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In a room on the second floor of a house in the Rue Favart in Paris--a large room scantily and untidily furnished--a man sat reading by the light of an oil lamp. The hour was late, the night a July night in the year 1794--year two of the Republic. The house already slumbered round him; the sounds of Paris rose to his ears softened by night and distance. Intent on his work, he looked up from time to time to make a note; or, drawing the lamp a little nearer he trimmed its wick and set it back. When this happened, the light falling strongly on his face, and bringing into relief its harsh lines and rugged features, showed him to be a man past middle life, grey-haired, severe, almost forbidding of aspect.
Peaceful as his occupation seemed, there was something in the air of the room which suggested change, even danger. The floor was littered with packing cases and with books piled together at random. On the low bedstead lay a travelling cloak; on the table, by the reader's hand, lay a pistol and beside it one of the huge sabres which were then in fashion. Nor were these signs without meaning. The man reading on, wrapt and unconscious, in his upper room, merely followed his bent. He read and reasoned, though in the great city round him the terror of the Revolution was at its height; though the rattle of the drum had scarcely ceased with nightfall, and the last tumbril was even now being wheeled back into its shed.
For men grow strangely callous. The danger which impends daily and every day ceases to be feared. Achille Mirande had seen the chiefs of his party fall round him. He had seen Pétion and Barbaroux, Louvet and Vergniaud die--the Girondins who had dreamed with him of a republic of property, free and yet law-abiding. Nor had his experiences stopped there. He had seen his foes perish also, the Hébertists first and later the Dantonists. But for himself--death seemed to have passed him by. Danger had become second nature; the very rumbling of the tumbrils passing his house on the way to the guillotine had ceased to be anything but annoying; until to-day, to avoid the interruption, he had left his house in the Rue St. Honoré and established himself in this empty flat in the little Rue Favart.
By-and-by he laid down the book he was reading and fell into deep meditation. As he sat thus, alone and silent in the silent room, a sound, which a keener ear would have noticed before, attracted his attention. Startled in a degree by it, he roused himself; he looked round. "A rat, I suppose," he muttered. Yet he continued to peer with suspicion into the corner whence the sound had come, and presently he heard it again. The next instant he sprang to his feet; phantom-like a door in the panelled wall at the back of the room--a door in the wall where there should have been no door--was swinging, nay, had swung open. While he glared at it, hardly believing his senses, a man appeared standing in the dark aperture.
The man was young and of middle height. Dazzled by the light, and suffering apparently from weakness, he paused, leaning for support against the doorway. His eyes were bright, his sunken cheeks told of fever or famine. His clothes stained and dusty, and his unkempt hair, added to the wildness of his appearance. For a moment he and the owner of the room glared at one another in speechless wonder. Then a name sprang to the lips of each.
"Monsieur Mirande!" the younger man muttered.
"De Bercy!" exclaimed the other.
The stranger said no more, but shaking with agitation walked to a chair and sat down. Mirande, his face rigid with passion, stood in silence and watched him do it. Then the Republican found his voice.
"You villain!" he cried, advancing a step, his manner menacing. "Was it not enough that you stole into my house and robbed me of my daughter? Was it not enough that you led her to forfeit her life in your plots and then left her to die? Was not this enough, that you now come and insult me by your presence?"
The young man raised his hand in deprecation, but seemed unable to reply. Mirande, gazing pitilessly at him, presently read his silence aright, and an expression of cruel joy altered his features.
"I understand," he said grimly. "I see all now. You have been in hiding here. To be sure, your name has been on the list of suspects these three months. And you all the time have been starving like a rat behind the panels! Well, you shall have food and wine. You shall eat, you shall drink. I would not for the world have you cheat the guillotine."
He went to a cupboard as he spoke, and, taking from it bread and wine, he placed them before the other. The young man made a slight gesture, as though he would have refused them; but his pale face flushed with desire negatived the action, the momentary resistance of his pride gave way, and he ate and drank, sparingly, yet with the craving of a man half-famished.
"I have not tasted food for three days," he murmured presently, looking up with a glance of apology. The wine had already done its work. He looked a different man. His hand was steady, his cheeks wore a more healthy colour. "M. Chareloi hid me here," he went on, "but a week ago I heard a disturbance in the house, and coming out when all was quiet I found it empty and locked. I fear he was arrested."
"He was guillotined five days ago," the Girondin replied with brutal frankness.
"Why? For what?" the young man exclaimed.
"As a suspect," Mirande answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Bercy had partly risen from his chair. He sat down again, stunned.
"Things move quickly nowadays," Mirande continued, with a ferocious smile. "To the Luxembourg, thence to the Conciergerie, thence to the Place de la Revolution is a journey of three days at most; and the path is well trodden. You will find yourself in good company, M. de Bercy."
"You will give me up?"
"Ay!" the Republican answered hoarsely. He had risen, and stood facing his antagonist, his hands on the table, his face flushed and swollen. "Ay, though you were my own son! What have you not done to me? You crept like a snake into my house, and robbed me of my daughter!"
"I made her my wife!" the Vicomte answered, with calm pride.
"Ay, and then? After that act of mighty condescension you led her to take part in your vile plot, and when she was discovered and arrested, you left her to pay the penalty. You left her to die alone rather than risk one hair of your miserable head!"
The young man sprang to his feet in sudden ungovernable excitement. "It is false!" he cried. "False!"
"It is true!" Mirande retorted, striking the table so violently that the room rang again and the flame of the lamp leapt up and for an instant dyed the two angry faces with a lurid gleam.
"I say it is false!" the Vicomte replied sternly. "On the contrary, being at Rheims when I heard that Corinne was arrested, I took horse on the instant. I rode for Paris as a man rides for life. I was anxious to give myself up in her place if I could save her in no other way. But at Meaux, M. Mirande, I met your agent----"
"And went back to Rheims again and into hiding," the other continued, with a bitter sneer, "after sending me, her father, the shameful message that your duty to your race forbade the last of the Bercys to die for a merchant's daughter."
"I sent that message, do you say? I? I?" the young man cried.
"Yes, you! Who else? You--sent it after hearing from me that if you would surrender, the Committee of Safety would suffer her to escape! So much my services had wrung from them--in vain. What? Do you deny that you met my agent at night in the yard of the Three Kings at Meaux, M. le Vicomte?"
"I met him," the young man answered firmly, though his frame was a-shake with excitement. "But I did not send that message by him! Nor did he give me such a message as you state. On the contrary, he told me that I was too late, that my wife had suffered two days before; and that you bade me save myself, if I could."
"Ay, she suffered," Mirande answered ironically. "But it was four days later. And for the rest you tell me nothing but lies, and clumsy ones."
"What I tell you," the Vicomte rejoined, with a solemnity which at last enforced the other's attention, "is as true as that I loved my wife and would have died to save her. I swear it!"
M. Mirande passed his hand over his brow, and stood for a moment gazing at his son-in-law. There was a new expression, an expression almost of fear, in his eyes.
"Should you know the messenger again?" he asked at last.
"I do not think I should," the Vicomte answered. "He inquired for me by the name upon which we had agreed. We were together for a few minutes only, and the night was dark, the only light a distant lanthorn."
"Would he know you, do you think?"
"I cannot say."
M. Mirande shrugged his shoulders, and strode half a dozen times up and down the room, his face dark with thought, with suspicion, with uncertainty. At length he stopped before his son-in-law.
"Listen to me," he said, meeting and striving to read the young man's eyes. "It is possible that what you say is true and that you are not the coward I have thought you. In that case you shall have justice at my hands. Before I give you up to the Committee of Safety, who will deal shortly with you, I will resolve the doubt. Until I find the means to solve it, you may stay here."
"Indeed?" cried the young man proudly. "But what if I am not willing to be beholden to you?"
"Then you have your alternative!" Mirande answered coolly. "Come with me to the nearest Guard House, and I will inform against you. After all, it will be the shortest way. It was only that being a citizen, and not a ci-devant, I wished to do justice--even to you."
The young man hesitated. He had spoken truly when he suggested that he was unwilling to be beholden to Mirande. But the alternative meant certain death.
"I will stop," he said, after a pause, shrugging his shoulders as he accepted the strange offer made him. "Why should I not? It is your agent who has lied, not I."
"We shall see," replied the other, without emotion. "There is one thing, however, I must name to you. I know that you are a gallant among the ladies, M, de Bercy. My daughter Claire, who was at the seminary when you visited me before, is now at home. You will kindly restrict your intercourse with her to the most formal limits. Unfortunately," he continued, with a strange bitterness in his tone, "she is like her sister, and the same arts that won the one, may win the other from the path of duty."
"For shame, sir!" the young noble answered, his eyes sparkling with indignation. "You insult, not me, but your dead daughter! Do you think that I loved her for her fortune alone? Or that her very image, untenanted by her soul, would satisfy me?"
"They were singularly alike," Mirande muttered with a grim shrug. "God knows! At any rate you are warned."
The young man shot at him an angry glance, but said no more; and Mirande, seeming to be satisfied that his condition was accepted, dropped the subject and proceeded to show his guest where he might sleep; for the latter felt a natural reluctance to return to his narrow prison behind the wainscot. In a few minutes the light was extinguished and the two men, thus strangely brought together again, lay a few feet from one another; the mind of each turning in the stillness of the night, to the link which had bound them, nay, which still bound them in a forced and uncongenial union.
The Vicomte was aware that his host ran a certain risk in sheltering him. The supremacy which Robespierre had won at this time, and the desperate lengths to which he had gone, exposed all who were not of his immediate following to a jealousy that had already hurried to the guillotine the chiefs of half a dozen sections of the Republican party. Mirande, as one of the few surviving Girondins and as a man still possessing friends and influence was peculiarly obnoxious to suspicion. The slightest accusation, the word of a servant, the hint of a rival, would suffice to despatch him also along the path which so many trod daily.
The Vicomte, therefore, on rising in the morning, proposed to withdraw to his hiding-place. M. Mirande, however, a little to his guest's surprise, would not hear of this; observing curtly that he could trust his household, and that a change of name was all that safety required. The younger man, whose anxiety was not on his own account only, would have argued the point; but his host cut short the matter by opening the door, and ushering the Vicomte, almost before the young man was aware, into another room--a room, large and scantily furnished, but in other respects in striking contrast to that which he had left. Here the tall, narrow windows, three in number, were open; the sunlight poured in through half-closed jalousies and fell in bars on the shining parquet, and on a little table daintily laid for the morning meal and gay with flowers. In the cooler and darker parts of the room stood high-backed chairs littered with a dozen articles which spoke of a woman's presence; here a fan and silk hood, there a half-mended glove. As the young man's eyes fell on these, and he drank in the airy brightness and even luxury of the room, he felt a strange pang of regret and misery. Such things were no longer for him. Such prettinesses no longer formed part of his life. And then he turned, and in an instant forgot his unhappiness and his loss in the sight of a young girl who, seated a little aside, had risen at his entrance and now stood facing him, her back to the light.
He had been warned; yet he stood thunderstruck, breathless, staring. His eyes grew large, his jaw fell, the room for a moment went round with him. The likeness of the woman before him to his dead wife was so strong, so complete, so astonishing, that involuntarily, not knowing what he did, he held out his hands.
"Corinne!" he muttered, his voice full of tears. "Corinne!"
The girl, who but for the ravages of ill-health would have been very beautiful, did not answer; nevertheless she seemed scarcely less affected by his sudden appearance and his strange address. She swayed on her feet, and had she not grasped a chair would have fallen. A burning flush for an instant lit up her wan cheek, to disappear at the first sound of her father's voice. He had followed Bercy into the room, and his tone was sharp with reproof and warning.
"Citizen Perrot," he said sternly, "this is my daughter Claire. Here is your place. Be seated, if you please."
The Vicomte mechanically did as he was told without looking where he sat. His hands shook, his brain was on fire. He had eyes only for the girl; who was so wondrously, so completely, like his wife. She had taken her seat with some timidity at the other side of the table, and if she no longer betrayed the same emotion, her eyes were downcast, the colour fluttered in her cheeks. It was in vain that Mirande shot angry glances at her--and at him. The young man stared as one enchanted, seeing only the white-robed figure seated between himself and the sunlight, that, shining through her dark hair, found golden threads in it, and crowned the face he knew so well with an aureole of brightness.
Gradually the spell fell from him. For as he looked, the girl's face changed and hardened and grew older; grew sharper and whiter; and he discerned the difference between Claire and Corinne. Corinne had never looked at him, or at any one, after that fashion. With a sigh, yet with eyes that often and involuntarily returned to the lode-star, he recovered himself; and he made, or pretended to make, a meal. His appetite, however, was gone, and he was thankful when his host rose and put an end to the constrained sitting.
"You will excuse me," the Republican said, drawing out his watch and looking at it. "I should be at M. Carnot's at this hour. These rooms, however, are at your disposal, my friend; and if you want books, my daughter will direct you where to find them. But--caution, remember!"
And with that, to the Vicomte's astonishment, M. Mirande departed, leaving the two together. For a moment the young man sat, troubled and perplexed, gazing at the floor. He had intercepted the glance of warning which his host on leaving had aimed at his daughter; and with the knowledge that he was suspected, with the brutally frank exhortation addressed to himself fresh in his mind, to be left alone with the girl surprised him beyond measure.
Presently he stole a look at her. She had passed to one of the windows, and, having seated herself, was employed upon some needle-work. Her attitude, the lines of her figure, the pose of her head, presented the same abnormal maddening resemblance to his wife; and slowly, as if fascinated, he moved nearer to her.
"Pardon me," he said at last, speaking almost in a whisper. "You are very like your sister, mademoiselle."
She glanced quickly at him, her face wearing the hard, sharp look that had slowly grown upon it. But she gave him no other answer.
He felt that he ought to leave her, but the spell was upon him and he lingered.
"You have been ill, I fear," he said, after a long silence.
"Monsieur is right," she answered briefly. "The times are such that few of us escape. Those are perhaps most happy," and as she paused on the word she looked up at him, "who die with their beliefs unshattered, before discovering the clay feet of their idols."
"Mademoiselle!" he cried almost fiercely, carried away by an intensely painful thought. "My wife! Your sister? Answer me, answer me quickly, I beg of you. They did not--they did not tell her that I--that I refused----"
"That monsieur declined to save her?" Mademoiselle Claire answered slowly, her great dark eyes looking into vacancy--into the depths of gloomy memories. "Yes, they did. A woman, perhaps, would not have done it; would not have borne to do it. But men are cruel--cruel! And after all it helped her to die, you understand. It made it more easy."
He walked to the other end of the room, his face hidden in his hands. And there his frame began to be racked by deep sobs. He tried to summon up his pride, his courage, his manliness; but in vain. The thought that the woman who had loved and trusted him, his young wife--his young wife of a few months only--had died believing him a coward and an ingrate was too bitter! Too bitter, the conviction that, mistaken as her belief was, it could never be altered! Never be altered! She would never know!
A light touch on his arm recalled him to himself. He turned and found Mademoiselle Claire at his elbow holding a glass of wine towards him. Her lips were compressed, but her face wore a delicate flush, and her eyes were changed and softened.
"Drink," she muttered hurriedly. "You are still weak; you have eaten nothing."
He controlled himself by an effort and took the wine; and the girl, moving away quickly, brought from the table a roll and, without again meeting his eyes, laid it on a chair beside him. She was in the act of regaining her place by the window, when the door opened somewhat abruptly, and the young Vicomte, scarcely master of himself, turned and discovered a man standing on the threshold.
The stranger stared at him and he at the stranger, while Mademoiselle Claire, with eyes which on a sudden became keen and intent, seemed to forget herself in gazing on both. The new-comer was taller than the Vicomte and of about the same age; a thin, lithe man, with restless eyes and dark, tumbled hair. He scanned the Vicomte with at least as much disfavour as the latter, taken by surprise, spent on him; and he was the first to speak.
"I thought that you were alone, mademoiselle," he said, frowning as he advanced into the room and looked about him suspiciously.
"This is a friend of my father's," she answered, "He is staying with us, M. Baudouin."
The explanation did not seem to improve matters in the young man's eyes. He frowned still more gloomily.
"Monsieur is from the country?" he asked.
"No," the Vicomte answered. "I have been in Paris some months."
The stranger looked darkly down, toying with a book which lay at the edge of the table. The girl waited awhile and then--
"Did you bring a message from my father?" she asked, a slight tinge of impatience and hauteur in her manner.
"No, mademoiselle, I have not seen him this morning," he answered. And his sullenness matched her impatience.
"Had you not better follow him then?" she said, with sharpness. "He is at M. Carnot's. He may need you."
For a moment it was plain that M. Baudouin hesitated, but in the end he made up his mind to obey, and bowing with exaggerated respect he left the room.
The Vicomte thought that he could not do better than follow the other's example, and he too withdrew. Crossing the lobby to the room which communicated with his hiding-place he threw himself into a chair and gave himself up to the most melancholy reflections. The singular resemblance which Mademoiselle Claire bore to his wife must alone have sufficed to fill him with vain longings and poignant regrets; but these were now rendered a thousand times more bitter by the knowledge, so cruelly conveyed to him, that his wife had died believing him a heartless and faithless coward.
The return of M. Mirande later in the day, if it did not dispel these gloomy thoughts, compelled him at any rate to conceal them. The evening meal passed much as the morning one had passed; the host uttering a few formal phrases, while the other two sat for the most part silent. The Vicomte could not avert his eyes from his sister-in-law; and though he no longer felt the violent emotions which her face had at first awakened in him, he sat sad and unhappy. Her pale features reminded him of the dead past: and at once tortured him with regret, and tantalized him with the simulacrum of that which had been his. He could have cursed the Heaven that had formed two beings so much alike.
In this way a week passed by, and little by little a vague discomfort and restlessness began to characterize the attitude of his mind towards her. He felt himself at once attracted by her beauty--as what man of his years would not?--and repelled by the likeness that made of the feeling a sacrilege. Meantime, whether he would or no, they were left together--much together. M. Mirande went abroad each day and seemed intent on public affairs. Each day, indeed, his look grew a trifle more austere, and the shade on his brow grew deeper; but though it was evident that the situation out-of-doors was growing more strained, the storms which were agitating Paris and desolating so many homes affected the little household in no other way. The Vicomte kept necessarily within, spending most of his time in reading. Mademoiselle Claire also went seldom abroad; and it followed that during the long July days when the sunshine flooded the second floor, in the early mornings when the sparrows perched on the open jalousies and twittered gaily, or in the grey evenings, when the night fell slowly, they met from time to time--met not infrequently. On such occasions the Vicomte noticed that Baudouin was never far distant. The secretary, as a rule, put in an appearance before the conversation had lasted ten minutes.
Bercy began to suspect the cause of this, and one day he happened upon a discovery. He was sitting in M. Mirande's room, when the sound of a raised voice made him lay down his book and listen. The voice seemed to come from the parlour. Once he was assured of this, and that the speaker, whose anger was apparent, was not Mirande, he took his steps. He stole out upon the lobby, and found the parlour door as he had suspected slightly ajar. Any scruples he might have entertained were dispelled by the certainty that the speaker was Baudouin and that the person whom he was addressing in harsh and vehement tones, was Mademoiselle Claire. The Vicomte drew himself up behind the door and listened.
"What would I have?" were the first words he caught. "Little enough, heaven knows! Little enough! What have I ever asked except to be allowed to serve? To gratify your least caprice. To be at your beck and call. To fetch and carry while another basked in your smiles. That is all I asked in the old days and I ask no more now. I am content to serve and wait and hope. But I will have--no stranger come between us. Not again! Not again!"
"You do not understand, M. Baudouin," the girl answered hurriedly.
"Do I not?" he cried. "Perhaps I did not understand last time. But this time I do. I do! It had been well for you had I known more then!"
"Spare me," she said faintly, overcome apparently by some hidden meaning in his words.
"That you may amuse yourself with this stranger?" he retorted. "No, I have given way enough. It had been better, as I say, if I had not, mademoiselle."
The stress he laid on the last word was unintelligible to the hidden listener, who knew only that it veiled an insult and drew nearer to the door. The girl remained silent and Baudouin presuming on this continued in a tone still more aggressive, "Times are changed, mademoiselle, changed in the last month. You, living out of the world, are ignorant of what is passing, and your father is being left as completely behind. Unless I make a mistake, in a little time you will need other and stronger protection than his."
"Not while he lives," the girl answered, in a low tone.
Baudouin laughed. "The pitcher goes often to the well, but it is broken at last," he said drily. "I would have you understand that, since you may stand in need of my help, you would do well not to try me too far."
"M. Baudouin," the girl said abruptly--and her tone was changed, and the listener, though he could not see her, could picture the challenge of her startled eyes--"you have never spoken to me in this way before. You have changed."
"So are the times. Those who were servants are now masters!"
"You will never be mine," the girl said firmly.
"We shall see!" he answered.
"We shall see!" cried an unexpected voice--that of the Vicomte, who could bear it no longer. His eyes stern, his colour high, he flung the door wide and entered. The secretary, startled, stepped back a pace. The girl, who had been standing close to the door, turned, and seeing who it was, uttered a low cry of thankfulness; in her relief she even stretched out her hands as if she would grasp the new-comer's arm. The next instant she drew back, a strange expression in her eyes.
"Now, sir," the young Vicomte continued, harshly, "you have to deal with a man, and not with a woman whom you can terrify. I have overheard all, and I warn you that on his return I shall repeat it word for word to M. Mirande, who will know how to deal with you."
He expected that the threat would produce its effect, and that the secretary taken in the act would resume his normal demeanour. But Baudouin, his first surprise over, merely smiled. "Who are you, I wonder," he replied grimly. "One in the Tallien-Barrère-Carnot conspiracy, that's afoot, I suppose. If so, I need not----"
"You need suppose nothing!" the Vicomte retorted fiercely. "But leave the room without words, you dog!"
"Thank you," said the secretary, smiling contemptuously. "But I would have you remember that a living dog is better than a dead lion."
With that--and with little show of embarrassment or dismay--he went out. As the door closed behind him a singular constraint fell upon the two who were left. The Vicomte, with a grave face, paused by the table, and stood listening to the sound of his retreating footsteps. The girl, who had withdrawn to the farther end of the room, kept her face averted. The Vicomte looked at her doubtfully--looked at her more than once. "Mademoiselle," he ventured at last, his voice low and agitated, "I am afraid he--I am afraid he means mischief."
"I fear so," she whispered without turning.
"Will you--shall I speak to your father?"
"It may be better," she answered--to the same tone.
He looked at her long at that, but she did not move; and with a gesture as of farewell he turned and went softly away. Safe in his own room, with the door shut, he stood in the middle of the floor thinking; thinking not of the secretary nor of the danger with which Baudouin's enmity threatened the house, but of the strange look which the girl's face had worn on his first appearance at her side, the look of relief and thankfulness which he had surprised in her eyes, the impulse of confidence which had made her move towards him! He recalled them all, and his brow grew hot, his hand trembled. He felt at once terror and shame. When he heard M. Mirande's step on the stairs, he gave himself no time for thought, but went hurriedly out on the lobby and called him into the room. "M. Mirande," he said, "I have something to tell you. I have two things to tell you."
The Republican looked at him, his inscrutable eyes betraying no surprise. "What are they?" he asked, his tone almost phlegmatic.
"The man Baudouin has been here, addressing himself so rudely to your daughter that I felt myself obliged to--to interfere."
"That is unlucky."
"It may be that he has your confidence," the young Vicomte continued, "but, from the way in which he spoke of you, I doubt if you have his. He seemed to me--a dangerous man, M. Baudouin."
"Did he use threats?" the Republican asked, a slight shade of anxiety in his tone.
The Vicomte nodded.
"Did he mention any names?" M. Mirande continued, looking sharply at his watch.
"Yes. Those of Carnot, Barrère--and I think, Tallien."
"Ah!" For a moment M. Mirande's impulse seemed to be to leave the room; to leave it hurriedly, to go back perhaps whence he had come. But he thought better of it, and after a pause he continued, "Had you not something else to tell me?"
"I had," the young man answered, betraying, by his agitation, that he had now come to the real purpose for which he had sought the interview. "I wish to leave, M. Mirande. I wish to leave your house at once. I do not know," he continued hurriedly, before the elder man could utter the dry retort which was on his lips, "whether you had it in your mind to try me by leaving me with your daughter, or whether I have only my own weakness to thank. But I must go. I am ashamed of myself, I hate myself for it; but I cannot be with her and not feel what I ought not to feel. Understand me," the young man continued, his cheeks pale; "it is not by reason of any charm of hers, but because she is so like--so like my wife--because she seems a dozen times a day to be my wife, that my memory is unfaithful to Corinne--that I dare not remain here another day!"
He stopped abruptly. M. Mirande coughed.
"This is a strange confession," he said, after a long pause. "You have said nothing to Claire?"
"Then say nothing!" the Republican replied with curt decision. "As for leaving this place to-day, it is impossible. A crisis is at hand; this house is watched. You would be recognized and arrested before you passed ten yards from the door. Moreover," he went on, seeming to ponder deeply as he spoke, "if you are right about Baudouin--and I doubt now whether I have been Wise to trust him--I see great and immediate danger before me. Therefore, if you would not desert the sinking ship, you must remain."
"I dare not," the young man muttered, shaking his head.
"What?" the old Girondin answered, his voice swelling, his eyes growing bright. "You a noble, and you dare not? You a noble, and you cannot govern yourself? Consider, M. le Vicomte! A few days may see me traverse the road so many traverse every day; the road of the guillotine. Then my daughter will be alone, defenceless, unprotected. I ask you--for I have no one else to whom I can turn--to be her brother and her guardian. Do you refuse?"
"You no longer distrust me?" the Vicomte muttered, his cheek hot.
"When you came to me a week ago," Mirande answered, "I did not foresee this crisis, nor the present danger. If I had, I might have received you differently. But, see you, what if this be the way in which I would try you?" he continued with energy. "What if this be the atonement heaven has assigned to you? In that case, do you accept, or do you refuse?"
"I accept," the Vicomte answered solemnly, carried away by the other's burst of feeling. "I accept the charge."
M. Mirande smiled, but only for a moment. Quickly the light died out of his face, leaving it stern and austere. His brow grew dark, and turning with a sigh to his table, he signed to his companion to leave him, and was presently immersed in figures and calculations.
The young man retired; on his side full of doubt and amazement, yet lifted by the other's appeal to a higher level of will and purpose. Confidence begets honour. Frankly as he had gone to the Girondin with his confession, so frankly had the other received it. Now he felt that it behoved him to deserve confidence. Henceforth Claire must be his sister. But he knew that merely to call her sister was not all. He knew enough of his own weakness to recognize the necessity of shunning temptation, and during the next three days he was careful to avoid conversation with the girl; who on her part seemed to observe nothing, but went to and fro about her household duties.
And yet she did not go about them as usual, a keen observer would have said. A subtle change had come over her. Alone in her room she sang to herself low crooning songs of happiness. Her eyes, so carefully lowered in the parlour, shone with a tender brightness, when no one saw them. Her cheek had grown fuller, her colour stronger, her whole being radiant. If she still went delicately when other's eyes were upon her, it was rather in sympathy with the heavy air of fear and expectation which pervaded the house, which pervaded the city, than in obedience to her natural impulses.
On the third evening, M. Mirande, who had been abroad all day, came home rather later than usual. The Vicomte and Claire were sitting in separate rooms, but something ominous in the sound of his footstep as he mounted the stairs, drew them both to the lobby to receive him. The evening light, shining through the window behind them, fell full upon his face and exaggerated its cold and grey severity. They waited for him in silence, and he did not see them until he set his foot on the last step. Then he pointed to his room, and, "Go in there, my children," he said gravely.
The young man started. The girl blushed and trembled. They both obeyed. M. Mirande's next act was equally surprising. Following them into the room he proceeded to lock and bolt the door behind him; and then passing quickly to the window he looked out. For a moment they stood behind him in silence. After a pause the Vicomte spoke.
"What is it?" he said.
"The order for my arrest was signed an hour ago," the Girondin answered, his eyes still glued to the window. "You are both included in it. Ah! here they are!"
"Who?" the Vicomte asked with energy.
"Baudouin and three officers. However, the door is shut. It is strong, and will gain us a few minutes."
"To what end?" The Vicomte spoke coldly. Mirande's conduct took him by surprise, for resistance to arrest was rare during the Revolution. Such men as Mirande, courageous, bigoted, devoted to an ideal, made a point--unless they resorted to suicide--of submitting calmly to destiny and the law.
The Girondin, however, had decided otherwise. Nor did he seem to be aware of his companion's disapproval. He did not answer, but continued to look out long after the tramp of heavy footsteps on the stairs had drawn his daughter to his side. There was a loud summons without, "In the name of the law!" but the three remained silent, standing close together, the girl's white, scared face glimmering in the increasing darkness of the room. The Vicomte a foot from her, could almost hear the dull beating of her heart.
"Can nothing be done?" he muttered.
"We can do nothing but wait and be silent," the Republican answered calmly. "They know we are here, but if we do not answer, they may pause awhile before they attack the door. And every moment--is a moment gained."
The Vicomte shrugged his shoulders, but acquiesced; and some minutes elapsed--minutes which seemed hours to more than one of the three--before the locksmith for whom the Commissary had sent, assailed the door, and the almost empty house rang with the harsh sounds of his hammer.
Crash! The door was open at last, letting into the room a flood of light, and with the light three men who entered with levelled arms. The foremost, an officer girt with a huge tricolour scarf, stopped abruptly, his jaw dropping ludicrously as his eyes fell on the placid group before him. "Citizen Achille Mirande?" he said interrogatively. "Yes? I am empowered to arrest you in the name of the Committee of Safety; you, your daughter also present I think--and a guest. This I presume is the person?"
"It is," Mirande answered quietly. "Perhaps you will permit me to show you where my papers are. They may be needed?"
"They will be needed," the Commissary replied, re-arranging his scarf, which had been pulled awry. "You may certainly collect them under surveillance."
"I can save M. Mirande the trouble," remarked a mocking voice in the background. "I think I can lay my hand on any paper that may be required."
"I do not doubt it, Baudouin," the Girondin answered placidly. "I take it that I have to thank you for this?"
There was shame as well as triumph in the secretary's eyes as he came forward. "You cannot say I did not warn you," he said, avoiding the look of scorn which Claire--who stood by her father's side, her hand in his--shot at him. "But you would go your way."
"And you, yours!" Mirande retorted. "An old way--Judas's. But hark you, my friend! You seem to be prospering now. You have kicked down the ladder by which you have risen. Yet it is in my power to wound you. See you, do you know who this is?" and he pointed to the Vicomte who, with his arms folded, was gazing haughtily at the Commissary and his followers.
"A conspirator against the safety of the Republic--that is all I know," Baudouin answered sullenly.
"Possibly," said Mirande. "But not the less for that my son-in-law!"
"The Vicomte de Bercy!" Baudouin almost shouted. "It is false. I heard of him but yesterday--at Nantes."
"You heard wrongly then!" Mirande answered with a cold sneer. "This is the man whom you met at Meaux, and of whom you lied to me, saying--that you might divide him effectually from my daughter--that he refused to surrender himself to save her."
"It was true--what I told you," the secretary muttered, gazing at Bercy with hatred.
"It was false!" cried the Girondin sternly. "Do I need evidence? I have it. Whom shall I believe, you, who have betrayed me to-day, or he who remained by my side in danger?"
"He could not escape," Baudouin said abruptly. His face was pale, the perspiration stood on his brow. His jealous eyes glared askance at the girl's face. Mirande had said rightly. He had yet the power to wound this traitor.
"He did not attempt it," the Girondin answered. "And besides, I have tried him as gold in the fire! Look you at this. Bercy!" As the name rang through the room the speaker turned to the Vicomte and took his hand, "My friend, I have deceived you. My daughter did not die. I procured her pardon by the use of such influence as I possessed at that time. But having done that, deluded by this villain's tale, I forced her to renounce you and to take her maiden name."
For an instant there was silence in the room.
"She did not die?" the young man muttered, his eyes dilating. Then, before an answer could be given, he plucked his hand from Mirande's grasp and seizing him by the shoulder shook him to and fro.
"Where is she?" he cried hoarsely. "Speak, man, what have you done with her? Where is she?"
"She is behind you."
Bercy turned. Claire was behind him. "Claire?" he cried. "Claire?"
The girl stood, her eyes slightly downcast, her arms hanging by her sides. And then at the sound of the name uttered a second time, she looked up, her eyes swimming with love and tears. "No, Corinne!" she said simply. And then, in a voice which pierced the traitor's bosom as with a sword, she continued, "Honoré, my husband! Forgive me! Forgive me that I distrusted you! That I disowned you!"
He did not answer, but he opened his arms and took her into them and held her there; while the father went to the window--perhaps to hide his emotion, and the Commissary lifted up his hands in admiration genuine and French of this moving scene. As for Baudouin, he bit his nails, his face white with rage.
He cursed the delay. He would have cursed the police, had he dared, and had not the tricolour scarf awed him. "Bah!" he exclaimed at last in venomous tones, "a fine piece of play-acting, M. Mirande! And our friends here have indulgently given you time for it. But it is over, and the sequel will be less pleasant, I fear. He laughs best who laughs last."
"That is true," Mirande answered soberly; and for an instant from his place at the window, he looked into the room.
"In three days you will sneeze into the sack, my friends," Baudouin continued with savage mockery. "Your married bliss, M. le Vicomte, will last but a short time, I fear. As for mademoiselle, Sanson will prove but a rough coiffeur, I doubt."
"Silence!" the Girondin cried; and his tone was strangely altered, his voice vibrated strangely through the room. "Silence, you hound!" he continued, turning from the window and walking into the middle of the chamber, his figure drawn to its full height, his hand outstretched. "Be still, and tremble for your own head. The warrant you bring is signed by Maximilien Robespierre?"
"The Incorruptible," murmured the Commissary. And saluted.
"Corruptible or Incorruptible," Mirande rejoined, with a sneer, "he is fallen! He is fallen! Within the last ten minutes he has been arrested and lodged in the Tuileries!"
"You rave!" cried the officer. While Bercy and Corinne cast dazed glances about them, and the other men stared in stupid wonder.
"I do not rave!" the Girondin answered, standing in the middle of the room, the master of the situation. "I tell but the fact. Mark the three lighted candles in yonder upper window. They are a signal that Robespierre is arrested. Go, if you doubt me, and ask. Or--you need not. Listen, listen!" With a gesture of command, he raised his hand, and all stood silent. For an instant there seemed equal silence in the streets below; but gradually as they listened there grew out of this silence a distant hollow murmur, as of a great sea swelling higher and louder with each moment. The face of more than one in the room lost its colour.
"The Faubourgs are rising," muttered the Commissary uneasily. "There is something amiss."
"On the contrary," answered the Girondin quietly, "there is nothing amiss, but things are in a fair way to be set straight. If you will take my advice you will tear up that warrant, my friend. To-morrow it will be more dangerous to you than to me. The Terror of these days is over," he continued solemnly. "For those who have profited by it the reckoning remains!"
M. Mirande was right. Abruptly as this narration ends, the Terror, so famous in history, came to its end; and many a life held worthless a few minutes before was saved. For twenty-four hours indeed the fate of Robespierre and indirectly of our friends hung in the balance, all men trembling and watching what would happen and who would prevail. Then he fell, and the cruelty of his rule recoiled on his associates. What became of Baudouin is not known for certain, though one tale alleges that he was met and murdered by a company of Royalists near Nantes, and another, that he was guillotined under another name with Fouquier Tinville and his gang. Enough that he disappeared unmarked and unregretted, along with many others of the baser and more obscure adventurers of the time.
Of Bercy and Corinne, re-wedded under circumstances so strange and so abnormal, we know only that their descendants, well versed in this tradition of the family, still flourish on the Loire, and often and often tell this tale under the walnut-trees on summer evenings. Nor are there wanting to-day both a Corinne and a Claire.
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