Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177
Old Melancthon Crawford had been one of the founders of a prairie town in the Osage country. In his last years, his eccentricities became so marked that relatives had him sent back to his birthplace, a Pennsylvania village he had always hated, where they could keep an eye on him...
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Old Melancthon Crawford had been one of the founders of a prairie town in the Osage country. In his last years, his eccentricities became so marked that relatives had him sent back to his birthplace, a Pennsylvania village he had always hated, where they could keep an eye on him and the disposal of his property. After his departure on the eastbound stage, Commodore Robinette and Apeyahola, a Creek Indian whom the settlers called Jory, climbed to the prairie swell where Crawford’s trading post had stood. Talking about the past, they thought back to a decisive night the three had in common, a night when Tripoli was being bombarded by American naval guns during the war with the Barbary pirates.
Under cover of the bombardment, the three Americans, prisoners escaped from the pasha’s dungeons, had taken refuge in a warehouse belonging to Thurlow and Sons, Boston merchants. Young Crawford was all for carrying away some loot he found in a storeroom, but Apeyahola and Robinette, the wounded sailor, were against the idea. During the argument, Monsieur Tallien entered the warehouse. Onetime Citizen President of the French National Convention, now an obscure consular official under Napoleon, he was there to keep an appointment with a Paris associate of Thurlow and Sons. To pass the time while waiting, he told the tale of his rise and eventual ruin because of his love for the notorious Therese de Fontenay. Crawford, Robinette, and the Indian made a strange audience. Tallien told his story, however, because he saw each young American marked by one phase of his own career: vengeance, ambition, and love.
Jean-Lambert Tallien, protege of the old Marquis de Bercy, was intended for a career in law. During a visit to the de Bercy estate, he watched Anne-Joseph Theroigne being carried forcibly away because she had attracted the interest of Rene, the young marquis, soon to marry the lovely Countess Therese de Fontenay. While Tallien stood watching the disappearing cart that carried Anne-Joseph, Rene rode up with the Countess and haughtily ordered the student to open a gate. At Tallien’s refusal, the young nobleman raised his whip. Tallien struck the Marquis’ horse. The animal threw his rider and dragged him, unconscious and bleeding, by one stirrup.
Tallien hid in the woods while angry villagers hunted him with guns and pitchforks. Father Jarnatt, the parish priest, saved the fugitive and sent him off to Paris to seek his fortune in journalism. These things happened in the year the Bastille fell.
In Paris, Tallien again met Anne-Joseph Theroigne, by that time a rough-tongued, rabble-rousing virago, the friend of Robespierre and members of the Jacobin Club. It was she who helped Tallien to establish L’AMI DES CITOYENS, the revolutionary newspaper with which he placarded Paris. Because of her, he led the assault on the Tuilleries during the August riots. Later, he became a deputy to the National Convention and a commissioner to the provinces. Anne-Joseph helped his rise in public favor because she expected to find him useful. Still loving Rene de Bercy, she had secretly aided his escape to England. Through Tallien, she hoped eventually to locate Therese de Fontenay, whom she hated.
A man and a woman muffled in native costume entered the warehouse. The man was Monsieur de Chimay, who had come ashore from a French ship to arrange some trade business with Tallien. The woman was not introduced. Since they could not leave the warehouse before the bombardment ended, Tallien continued his story.
One day, he heard his name called from a cartload of prisoners. In the wagon was Therese de Fontenay, whom he had never forgotten. Hoping to protect her from Anne-Joseph’s fury, he denounced the virago for her help to de Bercy and thrust her into a mob that stripped and beat her. The woman, never recovering from that brutal treatment, lived mad for many years.
Therese was imprisoned in the Carmes. Through spies, Tallien tried to take measures for her safety. At last, to save her life, he overthrew Robespierre and ended the Reign of Terror. Telling his story, he made it all sound simple; the others had to guess at the bribes, the promised reprisals, all the scheming of those three anxious days while he held captive the influential citizens of Paris and executed the coup d’etat of Thermidor. Although he knew that Therese was involved in a plot for an emigre invasion, he married her later that year.
Choices made for her sake led to other choices that he neither expected nor wanted. Jealous of Captain Belleval, an officer attentive to Therese while she was in prison, he arranged to have the Captain betrayed to the rebels of the Vendee. When the emigres finally landed at Quiberon, all were captured. At the same time, the peasant who had betrayed Belleval was taken prisoner. In his effort to save the peasant’s life, Tallien quarreled with General Hoche over the disposition of the other prisoners, and, in the end, he was forced to declare them enemies of the state and order their execution. Among those who perished was Rene de Bercy, who chose death with honor rather than accept Tallien’s offer of escape to England.
When Tallien returned to Paris and told Therese, haltingly, what had happened, she said only that she knew at last what a life was worth. Months later, Monsieur de Chimay arrived from London with some of de Bercy’s keepsakes. De Chimay was in trade, an associate of the powerful Thurlow firm and a friend of Ouvrard, the influential banker who had become Therese’s lover. Therese saw in the two men a power she could use to undermine that of her husband.
The shelling had ended; Tallien became silent. When he and de Chimay withdrew to transact their business, the woman gave the three Americans a case containing two pistols and a knife, each decorated with the crest of a hand holding a flower. For a moment, she drew aside her veil, and they saw the face of Therese de Fontenay. The Americans went out toward the harbor, each marked by a symbol of Tallien’s defeat, but carrying with them also a memory of Therese’s beauty.
Years later, Robinette and Apeyahola, ragged and gaunt, were traveling overland from the Mississippi. Wanted by the authorities (the Commodore because of an affair of gallantry in Spanish territory and for taking part in the Gutierrez insurrection, Apeyahola for a murder in Georgia), they found carved on a tree the design of a hand holding a flower. That crest marked their trail to Crawford’s trading post in the Indian country. There they stayed, philanderer, murderer, and thief. When the time came for them to name the village growing up around the old trading post, each remembered the woman they had seen briefly by candlelight in a dingy warehouse. So, out of the turmoil and blood of the French Revolution, Therese de Fontenay gave her name to a new town on the American prairie.