Falcon in the Dive
The man was tall and blond, though his elaborate hat made him seem even taller. He was dressed to the height of fashion, with all the makings of a perfect mark. Chauvelin was startled to see, as he moved around to verify his target, that he was barely a man at all - they must have been roughly the same age. He was deep in conversation with a friend, and a joke set him laughing far too loudly, in the most inane manner Chauvelin had ever heard. The perfect target - wealthy, distracted, and a complete idiot.
Chauvelin positioned himself in the crowd perfectly. He had just put his hand into the man’s pocket when the crowd jostled him exactly as he had planned - the contact was perfect, covering any possible feeling in the removal of the pocketbook and its transfer to Chauvelin’s own pocket. “Terribly sorry, monsieur,” he apologised and moved off into the crowd.
He had, unfortunately, interrupted the conversation and the mark was apparently easily distracted. “Hold up now, where is he? Who was that perfectly strange sounding gentleman?” Chauvelin could hear him asking. He looked back and saw the mark looking around, seeking Chauvelin perhaps, but having not yet missed his pocketbook. In the relative quiet of a nearby alley, he looked at the contents, removed a couple of banknotes, and finding nothing else recognisable, he put it back in his pocket. Then an idea took hold.
Playing games was reckless, he remembered from Daniel, but there was only one of him, and why not play with the imbecile? It would only fail if he opened the pocketbook, and even then Chauvelin could take off into the crowd and likely never be found. It was a hot day for early April, almost as if summer had come early, and Chauvelin could not resist the temptation. He carefully folded the banknotes and placed them inside his shoe, between two thin pieces of cardboard that protected a weak place in the sole. Then he looked out of the alley for the tall blond aristo. He heard the inane laugh again and followed the sound. Soon enough he saw the young gentleman and his friend, paused at the window of a bookshop. It was too perfect. Chauvelin debated whether or not he should go through with his admittedly hastily formed plan. But they were now moving on. He took the opportunity to see if there was another companion, or someone who might be willing to drag him before a magistrate for bumping into a stranger in a crowd. Nothing looked suspicious to Chauvelin’s paranoid eye. It was now or never.
“Messieurs!” Chauvelin called after them, waving the pocketbook in the air. “Messieurs!” He caught up - they were both looking at him as if he were the imbecile. They were taller, better dressed, better fed, and acutely aware of those facts, though Chauvelin did appear older. “Did one of you drop this? I thought but I was not sure.” He had adopted the accent of the southern migrants to the city - his accent and his dress implied that he was perhaps of a good family become destitute and had been sent to Paris to make a living, someone with too much pride to have taken any of the contents.
Both gentlemen felt in their pockets and the one with the inane laugh replied, in a surprisingly bored tone of voice, “Ah, yes, must be mine. Thank you, monsieur.” He had a lazy expression in his eyes to match his voice. As the eyes are the most difficult windows to shade, Chauvelin knew he had made the correct choice. “You’re a funny little man, aren’t you? Such a droll way of speaking.” He mimicked Chauvelin’s false accent and laughed heartily at what he thought his own joke.
Chauvelin just smiled, a thin, tight smile that had no laughter in it at all. They were stopped almost where Chauvelin had wanted them - just a few more inches, or a particular passerby would make the perfect opportunity for Chauvelin to nab the pocketwatch he knew rested in the gaudy waistcoat. A particularly fat woman pulling her two children created the necessary push and considerable distraction to enable the watch and fob to disappear into Chauvelin’s possession. “Terribly sorry. The crowds today are determined to batter me about, I think.”
“The weather brings them out, I daresay. Beastly hot for early April, this.”
“Business of my own calls. I am glad I was able to restore your pocketbook.” As the idiot called back his thanks, Chauvelin pushed his way into the crowd again, clutching his prize tightly. The fool had been too easy for an old hand, but it had been fun.
He returned to his new lodgings, a very small, rather dark room in a crowded boarding house. He missed the relative peace of the large empty flat once it had been emptied of its other occupants, but he could not afford to keep it. The absolute privacy of the room, however, made up for the lack of quiet in the halls. Comings and goings were never noticed, and strangers were more common than permanent residents. Retrieving his banknotes, Chauvelin opened the window, hoping to get a bit more light by which to examine the watch he had just pinched.
It was a beautiful watch. Unengraved on the back, a rarity that meant it had most likely been a personal purchase and not a gift, the face was beautifully painted and it chimed the nearest hour at the push of a little button. Chauvelin was tempted to keep it for himself. As it was, unless something better turned up in the next day’s haul, he would only be able to hold onto it until the end of the week, when his rent would come due. He was a month behind, and the banknotes would cover both months, but he still had to eat something and this was the first profitable day in a long while.
* * * * * *
Summer came again, and business picked up. Chauvelin still had the watch, a source of pride for him as it meant he had been doing well enough to hold onto it for several months. At eighteen, he was as well known in the neighbourhood as Linois had been before him. He had an ironic reputation for honesty and fidelity, and his hard work made him the object of some envy and a certain amount of favourable attention.
Every prostitute hoped that she could find a man to hook up with so she could end the most demeaning of trades. There were always regulars who never had to pay because the object was anything but a quick profit. That was how Marie had been with Linois. Chauvelin found himself being solicited by some of the younger prostitutes of the neighbourhood almost as soon as he was on his own. For a time he refused their favours, claiming he could not pay. Yet payment was rejected where he was concerned. His dark complexion felt dangerous, but his wide brown eyes with untold depths held a charm echoed in his even features. He worked hard to make a living for himself, but he would not have to work at all to find a partner in life if he chose.
Yet it was late summer of his eighteenth year before he accepted an offer of companionship.
Her name was Élise. At least, that was what she called herself. She was one of the younger girls on the block, but hardly the youngest in a trade where any bit of flesh was willingly bought. Her youth gave her the benefit of beauty: she had not yet lost her looks in the hard life to which she had been forced. Hardly an innocent, having grown up in neighbourhoods such as the one in which she currently found herself, she took Chauvelin’s dark refusals in stride.
He was as surprised as she that one hot August night he returned her tempting smile with his own sarcastic flash and beckoned that she follow him. Little was said - Chauvelin used few words when outside his trusted, and mostly vanished, circle - but there was an understanding between them.
Élise was surprised by him. Chauvelin was handsome, honest, and hard working, but it was also assumed that he was cold and heartless - his honesty served as a point of personal pride; it was not for the benefit of others. He rarely had a word for anyone, he was cynical to the extreme, and since he had thrown off the yoke of the children, it appeared that he had never wanted entanglements with others. In spite of his seeming frigidness, Élise was not the only young prostitute to seek Chauvelin’s favours. After all, coldness would better contrast with the overheated nonentities of the profession. Élise discovered, contrary to all expectations, that he burned. Life had built a fire inside the cynical exterior, where the ice preserved the passionate flame of his soul.
A couple of nights a week Chauvelin would pull her into his bed and let the emerging fire melt a little of his icy exterior. He would have laughed harshly had anyone suggested there was feeling in his actions. Élise released him from a self-imposed isolation, and nothing more. She was not the only girl whose pleasures he tasted, but she did become the most frequent. A young man whose bread is hard earned has neither the energy at the end of the day to spend courting a girl nor the pecuniary means to satisfy his desires. Chauvelin had once had fears that desire might lead to attachment, and attachment was in all circumstances to be avoided. It was hardly the case with Élise. He was satisfied with perhaps an hour of her company, and when they parted ways at the end of that time, it was without regrets on either side. She could not penetrate the ice, no matter how hot she could force the fire to burn.
Yet she persisted because he astonished her. Chauvelin could often be brusque when he had had his fill, but he was never physically rough with her. The seeming contrariness of his tone and actions confused the girl at the same time it pulled her in. Élise found him neither gentle nor rough, uncouth but well bred in the opposite way of her occasional aristocratic clients, mindful of her person while unconcerned with her existence. She never sought to solve the puzzle of this one who tended to forget that whores were whores; after all, the bed, as hard and lumpy as it could be, was far more comfortable than up against an alley wall, and his softer touch proved far superior to the drunken grasp. Chauvelin never came to her drunk and angry.
A regular habit formed between them. Every three days or so, Chauvelin would come to her and take his fill. Sometimes he did not come. Then Élise would look for him. He was invariably in his room, lost in thought, staring at a gold pocketwatch she knew he could never afford. The habit lasted several months. Until one night, he did not come. She went to his flat as usual in the circumstances.
It was empty. All of his clothes were gone - they were his only belongings, and worth nothing to anyone, as he had pulled nearly all of them from the rag pickers himself. Élise shrugged her shoulders and went back to the street. The habit had been too interesting to last.
* * * * * *
The mark was somewhat past middle age and rather rusty in appearance. He was lost in his own thoughts, mouthing them to himself. Chauvelin took stock of the man’s situation and the early-morning crowd. A handkerchief and perhaps more seemed simple enough. Until he held the leather pocketbook in his hand and felt a viselike-grip on his wrist.
“I’ve some papers of a rather delicate and important nature, so if you would kindly take the money and leave me the rest, I would much appreciate it.”
Chauvelin froze. He had just been caught for the first time in his life, yet the mark cared only for his papers, not the money. “I fear there has been a misunderstanding. I was just about to ask if you dropped this.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. Do you want the money or not?” Chauvelin was forced to nod. The man released his wrist. “Then take it.”
Although he was tempted to run, Chauvelin held his ground. Rubbing his wrist ruefully, he stared at the pocketbook for a moment before finally opening it, extracting the banknotes he could recognise, and putting them in his fob pocket. Then he handed the pocketbook back to the man.
The man checked the contents. “English notes are not to your liking? Very well, then.”
“Drawn on an English bank, but still convertible to francs.” He handed a bill to Chauvelin, who examined it carefully, though with the confused expression of a man trying to read a strange system of glyphs. “Do you like picking pockets, boy?”
“It’s an honest trade,” Chauvelin replied defensively.
“More so than a little and less-so than a lot. But wouldn’t you rather live honestly?”
“I can’t afford to keep a roof over my head and clothes on my back, much less food in my stomach, if I earn a so-called honest living,” Chauvelin snapped back.
“I know that. You speak well, but you still have not answered my question. Do you like earning your living in this manner?”
“I suppose I do, as I like living and I dislike the other methods of preserving my life, such as housebreaking.”
“What if you could work to earn as much as you make in this endeavour? I see it has not made you a rich man.”
“There aren’t jobs that exist for people like me that pay enough to live on without slowly or quickly killing yourself anyway.” “I suggest that you work for me.”
Chauvelin spat at his feet. “I will not become anyone’s servant. I refuse to sell my pride when I can buy my bread by other means. I do have a brain and I will use it for something other than scraping another man’s boots.”
“I think, in the near future, I may find myself in need of a confidential clerk - does that belittle your pride?”
Chauvelin gave a harsh laugh. “I suggest you look elsewhere. As I said, that sort of job is hardly for people like me.” And yet his diction was better than that of some of the clerks he passed daily in the streets.
“You think me the greatest sort of fool for offering the position of clerk in a law office to an illiterate.” Chauvelin winced at hearing what he knew too well. “And yet I may be that fool because that is precisely my intention. You have intellect, boy, and pride, and daring. You speak well enough that it won’t be obvious where I’ve picked you up from. And you can teach me what I cannot teach you, about exactly what survival means. Think on it. I am staying at 24 rue des Grès. Ask for Robespierre.” The odd little man left without another word.
* * * * * *
Chauvelin was sitting on the bed, staring at the floor. He had been there for hours, his head in his hands, regarding the cracks in the floorboards with an interest he had never felt and still did not feel. The banknotes the rusty little gentleman, Robespierre, had given him sat on the table before him. That was all the room was: the rusted bed, the table missing a leg and thus propped against the wall, and the wobbly wooden chair opposite. There was hardly space for more in the tiny, nearly airless closet Chauvelin could afford. His clothes were hung on the wall, and a cracked washbasin and pitcher stood on the table. He had forgotten or neglected to eat: it was hardly the first time he had gone without a midday meal. After the man disappeared, Chauvelin had immediately returned home. His head was spinning.
It was still spinning hours later, or, more accurately, his thoughts had not yet stopping spiraling about in his head. Here a stranger offered the key upwards. No one had been able to give the boy the one skill he needed to become anything more than a criminal or a day-labourer. He had never known anyone who could read. And a significant part of him desperately wanted to join even that fool and his friend, well dressed, well fed, happy with life, and able to buy what they wanted and needed rather than coming across it haphazardly and hopefully not too late.
Chauvelin pulled the watch out of his pocket. He wound it carefully every day, though he could not even tell time. He was nineteen years old - maybe twenty, for all anyone knew - and here was finally someone who could give him the education he should have had at the age of six or seven. Here was the chance at life beyond survival. Respectability. Chauvelin laughed at himself for saying it. How could he ever be respectable? He did not even remember his Christian name. But security was not such a bad dream. If a man can read, he can become a clerk. And if he is ambitious enough, he can enter into his master’s trade. And if he is even more ambitious, he can become well off. Then he can afford to buy watches that chime the hour on command. How much did a watch such as that cost? Chauvelin could eat for a week if the pawnbroker gave him a good deal on a watch like that. Keeping it had been a trial, but he had done it. It was the only thing he had ever owned that felt new, that felt respectable. That word again. Chauvelin craved respectability with everything he had because it was the one thing out of his reach. Until today.
Yet why would this man offer it? Who was he, this Robespierre, to dare trust Chauvelin? He had proved himself a thief. And this man, this complete stranger gave him, a criminal, the address to his lodgings as if he were an old acquaintance.
Not once did Chauvelin consider the obvious: the man had money and Chauvelin knew his lodgings. It never crossed his mind. He was a pickpocket, not a highwayman. Violence or distinct planning, as for a break-in, turned a decent enough trade into a crime even Chauvelin despised. The only thing he thought about Robespierre was not as a mark, but that he might turn the tables. It could be a trap. Far simpler to set the gendarmerie against him in a small interior room than in the street. And banknotes were never found on the persons of such status - the evidence had been planted on him with his own accord. Except why bother over a pickpocket you had by the arm? No one in his right mind would bother to set up such a complex sting.
If he could only learn to read, he could have a real job. Chauvelin thought he was accustomed to mental labour - after all, he spent every day going over figures and laying plan after plan - but he was certain true physical labour would kill him. His pride would not allow it and his body would give out - he had never really had enough to eat in his life and physical exertion beyond the walking he had to do each day exhausted him. The only way he could ever become respectable was to accept Robespierre’s offer. And why not? Why not be able to buy rather than steal? The respectable had better than this shabby room. Chauvelin pulled down his hair - it was easier to think seriously if he could toy with it. A moment of difficulty unknotting the hair ribbon - needs trimmed again, he thought as he looked at the fraying ends. The bit of ribbon had seen far better days, and as it came unraveled, it was trimmed to look somewhat better, to the point that it now had to be tied in a knot as there was not enough left to tie in a bow. Then he remembered his sudden windfall - he could buy as much ribbon as he liked. He needed a haircut as well. He had taken to clubbing his hair to hide the length and the condition of the ends. In his desire to keep the watch, the small expenses, such as haircuts, ribbon, new stockings, had been studiously avoided. Chauvelin looked at himself in the small mirror he had acquired for shaving - an expensive necessity, unlike the luxury of the watch. Regardless of how much he tried, he found himself as shabby as his clothes and surroundings - his face too thin, his skin almost greyish in the thin light, his brown eyes more pale than he had thought. He looked ill, except there had been no recent sickness. Could a man really be proud of this? Is this the most his life would ever be?
Something else seemed to be propelling him forward. Chauvelin rolled his extra set of clothes around his razor, mirror, and comb, put what was left of his money but what was necessary for the rent into his pocket, and left.
As he no longer had to save his money, he could finally look to the small necessities in his determination to present himself as respectably as possible. A bit of dinner and a haircut took nearly all of his remaining coin, then he determined to quit the neighbourhood forever. Not once did he look back as he crossed town.
* * * * * *
“You made up your mind, boy?” Chauvelin found himself standing in the entry hall to a lodging house, face to face with the rusty gentleman.
“I’m not going back there.”
“Then we need to draw up a contract, boy.”
“My name is Chauvelin, not ‘boy’,” he said firmly. “What is more, I have not been a boy in years.”
“You speak well - best potential I’ve seen, yes. Yes, let’s draw up a contract.”
“I refuse to put a mark on anything I cannot read - I won’t be tricked.”
“Do you trust anything, boy?”
“What is there to trust except myself and the devil?” Chauvelin replied bitterly.
“Good.” Robespierre started into a back room. “Well? Are you coming?” Chauvelin hurried to follow. “We’ll make it an oral contract and drink on it. My business in town is otherwise concluded, so we leave for Arras in the morning.”
“My seat of business. In the north, a few days’ ride. Sit down.” They were in a small bar that opened to the street from the other side of the house, which was situated on a corner. “I will provide your lodgings and board. I will teach you what is necessary for your work. In return for the education, you will not be paid until you begin productive work. When you begin to work, you will be paid two francs a week. Should you decide to seek your own lodgings, your wages will be adjusted accordingly. The place of residence is Arras - you will find it dull, but it will benefit your studies, I daresay. You will live within your means. I am not a moneylender, I am your employer, thus I will not make loans or advances of salary. And you must give up this ‘trade’, as you call it.”
“I had thought that was the purpose of working - exchanging one trade for another.” Chauvelin removed the banknotes from his fob pocket and tossed them onto the table. “I have paid my debts without your charity. I do not want them.” He had only two sous remaining, but his pride remained mostly intact.
Robespierre said nothing as he replaced the notes in his pocketbook. “You will sleep on the floor tonight. We leave at dawn.” They drank on the deal that had been struck and went to bed.
Chauvelin went into the room and looked about, but immediately turned around. “I will sleep in the kitchen.”
“It is more comfortable in here.”
“I will sleep in the kitchen,” he repeated firmly.
Pride was important. Pride in existence if nothing else. Chauvelin owed his existence only to himself, and no charity would take that last bit of pride. He had never accepted charity in his life until now, and he excused the necessity with the idea that the abilities thus earned would be turned to his advantage, to his life above survival, and it would be paid for by his own mental labours. In those circumstances, as he was not reduced in his circumstances in any way, he would not curl up on a corner of the rug at his master’s feet. He had two sous and the painful knowledge that if necessary, he could go three days on what he had eaten this evening - he would pay for a blanket on the kitchen floor if he must. As it was, the woman who ran the hostelry took pity on him, thinking him a poor battered servant of M. Robespierre and explaining to herself that some family circumstance must have been the reason he only appeared now that his master was leaving. For one of his sous, he had two blankets in the corner by the fire and the promise of hot water in the morning. He formed his bed carefully where he might get the most heat from the banked fire, for the autumn nights had grown cold, composed a pillow from his bundle of clothing, and began life again much poorer than he had left it.
* * * * * *
Chauvelin’s head ached. His eyes burned from overconcentration on the small print in the dimly lit office. He had never been so tired in his life - except for last week, and the week before, of which this was but another repetition. “Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant,” he repeated wearily.
His fingers hurt terribly - he was no longer sure that he felt the pen, and he certainly no longer had the dexterity to prevent the blots that marred the page. The attempt was even worse than usual. It was so late, he was so tired, surely more Latin could wait until morning. And yet he took the time to make sure of his spelling, even if he could barely form the letters anymore.
“One more time.”
“It’s late,” Chauvelin replied, tired and a little angry.
Robespierre seemed not to notice either the tone or the words. “I said, one more time.” Nothing Chauvelin did ever ruffled his composure.
Chauvelin sighed and copied his Latin conjugation again.
“We’ll start again in the morning.” Robespierre blew out the candles and went upstairs.
Chauvelin, left in the dark, finished putting away his books and his pen so they would not be in the way of the workings of the office, then climbed the stairs to the top of the house and his room under the eaves. A January storm raged outside, knocking a tree branch against the roof. It was cold, and not much heat traveled that far up, but Chauvelin had more and better blankets now and could more easily convince himself that his icy bed would soon be warm. As he slid into bed, he realised it was not as cold as it should be, and his foot made contact with something hard at the end - Michel, Robespierre’s manservant, had brought a hot brick upstairs for him, and though most of the heat was gone, at least the bed was not quite as cold as it could have been. Chauvelin’s initial reaction was to kick it out, but he forced himself to leave it - there was still some warmth in it, and the gesture had been meant kindly. He tried to hate Michel on principle - anyone in service was only allowing those in power to screw him at their leisure - but Michel was older, set in his ways, apt to be as ill-tempered as his employer, and no one could tell him not to take care of the boy. An uneasy truce had been reached not long before, and the brick was either a peace offering or a method of one-upping Chauvelin - he was not completely certain, but at least someone seemed to recognise it was cold up there. Michel had a small room off the kitchen while Chauvelin was relegated to the attic. It was only fair, Chauvelin told himself. After all, he was a proven thief, and Michel was a trusted servant. The knowledge did not make the room any warmer, however.
Chauvelin had been with Robespierre for four months, and he still had no opinion as to his new surroundings. He was fed well, the house with the office on the ground floor was warm even when his attic was not, and the attic did not leak regardless of how hard the winter storms raged against it. And yet it was not exactly the paradise Chauvelin might have thought it. He had not been outside since he arrived. Mental labour was more tiring than he ever thought possible. And he was bound to Robespierre every minute of every day. As he had been caught, it was a far better prison than the one he knew he deserved. But that did not make the house any less of a prison.
Robespierre was anything but a patient teacher. Chauvelin was never disciplined harshly, but he was bored and annoyed to exhaustion. Having received blows before, but never treatment of this nature, Chauvelin felt he might have preferred the blows. Endless repetition, accompanied by alternating curses and vague praise, though the praise was far more rare than the curses, and both were almost nonexistent when compared to the impassiveness with which Robespierre conducted most of his lessons, formed Chauvelin’s days and much of his nights. Because he spent nearly eighteen hours a day in forced study, he was reading and writing French in three months. He had been pushed and cajoled that far, but he was doing it. Once he got the alphabet figured out, it was not so difficult, he told himself - after all, he was not a child who was still learning the words. His spelling was deplorable but phonetically correct and with time would become passable. He was proving himself a quick learner, but it was far more difficult to begin at nineteen what he should have started at six or seven. Still, as exhausting as study was, Chauvelin could be proud of his work. He was reading, albeit slowly; he was writing, though with difficulty. He could finally tell time on his fancy watch, down to the exact minute. Chauvelin wondered sometimes if the young blond gentleman who had owned it actually missed it or if he took the loss with the same langueur he seemed to apply to his life. If only the pen would obey his fingers the way the pocket flap always did, he would be at the level of that young gentleman.
All in all, it was a life, and a rather better one than he had otherwise known. A warm prison was better than a cold one, and freedom was perhaps a small price to pay for education when freedom was no longer something he deserved.
* * * * * *
It was hot. How the north could be so hot, Chauvelin did not know, but it was as bad as Paris in the summer. How the heat did not seem to affect Robespierre, he did not know either.
“Does the window open any further?”
There was no reply.
Chauvelin got up to see for himself.
“Sit down. That is as far as it will go,” Robespierre ordered from his desk, without even looking at his clerk.
“You could have said that before.”
“The temperature will drop tonight. Sit down and return to your work.”
Chauvelin went back to work without another word. It was useless to expect Robespierre to act at all human, he had learned in the ten months he had been in Arras. Robespierre was some sort of automaton, not a real person. Heat and cold did not affect him, he was never tired, and all he seemed capable of doing was work and meetings. Only clients and tradesmen ever came to the house.
He hoped the temperature would drop before nightfall because it was absolutely stifling in his attic. All complaints fell on deaf ears. Chauvelin would have liked to take an increase in salary and leave, as had been promised to him, but he owed Robespierre far too much to contemplate leaving at such a time. Yet it was June, and July and August would only grow worse. He drank some water and continued his copying. Clean water from a cup not made of tin still felt a luxury, even after ten months.
Ten months. Chauvelin still wondered why Robespierre had not simply hired someone competant for the position. A confidential clerk who is a known pickpocket and must be taught to read and write had to have some illegal business. Except everything in which he ever found himself involved was as legal as it was possible to be. The only sign that Robespierre was at all human was that he did not seem to have a reason for hiring Chauvelin. As Satan was entirely composed of reason, Robespierre had to be nothing more than an ill-tempered man.
Chauvelin had never really known what it was to be a clerk, just what he had heard in the street. It was a repetitive, airless, joyless task that buried his entire waking hours in a thick cloud of boredom that nearly resembled death. His handwriting had improved to the point that he was finally appearing employable, if not yet efficient, and he was able to read fluently. Only a month before, at the age of twenty, he had purchased his first new set of clothes in his life. His trade may have been full of absolute boredom, but there were reasons to find pride in it. Respectibility was boring, but it was safe. New clothes, plenty to eat, a solid roof overhead and a good fire in the winter were all he had ever aspired to. And now he had them.
He had grown accustomed to his prison. With the return of spring, there had been excuses to get some air, and now to look at himself, Chauvelin saw nothing of which to be ashamed. No one knew his past, no one cared to ask for his christian name, and he knew he looked whole and respectible. It was only at night, when he laid down in his attic room, that he stopped to think about how he had sold his freedom for meat and milk, and he wondered if it had been worth the price.
It was July when Robespierre brought a stack of books into the front office, where Chauvelin sat copying. “You progressed well in Latin. It is time for you to learn English.”
“No.” Chauvelin did not even look up from his work.
“Your education is not complete. Tonight, you will begin to learn English.”
A few choice phrases ran through Chauvelin’s mind, but he kept silent. English. The blond imbecile had enough money to travel. Perhaps he had been to England. If Chauvelin was to learn English, did that mean that he, too, might have a chance to see the strange country called England? Chauvelin had grown to like his sleep, but he forced himself not to complain. He was going to have more than just a watch.
English, however, proved worse than Latin. Not only did Chauvelin have to learn to write it - he had to speak it properly as well. He found himself wishing that he knew how to curse his teacher in the hated tongue, but he was certain Robespierre would refrain from teaching him anything worth saying.
What Chauvelin did not realise through all his toils was how quickly he actually learned things. He thought himself sullen and indifferent, and was certain that everything Robespierre had taught him had been beaten into him. Yet he did have a quick mind, one innately suited to intellectual pursuits, and while his Latin was barely passable, his English improved daily. As he had shown the young aristo, he was an excellent mimic, and soon he was speaking the bit he had learned as well as Robespierre did.
Robespierre soon began attending meetings in the evening to which Chauvelin was not invited. Though it seemed a reason had finally been found for a confidential clerk, it was still not worth bothering about, Chauvelin thought. There seemed to be no reason for his presence there.
Summer was finally turning to fall when Robespierre returned from one of these meetings, and instead of commenting that Chauvelin was reading a novel, his feet propped on the table, instead of working on his English lesson, he simply ignored the disobedience and announced his bit of news. “It is official. The Americans have won.” He said it so solemnly that Chauvelin hated to show his colossal ignornace.
“The peace treaty was signed two days ago. The American colonies are free. The time to act is approaching.”
“There was a war?”
“Don’t be an idiot, boy.” Chauvelin put his feet down, not wanting to seem even more disobedient as he was already anticipating a scolding. “England has colonies in America - you do know that much, do you not?”
“For the past seven years, they have been fighting for their independence. The peace treaty was signed in Paris two days ago.”
“The time to act is growing approaching.”
“Fine.” Chauvelin had no idea what his employer was talking about, so grabbed the book from which he was supposed to be studying, and started doing the work he had been avoiding. “Am I being sent there? Is that what this nonense about English is all about?”
“It is not nonsense, and you are free to go there if you can afford the journey. Show me what you have completed while I was gone.”
“This.” Chauvelin pushed the novel across the table. “I read five chapters of this, and before you say anything, I found it in this house, so scold me if you like, but you read it, too, so don’t act so high and mighty.”
Robespierre looked at the book. “I will not fault you for reading Candide in general, but when you are asked to work on your English, it is an entirely different matter. Do as you are told, and you will learn what I need for you to learn. And then you will be in a position to teach us what we must learn from you. But until then, you will do as you are told. You will finish what you were asked to do before you go to bed.” Robespierre turned on his heel and left the room.
Teach us? Chauvelin thought. So now there is a plural, and that plural is why I’m here. But I highly doubt that these men want me to teach them how to pick pockets, and that’s all I’m good for. With a sigh, Chauvelin picked up the English grammar he was supposed to have been studying, leaned back, and began to work through irregular tense changes in his head.
Part 2 ~ Fiction ~ Home