Citizen-Deputy Déroulède had been privately interviewed by the Committee of Public Safety, and temporarily allowed to go free.
The brief proceedings had been quite private, the people of Paris were not to know as yet that their favourite was under a cloud. When he had answered all the questions put to him, and Merlin--just returned from his errand at the Luxembourg Prison--had given his version of the domiciliary visitation in the Citizen-Deputy's house, the latter was briefly told that for the moment the Republic had no grievance against him.
But he knew quite well what that meant. He would be henceforth under suspicion, watched incessantly, as a mouse is by the cat, and pounced upon the moment time would be considered propitious for his final downfall.
The inevitable waning of his popularity would be noted by keen, jealous eyes; and Déroulède, with his sure knowledge of mankind and of character, knew well enough that his popularity was bound to wane sooner or later, as all such ephemeral things do.
In the meanwhile, during the short respite which his enemies would leave him, his one thought and duty would be to get his mother and Anne Mie safely out of the country.
He thought of her, and wondered what had happened. As he walked swiftly across the narrow footbridge, and reached the other side of the river, the events of the past few hours rushed upon his memory with terrible, overwhelming force.
A bitter ache filled his heart at the remembrance of her treachery. The baseness of it all was so appalling. He tried to think if he had ever wronged her; wondered if perhaps she loved some one else, and wished him out of her way.
But then, he had been so humble, so unassuming in his love. He had arrogated nothing unto himself, asked for nothing, demanded nothing in virtue of his protecting powers over her.
He was torturing himself with this awful wonderment of why she had treated him thus.
Out of revenge for her brother's death--that was the only explanation he could find, the only palliation for her crime.
He knew nothing of her oath to her father, and, of course, had never heard of the sad history of this young, sensitive girl placed in one terrible moment between her dead brother and her demented father. He only thought of common, sordid revenge for a sin he had been practically forced to commit.
And how he had loved her!
Yes, loved--for that was in the past now. She had ceased to be a saint or a madonna; she had fallen from her pedestal so low that he could not find the way to descend and grope after the fragments of his ideal.
At his own door he was met by Anne Mie in tears.
"She has gone," murmured the young girl. "I feel as if I had murdered her."
"Gone? Who? Where?" queried Déroulède rapidly, an icy feeling of terror gripping him by the heartstrings.
"Juliette has gone," replied Anne Mie; "those awful brutes took her away."
"Directly after you left. That man Merlin found some ashes and scraps of paper in her room--"
"Yes; and a torn letter-case."
"She said that they were love-letters, which she had been burning for fear you should see them."
"She said so? Anne Mie, Anne Mie, are you quite sure?"
It was all so horrible, and he did not quite understand it all; his brain, which was usually so keen and so active, refused him service at this terrible juncture.
"Yes; I am quite sure," continued Anne Mie, in the midst of her tears. "And oh! that awful Merlin said some dastardly things. But she persisted in her story, that she had--another lover. Oh, Paul, I am sure it is not true. I hated her because--because--you loved her so, and I mistrusted her, but I cannot believe that she was quite as base as that."
"No, no, child," he said in a toneless, miserable voice; "she was not so base as that. Tell me more of what she said."
"She said very little else. But Merlin asked her whether she had denounced you so as to get you out of the way. He hinted that--that--"
"That I was her lover too?"
"Yes," murmured Anne Mie.
She hardly liked to look at him; the strong face had become hard and set in its misery.
"And she allowed them to say all this?" he asked at last.
"Yes. And she followed them without a murmur, as Merlin said she would have to answer before the Committee of Public Safety, for having fooled the representatives of the people."
"She'll answer for it with her life," murmured Déroulède. "And with mine!" he added half audibly.
Anne Mie did not hear him; her pathetic little soul was filled with a great, an overwhelming pity for Juliette and for Paul.
"Before they took her away," she said, placing her thin, delicate-looking hands on his arm, "I ran to her, and bade her farewell. The soldiers pushed me roughly aside; but I contrived to kiss her--and then she whispered a few words to me."
"Yes? What were they?"
"'It was an oath,' she said. 'I swore it to my father and to my dead brother. Tell him,'" repeated Anne Mie slowly.
Now he understood, and oh! how he pitied her. How terribly she must have suffered in her poor, harassed soul when her noble, upright nature fought against this hideous treachery.
That she was true and brave in herself, of that Déroulède had no doubt. And now this awful sin upon her conscience, which must be causing her endless misery.
And, alas! the atonement would never free her from the load of self-condemnation.
She had elected to pay with her life for her treason against him and his family. She would be arraigned before a tribunal which would inevitably condemn her. Oh! the pity of it all!
One moment's passionate emotion, a lifelong superstition and mistaken sense of duty, and now this endless misery, this terrible atonement of a wrong that could never be undone.
And she had never loved him!
That was the true, the only sting which he knew now; it rankled more than her sin, more than her falsehood, more than the shattering of his ideal.
With a passionate desire for his safety, she had sacrificed herself in order to atone for the material evil which she had done.
But there was the wreck of his hopes and of his dreams!
Never until now, when he had irretrievably lost her, did Déroulède realize how great had been his hopes; how he had watched day after day for a look in her eyes, a word from her lips, to show him that she too--his unattainable saint--would one day come to earth, and respond to his love.
And now and then, when her beautiful face lighted up at the sight of him, when she smiled a greeting to him on his return from his work, when she looked with pride and admiration on him from the public bench in the assemblies of the Convention--then he had begun to hope, to think, to dream.
And it was all a sham! A mask to hide the terrible conflict that was raging within her soul, nothing more.
She did not love him, of that he felt convinced. Man-like, he did notunderstand to the full that great and wonderful enigma, which has puzzled the world since primeval times: a woman's heart.
The eternal contradictions which go to make up the complex nature of an emotional woman were quite incomprehensible to him. Juliette had betrayed him to serve her own sense of what was just and right, her revenge and her oath. Therefore she did not love him.
It was logic, sound common-sense, and, aided by his own diffidence where women were concerned, it seemed to him irrefutable.
To a man like Paul Déroulède, a man of thought, of purpose, and of action, the idea of being false to the thing loved, of hate and love being interchangeable, was absolutely foreign and unbelievable. He had never hated the thing he loved or loved the thing he hated. A man's feelings in these respects are so much less complex, so much less contradictory.
Would a man betray his friend? No--never. He might betray his enemy, the creature he abhorred, whose downfall would cause him joy. But his friend? The very idea was repugnant, impossible to an upright nature.
Juliette's ultimate access of generosity in trying to save him, when she was at last brought face to face with the terrible wrong she had committed, that he put down to one of those noble impulses of which he knew her soul to be fully capable, and even then his own diffidence suggested that she did it more for the sake of his mother or for Anne Mie rather than for him.
Therefore what mattered life to him now? She was lost to him for ever, whether he succeeded in snatching her from the guillotine or not. He had but little hope to save her, but he would not owe his life to her.
Anne Mie, seeing him wrapped in his own thoughts, had quietly withdrawn. Her own good sense told her already that Paul Déroulède's first step would be to try and get his mother out of danger, and out of the country, while there was yet time.
So, without waiting for instructions, she began that same evening to pack up her belongings and those of Madame Déroulède.
There was no longer any hatred in her heart against Juliette. Where Paul Déroulède had failed to understand, there Anne Mie had already made a guess. She firmly believed that nothing now could save Juliette from death, and a great feeling of tenderness had crept into her heart for the woman whom she had looked upon as an enemy and a rival.
She too had learnt in those brief days the great lesson that revenge belongs to God alone.