Sunday, 15 April 2012

The First Apostle - Excerpt

by Katherine Pym

This is a book of the French Revolution. Camille Desmoulins is the main character. He was a real person and even though historians don't care much for Camille, his actual story reads like a romance.

France, 1784
In the midst of a dinner party, a young man of twenty-two angrily thrust aside his napkin, and jumped to his feet. He pointed an accusing finger at an older woman. “No! That is vile and stupid. How can you say such a thing?”
The purr of idle chatter trickled to an ebb as the guests stared at him.
The young man pushed aside his dish, then mounted the table in complete disregard of half- filled glasses and plates of food at his feet. Men and women around the table gaped in disbelief when he raised his arms in a motion for silence.
Noting a couple near him still talking, he kicked a plate of beef to make them stop and take notice. Slack-jawed and wide-eyed, they turned to him.
Hampered by the continuing staccato of clearing his throat, Lucie Simplice Camille Benoist Desmoulins began: “A Republican government is the only one suited for free men. Without it, he is a slave, forced to bend under the yoke of royalty...”
Part I--The Gallic Lark
Paris, May 1789
Camille Desmoulins sat in a dingy café, and frowned. In front of him sat a tankard of mediocre, watered down wine he hesitated to drink. It would probably claw his belly to the trots, but he was starving. Bending closer, he gazed at it with a jaundiced eye. He’d had very little to eat all day, and ran on the last vestiges of nervous energy.
He decided to wait for the barmaid to bring the bread, and looked out the window to the narrow streets. The day waned, and the city lay in heavy shadow. Soon, it would be dark, the end of a momentous day, the beginning of the States General. He wondered how nature could be so blasé about it. God should rejoice and make the day longer, brighter.
He studied the wine. Tonight, it looked all right, and he took a sip. It wound down to his empty belly and sat there. Camille let it settle. No pain spiked through his innards, so he took another sip.
With a dull frown, he sighed.
Educated as a lawyer and almost thirty, his career of law copying hardly paid enough salary to survive. Except for his love for Lucile Duplessis, he despised everything about his life. He lived in a wretched rooming house, ate vile, tasteless food, and his clothes were shabby. Thick, lank hair pressed heavily against his head with layers of powder. The heels to his shoes were rundown with a buckle missing from one, and there were ink stains on his shirt. He could only afford bad wine and coarse bread. He couldn’t even spare a sou for a cut of cheese.
The barmaid bore down on him with a loaded tray. Walking fast, she reached up and pulled off of a chunk of bread. She did not stop or look at him. In a rush, she slapped it down on the table next to his tankard.
Camille sniffed. Good bread hard to get, and the stuff in front of him was probably filled with crawly insects. He broke it in half, and waited for bits of it to move.
He scowled as he watched. Vermin had gotten into it.
The barmaid walked by with the emptied tray, and he grabbed her wrist. “Do you have anything that is fresh, or at least, not infested?”
She pulled away. “No. You have what you have.”
This bit of injustice just added to the already foul day.
He’d been to Versailles to watch the opening procession of the States General. Only allowed on the periphery, he gazed with burning eyes at those fortunate enough to have been elected to this historic event. His father could have been a delegate, but he refused the nomination. Camille could not understand the old man’s lack of zeal to make France a better country. Had he no ideals? Was there no patriotism in his heart?
And here Camille was--in Paris--ready to work for his province. His father could have recommended him to be the delegate from Picardy, but he did not. Camille’s soul filled with bitter envy.
The procession at Versailles did not stop while he grappled with a stream of dark thoughts. Standing there on the edge, he considered it endless as everyone walked by very solemn. If he were a delegate, he would have walked very solemn, too. Suddenly, Camille snapped upright when he spotted an old school friend.
How could it be? De Robespierre was a delegate.
Beginning under similar circumstances, de Robespierre seemed to have flourished where Camille had not. The simple truth of it sent him down a blazing path of resentment.
He picked up the bread and crumbled it over the tankard, letting it fall into the wine. As it soaked and softened, he reflected times must change. Not just for his sake, but for the people of France. Things couldn’t get much worse.
The weather had proven difficult the last eighteen months with crops failing throughout the country. There was a real risk of famine, yet the aristos hoarded grain at their country estates, waiting for the prices to go up. Already, the cost was too high for most people. Women with families were forced to raid bakeries. They grabbed anything they could, including flour that was almost always tainted. They fed their children with half-rotten, foul smelling grain filled with weevils and dirt.
Camille gazed at the bread in his wine. Almost ready. He scraped breadcrumbs from the table into his hand, then let them fall into the tankard.
Wine was cheap with plenty to go around. Babies suckled it for added nourishment when the milk failed. Men drank it to forget the squalor and harsh times in which they lived, but it even when half drunk, they could not ignore the poor conditions in which they lived.
Bitter hostility was replacing apathy. The prospect of it excited Camille, which would open the door to the possibility of a Republic. As far as he was concerned, royalty could be damned.
A man walked up to his table, holding two glasses of wine. Elaborately dressed in bright green brocade, frothy lace sprouted from his wrists and the front of his coat. Half drunk from the bad wine, the peacock hurt Camille’s eyes. “Well, if it’s not Louis Stanislaus Fréron gracing a poor fellow in a rank bistro. What are you doing, here? You’ll soil your pretty clothes.”
“I knew you’d be here, drowning your sorrows in this filth of a place. How can you call what you’re drinking, wine?”
Fréron handed him a glass, and taking it, Camille drank from it. Much better. He waved his hand. “Ah then, sit, sit mon ami. I am trying to be in good spirit tonight. There is a small glimmer the States General will change things without violence. Were you at the procession, today?”
“No, I was not.”
Camille wanted to thunder to the rafters how momentous this new States General was, but he only waved his glass. “Why not? You must comprehend it’s the first time in more than a century the three estates have gathered to solve our country’s internal problems.” He drank.
Fréron sighed. “Do not become overheated, Camille. Nothing will come of it.”
Abruptly, Camille mourned. “Oui, mon ami, I comprehend. You are saying the clerics and aristos may sit in the same hall together, but not the clerics, aristos, and the third estate, eh? Our common folk who break their backs for the other two estates are nothing, and should not be counted, n’est pas?” He gazed bleary-eyed at Fréron.
Fréron sipped his wine. “Mark my words, only bloodshed will awaken the monarchy from their death like sleep. It isn’t too far away, either.”
Camille sagged. “I saw de Robespierre today. He is a delegate.”
Fréron shrugged. “He’s a humorless prig. His arrogance turns men away from him. Do not be envious. As I said, he and the delegation will come to nothing.”
A little wobbly, Camille gazed into the cup with his bread. It looked very soft, now, like a moving mush, and he scowled. The damn stuff played havoc with his innards until it was hard to justify the eating of it, but he must. He was half starved.
With a grimace, he scooped it in his mouth with his fingers, and swallowed it down. It was fetid.

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