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The Pall Mall Magazine, September 1906, pp. 362-369.

The Baker of Rousillon

by Rafael Sabatini

It was in Brumaire of the year 2 of the French Republic, One and Indivisible–November of 1793 by the calendar of slaves–that, whilst on my way to rejoin my regiment–then before Toulon–I was detained in Rousillon by orders of no less a personage than Robespierre himself, and billeted for three days upon a baker and dealer in wines of the name of Bonchatel.

This Bonchatel proved an excellent host. He was a man of whimsical and none too loyal notions concerning the Republic, and to me he expressed those notions with an amusing and dangerous frankness, explaining his indiscretion in so trusting me by the statement that he knew an officer was not a mouchard.

Had not Fate decreed that Bonchatel should have an enemy who gave him some concern, it is likely I had found him a yet pleasanter host–though it is also likely that he had continued a baker to the end of his days. As it was, he would fall ever and anon into fits of abstraction; his brow would be clouded, and his good-humoured mouth screwed with concern. To the dullest it might have been clear that he nursed a secret sorrow.

"Citizen-Captain," said he on the second day of my sojourn at his house, "you have the air of a kind-hearted man, and I will confide in you a matter that vexes me not a little, and fills me at times with the gravest apprehensions."

And with that he proceeded to relate how a ruffianly cobbler, originally named Coupri, but now calling himself Scævola to advertise his patriotism, who–by one of the ludicrous turns in the machinery of the Revolution–had been elected President of the Committee of Public Safety of Rousillon, had cast the eyes of desire upon Amélie (Bonchatel's only daughter) and sought her to wife. Ugly as the Father of Sin himself, old and misshapen, the girl had turned in loathing from his wooing, whilst old Bonchatel had approved her attitude, and bidden the one-time cobbler take his suit to the devil.

"I saved my child then," my host concluded, "but I am much afraid that it was no more than a postponement. This Scævola swore that I should bitterly regret it, and since then he has spared no effort to visit trouble upon me. Should he succeed, and should the Committee decree my imprisonment, or my death even, upon some trumped-up charge, I shudder to think of what may befall my poor Amélie."

I cheered the man as best I might, making light of his fears and endeavouring to prove them idle. Yet idle they were not. I realised it then, knowing the power that such a man as Scævola might wield, and I was to realise it yet more keenly upon the morrow.

I was visited in the afternoon of the next day by a courier, who brought me a letter from "the Incorruptible," wherein he informed me that he would be at Rousillon that night at ten o'clock. He bade me wait upon him at the Mairie, keeping his coming a secret from all without exception.

Now between my receipt of that letter and the advent in Rousillon of the all-powerful Robespierre there was played out in the house of Bonchatel a curious comedy that had tragedy for a setting.

Scarce was my courier departed, when into the shop lounged an unclean fellow in a carmagnole, who demanded a two-pound loaf of bread. Misliking his looks, Bonchatel asked to see his money, whereupon, with a curse upon all aristo-bakers who did not know a patriot and a true man when they saw one, the fellow produced a soiled and greasy assignat for twenty francs, out of which he bade him take payment. But Bonchatel shook his head.

"If you will have my bread, my friend, you must pay money for it."

"Name of a name, citizen," roared the other, "what am I offering you?"

"A filthy scrap of worthless paper," returned Bonchatel, stung to so fittingly describe it by the other's insolence.

There was an evil gleam in the patriot's bloodshot eye.

"Now, by St. Guillotine, I would citizen Scævola had heard those words, and you would have done your future baking in another oven, wherein you would have played the rôle of the loaf," he rejoined. "Do you, miserable federalist that you are, dare to apply such terms to an assignat of the French Republic?

"My friend," said Bonchatel, endeavouring to hedge, "I spoke hastily, maybe. But tell me: to whom shall I tender that paper in my turn? Who will accept it as money?"

"Why, any man that is not a traitor to the Nation."

"Then it must be that there are none but traitors in France. See you, my friend, I have upstairs a trunk full of these notes, which have been tendered me of late, and which I have taken, but which none will take from me."

"The Republic will cash them, failing all others," cried the customer.

"The Republic?" blazed Bonchatel, with fresh indiscretion. "Out of empty coffers?"

"Look you, citizen-baker," said the other, with that air of exaggerated toleration that marks a temper at its lowest ebb. "I am not come here to talk politics, but to buy bread. Will you or will you not sell it me?"

"I will gladly, for payment of coin."

"You definitely refuse this assignat?"

"Definitely."

The patriot gathered up the rejected note, folded it with ostentation, and moved towards the door. On the threshold he turned. "You will be sorry for this, citizen," he threatened, and was gone.

Poor Bonchatel looked at me out of a face that had grown very pale. "You see, Captain, how I am persecuted," he complained.

"I see that you have behaved in a very unwise and hot-headed manner," I answered, though not unkindly. "Surely you had done better to have given this fellow the loaf he wanted, rather than take the consequences of his complaint to the Revolutionary Committee."

"Give him the loaf?" returned Bonchatel. "But that would not have been all! I should have been forced also to give him change in silver for his twenty francs."

"Even that might be easier to suffer than–" I stopped.

"Than the guillotine, you would say, Captain. But, my faith, if I must die, I would as soon be guillotined as starved; and if this state of things is to continue I must assuredly come to penury ere long. I did not exaggerate when I told him that I had a boxful of assignats. They have been forced upon me in this manner, and unless I am to be utterly ruined I must cry halte-là, once and for all, and refuse paper that I cannot in my turn convert into money without turning informer. Let them guillotine me and make an end of it," he concluded stoically, as he dropped into a chair.

"And your daughter?" I ventured.

"Ah, Bon Dieu, yes. What is to become of her, misérable that I am!"

The tyranny and injustice of the thing revolted me. Was there nought I might do? Then, in a flash, I remembered Robespierre's approaching visit. I would appeal to him. Yet when he came to learn the charge that was advanced against Bonchatel he would be little likely to pity him. I thought hard whilst Bonchatel sat cursing his fate and praying for the damnation of Scævola, yet without at the moment arriving at any solution of the difficulty.

At eight o'clock that night there came a loud knocking at Bonchatel's door, and a moment later the baker, very pale and trembling, entered my room. "He is here, Captain," he cried. "Scævola himself has come, and he has brought the whole Committee with him."

"Peste," I ejaculated, "he has himself well attended, this cobbler-president. You had best admit them, my friend," I added, and as I spoke I was thinking busily.

"My boy has gone to open. What shall I do, Captain? Can you give me no help?" In his despair he was rocking his arms to and fro.

"Tell me," I inquired, "is the Committee of Rousillon given to extreme measures?"

"The Committee of Rousillon is Scævola. What he wills, the others do–and they call this liberty and equality. God help poor France!"

"What manner of men are they?"

"The very flower of the gutter–the very scum of Rousillon, else would they never have elected Scævola their president."

"Are they men who would easily be tempted to a meal?"

"Aye are they–famished as rats, hungry as they are unclean."

"And thirsty?"

"Thirsty as the desert, and as drunken as France herself–poor, poor France!"

"Bonchatel," said I, "attend to what I am about to say." And in as few words as I could, I gave him sounder advice than ever a man purchased in the shop of an attorney. He listened to me with brightening eye; he chuckled when I had done, and softly rubbed his palms together; and when he turned to go below he had regained his composure, and walked with the elastic gait of a young man.

I followed him down, and in his shop I found the committee of ten–a dirty company that would have put to the blush even those wild, ragged brigands that marched from Marseilles to Paris in the summer of '92.

They greeted Bonchatel with sullen, unfriendly glances, that boded ill. Then, seeing me, Scævola stood forward, and hailed me in the name of the Republic as choicely sent to witness how the Committee of Public Safety of Rousillon dealt with a traitor. He was, I think, the foulest-looking creature to which ever the name of man was applied. Certainly no pride of office had inspired in him a desire for cleanliness. He wore a blouse, greasy, patch-relieved breeches, wooden sabots, and the eternal red cap of the patriot. His waist was untidily cinctured by the tricolor sash of office, which acted as belt for a rusty hanger and receptacle for a brace of horse-pistols. His brow was low, his eyes small and cunning, and the rest of his face enveloped in a coarse, straggling, iron-grey beard.

Clearly he set the fashions for his companions, who differed from him only in slight details; the general air was the same.

"Citizen Bonchatel," he began, in a voice of thunder, "know you the object of this visit?"

"You are not come, I take it, to buy bread?" Bonchatel inquired meekly.

"We do not buy bread–the children of France do not buy bread from traitors."

"Traitors?" echoed my host. "This to me? Citizens, you are come hither to make merry."

A sardonic grin spread on Scævola's face. "We are come hither to do justice," he amended viciously. "Answer me, citizen: did you an hour ago refuse to accept, in payment for the loaf which he came here to purchase, the assignat tendered you by a citizen of the French Republic?"

"I–refuse an assignat?" gasped Bonchatel like an actor born.

"Did you, or did you not?"

"But what a question? If there is a form of money that takes my fancy, it is this paper-money of the Republic. It is so–so convenient, Citizen-President, so light, so–so eminently portable. Why, I have converted all my poor savings into assignats. I–"

"Enough lies!" burst out Scævola, showing his fangs.

"Lies? Oh, citizen, what lie is it has been carried to you? –for I see now that you are in earnest. Assuredly some malicious, ill-disposed person would do poor Bonchatel an injury. And I mind me now that I lack not enemies in Rousillon, concerning whom it has for some time been my intention to appeal to our enlightened Committee, so that justice may be done me. I take this opportunity of your presence here, citizens, upon the investigation of a charge that is utterly unfounded, to lay before you my very serious complaint."

"Of what does he talk?" broke in the president, with a snarl of contempt. "What charge do you call unfounded? Tremble, fool, for the vengeance of the Nation is upon you. The man who came to you for bread was not the workman he seemed, but a spy sent out by this Committee. We heard of your refusal yesterday to accept an assignat, and mistrusting our informant–for how believe one whom was accounted a true patriot capable of so vile a conduct?–we sent an emissary of our own to-day to put you to the test."

Bonchatel smiled suavely, and suavely waved his hand, as if to put aside a trivial matter that vexed him not at all. "The falseness of the accusation you appear to have received against me is a matter which I shall have, I trust, no difficulty in making clear."

"Do so, then," bellowed Scævola.

"A moment, citizen. I would first have you appreciate the magnitude of the injustice whereof I am a victim, and I beseech you hear my complaint. Certain malevolent and slanderous persons of Rousillon have spread it abroad that the bread I sell is coarse, and my wines green and undrinkable. You may conceive, citizens, how distressing to me is this complaint, and how damaging to my trade, since my customers, having given ear to that slander, have conveyed their patronage elsewhere, and my trade is rapidly diminishing."

"How does this concern the assignat ?" demanded Scævola impatiently.

"It does not; but it concerns me. It concerns a citizen of Rousillon, whom it is your sacred duty–as the trustees of the public safety and welfare–to protect. Now were I to have the voices of judges so impartial and honest as are you, and of so weighty an influence as is yours, citizens, to proclaim false those slanders, I should of a certainty confound my enemies and win back my customers."

"But the assignat?" roared Scævola.

"Patience, Citizen President," returned Bonchatel calmly; and the president, shrugging his shoulders in his despair, resigned himself to the baker's irrepressible address.

"Now, citizens," pursued Bonchatel, "ere you can do me the justice I crave at your hands, you must satisfy yourselves that my complaint is not without grounds, and that my detractors have lied. For this there could be, citizens, no better occasion than the present, now that you are all here assembled. And to the end that you may pronounce judgment I invite you ail to sit down and taste my bread and my wine."

There was amongst that body of half-starved tatterdemalions a stir as of a breeze through a forest, and on more faces than one satisfaction was writ large. But Scævola had that vengeance of his too prominently in his mind to permit himself to be so readily allured–for all that his throat grew dry, no doubt, at the very name of wine.

"This, citizen Bonchatel," he announced with great firmness, "is a matter that we may pass on to discuss after we have settled the question of the assignat."

"Why, as for that trivial business," rejoined the baker brazenly, "I had thought we might discuss it at table. Have no care, citizens; it is a slander I shall easily confute."

"But yes: at table," cried one.

"Assuredly these are things that may be best discussed over a meal," protested another. And in the wake of these came other equally avid assents, born of their ill-fed condition and natural drought.

Scævola swung round to face them with a snarl. "Name of a name, citizens," he fumed, "are we to observe no rules of procedure? No, no–" (he waved his hands frantically in his search for the word), "no natural sequence?"

"What need of it?" demanded one.

"Why, yes," put in another; "are we free men, or are we bound by the rules that bore the late tyrants to their destruction? The citizen desires our judgment upon his bread and wine; to refuse would be culpably to neglect our sacred duty to the Nation–it would be criminal, my friends. Why then delay it for the sake of a matter of twenty francs?"

Bonchatel watched the struggle with eager eyes. A happy thought occurred to him to heighten the attractions of his board. "Amélie," he called from the door leading to the interior, "bring that fine smoked ham from the kitchen, and the cold roast capon that was for our supper. Thus, citizens," he said, turning to them again, "you will be better able to judge how my bread tastes and how my wine drinks when taken with proper viands."

For Scævola to rule them after that was an impossibility. He made the attempt, but at last tossed his arms to heaven in a gesture of helplessness and despair, as his committee tumbled pêle-mêle into the inner room, where a table was spread, bearing a dozen flasks of stout red wine, a basket of newly-baked bread, and an array of platters laden with pieces of capon and slices of succulent ham. Like a pack of famished wolves the Committee of Public Safety of Rousillon fell upon the fare provided, with never another thought for the business of the Republic and the rejected assignat which had been the cause of their coming.

Scævola, however, as he passed in in the wake of his followers, found occasion to murmur through set teeth to Bonchatel, "For to-night you have tricked me, my friend, and you have gained a respite. To-morrow we will resume the matter of the assignat."

With a leer and a grim nod he passed on and took his place at table. And so, in the hour of his triumph, poor Bonchatel's victory was dashed again with fear. In trepidation he approached me to whisper what had passed.

It was half-past eight already. If by ten o'clock we could reduce that pack of sans-culottes –by my faith, the title applied to them almost literally–to a state of helpless intoxication, I had a notion that Bonchatel would be saved, not until the morrow only, but for all time.

"Trust to me, Bonchatel," said I, for I was sanguine of success, "and for your part see that they are well plied with wine–particularly our friend the president."

He looked at me inquiringly, but, taking my seat at table, I threw myself into the conversation, and saw to it that the president's glass was ever at the brim. And so things fell out as I had hoped. The overfeeding of stomachs that were more accustomed to a mild starvation produced a torpor that was greatly aided by the wine. At half-past nine, when I rose from the table, I was–with the exception of Bonchatel himself–the only sober man present. Two members of the committee lay prone upon the board, snoring a hideous duet. Of the others, seven had slid from their chairs in quest of more ample quarters on the floor, whilst the eighth was still tippling bravely, and singing an old royalist song, for which he might have been guillotined had his companions been in a condition to have understood him. As for Scævola himself, his head was propped against the seat of his chair, and with legs thrust under the table he slept, peaceful as a babe.

Enjoining Bonchatel on no account to disturb them till I should return, I repaired to the mairie. I roused the mayor and bade him hold himself in readiness to receive the Citizen-Deputy Robespierre, who might arrive at any moment.

It was ten minutes after ten when a berline rattled down the street, pulling up at the mairie and depositing the slight, elegant figure of the great man of the Revolution–the incorruptible Maximilien Robespierre.

"Captain Verignac?" he inquired; and when I had answered in the affirmative, he bade me follow him indoors.

His letter had intimated to me that one of his motives for keeping secret the imminence of his visit was his desire to take the Committee of Public Safety by surprise. He was on a tour of inquiry, and by coming thus, unannounced, he was the better able to judge of the efficacy of the committees he inspected. It was upon his arrival at Rousillon that night that I had built, in suggesting to Bonchatel the plan he had adopted.

"You are choicely arrived, citizen," said I, with meaning emphasis. He looked up, inquiry in his mild eyes. "If you are not fatigued, citizen, I would ask you to accompany me to a house close by. You will be able to see the Committee of Rousillon in a rather effective manner."

"Why, certainly I will go with you. I like taking these bodies unawares. Are they sitting?"

"I left most of them lying, citizen," said I. "But you shall judge."

He took up the cloak he had doffed, and came with me, firing questions as we went, which I avoided, lest I should rob him of some of the shock that awaited him. I knocked softly on Bonchatel's door, and the baker came, himself, to open.

"Are they here?" I inquired.

"Yes, and likely to be till morning," he answered, as he admitted us, and never dreaming who it was came with me.

By the door of the inner room I paused, and turning to Robespierre–"In there, citizen, you will find the Committee of Rousillon at the business of the Nation in the manner in which it understands this business. Behold these patriots!" And throwing wide the door, I stepped aside that he might enter.

Amidst a chaos of empty bottles, fallen platters, broken glasses, and swinish sleepers, stood the Incorruptible in silence for some moments, his long, curious nose up-tilted, sniffing the air of that orgie chamber. Then he waved a daintily laced wrist towards those sans-culottes.

"Is this–is this the Committee?"

"It is, citizen–and I have the honour to present to you its president."

"This is no occasion for flippancy," he said, in cold reproof.

"I am not flippant," I cried–"I am afire with indignation."

"Is this the wonted method of their meetings?" he inquired.

"It would be a curious coincidence that it should be an exceptional one on the very night of your arrival at Rousillon, would it not?"

My evasion convinced him.

"Whose house is this?" he asked.

"That of Citizen Bonchatel, a baker upon whom I am billeted–which is how I come to know of this affair."

He looked up in surprise. "But how come they here?"

"Ah! that is the most outrageous characteristic of the whole affair. They came hither on a trumped-up matter of an assignat to institute an inquiry. This is how they discharge that duty. They have drunk an ocean of poor Bonchatel's wine."

A gleam of indignation flashed from his eye. "So! A matter of pretext to plunder a peaceable citizen," said he, catching at my insinuation. "Nothing less than tyranny."

"What else?" quoth I.

"We will soon set matters right. It were a pity to rouse them now. Have the National Guard called, and let them wake in prison. The new president of the new committee can deal with them upon a charge of negligence to the sacred interests of the Republic, and abuse of the position they occupied under it. What manner of man is this Bonchatel?"

I gave him a list of my host's virtues which more than satisfied him.

"I will see to it that he is appointed to the vacant presidency. It is well to have men of the people who are yet trustworthy. It emphasizes the new laws of equality, and shows also how virtue and merit may win any man promotion. To-morrow we will elect a fresh committee also."

When I returned from accompanying Robespierre back to the mairie, where he was to spend the night, I found that the National Guard had already executed his orders, and that the late Comité de Salut Public was sleeping itself sober in gaol. Bonchatel I found surveying the room wherein they had supped with sorrowful eyes.

"By my faith, Captain," he exclaimed, "I had been better advised had I taken that assignat."

"What now?" I asked, surprised.

"It would have been no more than a matter of twenty francs, whilst they have drunk more than I can reckon with dry eyes."

"But, sacré nom!" quoth I, "you forget that you are saved from Scævola's toils and made President of the Committee of Rousillon in his place–practically you are the ruler of Rousillon."

"True," said he whimsically; "which means that I must now become a true patriot and a true republican, no matter what my feelings. Soit!" he sighed. "I think we might make a fair beginning by sending Scævola to the national barber."


This story appears on The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini web site.
To read other short stories, return to the Uncollected Works Bibliography page.