William Dietrich - Ethan Cage 01 - Napoleon's Pyramids

By Francisco Crawford,2014-11-14 19:26
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William Dietrich - Ethan Cage 01 - Napoleon's Pyramids


A Novel


To my daughter, Lisa

    What is God?

    He is length, width, height, and depth.





    It was luck at cards that started the trouble, and… CHAPTER TWO

    It was a pathetic attempt at verbal revenge. I bowed… CHAPTER THREE

    The chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet was, at age forty-nine, the most…


    he thieves, or agents—they were too often the same… CHAPTER FIVE

    One month later, on May 19, 1798, I stood on… CHAPTER SIX

    I almost drowned in the surf of Alexandria because of… CHAPTER SEVEN

    Victory is sometimes more untidy than battle. An assault can… CHAPTER EIGHT

    Then the well runs dry we know the worth of… CHAPTER NINE

    It was 2 P.M., the hottest time of the day,… CHAPTER TEN

    The home of Ashraf ‘s oddly named brother was in… CHAPTER ELEVEN

    I began with one of the expedition‘s astronomers, Nicholas-Antoine



    Napoleon was in a good mood when I asked for… CHAPTER THIRTEEN

    I left the calendar and joined a tide of men… CHAPTER FOURTEEN

    My first task, upon hearing this disturbing news, was to…


    They killed him as a message to me,‖ I said.


    Napoleon‘s visit to the pyramids was a grander excursion than…


    I reluctantly stayed as ordered to help Jomard and Monge…


    There was no wider gulf between the invading French army…


    The Egyptian desert west of the Nile is a trackless…


    I knew that the notion of galloping into Desaix‘s division…


    The Nile was high, brown, and powerful. It was October,…


    Our ride back north toward Cairo was a journey through…


    Once more the shaft seemed designed for the gliding of…


    Moses was an Egyptian prince who knew how this chamber…









    It was luck at cards that started the trouble, and enlistment in mad invasion that seemed the way out of it. I won a trinket and almost lost my life, so take lesson. Gambling is a vice.

    It‘s also seductive, social, and as natural, I would argue, as breathing.

    Isn‘t birth itself a roll of the dice, fortune casting one babe as peasant and another as king? In the wake of the French Revolution the stakes have simply been raised, with ambitious lawyers ruling as temporary dictators and poor King Louis losing his head. During the Reign of Terror the specter of the guillotine made existence itself a matter of chance. Then, with the death of Robespierre came an insanity of relief, giddy

    couples dancing on the tombs of St.-Sulpice Cemetery to a new German step called the waltz. Now, four years later, the nation has settled into war, corruption, and the pursuit of pleasure. Drabness has given way to brilliant uniform, modesty to décolletage, and looted mansions are being reoccupied as intellectual salons and chambers of seduction. If nobility is still an offense, revolutionary wealth is creating a new aristocracy. There‘s a clique of self-proclaimed ―wonderful women‖

    who parade Paris to boast of their ―insolent luxury amid public wretchedness.‖ There are balls that mock the guillotine, where ladies wear red ribbons at their throat. The city counts four thousand gambling houses, some so plain that patrons carry in their own folding stools, and others so opulent that hors d‘oeuvre are served on sacramental plate

    and the privy is indoors. My American correspondents find both practices equally scandalous. The dice and cards fly: creps, trente-et-un, pharaon, biribi. Meanwhile armies tramp on France‘s borders, inflation is ruinous, and weeds grow in the deserted courtyards of Versailles. So to risk a purse in pursuit of a nine in chemin de fer seemed as natural and foolish as life itself. How was I to know that betting would bring me to Bonaparte?

    Had I been inclined to superstition, I might have made note that the date, April 13, 1798, was a Friday. But it was springtime in revolutionary Paris, meaning that under the Directory‘s new calendar it was the twenty-fourth day of the month of Germinal in the Year Six, and the next day of rest was still six days distant, not two. Has any reform been more futile? The government‘s arrogant discard of Christianity means that weeks have been extended to ten days instead of seven. The revision‘s intent is to supplant the papal calendar with a uniform alternative of twelve months of thirty days each, based on the system of ancient Egypt. Bibles themselves were torn up to make paper gun cartridges in the grim days of 1793, and now the biblical week has been guillotined, each month instead divided into three decades of ten days, with the year beginning at the autumn equinox and five to six holidays added to balance idealism with our solar orbit. Not content with regimenting the calendar, the government has introduced a new metric system for weight and measure. There are even proposals for a new clock of precisely 100,000 seconds each day. Reason, reason! And the result is that all of us, even Iamateur scientist, investigator

    of electricity, entrepreneur, sharpshooter, and democratic idealistmiss Sundays. The new calendar is the kind of logical idea imposed by clever people that completely ignores habit, emotion, and human nature and thus forecasts the Revolution‘s doom. Do I sound prescient? To be honest, I wasn‘t used to thinking about popular opinion in such a calculating manner yet. Napoleon would teach me that. No, my thought was focused on counting the turn of cards. Had I been

    a man of nature I might have left the salons to enjoy the year‘s first blush of red bud and green leaf, perhaps contemplating the damsels of the Tuileries Garden, or at least the whores of the Bois de Boulogne. But I‘d chosen the card cozies of Paris, that glorious and grimy city of perfume and pollution, monument and mud. My spring was candlelight, my flowers courtesans of such precariously suspended cleavage that their twin advertisements teetered on the brink of escape, and my companions a new democracy of politician and soldier, displaced nobleman and newly rich shopkeeper: citizens all. I, Ethan Gage, was the salon‘s American representative of frontier democracy. I had minor

    status thanks to my earlier apprenticeship to the late, great Benjamin Franklin. He‘d taught me enough about electricity to let me amuse gatherings by cranking a cylinder to impart a frictional charge to the hands of the prettier ones and then daring the men to try a literally shocking kiss. I had minor fame from shooting exhibitions that demonstrated the accuracy of the American longrifle: I had put six balls through a pewter plate at two hundred paces, and with luck had cut the plume from a skeptical general‘s hat at fifty. I had minor income from trying to forge contracts between war-pressed France and my own infant and neutral nation, a task made damnably difficult by the revolutionary habit of seizing American ships. What I didn‘t have was much purpose

    beyond the amusement of daily existence: I was one of those amiably drifting single men who wait for the future to start. Nor did I have income enough to comfortably support myself in inflationary Paris. So I tried to augment it with luck.

    Our host was the deliberately mysterious Madame d‘Liberté, one of those enterprising women of beauty and ambition who had emerged from revolutionary anarchy to dazzle with wit and will. Who had known females could be so ambitious, so clever, so alluring? She gave orders like a sergeant major, and yet had seized on the new fad for classical gowns to advertise her feminine charms with fabric so diaphanous that the discerning could detect the dark triangle pointing to her temple of Venus. Nipples peeped over the top of her drapery like soldiers from a trench, the pair of them rouged just in case we might overlook their boldness. Another mademoiselle had her breasts exposed entirely, like hanging fruit. Was it any wonder that I‘d taken the risk of returning

    to Paris? Who cannot love a capital that has three times as many winemakers as bakers? Not to be outdone by the women, some of the male peacocks sported cravats reaching as high as their lower lip, cod-tailed coats that descended to the back of their knees, slippers as dainty as kitten‘s paws, and golden rings that glittered on their ears.

    ―Your beauty is eclipsed only by your cleverness,‖ one drunken patron, an art dealer named Pierre Cannard, told Madame after she cut off his brandy. It was her punishment for his having spilled on her recently

    acquired oriental carpet, which she‘d paid ruined royalists too much for in order to acquire that impossible-to-imitate threadbare look that proclaims the penny-pinching ancestry of the rich.

    ―Compliments will not clean my rug, monsieur.‖

    Cannard clutched his heart. ―And your cleverness is eclipsed by your strength, your strength by your stubbornness, and your stubbornness by your cruelty. No more brandy? With such feminine hardness, I might as well buy my spirits from a man!‖

    She snorted. ―You sound like our latest military hero.‖

    ―You mean the young general Bonaparte?‖

    ―A Corsican pig. When the brilliant Germaine de Staël asked the upstart what woman he could most admire, Bonaparte replied, ‗The one who is

    the best housekeeper.‘‖

    The gathering laughed. ―Indeed!‖ Cannard shouted. ―He‘s Italian, and knows a woman‘s place!‖

    ―So she tried again, asking who is the woman most distinguished among her sex. And the bastard replied, ‗The one who bears the most children.‘‖

    We roared, and it was a guffaw revealing our uneasiness. Indeed, what was a woman‘s place in revolutionary society? Women had been given rights, even of divorce, but the newly famous Napoleon was no doubt just one of a million reactionaries who would prefer repeal. What, for that matter, was a man‘s place? What had rationality to do with sex and romance, those great French passions? What had science to do with love, or equality with ambition, or liberty with conquest? We were all feeling our way in year six.

    Madame d‘Liberté had taken as an apartment the first floor above a millinery shop, furnished it on credit, and opened so hastily that I could smell wallpaper paste alongside the cologne and tobacco smoke. Couches allowed couples to entwine. Velvet drapes invited tactile sensation. A new piano, far more fashionable than the aristocratic harpsichord, provided a mix of symphonic and patriotic tunes. Sharps, ladies of pleasure, officers on leave, merchants trying to impress the gossips, writers, newly pompous bureaucrats, informers, women hoping to marry strategically, ruined heirs: all could be found there. Those ranked around the game‘s shoe included a politician who had been in prison just eight months before, a colonel who had lost an arm in the revolutionary conquest of Belgium, a wine merchant getting rich by supplying restaurants opened by chefs who‘d lost their aristocratic employers, and a captain from Bonaparte‘s Army of Italy, who was spending his loot as quickly as he‘d nabbed it.

    And me. I‘d served as a secretary to Franklin for his last three years in Paris just before the French Revolution, returned to America for some adventures in the fur trade, made some living as a shipping agent in London and New York at the height of the Terror, and now had returned

    to Paris in hopes my fluent French might help me cement timber, hemp, and tobacco deals with the Directory. There‘s always a chance to get rich during war. I also hoped for respectability as an ―electrician‖—a

    new, exotic wordand by following up on Franklin‘s curiosity about Masonic mysteries. He‘d hinted they might have some practical application. Indeed, some claimed the United States itself had been founded by Masons for some secret, as yet unrevealed, purpose, and that ours was a nation with a mission in mind. Alas, Masonic lore required tedious steps toward degree advancement. The British blockade impeded my trade schemes. And one thing the Revolution had not changed was the size and pace of France‘s implacable bureaucracy: it was easy to get

    an audience and impossible to get an answer. Accordingly, I had plenty of time between interviews for other pursuits, such as gambling. It was a pleasant enough way to spend one‘s nights. The wine was agreeable, the cheeses delectable, and in candlelight every male face seemed chiseled, every woman a beauty.

    My problem that Friday the thirteenth was not that I was losing, but that I was winning. By this time the revolutionary assignats and mandats had become worthless, paper rubbish and specie rare. So my pile consisted of not just gold and silver francs but a ruby, a deed to an abandoned estate in Bordeaux I had no intention of visiting before unloading on someone else, and wooden chips that represented promises of a meal, a bottle, or a woman. Even an illicit gold louis or two had found their way to my side of the green felt. I was so lucky that the colonel accused me of wanting his other arm, the wine merchant lamented he could not tempt me to full drunkenness, and the politician wanted to know who I‘d bribed.

    ―I simply count cards in English,‖ I tried to joke, but it was a poor joke because England was reportedly what Bonaparte, back from his triumphs in northern Italy, was trying to invade. He was camped somewhere in Brittany, watching the rain and wishing the British navy would go away.

    The captain drew, considered, and blushed, his skin a proclamation of his thought. It reminded me of the story of the guillotined head of Charlotte Corday, which reportedly reddened with indignation when the executioner slapped it before the crowd. There has been scientific debate since about the precise moment of death, and Dr. Xavier Bichat has taken corpses from the guillotine and tried to animate their muscles with electricity, in the same manner that the Italian Galvani has done with frogs.

    The captain wanted to double his bet, but was frustrated by his empty purse. ―The American has taken all my money!‖ I was the dealer at the moment, and he looked at me. ―Credit, monsieur, for a gallant soldier.‖

    I was in no mood to finance a betting war with a gambler excited about

his cards. ―A cautious banker needs collateral.‖

    ―What, my horse?‖

    ―I‘ve no need of one in Paris.‖

    ―My pistols, my sword?‖

    ―Please, I would not be complicit in your dishonor.‖

    He sulked, peeking again at what he held. Then the kind of inspiration struck that means trouble for everyone within range. ―My medallion!‖

    ―Your what?‖