"YOU beat them back, though?" said Robespierre to Henriot, on the steps of the Hall of Convention.
"Ay; but I lost two or three," said the general. "It was a most determined insurrection."
"Nobody of importance?"
"Nobody, except the wife of Duchenier, the brigand;" "Oh, we shall soon get hold of her again, as soon as we have rubbed through this job. And let me tell you, general, it is a pretty ugly job to rub through. Collot d'Herbois must be disposed of, or he will be our ruin; and Tallien, too------"
"Ay, ay," said Henriot, grimly, "he called me a parricide: that's enough. Let's go in."
A month before it would have been more than enough.
And where, when the Convention assembled for its afternoon session, were Charles Duchenier and Marie? In the little drawing-room of Corday's shop, which the good-natured tradesman had declared should be exclusively theirs during that evening. Some great change was evidently at hand; none could say what it would be; in the gingerbread-factor's house they were likely to be as safe as in any other place. There, then, they sat alone--how supremely, how unexpectedly happy, and yet interchanging how many sorrowful regrets, the reader can better imagine than we can describe. During those few hours of happiness the crisis of the fate of France occurred.
"That's a good job," said Dreux to Texier, when they had solaced themselves with a bottle of Burgundy in Corday's kitchen. "But I don't mean to sit here, I can tell you. There is something going on at the hall that it will be worth anybody's while to see."
"What?" said Corday. "Robespierre is too strong------"
"Is he?" cried Dreux, with a short, odd laugh.--"Texier, will you come and see?"
"Willingly," said Texier. "To tell you the truth, I think we shall be better away from this house; so many of us may get M. Corday into trouble."
The two friends accordingly hastened down to the hall; and as they were going up into the gallery they heard within the wildest outcry. Words can give but a very faint impression of the scene they beheld on entering.
The left of the President's rostrum had been, at the opening of the session, nearly empty; but six or seven of Robespierre's most intimate friends clustered round him and were prepared to support him to the end. Saint Just, one of these, had possession of the tribunal, and was endeavouring to address the assembly.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I rise, in the name of the Committee of Public Safety, to offer the report which we were commissioned to prepare. It will be in the recollection of the assembly that a motion was made yesterday evening that the able discourse which M. Robespierre had just delivered should be printed. The motion was met by an amendment that it should be referred to the two committees; and, after a long debate, the amendment was put from the chair and carried. In obedience to the instructions which I have received from the Committee of Public Safety, I am now to present their report. That report, gentlemen, may or may not be acceptable to the assembly; but it is my duty to make it nevertheless. Were the tribunal which I occupy the Tarpeian Rock itself, I would still persist in performing the duty of a patriot in tearing aside the veil------"
"Let me do that," cried Tallien, springing upon the tribunal. "The republic is sacrificed to private persbns, who arrogate to themselves the authority of Convention. Leave the tribunal, monsieur; let justice for once be heard."
There were loud cries of "Bravo! bravo!" "Tallien has the tribunal!" Saint Just, feeling that all depended on that moment, redoubled his efforts. "M. le Président," he shouted, "is a public officer, in making his report,"--the uproar increased,--"is a public officer to be thus insulted, outraged, threatened? M. le Président------"but there came howls, hisses, and cries of "Tallien!"
"Down from the tribunal, monsieur!" cried Billaud Varennes, crossing the hall to Tallien's assistance,--"Gentlemen, there is no longer time to dally; the knife is at our very throats; a traitor and a parricide commands the troops of Paris--any moment may see them advancing against us; and Robespierre, the second Catiline,--Robespierre, who has been inflaming jealousies and fomenting dissensions from the time he entered Convention till now,--Robespierre, who cheered on his mob to the murder of the Girondists,--Robespierre, who overthrew Hubert,--Robespierre, who plotted against Danton,--Robespierre, who dares not fire a pistol himself, but has poured forth blood in pailfuls by the hands of others,--Robespierre is marking us out for the fate which we ought long ago to have allotted to him."
Robespierre sprang to the tribunal. The very action seemed to cow his opponents. Saint Just stood by his side; and he was beginning,--"M. le President, I demand the Convention's summary and most just vengeance on the man that has dared------"
Dreux, leaning over the rails of the gallery, and perfectly experienced from his theatrical practice in the art of making his voice heard above a popular murmur, at this moment shouted out--"A bas le tyran!" And a hundred voices, in wild confusion, took up the shout, and poured in from every quarter, "A bas le tyran!"
Robespierre evinced more courage than his friends had believed him to possess. There was one large party among which--he had noted it carefully--not a voice had been raised against him; could he but bring its suffrages to his own side, he might still weather the storm: while Barrère and the Plain were undecided, he could not despair.
By a great effort he again made himself heard. "Shall a single man," he cried, "be allowed to attack me--me, on whose breath his very life hung------"
"It is not a single man," cried Tallien, coming forward and drawing his dagger. "I move the arrest of M. Robespierre and General Henriot. And if the terror which it has hitherto suffered from the machinations of the tyrants restrain the Convention from voting with me, I vow to heaven, Robespierre, I will myself plunge this dagger into your heart!"
"Bravo, Tallien!" burst from all parts of the assembly. "A bas Robespierre! a bas Henriot! Robespierre a la guillotine!"
The tyrant began to tremble; and, at that critical moment, he saw Barrère advancing to the tribunal. "I claim my right of reply," he cried. "M. le President, am I not in possession of the tribunal?"
Barrère began--"M. le President, though I am not, perhaps, strictly speaking, in order, may I hope that you will allow me------"
"Barrère! Barrère!" shouted twenty or thirty voices. "M. le Président," shouted Robespierre, "I stand on my rights."
The President rose; and the confusion was hushed in a moment. "M. Barrère has the tribunal," he said.
"Now, Texier," whispered Dreux, "comes the crisis. Barrère will take all with him."
And so he did, by his first sentence. The assembly cared little for his arguments, and less for his eloquence; its members only wanted his determination; what Barrère did must be safe.
"It is my painful duty," he began, "to second the motion just made by M. Tallien."--In a moment yells of execration poured in from every quarter on Robespierre; fists were clenched and shaken at him; every term of reproach and ignominy that the language could supply was heaped on him; the outcry waxed more and more dreadful; men spat at the tyrant in token of their abhorrence; there were howls, roars, thumping, stamping, shrieks articulate and inarticulate. The President's bell rang incessantly.
Robespierre was like a wild beast at bay. He stood up in his place--he vociferated, he yelled, he roared; and every now and then the tremendous power of his voice, which his contemporaries likened for sound, as well as fatality, to the screech-owl's note, made itself audible above the uproar. He turned round and round to all quarters; wherever the most violent epithets reached him, he endeavoured to throw them back; and a few fragments of his sentences sometimes reached the President--"Your throat, M. le President--""A bas Néron!" shouted Collot d'Herbois.--"Yours, Collot d'Herbois, all your throats have been at my mercy, and I spared them; fool, fool, not to have gashed them when I might!--"Then another burst of inarticulate speeches.--"Gentlemen of the Plain, lovers of your country--kind M. Barrère--good M. Lupin--I appeal to you!--"The Plain raised the cry of "Robespierre à la guillotine!" and the tyrant felt that he had no hope from them. Another moment of less confusion.--"Gentlemen of the Girondist party--let me appeal--""Out, villain!--out, parricide!" And his enemies grinned and showed their teeth at him, like dogs about to tear a fox in pieces.
It was then hopeless. Robespierre, in the agony of his frenzy, tore his hair, struck the desk before him with the force of a maniac, danced on the ground, blasphemed, cursed GOD, cursed himself, cursed the Convention; the sweat rolled in large drops from his face; flakes of foam fell from his mouth, as from that of a hunted beast; and still the din, against which he was contending, grew wilder and wilder; and all hope of mercy, here or hereafter, departed from the merciless.
At the very moment when the uproar was at its loudest, there burst, by an almost supernatural effort of strength, so tremendous a shriek from the throat of Robespierre, that for weeks and months afterwards it rang in the ears of those who heard it. "President of assassins, for the last time I demand a hearing!"
The exertion was too much for him; his chest laboured, his sides heaved, he sank back on the bench.
"The blood of Danton! the blood of Danton! it is choking him!" roared the Mountain.
The terrible scene was soon over. Legendre mounted the tribunal. "I move," said he, "the arrest of Robespierre, Couthon, Saint Just, Dumas, and Henriot."
"Add me too," cried Lebas.
"And Lebas," said Legendre.
The motion was carried by acclamation. "Let us get down," said Texier, "and tell the good news at once."
"So be it," cried Dreux. And they made their way through the spectators, descended the gallery stairs, and were going out, when a whisper passed through the crowd, "No one will arrest Robespierre."
Dreux pushed his way in, bidding Texier hasten to the Barriere du Trone.
"Fleuriot," said the President, "I again desire you to take M. Robespierre into custody."
"Monsieur," said that officer, "I must beg leave very respectfully to decline."
"You shall be punished, sirrah, for this," said the President.--"Vargas, you must do it."
"I cannot, monsieur."
The members of the Convention were panic-struck. If their orders were not executed in their own house, what hope that they would be obeyed in Paris?
Dreux quietly walked up to Robespierre, and seized him by the collar. "Where am I to take him, M. le Président?"
The President, though of course not knowing who the new officer was, merely said, "To the Rue de Sevres." And the officials, ashamed of their own cowardice, accompanied Dreux and his prisoner.