Three days had gone by since the incidents at la Rodière, and excitement in Choisy over the outrage on Dr. Pradel was working itself up to fever-pitch. In the evenings, men and women who had been at work in the government factories all day, would pour out in their hundreds and invade the cafés and restaurants, eager to hear further details of the abominable assault which by now had inflamed the passions of every adult in the commune. A devilish aristocrat had shown his hatred and contempt for the people by making a cowardly attack on one of the most respected citizens of Choisy, on a man who spent his life and fortune in ministering to the poor and doing good to every man, woman or child who called to him for help. Such an affront called aloud for vengeance. It was directed against the people, against the rights and privileges of every free-born citizen of France.
And paid agitators came down from Paris, and stood at street corners or on the tables in cafés and restaurants and harangued the excited crowds that readily enough gathered round them to hear them speak.
"Why, I ask you, Citizens," they would demand in ringing tones, "why did Louis Capet's head fall like that of a common criminal under the guillotine, a few days ago? Because he had conspired against the people. Conspired against our liberties: against yours, Citizens, and against mine. Judges and jury found him guilty, and pronounced death sentence upon him. King or ex-King, I didn't matter. He was found guilty by his fellow-men of having conspired against the people and he was punishment by death. Then why, I ask you," the impassioned orator would then go on, "why should those ci-devants up at La Rodière not be punished also? The outrage which they have committed against the whole of our commune, and our commune must pronounce judgement upon them, by virtue of the sovereignty of the people of France."
Rapturous applause and shouts of "Vive la République" and "Vive" all sorts of other things greeted the peroration. "The sovereignty of the people" were magic words which always stirred the blood of every self-respecting citizen. They were spoken by men who knew how to work on the passions of poor, ignorant folk whose lot through life had been one of continuous struggle against misery and starvation, and whom it was easy enough to persuade that by the overthrow of all existing dynastic rights, the millenium for the humble and the lowly would surely come. They were men employed by the revolutionary government for the sole purpose of stirring up trouble in places where the bulk of the inhabitants appeared placid and contented with their lot. Such a place was this small commune of Choisy, where people like the Levets lived the simple life, following their own avocations without the usual show of discontent, and where men like Simon Pradel set the example of quiet, unassuming generosity.
And this was a grand opportunity for sowing seeds of anarchy and turbulence beloved by the government, seeds that had already brought forth wholesale massacres in Paris, and the tragedy of January 21st. So the men who were sent down by the government to make trouble, got their opportunity now. They enticed the crowds into cafés and restaurants, and standing on tables, throwing their arms about, they talked and they harangued and shouted: "Down with the aristos!" till these humble folk, intoxicated by promises of a millenium and a life of ease and plenty, took up the cry and shouted: "Down with the aristos! To hell with La Rodière and the whole brood up at the château!"
The chief centre of this growing agitation was the restaurant Tison adjoining the café of the same name on the Grand' Place; a great number of people, women as well as men, usually crowded in there in the evenings because it was known that the hero of the hour, Dr. Pradel, usually took his supper in the restaurant. People wanted to see him, to shake him by the hand and to explain to him how ready everyone was in Choisy to avenge his wrongs on those arrogant ci-devants up at La Rodière.
Unfortunately Simon Pradel did not see eye to eye with that agitated crowd. He resented his own impotence bitterly enough, but he didn't want other people-certainly not a lot of rioters-to make trouble up at the château and, God help them, strike perhaps at Mademoiselle Cécile whilst trying to punish her brother. Up to now he had succeeded in keeping the more aggressive hotheads within bounds. He had a great deal of influence with his fellow-citizens, was very highly respected and they did listen to him when he first begged, then commanded them to mind their own business and let him manage his own. In this, strangely enough, he had an ally in a man he detested, Louis Maurin, the lawyer, who appeared just as anxious as he was himself to put a stop to the insane project advocated by the agents of the government; this was to march in a body to La Rodière, there to loot or destroy the contents of the château as had already been done once, four years ago, and if not actually to murder the family of aristos, at any rate to give them a wholesome freight followed by exemplary punishment.
After Louis Maurin had ignominiously turned out of the Levets' house by Blanche, he did not attempt to set foot in it again. He took to frequenting the restaurant Tison more assiduously than ever before, there to use what influence he possessed to moderate the inflammatory harangues of the agitators, since he was hand in glove with most of these gentlemen. As a matter of fact the last thing in the world Maurin desired was an armed raid on La Rodière with Simon Pradel the centre of an admiring crowd, and the glorification of the one man who stood in the way of his cherished matrimonial schemes.
"You don't want to set the whole commune by the ears, Citizen Conty," he argued with the orator who had just ended an impassioned harangue amidst thunderous applause. "It is too soon for that sort of thing. The government wants you to incite the people to patriotism, to inflame their love for their country, not to work on this silly sentiment for one man, who, before you can put a stop to it, would become a sort of hero of the commune, be elected mayor and presently be sent to the Convention, there to become a dictator and rival to Robespierre or Danton, and what will you gain by that? Whereas if you will only bide your time . . ."
"Well, what should I gain by biding my time according to you, Citizen Lawyer?"
"Give those aristos up at the château enough rope, and presently you will be able to denounce them and get a big reward if they are condemned. I have known as much as twenty livres being paid for the apprehension of a ci-devant Marquis and thirty for his women-folk. As for a prominent citizen like that fellow Pradel, I know that I can get you fifty livres the day he is brought to trial for treason."
The other man shrugged, spat and gave a coarse laugh.
"Do you hate him so much as all that, Citizen Lawyer?" he queried.
"I do not hate Docteur Pradel," Maurin replied loftily, "more than I do all traitors to the Republic, and I know that Pradel is a traitor."
"How do you know that?"
"He is constantly up at the château. He puts his professional pride in his pocket and gives purges to the ci-devants' horses and dogs. And do you know why he was thrashed the other morning? Because he had spent the night with the wench Cécile, and was bidding her a fond farewell in the early dawn, when they were both caught in a compromising position by her brother, who took the law in his own hands and broke his riding-crop over the shoulders of the amorous young doctor."
Conversation was difficult in this atmosphere of noisy excitement. Maurin sat down at a table and asked Citizen Conty to join him in a plate of soup to be followed by onion pie. He had had no supper yet, and was hungry, but Choisy had done badly lately in the matter of provisions. It was too close to Paris to get the pick of the market and the commune had to be content with what was left over from the capital. In the farther corner of the crowded restaurant a small troupe of musicians were scraping the catgut, blowing down brass instruments and banging on drums to their own obvious satisfaction, for they made a great noise, wagged their heads and perspired profusely while they supplemented their ear-splitting attempts at a tune by singing lustily in accompaniment. They had struck up the opening bars of the old French ditty:
"Il était une bergère,
Et ron et petit pataplon."
The young people took it up:
"Il était une bergère,
Qui gardait ses moutons ton, ton,
Qui gardait ses moutons."
The older folk also joined in till the low-raftered room was filled with a deafening uproar that would effectually have drowned any further attempt at oratory on the part of Citizen Conty and his like.
"These cursed catgut scrapers," the latter cried in exasperation. "I'll have them turned out. One can't do anything with these fools while this row is going on."
He stood up on his chair and tried to shout,
but while he shouted the crowd bellowed:
"El-le fit du fromage,
Et ron et ron petit pataplon,
El-le fit du fromage,
Du lait de ses moutons, to-ton,
Du lait de ses moutons."
The leader of the band was particularly active.
Where he had got his fiddle from it was difficult to imagine:
it gave forth sounds now creaking, now wheezing, anon screeching
or howling and always discordant, provoking either laughter or
the throwing of miscellaneous missiles at his head. They were
all of them a scrubby lot, these musicians, unwashed, unshaved,
in ragged breeches above their bare legs, shoes down-at-heel or
else sabots, and grubby Phrygian caps adorned with tricolour cocades
on their unkempt heads. They called themselves an itinerant orchestra
whom the proprietor of the restaurant had enticed into the place
under promise of a hot supper, and they were obviously doing their
best to earn it:
"Le chat qui la regarde,
Et ron et ron petit pataplon."
"That rascal over there should be made to do honest work," Conty grunted, after he had made several vain attempts to shout the musicians down. "I call it an outrage on the country for a big hulking fellow like that to scrape a fiddle and ogle the girls when he should be training to fight the English."
"To fight the English?" Maurin interposed. "What do you mean, Citizen?"
He and Conty had a tureen of hot soup on the table between them. Each dipped into it with a big ladle and filled up his plate to the rim. The soup was very hot and they blew on their spoons before conveying them to their mouths.
The musicians lifted up their cracked voices
with a hoot and a cheer, whilst the chorus took up the lively
"Le chat qui la regarde
D'un petit air fripon, pon, pon,
D'un petit air fripon,"
and the leader of the band, suiting the action to the word, cast side glances on the girls with an air as roguish as that of the cheese-maker's cat.
"What do you mean, Citizen Conty," the young lawyer reiterated, "by talking about fighting the English?"
"Just what I say," Conty replied. "We shall be at war with those barbarians before the month is out."
"Who told you that?"
"You'll hear of it, Citizen Lawyer. Ill news travels apace."
"But how did you know?" Maurin insisted.
"We government agents," Conty observed loftily, "know these things long before you ordinary people do."
"But . . ."
"As a matter of fact," the other now condescended to explain, "I was in Paris this morning. I met a number of deputies. There will be a debate about the whole affair in the Convention to-night. Citizen Chauvelin," he went on confidentially, "is back from London since the twenty-first. His work over there is finished, and he is travelling round the country on propaganda work for the government. Secret service, you know. I spoke with him. He told me he would be in Choisy to-night to have a look round. Now, you see," Conty concluded, as he attacked the savoury onion pie, "why I want to get all these fools into the right frame of mind. We want to show Paris what Choisy can do. What?"
"Chauvelin?" Maurin mused. "I've heard about him."
"And you'll see him presently. A clever fellow, but hard as steel. He was sent to England to represent our government, but he didn't stay long, and, name of a dog, how he does hate the English!"
The musicians had just led off with the last
verse of the popular ditty:
"La bergère en colère,
Et ron, et ron, petit pataplon,"
when Conty jumped to his feet, and with a hasty : "There he is !" pushed his way through the crowd towards the door.
Armand Chauvelin, ex-envoy of the revolutionary government at the Court of St. James, had just returned from England, a sadder and wiser man: somewhat discredited perhaps, owing to his repeated failures in bringing the noted English spy, known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, to book but nevertheless still standing high in the Councils of the various Committees, not only because of his great abilities, but because of his well-known hatred for the spy who had baffled him. He was still an important member of the Central Committee of Public Safety, and as such both respected and feared wherever he went.
Conty, the political agitator, was all obsequiousness when greeting this important personage. He conducted Citizen Chauvelin to the table where Louis Maurin had also finished eating, presented him to the lawyer, after which the two men pressed the newcomer to partake of supper as their guest. Chauvelin refused. He was not staying in Choisy this night, having other business to attend to, he said, in the Loiret district. He wouldn't even sit down. Despite his small, spare figure, he looked strangely impressive in his quietude, and, dressed as he was in sober black, amidst this noisy, excited crowd, many inquisitive glances were turned on him as he stood there. His thin white hands were clasped behind his back and he was listening to the answers which Conty and Maurin gave him in reply to his inquiries about the temper of the people in Choisy, and to their story of the outrage perpetrated on Docteur Pradel by the ci-devant Marquis up at La Rodière. This story interested him; he encouraged Conty in his efforts to keep the excitement of the populace at boiling point, and to inflame as far as possible the hatred of the people against the aristos. An armed raid on the château, he thought, would be a good move, if properly engineered, and as he intended to be back in Choisy in a couple of days, he desired the project to be put off until his return.
"Those aristos at La Rodière interest me," he said. "There is an old woman, you say?"
"Yes," Conty informed him; "the ci-devant Marquise, the mother of the present young cub who thrashed Docteur Pradel."
"And there is a girl? A young girl?"
"Yes, Citizen, and two old aides-ménage. But they are harmless enough."
"It would be so much better-" Maurin ventured to say.
"I was not asking your opinion, Citizen Lawyer," Chauvelin broke in haughtily. "What I've said, I've said. Prepare the way, Citizen Conty," he went on, "and as soon as I am back in Choisy I will let you know. If I mistake not," he added under his breath, almost as if he didn't wish the others to hear what he was saying, "we shall have some fun over that raid at La Rodière. An old woman, a young girl, two old servants! The very people to arouse the sympathy of our gallant English spies."
He nodded to the two men and turned to go. The crowd in the small restaurant was more dense than ever. People were sitting on the tables, the side-boards, and on top of one another. The musicians had just played the last bar of the favoured tune, the chorus of which was bawled out by the enthusiastic crowd, to the accompaniment of thunderous handclaps and banging of miscellaneous tools on any surface that happened to be handy:
"La bergère en colère,
Tua son petit chanton, ton, ton,
Tua son petit chanton."
Chauvelin had real difficulty in pushing his way through the dense throng. The vociferous shouts that filled the low room with a clamour that was deafening made him quite giddy. He would have liked to put his hands to his ears, but he had need of his elbows to get along at all. He felt dazed, what with the noise and the smell of stale food and of unwashed humanity ; at any rate, he put his curious experience down to an addled state of his brain, for while he was being pushed and jostled, and only saw individual faces through a kind of haze made of dust and fumes, he suddenly felt as if a pair of eyes, one pair only, was looking at him out of the hundreds that were there. Of course, it was only a hallucination : he was sure it was, and yet for some reason or other he felt a cold shiver running down his spine. He tried to recapture the glance of those eyes, but no one now in the crowd seemed to be looking at him. The musicians had finished playing, or rather they tried to finish playing, but their audience wouldn't allow them to. Every one was shouting at the top of his voice :
"Il était une bergère."
They wanted the whole of the six verses all over again.
Chauvelin got as far as the door, was on the point of opening it when a sound-the sound he hated more than any on earth-reached his ear above the din: it was a loud, prolonged, rather inane burst of laughter. Chauvelin did not swear, nor did he shiver again: his nerves were suddenly quite steady, and if he could have translated his thoughts into words, he would have said with a chuckle: "I was right, then! and you are here, my gallant friend, at your old tricks again. Well, since you wish it, à nous deux once more, and I think I may promise you some fun, as you call it, at La Rodière."