It was close upon midnight.
The place had become suffocatingly hot; the fumes of rank tobacco, of rancid butter, and of raw spirits hung like a vapour in mid-air.
The principal room in the "Auberge du Cheval Borgne" had been used for the past five years now as the chief meeting-place of the ultra-sansculotte party of the Republic.
The house itself was squalid and dirty, up one of those mean streets which, by their narrow way and shelving buildings, shut out sun, air, and light from their miserable inhabitants.
The Cheval Borgne was one of the most wretched-looking dwellings in this street of evil repute. The plaster was cracked, the walls themselves seemed bulging outward, preparatory to a final collapse. The ceilings were low, and supported by beams black with age and dirt.
At one time it had been celebrated for its vast cellarage, which had contained some rare old wines. And in the days of the Grand Monarch young bucks were wont to quit the gay salons of the ladies, in order to repair to the Cheval Borgne for a night's carouse.
In those days the vast cellarage was witness of many a dark encounter, of many a mysterious death; could the slimy walls have told their own tale, it would have been one which would have put to shame the wildest chronicles of M. Vidocq.
Now it was no longer so.
Things were done in broad daylight on the Place de la Révolution: there was no need for dark, mysterious cellars, in which to accomplish deeds of murder and of revenge.
Rats and vermin of all sorts worked their way now in the underground portion of the building. They ate up each other, and held their orgies in the cellars, whilst men did the same sort of thing in the rooms above.
It was a club of Equality and Fraternity. Any passer-by was at liberty to enter and take part in the debates, his only qualification for this temporary membership being an inordinate love for Madame la Guillotine.
It was from the sordid rooms of the Cheval Borgne that most of the denunciations had gone forth which led but to the one inevitable ending--death.
They sat in conclave here, some twoscore or so at first, the rabid patriots of this poor, downtrodden France. They talked of Liberty mostly, with many oaths and curses against the tyrants, and then started a tyranny, an autocracy, ten thousand times more awful than any wielded by the dissolute Bourbons.
And this was the temple of Liberty, this dark, damp, evil-smelling brothel, with its narrow, cracked window-panes, which let in but an infinitesimal fraction of air, and that of the foulest, most unwholesome kind.
The floor was of planks roughly put together; now they were worm-eaten, bare, save for a thick carpet of greasy dust, which deadened the sound of booted feet. The place only boasted of a couple of chairs, both of which had to be propped against the wall lest they should break, and bring the sitter down upon the floor; otherwise a number of empty wine barrels did duty for seats, and rough deal boards on broken trestles for tables.
There had once been a paper on the walls, now it hung down in strips, showing the cracked plaster beneath. The whole place had a tone of yellowish-grey grime all over it, save where, in the centre of the room, on a rough double post, shaped like the guillotine, a scarlet cap of Liberty gave a note of lurid colour to the dismal surroundings.
On the walls here and there the eternal device, so sublime in conception, so sordid in execution, recalled the aims of the so-called club: "Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité, sinon la Mort."
Below the device, in one or two corners of the room, the wall was further adorned with rough charcoal sketches, mostly of an obscene character, the work of one of the members of the club, who had chosen this means of degrading his art.
To-night the assembly had been reduced to less than a score.
Even according to the dictates of these apostles of Fraternity: "la guillotine va toujours"--the guillotine goes on always. She had become the most potent factor in the machinery of government, of this great Revolution, and she had been daily, almost hourly fed through the activity of this nameless club, which held its weird and awesome sittings in the dank coffee-room of the Cheval Borgne.
The number of the active members had been reduced. Like the rats in the cellars below, they had done away with one another, swallowed one another up, torn each other to pieces in this wild rage for a Utopian fraternity.
Marat, founder of the organization, had been murdered by a girl's hand; but Chardon, Manuel, Osselin had gone the usual way, denounced by their colleagues, Rabaut, Custine, Bison, who in their turn were sent to the guillotine by those more powerful, perhaps more eloquent, than themselves.
It was merely a case of who could shout the loudest at an assembly of the National Convention.
"La guillotine va toujours!"
After the death of Marat, Merlin became the most prominent member of the club--he and Foucquier-Tinville, his bosom friend, Public Prosecutor, and the most bloodthirsty homicide of this homicidal age.
Bosom friends both, yet they worked against one another, undermining each other's popularity, whispering persistently, one against the other: "He is a traitor!" It had become just a neck-to-neck race between them towards the inevitable goal--the guillotine.
Foucquier-Tinville is in the ascendant for the moment. Merlin had been given a task which he had failed to accomplish. For days now, weeks even, the debates of this noble assembly had been chiefly concerned with the downfall of Citizen-Deputy Déroulède. His popularity, his calm security in the midst of this reign of terror and anarchy, had been a terrible thorn in the flesh of these rabid Jacobins.
And now the climax had been reached. An anonymous denunciation had roused the hopes of these sanguinary patriots. It all sounded perfectly plausible. To try and save that traitor, Marie Antoinette, the widow of Louis Capet, was just the sort of scheme that would originate in the brain of Paul Déroulède.
He had always been at heart an aristocrat, and the feeling of chivalry for a persecuted woman was only the outward signs of his secret adherence to the hated class.
Merlin had been sent to search the Deputy's house for proofs of the latter's guilt.
And Merlin had come back empty-handed.
The arrest of a female aristo--the probably mistress of Déroulède, who obviously had denounced him--was but small compensation for the failure of the more important capture.
As soon as Merlin joined his friends in the low, ill-lit, evil-smelling room he realized at once that there was a feeling of hostility against him.
Tinville, enthroned on one of the few chairs of which the Cheval Borgne could boast, was surrounded by a group of surly adherents.
On the rough trestles a number of glasses, half filled with raw potato-spirit, gave the keynote to the temper of the assembly.
All those present were dressed in the black-shag spencer, the seedy black breeches, and down-at-heel boots, which had become recognized as the distinctive uniform of the sansculotte party. The inevitable Phrygian cap, with its tricolour cockade, appeared on the heads of all those present, in various stages of dirt and decay.
Tinville had chosen to assume a sarcastic tone with regard to his whilom bosom friend, Merlin. Leaning both elbows on the table, he was picking his teeth with a steel fork, and in the intervals of this interesting operation, gave forth his views on the broad principles of patriotism.
Those who sat round him felt that his star was in the ascendant, and assumed the position of satellites. Merlin, as he entered, had grunted a sullen "Good-eve," and sat himself down in a remote corner of the room.
His greeting had been responded to with a few jeers and a good many dark, threatening looks. Tinville himself had bowed to him with mock sarcasm and an unpleasant leer.
One of the patriots, a huge fellow, almost a giant, with heavy, coarse fists and broad shoulders that obviously suggested coal-heaving, had, after a few satirical observations, dragged one of the empty wine barrels to Merlin's table, and sat down opposite him.
"Take care, Citizen Lenoir," said Tinville, with an evil laugh, "Citizen-Deputy Merlin will arrest you instead of Deputy Déroulède, whom he has allowed to slip through his fingers."
"Nay; I've no fear," replied Lenoir, with an oath. "Citizen Merlin is too much of an aristo to hurt anyone; his hands are too clean; he does not care to do the dirty work of the Republic. Isn't that so, Monsieur Merlin?" added the giant, with a mock bow, and emphasizing the appellation which had fallen into complete disuse in these days of equality.
"My patriotism is too well known," said Merlin roughly, "to fear any attacks from jealous enemies; and as for my search in the Citizen-Deputy's house this afternoon, I was told to find proofs against him, and I found none."
Lenoir expectorated on the floor, crossed his dark hairy arms over the table, and said quietly:
"Real patriotism, as the true Jacobin understands it, makes the proofs it wants and leaves nothing to chance."
A chorus of hoarse murmurs of "Vive la Liberté!" greeted this harangue of the burly coal-heaver.
Feeling that he had gained the ear and approval of the gallery, Lenoir seemed, as it were, to spread himself out, to arrogate to himself the leadership of this band of malcontents, who, disappointed in their lust for Déroulède's downfall, were ready to exult over that of Merlin.
"You were a fool, Citizen Merlin," said Lenoir with slow significance, "not to see that the woman was playing her own game."
Merlin had become livid under the grime on his face. With this ill-kempt sansculotte giant in front of him, he almost felt as if he were already arraigned before that awful, merciless tribunal, to which he had dragged so many innocent victims.
Already he felt, as he sat ensconced behind a table in the far corner of the room, that he was a prisoner at the bar, answering for his failure with his life.
His own laws, his own theories now stood in bloody array against him. Was it not he who had framed the indictments against General Custine for having failed to subdue the cities of the south? against General Westermand and Brunet and Beauharnais for having failed and failed and failed?
And now it was his turn.
These bloodthirsty jackals had been cheated of their prey; they would tear him to pieces in compensation for their loss.
"How could I tell?" he murmured roughly, "the woman had denounced him."
A chorus of angry derision greeted this feeble attempt at defence.
"By your own law, Citizen-Deputy Merlin," commented Tinville sarcastically, "it is a crime against the Republic to be suspected of treason. It is evident, however, that it is quite one thing to frame a law and quite another to obey it."
"What could I have done?"
"Hark at the innocent!" rejoined Lenoir, with a sneer. "What could he have done? Patriots, friends, brothers, I ask you, what could he have done?"
The giant had pushed the wine cask aside, it rolled away from under him, and in the fullness of his contempt for Merlin and his importance, he stood up before them all, strong in his indictment against treasonable incapacity.
"I ask you," he repeated, with a loud oath, "what any patriot would do, what you or I would have done, in the house of a man whom we all know is a traitor to the Republic? Brothers, friends, Citizen-Deputy Merlin found a heap of burnt paper in a grate, he found a letter-case which had obviously contained important documents, and he asks us what he could do!"
"Déroulède is too important a man to be tried without proofs. The whole mob of Paris would have turned on us for having arraigned him, for having dared lay hands upon his sacred person."
"Without proofs? Who said there were no proofs?" queried Lenoir.
"I found the burnt papers and torn letter-case in the woman's room. She owned that they were love-letters, and that she had denounced Déroulède in order to be rid of him."
"Then let me tell you, Citizen-Deputy Merlin, that a true patriot would have found those papers in Déroulède's, and not the woman's room; that in the hands of a faithful servant of the Republic those documents would not all have been destroyed, for he would have 'found' one letter addressed to the Widow Capet, which would have proved conclusively that Citizen-Deputy Déroulède was a traitor. That is what a true patriot would have done--what I would have done. Pardi! since Déroulède is so important a personage, since we must all put on kid gloves when we lay hands upon him, then let us fight him with other weapons. Are we aristocrats that we should hesitate to play the part of jackal to his cunning fox? Citizen-Deputy Merlin, are you the son of some ci-devant duke or prince that you dared not forge a document which would bring a traitor to his doom? Nay, let me tell you, friends, that the Republic has no use for curs, and calls him a traitor who allows one of her enemies to remain inviolate through his cowardice, his terror of that intangible and fleeting shadow--the wrath of a Paris mob."
Thunderous applause greeted this peroration, which had been delivered with an accompaniment of violent gesture and a wealth of obscene epithets, quite beyond the power of the mere chronicler to render. Lenoir had a harsh, strident voice, very high pitched, and he spoke with a broad provincial accent, somewhat difficult to locate, but quite unlike the hoarse, gutteral tones of the low-class Parisian. His enthusiasm made him seem impressive. He looked, in his ragged, dust-stained clothes, the very personification of the squalid herd which had driven culture, art, refinement to the scaffold in order to make way for sordid vice, and satisfied lusts of hate.