Assassins' Rage

Excerpt: Chapter One

Paris, 14 July 1789

"Citizens of Paris, beware," the man shouted. "Traitors lurk among you. Ferret them out. Slit their throats. Hang them from the nearest street lamp."

Anne shivered. He meant exactly what he said. His eyes burned with utter conviction—and hatred. He looked familiar.

On this dismal, rainy morning, Anne Cartier and her friend Sylvie de Chanteclerc were walking in the garden of the Palais-Royal and had come upon a rapt crowd of men and women. Mouths agape, dripping wet, they fixed their eyes on this middle-aged man standing on a table. His body was bent and frail, his face haggard, yet he spoke with a powerful orator's voice.

The two women edged into the crowd for a closer view. Anne whispered in Sylvie's ear. "I know that man. Hercule Gaillard. A hack writer, extortionist, and a violent critic of the royal family, their servants and defenders. He's changed, looks much older."

Sylvie nodded. "He used to work for the Duc d'Orléans, was accused of theft, and fled to London two years ago. He must have somehow regained the duke's favour."

Anne pulled her bonnet down to cover more of her face. Gaillard would remember her. She had foiled his plot to seize incriminating letters between the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, Comte Axel von Fersen.

"Let's keep a safe distance, Sylvie." They moved back a few steps and hid behind a pair of stinking butchers in bloodstained aprons, each man holding a meat cleaver.

In lurid detail Gaillard warned the crowd of impending catastrophe—the King's regiments of German and Swiss mercenaries were poised to attack the city, massacre its inhabitants, and restore despotic rule. His harangue reached a thunderous call to arms: "Aux armes, citoyens. Defend your hard-won liberty."

"Yes, with our lives," came the crowd's swift response. They flourished knives, axes, and pikes and pledged loudly to destroy all domestic traitors and foreign hired killers. The two butchers raised their cleavers and added, "Blood will flow in the streets."

Fortunately, Gaillard did not appear to notice the two "traitors" who had just joined the crowd. For safety's sake, Anne and Sylvie were wearing the tattered grey woolen gowns and simple white bonnets of unemployed domestic servants. They had even smeared streaks of grime on their hands and faces. In the present feverish climate it could be life-threatening for Anne to be recognized as a police official's wife. Palais-Royal, the Duc d'Orléans' vast privileged complex of garden and commercial property, together with his palace, had become the centre of violent opposition to the royal government and to its agents in the city.

The two women moved on to the little puppet theatre in the Camp of the Tatars, an arcade of wooden shops and stalls at the south end of the garden. Anne had put money into the theatre and occasionally produced a show on its stage.

Anne asked Sylvie, "Do you think André will dare to meet us this morning?"

"He was reluctant when I asked him last night," she replied. "He would come if he could. He's careful to conceal his spying on the duke and his agents."

Sylvie's friend André Dutoit lived in the palace. When Anne first met him two years ago, he was a clerk in the duke's art gallery. He secretly helped her investigate the gallery director's attempt to blackmail Queen Marie Antoinette. When the director left for prison, the duke put André in charge of his rich collection of paintings but without the title or income of a director. That post went to the husband of the duke's latest mistress, an elderly, ignorant gentleman who never set foot in the gallery. André was outraged but dared not show it. His family depended on his income.

"How does André manage to get information?" Anne asked Sylvie.

"He's a personable, clever man and is called upon to work throughout the palace, serving food and drink, organizing entertainments. The duke's servants gladly share palace gossip with him. He overhears conversations, even searches through the duke's trash."

Anne felt a twinge of guilt for using Sylvie to gain André's cooperation and for exposing both of them to danger. Anne's husband, Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin, provost of the Royal Highway Patrol, had asked her and Sylvie to help detect troublemakers creating turmoil in the city. They aimed to overthrow the present King and put his cousin the duke in his place.

The colonel's usual sources of information had become unreliable. As the bankrupt royal government's money dried up, some informants faded away or received better pay from the duke. Others were too frightened to work. The duke's agents had threatened to hunt them down. Several disappeared under suspicious circumstances. One of their bodies had been found floating in the river.

Midway through the morning, André finally appeared. "I can only stay a few minutes. The duke will have at least a hundred guests at his table. The palace staff is overwhelmed. The steward has ordered me to help serve meals. I must hurry back."

He took a seat on a bench facing the two women, gave Sylvie a fond glance, and nervously surveyed the room. The puppet theatre was empty at this time of day. He relaxed when he saw puppet master Benoit, Anne's friend and business partner, guarding the entrance. They could speak without fear of being interrupted or overheard.

André had news. "Some seventy soldiers have deserted from the French Guards regiment stationed in Paris. The duke is sheltering them in the palace. They have seized muskets from royal arsenals and are plotting to march on the Bastille today."

"What do they hope to gain?" asked Sylvie.

"Gunpowder. A large supply is stored there. They say they need it in order to defend the city from the King's foreign regiments, the Germans and the Swiss."

Anne was sceptical. "These rebels have no legal authority. The governor won't hand the powder over to them. They aren't strong enough to seize it. The Bastille is a fortress built of thick rock. The garrison could hold out forever if it wished."

André shook his head. "With the duke's money, the rebels plan to recruit a thousand desperate men from among the unemployed artisans in the Saint-Antoine district and assault the fortress. They'll capture it, even if a hundred men must die."

"Why does the duke support such bloody business?" Anne asked. She had met the Duc d'Orléans two years ago and found him handsome and charming, but also lecherous and untrustworthy. She instantly disliked him.

"In the palace the servants say that the fall of the Bastille would expose the King's weakness and the need for a change. Now I must hurry back."

"Before you go," Anne asked, "tell me what you think of the duke."

"Frankly, I detest him. Granted, I'm biased—he pays me poorly and shows scant appreciation for the work I do. But he's also a bad character, and he chooses agents who are no better than he. Some are ambitious, ruthless military men like Choderlos de Laclos, his secretary. Others are dissolute, venal aristocrats like Mirabeau. And a few are bitter, violent scribblers like the former medical doctor, Marat. If the duke became king, surrounded by such self-serving men, he would ruin the country."

As André rose to leave, Anne asked him, "Do you have any advice for us?"

"Yes, indeed," he replied. "Beware of two of the duke's men in particular, known only as Simon and Nicolas, both of them former soldiers, ruthless cutthroats. Simon is short, stout and clever; Nicolas is tall, lean and simple—and his right ear is cropped. They're always together. The duke's secretary, Laclos, sends for them whenever there's nasty business to do."

* * *

Later in the morning, while Anne and Sylvie were watching the servants' entrance to the palace, Simon and Nicolas came out with baskets of broadsides. As Simon hurried past the women, he gave a broadside to Anne. She stepped back to read it.

Patriots! Arm yourselves. Gather at the Bastille. We must force its governor to surrender his gunpowder. We need it to defend our liberties against the foreign mercenaries who would enslave us.

At noon, the garden's little cannon fired off twelve shots. Word came from the Bastille that the patriots had presented their demands to the governor. He had refused to surrender the gunpowder. Baskets in hand, Simon and Nicolas hurried from the Palais-Royal towards the fortress. At the same time, a small group of gentlemen left the palace, led by a tall, thin, sallow-faced man, aged about fifty.

Sylvie whispered, "The tall man is Laclos. André says he's cold as a fish, but witty. Doesn't care about fashion, or social graces, and always wears the same black coat."

Anne had heard of his novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that portrayed French aristocrats as lecherous parasites. A scandalous tale but everyone appeared to have read it.

Sylvie drew close to the group, then reported back to Anne. "They're going to join the others at the Bastille. Should we follow them?"

To Anne's eye they seemed harmless—except for the acid in their words. She glanced at the sky. The rain had stopped but dark clouds remained. "Yes," she replied. "Our only danger is getting wet. Besides, I want to visit an elderly acquaintance, Madame Agnès de Villers. She lives near the Bastille. I last saw her several months ago. She might need help."

At the Place de Bastille the men from the duke's palace melted into a large, excited crowd. Armed with knives, axes, swords, pikes, and a few muskets, they encircled the old royal fortress. Amidst the babble of voices, Anne heard cries of "death to tyrants, down with despotism, free the prisoners, give us the gunpowder."

"I think this is as far as we should go," Anne cautioned. "If the garrison refuses to surrender, the crowd will surely attack. Many will be killed."

Sylvie seemed intrigued, eager to draw closer. "I see women in the crowd. We're in common dress and won't stand out." With a little encouragement, she would have joined the crowd.

"No, it's not worth the risk," Anne insisted. "We'll visit Madame de Villers, a short walk from here. Her apartment offers a partial view of the scene. We can imagine the rest."

Anne and Sylvie made their way through a rising tide of "patriots" to the Place Royale. Once an elegant square, it now housed poor but genteel men and women like Madame de Villers. Its tall, uniform brick and stone buildings with steeply pitched slate roofs were dilapidated. Madame de Villers lived on the south-east side of the square in a garret apartment. Its dormer windows looked out towards the Bastille.

A young maid met Anne and Sylvie at the door and led them into a small study, its walls lined with shelves of books. Madame de Villers sat at a writing table by a window, a book open before her. A thin, bent woman, over sixty years old, she was unmarried and in poor health, but her mind was keen. She was remarkably learned in the arts and sciences and enjoyed good conversation. At another window, a telescope mounted on a tripod was aimed at the heavens. A sleek black cat slept on a Turkish rug in front of the fireplace.

Anne introduced Sylvie, then added, "Excuse our distressed appearance, madame. We feel safer in disguise. The streets are quite unsettled."

"Yes, I never leave the apartment—I feel like a prisoner here. Thank you for coming.

May I offer you refreshments?" Madame de Villers rang for the maid.

"That would be kind of you," Anne replied. "And how is Denise?"

Anne knew Madame de Villers' niece from a criminal investigation two years ago. The provost at Versailles had falsely accused her of murder and sentenced her to death. While the young woman languished in prison awaiting her fate, her aunt led Anne to information that exonerated her. Now married and expecting a child, she lived at Versailles and couldn't conveniently look after her aunt.

The maid returned with glasses, a pitcher of cool, sweetened cherry juice, and sweet biscuits. After serving everyone, she withdrew.

Madame de Villers sipped her drink thoughtfully for a moment, then replied, "Denise has mostly recovered from her ordeal. But she still thinks of the young married woman who shared her cell in the Conciergerie. In her nightmares Denise imagines herself as that woman burning at the stake for killing her cruel husband."

"Unfortunately, some horrors never leave us," Anne remarked, speaking from personal experience. She couldn't forget how a corrupt English magistrate had falsely convicted her of beating a man who had in fact attacked her.

The conversation had turned to the weather and other pleasant matters, when sharp sounds came through the open window. The cat scurried from the room.

"What's that?" Anne glanced towards the window.

"Gunfire," Sylvie replied. Both women rushed to the window and looked down at the street below. People had stopped whatever they were doing and gathered in agitated clusters.

"The sound is coming from a short distance east of us," said Anne. She glanced back at her hostess, Madame de Villers, whose dark, deep-set eyes had opened wide with concern.

Anne and Sylvie stared at each other and exclaimed together, "They've attacked the Bastille."

Staccato bursts of musket fire came at more frequent intervals, followed by the boom of a cannon.

"May I look through your telescope?" Anne asked.

"Let me show you how." Madame de Villers removed a cloth cover from the instrument, lowered and focused it.

Anne peered at the fortress. The upper half was visible above the intervening tiled roofs. "The Swiss are at the battlements, firing down. I can see the buttons on their red coats. The crowd is out of sight, but it's returning fire. A cloud of dark smoke is rising above the roofs. One of the fortress's outer buildings—probably the governor's house—is burning." Anne yielded her place to Sylvie.

The young woman looked into the instrument and groaned, "Imagine the carnage in the crowd. At least a thousand men and women are packed together. The Swiss can't miss hitting them."

Anne shuddered. "That's like taunting a bear. When blood flows, the crowd will turn into a raging beast."

"Close the window," said their hostess, greatly distressed. "The thought of this death and destruction is giving me a headache. Call in my maid. You should leave now for home while you can. The worst is yet to come. Homo homini lupus est."

On the way down the stairs, Anne asked Sylvie what Madame de Villers had said in Latin as they left.

Sylvie gave Anne a solemn look. "Man is a wolf onto man."

* * *

Late that afternoon back at the provost's residence, Anne learned that Lieutenant General DeCrosne, the head of the Paris police and chief magistrate for criminal cases, had called Paul to his office in the Hôtel de Police. She bathed and changed into a white silk gown. While waiting for him in the garden, she reflected on the attack on the Bastille. Compared to earlier riots, this one seemed more momentous, a direct challenge to the King's authority, perhaps the opening battle in a larger conflict.

A few hours later, Paul joined her for a light evening meal of cold fruit soup, cheese, salad and wine. When the servant had withdrawn, Paul asked Anne to recall the day's events.

"I'll begin with Monsieur Hercule Gaillard. Sylvie and I heard him holding forth in the garden of the Palais-Royal." She summarized his message and described its strong impact on his audience.

"He hasn't mellowed with time," Paul remarked. "In the present dangerous circumstances he could cause us a great deal of trouble. He hasn't forgotten that two years ago we defeated his scheme to defame the Queen. He will retaliate against us."

Anne then spoke about André Dutoit's spying in the duke's palace. The duke's men were deeply involved in the attack on the Bastille. She went on to describe what she and Sylvie could see from Madame de Villers' apartment.

Paul listened intently, encouraging her with questions.

At the end of her story, Anne asked, "And what did you learn from the lieutenant general?" She sipped her wine.

Paul reflected briefly, then said, "About the time that you and Sylvie left Madame de Villers, a group of mutinous French Guards joined the mob in front of the fortress and forced the garrison to surrender. Several guards dragged Delaunay, the Bastille's governor, to the City Hall where an assassin stabbed him to death and cut off his head. The mob approved, called it the people's justice, and paraded on the Place de Grève with the head on a pike like a trophy."

"How barbaric!" Anne exclaimed. "In defending the fortress, the governor was merely doing his duty."

"I agree. He deserved at least a fair trial."

Anne was growing depressed. "That's enough. I've lost my appetite. Let's walk in the garden among the roses."

Throughout the day a light, intermittent rain had fallen, forcing the blossoms to yield abundant fragrance. For several minutes, Anne and Paul strolled on paths among bushes heavy with moisture. Refreshed, they sat down, and resumed their conversation.

"What happens next?" Anne asked.

Paul shrugged. "The government has withdrawn the foreign troops from the city. They were fanning the insurrection rather than suppressing it."

"Where are the police and the French Guards, the royal regiment stationed in the city?"

"I asked DeCrosne. After all, he's responsible for law and order in the city. He was almost in tears. He told me there's nothing he can do. The city's police are outnumbered and utterly outmatched. The regiment of French Guards is useless or worse—either disorganized or sympathetic to the insurrection."

"Did he ask your Royal Highway Patrol for help?"

"Yes, but I declined. My troopers are loyal and dependable, but most of them are fully engaged in the countryside, clearing the area around Paris of bandits and protecting the movement of food into the markets. The few left in Paris are guarding their barracks and its weapons. I've assigned two of them to guard the provost's residence." Paul met Anne's eye. "DeCrosne will resign tomorrow."

"Then the King has lost Paris," Anne murmured ruefully. "It remains to be seen, who shall now govern the city."