Chapter IX:

A Hideous, Fearful Hour
~ 1


A young man - tall, spare, with sallow skin and shifty, restless eyes - pushed unceremoniously past the old servant, threw his hat and cane down on the nearest chair, and hurrying across the vestibule, entered the salon where the beautiful Spaniard, a picture of serene indifference, sat ready to receive him.


She had chosen for the setting of this scene a small settee covered in old rose brocade. On this she half sat, half reclined, with an open book in her hand, her elbow resting on the frame of the settee, her cheek leaning against her hand. Immediately behind her, the light from an oil lamp tempered by a shade of rose-coloured silk, outlined with a brilliant, glowing pencil the contour of her small head, one exquisite shoulder, and the mass of her raven hair, whilst it accentuated the cool half-tones of her diaphanous gown, on the round bare arms and bust, the tiny sandalled feet and cross-gartered legs.


A picture in truth to dazzle the eyes of any man! Tallien should have been at her feet in an instant. The fact that he paused in the doorway bore witness to the unruly thoughts that ran riot in his brain.


"Ah, citizen Tallien!" the fair Theresia exclaimed with a perfect assumption of sang-froid. "You are the first to arrive, and are indeed welcome; for I was nearly swooning with ennui. Well!" she added, with a provocative smile, and extended a gracious arm in his direction. "Are you not going to kiss my hand?"


"I heard a voice," was all the response which he gave to this seductive invitation. "A man's voice. Who was it?"


She raised a pair of delicately pencilled eyebrows. her eyes became as round and as innocent-looking as a child's.


"A man's voice?" she riposted with a perfect air of astonishment. "You are crazy, mon ami; or else are crediting my faithful Pepita with a virile bass, which in truth she doth not possess!"


"Whose voice was it?" Tallien reiterated, making an effort to speak calmly, even though he was manifestly shaking with choler.


Whereupon the fair Theresia, no longer gracious or arch, looked him up and down as if he were no better than a lacquey.


"Ah, ça!" she rejoined coldly. "Are you perchance trying to cross-question me? By what right, I pray you, citizen Tallien, do you assume this hectoring tone in my presence? I am not yet your wife, remember; and 'tis not you, I image, who are the dictator of France."


"Do not tease me, Theresia!" the man interposed hoarsely. "Bertrand Moncrif is here."


For the space of a second, or perhaps less, Theresia gave no reply to the taunt. Her quick, alert brain had already faced possibilities, and she was far too clever a woman to take the risks which a complete evasion of the truth would have entailed at this moment. She did not, in effect, know whether Tallien was speaking from positive information given to him by spies, or merely from conjecture born of jealousy. Moreover, another would be here presently - another, whose spies were credited with omniscience, and whom she might not succeed in dominating with a smile or a frown, as she could the love-sick Tallien. Therefore, after that one brief instant's reflection she decided to temporize, to shelter behind a half-truth, and replied, with a quick glance from under her long lashes:


"I am not teasing you, citizen. Bertrand came here for shelter awhile ago."


Tallien drew a quick sigh of satisfaction, and she went on carelessly:


"But, obviously, I could not keep him here. He seemed hurt and frightened.... He has been gone this past half-hour."


For a moment it seemed as if the man, in face of this obvious lie, would flare out into a hot retort; but Theresia's luminous eyes subdued him, and before the cool contempt expressed by those exquisite lips, he felt all his blustering courage oozing away.


"The man is an abominable and an avowed traitor," he said sullenly. "Only two hours ago-"


"I know," she broke in coldly. "He vilified Robespierre. A dangerous thing to do. Bertrand was ever a fool, and he lost his head."


"He will lose it more effectually to-morrow," Tallien retorted grimly.


"You mean that you would denounce him?"


"That I will denounce him. I would have done so to-night, before coming here, only - only-"


"Only what?"


"I was afraid he might be here."


Theresia broke into a ringing if somewhat artificial peal of laughter.


"I must thank you, citizen, for this consideration of my feelings. It was, in truth, thoughtful of you to think of sparing me a scandal. But, since Bertrand is not here-"


"I know where he lodges. He'll not escape, citoyenne. My word on it!"


Tallien spoke very quietly, but with that concentrated fury of which a fiercely jealous man is ever capable. He had remained standing in the doorway all this while, his eyes fixed on the beautiful woman before him, but his attention feverishly divided between her and what might be going on in the vestibule behind him.


In answer to his last threatening words, the lovely Theresia rejoined, more seriously:


"So as to make sure I do not escape either!" And a flash of withering anger shot from her dark eyes on the unromantic figure of her adorer. "Or you, mon ami! You are determined that Mme Roland's fate shall overtake me, eh? And no doubt you will be thrilled to the marrow when you see my head fall into your precious salad-bowl. Will yours follow mine, think you? Or will you prefer to emulate citizen Roland's more romantic ending?"


Even while she spoke, Tallien had been unable to repress a shudder.


"Theresia, in heaven's name-!" he murmured.


"Bah, mon ami! There is no longer a heaven these days. You and your party have carefully abolished the Hereafter. So, after you and I have taken our walk up the steps of the scaffold-"


"Theresia!"


"Eh, what?" she went on coolly. "Is that not perchance what you have in contemplation? Moncrif, you say, is an avowed traitor. Has openly vilified and insulted your demi-god. He has been seen coming to my apartments. Good! I tell you that he is no longer here. But let that pass. He is denounced. Good! Sent to the guillotine. Good again! And Theresia Cabarrus in whose house he tried to seek refuge, much against her will, goes to the guillotine in his company. The prospect may please you, mon ami, because for the moment you are suffering from a senseless attack of jealousy. But I confess that it does not appeal to me."


The man was silent now; awed against his will. His curiously restless eyes swept over the graceful apparition before him. Insane jealousy was fighting a grim fight in his heart with terror for his beloved. Her argument was a sound one. Even he was bound to admit that. Powerful though he was in the Convention, his influence was as nothing compared with that of Robespierre. And he knew his redoubtable colleague well enough that an insult such as Moncrif had put upon in the Rue St. Honoré this night would never be forgiven, neither in the young hot-head himself nor in any of his friends, adherents, or mere pitying sympathizers.


Theresia Cabarrus was clever enough and quick enough to see that she had gained one point.


"Come and kiss my hand," she said, with a little sight of satisfaction.


This time the man obeyed, without an instant's hesitation. Already he was down on his knees, repentant and humiliated. She gave him her small, sandalled foot to kiss. After that, Tallien became abject.


"You know that I would die for you, Theresia!" he murmured passionately.


This is the second time to-night that such an assertion had been made in this room. And both had been made in deadly earnest, whilst the fair listener had remained equally indifferent to both. And for the second time to-night, Theresia passed her cool white hand over the bent head of an ardent worshipper, whilst her lips murmured vaguely:


"Foolish! Oh, how foolish! Why do men torture themselves, I wonder, with senseless jealousy?"


Instinctively she turned her small head in the direction of the passage and the little kitchen, where Bertrand Moncrif had found temporary and precarious shelter. Self-pity and a kind of fierce helplessness not untinged with remorse made her eyes appear resentful and hard.


There, in the stuffy little kitchen at the end of the dark, dank passage, love in its pure sense, happiness, brief perhaps but unalloyed, and certainly obscure, lay in wait for her. Here, at her feet, was security in the present turmoil, power, and a fitting background for her beauty and her talents. She did not want to lose Bertrand; indeed, she did not intend to lose him. She sighed a little regretfully as she thought of his good looks, his enthusiasm, his selfless ardour. Then she looked down once more on the narrow shoulders, the lank, colourless hair, the bony hands of the erstwhile lawyer's clerk to whom she had already promised marriage, and she shuddered a little when she remembered that those same hands into which she had promised to place her own and which now grasped hers in passionate adoration had, of a certainty, signed the order for those execrable massacres which had for ever sullied the early days of the Revolution. For a moment - a brief one, in truth - she marvelled if union with such a man was not too heavy a price to pay for immunity and for power.


But the hesitancy only lasted a few seconds. The next, she had thrown back her head as if in defiance of the whisperings of conscience and of heart. She need not lose her youthful lover at all. He was satisfied with so little! A few kind words here, an occasional kiss, a promise or two, and he would always remain her willing slave.


It were foolish indeed, and far, far too late, to give way to sentiment at this hour, when Tallien's influence in the Convention was second only to that of Robespierre, whilst Bertrand Moncrif was a fugitive, a suspect, a poor miserable fanatic, whose hot-headedness was for ever landing him from one dangerous situation into another.


So, after indulging in the faintest little sigh of yearning for the might-have-been, she met her latest adorer's worshipping glance with coquettish air of womanly submission, which completed his subjugation, and said lightly:


"And now give me my orders for to-night, mon ami."


She settled herself down more comfortably upon the settee, and graciously allowed him to sit on a low chair beside her.


~ 2


The turbulent little incident was closed. Theresia had her way, and poor, harassed Tallien succeeded in shutting away in the innermost recesses of his heart the pangs of jealousy which still tortured him. His goddess was now all smiles, and the subtle flattery implied by her preference for him above his many rivals warmed his atrophied heart and soothed his boundless vanity.


We must accept the verdict of history that Theresia Cabarrus never loved Tallien. In truth appears to be that what love she was capable of had undoubtedly been given to Bertrand Moncrif, whom she would not entirely dismiss from his allegiance, even though she had at last been driven into promising marriage to the powerful Terrorist.


It is doubtful if, despite that half-hearted and wholly selfish love for the young royalist, she had ever intended that he should be more to her than a slavish worshipper, a friend on whom she could count for perpetual adoration or mere sentimental dalliance; but a husband - never! Certain it is that even Tallien, influential as he was, was only a pis-aller. The lovely Spaniard, we make no doubt, would have preferred Robespierre as a future husband, or, failing him, Louise-Antoine St. Just. but the latter was deeply enamoured of another woman; and Robespierre was too cautious, too ambitious, to allow himself to be enmeshed.


So she fell back on Tallien.


~ 3


"Give me my orders for tonight," the lovely woman had said to her future lord. And he - a bundle of vanity and egoism - was flattered and soothed by this submission, though he knew in his heart of hearts that it was only pretence.


"You will help me, Theresia?" he pleaded.


She nodded, and asked coldly: "How?"


"You know that Robespierre suspects me," he went on, and instinctively, at the mere breathing of that awe-inspiring name his voice sank to a murmur. "Ever since I came back from Bordeaux."


"I know. Your leniency there is attributed to me."


"It was your influence, Theresia-" he began.


"That turned you," she broke in coldly, "from a bloodstained beast into a right-minded justiciary. Do you regret it?"


"No, no!" he protested; "since it gained me your love."


"Could I love a beast of prey?" she retorted. "But if you do not regret, you are certainly afraid."


"And he had sent me to Bordeaux to punish, not to pardon."


"Then you are afraid!" she insisted. "Has anything happened?"


"No; only his usual hints - his vague threats. You know them."


She nodded.


"The same," he went on somberly, "that he used ere he struck Danton."


"Danton was hot-headed. He was too proud to appeal to the populace who idolized him."


"And I have no popularity to which I can appeal. If Robespierre strikes at me in the Convention, I am doomed-"


"Unless you strike first."


"I have no following. We none of us have. Robespierre sways the Convention with one word."


"You mean," she broke in more vehemently, "that you are all cringing cowards - the abject slaves of one man. Two hundred of you are longing for this era of bloodshed to cease; two hundred would stay the pitiless work of the guillotine - and not one is plucky enough to cry, "Halt! It is enough!'"


"The first man who cries 'Halt!' is called a traitor," Tallien retorted gloomily. "And the guillotine will not rest until Robespierre himself had said, 'It is enough!'"


"He alone knows what he wants. He alone fears no one," she exclaimed, almost involuntarily giving grudging admiration where in truth she felt naught but loathing.


"I would not fear either, Theresia," he protested, and there was a note of tender reproach in his voice, "if it were not for you."


"I know that, mon ami," she rejoined with an impatient little sight. "Well, what do you want me to do?"


He leaned forward in his chair, closer to her, and did not mark - poor fool! - that, as he drew near, she recoiled ever so slightly from him.


"There are two things," he said insinuatingly, "which you could do, Theresia, either of which would place Robespierre under such lasting obligation to you that he would admit us into the inner circle of his friends, trust us and confide in us as he does in St. Just or Couthon."


"Trust you, you mean. He never would trust a woman."


"It means the same thing - security for us both."


"Well?" she rejoined. "What are these two things?"


He paused a moment, appeared to hesitate; then said resolutely:


"Firstly, there is Bertrand Moncrif... and his Fatalists-"


Her face hardened. She shook her head.


"I warned Robespierre about to-night," she said. "I knew that a lot of young fools meant to cause a fracas in the Rue St. Honoré. But the whole thing has been a failure, and Robespierre has no use for failures."


"It need not be a failure - even yet."


"What do you mean?"


"Robespierre will be here directly," he urged, in a whisper rendered hoarse with excitement. "Bertrand Moncrif is here - Why not deliver the young traitor, and earn Robespierre's gratitude?"


"Oh!" she broke in indignant protest. Then, as she caught the look of jealous anger which at her obvious agitation suddenly flared up in his narrow eyes again, she went on with a careless shrug of her statuesque shoulders: "Bertrand is not here, as I told you, my friend. So these means of serving your cause are out of my reach."


"Theresia," he urged, "by deceiving me-"


"By tantalizing me," she broke in harshly, "you do yourself no good. Let us understand one another, my friend," she went on more gently. "You wish me to serve you by serving the dictator of France. And I tell you you'll not gain your ends by taunting me."


"Theresia, we must make friends with Robespierre! He has the power; he rules over France. Whilst I-"


"Ah!" she retorted with vehemence. "That is where you and your weak-kneed friends are wrong! You say that Robespierre rules France. 'Tis not true. It is not Robespierre, the man, who rules; it is his name! The name of Robespierre has become a fetish, an idolatry. Before it every head is bent and every courage cowed. It rules by the fear which it evokes and by the slavery which it compels under the perpetual threat of death. Believe me," she insisted, "'tis not Robespierre who rules, but the guillotine which he wields! And we are all of us helpless - you and I and your friends. And all the others who long to see the end of this era of bloodshed and of revenge, we have got to do as he tells us - pile up crime upon crime, massacre upon massacre, and bear the odium of it all, while he stands aloof in darkness and in solitude, the brain that guides, whilst you and your party are only the hands that strike. Oh! the humiliation of it! And if you were but men, all of you, instead of puppets-"


"Hush, Theresia, in heaven's name!" Tallien broke in peremptorily at last. He had vainly tried to pacify her while she poured forth the vials of her resentment and her contempt. But now his ears, attuned to sensitiveness by an ever-present danger, had caught a sound which proceeded from the vestibule - a sound which made him shudder - a footstep - the opening of a door - a voice. "Hush!" he entreated. "Every dumb wall has ears, these days!"


She broke into a harsh, excited little laugh.


"You are right, my friend," she said under her breath. "What do I care, after all? What do any of us care now, so long as our necks are fairly safe upon our shoulders? But I'll not sell Bertrand," she added firmly. "If I did it I should despise myself too much and hate you worse. So tell me quickly what else I can do to propitiate the ogre!"


"He'll tell you himself," Tallien murmured hurriedly, as the sounds in the vestibule became more loud and distinctive. "Here they are! And, in heaven's name, Theresia, remember that our lives are at that one man's mercy!"