PROLOGUEThe fourth book in the series will be published next year.
12 May 1889
Storm clouds raced over the barren plain between the fortifications and the goods station at Les Batignolles, where the scrubby grass smelled unpleasantly of sewers. Rag-and-bone men, grouped around carts filled with household rubbish, were using their gaffs to level the mounds of detritus, raising eddies of dust. A train approached from far in the distance, gradually getting bigger and bigger.
A gang of children came running down the hillocks, shrieking: 'There he is! Buffalo Bill is coming!'
Jean Mering straightened up and, hands on hips, leant backwards to relieve his aching joints. It had been a good haul: a three-legged chair, a rocking horse that had lost its stuffing, an old umbrella, a soldier's epaulette and a piece of wash-basin rimmed with gold. He turned towards Henri Capus, a lean old man with a faded beard.
'I'm going to see the Redskins. Are you coming?' he said, adjusting the wicker basket on his shoulders.
He picked up his chair, passed the Cook Agency vehicles and joined the crowd of onlookers gathered around the station, a mixture of workmen, petit bourgeois, and high society people who had come in carriages.
With a great hiss of steam, a locomotive followed by an endless convoy of coaches pulled up beside the platform. A covered wagon stopped in front of Jean Mering. Inside, panic-stricken horses were stamping wildly, and tossing their manes. Sunburned men in cowboy hats and Indians with painted faces and feather headdresses leant out of the doors. Everyone was jostling to catch a glimpse.
Jean Mering slapped the nape of his neck: an insect sting. Immediately he faltered, slid sideways, staggered, and then stumbled against a woman, who pushed him away, thinking he was drunk. His legs buckled and, as he lost his grip on the chair, he sank to the ground, dragged down by the weight of his basket. He tried to raise his head but already he was too weak. He could faintly hear Henri Capus's voice.
'What's the matter, my friend? Hold on, I'll help you. Where does it hurt?'
With a tremendous effort Mering managed to gasp: 'A...bee...'
His eyes were watering and his sight was becoming blurred. Amazingly, in the space of just a few minutes, his whole body had become as limp as an old rag. He could no longer feel his limbs, his lungs were straining for air. In his last moments of lucid thought he knew that he was about to die. He made a final effort to cling to life, then let go, slipping into the abyss, down...down...down... The last thing he saw was a dandelion flower, which was blooming between the paving stones, as yellow as the sun.
CURIOUS DEATH OF A RAG-AND-BONE MAN
A rag-and-bone man from Rue de la Parcheminerie has died from a bee-sting. The accident occurred yesterday morning at Batignolles station as Buffalo Bill and his troupe arrived in Paris. Bystanders tried in vain to revive the victim. The enquiry has revealed that the dead man was Jean Mering, 42, a former Communard who had been deported to New Caledonia but returned to Paris after the amnesty of 1880.
The man crumpled the newspaper into a ball and tossed it into the waste-bin.
Wednesday 22 June
Wearing a tight new corset that creaked with every step, Eugenie Patinot walked down Avenue des Peupliers. She felt weary at the prospect of what already promised to be an exhausting day. Endlessly pestered by the children, she had reluctantly left the cool of the veranda. If outwardly she gave an impression of dignified composure, inside she was in turmoil: tightness in her chest, stomach cramps, a dull pain in her hip and, on top of everything, palpitations.
'Don't run, Marie-Amelie. Hector, stop whistling, it's vulgar.'
'We're going to miss the bus, Aunt! Hector and I are going to sit upstairs. Have you definitely got the tickets?'
Eugenie stopped and opened her reticule to make sure that she did have the tickets, which her brother-in-law had bought several days earlier.
'Hurry up, Aunt,' urged Marie-Amelie.
Eugenie glared. The child really knew how to annoy her. A capricious little boy, Hector was hardly any better. Only Gontran, the eldest, was tolerable, as long as he kept quiet.
There were about ten passengers waiting at the omnibus station on Rue d'Auteuil. Eugenie recognised Louise Vergne, the housemaid from the Le Massons. She was carrying a large basket of linen to the laundry, probably the one on Rue Mirabeau, and was quite unselfconsciously wiping her pale face with a handkerchief as big as a sheet. There was no way of avoiding her. Eugenie stifled her irritation. The woman was only a servant but always spoke to her as an equal, with overfamiliarity, and yet Eugenie had never dared point out this impropriety.
'Ah, Madame Patinot, how hot it is for June! I feel I might melt away.'
'That would be no bad thing,' muttered Eugenie.
'Are you going far, Madame Patinot?'
'To the Expo. These three little devils begged my sister to go.'
'Poor dear, the things you have to do. Aren't you frightened? All those foreigners...'
'I want to see Buffalo Bill's circus at Neuilly. There are real Redskins who shoot real arrows!'
'That's enough, Hector! Oh that's good, he's wearing odd socks--a white one, and a grey one.'
'It's coming, Aunt, it's coming!'
Omnibus A, drawn by three stolid horses, stopped by the pavement. Marie-Amelie ran upstairs.
'I can see your drawers,' shrieked Hector, following her up. 'I don't care! From up here everything's beautiful,' retorted the little girl.