The writer Henri d’Ornano laboured under the haughty midnight clouds, through which only a few rays of moonlight peeked through to observe Paris. The Seine, near Henri’s terraced balcony, moved gracefully, swaying in waltz with the wind, letting the rays bounce off it in an alluring dance. Swirls of white flashed along the river, vanishing and reappearing in time with the ominous bass tone of Henri’s clock. Inside, his mistress Florence tended to her letters absentmindedly, her eyes drawn more to Henri than her mother's tender prose. Henri’s thick eyebrows were furrowed, zealously reading over a page still wet with ink: his nib constantly returned to the page, though left only a stain before Henri frustratingly groaned and withdrew. Florence watched with anxious, maternal concern: she followed Henri’s every movement intensely
She dropped her letters onto the hefty round table at the room’s centre, watching them uneasily float before inevitably falling. Florence looked up, sighing: lost in thought, she began pacing around the room. Her shoes’ regular, musical taps on the floor hauled Henri unwillingly from his work, and with a curious expression he turned over his chair to the woman.
“Florence, is there something wrong?” he said.
She froze briefly, the shocked look of a child caught stealing bread adorning her soft face. Before she could dream a lie, the truth escaped from her lips; “You look confused, Henri – about your work.” He nodded, saying he was lost on how the shopkeeper Monsieur Fourier, a patriotic veteran of the Seven Years’ War, would react to a countess’ mutilation in Marseilles. Florence laughed, strolling onto the terrace through the open doors.
“Monsieur Fourier hasn’t spoke two words and you’re fretting over what he’ll say in passing when Luc strolls through Aix-en-Montagne!” she said, grinning at the listening Henri. “You’re worried about the reaction of a minor character when that which truly matters – whether Genève thinks Luc or Mathieu had a hand in the countess’ death, which surely is likely, knowing how ambitious they are – is ignored.”
“That’s what literature is, Florence,” said Henri, standing up. “A detailed tapestry showcasing life, all its intricacies painstakingly detailed – it’s wondrous, but takes heroic effort to support. Monsieur Fourier’s reaction may influence his view of Luc if rumours spread he killed the countess for money from the American merchant John, rumours that may exile him from Aix-en-Montagne and separate him from his one haven, his coastal walks!”
He leant back against the balcony’s side, throwing his head up and breathing deeply. Florence giggled, doing the same before turning to him with an impish smile. “You’re still wrong, Henri. No oratory excuses that.” Henri sighed, provoking only more laughter from her. Florence invited him in, for a cold wind had begun blowing - he refused, falling into his wooden work-chair as the illuminated Seine attracted his gaze. Florence whispered goodnight, before throwing Henri's twin dogs, two great white mastiffs, out and then slowly closed the creaking doors. The cold wind slowed with her departure, transformed into a cool breeze that ruffled Henri’s flaxy brown hair. With the observant stare of old men, Henri watched the Seine with a child’s amazed smile.
The peace of night-time! The cobbled square and the streets diverging off it were calm, bar the constant gushing of water from the clay fountain at its centre. Unusual for Paris, the streets were wide; down a rolling path lay the Seine’s banks and, beyond, the river itself; a curved bridge shot out to the left bank, which mirrored the serenity of Henri’s street. The mastiffs, their muzzles grayed by age, slept beside each other – their low, deep breathing ran concurrently, both harmonious and distinct. Henri nearly fell asleep, stirred only by a sudden, relaxed groan from the dogs - they were having good dreams. He realised how tired he was; cursing his own exhaustion, Henri reluctantly decided to conclude his night.
He wore long cotton trousers, rather than the silken knee-breeches expected of a man of his caste. Using his father’s money, Henri had built a baroque mansion on the left bank of the Seine, at the edge of the fashionable St-Germain district frequented by the bourgeoisie. As he reclined into his chair, Henri’s huge hand – “like a shovel,” Florence would often remark – grasped a small pile of envelopes. Of the four there, three bore first-class stamps and the imprinted insignia of his father’s company; one, which Henri now held, was plain, being marked only with his address. He opened it, smiling as he turned quickly to the farewell; “Yours, Jean Nestor.” Jean Nestor was an old schoolmate of Henri's from their years at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, loosely connected by mutual friendships with the lawyer Max Robespierre. Jean followed events with a rigour alien his supposed superiors, the journalists: surviving on the goodwill and bread of farmers paid for by his nationwide network of serial letters delivered to interested clients, Jean traced the movements of statesmen and armies alike depending on what took his fancy.
He continued with the letter, from the beginning:
To our misfortune, this correspondence will be short for reasons that will become evident in its successor. As my previous letter recorded, the entirety of the Français Armée has been stationed in Marseilles awaiting further orders. General Masséna commands a substantial force of fifty-three thousand that employs twenty-four divisions each of infantry and hussars, the five-thousand-strong artillery corps led by a young Corsican upstart called Bonaparte. Masséna has surrounded himself with talented commanders including Monsieur – or Signore, perhaps? – Bonaparte and the able tactician Emmanuel de Siorac. These men all share an uncanny, ambitious youth the Armée is not used to – a bit like your own, Henri! Siorac, particularly, envisions himself as a future general; or so Sophie, his favoured streetwalker, says.
The Armée is restless, the limp instruction left to it both exciting and boring the soldiers: while the hope of a new grand campaign, most likely in Italy with Piedmont being the first target, is large and fills the comradely spirits of the soldiers, the general yet unspoken expectation is that they will soon be called upon to quell Parisian unrest originating from the National Assembly’s ardently revolutionary oratory. Still, this view ignores His Majesty’s placement of an entire mercenary column in the Île-de-France after his dismissal of the popular minister Jacques Necker, whose acquaintance with the masses came only from his tireless support of the American revolutionaries – even then, only now has his name stirred such fervour with the commons.
Whether the current strife was intended by Necker, my heart believes he caused it: if accidental, he is a buffoon – but if not, Sieyès and the lot will owe more to a crafty Protestant than the people of France. The Armée is restless, like the masses: I cannot say what is destined from here on in, but whether it is something great or mediocre I do not know. That, likely, will be your decision.
Henri set down the letter. Yawning silently, fighting to keep his eyes open amid the Seine's lusty seduction, he opened the thinnest envelope sent by his father. In it was a cheque for twelve thousand sous, which drew a tremendous smile from him. It was then he surrendered to the river, and fell asleep watching its graceful dancing. Florence came out later and sluggishly yet precisely wrapped around him the house's warmest blanket, staring at Henri lovingly, only departing due to the cold. She gave her own to the mastiffs. Two hours after midnight, the d'Ornano mansion finally darkened.