WE must go back a little in our tale. Danton, after the committal of Madame Duchenier to La Bourbe, had not ceased to persecute her with one or two visits; and in the meantime he found it easy to procrastinate her trial from day to day in the hope of at last bending her to his will. But, as we have seen, his views for the present altered; he married and retired into the country, and soon utterly forgot that such a person as his victim had existed. In due course of time the gaoler, receiving no further intimation from Danton as to the course to be pursued with respect to Marie, allowed her turn for trial to come on without further interference; and the result, as we have seen, was that her sentence was not yet pronounced when Charlotte Corday delivered the world from the tyranny of Marat.
In prison, then, Marie Duchenier lingered during the whole of that winter, ignorant whether she was to consider herself as sentenced, and, if she were, when that sentence would be carried into execution.
In the meantime friends of Danton saw with consternation that his absence in the country was exposing his party to ruin, and they despatched letter after letter urging his return to Paris. Week after week he delayed; and in the meantime Robespierre was strengthening his party, making his plans, and preparing himself for the great blow he intended to strike.
At length, in the spring, Danton came up to Paris, and his faction immediately regained courage and seemed to recover strength. In the Club des Cordeliers more especially that party reigned almost triumphant, and Danton's influence was by many of the wisest observers thought superior to that of his rival. Both were agreed on one point--on the necessity of crushing the more blasphemous section of the Jacobins; those, namely, who utterly despised the notion of any Supreme Being, and who were represented by Hebert and Chaumette, and the infamous pages of the Père du Chene. The downfall of these men was accomplished j and then, to gain the highest point of all, it needed only that either Danton or Robespierre should crush his rival.
It was a fine day towards the end of March, and Marie Duchenier, now utterly hopeless of human succour, and deriving consolation from one fact only, that her husband had survived his imprisonment, was seated alone in the little room which, as the prison happened to be very empty, had been appropriated to her use. Her apartment was situated near the top of the prison, and from its little window the eye commanded a prospect of the Pare de Vincennes, of the confluence of the Seine and the Marne, of the pretty little village Montreuil, and even in some measure of the more distant forest of Bondy. Of the motions of the Catholic army, of the fate of its leaders, and of its own final dispersion, she knew nothing, except indeed that some obscure intimations of the last-mentioned event had reached her on the authority of her gaoler. It is not that Duchenier, who had established a complete system of communication with Texier, had failed to write again and again; but not a single letter was allowed to be delivered to the prisoners, and Texier's utmost vigilance could not find the means of overcoming the difficulty.
Thus, then, Marie sat alone, and watched the gradual brightening up of the scene before her as the sun, now beginning to exert some power, got round to the south. It was so unusual a thing for her to receive any visit, except at meal-times, that she was much astonished towards eleven o'clock to hear steps on the staircase which led to her apartment; and her wonder was presently turned into terror when the door opened, and the gaoler entering announced Danton. Having executed that errand, he retired at once; and the terrible rival of Robespierre, whose external appearance was somewhat improved since the time that we last beheld him, but whose mind remained unaltered, was left alone with Marie.
"It is quite by chance, Madame Duchenier," said he, "that I have found you out again; they told me that you had been condemned; and I knew my duty to my country too well to think of interfering in such a case."
"I have been condemned," replied Marie; "and why the tribunal suffers me to linger on here I know not. One thing I am sure, that it is not in mercy."
"We may as well understand each other, fair Marie," said Danton, "because it will save trouble in the end. This is too good a chance to be lost. When I saw you last I told you that, if you liked to be mine, you might save your father and your husband; you rejected my conditions, and I left you to your fate. Now I will make no more conditions about the matter; you shall be mine, whether you like it or not."
"I have only to say," said Marie, "what I said before, that however much GOD may sometimes allow the wicked to prosper, such monstrous villainy as this--villainy even worse now than it was before, because they tell me that you have a wife--He never will permit to succeed; and I do not believe, whatever injustice may be practised by the tribunals, that they are yet fallen so low as that I need to dread any violence here."
"Indeed!" said Danton; "we shall see. But this I tell you, that your fate is quite in my hands. Ask the gaoler here, if, to serve me, he would not allow any infraction of discipline; he knows too well his duty to give any answer but one."
"Still," said Marie, "till I have renounced all trust in GOD, I cannot fear you; and I look on you at this moment with no other feeling than that of hatred and contempt."
"Is it so?" said Danton, rising from the chair which he had hitherto been occupying, and approaching the window by which Marie was still sitting as she had been at his entrance--"is it so? I will find the means of making you tell another story."
In spite of what she had just said, it cannot be denied that Marie turned pale as she heard the threat; but almost at the same moment steps were again heard ascending the staircase.
"How is this?" said Danton, angrily, as the door opened. "I gave orders that I should on no account be disturbed/'
"You did so, monsieur," replied the gaoler; "but the fact is------"and he hesitated.
"The fact is what, fellow?" demanded Danton, working himself up into a fury.
"Why, to speak the truth, monsieur," returned the other, "they say that Monsieur Robespierre intends to move your impeachment in the Convention to-day, and your friends think that you ought not to be loitering here."
"Robespierre move my impeachment!" cried or rather howled Danton; "move my impeachment, the miserable villain!--me, to whom he owes everything that he has or that he has done! I will teach him a different lesson. In an hour I will be at Convention myself, and he shall pay most dearly for what he has said."
"Monsieur," said the gaoler, "an hour hence would be too late; you must go at once, if your going is to do any good. You know I wish you well so far as I dare, but there is a point beyond which I cannot go."
The man's unaffected terror convinced Danton, more than anything else, that his fate hung in the scale. "As it has come as far as that," he said, "why, then it is time for me to be going myself. But never mind, fair lady; I shall see you again this afternoon, depend upon it." And he hurried down-stairs.
"Ah, he may think so," said the gaoler; "but it is all up with him, I can tell him. I am not quite so much in his power as he thinks. But there is a man below who has got an order to see you; shall I show him up?" " What is his name?" asked Marie, eagerly. "Texier," replied the other.
"Oh, show him up, show him up at once," returned Marie. "But stay one moment; then you do not think that there is any fear of M. Danton returning?"
"Not I," replied the man; and, after locking the door, he went down-stairs.
In a few moments Texier was ushered into the apartment, scarcely less to his own joy than to that of her for whom he had so long been seeking. After the few first hurried questions with which she almost overwhelmed him, he gave her the letters with which he had been entrusted by her husband. After waiting a few moments, while she was rather devouring than reading, the honest peasant said: "If you have anything to ask me, or to tell me, madame, you had better do so now, for they will not have me stay here long."
"He says he has been wounded," said Marie; "tell me about that first."
Texier related all that he knew. "Had it not been for that, madame, come life, come death, he would have been in Paris long before now."
By a few rapid questions Marie obtained some knowledge of the state of affairs as connected with the royalist army. Nothing now, Texier said, detained M. Duchenier in Poitou but his own health; and when that would permit him he would lose no time in endeavouring, at whatever risk, to have one interview with Marie. She, for her part, explained rather by hints than in words the insults which she had received from Danton; and the danger to which, if he were not first cut off, she was exposed from him. She had scarcely finished her account when the gaoler entered, and informed Texier, but not uncivilly, that he could not be allowed to remain longer in the prison.
"I will come directly, monsieur," said Texier; "but would you first allow me to say one thing more to this lady in private?"
"Be quick about it, then," returned the gaoler. "I will wait outside the door."
"Madame," said Texier, "I believe, from what I have heard, that Danton really is in great danger. But if anything happens to him they will not let you hear it here. You see that church-tower, just beyond the river there--if you will look out of this window at eight to-night, there shall be a light in the belfry if he has fallen; if not, all will be perfectly dull."
"Thank you, thank you, good Texier," replied Marie. "I will not fail to look out. You will tell my husband how you have found me. They will not let me have pen and ink, so that I cannot write. But say that, sooner than that he should run any unnecessary risk by coming to Paris, I had far rather he remained where he is, and waited the opportunity of doing some good in Poitou. To me, I fear, he can do none; and to see me suffer would only add to his sufferings."
Texier lost no time in repairing to the tribunal. On reaching the Luxembourg the unusual concourse of people gave sure proof that something of more than common interest was going on. Just as he was about to mount the steps which led into the great hall he was met by Dreux; that personage having so little to do with his time that he was usually to be found in all places of public interest.
"Come in, come in," he said, in an eager but at the same time a carefully-modulated voice. "It is capital fun; old Danton is standing at bay; and if ever you wished to see a human being look like a tiger, now is your time."
The invitation, however, was more easily given than accepted; for the immense crowd that blocked up every passage to the Luxembourg rendered it almost impossible to advance. At length, by violent efforts, they made good their entrance; and Texier then saw that Danton was indeed reduced to the condition to which he had so often brought others. He, however, with his companions in misfortune, the moderate part of the Jacobin faction, General Westermann, Camille Desmoulins. Fabre d'Eglantine, and others, defended themselves with far more talent than they had hitherto been supposed to possess. The same angry mob which had clamoured for the destruction of the Girondists now angrily demanded theirs; but the Convention gave signs of a spirit which it had not then possessed. Tallien, the president, threw all his influence in favour of the accused; and the deputation sent in by the mob without, to tell the Convention that death was the order of the day, received the firm and decided answer that the statement was false--justice and not death being so. Robespierre evinced terrible agitation; it was a struggle for life and death between him and Danton, and he knew it to be so. He passed rapidly from one part of the hall to another, suggesting, advising and entreating; but in spite of all his endeavours, for three or four hours, the scale appeared to turn in favour of his rival. At the end of that time Texier, who, however deep might be the interest which, for Madame Duchenier's sake, he took in the event, was thoroughly bewildered with the noise, the heat and the excitement, left the hall with Dreux, and walked up and down the Rue S. Honoré in company with him. An hour thus passed, when the street, which had previously been nearly deserted, was almost suddenly filled with more than its usual number of citizens, and Dreux exclaimed, "Surely the trial must be over; let us ask;" and he put the question accordingly to a man who happened to pass them.
"Oh, yes," said the person interrogated, "Danton is condemned;" and without further note or comment he passed on. Indeed, the demeanour of the various passengers seemed rather that of men who had hardly courage to carry out the resolution of the Convention than of those who rejoiced in the downfall of a dangerous tyrant.
"I wonder, after all," said Dreux, "whether they will carry out the sentence. You may depend upon it, my good friend, that Robespierre is cutting away the ground from under his own feet until he will have none left to stand upon."
The crowd now became very great, and it was evident that an expectation prevailed of seeing the prisoners pass along to their execution. "We may as well wait for that," said Dreux; "it will be something to talk of hereafter."
The two accordingly stood back at the corner of one of the streets that led into the Rue S. Honoré; and in a few minutes the tumbril appeared. The prisoners, in spite of all the affected bravado of their demeanour, were evidently terrified at their approaching fate, with the single exception of Danton. He was sitting next to Fabre d'Eglantine, the poet; when the latter gave so deep a groan, that even amidst the confusion of the crowd it was audible to the nearest bystanders.
"What's the matter, my good friend?" said Danton cheerfully. But D'Eglantine gave no answer.
"Come," said Danton again, "cheer up; we are only all taking to your trade."
"Comment donc?" asked Fabre d'Eglantine listlessly.
"Comment?" repeated Danton. "Nous allons faire des vers," with which wretched witticism the tumbril moved on, and the prisoners passed away from Texier's sight. He, it may be easily conceived, had no desire to follow them; he hurried back to La Bourbe, hoping to obtain a second interview with Madame Duchenier, and to acquaint her with the death of her persecutor; but, failing in that, he proceeded to the church of St. André to make preparations for thence exhibiting the concerted sign of Danton's fall.