Fiction: Liberté, Egalité, Tranquillité

Paris, 8th Thermidor, Year II
‘Behold! The head of a counter-revolutionary who would have us bend our knees to a monarchical tyrant!’

To his eyes, Martin Colbert resembled a peacock garbed in his blue and red tailcoat and hat. The matching ribbons placed sporadically on his person added to this effect. Colbert never seemed to walk like an average Parisian but bounce with every step like some iridescent rabbit. As he watched, the lawyer-turned-judge bounced on his heels making the ribbons comically dance up and down; it would almost be laughable if Colbert had not executed over 50 people over the last year. All Louis the innkeeper had ever done was say that the Jacobins had made it difficult to make a few livres extra because they had ensured that all his regulars had lost their throats. His head now being forced onto a pike reiterated how he now had emulated his regulars!

‘Constables!’ Colbert bounded ecstatically towards them, the crowd parting like the Red Sea for Moses before him. ‘We have plucked another weed from the garden of France. Vive la Nation! These aristocrats and traitors wish to befoul our beloved revolution but we shall stop them!’

‘Will you be attending the Convention, Monsieur Colbert?’ Emile asked from beside him. He could feel his heart palpitate. This could go one of two ways and he prayed to God, and even to the Supreme Being, that he would not see Emile up on the guillotine for asking such a question. Someone heard his prayer as Colbert burst into a smile.

‘Why of course! I must make sure that Robespierre knows that the people of France are behind him. Robespierre a tyrant? A perfectly absurd accusation. Now gentlemen, I must make my way to the Convention.’

With that Colbert bounded down the twisting street with his brightly ordained ribbons flapping in the wind. Emile ambled off into the other direction, so he followed his friend. Hanging from the wooden buildings either side of them were red, white and blue banners flapping lazily in the wind. Each house had tried to outdo the last by sewing revolutionary slogans into the cloth or had tried to hang multiple banners simultaneously out of the same window. It was either outdo one another or face a close shave with the National Razor. It was strange to think that just five years beforehand they were shouting ‘Vive le Roy!’ with the rest of the city that was not starving. Now it was a battle to prove who was the most revolutionary.

‘We have a habit of stumbling across executions,’ Emile gave a gravelly laugh.

He had not noticed that they had arrived at Place de la Révolution. Still as glamorous as it was under the royalty, it screamed beauty and elegance. Only the rotting heads on pikes fouled the image of grandeur. Two crows as black as the night were fighting over an eye which they had plucked out of one of the skulls. ‘The Terror’ was aptly named. He had wanted an end to tyranny; he wanted a France where he could say what he wanted to say, and eat without fear that it would be his last meal for the week. Did Louis the innkeeper really want despotism for having a little jape at Robespierre’s expense? Was that one little jape enough to warrant a trip to the guillotine just around the corner from where the other Louis lost his head?

‘Robespierre will lose his head,’ Emile said suddenly.

‘What?’ he could not believe it. Saying that out loud, let alone thinking it, would earn you a summary execution. ‘Have you lost leave of all your senses, Emile?’

‘Robespierre’s been accused of tyranny. So were Louis, Marie Antoinette, Danton and the Girondins. Notice a pattern?’

Two days later
He cringed at Robespierre’s screams. It was like a knife piercing his skin, going straight through to his soul. The executioner could have at least kept his bandage on; a thin strip of fabric would not stop the sharp blade of a guillotine. He was relieved when he heard the thud of the blade and then silence.

‘Told you,’ Emile was neither smug nor sullen. What they had just saw had been commonplace for the last year or so. Out of the other 16 executed in front of the Palace that day, Martin Colbert was the fifth to feel the guillotine’s kiss. Still wearing his array of blue and red ribbons he hopped towards his fate. With one thud his body bounced for the last time.

‘Do you think this is all over?’ he asked Emile. Surely now the Terror must have claimed its final victims. An end to the bloodshed must be in sight.

‘Hard to say, my friend. If I am to be brutally honest, I think we will only see an end to this when someone with true power surrounding them takes the country’s reigns.’

Would that ever happen?

Paris, 2nd December, 1804
‘Papa, put me on your shoulders. I cannot see!’ Anthony cried up to him. Smiling, he lifted his son up above the cheering throngs of the crowd. Virtually everyone was waving handkerchiefs and flags in front of the majesty that was Notre Dame. ‘Remember what you asked me, about ten years ago, when they executed Robespierre?’ Emile whispered into his ear, although it was more like a shout thanks to the rapturous applause of the crowd. He nodded. How could he forget that day?

The crowd started screaming praise at even a higher volume. The doors to the cathedral had thundered open with a choir singing with all their hearts. Ahead of a throng of people was a man in a white velvet vest, a crimson tunic and a golden laurel upon his brow. He smiled and waved at the crowd. The People’s Emperor.

‘I told you so,’ Emile laughed.

As Anthony laughed on his shoulders, he remembered the last 20 years. Had they substituted one tyrannical terror for another?

Fiction: The Eclipse

Walking through the cotton fields was one of Sarah’s favourite things to do. Her mother would take her every afternoon after lunch as they were walking to the village and Sarah always looked forward to it.

But one day, Mama would not take her.

‘We’ll go tomorrow. Today, I have to make sure the laundry is done.’

Even at the tender age of four, Sarah knew her mother was lying. But what she didn’t know or understand was that her mother was terrified. That morning the family of a plantation owner only a few miles away had been found dead in their home. Rumours were that slaves had risen in rebellion, and subsequent investigations found other plantation owners dead in their houses. Warned by local officials to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, Sarah’s mother was not willing to risk the walk into town.

As night fell, Sarah watched her parents pacing round and round the house, double- and triple-checking every lock on every door and window. Sarah trailed behind her father, too scared to be more than a few feet from him. She dared not ask what was happening or why her parents were so anxious.

She was taken upstairs soon after and put to bed. Her mother lingered longer than usual but eventually, she left Sarah to sleep. Night-time was usually a magical time for Sarah; she would watch the moon rise from her bed. But not tonight.

Sarah was just dozing off when she heard a loud bang outside. She jumped from her bed and peered out the window. In the dim light, she caught a flash of light on metal and hurried back to bed, pulling the covers up round her head, sobbing in terror.

There was a scream, followed by a gunshot. Footsteps on the stairs. They were coming for her. She slid out of bed. Taking her teddy bear with her, she climbed into the fireplace. There was a recess just big enough to fit her tiny body. It was where she hid from her mama when she was in trouble.

The door handle to her room squeaked. Footsteps came nearer.

‘The bed’s been slept in!’

‘Search the room!’

These exclamations were followed by loud crashes of furniture being tossed aside. Sarah pressed herself further into the recess, trying to stay as quiet as she could. She wanted her mama!

‘We don’t have time for this!’

Sarah heard the men leave. She slid down the wall and curled up in a ball on the floor.

She didn’t know how long she stayed there. Time slipped into eternity. She would have stayed there forever, had her uncle, who had come to check his sister had not been affected by the rebellion, not remembered that Sarah liked to hide in her fireplace. He heard her ragged breathing the moment he opened her door. He lifted her out of the recess, her trembling body, cold and stiff. He carried her downstairs to the awaiting officials. Sarah peered out. A limp hand was visible from behind the door, lying in a pool of blood.

Sarah tried to wriggle free but her uncle had anticipated this. So instead she screamed, ‘Mama!’, before she was bundled out of the house.

*****

I still remember that day vividly. I don’t think you can ever get over something like that. I was orphaned that day. My father’s body was found by the door from the servants’ quarters. He had obviously been trying to hold the rebels back.

Eventually, they found Nat Turner, the leader. And hanged him. It brings me no comfort. But his capture did offer something of an explanation: the inspiration for the rebellion, he said, was an eclipse.

Fiction: Mouse Trap Farm

Dan Greenwood

Captain FAC Scrimger, 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), just outside Yrpres: 25th April 1915.

‘SIR, the last ambulance has left for Wietje!’ a messenger called through the stable door.

Blast. I uttered a profanity and wiped my brow with the back of my hand, muddling blood and God-knows-what-else with the sweat and dirt that had accumulated over the last six hours. I dared not look up. I couldn’t look at the row of casualties coughing, bleeding, leaning against the stable walls. I couldn’t look any member of my beleaguered team in the eye at this point. I had no plans, no course of action, no thoughts. Just exhaustion. Reaching back to the heavy workshop table, I pulled myself in to look at the patient lying there. His abdomen was riddled with holes; my men, with frantic hands and scraps of shirt fabric and hessian sack, battled to stop the relentless flow of red. I pushed my already blood-soaked sleeve up and reached into the fray, feeling the hot spurts of blood under my fingers as I tried to think of a way to help the poor boy. For boy is all he was. Turning to look at his face, I could see the terror etched in the lines and wrinkles he was too young to have, the horror of war mirrored in his eyes; I could tell then those eyes did not see me back. I closed my eyes and shook my head, and as I did, it was as if all the guttural sounds of war returned to my ears. The smell of sweat, blood, ash, smoke and death returned to my nostrils, the vibration of distant shellfire rattled upwards through my feet; I swear I could almost taste the battle.

‘He’s gone,’ I whispered. The corporal next to me pushed me out of the way and clutched the boy’s face with both hands, then with a sudden gentleness, closed the two green eyes, those two, terrified eyes. The barn shook violently and dust cascaded down on us, the shellfire seeming closer than ever.

‘Heads down!’ the yell from across the farmyard.

Men dived in all directions as a shell smashed into the adjacent building. As I pushed myself up off the floor my ears were ringing, and I coughed and spluttered on the dusty air. I stumbled for the door of the stable and peered out into the chaos beyond: men scurrying frantically to collect their equipment in preparation to evacuate the farmyard. The barn next to the stable had been completely levelled by the most recent bombardment. We weren’t evacuating fast enough. I could see the men were shaken by the proximity of the shellfire, and were clearly flagging, emotionally and physically, from days of fighting and the ever-advancing enemy.

‘Ho!’ I grabbed a passing soldier, pulling him in to the stable wall, ‘Get behind the farmhouse; there’s a horse in the paddock there, I need him bridled and ready to move this cart, we have to get these casualties out of here.’ The man was trembling and staring straight past me, not hearing what I’d said.

‘Look at me. Look in my eyes,’ I said, gripping his shoulder.

The soldier was still quaking.

‘What’s your name, Private?’

‘John, sir.’

‘John, did you hear what I said? Go and ready that horse. We are getting the wounded into the cart, and we are walking up that road together, do you understand me?’

John stared at me, suddenly still.

‘We are all walking up that road together, and no one else is going to die today.’

‘Sir,’ John acknowledged, ‘Thank you, sir.’

He ran around to the south side of the farmhouse, and I turned back to face into the stable to see Corporal Anderson helping a bandaged soldier to his feet.

‘Corporal, help these men round to the cart behind the farmhouse, leave as soon as you are ready.’

‘Sir,’ Corporal Anderson stood up smartly. I smiled briefly. Corporal Anderson was invaluable in these situations, and I trusted him to get the wounded out of here without further input from me. Facing back into the farmyard, I took a deep breath:

‘Men! On me!’ The remaining twelve able-bodied soldiers gathered round, ‘Corporal Anderson is assisting the last of the wounded on to the cart-,’ I was stopped by the sound of shells crashing into the field just to the east of the farmyard, ‘-some urgency required?’ There were scattered chuckles at my sarcasm. ‘You are to escort the wounded to Wietje, where we are to be relieved. Double-time please.’ The men vocalised their understanding, and hurried off to help Corporal Anderson.

I ducked down and headed round the North side of the stable. In the distance I could see a line of bayonets, advancing slowly across the uneven field. Time to go. As I went to go back to the farmyard to leave with the cart, I noticed a figure slumped against the wall.

‘Captain MacDonald?!’ I called. A grunt in reply. I hurried over, to find his left leg covered in blood, a makeshift tourniquet fastened around his thigh. ‘We need to get you out of here, Mac!’ He looked up, with a face as white as a sheet.

‘Leave me Frank… I can’t walk.’

‘I promised the men earlier, Mac, we’re all walking out of here together, no-one else will die here today.’ I dropped my shoulder and, hauling Captain MacDonald up onto my back, set off into the farmyard. The farmhouse was ablaze now, and I could see the cart, a few hundred yards away down the Wietje road.

It was going to be a long walk.

Historical Note
Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger received the Victoria Cross for his actions in assisting the wounded at ‘Mouse Trap Farm’, he carried Captain MacDonald onto the road and as far as he could physically manage, until they were aided and transported to Wietje. At times of heavy shelling, Captain Scrimger used his own body as a shield for Captain MacDonald. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades were relieved by British units on 25 April, however on 26 April, the 2nd Brigade were ordered back to the line, which they did with depleted numbers and days of battle weariness. Nelson’s History of the War devotes a lengthy passage to the fine leadership of the Canadian officers.

Image: Bob Dilworth