In the Rue Villedot, which is in the Louvre quarter of Paris, there is a house, stone built and five-storied, with grey shutters to all the windows and balconies of wrought iron - a house exactly similar to hundreds and thousands of others in every quarter of Paris. During the day the small wicket in the huge porte-cochère is usually kept open; it allows a peep into a short dark passage, and beyond it to the lodge of the concierge. Beyond this again there is a courtyard, into which, from every one of its four sides, five rows of windows, all adorned with grey shutters, blink down like so many colourless eyes. The inevitable wrought-rion balconies extend along three sides of the quadrangle on every one of the five floors, and on the balustrade of these, pieces of carpet in various stages of decay are usually to be seen hanging out to air. From shutter to shutter clothes lines are stretched and support fantastic arrays of family linene that flap lazily in the sultry, vitiated air which alone finds its way down the shaft of the quadrangle.
On the left of the entrance passage and opposite the lodge of the concierge there is a tall glass door, and beyond it the vestibule and primary staircase, which gives access to the principal apartments - those that look out upon the street and are altogether more luxurious and more airy than those which give upon the courtyard. To the latter, two back stairways give access. They are at the far corners of the courtyard; both are pitch dark and reek of stuffiness and evil smells. The apartments which they serve, especially those on the lower floors, are dependent for light and air on what modicum of these gifts of heaven comes down the shaft into the quadrangle.
After dark, of course, porte-cochère and wicket are both closed, and if a belated lodger of visitor desires to enter the house, he must ring the bell and the concierge in his lodge will pull a communicating cord that will unlatch the wicket. It is up to the belated visitor or lodger to close the wicket after him, and he is bound by law to give his name, together with the number of the apartment to which he is going, in to the concierge as he goes past the lodge. The concierge, on the other hand, will take a look at him so that he may identify him should trouble or police inquiry arise.
On this night of April, somewhere near midnight, there was a ring at the outer door. Citizen Leblanc, the concierge, roused from his first sleep, pulled the communicating cord. A young man, hatless and in torn coat and muddy breeches, slipped in through the wicket and hurried past the lodge, giving only one name, but that in a clear voice, as he passed;
The concierge turned over in his bed and grunted, half asleep. His duty clearly was to run after the visitor, who had failed to give his own name; but to begin with, the worthy concierge was very tired; and then the name which the belated caller had given was one requiring special consideration.
The citoyenne Cabarrus was young and well favoured, and even in these troublous days, youth and beauty demanded certain privileges which no patriotic concierge could refuse to grant. Moreover, the aforesaid lady had visitors at all hours of the day and late into the night - visitors for the most part with whom it was not well to interfere. Citizen Tallien, the popular Representative in the Convention was, as every one knew, her ardent adorer. 'Twas said by all and sundry that since the days when he met the fair Cabarrus in Bordeaux and she exercised such a mellowing influence upon his bloodthirsty patriotism, he had no thought save to win her regard.
But he was not the only one who came to the dreary old apartment in the Rue Villedot, with a view to worshipping at the Queen of Beauty's shrine. Citizen Leblanc had seen many a great Representative of the People pass by his lodge since the beautiful Theresia came to dwell here. And if he became very confidential and his interlocutor very insistent, he would throw out a hint that the greatest man in France to-day was not infrequent visitor in the house.
Obviously, therefore, it was best not to pry too closely into secrets, the keeping of which might prove uncomfortable for one's peace of mind. And citizen Leblanc, tossing restlessly in his sleep, dreamed of the fair Cabarrus and wished himself in the place of those who were privileged and pay their court to her.
And so the belated visitor was able to make his way across the courtyard and up the dark back stairs unmolested. but even this reassuring fact failed to give him confidence. He hurried on with the swift and stealthy footstep which had become habitual to him, glancing over his shoulder from time to time, wide-eyed and with ears alert, and heart quivering with apprehension.
Up the dark and narrow staircase he hurried, dizzy and sick, his head reeling in the dank atmosphere, his shaking hands seeking the support of the walls as he climbed wearily up to the third floor. Here he almost measured his length upon the landing, tottered up again and came down sprawling on his knees against one of the doors - the one which had the number 22 painted upon it. For the moment it seemed as if he would once more fall into a swoon. Terror and relief were playing havoc with his whirling brain. He had not sufficient strength to stretch out an arm in order to ring the bell, but only beat feebly against the panel of the door with his moist palm.
A moment later the door was opened, and the unfortunate fell forward into the vestibule at the feet of a tall apparition clad in white and holding a small table lamp above her head. The apparition gave a little scream which was entirely human and wholly feminine, hastily put down the lamp on a small console close by, and by retreating forcefully farther into the vestibule, dragged the half-animate form of the young man along too; for he was now clinging to a handful of white skirt with the strength of despair.
"I am lost, Theresia!" he moan pitiably. "Hide me, for God's sake!... only for to-night!"
Theresia Cabarrus was frowning now, looked more perplexed than kindly, and certainly made no attempt to raise the crouching figure from the ground. Anon she called loudly: "Pepita!" and whilst waiting for an answer to this call, she remained quite still, and the frown of puzzlement on her face yielded to one of fear. The young man, obviously only half conscious, continued to moan and to implore.
"Silence, you fool!" she said peremptorily. "The door is still open. Anyone on the stairs could hear you. Pepita!" she called again, more harshly this time.
The next moment an old woman came from somewhere out of the darkness, threw up her hands at sight of that grovelling figure on the floor, and would no doubt have broken out in loud lament but that her young mistress ordered her at once to close the door.
"Then help the citoyen Moncrif to a sofa in my room," the beautiful Theresia went on peremptorily. "Give him a restorative and see above all to it that he hold his tongue!"
With a quick imperious jerk she freed herself from the convulsive grasp of the young man, and walking quickly across the small vestibule, she went through a door at the end of it that had been left ajar, leaving the unfortunate Moncrif to the ministrations of Pepita.
Theresia Cabarrus, who had obtained a divorce from her husband, the Marquis de Fontenay (by virtue of a decree of the former Legislative Assembly, which allow - nay, encouraged - the dissolution of a marriage with an émigré who refused to return to France). Theresia Cabarrus was, in this year 1794, in her twenty-fourth year, and perhaps in the zenith of her beauty and in the plenitude of that power which had subjugated so many men. In what that power consisted the historian has vainly tried to guess; for it was not her beauty only that brought so many to her feet. In the small oval face, the pointed chin, the full, sensuous lips, so typically Spanish, we look in vain for traces of that beauty which we are told surpassed that of other women of her time; whilst in the dark, velvety eyes, more tender than spiritual, and in the narrow arched brows, we fail to find an expression of the esprit which had moulded Tallien to her will and even brought Robespierre out of the shell of his asceticism - a willing victim to her wiles.
But who would be bold enough to analyse that subtle quality, acknowledged by all, possessed by a very few, which is vaguely denoted by the word "charm"? Theresia Cabarrus must have possessed it to a marvellous degree - that, and an utter callousness for the feelings of her victims, which would leave her mind cool and keen to pursue her own ends, whilst theirs was thrown into that maze of jealousy and of passion wherein prudence flies to the winds and the fever of self-immolation gets into the blood.
At this moment, in the sparsely furnished room of her dingy apartment, she looked like an angry goddess. Her figure, which undeniably was superb, was drawn to its full height, its splendid proportions accentuated by the clinging folds of her modish gown - a marvel of artistic scantiness, which only have concealed the perfectly modelled bust, and left the rounded thigh, in its skin-tight, flesh-coloured undergarment, unblushingly exposed. Her blue-black hair was dressed in the new fashion, copied from ancient Greece and snooded by a glittering antique fillet; and her small bare feet were encased in satin sandals. Truly a lovely woman, but for that air of cold displeasure coupled with fear, which marred the harmony of the dainty, child-like features.
After awhile Pepita came back.
"Well?" queried Theresia impatiently.
"Poor M. Bertrand is very ill," the old Spanish woman replied with unconcealed sympathy. "He has fever, the poor cabbage. Bed is the only place for him...."
"He cannot stay here, as thou well knowest, Pepita," the imperious beauty retorted drily. "Thy head and mine are in danger every moment that he spends under this roof."
"But thou couldst not turn a sick man out into the streets in the middle of the night."
"Why not?" Theresia riposted coldly. "It is a beautiful and balmy night. Why not?" she reiterated fretfully.
"Because he would die on thy doorstep," was old Pepita's muttered reply.
Theresia shrugged her shoulders.
"He dies if he goes," she said slowly, "and we die if he stays. Tell him to go, Pepita, ere citizen Tallien comes."
A shudder went through the old woman's spare frame.
"It is late," she protested. "Citizen Tallien will not come to-night."
"Not only he, Theresia rejoined coldly, "but - but - the other - Thou knowest well, Pepita - those two arranged to meet here in my lodgings to-night."
"But not at this hour!"
"After the sitting of the Convention."
"It is nearly midnight. They'll not come," the old woman persisted obstinately.
"They arranged to meet here, to talk over certain matters which interest their party," citoyenne Cabarrus went on, equally firmly. "They'll not fail. So tell citizen Moncrif to go, Pepita. He endangers my life by staying here."
"Then do the dirty work thyself," the old woman muttered sullenly. "I'll not be a part to cold-blooded murder."
"Well, since citizen Moncrif's life is more valuable to thee than mine-"
Theresia began, but got no father. The words died on her lips.
Bertrand Moncrif, very pale, still looking scared and wild, had quietly entered the room.
"You wish me to go, Theresia," he said simply. "You did not think surely that I would do anything that might endanger your safety. My God!" he added with passionate vehemence, "Do you not know that I would at any time lay down my life for yours?"
Theresia shrugged her statuesque shoulders.
"Of course, of course, Bertrand," she said a little impatiently, though obviously trying to be kind. "But I do entreat you not to go into heroics at this hour, and not to put on tragic airs. You must see that for yourself as well as for me it would be fatal if you were found here, and-"
"And I am going, Theresia," he broke in seriously. "I ought never to have come. I was a fool, as usual!" he added with bitterness. "But after that awful fracas I was dazed and hardly knew what I was doing."
The frown of vexation reappeared upon the woman's fair, smooth brow.
"The fracas?" she asked quickly. "What fracas?"
"In the Rue St. Honoré. I thought you knew."
"No. I know nothing," she retorted, and her voice was now trenchant and hard. "What happened?"
"They were deifying that brute Robespierre-"
"Silence!" she broke in harshly. "Name no names."
"And they were deifying a bloodthirsty tyrant, and I-"
"And you rose from your seat," she broke in again, and this time with a laugh that was cruel in its biting irony; "and lashed yourself into a fury of eloquent vituperation. Oh, I know! I know!" she went on excitedly. "You and your Fatalists, or whatever you call yourselves! And that rage for martyrdom!... Senseless, stupid, and selfish! Oh, my God! how selfish! And then you came here to drag me down with you into an abyss of misery, along with you to the guillotine... to..."
It seemed as if she were choking, and her small white hands, with a gruesome and pathetic gesture, went up to her neck, smoothed it and fondled it, as if to shield it from that awful fate.
Bertrand tried to pacify her. It was he who was the more calm of the two now. It seemed as if her danger had brought him back to full consciousness. He forgot his own danger, the threat of death which lay in wait for him, probably on the very threshold of this house. He was a marked man now; martyrdom had ceased to be a dream: it had become a grim reality. But of this he did not think. Theresia was in danger, compromised by his own callous selfishness. his mind was full of her; and Régine, the true and loyal friend, the beloved of past happier years, had no place in his thoughts beside the exquisite enchantress, whose very nearness was paradise.
"I am going," he said earnestly. "Theresia, my beloved, try to forgive me. I was a fool - a criminal fool! But lately - since I thought that you - you did not really care; that all my hopes of future happiness were naught but senseless dreams; since then I seem to have lost my head - I don't know what I am doing!... And so-"
He got no farther. Ashamed of his own weakness, he was too proud to let her see that she made him suffer. For the moment, he only bent the knee and kissed the hem of her diaphanous gown. He looked so handsome then, despite his bedraggled, woebegone appearance - so young, so ardent, that Theresia's egotistical heart was touched, as it had always been when the incense of his perfect love rose to her sophisticated nostrils. She put out her hand and brushed with a gentle, almost maternal, gesture the matted brown hair from his brow.
"Dear Bertrand," she murmured vaguely. "What a foolish boy to think that I do not care!"
Already he had been brought back to his senses. The imminence of her danger lent him the courage which he had been lacking, and unhesitatingly now he jumped to his feet and turned to go. But she, quick in the transition of her moods, had already seized him by the arm.
"No, no!" she murmured in a hoarse whisper. "Don't go just yet... not before Pepita has seen if the stairs are clear."
Her small hand held him as in a vice, whilst Pepita, obedient and silent, was shuffling across the vestibule in order toe execute her mistress's commands. But, even so, Bertrand struggled to get away. An epitome of their whole life, this struggle between them! - he trying to free himself from those insidious bonds that held him one moment and loosed him the next; that numbed him to all that he was wont to hold sacred and dear - his love for Régine, his loyalty, his honour. An epitome of her character and his: he, weak and yielding, every a ready martyr thirsting for self-immolation; and she, just a bundle of feminine caprice, swayed by sentiment one moment and by considerations of ambition or of personal safety the next.
"You must wait, Bertrand," she urged insistently. "Citizen Tallien may be on the stairs - he or - or the other. If they saw you!... My God!"
"They would conclude that you had turned me out of doors," he riposted simply. "Which would, in effect, be the truth. I entreat you to let me go!" he added earnestly. "'Twere better they met me on the stairs than in here."
The old woman's footsteps were heard hurrying back. Bertrand struggled to free himself - did in truth succeed; and Theresia smothered a desperate cry of warning as he strode rapidly through the door and across the vestibule only to be met here by Pepita, who pushed him with all her might incontinently back.
Theresia held her tiny handkerchief to her mouth to deaden the scream that forced itself to her lips. She had followed Bertrand out of the salon, and now stood in the doorway, a living statue of fear.
"Citizen Tallien," Pepita had murmured hurriedly. "He is on the landing. Come this way."
She dragged Bertrand by the arm, not waiting for orders from her mistress this time, along a narrow dark passage, which at its extreme end gave access to a tiny kitchen. Into this she pushed him and locked the door upon him.
"Name of a name!" she muttered as she shuffled back to the vestibule. "If they should find him here!"
Citoyenne Cabarrus had not moved. Her eyes, dilated with terror, mutely questioned the old woman as the latter made ready to admit the visitor. Pepita gave reply as best she could, by silent gestures, indicating the passage and the action of turning a key in the lock. Her wrinkled old lips hardly stirred, and then only in order to murmur quickly and with a sudden assumption of authority:
"Self-possession, my cabbage, or you'll endanger yourself and us all!"
Theresia pulled herself together. Obviously the old woman's warning was not to be ignored, nor had it been given a moment too soon. Outside, the visitor had renewed his impatient rat-tat against the door. The eyes of mistress and maid met for one brief second. Theresia was rapidly regaining her presence of mind; whereupon Pepita smoothed out her apron, readjusted her cap, and went to open the door, even whilst Theresia said in a firm voice, loudly enough for the new visitor to hear:
"One of my guests, at last! Open quickly, Pepita!"