After I trapped three scientists in a fire I set in a brothel, enlisted them in the theft of a stampeding wagon, got them arrested by the French secret police, and then mired them in a mystic mission for Bonaparte, they began to question my judgment.
So allow me to point out that our tumultuous night was as much their idea as mine. Tourists come to Paris to be naughty.
Accordingly, I was hardly surprised when a trio of savants – the English rock-hound William “Strata” Smith, the French zoologist Georges Cuvier, and the crackpot American inventor Robert Fulton – insisted that I take them to the Palais Royal. Scientific luminaries they may be, but after a hard day of looking at old bones or (in the case of Fulton) marketing impractical schemes to the French navy, what these intellectuals really wanted was a peek at the city’s most notorious parade of prostitutes.
Not to mention supper in a swank Palais café, a game or two of chance, and shopping for souvenir trifles such as French perfume, silver toothpicks, Chinese silks, erotic pamphlets, Egyptian jewelry, or ivory curiosities of an even-more ribald nature. Who can resist the city’s center of sin and sensuality? It was even better, the scientists reasoned, if such entertainment could be attributed to someone as discreet and shameless as me.
“Monsieur Ethan Gage insisted on giving us this tour,” Cuvier explained to any acquaintance he met, reddening as he said it. The man was smart as Socrates but still retained his Alsatian provincialism, despite his rise to the summit of France’s scientific establishment. The French Revolution has replaced breeding with ability, and with it traded the weary worldliness of the nobility for the curiosity and embarrassment of the striving. Cuvier was a soldier’s son, Smith from agricultural stock, and Fulton had been sired by a failed farmer who died when he was three. Bonaparte himself was not even French but Corsican, and his generals were tradesmen’s offspring: Ney the son of a cooper, Lefebre a miller, Murat an innkeeper, Lannes an ostler. I, sired by a Philadelphia merchant, fit right in.
“We’re here to investigate revenue sources and public sentiment,” I said to reinforce Cuvier’s dignity. “Napoleon is keeping the Palais open in order to tax it.”
Having resolved after my recent calamitous visit to America to reform myself, I suppose I should have resented the presumption that I was expert at negotiating the notorious Palais. But I had, in the spirit of social and architectural inquiry, explored most of its corners during my years in Paris. Now, in June of 1802, it remains the place Paris comes to be seen or – if one’s tastes run to the scandalous or perverse – safely invisible.
Smith – recently fired from his canal-surveying job in England, and frustrated by the lack of recognition for his rock mapping – came to Paris to confer with French geologists and gape. He was a surveyor built like an English bulldog, balding and thick, with a farmer tan and the bluff, ruddy heartiness of the ploughman. Given Smith’s humble origins, English intellectuals had paid absolutely no attention to the rock-mapping he’d done, and the snobbery rankled. Smith knew he was more intelligent than three-quarters of the men in the Royal Society.
“You’re more creative for not being stuck in their company,” I suggested when Cuvier brought him to me so I could serve as interpreter and guide.
“My career is like the ditches my canal company digs. I’m here because I’m not sure what else to do.”
“As is half of London! The Peace of Amiens let loose a tide of British tourists who haven’t come over since the revolution. Paris has hosted two thirds of the House of Lords already, including five dukes, three marquesses and thirty-seven earls. They’re as transfixed by the guillotine as the trollops.”
“We English are just curious about liberty’s relation to wickedness.”
“And the Palais is the place to study, William. Music floats, lanterns glint, and a man can lose himself amid roving minstrels, angular acrobats, bawdy plays, amusing wagers, brilliant fashion, smart talk, intoxicating spirits, and swank bordellos.” I nodded to encourage him.
“And this is officially tolerated?”
“Winked at. It’s been kept off-limits to the French police since Phillip of Orleans, and Philippe-Egalité added the commercial arcades just before the Revolution. The place has since weathered revolt, war, terror, inflation, and the conservative instincts of Napoleon with hardly a stammer. Three-quarters of Paris’s newspapers have been shuttered by Bonaparte, but the Palais plays on.”
“You seem to have made quite a study.”
“It’s the kind of history that interests me.”
In truth, I was out of date. I’d been away from Paris and back in my homeland of America for more than a year and a half, and my frightful experiences there had made me more determined than ever to swear off women, gambling, drink, and treasure hunting. True, I’d been only partly successful in these resolutions. I’d used a grape-sized glob of gold (my only reward from my Trials of Job on the western frontier) to get a stake in St. Louis card games. There had been the distraction of a frontier barmaid or two, and a hearty sampling of Jefferson’s wines when I finally reported back to the President’s House in Washington. There he heard my carefully edited description of France’s Louisiana Territory and agreed to my idea of playing unofficial American envoy back in Paris, trying to get Napoleon to sell the wasteland to the United States.
So I had a thimble-full of fame and a dram of respectability, and decided I should finally live up to both. Admittedly, I couldn’t resist embroidering my military exploits when I was given trans-Atlantic passage aboard an American naval squadron headed for Europe to protect our shipping from the Barbary pirates. It was convenient to me that the bashaw of Tripoli, a pirate king named Yussef Karamanli, had declared war on the United States the year before, demanding $225,000 to make peace plus $25,000 a year tribute. As so often happens in politics, Jefferson – who had argued against a large military – was using five frigates built by his predecessor, Adams, to respond to this extortion with force. “Even peace may be purchased at too high a price,” my old mentor Benjamin Franklin once said. So when Jefferson offered me a ride on his flotilla I accepted, provided I was able to get off in Gibraltar before any fighting could start.
I needn’t have worried. The squadron commander, Richard Valentine Morris, managed to be at once unqualified, timid, and procrastinating. He brought his wife and son along as if going on Mediterranean vacation, and was two months late setting sail. But his congressman brother had helped Jefferson win the presidency over Aaron Burr, and even in young America, political alliances trump inexperience. The man was a connected idiot.
My own war stories during the voyage convinced half the officers I was a regular Alexander, and the other half that I was a habitual liar. But I was trying, you see.
“You’re some kind of diplomat?” Smith tried to clarify.
“My idea is that Bonaparte sell Louisiana to my own country. It’s emptiness the French have no use for, but Napoleon won’t negotiate until he learns if his French army in St. Domingue, or Haiti, defeats the slaves and can be moved on to New Orleans. I have a connection to the general here, Leclerc.”
I didn’t add that my ‘connection’ was that I had tupped Leclerc’s wife Pauline back in 1800, before she’d joined her husband in the Caribbean. Now, while Leclerc fought yellow fever as well as Negroes, my former lover – who was also Napoleon’s sister – was reportedly learning voodoo. You can get an idea of her character from the debate in Paris on whether it was she, or Napoleon’s wife Josephine, whom the Marquis De Sade used as inspiration for his latest depraved pamphlet, “Zoloe and Her Two Acolytes.” Bonaparte resolved the issue by having the author thrown into prison for either possibility. I read the book to monitor the debate and spark erotic memory.
So I’d made my way from Gibraltar to Paris, living on a modest American government allowance and pledging to finally make something of myself, once I figured what that something should be. The Palais, Gomorrah of Europe, was as good a place to think as any. I bet only when I could find an unskilled opponent, consorted with courtesans only when need became truly imperative, kept myself in physical trim with fencing lessons – I keep running into people with swords – and congratulated myself on self-discipline. I was pondering whether my talents could best be harnessed for philosophy, languages, mathematics, or theology when Cuvier sought me out and suggested I take Smith and Fulton to the Palais Royal.
“You can talk mammoths, Gage, and show us the whores as well.”
I was the link in our quartet. I was deemed an expert on woolly elephants because I’d gone looking for them on the American frontier, and there was more excitement in Europe about animals that aren’t around anymore than those that are.
“The elephants’ extinction may be more important than their former existence,” Cuvier explained to me. He was a pleasant-looking, long-faced, high-domed man of thirty-three with arched nose, strong chin and pursed lower lip that gave him the appearance of constant deep thought. This accident of nature helped his advancement, as so often happens in life. Cuvier also had the fierce seriousness of a man who’d risen by merit instead of odd luck like me, and his organizational flair had put him in charge of the Paris zoo and French education, the latter task striking him as the more thankless.
“In any system the bright shine and the dull yearn only to escape, but politicians expect educators to repeal human nature.”
“Every parent hopes their unexceptional child is the teacher’s fault,” I agreed.
Cuvier thought that I – without rank, income or security – was the enviable one, dashing about on this mission or that for two or three governments at a time. Even I have trouble keeping it straight. So we’d become unlikely friends.
“The fact that we’re finding skeletons of animals that no longer exist proves the earth is older than the Biblical six thousand years,” the scientist liked to lecture. “I’m as Christian as any man, but some rocks have no fossils at all, suggesting life is not as eternal as Scripture suggests.”
“But I thought a bishop had calculated the day of Creation rather exactly. To October 23, 4004 B.C., if I remember right.”
“Claptrap, Ethan, all of it. Why, we’ve already catalogued twenty thousand species. How could they all fit on the Ark? The world is far older than we know.”
“I keep running into treasure hunters who think the same thing, Georges, but I must say their abundance of time makes them balmy. They never know when they belong. The nice thing about the Palais is that there’s never any yesterday and never any tomorrow. Not a clock in the place.”
“Animals have little sense of time either. It makes them content. But we humans are doomed to know the past and looming future.”
Smith was a bone hunter too, and theories were rife about what kind of ancient calamities might have wiped out ancient animals. Flood or fire? Cold or heat? Cuvier was also intrigued by my mention of the word ‘Thira,’ which I’d read on medieval gold foil unearthed during my North American adventure. A particularly evil woman named Aurora Somerset had seemed to think the scroll had some importance, and Cuvier told me Thira, also known as Santorini, was a Greek island of great interest to European mineralogists because it might be the remains of an ancient volcano. So when “Strata” Smith came over from London, anxious to talk rocks and see strumpets, it was natural we all be introduced. Cuvier was excited because “Strata” concurred with his own findings that fossil bones of a particular kind were found only in certain layers of rock, and thus could be used to date when that rock was laid down.
“I’m using the exposures in canals and roadcuts to begin drawing a geological map of Great Britain,” Smith told me proudly.
I nodded as I’ve learned to do in the company of savants, but couldn’t help asking, “Why?” Knowing which rock was where seemed a trifle dull.
“Because it can be done.” Seeing my doubt, he added, “It could also be valuable to coal or mining companies.” He had that defensive, impatient tone of the bright employee.
“You mean you’d have a map of where the seams of coal and metal are?”
“An indication of where they might be.”
Clever. Accordingly, I agreed to organize our trip to the Palais, hoping that after a night of drinking Smith might let slip a vein of copper here or pocket of iron there. Maybe I could hock word of it to stock jobbers or mineral speculators.
Fulton, thirty-six, was my own contribution to our foursome. I’d met him upon my return to Paris when we’d both waited fruitlessly for an audience with Bonaparte, and I rather liked that he seemed even less successful than me. He’d been in France for five years, trying to persuade the revolutionaries to adopt his inventions, but his experiment at building a submarine, or “plunging boat,” had been rejected by the French navy.
“I tell you, Gage, the Nautilus worked perfectly well off Brest. We were underwater three hours, and could have stayed six.” Fulton was good-looking enough to be a useful companion when looking for ladies, but he had the fretfulness of the frustrated dreamer.
“Robert, you told the admirals that your invention could make surface navies obsolete. You may be able to keep from drowning, but you’re the worst salesman in the world. You’re asking men to buy what would put them out of work.”
“But the submarine would be so fearsome as to end war entirely!”
“Another point against you. Think, man!”
“Well, I’ve a new idea for using Watt’s steam engine to propel a riverboat,” he said doggedly.
“And why would any man pay to fuel a boiler when the wind and oars are free?” Savants are all very bright, but it would be hard to find common sense in a regiment of them. That’s why they need me along.
Fulton had been far more successful painting lurid circular panoramas for Parisians on great city fires. They’d pay a franc or two to stand in the middle rotating, as if in the conflagration themselves, and if anything is better testament to the peculiarity of human nature, I can’t name it. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t take my advice that the real money was not in steam engines that nobody really needed, but rather in frightening pictures that made people think they were somewhere other than where they were.
My idea, then, was this. We’d have a lads nights out at the Palais Royal, I’d pump the savants for information on lucrative veins of coal or why medieval knights with a taste for the mystical and occult might have jotted down ‘Thira’ on gold foil in the middle of North America, and then we’d see if any of us could come up with something that could be sold for actual money. I’d also continue working on reformation of my character.
What I wasn’t counting on was the need to bet my life, and the French secret police.