The rooms at Rue de Richelieu are pleasantly warm, and yet he shivers a little, meeting Marguerite Saint-Just’s bright gaze. “Where had you disappeared?” she is asking him. “I was feeling so very abandoned.” She is smiling, and yet there is an overtone of hurt in her voice, and he has to remind himself that this is a playful hurt only, a way for an attentive hostess to make her guests feel special… “I had to go back home,” he says dryly.
“Home?” she asks interestedly and perches at the edge of the nearest armchair. “I hope you weren’t called away by bad news. Is everyone in your family well?”
“I … have no family left,” he says, watching her spread the skirts of her dress, perhaps a little too fancy for a sincere citizeness, devoted to public good – and yet it is her job, isn’t it, to look enchanting. Or, perhaps, he simply can’t begrudge her this. Perhaps he is too far yet from the kingdom of reason, no matter how much he tries. “Not there, at least.”
“I won’t say I’m sorry to hear this,” Marguerite answers with a small smile, “since it helps to keep you in Paris, and I am selfish about having good company. But please tell me, why have you gone back, then!”
“I…” He pauses. The events of his last week’s visit home are still a bit too fresh and vivid in his mind, a painting more than a committee paper. He has never liked to tell stories which were too emotional – but he knows perfectly well that it is precisely such kind of story Marguerite wants to hear; what use, to her, would be a committee paper?
Fine, then. He cannot play an expected role as well as her – few people can – but he would do his best to play this small role, the one of a polite guest. And do what it requires him to do, including telling entertaining stories.
And so he tells her of his journey back home, of these peculiar hours between times and places, shut in a bumpy old stagecoach – probably the same one that last took him to Paris more than a year ago, and of the sapling carefully packed into his luggage, on top of the shirts, almost the sole reminder of his present and of the direction of his future.
He tells her of the day they had planted this sapling he brought from Paris so carefully – the Tree of Liberty – on the village’s main street. Of old men standing a bit to the side, seemingly just out to have a chat with old friends. Of old women pushing closer, between grimly serious young men and curious girls.
He tells her how they had discussed so very gravely who would dig a hole for the sapling. How he had refused the honour, saying it should belong to one of them, and how the wife of the man who had proposed for him to dig had elbowed her husband hard and hissed something into his ear. How he had almost offered them to vote on this, when old Pierre, spitting onto the ground, had pushed through the crowd and taken up the spade.
He even tries to describe this sapling, too small yet for its grand name, and how incongruous and weak it had looked near the old and grizzled trees which lined the village’s main street for more than a hundred years. Something that needed to be watched and protected, that promise of a tree. Some of the women had put up an enclosure around it, made of four pickets and a rope; too flimsy, he had thought, needing a stronger, thicker fence if it were to survive.
Marguerite looks entranced, as if imagining that scene she had never seen. Has she ever seen a village like this, he wonders, not sure that he wants to know just how sincere her compassionate look is. She is a good listener, he reminds himself; he knew that already – surprising trait in an actress. Perhaps this is why he comes, why he tells her stories not suitable for official papers and searches her smiles and her questions for some signs he is not sure he’d recognize.
And to run away from this train of thought he tells her, as briefly as he can, about something he wasn’t even planning on mentioning: the fire they had lit afterwards, at a distance from the tiny tree but still in view of it. The yellowed papers he had taken, one by one, out of his great-grandfather’s travelling chest, and the way they had burned, slower than he expected – he couldn’t remember if he ever had burned so much paper before, in the lycée he used to bury his discarded writings at night near the fence, fire would have attracted too much attention. He tells her of the eyes of the men watching the fire, fascinated and a little scared. They valued those papers, he remembered: once old men from the village - not the ones waiting nearby, probably their fathers – came to the chateau see his father because of a deed they finally located, an old deed for a field three miles away from the village. They had carried that deed like a holy relic, he remembered – and now their sons had watched him burn his ancient privileges for fields and forests and houses. Tearing apart what chained them. What chained him. Setting them all free for a future of liberty.
(He does not tell her, though, how they kept calling him ‘Citizen Marquess’, shrugging guiltily when he corrected them, and then doing it again. He wondered then – he wonders now, pausing to sort out the things to tell her – if they even know how to be free, for all that they want it. He wondered if they could be left alone with their freedom – if they would not slip into the same, the obvious mode of life as soon as the stagecoach took him back to Paris. And yet he had known then that he would leave – leave, and let them pretend that life was the same, poor, gruesome and yet so comfortingly familiar.
He remembers suddenly that there was one person who had not ever said ‘Citizen Marquess’ – old Marthe, whose sons once had taken him hunting all these years ago, making him promise he would not mention this excursion to his father. Old Marthe, whose sons were dead now, still called him ‘M. Armand’. He remembers feeling pleased about this – and then wonders whether he was as addicted to the familiar as these peasants were.)
“Poor woman,” Marguerite breathes out, and he starts. Throwing a glance at her, he is almost sure her eyes are misty; she seems to be leaning so close. His breath catches a little.
“Who?” he manages to ask, confused.
“This Marthe of yours; is she all alone, or does she have anyone left?” Ah, he must have spoken aloud. His brain must be going… he’s been getting too comfortable here, he knows, and yet he answers, “A granddaughter, a girl of about eight, I think. She also came to watch us plant the Tree of Liberty.”
The woman beside him smiles softly, and he thinks suddenly that she is also so very young, despite being able to show to the world whichever face she wanted to show.
And he, Armand Chauvelin, should know better by now, and yet he starts telling her about Marthe’s granddaughter just to keep that smile on her face. “Perhaps,” he starts, “you have seen children like this, clever ones, trusted with…”
The door bangs open, and laughter from outside interrupts him mid-phrase.
“Ah, Margot,” Saint-Just announces grandly as he enters, “I’ve brought guests – such marvelous guests! And wine!” There are men with Marguerite’s brother, men he would have probably recognized by faces if he felt like looking at them; it’s a crowd, small but merry crowd of young Parisians you see in cafes or clubs or meetings, and they are clearly bent on having a party.
He gets up.
“You have guests too!” Saint-Just says with a slightly comical surprise. “Never mind, we have enough wine!”
“Please stay,” Marguerite tells him with all sincerity, but she is getting up too, and her face is different already, a merry face like her brother’s, with the same all-welcoming grin…
“I beg your pardon, citizens, but duty calls me,” he says, and feels glad to find her good-byes appropriately sweet and polite.
This, he thinks. This is what I must remember: an open door, a room full of merry guests and a smile set to please everyone. This is the truth.
It takes months, but one day near an English country inn, meeting just such a charmingly merry smile of welcome, he finally believes in this truth.