Written by Daniel Sharp
France, 27 December, 1793
As darkness encroached and the air grew colder, a passer-by on a certain country road, would – if he or she looked hard enough – spot the outline of a small, isolated cottage in the distance. Surrounded by fields lit by the emerging moonlight, whose blades of grass glinted with frost, the cottage would appear perfectly normal. Indeed, that was the point. The common sight of a cottage in a field in France would hardly raise eyebrows, and this is what Louis Francis – a former Count with wealth, abundance and a reputation for lavishness – had reasoned a few months previously when he first took residence there.
His flight from his ancestral home had been undramatic; Louis may have been a noble who gorged on wine, meat and other fineries, but he also was astute, pragmatic and intelligent. His advice had been ignored by the now deceased king to the latter’s detriment many a time in the preceding decades. Thus, Louis had realised that the time had come to flee – the Revolution was becoming increasingly voracious in its appetite, and it would not be long until he was caught in its maw. With a small band of loyalists, he fled across the country and took up residence in this little abandoned cottage. Alas, he had been unable to get abroad or reach the Vendée – where royalist rebellion was rampant – but he was at least safe and comfortable, even if his usual standard of living had been severely reduced.
After a few months of hiding and lamenting over his fortunes, Louis had formulated a plan. He and his small band had begun to produce anti-Revolutionary propaganda and were disseminating it as widely as possible. They stirred up anti-Revolutionary fervour as much as they could, using Louis’ connections to their advantage. Several uprisings had broken out and governmental figures had been attacked. Louis was in his sixties, yet the fight had not left him – not yet. He may not have reached the Vendée, but he would fight against the Revolutionary abomination in any way he could.
Now Louis sat on a cold winter’s night, next to the cottage’s fireplace and wrapped in as many blankets as he could find, with maps and papers laid out in front of him. In the other seats, his allies sat discussing and planning their next move. They had just received the news of the Revolutionary victory at Toulons, achieved by some young Corsican upstart, and were chewing over this unwelcome event. It had only been a few months, yet it felt like they had been waging this campaign for years. Perhaps it was his old age catching up with him.
‘One of my spies has caught news that a man close to that rat Robespierre is coming to the area soon to investigate the spate of rebellions – should we reign in our actions?’ At this question from his son, Louis snapped his head around.
‘What? Don’t be so stupid! What an opportunity! So far, all we have done is sit here, holed up, inciting stupid peasants to attack a few nonentities. We have a great chance here to kill a close ally of the usurper! We will take this opportunity and stick a knife in the heart of this barbaric regime while we can.’
Louis’ son looked unconvinced and slightly scared – Louis had always thought he lacked stomach – but the rest of the group murmured in agreement. And so, the night passed into morning while the outcasts spoke for hours, planning how best to exploit this opportunity.
In a village near the cottage, the plan was put into action. The conspirators were there in person for this event. They had received intelligence that Robespierre’s man was coming via carriage to carry out his investigations and would begin in this very village. He would be accompanied by a few guards, but in his arrogance and stupidity, would not be well defended. Louis sat in a tavern on the edge of the village square, watching out of the window. His allies were placed around the square and were ready to pounce, kill the guards and drag the official into the cottage to be questioned, tortured, and murdered.
Louis was nervous. Old age, he thought, cursing himself. This was a risk – but these were desperate times. This had to be done. The barbarians had to be taught a lesson. Calm yourself, thought the Count, and so he relaxed, sipped his drink and thought about how he would avenge his friends who had been dragged from their beds and guillotined.
Some movement across the square caught Louis’ eyes – the time had come. A carriage drew into the square and stopped by the fountain. Three guards emerged, followed by a fat little man with a vicious face. Louis’ grip on his cup hardened as the seconds ticked by.
It began. With swords and pistols, his allies attacked the guards, overwhelming them quickly. They grabbed the official just as Louis left the tavern with his hand on his pistol, and he walked towards the detained man. He couldn’t conceal his excitement – how perfectly the plan had gone! – and he smiled at his prisoner.
But it was a brief moment. Without warning, a swarm of soldiers rode into the square and Louis quickly realised that it had been a trap – a ruse to lure him out. Louis’ men put up a valiant fight and the old man managed to shoot down a few soldiers himself, but they had to admit defeat in the end. The little man had wriggled free and, smiling coldly, clapped Louis’ son on the back. ‘You will be rewarded handsomely for this,’ he claimed, glancing back at Louis whose face had fallen and whose heart had split in two.
The Count realised the truth. His son had reluctantly planted information to avert any possible suspicion, and he had led his allies into a trap to save himself. Louis stared at his son, who held his gaze. Communication passed between them in this way; Louis realised that his son had been too scared and had been willing to betray them if it meant an easy way out. The conspirators were chained and led away, and Louis’ only consolation was the knowledge that his son would meet the same fate. He had heard the little man whisper to a soldier to order the detention of the betrayer along with the rest.
We all die together, Louis thought, even traitors are betrayed by their allies. As he was bundled into a carriage, the old man mourned the loss of the certainties of his old world.