Madness and Glory: (9): The Trial

Here's the story of Philippe Pinel, the father of modern psychiatry. Part 9.

Posted May 11, 2019

Chapter 9

This is a historical novel. The following account of the trial of Marie Antoinette is true.

Tallien sat in the Palais de Justice watching the trial of the former queen. Marie Antoinette had been taken there from her prison cell at the Conciergerie to be, as everyone knew, condemned to death. He smiled while watching, thinking to himself that his own plan to bring down Danton was progressing well. His compatriot Barras, a converted former noble and presumably zealous revolutionary, was effective in supporting the incorruptible Robespierre in the Jacobin Club. He lauded the man’s high-minded ideals. Not yet known was the actuality that Barras himself had very few; he masterfully staged ovations by his military companions following Robespierre’s inspiring speeches. Barras was secretly guilty of a spate of dishonest dealings, but he managed to assure young, devoted Club members that the great, dedicated man would stop widespread corruption and the bleeding out of revolutionary resources. Tallien, on his side, had always been popular in the Paris organized districts, the Sections, because of his revenge-inciting newspaper “Friend of the Citizen” and his leadership in the Paris directorate, the Commune. He carefully inserted assurances of swift current and future removal and destruction of counterrevolutionaries in all his discussions with the Section Leaders and at meetings attended by long suffering retribution seekers, notably large numbers of the sans-culotte revolutionaries. He was a member of the leading group of deputies called the “Mountain,” those seated high-up at the left of the hall of the National Convention. He joined with Robespierre and his devoted follower, Saint-Just, in all of their proposals for regulating the economy.

Robespierre became the leading member of the powerful Committee of Public Safety which, ironically, Danton had inaugurated several months before. More and more people were sent by this Committee to beheadings by the national “razor” for the purpose of maintaining and preserving the Revolution. Robespierre, Tallien thought, barely suppressing a laugh, was actually sharpening a razor he had honed. This man, this incorruptible one, would one day cut the great Danton down. It was inevitable. The pure, devoted fanatic, ardent follower of Rousseau who placed ideas and ideals above personal relationships, would not be able to tolerate Georges-Jacques Danton, man of the people. They could not together lead the Revolution for very long. Danton, shrewd and sensual, was surely dedicated, but he was also interested in influence, recognition, and gain. Never was he above lining his own pockets when he could. Robespierre actually believed in liberty and equality and hated corruption. In the end, he would not allow such an impure comrade and powerful rival to live.

In the villette, the box set for the guilty, the queen sat in anguished silence. No longer allowed to dress in full royal raiment, she wore a light well-made black gown and high-heeled plum colored shoes. She looked shrunken and aged but still possessed elegant, fine facial features and a vestige of her physical attractiveness. Witness after witness testified against her. Tallien listened distractedly as they went over the government charges: she had encouraged counterrevolution, produced famine, instigated massacres, and betrayed French plans to the enemies. He was waiting to hear the testimony of Hébert, editor of the fierce, vulgarism-belching newspaper Le Père Duchesne. A witness from the royal court named Manuel came to the stand, refused to give testimony against the queen—for which he was later guillotined—and then Hébert was sworn in.

He began with a description of the queen’s early and continuing indoctrination of her son as a royal personage, a thoroughgoing enemy of the Revolution. She made sure, he said, the boy was treated as the monarch Louis XVII, toadied to, served first at all meals. A totem of the enemy royalist Vendéens, found among his possessions, was certainly bestowed on him by her. Then, with his usual obscene directness, Hébert came to the salacious accusations.

“This woman, the former queen, who we all know was profligate and licentious throughout her reign,” Hébert began, slightly exposing his upper teeth, “also for a long time carried out unnatural acts with her son. She and her sister, the child’s aunt, placed him between them on their bed where all three slept close together each night. In this circumstance, they got him aroused, and both looking on, they taught him to pull the head of the cock. Night after night, this boy, the young Louis, confessed they induced him to put his hands on his small little organ and pull and pull while the two smiling harpies watched.”

There were audible intakes of breath, loud snorts, and angry curses among the listeners in the gallery. Hébert looked up, nodding snidely, then continued.

“Then, many times, the unnatural mother, Marie Capet, had her eight-year-old son go even further. She took his cock into her hand and put it into her passage, her woman’s cleft, to commit an abominable act of incest. She did things and carried out scurrilous acts that cry out against the conscience of all humanity, having him indulge in perverted acts that fulfilled her insatiable lust. Not satisfied with all her well-known adulterous acts with men and women of the court, the slut fucked with her own son.”

Both representatives and ordinary citizens in the gallery broke out into loud sounds of disgustand reprimand, shrill hisses, outraged protests. One judge frowned at Hébert, and the others looked troubled. Many in the assemblage, unlike the complacent Tallien sitting in their midst, had not had any inkling of the testimony to be given, and they remained shocked and silent. Soon, however, the audience exploded, giving vent through booming shouts, foot-stamping, standing on seats, to emotions of revulsion and fear. They feared both Hébert and the former queen, one having gone so far as to bring up such accusations, the other having actually done the things described. Their revulsion arose from a range of sources, from sincere, knowing repudiation to secret and unacknowledged prurient interest.

So, Tallien thought, it was to be both self-abuse and incest. He never could ally himself with Hébert’s kind of excesses. Although it was absolutely necessary to make an end of the widow Capet, that could easily have been accomplished without manufacturing such charges. Having heard beforehand that Hébert would report damning things, Tallien felt he needed and wanted to be at the trial to learn them. But these accusations, even leveled at “the Austrian whore,” were too extreme to be believed. He had often taken the lead in denouncing her presumed sexual appetite for both men and women, affairs both with the perfidious Comte de Vaudreul and the over-indulged Duchess de Polignac. Hébert, however, now was outrageous, telling of unspeakable acts. And his words brought to mind, made Tallien sitting there imagine a mother’s watching and encouraging a young boy’s pulling off. Terrifying.

As everyone knew, self-abuse brought insanity. Tallien worried, each time he had done it, because of that. He started young, the first time after waking from nights of rich exciting dreams to find his bedclothes soaked and sticky while feeling delightfully light-headed and relieved. He decided to make that happen himself. But even though he tried not to continue too much, he always knew it was wrong, always dangerous. The lunatic who walked through their village, picking up and storing dirty rags, and talking loudly to himself, became that way, they always said, because of pulling off. And Hébert talked about a young boy doing it for his own mother! And he says she made him fuck her, too! The man always goes too far, screams in his newspaper for violence, removal of all vestiges of counter-revolution, no matter what or where—Jacobin Club, Convention, even the Committee of Public Safety. He is a revolutionary, but he could surely not be used to bring Danton down. Could not command a true following. Hates religion, claims only to follow REASON. Thinks of the idea in capitals but never about the reasonable, just the being reasonable. He works hard at bringing himself down, removing all vestiges of his own foul-mouthed, murderous presence from the revolutionary program. No, Tallien repeated to himself, Robespierre is still the right one. He leads in high purpose, wants to fire the people up with the ideals of the Revolution. Robespierre will necessarily do away with widow Capet, with this Hébert not long after, and when the time comes, with the flawed people’s darling, Danton. Then, with the connections and plans advanced already by us—the influential military commander Barras, I the Jacobin hero, and the new comrade master of intelligence former priest Fouché as well, Robespierre will fall. That will not be very hard, idealists with high purpose always undo themselves.

Tallien watched the widow Capet as Hébert elaborated on the details of his alleged interview with the young Louis, specifying the times and places of the acts, the aunt’s participation, absence of witnesses. Her face, which at first looked plaster-white with shock, gradually turned grey and blotched with expressions of sickness and disgust as she listened. A spasm of rage passed, and soon gave way to a grimace of despair. Her finely chiseled mouth was pulled downward and to one side as she groaned with a sound seeming to resonate from within the deepest portions of her body. Then, all expression vanished. She raised her chin, and stared resolutely at her accuser. As the high-pitched sounds of Hébert’s voice piped out against the intermittent chorus of spectator calls and protests, she sat with shoulders stiffened, staring and listening. Was this, Tallien wondered, nobility’s damnable loftiness and restraint he knew so well and bitterly hated. Or an indication that she did what she was accused of?

He studied her carefully. She looked so diminutive, no taller than he was. Despite her air of superiority, there was nothing about her body that went with her former power to command. Neither she nor the King, her dead husband, compared at all in height with his comrades, the coming new leaders—towering Barras, long, slender Fouché. What a sight the three of them will make as they walk together, him upright in front, the people hailing them as rulers. A splendid show, a beautiful beginning. After that, of course, he wouldn’t have to consort and share decisions for very long with men he had to raise up his eyes to speak with. He would, in time, be commander alone.

He looked around the jam-packed gallery, momentarily interested in the irregular shapes and heights of men and women nearby and at some distance away. Unexpectedly, he noticed the well-known massive shape, Georges-Jacques Danton, sitting not too far away. The big man was at that moment motioning to him to leave the hall and go outside. It was apparently a request for a meeting together, not such an unusual occurrence because, as deputies of the Mountain, they did confer from time to time about Convention policy. But Tallien, irritated, wondered what urgency required an interruption at that point, causing him to miss some of the important proceedings.

As he entered the corridor outside the large hall of the trial, Danton was waiting, and greeted him immediately.

“Ah, Tallien, Hébert is putting on quite an extraordinary but terrible performance. A vilifying attack. Hardly necessary when the poor woman is already condemned and the outcome a foregone conclusion.”

Tallien smiled. He had for some time been contributing to whispered suspicions that Danton was sympathetic to the former queen, was even possibly bribed by her to let the Austrians win the war so that she and the monarchy could be saved. Such opinions and sentiments of Danton, while typical and probably appropriate, would, when the big man expressed them openly to others beside himself, help in the end to undo him. Tallien was smiling because he was anticipating the undoing, not, as Danton might believe, agreeing with the sentiment.

“Yes, Hébert speaks well,” Tallien said, his upturned tone extended. “He deals out his charges with flourish and verve. But he needn’t have gone into so much detail. We all know that citizenness Capet is a whore and profligate.” His smile and the upswings made both Hébert and the profligate sound attractive.

Facing the broad shouldered imposing man whose crude but soft-cheeked face showed so much earnest straightforwardness that he looked slightly innocent, Tallien could not, despite himself, help feeling some liking for him. And, at the same time, he wondered whether this great leader, already slipping but with the people still supreme, might have any glimmer of suspicion about his actively proceeding plans. Standing there before him with his collar unbuttoned, warm, relaxed, and confident, did Danton know they were working to have him unseated and killed?

“But he is so vicious,” Danton countered. “Why the need for such viciousness?” He paused and Tallien said nothing. “Pouf, Tallien. The reason I have called you out—in part, I confess because I could not stand to listen to that Hébert voice any more—was to give you good news.”

“And what is that?”

“You have been appointed as Proconsul to Bordeaux.”

“Good, I am glad.”

“There are so great troubles brewing among the people there.”

“Yes, I know.”

“We decided, as you did so well with the aristocrats—and all the others, eh?—in the Bicêtre prison last year, you are the one to keep things in check.”

“Many who were risks to the Revolution were weeded out.”

“Indeed. And now we need some...ah,” Danton became constrained. His voice was naturally so loud he had to work to soften it. “We need some judicious weeding out, even uprooting, of counterrevolutionaries and other troublemakers.” He put his hand amiably on Tallien’s arm.

Tallien was smiling broadly. Danton was the clandestine force behind the massacres of clergy and supposed aristocrats throughout the Paris prisons in September of the previous year. As supervisor of the prison portion of the Bicêtre, Tallien had, at Danton’s bidding, overseen the mass killing of incarcerated adolescent boys and others who had not sworn allegiance to the Revolution. Because he and Danton had shared such acts, adopted common strategies and causes in the Revolution, Tallien felt he knew the answer to his own question about suspicions. Danton would not dream he was plotting against him. The thought gave Tallien special pleasure, a savoring of his triumphant secret as he faced his prey. He was doubly glad this unsuspecting paragon had helped arrange for such a good assignment.

“It was, of course, unfortunate,” Tallien said. “but quite necessary to do away with those young aristocrats at Bicêtre.”

“Sometimes, we must be ruthless for the Revolution.”

“Indeed. In that instance, though, it was the crowd that did the killings, not I. Since that time, we have all had serious difficulties holding down these counterrevolutionaries.”

“We must stop them from taking over,”

“Yes. I have heard that aristocrats and the royalist emigrés, who went to England and came back, were raising arms in the Bordeaux area. Don’t worry. I shall be single-minded in finding ways to root them out.”

“Good. By the way, about Bicêtre,” Danton inadvertently thundered. Several persons in the corridor turned curiously to look toward them. “Have you heard that the new doctor at the asylum, Philippe Pinel, has taken off the chains from the lunatics and is petitioning to have them removed in all the Paris hospitals?”

“Probably with the support of Robespierre,” Tallien quickly replied. “The man is always citing Rousseau’s dictum, ‘Men are born free, but are everywhere in chains.’ You better watch out, this may be a good time for you too to get out of Paris. Those lunatics will soon be coming out and murdering citizens in their beds.”

Danton laughed. “Sometimes lunatics are smarter than the rest of us. I have heard that George of England had crazy fits during which he allowed the American colonies to go free.”

“Ah, always the seer, a wise connoisseur when it comes to England, eh, Danton?”

“No, Tallien,” Danton boomed, again drawing attention, “giving the English credit does not mean I support them. It is the same contrariwise, is it not?” His eyes narrowed, the innocent expression gone. “Those who sometimes utter criticisms of Robespierre are not necessarily his enemies.”

“Surely not,” Tallien said, drawing himself up poker straight. “All of us—Robespierre, you, me—are devoted to the goals of the Revolution. So, when do I start for Bordeaux?”

“The Council has decided you will leave tomorrow. Good luck.”

As they turned away from each other to return to the trial, Tallien wondered whether he was right about Danton being unsuspecting. His remark about Robespierre suggested he knew of Tallien’s supporting him, maybe even of the secret connivances. He was a formidable enemy. Perhaps he was purposely arranging to get Tallien out of Paris, away from the center of government.

Back in the gallery, Tallien watched the former queen as witness after witness testified against her. He searched the outline of her body under her dress, his eyes following barely visible still rounded contours. Had she done what Hébert said? It hardly mattered. Even if she did, he would never get access to her, test out her voluptuous charms. She was damned and condemned. She would very soon be killed on the guillotine. Too bad that now he would be leaving before the event took place. What a spectacle, the perverted queen without her head!