Seeing that it’s been about four months since I updated this particular serialized story, I figure that it’s only fair that I provide some sort of recap for those who missed or have understandably forgotten the events that took place in the last two episodes. Our tale takes place during France’s Reign of Terror and follows the adventures of a young Jacobin named Laurent Fontaine who labors in the service of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, hunting down traitors to the brutal new State. His employer Citizen Voclain, one of Robespierre’s most zealous agents, has ordered him to investigate an aristocratic family known as the Castellanes in order to determine whether they are conspiring against the State or not. We take up the tale on the first night that Laurent, posing as a harmless secretary, arrives at the Chateau Castellane…
I dreamt that night of another night five years ago – a summer night when the Revolution was still young and when the fall of the Bastille had driven its first dagger into the heart of the aristocracy. I still served a noble family as a kitchen boy and had listened with the rest of the servants to our master and mistress as they spoke in hushed and anxious voices of the plundering and attacks that were taking place in Paris and the surrounding areas. My own thoughts on this were wild and conflicting – I was only thirteen years old at the time and, like most boys of that age, my head was turned by these tales of violence and battle. But I also felt a strong sense of pity for the family that I served and felt myself more inclined to side with my superiors than with those among my own class who sought to overthrow them.
One night, I was awakened to the sound of shouts and smashing glass, of fired muskets and the scream of horses. Throwing on my coat, I ran into the parlor to find the house in utter disorder – my fellow servants were hastily packing their belongings and escaping through back doors and windows, while the lord and lady of the chateau looked on helplessly, knowing that it would only be minutes before their house was overrun by the mob, their belongings stolen, and their own persons more than probably used most villainously.
“Sir,” I asked. “Do you have a musket that you could spare?”
“Yes,” he replied cautiously. “But what can you do? You are only a boy.”
“If I can occupy them long and enough, then you and your lady can reach the carriage and hopefully drive to the harbor. I know that you have been planning to escape to England for the last month.” I blushed at my own admission of spying, but doubted that my master would find it needful to admonish me.
“I keep a musket in my study, which I shall give you,” my master replied. “But think of what you are doing, boy. If you do not resist them, then they will treat you kindly, perhaps as one of their own. But if you defend us, they will surely wreak all their vengeance on you in lieu of us. And you are but a child.”
This last statement only confirmed me in my mad decision. My master and mistress did not hesitate long, but left me in an upper room to distract the mob with a few well-aimed shots, while they took to the stables and made their escape. At last, tiring of this impasse, some in that mob took their torches and set fire to the doomed mansion of which I was now the sole devoted inhabitant.
Choking and blinded by smoke, I crept out of a window on the lower floor and fled into the darkness in a direction opposite that of the gathered mob. So preoccupied was I with the distress that I felt at the destruction of a home that, though not mine, was nonetheless oddly dear to me, I did not see the dark figure that stood beneath a nearby oak, observing the progress of the mob as well as my own flight. My face still half-turned to the burning spectacle at my back, I flew straight into the arms of this man – the captain of the mob, the director and overseer of this theatre of destruction, the man named Monsieur Voclain whom I recognized as the local blacksmith who had forged the shoes that covered the feet of my master’s horses and now acted as one of the commanders of this new revolt.
At that moment, several of the men in that militia approached and, after saluting Voclain, informed him that the master and mistress of the chateau had fled, taking their valuables and money with them. Then, pointing to me, they accused me of having aided in their escape and demanded that I be hung from that very tree.
Voclain, however, instead of turning me over to these bloodthirsty men, only held me all the more firmly as though I were his own son, saying, “Would you hang an innocent child, then, for defending his corrupt parents, or shoot a dog for loving its wicked master? Can you not see that this poor boy is yet another victim of this wretched and profligate aristocracy?—that they left this young, devoted creature behind to suffer the likely brutalities of their attackers so that they could safely make away with their gold and jewels? Would you then make him their sacrifice?”
Then, to me, he said: “I can tell by the way that you shudder against me that you are frightened of the desolation all around you – that you are too young to understand the suffering that has inspired this violence; but you must know that this is a Revolution that is inspired by virtue as well as a desire to terrify the wicked – and you have nothing to fear so long as you are virtuous. I can tell something else as well – that while many men will use this revolution as a chance to chase after their own self-interests, that you have proven this night that you would defend even those unworthy of defense at risk to your own life. Such devotion is rare and of great value to me – of even greater value than the gold that we lost tonight, thanks to your ingenuity.
“Perhaps, child, you see me as a monster now – but I will do my utmost to work a change in you and have you feel that devotion to our cause that you feel now for the degenerate aristocracy. I can see in your eyes that you wish to resist me, but you are very young and your mind is more impressionable than you know. You believe yourself strong – the young always do – but I can fashion your thoughts as easily as I can soften iron in my smith. You are the young falconette that will have its season of chafing but must by and by grow into the hunting kestrel that clings to the hunter’s wrist.”
In my dream, just as in life, I tried to reply but my exhaustion and terror were such that I could not find my voice. The entire household that I had known since my infancy – they were all fled and gone, perhaps to safety, perhaps to destruction. I alone was left, surrounded by the shouts and cheers of the mob and the glare of their torches, and my utter helplessness overcame me. Instead of words, I could only reply with mute tears. Voclain held me against his breast as though he were my mother and together we watched the dawn rise over the smoke-filled ruins of the chateau.
I awoke with a start, my cheeks still streaming with sweat and tears. So much had happened in the years that intervened between that awful night and my present condition – and it had been so long since I had bothered to recall my past. And yet, thanks to my dream, my nerves felt as taut as though I had experienced all of my old grief and horror for the first time. Knowing that I could not fall asleep again until I had calmed my thoughts, I threw aside my bedclothes, dressed myself, and silently left my bedroom.
It took me a moment to gain my bearings, for even though I carried the flickering candle, my sense of direction was entirely lost and all I could see on either side of me was a dark, shadowed hall. I managed, after some groping about, to find my way into the parlor and from thence to a door that led into a walled, outer garden, fragrant with jasmine and blossoming roses.
My senses were restored the moment that I breathed in that sweet, open air. How differently the terrors that assault us by night seem when we exchange the cramped horror of our beds for the cooling hand of Nature that seems to bid our drooping spirits to lift, to teach us how to sleep again with the rest of her creatures. I rolled myself a cigarillo and lit the tip of it with my candle, drawing in the fragrant tobacco, exhaling it in a thick cloud.
Years ago, Voclain had taught me to love this little vice. Two monarchist spies had been executed and I, unused to such a sight, found myself violently sick. Voclain, seeing my distress, led me away from that spectacle and, in a secluded alley free from the noise of Paris, we had shared a cigarillo – I, regaining my breath and recovering from my horror, he, observing my progress with a watchful eye.
“The aristocrats cherish their harmless little pouches of snuff,” he had said. “But you and I, Laurent, we prefer to burn, do we not?”
Recollecting his words when I was now so removed from the noise of Paris lent his memory a ghostly air. In the hushed quiet of that chateau garden, it was almost as though the Revolution had never happened – as though I were again a wondering young servant lost in a world to which I belonged but that I had no purchase upon. What would I have been had the King remained sovereign, had Voclain remained a peaceful blacksmith? Would I have had the same character – would I have felt the same ache in my heart when alone and the same joy in the company of a soul who was both my friend and teacher?
The soft sound of rippling water caught my attention and, out of a kind of weary curiosity, I decided to follow its source, wandering deeper into the fragrant heart of the garden. With what care the fragrant, tangled blossoms and vines were cared for – I did not have to wonder what would happen to all this beauty if the House of Castellane were to fall into the hands of the Committee. Voclain often personally oversaw the arrests that he ordered and as often would have me in attendance, my task being to catalogue the various belongings that were to be auctioned off. Once we had finished our work, the place would be a barren, echoing vacancy, utterly emptied of its former lustre. No hand would stay to tend these gardens; nay, they would fall into ruin and eventually become a part of the surrounding wilderness, as utterly and completely as though these roses and ivied hedges never were.
I often wondered how aware Voclain was of my foolish, romantic melancholy. Once when I had thought myself alone, I had left my fellow Jacobins to debate over how much of a profit they imagined could be gleaned from selling off the contents of one of the parlors and wandered into one of the bedrooms close by, for a moment’s peace. The lingering scent of the mistress of the house’s perfume still lingered in the air and drawing close to the bed, I let my fingers trail along the scented, embroidered lace that covered it. As I lost myself to the feeling of the softness beneath my hand, I happened to notice the gleaming shape of a small golden ornament moulded into the shape of a rose that lay on the table beside the bed and I lifted it, testing its cool weight in my hand, marveling at its ornate perfection. Something in the atmosphere of the room had changed and I turned to see Voclain standing in the doorway. He was casting his own gaze about the room, but his expression was distant and unseduced: a look of quiet contempt for the splendor that was now wholly under his dominion. His eyes then settled upon me and upon the golden ornament that I held and I fancied that a flicker darkened his gaze. He removed the rose from my hands, saying, “And did you intend to keep this trinket for yourself, citizen?”
“I only thought it beautiful,” I said; I was, after all, no longer a boy, and though Voclain could not help but command my respect, I resented his interruption and the brusque brutality that he had employed in wresting the filigreed flower from me. He still held it, inspecting its moulded beauty, before casting it away and gesturing for us both to depart. I thought for a moment of insisting on lingering a little while longer, but I knew as well the fate of those who provoked Voclain and, though I was favored by him, I did not wish to risk losing that favor. That evening haunted my memory, however, not only for the poignant recollection of that mansion ravaged of its goods, but of the mysterious nature of Voclain’s resentment – for it was the first and the last time that I had inspired his disapproval.
Months later, Voclain and I were sharing dinner at a Paris tavern and, after we shared a toast, he took my hand and pressed something into my palm – a gold ring. A little surprised, I thanked him for this unexpected gift to which, with a faint, mysterious smile, he inclined his head in an austere welcome, saying, “It is yours, citizen – take it as a recognition of your invaluable loyalty to me. Never believe that such loyalty is overlooked. I am ever, ever aware of where your heart truly lies.” And then he added, as though it was an afterthought (though this was, I believe, the true purpose of his gift): “Do you recognize the purity of its lustre, perhaps? I fashioned it from the melted gold of that aristocratic trinket that you loved – that golden rose.”
As I met Citizen Voclain’s watchful, intent gaze, I at last understood the offense that I had unwittingly given him. It had not been, as I had thought, a fear of intellectual disloyalty that had provoked him; rather, it was a jealousy that for a moment, some glittering thing had drawn my attention that was not a part of his order, of his making, of his world. Though he had not feared for a moment that I would betray his cause, he had still seen that there was still some tempting beauty in the old, corrupt world that he sought to destroy and, like some austere Huguenot of old, this realization had goaded him beyond endurance, though he had mastered his resentment as much as he was able in my presence. But he had then taken the golden rose, his hated rival, and tortured and melted it down in his smithy until all trace of its former shape was lost: moulding it into something entirely altered and thus at last acceptable for me to possess.
Voclain’s gift still glittered upon my hand, shining with an ethereal radiance in the moonlight of that garden, and I could not keep back a half-smile at the recollection of that peculiar incident. If he loathed my response to a golden rose, what would he have thought had he been there to see me mourn in my heart already for this garden of the Castellanes that would be lost – lost, were I to discover that they were indeed traitors to the National Convention?
Ah, but why did I torment myself with these needless fears? Voclain had often sent me to watch those whom he suspected of treachery and though there were many whom I was forced to condemn – particularly given the Committee’s increasingly strict definition of what it meant to be a loyal citizen – there were many whom I had determined to be innocent beyond a doubt. These lucky souls had never known how close they had come to kneeling before the cold blade of Madame Guillotine. Perhaps the Castellanes would prove fortunate as well. I prayed so.
TO BE CONTINUED…