In the antechamber of Catherine Théot's abode of mysteries some two hours later, half a dozen persons were sitting. The room was long, narrow and bare, its walls dank and colourless, and save for the rough wooden benches on which these person sat, was void of any furniture. The benches were ranged against the walls; the one window at the end was shuttered as to exclude all daylight, and from the ceiling there hung a broken-down wrought-iron chandelier, wherein a couple of lighted tallow candles were set, the smoke from which rose in irregular spirals upwards to the low and blackened ceiling.
These persons who sat or sprawled upon the benches did not speak to one another. They appeared to be waiting. one or two of them were seemingly asleep; others, from time to time, would rouse themselves from their apathy, look with dim, inquiring eyes in the direction of a heavy portière. When this subsided again all those in the bare waiting-room resumed their patient, lethargic attitude, and a silence - weird and absolute - reigned once more over them all. Now and then somebody would sigh, and at one time one of the sleepers snored.
Far away a church clock struck six.
A few minutes later, the portière was lifted, and a girl came into the room. She held a shawl, very much the worse for wear, tightly wrapped around her meagre shoulders, and from beneath her rough wollen skirt her small feet appeared clad in well-worn shoes and darned worsted stockings. Her hair, which was fair and soft, was partially hidden under a white muslin cap, and as she walked with a brisk step across the room, she looked neither to right nor left, appeared to move as in a dream. And her large grey eyes were brimming over with tears.
Neither her rapid passage across the room nor her exit through a door immediately opposite the window created the slightest stir amongst those who were waiting. Only one of the men, a huge ungainly giant, whose long limbs appeared to stretch half-across the bare wooden floor, looked up lazily as she passed.
After the girl had gone, silence once more fell on the small assembly. Not a sound came from behind the portière; but from beyond the other door the faint patter of the girl's feet could be heard gradually fading away as she went slowly down the stone stairs.
A few more minutes went by, then the door behind the portière was opened and a cadaverous voice spoke the word, "Enter!
There was a faint stir among those who waited. A woman rose from her seat, said dully: "My turn, I think?" and, gliding across the room like some bodiless spectre, she presently vanished behind the portière.
"Are you going to the Fraternal Supper to-night, citizen Langlois?" the giant said, after the woman had gone. His tone was rasping and harsh and his voice came with a wheeze and an obviously painful effort from his broad, doubled-up chest.
"Not I!" Langlois replied. "I must speak with Mother Théot. My wife made me promise. She is too ill to come herself, and the poor unfortunate believes in the Théot's incantations."
"Come out and get some fresh air, then," the other rejoined. "It is stifling in here!"
It was indeed stuffy in the dark, smoke-laden room. The man put his bony hand up to his chest, as if to quell a spasm of pain. A horrible, rasping cough shook his big body and brought a sweat to his brow. Langlois, a wizened little figure of a man, who looked himself as if he had one foot in the grave, waited patiently until the spasm was over, then, with the indifference peculiar to these turbulent times, he said lightly:
"I would just as soon sit here as wear out shoe-leather on the cobblestones of this God-forsaken hole. And I don't want to miss my turn with mother Théot."
"You'll have another four hours mayhap to wait in this filthy atmosphere."
"What an aristo you are, citizen Rateau!" the other retorted drily. "Always talking about the atmosphere!"
"So would you, if you had only one lung wherewith to inhale this filth," growled the giant through a wheeze.
"Then don't wait for me, my friend," Langlois concluded with a careless shrug of his narrow shoulders. "And, if you don't mind missing your turn...."
"I do not," was Rateau's curt reply. "I would as soon be last as not. But I'll come back presently. I am the third from now. If I'm not back you can have my turn, and I'll follow you in. But I can't-"
His next words were smothered in a terrible fit of coughing, as he struggled to his feet. Langlois swore at him for making such a noise, and the women, roused from their somnolence, sigh with impatience or resignation. But all those who remained seated on the benches watched with a kind of dull curiosity the ungainly figure of the asthmatic giant as he made his way across the room and anon went out through the door.
His heavy footsteps were heard descending the stone stairs with a shuffling sound, and the clatter of his wooden shoes. The women once more settled themselves against the dank walls, with feet stretched out before them and arms folded over their breasts, and in that highly uncomfortable position prepared once more to go to sleep.
Langlois buried his hands in the pockets of his breeches, spat contentedly upon the floor, and continued to wait.
In the meanwhile, the girl who, with tear-filled eyes, had come out of the inner mysterious room in Mother Théot's apartments, had, after a slow descent down the interminable stone stairs, at last reached the open air.
The Rue de la Planchette is only a street in name, for the houses in it are few and far between. One side of it is taken up for the major portion of its length by the dry moat which at this point forms the boundary of the Arsenal and of the military ground around the Bastille. The house wherein lodged Mother Théot is one of a small group situated behind the Bastille, the grim ruins of which can be distinctly seen from the upper windows. Immediately facing those houses is the Porte St. Antoine, through which the wayfarer in this remote quarter of Paris has to pass in order to reach the more populous parts of the city. This is just a lonely and squalid backwater, broken up by undeveloped land and timber yards. One end of the street abuts on the river, the other becomes merged in the equally remote suburb of Popincourt.
But, for the girl who had just come out of the heavy, fetid atmosphere of Mother Théot's lodgings, the air which reached her nostrils as she came out of the wicket-gate, was positive manna to her lungs. She stood for awhile quite still, drinking in the balmy spring air, almost dizzy with the sensation of purity and of freedom which came to her from over the vast stretch of open ground occupied by the Arsenal. For a minute or two she stood there, then walked deliberately in the direction of the Porte St. Antoine.
She was very tired, for she had come to the Rue de la Planchette on foot all the way from the small apartment in the St. Germain quarter, where she lodged with her mother and sister and a young brother; she had become weary and jaded by sitting for hours on a hard wooden bench, waiting her turn to speak with Mother Théot, and then standing for what seemed an eternity of time in the presence of the soothsayer, who had further harassed her nerves by weird prophecies and mystic incantations.
But for the nonce weariness was forgotten. Régine de Serval was going to meet the man she loved, at a trysting-place which they had marked as their own: the porch of the church of Petit St. Antoine, a secluded spot where neither prying eyes could see them nor ears listen to what they had to say. A spot which to poor little Régine was the very threshold of Paradise, for here she had Bertrand all to herself, undisturbed by the prattle of Joséphine or Jacques or the querulous complaints of maman, cooped up in that miserable apartment in the old St. Germain quarter of the city.
So she walked briskly and without hesitation. Bertrand had agreed to meet her at five o'clock. It was now close on half-past six. It was still daylight, and a brilliant April sunset tinged the cupola of Ste. Marie with gold and drew long fantastic shadows across the wide Rue St. Antoine.
Régine had crossed the Rue des Balais, and the church porch of Petit St. Antoine was bust a few paces farther on, when she became conscious of heavy, dragging footsteps some little way behind her. Immediately afterwards, the distressing sound of a racking cough reached her ears, followed by heartrending groans as of a human creature in grievous bodily pain. The girl, not in the least frightened, instinctively turned to look, and was moved to pity on seeing a man leaning against the wall of a house, in a state bordering on collapse, his hands convulsively grasping his chest, which appeared literally torn by a violent fit of coughing. Forgetting her own troubles, as well as the joy which awaited her so close at hand, Régine unhesitatingly recrossed the road, approached the sufferer, and in a gentle voice asked him if she could be of any assistance to him in his distress.
"A little water," he gasped, "for mercy's sake!"
Just for a second or two she looked about her, doubtful as to what to do, hoping perhaps to catch sight of Bertrand, if he had not given up all hope of meeting her. The next, she had stepped boldly through the wicket-gate of the nearest porte-cochère, and finding her way to the lodge of the concierge, she asked for a drop of water for a passer-by who was in pain. A jug of water was at once handed to her by a sympathetic concierge, and with it she went back to complete her simple act of mercy.
For a moment she was puzzled, not seeing the poor vagabond there, where she had left him half-swooning against the wall. But soon she spied him, in the very act of turning under the little church porch of Petit St. Antoine, the hallowed spot of her frequent meetings with Bertrand.
He seemed to have crawled there for shelter, and there he collapsed upon the wooden bench, in the most remote angle of the porch. Of Bertrand there was not a sign.
Régine was soon by the side of the unfortunate. She held up the jug of water to his quaking lips, and he drank eagerly. After that he felt better, muttered vague words of thanks. But he seemed so weak, despite his stature, which appeared immense in this narrow enclosure, that she did not like to leave him. She sat down beside him, suddenly conscious of fatigue. He seemed harmless enough, and after awhile began to tell her of his trouble. This awful asthma, which he had contracted in the campaign against the English in Holland, where he and his comrades had to march in snow and ice, often shoeless and with nothing but bass mats around their shoulders. He had but lately been discharged out of the army as totally unfit, and he had no money wherewith to pay a doctor, he would no doubt have been dead by now but that a comrade had spoken to him of Mother Théot, a marvellous sorceress, who knew the art of drugs and simples, and could cure all ailments of the body by the mere laying on of hands.
"Ah, yes," the girl sighed involuntarily, "of the body!"
Through the very act of sitting still, a deadly lassitude had crept into her limbs. She was thankful not to move, to say little, and to listen with half an ear to the vagabond's jeremiads. Anyhow, she was sure that Bertrand would no longer be waiting. He was ever impatient if he thought that she failed him in anything, and it was she who had appointed five o'clock for their meeting. Even now the church clock way above the porch was striking half-past six. And the asthmatic giant went glibly on. He had partially recovered his breath.
"Aye!" he was saying, in response to her lament, "and of the mind, too. I had a comrade whose sweetheart was false to him while he was fighting for his country. Mother Théot gave him a potion which he administered to the faithless one, and she returned to him as full of ardour as ever before."
"I have no faith in potions," the girl said, and shook her head sadly the while tears once more gathered in her eyes.
"No more have I," the giant assented carelessly. "But if my sweetheart was false to me I know what I would do."
This he said in so droll a fashion, and the whole idea of this ugly, ungainly creature having a sweetheart was so comical, that despite her will, the ghost of a smile crept round the young girl's sensitive mouth.
"What would you do, citizen?" she queried gently.
"Just take her away, out of the reach of temptation," he replied sententiously. "I should say, 'This must stop,' and 'You come away with me, ma mie!'"
"Ah!" she retorted impulsively, "it is easy to talk. A man can do so much. What can a woman do?"
She checked herself abruptly, ashamed of having said so much. What was this miserable caitiff to her that she should as much as hint her troubles in his hearing? In these days of countless spies, of innumerable confidence tricks set to catch the unwary, it was more than foolhardy to speak of one's private affairs to any stranger, let alone to an out-at-elbows vagabond who was just the sort of refuse of humanity who would earn a precarious livelihood by the sale of information, true or false, wormed out of some innocent fellow-creature. Hardly, then, were the words out of her mouth than the girl repented of her folly, turned quick, frightened eyes on the abject creature beside her.
But he appeared not to have heard. A wheezy cough came out of his bony chest. Nor did he meet her terrified gaze.
"What did you say, citoyenne?" he muttered fretfully. "Are you dreaming?... or what?..."
"Yes - yes!" she murmured vaguely, her heart still beating with that sudden fright. "I must have been dreaming.... But you... you are better-?"
"Better? Perhaps," he replied, with a hoarse laugh. "I might even be able to crawl home."
"Do you live very far?" she asked.
"No. Just by the Rue de l'Anier."
He made no attempt to thank her for her gentle ministration, and she thought of how ungainly he looked - almost repellent - sprawling right across the porch, with his long legs stretched out before him and his hands buried in the pockets of his breeches. Nevertheless, he looked so helpless and so pitiable that the girl's kind heart was again stirred with compassion, and when presently he struggled with difficulty to his feet, she said impulsively:
"The Rue de l'Anier is on my way. If you will wait, I'll return the jug to the kind concierge who let me have it and I'll walk with you. You really ought not to be about the street alone."
"Oh, I am better now," he muttered, in the same ungracious way. "You had best leave me alone. I am not a suitable gallant for a pretty wench like you."
But already the girl had tripped away with the jug, and returned two minutes later to find that the curious creature had already started on his way and was fifty yards or more farther up the street by now. She shrugged her shoulders, feeling mortified at his ingratitude, and not a little ashamed that she had forced her compassion where it was so obviously unwelcome.