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Napoleon's Pyramids

Chapter One

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 I—amateur scientist, investigator of
electricity, entrepreneur, sharpshooter, and democratic
idealist—miss 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...

Excerpted from NAPOLEON'S PYRAMIDS © Copyright 2011 by
William Dietrich. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All
rights reserved.

Napoleon's Pyramids
by by William Dietrich

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060848324
  • ISBN-13: 9780060848323