The scarlet thread

Paris, 1793.

‘Dr Malouet will, I am sure, treat you kindly,’ said Elisabeth Aspairt. ‘He is a good young man, you can tell by his eyes.’

Pondering the effect of the doctor’s dark eyes on his wife, the porter slowly crossed the cloistered courtyard of the Hospital of the Val-de-Grâce. He tapped on the doctor’s door, opened it, and peered into the study.

‘Come in,’ called Dr Malouet, turning his attention straight back to his ledger. The young physician was in shirtsleeves, with his black coat hung on the back of his chair.  His shirt, open at the neck, with his neckcloth cast aside, showed smooth skin over his collarbones, a tuft of dark hair, and the muscles of his neck. His quill fluttered in his hand as he completed his line. He came to a full stop, and looked up again. Aspairt waited by the desk in his threadbare blue uniform, head hung down, awkward.  He had not ushered anybody in, or even come to summon the doctor to a patient’s bedside.

‘Well?’ Dr Malouet replaced the quill in the inkwell. Aspairt could feel the sun from the window striking his face. He thought: I must look odd, with my hair turned suddenly white, my bloodshot eyes. A former quarryman, Aspairt had once been muscular, but now his big frame was emaciated and shaking.

‘Aspairt, you are unwell,’ said Dr Malouet, rising to his feet. ‘Here, sit down.’  He indicated a chair.

‘I’m…thank you.’ Aspairt lifted trembling hands. ‘I don’t need to, thank you. Doctor.’

‘Can I do something to help you?’ Dr Malouet enquired. ‘A glass of water? Are you sure you are feeling quite normal?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

‘Well,’ said Dr Malouet, ‘That is quite usual, with these troubled times, the Terror, and so forth.’

‘At all.’ Aspairt went a little closer to him, lowering his voice. ‘Help me. I can’t sleep at all. Since my son… Did you know about Laurent?’

‘I heard.’ Dr Malouet frowned. ‘Please, sit.’

Aspairt sat facing him across the desk, leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, picking at the red raw sides of his fingernails.

‘Nearly a year since Laurent… the September massacres. In Port-Libre Prison. They let the mob in. No sleep. Just visions. Voices.’

‘Visions? Voices?’ enquired Dr Malouet. He sat down again, and crossed one leg over another. His legs were elegant, and clothed in black silk. His shoes were trimmed with black silk bows. He lifted the quill.

‘Visions. I lie in the dark with my eyes wide open… the visions come to me. Laurent with his throat cut, his head bludgeoned… his body on the tumbril, bleeding through the streets. His blood flowing, falling through the stones. His blood oozing in the ground. And the ground calls out to me. It sobs. The darkness. Voices call me to the catacombs. I feel…’ Aspairt hesitated, ‘…I feel his blood is on my hands. I feel as if I am going mad…I must destroy myself.’

Dr Malouet looked for a long moment down at his ledger. He wrote a few words. Then he looked up, steadily.

‘The bright dawn of the Republic has cast many shadows,’ he said at length. ‘Many people grieve. We weep for those we could not save. We regret that we might have done more. But, grief must be conquered. We must build a new future – not dwell on what is past.’

He gave Aspairt some laudanum to help him sleep, and sent him away.

The voices started again that night, stronger, and more insistent. A chorus, with one voice rising above them that could not be ignored. The laudanum could not quiet them. Aspairt’s sweat started to soak the bed sheets. Beside him, his wife lay very still, turned away on her side. He could tell when Elisabeth was awake. Even so, he was quieter than a breath as he gradually sat up and lowered his feet over the side of the bed. He had learned to move so slowly that it was almost like keeping still. He put on his trousers and went downstairs. By the gatehouse door, his boots and his lantern lay ready.

In the moonless darkness, Aspairt crossed the courtyard of the Val-de-Grâce, keeping his footsteps as light as he could on the gravel. In one corner a flight of narrow stone steps led downwards to an iron gate. Taking a bunch of keys from his belt, he unlocked it and swung it back on its rusty hinges. He tied a scarlet silk thread to the gatepost and went on down the steps, his lantern swinging in his hand, spooling out the thread from a wooden bobbin.

‘Laurent,’ he whispered into the humid air, ‘Laurent. I love you. My son. My child.’

In the narrow passageway twenty feet below the cloister the walls were faced with rough hewn blocks; he had to stoop to walk along it. The air smelled of damp stone, and he could hear the drip and gurgle of water; he stumbled through puddles, some ankle deep, that his feeble light had not revealed.

It had been nearly ten years since he had worked in the quarries, and that had been in the Carmelite Fathers’, not in this maze beneath the Val-de-Grâce. The tunnels were on many levels, some with wells and shafts that led he knew not where. To the south vast ossuaries lay, where ancient bones from the overflowing cemeteries of Paris had been heaped in the disused tunnels. The quarrymen used to say the gateway to Hell itself lay somewhere under the Rue d’Enfer.

But Aspairt had kept his instinct for finding his way underground, and with the voices in his head whispering to him he crept on, paying out the scarlet thread. He knew when he was in the right place, because the voices grew stronger, the blood pounded in his head and his heart, and a force of inexorable strength rooted him to the spot. He was under the Port-Libre.

‘Laurent,’ he whispered again, and the voices stilled. ‘Laurent’.

‘Father.’ Had he heard it, or was it simply the echo of his own sigh? He heard the gurgling of distant water, and a gust of air came down the tunnel.

‘Laurent,’ he whispered. And said, ‘Laurent,’ and then, shouted, ‘Laurent!’ There were echoes, and then there was nothing. He was alone. When you moved in these tunnels, you sweated. As soon as you stopped, it was cold. He shivered.

The voices started again. He moved. He started to gather up the thread, slowly returning, inch by inch, to the surface.

In their bed, Elisabeth lay with her hands folded on her bosom, staring up, like the dead bodies he laid out in the hospital mortuary. He took another swig of the laudanum, and lay silently beside her, waiting. He felt a stupor grow strong in his mind, a slight nausea, and his limbs grew heavy; but still he did not sleep.

As autumn went on, Aspairt continued to take the laudanum. It did not bring him sleep, but it kept him motionless in the bed. Elisabeth slept better now. His nights remained full of swirling visions. He saw the terrified face of Laurent exposed to the howling fury of the mob, pleading for mercy with his voice that had not fully broken. In the greenish twilight of the prison air, he saw ropes and chains and iron bars, rotting wood, ragged clothes on men that were rank with sweat. He smelt the pigsty stink of the prison, in the heat that had not yet waned out of the summer.

The days became greyer. As the dawn glimmered around the edges of the curtains, Aspairt felt his deepest melancholy.

‘I will kill myself,’ he muttered. Despair gnawed at his heart like a rat. He was almost unable to get up; only the torment of his sleepless bed, the covers sticking to his damp skin, propelled him forward into the day. He moved about his duties in the Hospital like a jerky puppet, doing as he was asked, obeying in silence. And although the laudanum did not help him, he began to feel the want of it when it ran out. Bathed in a cold sweat, shivering, joints aching and stomach churning, he would visit Dr Malouet to obtain another vial.

‘You must learn to forget,’ sighed the doctor. His elbows on his desk, he placed his fingertips together, underneath his chin. ‘There is no more you can do. The time is lost, Laurent is gone.’

‘I cannot forget,’ pleaded Aspairt. ‘It is destroying me.’

‘Why?’ The doctor looked at him, as though trying to penetrate his soul. Aspairt shuddered. The visions rose up all around him, even in broad daylight, and he felt the room grow dark.

‘Do not ask me about those days, I beg you,’ he mumbled. ‘I failed him, God knows. I betrayed him.’

‘If I understood, maybe I could help you,’ said Dr Malouet. His eyes scanned every line of Aspairt’s face. But Aspairt shook his head.

‘No, no, no. Just give me the laudanum.’

The doctor was holding the little vial, turning it in his hands, just out of Aspairt’s reach.

‘Why, Aspairt? Were you there when your son was killed? Were you a part of that mob?’

‘No, not that.’ Aspairt hesitated.

‘Tell me, then.’ Dr Malouet twisted the vial in his fingers again.

‘It was I who reported him to the Revolutionary Committee.’

‘Why? In heaven’s name! Why?’ The doctor’s eyes widened suddenly and his hands stopped moving.

‘I reported him for counter-revolutionary activity.’

‘Really? He was only a boy. I can’t believe he had any involvement.’ The doctor let out a long, exasperated breath. ‘He was going to be an apothecary. He had not even finished his studies. ’

Aspairt could not look at Dr Malouet. He buried his brow in his hands. The voices chattered in his head.

‘My son had become…’ Aspairt groaned, unable to say it. ‘I know it’s no longer a crime. But I thought a little time in prison might … I thought it would help him, help me, to get him away. All that summer, he had been so … He didn’t eat, he dreamed away his days, he neglected his studies. I found out it was a man. He was deeply, deeply in love.’

‘How did you know?’ Dr Malouet’s tone was level.

‘I saw them both one night, out there, in the courtyard. They were kissing, fondling each other. They kissed as though they could never part, and finally separated, with many sighs, and with their hands trailing to each other’s fingertips at the last moment.’

‘So. Who was the other man?’

‘I don’t know for certain,’ said Aspairt. He let out a low laugh. ‘You know, I heard them talking in low voices, and for a moment I thought …forgive me…I’m not myself. I challenged Laurent about it, but he refused to speak to me. We quarrelled. After that, I felt he was no longer my son. I was angry. I needed to send him away. I did what I should not have done. I was terrified of him mincing down the Champs Elysees with his wide hat, and his chignon, and the bows on his shoes, like, like…’

‘You must rest,’ said Dr Malouet. ‘Do not think of such things. Look, here is your medicine.’ He held out the vial.

Voices and visions drove Aspairt again and again into the catacombs. Voices pressing him down the stone steps in the hospital courtyard, into the darkness beneath. Dizzy with the laudanum, its weight dragging on his chest. Looking for the monster in the labyrinth. Blood soaked the floor of the Port-Libre Prison. Its smell could not be washed away, even by the gurgling water. Blood flowed down into the tunnel, streaming into the blackness of the walls.

Aspairt’s lantern flickered in the fetid air, and he felt the scarlet thread lifting. He gripped the wooden spool. His whimpers echoed in the tunnel, and ebbed away. The thread lifted again. It made him think he was not alone. Someone was on the other end, coming closer. He tugged the thread; there was resistance. He dared not pull again, lest the thread should break. He heard footsteps. Then he saw the lantern, bobbing as someone came closer. The two orbs of light touched. Dr Malouet was there, in his black coat, with the black bows on his shoes bedraggled with water.

‘Aspairt,’ he was saying. ‘I have come to help you sleep.’

Dr Malouet was holding out a vial. Aspairt took it, peering at the spidery writing on the label. The glass looked black in the dim light. Medicine. He started to twist the ground glass stopper in the neck of the vial.

‘Wait,’ said Dr Malouet. ‘First, there is something I want you to know. Sit down.’

Aspairt stared dully at him in silence. Then they sat down, side by side, their lanterns resting on the ground, their backs against the dark stained wall. Drip, drip, went the water, the voices in Aspairt’s head still whispering, hissing.

‘I have come here to help you,’ said Dr Malouet.

Aspairt started again to open the vial, but the doctor stilled his hand.

‘And I have come here for revenge,’ murmured Dr Malouet. ‘I loved Laurent, you see.’

‘No!’ groaned Aspairt, but the doctor continued.

‘It was I who kissed him in the courtyard. It was I who was his first and only passion. It was I who had the sacred sweetness of that first love. I adored him. He was so beautiful. He loosed his hair in the moonlight, and it streamed upon his bare shoulders. And it was I who kissed it away.’

‘How could you? How could you take my child?’ Aspairt’s throat felt tight; the words came out with a struggle, as if stifled.

‘Had I loved your daughter, you would have embraced me as a son-in-law. But, sadly, it was Laurent who captured my heart.’

‘It is you who caused my grief, then,’ said Aspairt. He buried his forehead in his hands.

‘Your grief is a parent’s grief. Laurent was growing up. He no longer needed you. Mine is the grief of a lover, of a life that might have been blessed, but is blighted and sere. And it was your action that led to Laurent’s death.’

The voices stopped. Aspairt felt only despair.

‘Forgive me,’ he whispered. ‘Forgive me.’

‘Father.’ There it was. Aspairt opened the vial and drained it. He leaned his head back against the wall, then sideways on his own shoulder.

‘Hubert,’ came the whisper, and the doctor cried out, ‘Laurent! Laurent,’ over and over, sobbing, until his voice faded away. There was no-one there.

Aspairt watched Dr Malouet pick up a lantern, and the empty vial, and start to gather up the scarlet thread. Then his vision blurred, and his breath came in heavy, slowing gasps.

© M Wallis 2020

This story is included in my free eBook ‘In Other Times, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.

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