by Bart Lessard
Stood up at the brink, mid-piddle, Jean fils first heard the voice. The pit at his feet was long disused and seldom for a privy-hole—older than the gaol tower, older even than the stronghold the tower once had been, a keep looming five hundred years on Le Marais. Jean fils kept a shorter count, of fifteen, second son, new apprentice. Not yet noontime, so he was in his cups but no peril of a slip. Bottomless, he thought, not to report a splash. Words rang up instead, a whisper made loud in the dungeon throat.
“Keep your gifts.”
A clench cut the stream. No depth showed past a yard or two. For all the fright he doubted his ears. There was enough light from the brackets atop the stair, just, to see the rim where he stood, the curve opposite. Bars had rusted back to rock. A dry bleed hung from the nubs, stains of red iron shown inside the well as a deeper thread of black. Air sank with no more pull than a sleeper’s breath. Jean fils chose to leave the trick unheard. But the thought brought him back, sober as Robespierre, early the next day.
“Is someone there?”
“So it seems.” Below, from a void. Much was lost in the echo—gender, age, register.
“Did you fall? Who are you?”
“Bring the torch for a look.” No torches were hung, only lamps, and had not been for an age. But torch or none Jean fils knew better. He came back two days after, in a thorough souse and underslept. “Find a corner,” said the voice, “when you must.”
“Who are you?”
“What could I say? I’m a prisoner.”
“No one is put to the oubliette, not anymore.”
“Pretty word. But it wants for rhyme. Hole, now that’s easy.”
“You’re trifling with me.” Jean fils sat. “Might I bring you anything?”
“A rope?” Jean fils sought a polite refusal, at least until he could work out the prank, but the voice went on. “Never worry, lad. I don’t have a climb in me, nor the arm or leg to set to work. Hunger, thirst, wanton care, it’s all far behind.”
Jean fils found the mind to break away, rush up the stair. In turn the sun found him, and he let the cold thaw from his face.
* * *
Jean pere, bourreau, had a talk as well, in a warm and cosy cell above. This with his upcoming task, Mme. Orlande. She felt only sympathy—the off-cock of his wig, the ache of his gout, his use of late. Tremors left it difficult for him to pour. A tress of white in black hair was her only take from those same times, that murderous sweep, her dears among them. Her face wore not one fraught line and gave no hint of trouble. “Coffee?” she asked. The gaoler had brought this with viands paid from her allowance.
“By custom I do not visit,” Delongval said. “But most prisoners are men, and men have a need to outshine the circumstance.”
That was tact, Manon knew, though tact at what only a man could say. “There’s another here, is there not? Another woman in the tower?”
“Ah. The Capet widow. Or you might say the enemy.”
“Widow shall do. My husband was the republican, not I.” In public that was—Manon had been no less a schemer, in truth far more. That she now faced a turn under a trumped-up charge, committee housekeeping, was only funny. The message in gaoling her among the Bourbons could be no less clear. “Is she comfortable?”
“No less so than you. Though nobody could take me for a royalist. You should see what their dynasty used to make us wear.” She conceded it: stepping up to lop a head he had played buffoon. “I must say,” he said, “it gladdens me to see you so composed.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“Brave is the better word.”
Funnier yet. No change to a pleasant face, tone, bearing: “I demand the sword.”
The stare of an old man held no judgment. He only doubted his understanding, she saw. “Sword, Madame?” She met the eye, waited. “Are you suggesting,” to a lapse. He tried a smile. “I think you must be,” to another. No cue came, no reassurances. “Making jest?” A last pause, and she said it to him again in just the same way. “You want me to execute the warrant with—and not the, the device.” She took a sip. “Why would you ask it, in God’s name? It’s mercy. The device is a mercy.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I’ve seen it up close, the whole affair. The drum, the cheer. The claim shown up from the basket. Little more than a gush of color at the fall of the blade. No fusses at all, save the crowd. As methods go,” another sip, “it primps up a slaughter.”
He thought on it—an easy read—on why she would make it hard for him. “There are no choices,” he said. “For you, me. You hold a title, or did. The privilege to demand, when other means were worse, much worse—that was history. And that has changed.”
“Of course. Did you know they mean to swap out the calendar as well? This will no longer be a Thursday. Nor September, a year of the Lord. Next it will be for weights and measures. Tens in tens in tens, very neat, and that’s likely for the best. But days? It’s not yet ratified. I don’t know what the terms shall be. Thursday will carry us for now.”
“Today is a Wednesday.”
“Time moves so differently in here.”
The frown gave to a shrug. “It shouldn’t surprise me so. The very church is set aside, for—what do they call it—a cult of reason. I know what the committee will allow. I bear no ill wish for you, nor for anyone in my charge. And I’m sorry to frustrate your aims, but not to thwart my own. These,” hands rising up to sway, the tremor plain, “are not so handsome anymore.” The smile was no less faltering than the pun—again, simple tact.
Manon said, “We shall see. Sugar?”
* * *
“Have you come to damn me?”
There was a scrape below the well—a short laugh. “You’ve been telling tales, lad, and to yourself. ‘Come, damn.’ You came. I never asked you here. And I have no reach at all.”
Jean fils had brought a bottle from his father’s store, strong brandy meant for guests. Visits to the Delongval home had fallen off of late. The pilferage would go unnoticed. “How better to explain a voice in the dark?”
“Voice, dark. Done.”
“I can’t say whether you’re man or woman.”
“Nor I. How unnatural. Bring a priest if you please. Too late for the rites, though.”
“You admit to being a ghost.”
“A ghost could never say. But that’s good explanation. Of how it never ends.”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Voice. Dark. Done.” Again the scrape.
“Anything of a life before.”
“I must have learned to speak, for I speak; and I know the outside world or do from other times. No doubt the skin on things has changed. But no—or rather nothing that follows, nothing that tells, if you take my meaning. I do have one picture, and vivid but of what, I don’t know. There was a gibbet, not far off from here, I think—a brickwork, and big, some twenty-four feet high in a square twice as broad. Each side had three rows of five arches, better than a fathom tall to display the hanged. At all times there were bodies in it ripening—ever a full house—and black birds came in a gyre, heckling at each other, and at those who had come to see.” Jean fils knew at once what this meant, and the thought was curdling. Razed half a century before, after it stood for five—the same frame of time as the gaol tower. His father had told him of the demolition, and of how it marked progress for their lot. Jean fils dared not confirm the reality, nor speak at first. But the voice said, “Why have you come to such a place? Bowls on the grass, chasing petticoats—those are a young man’s fare.”
Jean fils drained the bottle. “It’s only right I should be at the Temple. I’m apprenticed to the family trade. An apprentice headsman.”
“Oh—family. And headsman. Do tell. Perhaps I’ve met your father.”
“I share his name.”
“First born then?”
“No. But seven generations of Delongvals have served for bourreau.”
“Shouldn’t you be out in the yard, practicing a swing?”
“Thank Heavens no. There’s little more to it now than the pull of a lever. I mean the, the act. The role itself, that has more variety. We’re responsible for the welfare of the convicts and to keep the grounds and staff. We give out unclaimed bodies to hospitals. There is paperwork,” he said wistfully. “The trade is not like it used to be.”
“And how was it?”
“Oh—one hardly wants—it was all so grisly.”
“There’s no offending here. Would I felt a horror—live gooseflesh, up in a prickle.”
Jean fils did. “Courts order punishments besides death. And in days past these were severe. The basest of tortures.” He crossed himself. “Even killings came with extras—few but nobles could go gently. It was not so long ago that the wheel was hoisted up with a victim in the spokes. Breaking and braiding—it outstrips the suffering of Christ. The first Delongval in the role, two hundred years ago, he did that. Even the last king, dullard that he was, had the sense and decency to ban it. The past is all brutality. Men had their hands cut off right before the noose, against all reason. Drawing, quartering. Women burnt alive. The garrote, the saw, God save us.”
“But now it is easier. Not so brutal. For the headsman.”
“Much so, yes—for all involved. Torture is abolished. Almost.”
“Yet I hear reluctance, lad. You don’t much like it—this novelty, the lever pull.”
A silence. “It’s a strange breed of devil,” said the voice, “who damns without the heart.”
Now Jean fils lent the pause. “I’m no such thing. Nor my father. Nor his.”
“Just so,” said the voice. “The job took a hire, and hell a mason’s trowel. But make no mistake. Some of you do love the part. Maybe your ancestor, with that wheel of his.”
“I couldn’t deny it. In its service we stand outside the law. Such disrepute—it’s only fit. The Delongvals were knacker men, and still were until but recently, when the pay got better. Headsmen wore a mask. My father never did, or any other Delongval. He took care to raise his place in public. They call him the gentleman of the city, and some day they might me. Under the regime he kept a library, a grand botanical collection, curiosities. He was known for a command of history, and he looked to science. There were dinners for luminaries. He knew Voltaire, Rousseau ... not at the same time.”
“I do not. Who?”
“Two heroes of the Enlightenment. Though not the best of friends.”
“Luminary, enlighten—that’s little help. What light could help but light? Cunning men, I take it. Like a priesthood. Some read the planets where others try the gospels. And some can dole out futures from a length of gut. What sort of science is his?”
“My father? Medicine. Anatomy.”
“What is anatomy?”
Jean fils thought, shrugged. “A length of gut.”
“How did your older brother die?”
This was startling. “I never—you—you can see—?”
“Simple heed is no art, dark or otherwise. You’re apprenticed only of late, and before that you were a scribe. The work is detestable to you. Wine helps you flee it, and whatever places wine might be kept. You came down for a sour cask. It’s no great leap.”
The repulsion had never let up, speak as the voice might, and at truth. Jean fils stood. “You deceive me.”
“I have no wish to fool you, lad. Nor the need.”
“Your stories, that, that you looked upon the Gibbet of Montfaucon, it’s all—”
“Upon? I never said upon.”
“Only a moment ago—”
“I looked from it.”
Jean fils was stopped cold. “You were hanged?”
“Many times. Many times.”
Stammer held in check, nonsense was put aside to address nonsense. “How could you have been hanged, if put, put to here?”
“Put. Dear lad—the words you choose. Oubliette, you said before. To forget and be forgotten. No. This outlook—this line on you from below—it is but one more.”
“Stop!” Jean fils kept watch on the dark. A long moment passed. His breath came back. “Whatever it is you want, whatever you would have of me,” leaving off.
To no answer.
“You deceive,” Jean fils said again, and again leaving off.
Again, to none.
Jean fils stared into the oubliette, or its shallows. A dread overcame him, at what he could not say. But he went to the top of the stair to snatch up an oil lamp. Trembling, he brought the glow back down and to the edge. Held out at arm’s length, the light gave the drop another two fathoms, a worn and leaching brick much like the first. Darkness sank the air, a weakest pull, but never with a stop. Within its cage the wick did not gutter. The grip came open, and Jean fils let the flame drop.
Gone deep, a band of light sped along the stones. His breath ran ahead of it. But the shaft broke away—a rough lip of block—and the light found the void underneath. Nothing—no gleam or outline in a black surround. Mantle flame became a star, white and faint, and with no sound of any kind, save his fearful gasp, the star winked out.
* * *
Jean pere came back to Manon’s cell one day early, and in a state. He had said he would not, shown out with apology for the next circumstance. But she had strongly suspected he would return. The gaoler left them again, the oaken door pulled to. In his right hand Jean pere worried at a leaf of parchment. She knew just how it read beneath the seal.
“How can this be?”
“Would you like a chair, Citizen Delongval?”
“Please. Do sit. The Montagnards suspected I was a danger to them. And they were right, though not for the right reason, and not by half.” She told the rest.
“You?” Jean pere was not well versed in the machineries of change, but he knew this well enough. “All those tracts were written by a, a housewife?”
“Better said a writer kept house.” Her smile was only genuine. She did not savor revenge. “My husband, it was his idea—not to keep his lady-wife safe, but because even now prejudice abounds. The poor man—an economist, fond of maths. The prosecution never thought it strange, argument coming from so mild a person, so bookish. But then I never took the interest either. Until the need arose politics were a dullard’s stuff.”
“Monsieur Orlande—he was innocent? And you never came forward?”
“As agreed. Much was at stake. Even Maxim would see it. And Maxim is a foe.”
“I put an innocent to—your husband—a capital charge. Blood is on your hands.” She laughed, and he stared on, thoroughly appalled. “My husband, sir, he was far from your first part at injustice. But never mind that. It’s a year since the massacres—a busy year, and worse to come. The times are awash. On my hands? It’s in my teeth, and yours. We swallow it down, breathe it in, a fog of blood.”
He took a moment. “The Gironde were against those killings—your pamphlets.”
“Not enough. Thieves, rogues, banknote forgers—none could defend them wholeheartedly. Yet they were no threat to the new body. Political prisoners did stand among them, yes, but in the minority. All were caught up, reckless killing, a heap for an altar. In moderation we looked the other way. Moderation,” she said again after a pause, as if alone. “My husband had esteem of Newton. What moves moves more than itself, and unmet a motion never stops. But there’s more here than simple nature. A crowd is a natural force, true, but a force with a thirst, an appetite.”
He regarded her. “You astonish me. A gentlewoman. Tracts, and so bilious.”
“You prove our point, Citizen.”
“But what has this to do with—how could you make the committee—”
“Through blackmail of course. They never knew whom they had in custody. The charge made against me is only false.”
“And given what you saw fit to publish they’d only be glad to learn—”
“Think more on what I have yet to.”
“I was a society woman before I became an enemy of the state. And so I have friends. What motivates them is not political—far from it. The National Convention read the terms in a letter, terms that await the outcome in the square. The papers I left in safekeeping shall go to the press or to blazes.”
“Sedition,” Jean pere said.
“The fucking Montagnards can drum me out.”
Shocked at her oath, he flinched away, took a moment. “But you might call off the sentence.” He looked back, the hopes plain—hopes that he might yet be spared a hands- on chore. “You hold advantage. Ransom to be paid—bargains to be struck.”
Manon let her smile fall away, not for disgust, only weariness that he could not be made to see. She could have told him the full truth—that it was a ploy. No last tract, only a friend, a piteous request. Delongval’s report would have made no difference, not in the times. Semblance of threat was threat enough. But unlike the men of the committee, Manon had no bottom left. False hopes—what taunt, what insult, could be more cruel.
“I demand the sword.”
* * *
Evening drink was morning venom, and two days’ bender a damnation upon the third. Father’s valet had come to rouse Jean fils from his bedchambers, skies yet dark. Without success, whiffs of puke caught up in his velvet clothes, he brought back regrets. Jean pere went down in person with a stick. “Up, wastrel,” he shouted at the pile, with a thwack. “Up, I say, up. You disgrace your name!”
Weak beneath the blankets, the laugh was a surprise.
“Damn you, there’s business this morning.” Jean fils heard the name of a widow— harmless, bereaved—frightfully spoken. “All the city shall be in the square, boy. She’s the last Gironde. Take a draught of your dog’s hair, wash your face, and off we go.”
“It’s something the English say. Shut up. To work.”
Morning carriage rides to the square often ran tense. This was worse. Jean pere studied the Rue de Bretagne, the open market, factors setting up in first light. The headsman’s coach and four took uneasy glances, happy as the rabble were for the spectacle to come. Superstition—thumbs to be bitten, hails and paternosters to be said.
Jean fils read the distraction as he often did. But that morning his father’s disappointment was no matter. He swallowed back the acid in his mouth. “The Temple will collapse,” he said. “And soon.”
“The Temple, father. The gaol has been undermined—a hollow space. The weight will cave the floors, bring the tower down.”
“What is this prattle? Hollow space?”
“Lives are at stake—the gaoler, those on staff, those confined above. Even the innocent. Stones falling on a busy street.”
In no rush Jean pere turned to face his only son. The voice was almost gentle. “And how came this,” pause, “news? Some taproom dream?”
Reluctant as the mention was, the very thought: “I looked into the oubliette.”
Hint of more played upon the face, but what Jean pere said was, “There is no oubliette at the Temple.”
“‘Nor anywhere. Little oblivion—it’s a wives’ tale. The pit you mean, I know it—a cistern, from long ago, for storing winter ice. People make too much of these holes, all for where they’re found—low quarters in the worst places, and the very oldest. Ice houses, empty caches, one and all. The reality is simple, dull. ‘Worst’—that’s the Temple nowadays. When the pit was dug the fort was different. The knights kept no prison. They were bankers, in truth—tedious, ledger-scratching issuers of credit. And usury aside no banker ever took up the iron or the rack. Gaol is an ugly business, set apart, hid into a moldy pile. Nobody was ever thrown into the oubliette, as you call it. Nobody is there.”
The last struck an off note. The father had looked away.
“Name it as you like,” said Jean fils. “The bottom has fallen out.”
Neither had another thing to say—not before the scaffold.
* * *
Manon Orlande, so fearless with a quill, rode the tumbrel petrified. She did so alone—no other prisoners had been brought out, and two gendarmes kept apace on horseback. She clung to the fore rail as if swept up and borne downstream. But as the gates swung wide her stance was yet upright, her eye unwavering for those who turned to look. Just outside the tower walls the crowd was sparse—bystanders, mostly, and dispassionate— and among them she saw her friend from the salon. Tears on a chin held high, hat to breast, all the dignity he could muster up. Heartened at that farewell, thought of the committee came too late. Her attention had led two plain coats and they closed to seize him. She cried out, said his name—too late, again, seeing that this would be read out in testimony. A knee gave, strength gone, but a desperate stare back through the passersby showed that he had broken free. Running quick, faster than the spies, whose hue and cry went ignored. The sans-culottes and Cordeliers would be at the killing ground—no enthusiasts to lend the state a hand. That was her friend’s reprieve. He vanished well ahead, and they held up his hat and coat where he had shed them, let fall. The outcome let her stand up tall again, though little color returned to her face.
* * *
“Why is the device under wraps?”
So Jean fils had asked on arrival. The crowds, too, were only bemused to see the shroud. Changes to the docket, all names struck off but one, had thwarted those selling programs, and their discontent had spread. In the mutter, attention fell to what had been set up to one side of the scaffold. And so did Jean fils’ eye.
“What is this?”
Where the block had been kept the past year was unknown, but all the years before were scored into the groove atop. To say that each notch was a death would be too sure of mortal aim, and the notches were many. Oak had long gone tarry, the stain soaked in deep. Charles, the older brother, so dextrous with a stroke, had been the last to use it, but only twice. An axe had been more commonplace, more so yet the rope. Charles’ mark in the hash stood out clearest.
There were cheers for the Delongvals on stepping from the coach, better said for the show, but not so robust as usual. Since the history lesson Jean pere had not looked to his son, nor had another word to say. The assistants were in place, and two tables, one for the executioners, one for the agent of the court. An assistant held Charles’ sword in an oilcloth—his, for he had been the last to swing it true.
Jean pere had not held the sword for many years. Only after Charles’ death had the old man had come back into practice, from a role of oversight. By then what crowds had named the louisette, and more lately the guillotine, had become the standard use. The blade came out from the bag for inspection. A headsman’s sword was a heavy tool, but not so long as a weapon of war—the span and haft together were a yard and three, and the haft was built long for a double-hand grip. No tip, only a rounded end, and no crosspiece save a square bar. To secure a hold the pommel was as fat as a pear-fruit.
The crowd was displeased to see the sword come out—this museum piece, legacy of backward times—and those in front began to shout. Jean fils had no ear for what they said, straightforward though it was. He had seen his father’s arm shake at the weight.
Jean pere looked to him. “Wipe off the fat,” he said, “and sharpen it.”
* * *
Toppled Throne, they called the square now. Manon had been there in another world, walking along toll wall gardens on her husband’s arm. Say what you might about the revolution, she said to herself—the last joke she would tell—it did hew to a theme.
Until that approach the way had been uneventful. For a slow half hour the city made a lane. But as the tumbrel came into sight in the square a roar went up among the crowd, angrier than the usual. Part of the public theater was the show of outrage. Breaking through the cordons, sans-culottes rushed the cart. Sabers high, the escort plowed them down with horse. Comrades helped the wounded back into the masses. The volume was piercing, and Manon looked ahead as the refuse began to land. Wadded programs, glancing off the gendarmes more than the victim. Ahead she saw the device wrapped up. Had her friend been caught someone would come out to shuck off the tarpaulin. Reassuring thought, but then she saw the team up on the scaffold, and the block, the basket. Courage was her intent—this grisly means of protest aside—but her body gave and piss spread beneath the execution frock. May they not see, she prayed.
Delongval kept his eye from hers, but he glanced her way and saw her state. His son stood aside him, a gracile boy in black coat with eyes like a forest doe. She could not hear what Delongval said to the assistants, but his mouth spelled it out to her—nobody cut her hair? The upbraiding showed her this was a grievous oversight. Two gendarmes were leading her up the last stair, a hand firm at each arm, and then she was on the stage. She looked to the crowd. To the device. The cloth stayed up. Block, basket. Rage had fallen to a grumbling, now and then punctuated with a shout.
Delongval was directing his son. With reluctance the boy took up a knife from the tools arrayed on the executioner’s table. Laid among them, Manon saw, something was covered up with a velvet cloth, and she knew this would be the sword. The boy looked to her as he approached, shy apology. But he was at her back, and she felt her hair taken up, pulled into a sheaf. The weight fell away. Cold air worried at her nape. In a last clear voice, Manon told herself the resolve all along: let murder resemble murder. But the time come due and the thought were not the same.
* * *
“What are you doing?” The voice was close in the crowd. “Put her in the razor!” Others took up the chant, and soon the square spoke with a vehemence. Razor, razor, razor—one of the many pet names for the device.
Jean fils looked to the reap in his hand. Hair black, clean, brushed, and long, with a single white tress wound through. No thought came of where to set it down, save where not. A hand had gone up among the catcalls, another, to claim the relic. He stared down the offenders, no check on his disgust—his sole brave act. So distracted he did not see Mme. Orlande led up to the table of the court, to hear charges read out, and the sentence. The writ was shown up with signature and seal. A plume wagged to parchment as the secretary jotted down all that was told. Absently he put the knife into his coat.
Mme. Orlande was asked if she had a thing to say. That was unusual. Proceedings were usually quick—no oratories, no chances at martyrdom, only the crisp function of the state. Jean fils looked back to see the last of the exchange. The officer was glancing to the device to lead her eye. An invitation—a plea.
Mme. Orlande looked away, to her feet. At his own, Jean fils saw that he had let the hair fall away. The lock had scatted between his boots, disintergrating in a breeze. She was led to the block with a shuffling foot. Manacles were put to her wrists, cord of hemp fed through an eyelet bolted into the scaffold on either side. His father had stepped close to her, and he spoke into her ear. She gave a curt nod, and he set a hand to her breast, the other to her waist. The assistants took up the slack. Mme. Orlande knelt, gasping for a breath with outstretched arms, eyes wide, and Jean pere gently led her head down to the saddle on the block. His hand went to her shoulder for reassurance. Her breath heaved, and she fought tears.
A commotion—three sans-culottes had broken through. Mounting the scaffold, they were at the device, pulling at the shroud. The chant strengthened. Razor, razor. Gendarmes stormed the platform and the trespassers leapt from the bayonets, reassumed into the crowd. The officer had stood up, hands high. None paid heed.
“Disgrace,” Jean fils heard somebody say. His father looked to him, cue enough, and Jean fils went to take up the sword from the array of tools.
* * *
Manon could not see past the basket, the boards underneath, right before her eyes. She had not seen a drummer on coming up, who would roll before the order. There would be no signal. A saner mind would have reflected on the chant. It was not for mercy. The sans-culottes were furious at her special treatment. It was they who had insisted on the persecution of the Gironde, they who had ensured her death. But no thought led her anywhere past the basket and the bare neck.
* * *
Jean pere took a stance—one not taken for fifteen years. He hefted the sword, and once again Jean fils saw how unsteady it was in the grip. An October day, cool but sweltering. He watched his father’s face, the grimace. But as the blade went up, to a waver, the resolve died, and the face went ashen. He looked to his son until his son stepped close.
Beneath jeers, unrest, Jean fils heard what he had feared he might.
“Son, you must.”
Known or not, the horror was no less. “I’ve never even held a weapon.”
“You must,” and again. “Swing true. Never—.” No more.
Jean fils took the hilt into his hands.
His father stepped back. He managed to say, “Swift, true. Never let her—.”
* * *
Manon knew when the crowd fell quiet, drawing one breath. She shut her eyes. But at a great clap the world broke to agony, and she did not die. Blind, half deaf, lit up like a pyre, she began
* * *
to shriek, the stroke yet rung into his hands. Her skull was broken, the scalp laid open to bone, and blood welled up full compass and ran down the block. Her arms hauled against the rope. Her legs writhed and kicked the scaffold. The slippers came free, and her bare feet scrabbled for a hold. She screamed a breath dry to a croak, screamed on the draw of air, screamed with a moaning retching anguish.
Dead silence in the crowd, all eyes clear. And the public shout changed.
Tears were blinding Jean fils. He looked to his father, who had turned away. The assistants, the gendarmes, representatives of the court—none could bear to watch. He looked back to what he had done. Raising up the sword again, it clattered from his grip. His father started at the sound, hands in fists, bowing his head in a cringe.
No, said the crowd. Stop.
Jean fils took up the blade again. The hilt was slick. Her blood had misted his face and clothes. He swung again, desperately, and the hold slipped. A glancing strike, another cut through living bone. The screaming stopped on a choke, then went on.
No more. No.
The sword had bounced off the block and come down near the platform edge. Jean fils went after it and glanced to the crowd. They, too, wept, even those who had reached for the trophy, but something built underneath, Jean fils in its sights.
“Son,” his father was saying. “Son, quickly now, for the love of God.”
Jean fils took the hewing stance again. This time he got the blade through the bones of her spine and most of her pale neck. The scream quit, but a horrendous spitting gargle took its place. The blade was wedged in the oak and had bent. Arteries beat a twin arc, and a froth churned up in the wound. Jean fils planted a boot sole to the block. He yanked the sword free, almost fell, took the stance once more, and at last he had claimed the head. It fell into the basket, the blood-sodden lining, without a thump.
What came next was seen from a remove. The crowd surged up, consumed the line of gendarmes, and washed onto the scaffold. The rage was elemental, confined to no one man or woman or child. Jean fils saw the device tilt, fall, hundreds clambering up, and the gendarmes on the scaffold opened fire. The officer of the court and the secretary huddled behind them, white with terror, and Jean fils felt a hard shove. Stumbling to the one defended position, he heard his father’s shout—not my boy, the fault is mine—and he turned to a last glimpse, his father seized up from all directions, head and limbs cruelly pulled, clothes torn away, taken into the teeming body.
* * *
How he got back to the gaol tower was uncertain. Once Jean fils, now only Jean, and not even truly that, his coat and breeches were torn, a stink of gunpowder in his hair, face, throat, and hands freckled in blood. The red stain was on the collar of his shirt, and the whites of his eyes were no less shot. The gates opened for him, and the escort of three gendarmes broke off once he was safe. Smoke was rising to the southeast, a crackle of musket fire. Near streets had emptied out, the marketplace strangely empty, all goods heaped up on the countertops, undefended from a riot on the crawl.
The gate closed behind Jean. For all the quiet in the neighborhood guards were watchful on the rampart. Straight into the dark, no hesitation—Jean knew his task.
“Your doing,” he said into the pit.
No reply, no sound at all save the return of his own voice. But the other had no means not to hear him, no hand to stop an ear.
Jean reached into his coat, for the knife that cut the hair.
“Your doing,” he said again. “Your blame.”
No reply. But neither fear. Jean leapt.
The cellars flew away, and pale lamplight, to whatever lay beneath. Stonework shot past, seen, unseen, his breath echoing on damp brick, and the plummet batted at his hair. Then there was the dark—true dark, fluid and unseeable. No echo, no sound of any kind. Jean could not hear his breath, his heartbeat, the pulse in his ear. He felt his hair settle down and spread afloat, and he was buoyant. There was neither warmth nor a chill. But the knife was ready for whatever came forth, and he felt nothing but the hold.
Nothing did come, could come—nowhere to go, no up, down, inside, out. The voice spoke, and it was the voice of the dark itself, undirected, primal, rising like a thought.
“Poor lad,” it said—a woman’s voice, and kind. “Never cast your lot in here.”
Thrown, spun, like a chain shot. Jean cried out for the speed, the reel, clenching shut his eyes. He felt a mild rap along his back, and on looking where he lay saw the cellar floors, the selfsame spot where he had stood for the leap. At one outstretched hand was the rim of the pit. The other was empty—the knife had been taken away. In years ahead the gaol tower was demolished, each stone chiseled from the next. Whether hell or keepsake in man’s design, the oubliette was choked off with rubble, overlaid with garden dirt. Grasses were sown, and flowers kept in bloom for those out on a walk.
© DOCKYARD PRESS