And all the while, the people were shouting:
The Fraternal Supper was interrupted. Men and women pushed and jostled and screamed, the while a small, spare figure in dark cloth coat and immaculate breeches, with smooth brown hair and pale-ascetic face, stood for a moment under the lintel of a gaping porte-cochère. he had two friends with him; handsome, enthusiastic St. Just, the right hand and the spur of the bloodthirsty monster, own kinsman to Armand St. Just the renegade, whose sister was married to a rich English millor; and Couthon, delicate, half-paralysed, wheeled about in a chair, with one foot in the grave, whose devotion to the tyrant was partly made up of ambition, and wholly of genuine admiration.
At the uproarious cheering which greeted his appearance, Robespierre advanced into the open, whilst a sudden swift light of triumph darted from his narrow, pale eyes.
"And you still hesitate!" St. Just whispered excitedly in his ear. "Why, you hold the people absolutely in the hollow of your hand!"
"Have patience, friend!" Couthon remonstrated quietly. "Robespierre's hour is about to strike. To hasten it now, might be courting disaster."
Robespierre himself would, in the meanwhile, have been in serious danger through the exuberant welcome of his admirers. Their thoughtless crowding around his person would easily have given some lurking enemy or hot-headed, would-be martyr the chance of wielding an assassin's knife with success, but for the presence amongst the crowd of his "tappe-durs" - hid-hards - a magnificent bodyguard composed of picked giants from the mining districts of Eastern France, who rallied around the great man, and with their weighted sticks kept the enthusiastic crowd at bay.
He walked a few steps down the street, keeping close to the houses on his left; his two friends, St. Just and Couthon in his carrying chair, were immediately behind him, and between these three and the mob, the tappe-durs, striding two abreast, formed a solid phalanx.
Then, all of a sudden, the great man came to a halt, faced the crowd, and with an impressive gesture imposed silence and attention. His bodyguard cleared a space for him and he stood in the midst of them, with the light of a resin torch striking full upon his spare figure and bringing into bold relief that thin face so full of sinister expression, the cruel mouth and the coldly glittering eyes. He was looking straight across the table, on which the débris of Fraternal Suppers lay in unsavoury confusion.
On the other side of the table, Mme de Serval with her three children sat, or rather crouched, closely huddled against one another. Joséphine was clinging to her mother, Jacques to Régine. Gone was the eagerness out of their attitude now, gone the enthusiasm that had reviled the bloodthirsty tyrant in the teeth of a threatening crowd. it seemed as if, with that terrific blow dealt by a giant hand to Bertrand who was their leader in this mad adventure, the awesome fear of death had descended upon their souls. The two young faces as well as that of Mme de Serval appeared distorted and haggard, whilst Régine's eyes, dilated with terror, strove to meet Robespierre's steady gaze, which was charged with sinister mockery.
And for one short interval of time the crowd was silent; and the everlasting stars looked down from above on the doings of men. To these trembling, terrified young creatures, suddenly possessed with youth's passionate desire to live, with a passionate horror of death, these few seconds of tense silence must have seemed like an eternity of suffering. Then Robespierre's thin face lighted up in a portentous smile - a smile that caused those pale cheeks yonder to take on a still more ashen hue.
"And where is our eloquent orator of a while ago?" the great man asked quietly. "I heard my name, for I sat at my window looking with joy on the fraternization of the people of France. I caught sight of the speaker, and came down to hear more clearly what he had to say. But where is he?"
His pale eyes wandered slowly along the crowd; and such was the power exercised by the extraordinary man, so great the terror that he inspired, that every one there - men, women and children, workers and vagabonds - turned their eyes away, dared not meet his glance lest in it they read an accusation or a threat.
Indeed, no one dared to speak. The young rhetorician had disappeared, and every one trembled lest they should be implicated in his escape. He had evidently got away under cover of the confusion and the noise. But his companions were still there - four of them; the woman and the boy and the two girls, crouching like frightened beasts before the obvious fury, the certain vengeance of the people. The murmurs were ominous. "Death! Guillotine! Traitors!" were words easily distinguishable in the confused babbling of the sullen crowd.
Robespierre's cruel, appraising glance rested on those four pathetic forms, so helpless, so desperate, so terrified.
"Citizens," he said coldly, "did you not hear me ask where your eloquent companion is at this moment?"
Régine alone knew that he lay like a log under the table, close to her feet. She had seen him fall, struck by that awful blow from a brutal fist; but at the ominous query she instinctively pressed her trembling lips close together, whilst Joséphine and Jacques clung to her with the strength of despair.
"Do not parley with the rabble, citizen," St. Just whispered eagerly. "This is a grand moment for you. Let the people of their own accord condemn those who dared to defame you."
And even Couthon, the prudent, added sententiously:
"Such an opportunity may never occur again."
The people, in truth, were over-ready to take vengeance into their own hands.
"À la lanterne, les aristos!"
Gaunt, bedraggled forms leaned across the table, shook begrimed fists in the direction of the four crouching figures. With the blind instinct of trapped beasts, they retreated into the shadows step by step, as those threatening fists appeared to draw closer, clutching at the nearest table and dragging it with them, in an altogether futile attempt at a barricade.
"Holy Mother of God, protect us!" murmured Mme de Serval from time to time.
Behind them there was nothing but the rows of houses, no means of escape even if their trembling knees had not refused them service; whilst vaguely, through their terror, they were conscious of the proximity of that awful asthmatic creature with the wheezy cough and the hideous, toothless mouth. At times he seemed so close that they shut their eyes, almost feeling his grimy hands around their throat, his huge, hairy arms dragging them down to death.
It all happened in the space of a very few minutes, far fewer even than it would take completely to visualize the picture. Robespierre, like an avenging wraith, theatrical yet impassive, standing in the light of a huge resin torch, which threw alternate lights and shadows, grotesque and weird, upon his meagre figure, now elongating the thin, straight nose, now widening the narrow mouth, misshaping the figure till it appeared like some fantastic ghoul-form from the nether world. Behind him, his two friends were lost in the gloom, as were now Mme de Serval and her children. They were ensconced against a heavy porte-cochère, a rickety table alone standing between them and the mob, who were ready to drag them to the nearest lanthorn and immolate them before the eyes of their outraged idol.
"Leave the traitors alone!" Robespierre commanded. "Justice will deal with them as they deserve."
"À la lanterne!" the people - more especially the women - demanded insistently.
Robespierre turned to one of his "tappe-durs."
"Take the aristos to the nearest Commissariat," he said. "I'll have no bloodshed to mar our Fraternal Supper."
"The Commissariat, forsooth!" a raucous voice positively bellowed. "Who is going to stand between us and our vengeance? Robespierre has been outraged by this rabble. Let them perish in sight of all!"
How it all happened after that, none who were there could in truth have told you. The darkness, the flickering lights, the glow of the braziers, which made the inky blackness around more pronounced, made everything indistinguishable to ordinary human sight. Certain it is that citizen Rateau - who had constituted himself the spokesman of the mob - was at one time seen towering behind the four unfortunates, with his huge arms stretched out, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open, screaming abuse and vituperation, demanding the people's right to take the law into its own sovereign hands.
At that moment the light of the nearest resin torch threw his hulking person into bold relief against a heavy porte-cochère which was immediately behind him. The mob acclaimed him, cheered him to the echoes, agreed with him that summary justice in such a case was lone satisfying. The next instant a puff of wind blew the flame of the torch in a contrary direction, and darkness suddenly enveloped the ranting colossus and the cowering prey all ready to his hand.
"Rateau!" shouted some one.
"Hey, there! citizen Rateau! Where art thou?" came soon from every side.
No answer came from the spot where Rateau had last been seen, and it seemed as if just then a strong current of air had slammed a heavy door to somewhere in the gloom. Citizen Rateau had disappeared, and the four traitors along with him.
It took a few seconds of valuable time ere the mob suspected that it was being robbed of its prey. Then a huge upheaval occurred, a motion of the human mass densely packed in the Rue St. Honoré, that was not unlike the rush of water through a narrow gorge.
"Rateau!" People were yelling the name from end to end of the street.
Superstition, which was rampant in these days of carnage and of crime, had possession of many a craven soul. Rateau had vanished. It seemed as if the Evil One, whose name had been so freely invoked during the course of the Fraternal Supper, had in very truth spirited Rateau away.
On the top of the tumult came a silence as complete as that of a graveyard at midnight. The "tappe-durs," who at their chief's command had been forging their way through the crowd, in order to reach the traitors, ceased their hoarse calls of "Make way there, in the name of the Convention!" whilst St. Just, who still stood close to his friend, literally saw the cry stifled on Robespierre's lips.
Robespierre himself had not altogether realized what had happened. In his innermost heart he had already yielded to his friends' suggestion, and was willing to let mob-law run its course. As St. Just had said: what a triumph for himself if his detractors were lynched by the mob! When Rateau towered above the four unfortunates, hurling vituperation above their heads, the tyrant smiled, well satisfied; and when the giant thus incontinently vanished, Robespierre for a moment or two remained complacent and content.
Then the whole crowd oscillated in the direction of the mysterious porte-cochère. Those who were in the front ranks threw themselves against the heavy panels, whilst those in the rear pushed with all their might. But the porte-cochères of old Paris are heavily constructed. Woodwork that had resisted the passage of centuries withheld the onslaught of a pack of half-starved caitiffs. But only for awhile.
The mob, fearing that it was getting foiled, broke into a howl of execration, and Robespierre, his face more drawn and grey than before, turned to his companions, trying to read their thoughts.
"If it should be-" St. Just murmured, yet dared not put his surmise into words.
Nor had he time to do so, or Robespierre the leisure to visualize his own fears. Already the massive oak panels were yielding to persistent efforts. The mighty woodwork began to crack under the pressure of this living battering ram; when suddenly the howls of those who were in the rear turned to a wild cry of delight. Those who were pushing against the porte-cochère paused in their task. All necks were suddenly craned upwards. The weird lights of torches and the glow of braziers glinted on guant necks and upturned chins, turned heads and faces into phantasmagoric, unearthly shapes.
Robespierre and his two companions instinctively looked up too. There, some few métres lower down the street, on the third-floor balcony of a neighbouring house, the figure of Rateau had just appeared. The window immediately behind him was wide open and the room beyond was flooded with light, so that his huge person appeared distinctly silhouetted - a black and gargantuan mass - against the vivid and glowing background. His head was bare, his lank hair fluttered in the breeze, his huge chest was bare and his ragged shirt hung in tatters from his brawny arms. Flung across his left shoulder, he held an inanimate female form, whilst with his right hand he dragged another through the open window in his wake. Just below him, a huge brazier was shedding its crimson glow.
The sight of him - gaunt, weird, a veritable tower of protean revenge - paralyzed the most ebullient, silenced every clamour. For the space of two seconds only did he stand there, in full view of the crowd, in full view of the almighty tyrant whose defamation he had sworn to avenge. Then he cried in stentorian tones:
"Thus perish all conspirators against the liberty of the people, all traitors to its cause, by the hands of the people and for the glory of their chosen!"
And, with a mighty twist of his huge body, he picked up the inanimate form that lay lifeless at his feet. For a moment he held the two in his arms, high above the iron railing of the balcony; for a moment those two lifeless, shapeless forms hung in the darkness in mid-air, whilst an entire crowd of fanatics held their breath and waited, awed and palpitating, only to break out into frantic cheering as the giant hurled the two lifeless bodies down, straight into the glowing brazier.
"Two more to follow!" he shouted lustily.
There was pushing and jostling and cheering. Women screamed, men blasphemed and children cried. Shouts of "Vive Rateau!" mingled with those of "Vive Robespierre!" a circle was formed, hands holding hands, and a wild saraband danced around the glowing brazier. And this mad orgy of enthusiasm lasted for full three minutes, until the foremost among those who, awestruck and horrified, had approached the brazier in order to see the final agony of the abominable traitor, burst out with a prolonged "Malediction!"
Beyond that exclamation, they were speechless - pointed with trembling hands at the shapeless bundles on which the dull fire of the braziers had not yet obtained a purchase.
The bundles were shapeless indeed. Rags hastily tied together to represent human forms; but rags only! No female traitors, no aristos beneath! The people had been fooled, hideously fooled by a traitor all the more execrable, as he had seemed one of themselves.
"Malediction! Death to the traitor!"
Aye, death indeed! The giant, whoever he might be, would have to bear a charmed life if he were to escape the maddened fury of a foiled populace.
"Rateau!" they shouted hoarsely.
They looked up to that third-floor balcony which had so fascinated them awhile ago. But now the window was shut and no light from within chased the gloom that hung over the houses around.
"Rateau!" the people shouted.
But Rateau had disappeared. It all seemed like a dream, a nightmare. Had Rateau really existed, or was he a wraith, sent to tease and to scare those honest patriots who were out for liberty and for fraternity? Many there were who would have liked to hold on to that theory - men and women whose souls, warped and starved by the excesses and the miseries of the past five years, clung to any superstition, any so-called supernatural revelations, that failed to replace the old religion that had been banished from their hearts.
But in this case not even superstition could be allowed free play. Rateau had vanished, it is true. The house from whence he had thus mocked and flouted the people was searched through and through by a mob who found nothing but bare boards and naked walls, empty rooms and disused cupboards on which to wreak its fury.
But down there, lying on the top of the brazier, were those two bundles of rags slowly being consumed by the smouldering embers, silent proofs of the existence of that hulking creature whose size and power had, with that swiftness peculiar to human conceptions, already become legendary.
And in a third-floor room, a lamp that had recently been extinguished, a coil of rope, more rages, male and female clothes, a pair of boots, a battered hat, were mute witnesses to the swift passage of the mysterious giant with the wheezy cough - the trickster who had fooled a crowd and thrown the great Robespierre himself into ridicule.