Madness and Glory (28): The Conspirators

The story of Phillipe Pinel father of modern psychiatry

Posted May 31, 2019

This a work of historical fiction

Chapter 28

“The Danton matter is finally ended,” Barras said, “but now Robespierre has become stronger than we thought.” In the salon of Rose-Josephine Beauharnais, Barras’s current mistress, he and Tallien spoke of their accomplishments and plans. They used this meeting place frequently in recent months. The large salon chamber was elegantly furnished, high decorated ceiling, with paintings of historic French statesmen and military heroes on the upper portions of all the walls.

“Yes, Robespierre could become a threat to us,” replied Tallien, uptoning, as usual, at the sentence ending. “Or even actually finish us, before we bring him down.”

Both men were now at a peak of influence. Barras, having put down a royalist insurrection in Toulon, had become a great favorite with the powerful Jacobins. Tallien had triumphantly eliminated thousands of enemies of the republic (together with numerous innocents) in Bordeaux through systematic guillotining, and was now president of the influential Paris Commune. From the time of that first meeting near Bicêtre, they had continually conspired and worked together to build support for Robespierre over Danton. Tallien spoke and acted forcefully to further Robespierre’s purging of the clergy, Barras campaigned among his military colleagues, gaining strong sanction for Robespierre’s criticisms of the moderate Girondin faction’s conduct of foreign wars. Both lauded Robespierre’s virtues to the Jacobins and the radical Mountain faction as an incontestably incorruptible leader. And they provided Robespierre himself  with information—both false and true—about irresolutes and defectors for use in power-enhancing speeches and acts of condemnation. Tallien, in conjunction with the later enlisted conspirator, Joseph Fouché, was effective in keeping Robespierre in good odor with the leaders of the Paris Sections, those whose force and sentiments were crucial for most actions of members of the Convention. Strongly persuasive were the former priest Fouché’s paradoxical but knowledgeable and popular policies of de-christianization, his participation in putting down the counter-revolution in Lyons, and lawyer Tallien’s rough but authoritative legal and economic proclamations, his reputedly fervent revolutionary loyalty and leadership.

A delectable success for the conspirators, consistent with their goals, occurred when Robespierre became the leading figure in the powerful government Committee of Public Safety, the position that had been vacated earlier by the original founder Danton. After that, through bribery, the construction of false documents, and the elaborate planting of doctored evidence, they set about convincing Robespierre, Saint-Just, and other leaders, that Danton had been engaged in a plethora of illegal and traitorous dealings. Through their efforts, he was accused of helping bring about the defection of a revolutionary general, consorting with royalists and wealthy friends in England, having sympathy for the former queen, embezzling the East India company and especially, carrying out underhanded financial dealings in Belgium. Tallien manufactured papers from Belgian banks showing Danton had fleeced the Belgian people. Robespierre was shocked and dismayed. In a masterpiece of deception, Tallien himself arranged for the two men to meet together, supposedly to bring about reconciliation. But, as Tallien well knew, the die was cast. After confronting Danton with the charges against him, then receiving the proud man’s mocking dismissal, the outraged Robespierre stormed out of their meeting place. Barras also sewed up the artifice by sending his lieutenant Laignolot to Danton’s apartment to carry out a purposely unsuccessful attempt at negotiation between the two leaders. Shortly afterward, Robespierre sorrowfully signed the order for Danton’s arrest. His trial and death followed.

“Curious, is it not,” Tallien said, glancing quickly around the heavily furnished Beauharnais salon to be certain they were alone, “that this Maximilien Robespierre, a man so very squeamish about blood and killings, is capable of condemning persons to death. But he does useful work for us, eh? Eliminates others beside Danton who could be dangerous.”

“He has a sharp nose, I think,” Barras offered, “for smelling out any with the aroma of large and possibly devious influence with the people. Like Hébert, who was able to mobilize hordes of sans culottes. And, of course, together with the stench of our evidence, Danton was first and foremost a great orator and influencer of mobs.”

“We,” Tallien said with emphasis, “have done quite well with our operations. Doing our work in the provinces, then back here looking always devoted and clean. And Fouché, too. He hates Robespierre, the man interferes with his very shrewd financial deals. He, my dear Barras, is able to maneuver even more swiftly and effectively than we.”

“What do we do now? Press forward, of course. But it becomes more dangerous with this very strong Robespierre and the cunning Saint-Just. We need to protect ourselves.”

“We can never, of course, accuse Robespierre of any kind of corruption. So good and sanitized. We will capitalize on the fear he must produce.” Tallien’s uptoned last word made the ominous pronouncement sound, as usual, like a question.

“We have gone over many ways to do that. I think the best still is to work slowly on the Jacobins and the rest in the Mountain. Hint, insinuate, to one and another, that Robespierre did not like something they said or did. Then, later, a few weeks or so, bring direct reports of comments about them made by Robespierre at a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety.”

“Good. Fine. To some we also say that Saint-Just spoke, in Robespierre’s presence, of some questionable incident about them. Make it up, let it sound like something misconstrued. And we offer commiserations. Or, better still, base it on a true criticism or slightly disloyal comment. We are sure to find some. That would be delicious.” Tallien smilingly ran his tongue over his lips.

“Hair of the dog! We work persistently on the strong but susceptible ones such as Fréron, and Dumont. Make them fear they surely will be next in line for the guillotine. It is a good strategy. Fill them with gunpowder, they explode and retaliate.”

“Panis also, and weak Cambon, the crafty Billaud. And, of course, Vadier. He, too, hates Robespierre now. Step by step, one after the other.” With his hand, Tallien slowly sliced a stairway in the air.

“Then, when all are at the height of fear, ready to ditch Robespierre, ready to use a weapon, he is put under the same blade they believe he is preparing for them—”

“We move.” Tallien chopped the side of his hand into his other palm. “The entire Convention will get squarely behind us.”

Barras, whose dark good looks were always enhanced by smiling, now smiled broadly. But a thought intruded, and the smile turned to a frown.

“I wonder, Tallien. You have worked for a long time to get the solid support of the leaders of the Paris Sections. That will help a good deal, especially to mobilize strongly egalitarian deputies. But what about the rest, I mean, the people themselves? Robespierre is very powerful now, very likely we will need the people to be with us, along with the national guard, to bring him down even when the Convention turns against him.”

“Yes, we will need all, as you say. What to do? It means you and I must work to gain the hearts of the sans culottes, even if it makes Robespierre wary or worse—threatening—toward us. In the end, they will serve to elevate us to power.”

“But how? How may this be done?”

“I am sure we can find ways to bring them to us. For one thing, show them we can feed their insatiable desire for blood and retribution. Cry out ‘aristocrat,’ ‘royalist,’ ‘traitor’. The words make them boil. Find people who fill the bill, or create them, then condemn these openly in the streets.”

“Indeed, yes. We say also the food shortage is due to hoarding, Robespierre and the price maximum are to blame. And at the same time, we provide food, curb scarcities, give some of the street revolutionaries participation and power.” Barras pounded his hand with his fist.

“Good, very go-od,” Tallien rejoined. “We must carefully think out—”

He was stopped in mid-sentence by the entry into the room of Rose-Josephine together with his mistress and now soon-to-be-wife, Thérèse Cabarrus de Fontenay.

“How you two go on, “said Rose-Josephine. “Sitting there together like sugar planters selling and buying land from each other.”

“But of course, my dear Rose, we do our deals, but these concern matters far more important than such things as Caribbean sugar plantations,” Tallien replied, referring teasingly to his hostess’s Martiniquean background.

“I hope you do deals against that villain Robespierre,” Thérèse said as, with a slight rotation of her hips, she settled on a straight chair near Tallien. “The despicable man had me put in jail here in Paris. For what cause? Merely because I had been married to a nobleman, a man who left me.”

“Also, unfortunately because he learned that your eminent father was a banker who dealt with Spain,” Tallien put in.

“Yes, yes, a terrible thing,” said Rose-Josephine, sliding elegantly without excess movement into a nearby setee. “And your rescuer was—,” with a flourished gesture, she made a mocking trumpet sound, “—ta-daaa, ta-daa, our great friend here, Jean-Lambert.”

“That is not broadly known,” Barras said seriously, discomfited by her levity. “But when the Incorruptible finds it out, he will surely again get after Thérèse. And possibly after Jean-Lambert as well.”

For the moment ignoring that disturbing idea, and resisting further seriousness or talk of politics, the four men and women sat amicably together drinking their mocha coffee. They gossiped, talked about the theatre, and laughingly brought up pleasant events on shared excursions. Gradually, other members of the Convention and several military officers, both with and without spouses or mistresses, entered the room for their regularly scheduled visit. At that point, the focus of discussion for all turned to the usual at this salon, the war and actions of the revolutionary government. Moving among the small developing groupings, Thérèse, characteristically alluring in a thin smoke-grey gown and wine-red tinted shoulder scarf, participated actively in conversation regarding recent actions of the Public Safety Committee. Rose-Josephine, equally attractive in white-trimmed pink satin, remained seated comfortably speaking with Tallien and Barras. When a young officer joined them, they began a lively discussion of troop movements and the war. Few persons who attended the salon that evening heard or overheard anything critical of members of the government. Tallien and Barras, particularly, were frequently laudatory, and each spoke in glowing terms about Robespierre’s accomplishments.

At the somber gray-walled Asylum de Bicêtre, Dr. Pinel, meeting again with Lalladiere, was wondering about a dangerous conspiracy, this man’s account of a overhearing a secret plot against two very important government leaders. After seeing his friend Condorcet’s downfall and predicament, desperately needing refuge, Pinel was acutely aware of the government’s extreme reversals regarding former leaders and patriots. He knew, from his experience with insanity, that there could well be elements—or even more—of truth in such a disturbed man’s story. But, beyond that, this insane man had touched a loved place in his own mind, a place partly scientific and partly artistic. Observing Lalladiere’s behavior as he spoke, listening to his exact words and thoughts, gave clues that his lunacy had a specific cause. Knowing such a cause, the root of this man’s lunacy, would provide rational understanding, possibly explain lunacy in anyone. Also, it would satisfy his sense of things fitting into place, filling distorted empty spaces with interlocking ideas and meanings. Like other patients he had been seeing in this setting, Lalladiere appeared to him to be caught up in some type of extreme passions. Whatever they were, they were passions of a human, not an inferior, being. When treated with humanity and understanding, the patients acted human in return. When freed, they were far from mollycoddled, but instead had to take on potentially limitless burdens of being independent.

“You seemed very upset about something that happened when you were assisting Minister Necker,” Pinel said, unaffectedly. “Perhaps you can tell me more about it.”

“It turned out to be a gable, a gambol, salt in hell. You can not be sure where you will walk because you will stumble over it.” Lalladiere said, his previous lucidity faded.

“I do not understand you. You can say more when you are ready,” Pinel said, accepting but not retreating. He shifted: “What, then, about the conspiracy? Can you tell me more about that?

Lalladiere said nothing but his eyes looked toward Denis seated beside him.

Pinel, more attuned than before to observing Lalladiere’s smallest reactions, noticed the direction of the gaze, and now guessed at a reason for the inhibition: “I understand you are reluctant to speak with two of us here, you are outnumbered.”

“He’s chased me. Up there on the roofs.” He turned his head fully to look at Denis. The doctor’s understanding was enough, it was not necessary for the attendant to leave.

“You were afraid for your life,” Pinel, back to the conspiracy, offered.

“Yes, “Lalladiere said slowly, “and afraid for Danton. They were going to kill Danton, the man devoted to the needs of the people.” He paused, the reassurance from Pinel’s comments dispelled by an anxious realization: “They killed Danton,” he said, stopping completely and distractedly looking around.

Robespierre will die. Robespierre will die. You will die.

“You stopped speaking just now. Were you interrupted?” Pinel said. Then, deciding, as a help, to risk putting on pressure, he asked, “Are you hearing voices?”

Lalladiere looked upward but did not answer.

“What are they saying?” Pinel said softly.

“Robespierre will die.”

“How could that happen?”

“Tallien, he is brilliant, writing pamphlets, keeping records, taking people in. I know Barras too. He is rich and totally unscrupulous.”

“Is this the reason you ran away from here the second time? To inform Robespierre of the danger?”

“To see the boy. To find him. I thought he could help me. But he couldn’t and I went to my mother.”

“Did she, did your mother help you?”

Lalladiere stopped speaking completely. He was beginning to feel something, the tip of immense remorse, moistness, long unfamiliar, forming at the edge of his eye. No restricting voices came, no immobility, but he was unable to answer the question. He could not respond to this doctor, who seemed to be trying to aid him, understand him. He could not allow more feelings to arise.