A short story (in two parts) that I wrote at the beginning of this year. It’s historical fiction set in the French Revolution (1789-1794).
Part 1: Charles-Henri
When I was young I always saw our family as being old and uninteresting. It felt musty and cracked with tradition; the same occupation for over a century. How boring! A life without variety, choice. At least, that what I was facing – being the eldest of ten. Every one of my nine siblings would have that freedom of choice, but my life was decided for me a century before it had begun. I didn’t even like the family business.
My early life was spent in bustling Paris. I can still remember the markets – crowds swarming like flies over a carcass, fishwives shouting out their produce, unintelligible amongst the reverberating sound that comes from a great deal of people. Then, when I went to school, the bustle became that of Rouen, a city still as crowded, but possessing a beauty that Paris did not have. Rouen I loved. The streets were older and crammed with the weight of history. The school was gothic and draughty and the cries of the boys, my class, echoed fluently about the halls. It was a place where I could forget my inevitable future and peer into the great whirlpool of knowledge that was at my fingertips. But as I’ve found these things tend to do, the family profession eventually caught up with me.
It was the summer of my third year at school, my fourteenth year of life, when my father, taking the time out of his busy schedule, picked me up from the school in his coach. I was reluctant to go home, to leave this place and go back to Paris, which I was sure would swallow me whole. Just as we were leaving, having bid my teachers farewell, a voice spoke loudly behind me, addressing me. The family name was thrown high in the air for the whole crowd to see.
“Charles Sanson?” I stopped. My father turned around. The man behind us peered at my father through his large spectacles. “Yes, Charles Sanson!” He meant my father, not me. The man pursed his lips, raising his chin and frowning down at my father.
“Evil man.” he breathed angrily. My insides froze. My father wasn’t wearing his red coat. How did he recognise him?
My father stepped forward. “Excuse me?” he said, with forced politeness.
“This man!” the stranger shouted to the schoolyard. “He is a murderer!” his voice quivered with the accusation. “I will not have my son attend this school while his cursed man’s child remains here!”
I stared at him open mouthed for a long time. My father grabbed my hand and pulled me into the coach. As we drove away from Rouen, from the city I loved, I never took my eyes away from the window.
I never came back to Rouen. My father insisted I be tutored at home rather than attend a school. That meant living in Paris, with the crowds that threatened to suffocate me, with the smell that seemed to intoxicate the air and with my grandmother who met my eye each time with a shake of her head and a forbidding glance. I had never met an older woman; decrepit in looks and morals. She would bark at me after each lesson with the tutor, ask me what I was studying. When I replied she would shake her head and say, “the family business won’t need that! You ought to study physics and the human body.” I must admit that I had a mild interest in both those subjects, but never enough to please my grandmother. After many years of pleading, my father let me take up music and I learnt to play the violin and cello. I loved the music, the slow harmonious throb of the cello and the rapid, flowing chords of the violin. Whenever my grandmother caught me practicing she would shake her head with more vigor than usual and say, “Charles-Henri! Whatever will become of you? You cannot execute a man with music!” And sometimes, after she had left, I would whisper to myself, “but maybe I don’t want to execute men.”
In the end, it was a compromise that saved me. I was to go to university, to leave that dreaded house, but I would study medicine and physics. It would help me, my father said, when the time comes to take over the business. It was always The Business, never more than that. Sometimes I thought that maybe my father hated it as much as I did. Yet he put up with it, as did I, when I studied the sciences of the human body rather than art or music. But one mustn’t be fanciful, especially when the livelihood of the family is resting upon one’s head. And eventually it was the livelihood of my family that snatched me from my studies at university and dropped me into the murky waters of the family business at last.
I became an apprentice to my father when I was eighteen. The intricacies of human anatomy fresh in my mind, I took surprising interest in my father’s work, which pleased him immensely. There was much to learn before I could take over my father’s position. I had to learn which methods caused more suffering and what variables could be tampered with to increase or decrease the discomfort of the criminal. Many people spat at us and taunted us, asking me why it took me so long to learn the art of execution. But now I saw quite clearly that, rather, it was a science. Later that year, my uncle in Reims specifically requested my help with a case of his. It was to be a public spectacle: the execution of Damiens, attempter assassin of the King. He was to receive the most torturous punishment available, which was, at that time, drawing and quartering. My uncle and I pored over the details of the method, shortening this and lengthening that, changing minor details that would eventually have a larger effect. Poor Damiens, in particular, would notice that. Once the job was done and the attempted assassin well and truly dead, though my uncle thanked me and said that I’d done a marvelous job, he then retired and never watched another execution. Had I done something wrong?
I was now old enough to take a wife. All the times I had looked into the future, admiring pretty girls in Rouen, I never imagined I would have to search the filthy Parisian streets for a wife. Now, I discovered that if you looked close enough, peered through the grime, there were some bright jewels to be found. But my position didn’t help. I married once, only to have her leave me after a short time. Did I disgust her? Was she repelled by the business? Yet when I looked around, there were many others who killed people on a daily basis. Nobles sent hundreds of peasants to their deaths for the pettiest of crimes; stealing bread to feed starving mouths, practicing professions of ill-repute. After a short while, I married again. Marie-Anne was beautiful, but also kind. She did not seem disgusted or repelled by me; for that I was thankful. She bore me two sons, Gabriel first and then Henri. They were strong boys; Henri in particular was energetic and full of spirit. Whenever I looked upon them, however, I felt a touch of sadness against my heart. These, yet again, were two young boys whose futures had already been decided for them. They would never go to beautiful schools in Rouen or face crowds of people without the risk of being recognised. The family business would shame them forever.
They called me the ‘Gentleman of Paris’ now. The title befits the profession, I suppose. I was the man who people saw covered in blood, whose actions arose whimpers, prayers, screams of agony sometimes, who was the ‘Gentleman’ of the dirtiest, most bloodthirsty city in the whole world. I was not a gentleman. I never mixed with high society. I kept my head down in the street. My two sons, who were growing happy and healthy, were educated privately, as I was. I watched them grow with a growing sense of regret gnawing my insides. When would I be forced to recruit them into the family business alongside me?
It was around this time that I finally stopped my apprenticeship with my father. He was growing older and sicker by the day, unable now to walk the scaffolds, to present corpses to crowds. I had spent twenty years under his guidance. I knew all the tricks of the trade. I could kill men swiftly and painlessly, and I could cause the greatest suffering on earth. At thirty-nine years of age I received the blood-red coat from my father – the jacket he wore with every execution, the symbol of the Master Executioner. And with that, I became the true Gentleman of Paris. I performed executions almost daily. Often people would come to watch, especially those who had been wronged by the criminal. I never remembered the faces of those whom I killed. It wasn’t important to me. Like so many other workers in Paris, my job consisted of following orders rather than giving them. No matter what people jeered, muttered or spat, I never considered myself responsible for the death of a single man.
Now the Great Revolution was dawning. Paris, already an ugly place, was being painted with blood. The air, already noxious to me, was thick with the pleas of the poor, the angry speeches of the revolutionaries at the Palais Royale, the hopeless laments of those in prison. Suddenly, to suffer wasn’t good enough. The little people of France, forever lapping at the feet of those with wealth and power, became an insuppressible force, a tidal wave. They engulfed the giants and reversed their positions. Now the criminals were the Nobility. There were to be an unfathomable amount of executions. How to perform them all? An execution was a process that took days of careful planning. But the people would not wait. Then a famous scientist came forward with a contraption he had built – to be called the guillotine. Not trusting someone who was not a true professional of the field, I experimented myself with height and weight. It was a very intricate devise that would decapitate a person quickly and easily, meant to cause death without pain. Pain was not fashionable anymore. Not even the worst of criminals would suffer through a good guillotining. With my son, Gabriel, who had taken more than a mild interest in the profession, I took to decapitating straw figures first, then sheep and after, human corpses. After less than a week of experimentation, the Assembly, who had surreptitiously taken over rule of France, approved of it and I was to execute my first criminal using this contraption.
Over all the methods of execution I had been witness to and performed over my years, the guillotine was the most frightening. Why so? Because it was effortless; easy. One didn’t need more than three assistants, four, if the criminal was particularly reluctant to be beheaded, when previous executions had warranted six. Tens of people could be executed within a day, and they were. The Revolution wanted hundreds, even thousands, executed. In Paris, crowds gathered to the Place de Grève, where my own personal guillotine was set up, to watch the spectacles. The crowds weren’t happy just to see the man’s head fall into the basket; it needed then to be held up, shown to every corner of the square. People would jeer and laugh at them. Sometimes the head would be snatched out of my hand and put on top of a pike to be paraded around. The people of Paris had ceased to be people and had become savages, animals. When, one day, the name of our former King appeared on my daily list, I felt a pang of reluctance. But what was he? He was no more than a man. I had already executed hundreds of men. The man named Louis Capet was no different. After the head rolled into the basket and I held it up to the whole of Europe, the whole world, Parisians drank from goblets of his blood, toasting to the Revolution. It was enough to make even the man whose very occupation was to kill feel revolted.
The year was 1792. I was now growing old – my thick hair had turned wispy and grey and every day it became more difficult to mount those few steps to the scaffold. The business was not lost, though. Gabriel, now twenty-three years of age, was my enthusiastic assistant. Henri had joined the military and earned himself captain of the National Guard in Paris. I was proud, but a still a little sad. Either way, both my sons had careers in which they killed people. In a way, the family business was inescapable. Henri, we had lost to the fervor of battle, the excitement of war. Gabriel, however, made a promising assistant. I could see my strict, disapproving grandmother looking at my younger son with fond eyes – eyes that I never saw.
One day, Gabriel slipped. I was, of course, afraid that something might happen to him – as a parent is when their young child picks up a knife. But his death came simply, sneaking up in an unsurprising, but heartbreaking manner. Proud as always, my son held the severed head up to the crowd, the blood running in a stream onto the heads of the swarming Parisians. And then a cry and a crash. They laughed, the crowd did. The clumsy executioner. Fell off his own scaffold. Gabriel died quickly, I calculated, and without much pain. Hardly a more humane death could be achieved with a guillotine, though it hardly eased the burden of loss.
Henri was called away from the front immediately. Although Gabriel was only my assistant when he died, my health was becoming steadily worse. I could no longer mount the steps to the scaffold without assistance. I would teach Henri, and then retire. With sad, reluctant eyes, Henri accepted the news. His future was ripped away from him and replaced with one he loathed, detested. But Paris, roiling, bloodthirsty Paris, was never patient nor sympathetic. Henri was given less than a year to learn what had taken me twenty. In the height of the revolution, under the shadow of our guillotine steeped in blood, Henri received my own red coat. At first, it did not fit. I insisted he ask a tailor to fix it, but he said not to. He would grow into it, surely. And so he did.
It was a feeling that I did not grow accustomed to quickly – that of watching rather than performing. I saw my elder son take up the job that one century, four generations, required him to have. The reluctance in his eyes slowly dissipated. The red coat tightened around his body. He faced the day’s work without trepidation now, sometimes with excitement. He met France’s most famous revolutionaries and they greeted him like an old friend. While I could still walk on my own two feet, I came to the Place de Grève to watch him. I was proud in a way that a father must be of his son. He carried the family name well, although none believed him to be as great as his predecessor. Free now to listen to the buzzing of the streets, I learnt so much. I was known as ‘The Great Sanson’. People remembered the name and the face. One day, many years later, the great emperor Napoleon met me and asked me if I could still sleep well after having killed so many. I replied as I had said to myself for so many years: if emperors, kings and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner? We do no more than follow orders and ensure the job is done. As a worker who is quick and efficient in his business is deemed a ‘good worker’, cannot my son and I, who work to execute in the quickest, most humane circumstances, be deemed ‘good executioners’? After all, we’ve had over a century of practice. Executing is, of course, the family business.
Part 2: Henri
My father once insisted that I was so very like him. It is one of my earliest memories. He is tousling my hair as I jump and scamper around the garden, catching butterflies in my small hands. “Don’t kill it.” my father warned as I trapped the panicking insect in a fleshy cage. I gasped and quickly let the insect flutter away, flapping lopsidedly. “Did I hurt it?” I squealed. “Is it going to die?” I started to cry. My father patted me on the back. “You are so very like me, my son.” It took me years to find out what that really meant.
Of course, mother never took Gabriel or I to any executions. We never knew about our father’s occupation. We never went out onto the streets, never mingled with other children our age. There was no way we could have heard the words passing from one Parisian mouth to another at the sight of my father. We had never heard of ‘The Great Sanson’, though we assumed he was a relative of ours. My father encouraged us to study science and anatomy, telling us that it would help us to continue with the family business. Neither of us knew what the family business was, exactly. Gabriel, my perfect younger brother, took to anatomy like babies do walking – with difficulty at first, but smoothly after practice. I never achieved more than a crawl. Though I could always see disappointment in my father’s eyes, I never gave up trying to please him.
Midway through my teenage years, while I was struggling with the confines of our Paris home and the strict regime of study set by our private tutor, I found out exactly what the family business was. I had had my suspicions for a while. Surely father was a butcher; the way he sometimes joked about blood on his clothes. But then, surely father was a busker of some sort; with his stories of crowds surrounding him to watch him work. But I never saw father wearing a butcher’s apron, nor mentioning meat or animals. Similarly, I never saw in his possession any music instruments and did not doubt that, with his figure, he would be a terrible dancer. Eventually my father ended my guessing games, bringing my brother and I together to tell us the truth. He told us simply, without details and without lies.
“Do you know what happens to people who commit a crime?”
“They become criminals!” Gabriel said proudly. Father chuckled.
“Yes, but what happens to criminals?”
“They are put in gaol.” Gabriel answered again.
Father paused. “Not all of them.”
“Some of them die.” I interrupted them. It was obviously the answer he wanted. Father’s face turned pale for a moment. “Yes, Henri. Some of them die. Now, who, do you suppose, is the one to kill them?”
“An executioner.” I said. With the word, I felt my stomach drop.
Father nodded, his face very serious. “Now, you understand that every family has to have a business. The family business. Some families are bakers, some are tailors-”
“Artists!” Gabriel interrupted.
“Yes, some are artists-” Father said patiently.
“Yes. And some families are executioners.” he said. Plainly, simply.
“That’s what we are, isn’t it?” I asked. But I already knew the answer. Father nodded, gravely, slowly. I stood up. Suddenly, the sight of my father’s face, large and kind, sent waves of disgust through me.
“What’s an executioner?” Gabriel piped in. I didn’t stay to hear father’s explanation. I wanted no part in the family business any longer. I wanted no place in this family, this house, this city. Every small detail – father’s stories about crowds, about blood, his willingness for us to learn anatomy – fell into place. From that day I was determined never to follow in the family business.
It took me a long time to emancipate myself from my family. Although I felt disgust every time my father’s hand touched my shoulder, with every smile he gave me, I never showed it outwardly. I was simply the son who was no good at anatomy. Unfortunately, my father told my mother in secret, he would never make a good executioner. Finally, I found my escape. I joined the military at a young age and became infatuated with the life I found there. Life was exciting. I never stayed in one place too long. I never had to hear the murmurs of the bloodthirsty Parisians, nor see my father performing his occupation. I took great pleasure in leaving my Paris life behind me. I moved up the ranks quickly and with each promotion I sent a letter to my father, out of sheer politeness and nothing more.
Although military life was perpetually exciting, the eve of the Revolution made it more so. I was captain of the National Guard in Paris; back in the town of my birth, yet feeling the same detachment as I had many miles away. I rounded up hoards of aristocrats, came face to face with their powdered wigs and extravagant clothes. I detested them as much as any good patriot. It was the thought of the guillotine that made me quiver, though. Though I tried to close my eyes and ears to it, I could not help knowing about ‘The Great Sanson’, master of the guillotine in Paris. People came to watch now. Executions were public spectacles. The people had turned ugly, animalistic. And my father was at the head of it all.
My brother was there too, of course. Always the perfect son, he followed his father into the family business. From what I heard, he could always be seen on the scaffold, sometimes displaying a head to the crowd. Young, foolish, naïve Gabriel. Now a murderer.
My marriage, to beautiful, fragile Marie-Louise, calmed me a little. I no longer felt such anger towards my father. I gradually began to accept, as the revolution pounded through its course, that executions were a part of life in Paris. The prayers, the blood, the rattling of the tumbrels, the smooth slicing of the blade were normal occurrences now. In those days, I was a police officer of the tribunals. Every day, I saw men who would soon be dead. I ensured that they all made their way onto a tumbrel, hands bound, hair cut above the neck, and stopped the odd daredevil from escaping. I was delivering them into the hands of my father, who delivered them into the hands of God. This was what my military life had led me to. Although I had tried so hard, I had not escaped the family business.
My father called on me one day in great distress. His eyes were ringed with red and his voice quivered as he told me the source of his grief. Out of all the very many important things he told me that day, I remember but one thing: when he came to me, he was wearing his red coat.
“Henri,” he addressed me, “Henri… your brother…” My heart leapt in my chest. As I had done so many years before, I once again guessed what he was about to say. He looked into my eyes and must have seen, must have known that I knew. He sank to the floor, pulling me to my knees. “He is gone!” he wept, and I pulled him close to me, comforting him. So many thoughts raced through my mind. How had Gabriel died? Had the guillotine malfunctioned? Or had the crowd ripped him to pieces?
“I’m the only heir.” I whispered softly. “The heir to the family business.” As if to respond to this statement, my father wept harder.
The next day, I found myself on the scaffold. I thought, somewhat queasily, as I walked up those steps, that I was one of the few men to climb the scaffold who would ever climb down again. Perhaps I should have felt privileged. I did not. My father gave me simple instructions. The contraption was easy to use, he said. I could have laughed. Who would have known that killing people was so easy? I began my work as apprentice that very day. I had hardly had time to send a notification to the head of the National Guard. My friends in the police had chuckled at my uncomfortable ways.
“The family name is finally catching up with you, Henri.” they said.
Perhaps I would have been happier executing petty criminals first. Perhaps a murderer. Somebody who had done something extraordinarily bad. Somebody who I could hate, loathe. I was good at hating. I was not good at executing. My hands shook as I bound my first ever victim, a baker accused of plotting with the English. The crowds whispered. “He is not nearly as good as the younger Sanson, or his father.” I had to become my brother, my father. All the choice I dreamed of having had evaporated. Every day, my father became frailer. Every day, the people screamed for more blood. And then, one day, my hands stopped shaking.
Paris was going mad. The world was going mad. If you couldn’t handle the madness, you were accused. If you were accused, you would eventually meet me. One of my assistants would tie your hands while I raised the blade above your neck. When the time was right, the moment arrived; I would allow the blade to drop. Your head would roll into the basket. Blood would stream through the wicker straws. I would pick up your head and show the crowd, and they would roar and scream with delight. No longer a person but a symbol of suffering and grief, now dead. What could be a more joyous occasion? And so, one day I allowed myself to celebrate. I locked away my conscience and accepted my father’s red jacket. I was learning to carry on the family business.
My father would watch me from somewhere within the crowd. I would not try to find his face. Instead, I would busy myself, sometimes reading through the list again. Sometimes I would find a name that was vaguely familiar. One day I found myself executing the former Queen of France. I said to myself that it wasn’t possible, that this gaunt woman could not be! Yet she mounted the scaffold with dignity and poise. She was brave. Perhaps she was a better traitor than she was a queen. And then, a few days later, I was executing revolutionaries. People who had once excited the crowds and swayed them into action were now the subject of their taunts and jeering as they made their way up the scaffold. I remembered each of their deaths. Some were proud and silent – Madame Roland, whose salon had been so very famous – and some had to be dragged up those final steps – Hébert, who had been the hero of the san-culottes. In April, I met Desmoulins – who fought his way to the blade crying the name of his wife – and Danton, who greeted me as if we were acquaintances and made me promise to show his great, scarred head to the crowd. My father called me lucky; I was meeting the most prominent people in society! Yes, I met them just as they left society for good.
It was difficult to keep up with the politics of those times. Every time one turned around, more people were turning from patriots to traitors. Those who had been praised just yesterday, I found on my list tomorrow. On a warm afternoon in July, I watched yet another tumbrel full of people arrive at the scaffold. Yet these ones looked oddly familiar. Yes, these were the country’s greatest politicians! Hardly recognizable without powder and cravats, there was Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon! Oh, but there were a few. It would take a while to get through all of them. And the crowd would want to see the head of every one. How long it took to strap Couthon to the board! A good hour at least! And the way Hanriot had screeched! As I led Saint-Just up the stairs of the scaffolding, I noted the air of indifference the man had about him. It was unusual. There was nothing. Not pride, not regret, not fear, nothing. His coldness startled me a little. But at least he was no effort. Robespierre, the ringleader, with a broken jaw, was quite the opposite. How I had felt the hatred of the crowd, the surging wave of abhorrence towards this man! How weak he seemed! He had not even the strength to whimper, to cry out. Could he even feel the pain? I ripped at the bandage on his face and the small man let out an ugly cry. I felt disgust freeze my organs. I wanted to execute him quickly. Get him away from me! The blade dropped with a swift thunk and relief swept through me.
I am sometimes surprised at how quickly I became accustomed to death. It was everywhere around me. Sometimes I dreamed death. But I was never under the guillotine, I always dropped the blade. I hated watching them quiver, cry and scream. How could they withstand such emotion! I sometimes thought perhaps I was jealous of them. They were capable of such emotion and I capable of none. But I had learnt early on in this life, in this business, that emotion was not necessary, in fact, highly burdening. It was better to live without it.