[Dumouriez to Danton:] ‘And young Citizen Robespierre?’
‘Looking older. Working hard.’
‘Not married that gawky girl yet?’
‘No. He’s sleeping with her, though.’
‘Is he now?’ The general raised his eyebrows. ‘It’s an advance, I suppose. But when you think of the good time he could have, if he wanted … it’s a tragedy, Danton, a tragedy. […]’
[Dumouriez to Danton:] ‘Oh yes – Robespierre would die to get away from the carpenter’s daughter, I don’t doubt.’
‘You are determined to be the complete cynic, General. There is nothing I can do about that. […]’
‘[…] Cornélia, my dear, could you get me some more cold water? But very cold, I mean?’
‘Of course.’ She reached for the jug, bustled out.
‘Well done,’ Camille said.
‘Yes, but I have to keep thinking of increasingly difficult things I want. I always told you that women were nothing but a damned nuisance.’
‘Yes, but your experience was only academic then.’
‘There’s your sister Charlotte arriving downstairs. Why can I hear everything today?’
‘Maurice has stopped the men working. He thinks I have a headache. That’s good, anyway. Eléonore will have to stay downstairs to see that
‘Yes, but poor Eléonore too, I suppose. While I think about it, you might ask Danton not to be so rude about her. I know she’s rather plain, but every girl has the right to conceal that fact from people who haven’t seen her. Danton keeps telling people. Ask him not to talk about her.’
‘Send another messenger.’
Maurice Duplay opened the door. ‘Your water,’ he whispered. ‘Sorry. Eléonore – I mean Cornélia – is downstairs entertaining your sister. You don’t want to see her, do you? No, of course you don’t. How’s your head?’
‘I haven’t got a headache,’ Robespierre said loudly.
[…] He started picking up the papers from the floor. ‘If you really want to annoy Eléonore, I mean Cornélia,’ he said, ‘you can keep throwing them on the floor and asking for them again, like the baby does. Lolotte gets out of the way when she sees that trick starting.’
‘Thank you, I’ll try.’ A spasm of coughing.
Next day she [Lucile Desmoulins] called on Eléonore. If it was true that Eléonore was Robespierre’s mistress, it didn’t make her any happier, certainly no more gracious. She was not slow to bring the conversation round to Camille.
‘He,’ she said with disgust, ‘can make Max do anything he wants, and nobody else can make him do anything they want at all. He’s just always very polite and busy.’ She leaned forward, trying to communicate her distress. ‘He gets up early and deals with his letters. He goes to the Convention. He goes to the Tuileries and transacts the Committee’s business. Then he goes to the Jacobins. At at night the Committee goes into session. He comes home in the small hours.’
‘He drives himself very hard. But what do you expect? That’s the kind of man he is.’
‘He’ll never marry me. He says, as soon as the present crisis is over. But it will never be over, will it, Lucile, will it?’
Robespierre came home from the Convention. His lips were pale, his eyes cold with fury. Someone is going to suffer, Eléonore thought.
‘If there is no God,’ he said, ‘if there is no Supreme Being, what are the people to think who live all their lives in hardship and want? Do these atheists think they can do away with poverty, do they think the Republic can be made into heaven on earth?’
Eléonore turned away from him. She knew better than to hope for a kiss. ‘Saint-Just rather thinks it,’ she said.
‘We cannot guarantee bread to the people. We cannot guarantee justice. Are we also to take hope away?’
‘It sounds as if you only want a God because he fills the gaps in your policies.’
He stared at her. ‘Perhaps,’ he said slowly. ‘Perhaps you're right. But Antoine, you see, he thinks everything can be achieved by wishing it—each individual makes himself over, becomes a better person, a person with more vertu, then as individuals change, a society changes, and it takes—what? A generation? The problem is, Eléonore, that you lose sight of this when you're bogged down in the detail, you are worrying all the time about supplying boots for the army, and you're thinking, every day I fail at something—and it begins to look like one gigantic failure.’
She put her hand on his arm. ‘It's not a failure, my darling. It's the only success there's ever been in the world.’
He shook his head. ‘I can't always see it now in such absolute terms, I wish I could. I feel sometimes I'm losing my direction. Danton understands, he knows how to talk about this. He says, you make a few botches, you have a few successes, and that's what politics is about.’
‘Cynical,’ Eléonore said.
‘No, it's a viewpoint—the way he looks at it, you do have your general principles to guide you, but you have to make the best of each situation as it arises. Now Saint-Just, he thinks differently—in his opinion, you have to see in each particular circumstance a chance to make your principles operate. Everything, for him, is an opportunity to state the larger case.’
‘And where do you stand?’
‘Oh, I'm just’—he threw his hands out—‘floundering. Only here, with this issue, I do know where I am. I will not have this intolerance, I will not have this bigotry, I will not have this lifetime's faith of simple people pulled from under them by dilettantes with no idea of what faith means. They call the priests bigots, but they are the bigots, who want to stop Mass being said.’
You ‘won't have it,’ she thought. That means the Tribunal, if they don't back down. She herself was not inclined to believe in a God; or not in a beneficent one, anyway.
‘So how’s your little sister liking married life?’ Danton asked Eléonore.
Eléonore flushed darkly. ‘All right I suppose. Philippe Lebas [Le Bas] doesn’t amount to so much.’
You poor, spiteful, disappointed cow, he thought. ‘I can find my own way,’ he said.
There was no answer when he knocked. He pushed the door open and walked straight into Robespierre’s belligerent stare. He was sitting at his desk with pen, ink, one small notebook.
‘Pretending not to be here, then?’
‘Danton.’ Robespierre got to his feet. He coloured slightly. ‘I’m sorry, I thought it was Cornélia.’
‘Well, what a way to treat your lady friend! Sit down, relax. What were you writing? A love-letter to someone else?’
‘No, as a matter of fact I – never mind.’
Robespierre put his chin on his hand. ‘I am. Because I’ve had to compromise a lot to keep Camille’s friendship. It’s like everything else in my life. I spend my days crying, “Don’t tell me,” and “Sweep that under the carpet before I come into the room.”’
‘I didn’t know you knew that about yourself.’
‘Oh yes. I am not a hypocrite myself, but I breed hypocrisy in other people.’
‘You must, of course. Robespierre doesn’t lie or cheat or steal, doesn’t get drunk, doesn’t fornicate – overmuch. He’s not a hedonist or a main-chancer or a breaker of promises.’ Danton grinned. ‘But what’s the use of all this goodness? People don’t try to emulate you. Instead they just pull the wool over your eyes.’
‘They?’ Robespierre echoed gently. ‘Say “we”, Danton.’ He smiled.
It had grown dark. Eléonore thought that the room was empty. When Robespierre turned his head, the movement startled her. His face was white in the shadows. ‘Are you not going to the Committee?’ she said softly. He turned his head away, so that he was looking at the wall again.
‘Shall I light the lamp?’ she said. ‘Please speak to me. Nothing can be so bad.’
She stood behind his chair and slipped a hand onto his shoulder. She felt him stiffen. ‘Don't touch me.’
She removed her hand. ‘What have I done wrong?’ She waited for an answer. ‘You're being childish. You can't sit here in the cold and dark.’
No reply. She walked rapidly from the room, leaving the door ajar. She was back in a moment with a taper, which she touched to the wood and kindling laid ready in the grate. She knelt down by the hearth, tending then infant flames, her dark hair sliding over her shoulder.
‘I will not have lights,’ he said.
She leaned forward, placing another splinter of wood, fanning the blaze. ‘I know you'll let it go right out if I don't watch it,’ she said. ‘You always do. I have only just got in from my class. Citizen David commended my work today. Would you like to see? I can run downstairs and get my folio.’ She looked up at him, still kneeling, her hands spread out on her thighs.
‘Get up from there,’ he said. ‘You are not a servant.’
‘No?’ Her voice was cool. ‘What am I? It would be against your principles to speak to a servant as you speak to me.’
‘Five days ago,’ he said, ‘I proposed to the Convention that we should set up a Committee of Justice to examine the verdicts of the Tribunal and to look into the cases of those imprisoned on suspicion. I thought this was what was needed; apparently not, though. I have just seen the fourth issue of the “Old Cordelier.” Here.’ He pushed the pamphlet across the desk. ‘Read it.’
‘I can't, in this light.’ She lit the candles, lifting one high to look into his face. ‘Your eyes are red. You have been crying. I didn't think you cried when you were criticized in the press. I thought you were beyond that.’
‘It's not criticism,’ he said. ‘It's not criticism that's the problem, it's quite other, it's the claims, it's the claims made on me. I am addressed by name. Look.’ He pointed to the place on the page. ‘Eléonore, who has been more merciful than I have? Seventy-five of Brissot's supporters are in prison. I have fought the committees and the Convention for these men's lives. But this is not enough for Camille—it's not nearly enough. He wants to force me into some—some kind of bullring. Read it.’
She took the pamphlet, brought a chair up to his desk to get the light. ‘Robespierre, you are my old school comrade, and you remember the lesson history and philosophy taught us: that love is stronger and more enduring than fear.’ Love is stronger and more enduring than fear; she glanced up at him, then down at the printed page. ‘You have come very close to this idea in the measure passed at your instance during the session of 30 Frimaire. What has been proposed is a Committee of Justice. Yet why should mercy be looked upon as a crime under the Republic?’
Eléonore looked up. ‘The prose,’ Robespierre said. ‘It's so clean, no conceits, no show, no wit. He means every word. Formerly, you see, he meant every other word. That was his style.’
‘Release from prison the 200,000 citizens you call “Suspects.” In the Declaration of the Rights of Man there is no provision for imprisonment on suspicion.
‘You seem determined to wipe out opposition by using the guillotine—but it is a senseless undertaking. When you destroy one opponent on the scaffold, you make ten more enemies among his family and friends. Look at the sort of people you have put behind bars—women, old men, bile-ridden egotists, the flotsam of the Revolution. Do you really believe they constitute a danger? The only enemies left in your midst are those who are too sick and too cowardly to fight; all the brave and able ones have fled abroad, or died at
‘Have you read enough?’ he asked her.
‘Yes. They're trying to force your hand.’ She looked up. ‘Danton's behind it, I suppose?’
Robespierre didn't speak, not at first. When he did it was in a whisper, and not to the point. ‘When we were children, you know, I said to him, Camille, you're all right now, I am going to look after you. You should have seen us, Eléonore—you would have been quite sorry for us, I think. I don't know what would have become of Camille, if it weren't for me.’ He buried his face in his hands. ‘Or of me, if it wasn't for him.’
‘But you're not children now,’ she said softly. ‘And this affection you speak of no longer exists. He's gone over to Danton.’
He looked up. His face is transparent, she thought; he would like the world transparent too. "Danton's not my enemy," he said. ‘He's a patriot, and I've staked my reputation on it. But what's he done, these last four weeks? A few speeches. Grand-sounding rhetoric that keeps him in the public eye and means nothing at all. He fancies himself as the elder statesman. He's risked nothing. He has thrown my poor Camille into the furnace while he and his friends stand by warming their hands.’
‘Don't be upset, it doesn't help.’ She averted her face. She was studying the pamphlet again. ‘He implies that the Committee has abused its powers. It seems clear that Danton and his friends see themselves as an alternative government.’
‘Yes.’ He looked up, half-smiled. ‘Danton offered me a job once before. No doubt he'd do it again. They expect me to go along with them, you see.’
‘Go along with them? With that gang of swindlers? You'd go along with them as you'd go along with brigands who were holding you to ransom. All they want is to use your name, use your credit as an honest man.’
‘Do you know what I wish?’ he said. ‘I wish Marat were alive. What a pass I've come to, when I wish that! But Camille would have listened to him.’
‘This is heresy,’ Eléonore said. She bent her head over the page. She read, it seemed to him, with a tortured slowness; she seemed to weigh every word. ‘The Jacobins will expel him.’
‘I will prevent it.’
‘I said, I will prevent it.’
She shook the paper at him. ‘They'll blame you for this. Do you think you can protect him?’
‘Protect him? Oh Christ—I think at any time, at any time before now, I'd have died for him. But I feel, now—perhaps I have a duty to remain alive?’
‘A duty to whom?’
‘To the people. In case worse befalls them.’
‘I agree. You do have a duty to remain alive. Alive and in power.’
He averted his head. ‘How easily the phrases fall from your lips. As if you had grown up with them, Eléonore. Collot is back from
‘Saint-Just will be here next week. He won't want to know about your school days, Max. He won't accept excuses.’
Robespierre lifted his chin, blindly and vicariously proud. ‘He'll not be offered excuses. I know Camille. He's stronger than you think, oh, not visibly, not evidently—but I do know him, you see. It's a kind of iron-clad vanity he has—and why not, really? It all comes from July 12, from those days before the Bastille. He knows exactly what he did, exactly what risk he took. Would I have taken it? Of course not. It would have been meaningless—no one would even have looked at me. Would Danton have taken it? Of course not. He was a respectable fellow, a lawyer, a family man. You see, here we are Eléonore, four years on—still in awe of what was done in a split second.’
‘Stupid,’ she said.
‘Not really. Everything that's important is decided in a split second, isn't it? He stood up before those thousands of people, and his life turned on a hair. Everything after that, of course, has been an anticlimax.’
Eléonore got up, moved away from him. ‘Will you go to see him?’
‘Now? No. Danton will be there. They will probably be having a party.’
‘Well, why not?’ Eléonore said. ‘I know the reign of superstition is over, but it is Christmas day.’
Next day Camille went to the Duplay house. He asked after Eléonore's health, and about her work. ‘Lucile was saying she would come and see you, but she doesn't know when it would suit you, because of your classes. Why don't you ever come and see us?’
‘I will,’ she said, without conviction. ‘How's the baby?’
‘Oh, he's fine. Marvelous.’
‘He's like you, Camille. He has a look of you.’
‘Oh, how sweet of you, Cornélia, you're the first person in eighteen months to say so. May I go up?’
‘He's not at home.’
‘Oh, Cornélia. You know that he is at home.’
‘Has he been telling you to keep people out, or just to keep me out?’
‘Look, he needs time to sort things out in his mind. He didn't sleep last night. I'm worried about him.’
‘Is he very angry with me?’
‘No, he's not angry, I think he's—shocked. That you should hold him responsible for violence, that you should blame him in public.’
‘I told him I reserved the right to tell him when the country became a tyranny. Our consciences are public property, so how else could I tell him?’
‘He is alarmed, that you should put yourself in such a bad position.’
‘Go and tell him I'm here.’
‘He won't see you.’
‘Go and tell him, Eléonore.’
She quailed. ‘All right.’
She left him standing, with a dragging ache in his throat. She paused when she was halfway up the stairs, to think; then she went on. She knocked. ‘Camille's here.’
She heard the scraping of the chair, a creak: no answer.
‘Are you there? Camille's downstairs. He insists.’
He pulled the door open. She knew he'd been standing right behind it. Absurd, she thought. He was sweating.
‘You mustn't let him come up. I told you that. I told you. Why do you take no notice of me?’ He was trying to speak very calmly.
She shrugged. ‘Right.’
Robespierre had rested one hand on the doorknob, sliding it over the smooth surface; he swung the door back and to, in an arc of six inches.
‘I'll tell him,’ she said. She turned her head and looked down the stairs, as if she thought Camille might run up and shoulder her aside. ‘It's another matter whether he accepts it.’
‘Dear God,’ he said. ‘What does he think? What does he expect?’
‘Personally I don't see the sense in keeping him out. You both know he's put you in a very difficult position. You know you're going to defend him, and I think he knows it too. It's just a matter of whether you'll smooth over your disagreements. Of course you will. You'll risk your own reputation to vindicate him. Every principle you've ever had goes out the wind when you're faced with Camille.’
‘That is not true, Eléonore,’ he said softly. ‘That is not true and you are saying it out of twisted jealousy. It is not true and he must be made to realize it. He must be made to think. Listen,’ the agitation crept back into his voice, ‘how does he look?’
Tears had sprung into her eyes. ‘He looks as usual.’
‘Does he seem upset? He's not ill?’
‘No, he looks as usual.’
‘Dear God,’ he said. Wearily, softly, he took his perspiring hand from the doorknob, and wiped it, stiff-fingered, down the sleeve of his other arm. ‘I need to wash my hands,’ he said.
The door closed softly. Eléonore went downstairs, scrubbing at her face with her fist. ‘There,’ she said. ‘I told you. He doesn't want to see you.’
‘I suppose he thinks it's for my own good?’ Camille laughed nervously.
‘I think you can understand his feelings. You have tried to use his affection for you to trap him into supporting you when you put forward policies he disagrees with.’
‘He disagrees with them? Since when?’
‘Perhaps since his defeat yesterday. Well, that is for you to work out. He doesn't confide in me, and I know nothing of politics.’
A blank misery had dropped into his eyes. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I can exist without his approbation.’ He walked ahead of her to the door. ‘Good-bye, Cornélia, I don't think I'll be seeing much of you from now on.’
‘Why? Where are you going?’
In the open doorway he turned suddenly: pulled her towards him, slipped a hand under her breast and kissed her on the lips. Two of the workmen stood and watched them. ‘Poor you,’ Camille said. He pushed her gently back against the wall. Watching him go, she put the back of her hand against her lips. For the next few hours she could feel the phantom pressure of his cupped hand beneath her breast, and she kept it in her guilty thoughts that she had never really had a lover.