Forty names! Found on a list in the pocket of Robespierre's coat!
Forty names! And every one of these that of a known opponent of Robespierre's schemes of dictatorship: Tallien, Barrère, Vadier, Cambon, and the rest. Men powerful to-day, prominent Members of the Convention, leaders of the people, too - but opponents!
The inference was obvious, the panic general. That night - it was the 8th Thermidor, July the 26th of the old calendar - men talked of flight, of abject surrender, of appeal - save the mark! - to friendship, camaraderie, humanity! Friendship, camaraderie, humanity? An appeal to a heart of stone! They talked of everything, in face, save of defying the tyrant; for such talk would have been folly.
Defying the tyrant? Ye gods! When with a word he could sway the Convention, the Committees, the multitude, bend them to his will, bring them to heel like any tamer of beasts when he cracks his whip?
So men talked and trembled. All night they talked and trembled; for they did not sleep, those forty whose names were on Robespierre's list. But Tallien, their chief, was nowhere to be found. 'Twas known that his fiancée, the beautiful Theresia Cabarrus, had been summarily arrested. Since then he had disappeared; and they - the others - were leaderless. But, even so, he was no loss. Tallien was ever pusillanimous, a temporizer - what?
And now the hour for temporizing is past. Robespierre then is to be dictator of France. He will be dictator of France, in spite of any opposition led by those forty whose names are on his list! He will be dictator of France! He has not said it; but his friends have shouted it form the house-tops, and have murmured under their breath that those who oppose Robespierre's dictatorship are traitors to the land. Death then must be their fate.
When then, ye gods? What then?
And so the day broke - smiling, mark you! It was a beautiful warm July morning. It broke on what is perhaps the most stupendous cataclysm - save one - the world has ever known.
Behold the picture! A medley. A confusion. A whirl of everything that is passionate and cruel, defiant and desperate. Heavens, how desperate! Men who have thrown lives away as if lives were in truth grains of sand; men who have juggled with death dealt it and tossed it about like cards upon a gaming table. They are desperate now, because their own lives are at stake; and they find now that life can be very dear.
So, having greeted their leader, the forty draw together, watching the moment when humility will be most opportune.
Robespierre mounts the tribune. The hour has struck. His speech is one long, impassioned, involved tirade, full at first on vague accusations against the enemies of the Republic and the people, and is full of protestations of his own patriotism and selflessness. Then he warms to his own oratory; his words are prophetic of death, his voice becomes harsh - like a screech owl's, so we're told. His accusations are no longer vague. He begins to strike.
Corruption! Backsliding! Treachery! Moderatism! - oh, moderatism above all! Moderatism is treachery to the glorious revolution. Every victim spared form the guillotine is a traitor let loose against the people! A traitor, he who robs the guillotine of her prey! Robespierre stands alone incorruptible, true, faithful unto death!
And for all that treachery, what remedy is there? Why, death of course! Death! The guillotine! New power to the sovereign guillotine! Death to all the traitors!
And seven hundred faces became paler still with dread, and the sweat of terror rises on seven hundred brows. There were only forty names on that list... but there might be others somewhere else!
And still the voice of Robespierre thunders on. His words fall of seven hundred pairs of ears like on a sounding-board; his friends, his sycophants, echo them; they applaud, rise in wild enthusiasm. 'Tis the applause that is thundering now!
One of the tyrant's most abject slaves has put forward the motion that the great speech just delivered shall forthwith be printed, and distributed to every township, every village, throughout France, as a monument to the lofty patriotism of her greatest citizen.
The motion at one moment looks as if it would be carried with acclamations; after which, Robespierre's triumph would have risen to the height of deification. Then suddenly the note of dissension; the hush; the silence. The great Assembly is like a sounding-board that has ceased to respond. Something had turned the acclamations to mutterings, and then to silence. The sounding-board has given forth a dissonance. Citizen Tallien has demanded "delay in printing that speech," and asked pertinently:
"What has become of the Liberty of Opinion in this Convention?"
His face is the colour of ashes, and his eyes, ringed with purple, gleam with an unnatural fire. The coward has become bold; the sheep has donned the lion's skin.
There is a flutter in the Convention, a moment's hesitation. But the question is put to the vote, and the speech is not to be printed. A small matter, in truth - printing or not printing.... Does the Destiny of France hang on so small a peg?
It is a small matter; and yet how full of portent! Like the breath of mutiny blowing across a ship. But nothing more occurs just then. Robespierre, lofty in his scorn, puts the notes of his speech into his pocket. He does not condescend to argue. He, the master of France, will not deign to bandy words with his slaves. And he stalks out of the Hall surrounded by his friends.
There has been a breath of mutiny; but his is still the iron heel, powerful enough to crush a raging revolt. His withdrawal - proud, silent, menacing - is in keeping with his character and with the pose which he has assumed of late. But he is still the Chosen of the People; and the multitude is there, thronging the streets of Paris - there, to avenge the insult put upon their idol by a pack of slinking wolves.
And now the picture becomes still more poignant. It is painted in colours more vivid, more glowing than and again the Hall of the Convention is crowded to the roof, with Tallien and his friends, in a close phalanx, early at their post!
Tallien is there, pale, resolute, the fire of his hatred kept up by anxiety for his beloved. The night before, at the corner of a dark street, a surreptitious hand slipped a scrap of paper into the pocket of his coat. It was a message written by Theresia in prison, and written with her own blood. How it ever came into his pocket Tallien never know; but the few impassioned, agonized words, seared his very soul and whipped up his courage:
"The Commissary of Police has just left me," Theresia wrote. "He came to tell me that to-morrow I must appear before the tribunal. This means the guillotine. And I, who thought that you were a man....!"
Not only is his own head in peril, not only that of his friends; but the life of the woman whom he worships hangs now upon the thread of his own audacity and of his courage.
St. Just on this occasion is the first to mount the tribune; and Robespierre, the very incarnation of lustful and deadly Vengeance, stands silently by. He has spent the afternoon and evening with his friends at the Jacobins' Club, where deafening applause greeted his every word, and wild fury raged against his enemies.
It is then to be a fight to the finish To your tents, O Israel!
To the guillotine all those who have dared to say one word against the Chosen of the People! St. Just shall thunder Vengeance from the tribune at the Convention, whilst Henriot, the drunken and dissolute Commandant of the Municipal Guard, shall, but the might of the sword and fire, proclaim the sovereignty of Robespierre through the streets of Paris. That is the picture as it has been painted in the minds of the tyrant and of his sycophants: a picture of death paramount, and of Robespierre rising like a new Phoenix from out the fire of calumny and revolt, greater, more unassailable than before.
And lo! One sweep of the brush, and the picture is changed.
Ten minutes... less... and the whole course of the world's history is altered. No sooner had St. Just mounted the tribune than Tallien jumped to his feet. His voice, usually meek and cultured, rises in a harsh crescendo, until it drowns that of the younger orator.
"Citizens," he exclaims, "I ask for truth! Let us tear aside the curtain behind which lurk concealed the real conspirators and the traitors!"
"Yes, yes! Truth! Let us have the truth!" One hundred voices - not forty - have raised the echo.
The mutiny is on the verge of becoming open revolt, is that already, perhaps. It is like a spark fallen - who knows where? - into a powder magazine. Robespierre feels it, sees the spark. He knows that one movement, one word, one plunge into that magazine, foredoomed though it be to destruction, on stamp with a sure foot, may yet quench the spark, may yet smother the mutiny. He rushes to the tribune, tries to mount. But Tallien has forestalled him, elbows him out of the way, and turns to the seven hundred with a cry that rings far beyond the Hall, out into the streets.
"Citizens!" he thunders in his turn. "I begged of you just now to tear aside the curtains behind which lurk the traitors. Well, the curtain is already rent. And if you dare not strike at the tyrant now, then 'tis I who will dare!" And from beneath his coat he draws a dagger and raises it above his head. "And I will plunge this into his heart," he cries, "if you have not the courage to smite!"
His words, that gleaming bit of steal, fan the spark into a flame. Within a few seconds, seven hundred voices are shouting, "Down with the tyrant!" Arms are waving, hands gesticulate wildly, excitedly. Only a very few shout: "Behold the dagger of Brutus!" All the others retort with "Tyranny!" and "Conspiracy!" and with cries of "Vive la Liberté!"
At this hour all is confusion and deafening uproar. In vain Robespierre tries to speak. He demands to speak. He hurls insults, anathema, upon the President, who relentless refuses him speech and jingles his bell against him.
"President of Assassins," the falling tyrant cries, "I demand speech of thee!"
But the bell goes jingling on, and Robespierre, choked with rage and terror, "turns blue" we are told, and his hand goes up to his throat.
"The blood of Danton chokes thee!" cries one man. And these words seem like the last blow dealt to the fallen foe. The next moment the voice of an obscure Deputy is raised, in order to speak the words that have been hovering on every lip:
"I demand a decree of accusation against Robespierre!"
"Accusation!" comes from seven hundred throats. "The decree of accusation!"
The President jingles his bell, puts the question, and the motion is passed unanimously.
Maximilien Robespierre - erstwhile master of France - is decreed accused.