A few days later, on the 2nd September, 1792, the storm cloud broke. Caught up in the frenzy of the crowd that day, Calvert was borne along the narrow streets where shutters were drawn against the murderous throng. Relentlessly it moved, an odorous rush of caterwauling bodies threaded with glittering blades. The massed clatter of clogs and shoes was like the hooves of maddened beasts stampeding blindly for blood and meat. Calvert slipped, almost fell beneath the trampling crush. Absurdly, he saved himself by grabbing hold of the breeches of the man in front, baring his backside as he dragged them down. The crowd lunged forward, pressing him against the bare-assed man, oblivious in his bewitched state. Calvert called to the stupefied faces on all sides. He wanted to know where they were going, what they were readying to do. He was about to get his answer. The street suddenly widened into a square; the crowd fanned out either side of the houses.
‘I know this place,’ he muttered, puzzled and fearful. Then he saw it – the baleful prison fronted by its courtyard. Instinct told him to beware, to heed the danger. Something odious, something ungodly was about to occur. The air throbbed with imminent outrage. That they’d arrived at the Conciergerie to kill someone seemed certain, but who would they kill? The governor perhaps, after the manner of the Bastille? The evil little turnkey who refused visitors? No, his intuition was telling him the worst, what he’d tried to suppress: the unthinkable.
They dragged them out by the arms, by the legs, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, their cries drowned by the bellowing mob. The parts in the drama were quickly played, no ceremony, no time for last words. Calvert saw the first kill in dumbshow; time seemed to stand still in horror at the deed. A young man’s skull, struck with a sledge hammer, had exploded in a red mist. A second blow destroyed the face altogether, and the third, pounding his chest, embedded itself there as in a wet sack of flour.
They killed an old man next. He was hacked to pieces with axes and scythes in seconds. So much blood from such a small body, more blood than Calvert had ever seen. There is no God, there never was, he thought, watching as they tossed the flesh high into the air, kicked and threw it at those who were next for the kill. Lying pinioned on the courtyard these men, women and children shrank from the bloody debris, from the same end product they too were about to become. And Calvert watched them become it, one by one, two by two. He told himself that Bernadette was not among them, she had been released, was never in that prison at all but in another far away across the city.
But then he saw her, pushed through the doorway on to the ground. A giant of a man with sweeping mustachios, the leader of the mob, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to the killing spot. Soon she was next in line, knelt beside her murderer, whose arm pinned her down. She was kneeling in the blood of previous victims, whose remains littered the cobbles. Her composure was gone, her habitual look of defiance replaced by blanched terror. Calvert, edging ever nearer, reached the front of the crowd. His eyes burned in their sockets. What was he to do when they were so many?
She tried to stand but the arm round her neck held her fast. Calvert saw the knife raised. He emerged from the ranks and showed himself, stood in limbo between the blood-sporting multitude and the butchers who served them beyond. The little group busy with dismembering never gave him a thought; he was one of them, they believed, a good citizen come to cheer them on.
Her eyes begged him to help her. The knife was at her throat, a silver band glimmering. He moved forward then stopped, tried to mouth a protest. The No! stuck fast in his throat; he felt it as a grinding pain. But the pain wasn’t physical; it had come from what he’d seen and done nothing to stop. She had died like the first, a silent pantomime in which the killer had smiled as he’d done it, emptied her throat through a wide jagged gash. She had slumped from his grasp, muscles twitching as axe vied with axe to chop off her arms, her legs and her head.
By now the rest of the crowd was tired of simply watching. No longer spellbound, it finished the killing itself and moved on to the next prison to gorge some more. Calvert was left alone amid the carnage, amid an image of the world’s end. He wished he were in shock, in stupor, something more bearable than sober rationality. But never in his life was he more alert, more in command of his senses. The blood of every corpse was in his nostrils; every limb, every organ of the human form lay strewn upon the ground. He knew whose legs lay where, whose arms and head fitted which body, where every pool of blood was sourced. It was as if he had seen every last detail of the killings – eighteen in all – and forgotten none. And he felt it all too: grief, guilt and revulsion, but mostly guilt, overwhelming, God-forsaken guilt that would haunt him forever. That there was nothing he could have done to save her without dying too didn’t console him. The only righteous act was to have died beside her, to have martyred himself. But he hadn’t been brave enough, and for that he would always be shamed. Merely stepping out from the ranks, letting her know that he was there, was worse than staying hidden. If only he had tried to save her …
Half vomiting, wholly sobbing, he gathered her remains like pieces of a broken toy. How strangely heavy, those arms, those legs, that torso, how strangely light the head! He swept them all up into his arms, held them to his chest, a macabre bundle whose combined weight bent him at the knees. Grotesquely sandwiched beneath his chin was her blood-spattered head, its eyes fixed wide and empty. Her matted hair was in his mouth, their heads conjoined, a two-headed monster from a monster artist’s brush. Still biting on her hair, the last taste of her he would get, he howled his grief at the blinding Paris sun. And as he staggered forward with his terrible burden, leaving the corpse-littered courtyard behind, he made a solemn vow: never again would he stand by and see an innocent person wronged, never again would he put his own safety first. If needs be, he would sacrifice his life. It was the only human thing to do.
He carried her back to her father, Monsieur Varens, who stood outside his tavern in an agony of apprehension. Though he’d heard that mischief was afoot, that some of the prisons had been stormed, nothing had prepared him for the spectacle labouring towards him. And could the spectacle worsen? Yes, it could. Calvert, who had struggled all that way from the Conciergerie, not stumbling once, did exactly that and fell sprawling in the dust. Monsieur Varens was unable to deny the evidence of his eyes. He saw his darling’s bloody quarters dumped at his feet, saw his darling’s severed head roll like a hideous ball down the cellar steps. The proud little innkeeper said not a word, nor cried a single tear of grief. Without a second glance he turned on his heels, walked calmly inside and blew out his brains.
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