An appointment with the guillotine

13 February 2010

I’m working on the final edit of my saga about an aristocratic family during the French Revolution, and thought I would share this snippet from the previous draft with you all. Apparently it made one of my friends cry when she read it a few years ago. I like to think that this is because it moved her so much.

Cassandre held her head erect and did her best to ignore the howls and shouts of the crowd on the other side of the barrier. She and the other prisoners had been led into the formerly sumptuous but now sadly denuded Liberté Hall in the Palais du Justice, which lay alongside the Conciergerie, that morning and one by one had been called forward to face the often arbitrary charges against them. It proceeded much as any other trial with a judge, jury, witnesses and lawyers but everyone present knew that the dice was heavily loaded against the prisoners and that in most cases the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Cassandre had faced charges of treason and five witnesses, including an inn keeper from Nantes, the officer that had arrested her at Cholet and a former maid servant dismissed for theft came forward to denounce her anti Republican sentiment and ‘revolting aristocracy’. She barely glanced at them, feeling both contempt and disgust as they span their lies and worked the watching crowd into a frenzy of boos and catcalls.
The fearsome, dark browed Fouquier-Tinville in his black silk robes and huge black feathered hat then proceeded to sum up the charges and she had to force herself not to tremble as she listened to herself being described as ‘scandalous, disgusting and unwomanly, a denizen of the licentious court of the traitors Louis and Antoinette, cousin of the gold guzzling Polignac whore and with her crimes a disgrace to all of her sex’. She was taken away to the cells below while the jury came to their decision and scanned the faces in the crowd as she went past, looking for a familiar face. She espied Lucrèce and Lucien, both pale and dressed all in black and standing near the front but, aware that spies were everywhere, Cassandre gave no sign that she had recognised them.
Only half an hour passed before she was called back into the hall and she felt sick and faint as she followed the gendarmes, knowing that she would almost certainly not be allowed to walk free. Again she tried not to look at Lucrèce and Lucien but she was constantly aware of their presence as she stood before the Fouquier-Tinville again. She met his gaze fearlessly and gripped the ledge in front of her as he declared her guilty and then asked if she had anything further to say in her defence.
Cassandre shook her head, staring at the gold medal saying ‘La Loi’ which swung at his chest. ‘No.’ An expectant  hush then fell on the hall as he read out the sentence. ‘Cassandre-Laure-Gabrielle-Violette-Célestine de Vautière, formerly known as Comtesse de Choiseul-Chainier, ci devant Vicomtesse de Barthèlmy, you have been found guilty by this court and are sentenced to death, and to have your property confiscated for the State’s treasury. Said sentence to be executed within twenty four hours on the Place de la Révolution in Paris and to be published in print throughout the whole Republic.’
There was a cry of agony and despair from the crowd and Cassandre knew without looking that it was Lucrèce. It took all of her self control not to break down herself at that moment but she forced herself to look straight ahead and show no emotion whatsoever. She would be damned if the mob and Fouquier-Tinville saw so much as a tremble from her. The gendarmes took her elbows and led her away and she turned for a moment before the door closed, looking in vain for her brother and sister but they had vanished from sight.
She was taken to a new cell and left there alone with her thoughts. On the table there lay a Bible, a piece of paper and a pen and ink. Cassandre stared at them for a moment and then shrugged and sat down on the rickety chair and, ignoring the Bible, pulled the paper towards her. She sincerely doubted that the letter would ever reach its destination but decided to take the risk anyway.
On the twenty fourth of October, the National Convention had voted that the national calendar be changed to a more complex system devised by Charles Romme and the failed playwright Fabre d’Eglantine. Cassandre had heard others using it but decided to eschew it now in favour of the old and, she amusedly thought, doubtlessly aristocratic system.

A la Citoyenne Saliex et Citoyen Vautière, l’Hôtel de Saliex, Rue de l’Université.

Paris, ce 7 novembre 1793
Ma chère soeur,

I hardly know where to begin. They have taken me to the condemned cell. I am sorry that I did not look at you in the court today but I did not wish to draw attention to you. I do not know what to say other than that I wish that I were with you now and able to embrace you both for the last time.
I do not know of any debts that I may be leaving behind but I know that I can count on you to discharge anything that needs to be done. They tell me that the Hôtel de Chainier has already been seized by the government – if any of the former servants come to you for help then please do your best for them.
Please do not wish that I had stayed in Paris instead of following Alexandre to Brittany. I have no regrets, ma chère soeur and nor should you. I had the honour to love and be loved by one of the most truly wonderful and heroic men of his generation and would not have exchanged this for a thousand lifetimes. I gladly go to him now and we will sleep together forever in the arms of posterity.

A thousand kisses for you both, my brother and sister and for our poor parents as well. Lucrèce, kiss your children most tenderly tonight. I wish that they might have known me.

I die without regret and with a tranquillity that is born of innocence. Remember me as I was in happier times not as I am now.

Cassandre de Vautière, veuve Barthèlmy.’

After this there was nothing to do but sit staring at the bare, damp speckled walls until the gendarmes arrived to take her away to the small, whitewashed so called salle de la toilette on the ground floor where Lucie alone was already waiting for her, the other prisoners brought to trial that day having been acquitted or sentenced to imprisonment.
‘I am glad that I will not be alone,’ Lucie said with a sad smile at Cassandre, who nodded but found that she could not speak. She watched as one of the executioner’s assistants forced Lucie on to a rickety wooden stool before producing a pair of scissors and roughly hacking at her long corn coloured hair, clipping it short at the back.  He then tied her hands behind her back and turned his attention to Cassandre, who swallowed convulsively and stepped forward.
‘Please see that this letter makes it to its destination,’ she said, putting her last remaining coin into his dirty fist and then looking away as he crammed it into his pocket. For a moment she wondered where it would end up and wished that she had had the foresight to say something uncomplimentary about Fouquier-Tinville but the moment had passed now.
She sat on the stool and stared straight ahead, flinching only when the cold steel of the scissors touched her neck, which made the gendarmes laugh coarsely and make remarks about the ‘national razor’. She looked down at the ground, where her auburn hair lay in thick, long strands around her red shoes and then had to quickly look away before tears overcame her.
‘I feel like a complete fright,’ she remarked to Lucie with a rueful smile, as they roughly pulled her to her feet and tied her hands behind her back. ‘I do not think that short hair suits me.’
The two women were taken out to the Cour de Mai, which  actually seemed quite beautiful now in a stark contrast to the medieval grimness of the Conciergerie. Here, an open wooden tumbrel awaited them and without much ceremony they were both bundled on to it. Cassandre turned her head to look at the beautiful Sainte Chapelle as the tumbrel lurched forward and then slowly passed through the gates.
The journey to the Place de de la Révolution took over an hour and Lucie and Cassandre almost fell several times as the tumbrel passed over the busy Pont au Change, turned on to the Quai de Mégisserie and then bounced alarmingly over the streets.  Cassandre looked high above the heads of the curious, staring crowd that lined the route to watch them pass and instead gazed about her at the city that had been her home for most of her life and which she would never see again. There was a brisk hint of the coming winter in the air and she wished that she was wearing something warmer than the black silk dress tied at the waist with a wide red sash, which she had donned that morning. She looked to the side and saw that Lucie, who was wearing a rather grubby gown of pale blue muslin, was shivering so hard that her teeth were chattering.
‘I hope that no one thinks that I am afraid,’ she whispered to Cassandre. ‘I don’t want the canaille to see me shiver and call me a coward.’
The tumbrel rumbled down the long Rue Saint-Honoré, past Rose Bertin’s shop Au Grand Mogol where she and Lucrèce had spent so many happy hours and the Palais Royale which was still as thronged and buzzing with life as ever. Cassandre stared out across the colonnaded galleries and remembered the day, which seemed so long ago now, when she had walked through the snow to meet Germaine de Staël in one of the dozens of cafés and had found her deep in conversation with Alexandre.
They turned down the Rue Royale, at the end of which was the Place de la Révolution. Both Cassandre and Lucie staggered and went pale as they caught their first glimpse of the guillotine, which rose, eerie and macabre in the distance and the crowd howled and jeered as the two women stared in horror at their fate. ‘My God,’ Cassandre whispered. ‘I had no idea.’
The tumbrel rolled inexorably onwards and Cassandre did her best to steady her nerves by looking up at the beautiful buildings that lined the route. Lucie began to chatter nervously as though trying to make up for lost time and Cassandre forced herself to smile and nod as though she had not a care in the world. She guessed that Lucien and Lucrèce were somewhere nearby but had no idea where to look for them in the large mob that surrounded the wooden scaffold.
The tumbrel came to a halt and gendarmes came forward to pull the two women down to the ground. ‘This is it,’ Lucie said, shivering and trying not to look up at the guillotine looming above them both. ‘The end.’ She gave a nervous laugh which was abruptly silenced as the executioner Sanson’s assistants took her by the arms and led her to the scaffold steps. Cassandre watched her go and then turned away as the other woman was strapped to the board and then swung into position. She closed her eyes tight as only a few seconds later she heard the sound of the fatal blade falling and the instantaneous roar of approval from the crowd.
They came for her next and impatiently she shrugged off the hands that seized her. ‘I can make my own way up,’ she murmured. ‘I do not require your assistance, Messieurs.’ She ran lightly up the blood splattered steps, turning at the top to look across to the Champs Elysées and then to the Tuileries. There was an invigorating, autumnal freshness in the air and she savoured every breath as they roughly took hold of her and led her to the guillotine.
‘Goodbye life.’ She thought of Lucrèce as she had last seen her and of Lucien and then finally of Alexandre, holding her in his arms as they stood on a cliff top near to his home in the Vendée and telling her above the roar of the sea below them that he would love her always. ‘Goodbye.’

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