Monday, June 7, 2010
The Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreihac by Anel Viz encompasses the Reign of Terror and extends through the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration and the Second Republic in France. Gérard Vreilhac is the son of the of the Count d'Airelles' head gardener and also the lover of the Count's youngest son, Julien. After Julien leaves the chateau for the Military Academy, the Count's daughter, the Baroness Berthe de l'Envol takes him on as a house servant in her Paris hotel. In the meantime the French Revolution has begun. When Julien's regiment is sent to the front, Gérard leaves the Baroness's service and finds lodgings in Mme Leforgeron's boarding house, a hotbed of Jacobinism, finding employment in a Jacobin publishing house, where his abilities come to the attention of Robespierre (known as l'Incorruptible), who arranges for his transfer to clerk for the Revolutionary Tribunal. Then Charlotte Corday murders Marot in his bath, and the Jacobins institute the Reign of Terror.
The Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreihac
Dreamspinner Press (May 14, 2010)
Excerpt from Part I, chapters 3 & 4:
Nowadays everyone knows the name Charlotte Corday, but few remember what she looked like. I know I don’t. But who among us cannot picture David’s famous portrait of Marat in his bath, deathly pale and slumped to his right, his dangling arm still holding a quill, and the livid red gash in his chest? Yet when I think of Marat, what comes to mind is not David’s portrait, but the inconsolable grief of a populace that clamored unremittingly for the blood of all and sundry, and their lamentations.
Corday’s brave but senseless act sealed the Girondists’ fate. Less than a month later the Incorruptible established the Committee of Public Safety, and from then on one event followed another with dizzying rapidity. On days when Clément had no loads to deliver—and there were many of them, for few people had money to pay to move their belongings—his cart was used to carry people to the guillotine. The bodies piled up in Paris as on a battlefield, while life went on as always and people pretended that everything was normal.
Not long afterwards, the former Count and Countess d’Airelles and their very pregnant daughter-in-law, Marie-Catherine, and even Berthe’s former maid Henriette, came up for trial. I hadn’t known they’d been arrested. I wondered why Berthe and the others were not with them. I learned that Olivier was an émigré in London when they read the accusation. I thought him despicable for having left his wife behind. But more than anything, I felt relief that Julien was not there and that his name was nowhere mentioned in the accusation. Surely he was safely out of the country. An officer at the front could easily desert and escape across the border.
They were condemned to death; everyone always was. They deferred Marie-Catherine’s sentence and sent her back to the Conciergerie because she was with child. With luck they would forget about her; it had happened before.
I kept my eyes glued to the page in front of me, but I felt the Count’s piercing gaze forcing me to look up. He was glaring at me. Had he been permitted to speak, I’m sure he would have unleashed all his hatred on me.
When we had finished for the day, one of the judges came to me and said, “He recognized you, didn’t he, Citizen?”
“That ex-Count Something-or-other. You knew him, too. Your hands were shaking.”
“D’Airelles,” I said. “My father used to be his gardener.”
“Then I’m sure his execution is one you won’t want to miss.”
I didn’t, though I kept well back in the crowd and observed in silence. I didn’t want the Count to think I had come there to gloat. As he mounted the scaffold, I caught sight of Julien a short distance away from me. We had not seen each other in nearly three years. He was not in uniform. I was certain he recognized me. I moved toward him; he seemed to back away, but it might have been the press forcing him deeper into the crowd. Then came that terrible whishhh! and heart-stopping thump!, and a roar rose from the crowd. Samson was holding up the Count’s head for all to see. When I turned around to look for Julien, he had disappeared.
My most difficult moment at the Tribunal came when they condemned Citizen Brotteaux to death on the most ridiculous charges imaginable, for conspiring with a well-to-do society lady, an innocuous, simple-minded priest, and a good-hearted girl they called a notorious prostitute. The list of accusations was such a jumble of contradictions that they made an exception and called on him to answer them. They were particularly curious about the little book he had in his pocket, which they had seen him reading while they called the others on trial to stand before them and summarily sentenced one after the other. When he told them it was a copy of Lucretius they asked if he was a revolutionary. “Yes,” Brotteaux replied, “in his own way, he was.”
Brotteaux accepted his fate stoically and smiled at me kindly when they pronounced his sentence. “Here,” I thought, “is a man who will die with a clear conscience and does not blame me for the atrocities of the Terror.”
Artémis was unmoved. In fact, she had been present at his arrest and had not spoken up to defend him. And I had thought she was fond of him!
“He amused me,” she said.
I no longer read aloud when we got together in the evening. We had put our last novel aside unfinished shortly after Marat’s assassination. We hardly spoke anymore about the war or the problems of daily life. The bread shortage was attributed to hoarding, our army’s reversals to the generals’ sedition. We spoke only of guilt and punishment, of tracking down the culprits and chopping off their heads with all possible speed.
“When all the enemies of the Revolution have been destroyed, then we can have peace and justice,” Artémis repeated nightly, like a litany.
“Yes,” I thought, “but who will be left to enjoy the new order when everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every insignificant detail is an enemy of the Revolution?”
I lived in fear that sooner or later I would let something slip and open my thoughts to the most rabid Jacobins, the enragés, who were now in control. I saw myself mounting the steps of the guillotine. I was doomed.
One night, when Sandrine and I had walked up to our rooms together, she turned to me on the landing and whispered, “Madame Leforgeron terrifies me.”
I immediately suspected a trap. Had someone asked her to draw me out. “Artémis?” I asked, feigning innocence. “Life terrifies me. Living in Paris terrifies me.” I stopped short, realizing how my words would probably be taken. “Paris is surrounded by enemies, inside and out,” I explained, “and we’re all of us at their mercy. Why single out Artémis?”
When I left the Conciergerie late one cold, wet evening near the beginning of Brumaire and headed for the Pont au Change, a man wrapped in a greatcoat stepped out of the shadows of the building and followed me across the bridge. The streets were nearly empty because of the weather, but my path along the Quai de la Mégisserie was well traveled and it did not surprise me to hear his footsteps on the paving stones behind me. Something, however, aroused my suspicions, and I tested him to see if he was following me. I was not mistaken. He stopped when I stopped, waiting for me to move on, and kept four or five houses behind me. Had the Terror sent its spies to watch my comings and goings? Had I inadvertently said something to compromise myself? Perhaps one of my former fellow clerks, jealous of my transfer to the Tribunal, had dredged up some idle comment I had made in the past, a bit of Jacobin dogma that had since become anathema, and turned it against me?
As soon as I turned into the small side streets and alleyways surrounding Artémis’s house, I ducked around a corner and waited for him to catch up. His footsteps sped up as soon as he lost sight of me, and, when he turned the corner, he ran straight into me.
“Monsieur le chevalier!” I exclaimed. It was Julien.
“Don’t call me that,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to know me as a ci-devant.” He paused and added, “I need your help.”
“Are they after you?” I asked, relieved that he had sought me out. It meant he didn’t think I was one of them.
“No, I don’t think so. Marie-Catherine had her baby. A boy. She named him Phébus.”
“They took him away from her and said they would give him to a wet nurse.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Through a neighbor whose uncle was in prison with her. For forgery.”
“They guillotined her this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“You wouldn’t. There was no need to send her before the Tribunal a second time.”
“Then you know where I work.”
“I saw you at my parents’ trial.”
“You were there? I didn’t see you.”
“No, you kept your nose buried in your papers.”
“I saw you at their execution. You avoided me, as if you thought their blood was on my hands.”
“Nobody’s hands are clean anymore, Gérard. I don’t blame you. What could you have done? People have to put themselves first to survive. Will you help me?”
“What do you want?”
“I want you to find the infant, my brother’s son.”
“To make sure he’s safe?”
“To bring him to me.”
“Julien, are you mad? A man on the run? Because if you aren’t now, you will be soon.”
“I want to take him to London and give him to his father.”
“Does he deserve to have him, abandoning his mother like that?”
“She was pregnant, and he had to leave France in secret. You know—going on foot, wading across rivers, sleeping under bridges. He was afraid she’d lose the baby.”
“And the others? Berthe…”
“Some other time. Do you think you can help me get out of the country?”
“I’ll do my best. You know I’d risk anything to save your life, don’t you, Julien? But first I have to find the baby. Do have any clues who this nurse is?”
“None whatsoever. I thought you might ask. You have contacts.”
“It will take some time. Asking questions makes people suspicious. How can I get in touch with you?”
“You can’t. I don’t stay in one place for long. Who knows where I’ll be when you find my nephew? I’ll contact you.”
“Well, goodbye then.”
“Goodbye. And thank you.”
We shook hands, and he disappeared into the fog.
It took me only two days to locate Marie-Catherine’s baby, but what would I do with him until I found Julien again? I told the woman that I knew a barren couple who were looking for a child. They would pay handsomely.
I named a price, more than I could afford. Once she accepted, she’d take less if we couldn’t honor our promise. Perhaps Julien had something he could sell. His cavalry sword?
“And what will I tell the police if they come looking for it?”
“Tell them he sickened and died. As I said, they’re willing to pay, but it may take a while before they can raise the money.”
“I can wait. This brat isn’t going anywhere.”
I waited for Julien to contact me. Time passed, and I grew anxious. I told the child’s nurse that the woman who was to be the child’s mother had fallen ill and did not want to take it into her home until she had recovered. She complained that her milk was drying up because of an inadequate diet, and I gave her money. I was relieved to learn that nobody had inquired about the child since he was first given to her.
Julien came looking for me during the last days of Nivôse. As before, he waited outside the Tribunal and followed me home. As soon as we had turned off from the main thoroughfare, he ran to catch up with me and grabbed me by the arm. His first words were not about the baby.
“The Committee of Public Safety is on my trail,” he said breathlessly.
“How long have you known?”
“Three weeks. I’ve been on the move ever since, staying with friends when I can, or else sitting up all night in cafés, sometimes sleeping under archways or wagons in les Halles. I heard this afternoon that they arrested a man who put me up for a day or two after I left my lodgings.”
“They must be closing in on you.”
“They are. I’m sure they’d never find me once I was out of the city but there are guards posted at all the gates.”
“Wandering the countryside alone at this time of year? Where would you go? How would you keep warm? What would you eat?”
“Oh, I’d be all right. My time in the cavalry taught me how to survive in the wild. Gérard, do you know of anywhere I can hide until I find a way out of Paris?”
I answered without hesitating. “In my room.”
“Didn’t you hear me? They arrest people who let me stay with them.”
“My room is the last place they’ll look. The house I live in is a nest of the some of the most fanatic sans culottes in Paris. Their devotion to the Revolution is beyond question. Our only problem is getting you past my landlady, who’s a Jacobin Cerberus, and once you’re in my room you won’t be able to leave and will have to be as quiet as mouse.”
“Then how will we get past her?”
“I’ll think of a way. Here’s the address. Wait for me somewhere where you can see the doorway without being seen yourself. I’ll leave the house a little after midnight. But disguise yourself somehow. Do something to change your appearance. Shave that mustache and take the ribbon out of your hair so it will hang free. Dye it if you can. Most important, find yourself a red Jacobin cap.”
Sneaking him into Artémis’s would not be easy. To reach the stairs to my room you had to cross an inner courtyard, and the Leforgerons’ ground floor windows looked directly into it, and Artémis often stayed up all night. Her husband’s cough, which had all but disappeared over the summer, had returned with a vengeance when the cold weather set in, and he hadn’t left his bed in over a month, hacking incessantly and spitting blood.
I kept a small bottle of brandy in my room and also a few packets of herbs I used to make infusions to warm me on cold nights. I would bring a cup down to the kitchen for Artémis to fill with boiling water. That night I made a mixture of the strongest smelling herbs, broke off the end of a stick of licorice, and put them into a vial with a measure of brandy and a little oil, had Artémis fill my cup, and set the vial to stand in the hot water so the ingredients would blend. Toward midnight, I slipped the vial into my coat pocket and left the house, aware that Artémis had seen me go.
I joined Julien and waited with him in the shadows. He had altered his appearance in the way I had instructed. After half an hour, I handed him the vial and whispered, “Follow my lead and play your part well. Now come.”
We entered the courtyard and knocked on the Leforgerons’ door. “You husband’s coughing woke me three flights up,” I told Artémis, hoping that Citizen Leforgeron was not having a quiet night. “I went to get my friend here, Citizen Mautal. He’s an apothecary.”
Julien made a show of examining Leforgeron’s sputum before handing the vial to Artémis, telling her to empty its contents into a glass of hot wine and have her husband drink it slowly. She thanked us and reached into her purse for a few coins, but Julien refused, saying that free Frenchmen should not have to pay for a doctor’s care. We climbed the stairs to my room while she was busy administering the medicine.
When I closed the door behind us, Julien whispered, “I can’t stay here forever. How will I get back out?”
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