Fiction • Cornelius FitzPatrick
In March 1937, at the London home of one of his patrons, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte had a dream. He dreamed of Napoléon. René was staying in a guest room decorated by his host, Edward James, with objects referencing René’s previous works—twisting cloths hanging from the ceiling, bedside tables built of birdcages, and black umbrellas open above the light fixtures. In his waking hours he found the decor charmless, childlike in its fanaticism; the umbrellas felt like bad omens. He was there to paint three paintings for Edward’s ballroom and had already painted two. Edward liked the paintings but seemed to find little to like in his guest. René knew that he had poor manners. He resented that he needed this rich, blue-blooded Englishman. He missed his home and his wife, Georgette, and had slept poorly for two weeks now. In his dream he stood with Napoléon on a bank of the Thames.
Four times previously he had dreamed of the emperor. In the dreams he always had the familiar feeling of living through a war. The feeling made his food taste worse. It tainted everything—coffee, sex, reading, the sun on one’s eyelids.
The emperor gave no indication that he shared René’s disquiet. He always wore a thick military coat that hung oddly about his frame, as though his body had been reassembled poorly by the dream’s maker. His face was not his face but his plaster death mask, or rather the kind of cheap copy of the death mask found in art supply shops, a source of features for whoever might still be making paintings or statues of Napoléon. He was bald and earless and his eyes were closed. Whenever René saw the mask on the shelves of art shops or in his dreams, the serene expression on the emperor’s face felt familiar in a way he could never place, as though he had seen it before on someone else, or had often made the expression himself. In the dream, Napoléon always grew angry. This night he appeared to be angry with an old British warship that was sailing up the Thames. The sky was always Egyptian blue and the clouds large and bright and drifting. Always, Napoléon stabbed René in the stomach with his military sword.
René woke in Edward’s guest room with a groan and a phantom pain. He felt the cold, wet London night and pulled up his covers. In the days after each dream of the emperor, he had painted a copy of his death mask, covering it with blue sky and bright clouds. He had four masks in his studio in Brussels. Georgette called it an act of exorcism, but that was a joke. René did not know or care to know the why of it. It had to be done.
Would British stores carry the masks? Was there a demand among English artists for Napoléon’s likeness? He had purchased the previous four in his sister- in-law’s shop in Brussels. The masks were so ubiquitous in Belgium that he believed someone in London would sell them, and if that were the case, then Edward, or someone Edward knew, would know where to look. He weighed explaining it to Edward, weighed delaying his work in the ballroom, weighed spending extra time in this house. His thoughts led him to bitterness but not to answers, and he decided to test sleep again.
He could not sleep. He shifted his legs under the covers and counted the ridiculous items in his room. Twenty-four ridiculous items. While night counted its own way into morning, the desire to see the mask again opened in his stomach. He dressed, urinated, and went downstairs for some bread and coffee in the kitchen.
In the kitchen he told the servants, who were nervous at his presence there, that he intended to leave the house to find an art supply shop. Edward’s butler found René’s coat and was about to put it on him, then noted aloud that it was a raincoat.
“It’s snowing, sir,” he said. “I’ll fetch one of Mr. James’s coats.”
“I was told it never snowed in London,” René said. “That it only rained.”
Georgette had said as much. He wondered where she had heard it, and why he had believed her. She had never been to London. He was too dependent on her, he knew. She had also teased him about falling in love “over there,” by which she meant with Edward, whose affairs with men had ended his marriage.
“He was a fool who told you that, sir,” the butler said.
René grunted. “Well I do not wish to put Edward out.”
“Oh no, sir, Mr. James has plenty of coats.” The butler laughed a little, as if he had just realized that René was someone who could not normally imagine a man owning many coats. He returned a minute later with a long, black wool coat. There was fox fur at the collar and cuffs. The butler gestured for René to turn so he might place it on his back. René obliged him and felt the silk lining, the weight, the expensive quality on his frame.
At thirteen, Nabulio di Buonaparte liked to punch the sons of French nobility in the teeth. He was at a military academy, alone and far from home. The boys mocked him for his Corsican accent and shoddy French. He received good marks in mathematics. It was recommended that he become a naval officer. He was from an island but did not know how to swim.
One teacher marked him as stubborn, imperious, domineering. He was careless with his dress and could not read his own writing. He studied long hours and often forgot to eat, and when his mother came to visit on her way to take the water cure at Bourbon-Lancy, she did not recognize him. This was a painful victory for young Napoléon Bonaparte, as he would come to call himself. He both missed Corsica and wanted so to be French, to be better than his French classmates, and that his mother saw a change meant he was closer to this goal. But she was still there, his noble Corsican mother, an embarrassment of origins.
“Nabulio, you stink,” she said in Italian after embracing him. She did not speak French. She was the only mother Nabulio knew of who had her children bathed every other day. He was standing with her in the garden of the school, an old abbey turned military academy, and they were not yet obscured from view by the hedges. She held him by the shoulders, squinting and frowning as she did so, her weak chin disappearing, her large eyes the mirror image of his. He shrugged off her touch.
“The other boys say it’s not healthy to wash so much.”
“I am sure the other boys think they know a great deal. I will have a bath drawn.” She pulled at his uniform collar to straighten it.
“I am a soldier, Mother. I will have to get accustomed to not bathing.”
“You are a student and my son. How do you like your teachers? Are they strict?”
“They are strict,” he said in French. She scolded him for the pretension. They walked for a time in the garden and he asked about his siblings, his father. His brother Joseph was in Paris, excelling. His mother continued to speak in long, fast sentences, and Nabulio forgot several times to listen. The sun was out, the clouds few. He did not trust the sky when it looked like this. Or, rather, he felt underdressed, vulnerable, like a pupil unprepared for an exam. He wanted to be equal to the gaze of the sky. He wanted to get back to his studies.
“Why are you taking the water cure?” he asked his mother. She had been midsentence and looked surprised to find him next to her. He knew that most of the boys at school had mothers who had gone to springs in Auvergne for the cure. It was a fashionable thing, and the kind of silly luxury he would expect his mother to mock.
“Oh—oh,” she said. Nabulio liked to see his mother stutter. “Well, it is said to be marvelous for all kinds of ailments.”
“Are you ill?”
“No, I suppose not.”
He asked her again why she was going. She frowned, making her large eyes small.
“Your father asked me to go. He’s at court and seems to think it will help the family. You will ask something similar of your wife one day, I am sure.”
Nabulio did not think he ever would, but he did not say so. His mother was silent for a few minutes while they walked, and he felt for the first time that he had beaten her at her game. She had always been so warm and critical, so right and cutting in her criticism. She was uneducated but more intelligent than his father, who looked down on her all the same. Nabulio had learned this attitude. He was not conscious of the source of his feelings now, but he knew he was thrilled, in that moment, to have quieted her.
The sun caught the corner of his eye on their next turn and he walked a little faster, his mother straining to keep up, as they headed toward the old abbey.
As René walked in the direction of the Thames, it occurred to him that he did not know where in London to find an art supply shop, let alone one that carried Napoléon’s death mask. Edward had procured supplies in advance of his arrival. René had been patronizing these shops in different cities for so long that he felt he could read his way there. Perhaps London would show him a secondhand clothes shop, then an artist’s café, and then a printer’s shop, and he would know he was close.
Lately he had come to associate the desire to paint with a memory of being a child in Lessines and playing in the cemetery. He had played there often with a girl from his class, squeezing under the gates to the underground tombs and running his hand along the engravings or throwing his voice against the walls or chasing the girl through the aisles. He remembered coming out of a vault one day and seeing a painter. René, never having spoken to an adult stranger before, crept close to the man’s work and asked him about it. He saw the headstones there, in the painting, bluer than they were normally, twisted, strange and magic, blue like drowning. The painter had come from the capital, René remembered.
It seemed René had asked his parents for drawing lessons soon after this encounter in the cemetery, but he knew that could be an invention. He would have been young for lessons.
He thought of his mother, who drowned herself in the Sambre River when René was thirteen. Grown now as he was, René had entire days during which he did not think of his mother’s suicide. That is to say, he had entire days when he did not think of his mother; he could not remember her at all without contemplating her death. Today he remembered without feeling much. He simply wondered at the how of it—how could someone who knew how to swim drown herself in a slow, familiar river? No one had ever explained it to him. On lonely mornings in foreign countries René sometimes wondered if all of his life, all of his work, came down to this small mystery.
René should have asked Edward where he had bought the supplies. He remembered a painter friend mentioning an old shop with a Flemish-sounding name. The name escaped him. He decided to turn left toward the British Museum and ask someone there. It was snowing more heavily now, and René watched the large, wet flakes catch on the fur of his cuff.
On a corner a boy selling papers was yelling about the war in Spain and crackdowns on Catholics in Germany. The pope had angered the führer. René’s dream feeling of war was really an iteration of the feeling he’d had during the last war. There was no one else on the street, so the boy was yelling either to René or to no one. He kept yelling when René was past him. René found this funny—a small English boy yelling war into the void.
He walked the last four blocks. It began to snow even harder. The British Museum was closed. There was no one near the entrance. What time was it? René looked behind him, hoping to see someone arriving for work. Instead, he saw the boy who had been selling papers. He still held the papers under his arm. The boy’s presence brought him to alertness. It was very early. Even if he found a shop it would be closed. Why had the servants let him leave? The boy appeared to be waving to someone beyond René, maybe someone on the corner, but René looked and saw no one. He called to the boy, who looked apprehensive at first but came when René insisted.
“Are you changing locations?” René asked.
“Your corner—you have left it.”
“They’re all my corners, sir.” The boy spoke meekly, and René could tell he thought he was in trouble. He considered asking the boy where an art supply shop might be—he intended to renew his search later—but thought better of it. He realized his feet were wet from the snow even as Edward’s coat kept him warm.
“Do you know where a café is?” René asked.
“A what, sir?”
“A café—a place with food.”
“There’s a fine breakfast around the corner for you, sir.” The boy laughed.
“Around what corner?”
“Just there, if you take a right on Great Russell, sir.” The boy smiled again. René asked him if the next street was Great Russell, and the boy said it was. René thanked him and gave him ten pence from Edward’s coat pocket. The boy offered him a paper but he refused. He did not want to see it.
René walked off in his wet shoes toward the corner. He thought he felt the boy follow a few paces behind but did not want to make him feel awkward by turning around. He felt in Edward’s pocket again, curious as to how much was there. A few pounds, at least—enough for a good breakfast. It made René happy to think he would spend this money of Edward’s and Edward would never know. He reached the corner, took a right on Great Russell, and was hit in the face with a brick.
It snowed a few months after his mother’s visit, and for a week Nabulio and his classmates were forced to march in circles in a classroom rather than play and drill outside. Nabulio did not like the snow but hated this restriction more. He noticed the other boys growing rougher with each other in their confinement, shoving each other between classes, spending more time gazing out windows with their tongues hanging out, masturbating more obviously in their bunks. One morning at breakfast he approached a boy named Louis and told him of a plan he had. Louis was not a friend, was indeed self-serving and duplicitous, but he was also not cruel to Nabulio, and he was friends with some of the other, higher-born boys. With Louis’s help, Nabulio began directing his classmates in digging trenches and building walls and towers in the snow. Once finished, they would form opposing platoons, one of which Nabulio would command, though he did not tell Louis this yet.
“Have you asked the headmaster?” Louis asked Nabulio before the digging began.
“Asked him what? Is he headmaster of the snow?”
Several boys heard Nabulio say this and laughed. It soon became a joke among the class, with different words replacing “snow.” “Is he headmaster of the cabbage?” one boy asked when an instructor implored him to finish his meal. “Is he headmaster of my neck?” asked another who had gone out without a scarf. Is he headmaster of my boots? Of bedrolls? Of the sky?
The snowball fights lasted for two weeks. The boys mixed gravel with the snow. The headmaster ended the games when the son of a baron was carried to his door, bleeding and unconscious. Nabulio had directed a member of his platoon, a large boy who had given Nabulio an ugly nickname some years prior, to throw a thinly coated rock at the leader of the other platoon, the baron’s son, whom Nabulio disliked. He watched the boy fall unconscious and did not feel remorse, though he regretted that the games would be over. That night he passed out to his platoon some licorice that his mother had sent.
René woke on his back on the sidewalk, his shirt soaked through with snow. He felt wet and numb more than he felt cold. Through his left eye he saw the chaos of snowflakes against the gray of the sky. There was also the top of a row house and a few branches of a bare tree. His right eye opened only a little. A hard film stuck his eyelids together there. He remembered the brick and thought blood. He could still see every pockmark on the brick, as if he had examined it before being struck.
René sat up and his teeth clapped together, sending an ache through his skull. He said aloud what he had known to be true as soon as he awoke: “The coat.” The thieves had taken it. They had thought him rich, probably. René laughed and felt the pain and cold. With a handful of snow he cleaned his right eye of blood. He did not seem to be bleeding still.
His calm surprised him. He had not been mugged or knocked unconscious before. As a boy he had only fought a couple of times. Once, he had won. His brothers were younger than he. But violence in the world never surprised him, and so why should violence against his own small skull?
René walked back to Edward’s mansion. The mask would have to wait. The few people he passed ignored him, and he was grateful to London for that. His teeth began to bang together with the cold until his thoughts winnowed to the possibility of warmth and his ridiculous room at Edward’s.
He opened the door without knocking. In the foyer Edward was wearing his silk robe and whispering meanly to the butler. René thought he heard Edward refer to him, René, with some crude British slang that he had heard before but did not know the meaning of. Leave it to the English to whisper profanities in an empty house, he thought. The butler interrupted Edward when he saw René holding the door. He said the same thing René had said on the sidewalk: “The coat!”
“Damn the coat. M. Magritte is bleeding, you idiot.” Edward voiced his concern but stayed where he was. He called for another servant to tend to René. A young Irish girl, whom René knew cleaned his room, came out of the dining room and stood next to Edward. If she was shocked by René’s appearance she hid it well. He thought for a moment that she reminded him of Georgette, but he decided that was stupid. Edward told her to fetch some bandages and soap.
“René, you have a story to tell. What happened to your poor head and my favorite coat?” He exaggerated “favorite,” as if to tease René. But tease him about what? He couldn’t talk to this man.
“If I had known it was your favorite,” René said.
Edward’s eyes opened wide at this and his lips parted. His broad forehead and long, aristocratic nose made him look rather birdlike, particularly with this expression. He was rumored to be King Edward’s bastard. He was silent for a moment and then walked to René, grabbed René’s right biceps, and started to lead him into the sitting room.
They sat in low leather chairs with brass studs at the seams. Edward handed René a heavy wool throw, green and quite ugly. René placed it around his wet shoulders. He thought the throw a bit cheap for Edward’s tastes. But it was warm. René explained about the paperboy and the brick, and Edward sent another servant to call the police and find his doctor. René said he didn’t need a doctor. He mentioned the coins in the pocket of Edward’s coat, but he could not get Edward to understand what he meant. His head was hurting more. The conversation ended when Edward tried to hand him a twenty-pound note and René told him that he would go up and nap.
Edward took his leave, and before René retreated to his room he asked the Irish girl, who had just finished dressing his wound, for a favor. He asked her to find pen and paper and to send a telegram for him. She returned in a few minutes with the materials. He wanted to ask her name but instead wrote out the telegram. He wrote it in English, wanting to be sure that the office in London would get it right: Dreamt of N. Please send new mask. Love R.
Napoléon was fifteen and second overall in his class when he was accepted to the military academy in Paris. His father, in ill health, had secured him a royal sponsorship so that he could attend. Napoléon had wanted to attend the naval academy, but this had proved beyond his dying father’s power. Napoléon was strong in math; he would be an artillery officer. He would try to feel grateful for his father’s efforts. His teachers at the new academy would tell him to temper his love for Corsica. He would see them flee France and the Revolution within the decade.
On the morning he first arrived in Paris he was concerned with breakfast— should he buy some on the street or would they feed him once he arrived at the academy? The boy across from him in the carriage looked out the window. His name was Pierre. He had been first in their class and was also going to the military academy. Napoléon tried to adjust the inexplicable erection that was stuck to his inner thigh. He followed Pierre’s gaze out the window. At least the sky in Paris made sense. The sun looked satisfied with the buildings; the buildings paid proper tribute to the sun’s yellows, whites, blues.
He wondered what his brother Joseph was doing at that moment. He was here in Paris studying to be a diplomat. In his first school at Autun, Napoléon had been a year behind gentle Joseph, his teachers always asking why he could not be more like his older brother. Napoléon knew only that he had been thrashing Joseph since before either boy could read and that, as a Corsican, gentility would only take his brother so far. He wanted his brother to like him, but more than that he wanted his brother to be strong. If Joseph had been tough at Autun, Napoléon thought, his own time there would have been easier. His desire to hit Joseph in that moment almost overcame his hunger. He closed his eyes.
“Do you have to shit, Napoléon?” Pierre said. He had been born into old money and liked to curse and speak as if he hadn’t. He always acted as though he wanted something from Napoléon, though Napoléon did not know what.
“I was just thinking how much better Paris would smell if you weren’t here,” Napoléon said.
“Ever seen one of these?” Pierre threw something at him—a tiny linen sock?
“Liar. It’s for your prick,” the boy said, pointing to Napoléon’s erection.
“So you don’t get sick when you fuck the girls. I hear sometimes they take you to the girls on your first night.”
“Where’d you get it?”
Napoléon wondered if Joseph could get him one. He pulled on either end of the linen sock, trying to imagine how it worked, feeling his longing stretch with the fabric.
“This is your first time in Paris, isn’t it?” said Pierre.
“I was here as a child,” Napoléon lied.
“If you have any questions just ask me.”
“How much does your sister charge?” Napoléon threw the sock back at Pierre.
“She’s worth more than those Corsican sluts.”
“Well at least you’ll be able to afford her.”
At this, Pierre made an obscene gesture and laughed. Napoléon did not like these games but had learned how to play them at Brienne. He expected there would be more such games in Paris.
Edward insisted that René take a break from painting while his eye healed. René did not want to take a break. He did not know how he would fill his days in the house, and he was not yet ready to explore London again. To Edward he blamed this on the embarrassing black-yellow bruise across the right hemisphere of his face. Privately, the shock of the attack had finally registered in the form of a physical reticence, a hum of warning in his head. He felt foolish. When he closed his eyes he saw the topography of the brick. He would not leave the house. He tried sketching, just to prove that he could, but his vision was without its usual precision and staring at the page gave him headaches.
After a long day in Edward’s large and absurdly decorated library, during which he tried and failed to read—the headaches, again—he confessed to Edward the problem. Edward told him simply that Deirdre would read to him. He said it as if it were obvious, nothing, and then moved on so quickly to his monologue about Dalí that René did not get a chance to protest the ridiculous idea of being read to or to ask who Deirdre was. Only when she appeared in the library after dinner did he discover that it was the Irish maid.
She walked in, stood straight with her hands at her side, and asked René, calling him M. Magritte, what he would like to read. He was reminded that her voice was low for a woman’s and a little hoarse. Her accent was strong, but she spoke slowly, and René understood. He guessed that English was her second language, as it was his third. He had planned to refuse the service, but he felt now that it would be rude, and he wanted to hear her speak more.
“I picked out a few books on Napoléon,” René said, gesturing to the table beside him.
Deirdre picked up one of the history books and began reading, still standing upright in front of René. Only after her first page break did René find the courage to insist she sit. She looked at him with distrust and sat in a chair across from him. She read steadily, without emotion and without stumbling. The first chapter was about Napoléon’s childhood on Corsica, and she pronounced the Corsican place-names without hesitation. Expecting to be bored by her flat reading, René instead found that her style promoted attention. The book’s account of Napoléon’s childhood was obviously shaped by later impressions of the emperor. It began with simple family details but strayed into accounts of a seven-year-old leading Corsican boy gangs in harassing French soldiers. Deirdre indicated her own skepticism when she looked up from the book after the first chapter and asked René if he wanted her to continue. René was surprised by the question and told her yes. He told her the truth, that he had dreamed about the emperor several times now.
“I want to know him, and to know why, I suppose,” he said.
“Well this book will be useless,” Deirdre said. She stood, walked over to the table where René had placed the other Napoléon books he had found, and, apparently not finding what she wanted there either, turned to her right and began scanning a bookshelf. Her movements were rapid and mechanical; she did not brush her fingers over the rows of books or lean on the shelves when she bent over to retrieve the slight volume that was the object of her search. This was not an act of leisure. She returned to her chair, which was shallow and straight backed and covered in a deep purple fabric that so complemented her disposition and light coloring that René wondered whether Edward might have ordered it made for her. She handed René the book. “Can you read the cover?” she asked him. The book was called Clisson and Eugénie.
“Napoléon wrote this?” René asked. The author was listed as Napoléon Bonaparte.
Deirdre nodded once. “A silly romance about a solider and an unfaithful woman. The soldier is him of course.”
“A silly romance?”
“If you want to know Napoléon, this is what you ought to read.”
René thought he understood, but he wanted to hear more. He asked her why he should read a silly book to understand a serious man.
“Because you know a person from what they do when they are ridiculous.”
“You think literature is ridiculous.”
“I think a solider playing an artist is ridiculous.” She waited a moment, and René saw on her face the distrust she had shown when she had first started reading. “As you would be, playing soldier.”
The remark stung René. He felt the brick, his fear.
“And you? How would I see you ridiculous?” he asked.
“I am Irish. My situation is already ridiculous.”
“You don’t seem so.”
“No? Mr. James had me educated and now I serve him biscuits and read to his guests.” Deirdre met his gaze, and René looked at the floor.
“Well, I’m sorry for that,” he said.
“Why? You are not Mr. James.” It sounded like an accusation, a reminder of his dependence. René nodded a few times and examined again the book in his hand. Deirdre was silent too, perhaps realizing she had crossed a line. She stood up, asking his permission to leave. He granted it and then felt stupid. At the door she turned and told René that she would be happy to continue reading tomorrow, if he wished. She did not wait for a reply.He was alone in the ugly library, Clisson and Eugénie held too tightly in his right hand. He opened Napoléon’s little story and read the first few pages. It was familiar and bad, the work of an amateur for certain. But behind the clichés he sensed a man who was lonelier than he had a right to be. A smart and rash man, alienated despite his position. He closed the book after ten pages and another headache.
Back in his room he noted that his bed had been made, his night table tidied, his clothes folded. The hanging clothes near the door had been straightened. He tried to picture Deirdre doing this work and could not, though he knew the work was hers.
Two weeks after his victory in front of the Pyramids, Napoléon received word his ships had been destroyed by the British. He sat alone in his tent, eating piece after piece of licorice from his pocket and wondering at this. He was twenty- nine, the leader of the French forces in Egypt, but it was not in his power to get his army back to France. He had tried a new formation at the Pyramids and had killed two thousand Ottomans and lost only twenty-nine of his own men. He was ruling Egypt and dismantling an empire, and he had Josephine sowing support for a planned coup on his return to France. He had a rueful thought: if only he could swim, he could be in France tomorrow.
It hurt him to think of Josephine. His brother Joseph had written him a few weeks prior of her infidelity. She was a terrible thing to him now, more desirable than ever but also an unwelcome reminder, a bright lamp in front of a looking glass that showed him the worst parts of himself: his green teeth, his swelling neck. Had he not put enough of his love into his letters?
He was wiping his fingers of snuff and licorice and licking the licorice from his teeth when one of his savants, a member of the team of engineers and scientists who had traveled with him to Egypt, brought to his tent a mummified foot. The man was a diminutive surveyor who might have, to his peers, called Napoléon a friend. Napoléon often ate with him and received reports of his team’s work. They spoke of nothing else, though Napoléon was often hesitant, after several glasses of Chambertin, to lose his company. The foot had been found elsewhere in the country. The surveyor had traveled overnight through the desert to deliver it.
“A prince’s foot, for a princely man,” the surveyor said, placing it on the table where they often ate together. It was small, yellow and black, like licorice, the big toenail extending past the flesh of the toe.
“You traveled to bring me this?”
“I traveled for the food. I thought the foot would be a fair exchange,” the surveyor said, smiling. He poured some wine. “And we’re all finished there. The rest of the artifacts—and the rest of him—are on their way to the coast.”
Napoléon thought of telling him about the ships. “It’s an ugly thing,” he said instead, passing his hand over the foot.
“They’re an ugly people.”
“What would you have me do with it?”
“Make a stew, or bring it back to Paris and scare some of our women. I defer to the general’s judgment.”
Napoléon extended a finger and touched the black-yellow flesh. It was more solid than he expected. He did not touch it again. He took the edge of the cloth on which it lay and pulled it off the table, the foot rolling onto the floor. He called for a servant and told him to dispose of it.
Deirdre returned to the library the next day and read Clisson and Eugénie to René. He tried to be grateful and to open up discussion. She gave him one- word answers and kept reading. He remembered Georgette’s warning about falling in love. He was probably not in love with Deirdre, but something in him reached for her. He smiled when she read the novella’s melodramatic ending: the Napoléon character broken by his love’s infidelity, on a suicide charge against his enemies. Deirdre laughed at a poor choice of words and then caught herself. She seemed unwilling to share even that with him.
When she finished the book, she picked up a biography, reading aloud about Napoléon’s childhood at school, away from home, playing rough games with the other boys, becoming a leader and finishing second in his class. She read of his first trip to Paris and his victory in Egypt. She showed René a painting of Napoléon on horseback, opposite the Sphinx. On his own trip to Giza, made at Georgette’s insistence, René had angered his party with his indifference.
“Just as I expected,” he had said upon first seeing the Pyramids. He had seen them before in paintings, encyclopedia entries, etchings from Napoléon’s own trip. Why did he need to see them in person?
“Do not ruin this for me,” Georgette had growled, loud enough for the other couple to hear.
Over the course of the week in the library with Deirdre, as René convalesced, as his nerves settled and his eye refocused, he felt that he came to know part of the emperor. He recognized the immigrant, the child of a conquered land, the ambitious runt, the intelligent bully, the amateur writer. He had known boys in Belgium with some of these attributes. But how to explain Napoléon’s ambition? The books all smelled of Hegel: Napoléon was born an emperor; his life was a process of realizing this truth. René believed the process was more gradual: one simply moved up the ladder of the army and found oneself unsatisfied with each promotion. But how is one unsatisfied with ruler of France? Why, once emperor, invade Russia?
René had ambitions for his work, and at times for fame commensurate with his own esteem of that work. But he also wanted his life with Georgette. The paintings he had made for Edward were not ambitious; they were wall decorations, a means of financing that life. René even planned to place the paintings behind a special glass that, with a switch, could be turned into a mirror.
The mask was in a small chest below the deck of a clipper tracing the coast of west Africa on its way to England. Fanny Bertrand, Napoléon’s attendant on Saint Helena and the wife of his aide-de-camp, had stolen it. She had waited for dark and pulled it, still damp, from the emperor’s face. Lowe and his British doctors would have to make another. She had been able to remove only the front part. It looked like little more than a sticky pile of bandages as she removed it, but then she had looked inside and there, in perfect negative, was Napoléon. He appeared young again, handsome even. The illness had made him thin. Death had smoothed what few wrinkles he had. His nose sloped deep into the plaster. Whenever she lifted the lid and peeked at the mask, hidden away in her quarters on the ship, she thought of her father, an English general hired by the French. He had been guillotined in 1794, when Fanny was nine. She had not seen it done, but the mask in the chest conjured a head in a basket.
Six years she had spent on that island: one lovely child, two miscarriages, favor gained and lost and gained, time as still as the hot southern air—as oppressive as the gray Atlantic. Henri had linked his life to Napoléon’s, and Napoléon had forced Fanny to marry Henri.
On the ship she wondered about the society she would find in London. She thought she would like never to play cards again.
Even her husband did not know she had the mask. There was some thrill in this secret, in the power she felt carrying the emperor’s face across the ocean. She expected she would tell him at some point, would enlist his help in having casts taken and in sending these casts to artists in France. But some mornings she remembered Napoléon’s petulance in the past year and thought about dropping the mask overboard. One night when she had stood alone at his bedside, wiping his brow, holding a basin into which he could vomit, he had passed the time between purges by calling her a whore. It was his fever speaking, calling her “adulteress” again and again, as if she were her cousin Josephine, who had died a year before the exile.
Fanny’s oldest son was named Napoléon. He was seven when they arrived on Saint Helena. Now he was thirteen and determined to be a sailor. For the entire journey he had been following around the clipper’s crew. He had already told Fanny three times that day how the captain had permitted him to steer for a few moments. To Fanny this was evidence of the childishness caused by the island: her son would spend the rest of his life trying to escape Saint Helena, thinking himself master of the sea. What he did not yet know, what Fanny would not tell him, was that the sea would outlast him, as Europe had outlasted his namesake.
The mask arrived at the end of the week. René did not remove it from its box until he had it upstairs in the room in which he painted. He told Edward that it was a gift of necessities from his wife, implying something personal. Edward was too polite to press the issue. Out of its box the mask seemed inevitable. These were the contours he saw in his dreams: the long nose, the eyes barely closed, the lips drawn down on the right and almost parted. The white of the plaster had a negating quality, but he would change that. He was reminded that the ears were not completely missing; the ridges of skin where the ears met the skull were still there.
He removed his paints and began mixing a blue. The blue was different every time he painted, but its source was the same. It was the blue of a Belgian sky, but not of Brussels or the industrial Charleroi of his young adulthood. It was the blue of the sky of Lessines, where he would play in the cemetery with that girl, lying on their backs and naming the clouds with the names on the headstones around them.
The work was slow and simple. He had done this before. Finished with this layer of blue, he set the mask to dry. In the dream of Napoléon on the Thames the sun had been high and the clouds stark white. He would have to wait some time for the blue to dry, but he could picture the clouds on it now. They were low cumulus clouds, the same as in Lessines. The clouds had made appearances in previous works of his with small variations for size and time of day.
He was relieved to have begun this work—to have begun to satisfy the desire left by the dream. He thought he would give the mask to Edward to make up for the coat. Edward still liked his work, at least.
He left to have some soup in the dining room and finished reading the biography of Napoléon while he ate. Edward was out of the house. René tried to invent a name for the series of masks but nothing would come. He wished Georgette were there to help. He went back to his room to sit with the mask.
The paint was wet so he held the mask’s flat back carefully in his palm. He turned the head—it really looked like a dismembered head now—in his hand and laughed a little. He felt for a moment like a grave robber. It was a ridiculous object and he liked it very much. No name came, though. He placed the mask on the cloth-covered table, as if Napoléon were on his back, and looked the emperor in his closed eyes. And in this view René recognized the expression. It came out of a memory that had been all but lost to him: it was his own face, in the summer after his mother’s death, when he would sneak out of the house to go swimming in the Sambre. He would train himself by swimming bank to bank, and when he grew tired he would lie on his belly, face down in the water, and make this face as he practiced drowning.
Cornelius FitzPatrick recently completed an MFA in fiction at Colorado State University and is finishing a collection of short stories. “The Future of Statues” is his first published story.
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