The people lingering in the garish hallways of the Drouot auction house seem suddenly to move faster as the time arrives. Middle-aged men in plaid shirts and sagging khakis, old women falling into ruin, stand -- or, if they can, sit -- just outside the door of Salle 14.
I take them in as the escalator bears me towards them. Who will be my rivals? The handrail is sticky with fingerprints and sweat, it moves haltingly, like a sick, worn serpent. I am careful not to touch it. I descend and take my usual place, to the left of the door. I’ll be one of the first inside.
I’ve barely marked my catalogue. There are a few alluring items: helmets, decorations and such, some firearms that I know to be valuable though I’ve never had much use for them. But my intentions are turned entirely to Lot 112, a sabre cast at the end of 18th century. It’s a beautiful weapon, its blade decorated with mythical figures in blue inlaid steel.
I take my seat, and a young girl sits next to me. Not beautiful, but with something interesting in her gaze. Smart, merry, but maladroit. I met her one evening coming out of the cinema. She asked me where the Conciergerie was, her American accent drawing out the vowels. And in spite of myself, I showed her, memories trailing me. She was young, very young, she’d lived less than 25 years. But she liked old things, she said, and so I invited her here.
“Will you get the sword?” she asks now, her little body squirming with excitement.
“I don’t know,” I murmur casually, “I hope so.”
The auction begins. The bids go quickly. Some items fetch good prices, and others…others, nothing at all. When this happens, a sadness fills me, like a drop of something cold splattering onto my heart. An auction at Drouot, the truest Vanitas. That medal may have cost you dearly, a limb, your life, and now ignorant individuals bid on it -- starting at 30 euros, no, then 20…10…5? Rétiré.
The girl beside me makes a sound under her breath. I am surprised; she feels the sadness, too, though she is young, very young.
And now, at last, the sword. The bidding begins at 900. Once we took pride in the beauty of a uniform, or a coat. But today, my rivals are dressed shabbily. I, in my dark suit and crimson, Italian-collared shirt, put them to shame. I see it in the young girl’s eyes.
But it matters little now: their voices work, and these are crying out more and more quickly.
The bidding has reached 3,000 euros. A pause. Slowness, silence, like the moments before death.
Now, at last, I put up my hand.
The sword is mine.
“An excellent acquisition, monsieur,” says the man who hands it to me.
The girl takes my arm and we walk out into the hallway with the red carpet on its walls like too-bright blood.
This is nothing, I think. Try prying it from the palms of its dying owner himself.
In the heat of the day, I say goodbye to the girl, and go down into the Métro.
I’ve never liked it, but it is the best way, the only way now with the sun blazing in the sky. I watch the people lining the platform, decide where the crowd is thinnest, and wait.
At the train’s arrival, the doors in front of us open, and I already know the game. I’ve been doing this for years and it never changes. A man, for example, has been standing near the centre of the car, his eyes darting at ever more frequent intervals to the group of four seats to his right. A woman gets up from one of them, and he triumphantly sits down, awarded for his vigilance and persistence. I yawn and sit down in the place I’d chosen for myself within seconds of the doors’ opening.
Now I open my book, an account of the life of Napoléon, written in the tragic year of 1815. I lose myself inside it, always with one eye keeping watch.
When we arrive at my station, I barely close my book, and wait for someone else to move first. They open the door and I can leave the car, hands clean.
Everything in life is a system. You learn that from observation, and it is reinforced in the army. You work on a set schedule, your fears and elations are put to good use. I know the rules of every game, the science behind everything, and if I do not, I know how I can find out.
At home my curtains are drawn. I pass my shelves of swords and lay down on my bed. Like a small shadow, my cat follows, as I know he will. He finds a spot somewhere by my legs and we sleep until nightfall.
Many people would wonder what I dream. Of campaigns, of course, and frozen Russia, where everything changed. I dream of the great men I’ve known, of meeting the Emperor himself, and feeling his energy pulling as compellingly as the moon draws the tides. Waves of soldiers would follow him anywhere, to glory or defeat.
Night has come, another moon is in the sky, like a pearl or a mirror. I can assure you, it never leaves me indifferent.
In the darkness, the blades and scabbards of the swords I’ve collected are gleaming softly, as though with a message. But though I’ve been around long enough to understand many messages, so many tics and movements of the minds of men, I cannot quite tell what this glow says. Are they thankful for what I have done? Do they know?
I followed my Emperor as the tides follow the pull of the moon. I found myself lost one night on the frozen Russian earth. And out of nowhere came what would seem to be my end. It was not a bullet, not a blade, but a man, with two gleaming fangs shining white in the dark, moonless night.
I cried out, but no one heard me as the fangs plunged into my neck. My body fell onto the hard-packed snow with a thud. The crinkling of the white frozen crystals below me was loud in my ears. My friends, my fellow soldiers, my Emperor flashed through my mind -- and then -- I awoke on another night, far away from the battlefield.
I made my way carefully back to Paris, avoiding the sun, who had now crossed over to the enemy’s side, my own Bernadotte.
What had happened to me, and what had happened to my country? My Emperor gone, sent to rot away on St. Helena. My things gone, cast to the wind. My comrades gone -- or soon were, as the years rushed by like breathless moments. I was left with little more than money, memories and ghosts. Meals had to be talked up and persuaded, unlike the simple diet I used to eat.
But what starts to happen is, things come back. Another revolution -- the tables turn. Another, another. I fought for my general’s progeny, of course.
Swords and objects began to resurface, like the detritus of a shipwreck. I sometimes saw them in unknowing people’s homes. One night, at a fine society dinner, I saw an old helmet sitting on a library shelf. I knew by some strange instinct that it once belonged to my brother-in-law. Yet these people, a hundred years later, knew nothing at all. It became clear to me then, what I had to do.
I examine this latest sword in the light of dawn. I held it once before, when its owner fell on the field, and asked me to give it to his brother. Now it’s fallen out of family hands.
They say all men seek immortality. We go to war to fight but also to be remembered for our fighting. I have fought beside so many who have fallen, and their names have been cast into the winds and forgotten, seeds that never found fertile earth.
There was the helmet of my brother-in-law, and people passed it by and never knew about his ways. Never knew how he loved to smoke his pipe every evening, or how, one day when he took off this helmet, a bullet found its way into his skull. But I know.
Here they sit, row upon row of weapons and artifacts. The swords’ pummels seem to me still coated with the sweat or blood of those who wielded them, my comrades. I found immortality another way, and I will keep you here with me for eternity, remembering. You are just as I am.
“What do you do?” the young girl asks me, as we sit at supper in a North-African style bar.
“I work with computers.” A safe answer; she doesn’t, so won’t ask questions.
Another night. At my side, she asks, “How do you speak English so well?”
“Because you inspire me.”
(I also spent a few years as one of Napoleon III’s top spies in London.)
“Where are you from?”
The cat stares fixedly at me from across the room. His yellow eyes seem to wonder what I’m doing, what she’s doing here.
As if in the same instant, though I know it is a few nights later, she asks, “Do you love me?”
And I might, a little.
It’s not easy keeping up the charade. I’ve done it before, but never with a girl who asked so many questions. My breathing must be regulated, my heartbeat is a recording I’ve rigged with pulleys and wires. Perhaps this is why I’ve been with my own kind more than hers -- the centuries stretch back, a parade of beautiful creatures whose flawlessness was only matched by the coldness of their skin, the stillness of their hearts.
I’m teaching her how to play the Métro game, and dying as I died long ago, for her to kiss me, or to run her fingers through my hair.
An important sword is coming up for auction. My cat surveys me as I read the e-mailed bulletin. Lot 19, a light cavalry officer’s sabre, model 1822, well-used, rusty in places, but still with its leather battle scabbard. It once belonged to my friend Jean-François.
Jean-François who often left camp at night to make love to the women in the nearest town. Jean-François, who, I’ve heard, fell in battle in a foreign land, his mind, they said, distracted by thoughts of a lover, this very sword dropping to the dust.
Lot 19 is on the auction block.
I let my opponents start. I wait. The price is mounting higher, but for some reason, there is no slowing. Or is it that my system is failing? I cannot hear my recorded heartbeat, and here is the young girl - my girl - beside me again. I am staring at her lips.
“Oh no!” she gasps suddenly. “The sword you wanted,” she says in English, at a loss for French, “I’m so sorry!”
For a moment, I am a man again, stupid. For a moment, I am vexed. But then I shrug and smile. “Auctions are like that,” I say. “I didn’t expect to get it.”
To soothe me, she runs her fingers through my hair.
But of course, what is a moment of pleasure, when you consider eternity?
Darkness falls and the moon pulls me forward. I smell the sword I’m missing, it calls to me from far across Paris.
Beside me, the young girl stirs. She wakes often in the night. I move my hand over her eyes, and she falls into a trance.
I move through the streets quickly, enjoying the fresh air on my cold skin.
As I’d expected, the buyer’s window is open to the early summer weather. I leap up effortlessly and climb inside. There is Jean-François’ sword, unceremoniously lying on the dining room table.
There is no one here but the man and myself. Like my old foes and comrades, he’s sleeping with one ear cocked. I lift the sabre and he’s heard me. He comes running out of his bed chamber, holding an old rifle, loaded. A comical sight.
“I will ask you once,” I say, because after all, I might as well be polite, “Give me this sword. I will reimburse you.”
“Certainly not!” the man says.
“I’ll give you two times what you paid.”
“You think I would make a deal with a strange intruder?”
I sigh, and before I finish sighing, I am beside him.
Twenty minutes later, full and with my friend’s sword in my possession, I cross the Champs-Elysées and head homeward.
This week's Fiction Weekend Prompt was inspired by one from this site: Write a story involving something you know a lot about. I've been really busy this week (which is also why, unfortunately, I haven't been able to read you guys' posts, but hopefully I'll catch up soon!), but I remembered this short story I wrote about six years ago, when I first started dating my boyfriend (the story's dedicated to him). Although he's the expert on Napoleon and Napoleonic sword c0llecting, it's become a big part of my life. So, I figured, why not?
If you'd like to participate in Fiction Weekend, go for it! Everyone's welcome - the only requirement is to write a FICTION story. For information about how to announce your story, etc, or if you'd like to read the other stories for this week, please feel free to stop by the OS Weekend Fiction Club blog. Happy writing and reading! And have a nice weekend.