I don’t know what got me thinking about the French Revolution. Just one of those times when the brain takes off and you have the option of going with it or hoping it finds its own way home. I usually go with it. I find some neat stories that way. Anyway, all I know about the FR is the two movies about the Scarlet Pimpernel, one with Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes) and one with Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited). I liked the second one better because I generally hate anything Leslie Howard is in, except GWTW, of course. There was also a 40’s movie of A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Coleman as the lead. He had one of the weirdest speaking voices ever – except of course Rudolph Valentino’s squeaky voice that kept him out of talkies. I guess after one of the Pimpernel movies I wondered did they actually save the Dauphin and spirit him away to England. Sadly, no. The movies ended happily with him getting away, but in actuality they killed him also, along with Dad Louis and Mom Marie Antoinette.
So I brought a sad amount of knowledge to the story. I had to do research. The FR is fascinating in that it went on so long from failure to failure. The French could never maintain a nation state the way the English can. But the part that stood out to me was what was known as the Reign of Terror. A madman known as Robespierre managed to grab control of the government. He was apparently an 18th century Hitler. He massacred tens of thousands of people, mostly aristocrats, the intelligent and anyone opposed to him. After killing the king and queen he declared himself dictator. He called it the Terror because he removed all laws unto himself and said he would be a Terror to his enemies.
I decided to write a story about one of his victims, one of the thousands of aristocrats swept up and summarily executed. The story unwinds slowly because a little background is necessary but it builds up speed for a Thelma and Louise finish.
As I was creating characters and places I decided to have a little fun. I also do genealogical research on my family. Some of my lines go back to Normandy in France. So I placed my characters in Normandy. One of my earliest maybe ancestors was a Jean leBas. He was the equivalent of a baron near the village of Villers Canivet. His home was called Le Bas de la Grurie. It backed up to the Royal Forest, which figures in the story. Actually he had nothing to do with Ferté Macé , that came from my Massey ancestors (Macé eventually became Massey). The Sieur de Sacie was another ancestral line, and the Gartones were anciently aligned with the Bass family in London. All other names I just pulled out of thin air as I usually do.
The story is a bit dark, but Jean seems reconciled to it. I hope I conveyed a sense of melancholy at the loss of former values and an uncertain future. It’s a bloody mess, but enjoy.
20 June 1794
I watch the large wooden door slam shut. I can hear the rattle of chains as it is secured. In the dim light everyone is momentarily quiet. We are the damned. The condemned. Existing in this half life awaiting our end. More come in each day and more go out. A revolving account. Feeding more and more heads to the frenzied mob. The Romans spoke of bread and circuses. We have devolved back to that level of barbarity. Except we have no bread. But give them circuses anyway. This nation that I love has taken leave of its senses. Only madmen are in charge.
We sit in quiet contemplation, each hating ourselves for feeling relief in escaping the blade one more day, our appointment with Madame Guillotine. How has this existence, so dreary and destitute become something worth wishing to keep? Our grief for our neighbors is only compounded by the guilt we feel for remaining, surviving another day in this hell. But rest assured, mes amis. We will join you soon.
We can now hear the roar of the crowd through the small windows high on the wall, as the wagon comes into their view. The latest victims of the Terror will be standing in the wagon, chained to a post. A tiny voice, too far away to hear clearly reads their sentence. Then a brief drum roll. The crowd falls silent as the drums cease. Then we hear a faint ‘thunk’ as the blade lands. The crowd roars its approval. This repeats some twenty times as we hold our heads in our hands. Heads soon to roll. How have we as civilized men fallen to such depths? That people cheer the butchery of their neighbors?
Those of us paying attention the past few years knew things were bad and getting worse between the king and Estates General. The crop failures compounded the problems. Common people were starving and the king and his crowd were throwing frivolous parties and gorging themselves in full view. The war with Austria was a mistake and we have paid the price. Our soldiers were mowed down. A generation lost. And the queen was hated even more for the fact that she was Austrian.
It could still have been worked out if the king had been more astute. But he was a foolish man who listened to the creatures who had attached themselves to him. He told the commons one thing and then did the opposite. It was like baiting a bear.
I watched these developments from afar. My estate in the lovely rolling farmland of Normandy is far from the insanity that is Paris. There people do not starve. We plan for bad years. There people do not see their betters frittering away their time on senseless pleasures. We all work for the betterment of our demesne. It is how it has always been.
When in Caen I had spoken in worried tones with my friends Michel, le Sieur de Sacie and Abbé San’Juste. Michel was as concerned as I, and San’Juste told us the clergy was abandoning the king. This proved to be true. Soon the clergy threw their lot with the commons, overthrowing the Estates General and proclaiming a National Assembly, declaring the monarch deposed. France was to be a republic. The king and queen were captured trying to flee the country. When they were returned to Paris and imprisoned I knew it would only get worse.
And it did. The new National Assembly decreed the end of feudalism and the hereditary peerage. Some estates were seized and divided up among Assembly members. But not among the commoners as one would think. Everyone was to be called ‘citizen’. And if a citizen had a complaint against a former aristocrat he only needed to whisper in the ear of a Committee of Public Safety member and the aristocrat would find himself in prison. At first it was a minor inconvenience. Just pay a fine or bribe and it was done. But then the National Assembly was seized by that madman Robespierre. Men could be held indefinitely with no recourse. Estates could be stripped with no notice. And then laws were passed allowing one to be imprisoned with no trial.
During this descent into Hell I did what I could for my family. I did not believe the insanity would spread to Normandy, but would eventually burn itself out in Paris. However, I took precautions. My eldest daughter, Elise, lived in the Dutch Republic with her husband. My two younger daughters, Cosette and Daphine, were visiting her for her lying-in when the king was seized. I sent a message with a trusted servant instructing them not to return to France until I sent for them. I explained to them that it was a dangerous place. Also, the Austrians were now allied with Belgium who had declared against us. An army was between my daughters and Normandy.
As to my sons, my eldest Maximillièn had been killed in the war. My youngest, Henri, was at university in Paris. I worried most for him. I eventually received his message that he had never boasted of his aristocratic heritage so he was safely anonymous for the moment and keeping a low profile. Thomás was at home with me, running our estate. He was now my heir as next Sieur.
Then in January of last year the unthinkable happened. Robespierre and his cabal put the king on trial. It was a mockery from the outset. Within days he was convicted of conspiracy against public liberty and safety among a host of other crimes. The day following the verdict he was publicly executed in the so-called Place de la Révolution by guillotine. All of Europe was stunned by what we had done. We had become an international pariah state. The Dutch Republic, Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Great Britain and the Pope declared war on us. We eventually settled our war with Austria but they wanted Queen Marie Antoinette returned to them. Further violence was threatened. But the rabble had tasted royal blood and nothing else could sate them. Within months poor Queen Marie was also led to the guillotine bizarrely accused of incest with her son, still a small boy. As an added indignity they publicly sheared her hair before her execution. The vengeful tricoteuses, those grotesque hags called ‘grandmothers of the revolution’ by the mob, mocked her as they knitted their ‘deathcaps’ spattered with the blood of the innocent. The pitiful orphaned Dauphin disappeared. Rumor was that Robespierre’s men or perhaps the villain himself strangled the child. His sisters had somehow made it to Austria without being apprehended.
The insanity in Paris continued, descending into even further evil. Robespierre called it the Terror. He had seized absolute power, proclaiming himself dictator in June. He was executing his political enemies and innocent aristocrats without trial. The National Assembly and clergy were powerless. All power resided in the National Tribunal in the hands of Maximillièn Robespierre.
The rest of the country rebelled at such an outrage. Armed men from Normandy, the Vendée and other areas marched on Paris only to be met with the Revolutionary Army. There were several pitched battles but the poorly armed countrymen were decimated. My noble Normans continued the resistance but the appearance of the Revolutionary Army on our doorsteps in November disheartened our patriots.
As a result of the several revolts, Commissars were sent out to all the large cities to seek troublemakers, incendiaries, counter-revolutionists and aristocrats to be arrested on trumped up charges and their estates stolen. I heard that a large dungeon-like fortress in Paris in the Salpiètre was being filled with arrested aristocrats. Most were held without charges and their estates were confiscated. Under new laws drawn up by Robespierre if the Revolutionary Tribunal suspected a person to be an enemy of the people, he was arrested and tried, with no defense allowed. Verdicts were nearly always execution and carried out within days. I knew by this time that more action was necessary on my part.
As I sit in the Salpiètre, now my home, I am glad for the precautions I at one time thought unnecessary. Never did I dream I would end my days in this dungeon awaiting a cruel execution. I had better hope of my country, of my fellow man. Some two hundred of us are crowded in this underground warren, grown listless and pale from lack of food, exercise and sunshine. We sit in family groups, waiting. Young husbands hold their wives and dry their tears as they weep for infants and small children ripped from their arms and left to an uncertain fate. To be taken up by kindly neighbors or left to die of exposure. In this time when food is scarce, taking in another mouth is a hard choice. But the Commissars have no hearts. They simply cast aside the small children. Of those who survive the more fortunate may end up in orphanages. The less fortunate in the workhouses.
Older families and people like me who were fortunate enough to spirit our children out of the country in time congratulate ourselves that though we perish, our line continues. We will live on in the hearts of our children and grandchildren. That is enough for me.
To preserve our fortune, Thomás and I gathered all our jewelry, bullion, plate, any valuables that could easily be transported. We packaged them and all my papers, deeds, and notes of accounts in crates surrounded by onions. We loaded them on a wagon and piled hemp on top. Thomás donned the outfit of a simple farmer. He headed out in the wagon for the northern border. A number of our servants went with him posing as his family. A citizen and his family taking their crop to market. His goal was to reach my daughters in the Dutch Republic and for them all to emigrate to safety in England. He wanted me to come with him but I refused to be driven out. I am Jean leBas, Sieur de la Ferté Macé. Here I stand.
Nearly a month passed without word. We received messages from Paris that the National Tribunal had begun summary executions of innocent people. There were reports of daily guillotining of 20 to 30 people. It was done as public spectacle, entertainment for the masses. Then one of my servants returned from the north. He told a lively tale of danger and near disaster. However, Thomás and the treasure had reached my daughters. The servant bore a letter from Thomás imploring me to flee and join them. Elise had been delivered of a son, named Jean in my honor, and they had already booked passage to England. He gave me the address of an accounting house in London who would locate them for me if I should decide to come.
The Commissar for Caen had been a fairly ineffectual chap. He was more interested in the contents of our wine cellars than anything else. He was eventually recalled to Paris for his incompetence. I last saw him in Caen as he was taking ship for England.
His replacement, Commissar laSangue was an evil-looking fellow. I mistrusted him immediately when he finally made a call at my estate of la Grurie. He addressed me as Citizen Jean leBas. The common men have made much of calling us by our given names or calling us “the former sieur of this or the former vicomte of that”. I have no use for this. I am le Sieur de la Ferté Macé. I will remain le Sieur until the moment I die. Then it will be my son Thomás. No silly paper issuing out of Paris will change that.
The Commissar’s beady eyes were shifty and covetous as the toured my manor. He asked seemingly innocuous social questions but I knew he was plotting my end.
“I was hoping to pay my respects to the lady of the house, also,” laSangue said in his oily voice.
“Alas, my sainted Lady Marie passed on some ten years ago. I mourn her still. It pains me to remember her final days.” I purposefully used her title to bring home the fact to laSangue that he was dealing with his betters.
“A pity. My condolences. And you have sons and daughters to follow you?” Apparently the fool did not think to enquire of us in Villers Canivet or he would know all about my family. This would give me the opportunity to amend the whereabouts of my family.
“My eldest son Lord Maximillièn perished in our ill-fated war against the Austrians. My other son and heir, Lord Thomás is away at the moment. My eldest daughter Lady Elise is having her lying-in in London and he has taken my other daughters, Ladies Cosette and Daphine to attend her”. I could see the disappointment in his eyes that there was no big haul of aristocrats here to seize. I would have to suffice.
“Again, what a pity. I should like to make their acquaintances. You will inform me upon their return, please.”
“Of course, Monsieur le Commissar.”
Once he had departed I began my final dispositions.
I called all the house servants to the great hall. There were about twenty still with me. I explained that I was about to be arrested by the Terror. They were all shocked, denying that I had ever offered offense to anyone. Once convinced of my danger, they begged me to flee. I told them that I was too old to run and probably wouldn’t get far. They offered to barricade the house and fight off the Commissar’s men but I refused to place them in danger. I told them I was resigned. And that I wanted to reward them for their years of service. We scoured the house for everything of value we could find that I had not yet sent to Thomás. Gold candelabras, silken covers, delicate crystal, beautifully bound books, excellent vintages. We stripped everything of value that we could from the manor and packed it in crates. We spent the evening carting it all into the Royal Forest behind my estate to a secluded hiding spot. Once this was secured I told the servants that this cache was theirs. My major domo Martine would oversee the distribution so that all got equal shares. It was enough to make all of them wealthy. I just warned them to wait until the Terror was over. I dispersed them that evening. I did not wish them to be present when the Commissar returned. The man was a villain through and through and I did not trust that he might torture my men to find if there was a hidden cache. Martine begged to remain with me. I told him he could stay only on the condition that he hasten out the back door the moment we saw the soldiers on the morrow.
Martine and I spent the last hours of the evening in my study before a cozy fire. He had pulled the best wines from my cellar and we enjoyed sipping and talking of better days. I had a notion to get falling down drunk, but decided I would rather walk out of my home with dignity, not as an inebriated wretch. As the sun came up Martine helped me bathe and dress in my best travelling clothes. I added a heavy coat and sturdy boots. I wore several layers, not knowing what to expect. He then prepared me a fine breakfast with what food I’d had the servants leave for me. LaSangue would find a poor larder to sack from my estate.
About midmorning we heard the tramp of horses so I sent Martine on his way. He cried and kissed me farewell.
I met laSangue in the atrium and cordially invited him into my home. As he entered his beady eyes actually bulged. His face reddened and a vein could be seen to throb over his left ear.
“Citizen Jean leBas, formerly Lord of Ferté Macé,” he began. I couldn’t help bristling slightly. I was still unaccustomed to such familiarity from his like and I am no “former” lord. “I have orders from the National Tribunal to arrest you for suspicion of anti-revolutionary activities and as a threat to the republic. Your estate will be seized pending the outcome of your trial. Should your son citizen Thomás leBas or daughters citizens Cosette leBas, Daphine leBas or Elise de Fontaine return, they are also under suspicion and must turn themselves in to the authorities in Caen.” His teeth were clenched in fury. I had robbed him of what he had expected to be a valuable prize.
“Well, Monsieur le Commissar, you will not find much left to seize. After your visit yesterday my servants revolted. They robbed me of all I have and I was lucky to be left alive.”
“Officers, search the premises,” he ordered his guards. “And you two,” he added to the two guards beside him, “Assist Citizen leBas to the conveyance.”
Outside I found a rude wagon with no cover. Two benches in the back faced each other with a pole in the center through which chains could be run to secure prisoners. I was only slightly surprised to find Abbé San’Juste and Michel de Sacie and his wife Madame de Sacie sitting there. I was seated beside the abbé across from the de Sacies. Iron manacles were placed on my wrists with a chain fastening me to the central pole.
“Bonjour, my good friends. We meet again, but not under favorable circumstances this time. Abbé, I am surprised to find you run afoul of our government. Michel and Madame, my condolences.”
“Religion and politics are a deadly cocktail, my lord,” said the Abbé. “That damnable rabble in Paris have declared the republic to be atheist. I have too high a profile in Caen to be allowed to continue.”
“Yes, and we are in your position, Jean,” my friend Michel dolefully agreed. “We have a comfortable manor which le Commissar covets. That is the extent of our crimes. We are guilty of prosperity.”
Once laSangue was sure there was no treasure to be found we were off. His comfortable coach preceded our lumbering wagon down the dusty road across the beautiful early spring greening countryside of my beloved Normandy. When I expected us to turn toward Caen, we instead turned right and began heading west. I realized he was taking us to Paris rather than the local administrative capital. He apparently thought we were important enough that he wanted his handlers to see how well he had done. Caen would have been bearable. Paris was a death warrant.
And that is how I came to be here in this dimly lit cesspool in Paris eking out the final moments of my life. Although unwashed and poorly fed, we maintain an air of civility here in our prison. Some, like me, have friends on the outside who bring us food, such as my dear faithful Martine. Against my advice he followed me to Paris. And although the republic has disbanded the clergy, we have a number of former churchmen in our midst to offer us comfort and last rites. My Abbé San’Juste found a place with his counterparts here in our dark home. My only consolation is that God will surely never forgive such brutality as the slaughter of these innocents. Robespierre and his party should have their bodies thrown to the dogs to rip apart and gnaw on their bones.
Michel and Madame de Sacie found her relatives in the Salpiètre. They asked me to stay with them and I did for a few days. The first small parcel of food from my dear Martine arrived on my second day. He must have given the guard a substantial bribe to get the food to me. I shared it among our little group. I gave most of the bread and cheese to the ladies, but reserved some walnuts and an apple for myself. As I prepared to eat I noticed a boy had edged up watching me, his eyes riveted on the apple. By his dirty face one would think him a street urchin but his satin breeches and waistcoat, though torn and stained, revealed he was of noble background.
“Hello, my friend. Would you care to share my repast?” I murmured to him. He had the wide eyes of a doe and gave the appearance he may dash away at a moment’s notice.
“If I had a knife I would cut this apple into slices and we could share, but as it is, they will not allow weapons. I’ll tell you what. Come sit by me and keep me company and I’ll let you have the apple. The nuts are enough for an old man like me anyway.”
He eased up to just outside my reach. I extended my arm holding the apple out to him. He quickly snatched it and dashed back to a safe distance. He tore into it ravenously.
“Easy, my young friend, or you shall get a tummy ache. Slow down. No one will take your apple. Come closer and I will guard you.” He considered this and eased a little closer. He also slowed down devouring the small apple.
“That’s better. Let me introduce myself. I am le Sieur de la Ferté Macé, but you may call me Monsieur leBas. Have you a name?”
“And may I know it?”
“I am Charles,” he muttered. Then seeming to remember himself, his voice strengthened. “I am Charles Danton, Vicomte Falaise, son of le Comte de Gartone.”
“Well, my lord, you are of a grander station than I.” I sketched a semi bow from a sitting position.
He skittered a little closer.
“You may call me Charles. Thank you for the apple.” His voice broke a little on the last word and I realized he was still in the process of change from child to young man. With his large eyes and floppy hair he reminded me so much of my lost Maximillièn at that age.
“How old are you Charles?”
“I turned fourteen at the beginning of the year, my lord.” Dear God. He was just a child. Why in Heaven’s name was he here. To be sure even these evil men are not about murdering children.
“Well, Charles, my lord of Gartone. It is time for my daily constitutional. Will you walk with me?”
“Surely, my lord.”
Walking around our dungeon did not take long, but I strolled leisurely, greeting the others as if it were a Sunday promenade in the park.
“So, how long have you been a guest in our dim hotel?” I asked. The boy looked at me as if uncertain of my humor. Beneath the grime I could tell he was a handsome lad.
“We have been here a week, my lord.”
“We? Good, then you are not alone.”
“No, my maman and papa are over there,” he indicated a miserable looking couple we were near to approaching.
“Then you must introduce me, dear boy.” The boy’s father rose to greet me.
“Papa, this is Monsieur leBas, le Sieur de la Ferté Macé. Monsieur leBas may I present my father, le Comte de Gartone and my maman, la Comtesse.” I made a formal bow to the Comtesse. The Comte reached to shake my hand.
“Welcome to our humble abode. I hope my son hasn’t been a nuisance.”
“Oh, far from it. He reminds me of my own son, now passed on. He has been keeping me company and helped me finish an apple I had.”
The Comte turned a stern eye on his son. “Charles, what have I told you about begging food?”
“But he offered Papa.”
“Please don’t scold the boy. I don’t mind sharing. He’s a growing boy and needs to eat. He at least, may walk out of here alive.” This caused a despairing cry from the Comtesse.
“Our daughter, Geneviève,” the Comte said by way of explaining his wife’s distress. “We were separated from her when they brought us here. It was a dark night and they whisked her away before we realized she was gone. She is only twelve.”
“Please take heart, my lady. Your dear Geneviève may be one of the lucky ones. I hear that the younger children are often taken to orphanages. Not the best place, but at least she will have a chance at a life.”
“See, Cècíle. I have been telling you that we must hold out hope for her,” the Comte said, kneeling by his wife. She just buried her face in her shawl and cried softly.
“I’m afraid my wife is not yet resolved to our fate,” the Comte said. “But here, you may call me Marcel. And you, my good man?”
“Jean leBass, at your service.”
“We saw you come in two days ago. My wife thought she recognized Madame de Sacie. Is that true?”
“Yes. She and Michel are old family friends.”
“While we hate to run into friends in such a place, perhaps Cècíle will brighten if she has another woman to talk to. The good Lord knows I’m having no luck with her. Come with me to the relieving place? Charles, attend to your mother.” Marcel moved away and I followed. Off in a far corner was the evil smelling gutter where the men could relieve themselves. Marcel unbuttoned his trousers and began. I stood beside him and did the same.
“What you said to Cècíle, about the orphanages. Is that true or just another rumor?”
“It is what I have heard. I do not know if it is rumor. One would like to think there is some humanity left in them.”
“One would. There are other rumors, however. Rumors of young girls being taken and given over to the soldiers for their pleasure, and then sold to brothels.”
I was shocked. “Surely they don’t! But your Cosette is a mere child.”
“You see how tall Charles is. Our Geneviève is also well developed for her age. My wife fears the worst.”
“I give you my sorrow, my friend. All I can offer is that the benefit of rumors is that you can choose which to believe.” We buttoned up and turned to make our way back to his family.
“What can you tell me of this place?” I asked.
“We are condemned. The fiction is that we are on trial but no trial ever takes place. The Committee receives a list and signs off on it. All on the list are guilty and condemned to death. There is a backlog so we will lounge here for about a month before receiving our sentence. Every two to three days they come for a group of fifteen to twenty. According to the old timers, no one has yet been found innocent. Nor is anyone expected to be.”
“But what of the children?” I had seen several near Charles’ age.
“There are currently only five children here including Charles. The old timers also tell me that children his age even when found guilty, are given sentences in institutions for children. Some are bound out, some sent to workhouses. Grim as that is, it is our hope for Charles. The Marquis d’Aubissonne was in here with his son some months back. The boy was only 12. His father was generally considered a cad by aristocracy and commoners alike. We were stunned that they executed the boy with his father.”
“Have they no decency?”
“None, my friend. None.”
I remained with the Dantons. The Comtesse needed constant attention from the Comte. I kept Charles occupied. To his chagrin I drilled him in his English and Latin. We also discussed philosophy and religion. I hoped to continue the education that had been so rudely interrupted. I continued to receive regular care packages from Martine. The bribes must have cost him a fortune. Charles was always eager to see what was inside. He never asked for anything, but I always offered him any sweets or fruit Martine could find.
Even though it was June, the nights could still be chilly, especially in our dank prison. We made pillows of bundles of discarded clothing and covered ourselves with the cloaks of those who would no longer need them. One night I felt a scuffling in front of me. I opened my eyes and found Charles had raised the edge of my cloak and was sliding under it with me. I lifted my arm so he could slip close against my chest. I closed my arm around him and held him close. Though nearing adulthood, he was still a boy in so many ways, and needed comforting this night. After a few moments I heard him sniff. I gently turned his face toward me. In the dim light I could detect the glistening tears on his face.
“What’s this, my dear boy?”
“I’m afraid, my lord. This place is frightening and no one laughs. Maman cries all the time and Papa is worried. I’m frightened what will happen to us. What will happen to me. Is it a sin to be afraid for myself?”
I used the cloak to brush away the tears.
“No, sweet boy. We all fear for ourselves at times. You are no different and our good Lord forgives us time and again. Now, no more tears. No amount of worrying ever changed an outcome. What the Lord wills, will be. We must be thankful for what we have today, for tomorrow it may be gone.” I kissed his forehead. “Now think happy thoughts and find sweet rest.”
“Thank you, my lord,” he murmured into my neck. There was a knot in my throat. I had grown to love this boy as my own and despite my words I did worry about him. Whatever the future holds for him, it likely is not good.
Once again the gate swings open and a man in a ragged outfit enters with today’s list. The guillotine awaits its newest victims.
“Citizen Louise Valours, former Duchesse du Maine, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” A grandmotherly old lady slowly rises from a blanket by the wall. She lifts her head high and marches forward like the grande dame she is.
“Citizen Marcel Danton, former Comte de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.”
“Citizen Cècíle Danton, former Comtesse de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.”
“Citizen Charles Danton, son of the former Comte de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” There is an audible gasp from everyone in the dungeon. Our young Charles is just a boy. How can they murder a child? Madame Danton begins screaming, “No, no, not my son!” Marcel has to restrain her. I help Charles to stand. I hold onto his hand as I lead him forward, giving him what strength I can.
“Citizen Jean leBas, former Sieur de la Ferté Macé, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” Alas, my time has also come. It seems my epitaph shall read ‘died 20 June, 1794’.
The deadly litany continues until there are some twenty of us to be loaded in the tumbrel and driven as beasts to the slaughter house.
We are chained to a central pole in the tumbrel that requires us to stand for the journey to the stocks. The Place de la Révolution is not far but the gawking rabble make the trip slow and tedious. I am cheered, however, by the bright sunshine of a fine summer day. Along the way we are vilified by ragged peasants, dirty ruffians and assorted wild eyed revolutionaries. Occasionally a piece of rotten vegetable or unmentionable filth is hurled at us. I keep one hand on Charles’ wrist and murmur, “Courage, lad. Courage.” He lifts his head as a nobleman should, but I can detect that his lip trembles.
We reach the place of execution but are delayed as the dolts become confused trying to untangle the chains they had used to secure us to the wagon. This is found very amusing by the assembled crowd. They howl and hoot at us, ready for the fun to begin.
Once untangled, la Duchesse du Maine is to go first onto the scaffold. She steps directly off the tumbrel onto a short staircase up to where the guillotine awaits like a deadly praying mantis. One of the executioners reaches down to give her a hand as she ascends. She imperiously slaps his hand away, looking down her nose at him and giving an audible “hmph”. The nearby crow roar their amusement. She walks calmy to the deadly machine. Her hair is pulled up in a tight bun so there is no need for shearing. The executioner’s assistant approaches her timidly to turn down her collar. The crowd can see that he is afraid of her and howl their approval. Once her hands are clipped behind her in the iron manacles, she takes one step forward. The official on the scaffold reads her crime, verdict and sentence. She kneels as if voluntarily and places her neck in the slot before her. The assistant lowers the bar to hold her head in place. The small group of drummers play a brief cadence. Once they end, the executioner pulls the rope and the blade falls. As la Duchesse’s head falls in the basket the crowd cheers as if at a gladiatorial event in ancient Rome. The rest of madame’s body collapses in place, violently jerking and quivering as her life ekes out. The assistants remove the manacles, pick up her body and toss it into a cart beside the scaffold. They then spread more sawdust and hay to soak up the blood. The executioner lifts her head out of the basket by her hair and shows it to the crowd.
“Behold the fate of a traitor,” he croaks. This, to me, is the greatest horror. I have heard it sometimes takes more than thirty seconds for the brain to die. As the head is held aloft, the eyes often move back and forth, the mouth sometimes moves as if the head is trying to speak, or the lips are stretched into a grimace of terror and pain. The crowd cheers wildly again. Then he tosses madame’s head into the cart with her body. The assistant swabs the blade with a mop and it is cranked back into place.
As this has been going on I have been shielding young Charles from seeing it. I have diverted his attention with final instructions to keep him calm. Monsieur Danton has his hands full with his still hysterical wife. I will be next to go and then Charles. The executioners extract the most revenge on aristocrats by making the lords watch as their loved ones are murdered before them. This, at least, will work in Charles’ best interest. I fear the boy would become as hysterical as his mother if forced to watch his parents die. I will do what I can to ease his fears.
“Charles, you believe in our good Lord, don’t you?”
“Yes, my lord,” he answers in a soft voice I can barely hear. The poor child is terrified.
“And you have been shriven by the abbé, no?”
“Then all of us go to meet our Savior on this glorious summer day. In a few moments we shall meet Jesus face to face. He will welcome us into his arms, me, you, your parents and escort us all into the presence of almighty God. Believe with me and your parents and we shall transcend this mortal coil together. This ghastly rabble is our enemy. They are tools of Satan. They will curse you and try to make you fear. But we are beyond fear. We know what lies ahead. A moment of pain and then an eternity of bliss with those we love.” He is staring intently into my eyes and I can see a little color coming back. “We are martyrs of the nobilité. You are a nobleman of France. Now is the time to show these lowly commoners how their betters behave. Put on your brave face and come with us. I will go before you, your mother and father will follow you. Do not despair or fear. Even as they lower the blade, I will be on the other side waiting to grasp your hand. We are going home, young Charles. Say it with me, we are going home.”
“We are going home,” he almost smiles.
“Citizen Jean leBas, the former Sieur de la Ferté Macé,” the executioner calls.
As did la Duchesse, I step calmly up onto the scaffold, head held high, refusing to acknowledge the disgusting rabble. Just before I kneel, I look back at Charles Danton. His attention is rivetted upon me. I smile and then wink at him. His trembling lip stops its quiver and he gives me a small grin. That’s all I need. Then I mouth to him, “Look away.” I do not want him to see my death and lose his nerve.
Robespierre’s Reign of Terror lasted for ten months. During this time over 17,000 people were executed, most by guillotine. He maintained his power by executing over 100 political opponents, nearly all without trial. On July 27, 1794 even his own committee members became alarmed at his excesses. He was shouted down during a speech to the committee. While he tried to regain the floor the committee voted that he was an enemy of the republic. He was executed by guillotine the next day. His bloody Terror had a likewise bloody end.