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A Treasury of Regrets: First Chapter

1

Paris

16 Ventôse, Year V of the Republic

(March 6, 1797)


Since the twenty-fourth of Frimaire, Aristide Ravel had dreamed at least a dozen times of the guillotine.


This time it was Mathieu. He saw Mathieu as he always did, as he had last seen him, hands bound behind his back, waiting in the rain in the center of Place de la Révolution. They called it Place de la Concorde now—Harmony Square—but for those who had known Paris three or four years ago, in 1793 and ’94, it would forever remain Place de la Révolution, the place of the scaffold.


Sometimes, he thought, lying wide awake in the dark, your dreams were bizarre or grotesque, altogether divorced from reality; at other times they were a fantastic, distorted version of your everyday existence. This dream had been neither. It had played the scene as he had remembered it far too often over the course of the past three and a half years, not a word or movement out of place.


Five carts—four for the living and one for the dead. One cart bringing up the rear for Valazé, who had had the supreme impertinence to stab himself in the very hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal as the sentence of death was read out, as if denying the right of the Republic to take his life. Four carts for the living, for the twenty who had not thought to smuggle a dagger into the Tribunal, who had clung to the faint hope of acquittal.


Mathieu had known better. He had never been such a starry-eyed and earnest optimist as some of the others with whom he was to die, had always had the saving grace of a gentle cynicism and a sharp and roguish sense of humor. He was still making jokes when they sent him to his death. Though Aristide could not hear the words he spoke on the long journey beneath a bleak, chilly sky, he could see the smile on Mathieu’s face and the feverish sparkle in his eyes. Was he jesting for the sake of keeping up his companions’ courage, or his own? One or two of them smiled with him, even as the guillotine loomed into view through the fine October rain, even as the carts swayed to a halt and the executioner’s assistants called their names and sorted them into a line, the most famous toward the end, to please the crowd.


Mathieu was sixth in the line, small fry among men like Bishop Fauchet, Vergniaud, Brissot. Perhaps the careful arrangement of the order in which they were to die had been the subject of his final jest. A glance up at the guillotine, at the thing that had, with a muted rattle and thud, just devoured Sillery, and then Mathieu turned to the man beside him and said something that made them both smile for an instant.


Thud. Two.


Mathieu had not looked about him since they arrived in the square, he in the executioner’s cart, Aristide following. Then at last, perhaps sensing his time was ebbing fast, Mathieu glanced over his shoulder toward the watching crowd. Their eyes met.


Thud.


Three.


What do you say to your oldest friend when they are the last words you will ever exchange?


In the midst of the staring crowd, of course, and with fifteen feet between them, they could say nothing. Perhaps there was nothing to be said. Aristide saw Mathieu’s lips move, murmuring a few words; then Mathieu merely gave him a quick grin, and the slightest of nods, and turned away, but not before Aristide saw him swallow hard.


Four.


A pool of blood had already collected under the scaffold and a muddy crimson rivulet trickled away between the cobbles, dissolving beneath the pattering rain.


And suddenly Mathieu was at the head of the line, and above him an assistant executioner was guiding a man up the steep steps while another heaved a bucketful of water over the seesaw-plank. A third, with the list in his hand, approached Mathieu, reached for his elbow.


Aristide turned away, suddenly tasting acid bile at the back of his throat, and shouldered his way past those behind him. A moment later he heard the blade fall once again—five—and he increased his pace, running almost through the fringes of the crowd toward the stony road that led out to the Champs-Élysées, anything to avoid hearing the sound of the blade as it fell for the sixth time.


He had walked blindly for an hour through the meadows until he was nearly at the barrier, as the rain thinned out to a drizzle. It was only then that he had wondered if, at the last instant, Mathieu had glanced over his shoulder again, searching for a friend, and found no one.

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