Constitutum est, ut quisquis eum Hominem dixisset fuisse,
capitalem penderet poenam.
St. Augustine, “Of the God Serapis,” l. 18, “de Civ. Dei,” c. 5.
(It was decreed, that whoso should say that he had been a MAN, should suffer the punishment of a capital offence.)
Robespierre was reclining languidly in his fauteuil, his cadaverous countenance more jaded and fatigued than usual. He to whom Catherine Theot assured immortal life, looked, indeed, like a man at death’s door. On the table before him was a dish heaped with oranges, with the juice of which it is said that he could alone assuage the acrid bile that overflowed his system; and an old woman, richly dressed (she had been a Marquise in the old regime) was employed in peeling the Hesperian fruits for the sick Dragon, with delicate fingers covered with jewels. I have before said that Robespierre was the idol of the women. Strange certainly! — but then they were French women! The old Marquise, who, like Catherine Theot, called him “son,” really seemed to love him piously and disinterestedly as a mother; and as she peeled the oranges, and heaped on him the most caressing and soothing expressions, the livid ghost of a smile fluttered about his meagre lips. At a distance, Payan and Couthon, seated at another table, were writing rapidly, and occasionally pausing from their work to consult with each other in brief whispers.
Suddenly one of the Jacobins opened the door, and, approaching Robespierre, whispered to him the name of Guerin. (See for the espionage on which Guerin was employed, “Les Papiers inedits,” etc., volume i. page 366, No. xxviii.) At that word the sick man started up, as if new life were in the sound.
“My kind friend,” he said to the Marquise, “forgive me; I must dispense with thy tender cares. France demands me. I am never ill when I can serve my country!”
The old Marquise lifted up her eyes to heaven and murmured, “Quel ange!”
Robespierre waved his hand impatiently; and the old woman, with a sigh, patted his pale cheek, kissed his forehead, and submissively withdrew. The next moment, the smiling, sober man we have before described, stood, bending low, before the tyrant. And well might Robespierre welcome one of the subtlest agents of his power — one on whom he relied more than the clubs of his Jacobins, the tongues of his orators, the bayonets of his armies; Guerin, the most renowned of his ecouteurs — the searching, prying, universal, omnipresent spy, who glided like a sunbeam through chink and crevice, and brought to him intelligence not only of the deeds, but the hearts of men!
“Well, citizen, well! — and what of Tallien?”
“This morning, early, two minutes after eight, he went out.”
“So early? — hem!”
“He passed Rue des Quatre Fils, Rue de Temple, Rue de la Reunion, au Marais, Rue Martin; nothing observable, except that —”
“He amused himself at a stall in bargaining for some books.”
“Bargaining for books! Aha, the charlatan! — he would cloak the intriguant under the savant! Well!”
“At last, in the Rue des Fosses Montmartre, an individual in a blue surtout (unknown) accosted him. They walked together about the street some minutes, and were joined by Legendre.”
“Legendre! approach, Payan! Legendre, thou hearest!”
“I went into a fruit-stall, and hired two little girls to go and play at ball within hearing. They heard Legendre say, ‘I believe his power is wearing itself out.’ And Tallien answered, ‘And HIMSELF too. I would not give three months’ purchase for his life.’ I do not know, citizen, if they meant THEE?”
“Nor I, citizen,” answered Robespierre, with a fell smile, succeeded by an expression of gloomy thought. “Ha!” he muttered; “I am young yet — in the prime of life. I commit no excess. No; my constitution is sound, sound. Anything farther of Tallien?”
“Yes. The woman whom he loves — Teresa de Fontenai — who lies in prison, still continues to correspond with him; to urge him to save her by thy destruction: this my listeners overheard. His servant is the messenger between the prisoner and himself.”
“So! The servant shall be seized in the open streets of Paris. The Reign of Terror is not over yet. With the letters found on him, if such their context, I will pluck Tallien from his benches in the Convention.”
Robespierre rose, and after walking a few moments to and fro the room in thought, opened the door and summoned one of the Jacobins without. To him he gave his orders for the watch and arrest of Tallien’s servant, and then threw himself again into his chair. As the Jacobin departed, Guerin whispered —
“Is not that the Citizen Aristides?”
“Yes; a faithful fellow, if he would wash himself, and not swear so much.”
“Didst thou not guillotine his brother?”
“But Aristides denounced him.”
“Nevertheless, are such men safe about thy person?”
“Humph! that is true.” And Robespierre, drawing out his pocketbook, wrote a memorandum in it, replaced it in his vest, and resumed —
“What else of Tallien?”
“Nothing more. He and Legendre, with the unknown, walked to the Jardin Egalite, and there parted. I saw Tallien to his house. But I have other news. Thou badest me watch for those who threaten thee in secret letters.”
“Guerin! hast thou detected them? Hast thou — hast thou —”
And the tyrant, as he spoke, opened and shut both his hands, as if already grasping the lives of the writers, and one of those convulsive grimaces that seemed like an epileptic affection, to which he was subject, distorted his features.
“Citizen, I think I have found one. Thou must know that amongst those most disaffected is the painter Nicot.”
“Stay, stay!” said Robespierre, opening a manuscript book, bound in red morocco (for Robespierre was neat and precise, even in his death-lists), and turning to an alphabetical index — “Nicot! — I have him — atheist, sans-culotte (I hate slovens), friend of Hebert! Aha! N.B. — Rene Dumas knows of his early career and crimes. Proceed!”
“This Nicot has been suspected of diffusing tracts and pamphlets against thyself and the Comite. Yesterday evening, when he was out, his porter admitted me into his apartment, Rue Beau Repaire. With my master-key I opened his desk and escritoire. I found herein a drawing of thyself at the guillotine; and underneath was written, ‘Bourreau de ton pays, lis l’arret de ton chatiment!’ (Executioner of thy country, read the decree of thy punishment!) I compared the words with the fragments of the various letters thou gavest me: the handwriting tallies with one. See, I tore off the writing.”
Robespierre looked, smiled, and, as if his vengeance were already satisfied, threw himself on his chair. “It is well! I feared it was a more powerful enemy. This man must be arrested at once.”
“And he waits below. I brushed by him as I ascended the stairs.”
“Does he so? — admit! — nay — hold! hold! Guerin, withdraw into the inner chamber till I summon thee again. Dear Payan, see that this Nicot conceals no weapons.”
Payan, who was as brave as Robespierre was pusillanimous, repressed the smile of disdain that quivered on his lips a moment, and left the room.
Meanwhile Robespierre, with his head buried in his bosom, seemed plunged in deep thought. “Life is a melancholy thing, Couthon!” said he, suddenly.
“Begging your pardon, I think death worse,” answered the philanthropist, gently.
Robespierre made no rejoinder, but took from his portefeuille that singular letter, which was found afterwards amongst his papers, and is marked LXI. in the published collection. (“Papiers inedits,’ etc., volume ii. page 156.)
“Without doubt,” it began, “you are uneasy at not having earlier received news from me. Be not alarmed; you know that I ought only to reply by our ordinary courier; and as he has been interrupted, dans sa derniere course, that is the cause of my delay. When you receive this, employ all diligence to fly a theatre where you are about to appear and disappear for the last time. It were idle to recall to you all the reasons that expose you to peril. The last step that should place you sur le sopha de la presidence, but brings you to the scaffold; and the mob will spit on your face as it has spat on those whom you have judged. Since, then, you have accumulated here a sufficient treasure for existence, I await you with great impatience, to laugh with you at the part you have played in the troubles of a nation as credulous as it is avid of novelties. Take your part according to our arrangements — all is prepared. I conclude — our courier waits. I expect your reply.”
Musingly and slowly the Dictator devoured the contents of this epistle. “No,” he said to himself — “no; he who has tasted power can no longer enjoy repose. Yet, Danton, Danton! thou wert right; better to be a poor fisherman than to govern men.” (“Il vaudrait mieux,” said Danton, in his dungeon, “etre un pauvre pecheur que de gouverner les hommes.”)
The door opened, and Payan reappeared and whispered Robespierre, “All is safe! See the man.”
The Dictator, satisfied, summoned his attendant Jacobin to conduct Nicot to his presence. The painter entered with a fearless expression in his deformed features, and stood erect before Robespierre, who scanned him with a sidelong eye.
It is remarkable that most of the principal actors of the Revolution were singularly hideous in appearance — from the colossal ugliness of Mirabeau and Danton, or the villanous ferocity in the countenances of David and Simon, to the filthy squalor of Marat, the sinister and bilious meanness of the Dictator’s features. But Robespierre, who was said to resemble a cat, had also a cat’s cleanness; and his prim and dainty dress, his shaven smoothness, the womanly whiteness of his lean hands, made yet more remarkable the disorderly ruffianism that characterised the attire and mien of the painter-sans-culotte.
“And so, citizen,” said Robespierre, mildly, “thou wouldst speak with me? I know thy merits and civism have been overlooked too long. Thou wouldst ask some suitable provision in the state? Scruple not — say on!”
“Virtuous Robespierre, toi qui eclaires l’univers (Thou who enlightenest the world.), I come not to ask a favour, but to render service to the state. I have discovered a correspondence that lays open a conspiracy of which many of the actors are yet unsuspected.” And he placed the papers on the table. Robespierre seized, and ran his eye over them rapidly and eagerly.
“Good! — good!” he muttered to himself: “this is all I wanted. Barrere, Legendre! I have them! Camille Desmoulins was but their dupe. I loved him once; I never loved them! Citizen Nicot, I thank thee. I observe these letters are addressed to an Englishman. What Frenchman but must distrust these English wolves in sheep’s clothing! France wants no longer citizens of the world; that farce ended with Anarcharsis Clootz. I beg pardon, Citizen Nicot; but Clootz and Hebert were THY friends.”
“Nay,” said Nicot, apologetically, “we are all liable to be deceived. I ceased to honour them whom thou didst declare against; for I disown my own senses rather than thy justice.”
“Yes, I pretend to justice; that IS the virtue I affect,” said Robespierre, meekly; and with his feline propensities he enjoyed, even in that critical hour of vast schemes, of imminent danger, of meditated revenge, the pleasure of playing with a solitary victim. (The most detestable anecdote of this peculiar hypocrisy in Robespierre is that in which he is recorded to have tenderly pressed the hand of his old school-friend, Camille Desmoulins, the day that he signed the warrant for his arrest.) “And my justice shall no longer be blind to thy services, good Nicot. Thou knowest this Glyndon?”
“Yes, well — intimately. He WAS my friend, but I would give up my brother if he were one of the ‘indulgents.’ I am not ashamed to say that I have received favours from this man.”
“Aha! — and thou dost honestly hold the doctrine that where a man threatens my life all personal favours are to be forgotten?”
“Good citizen! — kind Nicot! — oblige me by writing the address of this Glyndon.”
Nicot stooped to the table; and suddenly when the pen was in his hand, a thought flashed across him, and he paused, embarrassed and confused.
“Write on, KIND Nicot!”
The painter slowly obeyed.
“Who are the other familiars of Glyndon?”
“It was on that point I was about to speak to thee, Representant,” said Nicot. “He visits daily a woman, a foreigner, who knows all his secrets; she affects to be poor, and to support her child by industry. But she is the wife of an Italian of immense wealth, and there is no doubt that she has moneys which are spent in corrupting the citizens. She should be seized and arrested.”
“Write down her name also.”
“But no time is to be lost; for I know that both have a design to escape from Paris this very night.”
“Our government is prompt, good Nicot — never fear. Humph! — humph!” and Robespierre took the paper on which Nicot had written, and stooping over it — for he was near-sighted — added, smilingly, “Dost thou always write the same hand, citizen? This seems almost like a disguised character.”
“I should not like them to know who denounced them, Representant.”
“Good! good! Thy virtue shall be rewarded, trust me. Salut et fraternite!”
Robespierre half rose as he spoke, and Nicot withdrew.
“Ho, there! — without!” cried the Dictator, ringing his bell; and as the ready Jacobin attended the summons, “Follow that man, Jean Nicot. The instant he has cleared the house seize him. At once to the Conciergerie with him. Stay! — nothing against the law; there is thy warrant. The public accuser shall have my instruction. Away! — quick!”
The Jacobin vanished. All trace of illness, of infirmity, had gone from the valetudinarian; he stood erect on the floor, his face twitching convulsively, and his arms folded. “Ho! Guerin!” the spy reappeared —“take these addresses! Within an hour this Englishman and his woman must be in prison; their revelations will aid me against worthier foes. They shall die: they shall perish with the rest on the 10th — the third day from this. There!” and he wrote hastily — “there, also, is thy warrant! Off!
“And now, Couthon, Payan, we will dally no longer with Tallien and his crew. I have information that the Convention will NOT attend the Fete on the 10th. We must trust only to the sword of the law. I must compose my thoughts — prepare my harangue. To-morrow, I will reappear at the Convention; tomorrow, bold St. Just joins us, fresh from our victorious armies; tomorrow, from the tribune, I will dart the thunderbolt on the masked enemies of France; tomorrow, I will demand, in the face of the country, the heads of the conspirators.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51