Authors: Anne Perry
‘What are you all doing up so early?’ he demanded. ‘Has something happened? Is there news?’
‘Only what was expected, Papa,’ Marie-Jeanne replied, shaking her head a little. ‘They are going to send the King to the guillotine.’
‘Of course they are!’ he retorted, shrugging sharply. ‘Did anyone imagine differently? Anyway, how do you know? Who said so?’
‘Célie,’ she answered.
He swung around and his glance fell on the sleeping baby. The anger disappeared from him. ‘And how do you know?’ he asked.
‘I was out,’ Célie explained. She could not tell him the truth. ‘I heard them talking in the street.’
His eyes narrowed, fear returning. ‘What were you out for at this time of the morning? It’s too early for bread!’
‘An errand for Citizen Bernave last night,’ she replied, keeping her voice natural. She must not seem to resent the question.
‘I don’t know why he can’t do his business during the daytime, like anyone else!’ he said tartly, turning away from her towards the table. ‘You shouldn’t be sent out at all hours. It isn’t right. Anything could happen to you.’ He wanted to say something more but he did not know what.
‘Nobody should!’ Amandine said with ill-concealed anger.
Monsieur Lacoste forgot the subject and directed his attention back to the news. ‘So Marat won at last.’ There was a faint curl to his lips, but in the candlelight it was impossible to tell if it was satisfaction or not.
No one answered him. Célie recalled the change in fortunes of one leader after another, and how they had pinned their hopes on each in turn. First had been Necker and Mirabeau, who had had such great dreams of order and financial stability, and failed; then Lafayette, whose words were filled with glory and liberty, and who last August had defected to the Austrians. Now Brissot and the Girondins were in power, once her father’s idols, but it was only nominally. They were full of great words, oratory to rival that of Cicero and the ancient Romans—or at least they imagined it did—and internecine quarrels to match. They had been so preoccupied with jostling for position among themselves, they had allowed Marat to overtake them all.
Madame Lacoste came in silently. She was a slender woman, of no more than average height. Her features were striking; straight nose, level brows and deep-set eyes almost black. It was a face of passion and strength, and in a few sudden and startling moments, also of vulnerability. Célie knew very little about her; she seldom talked of herself, or where she had grown up, far more often it was of beliefs. But unlike her husband or son, these were not political but moral matters of right and wrong, questions of human love, honour and dishonour. She had no patience with the concepts of virtue by dictate of law in society as preached by Robespierre. Célie hoped she would have the sense of self-preservation not to say so. She had at least been careful enough not to mention the name of God!
‘I suppose the verdict is in?’ Madame asked, looking from one of them to another, then at the set table. Her lips tightened. ‘I don’t know what else you expected? They could hardly retreat now, could they? The very most would be to prevaricate, and then do it a week or a month later—as if that made any difference! It would not be a mercy, just the usual inability to make a decision. Is that chocolate ready yet, Amandine?’
‘They could have lost their nerve,’ Lacoste argued. ‘Settled for keeping him in prison.’
Her face, dark-shadowed in the uncertain light, was full of scorn. ‘It would take far more nerve to tell the people they couldn’t go through with killing the King than it would to make the final gesture and condemn him,’ she said tersely. ‘They’ve gone much too far to turn back now’
‘You don’t understand politics.’ He moved away. ‘It has a force of its own.’
‘It’s people,’ she replied, as Amandine poured the chocolate into a jug and brought it to the table. ‘They don’t change on the inside just because they stand up in a pulpit or on a rostrum.’
He swivelled back towards her. ‘Don’t talk of politics as if it were the Church! These men aren’t risking their lives to free the people in order to get themselves a safe living for the rest of their days, and then a soft seat in heaven!’
‘Even they aren’t daft enough for that,’ she said witheringly, picking up the jug and filling the cups. ‘When they’ve just murdered half the priests in France!’
‘Suzanne! Keep a still tongue in your head!’ he warned moving a little closer to her, and raising his arm in an odd little gesture that was half angry, half protective. It hovered over her shoulder for a minute as if he would touch her, then moved away. ‘Whatever you think, the revolution is a fact! Don’t talk about what you don’t understand.’
‘Are you afraid I’m going to praise the Church?’ she said with disgust. ‘Don’t worry, I thought they were just as corrupt as you did—maybe more.’
He looked a trifle surprised, but relieved also.
‘You never said ...’
‘It’s not political,’ she answered with a smile, but inward, as if only she knew the joke. ‘Sit down and eat.’
‘It’s over!’ Lacoste pronounced with a sudden change to enthusiasm. His eyes lingered on the baby again for a moment. ‘This is the beginning of a new age,’ he said softly. ‘In a few days France will be a republic! The people will rule!’ He smiled across at Marie-Jeanne, his whole countenance startlingly different. ‘No more need to be afraid! Your children will grow up free, able to do whatever they want, be anything.’ He gestured expansively with his hands, still standing up. ‘No more closed professions that only the aristocracy can join, no more refusal of promotions in the army because your family hasn’t a coat of arms! As if that had anything to do with courage or the skill to fight!’ His eyes were bright and gentle. ‘Education for everyone! Justice in the courts! Freedom to say or believe anything you want! No more Church bleeding us dry. This is a great day!’
He glanced at Amandine. ‘Fetch a bottle of the best wine we’ve got left, and we’ll have a drink to the future. Call Fernand. We’ll drink to the rule of the people.’
Amandine moved to obey and they waited in silence around the table until she returned. Fernand came in close behind her.
‘Perhaps we should get my father?’ Marie-Jeanne suggested half reluctantly. ‘And Citizen St Felix?’
‘He’s gone to bed,’ Amandine replied, tight-lipped. ‘He was out all night, and came back hurt again—this time badly.’
‘Bernave!’ Lacoste said with disgust, sitting down at last, followed by the others. He glanced across at the window to the street. ‘It rained most of the night. Where on earth could he have gone that couldn’t have waited?’
‘Ask Bernave.’ Amandine spat the name. ‘I don’t know what for.’
‘Is he going to be all right?’ Madame asked, passing the bread round and cutting the cheese carefully.
‘It’ll heal,’ Célie answered, ‘if it gets the chance.’
Lacoste took the bottle from her, and Madame opened the cupboard and placed six glasses on the table for him. He poured the wine and passed the glasses round. The hot chocolate could wait. ‘To the rule of the people ... at last!’ he said with a smile.
‘To the rule of the people,’ they all echoed, each one with a different inflexion, and assuredly with different thoughts. Madame’s face was unreadable. Monsieur held his glass high.
Late in the morning Bernave sent for Célie again. As usual he was sitting at his desk. The polished wooden surface was littered with papers, wax, sand and two jars of ink. Three different quills lay about. The penknife was open and nib shavings were scattered on a sheet now marked with splatters of ink.
In the grey daylight Bernave looked haggard. There was a pallor to his skin. The lines from his nose to mouth were deeply etched and there was grey stubble on his jaw. But in spite of exhaustion his eyes were clear and hard when they met hers, and there was no weakness in him, no indecision.
‘I have messages for you to take,’ he said, studying her carefully, weighing his judgement of her. ‘I can put little on paper, in case you are caught and searched. You must memorise most of it. Can you do that?’
‘Yes,’ she answered immediately, but it was out of defiance rather than any inner certainty. There was nowhere to go but forward, and she would not let Bernave see any doubt in her.
He was regarding her now with wry humour, as if he were conscious of the incongruity of the situation: the wealthy middle-aged merchant sharing a desperate secret with his laundress, which could save France, or get them both killed. Here in this room with its shelves of books containing the thoughts and dreams of men down the ages, success did not seem impossible. There was something within Bernave, a power of faith he seemed able to call on, which when she was with him, she could grasp as well. She thought of the books on religion in amongst the other philosophies. Were they so precious he could not part with them? Or had he simply forgotten they were there?
‘Find Citizen Bressard,’ he said so quietly she had to concentrate to hear him. ‘He is the manager of my office on the Quai Voltaire. Ask him to let you speak to Citizen Bombec, Citizen Chimay, and Citizen Virieu.’
She started to protest, then the words died on her lips. She could not let him see she was afraid.
‘Are you listening to me, Célie?’ he said sharply. ‘Repeat the names!’
‘Citizen Bombec, Citizen Chimay and Citizen Virieu,’ she obeyed.
Bernave nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Tell each of them that we will act as planned—no more than that. Trust no one, not Bressard. A word in the wrong place ...’ He did not bother to complete the sentence.
‘Are they coach drivers?’ she asked. ‘What about getting out of the city? They will need passes ... more than ever that day.’
He looked at her curiously, aware of her intelligence and perhaps even more of her feelings. She had caught the vision of the disaster which threatened them all, and she cared. An appreciation of that flickered in his eyes. There was something which might even have been respect, and it mattered to her more than she wanted to admit. It was uncomfortable to care what he thought of her. It restricted the anger she wanted to let free.
‘Yes, they will need passes,’ he replied coolly. ‘St Felix will attend to them. It’s not your concern.’
She accepted the paper but stood her ground. ‘Is it dangerous again ... getting the passes?’ she asked him. ‘He was hurt last night. He could have been killed!’
Bernave’s expression was impossible to read. ‘Life is dangerous, Célie. We all take risks for what we want. Go and deliver my messages.’
It was dismissal, and she dared not press him any further, but she was perfectly sure he was sending St Felix into another situation in which he might well be injured again, or worse. She did not understand why St Felix accepted the situation. Bernave could perfectly well have carried many of the messages himself, and yet St Felix never seemed to rebel, or even to question. Such meekness was beyond her understanding. She could not decide whether it was nobility or cowardice.
‘What is it?’ Bernave asked as she remained standing.
‘The man who will take the King’s place?’ she said quietly, thinking of someone prepared to be murdered by an enraged crowd when they discovered him. What passion of loyalty drove a man to sacrifice his life in such a way? Was it love of the King, the idea of monarchy, or a terrible vision of France as it could become? She had no idea. Bernave had told her nothing of him, except that he existed.
The shadow of a smile touched Bernave’s mouth. He laced his fingers together in front of him. His hands were beautiful, in spite of the scars.
‘I told you, Célie, sometimes one has to pay a great price for what one wants. Sometimes what he will pay is a better measure of a man than what it is he is paying for.’
‘A royalist?’ She tried to imagine him, a man who could love a myth, a figurehead so intensely, even above life.
Bernave’s eyes were gentle. There was a kind of love in him she had not seen before. It made him almost beautiful. ‘Yes ... but more than that, a Frenchman,’ he said softly.
There was no answer she could give. It was complete and final. She had no right to intrude.
‘What else?’ he asked as still she did not move.
She took a deep breath. ‘I need some money,’ she replied.
His eyes narrowed, the fight dying from them. ‘What for?’
Understanding flooded his face, and a swift amusement which made her blush. ‘Ah ... for Coigny. Of course.’ He opened a drawer without the slightest disguise of what he was doing, and she noticed with surprise that it had not been locked. He took out a handful of coins and gave them to her, then closed the drawer again. He had never bothered with the paper assignats of the early revolution, which had proved worthless within a short space of time.
‘Thank you.’ She pocketed the money and turned to leave.
‘Be careful, Célie!’ he said again, but this time sharply. ‘Say nothing, however you may be provoked! Ask no questions and give no opinions. You are a laundress. You have no thoughts! Do you hear me?’
‘Yes, Citizen,’ she answered sarcastically. ‘Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality!’ And she went out of the door and closed it without waiting for his response.
Célie hurried through the grey, wind-scoured streets. It was not far—less than a mile—but time enough to get thoroughly cold, and to see other women with their heads down, carrying half-empty baskets after the morning’s struggle for food.
A wagon trundled past with firewood, covered over, to keep it from getting wet. She passed a group of National Guards, their uniforms ragged, but the red, white and blue cockades in their hats still brave. Most of them had muskets, a few only swords or pikes. Her hand went automatically to her shoulder, to make sure her own cockade was safely pinned. It was illegal to be without it.
‘Run, Citizeness!’ one of the men yelled cheerfully after her. ‘Home to your fire!’
The others laughed.
She would like to have pointed out to them how few people had fires these days, but it was a stupid thing to draw attention, especially by arguing.
‘Thank you, Citizen,’ she called back. ‘Keep the streets safe for us!’ Hypocrite, she thought to herself afterwards.