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Oh Liberty: A Short Story on the French Revolution
November 8, 1793. Paris, France.
I gaze out at the crowd surrounding the guillotine. They part like the Red Sea when they spot the guards leading me to the contraption. A large man with a black hood covering his face stands next to the giant knife, waiting for me to enter the square so he can end my life.
I can't say I deserve it. They think I do; all the people standing around are watching intently, waiting for my demise. I don't blame them, not particularly, anyway. If someone I despised was up here, I'd be glad to watch, too.
Really, though, I never hurt anyone. I may have squashed some pride though. Pride in the system, in the broken government, and in the hateful leaders. The Revolution is a needed thing, something I wouldn't change for the world. I may be about to die, but my beloved husband is safe now that he's escaped Paris, and he should go on to fight with his politics and determination. My heart starts beating rapidly as I approach the guillotine, my hatred for Robespierre—the one who started this Reign of Terror—increases greatly.
I played in the political realm from the shadows, using my husband as a bridge from my ideas and thoughts to the rest of the country. Though, as a woman, I managed to stay well within the limits of my domestic function.
The guards push me to my knees in front of the guillotine. I'm trembling now, but I manage to keep myself composed a bit. I've managed to keep myself composed this long. Whatever they say about me, they can say that I felt strongly about my ideals.
My months in prison have made me think. I wrote my memoirs there, though I would have rather chewed off my own fingers than became a writer. I had the pages smuggled out by my visitors and distributed, letting everyone know my thoughts straight from me. I fought for what I believed, for the Revolution, for the people. For the women, and the children, and the men. For the country.
My ideas may not change many things—that I will never know—but they might change something. The people need freed from this terror of a government, and I just hope that they can see that, too.
I prepare to accept my death. The name Madame Roland will be cleared with this, I tell myself. It really is the only way out I can see. Before they push my head down to be chopped off, I look up to the sky and scream these words: “O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!”
The words play in my head while my cheek is pressed to the block, I close my eyes, and I hear the sound of the rope being let loose. The crowd is utterly silent now. I can hear the blood pumping violently through my veins when suddenly—nothing.
Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name.
March, 1789. Toulouse, France.
This is a dilemma.
Her mother sent her out with 8 sous for bread, but...the bread is 10 sous. This is a problem.
“Oh, monsieur Frazier, couldn't you lower the price just a bit? Or let me work it off?”
The old man laughs. “You, little miss? I think not. Get me the money or no bread for you.” He chuckles as he leaves Lisette at the counter to walk back into the bakery. “Kids these days.”
She waits until he's at the back and kicks the counter. How rude of him! What is she supposed to do? Her mother hadn't gotten remarried yet, since her father's death, so her family doesn't get money from a man anymore. Sure, her mother is a milliner (her business is having trouble getting started), but that didn't pay much anyway.
Honestly, the only way to get around in this place without being rich was one way.
To be a man.
Too bad for Lisette. In her house, it was only her mother, her older sister, and herself. Her father passed away only this past winter with a case of pneumonia. They had a dog—Alois—but had to get rid of him when her father died. To tell the truth, she would've missed him to much to see him go, so she gave him to the grocery owner without telling her mother and visits him whenever she goes out.
She jingles the sous in her pocket as she walks down the sidewalk. How could the price of bread have raised so much? Coralie, her older sister, knew about all this kind of stuff.
“I don't understand politics,” Lisette told her once.
“Most women don't, Lisette,” she responded. “But I'll teach you. There's nothing you can't learn if you put your mind to it.”
Politics. Sigh. She'd been hearing about politics for all of the last year. Coralie complaining about women's suffrage, her mother grumbling about the economy, and when her father was alive, all she heard about from him was how filthy the nobles are.
She pulls her thin cape around her shoulders. There's a bright blue patch that clashes with the navy fabric, but it's only there because she tore a hole right through the thing when she caught it on a branch. People lie in the street, hungry and poor. Everyone just walks around them, ignoring them. Her family had been hungry, too, until her mother decided to start up her business. They still weren't getting full tummies every day, though. It's things like these that make people speak of revolt.
A twelve year old girl doesn't think much of revolting. A revolution? Really? She's sure it might help, but what would she and Coralie do? And her mother? It'd be the same for them during the war, unless things turn out like Coralie hopes they will; she hopes that things will turn around for females. She sees a future where women can vote, can live without relying on men, and can finally be independent. People think she's crazy, but she's Lisette's older sister, and she has hope in her ideas.
Lisette is knocked out of her reverie when she trips on a rock and her cloth slipper gets pulled off her foot. The little blue bow her mother sewed on creases.
“Of course,” Lisette breaths. She bends down to slip it back on and her coins fall out of the big pocket on her dress. “Of course!” She crouches down to pick them up.
Suddenly, she hears some mumbling nearby and turns to see a group of poor boys huddled together, watching her pick up the coins. “Of course,” she mumbles irritably.
They start to walk toward her, so she carefully tucks the money in her pocket, springs up, and takes off. The three of them chase after her. They must be a couple of years older, and they nearly catch up until Lisette turns to an alley and climbs lithely up a mountain of crates and boxes to get over a tall red fence. They're bigger than she is, so when all three of them try to climb at once, the stack tumbles.
Lisette stops running because she thinks she's safe, but then one of them is over the fence and chasing after her again.
“Of course!” Lisette says, taking off through some poor fool's yard.
She dashes under their laundry, the boy in pursuit. She almost loses him again when she crashes through a gate and into the street, but he's right on her tail. Lisette turns toward a tall hedge blocking some kind of mansion and pushes herself through an opening in the bottom. The boy tries to follow, but he's too big and the branches stop him in his tracks.
Still terrified, she races around bushes and shrubs to a large garden. Lisette plans to just run straight through to the other side of the neighborhood, where she can go through another hedge and find her way home from there, but something else happens.
Lisette collides painfully with someone close to her size and they both go tumbling to the ground.
~ - ~
Alphonse crawls out of bed apathetically. Some regular old servant woke him up this morning because his father wasn't back from a trip to England to hire a new butler for Alphonse.
His father was out working most of the time lately. His mother was always busy with her friends and didn't spare much time for the little boy. He is only twelve; doesn't he deserve some to spend time with his parents?
Alphonse finishes dressing and slips on his shoes and jacket. He always feels annoyed these days. With a bored look, he makes his way outside.
His father wouldn't be gone all the time if it wasn't for the peasants in the streets. They're always whining about being hungry, or being poor (“Maybe they should just marry for money” is what Alphonse would always think), but lately they had been actually doing something about it. The revolts are hard on nobles! Do the peasants think Alphonse and his family don't have anything important to do? He wouldn't be alone so much lately if his father could stop worrying about rebels.
Gilles, his Great Pyrenees canine and only real friend, barks heartily and comes up to greet Alphonse.
He bends down to pet the fluffy beast. “At least you won't abandon me, boy. Want to go outside?”
Giles barks and wags his tail, making Alphonse chuckle. He opens the door leading to a large garden area where, if Alphonse looks over the hedge surrounding the yard, he can see some children playing in the streets of town.
Why would peasants want rights anyway? Who even cares? Alphonse shakes his head at the thought. They should've been born wealthy, he thinks crossly.
As soon as this thought crosses his mind, something human sized crashes into him and he falls backward. Gilles runs over, tongue lolling, to examine the incident but offer no help.
~ - ~
“I'm sorry!” Lisette pipes up, leaping to her feet and dusting off her plain, pale blue dress. She stares down at Alphonse, who stares up at her. “Do you need help up?” she asks, extending a small hand.
“No!” Alphonse says while pulling himself up. Gilles sits upright beside his master. “Who are you?”
Lisette is already walking away. “Well, nice meeting you, goodbye for now—”
“Wait just a minute!” Alphonse rushes up and spins her around to glare at her with narrowed blue eyes. He notices her eyes are a dark brown.
“What?” she asks. “I need to go home—”
“Why were you even here? And my parents aren't home—I bet you're a thief, aren't you?”
“You're all alone here?” Lisette asks. Alphonse blows a piece of blonde hair from his forehead and she suddenly feels very self-conscious about her own tangled brunette locks.
“No.” Alphonse glares at Lisette some more. “I have servants.”
“And a dog.” Lisette bends down to pet Giles, and he graciously receives the attention. “What a pretty dog! I had a dog, and his name was Alois. I still get to see him, though. What's your name?” Lisette says to Alphonse. She scratches under Gilles's chin and he licks her hand. “Alois isn't quite so big.
“My name isn't important. Your name is what matters!”
Lisette stands up and stares Alphonse in the eye. “You don't seem very good with women.”
Alphonse looks taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“It's rude to talk to a lady like that.”
“You aren't a lady, you're a little girl.” Alphonse angrily crosses his arms.
Lisette snickers at him. “And you're a little boy. Now, if you don't mind, I'll be going.” She turns away and walks with a hop in her step to the hedge. “My name is Lisette, by the way. Goodbye.”
“Alphonse,” Alphonse says. Lisette stops to look at him. “My name is Alphonse. And that's Gilles.”
“Nice to meet you, Alphonse and Gilles.” Lisette gives a little curtsy.
Alphonse looks around awkwardly. “Come back tomorrow—I mean, if you want. I mean—I think Gilles likes you. So you should come back.”
Lisette looks shocked but smiles brightly. “Maybe I will, Alphonse. Goodbye!” With that, she disappears into the shrubbery.
~ - ~
June 17, 1879. Toulouse, France.
Lisette did come back. She'd go out to see Alphonse and Gilles, then go to the grocer to see Alois, and she'd buy whatever she needed on the way home. It was nice to have a break from her sister's ranting and her mother's stress about money.
She crawls through the hedge this morning with an old doll of hers she had found under her bed. Gilles greets her first with a wagging tail, and she gives him the doll as a toy. “Go get Alphonse, boy!”
Gilles barks once and rushes off to find the boy.
Lisette examines a bush of scarlet roses dropped with dew. She looks up when she hears an unfamiliar voice yelling from inside the house.
“Don't stay out too long, Alphonse! Your father will be back soon!”
“I know, mother. I won't be too long,” Alphonse says from the doorway. He comes out with Gilles at his heels and rushes over to Lisette.
“Your father's coming home! That's great!” she says, smiling at him excitedly.
“You'll have to leave,” Alphonse responds sadly. “He won't want to see you here.”
“Not until later, right? Not until he gets here?” Alphonse notices how pitifully she speaks. It breaks his heart.
“Of course not. You can stay until then.” When she smiles he feels better. “My father was at the Estates-General meeting. He sent word that some angry p—angry citizens formed their own meeting.”
“Really? I think my cousin Phillipe is there.” Lisette pets the attention-seeking Gilles as she speaks. “Coralie said something about it.”
“It's ridiculous. They should leave the decisions up to the First and Second Estates, not some National Assembly.” Alphonse says the words with disgust.
Lisette looks up at him with a mixture of shock and hurt. “That's a bit unfair. The Third Estate counts for most of the people. I'm part of the Third Estate.”
Alphonse immediately regrets saying anything. “Well, not you. You don't count—”
“I don't? Why not? I'm just as poor as anyone else here. And my mother and sister are, too. Do they count?” She drops her hands to her sides and looks him in the eyes angrily. “I don't count because it's convenient for you, right? It doesn't matter, though, because not only am I a peasant, I'm also a girl, so nobody ever wants to hear my opinion, anyway.”
Gilles glances between the two of them somberly. “It isn't like that. I care about what you have to say. If I didn't, I wouldn't have let you come here!” Alphonse protests, his temper rising.
She glares at him. “My father was right. You're all the same.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You nobles. All you think about is yourself. You were alone, so you asked me to come. Now you don't seem to care about anything my family has had to go through, or even what I had to go through.”
“That isn't true—”
“Goodbye, Alphonse. Have a good life.” Lisette turns away quickly and vanishes through the hedge.
“Lisette, wait!” he says and tries to follow her, but she's long gone by the time he gets halfway through the brush.
“Alphonse? What are you doing in the shrubbery, boy?”
Alphonse quickly crawls back out. “Father!”
~ - ~
“Lisette, what have you been up to? You didn't even bring home any food,” Coralie says, letting her younger sister inside.
“Come on, I'll tell you.” Lisette leads Coralie into their shared room so their mother doesn't hear. “You know the boy I've told you about?”
“Yes. Did something happen with him?”
“You could say that.” Lisette sighs and sits on the bed next to her sister. “He was talking about the Estates-General meeting, and how the National Assembly is ridiculous.”
Coralie rolls her eyes. Lisette always thought her sister was just an older and prettier version of herself. “Honestly. Men can be such a pain.”
“He isn't a man, he's a boy.”
“Males can be a pain. We need more women like Olympe de Gouges.” She looks down at her little sister. “That's a big part of what's wrong with this country.”
“That isn't going to help me much.”
“Don't think so much about yourself.”
“Girls!” their mother calls. “Come help me with this order!”
“Duty calls, Lisette.” Coralie pulls her sister up and they go to help with the sewing.
July 7, 1789. Toulouse, France.
Lisette morosely walks into the room with a roll of pink ribbon.
“Thank you, dear,” her mother says, hastily tying off a piece of string and reaching for the ribbon. “Without you girls, I would never finish anything.”
“It's no problem, mother,” Coralie says, sewing up a tear in one of Lisette's dresses. “We'd never eat if it wasn't for you.”
Lisette plops down in a chair and plays with a spool of thread.
Her mother puts down the hat she's fixing. “What's the matter, Lisette?”
“She just likes to pout,” Coralie says.
Lisette sighs. “Nothing.”
“You should just do it.” Coralie looks at her work as she speaks.
“Do what?” Lisette asks. Their mother looks from one girl to the other, completely puzzled.
“The aren't going to wait forever. You might as well get some closure,” Coralie says, breaking off the excess string. “You know you want to.”
“Should I? I don't think it would help,” Lisette says.
Coralie holds up the finished dress to examine it. “It's worth a try.”
Lisette stands up. “You're right.”
Their mother looks utterly confused. “What in the world is going on?”
“I'll be back, mother.” Lisette takes off for the door and is running down the street in no time.
“Don't worry about it, mother,” Coralie says as she stands to put away the fixed dress. “Just child problems.”
Lisette dashes past the baker, past Alois yipping in the grocer's yard, and all the way to the familiar hedge. She stands, panting, and waits for the big dog to come and greet her. He doesn't.
“Gilles?” she says, slowly walking around the garden, Alphonse's humongous house in her wake. No one is around. “Alphonse?”
A man comes out the door with a box of stuff in his arms. “Who are you?” the man says, gently piling the box with a number of other boxes.
“Is—Is Alphonse here?”
The man blinks. “Course not. The family moved out yesterday. We're packing their stuff up and delivering it today.”
“Why did they move?” Lisette asks sullenly.
“Heard about revolts. Didn't wanna stay around for it if they made it here.” The man wipes his hands on his pants. “They're completely leaving France.”
“Completely?” Lisette whispers.
“You better be getting out of here, missy,” the man says as he turns to go back in the house.
Lisette stands there a moment longer before rushing back to her house with tears in her eyes.
July 6, 1789. On the way to Pamplona, Spain.
Alphonse wished desperately to be able to go back home. He'd forced his parents to at least keep Gilles with him, and he was sleeping soundly in the floor of the carriage.
“Excited, Alphonse? Think of all the new people we'll meet!” his mother says.
His mother chuckles nervously and turns to her husband. “What do you think, dear?”
He ignores her too. Instead, he leans down and plucks the raggedy doll out from under Gilles's paw. “Where did this come from?”
Alphonse reaches out and grabs it from his father. “I found it. Gilles likes it.” He stares down at the doll with frayed yarn hair and buttons eyes. She has a perpetual smile on her canvas face. “He likes it a lot.” Alphonse gently places the doll next to his dog and sits back to stare at the window.
He hears his mother whisper, “What's wrong with that boy?” and tries not to laugh when she carriage hits a bump and she wails in fright.
~ - ~
The revolution that had been brewing took the country by hold. The nobility was attacked under the pretense of rumors, and both King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed by guillotine thanks to the revolters.
Napoleon Bonaparte led the French in their democratic republic and then became Emperor of France in 1804.
France left its old traditions to enter the modern age. The whole Revolution is an important part of history. The poor Third Estate took control from the Church and the aristocracy because they knew that they were an extremely important resource but got no recognition. The Abbé Sieyès once said: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.”
Madame Roland, a woman who used her husband's political power to voice her ideas through him, was executed for treason and her political activities. Her role in the war wasn't for gender equality in particular, but simply being a woman in politics was a push for women's rights.
Olympe de Gouges was a woman writer who wrote plays involving women's rights and gender equality. She wrote under a pseudonym about her support for the Revolution and her dislike of Maximilien Robespierre. She was executed in 1793. Women did not gain the right to vote after the war, though.
The Third Estate gained more rights and finally had a voice in France.
~ - ~
December 25, 1801. Toulouse, France.
It has been almost twelve years since the first day Lisette met Alphonse. The day she found out he left, she had went home and cried about it to her sister and mother—she also told her mother the whole story. After that, Lisette wasn't allowed to go out into town alone for fear that she would be attacked again.
The war started soon after, too. Toulouse wasn't affected greatly, except that they now had a mayor and, in 1799, fought British and Spanish royal armies in the first Battle of Toulouse.
Things were relatively normal for Lisette's family. Her mother's milliner business became a hit and they weren't going hungry anymore. Her mother also remarried. She now had three young siblings running around.
Coralie got married and moved to Paris, but she wrote all the time. She became a writer was expecting her second child.
Lisette stayed the same. She was a grown woman now, but she hadn't forgotten about Alphonse. She ignored any suitors and took up a job at the bakery when the mean old man left for Montpelier.
It's Christmas Day now, and she's standing behind the counter of the bakery. Her family is at home celebrating, but she left late that morning to come to work. Almost nobody else has an open shop.
The bell on the door rings as a young man comes in. He reminds her strongly of someone, but she brushes away the thought and greets him. “Hello. How can I help you today, monsieur?” She is shocked to hear a small yipping at the man's feet and bends over the counter to spot a small, white puppy with snow on its paws.
“Have I met you before?” the man says, staring at Lisette with a sort of confusion.
“I don't know. Maybe. It depends.” She inspects him closely and then points to the dog. “What's its name?”
“The puppy? I named him Alois, after an old friend's dog. He's a purebred Great Pyrenees.” The man focuses his blue eyes on Lisette. “Why?”
“Alphonse? Your name doesn't happen to be Alphonse, does it? If it isn't, I might just cry.” She hopefully leans forward on the counter.
“Lisette?” he says excitedly.
“It is you!” she rushes around the counter and throws herself into his arms. “You left! I went to see you and you left!”
“You did?” he pulls her back to look t her face.
“Of course I did, you idiot!”
“I'm sorry. My family took us to Spain. I just now came back.”
She sees something hanging out of his pocket. “What's this?” She pulls it out and sees the old raggedy doll she gave to Gilles forever ago.
“I remember when you gave it to Gilles. It was when we fought.” The puppy yips again and Alphonse picks it up. “This is Gilles's grandson.”
Lisette smiles at the puppy and scratches under its chin. “How wonderful.” She looks up at him. “What are you doing here? Especially alone, and at Christmas?”
“Well,” he says as he sits the puppy back down, “I was actually looking for you. Someone said you worked here now.”
“Why were you looking for me?” she asks.
“Honestly, Lisette, you're so hardheaded. Are you married?”
“No! Why would I be married, you idio—”
“Then will you marry me?”
Lisette stops short. Alois barks happily at their feet, tail wagging furiously. “What was that?” Lisette asks.
Alphonse shakes his head. “Really? I know you heard me.”
Lisette looks thoughtful for a moment, then tries to look indifferent. “Hm, well, I suppose so. I guess I don't have anything better to do.”
Alphonse laughs. “I suppose not.”