That night when Blakeney, wrapped in his cloak, was walking down the Rue Ecole de Médecine towards his own lodgings, he suddenly felt a timid hand upon his sleeve.
Anne Mie stood beside him, her pale, melancholy face peeping up at the tall Englishman through the folds of a dark hood closely tied under her chin.
"Monsieur," she said timidly, "do not think me very presumptuous. I--I would wish to have five minutes' talk with you--may I?"
He looked down with great kindness at the quaint, wizened little figure, and the strong face softened at the sighs of the poor, deformed shoulder, the hard, pinched look of the young mouth, the general look of pathetic helplessness which appeals so strongly to the chivalrous.
"Indeed, mademoiselle," he said gently, "you make me very proud; an I can serve you in any way, I pray you command me. But," he added, seeing Anne Mie's somewhat scared look, "this street is scarce fit for private conversation. Shall we try and find a better spot?"
Paris had not yet gone to bed. In these times it was really safest to be out in the open streets. There, everybody was more busy, more on the move, on the lookout for suspected houses, leaving the wanderer alone.
Blakeney led Anne Mie towards the Luxembourg Gardens, the great, devastated pleasure-ground of the ci-devant tyrants of the people. The beautiful Anne of Austria, and the Medici before her, Louis XIII and his gallant musketeers--all have given place to the great cannon-forging industry of this besieged Republic. France, attacked on every side, is forcing her sons to defend her: persecuted, martyrized, done to death by her, she is still their Mother: La Patrie, who needs their arms against the foreign foe. England is threatening the north, Prussia and Austria the east. Admiral Hood's flag is flying on Toulon Arsenal.
The siege of the Republic!
And the Republic is fighting for dear life. The Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens are transformed into a township of gigantic smithies; and Anne Mie, with scared eyes, and clinging to Blakeney's arm, cast furtive, terrified glances at the huge furnaces and the begrimed, darkly-scowling faces of the workers within.
"The people of France in arms against tyranny!" Great placards, bearing those inspiring words, are affixed to gallows-shaped posts, and flutter in the evening breeze, rendered scorching by the heat of the furnaces all around.
Farther on, a group of older men, squatting on the ground, are busy making tents, and some women--the same Megæras who daily shriek round the guillotine--are plying with needles and scissors for the purpose of making clothes for the soldiers.
The soldiers are the entire able-bodied male population of France.
"The people of France in arms against tyranny!"
That is their sign, their trade-mark; one of these placards, fitfully illumined by a torch of resin, towers above a group of children busy tearing up scraps of old linen--their mothers', their sisters' linen--in order to make lint for the wounded.
Loud curses and suppressed mutterings fill the smoke-laden air.
The people of France, in arms against tyranny, is bending its broad back before the most cruel, the most absolute and brutish slave-driving ever exercised over mankind.
Not even mediæval Christianity has ever dared such wholesale enforcements of its doctrines, as this constitution of Liberty and Fraternity.
Merlin's "Law of the Suspect" has just been formulated. From now onward each and every citizen of France must watch his words, his looks, his gestures, lest they be suspect. Of what--of treason to the Republic, to the people? Nay, worse! lest they be suspect of being suspect to the great era of Liberty.
Therefore in the smithies and among the groups of tent-makers a moment's negligence, a careless attention to the work, might lead to a brief trial on the morrow and the inevitable guillotine. Negligence is treason to the higher interests of the Republic.
Blakeney dragged Anne Mie away from the sight. These roaring furnaces frightened her; he took her down the Place St. Michel, towards the river. It was quieter here.
"What dreadful people they have become," she said, shuddering; "even I can remember how different they used to be."
The houses on the banks of the river were mostly converted into hospitals, preparatory for the great siege. Some hundred mètres lower down, the new children's hospital, endowed by Citizen-Deputy Déroulède, loomed, white, clean, and comfortable-looking, amidst its more squalid fellows.
"I think it would be best not to sit down," suggested Blakeney, "and wiser for you to throw your hood away from your face."
He seemed to have no fears for himself; many had said that he bore a charmed life; and yet ever since Admiral Hood had planted his flag on Toulon Arsenal, the English were more feared than ever, and The Scarlet Pimpernel more hated than most.
"You wished to speak to me about Paul Déroulède," he said kindly, seeing that the young girl was making desperate efforts to say what lay on her mind. "He is my friend, you know."
"Yes; that is why I wished to ask you a question," she replied.
"What is it?"
"Who is Juliette de Marny, and why did she seek an entrance into Paul's house?"
"Did she seek it, then?"
"Yes; I saw the scene from the balcony. At the time it did not strike me as a farce. I merely though that she had been stupid and foolhardy. But since then I have reflected. She provoked the mob of the street, wilfully, just at the very moment when she reached M. Déroulède's door. She meant to appeal to his chivalry, and called for help, well knowing that he would respond."
She spoke rapidly and excitedly now, throwing off all shyness and reserve. Blakeney was forced to check her vehemence, which might have been thought "suspicious" by some idle citizen unpleasantly inclined.
"Well? And now?" he asked, for the young girl had paused, as if ashamed of her excitement.
"And now she stays in the house, on and on, day after day," continued Anne Mie, speaking more quietly, though with no less intensity. "Why does she not go? She is not safe in France. She belongs to the most hated of all the classes--the idle, rich aristocrats of the old régime. Paul has several times suggested plans for her emigration to England. Madame Déroulède, who is an angel, loves her, and would not like to part from her, but it would be obviously wiser for her to go, and yet she stays. Why?"
"Because she is in love with Paul?" interrupted Anne Mie vehemently. "No, no; she does not love him--at least--Oh! sometimes I don't know. Her eyes light up when he comes, and she is listless when he goes. She always spends a longer time over her toilet when we expect him home to dinner," she added, with a touch of naïve femininity. "But--if it be love, then that love is strange and unwomanly; it is a love that will not be for his good--"
"Why should you think that?"
"I don't know," said the girl simply. "Isn't it an instinct?"
"Not a very unerring one in this case, I fear."
"Because your own love for Paul Déroulède has blinded you--Ah! you must pardon me, mademoiselle; you sought this conversation and not I, and I fear me I have wounded you. Yet I would wish you to know how deep is my sympathy with you, and how great my desire to render you a service if I could."
"I was about to ask a service of you, monsieur."
"Then command me, I beg of you."
"You are Paul's friend--persuade him that that woman in his house is astanding danger to his life and liberty."
"He would not listen to me."
"Oh! a man always listens to another."
"Except on one subject--the woman he loves."
He had said the last words very gently but very firmly. He was deeply, tenderly sorry for the poor, deformed, fragile girl, doomed to be a witness of that most heartrending of human tragedies, the passing away of her own scarce-hoped-for happiness. But he felt that at this moment the kindest act would be one of complete truth. He knew that Paul Déroulède's heart was completely given to Juliette de Marny; he too, like Anne Mie, instinctively mistrusted the beautiful girl and her strange, silent ways, but, unlike the poor hunchback, he knew that no sin which Juliette might commit would henceforth tear her from out the heart of his friend; that if, indeed, she turned out to be false, or even treacherous, she would, nevertheless, still hold a place in Déroulède's very soul, which no one else would ever fill.
"You think he loves her?" asked Anne Mie at last.
"I am sure of it."
"Ah! I do not know. I would trust your instinct--a woman's sooner than my own."
"She is false, I tell you, and is hatching treason against Paul."
"Then all we can do is to wait."
"And watch carefully, earnestly, all the time. There! shall I pledge you my word that Déroulède shall come to no harm?"
"Pledge me your word that you'll part him from that woman."
"Nay; that is beyond my power. A man like Paul Déroulède only loves once in life, but when he does, it is for always."
Once more she was silent, pressing her lips closely together, as if afraid of what she might say.
He saw that she was bitterly disappointed, and sought for a means of tempering the cruelty of the blow.
"It will be your task to watch over Paul," he said; "with your friendship to guard and protect him we need have no fear for his safety, I think."
"I will watch," she replied quietly.
Gradually he had led her steps back towards the Rue Ecole de Médecine.
A great melancholy had fallen over his bold, adventurous spirit. How full of tragedies was this great city, in the last throes of its insane and cruel struggle for an unattainable goal. And yet, despite its guillotine and mock trials, its tyrannical laws and overfilled prisons, its very sorrows paled before the dead, dull misery of this deformed girl's heart.
A wild exaltation, a fever of enthusiasm lent glamour to the scenes which were daily enacted on the Place de la Révolution, turning the final acts of the tragedies into glaring, lurid melodrama, almost unreal in its poignant appeal to the sensibilities.
But here there was only this dead, dull misery, an aching heart, a poor, fragile creature in the throes of an agonized struggle for a fast-disappearing happiness.
Anne Mie hardly knew now what she had hoped when she sought this interview with Sir Percy Blakeney. Drowning in a sea of hopelessness, she had clutched at what might prove a chance of safety. Her reason told her that Paul's friend was right. Déroulède was a man who would love but once in his life. He had never loved--for he had too much pitied--poor, pathetic little Anne Mie.
Nay; why should we say that love and pity are akin?
Love, the great, the strong, the conquering god--Love that subdues a world, and rides roughshod over principle, virtue, tradition, over home, kindred, and religion--what cares he for the easy conquest of the pathetic being, who appeals to his sympathy?
Love means equality--the same height of heroism or of sin. When Love stoops to pity, he has ceased to soar in the boundless space, that rarefied atmosphere wherein man feels himself made at last truly in the image of God.