Ten minutes later the courtyard and approach of the old house in the Rue Villedot were once more wrapped in silence and in darkness. Chauvelin had with his own hands affixed the official seals on the doors which led to the apartments of citoyenne Cabarrus. In the living room, the body of the unfortunate Moncrif still lay uncovered and unwatched, awaiting what hasty burial the commissary of the section would be pleased to order for it. Chauvelin dismissed the soldiers at the door, and himself went his way.
The storm was gradually dying away. By the time that the audience filed out of the theatre, it was scarcely raining. Only from afar, dull rumblings of thunder could still faintly be heard. Citizen Tallien hurried along on foot to the Rue Villedot. The last hour had been positive torture for him. Although his reason told him that no man would be fool enough to trump up an accusation against Theresia Cabarrus, who was the friend, the Egeria of every influential man in the Convention or the Clubs, and that she herself had always been far too prudent to allow herself to be compromised in any way - although he knew all that, his overwrought fancy conjured up vision which made him sick with dread. His Theresia in the hands of rough soldiery - dragged to prison - he himself unable to ascertain what had become of her - until he saw her at the bar of that awful tribunal, from which there was no issue save the guillotine!
And with this dread came unendurable, gnawing remorse. He himself was one of the men who had helped to set up the machinery of wild accusations, monstrous tribunals and wholesale condemnations which had been set in motion now by an unknown hand against the woman he loved. He - Tallien - the ardent lover, the future husband of Theresia, had aided in the constitution of that abominable Revolutionary Committee, which could strike at the innocent as readily and as ruthlessly as at the guilty.
Indeed at this hour, this man, who long since had forgotten how to pray, when he heard the tower-clock of a neighbouring church striking the hour, turned his eyes that were blurred with tears towards the sacred edifice which he had helped to desecrate, and found in his heart a half-remembered prayer which he murmured to the Fount of all Mercy and of Pardon
Citizen Tallien turned into the Rue Villedot, the street where lodged his beloved. A minute or so later, he was making his way up the back staircase of the dingy house where his divinity had dwelt until now. On the second-floor landing two women stood gossiping. One of them recognized the influential Representative.
"It is citizen Tallien," she said.
And the other woman at once volunteered the information:
"They have arrested the citoyenne Cabarrus," she said; "and the soldiers did not know whither they were taking her."
Tallien did not wait to listen further. He stumbled up the stairs to the third floor, to the door which he knew so well. His trembling fingers wandered over the painted panels. They encountered the official seals, which told their own mute tale.
The whole thing, then, was not a dream. Those assassins had taken his Theresia and dragged her to prison, would drag her on the morrow to an outrageous mockery of a tribunal first, and then to death! Who shall say what wild thoughts of retrospection and of remorse coursed through the brain of this man - himself one of the makers of a bloody revolution? What visions of past ideals, good intentions, of honest purpose and incessant labour, passed before his mind? That glorious revolution, which was to mark the regeneration of mankind, which was to have given liberty to the oppressed, equality to the meek, fraternity in one vast human family! And what did it lead to but to oppression far more cruel than all that had gone before, to fratricide and to arrogance on the one side, servility on the other, to constant terror of death, to discouragement and sloth?
For hours citizen Tallien sat in the dark, on the staircase outside Theresia's door, his head buried in his hands. The grey dawn, living and chill, which came peeping in through the skylight overhead, found him still sitting there, stiff and numb with cold.
Whether what happened after that was part of a dream, he never knew. Certain it is that presently something extraneous appeared to rouse him. he sat up and listened, leaned his back against the wall, for he was very tired. Then he heard - or thought he heard - firm, swift steps on the stairs, and soon after saw the figure of two men coming up the stairs. Both the men were very tall, one of them unusually so, and the ghostly light of dawn made him appear unreal and mysterious. He was dressed with marvellous elegance; his smooth, fair hair was tied at the nape of the neck with a satin bow; soft, billowy lace gleamed at his wrists and throat, and his hands were exquisitely white and slender. Both the men wore huge coats of fine cloth, adorned with many capes, and boots of fine leather, perfectly cut.
They paused on the vestibule outside the door of Theresia's apartment, and appeared to be studying the official seals affixed upon the door. Then one of them - the taller of the two - took a knife out of his pocket and cut through the tapes which held the seals together. Then together they stepped coolly into the apartment.
Tallien had watched them, dazed and fascinated. He was so numb and weary that his tongue - just like it does in dreams - refused him service when he tried to call. But now he struggled to his feet and followed in the wake of the two mysterious strangers. With him, the instinct of the official, the respect due to regulations and laws framed by his colleagues and himself, had been to strong to allow him to tamper with the seals, and there was something mysterious and awesome about that tall figure of a man, dressed with supreme elegance, whose slender, firm hands had so unconcernedly committed this flagrant breach of the law. It did not occur to Tallien to call for help. Somehow, the whole incident - the two men - were so ghostlike, that he felt that at a word they would vanish into thin air.
He stepped cautiously into the familiar little antechamber. The strangers had gone through to the living-room. One of them was kneeling on the floor. Tallien, who knew nothing of the tragedy which had been enacted inside the apartment of his beloved, marvelled what the men were doing. He crept stealthily forward and craned his neck to see. The window at the end of the room had been left unfastened. A weird grey streak of light came peeping in and illumined the awesome scene: the overturned furniture, the torn hangings; and on the ground, the body of a man, with the stranger kneeling beside it.
Tallien, weary and dazed, always of a delicate constitution, felt nigh to swooning. His knees were shaking, a cold dread of the supernatural held his heart with an icy grip and caused his hair to tingle at the roots. His tongue felt huge and as if paralysed, his teeth were chattering together. It was as much as he could do not to measure his length on the ground; and the vague desire to remain unobserved kept him crouching in the gloom.
He just could see the tall stranger pass his hands over the body on the floor, and could hear the other ask him a question in English.
A few moments went by. The strangers conversed in a low tone of voice. From one or two words which came clearly to his ear, Tallien gathered that they spoke in English - a language with which he himself was familiar. The taller man of the two appeared to be giving his friend some orders, which the latter promised to obey. Then, with utmost precaution, he took the body in his arms and lifted it from the floor.
"Let me help you, Blakeney," the other said in a whisper.
"No, no!" the mysterious stranger replied quickly. "The poor worm is as light as a feather! 'Tis better he died as he did. His unfortunate infatuation was killing him."
"Poor little Régine!" the younger man sighed.
"It is better so," his friend rejoined. "We'll be able to tell her that he died nobly, and that we've given him Christian burial."
No wonder that Tallien thought that he was dreaming! These English were strange folk indeed! Heaven alone knew what they risked by coming here, at this hour, and into this house, in order to fetch away the body of their friend. They certainly were wholly unconscious of danger.
Tallien held his breath. He saw the splendid figure of the mysterious adventurer step across the threshold, bearing the lifeless body in his arms with as much ease as if he were carrying a child. The pale grey light of morning was behind him, and his fine head with its smooth fair hair was silhouetted against the neutual-tinted background. His friend came immediately behind him.
In the dark antechamber he paused, and called abruptly:
A cry rose to Tallien's throat. He had thought himself entirely unobserved, and the stranger a mere vision which he was watching in a dream. Now he felt that compelling eyes were gazing straight at him, piercing the darkness for a clearer sight of his face.
But the spell was still on him, and he only moved in order to straighten himself out and to force his trembling knees to be still.
"They have taken the citoyenne Cabarrus to the Conciergerie," the stranger went on simply. "To-morrow she will be charged before the Revolutionary Tribunal..... You know what is the inevitable end-"
It seemed as if some subtle magic was in the man's voice, in his very presence, in the glance wherewith he challenged that of the unfortunate Tallien. The latter felt a wave of shame sweep over him. There was something so splendid in these two men - exquisitely dressed, and perfectly deliberate and cool in all their movements - who were braving and daring death in order to give Christian burial to their friend; whilst he, in face of the outrage put upon his beloved, had only sat on her desecrated doorstep like a dumb animal pining for its master. He felt a hot flush rush to his cheeks. With quick, nervy movements he readjusted the set of his coat, passed his thin hands over his rumpled hair; whilst the stranger reiterated with solemn significance:
"You know what is the inevitable end.... The citoyenne Cabarrus will be condemned...."
Tallien this time met the stranger's eyes fearlessly. It was the magic of strength and of courage that flowed into him from them. He drew up his meagre stature to its full height and threw up his head with an air of defiance and of conscious power.
"Not while I live!" he said firmly.
"Theresia Cabarrus will be condemned to-morrow," the stranger went on calmly. "Then the next day, the guillotine-"
"Unless what?" Tallien queried, and hung breathless on the man's lips as he would on those of an oracle.
"Theresia Cabarrus, or Robespierre and his herd of assassins. Which shall it be, citizen Tallien?"
"By Heaven!-" Tallien exclaimed forcefully.
But he got no further. The stranger, bearing his burden, had already gone out of the room, closely followed by his friend.
Tallien was alone in the deserted apartment, where every broken piece of furniture, every torn curtain, cried out for vengeance in the name of his beloved. He said nothing. He neither protested nor swore. But he tip-toed into the apartment and knelt down upon the floor close beside the small sofa on which she was wont to sit. Here he remained quite still for a minute or two, his eyes closed, his hands tightly clasped together. Then he stooped very low and pressed his lips against the spot where her pretty, sandalled foot was wont to rest.
After that he rose, strode with a firm step out of the apartment, carefully closing the doors behind him.
The strangers had vanished into the night; and citizen Tallien went quietly back to his own lodgings.