If Robespierre was finally defeated, it was perhaps because of a woman, an obscure prophetess, whose name History has not even retained. In 1793, the “enrages”, assembled around the bloody Hebert, resolved to put an end to the Church. Their spokesman, Chaumette, a philanthropist, the inventor of a guillotine on wheels which greatly facilitated the choppers’ work, is seized with a veritable anti-Catholic frenzy. In the cemeteries, he has the crosses replaced by statues of Sleep, since the soul cannot be immortal, and he asks the “swearing” bishops to throw away the mitre, crook and ring, and to proclaim:
“All the titles of the charlatanism are deposited at the People’s Tribunal, we are regenerated!”
In Notre-Dame’s choir, he has an immense mountain in cardboard constructed. On its slopes, women with naked breasts suckle babies to make them good little soldiers of Liberty. One would look in vain for an effigy of saints. In their place, there is a monumental statue which represents the People, brandishing a club. A temple of political philosophy replaces the main-altar. One distinguishes there the busts of all of the Fathers of the Revolution…
And it’s the same thing, often more laughable, in the cathedrals of Bourges, Le Mans, Limoges, Pau and elsewhere, where prostitutes organize mad Bacchanalias.
Robespierre has more taste and spirit than these people. And a higher ambition. He doesn’t want to extirpate religious sentiment from the hearts of the French. But he wants them to embrace a new religion. That they replace the adoration of the Church God by the cult of the Supreme Being, founded on reason and fraternity.
On 18 Floreal Year II, more prosaically 7 May 1794, he has voted by the Convention, where no-one dares to contradict him any more, the Act of the birth of a religion, of which, by divine right, it could be said, he will be the High Priest. For a little more than a month. This is already much too much for the partisans of absolute atheism. Of course Hebert has just been cut in two, but his friends, among the Jacobins and even in the Convention, are searching and agitating. While Robespierre is establishing with the painter David and the poet Chenier the rites and canticles of the new religion, they are seeking how to knock this Being off its altars along with its infernal pontiff. They search with the desperate obstination of those for whom the path from the tribunal to the blade is becoming shorter every day. In the end, they will find what they are looking for…
This same day in May 1794, two men discretely climb the six storeys of a miserable-looking house in the Rue de la Contrescarpe. They are secret agents, or rather Comite de Salut Public informers. Their names are Heron and Senart, and they have been sent there by Vadier, a Montagnard Deputy who execrates Robespierre just as much as his divinity, and Barere, nicknamed “l’Anacreon de la guillotine”, because the sight of its well-filled basket inspires him to spout exquisite literary flowers. As for the two spies, you might as well say that they are frankly scoundrels: Heron is a former long-haul sailor whose men call him simply “le Chef”. Perhaps he takes his authority from the fact that he never goes anywhere without a very complete artillery: under his jacket he carries two espingoles, small pistols, and a second belt with other pistols of a more considerable calibre, plus a large dagger and a little tiny styletto. His wife, a beautiful Cancalaise to whom he is very attached, cheats on him with a First Lieutenant of the Beauce Regiment and flees with 800,000 pounds, a fortune which must surely owe nothing to his sailor’s pay. He has just introduced a request with his influent friends that has a good chance of coming to something: that of having his wife guillotined very urgently…
Senart, on the other hand, is a scrupulous person. The son of a Prosecutor of Chatellerault, he passes for noble and has even married a goddaughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Never does he ever assemble his military Commissions, which comb the provinces, without making them attend Mass first. He is meticulous in everything: elected Prosecutor of Tours, he establishes the guillotine there without delay “on a solid base in masonry”.
Heron advises his acolyte to look pious as he knocks twice, then three times, with one knuckle on the landing door.
After a fairly long moment, a servant shows her nose and asks if they have come for the Mother of God. If so, they’ll have to wait, because she isn’t up yet.
It is eleven o’clock; the two fellows take root in the dark, cramped entry. Heron reminds Senart that he is supposed to have just come from the country.
Then, a man dressed in an immense white riding-coat and carrying a toque in petit-gris fur appears. He raises an oil lamp toward the visitors’ faces and traces a sign of recognition on his forehead which Heron hastens to repeat. Before he can say a word, the servant-girl reappears and says emphatically:
“Come! Mortal men, towards immortality! The Mother of God permits you to enter!”
She precedes them into a chamber which is fairly vast, but just as dark, where she lights a triple chandelier and arranges, on some low steps, three blue and red armchairs. Then she says:
“Time advances! The Mother of God is going to appear to receive her children!”
At this moment, a military man arrives carrying his bonnet under his arm, a long blade at his side, followed by a female citizen that the man with the toque greets as being “l’Eclaireuse”. Another one comes from the rooms at the end and is called “la Chanteuse”, and again another, who is singularly beautiful and is called “la Colombe”. The “Eclaireuse” rings a bell.
“Brothers, here is your Mother!”
The curtains of an alcove open and a tall, dry, diaphanous person appears. Her head and hands are of phenomenal thinness and are shaking with senile trembling…
Senart, who has remained prudently behind, now counts a good ten people who are taking their places on stools and types of chaises longues. Those present rush to kiss Catherine Theot’s slipper with fervour, crying out:
“Glory be to the Mother of God!”
In his corner, Senart is having trouble not to laugh.
A collation is served, but only for the prophetess. Two pretty girls tenderly wipe her face and lips afterwards. In a sour, broken voice, she then pronounces these words:
“Children of God, Your Mother is among you. I am now going to purify the two profanes!…
To be continued.