La Vendée, by Anthony Trollope

Robespierre’s Love.

Eleanor Duplay was not a beautiful young woman, nor was there anything about her which marked her as being superior to those of her own station of life; but her countenance was modest and intelligent, and her heart was sincere; such as she was she had won the affection of him, who was, certainly, at this time the most powerful man in France. She was about five-and-twenty years of age; was the eldest of four sisters, and had passed her quiet existence in assisting her mother in her household, and in doing for her father so much of his work as was fitting for a woman’s hand. Till Robespierre had become an inmate of her father’s house, she had not paid more than ordinary attention to the politics of the troubled days in which she lived; but she had caught the infection from him, as the whole family had done. She had listened to his words as though they fell from inspired lips: the pseudo-philosophical dogmas, which are to us both repulsive and ridiculous, were to her invaluable truths, begotten by reason, and capable of regenerating her fellow-creatures. Robespierre was to her, what her Saviour should have been; and he rewarded her devotion, by choosing her as the partner of his greatness.

Robespierre’s affection was not that of an impassioned lover; he did not show it by warm caresses or fervid vows; but yet he made her, whom he had chosen, understand that she was to him dearer than any other woman; and Eleanor was prouder of her affianced husband, than though the handsomest youth of Paris was at her feet.

As she entered his chamber, he was thinking partly of her, and he was not sorry to be thus interrupted. She carried a candle in one hand, and in the other a bouquet of fresh flowers, which she quietly laid among his papers. Robespierre either had, or affected a taste for flowers, and, as long as they were to be gotten, he was seldom seen without them, either in his hand or on his coat.

“I thought you would want a light, M. Robespierre,” said she, for though she hoped to be closely connected with him, she seldom ventured on the familiarity of calling him by his Christian name. Had she been a man, her democratic principle would have taught her to discontinue the aristocratic Monsieur; but, even in 1793, the accustomed courtesy of that obnoxious word was allowed to woman’s lips. “I thought you would want a light, or I would not have interrupted you at your work.”

“Thanks, Eleanor: I was not at work, though; my brain, my eyes, and hands were all tired. I have been sitting idle for, I believe, this half hour.”

“Your eyes and hands may have been at rest,” said she, sitting down at the end of the table, “but it is seldom that your thoughts are not at work.”

“It is one of the high privileges of man, that though his body needs repose, the faculties of his mind need never be entirely dormant. I know that I have reasoned in my sleep as lucidly as I have ever done awake; and though, when awake, I have forgotten what has passed through my mind, the work of my brain has not been lost: the same ideas have recurred to me again, and though in the recurrence, I cannot remember when I have before employed myself with arranging them, still they come to me as old friends, with whom I am well acquainted. The mind will seldom complain of too much labour, if the body be not injured by indulgence or disease.”

“But too much labour will bring on disease,” said Eleanor, in a tone which plainly showed the sincerity of the anxiety which she expressed. “We never get a walk with you now; do you know that it is months since we were in the Champs Elysées together; it was in May, and this is October now.”

“Affairs must be greatly altered, Eleanor; many things which are now undone must be completed, before we walk again for our pleasure: a true patriot can no longer walk the streets of Paris in safety, while traitors can come and go in security, with their treason blazoned on their foreheads.”

“And yet do not many traitors expiate their crimes daily?”

“Many are condemned and die; but I fear not always those who have most deserved death. Much blood has been shed, and it has partly been in compliance with my counsel. I would that the vengeance of the Republic might now stay its hand, if it could be so, with safety to the people. I am sick of the unchanging sentences of the judges, and the verdicts of juries who are determined to convict. I doubt not that those who are brought before them are traitors or aristocrats — at any rate, they are not at heart republicans, and if so, they have deserved death; but I should be better pleased, if now and then a victim was spared.” He paused for a while, and then added, “The blood of traitors is very sickening; but there are those Eleanor, in whose nostrils it has a sweet savour: there are butchers of the human kind, who revel in the horrid shambles, in which they are of necessity employed. Such men are to me accursed — their breath reeks of human blood.”

Eleanor shuddered as she listened to him: but it was not the thought of all the blood, which he whom she loved had shed, which made her shudder: she had no idea that Robespierre was a sanguinary man: she sympathized with the weakness of humanity which he confessed, and loved him for the kindness of his heart — and he was not a hypocrite in his protestation; he believed that there was nothing in common between himself and the wretches who crowded round the last sufferings of the victims whom he had caused to ascend the scaffold. He little thought that, in a few years, he would be looked upon as the sole author of the barbarities of which he now complained.

It was seldom that Robespierre had spoken so openly to Eleanor Duplay of his inmost thoughts. She was flattered and gratified to think he had thought her worthy of his confidence, that he had chosen her to listen to the secrets of his heart, and she felt that, if she had influence with him, it would become her as a woman to use it on behalf of those whom it might be in his power to save from a fearful death.

“And are there many more who must die?” said she. “When I hear the wheels of that horrid cart, as it carries the poor creatures who have been condemned, on their last journey, my heart, too, sickens within me. Will these horrid executions go on much longer?”

“There are still thousands upon thousands of men in France, who would sooner be the slaves of a King, than draw the breath of liberty,” answered he.

“But they can be taught the duties and feelings of men, cannot they? They think, and feel now only as they have been brought up to think and feel.”

“Had they not been too stubborn to learn, they have had a lesson written in letters of blood, which would have long since convinced them — if it be necessary, it must be repeated I for one will not shrink from my duty. No though I should sink beneath the horrid task which it imposes on me.”

They both then sat silent for a while; though Robespierre had ventured to express to the girl, whom he knew to be so entirely devoted to him, a feeling somewhat akin to that of pity for his victims, he could not bear that even she should appear to throw a shadow of an imputation on the propriety and justness of his measures, although she only did so by repeating and appealing to the kindly expressions which had fallen from himself. He had become so used to the unmeasured praise of those among whom he lived, so painfully suspicious of those who, in the remotest degree, disapproved of any of his words or deeds, so confident of himself, so distrustful of all others, that even what she had said was painful to him, and though he himself hardly knew why, yet he felt that he was displeased with her. Eleanor, however, was altogether unconscious of having irritated his sore feelings; and relying on the kind tone of what he had said, and the confident manner in which he had spoken to her, she determined to obey the dictates of her heart, and intercede for mercy for her fellow-creatures. Poor girl! she did not know the danger of coming near the lion’s prey.

She had heard much of the Vendeans, and though those who had spoken in her hearing of the doings of the royalist rebels were not likely to say much to excite sympathy on their behalf still she had learnt that they were true to each other, faithful to their leaders, generous to their enemies, and brave in battle. The awful punishment to be inflicted on the doomed district had also been partially discussed in her hearing; and though the Republic had no more enthusiastic daughter than herself, her woman’s heart could not endure the idea that even the innocent children of a large province should be condemned to slaughter for their fathers’ want of patriotism. What work so fitting for the woman whom a ruler of the people had chosen for a wife, as to implore the stern magistrate to temper justice with mercy? In what way could she use her influence so sweetly as to ask for the lives of women and children?

And yet she felt afraid to make her innocent request. Robespierre had never yet been offended with her. Though he had given her counsel on almost every subject, he had never yet spoken to her one word of disapprobation still she knew that he had inspired her with fear. She made some attempts to begin the subject, which he did not notice, for he was still brooding over the unpleasant sensation which her words had occasioned; but at last she gathered courage, and said:

“The soldiers of the Republic have at last overcome the rebels of La Vendée — have they not, M. Robespierre?”

“It is not enough to conquer traitors,” answered he, “they must be crushed, before the country can be safe from their treachery.”

“Their treason must be crushed, I know.”

“Crimes between man and man can be atoned for by minor punishments: crimes between citizens and their country can only be properly avenged by death. You may teach the murderer or the thief the iniquity of his fault; and when he has learnt to hate the deed he has committed, he may be pardoned. It is not so with traitors. Though the truest child of France should spend his life in the attempt, he would not be able to inspire one aristocrat with a spark of patriotism.”

“Must every royalist in La Vendée perish then?” said Eleanor.

Robespierre did not answer her immediately, but leaning his elbow on the table, he rested his forehead on his hand, so as nearly to conceal his face. Eleanor thought that he was meditating on her question; and remembering that he had declared that he should be pleased if now and then a victim might be spared, again commenced her difficult task of urging him to mercy.

“They talk of shedding the blood of innocent children — of destroying peasant women, who can only think and feel as their husbands bid them. You will not allow that this should be done, will you?”

“Is the life of a woman more precious to her than that of a man? It is a false sentiment which teaches us to spare the iniquities of women because of their sex. Their weakness entitles them to our protection, their beauty begets our love; but neither their weakness or their beauty should be accepted as an excuse for their crimes.”

“But poor innocent babes — it is not possible that they should have committed crimes.”

“In the religion of Christ it is declared, that the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children, to the third and fourth generation. The priests who made these laws, and handed them down to their flocks, as the very words of their God, had closely studied human nature. I do not believe that an Almighty Creator condescended to engrave on stone, with his own finger, these words, as they would feign that he did do; but the law is not the less true; the children must expatiate, to the third and fourth generation, the sins of their fathers. Nature, which is all benignant, wills that it should be so.”

“If this be so, will not nature work out her own law. Will it not be punishment enough that so many women should lose their husbands; so many children their fathers? You, I know, are averse to shedding blood; you would spare life whenever your sense of duty would allow you to do so. Try what clemency will do in La Vendée. Try whether kindness will not put a stop to the bitterness of their enmity. Do, dearest, for my sake.”

It is possible that Eleanor had never before spoken to her lover in language so tender; it is also probable that she had never before asked of him any request, in which ought of a political nature was concerned. Be that as it may, as soon as she had finished speaking, her face became suffused with scarlet, as though she had said something of which she was ashamed. One would think that there was nothing in the term of endearment which she had used which could have displeased a betrothed husband; nothing in the petition she, had made which could have angered a political friend. Robespierre, however, soon showed that he was displeased and angered; nay, worse still, that his black, unmanly suspicion was aroused. To his disordered brain it seemed that Eleanor was practising on him her woman’s wiles for some unworthy purpose, and that treason lurked in her show of humanity and affection. He believed that she, who had always believed in him, loved him, almost worshipped him, had become in an instant false and designing.

He looked her steadily in the face a moment or two before he answered, and she did not bear calmly the fierce glance of his eye; she saw at once that she had angered him, and, in spite of her love, she could not but know how dark and terrible was his anger.

“Who has set you on to talk to me of this?” he said slowly, still keeping his eyes fixed on hers.

“Set me on, M. Robespierre! what do you mean? Who should have set me on?”

“There are hundreds, I grieve to say, ready to do so. Some of them are daily near you. I should have thought, though, that with you I might have been safe.”

“Safe with me! And do you doubt it now — do you doubt that you are safe with me?” and as she spoke, she laid her hand upon his arm, and attempted to appeal to his affection. He gently withdrew his arm from her grasp, and again concealed his face with his hand. “As I stand here alive before you,” continued she, speaking with a more assured voice than she had hitherto used, “I have not whispered a word to man or woman upon this subject, but yourself.”

Eleanor had risen from her chair when her companion first expressed his suspicion, and she was now standing; but Robespierre remained seated, still shading his eyes with his hand, as though he had nothing further to say to her, and would wish to be alone. She, however, felt that she could not leave him without some further explanation on her part, some retraction on his; but she knew not how to set about it. The most eloquent men in France had found it difficult to explain anything to Robespierre’s satisfaction. No one had yet been able to make him retract the word which he had spoken.

“Say that you believe me, M. Robespierre,” said she; “for mercy’s sake, say that you do not doubt me! Do you not know that I would always obey you, that your words are always to me the words of truth? I have done wrong, I doubt not, in speaking to you of public matters. I beg your pardon, and promise that I will not so transgress again; but before I leave you, tell me that you do not distrust my fidelity.”

“I would still wish to hope, Eleanor, that you are truly anxious for the welfare of your country, and the safety of your friend,” said he, still, however, without looking up.

“Indeed I am, most anxious; anxious above all things for your welfare and safety. I should think little of my life, could I give it to promote the one, or secure the other.”

“Tell me then, I conjure you, who are they who have desired you to beg for the lives of these Vendean rebels,” and as he spoke, he leapt from his chair, and putting his hand upon her shoulder, looked sternly into her face.

“As God is my judge —”

“Bah! if neither love of your country or of me, nor yet fear of the punishment due to traitors, will keep you true,” (and he slightly shook her with his hand, as he slowly uttered the last fearful words), “the judgment of God will not have much effect upon you.”

“True!” said the poor girl, almost confounded with her horror at the charge against her, amid the violence of the man. “True! Oh! Sir, for mercy’s sake, tell me what it is of which you accuse me — tell me what it is that I have done. No man has spoken of you behind your back words which you might not yourself have heard. No man has desired me to ask you to spare the rebels. No man has even dared to hint to me, that I should do or say ought in opposition to you.”

“Some woman has done it then,” said he.

“My God! that you should think so foully of me! No, Sir, neither man, nor woman, nor child. You said that, were it possible, you would wish that the hand of the executioner might be stayed. It was your own words that set me on to say what I did. I did not dream that I should displease you. Tell me, M. Robespierre, tell me that you are not angry with me, and I will forget it all.”

“Forget it all. Yes, things trivial and of no concern are long remembered, but matters on which depend the life and death of those we ought to love, are soon forgotten if they are unpleasant. No, Eleanor, do not forget it all. Do not forget this — remember that I never have, and never will, allow my feelings as a private man to influence my conduct as a public functionary. I have many duties to perform; duties which are arduous, disagreeable, and dangerous, but difficult as they are, I believe that I am able to perform them. I do not wish for advice, and I will not permit interference. Now go down, Eleanor; our friends are below, I heard their steps a while since, as they came in. I have but a few words to write, and I will join you.”

“But you will tell me before I go that we are friends again,” said the poor girl, now weeping. “You will say that you do not distrust me.”

“I do not believe that you meant evil to me, but you were indiscreet. Let that be sufficient now, and bear this in mind, Eleanor — you know the place you hold in my affections, but were you still nearer to me than you are; were you already my wife, and the mother of my children, I would not stand between you and the punishment you would deserve, if you were untrue to your country.”

After hearing this energetic warning, Eleanor Duplay left her lover’s room, firmly believing that she had greatly sinned in speaking as she had done, but conscious, at any rate, of having intended no evil, either to him or to the unfortunate country respecting which he expressed so constant a solicitude.

As soon as she was gone, he again took up the papers which he had written, and re-read them with great care. In the letter to the two Commissioners he underscored the passages which most forcibly urged them to energy in their work of destruction, and added a word here and there which showed more clearly his intention that mercy should be shown to none. He then turned to his letter to his brother. In that he said that Eleanor’s conduct had been a source of great comfort to him, and that he blamed himself for still feeling any reserve with her. He now erased the passage, and wrote in its stead, “even with Eleanor Duplay I have some reserve, and I feel that I cannot throw it off with safety!” and having done this, he, laboriously copied, for the second time, the long letter which he had written.

When he had finished his task, he left his own chamber, and went down into a room below, in which the family were in the habit of assembling in the evening, and meeting such of Robespierre’s friends as he wished to have admitted. The cabinet-maker, and his wife and daughters, together with his son and nephew, who assisted him in his workshop, were always there; and few evenings passed without the attendance of some of his more intimate friends. They were, at first, merely in the habit of returning with him from the Jacobins’ club, but after a while their private meetings became so necessary to them, that they assembled at Duplay’s on those nights also on which the Jacobins did not meet.

When Robespierre entered the humble salon, Lebas, St. Just, and Couthon were there; three men who were constant to him to the last, and died with him when he died. As far as we can judge of their characters, they were none of them naturally bad men. They were not men prone to lust or plunder; they betrayed no friends; they sought in their political views no private ends; they even frequently used the power with which they were invested to save the lives of multitudes for whose blood the infuriate mob were eager. Lebas and St. Just were constant to the girls they loved, and Couthon, who was an object of pity as a cripple, was happy in the affection of a young wife whom he adored; and yet these were the men who assisted Robespierre in organizing the Reign of Terror, and with him share the infamy of the deeds which were then committed. They were all of them young when they died. They were men of education, and a certain elevation, of spirit. Men who were able to sacrifice the pleasures of youth to the hard work of high political duties. Blood could not have been, was not, acceptable to them; yet under how great a load of infamy do their names now lie buried!

“We thought you were going to seclude yourself tonight,” said Lebas, “and we were regretting it.”

“What have you done with Eleanor,” said Madame Duplay, “that she does not come down to us?”

“I thought to have found her here,” answered he; “she left me some minutes since. She was not in good spirits, and has probably retired for the night. Tell me, St. Just, do they talk much of tomorrow’s trial?”

Robespierre alluded to the trial of Marie Antoinette, as the cruel farce, which was so called, was then to commence. The people were now thirsty after her blood, and thought themselves wronged in that she had been so long held back from their wrath.

“They speak of her execution as of a thing of course,” said St. Just; “and they are right; her sand has well nigh run itself out. I wish she were now at her nephew’s court.”

“Wish rather that she had never come from thence,” said Couthon. “She has brought great misfortunes on France. Could she die a thousand deaths, she could not atone for what she has done. Not that I would have her die, if it were possible that she could be allowed to live.”

“It is not possible,” said Robespierre. “To have been Queen of France, is in itself a crime which it would have been necessary that she should expiate, even had she shown herself mistress of all the virtues which could adorn a woman.”

“And she is not possessed of one,” said Lebas. “She was beautiful, but her beauty was a stain upon her, for she was voluptuous. She was talented, but her talents were all turned to evil, for they only enabled her to intrigue against her adopted country. She had the disposal of wealth, with which she might have commanded the blessings of the poor, and she wasted it in vain frivolities. She was gracious in demeanour, but she kept her smiles for those only who deserved her frowns. She had unbounded influence over her husband, and she persuaded him to falsehood, dishonesty, and treachery.”

“Do not deny that she has courage,” said St. Just. “She has borne her adversity well, though she could not bear her prosperity.”

“She has courage,” said Lebas, “and how has she used it? in fighting an ineffectual battle against the country who had received her with open arms. We must all be judged by posterity, but no historian will dare to say that Marie Antoinette did not deserve the doom which now awaits her.”

How little are men able to conceive what award posterity will make in judging of their actions, even when they act with pure motives, and on what they consider to be high principles; and posterity is often as much in error in its indiscriminate condemnation of actions, as are the actors in presuming themselves entitled to its praise.

When years have rolled by, and passions have cooled, the different motives and feelings of the persons concerned become known to all, and mankind is enabled to look upon public acts from every side. Not so the actors; they are not only in ignorance of facts, the knowledge of which is necessary to their judging rightly, but falsehoods dressed .in the garb of facts are studiously brought forward to deceive them, and men thus groping in darkness are forced to form opinions, and to act upon them.

Public men are like soldiers fighting in a narrow valley: they see nothing but what is close around them, and that imperfectly, as everything is in motion. The historian is as the general, who stands elevated on the high ground, and, with telescope in hand, sees plainly all the different movements of the troops. He would be an inconsiderate general, who would expect that his officers in action should have had as clear an idea of what was going on, as he himself had been able to obtain.

There was no murder perpetrated during the French Revolution, under the pretext of a judicial sentence, which has created more general disgust than has that of Marie Antoinette. She came as a stranger to the country, which on that account owed to her its special protection. She had been called to France to be a Queen, and her greatest crime was that she would not give up the high station she had been invited to fill. She had been a faithful wife to a husband who did not love her till he knew her well, and who was slow in learning anything. She had been a good mother to the children, who were born, as she believed, to rule the destinies of France.

She had clung to a falling cause, with a sense of duty which was as admirable as her courage, and at last she died with the devoted heroism which so well became her mother’s daughter. But what we now look on as virtues, were vices in the eyes of the republicans, who were her judges. Her constancy was stubbornness, and her courage was insolence. Her innocent mirth was called licentiousness, and the royal splendour which she had been taught to maintain, was looked upon as iniquitous extravagance. Nor was this, even in those bloody days, enough to condemn her. Lies of the basest kind were, with care and difficulty, contrived to debase her character — lies which have now been proved to be so, but which were then not only credible, but sure to receive credit from those who already believed that all royal blood was, from its nature, capable of every abomination.

When Lebas so confidently predicated the sentence which posterity would pass on the fall of Marie Antoinette, none of his auditors doubted the correctness of his prophecy. Posterity, however, more partial to the frivolities of courts than to the fury of revolutions, has acquitted the Queen, and passed, perhaps, too heavy a sentence on the judges who condemned her. Till the power of Satan over the world has been destroyed, and man is able to walk uprightly before his Maker, the virtues of one generation will be the vices of another.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01