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Title: The Reaping Author: Rafael Sabatini * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1401161h.html Language: English Date first posted: March 2014 Most recent update: March 2014 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Compared with the citizens of other great capitals the Parisians are in some respects exceedingly averse to change. The consequence is that the streets and buildings of Paris abound in historical associations; there are a great number of landmarks of past events—particularly of the French Revolution.
If, for example, you stroll down the rather narrow but very busy rue St. Honoré, with its luxury shops and its crowded traffic, you will find numbers of houses to all intents and purposes just as they were in the closing years of the 18th century. Maybe the fronts of the ground-floors have been re-modelled to meet the requirements of modern days, but the rest of the buildings are intact.
For instance, the house of Madame de Pompadour remains as it was in 1764 when she dressed herself up in full court costume to face death. It is occupied now by a well-known firm of antique dealers, so that it can be visited by those who wish without very much difficulty. The fine old carved staircase with its royal monogram "L.L." has certainly sagged a little, but the whole place is kept as it was in her lifetime. And there are many other houses of the same type, complete with their original fittings, even down to the cut glass knobs on the heads of the banisters and the door-handles.
One can look out of the windows on to the self-same street where the heavy wheels of the tumbrils clattered noisily over the cobble-stones as they slowly wended their way, with their loads of aristocrats, to the "Widow," who awaited them with her greedy "National Basket" and her busy "National Barber" in constant attendance.
Yes, Paris is not only a city of pleasure, it is also a city of souvenirs—why, the authorities have not even yet obliterated the name "Place Louis XVI" at the corner of the Place de la Concorde!
There is no modern writer who can conjure up historical pictures of the past more vividly, truly and realistically than Mr. Rafael Sabatini. And in this dramatic story of Citizen Soldier Jerome Vidal, his wife Angèle and M. de Seyrac, along with glimpses of Danton and Robespierre, he proves the truth of this assertion.
When you lay down the book you will feel that you have loitered in the rue Vaugirard, wandered down the rue St. Honoré and made one of the crowd in the Hall at the Tuileries, not in the twentieth century but in the eighteenth.
Mr. Rafael Sabatini who was born in 1875 in Italy, of Italian and English parents, spent much of his early youth on the Continent, where, for the most part, he was educated. There is, in consequence, no living English writer who understands more completely and accurately the temperament of the Latin races.
Besides being one of our foremost novelists, Mr. Sabatini is also a very well-known dramatist. It will be remembered that Scaramouche, one of his best known and most successful plays, deals also with incidents in the French Revolution—a subject upon which he is pre-eminent.
Angèle made her way briskly through the by-streets of the Section—the Section called of Mutius Scaevola by those noisome patriots who dreamt of implanting the departed glories of old Rome on the bloody dunghill they had made of Paris.
She came out into the more spacious Rue Vaugirard, and picked her way daintily through the unscavengered filth of it past the old Seminary of St. Louis and the Luxembourg. The ancient and stately palace roared and clanged and clattered now as if the forge of old Vulcan himself were at work within it. To this she paid little heed, accustomed to it as she was, since she lived day and night within the radius of its unceasing and deafening activity. It happened, however, that the wind was blowing from the south, so that the fumes of those four-and-fifty furnaces wherein cannon was being forged for the army of the Republic swept, acrid and stifling, across the street. They caught her in the throat and set her coughing and quickening her steps. Thus she drew the attention and excited the mockery of a group of forgerons who lounged about the gate-posts. They were brawny, shaggy men, unspeakably evil and savage of appearance, their bare and hairy arms and chests black with the grime of the forges, their garments foul, their matted heads crowned with the red bonnet of liberty. One who pulled at a pipe, seeing her fastidious haste, deliberately blew a cloud of tobacco smoke in her face to increase her discomfort. His apish fellows chuckled with malicious mirth. Sudden terror of them seemed to turn her feet to lead, and it was only by an effort of will that she conquered the nightmare sensation and held at unslackened pace upon her way.
Beyond that mischievous puff of smoke, however, they made no attempt to molest her. If they were patriots and looked like savages, yet they were toilers. They were men who spent about the forges that were to give arms to the soldiers of France the energies of patriotism which many of their kind preferred to devote to the baiting of unfortunate men and women.
She hurried on, breathing at last more freely, past the old stables of the Luxembourg, towards the Rue Pot de Fer. She was young, of a good height, graceful of figure and carriage, and her face bore a stamp of nobility that in itself was a dangerous asset in Paris of Messidor of the year 1 by the Jacobin calendar—or September of 1793, in the now obsolete calendar of slaves. Her dress was scrupulously simple, yet scrupulously neat. It was of a dark grey material, with a muslin fichu folded across the neck of the low cut bodice and a muslin coif for head-dress, from which a heavy curl of bronze-coloured hair escaped to lie upon her milk-white neck. As if to counteract any impression of aristocracy that might be produced by her general air, she wore prominently displayed between her breasts an enormous tricolour cockade.
She carried the daily ration of bread and meat doled out by the sections of that famine-threatened city in the napkin that the law required for the purpose. This because the viragoes in their bestial fights for food had been given to employing more substantial receptacles as weapons of offence to gain them an advantage of position in the waiting files.
She dreaded nothing in life so much as those daily visits to the baker and the butcher of the section; she dreaded insult in going, robbery and violence in returning; and such was her dread that on many a day she would keep the house and put her trust in some law-breaking accupareur who covertly hawked victuals in defiance of the Convention's enactment, or else even go hungry rather than venture forth to obtain the rations to which the law accorded her the right as a citizeness of Paris.
She was well-known in the Section Scaevola, this young wife of that stalwart soldier Vidal, just as it was known that her husband—a colonel, although barely thirty years of age, thanks to the rapidity of promotion possible in the Army of the Republic—was serving France in Holland with General Dumouriez. But she built upon this fact no illusions or expectations of respect. Patriots she knew would brook no superiors. Their present nightmare was the dread of militarism which by force of arms could, if it were so minded, set itself above them and hurl them back into that slavery from which they so fondly deluded themselves that they had escaped. Hence a successful soldier was almost as much in danger of becoming an object of suspicion as an aristocrat. Aware of this, she observed in all things the greatest circumspection. She occupied a humble little house in the Rue Pot de Fer, where until lately she had had for companion a faithful old peasant woman named Léontine. But lately Léontine had been ailing, and in the end had been forced to leave Paris and return to the country.
Since then Angèle had been alone. The Republic had abolished servants—or at least it had abolished the term, for in reality the Republic's enactments of this nature seldom went beyond the name by which a thing was called. It is true that domestic servants were still to be procured, but they were now called "officials," and for the most part they took the fullest advantage of this change in their designation. In the main they were idle and insolent when they were not positively dangerous. To reprove them or dismiss them, no matter how richly they might deserve it, was to run the risk of being denounced by them for incivisme; and to be denounced, however groundless might be the denunciation, however worthless the word of the denouncer, was at this date of the Terror to be half-way to the guillotine. The Republic was ready to believe in the guilt of every accused, until he established his innocence to the satisfaction of the Revolutionary Tribunal; and the Revolutionary Tribunal was as difficult to satisfy on the score of innocence as it was easy to convince on the score of guilt.
Realizing all this, Angèle had preferred not to fill the place left vacant by Léontine's withdrawal to the country. She accounted it more prudent to remain alone in that modest little four-roomed dwelling—the home of some respectable artisan in pre-revolutionary times. Its modesty, in itself, afforded her a certain security and a certain immunity from coming under the Republic's ready suspicion. But the loneliness of it was almost more than she could endure. And to this loneliness were added constant alarms and terrors. Letters from Vidal were few, and they were distressingly brief when they came. It was not safe to write at length, and the post was as disorganized as everything else.
All this she bore with what fortitude she could command, patiently waiting until Vidal should find an opportunity to come to her, and resolved that once he did so, she would never consent to be left alone again in this nightmare city. Sooner would she go with him, following the army, if that were permitted her.
She came at last to the Rue Pot de Fer. It vas deserted, as all streets were deserted in those days when to linger out of doors was to attract the dangerous attention of the agents of the section. She reached her own doorway, and there paused, suddenly taken aback, her heart flung into a wild gallop. She found the threshold occupied. Upon a bulging haversack deposited there, sat a tall fellow in a military blue coat with white facings and the scarlet woollen epaulettes of an officer—golden epaulettes had been abolished by the Republic as aristocratically ostentatious. White nankeens and hessian boots encased his legs. His face was over-shadowed by an enormous cocked hat decorated by the tricolour cockade. But as she came to a standstill before him he suddenly raised his head to confirm the identity that already she had apprehended. Then with a cry joyously inarticulate, he leapt to his feet and caught her to him, there in the open street, heedless of what curious eyes might find entertainment in the spectacle.
"Angèle, my little Angèle!"
"Jerome!" she cried, almost smothered in his embrace.
He eased it a little to explain himself. "I have sat here for a full half-hour awaiting you. I was becoming anxious when a good neighbour here assured me that all was well with you, and that you had gone out but a little while before I came."
She lay against his breast, panting like a half-drowned thing in the intensity of her joy. Presently, so immense was her relief, such a weight seemed lifted from her heart by his presence, that she began to weep.
"Oh, my dear, I am so thankful! So thankful that you are come. You do not know how lonely it has been. Never leave me again! Ah, never leave me again, Jerome." She clung to him, scarcely allowing herself to believe that he was really there, so unexpected was his arrival, so miraculously in answer to her constant silent prayer.
"Well, well, we will talk of it. Meanwhile, unless you propose to bivouac here in the street with me, let us in. Give me the key."
She surrendered it willingly. Her hands trembled so that it is doubtful if in the failing daylight she could herself have unlocked the door. They went in together, his arm about her wais, his haversack on his shoulder and his great sabre clattering behind him. But since the crazy stairs were too narrow to permit the passage of more than one at a time, she was obliged to step from his embracing arm that she might go on ahead of him.
Above in the single living-room that was plainly furnished to the point of meanness, but of a scrupulous tidiness eloquent of her housewifely virtues, she set about reviving the fading embers of the fire. For the preparation of his supper was to be her first care.
Vidal watched her with fond eyes, his face alight with happiness, talking briskly the while and with a gaiety that had no source in anything but the fact of finding himself in her company. Thus until the table was spread for supper, and he came to observe the slender allowance of bread and meat which she had obtained, the rations for one person accorded her by the Committee of the section. At the sight of this, the radiance departed from his rugged face.
"Name of a name! Is that all you have in the house? What? And how are two persons to sup on it?"
She laughed at his dismay. "Not two, Jerome. It is all for you."
"For me? Not a mouthful of it. These rations are your own, and meagre enough in all conscience. They would leave a healthy sparrow with an appetite. Faith! is food so scarce as this in Paris?"
"It is the rationing. But there are ways—forbidden ways—of obtaining more. I have a friend, an accapareuse who comes this way each evening with eggs and butter and such provender. We must listen for her." And she set the window wide that they might hear the hawker when she came. Then for a while she was busy with a stew-pot of baked earth, and only when this was set at last to simmer upon the reviving fire, only then, when provision had been made for Vidal's immediate comfort did she turn to question him upon this abrupt unheralded return of his. He explained it with soldierly briskness.
"I am en mission, as the citizen-representatives say when they visit the army. General Dumouriez has charged me with two duties. The first is to collect the recruits for the reinforcements that are urgently required in Holland and to conduct them back with me to the army. That will keep me here perhaps a week. The second is to lay an indictment before the National Assembly against a fraudulent dog of a contractor who has been lining his pockets with the public money to the detriment of the soldiers of France. That I shall discharge to-morrow."
Her face was overcast with thought. "A week!" she said presently, on a musing note. "Perhaps a week." Suddenly she looked at him between hope and fear. "But when you return to Holland, Jerome, you will not leave me here again?"
He took her by the shoulders, and held her at arm's length before him, considering her with fond eyes in the failing light.
"Would you go with me, little one?"
"I must, Jerome. I couldn't again remain here in this loneliness and terror."
"Poor child." He drew her to him once more, and stroked her cheek. "It shall be as you wish, if you are sure that you do wish it. But it will be a constantly moving, vagabonding life."
"No matter. I shall know that I am near you, and I shall see you sometimes."
"Very well, if it is your wish, it is also mine; indeed, it is I who shall be the greater gainer."
He kissed her, and she broke from him laughing. It seemed to her worth while to have endured so much for the sake of the happiness which this reunion afforded her.
She turned to tend the stew-pot. He stalked to the open window, and looked out.
"Pardi!" he swore. "The stench and noise of those forges at the Luxembourg make the place almost unbearable."
"And yet it is the least of the things I have had to bear," she answered. "There are..." she broke off suddenly, and drew herself up, alert and listening. "There!" she cried.
Above the clang and clatter of the cannon-makers came a shrill voice:
"Linges et dentelles! Linges et dentelles!"
She opened a drawer and took from it a little roll of assignats, the paper money of the Republic. "That is my friend the accapareuse," she informed him, and sped to the door.
"But she is crying 'linen and lace!'"
Angèle laughed at his innocence.
"Perforce! She would soon find herself at the Conciergerie if she cried 'eggs and butter.'"
She ran downstairs, opened the door below, and from the threshold silently beckoned the woman who was approaching down the street carrying a long pannier balanced on her head. The hawker of contraband set down her basket on the doorstep. It revealed nothing beyond a quantity of coarse linen and coarser lace. But the woman already knew Angèle for a customer, and they passed to the real business without any of the usual dissimulation necessary between strangers. Under the thin layer of napery the precious contraband lay snug; there were eggs, a package of butter, even a couple of chickens to-day, by great good fortune, and some small loaves of newly baked bread.
Angèle's purchases were extensive. There was to be no Republican carême that night. They would feast in honour of Jerome's return. A chicken, a half-dozen eggs, a package of butter and a couple of the loaves were transferred to the ample napkin she had brought down with her. The thing was done covertly, well within the shadows of the deep porch where they were secure from prying eyes, particularly now that dusk was falling—the time preferred for this illicit trade.
Angèle tendered an assignat for ten francs. The woman paused first to rearrange her basket. Then in the very act of taking the note with one hand, whilst with the other she was fumbling for change, she checked and threw up her head in alarm, her ears straining to listen. A sound had reached them both—a savage muttering near at hand, no farther off than St. Sulpice, rising suddenly to a note that dominated the unceasing noise of the forges, which had masked its approach.
The accapareuse added to the treason of her illicit trade, a still graver one of displaying adherence to a faith that was another of the institutions the Republic had decreed out of existence. With the hand that should have been seeking the change, she crossed herself hurriedly in her panic, and her lips mumbled an urgent prayer to the Virgin. Angèle stood tensely listening to that ominous hubbub, thanking heaven that Vidal was with her.
She knew that baying of the mob too well. Of all the hideous sounds of a terror-ridden Paris it was the only one that had power to quicken her pulses with fear. She never heard it without being assailed by a sense of choking and nausea, her mental vision tormented by the picture of a youth whose screams she had heard blending with it one night in the Rue Pot de Fer, when those human wolves dragged him to his doom—hanged him from one of the lantern cords.
The accapareuse hurriedly refused the assignat. "Keep it, citoyenne," she muttered. "You will pay me tomorrow, or next time I come, this way. I dare not stay now to find the change."
But Angèle put the note into the other's hand. "Do you keep it," she said. "You will owe me the change. Don't waste time."
The woman thrust the note into her bosom, and snatched up her pannier. What imported was that she should go.
"Mon Dieu!" she panted. "If they should find me and discover what I carry they would tear me to pieces."
She swung the pannier to her head again. "It is a dangerous trade this, citoyenne. But we poor folk must do what we can. God guard you!" And without waiting further she made off quickly in the direction of the Luxemburg.
Meanwhile the raucous chorus was rapidly approaching the other corner of the street, coming from the direction of St. Sulpice—
Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira!
Les aristocrat' à la lanterne,
Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira!
Les aristocrat' on les pendra!
In the very act of turning to seek refuge within doors, Angèle paused. But it was not the roar of that song, so frivolous and gay in tune, so dread and pitiless in meaning, that arrested her. Nearer at hand her ears had caught a sound of pattering steps, and even as her conjecture was accounting for them, a panting figure flung across her threshold, hurtling against her so violently that she must have fallen had she not clutched for support at the framework of the open door. If that violent contact scared her, it scared the intruder no less. He shrank back with a quick gasp of terror, conceiving that he had stepped into a trap. Then seeing that he had to do with a woman, who appeared as frightened as he was himself, he cast himself instantly upon her mercy.
"Citoyenne! Of your pity! Of your charity!" Gasping, he held out hands in supplication. "Let me pass in; let me hide, at least let me crouch here until they have gone by. Have mercy on me, in the name of the Merciful Mother of us all!"
Thus he pleaded, pitifully reduced and shaken by the terror that possessed him; whilst she, in a terror scarcely less than his own, stood eyeing him, her ears straining at the sounds of the pursuit that came ever nearer.
She beheld the slim, tall figure of a man who from his voice she supposed young, for his face was too deeply in shadow to be seen. He wore white nankeens and hessian boots and a long biscuit-coloured riding-coat. Re was without hat and his clubbed hair was in some disarray; long strands of it tumbled about his face which gleamed lividly under a varnish of terror-sweat.
"They are corning," he whispered, fearfully—so fearfully that his whisper sounded almost like a scream to her straining senses, and brought back to her mind a vision of that youth they had hanged from the lantern-rope under her very window.
They were coming, indeed. They had seen him vanish round the corner of the street, and they followed tumultuously, hot now upon the scent. The hoarse, obscene voices and the clattering of their clogs upon the cobbles rolled towards the doorway that sheltered the fugitive and the Citoyenne Vidal. "Dieu de Misericorde!" he cried.
"Will you see me massacred here at your feet! Pity, madame! Pity!"
She half turned, and flung an arm towards the door which she had opened.
"Go!" she said in a whisper. "Quickly! Wait for me inside." And, then practical even in her terror: "Here! Take this," she bade him. And she handed him the napkin containing the provisions whose purchase accounted for her presence there.
He waited for no more, but snatching the package from her hand, flashed through the black gap of the doorway and so vanished. Softly she closed the door again after he had passed, and then, with a calm that almost surprised her, she turned on the threshold, and from the porch leaned forward to look out.
In a moment the foremost of the pursuing pack came abreast of her doorway. Their pace had slackened a little, like that of hounds at fault, questing this way and that. There would be close upon a score of them, and of these fully a third were women, the foul and unsexed viragoes of the Terror; a couple of urchins—weedy, half-starved, half-naked children of the kennels—hung upon the skirts of the pack, eager for such bloody entertainment as might be forthcoming.
At sight of the Citoyenne Vidal the faltering rabble came to a halt. The leader, a frowsy-bearded ruffian with a fur cap—such as gentlemen had been wont to wear when travelling—merged into his matted unkempt brown hair, thrust an evil face into her own.
"Which way did he go?" he demanded fiercely, his blood-injected eyes intent upon her white face.
She commanded herself, so that she might play the part she had undertaken. "Of whom do you speak, citizen? Whom are you seeking?"
"Of whom do I speak?" he echoed, mimicking her. "By St. Guillotine! Here are pretty graces! Of whom do I speak, eh?"
But another, more impatient, shouldered him aside. "We are on the heels of a damned aristo who gave us the slip near the foire."
A woman shrieked further explanations. She flung up a lean, bare arm to brandish a butcher's knife. "A dog of an aristo with powdered hair—powdered hair! The good-for-nothing scatters flour of wheat upon his filthy head, whilst good patriots go hungry upon pease bread."
"We'll give him flour of wheat, old mother," promised the first patriot. "We'll bake his wig for bread for the poor—dog of an aristo!"
"First catch him," quoth the second, who was of a more practical mind. "Into what hole has he thrust himself?" And he swung again to Angèle standing like a statue in her doorway.
"Did you see him, or did you not?" he demanded. "He must have come this way. We saw him turn the corner, and he could not have gone out at the other end of the street before we entered it ourselves. You saw him, then?"
"I have but this moment come down to see what was happening," she answered. "If he passed he must have passed before I came."
There was a general growl of angry disappointment. The maenad with the knife edged nearer to the doorway, and her fierce hungry eyes considered the trim figure and white face of the Citoyenne Vidal with the hatred of her kind for any who preserved a trace of the grace and gentleness natural to her sex.
"You'll not be shielding him by any chance?" she shrilled with unutterable malice. "You'll not be an aristocrat yourself, perhaps, with your white face and white hands and mincing speech."
She swung about to the others, and flung out the hand with the knife to point indictment at Angèle. "She is lying to you, I say! Look at her! Look at her clothes, her face, her hands. Does she look like a patriot? Does she look like a daughter of France—of this glorious new France that has risen upon the ashes of tyranny and vice?"
The crowd paused, and the pause was ominous. Cheated of one prey, these sans-culottes beheld here the chance to console themselves, to slake their awakened blood-lust with another. And this woman looked soft and fair; she had the unpardonable—the anti-Republican attributes—of comeliness and cleanliness; and failing the originally intended victim it might be good to immolate her upon the altar of the Nation.
Angèle standing there, felt a cold paralyzing fear creep over her at that ominous, pregnant silence, under the score of eyes that were turned to scan her at that fury's bidding. She would have turned and fled into the house, but that she seemed bereft of strength. Surely, she thought, Vidal would hear and come down to her assistance. Then in the crowd a hoarse voice laughed. It belonged to a patriot who, being still young and of a nature susceptible to feminine appeal, was moved quite different from his fellows by this woman's beauty.
He thrust rudely forward, shouldering the maenad aside.
"Bah!" he laughed contemptuously in her face. "You are but a woman. And you have all a woman's inconsequence, that is if you have not a woman's treacherous cunning, and aim perhaps yourself at saving that dog of an aristocrat who dusts his head with flour robbed from the bread of the poor."
"I?" she screamed at him. "I save an aristocrat? This to me? To me—who in September at la Force slit the throats of a round dozen of them? I say that she is a traitress, that she has given shelter to the dog we were pursuing, that she—"
"What is this?"
The voice that flung this question, sharp and metallic as a word of command, cut short the virago's tirade and stilled the noisy surge about that threshold. A patriot standing too near Angèle was cuffed aside, another was flung back into the arms of those behind him, and Vidal stepped forward, his trailing sabre chanking after him. He took his stand beside Angèle, who greeted his advent with no more than a little gasp of relief.
"What's this?" he asked again, more sharp and truculently than before, eyes blazing upon that dishevelled rabble.
The virago was the first to recover. She bared her yellow fangs in a leer of malice.
"What is it to you? Are you some aristocratic squire of dames, citizen-soldier?" And she laughed on a horrible shrill note. "St. Guillotine!"
"It is something to me that you insult my wife—the wife of a soldier of France. Be off, or the Committee of the section shall deal with you."
His firm air of authority, his uniform, the tricolour scarf about his waist, his height and obvious strength imposed themselves upon the mob. The maenad however, was less easily daunted than her fellows. She brandished her knife under the colonel's very nose, treating him to the revolutionary cant that was common alike to scavenger and deputy. She reminded him that all were equals, and that he must not suppose his officer's rank gave him any superiority other than a purely official one concerned solely with his regiment. She poured out the tale of the aristocrat with the powdered head whom they had pursued and lost, and accused Angèle of having given him shelter.
"Bah!" he said. "A lie!"
"Ask her!" she screamed. "Ask her!"
But Vidal was as well stocked with revolutionary cant as any, and it was in that language that he chose to answer.
"What need to ask her? Was I not within? Do I not know for myself that no aristocrat has entered here. Besides, shall I insult my wife with such a question?"
His voice was fierce and impatient. Grandiloquently he continued:
"Dare any of you say that whilst on the frontiers I am shedding my blood for Liberty in battle against the tyrants, my wife could be capable of befriending enemies of Liberty here in Paris? Then such an one knows neither Vidal nor Vidal's wife—Vidal's wife, who has more cause to hate aristocrats than any woman of you all. Were she capable of such a treason, these my own hands would crush the life from her, they would so, by the Goddess of Reason."
That was the tone to take with them.
Those were the well-worn phrases, ringing with a pseudo-classic nobility in which the revolutionary doctrines had been preached to them. They were dominated at once, awed almost by this fervour of Republicanism which dwarfed their own.
He turned to Angèle.
"Go in," he bade her. "I will follow you." And as she hesitated. "Go in," he repeated more insistently.
Obediently at last she turned, and left him to give the rabble its dismissal, none daring to protest at her departure.
At the foot of the stairs she leaned a moment against the wall to recover, shaken and trembling in the reaction from her late effort, her hands on her bosom, a sickness in her very soul. She peered into the gloom about her, looking for the fugitive; and there, crouching by the stairs, his face alone faintly discernible and gleaming ghostly white, she discovered him, and understood how Vidal, descending in haste, had overlooked him.
"Go up!" she whispered, and he came instantly forward and obeyed her.
Beyond the half-closed door she could hear Vidal's voice, but not the words he uttered. Then came a laugh from the rabble, and at the sound of it she shuddered, and clutching the baluster, she followed the fugitive up the crazy staircase, groping her way, for here the darkness was now almost complete.
He paused on the landing, until she came up to usher him into the living room where the fire, burning brightly now, warmly irradiated the deepening twilight.
She waved him to a chair, and he sank to it exhausted, mopping his brow. Then she crossed to the window and closed the shutters as a measure of precaution before proceeding to kindle a light.
As she struck flint with steel he spoke at last, sufficiently recovered.
"Mademoiselle, how shall I thank you?"
Though still breathing hard his voice was pleasantly modulated and it reminded her of someone's, but she could not at the moment think whose.
"There is not the need to attempt it, citizen. I did no more than any woman must do who has remained a woman amid all this. And I am not a demoiselle, citizen."
"Your pardon, madame." He rose now that he was sufficiently recovered, so that he might pay her the deference of not remaining seated while she stood.
"Nor yet a dame," she corrected him again.
"Again your pardon, citoyenne," he said, understanding at last. "I had conceived, since you gave me shelter..."
"That I could not be a Republican. You were mistaken. I am the wife of a soldier of France."
She saw his courtly bow in the half-light. She disliked it, and disliked still more the courtly formal speech that jarred upon her by its insincerity.
"Your husband, citoyenne, is to be envied and congratulated."
Without answering she lighted the candles, then crossed to the hearth and gave her attention to the stewpot.
"They have not yet gone, citoyenne," he said, and there was a note of interrogation in the question.
"They will," she answered. "You have nothing more to fear." Then with a change of subject. "I gave you a napkin with some things in it."
"It is here upon the table, citoyenne."
She turned to look, saw the package, and from that shifted her glance to the face of the fugitive. Thus she and her guest stood eye to eye a moment in the yellow candle light, each staring wide-eyed at the other in utter silence. At last both spoke at once.
"You!" she exclaimed.
"Angèle!" he cried.
And upon that they continued to stand and gaze, silent once more in their mutual stupefaction. She knew now what it was that had seemed so oddly familiar in his languorous tones. The sight of him now turned back the wheel of time. He was scarcely changed from the youth of twenty who had persecuted her, ten years ago, when she was a child of seventeen. In memory, as she continued to stare at him, she was back again at Beauvaloir in Normandy where this Chevalier de Seyrac had been almost as lord of life and death, a wolf who would have devoured her remorselessly had not Vidal intervened. For that intervention Vidal had been constrained to abandon his few possessions, so as to convey her and himself beyond the reach of the vengeance provoked in the seigneur by the frustration of his will.
Ten years ago, and deep though its impression had been upon her mind, significant though the event had been beyond any other in her life, yet in the storm and stress of the last lustre, with the gigantic upheaval it had brought—an upheaval in which Vidal and his wife had played their part—that affair of ten years ago, which had altered the whole current of her life and of Vidal's, had faded into vaguest shadow, had lain almost forgotten until this poignant moment.
"You!" she said again after that long pause, and laughed to express her apprehension of the irony of fate which had contrived this meeting, thus, after all these years, and in circumstances so grotesquely different from those which had marked their last parting. In those departed days he had been the pursuer, the persecutor; she the fugitive who had fled for protection to the honest peasant she loved. Now it was Seyrac who was the fugitive, the persecuted, and it was to her of all living women that he was come for shelter and protection.
That laugh of hers, so discordant and sharp, coloured by something of the mockery which she found in Fate, grated upon senses that peril had rendered super-acute. He moved uneasily, and his glance from one of amazement changed to one of furtive watchfulness.
"You'll...you'll not betray me?" he faltered. "You'll not take vengeance upon me for the sin of having loved you, Angèle—for it was love that drove me—"
"Another word of this," she interrupted, her voice soaring in swift passion, "and I'll throw back the shutters, and call up your friends below." She measured him with an eye of cold disdain. "I hold you in my power, Monsieur le Chevalier, as you sought to hold me once. If you would have me more generous, more merciful than you would have proved yourself, do not provoke my memory too far."
He cowered a little for a moment before that royal anger; then he shrugged and let his arms fall heavily in a gesture of helplessness. Thus, until presently the clang of the door below being violently closed came to startle him again. A rattle of clogs upon the cobbles arose from the street, and then they heard the rabble break into chorus once more indicating that the hunt was resumed.
"Ah, ça ira, ça ira, ça ira!
Les aristocrat' on les pendra!"
The voices receded, and faded, or rather became merged and lost in the ceaseless roar of the Luxembourg forges.
He sighed in infinite relief.
"They have gone at last," he said. Then he looked at her again, pausing an instant. "Since I am plainly unwelcome here, I am naturally reluctant to linger. It but remains for me to thank you for what you have done for...an unknown man, and to depart in my turn."
Again he paused, but again she made him no answer. He inclined his head slightly, like one who bows to the inevitable.
"Citoyenne," he said "you know what may await me in the streets. I am not a coward. The mere instinct of self-preservation prompted my flight just now. But had flight failed me I could have died without bringing shame to the name I bear. For the moment, thanks to you, I have escaped. But it is perhaps only for the moment. I must still regard myself as a man at the point of death. You'll understand my desire to make my peace with those I may have wronged in deed or in intention. I should go more easily were I assured of your forgiveness for what is past."
It touched her, of course. It melted all the hostility of her mood. And then before she could offer him any answer, the door swung open and Vidal stood at gaze upon the threshold.
Seyrac recoiled before that sudden and unexpected apparition, recognizing the man on the instant inevitably by association. Then he recovered and stood faintly smiling, faintly scornful, a deadly weariness in his handsome eyes.
"From Charybdis into Scylla," he said, almost cynically. "What matter? I am tired of it all; tired of the perpetual effort to keep a distracted head upon my weary shoulders."
Vidal advanced. He looked at Angèle with eyes of faint astonishment.
"So it was true, then?" he said, and laughed shortly at the memory of his vapourings to the rabble.
"As you see," she answered quietly. "But I did not then know who it was that I was sheltering."
"Who it was that you were sheltering?" Vidal echoed, clearly intrigued.
With puzzled eyes he looked again at the fugitive, looked at him more closely now, and at last recognition dawned upon his rugged face. He took up a candle from the table, and held it aloft so that its light might strike the other's features more directly. Then he made an odd grunting sound in his throat, and set the candle down again.
"God does not sleep, Chevalier de Seyrac," he said grimly.
The chevalier shrugged. All doors of escape being as he conceived now closed to him, he faced his doom with the proud indifference of his class. He faintly sneered as he answered.
"I imagined that the Republic had contradicted that rumour."
"But you afford me proof, I think, that it is none the less true," returned Vidal. He paused a moment. Then asked: "Do you know of any reason why I should not discharge the debt between us?"
"None, indeed." Seyrac's tone was indifferent to the point of being contemptuous.
Vidal bowed to him, and turned to Angèle.
"It but remains then, my dear, to fling this pretty Christian to the lions."
"Jerome!" she clutched his arm, her face white.
"What now? Name of a name! you are not going to suggest that I should show him compassion?"
"The past is past. After all he did no real harm. He was thwarted in the evil he intended. Let us show ourselves more merciful, Jerome. Let him go his ways in peace."
He glared at her.
"Let him go?" he echoed, mocking. "Let him escape that he may play the wolf again? Surely that was never intended by the destiny that brought him to this of all houses in Paris." He flung her off, almost roughly. "He was guided hither so that he might meet the reckoning long due. The will of fate is all too plain." He considered Seyrac. "What memories you revive in me," he said, smiling bitterly. "I mind me of a stormy day in March in Germinal, by the calendar of Liberty—ten years ago, when she and I fled from Beauvaloir pursued by your bullies. How would it have fared with me had they overtaken me? How would it have fared with her? Would you have spared us? Yet she bids me spare you!" He laughed short and bitterly. "That was in Germinal—Germinal, the month of the sowing. And this is Messidor—the month of the reaping. There is a humour in the Jacobin calendar most apt to your situation. As you sowed then, so shall you reap now."
"Anything to save me from your speech-making," was the dry answer, and Seyrac bowed ironically.
Vidal swung round towards the window, but Angèle again barred his way.
"A no, Jerome! Reflect!" Her voice trembled with something akin to terror. "I have a superstition. Such pitilessness will bring us ill-fortune. Let him go, in heaven's name. It is the noble vengeance. What is he to us? Less than nothing. Spare him, Jerome! If you love me, do my will in this."
He looked at her, obviously shaken in his purpose.
"But it is just because I love you that I desire to pay this score."
"Pay it, then. But not in the base coin of M. de Seyrac's uttering. Return good for evil, Jerome, let him go his ways."
"Faith! That's no payment as I understand it," he grumbled.
"Neither is vengeance payment. And it's unlucky. Let him go. In God's name let him go. I think M. de Seyrac has paid already and will continue to pay while he has life."
"Ah! That!" This was an argument Vidal could understand. It showed him that the greater mercy might be to fling Seyrac to his pursuers so that they should make an end to his agonies.
"Well, well! If I love you," he said. "Since you ask it, so be it. After all, as you say, he is less than nothing." He turned to Seyrac. "Citizen, your way is clear. You may depart."
"I thank you for the clemency," he said, but it was at Angèle that he looked. He bowed, advanced a step in the direction of the door, and on that step be suddenly faltered, staggered and collapsed upon the floor.
Taken by surprise, Vidal stared at his wife.
"What is to do now?" he asked.
She knelt beside the unconscious man, and set an arm about his shoulders so as to raise his head. Feeling a moisture upon her hand, she withdrew it suddenly.
"He is wounded," she cried, pity ringing in her voice.
The access of weakness that had flung the chevalier into that swoon was no more than momentary. Even as Angèle spoke he opened his eyes again—black pools in the ghastly pallor of his face. For a moment they looked dull and dead, then gradually they quickened into that bewildered look of inquiry, betraying the ignorance of his surroundings, which is inevitably the immediate sequel to unconsciousness. But when his vague glance fell upon Angèle, who was still supporting his head, he awakened fully.
"My regrets," he excused himself, "It distresses me to incommode you, but..." He smiled wanly.
Vidal went down upon one knee beside him.
"Let us look at your wound, citizen-chevalier."
"Tush! It is nothing. One of those dogs flung a knife after me as I was rounding the corner. It is little more than a scratch, and I have paid no heed to it. I must have fainted from sheer weakness. I have not eaten since yesterday morning."
Now in reality Vidal was of a kindly and generous nature, and this glimpse of Seyrac's desperately reduced condition stirred in him a pity which eclipsed much of the memory of what the past had left between them. It scarcely needed the ready pleadings of Angèle to move him into playing the good Samaritan to his sometime enemy.
Between them, Vidal and his wife assisted the chevalier to his feet and supported him to a chair. Vidal laid bare the man's wounded shoulder, and Angèle herself bathed and tended the wound, which was in reality as slight as Seyrac had said.
Next, Angèle made haste to prepare a meal, and very soon there was a steaming odorous omelette before the fugitive. He fell to at once, and not all his dainty breeding could restrain him from eating ravenously. And he drank as greedily as he ate. Vidal plied him with a rough red wine of a fiery quality that in happier days the chevalier would have accounted sheer poison. But misfortune and privation had humbled at least his physical arrogance. He drank until the bottle was done; relished that vitriolic fluid with a proper thankfulness.
Even as he was the first to begin his supper, so was he the last to finish. It was with a little sigh of utter satisfaction that he sank back into his chair, warmed and heartened by his food and exalted a little by the wine. The friendliness towards him evoked by pity in his host and hostess set him completely at his ease.
"A man," he said, "is the creature of his own stomach. That is the whole philosophy of life. A half-hour ago I was weary of lurking and hiding to preserve a life that had grown empty, simply because emptiness was my physical condition. I was ready to go and yield myself up to that canaille, simply that I might make an end. But having eaten and drunk I am as one born again. Re-vitalized, I desire, above all things, almost at any price, to prolong my life. By that, citoyenne, and you, colonel, you may measure the depth of my gratitude."
In this odd way was the past obliterated. Because they had succoured him, an obligation was set up. Themselves they had rendered him now dependent upon them, and this altered all their relations. Rancour to be kept alive must know no truce. Almost without realizing the transition, they were questioning him with concern as to how he came to Paris and what he did there.
"I came on a fool's errand," he informed them. "I have planned to cross to England. A friend in Nantes will help me to that whenever I say the word. Then, so that I should not go destitute into a foreign country, I came back in the hope of recovering certain deeds and some jewels that were stored in my house here. I might have known the futility of such a quest. Of course, the mob had been through the place before me, and what the mob had left, your friends of the Convention had raked into the storehouse of the Nation. I have had my journey for nothing, just as it is possible that you have but wasted kindness upon me, and that the trouble you took to revive me is just so much trouble thrown away. It is almost impossible that I should ever get out of Paris again with my head on my shoulders."
He fell into a gloomy abstraction again.
"When all is said," he resumed presently, "I was a fool to have fled before that rabble this evening. The mere animal instinct of self-preservation conquered my reason for the time. I see now how much better it would have been to have quietly surrendered, and let them finish me."
In kindness, as in all else, it is only the first steps that are difficult. Once those are taken it is not easy to turn back. Angèle was moved to still greater depths of pity for the fugitive. His resigned despondency—and, who knows, perhaps also his good looks, for he was a handsome man, bearing upon him the stamp of distinction and high breeding—-so stirred her compassion that she desired now to complete his rescue. She turned to Vidal.
"Can you not help him, Jerome?" she asked. "Is there no way by which you, could smuggle him out of Paris?"
"I?" quoth Vidal, staring.
"No, no," said Seyrac. "You ask too much of him, citoyenne. Whatever I may be to-day, in my youth I was guilty of follies and worse, and in the course of those I would have wronged you both. There are limits upon the good which may be returned for evil."
"Not in Christianity," said Angèle.
The chevalier smiled wearily. "Christianity! Ah! But then the Republic, you see, has proscribed Christianity. No, no, you are asking Colonel Vidal to do more than lies in his nature to perform, perhaps more than it lies in my nature to accept."
There was compassion now on. Vidal's rugged, honest face.
"Whether it lies in your nature to accept it, citizen, it lies in mine to offer you a way out," he said. "One of my tasks here in Paris is to marshal the reinforcements for the Army of General Dumouriez. Recruits are urgently wanted, and the rawest of material will go with me to the frontier when I leave Paris a week hence. Do you see the door I open for you? Recruit, citizen-chevalier. Come to me, and I will enrol you, and no questions asked. Once we have you in a blue coat, you will be immune from every peril. You march out of Paris in my ranks, and once outside it, I can readily send you upon some special pretexted mission that will give you an opportunity to desert and make your way to your friends in Nantes."
Angèle was warm and eager in her approval of the plan. As for Seyrac, he could only stare at the soldier, a great wonder in his sombre eyes.
"You would do this for me?" he said at length.
He had risen, and stood leaning across the table.
"If it lies in your nature to accept it," said Vidal, with faint irony.
"Citizen-colonel, you take a noble vengeance. I have no words in which to..."
"No words are needed. For to-night you had best remain here. We have no bed to offer you, for our quarters as you see are limited. But if the floor and a rug will serve your turn, you will at least be secure and you may sleep in peace. To-morrow, then, we turn you into a soldier of the Republic One and Indivisible."
Seyrac sat down, and whether from emotion alone or because he was physically reduced, he took his head in his hands and fell to weeping.
Soon after noon of the following day Vidal presented himself at the Tuileries on the business with which his general had charged him, and there he fell into the grave error of not only answering idle questions concerning the affair that had brought him to Paris, but further, of answering them truthfully. Had he but used discreetness, none would have known of it until he had delivered himself at the bar of the Assembly to the representatives of the Nation. If Saint-Just had then resented the matter—as he must have done—at least he could have had no personal grievance, against Vidal. He must have aimed all his resentment at General Dumouriez himself, passing over Vidal who would have remained but the unconscious instrument of his superior officer. By his talkativeness, however, the colonel brought himself into direct conflict with Saint Just, and so thrust himself neck-deep into the peril that threatened to overwhelm and destroy him.
It was in the hall of the Palace on that gusty day of Messidor that the twain came into conflict. Vidal had swaggered up the steps with great click of spurs and rattle of trailing sabre; he had taken a greasy usher by the shoulder in a grip that made the rascal squirm, and in that clarion voice of his he had announced his quality and his purpose.
"Go tell the Representatives of the Nation that Colonel Vidal of the Army of Holland has come to lay a plaint from General Dumouriez before that august Assembly."
The hall was thronged with the usual mob of idlers and men of affairs; red-bonneted patriots of a truly patriotic uncleanliness lounged, smoking foul pipes; black coated men of the law flitted hither and thither in the quest for, or execution of, business; here and there a citizen-representative would be the centre of a little crowd of clamant republicans of both sexes; blue coated members of the National Guard, a few soldiers, and a plentiful sprinkling of spies and sectional agents, came and went or moved about the hall, passing from group to group.
But at the sound of Vidal's brazen voice a silence fell as sudden as it was general, and the soldier found himself the focus of every eye. It did not discompose him in the least. He had looked on war and death, and was not to be put out of countenance by the stare of a crowd of ragamuffins. Moreover, he was conscious that he was a fine figure of a man, some inches taller than the tallest present, and he was still young enough at thirty to be vain of his appearance and to relish attention to it.
He loosed his grip of the usher, who departed to carry his message, and he stood there, staring back over his tall white stock, the least suspicion of haughtiness upon that rugged, not unhandsome face of his and of rakishness about the angle at which he had set his enormous cocked hat.
A captain of the National Guard detached himself from a group of which he had formed part.
"Why, Vidal, my colonel!" he exclaimed, advancing. "You fall from heaven."
Vidal glowered down at him.
"Most apt," said he. "I am an avenging angel."
Now, that was a promising preface, and many drew quietly near in the hope that there might be more to follow that would fulfil this promise.
Duchatel—the captain of the National Guard—questioned our colonel in exclamations, and Vidal saw no reason for secrecy upon a matter that soon must be the common talk of Paris.
"A filthy dog of a shopkeeper has been battening upon the blood of French soldiers," said he. "I am come to administer a pinch of snuff that will make him sneeze his head into the National Basket."
The image was novel, and it was couched in truly patriotic vein. One or two guffaws applauded it.
A patriot in a cockaded red-bonnet and garments that were unutterably foul, removed a long stemmed pipe from between his teeth and spat deliberately upon the gown of a lawyer, which no doubt seemed to him too spruce for a good republican.
"Pig!" said the lawyer fiercely.
"Brother," replied the patriot unruffled, "if you will get in my way such things must happen." And he turned bloodshot eyes upon Vidal, clamouring in a hoarse voice to know the name and precise crime of the unutterable rogue concerned in the officer's indictment.
Vidal complied without hesitation. As a soldier he was naturally filled with indignation by the crime he came to denounce, and he cared not how soon all the world should be possessed of the infamous details.
"The traitor of whom I speak is a government contractor, paid by the Nation to supply the army with boots. In his foul greed of wealth, this unspeakable dog has sent us boots that are made more of paper than of leather, with the consequence that the soldiers of France go barefooted, and thus many a hundred lives have been lost—lives valuable to France in her hour at stress—sacrificed that this thief may enrich himself."
A murmur of indignation spread.
"His name! His name!" clamoured several.
Belatedly, Vidal grew prudent. "I reserve his name for the citizen-representatives," said he, and as they pressed more closely about him, he set his elbows to his sides, exerted his great strength, and made a clear space about him. "St. Guillotine!" he roared. "Give me air."
Came the usher with the announcement that the Assembly was in debate. The citizen-president desired Colonel Vidal to wait, holding himself in readiness. He should be informed when the national convenience permitted his being heard.
And then, before he could reply, someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to confront a slender fellow with a countenance as beautiful as that of Antinous. He was bareheaded, and his luxuriant brown hair was carefully curled and tied in a queue by a broad ribbon of black silk. In dress, such was the scrupulous care bestowed upon it, he might have been an aristocrat.
"A word with you, my colonel," he said quietly, the sneering curl of his mouth becoming more pronounced.
"As many as you please," was the brisk answer, "although I don't know who the devil you are."
"My name is Saint-Just. I am the most obscure and insignificant of the representatives of the august people." The description of himself was entirely superfluous. His name would have been enough for any man; it was more than enough for Vidal who had been warned against him by Dumouriez, warned that Saint-Just was a friend of the fraudulent contractor Vidal was sent to denounce.
Only then did the soldier perceive that he had been indiscreet. But the perception left him undismayed and unruffled.
"I am listening," he invited the other.
"This way," said the representative, motioning him to step aside.
Vidal shrugged, almost contemptuously—he disliked this foppish fellow with his blue coat, his lacquered boots and his immaculate buckskins that fitted him without a wrinkle. Nevertheless, he obeyed the command of those hard pale eyes and that white hand so languidly waved.
The crowd made way with alacrity. Saint-Just had the most bloodthirsty nature, the bitterest tongue and the fiercest eloquence in the Assembly. There was something of the wolf under that foxy exterior, and he was more feared, perhaps, than any man of his day. It was notorious, too, that he stood high in the favour of the Incorruptible Robespierre, that in matters of policy the twain had but one voice.
He drew Vidal apart, and paced with him near the door, across the lozenge of sunlight that gleamed brightly one moment to be obscured the next as the gusty, September wind drove its regiment of cloud-packs across the face of the sun.
"You were speaking of Lemoine, I think," said Saint-Just softly.
"The readiness of your guess in itself confirms my accusation," was the uncompromising answer.
It staggered the deputy for a moment. He raised his eyebrows.
"You reason like a soldier, which is to say that you do not reason at all. Since Lemoine is the only contractor in the last three months who has been charged by the government with the supply of footgear to the army, it requires no special knowledge to perceive that your accusation must be aimed at him."
He paused a moment, and those inhumanly cold eyes scanned the face of the stalwart soldier.
"Tell me, Colonel Vidal, is this accusation the only business that has brought you from the army?"
"It is the chief business."
"What is the other?"
"My general is anxious to receive the reinforcements promised him. I am charged to conduct the new levies back to Holland with me."
"Will you take a word of advice from me, my colonel?"
"That," said Vidal, "will depend upon its nature."
"Turn your entire attention to what you deem—quite mistakenly—the lesser part of your task. Obtain the Assembly's sanction to conduct the recruits to the army. As for the affair of Lemoine and the boots—leave it alone. You can do no good by..."
Vidal interrupted him, his tone impatient, almost angry.
"You are speaking to a soldier, citizen. I have received my orders from my general; they are precise; and none but my general may relieve me of any parts of them. Do you realize that if I were to do as you are suggesting, Dumouriez could have me shot for disobedience?"
"I can provide against that," Saint-Just assured him. "I speak not only with my own voice, but with that of the Citizen Robespierre himself. You shall have complete immunity from any consequences of your omission, or, rather, of your compliance with my...request."
Vidal stood still, and squarely faced the representative.
"Will you tell me what affair this may be of yours?" he asked so truculently that a faint flush showed in the other's pale cheeks.
"I am concerned with the interests of the Nation," replied Saint-Just, and he made it plain that he kept his patience with difficulty under this opposition. "I am convinced that the best interests of the Nation would not be served by the denunciation you meditate."
Vidal shrugged. His growing dislike of the fellow may have stiffened his stubbornness.
"That is not my affair. My affair is to obey orders. I am an instrument; no more."
Saint-Just set his teeth.
"You are receiving orders now," he said. "The army of France, your general himself, are subject to the representatives of the people—the sovereign people of France."
"Permit me to observe, citizen, that you yourself are not the representatives of the sovereign people. You are only one of the representatives. The others are inside there. And my business is with them in collective Assembly, not with any single member of them who obviously is endeavouring to serve ends of his own behind their backs. Ay, you may glare at me, ci-devant Chevalier de Saint-Just who began life as a revolutionist by rifling your own mother's money-box. You're a thief, my friend, and the friend of thieves, as witness your concern for Lemoine."
Saint-Just stepped back as if he had been struck. His handsome face was livid, his eyes blazed with fury.
"Citizen-soldier," he said, between his teeth, "you insult me."
"It is you who insult me by supposing that I am of your own dishonest kidney."
"Crédieu!" swore the representative. "You dog! A word from me can destroy you."
"Speak up," Vidal bade him now in a voice of thunder. "Let us have this word. Let the people hear your threats that they may ask themselves whether we have returned to the days of Capet when any knave of a court flunkey might threaten an honest man. A word from you to destroy me! Bah!" he laughed. "I should have something to say to that. I am a soldier, Cadedi! I have survived five wounds, all of them in front, made with clean steel. Do you think a stab in the back from the dirty tongue of a politician is going to trouble me?"
He advanced upon Saint-Just as he spoke, and again the deputy recoiled before the fierce vehemence of the man.
He was suddenly afraid. Not only physically afraid of Vidal, but far more afraid of the incendiary effect which his words might have upon those who overheard them. Saint-Just knew well—none better that they were so much anarchical tinder, ready to be set in a blaze by the first fiery tongue that preached revolt against any authority whatsoever.
"Be silent, you fool!" he snarled.
The doors at the far end of the hall were thrown open at that moment. An usher's loud voice rang through the vast space.
"The Citizen-Colonel Vidal is awaited by the representatives of the august Nation at the bar of the Assembly."
"I come!" he trumpeted back, and half turned from Saint-Just. Then he paused, and considered the deputy over his shoulder.
"And when I have told the Representatives, I shall tell the people—all of it, my friend. They shall hear from me that Saint-Just, the thief, is the friend of thieves, and they shall draw their own inferences from my tale. That is what you have earned by your attempts to pervert a soldier's honesty. Much good may it do you." And he clanked off up the hall, his steps ringing through the silence that had fallen upon the crowd, stared at with scared eyes by every man and woman present.
Beyond those double portals Vidal was detained for a moment by the usher, and when at last the small baize door leading into the chamber was opened and he advanced to the bar of the Assembly, he found that Saint-Just was before him. Even as he stepped forward at one end, he beheld the deputy advancing with his graceful sauntering walk at the other, to take his seat at the foot of the rostrum.
Thence Saint-Just's pale eyes met the soldier's with an air of contemptuous challenge which even now might have deterred a man less bold. Vidal, however, calmly sent his glance sweeping round the silent multitude of representatives, as he drew forth the notes with which he came provided.
He began by speaking of the glorious achievements of their fellow countrymen and the lustre shed upon French arms in Holland, and went on to urge the need of reinforcements against the mercenaries of foreign tyrants if the campaign were to be brought to a speedy and victorious close. His martial figure and the ringing voice, addressing them as it might have commanded a squadron, made a profoundly favourable impression. Unconsciously, he seemed to symbolize French military valour. To look at him was to gather a sense of confidence in the inevitable ultimate prevailing of French arms.
He concluded that portion of his address with the information that he was deputed by his general to lead to the field of glory such recruits as might have been raised in Paris during the past month. Applause broke forth from the Assembly and found an echo in the gallery above, which was thronged with patriots of both sexes, many of them attracted thither by news of the scene between Saint-Just and the soldier, and fully expecting it to be now succeeded by a scene of still greater intensity.
Vidal paused a moment. Then fixing Saint-Just he passed to the second part of his errand.
"So far, citizen-representatives, I have spoken of French valour and French heroism, in which all Frenchmen may justifiably take pride. Alas, that I must abandon so inspiring and inspiriting a theme! Necessity demands that I speak to you now of French dishonesty, French chicanery and French treachery. If we cannot avoid taking shame in this, at least we can remove that shame by punishing the deed that has evoked it."
He paused, and the expectant hush that followed was pierced by a short thin laugh and the acid voice of Saint-Just, seeking to discredit the speaker by inviting contempt upon him.
"The citizen-colonel is a maker of phrases!"
But no one heeded the sarcasm; not even Vidal who now proceeded formally to lay his accusation against the contractor Lemoine.
They heard him in utter silence to the end. When that was reached, one or two deputies rose in their places to make their way to the rostrum. But it was not for nothing that Saint-Just had taken his seat at the very foot of it. He anticipated the others, mounted the steps, claimed and was granted speech by the President.
Vidal, clenching the bar with his great hand, threw back his head in rebellion at this interruption.
"Citizen-president, I have not yet done," he roared. "Before you hear the citizen-deputy Saint-Just I have yet to inform you of a sequel to this affair of Lemoine, from which you will gather that you may have to hear the citizen Saint-Just in a different sense."
"If the affair is to be discussed," said Saint-Just, dominating the Assembly from the height of the tribune, impressing it by his sardonic calm, "it were well to take one thing at a time. And already we have one very grave statement that requires attention. Whatever else the citizen-colonel may have to add touching a matter which he says himself is but a sequel to that upon which you have heard him, must wait until we can find it expedient and convenient to hear him. You will uphold me, citizen-president, in my proposal that we proceed with order in our debates, and deal with matters singly as they arise."
"But..." began Vidal.
"Be silent, citizen-colonel," the president commanded him.
Vidal shrugged, and leaned against the bar content to await his turn.
Saint-Just dabbed his lips daintily with a flimsy handkerchief, and cleared his throat. Slowly and calmly he began to speak.
"We have heard a formidable accusation launched. It is an accusation which if established against the person it incriminates will inevitably bring his head into the National Basket. In the dark days of tyranny, now overpast, the lives of true men were ruthlessly sacrificed upon slight evidence. But in the new age of reason that has dawned upon France, in these glorious days of liberty and fraternity, in which all men are equal in the eyes of the law, it would ill become us to form hasty judgments, or to..."
At this point Vidal became disorderly.
"Word, words!" he bawled, interrupting the orator's harangue. And he flung back Saint-Just's own gibe. "The citizen-representative is a maker of phrases. But phrases are not wanted here. What are wanted are sound boots for French soldiers, and the head of the man who..."
The president rose in wrath. "Will you be silent, citizen-colonel?"
"How can I be silent, whilst this fellow..."
Uproar followed, to drown the remainder of his answer. The president clanged his bell and waved frantic arms to restore order.
A small thin man in black, with a very carefully tied wig and the face of a weasel, rose in his seat, removing as he did so, a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles through which he had been reading some notes. Order was instantly restored and the Assembly fell silent. It was the Citizen Robespierre, and Vidal knew the great deputy's reputation for incorruptibility and, in his innocence of polities, nothing of Robespierre's attachment to Saint-Just, conceived that now at last he would be heard upon the matter of the attempt to suborn him. But he was grievously disappointed.
"Now that the Assembly has had an opportunity of hearing the citizen-colonel, may we not dispense with his attendance, citizen-president, particularly since it tends to produce disorder?" And he sat down again.
The president—his puppet—instantly converted the suggestion into an order. A couple of men of the National Guard who had been lounging by the baize door approached Vidal. One of them touched him upon the shoulder. He raised his voice in protest. He would be heard. He had something to say that was of vital interest to all true patriots.
The disorder became general. A section of the Assembly—the Dantonists, the fearless men of the Mountains—clamoured that the colonel should be heard; but the majority, faithful to the expressed will of Robespierre, demanded that the authority of the president should be respected. The people in the gallery joined in the dispute, some taking this side, some the other. In an instant the place was pandemonium.
But above the general din rang the trumpet voice of Vidal, who saw himself threatened with forcible eviction.
"Very well," he shouted. "I go! What I have to say can wait. But if you keep me waiting too long I shall go and say it to all Paris. If the representatives of the people will not hear me, the people themselves remain, and the people shall hear me."
He was gone at last, leaving that ringing threat behind him, and Saint-Just in the rostrum, waiting for silence to be restored and for the gallery to be cleared, looked paler than his pale habit.
The debate that followed upon Saint-Just's speech when it was made proved a protracted one. Vidal paced the hall outside for a full hour and more, heedless of the curiosity of which he was naturally enough the object. He burned with resentment and impatience, and he prepared the terrible phrases with which he would fulminate Saint-Just when at last he should be recalled to the bar of the Assembly.
At long length a tap on the shoulder came to arouse him from his fierce absorption. A big man with a leonine head confronted him; the great face was pock-marked, and disfigured by a scar that ran upwards from the corner of his mouth; he was plainly dressed to the extent of having discarded the fashionable cravat. He slipped an arm intimately through Vidal's, and drew him down the hall towards the door that led to the open.
"My friend," he said, "you are too honest for this rascally world of ours in Paris. Will you be advised by me?"
Vidal scowled at him.
"What? Do you too, offer me advice, Danton?" he asked.
The great man smiled tolerantly at this anticipatory resentment.
"You know that you can trust me, and I hope that you also know that I am the last man to urge a coward course upon any. But there is a point at which courage becomes madness, and whilst profiting none, destroys him who displays it. That point you are reaching. You must avoid it, Vidal."
"Avoid it?" the soldier rebelled. "Let that dog Saint-Just dip his hand into the pockets of the people as he dipped it into his mother's money-box? Do you know that he came to me here to advise me, to attempt to suborn me into holding my tongue about the peculations of Lemoine?"
"I did not know. But the knowledge does not surprise me. He is all that you say, and the truth shall be dragged into full daylight before all is over. But you are not the man to do it. Not only will you fail in any attempt, but you will destroy yourself irrevocably if you make it. Saint-Just is more formidable than a panther in its native jungle, and he has something of a panther's soft, sly ways."
"Maybe. But how can he hurt me?" Vidal was scornful. "What accusation dare he lodge against me? How can he ever call me to account for what I may have said to him without submitting himself...?"
But Danton interrupted, his great solemn eyes upon the hot soldier's rugged face.
"Don't wait to ascertain what Saint-Just can do. Accept my word for it that he can destroy you if he pleases, as he could crack a flea." He laughed shortly. "My friend, if he finds that your speech can be hurtful to him, he'll know how to procure your silence. You have threatened him. You have shown him that you can be dangerous to him, and men who are dangerous to Saint-Just usually ride down the Rue St. Honoré in a tumbril to receive the attentions of the National Barber."
"But I must first be tried," protested the trusting Vidal, "and I ask no better opportunity to be heard."
"You will be afforded no such opportunity. Tinville knows how to silence men whom it is not convenient to hear."
Stricken, Vidal stared at Danton, incredulous that such turpitude should have crept into a system which was to have been the purest the world had ever known. Had another than Danton told him these things, he would not have believed them. But Danton's honesty he knew to be above suspicion.
"Leave this to me," the deputy pursued. "Leave it to me to obtain justice upon Lemoine. You can trust me. I have no interests to serve but the interests of France. And I shall not serve them thoroughly until I have pulled down this rascal, Saint-Just, as pull him down I shall. You have put a weapon into my hand to-day, Vidal. Leave me to wield it."
"But my duty?" Vidal protested.
"You have discharged it honourably. You have made your report. The rest you can well leave to me. You will have to do so whether you choose or not, for from the temper into which Saint-Just's infernal tongue has moulded the Assembly, you will not be given another occasion of addressing it. And since you have threatened that in such a case you will address the people themselves, I warn you plainly that if you linger now in Paris you may expect the worst. To that warning let me add a piece of advice—the advice of a sincere friend who wishes you well. Depart at once, this very day. Get back to Holland and the shelter of your bayonets, and stay there until you hear that Saint-Just has been disposed of, otherwise he will dispose of you."
But Vidal's stout heart revolted at what he accounted coward counsel. He resisted. He would remain. He would not be driven away with lambent tail by a mincing fop like Saint-Just. He was not to be browbeaten or intimidated. Saint-Just should reckon with him.
Danton, however, was insistent, and gradually the wisdom of his words took effect upon the soldier, who knew and trusted him. But it was only the mention of Vidal's wife that finally conquered his reluctance to beat a retreat before so contemptible an enemy as he accounted Saint-Just.
"What of Angèle?" Danton asked him gloomily. "Would you leave her a widow?"
Vidal reflected. The picture of his sweet Angèle a widow, unprotected in this revolutionary welter, proved irresistible.
"She wants to go with me when I return to Holland," he said slowly. "She is weary of Paris and her loneliness amid all the violence that is for ever being wrought here."
"Set out with her to-day," said Danton with quiet impressiveness. "Do it for her sake, if not for your own. And trust me to see that vengeance overtakes Saint-Just and his thieving friend Lemoine."
Thus was Vidal gradually, reluctantly persuaded. "But my papers?" was his last protest. "They must be in order before I can set out, and if Saint-Just's attitude towards me is such as you represent he will see to it that I..."
"Pish! I will provide you with a passport before Saint-Just can dream of your intentions to depart. And I can get the necessary signatures—Desmoulins's, Billaud's and anther's, besides my own. Come, you shall have the thing at once, provided I have your promise that you will set out this very evening."
Grudgingly Vidal gave the promise. It was against all his instincts to march off the field like this. But there was Angèle to be considered.
The Chevalier de Seyrac had spent the day pleasantly in Angèle's company. It is the pessimist Schopenhauer who assures us that only pain is positive; that pleasure is an entirely negative condition, consequent upon the absence of physical or mental affliction, that well-being is merely the absence of bodily ailments, and that happiness is no more than the freedom from mental distress. Whether there may be exceptions which the pessimist overlooked in his philosophy, Seyrac's case would certainly come well within his rule, for never was there a happiness at once more complete and more negative.
He sat by the window throughout most of the forenoon, utterly idle, physically and mentally. And it was this secure idleness, which must in happier times have fretted him, that was in itself a source of supreme well-being to this man who for days and nights had been hunted and afraid to sleep or rest. The reaction from the horrors that had encompassed him was all his present happiness, and it was complete. He was content to sit there, watching Angèle as she plied her needle. He talked a little, and in between his talks he would hum snatches of long-forgotten songs. The shadow of death in which so long he had moved, chilled and furtive, had been lifted from him.
Angèle had turned out the contents of Vidal's haversack. Among them she had discovered a spare military coat, torn in the sleeve and the back, and she had set about repairing it at once. Seyrac watched and admired the deftness of her fingers as they sent the needle flashing to and fro. He observed the delicate whiteness of the hand, and he admired that too, marvelling at its fineness in one so humbly born. And from admiration of that member he passed on slowly to admiration of her whole person. He considered the almost austere beauty of her pale face, with its dark lustrous eyes shaded by long curving lashes, and he sighed for the lost opportunity of years ago.
Fatuity had ever been Seyrac's besetting sin, and fatuity set him wondering now whether her pleading for him last night had been entirely dictated by womanly compassion. He wondered whether a man of less compelling and pleasing personality than his own would in like case have evoked from her the prayers by which she stayed Vidal when he would have thrust him out, and those by which she had prevailed upon Vidal to exert himself to save him. His vanity answered that question, and answered it readily in the negative.
Then he went on to wonder was she really happy with Vidal. He found it inconceivable that so coarse a brute—it was in such terms that he thought of the Republican soldier—could hold the affections of one so full of grace. He contrasted himself with Vidal, and found that it was like comparing a mettlesome Arab jennet with one of those lumbering Flemish horses that daily dragged the tumbrils through the streets of Paris.
Last night, under the stress of his emotions, Seyrac had wept at once in gratitude for the present and in repentance for the past. This morning he could almost find it in his heart to weep at the thought that he should not have made better use of his opportunities in that same past. He wasted the day in vain speculation and idle talk, but towards evening he at last determined to plumb the true depth of her feelings for Vidal.
"No doubt, citoyenne," he said, "you will be thankful to leave this city of nightmare and the Republican Lent that prevails here."
"I shall, indeed," she agreed with him, without looking up.
"Ah! And yet, when all is said, the exchange, heaven knows, is none so delectable. To follow an army, and in Holland—a damp, uncouth country, by all I hear—brr!" He shivered as if in imagination at least he felt the chill of it.
"I shall be with my husband, citizen," she answered.
"Faith, yes! And if you consider that an adequate compensation there is no more to be said."
She raised her eyes from her work and slowly regarded him. "I will beg you, citizen, not to jest upon such a subject."
"I were incapable of jesting upon it," he assured her solemnly. "After all, your husband will be with the army itself; you will be somewhere in the rear, seeing him but infrequently, constantly moving your quarters and finding them for the most part trying to one who is unaccustomed to hardships."
"I am not unaccustomed to them," she said quietly. "And if I am in the rear, at least I shall not be so far in the rear as here in Paris; and I do not believe that the alarms of a campaign can compare in horror with the constant alarms amid which I have lived here."
He felt that his plummet had failed to touch bottom. He was swinging it again, for a more audacious cast this time, when a step sounded upon the stairs accompanied by the clank-clank of a sabre striking the balusters.
"It is Jerome," she said, and rising she flung the repaired coat over the back of a chair. Seyrac cursed the interruption and his own sluggishness which had wasted yet another opportunity.
Vidal entered, and the first glance at his face told Angèle that all was not well.
"What has happened?" was her greeting as she advanced to meet him.
He checked to stare at her, amazed by her quick perceptions. Then with a laugh he flung his great cocked hat into a corner, and closed the door.
"The worst has happened," he confessed, "I have been a fool. I have talked too much to the rabble that calls itself the National Convention."
Her fears rose quickly. That he should allude to the Assembly in such disrespectful terms was in itself enough to warn her that the matter was grave.
"But what is it?" she asked him breathlessly.
"This," he said, and drew from his breast pocket the laissez passer with which Danton had equipped him. He spread it, and smacked it down upon the table under her eyes.
She looked at it vacantly, understanding nothing.
"We must pack, my girl, that is the long and the short of it. We must pack and see to it that we are out of Paris before the barriers close to-night, or we may never leave at all. My papers are ratified and in order, as you see. So that there is nothing to prevent our going, and no need for alarm so that we go at once. I have ordered a berline to be here at eight o'clock. See that you are ready by then."
"But what has happened?" she insisted coming up to him, and setting her hands upon his shoulders.
In the background, near the window, stood Seyrac, who had also risen, filled with vague alarms by what he heard.
Vidal poured out the story of his indiscretion.
"Say that I have been a fool," he ended irritably almost. "I know it. I have been a fool to believe in the uprightness of the National Representatives, to have been deluded by their high-sounding talk of liberty and honesty. And now I have publicly called Saint-Just a thief, and threatened to press the matter until an inquiry is held into his conduct and that of his accomplice and tool, Lemoine. I have done a service to Nation that any man less honest would have shrunk from doing. The Representatives are aware of it. But how will they express their gratitude? By sitting still whilst Saint-Just, to silence me, will have me arrested and guillotined upon some trumpery charge of treason against which I shall be given no opportunity to defend myself." He snorted furiously. "That is this French Republic One and Indivisible which I have served, which I have helped to establish, and in the upholding of which I have shed my blood. Saint-Just, too, has shed blood, aye and freely, but it has been the blood of others. Ah, name of a name!" He sat down heavily.
"Jerome!" She came to him, flung an arm about his shoulder and set her cheek against his. She was very white and cold in her great fear for him.
"Allons," he said, gruffly. "There's nothing to fear, my girl. Indulge your disgust as freely as you please, but for alarm there is no occasion. Forewarned, forearmed. Danton opened my eyes to my danger, and obtained the ratification of my papers that will permit me to depart at once, before that viper, Saint-Just, can strike. So that all is well." He patted her head. "And, anyhow, I have had the satisfaction of calling Saint-Just a thief. The name will stick; not all the blood in France will wash out that label."
There was a movement behind him. Vidal looked sharply over his shoulder. He had almost forgotten the chevalier's presence.
"Ah, citizen," he said. "This will make a difference to you, too."
"It is what I feared," said Seyrac.
"You will understand that there will be no more recruiting or marshalling of recruits for me on this journey. Someone else will have to take charge of that business. I am sorry, citizen. I would help you further if I could. But you see how matters stand. I have my wife to think of. I cannot imperil her happiness, perhaps her very life, for any man, and for you the least of all men. I do not say it in any hostility, citizen-chevalier. All that is past and forgotten. As long as I accounted it possible to help you, I was ready to do so. But you will see that it is possible no longer. You must shift for yourself."
Seyrac stood there sick at heart.
The shadow that had been lifted from him was returned, and it now seemed darker than before by virtue of the momentary glimpse of sunshine that had been vouchsafed him. He looked at Angèle, almost expecting to hear her protest again and plead for him. But Angèle was silenced by her fears for Vidal, fears so engrossing that they left no room for any other thought.
"Very well," he said at last in a choking voice. "It remains for me to thank you for what you have done, and..."
"There is no need for haste, at least," said Vidal with gruff kindliness. "The berline will not be here until eight o'clock. No need, then, for you to go forth until dusk. You may linger on even later if you like. You may spend the night here if you choose. But in that case, I should recommend you to depart early to-morrow before Saint-Just's warrant arrives. Else they may find you when they search the house, and arrest you by way of consoling themselves to that extent, at least."
He stood up.
"Come, Angèle, let us set about this packing."
"There is not much to pack, Jerome," she answered him. "It is soon done."
They departed together, leaving Seyrac alone with his despair. He stood by the window, staring out at the houses across the narrow street, and his heart was filled with a dull resentment against Fate and Vidal. He felt that he had been ill-used. He had been uplifted merely to be dashed down again with a violence that increased his suffering.
His soul rebelled against such treatment, and from the depths of it he cursed Vidal as the author of his present despair.
Thus miserably waned for him the evening of a day that had dawned so hopefully.
A little after seven a man came down the street, and knocked at the door of Vidal's house. That knock flung Angèle into alarm. What if already they should be too late? What if already this were an agent of the law? But Vidal reassured her.
"Saint-Just can do nothing until he has denounced me to-morrow, if he so intends. Besides, when they come to arrest me they will not send just a solitary fellow. There will be a file of National Guards, with fixed bayonets."
He went below to open the door to a shabby fellow, who upon assuring himself that he addressed Colonel Vidal, delivered a sealed note of which he was the bearer. Vidal tore it open there and then, scanned the contents, and dismissed the messenger.
"Say that I follow you at once," he announced. "That is, indeed, if you do not find me there ahead of you."
He returned upstairs to get his hat, and to show the note to Angèle.
It contained but two lines above the sprawling signature of Danton:
"Come to me here at once. I have news of the utmost urgency for you. On your life do not fail."
"What does it mean? she asked him.
"That is what I am going to ascertain. But whatever it may be it can be nothing to alarm you. What should there be? I shall go straight there and back, and I shall be here as soon as the coach arrives."
Yet for all the confidence he displayed Angèle remained vaguely uneasy after his departure. She stood awhile by the window looking after him as he passed up the street, and continued there for some time after he had passed beyond range of her eyes, silently praying for his safe return.
She turned at last.
"How thankful I shall be," she said, with a little catch in her breath, "when the barrier is behind us and we are clear of this terrible city."
And then, moved to concern for Seyrac, perhaps because of her concern for Vidal: "And you, citizen?" she inquired. "What are your plans now?"
"My plans?" said he, with a wry smile. "What plans are possible to me? I must follow my destiny."
"Alas, citizen! I would that we could help you."
Her concern for him revived his drooping coxcombry.
"If the worst befalls," he said, "I shall at least have the memory of our meeting to enhearten me. Until I met you again, citoyenne, I imagined that it was my evil star had guided me to Paris."
She looked at him, and he observed the slight frown, the slightly haughty stare of inquiry that warned him he was treading dangerous ground. His flash of courtliness awakened memories that slammed the door at once upon her concern. She turned from him and in silence moved about the room, gathering up a few objects here and there.
"I have yet to complete my packing, citizen, against my husband's return," she said, and upon that passed out with her arms full.
Seyrac had watched her every movement with those dark ardent eyes of his, and he sighed when the door closed after her. He flung himself into a chair by the table, and sat there awhile absorbed in thought. When at last he stirred, it was to take up a paper which lay there, where Vidal had left it. It was the laissez-passer that was to provide the Colonel with the means of leaving Paris. He considered it, then dropped it, and rose, stretching himself as if to shake off the despondent lethargy that threatened him.
As his arms dropped back to his sides, his glance settled upon that blue military coat, that spare coat of Vidal's which Angèle had repaired, lying across the back of the chair where she had flung it. For an instant his face was blank. It was a blankness that reflected the shock of astonishment which a sudden idea had wrought upon his mind. The next moment his brows were knit thoughtfully, his dark eyes gleamed and a slow, cunning smile, spiced with a touch of malice, crept round his lips.
He set his hands behind him, and with head sunk between his shoulders he paced to the fireplace. He stood there staring at the fading embers, his eyes seeing nothing, his every sense absorbed and concentrated upon this sudden notion that had smitten him, this door of deliverance that had so suddenly and unexpectedly been flung wide before him.
He turned and came back to the table, passing now along the other side of it and coming to a standstill beside that coat. Then he stirred out of his absorption to take stock once more of his surroundings. He stood listening. He could hear Angèle moving briskly in the next room about her task of completing the preparations for departure.
Satisfied that she was fully engaged, he moved abruptly to do the thing he had planned. With impatient hands he tore open his long fawn-coloured riding-coat, and peeled it off, standing forth in white shirt, white nankeens and Hessian boots. Those nether garments of his were, after all, akin to the garments of every officer of the Convention; they did not materially differ from those worn by Vidal himself. He took up the military coat, slipped his arms into the sleeves and drew it on. Vidal was a bigger man with a greater breadth of torso and length of arm. Still the fit was none so bad as to be remarkable, and much of its general slackness was dissembled when he had drawn tight about his waist the tricolour sash that was attached to it.
Thus he stood forth now—to all seeming an officer of the Republic One and Indivisible. He took up the passport, and stuffed it into his breast-pocket, then looked about him for a hat. He failed in this quest, but his roving glance fell upon a brace of pistols which Vidal had left lying upon the dresser.
He picked them up and had just slipped them into his pocket when Angèle came in. She stopped short at sight of him, barely stifling a cry of astonishment, for at the first glance she had failed to recognize him. Then perceiving who it was, and at once whence he had procured the coat, she challenged his intentions.
"What are you doing?"
He was completely master of himself. Accounting himself master of the situation, he was confident now to the point of jauntiness.
"To fool the canaille," he answered, "I have donned their livery. Vidal should be able to spare me this coat. Indeed, when you come to think of it, it is surely most unRepublican to be possessed of two coats. To the simple patriots, the disciples of Rousseau—that prophet of their new Apocalypse—such an excess of garments must surely savour of ostentation, of aristocracy."
There was something bewildering in his flippancy, something that aroused Angèle's suspicions. Had his tone been more serious, it is probable that she would have approved the matter of his disguise and at once suffered him to depart in it, that thus he might attempt to win clear of Paris. But the unpleasant sardonic note in his voice stirred her unaccountably to suspect that here was more than appeared.
"You will be stopped at the barriers." she said. "You have no papers to support your travesty."
He smiled. "Be easy on that score," he answered. "I—I shall take my chance of that with confidence."
She observed his air of assurance, his smile, faintly tinged with mockery, and her suspicions, far from being allayed, were on the instant quickened. A memory started up under the urgent spur of her wits. Her eyes flashed to the table and noted the absence of what they sought there. She flung out an arm to point to it.
"Citizen," she cried, "Vidal's passport? What have you done with it?"
"Faith, I have provided myself with it against precisely such a contingency as you were suggesting."
"You have provided yourself with it?" She advanced a step, and checked, staring at him with eyes in which indignation was slowly overcoming amazement. "Citizen! You jest."
"A jest it is indeed," he agreed, with her. "But I shall wait until I am over the frontier before I laugh. It is unlucky to laugh too soon."
"You are mad! Do you think you can pass the barriers with Vidal's papers?"
"But why not? What is there about me to advertise the fact that I am not Vidal? Does my coat fit indifferently? Faith, I have not noticed that such indifference is other than apt in a good Republican."
She came forward now until she stood close before him. "If you take those papers, how is Vidal himself to leave Paris?"
"No doubt he will be able to procure others as readily as he procured these."
"But if he should not?"
He spread out his hands, deprecatingly. "Do not let us consider contingencies as unpleasant as they are unlikely."
"Citizen, you are frivolous," she rebuked him, "and this is not a matter for frivolity. Take the coat if you will. But restore me the papers."
"Now, consider," he begged her, "that, as you yourself almost suggested, the coat without the passport is worthless. Of the two I would, indeed, sooner return you the coat, and I should not hesitate to do so were I not persuaded that Vidal can without inconvenience, dispense with it."
She made an effort, obviously, to keep her patience.
"Citizen Seyrac, you heard Vidal himself say here not half an hour ago that he is in danger, and that his safety depends upon our quitting Paris at once. That he will be lost irrevocably if he is still here to-morrow."
"That is an excellent reason why I should depart to-night."
"But don't you understand that without that passport Vidal will be unable to leave? That if you take it, you perhaps send him to his death?"
He considered her a moment, then a slow smile broke upon his face. At heart be was no better than a fool.
"You would make a charming widow," he declared.
She was within an ace of striking him. Yet she retained her self-control, though her eyes blazed in her white face. At last she understood his incredible attitude.
"Canaille," she said, and no worse insult could she have flung at him. "Is that the return you propose to make Vidal for having given you shelter?"
At the opprobrious word "canaille"—that word which his class kept exclusively for those whom they considered the very scum of France—he had fallen serious, and a little colour had crept into his sallow face.
"It was not Vidal who gave me shelter," he replied, something sullen now in his demeanour. "Vidal would have flung me to the rabble; it was with regret and reluctance that he forbore, What, then, do I owe Vidal?"
She might have argued the point, but she swept impatiently on to take her stand upon ground whose firmness was beyond all question.
"And what of me? Do you owe me nothing?"
He made her a leg in his courtliest manner. "I recognize the full extent of my indebtedness. I ask nothing better of fortune than the opportunity to discharge it."
"Then, do you not see that if you rob Vidal of the means of saving his life, you deliver me up to death together with him? You may repudiate the debt I say you owe Vidal; but you cannot repudiate the debt you owe to me. You cannot deny that you owe me your life at this moment. Will you, then, destroy me in return for that?"
"How could you suppose me capable of it?"
"Ah!" she caught her breath in relief, misunderstanding him utterly. "Then you will return me the passport?"
"Now see how unreasonable you are. Why must we go back to that?"
She could only stare at him. She did not understand, and yet she suspected something vile under all this.
"But do you not see that there is no alternative, that if you take this passport you leave me to die?"
"Why?" he inquired, raising his eye-brows, his glance flaming suddenly and enwrapping her. "Why should I leave you to die? Why leave you at all? The passport is for Colonel Vidal and his wife, Angèle Vidal."
She fell back before him, her eyes staring, her fingers plucking mechanically at her fichu. It was incredible, inconceivable! Here in revolutionary Paris, slippery with the blood of aristocrats, at the very foot of the Guillotine almost, these two had suddenly resumed their relations of ten years ago at Beauvaloir.
Just as he had persecuted her then when, lord of life and death, his will had been the paramount law, so did he persecute her now, when he was himself persecuted, a proscribed and hunted fugitive.
Encouraged, perhaps, by her silence, he began to talk, to elaborate the idea he had propounded.
"You cannot dream, Angèle, that I should willingly be guilty of doing you such a wrong as to refuse you the shelter to which this passport entitles you. I would leave you here only if of your own will you desired it. And why should you desire it? You have said that to remain may perhaps mean death for you. Why then remain, when not only may you accompany, but when I would so gladly welcome your company?"
She continued dumbly to stare at him out of her white face. Was he just brutally mocking her, or was he quite mad, she wondered.
And then as still she made no answer, it may be that he was so incredibly fatuous as to suppose her silence to result from indecision.
He advanced towards her, and put out hands to seize her. She stirred at last, and shrank back before him in utter loathing and fear.
"No, no!" she moaned, her wits benumbed for the moment, her spirit paralyzed by sheer astonishment.
But he—the coxcomb, dominated now by an idea that had suddenly entered his amazing mind—misunderstood that reiterated negative; conceived it to be the piteous appeal of failing strength, the last feeble outcry of a conscience and a sense of duty bidding her to resist the thing he was proposing. That her inclinations were not at one with her duty in this he never doubted now. If she was indifferent to him why had she pleaded for him with Vidal? To that question his vanity could find ever but one answer.
"I love you, Angèle," he cried hoarsely, overmastered now by his convictions and inflamed by them. "Quit all this, and come away with me—out of Paris, out of France, away from these Republican sons of dogs. I will open for you the very gates of life. Angèle!"
She had backed away before him until the wall made further retreat impossible. Her shoulders touching it, she stood there with white terror of him in her face. Yet for all that her body might be paralysed by dread, her wits were working quickly and with a shrewdness quickened by the circumstances. She realized that though she might express the loathing in her soul and lash such manhood as might still abide in him with the fiery scorn that filled her, yet would she be powerless to resist his departure. Did she so much as attempt it, he would have no scruple in using force against her. And if he went, taking with him Vidal's passport, he would thus cut off Vidal's only chance of escape from Paris, leaving him to fall a prey to the danger that threatened him.
Her resolve was soon taken, even as she stood cowering there under the chevalier's smouldering glance. Since she could not prevent his departure, at least she must delay him and even as a last resource make the most of the chance he afforded her of accompanying him. At all costs must she cling to him until she found an opportunity to turn the tables upon him and to repossess herself of that sheet of paper that meant her husband's life.
Yet before her cowering attitude he hesitated. She could not quite stifle all her loathing and contempt of him. Despite herself some of it must rise to be stamped upon her face. And although he scanned its lineaments closely his fatuity again misled him and made him blind to that which should have given him pause.
"Poor child," he murmured, his voice a caress. "Forgive me, if I have startled you. Consider that I have waited ten years, and ask yourself whether my present impatience is unnatural."
She shivered slightly, and in her heart prayed frenziedly for Vidal's return. Where did he linger and what kept him? Did no intuition warn him of her straits? At last, with obvious effort, she replied, intent only upon delaying Seyrac's departure.
"I have known so little love in all these years," she said in a quavering voice, "that I might well be startled by an expression of it, particularly at such a time and in such a place and from one in your case. We are amid death, citizen-chevalier, here in Paris..."
Joy and amazement at her confession almost turned his head completely. He had not been over-sanguine as he feared. She had but waited for him to declare himself.
Vidal, then, had been the brute he had supposed him; her late appeal on her husband's behalf had been uttered at the dictate not of love, as he had momentarily supposed, but of that curious loyalty of such women for the mate whom circumstances have imposed upon them. Thus his fatuous thoughts ran on awhile. Then he checked them. It might be as he supposed. Yet watching her face, remembering how she had shrunk and cowered before his advance, a lingering mistrust abode with him.
"Your words make me mad with, hope, Angèle. Yet I will use no constraint with you. Unless of your own free will you determine to accompany me, I go alone. But if you elect to bear me company in my exile, leaving this gross fellow upon whom the sweetness of your youth has been so shamefully wasted, I swear you shall never for an instant know regret."
"You...you will be good to me?" she faltered, hating herself for the odious pretence, yet constrained to it for Vidal's sake. "You swear it?"
"Good to you, Angèle!" His face was aglow. He advanced again, and this time found no resistance. She shuddered as he touched her, but lay still when he took her to his arms. For she was resolved in her loyal heart that whatever the sacrifice demanded, at least she must ensure that Seyrac did not depart alone with that filched passport that was now Vidal's only plank of salvation.
But when he lowered his head, seeking to kiss her, she thrust him back a little. It was more than she could endure.
"No, no," she moaned, and then pleaded upon the moment's inspiration. "Not here! Not in his house, not under his roof."
He would have struggled with her, but at that moment hoofs upon the cobbles and a rumble of wheels came down the street to attract his attention.
"Listen!" he cried, and held up a hand. "It will be the travelling-carriage. We have not another moment to lose."
The vehicle came to a standstill, and a knock resounded through the house. They fell apart, Seyrac still a little bewildered. A man less vain would have been mastered by his suspicions of this sudden acquiescence on her part; a more scrupulous one would have paused to consider the wrong he did in indulging a passing fancy—a fancy revived, it is true, but one that he recognized perfectly as ephemeral, and only capable of this revival because earlier it had been thwarted. Scruples, then, he had none. Far from it. In the fate that must inevitably await her if she were sincere he beheld merely a poetic vengeance upon her for all that through disappointment she had made him suffer in his youth. As for suspicions, those that very naturally were uttered by his reason, his amazing vanity overbore.
He crossed to the window, thrust it open and looked out. Below he saw in the fading daylight the bulky travelling-carriage standing before the door. A raucous voice hailed him with the announcement that this was the berline for Colonel Vidal.
He closed the window and returned to Angèle.
"Come," he said. "There is no time to be lost. Let us be going."
The imminence of it staggered her a little. "But...but there is my luggage!" she said. "And I have to finish packing one of my boxes. I..."
"What does luggage signify in such a moment?" he interrupted impatiently. "Mon Dieu, am I to jeopardize our future for the sake of a bundle of old rags. We have our lives, we have each other, Angèle. So in heaven's name let us begone. Come."
He seized her almost roughly by the arm, and almost dragged her from the room.
On the landing she resisted him a moment.
"Wait! Ah wait!" she cried.
"What is there to wait for?" he snapped. "Are we to delay until Vidal returns and finds us still here?"
He reminded her of a danger. But she imagined that he voiced a suspicion. And instantly she became submissive so that she might allay it, realizing that in the alternative he would leave her and depart alone, taking those precious papers with him.
"Yes, yes. You are right. Let us go," she panted.
But it was now his turn to check upon the sudden reflection that were she so disposed he would presently be placing it in her power to ruin him. Headlong, almost, had he dashed into a danger suddenly grown obvious.
"Angèle." he said, "forgive me if still finding my happiness incredible I take precautions against betrayal."
And in the hand which he drew from his pocket she caught the glint of a pistol-barrel.
"You do not trust me yet," she cried, and made her trembling voice express indignant pain.
"All my life," he answered, "I shall make amends for this mistrust born of my incredulity at my good fortune. See now that you say no word to betray me." And his faint gesture with the pistol made clear a threat which he was reluctant to utter. "Come now. Let us make haste."
At last, then, they went down the dark stairs together, and it seemed now to Angèle that her feet were turned to lead, that her pretence was all in vain. She had not reckoned upon his lingering mistrust or his precautions against betrayal. She had even thought that her task would be ended when they reached the street and she could denounce him to the driver of the berline. Now she realized that at the first word she uttered he would silence her effectively. And at the barrier, when they reached it, her plight would be the same. For he was not likely to be taken off his guard so long as they were in Paris. Yet she must cling to him, hoping and praying for the opportunity to recover that precious document. Unfaltering in this resolve, though well-nigh despairing, she went on ahead of him down the narrow stairs.
Seyrac was without hat or cloak. But he bethought him that in the coach these would not be missed. It was Angèle who unlatched the door that led into the street. The cumbrous vehicle stood there, almost entirely blocking the narrow way, the driver pacing impatiently beside it. He turned as they came forth.
"You are come at last?" he growled with Republican freedom of expression.
"As you see," said Seyrac gruffly. He stepped forward to the door of the coach, which the driver sluggishly opened for him. Then he turned to hand Angèle into the vehicle with his left hand. His right she observed was thrust into his bosom, and she never doubted but that it clutched the butt of the pistol in readiness for the worst. She hesitated a moment, and then seeing no help for it, seeing that an appeal to the driver was out of the question she stepped up into the coach, and Seyrac followed her. As he sat down, the driver slammed the door.
"You know the way?" he asked.
"Unless you've changed your mind," the fellow answered, surlily. "Our first stage will be Beauvais. Is that so?"
"That is so," said Seyrac.
The driver climbed to his seat, flicked his whip, and they set out, up the street in the direction of St. Sulpice and the river.
The chevalier, as he had flung himself down beside Angèle, had slipped an arm about her waist, and now he drew her towards him. She suffered it in utter silence, quelling as best she could the physical sickness that beset her.
"We are but children in the hands of Fate," he said. "Children? What do I say? Puppets. Puppets without volition of our own. It was predetermined that we should belong each to the other, you and I. And to fulfil that desire of Fate's, I was hunted down the Rue Pot de Fer last evening, driven for shelter into your doorway of all doorways in Paris, and thus after ten years of waiting we are brought at last together."
She lay against his breast, mute and terror-stricken, striving in vain to think, to formulate some plan of action, and then as they reached the end of the street, quite sudden, the carriage came to a grinding halt with a jerk that flung them both forward.
The chevalier swore sharply as he recovered. They heard voices, the driver's and anther's, and their common thought was that the fellow had almost run over some careless wayfarer at the corner, and that the twain were now engaged in mutual recriminations. Seyrac was about to thrust his head from the window, when suddenly he was spared the necessity by the appearance before it of a face surmounted by a conical black hat with a tricolour cockade. A pair of keen eyes, peering into the gloomy interior of the coach, fastened upon Seyrac's pale face, and the chevalier heard himself challenged by a gruff voice.
"Who goes there?"
At his ease, and realizing that in the character of Vidal meekness would be out of place, he answered as gruffly:
"What affair is that of yours?"
The man's thin lips smiled faintly.
"I am an agent of the Committee of Public Safety," he said.
"Why didn't you say so at first?" grumbled the chevalier. "You are detaining me. I am Colonel Vidal of the Army of Holland."
"Your papers, citizen-colonel!" said the agent.
"My papers?" grumbled the chevalier. "I shall show them at the barrier."
"You will show them to me now, if you please," the agent insisted. "You know the law."
The chevalier expressed impatience, but drew the passport from his pocket and thrust it under the man's nose. His right hand, on the seat between himself and Angèle, gripped a pistol whose menace kept her silent, for he realized that if she were playing him false after all, this was her chance to betray him. She had but to raise her voice, to say that he was not Vidal, and he would find himself dragged from the coach in spite of the passport and submitted to an examination that must inevitably result in his being sent to the National Barber.
The agent took the passport and unfolded it. And now a second fellow also wearing a conical hat and girt by a tricolour sash lounged forward into view and studied the document over the other's shoulder.
"So," he said, reading the signatures that ratified it—"Danton, Varennes and Desmoulins." Aid he uttered a short exclamation that sounded like a laugh.
"Quite in order," said the agent, almost elaborately.
Seyrac who had experienced a moment's anxiety lest there should be any flaw in the passport, breathed freely once more.
"Quite in order," the agent repeated, folding the document again. But he did not offer to return it. Instead, he stuffed it into his pocket with one hand whilst with the other he flung open the door of the carriage.
"Colonel Vidal," he said in a very formal voice, "I must trouble you to alight."
"To alight?" said the amazed Seyrac, suddenly afraid.
The opening of the door had increased his range of vision and Angèle's, and they now saw something that hitherto had been screened from them. By the corner of the street stood ranged six men and a corporal of the National Guard with fixed bayonets.
"Alight?" Seyrac repeated. "To what end?"
"Alight, citizen-colonel," the man added sharply. "I command you upon the authority of the Nation."
Understanding nothing save that to resist such a command were worse than futile, and still hoping that here was no more than some trumpery formality of this extremely formal government of rapscallions, the chevalier got down. But he still gripped his pistol, and the glance he flashed at Angèle was laden with significance.
Instantly, as he reached the ground and stood between the agents, he found his arms seized on either side, and the pistol was twisted out of his grasp.
"What's this?" he demanded, hectoring.
"Colonel Vidal, we arrest you in the name of the Republic One and Indivisible."
Dumbfounded, he stared from one to the other of them.
"Ah, but wait," he cried. "Wait, this is a mistake. I...I am not Colonel Vidal."
One of the agents laughed short and contemptuously at that denial, but disdained reply. He signed to the soldiers who instantly clanked forward.
"Wait!" repeated Seyrac in a frenzy. "My God! I tell you I am not Vidal."
He swung round to appeal to Angèle to confirm him in this. But the sight of her struck him dumb. She was leaning forward watching him, with gleaming eyes and the ghost of a smile hovering about her pale lips. He stared at her in horror and the appeal he intended remained unuttered. Besides, to what end utter it? He was too utterly and hopelessly the victim of some extraordinary malignancy of circumstances.
The guards surrounded him.
"Take him away," said the agent "To the Prison of Abbaye." Then, hat in hand, he turned to Angèle, who sat there still watching with those gleaming eyes, and that faint smile. "My excuses, citoyenne, for having been forced thus to interrupt your journey. You had best get home again. I trust your husband will soon be restored to you."
He closed the door, and linking arms with his companion, moved away in the wake of the soldiers and their prisoner.
A dozen paces off he halted and looked back. Then he laughed.
"By St. Guillotine," he said, "there is a woman who takes her husband's arrest with singular philosophy."
"A staunch Republican," said his companion, who was by much the younger man.
"A weary wife, more like," replied the agent, who knew his world.
Angèle's first feeling of thankful amazement at the escape which Seyrac had through his very treachery contrived for Vidal, passed quickly into one of utter despondency when she came to consider the position at closer quarters. She saw clearly that after all here was no escape but merely a respite. Seyrac had plunged headlong to his doom. His own baseness had enmeshed him with a justice truly poetic. But it was not to be supposed that the mistake which had occurred would long continue undiscovered. To-morrow, no doubt, he would be haled before the Revolutionary Tribunal and it would be revealed that he was not Vidal. They would not be long in discovering his true identity and in despatching him to the National Razor, and meanwhile the agents of the Committee of Public Safety would have sought out the real Vidal so that he might feel the weight of Saint-Just's vengeance and be silenced.
In answer to a question from the driver as to what he was to do now, she bade him drive her back to the house she had just quitted. There she alighted, and with trembling hands unlocked the door. She bade the driver wait, and went in and upstairs to sit down in the twilight and feverishly await Vidal's return.
Her patience was not greatly taxed. Within ten minutes Vidal himself arrived. He was short and brisk in manner, like one whom time presses. He spoke as he entered.
"Come," he cried. "Since the berline is here, let us begone at once."
"A moment," she answered him. "A moment, Jerome. There is something I must tell you. We...we cannot go."
"Cannot? Name of a name!" he snapped. "There is no time to lose." He caught up his haversack, which stood ready where he had left it. "Where is the rest of the baggage?" he inquired.
"In there." She answered him mechanically. "But..."
"And Seyrac? What has become of him?" His impatience was almost feverish.
"That's it," she said. "Seyrac has gone—in your coat and with our passport."
She saw him stiffen suddenly, and for all that it was become too dark to make out his expression, she saw the stare of his eyes, and conceived him angry with herself.
"I did what I could to prevent it," she made haste to explain. "That I might recover it I even pretended to go with him. Oh, Jerome, Jerome! We are ruined! You are lost!"
"Tell me what happened," he bade her, his voice very subdued and quiet. "But tell me quickly—in a word if you can."
She told him the manner of Seyrac's arrest in his stead. For a moment he was silent when he heard, then he laughed, quite mirthlessly, grimly; an echo of the irony of Fate that had been at work in this.
"Did I not say that God does not sleep?" quoth he. "Did I not remind the ci-devant Chevalier that we are in Messidor—the month of the reaping? His deeds have borne him their natural fruit. I hope he will relish them now that they are harvested."
She clung to him in fear and grief, and questioned him breathlessly.
"But now, Jerome? What are we to do now? Your papers remain in the hands of the agent."
"He is very welcome to them, since as you see they were but a passport to the guillotine. At every barrier in Paris by now an agent will have been posted to look out for Colonel Vidal in case those sent hither should have arrived too late to effect his arrest, should he attempt to leave. It was to warn me of this that Danton sent for me."
"But..." She paused, not understanding.
"He informed me that Saint-Just had moved sooner than was expected. Supported by the Robespierres and their following he had decreed my arrest this very night, so as to make quite sure of my silence. His agents were on their way here when they met Seyrac. And but for his notion to impersonate me they must have come here to await my return and to arrest me the moment I appeared. Seyrac has served the turn for which Fate used him when she dispatched him hither. We are safe at least until they discover their mistake and that should give us all the time we need to get out of Paris."
"But how can we leave, since we have no papers?" she cried.
"Be easy. Danton supplied me with another passport in which I go under another name."
When Vidal had bestowed their luggage at last in the berline, and had handed up Angèle, he bade the driver go by way of the Barrière d'Enfer.
It was not until they reached the barrier that the full irony of the evening's events was revealed to Angèle. When the carriage drew up there in the flare of the lights, a cockaded officer of the guard stepped to the door of the berline.
"Who goes there?" he challenged.
"The Citizen Dunoyer on urgent mission," replied Vidal.
"Your papers, citizen-traveller?" was the officer's curt demand.
Vidal thrust forth a document. The officer conned it a moment. Then read aloud—"Pass the citizen Dunoyer on urgent mission, on behalf of the National Convention, accompanied by his wife and secretary." He considered the appended detailed description of the travellers, and scanned Vidal briefly to confirm them. Then he peered into the body of the carriage.
"Your secretary, citizen?" he inquired.
"He discovered at the last moment that his presence is required in Paris by the Republic," said Vidal. "And as my business is urgent, as you see, I could not wait to fill his place."
"Very well," said the officer, and he handed back the passport. "Pass," he shouted to the driver. And then saluting one in whom he beheld a representative of the Nation, "Bon voyage, citoyen," he said, and stepped back as the carriage rolled on and out of Paris.
"Your secretary?" said Angèle. "What did that mean?"
"Why Seyrac, of course. Since matters had fallen out in this way, it was an easy matter to obtain his inclusion in this document. Having befriended him, I thought it was our duty to complete the deed since it was placed within my power to do so without hurting you. It was my intention that he should be riding to Holland with us now. But since he has chosen instead to ride to the Grève in a tumbril, there is no occasion to waste regrets upon him."
The driver of the berline, profoundly intrigued hitherto by the evening's events, conceived that at last he had discovered the solution of them. He looked up at the stars as he flicked his whip. One of them seemed to wink at him, and he winked back quite solemnly.
"Now here," said he, "is a likely Republican widow who is soon consoled."
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