Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

After the Deluge

The news of Robespierre's fall was received with acclamations by all who trembled beneath his merciless sway. Hastily men left Paris to convey the deliverance to the country districts, and everywhere these were welcomed by a very genuine joy. In the prisons hope fluttered, despite the knowledge that the accusers of Robespierre were themselves of as harsh and cruel a nature. An old woman in the street strove to communicate with one illustrious person behind bars—Josephine Beauharnais, afterwards the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Lifting up her dress, she repeated the action till the prisoner called out, "Robe." Then she placed a stone in her lap and repeated the former signal. "Pierre," cried Josephine, beginning to understand the meaning of these gestures. The old woman joined the dress and stone, and made a well-known sign to indicate the manipulation of the guillotine. When she was satisfied that her pantomime was successful she began to dance with joy. What mattered it that Fouquier-Tinville still survived, and Billaud of the gloomy countenance and yellow wig, and Collot d'Herbois, who had revenged himself by wholesale massacre on the people of Lyons because they had once given him an ungracious reception at the theatre where he acted?

Couthon, whose little silver hammer had tapped busily at the doors of houses, dooming them to destruction, had met the fate due to his relentless measures. Saint-Just, the soldier famed for beauty as for boldness, could no longer rule in the State and in the army. Lebas who had married a daughter of Duplay the carpenter, was rightly punished for friendship to the late dictator. Soon the house of Duplay in the Rue St Honore should discover how accursed were all those busts and pictures of their lodger. Charlotte Robespierre denounced them, and scrupled not to pour out her accusation against both brothers. She saved her own head, but had to live under a false name and withal most miserably.

It was Lecointre of Versailles, a bold Thermidorian, who brought charges against the rivals of Robespierre, averring that they had acted through ambition rather than through noble motives and that they were likely to continue the system of the Terror. He read out no less than twenty-six articles, embodying his accusations, on the 12th of Fructidor (August 29th). Billaud rose in his own defence with all the eloquence that was his by nature and profession. "If the crimes with which Lecointre reproaches us," he said, "were as real as they are absurd and chimerical, there is not one of us, doubtless, here present, whose blood ought not to stain the scaffold. What do they want, these men who call us the successors of Robespierre? I will tell you, citizens. They want to sacrifice—I repeat it, to sacrifice liberty on the tomb of the tyrant."

He defied Lecointre to prove his guilt, though he had been an ally of Robespierre, St Just, and Couthon, and nothing righteous had urged him to bring about their downfall. He posted up in Paris an apology for his principles and conduct, and the citizens hooted him in the streets and burnt him in effigy, calling out, "Down with Billaud! Down with the drinkers of blood!" He had no sworn followers like Marat and Robespierre. He had to stand alone against the judges of his wickedness.

The days dragged slowly before the actual trial of Billaud and his accomplices. He was at large still in Paris, where there was general hatred of his conduct. He went home regularly to the young wife in whose eyes he was perfection. Then in an unguarded moment he used words which the Thermidorians chose to regard as a challenge. "The lion is not dead when he slumbers, and when he awakes he exterminates all his enemies."

The Jacobin party had been crushed and their sessions forbidden. There was such a general desire for order and law that military force seemed preferable to the ruthless injustice of the guillotine. Yet the mob rose in the 12th Germinal, crowds of hungry men and women flooding the streets of Paris and crying lustily, "Bread, Bread and the Constitution of '93." These were enraged by the return of the wealthier to luxuries which had been impossible under the Terror, for only two ounces of bread could be allowed each day to the dwellers in Saint Antoine, after the rich harvests failed which had been reaped from "suspects" and prisoners. The rioters made their way into the Tuileries and disturbed the Convention, whom they blamed for their new poverty. But Pichegru, the conqueror of Holland, put an end to the rising with a few cannon-shots and the terror of his name. Billaud's threat had proved empty. "The lion" had risen and been cowed into submission.

Billaud had been arrested and sentenced to transportation in March 1795. Pichegru was able now to secure his transfer to the fortress of Ham, judging it dangerous for him to remain in Paris. A second rising known as the First Prairial (May 20th, 1795) took place while he awaited banishment. The Jacobins combined with the starving people of Saint Antoine and made a fresh demand for "Bread and the Constitution of '93." With pikes and standards and Papers of Grievances, they marched into the Hall of the Convention, driving the deputies to the upper benches by their violent threats. Feraud who besought them to respect the President, was dragged to the ground and out into the corridor. His head was severed and placed on a pike, held aloft as an awful warning to the other deputies.

Muskets exploded and drums beat furiously, while the women screamed their grievances and the men shouted for decrees that would cheapen bread. In the afternoon only some sixty members of the Convention were left to descend among the invaders and satisfy their wants by passing any measure that seemed necessary. An armed force burst in and expelled the rioters by sudden action. Windows were flung open that escape might be easier. The decrees of the Sixty were declared null, and the Sixty put on trial and sentenced to the guillotine. Those members who were left did not incline to mercy. They ordered Billaud and Collot to be tried for life, but found that they had been already shipped from France to their place of exile.

Billaud, indeed, had reached the height of unpopularity, and public opinion thought banishment too light a sentence. A print was issued showing a man with scales in his hands, the one scale weighing down heavily while the other rose towards the skies. The first represented the crimes committed by the culprit, while the second was a comment on his expiation. Great caution had to be used in conveying the prisoner through the provinces, where his name was hated in consequence of the wholesale massacres he had sanctioned. The captain of the ship on which he sailed expected that an attack might be made by another vessel. He had instructions to throw his charge over-board if there were any trouble!

Billaud lived on, however, through the torment of heat and fever to which his place of banishment exposed him. Sinnamary had been chosen probably because it was thought impossible for him to survive the climate of that fever-stricken desert.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


His wife, Angelica, would have followed him but had neither health nor money. She contracted another marriage for the sake of wealth, her second husband promising to go to the succour of the first.

Billaud would not take advantage of this offer and remained in his desert, persisting in the belief that the National Convention had wrongfully condemned him. At Sinnamary, he had a hut close to the fort which was supposed to guard him. He was not allowed to read, or to work with his hands. He fell ill, despite the hard endurance of his nature. The military hospital found "the lion" a meek patient, though the Sisters of Saint Paul were disposed to fear him since he had attacked their religion. When he was cured he lived for some time on the charity of the colonists. The other prisoners brought to Sinnamary refused to associate with him. He spent his days in teaching parrots, till the occupation of a farm was allowed to him. He refused to take advantage of pardon granted by the Consular government, and still thought himself an injured patriot.

Later, the member of the Committee of Public Safety who had passed a decree to abolish slavery, became himself a slave-dealer. He had, as second wife, a negress of the name of Brigitte. She was many years younger than her exile husband, yet could sympathize with his stories of oppression. She consoled him, and gave him courage. When he died at San Domingo, she found that he had left her all his property, including the large arm chair, "which came from France." The French estates had been forfeited, and the estate in Guiana was not great, but Brigitte lived comfortably for almost sixty years after the death of Billaud-Varenne in 1819.

Collot d'Herbois had suffered the same sentence as Billaud but met an easier fate, if endurance be reckoned by time alone. He was sent to Guiana, where the negroes loathed him because he had tried to destroy the old religion. They left him in the middle of a road, weak from illness and unable to walk, and would not carry him further. His face was turned toward the blazing sun, and he suffered agonies in mind and body. In vain he appealed to God and to the Holy Virgin. No man came to succour him, and he was not even buried properly. The negroes left their work half-done in order to dance at some fete which they deemed more important than his burial.

Fouquier-Tinville had also found himself quite friendless. "I do not know anyone who will undertake my defence," he wrote to his wife, and for the first time realized, perhaps, the enormity of his guilt toward those helpless victims brought before him. He had laboured incessantly at the work of prosecution, and rejoiced in the numbers despatched so swiftly to the guillotine. Other pleasures he had none, for he seemed to have no time for aught but public business. He was very poor when his own trial came, and lamented that he left a wife to poverty. To his children there would be the legacy of a name that had been cursed by thousands. He was tormented by this thought, while he declared that he would die for "having served my country with too much zeal and activity." With fifteen of his jurors or "sheep," as they were termed, the Public Accuser paid the last penalty. The people would have his head held up before them, and greeted it with savage satisfaction.

Pache was one of those who lived to see peace after the stormy scenes of Revolution. He had borne his part in them with a great appearance of placid benevolence and wisdom. He had lost favour and been imprisoned. Under the rule of mercy succeeding the Terror he was released, and it was near the close of 1795 when the former Minister of War was smuggled out of Paris in a cart filled with straw and disguised as a horse-dealer in rustic clothing. He reached a retired village among the Ardennes Mountains, longing for retirement, and was satisfied to resume once again the uneventful course of life that had been interrupted by his call to Paris.

Pache was joined by his mother, a very old woman with vague ideas of all the changes that had happened. He wandered about the fields in a long grey coat, and began to garden steadily. His opinion as a botanist was respected, and he even wrote on agriculture. He forgot the dark deeds which had been wrought under his ministry, and the strange documents which his pen had signed. Reflections on the fate of Manon, wife of Roland, failed to disturb him, and he smiled when he heard distorted stories of the Revolution, for none knew how well he could have related them.

He passed for a harmless old recluse in the quiet village, where he played with grandchildren and passed rainy days in recalling the times of his long-past youth. He was lonely and deserted, though Bonaparte visited him in his retirement; and before he died in 1821 he wished to go back to the religion of old France. The name of Pache did not please his son, since it had been borne by a "Septembrist." "Baron Jean" would not acknowledge a revolutionary when he was in favour with a King, brother to the sixteenth Louis.

So Pache died, forsaken like the rest of the wielders of that awful power known as the Terror. The superstitious read a symbolic meaning into the red light that stained his coffin before burial. He could not get away from the blood he had once spilt, however far he wandered from the city of dread memories. The sunset recalled the events of the century preceding, and the omen was held in sinister remembrance by generations of good peasant folk.