Authors: Anne Perry
The Girondins’ endless posturing, chatter, her father’s agony of disillusion and her mother’s refusal to believe it, all belonged to another part of life. When it came to the passing of laws and taking control of a chaotic situation, the Girondins had proved indecisive, quarrelsome, self-regarding, and finally ineffectual.
‘I long since ceased to expect anything from them.’ Bernave’s voice cut across her memories, a bitter weariness in it, and as he returned to his seat she saw a droop in his shoulders she had not noticed before. ‘Not that they will last much longer,’ he added. ‘If they don’t develop a little courage and a lot more brains, their days are numbered.’
She did not ask what would happen to them; she already knew. Some of those, the bravest, would cling to the dream to the end, regardless of the truth ... like her mother. Others, like her father, would retreat into despair and eventually oblivion.
‘When will the execution be?’ Bernave asked, interrupting her thoughts.
‘The twenty-first,’ she replied. ‘Four days’ time.’
He took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘I want you to take a message to Georges Coigny. Go and tell him that the verdict is in and will not change. He is to assure the first and second safe houses. St Felix will do the third. Do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ she said firmly. ‘I am to tell Georges Coigny that he is to assure the first and second safe houses, and St Felix will do the third. I’ll go tomorrow.’ She thought of the dark streets, overflowing gutters and the bitter wind that hurt the skin.
‘Now, Célie,’ Bernave said quietly. ‘Tonight.’
‘It’s after midnight!’ she protested. ‘It’s perishing out there!’ St Felix might be prepared to creep around the streets at all hours. She was not!
‘Now,’ Bernave repeated, and there was steel in his voice. ‘There is no time to sleep. Go and tell Coigny what happened in the Convention, and what I said.’ He looked at her steadily. He had a powerful face with lean, hard bones—a face of hunger and tragedy. But one expected dark eyes and his were blue-grey, very clear, as if his mind were visible through them, both the light and the darkness of it.
These were the days of equality. She wanted to understand why he sent St Felix, who was apparently his friend, out on all sorts of errands in the cold and the dark. Often he came home exhausted, sometimes even injured, and it seemed he went willingly enough. Certainly he never argued. But why did Bernave not sometimes go on these dangerous missions himself?
Bernard was staring at her. He smiled with a twist to his lips.
‘Are you cold and tired, Célie?’
‘Of course I am!’ she said vehemently. Her legs ached and her feet were soaking wet and numb.
He leaned back a little in his chair, his eyes meeting hers unwaveringly. ‘Is Amandine in bed?’
It was the last thing she had expected him to ask. It was utterly irrelevant.
His eyes widened. ‘Is Amandine in bed?’ he repeated. ‘Is that not plain enough? I am hungry. Like most of France, I can work on an empty stomach but I cannot think on one! Perhaps also, like most of France!’ A flash of humour lit his face as he watched her, but it was full of the knowledge of pain.
‘I’ll fetch you some bread and cheese,’ she offered. ‘And an onion, if you like?’
‘The only woman in Paris who cannot cook!’ he said with a sigh, but there was no unkindness in his voice. ‘You have done well, Célie. You have intelligence and courage. And at the moment—since there is hardly any decent food to be had, but a great deal of work to do, and most of it dangerous—those virtues may be of more use to us. What a comment on our times!’ He looked at her steadily for a moment, to be sure she understood that he meant what he said, then turned back to his book. It was dismissal.
She went out through the hallway to the kitchen again, taking the candle with her, his praise still sweet in her ears. A corner of the room had been set aside for the flat iron and a basket of sewing needles, scissors, threads, and pins so she could care for the household linens and occasionally make a garment or two. But the cooking area was Amandine’s.
She set the candle down and found the bread—a scarce commodity in Paris these days—and cut a large portion from one of the two cheeses, and half an onion. She set them on one of the red, white and blue revolutionary plates with its pictures of republican symbols. She thought they were vulgar, but everyone had them these days. It was politically advisable, whatever your actual beliefs. She put it on a tray with a knife, a glass, and half a bottle of wine, then, with the candle on it as well, she carried it back to the study and tapped on the door with her foot.
Bernave opened it and she carried the tray in and set it on the desk.
His eyes flickered over it and he smiled very slightly. ‘Thank you. You should have brought two glasses.’
She was not sure if it were an invitation to stay, or an order to wait for further instructions.
‘Well, don’t stand there!’ He looked at her with a bleak smile. ‘Go and fetch another one! I have something more to tell you.’
She obeyed silently, and returned to find him with a quill in his hand, but the papers in front of him still blank.
‘Pour it,’ he ordered without looking up.
She did so, and sipped the wine with pleasure, feeling its clean taste on her tongue and its warmth slide down her throat. She remained standing. It would be an impertinence to forget he was the master and this was his house, and his room.
He looked up at her at last. ‘I have decided to tell you why you are going out tonight.’
‘Sit down.’ He pointed to the chair opposite him.
She obeyed. Suddenly she was frightened. Her throat was tight, her heart jumping. What was he going to say? Was Georges going to have to flee again, leave Paris, maybe even leave France? Who were the safe houses for? Was Bernave himself going? That thought should not have hurt her; she had known him only a short time. But he had shown a kindness to her, a clean, hard honesty she admired.
‘Do you know what is going to happen when we kill the King, Célie?’ he asked, studying her face.
She wanted to give an intelligent answer, one he would respect. But why was he asking? Testing her loyalty? To what, or whom?
‘We shall be a republic,’ she replied, a tiny thread of pride in her voice, barely detectable. ‘No more aristos, no Church, no more privilege of birth.’ It surprised her that she should feel it. She had thought all such emotions dead in her. And yet somehow she despised it, hated it for what it had taken from her, she felt a touch of her mother’s passion for a new order, for reform, justice at last.
‘And is privilege of birth so much worse than privilege of strength, or money, or cunning?’ Bernave asked curiously. ‘How about privilege of conquest?’
She was confused. ‘I don’t know what you mean!’
‘No, I can see you don’t,’ he agreed wryly. ‘We are at war with Belgium and Prussia in the north, with the Austrian Empire in the east, and our soldiers have little food and even less ammunition.’ His voice was tight in his throat and she knew it was anger. ‘We are unhappy and frightened even here in Paris. How long do you queue for bread these days, Célie?’ He waved his hand in dismissal. ‘No, don’t bother to answer. I already know. And when we have killed the King it will get worse, because we will descend into civil war. We will have no government in control at the heart, so there will be risings in the provinces.’
She wanted to argue, but she knew too little. And she thought Bernave must be right because she had heard people say things like that when standing outside the bakery and there was no bread left, or at the other shops when there was no soap, or no candles.
‘But surely once ...’ She tailed off, seeing his face and silenced by the emotion in it, even though she did not understand it.
He leaned forward a little, his voice more urgent. ‘Célie, all those countries around us are ruled by kings: not only Austria and Prussia but England as well, and Spain! All the royal houses of Europe are allied, by blood and by common interest. If we cut the throat of our King like a criminal’s, and set in his place the rabble of Marat’s Commune who run around like blood-crazed animals, if we can’t feed our own people or impose any law except that of the tumbrel and the knife, then they’ll see us as a nation of madmen, a blight to be cut out at any cost, before the contagion spreads and all Europe is stricken with it!’
His words sank on her like a lead weight, immovable because she could see they were true.
‘We are walking a razor’s edge, Célie,’ he continued, his voice dropping, ‘with corruption on one side, and anarchy on the other. England will use the death of the King as an excuse. It will give them easy cause.’ His eyes were clear and sad in the candlelight. It flickered faintly in the draught, and wavered on the shelves of leather-bound books.
‘You really have very little idea what we have done to ourselves tonight, have you?’ he said bitterly, searching her face. ‘You just see a people risen up against centuries of oppression and injustice, against an effete aristocracy playing games in palaces and gardens, preoccupied with fripperies of dress while the poor starve. You think the rage of people like Marat and his followers is justified, and that when it is answered with equality, this will all be over.’
‘It is justified,’ she whispered. She had never doubted it. Her heritage was her mother’s passion for the poor, the voiceless labourers who made the land rich, and reaped little from it.
He smiled, as if her answer gave him a moment of humour. ‘Of course it is justified,’ he agreed. ‘That is hardly the point.’
‘What is the point then?’ she demanded, angry because he had threatened a certainty inside her, and that frightened her.
‘The point, my dear,’ he said steadily, ‘is that no equality will satisfy them now, except the final equality of the grave. Danton was the last sane man who had wants and needs like any of the rest of us: land, money, women, possessions, admiration!’ He picked up his wine glass and turned it slowly in his fingers, watching the light shine through it like rubies. His voice was low, echoing a faraway pain. ‘They are things you can get, and even hold on to, if you’re lucky. They are understandable. Stop any man in the street and ask him. If he were honest, he’d admit to liking them, even needing them.’ He tipped his glass and drank the rest of the wine. One of the candles guttered and went out.
‘Danton’s political ideals are simple: a roof over every man’s head and a chicken in every pot,’ he went on. ‘Equality before the law. Do away with the privilege of the Church, but probably not destroy the Church itself. His wife is religious, like most of the ordinary women of France.’ His eyes widened for a moment. ‘Did you know that? Above all I think he wants stability.’ His hand curled on the desk top. ‘Space for people to get back to a decent life. These are real things.’
‘Maybe he will take power in the Convention?’ she said, trying to make herself believe it.
‘He loves too many things too much,’ Bernave replied, his eyes distant, as if he spoke from his own heart. ‘He wants to drink deep of the wine of life, to enjoy all the beautiful artefacts he’s looted from Belgium, the fine linens by the wagonload that are pouring into Paris, the gold and silver chalices and reliquaries, and other such necessities of civilised living.’ There was laughter in his eyes but his voice was heavy with sarcasm. ‘At least he’s a patriot. That is our one hope of him, even if he’s also a fool!’
‘Isn’t Marat a patriot?’ The words were out before she thought better of them.
Bernave gave a snort of derision. ‘Marat is half Swiss and half Sardinian. Why should he love France? Who do you think “redirected” the boots, the coats and the munitions meant for the army on the Austrian front, and had them brought to the Commune here in Paris?’
He shrugged sharply. ‘Stole, if you prefer.’ For a moment his anger was naked, raw-edged with pain. ‘And that idiot Pache hasn’t the power or the wit to prevent it. Our soldiers on the battlefields fighting to save us from invasion are freezing cold and defending themselves with few guns and less shot because their supplies have been taken by Marat’s “people’s army”—so we can fight each other here in Paris!’
She said nothing. The cold and the darkness of the night outside seemed to press in on the room and the candlelight to be too frail to stand against it. Only Bernave’s will was strong enough to make her believe in the possibility of any kind of hope.
But what did he want? Not the King back at Versailles with a crown on his head! France had already tried every kind of monarchy, and each time the King had failed them, gone back on his word, bent with every wind of fortune, lied and lied again.
‘Marat wants glory,’ Bernave went on, as much to himself as to her. ‘Revenge for all the years the Académie Française slighted him and refused him membership; and more glory—endless, boundless glory.’ He edged the word with a unique bitterness. ‘He wants his name to be immortal, as the man who released all Europe from the chains of slavery.’ He twisted the stem of his glass in his fingers. ‘And, of course, revenge in general,’ he added. ‘Plenty of blood. Rivers of it.’
She stared at him. She had not realised until this moment how profoundly her own beliefs were affected by his. There was a core of belief inside him, a wholeness untouched by the fevers outside. He was the rock around which all else ebbed and surged. ‘Isn’t there anyone else?’ she asked desperately.
‘Robespierre?’ His voice startled her with its bitterness. ‘Him least of all. The “Virtue of the People”! What is that, for God’s sake? Do you suppose even Robespierre himself knows what he means, let alone the rest of us?’
‘It probably means whatever he wants it to mean,’ she answered, meeting his eyes.
A flash of appreciation crossed his face. ‘You’re right. Today one thing, tomorrow something else, and none of it real. You can’t work with a man like that. You can’t anticipate him, bribe him or make common cause with him for a purpose. There are no bargains.’ He was silent for a moment. The fine lines in his face were all downward, as if he remembered too much grief and too many old battles. He sighed. ‘And the King may have the soul of a grocer, but the Girondins couldn’t run a shop if their lives depended on it. Odd how anyone can be so provincial and yet at the same time so incompetent!’