Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Reign of Terror

One belief was in the minds of the nine men composing the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety in the dread year of 1793—Triumph of the Republic, Destruction of the Enemies of the Republic. Their creed was simpler still when Maxmilien Robespierre joined the body, for his speeches had long impressed the audience of the Jacobin Club with one idea—treason was the cause of all the misfortunes of the patriots, and the only remedy for them—the guillotine.

Billaud-Varenne was the man to work out this idea with all the coolness that was necessary for a thorough-going reformer. Wild fury was abroad in Paris and sufferings too terrible to be related here, yet he went about his ruthless task methodically, and dragged to the scaffold friends and foes alike. Danton had been the first to bring into prominence the obscure young advocate whose time was mainly occupied in writing plays. Danton was sacrificed by his protégé, remembering well his opinion—"Billaud has a dagger under his tongue." The Girondins owed their tragic fate to him, who was largely concerned with the downfall of the royal hostage. His name signed every death-warrant, and Fouquier-Tinville, business-like and oddly ignorant of the dread he had inspired, was encouraged by the pitiless nature of a man approving every wholesale massacre.

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


He had a sinister aspect with hard eyes and sarcastic lips; he increased the fear of his victims by a yellow wig which covered sleek black hair. No other man could convey so well the impression of inhumanity, though money was valueless to Billaud, and he did not corrupt himself for the sake of power. His married life was happy with the beautiful girl he had loved in his humble student days before the Revolution. He continued to live on the fourth floor of a mean street, contented apparently with the society of this one woman, for he had no friends, and was left, at the end, without a single supporter of his cruelty.

Couthon, the cripple, was active among the nine, playing a leading part wherever there was need of energy, in spite of his infirmities. His appearance was distinguished, and he had hours of refined pleasures in the apartments he furnished with great elegance. Those who approached him to ask a favour were emboldened by the sight of the cripple, gently feeding a young rabbit or playing with a beautiful little boy, his infant son. They were deceived by apparent courtesy, and shocked to see the change coming over the placid face when the methods of the Revolutionary tribunal were criticized. There was the tiger-instinct in Couthon, these said afterwards, remembering the fierce glare of the eyes and the treacherous softness of his manners. He was defended by guardsmen, like all other members of the Committee, and it went ill with any who spoke openly to him at a private interview.

The prisons were filled under the sway of these nine tyrants, making all men victims who could be described as dangerous to the public happiness, forsooth! It was not upon aristocrats alone that their vengeance descended swiftly. A servant of some age and respectability was publicly guillotined for disrespect to the nation in a moment of intoxication. The trainer of a parrot which had been taught to acclaim the King was sentenced, and the bird taught by loyal citizens to utter more Republican sentiments. The relatives of an emigrant incurred suspicion, however innocent they might be, and few were as fortunate as Victoire de Lambilly, the plucky little Breton lady who pleaded for her husband's life.

It would have been hard, one imagines, to find a charge against this merry little woman with the brown eyes and chestnut hair. She was a devoted wife, yet she had not fled with her husband, who joined the opposing princes' army. She took refuge in a convent at Lamballe, and was arrested as an ex-noble, Comtesse Mouessan de la Villirouet. It was true that she had been born of an aristocratic family and had been guilty of marrying a man of rank, but, she pleaded indignantly, how could blame be attached to her when she had never treated the peasants badly or meddled with the politics of France? She was a simple house-wife, interested chiefly in her children, all young, for she herself was barely twenty-six.

She was more successful than the majority of mothers—in answer to a pleading letter she was allowed to have her children with her in the prison. Her cell became a place of delight after they came. She never complained of discomfort, and bore the ignominy of constant spying and searching in the cheerful spirit which was her ultimate salvation.

It was merry in the convent of the Ursulines that winter, and the quiet Bretons of Lamballe marvelled at the light-hearted nobles, shut up in miserable confinement, when they heard of an evening the sound of dancing and gaiety. The prisoners were keeping themselves warm in accordance with the clever plan of Citoyenne Villirouet.

Months passed before there was a chance of leaving the cold and hungry life of the old convent, where two hundred prisoners were crowded into the space for twenty. They had done little harm, these wives and daughters of emigrant Breton nobles. Victoire saw no reason why she should not make an appeal on their behalf. She seized the opportunity of visiting a member of the Convention who chanced to stay at Lamballe, and, dauntless in her mission, succeeded admirably. Her light face and delightful personality would have won her own freedom from a harder man because she had none of the disdain of a fine lady. She would not be satisfied, however, till all her companions were liberated and ran hither and thither to get the papers signed which would release every captive at the convent. She had to rise early and meet the chance of a rebuff, but she was happy in accomplishing the miracle. Her husband returned later, and was disguised as his boy's tutor. It was Victoire's cruellest blow when the Count was discovered and sent to prison.

Life in the Depot of Paris was far worse than in the convent of Lamballe, where the other prisoners had been of high rank. Here Victoire, who had joined her husband, met the horrors of association with real criminals. There was disease, and dirt, and wickedness among them. The jailer guarded his charges with the aid of two great bull-dogs. A frailer spirit would have been broken by the treatment of such a man, but Victoire was indomitable, and made a friend of him. She was allowed to spend the day with her husband by especial favour, and declared herself happy in the terrible den which they shared with many other inmates. She had to work for these privileges, selling spirits in the absence of the jailer's wife. The intense heat tried her most, for the atmosphere was not purified by a hot stove burning day and night. Her throat was hoarse when she pleaded for her husband, put on trial before the Tribunal and removed to the prison of the Abbaye.

Seldom had been seen a wife so heroic as Victoire, arrayed in white and burning with the fever of her mind. She won the hearts of the president and the judges. There was hardly a dry eye when she had concluded her eloquent appeal of more than forty minutes. The citizens embraced the pleader tumultuously when the sentence was given, rejoicing in her great joy and admiring her devotion. A cry of satisfaction greeted the husband and wife as they were reunited. "Long may you live!" they shouted. "Long may you be happy!" It was an instance of the fickle favour of the mob, for they would have hooted Victoire had she been condemned with the Comte de Villirouet. But there was something splendid about this little aristocrat's eager pleading.

So the prison doors were sometimes opened for such reunions and family rejoicing. They closed heartlessly too often for less favoured suppliants. Old men were refused last glimpses of their loved ones, and the most beautiful were known to beg in vain. Money, it is true, could accomplish certain alleviations if it could not always buy the judges. Fouquier-Tinville was not a man of luxury, and did not take bribes, though he was accused of sharing the profits made by a kind of pleasant shelter known to Paris as the home of Dr Belhomme.

The doctor had received patients before the Revolution in a roomy house with a garden, where the inmates could walk in quiet seclusion from the outer world. Most of these suffered from mental disorders and were a source of considerable profit, for the physician's fees were heavy. Another class of boarders flocked there presently, paying stupendous prices for the privilege of residence. One after another, very wealthy prisoners were allowed to leave La Force or L'Abbaye, both prisons of a gloomy nature. There was some talk of rheumatism or perhaps fever, but it was generally understood that Belhomme was in agreement with the agents of the Public Prosecutor, and handed over part of the proceeds as a reward for silence. The Duchess of Orleans was among the favoured, and had tender passages with Rouzet, a member of the Convention. Citoyenne, the widow of Philippe-Equality, should be rightly named. She was one of the gayer members of the little society which assembled in the greatest delight at having escaped the dangers of the guillotine. One was quite safe with friendly, jovial Belhomme, provided one had a heavy purse. He was sorry when the purse was emptied to send away an old friend in favour of boarders who had resources still to be exhausted.

They paid enormous sums for the poorest food and the barest chambers. There was great talk of the pleasant life the inmates led and the luxuries of the table. Pretty, popular actresses were there as well as prisoners of noble blood. They continued to have admirers, and there was always music and dancing. The table was not well supplied, in reality, and only the richest could afford meals brought in from Paris, where the finest cooks now served the public, because their masters were dead or had emigrated. The humble citizens could often afford more lavish viands than were set before the hungry who had bought their lives at a great price and had little left to sustain them. They waited anxiously in long rows for the announcement of a meal, and rushed into the dining-room, sorely forgetful of the ceremony of the old order. Versailles would have disowned the courtly ladies, snatching some dainty before another could consume it, or the dandy pouring out a glass of wine without a thought for his neighbour. Coffee and cream and sugar were almost fabulous in price, and the ill-kept rooms only had what furniture the boarders could get to furnish them. Nobody dared to bargain with the proprietor, whose lightest word could give them up to certain death. Ingratitude was painful to him, and he was wont to meet it with reminders of the great benefits conferred. There were numbers clamouring in the Conciergerie, the most dreaded of all prisons. It was easy to fill his house as quickly as it emptied. The Rue de Charonne was a kind of paradise, seen from afar. There was lamentation amongst the hopeful prisoners who expected to be taken there on the day that Belhomme was arrested in 1794.

Andre Chenier, the imprisoned poet, would have found the doctor's house a more desirable refuge than his prison. He had been the victim of a true respect for monarchy, trying to win the people back to their duty to tradition. He was disgusted with the blood-thirsty Revolutionaries, being a man of refined and dreamy character. His mother was a Greek, and had a romantic history. She had been dazzled by the stories brought back from the Court of Louis XV by her father, Santi Lomaca, who was haunted by the splendor of the French. She was married to Louis Chenier, Councillor to the French Ambassador, in fulfilment of her long desire. She dowered her son with the poetic faculty and a temperament half oriental.

Andre grew up with a love of liberty that must be pure and noble. He hated brutality, and showed that hate too plainly. Camille Desmoulins denounced him, at the same time applauding loudly a brother whose play had been pleasing democratic Paris because in it tyrants met their deserts. Marie Joseph Chenier was both a Jacobin and a regicide. Andre Chenier fled to Versailles, now lonely in its desertion. He was taken on a visit to some friends, themselves suspects, and brought before a Revolutionary Committee.

Denial was useless to the questions put by such accusers Andre was innocent, but his very nature was abhorrent to men of coarser mould. They took him to the prison of Saint-Lazaire, a horrible cage for a poet, with its moaning prisoners and evil smells. Huddled together, each man was afraid of his neighbour, for the whole reign of this Terror might be conjugated, "I am afraid, thou art afraid, he is afraid," etc. Spies were perhaps lurking outside the nail-studded doors, along the teeming galleries. Eight or nine hundred victims were here when the poet arrived to give utterance to the revolt that was in every soul of them. Andre resigned himself to death, but he would not die till he had written verses immortalizing the awful struggles of the victims of the Terror.

Love awoke in the prisoner for the companion of his fears. "The Young Captive" was the poem he wrote in honor of Mlle de Coigny, a beautiful woman, generally held to have been unworthy of such adoration. She did not keep the verses addressed to her; she did not understand the soul of Andre Chenier, burning with indignation and alive to every injustice done to captives whose crime was often true nobility.

The family of the poet were not submissive to the decree of imprisonment, and wearied the authorities with appeals on behalf of the young son. Barere, in whose hands were many lives, made vague promises of liberation, but death was certain, and took place unknown to the old man, who was delighted to receive a definite statement that his son should come out of prison in three days' time.

Andre Chenier came out at the time appointed in a cart that took his body to a place of burial where no honor could be paid. It was long before the poet's grave could be discovered—long before France realized that the Revolution had executed a son of the greatest promise in the world of letters.

Marat would have applauded the discovery, for he did not love the learning of the French people. A man of curiously powerful intellect and a physician of some note, he would abolish the signs of luxury he called "monuments erected to the glory of princes."

One of the decrees of the Jacobins was to order the destruction of all tokens of royalty and nobility. The portrait of Louis XVI was torn down at the Louvre, and the Academie francaise perished with the monarchy.

The sans-culottes  were at the height of their power. They were given this title originally because they wore trousers, a mark of unfashionable costume to the world of Paris. The aristocracy wore culottes, i.e. knee breeches, and tightly-fitting stockings, whereas workmen were clad in trousers of cloth and fustian. The sans-culottes  were patriots nowadays, and insisted on customs that would carry out their beliefs in fraternity. They established the idea of dining in the street, compelling wealthier citizens to adopt it at great practical disadvantage to themselves. In a poor quarter there was risk of losing forks and spoons at a fraternal dinner where the man who had prepared nothing might share with his neighbour.

Hanriot, the commander of the National Guard, delighted his following by adopting this mode of life on behalf of unwilling householders. He knew how to speak to the sans-culottes, and urged the arrest of rebellious society freely. "My comrades! keep on arresting! Those who do not like it may go live wherever they please." He had an army at his back. It was not easy to resist him or to diminish his influence over the working-classes. He became more or less unpopular only when he could be reproached with ostentation. He was nicknamed Robespierre's Ass, because he was devoted to the Incorruptible, and rode through Paris on a sorry steed, an action which was likely to arouse the bitter jealousy of foot-soldiers at that time.

There were strangely distorted notions of liberty under the Terror, whose menacing shadow fell across the sunniest lives of France. The free Republicans were afraid to visit friends in any way suspected. Even if such were innocent, there was the spy ever ready to bring a charge of plotting. The quiet citizen, paying all dues and tacitly accepting the principles of the new order, was liable to arrest because he did not take an active part in the work of levelling the nation. It was useless to protest loyalty. Actions won the approval of the sans-culottes  provided that they were violent. Many, ardent in the first days of deliverance from tyranny, began to long for the monarchy again, recognizing that they were slaves to a system more fickle and more cowardly.

The materialist regretted the taxes which fell heavily upon the poorer quarters. Black bread had to serve for every purchaser, and there was a struggle round the baker's shop each morning. The tradesman was obliged by the demands of the Government to sell at heavy increased prices, and the purchasers did not find they had gained by having no luxurious Court to be supported. Only paper money might be used—a danger to the citizen, for it was often of little value when received. Indulgence in luxuries rendered any man liable to imprisonment, and noisy pleasures were at an end for Paris. The grotesque dance of the Carmagnole  was whirled through in the streets, conveying as little mirth as the scenes of trial which had once been reckoned more exciting than the drama of the stage. It became dull, at length, to watch victims who were unable to defend themselves to any purpose. The sight of blood began, at last, to nauseate the general public for whose welfare it was shed so freely.

Old people mourned the destruction of the Catholic Church, which had played a vital part in their earlier life. No services were held except such as desecrated the churches, and men and women died without prayer or Mass said for their souls. Children were born into the world without the ceremony of baptism being performed, and superstitious parents shuddered. It was enough for the intellectual to declare themselves always guided by pure reason. There were thousands of people in France quite rudderless now that they had no longer the guidance of religion. The bells were silent, and there were three days of rest instead of four. A passionate yearning for the past seized some, and they welcomed the death which was decreed for them because they had been heard to speak too well of the old order.