L'Innocent

The sky was completely clear as Charles Gaines boarded the omnibus outside the Gare du Nord, having just arrived from New York . He had chanced to arrive in Paris on the 28th of March, which, as it happened, was not a particularly good day to cross the Rue de Rivoli, as the Parisians were busy along that street declaring a Commune. Charles Gaines shortly found himself released and standing at the edge of a great sea of people, urchins clambering over monuments to see the glint of the marching National Guard's bayonets. He asked, in his uneasy French, what the commotion was about, and after being ignored by three or four Parisians finally received an answer. The Republic, he learned, had evacuated to Versailles, and the Paris Commune was officially installing itself in the Hotel de Ville.

Charles could not see over the heads of the Parisians. There shortly arose a great roar from everyone, tremendous cries of "Vive la Commune!" accompanied by cannon fire, and unbridled exultation on the faces of everyone that he could see. Charles stood there on the street corner in his top hat amidst his baggage, his mouth agape, feeling keenly his distance from the spectacle in front of him, as if he had lost something or perhaps never had it.

He wondered, in the dark interior of Notre Dame, whether the people buried beneath the stone were good people. He had only recently turned 40, and it occurred to him that, although the unfortunate bishops and abbots there had no markers, he would have one, and something would have to be written on it. It frightened him to think what might be inscribed. "Here lies Charles Gaines - Very Efficient" seemed most likely, as he had become known for his ability to amass fortunes and to always, everywhere, see reason. However, he was tired of seeing reason. He wanted to see Paris.

He was not sure, however, that Notre Dame was the Paris he wanted to see. It was no wonder, he thought, that the French found the Church such an oppressive object of scorn when their buildings were so abysmally dreary and ancient. He had heard at the Embassy that morning that the Commune had already voted several times to disestablish the Church, as if that were somehow more important than preparing defenses against Versailles. Charles thought it probably for the best anyway, and checking his pocket watch but not caring in particular where the hands pointed, turned to leave.

Something stopped him, however, as he neared the door. His eye had caught sight, briefly, of a boy seated before an altar, no older than fourteen or fifteen, his head bowed, his lips mumbling a prayer with an earnestness that Charles was not accustomed to seeing in a youth of his age, particularly in a Parisian. After allowing himself a few moments of fascination, he shrugged, and stepped into the afternoon sunlight.

The air was far pleasanter on the outside, he noted, and stood a while to breathe it in, when he noticed the earnest boy passing alongside him. Involuntarily, Charles's eyes followed the boy, and he was alarmed to find the boy's eyes eventually returning the stare. The child, however, seemed to find nothing awkward in this, and offered him a greeting, smiling.

"Bonjour," he said.

Charles nodded. "Bonjour."

The boy gave a remarkable impression. He had the height and breadth of shoulder of a boy of fourteen, although his face and manner suggested an age much younger. His clothes were too ragged and he was too thin, clearly having suffered under the Prussian siege. His smile seemed genuine, however, and his disposition appeared none the worse for a diet of rat. His eyes were slightly sunken into his face, and he gave an immediate and powerful impression of good-natured naiveté and slow wit. Smiling at the older man's accent, he asked Charles whether he was from England.

His ease in conversation with adults startled Charles. "The United States."

"You're a businessman?"

"Philanthropist," Charles said, somewhat stiffly. His lips did not form the word naturally, having had only a few weeks' practice. "I want to help people, those who don't have as much as I do."

"Are you rich?"

Charles frowned. "I suppose I am. But I intend to share."

"You're very brave to come to Paris now," said the boy. "I saw a shell explode outside the bakery near my house. It blew a woman in half!" His eyes widened.

Charles tried to adjust his features to feign appreciation for this information.

"What's your name?" the boy asked.

It seemed a surprisingly intimate question, but Charles, for whatever reason, did not hesitate to provide an answer. "Charles," he said, softening the "ch."

The boy smiled. "You have a French name."

"Do you?"

"Joseph." He scratched the back of his head. "I think it's French."

"It is when you say it."

"It was my father's name."

"Tell me, Joseph, how old are you?"

"Fourteen."

Charles's eyes narrowed. The boy acted much younger, and he never seemed able to manage his eyes in the direction he wanted them. "You're getting to be a young man, then. You're almost old enough to join the National Guard." He imagined the boy in an oversized uniform, forehead creased, marching with a rifle in his hands, determined. It seemed a romantic image.

At the idea, however, Joseph's demeanor suddenly changed. He looked down at the ground and his face drained. He pointed off, idly, across the Seine. "I could show you where the shell exploded," he said. "I wasn't afraid. When it happened, I mean. It was really loud. Everything shook. Like this." He demonstrated with his arms and let out a little yell. "I was really close to it."

"It's all right if you don't want to fight," Charles said. "Not everyone is a fighter. I'm not."

Joseph said nothing, but merely shuffled his feet.

"I imagine your friends have all joined."

"Yes," Joseph admitted, his eyes absently following birds from the bell towers. "I don't really want to fight," he said, finally, after some apparent effort. Now, the words came more freely. "I don't like it, and I'm too stupid anyway. But I'm not scared." At this, he suddenly fixed his eyes forcefully at Charles. "I'm not afraid of fighting. I'm not. I just don't want to."

"The peacemakers are blessed," said Charles. "I can't remember who said that."

"The Lord said that," said Joseph.

Charles was embarrassed. "Who told you that you were stupid?"

"My mama. Everybody. But they're right. I am stupid. I don't mind, though." He jumped up and down against the cathedral wall for a moment, before looking up at the older man. "I bet you're very smart. You look smart."

"I suppose I am. But it doesn't matter in the end how smart you are. I've learned that. One must be a good person. That's why I want to help people. Maybe you could help me."

His eyes widened again, eager. "What do you need?"

Charles observed the boy's manner. He had never met anyone like him. Perhaps, he thought, this was possible only in a poor Parisian. Realizing suddenly he had been asked a question, he touched his chin and mumbled a response, the way he had answered men in Manhattan. "I've only just arrived in Paris, but I want to avoid the usual channels for philanthropy. I want to help people directly. Perhaps." He gestured. "Do you know someone who might be in need of assistance, financial or otherwise?"

Joseph looked a little perplexed at this.

"Do you know anyone who's sick? Hungry? Who needs money?"

"Yes. There's a..." He blushed. "There's a girl I know who's sick. I was praying for her. Just now."

"Can she afford a doctor?"

He shrugged. "I don't think so."

"Then perhaps your prayer has been answered."

Weeks passed, during the course of which Charles discovered that Joseph knew a great many people in need of help. They continued to meet in St. Denis, Charles awkwardly following the boy through the slums, praying that he would not be robbed, and secretly wondering if the fear he felt before and the gratitude give him after were life.

He was never comfortable, however, and never natural.

One morning in St. Denis he chanced to notice, passing on the other side of the street, a small crowd of people carrying with them the corpse of a fallen National Guardsman. The women mourned, loudly, catching Charles's attention and refusing to let it return to his business. He followed them at a distance, and wondered what about their mourning made it so foreign to him. It occurred to him when he noticed the anger in their wailing, an anger at a distant, terrible enemy. There was a defiance in their morning, and Charles thought he caught a glimpse of something noble in that defiance. There was, surely, something noble in the simplicity, in the recognition of evil, and in the righteous anger that burned against it. He had never himself felt anything like it. It was new.

As he watched, fascinated, the scene changed suddenly. The loudest of the parisiennes stopped and, taking a stone from the street, threw it through the window of a nearby home. The others cheered, and soon the whole of the little mob had descended upon the building in a fiery rage. They broke out the windows, and shards of glass rained onto the street. Charles thought he heard cries, although he could not be sure. Pieces of furniture flew out of the gaping windows, landing near the bloodied corpse and the one woman who had remained beside it, softly crying over it, unable to move it. Charles's spirit fell, and once again he saw reason.

The bedroom smelled like decay when Charles awoke. The woman beside him was ugly, the lace on the bed was yellow and tattered, and the furniture was ancient and falling to bits. He left the place with disgust, wanting somehow to be washed.

He wandered the streets for several hours, the morning sun glinting off of Paris the same way it always had since he had been there, indifferent. He wanted it to storm at times, but nature was never that compliant. The sun shone as ever with a gleaming, smug neutrality that Charles had grown to hate.

He met Joseph again at the corner, but had more trouble looking at him. He was sitting on a barrel, swinging his legs against it, staring up at the sky. From Charles's vantage, he seemed to be smiling.

Joseph's face brightened upon seeing Charles. He eagerly produced a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket. "Madame Malveaux wrote you a letter," he said. "She's very thankful for the gift."

Charles took it and started to read it. He had read many like it, miserably scrawled, and littered with misspellings. His eyes stopped at the words "I know you're a good man." "A good man?" he said softly. It was, he admitted to himself, what he had wanted to hear from the day he left the United States. Why did he not feel it? "A man with good money is not the same thing."

"I think you're a good man," said Joseph.

He looked at the boy. Nothing of the emptiness he felt seemed to reflect in Joseph's eyes. He didn't seem to understand, only to want Charles's sadness to end. "Why do you say that?"

He didn't answer right away. "You help people. You give them money."

"But it doesn't help." He indicated the letter. "Nothing she bought with the money was what she ought to have bought. She's paid quacks, spent on frivolities. It's all been wasted. And she's proud of it!" He crumpled the paper and pocketed it. "There is no helping people that way."

"Not everybody wastes it."

"Yes, they do," Charles said. "Even if they don't waste it immediately it becomes a waste later, when they're hungry again, or naked again, or sick again. I have money, and I have pity, and it's all useless. At the end of the day, I'm no better than I was back in New York, paying my workers what they earned. At least then I could be sure that honest people were getting my money."

Joseph stared off down the street. Charles could not see his eyes, and felt ashamed.

"I'm sorry, Joseph. I know it's not their fault. I know there are other reasons for hardship. I don't blame them. There are others at fault, I know." He was lying.

Joseph continued to stare down the street, awkwardly, uncertain.

"Have you ever been angry, Joseph?"

"Sometimes."

"Have you ever wanted to change things? In a real way, that lasts?"

"Sometimes." He hesitated. Joseph seemed to sense something amiss.

"But I have no enemies, Joseph."

"You should thank God for that."

"I suppose I should." He stopped. "I'm sorry. I'm just very frustrated now."

"It's okay," Joseph said. "Everything's going to be all right. You are a good person. I think you are. Everybody I know thinks you are. Everybody's very thankful."

Charles looked at his face, and something occurred to him very suddenly, and left him just as suddenly, leaving behind something very dark. He forgot it before he even realized what it was.

"I'm sorry to have troubled you," Charles said.

Joseph smiled, a sad smile.

"There's something I wanted to ask you," Charles said. "A favor."

"What do you need?"

"There's a woman, an American woman, a friend of mine, who has become trapped in a house in Neuilly . Do you know where that is?"

"I think so." He gulped. "That's where the fighting is."

"I need to get a message to her from her husband, but I don't know how. It's very dangerous. There's lots of gunfire. Somebody small, somebody very brave, has to deliver it to her."

Joseph tried to stand a little taller. "I'm brave. I'm very brave."

"I know, but it's very dangerous. I would worry about you."

He frowned. "I can handle myself. I'm not scared. Really, I'm not scared. Where's the letter?"

Charles took a deep breath.

When the bombardment at Neuilly ceased, and the gunfire had moved to other streets, Charles set out for the village to find Joseph. The boy had been terribly foolish. The danger had been far too great. His lips ran, half speaking the things he could have said to prevent his going, half the things he hoped to say to Joseph when he was found. "We were so worried!"

The streets were dead, the trees cut to pieces, the pavement covered in spent bullets, the houses along the sides shattered and broken. It had been two days, and the possibility still remained that Joseph had found safety in one of the homes. He scanned the ruins through the smoke.

His heart fell when he saw the little, crumpled body in the gutter, and he ran to it. The face was blue, distorted, and a hole had been shot through the chest. He cried over it for some time in the street, before he lifted it up in his arms, and began to trudge back to the ambulance with it. He felt the weight of it in his arms, and saw in the twisted face the remnants of an innocent, pure life, destroyed forever, and for the first time, looked towards Versailles, the distant army that had destroyed it, and felt a rage. It felt like life.

"I should think you're very happy to have come home before the madness really began," Andrea said. "How many did you say were executed at the end?"

"Twenty-thousand," said Charles with irritation, as he sipped his coffee. "Communards. And not executed. Murdered."

"Dreadful," said the other woman. "Well, at least you're safe."

"Hm. I only wish I had been there to fight on the barricades with the Parisians, except that I'm not much of a fighter. I would have only been a hindrance."

"You never were much of a fighter," said the other woman.

Charles glared at her, and she seemed to shrink a bit.

"Well," said Andrea. "I suppose you can't expect any more from the French. They have a history of this kind of thing."

"This isn't a French thing," said Charles. "It's about life, about goodness. For a brief instant, Paris had a chance at it, and it was crushed, ruthlessly, by people who were too frightened of the prospect to let it happen." He seethed behind his spectacles.

"I don't think it's wise to get so involved in foreign affairs, Charles," said Andrea.

"You simply don't understand, do you? Either of you?"

Charles looked at the women, and at the others milling about the hall, and felt the distance between them. Through the bottom of the spectacles he disdained them. He allowed the women to stand and take leave of him through his narrowed glare, and he sat in the corner, in the dark by the fire, and loathed everything he saw, satisfied.