The Great Man
by James Dorr
You have come from the execution, Monsieur?” a voice next to me asked.
“Eh, what?” I said, turning to gaze at an elderly man who had just sat beside me at the long table, a pensionnaire by the still soldierly look to his clothing.
“The guillotining, my friend,” he said. “The man who, this morning, “kissed the Widow”-you went to see it?”
I shook my head, no. I had in fact been at pains to avoid it, no lover of capital punishment I, though I had seen the stark silhouette of the two upright poles-the gleam of dawn on the triangle between them-when I had hurried past the crowded town square that morning. I hastened to explain that it was business which had brought me from England to this small town in the south of France and that it was no more than the thirst of my journey that had brought me here to this dimly-lit cafe for a quick glass of wine, adding only that at least the poor wretch on the scaffold had felt no pain.
“Ah,” the old man said. “Yes, that is the theory. When Dr. Guillotine first proposed it to the Assembly in autumn of 1789, soon after the storming of la Bastille, his hope was that the blade would be so swift its victim would have no time to suffer. When Dr. Louis designed the first model it had a curved blade, you know-more like that of an axe-head-and it was constructed by a German, Tobias Schmidt. Yet even then there were some who doubted, who said that the knife’s quick descent would only suppress the shock of the cutting, while the trunk and head would both live on for some moments. You know the story of Charlotte Corday?”
I nodded. I knew, at least, who she had been. “The one who killed Marat?”
The old man nodded. “The murderess of Jean-Paul Marat, yes. I was there when she was executed on 17 July, 1793, only just old enough at the time to be one of the soldiers who stood guard below la machine fatale. A very young man, you see, not as I am now.” He shook his head ruefully. He’d moved his left arm and I saw, for the first time, that his coat-sleeve hung empty from a point just below the elbow.
He smiled. “Not like now.” He raised his arm higher to make sure I saw it, even as he went on. “Not yet with the ‘souvenir’ your Viscount Wellington left me with in Spain-in 1813, outside of Vitoria. Although, it may have saved my life later on this old wound. I was a corporal then, and the lieutenant who had commanded us in Paris in ’93 had become a captain-Captain Sarbeau- who I’ll speak more of later. Yes, there was pain enough with this wound-when that best portion of my arm departed my body, and there was nothing of its surviving after its ‘good-bye.’ But I spoke of Corday . . .”
“Yes,” I said, finding myself fascinated by what he was saying, despite what I felt was my better judgment. I called to the serveuse to bring us a bottle as I bade the old man go on.
“One of the assistants to the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, was a carpenter named Le Gros (who was at the time, of Marat’s faction). After the blade fell-it falls with a double crash, you know, the second being the sound of it bouncing back up from the hole the neck had been thrust through-it was he who held Corday’s head up, gripping her hair in the fingers of his left hand, for everyone in the crowd to see. But still not content, his anger was so great, he opened the fingers of his other hand and slapped her in the face. Hard, with a ‘crack’!
“And everyone saw it. Even I saw it. The blood rushed to the cheek-to both of her cheeks, Monsieur-turning them crimson even as her features twisted into a scowl, such was the indignity she was still able to feel at such treatment! And, as for Le Gros, he was punished for this, for showing disrespect for the dead no matter how or why she came to be that way. But do you know what he said in his defense? That she had not been dead. That death does not come so soon. That even certain doctors have claimed it, among them the learned Pierre Gautier, as early as 1767-before the guillotine’s time. That a head might live on, maintaining consciousness for as long as fifteen more seconds, provided blood still flows through the brain.”
“Well, yes,” I said, “but you do say yourself that that’s only opinion, no matter how learned the doctors who’ve held it. As for the grimace you say people saw, well that could be put down to the excitement of the crowd, could it not? People do fool themselves, thinking they’ve seen things they haven’t really. And as for the crimson you saw on her cheeks, it could have just been blood from this Le Gros’ fingers, which I dare say must have been stained with plenty.”
The old man nodded. “Yes, it could have been that,” he agreed, “or just superstition. Do you know that in the years right after, during the time of the directory, there were priests who wandered the countryside with thin red lines painted around their necks, claiming that they, too, were the guillotine’s victims? They did this in support of the Royalist cause, to show that, through God’s grace, they had been resurrected. And many believed it. You see, we were all naive in those days.
“But after Napoleon came home from Egypt to become First Consul and order returned to France, well, it has been science since then. Science, with experiments that can be proven. That’s the answer these days, eh? Tell me, my friend, have you heard of Lavoisier?”
Once more I nodded. I was no scientist, but I did know of Antoine Lavoisier, claimed by some to be the inventor of modern chemistry. “It was he, was it not,” I replied, “who disproved the phlogiston theory-that there is some substance within combustible matter that disappears from it when it is set afire? Was it not he who-with our own English scientist Priestley, of course-showed that, instead, something is added to things when they are burned, namely oxygen? As I recall, he arrived at this theory by studying the behavior of animals in various mixtures of air, showing the heat their bodies produced to be similar to that of fire.”
“Yes,” the old man said. “He had his own theory, that there is an element of heat-he called it ‘caloric’-that, when added (with air) to any material, will cause that material to burn, whether rapidly as in flame, or more slowly as in rusting or decay. Or, as you say, in the motion of life itself. What I wish to tell you will touch again upon this theory and prove that which you seem not yet ready to accept. But, for now, you know, do you not, that Lavoisier, as well, was a victim of Sainte Guillotine? That less than a year after Charlotte Corday, he, too, mounted the scaffold?”
“An abomination,” I said. “Yes, I knew that. That such a man should be killed . . .”
“Yes, an abomination indeed, though there were what people then considered to be good reasons. But, as I say, we were all mad then-in our ways-naive and easily diverted from the truth. Lavoisier, though, was one who sought truth. As was another I shall mention shortly, a great man, too, in his way, one who was, some say, Lavoisier’s student, who in time became a general who died at Waterloo, and whose body was never recovered. One who, some say, still lives-which is why I shall not mention his name to you, lest he still uses it, though it is more likely he would have changed it.
“But, as for Lavoisier,” he continued, finally getting back to what he had been saying, “did you know that he, when he knew he had no hope of preventing his execution, proposed an experiment? By then Lieutenant Sarbeau and I had been mustered to war, to aid in retaking Belgium and Holland from the alliance-including your Britain-that had earlier in 1793 risen against us. Therefore, I did not witness what I am about to relate. But I did hear of it.
“This is what Lavoisier proposed-that as soon as the blade fell, he would begin blinking. He would blink his eyes as many times as he could-even as his head was lifted to show the crowd-while one of Sanson’s assistants would count the blinks. The assistant was bribed, yes, to carry out his part, but-and this I know well-there was no reason to doubt his honesty. And what he reported afterward was that the severed head of Lavoisier blinked no less than eleven times.”
The old man paused then while I called for more wine. “This is still no more than hearsay,” I protested, yet, as I say, I found I could not suppress a desire to hear more of this pensionnaire’s gruesome theory. And so I prompted, “But, if you have more proof . . .”
The old man nodded. “Yes,” he said. “You know those were troubled times for France, and many things went on behind the scenes. Many machinations, some of which affected us in the army. In September 1795, the directory was formed to replace the Committee of Public Safety, and so we marched back to Paris under a new command-that of Napoleon-to assure the fairness of the new elections. Then we went back to war, this time in Egypt. However, our commander, having heard that chaos had once more taken over in France, was forced to return to become First Consul. And still later, Emperor.
“And as for us . . . Lieutenant Sarbeau, like I young and hale, became a captain and I, who had had some education, later received my own rating and a post as adjutant to Sarbeau. Thus, together we fought under the Emperor-first at Naples, then Saxony, then in the invasion of Portugal and, finally, the grinding series of battles later called the Peninsular War . . .”
“Where you met Wellington,” I interrupted. “who you would meet again.”
“Yes,” the old man said. “Where we fought your Arthur Wellesley, still just Viscount Wellington then, and where, in time, I lost my arm, thus precluding me from meeting him again. As for Captain Sarbeau, well, while what I have to say of him ends before Waterloo, I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.”
The old man paused then, sipping his wine slowly. Finally he went on. “Now the time comes to tell you of the man I will not name-I’ll simply call him the ‘Great Man’. He was not then of the army, nor a politician, nor of the nobility either, I think, yet behind the scenes, as we were to discover, he wielded much power. He knew Napoleon, that much is sure, and may well have been one who had a hand in that man’s rise to power.
“Be that as it may, it was after I lost my arm in the Peninsular War-and after France had been driven from Spain-that I and my captain went to a village not far from here, I to recuperate from my wound, and Sarbeau because there was no other place to send him. France had fallen. The Emperor had been defeated in Russia. Paris was occupied, Louis XVIII had been placed on the throne, and the Emperor had been exiled to Elba.
“And yet there were rumors. Rumors flew in all directions that January of 1815, some that the Great Man himself had been killed- perhaps as early as twenty years before-some that the Emperor had plans to rise once again. And it was during this time of chaos that we indeed met the Great Man.
“It was January as I say, nearly the end of the month, when Captain Sarbeau and I received a summons to present ourselves at a certain château, one that had been abandoned, or so we thought, since the earlier chaos of the directory. Even for the south it was cold, with ice in the rivers, so we bundled ourselves in our winter clothing and rode that night to where we had been told, and presented ourselves as requested. At the gate we were met by servants with torches-as if we were still in the days of the ancien régime-and helped with our outer coats, then ushered into a room so heated that even had we been clothed in our summer uniforms from Spain we still would have felt some amount of discomfort.
“And then we were left there, alone, in a room filled with apparatuses of all description-great casks and boilers and a steam engine of some kind, retorts and pipes from which one could hear bubbling noises. And, sitting before us in a huge throne-like chair, covered from chin to toe with a thick blanket, was a figure we both recognized as the Great Man.
“We didn’t know what to do. First the captain, then I, saluted, although, as I said, the Great Man was no soldier-at least to our knowledge. Nor did he return the salutes we offered but simply bade us, in a harsh rasping voice, to turn around several times, and then to remove our jackets and waistcoats and stand at ease. We stood there-I, with my one arm, and Captain Sarbeau, who was built like an ox then-in our shirtsleeves and breeches while he explained why he had summoned us.
“And then he spoke to us of la guillotine.”
I must have looked puzzled then, because the old man paused. “Yes,” he finally went on, “as I said, my tale will prove what I maintained before. Oh, the Great Man spoke of other things too, of France, of the Emperor and of how the rumors one heard were correct-that the Emperor and others, with the Great Man manipulating affairs behind the scenes, planned an escape from the prison of Elba in scarcely more than a month’s time. But always he returned to that other rumor-that he had been executed himself during the confusion that swept the countryside at the time the directory had ruled. He had fled Paris by then-you see, there were factions against him-to the southern part of France, anticipating his own guillotining were he to stay longer. And yet, even here . . .
“Well, he told us that even here he took precautions. He had studied the theories of Lavoisier and, having money, had bought the château in which we were standing, and started the rumor that it was deserted. He had brought in apparatuses-some of which we saw now-secretly at night. He had hired assistants, bribing them for their silence, and had bribed officials too-including the town’s executioners. Or so he told us.
“But he did go on, telling of how the baskets into which the heads fell were later found with their bottoms chewed, by the gnashings of the victims’ teeth. And he told of other theories, of Gautier’s and others later, including that of the German anatomist Sommering, who theorized that if only some artificial lung could be attached quickly enough to it, the guillotined head would even speak of how it endured. And that of our own country’s Dr. Jean-Joseph Sue that the body, too-its limbs and organs-must still feel sensation, at least for an instant.
“And after that instant, well, then it came back to Lavoisier-the Great Man told us-and to his theory of caloric, the element of heat which maintained life, but also, when life ceased, engendered decay. And so the Great Man began to take precautions. He had, as I said, bribed the town’s executioners so that, at last, when the moment he had so feared had come upon him, when he took the walk up the steps of the scaffold, his hands bound behind him, when he felt his body lashed to the trestle, his head thrust through the hole- ‘mounting Madame,’ as we called it in those days-he looked down to see not the red-painted wicker basket sprinkled with bran to soak up the gore, as would have been usual, but an apparatus of his own devising. It was a bucket already filled to the brim with fresh blood-never mind where it came from-to keep his brain nourished. The bucket in turn was placed within a barrel of ice and salt to draw the caloric out from his severed head and cool it until it was nearly frozen, thus slowing the process of death itself until the head could be returned to the château where another apparatus was waiting.
“Then, once more, he paused to take more breath while Captain Sarbeau and I whispered between ourselves that even if such a thing could be, surely it would drive one insane. Imagine the horror-even if one has assured one’s survival-of having one’s head cut off! And knowing when it was-feeling its separation from one’s body. Feeling so helpless, knowing your body was dying while you still lived . . .
“That’s when the blanket slipped, and we felt powerful hands laid upon us-those of the Great Man’s silently returning servants-holding us immobile as we saw, not a body appear as the cloth fell, but rather a framework of tubing and uprights supporting a collar that held the head in place. And, as I say, from the head we saw pipes, some branching off to a steam-powered pump to force fresh air through the artificial lung of Sommering providing not just speech but oxygenation!-Others to huge flasks of thick, red liquids-again from we knew not where-still others to the chamber’s four walls, tapping the chimneys above its fireplaces to draw in caloric to keep the brain heated to the level at which living blood would have kept it. Inward, outward, fresh air, stale air, fresh blood and spent blood continually cycling for these nearly twenty years while all around it nations were tumbling, battles were being won and lost, empires were rising and falling. And then, again, rising.
“The Great Man called a halt to our whispered babbling while, within that grim head, his eyes rolled and swept about in their sockets, measuring us one last time as we stood there. Then as other servants wheeled in a great tub packed with ice and salt-the size of a coffin-I saw out the window as the sun rose the shadow of a guillotine in the courtyard. With a scowl the Great Man signaled for my dismissal, as I was not needed. I would be free to go, anywhere that I wished. No one, you understand, had I related at that time what I had seen there, would have believed me.
“But, as for my captain, I saw-as the servants were ushering me from that dreadful chamber-the Great Man’s gaze once again come to rest on his tall, strong form. I saw the Great Man smile then for the first time-a ghastly, mad smile-as he spoke again of his plans for Napoleon’s reinstatement, adding only this: that if he were now to aid France and her Emperor to the fullest, the time had come when he would require a body.”