Courts-martial at that time were endowed with very nearly discretional powers. Dumas, at the legislative Assembly, had sketched out a plan for military legislation, revised later on by Talbot, at the Council of the Five Hundred, but a final code for councils of war was not framed till the time of the empire. It is from the empire, by the way, that dates the obligation imposed upon military tribunals to begin taking votes from officers of inferior rank. This law was not in existence at the time of the Revolution.
In 1793, the presiding officer of a military tribunal was practically the whole tribunal himself; he chose the members, classed the orders of rank, regulated the mode of voting; he was master as well as judge.
Cimourdain had selected for the council-room of the court-martial, this same hall on the ground floor where the retirade had been and where the guardroom was now. He intended to make short work of everything, the way from the prison to the tribunal, and the passage from the tribunal to the scaffold.
At noon, in conformance with his orders, the court was in session with the following adjuncts,—three straw-seated chairs, a deal table, two lighted candles, a stool in front of the table.
The chairs were for the judges and the stool for the accused. At each end of the table there was another stool, one for the commissioner-auditor, who was a quartermaster, the other for the clerk, who was a corporal.
On the table was a stick of red sealing-wax, the copper seal of the Republic, two ink-stands, some sheets of white paper, and two printed placards, spread out open, one containing the declaration of outlawing, the other the decree of the Convention.
Behind the middle chair was a group of tricolored flags; in these times of rude simplicity, decorations were quickly made, and it took little time to change a guardroom into a court of justice.
The middle chair, destined for the presiding officer, faced the door of the dungeon.
The soldiers were the public.
Two gendarmes guarded the stool.
Cimourdain was seated on the middle chair, having Captain Guéchamp on his right as first judge, and on his left the Sergeant Radoub, as second judge.
He wore his hat with a tricolored plume, his sabre at his side, his two pistols in his belt. His scar, which was a vivid red, added to his ferocious appearance.
Radoub had at last allowed his wound to be dressed. Around his head he had a handkerchief on which a bloodstain was slowly increasing in size.
At noon before the court had opened, an express, whose horse could be heard pawing the ground outside, stood near the table of the tribunal. Cimourdain was writing. He wrote this,—
"Citizens, members of the Committee of Public Welfare,—
Lantenac is taken. He will be executed to-morrow."
He dated the despatch, signed it, folded it, sealed it, and gave it to the messenger who started away.
Having done this, Cimourdain said in a loud voice,—
"Open the dungeon."
The two gendarmes drew back the bolts, opened the dungeon and went in. Cimourdain raised his head, folded his arms, looked at the door and cried,—
"Bring in the prisoner."
A man appeared between the two gendarmes, under the arch of the open door.
It was Gauvain.
"Gauvain!" he exclaimed.
And he added,—
"I demand the prisoner."
"I am the prisoner," said Gauvain.
"But where is Lantenac?"
"He is free."
Cimourdain trembling stammered,—
"To be sure, this castle is his, he knows all the means of exit; perhaps the oubliette communicates with some way out; I ought to have thought that he would find some way to escape; he would need no one's aid for that."
"He was aided," said Gauvain.
"Who aided him?"
"You are dreaming!"
"I entered the dungeon; I was alone with the prisoner; I took off my cloak, I threw it over his shoulders, I pulled the hood down over his eyes; he went out in my place, and I remained in his. Here I am."
"You did not do that!"
"I did do it."
"It is impossible."
"It is a fact!"
"Bring Lantenac here!"
"He is no longer here. The soldiers, seeing the commander's cloak, took him for me, and let him pass. It was still night."
"You are mad."
"I am telling you the truth."
There was a silence. Cimourdain stammered,—
"Then you deserve──"
"Death," said Gauvain.
Cimourdain was as pale as a corpse. He was as motionless as a man who has been struck by lightning. It seemed as if he could no longer breathe. Great drops of sweat stood on his forehead.
He steadied his voice and said,—
"Gendarmes, seat the accused."
Gauvain sat down on the stool.
"Gendarmes, draw your swords."
This was the customary formality when the accused was under sentence of capital punishment.
The gendarmes drew their swords.
Cimourdain's voice had regained its usual tone.
"Accused," he said, rise."
He no longer addressed Gauvain familiarly.