I must warn you all right now that this next extract comes from a novel that in my opinion is the worst written on the Revolution in English (Jamet's book claims that dubious distinction for French). It features not just *evil* Maxime, but evil!Nazi!Communist!sexuallyrepressed!
[…] And there, sitting with her back to him [Danton], bending over her knitting, was the eldest daughter, Eleonore [Éléonore]—the one that Robespierre called his fiancée. Poor child!
There they were, the simplest folk imaginable, guarding jealously in their midst the most complicated little piece of machinery God ever made; time-piece to set them all right, or infernal machine to blow the world to pieces, who could tell?
He stood for a moment looking at this little world before him, so complete and so contented in itself. […] All of them content with what they were under the sweet April sun. April. Germinal, they called it now. As though any law of man could blot April out of the world, and out of the hearts of men! That was the sort of mistake he made, the little man up there, thinking he could change God’s whether or men’s hearts by the passing of laws. That girl there, with the small curls against the whiteness of her bent neck. Did he think he could change that too?
April sunlight on a girl’s white neck! … The last fumes of anger cleared from his brain. He smiled in the sunlight and, softly moving forward, set a kiss on the neck. The girl, with a startled “Who——?” looked up.
Danton chuckled. “‘Who——?’” he mocked. “Not likely to be that hot-blooded lover of yours, is it?” He laughed again. “What are you knitting there—bed-socks? You’ll need them, my dear. You’ll——”
“There, that’ll do, Citizen Danton.” Mother Duplay’s voice was severe, but her eyes smiled. The Citizen Danton wasn’t like the Citizen Robespierre, a great man to be followed blindly, without seeking to understand. He was just a simple he-creature, and you knew what he was up to; and that was usually what he shouldn’t be, when there were young girls about.
“For shame, Citizen! And you with a woman of your own at home to kiss.”
He spread his thick arms out and raised his great pockmarked face to the sun. “Women,” he said. “Women at home, women abroad, women in the street. A regiment of women! In April, I could love them all, and never get weary of it—nor they either.” He pinched Eleonore’s ear. “Remember that, my dear! Remember Danton, if ever you want to keep warm without bed-socks.”
He waved his hat to Mother Duplay, patted Eleonore’s rigidly averted shoulder, and crossed the court to the arched tunnel leading to the street. That girl—a pity … Pretty in a dull sort of way, but with all her vivacity quenched, her natural timidity had turned to a dumb stupidity by the terrifying honour that had been paid her. A virgin priestess chosen for sacrifice to the great god must have felt something like that, he supposed.
[…] He bowed to the women, smiled at the men, offered his arm to Eleonore. The Duplays didn’t always take part in these Quartidi evening reunions, but he liked to have Eleonore with him. It made one feel more like other men to be seen sometimes with a pretty girl on his arm.
Pretty? Perhaps. But not lovely in the way Anaïs had been. Though that wasn’t the girl’s fault. Her fault? Good God, no, it was her virtue. Not like Anaïs—Anaïs … This was Eleonore, good and honest and obedient—not …
Eleonore. He stood offering her his arm. She hesitated, as she always did, he couldn’t think why, respectful of her maiden modesty as he always was. Not like Le Bas. They were almost embarrassing sometimes, that young couple. Sitting now at the table without so much as noticing that he’d left it, elbow to elbow, whispering in each other’s ears, their thighs, he was certain of it, touching under cover of the table-cloth. Eleonore put her hand timidly on his arm, and he held it stiffly away from him, so that she might not be disturbed by contact with his body.
[…] He opened the door of the salon and stood there for a moment, the Citizen Maximilian [Maximilien] Robespierre with a pretty girl on his arm.
Eleonore sat beside Lucile, attracted by the baby; as of course it was natural that, as a young female, she should be. He sat next to her.
Eleonore groped about the shuttered darkness of her room, searching for her candle. She hadn’t got used to it yet, this new room of hers. Nor did she yet understand the necessity for abandoning her childhood’s room, that had been next to the Citizen Rob—Maximilian’s. One must avoid the very appearance of evil, he said. Of course, he was right. But yet … Was love evil? Was it evil to be close to the loved one?
She found the candle and lit it.
Life, that had seemed so simple a little while ago, had of late shown itself so complicated and difficult to understand. Love was only a sublime friendship, wasn’t it? The greatest friendship in the world. In friendship, as in love, you surrendered yourself, didn’t you, all that was good in you and all your secret faults as well, into the hands of another person? And if that person then took advantage … Why, it would be as though soldiers killed the unarmed prisoners in their hands, and that—that would be murder, wouldn’t it? And suppose—suppose, after she was married to Maximilian, after she had surrendered to him, and he discovered that she sometimes wept in secret—would he? …
Oh, she knew she was wrong. Only it was so difficult. There was something greater even than love or friendship, a thing called Virtue. Not virtue as her mother had taught her, about telling the truth and dressing modestly and not looking at young men. It was something like the old Christian Heaven; a state of eternal bliss. Yet however much you believed in Heaven, however much you prayed to be sent there, you never really wanted to go. Not now, at once. In Heaven there was no marrying or giving in marriage.
She slipped off her dress.
Danton one could perhaps understand. An immoral man. He’d kissed her once and so, Maximilian said, outraged the purity of her maidenhood. Yet even Danton … A friend … Still, Danton one could understand. A noisy, immoral man who drank too much and—and outraged the purity of maidens.
She poured out water, dipped her sponge in it, and laid it over the spot, there, at the nape of her neck, where Danton had kissed.
Danton, yes. But Camille and—and Lucile. Lucile! Oh, she knew. Women had been granted civic rights, they must bear civic responsibilities as well. She knew that. And she knew that whoever failed to denounce an enemy of the Republic was himself as great an enemy, and as guilty. But Lucile, denouncing Camille! Try as you would, the idea of that seemed a greater sin and more terrible in your mind than any other you could possibly imagine. Lucile denouncing Camille! It was more comforting to think of her guilty with him, dying with him, than of a virtuous Lucile, denying him, pushing him away, letting him go—alone …
She’d seen them so often together in the past, in their little garden with the tree, watching over their baby on its solemn hunt for daisies in the grass. She’s thought of a future like that for herself, a little garden and a big tree and a baby and—and, of course, Maximilian. The future, the Republican Heaven. Was it to be a world of little empty gardens where desolate babies wandered, untended, among the nettles?
She kicked off her shoes.
But there again she was wrong. There’d be no need for little secret gardens in the one great Garden of Eden of the new Republic. There’d be no more desolate children anywhere in France; not in gardens, nor fields, nor city streets. They’d all be together, all equal, all cared for by the Nation, rescued from the—the tyranny of their parents’ authority. Maximilian said parents were tyrants, exactly like small kings, whether benevolent or malevolent. No more little children would be debased for crimes they hadn’t committed, or rewarded for virtues not their own. There’d be no more injustice for them, they’d all be equal—happy.
The Desmoulins baby, crying for its mother in the empty arms of Danton’s young widow …
She peeled off her stockings.
She was unworthy, unfit. She was a coward, afraid of the death-agony without which Heaven could never be reached. One should be proud of losing one’s friends for the Republic, as young Simon was proud of losing his leg. That was what true patriotism, true Virtue, meant: cherishing nothing, but nothing at all, above the safety of the Republic.
She slipped off her chemise.
In the long mirror of her wardrobe she saw her body, naked under the tender caress of the soft candle-light. Her body. Her face, she knew, was not lovely. But her body … She looked at it, at the eagerly out-thrust breast, the long, polished sweep of the thighs, the gracious slope of the shoulders. Beauty. She had beauty, hidden away from the sight of men. Men—Maximilian … The lovely secrets of her body, awaiting the sweet triumph of discovery. Maximilian, the Citizen Robespierre … Her throat swelled, her lip trembled. He wouldn’t know, he wouldn’t see, or even care. How expect a man so great, so superior to human weakness that he could, in the name of Virtue, kill his best friends without a tremor; how expect such a man to be moved by so futile a thing as female beauty?
She was unworthy, vile, to place the Incorruptible and her human body together in the same thought. She should be proud to think that he, who had been indifferent to the unloveliness of her face, would be as indifferent to the loveliness of her body. She would be uplifted by the knowledge that her body was of no more importance in his eyes than that of the meanest old hag at the foot of the guillotine, old women performing their civic duty. But—but it was beautiful, wasn’t it? And surely even beauty had been made for something; those firm young breasts and rounded hips. No, there was no use quibbling over it, she knew well enough what they’d been made for. The propagation of children, the bearing of more citizens for the Republic. All the rest was—was sexual immorality. Like Danton.
Her neck and breast flushed hotly. Quickly she pulled on her long-sleeved nightgown, buttoning it high about her neck.
Then she lay face down on her bed and wept, because she wasn’t worthy; and because, try as she would, she couldn’t wash from her skin the burning memory of Danton’s kiss upon it.
He sat staring at the open door, his hands gripped rigidly on the arms of his chair. The door opening, slowly. Then through the widening crack he saw the long folds of a skirt. A woman. His gripping fingers relaxed. He frowned. Some importunate mother or wife. They did sometimes find the means of slipping past the careful guard of the Duplays. It was distressing, upsetting. He got up, making a screen of his body between his desk and his visitor. He smoothed back his hair, touched his lace jabot, shook down the ruffles at his wrists.
The door was wide open now. Standing there, the woman was darkly outlined against the sunlight behind her. He could see nothing of her, save the ruddy transparency of the curls on the top of her head, a sheen of blue along the edges of her skirt, and the long, sweeping line of her neck and shoulders; a line that, so far as he could see, was unbroken by any hint of clothing almost to the middle of her upper arm.
She hesitated there for a moment, then shut the door behind her and came slowly forward. As she came, the light from the window behind him fell across her, across the long, soft folds of her skirts, across her bosom. Her offered bosom, twin fruits round and lovely, offered in the shallow basket of her corsage. Anaïs … He had touched the bosom of Anaïs—once—with his naked hands. Once. He felt the sweat pricking out on his body, he felt the muscles of his cheeks tighten and quiver. Anais. She’d thought once she could break his heart. But she’d laughed, she’d mocked, a little too soon. And the hearts of intelligent men weren’t broken by women’s silly tricks. The proof, his own that was beating so strongly that it made him feel a little sick.
Once. But not again. Never again. With an effort that made his eyelids blink and quiver he raised his eyes from her bosom to her face. Anaïs …
It was Eleonore, in the immodesty of an old-fashioned dress, and without the fichu of modern virtue. Eleonore, his affianced, alone with him in his room—his bedroom. Was the girl mad? Had she no thought for his reputation? The workmen downstairs; they’d have seen her, in that outrageous dress, coming up the stairs, coming to his room, alone, shutting the door behind her. They’d be thinking … He stiffened, and the sweat dried on his hands and body.
“To what do I owe this honour, Citizeness?”
The precise, cold formality of the phrase made her flinch, but she kept her eyes on his.
“Maximilian—today’s the first of May.”
“The eleventh of Floreal [Floréal],” he corrected stiffly.
Her eyelids quivered, but she went on bravely. “No, Maximilian. The first of May—is the first of May—for lovers …”
She came forward with another step, as though to touch him; actually to touch him, with the offered naked flesh of her bosom. He drew back as far as the hard edge of his desk would let him.
“On the first of May,” she said, “lovers exchange lilies-of-the-valley. Look, Max-Maximilian. I’ve been out to the woods—all the way, on foot. I’ve—I’ve brought you a spray of lilies. Look.”
She held them up, on a level with her bosom to force him to look at it again. White lilies against the whiteness of her breasts, pearls on the breasts of Anaïs …
There was a silence, whose completeness suddenly struck him with an ominous meaning. The men down there in the courtyard had stopped their work. They—— Of course, they’d be marking every moment that passed behind that closed door, they’d be counting the minutes, at first with sideways glances at each other, knowing grins and nudgings of the elbow, then with stifled guffaws, laughter.
He knew them, the citizens of Paris, with their unclean minds and their distorted sense of humour. He knew that nothing so aroused their amusement and their hilarity as the amours of their neighbours. And once Paris had laughed at you, you were done; unless, like Danton, you could so far debase yourself as to laugh back. Those fellows out there—in five minutes they’d be sniggering, mocking at him—at him, the Incorruptible! In an hour the nearest tavern would join in, and by tomorrow the whole of Paris … He stared straight into Eleonore’s face, her face that wasn’t lovely.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said in his hard, thin voice.
The girl shrank, but she still faced him.
“But—but you don’t understand, Maximilian,” she said. “On the first of May, lovers exchange lilies-of-the-valley, they—they kiss——”
He made her a stiff, formal bow. “This evening, I will claim that privilege—in the presence of your mother.”
He saw the graceful lines of her shoulders, those immodestly naked shoulders, droop. He saw her eyes fill with tears. After all, she was only a child of the people, innocent at heart, only imitating, as children do, the worst traits of their elders. Not Anaïs. Not a woman of the world, knowing what she was doing, hurting, breaking your heart. A child of the people, too pure to understand.
His voice was less harsh when he spoke again. “It was kind of you, Eleonore. But not now, I’m busy. And—your dress, my child! Even for this warm weather——”
Her face flushed. She clasped her arms across the nakedness of her bosom and, turning, walked towards the door. He hastened to open it for her, and bowed deferentially as she passed. He followed her through the tiny antechamber on to the gallery outside, and stood at the head of the stairs, courteously waiting as she made her way down it.
He stood there for all the world to see, respectful and decorous. He’d been right, hadn’t he, not to be tempted to take off his coat, despite the heat of the day? For all the world to see—— But there was nobody to see, nobody at all. The courtyard was empty. He glanced up at the clock-tower of Saint-Roche that poked its head over the red-tiled roofs. Of course, it was four o’clock. The working-me had gone for their dinners. Had he realised, he might have been less brusque. But no. The very appearance of evil … Besides, once let the child begin that sort of thing, and there was no telling where it would end.
He went back and shut the door of his room behind him. As he crossed again towards his desk, something slippery on the floor almost made him lose his footing. Looking down, he saw that his neat little shoe had been set on the spray of lilies-of-the-valley. It was nothing more now than a little scum of green slime on the floor. He stooped down and delicately, between finger and thumb, picked it up. He held it dangling for a moment, then dropped it in his wastepaper basket, with the orange peels. He smiled a little. It would take more than a spray of lilies-of-the-valley to make the foot of Maximilian Robespierre slip.
Eleonore brought him a bouquet of flowers: cornflowers and poppies, surrounded by an edging of yellow ears of corn.
The white of her dress glimmered palely through the first dim shadows of twilight. It was a pretty dress, of diaphanous muslin, though with a fichu high-crossed about her throat and long sleeves, as he—as modesty demanded. Modesty. A virtue, of course. But a virtue that permitted you to show only your face, that wasn’t beautiful, and your hands, that were roughened by household duties. Yet that only made it all the more wonderful, didn’t it?—the wonder of marriage with the Incorruptible. For he was going to marry her. He’d said so, only that morning, before going to the Convention. He’d looked at her with eyes wide open, and without his smile he’d said, “Eleonore, we’ll be married when the Republic of Virtue is established in France. It is the duty of a public an to give the example of a virtuous marriage.” Duty was more important than love, of course. She’d learned that.
She’d thought then, only this morning, that it was imminent, his Republic of Virtue in France as, a little girl, she used to think she might wake up any morning and find the Kingdom of Heaven established on earth. This morning, before he went to make his great speech at the Convention, she’d thought it was imminent. And this evening, when he’d asked her to walk with him in the little hour of leisure he had before going to repeat his speech at the Jacobins, she’d thought it was for today—this very day, the 26th of July—the 8th of Thermidor.
But it wasn’t. The familiar little smile had come back, a carved smile, such as you used to see on the stone lips of holy images. Delicately carved, but by chisel and hammer out of cold stone. His eyes were narrow again, narrow as the arrow-slits in a tower; he able to see out, but not you to look in. He shut up behind them, secret, alone, unreadable. And you outside …
Only this morning she’d thought he was going to … She imagined herself walking through the tender shadows of the Cours la Reine, a maid with her man, like any other.
In that, of course, she’d been wrong, unworthy, as she always was. To think of him, Robespierre the Incorruptible, as being a man like any other! The others; men walking with their girls, arm in arm, body pressed to body, eyes turned to eyes, lips almost touching. To imagine, even in the hidden secret places of your mind, him lowering himself to such vulgar depths of—of sexual passion!
Passion was a vice, and criminal, unless you did it for the sake of duty, of having children to serve the Republic. Children … Lucile Desmoulins’ little son, crying for his mother in the arms of Danton’s young widow.
He’d talked to her often of the injustice of the old régime to innocent children, of the injustice of his own childhood, that he’d never been able to forget. Yes. But what about the children of the Revolution? Hundreds of them, thousands. The Desmoulins baby …
It wasn’t the same, of course. It was only because she was ignorant and stupid that she sometimes couldn’t help wondering …
Her own sister, Elizabeth [Élisabeth] Le Bas, had a baby too, now. And sometimes when you looked at it, at the three of them together, you couldn’t help the little spasm of panic that twisted your heart. But that, too; it wasn’t the same. Nothing could happen to the Le Bas, because they were virtuous and loyal. The Desmoulins hadn’t been. They’d criticized him, not only in their thoughts, but out loud. And if you weren’t for him in everything, you were against him in everything; against the Revolution, the People, the Supreme Being. You were corrupt. It was quite simple, really; simple and right. It was just that, being only a weak, silly woman, you couldn’t help wishing——
Other men and maids walking, body pressed to body. She walking beside him, without so much as a brushing together of their sleeves. Not touching, or looking, or speaking, not like other men and maids. No. More like those men and women who, in classical costumes, took part in Republican processions. Not men and women, but symbols. Civic Virtue walking beside—not Love, nor Marriage, nor Maternity. Not even Woman. Duty.
He paused by the dark entry of the Duplay house, and looked backwards along the way they had come, westwards, to where the setting sun cast a ruddy stain over the heat-faded grey of the sky. Her feet paused with his, her head turned with his, her eyes followed the direction of his gaze, towards the sunset, as red against the pallor of the sky as blood on dead flesh.
“It will be a fine day tomorrow,” she said.
“It will be a fine day tomorrow,” Eleonore had said last night. The words had irritated him at the time with their trivial banality; an unjust irritation, since that was what women—good women—were for; to take care of the banalities of life. A man who hoped for more from a woman was a fool, he who asked for it was lost; as he himself might have been lost, once … God, how alone a man was!
The light of a new dawn was coming up over the housetops now, washed clean and pure of the blood-red stain of its birth. Yes, Eleonore had been right. It would be a fine day.