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On the moorland above the old grey village of Carhaix, in Finistère--Finistère, the most westerly province of Brittany--stands a cottage, built, as all the cottages in that country are, of rough-hewn stones. It is a poor, rude place to-day, but it wore an aspect still more rude and primitive a hundred years ago--on an August day in the year 1793, when a man issued from the low doorway, and, shading his eyes from the noonday sun, gazed long and fixedly in the direction of a narrow rift which a few score paces away breaks the monotony of the upland level. The man was tall and thin and unkempt, and his features, which expressed a mixture of cunning and simplicity, matched his figure. He gazed a while in silence, but at length he uttered a grunt of satisfaction as the figure of a woman rose gradually into sight. She came slowly towards him in a stooping posture, dragging behind her a great load of straw, which completely hid the little sledge on which it rested, and which was attached to her waist by a rope of twisted hay.
The figure of a woman--rather of a girl. As she drew nearer it could be seen that her cheeks, though brown and sunburned, were as smooth as a child's. She seemed to be still in her teens. Her head was bare, and her short petticoats, of some coarse stuff, left visible bare feet thrust into wooden shoes. She advanced with her head bent, and her shoulders strained forward, her face dull and patient. Once, and once only, when the man's eyes left her for a moment, she shot at him a look of scared apprehension; and later, when she came abreast of him, her breath coming and going with her exertions, he might have seen, had he looked closely, that her strong brown limbs were trembling under her.
But the man noticed nothing in his impatience, and only chid her for her slowness. "Where have you been dawdling, lazy-bones?" he cried.
She murmured, without halting, that the sun was hot.
"Sun hot!" he retorted. "Jeanne is lazy, that is it! Mon Dieu, that I should have married a wife who is tired by noon! I had better have left you to that never-do-well Pierre Bounat. But I have news for you, my girl."
He lounged after her as he spoke, his low cunning face--the face of the worst kind of French peasant--flickering with cruel pleasure, as he saw how she winced at the name he had mentioned. She made him no answer, however. Instead, she drew her load with increased vehemence towards one of the two doors which led into the building. "Well, well, I will tell you presently," he called after her. "Be quick and come to dinner."
He entered himself by the other door. The house was divided into two chambers by a breast-high partition of wood. The one room served for kitchen; the other, now half full of straw, was barn and granary, fowl-house and dove-cote, all in one. "Be quick!" he called to her. Standing in the house-room, he could see her head as she proceeded to unload the straw.
After a few minutes she came in, her shoes clattering on the floor. The perspiration stood in great beads on her forehead, and showed how little she had deserved his reproach. She took her seat silently, avoiding his eyes with some care; but he thought nothing of this. It was no new thing. It pleased him, if anything.
He liked to be feared. "Well, my Jeanne," he said, in his gibing tone, "are you longing for my news?"
The hand she extended towards the pitcher of cider, that, with black bread and onions, made up their meal, shook a little; but she answered simply, "If you please, Michel."
"Well, the Girondins have got the worst of it, my girl, and are flying all over the country. That is the news. Your Pierre is among them, I don't doubt, if he has not been killed already. I wish he would come this way."
"Why?" she asked; and as she spoke looked up at last, a flash of light in her grey eyes.
"Why?" he repeated, grinning across the table at her, "because he would be worth five crowns to me. There is five crowns, I am told, on the head of every Girondin who has been in arms, my girl. Five crowns! It is not every day we can earn five crowns!"
The French Revolution, it will be understood, was at its height. The more moderate and constitutional Republicans--the Girondins, as they were called--worsted in Paris by the Jacobins and the mob, had lately tried to raise the provinces against the capital, and to this end had drawn together at Caen, near the border of Brittany. They had been defeated, however, and the Jacobins, in this month of August, were preparing to take a fearful vengeance at once on them and on the Royalists. The Reign of Terror had begun. Even to such a boor as this, sitting over his black bread, in his remote hovel, the Revolution had come home, and, in common with many a thousand others, he wondered what he could make of it.
The girl did not answer, even by the look of contempt to which he had become accustomed, and for which he hated her, and for which he beat her; and he repeated, "Five crowns! Ah, it is money, that is! Mon Dieu!" Then, with a sudden exclamation, he sprang up. "What is that?" he cried.
He had been sitting with his back to the barn, but he turned, as he spoke, so as to face it. Something had startled him--a movement, a rustling in the straw behind him. "What is that?" he asked again, his hand on the table, his face lowering and watchful.
The girl had risen also; and, as the last word passed his lips, sprang by him with a low cry, and aimed a frantic blow with her stool at something he could not see, something low, on the floor.
"What is it?" he asked, recoiling.
"A rat!" she answered, breathless. And she aimed another blow at it.
"Where?" he asked sharply. "Where is it?" He snatched up his stool, too, and at that moment a rat darted out of the straw, ran nimbly between his legs, and plunged into a hole by the door. He flung the wooden stool after it; but in vain. "It was a rat!" he said, as if until then he had doubted it.
"Thank God!" she muttered. She was shaking all over.
He stared at her in stupid wonder. What did she mean? What had come to her? "Have you had a sunstroke my girl?" he said suspiciously.
Her nut-brown face was a shade less brown than usual, but she met his eyes boldly. "No," she said, "I am all right." And she added an explanation that for the moment satisfied him. But he did not sit down again, and when she went out he went out also. And though, as she retired slowly to the rye fields and her work, she repeatedly looked back at him, it was always to find his eyes fixed upon her. When this had happened half a dozen times, a thought struck him. "How now?" he muttered. "The rat ran out of the straw! Why?"
Nevertheless he continued to gaze after her, with a cunning look upon his features, until she disappeared over the edge of the rift. Then he crept back to the door of the barn, and stole in, exchanging the sunlight for the cool darkness of the raftered building, across which a dozen rays of light were shooting, laden with dancing motes. A pace or two from the door he stood stock still until he had regained the use of his eyes; then he began to peer round him. In a moment, far sooner than he expected, he found what he sought. Half upon, and half hidden by, the straw in the furthest corner, lay a young man, in the deep sleep of utter exhaustion. His face, which bore traces of more than common beauty, was white and pinched; his hair hung dank about his forehead. His clothes were in rags; and his feet, bound up with pieces torn at random from his blouse, were raw and bleeding. For a short time Michel Tellier bent over him, noting these things with glistening eyes. Then the peasant stole out again. "It is five crowns!" he muttered, blinking in the sunlight. "Ha, ha! Five crowns!"
He looked round him cautiously, but could see no sign of his wife; and after hesitating and pondering a minute or two, he took the path for Carhaix, his native astuteness leading him to saunter at a slow pace after his ordinary fashion. When he was gone the moorland about the cottage lay still and deserted. Thrice, at intervals, the girl dragged home her load of straw, but on each occasion she seemed to linger in the barn no longer than was necessary. Michel's absence, though it was unlooked-for, raised no suspicion in her breast, for he would frequently go down to the village to spend the afternoon. The sun sank lower, and the shadow of the great monolith, which, on the crest of the highest point of the moor, at a distance of a mile, rose gaunt and black against a roseate sky, grew longer and longer; and then, as twilight fell, the two coming home met a few paces from the cottage. He asked some questions about the work she had been doing, and she answered briefly. Then, silent and uncommunicative, they went in together. The girl set the bread and cider on the table, and going to the great black pot which had been simmering all day upon the fire, poured some broth into two pitchers. It did not escape Michel's frugal eye that she was careful to leave a little broth in the bottom of the pot; and the fact induced a new feeling in him--anger. When his wife invited him by a sign to the meal, he went instead to the door, and fastened it. Then he moved to the corner and picked up the wood-chopper, and armed with this he came back to his seat.
The girl watched his movements first with surprise, then with secret terror. The twilight was come, the cottage was almost dark, and she was alone with him; or, if not alone, yet with no one near who could help her. Nevertheless she met his grin of triumph bravely. "What is this?" she said. "Why do you want that?"
"For the rat," he answered grimly, his eyes on hers.
Her heart sank. "The rat?" she echoed.
"Why not--your stool?" she strove to murmur.
"Not for this rat," he answered cunningly. "It might not do, my girl. Oh, I know what is to do," he continued, fingering the edge of the axe. "I have been down to the village, and seen the mayor, and he is coming up to fetch him." He nodded towards the partition, and she knew that her secret was known.
"It is Pierre," she said, trembling violently, and turning first crimson and then a dull sallow hue.
"I know it, Jeanne. It was excellent of you! Excellent! It is long since you have done such a day's work."
"You will not give him up?" she gasped.
"My faith, I shall!" he answered, affecting, and perhaps really feeling, wonder at her simplicity. "He is five crowns, my girl! You do not understand. He is worth five crowns and the risk nothing at all."
If he had been angry, if he had shown anything of the fury of the suspicious husband, if he had been about to do this out of jealousy or revenge or passion she would have quailed before him, though she had done him no wrong, save the wrong of mercy and pity. But his spirit was too mean for the great passions; he felt only the mean and sordid impulses, which to a woman are the most hateful. And instead of quailing, she looked at him with flashing eyes. "I shall warn him," she said.
"It will not help him," he answered, sitting still, and feeling anew the edge of the hatchet with his fingers.
"It will help him," she retorted. "He shall go. He shall escape before they come." She rose impetuously from her seat.
"I have locked the door!"
"Give me the key!" she panted. "Give me the key, I say!" She stood before him, her trembling hands outstretched, her figure drawn to its full height. Her look was such that he rose and retreated behind the table, still retaining the hatchet in his grasp.
"Stand back!" he said sullenly. "You may awaken him, if you please, my girl. It will not avail him. Do you not understand, fool, that he is worth five crowns? Five crowns? And listen! It is too late now. They are here!"
A blow fell on the door as he spoke, and he stepped towards it. But at that, seeing the last chance leaving her, despair moved her, she threw herself upon him; for a moment she wrestled with him like a wild-cat, but in the end he prevailed; he flung her off, and, brandishing his weapon in her face, kept her at bay. "You vixen!" he cried, retreating to the door, with a pale cheek and his eyes still on her, for he was an arrant coward. "You deserve to go to prison with him, you jade! I will have you in the stocks for this! I'll have you jailed!"
She leaned against the wall where he had flung her, her white despairing face seeming to shine in the darkness of the wretched room. Meanwhile the continuous murmur of men's voices outside the door could be heard mingled with the clatter of weapons; the summons for admission was repeated, and again repeated, as if those without had no mind to be kept waiting long.
"Patience! patience! I am opening!" he cried. Still keeping his face to her, he unlocked the door and called on the men to enter. "He is in the straw, M. le Maire!" he said, in a tone of triumph, his eyes still on his wife. "Cursed Girondin! He will give you no trouble, I will answer it! But first give me my five crowns, M. le Maire. My five crowns!"
He felt, craven as he was, so much fear of his wife that he did not turn to see the men enter, and he was taken by surprise when a voice at his elbow--a voice he did not know--answered, "Five crowns, my friend? For what, may I ask?"
In his eagerness and greed he suspected nothing, but that on some pretext or other they were trying to filch from him his dues. "For what? For the Girondin!" he answered rapidly. Then at last he did turn and found that half a dozen men had entered, that more were entering. But to his astonishment, they were all strangers--men with stern, gloomy faces, and armed to the teeth. There was something so formidable, indeed, in their appearance that he stepped back, and his voice faltered as he added: "But where is the mayor, gentlemen? I do not see him."
No one answered, but in silence the last of the men--they were eleven in all--entered and bolted the door behind him. Michel Tellier peered at them in the gloom with growing alarm, nay, with growing terror. In return the tallest of the strangers, he who had entered first and seemed to command the others, looked round him keenly. And it was he who at length broke the silence. "So you have a Girondin here, have you?" he said, his voice curiously sweet and sonorous.
"I was to have five crowns for him," Michel muttered dubiously.
"Oh!" and then, "Pétion," the spokesman continued to one of his companions, "can you kindle a light? It strikes me that we have hit upon a dark place."
The man addressed took something from his pouch. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the sharp sound of the flint striking the steel. Then a slow-growing glare lit up the dark interior, and disclosed the group of cloaked strangers standing about the door, the light gleaming back from their trailing sabres and great horse-pistols. Michel trembled. He had never seen such men as these. True, they were wet and travel-stained, and had the air of those who spend their nights in ditches and under haystacks. But their pale, stern faces were set in indomitable resolve. Their eyes glowed with a steady fire, and they trod the mud floor as kings tread. Their leader was a man of majestic height and stern beauty, and in his eyes alone there seemed to lurk a spark of lighter fire, as if his spirit still rose above the task which had sobered his companions. Michel noted all this in fear and bewilderment; noted the white head yet the vigorous bearing of the man who had struck the light; noted even the manner in which the light died away in the dim recesses of the barn.
"And this Girondin--is he in hiding here?" the tall man asked.
"That is so," Michel answered. "But I had nothing to do with hiding him, citizen. It was my wife hid him in the straw there."
"And you gave notice of his presence to the authorities?" the stranger continued, raising his hand to repress some movement among his followers.
"Certainly, or you would not be here," replied Michel, better satisfied with himself.
The answer struck him, prostrated him, with an awful terror. "That does not follow," the tall man rejoined coolly, "for we, we, also, are Girondins!"
"You are? You?"
"Without doubt," the other answered, with majestic simplicity; "or there are no such persons. This is Pétion of Paris, and this citizen Buzot. Have you heard of Louvet? There he stands. For me, I am Barbaroux."
Michel's tongue remained glued to the roof of his mouth. He could not utter a word. But another could. On the far side of the barrier a rustling was heard, and while all turned to look--but with what different feelings--the pale face of the youth over whom Michel had bent in the afternoon appeared above the partition. A smile of joyful recognition effaced for the time the lines of exhaustion. The young man, clinging for support to the planks, uttered a cry of thankfulness. "It is you! It is really you! You are safe!" he exclaimed. Love beamed in his eyes.
"We are safe, all of us, Pierre," Barbaroux answered. "And now"--he turned to Michel Tellier with thunder in his voice--"know that this man whom you would have betrayed is our guide, whom we lost last night. Speak, then, in your defence, if you can. Say what you have to say why justice should not be done upon you, miserable caitiff, who would have sold a man's life, as you would sell a sheep's, for a few pieces of silver!"
The wretched peasant's knees trembled under him; the perspiration stood upon his brow. He heard the voice as the voice of a judge or an executioner. He looked in the stern eyes of the Girondins, and read only anger, doom, vengeance. Then he caught in the silence the sound of his wife weeping, for at Pierre's appearance she had broken into wild sobbing; and on that he spoke out of the base instincts of his heart. "He was her lover," he muttered. "I swear it, citizens."
"He lies!" the man at the barrier cried, his face transfigured with rage. "I loved her once, it is true, but it was before her old father sold her to this Judas. For what he would have you believe now, my friends, it is false. I, too, swear it."
A murmur of execration broke from the group of Girondins. Barbaroux repressed it by a gesture. "What do you say of this man?" he asked, turning to them, his tone deep and solemn.
"He is not fit to live!" they answered with one voice.
The poor coward screamed as he heard the words, and, flinging himself on the ground, he embraced Barbaroux's knees in a paroxysm of terror. But the judge did not look at him. Barbaroux turned, instead, to Pierre Bounat. "What do you say of him?" he asked.
"He is not fit to live," the young man answered solemnly, his breath coming quick and fast.
"And you?" Barbaroux continued, turning and looking with eyes of fire at the wife. And his voice was still more solemn.
A moment before she had ceased to weep, and had stood up listening and gazing, awe and wonder in her face. Barbaroux had to repeat his question before she answered. Then she said, "He is not fit to die."
There was silence for a moment, broken only by the entreaties, the prayers, of the wretch on the floor. At last Barbaroux spoke. "She has said rightly," he pronounced. "He shall live. They have put us out of the law and set a price on our heads; but we will keep the law. He shall live. Yet, hark you," the great orator continued, in tones which Michel never forgot, "if a whisper escape you as to our presence here, or as to our names, or if you wrong your wife from this time forth by word or deed, the life she has saved shall pay for it.
"Remember!" he added, shaking Michel to and fro with a finger, "the arm of Barbaroux of Marseilles is long, and though I be a hundred leagues away, I shall know and I shall punish. So, beware! Now rise, and live!"
The miserable man cowered back to the wall, frightened to the core of his heart. The Girondins conferred a while in whispers, two of their number assisting Pierre to cross the barrier. Suddenly on their talk there broke--and Michel trembled anew as he heard it--a loud knocking at the door. All started and stood listening and waiting. A voice cried: "Open! open! in the name of the law!"
"We have lingered too long," Barbaroux muttered. "I should have thought of this. It is the Mayor of Carhaix come to apprehend our friend."
Again the Girondins conferred together. At last, seeming to arrive at a conclusion, they ranged themselves on either side of the door, and one of their number opened it. A short, stout man, girt with a tricolour sash, and wearing a huge sword, entered with an air of authority. Blinded by the gush of light he saw, at his first entrance, nothing out of the common; he was followed by four men armed with muskets.
Their appearance produced an extraordinary effect on Michel Tellier. As they crossed the threshold one by one, the peasant leaned forward, his face flushed, his eyes gleaming; and he counted them. They were only five. And the others were twelve. He fell back, and from that moment his belief in the Girondins' power was clinched.
"In the name of the law!" the mayor panted. He was a little out of breath. "Why did you not----" Then he stopped abruptly, his mouth remaining open. He found himself surrounded by a group of grim, silent mutes, with arms in their hands; and in a twinkling it flashed into his mind that these were the eleven chiefs of the Girondins, whom he had been warned to keep watch for, and to take. He had come to catch a pigeon and had caught a crow. He turned pale and his eyes dropped. "Who are--who are these gentlemen?" he stammered, in a tone suddenly and ludicrously fallen.
"Some volunteers of Quimper, returning home," replied Barbaroux, with ironical smoothness.
"You have your papers, citizens?" the mayor asked, mechanically; and he took a step backwards towards the door, and looked over his shoulder.
"Here they are!" said Pétion rudely, thrusting a packet into his hands. "They are in order."
The mayor took them, and longing only to see the outside of the door, pretended to look through them, his little heart going pit-a-pat within him. "They seem to be in order," he assented, feebly. "I need not trouble you further, citizens. I came here under a misapprehension, I find, and I wish you a good journey."
He knew, as he backed out, that he was cutting a poor figure. And he would fain have made a more dignified retreat. But before these men, fugitives and outlaws as they were, he felt, though he was Mayor of Carhaix, almost as small a man as did Michel Tellier. These were the men of the Revolution, nay, they were the Revolution. They had bearded Capet, they had shattered the régime of centuries, they had pulled down kings. There was Barbaroux, who had grappled with Marat; and Pétion, the Mayor of the Bastille. The little Mayor of Carhaix knew greatness when he saw it. He turned tail, and hurried back to his fireside, his body-guard not a whit behind him in their desire to be gone.
Five minutes later the men he feared and envied came out also, and went their way, passing in single file into the darkness which brooded over the great monolith; beginning, brave hearts, another of the few stages which still lay between them and the guillotine. Then in the cottage there remained only Michel and Jeanne. She sat by the dying embers, silent, and lost in thought. He leaned against the wall, his eyes roving ceaselessly, but always when his gaze met hers it fell. Barbaroux had conquered him. It was not until Jeanne had risen to close the door, and he was alone, that he wrung his hands, and muttered: "Five crowns! Five crowns gone and wasted!"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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