The Harpsichord Lesson – Painter: Jan Steen (1626-1679)
Le Manche’s flame, ensconced in a suspended tin urn, did not gutter. The maintenance of the balloon didn’t demand attention; nothing excused the two men from their gloomy predictions. If nothing came of their frantic jettisoning of dead weight, they would drown in the English Channel. If they touched land, they would be ripped apart by men gathered under the cheery Union Jack.
They assumed respective fetal positions. Pilatre’s posture resembled that of an ogre: head stooped, his arms and legs slung low like manacles. Gerard’s despair was decidedly more conventional: hands clasped around buttocks, his knees fused together.
The only land sighted was in Gerard’s head. Home. Metz, a city into which two millennia of history flowed. It passed like a scepter from empire to empire: Celts, Romans, then Karlings, then all those who came after. To the world, it was marble and velvet and palisades and triumphs and blood.
Gerard remembered it as a stroll along the River Seille. He would begin in the direction of the Saulnois, a place of shrubs and creeks, of the mouse and the vole. The only interruptions of the landscape were little cottages and wives filling laundry lines. Then he would walk miles — to and through the dockside coffeehouses. Sex. Politics. Religion. Poetry. Bourrées in the bedroom. Dalliances with Voltaire. He would end up at uncle Mathurin’s inn for a free meal. Bathing in the dusk and eating outside, he would espy some fleeting beauties, some portraits that he would take if he possessed a hand for paint. His latest favorite: a young woman with a perpetual frown and the most sensuous taste in song. She would glare at her harpsichord and the sheet music as if furious, but produced the loveliest Couperin or Lully.
That thought somehow terrified him. The vast scope of possibilities was narrowing to a single point: he was going to die in this damned balloon.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” he blurted out. “Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women–”
“Stop,” said Pilatre. “I refuse to let that gibberish be the last thing I hear.”
Gerard opened his mouth to retort and discovered that his lips were forming another “Hail Mary.” So he recited the prayer inwardly, in the back of his mind, and said aloud, “How much time do we have?”
“Another twenty minutes. You assume we’ll alight at all.”
“I don’t. In fact I–” Gerard swallowed a lump of phlegm. “I should like to set my soul to rights.”
“Well, I shouldn’t like to fill my last hours with nonsense that’s plagued me for my entire life.”
“I’ve faith, cousin, even if you don’t.”
“I have faith,” said Pilatre. “I have faith in my arms, my eyes, the cords that bind this balloon, and the hydrogen which buoys it. Turning water into wine or raising the dead? Not so much. Manpower and ingenuity are better receptacles for your faith, I daresay.”
Gerard felt the words bruise, yet all he could hear was: Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed among women.
He reached an amen in his head before Pilatre spoke again. “At least I’m not an Anglican.”
Gerard laughed. “At least.”
“What will the beefeaters do to us?” asked Pilatre. “I doubt they know the difference between scientists, journalists, and soldiers.”
“Same thing they did to your papa, except they’ll take more than a leg.”