Qui donc t’a donne la mission s’annoncer au peuple que la divinite n’existe pas? Quel avantage trouves-tu a persuader a l’homme qu’une force aveugle preside a ses destinees et frappe au hasard le crime et la vertu?
Robespierre, “Discours,” Mai 7, 1794.
(Who then invested you with the mission to announce to the people that there is no God? What advantage find you in persuading man that nothing but blind force presides over his destinies, and strikes haphazard both crime and virtue?)
It was some time before midnight when the stranger returned home. His apartments were situated in one of those vast abodes which may be called an epitome of Paris itself — the cellars rented by mechanics, scarcely removed a step from paupers, often by outcasts and fugitives from the law, often by some daring writer, who, after scattering amongst the people doctrines the most subversive of order, or the most libellous on the characters of priest, minister, and king, retired amongst the rats, to escape the persecution that attends the virtuous; the ground-floor occupied by shops; the entresol by artists; the principal stories by nobles; and the garrets by journeymen or grisettes.
As the stranger passed up the stairs, a young man of a form and countenance singularly unprepossessing emerged from a door in the entresol, and brushed beside him. His glance was furtive, sinister, savage, and yet timorous; the man’s face was of an ashen paleness, and the features worked convulsively. The stranger paused, and observed him with thoughtful looks, as he hurried down the stairs. While he thus stood, he heard a groan from the room which the young man had just quitted; the latter had pulled to the door with hasty vehemence, but some fragment, probably of fuel, had prevented its closing, and it now stood slightly ajar; the stranger pushed it open and entered. He passed a small anteroom, meanly furnished, and stood in a bedchamber of meagre and sordid discomfort. Stretched on the bed, and writhing in pain, lay an old man; a single candle lit the room, and threw its feeble ray over the furrowed and death-like face of the sick person. No attendant was by; he seemed left alone, to breathe his last. “Water,” he moaned feebly — “water:— I parch — I burn!” The intruder approached the bed, bent over him, and took his hand. “Oh, bless thee, Jean, bless thee!” said the sufferer; “hast thou brought back the physician already? Sir, I am poor, but I can pay you well. I would not die yet, for that young man’s sake.” And he sat upright in his bed, and fixed his dim eyes anxiously on his visitor.
“What are your symptoms, your disease?”
“Fire, fire, fire in the heart, the entrails: I burn!”
“How long is it since you have taken food?”
“Food! only this broth. There is the basin, all I have taken these six hours. I had scarce drunk it ere these pains began.”
The stranger looked at the basin; some portion of the contents was yet left there.
“Who administered this to you?”
“Who? Jean! Who else should? I have no servant — none! I am poor, very poor, sir. But no! you physicians do not care for the poor. I AM RICH! can you cure me?”
“Yes, if Heaven permit. Wait but a few moments.”
The old man was fast sinking under the rapid effects of poison. The stranger repaired to his own apartments, and returned in a few moments with some preparation that had the instant result of an antidote. The pain ceased, the blue and livid colour receded from the lips; the old man fell into a profound sleep. The stranger drew the curtains round the bed, took up the light, and inspected the apartment. The walls of both rooms were hung with drawings of masterly excellence. A portfolio was filled with sketches of equal skill — but these last were mostly subjects that appalled the eye and revolted the taste: they displayed the human figure in every variety of suffering — the rack, the wheel, the gibbet; all that cruelty has invented to sharpen the pangs of death seemed yet more dreadful from the passionate gusto and earnest force of the designer. And some of the countenances of those thus delineated were sufficiently removed from the ideal to show that they were portraits; in a large, bold, irregular hand was written beneath these drawings, “The Future of the Aristocrats.” In a corner of the room, and close by an old bureau, was a small bundle, over which, as if to hide it, a cloak was thrown carelessly. Several shelves were filled with books; these were almost entirely the works of the philosophers of the time — the philosophers of the material school, especially the Encyclopedistes, whom Robespierre afterwards so singularly attacked when the coward deemed it unsafe to leave his reign without a God.
(“Cette secte (les Encyclopedistes) propagea avec beaucoup de zele l’opinion du materialisme, qui prevalut parmi les grands et parmi les beaux esprits; on lui doit en partie cette espece de philosophie pratique qui, reduisant l’Egoisme en systeme regarde la societe humaine comme une guerre de ruse, le succes comme la regle du juste et de l’injuste, la probite comme une affaire de gout, ou de bienseance, le monde comme le patrimoine des fripons adroits.”—“Discours de Robespierre,” Mai 7, 1794. (This sect (the Encyclopaedists) propagate with much zeal the doctrine of materialism, which prevails among the great and the wits; we owe to it partly that kind of practical philosophy which, reducing Egotism to a system, looks upon society as a war of cunning; success the rule of right and wrong, honesty as an affair of taste or decency: and the world as the patrimony of clever scoundrels.))
A volume lay on a table — it was one of Voltaire, and the page was opened at his argumentative assertion of the existence of the Supreme Being. (“Histoire de Jenni.”) The margin was covered with pencilled notes, in the stiff but tremulous hand of old age; all in attempt to refute or to ridicule the logic of the sage of Ferney: Voltaire did not go far enough for the annotator! The clock struck two, when the sound of steps was heard without. The stranger silently seated himself on the farther side of the bed, and its drapery screened him, as he sat, from the eyes of a man who now entered on tiptoe; it was the same person who had passed him on the stairs. The new-comer took up the candle and approached the bed. The old man’s face was turned to the pillow; but he lay so still, and his breathing was so inaudible, that his sleep might well, by that hasty, shrinking, guilty glance, be mistaken for the repose of death. The new-comer drew back, and a grim smile passed over his face: he replaced the candle on the table, opened the bureau with a key which he took from his pocket, and loaded himself with several rouleaus of gold that he found in the drawers. At this time the old man began to wake. He stirred, he looked up; he turned his eyes towards the light now waning in its socket; he saw the robber at his work; he sat erect for an instant, as if transfixed, more even by astonishment than terror. At last he sprang from his bed.
“Just Heaven! do I dream! Thou — thou — thou, for whom I toiled and starved! — THOU!”
The robber started; the gold fell from his hand, and rolled on the floor.
“What!” he said, “art thou not dead yet? Has the poison failed?”
“Poison, boy! Ah!” shrieked the old man, and covered his face with his hands; then, with sudden energy, he exclaimed, “Jean! Jean! recall that word. Rob, plunder me if thou wilt, but do not say thou couldst murder one who only lived for thee! There, there, take the gold; I hoarded it but for thee. Go! go!” and the old man, who in his passion had quitted his bed, fell at the feet of the foiled assassin, and writhed on the ground — the mental agony more intolerable than that of the body, which he had so lately undergone. The robber looked at him with a hard disdain. “What have I ever done to thee, wretch?” cried the old man — “what but loved and cherished thee? Thou wert an orphan — an outcast. I nurtured, nursed, adopted thee as my son. If men call me a miser, it was but that none might despise thee, my heir, because Nature has stunted and deformed thee, when I was no more. Thou wouldst have had all when I was dead. Couldst thou not spare me a few months or days — nothing to thy youth, all that is left to my age? What have I done to thee?”
“Thou hast continued to live, and thou wouldst make no will.”
“Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!”
“TON DIEU! Thy God! Fool! Hast thou not told me, from my childhood, that there is NO God? Hast thou not fed me on philosophy? Hast thou not said, ‘Be virtuous, be good, be just, for the sake of mankind: but there is no life after this life’? Mankind! why should I love mankind? Hideous and misshapen, mankind jeer at me as I pass the streets. What hast thou done to me? Thou hast taken away from me, who am the scoff of this world, the hopes of another! Is there no other life? Well, then, I want thy gold, that at least I may hasten to make the best of this!”
“Monster! Curses light on thy ingratitude, thy —”
“And who hears thy curses? Thou knowest there is no God! Mark me; I have prepared all to fly. See — I have my passport; my horses wait without; relays are ordered. I have thy gold.” (And the wretch, as he spoke, continued coldly to load his person with the rouleaus). “And now, if I spare thy life, how shall I be sure that thou wilt not inform against mine?” He advanced with a gloomy scowl and a menacing gesture as he spoke.
The old man’s anger changed to fear. He cowered before the savage. “Let me live! let me live! — that — that —”
“That — what?”
“I may pardon thee! Yes, thou hast nothing to fear from me. I swear it!”
“Swear! But by whom and what, old man? I cannot believe thee, if thou believest not in any God! Ha, ha! behold the result of thy lessons.”
Another moment and those murderous fingers would have strangled their prey. But between the assassin and his victim rose a form that seemed almost to both a visitor from the world that both denied — stately with majestic strength, glorious with awful beauty.
The ruffian recoiled, looked, trembled, and then turned and fled from the chamber. The old man fell again to the ground insensible.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51