Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Death of Marat
By Alphonse Esquiros (1812–1876)
From ‘Charlotte Corday’

ON the evening of the 13th of July, after leaving Du Perret, Charlotte Corday started to return to her hotel, and crossed the Palais Royal. It was still quite light. Everything sparkled in the mild reddish glow which the setting sun shed along the galleries and on all the little shops. In the clear windows of a cutlery shop especially, the steel blades glittered brilliantly. Charlotte Corday stopped. After looking a few minutes at the sharp murderous instruments, she entered the shop. There was one large knife with an ebony handle exposed for sale, and Charlotte Corday tried the blade with her finger. A sheath lay beside it in the case. The price was three francs. She paid it. Then she hid the knife, in its sheath, under the red fichu which covered her throat.  1
  As it was a beautiful evening, she went out into the garden and sat down on a bench in the shade of the chestnut-trees. A little child was playing near, gathering sand in its red apron. The stranger’s face pleased him; he drew near, smiled, hovered about the bench, courting attention. Beauty attracts children. Then, becoming quite familiar at last, he bravely dropped back his little blond curly head on the lady’s lap. Charlotte took him in her arms and gave him a melancholy look. In the refreshing breezes of the evening, she felt many tender and profound thoughts at sight of this little being, sitting innocently on her knees. In spite of herself she thought of the joys of maternity, of the family, of love. She told herself that perhaps she was mad, thus to sacrifice to vain chimeras the sweet and facile happiness offered by nature. The agitations into which events and public affairs had thrown her for the past six months subsided under the limpid gaze of this little creature; her eyes filled with tears before his ingenuous smile; fresh and charming recollections of that early age rushed wildly to her heart. At sight of so much serenity, grace, forgetfulness, universal pardon, painted on the child’s face, she felt her fierce resolution soften, and her vengeance slipping from her hands.  2
  Now the prying, inquisitive little fingers of the child, which for a moment had been investigating under her red fichu, drew out the sinister knife for a plaything. At sight of it Charlotte grew pale, rose, set the child on the ground, and went away; first casting an unquiet glance around and replacing the knife under her fichu, and the fatal secret in her breast. At the entrance to the garden she met a cabman, whose horses were resting before the door of a house. “Citizen Coachman,” she asked, “can you tell me, if you please, where Citizen Marat lives?”  3
  “Rue des Cordeliers, No. 30;” and fearing this woman might forget the address, the cabman wrote it himself in pencil on a bit of white paper. This done, Charlotte Corday went back to her hotel.  4
  The next day Du Perret called as he had promised, and after chatting with her for about a quarter of an hour, took her to the minister. But Charlotte Corday found that she could not draw her friend’s papers from the hands of the administration. Then she took leave of Du Perret, thanking him, and forbidding him to call again. “You know what I told you yesterday,” she added. “Fly as quickly as you can. Fly this very night, for to-morrow it will be too late.”  5
  The claims of friendship satisfied, she turned all her strength and resolution toward the true object of her journey. That morning she had addressed the following letter to Marat by post:
          “Citizen:—I have just arrived from Caen. Your love for the country makes me think that you will be interested to know the unhappy events in that part of the Republic. I will call upon you about one o’clock. Be so good as to receive me and grant me a moment’s interview. I will show you how to render France a great service.
  A perfidious intention like a knife-blade was hidden under the last sentence. Receiving no answer, Mademoiselle Corday wrote again, about four o’clock that afternoon:—
          “I wrote you this morning, Marat. Did you receive my letter? I cannot believe so, since I am refused admittance at your door. I hope you will grant me an interview to-morrow. I repeat that I have just come from Caen. I wish to tell you secrets most important to the safety of the Republic. Moreover, I am being persecuted for the cause of liberty. I am unhappy. That alone gives me a right to your protection.
  The note written, she folded it and placed it in her breast. This second message must be given to Marat’s housekeeper, if he still refused to see her. At a quarter of seven Charlotte Corday took a cab on the Place des Victoires. “Where to?” asked the driver. “Rue des Cordeliers, No. 30,” answered a voice clear and gentle as a child’s.  8
  The cab jogged along for a quarter of an hour, and then stopped before a grim, dull-looking house, where, to follow the language of the Girondists, the monster of the Mountain had established his den. Marat’s house at No. 30 Rue des Cordeliers (now Rue de l’École de Médecine) is still standing, and has retained its former character. The monolithic mass, pierced with rather high windows, draws the attention by its rigid, gloomy, and solitary aspect. Dwellings as well as men have a physiognomy. Providence doubtless chose this house from among all others, for its air of fitness as witness and sombre setting of one of the most tragic scenes of the great Revolutionary drama. Since then it has been repaired to some extent, but no amount of freshening can remove its sadness. Before the 13th of July this sadness was a presentiment; since then it has been a memory. Still on the wall in pale letters are the words “ou la m”—the remnant of that stern inscription “La fraternité, l’indivisibilité, ou la mort.”  9
  Alas! This great word, in which all the others are lost, is itself becoming effaced under the file of time. As one of the ancients said, “death dies” (mors moritur). The front door, in its frame of black paint, gives the whole house a funereal air. A kind of square vestibule, with a wretched porter’s lodge to the right, leads to a damp little court where the dank mossy pavement sends to the surface a cold sweat, as it were, in time of rain. This court is bounded by a wing of the building, streaked with cracks and mold. There is a well in one of the angles. On the right, a staircase of greasy stone steps, surmounted by an iron railing, leads up to a large landing lighted by a double casement. Under the stairs the eyes plunge into a sordid hollow, where there is a confusion of old household utensils, and where cellar doors open confusingly like shadowy mouths. This house was made for some sinister event.  10
  Charlotte, trim and alert, stepped out of the cab before the porte-cochère. Afterwards, the neighbors remembered their surprise at seeing a young woman with a green ribbon in her hair getting out of a carriage. First of all she had to brave the cross-grained portress in her lodge, a veritable female Cerberus, who, knowing that her tenant was ill and much beset, pitilessly refused to let her enter. Charlotte Corday insisted. Subdued by her urgent and resolute tone, the portress finally allowed her to go up-stairs.  11
  Marat was living upon the first floor. The staircase conducted to a long landing, at the end of which was an obscure kitchen window, covered with iron bars, beside a door painted yellow. This grim grating must have vividly touched Charlotte Corday’s imagination, and she fancied Marat in his lodging like a wild beast in its cage.  12
  She stopped near the barred window with its menacing air, before the door to the left. A strange coldness seized her heart. Her enemy was behind this light partition; and behind it too was her own future, the scaffold all ready and threatening! There was still time to retreat. She could return to Caen or sail to England. Easy, admissible joys held out loving arms to the young and beautiful woman, either under the trees of Normandy or on the white shores of Great Britain. The struggle before her was one of those irrevocable struggles where, like the bee, the victor leaves his life in the wound he inflicts.  13
  The sill of this door once crossed, she could never retrace her steps. This door upon which she was about to knock was the door to her tomb. She hesitated. The most fearless hand must needs tremble before this perilous entrance, over which, in letters visible to her excited imagination, she read the terrible sentence of the damned—“Leave all hope at the door.” True, she had dreamed, the blow once struck, of escaping and gaining a seaport; but this was so doubtful a chance, so light and fragile a thread to support the weight of her crime, that she could scarcely trust it. To shake the wood of this door was to awaken the dull and terrible sound which comes from a coffin-lid when touched. And there was something horrible, too, in this calm moment preceding so furious and violent an action as the murder of a man. She felt the need of gathering all her strength to hold the knife in her delicate white hands. She stood erect and motionless like the statue of Judith. Her hand seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. However, some one was coming up the stairs behind her, and the fixed resolution at the bottom of her heart conquered. The hesitations of the avenging arm before this fatal door ceased, and Charlotte Corday knocked.  14
  Marat was lying in his bath. The bath-room was dimly lighted by a window on the court. The only furniture was a block of wood, upon which papers, pens, and a lead inkstand were thrown pell-mell. Marat was writing. He was signing a petition to the administration in behalf of a poor widow with four children who had asked the aid of the People’s Friend.  15
  For several days, as we have said, Marat had not been able to stay out of the bath without being consumed by sharpest sufferings. There the agitated and volcanic little man tried to take the attitude and repose of the tomb where he was soon to rest. In these moments of solitude, preyed upon by horror of the death which was slowly and surely taking possession of his perishing body, Marat was pierced to the heart by an invisible sword, and bled within of an incurable wound. All his life this man had kept his sufferings to himself.  16
  As he neared the tomb his griefs surged up out of his breast and suffocated him. He glanced drearily over his life of crucifixion. When he remembered the ills he had endured for the cause of the Revolution, he asked himself if it would not have been better to have given himself to the calm and serious work of science. In mind he entered again his little room at Versailles, where the birds came to pick up the crumbs on his window-sill and where the trees cast their green shadows. Then he thought sadly how little joy, and that frothy and shadowed, was brought to the heart by the puissance of success in civil storms. Marat the persecuted, who in time had made himself a persecutor, offered in this moment a striking and terrible example of what he himself had once written:—  17
  “One would be tempted to accuse Heaven and to deny its justice, if there were not some consolation at sight of frightful tyrants themselves suffering the ills which they inflict upon others.”  18
  The great executioner of Divine justice had fallen into the cold and painful hands of the final torture. The blood of the 2d of September was dripping back upon his heart. Disease showed itself subtle and merciless to him, and played with his expiring body as with an elected victim, who in his one death must expiate all the violent deaths in which the popular influence of his newspaper had given him a sort of moral complicity.  19
  God purifies by fiery coals and by the bed of thorns, before he withdraws from the world those whose hateful mission has been to purify by the sword.  20
  Suddenly Marat heard in the ante-chamber the harsh voice of his housekeeper, contesting a very young voice whose clear and tempting tones reached him in his bath:—  21
  “Citizen Marat?”  22
  “This is the place, but he is not at home.”  23
  “I must see him. I have just come from Caen. I wrote him this morning.”  24
  “I tell you he cannot receive any one. He is ill. Call again in a few days.”  25
  “I implore you to give him my name. He must have had my letter. I am sure he will not refuse me a short interview.”  26
  The housekeeper, a rather nervous and neutral nature, gently but decidedly continued to refuse; and Charlotte, murmuring, was already turning back toward the door, which the woman seemed anxious to close behind her.  27
  Now a gentle emotion entered Marat’s heart with this fresh voice, which he thought he must have heard before. This young voice took him back to the better springtime years of his youth. Impressed by its purity, which made it seem the natural music of a beautiful spirit, he called to his friend, “Let her come in.”  28
  “But, citizen, you are worn out with business. You are suffering. The doctor has forbidden you to see any one.”  29
  “The doctors are ignorant fellows, who can do nothing to cure me. I won’t be a slave to them.”  30
  “But you should not admit every chance comer like that. There are rumors of assassination. You know yourself that the Royalists and the Girondists are plotting. Marat, you once told me that you were to die by the hand of a woman.”  31
  An old servant of Marat’s named Catherine, who claimed to be a sorceress and to divine the future, had predicted his violent death. “Take heed,” she had added, “against girls in red fichus.”  32
  “True,” answered Marat after a silence and a bitter sigh; “but I have no faith in such follies. Women don’t like me well enough to kill me.”  33
  “Well, I shall send away this intruder.”  34
  “No, I tell you; let her come in. This girl comes from Caen, where the rebel deputies are. She wrote me this morning. She is unhappy.” Marat emphasized the last words. Then the woman grumblingly obeyed, and showed the unknown into the bath-room. When Charlotte Corday entered, Marat had his head inclined upon his naked breast.  35
  The gloomy little room is at the back of the house; heavy silence reigns there night and day; a window, then of heavy divisions with dull glass, received light from the court.  36
  The woman stood motionless near the bath. The Gironde and the Mountain, as represented by Charlotte Corday and Marat, had a terrible struggle before them. Charlotte already bore signs of victory in her brilliant eyes, her robust health, her bright color, her magnificent arm and firm and resolute hand. Marat lay in his bath with outstretched arms; a white sheet draped the tub in careless folds. It looked like a bier. The woman stood looking fixedly. Her face had the fatal and extraordinary beauty called forth by an heroic deed. The old servant closed the door of the dark and narrow room, and left Charlotte almost touching Marat.
*        *        *        *        *
  All at once Marat uttered a great cry—“Help! Help!” and having uttered it, turned his head aside and died. The housekeeper and some servants of the house rushed to the bath-room. They found Marat with great drops of blood welling from his side, his eyes open, his tongue moving but speechless. The murderous knife had fallen on the floor. Charlotte Corday was standing near the window. At first she had put her hand to her head; then, calm, severe, and haughty, she seemed to be spell-bound beside the corpse. The pride of success, the realization of the immense thing she had accomplished, plunged her into a moral transport. In killing Marat she had killed the plebeian king of the Revolution.  38

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