A Lady in Shadows
It was an unusually hot and torpid night in June. Every window in the house had been left open, not just the ones overlooking our small rooftop garden, but those facing Carmelite Street as well, and yet not a breeze stirred. I lay dozing with only a sheet across me, but the heat made it difficult to fall deeply asleep.
Something was happening in the city. I could hear a faint murmuring unease, distant shouts, dogs barking, hoofbeats. A certain curiosity nudged my drowsiness. What had happened? Great disasters, great defeats, great victories . . . it had to be something like that, something that could move many people at once.
Oh, Lord. Had war broken out again?
Now wide awake, I listened carefully. The commotion was drawing nearer. There were footfalls and voices in our street now, so hushed that I could not distinguish any words, and yet somehow a sense of anxiety and anger seemed to communicate itself through the rising accents. Doors slammed. In the house across the way, the lights came on.
I sat up. Even as I did so, I heard steps immediately below my window, and then someone knocked rapidly at our door.
My father was away, he had been called to Saint Bernardine to do emergency surgery on a little boy who had been kicked in the head by a horse. Instead, Elise Vogler was staying over, sleeping on a cot in the living room as she so often did when he was not here. For some reason, no one seemed to believe that I was capable of sleeping alone in the house.
There was another knock—a long, insistent series of small, hard raps.
I leaned out the window and thought I recognized our neighbor, Madame Vogler.
“Elise,” I called. “It’s your mother.”
I threw a shawl around my shoulders, out of consideration for propriety rather than any need to cover myself from the chill, and went downstairs to see what Madame Vogler wanted.
She was no more properly dressed than I. A skirt, to be sure, but under her shawl the blouse was no blouse at all, merely a sleeveless nightgown, and her blond hair, usually neatly pinned, hung limply down her back in a long braid. Her face was entirely dissolved into tears.
“Madeleine,” she said, even though she rarely called me by my first name anymore. “Dear Lord, it is a terrible thing.”
“What has happened?” I asked.
When the answer came, it hit me like a blow to the chest.
“Someone has murdered the president.”
Madame Vogler was right. The president of the Third Republic, Marie François Sadi Carnot, had been stabbed by an Italian anarchist. The details reached us gradually. That Sunday, President Carnot had begun what was intended to be a three-day sojourn in Lyon to attend the great national exhibition being held there. After a banquet in his honor, he had just set off in the landau that was to take him to a gala performance at Lyon’s theater. The vehicle was surrounded by cheering crowds who broke into “The Marseillaise” when they caught sight of the popular president. A young man made his way toward the carriage, waving a piece of paper that most people presumed was a petition of some kind. The cheering and tumult may have been a source of distraction for the president’s escorts because the young man, Sante Geronimo Caserio, succeeded in reaching the landau without being stopped. He leaped onto the carriage step, clinging to the door with his left hand, and plunged the knife with his right, hitherto hidden by the paper, into the president’s stomach.
The prefect from the Rhone district, Monsieur Riveaud, felled the young Italian with a single blow, but by then it was too late. The knife had penetrated the president’s liver, and the internal bleeding could not be stopped. Some hours later, at twelve forty-five in the morning, the president of the Republic was declared dead.
The authorities sought to prevent the news from spreading too rapidly by stopping all telegrams dealing with the president’s tragic plight, but there were enough phones in France now for this to be a forlorn effort. Varbourg Gazette had the first broadsheet on the street shortly after midnight—while the president still lived—and could cite the préfecture’s latest bulletin: “The president’s condition is critical, but far from hopeless. The wound is in the liver region. The bleeding, which at first was profuse, has now been stopped.” Varonne Soir was slightly less timely, but more precise: “THE PRESIDENT MURDERED” shouted the succinct headline, above the scant details about his assassin that sufficed to ignite the spark of xenophobic rage even in peaceful Varbourg: He was an anarchist, and he was Italian.
That night, in the major cities of France, few people slept. Varbourg was no exception. Around the Italian consulate in Rue Picaterre, an agitated crowd had gathered, and the gendarmes had to be called in to protect the blameless office workers who lived and worked there. Several of them were not even Italian, but merely locals earning a living, stamping travel documents and expediting export permissions.
Madame Vogler made us coffee.
“I do hope the Doctor does not try to come home,” she said. She almost always called my father “the Doctor,” as if there was only the one in all the world. “It is not safe to walk the streets tonight!”
Going to bed was unthinkable. I was reminded of childhood summer visits with my aunt and uncle in the country. When there
was a thunderstorm, everyone—from the smallest child to the oldest farmhand—would sit in the kitchen until the storm had passed, and my aunt and the kitchen maid would make coffee and put out bread and cheese. I remembered feeling indulged and anxious at the same time. It was exciting and unusual to be allowed to stay up so late and eat with the grown-ups, but also frightening with the thunder rolling and crashing overhead. The sudden pale flashes made the faces around the table appear stark and unfamiliar.
Madame Vogler, Elise, and I gathered in the salon, drinking our own “thunder coffee” while we waited for the human storm outside to subside.
Around four in the morning, there was a boom very close by, with a tinkling echo of glass falling to the ground.
“What was that?” Elise asked anxiously.
“I don’t know.” I got up, opened one of the windows, and leaned out to look. On Carmelite Street, there was nothing to be seen, but . . . did I smell smoke?
“Mademoiselle, be careful . . .” Madame Vogler was on her feet as well.
“Yes, yes.” Definitely smoke, but not the comforting kind from fireplaces and hearths. This was a hostile reek—black, bitter, and acrid—and in the windows at the end of the street, I saw the reflected glow of flames.
“Someone has set fire to something,” I said. “In Rue Perrault.”
“Sweet Mary and Jesus,” whispered Madame Vogler with quiet sincerity. “It’s not a house, is it?”
“Perhaps it is just a bonfire . . . ,” I suggested. I was too young to remember the Paris Commune and the unrest of 1871, yet I had some vague memory-like flashes of barricades and fires in the streets, which my imagination must have created from the stories I had heard. Such things seemed to me to accompany riots and outrage and public unrest.
“Oh no. I hope they light no fires here . . . ,” said Elise.
There was yet another boom from Rue Perrault, and all at once the crowds came surging around the corner and down Carmelite Street. Our narrow, peaceful alley was suddenly filled by a tangled darkness. It was not possible to distinguish one darkly clad figure from the next, and I saw only a black wave, broken in glimpses by a flaming torch here, a hatless head there, and a lone upturned face, mouth open, like a drowning man gasping for air.
“Find them!” roared a mouth somewhere in the maelstrom. “Those bastards are not getting away from us!”
There was pounding on doors—ours as well. I had instinctively pulled back from the window already, and now Madame Vogler slammed it shut so hastily that there was a squeak of protest from hinges and hasps. But someone had seen me, apparently.
“Open up!” a second voice roared. “We’ll get those murdering bastards, you just see if we don’t!”
My heartbeat accelerated abruptly, and I felt a bitter dryness in my mouth. What murderers? It was absurd. They could hardly imagine that we were sheltering someone who had anything to do with the assassination. Or could they? There was a madness, an irrational violence in the shouts, the torches, the heavy fists that pounded on not just our door but also on random doors and windows down the entire street.
“Death to the anarchists!” someone shouted. “Death to the traitors!”
“We aren’t anarchists,” whispered Elise. “What do they want?”
“I don’t think they mean us in particular,” I said. “I just think we happen to live in the wrong place . . .” I had realized that it might be the neighborhood itself that they wanted to wreak their vengeance on. It wasn’t a purely working-class community; tradesmen and accountants and other families of the lower bourgeoisie lived here too, but in the old, narrow medieval streets,
rents were considerably lower than along the boulevards in the city’s modern center just a stone’s throw away, which was also the reason my father and I lived here. And it was true that in Rue des Maisoniers a few streets away, there was a dilapidated half-timbered building that housed a Socialist society with its own printing press, but that had never caused us any trouble before now.
A flat crack echoed between the houses, and then another. The sound sent a galvanic spasm of fear through my entire body.
“Was that a shot?” gasped Madame Vogler.
“I’m afraid so.” I hoped with all my heart that no one told Papa about the trouble here, or he would undoubtedly try to come home. I could barely stand the thought. Although the fractures he had suffered in the spring were more or less healed, he still could not walk without limping, and it seemed to me that in the press and surge of the crowds, his fragile body must inevitably be trampled and broken like a dry twig run over by a wagon wheel.
Shots. Though I was attempting to maintain my composure for the sake of Madame Vogler and Elise, the fearful jerk that had shuddered through my body at both the first and the second had no doubt been visible.
“It’s probably just some hothead shooting into the air,” I said, a little too late to maintain the relaxed and carefree demeanor I had meant to present. Not so long ago, someone had shot at me, deliberately and with the intention to kill, and certain natural reflexes were still hard to restrain. I turned away from the window to get my impulses under control and instead caught a pale flash in the French doors that led out to the little courtyard garden my mother had established on the flat roof of the kitchen many years ago.
For a second—no, a fraction of a second—I simply tried to make sense of what I had seen. Was it the lights in the salon that
had created a peculiar reflection, or perhaps a bird, or a wayward scrap of paper caught in the wind?
Then I could not hold back a scream.
A face. A bloody face right outside the window, cupped by two bloody hands. A gaping, gasping mouth and two staring eyes wilder than those of a crazed horse.
Madame Vogler turned and screamed as well, but more quietly. One might think she had seen a mouse, not that she was about to be attacked by a madman. I think she recognized him almost at once in spite of the blood and the wild look. I realized who it was only some moments later when he knocked lightly on the pane with one hand, surprisingly politely, considering the circumstances.
It was Geraldo, dishwasher and errand boy at Chez Louis, the little bistro where my father and I usually went for dinner. Less than eight hours ago, we had been comfortably seated in the wicker chairs under the awning, enjoying an excellent coq au vin.
“Oh, the poor soul,” exclaimed Madame Vogler, and I hurriedly opened the garden door.
Geraldo all but fell into my arms.
“Thank you,” he sobbed, his speech wheezing and blurred. “Merciful Madonna, thank you.”
I was not his “merciful Madonna,” but his gaze clung to me almost as if I had somehow interceded on his behalf and saved him from a fate worse than death.
“What happened?” I asked. “Elise, get me some bandages and a basin. Is that kettle still hot?”
“Devils,” gasped the wounded young man. “They were like devils. Shouting, screaming at us, calling us murderers, but they were the ones who wanted to kill. What is it they think we have done? We did not kill the poor president.”
“Sit down,” I said, and arranged for him to be seated as closely as possible to the lamp. There was so much blood that at first it
was difficult to determine the extent of the damage, but it looked as if most of it was coming from a lesion on the forehead, right above his left eyebrow.
“We had to flee across the roof,” he said. “Monsieur Marco went back when he had helped me down the wall. He took a washing line from one of the lofts . . . I was so afraid it would break.”
“Where is Monsieur now?” Marco had become the owner of Chez Louis some years ago and had chosen to let the restaurant keep its more French-sounding name. Still, someone had apparently known that he had Italian roots.
“He stayed. He said . . . he said he had to keep an eye on the restaurant.”
That sounded worrisome, but there was nothing we could do for our plump little café host now, other than hope and pray.
When I had washed the blood away, a cut was revealed that was almost nine centimeters long but luckily not all that deep.
“It needs stitching,” I said. “Would you allow me to do it, or would you prefer to wait for my father?”
His eyes widened again into the wild stare that had made his arrival so frightening.
“Will it hurt?” he asked.
I thought quickly. We had a little ether, but it was probably better and safer to use nitrous oxide.
“Have you heard of laughing gas?” I asked.
He nodded. “I was at a variety show once, in Napoli.” It was as if the recollection of his home sapped his last strength, and his lips, plump and full like a child’s, began to quiver. “People could pay to come up on stage and try it, but I did not have the money . . .”
“Under the influence of the gas, you will not feel pain,” I assured him. “You will probably just find my stitching entertaining. Afterward, the pain will be significantly reduced.”
“Then . . . I would be grateful if it could happen quickly.”
I brought him down to the laboratory. The sight of glass beakers, Bunsen burners, and our ancient microscope unfortunately did nothing to calm his fears, but it was much easier to create sterile conditions here where the tiles, tables, and floor could be wiped down with alcohol or sprayed with carbolic acid.
I prepared the gasbag, filled a test tube with ammonium nitrate, and placed it over the Bunsen burner. The gas bubbled up through a water-filled rubber hose and gradually filled the bag.
“Please have a seat,” I said to my tense patient and indicated the long zinc-topped workbench. It was not the first time it had served as an operating table. Geraldo hauled himself up to sit obediently, if somewhat nervously.
“Breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose,” I said, and held the mouthpiece of the gasbag toward him. “Can you manage that?”
He nodded. Silence descended while we watched Geraldo’s breathing. His concentration on the mouthpiece was so intense it made him squint almost comically, but he settled visibly right away. I did not think this was solely the effect of the gas—it was as if the effort to control his respiration in itself had a calming effect.
“You may lie down now,” I said. “But continue to breathe through the mouthpiece.”
He was slow now and beginning to show the effects of the nitrous oxide. Elise and I had to help him get his legs up on the table, and Madame Vogler folded a clean cloth and placed it under his head.
“Elise,” I said, “you have to hold the bag.”
Elise nodded. She had grown used to assisting with various emergency procedures, though it was the first time she had stood in as an anesthetist. That was usually my responsibility when my father performed surgery at home.
I stitched the cut with care, but also as swiftly as I was able. The shorter the anesthesia, the milder the aftereffects. Geraldo was humming as I stitched. Occasional words emerged from the humming, luckily in Italian, because based on Geraldo’s own giggles, I sensed that the content might not have been entirely appropriate.
“Thank you,” I said to Elise and her mother, once I was satisfied with my work. “Would you open the window and give us some fresh air?” I took the now deflated gasbag from Elise. She let go only reluctantly.
“May I try?” she asked. “They say it is hilarious.”
I shook my head. “It is for medicinal use only. Regardless of what Geraldo may have witnessed at the variety show, no one should inhale this for fun.”
I bandaged the wound with surgical gauze treated with carbolic and felt quite uplifted and satisfied with the results of my effort. There was, I felt, a good chance that the cut would heal without infection and leave only a faint scar.
I had been so intent on my task that the disturbance outside and my worry about my father had receded from my awareness. Now both reasserted themselves. Through the open window we could still hear shouting and noise and the tinkling of broken glass, though it sounded more distant here than upstairs in the salon.
Geraldo had stopped singing. He raised his hand to his forehead, but I caught it before he could touch the bandage.
“Please remain still. Do not attempt to sit up before you are ready,” I admonished him.
The effect of the gas was fading, but he was not yet quite himself.
“Mamma,” he moaned in his own soft native tongue. “I want to go home . . .”
Two days later, he did just that, with an admonishment to see a doctor in ten days and have the stitches removed. Marco did not dare keep him in town, or even in the country, given the current atmosphere. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. The long, tumultuous night might have been coming to an end, but the day had barely begun.