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Duchenier; or, the Revolt of La Vendée

By John Mason Neale

London: SPCK, 1905.
First published London: J. Masters, 1848.

Chapter XXI.

TEXIER was now thoroughly puzzled how to act. On the one hand, he was exceedingly anxious to be with the Catholic army, of the successes and reverses of which intelligence reached Paris daily: he felt, also, that it might be months before Madame Duchenier was brought to her trial; and, even supposing that event took place much sooner, he could not flatter himself that he should be able to be of any service to her either during its course or after its termination. On the other hand, he was manifestly not only exposing himself to danger, for which he cared as little as any man; but he might also be the means of bringing his cousin to the guillotine. All these reasons urged him to quit Paris; but still he lingered on. The violence of the Jacobins was now so extreme that most persons thought the Reign of Terror must be approaching its end. Already the revolutionary party was beginning to separate itself into two factions: the one to which Danton belonged still retained the name of the Mountain, and professed some kind of moderation in its proceedings, and, above all things, acknowledged a Supreme Being; the other, usually denominated, from its principal leader, the Hebertists, was for proceeding to still greater lengths, and publicly professed no worship but that of reason. At this time the balance of power seemed to turn in favour of the latter. Danton, through some momentary impulse, married, and retired into the country, where it seemed as if his thirst for blood had altogether and for ever forsaken him.

Texier, in the hopes of some speedy change, continued therefore in the lodgings where we left him; and his attention became soon very strongly excited by the inmate whom the gingerbread-factor had thought proper to receive into his house. Not only did her thoughts seem constantly occupied by the one subject of the misery of the revolution, and the guilt of its leaders, especially of Marat, but her conversation became wilder and more startling, and she not obscurely hinted that she considered herself raised up by Providence to work out a deliverance for France. It was in vain that Corday, who had as little enthusiasm in his composition as it was possible for a Frenchman to possess, ridiculed the idea, and gave several broad intimations that he was anxious to be freed from the presence of his visitor; it was in vain, also, that Texier urged, that whatever might be the crimes of the then leaders of the revolution, a private individual, except under very extraordinary circumstances, could not be authorised in avenging them. Charlotte Corday had evidently made up her mind to the performance of some deed that should effect the deliverance which she believed herself inspired to accomplish. Frequently she would be absent in the various courts of trial for hours and hours together; and come back in so excited a state as hardly to be in the possession of her senses. At length one morning, merely saying that she was about to go down to the Place de la Revolution, she asked Texier if he would accompany her.

"I tell you what, Charlotte," said Corday, "no man can ever say but that I am very glad to entertain every mother's son of my relations as long as they like to stay with me, although Heaven knows I have enough of them; and, if you behaved yourself like a reasonable woman, I would sooner bite out my tongue than say what I am going to say. But the truth must out. I really wish you would quietly go back to your home. Here are you talking of being called to do, I know not what, for the country, as if anything you could do for it would bring about half so much good as if you stayed decently at home and let your mother teach you to make puddings and pies. Come now, there's a good girl, do be persuaded; I or Texier here will go back with you, so that you may have nothing to fear; and, upon my honour, if you go on talking as you have been doing lately, you will bring us all to the guillotine in less time than it takes me to heat my oven."

"I am very much obliged to you, cousin Corday," replied his visitor, "for having taken me in so long; and I am quite ready to go home to-morrow if you wish it."

"Well," said the tradesman, "that's speaking like a sensible person; and I am sure, at any other time, you may come and stay with us a year, and welcome."

"May I?" said Charlotte Corday, with a peculiar expression of countenance.

"May you!" repeated her cousin, "you know you may, Charlotte; and I hope you will. There, now; I must really go down-stairs, or my gingerbread will not be worth an old song. Go out now, and see what you want to see for the last time; and then try to put all these things out of your head.--Cousin Texier, you will walk down with her, will you not?"

"With great pleasure," said Texier, and the two sallied forth together.

The thirst for human blood, which had three months before seemed on the decline in Paris, was now again at its full height; and as the two passed along westward, the various streets were either deserted or were full of persons hurrying forward in the same direction.

"I wonder, cousin," said Texier, as, at his companion's request, they turned down towards the river, intending to walk along its bank--"I wonder that you can find so much in all these scenes to interest you. I have been long enough in Paris to get somewhat used to them; and when I was as much a stranger to it as you are, it used to make my blood run cold only to pass by one of their tribunals."

"Who told you, cousin Pierre," said Charlotte Corday, turning round sharply, and almost fiercely upon him,--"who told you that it does not make my blood run cold too?"

"Why," said Texier, smiling, though he by no means liked his companion's tone, "I should think if the thing was so excessively dreadful to you, you would 'not so often go to see it."

"You think so, do you?" she replied, and then walked on in silence for nearly five minutes. At the end of that time she slackened her pace, and said more gently, "May I trust you with a secret, cousin Texier, on which much more than my life depends?"

"Well," said Texier, hesitating, "that depends on what sort of secret it is. If what you have to tell me would make me know of any evil you design to do before it is done, I had much rather not hear it."

"Evil!" cried Charlotte Corday; "but what, supposing it were a good thing that I designed to do?"

"Your ideas of good might differ from mine," answered Texier, briefly.

"Very well," said Charlotte, "I will keep my own counsel; only now that we are getting near the place, I advise you, as you value your life, not to be seen in my company. Good-bye, and GOD bless you; I do not think that we shall meet any more in this world." And she stood still, and stretched out her hand to him.

"Charlotte, this must not be," he replied firmly, but kindly. "You have some desperate enterprise in your head, which, if you succeed in, will cost you your life; and which you have no right to attempt. I will not allow you to go further in it; I should be myself as guilty of your blood if I did."

"And how are you to hinder me?" asked his cousin very composedly. "If you try main force, Pierre, you will bring certain ruin on both of us; for I shall denounce you for what I know you have done, and myself for what I intend to do."

Texier was puzzled how to act. His companion had worked herself up to such a pitch that there could be no doubt she would act as she threatened; and, truth to say, the mind of the Vendean peasant had caught some small portion of the enthusiasm of his cousin.

"Well," he said at length, "you shall tell me this secret of yours; and I will give you my advice on the matter."

"My secret is very easily told. Marat will be this morning at the tribunal. I have a dagger about me. I hope to be able to get near him; and you may guess the rest."

Texier made a very long pause. "If ever there was a man," said he at length, "who deserved to die as a murderer, Marat is he; but I very much doubt, Charlotte, whether anything can justify your thus taking his life, even if it be possible, and throwing away your own, which you are pretty sure to do."

"I have not the slightest doubt," returned Charlotte Corday, speaking gravely and slowly. "When the laws are in force, they can punish a murderer; when there are no laws at all, surely any one who has the power of avenging so much innocent blood, and of hindering the shedding of any more, not only has a right to do so, but in doing so does a great and innocent deed."

"I will not argue with you, Charlotte," said Texier; "but I will never believe that murder--for it is murder which you are intending to commit--can be right; and not being right, never can come to good. As to preventing him shedding more blood, leave that to GOD; He can order the matter without your committing sin."

"I know He can," returned his companion. "But what if he calls me to the work: would not that make it a holy deed?"

"Ah!" answered Texier. "But the question is, what reason have you for thinking that you are called to do it?"

"Even this," said Charlotte Corday, "that I am willing to lay down my life to accomplish it. Could anything else, except GOD'S own call, give me courage to do that."

"Charlotte, Charlotte!" said Texier, "you are deceiving yourself. If that were a good argument, then every heretic that was ever burnt was a martyr. Many things besides a call from GOD may make a man willing to throw away his life. I wish you would listen to me," he continued more earnestly; "I wish you would be persuaded at least to put off your design till you have consulted some priest. Have you ever done so?"

''No," returned his cousin. "There was no need, in the first place, for I could not doubt that I had a call; and in the second, there is not a priest within twenty miles of us who has not taken the constitutional oath."

"Do it not, then, Charlotte. It is not of this man that I am thinking, it is of yourself and of your own soul. This will probably be the very last act of your life; as it is good or bad, so will your state be in the next. It is surely worth while to pause, when the consequences may be so fearful."

"I have promised," said Charlotte Corday, "to leave Paris to-morrow; so I must act now or never. But even if I had not, I tell you plainly it could make no difference, and you can make no difference, for this is the day, and I am the person."

"If you will be obstinate," said Texier, "I at all events will go with you to the tribunal; the rest of your path you must tread alone."

"You had better not," replied his cousin; "any person seen with me will be noted. You are much more rash than I am. I am laying down my life for a glorious end; you are throwing yours away for nothing."

"I shall not expose myself," replied Texier, "to unnecessary danger; but I shall certainly go with you."

They were now almost at the Luxembourg, where the tribunal was then sitting. Arriving at the entrance they found it thronged as usual with the lowest class of the population of Paris, and half-an-hour passed before they were able to make their way into the hall itself. The general appearance of that hall we have already described: one of the judges seated at the upper table was, as Charlotte Corday had said, Marat himself. For some time she appeared contented with remaining near the door, occasionally interchanging a word with Texier, and once or twice asking a question of some bystander. Meanwhile the trials proceeded as usual; and the so-called jury, with their accustomed rapidity, passed over their prisoners to the guard-house, which they were only to leave for the guillotine.

Those who stood towards the upper end of the hall, and more especially the officials of the tribunal, observed, and more than once remarked it to each other, that a strange change had come over the usual behaviour of Marat. On ordinary occasions of business he was stern, gloomy, and reserved; never opening his mouth except to condemn, or to induce others to do so; and apparently taking very little interest in any part of a. trial except its conclusion. Now his demeanour was quite altered. He was not only cheerful and almost affable to those who stood around him, but he had once or twice put in a word in favour of a prisoner, and had actually attempted two or three jokes. Those acquainted with him thought that he must have been drinking; but Marat had not been drinking. The jurors once or twice communicated these remarks to each other, and could come to no satisfactory explanation of the difficulty.

Texier had paid no particular attention to the trials which had been going on since he entered the hall; but at last a prisoner was called whose name caused him to press forward with such violence, as to excite the attention of the bystanders. He could hardly believe his ears when one of the assessors said, "The next prisoner on the list is Marie Duchenier:" that one whom he had sought so long and so vainly to see; of whose fate, beyond the simple fact of her confinement, he had been able to learn nothing; and a wish for whose welfare had alone detained him in Paris;--that she should be brought forward at the precise moment when he accidentally and against his own wish was in the hall, seemed so remarkable a conjunction of circumstances, that even against his better judgment he was half inclined to believe in the mission of Charlotte Corday. She too had heard the name; and pressing forward with as much eagerness, though with less violence, than Texier, she soon stood in the very foremost rank of the spectators. The hall was so full that the latter had considerably exceeded the bounds prescribed to them, and were now pressing up between the table of the judges and the side walls of the hall. Marat, who had business which would require him to leave the tribunal early, was not president; and was now (probably weary of keeping one position) standing behind Couthon, who sat at the lowest end of the table on its right-hand side as you advanced towards it. To the right side of the hall Charlotte Corday, almost by imperceptible degrees, worked her way; and when Madame Duchenier was brought forward to the dock was probably not more than six or seven yards from Marat. Texier watched her proceedings with the most intense interest: every time that she moved her arm he thought that the fatal blow was about to come; every time that she either advanced herself or was pushed forward by those behind towards her intended victim, he could hardly restrain or conceal his emotion. She, in the meantime, was perfectly, to all outward appearance, composed and calm; and the only thing that was afterwards observed by the bystanders was that she once or twice moved her right arm backwards and forwards within her cloak as if to try whether it impeded its free action; and then proceeded to untie the strings which fastened it round her neck with her left hand, still, however, retaining them in it. But, before the examination commenced, Marat retired; and Charlotte Corday shortly after found means to leave the hall. The usual questions were now proceeding. "Your name?" asked the president, "Marie Duchenier." "Your maiden name?" "De Beaurepaire." "Your age?" " Twenty."

One of the assessors now spoke. "Are you the wife of that Duchenier, who was a leader of the brigands down there in Poitou, and who is supposed to have made his escape from Nantes?"

"Is he supposed to have made his escape?" cried Marie. "Thank GOD for that!"

"I don't think," said the first speaker, somewhat nettled at having informed his prisoner of a fact which had till then been kept from her; "I don't think you will have much to thank GOD for by the time we have done with you. However, that is as much as to say that you are his wife."

"And I think," said Couthon, in a very mild and beneficent voice," that you are a daughter of that miserable reptile De Beaurepaire, who expiated his crimes the other day on the scaffold?"

"I am," replied Marie, who had been informed by her gaoler of her father's death.

"Were you not," inquired another of the judges, "taken prisoner at Cerisay by General Santerre, and carried by him to La Flêche, and then contrived to make your escape by some trick?"

"I was not taken prisoner by General Santerre," returned Marie; "but it is very true that he took me away from the officer who did take me prisoner there."

"Who was that?" interrupted Couthon.

"M. de Cailly," replied Marie. "General Santerre took me from him at Mirebeau, and carried me on to La Flêche, where I was rescued from him by my father and my husband."

"And then you returned to the brigands?" asked Couthon.

"Where else could I have returned," asked Marie, "than where my father and my husband chose to conduct me? Certainly I did go to the Vendean army."

"How long did you remain there?" inquired another judge.

"About six weeks," replied Madame Duchenier.

"And what made you leave it then?" said Couthon.

Marie hesitated.

"Come, madame," said Couthon, "the whole truth, if you please. What made you leave the brigands then?"

"It was thought," replied Marie, "that I should be safer at a distance from the army."

"And how came you to be taken at last?" said one of the assessors.

"Come, come, citizen," cried Couthon, "I think you are losing time. I can't stay here all day. To my mind, there's no doubt about the case."

"Examine her yourself, then," returned the assessor; "I am sure I don't want to ask questions."

"Is it not a fact, then," asked Couthon, "that during your residence in Paris you have maintained a correspondence with several disaffected persons, and more especially with some chiefs of the brigands?"

"I do not wish to deny it," said Marie.

"The case is clear, then," said Couthon. "How say you, gentlemen of the jury, is the prisoner guilty or--

At this moment a cry rose in the hall, "Marat is slain! A woman has murdered him!"

To describe the confusion that ensued is impossible. The jurors seemed more intent on providing for their own safety than on anything else; the judges and assessors seemed to imagine that there was some organised conspiracy to destroy them all. Those at the lower end of the hall did not at first understand what had taken place; as soon as they did, the cry arose among them to secure the murderer. It was done at once; and Texier, finding that his cousin was in the hands of the officers, and knowing that to render any assistance was beyond his power, resolved to hurry back to Corday's house, to give him notice of what had been done, that he might take measures for his own safety.

Issuing as quietly as he could from the hall, and hurrying along the least-frequented streets, he arrived at the Barrière du Trône long before the least intimation of the great event had been received in that part of Paris. The worthy tradesman was thrown into a state of the greatest terror. He had nothing but visions of the officers of justice, of the revolutionary tribunals, and of the guillotine; and he conjured Texier, as a friend, to advise him what course to follow.

"If I were you, I would stay quietly just where I am; if you attempt to fly, you will be ruined. They can prove nothing against you; and your great safeguard will be that you really had not the slightest idea what this unfortunate girl designed to do."

"But my wife and children," said Corday; "if anything should happen to them?"

"I do not mean to say," replied Texier, "there is no danger in what I recommend; but there is less so than in any other way. In a couple of hours the officers will be here; and I do not think you could possibly escape them if you fled this moment."

"Well," said the tradesman, "if it must be so, it must; and perhaps you are right. But you are not going to stay here?"

"No," replied Texier; "but on a very different account. If they took me, they would soon find out who I am; and it would go all the harder with you."

"But if they take you!" said Corday.

"If they do," replied Texier, "they will make nothing out of me that could implicate you,--that you may rely upon."

And thus the two friends parted: Corday to prepare himself as best he might for the visit which he doubted not the officers of justice would pay to his house; and Texier to try if he could yet find some safe asylum in Paris, which he was determined not to leave till the fate of Marie Duchenier were finally sealed.

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