It was after the first ten minutes of desultory conversation among the party, that Louis Maurin made what he called afterwards the greatest mistake of his life. Indeed, he often cursed himself afterwards for that twinge of jealousy, coupled with boastfulness, which prompted him to speak of Simon Pradel at all. It was just one of those false moves which even an experienced chess-player might make with a view to protecting his queen, only to find himself checkmated in the end. Little did the astute lawyer guess that by a few words carelessly spoken he was actually precipitating the ruin of his cherished hopes and helping to bring about that extraordinary series of events which caused so many heartburnings, set all the quidnuncs of Choisy gossiping and remained the chief topic of conversation round local firesides for many weeks to come.
Blanche had drunk the ale, said a few pleasant words to Maurin, chaffed her brother and the maid, and relapsed into silence. Maurin, who was feeling at peace with all the world and very pleased with himself, queried after a time:
It seemed almost as if she had dropped to sleep for she gave no sign of response, and Maurin insisted.
"Of what are you thinking, Mademoiselle?"
She roused herself, gave a shrug, a sigh, a feeble smile and replied:
"Why friends?" he asked again.
"I was just wondering how many of our friends will have to suffer as we did last night . . . as innocently I mean . . . arrest . . . imprisonment . . . anxiety. . . . These are terrible times, Louis!"
"And there are worse to come, Mademoiselle," he declared ostentatiously; "happy those who have powerful friends to save them from disaster."
This hint was obvious, but neither old Levet nor Augustin responded to it. It was left for Blanche to say:
"You have been very kind, Louis."
Silence once more, until Augustin remarked:
"We were, of course, innocent."
"That helped a little, of course," Maurin was willing to admit, but you have no idea how obstinate the Committee are, once there has been actual denunciation of treason. And we must always remember those poor wretches who for a miserable pittance will ferret out the secrets of some who have not been clever enough to keep their political opinions to themselves."
"I supposed it was one of those wretches who trumped up a charge against us," Blanche remarked.
"Undoubtedly. And I had all the difficulty in the world in fact I had to pledge my good name before I could persuade the Chief of Section that the charge was trumped up."
He paused a moment, then added self-complacently: "I shall find it still more difficult in the case of Simon Pradel, I'm afraid."
Blanche gave a start.
"Simon?" she queried. "What about Simon?"
"Didn't you know?"
Already Maurin realized that he had made a false move when he mentioned Pradel. Blanche all at once had become the living representation of eager, feverish anxiety. Her cheeks were aflame, her eyes glittered, her voice positively quavered when she insisted on getting an explanation from the lawyer.
"Why don't you answer, Louis? What is there to know about Simon?"
Why, oh, why had he brought the doctor's name on the tapis? He had done it primarily for his own glorification, and in order to stand better and better with the Levets because of his influence and his zeal. Never had he intended to rouse dormant passion in the girl by speaking of the danger which threatened Pradel. Women are queer, he commented with bitterness to himself. Let a man be sick or in any way in need of their help, and at once he becomes an object of interest, or, as in this case, simple friendship at once flames into love.
Old Levet, who had hardly opened his mouth all this while, and had seemed to be too deeply absorbed in his own thoughts to take notice what was said around him, now put in a word:
"Don't worry, my girl," he said; "Simon is no fool, and there is no one in Choisy who would dare touch him."
By this time, Maurin had succeeded in turning his thoughts in another direction. Self-reproach gave place to his usual self-complacency and self-exaltation. He had made a false move, but he thanked his stars that he was in a position to retrieve it.
"I am afraid you are wrong there, Monsieur Levet," he observed unctuously. "As a matter of fact, I happen to know that the Section has its eye on Docteur Pradel His mysterious comings and goings yesterday, and his constant visits at the Château de la Rodière, which often extend late into the night, have aroused suspicion, and, as you know, from suspicion to denunciation there is only one step and that one sometimes leads as far as the guillotine. However, as I had the pleasure of telling you just now, I will do my best for the doctor, seeing that he is your friend."
"And that he is innocent," Blanche asserted vehemently. "There was nothing mysterious about Simon's comings and goings yesterday. He only goes to the château when he is sent for professionally, nor does he extend his visits late into the night."
"I can only repeat what I have been told, Mademoiselle," he said, "I can assure you . . ."
He felt that he had made another false move by saying that which was sure to arouse the girl's jealousy. Indeed, he was beginning to think that luck had not attended him in the manner he had hoped, and was quite relieved when the sound of shuffling sabots over the sanded floor cut this awkward conversation short. Maurin looked round to see the old beggar of a while ago standing in the middle of the room, waiting at a respectful distance till he was spoken to.
Maurin queried sharply:
"What do you want?"
The man raised a hand stiff with cold to his white forelock.
"The cabriolet, Citizen," he murmured.
The poor wretch seemed unable to say more than that. With trembling finger he pointed to the door behind him. A ramshackle vehicle drawn by a miserable nag was waiting outside. Levet paid for the drinks and the whole party made their way to the door. At the last, when the family had crowded into the cabriolet, old Levet pressed a piece of silver into the beggar's shaky hand.
Maurin remained in the road outside the tavern until the vehicle had disappeared at a turning of the street. He was not the man ever to admit, even to himself, that he was in the wrong, but in this case he had, perhaps, been somewhat injudicious, and he felt that he must take an early opportunity to retrieve whatever blunder he may have committed. Blanche was very young, he commented to himself; she scarcely knew her own mind, and Pradel was the man whom she met most constantly. But after this, gratitude would be sure to play in important rôle in the girl's attitude towards the friend who had helped her and her family out of a very difficult situation. Maurin prided himself on the fact that he had persuaded the girl, if not the others, that it was his influence and his alone that had brought about their liberation after a few hours' detention. She was already inclined to be grateful and affectionate for that. It would be his task after this to work unceasingly on her emotions and to his own advantage.
And reflecting thus, lawyer Maurin made final tracks for home.