Excerpted from the Hardcover edition
In Paris in 1889, even murder was a form of theater. And what Michel Eyraud had in mind was a brilliant bit of staging: a sexual farce full of suspense and melodrama and then a tragic denouement. Eyraud had a cockeyed sense of himself. In his invented world he fancied himself a romantic, a flaneur at his ease strolling along the boulevards, a raconteur idling at Maxim’s, a ladies’ man, a conjurer who glided like the devil between the light and the dark. And pushed to the edge, he could kill with style.
He and his mistress had acquired all the props they needed for the evening’s performance. They’d been to London and bought some rope, a pulley, a silk cordelière for use as a noose, and a trunk so big it could hold a human. They’d rented an apartment under an alias on a quiet side street near the grands boulevards, taking rooms on the ground floor so no one below could hear the thud of a body hitting the floor.
Gabrielle was a skilled seamstress, a craft she learned during her years in the convents, and for two nights she had sat by the window stitching two pieces of burlap together to form a human-size bag. He was the show’s director and set designer. On this Friday evening, July 26, he climbed onto a chair in the sitting-room alcove, with his mistress spotting him, and hammered the pulley into a crossbeam; he ran the rope up through the pulley and down again to the floor. He installed a curtain across the alcove and placed a wood chair next to the dangling rope. Here was his hiding spot, where he was to lie in wait. He pushed a chaise longue next to the alcove, then scurried about creating a romantic atmosphere for the killing. He lowered the gas jets, lit candles, and arranged cognac and biscuits on a silver tray.
And again he instructed his actress in her scene, how to speak her lines, how to slide the red silk cordelière off her dressing gown and secretly turn it into a noose. Gabrielle was the star of this show, a petite twenty-one-year-old, the sexual bait tossed before a genial man of wealth. She had been on her own in Paris for a year—about a hundred and forty miles from her home in Lille—and now she was desperate and broken, a near-hysterical runaway, a femme fatale, lethal to her lovers.
A short distance away, on boulevard Montmartre, Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé sat with three friends on the terrace of Café Véron sipping absinthe. His silk hat was impeccably shined, his beard was well-groomed, and his shirt bore his monogram. Gouffé was a bailiff, who, in France, was not the stolid uniformed officer known to sit in American courtrooms but a professional of a higher order: a business figure who handled legal matters and was somewhat comparable to an attorney. The man looked rich, satisfied, and untouchable.
But he had his vulnerabilities: A careful eye watching him on the street might detect his slight limp, and a casual ear did not miss his high-pitched voice and minor lisp. Lifting his glass to his lips, he revealed manicured fingernails and on his pinkie was a treasure that marked him as a target for murder: a gold ring with a sapphire mounted in a halo of diamonds.
Outside on the boulevard the world of Paris circulated: dandies and wits, mesdames in plumed hats, messieurs in white gloves, demimondaines in heavy face paint and feather boas. Across from Café Véron was the stone-arch entrance to the Musée Grévin, the famed wax museum. Inside stood molded kings and queens in breathtaking three-dimensional realism. Down the block, at the Théâtre des Variétés, the comic opera La Fille à Cacolet was on the boards. Earlier in the year, high society had flocked to the premier of L’Affaire Édouard, the latest work by the playwright Georges Feydeau, who was establishing himself as the master of stage farce.
On this Friday, the rain had pelted off and on, muddying the thoroughfare but not intimidating the giant Percherons thundering along, drawing the double-decker Impériale omnibuses. On the boulevard, as one historian fondly recalled, there was a “bedlam of noise . . . a cacophony of hoofbeats, whirling wheels, rattling pushcarts, cries of hawkers and the occasional neigh of an impatient horse.”
Paris was an urban carnival, bold in its amusements: music halls, café concerts, rickety roller coasters. A guidebook promised, “Paris is the only corner of the world where pleasure is a social necessity, a normal state.” Tourists expected a bacchanal, flooding in to escape rigid Germany, stuffy Britain, puritan America. To the outside world Paris floated on a champagne bubble. “It is we,” declared a French journalist, “who have infected the world with gaiety, this brightness.”
But the dark also beckoned: Paris swayed between delight and doom. Since the Prussians humiliated France on the battlefield in 1870, capturing Louis-Napoléon, annexing Alsace-Lorraine, and precipitating a bloody civil rebellion, the country had slept fitfully, tossing and turning over a grim question: Was French glory a thing of the past? The indignity of defeat lingered. The scars were written on the drunks in the alleyways, the blank-eyed syphilitics in the insanity wards, and the anxious faces of the politicians. The Third Republic teetered perennially on the edge of collapse.
The gaiety of Paris, this brightness, could suddenly go dark, as could the electric lights just beginning to glimmer across the city. And no one was immune—not presidents, generals, famous authors, or the rich. Though he looked untouchable, Gouffé was as exposed to the dangerous uncertainties as the next man. He too was dancing on a volcano. And like his countrymen, all he could do before stumbling into the abyss was to raise a glass and laugh with friends, in the spirit of the Montparnasse poet who cried: “People must make merry before dying.”
As Gouffé dug into his meal—pasta with carrots and green beans—one of his companions, a newspaperman, enlivened the table with a tale of his experiences among the anarchists. Although the anarchists were feared for their bold ultimatums—vowing to deliver “the bomb that cleanses” and “the knife that purifies”—so far they were waging mostly a war of words. Their ranks were growing, but the waves of deadly bombings were still on the horizon. The early warnings came in published manifestos and in promises to slit the throats of government ministers. Gouffé and his dinner companions might nod somberly at the threat but were confident they themselves stood at a safe remove.
After dinner, Gouffé’s friends invited him for a stroll around the International Exposition, the massive world’s fair sprawling along the Champ de Mars, the quai d’Orsay, and the Trocadéro gardens, more than two hundred acres of food, fun, and eye-popping mechanical inventions. The French were throwing a months-long party to mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1789 revolution but purposely played down the historic meaning—the overthrow and execution of royalty—to keep from offending the many kings and queens still sitting atop their thrones throughout Europe. Entertainment overwhelmed the politics: The very symbol of royal tyranny, the Bastille, was re-created not as the feared political prison it once was but as an amusement park with rides and colored fountains and shops tended by merchants in eighteenth-century costumes.
Apparently still touchy about the march of history, no monarch in Europe except the King of Belgium sent a representative to the exposition’s opening ceremonies on May 6, 1889, prompting the president of France, Sadi Carnot, to declare pointedly in his dedication speech: “Our dear France . . . has the right to be proud of herself and to celebrate the economic and political centenary of 1789 with her head held high.”
While his speech chided absent royalty, it also was meant to buck up his own beleaguered nation, which only the previous evening had barely escaped calamity. Setting off from the Élysée palace for an exposition ceremony at Versailles, President Carnot had ridden in an open landau through streets packed with revelers. As he moved along the rue du Faubourg-Sainte-Honoré, a deranged shopkeeper from the French colony of Martinque, believing he had been mistreated by the government, fired a single shot at Carnot’s carriage, missing the president but delivering the message of national insecurity.
The opening went on as scheduled, and the exposition supplied spectacle on a grand scale. Fairgoers were awed by the largest enclosed building in the world, the iron-framed Gallery of Machines, which was possibly the noisiest too, with sixteen thousand machines clacking and clattering at once. In modern American terms, it was more than four football fields long and one football field wide. Among the many marvels inside was Thomas Edison’s phonograph. The device so fascinated the men of the French Academy that they recorded the voices of their most gloried members so that years in the future, as a reporter put it, one would be able to hear “the dead speak.”
The exposition was a contest of extremes. E. Mercier Champagne, which claimed to have the largest cellars in the Champagne region, displayed what was billed as the single largest cask in the world, a gargantuan oak barrel dwarfing the average man and containing enough wine for two hundred thousand bottles. On July 14, the centennial of Bastille Day, two thousand musicians performed a concert gigantesque. Another day, twelve hundred musicians played for an audience of twenty thousand in the Tuileries Garden; before the performance, thirty thousand pigeons were released into the air.
The most glorious achievement was Gustave Eiffel’s iron lattice- work tower, created specially for the exposition as an emblem of French science and industry. It shot a thousand feet into the sky, higher than any other man-made structure in the world—so high it afforded a new perspective. “At a height of 350 feet,” said a visitor ascending to the top, “the earth is still a human spectacle—an ordinary scale of comparisons is still adequate. But at 1,000 feet, I felt completely beyond the normal condition of experience.”
Eiffel’s tower was a marvelous but unsettling lurch into the modern world, a symbol of progress but also an inescapable reminder that humankind was hurtling toward the unknown. A fairgoer standing high atop the tower couldn’t help but sense the loss of the Old World and shiver at what lay ahead.
Gouffé declined his companions’ invitation to the exposition. He kept silent about his planned rendezvous for the evening, a lark that had come his way only that afternoon in a flurry of fortuitous coincidence. After lunching at home on rue Rougemont, as was his custom, Gouffé was strolling along boulevard Poissonnière on his way to his office when he ran into Michel Eyraud, a recent boulevard acquaintance. Eyraud burst into a display of theatrical surprise over their chance meeting, then informed his friend of some news: He was finished with his young mistress Gabrielle Bompard. Gouffé had had his eye on Gabrielle and listened with interest as Eyraud explained that she was now a free woman. And by the way, Eyraud snickered sug- gestively, Gouffé must have realized, hadn’t he, that Gabrielle found him attractive? Then with a flourish of male bonhomie, Eyraud offered his mistress to Gouffé, giving him her address: 3, rue Tronson du Coudray.
Just the previous day, Gouffé had dined with the lovers at a boulevard brasserie, and Gabrielle had whispered in Eyraud’s absence that she was fed up with the brute, and she was leaving him. Now, to Gouffé’s delight, the breakup had come to pass.
Bidding his friend farewell, Gouffé continued on his way along boulevard Poissonnière and as he turned onto rue Montmartre, he was surprised a second time when Gabrielle herself appeared before him. He wasted no time.
“So is it true, what you confided to me?” Gouffé asked her.
“Who told you?”
“I just saw him,” Gouffé told her. “He even gave me your address.”
“Ah!” Gabrielle exclaimed. So the plot was proceeding exactly as planned. “Then come see me tonight,” she told her admirer, setting the date for eight o’clock. As Gouffé sauntered off she called after him: “Don’t forget: 3, rue Tronson du Coudray.”
On the pavement outside Café Véron, Gouffé and his dinner companions had said their adieus, and his friends had climbed into a cab to join the slow procession to the fairgrounds. “Everyone is heading for the Exposition or is coming back or returning again to it,” the writer Guy de Maupassant grumbled. “In the streets, the carriages form an unbroken line like cars of a train without end.”
While mobs converged on the Champ de Mars, Gouffé found a cab and went his own way. Along the streets France was dressed up for a celebration. The national tricolor flag decorated lampposts and building windows, and centennial bunting draped the façades of department stores and hotels.
Gouffé’s destination was a one-block-long side street not far from the grands boulevards, named after a minor figure of the French Revolution. Tronson du Coudray was one of two lawyers given the impossible task in 1793 of defending the deposed French queen, Marie Antoinette. But no legal magic could avert the queen’s fate and she—along with her husband, King Louis XVI—lost her head to the guillotine. For his efforts Tronson du Coudray was hustled off to prison.
The apartment building at number 3 was an unremarkable, three-story structure, its narrow windows overlooking the hushed street. Gouffé rolled up at eight fifteen. No one saw him climb out of the carriage, no one saw him go toward the ground-floor apartment, no one saw the young woman in a dressing gown greet him at the door, so tiny was she that her head reached only as high as his chest. No one ever saw Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé alive again.
Excerpted from Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston. Copyright © 2015 by Steven Levingston. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.