She was an innkeeper’s daughter, 22 years-old. Calvert found her beauty immeasurable: eyes dark and brooding, of such blackness they left him breathless at the edge of a shadowy void. Her long black hair, tousled and be-ribboned, played about her face as she moved between the tables with wine for the men. How he despised their leering talk. The revolution progressed fast and every last one of them wanted to kill. No longer the salt of the earth but its brutish detritus, knife-fighters to a man, some adept with cruder weapons of sickle, scythe and axe, all craving vengeance for a thousand years of wrong! These would-be killers, these sans-culottes, pawed Bernadette with their filthy hands, shouted obscenities with wine-sodden breath. But they were her father’s custom, his livelihood; he expected his daughter to smile and endure. Calvert admired her silent suffering; it mirrored his own under his father’s roof. That she was a kindred spirit endeared him to her all the more. Finally one night, heavily in his cups, he stayed her arm as she passed. Her faintly wounded eyes locked with his own. He looked away with tongue-tied shyness, staring at his feet inside the broken clogs. He felt her hand upon his shoulder, glanced up to see her smile.
‘You need some more shoes,’ she said, her smile broadening.
‘You manage without any.’ He nodded at her bare feet, dirty as the floor. Pin-pricked by nerves, he could get no further than shoes and feet. Until: ‘You, the prettiest girl in the section, nay in all the sections! oughtn’t to go barefoot.’ It was done – he’d declared his admiration, spit it out from under his tongue like an apple-pip trapped for weeks.
‘I please myself,’ she said haughtily. She seemed proud, more than he’d imagined. Pride in a woman, he’d heard said, was no more than a front, a predictable foible soon discarded. That’s how it was with Bernadette, he told himself, she was waiting to be conquered, rid of her cloak of false pride. But it wasn’t so simple and he knew it. Her spirit had been hardened by the women’s movement at section level. How common such a woman was in the new Paris he didn’t know. Possibly she was rare, a freak born hundreds of years too early. What he did know was that Bernadette Varens, the girl he ached for night and day, was different. He saw it, even if the oafs she waited on didn’t. And over the coming days she proved herself different indeed. He must respect her opinion on all things, and never exclude her. She was his equal, she said, in everything but physical strength.
‘That rabble I pander to every night,’ she told him, ‘I am worth more than all of them put together.’
An austere, repellent creature some would say, but Bernadette was far from that. For all her revolutionary independence she was a woman through and through. And far from dampening her femininity, this novel trait heightened it. Calvert, who had never been with a woman, wanted her all the more. He got his wish one night in her attic room where, having undressed by candle-light, she undressed him, soothing his nerves by delicious kisses on his forehead, lips and chin. And then she showed him, quite clinically, where and how he should touch her. She educated him from start to finish, dispelled his ignorance that a woman’s pleasure was subservient to his own. That she liked him – loved him even – was not in doubt, but she wouldn’t be ruled by him. She was happy in his company, but by the same token glad to be alone again. In truth, she could take him or leave him.
His interest in politics, in the great revolution, had faded by now like the Bourbon monarchy. His sole interest was Bernadette, whom he ate, drank and slept. But he was jealous of past lovers, never trusted her fidelity. His love for her was a torment, the cross to which he was nailed. He prayed to be out of pain, for God to make her steadfast, more genuinely and firmly his. But the answer he received came from the Devil. A long-time neighbour and enemy of Bernadette’s father took advantage of recent legislation to move against him. He did so via his daughter, whose eloquent outbursts of patriotic fervour were not the morale-boosting tonic to Parisian menfolk that they were to some of its women, those fiery Mariannes. Bernadette was denounced as subversive; she had not at heart, they said, the best interests of the revolution. She was Janus-faced and untrustworthy: how could she, a good republican, be at the same time confidante of non-juring priests, whom she’d assisted to safety in Brittany?
‘But it’s not true, it is all lies!’ Bernadette said defiantly, when brought before the tribunal.
The charge was indeed absurd, and many good citizens from her section could be called upon to swear it was so, and vouch for her loyalty. But none was called, none permitted to come forth. For these were strange times, when common-sense stayed under lock and key, when the air was made crazy by flights of terrible fancy. The war against Austria and Prussia, which had begun in April, was going badly, and France faced invasion from across the Rhine. There were rumours of vengeance on behalf of the Crown, of indiscriminate slaughter should Paris fall. Fear rumbled like thunder over the capital; everyone heard it. They knew the storm was coming, and sooner rather than later.
‘Listen to me, citizens! Listen to me!’ cried Monsieur Varens, trying to rally his customers one evening. ‘Such an arrest is outrageous!’ What was needed, he said, was a demonstration on her behalf, a show of strength. ‘It’s my daughter they’ve got there in that stinking prison,’ he shouted himself hoarse, ‘my precious Bernadette, who served you wine night after night!’
But poor Monsieur Varens, who expected a riot on his daughter’s behalf, got nought but sympathetic murmurs. And on their way home through the late summer streets, whose air was afire with foreboding, these sans-culottes, these killers to a man, voiced their reservations. Yes, it was a pity what had happened to Bernadette, but perhaps she was guilty after all. And then one said it, what he’d heard Desmoulins say when he’d harangued the crowd in the Rue St Honore the day before: ‘Only the guilty are denounced.’ They were struck by the power of this simple truth. ‘If Varens’ daughter had been innocent,’ the evangelist continued, puffing on his short blackened pipe, ‘she would not have been accused. Therefore she is guilty.’
September had arrived, and with it just one aroma: blind fanaticism. Already, before the war broke out, Calvert had begun to feel isolated, very much the foreigner. Bernadette was the magnet that kept him in Paris, and, after her arrest, he remained there out of love and in hope she’d be released. During the weeks of her imprisonment he had seen her just once. Since that early visit, when her spirits were good despite the filth of her surroundings, he’d been denied further access. Class I prisoners, of whom Bernadette was now one, were not to be visited. Thus far he had kept his optimism: after all, she was not under sentence of death, and given time the charges might be dropped. Little did he know that the kiss they’d shared that morning in the crowded, verminous vault of the Conciergerie would be their last.
Miles Craven’s latest historical crime thriller, An Uncommon Attorney, is available in all eBook formats. To purchase a copy, click here: http://rowanvalebooks.com/books/uncommon.html Also available on Amazon at the usual discounted price: tinyurl.com/qylwxnq