1636 The Atlantic Encounter – Snippet 17

Chapter 10

Paris was a long way from hilly Alsace where he had grown up, but it called to him from his youth. Youngest of eight children, there was nothing on the family farm to keep him there — not working in the vineyards nor cultivating hops (his papa used to say, “wine and beer — everyone drinks at least one”) nor herding goats. He was not made out to be a monk, and there was no money to do much else. So, when he was seventeen, he left home and set out for the city.

Nothing motivates quite like privation. Paris had lots of hungry, desperate people in the spring of 1634, and a country boy from Alsace was more than likely going to become a victim, prey rather than predator. But Stephane had learned a few things as the youngest of eight: when to be seen and when to be silent; how to avoid a beating if there was one to be given out, whether at fault or not; and how to make sure there was always a portion for him for dinner.

He was agile; he was nimble; he knew how to hide, and soon to steal and to deceive. There were plenty of small-time gangs in the rabbit-warren streets of Paris who welcomed someone like that. One of them, a one-eyed rag pedlar named Marcel, took him in and within a week had him out on the street doing odd jobs, with the victims mostly men and women much like himself — except that they were unsuspecting and easy prey.

Marcel himself was only incidentally a rag pedlar. After the sun went down, he and his little band retired to a bolt-hole not far from the sprawling marketplace at Les Halles and divided the spoils of the day. To his credit, Marcel took a large share, but allowed his operatives to keep a fair amount for themselves; and no one, no matter how poor their take, went hungry or cold. He inspired loyalty among his boys — and got it: Marcel was careful, paying the needed bribes, protecting them all from the constabulary, never aiming too high to attract the attention of the mighty, nor troubling the poorest who would have nothing to lose by turning them in.

It was, as Marcel pointed out, a good and healthy relationship. The rag pedlar made sure to light the occasional candle to the Blessed Virgin to thank Her for his good fortune, their little hideaway an island of calm in a sea of want.

It was easy now, at two years’ remove, to look upon that time with fondness; Marcel’s ‘family’ only stole from those who were already well enough off to afford it. For a time, Stephane even thought that he might graduate to some legitimate profession, as a few of the other ‘boys’ had done. But even if that hadn’t happened, it was a comfortable enough life, better than anything that had awaited him in Alsace.

It all came to an end one warm summer evening.

* * *

Stephane was just coming from his usual place near the Pont Royal, where he entertained passersby with sleight of hand and juggling tricks, while his partners worked the crowd and slit the convenient purse. They’d split up: they always did, taking care as they made their way back to the safe house. Flushed with success he’d allowed himself a stop at a pastry cart in Les Halles, where he’d bought a sou’s worth of fruit-filled tart; he still remembered its sweetness, of confit and honey, how it had smelled so wonderful and tasted so delicious. Marcel would not mind a sou spent thus, especially with the number of sous he was bringing home.

But he never brought them home. As he made his way through the covered markets, following one of a dozen paths that would lead him there, he smelled fire — and heard shouts and cries.

At first he thought it might be just spilled cooking grease, the sort of small fire that happened all the time in the markets; but as he came closer he saw that it was larger, hotter, and more out of control.

From twenty yards away he knew that the fire was more than just a cook fire, and that the place where his ‘family’ had lived was in the midst of it. Ten yards closer, and he noticed — with the keen senses he’d developed from the Paris streets — that there was a great number of constables moving around in the crowd, which was mostly trying to get away from the fire.

He had turned away then, knowing that there was no place for him to go home to.

At the time, he thought he’d done a good job of mixing with the people trying to get away from Les Halles, just another poor Parisian sod in the crowd. There was nothing that would have — or should have — distinguished him. He had never attracted attention — never stepped outside the bounds that Marcel had set, never done anything that set him apart, made him a person of interest.

Except that someone had been interested in him.

He did not make it out of Les Halles that day. He knew every path through the marketplace, but so did the constables. They found him, seized him against his protests of innocence, and brought him to the Prison de l’Abbaye, the new one next to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; without explanation they tossed him into a crowded, dark cell at the rear of the second floor. The slamming of the iron-bound door and the turning of the key in the lock closed the door on the life he had known since coming to Paris.

* * *

They left him in that cell with a half-dozen others, all of whom protested their innocence frequently and loudly enough that one of the keepers came into the cell and laid about him with a truncheon. Stephane had found a corner to the left of the cell entrance, where he feigned sleep, and only got a sharp poke in the chest — he reacted with a whoof and collapsed to the floor clutching his midsection and was afterward left alone. It was no worse than anything his older brothers had dealt out as he was growing up, and much less severe than the beating some of his cellmates received, the guard taking obvious delight in dealing it out.

He found a way not to be seen, not to be noticed, not to be bothered. He wondered at the time if that meant that he’d be left to rot in the Prison de l’Abbaye for whatever crime they decided he’d committed. Sleight of hand and juggling, or even the occasional cutpursing, didn’t usually send you there. But there he was.

Two days after landing in the cell, two sunsets and sunrises later, they came for him. The guards that took him out didn’t seem to know his name: they picked him out as the youngest and the smallest man in the cell. He was beckoned to follow — not picked up and roughly handled: it was just, “eh, le mec, vous là-bas, venez avec nous.”

He went with them. It was not as if he were given a choice, but there was some illusion of courtesy, some vague notion that they were instructed to treat him gently. When in a situation like that one, it was best to cling to whatever there was, no matter how thin the reed might be.

They took him to a room on the third floor, one much more clean and neat than the place they’d left him. There was a table and two chairs, a bottle of wine, two cups, and a loaf of bread on the table, along with a leather pouch and a pipe with a long, carved stem. He wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to eat and drink: after two days of the brownish slop that was all they’d been fed, the idea of a cup of wine and bread was almost too much for him. He was never sure afterward what kept him from it — perhaps natural streetwise suspicion.

He left it alone, instead pacing out the dimensions of the room, glancing out the tall, barred window at the city beyond, wondering what was going to happen next.

They didn’t make him wait long: a single toll of a nearby church bell — fifteen minutes at the most — and the door swung open again to reveal a middle-aged man, conservatively dressed in dark hues. What Stephane noticed first was the man’s hands: long-fingered, a scholar’s hands, with the faintest ink-stain where the pen would be held, and no rings or adornment whatsoever. In fact, he had no badge or mark of office at all; it was as if he designed to blend into the background — much like Stephane preferred for himself.