But whilst men and women set to work to make the towns of France hideous with their shrieks and their hootings, their mock-trials and bloody guillotines, they could not quite prevent Nature from working her sweet will with the country.
June, July, and August had received new names--they were now called Messidor, Thermidor, and Fructidor, but under these new names they continued to pour forth upon the earth the same old fruits, the same flowers, the same grass in the meadows and leaves upon the trees.
Messidor brought its quota of wild roses in the hedgerows, just as archaic June had done. Thermidor covered the barren cornfields with its flaming mantle of scarlet poppies, and Fructidor, though now called August, still tipped the wild sorrel with dots of crimson, and laid the first wash of tender colour on the pale cheeks of the ripening peaches.
And Juliette--young, girlish, feminine and inconsequent--had sighed for country and sunshine, had longed for a ramble in the woods, the music of the birds, the sight of the meadows sugared with marguerites.
She had left the house early: accompanied by Pétronelle, she had been rowed along the river as far as Suresnes. They had brought some bread and fresh butter, a little wine and fruit in a basket, and from here she meant to wander homewards through the woods.
It was all so peaceful, so remote: even the noise of shrieking, howling Paris did not reach the leafy thickets of Suresnes.
It almost seemed as if this little old-world village had been forgotten by the destroyers of France. It had never been a royal residence, the woods had never been preserved for royal sport: there was no vengeance to be wreaked upon its peaceful glades and sleepy, fragrant meadows.
Juliette spent a happy day; she loved the flowers, the trees, the birds, and Pétronelle was silent and sympathetic. As the afternoon wore on, and it was time to go home, Juliette turned townwards with a sigh.
You all know that road through the woods, which lies to the north-west of Paris: so leafy, so secluded. No large, hundred-year-old trees, no fine oaks or antique elms, but numberless delicate stems of hazelnut and young ash, covered with honeysuckle at this time of year, sweet-smelling and so peaceful after that awful turmoil of the town.
Obedient to Madame Déroulède's suggestion, Juliette had tied a tricolour scarf round her waist, and a Phrygian cap of crimson cloth, with the inevitable rosette on one side, adorned her curly head.
She had gathered a huge bouquet of poppies, marguerites and blue lupin--Nature's tribute to the national colours--and as she wandered through the sylvan glades she looked like some quaint dweller of the woods--a sprite, mayhap--with old mother Pétronelle trotting behind her, like an attendant witch.
Suddenly she paused, for in the near distance she had perceived the sound of footsteps upon the leafy turf, and the next moment Paul Déroulède emerged from out the thicket and came rapidly towards her.
"We were so anxious about you at home!" he said, almost by way of an apology. "My mother became so restless--"
"That to quiet her fears you came in search of me!" she retorted with a gay little laugh, the laugh of a young girl, scarce a woman as yet, who feels that she is good to look at, good to talk to, who feels her wings for the first time, the wings with which to soar into that mad, merry, elusive land called Romance. Ay, her wings! but her power also! that sweet, subtle power of the woman; the yoke which men love, rail at, and love again, the yoke that enslaves them and gives them the joy of kings.
How happy the day had been! Yet it had been incomplete!
Pétronelle was somewhat dull, and Juliette was too young to enjoy long companionship with her own thoughts. Now suddenly the day seemed to have become perfect. There was some one there to appreciate the charm of the woods, the beauty of that blue sky peeping through the tangled foliage of the honeysuckle-covered trees. There was some one to talk to, some one to admire the fresh white frock Juliette had put on that morning.
"But how did you know where to find me?" she asked with a quaint touch of immature coquetry.
"I didn't know," he replied quietly. "They told me you had gone to Suresnes, and meant to wander homewards through the woods. It frightened me, for you will have to go through the north-west barrier, and--"
He smiled, and looked earnestly for a moment at the dainty apparition before him.
"Well, you know!" he said gaily, "that tricolour scarf and the red cap are not quite sufficient as a disguise; you look anything but a staunch friend of the people. I guessed that your muslin frock would be clean, and that there would still be some tell-tale lace upon it."
She laughed again, and with delicate fingers lifted her pretty muslin frock, displaying a white frou-frou of flounces beneath the hem.
"How careless and childish!" he said, almost roughly.
"Would you have me coarse and grimy to be a fitting match for your partisans?" she retorted.
His tone of mentor nettled her, his attitude seemed to her priggish and dictatorial, and as the sun disappearing behind a sudden cloud, so her childish merriment quickly gave place to a feeling of unexplainable disappointment.
"I humbly beg your pardon," he said quietly. "And must crave your kind indulgence for my mood: but I have been so anxious--"
"Why should you be anxious about me?"
She had meant to say this indifferently, as if caring little what the reply might be: but in her effort to seem indifferent her voice became haughty, a reminiscence of the days when she still was the daughter of the Duc de Marny, the richest and most high-born heiress in France.
"Was that presumptuous?" he asked, with a slight touch of irony, in response to her own hauteur.
"It was merely unnecessary," she replied. "I have already laid too many burdens on your shoulders, without wishing to add that of anxiety."
"You have laid no burden on me," he said quietly, "save one of gratitude."
"Gratitude? What have I done?"
"You committed a foolish, thoughtless act outside my door, and gave me the chance of easing my conscience of a heavy load."
"In what way?"
"I had never hoped that the Fates would be so kind as to allow me to render a member of your family a slight service."
"I understand that you saved my life the other day, Monsieur Déroulède. I know that I am still in peril and that I owe my safety to you--"
"Do you also know that your brother owed his death to me?"
She closed her lips firmly, unable to reply, wrathful with him for having suddenly and without any warning, placed a clumsy hand upon that hidden sore.
"I always meant to tell you," he continued somewhat hurriedly; "for it almost seemed to me that I have been cheating you, these last few days. I don't suppose that you can quite realize what it means to me to tell you this just now; but I owe it to you, I think. In later years you might find out, and then regret the days you spent under my roof. I called you childish a moment ago, you must forgive me; I know that you are a woman, and hope, therefore, that you will understand me. I killed your brother in fair fight. He provoked me as no man was ever provoked before--"
"Is it necessary, M. Déroulède, that you should tell me all this?" she interrupted him with some impatience.
"I thought you ought to know."
"You must know, on the other hand, that I have no means of hearing the history of the quarrel from my brother's point of view now."
The moment the words were out of her lips she had realized how cruelly she had spoken. He did not reply; he was too chivalrous, too gentle, to reproach her. Perhaps he understood for the first time how bitterly she had felt her brother's death, and how deeply she must be suffering, now that she knew herself to be face to face with his murderer.
She stole a quick glance at him, through her tears. She was deeply penitent for what she had said. It almost seemed to her as if a dual nature was at war within her.
The mention of her brother's name, the recollection of that awful night beside his dead body, of those four years whilst she watched her father's moribund reason slowly wandering towards the grave, seemed to rouse in her a spirit of rebellion, and of evil, which she felt was not entirely of herself.
The woods had become quite silent. It was late afternoon, and they had gradually wandered farther and farther away from pretty sylvan Suresnes, towards great, anarchic, death-dealing Paris. In this part of the woods the birds had left their homes; the trees, shorn of their lower branches, looked like gaunt spectres, raising melancholy heads towards the relentless, silent sky.
In the distance, from behind the barriers, a couple of miles away, the boom of a gun was heard.
"They are closing the barriers," he said quietly after a long pause. "I am glad I was fortunate enough to meet you."
"It was kind of you to seek for me," she said meekly. "I didn't mean what I said just now--"
"I pray you, say no more about it. I can so well understand. I only wish--"
"It would be best I should leave your house," she said gently; "I have so ill repaid your hospitality. Pétronelle and I can easily go back to our lodgings."
"You would break my mother's heart if you left her now," he said, almost roughly. "She has become very fond of you, and knows, just as well as I do, the dangers that would beset you outside my house. My coarse and grimy partisans," he added, with a bitter touch of sarcasm, "have that advantage, that they are loyal to me, and would not harm you while under my roof."
"But you--" she murmured.
She felt somehow that she had wounded him very deeply, and was half angry with herself for her seeming ingratitude, and yet childishly glad to have suppressed in him that attitude of mentorship, which he was beginning to assume over her.
"You need not fear that my presence will offend you much longer, mademoiselle," he said coldly. "I can quite understand how hateful it must be to you, though I would have wished that you could believe at least in my sincerity."
"Are you going away then?"
"Not out of Paris altogether. I have accepted the post of Governor of the Conciergerie."
"Ah!--where the poor Queen--"
She checked herself suddenly. Those words would have been called treasonable to the people of France.
Instinctively and furtively, as every one did in these days, she cast a rapid glance behind her.
"You need not be afraid," he said; "there is no one here but Pétronelle."
"Oh! I echo your words. Poor Marie Antoinette!"
"You pity her?"
"How can I help it?"
"But you are of that horrible National Convention, who will try her, condemn her, execute her as they did the King."
"I am of the National Convention. But I will not condemn her, nor be a party to another crime. I go as Governor of the Conciergerie, to help her, if I can."
"But your popularity--your life--if you befriend her?"
"As you say, mademoiselle, my life, if I befriend her," he said simply.
She looked at him with renewed curiosity in her gaze.
How strange were men in these days! Paul Déroulède, the republican, the recognized idol of the lawless people of France, was about to risk his life for the woman he had helped to dethrone.
Pity with him did not end with the rabble of Paris; it had reached Charlotte Corday, though it failed to save her, and now it extended to the poor dispossessed Queen. Somehow, in his face this time, she saw either success or death.
"When do you leave?" she asked.
She said nothing more. Strangely enough, a tinge of melancholy had settled over her spirits. No doubt the proximity of the town was the cause of this. She could already hear the familiar noise of muffled drums, the loud, excited shrieking of the mob, who stood round the gates of Paris, at this time of the evening, waiting to witness some important capture, perhaps that of a hated aristocrat striving to escape from the people's revenge.
They had reached the edge of the wood, and gradually, as she walked, the flowers she had gathered fell unheeded out of her listless hands one by one.
First the blue lupins: their bud-laden heads were heavy and they dropped to the ground, followed by the white marguerites, that lay thick behind her now on the grass like a shroud. The red poppies were the lightest, their thin gummy stalks clung to her hands longer than the rest. At last she let them fall too, singly, like great drops of blood, that glistened as her long white gown swept them aside.
Déroulède was absorbed in his thoughts, and seemed not to heed her. At the barrier, however, he roused himself and took out the passes which alone enabled Juliette and Pétronelle to re-enter the town unchallenged. He himself as Citizen-Deputy could come and go as he wished.
Juliette shuddered as the great gates closed behind her with a heavy clank. It seemed to shut out even the memory of this happy day, which for a brief space had been quite perfect.
She did not know Paris very well, and wondered
where lay that gloomy Conciergerie, where a dethroned queen was
living her last days, in an agonized memory of the past. But as
they crossed the bridge she recognized all round her the massive
towers of the great city: Notre Dame, the graceful spire of La
Sainte Chapelle, the sombre outline of St. Gervais, and behind
her the Louvre with its great history and irreclaimable grandeur.
How small her own tragedy seemed in the midst of this great sanguinary drama, the last act of which had not yet even begun. Her own revenge, her oath, her tribulations, what were they in comparison with that great flaming Nemesis which had swept away a throne, that vow of retaliation carried out by thousands against other thousands, that long story of degradation of regicide, of fratricide, the awesome chapters of which were still being unfolded one by one?
She felt small and petty: ashamed of the pleasure she had felt in the woods, ashamed of her high spirits and light-heartedness, ashamed of that feeling of sudden pity and admiration for the man who had done her and her family so deep an injury, which she was too feeble, too vacillating, to avenge.
The majestic outline of the Louvre seemed to frown sarcastically on her weakness, the silent river to mock her and her wavering purpose. The man beside her had wronged her and hers far more deeply than the Bourbons had wronged their people. The people of France were taking their revenge, and God had at the close of this last happy day of her life pointed once more to the means for her great end.