The Fraternal Suppers were a great success. They were the invention of Robespierre, and the unusual warmth of these early spring evenings lent the support of their balmy atmosphere to the scheme.
Whole Paris is out in the streets on these mild April nights. Families out on a holiday, after the daily spectacle of the death-cart taking the enemies of the people, the conspirators against their liberty, to the guillotine.
And maman brings a basket filled with whatever scanty provisions she can save from the maximum per day allowed for the provisioning of her family. Beside her, papa comes along, dragging his youngest by the hand - the latter no longer chubby and rosy, as were his prototypes in the days gone by, because food is scarce and dear, and milk unobtainable; but looking a man for all that, though bare-footed and bare-kneed, with the red cap upon his lank, unwashed locks, and hugging against his meagre chest a tiny toy guillotine, the latest popular fancy, all complete with miniature knife and pulleys, and frame artistically painted a vivid crimson.
The Rue St. Honoré is a typical example of what goes on all over the city. Though it is very narrow and therefore peculiarly inconvenient for the holding of outdoor entertainments, the Fraternal Suppers there are extensively patronized, because the street itself is consecrated as holding the house wherein lives Robespierre.
Here, as elsewhere, huge braziers are lit at intervals, so that materfamilias may cook the few herrings she has brought with her if she be so minded, and all down the narrow street tables are set, innocent of cloths or even of that cleanliness which is next to the equally neglected virtue of godliness. But the tables have an air of cheeriness nevertheless, with resin torches, tallow candles, or old stable lanthorns set here and there, the flames flickering in the gentle breeze, adding picturesqueness to the scene which might otherwise have seemed sordid, with those pewter mugs and tin plates, the horn-handled knives and iron spoons.
The scanty light does little more than accentuate the darkness around, the deep shadows under projecting balconies or lintels of portes-cochères carefully closed and barred for the night; but it glints with weird willo'-the-wisp-like fitfulness on crimson caps and tricolour cockades, on drawn and begrimed faces, bony arms, or lean, brown hands.
A motley throng, in truth! The workers of Paris, its proletariat, all conscripted servants of the State - slaves, we might call them, though they deem themselves free men - all driven into hard manual labour, partly by starvation and wholly by the decree of the Committees, who decide how and when and in what form the nation requires the arms or hands - not the brains, mind you! - of its citizens. For brains the nation has no use, only in the heads of those who sit in Convention of on Committees. "The State hath no use for science," was grimly said to Lavoisier, the great chemist, when he begged for a few days' surcease from death in order to complete some important experiments.
But coal-heavers are useful citizens of the State; so are smiths and armourers and gunmakers, and those who can sew and knit stockings, do anything in fact to clothe and feed the national army, the defenders of the sacred soil of France. For them, for those workers - the honest, the industrious, the sober - are the Fraternal Suppers invented; but not for them only. There are the "tricotteuses," sexless hags, who, by order of the State, sit at the foot of the scaffold surrounded by their families and their children and knit, and knit, the while they jeer - still by order of the State - at the condemned - old men, young women, children even, as they walk up to the guillotine. There are the "insulteuses publiques," public insulters, women mostly - save the mark! - paid to howl and blaspheme as the death-carts rattle by. There are the "tappe-durs," the hit-hards, who, armed with weighted sticks, form the body-guard around the sacred person of Robespierre. Then, the members of the Société Révolutionnaire, recruited from the refuse of misery and of degradation of this great city; and - oh, the horror of it all! - the "Enfants Rouges," the red children, who cry "Death" and "à la lanterne" with the best of them - precocious little offsprings of the new Republic. For them, too, are the Fraternal Suppers established: for all the riff-raff, all the sweepings of abject humanity. For they too must be amused and entertained, lest they sit in clusters and talk themselves into the belief that they are more wretched, more indigent, more abased, than they were in the days of monarchical oppression.
And so, on these balmy evenings of mid-April, family parties are gathered in the open air, around meagre suppers that are "fraternal" by order of the State. Family parties which make for camaraderie between the honest man and the thief, the sober citizen and the homeless vagabond, and help one to forget awhile the misery, the starvation, the slavery, the daily struggle for bare existence, in anticipation of the belated Millennium.
There is even laughter around the festive boards, fun and frolic. jokes are cracked, mostly of a grim order. There is intoxication in the air: spring has got into the heads of the young. And there is even kissing under the shadows, love-making, sentiment; and here and there perhaps a shred of real happiness.
The provisions are scanty. Every family brings its own. Two or three herrings, sprinkled with shredded onions and wetted with a little vinegar, or else a few boiled prunes or a pottage of lentils and beans.
"Can you spare some of that bread, citizen?"
"Aye! if I can have a bite of your cheese."
They are fraternal suppers! Do not, in the name of Liberty and Equality, let us forget that. And the whole of it was Robespierre's idea. He conceived and carried it through, commanded the voices in the Convention that voted the money required for the tables, the benches, the tallow candles. He lives close by, in this very street, humbly, quietly, like a true son of the people, sharing house and board with citizen Duplay, the cabinet-maker, and with his family.
A great man, Robespierre! The only man! Men speak of him with bated breath, young girls with glowing eyes. He is the fetich, the idol, the demigod. No benefactor of mankind, no saint, no hero-martyr was ever worshipped more devotedly than this death-dealing monster by his votaries. Even the shade of Danton is reviled in order to exalt the virtues of his successful rival.
"Danton was gorged with riches: his pockets full, his stomach satisfied! But look at Robespierre!"
"Almost a wraith! - so thin, so white!"
"Consumed by the fire of his own patriotism."
"You have heard him speak, citizen?"
A girl, still in her 'teens, her elbows resting on the table, her hands supporting her rounded chin, asks the question with bated breath. Her large grey eyes, hollow and glowing, are fixed upon her vis-à-vis, a tall, ungainly creature, who sprawls over the table, vainly trying to dispose of his long limbs in a manner comfortable to himself.
His hair is lank and matted with grease, his face covered in coal-dust; a sennight's growth of beard, stubbly and dusty, accentuates the squareness of his jaw even whilst it fails to conceal altogether the cruel, sarcastic curves of his mouth. But for the moment, in the rapt eyes of the young enthusiast, he is a prophet, a seer, a human marvel: he has heard Robespierre speak.
"Was it in the Club, citizen Rateau?" another woman asks - a young matron with a poor little starveling at her breast.
The man gives a loud guffaw, displays in the feeble, flickering light of the nearest torch a row of hideous uneven teeth, scored with gaps and stained with tobacco juice.
"In the Club?" he says with a curse, and spits in a convenient direction to show of his contempt for that or any other institution. "I don't belong to any Club. There's no money in my pocket. And the Jacobins and the Cordeliers like to see a man with a decent coat on his back."
His guffaw broke in a rasping cough which seemed to tear his broad chest to ribbons. For a moment speech was denied him; even oaths failed to reach his lips, trembling like an unset jelly in this distressing spasm. His neighbours alongside the table, the young enthusiast opposite, the comely matron, paid no heed to him - waited indifferently until the clumsy lout had regained his breath. This, mark you, was not an era of gentleness or womanly compassion, and an asthmatic mudlark was not like to excite pity. Only when he once more stretched out his long limbs, raised his head and looked about him, panting and blear-eyed, did the girl insist quietly:
"But you have heard Him speak!"
"Aye! the ruffian replied drily. "I did."
"Night before last. Tenez! He was stepping out of citizen Duplay's house yonder. He saw me leaning against the wall close by. I was tired, half asleep, what? He spoke to me and asked me where I lived."
"Where you lived?' the girl echoed, disappointed.
"Was that all?" the matron added with a shrug of her shoulders.
The neighbours laughed. The men enjoyed the discomfiture of the women, who were all craning their necks to hear something great, something palpitating, about their idol.
The young enthusiast sighed, clasped her hands in favour.
"He saw that you were poor, citizen Rateau," she said with conviction; "and that you were tired. He wished to help and comfort you."
"And where did you saw you lived, citizen?" the young matron went on, in her calm, matter-of-fact tone.
"I live far from here, the other side of the water. not in an aristocratic quarter like this one - what?"
"You told Him you lived there?" the girl still insisted. Any scrap or crumb of information even remotely connected with her idol was manna to her body and balm to her soul.
"Yes, I did," citizen Rateau assented.
"Then," the girl resumed earnestly, "solance and comfort will come to you very soon, citizen. He never forgets. His eyes are upon you. He knows your distress and that you are poor and weary. Leave it to him, citizen Rateau. He will know how and when to help."
"He will know, more like," here broke in a harsh voice, vibrating with excitement, "how and when to lay his talons on an obscure and helpless citizen whenever his Batches for the guillotine are insufficient to satisfy his lust!"
A dull murmur greeted this tirade. Only those who sat close by the speaker knew which he was, for the lights were scanty and burnt dim in the open air. The others only heard - received this arrow-shot aimed at their idol - with for the most part a kind of dull resentment. The women were more loudly indignant. one or two young devotees gave a shrill cry or so of passionate indignation.
"Guillotine, forsooth! The enemies of the people all deserve the guillotine!"
And the enemies of the people were those who dared raise their voice against their Chosen, their Fetich, the great, incomprehensible Mystery.
Citizen Rateau was once more rendered helpless by a tearing fit of coughing.
But from afar, down the street, there came one or two assenting cries.
"Well spoken, young man! As for me, I never trusted that bloodhound!"
And a woman's voice added shrilly: "His hands reek of blood. A butcher, I call him!"
"And a tyrant!" assented the original spokesman. "His aim is a dictatorship, with his minions hanging around him like abject slaves. Why not Versailles, then? How are we better off now than in the days of kingship? Then, at least, the streets of Paris did not stink of blood. Then, at least-"
But the speaker got no father. A hard crust of very dry, black bread, aimed by a sure hand, caught him full in the face, whilst a hoarse voice shouted lustily:
"Hey there, citizen! If thou'lt not hold thy tongue 'tis thy neck that will be reeking with blood o'er soon, I'll warrant!"
"Well said, citizen Rateau!" put in another, speaking with his mouth full, but with splendid conviction. "Every word uttered by that jackanapes yonder reeks of treason!"
"Shame!" came from every side.
"Where are the agents of the Committee of Public Safety? Men have been thrown into prison for less than this."
"Take him to the nearest Section!"
"Ere he wreaks mischief more lasting than words!" cried a woman, who tried as she spoke to give her utterance its full, sinister meaning.
"Shame! Treason!" came soon from every side. Voices were raised all down the length of the tables - shrill, full-throated, even dull and indifferent. Some really felt indignation - burning, ferocious indignation; others only made a noise for the sheer pleasure of it, and because the past five years had turned cries of "Treason!" and of "Shame!" into a habit. Not that they knew what the disturbance was about. The street was long and narrow, and the cries came some way from where they were sitting; but when cries of "Treason!" flew through the air these days, 'twas best to join in, lest those cries turned against one, and the next stage in the proceedings became the approach of an Agent of the Sûreté, the nearest prison, and the inevitable guillotine.
So every one cried "Shame!" and "Treason!" whilst those who had first dared to raise their voices against the popular demagogue drew together into a closer batch, trying no doubt to gather courage through one another's proximity. Eager, excited, a small compact group of two men - one a mere boy - and three women, it almost seemed as if they were suffering from some temporary hallucination. How else would five isolated persons - three of them in their first youth - have dared to brave a multitude?
In truth Bertrand Moncrif, face to face as he believed with martyrdom, was like one transfigured. Always endowed with good looks, he appeared like a veritable young prophet, haranguing the multitude and foretelling its doom. The gloom partly hid his figure, but his hand was outstretched, and the outline of an avenging finger pointing straight out before him, appeared in the weird light of the resin torch, as if carved in glowing lava. now and then the fitful light caught the sharp outline of his face - the straight nose and pointed chin, and brown hair matted with the sweat of enthusiasm.
Beside him Régine, motionless and white as a wraith, appeared alive only by her eyes, which were fixed on her beloved. In the hulking giant with the asthmatic cough she had recognized the man to whom she had ministered earlier in the day. Somehow, his presence here and now seemed to her sinister and threatening. It seemed as if all day he had been dogging her footsteps: first at the soothsayer's then he surely must have followed her down the street. then he had inspired her with pity; now his hideous face, his grimy hands, that croaking voice and churchyard cough, filled her with nameless terror.
He appeared to her excited fancy like a veritable spectre of death, hovering over Bertrand and over those she loved. With one arm she tried to press her brother Jacques closer to her breast, to quench his eagerness and solence his foolhardy tongue. But he, like a fierce, impatient young animal, fought to free himself from her loving embrace, shouted approval to Bertrand's oratory, played his part of the young propagandist, heedless of Régine's warnings and of his mother's tears. Next to Régine, her sister Joséphine - a girl not out of her 'teens, with all the eagerness and exaggeration of extreme youth, was shouting quite as loudly as her brother Jacques, clapping her small hands together, turning glowing, defying, arrogant eyes on the crowd of great unwashed whom she hoped to sway with her ardour and her eloquence.
"Shame on us all!" she cried with passionate vehemence. "Shame on us French women and French men that we should be the abject slaves of such a bloodthirsty tyrant!"
Her mother, pale-faced, delicate, had obviously long since given up all hope of controlling this unruly little crowd. She was too listless, too anemic, had no doubt suffered too much already, to be afraid for herself or for her children. She was past any thought or fear. Her wan face only expressed despair - despair that was absolutely final - and the resignation of silent self-immolation, content to suffer beside those she loved, only praying to be allowed to share their martyrdom, even though she had no part in their enthusiasm.
Bertrand, Joséphine and Jacques had all the ardour of martyrdom. Régine and her mother all its resignation.
The Fraternal Supper threatened to end in a free fight, wherein the only salvation for the young fire-eaters would lie in a swift taking to their heels. And even then the chances would be hopelessly against them. Spies of the Convention, spies of the Committees, spies of Robespierre himself, swarmed all over the place. They were marked men and women, those five. It was useless to appear defiant and high-minded and patriotic. Even Danton had gone to the guillotine for less.
The balmy air of mid-Apirl seemed to echo the sinister words. but Bertrand appeared unconscious of all danger. Nay! it almost seemed as if he courted it.
"Shame on you all!" he called out loudly, and his fresh, sonorous voice rang out above the tumult and the hoarse murmurings. "Shame on the people of France for bowing their necks to such monstrous tyranny. Citizens of Paris, think on it! Is not Liberty a mockery now? Do you call your bodies your own? They are but food for cannon at the bidding of the Convention. Your families? You are parted from those you love. Your wife? You are torn from her embrace. Your children? They are taken from you for the service of the State. And by whose orders? Tell me that! By whose orders, I say?"
He was lashing himself into a veritable fury of self-sacrifice, stood up beside the table and with a gesture even bade Joséphine and Jacques be still. As for Régine, she hardly was conscious that she lived, so acute, so poignant was her emotion, so gaunt and real the approach of death which threatened her beloved.
This of course was the end - this folly, this mad, senseless, useless folly! Already through the gloom she could see as in a horrible vision all those she cared for dragged before a tribunal that knew of no mercy; she could hear the death-carts rattling along the cobblestones, she could see the hideous arms of the guillotine, ready to receive this unique, this believed, this precious prey. She could feel Joséphine's arms clinging pitiably to her for courage; she could see Jacques' defiant young face, glorying in martyrdom; she could see maman, drooping like a faded flower, bereft of what was life to her - the nearness of her children. She could see Bertrand, turning with a dying look of love, not to her but to the beautiful Spaniard who had captured his fancy and then sold him without compunction to the spies of Robespierre and of her own party.
But for the fact that this was a "Fraternal Supper," that people had come out here with their families, their young children, to eat and to make merry and to forget all their troubles as well as the pall of crime that hung over the entire city, I doubt not but what the young Hotspur and his crowd of rashlings would ere now have been torn from their eats, trampled under foot, at best been dragged to the nearest Commissary, as the asthmatic citizen Rateau had already threatened. Even as it was, the temper of many a paterfamilias was sorely tried by this insistence, with willful twisting of the tigers' tails. And the women were on the verge of reprisals. As for Rateau, he just seemed to gather his huge limbs together, uttered an impatient oath and an angry: "By all the cats and dogs that render this world hideous with their howls, I have had about enough of this screeching oratory." Then he threw one long leg over the bench on which he had been sitting, and in an instant was lost in the gloom, only to reappear in the dim light a few seconds later, this time on the farther side of the table, immediately behind the young rhetorician, his ugly, begrimed face with its grinning, toothless mouth and his broad, bent shoulders towering above the other's slender figure.
"Knock him down, citizen!" a young woman cried excitedly. "Hit him in the face! Silence his abominable tongue!"
But Bertrand was not to be silenced yet. No doubt the fever of notoriety, of martyrdom, had got into his blood. His youth, his good looks - obvious even in the fitful light and despite his tattered clothes - were an asset in his favour, no doubt; but a man-eating tiger is apt to be indiscriminate in his appetites and will devour a child with as much gusto as a gaffer; and this youthful firebrand was teasing the man-eating tiger with reckless insistence.
"By whose orders," he reiterated, with passionate vehemence, "by whose orders are we, free citizens of France, dragged into this abominable slavery? Is it by those of the Representatives of the People? No! Of the Committees chosen by the People? No! Of your Municipalities? your Clubs? your Sections? No! and again No! Your bodies, citizens, your freedom, your wives, your children, are all slaves, the property, the toys of one man - real tyrant and traitor, the oppressor of the weak, the enemy of the people; and that man is-"
Again he was interrupted, this time more forcibly. A terrific blow on the head deprived him of speech and of sight. His senses reeled, there was a mighty buzzing in his ears, which effectually drowned the cries of execration or of approval that greeted his tirade, as well as a new and deafening tumult which filled the whole narrow street with its weird and hideous sounds.
Whence the blow had come, Bertrand had no notion. It had all been so swift. He had expected to be torn limb from limb, to be dragged to the nearest Commissariat: he courted condemnation, envisaged the guillotine; 'stead of which, he was prosily knocked down by a bow which would have felled an ox.
Just for a second, his fast-fading perceptions struggled back into consciousness. He had a swift vision of a giant form towering over him, with grimy fist uplifted and toothless mouth grinning hideously, and of the crowd, rising from their seats, turning their backs upon him, waving their arms and caps frantically, and shouting, shouting, with vociferous lustiness. He also had an equally swift pang of remorse as the faces of his companions - of Régine and Mme de Serval, of Joséphine and Jacques - whom he dragged with him into this mad and purposeless outburst, rose prophetically before him fro out the gloom, with wide-eyed, scared faces and arms uplifted to ward off vengeful blows.
But the next moment these lightning-like visions faded into complete oblivion. He felt something hard and heavy hitting him in the back. All the lights, the faces, the outstretched hands, danced wildly before his eyes, and he sank like a log on the greasy pavement, dragging pewter plates, mugs and bottles down with him in his fall.