Madness and Glory: (20): Punishment

The story of Philippe Pinel, father of modern psychiatry

Posted May 19, 2019

 This is a work of historical fiction.

Chapter 20

          Tallien, in his large oak-walled government office in Bordeaux, was bothered about the long dock of judgments waiting for him. The reciting of charges, the protests of innocence, the whining appeals for clemency were all so tedious and, worse still, they could prevent him from getting to the Place Gambetta in time to see the executions. It was particularly important not to miss them because one of the rebel aristocrats scheduled that day to die on the guillotine was the Viscomte de Chatelle. Not of the same stripe as the many other rebels Tallien had dispassionately condemned since becoming Bordeaux Proconsul, this Viscomte had been a good friend of a man he hated, the Marquis de Bercy.

     "This prisoner, Henri de Veilleurs," announced a grizzled, old guarding soldier," was apprehended on his way to a secret docking place on the coast. He was planning, citizen Proconsul, to join a group of aristocrats on their way to England."

     "Have you arrested the others?"

     "Yes, citizen, we shall bring them before you shortly."

     "You were leaving for England, Baron de Veilleurs, in order to mobilize a force of reactionary sympathizers that would return and attempt to crush the Revolution." Tallien said emphatically. He had been sent to Bordeaux precisely to break up such conspiracies.

     "No, absolutely not. We were afraid for our lives, staying here. We learned that many innocent landowners were being executed."

     Tallien snorted. He despised these aristocrats.  For years, his father had slaved for the grand man, the Marquis of Bercy, as the chief butler of the household. He saw his weak, dutiful father being made to behave like a nodding marionette, regularly humiliated, able only to put sparse food on the family's table while the marquis daily banqueted. His mother, with his father's full knowledge, was frequently forced to share the marquis's bed. Then, one day, this marquis supposedly decided that he, Jean-Lambert, was an intelligent and charming boy full of promise, and undertook to provide him with--as it turned out as minimally as possible--an education. Torn from his mother whom he needed and loved, Tallien struggled faraway through an apprenticeship in the law. He never forgave the marquis, whom he knew was simply assuaging a bad conscience about the treatment of his parents, and who continued to live in privilege and luxury while he had no money either for sumptuous meals, good clothes, or the paid company of women.

     "You are innocent of what?" Tallien growled at the baron.

     "Of plotting against the Revolution."

     "Your lives are a plot against the Revolution. You have regularly exploited all who live on your land. You avoid paying taxes. You spit on the people you employ. And--"

     "No, no. None of that is true."

     "And--" Tallien repeated.

     "And what, Proconsul?"

     "And you were most assuredly on your way to England to join a force against us."

     "My family. To protect my family."

     "They, too, are guilty. Take this man to prison now."

     The man's trial, Tallien knew, would be short and surely culminate with a sentence to the guillotine. As he watched the baron leave, then waited the few minutes before another prisoner was brought before him, he mused about the good job he was doing as the head man at Bordeaux. He had at that point rooted out somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred aristocrats, emigrés or royal emigrants, and rebel Girondists, making sure all ended on the guillotine. Looking forward, what's more, to an extended stay, he was probably only a third finished. Whether or not he was forwarding revolutionary purposes was not at all certain, but his own reputation was already made and future government success  assured. Equally important, the undertaking against Danton, despite his own absence from Paris, was proceeding well. Robespierre had become a major leader in the Committee of Public Safety, helped in no small part by Tallien's barraging his colleagues in the Jacobin Club with letters touting the man's marvelous qualities, and by Barras and Fouché, now hero of a massacre at Lyons, working  to the same effect behind the scenes with members of the Convention and military associates. Danton had elected to stay away from Paris at his country home for long periods at this point and his influence had become much diminished. Barras, among others, spread the idea that Danton cared more to spend time in the country with his new wife than he cared for the Revolution. Tallien let  his Jacobin co-frères know that he was sure Danton was working there in quiet and probably illicit financial deals.

     But a looming trouble, a possible fly in the smoothly spreading ointment, was Robespierre's character, the nature of what they thought was a flaw that would undo him. He had shown himself to be truly incorruptible, the only one among any of the deputies in the Convention, it seemed, who never did, or would, take a bribe or be influenced in his decisions by prospects of personal or monetary gain. Absolutely never. On top of that, this unlikely looking fighting revolutionary, with his finely honed, almost boyish features, wearing always silk coats and knee breeches with stockings, was sincerely devoted to the ideals of the Revolution. He believed literally in bringing about each one of the ballyhooed goals: liberty for all, equality of rich and poor, weak and strong, and fraternal bonds throughout the land. He would do away with famine and prejudice. He was the leading opponent of slavery practiced throughout the French colonies. Never was he without a quotation from Rousseau about all being born good and afterward enhanced or deformed solely by environment. And the worst of crimes, he believed, was lying before the law. He could turn out to be the real leader and hero of the Revolution. That would be, of course, if the purpose of this Revolution is to right wrongs inflicted on the people rather than to create chaos and bestow on a chosen few--preferably, he thought, myself alone--the power to rule, to command the multitude, and become very rich.

          "Former deputy Robert Ducos, Proconsul," said a young soldier, interrupting Tallien's thoughts, "has finally been discovered hiding in the farmhouse of citizen Ruhlière on the outskirts of the city.    

     "I am glad you have been found, Ducos, you who have betrayed all of us deputies of the Convention." Tallien's upswung tone on the last word made the accusation sound paradoxically like a question.

     "How, citizen?" Ducos asked seriously with his jaw set in defiance.

     "How? How? Why you know you have supported the formation of a rebel army here in Bordeaux, which you traitorously call a 'federalist' army, to fight against the government in Paris."

     "But how might I have done such a thing? I have no large resource of money."

     "Paid for by the municipality filled with Girondins, the  moderate turncoats."

     "You seem to think you know a great deal."

     "I do, Ducos. I make it my business to know about everything that could help or hinder the Revolution. Confess to what you have done."

     Ducos's face fell. He remained silent for several minutes while Tallien drummed his fingers on the table before him. Then Ducos raised his head, his face grey and unrepentant.

     "Yes, citizen Jean-Lambert Tallien, we did form the army. But it was against the men like you who have betrayed the ideals of the Revolution."

     "I have betrayed the Revolution? How is that?" Tallien leaned forward in his chair.

     "The killings you do here. And the Republic. You did not uphold the Republic, the constitution and the Republic."

     "What? You say--"

     "Yes, our beliefs, when we opposed--"

     "Enough. No debating here." Tallien gestured to the soldier.

     "It's for the men like you that we built the guillotine," He said, addressing Ducos's back as the soldier quickly led him out. The phrase, with his sing-song naming of the dreaded instrument, sounded like part of the refrain from one of the currently popular nationalistic songs.

      Tallien leaned back in his chair. Like Ducos, the idealist Robespierre still would surely undo, or outdo himself. Moralists, believers in purity and goodness, true incorruptibles like these men always go too far. Always, they incite envy and fear. In their zeal, they antagonize or affront the very people--those flavoring delicious power  with the bitter spicing of human foibles--they need the most.  Always they are brought down, either by themselves, their own excesses, or through--Tallien smiled to himself--the jealous interventions or corrupt machinations of others. Robespierre does appear to be extraordinarily sincere, many find him judicious and wise. Why does he stay away from executions? They say he never asked for the death penalty when he was a lawyer in Arras. Is it possible we mistakenly targeted a man who is at heart humane?  He may be a harder nut to crack than  seemed so at first. Tallien looked uneasily at a poster on his wall with an illustration of a garlanded saintly looking woman, symbol of the virtuous Revolution, wearing a red-brocaded white dress and holding her hand up in a gesture of hope. He decided, when he returned to Paris, that he, Barras, and Fouché would all work to hit away at Robespierre directly, force him into missteps and finally do him in. Advocates of virtue like Robespierre are always, in both small and large ways, vulnerable. Still alone, Tallien again smiled. He turned then to look at the large clock on the wall, becoming irritated that the slow pacing of the arrest hearings might make him miss the execution.

     Two dusty-uniformed young soldiers escorted a young woman into the office. Tallien, irritation dispelled, looked at her and was amazed. She was absolutely the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her hair, jet black, fell in large whorls around her head and onto her shoulders. She had fine, elegant features, nose small and straight, mouth softly bowshaped, eyes green and flashing. He noticed, too, that she had an unblemished faintly olive complexion. Her white dress, covering a very shapely form, was draped teasingly off her shoulders in large folds like the togas worn in ancient Greece. A slight dustiness covered her shoulders and clothing, giving her, he thought, an exotic, exciting look. 

       "Who is this?" He asked, initiating the hearing.

     One of the soldiers, a young non-commissioned officer, stepped forward, and announced, "This women was trying to leave the city, but she had none of the proper papers. She is thought to be the Marquise Thérèse Cabarrus de Fontenay."

     "Of course, that is who I am," Thérèse immediately broke in, addressing Tallien. "And why, citizen, do your soldiers drag me here the backway through the stables where the horses kick up dust that covers all of my gown and sorely irritates my skin?"

     Tallien glared disapprovingly at the young soldier. "It was, citizen Tallien, the most direct way to come from the station," the soldier offered defensively.

     "Citizenness de Fontenay, please accept my sincere apology for your mistreatment. We shall certainly take restorative steps immediately. Why were you planning to leave the city?"

     "Thank you, citizen. My husband, the Marquis de Fontenay, has fled to Spain. I am without support and hoped therefore to get help from friends in Paris."

     "That is it? Well, this offense..." he tilted his head slightly, looking at her from under his brow, "does not appear to be so serious. A woman of such beauty as you should not be detained for long."

     "I beg your pardon, citizen Tallien," said the young soldier, straightening himself to attention, "this lady is the daughter of the Spanish banker Cabarrus, who has, we know, had financial dealings with enemies of the Revolution."

     "Do the sins of fathers pass on to children forever?" Tallien asked, scowling. "I am sure you are loyal to the Revolution, is that not right, citizenness?"

     "Deeply loyal, citizen." She smiled at Tallien, arcing her brows so that her green eyes caught glints from the rays of sunlight in the room.

     "We shall have to detain you until we clear up any connections with your husband's and father's activities," Tallien said, nodding at the young soldier. "I am sure, though, it will be very brief. I shall come myself to see you later on. Right now, we will attend to your discomfort." He instructed the soldiers to put her immediately under the care of a matron.

     "What a woman!" Tallien said softly out loud as the old grizzly soldier at that moment reappeared pushing a young male prisoner, neatly dressed and with an arrogant scowl. 

     "A Girondin rebel," the soldier announced.

     "I have no more time, now. I must go to the Place for the execution of Challet. Detain him, and bring him to me tomorrow."

     Tallien got up and went quickly outside. He called the municipal carriage always at his disposal, and told the driver to rush to the central Place. The driver pushed the horses at a rapid canter through the connecting streets but  on approaching the destination they were slowed by a large, disordered crowd. Several of these Bordeaux citizens, apparently drunk, staggered into the path of the horses or bumped up against the side of the carriage. Others, mostly exuberant, were moving around while shouting and singing.   Some men threw their red caps, insignias of the Revolution, into the air, distracting the horses or blocking their lines of sight.

     Tallien, cursing the annoyance but trying to ally himself with the boisterously loyal crowd, got out of the carriage and started to walk amiably to the center of the square. There he had a view of the dual pillars of the looming guillotine and nearby a dim line of condemned prisoners.  He pushed his way through the bobbing, raucous crowd, still trying to look affable as well as, despite his short stature, dignified and commanding. A soldier came up to escort him and after a good deal of musket-butt shoving of people aside, he finally reached the side of the execution platform. He was greeted by the mayor, the chief of the gendarmerie, and an army colonel, and was charmingly cordial in return, taking his place beside them and other local officials.

     He was not too late. Challet was just mounting the stairs up to the platform. The former Marquis reached the top, greeted the executioner, handed him the tip to ensure a speedy and painless procedure--no longer really necessary because of the efficiency of the guillotine--and then spoke briefly but earnestly about dying while innocent. The words were almost exactly the same as those spoken at the guillotine by King Louis.

     At the executioner's direction, Challet, his face piteously distorted, laid himself slowly on the mounting beneath the guillotine. The blade was released, his head was sheared, and the executioner held it up for the crowd to see. From his close position, Tallien stared into the dead eyes of the severed head.

     "How does it feel now, Challet? You and my lord Bercy might just as well have cut off my own head when, in your unbounded beneficence, you colluded together to send me from home to learn the law."