toward me and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "You must join me at the Opera one evening. I can get you into the best seats in the house, Edgar." He smiled. "We can even go backstage. It will be an adventure."

I was about to accept Georges’s generous offer when he tilted his head and looked over my shoulder. "Our hostess seems to be beckoning you."

"Oh yes," I said, "Madame doesn’t like it when I spend too much time away from my assigned partner. She seems to think that any man who’s not married must be in search of a wife and that it’s her duty to present him with an endless stream of candidates, all ferret-faced."

"Well, Degas," Georges said, smiling, "it is her salon, and therefore it is your duty to return to your martyrdom. I’ll let mournful music play in my mind as I observe your slow march across the room." He waved me away with his fingers.

As I took my seat beside Mlle. Whatshername, an old man asked Haussmann when the new Opera would be completed.

"Within a year," the baron answered with admirable certitude. He was perfectly aware, as were we all, that he had been giving the same answer for three years.

"Will it be magnificent?" asked Madame de Saint Pierre. "After such a long wait we expect magnificence."

Haussmann replied, "Monsieur Garnier, the architect, has promised that it will be the grandest building of our time, the epitome of the spirit of this Second Empire. I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of Empress Eugénie’s reaction to the design. When Garnier presented his plans, she said, ‘This style is not Baroque and it is not Classical and it is certainly not Gothic. What do you call it?’ And Monsieur Garnier said, ‘It is the Napoleon III style.’" We had all heard the anecdote innumerable times, but now that Baron Haussmann had stated his theme, he was determined to pursue it. "The style of Napoleon III. That’s the style of the new Paris. Wide, straight streets, clean air, sunlight, trees and parks. The Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes are like the twin lungs of the city; they give us air and let us breathe. But my primary interest is flow. I want everything to flow smoothly through our city–people and goods, from station to market and back. You may be surprised to learn, my friends, that we have dug tunnels to connect Les Halles with the Gare du Nord, so that merchants can bring their goods in by train and transport them directly to the market without the delays caused by negotiating all those old, narrow streets around Les Halles." I was indeed surprised. For the first time that evening, Haussmann had told me something I didn’t already know. "Everything we do is intended to improve this city and make it function more smoothly. Our streets facilitate the flow of commerce and, not least important, the movement of troops. Because we don’t need any more revolutions, do we?" He smiled at his listeners. "Ladies and gentlemen, what began in 1789 ends now. And it ends not with equality, that fantasy of the radicals, but with satiety, with pleasure. People who are kept amused and who are made to feel satisfied with their lives don’t start revolutions. So we give them jobs, parks for the weekends, better living conditions in cleaner neighborhoods, and they are content. The Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes are the fortresses that will protect Paris from future revolts–fortresses of pleasure, if you will."

While I marveled at Haussmann’s metaphorical shifts–transforming a park from a lung to a fortress–an older man sitting to my right demurred. "I doubt that the people who lived near the Louvre and around the railroad stations were very happy when you plowed their homes under."

"No, Monsieur Grandville," said the baron, "they were displaced, and the displaced are always displeased. But they found new homes in Belleville and Pantin, where they now work in your textile factories. I trust you keep them amused?"

General laughter did not stop M. Grandville from pursuing his objection. "Those ‘homes,’ as you call them, in Belleville and Montmartre are the vilest shacks, worse than the slums you destroyed. These are places where revolution breeds."

"Then you should pay your workers more," Haussmann said. "Give them a certain degree of comfort. Workers don’t need much, God knows, to make them happy. Consider it an insurance policy against revolt."

"Baron, I really don’t understand you," said a woman who had remained silent until now. "Sometimes you sound like an engineer and sometimes like a general; sometimes like a businessman and sometimes like a socialist."

"And that also," I interjected, "is the Napoleon III style."

Haussmann forced a smile as the rest of the party laughed. "I was talking about the Bois de Boulogne," the baron continued, deftly switching subjects. "Does anyone remember the old Bois?"

"Of course, baron," said Madame de Saint Pierre. "I adored it. It was one of the joys of my life to go riding in the Bois on a brisk autumn morning when the leaves were beginning to change. I loved to ride down those long, straight avenues between the trees."

"Exactly," said Haussmann. "And I have transferred that old architecture of pleasure–the straight, tree-lined alleys of the Bois–to the new streets of the city. At the same time, I have given the new Bois the labyrinthine aspect of the old Paris. I hope we can all agree that it is better to play in a maze than to try to do business in one."

"But no one goes to the Bois anymore," said Madame.

Haussmann vigorously disagreed. "On the contrary, Madame, the Bois de Boulogne has never been more popular. All through the year, from the races in the spring to boating on the lake in the summer to ice skating in the winter, more people are enjoying leisure there than ever before. It would probably be more correct, Madame, to say, ‘Everyone goes to the Bois.’"

"I meant," said Madame de Saint Pierre, "no one who matters."

The baron gestured deferentially to her in the silence that followed this cutting remark.

To save the guest of honor, another woman noted that ‘absolutely everyone’ was going to the Exposition. (I doubted this. How many condemned prisoners and asylum inmates were among those wandering around the Champ de Mars?) Doctor Tardieu, the distinguished physician who specialized in diseases of children, shook his mane of graying hair and voiced agreement. "I couldn’t count the number of people I greeted as I walked through the grounds. I suppose one expects these things to be filled with tourists, but I found a surprising number of respectable people. As for the exhibits, well, I must say that the art galleries especially impressed me: those paintings by Cabanel, Bouguereau, Gérôme’s magnificent Death of Caesar, they were all wonderful."

Haussmann rushed to agree. "Our Salon medalists are without peer. They are the most remarkable artists in Europe, and thus the world. Wouldn’t you agree, Monsieur Degas?"

"I always agree with you, Baron Haussmann," I said. "If I don’t, you might tear my house down."

"Surely you agree," began the baron, flashing a toothy smile that struck me as satanic (and thus looked highly incongruous on his hairless, childlike face), "that artists, like the rest of us, have a duty to mankind, a duty to provide images that are elevating and beautiful, that lift us out of this mundane world and into a more perfect, more moral realm. I think the most commendable aspect of the paintings on display at the Exposition is their moral purity. Here are nudes we can look upon without shame, because their nakedness is pure and not shameful. It is the nakedness of Adam and Eve before the Fall. The painters in the Exposition are the best we have. They are the future of French art."

This was far too much for me to swallow, so I said, "When I visited the Exposition, those paintings gave me much to think about. One of my thoughts was that if the glass roof over the galleries were to shatter and every painting in them were to be destroyed, it would be no great loss to French art. Indeed, it might be a positive boon."

"I had no idea," Haussmann said to Madame de Saint Pierre, "that you invited such Jacobins to your salon."

"It’s not Jacobinism, baron," I stated calmly. "It’s something else you don’t understand: taste."

"I call that man a Jacobin who attacks the structures on which our society is built."

"Baron," I said, "my grandfather was exiled by the Revolution. He was driven from this country. You should beware of a similar fate."

"When you attack the art that a nation produces," he went on, pretending not to hear me, "you attack that nation. The medalists at our Salon are the products of a system of training–a system in which you, yourself, were trained, if I am not mistaken–that is one of the glories of the Second Empire, one of the glories of France. It is the continuation and culmination of a tradition that stretches back for centuries, a tradition that is entwined with the history of the nation itself. What would the seventeenth century be without Poussin and Lebrun? The eighteenth without Watteau? The Revolution without David?"

"Poussin and Watteau were geniuses," I answered. "Lebrun was a hack. And David, of course, was an authentic Jacobin who voted for the execution of Louis XVI."

"The man who would undermine French art would undermine France." Haussmann seemed to be reading his words from an invisible propaganda poster suspended above my head.

"France need not worry as long as it has defenders like you," I said, trying not to sound too obviously sarcastic.

"We must all defend the institutions of the French nation," the baron read on, "against dangerous and subversive tendencies, wherever they might appear."

"Haussmann..." I spoke his name as if thinking aloud. "That’s a great old French name, isn’t it?"

Sensing danger, Madame de Saint Pierre suggested that we all move to the music room. As I walked with the crowd, twenty paces behind my assigned companion, Madame took my arm and said, "I’ve been watching you. You haven’t spoken to Julie all evening."

"Is that her name?"

"You’re a monster."

"Yes," I agreed, "a quotable one. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?"

Behind us, Doctor Tardieu, for my benefit, launched into another of his mini-lectures on the evils of bachelorhood. The man was something of a fanatic on the issue. He had even written a pamphlet suggesting that single men be subjected to a special punitive tax that would encourage them to marry. That evening, however, his lecture was cut happily short by our arrival in the music room. Madame led me to a chair beside Julie, and we were all forced to endure an ‘original’ composition of imitation Chopin by Madame’s most recent discovery, a blind pianist from one of those cities east of Berlin. After a few minutes of his repetitive note-tapping, I leaned over to Julie and whispered, "Is this a song or a telegraph message?" Seeing a slight curvature on her lips, I asked my next rhetorical question: "I know the man is blind, but is he deaf, too?" Her lips curved sharply downward and she looked at me as if I were some bizarre, overgrown insect displayed under glass at a museum. I pressed on: "If the Lord were truly merciful, mademoiselle, he would restore this man’s sight and paralyze his hands."

Horrified, Julie unfolded her fan and held it like a fortress wall between us for the duration of the performance.

********************

When the music finally ended, Madame bade her guests farewell, and I joined Dr. Tardieu for his customary walk from the Hotel de Saint Pierre to his own home on a new street at the edge of the Parc Monceau. I usually avoided the doctor because of his obsessive anti-bachelorism, but tonight I was drawn to him by his reputation as an investigator of violence against children. Tardieu had spent several years working in the Morgue, cataloguing the injuries on the bodies of murdered boys and girls, and he had published descriptions of physical signs by which physicians might recognize a case of systematic child abuse before that abuse reached its final, fatal stage.

As we walked along the deserted, gaslit boulevard, old Tardieu’s cigar leaving a slowly dissipating trail of smoke behind us, we must have looked to any observer like a father and son taking a late evening stroll and speaking of light, inconsequential matters. When I had described the condition of Lisette’s body, Tardieu leaped to a conclusion: "Look to the parents. In cases like this, a parent is almost always to blame." He took a long puff of sweet-smelling smoke. "You wouldn’t believe the things a parent can do to his own child. I had a case years ago, a twelve year-old girl fished out of the river by a bargeman. The police tried to call it a suicide, as they always do. But when I examined the body, I noticed an unusual pattern of bruising on the buttocks and scar tissue around the anus. I performed the autopsy myself. When we opened the abdomen we found a small, rounded stick of wood, not quite twenty centimeters long, puncturing the lower bowel. We knew this had killed her, but since we couldn’t identify the body, there was nothing we could do about it. A few weeks later, a woman showed up at the Préfecture de Police and told the story of her husband killing their daughter. It seems that he often punished the girl by sodomizing her with an old broom handle. This last time, he pushed the handle in so far and jerked it upward so sharply that it snapped. But that’s not the worst part. The police eventually got the woman to confess that while her husband used the broom handle, she, the mother, held the girl down. The girl died horribly, screaming and clawing at her stomach, begging her father to take it out. This was her punishment for the crime of dropping a couple of centimes down a sewer grating when she was sent to buy bread."

We walked without speaking for a while in the yellow glow of the streetlamps. The quiet houses of the rich rose on one side; Baron Haussmann’s empty boulevard stretched out on the other. "There are so many stories like that," Tardieu said. "Not long ago a case came to my attention of a ten year-old boy whose back was so heavily striped with scars that he looked like a Devil’s Island convict. It was discovered that his mother had tied him to a door and whipped him with a coachman’s whip. No one knows why. The woman was arrested, but she wouldn’t speak of it. She wouldn’t speak of anything. She pretended to be mute. They put her in the asylum."

"What happened to the boy?"

"I don’t know. Sent to relatives, most likely." He sucked a last lungful from his cigar and tossed the stub into the gutter. "These are the most extreme cases, Degas. More common are repeated beatings that damage the internal organs and the bone structure over months and years. Ultimately, an organ fails and the child dies. In such cases the body will show many bruises with multiple coloration, some darker, some brighter. Did you notice any of that on your girl’s body?"

"No, just the bruises around the neck."

"I would look to the parents," he repeated.

Gaslight shimmered on the gently moving leaves of the Parc Monceau. As we neared Tardieu’s house, I said, "I wonder, doctor, given what you have found in your investigations, how you can still be so enthusiastic about marriage and the family."

"But I’m speaking of aberrations, Degas, the worst people. It has nothing to do with the family as a social unit."

"I sometimes think we should follow Plato’s advice in the Republic: eliminate families and have children raised by the state. Isn’t that, in fact, what our bourgeois families are doing when they send their children away to boarding schools?"

Tardieu thought about this. "Our class might have the right idea there. Get the children out of the house during those crucial years; keep them at a distance. The homes of the working class are like boilers. Haussmann–or was it Grandville?–is right about that. And when those people explode, their rage is usually directed at the children. But Plato’s idea? It’s been a very long time since I read Plato, and I don’t remember that passage clearly, but if the abolition of the family is his suggestion, I can’t agree with it. No, I can’t agree with that. The family is the backbone of our society." This last sentence was, I believe, the opening sentence of Tardieu’s anti-bachelorhood pamphlet.

"It can be a twisted backbone," I said.

Tardieu stopped at the steps of his house. "Then we straighten it, Degas. We straighten it. Goodnight."

On my long walk home I reflected that Dr. Tardieu always attended Madame de Saint Pierre’s soirees alone and that I had never met the man’s wife or any other vertebrae of his family.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER FIVE
 

Did you ever visit the Maquis, Manet? I doubt it. Like me, you usually avoided neighborhoods with dangerous reputations. Although it was nearer than most of my destinations, even I had never been to the Maquis until that spring of 1867. On the Sunday after my conversation with Tardieu, I took a break from my ballet painting and walked north to Montmartre. I passed behind the facades of the Boulevard de Rochechouart and climbed a small hill to see the Maquis stretched out before me. It was a slum of low shacks slapped together from pieces of discarded wood, old roofing tiles, interior paneling and any other usable refuse from Haussmann’s rebuilding. And inside the shacks lived the city’s human refuse. The great wave of Haussmann’s transformation washed up here on the slopes of Montmartre, leaving a flotsam of impoverished workers, street vendors, ragpickers and prostitutes. At night, legendary (and, I suspected, partly imaginary) gangs of violent youth made the area unsafe for the unwary. By day, the Maquis was an inverted mirror of Haussmann’s Paris: a place absolutely devoid of wealth and beauty, where crooked, narrow dirt lanes separated the shacks and the stale smell of human waste filled the air.

Henri had told me that Lisette’s parents lived here. Their home was directly across from a shack built of eighteenth-century paneling–impossible to miss, he said. So I picked my way through the lanes, avoiding deep ruts and puddles of urinous liquid and earning my share of curious and suspicious glances. (What could such a well-dressed man be doing in the Maquis, after all, except trying to collect money?) Near what I judged to be the middle of the neighborhood, I turned a sharp corner, unintentionally scattered a group of children playing in my path, and saw a shack constructed of various pieces of blue gilded paneling from the interior walls of a Louis XV-era mansion. Perhaps following some aesthetic imperative, the owner had turned the colored side of the paneling outward, metamorphosing his crude shack into an almost magical apparition: a bright blue cube of a building, a room turned inside out. As I approached it I saw several scarred patches where stucco decorations had been removed from the walls. It amused me to think that some plaster cherub that had formerly hovered over the card parties of Madame de Pompadour was now being used as a doll by a child in the Maquis.

The door of the cube opened and a large bald man emerged, wearing a tattered smock faded to the color of his house. He looked me over deliberately, beginning at my shoes and working his way up to my eyes, into which he stared with a mixture of pride and contempt, saying nothing. I told him I was looking for the Leblancs, and he pointed his arm across the garbage-strewn lane at a drab gray shack that seemed close to collapse. One of its side walls bulged out as if about to give birth to a smaller and even uglier building. As I walked away, the bald man said, "What have they done now?" I turned to answer–perhaps even to explain my presence–but he had already disappeared into the blue cube.

I tapped my stick three times against the rough, splintery wood of the Leblanc’s door and waited. Up the lane, the children had stopped their game and now stood watching me with intense interest, narrowed eyes peering out of dirty faces. This man in black and white with his top hat and walking stick seemed to be the strangest thing they had ever seen. I was about to knock again when the door creaked open, sliding slowly on heavy brass hinges that had been designed for a much wealthier home. A very tall middle-aged woman–a woman as tall as a large man–looked down at me, and for the briefest second I felt like a child staring up at his mother. (No, I doubt that. Was that really my emotion? Or is my memory imagining this?) Her brown hair was streaked with gray and pulled back tightly against her skull. Below a wrinkled brow, her eyes blinked against the unaccustomed sunlight. I told her my name and said I would like to talk about her daughter.

"My daughter is dead, monsieur."

"I know. I am the man who pulled her from the river."

She seemed to consider this for a moment, looking more closely at my face and clothes. Finally, saying nothing, she let the door swing wide and I followed her in.

Upon stepping through the crooked doorframe, I was immediately overwhelmed by color. Bursts of bright red, blue, yellow, violet exploded before my eyes. It was like walking unexpectedly into a tropical garden or fantastically stumbling into a landscape painted by Delacroix. Stacked on two tables, scattered around the floor and hanging on makeshift hooks along all the walls were at least a hundred hats, all trimmed with lengths of colored ribbon and brightly dyed artificial flowers.

"Please excuse my work, monsieur," the woman said, gesturing at the hats. "It’s our only income now that my daughter is dead." With one hand she wiped the dust from a stool and motioned me to sit. "My husband has been unable to work since his accident. When Lisette was alive, the money she made at the Opera kept us going. But now I must return to trimming." She took her seat behind the worktable, where several lengths of dyed cloth, scissors, thread and needles were arrayed for use. Beside them, a hat was in progress, its pink flower slightly askew.

"Do you sell the hats here, out of your home?" I tried not to sound too amazed. "Or is your husband a street vendor?"

Madame Leblanc chuckled wearily. "The hats are not mine, monsieur. They are sewn in a factory. I don’t know where. The man from Bon Marche brings them here every Monday like this," she picked up a bare, unadorned, dark blue hat, "and I make the flowers and ribbons and sew them on. When the man comes back the next Monday, he takes the ones he likes and pays me. And then he brings more hats for me to trim."

I wondered what the bourgeois women who shopped at Bon Marche would think if they knew that their hats had been decorated in a place they would never deign to enter by a woman whom they would never lower themselves to greet. They would probably ignore the fact and congratulate the store’s owner for keeping his prices low.

A soft rustling of cloth made me turn my head, and only now did I notice a figure lying in the bed at the shadowy far end of the room.

"My husband is still sleeping," said Madame Leblanc, "so we must speak softly." She reached for the hat she had been working on and straightened its flower. "So, you pulled Lisette from the river."

"Yes..." My monosyllable trailed off as I asked myself for the first time what exactly I was doing here. Satisfying my curiosity? Testing Tardieu’s hypothesis? Investigating a crime? Uncertain, I fell back on a cloying cliche: "It must have been a great loss."

"Oh yes, monsieur," she said. "As a coryphee Lisette was paid one thousand francs a year. This year she would have been promoted to sujet and her salary would have tripled. Can you imagine? People like us making three thousand francs a year? It would have changed our lives, monsieur." There was a childish excitement in her voice, as if speaking of her hopes could make them possible again. "We could have moved out of here and made a real home. And if Lisette had ever become a star–well, that means ten thousand, twenty thousand a year, even more. A dream." She stopped and calmed herself. "It’s better not to think about it."

After a brief silence I asked, "Was Lisette good enough to become a star?"

"She was brilliant, monsieur!" Madame Leblanc took up her needle and began to sew a flower. Her hands moved expertly, automatically. She barely looked at them. "Monsieur Merante, the dance instructor, told me that himself. And he is not a man who gives compliments. She might have made twenty or thirty thousand. But that’s all over and now I’m back to sewing. And my husband can’t work, so we can barely feed ourselves. And just look at this place, this horrible home." She sighed melodramatically. "It is a hard life for the poor."

She looked into my eyes, and I had the impression that she was calculating how much money might be extracted from this obviously wealthy visitor. I tried to steer her away from an outright request for cash by asking, "How many years did Lisette dance at the Opera?"

"She first appeared onstage, dancing in a large group, when she was ten. Three years ago. But she rose very quickly through the ranks. She was promoted at almost every examination. Of course, she spent years as a student there before ever going onstage. She was seven when I first took her there, and Monsieur Merante was impressed immediately. He looked at her and said, ‘I think we can turn this one into a dancer.’ And that is what they did. From morning to evening every day except Sunday for six years, Lisette and I were at the Opera. Those early years were the worst, when she was a student and made almost nothing, but at least then my husband could work, so we struggled, monsieur, but we did not starve. And when she was selected for the corps and began to bring in money, well, that made it all worthwhile. It looked like we would get out of here. Like I always told Lisette when she complained of her legs aching, ‘If you work hard, Lisette, yes, it will hurt for a while, but in the end we get a reward, a better life.’" Madame Leblanc stopped and sewed a petal onto the flower in silence. "I still believe that, monsieur. It’s what keeps me going even now." She held the finished flower between our faces. "I used to make these for my mother after her hands failed her. Now I do it for myself." She began to sew the flower to the front of a hat. "We thought Lisette would help us, but now...here we are." With a tilt of her head, she indicated the shabby surroundings.

"Do you know what happened to Lisette?" I asked.

Madame Leblanc seemed surprised by the question. "Me?...No, I don’t know why she...did what she did. But it’s a hard life...for all of us." Keeping her eyes on her sewing hands, she said, "The last time I saw her was in the corridor at the Opera. She came out of the classroom that afternoon and said to me, ‘Maman, I have to give a message to someone upstairs. You wait here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ And she ran down to the end of the hall and turned and ran out of sight, and the next time I saw her was in the Morgue." She took a deep breath. "She looked so peaceful in the Morgue. I said she looked like an angel. And that’s what the ballet enthusiasts, the subscribers, all said: ‘Lisette dances like an angel.’...Yes...So I watched her run down to the end of the corridor and I sat back down on the bench and waited there. I waited for so long, monsieur. It must have been thirty, forty minutes. The other girls and their mothers walked past, looking at me like I had done something wrong, like they were all accusing me: Where is your daughter? What have you done to your daughter? When they were all gone for the day and the building was quiet, I went looking for her. You have been backstage at the Opera?" She paused and looked at me, waiting for an answer. I shook my head, not wanting to speak. For some reason, I feared that a single word from my mouth might break the thread of her story. "You’ve never been backstage? Well, it is like a maze back there with all the corridors and rooms and stairs. It’s easy to get lost in that old building. And that’s what happened to me. I wandered around those dark hallways looking for Lisette and I got lost. I didn’t want to call out her name because I was afraid one of the mothers might hear me and mock me to the others. They all looked down on me, you know. As if they were any better... So I got lost in the building, and finally I came to a hallway where the administrators have their offices, and I saw Madame Monge, the concierge, coming out of one of the rooms. She was always friendly to me. She said, ‘Why, Madame Leblanc! Why are you still here?’ I told her I was looking for Lisette. And by that time I was becoming very concerned. There might have been tears in my eyes. And Madame Monge said, ‘Lisette left an hour ago.’ I said, ‘No, you must be mistaken.’ But she said, ‘No mistake, madame. I noticed her because she was wearing a lovely blue dress. She went out the gate and down the street, toward the boulevard. I wondered why she was leaving alone.’

"Now I was frantic. I ran out of the building and across the courtyard and into the street. But of course she wasn’t there. I walked down the street to the boulevard and walked up and down the sidewalks for a while. I didn’t know what to do. A man came up to me and said, ‘How much?’ I didn’t understand. I thought he was trying to sell me something, but his clothes were too good for a street vendor. When I didn’t answer he got angry and said, ‘Come on, how much? I’ve been watching you walking here for half an hour. A big old slut like you can’t afford to be too picky.’ He was a little monster, that man. So I ran away. And since I didn’t know anywhere else to go, I walked back up here, all alone. It was a long–"

"Who are you?"

Neither of us had heard the man rise from his bed, but now he stood in his underclothes, looking at me and waiting for an answer. Monsieur Leblanc was at least a decade older than his wife. He was as tall as she and much heavier, with a once-muscular body that was now going to fat. His left arm still looked powerful, but the right arm was unnaturally thin. Messy, sleep-matted gray hair clinged to the sides of his head.

"Pierre!" his wife scolded him. "Where are your manners? This is the gentleman who found our Lisette’s body."

"I lost my manners years ago," he told her. "They never did me much good, anyway." To me he said, "You fished her out of the river?"

I nodded.

"Too little too late, eh?" He turned away. "Come here and have some wine."

The man’s right arm was useless. As we sat at the table in the half of the shack that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom, I watched him uncork the wine bottle, pour two glasses of inky, sour-looking liquid, and re-cork it, all with his left hand. His right arm hung down like a lifeless thing. He shrugged his shoulder, and the arm bounced limply against his side. "That happened a couple of years ago," he said. "I was working in that big locomotive factory up by the Porte de Clignancourt. Operating a metal press. You know what that is?" I had seen such machines in illustrated magazines, but I shook my head negatively. "It’s like a big stamp that comes down on a sheet of metal and squeezes it into the shape we need to make the sides of a boiler or a freight car or whatever. I would put the metal into the press, turn a wheel to bring the stamp down, turn it the other way to raise it, take the metal out, and do it all again. And again. And again. See what I mean? One day I reached in to take the pressed metal out, and one of the gears in the machine slipped and the press came down on my arm, like that." He smacked the table with his good hand. "It was smashed. The doctor wanted to cut it off. I told him to go fuck a goat... Shit, I should’ve let him do it. It’s just dead weight now." He shrugged again and watched the arm move.

I forced down a few swallows of the bitter wine, and we stared at each other across the table, he in his stained undershirt and I in my fashionable coat and tie, surely the strangest-looking drinking party this shack had ever seen. He spoke: "I don’t know what you want me to say. Thanks for catching my little girl’s corpse? What difference does it make? As you can see, I can’t afford to give you much of a reward."

My gaze followed Leblanc’s gesturing arm around the hovel, passing over the torn linen on the bed, the round stove used for both cooking and heating, and a mound of clothes or rags piled in a corner of the dangerously bulging side wall. "We’re not exactly swimming in money," he said. But I was no longer listening. My attention had been caught by a framed print hanging on the shadowed wall against the bed. Squinting, I recognized Daumier’s allegory of Freedom of the Press, the composition dominated by a big bruiser of a printer, standing like a boxer ready to flatten any king or minister who tried to censor him. Even from several feet away and in this abysmal light, it looked like a remarkably fine impression.

"I obviously seek no reward," I said, "but I would like to do something for you." I pointed at the print. "I would like to purchase that."

"Of course you would." Leblanc showed me his stained teeth in a thin smile. "You have an eye. Are you a collector?"

"Only when I see something I like."

"It’s not for sale," he said with finality.

"I would make a very generous offer."

"No."

"My money would be worth more to you than that print."

"That’s where you’re wrong. It’s a souvenir."

Annoyed by what I thought were the man’s thick-headed bargaining tactics, I said, "How can something like that mean anything to someone like you?"

Far from being insulted, Leblanc seemed to have expected my question. He smiled broadly and said, "I printed it." He paused to observe my reaction. I worked hard to give him little to see. "Do you think I’ve been a drunkard in the Maquis my whole life? No, I used to be a printer in Meyret’s shop at the Palais Royal. I worked there until that so-called Napoleon III, that nephew of a great man and son of a great whore, came to power and closed us down. We were republicans at Meyret’s, you see. We believed in freedom and equality and brotherhood, and there can be none of that in the glorious Second Empire. So the Nephew closed us down, and then a couple of years later his toady Haussmann tore my house down. I guess I finally got the message, you see? I moved out of the city, came up here, worked in the factory. I thought: printing press, metal press, they’re both presses, I’m still doing what I was trained to do, right? Except this time I got printed." He flapped his arm again and looked oddly pleased with himself.

"Did you know Daumier?" I asked.

"Met him a couple of times. Not a bad sort." He took a drink. "That print was the first thing I ever did that I was proud of. It’s a perfect condition proof, solid gold to a collector, as you know. And you’ll never take it away from me."

We drank (or rather, he drank and I tried not to gag) without speaking for a minute. The shack was silent except for Madame Leblanc’s sibilant scissors cutting into cloth.

Disappointed at my inability to acquire the Daumier and unable to think of any other topic of conversation, I said, "Your wife tells me that your daughter was very successful at the Opera."

On the other side of the shack, the sound of scissors suddenly stopped and I thought I heard Madame Leblanc inhale sharply.

Monsieur Leblanc’s face hardened, and he spoke in a tone that dripped disgust: "Oh, that fucking brothel."

"Pierre!" his wife called out admonishingly.

"That’s what it is!" he yelled back at her. In a lower voice he told me, "It’s no secret. Everybody knows the aristocrats lure girls out of places like this with promises of fame and money, and then they take their pick of the litter. You know that." A thought occurred to him. "Christ! You might be one of them. Are you one of those Opera aristocrats who spends the whole show in the foyer de la danse?"

Before I could reply, his wife cried, "Pierre, don’t be stupid. I’ve never seen this man before in my life."

"Then I guess you’re not a Jockey, eh? You don’t like to ride little girls? You’re not a Bonapartist courtier, either. If you were, you wouldn’t be interested in buying a subversive print by Daumier. You must be some other kind of rich man... Well, let me tell you about the Opera, since you seem to be the only rich man in Paris who doesn’t know." He drained his glass in one gulp and returned it to the table with a loud click. "Onstage, for the public, everything is beautiful. The girls dance around in their tutus and it’s all very graceful and lovely. And everyone in the audience thinks it’s like a dream. But backstage... that’s a completely different story. Backstage it’s a flesh market. The Opera subscribers, the Jockey Club, the aristocrats, they all hang around backstage trying to get a piece of that young ass. That’s what it’s all about. They chase the girls into their dressing rooms for a peek of flesh–or a lot more. Shit, the filth that goes on back there, it’s like before the Revolution. Makes me want to build a little guillotine myself, if I had two good arms." He paused to catch his breath. "And the mothers. Let me tell you about the mothers." A strange, perhaps sadistic, smile appeared on his face. "The mothers are the pimps. They push their little girls in front of Count Kiss-My-Ass and then guard the door while the count fucks the girl in her dressing room. That’s what the mothers do...And oh yes, they also collect the money. I forgot about that."

"Was Lisette..." I searched my mind for the proper word, "pursued?"

"They all were, They all are. That’s what I’m telling you. The Opera is a brothel. That’s the point of the place. All the singing and dancing is just a cover. The real business of the Opera is to provide a place for the Jockey Club to pick up young and willing girls–girls so poor they’ll do anything for money. That’s why the Opera exists. Or do you think all those stupid aristocrats go there for the music? They don’t even understand the music! Every member of the Jockey Club has his own girl. They call themselves the girls’ ‘protectors.’ Some protection! Every member of the court has his own girl, too, right up to the emperor and probably his Spanish bitch of a wife. She probably has a girl sucking her cock, too."

"Did Lisette tell you all of this?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "She didn’t have to. My wife lived in that place for years. Ten, twelve hours a day, six days a week, for six years. You see things."

"Did Lisette have a protector?"

"Not yet. But my wife was working on that." He raised his voice. "Weren’t you, my dear? Pimping your own daughter..."

Madame Leblanc slammed her scissors down on the worktable and walked toward us, yelling at her husband, "And how else did you expect us to eat? Somebody had to pay for your boozing! It’s the way things are done."

Leblanc waved her away with his arm, but she remained standing at the edge of the table. He said to me, "There you have it. It’s the way things are done. She steered Lisette toward those rich bastards and one of them killed her. Took the bread right out of my mouth."

"Don’t listen to him, monsieur," Madame Leblanc told me. "My husband drinks and imagines things. He doesn’t know what he’s saying."

"I know exactly what I’m saying," Leblanc said, his voice implying a threat.

"The police," I said, "think Lisette’s death was a suicide."

A single, sad laugh burst from Pierre Leblanc’s mouth. "She had a ten-centimeter gash in the back of her head. You think she did that to herself?"

I did not, but before I could say so, Leblanc went on. "Of course she was murdered. One of those Bonapartist sons of bitches lured her away, did what he wanted to do, bashed her skull in, and threw her in the river–"

"Please, Pierre–" his wife began, but Leblanc slammed his fist against the tabletop so hard that the empty glasses jumped.

"–and I’m out a thousand francs a year. That’s how things are done."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER SIX

Georges de Chaillot’s blonde hair shone gold against the alabaster flank of an atrocious allegorical statue in the lobby of the Opera. I saw him as soon as I entered, standing alone with both hands on his walking stick and a pleasantly ironic look on his face. He stared directly at me but remained motionless and betrayed no sign of recognition while I paused near the door to scan the pre-show crowd. It was a typical gathering of opera-goers: respectable men in requisite black and equally respectable women wearing a rainbow’s range of colors. Their bright gowns were the only lively note in that stark, white lobby, a place that, with its thick columns and heavy white arches, looked more like the side aisle of a Roman church than the anteroom to a house of entertainment.

"Edgar," Georges said when I reached him, "I’m afraid you misunderstood. I offered to accompany you to an opera, not Robert le Diable."

I willingly took his bait. "But Georges, Robert le Diable is one of the greatest of all operas. All the bribed experts say so. It is a jewel of the Romantic repertoire, one of the glories of France."

"I absolutely agree with you. It’s great the way whales are great: big, bloated and abominably heavy. It’s as glorious as God the Father, but who can look at God for long without going blind? And as for Romanticism, when Romanticism died, no one was left to send flowers. This made Romanticism very angry and it sent its ghosts to haunt us. Robert le Diable is one of them."

"Promise me you won’t run away while I check my hat and coat."

"Unfortunately," said Georges, "I am at your service for the evening."

I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I walked away from him, a sense that I had brought Georges here under false pretenses. After hearing Leblanc’s charges I was determined to see if the reality of the Opera bore any resemblance to the ancien regime bacchanal he had described. Accordingly, at Madame de Saint Pierre’s next soiree I had accepted Georges’s earlier offer to take me backstage during a performance. I had let him assume that my motives were purely artistic, that I was contemplating a series of opera paintings and that such a series would not be complete without images of the foyer de la danse and other non-public areas. This was not entirely untruthful. I was indeed interested in painting more of the Opera, and if Leblanc’s allegations turned out to be groundless, the drunken fantasies of an embittered man, a visit backstage would still add to my fund of imagery. But I had told Georges nothing of Monsieur Leblanc, and he seemed to suspect nothing of my double motivation. "So you want to paint the foyer," he had said, smiling. "There’s precious little Sodom and Gomorrah back there these days, I assure you."

We walked into the auditorium together, Georges still complaining about the evening’s offering. It was too old, too long, too boring. "Robert le Diable is the opera that justifies the Jockey Club’s practice–a practice that I, though a member, consider abominably philistine–of arriving very late at the Opera, watching the ballet, then retiring immediately to the foyer. The only good thing about Robert le Diable is the ballet. Those dead nuns in their shrouds dancing out of their graves. I’ve always enjoyed that."

"It’s Gothic," I said, "and typically Romantic. I thought you were no fan of Romanticism."

"It’s not Romantic, Edgar. It’s good."

We proceeded down the side aisle and walked along the scuffed and worn orchestra rail to the center of the front row. When we sat down, the hard wooden seats creaked with age. "Maybe I should sit behind the bassist," mused Georges. "At least then I wouldn’t be forced to see the opera." He switched to a more serious tone. "This whole section is reserved for the Jockey Club, and since hardly any of my fellow Jockeys will arrive until just before the ballet, we have our choice of seats. That’s the one advantage of arriving on time." I glanced around and saw that while the rest of the house was quickly filling, the first six rows were empty except for a few men at whom Georges nodded amiably. "You’ve never sat this close before, have you?"

"No, I’m a virgin to the parterre." From my family’s loge on the third level, I had often gazed down at these seats, the best in the house, and had tried to imagine the view from them. Now, as I sat here and looked around the auditorium, I had the uncanny feeling that I had become the object of my own gaze.

"A virgin?" Georges said. "Meyerbeer will take care of that. Robert le Diable will leave you feeling truly screwed... Speaking of which, I could have spent this evening with Victoria, but I threw her over for you. Do you know Victoria of the Champs-Elysées?"

"Only by reputation." Victoria, as you will surely recall, was Paris’s most prestigious and notorious courtesan. Though it was said she was English by birth, her professional name, like that of the Jockey Club, was an example of the extreme Anglomania that afflicted Paris in those days. For a queen of the demimonde, only the name of the English queen would do.

"Her reputation is vastly understated. I’ll take you there sometime. That’s something you should paint if you want to be new and modern, to renovate painting like Haussmann is renovating Paris."

"Courtesans? I think Winterhalter and the Salon painters have that area covered."

"Don’t insult my intelligence, Edgar. Those hacks can’t paint women. Only your friend Manet can paint women today. And if you and the Manet school want to be the Baudelaires of the Salon, you should paint women like Victoria."

In front of us, the musicians had taken their places and were tuning up.

"It’s not any kind of school," I explained, a little too pedantically. "We’re friends with similar ideas. Manet doesn’t have a school yet. Nor do I."

Georges barely concealed his amusement. "I’m sorry if I implied that you were his follower."

"Many people seem to consider Manet a chef d’ecole, and I usually allow them to persist in the delusion. Manet is useful to me as a kind of lightning rod. His work catches all the fire from the critics and I remain safe in my studio painting things that are even more adventurous."

"You’re a devious one, Edgar. I always admired that in you. You must invite me to your studio sometime."

"Consider the invitation open."

Georges produced a pair of opera glasses from his pocket and half-turned in his seat to scan the loges.

"See anything interesting?" I asked.

"Disappointing women and disappointed men." When he had turned to face the back corner of the house he let out a soft whistle. "Now there’s an amazing girl. Survey her with your painter’s eye, Degas. Second level near the back."

I took out my own glasses and quickly passed over a blur of boxes until I found Georges’s girl. She was seventeen or eighteen, virginal-looking. Her complexion was pale and flawless, and her blonde hair was gathered at the back with a few ringlets curling down over her forehead. She wore a light pink gown that revealed her shoulders. In her lap she held a bouquet of pink and yellow roses. The only contrasting note in the ensemble was a thin black ribbon around her neck.

"She looks like a Swedish princess," I said.

"Is that good or bad?"

"I’m withholding judgment."

"My God, look at those shoulders, those arms." He moaned audibly. "I’d like to sniff her bouquet."

"Should I go up there and make the wedding arrangements right now?" I asked. Beside the girl, her mother sat encased in black, her pale, wrinkled face the only visible flesh on her body. A man who was undoubtedly the father sat in the shadows behind them. I swung my glasses back to the girl and noticed that in all the time I had been looking, she had barely moved. There was something unnatural in her bearing, something forced. She looked too perfect to be real, like one of those life-sized dolls used to advertise clothes in the windows of department stores. Her parents were putting her on display, presenting her to the gazes of the opera-goers, but the longer I looked, the more she appeared to be only partly resigned to her required role. There was a detectable distance in her expression. Her body was at the Opera, but her mind was elsewhere, removed from herself, far from this necessary performance.

As I watched, the mother raised her own opera glasses (black, of course) and looked directly into mine. "We’ve been spotted," I said. "What’s the etiquette in this situation?"

"Hold your gaze for five more seconds," Georges counseled, "then casually move on to the next box and stay there for half a minute or so, as if that shriveled old woman and her pear-headed husband really interest you. That should drive the mother insane."

The orchestra began the prelude, and the entire auditorium seemed to clear its throat at once. "Here we go," said Georges in a carefully uninflected monotone. We turned to the front. Georges slouched so far down into his seat that he was half-lying in it. "Wake me when it’s over, will you, Edgar?"

I could not reply. I was stunned by the unexpected loudness and power of the music. Up here, a few feet from the orchestra, I could almost feel the violin notes like a gentle breeze in the air, and the low rumble of the bass actually shook the seats.

When the curtain parted on a chorus of knights standing against a Mediterranean backdrop, Georges sighed, "Oh yes, this is even worse than I remembered. And the ballet’s not until the third act. I will never forgive you for this, Degas."

*************

Much later, as the curtain opened on Act Three, Scene Two, I elbowed Georges awake. "How can you sleep this close to the orchestra?"

"It’s like a lullaby," he said. He had been using the back of his hand as a pillow, and his signet ring had left an impression of the de Chaillot seal on his left cheek.

I nodded toward the stage. "Here comes your pleasant dream."

The scene was a cloister in a Gothic abbey, a burial place for nuns who died with impure thoughts. The arched stone walls of the cloister, constructed in three dimensions, enclosed a square filled with tombs, a little garden of death. Outside the walls a few of the dead nuns lay in their white shrouds atop slabs that reminded me instantly of the Morgue. My mind’s eye flashed on Lisette lying there with the water splashing against her forehead and running down her body. I wondered if Lisette had danced in Robert. Undoubtedly she had. As everyone knew–and as Georges’s boredom testified–it was one of the Opera’s most frequent productions.

The hero, Robert, emerged from a door at the back of the stage and rushed forward, accompanied by several low, thudding, seat-shaking chords from the orchestra. Standing amidst the slabbed bodies, he raised his arms and began a song of summons, calling upon the nuns to rise and lead him to the magic bough that would grant him invisibility and allow him to regain his love, Isabelle. As he sang, a few flashes of white appeared between the tombs in the courtyard, and then slowly, one by one, the nuns emerged from behind the monuments. Their long white habits were blindingly bright in the strange light that shined with unnatural intensity from above.

Seeing the puzzlement on my face, Georges said, "You like that? It’s electric light, completely new. They installed it solely for this scene. Really puts the gaslight to shame, doesn’t it?" It did, in the same way Turner’s light puts Constable’s to shame. It was as if a fragment of the noonday sun had been captured and suspended in the flies above that funereal courtyard.

In this modern brightness the risen nuns danced lethargically, still drugged by death, while at the more dimly lighted front of the stage, their sisters on the slabs began to stir. They rose from their stone beds and danced toward Robert, moving their floor-length shrouds and long blue veils in a slow, undulating rhythm.

I knew I would paint the scene. It was the same feeling I had had when I saw Fiocre at the edge of the pool in La Source. But this painting would be much different. I would paint it as seen from these seats, with maybe a few heads of Jockey Club members in the foreground, the orchestra in the middle distance, and the ballet in the background. Yes, I thought, it would be a realistic painting of this highly unrealistic ballet: portraits in the foreground and fantasy on the stage. Artifice would collide with reality, creating a type of confusion that I was learning to enjoy.

As the tempo of the music gradually increased, the dancers began to move around Robert, encircling him in a cloud of white and blue. When one of them disengaged herself from the circle and approached the hero with outstretched arms, the meaning of the dance surely became clear even to the most obtuse members of the audience. It was a seduction scene, an erotic ritual acted out by satanic nuns. The evil women would possess this man who had wandered into their midst; they would hold him under their power. It was a thrilling scene, not least because it spoke to the viewer’s most secret fantasies: to be seduced and dominated by beauty, to surrender oneself to desire. In our bourgeois lives such things remained unspoken, but here at the Opera they were on display, enacted for our enjoyment within the protection of the proscenium. But even here, desire would not be permitted to triumph. At the final moment, just as the nun was about to deliver her fatal embrace, Robert leaped away from her, ran into the courtyard, twisted a branch off the magic tree and, brandishing it, moved back toward the nuns. They stretched out their blue veils to form a screen across the stage, hiding Robert from view. When the veils were lowered, the hero was gone, rendered invisible by the bough. Slow, mournful music rose from the orchestra, and the nuns danced dejectedly back to their graves.

When the curtain closed Georges said, "That’s our cue, Edgar. Follow me."

The noise level in the auditorium quickly increased as people stood to stretch their legs and congratulate each other for staying awake this long. I followed Georges and a group of recently-arrived Jockeys up the aisle and into the lobby (deserted and thus even more church-like now). We walked en masse, a black-clad army, up the stairs to the first level and along a curving corridor of loge doors, each with its own round window. A man walking ahead of me paused to glance through one of these windows. Putting on a charming smile, he opened the door and disappeared inside. Farther along, another man grabbed the handle of a loge door, checked the window, and froze in mid-motion. An angry expression crossed his face, his hand jumped back from the handle as if it were white-hot, and he turned and stomped down the corridor. Curious, I decided to have a look at what had so infuriated him. Through the fingerprints and grime on the glass, I saw a mother and father seated in the rear of the loge; they looked on as their young daughter conversed laughingly with a handsome man, obviously the angry Jockey’s rival. I felt Georges’s hand on my elbow. "Come along, Edgar."

We passed through a doorway marked PRIVATE and into an enormous room where the painted backdrops used in various operas were stored. The gigantic paintings stood arranged in a row, ready to be moved onstage and connected to the rigging. Most of the backdrops were lost in the darkness of the room, but as we marched past them I recognized the village from Faust, the forest from the same opera, the Gothic landscape from Pierre de Medicis, and countless half-familiar mountain ranges, beaches and plains. When I saw the city of Babylon from Semiramis–an opera that had inspired a painting of mine several years earlier–I turned away from our group and walked alongside this backdrop, trying to see it through the gloom. As art it was merely competent, but as magic it was a work of genius. Larger than any history painting, it was rendered illusionistic by sheer size; here was a real city, massive and overpowering, big enough to lose oneself in. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, it seemed as though clouds were parting over the painted city, allowing me to see more: columned buildings, stepped ziggurats, white towers shining against a sapphire sky. "Edgar." Georges’s voice, calling me out of my vision, sounded far away. "Edgar, where are you?"

"Babylon," I called out.

"Oh Christ." Georges walked back to me. "I should have known better than to bring a painter back here. What are you doing, composing a critique?"

"I think it’s marvelous."

"Yes, you would." Georges struck the backdrop with his fist; the city vibrated as if shimmering in summer heat. "Come on. We’re not even halfway there yet."

Georges opened the door to the stage just as a worker walked past carrying two of the larger tombstones from the ballet scene, one under each arm. Even from the front row the graves had looked like stone, but now I saw that they were built of painted cloth stretched around wooden frameworks. Looking toward the front of the stage, I saw several workers pulling ropes to raise the backdrop while a larger group behind them busily dismantled the walls of the cloister. The heavy stone arches were thrown down and tossed about like the light, hollow pieces of painted wood they were. One young man ran toward us with the with the top of an arch balanced on his head. He smiled at Georges as he passed. "Good evening, Reginald," Georges said in flawless, unaccented English. "Evening, Duke," the English worker replied.

I followed Georges farther backstage. We encountered several groups of the youngest dancers, still wearing their nun’s habits, gathered around well-dressed middle-aged men to whom Georges nodded and grinned. "Only dancers who have been promoted to the level of coryphée and above are allowed into the foyer de la danse," Georges explained. "The others make the backstage their foyer. Technically, it’s against the rules for them to meet men back here between scenes." He turned to nod at another man surrounded by little dancers. "But there are rules and there are rules."

At the back wall a man stood waiting for us in front of a door with the words PORTE DE COMMUNICATION stenciled above it. Beside the door a large book lay open on a waist-high stand. "One must always sign in," said Georges, scrawling his name in the book. He handed me the pen: "It’s a venerable and senseless tradition."

When we had both signed, the guard unlocked the door and held it open for us. We walked down a short stairway and into a corridor with a faded Rococo-era fresco on the wall. A Flora in the style of Boucher reclined upon an overflowing cornucopia. From its mouth a colorful cascade of flowers fell to the floor. It was surprisingly good.

"We have stepped back into the eighteenth century," Georges lectured. "This is the old Hotel de Choiseul. The Opera was built in the former garden of the Duke de Choiseul’s mansion, and rather than destroy the mansion, the architect incorporated it into the plan–with extensive modifications, of course." He continued speaking as I followed him up a staircase. "The old duke’s mansion now houses the administrative offices, practice rooms and classrooms for the Opera. And, of course, the legendary foyer. My father knew the whole history of this place–he helped finance the construction–and over the years I imbibed it. It was the only thing he ever talked about."

We passed through a small, darkened room and crossed another, longer one with dance barres lining the walls. A lighted doorway glowed at the room’s far end. The low hum I had been hearing since climbing the stairs resolved itself into a cacophony of conversation, dozens of voices speaking at once.

"And here is our shabby little Sodom," Georges said as we entered the foyer de la danse.

I agreed with both adjectives but doubted the noun. The room was filled with middle-aged men dressed in black and teenage dancers wearing their nun costumes. This last detail added a strangely comic note to the otherwise casual tone of the gathering. Some of the men spoke to individual dancers–under the vigilant eyes of their mothers standing nearby–while others appeared to be recounting stories to groups of three or four girls. Some of the dancers stood on point; some angled their feet perpendicularly so that they formed a T–elements of their training that had by now become habit. Other men and mothers sat on red velvet benches along the walls and squinted into the crowd, trying to spot a daughter or dancer in the dim yellow gaslight that emanated from a central chandelier. The walls of the foyer were decorated in a heavy Classical style, lined with massive pilasters and mirrored niches much too large for the room.

"What’s your verdict, Degas?" asked Georges.

"The room looks sawed-off."

"It is. You are standing in my fellow Duke de Choiseul’s former grand salon–or at least the top half of it. When the Opera moved in, they divided it into two rooms: this one and one below us with columns holding up this floor. Yes," he looked up at the grimy, smoke-stained ceiling, "this roof under which the ministers of Louis XV once conferred now looks down upon a, well, slightly different spectacle."

The floorboards creaked as we walked into the crowd. Georges nodded greetings and introduced me to his fellow Jockeys, while girls in ghostly shrouds moved around us with floating dancers’ footsteps. A man with bushy English sideburns asked Georges, "Where were you this evening? We missed you at the Club."

"I was forced to come here and sleep through the opera."

"Was it good?"

"My nap was excellent. As for the quality of the performance, you should ask my tireless friend, Edgar Degas."

The man shook his sideburns at me in greeting. "Degas..." he said, trying to recall something. "I did some business with a banker in Italy named Degas..."

"My grandfather," I confirmed.

"Then it’s a pleasure to meet you, monsieur."

"I assume your business was successful."

"Very."

Georges asked him, "Have you seen my girl Pauline?"

"Here I am," said a nun who suddenly appeared behind Georges and poked a finger in his back. She was not more than fourteen, but tall for her age and quite pretty. Her dark skin and black hair spoke of Creole or Spanish blood. Her eyes were so dark that I could barely tell the pupil from the iris.

Georges spun around and laughed at her costume. "Forgive me, Sister, for I have sinned..."

"I’ll think about it," she said. As they looked into each other’s eyes an unspoken thought seemed to pass between them.

"Is your mother here?" Georges asked.

"Of course. Just over my right–no, my left–shoulder." She spoke to me: "I always get those two confused, especially in stage directions."

Over her right shoulder, I saw an older woman in a red shawl sitting on a bench and eyeing me suspiciously.

Georges told the girl, "This is my friend Monsieur Degas. He’s a very highly respected painter. Now run along and tell maman who Monsieur Degas is so she will stop giving him the Evil Eye."

As we watched her float across the room, Georges said, "Pauline’s a child of the Opera. As am I, I suppose. She was practically born here. Her mother over there is a seamstress who works on the costumes and her father plays bass in the orchestra."

"Is she your mistress?"

"You’ve been reading too many bad novels, Edgar." Georges was grinning. "That’s not the way it works back here. They’re like little courtesans, these girls. And we are their protectors. They seek us out here in the foyer, and we give them gifts: money, jewels– sometimes, for the very lucky ones, a house near the Arc de Triomphe."

"And they in return..." I wanted him to finish my sentence.

"...provide certain services, shall we say?" His grin became almost imperceptible, the kind of expression that on a woman’s face would be compared to the Mona Lisa. "But it’s strictly a business arrangement–or at least it should be–without the emotional attachment implied by your word ‘mistress.’"

"They’re something less than lovers and more than whores."

"As I said, little courtesans."

"Pauline has been your courtesan for a while?" I was puzzled because their easy familiarity suggested a long and close relationship, while the girl’s age and Georges’s recent return from Russia seemed to preclude this possibility.

"I spotted her on my first visit here last year, but I’ve only been her protector for a few weeks."

Pauline returned. "I hope you’ve been saying evil things about me."

"Only the truth, my dear," said Georges.

"You’re such a bore," she replied, looking into his eyes. As I watched her bantering with Georges, she impressed me as being exceptionally poised and bright for her age. If I closed my eyes, I thought, it would be easy to forget how young she was.

Sensing the intimacy between them and feeling like a third wheel, I excused myself to wander about the room. And so I walked among the Jockeys and the dancers, seeing and remembering. I saw one of the older dancers and her much older admirer slip unnoticed (they thought) into the next room. I saw two men cornering a young girl against a wall. Smiling nervously, she tried to answer their rapid questions but could not conceal the panic in her eyes. Like a shot, her mother came from across the room and thrust out her matronly arm as a barrier between her daughter and the now-amused men. An old man about my father’s age sat on a bench alone, looking dejected. He was hunched over, his hands dangling between his knees. Another man sat down beside him saying, "Damn Robert le Diable! You can’t even see their legs. What kind of a ballet is that?" Nearby, a dancer, her mother and a man with a long waxed mustache rose as one and moved toward the door. I followed them at a discreet distance. Outside the foyer, the girl slipped her arm through the man’s and led him across the dark room to an even darker corridor. I entered this corridor just in time to see the three shadowy shapes turn left into another, pitch-black hallway at its far end. I felt my way along the walls with my fingertips and was surprised whenever my hand pushed through an open doorway into nothingness. After a minute or so of this blindness, as I wondered when the corridor would end, my shoulder collided with the metal framework of a spiral stair and I almost cried out, more surprised than pained. I felt my way around the structure and began carefully to climb toward a faint light visible on the upper floor. At the second turning, I heard the orchestra playing, very far away and well into the fourth act. I climbed on and emerged through the floor of a long, narrow corridor lined with doorways, a few of them lighted. I could hear voices from a room about halfway down; a man’s voice sounded clearly: "Yes, the tutu. That’s it. Your lovely little legs, Giselle." Moving down the corridor, I peered inside the first lighted doorway. It was a dancer’s dressing room, unoccupied. A bright globe of gaslight beside the mirror revealed an array of brushes, combs and pins on the dressing table. A plain brown skirt and blouse, the girl’s street clothes, were thrown carelessly over the back of a chair. I walked on. The next room was also empty–and messier. Pink ballet slippers and parts of various costumes lay where they had been thrown on the floor. As I looked, I was startled by a woman’s voice that sounded very close, almost directly behind me. I turned around, stepped silently to the next door, and saw something that I have not forgotten to this day.

The girl’s nun costume was lying on the floor and she stood atop it dressed in a blue tutu. She stood motionless, correctly rigid, looking at her own reflection in the mirror. Behind her, the mustached man was on his knees. With both hands he was caressing the girl’s right leg, running his fingertips softly and rhythmically over the flesh like a musician playing an instrument. The mother sat in a chair near the door and observed these actions with little apparent interest. Now the man moved closer and changed the nature of his caresses. He encircled the girl’s leg with his hands and moved them up and down from ankle to knee in a rapid pumping motion. His crouching body rocked back and forth with the rhythm. His eyes were half-closed. A small bead of spittle fell from his lower lip and swung like a tiny pendulum on its thin string of drool. I could see the strain in the girl’s face as she struggled to hold her leg motionless under the man’s increasingly vigorous movements. Breathing heavily and still pumping her leg, he leaned in closer, stuck out his tongue and licked the small concavity at the back of her knee. At that point, the heretofore passive mother stirred from her seat. She stepped over to the door and gave it a shove. It closed with a click, and I was left standing in darkness.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER SEVEN
 

"Try to look like gentlemen and follow me," said Fantin-Latour. "I’m finally going to introduce you to the Morisots."

You immediately stepped back from the easel where you were copying Velasquez’s Infanta. (Were you still copying Velasquez in the summer of 1867, Manet, or does this old man’s memory deceive him?) You put down your palette and brushes, threw off your white smock and instantly became a black-clad boulevardier. I put down the sketchbook in which I was idly roughing out a perspective view of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery and followed you and Fantin into the scene I had just been drawing. It was copying day at the Louvre, that one day a week when the museum was closed to tourists so that artists and students could set up their easels and pay homage to tradition by making even more copies of the too-copied. Both sides of the gallery all the way down to the Salon Carré were lined with painters at their easels and sketchers at their pads. I was considering the scene for a possible painting: a view down the long double row of copyists, an image of unglamourous artistic reality, the real work of painting. I was also attracted by the way the bright morning sunlight poured in through the windows, articulating the long perspective of the corridor with alternating patches of light and shadow.

The Morisot sisters were standing in one of these lighted areas, so I spotted them from some distance off: the pretty one with black hair and the cute one with brown working side by side in front of a flower-strewn history painting by Rubens. Everyone knew the Morisots by sight and reputation. They had shown their paintings at the Salon, and the beauty of the black-haired one was a frequent topic of discussion. But in our years of looking at them here at the Louvre, they had remained as remote as any of the women hanging on the walls. We had never spoken to or even approached them. Such effrontery would have been a grievous breach of etiquette, and any attempted approach would surely have been foiled their ever-present mother, a formidable woman who always sat protectively close to her daughters and engaged in endless, seemingly unproductive knitting.

Fantin handled the necessary introductions with the same ease and lightness of touch he brought to his still life paintings. I found his works tame and unadventurous but kept the opinion to myself; there was no point in antagonizing such a useful friend, a man who seemed to know everyone and to be liked by all. Except me, that is. Even as I cultivated Fantin’s friendship and exploited his connections, I held him in a kind of contempt. Anyone so universally admired could only be a master of banality.

After being thus properly introduced to us, Madame Morisot–who, like the Matterhorn, looked even larger up close–sat her knitting aside and presented us to her daughters, both of whom appeared to be in their mid-twenties: beautiful Berthe with black hair and green eyes that flashed like emeralds and pretty brown-haired Edma, who immediately complimented my portraits in this year’s Salon. Berthe spoke to you: "Fantin says you are the greatest painter of our generation."

"My friend is an excellent critic," you replied.

This vapid, complimentary chatter continued for a while, and I was becoming rather disappointed by the Morisot sisters when Berthe suddenly said, "You’re both rich, aren’t you? That’s all Mother cares about." Madame Morisot shot a stern glance at her daughter, who continued, "If we must consort with painters, they should at least be wealthy painters. I wanted to visit your exhibition as soon as it opened, Monsieur Manet, but Mother flatly refused. It seems your work is far too scandalous for her refined tastes. But now that she has asked about you and learned that our families are on the same social level, she’ll probably drag me over there tomorrow morning before sunrise. I’m sure we will be waiting at the door when you arrive."

"You must excuse my daughter, messieurs," said Madame Morisot. "She suffers from a rare disease that causes her to say exactly what she’s thinking."

As if to confirm this, Berthe turned to me and, smiling, said, "I don’t think very much of your work, Monsieur Degas."

"The feeling is mutual, I’m sure." I smiled back.

Edma, thinking our conversation had struck a rough patch, tried to smooth it over with an explanation. "Mother’s only concern is that we not become spinsters. For years she tried to find a suitable provincial gentleman for me to marry–"

"‘Suitable’," Berthe interrupted, "is how we pronounce ‘rich’."

"–then I gave her Madame Bovary, and after reading it Mother insisted that I never leave Paris again."

"We Parisians all have Flaubert to thank," I said, "for showing us the decadence and immorality of the provinces."

Fantin sat down and spoke to Madame Morisot, occupying and distracting her as you and I walked her daughters back to their easels. Berthe was about half-finished with a very loose oil sketch of the Rubens. Edma, more interestingly, was painting a picture of Berthe painting Rubens.

You said to Berthe, "You’re a good painter."

"You mean, for a woman," she replied.

"No. I mean exactly what I said."

I took two steps back from you. "If this sincerity is contagious, I want none of it." I remembered a landscape by Morisot hanging near your submissions in the M room at a past Salon. You had glanced at it and said dismissively, "Student of Corot. Looks like it."

Edma was saying, "One of our former teachers once wrote Mother a note that said something like: ‘Your daughters, madame, are talented enough to become painters. Do you understand what this means? For young women of your class, it would be disastrous.’ Maybe he was right. He was right about Berthe’s talent, anyway." She touched her brush to a black pool on her palette and applied the color to her canvas in a smooth dark line that defined the contour of Berthe’s hair. "Berthe’s the real painter. I just make sketches. She paints art and I paint her."

"It’s better than painting Rubens," I offered.

"Why are you copying Rubens?" you asked Berthe.

Without missing a beat she countered, "Why are you copying Velasquez?"

This caught you off-guard. It seemed that the Morisot sisters had been observing us (or you, anyway) as long as we had been observing them. Your face registered the momentary surprise of one who suddenly sees himself as a watcher watched.

"I’m doing it to learn about painting," Berthe said, "why else? Isn’t Rubens the fountain from which all evil flows, the root of all color?"

"Rubens le Diable," Edma interjected. "Mother dragged us to that abysmal old opera again last night. God knows how many times we’ve seen it."

"I went last week," I said. "It was a competent production."

"‘Competent’." repeated Edma cheerfully. "The ultimate insult."

"I’m thinking of painting a scene from it."

Berthe looked at me with mock horror. "Oh, you musn’t do that. It will only encourage further productions."

Turning back to you, Berthe pointed out an exceptionally loosely painted passage in the Rubens, an area in the foreground where the tassels of a cushion were drawn with a few long strokes of pure yellow. "It’s so simple and so rich," she said.

"And it’s paint before it’s anything else," you added. "I can tell you have a feeling for this stuff–" You took a pinch of red pigment from Berthe’s palette and smeared it between your thumb and forefinger. "–this sticky stuff we make our worlds out of. Why should our paint look more like flesh or grass or clouds than what it really is, paint? Rubens, Velasquez, Goya, they knew how to work with paint, how to express themselves in it, rather than effacing themselves like the painters who always win medals at the Salon."

"Mother loves Bouguereau," Edma stated.

"He’s a fine technician," you conceded, "they all are. But I sometimes wonder if our celebrated painters have personalities."

"Would you call Bouguereau...competent?" asked Edma slyly.

"Extremely. Like a worker in a factory who hammers out the same object fifty times a day, every one identical. Perfectly competent." You opened your arms in an expansive gesture that embraced all of us. "We, on the other hand, have left competence far behind."

I thought Fantin was competent and little more, but when I looked over at him, deep in conversation with Madame Morisot, his face convincingly earnest, I exercised heroic restraint and swallowed my opinion.

Berthe turned to her canvas, dipped her brush in yellow and laid down a long strip of color, saying, "Sometimes I’m tempted to leave a painting in this state: rough, unfinished, with all the brushmarks showing, so you have to stand ten or twenty feet away just to recognize the subject. Why should art be easy? Why should it even be pleasing? I want people to work to understand what I’m doing; I want to force them to make an effort to see it."

"And they call Courbet a radical!" I said. "You are suggesting a very dangerous thing, mademoiselle. You want to challenge people, and Salon-goers hate to be challenged. They’re basically cowards, and you can’t challenge a coward to a duel. He will run away from you and bask in Bouguereau."

Berthe, who had obviously thought at length on this issue, replied, "That’s why Courbet and you, Monsieur Manet, have the right idea. We should start our own Salon, an independent Salon."

I laughed. I had never heard a woman talk like this before. Berthe had the kind of ambition that plowed through obstacles like one of Baron Haussmann’s demolition crews.

Misinterpreting my laughter, she turned on me. "Why not?" she demanded. "There are enough of us. We need to band together and present an alternative to those frightfully competent academicians. What do you think of that, Monsieur Manet?"

"Actually, I’ve been disappointed by the response to my exhibition. Very few people have stopped by and even fewer have expressed interest or encouragement. I’ve almost decided to try my luck with the Salon jury next year."

"No!" Berthe howled at the ceiling. Her cry echoed down the gallery, turning many heads toward us.

"Berthe!" scolded Madame Morisot, rolling her eyes and shaking her head at the hopelessness of her situation.

"Don’t be such a hypocrite, Mother," said Berthe. "You know you want everyone to look at me."

"Yes, but I don’t want them to think, ‘What a madwoman! Drag her off to Charenton! Put her in a cell with the Marquis de Sade!’"

"Sade died many years ago," Edma told her mother.

"Yes, you would know that." Madame Morisot stared at Edma through narrowed eyes. "You are always reading such filth."

"My mother is addicted to melodrama," Berthe explained. And then she spoke directly to you. "You must promise me that your independent exhibition will not be the end of something but the beginning. You are pointing the way forward, Monsieur Manet, and a lot of people are looking at you, whether you know it or not."

***************

That afternoon, after lunching with you at the Café Tortoni, I walked up the busy boulevard and turned north on the Rue Grange-Batelier. As I neared the back entrance to the Opera (actually, as I now knew, the front entrance to the former Hotel de Choiseul) I thought apprehensively of the reputed ferocity of Madame Monge, the building’s Cerberus of a concierge and the keeper of the back gate. Madame Monge had taken it as her duty to protect the girls of the Opera from the intrusions of unauthorized males, even going so far as to physically eject men who attempted to enter without proper permission. I had mentioned to Georges that I would like to sketch a few dance classes and he had promised to speak to the Director. "Go there any time you like," Georges had told me. "I’ll instruct them to give you the freedom of the place." Given such an assurance, my anxiety before entering the gate was probably due less to Madame Monge than to what I increasingly considered my own duplicity. At the Opera, my art was becoming a pretext for satisfying my curiosity about the life and death of Lisette Leblanc. I was deceiving Georges–and perhaps even myself.

I passed through the stone gateway and presented myself at Madame Monge’s window. She was an ox of a woman, stocky and powerfully built, barely contained by the tiny office that had been carved into the wall near the gate. She looked perfectly capable of tossing me or any man headfirst into the reeking gutter of the Rue Grange-Batelier. "Yes?" she asked in an annoyed voice.

I stated my name and she looked at me suspiciously. I had to resist an urge to explain my presence in detail, to justify my lifestyle and my very existence to this woman who had the power to end my investigation before it even began. Without a word she turned her back to me and ran her finger down a list of names affixed to the back wall of her miniature room. (The place must have been unbearable on hot summer days–like being inside a brick oven.) She looked at me over her shoulder as if trying to decide whether the face in the window matched the name on the list. Did I look like a Degas? an Edgar? I wondered for a brief second what an ‘Edgar Degas’ was supposed to look like. She checked the list again and gave me another long, appraising glance before finally pronouncing judgment: "You may pass."

Walking into the courtyard of the Hotel de Choiseul, I imagined it filled with the ornate, gold-trimmed carriages of Louis XV’s courtiers. I could almost hear the nails on the men’s shoes striking the cobblestones as they walked toward the door, tiny grains of powder shaking from their absurd wigs at every step. Voltaire might have walked on these stones, I told myself. Today it was a slightly eerie place, sun-bleached and deserted. Two trees growing in a grassy circle at the center only emphasized the desolation of the square. It was one of those strangely silent places you sometimes stumble into while walking in the city. Although a busy street passed just outside the wall and an even busier boulevard was close by, the courtyard itself was so quiet I could hear a single bird chirping its repetitive song from a perch in one of the trees. I passed through a doorway and stepped into the cool shadows of the old hotel.

In Marie Taglioni’s classroom, I positioned myself on a bench against the back wall and began to sketch. The room was yet another transformed eighteenth-century space, the walls lined with classical pilasters and recessed mirrored arches, their ancien regime luxury contrasting with the utilitarian dancer’s barres affixed to them and the bare wooden floor that they enclosed. I might have walked through the room on the night of Robert le Diable, but it was unrecognizable in daylight, its nocturnal mystery replaced by pedagogical glare. Taglioni, the legendary dancer of the 1830's, stood with her students near the opposite wall. She was old and gray-haired now, but still possessed the slim dancer’s body familiar to me from so many bronze and marble statuettes in the collector’s cabinets of my father’s friends. The long wooden staff that she held like an emblem of authority–and used during lessons to beat time against the floor–gave her the air of an ancient prophetess.

The class was just beginning. Taglioni spoke to her students as they limbered up at the barre, outlining the day’s activities. When she judged that the dancers were sufficiently prepared, she took her place beside the violinist, a bearded old man sitting atop a stool, and clapped her hands sharply. The two quick slaps resounded around the room. The girls immediately responded by gathering in a rectangular group before their teacher. I marveled at the discipline displayed in even so simple an action; the girls stepped into formation with the precision of a military squad executing a drill. Taglioni tapped her staff against the floorboards to establish a rhythm, the old violinist began to play, and the dancers moved as one. They extended their arms and kicked up their right legs until their feet were level with their hands. Their legs went back down, they stepped to the right and repeated the movement. In this way, the rectangle of dancers moved across the floor, kicking and stepping and raising small clouds of dust.

"Stop!" Taglioni suddenly commanded. There was silence. The girls stood at attention. "Who is our gardener this week?" the teacher demanded.

I wondered for a second if age had destroyed her mind. A gardener? What was she talking about? The dancers, however, understood perfectly. Several of them pointed to a girl near the middle of their rectangle.

"Suzanne!" Taglioni yelled. "Do you want me to choke on this dust? Water the floor!"

The girl, reddening with embarrassment, rushed to the nearest corner, retrieved a metal watering can and ran swiftly in a spiraling pattern around the room, sprinkling water on the floorboards. While the girl circled, Taglioni said to the others, "If I choke to death, you might be assigned to a male teacher, and everyone knows that men can’t dance."

The routine continued. As the rectangle of dancers neared my end of the room, I saw Taglioni squinting at me and looking irritated. I returned to my sketch and drew a watering can in the corner of my classroom. I placed the shape next to a sketch of a kicking girl, and it occurred to me that the dancers with their legs raised resembled watering cans, the right leg and arm forming a long ‘spout.’ I would remember that.

When the girls had reversed direction and danced their way back to Taglioni, she ordered them to practice arabesques. Simultaneously, each of the dancers bent at the waist, extended one arm in front and one behind, and raised her left leg behind her. "Marie!" Taglioni barked. "Don’t lift your leg at me like a dog taking a piss." The girls giggled, and the teacher banged her staff on the floor to silence them. "Everyone stand up and look at me. It’s like this."

Without looking, Taglioni tossed her staff at the violinist. He caught it as if he had done so a thousand times. As the students watched, she drew herself up to her full height, closed her eyes and allowed her body to flow into position. Her torso lowered as her leg came up, and the act of extending her arms seemed like a natural accompaniment to this movement. When she stood thus balanced on her right leg, with her left leg, torso and arms in a single plane horizontal to the floor, I saw the Taglioni of legend for a few seconds, and I was awestruck by the perfect grace and seemingly effortless fluidity of her movements. She held the arabesque for a count of ten. Then, in a single motion, she returned to a standing position and took up her staff. "It’s like that," she told the girls. "Think of your whole body as one single muscle, and then use it." She rubbed her hip. "And don’t make me do that anymore. I’m too old for this." The girls tried their best to imitate her, but to my eyes their arabesques all looked forced or clumsy by comparison. Only one or two of the dancers approached Taglioni’s grace.

"And who are you?" I looked up from the sketchbook where I was recording the bare physical facts of Taglioni’s example to see the subject of my sketch stomping across the floorboards toward me, banging her staff as she came. Behind her, the girls stopped their arabesques to watch the show. "Who...are...you?" she repeated slowly, as if speaking to a village idiot. She stood over my bench and stared fiercely down at me. I spoke my name.

"I don’t know any Monsieur de Gas," she said, spitting out the last two syllables. "What kind of a name is that? De Gas. You are from Gas? Are you the Duke of Gas? Where is this Gas, Monsieur de Gas? I’ve never heard of it." She straightened herself and delivered her judgment: "You are a voyeur, whatever your name is. Get out of my classroom!" She extended her arm as gracefully as before, but this time it pointed to the door. "Out! Go!"

Fearing she might strike me with her staff, I stood, bowed to her, picked up my hat, and made my ludicrous getaway to the sound of girlish laughter.

**************

"You’re Georges’s friend."

I heard these words behind me as I stood drawing in a hallway where dancers were resting and where I hoped to be safe from Taglioni’s wrath. I turned around and saw Pauline, Georges’s dark ‘little courtesan’ from the foyer de la danse. Out of her nun costume and dressed in the same type of plain practice skirt worn by all the students, Pauline looked younger and more vulnerable. She looked like the fourteen year-old girl she was.

"And so are you, mademoiselle," I said. "Correct?"

She thought about this. "I guess so. Madame Taglioni really went off on you back there. She can be a real bitch."

Why hadn’t I recognized Pauline among the dancers in the class? (This bothered me at the time, and as I write about it all these years later, it still does. So much for my now-legendary powers of perception.)

"I think she’s magnificent," I said and realized with a shock that I had spoken without a hint of irony.

"What were you doing in there, anyway?"

I showed her the page with my interrupted sketch of Taglioni’s arabesque. "My only crime was art."

"Oh yes, Georges told me you were an artist. You shouldn’t draw us in class, though. No one does that."

"Maybe that’s why I want to do it." I looked into her very dark eyes. Intoxication lay there waiting. She would be a great beauty when she grew up. "You’re a coryphée."

"Yes. But the examination for sujet is coming up. After I pass that, I can dance solo on the stage."

"After you pass it." I smiled at her. "I admire your confidence."

"Oh, I’ll pass," she said lightly. "I’m that good. And the competition’s not."

"Did you know the coryphée who died?"

"Lisette. Yes. We danced together. We were friends, I guess."

"What kind of a person was she?"

Pauline appeared to be wondering why I was interested. "She was quiet. Not talkative, at least not with me. But I wasn’t her best friend. That was Jeanne, I guess, but she was expelled for absences months ago. Lisette was a good dancer, though. She would’ve made sujet."

Pauline’s mother now appeared, seemingly from nowhere, wearing a thin plaid shawl that covered her substantial body like a tent. Recognizing me from the foyer, she greeted me warmly and introduced herself as Madame Jacob. Pauline said, "We were just talking about Lisette."

"A bad business," said Madame Jacob. She straightened a few stray hairs that had come loose on her daughter’s head. "But good for us–though of course it’s terrible to say such a thing. There’s only one opening for sujet, and my little girl is a sure winner now."

"I was just telling him Jeanne was her best friend."

"He has a name, Pauline, and it’s Monsieur Degas."

"Yes, Mother." Pauline rolled her eyes. "I, Pauline, was just telling him, Monsieur Degas, that Jeanne was Lisette’s best friend."

Madame Jacob said softly, "Terrible... It’s time for your lesson with Monsieur Merante. Get along now."

"Yes, Mother. Goodbye, Monsieur Degas." Pauline hurried down the corridor and disappeared up the spiral stairway at its end.

"That girl Jeanne was a terrible influence," the mother told me. "I was glad to see her go. What she and that Lisette talked about was anyone’s guess."

"Do you know where Jeanne is now?"

She sat down on a bench and motioned me to sit beside her. She spoke in a low voice. "Jeanne is in a terrible place. The other mothers say her family is forcing her to work as a prostitute in a low-class brothel out in Belleville, a place called La Saison." After a pause, she added, "It’s where she belongs, if you ask me. That Jeanne was the kind of little slut who gives all dancers bad names."

"And Lisette, what kind of girl was she?"

"Who really knows? She didn’t talk much, wasn’t very friendly, really. But I think there were terrible things going on in that house."

"In Lisette’s family?"

"Yes. I remember one time Lisette stumbled during an examination. It’s the kind of thing that happens. She was on point and her foot slipped. A simple thing, but in an examination something like that can cost you a promotion. A few days after the examination, Pauline happened to see Lisette changing her clothes in the dressing room, and Lisette had bruises all over her body. Terrible black bruises on her belly and chest and back. Her father must have beaten her because she slipped."

"How long ago was this?"

"Two, maybe three years ago. It had to be her father. The whole family lives like animals up in the Maquis. You know how those people are. Listen, we’re working people in our family, but we’re not animals. We don’t live in filth. But those Leblancs... With parents like that, it’s no wonder she killed herself. Her death was probably a mercy."

"Did you ever speak to her mother?"

"We don’t mix with those people, monsieur," she said with an arrogance worthy of Madame de Saint Pierre. "Although I do remember something that happened the last time I saw her. It might have been the very day Lisette disappeared. Madame Leblanc caused a disturbance in one of the corridors, yelling at that Prince Bonaparte to keep his hands off her daughter. Do you know him? Auguste Bonaparte, I think his name is. A cousin of the emperor, or something like that. A genuine prince and a horrible man. He lurks in this building at all hours and approaches every girl he sees. And ugly," she grimaced, "very ugly and very fat, a real beast. He looks like a human pig, do you know what I mean? All the girls know about him and the mothers know to avoid him. But Madame Leblanc chased him down this very corridor screaming, ‘Stay away from my daughter, you animal.’ It was so embarrassing. We thought she was going mad. I never did find out what it was all about."

**************

When Pauline returned after her lesson, I offered to escort the girl home. Madame Jacob, with several hours of costumes still to sew for an upcoming production of Don Juan, readily consented. As we passed through the gate, Madame Monge gave me an infuriated stare. She obviously assumed that I had come to the Opera to hunt for girls and was now returning home with my trophy.

On the street Pauline asked, "Did Mother tell you about Jeanne?"

"Yes."

We walked in silence among the shopworkers heading home for the evening. The carriage traffic on the street was slowed to a crawl by a wagon that had overturned in the intersection. Two men were attempting to repair its broken axle while passing drivers yelled at them to pull the wreck out of the street.

"Do you know what happened between Lisette and Prince Bonaparte just before she disappeared?" I finally asked.

Pauline looked surprised. "Yes, that was the day before she went missing... It’s strange. With the death and everything, I’d forgotten about that. It was the usual thing, I guess." We turned onto the quiet side street where the Leblancs lived. "The prince is a strange man. He likes to expose himself to the dancers. He did it to me two years ago. I came out of the door of the dressing room, and there he was, standing in the hallway facing me with his trousers unbuttoned. And it was hanging down, you know, like on a statue. He didn’t do anything. He just stood there and looked at my face. I guess he wanted to see how I would react. So I tried hard not to react at all. I turned my head and walked away. And I remember that I didn’t feel threatened at all. I felt almost sorry for him." Pauline laughed and said, "But I guess old Madame Leblanc really went for him. I didn’t see it. I was in class when it happened. But everybody said Madame Leblanc chased Prince Bonaparte from the building. The prince must have exposed himself to Lisette, I imagine."

I wondered why Madame Leblanc had failed to include this incident in her account of the day Lisette disappeared. Wouldn’t such an unusual event have remained in her memory? Or did the disappearance of her daughter somehow blot all the other memories out, like a coating of lead white smeared over a failed painting to conceal it and make the canvas reusable?

"Would you do me a favor, Pauline?"

"I suppose so."

"If you remember anything else about Lisette, anything unusual, or if you hear anything about what happened to her in the days before she disappeared, would you tell me about it?"

"All right," she said. She stopped at the door of her building. "Monsieur Degas?"

"Yes?"

"Are you some kind of detective?"

"No, I’m just a painter." She looked doubtful, so I added, "A very curious painter."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER EIGHT
 

You held open the door to your apartment as I entered, carrying a large canvas on a stretcher. I said, "I’ve decided to give you this because I have no more room in my studio. Please do not consider it a token of respect or esteem."

You took the canvas and examined it with obvious delight. "Ha! You got me!" you exclaimed. "You got me, you little bastard!" You called Suzanne and when she appeared you walked toward her, holding the painting before you. She saw it, smiled, laughed, covered her mouth as if laughter were an improper response, and finally said, "Edgar, it’s wonderful."

It was, of course, the Manet entry in my series of portraits of painters: a double portrait of you and Suzanne. She sat at the piano, playing for her own pleasure, while you slouched on the sofa behind her. ‘Slouched,’ though, is hardly the word to describe your position. It was an extremely uncomfortable-looking attitude that I had often seen you assume in quiet moments of abstracted thought. With one hand in your pocket and the other folded against your cheek, you tilted your body back against the sofa and drew one leg up so that it lay on the cushion beside you. Your other leg stretched behind Suzanne’s long skirt, and my painting implied–without explicitly showing it–that your foot extended playfully under the edge of her skirt. A scene of innocent intimacy, then, a portrait of a marriage, an image with which both subjects seemed quite satisfied.

"I’ll move the Couture and hang it over the sofa," you said. I followed you to the corner of the apartment depicted in my painting. I suppose it’s safe to admit now, Manet, that I was quite impressed and perhaps even touched by this gesture: moving aside the work of your old teacher to make room for mine. We took down your Couture courtesan (Alice Ozy, wasn’t it?) with her dress peeled down below her bust and one strap of her bodice falling titillatingly from her shoulder and replaced it with my much more chaste image of Monsieur and Madame Manet.

I looked at my own painting, hanging now above the sofa pictured in it, and wondered what you had ever seen in Suzanne. Her plain Dutch face and flabby Dutch matron’s body were hardly conventionally beautiful, and her personality was also drably Dutch, a mixture of Protestant sincerity and optimistic sentimentality. If Netherlandish piety had been added to the mix, she would have been truly unbearable. (Why did these thoughts come more readily in front of her painted image than in the presence of the real person? Suzanne’s kindness, I suppose, kept my mind at bay.) Her most characteristic conversational posture was a smiling Panglossian insistence that everything would turn out for the best. Even her art failed to touch you (I think I captured this in my portrait); she was a serious pianist, an interpreter of Wagner and Liszt, while you could hardly sit still for a Chopin étude. It must have been Leon, I thought, but if you and Suzanne had married solely for the child, why did both of you continue the absurd pretense that he was not your child? Did you ever ask these questions of yourself, Manet? Did you feel trapped in your marriage in the same inescapable way that your image was now trapped on my rectangle of paint and canvas?

While I was thus cruelly ruminating, you announced, "I’m going to ask the Morisot woman to pose for me."

"Which one, the mother?"

You threw your head back and laughed loudly–too loudly for such a mediocre remark. "No, but I’m sure Madame will insist on accompanying her daughter to my studio. I’m speaking of the one with the eyes."

"As I recall, both sisters have those."

"You know what I mean–Berthe."

"She has a great face," I said. Much better than your wife’s, I meant. Was I feeling jealous of you? Perhaps. I, too, had thought of painting Berthe Morisot, but it appeared that you were already several steps ahead of me.

"It’s ironic, though," you said. "Those green eyes are what attracted me to her, but I won’t be able to paint them. I’ll have to make them black to match her hair."

"Really?"

"Oh, yes. Black hair and green eyes would look freakish in a painting. The eyes would compete with everything else and the image would never cohere."

"I seem to remember you saying not long ago that you valued honesty above all other things in art."

"No, Edgar. I value painting above everything else."

Suzanne called us into the dining room, where we were joined by Leon. Your secret son and public brother-in-law seemed to begrudge my presence. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, he greeted me curtly and then sat sullen and silent for the duration of the dinner. The meat was equally dry and unappealing, even after I had drowned it in sauce. "Was this duck one of your models?" I asked you. It tasted as though it had been lying around the studio for weeks while you struggled to perfect a still life.

"It is a little tough, isn’t it?" you said.

"It’s the new cook," explained Suzanne. "She has no eye for meat, They could sell her a blackbird and she’d think it was a goose."

We continued sawing through our respective slices of duck while you laid out your plans for Berthe. "I’ll do a small head first, just to accustom myself to painting her, and then I think I’ll try a larger reclining portrait. After that, maybe something big for the Salon–based on Goya, of course."

"Of course," I said. "But I doubt if she will like the idea of posing for a Salon painting. She seems determined to start her own Salon."

"Edgar, we both know how artists talk. They talk and talk and in the end they submit, and the Salon hangs them, eventually."

"Yes," I rejoined, "the Salon will eventually hang us all." I closed my eyes, cocked my head and stuck out my tongue, miming a hanged man. Leon laughed, his first and only contribution to the evening’s conversation.

Probably to forestall an argument about the Salon, Suzanne changed the subject. "People sometimes ask me how I can stand being married to a painter, a man who spends so much time surrounded by beautiful models."

"How do you answer them?" I asked.

She reached across the table and touched your hand. "First of all, I tell them the models aren’t really very beautiful, but the artists make them so. Then I tell them they don’t know my Edouard."

I looked at the uncomfortable smile on your face, at your hand lying limply under hers, and I asked myself how well she knew her Edouard.

******************

Suzanne was at the piano, teaching herself a new piece, while you and I talked quietly on the sofa behind her. You sat in a rigidly correct posture, both feet on the floor, back straight, hands crossed in your lap, trying not to imitate my painted imitation of you.

"It seems that I’m becoming a detective," I announced.

"Oh? And what are you detecting?"

"I’m looking into what happened to that dancer I pulled out of the river."

"The suicide?"

"Maybe not," I answered.

"It’s not enough for you to draw better than me? You have to investigate better than Henri, too?"

I noticed, as you surely intended me to, that you said ‘draw’ instead of ‘paint.’

"I’m simply trying to satisfy my curiosity."

"Edgar, your curiosity will never be satisfied. That’s why you’re an artist. What does Henri say?"

"That it’s a suicide."

You looked at me.

"He’s wrong," I insisted, "and I’ll prove it."

"Who do you think you are, C. Auguste Dupin?"

"Who?"

"You’re a complete illiterate, Edgar. Why haven’t you read your American namesake, Edgar Poe?"

"If everyone I know is reading something, I need no better reason to avoid it."

You stood. "I’ll be right back."

I sat there and listened to Suzanne playing the same difficult passage over and over. I admired her determination to master it, to make it sound easy. After a couple of minutes you returned holding a small framed painting in one hand and a book in the other. "You may keep this." You handed me the painting. "But you must return this." And you gave me the book.

The painting was a still life of plums almost identical to the one I had admired and secretly (I thought) coveted at your exhibition. At first I assumed it was the same painting, but when I held it closer the odor revealed that it wasn’t yet completely dry.

"It’s a replica," you said unnecessarily. It was an extraordinary replica, even better and more self-assured than the ‘original’ hanging in the Place de l’Alma. By way of thanking you, I repeated this opinion aloud (after only a few seconds’ hesitation). You said nothing and I enjoyed your embarrassment for a while before putting the canvas aside and taking up the book.

Poems and Tales of Edgar Poe. Translated by Baudelaire. On the flyleaf was written: "To my friend Manet, / I hope you enjoy / these works of our American brother," followed by the translator’s signature.

"Don’t worry, Edgar. You need not read the whole thing. The three Dupin stories might interest you, though. They might even teach you something. Dupin is Poe’s great Parisian detective who solves all the cases the police have given up on."

I scanned the Table of Contents. "Which ones are they?"

"‘The Purloined Letter,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget.’"

"Rue Morgue?" To my knowledge, there was no such street in Paris. "Poe didn’t know the city very well, did he?"

"Well, he was an American."

"Maybe we should have a Rue Morgue. They’re naming streets after everything else these days."

"‘Marie Roget’ will be of special interest to you. It’s the mystery of a young woman whose body is found floating in the Seine."

"That’s a story I’ve heard somewhere before."

As I leafed through the book, a few sheets of paper fell out and floated to the floor. You scooped them up, glanced at them and said, "I didn’t know these were in there." You laid them out on the sofa between us: four sketchbook pages covered with drawings of bodies. There were long rows of bodies, like the victims of an epidemic or some other natural disaster, laid out for identification in a vast, open-air Morgue. And there were closer views of individual men, women and children, their gaping mouths and blood-blackened skin suggesting very violent deaths. They were unlike anything I had ever seen from your hand. Were they sketches for some long-forgotten history painting from your student days? Copies after some very obscure work by Goya?

I looked at you and awaited an explanation. Suzanne played on, lost in her music, oblivious to our words.

"This is old stuff," you began. "Back in 1851 when our illustrious emperor staged his coup, there was some fighting in the streets. You may remember it. You may have been part of it."

"No. I was at school then. We were locked inside the Lycée Louis le Grand for the duration."

"Worse than a prison," you said, grimacing. "The fighting wasn’t organized. There were clashes here and there between small groups of republicans (mostly workers) and small groups of soldiers. I need not tell you who won. My friend Antonin Proust and I were caught in the middle of it at one point. We went out into the streets to see what was happening–and we saw it, all right. We saw soldiers on horseback with their sabers drawn hacking their way through a group of unarmed workers in front of the Madeleine. On a street nearby we saw a group of soldiers fire a cannon at a republican barricade. Actually, the barricade was hardly worthy of the name: a wagon turned on its side in the middle of the street and little mounds of paving stones on both sides of it. The cannonball ripped through the wagon like it was made of paper, but that was nothing compared to what it did to the worker who was standing behind the wagon. I saw one of his arms fly through the air, the hand still holding the old Revolution-era musket he was planning to use. The arm and the rifle clattered onto the street and the man staggered out from behind the barricade. Blood was pouring out of his shoulder like water from a pump. He was dazed, in shock, but somehow he kept walking. Not knowing what he was doing, he walked toward the line of soldiers, spraying blood on the street as he went. When he was a few feet from the soldiers, their commander ordered them to fire. So they kneeled, aimed and shot the man down. Six bullets in the chest." You paused. Suzanne’s piano seemed to swell into your silence. "I never understood why they shot him. The man would’ve been dead in a few seconds, anyway.

"As Proust and I were watching this, an officer came up and placed us under arrest. I thought he was going to order us in front of the firing squad right there. I was scared shitless; I thought it was the end. My whole body was shaking. My teeth were chattering like I was freezing, although, for early December, it wasn’t a cold day. The officer asked me a series of questions, but I could barely speak to answer him. Luckily, Proust kept his wits and spoke for me. He told the officer that I lived in the neighborhood and that he, Proust, was accompanying me home because in these violent days it wasn’t safe to walk the streets alone. Yes, Antonin laid it on pretty thick. The officer seemed to believe him, but having already placed us under arrest he could not immediately rescind the order without losing face in front of his troops. So Proust and I were marched away, guarded like criminals going to the scaffold. We were taken to a large building nearby, some kind of warehouse. It was full of people who had been rounded up, most of them probably just like us, arrested simply for being on the street. As we were being led inside, a man in uniform who seemed to be in authority at the jail came toward us and called out Proust’s name. The man greeted Proust warmly, embraced him. It turned out that this man, the jailer, was an old friend of Proust’s family and Proust was like a beloved nephew to him. At this man’s order, we were immediately released, and the same men who had brought us there were ordered to escort us safely home. As we left the building (The place doesn’t exist anymore; it was torn down by Haussmann.) I looked back one last time at all those people crowded in there. They were mostly workers, mostly men, but there were a few women, too, and they all had a similar expression on their faces, an anxiety and fear that I now knew well. They had no idea what was going to happen to them. Prison? Execution? Release? In that place, at that time, all three seemed equally likely. The not knowing was itself a kind of torture. But Proust and I were free. We went home and slept comfortably in our beds that night, and only later did we learn that while we were being arrested, a genuine massacre was taking place a few blocks away. It seems that a battalion of troops was marching past the Café Tortoni when a gunshot was heard. No one was hit and no one knows who fired it, but it was like a spark in a tinder box. The soldiers started shooting at random, killing anyone they saw: old men standing on the sidewalk, mothers with children, shopkeepers in front of their shops. They were all shot down. Some of the troops entered buildings and killed everyone inside. They must have murdered at least a hundred people. Men, women and children whose only crime was being nearby when a rabble of soldiers went insane.

"A couple of days later, when the last few resisters had been defeated and everything had quieted down, Couture (who is a good republican, you know, despite being a Salon painter) took all of his students out to the cemetery in Montmartre where the victims of Napoleon III’s coup had been taken for identification. As soon as we arrived we saw these long rows of bodies, hundreds of bodies, all arranged very neatly on the ground with planks laid down between the rows so that those who came to identify–or, like us, simply to see, to watch–didn’t even have to muddy their boots. The stench was incredible. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever smelled and multiply it by five hundred and you’ll have some idea. Carrion birds were drawn to the spot, of course. They would land on the bodies and begin to feed and a cemetery worker would run up and beat them away with a stick. The birds kept that man very busy. People were overcome by the smell. Women fainted; men ran away to vomit. I saw one man who was so affected that he couldn’t run. He held his hand over his mouth and looked around for a place to vomit. He couldn’t do it on the walkway because people had to walk there, and the ground was entirely covered with corpses. So finally, when he couldn’t control himself anymore, he doubled over and vomited on one of the bodies. A few of us students watched him, but I don’t think anyone else even noticed.

"So anyway, since I didn’t know what else to do, I took out my sketchbook and started drawing. I tried to draw exactly what I saw. I wanted to forget all the old Romantic images of death, to forget Gros and Gericault and draw this reality, these bodies blown out by bullets or slashed with sabers. I turned it into a project, an artistic problem. I guess that was my way of dealing with it, my way of distancing myself from it, so I wouldn’t have to vomit on a corpse."

You stopped speaking and stared for a while at your old drawings. Suzanne, whose practice piece had provided an accidental accompaniment to your story, played the opening bars of something that sounded like Liszt.

"If anyone knew about these," you said finally, passing your hand over the drawings, "I would never be accepted at the Salon again."

"Would that be such a bad thing?"

"For me, yes. I’ve lost a small fortune on my exhibition, all of it my mother’s money, as she never ceases to remind me. I couldn’t afford to do this again, even if I wanted to. No, Edgar, the discourse of art centers around the Salon, and when you go outside it you take yourself out of the conversation. The Salon exists, so we should use it. It’s where tastes are changed and reputations are made, and we too can change tastes and make our reputations there."

"And of course," I said, "behind all this talk of discourse and taste and conversations is the little matter of money, of sales."

"Absolutely. No one will buy the works of a painter who doesn’t show in the Salon. If you’re not rich already, independence is a good way to starve."

"There’s no danger of starvation in the Manet family."

"True. But I do like to actually sell a painting at least once every few years. It allows me to think of myself as a kind of businessman, a productive citizen, a man of my time."

"A bourgeois." I intended the word as a mild insult.

"Then so be it." You gathered up your drawings of Napoleon III’s victims and told me, "I didn’t realize I stuck these inside Poe when I put them in a book. It’s my own little ‘Purloined Letter.’"

I was puzzled.

"You’ll understand," you assured me, "once you’ve read the story."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER NINE
 

I see myself standing at the glass wall of Nadar’s photography studio and looking down into the busy canyon of the Boulevard des Capucines. What do I see? Am I remembering my own vision of the street, or has that vision been corrupted by the paintings Monet made of this view when we mounted our first Independent–not Impressionist, never Impressionist–Exhibition in Nadar’s building? I think the trees along the street sparkled in the bright sunlight of that clear morning, and the facade of the Grand Hotel glowed like white-hot metal against the watery blue sky. But is that my memory or Monet’s eye? Carriages flowed down the street or stood parked at its edges in the shadows of the trees. The people on the sidewalk formed a mobile mass of black and gray occasionally punctuated by a lighter feminine note. I remember thinking that the individual strollers were almost as indistinguishable as those little black marks Monet was using to represent pedestrians in the cityscapes he was painting from his perch in the Louvre. As I looked at the parade of identical top hats and black shoulders passing three floors below me, it took an effort to remind myself that only a few minutes earlier I had been part of that anonymous, earthbound crowd.

"All right, Degas," Nadar’s voice called out behind me, "I’m ready now." I turned to see my red-haired, red-dressed friend kneeling inside a small wicker basket suspended by wires from the ceiling. Behind him was a painted backdrop of blue sky and clouds. The resulting photograph was to be printed as a business card to promote his ballooning enterprises.

"This isn’t going to fool anyone, Nadar," I said.

"Sure it will."

"The basket’s too small for a balloon," I explained, lecturing the famed photographer-balloonist on photography and ballooning. "You don’t even look like you’re standing up."

Now Nadar was concerned. "Do I look like I’m on my knees?"

"Not exactly. You look like that dwarf from Barnum’s circus."

"That’s great!" He was instantly enthusiastic again. "That dwarf makes all kinds of money. Look through the lens and tell me I don’t look like I’m flying in the clouds."

I walked to the camera on its tripod and peered into the peephole. "You look like you’re flying through the clouds–" His tiny image smiled triumphantly. "–on your knees in a laundry basket." He frowned. "It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights."

Nadar seemed satisfied by this. "Fantasy sells. Am I centered?"

"Yes," I replied, still looking through the camera.

"Then press that button on top. The black one. Hold it down and count to ten, then release it."

When this was done, he said, "Congratulations, Degas! You are now a photographer. See how easy it is? Even the emperor could do it." An assistant stepped in to remove the plate from the camera and replace it with a new one. "It doesn’t matter if it’s not believable, Degas. People want to be fooled. That’s the first principle of business. No matter what you tell people, as long as it doesn’t conflict with their basic opinions and prejudices, most of them will believe you. So I tell people I’m the greatest photographer in the world, and since hardly anyone has any fixed opinions about the greatness of photographers, they accept this statement as true. And thus I become, by acclamation, the greatest photographer in the world. Suddenly everyone wants to have his picture taken by Nadar. Why go to anyone else if Nadar is the greatest in the world? You see, Degas? You tell people things, people believe them and repeat them as truth. That’s how you can make anything true. Let’s take another one."

He reached into the basket and produced a large pair of binoculars with which he surveyed the studio floor four feet below. "Now I’m looking down at all those people on the ground waving at me as I fly over in my balloon. Take the picture."

I pressed the button again. When the picture had been taken, Nadar continued looking through his binoculars. "Ah, Degas, from this height those ants down there look just like people."

The binoculars vanished into the basket. Nadar grabbed the wires and began to move himself back and forth. Soon he was swinging like a pendulum. "Photography bores me these days," he said as he swung across my field of vision. I tried to follow him without moving my head. "It’s too easy. Now I want to be the world’s greatest aviator. Ballooning is my passion." He was now swinging so vigorously that the breezes of his motion blew back his hair. "Flight, Degas, is a magnificent experience. Have you ever been in the air?"

"Every time I walk down the street."

"You should see the world from up there, the way the birds see it. There’s a subject for that ‘modern painting’ you and Manet are always talking about when you should be drinking–Oh shit!" Two of the wires gave way with a whip-like sound and Nadar was dumped onto the floor. The binoculars slid out after him, but he deftly caught them in mid-fall.

I walked over to him. "No broken bones?"

"Of course not," he said huffily. "I’ve fallen much farther than that before."

"That comment hardly inspires confidence in your ballooning skills."

"But Degas," he insisted, standing and stretching his cramped legs, "I’m the greatest balloonist in the world. Remember that and tell everyone you know." He reached around to brush the dust from his back. "You wouldn’t believe how much money there is in balloons. I’m going to take my big one, The Giant, over to the Exposition in a couple of weeks and we’re going to charge people just to watch us launch. And we’ll charge them a lot more if they want to ride along. It’s a tethered ascent, completely controlled, absolutely safe. And if you fall out like I just did, well, it won’t matter because you’ll be dead. But seriously, the balloon is always connected by ropes to the ground, so we’re never really flying. We rise straight up then go straight back down, over and over. And people pay us just to ride along. The money pours in."

"And you pour it right back out again." Nadar’s impressive ability to quickly spend or lose every franc he earned was a running joke among his friends.

"That’s the second principle of business," he said.

While his assistants worked to rehang the basket, Nadar led me to the window and pulled something out of his vest pocket. "Look at this," he said. "My rival Disderi–I spit on his syphilitic mother’s rotting corpse–has finally gone too far. Now I can destroy him. He has ventured into erotica." He handed me a copy of Disderi’s latest product. It was a small postcard containing a collage of fifty or sixty tiny photographs of the bare legs of ballet dancers. They were arranged in rows: nine rows with six or seven pairs of disembodied legs in each. Some legs were shown at rest, others in performance; some crossed and some on point. It was a vision of fleshly riches beyond even the wealthiest balletomane’s dreams, an encyclopedia of objects of masturbatory fantasy small enough to be held in one hand. "The man has no shame," Nadar said. "Have you ever seen anything so disgusting?"

I thought of the mustached man on his knees in the dancer’s dressing room and the mother who sat there and watched, and I almost answered, Well, as a matter of fact, I have...

Before slipping the card back into his pocket, Nadar took another look at it and said under his breath, "Damn, I wish I’d thought of that."

Looking out the window, I asked with careful nonchalance, "Do you know anything about a brothel out in Belleville called La Saison?"

"As you are well aware," he replied proudly, "I know all the brothels of Paris. La Saison is a shithole. Third house on the Rue Haxo. You can tell it by the syphilitic men walking around outside looking for their noses. Why the hell do you ask about a place like that?"

"A friend of mine is working there."

Nadar started laughing even before the lie was completely out of my mouth. "Let me guess. It’s Manet, isn’t it? I knew he was a little hard up, but I didn’t think it was that bad. He’s peddling his ass?" He cracked himself up. "I’ll have to go out to Belleville and bang him a couple of times for charity’s sake." He laughed for a full minute, steadying himself by placing one hand flat against the window. For some reason, I still vividly recall that powerful hand, its wrinkled knuckles like crumpled paper, outlined against the sky.

When he recovered and noticed I was ready to leave, Nadar said, "Remember about the balloon flight. Come out to the Expo and I’ll take you up. I’ll show you the future."

************

Nadar was right about La Saison. ("Of course I was right," I can hear him saying in my mind. "When was I ever wrong?") When I stepped down from my cab on the Rue Haxo I saw a line of shabby, two-story wooden houses. In front of the third one, a group of four men in torn clothes stood talking to each other and accosting passersby. I couldn’t tell if they were vagrants or agents of the establishment trying to convince potential customers to come inside, but I noticed people crossing the street and taking their chances among the speeding, swerving carriages and mounds of slippery horse dung solely to avoid encountering the men.

Deciding upon a direct approach, I stepped over a fresh turd, paused while the blur of a passing carriage almost blew my hat off, and walked toward these ragged loiterers. If they were in fact sidewalk hawkers employed by the house, they probably succeeded in scaring away more people than they attracted. The holes in their tattered garments revealed patches of blotched, scabby skin. One man’s eye was leaking water like a broken faucet and another’s nose showed the unmistakable effects of syphilitic deterioration. All four looked hungry and dangerous, like dogs who hadn’t been fed for days. I imagined for a second that they had been placed here by some enterprising religious organization as a visual sermon on the dangers of vice. I heard a similar sermon in my mind every time I took a piss, and I was becoming very annoyed by it.

As I stepped onto the sidewalk, the man with the lower half of his nose missing moved into my path. "Lose your way, monsieur?" he said in a voice that was surprisingly nasal.

"Not at all." I sidestepped and so did he. I considered taking another step, but decided it would look too much like dancing. I steeled myself and stared into the man’s eyes, trying not to focus on the obscene cartilaginous mass between them.

"It’s five francs to go inside," he informed me.

Ah, I thought, so these are the doormen. I carefully pressed five francs into his open, calloused hand and walked unmolested to the door.

The madame did not bother to look up when I entered. She sat at a table in the foyer, reading a newspaper spread out before her and smoking a small cigar. A line of workmen in blue smocks snaked up the stairs to the second floor. Each of them held a small white ticket in his hand. From above came the sound of several beds creaking in unison, an unmusical harmony accompanied by frequent moans of male pleasure.

When I stopped before her table, the madame raised her head. I was surprised to see a woman of my own age, no older than thirty-five. She was equally surprised by such a wealthy visitor, but her emotion turned immediately to distaste when she decided I was a customer. "The fee is five francs...monsieur." Her hesitation suggested that she saw me as an imposter, a criminal dressed in the clothes of a rich man I had robbed, swindled or murdered.

"I already paid the man outside."

Hearing this, the men on the stairs began to laugh. One of them said, "Old Laurent finally got his five francs."

The madame looked up at the ceiling, as if calling on God or the whores above to save her from fools like me. "Those men do not work for this house, monsieur. They robbed you. The fee is five francs." She looked at my clothes again and added, "I’m sure you can afford it." This brought further snickers from the stairs.

I asked her, "Do you have a girl here named Jeanne?"

"You can call my girls anything you like and it will still cost you five francs."

"I’m not here for the...the house," I explained. "I want to speak to a girl named Jeanne who used to be a dancer at the Opera."

"In that case, you are six months too late. The girl you are speaking of worked here for only a few weeks before word got around. You know how fast news travels in Paris. One of the houses in the city heard about her and made me a very generous offer, so I sold her to them."

She spoke the last words so matter-of-factly that I felt compelled to repeat them. "You sold her?" I was genuinely shocked to hear a human being spoken of so casually as a commodity, like a fish laid out on a bed of ice in the marketplace.

"Yes, I sold her for more money than I would ever have made from her."

"What was the name of the house that...purchased her?"

She shook her head. "I don’t know it. This is not a public business, monsieur. We don’t trade on the Bourse. These kinds of transactions involve intermediaries. Names are never mentioned." She lowered her voice. "However, I assume she was bought by a certain house in the city that specializes in former performers of the Opera and the theatres. I know such a house exists, but that is all I know."

The door opened behind me and three more workers entered. I laid five francs on the madame’s table and passed the workers on my way out.

***************

When I turned into the Rue de Laval that evening after dinner, I saw a large, indistinct shape detach itself from the shadow of my doorway and begin to move toward me along the darkened sidewalk. The shape was still several doors away when it resolved itself into a man, one arm swinging with the motion of his walk, the other flapping loosely at his side. I needed no further information to recognize Lisette’s father. As I watched him approach, my heart began to pound almost painfully, like a prisoner trying to beat his way out of my ribcage. This man who may have murdered his own daughter would surely think nothing of killing me. And on this street at this moment there would be no witnesses–a perfect crime. My suddenly sweaty palm tightened around the head of my walking stick. Leblanc was a powerful man, but with my stick and his paralyzed arm, it might be an equal fight. I heard his footsteps stop a few paces in front of me. I also stopped and looked up at his face. He wore an expression of pleading, almost of supplication. The blood that was pounding in my ears gradually eased its flow.

"I need to talk to you," he said without a word of greeting.

Fear and anger made me even more abrupt. "So talk," I demanded.

"It’s my daughter. I’ve spoken to the police, but they don’t care. They say it’s a suicide, a closed case, and they don’t want to hear anything more. I asked them, ‘What’s closed?’ I say, ‘Nothing’s closed.’ And they close the door in my face and say, ‘Thank you. Have a nice day.’ So I think maybe that Monsieur Degas can do something, use his connections, pull a few strings."

"I’m afraid you overestimate my power."

"I don’t think so. And when you hear what I have to say, you’ll want to do something."

My fear had mostly dissipated by now, and I was prepared to take the offensive. "Three years ago, monsieur, your daughter fell during a dance examination and you beat her for it. You beat her so badly that her body was covered with bruises. Why would I want to hear anything you have to say?"

"Who told you that?" Leblanc sounded more angry than offended. He flapped his useless arm. "How could I beat anyone?"

I stared hard into his eyes. "I assume this happened before your fortunate accident."

"Yes, so I got drunk and knocked the kid around a few times, who doesn’t?"

"Decent people."

"Your decency costs money. Who would sell it to me?"

"Did you beat your daughter a few weeks ago, monsieur? Did you hit her so hard you cracked her skull and then–together with your wife, perhaps–dumped her in the river? And don’t show me your arm. You could have hit her with some object held in your good hand and killed her with a single blow."

"No..." Leblanc seemed confused by these unexpected questions. "Why would I do that? Take the money she was bringing in out of my own pocket? It makes no sense."

"An appeal to reason coming from a man like you fails to impress me. What do you want to tell me?"

"On the day she disappeared, I think Lisette had a rendezvous."

"Obviously."

He looked at me uncertainly and spoke on, "She had a rendezvous with a very important and dangerous man."

"Don’t play games. Who was it?"

"My wife told me that during the two weeks before she disappeared, Lisette spoke several times with Baron Haussmann himself, the Prefect of the Seine. And one of these conversations, the day before she disappeared, was very long. They spoke for almost an hour."

"What did they talk about?"

"My wife doesn’t know. When he spoke to my daughter, Haussmann always insisted that my wife stay on the other side of the room. And what is my wife going to do, disobey Baron Haussmann? Of course not. My wife asked Lisette once, and she said, ‘Mostly, the baron talks about himself.’"

That detail certainly sounded true. "So your daughter spoke to Haussmann. I’m sure Haussmann speaks with many people every day. What is your point?"

"Don’t you see? They must have been arranging a rendezvous." Perhaps sensing the weakness of his own argument, Leblanc quickly added, "Haussmann paid for my daughter’s funeral. Did you know that? Why do you think he did that?"

"Because he’s a patron of the Opera," I said, remembering Henri’s words.

"Bullshit! He did it to make himself feel less guilty. I know what that fucking Haussmann did. He gave my daughter a pretty blue dress and then he lured her somewhere and killed her. That’s what nobody wants to hear."

*******************

As I undressed in my bedroom that night, I wondered whether Leblanc could be believed. His conclusion was unsupported by any compelling evidence. Even if Haussmann had spoken to Lisette, Leblanc had no way of knowing what was said, so the idea of an arranged meeting was pure guesswork on the man’s part. The leap from supposed rendezvous to entirely unmotivated murder strained my credulity beyond the breaking point. Leblanc’s story was at best a thin fabric of suppositions, so thin that anyone who knew the teller’s history could see how his understandable resentment against Haussmann and the Bonapartist regime had woven the tale. Napoleon III had destroyed Leblanc’s livelihood and life, and now Baron Haussmann had killed his daughter. It was too perfect, too much the story that a man in Leblanc’s position would be motivated to invent. At worst, his entire tale of Haussmann’s conversations with Lisette might be a lie, a fiction designed to deflect suspicion from Leblanc himself. The man had, after all, admitted to beating Lisette on more than one occasion, and my suspicion that Leblanc had struck his daughter with something and broken her skull–perhaps without intending to kill her, perhaps misjudging his strength or mis-aiming the blow–seemed a more likely answer than any solution involving Baron Haussmann.

I allowed my scepticism to reach even further and embrace Leblanc’s wife. The story she had told me about the last day of her daughter’s life might also be a lie. If Pierre Leblanc had murdered the girl he would probably have needed his wife’s assistance to dispose of the body, thus implicating her in the crime and motivating her pathetic story of Lisette’s mysterious disappearance. And there was also the possibility, which had not occurred to me before, that Madame Leblanc was the killer, that she had struck Lisette in anger and disposed of the body with her husband’s (limited) assistance. As I considered this scenario and thought back upon Madame Leblanc’s story, however, I recalled one detail that was easily verifiable and another that would almost certainly not have been included in an untruthful narrative. She had mentioned that Madame Monge, the concierge, had seen Lisette leave alone that afternoon. I could check this on my next daytime visit to the Opera. There was also the odd detail of Madame Leblanc being mistaken for a prostitute on the boulevard. No woman would invent such a tale about herself; therefore, her story must be true. And yet–Demon Scepticism raised his dubious head again–if a woman wanted her lie to be believed, that is exactly the kind of detail she would include.

I tried to imagine what a real detective would do in this situation, and I could almost hear Henri’s laughter as he replied, "A real detective would call it a suicide, which is what it is." Yes, the insistence of the police that Lisette’s case was definitively closed was another detail of Leblanc’s story that rang true.

Climbing into bed after a typically painful piss, I took up your volume of Edgar Poe and decided to read myself to sleep. By the light of the oil lamp on my night table, I read ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ I remember enjoying the corpse stuffed up the chimney in the former story. That was a nice touch. (Was it upside down? I can’t recall. The book is lying at my elbow, but the type is too small for me to read now.) In the other story I was highly amused by the idea that the Paris police could take apart all the furniture in a man’s apartment and reconstruct it without leaving any trace of their presence. That was a delightfully paranoid bit of fantasy. Overall, though, I must admit to you, Manet, my dear, dead friend, that in truth, in absolutely complete honesty, and with respect to all the doctrines of Doctors Hume and Kant regarding the nature of knowledge, and keeping always in mind the epistemological speculations of the noted Professor Somegerman, I found your Edgar Allen Poe, this American spinner of yarn, just a tiny bit–how shall I put it?–Prolix? Yes. Prolix. Was Poe paid by the word? Some of his introductory passages, as I recall, are worse than Balzac at his worst. Reading him, I felt like crying out to his spirit (which surely hovered near the dark ceiling of my bedroom), "Get on with it!"

As I waded through his wasted words, my mind wandered back to Lisette, and I began to think of her disappearance and death as a book I was trying to read, an old, tattered book with a badly damaged text. Several crucial pages narrating the hours before and after her death were missing. They had been carefully cut from the book with a sharp knife. When I turned to this section I saw only the telltale (or tellnotale) strips of white paper close to the binding. How would I ever know what was printed on those pages? And even on the pages that remained there were too many gaps, tears, unreadable words.

Not far into ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ I fell asleep with your book across my chest. (I never finished the story, Manet. Forgive me.) I dreamed of Pierre Leblanc standing in my doorway insisting I pay him five francs because Baron Haussmann broke his arm. When I tried to push him out of the way with my walking stick, the stick turned to flexible rubber and bowed against his body. He laughed like Nadar, uncontrollably, and the ground below me cracked open to reveal an abyss of blue sky. I felt myself falling into bottomlessness, falling without fear. At some point during this dream, I rolled over on your beloved Edgar Poe and broke his spine.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER TEN

"Lisette and Baron Haussmann? That makes no sense," Pauline–Georges’s dark-eyed dancer-courtesan–told me as we sat in the middle row of tiered benches at the back of an empty Opera classroom. It was late afternoon, the day’s dance classes were over, and because the huge structure of the Opera auditorium blocked all sunlight from the west, this room, as well as the rest of the old Hotel de Choiseul, was already black with shadows. Aside from our voices the only sounds in the building were the trills of a late vocal class still in session down the hall. "Baron Haussmann is Francine’s protector. She’s a star and they’ve been together for years. They’re practically married."

"Maybe Haussmann was looking for something new, someone younger," I suggested. "Did you ever see Haussmann with Lisette?"

I was intent on proving or disproving what the Leblancs had told me. Upon arriving that afternoon, I had had a brief exchange with the surly Madame Monge, who had confirmed seeing Lisette leave the Opera alone in a blue dress on the day of her disappearance and had also recalled seeing Madame Leblanc near the administration offices about an hour later. So it appeared that at least the wife was telling the truth; the husband’s story was more resistant to verification.

"Oh sure," Pauline said, "Haussmann comes to the foyer and flirts with all the girls. Sometimes he even comes here during the day. But nothing ever comes of it. He’s Francine’s and everyone knows that–and hates her for it."

"The green-eyed monster."

"Francine’s not a monster. She’s just a lucky girl."

"No. I meant jealousy. That’s the green-eyed monster." I considered explaining the Othello reference but decided that I would sound too pedantic. Pauline’s mature bearing and seemingly natural intelligence had caused me to momentarily forget that she was an Opera dancer and as ill-educated or uneducated as the rest of them.

"Of course everyone’s jealous of Francine," she said. "We all know Haussmann’s the most powerful man in Paris. He’s the best catch in the foyer."

"Is that how you see the foyer, as a fishing pond stocked with wealthy men?"

"I guess so. That’s what it is, isn’t it?"

"Your mothers are the fisherwomen and you are the bait?"

"No. We dancers are the fishers. Some of our mothers tell us where to fish."

"Do you realize that the men who come here see themselves as fishermen and you girls as the fish and your mothers as comic nuisances?"

"Yes, I know that. But it doesn’t matter, because I also know the truth."

"Please enlighten me."

"We want their money," she explained with admirable concision, "and they want our bodies."

"Your selves for money. Do you think that’s a fair trade?"

"Fair doesn’t matter, Monsieur Degas. It’s the only trade we have."

"Do you really need the men’s money?" I asked, although I knew the answer. "The Opera pays respectably, especially to top dancers like you."

"The men in the foyer can give us more than the Opera ever could. We would be fools to ignore them."

"Is that what your mothers tell you?"

"No. No one needs to tell us that."

I turned the conversation back to Haussmann and Lisette.

"There couldn’t have been anything between them, not beyond the usual flirting," she assured me. "Francine is much prettier than Lisette." In Pauline’s mind, this settled the matter.

"Why can’t Haussmann have more than one dancer?"

"Oh, it’s horrible when that happens. Last year Monsieur Delsarte was protecting two girls, and when one of their mothers found out, she went up to the other mother in the hallway and the two of them fought like dogs. It was ‘Your daughter’s a whore!’ and ‘No, yours is the whore!’ I wanted to scream, ‘Both your daughters are whores and you’re even worse!’" Pauline was immediately embarrassed. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak like that."

"It’s all right," I said. "Your mother’s not here." Her mother was at that moment in the sewing room on the third floor, putting final touches on the costumes for Don Juan.

Pauline continued: "Monsieur Merante had to pull the mothers apart, and one of them took a swing at him and gave him a black eye. He had to wear an eyepatch for weeks after that. We said he looked like a pirate." She paused and stared into the darkened room as if she could see the dance instructor Merante standing there in his eyepatch. "No, it’s understood among the girls that once a relationship with a protector is established, that man belongs to that girl and everyone else stays away."

"Even a man as powerful as Haussmann doesn’t tempt?"

"Tempt, yes. But I’d never do anything about it. Francine would tear my face with her fingernails." Laughing, she pretended to rake her own face with her fingers.

"Do you think Francine might become violent toward a rival?"

"I’m joking, Monsieur Degas. Francine is a star. She has her own dressing room that we’re not permitted to enter, and she doesn’t mix with us. She acts like we don’t exist, and that’s why everyone hates her. It’s always that way with stars. So much jealousy. Everyone hates the successful."

"They don’t exactly greet the unsuccessful with flowers and diamonds, though, do they?"

My intimation that failure was a constant possibility at the Opera seemed to unsettle Pauline. She quickly changed the subject. "I do have something to tell you, a couple of things. But they’re not about Baron Haussmann." She scooted closer until our hips almost touched, and she lowered her voice. "I found out what happened between Lisette and Prince Bonaparte. One of the girls was in a dressing room across the hall and she saw the whole thing. She said Lisette led the prince into an open dressing room, he gave her some money, and then he sat down and unbuttoned. He took it out, you know, and started to stroke it. And then he put his hands on Lisette’s shoulders and pushed her down on her knees. He moved his hands to the back of her head and tried to pull her toward him, like he wanted her to suck it. But the prince’s thing wouldn’t grow. It just lay there. Lisette struggled against his hand. And then Lisette’s mother came down the hall, looking for her daughter, I guess. When she saw what was happening, she ran into the room, jerked Lisette around by her arm, slapped her face back and forth like that," Pauline made two quick slapping motions in the air, "and started yelling at the prince. The prince buttoned himself up and he said, ‘Hold your tongue, woman. Another word and I’ll put you in the asylum and your girl in St. Lazare where she belongs." But Madame Leblanc kept yelling and chased the prince down the corridor. I guess he was in a rage by then, swinging his cane in front of him and yelling at everyone he saw: ‘Get out of my way, whores!’; ‘Lower your eyes before a Bonaparte!’ and things like that. Crazy. Anyway, later that day the same girl overheard Madame Leblanc talking to Lisette and telling her that she’d never get a protector by acting like that. And that was the same day Lisette disappeared. The next morning she wasn’t in class."

"Did the prince leave the building after Lisette’s mother chased him away?"

"Who knows? He might have. But he’s always lurking around, in the shadows, in the wings. Sometimes I think he spends more time here than we do. And that other one seems to be just like him, that Russian count who comes with the Jockeys, he might be a Jockey. There was something between the count and Lisette, too. That’s the other thing I have to tell you."

"What is the count’s name?"

Pauline shook her head. "I don’t know. We just call him ‘the count.’ He and the prince could be twins except they don’t look anything alike. They both always seem to be waiting for a chance to spring on a girl. The count is quieter, he doesn’t seem so crazy, but really he’s worse, much worse. There’s a story going around the dressing rooms about him and one of the dancers, a girl who’s not here anymore. I don’t know where she is. The count convinced this girl to leave with him one day. He told her they were going to a party, and that’s where they went, to a big house on the Champs-Elysées, the biggest house the girl had ever seen. And all the women wore beautiful dresses and lots of jewelry. The men and the women talked the way the Jockey Club men talk, you know, with a lot of laughing at things people like us don’t understand. When they had been at the party for a while, the count took the girl upstairs. I guess he said he was going to show her something. Well, they went upstairs and the count took her into a bedroom and threw her down on the bed and started to rape her. The girl screamed, and then another man came in and pulled the count off her and chased him out of the house. This other man took the girl back to her home. He rescued her. Who knows what might’ve happened if he hadn’t?

"So that’s the kind of man the count is. He usually runs around after the little girls, the petits rats, the youngest students. But this girl he tried to rape, she was about the same age as Lisette. So I thought it might mean something when one of the girls told me that she had seen the count and Lisette together. It was a few days before she disappeared, and it was in this very room at about this time of day, after classes. They were alone. The count had his hand on Lisette’s neck, and he was touching her cheek and talking to her in a very low voice."

Pauline stopped speaking and put a finger to her lips. I heard footsteps coming down the hall, approaching slowly, accompanied by the tap of a walking stick. The silhouette of a large man appeared in the doorway. He turned to enter but paused on the threshold. Pauline spoke into my ear, her mouth so close that I could feel the warm dampness of her breath: "That’s Prince Bonaparte." In the dim, sunset light I could see none of the man’s features, only the outline of his body filling the space like a badly cut door. He stood there silent and motionless for what seemed a long time but was probably ten or fifteen seconds. I said nothing and Pauline held her breath as the prince peered into the shadows of the room. He cleared his throat, tapped his stick upon the threshold, turned abruptly and continued down the hall.

********************

The next evening at the Jockey Club I sat in an English chair in an English drawing room hung with English paintings of Arabian horses, sipped a not-too-sour Italian wine, and listened as Pauline’s Russian count spoke of the evils of internationalism. Count Polonsky (for that, as novelists like to say, was his name) was by a decade the oldest member of our little group. The other two Jockeys seated around the coffee table were slightly younger than Georges and I, while Polonsky appeared to be in his early forties. He was a handsome man, the type some people might call ‘Romantic’: light brown beard trimmed to a single sharp point, pale blue eyes that reflected the room’s gaslight, long, shiny, straight hair falling past his shoulders. He was telling us: "People and ideas are traveling much too freely today, and consequently the purity of our nations is being diluted. That’s the real problem. All of the foreigners (such as myself; let no one accuse me of hypocrisy) who are coming to Paris for the Exposition represent the situation of Europe in microcosm."

Purity. It was the same old aristocratic rant. The so-called ‘old families’ of Europe were always harping on the purity of their blood. It was as if they knew and feared that soon their blood, their names, would be their only valuable possessions. Polonsky was transferring the argument to the level of national purity, but it was the same obsession. Glancing around the room I wondered if the aristocratic madness for racing horses–the madness that founded the Jockey Club–was yet another expression of this obsession. Did they find in the untainted bloodlines of thoroughbreds a kind of substitute for the increasingly diluted stuff flowing through their own veins? For I knew that their purity was nothing but a pose. Whenever aristocrats like Polonsky needed money they would not hesitate to marry their sons to the daughters of wealthy but common bankers and businessmen. This process had been going on for more than a century, so most of the blood flowing around our little table was undoubtedly more bourgeois than blue.

"Whenever you mix nationalities, only confusion can result," Count Polonsky proclaimed, "and that is what we see today on the Champ de Mars. Have you been to the Exposition, gentlemen? I go every day."

There was laughter around the table. "Surely you’re joking," said Georges.

Polonsky raised his eyes and apostrophized the ceiling. "You French are a curious people. When I speak with the most obvious irony, you take me seriously, and when I’m absolutely sincere, you laugh your monocles off." He addressed us directly now. "No! I go every single day. It is a wonderful opportunity to see the wrong direction the West is taking. It is the chaos of your future in microcosm: buildings of every style, nation and era are jumbled together like toys dropped on the ground by some mad giant–"

"The giant has a name," Georges said, "Baron Haussmann."

"Indeed. And inside your imitation baron’s Exposition Palace we find the real chaos: products of all nations brought together and classified. Oh, you French are great classifiers, with your Encyclopedia and your Cuvier and your Robespierre cutting off peoples’ heads because their names were on the wrong list. And now you try to classify all the products of the world by nation and material. But it doesn’t work. It is all a jumble. Everything is packed together under that gigantic train shed they call a palace: printing presses next to streetlights, carriages next to cannons, Russia next to Italy, Austria next to England. You bring everything together and what do you have? A mess. There are two places where all the manufactured products of the world come together: the Exposition and the garbage dump. Sometimes I can’t tell them apart."

"And yet you go every day," said one of the Jockeys.

Polonsky nodded. "As I walk through the galleries I see how you are killing yourselves. You are letting the products and ideas of other nations come across your borders, and you are sending yours across theirs. A nation must gather its strength, not let it all seep away.

"And ideas are the worst. Ideas are like those things your Doctor Pasteur talks about, invisible things that float through the air and cause disease. They must be strictly controlled, quarantined. If you keep dangerous ideas inside your borders, they are much easier to destroy. Take this man Marx. You have heard of him? No?" Polonsky seemed pleased by our lack of knowledge. It would now be his duty to educate us. "Well, gentlemen, Karl Marx has heard of you, and if he had his way you would all be sleeping in Père Lachaise. He is a German Jew and he wanders like the rest of his race. From Germany, where he ran a newspaper, he came here to France, I think, and now he lives under the protection of the English." Polonsky looked theatrically around the room. "They are your decorators, it seems. From the safety of London, Marx writes the most incendiary books, calling on the workers to revolt, overthrow their masters, the usual thing. Marx is more dangerous than the average radical, though, because he is right." He paused to observe the effect of these words and appeared satisfied when one of the Jockeys’ faces registered surprise. "Yes, gentlemen, he is right. He understands that history is an ongoing process in which one class rises while another falls. If you think about it, you will see that he is right. We all know that over the past century the bourgeoisie has been gaining power at our expense. They have taken our kings and cut off their heads or turned them into figureheads, dolls on a throne. They have taken our land and built factories on it. Even now in your city they are tearing down the hotels of your grandfathers so they can build Grand Hotels for tourists. The bourgeoisie is winning. In Paris, in fact, they have already won. In the next phase, according to Marx, the workers will overthrow the bourgeoisie, and then we are all done for. Say goodbye to your lives, because the workers won’t let you escape with them. Our job as I see it, gentlemen, is to forestall this next step, to stop the machine of history."

One of the Jockeys asked the required question: "How do you propose we do this?"

"You can’t," said Polonsky. "France is already too far gone. You are doomed."

Georges laughed. "That’s strange. I don’t feel doomed."

Polonsky ignored him. "In Russia, though, there is still a chance. We barely have a bourgeoisie, and if we can keep it that way, we will remain in control. To do this, we must adopt the methods of my grandfather’s generation. About the time of your revolution, a group of my grandfather’s serfs came up to his house and demanded that they be given equal rights, that in the future my grandfather should deal with them as fellow farmers and not as subservient peasants. They even demanded that they be given ownership of the land they farmed. You might think that this kind of thing would make my grandfather very angry, but you would be wrong. My grandfather listened calmly to their demands, and when they were finished he calmly told them, ‘You are asking for what you deserve. I will give you what you deserve.’ The serfs went away happy, and my grandfather returned to his work.

"That night, he gave them what they deserved. Along with a group of men he hired for the purpose, my grandfather rode to the homes of all the leaders of this little insurrection. From each house he took the oldest woman–wife or eldest daughter, it didn’t matter. He cut this woman’s throat and hung her body upside down in a tree near her house. Fifteen women he killed that night, fifteen women hanging in the trees all over the estate. And he said that if anyone tried to bury any of the women, that woman’s entire family would be killed. All through the winter the upside down women hung in the trees. And there were never any more problems with the serfs on my grandfather’s estate.

"That is how we must treat the middle classes. We must destroy the bourgeoisie before it gets a chance to rise. There will never be a revolution in Russia, gentlemen, because we will kill an entire class to avoid it."

I glanced around the table and was unsettled by the expressions of calm, thoughtful agreement on the faces of Polonsky’s other listeners. My own silent reaction was curiously mixed: while I found the tale and its moral deeply repulsive, I felt a certain painterly attraction to the image of those dead women hanging upside down in the trees. It was the kind of thing Gustave Moreau might have painted, an image of mythological cruelty.

Only Georges voiced a mild objection to the Count’s argument. "I doubt if your Russian methods would work in France."

"Too bad for France, then," said Count Polonsky.

********************

"The count’s an entertaining man, isn’t he?" Georges said.

"If you find murder entertaining," I replied, "as he apparently does."

We had excused ourselves from Polonsky’s political lecture to take advantage of the Jockey Club’s billiard room, a place of dark wood paneling and bright gaslight where large race paintings watched over two billiard tables. A scale model of the racetrack at Longchamps rested under glass in one corner. Alone in the room, we played at one of the tables while drinking the Club’s fine scotch.

"You’re taking him too seriously, Edgar." Georges sounded disappointed in me. "I’ve known Polonsky for years. He’s a clown. He’s only here for the Exposition and he’ll leave when the circus leaves. Do you know what he said to us the first time he came here?" Georges shot a ball into the corner pocket and switched to an imitation of Polonsky’s Russian accent. "‘I understand that you gentlemen have your pick of the star dancers at the Opera. You need not fear any competition from me. Your stars are too old and womanly for my tastes. I prefer the very young girls and the ones who look almost like boys.’" Georges laughed and repeated, "A clown."

"Does he actually pursue the young girls at the opera?"

"The students? Maybe. He likes to stand in the wings during performances, and he always seems to be surrounded by members of the corps backstage between scenes. But I don’t think he does anything with them. I think Polonsky goes to the Opera to look and then elsewhere to act."

"Brothels."

Georges lined up a shot. "Places where they have little girls–or boys dressed as girls, which I suspect is more to the count’s taste." The cueball tapped Georges’s ball lightly but failed to knock it into the pocket. "None of that’s my taste. I can’t see the excitement in anything under fifteen or sixteen."

"Pauline’s fourteen, isn’t she?" I said, leaning down to try a complex (and unsuccessful) shot.

"I’m not fucking her, Edgar." Georges feigned shock at my insinuation. "When she has real tits and more of an ass, then... well, I’m only a man, you know. Until then, I’m keeping her in reserve." He shot, and a ball clunked into a pocket.

"I’ve heard there’s a Prince Bonaparte who seems to share Polonsky’s interests."

"Auguste?"

"You know him?"

"Unfortunately," confirmed Georges. "Now there’s a pursuer–and a madman. He’s an embarrassment to the entire imperial family. He’s a cousin of the emperor–as am I, by the way. You didn’t know that, did you? It’s hardly a distinction. Our emperor has at least two fathers and more cousins than the novels of Balzac." He sent the cueball speeding across the table. It bounced back and slammed into two balls on the near side. Both rolled into opposite pockets. I tried not to look impressed. "Everyone at the Tuileries wishes Auguste would mysteriously vanish–or go to America, which is the same thing. They say once at Compiegne he danced with the empress and tried to dry hump her. Needless to say, he’s always invited back. No, the Bonapartes despise him so much that they spent a fortune on genealogists to prove him illegitimate, but they only succeeded in showing that Auguste was more closely related to the real Napoleon than our so-called Napoleon III. They should have fired the genealogist and had Auguste committed. He used to come here to the Club to play cards–badly–and when he lost he would start accusing everyone of cheating. Jockey Club members being what they are, he was frequently challenged to duels. When such a challenge was thrown down, Auguste would invariably respond, ‘A Bonaparte does not duel with commoners.’ When he said that to me, I laughed in his face. To be called common by a descendant of Corsican dirt farmers–imagine! It’s your shot, Edgar."

"Does he still come here?" I asked as I surveyed my many remaining balls and Georges’s three.

"Not for a while. I understand he has found a more enjoyable pastime: showing his shriveled dick to people on the streets, and anywhere else. He’s been exposing himself all over Paris. Just this April when everyone was lined up along the Avenue de l’Imperatrice to watch the procession to the races at Longchamps, there was Auguste standing in the middle of the sidewalk taking a piss. I’m sure plenty of people would like to piss on Haussmann’s Paris, but this was taking things a bit too literally. When a policeman came up to him, Auguste hit the cop on the side of the head with his walking stick, knocked the man out. And Auguste stepped over the body and walked on as if nothing had happened." Georges sank another ball. "Nothing ever does happen, to him. He thinks he can get away with anything, and he does."

"You sound almost admiring."

"Aren’t you curious about what it would be like to have that kind of freedom and power? The freedom to do anything, absolutely anything, and the power to get away with it. It’s what the Roman emperors had." Another of Georges’s balls vanished into a pocket. "But our Auguste is hardly a Nero or Caligula. Those men were artists, in their way; Auguste is just a nut." He tapped the cueball lightly and it rolled slowly forward to nudge his last ball into the side pocket. Five of my own balls were still scattered on the table.

"My game," Georges said unnecessarily. "Let’s play another one. You’re getting a little better at this, Degas, but you’re not good enough, not yet."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER ELEVEN

The following Saturday evening a strong wind out of the west swept through central Paris, stirring up cyclones of dust in the Tuileries Gardens and plucking the hats from strollers on the boulevards. Georges and I were sheltered from the elements (and everything else) as we rode to the first night of Don Juan in his luxurious carriage. It was the most exquisite ride of my life: no windows rattling like chattering teeth; no bone-jarring bounces or unexpected dips; and the turns were taken so smoothly that I barely felt the inertial force pulling my body away from them. The seats were as plush and comfortable as any in Madame de Saint Pierre’s salon, and the walls were upholstered in soft leather and padded to insulate us from the noise of the street. We were not so much riding in a carriage as being fantastically transported to our destination inside a small but elegant room. I assumed this was yet another expression of Georges’s philosophy of life. "I’m a dogmatic hedonist," he liked to say. "Pleasure is everything to me, so I want everything in my life to be pleasurable. If a man can afford to organize his life solely around his own pleasure, why shouldn’t he? I suspect Socrates would approve. If pleasure isn’t the Good, what is?"

"Paul is the best coachman in Paris," Georges said to me now. "Just feel the way he turns here–or rather, don’t feel it." Indeed, the rotating streetcorner out my window was almost the only indication that the carriage was turning. "I hired him away from Baron Haussmann."

I allowed a few seconds of silence before saying, "I suppose you’re waiting for me to ask you how you accomplished that."

"It’s called money, Edgar," was his prepared reply. "Ask your father about it." I looked out the window and said nothing while Georges went on. "In truth, I’m not paying him much more than Haussmann did. But given the choice, a Frenchman would rather work for a Duc de Chaillot than a baron with a German name."

I watched the buildings and pedestrians slide silently by.

"So how’s the investigation going?" he asked suddenly and enjoyed my surprise. "Of course Pauline told me. How long were you planning to keep me in the dark?"

"I had no such plan," I protested, mildly and unbelievably. "I knew Pauline would tell you." He cast me an amused, incredulous glance. "I wanted to avoid the appearance of an ulterior motive in the renewal of our friendship."

"Ulterior motives," Georges smiled, "everyone has those. I don’t care. So, who killed the girl who killed herself?"

"I’ve convinced myself that she didn’t kill herself, but that’s all I’ve accomplished as of yet. I have facts but no answers."

"I believe that’s called the ‘scientific approach.’" He looked at the silently passing boulevard. "You know, Polonsky is right about one thing. The bourgeoisie is taking over. They’re on the march, and Haussmann is the general of their army. Just look at this street: dress shop, hat shop, dress shop, photographer’s shop, men’s clothing shop, bakery, another dress shop... The left says Haussmann is destroying the working class, but it’s actually us, the aristocracy, that he’s displacing. The bourgeoisie can’t eliminate the working class. That would be absurd. They need workers to man their factories, to build their homes, to staff their endless shops. The bourgeoisie must control the working class–tame it, train it, make it docile. But destroying it would be suicide.

"Aristocrats like me, however, are completely unnecessary to the middle class. When they eliminate us, they lose nothing and gain everything we have. The elite of title is replaced by an elite of money, a shopkeeper elite." Georges reached up and pulled the blind; its black square concealed the offending shops from his sight. "There," he said smiling, "that’s a much better view."

"And yet you disagreed with Polonsky," I reminded him, "when he said the aristocracy was doomed."

"Yes, I do disagree." He jerked the blind quickly downward, released it, and watched it slide soundlessly up, revealing the endless procession of shopfronts again. "The aristocracy is only doomed if it fails to adapt to changing circumstances. My father knew that. A few weeks ago one of my agents told me that my father’s most spectacular financial coup was his purchase of vast tracks of slum properties here in central Paris. I asked the man why this was so impressive, and he told me that one year after my father bought the properties, Haussmann built one of his boulevards through them. The slums were cleared, new apartment buildings for the wealthy bourgeoisie were constructed, and the properties–my properties, now–are worth fifty times their former value. It hardly needs to be said that the transaction involved no risk on my father’s part. One evening at a party, Baron Haussmann had informed my father that his new boulevard would pass through the neighborhood; the next day, my father ordered his agents to buy it; and the rest... is my good fortune. That’s how we aristocrats must behave if we are to survive."

This was certainly more humane than Polonsky’s murderous approach to class struggle, but I thought I spotted a contradiction in Georges’s ideas. "Aren’t you merely becoming what you despise, transforming yourself into a wealthy bourgeois?"

"With a difference, Edgar, a crucial difference. In the coming years, men like me will act as a kind of super-bourgeoisie. We will hold the real power. We will pull the strings of our bourgeois marionettes while they perform their electoral puppet shows for the people. The bourgeoisie will receive all the blame, and we will retain actual power. You see, the bourgeoisie may wish to bury us, but they shouldn’t start digging our graves just yet."

"Should you be revealing all these class secrets to a man like me?" I asked with a smile. "Have you forgotten already that my father is a banker and that I’m a member of your villainous bourgeoisie?"

"You’re an artist. That’s different. You don’t live your life according to a balance sheet."

"But I’m still a bourgeois," I ran my fingertips along the leather upholstery, "and after my class plows you under, I believe I will appropriate this carriage, along with your driver, of course."

**************

When we arrived at the Opera, I left Georges with a promise to meet him later in his loge and climbed the crowded stairs to the third level.

In the Morisot’s box, Berthe, dressed entirely in black with a black hat and a black ribbon around her neck, leaned forward with her elbows on the rail and peered aggressively through her opera glasses at someone on the opposite side. As I entered, Madame Morisot was saying, "Berthe, must you put yourself on display like that?"

"Right, Mother," she said, lowering her glasses. "Putting me on display is your job, isn’t it? Good evening, Monsieur Degas."

I greeted them and pulled one of the rear chairs forward. "And where is Mademoiselle Edma?" For some reason, the less beautiful Morisot sister appealed to me. Perhaps I wanted to paint her, to best Manet’s projected paintings of Berthe.

"Edma wasn’t feeling well this evening," the present sister answered.

"Yes, Monsieur Degas," said Madame Morisot, "one of my daughters is unwell and the other is ungrateful."

"You’re a martyr, Mother," Berthe replied drily. "Frankly, I suspect Edma is shamming. She’s probably at home right now enjoying the collected works of the Marquis de Sade and preparing a Black Mass."

Madame Morisot turned to me. "What did Shakespeare say about the serpent’s tooth?"

"Shut up, Mother," Berthe spoke softly through a wide, forced smile, "or you’ll feel my serpent’s teeth."

The mother gave me a can-you-believe-this-child? look. "My Berthe insists on coming to a first night at the Opera dressed as a widow. I told her we were going to Don Juan, not a masquerade, but she refused to change. We will undoubtedly be deluged with sympathy cards this week."

Berthe resumed surveying the house with her glasses. The noise was steadily increasing as the auditorium filled with people. Only the seats near the orchestra reserved for the Jockey Club were sparsely populated; even on a first night, the Jockeys didn’t arrive before the second act. Berthe said, "I look my best in black. Ask Monsieur Manet."

I silently agreed. Berthe looked stunning draped in clothing the color of her hair. "Have you sat for Manet?" I asked her.

"He did a head that looked better than life. And he wants me to sit for a full-length, but I haven’t agreed yet. Every hour I spend sitting in his studio is an hour I could spend painting. I do love his work, though. His exhibition is incredible. I spent an entire afternoon there, trying to understand what he’s doing and how he does it."

"Did you succeed?"

"I’m still trying."

"Don’t tell Manet that," I advised. "Let him think you understand it all perfectly. That keeps him on his toes."

"Manet’s work frightens people because it’s so new and original, and yet it’s also very traditional."

"And that’s even more frightening," I said. "Our academic painters, who see themselves as the caretakers of Art–spelled always with a capital A–despise anyone who knows more about art than they do."

From the next loge came the voices of two men comparing the attributes of various women seated on the other side. Berthe grimaced. "The Thierry brothers. Boring and Boorish are their first names. Mother wants me to marry both of them."

Madame Morisot said, "Bigamy was made for women like you. God knows you would be too much of a handful for one husband." After saying this, she made a repeated chopping motion with her arm and jerked her head in my direction.

"Don’t worry, Monsieur Degas," said Berthe. "My mother is not having convulsions. She is attempting to surreptitiously signal me to ask you if you might accompany me to the Universal Exposition on Tuesday. Mother would escort me herself, but she seems to have developed an irrational fear of Chinamen. She fears they will kidnap her into slavery and force her to serve bad Oriental wine in an opium den."

Her mother sighed and shook her head. "The things you say, Berthe." To me she said, "Is it any wonder my daughter is twenty-six and still unmarried? Would you do me a favor and escort this impossible young woman to the Exposition, Monsieur Degas?"

Before I could answer, Berthe interjected, "Mother finds you acceptable now that she knows your family owns half of Naples–or is it that half of your family owns all of Naples?"

"Either way," I said, "I am at your service."

"Thank you, Monsieur Degas." Berthe turned serious and caught me with the green eyes that you would paint black. "I especially want to see the paintings in the art section. I like to know my enemies."

One of the men in the next loge groaned loudly and said, "If her legs are anything like her arms, it’s time for me to arrange an introduction." His companion laughed. "Check out the next one. Smooth as silk."

Looking annoyed, Berthe slid her chair over to the thin partition between the loges and leaned across it to say to the men in a sweet and unnatural voice, "Messieurs, it seems that I’ve done a very absent-minded thing. I forgot to bring my opera glasses this evening. May I borrow yours for a moment?"

She seemed genuinely surprised when two outstretched arms proffered two pairs of opera glasses and the men said, almost in chorus, "Certainly, mademoiselle!"

Berthe took both glasses and held one pair in each hand as she leaned over the loge rail. She performed for the Thierry brothers, pretending confusion at which of the glasses to peer through and then feigning amazement at their powers of magnification. "Oh," she cried, "I can almost count the hairs on that man’s head!" She leaned farther out and looked down at the floor two stories below. "Oh! I’m getting so dizzy!" She released her grip on both glasses and a second later I heard them slam against the Opera floor with two quick explosions, like shots from a rifle. The people sitting nearby suddenly quieted. I could hear a metallic tinkle like the sound of falling coins as the popped and broken lenses bounced on the floorboards.

Berthe apologized profusely. Her insincerity impressed even me. "I am so very sorry," she said, "I’m such a clumsy little woman," and similar tripe. For their part, the Thierrys were perfect gentleman and suspected nothing amiss. "Don’t think of it, mademoiselle," they insisted. "It’s nothing."

Berthe slid back toward us and said, "If you keep shaking your head at me like that, Mother, it’s going to pop off like a champagne cork."

"Insufferable," muttered Madame Morisot, turning her head vigorously back and forth.

******************

"Who is that incredible woman you were sitting with?" Georges asked when I arrived at his loge near the stage.

"Another of your class’s gravediggers, I’m afraid. A bourgeoise and an artist." I felt slightly uncomfortable about being under surveillance while speaking to Berthe, and I was surprised at this discomfort. Everyone knows that everyone looks at everyone else at the Opera. That’s the only reason most people attend.

"She’s beautiful," Georges aimed the barrels of his glasses at Berthe. "You people will be the death of me." He lowered the binoculars and swept an arm over the auditorium. "A full house, Degas. All of Paris is here."

"All?" I glanced down at the crowd. "My eyes must be failing, Georges. I don’t see any laundresses or construction workers or street sweepers in the audience."

"You are a revolutionary. Would you burn down the Opera?"

"Not during a performance of Mozart... Beethoven? Perhaps."

"I see that my coachman’s former employer is in the loge directly across."

I looked up and saw Haussmann leaning out of his box with his arms crossed on the rail. His thin black hair and clean-shaven cheeks glowed in the gaslight. He was intentionally and obviously letting himself be observed. I wondered if this kind of public recognition was the real reward Haussmann worked for, something less tangible than money. In transforming Paris, he was constructing the edifice of his own fame and immortality. His name would endure as long as the stones in his streets and the bricks in his buildings. Like Berthe and myself, I thought, Haussmann was also a bourgeois artist, but a bad one. His public works were as boring and predictable as the Salon paintings he so vocally admired.

Beside the baron sat a woman about his age wearing a shiny black and white striped dress. I raised my glasses for a closer look and almost immediately my mouth parted slightly in surprise. I tried to contain my excitement and conceal the tremor in my voice when I asked, "Who’s the woman with Haussmann?"

"His wife, the rarely seen faux-baroness, and that’s too bad for him. We won’t be seeing the baron in the foyer tonight. Francine will be disappointed. She’s starring, and her protector can’t congratulate her." Georges chuckled to himself. "You know, he actually tries to pass Francine off as his daughter? Fools no one, of course. He keeps her in a house near the Arc de Triomphe–near my place, in fact." He leaned back and thought out loud, talking to the air. "I’ve often wondered how far they take the father-daughter masquerade. Is Haussmann still her daddy in the bedroom? Does she call out ‘Papa!...Papa!’ as he fucks her? I suspect our baron’s personal affairs may be as labyrinthine as his business affairs. His real daughter had a child by the emperor, you know, so we have the spectacle of a man who turns his mistress into his daughter and his daughter into a whore. Haussmann only seems bourgeois; in fact, he’s like a libertine out of Sade."

"Are you jealous, Georges?"

"A little. The man makes me feel like a prude."

As the overture began, I lifted my glasses, found Mme. Haussmann again and focused on her neck. Hanging there, suspended on a thin black chain, was a black metal butterfly encrusted with jewels.

******************

After the ballet, the foyer de la danse was filled with dancers in colorful costumes flitting around tall, dark-clad men who looked like black pillars in a flower garden. For the dancers were indeed flowers this evening: their skirts were adorned for the ballet des roses with large green leaves and blossoms of red and yellow. I made mental notes of the color and texture of the costumes while I sat on a bench with Georges awaiting the appearance of Pauline.

"Well, maybe not all of Paris," he said, "but at least all of the Jockey Club is here. And a bit of Russia, too." He pointed out Count Polonsky shaking his shoulder-length hair as he spoke with a coryphée and her mother.

"I thought you said he was only interested in little girls."

"He’s probably asking if she has a younger sister."

As I looked around the room in the dim evening gaslight, I saw mothers steering their daughters toward some men and away from others. I wondered what criteria the mothers were using. How did they differentiate between suitable and unsuitable protectors for their girls? Did they see themselves as protecting their daughters even as they prostituted them? Or was it all much colder than that? I suspected that behind the facade of maternal protection was a calculation that saw the daughters as products to be sold to the highest bidder and to be kept virginal until the payment was received. I thought of La Saison and the process by which a girl like these was sold like a beef carcass to a wealthier establishment. Was the foyer little more than an upscale marketplace for similar transactions between working class mothers and upper class exploiters? Remembering what Pauline had told me, I decided it was not as simple as that. The girls were not lifeless products; they were also actors in the drama: approaching, attracting and, yes, exploiting the desires of men, and doing so for their own enrichment. Mutual exploitation, I thought as I watched the dancers float about the room, bad novelists call it love.

"If you would like the displeasure of meeting Auguste Bonaparte," Georges said, "I can introduce you. He’s on the other side of the room."

When we had excused and pardoned our way to the middle of the foyer, I saw Prince Bonaparte sitting alone against the wall on a red velvet bench. He was unmistakably of the imperial blood. A bloated, porcine caricature of the first Napoleon’s head nestled between the thick, twin hillocks of his shoulders. Flabby male breasts rested on a midsection that was almost perfectly spherical. Massive thighs jutted out from this sphere and then unexpectedly attenuated into narrow, almost feminine legs. I mentally removed the excess fat from his face and saw a remarkable double of the Napoleonic visage as recorded in the paintings of David and Gros. This must have been the face Auguste Bonaparte saw in the mirror of his earliest memories, and maybe it was the face, I speculated, that drove him mad. The madhouses were filled with people who lost their minds and believed that they were Napoleon. Perhaps by some similar mechanism the Prince’s madness had been born of his own unbearable inheritance: to be named Bonaparte and to have the face of the great Napoleon and yet to always know that one is not–and can never be–him. The situation was a formula for insanity. It was possible in this context to see Auguste’s obesity as a kind of battle against fate, an attempt to obliterate the maddening resemblance by literally eating it away. If so, he had only succeeded in making himself grotesque.

"Good evening, Auguste," Georges said loudly.

The man’s head snapped up. After several seconds he said, "Chaillot."

"This is a very old friend of mine, Edgar Degas."

But Bonaparte ignored me and said to Georges, "Like this place."

"Oh? Are you enjoying the foyer?" Georges could barely keep the sarcasm from his voice.

"Stop speaking with your eyes," Bonaparte ordered. "Your mouth makes sounds and you blink the words at me, but they’re not the same words. You all do it. But the words aren’t the same, are they?"

Georges threw me a glance that mixed incomprehension with amusement. "I’m afraid you lost me there, Auguste. As usual, my poor mind has failed to follow your...more complex one." As he said this, Georges deliberately blinked his eyes several times.

"What was that message?" Bonaparte asked. "You know I don’t understand. All of you blinking at each other. Talking about me. Always talking about me." Bonaparte’s tone was an odd amalgam of belligerence and fear, bullying and cowardice. "I should take my stick to the lot of you." With both hands he raised his walking stick before him like a sword. It was thick, carved of dark, heavy oak and topped with a silver Napoleonic eagle. Its scuffed blunt end swung before our eyes.

"Come now, Auguste," Georges spoke as if to a child or a dog, "let’s not have any of that."

"Stop it!" the prince screamed. Conversations halted; heads turned in our direction.

Georges suddenly burst out laughing. He clapped his hands and said, "That’s a good one, Auguste!"

Extreme confusion in his eyes, Bonaparte lowered his walking stick and smiled moronically. The voices of the foyer resumed their interrupted conversations. Now they probably were talking about Bonaparte. He had made reality conform to his paranoia, and he seemed pleased by this.

He now acknowledged my presence. "Who are you and why do you want to steal my thoughts?"

The first half of this question posed no problem, but Georges answered it for me. "I told you already, Auguste. This is my friend, Edgar Degas."

"Stealing the thoughts of a Bonaparte. Both of you should be ashamed."

"I assure you we are," Georges winked at me, "but you haven’t answered my question about the foyer. Do you like the dancers, Auguste?"

"Stealing..." he muttered, looking at the floor. "Pretty. Pretty whores... Take my stick to the lot of them."

"You’d like to stick it to them, would you?" Georges smiled broadly.

The prince kept his head down. "Stealing... Pretty whores... Stealing my money, the whores... Around by the river there’s a red opening... I used to love that when I flew and then by the cabinets my stick fell down, you know, you know, you–" He swallowed hard and seemed suddenly out of breath. "You know used to be friends but that’s over now and the whores...the whores over not with a Bonaparte you know–" He raised his head and looked into Georges’s eyes. "Leave me now and stop it."

"As you wish, Auguste. It’s been...different."

We walked back through the crowd, and Georges spoke to me in a voice of genuine concern. "We have fun with Auguste sometimes, but he’s getting worse. I’ve never seen him this delusional and incoherent before."

There was a commotion near the doorway as several dancers entered. Georges spotted Pauline among them. She was signaling to him. "For obvious reasons, Edgar, I must ask you to excuse me."

"Of course."

While Georges was working his way to Pauline, the star of the evening made her grand appearance. Francine, a plain-looking, thick-legged dancer of about twenty, belied the apparent heaviness of her limbs by bounding flamboyantly into the foyer with a spinning leap. She landed and took a low bow as men and mothers applauded and dancers looked on with distaste. Francine was quickly surrounded by men offering congratulations. Georges and Pauline skirted the edges of this swarm and appeared before me.

"Pauline has a surprise for you," Georges said.

I followed them out of the foyer, through a darkened classroom and into a black hallway. Straining my eyes, I saw a small figure standing motionless against the wall. It was a young dancer in costume. Judging from her size, she must have been one of the youngest members of the corps. "This is Sylvie," said Pauline. When she spoke to the girl her tone was more stern, commanding: "Tell this man exactly what you told me this morning."

Over the buzz of voices from the foyer, the girl spoke: "I saw Lisette, monsieur, on the day she went missing. It was in the afternoon, after classes. I saw her on the sidewalk by the back gate. She was wearing a pretty dress I had never seen before and a necklace with a butterfly. I asked her if she wanted to walk home with me, because I live in Montmartre, too. But I live on Rue Lepic, monsieur, not in the Maquis. When I asked her that, Lisette said no, she was waiting for someone. I asked who, and Lisette wouldn’t say. She told me to leave her and said goodbye. So I walked up the street. And just as I was leaving, a carriage came toward the sidewalk, it swerved toward the sidewalk, toward me, and it slowed down beside me. And then it speeded up again and stopped in front of Lisette. I stopped and watched. It was a rich man’s carriage. The door opened, and when Lisette looked in, she looked surprised. She took a step back on the sidewalk and talked to the person inside. But I was too far away to hear what they said. A hand reached out of the carriage and stayed there, like this, without moving." In the darkness, Sylvie extended her hand toward us, open palm upward. "There was more talking, and then Lisette took the hand and climbed inside, and the carriage drove away. That’s all I saw. And I remember something else about the hand. I couldn’t tell if it was a man’s hand or a woman’s hand, and I remember thinking, Why would a rich woman be picking up Lisette?"

"Tell him what happened two days earlier," Pauline directed.

"Well, monsieur, two days before that, Lisette and I talked in the dressing room. She said she was going to escape from her parents because they hated her and she hated them and she couldn’t stand being here at the Opera all day and working so hard just so she could go back to a shack in the Maquis. She said her father was drinking and gambling away all the money she made, and she had to get away from him. And then she said someone else was going to help her escape. And I said, Who? And her answer was funny. She said, "I don’t know who yet. I haven’t decided. But he’ll be a rich man.’ I guess she finally decided, monsieur, and it was the rich man or his wife who picked her up."
 

 
 
CHAPTER TWELVE

Berthe and I stood with several other tourists atop Haussmann’s truncated Butte de Chaillot and looked across the invisible river at his Exposition.

"What do you think it looks like?" she asked.

"An illustration in a children’s book," I said, "an imaginary place imagined by an unimaginative mind."

The aggressively ugly Exposition Palace, looking like some kind of industrial fortress stamped out by a gigantic machine, dominated the buildings that clustered around it, the pavilions of all nations designed in tiresomely predictable national styles. It was a carnival of architectural cliches, all brought together without any organizing logic beyond the overpowering demands of national boosterism. The clash of styles reminded me of the frontispiece of a geography textbook we had been forced to read at the Lycée Louis le Grand: the outlines of several famous buildings of the world had been drawn overlapping on a single page to form the skyline of an impossible city: the Great Pyramid was dwarfed by St. Peter’s dome; the familiar towers of Notre Dame rose over the Basilica of Constantine, and so on.

The seeming disappearance of the river complemented this overall unreality. It brought the Champ de Mars magically close, as if Haussmann had turned the earth to satin and enfolded the Seine in its seam. Our baron had gone a step beyond the landscape painter who, in his painting, changes the position of a tree or boulder to create a more harmonious composition. Haussmann had edited reality itself. Paris was his canvas, and this was a demonstration of his power to change anything on it, to make even the river that gave birth to the city disappear.

Had Haussmann also made Lisette disappear? I asked myself this question as we walked down the curving path to the river. Was his the hand that reached out of the carriage and beckoned Lisette inside? (I had already decided that to a girl from Montmartre any rich man’s hand–pale, thin, uncalloused–would resemble a woman’s, so I had discounted the possibility of a female occupant.) Had Haussmann reached out to the girl he had so recently spoken to, this girl he had gifted with a necklace identical to his wife’s? Had he reached out to her and helped her into his carriage and then, a few hours later and for some unknown reason, murdered her? Were the suppositions of Lisette’s odious father correct after all?

I did not share these speculations with Berthe. Nor did I mention the thoughts that streamed through my mind on the bridge over the Seine. I glanced upriver at the Pont de l’Alma and felt once again the burning coldness of the water and saw the girl’s body lying on the sharp stones of the quai. Strangely, though, the body I saw in my mind was not Lisette’s fleshly corpse but the two-dimensional representation of it that I had drawn in my studio. I saw myself as in a dream kneeling over a body drawn on several sheets of paper. Droplets of water sprinkled down from my wet hair, staining the paper and smearing the ink.

We followed the flow of people toward the main gate, and Berthe broke my intolerable silence by speaking of my double portrait of you and your wife. "I like it," she said, "but I fear that may be a minority opinion."

"The best opinions always are."

"Manet looks like a monkey scrunched up on the sofa. But I suppose he does sit like that sometimes."

"Never again, I fear. At least not in my presence."

"And that fat Suzanne looks as rigid as a Greek statue at her piano. I especially liked that." The unexpected note of jealousy in Berthe’s voice made me wonder if you had made her your mistress.

"Was it the fatness or the rigidity you especially liked?"

She ignored this. "It must have required courage on your part, Monsieur Degas, to present such a portrait to its sitters."

"Not at all. They both adore it."

Berthe made a dubious sound as we walked past the ticket booths and their long, unmoving lines.

"Don’t we need tickets?" she asked.

"Only if we wish to further enrich Haussmann and Napoleon III." I reached into my pocket and produced two journalist’s passes which Victor Noir had acquired for me from his newspaper. "If anyone asks, we are correspondents for Le Temps."

"A left-wing paper?" Berthe examined her pass. "Mother would be scandalized."

"I’m sure your mother has become accustomed to that emotion."

Once through the gates we chose one of several curving paths and found ourselves wandering down a small lane lined with bad French statues that delivered us to a stable stinking of Russian horses. Beyond this, we walked into the cool shadow of a blue-and-white Turkish palace. The inside was even cooler and hung with colorful carpets.

"I feel as if I’ve been transported," I said, "not to Turkey but to an importer’s shop on the Rue de Rivoli."

We moved into an inner room, small and bare except for a prayer niche set into one wall. Sunlight filtering down from the glass roof cast a light-blue glow on the tiles that covered the walls. It was lovely.

"We’re facing Mecca," Berthe announced.

"I’ll try to be respectful."

"Are you sympathetic to Mohammedanism, Monsieur Degas?"

"Yes, I prefer religions I know nothing about."

"I’ve heard that the Turkish ambassador is a scandalous character," said Berthe. "They say he keeps a harem in his hotel."

"A harem in oils, painted by Ingres." I had never met the legendary Turk, but I had seen him several times in the street. He was instantly recognizable by the unusual blue lenses in his eyeglasses and his flowing, Byronic hair. I had heard that he was the owner of Ingres’s great Turkish Bath as well as a large number of artworks that were unmentionable in polite society. Since Berthe and I were alone in this sanctified place, I decided to mention them.

"He has an enormous collection of erotic art."

She abruptly turned away from me and pretended to examine the tiles on the wall. "Yes, I’ve heard that."

I spoke to her back, my eyes focused on a spot exactly between her shoulder blades. "Aside from the usual erotica–Aretino’s Postures and things like that–the ambassador has a nearly complete collection of very unusual Japanese prints. These show women–Japanese women, of course–being pleasured or pleasuring themselves in a number of highly athletic positions." I paused to gauge her reaction, but there was none. She reached out to run the fingertips of one hand along the smooth coolness of the wall. "In one of these prints, a quite old one, a naked woman is shown being pleasured by an octopus. The head of the octopus is between the woman’s open legs and its tentacles reach out over her body to stimulate the various... centers of pleasure."

I was about to go even further when Berthe said, "Yes, I suppose men’s fantasies can be quite extreme."

"And women’s fantasies?"

She turned and spoke directly into my eyes. "We are more realistic, Monsieur Degas, because we know more." After allowing a few seconds for these words to slip into my brain she continued, "Men know nothing, nothing, about the sexuality of women, and women know everything about men. You have no secrets from us, Monsieur Degas. We allow you to think otherwise only because it amuses us." She stepped through a doorway into sunlight, and I followed her out.

****************

We saw a small rectangular red brick building standing alone on a plot of grass. "This must be American," said Berthe. "It’s so completely unadorned."

"I’m sure we could bring in some official sculptors to cover it with plaster Cupids."

Inside, two rows of low benches and tables faced a desk and lectern. All the furnishings were made of plain, light, unpolished wood.

"Is this an American church?" Berthe asked softly to conceal her ignorance in case any of the other visitors moving between the desks were American.

"Only if religion stunts their growth," I said, indicating the shortness of the benches. "I believe this is one of their schools."

"But it’s so tiny! It’s not much bigger than the shack where our gardener stores shovels and rakes."

"I suppose it’s here to show the world how little value Americans place on education."

As we walked slowly toward the front of the room, Berthe scanned the place, turning her head from side to side in unconscious imitation of her mother’s characteristic gesture. "It’s like a prison cell. Where are the books?" This was an excellent question. The only book in evidence was a single volume lying on the teacher’s desk. "The Americans have ended their war, haven’t they?"

"Yes, they stopped fighting and killed their president–or was it the other way around? Such are the marvels of democracy."

"I thought part of your family was American."

"Not really. They live in New Orleans. My mother was born there, but she was an American only because the first Bonaparte sold half the continent to the American government. I am increasingly of the opinion that there is no limit to what can be bought and sold. Imagine it: an entire colony sold to another country. One day you’re living in France and the next day someone in a uniform signs a paper and voila, you now live in America."

I picked up the leather-bound book on the desk and examined its spine: HOLY BIBLE. "You were right. This is a church."

***************

We stood at the foot of the British lighthouse, a tall tower of criss-crossing steel girders that rose vertiginously into the sky. Every time I looked up at it, I was certain it was leaning precariously toward me. Berthe admired its nakedness, the honesty of its bare, skeletal form. "It’s much better than the French one over there." She waved her hand dismissively at the taller, sheathed lighthouse that dominated the other side of the park. "The only modern thing about that one is the electric light on top. If something is built of metal and rivets, it should look like metal and rivets. If something is built out of machined parts, then show us the parts. Don’t cover them up."

Once again, my gaze followed the steel skeleton into a sky patched with puffy white clouds. The tower seemed to sway unsteadily like a drunken giant. "Do you find this beautiful?" I asked.

"We need to redefine that word," said Berthe. "Every generation should."

***************

Like Dante’s Hell, the Exposition Palace was a series of concentric rings. We paused inside the main entrance and saw before us a long perspective of doorways that cut a path through all seven rings and culminated in a glimpse of the garden at the Palace’s center, a green rectangle seen through the farthest and smallest door. We might have walked directly there, but like good pilgrims we believed in self-punishment and so we turned right and began to walk alongside the vast collection of industrial apparatus crowded together under the high glass ceiling of this largest, outermost ring.

"More of your beautiful machines," I told Berthe as we passed a particularly hideous specimen that resembled a giant metal insect on wheels. "I have seen the future, and it’s a department store where you can buy absolutely anything, as long as it’s ugly."

"Sometimes, Monsieur Degas, you sound exactly like a seventy year-old man. You should paint your whiskers gray so you can sit around complaining with the old soldiers in the Invalides."

"Do I sound like Ingres?"

Berthe nodded sadly. "And Manet tells me you can paint like Delacroix, so why don’t you?"

"Manet said that?... Well, why would I want to paint like a Romantic? I thought you were opposed to anything old-fashioned. Besides, I’ve decided to paint like Degas."

But Berthe would not allow me the last word. "I’ve heard about this Degas you speak of. He’s a fine portraitist, but he needs to get out of his studio and start painting the world around him."

"His studio is his world," I said, joining her game. "I have heard, though, that he’s working on a large ballet scene and planning a series of canvases of dance classes at the Opera."

"Indoors, still indoors. Will we ever see sunlight in Degas’s work?"

"What could be more old-fashioned than sunlight? No, this Degas fellow is a true modern. He only paints gaslight."

We paused before an enormous pumping machine, its brass valves and copper pipes shining in the sunlight that glowed down from the ceiling. I saw a kind of beauty in the machine, a muscularity in the curving metal that reminded me of the limbs of ancient marbles. But I said nothing to Berthe.

***************

In the space allotted to a German camera company we saw a small exhibition of landscape photographs that were as impressive as any of the Claudes in the Louvre.

"The only good thing about photography," I said, "is that it will put landscape painters out of business. No great loss."

"Don’t you think the photograph will replace the painted portrait?"

"Not for thinking people. Photographs have no psychological penetration. It takes an artist’s mind to perceive psychology and an artist’s hand to represent it." I walked over to a display of cameras on tripods. "The camera is merely a lens, an eye without a brain, another machine here in the gallery of machines. To a camera there’s no difference between a man and a cow. What kind of psychology could such a machine show us? It gives us surfaces without depth, bodies without souls. Those natives in Borneo, or wherever, are right; the camera is a machine that turns people into ghosts. It takes a human being," I concluded pompously, "to capture a human being."

"Have you forgotten that there’s always a human being behind the camera?"

"Is a photographer a human being?" I asked.

"A photographer can be an artist, too," Berthe insisted, "and the camera is his tool, his brush. By your argument, Monsieur Degas, no painting could ever capture a sitter because a brush has no brain."

I thought about this while pretending to examine a camera. Finally, I said, "Your argument is clever but flawed, Mademoiselle Morisot. My brush is an extension of my hand, a very bizarre sixth finger. This camera is an extension of nothing–or nothing active, anyway. It extends the eye, you might say, but we create nothing with our eyes. The eye and the camera are essentially passive."

Berthe laughed softly, knowingly, and said, "I doubt many women would agree with you about the passivity of the eye. Most of us spend half of our lives being looked at and the other half looking. The eye can be as powerful as the hand, Monsieur Degas. Something seen can change an entire life, for better or worse. If you didn’t secretly agree with that, you wouldn’t be a painter."

*******************

"Here’s one of the new German printing presses," I said, "capable of producing two thousand pages of anti-French propaganda per hour."

"Why aren’t you married, Monsieur Degas?"

"Why does a printing press make you ask of marriage? Because all marriages are as boring and identical as German books?"

Berthe silently waited for an answer.

"Are you familiar," I asked her, "with Solomon’s proverb, Woman is the desolation of the just?"

"Sentences that begin ‘Woman is’ or ‘Women are’ are poor substitutes for original thought. Answer my question, please. Why aren’t you married, Monsieur Degas?"

"I could ask the same of you, Mademoiselle Morisot."

"And receive the same reply," she said.

**************

We turned a corner and saw a massive cannon towering over the other machines. It was the biggest gun I had ever seen, a huge, gray monster as ugly as the building that housed it. It easily dominated the other cannons and shells on display in the section assigned to the German arms manufacturer Krupp. A group of people stood at the base of the cannon, and I saw Count Polonsky among them, gesticulating and tossing his hair, obviously at the climax of a lecture. His auditors looked on with alarm.

"We can see this later..." I began.

"No," said Berthe, leading me directly to the cannon, "this is one of the reasons I wanted to come here." There was awe in her voice when she said, "It’s like something built by giants."

"Unfortunately, there are human beings behind this machine, too–not to mention in front of it."

Polonsky’s audience was hurriedly departing as we approached. I introduced Berthe. The count greeted her warmly, his lips grazing her knuckles, and then he promptly dropped her hand, turned his back on us and looked straight up at the cannon’s gray barrel. "A beauty, isn’t she?" he said.

I glanced at Berthe, inviting her to reply.

"That’s not the word I would have chosen," she said.

"But it is beauty," the count insisted, keeping his back to us. "It is not attuned to the feminine sensibility, perhaps, but a few years from now, artists like you, Degas, will be painting these instead of nudes."

"It’s more attractive than most of the women in the Salon," I admitted.

"Think of the force of the explosion," Polonsky went on. "Powerful enough to throw this shell farther than you can see. With a battery of guns like this, you could pound a city into submission from so far away that the citizens wouldn’t be able to shoot back. It inspires awe and terror, and isn’t that what you artists call ‘sublime,’ Degas? There’s more sublimity here than in all the Alps, and more humanity than in the Louvre."

"You must have an unusual definition of humanity, Count Polonsky," said Berthe.

"Oh yes, mademoiselle. I am not speaking of your false Christian ideals of morality and justice. These things are useful to keep the lower orders content, to keep them focused on the next world and working as hard as possible in this one. Yes, religion is good for that. But Christian morality is like a yoke around the necks of real men. We must throw off that yoke and embrace our power and give ourselves the freedom to use it. There is an Englishman named Darwin whose theories imply that we human beings evolved over many thousands of centuries from a lower form of animal, a beast who lived in the jungle. I believe we still have that animal cruelty deep inside us, waiting to be released. That cruelty is what I call human. It is at the center of all that we are, and what could be more human than that? We must release it. We must give ourselves the power to create what must be created and to destroy what must be destroyed."

"And what would you destroy?" Berthe asked.

I answered. "I believe the count intends to aim his cannon at the middle classes. That would be us."

Polonsky turned to us with a smile. "No, my friends, you are safe... It is true that I am not a proponent of revolutionary social change. When you have achieved a working social order, as we have in Russia, why should you allow it to be disrupted simply because a few men have written some books and stirred up the rabble? No, you must use your power to maintain an order that works. What does it matter if a thousand or a hundred thousand people die, as long as a society endures?" He turned back to the gun and raised his arms toward it like a Baroque saint witnessing the Assumption. "When I look at a weapon like this, I think the future will be bloodier than anyone can imagine. And the victor will be the man who fights without restraint or remorse and unleashes the full force of his animal cruelty. In the name of what is more important than ourselves, we must grant ourselves the power to kill."

***********

"You have some strange friends, Monsieur Degas."

"I wouldn’t call Polonsky a friend. He’s more of an accidental acquaintance."

We had passed through a ring of clothing and another of glass (sparkling crystal goblets, bowls, carafes, more crystal than I had ever seen before, curving off and disappearing into the distance like a river of jagged ice) and now we were walking along the art circle, seeing little that merited our attention. While Berthe glanced at the bland, redundant canvases, I recalled Pauline’s stories about Polonsky: his attempted rape of a young dancer, his apparently intimate conversation with Lisette Leblanc shortly before her death. I wondered if Polonsky had used Lisette to transform his theory of cruelty into practice. Had the little girl been a kind of test piece for him, a maquette for a projected masterpiece of murder?

When we came to an enormous version of Gérôme’s Death of Caesar, in which the tastefully draped foreground corpse was over life-size and the conspirators huddling in the middle ground were as large as real people, I paused and proclaimed, "In the palace of the future, only the paintings are ancient."

"How many versions of this canvas do you think Gérôme has painted?"

"Oh, he probably turns out another copy whenever a buyer orders one. But I doubt if he has a hand in the actual work. He most likely leaves the painting to his assistants, a group of mediocrities who can reproduce mediocrity to perfection. I imagine his studio resembles a factory."

Berthe ran the ball of her thumb over the smoothly varnished surface of the painting. "A factory product," she said. "I often wonder why so many otherwise intelligent people so adore the work of so many hands and no personality?"

"Rubens ran a factory," I pointed out.

"Gérôme is hardly Rubens."

"True. He’s much more successful." I stepped back to the opposite wall so I could see the entire painting and tried to ignore the repeated chorus of awed sighs coming from the other visitors who streamed steadily through the room.

"People like it because it’s lifelike," I told Berthe when she joined me. "It reminds them of the theatre."

"The theatre is life?"

"No, it’s better. It’s life-like. Most people have had enough of life and they want to escape, but not too far. So they pay a few francs and go to the theatre or the Opera–"

"Or the Exposition?"

"Exactly. And when they return to their boring lives, the images of the stage or the Exposition still appear in their minds like the hallucinations caused by a drug. If they can afford it, they buy a little replica from Gérôme and hang it over the mantel so they can get a dose of the drug every time they look up from their newspapers. Gérôme doesn’t show people history; he shows them what they want to see: the assassination of Julius Caesar as performed at the Théâtre Francaise."

"You seem to be indicting your own work, Monsieur Degas. Aren’t the ballet paintings you’re planning the same kind of drug?"

"The first one is." I was thinking of the large canvas of Fiocre by the pool that now rested almost finished on the easel in my studio. "But all of the others will be different. I will give people dancers, yes, but I will always find some way to keep them from believing the scene. I’ll show the heads of the orchestra, the floorboards of the stage or people standing in the wings during a performance, an unmistakable touch of reality to keep the fantasy at bay."

"Manet told me that you believed there could be no reality in painting, that it was all fantasy."

"When I said it, I believed it. What more can I say?"

We walked into the next room and were surrounded by even more academic paintings, more decorously writhing nudes and tastefully dying heroes.

"Manet was actually angry that he wasn’t permitted to display here?" Berthe asked incredulously.

"Manet doesn’t sell their opium. He doesn’t paint wallpaper for businessmen or decorations for city hall–although he would like to do that, for some unimaginable reason. Manet would like to be popular, he desperately wants to wear that little ribbon in his buttonhole, but he suffers from a singular curse. He makes people think, and that’s what they hate most of all." As soon as I spoke this last sentence, a tiny alarm of doubt rang in my head. Had I just repeated myself? I had a vague memory of saying something very similar to Berthe during our first meeting at the Louvre.

She seemed (or pretended) not to notice. "We should leave all this behind," she said, gesturing at the endless walls that eventually blended, as we strolled past them, into a light-brown blur of masterfully boring art.

************

It was perfect. A perfect center. In the middle of the elliptical garden at the center of the palace, at the hub of this vast wheel, stood one last pavilion, a small circular building set among the ponds and the grass and the visitors sprawling on white metal chairs. It was easy to miss this final pavilion. It looked almost ornamental, an obligatory marker signifying the center and nothing more. But when Berthe and I stepped curiously inside the building, my breath caught in my throat and I said aloud, "Perfect. It’s perfect."

The room was filled with money. Glass cases curved around the walls displaying a panorama of coins and currency from every nation in the Exposition. Gold and silver coins glittered and glistened, and the colored ink of banknotes shone like stained glass in the shafts of sunlight that poured down golden from high windows. The propagandists of the Exposition were correct. The Palace really was a cathedral of the future, and here was its sanctum sanctorum, its Holy of Holies. Tear back the veil and see money revealed. Here at last–and only here–the bourgeoisie was publically honest about itself and what it really valued. As we passed the francs and pounds, dollars and guilders, rubles and reales, I felt as if I had entered a site of revelation and was hearing a call to worship the new god. Here was the ultimate reality, the only metaphysical vision possible in a material world. Money, I suddenly understood, was like a Platonic substance of capitalism, the stuff that’s transformed into everything else. Everything in the Palace and the Palace itself–indeed, all of Haussmann’s Paris–was a vast transmutation of money: money becoming streets and monuments, houses and hotels; money becoming the meaning of life. It was a transubstantiation beyond the wildest Papal dreams.

"I expected a bust of Napoleon III or something like that at the center," I told Berthe, "but this is much, much better."

She looked at me as if I had gone completely insane.

When we stepped out of the pavilion on the other side, I saw people resting in the sunlight and children running along the paths, and I thought: they are the Elect, and they know it. They have made their pilgrimage, they have had their revelation, and now they are enjoying their ultimate reward, relaxing in the paradise of money.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER THIRTEEN

One entire wall of Baron Haussmann’s office was covered by an oversized map of Paris. It was the largest, most detailed map I had ever seen. All the apartment buildings, all the mansions, all the narrow alleys barely worthy of a name were clearly drawn and labeled. And surrounding it all was the thick, protective ring of the city wall. Affixed to the map were various lengths of colored string: black signifying the paths of completed boulevards, red for those still under construction, and green (the most abundant color) denoting streets that were as yet only thoughts in Haussmann’s mind. Each string represented a neighborhood destroyed, people displaced, lives dislocated, and as I studied the map it wasn’t difficult for me to imagine Haussmann as a bourgeois Fate, sitting behind his desk in his dark blue vest and shirtsleeves and snipping the yarn of life and death to his desired length.

Even before I was seated, the baron began The Story of the Maps: "The day I became Prefect, at my first official meeting with the emperor, he led me to his desk and showed me a map." He pointed to a smaller, framed map that hung behind his desk. It was heavily creased and wrinkled, and many lines were drawn across it in black ink. "That map. That is the very one he showed me. He led me to his desk and showed me that map with those changes made in his own hand, and he said, ‘Haussmann, these are my alterations to the street plan of Paris. You are to put them into effect.’ Those were my orders. In fifteen years they have not changed, only been expanded upon. I keep that old map here because it is my charter, you see, my authority and my guide." He dropped into the chair beside mine. "Well, when I arrived here I found that before anything else, we needed a proper survey of the city. You wouldn’t believe how lax the previous regimes had been in this respect. There were no accurate, detailed maps of the city good enough for my purposes. So my first order of business was to make one. Accordingly, I ordered the construction of multiple observation towers placed at various strategic points about the city. You may recall them." I remembered them well. The unstable-looking, fifty foot-high wooden towers had punctuated my walks across Paris in the days when I was pretending to be a law student. My friends and I had speculated that they were viewing platforms for government spies. "From these towers, my draftsmen drew the city: every street, every building, every passage, every courtyard except the truly hidden ones. While one of my men was working in a tower near Père Lachaise, a building he had already drawn caught fire and burned to the ground as he watched. He immediately corrected his drawing. That’s the kind of accuracy I demanded. And from all of those tower drawings, we created this," he gestured at the wall-sized map, "the most accurate city map in the history of Paris, and probably the world. And once I had created it, what did I do? Did I congratulate myself and light a cigar? No, Degas, I immediately began to put the Emperor’s plan into action. I set out to make this great new map obsolete." Haussmann sprung out of his chair and walked to the map. As he stood before it, I had an image of the baron hovering over Paris like a giant bird of prey–an American bald eagle, perhaps. "This great map becomes more and more useless every day. It’s my progress chart. Today, work continues on the Avenue de l’Opera, of course," with one finger he traced the red string running from the site of the new Opera down to the Louvre, "but the area of greatest activity at present is over here, southeast of the Gare Saint Lazare. The Boulevard Haussmann (so-named at the emperor’s insistence, you understand; I suggested Boulevard Napoleon III, and His Majesty ordered me to call it Boulevard Haussmann) will eventually cut through all of these little streets behind my new Opera and link up with the Boulevard des Italiens over here."

"That route takes you very close to the Chapelle Expiatoire," I said. This was one of my favorite quiet places in the city, a garden square dominated by a heavy neoclassical chapel built atop the pit where the bodies of guillotined aristocrats had been thrown. Despite or because of this macabre history, I had always found it a wonderful place to pause during my walks up to your studio.

"That’s another headache," Haussmann sighed. He illustrated the remark by rubbing the sparsely-haired top of his head. "We are excavating immediately north of the chapel now, and every shovelful of earth turns up more human bones. No one knows how many people the Revolution buried down there." His tone turned confidential. "Between us, Degas, sometimes I wonder how the Royalists who exhumed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from that place could possibly have unearthed the right bodies. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of skeletons down there. How could they possibly have found the royal couple thirty years later, after the effects of time were added to the effects of lime?" Haussmann looked pleased with his rhyme. "I think it is quite possible that some other pair of aristocratic corpses is buried in St. Denis and that Louis and Marie are still under the chapel. Or maybe my workers have already accidentally unearthed them. Maybe at this very moment one of my workers is throwing into the air the legbone of Louis XVI. It is not outside the realm of possibility.

"But seriously, this is a source of great aggravation. When the workers began to dig up bones, we feared they would revolt. They still might. They say, ‘We’re road workers, not gravediggers.’ They say it’s profaning the dead. They may have a point, but I think the priests are behind it. I am taking just a tiny bit of church land for my projects, you see, and that is the gravest of sins. But don’t worry, I’ll get it done. A few old bones won’t stop me. And frankly, I find this reverence for the bodies of the dead...morbid.

"As a matter of fact, I have a plan for transporting all of the dead bodies out of the city. I want to build a special railroad with its own track and station. Its sole function will be to transport bodies outside of the city walls for burial in a new cemetery north of St. Denis. We will charge the mourners a small fee, and the railroad will quickly pay for itself. And there will be no more of these morbid funeral processions to Père Lachaise or Montmartre. There will be no place for death in my new city. It will be a city of life."

He walked to his desk and stood centrally behind it, his head and shoulders fitting like a portrait inside the frame that held the iconic imperial map on the back wall. Surely this was a carefully calculated effect. "And speaking of what’s under the ground, one of my proudest accomplishments is something that hardly anyone notices anymore, the new central sewer system. The bad thing about a sewer is that people only notice it when it doesn’t work. Unfortunately for me, I have given Paris a sewer that will never be noticed." He raised his eyes and spoke to the wall behind me, rhapsodizing about rivers of sewage. "All of the drainage and waste from the Left and Right Banks now flows through various channels to empty into a single large sewer pipe, my grand collecteur. The collecteur carries all the waste of the city in a secret underground river that flows beneath the Boulevard Malesherbes. Remember that the next time you are in the neighborhood of the Madeleine, Degas. All of that waste is flowing far below your feet. It flows past St. Augustin, under the city wall, and all the way out to Asnières, where it is released into the Seine. All the filthy rainwater, all the blood from the abattoirs, and all the other, unspeakable things that formerly clouded the Seine in central Paris and made it stink like a rotten egg in the summer, none of that any longer flows into...our portion of the river. My underground sewer ensures that the citizens of Paris no longer live on the banks of a sewer."

"And what of the good citizens of Asnières," I politely inquired, "who are now bathing in our sewage?"

Haussmann was dismissive. "The river up there already carries a good deal of factory effluent. The addition isn’t greatly noticeable."

"And if it does become noticeable," I said, "the citizens can always sell their now-worthless properties to companies who will build more factories there, correct?"

Smiling, Haussmann sank into his chair and said, "You should be sitting behind this desk, Degas."

"That would be my father’s wish for me, not mine."

I doubted that Haussmann’s highest possible compliment had ever been received so coolly before. Unsure of the proper reaction, he resorted to a classic bureaucratic mannerism: he shuffled and straightened the papers on his desk. "You live on the Rue de Laval," he said, shuffling. It was a statement, not a question. "That district is not one of my priorities. As you can see, your neighborhood doesn’t even rate a green string on my map."

"I was pleased to notice that."

"Don’t be too pleased. I’ll get to you eventually. I’ll straighten your crooked little street and rename it the Boulevard Valentine, after my daughter. How would you like that?"

Thinking of Georges’s speculations about Haussmann’s father-daughter relationship with Francine and his real daughter’s status as an imperial mistress, I replied, "I’m sure the brothel keepers will like it enormously."

I enjoyed watching Haussmann’s expression change gradually from incomprehension to indignation. "What are you saying, monsieur?"

I said nothing for a few delicious seconds, letting the implied insult to his daughter hang in the air. Finally, feeling almost sorry for the man, I explained the too-obvious Valentine/Saint Valentine/love pun.

"You and your word games... What can I do for you, Degas?" Seated at his desk, the redesigner of Paris suddenly seemed like just another government official, and I was just another visitor with a wealthy name. It was time for business.

"I noticed you and the baroness in your loge at the Opera last Saturday–"

"Yes," he interrupted. "Don Juan. It was magnificent."

"Indeed, but what intrigued me when I saw you–what brings me here, in fact–was that unusual necklace the baroness was wearing, a jeweled butterfly."

Haussmann was pleased. "You painter’s eye was at work. It’s very unusual. I had it custom-made at Arnaud Frères on the Boulevard des Italiens. The jeweler worked from my own design."

"Simply to satisfy my curiosity, I’ve been looking into the recent death of a dancer at the Opera, Lisette Leblanc." Haussmann looked interested but not surprised. There was no reaction when I spoke the name. "I understand that you arranged for her funeral."

"That is correct. I was informed that the family had no money. And I, of course," he smiled weakly, "have so much."

It was time for my dagger thrust. "When Mademoiselle Leblanc’s body was recovered, she was wearing a necklace identical to your wife’s."

Haussmann’s face betrayed nothing. (I genuinely admired his self-control.) He reached down behind his desk, and one of the drawers slid open with a creak. When his hand reappeared, it was holding a thin black chain from which dangled a butterfly pendant covered in gemstones.

"Lisette was wearing this necklace," he said and laid it on the desk in front of me.

My own emotional control was now severely tested. Haussmann must have noticed my surprise and perplexity. Surely, he enjoyed them.

After a while he spoke in his confidential tone. "An associate of mine retrieved it from the Morgue before any official records were made. He recognized it as identical to my wife’s, removed it from the body and returned it to me. You understand that something like this could be rather embarrassing to a man in my position."

"So you knew the girl."

"Obviously. I knew Lisette. I know many dancers, and she was a very good one."

I leaned forward and touched the necklace, running my fingers over the hard, rough stones. My mind played a contrarian trick and recalled the soft, smooth texture of Lisette’s wet skin. "Do you give all the good dancers such gifts?"

"No. Those are only for my very special friends."

"Was Lisette your mistress?"

"If she had lived, I would have been her protector." He emphasized the last word to correct my mistaken noun. "That’s why I gave her the jewelry and the dress. I was staking my claim, so to speak."

"Did you have any competition for Lisette?"

His mouth formed an almost amused smirk. "I do not have competitors, Degas, only imitators." Pleased with this bon mot, he leaned back in his chair. "Of course Lisette wanted to be my mistress. They all do. They know what I’ve done for Francine and they want me to do the same for them: give them mansions, make them stars. They all have the same dreams. That makes things very easy for us. But Lisette was different; she was a little more coy. Whenever I spoke to her, she pretended not to care so much about those things, and that impressed me. That a girl of her age and class would know enough to conceal her natural greed was... unprecedented in my experience. Lisette pretended that her only concern was escaping from her parents, whom she pictured as monsters. I suspect they were typical members of their class. I met the mother, of course, at the Opera, and she seemed like all the rest of them, just taller. Lisette insisted that her mother remain at a distance during our conversations. I found this curious, even a bit melodramatic. But little girls have their whims, as do grown women, and it’s best to humor them. So, Lisette’s ruse was that her parents were ogres and she wished to escape. I willingly assumed the role of rescuer, because a girl who can be so amusing at thirteen or whatever she was will be absolutely charming at seventeen. I thought, Fine, if she wants me to play the rescuing prince, I’ll give her a fairy tale necklace and a dress more expensive than anything she has ever worn, and then I’ll send my carriage for her. When I informed her of these plans, she thanked me for helping her escape. I tell you, Degas, that girl should’ve been an actress, not a dancer. She was never out of character for a moment during our little game. And then came my disappointment. When I sent the carriage for her, she wasn’t there. The next day my associate informed me that this necklace had been found on a body brought to the Morgue, and of course I knew immediately Lisette was dead. But I have no idea why she would kill herself. Oh, yes, sometimes she would say things like, ‘If I can’t escape from my parents, I don’t know what I’ll do,’ but that was all melodrama, part of the game. It meant nothing."

I decided to employ a ruse of my own. "I have a witness–"

"You have a witness!" Haussmann laughed at me. "You sound like a police detective. I thought you were a painter."

"I have a witness who saw Lisette get into your carriage on the day she disappeared."

The baron’s surprised eyebrows shot comically up onto his forehead. "My carriage?" The eyebrows fell as quickly as they had risen. "Your witness is mistaken." He paused for a few seconds, looking down at the papers on his desk. "I sent a carriage to pick her up at the back of the Opera that day, but when my carriage arrived, Lisette wasn’t there. I assumed she had had second thoughts, or maybe her parents had discovered her plans. My driver was going to bring her to...a private location for dinner that evening. He waited twenty minutes behind the Opera and returned to give me the disappointing news. If your witness saw Lisette get into a carriage, it wasn’t mine. You are wrong about that." As an afterthought, he added, "I hope I have been of assistance."

I thanked him for his time and rose to leave.

"And you are wrong about something else, Degas," he told me at the door. "There will be no brothels on my boulevards, only honest businesses."

"Baron," I said, "a brothel is the most honest business of all."
 

 
 
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I left Haussmann’s office and walked along the quais. A few large clouds hung immobile in the sky, painting patches of sunlight and shadow on the river. The Pont des Arts with its steady stream of strollers was reflected upside down in the water’s wavering mirror. I looked at the shimmering symmetry of bridge and reflection, enjoying its ovular resemblance to an enormous eye, until a noisy tourist boat chugged into my vision, cleaving and shattering the image. Its paddlewheel threw up a spray of rainbows–a poor, mechanical compensation. Walking on, I thought about Haussmann’s story and felt almost angry. A part of me wanted him to be lying, wanted to believe that the arrogant baron with his irritating self-confidence and libertine tastes had dressed Lisette as his wife and then murdered her, a symbolic sacrifice. But what if he was telling the truth? That left Prince Bonaparte and Count Polonsky as possible owners of the fateful carriage. If Lisette had been waiting for Baron Haussmann, however, why would she have accepted a ride from anyone else? The girl Sylvie had said Lisette had paused before entering the carriage and had spoken to the person inside. Lisette may or may not have known the occupant, but she did eventually climb in. The person in the rich man’s carriage was someone she thought she could trust.

A group of children were playing in the gravel near the Pont Royal, tossing stones into the river. Little anarchists dismantling Haussmann’s Paris piece by tiny piece. I walked around them and continued onward, my crackling footsteps accompanied by the soft slapping of waves against the quai. I thought of Lisette’s final day, the day that had ended in these waters. She had imagined an escape from her parents, a leap into freedom and safety. She must have been thrilled when she left her mother in the corridor with a promise to return and ducked into some room where the dress and necklace were hidden. Her heart must have been beating violently with anticipation and trepidation as she walked from the building, crossed the sunny courtyard (was it sunny that day?), passed through the gate alone and stood on the sidewalk waiting for Haussmann’s driver. But then something went wrong. There was an unexpected face in the carriage, an unexpected hand that she ultimately, for some reason, accepted. She stepped up to the carriage and vanished from the world, until the world found her again in this river. While listening to the baron I had thought it ironic that he had interpreted Lisette’s sincere desire to escape from the shack in the Maquis as an elaborate seduction strategy, but now I wondered if Haussmann, with his years of experience among dancers, had been correct. Was my belief in Lisette’s sincerity an overly sentimental interpretation? Greed, not monstrous parentage, might have been her true motive, but it was hardly a motive worthy of blame in Second Empire Paris. It was the motor that made the city move. Anyway, this matter of Lisette’s sincerity was distracting me from the most important question: what happened during those vanished hours? I thought of Lisette’s parents again. Had they somehow discovered her escape and interrupted it? Was the hand in the carriage her mother’s hand? Had she been spirited back to Montmartre and accidentally killed during some awful punishment? As I passed under the arch of the Pont de la Concorde, I asked myself if any of these unanswered questions really mattered. I wondered if this investigation was just a game I was playing, a game the living play with the dead. In the end, for Lisette, none of it mattered. In the end, nothing mattered. She was dead.

When I arrived at the Place de l’Alma, you were locking the door of your exhibition building.

"Closing early, Edouard?" I called from across the intersection. "Another banner day, I presume."

"I’m going to visit Baudelaire," you said. "Come along. It’s time you saw what’s become of our century’s greatest poet."

I accompanied you up the boulevard, past jeweler’s shops and cafes, bakeries and pharmacies. "Baudelaire’s in terrible shape," you told me. "He had a series of strokes last year in Belgium. He lost his power of speech and much of his mind, too, it seems. He can only say a few simple words, nonsense really, and he can’t write at all."

"I always suspected Belgium could have a detrimental effect on the brain."

"You have absolutely no heart, Edgar."

"Exactly. It’s better that way."

"Some Belgian friends put him into a Catholic nursing home. Things looked good for a while. He seemed to be recovering. But then one day he developed the unfortunate habit of shouting out two nonsense syllables. Without any reason or provocation he would shout very loudly, "Cre nom!" Sometimes he would do this in the middle of the night and disturb the other patients; sometimes he would shout it in the daytime and even more deeply disturb the nuns. They thought he was calling out an edited version of ‘Sacre Nom.’ Of course, he wasn’t. Baudelaire didn’t know what he was saying. His mind was gone. But the sisters held a sabbath and decided he was guilty of blasphemy. So, being good Catholics, the nuns kicked him out of their hospice. Simply washed their hands of him."

"Sisters of Charity, no doubt."

"They put him on a train and sent him back here. If they could have sent him in a crate stamped ‘Defective Merchandise. Return to Sender,’ they would have. So Baudelaire, incapacitated, returned to the care of his mother, an entirely pleasant and entirely uncomprehending woman who calls herself Madame Aupick. That’s the stepfather’s name. Baudelaire hated him. He died." You spoke those last two sentences as if they were not a non sequitur. "She put Baudelaire in this nursing home that seems good enough, as such places go. And she spends most of every day with him. I suppose that’s commendable. She probably tells herself she’s working her way into heaven."

As soon as we entered the nursing home, I was struck by that odor common to places where the unhealthy congregate (hospitals, prisons, churches): a mixture of sweat, urine, hair oil, and the cloying sweetness of perfumed candles burning to mask the smell. One such candle, with a tiny, motionless yellow flame, sat on a corner of the receptionist’s desk. She recognized you and waved us inside without a word.

We walked down a succession of long, empty white corridors. The open doorways that lined them reminded me of the trees that stood at regular intervals along the boulevards, and I wondered if the similarity was intentional. Had the hospital had been built to Haussmann’s design or was Haussmann turning Paris into one vast hospital? Henceforth, we would be patients instead of citizens, and we could all trust Napoleon III to cure our diseases.

After the bland, white corridors, the courtyard garden was an unrealistically colorful place, as artificial as the most garish Opera backdrop. Bright red tulips and pink and yellow roses burst in their beds against a background of sunny green grass. A cordon of blood poppies surrounded the garden and rows of purple violets bordered the paths. It was a landscape carefully designed to speak of health and vitality, and this communication would have been successful but for the presence of human beings. Along the gravel paths, patients young and old sat motionless on benches. Some stared straight ahead as if hypnotized; some appeared to be sleeping. Other patients had been strapped into wooden wheelchairs, expressions of self-pity and abandonment worn into their faces. A few of them looked up imploringly as we walked past.

The window of Baudelaire’s room opened onto the garden, but the curtains were drawn. When we entered, the poet lay propped up on pillows and Madame Aupick was tilting a glass of water into his mouth. He looked even worse than Nadar’s most uncompromising photographs of him. His body was wasted, a repulsive sight. Slack, obscenely wrinkled skin clinged to his skull; his eyes were sunken and half-closed. The hands that rested atop the blanket were so skeletal that they reminded me of illustrations in anatomy books. The familiar face was only vaguely recognizable, as if we were looking at a relative who slightly resembled Baudelaire rather than the man himself. His mother, by contrast, seemed plumply full of life, and as I looked at the two of them I thought that rather than giving sustenance to her son, Madame Aupick was taking it away, strengthening herself by an act of maternal vampirism.

Baudelaire turned his head toward you, and his mouth slowly curved into a smile. A trickle of water poured over the dam of his lower lip, flowed down his chin and fell onto the white shirt, where it flattened into a large, dark stain. When his gaze shifted to me, the smile faded. Speaking slowly, as if to a child or imbecile, you introduced me. The rictus returned, and Madame Aupick interpreted: "My son is happy to meet you, Monsieur Degas."

The man on the bed looked far beyond any kind of happiness. His mouth opened and closed twice, producing no sound aside from the wet sibilance of his tongue, which moved uncontrollably within its orifice like a baby animal trying to be born.

"Be calm, Charles," said his mother. "Don’t exert yourself."

Baudelaire coughed and managed to speak a syllable. "An...An..."

You understood and answered, "Suzanne couldn’t come today. But she said she would be here on Friday to play for you. She has been practicing a new piece by Wagner."

Whether or not he comprehended these words, when they had been spoken he closed his eyes and let his head sink into the pillows.

"My son is very tired today," the mother told me, "but you can see that he is regaining his power of speech. Little by little, my Charles is improving, And we must never lose hope, no matter what the doctors say. Don’t you agree, Monsieur Degas?"

I wanted to say no and slap the woman, hard. Instead, I nodded noncommitally and lowered myself into a nearby chair.

You stood at the foot of the bed and spoke to the apparently unconscious poet. "My exhibition is going very well, Charles. The crowds are not large, but most visitors seem to like it. I am beginning to sense that opinions are changing, that the tide is turning in our favor." Baudelaire opened his eyes and coughed, a deep, violent cough that shook his entire body. You spoke over it. "I believe that my triumph–if this is a triumph–is also your triumph. It is more yours than mine, in fact."

Your performance made me very uncomfortable, Edouard. I had never seen you acting so subservient before, so sentimental–and toward a man with a blasted brain who probably couldn’t understand you. You were like a son appealing for his dying father’s approval.

Suddenly, a loud cry escaped from Baudelaire’s mouth: "Cre nom!" My head jerked up in surprise. "Cre nom!" he called out again.

From down the hall came an elderly voice, weak but audible: "Shut up, for God’s sake!"

"Cre nom!" Baudelaire answered.

"My son is in pain, Monsieur Degas." With one hand Madame Aupick smoothed the greasy hair on the poet’s head. His teeth were clenched in what looked like pain but could have been anger. "He has ugly sores all over his body. He suffers the torments of Job and calls out to God for deliverance."

"Cre nom!" he shouted, as if on cue.

"He has accepted Our Lord, don’t you see? For so long, I worried about Charles. He seemed like such a prodigal. But he has returned, and that is a reason to be thankful, no?"

He opened and closed his mouth several times like a fish gasping at the air.

"If my son must die, he will die in the arms of the Church. He has given me that comfort."

Baudelaire’s arms dropped down to the bed and he tried to raise himself on his elbows. "Cre nom!"

"Yes, Charles! You see, Monsieur Degas, even in his pain he cries out the name of the Lord to show me that he believes."

He struggled to lift his upper body, to sit upright. Sweat beaded at his hairline. He shouted more loudly than ever, "Cre nom!"

Madame Aupick put her fleshy hand on his forehead and firmly pushed him back down into the pillows. "Charles, be still. You will tire yourself."

He croaked softly, "Cre nom."

"Yes," said his mother, "yes, Sacre Nom, Nom de Dieu."

***************

"That was almost too depressing for words," you said. We were back on the boulevard and walking toward the Arc de Triomphe, which rose like an enormous tomb at the end of the street. "A few weeks ago he could speak entire words. Granted, they were usually repetitions of what others said to him, but at least he was speaking. Now he’s reduced to a few syllables and that horrible crying out."

I was silent as we rounded the Place de l’Etoile, where a constant stream of carriages seemed doomed to circle the arc again and again like penitents out of Dante. I remained silent when we turned northward toward your house. I was thinking of the irony of a poet without a voice, a man of words with no words of his own. I wondered if Baudelaire’s mind might still be functioning properly despite all the physical impairments. That would be the worst imaginable torture: a living mind trapped inside a body that’s already dead, forced to endure that old woman with her prattle about God. The only possible blessing for Baudelaire would be death. A muted poet was like a paralyzed painter, or a blinded one. But I refused to think of that. I shook my head. There wasn’t a bit of cloudiness in my vision today.

We neared the Gare Saint Lazare, and you began to reminisce about Baudelaire. "A few years ago we would walk in the Tuileries every afternoon. I took my sketchpad and he brought his notebook. One afternoon as I sat beside him on a bench he wrote that entire prose poem about the boy who hanged himself in my studio. The effortlessness of it! Baudelaire would write a few words, pause to remark on someone passing by, write a little more, make some changes, than stand up and say, ‘Well, Manet, my work is over for the day.’ And the next day everyone was reading the poem in the newspaper. I sometimes wish paintings could be made that quickly."

"They can be, Edouard, if quality is not a concern."

I was not included in the ‘everyone’ who had read Baudelaire’s piece, but I remembered the story. You had hired a neighborhood boy to do odd jobs around your studio. He was a good worker, a fast learner. You began to think you had found an apprentice. And then one day you walked into the studio and saw him hanging from a beam. He had climbed atop your worktable to fasten the cord, slipped it around his neck and jumped off. No one knew why.

Entering your apartment, I greeted Suzanne and glanced toward the sofa to see if my double portrait was framed yet. You cannot imagine my shock. Even thinking about it now, almost half a century later, my hand shakes as I write these words–and it shakes with anger, Edouard, not age. The portrait had indeed been framed, but it had also been butchered. A large piece was missing from the right side. The piano and most of Suzanne’s body, including her face, had been cut off. Only her back and the back of her head remained at the extreme right edge of the canvas. Your own image, of course, was still complete, leaning back on the sofa and contemplating your slashed wife.

I think I said, "What happened?" I walked toward the painting with my mouth hanging open. I looked back at you and noticed that Suzanne had quietly vanished from the room. "What have you done?"

You seemed unaffected by my shock. (What were you thinking, Edouard?) "That side wasn’t very good, Edgar," you said casually, "so I made a little correction."

"Correction?" I tried to control my voice; my head began to shake. "You call that a correction?" I lost control and yelled, "You should work in an abattoir, you fucking butcher!"

I ripped the painting from the wall. A small piece of plaster came off with it, leaving a dark, jagged hole the size of my hand above your sofa.

"Edgar!"

Holding the painting before me like a shield, I walked directly to the door. I turned away from your gaze and avoided your words. When I reached the corridor, you called from the doorway, "At least leave me the frame!" With a few precise kicks (one of them aimed at your painted image), I released the painting from its frame. I hurled the empty wooden rectangle toward your doorway; it framed your astonished face for a second before clattering to the floor.

"I will return your still life presently," I said and marched down the stairs with my painting.
 
 

 
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
 

As night fell I sat in my darkening studio and stared at the mutilated portrait. It was leaning against my wall now, below the portrait of M. Dury with his jealously guarded portfolio of prints. I had already examined the canvas and noted the precision of your cut. This had been no act of passion. You had carefully sliced through Suzanne’s body with your knife, a clean, surgical incision. Why did you do it, Edouard? (You can tell me now.) Was it the expression of some otherwise inexpressible jealousy at my abilities? Had I violated you sense of territoriality, the idea that only you should be permitted to paint your wife? Was this canvas the sign of some hidden anger you felt toward me? Or did it have nothing to do with me? Was it something else, some rage toward Suzanne, something simmering in your apartment that finally boiled over? What was your resentment (for we all resent something; it’s one of the ways we define ourselves), how deeply did it run and to whom was it directed? You were like a mountain that looked calm and picturesque, a pleasant image on a postcard, but fiery channels flowed under your surface, a network of concealed emotions that might burst through the rock at any moment and spew out with deadly force.

We had known each other for six years and I was still asking myself who you really were. You were another mystery now, another book with missing pages. I wondered if anyone could really know anyone else. We are all essentially mysterious, I thought, because we carefully make ourselves so: concealing our thoughts and emotions, dissimulating our desires. The process of acquaintance with others can only result in a deeper appreciation of their mysteries: an unfamiliar shallowness becomes a deeply complex unknown. The more we know of someone, the more we understand how little we know about him. I was trying to solve the mystery of Lisette’s death, but the greater mystery was her life–insoluble now, lost without a clue. What thoughts went through her head as she stood in the wings preparing to go onstage? What did she really think of those parents who thought of her only as a tool, a thing for making money, a performing animal? What did she think about that? Or did she dare to think? Maybe her quietness was an admission that the bleakness of her life left her with nothing to say.

I thought of Baudelaire again, of his wordless mouth opening and closing. He strained to speak, to be understood, but he only succeeded in becoming a ventriloquist’s dummy for Madame Aupick’s pious platitudes. The relationship between that mother and her son now struck me as exemplary of all human interactions. We select a few facts from someone’s life and fit them into an interpretation that is always a misinterpretation because it’s based solely on the facts we select. Contradictory or unsupportive facts are casually ignored or dismissed as aberrations. We hear and see only the meanings we are prepared to see and hear. We misinterpret the world in our own image, and we do it so effectively that we are stunned whenever something reminds us that our world is a misinterpretation.

*************

I heard horses’ hooves stamping on the Rue de Laval and a familiar voice calling my name. Looking down from my studio window, I saw Georges standing in the door of his carriage. I slid open one of the glass panes and he called up, "Make yourself presentable and come down here! I’m taking you to Victoria’s!"

My reflection in the studio mirror looked a bit rumpled, perhaps, but fashionably so. I went to the bedroom to splash some water on my face.

I had never been to Victoria’s, but like everyone else I had heard of her, the reigning monarch of the Parisian demimonde. I was beginning to see the structure of Parisian prostitution as a great pyramid, a hierarchy that mirrored the class structure of so-called legitimate society. At the base of the pyramid were the independent prostitutes, registered and unregistered streetwalkers who did their business against alley walls or in the smallest and sparest of rented rooms. Places like La Saison were on the next level; then came the bourgeois brothels, moderately comfortable houses where the guests could relax in modestly-appointed salons before enjoying the merchandise. Above these were the relatively few higher-class houses, such as the still-unknown establishment that had purchased Lisette’s friend, the dancer I knew only as Jeanne. At the apex was a handful of courtesans, the grandes horizontales who chose their protectors from among Paris’s wealthiest men. Victoria was the foremost of these.

She was born in England, her legend said, the daughter of a Dover innkeeper. One day in her sixteenth year she was overheard singing in the kitchen by a musical theatre impresario whose crossing to Calais had been delayed by a storm. The next morning (a clear and calm day on the Channel) she bade Angleterre goodbye and was to be seen shortly afterward performing at the Variétés. There she was quickly noticed by the first of her wealthy protectors (the fact that she appeared onstage almost completely nude in the guise of Cupid surely facilitated the noticing), and over the following years she played wealthy men off one another so successfully that she earned a fortune, a mansion on the Champs-Elysées and the enmity of Paris’s other courtesans. One of these women challenged her to a duel, and Victoria met her with pistols at dawn in the Bois de Boulogne. When the morning was over, the innkeeper’s daughter had one less critic among the courtesan class. (The other woman’s shot went wide, but Victoria’s bullet struck her challenger in the face, mangling her jaw and destroying a formerly flawless cheek.)

When Georges’s silent carriage arrived at Victoria’s hotel, we were ushered inside by her butler, and I was immediately surprised by the tastefulness of the decor. I had expected the usual courtesan gaudiness as described in popular novels and magazines: gold and mirrors everywhere, allegorical paintings by Salon favorites depicting the mistress of the house as Venus, Diana and/or Beauty Personified. Instead, the hotel was decorated in a restrained eighteenth-century style (as was the butler; I found his powdered wig quaint and amusing). We were led upstairs and through anterooms paneled in white, pink and light blue, the walls and ceilings bearing only a minimal amount of classical ornamentation. The pictures we passed were copies after Watteau and Pater along with a few pastel portraits that looked original. I remember thinking that the pastels wouldn’t have been out of place in my father’s collection.

The butler led us into a pink drawing room where the only lapse of taste was a Winterhalter portrait of our hostess looking as blandly beautiful as all of Winterhalter’s other subjects as she stood against one of his predictably gauzy backgrounds. We weren’t forced to contemplate it long before the real Victoria entered. She was about thirty years old and not beautiful, but she exuded such energy and determination that most people probably failed to notice her hard, almost boyish face, a face I had seen before on street children from Montmartre. She wore a loose-fitting green kimono, and her long, reddish brown hair–the texture of silk, the color of autumn leaves–trailed behind her as she strolled directly across to us. When Georges had duly kissed her offered hand, he presented me, and I brushed lips against knuckles. She said, "I noticed you were looking at my portrait, Monsieur Degas, Could you paint something as beautiful as that?"

I walked to the painting and pretended to study it more closely. "No," I admitted finally, "I’m not yet capable of something like this. I may be able to duplicate it in a few years, however, after I’ve gone completely blind."

I was unsatisfied with the witticism–too wordy–but Victoria was pleased. She released a cackle of laughter that reminded me of the live chickens at Les Halles. "You may stay," she told me, like a judge pronouncing a verdict. "Be seated, gentlemen."

She gathered the folds of her kimono and descended with practiced languor onto a divan across from us. "I’ve never understood," she said, "why people assume that just because a woman has made a fortune on her back, she must have absolutely no taste." This complaint sounded familiar to me. Where had I heard it before? Looking at Georges, she put on a sorrowful face. "I’m afraid there will be no party tonight, darling. I’m occupied."

"Really?" Georges said. "By whom? I didn’t notice the imperial coach out front."

Her manner turned suddenly brusk. "I am finished with that man. He can barely get it up anymore. Do you know what it’s like with the emperor, Monsieur Degas?"

Georges chuckled. "I doubt if Edgar has had that particular experience."

"He undresses alone," Victoria narrated, "and lies down on the bed like a corpse. He calls me in, and it takes me about fifteen minutes just to get him ready. Finally, when my jaw is about to fall off, he orders me to lie down on my back, and he goes to work. He comes in about twenty seconds, and even that makes him sweat so much that the wax in his mustache melts and the ends bend down and tickle my cheeks. And then it’s over. He squirts out a little dribble and groans in pain, and I have performed my service to the empire. I’m still waiting for my medal. Drinks, gentlemen? Guillaume!" A servant who had been standing silently and invisibly in a corner of the room disappeared out the doorway. He returned a moment later with a tray on which a decanter of light-brown liquid was carefully balanced in the middle of a square formed by four glasses. As he lowered the tray to the table, Guillaume glanced at the company and quickly palmed the fourth glass, slipping it into his coat pocket like a magician performing a trick. Georges also noticed his gaffe.

"Your other guest will not be joining us for scotch?" he asked.

Victoria shook her head.

"If not His Majesty," Georges inquired, pointing a finger at the ceiling, "then who?"

She offered him a Mona Lisa smirk and kept her secret.

"He must be wondering what you’re doing right now," Georges tried.

"Not at all." Her grin became a smile. "She is dreaming right now. That should tell you what we’ve been doing for the last two hours or so."

Georges bit his upper lip and almost succeeded in concealing his surprise.

"You men are so proud of yourselves," Victoria told us. "You all think you are the greatest sexual athletes in the world. Even that pathetic Napoleon III probably thinks so. You have no idea what women are capable of."

Georges swallowed a mouthful of scotch. "I’m learning more by the minute," he said.

"None of your fantasies can approach the reality," she bragged. "There are some things men will never know. As for you, you will never even guess her identity."

"Do I know her, this Woman of Lesbos?"

Victoria answered him over the rim of her glass. "Everyone knows her."

"Eugénie!" Georges cried. "You’ve switched from emperor to empress. At least no one can accuse you of disloyalty to the state."

Our hostess gave another cackling laugh. I hoped that most of her protectors had been unhumorous men, rarely subjected to this grating laughter. "Go on," she said. "The Empress Eugénie is your sad fantasy." She turned to me. "And you, Monsieur Degas, would you care to take a guess?"

"I have enough mysteries to solve already."

"Edgar is more of a detective than a painter these days," Georges explained. "He’s investigating the death of that dancer at the Opera who was pulled from the Seine."

"I remember hearing about that." Victoria turned thoughtful. "But weren’t there two dancers? I heard something about another one, I’m sure."

"I only know of one," I said.

"Some of his suspects are friends of yours," Georges offered enticingly.

She put on a blasé tone. "Why does that not surprise me?"

"You have such a low opinion of the men who pay your bills."

"I have a realistic opinion of all men. Who are your suspects, Monsieur Degas?"

I mentioned the girl’s parents, Baron Haussmann, Prince Bonaparte, Count Polonsky.

"I don’t know Polonsky," she began. "Auguste is insane. He’s capable of anything. I have ordered my servants not to let him enter this house. The last time he was here, this room was filled with people and Auguste came lumbering in and sat down where you are sitting now, Georges–I thought the chair would break, he’s getting so fat!–and the first words out of his mouth were an insult to me. He spoke the most incredible filth, insane things he claimed to have heard about me, pure garbage. Well, I had to put him in his place, so I said loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘At least I’d never fuck a sterile donkey like you.’ Auguste stood up and started swinging his stick. Luckily, one of my guests had the presence of mind to smash a bottle over his head. Four of my footmen carried him out. It was like something out of the American wilderness... Yes, I think August could kill a girl if she did something to anger him. Or even if not." She took a drink. "But Haussmann... I don’t think Eugene would ever do anything like that personally. He might order someone to do it, but his hands would be clean. Eugene is the kind of man who would do anything on the emperor’s orders, and he expects the same kind of obedience from those below him." Georges snickered at the double entendre; Victoria shot him an ironic glance and said, "With the baron, I’m always on top. Where were we, Monsieur Degas? Ah, yes, Eugene. He’s a very rational man. He would need a reason to order such an act, a good reason. Did the girl pose any kind of threat to him? Did she know anything that could harm him?"

"I don’t think so," I replied. In fact, I hadn’t thought of this before.

"Might the girl have known something that would harm the emperor?"

"I doubt it. She was just a girl from Montmartre."

"And I’m just a girl from Dover, but if I ever write my memoirs all the Bonapartes will want me dead." She flashed her white teeth at me and I began to understand why so many men (and, it seems, women) found her so attractive.

"I seriously doubt if this girl could write," Georges interjected. "All the dancers are illiterate."

"Yes, you see to that, don’t you?" Her tone was now accusatory. "The Opera gets these girls when they are how old? Seven? Eight? And they teach them nothing except how to dance. You men keep them ignorant just so you can feel intelligent around them."

Georges felt called upon to defend his gender by defending one of its institutions. "The Opera pays them better than any other job they could find."

"Not if you educated them."

"My dear, we can’t educate the working classes." The Duc de Chaillot spoke through his laughter. "If we did, they wouldn’t want to work for us anymore."

"What happens to them when they’re too old to dance?" Victoria asked. "What happens to them when they fail their examinations or get kicked out for breaking some stupid rule?"

"You know the answer to that question as well as I."

"Louisine’s."

I spoke into the silence that followed the word: "I must admit my ignorance."

"That’s a first, for a man," said Victoria bitterly.

"Who or what is Louisine’s?"

"It’s a wonderful establishment supported by the Jockey Club," said Georges.

"It’s a whorehouse where they fuck all the girls who couldn’t make it at the Opera," said Victoria.

"Victoria’s education has given her a charming vocabulary, hasn’t it, Edgar? Louisine’s is a very exclusive house that employs young women who can’t find employment elsewhere and pays them exceptionally well. It is true that some of these women–"

"Girls!" Victoria insisted. "Call them what they are: little girls!"

"–are former employees of the Opera who for one reason or another were dismissed. In most cases, they make more money at Louisine’s than they ever could have made on the Opera stage."

"Money justifies everything for you," our hostess said harshly.

"And not for you?" Georges gestured at the opulent wealth of our surroundings.

"There are some people I wouldn’t fuck for any amount of money. Auguste Bonaparte, for example, or your precious Empress Eugénie."

A bewigged servant entered and whispered in her ear.

"I’m sorry, gentlemen," Victoria said as she rose, "I must go."

"Duty calls," mocked Georges. He flicked his tongue rapidly in and out of his mouth.

Victoria’s mouth curved into the slightest of smiles. "You really have no idea... Stop by again sometime, Monsieur Degas. Perhaps you can paint me before you go blind." She turned to Georges. "And as for you, you reprobate, I’m glad you didn’t have a good time here tonight." Victoria kissed him chastely on the cheek and walked out smiling to herself.

***********

Outside, the sidewalk and boulevard glistened from a recent rain, and a cool wind was blowing. A single carriage rattled down the street toward the Arc de Triomphe, which no longer resembled the tombstone I had compared it to earlier that day. Now, at night, it looked like a pagan altar rising amidst a sacred circle of fiery gaslights.

"That was disappointing," Georges said as we walked from Victoria’s door to where his coachman waited, stiff as a statue in the driver’s seat. I wondered if the man had taken shelter when it rained. Most likely not. "Usually there are guests and girls. The guests are often more diverting than the girls." He turned around and looked up at a lighted window on the third floor. "I never thought she was into women, though. Who on earth could it be?"

Unable to reply and uninterested in the question, I remained silent as another lone carriage hurried by.

"It’s much too early to go home," he complained, "and I so despise going home bored." His coachman jumped down and opened the door for us.

"Let’s go to Louisine’s," I suggested, as if the idea had just occurred to me.

"You surprise me, Edgar." He was smiling now. "Are you a Mephistopheles luring me into debauchery and doom?"

"As you wish."

Before the door closed, sealing us into silence, Georges called out, "Paul! Take us to Louisine’s!"

When the door opened a few minutes later, we were in front of an ordinary-looking house on one of the streets that Haussmann planned to bury beneath his eponymous boulevard. We climbed three steps to a door from which a large brass knocker protruded like an unsightly tumor. It supposedly represented the head of a growling lion with a bit in its open mouth. Georges fearlessly reached into the mouth, grabbed the bit, raised it, and slammed it down three times in rapid succession against the brazen beast’s palette. The door was opened by a tall, lovely young woman who wore the formal dress of a male butler, tightly tailored to her trim physique.

"Good evening, Marina," said Georges.

"Welcome, duke." Her Russian accent reminded me of Count Polonsky. Georges said something in her native language, and she laughed softly while leading us to the salon.

The room was a perfect example of Napoleon III style, a monument to modern ugliness. The walls were covered in red silk and encrusted with heavy ornamental cornucopias and flower baskets, all garishly gilded. The furniture was upholstered to match the blood-red walls. Stucco cherubs held the curtains above every window and hovered near the ceiling in every corner of the room. The ceiling itself was a giant painted Allegory of Something overloaded with decoratively contorted female nudes, all painted in the approved academic style: symmetrical breasts, shaved pubes, genitalia obscured by carefully placed shadows. Below this scene, well-dressed men of all ages sat with girls who all looked younger than our eighteen year-old butler. The youngest ones, moving about the room with drinks trays, were probably ten or eleven years old, girls with the bodies of boys. They all wore nearly identical blue gowns.

"It’s a kind of heaven, isn’t it, Degas?" Georges said.

"I would have chosen a different noun." Had I used that line recently? I couldn’t remember.

The madame (Louisine herself?) came up to welcome us. She was by far the oldest woman in the house, a matron of fifty with her hair pulled back in a tight bun. She addressed Georges. "You would like Marie this evening, duke?"

"Yes."

"She’ll be down in a few minutes. Dora here will keep you entertained until she’s ready." The madame presented a young girl with curled blonde hair who curtsied and took Georges’s hand.

"Excellent," he said royally. "This is my friend, the Duke de Gas. Treat him as you would myself."

Georges’s girl guided him to a nearby sofa. As they sank into the red cushions, he nodded greetings around the room. The madame took my arm and led me in the opposite direction, to a brightly gaslit corridor, one side of which was lined with open doorways. I could hear girlish voices coming from the rooms.

The madame clapped her hands and called out, "Parade!" Immediately, fifteen or so girls emerged from the doorways and lined up with their backs to the opposite wall as if for military inspection. They were all dressed in the thin blue gowns that were apparently the uniform of the place.

As the madame and I walked slowly along the line, she gave her customary speech. "You have your choice of any of my girls, duke. I have all kinds of girls: the young and childlike, the older and more womanly, fair ones and dark, small ones and tall. What is your pleasure?" Some of the girls looked at me, forced flirtatiousness in their eyes. Others looked modestly down or stared straight ahead like soldiers. The younger girls relied on their natural cuteness, while the older ones attempted to read my personality and adjusted their attitudes accordingly. Some played shy; others were boldly encouraging. "Perhaps you noticed our butler, Marina," the madame was saying. "She is also available. And she can take the man’s part, if that is your pleasure."

"Do you have a girl here named Jeanne?" I asked. "She would have arrived here about six months ago, a former dancer at the Opera."

The woman nodded her head a single time and said sympathetically, "Sadly, duke, the Jeanne you speak of is no longer here. Which of my girls pleases you the most?... Or perhaps it’s not a girl you desire? That does not matter to me, duke. I am not one to judge. Pleasure is pleasure, and this is a house of pleasure. Upstairs we have a few boys that–"

I interrupted her. "Can you tell me where the girl Jeanne went?"

She shook her head. We were at the end of the line of young prostitutes.

"Which one of these girls knew Jeanne best?" I asked.

The madame looked at me suspiciously, and then she smiled. "You would like Marina, wouldn’t you?"

When I repeated my question, a girl near the middle of the line spoke up. "I was Jeanne’s roommate, duke."

She looked about twelve years old. Dark hair fell past her shoulders.

The madame glared at her.

I selected her.

***************

She called herself Adele. She claimed to be fourteen, but my first impression was probably correct. In the small room upstairs she turned up the gaslight to the strength of a single candle, closed the door, and sat beside me on the edge of the bed. Her hand went automatically to my fly and undid the top button. I flinched and moved very slightly away from her. She looked up, surprised. I could not tell her of my condition, of the bandage around the tip of my penis, of the sore that caused a sharp biting pain whenever I was aroused. I encircled her tiny wrist with my thumb and forefinger and returned her hand gently to her lap. "We won’t do that," I said.

Adele jumped to her feet, turned up the light, and stood in front of me. "You want to look at me, then? And do it yourself?"

I was silent. Keeping her eyes on my face, she began to unbutton her gown. I watched without speaking as her fingers worked slowly down, separating the blue fabric and revealing a channel of pale flesh that flowed from throat to waist. With practiced movements, she shrugged the straps off her shoulders and stood half-naked before me. I was unable to speak, unable to think. I caught myself staring at the spot where the concavity of her abdomen met the lower point of her breastbone. For some reason, that place looked incredibly vulnerable to me. If I lifted a single finger and pressed it there, her body would break in two.

I closed my eyes and opened them. Looking at the wall above her head, I said, "No. Cover yourself. I want to talk to you."

Adele slipped her thin arms back through the straps. "Talk about what?" she said, buttoning up.

"What happened to Jeanne? Where is she?"

"We’re not supposed to talk about that."

"It’s all right. I’m not going to tell anyone."

There were footsteps in the corridor. After they stopped and a nearby door snapped shut, Adele dragged a wooden chair from the wall and sat in front of me. She spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper. "The walls are thin. We can’t let anyone hear." I leaned down until our heads were a few inches apart. That close, her face was suddenly huge, filling the room and blocking all else from my sight. I felt her warm breath on my cheek when she said, "Jeanne is dead, duke. They found her body in the river last week. Somebody beat her to death."

How can I describe the effect of her words? The floor seemed to drop out from under me. What I thought was solid ground became open air. The unknown unfolded itself like a black flower and surrounded me. Wandering into the maze of Lisette’s mystery, I heard the hammering of other mazes being constructed all around me. I felt disoriented and displaced, like a provincial who suddenly discovers that his tiny village is not the center of the world. Everything I had considered central was revealed as merely one part of a large and complex structure of life and death, a place where mysteries lead only to other mysteries: more questions, no answers.

Through the wall I heard a man groaning with pleasure. Repeated every few seconds, the sound became louder, eventually turning desperate.

"Do you know who did it?" I asked, trying to ignore the groans.

"No one talks about it. But I think madame thinks it was that Prince Bonaparte who used to see Jeanne two or three times a week."

"What does this prince look like?" There were, of course, many Bonaparte princes wandering around Paris in 1867. I wanted to avoid unnecessary confusion.

"A very fat man. He only visited Jeanne. He never went with any of the other girls. The prince was like you. He liked to watch–Oh, I’m sorry monsieur...duke." She looked down, embarrassed.

"Go on."

"But sometimes the prince got angry. I guess because his body doesn’t work like an ordinary man’s. When he got angry he would make a lot of noise, and then he would calm down and it would all be over. But the last time with Jeanne, he beat her with his stick. Madame heard her screaming and ran into the room and we all saw Jeanne on the floor, rolled up like a ball. And the prince was bringing his stick down on her back, a big, heavy stick. Some of the girls do that, they let the men slap them or hit them, but not Jeanne. She was screaming."

The moans from next door stopped abruptly and were soon replaced by the rocking sound of a bed in vigorous use.

"So madame calmed the prince down," Adele continued, "and he went to the salon and drank for a while. Then he went back up and spent an hour with Jeanne. The next morning, Jeanne was gone. I guess the prince arranged to meet her somewhere, and then he killed her. That afternoon they found her in the river."

I doubted something about this story. The Auguste Bonaparte I had met in the foyer the previous week–the week of Jeanne’s death–seemed incapable of even the least calculation. Arranging a rendezvous and plotting a murder seemed well beyond his capacities. A crime of madness, of insane passion, yes; but one of premeditation?

"How does the prince seem when he comes here?" She didn’t understand the question. "Does he speak well? Does he act or talk strangely? Do people understand what he says?"

"Sometimes he talks about different things with the gentlemen in the salon and they always laugh. He must be very funny. On other days he comes in and doesn’t say a word except for things no one understands, not even the other men. And he screams at people for no reason. Those are his bad days, but he also has good days."

"How was he acting on the day he beat Jeanne."

She thought about this. "It’s funny. Before he started hitting her, that was one of his good days. Then it got bad for a while. But after a while he was good again."

I mentally finished the cycle: Auguste in a better humor had gone back to Jeanne’s room; he had apologized and had convinced her (with the promise of money, perhaps) to sneak away in the night and meet him; then the madness had returned and Bonaparte had killed her. Something very similar might have happened to Lisette a few weeks earlier.

The creaking bed next door increased its tempo, accompanied by a girl’s breathless cries. Adele was deaf to the sound.

"Has Prince Bonaparte come back since Jeanne died?"

"No," said Adele, "and if he did, I doubt if madame would let him inside."

"Quite right. He’s destroying the property." I straightened up and looked at her. She was sitting with her feet perpendicular to each other, forming a T shape. "Did you dance at the Opera?"

She smiled at the memory. "I was a student there for three years. But I failed my examination and I was cut."

I nodded, unsurprised. Speaking less softly to be heard over the noise through the wall, I asked about Georges’s girl, Marie.

"The duke always sees Marie," Adele told me. "Many of the men have favorites like that. Others want to see a different girl every time."

"How often does Georges–the duke–visit?"

"Once or twice a week, I guess. Not more than twice a week."

"How old is Marie?"

"The same age as me, duke." She was surprised by the question. I was more surprised that I had asked it. Georges’s sexual life was no more my business than mine was his.

The activity next door changed its character again. The movement of the bed was muffled now, and over it could be heard heavy, panting, dog-like breaths that alternated with a gasping, throaty sound, the sound of someone choking.

"What’s going on over there?" I said, getting up and walking to the door.

Adele called softly, "No, monsieur." She followed me into the empty hallway.

I walked silently to the next door, gently turned the knob, and eased it open just far enough to see inside.

A naked man stood with his back to me, his buttocks moving convulsively back and forth. In front of him, a girl of Adele’s age lay face-up on the bed. Her thin legs clutched at his hips as he fucked her. Opening the door a bit wider, I saw something that I had previously encountered only in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Both of the man’s hands encircled the girl’s throat. As he thrust himself into her, he tightened his grip, released it, then tightened it again, choking her and letting her breathe, choking her and letting her breathe. Even before he paused in his exertions to catch his breath and toss the long hair away from his face, I had already recognized Count Polonsky.

Adele stepped in front of me and pulled the door noiselessly shut. "If you would like to watch me and one of the boys doing something like that," she said, "Madame could arrange a little show for you."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER SIXTEEN
 

The official newspaper, Le Moniteur, reported the story with its usual fairness and balance:

TRAITOROUS MADMAN ATTEMPTS TO KILL EMPEROR

CRAZED WORKER’S MURDEROUS PLANS FOILED WHEN PISTOL MISFIRES

EMPEROR SAYS SAVED "BY GRACE OF GOD," ORDERS MASS FOR WORKERS

Yesterday, as our fearless Emperor sat in his box at Longchamps reviewing a procession of our valiant and courageous imperial guards, a lone madman armed with a deadly weapon breached the cordon of security around the Imperial box and attempted to assassinate our glorious Emperor. Standing directly in front of our Emperor’s person, the dangerous lunatic pulled a pistol, pointed it directly between our Emperor’s eyes, and squeezed the trigger. By the holy and everlasting grace of God (to whom we must always give thanks, etc.), the pistol failed to fire. Our unshakeable Emperor, staring stoically into the face of certain death, calmly ordered the madman’s arrest and completed his review of our stalwart troops. All loyal citizens of the Empire will be overjoyed to learn that our Emperor escaped completely unharmed from the bloody jaws of death. Our Empress Eugénie, as always the exemplary wife sitting at her husband’s side, was likewise completely uninjured by this deranged intruder with murder in his heart. In a statement released exclusively to this newspaper shortly after the incident, our Empress thanked God for releasing her husband from death’s clutches: "This terrible crime must remind all citizens that Our Lord has a plan, and He has placed my husband on the throne of France so that His plan might be fulfilled. The Lord Our God protected my husband today just as He will always protect the Empire and People of France." Just hours after his near-death, the Emperor himself remarked in His customary laconic way to one of our reporters, "I was saved by the grace of God. What else can I say?"

All of the visiting dignitaries who witnessed this horrific crime expressed admiration at the Emperor’s unwavering stoicism. "Yes, absolutely, yes," replied Austrian Ambassador Prince Metternich when asked by one of our reporters if he admired our courageous Emperor’s unwavering stoicism. "He’s one jolly stoic chap," was the opinion of Sir George Upshaw, leading Member of the English Parliament. "You will call him stoic, I suppose," said Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, visibly concealing his admiration.

As for the deranged lunatic, whom all good citizens can only hope is even now receiving his deserved punishment in the Conciergerie, the Préfecture has released a statement identifying him as Pierre Leblanc, 58, a resident of Montmartre and formerly a printer of scurrilous Republican propaganda. "I did it for France," the madman told police. "That’s why I cried ‘Vive la France!’ before I pulled the trigger." (Our reporter, who was seated near the edge of the Imperial box, heard no such cry emanating from the vicious assassin’s lips.) Of far more interest than the ravings of this madman are the opinions of the Prefect of Police: "This case underlines yet again the importance and necessity of rigorous censorship. These kinds of actions are the direct result of Republican propaganda and Socialist agitation. All of those years of exposure to Republican propaganda have addled this man Leblanc’s mind. There are only two answers to problems like this: censorship and the guillotine. I can only hope that after the closing of the Exposition we will see a return to the kind of stringent censorship that makes our Empire great."...

I read the story in an unfamiliar café the morning after my visit to Louisine’s. Wishing to avoid the Café Tortoni, where I might have seen you and been forced to think yet again of the slashed portrait, I had walked toward Montmartre and found this working class place off the Boulevard Rochechouart. It was a dark, dirty bar, an assommoir out of Zola. The cracked and creaking floorboards were covered with soiled sawdust, the windows were tinted brown with grime, and a scattering of morning absinthe drinkers were already hunched over their habitual tables. In one corner, a group of construction workers–from their conversation, I concluded they were roofers–spoke loudly of the previous day’s events. "Stoic, my ass," one of them said. "I bet old Badinguet shit his pants!" "Probably the first good shit he’s had in years," added another.

Not many years before, ‘old Badinguet’ had been the hero of men like these. Most of them had stood by silently or approvingly during Napoleon III’s coup and had affectionately repeated the legend that gave their Emperor his nickname, the tale of his escape from the fortress where he had been imprisoned after attempting to overthrow the government of Louis-Philippe. After five years or so of relatively comfortable confinement, the young Bonaparte had one day dressed himself as a construction worker and casually walked out of the fortress, carrying a board over one shoulder to hide his face from the guards. As the future emperor was crossing a bridge outside the prison gates, a passing worker mistook him for a colleague and said to another man, "There goes Badinguet."

The story–true or not–had endeared Louis to the workers at a time when he had needed their support, but now the old Napoleon III legend had soured on the people. As I sat in that gloomy café sipping lukewarm coffee and pretending to reread the assassination article–and trying to imagine why Pierre Leblanc would have done something so abysmally stupid and suicidal–I wondered if it would be months or years until the next revolution.

**************

When I returned to my studio, Inspector Henri Boulle was waiting for me. I opened the door and saw him standing silhouetted against the large window. One of the windmills on Montmartre looked like a mechanical toy perched atop his bald head, its arms slowly turning.

"Surprised, Edgar?" he asked before I could say anything. "If you were a real detective, you wouldn’t be. We can open any door in the city. We can search your rooms so expertly that you would never know we’d been here. You’d know that if you read Edgar Poe." The broken-backed volume of Poe on my night table had apparently eluded Henri’s professional gaze.

"A visit from you is always a pleasant surprise, Henri."

"I’m happy to hear that." Smiling with exaggerated happiness, he walked toward the middle of the room and seated himself on one of my painting stools. "And I hope you can imagine my surprise yesterday afternoon during our questioning of the emperor’s assassin–excuse me, attempted assassin–when he told me your name. Do you realize how difficult it is to interrogate a man who has only one good arm?" Henri asked, characteristically shifting the subject.

I sat on a stool facing him. "It’s not a question I’ve pondered at great length."

"Well, it should be. If you want to be a detective you should know all of the latest police procedures. Since only one of the man’s arms can feel pain, we only have that one to work with. We can twist the other until it falls off, and he won’t tell us a thing. So we go to work on his good arm, but you can only do so much with one limb. It’s a bad situation. So we have to use water. Do you know what I mean?"

"No, but I assume I will very soon."

"We fill a large basin with water," Henri explained, as if this were his studio and I his eager apprentice in the sadistic arts, "and we hold the criminal’s head under the water until he thinks he’s drowning. Then we pull him up and very politely ask him some questions. Don’t smile, Edgar. I’m absolutely serious. Politeness is extremely important. You want the man to answer your questions, and if you’re rude to him, he will only resent it. So you ask him a question, very politely. And if his answer is not satisfactory, well, then his head goes under the water again. I make it sound simple, but we don’t especially like this technique at the Préfecture. It can be very tricky. You want to hold his head under water long enough to frighten him, but if you hold it too long, he will drown. This always brings the interrogation to an abrupt end, and the officer in charge becomes the laughing stock of the Préfecture for weeks afterwards. I speak from cruel, personal experience, Edgar: it is not good to hold their heads under water too long."

"Your victims would undoubtedly agree."

"I’m sure they would. But as I was saying, you can imagine my surprise when I lifted Leblanc’s head out of the basin and asked him, very politely, to name his associates and in the middle of a long recitation of obviously false names–René Rouge, Maurice Merde, Roger Baiser, names like that–he spoke the name of my friend, Edgar Degas. I said to myself, ‘Now Edgar’s done it. He’s gotten himself mixed up in a real crime, the kind guillotines are built for.’ So I did the only thing I could do in that situation. I immediately put his head under the water again, and as I held it there I remembered the name of your little girl and realized I was holding her father in my hands. When his body started to shake, I pulled his head up and asked him again, with the utmost politeness, to please tell us the names of his associates and not to lie to us anymore. He never said your name again."

I sat there wondering if Henri expected gratitude.

"What did you tell Leblanc?" he asked.

"Nothing. He told me that he thinks Baron Haussmann killed his girl. He blames the emperor and Haussmann for ruining his life. He’s at least partially correct about the latter, I think."

Henri held up his hand, palm outward, to illustrate his first words: "Stop, Degas. On the basis of what you just said, I could put you in Mazas Prison immediately as a possible conspirator in the assassination. This is not the time for you to say anything negative about the imperial family."

"Are you interrogating me, Henri?"

"Do you see a large basin of water anywhere in this room?"

"I’m sure you could improvise with the available materials."

"I’m doing my job," he said.

"If you had done your job with Lisette, we wouldn’t be here today."

"Don’t be melodramatic, Edgar. I believe Leblanc has been planning this little escapade for years. He was a barrel of gunpowder waiting for a spark." Henri glanced over at the portrait of you and Suzanne, still leaning against the wall where I had left it the previous evening. "Why did you slash that painting?"

"Is that an official question?"

He looked at me sardonically.

"Manet did that," I said.

"What?" He glanced back at the painting, then at me. "His own wife?"

"Yes. Maybe you should put him in prison before he takes a knife to the sitter."

Henri went over to the portrait and examined the cut edge. "So Leblanc thinks Haussmann killed his daughter," he said, bending low over the painting. "What do you think?"

"You’re the detective."

He straightened up and returned to his stool. "Indeed. And we have solved the one actual crime you brought to our attention."

"Congratulations," I said flatly. I easily guessed what was coming.

"The necklace that you drew me a picture of was taken from the Morgue by a police officer who delivered it to a person whose identity I will allow you to guess."

"I already knew that, Henri. Haussmann showed me the necklace in his office. He practically bragged about one of his ‘associates’ recognizing it at the Morgue and bringing it to him."

"Doesn’t that seem a little too convenient to you? I mean, Haussmann’s ‘associate’ just happens to be at the Morgue when the body comes in, just happens to see the necklace... To a real detective, such coincidences would strain credulity." Henri thought out loud. "If we consider, however, that Baron Haussmann probably has such associates at every government office in the city, that he in fact controls a large network of these associates, then the discovery of the necklace seems less of a coincidence and more of an expected development. Of course, there is still the possibility that Haussmann killed the girl and forgot to remove the necklace before having her body dumped. He then would have sent one of his associates to wait at the Morgue until the body arrived and remove the incriminating article. That would not strain the credulity of a real detective... ‘Associate,’ that’s a good word. Was that Haussmann’s exact word for the man?"

"As I recall. What word would you use?"

"‘Agent,’ perhaps, or ‘spy.’ Haussmann does have his spies, you know, like every other powerful man. As for this particular spy, today I would call him a ‘former member of the police force.’ The baron is now his sole employer. I would also call him ‘the man who has been following you.’ Surely you realize you’re being followed?"

I said nothing.

"One of my men has been following you since yesterday evening, of course. That’s standard procedure. And I must say, Edgar, I am extremely jealous. Victoria’s mansion and an exclusive brothel in a single night! Does your father know what a life of libertinage you lead? Anyway, my man quickly noticed that someone else was following you. And, by an even more astonishing coincidence–or not–this other man was the same associate who stole the necklace from the Morgue." Henri paused for dramatic effect before delivering his conclusion. "Haussmann is interested in you, Degas. He wants to know what you know."

"People say the baron lacks imagination," I said, "but he seems to imagine that I know something."

"You haven’t solved your case yet?"

"I’m not entirely certain Pierre Leblanc didn’t kill his daughter himself. We now know he’s capable of murder, don’t we?"

"We are all capable of murder, Degas. Except for saints. They’re only capable of getting themselves killed. So yes, Leblanc is capable. But he was hardly competent yesterday. The pistol he used was ancient, made in the 1760's. He told me his father carried it at Valmy. He intended the entire assassination to be symbolic, a republican act, killing the tyrant and all that. He told me he was imitating the American who assassinated Lincoln. He read all about that in the newspapers a couple of years ago. I told him Lincoln wasn’t a tyrant, Lincoln freed the American slaves; Leblanc didn’t know anything about that. Anyway, he couldn’t have assassinated anybody with that gun. The only person Leblanc killed was himself. He’ll go to the guillotine, as he should. That pistol was so old that the spring had turned to rust. As soon as he cocked the hammer, it broke. The emperor was never in danger. He got a good scare, though."

"I heard he was stoic."

"Le Moniteur always does a fine job in these situations," Henri agreed. "In reality, our glorious Emperor screamed like a little girl and pissed in his pants. Don’t laugh, Degas. You would probably do the same thing if somebody pointed a pistol in your face. I know I would. Anyway, what have you learned about Haussmann?"

I told Henri of Lisette’s conversations with the baron and of the witness who saw her entering a rich man’s carriage.

He seemed unsurprised by my revelations. "Haussmann knows or suspects something we don’t about this case. The fact that he’s having you followed tells us that. If the girl really didn’t arrive at Haussmann’s, that would be the end of it, as far as Haussmann is concerned. But there must be something else. And Haussmann thinks you know it or might discover it." Henri spoke now with sincere concern. "Be careful, Edgar. Haussmann can be a powerful friend, but he can be an even more powerful enemy. You don’t want to end up inside the cornerstone of his next building."

"I thought you considered this case a suicide, Henri."

"I’m not convinced it isn’t. But unlike you, I am a real detective. Therefore, I take a scientific approach. I develop a hypothesis, a theory of the crime, based upon available evidence. As new and better evidence is discovered, my hypothesis is open to change. As the hypothesis changes with accumulating evidence, it approaches the truth of the crime. At that point, the hypothesis becomes a solution."

"Are you describing criminal investigation or differential calculus?"

"Both."

"My problem with your mathematics, Henri, is this: the more evidence I gather, the more hypotheses I can create. There’s a confusion of hypotheses, all of them possibly true. Did you know, for example, that Prince Auguste Bonaparte may have killed a girl last week?"

"We’re working on that case."

"Oh," I said sarcastically, "so that’s one you decided to investigate."

Henri was irritated, as I intended him to be. "This girl was obviously beaten to death, unlike your girl. About twenty of her bones were broken, including most of her ribs."

"Exactly the kind of damage one might expect from Bonaparte’s walking stick. That’s his weapon of choice, you know. Was this girl’s skull broken?"

"Among other things."

"Bonaparte tried to have sex with Lisette on the day she was murdered. Her mother interrupted them, and Bonaparte went into a rage. He ran out of the building yelling. We can also safely assume he was swinging his cane."

"Believe me, Degas, I would like nothing better than to lock the prince away for the rest of his life. Well, actually, the one thing I would like better would be to send him to the guillotine along with Leblanc."

"Turn those words into actions, Henri. Arrest him."

"You can’t simply arrest the emperor’s cousin. We must wait until he commits a very serious crime. One that cannot be ignored."

"He may have already killed two girls."

"A whore and a dancer," the inspector said. "We’re waiting until he kills someone people care about."

"Your cynicism is bottomless, Henri."

"My realism, Degas," he corrected. "We are like brothers, you and I."

"Well, my brother, I would like to take you up on your offer to show me the police archives."

"I bet you would!" Henri laughed. "You understand, however, that the archive room at the Préfecture de Police is not the Bibliothèque Nationale. It is the most secret room–well, one of the most secret rooms–in all of Paris, and it is ordinarily not visited by men who are officially under investigation for conspiring to assassinate the emperor." He took a deep breath and released it with an exaggerated sigh. "Today, however, we can make an exception to that rule. Because your name was mentioned during the interrogation, I must make a show of taking you to my office. I was going to pretend to interview you there, but instead I can pretend to interview you in the archive room. Are you ready to go?"

At the door, Henri said, "Tell me, Edgar, is that Victoria as beautiful as they say?"

************

The archive was like a library without books. No, that’s not an accurate metaphor; it suggests emptiness, and the archive was full. It was like a library full of books, none of them bound, a library of loose pages. Row after row of metal shelves stretched from floor to ceiling. They were filled with boxes, and the boxes bulged with dossiers. Tall, rolling stepladders attached to tracks along the tops of the shelves provided access to the upper levels. The room was cavernous and, since it was located at the end of a quiet corridor deep inside the Préfecture, cavernously silent. When Henri closed the door behind us, the click of the latch produced a noticeable echo.

"This is our memory," he said, leading me past the rows of shelves. "This is where we store all of the information that we take in, even the most seemingly insignificant, useless little details. We store them until they become useful, and then we dig them out again. It’s nothing unusual, really. You do the same thing every day on your walks around the city." As Henri spoke, he imitated the gait of a flaneur on the boulevard. "You walk down the street; you see something in a shopwindow; it doesn’t impress you immediately, or you don’t need it yet, so you pass it by; a few days later you realize that you need one of those things–a very fine brush, let’s say, for the details on your portraits–and you think, ‘Now where did I see that?’; you rack your brains, but you can’t remember anymore. The information is lost because you never wrote it down on real paper. You wrote it on your mind, but the mind is a thin, tissue-like sort of paper; most of what we write on it vanishes immediately.

"But we at the Préfecture have solved this memory problem. We write everything down and we keep it here." For emphasis, Henri struck the bottom of his fist against the end of a shelf. The volume of the resulting thud shocked even him. It resounded in the room like a door slammed shut in a silent building. "Like all human beings, we policemen accumulate much more information than we need, more than will ever be useful to us. But unlike you, we never forget it. It’s all here." He led me down an aisle between shelves. The huge room contracted to a single claustrophobic canyon walled with boxes from which white and yellow papers overflowed. "We are no longer required to depend upon human memory with its flaws and foibles, because we have discovered the real meaning of writing. Writing isn’t a supplement to memory; it is memory’s replacement, memory’s externalization. We have externalized the memory function of the human brain."

"And you use it to control humans," I said. Glancing into a box at shoulder level, I read on a protruding paper: "then followed subject to 35 Rue du Telegraph, which address subject entered and where subject remained for one hour and thirty-three minutes. Address is residence of M. Roger de la Court. Enquiries with household staff determined M. de la Court not present at time of subject’s visit. Mme. de la Court was present. Subject spent most of visit in Mme. de la Court’s boudoir. After aforementioned elapsed time subject proceeded to Café des–"

"Not to control them," corrected Henri, "to protect them."

"The same way you protected Lisette and Jeanne? That was her name, by the way, the other girl Bonaparte killed."

"We know that."

"Of course. You know everything...useless." I pulled a sheet of paper at random from one of the boxes and read aloud: "Report of correspondence between the Duc de Morny and Baron James de Rothschild. 16 June: Rothschild writes to Morny concerning funding of construction at Trouville–"

"Put that back, Degas."

"Whom are you protecting by reading Rothschild’s mail? The emperor? Yourselves?"

He spoke like a disappointed tutor. "You haven’t been listening, Edgar. Most of the information here will likely never be of any use. We preserve it because of the possibility that someday, somehow, it might be useful."

"Does Baron Haussmann have a file here?"

"Not here. Haussmann’s file is kept in the office of his nemesis and my superior, the Prefect of Police. In Haussmann’s office, there’s an even larger file on the Prefect."

I now recalled a large wooden cabinet of drawers behind Haussmann’s desk, next to the framed map with ‘corrections’ in the Emperor’s hand.

"Do you keep the file on Prince Bonaparte here?"

"If I answer that question in the negative or the affirmative I will be confirming that the Préfecture keeps dossiers on members of the imperial family. Such practices would, of course, be completely unacceptable."

"Cut the official crap, Henri."

"The Bonaparte file is in my office at the moment. Decidedly unpleasant reading. I doubt it would be of much help to you, though. Constant surveillance of the prince only began two weeks ago, so we have no record of his activities on the day Lisette disappeared. You seem to know more about that than we do."

"You’ve had Bonaparte under surveillance for two weeks?" There was an edge of anger in my voice.

"That’s right." Henri read my–admittedly transparent–thoughts. "And we know exactly what happened to the girl-whore Jeanne."

"You weren’t going to tell me that, were you, Henri? What other secrets are you keeping?"

"Are you investigating Jeanne’s death, too? Isn’t one dead girl enough for you?"

"It doesn’t seem to be enough for you."

Henri leaned against a shelf and recited the details. "Bonaparte visited the brothel–your brothel–Louisine’s on the night in question and had sexual relations with the girl Jeanne. At some point during the intercourse, Bonaparte became violent–"

"I know all of that. What happened after Bonaparte left?"

"He didn’t leave, not immediately. He got into his carriage and drove around to the street behind the house. The girl Jeanne climbed out of her window, shimmied down a drainpipe, and got into the carriage. They went to Bonaparte’s house on the Boulevard Haussmann. He took her into his bedroom and almost immediately became violent again. He beat her with his walking stick until she was dead. An informant told one of our investigators that while Bonaparte was beating her she wouldn’t stop screaming, so Bonaparte kept repeating, "Shut up, shut up, shut up." I guess he finally shut her up. He told his servants to get rid of the body. They rolled it in a rug, drove down to one of the quais and unrolled it into the Seine. Then they returned home and burned the rug. That was stupid. If they had saved the rug and burned the body, there would’ve been no physical evidence of a crime." Finished, he turned and continued walking between the walls of dossiers. I followed him.

"I assume you have a file on Count Leo Polonsky."

"Oh yes, the Red Count. He’s about six aisles over." Henri turned at the end of the shelf.

"Why do you call him that?" I asked the blank gray wall toward which I was now walking.

"Polonsky has been under surveillance because of his radical opinions." Henri’s voice sounded several rows away already. I wondered how he had moved so quickly. "He’s an extreme left-wing revolutionary, probably an anarchist, almost certainly a member of the Communist movement."

"You have the wrong wing, Henri," I called back. "I’ve met the man, and he’s an absolute reactionary."

"Is he?" The disembodied quality of Henri’s voice lent the question an air of metaphysical significance.

I walked along the wall glancing down each aisle, always certain I would find Henri standing in the next one. "I suppose you have a dossier on me in one of these boxes."

"Of course," said Henri, and there he was, in the middle of an aisle, reaching for a box on a shelf just above his head. "We keep files on all of you subversive artists. Manet’s dossier is thicker than Les Miserables. Give me a hand with this."

I helped him lower the box to the floor and asked, "Did you write any of those chapters, Henri?"

"You lost me." He removed a thick file folder from the box.

"In Manet’s Miserables. How many of the chapters did you write?"

He gave me a pained look and sounded sincerely offended. "Edgar, do you think I would spy on my friends?"

To answer that question in the negative or affirmative would be to admit that the thought had occurred to me on more than one occasion. So I said nothing. In some part of my mind, though, I never stopped suspecting that Henri was the Préfecture’s agent at the Café Guerbois. He would have been the perfect spy.

He offered me the heavy file. "Here’s your Polonsky. We can examine him over there."

Under a bright cone of gaslight thrown down from a fixture on the wall, Henri and I sat across from each other, the Polonsky papers cluttering the table between us.

"Here," Henri brandished one of the papers triumphantly. "You think he’s a right-winger? Just listen to this list of books we discovered when we searched his rooms." He read: "Proudhon: five volumes; Bakunin: two volumes; Marx: three volumes; Engels: one volume; Darwin: two volumes–well, that’s not really political, but it’s subversive, I suppose–Voltaire: collected works complete; Fourier: three volumes; and it goes on. There’s no de Maistre, no reactionaries at all. The man is obviously a left-wing radical." He let the paper fall. "I am beginning to doubt your investigative abilities, Degas."

Ignoring him, I leafed through a stack of surveillance reports until I found one for the day of Lisette’s disappearance. It began, as did all the other documents, with the word ‘subject’: "Subject: Polonsky, Lev Nikolayevich, Count, Russian citizen, permanent resident of St. Petersburg, now living at 24 Blvd. Friedland. Subject left home, 10:00. Arrived at Jockey Club, 10:15. Left at 12:15. Arrived Opera (Rue Grange Batelier entrance), 12:30. Left at 13:00. Arrived Café des Italiens, 13:05. Lunch in private room with party including Baron Pilet, Duc de Chaillot, Prince Dmitri Romanov, Prince Waldemirski, Baron Postier. Left alone at 16:00. Stopped at Opera (near Rue Grange Batelier entrance). Subject remained in carriage. Unidentified girl, estimated age 13 years, entered carriage. Carriage left immediately. Returned home, 16:30. Subject and girl entered subject’s residence. Subject and girl left, 19:00. Arrived 12 Ave. des Champs-Elysées (residence of Emily Hyde, known as Victoria, former entertainer), 19:15. Subject and girl entered residence. Guests in party at residence including Baron Pilet, Duc de Chaillot, Laurent de Rennes, Lord Dartford, Eugene Mendes and several women, former entertainers. Subject left alone, 2:00. Returned home, 2:10. Subject remained at residence through night."

My mouth was dry. I could feel the blood pulsing in my throat. The sweat from my palms left two black half-moons at the edges of the paper. I carefully read it again and passed it to Henri with a nonchalant, "What do you think of that?"

While he read the report, I thought of Polonsky at Louisine’s, choking the girl while he fucked her. I thought of the bruises around Lisette’s throat. Was this a solution? If so, I wanted to leap onto the desk and shout, ‘Eureka!’ Or was it another complication, another mystery? Polonsky picked up Lisette. That much was now established. But why did Victoria lie about knowing Polonsky? Why did Polonsky leave Victoria’s house alone? Had Lisette been killed there and then spirited out of the house through an exit the police hadn’t been watching?

Henri looked up from the bottom of the page and met my staring eyes. "Let’s not jump to conclusions, Degas."

"He picked her up, Henri. The rich man’s carriage was Polonsky’s carriage. We know that now."

"We know nothing of the sort. You suspect it. I find the evidence inconclusive."

For a few silent seconds I suspected that Henri was jealous of my investigative coup.

He explained his reservations. "Polonsky spends a lot of time at the Opera. He knows many girls. He could have picked up any one of them that day, not necessarily Lisette–"

"But Lisette was the girl who was picked up at that time on that day in that place. Isn’t that the kind of coincidence that strains your credulity? And Lisette was later found with bruises around her throat as if she had been choked, which is something Polonsky likes to do to young girls."

"How do you know that?"

I spread my hands across the documents laid out on the table. "You have all of these papers on Polonsky and yet you don’t know something that can be learned by a single visit to Louisine’s. I guess I’m a better detective than you, Henri."

"Well, Inspector Degas," he replied, "if I might humbly offer my advice to a man with your years of experience, you should question your beautiful friend Victoria and determine the identity of the girl who didn’t leave her house that night. If that girl was Lisette, we are very close to finding our killer." He caught himself and added, "Assuming, of course, that this isn’t a suicide, which it probably is."
 
************

When I returned to the Rue de Laval, the concierge met me at the front door.

"Monsieur Degas," she said in a voice intended not to be overheard, "a man came about an hour after you left. A big man. He said he was from the police, but now I don’t think so. He demanded that I let him into your room, and since he was from the police, or said he was, what could I do but open your door? I am very sorry, Monsieur Degas. This man, he went crazy. He started throwing your paintings around–"

I immediately bolted up the stairs, taking the steps two or three at a time. Below, I could hear the diminishing voice of the concierge. "He went crazy and made a terrible scene, but he didn’t take anything! He didn’t take anything, Monsieur Degas! I watched him! He took nothing!"

My studio was indeed a mess. Portraits of family and friends stared up at me from odd angles all over the floor. Paintings I had leaned against the walls now lay wherever they had been thrown. Other, framed works had been torn from the walls and tossed on top of them. I stepped carefully over my sister and her husband sitting on their sofa, turned to avoid putting my foot down on M. Dury’s face, and looked with genuine panic at my own collection of prints. My portfolio was, oddly, untouched. It still stood, tied with its ribbon, against the wall under my drawing table. The unknown bringer of chaos must not have noticed it during his rampage. He was undoubtedly too busy tipping over my easels, dumping my brushes on the floor and hurling the slashed Manet canvas against the window to bother with a less accessible object.

Gently pushing canvases out of my way as I walked, I slowly progressed to the window. The mutilated Manet painting stood flat against the glass, facing out. It had been visible from the street for hours. I tried to imagine what passersby must have thought when they looked up and saw this portrait of one and a half people, so bizarrely cropped and so strangely on display. The next time I saw my neighbor Stevens, he would doubtless comment on this unusual form of painterly advertising.

I lifted the painting away from the window and began the long, tiresome process of putting everything back into order.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
 

Nadar’s red balloon looked like an enormous, inverted drop of blood suspended against the morning sky. Its bulbous form blotted out the facade of the Ecole Militaire and cast an elongated shadow over the pavilions and gardens at the back of the Exposition grounds. The balloon was my destination, but as I walked along the curving path that led me deeper into its shadow, I occasionally took my eyes off the goal, turned half-around and pretended to sniff a flower or examine a facade while trying to spot the invisible men who were following me. The knowledge that I was under surveillance by the police and Baron Haussmann, along with the previous day’s shocking but surprisingly undestructive ransacking of my studio, had produced in me a state of extreme self-consciousness (even more extreme than my usual state) that an uninformed observer might easily have interpreted as paranoia. I must have appeared slightly insane as I walked the streets that morning, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds as if someone were constantly tapping it. More than once I had stopped before a jeweler’s or art dealer’s window, ostensibly to examine the merchandise, but actually to look at the people behind me reflected in the glass. Which of those transparent figures passing over the glimmering jewels was Haussmann’s agent? Which was Henri’s? Looking back up the boulevard, I thought that everyone on the sidewalk was following me. And I was essentially correct. I was being followed by everyone walking down the Rue Royale or the Boulevard de la Madeleine, men (and a few women) of all classes and dresses. (Would the police hire a woman, I wondered. Her gender would be the perfect disguise.) The wide and busy sidewalks of Haussmann’s boulevards seemed designed for surveillance. Spies could flow with the traffic, blend with the crowds. Was that another of the baron’s intentions, to build a city of surveillance, broadening and straightening the streets to make the activity on them more visible? No idea seemed too paranoid anymore. With such thoughts running through my mind, I arrived at Nadar’s launch site.

Two workmen were hammering a sign above the entrance: BALLOON ASCENSION BY NADAR / WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATOR / TO WATCH: 1f / TO RIDE: 5f. Beyond the gate, three tiers of benches surrounded the two-level basket of Nadar’s balloon, a basket the size of a worker’s home. The lower level contained a mobile darkroom and Nadar’s aerial photography equipment. Above this was the large viewing platform where the aerial photographer himself now stood in a new bright-red suit. He called down to me, "You’re just in time for our test launch. We’re going to take it up a couple of times to make sure it doesn’t fly off or crash or anything. Come along. It’s perfectly safe."

"Sounds like it." I climbed the steps to the basket like–No, I will not compare myself to a man mounting a scaffold. The steps, the benches, the entire area had the just-constructed smell of new wood and sawdust. It was the odor of hurried, slapdash improvisation, with all of its concomitant dangers. I was far from reassured, but at the top of the steps I entered the basket, saying, "Have you ever crashed one of these things?"

"Not recently," he said, swinging the little gate closed behind me. "There’s nothing to worry about, Degas. We’re not even flying, really. It’s like a kite on a string." In fact, the balloon was tethered to the ground by four thick nautical ropes attached to the basket’s corners. The ropes were coiled around four large rollers that looked like gigantic spools of thread. The spools were turned in unison to raise and lower the balloon. "You see? We’re not going anywhere but up."

Nadar’s workers took their positions and began turning the spools. The ropes slackened and the balloon slowly rose. I was unsteady at first, almost stumbling against the platform’s waist-high wall. Nadar caught me, his hands on my shoulders. "You have to get your sky legs," he said. "It doesn’t take long."

I felt a sickly sinking sensation in my stomach, as if I were falling rather than rising. This was accompanied by a more pleasurable tingling in my groin. Nadar nudged me with his elbow and said, "Feel it in your balls, don’t you? That’s the pleasure of flight. It’s as good as fucking...well, almost."

We were level with the roof of the Ecole Militaire and going higher. Looking straight down, I saw the workmen diminishing in size as they turned the spools faster. My gaze followed the twisting path that brought me here, past pavilions and gardens to the Exposition Palace. Over its roof I could see the smoke of a steamboat on the Seine, and behind that lay the large, dark green mass of the Bois de Boulogne. Following the curve of the river, I saw the upper half of the Arc de Triomphe rising above the modern buildings like one of those half-buried ruins in Piranesi’s views of Rome. It looked incongruous, but no more so than the onion domes of the Russian Church that shone in the sunlight farther north. We rose higher and I squinted my eyes against the glaring gilded dome of the Invalides, that appropriately garish St. Peter’s of Bonapartism. Farther back, the ugly, unfinished-looking towers of St. Sulpice rose above the rooftops and the Pantheon dome sat upon its drum of columns. The tiny twin towers of Notre Dame looked like a scale model of themselves in the far distance; they were almost dissolved in hazy morning light.

As we continued to rise, Paris slowly spread out before me like a vast, disorderly hive, an organic thing, its growth checked only by the thick stone wall that curved around its periphery. Parisians had accommodated their city to the shape of the wall like wasps building their nest to fill an available niche. Beyond the wall, green spaces less lush than the Bois were punctuated by the smokestacks of factories and divided by gently curving roads. I pulled my gaze back from the expanding horizon and looked down onto the roof of the Exposition Palace. From this God’s-eye height the entire structure resembled a lost part from some gargantuan machine. I counted its concentric rings and peered into the green garden, seeing the oval ponds and rows of white chairs and the central circular pavilion of money.

After checking the ropes, Nadar opened a trapdoor and climbed down to the lower level, muttering something about pictures. The balloon suddenly stopped with a jerk that almost sent me to the floor. A metallic clattering came from below. "Slowly!" Nadar shouted. "I told them to stop slowly! You have to ease into it." I stood in one corner of the now-motionless basket and looked straight down, sighting along one of the ropes. Its thickness gradually attenuated into a barely visible thread as it descended to the ground far below. The viewing benches placed in a rectangle around the launch site reminded me of an empty picture frame–like one of the frames still lying on the floor of my not yet tidied studio.

Nadar emerged from the trapdoor with a tripod under one arm and a camera under the other. "It’s a perfect day, Degas. No wind, bright sunlight. We’re not even drifting. It’s like we’re standing on the ground." He joined me at the wall of the basket, and we both looked over the city: the rectangle of the Champ de Mars, the sharp curve of the Seine, the small, cube-like buildings and patches of green on the slopes of Montmartre. "So what do you think of flight?"

"I’ll have a positive impression if our fall is as uneventful as our rise."

Nadar made a dismissive sound. "The descent is nothing. The thrill is all in the ascent. That’s when you feel the power of flight. Don’t you feel that, the mastery? You are looking down on the world like a god. That’s what people pay me for." He raised a hand to silence my reply and cocked his head in an attitude of listening. "Do you hear that?"

I heard nothing and told him so.

"Exactly," he smiled. "We’re above the noise of life. We’re above the horses and the carts, the street vendors and the markets, the boats and the trains. We are above all of the sounds of life, detached, like a god. But we can still see everything, also like a god. There!" He pointed. "Look there, at the Gare Saint Lazare. The ten o’clock train to Argenteuil." I followed his finger to a puff of smoke that obscured the tracks fanning out north of the station. Below the smoke cloud I could see the cars of a train slowly pulling out. I followed the track as it curved through the city, looking like a perfect stitch sewn into the earth. It passed through the city wall and continued onward between factories to the bridge across the Seine at Asnières. Beyond the town, the track vanished into verdant countryside. "You know how much noise that train makes, but you can’t hear a thing. A lot of people will pay me for that experience. I’m going to make a lot of money today, Degas. And I’ll probably make a few photographs, too." He looked around the basket. "What did I do with my flag?"

"You have your own flag now? Should I start referring to you as the Republic of Nadar?"

"Glorious Republic," he corrected. "No, it’s a little black flag. I wave it over the side as a signal to begin the descent. It’s probably downstairs."

When he had disappeared below, I walked to the north side of the basket and stared down into the center of the city. I saw the map on Haussmann’s wall brought gigantically to life, except here there were no decorative, color-coded pieces of string. From this height the boulevards stood out in all their stark reality. They were broad, black trenches dug into the city’s whiteness, violent tears in the spiderweb of ancient streets. It was easy to see the walled city as a fortress; more difficult was the realization that the most important battle was raging inside its walls. Haussmann and Napoleon III were pitting themselves against the people and places of Paris in a slow, almost bloodless civil war. The progress of their always victorious campaign was best appreciated from this impossible height. Only from here could we see in a single glance all the streets that shot out from the Arc de Triomphe like rays of a stylized sun; only from this height was the complex of the Louvre and Tuileries, with all of its enclosed courtyards, fully visible; only from Nadar’s balloon could one understand the system of boulevards as a river running parallel to the Seine, a new river of commerce that would render the Seine obsolete except as a pathway for pleasure boats. Is this what Haussmann means when he says he’s building for the future, that he’s building a city best seen from the air, from the standpoint of inhuman detachment? His modern Paris is a place built for balloons, I thought, or for one of those electric flying machines Nadar is always dreaming about. I imagined such machines–or even balloons like this one–and thought of how they could be used as weapons. You could fly over a city and drop bombs directly on top of buildings and people, and no bullets or cannonballs fired from the ground could possibly reach you. Machines like that would quickly antiquate Polonsky’s beloved cannon and make wars more terrible and devastating than ever. I felt certain that if Nadar’s predictions were correct, his beloved machines would be put to horrifying uses. All optimistic ideas, I thought, are eventually enlisted in the service of death.

"I just remembered," said Nadar, stomping back up the steps, "that I left the flag lying on a bench down there. It’s your fault, Degas. Your arrival made me forget about it." He leaned over the side. "Now how the hell are we going to get down? Climb?" He grabbed one of the ropes and laughed. "You go first, Degas." Nadar shook the rope and shouted down until his voice cracked, but there was no reaction. We were too high to be heard.

"Shit!" Nadar paced the deck and pondered our situation. "We need something dark so it shows up against the balloon, but it must be something big enough to see from the ground and small enough to wave back and forth. Any ideas, Degas? What the hell are you smiling at? Do you find our predicament amusing? Every minute we’re stuck up here is more money I’m losing."

"I’m smiling because you are looking at the answer to your problem, but you have yet to recognize it."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

I removed my black top hat and offered it to him with the words, "Your flag, monsieur."

Nadar grabbed my hat, leaned over the edge and began to wave it back and forth as if he were airing it out. After only a few waves, the floor jumped into motion beneath us.

(Nadar was right about the descent. It was nothing. I don’t even remember it.)

When the balloon landed, I climbed immediately down, attempting to conceal my feelings of enormous relief and slight exhilaration. Nadar called to his workmen, "One more test! I want to take some pictures before we fill this thing with suckers– No, no, customers, that’s what we call them now, customers! Degas, will you hand me that damn flag?"

I retrieved Nadar’s black flag from where it lay on the first row of benches and handed it up to him. "Now you know how beautiful the future will be," he said. He patted the camera that stood on its tripod beside him. "When I’m finished, the whole world will be able to see what you’ve seen. Everyone will want to buy these prints."

The workers turned the spools and Nadar began to rise, still looking down at me. "Our future is in the air, Degas!" he called down.

"I’m afraid you may be right," I said.

"What’s that?" he yelled back, one hand to his ear.

"I think you may be right!"

"Of course I’m right!" He was rising fast, a red-suited blur against the balloon’s darker red. He gestured broadly, spreading his arms wide. "Of course I’m right, I’m the man of the future!" One of his hands struck the camera and knocked it over the edge. "Oh shit! LOOK OUT!"

The black box with its attached tripod was spinning down quickly towards me. I ran several paces to the right and raised my hands to the side of my head. The camera crashed against the benches and shattered on impact into an unrecognizable splatter of metal and glass. Happily, there were as yet no viewers in the stands.

"That’s all right!" Nadar cried. "I have plenty of those!" He continued his ascent, the workers rolling him ever upward.

"The future, Degas!" he shouted down in a voice sounding hoarse because of the distance. "The future!" With arms spread wide, chanting his mantra, Nadar rose into the sky.

*************

Victoria’s bewigged butler opened the door and led me through several eighteenth-century anterooms in the direction of the courtesan’s cackling laughter. She sat sipping tea in a bright, sunlit room, her dark red hair flowing over the back of the divan. Beside her was another woman with an unsightly scar on her cheek, a large white circle with a stitched black line curving inside it like a worm. The scar was so repulsively fascinating that looking away from it was a more obvious acknowledgment than frankly staring.

"Monsieur Degas! Welcome back," Victoria said. "Would you like tea? Guillaume, another cup." To her companion she said, "This is Monsieur Degas, Céleste, the painter who despises my portrait."

"Oh, Georges’s friend," the other woman said with a crooked smile. Whatever had happened to her cheek also affected her mouth, giving her a slight lisp. "A pleasure, monsieur." She offered her hand.

"It’s mine," I said, bowing to kiss it.

As soon as I was seated Victoria told me, "Now you know the answer to the question that probably continues to perplex poor Georges."

I did not understand. Victoria took Céleste’s hand and said, "Céleste is my lover." Seeing that I was nonplussed by this revelation, she added, "You don’t know who she is?"

"Unfortunately not."

"She’s the one I fought the duel with," Victoria explained. "Surely you’ve heard of my duel?"

"Yes. And I’m surprised to see it brought to such an amicable reconciliation."

"People don’t understand that it was a lover’s quarrel. I declared my love to Céleste and she said certain unforgivable things to me. But that’s a very old story now. Eventually I convinced her to love me." Victoria put her hand to Céleste’s cheek and ran her thumb along the scar. "It took a few years and a bullet, but I finally won her."

I wondered how much of this story I should believe. I was always suspicious of people who declared their love for others, seeing it as more likely an unintentional demonstration of their love for themselves. I looked at Céleste and Victoria and asked myself if theirs or any other passionate relationship contained anything that could be called ‘love’ at all. There was mutual sexual fulfillment–hardly an unimportant thing–but why should that masquerade under another name? How could Céleste love someone who had permanently disfigured her? How could Victoria love someone she had hated enough to mutilate? (During the duel, Victoria could, after all, have taken the perfectly honorable option of firing into the air. Instead, she had chosen to shoot her opponent.) Both of them, I decided, were using the word ‘love’ as a convenient shorthand for a passion that could be as violent as it was tender. I further suspected I might be falling into a sentimental trap in this pleasant room hung with paintings of fêtes champêtres. Perhaps Victoria wanted Céleste near her not for any romantic reasons, but as an advertisement for her own cruelty, a walking example of what Victoria was capable of.

I came quickly to the point of my visit. "I would like to clarify something you said the other night."

"Yes?" said Victoria.

"If I recall our conversation correctly, I mentioned Count Leo Polonsky, and you said you didn’t know him."

"I do not."

"On May twenty-seven of this year, Count Polonsky came here with a young girl. I would like to know who that girl was."

"You are mistaken," Victoria said without emotion. "I’ve never met the man. Who told you this?"

"Polonsky is under surveillance by the police."

"Isn’t everyone?"

"My information comes from a surveillance report, from the police."

"And they never get anything wrong," said Victoria sarcastically. Céleste chuckled softly behind her teacup. "You’ve been given incorrect information, monsieur. I’ve never met this Count Polonsky, and I don’t know anything about a girl."

I looked into her eyes with what I hoped was a forceful gaze. "I think you do."

Victoria was unfazed, as if expecting this exchange. Céleste looked on with amusement as her lover said, "I would choose my words carefully, monsieur, if I were you. You know my reputation. I defend my honor as staunchly as any man. And I’m a very good shot. Ask Céleste."

"Perhaps he comes here under a false name," I said in a more conciliatory tone. I briefly described Polonsky and watched Céleste’s expression turn from humor to concern.

She looked at Victoria, who spoke icily: "No, Monsieur Degas, your police informant is wrong."

****************

"She’s fucking the woman she shot?" Georges exclaimed. His voice echoed down the empty corridor (lined with the obligatory English racing prints) on the second floor of the Jockey Club. It pleased me to turn the tables and impart salacious gossip to Georges for a change. "She’s only doing it to make her memoirs more interesting," he said. "Think of the melodrama: a lover’s duel. She probably expects Bizet to write an opera about her."

He led me down the corridor, still shaking his head in disbelief and saying, "The woman she shot. That’s incredible. Is she horribly disfigured?"

"Not horribly. The scar on her cheek is impossible to miss, and there’s something wrong with her mouth, but all in all she’s an attractive woman."

"Of course she is. I would expect nothing less of Victoria." He stopped suddenly. "The woman doesn’t cover the scar with makeup?"

"I don’t think Victoria would like that."

"Oh, this is wonderful, Edgar...Do you know Flaubert?"

I wondered what prompted the question. "Like everyone else in this city, I can say I’ve read Madame Bovary. Unlike most of them, I wouldn’t be lying. Why?"

"Let’s see the man himself." I followed Georges into the club’s library. Heavy, dark shelves loaded with heavy, dark books lined the walls. Alone at a long table, a heavyset man with a thick mustache sat scratching notes on a sheet of paper while frequently glancing at the book that lay open beside him.

Georges cleared his throat, Flaubert looked up, and we were introduced.

"I’m doing a bit of research for this book that I’ve been writing since before I was born," Flaubert explained. "If I ever finish it, the last period on the last page will feel like a bullet in my brain. I will finally have put myself out of my misery."

"The prose isn’t flowing effortlessly from your pen, Gustave?" asked Georges ironically. "I thought all you writers led a life of ease."

"Drudgery, you meant to say. It’s like digging ditches. My only consolations are these entirely unnecessary research trips to Paris." He laid his pen on the tabletop, carefully placing it parallel to the edge of the paper. "I believe I am beginning to appreciate your city, gentlemen, especially in its new colossal mode. On my next visit I expect to find a Babylonian ziggurat constructed in the center of the Luxembourg Gardens. It will be decorated with wreathed N’s and topped with a statuary group carved of the finest Carrara marble showing Baron Haussmann on his knees applying his lips to the imperial ass."

"But the statue will be placed so high," I said, continuing Flaubert’s image, "that no one will recognize it unless they climb the ziggurat. All those who look up from the ground will think it shows the emperor and his dog."

"And they will be correct in spite of themselves," said Flaubert. "But I am compelled to admit that the emperor and his faithful dog have done an admirable job. Paris is beginning to make sense. Granted, it’s a silly, bourgeois, commercial kind of sense, a shopkeeper’s version of sense, but order is always preferable to chaos, in life as in art. I will tell the emperor as much when I see him at the Tuileries ball this evening."

"That will be a very safe compliment," I responded. "The emperor will undoubtedly lack the wit to realize that it’s only valid if Bonapartist order and absolute chaos are our only choices."

The writer raised a bushy eyebrow. "You have a third way?"

"Edgar is our house revolutionary," Georges explained. "He believes in liberty, equality and that other thing."

"A republican," Flaubert sounded genuinely surprised. "I didn’t expect to meet one of those at the Jockey Club." He looked at me with an expression that mixed sympathy and mockery. "So you believe in democracy? That’s a beautiful idea, a fine ideal, something all intelligent men should cherish. You favor a return to the republic, the rule of the people..." He paused and savored his silence before delivering the coup de grace: "Don’t worry. You’ll grow out of it."

I tried to remain impassive. Georges’s mouth was open in a wide smile.

Flaubert said, "Did you ever hear the story of Lafayette in 1830? Well, when the revolution that put Louis-Philippe on the throne was still in progress–that was, let’s see–" He counted with his fingers. "–one, two revolutions ago, three if you count Napoleon III’s coup, as I always do–when that revolution was at its height, the old Marquis de Lafayette rode into Paris on his horse. A young soldier standing guard at the Tuileries stopped the old man, and when the soldier learned the old man’s identity he directed him to the Hotel de Ville. When the young soldier finished his directions, the old soldier looked down at him and said, ‘Yes, I know the way. I’ve been here before.’" He paused again. "That’s the way I feel whenever I hear people talking about a republic. I’ve been there before. In 1848 we gave the people their freedom, supposedly, and what did they do with it? They begged Napoleon III to make them slaves again. You can’t free a man who clings to his chains as if those chains are the only things that will keep him from falling." His tone turned sad, almost elegiac. "Democracy is a beautiful idea, I say it again and I mean it. Democracy is wonderful in the abstract, but when we must deal with real human beings instead of abstract ‘people,’ everything falls apart very quickly."

"If you are saying that we should resign ourselves to Napoleon III," I told him, "I would call that attitude defeatist."

"An appropriate attitude for a defeated man," Flaubert unexpectedly agreed. He took up his pen and poked the air with it to punctuate the following words: "But resignation has nothing to do with it. A critical attitude toward the world as it is need not preclude the enjoyment of any fleeting pleasures that world might offer. And I enjoy this new Paris as it’s designed to be enjoyed: immensely. The whole city is an Exposition during the day and a cafe-concert at night. The emperor is the silly star of a comic opera in which we all can play our parts. I suggest you enjoy it while it lasts, Monsieur Degas. Your republic will come soon enough and wipe it all away, only to replace it with something worse. Now, if you will excuse me, gentlemen." The writer returned to his work and Georges led me out of the library.

"That man has been in Rouen too long," I whispered in the corridor. "He’s become a boring provincial excited by the wonders of the city. He tries to deny it, but he’s just like the people he skewered in Madame Bovary."

"Why does that surprise you? He can satirize the provincial bourgeoisie because they’re the people he knows best, his own people. But Flaubert is anything but boring. You should hear the book he’s writing now."

"Hear it? What do you mean?"

"He reads chapters from it sometimes at Princess Mathilde’s salon. Actually, ‘reads’ isn’t quite the word. He performs it. And it’s wonderful. It’s all about the 1840's, the revolution, the coup, courtesans, shady businessmen–it’s magnificent."

"I’m sure it’s another masterpiece of realism." The sarcasm in my voice was a little heavier than I intended. "To be illustrated by Courbet."

"I didn’t bring you here just to meet Flaubert," Georges informed me on the stairs. "I thought your investigation might profit from another encounter with Auguste Bonaparte."

"He’s here?"

"And he seems rather sedate today. At least, he hadn’t insulted anyone by the time I left to pick you up."

"Georges," I said when we reached the third floor, "you went to Victoria’s on the evening Lisette disappeared, didn’t you?" The surveillance report had already given me an affirmative answer.

"Quite possibly. I go there often."

"Do you ever see Polonsky there?"

"He comes in sometimes, usually with some girl or other. I don’t know why Victoria lied to you the other night about knowing him, but I’m sure she has her reasons. I said nothing at the time, of course, for reasons of decorum."

"Decorum," I echoed, "defined as the desire not to meet Victoria with pistols in the Bois."

"Exactly."

"I don’t suppose you remember anything about the girl who accompanied Polonsky the day Lisette disappeared?"

Georges gave a sated sigh. "A life devoted solely to pleasure melts into a warm and wonderful blur. I highly recommend it."

We entered a room where four men were playing cards around a central table. Prince Bonaparte sat alone against the wall, his tremendous girth sunk deeply between the arms of a clearly overburdened chair. Again, his grotesque resemblance to the first Napoleon was striking. In the bright gaslight of this room he looked like a bloated and blotchy double of his most famous relative, an anti-Napoleonic caricature brought magically to life. But Auguste was not exactly lively at the moment. He stared straight ahead, but his gaze was detached, blank, a looking that did not see. He appeared not so much lost in thought as dormant, like a human machine switched off. His thick, eagle-headed walking stick leaned against his thigh. I scanned it for suspicious dents and stains and thought I saw several.

"Auguste!" Georges cried out cheerfully.

The prince’s eyes came alive and focused on us. "Chaillot," he said faintly.

"You remember my friend Edgar Degas, from the foyer?"

"Gas," Bonaparte croaked, giving an almost imperceptible nod in my direction.

Georges eased into a facing chair and I did the same.

"So what brings you to the club, Auguste?" Georges asked. "You haven’t been here for a while."

"Games." The prince looked at the cardplayers.

"Why aren’t you playing?"

"I like games. Do you like games, Gas?"

"Sometimes I think everything we do is a game," I answered.

This brought an uninterpretable harumph from Bonaparte. He leaned toward me, rotating his enormous globe of a belly, and said confidentially, "Are you aware that they are reading my mind?" He lifted his stick and pointed toward the cardplayers. "They are reading my mind."

"Relax," said Georges, "if they’ve been reading it for any length of time, they’ll be finished soon."

Bonaparte droned on. "They want me to think they’re playing whist, but I know better. They have formed a spiritualist circle and are contacting my thoughts through the aether. It’s a seance."

Georges called across to the table, "Robert! Charles! Octave! Henri! Will you please stop reading Auguste’s mind!"

The players laughed.

"They think they’re fooling me but I know all about their seances and the knocking tables and the voices in the air. What am I thinking, Gas?"

"I have no idea."

"Liar!" The prince’s face contorted with rage, and his voice was so loud and powerful that I involuntarily shrank back in my chair. Georges and the card players seemed accustomed to this sort of behavior from the imperial cousin.

Immediately, Bonaparte was calm. He leaned back, caressed the eagle atop his stick and said to me softly, "You’re like the rest." He turned to Georges. "I can hear them speaking on it. That’s what’s in my mind, if you ask. Sometimes I think I’ve cut them out, but then I hear them speaking on it. Not now–" He shook his head emphatically. "–but I hear them."

"What do they say, Auguste?" Georges sounded almost sincere and concerned.

"Oh no you don’t. You don’t steal your father’s diamonds that easily. When I can hear them–not now–they know better than to tell a blackbird who killed the eagle. When I find the language I will know what the dark clouds mean."

"The man’s a poet, isn’t he, Degas? Or should I say, ‘Gas’? Now that you’ve been ennobled by a member of the imperial family, you are an aristocrat whether you like it or not. Personally, I like it. Sing us another song, Auguste. You’re much better than that boring old Victor Hugo."

"You still see Victoria?" the prince asked.

"Yes, all of her. But I haven’t seen you there recently."

"I don’t like that whore. Her big ones or her little ones."

"Her little ones?" Georges asked.

"Little whores. You like them because they steal my money. I can hear them. I can hear them saying it, reading my thoughts, in my head. When I hit her she went dark and the wine came out. Bitter wine. That’s when I could hear them–"

I interrupted him. "Whom did you hit?"

"Little whores. I could hear them. I could hear them fucking, the whores." His tongue emerged from the dark mouth and wetted his lips in a single circular motion. "I had to hit her. She was just like the other, the little whore who stole my money at the Opera."

"What was her name?" I asked.

"Names." He waved the word away with one hand. "What do they mean? People aren’t names. I’m Bonaparte but I could be Gas or Chaillot. I’d still be me, wouldn’t I? The girl who stole my money and her bitch of a mother. She was involved. The girl at Louisine’s. Little whores. What are their names compared to mine? What does that mean?"

I tried again, this time taking a declarative approach. "The girl at the Opera was named Lisette. The girl at Louisine’s was Jeanne."

"Little whores, that’s what they are. I can hear them. I had no choice. They gave me no choice." Bonaparte stared straight ahead at a distant spot between Georges and me. Only his mouth moved as he spoke. "I hit her and the bitter wine came out. When the wood comes down the wine pours out like piss, just like piss. And she goes dark, dark all over. Do you like chocolate? I like it dark. I like my stick. My father would swim in the channel but sometimes on rainy days we would hear the horses in the stable and there was a–" His voice stopped. He stared and blinked. With one hand he caressed the eagle atop his stick. "I like this stick. It protects me. A Bonaparte makes many enemies. All for the name, Auguste, all for the name. That’s what they say. But the river is a good place for whores. When I hear them they tell me to protect myself. To stay, to go. And then I hear them fucking but when I say I’ll sing when I say I’ll sing until the clouds I’ll say... I’m finished with you now." He spat out the last words and stood abruptly, springing up with an energy surprising in a man of his size. Without a further word, he walked between our chairs, crossed the room and went out the door. His footsteps died away in the hall.

Georges said, "I think he’s finished with us now."

"Was that a confession? Did he just confess?"

"Yes, to insanity...Oh, I’m sure he admitted to killing someone in all that babble, but who can make sense of it? Who would even want to try? I’ve heard that Auguste’s servants pay no attention to anything he says. They spend his money, clean up after him and feed him whenever they want to. In short, they live off him and treat him like a dog. I suppose it’s the only thing they can do."

"Sometimes he sounds completely mad, sometimes mad like Hamlet, as if he’s toying with us, and sometimes he sounds like a child."

"A child who pulls the wings off flies," Georges said.

************

I declined Georges’s invitation to an evening at Louisine’s and instead walked alone to the Champs-Elysées. I spent two hours sipping a glass of cheap wine in the back of an open-air cafe-concert. Above my head the leaves of a plane tree rustled occasionally as fans too poor to pay the entrance fee climbed into its branches to watch the show. I examined the audience, a melange of shopgirls, salesmen and boulevardiers, and tried to determine who among them was Haussmann’s agent and who was Henri’s. I half-expected to see the mustached face of Flaubert, indulging in the spectacle even as he critiqued it. Over the heads of the audience I could see the singer standing far away on the stage, but I found no pleasure in her song. I had come here to be distracted, to lose myself for a while, to forget my confusion and uncertainty among the globes of gaslight and the garishly clothed performers. I had come seeking oblivion, but when all the waves of thought flowed out of my mind, four hard images were left stranded on the sand: Lisette’s body, Haussmann’s necklace, Polonsky’s hands, Bonaparte’s walking stick.

I left the café and wandered down toward the river. I walked through splashes of light and dark pools of shadow on the eerily quiet Place de la Concorde. My only companion was a single carriage slowly shaking its way across the square on a solitary journey to the east. I stood on the bridge and looked into the black waters of the Seine as if somewhere in their depths lay the answers to my questions. The water flowed on unreadable, barely visible in the darkness of that night without a moon. Hearing a carriage at the other end of the bridge, I ran like a fugitive down the steps and nearly stumbled when my feet hit the gravel of the quai. Interrupted lovers called out from the shadows; I ignored them and walked on, stepping noisily and purposefully in the gravel. I walked toward the gaslit facades of the Tuileries and the Louvre, my head down, my body leaning forward, my walking stick held under one arm like a field marshal’s baton. The river flowed past in the opposite direction, and it seemed for a few minutes to be carrying the mysteries away from me, relieving me of the burden, just as it had carried Lisette so inexplicably into my arms. I felt an unexpected lightness, a sense of freedom, as I walked up the stone steps at the Pont du Carrousel and passed through the arched gateway into the palace grounds. Standing in the middle of that enormous paved courtyard enclosed by the Tuileries Palace and the long wings of the Louvre, I thought of this complex, so recently completed and one of the Empire’s most visible achievements, as a metaphor for the regime of Napoleon III: a vast emptiness concealed on all sides by facades of imperial pomp.

Before passing through the gate to the Rue de Rivoli, I paused to look back at the darkened, empty courtyard and the palace where at that moment Flaubert might have been dancing with the Empress Eugénie. I was thinking how tasteless, how bourgeois, it was of him to drop the fact of his invitation into our conversation, of how a writer can be one kind of man in his books and quite another in his life, when a hand grabbed my shoulder and jerked me sharply backwards. I was thrown off balance and fell stunned and breathless against a wall. My hat flew off, bounced a couple of times, and rolled through the gateway onto the sidewalk. I slid helplessly down the rough, cold wall to a sitting position. A tall man stood over me. I could see his thick beard but not the face above, although I thought in a flash that my concierge would probably recognize him. He stepped closer and I saw the knife in his hand.

Immediately remembering the walking stick in my own hand, I raised it like a sword and rammed it with all my strength into the man’s groin. He let out a howl and bent double. The dropped knife rattled on the paving stones. I threw myself forward against his legs and somehow scrambled through the gateway into the street.

On the other side of the Rue de Rivoli, I looked back and saw the man’s shadowy form emerge from the blackness of the archway. I hurried across the square in front of the Palais Royal and headed for the security of the dark, narrow streets to the east. As I ran along in unfamiliar shadows, past buildings I barely knew, I heard the man’s footsteps always behind me. They sounded uneven, the gait of a limping man. He was hobbled but angrier now and determined to do his work. He wouldn’t stop until he caught me.

The dark metal canopy of the central markets at Les Halles stretched out ahead of me, and I ran for it. Thankful for a damaged streetlight that cast one of the entrances into darkness, I climbed over the gate and dropped inside. The man’s unsteady-sounding footsteps continued to come closer. I ran along the wide passages, as broad as Haussmann’s streets, that separated the individual market areas. The building was completely dark and deserted at this uncommercial hour, too late to sell and too early to stock. I heard a rattling of chains and creaking of metal–undoubtedly my pursuer opening one of the gates. Running toward the far end of the market, I came to a place where the floor was pierced by a downward ramp wide enough for two wagons, and I remembered Haussmann boasting at Madame de Saint Pierre’s about the tunnels he had built connecting Les Halles to the Gare du Nord. The hobbled footsteps resounded inside the market now, and the man called out, "It’s a good thing we’re in Les Halles, you little shit! I’m going to cut you like a beef!" I ran down the ramp into deeper darkness.

When I reached the floor, I was surprised to find not pitch blackness but a wide corridor weakly lighted by the flames of many small candles. There was a sound of people scurrying about in the dimness, a rustling of cloth. I heard a single word repeated by several different voices: "Police!" Most of the candles were quickly snuffed out. In the light of one of the few left burning, I saw two men looking around nervously as they struggled to pull up their pants. I ran forward along the corridor, toward a large mass of people moving in the distance, and soon I was running among them, hoping they knew the way out of this black tunnel. I moderated my panicked pace and fell into step with them. They moved with a controlled urgency, as if they had been prepared for this eventuality or had made this escape many times before. After a while I felt a pain in my side, but I ignored it and kept running. When my legs began to feel like lead and I was afraid I might collapse from lack of breath, I saw a rectangle of brightness far ahead and felt a sudden rush of energy.

We ran up a ramp and into the steam and clanking of the Gare du Nord. The gaslight seemed brighter than the sun. We were beside the tracks, several meters from the end of the platform. Nearby, a group of workers huddled over the wheel of a locomotive. One of them yelled something at us and another threw a heavy wrench in our direction. Our group of about thirty men kept running. We scrambled en masse onto the platform, through the station and out the front doors. On the street, as the other men scattered, I roused a drowsing cabman and climbed inside his small carriage. I tried to catch my breath and calm myself during the bumpy, window-rattling ride back to the Rue de Laval.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

"How big was the knife?" Henri asked me the following evening at the Café Guerbois. We were sitting with Victor Noir at a small table in the back room. Through the doorway I could see you holding court in the front room, propounding to Monet and Renoir your latest ideas for reforming the Salon from within. To my ears, you sounded like a failed Martin Luther who after all of his rage and bluster had decided ultimately not to break with Rome.

"Will you stop looking at Manet and answer my question? How big was the knife, Degas?"

"From my point of view it appeared sufficiently large." I estimated the length of the blade with my hands.

Victor Noir whistled. "In America they call that a ‘Texas toothpick.’"

"I don’t think I was attacked by an overzealous American dentist, if that’s your implication." Victor liked to spice his conversation with knowing references to America, but I doubted that he had ever been there. Like the long black hair that flowed from his head in carefully combed waves, knowledge of America was one more component in his precisely crafted ‘Romantic adventurer’ image. His flawless good looks and his reputation as a seducer irresistible to women were the hard metals at the core of this persona, and the entire construction was gilded by his quixotic occupation: republican journalist for a series of short-lived left-leaning newspapers.

"What did the man look like?" asked Henri.

"Remarkably like the man who stole Haussmann’s necklace from the Morgue, I assume."

"Whoa!" said Victor, leaning back in his chair and miming a coachman pulling reins. "Let’s slow down. If I’m going to write a story about this case, I’d better understand it. That’s not always necessary, but it helps."

"Who said anything about a story?" I asked both of them.

"Will you answer my question, Degas?" said Henri in exasperation. "What did the man look like?"

"Well, the first thing I noticed was the very large knife in his hand. I also noticed that he was tall, broad-shouldered and had a thick beard. Does that sound like anyone you know? Oh, and I almost forgot: he now walks with a pronounced limp. I feel very good about that, but it’s hardly a fitting punishment for trying to kill me."

"He wasn’t trying to kill you," declared Henri enigmatically, rubbing his chin in thought.

"I think I’m the better judge of that," I replied.

"You said he grabbed you from behind. If he had been ordered to kill you, he would have stabbed you in the back of the neck. You would have been dead in seconds. His orders were to frighten you."

"In that case, he carried them out admirably."

"You are to be congratulated, Degas. You have finally convinced a real detective– myself–that the death of Lisette is worthy of inquiry. After all, no one would want to scare you away unless your activities were somehow threatening."

"No one rational. But at least one of my suspects isn’t even close to reason."

"The man who attacked you is working for Haussmann, as you have already guessed. The attack is a sign that you’re getting close to the truth."

"Or a truth." I was beginning to enjoy this game of adding little corrections to Henri’s sentences. "Maybe the truth Haussmann fears I might discover isn’t the truth I’m looking for. Maybe Haussmann wants to scare me away from his secret affairs for reasons that have nothing to do with Lisette."

Henri drank his wine and considered this in silence before saying, "Whenever I reach a point in an investigation when I have multiple suspects, multiple equally valid theories of the crime, and no way to determine the credibility of conflicting witnesses, I try something unorthodox, an extraordinary measure."

"Dice?" I asked. "Torture? We can hardly bring Haussmann in and hold his head under water, however much I might enjoy that."

"I am speaking of journalism. I let the newspapers have the story and then wait to see how each suspect reacts to the revelation. That’s why I asked Victor to join us." To Noir he said, "You may want to take notes."

"Notes are for amateurs." Victor tapped the side of his head. "Here’s my notebook."

I told Victor the whole story, as much as I could remember, beginning with the discovery of Lisette’s body and ending with the previous night’s underground footrace to the Gare du Nord. As I spoke, I drew idly on a paper napkin, sketching from memory a few tiny images of dancers: one stretching at the barre, another bending to tie her slipper, another sitting on the floor with the soles of her feet pressed together. When my story was finished, I continued to draw, shading in the bodies of these anonymous girls.

I remarked that I still didn’t understand what all those men were doing in the tunnel; Henri and Victor shared a knowing laugh.

I glanced up. "Are you going to let me in on it?"

"You were saved by sodomites," Victor explained. "That would be my headline if I could write about such things: ‘Promising Painter Saved by Sodomites.’ Very alliterative."

Henri confirmed Victor’s allegation. "That tunnel is well-known as a rendezvous location for men who prefer men. The Prefect orders it raided four or five times a year, but to no avail. The buggers always return."

"It’s almost poetic, isn’t it?" said Victor. "A dark tunnel as a site of anal intercourse. And the image of all those sodomites on the run reminds me of Dante’s Inferno. Damn, I wish I could write about that."

"Officially," Inspector Boulle warned him, "such people do not exist."

"And that makes them all the more interesting," the journalist rejoined. "What do you say when you arrest them? ‘You are under arrest because you don’t exist’?"

"When you write about the death of Lisette," Henri counseled, "take care that you give equal emphasis to all the suspects. Don’t turn this into a piece of anti-Bonapartist propaganda."

"Would I do something like that?"

"Only when presented with an opportunity."

"Inspector, you must have me confused with the man who writes my stories."

"You know," I said as I scratched shadows onto a dancer’s arm, "the more I think about this case, the less I understand it. I have no idea whom to believe. I’m not sure if anyone is telling me the truth anymore."

Henri was sympathetic. "Edgar, there is such a thing as being too skeptical. Ultimately, something happens that makes one theory of the crime more credible than the others."

"And if it doesn’t?"

"Then we try dice." Henri took a drink. "Are you enjoying detective work?"

I sat up straight and turned the napkin around so the small dancers faced Henri. "It’s like this. Just when I reach a point of clarity, when I think I’m getting close to understanding exactly what’s going on–" I dipped my forefinger in my wine glass and used its wet tip to smudge the outline of one of the dancers "–something happens to make everything less clear, more confusing."

"More like life?" offered Henri. "There are no tidy investigations, Degas. We’re not painting a nice, tidy picture with everything centered and well-drawn and perfectly recognizable. When this is done, we’ll be lucky if we have a picture as complete as yours of Manet and his wife, in its present state. But that’s all right. As long as our portrait of the killer is identifiable, we can send it to the Salon in good conscience."

"And they will reject it as a poor likeness."

Victor rose to leave, saying, "Gentlemen, your metaphors are more convoluted than your mystery. Leave the words to me."

**************

After my exchange with Victor Noir, I was quite surprised–and my paranoia was piqued–when at the Morisot’s soirée the next evening I found myself listening to an American dentist. Doctor Baker of Baltimore (it amazes me that a country can fight two wars against England and still retain English place names for most of its cities) was a young-looking man with hair as red as Nadar’s and a face dotted with freckles. His mustache and eyebrows were so absurdly bushy that they looked artificial, like bad theatrical makeup or a poor attempt at disguise. The doctor sat between Berthe and me in the Morisot’s drawing room, a small, rather plain space that would have been tasteful but for the overabundance of family heirlooms: metal lamps in many different styles; old, amateurish portraits of the dead hanging on the walls; small wooden tables cluttered with framed daguerreotypes of stone-faced distant relatives. While the other guests discussed the day’s most important social news (the announcement that a special summer masked ball would be held at the Opera in one week), the dentist spoke of his country’s recent civil war: "Personally, I consider myself a Southerner, but I was a Union man because philosophically I believe in the necessity of a strong federal government for the prosperity and well-being of a nation. You need a single government to create uniform conditions for the flow of capital and merchandise. You can’t have the different geographical regions of your country printing their own money and making their own tariffs. Most importantly, you can’t have a part of your country exploiting unpaid slave labor while the rest of the country must pay its workers. That’s a very obvious and highly unfair advantage. You need a uniform economy and free trade, and only a federal government can ensure that."

Berthe asked, "What about the duties of a government to its citizens?"

"Excuse me, mademoiselle?"

"Perhaps I spoke too quickly for you." She slowed her speech to imbecile speed. "You have spoken of government, but only as regards business. Shouldn’t a government also be answerable to its citizens?"

"Of course!" The dentist sounded surprised at the obviousness of the question. "In fact, as you may know, our Constitution grants American citizens more personal and individual liberties than even the citizens of your enlightened nation enjoy."

"Does it grant them the freedom to form their own government," Berthe asked, fixing him with her green eyes, "if the present government no longer serves their interests?"

The doctor raised his bushy eyebrows. They looked like two red caterpillars frozen in their progress across his forehead. "You’re very clever. Our government was formed by the people, a sort of ‘social contract,’ as your Rousseau so eloquently put it. The government of the United States is the people. How could the people possibly be displeased with it?"

"I’m sorry," said Berthe, "perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you said there was a civil war. Your Southerners must not have felt themselves bound by the contract. It seems your government wasn’t them."

The doctor buried most of one finger in his mustache as he thought about this. "As events have shown, mademoiselle, my southern countrymen were on the wrong side of history. You see, history moves according to a law of progress, and the Southerners were opposed to progress. The defeat of the South was the only possible outcome of our war, because the North was on the side of the future–industry, machinery, economic change–and the South refused to relinquish the past. The winners in such conflicts will always be the people who understand the meaning of progress. As I was saying to one of your countrymen just the other day, progress is like the train that brought me here from Calais: you either ride it or get out of the way."

The tooth-doctor surely intended to silence his French auditors with this pithy American trope, so I spoke up. "Given your belief in progress, doctor, I’m curious to hear what you think of Paris. Do you find it a modern, progressive place? Do you see the future at work in Paris today?"

"I think you are preparing to spring a trap on me, monsieur," said Doctor Baker, his mustache mostly concealing a smile. "Surely, Paris is the most modern city in the world. Walk down any of the boulevards, go to the Exposition and look at all the new inventions. The future is all around us. This city is the world’s greatest example of modernity and progress." He held out his hands as if presenting my own city to me.

"Do you realize," I asked him, "that this modernity, this progress, is being brought about not by the will of the people of Paris, most of whom would oppose it if they could, but by the order of a monarch whose authority is virtually absolute? Napoleon III orders the rebuilding of Paris just as Louis XIV ordered the building of Versailles. Is this progress or regression? We have people who commit the most barbarous crimes in the middle of our city and are permitted to walk free because they are members of the imperial family or important officials or just because they are aristocrats. Is this progress? Sometimes, doctor, I think that our revolution never happened, that despite the barricades and the rivers of blood, we are still living under the ancien régime."

Berthe glanced across the room to where Madame Morisot was engaged in conversation with the other guests. "If my mother could hear you, Monsieur Degas, you would never be invited back. Since she is safely distant, however, I will admit that I feel much the same way when I think of the situation in art today. The whole world claims to be celebrating modernity and enjoying the fruits of progress, but the paintings they love are all stuck in a past century. There’s nothing of the modern world in them. The only modern thing about our Salon is the building it’s housed in."

"But when we speak of art," said the dentist to the painters, "we are speaking of eternal beauty, eternal truth, the ideals of the Greeks, the glories of Raphael and Titian. These things are immutable."

"Why should art be exempt from your iron law of progress?" Berthe asked. "Isn’t that just as illogical as saying that art should change drastically while societies remain the same?"

Behind his big mustache (I suppressed the urge to reach up and pull it off), Doctor Baker looked thoughtful. "I must admit I’ve never thought of art in that way before. I think we must preserve art as a thing apart, a realm of pure contemplation, a–how shall I put it?–a more feminine realm, a refuge from the vigorous masculine energies that are building our future. Art should be the female home and hearth before which we can relax and bask in the beautiful glow."

I said, "You should be a juror at our Salon."

He smiled graciously.

"That wasn’t a compliment, doctor," Berthe informed him. She looked at me. "Are your paintings female, Monsieur Degas?"

"Only when they’re impossible, Mademoiselle Morisot."

To the doctor she said, "Your concept of progress seems to preclude the possibility of any progress by artists or women. In fact, it seems to define everything your class and gender does as progress and everything anyone else does as its opposite. It must be comforting to have a theory of history that predicts the victory of one’s own class."

When the doctor did not immediately reply, I answered for him. "Yes, it’s very comforting. Every class has one."
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER NINETEEN

I sat writing at the drawing table in my recently re-ordered studio (the same table, now scarred and scratched with age, where I’m writing these words, hunched over and scribbling, waiting for a bowl of my housekeeper’s horrid soup, a lukewarm concoction of rotten celery and horsepiss). I had written THEORIES OF THE CRIME at the top of my page and was making random notes toward several of these.

I began with the idea that Lisette’s principal goal had been to escape from her parents and Montmartre. She had sought the assistance of several wealthy habitues of the Opera, one of whom was the owner of the carriage she stepped into on the last day of her life. (This beginning, this ground from which I leapt into hypothesis, was itself riddled with suppositions–it was about as solid as the ice on a pond in late November–but I preferred to ignore that fact as I considered my scenarios.) Whose face did she see in the carriage? Whose hand did she finally take? I jumped onto thin ice and fell into the waters of If:

If the police report was correct, Lisette took Polonsky’s hand, and he took her first to his house and later to Victoria’s. There he had sex with her, choking her as he fucked her. But something went wrong. Maybe she imagined he was killing her and fought back, fought for her life. Maybe she scratched or kicked him. Something triggered Polonsky’s rage and he hit her with a heavy object or slammed her head against something hard. Lisette died, and Victoria took command of the situation. She ordered Polonsky to go home and forget about the incident while she disposed of the body. Victoria’s lie to me was thus motivated by her own involvement. She was protecting herself as well as Polonsky.

But if the police report was incorrect, or if Polonsky picked up a different girl, then Lisette looked into the carriage and saw Prince Bonaparte looking back at her. Earlier that day the prince had misinterpreted her request for assistance as an act of prostitution. He had given her money, but they had been interrupted before completion of the transaction. The girl had thus stolen the prince’s money and deserved to be punished. Bonaparte took her to his home and gave her the same treatment her friend Jeanne would receive a few weeks later. With Lisette, however, his murderous rage was more controlled. A single blow to the head with his walking stick cracked her skull, and the prince’s bloody ‘wine’ flowed out. His servants, as always, cleaned up the mess and dumped the body in the river.

And if both of these hypotheses were incorrect, Lisette climbed into the carriage of the man whose dress and necklace she wore, Baron Haussmann. Haussmann took her to a private place, possibly attempted to rape her. They struggled. The baron struck Lisette and she fell, hitting her head against a bedpost or the edge of a heavy table. Alternatively, I imagined a scenario in which Francine discovered the baron and Lisette together. The two girls fought, the older winning and the younger dying. But I had absolutely no evidence to support this. I was fantasizing now. But weren’t all of these so-called theories merely fantasies embroidered from a few selected facts? Did any of my facts support a theory in which Lisette’s parents murdered her? Or was the killer perhaps someone else entirely, someone I didn’t yet know or suspect?

My wandering train of thought was uncoupled by four soft knocks at the door, the hesitant knocking of someone who hoped the door would remain closed. I hurried to open it and saw a woman whose face was hidden behind a dark black veil. Her hand was raised to knock again, and her fist hung in the air between us for a second until she lowered it and lifted the veil. I saw the repulsive scar and attractive face of Victoria’s lover, Céleste. I motioned her inside.

"Please excuse the veil, Monsieur Degas." She spoke deliberately, enunciating each syllable to minimize her lisp. "I walked here. I didn’t want to use Emily’s–I mean, Victoria’s–driver. And I’m sure you know how people on the boulevards stare at a disfigured woman."

"Aren’t you accustomed to that?" I said, leading her to the sofa. "I’m sure men stared at you before the...accident."

"There was nothing accidental about it." She sat at one end of the sofa and I dropped onto the other end as if to balance her. "There are two things, Monsieur Degas, that people must force themselves to look away from: great beauty and great ugliness. It is my misfortune to have both." Her tone was matter-of-fact, neither bearing nor inspiring pity. She seemed to be speaking of someone else. "You are surprised to see me, of course. Anyone would be. I rarely go out. I have come here to tell you that you are correct, monsieur. Victoria lied to you."

"Did she?" I tried to sound disinterested. After Georges’s words of two days before, her information did not have the revelatory impact she had obviously expected.

"Yes," Céleste said, "Victoria knows your Count Polonsky–although I didn’t know his name until you described him. He has visited the house often. Several times he brought girls with him. The day you mentioned, the twenty-seventh of May, was the last time he visited. He brought a girl that evening."

"How do you know this? Do you see everyone who comes and goes?"

"I have a window overlooking the entrance, monsieur. Because Victoria keeps me secret, keeping track of the arrival and departure of visitors is my sole entertainment. But do not misunderstand me. I do not resent Victoria for this. In fact, I am grateful. I am a courtesan, monsieur, but because of my condition no man would want to be my protector. I must be kept, and Victoria keeps me. It is an arrangement that benefits both of us. I have my own rooms."

"And yet you come here to tell me that Victoria, who has been so generous to you, lied to me?"

"Yes, monsieur. When I tell you what happened that night, you will understand."

I said nothing and waited for her story.

"There was a party that night, several men and a few female associates of Victoria."

"Prostitutes."

Céleste was offended. "Not lorettes, monsieur. Not common prostitutes. Only the best women work at these parties, and they are paid by Victoria, not the men."

Since the men paid Victoria, I did not find this an important distinction.

"There was a party," she resumed, "and Count Polonsky arrived with a girl. After a few hours, he took the girl upstairs, to a room across from one of mine. I opened my door a tiny bit and looked through the crack. Polonsky closed the door behind him, and almost immediately there were screams. At first I thought they were playing, as men and women will do sometimes, but the screams did not stop. They became louder, very frightening. And then Monsieur de Chaillot, your friend Georges, came running up the stairs and threw open the door. I could see the count. He was standing up and the girl was on the bed and he was raping her, horribly. There was blood. It was a terrible mess. Georges grabbed Polonsky and tore him away from the girl and then pushed him very roughly into the hall and toward the stairs. Georges was so violent I thought he was going to throw Polonsky down the stairs. So I walked to the top of the stairs, and I saw something very curious, something I still don’t understand. The count and Georges had stopped on the landing and they were laughing together. Both of them were nearly doubled over, like two friends enjoying a good joke. But they were trying to laugh silently, as if they wanted no one to hear. As soon as they heard footsteps coming up the stairs, they stopped laughing. Georges got rough again, and Polonsky began to protest loudly as Georges pushed him down the stairway and out the front door. Then I went back to my room. Georges returned immediately and comforted the girl."

"Do you remember what the girl looked like? Did she have blonde hair?"

"No, monsieur, she was dark." Céleste seemed suddenly to remember something. "But surely you know her, monsieur. She is Georges’s little girl now. Pauline."

*************

I spent the rest of the day trying to understand and evaluate Céleste’s story. Was it credible? And if so, what did it mean? What was Céleste’s motivation for telling it? Was Victoria using her lover to mislead me? I was still silently pondering these questions as I sat in the Café Guerbois that evening and read Victor Noir’s article. Predictably, the piece virtually ignored Baron Haussmann and Count Polonsky to focus exclusively on the possibility that Prince Bonaparte had murdered a defenseless little girl. Under the headline THE PRINCE AND THE DANCER: UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT BONAPARTE INVOLVEMENT IN GIRL’S DEATH, the article used the known connection between Bonaparte and Lisette to argue that the Bonaparte family had sunken to ‘depths of depraved decadence’ (Victor was addicted to alliteration) and that the only possible response to their crimes was a ‘rapid republican revolution.’

I let the newspaper fall to the stained tabletop and said to Henri, "I thought I also mentioned Haussmann and the girl’s parents as suspects. Victor must be hard of hearing."

"You mentioned Count Polonsky at least a couple of times. Our friend Noir is deaf. Too much republican propaganda has poisoned his ears."

My failure to name Polonsky now was deliberate. If Céleste was telling the truth, Polonsky couldn’t have killed Lisette. He had been too busy raping Pauline that evening to trouble himself with another crime. On the other hand, I argued silently, if Victoria is telling the truth and Céleste and Georges are both lying and the police report is wrong... No. By Occam’s Razor, Victoria is lying. The balance of the evidence puts Polonsky at Victoria’s hotel. But was the raped girl really Pauline? Was Pauline’s story about Polonsky raping a young dancer drawn from her own experience rather than backstage gossip? Was Pauline distorting or concealing anything else? And what about Georges’s involvement on that night? What kind of game was he playing with Polonsky and Pauline? How could I possibly confirm that part of Céleste’s story?

When I shared some of these thoughts with Henri, he said, "If something feels truthful, it probably is. Sometimes we must simply listen to our instincts." He looked at me mirthfully. "Yes, instinct. That’s something real detectives have. You need experience to do this kind of work, Degas."

"Don’t the best lies always feel true?"

"No one lies that well. And most criminals are poor liars. That makes my job a little easier." He took up the newspaper and began to fold it into a shape resembling one of Nadar’s imaginary electric flying machines. (By the way, Manet, those machines exist now. A Frenchman recently flew one across the Channel. That crazy redhead was a true prophet, and we gave him no honor.) Henri spoke as he folded. "Someone once asked me who were the greatest criminals of the past fifty years. Do you know what I told him?"

"Of course I do. You’ve told me this before."

"I told him: The ones I have never heard of. The criminals we know about are without exception the failures, the ones who get caught–or at least identified. Crime may be the only field of endeavor where the greatest success is accompanied by the greatest anonymity." I spoke the last words in chorus with Henri. He had been using this line for at least a decade. "My point is that knowledge is never complete and perfect. So we have to draw conclusions from the facts we know. You don’t solve mysteries, Degas. The crazy patchwork quilt of facts doesn’t suddenly resolve itself into a Louis XIV tapestry. That’s not the way real life works. You uncover mysteries, you work to unveil them. And you keep working until you have unveiled enough to determine responsibility. That’s the best we can do. If something seems more truthful than something else, then assume it is and draw the necessary conclusions. You might get lucky and draw the right one." He tossed his paper flying machine into the air. It glided about two meters before sliding to a stop in the green field of a billiard table.

We heard Victor Noir’s voice in the front room. It was very loud and happy. He was obviously pleased with himself. "Gentlemen!" he announced, "the day of judgment has arrived, and I need seconds!" Laughing loudly at this private joke, he hurried into the back room and rushed to our table as if propelled by a strong wind. "You!" Victor cried, pointing his walking stick at my chest (I thought involuntarily of Prince Bonaparte). "Degas! You got me into this! You must be my second."

With one hand I waved his stick away. "What are you talking about?" Victor was dressed entirely in black with a black hat and black cape. It was a costume worthy of his name, and he wore it only on important occasions.

"His Imperial Imbecility Prince Auguste Bonaparte has challenged me to a duel. I’m on my way to his place right now. And I need seconds. You’re my choice, Degas."

"Your article has had the desired effect," I said, "for you, anyway."

"You didn’t like it?" Victor looked disappointed. "But you told me not to use your name, Degas. It’s too late to regret that now."

"As a member of the Police," Henri stated in his official tone, "it is my duty to remind you that dueling, in addition to being antiquated and absolutely moronic, is an illegal activity."

"It is?" Victor seemed sincerely surprised. "But everyone does it."

"It’s amazing," said Henri, "how rarely that argument is used in courts of law."

"Come on, Degas." Victor swished his stick in the air like a fencing sword. "It’ll be fun to watch that fat man squirm."

"Have you ever participated in a duel," I asked, "or even witnessed one?"

"No, but I’ve read novels. How hard can it be?" As he spoke, he practiced fencing moves on an invisible opponent. "You thrust and you parry, thrust and parry...Or if you use pistols, you squeeze the trigger and BOOM!"

"Unless your opponent squeezes his first and hits you," Henri said. "When and where is this act of aristocratic idiocy to take place? I can send a few officers over to arrest the lot of you and save both of your lives."

"It’s happening tonight, I guess." Victor removed a card from his pocket and handed it to Henri. "Here’s his note."

The detective took the card and immediately erupted with laughter. Soon he was laughing uncontrollably, holding the card in one hand and pounding the tabletop with the other. "I’m sorry..." He tried to catch his breath. "Oh god...Here!" He sent the card flying across the table. "It’s like...an invitation to tea!" Another fit of laughter.

It was indeed a professionally engraved invitation, printed on heavy card stock with an ornate floral border. The gilt lettering read: His Highness the Prince Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte / Cordially invites you to / A DUEL / at his residence this evening at 20:00.

When Henri finally stopped laughing he said, "That man is truly insane."

"Bonaparte’s servants do everything for him," I explained, proud of my knowledge and composure. "I’m sure his servants know less about dueling than Victor does. They simply treated it like any other invitation ordered by the prince."

Henri lifted the card from my hands, gave a final chuckle, and passed it back to Victor. "This is highly unorthodox. It’s customary for the seconds of both parties to meet prior to the event and negotiate such details as time, place, weapons–"

"Look at this!" Victor interrupted. "The paragon of law enforcement is lecturing me on the proper method of breaking the law. Come on, Degas. It’s seven-thirty now. We have to go."

I shrugged my shoulders at Henri and let Victor lift me from my seat and propel me into the crowded and livelier front room. As we passed the table where you sat haranguing the half-listening Monet and Renoir, Victor speared you between the shoulder blades with his walking stick and said, "You too, Manet. You’re my second second. Let’s go."

We sat side by side facing Victor in the cab that rattled and shook us down to the boulevards. When we had ridden in silence for a while, Victor looked at both of us sadly and spoke like a schoolmaster reprimanding a pair of refractory pupils. "Now, whatever silly disagreement has caused each of you to act like the other doesn’t exist ends today. I order it. Understood? Good. You painters and your arguments always crack me up. ‘I’m the painter of modern life.’ ‘No, I’m the painter of modern life.’ ‘No, no, I’m the painter of modern life.’ You guys are like a bad ventriloquist’s act. If you spent as much time painting modern life as you do talking about it, you would all be the painters of modern life. So, whatever it is, forget about it and move on. Agreed?"

We said nothing, but Victor didn’t notice. He was looking at the uniform Haussmann facades speeding past his window. "Ah, this is exciting. After so many years of words, I’m finally taking action against the emperor."

"You’re dueling the emperor’s cousin, Victor," I said, "and he is extremely unpredictable. The man is crazy. And I don’t mean crazy like Nadar. I mean crazy like beating little girls to death because a voice in his head tells him to."

Noir nodded in agreement. "The whole Bonaparte family is deranged. If I could duel them all, I would." He sat back and spoke above the street sounds as we rattled on. "Look at our Emperor Louis the Nephew. He wants to be his uncle so badly that he’s going to start a war with Germany. Just watch. He already fought Russia in the Crimea, and he fought the Austrians when he tried to imitate his uncle by invading Italy. Remember that? Just because the fool is named Bonaparte he thinks he has license to take over the whole continent. If he had been born with a good French name like ‘Noir,’ we wouldn’t have any of these problems. And now there’s this Mexican thing. You won’t hear about it until it’s long over, but it’s a total disaster. The whole thing is falling to pieces. It seems the Mexicans don’t want to be ruled by a French puppet emperor. Who could have predicted that? Charlotte–or the Empress Carlotta, as she calls herself in Mexico–has completely lost her mind." Victor smiled with a sudden inspiration. "Just like Auguste Bonaparte. Maybe it’s catching, eh? She’s raving in a madhouse right now. And her husband Maximilian, the so-called Emperor of Mexico, the stupid Habsburg archduke our Napoleon convinced to go to that burnt-out desert and proclaim it a French colony... well, Maximilian’s days are numbered. Even at the Tuileries they’re laughing at him, calling him the ‘Archdupe.’" The cab came to a jarring halt. "This whole so-called Second Empire is a comic opera farce by Offenbach. And now, gentlemen, it is time for us to go onstage. We are here." With his walking stick, Victor pushed open the cab door.

Auguste Bonaparte’s house was a new four-story building near the Place St. Augustin. It was one in an endless white row of identical houses along the boulevard that Haussmann had named for himself. The street was calm and quiet on this summer evening; only a few carriages and a half-dozen or so people were visible.

Victor ordered the cabman to stay, saying, "This won’t take long."

"He’ll want to fight in the Bois or someplace, won’t he?" Victor asked you, apparently under the illusion that you were an expert in these matters.

"I would imagine so." As we walked up the three broad steps to Bonaparte’s door, you looked at the swath of sky above the boulevard. "It will be dark soon, though."

Victor tapped the head of his stick against the door four times in the cadence of Beethoven’s Fifth. "Fate knocks on the door," he said.

When a butler opened it and peered out, this black Fate announced, "Citizen Noir to see Citizen Bonaparte."

Saying nothing, the butler bowed, turned and disappeared into the house, leaving the door wide open. The interior was dark, but we could see the central stairway and beside it a long hall leading back from the foyer. From our vantage point it looked like an uninhabited house. There was no furniture in sight. The foyer was completely empty and the walls were bare. The three of us stood before the open door, not daring to cross the threshold. A carriage slowed as it passed; the driver gave us a curious glance, shook his head and drove on. After a minute or more, we heard heavy footsteps from above, and the balloon-like body of the prince appeared at the top of the stairs. He moved quickly down the steps with a lightness and agility that was, once again, surprising for such a large man. When both his feet were on the floor he broke into a run and came directly at us. Fearing he would plow us down, we were about to turn and run for the cab, but Bonaparte stopped abruptly just inside the doorway. He stared at a distant point above our heads, as if looking into a high window across the street. "You are Noir?" he said.

"Yes I am," said Victor.

Bonaparte’s gaze fell on me. "Why do you associate with scum, Gas?"

Before I could say anything, Auguste Bonaparte pulled a small pistol from his jacket pocket, fired it into Victor’s chest and slammed the door.
 
 

 
 
CHAPTER TWENTY

Victor remained standing in front of the closed door. You, for some reason, started kicking the door and pounding it with your fists. I put my hand on Victor’s shoulder to steady him, but this was unnecessary because he stood stock-still. "That wasn’t exactly my idea of a duel," he said.

"How does it feel?" I asked.

"Not bad, surprisingly... It doesn’t feel like anything, really. A little pinch."

"Can you walk back to the cab?"

Victor smiled at my sudden solicitousness. "I could probably walk to Versailles. It doesn’t feel bad. Must not have hit anything important." He shrugged my hand off his shoulder. "Really, Edgar, I’m all right. I suppose I should go to a doctor, though." Without any sign of urgency or anxiety, he turned and walked calmly toward the cab.

You were still beating and kicking the door, avenging yourself upon the property of the mad prince. "Edouard!" I shouted. "Do you know any doctors in this neighborhood?"

When you turned to answer, I saw sudden panic in your eyes. "Shit!" you yelled and rushed past me down the steps. Victor had fallen in the street, and the cabman was helping him up.

"Felt dizzy suddenly," Victor was saying when I reached him, "a little light-headed. Like after a few beers." He smiled weakly. "I haven’t been drinking, have I?"

"Not more than your usual two gallons a day," I said.

Together, we lifted him into the cab. You told the driver, "Take us to 15 Boulevard Malesherbes."

We sat with Victor between us, holding him steady as the cabman made a sharp turn in the street and another in the intersection (the dome of St. Augustin spun past my window) to point us in the direction of the Madeleine.

Victor coughed a couple of times and said, "A little trouble catching my breath." He touched the small tears the bullet had made in his coat and vest. "Fat son of a bitch ruined my best suit." He coughed again, unbuttoned his vest, and poked his little finger through the hole. The fingertip looked like a blind worm sticking its head out of black earth. "No tailor can fix this."

"We’re taking you to Doctor Sandeau," you said. "He’s just down the street here. You’re lucky to have been shot within walking distance of Paris’s best surgeon."

Victor tried to reply, but the words caught on something in his throat. He coughed loudly and violently. His body bent like a jackknife, and we put our hands on his shoulders to hold him in the seat. He coughed again, and a black, gelatinous mass fell out of his mouth and slapped wetly against the floor of the cab. He sat up and took a few breaths. "Yes," he managed to say, "I’m one lucky bastard."

When the cab stopped you rushed out the door yelling, "Robert! Robert! It’s an emergency!"

As we were lifting Victor down from the cab, the house door opened and a clean-shaven, stocky man in his forties hurried toward us. I thought he looked like a prosperous farmer, a puffy-cheeked peasant with muscular arms. "What happened, Manet?" he said.

"He was shot," you said.

Doctor Sandeau spoke to the cabman. "Thank you. We’ll take it from here."

I offered the driver a handful of francs, but he held up his hands and shook his head, refusing payment. He jumped into his seat, called out a general, "Good luck, messieurs!" and was off.

Victor stumbled on the steps; you and Sandeau caught him.

"Where was he shot?" the doctor asked.

"Just up the street," you began, "near the–"

"No, no. Where on his body?"

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing hysterically. I had to lean against the doorway to steady myself.

"Make yourself useful, Edgar!" you barked at me. "Help us, for christ’s sake." To the doctor you spoke more calmly, "He was shot in the chest."

As the four of us passed through the door, Victor said, "My name is Victor Noir and I was shot by Prince Auguste Bonaparte." He turned his head to me and forced a smile, "Nice last words, eh Degas?"

In the foyer Victor’s legs collapsed and he fell to a sitting position. "We’ll have to carry him," the doctor said. "Each of you take a shoulder and I’ll take his legs. We’re taking him straight back to my surgery. All the way back."

As we carried Victor down the hallway–you and I straining ourselves, Sandeau handling the task with ease–the doctor spoke to his patient, "You’re lucky you arrived when you did, Monsieur Noir. Half an hour later, I would’ve been at my club."

Victor cleared his throat and said, "Just make sure these damn painters don’t drop me... I suppose we can thank Prince Bonaparte for being such a punctual assassin... Damn! I don’t want those to be my last words."

We passed a cluttered sitting room where the doctor’s young wife and two small children stood watching us. There was something haunting about both children’s dark, deep-set eyes, an inheritance from their mother. I saw them for less than two seconds, but somehow I knew I would always remember them.

We entered a large whitewashed room and lay Victor on a narrow table in the center. He coughed harshly, and the doctor turned up the overhead gaslight. The room was pristine. It sparkled and glowed with white cleanliness. I wondered if it had ever been used. Exactly how experienced was your Doctor Sandeau?

Victor began to choke and his hands went to his throat, as if he could release the blockage from outside. "Help me turn him onto his side," the doctor ordered. When we had done so, Victor gave a sickening cough and expelled from his mouth a long, thin string of blood that puddled at the edge of the table. His body was wracked by another fit of coughs, and he sprayed the white floor with tiny, dark red spots. When the spasm passed, Sandeau ordered us to roll him onto his back. He was breathing normally now.

"Can you speak, Monsieur Noir?"

"Yes, obviously." The voice was weak, cracking. "I feel a... light-headed...What the fuck is happening to me?"

"The bullet has damaged your lungs." The doctor unbuttoned Victor’s shirt, exposing his pale, hairless chest. There was a dark horizontal slit like a tiny closed eye slightly to the right of his left nipple. Sandeau reached under Victor’s body and moved his arm back and forth. Victor winced. "Your hand... colder than a two-franc whore."

His work finished, the doctor removed the offending hand. "The bullet is still in your chest, Monsieur Noir. Now I’m going to probe the wound. Do you understand what I’m saying?" When Victor failed to respond, the doctor leaned down until his face was only a few centimeters above his patient’s. In any other room, I would have assumed they were about to kiss. "I’m going to try to feel the bullet with my finger. I need to feel where it is and what damage it has done. Say ‘yes’ if you understand me."

"Yes."

Still leaning close, the doctor extended his index finger in front of Victor’s face. "I’m going to reach into the wound with this finger. Do you understand me?"

"Yes."

"It’s going to hurt."

"Fantastic," said Victor.

The doctor rested his hand on Victor’s chest and slowly eased his finger into the slit. You turned your head up and stared at the ceiling. I scanned the room for a good place to vomit.

"Don’t worry, gentlemen," Doctor Sandeau reassured us. "I did this a thousand times in the Crimea." His finger was now inserted to the second knuckle. He began to slowly turn his hand, the movement almost as gradual as the turning of a minute hand on a clock. Victor groaned in pain. He breathed heavily, sucking the air in and blowing it out. As the finger went deeper, the groans became cries, not words but a single resounding note of pain and fear. It was a helpless tone. His booted feet kicked against the table in a flat, thudding rhythm. When the finger was all the way in, beads of sweat rolled like tears from Victor’s forehead. From his mouth came weak, whimpering animal sounds of pain. The doctor turned his hand and pushed even deeper into Victor’s chest.

"Fucking Christ!" Victor called out to the ceiling. "Killing me!"

Sandeau’s finger came out quickly with a sickening sucking sound. He leaned down to his patient’s face again and said, "Listen to me, Monsieur Noir. The bullet damaged the side of one of your lungs and then it cut a small hole in a very important artery we call the aorta that carries blood away from your heart to the rest of your body–"

"No fucking anatomy lessons," Victor snapped. "Am I dying?"

"You are bleeding to death inside your body. You will be dead in a few minutes, maybe less."

Victor looked up at the gaslight and the solid white ceiling beyond. "Dying in a fucking prison cell," he said. Then more clearly, his voice stronger, "At least I’m not dying in a fucking prison cell." He turned his head to the side and looked at us. "I don’t have time... to call anyone to my deathbed... so I guess I’m stuck with you two assholes... Fucking painters... What good are you?" He coughed. "At least I’ll have a good memorial portrait... You two can fight over that now... Are you taking notes with your eyes, Degas?" He coughed again, spitting blood, and began to inhale and exhale quickly, like a runner at the end of a race. He spoke above his own breathing. "Here’s another image... for your painting of... modern life." He swallowed. "Modern death." He lay back, stared at the ceiling again, and caught his breath. "Here are my last words... Write this down, doctor."

Sandeau pulled a pad and pencil from one of his pockets. "I’m ready."

Staring into the gaslight that was reflected as two bright white spots near the centers of his eyes, Victor said, "I am dying... at the hands of... a Bonaparte, and it is my dying wish... that this family of murderers... be driven from France... Long live the Republic of France." He turned his head to me. "That should rouse the rabble, eh Degas?" He laughed to himself. The laugh became a cough, and his head fell back. A series of loud coughs shook his body. He tried to speak again, but his throat produced only a watery gurgling sound. Another spasm of coughing hit him, and he spat what looked like a solid ball of blood onto the table. "Shit," he managed to say between breaths. His body went limp, but his hands contracted into tight fists. "Oh, fuck." I heard three quick gasps and then nothing.

With one hand, the doctor closed Victor’s eyes.

****************

A train pulling out of the Gare St. Lazare rattled the windows in your studio. You and I sat on a sofa against the wall, quietly sharing a bottle of wine. In the moonlight that flowed in through the glass, I noticed several small black spots of Victor’s coughed-up blood on the legs of my trousers.

"I’ll never forget the way his body looked," I said, "dressed all in black in that white room. And how the gaslight made the white scream out and the black look even darker."

"Victor was right. You were taking notes."

"And you weren’t?"

You made a strange noise halfway between a grunt and a sad chuckle. "We can’t turn it off."

"We don’t want to."

On a nearby easel was your view of the Exposition. It looked about half-finished and failed to impress me. The composition was too obvious and schematic, as if you had laid a giant X over your canvas and placed your figures along its axes. Beside the easel, a small portrait of Berthe Morisot leaned against the wall.

I laughed, surprising even myself, and said, "You stupid bastard."

"What?"

"When the doctor asked you where he was shot, you said, ‘Just up the street.’" I laughed again and playfully punched you on the shoulder. "You stupid bastard."

You let yourself laugh, just a little. "It was a perfectly reasonable misunderstanding."

I wiped my eyes and took a drink. "This whole goddamn thing is my fault, you know."

"No, Edgar. Nobody pushed Victor onto Bonaparte’s doorstep. He couldn’t wait to get there."

I passed you the bottle and said nothing for a while, until I found myself staring at the Morisot portrait. Even in nocturnal half-light, it was impressive. "That’s good of Berthe."

"She’s coming back this week and we’re doing a full-length."

"Do you have something going on with her?"

You feigned bourgeois shock. "I’m a married man... Besides, her mother is always with her. I’d have to seduce both of them, and some things are beyond even my capabilities... Why?" Your tone turned suspicious. "Are you interested in Berthe?"

"Don’t look so surprised, Edouard. I am a man... But no, I can’t marry anyone. A woman like that deserves a man who can be a real husband to her."

"And that’s not you?"

"It would never be complete," I said. "I’m physically capable of it, and I’ve done it with whores, where there’s no emotion involved... But the closeness and what people call ‘love,’ I can’t do that. Or I won’t. And then there’s my condition."

"Infected?"

"For years. Nothing will clear it up."

You drank and said, "We’re members of the same club, then."

The events of the day had left me too numb to be surprised by your frank admission. "Is Suzanne all right?"

"I think so." You handed me the bottle, and as I was drinking you asked, "So what do you do, then...I mean, with women?"

"At the moment, I can’t do anything," I answered, trying to suppress a mental image of the elliptical red sore atop my penis. "It’s too painful."

I immediately became extremely uncomfortable. I was shocked by my candor and suspected that I would soon regret this moment of honesty. In the weakness of grief, I was unintentionally filling your arsenal with ammunition to be fired back at me during our next argument. I wanted to unsay my words.

"Aren’t we a pair?" you said. "I’m sorry I cut your painting."

I enjoyed the silence that hung between us for several long seconds after these words. I had never heard you apologize before.

"You should be," I finally said and passed you the bottle.
 
 

 
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The funeral of Victor Noir looked like the beginning of a revolution. An enormous crowd, drawn by the romanticized newspaper accounts of Victor’s death, surrounded the Madeleine and filled the neighboring streets. The Rue Royale was densely packed all the way down to the Place de la Concorde, where a few men scaled the obelisk and clinged precariously to its sides for a better view. Similar rivers of people flowed up the Boulevard de la Madeleine toward the new Opera and up the Boulevard Malesherbes in the direction of St. Augustin. In front of number 15 on the latter street, an ever-growing mound of flowers marked the site of the hero’s death. Farther north and around the corner, Auguste Bonaparte’s doorstep was littered with the blood of smashed tomatoes, the shells and jelly of broken eggs, and a thousand slivers of shattered glass.

When the church doors opened and the crowd saw the black coffin framed between the heavy Greek pillars of the portico, a shout of "Vive la France!" arose from the streets and the people pushed forward into the presence of their martyr. A few of these rushing mourners reached the steps and jostled the pallbearers, who responded by tightening their hold on their suddenly unsteady burden and shouldering the intruders out of the way. At the bottom of the steps, the coffin turned sharply and seemed to flow upon a wave of outstretched arms onto the waiting flower-decked cart. When the coffin was in position, the driver took up his reins and cracked his whip a single time in the air above the horse. The old beast knew that sound, and he certainly knew the way to Père Lachaise by now, so he started out at his customary slow walk, his shoes ringing rhythmically against the cobblestones. The people cleared a path before him, and they widened it for the night-black stream of mourners still flowing out the door and down the steps of the church.

You and I walked together near the front of the procession. We walked up the boulevards past Nadar’s studio (closed for the day because the owner was here among us, dressed in black for once) and past the plain facade of the Jockey Club, which looked on obliviously. We passed the new Opera and its eponymous avenue, where workers stood motionless atop piles of rubble and respectfully doffed their caps. When we turned onto the Boulevard Montmartre, we saw one of Haussmann’s masterpieces stretching out before us: a long, straight canyon of a street that would deliver us to the gates of the cemetery. We poured onto the boulevard like floodwater into a dry riverbed, overflowing the busy street, forcing carriages and pedestrians aside. We moved slowly but unstoppably onward, toward the place where the parallel sidewalks converged. Down there, beyond Haussmann’s vanishing point, an open grave waited for Victor. At this moment the gravediggers were probably resting after the morning’s exertions, sitting atop the freshly turned earth and trading jokes as they drank their wine and broke their bread.

People emerged from storefronts, stood on balconies, leaned out of windows to watch us pass. I looked up and imagined the view from the fourth floor: through a screen of trees one would see the colorful rectangle of the cart with the dark, coffin-shaped void at its center; behind it, a column of black-clad men and women marched in orderly rows; and after this came the deluge, a surging, parti-colored river of Parisians in which the watery blue blouses of workers predominated.

As we passed the Porte St. Martin and the Porte St. Denis, I thought that those old city gates looked like earlier impressions of the die from which the Arc de Triomphe had been cast. They were relics of an another century’s fake classicism, remnants of another absolute ruler’s attempt to capture for himself a portion of the not-yet-entirely-cliched ‘glory of Rome.’ Today, grown men and small children scrambled up the sides of the arches. One of the men shouted "Vive la République!" and many voices behind us took up the cry.

The calls became louder, angrier, when we came to a square where someone had placed a large, crudely sewn liberty cap atop the head of a statue of Napoleon III. I glanced back at the people crying out, their mouths identically open, their fists pumping the air as if controlled by a single body, and I remembered my grandfather’s story of the Place de la Concorde and how the victims of the Revolution were so identical that he couldn’t recognize his own fiancee. Did membership in a group, any group, mean the surrender of individual identity? From the safety of my group of frock-coated bourgeois, I hoped not.

We followed the carriage along the wall of Père Lachaise. Some of the people behind us began singing the Marseillaise and soon most of the crowd joined in. The police, who were under orders to silence any public performance of this revolutionary song, stood helplessly on the sidewalk and watched the procession pass. They could easily have arrested a group of three or four singing workers, but now they were completely overwhelmed. Near the cemetery gates, one policeman removed his cap before our now-illegal progress and another stopped the traffic in the street so we could enter the burial grounds unhindered. Only later did I reflect that this behavior was an automatic response to the appearance of the group of higher-class mourners immediately behind the carriage. If the cortege had been entirely working class, the forces of order would hardly have been so helpful.

At the gates, the pallbearers lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and began their slow climb to the top of the ridge. We followed the raised coffin along that gently rising path, watching it dip and bounce with the carriers’ footsteps. Long lines of monuments stretched out on either side of us, wrapping themselves around the hillside. Swaths of green grass shone between the tombs, and bees buzzed among funereal flowers. It was a pleasant, sunny day in this English garden of death.

When we reached the top of the path I looked back and saw all the people behind us marching up the hill, pouring through the gate and continuing back along the boulevard as far as I could see. They were taking over the sidewalks near the cemetery now, climbing onto streetlights and lifting each other up to sit atop the cemetery wall. Haussmann’s boulevards appeared to be designed for such grand processions, but this one was too big, too general, even for the baron’s conceptions of traffic flow. The people were feeling their power, I thought. By sheer numerical strength, they were taking their streets back from Haussmann and the emperor. Inside the gates, they were now spreading over the hillside, climbing the narrow footpaths between the monuments. A few men even perched on top of tombstones like graveyard cats.

The gravediggers slowly lowered Victor’s coffin into the hole, the priest shook out a few drops of water and repeated the usual formulae, and then, as the shovelfuls of dirt began to fall, you, Manet, surprised all of us by starting to sing the Marseillaise. You sang the first few bars alone, in a strong baritone that captured everyone’s attention and caused the priest to glare at you in alarm. Soon the rest of us around the grave joined your song, and the chorus quickly grew, spreading down the hill and into the streets. It seemed for a moment that the entire eastern half of Paris was singing that subversive song in a single voice. I looked around for the priest, but he had vanished, as if exorcised by this upsurge of republican sentiment. Presumably, he did not relish the prospect of explaining to his bishop why he had presided over a revolutionary rite. When we finished singing, I could hear the song continuing in the streets below. It was a low, distant hum, a soft bass tone, but the melody was unmistakable.

We frock-coated few on the hill broke apart and began to wander away in several directions. Looking down again from the top of the ridge, I saw our working class companions beginning to make their way out of the cemetery, down the hill and through the blue-bloused crush at the main gate. They reminded me of an army falling back but not defeated. After this show of force, they were making a strategic retreat in order to fight more effectively another day.

You and I paused when we came to the tomb of Géricault. It was great only in size: a large, ugly granite block topped with a reclining effigy of the painter. What caught our attention was the bronze relief of The Raft of the Medusa set into the front of the block.

"Will they put Olympia on your grave?" I said.

"More likely they’ll inscribe a Latin motto that translates as ‘good riddance.’ I hope it’s a very long time before anyone can be certain, though. What will be on your tombstone, a simple ‘Degas’?"

"I think ‘A Very Complex Degas’ would be a preferable epitaph."

We turned down a curving lane lined with tombs, and I reflected that Père Lachaise was yet another attempt–by the first Napoleon, this time–to turn Paris into Rome: a cemetery designed like a little city in which all the streets resemble the tomb-lined Appian Way. But the Romanism of Père Lachaise was more than political; it also encoded our society’s most harshly hopeful concept of death. We want death to be Roman, Stoic, like Seneca and Petronius opening their veins; but more often, I suspected, death was like Victor: saying ‘oh fuck’ and gasping for air, trying to suck in one last lungful of life.

We arrived at a large marble sarcophagus with gilt lettering that read EVGENE DELACROIX. "This is better," you said, "grand but not pompous."

"It’s hardly modest. It looks like Napoleon’s tomb in the Invalides."

"Delacroix was a kind of Napoleon." You thought about this and smiled to yourself. "Maybe we’re his Grande Armee: you and me, the doppelganger, Renoir, maybe Cézanne. The Morisot sisters can be our secret agents. They can marry academicians and use their considerable feminine charms to turn them to our cause."

"And we will take the Salon the way Napoleon took Italy?" I asked skeptically.

"Yes," you said, "but we’ll keep it."

**************

As we left the cemetery, Henri emerged from the crowd around the gates and motioned to me. I told you goodbye and joined him.

"What are you doing here, Henri, spying?"

"Shut up, Degas. He was my friend, too, you know."

We cut a zigzag path across the crowded street, where a few carriages were attempting unsuccessfully to make their way through the sea of people. "You’ll be pleased to learn that Prince Auguste Bonaparte was arrested this morning," Henri informed me as we walked around a wagon loaded with carrots and cabbages.

"Is he in prison?"

"House arrest."

I was instantly furious. "Son of a bitch! Why don’t you do your fucking job?"

Henri was shocked by my vehemence, and so, to a lesser extent, was I. I was angry at Henri, at the prince and at myself; Henri was the most convenient target.

"What do you expect me to do?" he said. "Hang him from a lamppost on the Boulevard Haussmann with a sign around his neck reading ‘This one’s for Victor’?"

"That would be a refreshing change." We stepped over the gutter and onto the sidewalk. I made a theatrical gesture that took in all the workers around us. "It’s exactly what these people would do."

"The prince is under constant surveillance," Henri assured me.

But I was hardly reassured. "Just as he was when he killed Victor. Just as he was when he killed Jeanne. Just as he should have been when he probably killed Lisette. Nothing has changed." A related thought occurred to me. "Where was this constant surveillance on the evening Victor was shot? Your agent didn’t exactly run up to assist us."

"If he had done so," explained Henri calmly, "he would have revealed himself."

"I see. It’s better that your friend should die than one of your spies should lose his cover."

Henri chose not to answer this. Instead, he said, "Bonaparte will be publicly tried, found guilty and sentenced."

"And executed?"

"Well, there is the question of his sanity. That complicates matters."

"And there’s the question of his relatives." My voice was angrily mocking. "That complicates them even more."

We turned up the Boulevard de la Roquette, where the crowd was breaking into smaller groups as people drifted toward their homes. I said, "He’s going to get away with this, isn’t he, Henri?" The detective did not answer. "And until the trial, he’s permitted to prance around Paris like any other man. That’s what your ‘house arrest’ means. What the hell do you people do all day up at the Préfecture?"

Henri had a ready answer to this question. He jerked his thumb toward a group of blue-bloused workers singing the Marseillaise on a street corner and said, "We keep wealthy men of leisure like you safe from people like this."

"You had better worry about keeping yourselves safe. The revolution, when it comes, will deal with the police long before it bothers with people like me."

"‘When it comes’?" Henri quoted me with a bemused grin. "Are you a Communist now, Edgar? Are you putting your hopes on an uprising of the workers?" He shook his head. "That day, if it comes, will be a bad day for you, my friend."

As we were crossing the end of an alley, Henri put his hand on my arm and said, "Look at the glorious workers, Degas. There are a couple of your saviors of France." He pointed down the alley to where two drunken workmen were engaged in an obscene dance. Both of their trousers were undone, their penises were in their hands, and each was attempting to urinate on the other’s shoes. They hopped and yelled and laughed and stumbled against one another. Their errant streams drew dark lines across the legs of their trousers. "I wouldn’t put my money on such people," said Henri.

"They probably have nothing else to play with," I rejoined weakly. "Even the poor can piss."

At the gate of La Roquette prison Henri stopped and gestured at the guard. Without a word, the man stepped out of his small guardhouse and inserted the key that hung from his waist into the gate.

"Are you putting me in prison for making inflammatory statements?" I asked.

"I might lock you up for participating in a duel. But no. Pierre Leblanc has asked to speak to you. Ordinarily, I would dismiss such requests automatically, but in this case I think a conversation might be somehow illuminating."

We waited for him in a gray stone room brightened only by the bands of sunlight that streamed down from three barred windows set high in the wall. In the middle of the room was a long wooden table. Behind it, a single chair was bolted to the floor. We sat across from this chair, as if being interviewed by an invisible man.

The door opened and Leblanc shuffled in, followed closely by a guard holding a chain attached to the shackles on Leblanc’s hands and ankles. The prisoner had obviously been beaten. The flesh around his eyes was blackened and puffy; several cuts at his cheekbones and in the corner of his eyes were dark with dried blood. While the guard put him in the chair and fastened the chain to an iron ring in the floor, I noticed that the fingernails of Leblanc’s good hand were all broken or missing. He swallowed hard and spoke to Henri in a scratchy voice. "Where’s your basin, Inspector?"

"I’m finished washing your hair, Leblanc."

The prisoner’s head, like those of all the other convicts, had been shaved. Leblanc now had even less hair than Henri. He turned to me and said through thick lips and broken teeth, "I’m glad you came, Monsieur Degas."

I felt a twinge of pity for the man, but then I reminded myself that Leblanc had admitted to beating Lisette and may even have killed her. In all my recent concentration on Bonaparte, Haussmann and Polonsky, I had almost forgotten that Pierre Leblanc had never been entirely eliminated as a suspect.

"What do you want to say, Leblanc?" Henri asked in a commanding tone.

The prisoner ignored him. Still looking at me, he said, "I told you Baron Haussmann killed my daughter. Now I can give you proof."

"We’re waiting," barked Henri.

"It’s right before your eyes," Leblanc said. "Look at my face, my body, this hand–"

Henri interrupted him. He sounded bored. "So you were beaten in prison. So what? Prison is a brutal place. These things happen here. You should’ve thought of that before you tried to blow the emperor’s head off, you stupid shit."

"No, you don’t understand. Baron Haussmann’s agents came to my cell. They tried to beat me into confessing to the murder of my daughter. They want me, her father, to cover their crime for them. They said, ‘Save yourself some pain, Leblanc. Confess. You’re going to the guillotine anyway. What difference does it make?’ When I said nothing, they beat me more."

I was unmoved by his story of sadism. "As I recall, you have experience with beatings."

"But I never told them what they wanted to hear," he continued, either misunderstanding or ignoring my remark. "I never will. I did not kill my daughter. Even in the shadow of the guillotine I repeat this. But I wanted to see you because I have proof. Baron Haussmann has written his confession in my flesh. Now you can see that he did it."

"How do you know," asked bored Henri, "that the men who beat you were Haussmann’s agents?"

Clearly, Leblanc had not anticipated this obvious question. "Who else would do it?"

"You attempted to assassinate the emperor," Henri answered. "I’m sure there are thousands of good, patriotic Frenchmen who would gladly beat the shit out of you."

"But they wouldn’t care about Lisette," Leblanc shot back. He had a point. "Anyway, that’s what I have to tell you. Now you know. Whether you decide to do anything about it is your business. My business...well, my business is going to be over soon, isn’t it?" The chain rattled as he scratched his stomach with his good hand. "There is one more thing, though." His eyes met mine. "I have a request to make of you, Monsieur Degas."

"What makes you think Monsieur Degas cares about anything you might request, Leblanc?" Henri voiced my thoughts.

"Do you remember my proof, my Daumier print? I know you do. You couldn’t take your eyes off it that day you came to my house. I want you to sell it for me. Sell it to one of your rich collector friends, the richest one. And give the money to my wife. It’s all I have. This is my last request, Monsieur Degas, so you can’t refuse." I was about to say, ‘Just watch me,’ when Leblanc added, "Besides, I’ve made it very easy for you. I sealed the print in a metal tube and buried it in the courtyard of your building on the Rue de Laval. I sneaked in and buried it under the tree the night before the assassination."

"The assassination attempt," Henri corrected, "and a pathetically incompetent one, at that."

Leblanc kept talking. "It’s practically under your feet. Clear away a few inches of dirt beside the spot where one of the roots looks like a big knuckle, and you should be able to pull it out. Sell it to a rich collector, Monsieur Degas, one who’s so rich he doesn’t care about money. But don’t be nice. Get as much as you can out of it, and give it all to my wife." Leblanc was pleading now. "You’ll do this for a dying man, won’t you, Monsieur Degas?"

After a brief hesitation, I nodded my head.

As Henri and I were leaving the prison, walking along the high stone wall from the interview room to the gate, I asked, "Were the men who beat him Haussmann’s agents or yours?"

"Officially, the Préfecture has no further interest in Leblanc. As far as we’re concerned, he’s already a dead man. They were quite possibly Haussmann’s men."

I had the impression that Henri knew much more than he was saying.

"And what about the rest of it, that this amounts to a confession of guilt from Haussmann? That he’s trying to beat someone else into taking the blame for his crime?"

"If Haussmann is the killer, framing Leblanc would bring everything to a highly satisfying conclusion, wouldn’t it? Satisfying for Haussmann, I mean." Henri continued speaking as we passed through the gate onto the boulevard. "But I find Leblanc’s allegations a little hard to swallow. It is entirely possible that the baron, because of his contacts with Lisette, is now carrying out an investigation parallel to your own. I doubt that Haussmann’s motivation is a desire for truth, however. He would want to find the murderer for a purely selfish reason: so that people like you will stop suspecting Haussmann. And of course, any investigation by Baron Haussmann would be conducted according to his usual ruthless methods." Henri added, "This is all speculation, of course."

I considered Henri’s words during my solitary cab ride back to the Rue de Laval. Was another investigation underway, one in which I played only a tiny role as a troublesome amateur to be scared away by the sight of a knife and a chase through Les Halles? I thought I was the author and teller of my own tale, but was I really just a minor character in a story even now being written by Baron Haussmann? I watched the identical facades of the boulevard slide past my window. If Haussmann built our stage, why couldn’t he also script our lives? All of Paris was his theatre and all Parisians his actors. Intentionally or not, consciously or not, we strolled his streets, played his roles and maybe even spoke his lines. And we were perfect performers, we Parisians. On the baron’s stage we were so brilliant we even fooled ourselves.

*************

I broke the seal on Leblanc’s metal tube and shook the paper out onto my drawing table. I unrolled it and held it flat. It was a perfect condition collector’s proof. The paper was as bright and the lines were as crisp as on the day it was printed. All those years spent hanging in Leblanc’s shack hadn’t damaged the print; indeed, they had probably preserved it from the damaging effects of the light under which a wealthy and ignorant collector might have displayed it. I looked at the muscular printer who dominated Daumier’s page and represented freedom of the press, and I thought that this was how Leblanc must have seen himself: a working-class republican bruiser standing firm against the forces of established power. Had he been attempting to realize this image of himself when he ran into the imperial box at Longchamps and tried to fire his father’s old pistol into Napoleon III’s skull? Had years of living in that shack and looking at this print somehow warped his mind? Or was his love of the image a symptom rather than a cause? None of that really mattered now. I took up my magnifying glass and examined the smaller background figures. They were as carefully delineated and individualized as the central figure, drawn with a fluency and seeming effortlessness that astonished me. As I followed Daumier’s gently curving lines across the page, I felt that familiar collector’s thrill, the desire to acquire at any cost. My heart beat faster; I noticed a slight nervous tremor in the hand that held the glass. It was an amazing print. I had never seen and would never see a better impression.

I glanced over at my portrait of Monsieur Dury, the old print collector. He had a special interest in Daumier and a seemingly bottomless purse. He would pay anything I asked for this print and consider it a bargain. Unfortunately, he would never have the opportunity. A work of art as masterful as this deserved the care of an artist, someone who could deeply appreciate it and draw inspiration from it, not a collector who would see it only as a desirable trophy. "I’m sorry, Monsieur Dury," I said aloud. "You won’t be adding this one to your collection." I reached under the table for my own portfolio, opened it on my lap, and slid Leblanc’s print inside, on top of the revolutionary street scene I had purchased shortly before pulling Lisette’s body from the river.

There would be no sale, no purchase, no money for the grieving widow–and no one would care. According to the newspapers, Leblanc’s wife had vanished as only the poor and frightened can vanish: completely. Henri didn’t give a damn about Leblanc’s print or anything else by Daumier; in Henri’s personal pantheon, Daumier was a mere magazine illustrator, a minor associate of the god Corot. And when La Guillotine did her work, she would remove the only interested witness to my almost-crime, my little theft, my major breach of promise.
 
 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The revolution did not occur. The day after Victor Noir’s funeral, Parisians swallowed their resentment and returned to their lives. The blue blouses went back to their factories and construction sites; the Marseillaise-singers took up their posts behind the counters of shops and cafes; the frock coats arrived at their offices on time. In the Rue de Laval, I took my finished Fiocre painting off the easel, leaned it against the wall to dry, and prepared to go out. Georges was sending his carriage to take me to the Opera for Pauline’s dance examination and her probable promotion from coryphée to sujet. I had originally planned to walk down, checking the windows of the art dealers along the way, but when Georges had offered the carriage, I had predictably accepted Paris’s smoothest ride.

And so I glided along the busy streets in silence, watching the people and wagons through the window as if through the eyes of a deaf man. Top hats were raised and silent greetings were exchanged; street vendors soundlessly cried out their wares. Watching the Parisian dumbshow, I thought again of the uncanny sense of displacement I had felt the day before, the sense that I was not at the center of my story, that I was neither king nor knight, but a lowly pawn being moved from square to square by an invisible hand. Whose hand? Who was the author of my story? Who was writing me? (Who is pushing my stiffened hand now in another century, making me write these words? I wonder if anything in this growing pile of scribbled paper on my table is strictly true. Am I dealing in facts? There is a difference between truth and honesty. Facts will always be muddled by memory, but I am trying to be scrupulously honest. Even an old man should be permitted to try something new.)

Pauline had performed a similar displacement on her own story, describing her visit to Victoria’s and her rape by Polonsky as if they had happened to someone else, some conveniently lost, anonymous girl. I now knew that two girls had stood at the back of the Opera on that day in late May. From the same sidewalk they had embarked on two very different but equally unexpected journeys. Pauline had stepped into Polonsky’s carriage expecting–what?–a party, a pleasant evening, perhaps, and instead she had been raped. Pauline’s friend Lisette, waiting nearby, had stepped into another carriage and had ridden to an even more horrifying destination. Expecting escape from an insufferable life, she had been driven directly to death. Who had given the orders to the driver? Who had been inside that carriage, a carriage like this one, a rich man’s carriage? The fact that Lisette’s death and Pauline’s rape happened on the same day, perhaps simultaneously, seemed too symmetrical to be pure coincidence. Maybe both events were part of a single plan. I considered the possibility that Lisette and Pauline, starting from the same point that day, had stepped into two different strands of a story written by a single author. I imagined the rape and the murder as a book, a leather-bound novel. If I could open it and read the signature on the title page, everything would become clear. I remembered Henri’s remark about trying dice if his unorthodox measures failed. Victor’s newspaper story had brought me no closer to Lisette’s murderer; it had only gotten Victor killed. Therefore, as the back wall of the Opera gradually slowed to a stop in my window, I decided that soon I would take a wild guess at the killer’s identity; it was time–as novel-writing gamblers might say–to roll the dice and hope for a pair of sixes.

Georges’s coachman, Paul, opened the door and I stepped into sound and sunlight. I asked Paul how long he had been in Georges’s employ.

"Only since the beginning of June, monsieur."

"And before that, you worked for Baron Haussmann?"

"Yes, monsieur." He closed the door behind me.

"Shortly before you left Baron Haussmann’s service, did the baron send you here to pick up a girl, a girl named Lisette, wearing a blue dress and a butterfly necklace?"

Paul wrinkled his sun-browned forehead as his mind reached for the memory traces. "I wasn’t told her name," he said, "only about the dress and the necklace, so I could recognize her. Yes, the baron sent me here for her. He was very disappointed when I told him the girl wasn’t here."

"When you were here waiting for her, did you see anything else, anything unusual?"

He paused before climbing up to his seat. "Not unusual, exactly... But there was something I didn’t tell the baron–or anyone else. I don’t suppose it makes any difference now, though. You see, I did see the girl with blonde hair in the blue dress. As soon as I turned the corner back there I saw her standing on this sidewalk, but before I could get to her, another carriage pulled up and she got inside. I didn’t tell the baron, you understand, because it would only have made him angrier."

"Can you tell me anything about the carriage that picked her up? Did you see who was inside it?"

"I couldn’t see inside, no. But I suppose I could tell you a thing or two about the carriage." He smiled. "I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I remembered it because it impressed me. It was a beautiful machine. And it still is." He ran his hand over the smooth wooden side of Georges’s carriage. "It was this one. I recognized it as soon as the duke showed it to me a week later. I thought to myself, ‘This is the beauty that picked up the baron’s little girl.’ I guess the duke hired the baron’s girl away from him before he hired me away, eh?" Paul winked at me and shot up the steps into his seat.

At that moment, the owner of this carriage, the man whose hand Lisette had taken on her final day (or was I jumping to a conclusion again, as Henri would probably charge?), emerged from the Opera gates and called my name.

"I hope you enjoyed the ride," said Georges when he reached me.

"As always," I said, deciding instantly to act as though my exchange with the coachman had not occurred. "There’s not another carriage as well-built in all of Paris."

"Unfortunately, Edgar, you are almost certainly wrong. Polonsky owns one by the same maker. And that prince from Moscow, Dmitri Romanov, also has one. They’re built by a man in St. Petersburg–Lefchenko’s his name. He’s a genius, but every carriage he builds looks the same. I suppose it’s always that way with virtuosi. Everything Paganini played sounded like Paganini."

"Yes, and everything Bouguereau paints looks like...shit." This easy, bantering line concealed my confused emotions: immediate relief mixed with a grain of disappointment. I despaired of ever receiving an answer about Lisette’s death that did not raise other unanticipated questions.

The unforgiving eyes of Madame Monge followed us from her window in the wall as we crossed the quiet Opera courtyard.

"I’m going to the Tuileries after this," Georges said. "Would you care to join me?"

I looked up at a sky that was half blue and half puffy white clouds. "Now that I’ve finished my work and have nothing to do this afternoon, that sounds like an excellent idea."

"You’ve finished your ballet painting? Wonderful. We will promenade in celebration."

At the door to the classroom wing, Georges said, "That crazy Auguste has done it this time, shooting a well-known man in broad daylight. You’re lucky he didn’t shoot you, too. The imperial family will be forced to put him on trial. He’ll finally be put away."

"One can only hope."

Inside, the dancers awaiting examination sat quietly with their mothers on the benches that lined one side of the corridor. One mother, dressed entirely in black, sat leaning forward, idly tapping the tip of her parasol against the floorboards. Consciously or not, she was beating time to the muffled melody of a violin coming from the examination room across the hall. The woman’s daughter, wearing a white tutu that spread out around her seated form like an aureole, was bent almost double, staring at the floor and breathing heavily as she reached down to massage an ankle. I looked at the pair for several seconds, memorizing them, noting how the contrasts of color and clothing combined with their poses to express the psychological distance between them. They were a mother and daughter sitting together in different worlds. They would go into my notebook that evening. Someday, I would do something bigger with them.

"That’s Pauline," Georges said. His walking stick pointed toward the closed door from which I could now hear a dancer’s footsteps along with the violin. "She’s inside right now." Georges kept his voice low so as not to disturb the other girls we passed. They all sat anxiously still, their feet turned sharply outward or pressed sole to sole as they waited. "These examinations are strictly closed, jurors only. Even I can’t get in."

We sat down beside Madame Jacob, Pauline’s mother. She failed to conceal her nervousness as she wiped the sweat from her brow with a coarse handkerchief. Her hands were trembling. "Oh, Monsieur Degas, I’m glad you could come. Pauline will be happy to see you." She leaned back against the wall and took a breath. "And I’ll be happy when this is all over. I’ve listened to this song seven times now, and every time it seems longer. What are they doing in there?"

Georges put a comforting arm around her shoulders and told her to relax, Pauline would be promoted, he was certain of it. She looked at him gratefully and water filled her eyes.

Two benches down from us, a dancer was weeping in her mother’s arms. Georges asked Madame Jacob about her. "Oh, she slipped," said the woman. "She was halfway through the examination and her foot caught on an uneven floorboard and she fell. That’s what she told her mother, anyway. I couldn’t help but overhear, you understand. The jurors were kind. They allowed her to finish the routine as if nothing had happened. But everyone knows: if you fall, you fail. All because of a floorboard, messieurs. The floors in this building are so old...I’m surprised they don’t collapse."

"This place is hopeless," Georges agreed. "I can’t wait until they have our new Opera finished. It’s going to be a beautiful place, a palace. And Pauline will be the star there. I think–"

The violin stopped with a silence that ended all the soft speech in the corridor. Madame Jacob’s eyes went to the closed door. When it opened, a bar of bright sunlight spread across the floorboards and splashed against the opposite wall. Pauline appeared in the doorway, the dark silhouette of a dancer against the bright morning light. When she stepped toward us I saw that she was wearing her best tutu and an inscrutable expression. She walked slowly to her mother, waited a few seconds, and broke into a wide smile: "I think they were very impressed."

Madame Jacob sprang up and embraced her daughter. Georges and I offered congratulations. "My only doubts concerned the jurors," Georges said. "Would they be perceptive enough to recognize perfection when they saw it? If you will excuse me, I must go inside and congratulate them on their exquisite powers of discernment." Looking very pleased with himself, he strolled to the lighted doorway.

Pauline detached herself from her mother’s arms, and the three of us sat on the bench, Pauline in the middle. She said, "Monsieur Degas, I asked Georges to invite you because I’ve found out something more about Lisette’s death. Do you remember Sylvie, the girl you spoke to in the hallway during Don Juan, the one who saw Lisette get into the carriage? Two days ago I saw her again, and she told me something else that sounded important. Sylvie says she saw the man in the carriage. Before the carriage came to Lisette, when it was still moving in the street, Sylvie was able to see inside. She didn’t know the man, so she forgot about it, I guess, until a few days ago when she saw him again. She saw him right here, in fact. It was that Russian count I told you about."

"Count Polonsky."

"Yes. He’s the one who picked up Lisette." Pauline’s gaze looked past me, down the hallway and into her own mind. "He must have done something terrible to her. All the stories about that count must be true."

"That’s...interesting." I looked into Pauline’s dark eyes and wondered why she was lying to me. Once again she had taken her own experience and thrown it like a ventriloquist’s voice into another person’s body. Polonsky had indeed picked up a girl at the back of the Opera that day, but the girl had been Pauline, and the events at Victoria’s had followed. Perhaps Pauline was protecting herself and her sanity by distancing that terrifying day, projecting it onto someone safely dead. "Thank you, Pauline," I told her.

Georges returned and informed his dancer and her mother ‘in strictest confidence’ that according to the jurors the sujet spot was Pauline’s. The girl cried out with joy and threw her arms around Georges. The other dancers and mothers in the corridor looked at her with an animosity that justified the word’s relationship to ‘animal.’ There was pure, inhuman hatred in their eyes. Pauline’s success was their failure. Pauline’s success would take money out of their purses and, perhaps in some cases, food from their mouths. The next dancer’s name was called, and she threw Pauline a killing glance as she walked past us and into the sunlight. The door closed and the music began again: same violin, same melody, same tempo. Pauline finally released Georges. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked down at her, his eyes running over her small bosom, corseted waist and pale, slender legs. Madame Jacob looked at the two of them, and the water in the woman’s eyes seemed transformed to tears of joy. I could almost see the vision of endless money in her mind.

****************

Early that afternoon a rain cloud passed over Paris, depositing just enough water to weigh down the dust in the Tuileries Gardens. It was thus a perfect day for a promenade. Georges and I could stroll with the gentle west wind at our back and the leaves shaking over our heads without being enveloped by choking dust clouds blown down from the Champs-Elysées. We walked along a shaded path where spots of sunlight breaking through the leaves painted gold medallions on the ground. In our black coats and top hats and with our walking sticks piercing the gravel at every step, we looked (I thought, after I spotted you standing in an identical costume far down the path) like two of the bourgeois strollers in your Tuileries painting.

After several minutes of pleasant and unremarkable conversation, I announced dramatically, "My investigation is complete."

"Really?" Georges sounded impressed and even excited. "Who killed her?"

"Surely you don’t expect to get the answer out of me that easily."

"If not easily, how?"

"I’ll reveal it when I’m ready. When it suits me. A few more pieces must fall into place for me to be certain."

"You sounded certain a second ago. Now you seem less sure of your conclusion. Do you know who killed her or not?"

"As to who, yes. But there are many other questions beyond the killer’s identity which are proving much more difficult to answer."

"The identity is the most important thing, Edgar. I’ll make a deal with you. If you tell me the killer’s identity, I’ll let you keep all the other secrets to yourself."

I responded by raising my stick in greeting to you. You had recognized us and were approaching quickly. After introductions, Georges said, "Your fellow painter has solved his mystery, but he’s so unsure of his investigative abilities that he refuses to reveal the solution."

You cast an appraising glance at me and said, "No, he’s holding his cards close to his vest, just like Dupin." You turned around and fell into step with us. "It’s good to see you’ve been reading Poe, Edgar. Do you intend to return my book anytime soon?"

Instead of answering, I revealed my plan. "As both of you undoubtedly know, there will be a masked ball at the Opera this Saturday. I would like you, Georges, to confirm that Baron Haussmann, Count Polonsky and Prince Bonaparte will all be in attendance. One of the last things Victor said to us was that this Empire was like a comic opera by Offenbach. In that spirit, I’ve decided to provide my own little subplot with a suitably theatrical denouement. What better place for an unmasking than a masked ball? The murderer will appear in my loge at two o’clock."

"Edgar," you said in a concerned voice, "I must insist that you return my book. You’ve obviously been reading too much Poe."

Georges was becoming exasperated. "At least tell us how you intend to lure the killer to your box."

"I’ll probably resort to the clever ruse of asking him to join me–or something like that."

Walking three abreast, like the advance guard of some very casual bourgeois army, we crossed in front of the Tuileries Palace and turned at its southern end to follow the long wall of the Louvre down to the Pont des Arts. We stood in the middle of the bridge and looked upriver to where the two halves of the Pont Neuf sat like a seesaw perfectly balanced on the tip of the Ile de la Cité. The bridges and buildings of the Cité glowed white, and the river sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. The Seine was so beautiful that it almost took me out of time, away from the long lines of people and carriages flowing westward on both banks and into a deeper reality of this place, this water, this moment, this light. The river was the city’s oldest place, its heart and brain. I thought that if I stared long enough it would show me all its memories. And I knew that no matter how long I stared, the river would never tell me what I wanted to know.

Georges broke my mood by stating the obvious: "The Seine looks lovely."

"Yes," I agreed, "I wonder how many bodies they’ll pull from it this week."
 
 

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

The masked balls at the Opera were a winter tradition, Paris’s once-weekly version of Carnival, a popular and diverting amusement to enliven those Saturday nights in January when the temperature outside dropped below freezing. So when the Emperor Napoleon III ordered a ball in the summer of 1867 to coincide with the Exposition, fashionable Paris was surprised but not displeased. The week’s performances were abruptly cancelled, the seats were unbolted and removed from the parterre, the orchestra pit was boarded over, and the corridors where opera-goers customarily conversed during intermissions were lined with tables and booths where vendors sold drinks, fruit, poorly painted fans (expected to sell particularly well on a warm night) and, of course, masks. Lower-class Parisians crowded around the entrance to catch a glimpse of the revelers, and the doors were thrown open at midnight to any man or woman able to pay the ten-franc fee and wearing either a costume, a mask or (in the case of men) formal black tie and top hat.

When I settled into my third-level loge shortly after 12:30, the dance floor below was a sea of male black with splashes of lighter female colors floating upon it like lilies on a dark pond. It was a translation to a much larger scale of the contrast I had noticed in the foyer de la danse on the night of Don Juan: the dancers in their flower costumes and the Jockeys dressed in black. Thinking along these lines, I saw the masked ball as the Opera turned inside out, a masked unmasking, the truth of the place revealed under the guise of play. This was the foyer brought forward, placed on center stage for all of Paris to see, the reality of the Opera (and of life) spelled out in a language easily read by those who knew the Parisian codes. The women on the floor were adventuresses, bounders (respectable women kept to the boxes and approached the dance floor only with their eyes); they were actresses, singers, shopgirls, working-class women who had spent time and money on their eye-catching costumes in the hope of snaring one of the wealthy black-clad men who came to this marketplace looking to buy. But the Opera’s function as an erotic department store was not the only truth exposed on this night. The ball was also the ultimate confirmation of the old cliche that people attend the Opera not for the performance but for each other. This was an Opera without an opera, a theatre with no staged performance, an opportunity for the spectators to become the whole of the spectacle. There was an orchestra, of course, but it was positioned far enough back on the stage to be a sonic rather than a visual stimulus. The sole purpose of appearing tonight was to see and be seen; the entire auditorium was a theatre of intersecting gazes.

Using my opera glasses, I scanned the loges near the stage until I spotted Baron Haussmann and his wife. The baron sat forward, as usual, looking insufferably smug and probably already apportioning credit to himself for yet another successful imperial extravaganza. Beside him, Madame Haussmann repeatedly raised and lowered her glasses as she surveyed the crowd. Occasionally, her husband would lean over to point out a particularly impressive face or costume. At Madame’s throat was a heart-shaped pendant glittering with tiny diamonds. I was disappointed not to see the jeweled butterfly, but I reflected that Haussmann had likely ordered both of those necklaces destroyed. There was little sense in keeping potentially embarrassing jewelry in one’s possession.

When I moved my glasses to the left and saw Prince Bonaparte sitting alone in a neighboring loge, I forced myself to swallow the anger that rose in my throat like vomit. The man had committed multiple murders, one of them before my eyes, and yet he remained as free as I, able to walk the streets and commit another murder whenever the incessant clanging in his head began to sound like a voice. Tonight the fat prince seemed calm, dormant. He sat motionless in his box, staring straight ahead through a small black mask that ludicrously failed to conceal his identity.

I found Count Polonsky standing near the stage, speaking to a woman dressed as Pierrot. The blackness of his uniform was broken only by a red rose in his lapel. While Henri’s agents would probably misinterpret this as a floral confirmation of the count’s Communist beliefs, I thought the flower looked more like a spot of blood–Pauline’s, perhaps–that the rapist wore proudly, like a military decoration. I moved my glasses again and saw Georges standing in a circular group of identically dressed men, most of whom I recognized from the Jockey Club and the foyer. Two costumed women–a female toreador and a Flora whose dress was covered with cut flowers–tried to insinuate themselves into this densely packed circle of masculine wealth. A couple of the Jockeys looked on mirthfully at the women’s fruitless attempts to attract attention.

At one edge of the large space where dancers were now turning in a slow waltz, I spotted you talking to another female Pierrot (it was a popular costume, white and light in the summer warmth). The conversation looked intense; your face was pained and some of the woman’s gestures were abrupt and angry. Only when she turned and walked away from you did I recognize the face of Victorine Meurent, your model for Olympia and several other great paintings that were currently being ignored by most of Paris on the Place de l’Alma.

I raised my opera glasses to the opposite loges and soon found myself staring into a pair of lenses held before the face of Berthe Morisot. I was startled; I wondered how long I had been the unknowing object of her gaze. Berthe was costumed as a painter, a male painter. That is, she was dressed like you and me, in black coat and tie and a top hat that must have belonged to her father. Her mother sat beside her and looked on disapprovingly from behind one of those absurd little masks attached to the end of a wand. Without lowering my glasses, I lifted my hat in greeting to Berthe and she replied with the same gesture. A smile appeared below her binoculars.

After several more minutes of scanning the loges and the floor and recognizing a few artist acquaintances and some former friends from Louis le Grand, I put down my glasses and moved my chair back into the shadows, turning it sideways so that I faced the opposite wall of my loge. As the band played onstage and the people moved below and excited voices came from the boxes on both sides of mine, I sat there alone and considered my solution. Georges’s coachman’s story and Pauline’s subsequent lie, combined with my realization that I was a character in someone else’s narrative, had led me to a convincing theory of the events on the day of Lisette’s death and had even powerfully suggested the identity of the author of this tale, the man who committed the murder that set the mystery in motion (as the lamented and alliterative Victor might have written). But there were still major gaps in my story, pages missing from the text. The chapter titled ‘Motivation,’ for example, remained entirely blank. My solution included much guesswork, and the longer I thought about my answers, the more I wondered if they were purely arbitrary, an attempt to close this mystery with any credible solution before it became an obsession that took over my life. I worried deeply that I was (as Henri would say) jumping to a conclusion and that the guess I was about to make would be embarrassingly and insultingly incorrect.

At five minutes before two o’clock, Georges opened the door of my loge, startling me out of my revery. His eyes theatrically swept the box and he said, "What, no killer yet? Tell me who it is, Edgar, and I’ll apprehend him for you." Smiling, he made a fist and flexed his biceps. "I’ll bring the man here by force. If it is a man, that is. That girl Sylvie said something about a woman in the carriage, didn’t she? Is that your secret, that the killer is not a man at all? Personally, I hope it’s Haussmann. It would be delightful to see the commanding general of the bourgeois revolution headed for the guillotine. But I think it’s Auguste."

Georges took the seat opposite me. I remained silent.

"Oh, come on. You’re not going to hold me in suspense for another few minutes are you? I’ve already been wondering for three days. Who is it, Edgar?"

I checked my watch. "He will be here in three and a half minutes."

"He! Well, at least that question is answered. Is that an English watch?"

I slipped my watch off its chain and handed it to Georges.

He weighed it in his palm. "Solid, but not too heavy. Excellent craftsmanship. Made by Oliver. Probably Olivier originally. London is bursting with Huguenot descendants. Too bad we ran them off." He inspected the knobs on top. "How do I turn it forward three minutes?" I gently removed the watch from his hands. "I’ll pick one up the next time I’m in London."

The old chair creaked as Georges sat back. "This is better than the winter balls. A bit warm, but the crowd is of a much higher quality, as is the music. Did you notice the conductor?"

"I can’t see the orchestra from here."

"You know, Edgar, you are permitted to leave your box. You’re not under ‘loge arrest’ like Auguste." He laughed. "Is that the Préfecture’s idea of house arrest, letting Auguste leave his house but not his opera box? I could probably live quite well under such confinement. If you do decide to leave your loge tonight, Edgar, you might learn that the conductor, back there invisibly leading this music, is the Princess Metternich’s most recent discovery. His name, if I heard Her Low-Talking Highness correctly, is Strauss. He’s Viennese, of course."

"That goes without saying. Vienna is to music what Paris is to...everything else."

Georges removed his opera glasses from his pocket and looked toward the stage. "I don’t think Auguste has moved all night. Someone should go over and see if he’s still breathing. Maybe he had a brief flash of sanity and put himself out of our misery."

The next time I checked my watch it read 2:01.

"All right," Georges said, "tell me now and I will politely invite him over. Or if it’s Auguste I’ll simply blink at him and communicate the message with my eyes."

I reached over and picked up Georges’s walking stick. I held it between us and turned it in my hand, examining it. "Is this what you used," I said, keeping my voice calm and even, "when you broke her skull?"

An expression of surprise flickered across Georges’s face, but it was quickly replaced by his customary mask of aristocratic unconcern. This was, I would later reflect, the most impressive mask of the ball.

"Nonsense, Degas," he said as he took the stick out of my hands. "This is much too light. You need one like that tree trunk Auguste carries around if you intend to break bones." He put the stick down and looked at me. "Lisette hit her head against the edge of a table."

"With the assistance of her friend Georges, I’m sure."

He leaned back and crossed his legs. "I suspected that I may have been underestimating you. Let’s see by how much. Tell me how I did it, Degas."

"It was surprisingly simple. Lisette was desperate to escape from her parents. I doubt that anyone who has met those two people can blame her for that. She approached every rich man she knew and told them terrible stories about her life at home. The stories might even have been true. She told them to Baron Haussmann and he thought it was an elaborate seduction strategy. She told Count Polonsky, but I have no idea what he thought. When she approached Prince Bonaparte, he thought she was a whore and treated her accordingly. She also told you those stories–you, her friend Georges, the Duc de Chaillot. But you must have been noncommittal or somehow unencouraging, because she settled on Haussmann. That would hardly have been a difficult choice for her. The baron is the second–if not the first–most powerful man in Paris. Lisette put on the dress and necklace the baron sent her and waited for his carriage outside the Opera. While she stood there, she may have had a conversation with her friend Pauline, who was also waiting for a carriage, Count Polonsky’s." Georges registered surprise at this. "Yes, I know all about that. So Lisette stood waiting for Haussmann’s carriage, and yours pulled up. When she saw you inside, she hesitated. She didn’t want to get in, but you finally convinced her. At your house, something went wrong. There was a struggle, and you killed her. You slammed her head against the edge of a table. Then you ordered two or more of your faithful and well-paid servants to dispose of the body. The river was an obvious choice. Too obvious. It wasn’t your choice, was it?"

"I think I would have been a little more creative," Georges said.

"You probably would have been. You could have completely disposed of the body by burning or burying it on your property. You could have had Lisette’s body entombed in a family vault as a deceased distant relative and no questions would have been asked. She would simply have vanished."

"You should have committed this crime, Degas."

"But instead, you entrusted the job to your servants, and they, being rather unimaginative types, threw the body where bodies are supposed to be thrown, the Seine."

"Apparently, I place an extraordinary amount of trust in my servants."

"You don’t have to trust them. You pay them. Therefore you control their lives."

"I pay them exceptionally well," confirmed Georges. "You’re getting better."

"You couldn’t personally direct the disposal of the body because you were a very busy man that evening."

"I am active, Degas, not busy. Business is for the bourgeoisie."

"In addition to the kidnapping and murder of Lisette, you conspired with Polonsky on that same day to rape Pauline–or perhaps I should say, to rape and rescue Pauline. That was the game, wasn’t it? Polonsky took Pauline to Victoria’s, and then when he began to rape her, you rushed into the room and rescued her. You became Pauline’s official protector shortly thereafter, but from that moment at Victoria’s, Pauline was devoted to you as her literal ‘protector,’ the man who saved her from Polonsky. That’s a stronger bond than even your money could buy, isn’t it? It must have given you an extra thrill to commit both crimes on the same day."

"Now I am very impressed." Still sitting back in his chair, Georges idly turned the signet ring on his finger and smiled at me, clearly enjoying my story.

"But you were too busy. You were forced to leave the disposal of Lisette to others, and they did an imperfect job. If they had thought to weigh the body down, it would probably still be on the bottom of the river, and Lisette would be just another girl who didn’t come home one night. Even her parents would have soon forgotten her, after mourning the loss of her paycheck.

"So the body was discovered, and although the police didn’t care, I did. When you learned of my involvement you decided to get close to me, and you did this subtly, cleverly, by allowing Madame de Saint Pierre’s salon to bring us together as if by chance. Over the next few weeks you did your best to push me in various directions: toward Bonaparte, toward Haussmann, toward Polonsky–and always away from yourself. You used Pauline (who will undoubtedly do or say anything for the man who saved her from Polonsky’s brutalities) to lead me in all these wrong directions. Even earlier this week you used her to steer me toward Polonsky. But by then it was too late. I had already begun to think of myself as a character in a story, and I was asking myself, Who is my author? Who is determining my movements? I already knew about the rape game. I knew that Polonsky had picked up Pauline, not Lisette. So I knew that Pauline was lying to me. Someone was using her as an arrow pointing me away from the truth, and the hand that held the arrow would be the murderer’s hand. It was your hand, Georges."

Georges was quiet as the band played and the crowd noise continued. He eventually said, "Well, since I’m at the Opera, I should say, ‘Bravo.’" He brought his hands together, softly and politely applauding my performance. When he was finished he said, "It means nothing, of course. You have no proof. You only have witnesses who would as easily lie as tell the truth and a story that makes no sense and contains gaps at crucial moments."

"Since I’ve obviously entertained you, I’m hoping you will now humor me by filling in those gaps. The question of ‘why’ first and then the matter of ‘how’."

"‘How’ is pure description, no explanation required. The killer tried to strangle Lisette, but he was surprised by how long it takes to kill a human being–even a small one–by strangulation. It may only take a minute or two, but that minute can feel like an hour. Lisette fought back. She tore the killer’s sleeve and this angered him because it was a fine silk shirt, one of his favorites. So he lifted her body in the air and brought her head down on the edge of a very solid wooden table. You have never been to my house, Degas, so you wouldn’t know that the table in my bedroom was made of thick oak, very solid."

"And now it probably has a noticeable stain."

"Are you speaking of the table I ordered my servants to burn a month ago? I was tired of it, you understand. It’s smoke now; forget about it. So much for your ‘how.’ I suspect you will find the ‘why’ more interesting."

"Why?"

"You know me well enough to answer that question without my assistance. In fact, you already did answer it, when you said that committing both crimes on the same day gave me a thrill. I did it for the same reason I came here tonight, the same reason I befriended you and enjoyed watching you suspect everyone else. I did it because the thought of doing it pleased me and I believed the act would increase that pleasure enormously. I told you I was a hedonist, Edgar. Now you can see how serious my pleasures are. Power feels pleasant; I doubt anyone would argue with that. Shouldn’t the ultimate power, then, be accompanied by the ultimate pleasure? This was what I wanted to test. I wanted to feel that ultimate power, the power of life and death, the kind of power the Roman emperors commanded. My money can buy anything, but this can’t be bought. This must be taken. So I chose a girl no one cared much about and I took my chance. I felt that power." Georges leaned forward. While he spoke, his hands involuntarily came together as if encircling an imaginary neck. "I felt it, Edgar. But the pleasure I expected did not accompany it. The body went from struggling to limpness, life to death, and I felt nothing except an increased weight in my arms. It was a blank feeling, an almost emotionless moment in which I thought that I was the one who had died, because I could feel nothing but the dead weight of that body." Still leaning forward, Georges noticed his hands and quickly separated them. His face remained calm, his body was held in a posture of serious, but not intense, conversation. Anyone looking into our box would have seen two wealthy men discussing their affairs–two businessmen, perhaps, speaking of the state of the Bourse.

"So yes," he continued, "I left the dead girl to my servants and went to Victoria’s to see how the day’s other project would turn out. My rescue of Pauline was much more enjoyable. From this experience, contrary to what actors say, I conclude that it’s better to play the hero than the villain. The Pauline project was carried off almost perfectly. The only flaw was Polonsky’s performance. He’s a clown, as I’ve told you, a bit of a ham, a literalist. He was supposed to pretend to rape her, but once in the room he lost control, and by the time I arrived Polonsky had his cock halfway up her ass and she was screaming as if he were killing her. I put a stop to that, and no real damage was done. Polonsky and I had a good laugh about it. If he had jumped into my place and taken her virginity, I would probably have been less understanding. And incidentally, you’re correct about Pauline’s devotion. She now adores me as her savior, and that’s another thing no amount of money can buy."

Georges sat back again and delivered his summation. "In the cases of both Lisette and Pauline, then, the answer to ‘why’ is the same. I did it because I wanted to. That’s why I do everything."

He paused, waiting for my reaction or reply. I gave him none.

"You artists are too proud of your cynicism. You perform it for the world, walking the boulevards with your detached expressions and constructing disillusioned-sounding bons mots. You think you’re so jaded; you really don’t understand how naive you are. You believe in beauty, truth, progress. You speak those words as if they are written with capital letters. Even if you don’t believe in them in the world, you think they apply to your art. But beauty, truth and progress are delusions; they are how power justifies itself to the powerless. The powerless complain about their homes being torn down, and we tell them, ‘But the new boulevard we built over your old neighborhood is so beautiful.’ They complain about living in poverty, and we quote their own philosopher back at them, saying, ‘The poor will always be with us; that is an eternal truth.’ They grumble about working long hours for little pay in dark and dangerous factories, and we reply, ‘That is the price of progress; there is nothing we can do.’

"I no longer feel the need for such justifications, Degas. The powerless exist for my pleasure, and I will play with them. My words may sound extreme today, but fifty or a hundred years from now they might be conventional wisdom, something so commonly accepted that it need not be spoken. Then we will have a more honest world. Not so pleasant as this one, perhaps," he gestured toward the auditorium, "but when has the truth ever been painless? The future is going to be darker than any of you artists can imagine. I know this because I am already living in it. It’s a place without delusions, Degas, where power is the only currency. In other words, it is the present minus the bread and circuses."

"Your position is untenable, Georges," I said after a brief silence. "You have forgotten that power now equals money, and that the aristocracy of wealth is more open than that of family name. Your very means of domination–cash payment–empowers those you dominate. You will eventually face a revolution, and all your power won’t save you from the guillotine. The powerless will never tolerate such a world."

"Of course they will. If you have no power, you have no choice. The people will do as they are told, like my servants, like my Pauline... Don’t worry about her, Degas. I’ve satisfied my curiosity about death. Now I know there’s no pleasure in it. There is nothing at all. Pauline couldn’t be safer, and I’m going to make her a wealthy woman.

"And please don’t insult me by feigning moral outrage. You’re no better than I. You use people. You call them models or sitters or whores or women, but whatever the label, they are people you use. That little Adele from Louisine’s told me about you. Did you like that little cunt? Not as virginal as she looks, is she? She told me how you like to watch. Is that your pleasure, looking but not touching? I suppose you find that morally superior to actually fucking. You’re a user, just the same. And I have enjoyed using you for a while, showing you clues and seeing how far you would take them, bringing you into contact with people and places and watching your reactions–or rather, watching how carefully you concealed your reactions. You were an entertaining diversion, but now our little game appears to be over." He stood to leave.

"I could go to the Préfecture with what I know," I said. "They could interrogate your servants and make a case against you."

Georges looked down at me with the expression of mild amusement that I had always found so attractive. "Why do you want to destroy Pauline’s future, Edgar? Are you that heartless?... Now you’re beginning to disappoint me. The police aren’t interested in the murder of a suicide. And have you forgotten that I’m a cousin of the emperor?" I had indeed momentarily forgotten this. "I could very easily scatter the relevant servants among my various foreign properties. But that’s not necessary. There will be no investigation because there was no crime. Lisette killed herself. A tragedy, perhaps, but not an important one. Don’t waste your pity on her. She died quickly. If she had lived, she would only be dying slowly. Life, you see, is for men like us; other people merely exist. Goodnight, Degas." Georges bowed and walked out of my loge.

I sat there alone as the unseen Viennese conductor began another waltz. The song moved very slowly at first, almost too slowly for dancing, but then, over the course of several minutes, the tempo gradually increased. I moved forward in my loge and looked through my opera glasses at the twirling dancers and the other revelers who surrounded them. I saw Georges moving through the crowd, walking toward a group of Jockeys; he was enjoying himself, mingling, greeting friends. He looked as carefree as everyone else, and I wondered if this was performance or reality and if there was a difference between the two in Georges’s case–or anyone else’s. When I lost sight of him behind an outcropping of high top hats, I began to move my glasses more eccentrically, scanning the crowd for familiar faces. I found several, and then I noticed a man who looked like Georges dancing with a female Pierrot. Thinking this an unlikely combination, I held my glasses on the pair. When the music turned the man toward me, I saw not Georges’s face but yours, Manet, and your Pierrot was Victorine Meurent. Whatever argument you two had had earlier in the night appeared to have been amicably settled. I lowered my glasses and watched the dancers turn faster as the Viennese drove his orchestra to a crescendo. The pairs of dancers looked like gears spinning in a gigantic machine, like the wheels in the back of my English watch magnified beyond the power of any jeweler’s loupe. They moved faster and faster to a rhythm not their own, turning with the music until their motions became a blur. Breathlessly they spun, hypnotic, a dizzying dance, and when they could move no faster the conductor pushed them onward, increasing the tempo yet again before bringing the song to a thunderous, crashing conclusion. The dancers spun apart like planets suddenly released from gravity, and the auditorium exploded in applause.

************

When Homer’s rosy fingers clawed at the eastern sky (Call me illiterate now, Manet, I dare you), the exhausted maskers poured out the Opera doors and called for their coachmen. I saw you standing alone on the sidewalk near the corner of the building, surveying this spectacle.

"It’s like an English painting," you said, pointing at the crowd with your stick, "something by Frith."

"You need a mix of classes for Frith," I replied. "Of course, you could always toss a few suffering workers into the foreground of your ‘Maskers Leaving the Ball’ and all the right people would be impressed by your realism and social conscience."

"I looked into your box at two o’clock, Edgar, but I didn’t see a murderer. Just you and Georges."

"It wasn’t a lucky night for me. I’m not the detective I thought I was."

"You were wrong? You don’t know who the killer is?"

"I haven’t a clue," I said. "It seems that I am no Dupin."

With that lie (for which I hope this story is an acceptable act of contrition) I bade you good day and walked north along the Rue Le Pelletier. Almost alone on the sidewalk, I passed the closed, darkened shops and spotted the few streetwalkers who were the sole commerce at that late and early hour. Turning onto the Rue des Martyrs, I saw Montmartre rising in the distance, the sails of its windmills as still as a painted backdrop. I walked toward that hill, toward Haussmann’s backstage, into his scenery. In the hazy light of that Sunday morning, I walked toward home and the oblivion of sleep.
 
 

EPILOGUE: THE FUTURE

On a boiling August afternoon a few weeks after the masked ball, I paid a visit to your studio, my first since the funeral of Victor Noir. Your central easel held a Goya-derived Salon painting showing Berthe Morisot seated on a balcony beside another woman whose face was only half-finished. A man I almost recognized stood behind them, and in the shadowy background (as usual) was your son Leon, as ghostly a presence as the drinker in the back of Valasquez’s Water Seller of Seville. Completion of this work was postponed while the sitters summered in Trouville, and in the meantime you had begun your next project, a large canvas depicting the execution of Maximilian in Mexico. Your worktable was covered with various preparatory sketches, all obviously based on Goya’s Third of May. You revised and corrected one of these as we spoke.

"One of Victor’s prophecies has come true already," I said. "Our Imperial Mexican Fiasco. You’re not planning to show the painting of this at next year’s Salon, are you? The courtiers on the jury will never accept such a piece of lèse majesté."

Not looking up from your sketch, you said, "By the time this painting is finished, we may not have an emperor anymore. I might print a lithograph from one of these drawings, though."

"Good luck. You’ll never find a printer who enjoys prison that much. You’re setting yourself up to be censored, Edouard."

"This is the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do," you said, ignoring my (correct) prediction. With a few dashed lines, you changed the angle of the firing squad’s rifles and made Maximilian’s expression slightly less stoic. "It’s like Géricault’s Raft, but not so academic. A large scale painting of a contemporary event, something as recent as this morning’s newspapers."

"And as old as Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. There’s too much Goya here. Are you transforming the art of the past or merely imitating it?"

"I don’t think in those terms anymore. I think the future, any future worth having, is created when the present dances with the past. That’s how we move ahead."

I was irritated to hear you speak the word ‘future’ as if it signified something hopeful. "Are you putting your faith in progress, Edouard?"

"Where else should I put it?"

"Put down your pencil," I said dramatically, "and come with me. I’ll show you the future."

Your hand stopped moving and you looked up at me.

"Come on," I walked toward the door, "let’s go."

"Where, Edgar?"

"The future."

We left your studio and walked in tropical heat along the railway cut leading to the Gare St. Lazare. The weather kept most people inside, but I remember (for obvious reasons) the young girl we saw standing against the fence at the edge of the cut. She grasped the iron bars like a prisoner begging for release and stared down into the valley of steam and trains. Her governess sat reading a novel on a nearby bench.

"That girl comes here every day," you said. "She always stands in that same spot and watches the trains. She doesn’t move until the woman tells her it’s time to go. I think she may be an imbecile."

"If watching trains is a symptom of imbecility, we’re in the midst of an epidemic." After a few more steps I added, "You may be right."

At the station I bought two tickets and led you onto the first train out of the city. As soon as we took our seats the whistle blew and the car jerked into motion. When we emerged from under the station’s canopy, I looked out my window to see if the girl at the fence was watching us, but a thick cloud of locomotive smoke blocked my view. "Where are we going? Argenteuil?" you asked. "I’m not dressed for rowing, Edgar."

Aside from ourselves, the first class carriage was occupied by a silent businessman with a pitted face and his equally unattractive wife (or mistress), a pleasant-looking woman of Berthe’s age escorting a large hatbox, and a young man who pretended to be engrossed in his newspaper as the young woman in the next seat (his fiancee, perhaps?) droned on about her father’s horses.

The white buildings of the Batignolles district drifted above us until we came to the city wall and passed into a landscape of fields and factories. Smoke swirled out of speeding chimneys and hung in the humid air, graying the sky with manufactured clouds. The locomotive pulled us on, past more factories, rows of tiny homes, empty streets, a group of small children playing in the stones along the railroad track. We slid across the new bridge over the Seine at Asnières and slowed to a stop at the station. "This is our destination," I said.

"The future is at Asnières? I thought it would be farther out."

"Everyone does."

We left the small station and walked back through the town toward the river. Asnières was a weekend town, a place where Parisians spent Saturday or Sunday afternoons relaxing along the Seine, and it was thus very quiet on this weekday. We were almost alone on the streets. A tobacconist eyed us as he stood smoking a pipe in the doorway of his shop. We must have looked somewhat comic to him, a couple of absent-minded rich men who had gotten off at the wrong station and were now wandering about aimlessly, too arrogant to ask directions.

When we came to the bridge and crossed toward the factories on the opposite bank, we were struck by a noxious bouquet of industrial odors. It was like walking into an invisible cloud. I detected locomotive exhaust and coal smoke combined with a more pungent chemical aroma, the character of which seemed to alter every few meters: now flower-sweet, now irritating as ashes, now sour like old milk. Upriver, the metal railroad bridge we had crossed a few minutes earlier shined silver in the sunlight.

"Are we walking all the way back?" you asked. When I did not reply, you squinted into the distance. "I can see the wall from here, but it’s going to be a very boring walk, and the smell might make us sick. Is this your idea of the future, taking a train to Asnières and walking back home?" No answer. "Is this somehow symbolic of something?"

At the end of the bridge I turned off the road and walked along the riverbank. Across the Seine, the villas of Asnières were lined up close together in a hodgepodge of styles that gave the place a gaudy, haphazard appearance. To my eye it was an excellent argument for Haussmannian uniformity and central planning. But Asnières was hardly worth criticizing, I reflected. Haussmann would be here soon enough, and the houses would be leveled to make way for more factories, more smoke, more unexpected aromas. Farther upriver, under the railroad bridge, I could see the tip of the island of La Grande Jatte and a cut-out spot on the far bank where a man was leading a horse into the water.

"I think Monet talked about painting this view." You pointed your stick at the villas across the river. "I can see it. I wouldn’t want to work here without a strong wind from the west, though."

I heard the sound of falling water and led you along the bank toward it. The factory smells so noticeable on the bridge were now replaced by a different odor, more stale and organic, a smell of chamberpots and rotten eggs. At a spot midway between the two bridges, we saw a very large gray pipe, about six feet in diameter, emerging from the riverbank like the barrel of a buried gun. The pipe extended out over the edge of the river, and a constant stream of murky water poured from its end.

Finally, to your relief, I spoke above the splashing: "This is the outlet for the entire sewer system of central Paris. It’s one of Haussmann’s proudest creations. Everything on the streets of the city eventually makes its way into the sewers and emerges here, flowing into the Seine. Everything, Edouard: horseshit, horsepiss, garbage from the markets, blood from the abattoirs. If you take a piss in one of Haussmann’s new public urinals, the ones with the advertisements for syphilis medicine on the sides, your piss will end up here. Look! Your piss might be right there in the falling water. Do you recognize it?"

"I think I recognize the smell." You removed the white handkerchief from your pocket and held it to your nose to block the overwhelming odor of organic rot.

"If Les Halles is the stomach of Paris, this is its asshole. The asshole of Paris." The sewer water spread over the surface of the river in a black, oily cloud. Here and there, pieces of solid waste coagulated into tiny islands of dung and dross.

I walked back up the bank and stepped out onto the top of the pipe. "If you fall off," you called to me, "I won’t catch you. And if you fall in, I certainly won’t dive in after you." Standing atop the pipe, I tapped it with my stick and heard a deep, hollow sound below the constantly rushing water. I walked to the end of the pipe and sat down, my legs dangling over its edge, the stinking liquid pouring out below me. I raised my stick and made a sweeping oratorical gesture that encompassed the town, the bridges and the river of black muck. I said, "Here’s your future, Edouard. Take a good look. Take a deep breath. This is where everything comes to the surface."

I looked straight down into the dirty waterfall, into the steady, soiled stream cascading below my motionless feet. There was something fascinating about the image. You called to me, but I didn’t hear your words. My eyes followed the water out of the pipe and into that slowly flowing river of sewage. Contrary to his claims, Haussmann had not improved the Seine; he had only shifted the stench outside the city walls. The city that had formerly messed only itself was now shitting on the countryside. And the shit was floating downriver: down to Argenteuil where the bourgeois pretended to be boatmen; to Chatou where we lunched at the restaurant on the island; to La Grenouillère where we watched the swimmers in the sunshine. The shit was floating downriver all the way to the ocean. And that was Haussmann’s ultimate dream, his secret vision of modernity: an ocean of excrement, the infection of the world. This was the baron’s final transformation, turning our world into shit and forcing us to drink it. And we would drink. We would drink deeply, and the river of the future, the river of shit, would flow through us, too. And the drinking would become second nature, a thing of habit. We would drink it and not even notice anymore. My gaze drifted downward to a spot near the bank and I was certain that I saw, for a few seconds, the body of Lisette floating below the surface. She wore Haussmann’s blue dress and Haussmann’s necklace and floated face-up as on that distant first day. I focused my eyes and her body dissolved into agitated water, waves lapping against the bank.

"Let’s go, Edgar," you shouted. "I’m getting nauseous."

"That’s good," I said, staring into the river. "Nausea is good. It means you’re still alive."

 
THE END
 
 


 
 
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
 
The Degas Manuscript is a work of the imagination in which historical characters are treated fictionally while fictional ones are made to appear historical. During my research for this novel, I found the following nonfiction works extremely helpful, even invaluable: Roy McMullen, Degas: His Life, Times, and Work; Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance; Otto Friedrich, Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet; Robert Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society; John Bierman, Napoleon III and His Carnival Empire; Joanna Richardson, The Courtesans and Baudelaire; T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life; Rupert Christiansen, Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune. I should also mention Walter Benjamin’s classic essay, "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," in Reflections, Anne Higonnet’s biography of Berthe Morisot, John Rewald’s History of Impressionism, James Fenton’s Leonardo’s Nephew (for information on the sewers of Paris and the 1918 Degas sale), and, for the story of 1830 told by ‘Flaubert,’ Simon Schama’s Citizens. Finally, I must express my debt to Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. While it does not deal explicitly with Impressionist painting, Berman’s book is as important to an understanding of Impressionism as the work from which it takes its title, The Communist Manifesto.
 
 
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