Humor Amidst the Madness of Terror
Madness. A strange subject we have this month! So I thought I'd tell you a little tale about a very dangerous, very sly, intelligent and enigmatic man and a funny, strange event that he may or may not have deliberately caused to happen.
It just happens that right now I'm studying one of the most bizarre eras in history, the Terror, a part of the French Revolution when even the revolutionaries themselves turned against each other. At its center was perhaps the maddest, yet perhaps sanest man of them all, Joseph Fouché. If he was neither or both of those, perhaps he was both the most unprincipled or most passionately principled of all the French fanatics. He is known as The Executioner of Lyons, responsible for the deaths of thousands merely on the basis of their status as aristocrats and/or wealthy men, and yet later seemed to be the only voice of reason in all of France, calling for the repatriation of those who had previously fled to escape the guilloutine. He supported Napoleon in his rise to power, but betrayed him in the end, and Napoleon later said if he had won at Waterloo, he would have had Fouché shot.
So much for the man's history. His unique ability to gather information and persuade men to act based on fear for themselves had kept his soul and hide together in this terrifying time. And the same traits qualified him to take on the Ministry of Secret Police. He had fingers in every pie. His network of spies reached everywhere, and very few of them knew any of the others. And although he received reams of reports daily, he filled several wastebaskets every day with reports he didn't want.
One day one of his associates, named Réal, complained to him he dreaded going to the theater that night because he knew the overly anxious Gohier, another agent, would draw him aside, asking as he always did for a report for him to check out, which Réal never had. His eyes sparking with mischief, Fouché pointed to a wastebasket and said "Give him one of those."
Réal, glad to be relieved of the tedium of Gohier's approaches, complied, picking out a report by an agent of a possibly illicit assembly in the garden of a house outside Paris. Gohier glowered and said he'd heard of these meetings and was surprised that so little concern was given to them when they were clearly dangerous. The conspirators gathered nightly in the garden, he said, and they spoke in such low, conspiratorial tones that the agents were unable to hear their plans. Clearly arrests were called for. And off he went to Diligently perform his duty.
At this point, Réal began to worry that he might have missed something important, and that could reflect badly on himself. So he sent his own men to investigate as well. And the following night, he paid a visit to Gohier's home. The property, it seems was owned by a hatmaker. "On fine nights,... the manufacturer sets his hats out on poles in his garden to dry. Now, if you imagine a hedge at the height of the poles..."
Well, Fouché was also known for his very sophisticated and subtle sense of humor...