“Citizen Laurent – you come just in time.”
Voclain set down the papers that he had been perusing and gestured for me to sit. “Would you like something? A drink perhaps? Some tea from England? Though slavish King-lovers, their taste in tea is impeccable. Or perhaps you would like something stronger – a glass of sherry?”
Before I could reply, he had already poured us both two glasses. He raised his glass and I raised mine.
“To liberty!” he said. “To brotherhood!” said I.
We drained our glasses.
Voclain studied me over his empty glass; he had always had a peculiarly cold, assiduous gaze, the kind that could make a Girondist or monarchist’s blood turn to ice, and that gaze was now turned on me. “You seem very content, citizen. And much devoted to the cause, I must say. Look at you, with your ribbons of crimson, blue, and white penned to your breast. But you are a young man and those are the tokens of Madame Justice and she is as cold and chaste as the goddess Diana. Do you never long for a rose from a sweetheart to ornament your coat instead?”
I frowned in puzzlement. “Sir? Is this some sort of trick question? Are you promoting me?”
He squeezed my shoulder, his eyes shining with a kind of grim delight. “I knew that I did well when I recommended you for the Committee of Public Safety, Monsieur Laurent. You have a pure soul, the soul of an angel, uncontaminated by private desires.”
I flushed with pleasure as he spoke. I had long admired Citizen Voclain for his devotion to the cause of liberty and had labored in his employ as a secretary for a year after the magnificent fall of the Bastille, before at last finding myself promoted (at his recommendation) to the ranks of the Committee of Public Safety. Whereas before it had been my task to pen his letters and arrange his papers, now I was his colleague, my duty being to detect and expose any enemies of the National Convention and the cause of the State. Of course, the signs of treason were often subtle and equivocal, but these were wicked times when enemies both within and abroad pressed and suffocated the soul of France – and who was I to dispute the orders of those wiser than myself who commanded me? I sought and found and I laid my trophies at the feet of my brothers and I believed that the torch of Liberty burned a little brighter after Madame Guillotine’s blade rose with her smear of crimson.
But to hear such praise from the mouth of Voclain! He, the most austere, the most unrelenting, the most merciless of the National Convention’s servants! I could not help but wonder what I had done to earn such regard from one whose esteem was rarely, if ever, won. Ever clothed in black, with only the unadorned white lace at his throat and the crimson collar of his coat relieving the monotony of that somber hue, he was the very portrait of tireless, inexorable devotion. Though well past his prime, there was a handsome severity in his countenance that only increased the fear and awe that he inspired. Truly, I pitied the poor souls who endured even an hour’s interrogation from him. It was said that after enjoying the company of Voclain, the guillotine seemed a gentle mercy.
“Citizen, your mind seems to be wandering,” he observed.
“No, sir!” I stammered. “It is only that…I can hardly believe that you think me so capable…” I stopped, confused and silenced by the burning look in his eye.
“I did not praise you, citizen, to flatter you or to increase your devotion to me,” he said softly.
“Of course not, sir,” I said, sitting straighter, determined not to lose his good opinion because of my foolish giddiness.
“That sort of personal loyalty was a part of the ancien regime, but has no place in our new State. Do you agree?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“Very good. Then you will understand that my praise of you had a larger purpose. There is a task that I would have you perform for me and I entrust it to you because I believe that you are the only one capable of fulfilling it to my satisfaction.”
“Sir, I am honored!”
“Honor is a meaningless word that died with the Queen – Widow Capet, I should say – and her party. Honor is a word that haughty men employ to coerce their enemies into crossing blades with them in a duel. Honor is never invoked to ease the suffering of the poor – there is, nor never has been, any honor in relieving the poor of their suffering. Nor is there honor in what you do. Nay, it is nothing but brutal necessity.”
There was a gentle weariness in his manner that softened his speech; I would have made a sympathetic inquiry as to his own well-being, but I knew that if I did so, I would only offend him. Instead, I merely nodded my assent to his speech and awaited his order.
“There is a family of aristocrats known as the House of Castellane. They dwell outside of Paris, a day’s ride from the city gates. I have it on good authority that they are searching for a young man to employ as a secretary, as their last one apparently vacated his position without warning. I would like you to fill that position.” He smiled. “As your employer, I can write a letter on your behalf that will cause even the most demanding master to covet you.”
“And what then?” I asked.
“Then? I wish you to observe them. Every Sunday, tell them that you must go into the village to send a letter to your mother. Write me a detailed account of all that you see in that chateau as well as whatever they dictate to you. It is my suspicion that they are plotting with the enemies of the National Convention, but I should like proof of it before I make my arrest.”
“I shall do as you command, sir, though I shall miss Paris.”
“And Paris shall miss you.” He rose, indicating that I rise as well. “But she shall thank you for your service.” He then put a sealed letter in my hand. “You shall ride to the Chateau Castellane tomorrow night. I shall expect to receive my first report from you in several days. Do not disappoint me, Laurent.”
“Sir, how could I?”
Voclain put his hand upon my arm, giving it a bracing squeeze. Again I sensed a certain exhausted restlessness in him, as though his mind and heart were laboring beneath some awful burden that he could not speak of, even to me.
“Have a care, Laurent,” he murmured. “Remember – we still do not know what happened to their last secretary.”
“Sir,” I said, unclasping the folding stiletto that I kept within my coat. “You should know me better than to think that I could be butchered like a lamb by a family of tyrants.”
I had been so long in Paris that I had nearly forgotten what it was like to feel forest air against your face and to see the stars above. In Paris, the torches and lanterns burned so brightly that the sky seemed obscured in a perpetual, heady mist, concealing the heavens. In Paris, the air was hot and exhilarating, fanned by the endless, passing surge of crowds and throngs, the sound of drums, the blast of trumpets, the pomp and excitement of the new State. The world outside my carriage was a dark, moonlit world of alien dangers and wonders. My emotions fluctuated between a homesickness for the city and a curiosity for the new situation in which I found myself.
My feelings of delight at finding myself the preferred agent of Voclain had not abated. To enter into such a man’s confidence was no simple task and I could not help but value his esteem as a knight of old might have reverenced his feudal lord’s approbation – though I knew that Voclain would not have approved of my reference to the trappings of the ancien regime. True, some of my pleasure, the colder portion of it, derived from a sense of personal ambition; but I confess that most of it was wrung from the profoundest respect that I felt for the man himself. There are few circumstances that can inspire as much pleasure and satisfaction as finding oneself in the employ of a sublime being of superior and awe-inspiring capabilities, whose very praise, added to the security and well-being that their position allows them to grant to those in their power, cannot help but inspire the most intense sensations of reverence and gratitude. In such service, every reward or notice, however slight, is eternally tinctured with the most poignant and complex frissons of pleasure and anxiety.
I was turning over these thoughts, half-lulling, half-terrifying, in my mind (for let it not be forgotten that Voclain’s power could be most cruelly fatal), when my carriage drew to a halt. Surprised, I interrogated the driver as to the reason behind the delay. He replied that the horses needed watering. I suspected, when I saw the tavern by which we had halted, that the driver needed watering as well, but I said nothing as it was already a late hour and an additional delay would make little difference.
I stepped from the carriage, intending to enjoy the night air and to read another passage from an English novel called The Mysteries of Udolpho by a matron named Mrs. Radcliffe. It was one of those new novels of terror that the English are now so fond of, what they have been calling their so-called ‘Gothics,’ and I confess that I took much joy in it – though I suspected that Citizen Voclain would not have approved of my fondness for such frivolous and foreign entertainment. This suspicion, I am sorry to say, only increased my pleasure as it added something like the flavor of the forbidden. Moreover, the atmosphere of mystery and murder, and the sudden nearly ludicrous moments of violence, reminded me all too well of my own city and her present state. Like the characters in Madame Radcliffe’s tale, I felt myself at once a spectator and a dabbler in blood.
I was again interrupted in my pensive thinking – this time by an elderly lady, one of the proprietors of the tavern, asking me in a quaint old form of French whether I would like a helping of wine.
“I would indeed, madam,” I said, bowing my thanks.
As she put a wooden cup in my hand and as I inhaled its bouquet with a grateful expression of thanks, she asked me what my business was.
“Why, good mother, I am traveling to the Chauteau Castellane, to serve the family there as a secretary.”
“No!” she exclaimed. “Young man, I tell you, do not set foot in that accursed place!”
My ears pricked at this. Perhaps I would gain my intelligence more quickly than I had imagined. “Do you know something of the family, good mother? Perhaps something of what happened to their last secretary?”
“Ah, so you already know of that tragic mystery.” She shook her head. “And that is not enough to make you find new masters?”
“Good mother, there is little work for me in Paris and precious little outside of it. How do you imagine I can afford even this little cup of wine?”
She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “The young will do as they will do.”
“The young, good mother, are at the mercy of their elders,” I said with a faint smile. “Not even the Revolution has altered that.”
“Perhaps,” she said. Then, as I watched in astonishment, she unclasped the crucifix that she wore about her neck and pressed it into my hand. “Promise to me that you shall wear this at all times. Nay, do not blush, young man. It only makes you look all the more like a poor little lamb about to be sheared.”
I was too speechless to make any further enquiry. Fortunately, my driver returned and indicated that it was time for us to depart. As he whipped the horses into a gallop, I looked back and saw the old woman watching our departure. When she saw me, she drew the sign of the cross in the air and blew me a farewell kiss.
I sank back against the cushion of my carriage seat, dazed and bewildered. I scribbled a few notes regarding the encounter in the margins of my novel, intending to write an account of the incident for Voclain, but this did nothing to relieve my anxiety. At last, I sank into a troubled sleep, my cheek resting upon that novel of blood, my dreams full of disordered visions – of guillotines, of crosses…and of gleaming, wolfish eyes in the forest, watching the passage of my carriage as I travelled ever deeper into darkness.
TO BE CONTINUED….