Nantes is in the grip of the tiger.
Representative Carrier -- with powers as of a proconsul -- has been sent down to stamp out the lingering remnants of the counter-revolution. La Vendée is temporarily subdued; the army of the royalists driven back across the Loire; but traitors still abound -- this the National Convention in Paris hath decreed -- there are traitors everywhere. They were not all massacred at Cholet and Savenay. Disbanded, yes! but not exterminated, and wolves must not be allowed to run loose, lest they band again, and try to devour the flocks.
Therefore extermination is the order of the day. Every traitor or would-be traitor -- every son and daughter and father and mother of traitors must be destroyed ere they do more mischief. And Carrier -- Carrier the coward who turned tail and bolted at Cholet -- is sent to Nantes to carry on the work of destruction. Wolves and wolflings all! Let none survive. Give them fair trial, of course. As traitors they deserve death -- have they not taken up arms against the Republic and against the Will and the Reign of the People? But let a court of justice sit in Nantes town; let the whole nation know how traitors are dealt with: let the nation see that her rulers are both wise and just. Let wolves and wolflings be brought up for trial, and set up the guillotine on Place du Bouffay with four executioners appointed to do her work. There would be too much work for two, or even three. Let there be four -- and let the work of extermination be complete.
And Carrier -- with powers as of a proconsul -- arrives in Nantes town and sets to work to organize his household. Civil and military -- with pomp and circumstance -- for the son of a small farmer, destined originally for the Church and for obscurity is now virtual autocrat in one of the great cities of France. He has power of life and death over thousands of citizens -- under the direction of justice, of course! So now he has citizens of the bedchamber, and citizens of the household, he has a guard of honour and a company of citizens of the guard. And above all he has a crowd of spies around him -- servants of the Committee of Public Safety so they are called -- they style themselves "La Compagnie Marat" in honour of the great patriot who was foully murdered by a female wolfling.
So la Compagnie Marat is formed -- they wear red bonnets on their heads-- no stockings on their feet -- short breeches to display their bare shins: their captain, Fleury, has access at all times to the person of the proconsul, to make report on the raids which his company effect at all hours of the day or night. Their powers are supreme too. In and out of houses -- however private -- up and down the streets -- through shops, taverns, and warehouses, along the quays and the yards -- everywhere they go. Everywhere they have the right to go! to ferret and to spy, to listen, to search, to interrogate -- the red-capped Company is paid for what it can find. Piece-work, what? Work for the guillotine!
And they it is who keep the guillotine busy. Too busy in fact. And the court of justice sitting in the Hôtel du Département is overworked too. Carrier gets impatient. Why waste the time of patriots by so much paraphernalia of justice? Wolves and wolflings can be exterminated so much more quickly, more easily than that. It only needs a stroke of genius, one stroke, and Carrier has it.
He invents the Noyades!
The Drownages we may call them!
They are so simple! An old flat-bottomed barge. The work of two or three ship's carpenters! Portholes below the water-line and made to open at a given moment. All so very, very simple. Then a journey downstream as far as Belle Isle or la Maréchale, and "sentence of deportation" executed without any trouble on a whole crowd of traitors -- "vertical deportation" Carrier calls it facetiously and is mightily proud of his invention and of his witticism too.
The first attempt was highly successful. Ninety priests, and not one escaped. Think of the work it would have entailed on the guillotine -- and on the friends of Carrier who sit in justice in the Hôtel du Département! Ninety heads! Bah! That old flat-bottomed barge is the most wonderful labour-saving machine.
After that the "Drownages" become the order of the day. The red-capped Company recruits victims for the hecatomb and over Nantes Town there hangs a pall of unspeakable horror. The prisons are not vast enough to hold all the victims, so the huge entrepôt, the bonded warehouse on the quay, is converted: instead of chests of coffee it is now encumbered with human freight: into it pell-mell are thrown all those who are destined to assuage Carrier's passion for killing: ten thousand of them: men, women, and young children, counter-revolutionists, innocent tradesmen, thieves, aristocrats, criminals, and women of evil fame -- they are herded together like cattle, without straw whereon to lie, without water, without fire, with barely food enough to keep up the last attenuated thread of a miserable existence.
And when the warehouse gets over full, to the Loire with them! -- a hundred or two at a time! Pestilence, dysentery decimates their numbers. Under pretence of hygienic requirements two hundred are flung into the river on the 14th day of December. Two hundred -- many of them women -- crowds of children and a batch of parish priests.
Some there are among Carrier's colleagues -- those up in Paris -- who protest! Such wholesale butchery will not redound to the credit of any revolutionary government -- it even savours of treachery -- it is unpatriotic! There are the emissaries of the National Convention, deputed from Paris to supervise and control -- they protest as much as they dare -- but such men are swept off their feet by the torrent of Carrier's gluttony for blood. Carrier's mission is to "purge the political body of every evil that infests it." Vague and yet precise! He reckons that he has full powers and thinks he can flaunt those powers in the face of those sent to control him. He does it too for three whole months ere he in his turn meets his doom. But for the moment he is omnipotent. He has to make report every week to the Committee of Public Safety, and he sends brief, garbled versions of his doings. 'He is pacifying La Vendée! he is stamping out the remnants of the rebellion! he is purging the political body of every evil that infests it.' Anon he succeeds in getting the emissaries of the National Convention recalled. He is impatient of control. 'They are weak, pusillanimous, unpatriotic! He must have freedom to act for the best.'
After that he remains virtual dictator, with none but obsequious, terrified myrmidons around him: these are too weak to oppose him in any way. And the municipality dare not protest either -- nor the district council -- nor the departmental. They are merely sheep who watch others of their flock being sent to the slaughter.
After that from within his lair the man tiger decides that it is a pity to waste good barges on the cattle: 'Fling them out!' he cries. 'Fling them out! Tie two and two together. Man and woman! criminal and aristo! the theif and the ci-devant duke's daughter! the ci-devant marquis with the slut from the streets! Fling them all out together into the Loire and pour a hail of grape shot above them until the last struggler has disappeared! Equality!' he cries, 'Equality for all! Fraternity! Unity in death!'
His friends call this new invention of his: 'Marriage Républican!' and he is pleased with the mot.
And Republican marriages become the order of the day.
Nantes itself now is akin to a desert -- a desert wherein the air is filled with weird sounds of cries and of moans, of furtive footsteps scurrying away into dark and secluded byways, of musketry and confused noises, of sorrow and of lamentations.
Nantes is a city of the dead -- a city of sleepers. Only Carrier is awake -- thinking and devising and planning shorter ways and swifter, for the extermination of traitors.
In the Hôtel de la Villestreux the tiger has built his lair: at the apex of the island of Feydeau, with the windows of the hotel facing straight down the Loire. From here there is a magnificent view downstream upon the quays which are now deserted and upon the once prosperous port of Nantes.
The staircase of the hotel which leads up to the apartments of the proconsul is crowded every day and all day with suppliants and with petitioners, with the citizens of the household and the members of the Compagnie Marat. But no one has access to the person of the dictator. He stands aloof, apart, hidden from the eyes of the world, a mysterious personality whose word sends hundreds to their death, whose arbitrary will has reduced a once flourishing city to abject poverty and squalor. No tyrant has ever surrounded himself with a greater paraphernalia of pomp and circumstance -- no aristo has ever dwelt in greater luxury: the spoils of churches and chateaux fill the Hôtel de la Villestreux from attic to cellar, gold and silver plate adorn his table, priceless works of art hang upon his walls, he lolls on couches and chairs which have been the resting place of kings. The wholesale spoliation of the entire country-side has filled the demagogue's abode with all that is most sumptuous in the land.
And he himself is far more inaccessible than was le Roi Soleil in the days of his most towering arrogance, than were the Popes in the glorious days of medieval Rome. Jean Baptiste Carrier, the son of a small farmer, the obscure deputy for Cantal in the National Convention, dwells in the Hôtel de la Villestreux as in a stronghold. No one is allowed near him save a few -- a very few -- intimates: his valet, two or three women, Fleury the commander of the Marats, and that strange and abominable youngster, Jacques Lalouëtm about whom the chroniclers of that tragic epoch can tell us so little -- a cynical young braggart, said to be a cousin of Robespierre and the son of a midwife of Nantes, beardless, handsome and vicious: the only human being -- so we are told -- who had any influence over the sinister proconsul: mere hanger-on of Carrier or spy of the National Convention, no one can say -- a malignant personality which has remained an enigma and a mystery to this hour.
None but these few are ever allowed now inside the inner sanctuary wherein dwells and schemes the dictator. Even Lamberty, Fouquet and the others of the staff are kept at arm's length. Martin-Roget, Chauvelin and other strangers are only allowed as far as the ante-room. The door of the inner chamber is left open and they hear the proconsul's voice and see his silhouette pass and repass in front of them, but that is all.
Fear of assassination -- the inevitable destiny of the tyrant -- haunts the man-tiger even within the fastnesses of his lair. Day and night a carriage with four horses stands in readiness on La Petite Hollande, the great, open, tree-bordered Place at the extreme end of the Isle Feydeau and on which give the windows of the Hôtel de la Villestreux. Day and night the carriage is ready -- with coachman on the box and postillion in the saddle, who are relieved every two hours lest they get sleepy or slack -- with luggage in the boot and provisions always kept fresh inside the coach; everything always ready lest something -- a warning from a friend or a threat from an enemy, or merely a sudden access of unreasoning terror, the haunting memory of a bloody act -- should decide the tyrant at a moment's notice to fly from the scenes of his brutalities.
Carrier in the small room which he has fitted up for himself as a sumptuous boudoir, paces up and down just like a wild beast in its cage: and he rubs his large bony hands together with the excitement engendered by his own cruelties, by the success of this wholesale butchery which he has invented and carried through.
There never was an uglier man than Carrier, with that long hatchet-face of his, those abnormally high cheek bones, that stiff, lanky hair, that drooping, flaccid mouth and protruding underlip. Nature seemed to have set herself the task of making the face of a true mirror of the soul -- the dark and hideous soul on which of a surety Satan had already set his stamp. But he is dressed with scrupulous care -- not to say elegance -- and with a display of jewelry the provenance of which is as unjustifiable as that of the works of art which fill his private sanctum in every nook and cranny.
In front of the tall window, heavy curtains of crimson damask are drawn closely together, in order to shut out the light of day: the room is in all but total darkness: for that is the proconsul's latest caprice: that no one shall see him save in semi-obscurity.
Captain Fleury has stumbled into the room, swearing lustily as he barks his shins against the angle of a priceless Louis XV bureau. He has to make report on the work done by the Compagnie Marat. Fifty-three priests from the department of Anjou who have refused to take the new oath of obedience to the government of the Republic. The red-capped Company who tracked them down and arrested them, vow that all these calotins have precious objects -- money, jewelry, gold plate -- concealed about their persons. What is to be done about these things? Are the calotins to be allowed to keep them or to dispose of them for their own profit?
Carrier is highly delighted. What a haul!
'Confiscate everything,' he cries, 'then ship the whole crowd of that pestilential rabble, and don't let me hear another word about them.'
Fleury goes. And that same night fifty-three priests are 'shipped' in accordance with the orders of the proconsul, and Carrier, still rubbing his large bony hands contentedly together, exclaims with glee:
'What a torrent, eh! What a torrent! What a revolution!'
And he sends a letter to Robespierre. And to the Committee of Public Safety he makes report:
'Public spirit in Nantes,' he writes, 'is magnificent: it has risen to the most sublime heights of revolutionary ideals.'
After the departure of Fleury, Carrier suddenly turned to a slender youth, who was standing close by the window, gazing out through the folds of the curtain on the fine vista of the Loire and the quays which stretched out before him.
'Introduce citizen Martin-Roget into the ante-room now, Lalouët,' he said loftily. 'I will hear what he has to say, and citizen Chauvelin may present himself at the same time.'
Young Lalouët lolled across the room, smothering a yawn.
'Why should you trouble about all that rabble?' he said roughly, 'it is nearly dinner-time and you know that the chef hates the soup to be kept waiting.'
'I shall not trouble about them very long,' replied Carrier, who had just started picking his teeth with a tiny gold tool. 'Open the door, boy, and let the two men come.'
Lalouët did as he was told. The door through which he passed he left wide open, he then crossed the ante-room to a further door, threw it open and called in a loud voice:
'Citizen Chauvelin! Citizen Martin-Roget!'
For all the world like the ceremonious audiences at Versailles in the days of the great Louis.
There was sound of eager whisperings, of shuffling of feet, of chairs dragged across the polished floor. Young Lalouët had already and quite unconcernedly turned his back on the two men who, at his call, had entered the room.
Two chairs were placed in front of the door which led to the private sanctuary -- still wrapped in religious obscurity -- where Carrier sat enthroned. The youth curtly pointed to the two chairs, then went back to the inner room. The two men advanced. The full light of midday fell upon them from the tall window on their right -- the pale, grey, colourless light of December. They bowed slightly in the direction of the audience chamber where the vague silhouette of the proconsul was alone visible.
The whole thing was a farce. Martin-Roget held his lips tightly closed together lest a curse or a sneer escaped them. Chauvelin's face was impenetrable -- but it is worthy of note that just one year later when the half-demented tyrant was in his turn brought before the bar of the convention and sentenced to the guillotine, it was citizen Chauvelin's testimony which weighed most heavily against him.
There was silence for a time: Martin-Roget and Chauvelin were waiting for the dictator's word. He sat at his desk with the scanty light, which filtrated between the curtains, immediately behind him, his ungainly form with the high shoulders and mop-like, shaggy hair half swallowed up by the surrounding gloom. He was deliberately keeping the other two men waiting and busied himself with turning over desultorily the papers and writing tools upon his desk, in the intervals of picking at his teeth and muttering to himself all the time as was his wont. Young Lalouët had resumed his post beside the curtained window and he was giving sundry signs of his growing impatience.
At last Carrier spoke:
'And now, citizen Martin-Roget,' he said in tones of that lofty condescension which he loved to affect, 'I am prepared to hear what you have to tell me with regard to the cattle which you brought into our city the other day. Where are the aristos now? and why have they not been handed over to commandant Fleury?'
'The girl,' replied Martin-Roget, who had much ado to keep his vehement temper in check, and who chose for the moment to ignore the second of Carrier's peremptory queries, 'the girl is in lodgings in the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie. The house is kept by my sister, whose lover was hanged four years ago by the ci-devant duc de Kernogan for trapping two pigeons. A dozen or so lads from our old village -- men who worked with my father and others who were my friends -- lodge in my sister's house. They keep a watchful eye over the wench for the sake of the past, for my sake and for the sake of my sister Louise. The ci-devant Kernogan woman is well-guarded. I am satisfied as to that.'
'And where is the ci-devant duc?'
'In the house next door -- a tavern at the sign of the Rat Mort -- a place which is none too reputable, but the landlord -- Lemoine-- is a good patriot and he is keeping a close eye on the aristo for me.'
'And now will you tell me, citizen,' rejoined Carrier with that unctuous suavity which always veiled a threat, 'will you tell me how it comes that you are keeping a couple of traitors alive all this while at the country's expense?'
'At mine,' broke in Martin-Roget curtly.
'At the country's expense,' reiterated the proconsul inflexibly. 'Bread is scarce in Nantes. What traitors eat is stolen from good patriots. If you can afford to fill two mouths at your expense, I can supply you with some that have never done aught but proclaim their adherence to the Republic. You have had these two aristos inside the city nearly a week and --'
'Only three days,' interposed Martin-Roget, 'and you must have patience with me, citizen Carrier. Remember I hae done well by you, by bringing such high game to your bag --'
'Your high game will be no use to me,' retorted the other with a harsh laugh, 'if I am not to have the cooking of it. You have talked of disgrace for the rabble and of your own desire for vengeance over them, but --'
'Wait, citizen,' broke in Martin-Roget firmly, 'let us understand one another. Before I embarked on this business you gave me your promise that no one -- not even you -- would interfere between me and my booty.'
'And no one has done so hitherto to my knowledge, citizen,' rejoined Carrier blandly. 'The Kernogan rabble has been yours to do with what you like -- er -- so far,' he added significantly. 'I said that I would not interfere and I have not done so up to now, even though the pestilential crowd stinks in the nostrils of every good patriot in Nantes. But I don't deny that it was a bargain that you should have a free hand with them . . . for a time, and Jean Baptiste Carrier has never yet gone back on a given word.'
Martin-Roget made no comment on this peroration. He shrugged his broad shoulders and suddenly fell to contemplating the distant landscape. He had turned his head away in order to hide the sneer which curled his lips at the recollection of that 'bargain' struck with the imperious proconsul. It was a matter of five thousand francs which had passed from one pocket to the other and had bound Carrier down to definite promise.
After a brief while Carrier resumed: 'At the same time,' he said, 'my promise was conditional, remember. I want that cattle out of Nantes -- I want the bread they eat -- I want the room they occupy. I can't allow you to play fast and loose with them indefinitely -- a week is quite long enough--'
'Three days,' corrected Martin-Roget once more.
'Well! three days or eight,' rejoined the other roughly. 'Too long in any case. I must be rid of them out of this city or I shall have all the spies of the Convention about mine ears. I am beset with spies, citizen Martin-Roget, yes, even I -- Jean Baptiste Carrier -- the most selfless, the most devoted patriot the Republic has ever known! Mine enemies up in Paris send spies to dog my footsteps, to watch mine every action. They are ready to pounce upon me at the slightest slip, to denounce me, to drag me to their bar -- they have already whetted the knife of the guillotine which is to lay low the head of the finest patriot in France--'
'Hold on! hold on, Jean Baptiste my friend,' here broke in young Lalouët with a sneer, 'we don't want protestations of your patriotism just now. It is nearly dinner time.'
Carrier had been carried away by his own eloquence. At Lalouët's mocking words he pulled himself together: murmured: 'You young viper!' in tones of tigerish affection, and then turned back to Martin-Roget and resumed more calmly:
'They'll be saying that I harbour aristos in Nantes if I keep that Kernogan rabble here any longer. So I must be rid of them, citizen Martin-Roget. . . say within the next four-and-twenty hours . . .' He paused for a moment or two, then added drily: 'That is my last word, and you must see to it. What is it you do want to do with them enfin?'
'I want their death,' replied Martin-Roget with a curse, and he brought his heavy fist crashing down upon the arm of his chair, 'but not a martyr's death, understand? I don't want the pathetic figure of Yvonne Kernogan and her father to remain as a picture of patient resignation in the hearts and minds of every other aristo in the land. I don't want it to excite pity or admiration. Death is nothing for such as they! they glory in it! they are proud to die. The guillotine is their final triumph! What I want for them is shame . . . degradation . . a sensational trial that will cover them with dishonour. . . I want their name dragged in the mire -- themselves an object of derision or of loathing. I want articles in the Moniteur giving account of the trial of the ci-devant duc de Kernogan and his daughter for something that is ignominious and base. I want shame and mud slung at them -- noise and beating of drums to proclaim their dishonour. Noise! noise! that will reach every corner of the land, aye that will reach Coblentz and Germany and England. It is that which they would resent -- the shame of it -- the disgrace of their name!'
'Tshaw!' exclaimed Carrier. 'Why don't you marry the wench, citizen Martin-Roget? That would be disgrace enough for her, I'll warrant,' he added with a loud laugh, enchanted at his witticism.
'I would to-morrow,' replied the other, who chose to ignore the coarse insult, 'if she would consent. That is why I have kept her at my sister's house these three days.'
'Bah! you have no need of a traitor's consent. My consent is sufficient . . . I'll give it if you like. The laws of the Republic permit, nay desire every good patriot to ally himself with an aristo, if he have a mind. And the Kernogan wench face to face with the guillotine -- or worse -- would surely prefer your embraces, citizen, what?'
A deep frown settled between Martin-Roget's glowering eyes, and gave his face a sinister expression.
'I wonder. . .' he muttered between his teeth.
'Then cease wondering, citizen,' retorted Carrier cynically, 'and try our Republican marriage on your Kernogans . . . thief linked aristo, cut-throat to a proud wench . . . and then the Loire! Shame? Dishonour? Fal lal I say! Death, swift and sure and unerring. Nothing better has yet been invented for traitors.'
Martin-Roget shrugged his shoulders.
'You have never known,' he said quietly, 'what it is to hate.'
Carrier uttered an exclamation of impatience.
'Bah!' he said, 'that is all talk and nonsense. Theories, what? Citizen Chauvelin is a living example of the futility of all that rubbish. He too has an enemy it seems whom he hates more thoroughly than any good patriot has ever hated the enemies of the Republic. And hath this deadly hatred availed him, forsooth? He too wanted the disgrace and dishonour of that confounded Englishman whom I would simply have tossed into the Loire long ago, without further process. What is the result? The Englishman is over in England, safe and sound, making long noses at citizen Chauvelin, who has much ado to keep his own head out of the guillotine.'
Martin-Roget once more was silent: a look of sullen obstinacy had settled upon his face.
'You may be right, citizen Carrier,' he muttered after awhile.
'I am always right,' broke in Carrier curtly.
'Exactly . . . but I have your promise.'
'And I'll keep it, as I have said, for another four and twenty hours. Curse you for a mulish fool,' added the proconsul with a snarl, 'what in the d----l's name do you want to do? You have talked a vast deal of rubbish but you have told me nothing to your plans. Have you any . . . that are worthy of my attention?'
Martin-Roget rose from his seat and began pacing up and down the narrow room. His nerves were obviously on edge. It was difficult for any man -- let alone one of his temperament and half-tutored disposition -- to remain calm and deferential in face of the overbearance of this brutal Jack-in-office. Martin-Roget -- himself an upstart -- loathed the offensive self-assertion of that uneducated and bestial parvenu, who had become all-powerful through the sole might of his savagery, and it cost him a mighty effort to keep a violent retort from escaping his lips -- a retort which probably would have cose him his head.
Chauvelin, on the other hand, appeared perfectly unconcerned. He possessed the art of outward placidity to a masterly degree. Throughout all this while he had taken no part in the discussion. He sat silent and all but motionless, facing the darkened room in front of him, as if he had done nothing else in all his life but interview great dictators who chose to keep their sacred persons in the dark. Only from time to time did his slender fingers drum a tattoo on the arm of his chair.
Carrier had resumed his interesting occupation of picking his teeth: his long, thin legs were stretched out before him; from beneath his flaccid lids he shot swift glances upwards, whenever Martin-Roget in his restless pacing crossed and recrossed in frong of the open door. But anon, when the latter came to a halt under the lintel and with his foot almost across the threshold, young Lalouët was upon him in an instant, barring the way to the inner sanctum.
'Keep your distance, citizen,' he said drily, 'no one is allowed to enter here.'
Instinctively Martin-Roget had drawn back -- suddenly awed despite himself by the air of mystery which hung over that darkened room, and by the dim silhouette of the sinister tyrant who at his approach had with equal suddenness cowered in his lair, drawing his limbs together and thrusting his head forward, low down over the desk, like a leopard crouching for a spring. But this spell of awe only lasted a few seconds, during which Martin-Roget's unsteady gaze encountered the half-mocking, wholly supercilious glance of young Lalouët.
The next, he had recovered his presence of mind. But this crowning act of audacious insolence broke the barrier of his self-restraint. An angry oath escaped him.
'Are we,' he exclaimed roughly, 'back in the days of Capet, the tyrant, and of Versailles, that patriots and citizens are treated like menials and obtrusive slaves? Pardieu, citizen Carrier, let me tell you this. . .'
'Pardieu, citizen Martin-Roget,' retorted Carrier with a growl like that of a savage dog, 'let me tell you that for less than two pins I'll throw you into the next barge that will float with open portholes down the Loire. Get out of my presence, you swine, ere I call Fleury to throw you out.'
Martin-Roget at the insult and the threat had become as pale as the linen at his throat: a cold sweat broke out upon his forehead and he passed his hand two or three times across his brow like a man dazed with a sudden and violent blow. His nerves, already overstrained and very much on edge, gave way completely. He staggered and would have measured his length across the floor, but that his hand encountered the back of his chair and he just contrived to sink into it, sick and faint, horror-struck and pallid.
A low cackle -- something like a laugh -- broke from Chauvelin's thin lips. As usual he had witnessed the scene quite unmoved.
'My friend Martin-Roget forgot himself for the moment, citizen Carrier,' he said suavely, 'already he is ready to make amends.'
Jacques Lalouët looked down for a moment with infinite scorn expressed in his fine eyes, on the presumptuous creature who had dared to defy the omnipotent representative of the People. Then he turned on his heel, but he did not go far this time: he remained standing close beside the door -- the terrier guarding his master.
Carrier laughed loud and long. It was a hideous, strident laugh which had not a tone of merriment in it.
'Wake up, friend Martin-Roget,' he said harshly, 'I bear no malice: I am a good dog when I am treated the right way. But if any one pulls my tail or treads on my paws, why! I snarl and growl of course. If the offense is repeated . . . I bite . . . remember that; and now let us resume our discourse, though I confess I am getting tired of your Kernogan rabble.'
While the great man spoke, Martin-Roget had succeeded in pullin himself together. His throat felt parched, his hands hot and moist: he was like a man who had been stumbling along a road in the dark and been suddenly pulled up on the edge of a yawning abyss into which he had all but fallen. With a few harsh words, with a monstrous insult Carrier had made him feel the gigantic power which could hurl any man from the heights of self-assurance and of ambition to the lowest depths of degradation: he had shown him the glint of steel upon the guillotine.
He had been hit as with a sledge-hammer -- the blow hurt terribly, for it had knocked all his self-esteem into nothingness and pulverized his self-conceit. It had in one moment turned him into a humble and cringing sycophant.
'I had no mind,' he began tentatively, 'to give offence. My thoughts were bent on the Kernogans. They are a find haul for us both, citizen Carrier, and I worked hard and long to obtain their confidence over in England and to induce them to come with me to Nantes.'
'No one denies that you have done well,' retorted Carrier gruffly and not yet wholly pacified. 'If the haul had not been worth having you would have received no help from me.'
'I have shown my gratitude for your help, citizen Carrier. I would show it again. . . more substantially if you desire . . .'
He spoke slowly and quite deferentially but the suggestion was obvious. Carrier looked up into his face: the light of measureless cupidity -- the cupidity of the coarse-grained, enriched peasant -- glittered in his pale eyes. It was by a great effort of will that he succeeded in concealing his eagerness beneath his habitual air of lofty condescension:
'Eh? What?' he queried airily.
'If another five thousand francs is of any use to you . . .'
'You seem passing rich, Martin-Roget,' sneered Carrier.
'I have slaved and saved for four years. What I have amassed I will sacrifice for the complettion of my revenge.'
'Well!' rejoined Carrier with an expressive wave of the hand, 'it certainly is not good for a pure-minded republican to own too much wealth. Have we not fought,' he continued with a grandiloquent gesture, 'for equality of fortune as well as of privileges. . .'
A sardonic laugh from young Lalouët broke in on the proconsul's eloquent effusion.
Carrier swore as was his wont, but after a second or two he began again more quietly:
'I will accept a further six thousand francs from you, citizen Martin-Roget, in the name of the Republic and all her needs. The Republic of France is up in arms against the entire world. She hath need of men, of arms, of . . . '
'Oh! cut that,' interposed young Lalouët roughly.
But the over-vain, high and mighty despot who was ready to lash out with unbridled fury against the slightest show of disrespect on the part of any other man, only laughed at the boy's impudence.
'Curse you, you young viper,' he said with that rude familiarity which he seemed to reserve for the boy, 'you presume too much on my forbearance. These children you know, citizen . . . Name of a dog!' he added roughly, 'we are wasting time! What was I saying . . .?'
'That you would take six thousand francs,' replied Martin-Roget curtly, 'in return for further help in the matter of the Kernogans.'
'Why, yes!' rejoined Carrier blandly, 'I was forgetting. But I'll show you what a good dog I am. I'll help you with those Kernogans . . . but you mistook my words, citizen: 'tis ten thousand francs you must pour into the coffers of the Republic, for her servants will have to be placed at the disposal of your private schemes of vengeance.'
'Ten thousand francs is a large sum,' said Martin-Roget. 'Let me hear what you will do for me for that.'
He had regained something of his former complacency. The man who buys -- be it goods, consciences or services -- is always for the moment master of the man who sells. Carrier, despite his dictatorial ways, felt this disadvantage, no doubt, for his tone was more bland, his manner less curt. Only young Jacques Lalouët stood by -- like a snarling terrier -- still arrogant and still disdainful -- the master of the situation -- seeing that neither schemes of vengeance nor those of corruption had ruffled his self-assurance. He remained beside the door, ready to pounce on either of the two intruders if they showed the slightest sign of forgetting the majesty of the great proconsul.
'I told you just now, citizen Martin-Roget,' resumed Carrier after a brief pause, 'and I suppose you knew it already, that I am surrounded with spies.'
'Spies, citizen?' murmured Martin-Roget, somewhat taken aback by this sudden irrelevance. 'I didn't know . . . I imagine . . . Any one in your position . . .'
'That's just it,' broke in Carrier roughly. 'My position is envied by those who are less competent, less patriotic than I am. Nantes is swarming with spies. Mine enemies in Paris are working against me. They want to undermine the confidence which the National Convention reposes in her accredited representative.'
'Preposterous,' ejaculated young Lalouët solemnly.
'Well!' rejoined Carrier with a savage oath, 'you would have thought that the Convention would be only too thankful to get a strong man at the head of affairs in this hotbed of treason and of rebellion. You would have thought that it was no one's affair to interfere with the manner in which I administer the powers that have been given me. I command in Nantes, what? Yet some busy-bodies up in Paris, some fools, seem to think that we are going too fast in Nantes. They have become weaklings over there since Marat has gone. It seems that they have heard rumours of our flat-bottomed barges and of our fine Republican marriages: apparently they disapprove of both. They don't realize that we have to purge an entire city of every kind of rabble -- traitors as well as criminals. They don't understand my aspirations, my ideals,' he added loftily and with a wide, sweeping gesture of his arm, 'which is to make Nantes a model city, to free her from the taint of crime and of treachery, and . . .'
An impatient exclamation from young Lalouët once again broke in on Carrier's rhetoric, and Martin-Roget was able to slip in the query which had been hovering on his lips:
'And is this relevant, citizen Carrier,' he asked, 'to the subject which we have been discussing?'
'It is,' replied Carrier drily, 'as you will see in a moment. Learn then, that it has been my purpose for some time to silence mine enemies by sending to the National Convention a tangible reply to all the accusations which have been levelled against me. It is my purpose to explain to the Assembly my reasons for mine actions in Nantes, my Drownages, my Republican marriages, all the coercive measures which I have been forced to take in order to purge the city from all that is undesirable.'
'And think you, citizen Carrier,' queried Martin-Roget without the slightest trace of a sneer, 'that up in Paris they will understand your explanations?'
'Yes! they will -- they must when they realize that everything that I have done has been necessitated by the exigencies of public safety.'
'They will be slow to realize that,' mused the other. 'The National Convention to-day is not what the Constitutional Assembly was in '92. It has become soft and sentimental. Many there are who will disapprove of your doings . . . Robespierre talks loftily of the dignity of the Republic . . . her impartial justice . . . The Girondins. . .'
Carrier interposed with a coarse imprecation. He suddenly leaned forward, sprawling right across the desk. A shaft of light from between the damask curtains caught the end of his nose and the tip of his protruding chin, distorting his face and making it seem grotesque as well as hideous in the dim light. He appeared excited and inflated with vanity. He always gloried in the atrocities which he committed, and though he professed to look with contempt on every one of his colleagues, he was always glad of an opportunity to display his inventive powers before them, and to obtain their fulsome eulogy.
'I know well enough what they talk about in Paris,' he said, 'but I have an answer -- a substantial, definite answer for all their rubbish. Dignity of the Republic? Bah! Impartial justice? 'Tis force, strength, Spartan vigour that we want . . . and I'll show them. . . Listen to my plan, citizen Martin-Roget, and see how it will work in with yours. My idea is to collect together all the most disreputable and notorious evil-doers of this city . . . there are plenty in the entrepôt at the present moment, and there are plenty more still at large in the streets of Nantes -- thieves, malefactors, forgers of State bonds, assassins and women of evil fame . . .and to send them in a batch to Paris to appear before the Committee of Public Safety, whilst I will send to my colleagues there a letter couched in terms of gentle reproach: "See!" I shall say, "what I have to content with in Nantes. See! the moral pestilence that infests the city. These evil-doers are but a few among the hundreds and thousands of whom I am vainly trying to purge this city which you have entrusted to my care!" They won't know how to deal with the rabble,' he continued with his harsh strident laugh. 'They may send them to the guillotine wholesale or deport them to Cayenne, and they will have to give them some semblance of a trial in any case. But they will have to admit that my severe measures are justified, and in future, I imagine, they will leave me more severly alone.'
'If as you say,' urged Martin-Roget, 'the National Convention give your crowd a trial, you will have to produce some witnesses.'
'So I will,' retorted Carrier cynically. 'So I will. Have I not said that I wil round up all the most noted evil-doers in the town. There are plenty of them I assure you. Lately, my Company Marat have not greatly troubled about them. After Savenay there was such a crowd of rebels to deal with, there was no room in our prisons for malefactors as well. But we can easily lay our hands on a couple of hundred or so, and members of the municipality or of the district council, or tradespeople of substance in the city will only be too glad to b rid of them, and will testify against those that were actually caught red-handed. Not one but has suffered from the pestilential rabble that has infested the streets at night, and lately I have been pestered with complaints of all these night-birds -- men and women and . . .'
Suddenly he paused. He had caught Martin-Roget's feverish gaze fixed excitedly upon him. Whereupon he leaned back in his chair, threw his head back and broke into loud and immoderate laughter.
'By the devil and all his myrmidons, citizen!' he said, as soon as he had recovered his breath, 'meseems you have tumbled to my meaning as a pig into a heap of garbage. Is not ten thousand francs far too small a sum to pay for such a perfect realization of all your dreams? We'll send the Kernogan girl and her father to Paris with the herd, what? . . . . I promise you that such filth and mud will be thrown on them and on their precious name that no one will care to bear it for centuries to come.'
Martin-Roget of a truth had much ado to control his own excitement. As the proconsul unfolded his infamous plan, he had at once seen as in a vision the realization of all his hopes. What more awful humiliation, what more dire disgrace could be devised for proud Kernogan and his daughter than being herded together with the vilest scum that could be gathered together among the flotsam and jetsam of the population of a seaport town. What more perfect realization could there be for the ignominious death of Jean Adet the miller?
Martin-Roget leaned forward in his chair. The hideous figure of Carrier was no longer hideous to him. He saw in that misshapen, gawky form the very embodiment of the god of vengeance, the wielder of the flail of retributive justice which was about to strike the guilty at last.
'You are right, citizen Carrier,' he said, and his voice was thick and hoarse with excitement. He rested his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. He hammered his nails against his teeth. 'That was exactly in my mind while you spoke.'
'I am always right,' retorted Carrier loftily. 'No one knows better than I do how to deal with traitors.'
'And how is the whole thing to be accomplished? The wench is in my sister's house at present . . . the father is in the Rat Mort . . .'
"And the Rat Mort is an excellent place . . . I know of none better. It is one of the worst-famed houses in the whole of Nantes . . . the meeting-place of all the vagabonds, the thieves and the cut-throats of the city.'
'Yes! I know that to my cost. My sister's house is next door to it. At night the street is not safe for decent females to be abroad: and though there is a platoon of Marats on guard at Le Bouffay close by, they do nothing to free the neighbourhood of that pest.'
'Bah!' retorted Carrier with cynical indifference, 'they have more important quarry to net. Rebels and traitors swarm in Nantes, what? Commandant Fleury has had no time hitherto to waste on mere cut-throats, although I had thoughts before now of razing the place to the ground. Citizen Lamberty has his lodgings on the other side and he does nothing but complain of the brawls that go on there o' nights. Sure it is that while a stone of the Rat Mort remains standing all the night-hawks of Nantes will congregate around it and brew mischief there which is no good to me and no good to the Republic.'
'Yes! I know all about the Rat Mort. I found a night's shelter there four years ago when . . .'
'When the ci-devant duc de Kernogan was busy hanging your father -- the miller -- for a crime which he never committed. Well then, citizen Martin-Roget,' continued Carrier with one of his hideous leers, 'since you know the Rat Mort so well what say you to your fair and stately Yvonne de Kernogan and her father being captured there in the company of the lowest scum of the population of Nantes?'
'You mean . . .?' murmured Martin-Roget, who had become livid with excitement.
'I mean that my Marats have orders to raid some of the haunts of our Nantese cut-throats, and that they may as well begin to-night and with the Rat Mort. They will make a descent on the house and a thorough perquisition, and every person -- man, woman and child -- found on the premises will be arrested and sent with a batch of malefactors to Paris, there to be tried as felons and criminals and deported to Cayenne where they will, I trust, rot as convicts in that pestilential climate. Think you,' concluded the odious creature with a sneer, 'that when put face to face with the alternative, your Kernogan wench will still refuse to become the wife of a fine patriot like yourself?'
'I don't know,' murmured Martin-Roget. 'I . . . I . . .'
'But I do know,' broke in Carrier roughly, 'that ten thousand francs is far too little to pay for so brilliant a realization of all one's hopes. Ten thousand francs? 'Tis an hundred thousand you should give to show your gratitude.'
Martin-Roget rose and stretched his large, heavy figure to its full height. He was at great pains to conceal the utter contempt which he felt for the abominable wretch before whom he was forced to cringe.
'You shall have ten thousand francs, citizen Carrier,' he said slowly; 'it is all that I possess in the world now -- the last remaining fragment of a sum of twenty-five thousand francs which I earned and scraped together for the past four years. You have had five thousand francs already. And you shall have the other ten. I do not grudge it. If twenty years of my life were any use to you, I would give you that, in exchange for the help you are giving me in what means far more than life to me.'
The proconsul laughed and shrugged his shoulders -- of a truth he thought citizen Martin-Roget an awful fool.
'Very well then,' he said, 'we will call the matter settled. I confess that it amuses me, although remember that I have warned you. With all these aristos, I believe in the potency of my barges rather than in your elaborate schemes. Still! it shall never be said that Jean Baptiste Carrier has left a friend in the lurch.'
'I am grateful for your help, citizen Carrier,' said Martin-Roget coldly. Then he added slowly, as if reviewing the situation in his own mind: 'To-night, you say?'
'Yes. To-night. My Marats under the command of citizen Fleury will make a descent upon the Rat Mort. Those shall be my orders. The place will be swept clean of every man, woman and child who is inside. If your two Kernogans are there . . . well!' he said with a cynical laught and a shrug of his shoulders, 'they can be sent up to Paris with the rest of the herd.'
'The dinner bell has gone long ago,' here interposed young Lalouët drily, 'the soup will be stone-cold and the chef red-hot with anger.'
'You are right, citizen Lalouët,' said Carrier as he leaned back in his chair once more and stretched out his long legs at his ease. 'We have wasted far too much time already over the affairs of a couple of aristos, who ought to have been at the bottom of the Loire a week ago. The audience is ended,' he added airily, and he made a gesture of overweening condescension, for all the world like the one wherewith the Grand Monarque was wont to dismiss his courtiers.
Chauvelin rose too and quietly turned to the door. He had not spoken a word for the past half-hour, ever since in fact he had put in a conciliatory word on behalf of his impetuous colleague. Whether he had taken an active interest in the conversation or not it were impossible to say. But now, just as he was ready to go, and young Lalouët prepared to close the doors of the audience chamber, something seemed suddenly to occur to him and he called somewhat peremptorily to the young man.
'One moment, citizen,' he said.
'What is it now?' queried the youth insolently, and from his fine eyes there shot a glance of contempt on the meagre figure of the once powerful Terrorist.
'About the Kernogan wench,' continued Chauvelin. 'She will have to be conveyed some time before night to the tavern next door. There may be agencies at work on her behalf . . .'
'Agencies?' broke in the boy gruffly. 'What agencies?'
'Oh!' said Chauvelin vaguely, 'we all know that aristos have powerful friends these days. It will not be over safe to take the girl across after dark from one house to another . . . the alley is badly lighted: the wench will not go willingly. She might scream and create a disturbance and draw . . . er. . . those same unknown agencies to her rescue. I think a body of Marats should be told off to convey her to the Rat Mort . . .'
Young Lalouët shrugged his shoulders.
'That's your affair,' he said curtly, 'Eh, Carrier?' And he glanced over his shoulder at the proconsul, who at once assented.
Martin-Roget -- struck by his colleague's argument -- would have interposed, but Carrier broke in with one of his uncontrolled outbursts of fury.
'Ah ça,' he exclaimed, 'enough of this now. Citizen Lalouët is right and I have done enough for you already. If you want the Kernogan wench to be at the Rat Mort, you must see to getting her there yourself. She is next door, what? I won't have anything to do with it and I won't have my Marats implicated in the affair either. Name of a dog! have I not told you that I am beset with spies. It would of a truth be a climax if I was denounced as having dragged aristos to a house of ill-fame and then had them arrested there as malefactors! Now out with you! I have had enough of this! If your rabble is at the Rat Mort to-night, they shall be arrested with all hte other cut-throats. That is my last word. The rest is your affair. Lalouët! the door!'
And without another word, and without listening to further protests from Martin-Roget or Chauvelin, Jacques Lalouët closed the doors of the audience chamber in their face.
Outside on the landing, Martin-Roget swore a violent, all comprehensive oath.
'To think that we are under the heel of that skunk!' he said.
'And that in the pursuit of our own ends we have need of his help!' added Chauvelin with a sigh.
'If it were not for that . . . And even now,' continued Martin-Roget moodily, 'I doubt what I can do. Yvonne de Kernogan will not follow me willingly either to the Rat Mort or elsewhere, and if I am not to have her conveyed by the guard . . .'
He paused and swore again. His companion's silence appeared to irritate him.
'What do you advise me to do, citizen Chauvelin?' he asked.
'For the moment,' replied Chauvelin imperturbably, 'I should advise you to join me in a walk along the quay as far as Le Bouffay. I have work to see to inside the building and the north-westerly wind is sure to be of good counsel.'
An angry retort hovered on Martin-Roget's lips, but after a second or two he succeeded in holding his irascible temper in check. He gave a quick sigh of impatience.
'Very well,' he said curtly. 'Let us to Le Bouffay by all means. I have much to think on, and as you say the north-westerly wind may blow away the cobwebs which for the nonce do o'ercloud my brain.'
And the two men wrapped their mantles closely round their shoulders, for the air was keen. Then they descended the staircase of the hotel and went out into the street.