Besançon, France, November 1804.
He walked into my room and caught me in the act. I didn’t know how he had gotten into the house. It was not the first time he had entered it without being invited. I lived there with my mother and only a few servants. He found a way to sneak into the house. He knew it well from his previous stay a few years ago, when we had been intimate friends.
I was sure to be alone in the house. The servants had a day off and my mother had gone out. I always made sure I was on my own when I devoted myself to my shameful acts of sexual pleasure.
“You still can’t control yourself,” I heard his mocking voice from the door.
I winced and turned my head. I saw his figure in the dim light of the room. The sun had almost set and I had not lit a candle. I was on my knees, one hand on the wall and the other still fondling the buttons of my trousers.
I didn’t see him clearly. I’m short of sight. But I felt his gaze and his disdainful look. I buttoned my trousers slowly and got on my feet. For a while, we were just staring at each other. Neither of us did move.
“What do you want?” I asked coldly.
“You’re a twisted and immoral creature, addicted only to carnal lust,” he said in a malicious voice. I knew he was sneering at me.
I remained silent. I showed no emotions. But his words aroused my anger. That was exactly what he wanted. He wanted me to fly into a violent rage and turn my fury on him. It would give him another reason for humiliating me even more.
He knew me well. He knew all my flaws and faults. We had been together for almost three years. I had opened myself up to him. I had delivered myself up to him completely, which had been my only mistake.
I had met him in the beginning of 1795. I had met him in class. We both studied philosophy at the University of Nantes. Our friendship started quickly. It was wild and passionate. And a great deal of it was dedicated to sexual pleasures.
“What do you want, Robert?” I asked again.
He made a step towards me, but turned around at a sudden knock on the door. The door opened and Adrian came in. Adrian was early. He looked between Robert and me in confusion. Robert gazed at Adrian a second or two. Then he turned back to me, sneering again. Abruptly, he left the room. Adrian and I heard him hasten down the stairs and leave the house through the front door.
“What did he want, Edmond?” Adrian asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, turning to the window.
Adrian joined me. We watched Robert wandering around in the street. His blond hair was dishevelled and his clothes were scruffy. He jumped up and down and gestured like a madman.
“He has not always been like this,” I said.
“He’s acting like a madman, yet is pretending to be a sage and saint. But all he wants is to spy on us. His intentions are malicious. He’s deceitful and false,” Adrian said.
I felt uncomfortable. I had asked Adrian to come to my house and stay for the night. Robert had spoiled the evening. I watched him from the window. I knew he would not disappear as long as Adrian stayed in the house.
“I come to your house in about an hour,” I said to Adrian in a low voice. “I don’t want to spend the night with you in my house, knowing he is sneaking about outside.”
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a document on my desk near the window.
“Comte Eugene is invited to Napoleon’s coronation ceremony in Paris. I’m travelling with him. In fact, I’m travelling without him and will meet him there in a couple of weeks. I need to find appropriate accommodations.”
“When will you leave?” Adrian asked.
“Next week,” I said.
Adrian looked at me. I saw his frustration.
“Fine,” he said almost brusquely.
Not waiting for a response, he crossed the room.
“I’m awaiting you in an hour,” he said from the door. He left, closing the door behind him.
I watched him from the window. He walked down the street. Robert followed him. He pointed at Adrian, jumped up and down and shouted loudly. Adrian didn’t pay attention to him. Neither did the other men and women in the street. Robert was a public nuisance. People ignored him. But I knew that they would soon start to complain.
I left an hour later and asked the driver of the carriage to get out of Robert’s way and take a long way round. Adrian himself opened the door. He had sent his only servant, a housekeeper, away. Adrian’s house was small and the rooms were less comfortable than mine. At least, we were entre nous and unwatched. Adrian had cheered up. We went to his room at once.
Adrian sat down on the divan. I put off my jacket and joined him. Adrian leaned back and put his feet up on a chair. I had met him a few months ago when he had started to work in the fiscal department of Besançon. He was younger than I was. I was twenty-nine, he was twenty-two.
Adrian turned his head. I saw his brown eyes, his pale skin and his dark hair framing his face. I got aroused by his sight. I couldn’t help it. Adrian, knowing it, leered at me.
“Why did you ask him to come here?” he asked unexpectedly.
“I invited him when he was miserable. That was two years ago. He refused to come here first. We exchanged letters. I exchanged letters with his mother. I couldn’t withdraw my invitation. I felt I couldn’t. I promised his mother to take care for him,” I said.
“You are far too considerate,” Adrian said, watching me closely. “Send him away.”
I returned his look, measuring him. Robert’s presence was an offence to him, an almost affront. I had invited Robert in hopes of reviving our relationship, against my better judgement. He had finally accepted my invitation, but had refused to lodge with me. He lived in a small house not far from mine.
Robert had broken up with me. He had treated me badly. But he had been my first lover and once my very best friend. Adrian knew all about it.
“I should have withdrawn my invitation,” I said meekly. “They told me he had lost his sanity when he came back from Rouen and learned that Marianne Marchand had died. I didn’t believe them.”
“You believed in a selfish dream,” Adrian said drily.
I admitted, looking at him.
“Stop believing in dreams,” Adrian said. “I thought you were a reasonable man.”
“You know very well that often I’m not,” I said, smiling at him.
Adrian leaned in and kissed me slowly. I wrapped my arms around him. A few minutes later, we had gotten rid of our clothes and climbed on Adrian’s bed. Every time we met, we quickly gave way to love-making. Our encounters were often furtive and brief. On the rare occasion we were safe from being caught in the act, we had passionate and excessive sex. I had a lust for it and Adrian was insatiable. It was fun and it was good.
Adrian gasped raggedly. Sweat ran down my skin and my tensed muscles already ached. And then the door opened loudly. I withdrew. Adrian slumped down and turned on his back. Both of us breathing heavily, we gazed at the intruder in a state of shock.
“Sorry for interrupting,” Robert said mockingly. He gazed at us. His eyes ran over my body and finally rested on my crotch.
I looked at Adrian. Adrian looked between Robert and me, and then he jumped from the bed. Enraged, he crossed the room and seized Robert by his shoulders. He shook him, nudged him and started to punch him, all the time calling him names and shouting furiously. Robert flailed about. Adrian opened the door and shoved him out. They struggled in the hallway. I heard someone hasten down the stairs. Then the front door fell shut.
A short time later, Adrian came back into the room. Enraged, he slammed the door shut, crossed the room and tore open the window. He gazed outside, breathing heavily. I joined him by the window. He looked at me briefly, and then continued looking outside. Robert walked up and down the street. He staggered and almost stumbled over his feet.
“Send him away,” Adrian said, not looking at me. His voice was determined.
“As soon as I am back from Paris. I need to arrange his...,” I was hesitating for a second. “...his departure,” I said.
Adrian turned his head and looked at me. His eyes were narrowed.
“His removal,” I finally said. Despite what Robert had done to me, I felt like a traitor.
“How did he get into house?” I asked.
“Through one of the windows on the ground floor, I suppose,” Adrian replied.
“I’ll better leave,” I said, avoiding Adrian’s eyes.
He seized me by my shoulders, turned my body and forced me to look at him.
“No, you won’t,” he said, his voice again trembling with rage. For a moment I just looked at him. Then I nodded.
I spent the night with him.
I returned from a theatre the following evening. I was about to enter the house when out of a sudden Robert approached me. He seized my sleeve and hissed at me. His words were incomprehensible. He needed a haircut and a hot bath. He had bad breath and he smelled of sweat and urine. I felt sick. I held my breath and looked left and right. No one was around. Robert grinned at me and pointed at the house.
“What do you want? No need to act like a madman. No one is around watching you,” I said coldly.
I wondered why I had
invited him and I wondered why I
had not sent him away weeks ago. They had told me of his mental
illness. I had
sent a doctor to him. He had diagnosed fatigue and melancholia. I had
Adrian to send Robert away. I planned to have him taken to an asylum
was the best place to take him to. But I still doubted that he had lost
reason entirely. I rather believed that he acted like a madman, at
partly, on purpose.
I heard voices. Two men turned around the corner. I recognized them. They were talking to a street vendor and had not yet spotted Robert and me.
“All right, then. Come in,” I said, still watching the two men.
I hurried towards the entrance and opened the door. Robert followed me. A maid servant hastened towards us. I sent her away and led Robert to the parlour on the ground floor. My mother had descended the stair and stood in the foyer. She gave me a reproachful look.
I shoved Robert into the parlour and closed the door. Robert crossed the room, sat down on the sofa and leaned back idly. I remained standing in front of a bookshelf, away from him and the pungent smell.
“What do you want?” I asked.
Robert grinned at me. And then he burped.
“What an impressive approach to intellectual and spiritual goals,” I said arrogantly.
“I just dumb down to be on a level with you,” Robert said with a mocking smile, watching me closely.
“Interesting to hear that words don’t fail you,” I said in the same mocking voice. “I was certain you had not lost your reason entirely. Though, from a certain point of view, you’re not sound of mind.”
He smiled broadly.
“What do you want?” I asked again.
We gazed at each other for a while. Robert continued sneering at me. He gave me a hate-filled look. His behaviour was infuriating me. I struggled to remain calm.
“It was you who introduced me to love-making. You showed it to me. Back then in Nantes,” I said finally.
“Do you mean our time and dissolute life in the garden shed?” Robert asked, his eyes resting firmly on mine.
He looked shabby. He had oily hair and skin. His sight was repellent. I remembered the neat and handsome young man I had fallen in love with. He was smart and clever, an intellectual. He had high standards, and he was very demanding of himself and others. He was not restricted in his thinking. While others just dreamed of a new and better world, Robert thought of how to establish it. Robert had changed considerably.
I looked at him. He was still smiling, waiting for my reply.
Robert was an expert in Greek philosophy. He adored Greek ideals and concepts. He had written essays, elaborate poems and even a novel. He had talked to me of his Utopia, a world based on ideals and virtues. I had believed in his dream. I had been enthusiastic about it.
“I’m talking of our friendship and love,” I said finally.
He looked me up and down. I felt uncomfortable. My clothes were elegant and expensive. I was an aristocrat. I looked like an aristocrat. I behaved like one. I was Comte Eugene’s private secretary. Not only Robert had changed considerably.
Robert scratched his head. I grew angry again.
“Yes, you made the first move, didn’t you? I didn’t know anything about it until you showed it to me. So why do you blame me for giving in to carnal desires?”
Icrossed the room and sat down in a chair. I looked at him.
“Why don’t you leave your desires behind, like I did?” Robert asked. “You compromise my reputation.”
I laughed out loud.
“I compromise your reputation? Look at yourself in a mirror. You damage your reputation yourself. You look like a tramp. You act like a madman. You sound like a madman.”
Robert leaned forward. So did I. We measured each other.
“No one knows,” I said. “No one will ever know. Those who have a clue won’t talk about it. Too many years went by, Robert. Besides, you cleared your name. Everybody remembers your unfortunate affair with Marianne Marchand, a married woman. It was subject of conversation for months. No one would ever believe that you slept with me.”
I leaned back. Robert still watched me.
“I’m not sure your reputation as an adulterer furthers your career as a lecturer, if that is still the profession you aspire. But certainly it is a less doubtful and soiled reputation than a reputation as a sodomite,” I said haughtily.
I gave him a brief look before I turned to examining my fingernails.
I looked up after a while. Robert still stared at me. But his malicious smile had disappeared. He turned his eyes away from me and gazed into the room absent-mindedly. I watched him. Was he about to resume his role as a madman?
“So you think I compromise your reputation? That’s why you are acting like a madman? You, Robert, you are trying to compromise my reputation. That’s why you came here. You’ll succeed. People will soon start to complain. You’re a public nuisance and people will blame me for it. Watch out, Robert. The biter will be bitten,” I said coldly.
Robert didn’t react. I started to feel utterly uncomfortable. Suddenly he turned his head to me.
“Marianne is dead. She can’t help me leave behind my dissolute life,” Robert said.
I looked at him in disbelief. And then I started to laugh. Robert gazed at me. I couldn’t help laughing aloud.
“I never really understood it. But now I do,” I said finally.
I leaned forward.
“I am who am I, Robert. You can’t blame me for it. You think I provoked your desires for men. You thought Marianne was able to extinguish them. That’s why you tried to get off with her and broke up with me. Why did you come here after we had left university? Why did you stay with me? Why did you come here a second time? To punish me? I must guess so.”
Robert didn’t answer. But the malicious look in his eyes returned.
“Robert, it’s ridiculous. There’s no cure for it,” I said.
“How can you say so?” Robert replied, enraged. “You have never tried to overcome your unnatural and infamous desires. I tried. I loved Marianne. She was pure of heart. Marianne and I shared a higher love. Agape. A pure and aesthetic love.”
Robert frowned at me. His eyes were hate-filled.
“We shared a higher love,” he repeated. “I won’t deny that I once wallowed in vice. I wallowed in vice with you. Every time I met you we ended up wallowing in vice.”
Robert got to his feet and paced the room. He gestured wildly. I watched him. Suddenly he approached me and stopped right in front of me. I leaned back in my chair and looked up. The pungent smell overwhelmed me.
“I didn’t force you to do it. I didn’t rape you,” I said enraged. “Again. You made the first move. Back then in Nantes. You touched me. You kissed me.”
“You did not let me go when I wanted to,” Robert shouted.
I got on my feet. Robert made a step back. I followed him, pointing at him with my finger.
“You were free to go whenever and wherever you wanted,” I shouted at him.
“No! I was not!” he bawled at me. “You enslaved me!”
“I did what?” I shouted. I laughed aloud. “You just can’t cope with me not being your ideal Greek lover, means you teaching me your benevolent wisdom and physical pleasures, with me on the receiving end always.”
I stepped closer.
“I am not submissive. It contradicts my nature,” I hissed at him.
Robert sneered at me.
“No. You are rough, raw and aggressive. And you have no clue of sublime virtues and the Greek ideal of love,” he said haughtily.
“You are not my tutor. And I am not your pupil. But that’s what you wanted us to be.”
We gazed at each other.
“What a foul excuse to justify our love,” I said angrily.
“It was all perfect when it started,” Robert said. “You spoiled our perfect love.”
“You consider yourself superior to me. Smarter, wiser, more educated. I know I cannot keep up with your sophisticated reasoning. I know your poems are elaborate and mine are bad. But I loved you with all my heart,” I said tiredly.
Robert raised an eyebrow.
“What unexpected insights, Edmond,” he said mockingly. “Do you finally see that you can’t teach me anything? You simply can’t claim to be on top.”
“You’re crazy. You are arrogant and haughty. Your dream of a perfect love is just a dream. Ancient Greece is long since gone. The remains are covered in dust and Greek values mean nothing today,” I said coldly.
Robert laughed cynically. I grew even more enraged. A thought came to my mind. I sneered.
“I know you liked me being on top,” I said with a mischievous smile. “You wrote it down in your novel for all to read. You praise your beloved friend’s passionate embrace. You describe how you fade in his arms. You praise his fire and blade.”
Robert frowned and compressed his lips.
“His blade. I got the picture. It’s plain to see. You wrote ‘verge d’acier’, rod of steel. You wrote it down for all to see, Robert,” I said with a self-complacent smile. “Everybody can read it and figure it out. You yourself ruined your reputation and spoiled your silly dream.”
Robert gazed at me. His look was hate-filled. And then he made a step towards me, spat at me and slapped my face. I punched him on the chest. He punched back. I dealt another blow.
For a while we struggled and fought. Then, suddenly, Robert retreated.
We stopped and stood, gazing at his each other, breathing fast and our eyes narrowed and filled with hate.
“I was waiting for you to come back,” I said, almost desperate. “We could have had everything.”
“I don’t want what you can offer,” Robert said coldly. “Share it with that slut of yours.”
“You are malicious. You are deceitful and false,” I said in a contemptuous voice. “Marianne Marchand. A higher love. So pure. Untouchable. Une vierge, a virgin. You replaced verge with vierge. Did you get intellectually confused, Robert? Or how would you explain your faux pas?”
Robert smacked my face. My nose started to bleed.
“Your life lies in pieces. I will see to it,” Robert said calmly, smiling almost politely. But his look was dark and threatening.
He turned away from me and left the room. I heard the front door fall shut. I looked out of the window. Robert made a few steps, then looked back at the window and gave me the finger. He gestured wildly and hopped down the street.
“Bastard. Idiot. Liar. Traitor. Lunatic. Uptight madman. Miserable creature. Puritan. Hypocrite,” I scolded aloud, holding a handkerchief against my bleeding nose.
I fell silent when the door opened and my mother stepped in. She looked at me and my bleeding nose.
“What did he want, Edmond?” my mother asked.
“He’s deceitful and false,” I said furiously, sitting down on a chair.
“Send him away,” my mother said. She stood behind me and started stroking my hair.
I told her all.
“He’s malicious. Send him away,” she said again.
“I can’t right now. I need to send a letter to his mother. I can’t wait for her reply. I’m leaving for Paris next week,” I said.
“I’ll have an eye on him,” my mother said calmly.
“Why does he want to hurt me?” I asked.
“He hates himself for being what he is. He cannot see clearly. He hates you for what you are, rather for what he is,” my mother said.
“I am what I am. I cannot change,” I said.
can’t. He projects his self-hate onto you.
Thus he needs not blame himself, but can blame you instead.”
“It’s ridiculous. If I changed, he would still be the same.”
“Yes. He’d find someone else to blame for,” my mother said quietly.
We remained silent for some time.
“I now understand why he looks so dishevelled. His sight and smell are repellent. He wants me to stay away from him. He was afraid I would tempt him to stray from the straight and narrow,” I said.
My mother didn’t respond.
“He’s truly insane,” I said finally.
“He’s dangerous,” my mother said. “His mind is twisted, in a sense. But he’s acting clever and on purpose. Unfortunately, you fuelled his rage. Why are you so impulsive and imprudent, Edmond?”
“I loved him. He loved me. And then he betrayed me,” I said.
“It’s not only his fault, my son. You clung to his love. You should have let him go,” my mother said.
“Yes,” I said. “But it is too late now. I can’t undo what happened.”
Again we remained silent for a while.
“I’ll send him to Lafayette while I am away,” I said finally.
“Monsieur Lafayette?” my mother asked with surprise. “I thought you didn’t like him and he didn’t like you.”
“Exactly. He can deal with that miserable creature while I am away. That serves him right. He invited Robert to his house only recently. He thinks he’ll be the centre of attention with a madman in his house. He has delusions of grandeur. He’s mad also. Fine. I’ll send him a note.”
I turned to my mother. She looked at me doubtfully.
“I have a feeling it’s very imprudent,” she said.
I shrugged. I didn’t know then that this very decision would lead to my almost ruin.
Lafayette replied to my note enthusiastically. Following my suggestion, he included in his letter a second letter to Robert, an invitation to stay in his house for a couple of weeks. I made sure that two civil servants handed the invitation to Robert and accompanied him to Lafayette’s house. I ordered to use violence, if necessary. To my surprise, the two men told me that Robert had accompanied them without complaining.
I left for Paris on the following Wednesday. I had spent the night with Adrian. I sat in the carriage, exhausted and tired. I read a note from Lafayette that I had received on my departure.
Lafayette told me he was delighted to have Robert with him. He had convinced the madman to take a hot bath, have his hair cut and put on clean clothes. He had spent a pleasant evening with Robert talking about philosophy and poetry. Lafayette wrote that he apparently had a benevolent influence on the madman and had managed to control the unpleasant situation within only one hour, whereas I had tried for weeks, yet had failed miserably. He told me in very polite words that he would inform Comte Eugene on the matter. He felt obligated to mention my inability to deal with the situation. Lafayette gloated. I was Comte Eugene’s private secretary. Lafayette worked on undermining my position.
I frowned. For a while I thought of stopping the carriage and returning to Besançon. Then I shrugged. I knew that Robert had not lost his mind. His thoughts were weird, but he was able to act reasonably. He acted like a madman to damage my reputation. Apparently, he had chosen to be decent and polite in Lafayette’s company. So much the better. I would talk to Comte Eugene in Paris. I knew the count did not think highly of Lafayette.
I had a strange feeling, nonetheless. I felt I had missed a detail. I mused on it for a while. But finally I shook the uneasy feeling off. I was tired and drifted to sleep.
I arrived in Paris on Saturday. I lodged with Claude Camille de Périgord whom I had met at the University of Nantes. We had exchanged letters now and then. Yet, it was the first time I saw him again. He was three years older than I was. I found he was a handsome man. He worked at court. Claude had offered to help me find appropriate accommodations.
On Monday, he showed me to a marvellous mansion in the centre of Paris, not far from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. I was pleased. Comte Eugene would like the mansion. I spent the following week hiring servants and arranging things. At the end of the week, everything was prepared.
I thought of travelling back to Besançon. But Claude Camille convinced me to stay. Napoleon’s coronation would take place in two weeks, on the 2nd of December exactly. I spent my time exploring Paris. Unfortunately, Claude Camille was absent a lot. He was occupied with the preparations of the coronation ceremony. It seemed to me that every Parisian citizen was occupied with it.
Many foreigners had arrived lately, many of them preparing the stay of the invited foreign élite. The streets were crowded. The people were busy and worked frantically. I went out. I went to theatres, dinners and gala nights. I liked the frenzy. I entirely forgot about Robert and his malicious intentions.
My mother sent me a letter. She told me Lafayette and Robert got along very well. Robert acted reasonably and decent. I put the letter aside, feeling bored. I took no interest in Robert’s life. I paid more attention to Adrian’s letters. They were fervid and passionate. He missed me. I tried to write a similar response. But, strangely, I didn’t find the right words. Besançon was far away. It almost seemed to me that my old life no longer existed.
Comte Eugene and his entourage arrived at the end of November. The mansion pleased him. He was excited and looked forward to the ceremony. However, he planned to depart on the 5th of December. I told him that I had paid the rent in advance and that we could stay until the end of the month. Comte Eugene stuck to his decision. He noticed my disappointment and suggested I take a vacation. I gladly accepted. I had permission to stay in Paris until the end of the year.
The coronation ceremony was impressive and pompous. On a cold winter day, early in the morning, a dozen processions of deputations from the cities of France, the Army and Navy, the legislative assemblies, the judiciary, the administrative corps, the Legion of Honour, the Institute, and chambers of commerce left different points to converge on Notre-Dame cathedral.
At 9 a.m. the Papal procession set out from the Pavilion de Flore at Tuileries. Then the imperial cavalcade left Tuileries. It was followed by several regiments of the Army and a carriage for the Bonaparte brothers and sisters. Last of all was Napoleon's royal coach ornamented with gold, drawn by eight horses, and bearing the Emperor dressed in purple velvet embroidered with gems and gold. With him was his spouse Josephine, robed in silk and sparkling gems.It took an hour for all the carriages to reach the cathedral. After Napoleon and Josephine arrived, they changed into their red coronation robes. Napoleon took his place on a throne at the right of the altar with Josephine on a smaller throne five steps below.
After taking the crowns from the altar and blessing them, the Pope returned them to the altar and took his seat. Napoleon advanced and took the crown. He then returned to the altar and replaced the crown with a laurel wreath made of gold. Napoleon once again took up the crown and walked to the kneeling Josephine.
The ceremony lasted for more than three hours. It ended at three o'clock. A large crowd waited in falling snow to see the end of the ceremony.
We then went to the cloisters of the Carcanine nuns that were transformed into a ballroom for Napoleon's coronation. I left with Comte Eugene and his entourage at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Three days later, I was alone in the mansion, apart from a cook and two maids. I felt like a king. My own house was splendid, but it did not compare to that marvellous Parisian mansion. I had delusions of grandeur for a day or two. But then I came back down to earth. At the end of the week, I was feeling bored. I gladly accepted Claude Camille’s invitation to a private dinner.
Claude Camille had invited a few noblemen. We spent a cheerful evening, discussing the coronation ceremony, politics and philosophy. At about midnight, we decided to leave. The others descended the stairs. I was about to follow them when Claude placed his hand on my arm and straightforwardly asked me to stay and spend the night with him. That’s how I ended up in his bed.
Claude Camille was a brilliant lover, experienced and skilled, passionate and persevering. It didn’t take much for him to convince me to spend every single night of my stay with him. He showed me a new dimension of love. I realised that my love life so far had been shallow and flat. I succumbed to Claude. I succumbed to passion and lust. It was a vortex of emotions, a maelstrom of pleasure and lustful sensations.
Although feeling guilty, I ignored Adrian’s next letter. He reproached me for not having returned to Besançon with Comte Eugene and the others.
I spent New Year’s Eve with Claude Camille. The evening was the height of the season. That night I sensed the absolute climax of oral pleasures. We parted early the following morning, knowing we would probably never meet again.
I travelled back to Besançon.
I arrived in Besançon on the 5th of January 1805. It was a cold, grey and ugly day. The streets were empty. So was my house. My mother was absent. I withdrew to my room and looked at the walls. I thought my room, the house, the whole city were dusty, musty and smelly. The air was stifled. The light was faint. I was barely able to breathe. It all made me sick. I had a headache.
It was a Saturday. I had to go back to work on Monday. My mother visited my aunt and would not return before Sunday evening. I had another day on my own to settle in and get accustomed to my old life.
Unexpectedly, Adrian showed up in the evening. He was frustrated, yet tried to hide his frustration behind a cheerful embrace. I didn’t respond to his embrace in the same cheerful way. I mentioned the long journey and my headache as an excuse. It was a bad excuse. I saw Adrian didn’t believe it. He pouted. I tried to distract him. I told him of the coronation ceremony.
We had dinner together and we drank a lot of wine. And finally I gave in to his seductive endeavours. We went to my room and went to bed. He was impatient. But I kissed him slowly. He gave in. I ran my tongue down his body. He didn’t move. But I heard him breathe. And then, suddenly, he sat up, pushed me away and jumped off the bed.
Adrian started to dress. I watched him in the dim light of the room that was illuminated by a candle. I looked at him in confusion. He was enraged. He put on his trousers and shirt. Then he turned to me abruptly.
“Is this the Parisian way of making love?” he hissed.
My heart beat faster. I didn’t reply.
“Is it?” he asked again.
I didn’t react. I just gazed at him.
“I think it is,” he said mockingly. “Don’t think you can fool me. What’s his name? You must have spent a lot of nights with him. That’s why you stayed so long.”
I didn’t move. I was feeling tired. Tired of the debate and tired of him.
“What’s his name?” Adrian asked again, still angry but also desperate.
“Claude Camille,” I said calmly.
Adrian didn’t move for a moment. He gazed into the room absent-mindedly. And then he grabbed the rest of his clothes and hastened out of the room.
I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes. I refused to think. I was tired of it.
I went back to work on Monday. Comte Eugene asked to speak with me privately. His revelations left me in a state of shock. He told me that there had been a thorough fiscal investigation in Besançon during my absence. The city treasurer and a few civil servants had been suspected of misappropriating funds.
I looked at Comte Eugene in confusion.
“I want to clear up confusion, Monsieur d’Aubert,” he said. “I made a donation to the city on Monday, 17th of December. A very generous donation. An amount that is double your annual salary.”
He paused a moment, waiting for me to comprehend the incomprehensible. I thought of my annual salary and doubled the number.
“A fair sum,” I said.
Comte Eugene nodded.
“This amount was missing. The investigation showed that the criminal kept the cheque and cashed it on Tuesday, 18th of December. He cashed the cheque in Dijon.”
“How did they find out?” I asked.
“I wrote a letter and asked for a receipt since I had not gotten one. Monsieur Lafayette delivered the letter to Monsieur Gossart, the city treasurer. Gossart was startled when he found that the cheque was missing. Lafayette insisted on an investigation, of course.”
“Monsieur Lafayette?” I asked.
“You were absent, Monsieur d’Aubert,” Comte Eugene said mildly. “Someone had to do your work. I have the highest respect for Monsieur Lafayette’s ability. He was very active, busy and insistent in this matter.”
I frowned slightly. Comte Eugene smiled and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“He’s a bighead. But, alas, I had to ask him to take care of the matter.”
Comte Eugene leaned forward a little.
“Gossart made a secret internal investigation first. Then gendarmerie questioned the bank clerks in Besançon, Dijon and other towns in the surrounding area. Successfully. Last Friday, one of the bank clerks remembered my cheque. They knew the name of the man. His signature was on the carbon copy of the receipt. That said man is a civil servant. He had a day off on the 18th of December. His name is Adrian Bonfort.”
I was in a state of shock and gazed at Comte Eugene with widened eyes. Adrian? Adrian, a cheque fraudster?
Comte Eugene misunderstood my consternation. Luckily. He nodded.
“It’s incredible, isn’t it? They will arrest him this afternoon when Monsieur Gossart, the city treasurer, is back. He’s away, unfortunately, but ought to be back in a couple of hours. I want you to write a thorough report based on this conversation and the letters I put on your desk, Monsieur d’Aubert.”
I nodded slowly and rose to my feet. I went into my office. I looked at the clock. 9 a.m. I could go and warn Adrian. There was enough time for him to leave the city and disappear. Instead, I wrote the report, sort of Comte Eugene’s statement regarding the incident. I pointed out Comte Eugene’s urgent wish to see the criminal arrested and his request to hold the man liable for his crime. I refused to look at the clock. I looked at the paper and my neat handwriting instead. I signed per procurationem. p.p. Edmond d’Aubert.
Comte Eugene read the statement and asked me to go and hand it to a member of the city council. I arrived there at about one o’clock. They told me Adrian was in his office. It was under constant watch. Monsieur Gossart, the city treasurer, was expected to be back in short. A gendarme was already waiting inside.
I left in an apathetic state of mind. I had deceived Adrian with another man. Why, I could not say anymore. Paris was just a memory. A memory of an ecstatic dream, illusive and very unreal. But Adrian was real. He was my lover and friend. I thought of his features, his eyes, his smile and his cheerful embrace. And now I had betrayed him.
I was a liar, a traitor, a miserable creature. Tears came to my eyes as I went down the street.
They read Comte Eugene’s statement to him. I had signed it. They read my name to him.
And Adrian paid back in my own coin.
I was arrested one week later.
I had dinner with my mother when the door bell rang. Four gendarmes stood outside. The head of the gendarmerie read to me the writ of attachment. I was accused of having devised a plot against Napoleon. Adrian Bonfort had testified against me. Although arrested himself and accused of cheque fraud, his statement was considered credible since he had given them a detailed report of the conspiracy meeting, place, date, names of the conspirators and plot.
I refused to go with them and protested loudly. I asked them to inform Comte Eugene instantly, but my protests didn’t impress them. Only when my mother burst into tears, they agreed to send a gendarme to Comte Eugene. Three hours later, Monsieur Lafayette arrived with a letter. Comte Eugene expressed his deepest regrets. But, unfortunately, he felt he was unable to help me. He advised me to not object and go with them. I was speechless and utterly shaken. But I didn’t resist any longer.
The gendarmes led me out of the house and to a carriage. I passed Lafayette. Lafayette gloated. It was nearly midnight, but the streets were crowded. It seemed to me that whole Besançon had been informed on my upcoming arrest, whereas I had been the only one who had not had a single clue.
I spent one week in the prison of Besançon. I maintained my innocence. But they didn’t believe me. I was not allowed to see anybody. And then they transported me to Paris.
Weeks passed. I was questioned again and again. Meanwhile two of my friends had been arrested and brought to Paris also. Adrian had been taken to Paris as well. We were not allowed to speak to each other or even meet. We were questioned separately.
Adrian’s statement referred to an evening I had spent with him, said friends and Robert, soon after Robert’s arrival in Besançon. It had been a joyous evening. We had drunk a lot of wine. We had talked about the French Revolution and its outcome. The revolution had resulted in blood and thunder and in terror. Noble motives, liberty, equality, fraternity, were soon forgotten. Napoleon had seized power. Democracy was far away. Napoleon had ruined it all. We had wished him to hell. Adrian had twisted the event into a conspiracy plot. He told them that I had forced him to accompany me.
I couldn’t believe they believed him. It was his revenge. I was sorry for my innocent friends. Robert was lucky. A doctor had attested him insanity. They refrained from arresting and questioning him. I was unable to do anything. I was allowed to exchange letters with only my mother. The letters were censored. So we were not able to write frankly.
My mother sent me a letter in April. The last paragraph gave me some thoughts. She had put an exclamation mark at the end of each sentence. I read the paragraph several times.
My mother wrote that Monsieur Lafayette and Robert were on very good terms. Robert acted like a reasonable person and made plans for the future. He had worked on a project in the past. Monsieur Lafayette had felt inspired by Robert’s project. My mother wrote that Lafayette and Robert had travelled to Dijon in December and had come back to Besançon with promising information regarding their project. I read the following two sentences aloud: Dijon is also the place where Adrian Bonfort lived before he came to Besançon! Investigations meanwhile showed that he was accused of cheque fraud there also!
Lafayette had insisted on a thorough investigation of the case in Besançon. My mother wrote that Lafayette had visited Adrian in prison two days before I had been arrested. He had talked to him in private and had encouraged him to be cooperative in the matter. Monsieur Jugnot, head of the gendarmerie, had mentioned it in public. My mother thought Lafayette was a purposeful and bold man. Lafayette had taken my place as Comte Eugene’s private secretary. Robert was in a good mood.
It was all plain to see. Robert, certified insane, but rather cold and calculating actor and culprit, had encouraged Lafayette to make inquiries about Adrian. They found out about his criminal past. The missing cheque was a cast of fortune. Lafayette insisted on a thorough investigation. It showed the expected result. Adrian was arrested. Lafayette had visited Adrian in prison and had probably made him a generous offer in exchange for his cooperation in the matter. What kind of offer? A certain amount of money, I guessed, a compensation to be given to him after his release from prison. Which matter? My arrest and accusation.
Lafayette had taken my place as Comte Eugene’s private secretary. I would never be allowed to resume my work. My reputation was ruined. Even if I was acquitted of the charge, I would forever be a possible conspirator against Napoleon, a subversive, a doubtful character, a democrat, not loyal to the king. My friends would turn away from me.
My life lay in ruins. One person had achieved it in the briefest of time. Robert, the madman, who was in a good mood.
I was about to give up and wail in self-pity. But then I stifled my emotions and feelings and forced myself to think logical. Adrian’s accusations were groundless. They would find out, sooner or later, and they would not sentence me to death. Then I made two decisions. First, I cut Robert out of my heart. It was an act of volition, deliberate and intentional. Second, I decided to prove my innocence and work on my rehabilitation.
I was released from prison in June. So were my friends. We were found not guilty. The trial had been long and tedious. Adrian’s credibility was finally questioned, after they had thoroughly investigated on his past. He contradicted himself and finally admitted that he had invented the accusations. He was found guilty of cheque fraud and false testimony. He was sentenced to six months in prison. Being in prison for five months, he had already served most of the sentence. He was released in July and left Paris instantly. I never saw him again.
I returned to Besançon and spoke with Comte Eugene. He told me that Lafayette had left Besançon upon hearing of my verdict of not guilty and that Robert had resumed acting like a madman after Lafayette had left the town. Their behaviour had made him suspicious. I showed him my mother’s letter.
Comte Eugene nodded slowly.
“I fear your mother is right, Monsieur d’Aubert. I did not see through Lafayette’s plans. I did not help you. I made a mistake. I deeply regret it and I do apologize. It is sad, but what happened cannot be undone. For the sake of your well-being, leave Besançon for some time. And take your mother with you.”
I was the centre of interest. Though found not guilty, people pointed at me and called me names. I was a public nuisance.
I prepared my move to Paris. My mother refused to come with me. She was determined to stay in Besançon and face the people.
Comte Eugene took the necessary steps. Robert was removed from Besançon. I heard that two gendarmes had forced him into a carriage. He struggled and fought. They took him to an asylum in Montpellier, far away from Besançon. I was not in town that day. I lacked the courage.
I felt horrible when I left Besançon. My life had fallen to pieces and I had to start all over again. But, somehow, I felt that I deserved it.
In August 1805, I saw Claude Camille again.
Claude had heard of my trials and tribulations. I gave him a long and detailed report. He leaned back in his chair and watched me, a slight smile playing on his lips.
“Do you treat all your lovers like this?” he asked.
I gazed at him. And then I blushed.
It was the turning point of my life. Claude’s question shook me to the core. My self-image crumbled in the blink of an eye. I was bitter, heartless and cruel. I realised that my views and opinions, my convictions and beliefs, my feelings, intentions and motives were egocentric and self-absorbed. Without them I was an empty shell.
My look was horrified. I felt as cold as ice. Claude’s eyes rested on my face. He measured me calmly. I did not know what to say. I just looked at Claude and was not able to turn my eyes away. He must have realised what was going on inside me. Claude waited patiently.
I had a lump in my throat. I swallowed and nodded. I nodded repeatedly. And then tears filled my eyes. I turned my eyes away and my head aside.
Suddenly, I felt his hand on my shoulder. Claude stood beside my chair. I was not able to look at him. His hand touched my head. He pulled me closer, until my head rested against his lap. There was nothing erotic or sensual about it. But it was intimate and soothing me. We remained motionless and silent for some time, until I felt more at ease.
Claude finally pulled me up, placed an arm around my shoulders, and led me to his room upstairs. He smiled at me when he started to undress. We lay next to each other. Claude had put an arm around me. I sensed his skin against mine. Nothing else happened that night.
He woke me with a kiss on my ear. I still felt shattered and wretched. But I returned his smile. He ran his hands, tongue and lips over my body. He was soft, gentle and tender. He took his time. And then we talked until late in the morning.
Claude was my saviour. He saved me from my own ill nature and my inevitable self-destruction.
Based on philosophical studies, Claude had developed his own system of thoughts. He introduced me to his thinking and his conception of the world. His thoughts were refreshing and his views were uncommon. We spent hours discussing his system. It explained human behaviour from a psychological point of view. I learned to understand my subconscious motives. I felt sorry for Robert, Adrian and me. Claude comforted me in my grief. He told me to learn from my faults. He was a teacher to me. But he never considered himself superior to me.
“Why should I consider myself superior to you?” he asked with a laugh. “The higher you climb, the farther you fall.”
He opened one of his books and showed me the image of a tower that was hit by lightning. Two figures fell to the ground. I looked at the image and the two figures for a while, feeling regret and grief.
“Did you know that Robert was taken from the asylum to a foster home? A friend of mine sent me a letter and told me so,” I said.
“No, I didn’t know. So he’s truly mentally ill? Didn’t you say he acted like a madman on purpose?” Claude asked.
“I think he followed the only path he found he was able to take. After his dream of a higher and ideal love was spoiled, he chose a life in solitude. He once proclaimed it would be the end of his path,” I said.
“So you think it was his conscious decision?” Claude asked.
“Who knows,” I said. “He wrote down his life in a novel. I sometimes think he was trying to turn fiction into reality. It was all authentic, except of the background of the story, and except of two points,” I said.
“Yes?” Claude asked.
“First, the narrator chose a life in solitude, which Robert may now have chosen for himself, too. And second, his friend and lover left him deliberately. He intended to hand himself over in order to be held liable for his past crimes. He was a conspirator and subversive. He had lost everything. His life lay in ruins,” I said with a small smile.
Claude looked at me.
“What happened to him?” he asked quietly.
“He chose to pay with his life for his crimes,” I said.
Claude leaned back and just looked at me.
“That was his plan. But we don’t know if he died. It’s not mentioned in the book,” I said.
“Did he truly want to die? Was it his plan?” Claude asked in a low voice.
“No,” I said. “I knew Adrian’s accusations were groundless. I knew I would not be sentenced to death. I could have taken my life because of the shame and disgrace. But I decided against it,” I said.
“His mind is twisted. He’s not of sound mind. I hope they keep him under watch constantly,” Claude said.
Claude looked into the room for a while.
“That explains a lot, Edmond” he said, turning to me. “It explains your disappointment and bitterness, your hate and contempt. It explains your hateful actions. Why didn’t you tell me when I reproached you for your heartless behaviour?” he asked.
“Because you were right, Claude. I was heartless and filled with hate and contempt. I would have been heartless and cold until the end of my life, had you not asked me that question. You saved me from my own ill nature and from my inevitable self-destruction,” I said.
“Do you think you can live with Robert’s act of betrayal?” Claude asked.
“I need to,” I said. “I was a traitor myself, wasn’t I? But, yes, the grief is still big. I hope I can forgive him one day,” I said.
Claude reached out his hand and touched my cheek lightly.
“Everybody will be held liable for his deeds one day or other. Do not seek revenge, Edmond. Do not judge him. Work on your own faults. Everything comes back to us. It is a matter of righteousness, a matter of truth and certainty,” he said.
Claude drew back his hand.
“What about Adrian?” he asked.
“We played the same unfortunate game and neither of us did win or lose,” I said. “I feel we’re even, in a sense. I can’t really explain. I don’t bear a grudge. And I hope he does not either.”
We looked into the room, pondering.
“It’s good that fate sent you here, Edmond. I wished for a sincere companion. I wished for someone to study and work with me. You came here right in time,” Claude said finally.
He clapped his hands.
“Come. Let’s have dinner now, Edmond. I’m very hungry.”
Claude Camille was my lover and friend. Life drew us apart after three years. Claude encouraged me to take up a writing career. I don’t hold a grudge against Adrian and I have forgiven Robert. It was a hard and long way to go. I finally forgave myself, too. Claude opened my eyes. I’m grateful and confident. And I trust in a higher love.
© 2009 Dolores Esteban
First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction