By Gavin Sinclair
On March 24th 1784, Jacques René Hébert, leader of the Enragés, a radically democratic faction within the Paris Commune, having incurred the fear and disfavor of Robespierre, went to the guillotine. With him went many who shared his political views, and some who didn't.
To the Comte de Saint Cyr, the realization that a man in his position could have a particularly bad day came as an unwelcome surprise. What would certainly be his last ever headache was a monster that had kept him pinned to his hard cot, cringing from the single blade of light that stabbed through the tiny high window, rending the dancing dust in the air. The oafish Leboeuf's tasteless remark about the finality of the cure that had been prescribed for him had depressed him still further.
"Ah, monsieur le Comte, no better nurse for an aching head than Madame la Guillotine!" It was not the cruel reminder itself. Hundreds of times a day his mind carried him up the steps to Monsieur Guillotin's grim creation. It was Leboeuf's vindictiveness which mocked his cherished belief in the fundamental goodness of men. This was a conviction to which he was attached by reason rather than instinct, but it was no less passionately held for that. The Comte, after all, was a man of reason, in tune with the spirit of the age. To the habitués of the salon of Madame Necker, who had listened enthralled by the unique blend of engaging passion and exquisite delicacy he brought to subjects ranging from chemistry to bee-keeping to the creation of a utopian society on rational principles, it was clear that the Comte de Saint Cyr was the very incarnation of the Modern Age.
But now the Comte was not in the glittering salon of his patron, sipping the new coffee drink, surrounded by the greatest minds of the day. Many of those great minds and the heads which contained them were no longer attached to their fashionably attired torsos, and the Comte had exchanged their company for that of this boorish jailer in a dark damp cell in the Bastille. There was no escaping the coarse fellow. Even when he lay back and closed his eyes, he could hear Leboeuf's incessant pick-pick-picking of his finger nails and the wheezing of his catarrh laden lungs. In other circumstances, he might have prepared a specific for the old wreck, to ease his cough, for he counted the modern science of medicine among his interests and his study at the château contained more jars of the absolute latest in powders and potions than the pharmacies of the most fashionable physicians in Paris. He opened one eye and looked over to where Leboeuf sat next to the door, coughing up phlegm and staring at him with doltish malevolence in his bleary bloodshot eyes. The Comte asked himself whether the fascination he held for the wheezy old goblin derived from his status as one of the fallen mighty or simply from his impending death.
"Tell me, Leboeuf, why do you never leave this room? You have other prisoners.