Napoleon, the Virgin

napoleoncropped

22 November 1787

Dark winter had a hold. It loomed over Paris like night over day and the city’s little insignificant souls scurried to the warmth all over. Many faces amongst the scurrying souls were lonely as they come and lonelier still if you searched among the faces in the Palais Royal, for that is where you go in need of company.

Among those lonely faces a young man, boyish, walked about in long strides with his hands deep in his near-empty pockets thinking of his small society and small value. He walked between bright lights that cast long shadows in the bowls of his wan cheekbones. So short and white and unprepossessing was he that he would have done well to be noticed by anybody – and he rarely was. He may just have well been a ghost. He did not feel the cold but the cold did try. It danced in a cloud about his lips as he looked around curiously. He saw the cafés Mécanique, with their round tables that forced out mocca through the hollow leg in the middle, and debated whether or not to spend his small money this way. In the deliberation his mind was rendered numb by the invading force of winter. He continued into the arcades and towards a café.

At the entrance, however, our hero stopped. Something made him stop and, not knowing exactly what it was, he turned to that something with great curiosity. Something was a woman. She was a woman with a good figure, a young woman. She was clearly a prostitute.

Our poor lonely hero looked at her a while and in her turn she stopped to look back at him. He was moralistic. He found such women detestable and could not recall a time when a feeling other than scorn was aroused by looks shared with one of their type. But now he was speechless at this whore’s grace. Her blanched skin turned purely white in the light and her thick mass of dark hair about her head never ended but reached out into the far corners of the night. She was to him a dream on legs with life and breath. She was to him of perfect vice.

Our hero said to himself, ‘she will share interesting information or she’s just a blockhead.’ But it was above all her fragility that drew his conversation.

‘You’re going to catch cold,’ he said. ‘How can you bear to walk in the arcades?’

And she returned softly, ‘Ah, sir, I keep on hoping. I have to finish my evening’s work.’ She was calmly indifferent in her response to him and this he liked. He began to walk humbly beside her.

‘What is your name?’ he asked.

‘Caroline.’

He thought hard for a second as he studied her before saying decidedly, ‘I will call you Emma.’ And they walked a little way side by side enjoying what there was plenty to see. She did not look at him but at the surroundings. For him there was only blurs of golden flashes of light, reds, blues, and blacks came too from the other places but really there was only her. He studied closely her hands that were embraced in one another palely like streams of colliding milk.

‘You don’t look very strong,’ he said. ‘I’m surprised you are not exhausted by a life like this.’

She turned coolly on him. ‘Heavens, sir, a woman has to do something.’

‘Maybe. But isn’t there some other job better suited to your health?’

‘No, sir,’ she went on unwavering, ‘I’ve got to live.’

He was beguiled both by her willingness and her boldness in answering his questions. Women never answered his questions.

‘You must be from the north to brave cold like this,’ he continued.

‘I’m from Nantes in Brittany.’

He looked at her shyness like it were a glimpse of a lithe limb beneath her dress. He spoke now with his hands firmly behind his back and his chest filled with air.

‘That part I know… Mademoiselle, please tell me how you lost your maidenhood.’

He thought his brusqueness might perturb her but she responded flatly through dim eyelids. ‘It was an army officer,’ she said.

‘Are you angry?’

‘Oh, yes, take my word for it,’ our hero noticed a new sourness in her voice. ‘Take my word for that. My sister is well set up. Why aren’t I?’

‘How did you come to Paris?’

He expected her to sigh or cry or something but she went on with no falter. Perhaps it was the cold that froze her feeling. ‘The officer who did me wrong walked out,’ she said. ‘I loathe him. My mother was furious with me and I had to get away. A second officer came along and took me to Paris. He deserted me too. Now there’s a third; I’ve been living three years with him. He’s French, but has business in London, and he’s there now.’ Then as though telling the next chapter in her story she added, ‘Let’s go to your place.’

‘What will we do there?’ our hero asked.

‘Come on, we’ll get warm and you’ll have your fill of pleasure.’

He said little more at that. He did not want to frighten her off with his questions or for her to say that she did not sleep with strangers. That was the whole point of his accosting her, after all. Instead they slunk away through the wretched Parisian streets, darkness by darkness, and dared to venture forward into our hero’s France.