Now that I had graduated, I wanted more than anything to be part of what was happening in Paristhe conversations and discoveries in the debating rooms, the libraries, and the museums. The French professors, given authority, freedom, and money by Napoleon, were making new inroads into knowledge. The museums in Paris were remarkable, the lectures groundbreaking. But it was also the city my father and his friends feared and loathed, the Paris of the Revolution a city of people so hungry they had marched on Versailles, stormed the Bastille, imprisoned and then killed a royal family. I thought about the newspaper reports my father had kept that described the guillotine swallowing up lives, thousands of them; blood in the streets; mobs; children with sticks and garden tools hunting down the children of aristocrats and beating them to death; a king made to wear a red cap; bloodied heads on spikes; the grocer burned alive on a pyre made of furniture thrown from the windows of the palaces of émigrés.
Then there was the Paris of Napoleon Bonaparte. I had seen drawings of the buildings and squares and streets the Emperor had built: the vast classical perspective of the Arc du Carrousel and the Arc de Triomphe; the new bridges and water fountains; the classical façades, colonnades, marble columnsall so cool and quietthe imperial aspirations of the Emperor laid serenely on top of fire, blood, and death. Paris was to be the new Rome, Napoleon had declared.
Now that Napoleon had been captured, Wellington had restored the French king to the throneLouis XVIII, they called this one; the brother of the guillotined king. But everyone was still half expecting Napoleon to rise again, like a body that just wouldnt drown. Anything could happen, and I wanted to be there to see it. Whatever it was going to be. There was going to be a spectacle of some kind.
Daniel into the lions den . . . she said.
How do you know my name? The coach lurched so that my body crushed up against her shoulder in the darkness. Pardon, madame. Have we met before?
A Portuguese priest taught me some tricks in a bar on the Amalfi coast, she said, turning her head toward me with a slow smile. In the lightening of the morning, I could see her face for the first time against the black folds of her hood.
She was darkly, heavily beautiful. A woman of middle years with black eyes and olive skin and thick black eyebrows that almost touched in the middle, making the shape of an archers bow, a falcon in flight. Even in the half-light, the directness of her gaze startled me. She held me there, her eyes searching out mine, her lips forming the faintest of smiles, but I could not look back, not directly, though I wanted to. Always immersed in my studies, and growing up as a boy among boys, I had had little practice conversing with women. I felt myself blush and began to stammer. What tricks? I asked. What did he teach you?
My friend, the abbé Faria, she said, is a magnetist. He is half Indian, half Portuguese. He taught me many things. I put you to sleep for a few minutes, and then you told me everythingfirst your name, your family, your dreams . . . and then your secrets. Now I know all your secrets. Every one. She smiled.
You didnt put me to sleep, I said. Thats ridiculous. I looked at my pocket watch. The hands were still moving clockwise at the same rate. It was half past five. I was certain I had lost no time.
How can you be sure, monsieur? She was no longer looking at my eyes; now her gaze had settled on my lips. Her eyes on my lips, her thigh against my thigh, her shoulder against mine. I could feel the heat of her body through my clothes. In the early-morning light, with the child sleeping in the crook of her arm, she looked like a painting. Almost sacred. Yet the intimacy of her talk and manner disturbed me.
Excerpted from The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Stott. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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