Fortunately the storm only broke after the bulk of the audience was inside the theatre. The performance was timed to commence at seven, and a quarter of an hour before that time the citizens of Paris who had come to applaud citoyenne Vestris, citoyen Talma, and their colleagues, in Chénier's tragedy, Henri VIII, were in their seats.
The theatre in the Rue de Richelieu was crowded. Talma and Vestris had always been great favourites with the public, and more so perhaps since their secession from the old and reactionary Comédie Française. Citizen Chénier's tragedy was in truth of a very poor order; but the audience was not disposed to be critical, and there was quite an excited hush in the house when citoyenne Vestris, in the part of "Anne de Boulen," rolled off the meretricious verses:
"Trop longtemps j'ai gardé le silence;
Le poids qui m'accablait tombe avec violence."
But little was heard of the storm which raged outside; only at times the patter of the rain on the domed roof became unpleasantly apparent as an inharmonious accompaniment to the declamation of the actors.
It was a brilliant evening, not only because citoyenne Vestris was in magnificent form, but also because of the number of well-known people who sat in the various boxed and in the parterre and who thronged the foyer during the entr'actes.
It seemed as if the members of the Convention and those who sat upon the Revolutionary Committees, as well as the more prominent speakers in the various Clubs, had made a point of showing themselves to the public, gay, unconcerned, interested in the stage and in the audience, at this moment when every man's head was insecure upon his shoulders and no man knew whether on reaching home he would not find a possee of the National Guard waiting to convey him to the nearest prison.
Death indeed lurked everywhere.
The evening before, at a supper party given in the house of deputy Barrère, a paper was said to have dropped out of Robespierre's coat pocket, and been found by one of the guests. The paper contained nothing but just forty names. What those names were the general public did not know, nor for what purpose the dictator carried the list about in his pocket; but during the representation of Henri VIII, the more obscure citizens of Pairs - happy in their own insignificance - noted that in the foyer during the entr'actes, citizen Tallien and his friends appeared obsequious, whilst those who fawned upon Robespierre were more than usually arrogant.
In one of the proscenium boxes, citizeness Cabarrus attracted a great deal of attention. Indeed, her beauty to-night was in the opinion of most men positively dazzling. Dressed with almost ostentatious simplicity, she drew all eyes upon her by her merry, ringing laughter, the ripple of conversation which flowed almost incessantly from her lips, and the graceful, provocative gestures of her bare hands and arms as she toyed with a miniature fan.
Indeed, Theresia Cabarrus was unusually light-hearted to-night. Sitting during the first two acts of the tragedy in her box, in the company of citizen Tallien, she became the cynosure of all eyes, proud and happy when, during the third interval, she received the visit of Robespierre.
He only stayed with her a few moments, and kept himself concealed for the most part at the back of the box; but he had been seen to enter, and Theresia's exclamation, "Ah, citizen Robespierre! What a pleasant surprise! 'Tis not often you grace the theatre with your presence!" had been heard all over the house.
Indeed, with the exception of Eleonore Duplay, whose passionate admiration he rather accepted than reciprocated, the incorruptible and feline tyrant had never been known to pay attention to any woman. Great therefore was Theresia's triumph. Visions of that grandeur which she had always coveted and to which she had always felt herself predestined, danced before her eyes; and remembering Chauvelin's prophecies and Mother Théot's incantations, she allowed the dream-picture of the magnificent English milor to fade slowly from her ken, bidding it a reluctant adieu.
Though in her heart she still prayed for his deliverance - and did it with a passionate earnestness - some impish demon would hover at her elbow and repeat in her unwilling ear Chauvelin's inspired words: "Bring the Scarlet Pimpernel to his knees at the chariot-wheel of Robespierre, and the crown of the Bourbons will be yours for the asking." And if, when she thought of that splendid head falling under the guillotine, a pang of remorse and regret shot through her heart, she turned with a seductive smile to the only man who could place that crown at her feet. His popularity was still at its zenith. To-night, whenever the audience caught sigh of him in the Cabarrus' box, a wild cheer rang out from gallery to pit of the house. Then Theresia would lean over to him and whisper insinuatingly:
"You can do anything with that crowd, citizen! You hold the people by the magnetism of your presence and of your voice. There is no height to which you cannot aspire."
"The greater the height," he murmured moodily, "the dizzier the fall...."
"'Tis on the summit you should gaze," she retorted; "not on the abyss below."
"I prefer to gaze into the loveliest eyes in Paris," he replied with a clumsy attempt at gallantry; "and remain blind to the summits as well as to the depths."
She tapped her daintily shod foot against the ground and gave an impatient little sigh. It seemed as if at every turn of fortune she was confronted with pusillanimity and indecision. Tallien fawning on Robespierre; Robespierre afraid of Tallien; Chauvelin a prey to nerves. How different to them all was that cool, self-possessed Englishman with the easy good-humour and splendid self-assurance!
"I would make you Queen of France in all but name!" He said this as easily, as unconcernedly as if he were promising an invitation to a rout.
When, a moment or two later, Robespierre took leave of her and she was left for a while alone with her thoughts, Theresia no longer tried to brush away from her mental vision the picture on which her mind loved to dwell. The tall, magnificent figure; the lazy, laughing eyes; the slender hand that looked so firm and strong amidst the billows of exquisite lace.
Ah, well! The dream was over! It would never come again. He himself had wakened her; he himself had cast the die which must end his splendid life, even at the hour when love and fortune smiled at him through the lips and eyes of beautiful Cabarrus.
Fate, in the guise of the one man she could have loved, was throwing Theresia into the arms of Robespierre.
The next moment she was rudely awakened from her dreams. The door of her box was torn open by a violent hand, and turning, she saw Bertrand Moncrif, hatless, with hair dishevelled, clothes dripping and mud-stained, and linen soaked through. She was only just in time to arrest with a peremptory gesture the cry which was obviously hovering on his lips.
"Hush - sh - sh!" came at once from every portion of the audience, angered by this disturbing noise.
Tallien jumped to his feet.
"What is it?" he demanded in a quick whisper.
"A perquisition," Moncrif replied hurriedly, "in the house of the citoyenne!"
"Impossible!" she broke in harshly.
"Hush!... Silence!" the audience muttered audibly.
"I come from there," Moncrif murmured. "I have seen... heard..."
"Come outside," Theresia interjected. "We cannot talk here."
She led the way out, and Tallien and Moncrif followed.
The corridor fortunately was deserted. only a couple of ouvreuses stood gossiping in a corner. Theresia, white to the lips - but more from anger than fear - dragged Moncrif with her to the foyer. Here there was no one.
"Now, tell me!" she commanded.
Bertrand passed his trembling hand through his soaking hair. His clothes were wet through. He was shaking from head to foot and appeared to have run till now he could scarcely stand.
"Tell me!" Theresia reiterated impatiently.
Tallien stood by, half paralysed with terror. He did not question the younger man, but gazed on him with compelling, horror-filled eyes, as if he would wrench the words out of him before they reached his throat.
"I was in the Rue Villedot," Moncrif stammered breathlessly at last, "when the storm broke. I sough shelter under the portico of a house opposite the citoyenne's lodgings.... I was there a long time. Then the storm subsided.... Men in uniform came along.... They were soldiers of the National Guard... I could see that, though the street was pitch-dark.... They passed quite close to me.... They were talking of the citoyenne.... Then they crossed over to her lodgings.... I saw them enter the house.... I saw citizen Chauvelin in the doorway.... He chided them for being late.... There was a captain, and there were six soldiers, and that asthmatic coalheaver was with them."
"What!" Theresia exclaimed. "Rateau?"
"What in Satan's name does it all mean?" Tallien exclaimed with a savage curse.
"They went into the house," Moncrif went on, his voice rasping through his parched throat. "I followed at a little distance, to make quite sure before I came to warn you. Fortunately I knew where you were... fortunately I always know..."
"You are sure they went up to my rooms?" Theresia broke in quickly.
"Yes. Two minutes later I saw a light in your apartment."
She turned abruptly to Tallien.
"My cloak!" she commanded. "I left it in the box."
He tried to protest.
"I am going," she rejoined firmly. "This is some ghastly mistake, for which that fiend Chauvelin shall answer with his life. My cloak!"
It was Bertrand who went back for the cloak and wrapped her in it. He knew - none better - that if his divinity desire to go, no power on earth would keep her back. She did not appear in the least afraid, but her wrath was terrible to see, and boded ill to those who had dared provoke it. Indeed, Theresia, flushed with her recent triumph and with Robespierre's rare if clumsy gallantries still ringing in her ear, felt ready to dare anything, to brave anyone - even Chauvelin and his threats. She even succeeded in reassuring Tallien, ordered him to remain in the theatre, and to show himself to the public as utterly unconcerned.
"In case a rumour of this outrage penetrates to the audience," she said, "you must appear to make light of it.... Nay! you must at once threaten reprisals against its perpetrators."
Then she wrapped her cloak about her and, taking Bertrand's arm, she hurried out of the theatre.