PARIS: SEPTEMBER, 1792
A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human
only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage
creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and
of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the
West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant
raised an undying monument to the nation's glory and his own vanity.
During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been
kept busy at its ghastly work: all that France had boasted of in the
past centuries, of ancient names, and blue blood, had paid toll to her
desire for liberty and for fraternity. The carnage had only ceased at
this late hour of the day because there were other more interesting
sights for the people to witness, a little while before the final
closing of the barricades for the night.
And so the crowd rushed away from the Place de la Greve and
made for the various barricades in order to watch this interesting and
It was to be seen every day, for those aristos were such
fools! They were traitors to the people of course, all of them, men,
women, and children, who happened to be descendants of the great men
who since the Crusades had made the glory of France: her old
NOBLESSE. Their ancestors had oppressed the people, had crushed
them under the scarlet heels of their dainty buckled shoes, and now
the people had become the rulers of France and crushed their former
masters--not beneath their heel, for they went shoeless mostly in
these days--but a more effectual weight, the knife of the guillotine.
And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed
its many victims--old men, young women, tiny children until the day
when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful
But this was as it should be: were not the people now the
rulers of France? Every aristocrat was a traitor, as his ancestors
had been before him: for two hundred years now the people had sweated,
and toiled, and starved, to keep a lustful court in lavish
extravagance; now the descendants of those who had helped to make
those courts brilliant had to hide for their lives--to fly, if they
wished to avoid the tardy vengeance of the people.
And they did try to hide, and tried to fly: that was just the
fun of the whole thing. Every afternoon before the gates closed and
the market carts went out in procession by the various barricades,
some fool of an aristo endeavoured to evade the clutches of the
Committee of Public Safety. In various disguises, under various
pretexts, they tried to slip through the barriers, which were so well
guarded by citizen soldiers of the Republic. Men in women's clothes,
women in male attire, children disguised in beggars' rags: there were
some of all sorts: CI-DEVANT counts, marquises, even dukes, who
wanted to fly from France, reach England or some other equally
accursed country, and there try to rouse foreign feelings against the
glorious Revolution, or to raise an army in order to liberate the
wretched prisoners in the Temple, who had once called themselves
sovereigns of France.
But they were nearly always caught at the barricades, Sergeant
Bibot especially at the West Gate had a wonderful nose for scenting an
aristo in the most perfect disguise. Then, of course, the fun began.
Bibot would look at his prey as a cat looks upon the mouse, play with
him, sometimes for quite a quarter of an hour, pretend to be
hoodwinked by the disguise, by the wigs and other bits of theatrical
make-up which hid the identity of a CI-DEVANT noble marquise or count.
Oh! Bibot had a keen sense of humour, and it was well worth
hanging round that West Barricade, in order to see him catch an aristo
in the very act of trying to flee from the vengeance of the people.
Sometimes Bibot would let his prey actually out by the gates,
allowing him to think for the space of two minutes at least that he
really had escaped out of Paris, and might even manage to reach the
coast of England in safety, but Bibot would let the unfortunate wretch
walk about ten metres towards the open country, then he would send two
men after him and bring him back, stripped of his disguise.
Oh! that was extremely funny, for as often as not the
fugitive would prove to be a woman, some proud marchioness, who looked
terribly comical when she found herself in Bibot's clutches after all,
and knew that a summary trial would await her the next day and after
that, the fond embrace of Madame la Guillotine.
No wonder that on this fine afternoon in September the crowd
round Bibot's gate was eager and excited. The lust of blood grows
with its satisfaction, there is no satiety: the crowd had seen a
hundred noble heads fall beneath the guillotine to-day, it wanted to
make sure that it would see another hundred fall on the morrow.
Bibot was sitting on an overturned and empty cask close by the
gate of the barricade; a small detachment of citoyen soldiers was
under his command. The work had been very hot lately. Those cursed
aristos were becoming terrified and tried their hardest to slip out of
Paris: men, women and children, whose ancestors, even in remote ages,
had served those traitorous Bourbons, were all traitors themselves and
right food for the guillotine. Every day Bibot had had the
satisfaction of unmasking some fugitive royalists and sending them
back to be tried by the Committee of Public Safety, presided over by
that good patriot, Citoyen Foucquier-Tinville.
Robespierre and Danton both had commended Bibot for his zeal
and Bibot was proud of the fact that he on his own initiative had sent
at least fifty aristos to the guillotine.
But to-day all the sergeants in command at the various
barricades had had special orders. Recently a very great number of
aristos had succeeded in escaping out of France and in reaching
England safely. There were curious rumours about these escapes; they
had become very frequent and singularly daring; the people's minds
were becoming strangely excited about it all. Sergeant Grospierre had
been sent to the guillotine for allowing a whole family of aristos to
slip out of the North Gate under his very nose.
It was asserted that these escapes were organised by a band of
Englishmen, whose daring seemed to be unparalleled, and who, from
sheer desire to meddle in what did not concern them, spent their spare
time in snatching away lawful victims destined for Madame la
Guillotine. These rumours soon grew in extravagance; there was no
doubt that this band of meddlesome Englishmen did exist; moreover,
they seemed to be under the leadership of a man whose pluck and
audacity were almost fabulous. Strange stories were afloat of how he
and those aristos whom he rescued became suddenly invisible as they
reached the barricades and escaped out of the gates by sheer
No one had seen these mysterious Englishmen; as for their
leader, he was never spoken of, save with a superstitious shudder.
Citoyen Foucquier-Tinville would in the course of the day receive a
scrap of paper from some mysterious source; sometimes he would find it
in the pocket of his coat, at others it would be handed to him by
someone in the crowd, whilst he was on his way to the sitting of the
Committee of Public Safety. The paper always contained a brief notice
that the band of meddlesome Englishmen were at work, and it was always
signed with a device drawn in red--a little star-shaped flower, which
we in England call the Scarlet Pimpernel. Within a few hours of the
receipt of this impudent notice, the citoyens of the Committee of Public
Safety would hear that so many royalists and aristocrats had succeeded
in reaching the coast, and were on their way to England and safety.
The guards at the gates had been doubled, the sergeants in
command had been threatened with death, whilst liberal rewards were
offered for the capture of these daring and impudent Englishmen.
There was a sum of five thousand francs promised to the man who laid
hands on the mysterious and elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.
Everyone felt that Bibot would be that man, and Bibot allowed
that belief to take firm root in everybody's mind; and so, day after
day, people came to watch him at the West Gate, so as to be present
when he laid hands on any fugitive aristo who perhaps might be
accompanied by that mysterious Englishman.
"Bah!" he said to his trusted corporal, "Citoyen Grospierre
was a fool! Had it been me now, at that North Gate last week. . ."
Citoyen Bibot spat on the ground to express his contempt for
his comrade's stupidity.
"How did it happen, citoyen?" asked the corporal.
"Grospierre was at the gate, keeping good watch," began Bibot,
pompously, as the crowd closed in round him, listening eagerly to his
narrative. "We've all heard of this meddlesome Englishman, this
accursed Scarlet Pimpernel. He won't get through MY gate,
MORBLEU! unless he be the devil himself. But Grospierre was a fool.
The market carts were going through the gates; there was one laden
with casks, and driven by an old man, with a boy beside him.
Grospierre was a bit drunk, but he thought himself very clever; he
looked into the casks--most of them, at least--and saw they were
empty, and let the cart go through."
A murmur of wrath and contempt went round the group of
ill-clad wretches, who crowded round Citoyen Bibot.
"Half an hour later," continued the sergeant, "up comes a
captain of the guard with a squad of some dozen soldiers with him.
`Has a car gone through?' he asks of Grospierre, breathlessly. `Yes,'
says Grospierre, `not half an hour ago.' `And you have let them
escape,' shouts the captain furiously. `You'll go to the guillotine
for this, citoyen sergeant! that cart held concealed the CI-DEVANT
Duc de Chalis and all his family!' `What!' thunders Grospierre,
aghast. `Aye! and the driver was none other than that cursed
Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.'"
A howl of execration greeted this tale. Citoyen Grospierre
had paid for his blunder on the guillotine, but what a fool! oh!
what a fool!
Bibot was laughing so much at his own tale that it was some
time before he could continue.
"`After them, my men,' shouts the captain," he said after a while,
"`remember the reward; after them, they cannot have gone far!'
And with that he rushes through the gate followed by his dozen soldiers."
"But it was too late!" shouted the crowd, excitedly.
"They never got them!"
"Curse that Grospierre for his folly!"
"He deserved his fate!"
"Fancy not examining those casks properly!"
But these sallies seemed to amuse Citoyen Bibot exceedingly;
he laughed until his sides ached, and the tears streamed down his
"Nay, nay!" he said at last, "those aristos weren't in the
cart; the driver was not the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
"No! The captain of the guard was that damned Englishman
in disguise, and everyone of his soldiers aristos!"
The crowd this time said nothing: the story certainly savoured
of the supernatural, and though the Republic had abolished God, it had
not quite succeeded in killing the fear of the supernatural in the
hearts of the people. Truly that Englishman must be the devil himself.
The sun was sinking low down in the west. Bibot prepared himself
to close the gates.
"EN AVANT The carts," he said.
Some dozen covered carts were drawn up in a row, ready to
leave town, in order to fetch the produce from the country close by,
for market the next morning. They were mostly well known to Bibot,
as they went through his gate twice every day on their way to and from
the town. He spoke to one or two of their drivers--mostly women--and
was at great pains to examine the inside of the carts.
"You never know," he would say, "and I'm not going to be
caught like that fool Grospierre."
The women who drove the carts usually spent their day on the
Place de la Greve, beneath the platform of the guillotine, knitting
and gossiping, whilst they watched the rows of tumbrils arriving with
the victims the Reign of Terror claimed every day. It was great fun
to see the aristos arriving for the reception of Madame la Guillotine,
and the places close by the platform were very much sought after.
Bibot, during the day, had been on duty on the Place. He recognized
most of the old hats, "tricotteuses," as they were called, who
and knitted, whilst head after head fell beneath the knife, and they
themselves got quite bespattered with the blood of those cursed aristos.
"He! la mere!" said Bibot to one of these horrible hags,
"what have you got there?"
He had seen her earlier in the day, with her knitting and the
whip of her cart close beside her. Now she had fastened a row of
curly locks to the whip handle, all colours, from gold to silver, fair
to dark, and she stroked them with her huge, bony fingers as she
laughed at Bibot.
"I made friends with Madame Guillotine's lover," she said with
a coarse laugh, "he cut these off for me from the heads as they rolled
down. He has promised me some more to-morrow, but I don't know if I
shall be at my usual place."
"Ah! how is that, la mere?" asked Bibot, who, hardened soldier
he was, could not help shuddering at the awful loathsomeness of this
semblance of a woman, with her ghastly trophy on the handle of her whip.
"My grandson has got the small-pox," she said with a jerk of
her thumb towards the inside of her cart, "some say it's the plague!
If it is, I sha'n't be allowed to come into Paris to-morrow."
At the first mention of the word small-pox, Bibot had stepped
hastily backwards, and when the old hag spoke of the plague,
he retreated from her as fast as he could.
"Curse you!" he muttered, whilst the whole crowd hastily
avoided the cart, leaving it standing all alone in the midst of the
The old hag laughed.
"Curse you, citoyen, for being a coward," she said. "Bah!
what a man to be afraid of sickness."
"MORBLEU! the plague!"
Everyone was awe-struck and silent, filled with horror for the
loathsome malady, the one thing which still had the power to arouse
terror and disgust in these savage, brutalised creatures.
"Get out with you and with your plague-stricken brood!"
shouted Bibot, hoarsely.
And with another rough laugh and coarse jest, the old hag
whipped up her lean nag and drove her cart out of the gate.
This incident had spoilt the afternoon. The people were
terrified of these two horrible curses, the two maladies which nothing
could cure, and which were the precursors of an awful and lonely
death. They hung about the barricades, silent and sullen for a while,
eyeing one another suspiciously, avoiding each other as if by
instinct, lest the plague lurked already in their midst. Presently,
as in the case of Grospierre, a captain of the guard appeared
suddenly. But he was known to Bibot, and there was no fear of his
turning out to be a sly Englishman in disguise.
"A cart,. . ." he shouted breathlessly, even before he had
reached the gates.
"What cart?" asked Bibot, roughly.
"Driven by an old hag. . . . A covered cart. . ."
"There were a dozen. . ."
"An old hag who said her son had the plague?"
"Yes. . ."
"You have not let them go?"
"MORBLEU!" said Bibot, whose purple cheeks had suddenly
become white with fear.
"The cart contained the CI-DEVANT Comtesse de Tourney and
her two children, all of them traitors and condemned to death."
"And their driver?" muttered Bibot, as a superstitious shudder
ran down his spine.
"SACRE TONNERRE," said the captain, "but it is feared that
it was that accursed Englishman himself--the Scarlet Pimpernel."
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