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Jacques Durand was awoken by the early morning sun creeping in through his window. The early morning silence wrapped its folds around Jacques, and his bed clamored for his attention, but he was no longer tired. He rose and closed the window and strode over to his large work desk, which was mostly bare, as was usual nowadays. Jacques was a calligrapher, which had been a rather lucrative line of work until the Revolution. It had been over four years since the citizens of France had risen up, storming the massive fort of Bastille and beginning a period of violence that still continued. While the revolution was meant to free the people from the tyranny of a king, many remarked that the new government was, if anything, worse. They did so in hushed voices and dark places, as the Committee of Public Safety had cracked down on what it viewed as “treason.” Even simply not joining in on the patriotic fervor in support of the National Convention could lead an unfortunate soul being dragged to the guillotine.
Jacques lit the small oil lamp that hung over his desk. The dim light of the lantern glinted off the polished silver of the pistol he had hung on his wall. It was his prized dueling pistol, bought especially for him by his father when Jacques had been only a boy. Of course, his father had only wanted to teach him to shoot, and would have been horrified to know it had been a key part of Jacques’s short, but illustrious career as a duelist. It was a past Jacques of which was ashamed, but one that he did not want to forget or deny. So he had hung the pistol, still loaded, on his wall to remind himself of the lives he had taken.
Jacques looked down at the only paper on his desk; it was a letter from his beloved Cosette. He took in her pristine handwriting, thin and graceful, just as she was. Her presence was almost palpable as he read her passionate, yet reserved and elegant writing. He felt a pang in his chest. It had been nearly six months since he had seen her, six months since she and her family had been forced to flee Paris. During that time, there had been a large revolt against the wealthy and the nobility. Cosette’s family had a terrible secret: they were distantly related to the royal family. Her father decided they had to leave the city and escape to the countryside, and they escaped, but not without cost. The travel took a toll on Cosette’s mother, who already had poor health and did not survive a month in their new home.
His hand traced over the elegant scrawl, somehow seeing it made him feel even farther away from her.
Dearest, it pains me so to be away from you. We are in the small village of Giverny, some seventy kilometers outside of Paris. It is so peaceful here, and the people worry not about the Committee or the war. It is, however, horrid to be so far from you. I cannot bear it, I want to go home.
His eyes burned, but deep within him was a burning much fiercer. Giverny...it was quite a journey in itself, a day’s travel by carriage or horseback, perhaps two or more on foot. However, that was a minor issue compared to the task of avoiding capture. Leaving Paris wasn’t necessarily a crime on its own, but attempting to leave the city without a written pass or business to be leaving could be seen as suspicious behavior and lead to his imprisonment. Almost every day men and women were snatched off the streets for trumped-up or completely illusory crimes, so Jacques knew he would have to steal away.
His mind was still lost in the possibilities when the sun came up, reaching through the window to warm him and nudge him along. He stowed the letter away in the drawer of his desk, along with the two others he had received from Cosette since she had gone into hiding. He then arose and set about changing into his day clothing: a thick cotton shirt, pants, and a long overcoat. He paused by the door to dawn his tricorn cap, complete with a red, white, and blue c***ade ribbon, as was mandatory under the new Republic law. He emerged into the narrow street, which was still cold and dark, despite the early morning sunlight.
The November air was crisp and cold, and he shivered, grateful for the warm clothes he had. Jacques arrived at the Cafe D’Automne, the preferred eating establishment of many writers and merchants in this area of Paris. He found the table where he usually sat with some friends and acquaintances. They were there as usual, having already started on coffee. The usual gentlemen were all there: Benito Vea, the Italian spice merchant; Calvet Vert, the known writer and alcoholic, and Bernard Clement, the prosperous iron merchant. But someone else was there with them, someone Jacques had not seen in a long time, someone he was not happy to see.
Damien Boucher, Jacques thought. Damien reclined in a chair on the opposite side of the round table, his long, jet black hair just as dark as his disposition. Damien recognized Jacques as well. Damien had the look of a housecat eyeing up a juicy mouse, outwardly languid and unconcerned, but his eyes were those of a predator.
Damien and Jacques had a long and bloody past. The two had been friends, once upon a time when they were both in university. However, they had a falling out over their affections for the same young woman - Cosette. Damien and Jacques had fought several times, trading blows as often as they did words. Damien came off worse in most fights; Jacques had been as good of a brawler as he had been a duelist. Unfortunately, those skills would soon draw true blood. Damien’s younger brother, two years their junior, had been very close to his Damien and came to his defense. The idealistic young man came to defend the honor of his brother and family, challenging Jacques to a duel. That fateful duel resulted in the death of Damien’s brother, and the final blow to Damien and Jacques’ relationship.. Damien swore a vow of vengeance upon Jacques and his family. And he had owned up to it. The son of a rich iron magnate, Damien had used his connections to ruin the Durand family. He drove Jacques’s father out of business, and sent hired thugs to rob them. It was during this robbery that Jacques’s father fought back and was killed in the ensuing brawl. Jacques was saddened, but his mother was devastated, falling ill and dying soon after.
And now we are together again, Jacques thought. He could tell by Damien’s look that the bad blood between them was just as bitter as ever. Their eyes met, Damien’s dark green ones meeting Jacques’s blue eyes. Jacques clenched his fists and jaw, and Damien’s eyes narrowed. The the air crackled with tension.
“Ah, Jacques, late as usual.” Bernard remarked jovially. “Come now, a seat, a seat!”
Jacques gingerly took the chair across from Damien, eyeing the other man carefully as he did so. Damien did nothing but scowl.
“I was just introducing the other gentlemen to my new business partner, Damien Boucher. Damien, this is Jacques Durand,” Bernard said.
Jacques and Damien didn’t move or respond, only continuing to glare at each other from across the table.
“Damien and I have an opportunity for a quite lucrative business venture, combining his father’s company with my own,” Bernard continued, unaware of the tension at their little breakfast. “And as you know, the Army always needs more iron now with all that bad business with Belgium and Prussia.”
The other men seemed more aware of the issue at hand. Benito nodded softly while stirring a coffee with a petite duchesse. Calvet added a liberal amount of whiskey to his while drumming his fingers on the table.
“Bad business for most, I’m sure, but quite good for my pocket,” Bernard chuckled softly. It was only then he paused and noticed the chill in the air, one that wasn’t due to the fall breeze. “What’s with the doom and gloom? Look alive, men,” he said jovially.
No one spoke. Then Damien looked up and spoke in a low burr. “I wasn’t aware you socialised with low-born dogs, Clement.”
Bernard let out a small, confused choking sound.
“And I wasn’t aware you taught them to speak, Bernard,” Jacques replied coldly.
The air temperature seemed to drop even further with their icy tones. Benito’s petite duchesse broke in half and sank into his coffee. Calvet paused from adding whiskey to his coffee to take two quick swigs from the bottle. Bernard looked like a man trapped in a cage with two lions, who was wondering the best way to slip away and disappear.
Jacques and Damien glared daggers at one another across the small table, silent and unmoving, but projecting hatred in volumes. Jacques glanced around the small table, his eyes falling upon a small knife nestled among the pastries. Damien’s eyes followed Jacques’ and narrowed as he too spotted the knife. Old grudges died hard, it seemed.
Like two bulls the men launched themselves forward, overturning the table and sending the food and drinks flying. The other men at the table scattered, Calvet clutching his bottle of alcohol protectively as the carnage unfolded before him.
Jacques looked around for the knife, but it was lost among the pile of coffee-soaked tablecloth and food. He instead elected for a swift punch to Damien’s lower jaw. The other man staggered backwards momentarily before launching himself forward with a strike of his own. The blow landed on Jacques’ right temple, sending an explosion of pain through his skull and setting his ears ringing. He lunged forward and tackled Damien to the ground; the two men rolled through the scattered breakfast items vying for an advantage. The shouts of the other men were dull and meaningless to Jacques as he wrestled with his enemy. The scuffle lasted only moments before they were broken up by the arrival of the cafe owner. The owner cursed at them in rapid fire Galician, which neither of them understood, but he made it quite clear they were no longer welcome.
Damien stood, wiping blood from his busted lip before spitting on the ground at Jacques’ feet. “You’ll regret laying a hand on me, pig-dog.” He glared at Jacques with palpable enmity for a few moments, then turned and strode swiftly away down the street.
Jacques cupped his aching ear where a stray punch had left a likely bruise. He looked around at the rest of the cafe, most of the other patrons stared back at him. Calvet was already absorbed in his bottle of whiskey again, and Benito looked forlornly at all the food on the floor..
“What in the hell was all that about?”Benito spat.
He didn’t wait to respond to Bernard’s irate, incredulous, inquiry. He walked back down the street, then began to shift into a jog. He would have to shift his plans to escape the city forward considerably, to as soon as possible. Damien had wealth and connections on his side, and the law was known for being less than scrupulous about reports of crime.
Jacques’ heart skipped a beat at the shout. Who was accusing him? The voice was unfamiliar. Had Damien already found a way to undo him? Jacques was taken out of his confusion when a body suddenly collided with him, knocking him into the mud. He looked up and met the wild eyes of a scruffy man dressed in a ragged long coat. He had a basket full of apples under his arm. The man staggered to a stop momentarily from the impact, then wheezed loudly and resumed sprinting down the muddy street.
A whistle blew, loud and piercing. “Halt!” Two soldiers appeared, dressed in navy blue, armed with Model 1777 muskets with gleaming bayonets affixed.
The thief let out a wheezing gasp of terror and tried to escape, but slid in the mud and barely avoided falling. One of the soldiers took aim with his musket and fired. Jacques ducked back into the wet street as the report of the weapon echoed off the sides of the buildings around them. The thief was hit square in the back by the musket ball, sending a splash of crimson into the air. He threw up his hands, sending the apples flying into the mud, their pristine skins blackened by the dank earth. He staggered forwards several paces, before falling face down into the muck.
Most of the crowd in the street scattered, disappearing into the surrounding buildings and alleyways. Jacques swallowed back the urge to vomit as he stared at the motionless body in the street. The soldiers strode over to the body, one of them calmly impaling it with his bayonet, making sure the man wasn’t foxing. The shopkeeper who had first raised the alarm over the theft looked as grey and nauseous as Jacques felt.
Jacques made eye contact with one of the guards, who eyed him coldly. Jacques nervously rose to his feet and jogged off down the street. He arrived at his apartment and rushed upstairs into his office. He stripped off his mud-coated clothes and quickly redressed into warmer clothing. He had to leave the city now; there was no choice. If Damien made him out to be a traitor… That man...killed in the street because of an armful of apples! He rushed through his office, packing everything that he found essential and emptying all of his documents and papers into his fireplace. He then leaned against his desk, panting as he watched the flames greedily devour the paper and ink.
He turned to his rucksack, packed to bursting, deep in thought. The journey to Giverny would not be easy, but if he could just escape the city…
There was a knock at the door. He turned to the door, but said nothing, his throat suddenly dry.
“Jacques? I know you’re in there, you traitorous rat,” Damien’s cold voice sent a chill down Jacques’ spine. The doorknob rattled, but Jacques had locked the door. There were a few moments of silence before Damien spoke again. “Very well, it’s just fitting that I brought some company in case you decided not to cooperate.” There was another moment of silence before something heavy impacted the door on the other side. A second later, another thud rattled the door.
Jacques stood behind his desk, his eyes feverishly searching for an escape route. His eyes fell on his dueling pistol, still on the wall mount. If he couldn't escape to be with his beloved, he would at least die standing. He grabbed the pistol as more blows shook the door. The heavy hardwood door held, but wood began to splinter around the doorjamb as even more impacts landed. The handle felt comfortable and familiar, yet there was a dark feeling underneath that all. He took a deep breath as the memories rushed back. Taking those ten paces...turning and firing, firing with the intent to kill the other duelist. Life now isn't much different; you were the quick or the dead. There were no alternatives.
10, 9, 8… He counted down in his mind as the door began to give way.
7, 6, 5… The door smashed off its hinges and crashed to the floor.
Damien stood in the doorway, flanked by two guards armed with muskets, his face triumphant and cruel. A third with an axe stood behind them. He sneered at Jacques as the latter man glowered back. “Going somewhere?” Damien looked around at the hurriedly cleaned office. “I knew you were a coward, but I didn’t know you were one to run away so soon after our reunion!”
4… Jacques c***ed the pistol and steeled himself for what would come.
“And here you stand, after all this time. After everything, I stand the victor, and you the defeated…” Damien’s sneer deepened. “How fitting, that you are cornered like the craven dog you are.”
“You are the dog, Boucher,” Jacques growled back. “You’re a murderer and a thief, and I’ll see you in hell before I go to prison.”
Damien laughed. “I have you right where I want you! You stand here in my clutches, you have no way out. Just give in.”
3, 2, 1… Jacques gritted his teeth and made his choice. He would face his destiny head on, with dignity. He raised the gun and fired.
The crack of the gun firing was deafening in the small office, and for a few moments no one moved as the cloud of gunsmoke expanded. Damien’s triumphant grin faded as scarlet expanded from the center of his his white waistcoat. His eyes and mouth widened in shock, he staggered backwards and hit the opposite wall, sliding down it and landing with a muffled thud. His green eyes met Jacques’ for the last time, the cruel light within them fading into nothingness.
Jacques had little time to revel in his victory, the guards rushing him and tackling him to the floor. He felt a twang of despair as the gun was wrenched from his grasp. One of the guards raised his musket and brought it down on Jacques’ head, and everything went black.
The memories of the previous day rushed back into Jacques’ mind. He was snapped back into the present by the sharp cry of the herald standing on the scaffold in the middle of the brightly sunlit square. In the center of that scaffold platform was the hulking form of the one thing every Parisian feared: the guillotine. Its dark, hardwood frame towered high above them all like a bloodthirsty giant. At the top was a massive steel blade, obviously honed razor sharp and gleaming in the early morning sun. Jacques felt himself pushed from behind, barely managing to catch himself with his shackled hands. The guard behind him sneered and hauled him up, shoving him up the stairs onto the platform. Jacques felt his heart sink further into the dark depths of despair as he was unshackled and locked into the guillotine. The herald unfurled a sheet of paper and the crowd around the scaffold fell silent.
“Jacques Durand, you stand found guilty of crimes against the Republic and her people. These heinous crimes include, but are not limited to; murder, high treason, tax evasion, racketeering, possession of stolen goods, and aggravated assault,” the herald shouted the dark deeds out to the city.
Most of them were, of course, completely false. However, it didn’t really matter, he was already dead. Jacques knew that. He was already in the maw of the beast. He could feel the massive blade hanging over his head, slavering for his blood, demanding his death.
“For these misdeeds, you have been sentenced to be executed by the guillotine on this day, November 2, 1793. May God have mercy upon your soul.”
Jacques found a strange sense of peace in his last moments. The sun disappeared behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, casting a shadow upon him.
10, 9, 8, 7...
He felt a pang when he realized he would never get to see Cosette. That she would probably never know what had happened to him. Perhaps it was better that way, he thought.
7, 6, 5, 4...
The crowd below shifted in what was either discomfort or anticipation. Jacques didn’t care. Let them hate him or pity him, it didn’t matter much in the end. Either way, his time had come. He heard the executioner pull the lever, he heard the click of the blade releasing from its position above.
3, 2, 1…
He heard nothing, saw nothing, after that.