Chapter 5 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

The citizen-representative, newly risen, scrupulously shaved, his hair dressed as carefully as an aristocrat's, stalked into the main room between the bedrooms, calling briskly for chocolate.

Whilst he waited he sauntered to the window, and stood there considering the greyness and drizzle of that melancholy March morning. Presently, however, the general stillness about him smote his attention as a sudden sound might have done at another time. He cocked his head, listened for some movement from Mademoiselle de Montsorbier's room. The unbroken silence moved him apprehensively. He stepped swiftly to the door and rapped sharply with his knuckles. There was no answer. He tried the handle. It turned, and the door swung inwards, discovering to him the room's lack of tenant. He crossed the threshold, and gazed about him frowning. He noted the bed, undisturbed save by an impression of her form, so faint as to suggest that it was some hours since she had lain there, nor then had lain there long.

He stepped back, his face dark, his square chin thrust forward. His eyes sought the side-table on which, as he remembered, he had too carelessly and trustingly left his portfolio. It was no longer there, which was already as he had expected. A moment yet he paused to make sure that it was not elsewhere. Then, with an oath, he flung headlong from the room, crashing into the serving-maid who was bearing him his chocolate. Her scream and the clattering smash of the scattered chocolate-service followed him as he bounded down the stairs, bawling for the innkeeper.

The innkeeper, terrified by the representative's torrential descent and tempestuous demands for his secretary, backed by horrible threats of the guillotine in the event of prevarication or evasion, quaveringly swore by the God of the Old Régime and the Goddess of Reason of the new, that he knew nothing whatever of the missing person and that he learnt now for the first time of that person's absence. But the ostler, lounging near at hand and overhearing the angry interrogatory, came forward to supply the answer which was to quench Chauvinière's last lingering hope.

The citizen-representative stared at the mumbling oaf with such fierce, flaming eyes that the fellow recoiled in dread.

"And you let him go?" said Chauvinière between his teeth. He was smiling terribly. "You let him go? Like that?"

"How should I have known that..."

"How should you know anything, animal? Brute beast, did it not occur to you that an honest man doesn't sneak away like a thief at midnight?" He smothered him in obscene epithets, cuffed him in his overpowering rage, and when the fellow protested against such treatment in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity cuffed him again more soundly.

"Will you raise your voice to me, carrion? If you must be talking, tell me at least which way he went. Use your worthless head, animal, or you may lose it over this."

The ostler answered at random that the youth had ridden off in the direction of Nevers.

At last Chauvinière controlled himself.

"Saddle me a horse," he commanded, and on that horse he was himself riding away to Nevers within ten minutes, leaving the postboy to follow with the chaise.

He rode at a pace which reflected the fury of his mind. More even than the loss of the girl did it enrage him to think that a man of his wit and acumen should have permitted that smoothly spoken, lying little aristocrat to have cheated him last night with her simpering pretence of yielding weakness, and thereby fooled him into an exercise of idiotic patience so as to render his conquest ultimately more complete. He was rightly served for his imbecile forbearance. But when he found her, as find her he would, though he destroyed a province in the search, she should mercilessly be taught what it meant to play comedy with the emotions of such a man.

He was very much the wolf that morning, the wolf questing for the lamb that has eluded him and licking his chops in anticipation of the voracious, unsparing feast to come when that lamb shall eventually have been overtaken and reduced into possession.

He paused at Rougues to munch a crust and drink a glass of brandy-and-water—for he had ridden away fasting from La Charité—then spurred on again, reaching Nevers at noon.

He went straight to the president of the Revolutionary Committee of Nevers, a heavy-bodied, lumbering tanner named Desjardins, and stated his immediate need. His papers had been stolen last night at La Charite by a youth whom he had befriended, and whom he was now assured was a girl, a cursed aristocrat, no doubt. She was known to have ridden off in the direction of Nevers. She might attempt to pass herself off as Chauvinière's secretary. Her recapture was of the utmost importance. Heads would fall if she were not retaken. Chauvinière would see to that. Desjardins was summoned to assemble at once the agents of the Committee of Safety, to inform them of the case, and to stimulate them to track down the thief.

"And they had better be active," swore Chauvinière, "or, by Saint Guillotine, I'll give them a lesson in zeal!"

With that, the representative, who was half-famished, went off to dine at the Auberge du Soleil, whither the chaise had been ordered to follow.

That the agents of the Committee were active is not to be doubted. In fact their activities were proved by the recapture on the morrow, near Chatillon, of the horse which the girl had ridden, and, later, by the discovery in a ditch near Souvigny of a black riding-coat, boots, and other articles of apparel which Chauvinière recognized as those worn by the fugitive, as well as of an empty portfolio of black leather with a metal clasp, which the representative acknowledged for his own stolen property. Of the fugitive herself, however, there was no trace. The agents inclined to the convenient belief that she was dead, and pointed to the clothes as evidence.

Chauvinière withered them with his contempt. "Women do not undress themselves to die by the roadside, you imbeciles! Continue the search. It will be rendered more difficult by the fact that she has changed her apparel. But continue it. Put yourselves on the track of any stranger of whom you may hear. Strangers do not move unperceived in country districts. Display your zeal."

They returned to their quest, shrugging and grumbling among themselves and confiding in one another that the citizen-representative was an obstinate pig of a mule, an arrogant bully who gave himself the airs of an aristocrat and who would come to an evil end.

Days were added to those already spent, until their tale made up a week, during which Chauvinière sat brooding at the Sign of the Sun, snarling ill-humouredly at all who sought him, and giving, apparently, no thought to the affairs of the Convention which were responsible for his visit to the Nivernais. When reminded of this by the greatly daring Desjardins, he stormed first at the audacity of the reminder, then swore profusely by the new gods and the old that the Nivernais should know of his presence. With that oath he took up his neglected duties, conquering his infatuation and vain regrets, and putting Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, at least for the present, from his mind.

And as he had wrathfully promised, he performed. In that month of April the Nivernais came to shudder at the name of a man who, whatever he may have been in the past, had never been wanton or crude in his cruelties, and never bloodthirsty. From township to township he swept with the horrible paraphernalia of his justiciary's office at his heels, and ruthlessly practised in bloodshed the doctrines of the new Golden Age of Reason.

Throughout the Nivernais the Revolutionary movement had been conducted upon moderate lines. Therefore was there the more work for such a man in such a mood, and the more terrifying did that work appear to the inhabitants.

At last towards the end of April his dread progress brought him to the little hill-town of Poussignot. If it had trembled at the news of his approach, it was almost prostrated with terror at the manner of his descent upon it. A military guard of honour escorted the travelling chaise in which he lounged in his grey coat, plumed hat, and sash of office. In the wake of his carriage trailed a cart laden with baulks and beams of scarlet-painted timber, presently to be assembled into a guillotine and mounted in the market-square. Upon the cart's grim load sat an obese, dull-eyed, phlegmatic man, the sight of whom sent a shudder through those who guessed his office. With him was an equally obese woman, blear-eyed, unkempt, and slatternly, who drove the cart.

The Revolutionary Committee of Poussignot which had been duly elected, upon representations from Nevers a year ago, but which had never yet found occasion to function, was hurriedly summoned to assemble in the little town-hall, overlooking the market-square, where the carpenters were already busy with the erection of the scaffold. In muttering awe they awaited the coming of this dread man from the Convention, who was to rouse that sleepy and hitherto contented township from its Revolutionary languor.

He kept them waiting a full hour while he dined, careless of the time he thus wantonly wasted for them. He arrived at last, arrogant and overbearing in manner, arrogant and cruelly sardonic in speech. He found here in Poussignot a state of things which supplied ample material for the mockery which was never very distant from his outlook. Whilst France herself was clattering into ruin under the revolutionary earthquake that shook her from end to end, Poussignot, in the very heart of France, appeared to have gone to sleep, and in its state of incredible somnolence to have pursued the peaceful even tenor of the days of the abominable ancient régime. It was so incredible that, after the first shock of surprise, Chauvinière was moved to inward laughter; laughter at the sleeper and at the thought of the awakening in store.

The many activities that had engaged his mind during the past month had gradually dimmed the memory of Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, and his chagrin at the manner in which she had victimized him. In a measure as her image faded, so too had faded gradually the savage humour which that memory had inspired and which he had vented upon all and sundry. It was fortunate for Poussignot that by the time he reached it he was growing nauseated by bloodshed and weary of the crude pursuit of victims for the knife. The more normal attitude of philosophy upon which he secretly prided himself was gradually returning. His sense of humour was gradually reasserting itself. Poussignot restored it to him completely, although the overawed Committee, now listening to his passionate tirade, was permitted no glimpse of this.

In his deep, vibrant voice, pitched on a note of stinging sarcasm, he trounced that Revolutionary Committee, upbraiding the supineness of its members, threatening them with the doom they had been so reluctant to dispense unto others, unless he beheld them more zealous in the sacred service of Liberty.

Having thoroughly startled them out of their complacency, having delivered them a sermon upon the new gospel of Equality which he gathered was insufficiently understood in the hills of Poussignot, and having impressed them with the necessity of extirpating all those who were heretical or lukewarm or otherwise a danger to the spread of the glorious new religion, he passed from the general to the particular.

He came already informed, it appeared, of certain things in and about Poussignot, and he now produced a list of persons suspected of the new crime of incivisme, in one or another of its many forms.

"This list I am about to read to you; and I invite your serious consideration of the persons whose names you are to hear. For you are not to suppose..." And here he broke off to swing half-round towards the window which overlooked the square where the scarlet guillotine was in course of erection. To indicate it to them, he flung out an arm in a gesture supremely dramatic. "You are not to suppose that engine, that noble glaive of Freedom, that glorious scythe of Equality, under which the heads of the despots and the privileged have been shorn away, is being erected there merely as an idle ornament to your town."

They trembled, never suspecting that this terrible jester indulged his perverted sense of humour by making a mock for his own secret amusement of the very gospel which he was sent to preach. There were moments when Chauvinière appeared almost to be probing the ignoble depths to which men may be reduced by terror. More than once had he startled his brethren in the Convention itself by solemn fulminations in which it was almost impossible not to suspect sarcasm, yet of which none would have dared to voice that suspicion. One of these moments was upon him now. Inwardly his warped soul was writhing with gleeful laughter at the psychological humours of the situation he created by the images he evoked.

"I must not be understood to say that such an engine would be an idle ornament in any town, even if a virtuous republicanism too general to be hoped should compel it to stand idle. For, ask yourselves, my friends, my brothers, what statue of ignoble king, of wretched tyrant, or vile servant of despotism, what image of sniveling saint or mouldering so-called martyr, could ever compare with that glorious symbol of Man's Emancipation, of Man's Deliverance from the fetters that were placed by kings and priests upon his very-soul? There it rises, my brothers, in its awful dignity; the emblem of the Triumph of Reason. And what more glorious emblem could any city desire to raise? That scaffold, my brethren, is a sacred altar, upon which it is your holy duty to offer up the impure blood of aristocrats to the greater honour and glory of the Republic, One and Indivisible!"

Under his fiery eyes they huddled together like a flock of terrified sheep. He observed them calmly.

"You are silent, my friends. I understand. You share my own deep emotion. It leaves you speechless in your great thankfulness. That is very well. It is a sign to me that you will not falter in the performance of the exalted duties of the office to which you have had the honour to be elected by the voice of the people, which is the voice of the gods." He raised the list which his left hand had held throughout the exordium, and his tone sank quietly from its lofty note of exaltation. "Let us come now to practical, to precise considerations. Let me read you these names and the crimes of which their bearers are suspected."

There were men on his list whom he charged with being friendly with despots, others with being so closely related to émigrés that their own civisme must be in doubt until thoroughly tested; others whom he understood to be in league with reactionaries in other parts of France; others who were thought to be in correspondence with the enemies of France beyond her frontiers; and there were others he named as ripe for Revolutionary justice on the score of birth alone.

It was upon naming the third of these last—one Raoul Amédée Corbigny de Corbal—that he received his first check.

"Of what is he accused, that one?"

The question came abruptly from Doucier, the horse-leech, a man prominent in the local Jacobin Society, and president of the Revolutionary Committee; a passionate but entirely academic republican, who was honest, fearless, and formidable in debate, a man who might, had he so chosen, have represented his own section of the Nivernais in the National Convention. He was the first, as might have been expected, to throw off the spell of terror which Chauvinière had imposed upon the Committee, and to shake himself free of the net of words in which the representative had caught and held them.

The emissary of the Convention was aghast at the audacious interruption. He answered it impatiently: "He is accused of incivisme."

"But in what form?" Doucier insisted.

"Form?" Chauvinière frowned upon him. The question was inconvenient. He shrugged. "In the form of harbouring counter-revolutionary sentiments." It was the best that he could do, and it should suffice.

Doucier, however, proved of a disconcerting appetite for detail. He gathered courage as he went and in a measure as he perceived that his questions discomposed the great man from Paris.

"What expression is it alleged that the citizen Corbal has given to these sentiments?"

"Expression!" Chauvinière's rich voice was almost shrill. "Name of God! Do you take the risk of defending him?"

"When I hear precisely of what he is accused, I may consider the necessity."

"But I've told you already...Name of a name!"

"Not precisely, citizen-representative. Not precisely. And the Committee of Poussignot demands precise accusations; not vague charges which of its own knowledge it perceives to be unfounded."

An approving growl from the assembly informed Chauvinière that, infected by the example of their president, the members of the Committee had so far recovered from the spell of his oratory as to be in a state of mutiny.

"Do you say that I lie?" he asked them icily.

"Oh! But, citizen-representative! Only that you may have been misinformed. Unable to compile your list from personal knowledge, we realize that you must have received assistance and advice. We realize also, when we find in your list the name of one who is generally esteemed, who is known to all for a true republican at heart..."

Chauvinière interrupted violently. "A true republican at heart! What next! What cant do you dare to offer me? You had better look to your own heads, my friends, if you have learnt your duties no better than to see a true republican in a pestilential ci-devant aristocrat."

But Doucier was too well-informed to accept this as conclusive.

"The two are not inconsistent. You could say the same of the Marquis de Mirabeau, without whom there might have been no revolution. If you will suffer us to guide you in matters of local knowledge, citizen, you will accept our assurance that you have been not only misled, but deliberately misled, by counsellors whose aims are perhaps reactionary. I assure you, citizen, that the gravest consequences might follow upon an unsubstantiated attack upon Corbigny de Corbal. In Poussignot all the world knows the stalwart and practical republicanism of his principles; all the world knows the unpretentious simplicity of his existence, and all the world loves him. That is not a man to be lightly accused. For your own sake, citizen-representative, and for ours, you would do well to be fully armed with particulars of Corbal's incivisme before you demand of us his arrest and trial."

If the argument did not suffice to turn Chauvinière from his purpose, at least it sufficed to make him temporize.

He announced that he would pay a visit to Corbal, and form at first hand an opinion of the real sentiments of the ci-devant vicomte.

Thereupon he proceeded with his list, which for the rest was mainly concerned with priests who had declined to take the constitutional oath, with others who, having taken it, yet refused or neglected to adopt the constitutional forms of worship, and with others still who, whilst conforming to all prescriptions, yet rendered themselves suspect of insincerity by their persistent celibacy. And when Doucier ventured the opinion that this was too slender a ground for suspicion, he launched Chauvinière upon one of his sinister excursions in comic philosophy.

"Celibacy," the representative announced, "is an affront to Nature, and who affronts Nature affronts republicanism, which is based on Nature's laws."

And upon that, catching fire from his own sententiousness, he reverted to his earlier truculence and invective. He charged them with lukewarmness where the interests of the Nation were concerned, and warned them not to throw obstacles in the path of his sacred duty, which was to uproot from the holy soil of Republican France the last seed of incivisme which sapped the nourishment required by the noble tree of Liberty, planted by the hand of Reason and fertilized by the blood of patriots. He closed upon a rhetorical exhortation, much in the same manner, that they should not compel him to report to the Executive in Paris that he found the Revolutionary Committee of Poussignot supine, lethargic, and tainted with reactionary sentiments.

On that, perceiving that by his manner and perfervid oratory he had reconquered much of the ground momentarily lost, he abruptly and dramatically withdrew.

Of the truth of their warning about Corbigny de Corbal, of the esteem and affection in which the man was held, he sought and presently found abundant confirmation in the town. This irritated him, unreasonably, perhaps. That such a thing could be at such a time showed him how profound was the somnolence of Poussignot, how deep a sense of complacency this little township of the Nivernais permitted itself. All his life Chauvinière had detested complacency. Taking, like an Intelligent man, no satisfaction in himself, he loathed the spectacle of self-satisfaction in others, and sought to smash it wherever he met it. He would smash it here in Poussignot in its most confident expression, namely, in the ci-devant Vicomte de Corbal. If civisme, as then understood, was so wide a thing that Corbal could sit comfortable and secure within it, then it remained for Chauvinière to discover how to narrow civisme down to Corbal's exclusion. But because he did not wish to set counter-revolutionary fires alight under his feet, he went about the business with prudence. And he began his study of the problem by paying a visit to Corbal.