A Place of Greater Safety

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel Read Free Book Online

Book: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel Read Free Book Online
Authors: Hilary Mantel
sketched; they pushed past and bustled on. He did not seem put out—it seemed to be his proper occupation, on a fine and pleasant afternoon. He was a stranger—rather dandified, with a Parisian air. Georges-Jacques Danton stood in front of him. In fact, he hovered conspicuously. He wanted to look at the man’s work and to get
into conversation. He talked to everyone, especially to strangers. He liked to know all about people’s lives.
    “Are you at leisure to be portrayed?” The man did not look up; he was putting a fresh sheet of paper on his board.
    The boy hesitated.
    The artist said, “You’re a student, you’ve no money, I know. But you do have that face—sweet Jesus, haven’t you had a busy time? Never seen a set of scars quite like it. Just stay still while I do you in charcoal a couple of times, then you can have one of them.”
    Georges-Jacques stood still to be drawn. He watched the man out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t talk,” the artist said. “Just do me that terrifying frown—yes, just so—and I’ll talk to you. My name is Fabre, Fabre d’Églantine. Funny name, you say. Why d’Églantine? you ask. Well, since you ask—in the literary competiton of 1771, I was awarded a wreath of eglantine by the Academy of Toulouse. A signal, coveted, memorable honor—don’t you think? Yes, quite right, I’d rather have had a small gold bar, but what can you do? My friends pressed me to add the suffix ‘d’Églantine’ to my own homely appellation, in commemoration of the event. Turn your head a little. No, the other way. So—you say—if this fellow is fêted for his literary efforts, what is he doing making sketches in the street?”
    “I suppose you must be versatile,” Georges-Jacques said.
    “Some of your local dignitaries invited me to read my work,” Fabre said. “Didn’t work out, did it? I quarreled with my patrons. No doubt you’ve heard of artists doing something of that sort.”
    Georges-Jacques observed him, as best he could without turning his head. Fabre was a man in his mid-twenties, not tall, with unpowdered dark hair cut short. His coat was well brushed but shiny at the cuffs; his linen was worn. Everything he said was both serious and not serious. Various experimental expressions chased themselves across his face.
    Fabre chose another pencil. “Little to the left,” he said. “Now, you say versatile—I am in fact a playwright, director, portraitist—as you see—and landscape painter; a composer and musician, poet and choreographer. I am an essayist on all subjects of public interest, and speak several languages. I should like to try my hand at landscape gardening, but no one will commission me. I have to say it—the world doesn’t seem to be ready for me. Until last week I was a traveling actor, but I have mislaid my troupe.”
    He had finished. He threw his pencil down, screwed up his eyes and looked at his drawings, holding them both out at arm’s length. “There you are,” he said, deciding. “That’s the better one, you keep it.”
    Danton’s unlovely face stared back at him: the long scar, the bashed-in nose, the thick hair springing back from his forehead.
    “When you’re famous,” he said, “this could be worth money.” He looked up. “What happened to other actors? Were you going to put on a play?”
    He would have looked forward to it. Life was quiet; life was dull.
    Quite abruptly, Fabre rose from his stool and made an obscene gesture in the direction of Bar-sur-Seine. “Two of our most applauded thespians moldering in some village dungeon on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. Our leading lady impregnated months ago by some dismal rural wight, and now fit only for the most vulgar of low comedy roles. We have disbanded. Temporarily.” He sat down again. “Now you”—his eyes lit up with interest—“I don’t suppose you’d like to run away from home and become an actor?”
    “I don’t think so. My relatives are expecting me to become a

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