ZANONI: A ROSICRUCIAN TALE
BOOK 7. THE REIGN OF TERROR.
It roars, -- The River of Hell, whose first outbreak was chanted as the gush of a channel to Elysium. How burst into blossoming hopes fair hearts that had nourished themselves on the diamond dews of the rosy dawn, when Liberty came from the dark ocean, and the arms of decrepit Thraldom -- Aurora from the bed of Tithon! Hopes! ye have ripened into fruit, and the fruit is gore and ashes! Beautiful Roland, eloquent Vergniaud, visionary Condorcet, high-hearted Malesherbes! -- wits, philosophers, statesmen, patriots, dreamers! behold the millennium for which ye dared and laboured!
I invoke the ghosts! Saturn hath devoured his children ("La Revolution est comme Saturne, elle devorera tous ses enfans." -- Vergniaud.), and lives alone, -- I his true name of Moloch!
It is the Reign of Terror, with Robespierre the king. The struggles between the boa and the lion are past: the boa has consumed the lion, and is heavy with the gorge, -- Danton has fallen, and Camille Desmoulins. Danton had said before his death, "The poltroon Robespierre, -- I alone could have saved him." From that hour, indeed, the blood of the dead giant clouded the craft of "Maximilien the Incorruptible," as at last, amidst the din of the roused Convention, it choked his voice. (Le sang de Danton t'etouffe!" (the blood of Danton chokes thee!) said Garnier de l'Aube, when on the fatal 9th of Thermidor, Robespierre gasped feebly forth, "Pour la derniere fois, President des Assassins, je te demande la parole." (For the last time, President of Assassins, I demand to speak.)) If, after that last sacrifice, essential, perhaps, to his safety, Robespierre had proclaimed the close of the Reign of Terror, and acted upon the mercy which Danton had begun to preach, he might have lived and died a monarch. But the prisons continued to reek, -- the glaive to fall; and Robespierre perceived not that his mobs were glutted to satiety with death, and the strongest excitement a chief could give would be a return from devils into men.
We are transported to a room in the house of Citizen Dupleix, the menuisier, in the month of July, 1794; or, in the calendar of the Revolutionists, it was the Thermidor of the Second Year of the Republic, One and Indivisible! Though the room was small, it was furnished and decorated with a minute and careful effort at elegance and refinement. It seemed, indeed, the desire of the owner to avoid at once what was mean and rude, and what was luxurious and voluptuous. It was a trim, orderly, precise grace that shaped the classic chairs, arranged the ample draperies, sank the frameless mirrors into the wall, placed bust and bronze on their pedestals, and filled up the niches here and there with well-bound books, filed regularly in their appointed ranks. An observer would have said, "This man wishes to imply to you, -- I am not rich; I am not ostentatious; I am not luxurious; I am no indolent Sybarite, with couches of down, and pictures that provoke the sense; I am no haughty noble, with spacious halls, and galleries that awe the echo. But so much the greater is my merit if I disdain these excesses of the ease or the pride, since I love the elegant, and have a taste! Others may be simple and honest, from the very coarseness of their habits; if I, with so much refinement and delicacy, am simple and honest, -- reflect, and admire me!"
On the walls of this chamber hung many portraits, most of them represented but one face; on the formal pedestals were grouped many busts, most of them sculptured but one head. In that small chamber Egotism sat supreme, and made the Arts its looking- glasses. Erect in a chair, before a large table spread with letters, sat the original of bust and canvas, the owner of the apartment. He was alone, yet he sat erect, formal, stiff, precise, as if in his very home he was not at ease. His dress was in harmony with his posture and his chamber; it affected a neatness of its own, -- foreign both to the sumptuous fashions of the deposed nobles, and the filthy ruggedness of the sans- culottes. Frizzled and coiffe, not a hair was out of order, not a speck lodged on the sleek surface of the blue coat, not a wrinkle crumpled the snowy vest, with its under-relief of delicate pink. At the first glance, you might have seen in that face nothing but the ill-favoured features of a sickly countenance; at a second glance, you would have perceived that it had a power, a character of its own. The forehead, though low and compressed, was not without that appearance of thought and intelligence which, it may be observed, that breadth between the eyebrows almost invariably gives; the lips were firm and tightly drawn together, yet ever and anon they trembled, and writhed restlessly. The eyes, sullen and gloomy, were yet piercing, and full of a concentrated vigour that did not seem supported by the thin, feeble frame, or the green lividness of the hues, which told of anxiety and disease.
Such was Maximilien Robespierre; such the chamber over the menuisier's shop, whence issued the edicts that launched armies on their career of glory, and ordained an artificial conduit to carry off the blood that deluged the metropolis of the most martial people in the globe! Such was the man who had resigned a judicial appointment (the early object of his ambition) rather than violate his philanthropical principles by subscribing to the death of a single fellow-creature; such was the virgin enemy to capital punishments; and such, Butcher-Dictator now, was the man whose pure and rigid manners, whose incorruptible honesty, whose hatred of the excesses that tempt to love and wine, would, had he died five years earlier, have left him the model for prudent fathers and careful citizens to place before their sons. Such was the man who seemed to have no vice, till circumstance, that hotbed, brought forth the two which, in ordinary times, lie ever the deepest and most latent in a man's heart, -- Cowardice and Envy. To one of these sources is to be traced every murder that master-fiend committed. His cowardice was of a peculiar and strange sort; for it was accompanied with the most unscrupulous and determined WILL, -- a will that Napoleon reverenced; a will of iron, and yet nerves of aspen. Mentally, he was a hero, -- physically, a dastard. When the veriest shadow of danger threatened his person, the frame cowered, but the will swept the danger to the slaughter-house. So there he sat, bolt upright, -- his small, lean fingers clenched convulsively; his sullen eyes straining into space, their whites yellowed with streaks of corrupt blood; his ears literally moving to and fro, like the ignobler animals', to catch every sound, -- a Dionysius in his cave; but his posture decorous and collected, and every formal hair in its frizzled place.
"Yes, yes," he said in a muttered tone, "I hear them; my good Jacobins are at their post on the stairs. Pity they swear so! I have a law against oaths, -- the manners of the poor and virtuous people must be reformed. When all is safe, an example or two amongst those good Jacobins would make effect. Faithful fellows, how they love me! Hum! -- what an oath was that! -- they need not swear so loud, -- upon the very staircase, too! It detracts from my reputation. Ha! steps!"
The soliloquist glanced at the opposite mirror, and took up a volume; he seemed absorbed in its contents, as a tall fellow, a bludgeon in his hand, a girdle adorned with pistols round his waist, opened the door, and announced two visitors. The one was a young man, said to resemble Robespierre in person, but of a far more decided and resolute expression of countenance. He entered first, and, looking over the volume in Robespierre's hand, for the latter seemed still intent on his lecture, exclaimed, --
"What! Rousseau's Heloise? A love-tale!"
"Dear Payan, it is not the love, -- it is the philosophy that charms me. What noble sentiments! -- what ardour of virtue! If Jean Jacques had but lived to see this day!"
While the Dictator thus commented on his favourite author, whom in his orations he laboured hard to imitate, the second visitor was wheeled into the room in a chair. This man was also in what, to most, is the prime of life, -- namely, about thirty-eight; but he was literally dead in the lower limbs: crippled, paralytic, distorted, he was yet, as the time soon came to tell him, -- a Hercules in Crime! But the sweetest of human smiles dwelt upon his lips; a beauty almost angelic characterised his features ("Figure d'ange," says one of his contemporaries, in describing Couthon. The address, drawn up most probably by Payan (Thermidor 9), after the arrest of Robespierre, thus mentions his crippled colleague: "Couthon, ce citoyen vertueux, QUI N'A QUE LE COEUR ET LA TETE DE VIVANS, mais qui les a brulants de patriotisme" (Couthon, that virtuous citizen, who has but the head and the heart of the living, yet possesses these all on flame with patriotism.)); an inexpressible aspect of kindness, and the resignation of suffering but cheerful benignity, stole into the hearts of those who for the first time beheld him. With the most caressing, silver, flute-like voice, Citizen Couthon saluted the admirer of Jean Jacques.
"Nay, -- do not say that it is not the LOVE that attracts thee; it IS the love! but not the gross, sensual attachment of man for woman. No! the sublime affection for the whole human race, and indeed, for all that lives!"
And Citizen Couthon, bending down, fondled the little spaniel that he invariably carried in his bosom, even to the Convention, as a vent for the exuberant sensibilities which overflowed his affectionate heart. (This tenderness for some pet animal was by no means peculiar to Couthon; it seems rather a common fashion with the gentle butchers of the Revolution. M. George Duval informs us ("Souvenirs de la Terreur," volume iii page 183) that Chaumette had an aviary, to which he devoted his harmless leisure; the murderous Fournier carried on his shoulders a pretty little squirrel, attached by a silver chain; Panis bestowed the superfluity of his affections upon two gold pheasants; and Marat, who would not abate one of the three hundred thousand heads he demanded, REARED DOVES! Apropos of the spaniel of Couthon, Duval gives us an amusing anecdote of Sergent, not one of the least relentless agents of the massacre of September. A lady came to implore his protection for one of her relations confined in the Abbaye. He scarcely deigned to speak to her. As she retired in despair, she trod by accident on the paw of his favourite spaniel. Sergent, turning round, enraged and furious, exclaimed, "MADAM, HAVE YOU NO HUMANITY?")
"Yes, for all that lives," repeated Robespierre, tenderly. "Good Couthon, -- poor Couthon! Ah, the malice of men! -- how we are misrepresented! To be calumniated as the executioners of our colleagues! Ah, it is THAT which pierces the heart! To be an object of terror to the enemies of our country, -- THAT is noble; but to be an object of terror to the good, the patriotic, to those one loves and reveres, -- THAT is the most terrible of human tortures at least, to a susceptible and honest heart!" (Not to fatigue the reader with annotations, I may here observe that nearly every sentiment ascribed in the text to Robespierre is to be found expressed in his various discourses.)
"How I love to hear him!" ejaculated Couthon.
"Hem!" said Payan, with some impatience. "But now to business!"
"Ah, to business!" said Robespierre, with a sinister glance from his bloodshot eyes.
"The time has come," said Payan, "when the safety of the Republic demands a complete concentration of its power. These brawlers of the Comite du Salut Public can only destroy; they cannot construct. They hated you, Maximilien, from the moment you attempted to replace anarcy by institutions. How they mock at the festival which proclaimed the acknowledgment of a Supreme Being: they would have no ruler, even in heaven! Your clear and vigorous intellect saw that, having wrecked an old world, it became necessary to shape a new one. The first step towards construction must be to destroy the destroyers. While we deliberate, your enemies act. Better this very night to attack the handful of gensdarmes that guard them, than to confront the battalions they may raise to-morrow."
"No," said Robespierre, who recoiled before the determined spirit of Payan; "I have a better and safer plan. This is the 6th of Thermidor; on the 10th -- on the 10th, the Convention go in a body to the Fete Decadaire. A mob shall form; the canonniers, the troops of Henriot, the young pupils de l'Ecole de Mars, shall mix in the crowd. Easy, then, to strike the conspirators whom we shall designate to our agents. On the same day, too, Fouquier and Dumas shall not rest; and a sufficient number of 'the suspect' to maintain salutary awe, and keep up the revolutionary excitement, shall perish by the glaive of the law. The 10th shall be the great day of action. Payan, of these last culprits, have you prepared a list?"
"It is here," returned Payan, laconically, presenting a paper.
Robespierre glanced over it rapidly. "Collot d'Herbois! -- good! Barrere! -- ay, it was Barrere who said, 'Let us strike: the dead alone never return.' ("Frappons! il n'y a que les morts qui ne revient pas." -- Barrere.) Vadier, the savage jester! -- good -- good! Vadier of the Mountain. He has called me 'Mahomet!' Scelerat! blasphemer!"
"Mahomet is coming to the Mountain," said Couthon, with his silvery accent, as he caressed his spaniel.
"But how is this? I do not see the name of Tallien? Tallien, -- I hate that man; that is," said Robespierre, correcting himself with the hypocrisy or self-deceit which those who formed the council of this phrase-monger exhibited habitually, even among themselves, -- "that is, Virtue and our Country hate him! There is no man in the whole Convention who inspires me with the same horror as Tallien. Couthon, I see a thousand Dantons where Tallien sits!"
"Tallien has the only head that belongs to this deformed body," said Payan, whose ferocity and crime, like those of St. Just, were not unaccompanied by talents of no common order. "Were it not better to draw away the head, to win, to buy him, for the time, and dispose of him better when left alone? He may hate YOU, but he loves MONEY!"
"No," said Robespierre, writing down the name of Jean Lambert Tallien, with a slow hand that shaped each letter with stern distinctness; "that one head IS MY NECESSITY!"
"I have a SMALL list here," said Couthon, sweetly, -- "a VERY small list. You are dealing with the Mountain; it is necessary to make a few examples in the Plain. These moderates are as straws which follow the wind. They turned against us yesterday in the Convention. A little terror will correct the weathercocks. Poor creatures! I owe them no ill-will; I could weep for them. But before all, la chere patrie!"
The terrible glance of Robespierre devoured the list which the man of sensibility submitted to him. "Ah, these are well chosen; men not of mark enough to be regretted, which is the best policy with the relics of that party; some foreigners too, -- yes, THEY have no parents in Paris. These wives and parents are beginning to plead against us. Their complaints demoralise the guillotine!"
"Couthon is right," said Payan; "MY list contains those whom it will be safer to despatch en masse in the crowd assembled at the Fete. HIS list selects those whom we may prudently consign to the law. Shall it not be signed at once?"
"It IS signed," said Robespierre, formally replacing his pen upon the inkstand. "Now to more important matters. These deaths will create no excitement; but Collot d'Herbois, Bourdon De l'Oise, Tallien," the last name Robespierre gasped as he pronounced, "THEY are the heads of parties. This is life or death to us as well as them."
"Their heads are the footstools to your curule chair," said Payan, in a half whisper. "There is no danger if we are bold. Judges, juries, all have been your selection. You seize with one hand the army, with the other, the law. Your voice yet commands the people -- "
"The poor and virtuous people," murmured Robespierre.
"And even," continued Payan, "if our design at the Fete fail us, we must not shrink from the resources still at our command. Reflect! Henriot, the general of the Parisian army, furnishes you with troops to arrest; the Jacobin Club with a public to approve; inexorable Dumas with judges who never acquit. We must be bold!"
"And we ARE bold," exclaimed Robespierre, with sudden passion, and striking his hand on the table as he rose, with his crest erect, as a serpent in the act to strike. "In seeing the multitude of vices that the revolutionary torrent mingles with civic virtues, I tremble to be sullied in the eyes of posterity by the impure neighbourhood of these perverse men who thrust themselves among the sincere defenders of humanity. What! -- they think to divide the country like a booty! I thank them for their hatred to all that is virtuous and worthy! These men," -- and he grasped the list of Payan in his hand, -- "these! -- not WE -- have drawn the line of demarcation between themselves and the lovers of France!"
"True, we must reign alone!" muttered Payan; "in other words, the state needs unity of will;" working, with his strong practical mind, the corollary from the logic of his word-compelling colleague.
"I will go to the Convention," continued Robespierre. "I have absented myself too long, -- lest I might seem to overawe the Republic that I have created. Away with such scruples! I will prepare the people! I will blast the traitors with a look!"
He spoke with the terrible firmness of the orator that had never failed, -- of the moral will that marched like a warrior on the cannon. At that instant he was interrupted; a letter was brought to him: he opened it, -- his face fell, he shook from limb to limb; it was one of the anonymous warnings by which the hate and revenge of those yet left alive to threaten tortured the death- giver.
"Thou art smeared," ran the lines, "with the best blood of France. Read thy sentence! I await the hour when the people shall knell thee to the doomsman. If my hope deceive me, if deferred too long, -- hearken, read! This hand, which thine eyes shall search in vain to discover, shall pierce thy heart. I see thee every day, -- I am with thee every day. At each hour my arm rises against thy breast. Wretch! live yet awhile, though but for few and miserable days -- live to think of me; sleep to dream of me! Thy terror and thy thought of me are the heralds of thy doom. Adieu! this day itself I go forth to riot on thy fears!" (See "Papiers inedits trouves chez Robespierre," etc., volume ii. page 155. (No. lx.))
"Your lists are not full enough!" said the tyrant, with a hollow voice, as the paper dropped from his trembling hand. "Give them to me! -- give them to me! Think again, think again! Barrere is right -- right! 'Frappons! il n'y a que les morts qui ne revient pas!'"