9 Brumaire, Year V of the Republic
(October 30, 1796)
Aristide did not often set foot in the Place de Grève. It was an ill-omened place, the Golgotha of Paris, the site of uncounted butcheries across five centuries, and he loathed public executions.
He shivered and cast a fleeting glance toward the guillotine, waiting high above the heads of the crowd, as the sharp breeze of a Parisian October whipped lank dark hair into his eyes. Perhaps,he brooded, not for the first time, he was oversensitive for a man who worked for the police. Police officials, his friend and employer Brasseur among them, did their duty and washed their hands of the affair, leaving the rest to the Criminal Tribunal and the public prosecutor. But the police and the law courts, he thought, in their determined efforts to maintain order in a city still unsettled after seven years of revolutionary upheaval, could sometimes be wrong.
He elbowed his way onward, through the clamorous crowd of errand boys in smocks, domestics in shabby castoff finery, and craftsmen in work aprons who slouched about, playing truant from their trades for half an hour’s free entertainment. The muddy square between the city hall and the Seine swarmed with spectators, pushing, joking. Here and there a spruce bourgeois or stylish incroyable, flaunting the exaggerated fashions of the season, blossomed like a hothouse flower amid the weeds. Though Aristide wore no tricolor sash, the mark of a police inspector or commissaire, they made way for him, reluctantly parting ranks before the austere black suit that instantly placed him among such traditional dignitaries as police, civil servants, or magistrates.
He shouldered his way through the spectators until he could push no farther against the eager, humming barricade of bodies. He could see well enough; he stood half a head taller than most of his neighbors. The guillotine loomed above him against the leaden sky like a doorway to nowhere. Two men, silently overseen by a third in a fashionable black frock coat and tall hat, hovered about it, brisk and impassive, tightening ropes, testing moving parts, greasing grooves and hinges. Aristide offered a silent prayer of thanks that at least the guillotine was far swifter and gentler than the punishment meted out to murderers and bandits in the decades before the Revolution.
The crowd stirred and muttered, growing bored with idling. A few fights broke out. Rough-voiced street peddlers sold rolls, oranges, vinegar-water, hot chocolate, and cheap brandy.
A pair of mounted gendarmes appeared at the edge of the square. Behind them creaked the executioner’s cart and the murmur grew into an uproar. Those who often attended such free public entertainment self-importantly pointed out the approaching actors: there the attending priest in civilian costume; there the old executioner, come out of retirement for the day, Old Sanson who had topped the king, and Danton, and Robespierre, and so many others, in those disagreeable years 1793 and 1794; there his assistants. Young Sanson, the new master executioner, they told one another, was already waiting on the scaffold: a good-looking, well-made young fellow, wasn’t he?
In the cart a splash of crimson, a smock the color of blood. The central performers of the show stood between executioner and priest. One of the three condemned men had fainted and was lying nearly out of sight in the bottom of the cart.
A shout pierced the crowd’s babble.
“I am guilty!”
The man in the crimson smock leaned forward across the cart’s rail, straining at his guard’s tight grip on his bound arms.
“I am guilty, citizens! But Lesurques is innocent!”
“That’s Courriol,” said someone in the crowd, “one of the bandits....”
Aristide swallowed and squeezed his hands together behind his back as a chill crept from the pit of his stomach to the center of his chest. When even a confessed killer insisted upon his comrade’s innocence...
The second man stood erect in the cart, his pale, youthful face betraying neither fear nor hope. His fair hair was cropped short for the blade, but unlike his companion, he wore no red shirt, the emblem of a condemned murderer; waistcoat, culotte, shirt cut open at the neck---all were spotless white.
Absence of the usual formalities betrayed some belated sympathy on the public prosecutor’s part. What must it be like, Aristide wondered, to live in doubt, to have to ask yourself for the rest of your life whether, in the performance of your duty, you had condemned an innocent man?
“Lesurques is innocent!” Courriol repeated. His crimson smock fluttered in the wind. “I am guilty!”
The cart creaked to a stop before the scaffold. Above, Young Sanson waited silently, hands at his sides, ignoring the wind’s bite.
A raindrop stung Aristide’s cheek. Mathieu had died on just such a day as this, he recalled, a bleak autumn morning with a cold, leaden sky and spattering rain. Three years ago...the last day of October 1793. Perhaps under the same steel blade. He closed his eyes for an instant at the touch of another cold drop.
The assistant executioners lowered the cart’s tailboard and lugged the unconscious man up the narrow steps. Carefully impassive, they strapped him to the plank and slid it forward beneath the blade. The wooden collar clapped down over his neck. Young Sanson stepped to the machine’s right-hand upright and tugged at a lever.
Aristide blinked. Did anyone ever see the blade in the midst of its fall? Yet there it hung, at rest at the bottom of the uprights, smeared with glistening red, and blood was weeping between the boards of the scaffold onto the sawdust below.
“I am guilty! Lesurques is innocent!” shouted Courriol as hands reached for him and swung him down from the cart. He struggled a moment, twisting about to shout once again to the crowd as the executioners marched him toward the waiting plank. “Lesurques is innocent!”
Aristide watched, motionless. Here, at least, simple justice had taken its course. But God help us all, he thought, if the criminal court has condemned a blameless man.
The crowd grew silent as Lesurques climbed the steps. Upon reaching the platform, he paused.
“I am innocent of this crime. May God forgive my judges as I have forgiven them.”
For the third time, the great blade scraped and thudded home.
Aristide thrust his way past the gawkers and paused at the edge of the square, gasping for breath. At last he found an upturned skiff on the riverside and dropped down on it, elbows on knees, staring into the murky shallows of the Seine. Had the police he worked for, so determined to keep the peace, instead been so horribly wrong?
He clasped cold hands before him, shivering suddenly, not from the chill river breeze alone. Men made mistakes; it was the natural way of things. Impossible that you would never make a mistake, accuse wrongly, perhaps unwittingly destroy a life...
He sat brooding a while longer, watching the stray raindrops ripple across the river as it slid silently past. Forget this, he told himself at last. You can do nothing about it. Even if you could somehow learn the truth, and clear his name, he will still be beyond help. There is nothing you can do. He sighed, pushed himself to his feet, and turned his steps westward along the quay, letting the walk and the chill breeze calm him.
Like a great ship, the Île de la Cité‚ parted the river, the cathedral at one end of the island and the Law Courts at the other. As Aristide passed along the shore of the Right Bank, the brooding medieval towers of the Conciergerie, the ancient prison attached to the courts, caught and held his gaze. All his misgivings returned in a rush.
What if I, too, in my time, have sent innocent men to that place, and even to the executioner?
Copyright © 2006 by Susanne Alleyn