The 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 being — 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.
My Eliza! 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 that 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, who jostled one another and held children aloft to afford them a better view.
The contraption — what else could one possibly call such a complicated assembly of wood, metal, and rope? — 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 had eaten 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. Women, 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, facedown. 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.
CASSANDRA’S SISTER by Veronica Bennett. Copyright © 2007 by Veronica Bennett. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA