Authors: Veronica Bennett
For my sister
he brightness of the sky smote Jean's eyes so violently that he stumbled. He let out a cry of pain. Then the butt of a guard's rifle landed hard between his shoulder blades, taking his breath away.
In the darkness of the prison cell he had prayed that God would save him. He had reasoned that since God knows everything, He must know that many thousands of innocent men and women had perished beneath the guillotine's blade in the last few months. God surely knew that all Frenchmen, whether sympathetic or hostile to the Revolution, were now calling these months “The Terror”. But did God know how much longer the bloodshed would last? Months? Years? Until Jean's beloved France had no more martyrs to make, and no more sacrifices to offer?
Now, thrust into the waiting tumbril, his hands tied behind his back, Jean knew that praying was useless. God had not heard him.
His blood buzzed in his ears, louder and louder, in rhythm with the hammer-beats of his heart. Crouching in the corner, he pressed his head against the cart's wooden rail. He did not want to look at that vast sky, whose brilliance, even on this cold February day, was evidence of the glorious work of the God who had forsaken him.
More and more men were pushed in behind Jean until the tumbril was crammed as full as those he had seen on his estate in the Marais, crowded with animals on their way to slaughter. Trusting beasts, desperate human beings â what did it matter whose blood was shed? Around him, each face told the same story. These men had been condemned for a careless word, or an accident of birth, or because they had tried to protect a loved one.
Swaying in the cart, his heart filling his chest, Jean felt the cold sweat of fear on his face.
Everyone had heard tales of heroism in the face of execution: men who struggled, defying their fate until the end; women who went meekly to their deaths, exposing their white necks to the blade with never a tremble or a cry. But Jean was no hero. He felt neither defiance nor meekness, but true terror. He could not hold up his head before the jeering spectators.
A young man, whose frail body pressed against Jean's, was sobbing. He pawed at Jean's clothes, seeking the comfort of an embrace before he was sent to his grave. But Jean, with his wrists bound, could not give it; neither could he find any words of consolation. This wretch was going to die, but so was Jean, at the age of forty-four. And did this boy have a son, and a beautiful wife to leave behind?
He tried to conjure Eliza as he had last seen her. But his imagination was flooded by the memory of her dark eyes, bright with tears. A cold drizzle had been falling on the day she had taken leave of him after their brief stay in the English city of Bath. His little son Hastings had fretted, reaching out for the carriage which waited to take him and his mother home to London. But Eliza's lovely eyes, tormented by anxiety, had looked into Jean's. “I will return to France, Jean,” she had promised. “When this madness is over, I will return.” With those words she had kissed him, and stepped into the carriage.
That had been three years ago, in the spring of 1791. The Revolution had been in its infancy. Jean had still felt reasonably safe, far away from Paris at his beloved estate in the Marais. The beginning of the Terror was still years off. They had assumed Eliza would be able to take refuge in England during the conflict, returning to him as soon as it was resolved.
A vain hope. Jean raised his head as the tumbril stopped. There on the platform stood the guillotine, the instrument of his death. A thunderous, merciless noise arose from the crowd, jostling one another and holding children aloft to afford them a better view.
The contraption â what else could one possibly call such a complicated assembly of wood, metal and rope? â rose high, higher than he had imagined. The blade hung at the top. Jean gazed up at it. Angled, sharp, malevolent. Suddenly he knew he was going to vomit. He leaned over and spewed onto the cobbles the remains of the bread he and his fellow-condemned had shared that morning. Bound, he was unable to wipe the bitter taste from his mouth.
The din increased as the prisoners were hauled out of the cart and pushed towards the wooden platform. Blank-faced revolutionary soldiers tried to quell the surge of spectators. Jean saw women younger than Eliza, chanting and stamping with joy at the prospect of witnessing his execution.
, whose God-given nature was to create life, not destroy it! Eliza had been quite right. The Revolution was madness.
Evidently, he was to be dispatched first.
The guards thrust him to his knees before the bascule. Jean trembled as they tied him to it, face-down. He felt his necktie being roughly loosened.
“Thank God,” he managed to utter aloud, “that my wife does not know of this moment!”
God had, after all, shown some mercy. Safe in England, with correspondence next to impossible, Eliza had been spared the news of Jean's imprisonment. When news of his death would get to her, and by what means, Jean could not predict. Only one thing was certain: he had no need to fear that she or Hastings would be neglected. Eliza's English relatives would take care of that.
He felt the bascule tip, lowering his body into position. The metal collar secured his bare neck. He closed his eyes, and saw again the pallor of Eliza's face, and the mingling of her tears with the English drizzle.
But there was no time to wish her farewell. The blade completed its travel in less time than it took to say the three syllables of her name.
s Jenny and her sister neared the Rectory the heat was going from the day. The sunshine crossed the walls of the house at a steep angle, plunging half the garden into shadow. The stock-scented air was perfectly still. Cassandra opened the gate. Full-leaved gooseberry bushes brushed Jenny's skirt as she followed her sister up the narrow path to the kitchen door.
“When do you suppose Henry will return from Basingstoke?” asked Cass.
“Soon, I hope, since it is already two hours past dinner time. But of course it is impossible to start dinner without the greediest person in the family.”
“Henry is tall and strong,” protested Cass. “He needs to eat large meals.”
“Defend him to the last, if you will, though you are quite aware that my approval of our incorrigible brother is boundless. And anyway,
am so hungry I could eat the very horse he is riding home on.”
Cassandra laughed. Then, abruptly, she stopped laughing. “Look!”
A carriage stood in the lane where the garden met the fields. Not a light trap such as local people used for calling at the Rectory, but a large, highway-travelling carriage with muddy wheels and dust-covered windows. Although no horse was hitched to it, its arrival was clearly very recent.
“Do you recognize it?” asked Jenny warily.
The war with France had not only taken Henry into the army, but their younger brothers, Frank and Charles, into the navy, and the sisters lived with the ever-present possibility of distressing news. A feeling Jenny recognized only too well, as if she had laced her stays too tightly, began to rise up inside her.
“No,” admitted Cass. But to reassure her younger sister she added, “It is probably visitors for Papa. The parents of a prospective pupil.”
Jenny knew it was not. Parents of prospective pupils did not come until later in the summer, and never from very far away. This carriage had come a great distance.
“I shall go in first, if you wish,” offered Cass.
“No, let us go together.”
The open kitchen door revealed the unusual sight of the housemaid standing on a chair.
“Oh, miss!” the girl exclaimed when she saw Cassandra. She began to untie her apron. “Mistress said I was to fetch you to her as soon as you came in.”
Cassandra set down the laden basket their sister-in-law had given them. “Never mind about that now, Kitty. Tell me, whose carriage is that in the lane?”
But before the girl could reply Mama entered the kitchen, her best cap, hurriedly put on, covering only half her head. “Girls!” she cried. “Why did you not come to the front door?” She caught sight of the basket. “Oh, preserves! How kind Anne is!” She advanced upon her daughters open-armed. “Come, let me embrace you, my dearest, dearest girls! Such dreadful news!”
This display of affection in the presence of a servant convinced Jenny that there had indeed been a death in the family. “Mama, tell us at once,” she urged. “What in the name of God has happened?”
“Eliza's husband is dead!” announced Mama. Reluctantly, she released her daughters. “Eliza is in the drawing-room,” she told them, her voice faltering. She put her handkerchief to her eyes. “Oh dear, I know not what to say!”
Jenny could not swallow the lump that constricted her throat. It troubled her greatly to see her mother's distress. Eliza, though Mama's niece only by marriage, enjoyed her aunt's great favour, indulgently bestowed. For her own part, Jenny loved Eliza well, though her affection had always been tempered with awe for her older, worldlier cousin.
Cass picked up her skirts decisively. “Come, let us join them.”
The evening sunlight beat so strongly on the windows that the drawing-room resembled a splendidly lit stage. Upon the instant they entered Jenny was transported back to Christmases past, when Eliza had encouraged her young cousins to act plays at the Rectory for themselves and their relatives. Every boy and girl in the house had joined in with such enjoyment that Jenny often regretted that they had all grown up and could no longer behave in such a fearlessly inelegant way.