Chapter 6 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

The Château de Corbal was an unpretentious, solid mansion, perched amid vineyards halfway up the hill above the town, standing four-square, grey, and a little dilapidated, flanked by round towers under red extinguisher roofs.

Within doors, the citizen-representative found the same solid unpretentiousness, stressed by faded decorations which should long since have been renewed, and shabby furnishings, much of which should long since have been burned. That this unpretentiousness extended to Corbal's mode of life was evident when Chauvinière, conducted to the vast stone kitchen, found him there at table with the persons of his household, whom he simply described as his "family." They consisted of his elderly steward Fougereot, the latter's wife, and their two stalwart sons, and a plump comely young woman euphoniously named Filomène, who was responsible for the domestic comforts of the impoverished nobleman. Corbal himself, a man of thirty, fitted into his environment as if expressly designed for it. In dress he was almost a peasant, in dignity and in general bearing a gentleman, whilst in speech and in countenance, with his lofty brow and sombre, wistful eyes, he suggested the scholar and the poet.

Born to an impoverished estate, he had accommodated himself without idle repining. He had never been to Court or served his King in any capacity; but from early adolescence he had devoted himself to the cultivation of his three or four hundred acres, directing and in time of need even personally assisting in sowing and reaping, in crushing his own wine and oil, and in threshing his own corn like the humblest metayer.

When the monarchy fell with the leaves in the autumn of '92, it was said in his reproach by men of his class that he was of those who had done nothing to uphold it, which was quite true. For when feudalism lay agonizing and a party of neighbouring noblemen came to summon him to his duty as they conceived it, to exhort him to rally to his King, Monsieur Corbigny de Corbal had epitomized his political faith in his reply:

"Messieurs, the King is in no danger unless it be that which you may create for him. By resisting a nation's just demands, you rush upon destruction. By identifying the throne with your resistance, you will destroy the throne with yourselves."

These words, being widely reported, increased the respect and affection in which he was held in the countryside. It was not for nothing that Nature had given him those eyes, rendered wistful by what they found in the heart of things, to which their glances penetrated.

He rose now to receive his visitor, with a dignified deference in which there was no trace of that uneasiness discernible in the members of his household. He was of a good height and finely made, and his self-command and courtliness were of the kind that compel courtesy in return from all save the hopelessly boorish. Chauvinière was not of these, and therefore he came, a little to his own astonishment, under the spell of the ci-devant's ingratiating personality.

"You take me by surprise, citizen," Corbal apologized. "It is not so unceremoniously that I should wish to receive a representative of the Government."

"I represent a Government, citizen, that dispenses with ceremony," Chauvinière replied, but with a good deal less than his usual haughty sententiousness.

"No Government should ever quite do that." Corbal's singularly sweet smile disarmed any resentment which his disagreement might provoke. "Governments are set up to govern; to govern successfully they must inspire respect, and ceremony is the natural expression of respect. Men are not humbled by deference to those things which in themselves command it. On the contrary, they are dignified."

Chauvinière raised his brows despite himself. Was the ci-devant, he wondered, permitting himself some of that covert ironic humour in which the representative dealt so freely and with such secret relish?

"A philosopher!" he said, and was not quite innocent of a sneer.

"That is too big a word to describe me, citizen. I have lived long alone; and so I have studied a good deal, to combat loneliness. But I keep you standing. Will you not join our board?" He placed a chair. "You will find us of a republican simplicity."

"That is as it should be," said Chauvinière, who detested republican simplicity, and daily thanked God for a revolution which had brought the succulent things of life within his easy reach. He sat down. He was served by Filomène with bread and ham, both of which he found of an excellent quality, whilst Corbal himself poured for him a wine which left little to be desired. Not so impossibly republican, after all, this simple fare.

Corbal resumed his seat. "I am honoured, citizen-representative, my poor house is honored, by the visit of so illustrious a member of the Convention."

Again a suspicion that he was being mocked crossed Chauvinière's mind. His piercing eyes were upon the ci-devant. "And you are not at all inquisitive as to its occasion?"

Corbal smiled, completely at ease. "You are my guest, citizen. It is not for me to pester you with questions. In your own good time you shall tell me in what I may have the honour of serving you."

"You are of a gratifying patience," Chauvinière commended him, and gave his attention to the ham.

Thereafter Corbal and his odd guest chatted desultorily of this and that, whilst the others sat listening in uneasy silence. At length, the meal being ended, Chauvinière sat back, flung one buck-skinned leg over the arm of his chair, and tucked his long hand under the tricolour sash of office that girdled him: a man taking his ease familiarly.

"You are very snug here at Corbal, citizen. I wonder that you have never brought a mistress to it."

It was an idle sentence, uttered to break fresh conversational ground. Filomène was standing behind Corbal's chair at the moment, squarely facing Chauvinière. The sudden flicker of her eyelids, the little spasm of pain that rippled across her plump, comely face, to be instantly suppressed, did not escape the watchful eye of the representative, and may have inspired the impish notion of how this elusive ci-devant might well be hobbled.

Monsieur Corbigny de Corbal laughed; but it was a laugh in which Chauvinière caught more wistfulness than mirth.

"What would you? I have waited perhaps too long. In earlier life I wooed the land too assiduously. To-day..." he shrugged. "To-day it would not be easy perhaps to find..." He checked abruptly, as one checks on the brink of an indiscretion.

But the indiscretion was committed; Chauvinière had no difficulty in completing the ci-devant's sentence. He had meant to say that it was not easy to find a woman of his own class in a France which had been purged of aristocrats.

"To find what, citizen?" he coaxed.

"Oh, but nothing, citizen." Corbal was faintly embarrassed. "It does not matter. And it would be easy to discover a more interesting topic of conversation than myself."

"You are mistaken in both opinions. It matters very much. And it is precisely to talk of yourself that I am here."

"You desire to flatter me, citizen?"

Chauvinière's last doubt was now removed that the fellow had the audacity secretly to laugh at him. But he let it pass. He had thought of something else. The sentence with which he had rebuked the Revolutionary Committee of Poussignot suddenly recurred to him, and he served it up to his host.

"Celibacy is an affront to Nature; and who affronts Nature is no good republican, since republicanism is based on Nature's laws. That is why I say that it matters very much."

They did not take him seriously. Old Fougereot led the laugh in which he was followed by his sons. Even Corbal smiled, whilst Fougereot's wife slyly asked the representative if he were married himself.

"I am not. But in my case there are reasons..." He stressed his words significantly, desiring them to understand that he was quite serious. But they laughed more heartily than ever.

"Oh, but the reasons, then?" the apple-faced woman demanded in raillery.

"The reasons?" He glared at her. "I am wedded to my duties. They leave no room for softer ties."

They began to realize that he was not jesting, and Corbal made haste to change the subject. If Chauvinière suffered him to have his way in this, it was because he required time in which to consider the impishly wicked notion that had invaded his mind.

He was still considering it when, having concluded a visit that in other times must have appeared oddly lacking in purpose, he took his way slowly down the hill to Poussignot; and he smiled a tight-lipped smile of wicked satisfaction in a notion worthy of a psychologist and humorous philosopher such as himself.

"Celibacy is an affront to Nature." That was the new gospel he was to preach, and if he knew at all the force of an idea, no matter how crack-brained, in Revolutionary France—especially an idea propounded by one in authority—there could be no doubt of its success.

The immediate sequel proved him correct. That novel mission of his he inaugurated upon the morrow. From the rostrum of the Jacobin Society of Poussignot—a society founded by a handful of hot-heads, but very languidly conducted since—to the multitude assembled there by an invitation they were forced to regard as a command, he propounded his gospel with the frenzied rhetoric and specious cant with which he had learnt to sway the passions and rouse the emotions of unintelligent, unreasoning mobs.

France was being depopulated by the events. That was his exordium. The evil brood of aristocracy which the saviours of France had destroyed, and were still destroying, must be replaced by a race of free men, born in an enlightened age, to make this France—this noble, emancipated France of Liberty—great and glorious among the nations of the earth. Replaced, too, must be those splendid patriots who were giving their lives so freely on the frontiers in the defence of their motherland from the invasion of the odious hirelings of despotism. To neglect this was to neglect the most sacred duty that the nation had the right to claim from her children. It was to expose the Republic, through depopulation, to ultimate destruction.

All this, tricked out in perfervid imagery, in phrases the more sonorous because hollow, gradually stirred his tatterdemalion audience to enthusiastic acclamation.

Having rendered them malleable, he hammered them now with that master-phrase of his:

"Celibacy is an affront to Nature!"

Upon this theme he enlarged, expounding its moral as well as its civic and national aspects, until, at last, perceiving that he had completely taken his audience in the snare of his cant, he boldly demanded of them as a proof of patriotism and sincerity that any man who having reached the age of twenty-five remained unmarried should be declared outside the law.

Thereafter he departed in great dignity, to the acclamations of a multitude, intoxicated by his verbiage.

As none knew better than Chauvinière who made intellectual toys for himself out of these things, such was the crack-brained state of the popular mind that the more extravagant a doctrine, the more assured it was of general acceptance. Fear, moreover, now went hand in hand with imbecility. The guillotine began to function at last in Poussignot, and several recalcitrant priestly heads besides some others were shorn away. It became clear that the citizen-representative Chauvinière was not a man with whom it would be safe to trifle. In his wake the Terror had penetrated at last to this peaceful township of the Nivernais. And in a feverish haste to give proof of patriotism there was headlong rushing into matrimony in Poussignot during the days that followed. As Chauvinière knew from his experience of mob-psychology—there was no need for him to push the matter beyond his address at the Jacobins'. His crazy gospel was preached for him at street corners by unwashed orators who a month ago would not have dared to lift their heads in Poussignot.

Within ten days the movement had reached such a pitch that it was formally proposed and unanimously agreed at the Society of Jacobins that, as the citizen-representative had propounded, for a man of twenty-five to remain unmarried in the face of the country's needs was to give proof of incivisme, to be punished as incivisme was punished by declaring him outside the law and sending him to the guillotine.

The Society of Jacobins placed its resolution in the form of an instruction before the Revolutionary Committee. But before an instruction so eccentric, the Revolutionary Committee paused in doubt, and sent for the citizen-representative to give them guidance.

"What the people will, the gods will," declared Chauvinière. "If this matter has been carried further than you would counsel or desire, yet it is not for you, the humble instruments of the People's Majesty, to withstand the People's sovereign will."

His superbly oracular tone and manner overawed them. Gazing upon him and listening to him, they realized that there was no god but the Goddess of Reason, and that Chauvinière was her prophet. There was no debate. And thus in the Commune of Poussignot that amazing resolution of the Jacobins was raised to the equivalent of a law. The huissiers of the Tribunal began upon the morrow to go forth in quest of the unmarried, to drag them before the bar, where each was given the option of finding a wife within three days or else submitting to conviction of incivisme, with death to follow.

The intransigent were few in number, and they paid the penalty.

And now, at last, the ground was sufficiently prepared for an attack upon the hitherto unassailable ci-devant Vicomte de Corbal, and the gratification of the citizen-representative's monstrous sense of humour. A definite accusation of incivisme, hitherto almost impossible, was now rendered easy.

The accusation was laid, and Monsieur Corbigny de Corbal was haled before the bar of the Tribunal to receive the usual admonition.

To do honour to the court and the occasion, practising that ceremony in which he believed, he had dressed himself with unusual care, in garments stored up for ceremonious occasions: a black coat with silver buttons, silk breeches and stockings, and buckled shoes. His brown hair was gathered up and neatly tied in a black silk ribbon.

Very dignified and self-contained he stood in the crowded chamber of justice to hear himself admonished. When it was done, he bowed gravely to the members of the Tribunal, and he would have withdrawn without uttering a word, if Chauvinière had not intervened to add something of his own to the president's formal speech.

"The citizen ci-devant Vicomte de Corbal," said he, in the soft accents of an advocate for the defence, "belongs by birth to a class which the Republic has abolished. Himself he has gone unscathed because of the republican spirit by which he is believed to be inspired, because of the sentiments of liberty, equality, and fraternity by the application of which he has rendered himself beloved. But the time is at hand when the mere appearance of republicanism may not suffice to efface the stigma of aristocratic birth, and he should perceive that he is now provided with an opportunity of placing his republicanism beyond all possibility of future question."

Chauvinière paused deliberately. An utter stillness reigned in that crowded chamber. He considered the impassive countenance of Monsieur de Corbal and anticipated with secret amusement the ruffling of that impassivity. He resumed:

"Acquainted as I am with his household, in which I have had the honour to be entertained, I am fortunately in a position to advise him, to point out to him that he need not be embarrassed by any difficulties of making choice, since a bride lies ready to his hand. I permit myself this indication because so often we overlook that which stands nearest, and I would not have the ci-devant vicomte suffer from any such oversight. A girl of the people who is among those who serve him should prove domestically a very suitable wife. Therefore this court counsels him not only to marry, but to marry Filomène Paulard, thus not only fulfilling the requirements of your new enactment, but also affording an abiding proof of his acceptance of the religion of equality—a religion in which France will tolerate no heretics."

The riff-raff largely composing the audience hailed the proposal uproariously as worthy of Solomon. When that uproar died down. Monsieur de Corbal at last spoke. A scarlet flush had overspread his long and rather melancholy countenance. But his voice remained calm and steady.

"You know..." He half-turned, so as to include the entire assembly. "You all know my habits of life and of thought, and the simple creed by which I have governed my existence. I believe in communism, and I have given proofs of that belief. The Nation is above the individual, and I recognize the Nation's right to demand of me my property and, at need, my life. But I do not recognize the Nation's right to demand of me my soul..."

Chauvinière impatiently interrupted him. "We have abolished all that!"

But Corbal went on as if the interruption had not been: "Nor do I recognize the Nation's voice in this demand. With submission, citizen-judges, you were placed here to administer the existing laws and not to create new ones. The making of laws is the sole prerogative of the National Convention, and any man or group of men infringing that prerogative and arrogating to themselves any such legislative right are themselves guilty of an incivisme for which they may be indicted."

Chauvinière admired the shrewdness and subtlety of this counter-attack, and was thankful that it was made before men of too low an order of intelligence to appreciate it. A growl of anger and mockery was all it drew from the assembly, and when that subsided the president spoke without emotion:

"You have three days for consideration, citizen Corbal."

Corbal advanced a step, betrayed out of his imperturbability. The sudden perception that he stood before a wall of unreason, against which intelligent argument must shatter itself in vain, drove him to momentary madness. His eyes blazed in a face that passion turned from red to white.

"Three seconds would be too much, citizen-president, for consideration; three centuries not enough to alter my resolve to reject this infamy."

And whilst the crowd surged snarling and growling, the president, impassive as doom, insisted: "Nevertheless, you have three days."

Tardily Corbal commanded himself. He reflected that further opposition now might deprive him of even those three days, which he would more than require so that he might set his house in order. He resumed his habitual dignified calm, bowed once more to the court, and took his departure.

"You see now," said Chauvinière quietly to the president, "what it is worth, this republicanism of the ci-devant vicomte. A superficial veneer underneath which we have ever the harsh, arrogant spirit of the aristocrat, a man, in his own estimation, of a different clay from that out of which the people are fashioned. He burned with shame at the thought of debasing himself in an alliance with a peasant girl. You saw that. Is that republicanism?"

And Doucier, a little sadly, bowed his head. "You are right, citizen-representative," he sighed. "It required your wit to devise a test that should reveal the man's true nature. We have been deceived in him."

Chauvinière stood up, lean and wiry, put on his plumed hat, and adjusted his cravat. "He has his choice between Filomène and the National Widow. Let us hope that he will prefer the little pullet, and that she will yet redeem him into a good republican."

Doucier laughed. He thought the citizen-representative amusing sometimes. The citizen-representative knew that he was amusing always, but that it was not given to every one to have the wit to discern it.