When Terror Comes Full Circle
Chapter 5: The Citizen At His Trial
"Citizen Chauvelin, formerly called the Marquis de Chauvelin!"
He was calm, facing his judges almost placidly. He stood straight and tall before them, having arranged his worn black coat as imposingly as was possible; but none in the courtroom missed the tattered, bloody shirt he wore, or his stumbling step as he took his place at the bar.
Gripping the wood in front of him tightly, he managed to stay on his feet, despite the fact that he was swaying from side to side crazily. On each side of him stood a guard, ready to drag the prisoner to his feet if--or rather, when--his strength gave out.
"You are accused by the state of deceiving the officials of the Republic, trafficking with the enemies of the Republic, and oppressing the citizens of the Republic; all of which constitute acts of treason against the Republic of France."
The crowd of eager spectators cheered. Now here was interesting fodder for Madame la Guillotine! Everyone in Paris knew who Citizen Chauvelin was: once, years ago, he had been one of the most powerful and feared men in all of France; every official knew he was the one man who hated the Scarlet Pimpernel with a zeal greater than his patriotism; it had even been rumored in the streets that he would place the Bourbon traitors back on the throne of France himself, if by that act he could bring about the arrest and execution of that accursed meddler. And now, to discover that he had actually been in league with the English spies all the time!--no one knew exactly how this truth had come to light, though some spoke vaguely of a letter written to him by the chief spy himself, and no one really cared to know. What did it matter how the glorious Republic exposed its enemies? The traitor would get his own at last!
It was some time before the noise in the courtroom was sufficiently abated for the Public Prosecutor to continue.
"Have you prepared a defense?" he asked blandly--for it was the right of every accused citizen to present a defense before the court before they sentenced him to death.
"A defense!" a loud, rough voice in the crowd exclaimed. "Does the traitor have a defense? He pretended to be a patriot, when he was actually an aristo--let that be the traitor's defense!"
A loud roar of assent went up at this remark. Yes, let that be his defense! Well said, citizen, well said! None other should be allowed him than the honest vengeance of the people--of citizens like he!
Chauvelin was silent, staring up at the Public Prosecutor defiantly. The man was deliberately mocking him. He knew full well that any defense he gave would be of no avail--that the crowd would turn it against him, fueling their hate. That's how it always worked, how it had been planned.
"I have no defense," he said evenly when the room was again quiet.
"When he stands exposed before the vengeance of the people, then his tongue shrivels up in his mouth, eh?" the rough voice muttered jestingly, inciting a loud, long laugh against the traitor. The Public Prosecutor rang his bell for silence.
"Then you are hereby condemned to death within twenty-four hours--" he began in his bored, uncompromising voice; but at that unfortunate moment Chauvelin lost his grip on the bar, and fell to his knees weakly.
"He can't take his medicine!" the same sans-culotte cried. "He's ashamed and embarrassed before us, citizens! Well, we have a cure for that--now, he stands before only those of us in this room as the aristo he is; let the whole of Paris see it! Let us take the aristo out for a march in the streets--a parade, before he goes back to the prison!"
A parade of shame! Yes! The whole of the crowd cheered at the idea. Let everyone see what Citizen Chauvelin has come to! Let every mother show her children what a traitor to the people looks like, and warn them against his fate!
The guards were dragging Chauvelin out of the courtroom by the arms at this point--the door was the other side of the mob. Suddenly, as they plowed their way through the ragged throng, someone seized the aristo by the arm forcefully, wrenching him away out of the guard's grip.
"Not yet, citizen-soldiers!" he exclaimed; "we haven't had our public parade yet."
The man was extremely strong, and soon made the other guard let go--he slung the traitor across his back quickly, and left the courtroom in long strides, calling to his companions:
"Come, lads!--let's show the Republic what its enemies look like!"
Who could stop him?
In the streets, the mob reigned supreme. There was nothing that could be done to stop it now--and besides, the man who had the prisoner was talking pleasantly to the guards about the whole thing on the way out of the court.
"We'll march him through the streets well, eh?" he said. "Plenty of time for him to see the scorn of the people--all night, if we have to . . . why should a man who is going to die tomorrow need to sleep tonight? And the people certainly demand to see him. We'll bring him back to the prison when the parade is over, eh?"
So there really seemed to be no harm in the march. In the hands of the tall, strong sans-culotte--his friends called him Citizen Menier, and several of the old tricotteuses seemed to know him by sight--the thin, gaunt aristo had no possibility of escape. And there were at least three others around Menier, equally patriotic and enthusiastic if not quite so strong, who were not about to let Chauvelin out of their sight.
Still, the guards were ordered to march with the party. But as they went along, with the jeers and insults of the crowd surrounding them and cheers for Menier coming from all sides, they could see that it would just be waste of time to stand guard over such enthusiastic patriots all night. Presently, the captain of the unit decided there was more important work for these servants of the Republic to do, and ordered them to leave the mob and its prisoner be for the moment.
For the prisoner himself, this was a near unendurable trial. His chest pained him so that it was difficult to breathe, and his legs seemed so heavy--several times, he fell to the ground, and his self-proclaimed torturers dragged him to his feet again with many a coarse jest. But the physical pain of it was only part of his concern.
He had had a glimpse of Citizen Menier when he was seized--only a brief glance at his face, but to a man who hates so intensely, one face can often superimpose itself upon all others. The face of the sans-culotte had in his mind possessed a pair of blue eyes, that had looked down at him with a curious expression; for the briefest of seconds he had imagined that he heard an inane laugh in his ears, that irritated and strained his nerves like nothing else.
But surely it was the fever.
He didn't hear the insults. He had stopped worrying about what people thought of him long ago. He could only think of one thing as he stumbled along in the midst of the four ragged citizens--who jeered and joked with the best of the mob, but strangely, didn't strike at him as he had expected, instead serving to shelter him from the blows and the violence of the crowd--where was Lucy? He knew nothing of her--he only prayed all the prayers he could remember from before he had renounced God that she was safe, and hoped that some of them reached the One he had denied.
He stumbled to the ground, helpless; he couldn't go on any further. Vaguely, he felt himself being lifted to the sound of laughing and cheering; then he heard a strange voice in his ear, no louder than a whisper. This time he knew he was hearing things, because he imagined he heard the inflections of Lucy's voice in the whispered words:
Then he lost consciousness altogether.
Even the most vengeful mob gets tired after so many hours. The "parade" had begun at sunset, when the clock was striking the hour of eight; it now struck the half past ten, and no one remained to follow the procession in the street. All had gone home or to the nearest tavern, to find better entertainment for the evening.
And the parade turned into a dark side alley.
Immediately two of the four took up positions at either end, watching the connecting streets silently. Menier lowered the traitor to the ground softly, gently, as his friend slipped into a side door.
A moment later he returned with a dark bundle of rags. Menier was removing the aristo's coat almost gingerly, trying not to disturb the man's inflamed chest wound.
"Citizen, can you hear me?" he whispered, his voice no longer rough but refined. "Speak, if you can hear what I say."
The man groaned softly, murmuring something. Menier leaned in to hear better.
"What did you say?"
Chauvelin opened his eyes slowly, with an impatient sigh. "I said, ‘Damn you, Blakeney,'" he whispered weakly.
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, in the guise of a ragged sans-culotte, chuckled quietly--though it was forced. "He hears you, Percy."
Disguised as Citizen Menier, Sir Percy grinned. "So I see." He took a ragged old coat from Andrew and began helping Chauvelin into it. "This will cover your chest," he whispered. "We have papers for you that give your name as Jacques Rebalin, citizen. Jacques Rebalin. That is your name--that's what you tell the guard at the city gate. And if you can manage to sound a bit drunk, it will help."
"I'm not incompetent," Chauvelin muttered.
"No, you're not--but you are quite ill, so don't say anything else until we get to the gate. Say as little as possible, and keep your face in shadow, as you value your life."
Chauvelin nodded slowly. "I understand . . ."
And he lost consciousness again.