Authors: Barbara Pope
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
For Daniel and for Stephanie, a true
HANKS MUST FIRST GO TO
my wonderful writers group who offered consistently incisive criticism and support throughout the piecemeal creation of this book: Elizabeth Lyon, Geraldine Moreno-Black, Mabel Armstrong, Carolyn Kortge and Faris Cassell. At the midpoint of the novel, I also benefited greatly from the critiques given in a seminar led by Cai Emmons with Llew Wells, Kari Davidson and Shannon Pool. I am deeply grateful (and touched) that readers of an early draft, George Wickes, Richard Stein and Linda Frederick, were not only willing to give me their invaluable suggestions, but did it, graciously, on very short notice. I also owe much to the time and effort that my editor, Jessica Case, and agent, Mollie Glick, put in to making this a better book.
Thanks, too, go to Ray Birn for sending me to Nancy; Dorothy Anker for her last-minute guidance in Yiddish and Lisa Wolverton for hers in Latin; and to Mary Signer for leading me to the Bible passage from Numbers, and for much else.
Merci aux vrais Nanciens, Jeanne et Philippe Rousseau, pour leur précieuse amitié.
Last, and far from least, I thank my husband, Daniel Pope, for his technical, critical, moral, and life support. I am continually amazed and gratified that he has so wholeheartedly championed my life’s dream of becoming a writer.
The Jews of Alsace and Lorraine had to proceed step by step from village to nearby town, from town to city; from small trading, to big shops, to high commerce…. It took time, patience; finally they stirred up the great affair—the war [of 1870–71]—and twenty years later Nancy has become the little Jerusalem of thousands and thousands of Jews from Lorraine, Alsace, Poland and Russia
—Abbé François Hémonet,
Nancy-Juif (Jewish Nancy)
military tribunal convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and sentenced the first Jewish Army officer in the French General Staff to a life of solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. In 1898, the increasingly contested issue of his guilt or innocence erupted. The famous Dreyfus Affair tore the country apart. As evidence mounted that Dreyfus was not the officer who had passed on military secrets to the Germans, his supporters claimed that what was at stake was the very survival of France as a nation of rights, justice and equality.
Dreyfus was as much a victim of prejudice as he was of a kangaroo court. Fueled by scandal-mongering journalism and Edouard Drumont’s runaway bestseller,
La France Juive
(Jewish France), a virulent new anti-Semitism took hold among certain segments of the population during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. This hatred was aimed at less than one per cent of the nation’s inhabitants.
French Jews (or Israelites, as many preferred to be called at the time) had always been concentrated in a few pockets across the country. The most populous traditional Jewish community lived in Alsace-Lorraine, most of which was ceded to the Germans in 1872. Nancy, the largest city remaining in French Lorraine, became its capital, its artistic, commercial and administrative center. By November 1894, when this novel opens, it was also the center of Jewish life in the region, even though only 2,000 Israelites inhabited the rapidly growing city of approximately 90,000 people.
Friday, November 16
HE CITY OF
, 1894. Twenty-four years after France proclaimed itself a republic in the midst of war. Twenty-three years after the humiliating defeat, occupation and concession of the ancient territories of Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new powerful Germany. And only two years after examining magistrate Bernard Martin transferred from Aix-en-Provence to this elegant capital in the truncated northeastern corner of his beloved country.
Martin stood stacking his papers into piles, preparing for the weekend. His white-walled chambers were already growing cold. The black pot-bellied stove that sat in one corner no longer glowered with half-hidden flames. All that came from its mouth now was a soft, amber glow. As the muted footsteps of officials and clerks beckoned through Martin’s ground-floor windows, he swelled with what was still for him an unexpectedly joyful contentment. He was going home.
Suddenly the door to his chambers flew open, and his colleague, David Singer, came rushing in, breathless and disheveled. “You’ve got to take this case off my hands,” he said, almost shouting.
“Singer, you didn’t knock?” The question slipped out before Martin could stop himself. He did not intend it as a reproach. He was quite simply shocked. Singer was the most proper person in the courthouse, the one least likely to commit any breach of etiquette. And yet here he was before Martin, unannounced, panting, his frock coat open, his cravat askew, and his close-cropped black hair sticking up in shaggy crags as though he had been attempting to tear it out. Martin gestured toward the wooden chair beside his distraught colleague. “Please sit down.”
Singer ignored him. “I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. I’m sure they gave it to me as a joke. This is their chance to catch me out.”
Martin approached his friend to take a closer look. One of Singer’s well-manicured hands was locked into a fist, the other clutched a rolled-up newspaper. “Please, sit,” he repeated, trying to remain calm. Singer’s demeanor was beginning to put him on edge.
When his colleague did not respond, Martin took the precaution of walking around him to close the door. Although he was almost certain that other judges and clerks had already left the Palais de Justice for the weekend, he wanted to make sure that no one else saw Singer in such a state.
“What is wrong?” Martin insisted.
“Presumably,” Singer said in a strangled whisper, “it’s a case of ‘ritual murder.’”
“What?” His confusion churning into dismay, Martin returned to his desk to face his friend.
“A ritual murder.” Louder this time. “An accusation that a Jew has killed and mutilated a Christian baby.”
“But that’s preposterous. These things don’t happen—”
“Were you about to say ‘any more’?”
“What do you mean?” Martin could not for the life of him understand why Singer was being so prickly with him, of all people.
“These things don’t happen
. Not in 1894. Not in the third decade of our glorious French Republic.”
“No, no, not at all.” Martin feared that soon he, too, would be shouting.
“I tell you, they gave the case to me as a joke, a trap.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand,” Singer responded sarcastically. “My name is
. David Singer.”
“Well, I never thought that mattered—”
“I’m sure you never did,” Singer interrupted as he took a step back from Martin’s desk. “Will you take it? That’s all I need to know.” He laid the newspaper down and began to fidget with his collar and cuffs, putting himself back together.
Martin stared at his fellow examining magistrate. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had known that Singer was an Israelite. But it had never occurred to him that this held any particular significance. They had been friends from the day, shortly after Martin’s arrival here, when Singer was kind enough to show him around the courthouse. They were alike in age, middle thirties; in height and weight, medium in every way; and both passionately republican in their sympathies and ideals.
Most of all, Martin was grateful for Singer’s reaction—or lack of it—to the early revelation that Martin, unlike the other magistrates, was not a man of means and that he had married a teacher. Instead of looking down upon him, Singer had volunteered to help the Martins find an inexpensive place to live, which he did, in the very center of Nancy, near the Palais de Justice and Clarie’s school. An apartment, Singer had boasted with a smile, that even had running water, an essential aid for the working woman. If it had not been for his colleague’s excessive formality, Martin would long ago have started calling him by his Christian name.
But of course, Martin thought with a start, David was not Singer’s
Singer fingered his coal-black mustache, which rose ever so slightly to a peak on either side of his mouth. “It won’t be hard,” he continued. “Working-class man and his wife bringing the accusation. Only witness, the wet nurse. They’re all lying.”
Singer’s beard fell to a point so precise, he must have trimmed it every morning. Always well-tailored, respected, treated with utmost civility by everyone in the courthouse, there was no reason for him to be so sensitive. Yet without realizing it, Martin found himself scrutinizing Singer’s nose, which was not remarkable in any way.
Their eyes met and Singer stiffened. “I can get the file to you first thing Monday morning. It won’t take much of your time.”
“It’s not that,” Martin murmured.
“What, then?” Barely containing his frustration, Singer grabbed the newspaper again.
How could Martin make the cowardly admission that what he felt at this moment was something like fear, that Singer’s outbursts had set off memories of another case he had been urgently called upon to solve at the very beginning of his career. The case that had made him an outcast among the police and judges in Aix-en-Provence. The Vernet murders. He shook his head slightly, hoping to vanquish the vision of all those dead bodies.
“You’re saying no? After all our talks about justice. Perhaps this is a kind of injustice you don’t recognize.” Singer moved toward the door.
Martin sighed. “Wait. Surely this is something I will have to take up with the Proc.” That’s the way everyone referred to the
, the prosecutor who assigned cases to the examining magistrates for investigation.
“Surely,” Singer concurred. “And as soon as possible.”
“Perhaps I’ll see him tonight—”
“I wasn’t invited. Never have been.” Singer cut him short.
“Well, it’s only our first time, and I’m not exactly looking forward to it.” It had taken the Presiding Judge almost two years to invite Clarie and him to a formal dinner party. Martin struggled to remember how long Singer had been at the court at Nancy.
“Nevertheless, I’ve been here two years longer than you have,” Singer said, as if reading Martin’s thoughts.
Martin shrugged his shoulders in exasperation. “I’ve never thought of you as other than a Frenchman, a good republican—”
“A French Jew
a Frenchman and a republican.” At least Singer had stopped his retreat and was again approaching Martin’s desk.
“Yes, I know.”
“You know? Do you read Edouard Drumont’s newspaper,
La Libre Parole
Martin raised his hand, fending off any suggestion that he would bother to pick up Drumont’s anti-Semitic rag.
La Libre Parole, “the free word” indeed.
“Perhaps you would find it instructive.” Singer unrolled the paper he had been carrying in his right hand. “This is the weekly version, fully illustrated.”
Martin had no choice but to examine the cover of
La Libre Parole Illustrée
, dated the previous Saturday, November 10. A drawing of a bearded man took up most of the page. He stood beside a stack of books. Martin squinted. He could make out the first title, Drumont’s fabulously successful best seller
La France Juive
, the scurrilous “Jewish France.” Martin sucked in a breath. “So this is Drumont.”
“Yes, and this,” Singer’s finger pointed to the little man crawling at the bottom of the page, a caricature of a Jew with a gigantic hooked nose, wearing the helmet of the Prussian army. Drumont held a long prong with which he had grasped this miniature soldier by the seat of his pants. “You know who this is, of course,” Singer persisted.
“Singer, I can read,” Martin said impatiently. The caption made it all too clear what the cartoon was about: “
A propos of Judas Dreyfus
. Frenchmen, I’ve been telling you this every day for eight years.”
La France Juive
, now his newspaper,” Singer exploded. “You know that Drumont is the one who broke the story of Dreyfus’s treachery. He’s having a field day with it.”
Martin nodded, still staring at the caricature. Alfred Dreyfus was in all the newspapers, accused of having sold military secrets to the Germans. Martin wondered what the real Dreyfus looked like. Surely, if he had managed to become a member of the Army’s elite General Staff, nothing like this ugly caricature.
“Don’t you see,” Singer pleaded, “they are going to use Dreyfus to try to prove that all of us are traitors and cheats.”
Martin made one last attempt to calm down his friend. “Even if it’s true that Dreyfus did have contact with the Germans, he’s only one man, not an entire race. Surely….” He did not finish.
If Drumont and his ilk kept beating the drums against Dreyfus, wasn’t there a danger that they could incite the mob against the Israelites? Martin eased himself into his chair.
“I think you need to read
La France Juive
,” Singer pressed on. “You have no idea of the kind of noxious slime Drumont has spread about us. And now in his newspaper, he slanders us, drags us through the mud, every day. Every single day. You are fortunate that you do not have to care about these things.”
Martin could feel the heat rising in his face. Why was
being subjected to this barrage? Again and again he had proved himself to be a true republican. When he was barely out of school, he had given up on the Church, in part, because of the anti-Semitic sermons of his parish priest. Martin did not deserve this harangue. He began, again, to straighten out the files on his desk.
“I’m sorry,” Singer said as he drew nearer, demonstrating a belated recognition that Martin did not count among the bigots and rabble rousers. “I’m upset. I just came back from seeing the body of that poor child. You can’t imagine what some people will do to prove that we are beasts.” He paused. “Bernard, you are the only one I can turn to, the only one I can trust.”
It was the appeal to their friendship that did it, the use of Martin’s first name, breaking through the formalities imposed by profession and Singer’s punctilious sense of comportment.
Martin pressed his lips together and nodded. “I’ll try.” After all, what did he have to lose? If Singer was right, and it was a case of false accusation easily cleared up, then it was not at all like the Vernet case.
Or was it? Martin sank back into his chair, remembering. Of all the dead bodies in Aix, there was one that Martin could never allow himself to forget, the pallid figure of his oldest friend Jean-Jacques Merckx laid out on the gray slab like an anarchist Christ with four holes drilled into him. Not by nails, but by bullets. A friend he had let down because he hadn’t agreed with his radical ideas, a friend who was killed, in part, because Martin had been indecisive, half-hearted, neither really helping him to desert from the army nor insisting that the two of them obey the law and Merckx go back to face his terrible punishment. A friend who, just as Singer had done, accused him of complacency, of not understanding what he was going through. Martin gave his head a hard shake to bring himself back to the present. This situation was entirely different. There was nothing dangerous or unpatriotic about Singer’s views. He did not dream of destroying the state as Martin’s boyhood friend had. No, Singer, like Martin, was a builder. They both believed in the French Republic and strived together to make it stronger and better, less corrupt, more just. They were alike in so many ways. In all that really mattered.
Singer stood above him, waiting for assurances. Martin nodded. “I’ll do everything in my power to corner Didier tonight. First, though,” he added, trying to lighten the mood, “I need to get home.”
“Yes, of course.” Singer took in a breath. “But I strongly advise you go to the Faculté to see the body right away. You need to know what you are getting into. I’ve asked Dr. Fauvet to wait for you.”
Before Martin could object, his companion continued as he retreated for the second time. “I’ll prepare the orders so that all three of the so-called witnesses will be at the Palais on Monday morning, waiting for you.” Reaching the door, Singer bowed slightly. “Please give my regards to Mme Martin.” His return to form accentuated, rather than covered up, the fact that Singer’s self-pitying outburst had been completely out of character. And, Martin sincerely hoped, just as completely unwarranted.
As the door closed, Martin threw a pencil across his desk and watched as it bounced off onto the floor. Why did he have to go off tonight and examine the body of a mutilated baby? Why was he always the stranger, the new man in town, the one that others came to with their grisly cases?
Now there’s self-pity for you!
At least this time he had a reason: Singer.
Martin got up with a sigh and followed the rolling pencil to the foot of his
desk, which stood near the wall in a position that allowed his clerk to face both judge and witnesses while taking down the official record of their conversations. After a moment’s hesitation, Martin placed the pencil beside Guy Charpentier’s inkwell. This was almost a malicious act. His clerk was rather officious for his young years, and his small, orderly workplace stood as a constant rebuke to the clutter on Martin’s much larger and more luxurious mahogany desk. Smiling to himself, Martin retrieved his bowler and long woolen coat from the coat rack in the corner.