Madame de Fleury, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 8.

“E’en now the devastation is begun,

And half the business of destruction done.”

GOLDSMITH.

Madame de Fleury was not disappointed in her pupils. When the public disturbances began, these children were shocked by the horrible actions they saw. Instead of being seduced by bad example, they only showed anxiety to avoid companions of their own age, who were dishonest, idle, or profligate. Victoire’s cousin Manon ridiculed these absurd principles, as she called them; and endeavoured to persuade Victoire that she would be much happier if she followed the fashion.

“What! Victoire, still with your work-bag on your arm, and still going to school with your little sister, though you are but a year younger than I am, I believe! — thirteen last birthday, were not you? — Mon Dieu! Why, how long do you intend to be a child? and why don’t you leave that old nun, who keeps you in leading-strings? — I assure you, nuns, and schoolmistresses, and schools, and all that sort of thing, are out of fashion now — we have abolished all that — we are to live a life of reason now — and all soon to be equal, I can tell you; let your Mad. de Fleury look to that, and look to it yourself; for with all your wisdom, you might find yourself in the wrong box by sticking to her, and that side of the question. — Disengage yourself from her, I advise you, as soon as you can. — My dear Victoire! believe me, you may spell very well — but you know nothing of the rights of man, or the rights of woman.”

“I do not pretend to know any thing of the rights of men, or the rights of women,” cried Victoire; “but this I know, that I never can or will be ungrateful to Mad. de Fleury. Disengage myself from her! I am bound to her for ever, and I will abide by her till the last hour I breathe.”

“Well, well! there is no occasion to be in a passion — I only speak as a friend, and I have no more time to reason with you; for I must go home, and get ready my dress for the ball to-night.”

“Manon, how can you afford to buy a dress for a ball?”

“As you might, if you had common sense, Victoire — only by being a good citizen. I and a party of us denounced a milliner and a confectioner in our neighbourhood, who were horrible aristocrats; and of their goods forfeited to the nation we had, as was our just share, such delicious marangles, and charming ribands! — Oh, Victoire, believe me, you will never get such things by going to school, or saying your prayers either. You may look with as much scorn and indignation as you please, but I advise you to let it alone, for all that is out of fashion, and may moreover bring you into difficulties. Believe me, my dear Victoire, your head is not deep enough to understand these things — you know nothing of politics.”

“But I know the difference between right and wrong, Manon: politics can never alter that, you know.”

“Never alter that! — there you are quite mistaken,” said Manon: “I cannot stay to convince you now — but this I can tell you, that I know secrets that you don’t suspect.”

“I do not wish to know any of your secrets, Manon,” said Victoire, proudly.

“Your pride may be humbled, Citoyenne Victoire, sooner than you expect,” exclaimed Manon, who was now so provoked by her cousin’s contempt, that she could not refrain from boasting of her political knowledge. “I can tell you, that your fine friends will in a few days not be able to protect you. The Abbé Tracassier is in love with a dear friend of mine, and I know all the secrets of state from her — and I know what I know. Be as incredulous, as you please, but you will see that, before this week is at end, Monsieur de Fleury will be guillotined, and then what will become of you? Good morning, my proud cousin.”

Shocked by what she had just heard, Victoire could scarcely believe that Manon was in earnest; she resolved, however, to go immediately and communicate this intelligence, whether true or false, to Mad. de Fleury. It agreed but too well with other circumstances, which alarmed this lady for the safety of her husband. A man of his abilities, integrity, and fortune, could not in such times hope to escape persecution. He was inclined to brave the danger; but his lady represented that it would not be courage, but rashness and folly, to sacrifice his life to the villany of others, without probability or possibility of serving his country by his fall.

M. de Fleury, in consequence of these representations, and of Victoire’s intelligence, made his escape from Paris; and the very next day placards were put up in every street, offering a price for the head of Citoyen Fleury, suspected of incivisme.

Struck with terror and astonishment at the sight of these placards, the children read them as they returned in the evening from school; and little Babet in the vehemence of her indignation mounted a lamplighter’s ladder, and tore down one of the papers. This imprudent action did not pass unobserved: it was seen by one of the spies of Citoyen Tracassier, a man who, under the pretence of zeal pour la chose publique, gratified without scruple his private resentments and his malevolent passions. In his former character of an abbé, and a man of wit, he had gained admittance into Mad. de Fleury’s society. There he attempted to dictate both as a literary and religious despot. Accidentally discovering that Mad. de Fleury had a little school for poor children, he thought proper to be offended, because he had not been consulted respecting the regulations, and because he was not permitted, as he said, to take the charge of this little flock. He made many objections to Sister Frances, as being an improper person to have the spiritual guidance of these young people: but as he was unable to give any just reason for his dislike, Mad. de Fleury persisted in her choice, and was at last obliged to assert, in opposition to the domineering abbé, her right to judge and decide in her own affairs. With seeming politeness, he begged ten thousand pardons for his conscientious interference. No more was said upon the subject; and as he did not totally withdraw from her society till the revolution broke out, she did not suspect that she had any thing to fear from his resentment. His manners and opinions changed suddenly with the times; the mask of religion was thrown off; and now, instead of objecting to Sister Frances as not being sufficiently strict and orthodox in her tenets, he boldly declared, that a nun was not a fit person to be intrusted with the education of any of the young citizens — they should all be des élèves de la patrie. The abbé, become a member of the Committee of Public Safety, denounced Mad. de Fleury, in the strange jargon of the day, as “the fosterer of a swarm of bad citizens, who were nourished in the anticivic prejudices de l’ancien régime, and fostered in the most detestable superstitions, in defiance of the law.” He further observed, that he had good reason to believe that some of these little enemies to the constitution had contrived and abetted M. de Fleury’s escape. Of their having rejoiced at it in a most indecent manner, he said he could produce irrefragable proof. The boy who saw Babet tear down the placard was produced and solemnly examined; and the thoughtless action of this poor little girl was construed into a state crime of the most horrible nature. In a declamatory tone, Tracassier reminded his fellow-citizens, that in the ancient Grecian times of virtuous republicanism (times of which France ought to show herself emulous), an Athenian child was condemned to death for having made a plaything of a fragment of the gilding that had fallen from a public statue. The orator, for the reward of his eloquence, obtained an order to seize every thing in Mad. de Fleury’s school-house, and to throw the nun into prison.

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 13:58