An Episode Under the Terror, according to my copy, was published in 1831. This story takes place in January 1793 in Paris, and you don’t need to be a student of French history to know that this was a time of turmoil. France had become a Republic, and on January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. The story An Episode Under the Terror begins the day after the execution of Louis as a fearful old lady walks through the streets of Paris at night:
It had snowed so heavily all day long that the lady’s footsteps were scarcely audible; the streets were deserted, and a feeling of dread, not unnatural amid the silence, was further increased by the whole extent of the Terror beneath which France was groaning in those days; what was more, the old lady so far had met no one by the way.
Hearing footsteps steadily behind her, the old lady imagines that she’s being followed by a spy. She is not, however, deterred from her mission, and she continues on her errand to a pastry-cook’s shop. The old woman is dressed plainly with no powder on her hair, but in spite of this, it’s very easy for the pastry-cook and his wife to spot their customer as a noble woman:
The manners and habits of people of condition were so different from those of other classes in former times that a noble was easily known, and the shopkeeper’s wife felt persuaded that her customer was a ci-devant, and that she had been about the court.
The old lady pays her last gold louis for the contents of a small pastry box and returns home to a cold garret she shares with two other people. She’s followed home by the same man who followed her to the shop. Is he a spy? Will he denounce the old woman and the two other residents who are hiding under the most miserable of circumstances?
Even though this is a very simple story, Balzac gives a sense of the uncertainty unleashed by Reign of Terror. The shopkeepers feel some pity for the old lady but they are “drawn two ways by pity and self-interest.” As usual there are some marvellous observations from Balzac on the subject of human behaviour and money–this is seen through the behaviour of the pastry cook who fleeces the old lady and feels a momentary prick of conscience for his thievery.
One of the issues Balzac brings up is that the priest, a Jansenist, in the story refused to take “the Oath.” Another issue that emerges in the story, and one of quite surprising prescient is the subject of individual responsibility. The priest discusses the current “wickedness” and the stranger asks if he will be punished for his “indirect participation.”
“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” The stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line–is he actually responsible?”
The priest hesitated. The stranger was glad; he had put the Royalist precisian in a dilemma, between the dogma of passive obedience on the one hand (for the upholders of the Monarchy maintained that obedience was the first principle of military law), and the equally important dogma which turns respect for the person of a king into a matter of religion.
While I wasn’t that interested in the wrestling of religious dogma, the stranger’s question–just how responsible was he for ‘following orders’ resonates today. How can loyalty or obedience to a king, a president or a general trump individual conscience or morality?
Balzac was born in 1799, so he hadn’t been born when the events of the story take place. Balzac’s mother gave birth to a first son in 1798, nursed him herself, and he died a few weeks later. Honoré Balzac was sent off to a wet nurse, the wife of a gendarme at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire. He was four years old when he returned home to his parents in Tours, and this separation from his mother set the tone for his relationship with her–and perhaps all women.
My copy came free on the kindle, but it’s also available on Project Gutenberg.