MONDAY: Honourable Omission

BY DEBRA BORCHERT

This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

 

Paris, 1793
“Papa, the sans culottes have not rioted in months. I wish to resume my duties.” I announced my scheme at dinner.

My step-maman’s spoon clinked against her bowl. “My dear, it is dangerous for a woman to leave her home. You will worry your dear papa.” She shook her head. “Antoine, you should never have allowed her to clerk in your office.”

Papa inhaled the scent of his potage aux carottes, looked up, and blinked. His curving hairline and whiskers made his face a heart shape, and his narrow nose and round eyes gave him the appearance of a confused loveable bird.

“Geneviève your behaviour is unattractive to men.” She reached for Papa’s hand and patted it, making him smile.

“Thank you for your concern for my safety, Maman. But I wish to be of service to the Republic.”

“Where would I be without your dear papa? Finding a husband is the best way to be of service.” She patted her lace mouchoir at the corners of her mouth.

She took so little soup upon her spoon, I wondered how there could be even one errant drop. I would never come close to imitating her feminine élan.

“In a few years you will have missed your opportunity to find your true love, as I have.” She sipped her wine. “I know you do not wish to be a burden to your family.”

“I will never be a burden to anyone — if I can work,” I replied.

Papa’s eyebrows lifted. “You may accompany me tomorrow, Geneviève.” He bowed his head at my step-maman. “I will send her home in my carriage before dark, do not fret, ma petite souris.”

Merci!” I nearly spilled my water.

***

By the time Papa arrived at the breakfast table, I had finished my café au lait and was smoothing my gloves.

“Geneviève, please be kind to Henriette.” He spooned confiture on his bread.

“Of course, Papa.” I patted my reticule, ensuring my dagger was secure. “She is most kind to me.”

He retrieved his tricorne. “She has your best interests at heart.”

“I know.” I pinned the red, white, and blue cockade on his frock coat. “And she is right: I do not wish to be a burden.”

He held my hand. “That, you will never be.”

Merci.” I kissed his cheek. “I cherish this opportunity to serve the Republic.”

He shook his head in a way that told me he was not convinced of my sincerity, at least regarding my step-mother.

When the carriage reached the towering stone fortress of the Châtelet, people were haggling over chickens and produce in market stalls lining the square. The fine mist brightened the violettes, and sharpened the mingling odours of briny fish, earthy spices, and ripe cheeses. Papa guided me across the stone cobbles littered with hay.

We hurried up the steps into his office where fifty clerks scribbled in the weak grey light. A thin man twisted a blotting cloth in his left hand and scratched a quill across a paper with his right. Smudges of black ink stained his cuffs, camouflaging the fraying fabric. We stopped at his tall desk with a slanted top.

“My daughter will be copying my files, Citizen Imberton.” Papa told him. “Please bring the basket of papers from my office.”

Imberton sprinkled a fine sand over his work and looked up. “Certainement, Monsieur le prosecutore.”

Imberton followed my father. I looked at the paper and began reading names. I stopped halfway down the page: Comte Louis de LaBorde.

I had not seen nor heard that name since I had attended Université—when I dressed as a man to attend classes. I brushed away sand and remembered the day.

My friend, Henri, and I had laughed over our success at embarrassing LaBorde in class, and as we headed outdoors we spotted him.

“Fouquier!” LaBorde leaned against a column.

“Careful,” Henri whispered.

I marched straight at LaBorde and stood before him, as a man would. “Yes?”

“The law states you must address me by my title.”

I was so reckless then. I replied, “Class imbécile?”

LaBorde drew his rapier from its jewelled scabbard and slowly brought the blade before me, resting its tip at my jabot.

I dared not blink.

With one deliberate swipe, LaBorde sliced through my waistcoat and tunic, which fell away, revealing my breasts. I clutched the edges of my waistcoat.

LaBorde stood staring with jaw hanging, lips flapping. “You are a…”

“Woman.” I smiled. “Perhaps you have not seen one before?”

“Women have no right to enter Université.” His rapier vibrated in his hand. “Salope!”

He had called me a whore!

Henri aimed a pistol. “If this woman passed the exams to enter, she deserves the right to attend.” Henri’s words stunned me.

“This is a fight for swords. Where’s yours?” LaBorde moved his feet into the en garde position.

“I have no need of such encumbrances.” Henri cocked the hammer. “You will be dead before your body hits the ground.”

LaBorde pointed his rapier toward Henri.

I delivered the coup de grâce. “LaBorde, do you know my father’s name? It could assist you at the Châtelet.”

LaBorde shifted his gaze to me.

“My father is le prosecutor there.” I tightened my grip on my waistcoat. “Does the name, Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, sound familiar?”

His mouth gawped like that of a landed fish. “Excuse me, Mademoiselle.”

“I suggest you take Monsieur Detré’s advice and sheathe your weapon.”

LaBorde had never returned to Université after that encounter. I thought he had emigrated. Inadvertently, he had brought Henri and me together. Henri was the only person who knew I dressed as a man to travel the city and attend political meetings. I suddenly longed to have accepted Henri’s invitation and gone to America with him.

Imberton returned and handed me a stack of papers. “You will work next to me.” He pointed.

“What are you copying?” I asked.

“List of prisoners for the guillotine.”

The papers rustled in my hands. “Why? What are their crimes?”

“Guilty of Royalist sympathies — all nobles and aristocrats.”

LaBorde was a bully. I despised his arrogance. But he did not deserve to die.

Imberton held out a bottle of ink and a quill.

Merci.” I took the bottle, but the quill slipped. As I grasped for it, I knocked over his open bottle of ink, spilling the black liquid down the length of the document. I gasped. “I am so sorry!” I dabbed my mouchoir at the paper.

His mouth dropped open, but he quickly closed it.

“I will write it again, for you. Please forgive me, Monsieur, I mean Citizen. I will stay late to finish my work after I have done this for you.”

He picked up the paper with his fingernails and held it out, ink dripping onto the floorboards, and dropped it into a metal bin. “Be certain every letter is correct.”

“I will finish it in no time, Citizen.” I placed the original on the desk next to his, took a clean sheet of paper from the shelf underneath, and opened my bottle of ink.

As I read each name, I imagined the person’s appearance. Did he have children? Was she leaving a mother? Was he leaving a wife? The list was not numbered. My gaze landed again on Comte Louis de LaBorde — a man I thought I hated. But had he not exposed me as a woman, Henri and I might not have fallen in love. And now LaBorde was condemned to death for no greater crime than being born a noble. Had Henri remained in Paris, his nobility would have been discovered and his name would be on this list.

I wondered, if LaBorde was not sent to the guillotine — would rotting in a prison be any better fate? Rain drummed against the window. If anyone discovered that I had omitted his name, what would happen to me? Would I, too, be tried as a conspirator—by my father? I felt a chill draft.

Imberton flicked his fingernail along a paper.

I dipped the quill. If I wrote, instead of LaBorde, the name of one already dead, the number of names on the list would be the same. I imagined the guards calling out that name, searching the cells, not finding the owner. The guards would not confess they had lost a prisoner nor admit wrongdoing or failure. Would they take another prisoner in his place? No, for when that prisoner’s name was called, they would have the same problem. I could replace a name, maybe two, on every list.

Imberton cleared his throat.

I brought the quill to the paper. Guards would begin to doubt themselves, go crazy thinking they had misplaced prisoners, or worse, the prisoners had escaped, and the guards would accuse one another. Insurrection would mount. My writing names of the dead would undermine the whole system.

Should I be discovered, not only would I be sent to the guillotine, but so would my father. I looked at each clerk standing at the rows of desks. Did I have the right to jeopardize the safety of all the people in this office? I would be changing the destinies of condemned people as well as innocents. If I were responsible for sending innocents to their deaths, was I any less guilty than the Tribunal members?

A tapping sound caused me to look up.

Imberton stood before me, his eyebrows raised. “Do you need assistance?”

Non!” I tapped the excess ink from quill again and scratched it across the paper.

***

“Drive past the Place de la Révolution, please,” I commanded the carriage driver. The list of names wavered before me. I wiped moisture from the window. Although Papa prosecuted criminals, it was not only he, but also the Tribunal president, and a jury who were all responsible for condemning people. But if not for my father’s talents, I suspected many prisoners would go free.

Pounding my umbrella handle on the ceiling of the carriage, I signalled the driver to stop. I pulled the leather straps to lower the window and peered across the empty square at the wooden platform—a stage for the machine of death. At the centre a narrow wooden structure with two beams loomed so high they swayed in the buffeting wind. At the top, suspended between the beams, a metal blade sliced the gloom. Pink water slid down the edge, glinting in the fading light. Rivulets of bloody water streamed around cobbles on their way toward the Seine. Hours had passed since the last execution. How many people died here to produce so much blood?

I loved my father and thought I knew him, but who was the man who sent women and children here? Did he fear for his own life if he didn’t condemn them? A bitter taste rose in my throat.

***

Alone in my chamber, I wrapped a strip of cloth tightly around my bosom, put my gown on, and pulled on breeches and boots beneath my skirts. My hair fell from the pins, and I tied it at the back of my neck. With a shawl covering my chest, I crept down the stairs, through the kitchen, and down the winding steps into the wine cellar. The odours of must, rotting apples, and sour wine thickened the air.

My fingers reached behind the last apple barrel and pulled out my rolled-up costume. After loosening the laces of my gown, I yanked it over my head and crammed it in my hiding place. I buttoned the waistcoat, tied the jabot, donned the frock coat, pressed my older brother’s hat down over my brow, filled a bottle with wine, and lightly tapped in a cork. After shoving food into my pockets and the bottle into my frock coat, I climbed the steps and peeked out. A squawking chicken fluttered helter-skelter down the alley. A boy in tattered tunic and breeches waved a hatchet as he ran after it. I shivered and slipped out into the day, thick with humidity.

***

The damp stone walls of the Conciergerie glistened in the flickering torchlight. Although I felt safer on the streets when I was dressed as a man, here I felt more vulnerable—I could be mistaken for a prisoner. Tallow candles sputtered, filling the guard’s room with a fatty smoke stinking of mutton. I tucked the bottle of wine under my arm, dug out my younger brother’s Identity Card and handed it to the guard, hoping the shadows were too dark for him to read accurately. Using my brother’s card had occurred to me when I had taken him for a walk the previous week. If my step-mother asked, I would claim I forgot to return it. I pushed my tricorne down and lowered my voice. “Louis LaBorde.”

The guard had a greying beard and wore a grubby uniform. He glanced at the card and back at me. “You’re older than eight years.” He used a corner of the card to pick at his teeth.

I pressed my fingernails into my palms. “The number one is faded, Citizen, it is eighteen. Do you think the son of Antoine Fouquier Tinville would present false papers?”

His tongue sucked at his teeth as he pushed the card toward me and stared at the wine.

“This is for LaBorde, Citizen.”

He glanced at his list. “Not here.”

“He’d better be here—my father put him in here!” I retrieved my card and placed the bottle on the desk, hoping my offered bribe would keep him from telling others about me.

He reached for it. I plucked it up. “LaBorde won’t mind sharing. Have a cup?”

He pulled one from a drawer and set it before him.

I wiggled the cork out and poured.

The guard tapped his finger against the cup. I poured another measure and shoved the cork into the bottle. “LaBorde, Citizen.”

He gulped down the wine, belched, and jangled a brass ring of keys. A young guard came from the corridor. “LaBorde,” the older guard growled.

The younger nodded, took the keys, and bade me follow him.

The stench of vomit, weeping sores, and the sweat of fear intensified with each step we took further into the bowels of the prison. We passed large cramped cells filled with prisoners. A mother picked fleas from her daughter’s scalp. A group of women, dressed in ripped and dirty finery sat in a circle knitting and whispering prayers. An old man rolled a wooden ball to a boy of about three. I felt a wave of nausea. The child could not possibly be guilty of treason, yet he would be brought before my father to be judged. Dizziness caused me to stumble, and I pressed my hand against the slimy wall to steady myself.

The guard stopped before a wooden door and opened it. “Ten minutes.” He stuck out his hand for a bribe.

“Ten minutes. Merci.” I took a deep breath, stepped into the dark and heard straw cracking beneath my feet. The door slammed shut. A key grinded in the lock. The stink of an unemptied chamber pot was overwhelming. LaBorde stood in the corner, his shoulders hunched over, his blond hair hanging in greasy strands. The sound of the guard’s footsteps faded.

“Do you remember me?” I asked.

He peered at me. “Who could forget your charms?”

I felt my face warm as the memory of his exposing my breasts rushed at me.

He sniggered. “So, my execution has been delayed so you — Monsieur Fouquier — could gloat.”

I shook my head and held out the wine. He continued staring at me, so I placed the bottle near his feet. “It’s not what you’re accustomed to, but the guard enjoyed it.” I reached into my pocket for the bread, saucisson, and cheese.

He rubbed his forehead. “Ah, a last meal.”

I ripped off a piece of bread and offered it. He snatched it and gnawed, catching the crumbs with his hand and licking them from his palm.

I detested the pity I felt. “Has your family been to visit?” I took my knife, cut a hunk of saucisson and tossed it to him.

He caught it and waved his fingers for the cheese, which I also tossed. “What family? My brother? Killed at the Tuileries. My parents? Murdered at la Bicêtre.”

“I am sorry.” His losses seemed not to affect his appetite in the least. “Any friends visit?”

He bit into the cheese and closed his eyes as he chewed. “I have no friends.”

That I believed.

He chomped at the bread. But as he turned his head away and stopped chewing, I knew it was not from lack of hunger. I suspected he was missing someone. “A lady?”

“Yeah.” He snorted. “My whore.” His low voice rumbled against the stone walls. “What about you, Fouquier? Got a whore of your own?”

“Wish I did.”

He laughed.

Had there been time I’d have laughed, too. “Has your mistress been to see you?”

“Imprisoned at La Bicêtre.” He tilted his head back as if praying for patience.

“For prostitution?”

“For Royalist sympathies!” He swatted at a fly on his neck “She despised the Queen!” He shook his head. “Even a whore has more courage than I have to be honest.”

I blew out the breath I hadn’t noticed I was holding. “I can get a message to her.”

“Why would you give her a message from me? To taunt her?” He kicked a clump of straw. “Torture us both?”

“To let her know you are alive.” The muscles in his face tightened. He resembled a beggar, a depth to which, I imagined, he had never dreamed of falling. “What would you like me to tell her?”

“What else can a dead man say?” He cried a laugh. “Adieu!”

“What’s her name?”

He slid down against the wall until he sat in the straw with his legs stretched out.

I crouched down and whispered, “Did you tell anyone you have been sentenced?”

He shook his head.

“Guards? Prisoners?”

Non.”

“You must not tell anyone of your sentence. No one. Do you promise?”

He cocked his head and for a moment I saw the old arrogant LaBorde. “Why?”

“Hush.” I stopped to listen and did not hear footsteps. “So long as they do not call your name for the guillotine, you live. Do you understand?”

“They’ll call. I’ve been condemned.”

“Your name will not be called. You will not go to the guillotine. Do you understand?” He seemed lifeless. I pinched his arm.

“Ow!” He jerked his head to look at me.

“Do you?”

The taut skin around his eyes began to relax as he stared at me “Oui.” His voice was hesitant, like that of a child, learning to trust.

A feeling of wanting to take him out of this hell swept over me. I would have thought he deserved this punishment after exposing me, but now my compassion surprised me. I gripped his hand, although filthy, it was still the soft hand of a person who ordered others to do his work. “What’s her name?”

“Magdeleine Corrié.” He winced, as if hearing her name pained his heart.

“The message?”

He stared at the ceiling.

I squeezed his hand. “We have but a few minutes more.”

He pressed his lips together, and his nostrils sucked in the dank air.

I hated pushing him. I softened my voice. “Do you wish me to tell her you love her?”

He nodded, then pulled me close. “She is with child. Ask her… if she will marry me.”

“That is honourable.”

“It is not honour.” The muscles around his mouth quivered.

I patted his arm. “I will bring her food and your messages.” I stood and prayed I would be the clerk to receive the list with her name.

The sound of footsteps grew near. He scrambled to stand. “Why do you do this for me when I was so rude to you?”

“You treated me the way you’d treat any man you deemed inferior.”

His cheeks reddened. “I was a bully.”

I nodded. “You treated me as a man, and I am grateful to you for that. But I did not fight fairly. Instead of a sword, I used my father’s name as a weapon.” It was not until that moment that I realized the true reason I was there. “I am sorry.”

“I deserved it.” He sniffed.

“You don’t deserve this.” I waved my hand at the chamber. “Do you remember my friend, Henri Detré?”

“How could I forget his defence of you?” He toed some straw.

I gripped the edge of my frock coat. “If he were still in France, he’d be here, too.” I pushed my hat low over my eyes. “I don’t believe being born a noble should be a death sentence.”

He dropped to one knee. “If you can save Magdeleine and my child, instead of me, I will willingly go to the guillotine and be indebted to you for eternity.” He kissed my hand and rose but remain bowed. The jangle of keys sounded outside the door. “Merci,” he whispered, “Mademoiselle.”

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