Thursday, 28 September 2017

A meeting with Robespierre - recollections of Paul Barras

In Spring 1794  Paul Barras and Stanislas Fréron returned from their victorious Mission in Toulon to face the opprobrium of the Committee of Public Safety.  Many years later Barras recalled a unannounced visit that he and Fréron made at this time to Robespierre in the protective sanctuary of the Duplays.  They met a strangely unresponsive Robespierre who, in these final months, evinced, as Peter McPhee has it, "the physical toll taken by his mental distraction" (McPhee, p.194)

I had never had more than a passing glimpse of Robespierre, either on the benches or in the hall- ways of the Convention; we had never had any personal intercourse.  His frigid attitude, his scorn of courtesies, had imposed on me the maintenance of a reserve which my self-pride dictated to me opposite an equal.  Fréron placed great importance regarding our safety on this visit, so we wended our way to the residence of Robespierre.  It was a little house situated in the Rue Saint-Honoré, almost opposite the Rue Saint-Florentin.  I think it no longer exists nowadays, owing to the opening made to create the Rue Duphot just at that spot.  This house was occupied and owned by a carpenter, by name Duplay.

This carpenter, a member of the Society of Jacobins, had met Robespierre at its meetings; with the whole of his household he had become an enthusiastic worshipper at the shrine of the popular orator, and had obtained for himself the honour of securing him both as boarder and lodger.  In his leisure moments Robespierre was wont to comment on the Emile of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and explain it to the children of the carpenter, just as a good village parish priest expounds the Gospel to his flock.  Touched and grateful for this evangelistic solicitude, the children and apprentices of the worthy artisan would not suffer his guest, the object of their hero-worship, to go into the street without escorting him to the door of the National Convention, for the purpose of watching over his precious life, which his innate cowardice and the flattery of his courtiers were beginning to make him believe threatened in every possible way by the aristocracy, who were seeking to destroy the incorruptible tribune of the people.

It was necessary, in order to reach the eminent guest deigning to inhabit this humble little hole of a place, to pass through a long alley flanked with planks stacked there, the owner's stock-in-trade. This alley led to a little yard from seven to eight feet square, likewise full of planks.  A little wooden staircase led to a room on the first floor.  Prior to ascending it we perceived in the yard the daughter of the carpenter Duplay, the owner of the house.  This girl allowed no one to take her place in ministering to Robespierre's needs.  As women of this class in those days freely espoused the political ideas then prevalent, and as in her case they were of a most pronounced nature, Danton had surnamed Cornélie Copeau "the Cornelia who is not the mother of the Gracchi." Cornélie seemed to be finishing spreading linen to dry in the yard; in her hand were a pair of striped cotton stockings, in fashion at the time, and which were certainly similar to those we daily saw encasing the legs of Robespierre on his visits to the Convention.  Opposite her sat Mother Duplay between a pail and a salad-basket, busily engaged in picking salad herbs.  Two men in military garb, standing close to her in a respectful attitude, seemed to be taking part in the duties of the household, obligingly picking herbs, in order to be free to chat more unrestrainedly under the shelter of this familiar occupation. These two men, since famous in their respective positions, were, the one General Danican, who since then, on the 13th Vendemiaire, became impressed with the idea that he was a Royalist, and who perhaps still retains the belief because he is one of England's pensioners ; the other was General, later on Marshal Brune. 

Fréron and I told Cornélie Copeau that we had called to see Robespierre.  She began by informing us that he was not in the house, then asked whether he was expecting our visit. Fréron, who was familiar with the premises, advanced towards the staircase, while Mother Duplay shook her head in a negative fashion at her daughter.  Both generals, smilingly enjoying what was passing through the two women's minds, told us plainly by their looks that he was at home, and to the women that he was not. Cornélie Copeau, on seeing that Fréron, persisting in his purpose, had his foot on the third step, placed herself in front of him, exclaiming, "Well, then, I will apprise him of your presence," and, tripping upstairs, she again called out, "Tis Fréron and his friend, whose name I do not know." Fréron thereupon said, "Tis Barras and Freron," as if announcing himself, entering the while Robespierre's room, the door of which had been opened by Cornélie Copeau, we following her closely.  

Robespierre was standing, wrapped in a sort of chemise- peignoir; he had just left the hands of his hairdresser, who had finished combing and powdering his hair; he was without the spectacles he usually wore in public, and piercing through the powder covering that face, already so white in its natural pallor, we could see a pair of eyes whose dimness the glasses had until then screened from us.  These eyes fastened themselves on us with a fixed stare expressive of utter astonishment at our appearance.  We saluted him after our own way, without any embarrassment, and in the simple fashion of the period.  He showed no recognition of our courtesy, going by turns to his toilet-glass hanging to a window looking out on the courtyard, and then to a little mirror, intended, doubtless, as an ornament to his mantelpiece, but which noways set it off; taking his toilet-knife, he began scraping off the powder, mindful of observing the outlines of his carefully dressed hair; then doffing his peignoir, he flung it on a chair close to us in such a way as to soil our clothes, without apologizing to us for his action, and without even appearing to notice our presence. He washed himself in a sort of wash hand-basin which he held with one hand, cleaned his teeth, repeatedly spat on the ground right at our feet, without so much as heeding us, and in almost as direct a fashion as Potemkin, who, it is known, did not take the trouble of turning the other way, but who, without warning or taking any precaution, was wont to spit in the faces of those standing before him. 

This ceremony over, Robespierre did not even then address a single word to us.  Fréron thought it time to speak, so he introduced me, saying, " This is my colleague, Barras, who has done more than either myself or any military man to bring about the capture of Toulon.  Both of us have performed our duty on the field of battle at the peril of our lives, and we are prepared to do likewise in the Convention.  It is rather distressing, when men have shown themselves as willing as ourselves, not to receive simple justice, but to see ourselves the object of the most iniquitous charges and the most monstrous calumnies. We feel quite sure that at least those who know us as thou dost, Robespierre, will do us justice, and cause it to be done us."

Robespierre still remained silent; but Freron thought he noticed, by an almost imperceptible shadow which flitted over his motionless features, that the thou, a continuation of the Revolutionary custom, was distasteful to him, so, pursuing the tenor of his speech, he found means of immediately substituting the word you, in order to again be on good terms with this haughty and susceptible personage.  Robespierre gave no sign of satisfaction at this act of deference; he was standing, and so remained, without inviting us to take a seat.   I informed him politely that our visit to him was prompted by the esteem in which we held his political principles;  he did not deign replying to me by a single word, nor did his face reveal the trace of  any emotion whatsoever.  I have never seen anything so impassible in the frigid marble of statuary or in the face of the dead already laid to rest...

Such was our interview with Robespierre. I cannot call it a conversation, for his lips never parted; tightly closed as they were, he pursed them even tighter; from them, I noticed, oozed a bilious froth boding no good.  I had seen all I wanted, for I had had a view of what has since been most accurately described as the tiger-cat. 

Memoirs of Barras, vol. 1 (trans. 1895) p166-172

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