By G. Matthew Adkins
Citizen Jean Antoine Nicholas, erstwhile marquis de Condorcet, one-time deputy of the National Assembly, philosophe, savant, husband, father, republican (in the best sense of the word) must have looked disheveled and exhausted that March morning in the village of Clamart, just south of Paris. He had a troublesome wound in his thigh, obtained in a fall during his nighttime flight out of the city. It was powerful dark at night back in those days when no electrically-produced illumination obscured the sharp, hard, but navigationally useless shine of the stars above and men had to carry torches or lanterns in the streets after dark. But Condorcet was a fugitive and dared not risk a light. The reports say that he was dressed as a servant and he maintained that he was indeed a servant by the name of “Pierre,” or “Jacques” or some such generic French appellation. But even stooped with weariness, his tall frame, at over six feet, betrayed something of his identity or at least his duplicity. The guards who arrested him in the cabaret as he sat down to his breakfast were half-starved sans-culottes, and even in their boots were barely five-foot-four. Men of the working class in Paris in those days rarely got the nutrition—or the genes for that matter—to reach such stupendous heights as Condorcet. When they and their captain crowded into the cabaret to apprehend the suspected aristocrat, they must have stared up in astonishment when Condorcet staggered painfully to his feet and towered above them like some ancient Frankish barbarian just arrived in Gaul from the dark woods of Germania. Presumably the proprietor of the establishment had felt similarly astounded when the gray giant stumbled through the door and croaked for wine and an omelet. So the proprietor asked: Combien des oeufs, mon citoyen? Condorcet paused for a moment, looking confused. How many eggs, indeed? Since his servants typically brought his food to him on a tray and set it before him either at his place at the dining table or on his work desk (where he often ate), he had no idea how many eggs went into an omelet, and during those years of feverish work to reform the corrupt society in which he lived, his desperate efforts to introduce the light of reason into the world, he had never once troubled his head about the preparation of food: it simply came to him when he required it. But he knew that he was powerfully hungry. He replied: Une douzaine!
At that point, undoubtedly, the proprietor must have felt his suspicions confirmed: only an accursed aristocrat would request an omelet of a dozen eggs, and by Jupiter! there were enough of them scurrying about in the dark like rats hoping to save their heads from Monsieur Guillotine that this must indeed be one of their foul race—though the tall man looked more pitiable than dangerous or evil. But the proprietor simply nodded and went into the kitchen where he whispered to his son: Go get the guards! Be quick!
I am the captain of the guards arriving on the scene to apprehend Citizen Condorcet. The guards, of course, suspect nothing. How could they?
As we enter the cabaret, of course, no one knows who the twelve-egg omelet man is, only that he is very tall, fiftyish, and looks about to collapse—all the hallmarks of a fugitive aristo on the run. I wonder now if I might have recognized him, or had suspicions about his identity, however. The philosophe was famous—and in some quarters infamous—for proposing that girls should go to school along with everyone else, and I believe I would always and in all times have desired that my two daughters receive an equal education to boys. So, for that reason among others, I admire Condorcet’s principles. But Condorcet’s radical work on universal education occurred before the Committee of General Security issued a warrant for his arrest in 1793 when he denounced the Jacobin faction in the National Assembly. Condorcet promptly disappeared for six months—presumably hidden in someone’s attic or basement in Paris (historians now know it was the attic of one Madame Vernet at, ironically, number 15 Gravediggers Row)—but there, in that cabaret, was a man who might be he. At any rate, there was no choice but to take him into custody when he failed to produce, upon demand, any papers documenting his identity or authorization to travel—for those were now required to move about France, especially near the capital. No one believed for an instant that he was anyone’s servant: besides his remarkable height and bearing, a hasty search of his person turned up some small monies, a little book containing the poems of Horace in Latin, and a minute green glass vial—well, the report in fact says nothing of a vial. In the papers of Condorcet at the Institut de France, extensive notes of which I took while doing research there, but which I can no longer, to my dismay, locate anywhere among my cluttered files (though they still reside in my memory), there is no mention of a vial, but later stories affirm that his sister-in-law’s lover, Pierre Jean-George Cabanis, physician (non-practicing for reason of delicate constitution) gave him poison for just such an extremity as he found himself in that cabaret. Regarding the Horace, what could be more damning that a text in book-Latin? Only the educated elite would carry such a book, would they not? If the guards had learned any Latin at all in whatever limited schooling they had been privileged to obtain in their youth, they doubtless could not make head or tail of the Horace. But I could, and as the captain I would have taken the book… and the glass vial… before ordering the guards to march the prisoner off to the gendarmerie in Bourg-l’Égalité (Equality Town)—previously and now once again Bourg-la-Reine (Queenstown)—for processing. Even if they did not know who he was exactly, they all in fact did know who he was in one singularly important way: he was a dead man. They would not have questioned my seizing the vial or the book as evidence.
The poor fellow collapsed in the street less than halfway to the station with tears streaming from his eyes, forcing the guards to requisition from an old vintner a mule upon which to throw the prone giant. He was so tall his arms and legs practically dragged the ground, however—a sight that would undoubtedly have generated cruel jokes and mockery from the guards, most of whom were bloodthirsty brutes from lifetimes of abuse and hardship. Could anyone blame them or expect better? Would I as the captain have ordered the guards to place the exhausted and wounded man upon a sofa when we arrived at the gendarmerie? And if there were no chair for lounging comfortably, would I have made him as relaxed as possible, and given him wine or water at the very least? My interview of the prisoner—or, if you like, our one and only conversation—proceeded thus:
I do not know who you are, but I believe you to be Citizen Condorcet. Is this true?
Condorcet stares at me with pleading eyes, but makes no immediate response.
I believe you to be Condorcet, I repeat. You fit his description. You must know that an unholy shit-storm is about to rain down upon your head now that you are in custody. I believe this to be unjust, for I have followed your work and know you to be a good man. I have two daughters who would have received schooling had you been left at liberty to pursue your lofty goals. What can I do for you now?
You can do nothing at all for me now.
I stand up, walk to a bureau, and return with two objects in my hand. Here, citizen, are wine and bread. I will put them here on the desk. Then I will open the door, for it is overly warm and stuffy in this room. After that I must go carry out my other duties. You will be gone when I return and I will have no idea where, but since I must protect myself for the benefit of my family, I will call for a search immediately.
I lower my voice: And you will tell me where I should not look for you.
Citizen, says Condorcet. You know the law. I cannot allow you to aid me thus. If your complicity were discovered, the consequence would be, as you know, death. And, anyway, escape is not my purpose.
What! But you are a fugitive! Were you not attempting escape just now before we apprehended you?
Condorcet shakes his head. Three days ago I left my refuge in Paris. Could I not have been further afield than this shabby suburb?
I agree, but I am mystified. I say: Then what do you desire, citizen?
Only to save those I love and to whom I owe thanks for sheltering me up to now from my fate. May I have my Horace back for a moment?
I pick it up from the desk and hand it to the philosophe. He flips through it with long white fingers and then stops.
You wonder perhaps why I bothered to carry a Horace on my flight. Well, the consolation of philosophy at my ultimate finality is the only consolation I will accept.
Condorcet hands the book to me opened to an ode (number IV). I read aloud:
Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
Regumque turris. O beate Sesti,
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam.
Iam te premet nox, fabulaeque Manes,
Et domus exilis Plutonia; quo simul mearis,
Nec regna vini sortiere talis
Nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuventus
Nunc omnis et mox virgines tepebunt.
My own translation would pale beside that of an Oxford professor of now long ago, but which then had not yet been accomplished, and which I add here:
Pale Death, impartial, walks his round; he knocks at cottage-gate
And palace-portal. Sestius, child of bliss!
How should a mortal’s hopes be long, when short his being’s date?
Lo here! the fabulous ghosts, the dark abyss,
The void of the Plutonian hall, where soon as e’er you go
No more for you shall leap the auspicious die
To seat you on the throne of wine; no more your breast shall glow
For Lycidas, the star of every eye.
I nod in understanding: Like Socrates, Condorcet did not attempt escape; but he sought isolation so as not to endanger his family and friends. Then I remember the green glass vial. I reach into my pocket for the vial and place it upon the page with my hand cupped over it and then gently close the pages of the book and withdraw my hand, leaving the vial within its pages. I hand the book to the prisoner.
For your consolation in your confinement, then. I will come to your cell in two days time. Will that be enough for you?
Condorcet nods as tears well up in his eyes.
Then, farewell, citizen philosophe. I think the Republic will soon regret its actions, if it ever regrets anything ever again.
I stand and call for the guards to put the man in a holding cell and to lock the door. I return to my desk, sit, and begin to write the report. I make no mention of any glass vial. I intentionally falsify the date of the report. No one notices, and no one will notice until many years hence, after the captain has long since disappeared from his post, a young woman named Eliza appears at the door of the office where these records are kept and requests to read the arrest report and the report of the guards finding her father dead in his cell two days later. Her notes pointing out the discrepancies and errors in the reports will appear bound with Condorcet’s papers two centuries later when I enter the Institut de France in Paris to read them.
1. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace, trans. John Conington. London, 1863.
G. Matthew Adkins is a professor of European history at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of The Idea of the Sciences in the French Enlightenment, a Reinterpretation (University of Delaware Press, 2013).