Chapter I. Minos, æacus, and rhadamanthus
In the Rue du Paon there was an ale-house called by courtesy a café, and in this café a back-room which has since become famous in history. It was there that from time to time those men, so powerful and so closely watched that they dared not venture to speak to one another in public, held their secret meetings.
It was there, on the 23d day of October, 1792, that the Mountain and the Gironde exchanged their famous kiss. There, too, Garat – although he does not admit it in his memoirs – came for information during that rueful night when, after having placed Clavière in safety in the Rue de Beaune, he stopped his carriage on the Pont-Royal to listen to the tocsin. On the 28th of June, 1793, in this back-room, three men were gathered around a table. Their chairs did not touch. Each man occupied one of the three sides of the table, leaving the fourth one vacant. It was about eight o’clock in the evening. Although it was still light in the street, the back-room was dark, and a lamp – a luxury in those times – hanging from the ceiling threw its light upon the table. The first of those men was pale, young, and grave, with thin lips and a cold unsympathetic expression. There was a nervous twitching in his cheek, which must have been a drawback to the act of smiling. He was powdered and gloved, and his well-brushed and carefully-buttoned light-blue coat fitted him without a wrinkle. He wore nankeen breeches, white stockings, a high cravat, a plaited shirt-frill, and silver buckles on his shoes. Of the two other men, one was, so to speak, a giant, the other a dwarf. The tall man was negligently dressed in a loose coat of scarlet, with his neck bare, and a half-untied cravat hanging carelessly below his shirt-frill; his waistcoat was unfastened for want of buttons; he wore top-boots; and his hair, although dishevelled and bristling, still showed signs of former dressing; his wig looked very much like a mane, and his face was marked by the small-pox. Between his eyebrows was a line betokening a fierce temper, and at the corner of his mouth another, rather suggestive of a kindly nature. His lips were thick, his teeth large; he had the fist of a porter, and flashing eyes. The short personage was a yellow-looking man, who when seated had the effect of one deformed. His head was thrown back, his eyes blood-shot; livid patches covered his face; a handkerchief was tied over his straight, greasy hair; no forehead to speak of, but a monstrous and terrible mouth. He wore long trousers, slippers, a waistcoat that seemed originally to have been made of white satin, and over it a loose jacket, in the folds of which a hard straight line revealed the presence of a poniard. The first of these men was Robespierre, the second Danton, the third Marat.
They were alone in this room. Before Danton stood a bottle of wine covered with dust, – reminding one of Luther’s half pint of beer, – a cup of coffee before Marat, and papers were spread in front of Robespierre.
Near the papers stood one of those round, heavy, ridged, leaden inkstands, which will be remembered by all who were schoolboys at the beginning of this century, and a pen had been thrown down beside it. A large brass seal bearing the words “Palloy fecit,” and representing an exact miniature model of the Bastille, rested upon these papers. A map of France lay outspread in the middle of the table. Outside the door stood Marat’s watchdog, one Laurent Basse, the same who was an agent at No. 18 Rue des Cordeliers, and who on the 13th of July, nearly a fortnight after this 28th of June, was to deal a blow with a chair upon the head of a woman named Charlotte Corday, who at this time was vaguely dreaming at Caen. Laurent Basse was the proof-carrier of “L’Ami du Peuple.” On that evening, having been brought by his master to the café of the Rue du Paon, he was ordered to keep the room closed where Marat, Danton, and Robespierre were seated, and to admit no one, unless it were some person from the Committee of Public Safety, the Commune, or the Évêché.
Robespierre would not have it closed against Saint-Just, neither would Danton refuse admittance to Pache, or Marat to Gusman.
The subject of the conference, which had already lasted a long time, lay in the papers spread out on the table, which Robespierre had been reading aloud. The voices were gradually rising higher and higher. Something very like anger was developing between these three men. From without one could catch, from time to time, fragments of excited speech. In those days the custom of public tribunals seemed to have created a certain right to listen. It was at the time when the copying clerk, Fabricius Pâris, watched through the key-hole the proceedings of the Committee of Public Safety; not an act of supererogation, be it observed, for it was this very Pâris who notified Danton on the night of the 31st of March, 1794. Laurent Basse had his ear at the door of the back-room in which Danton, Marat, and Robespierre were seated; he served Marat, but he belonged to the Évêché.