Stronger and More Enduring Than Fear

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

“Anarchy within, invasion from without. A country cracking from outside pressure, disintegrating from internal strain. Revolution is at its height. War. Inflation. Hunger. Fear. Hate. Sabotage. Fanaticism. Hopes. Boundless idealism…and the dread that all the gains of the Revolution would be lost. And the faith that if they won, they would bring Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the world.”

- R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled

“As soon as comments became state crimes, from there it is but one step to turn simple looks, sadness, compassion, sighs, even silence, into crimes.”

- Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier

He could not tell you how long he had been sitting within this particular cell. All he knew was that it was the last day that he would ever do so. Everyone around him had visibly given up – he could tell from their slumped shoulders and downcast faces. Only Danton remained upbeat, an encouraging smile on his face as he walked to each of the men in the cell.

He slouched, his back to the bars, and wrapped his arms around his knees. The straw on the floor was rough and pricked him through his breeches. Sighing, he pushed his long, dark hair back from his face and looked up to see Danton standing next to him.

“Cheer up, Camille. It can’t really be all that bad.”

He sighed and gestured for Danton to sit next to him on the floor. His friend joined him, their backs to the guards outside.

After a few moments, Camille said, “I could have escaped it all, you know.”

Danton nodded. “I know.”

“So could Lucile. And the baby.”

Danton nodded again.

“And I threw it away – for what? For a belief in justice and right? For freedom to write what I think is true?”

Danton shrugged. “Perhaps you knew that Max was wrong, Camille.”

Camille’s shoulders sagged. “Perhaps.” He turned his head to look at Danton. “But I can’t help feeling that I’ve condemned them all, Georges.”

Danton sighed, stood up. “It’s out of our hands now.”

He can remember the day that Max came to see him. To warn him that the storm was brewing on the horizon.

He was writing (although, at that time, when was he not writing?), his hand covered in ink, and his shirtsleeves slowly becoming flecked with it as well. Lucile had come in a few times to drag him to bed, but her desperate pleading that he needed sleep had failed, and so she had gone to their chambers without him. A knock had sounded at the door, and (at first) he had been too distracted by the words he was penning to answer it (besides, he remembered thinking, who knocks on a door in the Cordeliers at this hour of the morning?). After the rapid-fire knocks had become so insistent that they woke the sleeping infant in the back room, he had been shaken out of his writing stupor and gone to answer the door.

Max was standing there – spectacles in hand, but otherwise immaculate (he had been expecting a group of sans-culottes, with the crazed knocking that he had heard on the door).

“Max,” he said, rubbing his eyes (and, he recalled, smearing black ink across his face in the process), “come in.” His friend stepped in, the heels of his shoes clacking in the entryway. He offered Max a drink, some food, a chair, but he refused them all. Instead, his friend asked him for a place to talk privately.

They stepped into the parlor, and there Max fell apart.

“They’re coming for you, Camille,” he said, his face collapsing from its carefully controlled mask. “They’re angry about what you’ve been writing, and they’re coming to arrest you. I tried to stop them, I’m sorry, I tried so hard to –”

“The Committee?” Camille asked. Max nodded.

“But you sit on the Committee.” He was angry now. “You head the Committee.” He turned away. “You are the Committee.”

Max grabbed his shoulder. “Camille, listen to me…”

Camille wrenched himself away. “What? Did you think you could save me by warning me? Save me, just because we were friends? Because we went to school together? Did you even really try to defend me, or did you let them give you the warrant to sign, just so that you’d have this moment of heroism?”

Max looked like he’d been slapped after that.

He remembered slumping into a chair as Max stood there, staring at him in shock. And then Lucile, softly padding to the door, the baby in her arms (Lucile, he begs – please, whatever you do, please don’t come today, not today), asking what was the matter, and her face when she saw Max there. He remembered telling her that nothing was wrong, that Max was just leaving, that it was all alright, and to go back to bed, and, kissing her on the forehead, he shut the door.

Max, he remembers, did not move.

“Max,” he said softly, leaning forward slightly, his head in his hands. “Max, I cannot recant what I believe is true.”

And his friend (is he his friend? he’s not sure anymore) nodded stiffly, placed his spectacles on his nose, and left the room.

They come in to tell them that they will soon be prepared for their deaths. And they are told that they must make their final peace with the world. There are no priests to ease the final terror – not that he would have accepted one, even if he had been offered the opportunity to confess. He and priests had already had too many run-ins for him to trust them.

Instead, he leans against the wall and removes a well-creased piece of paper from his pocket. It’s only a few days old – he really hasn’t been here too long, no matter how much it feels like the days drag on into eternity – but it has been poured over so many times that he almost knows it by heart.

As he unfolds the paper, he sinks down onto his knees, almost in supplication. He mouths the words as he reads them, almost hearing her voice as his eyes fly over them: “Bonjour chou Camille…

Really, it’s quite a simple letter from Lucile – she asks him mundane things (whether he’s slept well, whether he received the lock of hair she sent him) – but its ordinary nature is what makes him miss her all the more. And, before he can collect himself, he notices that he’s crying – tears dropping onto the beloved paper, blurring the letters already blurred by her own tears – as he realizes that he will never see his dearest Lucile again. Convulsing, he collapses onto the floor of the cell, silencing his sobs with the straw flooring and Lucile’s words.

They come into the cell to prepare each man. He and Danton are at the end of the line, keen to avoid everything until the last possible moment. Danton, ever the optimist, encourages each man as he leaves the room.

“Don’t worry, Fabre – think of how jolly the girls will think your new haircut is! A gift from the National Razor!” He chuckles slightly to himself, looking ruefully down at his hands.

“In a moment, they’ll bind these,” he confides to Camille. “Then nothing can really release me except death.” He begins to study the bricks on the wall opposite them intently.

“Did Louise send you anything?” Camille says softly, fingering the letter in his pocket.

Danton stares straight ahead. “Why should she? We haven’t been married long enough for her to care about my death.”

“You don’t know that,” Camille says sharply. “If Gabrielle was still alive…”

“If Gabrielle was still alive, it would be a different story,” Danton retorts, putting the conversation to an end.

Both men sit facing the wall, thinking about their past, and trying not to contemplate their (brief, oh so brief) future.

He was trying to remember what had gotten him to this point, moved him to this moment where he could not move forward any longer, and then he remembers:

It was a hot day in July, and the people of Paris were hungry and angry (as they so often were, those days). The air sat on everyone like a thick blanket – no one, least of all himself, really wanted to move about. He had actually wandered down to the café out of sheer boredom (or maybe he had known something was going to take place – the memories, like the day, had begun to haze over with time).

He remembered a sudden murmur throughout the patrons of his café – Necker had been dismissed. People were angry. All he could think was that Duplessis would be out of a job now, too – no one was safe under this tyrant, after all. And so he stepped outside.

As he stood outside, more people slowly gathered (he could not remember how long he was there, or whether he had remained outside the same café that he had been inside to begin with, or whether he had even been outside of a café), their voices slowly growing to an angry roar as they shared their displeasure about Necker, and the king, and Antoinette, and the lack of bread.

He remembers standing on a table atop two chairs (although how he got there, again, he does not remember – he vaguely recalls shouting “Aux armes!” with passing citizens before he was pushed up to great heights) and suddenly being atop a sea of people. He recalls feeling nauseous, and then exhilarated. He grabbed two pistols from men below (or were they in his hands the whole time, and he just never set them down? he cannot quite recall), and waving them in the air, shouts to the gathered masses, “Aux armes, citoyens! Aux armes!

A chestnut tree was above his head, and he pulled down the leaves, searching for something to bind the crowd together. “Let us all wear green,” he remembers saying, (grasping at anything that sounds intelligent), “green, the color of hope.” And he placed the leaves in his hat and in his sash (how was he to know, he thinks, that green was the color of the Comte de Artois? it wasn’t like he spent his free hours studying royal heraldry).

He was supposed to have stormed the Bastille two days later (nonsense, he thinks, I was recovering from the events in the Palais Royal – or was I?). No matter what he had said, he became an instant celebrity. And his writings had begun to take off – he was the most sought-after dinner guest in Paris (no meal was complete without the Lanterne Attorney).

So what had been his downfall, he wonders? Where had he gone wrong?

It is finally his turn to step into the next room. The guards grasp his hands, roughly binding them together behind his back with rope that itches and scratches and makes his skin chafe. They remove his vest, preventing him from having any semblance of decency at the end. And then, to make things worse, they grasp his collar and tear it, ripping his shirt in the process. He sighs.

Then come the scissors. And he realizes that his hair is his true vanity. But they begin to hack at is, and it hurts as the dull blade rips through the layers.

“Pardon, monsieur, but we must clear your neck,” says the man with the blade as Camille flinches.

“Make it quick,” he mutters, gritting his teeth.

The sensation of cold metal against his bare skin seems almost a premonition of what is to come – although, he thinks, at least then he won’t feel it for but a second. Dr. Guillotin promised.

Not long after he is shorn, Danton is, too.

The guards load them up on the cart, and together, the men leave the safety of the prison for the last time.

It is bitterly cold outside, and the torn shirt and short hair are not helping. He is shivering as he stands next to Danton on the prisoners’ cart, trying not to shake.

“What day is it?” he whispers as they exit the gate.

“16 germinal Year II.”

“Old calendar?” he asks hopefully.

It is Fabre who answers from the back – Fabre, who designed the calendar system, and who knows the dates by heart. “April 5, 1794.”

Camille nods his thanks. At least he will know what date will be on his tombstone. If he gets a tombstone.

The cart begins its long journey from the prison to the Place de la Revolutión – the place where everything will end. The people of Paris have come out to see these former heroes – these giants among men – take their place among the lowest of the low. But something is not right. He cannot place what it is.

And then it hits him.

Normally, when the condemned ride toward their deaths, there is noise – cheering, jeering, even the throwing of rotten fruit and vegetables.

But today, the streets of Paris are silent, save for the sound of wooden wheels and iron horseshoes on cobblestones and the heavy breathing of the condemned.

He was not from Paris, but he had adopted the city (just like Max, he thinks – although Max took to the city in a different way, by trying to remain like a country lawyer although he lived in the city). And maybe, in his early days, what his father had called “the city’s vices” had become his own. Certainly, rumors were spread about him.

Most of them were true. Not that the average person knew that.

His one struggle was that he stuttered when he spoke. And that was a terrible trait for a lawyer to have (he wonders why it was that, when he spoke that day in July, he did not stutter – was it training from Fabre – did he even know Fabre then? was it self-confidence? was it the heat of the moment? he does not know). Of those early days, the only bright point was his friendship with another fellow lawyer, Georges-Jacques Danton.

Certainly, he had other friends, but none who listened to his problems like Georges. And it was to Georges that he turned when Duplessis would not let him marry Lucile. And when the priest made him publish his profession of faith in his paper. And when Max came to Versailles for the Estates. And when everything seemed so bleak.

Because Georges knew what to do. Georges always knew what to do. Even when he really didn’t know (and, after the fact, Georges had admitted to him that he really never knew what was the right action to take most of the time), he had always been the strong one. The one that was confident. The one with the booming voice, the one that could raise an army with a single word, the one that could stand up to anyone – even to Max.

Until now.

(Did I choose the wrong side?)

They are passing Duplay’s house. Eleanore is standing at the window, peering out from behind a curtain as they pass (what Max ever saw in that woman, he thinks, I could never tell). Fabre spits at the house. Danton faces stoically forward, until he sees Robespierre’s face at the window as well. Then he turns to face him.

“You will follow us shortly!” he shouts, suddenly. His hoarse voice echoes in the silent streets. The guards hurry the cart on, and it is only Camille who hears Danton’s curse: “Your house shall be beaten down and sowed with salt.”

He can only wonder what his friend means as they continue to lurch forward.

They are nearer now – they can smell the blood in the air.

Danton turns to Camille. “Remember how I said that Louise didn’t matter?”

Camille nods.

“I lied.”

Camille can only nod again.

“You know that Lucile and the baby will be alright.”

Camille jerks his head up and down. It’s almost mechanical now, a response that he has to get out in order to move on.

“Annette will look after them.”

He swallows. “I’m sure she will.” The words come out harshly, bitterly.

“And so will Louise.”

He goes back to nodding. It’s easier that way. To accept everything that he’s losing.

He has been watching the cobblestone for so long that he no longer knows where they are until the pressure from the wheels suddenly causes them to leak blood. And then he knows.

They have arrived.

He almost cannot bear to bring himself to look at it, but his eyes are drawn to it against his will anyway, as they pull closer.

Madame Guillotine is in all her glory this morning – her blade shining, her wood newly polished, a fresh mat of straw blanketing her above and below. It is beautiful and horrifying at the same time.

The cart continues to move inevitably forward, but now he wants more than anything to cause the cart to stop, to turn around, to go back to the prison (certainly there were rats there, but those were nothing compared to imminent doom). He wants to jump off of the cart, run for his life, run to Lucile, to the baby, and leave Paris. But he knows that would doom them all.

So he stays put.

He bows his head, unwilling to scan the crowd. He knows now that Max has not come to see him die – he at least has that consolation, even if his friend remains with Eleanore (and her horse face, he thinks somewhat maliciously – although all women seemed like horses next to Lucile).

He prays, in his own way, that Lucile did not come today. He cannot bear her watching this. Watching him go from breathing and fine one moment to lifeless the next. Watching him die for writing the truth, for writing what he believes in.

He hopes she escapes the madness.

He has watched so many men die. But he never thought he would one day ascend the scaffold himself. So when he does, he is still almost in shock.

Two others have died before him. The crowd roared when their heads were displayed. He is so faint that he cannot recall exactly who among his friends is no longer with him.

They grab him roughly, yanking him off the cart and nearly causing him to fall flat on his face among the bloody cobblestones. Each step he takes creates an oozing sound. He can feel the coldness of old blood invading his shoes.

He slips on the stairs. He’s shaking now – from fear or the cold, he’s not sure, but it’s embarrassing. He has to be brave for Lucile. If she’s watching, she’d want him to be brave. So he sets his shoulders despite the tremors, and steps forward determinedly.

They strap him into the board – his arms and legs are bound down tightly so that he cannot fight the executioner. Then the board is placed down with a sudden jolt, and he is sliding into place.

All he can think, as he smells the blood around him and hears the crowd, is of Lucile.

Be strong for Lucile.

A sudden snap and a kiss of cold metal.

“…remember the lesson history and philosophy have taught us: that love is stronger and more enduring than fear.”

- Camille Desmoulins

Key Names and Terms of the French Revolution

The Committee of Public Safety – a twelve man committee that practically ran the French Revolutionary government after its inception. The Committee was headed by a single man, although all twelve had to approve any actions taken. The original chairman was Georges-Jacques Danton, but, after being voted out, he was replaced by Maximilien Robespierre, who remained in power until his execution in 1795.

Cordeliers – a political debating club that had Jacobin leanings named after the Cordeliers district of Paris. Major figures of the club were Camille Desmoulins and Georges-Jacques Danton.

Gabrielle Danton – Georges-Jacques Danton’s first wife; died before the Terror

Georges-Jacques Danton – lawyer and major figure of the French Revolutionary government. Extremely charismatic, Danton was a favorite of the French people, especially due to his booming voice and ability to speak for long periods without pausing. He led the Dantonist group in opposing the Terror. After a long trial, in which he spoke non-stop in his defense, he was executed on April 5, 1794.

Louise Danton – Georges-Jacques Danton’s second wife; survives her husband and the Revolution

Dantonists – the group of Jacobins who opposed the continuation of the Terror; many of the members were from the Cordeliers Club. Led by Danton, they were executed on April 5, 1794.

Fabre d’Eglantine – actor, playwright, Revolutionary; a member of the Cordeliers club, he later joined the Dantonists because of his friendships with Danton and Camille. He was pivotal in the redesign of the French calendar during the Radical Revolution.

Camille Desmoulins – lawyer, anarchical speaker, and radical journalist during the French Revolution; his newspapers Les Revolutións de France et de Brabant and Le Vieux Cordelier were some of the most popular papers of the era. Historians are fairly certain that Camille was bisexual, and records point to his having an affair with his first mentor upon arriving in Paris. A member of the Dantonist party, he was executed April 5, 1794.

Lucile Duplessis Desmoulins – wife of Camille Desmoulins; she was arrested not long after her husband’s execution on charges of plotting to help him escape and was guillotined. She and Camille had a son, Horace-Camille, who survived the Revolution and died in the Caribbean.

Annette Duplessis – Lucile’s mother

Eleanore Duplay – the eldest daughter of the Duplay family, who housed Robespierre during his time in Paris. Historians continue to debate what sort of relationship Eleanore and Robespierre had. The most common interpretation of their relationship is as a common-law marriage of sorts. Duplay was an artist, and survived Robspierre, leaving her artwork behind for future generations.

Jacobins – the leading political party of the French Revolution

Jacques Necker – the minister of finance for Louis XVI’s government. Fired after a disastrous term which nearly led the government to bankruptcy, Necker’s dismissal did not sit well with the French people, who felt that he was more open with them than their king and queen. His dismissal led to protests and riots in the streets, and eventually pushed Parisians to storm the Bastille on July 14, 1789.

Maximilien Robespierre – lawyer, head of the Committee of Public Safety, leader of the Jacobin party. The most well-known figure of the Revolution, Robespierre was one of the major figures in charge during the Terror. Along with the eleven other members of the Committee of Public Safety, he signed the warrants that called for the arrest of the Dantonists. He was executed in 1795, after attempting to institute more changes to the Revolution, including a Festival of the Supreme Being. His death is considered by most historians to be the end of the Radical Revolution and the start of the Directory.

Sans-culottes – the people of Paris who prided themselves on not wearing culottes, or knee breeches; instead, they wore long pants and clogs, the sign of the working classes. The name literally translates to “without fancy pants.”

The Terror – the period of increased executions between the death of Marie Antoinette in October 1793 and the death of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1795. It is impossible to estimate exactly how many French men and women were killed by their government during this period, but the number ranges into the hundreds of thousands. At the height of the Terror, the cobblestones of the Place de la Revolutión, the main site of executions, would ooze blood when stepped on.