It was Christmas day, and clear, at least; but a bora chiara – a dry but freezing north wind – pounded the city. With its fabled cafes closed for the holiday, its sea front deserted and thrashed by that ancient death-dealer of a wind, Trieste was no place to be afoot. Yet young Father Collet, summoned to the bedside of a dying countryman – and duke – had no choice.
Hunched over the viaticum so all could see he was on a mission of pastoral care, Father Collet kept to the city’s many arcades, as much as he could, to progress to the duke’s address without stumbling. He knew the way, having already visited the expensive but hastily furnished apartment several times, as his parishioner sickened. This was surely a last visit.
As he turned one corner, he encountered, and almost bumped, Father Götz. This Austrian colleague, returning from ritual duties at nearby San Giusto, quickly recognised the nature of the Frenchman’s mission, and inquired, raising his voice to be heard over the gale, who was the parishioner to be given Last Rites.
There were no observers in that empty and gusty arcade. If there had been, an onlooker would have seen the expression on Father Collet’s face change to something like terror, as Father Götz spoke at some length, before placing an encouraging – or sympathising – hand on the younger priest’s shoulder.
The two men separated, each to his affairs.
As Father Collet waited to be admitted to the room where the duke lay expiring, the duchess was relaxed, familiar, just as she had been on the priest’s previous visits. It occurred to him now that there was even an element of flirting in her manner. The duke’s plain daughter, about the same age as his striking second wife, was genuinely grieved, on top of her customary sullenness. The duchess, however, was not affected by the impending death in the next room, and not bothering to conceal her indifference.
“Monsieur le curé, you seem greatly oppressed.”
“Indeed, he is very ill now. But you seem in dread, not just sympathetic. Is it possible someone has enlightened you as to my husband’s identity? It amused us a little that you seemed unaware – not that your attentions to the duke and my family have been less than exquisite. Nor do I expect that you will now be less attentive in your ministry.”
“I know a little more, madame. It had not occurred to me to ask of the duke’s background. Your family has only been in Trieste this past year.”
“But now you know.”
“A very little. I have lived in this international city all my life. My family came here as refugees in the Revolution, since my father was employed by a certain great family of Grenoble. I am French, I know my trade of priest, but I know little of the country, France.”
“And you were ignorant of the Duke of Otranto’s real name?”
“Till today, madame la duchesse. A chance meeting with a colleague…Others in this city know of your…your situation.”
That last quiet exclamation contained a universe of irony, bitterness, regret. Only a Frenchwoman can do so much with “Ah”.
“I think the duke will be comfortable enough to receive you now. You know my husband’s birth name, his career. I dare say you know of his history with the church – between episodes of piety.”
“The administration of the sacraments according to the prescriptions of the Church and the Holy Father is my only business, madame. The duke’s past is a concern in the context of one of those sacraments, as you know. Outside that, it can now be no concern at all.”
As Father Collet advanced to the bedside, he looked down at the old man, who lay with eyes glinting unhealthily and a wrenched smile. The diminutive duke had seemed so inconspicuous, so flaccidly pious, on previous meetings. Now, with brief study, Father Collet could see what others had described: an ugliness that was physical and more than physical in the tight features, not so much malice as a serpent’s frigid patience.
“I wish you all the joy of this season of our Saviour’s birth…Ah, monsieur le curé, that air of polite revulsion I detect on your face. From childhood on, I have encountered it every time I entered a room or met another person. It would be so strange to be liked, to be found appealing. How must that feel? I shall never know…But I sense you are now aware of the identity of this dying man who has been the beneficiary of you ministrations.”
“Monsieur le duc, it grieves me to speculate in this way, and at this time. Yet I must say it: your confessions have not been complete, have not been frank.”
“Really? What sins have I omitted? Have I frittered, debauched, gluttonised or guzzled? Deceived my wives? Neglected family? Shed one drop of blood frivolously, out of pique? Never! Ask those same questions of Talleyrand, who still lives and thrives. Ask those questions of the Corsican, who lives but does not thrive. Ask all those honorable royalists and revolutionaries whose busts will line the halls of posterity – the few that still live.”
“You know that other men’s sinning is not a concern, either for you or me, at this time.”
“Let me ask this: if ten million have perished in the struggles of these last decades, and if I was responsible for some thousand or more of those deaths, my guilt is blatant. Yet as a skilled financier, I know the only failure is in the balance. Tell me, young priest, if twenty million would have perished without me – and that is what would have happened – does that not give me twenty million minus a thousand or so, on my balance?”
“Once again, Excellency, this can be no concern of the Church, this balance.”
For a moment the old man was silent, then released a sigh that was more a hiss.
“Ah, you are simple and good, Father Collet. I’ve always found that type the hardest. One does not feel they are in the game, as it were, so one neglects to play them. This, my final exile, my one lasting defeat, resulted from the nagging of Louis XVI’s daughter: an Antigone, mourning her father, whom I had killed, after a fashion. What genius could not do, a daughter’s love achieved…
“Yes, monsieur le curé, as far as the great bulk of men are concerned, I am the very devil. I am Joseph Fouché.”
Twenty seven years before Father Collet entered that sick room, shortly after his birth in exile, France was home to much that was strange, and suddenly so.
On a radiant June morning – in the month then called Prairial – a solitary figure ascended to the open air stage. He wore a pale blue coat with red lapels, the vest was white. Beneath him milled the Paris crowd, all of whom were sporting the combination of red, white and blue, somewhere amid their clothing.
After the singing of a hymn, which had been taught and rehearsed through the streets for weeks, Maximilien Robespierre began speaking. Only those in earshot could hear his voice, but all were fascinated by the huge papier-maché sculpture and flaming torch which shared the stage with this highest citizen of the new equality. As always, Robespierre was earnest, and he needed to be so. This was the first festival of a new religion, The Cult of the Supreme Being, a religion conceived entirely by Robespierre, with elaboration by the great artist of the new equality, Jacques-Louis David. Robespierre, though an obliterator of all religious tradition, had had quite enough of atheism. Quite enough of it!
“Frenchmen, you war against kings; you are therefore worthy to honor Divinity. Being of Beings, Author of Nature, the brutalized slave, the vile instrument of despotism, the perfidious and cruel aristocrat, outrages Thee by his very invocation of Thy name. But the defenders of liberty can give themselves up to Thee, and rest with confidence upon Thy paternal bosom. Being of Beings, we need not offer to Thee unjust prayers. Thou knowest Thy creatures, proceeding from Thy hands.”
Not everyone was likely to understand that the peculiar papier-maché sculpture was meant to represent Atheism, so various educators had been appointed to circulate through the crowd to explain to as many as possible the significance of the ceremony. Now, when Robespierre was through speaking, he applied the torch to the sculpture, which burst easily into flames, as if it had been previously soaked in some colourless flammable agent.
Atheism was dead. France was once again a religious nation.
Soon he descended from the stage and put himself at the head of a procession. Immediately behind him lurched a triumphal chariot drawn by many oxen, their horns painted gold in some kind of classical pastiche. Upon the chariot were symbols of plenty, or some such thing: girls in white with baskets of fruit, matrons with roses.
It was a long time before the procession, with the massive and obligated Paris crowd following, had made its way to the Champ-de-Mars. Paris never skipped lunch in its long history – except that day. All knew that, very soon, another sort of cart would be making its way to the Place de la Révolution, with new customers for the National Razor. The wrong clothing, a display of bourgeois tendencies, some misplaced sarcasm – in Year Two of the Republic, called otherwise 1794, anything might qualify a “citizen” for the guillotine. There were plenty of good and true children of the Revolution to report aberrations, however trivial.
On the Champ-de-Mars, an artificial landscape had been constructed, of wood and cardboard. Robespierre now ascended its mock-up mountain, and was followed by the people’s representatives, members of the Convention, bearing sheaves of wheat, for reasons best understood by students of classical ritual. Then began a series of ceremonies, mixing piety and patriotism, bewildering to the now exhausted and starving crowd.
Far back in a sliver of shade, where the crowd was thinner but the ceremony was less audible, two men in broad hats were observing. Near them, a group of increasingly bored attendees was discussing something current in the daily gossip of the city: the appearances and disappearances of the man whom Robespierre most wanted dead, Joseph Fouché.
A schoolmaster, clad democratically in his workday clothes, a tricolour cockade pinned to his lapel, was expounding:
“Citizens, nobody can decide if this Fouché has been too harsh or too kind toward the rebels of Lyon…”
“I heard he lined them up like cattle and sprayed grape-shot at them. Then they were pushed over into ditches, still bleeding, some still alive,” put in a suitably dusty and cockaded plasterer, the very effigy of Labour.
“Yet all the while he was negotiating with Paris to stop the slaughter – I mean, the punishments. I heard this from one whose uncle is a conventionnel. How should Citizen Robespierre deal with such a man, who wishes to be both tyrant and popular saviour of Lyon? How many strange twists can even a serpent perform? But today we know the real cause of his disfavour. It has been necessary, as we know, to deal with royalist priests and with silent-seeming Carmelites who shelter the enemies of the people…but, as Citizen Robespierre has shown us today, men need God. Have you heard what this Fouché did? He arranged a ceremony before some mass executions, where the people were obliged to worship the body of Chalier, the local hero of their revolution. Fouché, though he had once given religious instruction, placed a bishop’s mitre on a donkey, then…”
“I heard it was a Black Mass!”
“It was near enough to that. Not that one should be sentimental about such things now…but men need a God. Citizen Robespierre is telling us clearly today that men need a God. The monster that he burnt in effigy today was Atheism. And another name for that monster is Joseph Fouché.”
“No, Citizen…just say ‘yes’. We need no bibles or mysteries for the Supreme Being. That word you uttered could shorten you by a head, though I know you meant well.”
The two men in broad hats who had been listening now moved further back, as if to find the support of a tree at this late stage of the interminable ceremony. The entire crowd now burst into the heavily rehearsed Hymn to Divinity, which, as well as being flattering to the Supreme Being, was also a sign to the masses that they would presently be able to eat and drink. Of course they would need to be careful what food they produced in public. Any game meats, being tainted with aristocracy, would need to be minced and mixed with a stew of beans or lentils.
For Citizen Robespierre, a holiday was yet another day of long, long fatigues for the Revolution.
The taller of the two broad-hatted observers, who were all but out of sight, under trees and in the growing dark, addressed his companion:
“Imbecile! Call me anything else. Call me nothing, or Joseph.”
“Imbecile! No titles, except ‘citizen’. Acquire the habit!”
“Joseph, is it true, what these gossips say? A Black Mass? Then negotiations to save those you were massacring?”
“Simon, your office is to collect information for me, not to write my biography. If you must know, all is true to a degree. My associate in Lyon was a frustrated actor, so I allowed him this theatre piece with the donkey and bishop’s mitre. If you wish to take a lesson from it, learn not to be a frustrated anything. Work at your true task, with resolve, with ruthlessness. Lyon was to be demolished, the population massacred. A waste! I demolished a little less, massacred a little less. To offset this calculated failure, I was the loudest and most radical of demagogues, ranting of the community of all goods, the evils of property; at the same time, I sent gold to Paris and troops to the frontier. I had already achieved such results in the provinces, and without a single execution, when the means were left to me. Yes, I was more efficient and productive than any of these heroes of revolution; nor could any of them, not even Robespierre, claim me as his creature. And you wonder they want me dead?”
“But how long can you last, hiding out in Paris and running the streets at night to negotiate your survival?”
“If you and the others in my pay do your police work as required, it will be a matter of weeks. This servant of the Supreme Being, this Robespierre, died today. He just hasn’t stopped breathing yet.”
“Died! But his power is now absolute! You have seen today how absolute it is.”
“Imbecile! Do you think the people of Paris will tolerate one more triumph such as today’s? Henry of Navarre was one of the few sane rulers this nation had. His utmost wish was chicken-in-the-pot, once a week, for every subject. To this day, revolution or no revolution, the bells ring out on the twelfth of May, all over southern France, for the loss of Good King Henry. Robespierre would think this a frivolous, corrupt and bourgeois notion…
“Which is why Robespierre is a dead man.”
Revived by his recollections, the duke raised himself up a little in bed, as the young priest arranged an extra cushion behind his withered shoulders.
“I leave it to you, monsieur le curé, to give the name of sin or virtue to any of my actions. But it is certain that Robespierre fell, and that I pushed him. As I ran the streets at night, not even able to visit my dying child, I did not waste a step. To each I said more or less the same: you are on a list of proscribed individuals.”
“And was that the truth, Excellency?”
“Sometimes, but achieving precision in the matter would have been a waste of resources. History records that, on 8 thermidor, after some effective fulminating – against people like me – Robespierre took his seat in the Convention and waited for the usual agreement, so he could proceed with more head-chopping of rivals. Instead, one brave voice, then another, was raised in disagreement. Next it was a chorus. Next mobs in the street. All of that took organising, Father Collet. It also required that every man see himself as Robespierre’s next victim. Coming from the Atlantic coast, I know it is futile to ask of a shark if his intentions are kind, or if he will spare you because he has dined well on your fellows. But some of my colleagues knew little of sharks, and might have been too relieved to find themselves in brief safety.
“So it was that Robespierre died, and Joseph Fouché not only lived but was popular for a while. I might have become quite the moderate then, but I knew the Revolution had a little way to go, and that the Convention was a useless instrument. I also know that there is something – everything! – about my person which people instinctively dislike. So I opted for ambiguity, for intrigue… and for a continued radicalism. Perhaps I miscalculated. The Convention soon wanted to prosecute me for what I had done in Lyon – this time for being too harsh. Very politely, I asked for time to prepare a case, which was very politely granted. Soon, there was no more Convention, but a corrupt oligarchy called a Directory, which I served by the lowest kind of drudgery, through some years of poverty.
“But without that drudgery and that poverty, without learning the arts of financial extortion from the sewer upward, I would have been ill-prepared for conflict with a far greater force than Maximilien Robespierre.
“Father Collet, dare to imagine what it must be like to be the principal servant and principal enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte!”
The years after the death of Robespierre might be called years of ferment, triumph and debacle, as the Directory crumbled, to be replaced by Consulate, to be replaced by Imperial authority.
The era might also be called the Age of Information, thanks to an extraordinary man whom nobody found extraordinary – until it was too late. One man knew that information had stupendous power and currency, provided it was complete enough, detailed enough, referenced enough, cross-referenced enough…
It paid to know that Napoleon had returned with speed from his Egyptian adventure, whether as deserter or hero, ready to be disgraced or elevated to Consul. (He was, in fact, a blatant deserter, who was nonetheless elevated to Consul.) It paid to know every secret of the Bonaparte family, especially those of that shocking new Messalina, Pauline. It paid to have Josephine, the Emperor’s spendthrift wife, in one’s pocket. It paid to know every major transaction or speculation or opportunity for graft, across an expanding empire, then far beyond, so one could pay people like Josephine more than an emperor could give. It paid to know the latest vice of a Talleyrand, the state of the pope’s digestion, the progress and quality of the tsar’s tokay shipment. And it paid to know the criminal record of of the elderly flower seller on the corner.
In short, it paid to have the widest and most intricate net of intelligence ever conceived. The human spider who had created the fantastic web caused a certain revulsion – as spiders do – but it is said that no ordinary human could have created such a system. It was – yes! – devilish.
Two members of the Chamber of Representatives waited uncertainly in the corridor. With the news of the Waterloo defeat and Napoleon’s skulking return to Paris, all men were uncertain; all movements, choices of clothing, conversations, choices of cafe – need one go on? – were uncertain. What was not uncertain?
“Monsieur, we both, as I think, have the same employer?”
“We do. My instructions are as yours. We are to make sure that Monsieur de Lafayette is admitted with all honours to the Chamber. One of the Revolution’s first heroes is to be brought from obscurity, as if he were Cincinnatus putting down his plough and returning to save Rome. Various genteel-looking soldiers and police in his chosen escort will assist us, if needed, in this theatre piece.”
“I doubt there will be difficulty. Lafayette is an elected delegate, like us. I’m sure the timing and the support will be perfect. There are no doubt delirious mobs out on the streets, waving at Lafayette’s carriage. Our employer seems born to resolve impossible situations, and to confound the vainest and greatest of the age with little more than an intrigue and some information.”
“Some information? I should say a Mont Blanc of information! But you seem almost to have affection for our employer…”
“I doubt anybody has ever liked him. Perhaps his plain first wife and their ungainly offspring. Extraordinary to think that he was a devoted family man, a model of male chastity, with all his millions, with the most beautiful women in Europe in his debt, either for money or discretion. But, no, his mere physical presence is disgusting to me. There are those who keep serpents for petting…and there are those who feel fondness for the Duke of Otranto.”
“Of course, one may feel admiration. I, for one, am not ashamed to be dealing on his behalf. More will live than die because of him, though none, in the end, will thank him, as I think. The serpent kills for survival, never for sport or glory, yet the primal curse must weigh on the low and ugly. A pretty fellow half as intelligent and a hundred times more wasteful of lives is likely to be adored in these days; never our serpentine duke!”
“But what serpent can twist so improbably as the Duke of Otranto? When Napoleon escaped from Elba, then advanced in triumph on Paris, both he and the retreating king wanted the duke dead at that awkward moment. You have heard the story? No? It’s hilarious. The king ordered his arrest, his carriage was stopped in the street. The duke blithely told his arrestors that he intended riding home. He simply drove on, leaving those officers confounded in the street. When they caught him later at his residence, he politely excused himself, saying he needed to piss, or some such thing. By the time the officers grew impatient, the duke had climbed over his garden wall by means of a ladder he had placed there at the ready…and was gone! Within a day, the king had no time to pursue him, and the arriving Napoleon soon realised that the duke was by far the most capable administrator left in the nation. Once again, he was most indispensable to those who most wanted to dispense with him.”
“Indeed, and not only was he once more Minister of Police, he was the only one the foreign powers would correspond with. While Napoleon’s messages were torn up, and his messengers arrested, I am told that the duke corresponded merrily with the likes of Metternich and Wellington. Of course, when Napoleon found one of his letters to Metternich, he almost throttled him on the spot. Instead, he awaited victory at Waterloo, before putting the Duke of Otranto in front of a firing squad.”
“The squad is now cancelled, part of Lafayette’s honour guard! But look down the corridor there. This dignified train is no doubt Lafayette and his well-selected coterie. Old Cato, reeking of republican virtue! Well, let’s do our part and help France’s illustrious American to the podium.”
“Monsieur, I feel honoured to do so. If any man has remained noble in this jumble of republic and monarchy, revolution and restoration, then Lafayette.”
“Yes, but when our employer no longer needs Lafayette?”
“He may dispose of him, of course. But he will not attract needless hatred by treating him harshly. Better to suffer at the hands of an efficient, cool-minded traitor like the duke, than fall victim to these envious, canting puritans we must call patriots. Now, let’s join the American, shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the podium.”
The two bought delegates were scarcely needed, so popular was this reappearance of the forgotten hero of two revolutions. But Joseph Fouché was not one to stint when it came to organising screaming mobs or dignified escorts! And soon, like a welcome spectre, an avenging angel, the now grey haired country gentleman was having his say before the Chamber about the distortion of revolution, the loss of liberties so hard fought…and about Napoleon Bonaparte, now lurking in Paris, hoping to scavenge new power, if not for himself, then for his son.
The words of Lafayette cut:
“By what right do you dare accuse the nation of want of perseverance in the emperor’s interest? The nation has followed him on the fields of Italy, across the sands of Egypt and the plains of Germany, across the frozen deserts of Russia. The nation has followed him in fifty battles, in his defeats and in his victories, and in doing so we have to mourn the blood of three million Frenchmen. We have done enough for him; our duty now is to save our country!”
So ended the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, with a speech from a dusty, dated, superannuated warrior. And Joseph Fouché, created Duke of Otranto by Napoleon, was not even present.
The wind had strengthened over Trieste, and was making moan right through the duke’s apartments, which had not been readied for the season, so hasty had been his transfer – belatedly allowed by Metternich – from colder places of exile. And now that he had completed much of his confession, or at least told most of his story, he seemed weaker.
“Of course, I betrayed all, once again. Once Napoleon was gone, I persuaded the Parliament to elect a Cabinet to govern – and I was elected one of its members. When Carnot, another spotless hero, got most popular votes, he assumed he would be President. He forgot the small matter of the Cabinet electing the President. The Cabinet elected me. I had made sure of that. While he revelled in his popularity, I connived for power. Carnot! A brilliant man, but what an imbecile!
“Now, what should I do with this Presidency, and this useless Cabinet and Chamber? Betray, of course! It was now clear to me, after Lafayette’s moment of grand nostalgia, that France could not fight another war. Revolution and Empire had bled and exhausted France; there was nothing left but for me to sell the government of France back to the Bourbons. Of course, I should be a Minister in that government. The price of my betrayal meant that the Bourbon kingdom of France would have at least one effective minister. In fact, Talleyrand made it two.
“Too long to recount all the details of that final shift. I arranged for troops to surround the parliament, then persuaded the idiot politicians inside to suspend their functions as a protest against the troops. They actually agreed! At the same time, I hired mobs to wave the Royal Family along, as they had waved at Lafayette shortly before. When it was clear what I had done, Carnot asked me: ‘Where shall I now go, traitor?’ I replied: ‘Wherever you wish, imbecile!'”
The young priest leaned over the bed and took hold of the duke’s hand.
“Monsieur le duc, it is necessarily a very complex business, this confession of yours. I see that now, and do not blame. But I must implore you, since you have studied and even taught within the Church, to use your own judgement to sort personal sin from mere external event, so that we may proceed to absolution. You do admit to the massacres and blasphemies in Lyon?”
“I do. And take it as sin.”
“How is it possible that you were committing these atrocities at the same time as you were negotiating with Paris to have them stopped? You will accept that this only shows consciousness of guilt? There can be no balancing here, as if one were keeping book.”
“Father Collet, the Revolution was more monstrous than you can know. I gained a reputation for terror and killing. Yet I terrified to stop greater terror, killed to stop more killing, not because my nature was compassionate but because I could not bear the waste. I calibrated, moderated my atrocities because I am efficient to a degree that astounds even me…but perhaps also for the same reasons I now seek you out. I am not excusing, merely explaining. Men must fear death, not be dead. Murder is waste. I speak as one who has murdered. My one godlike quality is efficiency. Had I been sent to Lyon to repress rebellion, find money and find troops – a sensible mission! – I could have achieved it all without shedding a drop of blood. But our nation’s revolutionary heroes, Reason’s worshipful cultists, wanted blood and ruin. Imbeciles!
“The French people will never be willing to face what was done in places like the Vendée, all in the name of freedom, equality, fraternity. They will talk of civil war, revolutionary struggles, inevitable losses and the like. But you cannot know what the peasantry of places like the Vendée suffered, merely for retaining the religious habits of centuries, for not comprehending the notions of Rousseau and Voltaire, for not echoing or aping the incomprehensible ructions in Paris.
“The scale of savagery and murder went far beyond what you have been told. When those Vendéens rose up once again during the Hundred Days, I negotiated with them, behind the Emperor’s back. More treason to lay to my charge! I said that Napoleon would be gone soon, so why bother to rebel – and die, as they certainly should. They acceded. How may lives did I save? Even I don’t know…but enough of those pious peasants had survived previous massacres to make for another fine round of killings. And they weren’t bad at doing some killing of their own, those Vendéens.
“As for Bonaparte, he was truly the genius men describe. Yet would he have gone on to the conquest of China and the Eskimos, at the cost of more millions of lives? I am Fouché, Minister for Knowing All – and I can tell you it was certain!
“I defend nothing. This north wind will have me dead within the day. I do wish absolution. I have seen too much of the Goddess Reason to believe in her. I wish absolution, and death in the bosom of the Church. That is certain…
“But I am Joseph Fouché, and nothing can be straightforward. Not even now. You must understand that. I am Fouché. The simplest thing is not simple with me. You must understand that…
“God must understand that!”