Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 3

President Le Chapelier

The ferment of Paris which, during the two following days, resembled an armed camp rather than a city, delayed the burial of Bertrand des Amis until the Wednesday of that eventful week. Amid events that were shaking a nation to its foundations the death of a fencing-master passed almost unnoticed even among his pupils, most of whom did not come to the academy during the two days that his body lay there. Some few, however, did come, and these conveyed the news to others, with the result that the master was followed to Pere Lachaise by a score of young men at the head of whom as chief mourner walked Andre–Louis.

There were no relatives to be advised so far as Andre–Louis was aware, although within a week of M. des Amis’ death a sister turned up from Passy to claim his heritage. This was considerable, for the master had prospered and saved money, most of which was invested in the Compagnie des Eaux and the National Debt. Andre–Louis consigned her to the lawyers, and saw her no more.

The death of des Amis left him with so profound a sense of loneliness and desolation that he had no thought or care for the sudden access of fortune which it automatically procured him. To the master’s sister might fall such wealth as he had amassed, but Andre–Louis succeeded to the mine itself from which that wealth had been extracted, the fencing-school in which by now he was himself so well established as an instructor that its numerous pupils looked to him to carry it forward successfully as its chief. And never was there a season in which fencing-academies knew such prosperity as in these troubled days, when every man was sharpening his sword and schooling himself in the uses of it.

It was not until a couple of weeks later that Andre–Louis realized what had really happened to him, and he found himself at the same time an exhausted man, for during that fortnight he had been doing the work of two. If he had not hit upon the happy expedient of pairing-off his more advanced pupils to fence with each other, himself standing by to criticize, correct and otherwise instruct, he must have found the task utterly beyond his strength. Even so, it was necessary for him to fence some six hours daily, and every day he brought arrears of lassitude from yesterday until he was in danger of succumbing under the increasing burden of fatigue. In the end he took an assistant to deal with beginners, who gave the hardest work. He found him readily enough by good fortune in one of his own pupils named Le Duc. As the summer advanced, and the concourse of pupils steadily increased, it became necessary for him to take yet another assistant — an able young instructor named Galoche — and another room on the floor above.

They were strenuous days for Andre–Louis, more strenuous than he had ever known, even when he had been at work to build up the Binet Company; but it follows that they were days of extraordinary prosperity. He comments regretfully upon the fact that Bertrand des Amis should have died by ill-chance on the very eve of so profitable a vogue of sword-play.

The arms of the Academie du Roi, to which Andre–Louis had no title, still continued to be displayed outside his door. He had overcome the difficulty in a manner worthy of Scaramouche. He left the escutcheon and the legend “Academie de Bertrand des Amis, Maitre en fait d’Armes des Academies du Roi,” appending to it the further legend: “Conducted by Andre–Louis.”

With little time now in which to go abroad it was from his pupils and the newspapers — of which a flood had risen in Paris with the establishment of the freedom of the Press — that he learnt of the revolutionary processes around him, following upon, as a measure of anticlimax, the fall of the Bastille. That had happened whilst M. des Amis lay dead, on the day before they buried him, and was indeed the chief reason of the delay in his burial. It was an event that had its inspiration in that ill-considered charge of Prince Lambesc in which the fencing-master had been killed.

The outraged people had besieged the electors in the Hotel de Ville, demanding arms with which to defend their lives from these foreign murderers hired by despotism. And in the end the electors had consented to give them arms, or, rather — for arms it had none to give — to permit them to arm themselves. Also it had given them a cockade, of red and blue, the colours of Paris. Because these colours were also those of the liveries of the Duke of Orleans, white was added to them — the white of the ancient standard of France — and thus was the tricolour born. Further, a permanent committee of electors was appointed to watch over public order.

Thus empowered the people went to work with such good effect that within thirty-six hours sixty thousand pikes had been forged. At nine o’clock on Tuesday morning thirty thousand men were before the Invalides. By eleven o’clock they had ravished it of its store of arms amounting to some thirty thousand muskets, whilst others had seized the Arsenal and possessed themselves of powder.

Thus they prepared to resist the attack that from seven points was to be launched that evening upon the city. But Paris did not wait for the attack. It took the initiative. Mad with enthusiasm it conceived the insane project of taking that terrible menacing fortress, the Bastille, and, what is more, it succeeded, as you know, before five o’clock that night, aided in the enterprise by the French Guards with cannon.

The news of it, borne to Versailles by Lambesc in flight with his dragoons before the vast armed force that had sprouted from the paving-stones of Paris, gave the Court pause. The people were in possession of the guns captured from the Bastille. They were erecting barricades in the streets, and mounting these guns upon them. The attack had been too long delayed. It must be abandoned since now it could lead only to fruitless slaughter that must further shake the already sorely shaken prestige of Royalty.

And so the Court, growing momentarily wise again under the spur of fear, preferred to temporize. Necker should be brought back yet once again, the three orders should sit united as the National Assembly demanded. It was the completest surrender of force to force, the only argument. The King went alone to inform the National Assembly of that eleventh-hour resolve, to the great comfort of its members, who viewed with pain and alarm the dreadful state of things in Paris. “No force but the force of reason and argument” was their watchword, and it was so to continue for two years yet, with a patience and fortitude in the face of ceaseless provocation to which insufficient justice has been done.

As the King was leaving the Assembly, a woman, embracing his knees, gave tongue to what might well be the question of all France:

“Ah, sire, are you really sincere? Are you sure they will not make you change your mind?”

Yet no such question was asked when a couple of days later the King, alone and unguarded save by the representatives of the Nation, came to Paris to complete the peacemaking, the surrender of Privilege. The Court was filled with terror by the adventure. Were they not the “enemy,” these mutinous Parisians? And should a King go thus among his enemies? If he shared some of that fear, as the gloom of him might lead us to suppose, he must have found it idle. What if two hundred thousand men under arms — men without uniforms and with the most extraordinary motley of weapons ever seen — awaited him? They awaited him as a guard of honour.

Mayor Bailly at the barrier presented him with the keys of the city. “These are the same keys that were presented to Henri IV. He had reconquered his people. Now the people have reconquered their King.”

At the Hotel de Ville Mayor Bailly offered him the new cockade, the tricoloured symbol of constitutional France, and when he had given his royal confirmation to the formation of the Garde Bourgeoise and to the appointments of Bailly and Lafayette, he departed again for Versailles amid the shouts of “Vive le Roi!” from his loyal people.

And now you see Privilege — before the cannon’s mouth, as it were — submitting at last, where had they submitted sooner they might have saved oceans of blood — chiefly their own. They come, nobles and clergy, to join the National Assembly, to labour with it upon this constitution that is to regenerate France. But the reunion is a mockery — as much a mockery as that of the Archbishop of Paris singing the Te Deum for the fall of the Bastille — most grotesque and incredible of all these grotesque and incredible events. All that has happened to the National Assembly is that it has introduced five or six hundred enemies to hamper and hinder its deliberations.

But all this is an oft-told tale, to be read in detail elsewhere. I give you here just so much of it as I have found in Andre–Louis’ own writings, almost in his own words, reflecting the changes that were operated in his mind. Silent now, he came fully to believe in those things in which he had not believed when earlier he had preached them.

Meanwhile together with the change in his fortune had come a change in his position towards the law, a change brought about by the other changes wrought around him. No longer need he hide himself. Who in these days would prefer against him the grotesque charge of sedition for what he had done in Brittany? What court would dare to send him to the gallows for having said in advance what all France was saying now? As for that other possible charge of murder, who should concern himself with the death of the miserable Binet killed by him — if, indeed, he had killed him, as he hoped — in self-defence.

And so one fine day in early August, Andre–Louis gave himself a holiday from the academy, which was now working smoothly under his assistants, hired a chaise and drove out to Versailles to the Café d’Amaury, which he knew for the meeting-place of the Club Breton, the seed from which was to spring that Society of the Friends of the Constitution better known as the Jacobins. He went to seek Le Chapelier, who had been one of the founders of the club, a man of great prominence now, president of the Assembly in this important season when it was deliberating upon the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Le Chapelier’s importance was reflected in the sudden servility of the shirt-sleeved, white-aproned waiter of whom Andre–Louis inquired for the representative.

M. Le Chapelier was above-stairs with friends. The waiter desired to serve the gentleman, but hesitated to break in upon the assembly in which M. le Depute found himself.

Andre–Louis gave him a piece of silver to encourage him to make the attempt. Then he sat down at a marble-topped table by the window looking out over the wide tree-encircled square. There, in that common-room of the café, deserted at this hour of mid-afternoon, the great man came to him. Less than a year ago he had yielded precedence to Andre–Louis in a matter of delicate leadership; to-day he stood on the heights, one of the great leaders of the Nation in travail, and Andre–Louis was deep down in the shadows of the general mass.

The thought was in the minds of both as they scanned each other, each noting in the other the marked change that a few months had wrought. In Le Chapelier, Andre–Louis observed certain heightened refinements of dress that went with certain subtler refinements of countenance. He was thinner than of old, his face was pale and there was a weariness in the eyes that considered his visitor through a gold-rimmed spy-glass. In Andre–Louis those jaded but quick-moving eyes of the Breton deputy noted changes even more marked. The almost constant swordmanship of these last months had given Andre–Louis a grace of movement, a poise, and a curious, indefinable air of dignity, of command. He seemed taller by virtue of this, and he was dressed with an elegance which if quiet was none the less rich. He wore a small silver-hilted sword, and wore it as if used to it, and his black hair that Le Chapelier had never seen other than fluttering lank about his bony cheeks was glossy now and gathered into a club. Almost he had the air of a petit-maitre.

In both, however, the changes were purely superficial, as each was soon to reveal to the other. Le Chapelier was ever the same direct and downright Breton, abrupt of manner and of speech. He stood smiling a moment in mingled surprise and pleasure; then opened wide his arms. They embraced under the awe-stricken gaze of the waiter, who at once effaced himself.

“Andre–Louis, my friend! Whence do you drop?”

“We drop from above. I come from below to survey at close quarters one who is on the heights.”

“On the heights! But that you willed it so, it is yourself might now be standing in my place.”

“I have a poor head for heights, and I find the atmosphere too rarefied. Indeed, you look none too well on it yourself, Isaac. You are pale.”

“The Assembly was in session all last night. That is all. These damned Privileged multiply our difficulties. They will do so until we decree their abolition.”

They sat down. “Abolition! You contemplate so much? Not that you surprise me. You have always been an extremist.”

“I contemplate it that I may save them. I seek to abolish them officially, so as to save them from abolition of another kind at the hands of a people they exasperate.”

“I see. And the King?”

“The King is the incarnation of the Nation. We shall deliver him together with the Nation from the bondage of Privilege. Our constitution will accomplish it. You agree?”

Andre–Louis shrugged. “Does it matter? I am a dreamer in politics, not a man of action. Until lately I have been very moderate; more moderate than you think. But now almost I am a republican. I have been watching, and I have perceived that this King is — just nothing, a puppet who dances according to the hand that pulls the string.”

“This King, you say? What other king is possible? You are surely not of those who weave dreams about Orleans? He has a sort of party, a following largely recruited by the popular hatred of the Queen and the known fact that she hates him. There are some who have thought of making him regent, some even more; Robespierre is of the number.”

“Who?” asked Andre–Louis, to whom the name was unknown.

“Robespierre — a preposterous little lawyer who represents Arras, a shabby, clumsy, timid dullard, who will make speeches through his nose to which nobody listens — an ultra-royalist whom the royalists and the Orleanists are using for their own ends. He has pertinacity, and he insists upon being heard. He may be listened to some day. But that he, or the others, will ever make anything of Orleans . . . pish! Orleans himself may desire it, but the man is a eunuch in crime; he would, but he can’t. The phrase is Mirabeau’s.”

He broke off to demand Andre–Louis’ news of himself.

“You did not treat me as a friend when you wrote to me,” he complained. “You gave me no clue to your whereabouts; you represented yourself as on the verge of destitution and withheld from me the means to come to your assistance. I have been troubled in mind about you, Andre. Yet to judge by your appearance I might have spared myself that. You seem prosperous, assured. Tell me of it.”

Andre–Louis told him frankly all that there was to tell. “Do you know that you are an amazement to me?” said the deputy. “From the robe to the buskin, and now from the buskin to the sword! What will be the end of you, I wonder?”

“The gallows, probably.”

“Pish! Be serious. Why not the toga of the senator in senatorial France? It might be yours now if you had willed it so.”

“The surest way to the gallows of all,” laughed Andre–Louis.

At the moment Le Chapelier manifested impatience. I wonder did the phrase cross his mind that day four years later when himself he rode in the death-cart to the Greve.

“We are sixty-six Breton deputies in the Assembly. Should a vacancy occur, will you act as suppleant? A word from me together with the influence of your name in Rennes and Nantes, and the thing is done.”

Andre–Louis laughed outright. “Do you know, Isaac, that I never meet you but you seek to thrust me into politics?”

“Because you have a gift for politics. You were born for politics.”

“Ah, yes — Scaramouche in real life. I’ve played it on the stage. Let that suffice. Tell me, Isaac, what news of my old friend, La Tour d’Azyr?”

“He is here in Versailles, damn him — a thorn in the flesh of the Assembly. They’ve burnt his chateau at La Tour d’Azyr. Unfortunately he wasn’t in it at the time. The flames haven’t even singed his insolence. He dreams that when this philosophic aberration is at an end, there will be serfs to rebuild it for him.”

“So there has been trouble in Brittany?” Andre–Louis had become suddenly grave, his thoughts swinging to Gavrillac.

“An abundance of it, and elsewhere too. Can you wonder? These delays at such a time, with famine in the land? Chateaux have been going up in smoke during the last fortnight. The peasants took their cue from the Parisians, and treated every castle as a Bastille. Order is being restored, there as here, and they are quieter now.”

“What of Gavrillac? Do you know?”

“I believe all to be well. M. de Kercadiou was not a Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr. He was in sympathy with his people. It is not likely that they would injure Gavrillac. But don’t you correspond with your godfather?”

“In the circumstances — no. What you tell me would make it now more difficult than ever, for he must account me one of those who helped to light the torch that has set fire to so much belonging to his class. Ascertain for me that all is well, and let me know.”

“I will, at once.”

At parting, when Andre–Louis was on the point of stepping into his cabriolet to return to Paris, he sought information on another matter.

“Do you happen to know if M. de La Tour d’Azyr has married?” he asked.

“I don’t; which really means that he hasn’t. One would have heard of it in the case of that exalted Privileged.”

“To be sure.” Andre–Louis spoke indifferently. “Au revoir, Isaac! You’ll come and see me — 13 Rue du Hasard. Come soon.”

“As soon and as often as my duties will allow. They keep me chained here at present.”

“Poor slave of duty with your gospel of liberty!”

“True! And because of that I will come. I have a duty to Brittany: to make Omnes Omnibus one of her representatives in the National Assembly.”

“That is a duty you will oblige me by neglecting,” laughed Andre–Louis, and drove away.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29