Authors: Anne Perry
The One Thing More
To June Wyndham Davies
With thanks for turning dreams into reality
But if you knew the one thing more ...
ÉLIE LAURENT STOOD IN
the crowded darkness of the public gallery of the Convention. The deputies had been debating the sentence on the King since 14 January—three days now. Tonight they were returning their verdict, each emerging from the shadows to climb the rostrum for his moment in history.
She watched the man who stood up there now, the candlelight shining on his face as he stared out at the packed room, exhausted after hours of argument. He said only the one word, ‘Death,’ then scuttled down the steps, feet clattering on the wood, and disappeared.
His place was taken by another. It may have been midwinter outside, but in here the press of bodies and the excitement made the air close and heavy. This next man’s skin was pallid and sheened with sweat. He hesitated a few moments, disregarding the faint rustle of impatience from the men sitting squashed in the front rows.
‘Death!’ he said huskily, then stepped down. His feet slipped and he snatched at the rail to steady himself, before reaching the bottom and being swallowed by the shadows again.
Célie cared intensely what happened. She was not a royalist. All her life she had heard of the idleness and profligacy of the court at Versailles. Her father had spoken of it with anger and disgust, her mother with the passion she had devoted to causes all her life. Célie remembered her mother’s pale-skinned, beautiful face always alight with zeal, gazing at her father, seeing only him, listening to his every word. She remembered her own loneliness, and how she had been shut out, even from the disillusion that had followed.
But that was in the past. They were both dead now. She was twenty-nine and it was all too late to repair.
There was much in the revolution that Célie believed in. She had not been born to poverty, but since her father’s collapse she had certainly become acquainted with it. She had worked to survive, like any of the labourers and artisans who had suffered generations of oppression, out of which finally had been brought forth this night.
The next deputy who stood in the pool of light had the bloodless face of an albinoid: his eyes were pink-tinged, his lashes and brows invisible: Joseph Fouché, the deputy from Nantes in Brittany. Yesterday he had promised to fight for the King’s life. Now he said the single, dry word—‘Death’.
Célie shivered. They had been voting for hours. Hardly anyone had spoken for life, or even incarceration of all the royal family until the last of them should die of old age.
Maybe she did not really need to stay any longer. The outcome was already certain. One violence had followed another since the storming of the Bastille three and a half years ago in 1789. Now they almost expected it. The streets were full of frightened people, most of them cold and hungry. The fury of centuries had exploded, destroying everything in its path. Wasn’t that what Marat had said—‘I am the rage of the people?’
The thought of him was cold inside her. Célie had only seen him once but, like everyone else, she knew his power. He ruled the Commune, and more importantly, the copper-faced, hollow-eyed mobs from the tanneries and slaughterhouses of the Faubourg St-Antoine, and out into the suburbs beyond and on every side.
There was a buzz of excitement around her, a shifting of position, a craning forward as the giant figure of Georges-Jacques Danton climbed the rostrum to cast his vote. He had returned from the war in Belgium only yesterday. There were rumours that he would plead mercy for the King. Could that be true?
Célie watched as he moved into the light. His head and shoulders were bull-like, his face scarred by pox. His vitality filled the room. She could feel it like the charge of electricity before a storm. The surreptitious coughing and shuffling stopped. Everyone’s eyes were on Danton.
The candles flickered, yellow light making a gargoyle of his head.
‘Death,’ he said simply.
A sigh of relief rippled through the room. Someone let out a little cry. Several people shifted as if a tension had been broken at last. They had passed some invisible point of no return. If Danton said ‘Death,’ it must be right.
He stepped down into the shadows and was lost in the press of bodies. Another took his place in the light and said the same word, but with a greater confidence. Now there could be only one judgement.
But each of the seven hundred and twenty-one deputies must have his say. The charade would drag on until the small hours of the morning. People were fidgeting, restless for the end. This was merely ritual now. The candles on the rostrum were burning low. The drag and shuffling of feet up the steps and down again seemed endless.
Then suddenly there was a different sound, the sharp click of high heels. Célie’s attention snapped back. The man who stood in the candlelight was immaculately dressed in shades of green: a nankeen jacket with perfectly cut lapels, a high waistcoat and neatly tied cravat. His hair was curled and powdered in the old style of the
His small face was neat-nosed, feline, his skin an unhealthy white. He peered myopically into the gloom of the chamber.
‘Everyone here knows how I dislike making long speeches,’ he began. He was renowned for making interminable speeches, his sibilant, pedantic tones so low that listeners had to lean forward to catch what he said. Every so often he would hesitate, so people thought he was finished. Then he would start again.
But no one laughed. No one ever laughed at Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre. He would have considered it blasphemy.
As always he spoke at length about purity, the evils of the aristocracy, the necessity of justice and a new way, of a rebirth of virtue, but mostly he spoke about himself. In the end it all amounted to the same thing: another vote to send the King to the guillotine.
There was no need for Célie to remain. Nothing could turn the tide now. She had learned all she had come for. She turned and began to push her way through the crowd behind her. The people were nervous and excited, thronging together in the passages and half blocking the doors out into the street, but they took little notice of her. With her strong features and slim body, her straight, flaxen hair half hidden under her cap, in the half-dark she could have been taken for a boy.
‘Excuse me,’ she muttered, elbowing her way. ‘Pardon, Citizen!’
Outside at last the cold air hit her from the January night, and she pulled her jacket tighter across her chest, holding the collar high up to her chin. She went down the steps, bending her head against the wind.
A thin man with straggling hair was standing just within the pool of the lights. His shoulders were hunched, his hands knotted against the chill.
‘Leaving, Citizeness?’ he asked, looking at her curiously. ‘Are they finished already?’
‘No,’ she answered, avoiding his eyes. ‘But no one will change it now, so it makes no difference.’
‘Thank—’ he began, then stopped.
She knew he had been about to say ‘Thank God,’ then remembered just in time that there was no God, no power to resurrect the dead, no one to comfort the tearing grief for a lost baby, to promise a heaven somewhere. Religion was anti-revolutionary, and therefore a crime. Nobody could even estimate how many priests had been murdered in the massacres last September when the Marseillais had gone mad, slaughtering the men, women and children in the prisons.
Of course religion had been contradictory, absurd, and the Church greedy and corrupt. Célie knew that, but she still ached for its loss, cried alone in the night from the emptiness without it.
‘Thank you, Citizeness,’ the man finished self-consciously.
She forced a smile at him, sickly and false, then hurried along the pavement. The lights from shops and cafés glistened across the wet stones. It was easy to see where she was going. It would be a lot harder when she was at the other side of the river, into the Cordeliers District.
She walked quickly. The night air was fiercely cold, and movement at least kept her blood pumping. She stepped over a puddle and her foot slipped on the wet cobbles. She was off the Rue St-Honoré now and into a narrower, darker street. She could smell the dampness and the sting of ice in the air. At least there would be torches along the quayside, reflecting off the black surface of the water, and it would be easier to see.
Of course she cared about the vote. She was a Frenchwoman; this was her city and her country. But she had come specifically because Bernave had sent her. He wanted to know the moment the verdict was irrevocable. Tomorrow morning was not soon enough. She did not know why it mattered so much to him. He had sent her on a lot of strange, urgent errands lately, trusting her far more than most men trusted any servant, let alone one they had known only a few months.
She was closer to the river now. Ahead of her the street opened out and she could see the light of a rush torch swaying in the darkness, trailing jagged streamers of fire. A man shouted to somebody out of sight.
‘Heard the news, Citizen?’
The answer came from the gulf beyond him. ‘Yes! Convention has voted to execute the King! Equality at last!’
‘Liberty!’ the other replied, and laughed, his voice sharp in the frosty air, slithering away in a wild note.
Célie crossed the street on to the bridge. Beneath her the water was oily black, torchlight glittering in long ribbons of gold.
She reached the Quai de Conti on the far side and hurried into the shadow of the streets towards the Boulevard St-Germain. She had to slow her pace now, feel her way with more care. She was nearly home, but there were no torches here and hardly any chinks of light from windows.
She turned in under the archway, crossing the familiar courtyard, passing the pump. The kitchen door had been left unlocked for her and she opened it easily, closing it again when she was inside and hearing the slight click as the latch fell home. She felt for the candle on the table, fumbling for a moment, then lit it. The soft pool of light showed the wooden surfaces, worn with use, the polished pans hanging on their hooks, and the dark outline of the stove. There was a lingering warmth and a faint smell of dried herbs in the air.
Célie took off her wet jacket and cap, and hung them on the drying rail, then picked up the candle and tiptoed across the floor to the next room and the door to Bernave’s study. She knocked softly, barely touching the wood with her knuckles.
There was a moment’s silence, then the sound of someone on the other side, and the latch lifted. The door swung open.
‘Come in,’ Bernave ordered.
She obeyed, closing the door behind her. The room was warm from the stove, and four candles were burning. A book was open on his desk. He searched her face, and must have seen the answer in her eyes, because he nodded almost imperceptibly, his lips tightening. Perhaps he had known to expect it. He should have, the signs had been plain enough.
‘They voted for death,’ she said aloud. ‘I didn’t stay to the end because there was no point. After Danton there wouldn’t be any change.’
Bernave stood motionless. He was not a large man, but his energy seemed to fill the room, his intelligence to command everything.
‘So did the Girondins,’ she added, just in case a shred of doubt still lingered in him.
They had all hoped for so much from the Girondins when they had first come to power in the Convention. They had seemed to embody the noblest republican ideals. They had talked prodigiously. She remembered their voices in her parents’ home before she had married Charles, before Jean-Pierre was born. Charles had died, but it was Jean-Pierre’s death that had drowned her world in pain.