Tinville alone had remained silent during Lenoir's impassioned speech. It seemed to be his turn now to become surly. He sat picking his teeth, and staring moodily at the enthusiastic orator, who had so obviously diverted popular feeling in his own direction. And Tinville brooked popularity only for himself.
"It is easy to talk now, Citizen--er--Lenoir. Is that your name? Well, you are a comparative stranger here, Citizen Lenoir, and have not yet proved to the Republic that you can do aught else but talk."
"If somebody did not talk, Citizen Tinville--is that your name?" rejoined Lenoir, with a sneer--"if somebody didn't talk, nothing would get done. You all sit here, and condemn the Citizen-Deputy Merlin for being a fool, and I must say I am with you there, but--"
"Pardi! tell us your 'but,' citizen," said Tinville, for the coal-heaver had paused, as if trying to collect his thoughts. He had dragged a wine barrel close to the trestle table, and now sat astride upon it, facing Tinville and the group of Jacobins. The flickering tallow candle behind him threw into bold silhouette his square, massive head, crowned with its Phrygian cap, and the great breadth of his shoulders, with the shabby knitted spencer and low, turned-down collar.
He had long, thin hands, which were covered with successive coats of coal-dust, and with these he constantly made weird gestures, as if in the act of gripping some live thing by the throat.
"We all know that the Deputy Déroulède is a traitor, eh?" he said, addressing the company in general.
"We do," came with uniform assent from all those present.
"Then let us put it to the vote. The Ayes mean death, the Noes freedom."
"Ay, ay!" came from every hoarse, parched throat; and twelve gaunt hands were lifted up demanding death for Citizen-Deputy Déroulède.
"The Ayes have it," said Lenoir quietly. "Now all we need do is to decide how best to carry out our purpose."
Merlin, very agreeably surprised to see public attention thus diverted from his own misdeeds, had gradually lost his surly attitude. He too dragged one of the wine barrels, which did duty for chairs, close to the trestle table, and thus the members of the nameless Jacobin club made a compact group picturesque in its weird horror, its uncompromising, flaunting ugliness.
"I suppose," said Tinville, who was loath to give up his position as leader of these extremists--"I suppose, Citizen Lenoir, that you are in a position to furnish me with proofs of the Citizen-Deputy's guilt?"
"If I furnish you with such proofs, Citizen Tinville," retorted the other, "will you, as Public Prosecutor, carry the indictment through?"
"It is my duty to publicly accuse those who are traitors to the Republic."
"And you, Citizen Merlin," queried Lenoir, "will you help the Republic to the best of your ability to be rid of a traitor?"
"My services to the cause of our great Revolution are too well known--" began Merlin.
But Lenoir interrupted him with impatience.
"Pardi! but we'll have no rhetoric now, Citizen Merlin. We all know that you have blundered, and that the Republic cares little for those of her sons who have failed, but whilst you are still Minister of Justice the people of France have need of you--for bringing other traitors to the guillotine."
He spoke this last phrase slowly and significantly, lingering on the word "other," as if he wished its whole awesome meaning to penetrate well into Merlin's brain.
"What is your advice then, Citizen Lenoir?"
Apparently, by unanimous consent, the coal-heaver, from some obscure province of France, had been tacitly acknowledged the leader of the band. Merlin, still in terror for himself, looked to him for advice; even Tinville was ready to be guided by him. All were at one in their desire to rid themselves of Déroulède, who by his clean living, his aloofness from their own hideous orgies and deadly hates, seemed a living reproach to them all; and they all felt that in Lenoir there must exist some secret dislike of the popular Citizen-Deputy, which would give him a clear insight of how best to bring about his downfall.
"What is your advice?" had been Merlin's query, and every one there listened eagerly for what was to come.
"We are all agreed," commenced Lenoir quietly, "that just at this moment it would be unwise to arraign the Citizen-Deputy without material proof. The mob of Paris worship him, and would turn against those who had tried to dethrone their idol. Now, Citizen Merlin failed to furnish us with proofs of Déroulède's guilt. For the moment he is a free man, and I imagine a wise one; within two days he will have quitted this country, well knowing that, if he stayed long enough to see his popularity wane, he would also outstay his welcome on earth altogether."
"Ay! Ay!" said some of the men approvingly, whilst others laughed hoarsely at the weird jest.
"I propose, therefore," continued Lenoir, after a slight pause, "that it shall be Citizen-Deputy Déroulède himself who shall furnish to the people of France proofs of his own treason against the Republic."
"But how? But how?" rapid, loud and excited queries greeted this extraordinary suggestion from the provincial giant.
"By the simplest means imaginable," retorted Lenoir with imperturbable calm. "Isn't there a good proverb which our grandmothers used to quote, that if you only give a man a sufficient length of rope, he is sure to hang himself? We'll give our aristocratic Citizen-Deputy plenty of rope, I'll warrant, if only our present Minister of Justice," he added, indicating Merlin, "will help us in the little comedy which I propose that we should play."
"Yes! Yes! Go on!" said Merlin excitedly.
"The woman who denounced Déroulède--that is our trump card," continued Lenoir, now waxing enthusiastic with his own scheme and his own eloquence. "She denounced him. Ergo, he had been her lover, whom she wished to be rid of--why? Not, as Citizen Merlin supposed, because he had discarded her. No, no; she had another lover--she has admitted that. She wished to be rid of Déroulède to make way for the other, because he was too persistent--ergo, because he loved her."
"Well, and what does that prove?" queried Tinville with dry sarcasm.
"It proves that Déroulède, being in love with the woman, would do much to save her from the guillotine."
"Pardi! let him try, say I," rejoined Lenoir placidly. "Give him the rope with which to hang himself."
"What does he mean?" asked one or two of the men, whose dull brains had not quite as yet grasped the full meaning of this monstrous scheme.
"You don't understand what I mean, citizens; you think I am mad, or drunk, or a traitor like Déroulède? Eh, bien! give me your attention five minutes longer, and you shall see. Let me suppose that we have reached the moment when the woman--what is her name? Oh! ah! yes! Juliette Marny--stands in the Hall of Justice on her trial before the Committee of Public Safety. Citizen Foucquier-Tinville, one of our greatest patriots, reads the indictment against her: the papers surreptitiously burnt, the torn, mysterious letter-case found in her room. If these are presumed, in the indictment, to be treasonable correspondence with the enemies of the Republic, condemnation follows at once, then the guillotine. There is no defence, no respite. The Minister of Justice, according to Article IX of the Law framed by himself, allows no advocate to those directly accused of treason. But," continued the giant, with slow and calm impressiveness, "in the case of ordinary, civil indictments, offences against public morality or matters pertaining to the penal code, the Minister of Justice allows the accused to be publicly defended. Place Juliette Marny in the dock on a treasonable charge, she will be hustled out of the court in a few minutes, amongst a batch of other traitors, dragged back to her own prison, and executed in the early dawn, before Déroulède has had time to frame a plan for her safety or defence. If, then, he tries to move heaven and earth to rescue the woman he loves, the mob of Paris may--who knows?--take his part warmly. They are mad where Déroulède is concerned; and we all know that two devoted lovers have ere now found favour with the people of France--a curious remnant of sentimentalism, I suppose--and the popular Citizen-Deputy knows better than anyone else on earth how to play upon the sentimental feelings of the populace. Now, in the case of a penal offence, mark where the difference would be! The woman Juliette Marny, arraigned for wantonness, for an offence against public morals; the burnt correspondence, admitted to be the letters of a lover--her hatred for Déroulède suggesting the false denunciation. Then the Minister of Justice allows an advocate to defend her. She has none in court; but think you Déroulède would not step forward and bring all the fervour of his eloquence to bear in favour of his mistress? Can you hear his impassioned speech on her behalf?--I can--the rope, I tell you, citizens, with which he'll hang himself. Will he admit in open court that the burnt correspondence was another lover's letters? No!--a thousand times no!--and, in the face of his emphatic denial of the existence of another lover for Juliette, it will be for our clever Public Prosecutor to bring him down to an admission that the correspondence was his, that it was treasonable, that she burnt them to save him."
He paused, exhausted at last, mopping his forehead, then drinking large gulps or brandy to ease his parched throat.
A veritable chorus of enthusiasm greeted the end of his long peroration. The Machiavellian scheme, almost devilish in its cunning, in its subtle knowledge of human nature and of the heart-strings of a noble organization like Déroulède's, commended itself to these patriots, who were thirsting for the downfall of a superior enemy.
Even Tinville lost his attitude of dry sarcasm; his thin cheeks were glowing with the lust of the fight.
Already for the past few months, the trials before the Committee of Public Safety had been dull, monotonous, uninteresting. Charlotte Corday had been a happy diversion, but otherwise it had been the case of various deputies, who had held views that had become too moderate, or of the generals who had failed to subdue the towns or provinces of the south.
But now this trial on the morrow--the excitement of it all, the trap laid for Déroulède, the pleasure of seeing him take the first step towards his own downfall. Every one there was eager and enthusiastic for the fray. Lenoir, having spoken at such length, had now become silent, but every one else talked, and drank brandy, and hugged his own hate and likely triumph.
For several hours, far into the night, the sitting was continued. Each one of the score of members had some comment to make on Lenoir's speech, some suggestion to offer.
Lenoir himself was the first to break up this weird gathering of human jackals, already exulting over their prey. He bade his companions a quiet good night, then passed out into the dark street.
After he had gone there were a few seconds of complete silence in the dark and sordid room, where men's ugliest passions were holding absolute sway. The giant's heavy footsteps echoes along the ill-paved street, and gradually died away in the distance.
Then at last Foucquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor, spoke:
"And who is that man?" he asked, addressing the assembly of patriots.
Most of them did not know.
"A provincial from the north," said one of the men at last; "he has been here several times before now, and last year he was a fairly constant attendant. I believe he is a butcher by trade, and I fancy he comes from Calais. He was originally brought here by Citizen Brogard, who is a good patriot enough."
One by one the members of this bond of Fraternity began to file out of the Cheval Borgne. They nodded curt good nights to each other, and then went to their respective abodes, which surely could not be dignified with the name of home.
Tinville remained one of the last; he and Merlin seemed suddenly to have buried the hatchet, which a few hours ago had threatened to destroy one or the other of these whilom bosom friends.
Two or three of the most ardent of these ardent extremists had gathered round the Public Prosecutor, and Merlin, the framer of the Law of the Suspect.
"What say you, citizens?" said Tinville at last quietly. "That man Lenoir, meseems, is too eloquent--eh?"
"Dangerous," pronounced Merlin, whilst the others nodded approval.
"But his scheme is good," suggested one of the men.
"And we'll avail ourselves of it," assented Tinville, "but afterwards--"
He paused, and once more every one nodded approval.
"Yes; he is dangerous. We'll leave him in peace to-morrow, but afterwards--"
With a gentle hand Tinville caressed the tall double post, which stood in the centre of the room, and which was shaped like the guillotine. An evil look was on his face: the grin of a death-dealing monster, savage and envious. The others laughed in grim content. Merlin grunted a surly approval. He had no cause to love the provincial coal-heaver who had raised a raucous voice to threaten him.
Then, nodding to one another, the last of the patriots, satisfied with this night's work, passed out into the night.
The watchman was making his rounds, carrying his lantern, and shouting his customary cry:
"Inhabitants of Paris, sleep quietly. Everything is in order, everything is at peace."