Authors: Anne Perry
‘Madame Roland writes wonderful letters,’ she said instinctively, speaking her mother’s words, her passionate admiration, and perhaps also because she wanted to defend the one woman she knew of who had been close to power.
He gave her a withering look, his grey eyes bright. ‘As long as you have no sense of the absurd.’ His voice was thick. ‘“Letters from a Roman Matron”! We used to be the wittiest nation on earth ... and now look at us!’ His lip curled. ‘It’s enough to make the angels weep. Perhaps that is our greatest punishment? We’ve lost our sense of humour. What do you think, Célie?’
She watched his shoulders, hunched a little, his arms stiff on the desk in front of him, and saw that his hands were clenched, the knuckles pale, the thick scars showing white. He had never said where the scars came from.
‘They were all too busy posing for history to see what they were doing,’ he went on, his voice heavy with disgust now. ‘God help us, there is no other answer. We must save the King, not for the throne, but from martyrdom. Get him away quietly to live out his life in some peaceful little town in England, or Italy, where he will be merely one more fat, middle-aged man who likes to tend his garden and play with his grandchildren.’
Célie gazed at Bernave with incredulity, but even as words of disbelief formed on her lips, she saw the whole possibility with all its desperate logic and its insane danger. She knew the rumbling anger in the streets. She had seen it more than Bernave himself had. She was the one who went out for the few bits of shopping that were still available; she was the one who stood in queues for hours at a time. She had heard the rumours of war and felt the fear of it brush them all. She could remember the panic as the frontier cities had fallen.
‘What are we going to do?’ she whispered, as if even in this silent room she might be overheard.
He looked at her steadily. ‘We are going to rescue the King on the way to the scaffold,’ he answered, ‘and get him out of France, to somewhere where we can see that he is safe.’
It was staggering—preposterous.
‘Not impossible,’ he replied calmly, ‘if someone else is prepared to take his place. They only have to think he is the King for a few moments. It will be enough.’
She was appalled.
‘When they find he isn’t, they’ll kill him!’ she protested. ‘They’ll tear him to pieces!’ Her imagination was hideous with the vision of it.
‘I know. And he knows.’ His eyes did not leave hers for an instant. ‘But he loves France. He understands what will happen to us if we kill the King—civil war, hunger, violence on the streets, fear everywhere, and eventually foreign soldiers in our fields and villages, in our homes. All the gains we have fought for, the liberty and the justice destroyed under another monarchy, not even our own. He will do it, Célie. I know him.’ He leaned forward across the desk, his cheek and wide brow golden in the candle flame. ‘Now go and tell Georges Coigny to check the first and second safe houses! If you get wet or cold, what is that in the balance? I have letters to write. We have only three whole days!’
The cold outside hit Célie like a stinging slap across the face, making her squint against the wind. She was shaking inside with fear and excitement. Suddenly all the errands she and St Felix had run for Bernave made sense. They were part of a harebrained conspiracy to rescue the King and prevent chaos from consuming all France, everything that was left of hope and humanity and the dream of a new age of freedom.
She could not hurry because as soon as she was off the Boulevard St-Germain it was too dark to see. She moved along alleys which had become familiar only lately, and it would be easy to miss her way, easier still to slip and fall. The wind funnelled between the walls with a knife-edge, finding every gap between the cloak around her shoulders and the cap over her head.
This was the Cordeliers District, where Danton lived with his wife and sons. Perhaps it was stupid ever to have pinned their hopes on him, but so many had—maybe once even Bernave himself. The people loved Danton. He was a natural leader, a man of gargantuan appetite for food, for money, for laughter, wine and life; but also a man passionate for justice for the poor, the ordinary people of both town and country, those who laboured for their bread.
Now it was too late. If Danton had ever really tried to stem the tide of destruction, he had failed.
Célie turned the corner carefully, feeling along the wall. It was more sheltered here.
Marat was the real power behind everything. He lived near here too, on the Rue de l’École-de-Médecine, working every day on his newspaper with its headlines screaming for bloodshed and revenge for the centuries of oppression. The mobs followed him, listening to his every word, feeding on them, believing him.
He had spent years in obscurity around Europe, consumed by his desire for glory in the academic world, and denied at every attempt. Bernave had told her that, late one evening when she had returned with messages for him. They had sat together in the book-lined room, everyone else gone to bed, the house silent except for the wind in the eaves. He had recounted with a wry, bitter amusement, and she thought a grudging respect, how Marat had espoused the cause of the dispossessed, written his book
The Chains of Slavery
, and found his true vocation. Now his rage, and the smell of victory, kept him alive in spite of the disease which was rotting his body.
She crossed the Boulevard St-Michel, for a few moments seeing torch flares and hearing men’s voices, then she slipped between the buildings into the alleys again. She stopped until her eyes readjusted to the darkness. This was the perfect place to hide. It was here, Bernave had said, that Marat had lived in attics and cellars, sometimes crouched in a cupboard for days, surviving on drops of water, when he had been hunted by the authorities in the past. Lafayette had sent in three thousand soldiers to flush him out and kill him—and failed. The thought of that gave her acute satisfaction, not for any love of Marat, but for the farcical aspect of it, and the fool it made of the self-important Lafayette.
She hesitated, uncertain of her way now she was almost there. The buildings were very old; they sagged and creaked in the darkness. Water dripped from the eaves, even though it was no longer raining. The damp made the cold eat into everything.
Left. She must go left, into the courtyard, then up the tiny stair outside the wall and in through the top door, then up again to the attic.
There was movement all around her, as if countless people were awake and listening. That was ridiculous! She must control her thoughts. She moved forward determinedly. Her teeth were chattering. Fear? No—of course not! Only cold. She had been here many times before, bringing food, candles, fuel, or news. Georges had no money now he was hiding from the National Guard. She tried to ignore the guilt that stabbed at her for that, and as always, it hurt just as much.
With food scarce for everyone, every little neighbourhood was jealous of its meagre stores. No one welcomed a stranger—there was too little to share. Also someone might recognise his face from a poster. Turning in a wanted man was worth money. And apart from that, if one should get into trouble, to have gained a good name with the Commune might make the difference between release or the guillotine.
She crept up the first flight, and then the second, hearing every board shift under her weight. She started up the third. The steps were slippery with rain on top of the mould that covered them. At the top the door was unlocked. It was difficult to open but she was used to the eccentricities of the latch, and after a twist and jerk it pushed wide enough for her to squeeze through into the passage.
It was completely lightless, but she knew her way: ten steps forward, then to the right, and there was another door. This time she lifted her hand and tapped very gently on the wood.
It was opened and she stepped into a room not much bigger than a large pantry, lit by a solitary candle—tallow, of course, not expensive wax. There was no glow from the stove, and no warmth. It must be out. Georges Coigny was standing in the middle of the floor, his eyes wary, the blackness of his hair lost in the shadows. Then as he recognised her, he relaxed. As always, his smile was quick, warm. He smiled like that at everyone; it was a habit, a part of his nature.
‘Come in.’ He moved to close the door behind her. There was no furniture in the room except a table, one chair, a small cupboard and a straw-filled mattress on the floor by the wall. There were two or three blankets on it, and he passed her one of these now, holding it while she took off her wet cloak and cap, and then wrapped herself inside the blanket and sat down on the chair.
He stood, waiting for her to speak.
She shook her head fractionally. ‘Death,’ she told him, her voice a little hoarse. She saw in his face that he had known it would be, perhaps even known that Bernave would send her tonight, but also that he could not help having hoped.
He blinked, and turned away for an instant. He breathed in and out slowly, then met her eyes again, looking for the last confirmation. ‘Even Danton?’
She wished she could have said otherwise. She had a sudden urge to protect him from the truth, which was ridiculous—Georges of all people! He was not vulnerable, not afraid as she was. He was always certain of everything, most of all of himself. He had that kind of shining inner belief that even the present chaos could not shake.
She squashed the feeling in herself. ‘I’m sorry ... he voted for death like everyone else.’
Georges looked at the uncurtained window, the candlelight reflected sharp and yellow on the planes of his face. When he spoke it was quietly, as much to himself as to her. ‘He said he’d not sacrifice his own life in a lost cause.’ Then he turned back to the room and she saw the defeat and the anger in him. ‘And the Girondins couldn’t organise an evening soirée,’ he went on, ‘never mind an effective resistance to Marat and the Commune, and all the others who believe that executing the King will be the beginning of a new birth of liberty.’
She shivered, even with the blanket around her. She must deliver Bernave’s message. She watched him as he sat down on the mattress opposite her, awkwardly, because it was too low. He pulled one of the other blankets over his shoulders. He looked tired, strained, but there was no surprise in him now. He had been expecting this.
‘When?’ he asked. ‘Did they say?’
His head jerked up, eyes wide. ‘In four days!’
His shoulders slumped. He put his hands up over his face, pushing his hair back, and there was immeasurable defeat in the gesture.
‘We’re still going to rescue him,’ Célie said in the silence. ‘Bernave has it all planned. We just have to be ... quicker ...’ It sounded absurd, crazier than anything even the Girondins would think of.
He stared at her, incredulity slowly fading to amazement, and then a dawning hope. And he realised for the first time how far Bernave had trusted her.
‘Bernave says you must check the first and second safe houses,’ she said slowly. ‘He’s sending St Felix to the third.’ She waited for a response from him.
He breathed in and out slowly, still absorbing the thought. ‘We’d never get him out of the prison of the Temple,’ he answered. ‘The only place will be from the carriage on the way to the Place de la Révolution.’
‘I know,’ she agreed. ‘Bernave told me that much. Put someone else in his place, just long enough to take their attention.’ She shivered as she remembered Bernave’s face in the candlelight, and the knowledge of what it would cost: not just death, but what kind of death. What sort of man was prepared to do such a thing? She wished she knew him! And yet it would break her heart if she did. ‘But how?’ she said aloud. ‘And what after that?’
He took a deep breath. ‘The streets will be lined with soldiers, and they’ll be expecting trouble. All Paris will turn out to see it. After all, how often do you see a king ride to his execution?’
She had no idea what to say. What was he feeling? What was there in him she could touch or understand? What had he lost in this terrifying change ... or found? Was the past sweet or bitter; lonely, or full of those he had loved and could never find again?
‘Do you know him?’ she asked. ‘The King?’
He looked at her. His eyes were black in the faint light. ‘Not very well,’ he replied, and there was a trace of amusement that she should ask.
‘What is he like?’ she pressed.
‘Shy, very ordinary, like an actor playing a part for which he hasn’t been given all the lines.’
It was not what she had expected. It did not sound like a king, still less like a tyrant. Against her will it drew from her a kind of pity.
‘Four days!’ His voice cut into her thoughts. ‘We’ll need a lot of people, simply to cover what we’re doing, but only say a dozen or so we can really trust. At least in Paris ...’
‘Can we do it in time?’ she asked, feeling it pressing in on her, all the complication of what must be arranged, uncertain what Bernave had already planned, what would need to be changed now time was so short. ‘Who can we trust?’ she went on. ‘Royalists? People who believe the King rules by God’s decree?’ She felt faintly ridiculous as she said it, but she knew such faith existed, or had done.
Georges bit his lip in a derisory humour. ‘The royalists are a shambles. We’ve got rid of the Church and whatever priests there are still alive are in hiding ... like a lot of us.’
She was painfully aware of his situation, and that she herself had brought it about, but there was no time for indulgence of guilt now, however deep. Time was urgently, desperately short. And yet Bernave had seemed so certain there was a chance!
‘Bernave has the drivers.’ Georges returned to the practical, his face concentrated in thought. ‘The safe houses can be taken care of. It’s really the crowd to find to seize in on the King’s carriage as it goes from the prison of the Temple to the guillotine, and then others to block the side streets with carts so they can’t be followed by the National Guard.’
‘Do you know enough for that?’ she asked, trying to imagine the trust it would take to ask someone to do such a thing, to tell them how and where, and, above all, why! Georges would be placing not only the King’s life in their hands, but his own, and those of everyone else who helped. And they would have to be men and women of great resource, ice-cool nerve even under the greatest pressure, incapable of panic, and willing to risk their lives.