Payback in Paris
an historical novel
Discover the Legendary Smuggler and Highwayman, Louis Mandrin. He is, for French-speakers what Robin Hood is for English speakers.
In the Eighteenth Century gjovernments tried to get money for their wars by raking in customs duries for new product such as fine fabrics and and tobaccoe. Immediately smugglers like Mandrin created a shady economy and bloody warfare boke out between the "Farm's" militias and the troops of brigands.
Today’s readers will relate to the failure of elites and growing violence in the years preceding the French Revolution. In The Past Must Die, real and fictional characters compete for wealth, love, and revenge. The story takes place in 1786, a time and place comparable to Andrew Miller’s novel, Pure. Louis Mandrin, a French folk hero remembered in books and films, is a cruel bandit bent on avenging his brother’s execution. His target is the leader of a banker cartel, genius chemist Antoine Lavoisier.
Mandrin draws English miniaturist Richard Cosway and his young wife Maria into his plot. Richard is jealous when Maria falls in love with American Thomas Jefferson and agrees to infiltrate Mandrin into Lavoisier’s home in exchange for an assault on Jefferson. Scenes of extreme wealth and poverty, police surveillance and violence frame these passions and plots.
The bandit shows his human side when he protects a young chimney-sweep whose boss molests him. From high on a roof, the sweeper pushes his boss to his death and Mandrin helps him escape. Boy and bandit and make their way to a mountain village in Savoy where Mandrin’s past catches up with him.
Mandrin site Mandrin: célèbre brigand et contrebandier. https://www.mandrin.org. A French imprint of my novel could be in the cards. Cosway site https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/richard-cosway-2315
Author’s background: A.B. in psychology from Harvard University. Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley. Mr. Lewis taught political science at university level, edited a magazine, and analyzed political and cultural issues on radio and television. He speaks French and has frequently toured France.
The Day of the Collar
Something was wrong in the kingdom of the clouds. There were too many birds for the end of September in southwest England. They ought to be winging over French pine forests on their way to Spain or Africa. Starlings began designing the sky. Hundreds of small black bodies coagulated, then stretched in long teardrops under marshmallow clouds. The weather had been warm and dry, so the birds had stayed, pecking residue oats from fields after the harvest. But now they weren’t scurrying on dirt. They were fleeing in the air in defensive ballets.
Louis Mandrin knew a lot about attacking and running. In France, the King’s soldiers and tax collectors’ militias had been his raptors, he the game. The tax money in town treasuries had been his feed, and he had wheeled to turn on the militias chasing him. Prey and be preyed upon.
Mandrin could tell by the talons at the end of the birds’ long legs and v-spread wings that the threat was marsh harriers. The gray-brown raptors had swooped on the starlings who whipped into shaped-shifting forms of black whales, dragons, and flying apostrophes. The small black birds dipped around each other in flights of hundreds, trying to avoid the talons of the attackers. Several black-brown harriers beat the air as Mandrin watched through his spyglass. He had seen many murmurations of starlings streaming across the fields of England and, before that, above marshes in Savoy, his homeland. Like the airy kingdom above him, Savoy was beautiful and could be peaceful. Instead, it was a suffering land of snow-white crags and green valleys, an insecure buffer between the armies of Italy and France.
Mandrin had stopped to water his horse at a mossy spring by the side of the Bristol to Cornwall road. On long rides, he felt connected to his horse from their hours of shared rhythmic movement. Rhythm was in the nature of the universe. Starlings diving and curling in the puff-clouded sky and he and his mount trotting on the road.
As the trail neared the ocean, there were breezes and spatters of rain from the late-September sky. The starlings must be feeling the coming of the colder weather, preparing their tardy escape to southern France or Italy. But not yet, so they were at risk from the talons of the harriers, who had postponed their own flights south because there were still starlings in the air.
Mandrin recalled from childhood the description in Psalms of the rhythms of life, beginning, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
It was the only moral teaching that had stuck in his memory as others fell away like the bark of an aging tree. Perhaps it remained because of its verse or perhaps because, unlike other religious pieces he had learned, it was as ambiguous as life itself. The root question was, how do you know which time it is? That was free will, he guessed. This is what he thought of on long rides and other vacant moments. He didn’t dwell on the question, ‘what should I do and when?’ He chose action, not thought. Like any man who wanted to breathe clean, without the oppression of the powerful.
He was like the starlings, pecking at the world for food and silver or darting hither and yon to escape the taloned humans who threatened him. He had thoughts, especially as he had passed his years of ambition, about his human harriers and what he should have done to them. All the guilt of his life he focused on the hanging of his brother. He dreamed of retribution against the men responsible. Of revenge.
All good citizens, mariners, miners, vicars, judges, and lawyers, were smugglers in the coastal villages of Cornwall. Unlike smuggling ports in the east, Cornwall ports were peaceful. But since the most common occupation was criminal there were, inevitably, reports of disasters.
Black-haired and crusty Abraham, a sailor-smuggler based in the port of Mousehole, broke the news of Anne’s sentencing to her husband, Louis Mandrin. A three-masted lugger from Portsmouth, loaded with brandy and silk from France, had brought an awful story. Four days before, a day after Mandrin had set out on horseback for the ports of Penzance and Mousehole, his wife had led an ambush of the post coach on a road north of Bristol. Guards had captured her and word spread that her neck had already been stretched at Newgate Prison.
Had he not already left for Cornwall to collect payment for his smuggled silk, Mandrin would have persuaded his wife that a highway ambush was an unprofitable risk. Anne, only thirty, half Mandrin’s age, was jealous of him; she wanted a reputation like his, the reputation of a canny, violent brigand. She wanted to be rich. They were married, but she swore never to be just a mare in his stable.
As he raced on the long road to London, Mandrin comforted himself that these days women were mostly reprieved. She’d possibly be in a cell waiting execution, which the police administrators and judges would debate. But knowing Anne, it was just as likely she would be provisioning Newgate Prison with ham hocks and beer, tipping money back to jailers, extorting shillings and pence from the prisoners. There weren’t that many hanging days in the year, dragging a felon to the noose was slow, and the chance of a woman avoiding the rope much better than a man’s.
Mandrin didn’t want to see another hanging, especially Anne’s, for whom he had such special regard that he’d married her. He’d seen countless hangings, including his brother’s, and had barely evaded his own swing on the gallows.
He found himself at Newgate Prison on a hanging day, known as Collar Day by those who came for amusement or to collect the clothing of the executed. There were a dozen hanging days a year. Rushing from Cornwall, Mandrin had given no thought that he might arrive on a hanging day. He pushed through the crowd toward the gallows erected in front of the Debtor’s Door to the prison. Hanging above the crowd, four men and a teen were sucking air and quivering like hooked pigs in a slaughterhouse. The newly installed short ropes purposely failed to break the condemned necks, assuring that the crowd would enjoy a dance of the convicts as they approached their last judgment.
Finely dressed men and women wore wide-brimmed hats and raised umbrellas against the on-again, off-again sun. They had paid a high tariff for their seats on the rising stands. Pudding-faces and gaunt cheeks pressed against rented windows in the surrounding houses. The mass of apprentices, the poor, and the unclassifiable knocked elbows, sipped gin, and bounced on toes to catch the action, often through a fog of gin or opium-laced wine.
Mandrin was relieved that the smallest of the hanged was a boy. Dark enough in clothes and complexion to be a chimney sweep.
An alcoholic voice said in Mandrin’s ear, “The young one made off with a man’s handkerchief. Demons rule his soul. The noose will save his soul so won’t rot the more. Someone told me that’s what the judge said.”
Mandrin pushed himself closer to the gallows in front of the prison wall, towering like a door to nowhere. He felt a kick on the calf of his leg. It was from a brown-haired boy, about twelve or thirteen, in a stained, torn jacket, pushing and kicking his way through the forest of legs to the front of the crowd. The boy climbed the gallows’ boards, grabbed the youngest condemned’s ankles and pulled hard so the kerchief snatcher would die swiftly. But his hands slipped. Mandrin struggled forward, swatted the boy away, and yanked heavily on the ankles to dispatch the boy to his grave.
The executioner watched the four men and the boy dying. He had a look of satisfaction for a job well done. The heaviest of the men died first because his neck had broken despite the use of a short rope. Already, the executioner could see the beginning of pallor on the man’s face. The others still had the reddish tint of life. Having fewer muscles in his neck to resist the rope, the young one had probably suffocated before being helped on his way. Feeling benevolent, the executioner allowed the thief’s brother to climb the boards again and pull the socks off the dead. The executioner felt so satisfied with his work that he yanked the flimsy vest from the hanged and threw it to the boy.
Later, Mandrin learned the story of the hanged boy. He had stolen a handkerchief from the pocket of Richard Cosway, an artist of fortune. Cosway, a Swedenborgian Christian, Mason, and liberal-leaning intimate of the Prince of Wales, had pleaded for the release of the boy. But the judge, regarding Cosway’s odd clothes, including a vest brightly embroidered with red ladybugs, ignored the plea and pronounced a verdict of death to prevent the boy from doing further moral damage to his immortal soul.
“Where’s the lady?” the shrill voice of the boy with the bundle asked as he pushed past Mandrin. “She is supposed to die. I want her clothes.” He looked up at Mandrin. “Thanks for killing my brother. He was a no-gooder, but I’m glad you made him suffer less.”
“What lady?” A shock froze Mandrin’s body. He caught his breath. “What lady?”
“She’s in back.” A man shoved against Mandrin said, “They hanged her in the inner court. They knew the crowd would rip off her dress and underwear for souvenirs though God knows them kind of ladies don’t wear underwear. Fact is, few women do.” He shook his head in disapproval. “Rip ‘em off for souvenirs and to sell. They hanged her in back for decency. God knows what they’ll do with her body. They’re as indecent as the gawkers. And just as soused.”
“Oh, we hanged her and put her in lime yesterday,” said a guard holding a pike.
“What did they do with my wife? Where’s Anne?” Mandrin had never felt so out of control. His hands reached out to seize the pike, but withdrew. “Where is she?” he hollered.
“There was a space open yesterday.” The guard looked behind him for help in case the screaming man attacked.
“Space? What space?”
“In the wall between the prison and Saint Paul’s. They’re buried in the wall. It’s simpler than carting the remains to a cemetery and they have their initials there. Your woman will have her initials fresh in the wall.”
Mandrin wanted to kill him and every person behind him. His ears no longer registered the tumult of the crowd. He only wanted to find Anne’s tomb in the wall. He was desperate to find the stone with her initials.
It might say A.M. for Anne Mandrin or A.W. for Weathersby, her family name. He wouldn’t know until he saw it.
It was A.W. She had given the court her maiden name, perhaps to keep her husband out of the case. Someone had clumsily chiseled the initials in a dark flagstone that formed the cap of her grave. He imagined the insulted, degraded, disintegrating flesh and muscle behind the capstone. Five years they had been together out of the twenty he’d spent in England. He was alone, as he had been before they met in Bristol. Death was no stranger to Mandrin, but the only time he had faced it with such despair was when he had watched his brother hang.
Anne and he had fought and loved. She was the more violent. Something in her made her hate anyone who opposed her. Instead of a baby she had a bomb in her womb. Constant violence for itself was not his nature, but he followed her while trying to operate his profitable smuggling enterprises. He could kill when necessary to punish betrayal or for freedom. She killed to answer something inside, something growing with time.
Whether he was bound to her by love, he couldn’t say. He could only say they had tied their destinies. Unlike Anne, he had no passion to kill, but used revenge to frighten his enemies. His native Savoy was a terrain of mountains and valleys threatened on one side of the Alps by the Duchies of Italy and on the other by the brutal Kingdom of France. It was a land threatened by armies as avalanches threatened its villages. Like his nation, he was afraid that someone would assault him without warning.
He couldn’t destroy France, but he could execute revenge against the financiers in Paris who had hanged his brother. Against the innocent-sounding Royal Farm. The Farmers were a conspiracy of money-demons sucking dry both the French and Savoyards. By contract with the King of France, they were the only agency allowed to collect taxes and custom duties. Mandrin believed they could be destroyed. There were only forty masters at the top. At the peak of it all stood the financial genius propping up the King, the banker-scientist, Antoine Lavoisier, the richest non-royal in France. Mandrin vowed to kill Lavoisier to trigger an avalanche of rebellion that would smash the Bourbon regime.