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1636 The Atlantic Encounter: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Friday, June 19, 2020 11:30 EDT

 


 

    Paris was a long way from hilly Alsace where he had grown up, but it called to him from his youth. Youngest of eight children, there was nothing on the family farm to keep him there — not working in the vineyards nor cultivating hops (his papa used to say, “wine and beer — everyone drinks at least one”) nor herding goats. He was not made out to be a monk, and there was no money to do much else. So, when he was seventeen, he left home and set out for the city.

    Nothing motivates quite like privation. Paris had lots of hungry, desperate people in the spring of 1634, and a country boy from Alsace was more than likely going to become a victim, prey rather than predator. But Stephane had learned a few things as the youngest of eight: when to be seen and when to be silent; how to avoid a beating if there was one to be given out, whether at fault or not; and how to make sure there was always a portion for him for dinner.

    He was agile; he was nimble; he knew how to hide, and soon to steal and to deceive. There were plenty of small-time gangs in the rabbit-warren streets of Paris who welcomed someone like that. One of them, a one-eyed rag pedlar named Marcel, took him in and within a week had him out on the street doing odd jobs, with the victims mostly men and women much like himself — except that they were unsuspecting and easy prey.

    Marcel himself was only incidentally a rag pedlar. After the sun went down, he and his little band retired to a bolt-hole not far from the sprawling marketplace at Les Halles and divided the spoils of the day. To his credit, Marcel took a large share, but allowed his operatives to keep a fair amount for themselves; and no one, no matter how poor their take, went hungry or cold. He inspired loyalty among his boys — and got it: Marcel was careful, paying the needed bribes, protecting them all from the constabulary, never aiming too high to attract the attention of the mighty, nor troubling the poorest who would have nothing to lose by turning them in.

    It was, as Marcel pointed out, a good and healthy relationship. The rag pedlar made sure to light the occasional candle to the Blessed Virgin to thank Her for his good fortune, their little hideaway an island of calm in a sea of want.

    It was easy now, at two years’ remove, to look upon that time with fondness; Marcel’s ‘family’ only stole from those who were already well enough off to afford it. For a time, Stephane even thought that he might graduate to some legitimate profession, as a few of the other ‘boys’ had done. But even if that hadn’t happened, it was a comfortable enough life, better than anything that had awaited him in Alsace.

    It all came to an end one warm summer evening.

     


 

    Stephane was just coming from his usual place near the Pont Royal, where he entertained passersby with sleight of hand and juggling tricks, while his partners worked the crowd and slit the convenient purse. They’d split up: they always did, taking care as they made their way back to the safe house. Flushed with success he’d allowed himself a stop at a pastry cart in Les Halles, where he’d bought a sou’s worth of fruit-filled tart; he still remembered its sweetness, of confit and honey, how it had smelled so wonderful and tasted so delicious. Marcel would not mind a sou spent thus, especially with the number of sous he was bringing home.

    But he never brought them home. As he made his way through the covered markets, following one of a dozen paths that would lead him there, he smelled fire — and heard shouts and cries.

    At first he thought it might be just spilled cooking grease, the sort of small fire that happened all the time in the markets; but as he came closer he saw that it was larger, hotter, and more out of control.

    From twenty yards away he knew that the fire was more than just a cook fire, and that the place where his ‘family’ had lived was in the midst of it. Ten yards closer, and he noticed — with the keen senses he’d developed from the Paris streets — that there was a great number of constables moving around in the crowd, which was mostly trying to get away from the fire.

    He had turned away then, knowing that there was no place for him to go home to.

    At the time, he thought he’d done a good job of mixing with the people trying to get away from Les Halles, just another poor Parisian sod in the crowd. There was nothing that would have — or should have — distinguished him. He had never attracted attention — never stepped outside the bounds that Marcel had set, never done anything that set him apart, made him a person of interest.

    Except that someone had been interested in him.

    He did not make it out of Les Halles that day. He knew every path through the marketplace, but so did the constables. They found him, seized him against his protests of innocence, and brought him to the Prison de l’Abbaye, the new one next to Saint-Germain-des-Prés; without explanation they tossed him into a crowded, dark cell at the rear of the second floor. The slamming of the iron-bound door and the turning of the key in the lock closed the door on the life he had known since coming to Paris.

     


 

    They left him in that cell with a half-dozen others, all of whom protested their innocence frequently and loudly enough that one of the keepers came into the cell and laid about him with a truncheon. Stephane had found a corner to the left of the cell entrance, where he feigned sleep, and only got a sharp poke in the chest — he reacted with a whoof and collapsed to the floor clutching his midsection and was afterward left alone. It was no worse than anything his older brothers had dealt out as he was growing up, and much less severe than the beating some of his cellmates received, the guard taking obvious delight in dealing it out.

    He found a way not to be seen, not to be noticed, not to be bothered. He wondered at the time if that meant that he’d be left to rot in the Prison de l’Abbaye for whatever crime they decided he’d committed. Sleight of hand and juggling, or even the occasional cutpursing, didn’t usually send you there. But there he was.

    Two days after landing in the cell, two sunsets and sunrises later, they came for him. The guards that took him out didn’t seem to know his name: they picked him out as the youngest and the smallest man in the cell. He was beckoned to follow — not picked up and roughly handled: it was just, “eh, le mec, vous là-bas, venez avec nous.”

    He went with them. It was not as if he were given a choice, but there was some illusion of courtesy, some vague notion that they were instructed to treat him gently. When in a situation like that one, it was best to cling to whatever there was, no matter how thin the reed might be.

    They took him to a room on the third floor, one much more clean and neat than the place they’d left him. There was a table and two chairs, a bottle of wine, two cups, and a loaf of bread on the table, along with a leather pouch and a pipe with a long, carved stem. He wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to eat and drink: after two days of the brownish slop that was all they’d been fed, the idea of a cup of wine and bread was almost too much for him. He was never sure afterward what kept him from it — perhaps natural streetwise suspicion.

    He left it alone, instead pacing out the dimensions of the room, glancing out the tall, barred window at the city beyond, wondering what was going to happen next.

    They didn’t make him wait long: a single toll of a nearby church bell — fifteen minutes at the most — and the door swung open again to reveal a middle-aged man, conservatively dressed in dark hues. What Stephane noticed first was the man’s hands: long-fingered, a scholar’s hands, with the faintest ink-stain where the pen would be held, and no rings or adornment whatsoever. In fact, he had no badge or mark of office at all; it was as if he designed to blend into the background — much like Stephane preferred for himself.

 



 

    The second thing he noticed was the eyes: deep set, around a small nose; dark and piercing, as if they took in every detail.

    “Ah,” the man said, gesturing to the table. “I see you have not partaken of refreshments.” He turned to the guard who had opened the door for him. “Leave us, s’il vous plait,” he said.

    “But, Monsieur –“

    The man held up one of those long-fingered hands. “Leave us,” he repeated. “Do not make me repeat myself.”

    The guard withdrew quickly, dismissed like a misbehaving hound. Stephane heard the door being secured.

    “Now,” the gentleman said. “Let us sit and enjoy this fine wine. Alsatian,” he added, picking up the bottle and examining the label.

    Stephane’s heart skipped a beat. He felt suddenly unmasked, exposed, as if this man knew exactly who he was.

    “Excuse me, Monsieur, but I⦔

    “Sit,” he said, gesturing to a chair. Stephane felt that he had no other choice. The wine bottle was opened, and wine was poured into the two cups. “Salut,” the man added, and drank first; Stephane followed, taking a careful sip. He was not at all surprised to find that it was excellent.

    “You can enjoy petun as well, if you wish.”

    Stephane did not answer; he was surprised to see the New World herb on the table — there was a rule against it in prison, though many of the guards and prisoners used it nonetheless.

    “I would like to put you at your ease, Stephane,” the man said at once, completing the task of unmasking him. “Yes,” he continued, “I know your name — it was easy enough to obtain. And yes, I know your profession.”

    Stephane did not answer; there was nothing he could say.

    “I assume that you are bursting with questions. All young men are; the ones that learn to ask the right question, at the right time, have a chance to become middle-aged menâ¦and sometimes, if they are even more careful, to become old men. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think you have a good chance to become middle-aged, Stephane.

    “Assuming, that is, that you ask the right question.”

    “I’m not sure what that might be, Monsieur.”

    “Do not hesitate, Stephane. Begin with the most obvious.”

    “As you wish,” Stephane answered. “Why am I here?”

    “Excellent,” the man answered. “That is truly excellent. A less wise man might have asked who I am. The effrontery — in case it was later determined that I was well known, and to ask my identity would be an affront to my notoriety. No, you have begun with the most obvious.

    “You are here, young Stephane, because you were picked up on suspicion.”

    “Suspicion of what?”

    The man made an offhand gesture with one hand. “Does it really matter? The Prefect of Police is really quite competent in following orders. Suspicion it is, and let us let it go at that. Truly, of all of Marcel’s little band of thieves and confidence artists, you were the one of greatest interest.”

    “Marcel?”

    “Do not dissemble with me. Your mentor. Your — keeper. Your father, I venture to say.”

    “My father is in Alsace.”

    “A turn of phrase. He is — or, should I say, was” — Stephane’s heart sank: if the man were telling the truth, it confirmed what he already feared — “your protector here in Paris. As I say, of all of his former wards, you are the most interesting.”

    “Marcel. Is he –“

    “Sadly, yes, he is dead. The wheel of fortune turns, young Stephane. Perhaps it is fortunate that you stopped on your way home, non?”

    Stephane remembered feeling sick for a few moments, as if he were going to vomit up the wine and the last few days’ gruel. The gentleman sitting opposite, speaking of Marcel’s death in polite, casual tones, was suddenly repellent.

    He stood up from his chair and went to the window, turning his back on his drinking companion.

    “Who are you, then?” he asked, not turning.

    “I am your new employer, Stephane,” the man said. “Unless you would prefer to continue to rot in this prison. It would be a waste of your obvious talents, butâ¦c’est la vie, I suppose.”

    “But who are you?” He turned, his face hot, but his eyes dry and filled with anger. “Or is that not the right question now, Monsieur? Who are you that wishes to employ me?”

    “Now it comes to this question,” the man said. “Very good. Now that we understand each other –“

    “We do not,” Stephane interrupted. “Even so.”

    “As you wish. My nameâ¦is unimportant: but if you must have it, my name is Servien. Étienne Servien. I suspect you have not heard of me. But you will know the name of the man whom I serve.”

    “Speak it and I shall tell you,” Stephane answered.

    “Of course,” Servien had said. “His name is Richelieu. The Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu.”

     


 

    He had learned his letters from his mother, who was a strong believer in such things; but he knew very little more. Servien demanded that he be able to read and write well enough to correspond: he told Stephane that he could be taught such things, and would prefer that he learn than he try to train a highly literate dullard to be clever and observant as he believed Stephane to be. Of course, no highly literate dullards had been deposited in the Prison de l’Abbaye, at the mercy of Monsieur Servien.

    As far as he knew.

    For all of the summer, and fall, and into the winter, he devoted himself to studies under the tutelage of a stern Dominican priest, Père Montségur, at a monastery outside of Paris. Stephane was his only student; the priest always carried a wooden dowel, ten inches long, as if he was constantly searching for some carpentry project that needed his attention: but its real use was to correct Stephane’s penmanship, or use of the accent grave, or anything else that annoyed the good Père — by a sharp rap on the knuckles of his non-writing hand and a stern faîtes attention! Because of this, he developed the habit of placing his left hand beneath the table as he wrote. Père Montségur used the dowel on his left shoulder instead — and Stephane always made sure to wince, even though it scarcely hurt at all.

    The abbey was no haven of ascetics. Père Montségur was a younger son of a nobleman in the country, and was thus accustomed to finer things — and saw no reason why his pupil should not enjoy them as well. There was fresh fruit, and olives, and cheese, and bread baked every morning, and vin ordinaire better than the best he’d ever had. He learned his lessons well — not just the writing, but tests of observation and memoryâ¦and learning all that could be learned about the great wonder of the age — the phenomenon known as the Ring of Fire.

    No one could say for certain what it was that brought the up-timers to Thuringia in the fall of 1631, three years before Stephane’s first encounter with Monsieur Servien. The Church was decidedly silent on the subject — Père Montségur would only say that he had not been given any particular doctrinal guidance on it. There was a bishop in the new town responsible for the souls of those devoted to the Church Universal, and as his Holiness was satisfied with that the Père would be satisfied as well.

     


 

    There was always this to be said in favor of Stephane’s new life. His mother would have strongly disapproved of his former career as a thief, had she ever found out. His new profession as a spy in the service of France’s rulerâ¦that might be another matter entirely.

    A pity, of course, that she’d never find that out either.


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