30, man suspects himself a fool;
Knows it at 40, and reforms his plan."
Edward Young, Night Thoughts
Jones conquers worlds at night, but would rather sleep.
Writing useless letters, you have wasted
your last candle. Now you are sentenced to a torment of closely-watched
He has been contemplating his invasion
of India for many weeks. He spends hours sitting on a bench in the Luxembourg
Gardens, thinking about the project. Crossing the Rue de Vaugirard,
it occurs to him that the best route to the subcontinent is the ancient
onethe one through Egypt. Jones stops, smiling to himself, oblivious
to the manure cart bearing down on him, missing him by inches. The driver
turns to curse at him in French, so he does not understand.
Fool! You have lost the capacity to
navigate street traffic, much less the Blue.
There would be war between England and
Russia. Those powers, one pre-eminent at sea, the other on land, must
try conclusions for the mastery of Europe. The man who contrives the
plan to strip John Bull of her Asian possessions would earn the lifelong
gratitude to the Empress Catherine. That monarch, if she be rational,
must instantly restore his flag rank and furnish him with the fleet
he needs. That slander about a rape in St. Petersburg would evaporate
like a mist before the sunshine of his strategical genius.
But where will you get the money to
post the letter to St. Petersburg?
Jones is dressed to go out by 8:30. At
table, his porridge lies like wet plaster troweled upon his tonguehe
has lost his capacity to taste his food. Instead, he sits there in his
little apartment on the third floor, upstairs from an insurance clerk,
next door to a composer of sentimental snuffbox inscriptions. He eyes
himself in the mirror, wondering how the material of his stock came
to be so dull, and how the lapels of his admiral's uniform coat happened
to be of different widths or are they? Jones stands up, steps
closer to the mirror to see. Alas, an optical illusion. It is only 8:40!
He sits again, his eyes still on the mirror, and turns his head first
to the right, then the left. From a distance of eight or nine feet,
he fancies the gray hairs multiplying at his temples are barely discernible.
He coughshack hack hack, and swallows. Egypt. (This only
takes a few seconds.)
You think of everything but the Woman,
don't you? But you see, you've thought of her just now! Her married
hands lay in yours, years before, in some toilet at Passy with a coffered
ceiling. How thin married hands are, how fragrant and trembling! To
have that oh so aristocratic perfumey knuckle beneath his nostrils again,
and her married lips on the other side of a short space traversed by
his quickening breathLa Vendahl! The woman was nothing to you.
You must write a letter to her and explain.
With the tactical advantage of his plan,
seven or eight ships of the line would be all he'd need, with an additional
handful of frigates, of course, to bear his messages and convey his
intelligence. Seven ships, less than 5,000 men, and he would pry the
lid off an Empire!
But I am so sick of the sea and ships!
It is 9:00. Assuming he walks slowly,
he could contrive his appearance at the American legation just as Gouverneur
Morris arrives at ten. He leaves his apartment and descends the stairs,
noting, with some annoyance, that the buckles on his shoes have lost
their shine. On the street, he stops and checks his pockets for his
handkerchief, but finds he has forgotten it. No matterthere is
a large Revolutionary rosette of blue, white and red on the curb, left
there no doubt by one of the political processions that occasionally
rattle his windowpanes and disturb the course of his thoughts about
the likely occupation of Pondicherry. He plucks the rosette off the
ground and uses it to buff his shoe buckle to a reasonable luster, then
drops it back in the gutter.
He encounters Morris some distance from
the legation. Jones smiles, grasps the man's hand. Two old friends.
Two men of quality. But there is an expression on Morris's face,
an inertial disposition of his body mass away, away...he still grasps
Morris's hand, shaking it, smiling, smiling, and then coughing, choking,
bending over in two with the pain of it. Morris steps forward, alarmed.
But what pleasantly cool weather for July, yes! They must surely dine
together again soon, yes! Morris, reassured that his visitor is not
suffering an inconvenient death, is once again receding, gravitationally
attracted to the mass of the legation house. But Mrs. Morris is fine,
yes! And you will surely receive your back pay by the next vessel over,
yes! Busy, busy, must read over the day's dispatches. Barbary situation
worrisome, dangerous...but Jones has a plan for that, too! Just three
or four sloops of war would do nicely, slipping into Tripoli escorting
a handful of fire ships...but, what? No time to hear it all now. Well,
now they have something to discuss over dinner, yes!
"By the way, might you slip this
in with the pouch to St. Petersburg?" Jones finally asks, holding
forth his sealed invasion plans for Empress Catherine.
A cloud passes over Morris's brow. They
look at each other for a silent moment. The pretense hangs in the balancetwo
old friends, two men of qualityuntil Morris, with a heaviness
suddenly afflicting his arm, takes the letter in hand.
"I'm in your debt, old man."
Morris responds only with his eyebrows,
knitting them in a gesture that might be understood as either salutation,
or puzzlement. Then he is turned away, waving faintly, and gone...
But wait! They have forgotten to set the
date and time for dinner!
Jones resolves to drop by the legation
For the moment, he makes his way down
the street, idly fingering the tasselled cord on his cane, picking his
way around the rude barricades left there for no good reason but to
commemorate the thuggery of the mob. He has the whole day ahead of him,
and he has already stopped in once to see Morris! He really must organize
his time more wisely. He really must...
It is July the sixth. You barely remembered
the date yourself!
A pang of self-pity taps his soul and
descends, weightless, to the pit of his empty stomach. No one else in
Paris would know.
So he sets himself the task of whiling
away, alone, the burdensome hours of his forty-fifth birthday.