Paris, 8th Thermidor, Year II
‘Behold! The head of a counter-revolutionary who would have us bend our knees to a monarchical tyrant!’
To his eyes, Martin Colbert resembled a peacock garbed in his blue and red tailcoat and hat. The matching ribbons placed sporadically on his person added to this effect. Colbert never seemed to walk like an average Parisian but bounce with every step like some iridescent rabbit. As he watched, the lawyer-turned-judge bounced on his heels making the ribbons comically dance up and down; it would almost be laughable if Colbert had not executed over 50 people over the last year. All Louis the innkeeper had ever done was say that the Jacobins had made it difficult to make a few livres extra because they had ensured that all his regulars had lost their throats. His head now being forced onto a pike reiterated how he now had emulated his regulars!
‘Constables!’ Colbert bounded ecstatically towards them, the crowd parting like the Red Sea for Moses before him. ‘We have plucked another weed from the garden of France. Vive la Nation! These aristocrats and traitors wish to befoul our beloved revolution but we shall stop them!’
‘Will you be attending the Convention, Monsieur Colbert?’ Emile asked from beside him. He could feel his heart palpitate. This could go one of two ways and he prayed to God, and even to the Supreme Being, that he would not see Emile up on the guillotine for asking such a question. Someone heard his prayer as Colbert burst into a smile.
‘Why of course! I must make sure that Robespierre knows that the people of France are behind him. Robespierre a tyrant? A perfectly absurd accusation. Now gentlemen, I must make my way to the Convention.’
With that Colbert bounded down the twisting street with his brightly ordained ribbons flapping in the wind. Emile ambled off into the other direction, so he followed his friend. Hanging from the wooden buildings either side of them were red, white and blue banners flapping lazily in the wind. Each house had tried to outdo the last by sewing revolutionary slogans into the cloth or had tried to hang multiple banners simultaneously out of the same window. It was either outdo one another or face a close shave with the National Razor. It was strange to think that just five years beforehand they were shouting ‘Vive le Roy!’ with the rest of the city that was not starving. Now it was a battle to prove who was the most revolutionary.
‘We have a habit of stumbling across executions,’ Emile gave a gravelly laugh.
He had not noticed that they had arrived at Place de la Révolution. Still as glamorous as it was under the royalty, it screamed beauty and elegance. Only the rotting heads on pikes fouled the image of grandeur. Two crows as black as the night were fighting over an eye which they had plucked out of one of the skulls. ‘The Terror’ was aptly named. He had wanted an end to tyranny; he wanted a France where he could say what he wanted to say, and eat without fear that it would be his last meal for the week. Did Louis the innkeeper really want despotism for having a little jape at Robespierre’s expense? Was that one little jape enough to warrant a trip to the guillotine just around the corner from where the other Louis lost his head?
‘Robespierre will lose his head,’ Emile said suddenly.
‘What?’ he could not believe it. Saying that out loud, let alone thinking it, would earn you a summary execution. ‘Have you lost leave of all your senses, Emile?’
‘Robespierre’s been accused of tyranny. So were Louis, Marie Antoinette, Danton and the Girondins. Notice a pattern?’
Two days later
He cringed at Robespierre’s screams. It was like a knife piercing his skin, going straight through to his soul. The executioner could have at least kept his bandage on; a thin strip of fabric would not stop the sharp blade of a guillotine. He was relieved when he heard the thud of the blade and then silence.
‘Told you,’ Emile was neither smug nor sullen. What they had just saw had been commonplace for the last year or so. Out of the other 16 executed in front of the Palace that day, Martin Colbert was the fifth to feel the guillotine’s kiss. Still wearing his array of blue and red ribbons he hopped towards his fate. With one thud his body bounced for the last time.
‘Do you think this is all over?’ he asked Emile. Surely now the Terror must have claimed its final victims. An end to the bloodshed must be in sight.
‘Hard to say, my friend. If I am to be brutally honest, I think we will only see an end to this when someone with true power surrounding them takes the country’s reigns.’
Would that ever happen?
Paris, 2nd December, 1804
‘Papa, put me on your shoulders. I cannot see!’ Anthony cried up to him. Smiling, he lifted his son up above the cheering throngs of the crowd. Virtually everyone was waving handkerchiefs and flags in front of the majesty that was Notre Dame. ‘Remember what you asked me, about ten years ago, when they executed Robespierre?’ Emile whispered into his ear, although it was more like a shout thanks to the rapturous applause of the crowd. He nodded. How could he forget that day?
The crowd started screaming praise at even a higher volume. The doors to the cathedral had thundered open with a choir singing with all their hearts. Ahead of a throng of people was a man in a white velvet vest, a crimson tunic and a golden laurel upon his brow. He smiled and waved at the crowd. The People’s Emperor.
‘I told you so,’ Emile laughed.
As Anthony laughed on his shoulders, he remembered the last 20 years. Had they substituted one tyrannical terror for another?
Image: Nathan Hughes Hamilton