More to her taste was a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. These famous stories fascinated her. They told her of battle and siege, of intrigue and heroism, and of that romantic love of country which led men to throw away their lives for the sake of a whole people. Brutus and Regulus were her heroes. To die for the many seemed to her the most glorious end that any one could seek. When she thought of it she thrilled with a sort of ecstasy, and longed with all the passion of her nature that such a glorious fate might be her own.
Charlotte had nearly come to womanhood at the time when the French Revolution first broke out. Royalist though she had been in her sympathies, she felt the justice of the people’s cause. She had seen the suffering of the peasantry, the brutality of the tax-gatherers, and all the oppression of the old regime. But what she hoped for was a democracy of order and equality and peace. Could the king reign as a constitutional monarch rather than as a despot, this was all for which she cared.
In Normandy, where she lived, were many of those moderate republicans known as Girondists, who felt as she did and who hoped for the same peaceful end to the great outbreak. On the other hand, in Paris, the party of the Mountain, as it was called, ruled with a savage violence that soon was to culminate in the Reign of Terror. Already the guillotine ran red with noble blood. Already the king had bowed his head to the fatal knife. Already the threat had gone forth that a mere breath of suspicion or a pointed finger might be enough to lead men and women to a gory death.
In her quiet home near Caen Charlotte Corday heard as from afar the story of this dreadful saturnalia of assassination which was making Paris a city of bloody mist. Men and women of the Girondist party came to tell her of the hideous deeds that were perpetrated there. All these horrors gradually wove themselves in the young girl’s imagination around the sinister and repulsive figure of Jean Paul Marat. She knew nothing of his associates, Danton and Robespierre. It was in Marat alone that she saw the monster who sent innocent thousands to their graves, and who reveled like some arch-fiend in murder and gruesome death.
In his earlier years Marat had been a very different figure—an accomplished physician, the friend of nobles, a man of science and original thought, so that he was nearly elected to the Academy of Sciences. His studies in electricity gained for him the admiration of Benjamin Franklin and the praise of Goethe. But when he turned to politics he left all this career behind him. He plunged into the very mire of red republicanism, and even there he was for a time so much hated that he sought refuge in London to save his life.
On his return he was hunted by his enemies, so that his only place of refuge was in the sewers and drains of Paris. A woman, one Simonne Evrard, helped him to escape his pursuers. In the sewers, however, he contracted a dreadful skin-disease from which he never afterward recovered, and which was extremely painful as well as shocking to behold.