I gaze at Sanson; he returns my level stare. Not such an alarming man as you might imagine, this quiet fellow in his decent black frock-coat, this angel of death.
Angel of Death, apostle of the Terror. Thats what they had begun to call me, these final months, as the Terror devoured everyone in its path. Which of us lays better claim to the title? He, Sanson, Executioner of Paris, latest of a long line of executioners, who silently—regretfully, they say—despatches the hundreds of victims whom others indifferently send him; or I, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, member of the Committee of Public Safety, who denounce a few dozen enemies of the Republic with words of steel, words that send men inevitably to the steel of the guillotine?
It is nearly four oclock and I am still living. Sanson, youre behind your time.
I say nothing; what is there to say? I pull the stool to the middle of the cell and sit, my back to Sanson.
Usually the time is three. I ought to have been dead by three. Three oclock, on the twenty-eighth of July, in the year 1794. Year II of the Revolution. Year the Last of the Revolution, for it is over, now, today. Robespierre will die before the day is out, and I with him, but the Revolution is already dead.
Before the day is out? Time is passing. —But the evenings are long in July, and the light will last.
Sanson gathers up a handful of my hair. Scissors glint a moment in the hot light from the window. Metal slices and clicks and whispers against metal, loud in my ears.
(Will that sharp whisper, metal against metal, be the last sound I hear?)
Hair drops down upon my shoulders, slides itching like a swarm of gnats down my back beneath my open shirt. Sanson smoothly brushes it away and continues, baring my neck for the blade. The cold metal grazes my shoulder for an instant and I cant repress a shiver.
They say that the guillotine is no worse than that—a touch. A touch, and then its over. I dont fear it. I, who have played my part in sending some dozens myself to the scaffold, ought not to fear it, now that my own turn has come.
No fear, only regrets. Regrets that the dream went sour; regrets that the Revolution became a charnel-house; regrets that I sent some men, fine men—whom in a less troubled time I should have esteemed—to their deaths; regrets that I shall never see my twenty-seventh birthday. Regrets that my time has passed so quickly, with the short-lived brilliance of a falling star.
Somewhere along my road I must have passed that single mile-marker, that point from which there was no turning back. Could it have been only yesterday? It might have been, oh yes indeed. I saw which way the road was leading for Robespierre, for all of us, and tried—God knows—to turn aside, to speak of reconciliation rather than of defiance, to halt the pell-mell rush to catastrophe—but too late; no one wished to listen.
Or was it three months ago, when Danton, a wounded lion, was fighting for his life, and with lies I hastened him to the scaffold? When I was so certain I was right, and he wrong, that I perverted the Revolution in order to save it?
Or twenty months ago, when I dared to speak the words no one else dared speak? No one can reign innocently . . . It is a crime to be a king. And they rose from their seats, cheering me as if I were the toast of the Parisian stage. Perhaps that day set my course, sealed my fate, for they killed the King as I told them they must, and the Revolution rushed onward like a river spilling over its banks, and swept me along in its fierce currents.
Or perhaps my course was set a long, long time ago, long before Revolution was anything but a distant rumor from the New World. Perhaps my journey began on the day Father took us to Coucy, to the Castle.
(Odd, my head feels out of balance, without my hair hanging to my shoulders. Gone. I turn my head and I no longer feel the heavy swing of it.)
You may have been born in Decize, but this is your country, Father would say, again and again, striding solemnly past the Market-hall in Blérancourt. Your country, your heritage, hed say, as if he were trying to ram Picardy down my reluctant throat as one forces a goose to fatten it. Your province, where your ancestors put down roots deep in the soil, like oak-trees. Ill show you your heritage, boy, he said, on that September day, not long after wed first arrived in Picardy, when he hired the donkey-cart to surprise me. It was a treat for my ninth birthday; late, of course. An afternoons excursion to see the ruins of Coucy, where the great lords named Enguerrand had ruled for four hundred years. Four centuries of battles, of brigandage, of splendor.
(The scissors snip again, at my collar, ripping it away thread by thread. Neck bare for the blade, for a clean cut.)
The girls didnt care either way about the Castle. But what did they know? Girls were stupid. I left them to play amid the Michaelmas daisies with their silly dolls and ran on along the path to the keep. Pass the gaping inner walls, pause to stare at the crumbling arches, the roofless halls where the Lords of Coucy had feasted. The donjon tower, twice the height of the rest, rearing itself into the sky like a fortress built by Titans, a hundred and fifty feet above me, bisected from top to bottom by a broad jagged crack. Someone had walled up the passage to the stair, I suppose to protect us all from that perilous crack. I stopped and stared up at the great doorway to the donjon, where above the lintel a stone knight fights with a snarling stone lion. Below the relief, you can still—if you look carefully—make out the three weathered lines carved in the massive lintel-stone.
I hurried on, marveling, to the next tower and found the archway leading to the stair. Up, up, spiraling ever upward toward the parapet. At last I was dragging my feet in weariness. I leaned panting from a battered Gothic arch and drank in the vast panorama below me, the stiff breeze whipping my hair about my face. I could see—well, I might have seen Blérancourt, two leagues to the west, and Morsain, and Nampcel, where the Old Man was born, amid the deep green stretches of forest and the long golden swathes of the wheat-fields. Somewhere out there to the northwest was Noyon, and Soissons due south, the big towns. And farther south, unimaginably far though only twenty leagues away, Paris. (Paris . . . .) But in my childish fancy I imagined I saw all of France in that endless landscape stretching out before me.
(Snip. The seam parts with the little shriek of cloth ripping. Neck bare for a clean cut. Waste of a fine linen shirt, though. Some beggar will get the remains of my shirt, after they wash my blood out of it.)
The Old Man joined me eventually, puffing hard from the climb, for hed put on weight (or so Mother asserted, when she was in a complaining temper) since his marriage.
You like it? he demanded, coming to stand beside me.
Yes, Father, I said, and I meant it.
This was the greatest castle in France, they say. Some say it was the greatest castle in Europe. The Lords of Coucy did as they liked and only obeyed the King when it pleased them.
Is that what the writing on the doorway to the big tower means?
What about the man fighting the lion? Who is he?
I couldnt say, boy.
Its magic here, Father, I said at last, breaking a long silence.
Its the heart of France, this country, he told me, not your mothers precious Nivernais. That may be the center of the map but the Noyonnais country is the center of old Neustria, the kingdom of the Franks. Charlemagnes kingdom.
Neustria, I murmured, hearing mystical echoes in the name, something as distant and elusive and compelling as Byzantium, or Japan.
Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks in Noyon cathedral in the year 768, I think it was. A thousand years before you were born.
A thousand years. A thousand years. The great whispering weight of History seemed to coalesce from the charged air and drape itself about me, like a mantle.
(A hand—a gentle enough hand—clasps my shoulder for a moment. So I am ready for the knife—no, not yet, one essential preparation more, before we depart. Ill oblige him; I cross my wrists behind my back and await the rope.)
. . . They proclaimed Hugues Capet King at Noyon, too. All the Valois and the Bourbons trace their blood back to him, to this country. For a thousand years this has been France, boy, while the rest of it belonged to the English or to Burgundy or the damn Austrians. This is the land of Pepin and Charlemagne, and Bishop Turpin and St. Eloi and even Jean Cauvin. The heretic bastard had guts, Ill grant him that. Every inch of the land youre looking at has history in it.
Could I have imagined, when I was nine years old, how my own chapter in History would close?
Tell me more, I said, when he abruptly fell silent.
I dont know any more, boy. Im a soldier, not a scholar.
I want to know more, Father. I want to learn the history. All of it. Everything.
. . . Not yet, says Sanson. His voice is carefully dispassionate. There are delays. Youll want your hands free a while longer. An hour, perhaps.
An hour. An hour? My hand creeps to the back of my head, impassively feeling the alien, rough edges of my cropped hair. Pity.
Behind me, footsteps cross the stone floor and the door swings shut. Another hour. I must wait another hour, before we depart. The ceremony at the scaffold will be late today.
. . . Later . . . when the Old Man had left me above and descended the slippery steps at his own pace, I climbed the rest of the way to the towers crown. I reached across the battlements, imagining myself one of the great medieval lords as I savored the feel of the gritty stones beneath my palms, worn rough as a cats tongue by four centuries of rain and gale. Below me I could almost see banners snapping in the breeze, knights tilting in the vast courtyards, beautiful ladies sitting in the roofless window-seats, immense enough for the consorts of giants. Far away, beyond the horizon, I heard Charlemagne and his paladins riding out to fight barbarians.
Not king am I, I recited softly, half afraid the Old Man would hear me romancing. Here, though, at the top of the world, no one could hear me but the hawk that floated lazily above me. Not king am I, I repeated, gazing out across my domain, nor prince nor duke nor count; I am the Lord of Coucy.
At that moment I felt such sheer joy as Ive never felt before or since. Who can say why? Stretching my arms wide to embrace them all, I drank in the stones, the sun, the wind. I am the Lord of Coucy! I sang out once again, flinging my head back to challenge the sky.
One hour more . . .
—Yes, I think it all began that day.