Chapter 2 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

The citizen-deputy Chauvinière, representative in the National Convention of the constituency of Nevers, chose, as became a legislator of his notorious zeal, to make an inspection of the Archevêché, the whilom Palace of the Archbishop of Paris, now converted into a hospital for prisoners.

Baziret, the doctor in charge, conducted him, and was filled with terror by the deputy's uncompromising denunciations of the manner in which he found the place conducted, the abominable overcrowding, the mephitic atmosphere, the general insalubrity.

"This is not human," he declared, as they turned away from a suffocating gallery. "After all, they are men, not beasts; and although they have not yet been tried, already, it seems, are they subjected here to punishment such as the Nation could not desire for her vilest malefactors. They are flung to lie in straw like swine, men and women who are ill, some of them already dying! And you pack sixty into a space that could comfortably contain thirty! It is inhuman, barbarous, almost beyond anything ever perpetrated by the despots."

Under those stern light eyes the portly Baziret trembled in body and in soul.

"What would you, citizen-deputy? Every day the authorities send me more of these sick from overcrowded prisons in which they cannot do other than fall ill. And my resources, then! They are utterly inadequate. The space at my command here is what you see. I cannot build new wings to the Archevêché."

"But you can keep clean the space you have; and you can avoid being pert with me, if you please. I dislike pertness. It is the sign of a shallow mind."

"Pert? I?" The doctor descended to further depths of panic. "Oh, but citizen-deputy, I assure you..."

"Enough!" His peremptoriness was terrific. "Also I dislike servility. It was well enough in the days of Capet. It will not serve in a glorious Age of Reason, when all men are free, when all men are equal, when all men are brothers. There are no masters now. Do you understand?"

"Oh, but perfectly, citizen-deputy."

"I congratulate you. Let us pass on." Never was demeanour of Sultan towards a slave of his household more contemptuous. "What have you above?"

"Above? Oh, above!" The doctor had fondly imagined the inspection at an end. "Oh, but nothing that deserves your trouble."

"All things deserve trouble at the hands of a zealous servant of the Nation. Make a note of that, citizen-doctor. It may stimulate your own zeal."

The brow-beaten man of medicine bowed in silent awe.

The Apostle of Liberty and Fraternity, continued:

"Conduct me, if you please." And he waved a hand upwards. "The state of things I find here is to be the subject of a report I shall present this evening to the Convention. This scandal must be brought to an end."

The doctor, his hand upon the baluster, his foot in its neatly buckled shoe upon the first step of the staircase, paused and turned. His face was grey.

"In justice, citizen-deputy, you cannot lay this...this scandal to my charge. I..."

"You waste my time; and my time belongs to France. It is necessary to remind you of the most obvious things. You may depend, citizen-doctor, upon strictest justice. The reign of injustice ended with the abominable régime of the despots. I shall report as I find." He relented a little from his austerity. "So far I have no fault with you, personally. You have been frank. You have concealed nothing. You have placed no difficulties in the way of my investigations. All of which is in your favour. Continue so, and you shall have no cause to fear my report. What do you hide above-stairs?"

The doctor breathed freely at last. He even ventured a little laugh as he replied: "Hide? Hide, citizen-deputy? But what should I hide?"

"That is what I am asking you."

"Oh, but nothing. Nothing. All is open for your inspection." They began to ascend the broad staircase. "Here above are a few persons whom it has been necessary to segregate, a few unfortunates who have been certified as demented."

"Demented!" Chauvinière seemed surprised. "So that to a hospital in which already there is not room for the sick, they send also those who should be in a madhouse! What infamy!"

Baziret agreed as he would have agreed with anything the august deputy might say. If those upper chambers could be cleared of their tenants, he might establish there another ward, and thus relieve the congestion below. "The mad," he deplored, "take up so much room."

"I've noticed it," said Chauvinière. "They overcrowd the world."

On the upper floor the inspection was resumed. Baziret unlocked door after door of those chambers of solitary confinement, disclosing here an old man, there an elderly aristocratic woman, and in each chamber the same simple arrangement of deal chair and deal table and in a corner of the floor a mattress and blankets.

At last, to end the impatience which Chauvinière had perfectly dissembled, Baziret unlocked a door to reveal the person who was the cause of all this zeal on the deputy's part; the person for whom, or for his own ends with regard to whom, he burrowed in all that he now did and was presently to do. And so deep underground and so skilful was his burrowing that on the surface of things there was nothing to betray his labours.

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier occupied the room's only chair, which she had placed by the barred window. She turned her head as the door opened, and started a little at sight of Chauvinière, who considered her judicially, without any sign of recognition. He found her paler than her wont, her eyes a little strained, her features a trifle drawn. But in the main less changed perhaps than he had expected after the week that had passed since her mother's execution and her own removal from the Conciergerie; and the change, he observed, with that discriminating eye of his, was not at all disfiguring. Suffering had heightened her spiritual, ethereal air. Inwardly he spared a sigh for the philosophic reflection that suffering is, after all, man's most refining influence.

"Who is this." he asked coldly.

Baziret informed him, what time Chauvinière continued to regard the patient.

"Ha!" he said at last. "My faith, she does not look mad, that one."

"Alas! Often is it so with them. Their appearance deceives the shrewdest."

"But if you doctors may be deceived one way, you may also be deceived another." He fixed Baziret with eyes of terrible suspicion. "I can even imagine circumstances in which you might desire to be deceived."

Baziret shivered. "You mean, citizen?"

"Ah, bah! You understand me well enough. This girl now..." He broke off, considering her again, chin in hand. Then abruptly, a man who takes a sudden resolve, he waved the doctor away. "I'll talk to her," he said. "It is my duty to satisfy myself in every case where..." Again he broke off. "Wait for me at the end of the corridor. Out of earshot."

The doctor bowed again in his scared obsequiousness, and was gone. Chauvinière's eyes followed him. They were sly, mocking, contemptuous. At last he stepped within the room, and closed the door.

"That comedy is played," he said gently, as if taking her into his confidence, as if making her a partner in his intentions.

"You play comedy, monsieur?"

Calm and level came the question in that pleasantly modulated voice. It startled him. He inclined his head a little.

"To serve you, citoyenne."

She had risen, and stood now straight and slim in her muslin fichu and full petticoat, which was in broad stripes of blue on grey. Her back was to the window and the pale gold of the March sunlight, so that her face, in shadow, remained indistinct. Her voice, however, assured him of completest self-possession.

"But It Is not a comedy of manners, I think."

"Of manners?" He was piqued. Her meaning escaped him, and he did not like meanings to escape him. It did not often happen. "And why not of manners, if you please?"

"Because for that you have forgotten something."

"What have I forgotten?"

"To remove your hat."

The audible arresting of his breath betrayed his amazement. Then laughter broke across his face: broadly, but silently, for he remembered the doctor at the end of the corridor.

"They are right to have certified you mad, citoyenne," he said softly. "Decidedly you must leave here for a madhouse."

She shrank until her shoulders touched the bars of the window.

"What horror! What infamy! You know, you know that I am not mad. It was by your contriving that..."

"Sh! Hush! Hush! Name of a name!" His alarm was real. His eyes swept uneasily to the door. His head inclined a little, like one who listens. "Talk so, citoyenne, and you destroy us both."

She trilled a note or two of laughter, in mockery of him and his sudden fears.

"In this land of freedom, monsieur, in this Age of Reason of which you are one of the priests, surely a woman may destroy herself without comment if she will. And as for your destruction; can you conceive that it would concern me?"

He sighed. "I have admired your spirit, citoyenne. I begin to fear you have too much of it." He approached her by a step or two. "You are very young. Can you already have been so robbed of what we call illusions that you must count every man your enemy? If so, then it would be idle to protest that I am your friend; that I labour to give you back the liberty and the life which at your age should be very dear and precious; that to this end I have schemed and wrought, and to this end am ready to continue even at the risk of my own neck. If you are not convinced by the evidence already afforded you, if you are unwilling to stake upon it your life, which otherwise is forfeit, then, citoyenne, I had better depart again and leave you to your fate. It would imperil me too deeply to labour to persuade you; just as it might imperil me to be found bareheaded here, which is the only reason why I did not remove my hat."

Conviction of one injustice done may often temper a whole outlook. And Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, feeling herself convicted now in the trivial matter of his hat, wondered whether she might not, after all, have judged him as rashly and by inferences as faulty in those other graver matters.

She considered him, and found in him now a certain dignity, which was not without appeal.

"But why," she asked quietly, "should you desire to serve me?"

A smile momentarily softened his saturnine countenance. "I do not believe a man has lived since the world began who did not at some time desire to serve one woman."

That was plain enough, and the traditions in which she had been reared rendered it an insult in her eyes. She let him see this clearly in her sudden stiffening, the uptilting of her chin, the frown above her blue-green eyes, and the angry flush that stained her delicately tinted face.

"You forget your place, sir," she told him, speaking as to an impertinent groom. "You presume insufferably."

If it stung him, he betrayed no hurt. His gentle smile grew even gentler, sadder. It was within his considerable psychological knowledge that he who would gain empire over a woman must begin by making himself her slave.

"Presume? Is it presumption to state an historical truth? Do I ask for anything? Do I demand wages for the service I proffer? I am at your command, citoyenne, to save your life, because..." He paused, and made a little gesture of self-deprecation. "Because the desire to serve you, without guerdon or hope of guerdon, is stronger than myself. Is that to presume?"

"No, monsieur. It is to be incredible."

Gravely he considered her, standing there so slim and straight, a figure almost boyish save for the slight swell under her muslin fichu, her delicately featured face so supremely composed, and the sunlight behind her setting a glowing nimbus about her golden head.

"Incredible, yes," he agreed at last. "I have often been accounted that. There is a twist in my nature. My mind was cast in an ironical mould. The unexpected beckons me. One of these days it may beckon me to my destruction. But I shall go with a smile, savouring the moment." He waited for no answering comment, but swept on, quickening his tone to a brisker pace. "We waste time, citoyenne. Listen, and afterwards resolve yourself. You will have leisure for thought between this and the event. Mistrust me, and remain to be presently guillotined; or trust me, and let me lead you back to life. That shall be as you please. I offer; but I do not persuade. Listen now."

Swiftly, briefly he traced for her the course of events to come. He would procure the removal of the mental cases in the Archevêché to a madhouse in the rue du Bac, whence evasion would be easy. The removal would take place in the course of the next day. As soon as it was effected, he would depart for the Nivernais, being already commissioned by the Convention to undertake there a tour of inspection. His passports were ready, and they included a non-existent secretary. That was the place that she should fill, if she so decided, suitably dressed in man's attire for the purpose. Let her take time for thought, and let him know to-morrow, when he sought the house in the rue du Bac, how she decided. He hoped that she would choose wisely. In the Nivernais she would be free to go her ways, and no doubt would know how to find shelter there in her native province and perhaps procure assistance to enable her to quit France should she so desire it. "We are Nivernais both," he ended by reminding her.

"Perhaps it is compatriotism that strengthens my interest in you." He flashed a quick glance at the door, then, at last, swept off his hat, and bowed low. "My homage, citoyenne. I take my leave."

He was gone, abruptly, giving her no time to answer, leaving her there frowning in perplexity and buffeted between fear of death and mistrust of her preserver.

That night from the height of the tribune in the hall of the Convention, Chauvinière inveighed furiously against the prison system, and the state of things he had found in the overcrowded prison hospital of the Archevêché. He was superb in his audacity, fulminating in his irony, which spared none of those responsible, nor hesitated to indict even the Minister of Justice, Camille Desmoulins. He claimed to speak in the name of Humanity, consumed by the fire of a just and righteous indignation.

A deputy from the lower Loire ventured to interrupt him with a gibe that drew some applause from the crowded assembly.

"Monsieur the President, will you permit this man to continue his monstrous advocacy of amenities for aristocrats?"

Chauvinière, standing very straight, and looking very tall, his black head thrown back, his fine hands resting, one on either side of his plumed hat, on the ledge of the rostrum, stamped out at once the sparks of that spluttering applause.

"Aristocrats?" His voice broke about the heads of the deputies like a peal of thunder, and again: "Aristocrats?"

The silence was instantaneous. His indignant, questioning outcry had caught their attention. He paused now, and his sardonic, imperious glance sought out that daring fellow from the Loire, and riveted him. He knew the value of suspense, and for a long moment he held them in it. Then he loosed his answer:

"In a Nation of free men, Justice, citizens, should at once be inexorable, blind, and undiscriminating. She can admit neither prejudice nor preconception, for these indeed are the negation of Justice. In her divine eyes, which the ancients in their wisdom symbolically bandaged, there are neither aristocrats nor plebeians, but only accused. And lest Justice err in her findings—a danger revolting to enlightened men in this Age of Reason—she must presume the accused to be innocent until her own sifting of the evidence constrains her to convict them."

Applause rolled in volleys down that long hall.

Chauvinière, who knew so well the power of words and how to wield them, knew also the value of dramatic poise. He remained now calm, precise, unmoved: the complete patriot with a duty to perform, who himself was nothing. No longer did his eyes seek out his erstwhile interrupter, lest he be suspected of gloating over the man's discomfiture. He did not even perceive—at least he did not return—the approving smile of the deputy for Arras, that notorious humanitarian, the frail and livid Maximilien Robespierre, who removed one of the two pairs of glasses from his uptilted nose, to beam upon the vehement tenant of the tribune.

After that the success of his advocacy was no longer in any doubt. His demand that as a commencement of reform the mental cases should instantly be removed from the Archevêché, so as to afford the sorely needed space for other sufferers, was unanimously supported.

As he descended the steps of the tribune, he reflected with cynical amusement that the blue-green eyes of Mademoiselle de Montsorbier were becoming responsible for internal politics in France. But there was, he also reflected, ample precedent in history from the days of one Helen, the shape of whose nose had brought about the siege of Troy.