Sunday 8 December 2019

The Ghosts of the Day: A New Short Story

As we approach the end of 2019, and to mark the 180th anniversary, this year, of the birth of photography, I am releasing this short story, which I wrote a few years ago.

The Ghosts of the Day.

Charles Bitry de Brullioles considered himself a connoisseur in all things, but he liked to keep distinct the varied compartments of his life, savouring the joys of each in its proper time and place. Generally in the mornings, when he left his apartment on the Place des Vosges, he would walk through the narrow, dark and crowded streets of Paris towards the Greek and Egyptian Museum in the palace of the Louvre, where he was engaged in the copying and translation of hieroglyphic inscriptions. On this June morning, however, he had agreed to do a favour for a friend, and he therefore made his way in the opposite direction.
His route took him along the broader boulevards towards a quartier that he normally visited only in the evenings, or on Sundays after Mass. The night’s soft rain had left a film of water on the pavement, which shimmered like quicksilver in the light of the ascending sun. The light dazzled him, momentarily, as he crossed the Rue Froissart, and he was grateful for the shade of the plane trees on the Boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire. One of his ancient great-aunts had spent her life as a “girl of the calvary,” a Benedictine nun in the convent that had once stood thereabouts. Thoughts of other girls, however, now intruded on his mind. He wondered how he would feel if he were to encounter, at this unaccustomed hour, one of the actresses or circus-girls with whom he had only recently spent an evening. He wondered, also, how they would respond to him.
The new market was crowded with people, and the costermongers were in full-cry. “Old clothes for sale!” “Who’ll buy a bonnet for eight sous?” “Pencils, sir, pencils!” “Sealing wax, wax, wax, wax!” Crouched on the pavement, a blind man with a parrot on his shoulder begged for alms. Charles reached into his pocket, took out a few sous and dropped them into the man’s lap. The bird squawked its thanks.
Charles quickened his pace as he walked past the theatres on the Boulevard du Temple. The Funambules, the Cirque Olympique, the Lazzari, the doors to all of them were firmly shut. Although there was a steady stream of people walking in both directions along the pavement, and noisy processions of phaetons, carts and barouches clattering over the cobbles of the road, the side-shows were all closed up and their barkers silenced. No stilt-walkers picked their way between the people gazing in fruiterers’ windows. No dancers peered down from the taut rope stretched high above them between buildings on either side of the road.

Theatres of the Boulevard du Temple, c 1862 (image is in the Public Domain).

Theatres of the Boulevard du Temple, c 1862, by Adolphe Martial Potemont (image is in the Public Domain).

What was new, however, was the smell of freshly baked bread. Charles felt someone brush against him. He looked around, and there was the queen of the rope-dancers, Madame Saqui herself, both feet planted on terra firma, and without her gaudy costume, her feather headdress or her make-up. She had just come out of a baker’s shop with a baguette in one hand and a basket of vegetables in the other. He had never been so close to her, and she was much older than he had imagined, her face wrinkled and eyes downcast.

Madame Saqui, from P. Ginisty (1907), Memoires d'une Danseuse de Cord, Private Publication (image is in the Public Domain).

He glanced beyond her, and his heart almost stopped. In the queue for the bakery were two younger women with whom he had enjoyed a much closer acquaintance, Arlette and Amandine, the two dwarves from the Funambules. Arlette smiled at him, but it was a quick, discreet smile, and she turned away immediately to talk to her sister, who seemed not to have noticed him at all. He hurried on his way.
Beside a water-pump on the street corner, a boot-black polished a man’s shoes.  Charles checked his pocket watch. It was five minutes to eight. He waited until the boy had finished and the man had paid. Then he approached the boy, who looked up at him.
“Do you want your shoes polished, Monsieur?”
Charles glanced down and saw a splash of white paint on the pavement beside the boy’s box. He nodded, and tapped the box twice with the tip of his cane. The boy’s mouth opened in a broad grin that revealed a missing front tooth. Charles put his right shoe up for the boy to polish.
“You don’t live round here, do you sir, but I have seen you before. Was it last Saturday?”
“No,” said Charles. “I don’t come here on Saturdays. I go to confession on Saturdays. I come here sometimes in the evenings, and on Sundays after Mass.”
The boy applied the polish, and then went to work with his brush. He was, Charles judged, about sixteen, with tanned skin and a mop of dark, wiry hair. His clothes were old, and did not fit him well, perhaps passed down from an older brother, but they were clean and unpatched.
“Have you always lived here?” Charles asked.
“No sir. We lived at Toulon, but my father was killed in the war in North Africa. That was when I was eight. My mother brought us to Paris to live with our uncle. At least it’s easier to find work here than it is at Toulon. If I ever go back it will be to join the Navy.”
The boy paused. “I think I’ve finished this shoe, sir.”
Charles bent down and whispered, “No, carry on.” Then he straightened his back and looked around him. Men and women passed close on both sides, brushing against his own back, and against the boy’s. One man stopped, and seemed to be looking at them. He whispered something to a dirty-faced boy. Charles had seen this man before. He had been dining at the Café Vincent with Estrella, one of the riders from the Cirque Olympique, and the man walked in. He remembered the look of fear on her face when she saw him. She had whispered his name, Barentin he thought it was, involved in extortion and the like. Charles felt his skin prickle.
“Shall I polish the other shoe now?” asked the boy.
Charles nodded, and shifted so that his left foot was on the box, keeping Barentin in view as closely as he dared without allowing his gaze to become obvious. He forced a smile and looked back at the boy. “Does your mother work?”
“When we first came she found work in a café, but then she fell sick, and after that she couldn’t find work. My sister and I have to take care of her now. Anne-Marie goes out to the market and buys some meat, she and mother make it into pies, and I sell them outside the theatres in the evening.”
That must have been where the boy had seen him. There were often pie-sellers hanging around as people left the theatre. He was always escorting someone to dinner, so had never bought one.
An old woman leaned across the boy to draw water from the pump. “Stupid place to set up your stall,” she muttered under her breath.
She threw water in the boy’s face, and he recoiled. Charles shooed her away with his cane. He turned again to the boy. “How many pies do you sell in an evening?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “Twenty on a good night, less than half of that if it’s raining.” He paused. “I think your shoes are done now.”
Charles checked his watch. Twenty minutes past eight. He searched around for Barentin, but he was nowhere to be seen. He looked down at his shoes, now polished as perfectly as a cuirassier’s boots. “Thank you.”
He took two silver écus from his pocket and placed them into the boy’s hand. The boy’s mouth fell open.
“Put them away,” Charles whispered urgently.
The boy put the coins into his trouser pocket and Charles turned to walk away, but the boy picked up his box and followed him, tugging at his coat.   “Please sir, I’m afraid. I don’t know what to do with coins like these. Someone will steal them.”
Charles seized the boy’s shoulder. He was about to tell him to pull himself together and get lost when he saw in the boy’s eyes the same look of terror that he had seen in Estrella when faced by Barentin. “Follow me,” he said, releasing his grip.
The cafés were not yet open for business but the door of the Café Vincent was ajar. Peering in, Charles saw the waitress, Colette, setting the tables. “She knows me well enough,” he thought. He turned to the boy. “In here.”
Colette walked towards them. “I’m afraid we don’t open until nine o’clock…oh, Monsieur Charles, I didn’t expect to see you!”
He doffed his hat to her. “Can we sit down in a corner? It’s important.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, pointing to a table at the back of the room.
The boy looked around in apparent amazement at the green marble columns and the large silvered mirrors hanging on the walls.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Colette asked.
“Two coffees, please,” said Charles then, looking at the boy, “I think he could do with something stronger. Can we have two cognacs as well?”
“What is your name?” Charles asked, hoping to put the boy at his ease.
“Gaston, sir.”
“Well, Gaston, let me have those coins back for a moment.”
Gaston placed them on the table and, when Colette came back with the drinks, Charles asked if she would exchange them for bronze coins.
“How many are there?” Gaston asked when she brought them to the table in a bowl.
“Two hundred and forty sous in total,” said Charles, “but these are two-sol coins, so a hundred and twenty. Now put some in each of your pockets….” he took a cotton handkerchief from his pocket, “and wrap some in this and put them in your box, and take them all home. Don’t walk around with them any more than you have to. Buy enough polish to last you a year, and buy some laces to sell to people. Shoelaces always break at the most inconvenient moment. You could buy other things to sell, too. Combs, for example, dog collars, I don’t know….”  
Gaston beamed at him over the table.
Charles lifted his brandy glass in a toast. Gaston clinked his glass, then took a large gulp and spluttered.
“My God, that’s no way to drink cognac,” said Charles. “Russians drink like that, Frenchmen don’t! Sip it, like this.”
Imitating Charles, Gaston twirled his glass, then took a sip, smaller this time, and smiled. “Is this what gentlemen drink?”
Charles laughed. “You don’t have to be a gentleman to drink it, but be careful. It’s strong, and the more you drink the more you want. I’ve seen men drink their way through more écus, in the space of a single evening, than you have sous in your box and pockets.” He did not say, as he might have done, that he had occasionally done so himself.
When they had finished their drinks, Charles settled the bill and shook hands with Gaston, and they went their separate ways, Gaston to stash his money safely, Charles hoped, and he himself towards the Louvre and his inscriptions. He had not walked more than a few metres, however, when he caught sight of Estrella on the other side of the road. There was no mistaking her sleek, black hair. She was walking arm in arm with one of the strongmen from the circus, an absurd caricature of a man, Charles thought, with biceps that seemed to have a life of their own, and a moustache and sideburns without a beard. At first he was shocked, but he realised quickly enough that he had neither right nor reason to be. They appeared to be deep in conversation, and he walked on quickly, hoping that she had not spotted him, or at least that she might not have realised that he had noticed her.
A dark shadow of guilt descended on Charles as he walked away, and he was not sure why. It was not about the way he had treated the people of the Boulevard. After all, he had treated Gaston kindly, plied Estrella with Champagne fit for a queen, practically drowned Arlette and Amandine in the finest vintages of the most noble wines. Perhaps it was more a sense that, on this particular morning, he had impinged upon their world at a time when he had no business being there, seen into corners of it that they had not chosen to show him. It felt like spying on a woman through a keyhole. He knew very well that he would not welcome them strolling into the Louvre when he was discussing inscriptions with Monsieur le Comte de Forbin, or taking their places next to him at the table d’hote at the Brussels Hotel. He quickened his pace, anxious to return to his own daytime world.  

Charles spent the rest of the day with his inscriptions, had a brief conversation with Monsieur le Comte, and took lunch, as usual, at the Brussels Hotel, where he enjoyed the convivial company of a retired colonel who had fought for the emperor in the shadow of the pyramids themselves.

Le Musee de Louvre (in the background are the ruins of the church of St-Louis-de-la-Louvre, destroyed during the French Revolution), by Etienne Bouhot (1822), Musee Carnavalet (image is in the Public Domain).

He walked back to his apartment on the Place des Vosges and was not surprised when his valet handed him a note from his friend, the artist, Louis Daguerre, inviting Charles to call on him later that evening. Charles had done a small favour for this friend, though he did not quite understand what it had all been about, and he was intrigued to know more. Louis was as much a showman as he was an artist, and enjoyed his little secrets and surprises. Charles read the letter once more. Louis would send a hired carriage to wait for him at seven o’clock.  
When the carriage arrived, Charles asked the driver not to go along the boulevards, but to take the longer route past the church of St Elisabeth of Hungary. The “Boulevard of Crime” had, at least for the moment, lost its lustre in his eyes. Louis’ house in the Rue des Marais was scarcely more than a stone’s throw away from it, yet it was in a different world.
The door was open, and Louis came out onto the street to greet him.  A squat man with a thick moustache, and a mass of curly hair falling over his collar, Louis smiled broadly and held his arms apart to embrace him. With Louis’ hand on Charles’s shoulder, they entered the hallway.
Madame Daguerre came down the stairs beaming. “Bonsoir, Monsieur,” she said. “My dear Louis has been pacing up and down for an hour, waiting for you to arrive. We have a bottle of Champagne on ice he ordered specially.”
“Oh,” said Charles, “and what is it we are celebrating?”
“But of course, I must show him!” Louis held out his hands to take his wife’s and, gently pulling her towards himself, kissed her on the lips. “We will join you in a few minutes. I will take our friend down to the laboratory.”  He gestured towards the spiral staircase leading down to what Charles had always assumed to be the wine-cellar.
“What need has an artist of a laboratory?” Charles asked.
“You will see, mon vieux. You will see.”
As they descended the iron stairs, strange alchemical smells rose up to greet them in clouds so thick they were almost visible. They had a dizzying effect on Charles. He trusted his friend, but felt like Dante following Virgil into the infernal regions.
Candles were set around the basement room, by the light of which Charles could make out shelves of glass flasks, some empty, others filled with yellow and purple liquids. A large leather-bound book lay open on the table beside a silver candelabrum.
Louis thrust into Charles’s hand a flat sheet of copper, the size of a small painting. It shone and shimmered in the candlelight. He jabbed his finger at it excitedly. “There you are, my friend, trans-fi-gu-ré…like Christ himself!”
Charles leaned over the table, holding the metal towards the candle-flame. At first he saw nothing but, as he turned it, patterns emerged, lines and veins, as on polished marble. He looked more closely, and the patterns resolved themselves into the outlines of buildings. They were not just any buildings. This was an engraving, or something like an engraving, showing the view at the top end of the Boulevard du Temple, but the road was entirely free of traffic and the pavements devoid of people. The Boulevard was never like that, not even at the dead of night.

View of the Boulevard du Temple, by Louis Daguerre, 1838 or 1839 (image is in the Public Domain).

A photographic laboratory of c 1840, reconstructed at the Musee Niepce, Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, Burgundy (image is in the Public Domain).

He looked at Louis. “How am I ‘transfigured?’ I’m not even there!”

Louis laughed. Then he reached into a drawer and pulled out a magnifying glass. “Look more closely, mon ami.”
Charles peered through the glass.
“What do you see now?” asked Louis.
He could now make out the water-pump on the corner of the road and, beside it, his own image, with one foot placed on Gaston’s box. Gaston was largely hidden by the pump, but Charles could clearly see his own frock-coat and low-crowned hat.

Detail of the picture above.
“But I don’t understand,” he protested. “The street was full of people and the road was crowded with carts and carriages. There was an old woman leaning over to draw water from the pump, and….”
“They are all there,” said Louis, with a flick of his hand, “but they are ghosts, in broad daylight! You and the boy are the only ones captured because you were the only ones who remained more or less still for fifteen minutes, just as I asked you to. But let us take it upstairs and join Louise. She hasn’t seen it yet.”
A tune was playing on the pianino as they climbed the stairs, which Charles did not recognise. Perhaps Madame Daguerre had composed it herself. She stopped playing as they came in, and stood up to greet them. Louis opened the champagne and poured them each a glass. They sat down around the table.
“To the new art of…heliography,” said Louis, raising his glass.
“Were you impressed by this ‘miracle’ he showed you?” asked Madame Daguerre.
“Very much so,” said Charles. “He must have been working on this for a long time?”
Madame Daguerre sighed loudly. “Night and day for more than three years. He hardly talks about anything else, and barely comes to bed at all!”
Charles said nothing, but was surprised since, with him, Louis rarely spoke of anything but painting. The Comte de Forbin considered him one of the greatest painters since Claude, and his works hung all around the room in which they sat. It is strange how people have different existences. Louis Daguerre the artist and Louis Daguerre the alchemist. Charles Bitry the epigrapher and Charles Bitry the philanderer.
“Well, here it is,” said Louis, handing the plate to his wife, “and I promise not to talk about it at all tomorrow. We shall dine at Le Rocher de Cancale.”
As she examined the plate, Louis got up and fetched the device with which it was created, showing it to Charles. It was a mahogany box with a ground-glass lens at one end, and a slot for the copper plate at the other. The “magic,” apparently, lay in the iodine of silver used to coat the plate before it was placed in the device, and the mercurial vapours, sulphur and soda to which it was exposed afterwards.
“I didn’t make it here,” said Louis, pointing to his studio window. “I was across the road, standing on the roof.”
Madame Daguerre put the copper plate back on the table, and Charles picked it up to look at it again.
“You know,” said Louis, “you are the first person in the world to be captured in this way.”
“Someday, this will hang in the Museum of Drawings in the Louvre,” Charles replied, “but I would rather the world didn’t know it was me.”
Louis shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody in the world knows that except the three of us, and we will not reveal it. People may speculate, and some may even invent things, but we will take the secret with us to our graves.”
Charles examined the picture closely. A captive of the light, he was alone among the invisible ghosts. He saw his coat and hat, yet he might as well be naked. Alone as he must expect to be on judgement day, and as small as he would surely seem in the gaze of his creator. Nobody else would be there to answer or plead for him. Not Arlette, Amandine, Estrella; nobody. How could they, when he had moved through their lives as swiftly as they themselves had walked along the boulevard that morning? The light, at least, had revealed that to him.
“What did you make of the boy,” Louis asked.
Charles laughed. “He’s never had so much money in his hands, that’s for sure. He doesn’t live in a world of francs and écus, only in a world of sous. I doubt he’s literate, but he seems intelligent. He was not dealt a great hand in the casino of life, but he seems to be playing it well enough.”
A smile spread across Louis’ face. “He polished my shoes last week, and that’s what I thought, too.” He pointed at the mahogany box. “This is going to change the world. I’m having breakfast on Wednesday with a man who thinks we can sell the idea to the government for 300,000 francs. I think we can make more on our own. But we would need to train people to use the apparatus. We don’t need literate men who would write it all down and sell it to someone else. We need intelligent men who have never seen the sort of money that will come from all of this. I wish I could talk to that boy now. I’m in a position to deal him an ace if he’s willing to play it.”
Charles picked up the copper plate and examined it once again. Despite appearances, he was not altogether alone in the image. Gaston was there, even if he was hidden by the pump. Charles rose to his feet. “I think I know where I can find him.”
“At this hour?”
“Yes, this is just the hour to find him. He sells pies outside the theatres.”
“Surely we can leave this until tomorrow?” Madame Daguerre protested.
“But no, Madame,” Charles insisted, “for your husband has promised every moment of tomorrow to you, and we must hold him to it! I can’t teach the boy how to use the apparatus, but I can show him how a picture is composed. I don’t suppose he’s ever really looked at pictures, certainly not with the eyes of an artist.” He glanced at the bottle sitting in the ice-bucket on the table. “I don’t suppose he’s ever tasted Champagne either. Let’s save him a glass.”
“But we haven’t even offered you anything to eat,” said Madame Daguerre.
Charles put on his hat. “If I do manage to find the boy, we may come back with some pies. If we are taking him away from his work it would be churlish not to buy them from him.”

Outside, in the Rue des Marais, a single star shone brilliantly in the fading violet light of the 

early evening sky. Charles Bitry de Brullioles strode with purpose towards the Boulevard du 

Temple, not to take his pleasures but to offer what help he could.    


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. There was sychronicity for me reading this. I had just been to a photographic exhibition at Compton Verney. It's a delightful short story