Cast your Antagonist in a Sympathetic Light

This post was originally a part of the July 2010 Blog Chain, almost one year ago. This post was posted on my ‘Everything Historical’ blog, but after I transfer all of my posts to this blog, I am deleting that blog.

Can any writer cast the “Antagonist” in a sympathetic light?

This is where butterflies start to flutter in my stomach because the antagonists in ‘Day of Revenge’–Robespierre, Louis de St. Just, Joseph Chereuse and Francois Rouchon are so evil that they cannot be cast in a sympathetic light. But, there is one character who starts out in the story as an evil doer, but turns for the better as the story progresses, and that is Henri Varennes.

I hope that the following scene will evoke some sympathy for Henri Varennes.

While the two families, and Emile and Elle, sleep safely and soundly in their beds within the vicinity of their homes, Henri and his four comrades walk slowly through the sleeping city. All of them, except for Joseph and Francois, are too exhausted to speak, or to pay attention to any activities that might be happening behind the closed doors of the two-level houses. There is not a light shining through the shutters of homes, and not a murmur of voices is to be heard other than drunken guards pacing the vacant streets. Much to the disappointment of Joseph and Francois, who revel in the excitement of arresting disloyal citizens, the entire city of Lyon is virtually black and lifeless. Although, as the men wonder through the countryside north of the city, they happen to notice a bright light shining through one of the ground level windows of a large stone manor. For a few moments the tired men stand there and scrutinize the building as if it is a faulty musket.

Joseph Chereuse breaks the silence when he says, “Well, Captain, seeing that there was no other lights coming from anywhere else, there must be something strange going on here. So what in the hell are you waiting for?”

Henri glares at all of his men. “I am awfully damned tired now, so I can stay here till dawn if I bloody well wish.” Henri pauses for a few moments. The only sound to be heard is the loud chirping of the crickets nearby.

“Oh hell, I agree. I guess we should go in for an investigation. If the citizens are guilty of attempted conspiracy than of course we will arrest them. The next morning we will return to Paris.”

The five men then descend upon the home.

Pierre La Metz, the owner of the stone manor, is completing finishing touches on a coffee table which had been requested by his close friend, Samuel La Font. For many years Pierre La Metz served in the French army as a military engineer and had fought in the Seven Years’ War with Samuel.

To this day Pierre remains a single man. He never hires any servants to help him upkeep his manor. After his retirement from the military in 1788, he settled in the Rhone valley, and ever since then, he has been working as an artisan. Pierre plans to have the table sent to Samuel’s estate the next morning. Of course, he is going to make the trip himself, for a month ago he received an important, but dangerous letter from Samuel. So, he needs to see him as soon as possible.

As Pierre puts his tools away, he hears an unexpected knock at the door. The knock is so loud that it almost makes him jump out of his skin. Nevertheless, he thinks that it is likely his old friend, Rachelle, seeking to obtain some bread and butter. She is a poor widow who lives in a tumble down cottage not far from his manor. She comes to visit Pierre on a regular basis, sometimes for food, but other times for company. Pierre has often thought to himself that he is the only soul in the area who is kind enough to provide her with food, warmth and acceptance. But, tonight he cannot not comprehend why old Rachelle would come knocking at his door at such a late hour.

“I am coming right away, Rachelle,” he calls out as he slowly makes his way over to the door.

All the exhaustion drains from his body when he finds Captain Varennes and four other red-capped Jacobins standing at his door. This cannot be real. I am having a nightmare. Wake up. Pierre pinches his cheeks in vain, only to realize that this is in fact real. Unfortunately this does not make the situation any better. Henri’s men take much pleasure in playing upon poor Pierre’s fear. They make crude gestures at him.

“Man, you better have a damn good reason to justify your late activities or else we will show no mercy,” Henri says.

“W-What do you mean,” Pierre says.

His response infuriates Henri. “Great God, how I hate to always have to make myself clear! We are here by orders from Robespierre to find all enemies of the Republique. So, seeing that your house is lit up well after curfew, we thought it would be wise to investigate. If we find no documents conspiring against our new government, we will be on our way. But should we discover anything of the like, I promise we will treat you worse than a stray dog. So I suggest you stand aside while we search your house, before we inflict severe injury on both you and your elaborate estate.”

Unable to expel the intruders and fearing the worst from them, Pierre reluctantly allows the men into his home and follows them. He horrifyingly watches them rage through his house, turning over furniture, tearing up couches, pillows and curtains, and violently breaking paintings, including his most cherished crystal plates his mother gave to him before she passed on. One burly man kicks over his newly crafted table hard enough to send it flying across the stone floor, crashing into the wall, causing two of the legs to break off completely. At this moment, Pierre is not concerned about the broken table, he is fearful for his life. He meekly follows the furious men to his sleeping quarters.

“Citoyen Varennes, I promise you, I have nothing to give you reason to arrest me. I therefore beg you to leave.”

This attempt on Pierre’s behalf to prevent the captain from finding the letter fails miserably. Upon hearing his desperate cry for mercy, all the other men come running into the room. Francois grabs his arms and forces them behind his back. Pierre fights against him, but finds himself overpowered and pinned to the floor by both Francois and Joseph. Upon hearing the commotion, Henri turns around and loudly commands his men to release Pierre at once. Joseph and Francois immediately stand up and rigidly walk over to the small night stand. Joseph kicks it as hard as he had kicked the small table in the workroom. All five men pick through every letter, written document, and even steal the Medal of Honor Pierre received for his service in the Seven Years’ War. They scrutinize every letter while Pierre helplessly watches them. A deathly silence engulfs the room as they read. This frightening stillness ends when Henri reaches underneath the bed and picks up the very letter Pierre feared these dreadful men would find.

For a few seconds Henri stares at the sealed envelope. He opens it very slowly, being careful not to tear the envelope.

“What does the letter say, Captain?” The answer to Jacques’ question is read out loud by Henri.

“To my friend Pierre La Metz.

This matter of which I am about to reveal to you, you already know of. But it is now more urgent than ever. That heartless dictator Robespierre and his Jacobin followers grow bolder and more vicious as each day passes. Unfortunately, my friend, our plans for a crusade against this despotic revolution has become disorganized. As this new regime they call a democracy grows more oppressive with each passing day, more and more are we forced to act upon our actions with little chance to think through the potential consequences. But, I believe it is no longer a matter of how or when the oppressed will rise up and fight to restore freedom and justice to this torn country. We must repel these despots, for if we hesitate they will devour France, and the rest of Europe. Therefore, I propose we strike at the core of their strength. Once you have completed the coffee table, I implore you to come to me as soon as possible. My family has been very gracious with their help. They have already recruited two lieutenants, eight officers and forty-six generals. When you arrive I will place you in charge of the first unit and we will engage in one final practice before we lay siege to Paris and have every one of those tyrants guillotined. I would have, since our last meeting, come to visit you, but these days it has become much too dangerous to do so. So, once you have read this letter, hide it well and do not speak of it to anyone. You must travel to my estate and leave at the crack of dawn while the country still sleeps. I promise you, my friend, that this will be the only way to travel without being caught. I pray to the good Lord that he will bring you here safely and all will go as planned. I shall see you soon. Long live the king. Signed anonymous on the day of July 25th of this year—and—long live the King.”

All suspicions of the lit house are proven to be true. Jacques walks over to Pierre and glares down at him. He spits on the man’s face and then gives him a sharp kick in his ribs. Joseph and Francois force Pierre on his feet and drag him out of the room with a gag bound tightly around his mouth. This time, Henri does not stop his comrades. A lump grows in the back of his throat. Of all of the times I mercilessly beat and arrested people in the past, I never felt guilty and there is no difference in my actions now. This man is a conspirator and a traitor to the Republique. He does not deserve any sympathy. So, why do I feel this way? He swallows his feelings and follows his men out of the room.

While walking through the house, Henri continues to wallow in his thoughts. There is one piece missing to this puzzle. Who is the man who wrote the letter, and where is he from? The only evidence we found in the letter is that the man who wrote it is a soldier.

Henri walks back into the workshop beside the foyer and puts out all four of the burning candles. He then finds his way back to the front door. Once outside, he walks up to the arrested man.

“Pierre La Metz, I arrest you in the name if the Republique for planned conspiracy to depose the Robespierre government.”

Pierre’s eyes bulge open. “But, Citoyen, I did not write this letter.”

Henri walks up to the victim and, placing his face within inches of Pierre’s face, says, “Well then you better reveal to us the name of this conspirator and where he is hiding. If you are able to do that you will go to prison, but will be spared from the guillotine.”

Pierre’s body stiffens. The very thought of having to choose between prison and the fate of Samuel is terrifying. He certainly cannot do the latter without living the rest of his life in grief.

“Damn you,” Henri shouts. “If you do not answer my question now, we will force it out of you.”

Joseph, Francois and Jacques snicker. Alphonse, though, remains quiet.

This time Pierre looks bravely into the captain’s stormy brown eyes. “That I cannot reveal, for the letter was passed on to me by another friend. I do not know the name of the man who wrote the letter.” Pierre feels a hard blow to the ribs on the left side of his body, so hard that he hears them crack as they break. He screams and doubles over, gripping his injured ribs.

Henri is growing angrier by the minute. However, he is not enraged over the victim’s obstinacy—he is extremely furious at his comrades. I hate my comrades. I hate Robespierre and his administrators, and I hate myself for becoming like them. If I had the chance, I would invade their sleeping quarters at night and slit their throats and their wrists. Yet, here I am again, committing sin and injustice against all mankind simply because of my own fear. The guilt and bitterness in him continues to build, taking control of his emotions and his actions.

He reaches out and seizes the unfortunate man by the throat. “Liar! Do not attempt to escape me by pretending you are oblivious as to where your friend lives,” Henri screams. He then turns to his men. “One of you, tie this man’s hands together. We will stay here all night with the traitor if no one passes by.”


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