Ninety-three/2.2.3

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Ninety-three by Victor Hugo
The Thrill of Hidden Chords.

CHAPTER III.

THE THRILL OF HIDDEN CHORDS.

There was a lull in the conversation; for a moment these Titans each became lost in thought. Lions are disturbed by hydras. Robespierre had grown very pale, and Danton very red. Both trembled. The light died out of Marat's eye; a calmness, an imperious calmness came over the face of this man, the terror of the terrible."

Danton felt that he was conquered, but was unwilling to admit it. He resumed,—

"Marat talks very loud about dictatorship and unity, but he has only one power, that of dissolution."

Robespierre compressed his thin lips, and added,—

"I am of the opinion of Anacharsis Cloots; I say neither Roland nor Marat."

"And for my part," replied Marat, "I say, neither Danton nor Robespierre."

He looked steadily at both and added,—

"Let me give you some advice, Danton. You are in love, you think of marrying again, don't meddle any more with politics, be wise!"

And stepping back towards the door to go out, he gave them this ominous farewell.

"Adieu, gentlemen."

Danton and Robespierre shuddered.

At the same time, a voice rose from the other end of the room, saying,—

"You are wrong, Marat."

All turned round. During Marat's outburst, some one had come in by the rear door, without their notice.

"It is you, Citizen Cimourdain," said Marat. "Good evening."

It was Cimourdain, indeed.

"I say that you are wrong, Marat," he repeated.

Marat turned green, which was his way of growing pale.

Cimourdain added,—

"You are useful, but Robespierre and Danton are necessary. Why do you threaten them? Union, union, citizen! the people want to be united."

This coming in had the effect of cold water, and like the arrival of a stranger in midst of a family quarrel, it calmed at least the surface, if not the depths.

Cimourdain stepped towards the table.

Danton and Robespierre knew him. They had often noticed in the public tribunes of the Convention, this powerful but obscure man whom the people saluted. Robespierre, always inclined to formality, asked,—

"Citizen, how did you get in?"

"He belongs to the Evêché," replied Marat, in a voice with a strange touch of submission in it.

Marat defied the Convention, led the Commune, and feared the Evêché.

This is a law.

Mirabeau felt Robespierre moving at an unknown depth, Robespierre felt Marat moving, Marat felt Hébert moving, Hébert felt Babeuf moving. As long as the strata under-ground are quiet, the political man may walk along, but under the most revolutionary there is a subsoil, and the bravest stop in alarm when they feel beneath their feet the movement that they have caused above their heads.

To know how to distinguish the agitation arising from covetousness, from the agitation arising from principles, to fight the one and aid the other, in this lies the genius and the power of great revolutionary leaders.

Danton saw that Marat was yielding.

"Oh! Citizen Cimourdain is welcome," he said.

And he held out his hand to Cimourdain. Then he said,—

"Parbleu, let us explain the situation to Citizen Cimourdain. He comes at just the right moment. I represent the Mountain, Robespierre represents the Committee of Public Welfare, Marat represents the Commune, Cimourdain represents the Evêché. He shall be our umpire."

"So be it," said Cimourdain, solemnly and simply. "What is the question?"

"About la Vendée," replied Robespierre.

"La Vendée!" said Cimourdain.

And he added,—

"There lies the great danger. If the Revolution comes to naught, it will come to naught through la Vendée. One Vendée is more to be feared than ten Germanys. For France to live, Vendée must be killed."

These few words won Robespierre.

Robespierre, however, put this question,—

"Were you not formerly a priest?"

His priestly air did not escape Robespierre. He recognized by his exterior what was in the man.

Cimourdain replied: "Yes, citizen."

"What of that?" exclaimed Danton. "When priests are good, they are worth more than other men. In times of revolution, priests are melted up into men, as bells into money and cannons. Danjou is a priest, Daunou is a priest, Thomas Lindet is bishop of Evreux. Robespierre, you sit at the Convention side by side with Massieu, Bishop of Beauvais. The grand-vicar Vaugeois belonged to the Committee of Insurrection of the tenth of August. Chabot is a Capuchin. It was Dom Gerle who invented the oath of the tennis court; it was the Abbé Audran who caused the National Assembly to be declared superior to the king; it was the Abbé Goutte who asked the Legislature to have the dais taken away from Louis XVI.'s arm-chair; it was the Abbé Grégoire who provoked the abolition of royalty."

"Supported by the player, Collot-d'Herbois," sneered Marat. "The two together did the work; the priest overthrew the throne, the comedian threw down the king."

"Let us return to la Vendée," said Robespierre.

"Well," asked Cimourdain, "what is the matter there? What is this Vendée doing?"

Robespierre replied,—

"She has a chief. She is going to be tremendous."

Who is this chief, Citizen Robespierre?"

"He is a former Marquis de Lautenac, who calls himself Prince of Brittany."

Cimourdain started.

"I know him," he said. "I have been a priest at his house."

He thought for a moment, and then added,—

"He was fond of women before he became a warrior."

"Like Biron, who was a Lauzun," said Danton.

And Cimourdain added thoughtfully—

"Yes, he was formerly a man of pleasure. He must be terrible."

"Frightful," said Robespierre. "He burns villages, puts an end to the wounded, massacres the prisoners, shoots the women."

"The women?"

"Yes, among others he had a mother of three children shot. Nobody knows what became of the children. Besides he is a captain. He understands warfare."

"To be sure," replied Cimourdain. "He was in the war with Hanover, and the soldiers said: 'Richelieu uppermost, Lantenac at the bottom.' Lantenac was the real general. Talk about him to your colleague, Dussaulx."

Robespierre remained thoughtful for a moment, then the conversation continued between him and Cimourdain.

"Well, Citizen Cimourdain, this man is in Vendée."

"How long has he been there?"

"Three weeks."

"He must be outlawed."

"That has been done."

"A price must be set on his head."

"It has been done."

"A large sum of money must be offered to the one who captures him."

"It has been done."

"Not in assignats."

"It has been done."

"In gold."

"It has been done."

"And he must be guillotined."

"It will be done."

"By whom?"

"By you."

"By me?"

"Yes, you will be commissioned by the Committee of Public Welfare with full power."

"I accept," said Cimourdain.

Robespierre was swift in his selections, a characteristic of a statesman. He took from the pile before him a sheet of white paper, with this printed heading: French Republic, one and indivisible. Committee of Public Welfare.

Cimourdain continued,—

"Yes, I accept. Terror against terror, Lantenac is cruel. I shall be cruel. War to the death against this man. I will deliver the Republic from him, so it please God."

He stopped, then added,—

"I am a priest; all the same, I believe in God."

"God has gone out of fashion."

"I believe in God," said Cimourdain, unmoved.

"With a nod of the head, Robespierre gloomily assented.

Cimourdain continued,—

"To whom shall I be sent as a delegate?"

"The commandant of the reconnoitring column sent against Lantenac. Only, I warn you, he is a noble."

Danton exclaimed,—

"There is another thing that I care very little about. A noble? Well, what of it? It is the same with nobles as with priests. If they are good, they are excellent. Nobility is a prejudice, but one must not have it more in one sense than in another, not more for than against it. Robespierre, isn't Saint-Just a noble? Florelle de Saint-Just. Parbleu! Anacharsis Cloots is a baron. Our friend, Charles Hesse, who never misses a meeting of the Cordeliers, is a prince, and brother of the reigning landgrave of Hesse-Rothenburg. Montaut, Marat's intimate friend, is Marquis de Montaut. In the Revolutionary tribunal, there is a member who is a priest, Vilate, and a member who is a noble, Leroy, Marquis de Montflabert. Both are trustworthy."

"And you forget," added Robespierre, "the head of the Revolutionary jury,—"

"Antonelle?"

"Who is the Marquis Antonelle," said Robespierre.

Danton added,—

"Dampierre was a nobleman, who has just given his life before Condé, for the Republic; and Beaurepaire, who blew his brains out rather than open the gates of Verdun to the Prussians, was a nobleman."

"Which does not alter the fact," growled Marat, "that the day Condorcet exclaimed, 'The Gracchi were noblemen!' Danton cried out to him: 'All noblemen are traitors, beginning with Mirabeau, and ending with yourself!'"

Cimourdain's solemn voice now rose.

"Citizen Danton, Citizen Robespierre, perhaps you are right in your confidence, but the people are distrustful, and they are not wrong in their distrust. When a priest is charged to look after a nobleman, the responsibility is increased twofold, and the priest must be inflexible."

"Certainly," said Robespierre.

Cimourdain added: "And inexorable."

Robespierre continued,—

"Well said, Citizen Cimourdain. You will have to deal with a young man. You will have the advantage over him, being twice his age. You will have to direct him, but you must manage him. It seems that he has military talents; all accounts are agreed on that point. He belongs to a corps of the army of the Rhine, which has been detached to go to Vendée. He has reached the frontier, where he is showing admirable intelligence and bravery. He is leading the reconnoitring column in a superior manner. For two weeks, he has held the old Marquis de Lantenac in check. He restrains him and drives him before him. He will end by driving him back to the sea, and overthrowing him there. Lantenac has the art of an old general, and he has the audacity of a young captain. This young man already has enemies, and some are envious of him. The Adjutant-General, Léchelle, is jealous of him."

"This Léchelle," interrupted Danton, "wants to be general in chief! he has nothing to recommend him, but a pun:[1] a ladder is needed to mount upon a wagon. Nevertheless, Charette is beating him."

"And he doesn't want any one but himself to beat Lantenac," continued Robespierre. "The misfortune of the Vendéan war lies in such rivalries as these. Heroes badly commanded, that is what our soldiers are. A mere captain of hussars, Chérin, enters Saumur with a trumpet playing. "Ca ira"; he takes Saumur, and might have gone on and taken Cholet, but he had no orders, and stopped. All the commands of la Vendée ought to be changed. The body-guards are scattered, the forces dispersed; a scattered army is a paralyzed army; it is a rock ground to powder. In the camp at Paramé there are nothing but tents. Between Tréguier and Dinan there are a hundred little useless posts which might be made into a division to cover the whole coast. Léchelle, supported by Parrein, is leaving the northern coast unguarded, under pretext of protecting the southern coast, and in this way opening France to the English. To raise half a million peasants, and a descent from England on France, is Lantenac's design. The young commander of the reconnoitring column is pushing on this Lantenac at the point of the sword, and defeating him without Léchelle's permission; but Léchelle is his general; so Léchelle complains of him. Opinions concerning this young man are divided. Léchelle wants to have him shot. Prieur de la Marne wants to make him adjutant-general."

"This young man," said Cimourdain, "has great qualities, so it seems to me."

"But he has one fault."

It was Marat who interrupted.

"What is it?" asked Cimourdain.

"Clemency," said Marat.

And Marat added,—

"He is decided in battle and soft-hearted afterwards. That makes him indulgent, that makes him pardon; be merciful, protect the religieuses and nuns, save the wives and the daughters of the aristocracy, release prisoners, set priests at liberty."

"A serious fault," murmured Cimourdain.

"A crime," said Marat.

"Sometimes," said Danton.

"Often," said Robespierre.

"Almost always," added Marat.

"When dealing with the enemies of one's own country, always," said Cimourdain.

Marat turned toward Cimourdain.

"And what would you do with a Republican general who gave a Royalist general his liberty?"

"I should be of Léchelle's opinion, I should have him shot."

"Or guillotined," said Marat.

"Either," said Cimourdain.

Danton began to laugh.

"I should like one as well as the other."

"You are sure to have one or the other," growled Marat.

And his eyes, leaving Danton, turned to Cimourdain.

"So, Citizen Cimourdain, if a Republican general flinches, you would have his head cut off?"

"Within twenty-four hours."

"Well," replied Marat, "I am of Robespierre's opinion; we must send Citzen Cimourdain as a delegate of the Committee of Public Welfare to the commandant of the reconnoitring column of the coast army. What is the name of this commandant?"

Robespierre replied,—

"He is a ci-devant, a noble."

And he began to turn over the papers.

"Let us send the priest to guard the noble," said Danton,

"I distrust a priest alone; I distrust a noble alone; when they are together, I am not afraid of them; one will watch over the other, and they will do."

The expression of indignation peculiar to Cimourdain's eyebrows deepened; but finding the observation just at bottom, he began to speak in his harsh voice, without looking toward Danton.

"If the Republican commandant who is entrusted to my care makes a false step, the penalty will be death."

Robespierre, with his eyes still on the papers, said,—

"Here is the name. Citzen Cimourdain, the commandant over whom you will have full power is a former viscount; his name is Gauvain."

Cimourdain grew pale.

"Gauvain!" he exclaimed.

Marat noticed Cimourdain's pale face.

"The Viscount Gauvain!" repeated Cimourdain.

"Yes," said Robespierre.

"Well?" said Marat, fixing his eye on Cimourdain.

There was a pause. Then Marat said,—

"Citzen Cimourdain, on the conditions named by yourself, do you accept the mission of delegate to the commandant, Gauvain? Is it agreed?"

"Agreed," said Cimourdain.

He grew paler and paler.

Robespierre took the pen near him, wrote in his slow and formal handwriting four lines on the sheet of paper with the heading, "Committee of Public Welfare," signed it, and passed the sheet and the pen to Danton; Danton signed it; and then Marat, who did not take his eyes from Cimourdain's pale face, signed it after Danton."

Robespierre took the sheet of paper again, dated it, and gave it to Cimourdain, who read,—


"Year II. of the Republic.

"Full power is granted to Citizen Cimourdain, delegated commissioner from the Committee of Public Welfare to Citizen Gauvain, commandant of the reconnoitring column of the coast army.

Robespierre.—Danton.—Marat."

And below these signatures,—

"Twenty-eighth of June, 1793."

The Revolutionary Calendar, called the Civil Calendar, was not in existence legally at this period, and was not adopted by the Convention, according to the proposition of Romme, till the fifth of October, 1793.

Marat watched Cimourdain while he read the paper.

Marat said in an undertone, as if speaking to himself:

"All that will have to be specified by a decree of the Convention, or by a special resolution of the Committee of Public Welfare. There is something yet to be done."

"Citzen Cimourdain," asked Robespierre, "where do you live?"

"Court of Commerce."

"Wait; so do I," said Danton; "you are my neighbor."

Robespierre added,—

"There is not a moment to be lost. To-morrow, you will receive your commission in due form, signed by all the members of the Committee of Public Welfare. This is a confirmation of the commission which will accredit you especially with the active representatives Phillieaux, Prieur de la Marne, Lecointre, Alquier, and others. We know who you are. Your powers are unlimited. You can make Gauvain general or send him to the scaffold. You will have your commission to-morrow at three o'clock. When will you start?"

"At four o'clock," said Cimourdain.

And they separated.

On his way home, Marat informed Simonne Evrard that he should go to the Convention the following day.


  1. Il faut Léchelle pour monter sur Charette.