VIII, THE NIGHT OF TERROR--The Drownings At Nantes Under Carrier
The Revolutionary Committee of the city of Nantes, reinforced by some of the administrators of the district and a few members of the People's Society, sat in the noble hall of the Cour des Comptes, which still retained much of its pre-republican sumptuousness. They sat expectantly—Goullin, the attorney, president of the committee, a frail, elegant valetudinarian, fierily eloquent; Grandmaison, the fencing-master, who once had been a gentleman, fierce of eye and inflamed of countenance; Minee, the sometime bishop, now departmental president; Pierre Chaux, the bankrupt merchant; the sans-culotte Forget, of the People's Society, an unclean, ill-kempt ruffian; and some thirty others called like these from every walk of life.
Lamps were lighted, and under their yellow glare the huddled company—for the month was December, and the air of the vast room was chill and dank—looked anxious and ill at ease.
Suddenly the doors were thrown open by an usher; and his voice rang loud in announcement—
"The Citizen Representative Carrier."
The great man came in, stepping quickly. Of middle height, very frail and delicate, his clay-colored face was long and thin, with arched eyebrows, a high nose, and a loose, coarse mouth. His deeply sunken dark eyes glared fiercely, and wisps of dead-black hair, which had escaped the confining ribbon of his queue, hung about his livid brow. He was wrapped in a riding-coat of bottle-green, heavily lined with fur, the skirts reaching down to the tops of his Hessian boots, and the enormous turned-up collar almost touching the brim of his round hat. Under the coat his waist was girt with the tricolour of office, and there were gold rings in his ears.
Such at the age of five-and-thirty was Jean Baptiste Carrier, Representative of the Convention with the Army of the West, the attorney who once had been intended by devout parents for the priesthood. He had been a month in Nantes, sent thither to purge the body politic.
He reached a chair placed in the focus of the gathering, which sat in a semicircle. Standing by it, one of his lean hands resting upon the back, he surveyed them, disgust in his glance, a sneer curling his lip, so terrible and brutal of aspect despite his frailness that more than one of those stout fellows quailed now before him.
Suddenly he broke into torrential speech, his voice shrill and harsh:
"I do not know by what fatality it happens, but happen it does, that during the month that I have been in Nantes you have never ceased to give me reason to complain of you. I have summoned you to meet me here that you may justify yourselves, if you can, for your ineptitude!" And he flung himself into the chair, drawing his fur-lined coat about him. "Let me hear from you!" he snapped.
Minee, the unfrocked bishop, preserving still a certain episcopal portliness of figure, a certain episcopal oiliness of speech, respectfully implored the representative to be more precise.
The invitation flung him into a passion. His irascibility, indeed, deserved to become a byword.
"Name of a name!" he shrilled, his sunken eyes ablaze, his face convulsed. "Is there a thing I can mention in this filthy city of yours that is not wrong? Everything is wrong! You have failed in your duty to provide adequately for the army of Vendee. Angers has fallen, and now the brigands are threatening Nantes itself. There is abject want in the city, disease is rampant; people are dying of hunger in the streets and of typhus in the prisons. And sacre nom!—you ask me to be precise! I'll be precise in telling you where lies the fault. It lies in your lousy administration. Do you call yourselves administrators? You—" He became unprintable. "I have come here to shake you out of your torpor, and by—I'll shake you out of it or I'll have the blasted heads off the lot of you."
They shivered with chill fear under the wild glare of his sunken eyes.
"Well?" he barked after a long pause. "Are you all dumb as well as idiots?"
It was the ruffian Forget who had the courage to answer him:
"I have told the People's Society that if the machine works badly it is because the Citizen Carrier refuses to consult with the administration."
"You told them that, did you, you—liar?" screeched Carrier. "Am I not here now to consult with you? And should I not have come before had you suggested it? Instead, you have waited until, of my own accord, I should come to tell you that your administration is ruining Nantes."
Goullin, the eloquent and elegant Goullin, rose to soothe him:
"Citizen Representative, we admit the truth of all that you have said. There has been a misunderstanding. We could not take it upon ourselves to summon the august representative of the Sacred People. I We have awaited your own good pleasure, and now that you have made this manifest, there is no reason why the machine should not work effectively. The evils of which you speak exist, alas! But they are not so deeply rooted that, working under your guidance and advice, we cannot uproot them, rendering the soil fertile once more of good under the beneficent fertilizing showers of liberty."
Mollified, Carrier grunted approval.
"That is well said, Citizen Goullin. The fertilizer needed by the soil is blood—the bad blood of aristocrats and federalists, and I can promise you, in the name of the august people, that it shall be abundantly provided."
The assembly broke into applause, and his vanity melted to it. He stood up, expressed his gratification at being so completely understood, opened his arms, and invited the departmental president, Minee, to come down and receive the kiss of brotherhood.
Thereafter they passed to the consideration of measures of improvement, of measures to combat famine and disease. In Carrier's view there was only one way of accomplishing this—the number of mouths to be fed must be reduced, the diseased must be eliminated. It was the direct, the radical, the heroic method.
That very day six prisoners in Le Bouffay had been sentenced to death for attempting to escape.
"How do we know," he asked, "that those six include all the guilty? How do we know that all in Le Bouffay do not share the guilt? The prisoners are riddled with disease, which spreads to the good patriots of Nantes; they eat bread, which is scarce, whilst good patriots starve. We must have the heads off all those blasted swine!" He took fire at his own suggestion. "Aye, that would be a useful measure. We'll deal with it at once. Let some one fetch the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal."
He was fetched—a man of good family and a lawyer, named Francois Phelippes.
"Citizen President," Carrier greeted him, "the administration of Nantes has been considering an important measure. To-day you sentenced to death six prisoners in Le Bouffay for attempting to escape. You are to postpone execution so as to include all the Bouffay prisoners in the sentence."
Although an ardent revolutionary, Phelippes was a logically minded man with a lawyer's reverence for the sacredness of legal form. This command, issued with such cynical coldness, and repudiated by none of those present, seemed to him as grotesque and ridiculous as it was horrible.
"But that is impossible, Citizen Representative," said he.
"Impossible!" snarled Carrier. "A fool's word. The administration desires you to understand that it is not impossible. The sacred will of the august people—"
Phelippes interrupted him without ceremony.
"There is no power in France that can countermand the execution of a sentence of the law."
Carrier's loose mouth fell open. He was too amazed to be angry.
"Moreover," Phelippes pursued calmly, "there is the fact that all the other prisoners in Le Bouffay are innocent of the offence for which the six are to die."
"What has that to do with it?" roared Carrier. "Last year I rode a she-ass that could argue better than you! In the name of—, what has that to do with it?"
But there were members of the assembly who thought with Phelippes, and who, whilst lacking the courage to express themselves, yet found courage to support another who so boldly expressed them.
Carrier sprang up quivering with rage before that opposition. "It seems to me," he snarled, "that there are more than the scoundrels in Le Bouffay who need to be shortened by a head for the good of the nation. I tell you that you are slaying the commonweal by your slowness and circumspection. Let all the scoundrels perish!"
A handsome, vicious youngster named Robin made chorus.
"Patriots are without bread! It is fitting that the scoundrels should die, and not eat the bread of starving patriots."
Carrier shook his fist at the assembly.
"You hear, you—! I cannot pardon whom the law condemns."
It was an unfortunate word, and Phelippes fastened on it.
"That is the truth, Citizen Representative," said Phelippes. "And as for the prisoners in Le Bouffay, you will wait until the law condemns them."
And without staying to hear more, he departed as firmly as he had come, indifferent to the sudden uproar.
When he had gone, the Representative flung himself into his chair again, biting his lip.
"There goes a fellow who will find his way to the guillotine in time," he growled.
But he was glad to be rid of him, and would not have him brought back. He saw how the opposition of Phelippes had stiffened the weaker opposition of some of those in the assembly. If he was to have his way he would contrive better without the legal-minded President of the Revolutionary Tribunal. And his way he had in the end, though not until he had stormed and cursed and reviled the few who dared to offer remonstrances to his plan of wholesale slaughter.
When at last he took his departure, it was agreed that the assembly should proceed to elect a jury which was to undertake the duty of drawing up immediately a list of those confined in the prisons of Nantes. This list they were to deliver when ready to the committee, which would know how to proceed, for Carrier had made his meaning perfectly clear. The first salutary measure necessary to combat the evils besetting the city was to wipe out at once the inmates of all the prisons in Nantes.
In the chill December dawn of the next day the committee—which had sat all night under the presidency of Goullin forwarded a list of some five hundred prisoners to General Boivin, the commandant of the city of Nantes, together with an order to collect them without a moment's delay, take them to L'Eperonniere, and there have them shot.
But Boivin was a soldier, and a soldier is not a sans-culotte. He took the order to Phelippes, with the announcement that he had no intention of obeying it. Phelippes, to Boivin's amazement, agreed with him. He sent the order back to the committee, denouncing it as flagrantly illegal, and reminding them that it was illegal to remove any prisoner, no matter by whose order, without such an order as might follow upon a decision of the Tribunal.
The committee, intimidated by this firmness on the part of the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, dared not insist, and there the matter remained.
When Carrier learnt of it the things he said were less than ever fit for publication. He raved like a madman at the very thought that a quibbling lawyer should stand in the very path of him, the august representative of the Sacred People.
It had happened that fifty-three priests, who had been brought to Nantes a few days before, were waiting in the sheds of the entrepot for prison accommodation, so that their names did not yet appear upon any of the prison registers. As a solatium to his wounded feelings, he ordered his friends of the Marat Company to get rid of them.
Lamberty, the leader of the Marats, asked him how it should be done.
"How?" he croaked. "Not so much mystery, my friend. Fling the swine into the water, and so let's be rid of them. There will be plenty of their kind left in France."
But he seems to have explained himself further, and what precisely were his orders, and how they were obeyed, transpires from a letter which he wrote to the Convention, stating that those fifty-three wretched priests, "being confined in a boat on the Loire, were last night swallowed up by the river." And he added the apostrophe, "What a revolutionary torrent is the Loire!"
The Convention had no illusions as to his real meaning; and when Carrier heard that his letter had been applauded by the National Assembly, he felt himself encouraged to break down all barriers of mere legality that might obstruct his path. And, after all, what the Revolutionary Committee as a body—intimidated by Phelippes—dared not do could be done by his faithful and less punctilious friends of the Marat Company.
This Marat Company, the police of the Revolutionary Committee, enrolled from the scourings of Nantes' sans-culottism, and captained by a ruffian named Fleury, had been called into being by Carrier himself with the assistance of Goullin.
On the night of the 24th Frimaire of the year III (December 14, 1793, old style), which was a Saturday, Fleury mustered some thirty of his men, and took them to the Cour des Comptes, where they were awaited by Goullin, Bachelier, Grandmaison, and some other members of the committee entirely devoted to Carrier. From these the Marats received their formal instructions.
"Plague," Goullin informed them, "is raging in the gaols, and its ravages must be arrested. You will therefore proceed this evening to the prison of Le Bouffay in order to take over the prisoners whom you will march up to the Quay La Fosse, whence they will be shipped to Belle Isle."
In a cell of that sordid old building known as Le Bouffay lay a cocassier, an egg and poultry dealer, arrested some three years before upon a charge of having stolen a horse, and since forgotten. His own version was that a person of whom he knew very little had entrusted him with the sale of the stolen animal in possession of which he was discovered.
The story sounds familiar; it is the sort of story that must have done duty many times; and it is probable that the cocassier was no better than he should have been. Nevertheless Fate selected him to be one of her unconscious instruments. His name was Leroy, and we have his own word for it that he was a staunch patriot. The horse business was certainly in the best vein of sans-culottism.
Leroy was awakened about ten o'clock that night by sounds that were very unusual in that sombre, sepulchral prison. They were sounds of unbridled revelry—snatches of ribald song, bursts of coarse, reverberating laughter and they proceeded, as it seemed to him, from the courtyard and the porter's lodge.
He crawled from the dank straw which served him for a bed, and approached the door to listen. Clearly the porter Laqueze was entertaining friends and making unusually merry. It was also to be gathered that Laqueze's friends were getting very drunk. What the devil did it mean?
His curiosity was soon to be very fully gratified. Came heavy steps up the stone staircase, the clatter of sabots, the clank of weapons, and through the grille of his door an increasing light began to beat.
Some one was singing the "Carmagnole" in drunken, discordant tones. Keys rattled, bolts were drawn; doors were being flung open. The noise increased. Above the general din he heard the detestable voice of the turnkey.
"Come and see my birds in their cages. Come and see my pretty birds."
Leroy began to have an uneasy premonition that the merrymaking portended sinister things.
"Get up, all of you!" bawled the turnkey. "Up and pack your traps. You're to go on a voyage. No laggards, now. Up with you!"
The door of Leroy's cell was thrown open in its turn, and he found himself confronting a group of drunken ruffians. One of these—a red-capped giant with long, black mustaches and a bundle of ropes over one arm suddenly pounced upon him. The cocassier was an active, vigorous young man. But, actuated by fear and discretion, he permitted himself tamely to be led away.
Along the stone-flagged corridor he went, and on every hand beheld his fellow-prisoners in the same plight, being similarly dragged from their cells and similarly hurried below. At the head of the stairs one fellow, perfectly drunk, was holding a list, hiccupping over names which he garbled ludicrously as he called them out. He was lighted in his task by a candle held by another who was no less drunk. The swaying pair seemed to inter-support one another grotesquely.
Leroy suffered himself to be led down the stairs, and so came to the porter's lodge, where he beheld a half-dozen Marats assembled round a table, with bumpers of wine before them, bawling, singing, cursing, and cracking lewd jests at the expense of each prisoner as he entered. The place was in a litter. A lamp had been smashed, and there was a puddle of wine on the floor from a bottle that had been knocked over. On a bench against the wall were ranged a number of prisoners, others lay huddled on the floor, and all of them were pinioned.
Two or three of the Marats lurched up to Leroy, and ran their hands over him, turning out his pockets, and cursing him foully for their emptiness. He saw the same office performed upon others, and saw them stripped of money, pocket-books, watches, rings, buckles, and whatever else of value they happened to possess. One man, a priest, was even deprived of his shoes by a ruffian who was in want of foot-gear.
As they were pinioning his wrists, Leroy looked up. He confesses that he was scared.
"What is this for?" he asked. "Does it mean death?"
With an oath he was bidden to ask no questions.
"If I die," he assured them, "you will be killing a good republican."
A tall man with an inflamed countenance and fierce, black eyes, that were somewhat vitreous, now leered down upon him.
"You babbling fool! It's not your life, it's your property we want."
This was Grandmaison, the fencing-master, who once had been a gentleman. He had been supping with Carrier, and he had only just arrived at Le Bouffay, accompanied by Goullin. He found the work behind time, and told them so.
"Leave that fellow now, Jolly. He's fast enough. Up and fetch the rest. It's time to be going... time to be going."
Flung aside now that he was pinioned, Leroy sat down on the floor and looked about him. Near him an elderly man was begging for a cup of water. They greeted the prayer with jeering laughter.
"Water! By Sainte Guillotine, he asks for water!" The drunken sans-culottes were intensely amused. "Patience, my friend—patience, and you shall drink your fill. You shall drink from the great cup."
Soon the porter's lodge was crowded with prisoners, and they were overflowing into the passage.
Came Grandmaison cursing and swearing at the sluggishness of the Marats, reminding them—as he had been reminding them for the last hour—that it was time to be off, that the tide was on the ebb.
Stimulated by him, Jolly—the red-capped giant with the black mustaches—and some others of the Marat Company, set themselves to tie the prisoners into chains of twenty, further to ensure against possible evasion. They were driven into the chilly courtyard, and there Grandmaison, followed by a fellow with a lantern, passed along the ranks counting them.
The result infuriated him.
"A hundred and five!" he roared, and swore horribly. "You have been here nearly five hours, and in all that time you have managed to truss up only a hundred and five. Are we never to get through with it? I tell you the tide is ebbing. It is time to be off."
Laqueze, the porter of Le Bouffay, with whose food and wine those myrmidons of the committee had made so disgracefully free, came to assure him that he had all who were in the prison.
"All?" cried Grandmaison, aghast. "But according to the list there should have been nearer two hundred." And he raised his voice to call: "Goullin! Hola, Goullin! Where the devil is Goullin?"
"The list," Laqueze told him, "was drawn up from the register. But you have not noted that many have died since they came—we have had the fever here—and that a few are now in hospital."
"In hospital! Bah! Go up, some of you, and fetch them. We are taking them somewhere where they will be cured." And then he hailed the elegant Goullin, who came up wrapped in a cloak. "Here's a fine bathing-party!" he grumbled. "A rare hundred of these swine!"
Goullin turned to Laqueze.
"What have you done with the fifteen brigands I sent you this evening?"
"But they only reached Nantes to-day," said Laqueze, who understood nothing of these extraordinary proceedings. "They have not yet been registered, not even examined."
"I asked you what you have done with them?" snapped Goullin.
"They are upstairs."
"Then fetch them. They are as good as any others."
With these, and a dozen or so dragged from sick-beds, the total was made up to about a hundred and thirty.
The Marats, further reinforced now by half a company of National Guards, set out from the prison towards five o'clock in the morning; urging their victims along with blows and curses.
Our cocassier found himself bound wrist to wrist with a young Capuchin brother, who stumbled along in patient resignation, his head bowed, his lips moving as if he were in prayer.
"Can you guess what they are going to do with us?" murmured Leroy.
He caught the faint gleam of the Capuchin's eyes in the gloom.
"I do not know, brother. Commend yourself to God, and so be prepared for whatever may befall."
The answer was not very comforting to a man of Leroy's temperament. He stumbled on, and they came now upon the Place du Bouffay, where the red guillotine loomed in ghostly outline, and headed towards the Quai Tourville. Thence they were marched by the river the whole length of the Quai La Fosse. Fear spreading amongst them, some clamours were raised, to be instantly silenced by blows and assurances that they were to be shipped to Belle Isle, where they were to be set to work to build a fort.
The cocassier thought this likely enough, and found it more comforting than saying his prayers—a trick which he had long since lost.
As they defiled along the quays, an occasional window was thrown up, and an inquisitive head protruded, to be almost instantly withdrawn again.
On the Cale Robin at last they were herded into a shed which opened on to the water. Here they found a large lighter alongside, and they beheld in the lantern-light the silhouettes of a half-dozen shipwrights busily at work upon it, whilst the place rang with the blows of hammers and the scream of saws.
Some of those nearest the barge saw what was being done. Two great ports were being opened in the vessel's side, and over one of these thus opened the shipwrights were nailing planks. They observed that these ports, which remained above the water-line now that the barge was empty, would be well below it once she were laden, and conceiving that they perceived at last the inhuman fate awaiting them, their terror rose again. They remembered snatches of conversation and grim jests uttered by the Marats in Le Bouffay, which suddenly became clear, and the alarm spreading amongst them, they writhed and clamoured, screamed for mercy, cursed and raved.
Blows were showered upon them. In vain was it sought to quiet them again with that fable of a fort to be constructed on Belle Isle. One of them in a frenzy of despair tore himself free of his bonds, profited by a moment of confusion, and vanished so thoroughly that Grandmaison and his men lost a quarter of an hour seeking him in vain, and would have so spent the remainder of the night but for a sharp word from a man in a greatcoat and a round hat who stood looking on in conversation with Goullin.
"Get on, man! Never mind that one! We'll have him later. It will be daylight soon. You've wasted time enough already."
It was Carrier.
He had come in person to see the execution of his orders, and at his command Grandmaison now proceeded to the loading. A ladder was set against the side of the lighter by which the prisoners were to descend. The cords binding them in chains were now severed, and they were left pinioned only by the wrists. They were ordered to embark. But as they were slow to obey, and as some, indeed, hung back wailing and interceding, he and Jolly took them by their collars, thrust them to the edge, and bundled them neck and crop down into the hold, recking nothing of broken limbs. Finding this method of embarkation more expeditious, the use of the ladder was neglected thenceforth.
Among the last to be thus flung aboard was our cocassier Leroy. He fell soft upon a heaving, writhing mass of humanity, which only gradually shook down and sorted itself out on the bottom of the lighter when the hatches overhead were being nailed down. Yet by an odd chance the young Capuchin and Leroy, who had been companions in the chain, were not separated even now. Amid the human welter in that agitated place of darkness, the cries and wails that rang around him, Leroy recognized the voice of the young friar exhorting them to prayer.
They were in the stern of the vessel, against one of the sides, and Leroy, who still kept a grip on the wits by which he had lived, bade the Capuchin hold up his wrists. Then he went nosing like a dog, until at last he found them, and his strong teeth fastened upon the cord that bound them, and began with infinite patience to gnaw it through.
Meanwhile that floating coffin had left its moorings and was gliding with the stream. On the hatches sat Grandmaison, with Jolly and two other Marats, howling the "Carmagnole" to drown the cries of the wretches underneath, and beating time with their feet upon the deck.
Leroy's teeth worked on like a rat's until at last the cord was severed. Then, lest they should be parted in the general heaving and shifting of that human mass, those teeth of his fastened upon the Capuchin's sleeve.
"Take hold of me!" he commanded as distinctly as he could; and the Capuchin gratefully obeyed. "Now untie my wrists!"
The Capuchin's hands slid along Leroy's arms until they found his hands, and there his fingers grew busy, groping at the knots. It was no easy matter to untie them in the dark, guided by sense of touch alone. But the friar was persistent and patient, and in the end the last knot ran loose, and our cocassier was unpinioned.
It comforted him out of all proportion to the advantage. At least his hands were free for any emergency that might offer. That he depended in such a situation, and with no illusions as to what was to happen, upon emergency, shows how tenacious he was of hope.
He had been released not a moment too soon. Overhead, Grandmaison and his men were no longer singing. They were moving about. Something bumped against the side of the vessel, near the bow, obviously a boat, and voices came up from below the level of the deck. Then the lighter shuddered under a great blow upon the planks of the forecastle port. The cries in the hold redoubled. Panting, cursing, wailing men hurtled against Leroy, and almost crushed him for a moment under their weight as the vessel heaved to starboard. Came a succession of blows, not only on the port in the bow, but also on that astern. There was a cracking and rending of timbers, and the water rushed in.
Then the happenings in that black darkness became indescribably horrible. In their frenzy not a few had torn themselves free of their bonds. These hurled themselves towards the open ports through which the water was pouring. They tore at the planks with desperate, lacerated hands. Some got their arms through, seeking convulsively to widen the openings and so to gain an egress. But outside in the shipwrights' boat stood Grandmaison, the fencing-master, brandishing a butcher's sword.
With derision and foul objurgations he slashed at protruding arms and hands, thrust his sword again and again through the port into that close-packed, weltering mass, until at last the shipwrights backed away the boat to escape the suction of the sinking lighter.
The vessel, with its doomed freight of a hundred and thirty human lives, settled down slowly by the head, and the wailing and cursing was suddenly silenced as the icy waters of the Loire eddied over it and raced on.
Caught in the swirl of water, Leroy had been carried up against the deck of the lighter. Instinctively he had clutched at a crossbeam. The water raced over his head, and then, to his surprise, receded, beat up once or twice as the lighter grounded, and finally settled on a level with his shoulders.
He was quick to realize what had happened. The lighter had gone down by the head on a shallow. Her stern remained slightly protruding, so that in that part of her between the level of the water and the deck there was a clear space of perhaps a foot or a foot and a half. Yet of the hundred and thirty doomed wretches on board he was the only one who had profited by this extraordinary chance.
Leroy hung on there; and thereafter for two hours, to use his own expression, he floated upon corpses. A man of less vigorous mettle, moral and physical, could never have withstood the ordeal of a two hours' immersion in the ice-cold water of that December morning. Leroy clung on, and hoped. I have said that he was tenacious of hope. And soon after daybreak he was justified of his confidence in his luck. As the first livid gleams of light began to suffuse the water in which he floated, a creaking of rowlocks and a sound of voices reached his ears. A boat was passing down the river.
Leroy shouted, and his voice rang hollow and sepulchral on the morning stillness. The creak of oars ceased abruptly. He shouted again, and was answered. The oars worked now at twice their former speed. The boat was alongside. Blows of a grapnel tore at the planking of the deck until there was a hole big enough to admit the passage of his body.
He looked through the faint mist which he had feared never to see again, heaved himself up with what remained him of strength until his breast was on a level with the deck, and beheld two men in a boat.
But, exhausted by the effort, his numbed limbs refused to support him. He sank back, and went overhead, fearing now, indeed, that help had arrived too late. But as he struggled to the surface the bight of a rope smacked the water within the hold. Convulsively he clutched it, wound it about one arm, and bade them haul.
Thus they dragged him out and aboard their own craft, and put him ashore at the nearest point willing out of humanity to do so much, but daring to do no more when he had told them how he came where they had found him.
Half naked, numbed through and through, with chattering teeth and failing limbs, Leroy staggered into the guard-house at Chantenay. Soldiers of the Blues stripped him of his sodden rags, wrapped him in a blanket, thawed him outwardly before a fire and inwardly with gruel, and then invited him to give an account of himself.
The story of the horse will have led you to suppose him a ready liar. He drew now upon that gift of his, represented himself as a mariner from Montoir, and told a harrowing tale of shipwreck. Unfortunately, he overdid it. There was present a fellow who knew something of the sea, and something of Montoir, to whom Leroy's tale did not ring quite true. To rid themselves of responsibility, the soldiers carried him before the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes.
Even here all might have gone well with him, since there was no member of that body with seacraft to penetrate his imposture. But as ill-chance would have it, one of the members sitting that day was the black-mustached sans-culotte Jolly, the very man who had dragged Leroy out of his cell last night and tied him up.
At sight of him Jolly's eyes bulged in his head.
"Where the devil have you come from?" he greeted him thunderously.
Leroy quailed. Jolly's associates stared. But Jolly explained to them:
"He was of last night's bathing party. And he has the impudence to come before us like this. Take him away and shove him back into the water."
But Bachelier, a man who, next to the President Goullin, exerted the greatest influence in the committee, was gifted with a sense of humour worthy of the Revolution. He went off into peals of laughter as he surveyed the crestfallen cocassier, and, perhaps because Leroy's situation amused him, he was disposed to be humane.
"No, no!" he said. "Take him back to Le Bouffay for the present. Let the Tribunal deal with him."
So back to Le Bouffay went Leroy, back to his dungeon, his fetid straw and his bread and water, there to be forgotten again, as he had been forgotten before, until Fate should need him.
It is to him that we owe most of the materials from which we are able to reconstruct in detail that first of Carrier's drownings on a grand scale, conceived as an expeditious means of ridding the city of useless mouths, of easing the straitened circumstances resulting from misgovernment.
Very soon it was followed by others, and, custom increasing Carrier's audacity, these drownings—there were in all some twenty-three noyades—ceased to be conducted in the secrecy of the night, or to be confined to men. They were made presently to include women—of whom at one drowning alone, in Novose, three hundred perished under the most revolting circumstances—and even little children. Carrier himself admitted that during the three months of his rule some three thousand victims visited the national bathing-place, whilst other, and no doubt more veracious, accounts treble that number of those who received the National Baptism.
Soon these wholesale drownings had become an institution, a sort of national spectacle that Carrier and his committee felt themselves in duty bound to provide.
But at length a point was reached beyond which it seemed difficult to continue them. So expeditious was the measure, that soon the obvious material was exhausted. The prisons were empty. Yet habits, once contracted, are not easily relinquished. Carrier would be looking elsewhere for material, and there was no saying where he might look, or who would be safe. Soon the committee heard a rumour that the Representative intended to depose it and to appoint a new one, whereupon many of its members, who were conscious of lukewarmness, began to grow uneasy.
Uneasy, too, became the members of the People's Society. They had sent a deputation to Carrier with suggestions for the better conduct of the protracted campaign of La Vendee. This was a sore point with the Representative. He received the patriots with the foulest abuse, and had them flung downstairs by his secretaries.
Into this atmosphere of general mistrust and apprehension came the most ridiculous Deus ex machina that ever was in the person of the very young and very rash Marc Antoine Jullien. His father, the Deputy Jullien, was an intimate of Robespierre's, by whose influence Marc Antoine was appointed to the office of Agent of the Committee of Public Safety, and sent on a tour of inspection to report upon public feeling and the conduct of the Convention's Representatives.
Arriving in Nantes at the end of January of '94, one of Marc Antoine's first visits happened to be to the People's Society, which was still quivering with rage at the indignities offered by Carrier to its deputation.
Marc Antoine was shocked by what he heard, so shocked that instead of going to visit the Representative on the morrow, he spent the morning inditing a letter to Robespierre, in which he set forth in detail the abuses of which Carrier was guilty, and the deplorable state of misery in which he found the city of Nantes.
That night, as Marc Antoine was sinking into the peaceful slumber of the man with duty done, he was rudely aroused by an officer and a couple of men of the National Guard, who announced to him that he was under arrest, and bade him rise and dress.
Marc Antoine flounced out of bed in a temper, and flaunted his credentials. The officer remained unmoved. He was acting upon orders from the Citizen Representative.
Still in a temper, Marc Antoine hurriedly dressed himself. He would soon show this Representative that it is not safe to trifle with Agents of the Public Safety. The Citizen Representative should hear from him. The officer, still unimpressed, bundled him into a waiting carriage, and bore him away to the Maison Villetreux, on the island where Carrier had his residence.
Carrier had gone to bed. But he was awake, and he sat up promptly when the young muscadin from Paris was roughly thrust into his room by the soldiers. The mere sight of the Representative sufficed to evaporate Marc Antoine's anger, and with it his courage.
Carrier's pallor was of a grey-green from the rage that possessed him. His black eyes smouldered like those of an animal seen in the gloom, and his tumbled black hair, fluttering about his moist brow, increased the terrific aspect of his countenance. Marc Antoine shrank and was dumb.
"So," said Carrier, regarding him steadily, terribly, "you are the thing that dares to denounce me to the Safety, that ventures to find fault with my work!" From under his pillow he drew Marc Antoine's letter to Robespierre. "Is this yours?"
At the sight of this violation of his correspondence with the Incorruptible, Marc Antoine's indignation awoke, and revived his courage.
"It is mine," he answered. "By what right have you intercepted it?"
"By what right?" Carrier put a leg out of bed. "So you question my right, do you? You have so imposed yourself upon folk that you are given powers, and you come here to air them, by—"
"You shall answer to the Citizen Robespierre for your conduct," Marc Antoine threatened him.
"Aha!" Carrier revealed his teeth in a smile of ineffable wickedness. He slipped from the bed, and crouching slightly as if about to spring, he pointed a lean finger at his captive.
"You are of those with whom it is dangerous to deal publicly, and you presume upon that. But you can be dealt with privily, and you shall. I have you, and, by—, you shall not escape me, you—!"
Marc Antoine looked into the Representative's face, and saw there the wickedness of his intent. He stiffened. Nature had endowed him with wits, and he used them now.
"Citizen Carrier," he said, "I understand. I am to be murdered to-night in the gloom and the silence. But you shall perish after me in daylight, and amid the execrations of the people. You may have intercepted my letters to my father and to Robespierre. But if I do not leave Nantes, my father will come to ask an account of you, and you will end your life on the scaffold like the miserable assassin that you are."
Of all that tirade, but one sentence had remained as if corroded into the mind of Carrier. "My letters to my father and to Robespierre," the astute Marc Antoine had said. And Marc Antoine saw the Representative's mouth loosen, saw a glint of fear replace the ferocity in his dark eyes.
What Marc Antoine intended to suggest had instantly leapt to Carrier's mind—that there had been a second letter which his agents had missed. They should pay for that. But, meanwhile, if it were true, he dare not for his neck's sake go further in this matter. He may have suspected that it was not true. But he had no means of testing that suspicion. Marc Antoine, you see, was subtle.
"Your father?" growled the Representative. "Who is your father?"
"The Deputy Jullien."
"What?" Carrier straightened himself, affecting an immense astonishment. "You are the son of the Deputy Julien?" He burst into a laugh. He came forward, holding out both his hands. He could be subtle, too, you see. "My friend, why did you not say so sooner? See in what a ghastly mistake you have let me flounder. I imagined you—of course, it was foolish of me—to be a proscribed rascal from Angers, of the same name."
He had fallen upon Marc Antoine's neck, and was embracing him.
"Forgive me, my friend!" he besought him. "Come and dine with me to-morrow, and we will laugh over it together."
But Marc Antoine had no mind to dine with Carrier, although he promised to do so readily enough. Back at his inn, scarce believing that he had got away alive, still sweating with terror at the very thought of his near escape, he packed his valise, and, by virtue of his commission, obtained post-horses at once.
On the morrow from Angers, safe beyond the reach of Carrier, he wrote again to Robespierre, and this time also to his father.
"In Nantes," he wrote, "I found the old regime in its worst form." He knew the jargon of Liberty, the tune that set the patriots a-dancing. "Carrier's insolent secretaries emulate the intolerable haughtiness of a ci-devant minister's lackeys. Carrier himself lives surrounded by luxury, pampered by women 'and parasites, keeping a harem and a court. He tramples justice in the mud. He has had all those who filled the prisons flung untried into the Loire. The city of Nantes," he concluded, "needs saving. The Vendean revolt must be suppressed, and Carrier the slayer of Liberty recalled."
The letter had its effect, and Carrier was recalled to Paris, but not in disgrace. Failing health was urged as the solicitous reason for his retirement from the arduous duties of governing Nantes.
In the Convention his return made little stir, and even when early in the following July he learnt that Bourbotte, his successor at Nantes, had ordered the arrest of Goullin, Bachelier, Grandmaison, and his other friends of the committee, on the score of the drownings and the appropriation of national property confiscated from emigres, he remained calm, satisfied that his own position was unassailable.
But the members of the Committee of Nantes were sent to Paris for trial, and their arrival there took place on that most memorable date in the annals of the Revolution, the 10th Thermidor (July 29, 1794, O.S.), the day on which Robespierre fell and the floodgates of vengeance upon the terrorists were flung open.
You have seen in the case of Marc Antoine Jullien how quick Carrier could be to take a cue. In a coach he followed the tumbril that bore Robespierre to execution, radiant of countenance and shouting with the loudest, "Death to the traitor!" On the morrow from the rostrum of the Convention, he passionately represented himself as a victim of the fallen tyrant, cleverly turning to his own credit the Marc Antoine affair, reminding the Convention how he had himself been denounced to Robespierre. He was greeted with applause in that atmosphere of Thermidorean reaction.
But Nemesis was stalking him relentlessly if silently.
Among a batch of prisoners whom a chain of curious chances had brought from Nantes to Paris was our old friend Leroy the cocassier, required now as a witness against the members of the committee.
Having acquainted the court with the grounds of his arrest, and the fact that for three years he had lain forgotten and without trial in the pestilential prison of Le Bouffay, Leroy passed on to a recital of his sufferings on that night of terror when he had gone down the Loire in the doomed lighter. He told his tale with an artlessness that rendered it the more moving and convincing. The audience crowding the chamber of justice shuddered with horror, and sobbed over the details of his torments, wept for joy over his miraculous preservation. At the close he was applauded on all sides, which bewildered him a little, for he had never known anything but abuse in all his chequered life.
And then, at the promptings of that spirit of reaction that was abroad in those days when France was awakening from the nightmare of terror, some one made there and then a collection on his behalf, and came to thrust into his hands a great bundle of assignats and bank bills, which to the humble cocassier represented almost a fortune. It was his turn to weep.
Then the crowd in the court which had heard his story shouted for the head of Carrier. The demand was taken up by the whole of Paris, and finally his associates of the Convention handed him over to the Revolutionary Tribunal.
He came before it on November 25th, and he could not find counsel to defend him. Six advocates named in succession by the President refused to plead the cause of so inhuman a monster. In a rage, at last Carrier announced that he would defend himself. He did.
He took the line that his business in Nantes had been chiefly concerned with provisioning the Army of the West; that he had had little to do with the policing of Nantes, which he left entirely to the Revolutionary Committee; and that he had no knowledge of the things said to have taken place. But Goullin, Bachelier, and the others were there to fling back the accusation in their endeavours to save their own necks at the expense of his.
He was sentenced on the very anniversary of that terrible night on which the men of the Marat Company broke into the prison of Le Bouffay, and he was accompanied in the tumbril by Grandmaison the pitiless, who was now filled with self-pity to such an extent that he wept bitterly.
The crowd, which had hooted and insulted him from the Conciergerie to the Place de Greve, fell suddenly silent as he mounted the scaffold, his step firm, but his shoulders bowed, and his eyes upon the ground.
Suddenly upon the silence, grotesquely, horribly merry, broke the sound of a clarinet playing the "Ca ira!"
Jerking himself erect, Carrier turned and flung the last of his terrible glances at the musician.
A moment later the knife fell with a thud, and a bleeding head rolled into the basket, the eyes still staring, but powerless now to inspire terror.
Upon the general silence broke an echo of the stroke.
"Vlan!" cried a voice. "And there's a fine end to a great drowner!"
It was Leroy the cocassier. The crowd took up the cry.