16 Ventôse, Year V of the Republic
(March 6, 1797)
Since the twenty-fourth of Frimaire, Aristide Ravel had dreamed at least a dozen times of the guillotine.
This time it was Mathieu. He saw Mathieu as he always did, as he had last seen him, hands bound behind his back, waiting in the rain in the center of the Place de la Révolution. They called it the Place de la Concorde now--Harmony Square--but for those who had known Paris three or four years ago, in 1793 and 1794, it would forever remain the Place de la Révolution, the place of the scaffold.
Sometimes, he thought, lying wide awake in the dark, your dreams were bizarre or grotesque, altogether divorced from reality; at other times they reflected a fantastic, distorted version of your everyday existence. This dream had been neither. It had played the scene as he had remembered it far too often over the course of the past three and a half years, not a word or movement out of place.
Five carts--four for the living and one for the dead. One cart bringing up the rear for Valazé, who had had the supreme impertinence to stab himself in the very hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal as the sentence of death was read out, as if denying the right of the Republic to take his life. Four carts for the living, for the twenty-one who had not thought to smuggle a dagger into the Tribunal, who had clung to the faint hope of acquittal.
Mathieu had known better. He had never been such a starry-eyed and earnest optimist as some of the others with whom he was to die, had always had the saving grace of a gentle cynicism and a sharp and roguish sense of humor. He was still making jokes when they sent him to his death. Though Aristide could not hear the words he spoke on the long journey beneath a bleak, chilly sky, he could see the smile on Mathieu's face and the feverish sparkle in his eyes. Was he jesting for the sake of keeping up his companions' courage, or his own? One or two of them smiled with him, even as the guillotine loomed into view through the fine October rain, even as the carts swayed to a halt and the executioner's assistants called their names and sorted them into a line, the most famous toward the end, to please the crowd.
Mathieu was sixth in the line, small fry among men like Bishop Fauchet, Vergniaud, Brissot. Perhaps the careful arrangement of the order in which they were to die had been the subject of his final jest. A glance up at the guillotine, at the thing that had, with a muted rattle and thud, just devoured Sillery, and then Mathieu turned to the man beside him and murmured a few words that made them both smile for an instant.
Mathieu had not looked about him since they arrived in the square, he in the executioner's cart, Aristide following. Then at last, perhaps sensing his time was ebbing fast, Mathieu glanced over his shoulder toward the watching crowd. Their eyes met.
What do you say to your oldest friend when they are the last words you will ever exchange?
In the midst of the staring crowd, of course, and with fifteen feet between them, they could say nothing. Perhaps there was nothing to be said. Aristide saw Mathieu's lips move, murmuring a few words; then Mathieu merely gave him a quick grin, and the slightest of nods, and turned away, but not before Aristide saw him swallow hard.
A pool of blood had already collected under the scaffold, and a muddy crimson rivulet trickled away between the cobbles, dissolving beneath the pattering rain.
And suddenly Mathieu was at the head of the line, and above him an assistant executioner was guiding a man up the steep steps while another heaved a bucketful of water over the seesaw-plank. A third, with the list in his hand, approached Mathieu, reached for his elbow.
Aristide turned away, suddenly tasting acid bile at the back of his throat, and shouldered his way past those behind him. A moment later he heard the blade fall once again--five--and he increased his pace, running almost through the fringes of the crowd toward the stony road that led out to the Champs-Élysées--anything to avoid hearing the sound of the blade as it fell for the sixth time.
He had walked blindly for an hour through the meadows until he was nearly at the barrier, as the rain thinned out to a drizzle. It was only then that he had wondered if, at the last instant, Mathieu had glanced over his shoulder again, searching for a friend, and found no one.
He woke on the morning of the sixteenth of Ventôse, well before dawn. He had not dreamed of Mathieu's death for months, and had hoped that finally he was free of it. Rising at last, he threw on his clothes in the gloom before the servant girl could arrive with the usual candle and jug of hot water, and spent an hour walking aimlessly as he had on that rainy morning three and a half years before, wrapped in dark thoughts and memories.
According to the old calendar, it was early March, almost spring, well into the new year 1797; but there was little cheer in the narrow back streets of the Right Bank, where the poor felt the bite of poverty grow ever harsher while the nouveaux-riches of the Directory squandered their fortunes at the opulent cafés, gaming dens, and brothels of the Palais-Égalité a few streets away. Paris, lying beneath heavy clouds for days on end, seemed washed with charcoal gray.
At a few minutes to eight, as the lamplighters snuffed the last of the oil lamps that hung from ropes stretched from house to house, he wandered toward Rue Traversine and the police commissariat of the Section de la Butte-des-Moulins. Inspector Didier, meticulously writing a report at the raised desk in the antechamber where local folk waited to report a crime, air a grievance, or file a complaint with Commissaire Brasseur, cast him a sour glance.
"He's not in yet."
Aristide raised an eyebrow. Commissaires were supposed to be more or less on duty from eight in the morning to ten in the evening, and Brasseur was ordinarily quite punctual.
"Where is the commissaire, if you please?" demanded a pale, black-clad young woman who was seated on one of the empty benches, a small bundle at her feet.
"He'll be in, citizeness," said Didier, without glancing up again from his report. "Any time now."
"But it's quarter past eight."
"His mother-in-law's been visiting from the country," Aristide said, moving toward the young woman. "I gather it's not the jolliest of times for Brasseur."
She turned. "Well, it's not the jolliest time for us, either!" Scowling, she abruptly checked herself instead of continuing in the same acrimonious fashion. "Pardon me. Your colleague here"--she cast a scorching glance at Didier--"already knows why I'm here, and why I want an interview with the commissaire."
"This fellow's no colleague of mine," said Didier, waspishly. "He has no official standing here; do you, Ravel?"
Aristide leaned against the wall, folded his arms, and looked at him, without bothering to reply. Didier and he had always got along about as well as a pair of tomcats.
The young woman examined Aristide more thoroughly, taking in his shabby black suit, well-worn top boots, lank dark hair threaded with gray. "I suppose you must be a police spy," she said at last, coldly. "I've heard of people like you."
"I'm an agent of the police, citizeness."
"Same thing, isn't it?" Didier remarked.
Aristide suppressed a sharp retort; he did not care to satisfy Didier by taking offense. Although most people would insist a police spy was what Aristide was, he detested the term, which for a century and a half had been a synonym for "informer." He had made a modestly profitable career of investigating matters, usually criminal in nature, when the mood took him, and if many of those matters were investigated on behalf of the police, it was because Brasseur was a friend and trusted his competence.
He turned his back to Didier and added, to the young woman, "The two are not necessarily one and the same. I happen to be a friend of the commissaire."
That was a jab at Didier, who was no friend to Brasseur. But because he was the senior inspector at the Butte-des-Moulins section commissariat, Didier (who had always been of the opinion that it should have been he and not Brasseur who was elected commissaire back in 1790) could not simply be discharged. Didier would never understand that his complete lack of imagination was what would keep him--unless he made powerful friends--from rising higher in the ranks of the police. No doubt he could, however, out of sheer spite, accuse Brasseur of royalism or some such ludicrous offense if he were ever to be sacked, and cause Brasseur a great deal of unnecessary and undeserved trouble.
Didier shut his teeth on a snappish retort as Brasseur flung open the door and strode inside, shaking droplets of mist from his hat and broad shoulders. "My faith," he announced to no one in particular, "I've had enough of that old cow! If she doesn't go back to Nevers pretty soon, I'll murder her myself!" His glance alighted on Aristide and he grinned. "Morning, Ravel. Don't take me at my word."
Aristide nodded a good morning as Brasseur turned to Didier. "Al...