Madness and Glory: (4): Words of Treason

The story of Philippe Pinel, father of modern psychiatry. Part 4.

Posted May 06, 2019

This is a work of historical fiction. The patient Lalladiere did not exist and the conspiracy is  a speculation.. The story of Dr. Philippe Pinel, father of modern psychiatry, is true.

Chapter 4

He stood up ram straight in the enclosure. A few moments later, he saw the running boots of the two pursuing gendarmes. They could not see him.

The feet of ordinary walkers came shortly into view, and he heard loud movements of vehicles pounding on the stones. No one hesitated or stopped; he started to feel secure in the tight-encircled space. Approximately a quarter of an hour later, more footsteps. This time there were four of them.

Denis and his police companions were returning, headed in the opposite direction. The separated contingents came together further down the street, realized they had missed him, and retraced their steps. But again they didn’t see him. Stretched rigidly upward to fit in the concrete lined tube, only the top of his tangled mat of dark hair poked up in the opening.

Flashing by were the long skirts of women carrying wash, hawking wares, leading children, hurrying to stand on line to get meager supplies of bread, salt, and vegetables, going or coming from taverns, clandestinely attending church. He glimpsed the bottoms of numerous sans-culottes, the protest straight-legged trouser style which had given its name to all common people revolutionaries. Men with these and more traditional stockinged legs were bustling about with bundles of wood, stone, or rags, going to meetings or covert worship with their wives, stopping or starting drinking, carrying out searches and seizures, setting fires. Sabots of women, men, and children clumped rhythmically, and sounds of bumping cart wheels, heavy pounding of large horses’ hoofs resounded from the cobblestones. The noise, resonating through his cold concrete enclosure, along with his fear, kept him aroused. Once again the pounding legs of the hospital attendants and gendarmes came by. They slowed down as they approached his hiding place.

He held his breath, chest completely tight, then realized they weren’t stopping, just slowing from their effort. They hadn’t seen the top of his enclosure. Such openings, if noticed at all, are usually considered a place for drainage, storage, or an undesirable type of dwelling to be ignored. Even vigilant searchers miss them.

The men continued to walk, speaking noisily with each other. Lalladiere listened and, within the drone of their conversation, heard ominous, rasping words:

We are torture murderers, out to kill him.

Then, a familiar deep voice next to him:

 Don’t move or breathe, you slimy hands, you criminal, not a muscle or a breath.

 Another voice, high-pitched, repeated the same warning. Not missing a beat, the deep one again boomed out: Stay where you are. Not a single muscle, not a single breath, swine.

He knew them, hated their drumming directives, the torturing accuracy of their epithets mixed with a false tone of guidance. But he had to comply. As the voices continued, fear-saturated sensations spread through his body, into his neck, his arms, his legs. Soon, he was devoid of will and unable to move any part. He could not control a single muscle, his chest moved minimally when he breathed.

Standing in the tomblike enclosure, hearing jumbling noises, bits of conversations, and sometimes threatening words passing above him, Lalladiere felt the advance within him of overwhelming terror and panic. Unbearable dread. His head was flying off and his arms and legs were disengaging. He tightened his body and the terror changed to rage, uncontrollable rage.

Must not move now. If he moved, put the slightest part in motion, everything would be destroyed. All. Whatever he hated or had no reason to hate. The smallest and the largest thing. The entire world. Stirring a finger, a toe, would destroy it all. The end, responsible for the end of the world. Must not move or stir. Must not—cannot. Still tight, his body became completely still, without any power to shift or act or twinge. His mind emptied and for long periods he thought of nothing, nothing at all.

He remained in that state all day. It was the same as in the hospital, many times totally motionless, empty of thought, unbearably fearful. Nothing people did dispelled the fear. Hours, whole days, of terror went by, ending only when, surrounded by attendants, he was put into a swirling waterbath. Or, sometimes, when the Bicêtre governor came and talked to him gently. When thought returned, he sometimes wondered what the barrier was between him and other people. It was like a myth out of old times, a struggle against giants.

Sounds came to him frequently of horses’ and donkeys’ hoofs, the tumult and activity of the street, and sometimes the distinct words of nearby walkers. He, inside a tensely coiled spring, heard without moving.

“Please, citizen, will you give a sou for a cripple to buy bread?” No answer, no sound of money in the cup.

“Good day, Charlotte, how goes it with you?”

“Oh, what a miserable time, Dionne.”

“Yes, sure is.”

“What can we do now with the price of bread? We have nothing, almost nothing at all to eat.”

“I think God is forsaking us. There are hardly any places to clean anymore. People say they got no paper money to pay with. None. One told me—this is the limit—that the Revolution is cleaning out the dregs, the human vermin. We should not care about cleaning floors. Our souls should be content.”

“My children are starving.”

“My arms do nothing. Idle, the devil’s advantage.”

“What shall we do?”

“What can we do?”

The clumping wooden steps of each continue in opposite directions.

“Oh-yey, you, watch out. Can’t you see the horse’s hoofs? They move quick. Real smart. They kick, you know. Kick hard. You’ll get your eggshell head smashed in!”

“Sorry, monsieur, uh, citizen. I will watch, citizen.”

“You better be sorry. Your mother would not like to see the top of that empty skull of yours crushed in and blood running down your face.” The cart man laughs. And the sound of his laughter continues as he goes by, loudly repeating the words “blood,” and “blood running down your face,” over and over.

“Please, good citizen, a sou for bread.” The whine of the beggar circling through his accustomed route is penetrating over background noise into Lalladiere’s tight encasement.

“Well, Maurice,” booms a gruff voice,” the sun does not favor us with its good warmth these days,”

“No, the sun, as they say, was soiled in the hands of the king of the sun, Sun-King Louis,” Maurice rejoinders sharply over his shoulder. “It has to be scoured with the thick blood of the nobles before it shines steadily on us again.”

Again a mention of blood. Images of red gore flash through Lalladiere’s mind. He blocks them, then thinks of nothing.

“Well,” says the gruff voice, “that’s something to look forward to. Hooray for the national razor, eh?”

In the next few hours, the searchers, persisting on the Bicêtre governor’s orders, went twice by Lalladiere’s enclosure, once on horseback as they tried to cover a wider area, again on foot as two gendarmes searched nearby houses. They mounted up on roofs to find whether he was hidden among the gables and chimneys.

“Gilbert,” now says a voice at first sounding to Lalladiere like a searching attendant, “there seems to have been a lot of commotion on the streets around here today.”

“Yes, Francois, I heard that a lunatic escaped from the Bicêtre.” Clearly not an attendant. “They lost him somewhere near here. Very dangerous, could be a killer. But, my man, this is nowhere near the great excitement over at the Place de la Revolution. They say that thirty people have been guillotined today.”

“The chains, do you know, are being taken off those lunatics at Bicêtre,” Francois returns angrily. “Damn and perdition, this is where we live. Maniacs will be running all over. We must bar our doors, watch all the children, arm against them.”

“Yes, right.”

“That guillotining on the Place you speak of. That’s quite fine. I spit on those who were against the elimination of the King. Every one was really a royalist. And I heard there were some fat aristocrats too.”

Gradually, as night came, street sounds diminished around Lalladiere’s chance cubicle. Locked into a stillness though devoid of chains, empty of thought and constricted by inner clamps not the narrow dimensions of his enclosure, he stood erect. His eyes occasionally moved but, because of the immense persistent dread, they did not focus. Time passed, but at that point he had no currents of thought or sensation. Two men passed above him and stopped. They spoke softly, and in the quiet could be heard quite clearly. Their accents and speech differed a good deal from the rough laborers and shopkeepers who went by earlier.

“We can talk here. The street is empty at this hour,” one said, upwardly inflecting the last word in the sentence as though asking a question. “I arranged to inspect the asylum at Bicêtre this day so I could meet you here far from the center. Danton’s spies are everywhere.”

“A good choice, Tallien. I managed to work out some recruiting in this area for the Guard. No one must know of our meeting now,” the second man spoke in a clipped, officious, but nervous tone.

“At the prison today, I checked that several of those I used last year to identify the traitorous prisoners are still around, working here or living nearby. They will work for us again. I used them already to pick up some new traitors. The governor, strangely, seemed discomfited.”

“You are quite an eagle.”

“That, Barras, is how I got to where I am with our powerful colleagues. But let’s get down to it. Marat, although I threw in very actively with him, is gone. Danton struts around, booms out his patriotic slogans, and both the people and the Convention fall down before him. Still strong, still a damn leader of the Revolution. Claims he did all the planning for August 10 when we deposed the King. We must, as we agreed when we spoke briefly at the back of the Convention chamber before, do something about him. He is so very popular and powerful. Speaks, convinces everyone with that big voice of his. All go to do his bidding. The Cordeliers. Members of the Committee of Public Safety. Paris and the rest of the country are still under his thumb.” His singsong voicing of the final “thumb” contrasted oddly with the somber content of his pronouncement.

“We cannot directly eliminate this man,” said Barras softly, authoritatively, but still anxiously.” That would be too dangerous. We have not enough persons to support us against him. Even if we did it, ah, secretly, or had someone do it for us, we are sure to be found out right now.”

The men’s words all came clearly into Lalladiere’s cubicle, slowly penetrating his consciousness. He had known each of the men, and was immediately convinced he was hearing a plot against himself.

“Quite so, Barras. Well then, listen well.” Tallien reduced his voice to a low monotone. “I have decided that the safest approach is to find a way to get rid of him which no one could connect with us. He is so entrenched, the hero of the people, we must make it seem either like he is giving up, or someone else is taking his place.”

“Whatever do you mean, someone taking his place? What good would that do for us?” Then, in quick remembrance of his supposed duty and devotion, he corrected himself, “For the republic, I mean, of course.”

“The republic?” repeated Tallien. “We will do well enough for the republic when we take the reins. Danton would have us incessantly fighting foreign wars—what good is that?” His voice grew louder again, the lilt increasing to produce the sound of a sinister anthem. “Who lives better then? We did not take off Louis’s head, throw out the aristocrats, to end up squandering our resources. And at the country’s borders, no less. No, we must justify blood that has been spilled, save the wealth. Save the wealth. We must take the power to ourselves.”

“But how would we do that? Danton would never yield. Putting another in his place might give us someone more dangerous. Danton suspects nothing from us now.”

“A flanking movement, my dear Barras, a flanking movement,” Tallien replied, chorus-like and laughing. “We shall throw our support to someone who has no interest in personal gain but is devoted solely to the Revolution, the goals of the Revolution. This one, unknowingly, shall work for us to bring Danton down.” He paused, apparently checking the street for unwelcome eavesdroppers without for a moment thinking of looking near his feet.

“Despite Danton’s high sounding words,” he continued, “he cannot help himself. He is like us, a materialist—wants money, living well. A pure idealist is what we need against him. Then, when that pure, juicy fruit is ready[a1]  for the picking, when the usurper we put in place is ready to be usurped himself, we bring him—help him—down. And... take over.”

“Indeed? Well, that’s a strategy, all right.” Barras said, speaking now more calmly and appreciatively than before. “You are surely a master of the turnaround.”

“Strategic, artistic, but best of all, effective. Do you see how it can work?”

“Yes, I do,” said Barras brusquely, and with more confidence. “Suspicion of doing Danton in, then, can never fall on us. And the bothersome would-be hero of the Revolution will be gone. But who is the idealist you speak of, who can we get to do this without risk to ourselves?”

Still motionless, Lalladiere felt his head to be bursting. It was he. He. The idealist was himself.

“The incorruptible one. You know who it is. Friend of Danton, Marat before him, but really not the friend of anyone. Maximilien Robespierre. He believes only in the Revolution and in his own rectitude. He is already on the way and will be the one who will eventually destroy Danton. Also, he will help us even more, rid us of the others in the path. Brissot, the war advocate. And Hébert, demagogue of the people, the straight-pantleg revolutionaries—sans-culottes.

“Yes, the crafty, foul Hébert.”

“Robespierre hides any jealousy, even to himself, of anyone with power to decide the time or tides. And he is deeply capable of acting with terrible retribution. That is our weapon.”

“He speaks every night,” Barras said, “at the Jacobin Club. Fiery well-composed speeches. And, yes,” he added with growing eagerness, “I have heard him throw former friends aside if they seemed likely to cross his purposes.”

“Danton has done some shady things,” Tallien’s uptone, drawn out, sounded vicious. “After we elevate Robespierre, we will make him aware of what Danton has already done. Then, we will plant several more—really bad things—on the bombastic Danton as well.”

“We must conceal that carefully.”

“Of course. He can become dangerous to us. But Robespierre will not do anything personally. He is, you know, strangely squeamish, actually stayed away from the overthrowing of the king last year, and after that the tyrant’s guillotining on the Place. In any case, we have Fouché, Collon d’Hérbois, and others who will help us, stand with us when this Robespierre, The Incorruptible, will inevitably do himself in.”

“All right, it is a remarkable idea, but may indeed be possible. Ah—I believe I hear people approaching from up the street—we must plan in detail how to do this. But you must remember, we first must do a job of getting rid of the Austrian whore.”

“Yes, yes,” Tallien said quickly, “but in this case we can leave all that to Hébert. He has planned charges against her, I have heard, that will astound everyone. The court and everyone in it will be outraged. The young Louis, Hébert has talked with him in prison, and there have been vile, despicable acts. We meet in two night’s time at the back entrance of Salpêtrière, all right? I inspect again. Same time, eh?”

Barras nodded and started to turn away. Tallien looked toward the approaching people for a moment and then grabbed Barras’s sleeve, stopping him. “Do you hear it, Barras?”

“Do I hear what? We must go immediately.”

“It is the crackling sound of salt under our feet.”

“What?”

“The Revolution has become a field of salt, Barras, barren, depleted of its promise; but on the other hand, full of the riches of old for those smart enough to mine it. We are the miners.”

“Salt miners? I’ll take gold. Eh? Til the night after tomorrow, then.”

Encased in the space beneath their feet, Lalladiere heard and registered everything. Words with references to the life he lived in the king’s government started up, remembered images and sounds soon drowned out by a drone of disembodied derogatory voices. They told him these men were plotting against him, planning to have him killed by guillotine. Just as hospital guards often threatened to do.

Silent and unmoving, a voluntary corpse in an uncustomary grave, he believed what the voices said. He was the object of the plot. Later, when all of the dialogue between the men, the stratagems and intrigue, came back to him remembered precisely word for word, he would change his mind.