Chapter 4 — Paris
The son of a frequently unemployed and debt-ridden tanner in Rouen, Chameau must have been baptized with other names, but through his adult life he had simply been called “Chameau,” sometimes with envy, often with hatred, and always with fear. Into his thirties he had made a sparse, dangerous living as a thief, hired thug and extortionist in the slums of Rouen. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, he made his way to Paris in hopes of finding wider and more lucrative scope for his gifts. He wasn’t disappointed.
Chameau was at the head of the sans-culottes who stormed the Bastille, personally hacking off the head of the Bastille’s governor, Marquis Bernard de Launay, then leading the attack on the Hotel De Ville where he shot the mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles, and stuck his head on a pike along with de Launey’s, to the frenzied cheers of the mob. His revolutionary zeal quickly caught the attention of Robespierre, and his rise within the Jacobins was rapid. During the blood-drenched months of the Reign of Terror, he excelled at discovering panic-stricken families of nobles and wealthy merchants, winning their confidence, promising them escape in return for whatever money and jewelry they had left, and then betraying them to the Committee of Public Safety to feed the insatiable hunger of the guillotine and the Paris mob for fresh heads.
Luck continued to follow him. At the urging of his mentor Robespierre, he joined the French Army of Italy as a spy under its new commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, and thus escaped the fall of the Jacobins and the execution of Robespierre in 1794. His star rose steadily with his new master’s, until he became the Emperor’s most reliable secret agent, serving in a dozen countries from Egypt to the Baltic. In 1812, at age 55, shortly before Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, he retired.
Through his career, Chameau’s talent for manipulating both people and money had enabled him to amass what could modestly be called a small fortune. He could have lived anywhere in France he chose, or for that matter in Italy, and have spent his final years in comfort, even luxury. He chose, instead, to live in quiet, almost monastic seclusion, on the worst street in one of the most crime-ridden areas of Paris. The area around La Huchette, on the left bank of Paris across from Notre Dame, was a squalor of small filthy streets, inhabited by beggars, thieves, whores, pimps and cutthroats – the most violent of the sans-culottes who had made the streets of Paris run with blood during the revolution. They remembered Chameau, and still feared him. In La Huchette, Chameau was more safely guarded than had a regiment of Napoleon’s Old Guard been encamped in front of his doorway.
His apartment, at 14 Rue de la Huchette, suited his purposes well. A narrow stone building with a thick, iron-bound wooden door, it offered a parlor and private sitting room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second, reached by a narrow, easily defended staircase along one wall. Adding to its appeal was the secret stairway at the back of the second floor leading down to a small doorway in the adjacent alley, the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, barely wide enough for a single person to walk, leading directly to the bank of the Seine. Chameau had angled mirrors on the opposite wall from the door so he could look out a peep hole to see whether the alley was empty.
The morning of March 19, 1815 found Chameau at home, engaged in his one diversion, reading. His current project was Mme, de Staël’s Delphine. So secure was his small fortress that he was surprised, but not alarmed, when he heard the knock on his door. He walked to the extension of the second floor that jutted over his doorway below, and silently slid back the well-oiled peep hole to see who was calling on him. The shotgun he kept by the second, larger opening above the door was, as always, loaded and primed. Some years had passed, but he recognized Connard, a fellow agent with whom he had worked before leaving the Emperor’s service. Fils de salope! He exclaimed. I wonder what that asshole wants with me…and how he found me!
Moments later, the locks on Chameau’s door drew open, and Connard walked through the narrow opening to find a pistol pointed at his face. “Just being careful, my old friend,” said Chameau, as he patted Connard down and removed his visitor’s pistol. Chameau regarded his visitor as Connard removed his greatcoat, looked futilely for a coat hook, and then slung the greatcoat over a chair and carefully placed his elegant beaver hat on top of the coat. Connard had acquired a tailor since the last time Chameau had seen him. He wore the single-breasted tailcoat, waistcoat and cravat wound to the top of his chin now the rage in Paris. His breeches clung to him like the skin of an over-ripe eggplant. Probably pads his couilles, Chameau thought. I wonder how he made it down la Huchette without getting knocked over the head and robbed … or raped. Connard looked the part of the most insufferable dandy … until one noticed his cold, empty eyes, like those of a shark.
“Forgive my lack of courtesy,” said Chameau, as he led Connard into his small study and sat down, leaving Connard to find his own seating, “but I’m not offering you any refreshment; I can’t imagine what I would want to talk with you about for longer than a few minutes.”
“Then I may surprise you,” said Connard. “I have news.” Chameau noticed the same, smug smile he had grown to detest years before spreading again over Connard’s turnip-like face.
“Napoleon?” Chameau spat out. “That’s not news. The local papers have been bleating about him constantly. On February 26th they called him ‘The Corsican.’ By March 1st he was ‘Bonaparte.’ He had become ‘Napoleon’ ten days later and by March 19th , he was being hailed as “His Imperial Majesty’ and ‘The Emperor.’ Instead of bringing Napoleon back in an iron cage as he promised the King, Ney has gone over to him with all his troops. The King has fled in panic, and today there was a sign posted on the door of the Tuileries, ‘The emperor begs the king to send him no more soldiers, he has enough. Napoleon.’”
“That’s not my news. The Emperor isn’t the only one who has come out of retirement. I thought you might be interested to know that Henry Doyle is working for the English again.
“Ce enculeur! That fucker should be dead by now. What do the English want with an old man like him?
“Being so well informed as you are, you know that the English, Russians and Prussians have formed yet another coalition against the Emperor, a coalition he intends to shatter — by means I am not at liberty to share with you at this moment. Doyle is a threat to those plans. The Emperor would look at it with great favor were he to be removed.
“Je m’en fou. No offense, but I really don’t give a shit what Bonaparte thinks about me, now, or what he wants. I served him. I was paid. It’s all over.”
“Ah but that’s the point, don’t you see,” smiled Connard. “You were well paid indeed, not just in fees, but in bribes, extortion, and thievery, all carried out, of course, pour la gloire de la France et l’honneur de l’empereur. My other surprise is that your secret warehouses in Nantes and Marseilles are not, well, quite so secret anymore.” Connard watched the look on Chameau’s face change from arrogance briefly to fear, and then harden into anger. He would kill me for this, Connard thought, but he doesn’t know who else knows his secrets, now. “How do I think I found this hovel you live in? So you can serve the Emperor with your help — or help the Emperor with your wealth.” He shrugged, the irritating smile still on his face. “Your choice.”
“C’est vraiment des conneries! This is total bullshit! You want me to leave the comfort of Paris and go back to heat, sand flies, pestilential Arabs and camel dung?”
“Perhaps not,” said Connard. “You have contacts in Nantes. You also have an opportunity there. Doyle’s half-brother, Kirkpatrick, the American ship captain, has been busy these last four years as a privateer, plaguing the English and amassing his own fortune. His ship is now in Nantes where he is with his French agents, changing his plunder for gold he can take back to America. He will be in Nantes, I believe, for another two weeks. Plenty of time to capture him, hold him hostage against his brother, and if your powers of persuasion haven’t wholly abandoned you, appropriate his wealth for yourself.
“And the source of this intelligence?” Chameau asked, now with more interest than anger.
“Why our Whig friends in London, of course. They dote on the Emperor as the champion of their egalitarian vision for England and Europe and detest Castlereigh and his Tories. And the British intelligence service is like a sieve. They have no secrets. Now, all this talk has made me hungry,” Connard finished, rising from his chair. “If you don’t mind, I fancy a pleasant meal at Le Procope. I’ve arranged for a private room where we can talk details in confidence. And I’ve bespoken two bottles of the excellent Chateau Lafite ’95. They should be quite drinkable now. We can celebrate the victory of 13 Vendémiaire that launched the career of l’empereur. You’ll want to bring your purse,” he added with a smirk. “Our mutual employer is quicker to give orders than to pay for what he wants, and I’m currently short of funds. Oh, and do give me back my pistol like a good fellow. Because you choose to live with thieves, whores, and murderers doesn’t mean I find them agreeable company.”