It had been one of the shortest days of the Year Nine of the Republic, the 3rd of the month of Nivose in the revolutionary calendar. The 24th of December 1800, old style. Christmas Eve, as they used to say before the Revolution. Night had long fallen on Rue Nicaise. People were beginning to call it Rue Saint-Nicaise again, for saints were reappearing in everyday language. A few hundred yards away, the lights at the windows of the Palace of the Tuileries glowed dim through the fog.
Passersby, wrapped in coats, hurried home, their workday over. Some, smartly dressed, were going to the houses of friends to celebrate the ancient holiday with a réveillon, the traditional Christmas Eve feast. In the Apollo Café, patrons were drinking and cheering.
The shops were still open. The glove maker’s pregnant wife, her two-year old boy clutching her skirts with both hands, leaned against her counter. She chatted with her maid, who was peeling carrots and turnips in preparation for the feast. The tailor next door was cutting a piece of fabric laid on his workbench. Across the street, the watchmaker, a magnifying lens to his eye, inserted a spring into a timepiece. Musicians, recognizable by the odd-shaped cases they carried, hurried in the direction of the brightly lit Longueville mansion. They had been hired for a lavish party there.
In spite of the damp chill, people on Rue Nicaise kept their doors and windows open to see the carriage of Napoléon Bonaparte, the First Consul, pass by.
France had been a Republic since 1792. King Louis XVI had been guillotined. General Bonaparte, since seizing power a year ago and becoming the First Consul, had settled in the royal palace of the Tuileries. He liked to drive around Paris in a carriage drawn by six white horses, accompanied by a guard of soldiers, at the sound of trumpets, drums artillery salvos.
Tonight, however, there would be no such military pomp. The newspapers had announced that the First Consul was simply to attend the première of The Creation of the World, by Haydn, at the Opera. It was the most anticipated musical event of the season, and tickets sold for twice the usual price.
Joseph de Limoëlan was well informed of this. He had read and reread all the details in every newspaper, though he did not plan on attending the show. Indeed he was not dressed for an evening at the Opera.
Whip in hand, coarse trousers and a loose jacket disguising his tall, slender frame, he led a horse-drawn cart down the street. A grey tarpaulin came down to the hubs of its wheels. Clouds of mist blew out of the nag’s nostrils with each of its breaths. Another man, Pierre de Saint-Régent, also slightly built, his brows knit, walked by the side of the cart, his mouth tight. A third companion, François Carbon, strutted close behind on his short, sturdy legs, and stared at every woman they passed. The three men were dressed in matching blue jackets, coarsely embroidered around the neck in red and white.
Limoëlan stopped the cart in front of the Apollo Café. He had surveyed one last time the whole length of the street that afternoon, and determined this was the narrowest spot. But Saint-Régent’s frown became more pronounced.
“No, this light won’t do at all,” he hissed, nodding in the direction of the Café. Its windows projected bright yellow rectangles that illuminated this entire stretch of the street.
Limoëlan, without a word, pulled on the horse’s bridle. The animal snorted and set forth reluctantly. They moved the cart thirty yards down Rue Nicaise, at the intersection of Rue de Malte. It was darker there, and the other street provided an escape route, should any of them escape.