It was luck at cards that started the trouble, and enlistment in mad invasion that seemed the way out of it. I won a trinket and almost lost my life, so take lesson. Gambling is a vice.
It’s also seductive, social, and as natural, I would argue, as breathing. Isn’t birth itself a roll of the dice, fortune casting one babe as peasant and another as king? In the wake of the French Revolution the stakes have simply been raised, with ambitious lawyers reigning as temporary dictators and poor King Louis losing his head. During the Reign of Terror the specter of the guillotine made existence itself a matter of chance. Then, with the death of Robespierre, came an insanity of relief, giddy couples dancing on the tombs of Saint Sulpice Cemetery to a new German step called the waltz. Now, more than three years later, the nation has settled into war, corruption, and the pursuit of pleasure. Drabness has given way to brilliant uniform, modesty to décolletage, and looted mansions are being reoccupied as intellectual salons and chambers of seduction. If nobility is still an offense, revolutionary wealth is creating a new aristocracy. There’s a clique of self-proclaimed “wonderful women” who parade Paris to boast of their “insolent luxury amid public wretchedness.” There are balls that mock the guillotine, where ladies wear red ribbons at their throat. The city counts four thousand gambling houses, some so plain that patrons carry in their own folding stools, and others so opulent that hors d’oeuvre are served on sacramental plate and the privy is indoors. My American correspondents find both practices equally scandalous. The dice and cards fly: creps, trente et un, pharaon, biribi. Meanwhile armies tramp on France’s borders, inflation is ruinous, and weeds grow in the deserted courtyards of Versailles. So to risk a purse in pursuit of a Nine in Chemin de Fer seemed as natural and foolish as life itself. How was I to know that betting would bring me to Bonaparte?
Had I been inclined to superstition, I might have made note that the date, April 13, 1798, was a Friday. But it was springtime in Revolutionary Paris, meaning that under the Directory’s new calendar it was the twenty-fourth day of the month of Germinal in the Year Six, and the next day of rest was still six days distant, not two.
Has any reform been more futile? The government’s arrogant discard of Christianity means that weeks have been extended to ten days instead of seven. The revision’s intent is to supplant the Papal calendar with a uniform alternative of twelve months of thirty days each, based on the system of ancient Egypt. Bibles themselves were torn up to make paper gun cartridges in the grim days of 1793, and now the Biblical week has been guillotined, each month instead divided into three decades of ten days, with the year beginning at the autumn equinox and five to six holidays added to balance idealism with our solar orbit. Not content with regimenting the calendar, the government has introduced a new metric system for weight and measure. There are even proposals for a new clock of precisely 100,000 seconds each day. Reason, reason! And the result is that all of us, even I — amateur scientist, investigator of electricity, entrepreneur, sharpshooter, and democratic idealist — miss Sundays. The new calendar is the kind of logical idea imposed by clever people that completely ignores habit, emotion, and human nature, and thus forecasts the Revolution’s doom. Do I sound prescient? To be honest, I wasn’t used to thinking about popular opinion in such a calculating manner yet. Napoleon would teach me that.
No, my thought was focused on counting the turn of cards. Had I been a man of nature I might have left the salons to enjoy the year’s first blush of red bud and green leaf, perhaps contemplating the damsels of the Tuileries Garden, or at least the whores of the Bois de Boulogne. But I’d chosen the card cozies of Paris, that glorious and grimy city of perfume and pollution, monument and mud. My spring was candlelight, my flowers courtesans of such precariously suspended cleavage that their twin advertisements teetered on the brink of escape, and my companions a new democracy of politician and soldier, displaced nobleman and newly-rich shopkeeper: Citizens all. I, Ethan Gage, was the salon’s American representative of frontier democracy. I had minor status thanks to my earlier apprenticeship to the late, great Benjamin Franklin. He’d taught me enough about electricity to let me amuse gatherings by cranking a cylinder to impart a frictional charge to the hands of the prettier ones, and then daring the men to try a literally shocking kiss. I had minor fame from shooting exhibitions that demonstrated the accuracy of the American longrifle: I had put six balls through a pewter plate at two hundred paces, and with luck had cut the plume from a skeptical general’s hat at fifty. I had minor income from trying to forge contracts between war-pressed France and my own infant and neutral nation, a task made damnably difficult by the Revolutionary habit of seizing American ships. What I didn’t have was much purpose beyond the amusement of daily existence: I was one of those amiably drifting single men who wait for the future to start. Nor did I have income enough to comfortably support myself in inflationary Paris. So, I tried to augment it with luck.
Our host was the deliberately mysterious Madame d’Liberte’, one of those enterprising women of beauty and ambition who had emerged from revolutionary anarchy to dazzle with wit and will. Who had known females could be so ambitious, so clever, so alluring? She gave orders like a sergeant major, and yet had seized on the new fad for classical gowns to advertise her feminine charms with fabric so diaphanous that the discerning could detect the dark triangle pointing to her temple of Venus. Nipples peeped over the top of her drapery like soldiers from a trench, the pair of them rouged just in case we might overlook their boldness. Another mademoiselle had her breasts exposed entirely, like hanging fruit. Was it any wonder that I’d taken the risk of returning to Paris? Who cannot love a capital that has three times as many winemakers as bakers? Not to be outdone by the women, some of the male peacocks sported cravats reaching as high as their lower lip, cod-tailed coats that reached to the back of their knees, slippers as dainty as kitten’s paws, and golden rings that glittered on their ears.
“Your beauty is eclipsed only by your cleverness,” one drunken patron, an art dealer named Pierre Cannard, told Madame after she cut off his brandy. It was her punishment for his having spilled on her recently acquired Oriental carpet, which she’d paid ruined royalists too much for in order to acquire that impossible-to-imitate threadbare look that proclaims the penny-pinching ancestry of the rich.
“Compliments will not clean my rug, monsieur.”
Cannard clutched his heart. “And your cleverness is eclipsed by your strength, your strength by your stubbornness, and your stubbornness by your cruelty. No more brandy? With such feminine hardness, I might as well buy my spirits from a man!”
She snorted. “You sound like our latest military hero.”
“You mean the young general Bonaparte?”
“A Corsican pig. When the brilliant Germaine de Stael asked the upstart what woman he could most admire, Bonaparte replied, ‘The one who is the best housekeeper.’”
The gathering laughed. “Indeed!” Cannard shouted. “He’s Italian, and knows a woman’s place!”
“So she tried again, asking who is the woman most distinguished among her sex. And the bastard replied, ‘The one who bears the most children.’”
We roared, and it was a guffaw revealing our uneasiness. Indeed, what was a woman’s place in revolutionary society? Women had been given rights, even of divorce, but the newly famous Napoleon was no doubt just one of a million reactionaries who would prefer repeal. What, for that matter, was a man’s place? What had rationality to do with sex and romance, those great French passions? What had science to do with love, or equality with ambition, or liberty with conquest? We were all feeling our way in Year Six.
Madame d’Liberte’ had taken as an apartment the first floor above a millinery shop, furnished it on credit, and opened so hastily that I could smell wallpaper paste alongside the cologne and tobacco smoke. Couches allowed couples to entwine. Velvet drapes invited tactile sensation. A new piano, far more fashionable than the aristocratic harpsichord, provided a mix of symphonic and patriotic tunes. Sharps, ladies of pleasure, officers on leave, merchants trying to impress the gossips, writers, newly-pompous bureaucrats, informers, women hoping to marry strategically, ruined heirs: all could be found there. Those ranked around the game’s shoe included a politician who had been in prison just eight months before, a colonel who had lost an arm in the revolutionary conquest of Belgium, a wine merchant getting rich by supplying restaurants opened by chefs who’d lost their aristocratic employers, and a captain from Bonaparte’s Army of Italy, who was spending his loot as quickly as he’d nabbed it.
And me. I’d served as a secretary to Franklin for his last three years in Paris just before the French Revolution, returned to America for some adventures in the fur trade, made some living as a shipping agent in London and New York at the height of the Terror, and now had returned to Paris in hopes my fluent French might help me cement timber, hemp and tobacco deals with the Directory. There’s always a chance to get rich during war. I also hoped for respectability as an “electrician” — a new, exotic word — and by following up on Franklin’s curiosity about Masonic mysteries. He’d hinted they might have some practical application. Indeed, some claimed the United States itself had been founded by Masons for some secret, as yet unrevealed, purpose, and that ours was a nation with a mission in mind. Alas, Masonic lore required tedious steps toward degree advancement. The British blockade impeded my trade schemes. And one thing the Revolution had not changed was the size and pace of France’s implacable bureaucracy: It was easy to get an audience, and impossible to get an answer. Accordingly, I had plenty of time between interviews for other pursuits, such as gambling.
It was a pleasant enough way to spend one’s nights. The wine was agreeable, the cheeses delectable, and in candlelight every male face seemed chiseled, every woman a beauty.
My problem that Friday the Thirteenth was not that I was losing, but winning. By this time the Revolutionary assignats and mandats had become worthless, paper rubbish and specie rare. So my pile consisted not just of gold and silver francs but a ruby, a deed to an abandoned estate in Bordeaux I had no intention of visiting before unloading on someone else, and wooden chips that represented promises of a meal, a bottle, or a woman. Even an illicit gold Louis or two had found their way to my side of the green felt. I was so lucky that the colonel accused me of wanting his other arm, the wine merchant lamented he could not tempt me to full drunkenness, and the politician wanted to know who I’d bribed.
“I simply count cards in English,” I tried to joke, but it was a poor joke because England was reportedly what Bonaparte, back from his triumphs in northern Italy, was trying to invade. He was camped somewhere in Brittany, watching the rain and wishing the British navy would go away.
The captain drew, considered, and blushed, his skin a proclamation of his thought. It reminded me of the story of the guillotined head of Charlotte Corday, which reportedly reddened with indignation when the executioner slapped it before the crowd. There has been scientific debate since about the precise moment of death, and Doctor Xavier Bichot has taken corpses from the guillotine and tried to animate their muscles with electricity, in the same manner that the Italian Galvani has done with frogs.
The captain wanted to double his bet, but was frustrated by his empty purse. “The American has taken all my money!” I was the dealer at the moment, and he looked at me. “Credit, monsieur, for a gallant soldier.”
I was in no mood to finance a betting war with a gambler excited about his cards. “A cautious banker needs collateral.”
“What, my horse?”
“I’ve no need of one in Paris.”
“My pistols, my sword?”
“Please, I would not be complicit in your dishonor.”
He sulked, peeking again at what he held. Then the kind of inspiration struck that means trouble for everyone within range. “My medallion!”
He pulled out a large and heavy trinket that had hung, unseen, inside his shirt. It was a gold disc, pierced and inscribed with a curious tracery of lines and holes, with two long arms like twigs hanging beneath. It seemed crude and hammered, as if forged on Thor’s anvil. “I found it in Italy. Look at its weight and antiquity! The jailer I took it from said it came from Cleopatra herself!”
“He knew the lady?” I asked dryly.
“He was told that by Count Cagliostro!”
This piqued my curiosity. “Cagliostro?” The famed healer, alchemist and blasphemer, once the darling of the courts of Europe, had been imprisoned in the Pope’s Fortress of San Leo and died of madness in 1795. Revolutionary troops had subsequently overrun the fortress last year. The alchemist’s involvement in the Affair of the Necklace more than a decade ago had helped precipitate the Revolution by making the monarchy look greedy and foolish. Marie Antoinette had despised the man, calling him a sorcerer and a fraud.
“The Count tried to use this as a bribe to escape,” the captain went on. “The jailer simply confiscated it and, when we stormed the fort, I took it from him. It has power, perhaps, and is very old, passed down for centuries. I will sell it to you for . . .” — he eyed my pile — “a thousand silver francs.”
“Captain, you jest. It’s an interesting bauble but . . .”
“It comes from Egypt, the jailer told me! It has sacred value!”
“Egyptian, you say?” Someone spoke with the purr of a big cat, urbane and lazily amused. I looked up to see Count Alessandro Silano, an aristocrat of French-Italian descent who’d lost a fortune to the Revolution and was rumored to be trying to build another by turning democrat, plying devious roles in diplomatic intrigues. Rumor had it that Silano was a tool of the recently-reinstated Talleyrand himself, France’s minister of foreign affairs. He also professed himself a student of the secrets of antiquity, on the model of Cagliostro, Kolmer, or St. Germaine. A few whispered his rehabilitation in government circles owed something to the Black Arts. He thrived on such mystery, bluffing at cards by claiming his luck was augmented by sorcery. He still lost as often as he won, however, so no one knew whether to take him seriously.
“Yes, Count,” the captain said. “You of all men should recognize its value.”
“Should I?” He took a seat at our table with his usual languid grace, his strong features saturnine, his lips sensual, his eyes dark, his brows heavy, exhibiting the handsomeness of a Pan. He entranced women like the famed Mesmer, who put them under spells called hypnosis.
“I mean your position in the Egyptian Rite.”
Silano nodded. “And my time at studies in Egypt. Captain Bellaird, is it not?”
“You know me, monsieur?”
“By reputation as a gallant soldier. I closely followed the Bulletins from Italy. If you will honor me with your acquaintance, I would join your game.”
The captain was flattered. “But of course.”
Silano sat and women gathered, his reputation one of adept lover, duelist, gambler and spy. He was also reputed to adhere to Cagliostro’s discredited Egyptian Rite of Freemasonry, or fraternal lodges that inducted female adherents as well as male. These heretic lodges played at various occult practices and there were juicy tales of dark ceremonies, naked orgies, and lurid sacrifice. Perhaps ten percent of it was true. Still, Egypt was reputed to be the source of ancient wisdom, and more than one mystic had claimed to have discovered mighty secrets in mysterious pilgrimages there. As a result, antiquities were in vogue from a nation closed to most Europeans since the Arab Conquest thirteen centuries before. Silano was reputed to have studied in Cairo, before the ruling Mamelukes began harassing traders and scholars.
Now the captain nodded eagerly to cement Silano’s interest. “The jailer told me the arms on the end could point the way to great power! A man of learning such as you, Count, might make sense of it.”
“Or pay for a piece of nonsense. Let me see it.”
The captain lifted it off his neck. “Look how odd it is.”
Silano took the medallion, exhibiting the long, strong fingers of a fencer, and turned it to examine both sides. The disc was a bit larger than a communion wafer. “Not pretty enough for Cleopatra.” When he held it to a candle, light shone through its holes. An incised groove extended across its circle. “How do you know it’s from Egypt? It looks as though it could be from anywhere: Assyrian, Aztec, Chinese, even Italian.”
“No, no, it’s thousands of years old! A gypsy king told me to look for it in San Leo, where Cagliostro had died. Though some say he still lives, as a guru in India.”
“A gypsy king. Cleopatra.” Silano slowly handed it back. “Monsieur, you should be a playwright. I will trade you two hundred silver francs for it.”
The nobleman shrugged, his eye still on the piece.
I was intrigued by Silano’s interest. “You said you were going to sell it to me.”
The captain nodded, now hopeful that two of us had been baited. “Indeed! It is from the Pharaoh who tormented Moses, perhaps!”
“So I will give you three hundred.”
“And I will trade you five,” Silano said.
We all want what the other wants. “I will trade you seven hundred and fifty,” I responded.
The captain was looking from one to the other of us.
“Seven-fifty and this assignat note for one thousand livres,” I amended.
“Which means seven-fifty and something so worthlessly inflated that he might as well use it on his ass,” Silano countered. “I’ll trade you the full thousand, captain.”
His price had been reached so quickly that the soldier looked doubtful. Like me, he was wondering at the Count’s interest. This was far more than the value of the raw gold. He seemed tempted to slip it back inside his shirt.
“You’ve already offered it to me for a thousand,” I said. “As a man of honor, consummate the exchange or leave the game. I’ll pay the full sum and win it back from you within the hour.”
Now I’d challenged him. “Done,” he said, a soldier in defense of his standard. “Bet this hand and the next few and I’ll win the medallion back from you.”
Silano sighed hopelessly at his affaire d’honneur. “At least deal me some cards.” I was surprised he’d given up so easily. Perhaps he only wanted to help the captain by bidding me up and reducing my pile. Or, he believed he could win it at table.
If so, he was disappointed. I couldn’t lose. The soldier drew into an eleven, and then lost three more hands as he bet against the odds, too lazy to track how many face cards had been dealt. “Damnation,” he finally muttered. “You have the devil’s luck. I’m so broke I’ll have to go back on campaign.”
“It will save you the trouble of thinking.” I slipped the medallion around my own neck as the soldier scowled, then stood to get a glass and display my prize to the ladies, like an exhibit at a rural fair. When I nuzzled a few the hardware got it the way, so I hid it inside my shirt.
“You’re Franklin’s man, are you not?”
“I had the honor of serving that statesman.”
“Then perhaps you’ll appreciate my intellectual interest. I’m a collector of antiquities. I’ll still buy that neckpiece from you.”
Alas, a courtesan with the fetching name of Minette, or Pussycat, had already whispered about the handsomeness of my trinket. “I respect your offer, monsieur, but I intend to discuss ancient history in the chambers of a lady.” Minette had already gone ahead to warm her apartment.
“An understandable inquiry. Yet may I suggest you need a true expert? That curiosity had an interesting shape, with intriguing markings. Men who have studied the ancient arts . . .”
“Can appreciate how dearly I hold my new acquisition.”
He leaned closer. “Monsieur, I must insist. I’ll pay double.”
I didn’t like his persistence. His air of superiority rankled my American sensibilities. Besides, if Silano wanted it that badly then maybe it was worth even more. “And may I insist that you accept me as the fair winner, and suggest that my assistant, who also has an interesting shape, supplies precisely the kind of expertise I require?” Before he could reply, I bowed and moved away.
The captain, now drunk, accosted me. “It isn’t wise to turn Silano down.”
“I thought you told us it had great value, according to your gypsy king and papal jailer?”
The officer smiled maliciously. “They also told me the medallion was cursed.”