Nearly five years have gone by!
Five years, since the charred ruins of grim Bastille - stone image of Absolutism and of Autocracy - set the seal of victory upon the expression of a people's will and marked the beginning of that marvellous era of Liberty and of Fraternity which has led us step by step from the dethronement of a King, through the martryrdom of countless innocents, to the tyranny of an oligarchy more arbitrary, more relentless, above all more cruel, than any that the dictators of Rome or Stamboul ever dream of in their wildest thirst for power. An era that sees a populace always clamouring for the Millennium, which ranting demagogues have never ceased to promise: a Millennium to be achieved alternatively through the extermination of Aristocracy, of Titles, of Riches, and the abrogation of Priesthood: through dethroned royalty and desecrated altars, through an army without leadership, or an Assembly without power.
They have never ceased to prate, these frothy rhetoricians! And the people went on, vaguely believing that one day, soon, that Millennium would surely come, after seas of blood had purged the soil of France from the last vestige of bygone oppression, and after her sons and daughters had been massacred in their thousands and their tens of thousands, until their headless bodies had built up a veritable scaling ladder for the tottering feet of lustful climbers, and these in their turn had perished to make way for other ranters, other speech-makers, a new Demosthenes or long-tongued Cicero.
Inevitably these too perished, one by one, irrespective of their virtues or their vices, their errors or their ideals: Vergniaud, the enthusiast, and Desmoulins, the irresponsible; Barnave, the just, and Chaumette, the blasphemer; Hébert, the carrion, and Danton, the power. All, all have perished, one after the other: victims of their greed and of their crimes - they and their adherents and their enemies. They slew and were slain in their turn. They struck blindly, like raging beasts, most of them for fear lest they too should be struck by beasts more furious than they. All have perished; but not before their iniquities have for ever sullied what might have been the most glorious page in the history of France - her fight for Liberty. Because of these monsters - and of a truth there were only a few - the fight, itself sublime in its ideals, noble in its conception, has become abhorrent to the rest of mankind.
But they, arraigned at the bar of history, what have they to say, what to show as evidence of their patriotism, of the purity of their intentions?
On this day of April, 1794, year II of the New Calendar, eight thousand men, women, and not a few children, are crowding the prisons of Paris to overflowing. Four thousand heads have fallen under the guillotine in the past three months. All the great names of France, her noblesse, her magistracy, her clergy, members of past Parliaments, shining lights in the sciences, the arts, the Universities, men of substance, poets, brain-workers, have been torn from their homes, their churches or their places of refuge, dragged before a travesty of justice, judged, condemned and slaughtered; not singly, not individually, but in batches - whole families, complete hierarchies, entire households: one lot for the crime of being right, another for being nobly born; some because of their religion, others because of professed free-thought. One man for devotion to his friend, another for perfidy; one for having spoken, another for having held his tongue, and another for no crime at all - just because of his family connexions, his profession, or his ancestry.
For months it had been the innocents; but since then it has also been the assassins. And the populace, still awaiting the Millennium, clamour for more victims and for more - for the aristocrat and for the sans-culotte, and howl with execration impartially at both.
But through this mad orgy of murder and of hatred, one man survives, stands apart indeed, wielding a power which the whole pack of infuriated wolves thirsting for his blood are too cowardly to challenge. The Girondists and the Extremists have fallen. Hébert, the idol of the mob, Danton its hero and its mouthpiece, have been hurled from their throne, sent to the scaffold along with ci-devant nobles, aristocrats, royalists and traitors. But this one man remains, calm in the midst of every storm, absolute in his will, indigent where others have grasped riches with both hands, adored, almost deified, by a few, dreaded by all, sphinx-like, invulnerable, sinister - Robespierre!
Robespierre at this time was at the height of his popularity and of his power. The two great Committees of Public Safety and of General Security were swayed by his desires, the Clubs worshipped him, the Convention was packed with obedient slaves to his every word. The Dantonists, cowed into submission by the bold coup which had sent their leader, their hero, their idol, to the guillotine, were like a tree that has been struck at the root. Without Danton, the giant of the Revolution, the collossus of crime, the maker of the Terror, the thunderbolt of the Convention, the part was atrophied, robbed of its strength and its vitality, its last few members hanging, servile and timorous, upon the great man's lips.
Robespierre was in truth absolute master of France. The man who had dared to drag his only rival down to the scaffold was beyond the reach of any attack. By this final act of unparalleled despotism he had revealed the secrets of his soul, shown himself to be rapacious as well as self-seeking. Something of his aloofness, of his incorruptibility, had vanished, yielding to that ever-present and towering ambition which hitherto none had dared to suspect. But ambition is the one vice to which the generality of mankind will always accord homage, and Robespierre, by gaining the victory over his one in the Convention, in the Clubs and in the Committees, had tacitly agreed to obey. The tyrant out of his vaulting ambition had brought forth the slaves.
Faint hearted and servile, they brooded over their wrongs, gazed with smouldering wrath on Danton's vacant seat in the Convention, which no one cared to fill. But they did not murmur, hardly dared to plot, and gave assent to every decree, every measure, every suggestion promulgated by the dictator who held their lives in the hollow of his thin white hand; who with a word, a gesture, could send his enemy, his detractor, a mere critic of his actions, to the guillotine.