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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Sacrifice of La Roquette

By Henry Francis Keenan (1850–1928)

[Born in Rochester, N. Y. Trajan. 1885.]

TORTURED by the burden of his fear that Elliot in his new madness would destroy the chance fortune had given him, Trajan crouched in the darkness, uncertain whether to make an effort for his own life or not. If Elliot persisted in his purpose and came back to the cell, all chance for either of them would be gone. But for Elliot’s safety some one must be in the cell when the keeper opened it an hour later. Elliot’s change from blond to brunette made it possible for him to deceive anything but close scrutiny.

The two were nearly the same stature, and in such confusion as marked the last days of the patriot’s administration, the light eyes of Arden would not be remarked or the sudden change to black. Provided Elliot did not persist in his marplot purpose, the key in his possession might give him an opportunity to escape. At any rate to return to the cell was the only present safety. He could denounce Elliot as a madman if he came to undo the work he had begun.

He breathed with a sort of tranquil satisfaction as he sank down on the cot where Elliot had passed a day and night of terror.

Worn out by the fatigue of the days he had endured without rest, he did not awake until the turnkey passed on his second tour—ten o’clock in the morning. He confronted the official fearlessly now, for he had not seen him before and suspected that he was a new-comer. Trajan, wondering why he had been allowed to sleep so long, asked the keeper if there was no breakfast for him. The man laughed, answering significantly:

“You will be let out soon, don’t give yourself any uneasiness about food. The patriots have none to spare now—since the Versaillaise have entered the city!”

This explained the change in the routine, and Trajan didn’t know whether to rejoice or fear. He knew what the “letting out” meant. It was the hideous buffoonery of the assassins, signifying shooting. He had seen scores, happy in the delusion of liberation thus announced to them, marched upon ambuscades of musketry and drawn bayonets.

The glowing sunshine of the 24th of May stole in through the long narrow slits far above the dungeon. The priests in the cells opposite were absorbed in devotion. The gray hair of the poor old archbishop could be seen, like the pale shade of a martyr’s crown, as he kneeled by his miserable cot. For a half hour during the afternoon the priests and Judge Bonjean were taken out and permitted to descend to the prison garden for air and recreation. It was a touching spectacle, as the six, whom every one knew were doomed, walked calmly down the great corridor, the guards insulting and berating them. They bore the curses and even blows with saintly meekness—one of them, a handsome young priest, provoking the buffets upon himself, that the sacred person of the prelate might he spared.

The prison shook at times with the explosions that seemed to come from a not distant quarter. Every one realized that a decisive moment was at hand. The chance of Elliot’s doing anything desperate diminished with every hour, and Trajan began to think of a means of flying to the succor he knew to be near. If he could have seen or signalled the old keeper, whom he knew to be a foe to the commune at heart, he would have asked him to lend him assistance. But the man was nowhere to be seen. The corridors began to fill with unfamiliar uniforms. At seven o’clock, when the first friendly dimness was settling over the gloomy towers, a loud shouting was heard at the end of the prison, toward the stairs.

A group of scarlet-sashed personages tramped in, and behind them a mob of reeling, gesticulating figures. Trajan’s heart leaped to his throat; among them he saw a dozen not in uniform. He was saved. He could, when the friendly darkness became thick enough, mingle with these and take his chances for flying to the soldiers. He could not contain his impatience. Had he the key? Yes, safe. Would it work? His hands shook with excitement. He dared not try it in the lock. He listened eagerly. A great glare of light suddenly came in wavering streaks from the direction of the vestibule. Heavy steps sounded nearer and nearer and nearer. Heavens, could it be Elliot coming to bring ruin, now that release was in sight? Under the overmastering fear of it, he thrust his hand through the bars, resolved to fly and be himself shot down before the foolish fellow could compromise himself. A voice in the next cell arrested his movement.

“My God, it is Ferré! The priests will be slaughtered!”

The marching group had now come in direct range of Trajan’s cell. Sure enough! There was the young miscreant he had exposed as a thief in the club. His glasses were still on his eyes, secured by a gold chain, instead of the paper cord he had worn in his student days. His slim body was gorgeous in a closely fitting Prince Albert of white cloth; the scarlet insignia of his office passed diagonally over his shoulder. He was flanked by fellow dignitaries, and with these again crowded by a howling bedlam of guards of all descriptions—drunk with madness or liquor, probably both—insatiable now for blood, as the dream of pillage drew to a term. Ranging themselves midway between Trajan’s and the priests’ cells, Ferré commanded silence, and holding a paper lavishly blotched with red ink, called out as the turnkey threw the doors open.

“Georges Darboy, calling himself servant of a person named God!” He paused.

From cell 23, the aged archbishop came out into the hideous mass of anarchy, for a moment silent. His purple soutane covered his emaciated figure. His hands hung beside him. He came quite forward to his assassins and bowing his head meekly waited, shading his eyes with the paper, held as a screen. Ferré gave the pathetic figure a verifying glance and then resumed the fearful roll-call.

“Gaspard Déguerrey, soi disant serviteur d’un nommé Dieu!” the voice tranquil, decisive and egotistically prolonged, as if the assassin called the mob to remark the confidence with which he swept these instruments of superstition from the path of the people.

At the call, an aged man, past his eightieth year, dragged his poor old limbs tremblingly forward, and, like the bishop, answered simply and meekly:


Then came the nommé Léon De Coudray—a large fine-looking man in middle life, rector of the School of St. Geneviève, and a Jesuit. There was no meekness in the resonant “me voici” with which he answered his name, nor quailing in the glance of derisive contempt with which he swept the tatterdemalion mob, whose eyes flamed in impatient ferocity for his audacious blood.

Alexis Clerc, a brother Jesuit, hastened from his cell, with a buoyant step and sparkling eye. He was still a mere boy, having but just attained orders. He had coveted martyrdom since his novitiate, and now that the crown was in his sight he was joyous as the lover before the rose garlands of the marriage feast. A murmur ran through the reeking mass of lust and murder as the young handsome face became visible; but Ferré, repressing the outbreak by a terrible “Silence, citoyens!” proceeded to the end of the list marked for sacrifice.

The last of the five names called was Louis Bonjean, president of the “Cour de Cassation,” a man in vigorous old age, who was put among the hostages through private spite of lawyers in the commune against whom he had made decisions in other years. The list complete, Ferré gave the order to march the victims, two by two, and the archbishop, leaning on the arm of the judge, was last in the line.

To Trajan’s unspeakable surprise, instead of retracing the way they had come, Ferré led the soldiers toward the narrow cylinder staircase, within a few yards of the scene that had just passed. Now, if ever, was the time for him to make use of the key. The flaming torches of petroleum passed to the front, on a call from Ferré, to light the dark stairs.

In the friendly gloom thus flung over the corridor, the door was softly opened and in two minutes Trajan was mingling with the mob, pushing and jostling down the narrow corkscrew stairs. When pressed forward by the eager throng behind, he reached the landing on the second floor, Ferré was enforcing, order and selecting the firing party. The first spot selected was found to be in full view of the invalids in the infirmary, whose heads were thrust against the grating; for some reason the place was deemed inappropriate and the cortège, retracing its steps, came out in the broad court of the prison. While some one went forward to unlock the iron gates leading to a smaller paved court, the archbishop leaned wearily against the railings. It was a sepulchral spectacle. What with the darkness of the night and the thick blackness of the smoke settling in fantastic shapes over the awful work, the deed and its surroundings were in ghastly sympathy. The flaming torches threw just enough light to give the scene diabolic outline and atmosphere. At the bend in the wide avenue running around the interior building the party came to a final halt.

In all the horror of his own critical position, Trajan felt an instinctive sense of guilt in being one, even involuntarily, of this sacrilegious massacre. He had only escaped Ferré’s clutches by causing his friends in the “Treize” to circulate the rumor that Gray was still in Spain with Gambetta. Ferré had denounced him to the Committee of Public Safety, and he had been declared hors la loi; any patriot bringing his head to the committee would be rewarded by the patrie. His mind was divided between the nearness of his own and Elliot’s danger and the anguish of the scene. He scrutinized as closely as he dared the hideous faces about him, in search of Elliot, dreading an imprudent exclamation on the latter’s part should he suddenly recognize his rescuer.

The prisoners were placed in a row, their backs against the wall. As the bishop was hustled roughly into place, with a gentle movement he arrested the steps of his guards, and, turning to the group, now motionless, said, with an accent of sincerity that drew tears on many an eye:

“My children! I freely forgive you. If the cause of my Master can be served in this sacrifice, I surrender my short remaining space of life as gladly as I have devoted fifty years to his sublime ministry. But my heart aches for you; I know you do not know what you do, and I pray the good God that this may not be visited upon you—I”——

But here, with a brutal curse, Ferré ordered the crowd to clamor the benignant voice into silence. At this, moved beyond resistance, two of the guards fell on their knees imploring the martyr’s blessing.

Outraged by such pusillanimity and surrender to the superstition of the nommé God, the mob of guards, with Ferré at their head, seized the recalcitrants and whisked them away under a volley of such frightful blasphemy as the French language alone seems the fit vehicle for.

Trajan could not believe that the scene was real. The figures swam before his eyes. The savage guards, the revolting jests and scurrilities, the priests ranged in line along the wall. Surely, it was a phantom horror that was pranking in this devil’s comedy before him! No! The victims stand erect; the priests, with clasped hands, are praying; the glistening barrels are raised on a line; the hoarse clamor is hushed; the figure of Ferré, rigid, satanic, jocose, looms up under the spluttering flame—

“Make ready—fire!”

A cry of horror, a confused gurgling of insatiable execration, a demon chorus of exultant joy, possible to no human throats,—and the figures at the wall lie a confused mass. But they have not met the mercy of swift death. There is a gasping movement in the tortured heap; another volley is fired, then straggling shots, as if to prolong the delights of it; and then Ferré himself, to mark his place in the tragedy, runs to the mass, and planting his pistol on the gray hairs of the bishop, fires the last shot.

Some ran shrieking from the scene; others moved solemnly away. The guards were formed in confused order, the mob was driven before them, and the place left in darkness—Cimmerian—terrifying. Horror was in the air, thick, choking, blinding. The guilty mob fled, and Trajan was borne with them, through the wide roadway, through the gloomy passages, into the great court, where the first-comers looked back in dread, as if they expected to see the bloody corpses with the whips and scorpions of vengeance upborne in their dead hands.