She stood for a moment, gazing mechanically on the retreating figure of the asthmatic giant. The next moment she heard her name spoken, and turned quickly with a little cry of joy.
A young man was hurrying towards her, was soon by her side and took her hand.
"I have been waiting," he said reproachfully, "for more than an hour."
In the twilight his face appeared pinched and pale, with dark, deep-sunken eyes that told of a troubled soul and a consuming, inward fire. He wore cloth clothes that were very much the worse for wear, and boots that were down at hell. A battered tricorne hat was pushed back from his high forehead, exposing the veined temples with the line of brown hair, and the arched, intellectual brows that proclaimed the enthusiast rather than the man of action.
"I am sorry, Bertrand," the girl said simply. "But I had to wait such a long time at Mother Théot's, and-"
"But what were you doing now?" he queried with an impatient frown. "I saw you from a distance. You came out of yonder house, and then stood here like one bewildered. You did not hear when first I called."
"I have had quite a funny adventure," Régine explained; "and I am very tired. Sit down with me, Bertrand, for a moment. I'll tell you all about it."
A flat refusal hovered palpably on his lips.
"It is too late-" he began, and the frown of impatience deepened upon his brow. He tried to protest, but Régine did look very tired. Already, without waiting for his consent, she had turned into the little porch, and Bertrand perforce had to follow her.
The shades of evening now were fast gathering in, and the lengthened shadows stretched out away, right across the street. The last rays of the sinking sun still tinged the roofs and chimney pots opposite with a crimson hue. But here, in the hallowed little trysting-place, the kingdom of night had already established its sway. The darkness lent an air of solitude and of security to this tiny refuge, and Régine drew a happy little sigh as she walked deliberately to its farthermost recess and sat down on the wooden bench in it extreme and darkest angle.
Behind her, the heavy oaken door of the church was closed. The church itself, owning to the contumaciousness of its parish priest, had been desecrated by the ruthless hands of the Terrorists and left derelict, to fall into decay. The stone walls themselves appeared cut off from the world, as if ostracized. But between them Régine felt safe, and when Bertrand Moncrif somewhat reluctantly sat down beside her, she also felt almost happy.
"It is very late," he murmured once more, ungraciously.
She was leaning her head against the wall, looked so pale, with eyes closed and bloodless lips, that the young man's heart was suddenly filled with compunction.
"You are not ill, Régine?" he asked, more gently.
"No," she replied, and smiled bravely up at him. "Only very tired and a little dizzy. The atmosphere in Catherine Théot's rooms was stifling, and then when I came out-"
He took her hand, obviously making an effort to be patient and to be kind; and she, not noticing the effort or his absorption, began to tell him about her little adventure with the asthmatic giant.
"Such a droll creature," she explained. "He would have frightened me but for that awful, churchyard cough."
But the matter did not seem to interest Bertrand very much; and presently he took advantage of a pause in her narrative to ask abruptly:
"And Mother Théot, what had she to say?"
Régine gave a shudder.
"She foretells danger for us all," she said.
"The old charlatan!" he retorted with a shrug of the shoulders. "As if every one was not in danger these days!"
"She gave me a powder," Régine went on simply, "which she thinks will calm Joséphine's nerves."
"And that is folly," he broke in harshly. "We do not want Joséphine's nerves to be calmed."
But at his words, which in truth sounded almost cruel, Régine roused herself with a sudden air of authority.
"Bertrand," she said firmly, "you are doing a great wrong by dragging the child into your schemes. Joséphine is too young to be used as a tool by a pack of thoughtless enthusiasts."
A bitter, scornful laugh from Bertrand broke in on her vehemence.
"Thoughtless enthusiasts!" he exclaimed roughly. "Is that how you call us, Régine? My God! where is your loyalty, your devotion? Have you no faith, no aspirations? Do you no longer worship God or reverence your King?"
"In heaven's name, Bertrand, take care!" she whispered hoarsely, looked about her as if the stone walls of the porch had ears and eyes fixed upon the man she loved.
"Take care!" he rejoined bitterly. "Yes! that is your creed now. Caution! Circumspection! You fear-"
"For you," she broke in reproachfully; "for Joséphine; for maman; for Jacques - not for myself, God knows!"
"We must all take risks, Régine," he retorted more composedly. "We must all risk our miserable lives in order to end this awful, revolting tyranny. We must have a wider outlook, think not only of ourselves, of those immediately round us, but of France, of humanity, of the entire world. The despotism of a bloodthirsty autocrat has made of the people of France a people of slaves, cringing, fearful, abject - swayed by his word, too cowardly now to rebel."
"And what are you? My God!" she cried passionately. "You and your friends, my poor young sister, my foolish little brother? What are you, that you think you can stem to torrent of this stupendous Revolution? How think you that your feeble voices will be heard above the roar of a whole nation in the throws of misery and of shame?"
"It is the still small voice," Bertrand replied, in the tone of a visionary, who sees mysteries and who dreams dreams, "that is heard by its persistence even above the fury of thousands in full cry. Do we not call our organization 'the Fatalists'? Our aim is to take every opportunity by quick, short speeches, by mixing with the crowd and putting in a word here and there, to make propaganda against the fiend Robespierre. The populace are like sheep; they'll follow a lead. One day, one of us - it may be the humblest, the weakest, the youngest; it may be Joséphine or Jacques; I pray God it may be me - but one of us will find the word and speak it at the right time, and the people will follow us and turn against that execrable monster and hurl him from his throne, down into Gehenna."
He spoke below his breath, in a hoarse whisper which even she had to strain her ears to hear.
"I know, I know, Bertrand," she rejoined, and her tiny hand stole out in a pathetic endeavour to capture his. "Your aims are splendid. You are wonderful, all of you. Who am I, that I should even with a word or a prayer, try to dissuade you to do what you think is right? But Joséphine is so young, so hot-headed! What help can she give you? She is only seventeen. And Jacques! He is just an irresponsible boy! Think, Bertrand, think! If anything were to happen to these children, it would kill maman!"
He gave a shrug of the shoulders and smothered a weary sigh. She had succeeded in capturing his hand, clung to it with the strength of a passionate appeal.
"You and I will never understand one another, Régine," he began; then added quickly, "over these matters," because, following on his cruel words, he had heard the tiny cry of pain, so like that of a wounded bird, which much against her will had escaped her lips. "You do not understand," he went on, more quietly, "that in a great cause the sufferings of individuals are nought beside the glorious achievement that is in view."
"The sufferings of individuals," she murmured, with a pathetic little sigh. "In truth 'tis but little heed you pay, Bertrand, to my sufferings these days." She paused awhile, then added under her breath: "Since first you met Theresia Cabarrus, three months ago, you have eyes and ears only for her."
He smothered an angry exclamation.
"It is useless, Régine-" he began.
"I know," she broke in quietly. "Theresia Cabarrus is beautiful; she has charm, wit, power - all things which I do not possess."
"She has fearlessness and a heart of gold," Bertrand rejoined and, probably despite himself, a sudden warmth crept into his voice. "Do you not know of the marvellous influence which she exercised over that fiend Tallien, down in Bordeaux? He went there filled with a veritable tiger's fury, ready for a wholesale butchery of all the royalists, the aristocrats, the bourgeois, over there - all those, in fact, whom he chose to believe were conspiring against this hideous Revolution. Well! under Theresia's influence he actually modified his views and became so lenient that he was recalled. You know, or should know, Régine," the young man added in a tone of bitter reproach, "that Theresia is as good as she is beautiful."
"I do know that, Bertrand," the girl rejoined with an effort. "Only-"
"Only what?" he queried roughly.
"I do not trust her... that is all." Then, as he made no attempt at concealing his scorn and his impatience, she went on in a tone which was much harsher, more uncompromising than the one she had adopted hitherto: "your infatuation blinds you, Bertrand, or you - an enthusiastic royalist, an ardent loyalist - would not place your trust in an avowed Republican. Theresia Cabarrus may be kind-hearted - I don't deny it. She may have done and she may be all that you say; but she stands for the negation of every one of your ideals, for the destruction of what you exalt, the glorification of the principles of this execrable Revolution."
"Jealousy blinds you, Régine," he retorted moodily.
She shook her head.
"No, it is not jealousy, Bertrand - not common, vulgar jealousy - that prompts me to warn you, before it is too late. Remember," she added solemnly, 'that you have not only yourself to think of, but that you are accountable to God and to me for the innocent lives of Joséphine and of Jacques. By confiding in that Spanish woman-"
"Now you are insulting her," he broke in mercilessly. "Making her out to be a spy."
"What else is she?" the girl riposted vehemently. "You know that she is affianced to Tallien, whose influence and whose cruelty are second only to those of Robespierre. You know it, Bertrand!" she insisted, seeing that at last she had silenced him and that he sat beside her, sullen and obstinate. "You know it, even though you choose to close your eyes and ears to what is common knowledge."
There was silence after that for a while in the narrow porch, where two hearts once united were filled now with bitterness, one against the other. Even out in the street it had become quite dark, the darkness of a spring night, full of mysterious lights and grey, indeterminate shadows. The girl shivered as with cold and drew her tattered shawl more closely round her shoulders. She was vainly trying to swallow her tears. Goaded into saying more than she had ever meant to, she felt the finality of what she had said. Something had finally snapped just now: something that could never in after years be put together again. The boy and girl love which had survived the past two years of trouble and of stress, lay wounded unto death, bleeding at the foot of the shrine of a man's infatuation and a woman's vanity. How impossible this would have seemed but a brief while ago!
Through the darkness, swift visions of past happy times came fleeting before the girl's tear-dimmed gaze: visions of walks in the woods round Auteuil, of drifting down-stream in a boat on the Seine on hot August days - aye! even of danger shared and perilous moments passed together, hand in hand, with bated breath, in darkened rooms, with curtains drawn and ears straining to hear the distant cannonade, the shouts of an infuriated populace or the rattle of death carts upon the cobblestones. Swift visions of past sorrows and past joys! An immense self-pity filled the girl's heart to bursting. An insistent sob that would not be suppressed rose to her throat.
"Oh, Mother of God, have mercy!" she murmured through her tears.
Bertrand, shamed and confused, his heart stirred by the misery of this girl whom he had so dearly loved, his nerves strained beyond endurance through the many mad schemes which his enthusiasm was for ever evolving, felt like a creature on the rack, torn between compunction and remorse on the one hand and irresistible passion on the other.
"Régine," he pleaded, "forgive me! I am a brute, I know - a brute to you, who have been the kindest little friend a man could possibly hope for. Oh, my dear," he added pitiably, "if you would only understand...."
At once her tender, womanly sentiment was to the fore, sweeping pride and just resentment out of the way. Hers was one of those motherly natures that are always more ready to comfort than to chide. Already she had swallowed her tears, and now that with a wearied gesture he had buried his face in his hands, she put her arm around his neck, pillowed his head against her breast.
"I do understand, Bertrand," she said gently. "And you must never ask my forgiveness, for you and I have loved one another too well to bear anger or grudge one toward the other. There!" she said, and rose to her feet, and seemed by that sudden act to gather up all the moral strength of which she stood in such sore need. "It is getting late, and maman will be anxious. Another time we must have a more quiet talk about our future. But," she added, with renewed seriousness, "if I concede you Theresia Cabarrus without another murmur, you must give me back Joséphine and Jacques, If - if I - am to lose you - I could not bear to lose them as well. They are so young...."
"Who talks of losing them?" he broke in, once more impatient, enthusiastic - his moodiness gone, his remorse smothered, his conscience dead to all save to his schemes. "And what have I to do with it all? Joséphine and Jacques are members of the Club. They may be young, but they are old enough to know the value of an oath. They are pledged just like I am, just like we all are. I could not, even if I would, make them false to their oath." Then, as she made no reply, he leaned over to her, took her hands in his, tried to read her inscrutable face through the shadows of night. He thought that he read obstinacy in her rigid attitude, the unresponsive placidity of her hands. "You would not have them false to their oath?" he insisted.
She made no reply to that, only queried dully:
"What are you going to do to-night?"
"To-night," he said with passionate earnestness, his eyes glowing with the fervid adour of self-immolation, "we are going to let hell loose around the name of Robespierre."
"At the open-air supper in the Rue St. Honoré. Joséphine and Jacques will be there."
She nodded mechanically, quietly disengaged her hands from his feverish grasp.
"I know," she said quietly. "They told me they were going. I have no influence to stop them."
"You will be there, too?" he asked.
"Of course. So will poor maman," she replied simply.
"This may be the turning point, Régine," he said with passionate earnestness, "in the history of France!"
"Think if it, Régine! Think o fit! Your sister, your young brother! Their name may go down to posterity as the saviours of France!"
"The saviours of France!" she murmured vaguely.
"One word has swayed a multitude before now. It may do so again... to-night!"
"Yes," she said. "And those poor children believe in the power of their oratory."
"Do not you?"
"I only remember that you, Bertrand, have probably spoken of your plan to Theresia Cabarrus, that the place will be swarming with the spies of Robespierre, and that you and the children will be recognized, seized, dragged into prison, then to the guillotine! My God!" she added, in a pitiful murmur. "And I am powerless to do anything but look on like an insentient log, whilst you run your rash heads into a noose, and then follow you all to death, whilst maman is left alone to perish in misery and in want."
"A pessimist again, Régine!" he said with a forced laugh, and in his turn rose to his feet. "'Tis little we have accomplished this evening," he added bitterly, "by talking."
She said nothing more. An icy chill had hold of her heart. Not only of her heart, but of her brain and her whole being. Strive as she might, she could not enter into Bertrand's schemes, and as his whole entity was wrapped up in them she felt estranged from him, out of touch, shut out from his heart. Unspeakable bitterness filled her soul. She hated Theresia Cabarrus, who had enslaved Bertrand's fancy, and above all she mistrusted her. At this moment she would gladly have given her life to get Bertrand away from the influence of that woman and away from that madcap association which called itself "the Fatalists," and into which he had dragged both Joséphine and Jacques.
Silently she preceded him out of the little church porch, the habitual trysting-place, where at one time she had spent so many happy hours. Just before she turned off into the street, she looked back, as if through the impenetrable darkness which enveloped it now she would conjure up, just once more, those happy images of the past. but the darkness made no response to the mute cry of her fancy, and with a last sigh of intense bitterness, she followed Bertrand down the street.
Less than five minutes after Bertrand and Régine had left the porch of Petit St. Antoine, the heavy oak door of the church was cautiously opened. It moved noiselessly upon its hinges, and presently through the aperture the figure of a man emerged, hardly discernible in the gloom. He slipped through the door into the porch, then closed the former noiselessly behind him.
A moment or two later his huge, bulky figure was lumbering up the Rue St. Antoine, in the direction of the Arsenal, his down-at-heel shoes making a dull clip-clop on the cobblestones. There were but very few passers-by at this hour, and the man went along with his peculiar shuffling gaint until he reached the Porte St. Antoine. The city gates were still open at this hour, for it was only a little while ago that the many church clocks of the quartier had struck eight, nor did the sergeant at the gate pay much heed to the beggarly caitiff who went by; only he and the half-dozen men of the National Guard who were in charge of the gate, did remark that the belated wayfarer appeared to be in distress with a terrible asthmatic cough which caused one of the men to say with grim facetiousness:
"Pardi! but here's a man who will not give maman guillotine any trouble!"
They all noticed, moreover, that after the asthmatic giant had passed through the city gate, he turned his shuffling footsteps in the direction of the Rue de la Planchette.