The Spires of Saint-Sulpice, Autumn prize-winning original fiction from Svetlana Kortchik

Svetlana Kortchik

Svetlana Kortchik, our Autumn prize-winner for short fiction, was born in a small Siberian town of Tomsk and, when she was 16, moved to Australia with her mum. She has lived in London for the last five years, working as a computer programmer. Her passions are writing, travelling, history and martial arts.

 

February 1815

They set out in silence, their tense faces glued to the horizon as if doubting its deceptive calm. A fresh February breeze played on the azure surface of the Mediterranean, making men’s eyes water. The snow-white roofs of Porto-Ferraio were still visible; and if Jean squinted hard enough, he could make out the ungainly brick structure where he had lived for the past eleven months, having laid down his bayonet in favor of an old and rusty garden spade. But as the wind filled the brig’s sails, pushing it closer and closer towards the coast of France, Jean watched the small island of Elba flicker and gradually disappear in the early morning haze.

‘This is folly! Absolute madness,’ grumbled an old grenadier on Jean’s left, shaking his bearded head in alarmed disapproval. Overcome by a sudden coughing fit, he clutched his stomach and bent over, shaking from head to toe. Finally steadying himself, he rummaged in his knapsack, unearthed some brownish tobacco and passed it to Jean.

Struggling to suppress a wave of seasickness, Jean put a pinch of tobacco in his mouth and chewed vigorously. The Inconstant was only a short distance ahead of them, and he could clearly see the round figure of the Emperor Napoleon as he walked up and down the deck with his hands clasped tightly behind his back. Jean’s eyesight wasn’t as sharp as it used to be but he could swear that Napoleon’s forehead creased in concentration as he observed his little flotilla that was carrying him and a thousand of his men away from the idleness and monotony of exile and towards the uncertainty of conquest and war.

“What are you saying, Gerard?” Jean turned to his comrade questioningly. “You think the Emperor was wrong to have left Elba?”

“You and I both know that all the armies of Europe are against us,” said Gerard. “We don’t stand a chance.”

Jean shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “Who am I to question the Emperor? He has led us to victory more times than I can remember.”

“Not in Spain he didn’t. And where were you during the Russian campaign?”

Jean was quiet for a long time, his stomach churning at the memory of the unbearable heat in August of that cursed year that was all too quickly followed by the numbing winter cold of Russian November,  the horrors of the retreat from Moscow and the atrocities seen while pursuing Cossacks. Finally, he muttered, “Right by your side, dying of hunger on the right bank of Berezina.”

“Just you mark my words,” murmured Gerard gloomily, spitting his tobacco overboard. ‘This latest adventure will be the undoing of us all.’

Jean looked at the veteran of the Old Guard with surprise but Gerard’s countenance remained impassive. “If that’s how you feel, then why are you here?” asked Jean.

Chuckling, the grenadier pointed at the Inconstant that was now almost a quarter of a league ahead of them. “Because I owe him everything I have in this world. Everything I am is because of him.”

Jean nodded in understanding. “I’m just happy to see my family again,” he said thoughtfully. “I wish I could put on my Sunday best, take my wife’s hand and walk past the Luxembourg and down rue de Vaugirard. How I long to see the spires of Saint-Sulpice.”

“And I just want peace,” sighed Gerard. “I have grown grey under arms but now I am too old for the fatigue of military campaigns.”

“But you have to admit, it is exciting. What I wouldn’t give to see the old king’s face when we take Paris without firing a shot.” Jean laughed heartily. Staring into space, he almost believed that he could see the French coast, hear the hustle and bustle of Paris, the tired postilion nudging his horses, shrill voices of young boys selling flowers on rue Saint-Honoré. He was going home. He smiled. He was having a good day, an Austerlitz day.

March 1815

Pierre could hear the metal clank of their horses as they galloped resolutely towards Grenoble, could almost feel the ground tremble under the men’s feet. His hands shook in anxious anticipation, while his unblinking eyes scanned the still empty road that twisted its way through snow-topped Alps. The orders were clear. They were to hold Laffrey at any cost, to fire at the usurper if they had to. Yes, fire at Him, fire at his Emperor! Fire at the man who had led the troops to glory in Italy, Austria and Prussia, the man who let Pierre and thousands of others just like him realize the ambitions that under the old regime were nothing but a distant, unattainable dream. The thought was preposterous. Yes, his allegiance was to the restored monarch but his loyalty…that was a different matter altogether.

His loyalty would always be to the man who now stood in front of him, outwardly calm and collected, in his ill-fitting grey coat and triangular hat, the man who advanced slowly but steadily, leaving the devoted veterans of his Old Guard and his Polish Lancers a dozen steps behind him. Seeing the familiar figure of the Emperor, Pierre wiped the sweat off his face.

“Fire!” screamed Captain Randon frantically, sensing the bewildered fascination of his troops. Not a man stirred. “Fire!” he cried even louder.

“Soldiers of the Fifth!” Napoleon’s voice was serene as if thousands of rifles weren’t pointing at his chest. It was the voice of the victor of Lodi, Wagram and Marengo, the voice that made even the most hardened warriors tremble with joy and admiration. “I am your Emperor. Know me!” Tears were running down Pierre’s cheeks as he watched Napoleon walk forward and open his coat slightly, his emotional eyes observing the overwhelmed faces of the soldiers who were once prepared to lay down their very lives for him. “If there is one among you who would kill his general, here I am!”

Pierre couldn’t take it any longer. He couldn’t take his memories, his dreams and his hopes that defiantly conspired and clashed against his sense of duty and the orders of the government that he never believed in. Throwing his weapon on the ground, he shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice catching in a rasping groan somewhere between his throat and his solar plexus, “Vive l’Empreur!” His cry was immediately echoed by thousands of others as men broke ranks, surrounding Napoleon, touching him as if still doubting that he was among them once more, lifting his rotund shape in the air, their faces, strained and frustrated but a minute ago, now lighting up with heartfelt and unrestrained joy.

Suddenly, in the midst of exultant cheers and celebrations, Pierre felt a hand on his shoulder. As he turned around, his face relaxed into an affectionate smile. “Brother!” he cried, throwing himself in Jean’s arms. “Is it really you?” Taking in his older brother’s tanned face and toned figure, he added, “You look good. Island life agrees with you.”

Jean laughed happily, looking his brother up and down. “You don’t look too bad yourself. Turned your coat once more, I see? Glad to have you on our side again.”

“To keep one’s skin intact, one must know where the wind is blowing from. How are you, brother?”

“Never been better. We are welcomed with open arms everywhere we go.” Jean pointed at the jubilant troops. “At this rate we’ll be in Paris within a fortnight,” he concluded with satisfaction.

“And about time, too. We missed you in Paris. The wine of Le Procope is as good as ever, and just think of all the balls you have missed. And the women…”

“You haven’t changed.” Jean winked at his brother. “None for me, however, I am a married man. How is Louise?”

The hesitation in Pierre’s voice was so brief that it was barely perceptible, certainly not to his brother whose countenance was beaming from the joy of their chance meeting. “She is good,” Pierre said. “She can’t wait to see you again.”

“What about you? Married yet?”

“Me? Never!” Pierre laughed at the very absurdity of his brother’s suggestion. “Why tie myself to one woman when I can have them all?”

The brothers embraced once more, while all around them as far as the eye could see the discarded, white royalist cockades littered the ground, having been replaced by the tricolor ones that every single one of them kept in his knapsack just in case. Now, instead of hiding the colors that reflected their true sentiment, the men displayed them with pride. The joy of the army was tremendous. After all, their leader was back and soon their former glory would be restored.

***

Louise looked out the window on the euphoric Paris that for the past few days resembled one of those fairs that her father used to take her to for Easter, Christmas, and sometimes for New Year’s. Outside Luxembourg, young boys startled hapless passers-by by jumping in front of them as if out of nowhere and waving in their harassed faces the tricolor cockades that at two sous each were almost a bargain and, at a time like this, a must-have. She shook her head. The Moniteur that but yesterday called Napoleon an ogre, a tiger and a brigand, today was styling him “His Imperial Majesty.” It was really happening! Napoleon was nearing Paris. To her, it meant one thing and one thing only – her husband was coming home.

She shuddered and closed the shutters.

“Louise, where are you? It’s dinner time!” Heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor and her ninety year old grandmother appeared in the doorway, her tired, arthritic, battered body supported by a slightly bent, wooden walking stick. Her hearing wasn’t very good but her eyes were still unusually sharp. “Have you been crying, dear?” she demanded, studying Louise’s face.

“I’m ok, grandmother.” Louise made an effort to smile. “The Emperor is in Fontainebleau.”

Her grandmother visibly perked up. “And the King?” she asked.

“The King fled,” said Louise, her even voice betraying not even the slightest trace of emotion.

The old woman contemplated her granddaughter’s impassive face with surprise. “Rejoice, child. This is a happy day for France. The inept monarchy that has been imposed on us by our enemies is no more. The Emperor is back. Besides, Jean will be home soon.” She smiled at Louise expectantly.

“Yes, grandmother.” Louise tried her best to muster some enthusiasm to please her grandmother, but there was no fooling the old woman.

“What’s wrong?” she said, touching Louise’s rounded belly softly. “Your husband will be pleased about the baby. You know how much he wants children.”

Louise sighed, her shoulders drooping in trepidation. “Yes, except he’s been gone for fourteen months,” she whispered under her breath.

“What did you say, dear?” asked her grandmother and, when Louise didn’t reply, patted her hand, adding, “Come, Julie made dinner and we must celebrate tonight.”

“I’m not very hungry, grandmother. I think I will lie down,” said Louise sadly, wiping her tears away and kissing the old woman while outside the patriotic tunes of the Marseillaise were sung on every corner, only to be interrupted by frantic cries of “Vive l’Empreur.”

***

It was already dark when they entered Paris. The streets of the great city were swarming with overjoyed peasants, cheering bourgeois, countless soldiers and officers, women and children, all of them pushing, shoving, trying to touch the Emperor’s coach as it slowly meandered past, to catch a glimpse of him whom they loved so much and lamented for so long, every single one of them wishing to greet him, welcome him back to his realm and share the triumph of his unexpected, unprecedented, almost miraculous return. Jean watched as his friend Gerard, so bitter and disillusioned but a few short weeks ago, took a swig from an almost empty bottle of red wine and cried happily, “We did it! We made it to Paris!” His voice was soon lost in the murmur of the crowd that was becoming louder and louder, reaching the highest pitch as they approached the Tuileries.

As soon as the Emperor entered the palace, Jean said goodbye to his comrades who were determined to greet the dawn in one of the numerous Parisian taverns. He would have run home if the ever-increasing crowds didn’t slow him down; and as he made his way steadily through the singing, celebrating, quivering mass of people, horses and coaches, he clasped and unclasped his fists in impatient frustration.

All the lights were out in the building where he lived with Louise and her old grandmother, apart from a lonesome candle that trembled in their bedroom window. His hands shaking slightly, he entered, opening the door with his key and pausing at the top of the winding staircase to catch his breath before walking down the long corridor. The floorboards creaked. Once, twice. He wondered if Louise was expecting him, if she was awake, if she could sense his proximity, his closeness to her. When he reached their bedroom, he watched her through the doorway for a moment and – he couldn’t help it – his breath caught. He’s never seen her more stunning. She seemed to radiate health and beauty.

As if feeling his eyes on her, she turned around, saw him and cried out. Jumping up, she ran into his arms. “Jean, is it really you?” she whispered, tears running down her face.

He noticed instantly. There was no hiding her fuller figure, and suddenly her radiance and her surreal beauty made sense. For a moment he was disoriented, lost and dizzy, not only from his shocking realization but also from touching her, inhaling her scent, feeling her so close to him after dreaming of her for so long. Finally finding the strength that had momentarily abandoned him, he pushed her away, his eyes on her in silent reproach.

Seeing the darkened expression on his face, Louise stepped back and out of his reach, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “I’m so sorry,” she said dejectedly, unable to meet his eyes.

“How could you?” he said, his voice hoarse. “How could you do this?”

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” She reached out her hands to him pleadingly. “You were gone for so long. It was difficult for me.”

“Don’t make excuses. Who was he? Was it him? Was it Pierre?”

When she didn’t answer, he sank on their narrow bed, all his fury, all his anger evaporating and leaving in its place nothing but emptiness and hollow regret. “And I thought you were over him. I trusted you, both of you.”

“Please, Jean. Please forgive me! I waited for you every day, every hour, every minute, ever since you left. I love you.”

She tried to grab his hand but he pushed her away so hard that she fell on the floor. “You are nothing but a cheap tramp. You are no longer my wife. And he… He is no longer my brother!” Slamming the door, he stumbled out of the room and out of the house. As if in a drunken stupor, he hobbled down rue de Vaugirard that was still lit up in a thousand lights in celebration of Napoleon’s triumphant arrival.

June 1815

The fields of clover stretched as far as the eye could see, peaceful and tranquil in the humid summer air, as yet undisturbed by the breeze or by human foot. It was unlikely to remain so, thought Pierre, as he envisioned the bloody and devastating battle that was about to break out. After marching for fifteen hours without food or water, Pierre was exhausted. The village of Waterloo, only yesterday but a tiny spec on their campaign maps, spread out ahead of them; and somewhere nearby was the Allied army, the army that outnumbered them two to one. As he stood next to his comrades, a thin layer of mud covering his greatcoat, his trousers and his unadorned bearskins, he was ready for everything but his hands shook in uncontrollable but all too familiar fear. He’d been in many battles and this was the part that he disliked the most – the anticipation, cold sweat making the small hairs at the back of his neck stand up in eerie apprehension, his hands and legs slow and unresponsive as if glued to the ground by a lead weight.

The Emperor approached the left of the line and, dismounting, walked slowly from one regiment to the other. He stopped often, speaking to the officers, encouraging, praising, asking questions, and making suggestions. When he passed them, the men squared their shoulders and raised their heads, as if trying to appear taller and more formidable. All eyes were on their leader.

As Pierre watched Napoleon come closer and closer, his heart beat faster and he felt his own shoulders square and his own head rise involuntarily. When Napoleon reached Pierre, he paused, shiny buttons of his grey surtout reflecting the sun that barely broke through the early morning clouds. Pierre saluted him with his sword and the Emperor nodded his head in recognition. “I know you. You were with me at Wagram,” he said quietly, his face impassive and only the corners of his lips slightly touched by an indulgent smile.

Pierre looked around to see which of his comrades was fortunate to be thus addressed by the Emperor. But Napoleon’s eyes were on him. He blushed and stammered, “Yes, Sire, Your Majesty.”

With amusement Napoleon observed his soldier’s awed confusion. Finally, tweaking Pierre’s ear in his customary fashion, he chuckled, “With brave men such as yourself, all the armies of Europe combined couldn’t stop us. I am pleased with you and your regiment.”

The charge sounded, signaling the attack. Pierre quivered with impatience. At that moment, he was ready, no, more than ready, willing, to shed every drop of his blood for his Emperor.

***

Stalks of rye quivered in the rain. Tall and thick, their tops reached the men’s bonnets, slowing down their advance. Jean’s horse was killed under him in the very first clash with the enemy but he didn’t have time to mourn his old and faithful friend. As if swept off by a ferocious tempest, he felt his helpless body being lifted and dragged by the infernal tide of the battle; and no matter how much he resisted, no matter how hard he struggled, he was powerless to stop it. The roaring of cannon and musketry deafened him; although he could hear the shouts of his commanding officer, he couldn’t make out the words. Black smoke and flashing fire, the galloping of horses, both mounted and rider-less, the screams of wounded, and countless squares of soldiers moved at a nightmarish tempo, stupefying in its absurdity. Reloading his weapon, Jean was struck by the pandemonium and the pointless, unnecessary destruction that had taken over these usually calm and peaceful fields.

In the midst of the deadly scuffle, Jean perceived a lone French soldier surrounded by the enemy, fighting them off with what seemed like effortless zeal, moving to avoid their attacks and parrying the swords that relentlessly and incessantly cut at him. With sudden dismay, Jean recognized his brother. He watched Pierre pierce one of Wellington’s officers with his lance and, as if in slow motion, turn to face the two others, who circled him cautiously. It was then that another British soldier, mounted on a giant black horse, rode up to Pierre, raising his sword. “No,” cried Jean but his shout was swallowed by the mayhem that reigned all around him. Without pausing, without even thinking, he pressed his trigger and the rider slid off his horse which stumbled off, as if in shock, trampling his body under its hoofs. Jean reloaded and fired one more time. Another one of his brother’s opponents fell. Quick as lightning, Jean rushed to his brother’s side. Pierre was still fighting and he didn’t seem wounded. “Pierre,” shouted Jean but his brother didn’t hear him. Before Jean could reach his brother, the enemy sword pierced Pierre’s body and he collapsed with a loud sigh, while his opponent moved on and soon disappeared in the fiery dust that the fields of Waterloo had now become.

“Brother!” said Jean forlornly, kneeling by Pierre’s side, taking him in his arms, lifting him slowly, carefully, like a fragile porcelain doll, as if afraid that he would break the minute he touched him. Pierre was still breathing but his eyes were dull and blood was soaking through his greatcoat.

“Jean,” he whispered, his voice rasping. “Is it you?”

“Don’t speak,” said Jean quietly, biting his lips to stop his own voice from breaking and betraying his emotion. “Just hold on. We’ll get you to the tent. You’ll be safe there.”

Jean rose to call for help but Pierre’s hand squeezed his leg anxiously, stopping him in his tracks. Pierre’s skin felt clammy and cold. “I’m so sorry, brother. For everything,” he whispered.

“No, I’m sorry. It will be all right. You’ll be all right.” He spoke very fast, stroking his brother’s hand soothingly. Suddenly, seeing his brother’s eyes lose their focus, Jean cried, “Pierre, look at me!” Shaking his brother’s lifeless body, he shouted, “Pierre! No!” Tears were stinging his eyes and making him blink rapidly.

Clutching his brother to his chest, he stayed motionless for a long time, seemingly unaware of the battle that was unfolding on either side of them. Finally getting up, he made a sign of the cross over Pierre’s face. Screaming as if his very heart was pierced by a shot, he threw himself into the fray of the battle. He cut and thrust with his sword, oblivious to danger, almost craving and seeking it out wherever he went. A musket ball hit him, striking the massive scabbard of his sword and leaving nothing but a bruise on his hip. A cannon ball whizzed past and he felt the air around him move in a sudden heat wave, while men were falling dead and wounded all around him.

Nothing mattered, nothing at all, for his brother was dead.

May 1821

It was the first truly warm day in Paris and the city was busier than ever. People from different walks of life lined the streets, moving in all directions, talking and shouting, disregarding countless horse driven carriages that were forced to turn sharply to avoid pedestrians.

“Pierre, come over here,” said Jean to a small child, who instantly let go of his mother’s hand and turned to his father. Lifting him in his arms, Jean couldn’t believe how quickly he had grown. He bore his brother’s name and he had his brother’s eyes. Curiosity was written all over Pierre’s face as he observed the commotion around him.

“Papa, when can I ride a horse?” he demanded, his eyes on a group of riders at the corner of rue de Canettes.

“As soon as you are old enough,” answered Jean, lifting the child even higher so that he could see better.

“Did you ride horses when you were in the army?” Pierre asked, putting his arms around Jean’s neck and holding on as tightly as he could.

“I did ride many horses.” Jean smiled at his son.

“And were you scared in battle?”

“Yes, I was often scared.” Jean closed his eyes and let his mind wander. When he thought about that time, still as fresh in his memory as if it were yesterday, he could almost smell the gunpowder, could still hear the roaring grapeshot.

“Then why did you fight?” Pierre watched him with childish fascination.

“Most of us didn’t have a choice. But I fought for a principle, son.” Seeing the child’s uncomprehending face, he added, “One day you will know exactly what I mean.”

Suddenly a deafening blast pierced the peaceful afternoon, making Pierre shudder in alarm. “Papa, what is this noise?”

“It sounds like the cannon of Les Invalides are firing, son,” replied Jean, wondering what the cause of such an unusual event could be.

As he looked around him inquiringly, the tidbits of conversation reached him through the buzz of the crowd, disjointed words and sentences that didn’t make any sense at first, so shockingly absurd they seemed to him. Saint-Helena. The Emperor died in terrible sufferings. He died of a broken heart, sad and alone, said a tailor on Jean’s left. No, he was poisoned, said a merchant on his right. Yes, it was the royalists, said the tailor. No, it was that wretch, Hudson Lawe, argued the merchant. Oh, to die alone on a forsaken island, abandoned by the world that he once ruled but not forgotten, no, never to be forgotten, they said in unison.

Napoleon was dead. Could it be true, Jean thought and his heart beat fast and gloomy, no longer in his chest but in his throat. It was the end of an era. Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite the rumors that reached them from the island, through his daily life, while working and living and watching his son grow up, he always knew that Napoleon would come back once more. It was his one certainty, his one faith that was never darkened by a single doubt. More cannon shot thundered, announcing that this faith was forever gone. As if lost in a dream, he watched his wife’s face, only a minute ago happy in anticipation of a joyful family afternoon but now clouded with sadness. Smiling pensively, he took her hand in his and stroked it gently, while the twin towers of the church of Saint-Sulpice reflected the timid spring sunlight, making the shadows quiver in a tentative hesitant dance on the uneven Parisian cobblestones.

 

Copyright Svetlana Kortchik, 2012

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