It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.
“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”
“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”
We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.
Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert
The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.
“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.
“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”
“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”
“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”
The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.
“Who is it?” he asked; “who is the man with—-”
“That is the headsman,” answered M. Ragon.
Meaning (though unnamed as such by Balzac), the phenomenally prolific Sanson.