La mort de Condorcet

The guard open the door to the dank, but light cell. One of the men inside was holding on to the bars of the window, calling out for help.

-‘Here, here, I’m here. Why you going and making that racket for ? Want to wake the dead?’ And as he said this he noticed the other man, lying inanimate on the floor and recoiled.

-‘How long’s he been like that ?’ The other man, who’d moved away from the window and edged as close to the door as he could without actually getting out, replied : – ‘I don’t know. I just woke up, and he was dead. It could have been any time in the night’

The guard took in the scene. The man’s breeches were wet, as was one of his stockings. The other one was torn, but that was from two days ago, when they’d dragged him in here. His wig was knocked sideways, uncovering a thin layer of red hair turned mostly grey. A book was sticking out of the inside pocket of his vest, and near his right hand, a signet ring, opened and empty.

– ‘The bastard’s gone and offed himself then, before we could find out who he was’.

The guard had been hoping that this one would turn out to be a good catch, some runaway aristocrat that he could bring back to Paris and receive a small quantity of gold and short lived glory for. He leaned foward towards the corpse and grabbed the book. Shoving the other man back in, and ignoring his pleas to be let out, he locked the cell and stepped outside the station, taking in the morning air of Bourg-La-Reine as was, or Bourg -l’Egalite as was supposed to be.

He opened the book in the middle and swore : all latin. And no matter how much more attention he should have paid in school, there’d be no way he could read that many words crammed together on one page. The most he could find out was that the book was by Seneca. A rich man who’d killed himself to avoid justice, was what he remembered. Maybe the book was a manual on suicide for aristocrats.

The shouts from inside the gaol were getting louder and more desperate. He figured he’d better check it out again, and went back in.

He opened the narrow door again and saw that the live prisonner was shaking like a leaf, and that much like the dead one, he’d wet himself. Oh well, he thought. If he has any money I’ll ask Mary or her sister to wash his clothes. They won’t mind the work. He turned his gaze to the corpse, which seemed to be the source of the other man’s terror. Except it wasn’t a corpse. It was moving. Twitching, rather, and making a noise too, a sort of coarse, low crackling sound. He recoiled first, but forced himself to take a step forward. The prisonner’s eyes were open, but turned inside, leaving the white, shot with more red than would be right in a healthy man.

– ‘I’d better get the doctor’ stammered the guard. The other prisonner grabbed on to him : – ‘Are you out of your mind? Don’t you actually know what’s happening ? Have you never seen it before?’ – ‘No. Have you?’ The prisonner took a deep breath : – ‘Well, not as such. But my brother’s nurse knew a man who had a turn just like this a few months ago, and he got up and attacked his family. I didn’t see it myself, but I’ve heard other such reports’. -‘Well, if you didn’t see it yourself, what do you know ?’ replied the guard, somewhat a little more unnerved by the other man’s apparent madness. ‘I’ll get the physician, he said. You wait here.’ And he closed the door on the man’s face once more.

When the guard and the physician on cal for Bourg la Reine returned an hour later or so, having just stopped for a cup of coffee at the guard’s sister’s house, they found the dead man sitting up and finishing a hearty but messy breakfast of the other man’s leg. The other man did not appear to be in any pain, but had started to moan and groan like the first one before him.

The Marquise de Condorcet was informed of her husband’s suicide in a prison cell several months after the fact. He had given a false name but been identified by a book he was carrying, and a signet ring, in which he carried the poison that killed him. Condorcet was subsequently buried in the Pantheon, as a mark of respect for his work, and his dedication to the liberty of the people of France. But the casket was empty, as his body was never found.