ZANONI: A ROSICRUCIAN TALE
The morning rose, -- the 8th of Thermidor (July 26). Robespierre has gone to the Convention. He has gone with his laboured speech; he has gone with his phrases of philanthropy and virtue; he has gone to single out his prey. All his agents are prepared for his reception; the fierce St. Just has arrived from the armies to second his courage and inflame his wrath. His ominous apparition prepares the audience for the crisis. "Citizens!" screeched the shrill voice of Robespierre "others have placed before you flattering pictures; I come to announce to you useful truths.
And they attribute to me, -- to me alone! -- whatever of harsh or evil is committed: it is Robespierre who wishes it; it is Robespierre who ordains it. Is there a new tax? -- it is Robespierre who ruins you. They call me tyrant! -- and why? Because I have acquired some influence; but how? -- in speaking truth; and who pretends that truth is to be without force in the mouths of the Representatives of the French people? Doubtless, truth has its power, its rage, its despotism, its accents, touching, terrible, which resound in the pure heart as in the guilty conscience; and which Falsehood can no more imitate than Salmoneus could forge the thunderbolts of Heaven. What am I whom they accuse? A slave of liberty, -- a living martyr of the Republic; the victim as the enemy of crime! All ruffianism affronts me, and actions legitimate in others are crimes in me. It is enough to know me to be calumniated. It is in my very zeal that they discover my guilt. Take from me my conscience, and I should be the most miserable of men!"
He paused; and Couthon wiped his eyes, and St. Just murmured applause as with stern looks he gazed on the rebellious Mountain; and there was a dead, mournful, and chilling silence through the audience. The touching sentiment woke no echo.
The orator cast his eyes around. Ho! he will soon arouse that apathy. He proceeds, he praises, he pities himself no more. He denounces, -- he accuses. Overflooded with his venom, he vomits it forth on all. At home, abroad, finances, war, -- on all! Shriller and sharper rose his voice, --
"A conspiracy exists against the public liberty. It owes its strength to a criminal coalition in the very bosom of the Convention; it has accomplices in the bosom of the Committee of Public Safety...What is the remedy to this evil? To punish the traitors; to purify this committee; to crush all factions by the weight of the National Authority; to raise upon their ruins the power of Liberty and Justice. Such are the principles of that Reform. Must I be ambitious to profess them? -- then the principles are proscribed, and Tyranny reigns amongst us! For what can you object to a man who is in the right, and has at least this knowledge, -- he knows how to die for his native land! I am made to combat crime, and not to govern it. The time, alas! is not yet arrived when men of worth can serve with impunity their country. So long as the knaves rule, the defenders of liberty will be only the proscribed."
For two hours, through that cold and gloomy audience, shrilled the Death-speech. In silence it began, in silence closed. The enemies of the orator were afraid to express resentment; they knew not yet the exact balance of power. His partisans were afraid to approve; they knew not whom of their own friends and relations the accusations were designed to single forth. "Take care!" whispered each to each; "it is thou whom he threatens." But silent though the audience, it was, at the first, wellnigh subdued. There was still about this terrible man the spell of an overmastering will. Always -- though not what is called a great orator -- resolute, and sovereign in the use of words; words seemed as things when uttered by one who with a nod moved the troops of Henriot, and influenced the judgment of Rene Dumas, grim President of the Tribunal. Lecointre of Versailles rose, and there was an anxious movement of attention; for Lecointre was one of the fiercest foes of the tyrant. What was the dismay of the Tallien faction; what the complacent smile of Couthon, -- when Lecointre demanded only that the oration should be printed! All seemed paralyzed. At length Bourdon de l'Oise, whose name was doubly marked in the black list of the Dictator, stalked to the tribune, and moved the bold counter-resolution, that the speech should be referred to the two committees whom that very speech accused. Still no applause from the conspirators; they sat torpid as frozen men. The shrinking Barrere, ever on the prudent side, looked round before he rose. He rises, and sides with Lecointre! Then Couthon seized the occasion, and from his seat (a privilege permitted only to the paralytic philanthropist) (M. Thiers in his History, volume iv. page 79, makes a curious blunder: he says, "Couthon s'elance a la tribune.' (Couthon darted towards the tribune.) Poor Couthon! whose half body was dead, and who was always wheeled in his chair into the Convention, and spoke sitting.), and with his melodious voice sought to convert the crisis into a triumph.
He demanded, not only that the harangue should be printed, but sent to all the communes and all the armies. It was necessary to soothe a wronged and ulcerated heart. Deputies, the most faithful, had been accused of shedding blood. "Ah! if HE had contributed to the death of one innocent man, he should immolate himself with grief." Beautiful tenderness! -- and while he spoke, he fondled the spaniel in his bosom. Bravo, Couthon! Robespierre triumphs! The reign of Terror shall endure! The old submission settles dovelike back in the assembly! They vote the printing of the Death-speech, and its transmission to all the municipalities. From the benches of the Mountain, Tallien, alarmed, dismayed, impatient, and indignant, cast his gaze where sat the strangers admitted to hear the debates; and suddenly he met the eyes of the Unknown who had brought to him the letter from Teresa de Fontenai the preceding day. The eyes fascinated him as he gazed. In aftertimes he often said that their regard, fixed, earnest, half-reproachful, and yet cheering and triumphant, filled him with new life and courage. They spoke to his heart as the trumpet speaks to the war-horse. He moved from his seat; he whispered with his allies: the spirit he had drawn in was contagious; the men whom Robespierre especially had denounced, and who saw the sword over their heads, woke from their torpid trance. Vadier, Cambon, Billaud-Varennes, Panis, Amar, rose at once, -- all at once demanded speech. Vadier is first heard, the rest succeed. It burst forth, the Mountain, with its fires and consuming lava; flood upon flood they rush, a legion of Ciceros upon the startled Catiline! Robespierre falters, hesitates, -- would qualify, retract. They gather new courage from his new fears; they interrupt him; they drown his voice; they demand the reversal of the motion. Amar moves again that the speech be referred to the Committees, to the Committees, -- to his enemies! Confusion and noise and clamour! Robespierre wraps himself in silent and superb disdain. Pale, defeated, but not yet destroyed, he stands, -- a storm in the midst of storm!
The motion is carried. All men foresee in that defeat the Dictator's downfall. A solitary cry rose from the galleries; it was caught up; it circled through the hall, the audience: "A bas le tyrant! Vive la republique!" (Down with the tyrant! Hurrah for the republic!)