Chapter III. The votes
“What is your name?” asked Cimourdain.
“Gauvain,” was the reply.
Cimourdain went on with the interrogatory: –
“Who are you?”
“I am commander-in-chief of the expeditionary column of the Côtes-du-Nord.”
“Are you a kinsman or connection of the man who has escaped?”
“I am his great-nephew.”
“Are you acquainted with the decree of the Convention?”
“I see the placard on your table.”
“What have you to say in regard to this decree?”
“That I have countersigned it, and have ordered its execution; that it was I who had that placard written, to which my name is affixed.”
“Choose your defender.”
“I will defend myself.”
“You may speak.”
Cimourdain had become impassible. Only his impassibility was more like the calmness of a rock than that of a man.
For a moment Gauvain remained silent and thoughtful.
Cimourdain continued: –
“What have you to say in your defence?”
Gauvain slowly raised his head, and without looking at any one, replied: –
“This: one thing has prevented me from seeing another. A good deed, viewed too near at hand, hid from my sight hundreds of criminal actions; on the one side, an aged man, on the other, children, – all this interfered between me and my duty. I forgot the burning villages, the ravaged fields, the massacred prisoners, the wounded cruelly put to death, the women shot; I forgot France betrayed to England: I have set at liberty the country’s murderer. I am guilty. When I speak thus I seem to speak against myself, but it is not so; I am speaking in my own behalf. When he who is guilty acknowledges his fault, he saves the only thing worth saving – honor.”
“Is this all you have to say in your defence?” returned Cimourdain.
“I will add, that being the commander I should have set an example, and that you in turn as judges must offer one.”
“What example do you require of us?”
“You think it just?”
“Take your seat.”
The quartermaster, who was commissioner-auditor, rose and read, first the decree pronouncing the sentence of outlawry against the ci-devant Marquis de Lantenac; second, that of the Convention sentencing to death any one whomsoever who should aid or abet the escape of a rebel prisoner. He ended with the few lines printed at the bottom of the placard, forbidding men to “aid or abet” the rebel aforesaid, “under penalty of death,” and signed: “Commander-in-chief of the expeditionary column, GAUVAIN.” The reading ended, the auditor-commissioner again took his scat.
Cimourdain, crossing his arms, said: –
“Attention, accused, and let the public listen, look on, and keep silence. The law lies before you. It will be put to vote. The sentence will be determined by the vote of the majority. Each judge will in turn pronounce his decision aloud, in the presence of the accused; for justice has nothing to conceal.”
Cimourdain continued, –
“Let the first judge cast his vote. Speak, Captain Guéchamp.”
Captain Guéchamp seemed unconscious of the presence either of Gauvain or Cimourdain. His eyes, riveted upon the placard of the decree, as if he were absorbed in the contemplation of an abyss, were hidden by his downcast lids. He said: –
“The law is clearly defined. The judge is more and less than a man, – less than a man, inasmuch as he has no heart; more than a man, in that he wields the sword. In the year 414 of the building of the city of Rome, Manlius put his son to death because he gained a victory without waiting for orders. That infraction of discipline required an expiation. Here, the law has been violated; and the law stands higher than discipline. A man has been overcome by the emotion of pity, and the country is once more endangered. Pity may rise to the level of a crime. Commander Gauvain has connived at the escape of the rebel Lantenac. Gauvain is guilty. I vote for death.”
“Write it down, clerk,” said Cimourdain.
The clerk wrote, “Captain Guéchamp: death.”
Gauvain said in a firm voice, –
“Guéchamp, you have voted well; I thank you.”
Cimourdain continued, –
“It is the turn of the second judge. Speak, Sergeant Radoub.”
Radoub rose, and turning towards Gauvain, he made the military salute, exclaiming, –
“If that is the way things are going, then guillotine me; for upon my most sacred word of honor, I would like to have done, first, what the old man did, and then what my commander did. When I beheld that man of eighty rushing into the flames to save the three midgets, I said to myself, ‘Good man, you are a brave fellow!’ And since I hear that it was my commander who saved this old man from your beastly guillotine, by all that is holy, I say, ‘Commander, you ought to be the general; and you are a true man; and by thunder, I would give you the Cross of Saint-Louis if there were any crosses or saints or Louises left!’ Are we going to make idiots of ourselves, for pity’s sake? I should say so, if this is to be the result of winning the battles of Jemmapes, Valmy, Fleurus, and Wattignies. What! here is Commander Gauvain, who for these four months past has been driving those donkeys of Royalists to the sound of the drum, who saves the Republic by his sword, and who did something at Dol that needed brains to accomplish it; and when you have a man like that, you try to get rid of him, and instead of making him your general you propose to cut his throat! I say that it is enough to make one throw one’s self head-foremost from the Pont-Neuf! and if you, citizen Gauvain, were only a corporal instead of being my commander, I would tell you that you talked a heap of nonsense just now. The old man did well when he saved the children, you did well to save the old man; and if men are to be guillotined for their good actions, then we might as well go to the deuce; and I am sure I don’t know what it all means. There is nothing to depend upon. This must be a sort of dream, isn’t it? I pinch myself to see if I am really awake. I don’t understand. So the old man ought to have let the midgets burn alive, and my commander did wrong to save the old man’s head? See here! guillotine me; I wish you would! Suppose the midgets had died; then the battalion of the Bonnet-Rouge would have been dishonored. Is that what they wanted? If that is the case, then let us destroy one another. I know as much about politics as you do, for I belonged to the Club of the Section of the Pikes. Sapristi! we are getting to be no better than the brutes! In a word, this is the way I look at it. I don’t like such an upsetting state of affairs. Why the devil do we risk our lives? So that our chief may be put to death. None of that, Lisette! I want my chief; I must have my chief. I love him better to-day than I did yesterday. You make me laugh when you say that he is to be guillotined. We’ll have nothing of the sort. I have listened. You may say what you please; but let me tell you in the first place, it is impossible.”
And Radoub took his seat. His wound had reopened. A thin stream of blood oozed from under the bandage, from the place where his ear had been, and ran along his neck.
Cimourdain turned towards Radoub.
“You vote that the accused be acquitted?”
“I vote to have him made general,” replied Radoub.
“I ask you whether you vote for his acquittal.”
“I vote that he be made the head of the Republic.”
“Sergeant Radoub, do you, or do you not, vote for Captain Gauvain’s acquittal? Yes, or no?”
“I vote that you behead me in his place.”
“Acquittal,” said Cimourdain. “Write it down, clerk.”
Then the clerk announced, –
“One vote for death, one for acquittal: a tie.”
It was Cimourdain’s turn to vote.
He rose, took off his hat, and placed it on the table. He was no longer pale or livid; his face was the color of clay.
Had every man present been lying in his shroud, the silence could not have been more profound.
In solemn, measured tones Cimourdain said, –
“Gauvain, the accused, your case has been heard. The court-martial, in the name of the Republic, by a majority of two against one – “
He broke off; he seemed to pause. Was he still doubtful whether to vote for death or for life? The audience was breathless. Cimourdain went on, –
” – condemns you to the penalty of death.”
His face revealed the torture of an awful triumph. When Jacob in the darkness forced a blessing from the angel whom he had overthrown, he must have worn the same terrible smile.
It passed like a flash, however, and Cimourdain again became marble. He took his seat, replaced his hat on his head, and added, –
“Gauvain, you will be executed to-morrow at sunrise.”
Gauvain rose, bowed, and said, –
“I thank the court.”
“Remove the prisoner,” said Cimourdain; and at a sign from him the door of the dungeon was reopened, Gauvain entered, and it closed behind him. Two gendarmes with drawn sabres were stationed on each side of the door.
Radoub, who had just fallen senseless, was carried away.