Oh, glorious revolution. The streets were alive with the sound of clashing swords and unrestrained tongues. Violence was a reality; those recognized by the Republic as enemies of
the Revolution didn’t stand a chance. These were the nights of Terror, a time of heightened conflict between the two leading political parties in France at the time, the Girondists and the
Jacobins. Both the Girondists and the Jacobins vied for control, the Jacobins being the most successful in that regard. Girondists called for a democratic reign, with minimum federalist
characteristics. The Jacobins, however, wanted a strong, centralized republican government.
Smoke from cigars filled the room as followers of the Jacobin Club crowded around a small, round table. Three men sat, Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and Jacques-Louis David, discussing the state of the French First Republic, whilst the rest of the room kept quiet and attentive.
“Something must be done, Maximilien.”
“It’s under control, Marat,” replied Robespierre. “Anti-revolutionaries are being executed at a steady rate daily. None dare oppose us.”
“Must it be fear that propels us, Monsieur Robespierre?” questioned a man from the group.
“Indeed, it must be so. We are ensuring what is best for the French people, with or without their support. Besides, the Girondists are on the verge of extinction. With them removed, who else will oppose the Republic?”
The meeting came to close, and the men involved parted ways. David and Marat met outside the hall and accompanied each other on their walk home. The air was crisp and cold, creating chills on the two men as they glided over the stone roads which clicked beneath their feet. Clenching their coats close to their skin, they went on together mostly in silence.
“The night is a tad cold, isn’t it?” said Marat, his breath creating a cloud in front of him.
“Oui,” chuckled David. “So much for a warm summer night.”
“C'est la vérité,” replied Marat. “That’s the truth. How is Marguerite? Have the two of you spoken?”
“No, friend. She won’t. Her views work against mine, I’m afraid. We’ve divorced, you know.”
“I remember. I’m sorry to hear it, Jacques.”
“Oui, II est tout droit. It’s all right. I understand her apprehension. How is Simonne?”
“All is well,” Marat said, pausing. “You know, Jacq, what we need is a martyr. A hero of the Revolution, someone willing to die for the cause we fight for.”
“I’m sure we have plenty of those, unbeknownst to us.”
“A public figure, I mean. A man the people know.”
The two arrived at the door of Marat’s home. Marat, nodding his head to David, made his way up the steps.
“I’ll see you soon, David.”
David continued on down the street, the cold of the night biting in to his bones. The wind whistled and swirled around him, wrapping him in its numbing chill. He pulled his coat tighter, and tighter still, hastening his pace. Sharp turn after another, the walkways appeared as labyrinths with each road leading deeper and deeper within. A light illuminated a doorway at the end of a corridor, seeping out from under it and casting an erie, red and yellow shade in to the alleyway which David had ended up in. He slowly inched his way to the door, turning the cold handle and pushing it open with a quiet creak. His eyes peered in, shooting from corner to corner, analyzing the details of every item in the room.
It was empty.
“I don’t recall leaving the fire lit,” he said, pushing his way into the warm, quaint little room.
Bookshelves lined a wall, and paintings the one perpendicular to it. An easel was located near the fire, the glow provided lighting adequate enough in which to paint. David removed his coat and tossed it on a table located in the left corner, and settled himself in a chair positioned in front of the fire.
“A martyr,” David questioned aloud as he doused the warming flame.
Marat closed the door behind him, watching David wander off into the darkness. He made his way up the stairs, each one whining beneath his feet. Scratching his skin, which itched intensely and was covered in blisters, he made his way into the washroom, preparing his medicinal bath. Once in, he covered his head with a bandana soaked in vinegar, and set a wooden board across the tub, and began to write. He dipped the tip of his quill in the ink, a few times to make sure it was a sufficient amount. The pen scratched as it rubbed against the surface of the parchment. For hours he would write, scribbling his ideas down in support of the revolution.
His wife crept around the door way later that night, finding Marat asleep at his table. She shook him gently, waking him and requesting he come to bed. She cleared his table and set everything away and assisted him out of the tub and back to their room.
A young lady, whose hair was brown and fell in curled locks around her shoulders, knocked upon the door of David early the next morning. Almost instantly, the door opened, but only slightly as his eyes peered out into the bright shine of daylight. Suddenly, the door flew inwards and he pulled the lady in off the streets.
“I told you not to come here during the day, Charlotte.”
“I am sorry. I had to see you.”
“Quoi? What is it?”
David shut the door behind her, and the latched locked after it. He closed the blinds on the windows, that, moments before, had allowed the sunlight to pour in, illuminating the room, and casting long shadows onto the floor. For a few moments, the room sat in darkness as David prepared the fire. Soon, it began crackling and casting its warm, yellow light into the room. The two spoke softly so that, be there spies about, they would not be heard.
It would seem that David and this young lady, Charlotte Corday, had begun an affair sometime ago, which led, partly, and mostly in secret, to the split of David and his wife, who split on claims of different political views. Corday and David would meet at night, at his place or hers, whichever the two felt safest for the moment, and would part before daybreak. Today, however, Corday brought it upon herself to come during the day, which angered David greatly.
Corday told David of the things that Marat had wrote of her good friends, which had led to their deaths. Many of them had been Girondists, so it was not of any interest to David, whose political agenda had been served by it. However, seeing the pain it had inflicted upon Corday troubled him a bit.
“So what is it you wish be done, Charlotte?”
“I wish for Marat to be taken out,” she said, her voice cold and distant. “That man is a monster.”
David thought for a moment. His relationship with Corday had been a growing problem, seeing as it could result in his execution, as well as public scandal, but he could rid himself of her if he were to assist her with this. It would mean the death of his dear friend, but it would spare him, and further the efforts of the Jacobin party.
“You wish him gone? Then do so yourself.”
“Are you mad? They will have me executed!”
“I will see to it that it is not so. Killing Marat will make the Jacobins tremble, for they will believe that the Girondists are further from eradication than previously thought. By believing this, they will be hesitant to go after you anyway, and I will push that they don’t do so. Stay around after you kill him, to influence their opposition to your execution. But tell no one that you know me. If you do, then I will have no choice but to allow them to prosecute you.”
“You promise this will work, David?”
“De tout mon cœur, je le jure. I swear it.”
“Where will I find him?”
“He may be in the Convention the next few days. You may find him there. But give me at least one day to ensure everything is ideal.”
“And what is today?”
“Today is the eleventh.”
“I thank you, Jacques. I beg that you forgive me for the death of your friend, but you know he is a monster. He will kill thousands if this is not done.”
“So you say.”
David led Corday out through a crawlspace that would empty her back upon the bustling streets of Paris without anyone ever knowing of where she had came from. She shuffled back onto eye level after exiting, for the space was only 4 feet tall, and hurriedly shut the door to the space behind her and hopped into the busy sidewalks.
Back at the room, David shut the door that opened up into the crawlspace, slamming it, and twisting the lock furiously. He slumped into the floor, his back against the wall, and his face buried into his hands.
The next day David attended various meetings at the Convention Hall, with no sighting of Marat. He spotted Corday various times throughout the day. She looked his way, but didn’t dare approach him. He would only glance in her direction but never paid full attention to her.
The day ended quickly, though the sun crept back slowly behind the horizon, making the sky turn orange with a bright shot of yellow, decreasing in intensity as it made its way to towards the heavens, with the moon hanging lightly above it. David made his way down his usual path, and, with the night not cold as the day before, took his time. He stopped by Marat’s, and made his way up the stairs. David’s hands made a muffled knock upon the smooth, thick, mahogany wood. He waited a moment, then the door opened slowly, with Simonne standing in the doorway.
“Ah, David, je peux vous aider? What can I help you with?”
“I’d like to see Jean.”
David followed Simonne inside, shutting the door behind himself, and rushed up the stairs into the washroom.
“Jacques!” exclaimed Marat, who was surprised to see David.
“Where have you been, Jean? I haven’t seen you at any of the meetings today.”
“My skin has become too irritable. I can’t stay out of this for more than a moment without having to tear apart my flesh.”
“I see. Will you be back tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be returning at all, for awhile at least. Instead, I will just write from home.”
“Understood. Sorry to bother you, friend.”
“Ce n’est pas un problème. Au revoir.”
The door closed gently behind David as he stepped from the stairway onto the quiet sidewalk and began his journey home. He toured again through the same maze that took him to his house, a cool, steady breeze following him all the while. Burden was heavy on his mind, for he knew what would be soon to follow. His walk ended familiarly, staring at the end of that same dark corridor, the lit flame behind his door the only thing throwing light upon it. He hoped no one would be inside, just as before, but he knew it to not be the case. Approaching slowly, he turned the knob and let the door pull itself inwards. Corday sat in his chair in front of the fireplace.
“I didn’t see him today. He wasn’t there, was he? Then I saw you stop by his house. Are you planning something, Jacques?” Her expression was set cold upon her face, as if chiseled into cynicism.
“No, my dear. I was as surprised as you. I stopped by to see where he had been. He has taken ill inside his home. That is where you will find him.”
“How will I get in? His wife is always home, is she not?”
“She occasionally delivers letters for Jean. They are at irregular times, but if you are lucky to make it at that time, that is your keenest opportunity, if you were wishing to do it with no witness. But that’s not what we discussed, was it? You are to go while his wife is home. That way she will see, and it will help your argument.”
“I recall,” her voice trailed off in thought. “But again, how will I get in?”
“Write a letter with the names of your friends who are aligned with the Girondists and say you wish to have them executed. He will gladly see you then.”
Corday was aware of David’s involvement with the Jacobins, but he had slyly convinced her that it was only because of dedication to the Girondists that he allowed himself to become close to leaders within the Jacobin party, so that he could keep the Girondists on top.
“C’est bien. I will see you tomorrow. You can assure that I will be safe?”
“I can, as long as you tell no one you know of me. Even if things seem to be taking a turn for the worst, you must promise me this.”
“Good. You must leave now. Much is to be done tomorrow.”
David woke early to the sound of heavy rain tapping the roof that hung overhead. He lied in his bed, wrapped warmly in the smooth, silk blankets, staring blankly as he washed the rain gather in sheets as it slid quickly down the glass windows, gathering in puddles upon the sills and falling off again, splashing into piles of standing water in the crevices of the stone pathway outside his home. His stomach was twisting about in pain, causing him to double over and clench at his side with nausea. The room began to pick up and spin around, as if held on an axis, and colors swirled together, creating the most hideous shade, as objects in the room became ugly, unrecognizable blurs and he couldn’t stand it any longer.
“God, what have I done? I’ve arranged for the assassination of a dear friend,” said David, pulling at his hair as a way to relieve this nauseating anxiety that was now being drowned out by crippling depression. Soon, though, it gave way to a feeling of emptiness, of nothing.
For hours, David stared out the window, watching the same repetitious rainfall. His mind was completely void of differing thought. As if he were some automated machine, he just played over the events of the past few days in his head.
“I’ve got to stop this. I need to warn him,” David thought, dragging himself from bed, and dressing himself as quickly as he could.
He locked the door behind him, assuring that Corday could not get back in, were things to go wrong. The rain was cold and bitter, drenching David’s cold and causing them to stick irritatingly to his skin. As quickly as he could, he ran over the slick streets, navigating his familiar labyrinth with ease. He arrived to the home of Marat to find the the police arriving on the scene.
“I’m too late,” he murmured, rushing inside.
“David!” cried Simonne. “That wench killed him! They’ve taken her already. She’s set to be executed.”
“Who?” he questioned, though he very well knew the answer.
“A Girondist by the name of Charlotte Corday.”
Corday strode up to the house of Marat around noon, knocking upon the smooth, wooden door, looking around to see if there were any around watching. She twirled the envelope around in her hands nervously, a blade carefully concealed in her garments. Simonne answered and eyed her carefully.
“Oui? May I help you?” asked Simonne suspiciously.
“I would like to see Jean-Paul Marat, s’il vous plaît. You are his wife, oui?”
“Correcte. And you are?”
“Charlotte Corday. May I please speak with him? I have a list of those speaking in favor of the royalist that I know he would like to see.”
Against good judgement, Simonne allowed Corday to enter.
“Wait just a moment,” she said to Corday, as she climbed the stairs and went to the washroom to speak to Marat.
“Jean, there is a women named Charlotte Corday here to see you. She says she has a list of those against the revolution for you. However, I think you should decline seeing her. I can get the list for you if you wish.”
“Nonsense, Simonne,” Marat said, shifting himself around in his bath. “Send her up, my dear. I’ll have her out in a few moments.”
She did as her husband instructed and had the young lady sent up. Corday crept up the stairs slowly, taking deep breaths along the way. The actions she took in the next few moments, she thought, could alter the course of history for France, the world, even.
“Monsieur Marat?” said Corday, peaking into the washroom.
“Oui, come in! Madame Corday, correcte?”
“That’s right. I have a list for you, Monsieur Marat. A list of counter-revolutionaries,” she said, playing the part David had assigned her quite well. “They are threats to the Republic of France.”
“Very well, my dear! I shall have them executed swiftly, then. I must thank you for coming forth with this information.”
No sooner than he uttered those words did Corday remove the blade from her dress and thrust it into his chest. Marat screamed out in pain, grabbing at Corday’s wrist, before falling limp and lifeless, his body turning white with pallor.
Simonne rushed the stairs to see what caused the screams of her husband. Upon seeing Corday standing over the lifeless body of her beloved, she broke down to the floor in tears for a few moments before scattering to her feet to go and get the police.
“I’m very sorry, Simonne. He was a dear friend.”
“‘I killed one man to save a hundred thousand.’ That’s what she’s said at her trial. She said she acted alone. And she kept looking around for someone, as if she figured someone was there to save her. I hope they have her executed swiftly, too.”
“I wish to make a painting. Will you allow it?” David said, thinking over Corday’s last words, or what he would believe to be her last.
“Of course, David.”
“He had been speaking of wishing there was some martyr for the revolution. I will ensure that my painting achieves that wish.”
The next few days say David at work, his easel set up at the scene of Marat’s assassination. He mixed together his oil paints and pressed them against the canvas, slowly creating the rigid, stone like shapes he was known for. The back wall he painted as a deep, dark black, fading into more light as it moved to the right, becoming a lighter shade of black with white and gray thrown in until it became gray with white and browns. His long, rigid fingers maneuvered the brush so delicately, creating the folds in the cloths that covered the tub, the undermost layer being white, with shades wrapping around each fold and turn in the sheet. Crimson stains dripped at the top of the sheet, at the spot where it wrapped around the tub, and made its way a few inches down the sheet.
Marat’s arm lie dropped off the side, with his pen in hand. His head was laid back, wrapped in his vinegar headband, a smile on his face, resting upon another piece of furniture wrapped in the same white sheet. The shading on his face was added softly, creating a warm, illuminating effect upon his skin, which David painted as flawless, in the style of religious paintings. A brown board, with a smooth highlight, poked out from under a green sheet that laid atop the white one. Marat’s left arm lie atop this sheet, papers lain before him and the letter given to him by Corday still gripped in his hand.
In front of the tub, David added a tombstone, with a brownish-red covering the surface in a stained-looking fashion to give the appearance of age. Atop the stone, sat an ink bottle and a quill as well as various other papers. Painstakingly, as he did with each painting, he made sure each figure was statuesque. He added the final touches to Marat’s body, bringing out the highlights, and adding the final shadows on the sheets.
“Here’s your martyr, Marat,” he said, writing something that would appear as an inscription on the tombstone in the painting. It read: “à Marat,” signed, “David.”
© Copyright 2016 Kurt Holmes. All rights reserved.