A SCENE of deep, deep peace. The slant rays of the declining July sun shot into the cheerful little drawing-room of Corday's house. The coffee sent up its fragrant steam; the little table, on which it was placed, was drawn near the sofa, on which Marie was lying; Charles Duchenier sat on a chair by her side, one arm thrown round her fair neck, the other possessing itself of her right hand.
"What a wonderful, wonderful day is this!" said Marie, looking up at her husband. "Oh, Charles! think what I was in the morning; and what those who travelled with me along the street S. Antoine are now!"
"They were the last, dearest," said Duchenier, very unceremoniously kissing first her forehead, and then her lips. "Now that the dreadful tyrant has fallen, we may hope for better things. But come, love, I must really have you take something, or you will be quite worn out." He rose, poured out a cup of coffee, and gave it to his bride. "What a beautiful evening!" she said. "Oh, how I long to be out of this fearful city! When can we do it? Let us talk of the future: we have talked enough of the sad past."
"We must wait till matters get a little settled, dear one; and then we will endeavour to get over to England. We are in no manner of danger; the Reign of Terror is over."
"I know I am foolish," said Marie, looking fondly at her husband, "but I can scarcely believe that my newly-found happiness is secure, while we are here. But I am sure you are right."
They talked a little more of their future time; and Duchenier related some of his adventures in England. The long summer afternoon was passing on, and Duchenier at length said, "I wonder Texier has not come back again. He said that he should not be long, when he went out after bringing us this welcome intelligence about Robespierre. I will just step down-stairs and inquire."
"Nay, not now," said Marie, laying her hand on his arm, "let us ring, and ask."
"Ah, Marie!" cried Duchenier, with a smile, his eye glancing on the wedding-ring, "so that faithful little piece of gold was with you through all your troubles!"
"Yes," she said, with a blush, "it was indeed,--and it was my best friend. Till the very last, Charles, I always hoped that we should meet again; and even then, I felt as if, could I but see you, all would be well."
"I did not venture to indulge any such bright anticipations," said Duchenier. "The happiness of having you--now, indeed, my very own--is as much beyond my hopes as beyond my deserts."
At this moment the bell of S. Marguerite's church rang out the tocsin; and almost simultaneously three or four more distant belfries thundered out the same warning.
"What can that be?" said Duchenier, anxiously. "I must go, dearest,--I must, indeed,--and inquire." And hardly giving his bride time to remonstrate, he ran downstairs. In the passage he met Texier, evidently full fraught with some important intelligence.
"What is it, Texier? what is it?"
"Monsieur, everything is at stake. The gaolers refuse to take in Robespierre; they have had much ado in lodging him and his companions in the office of the Committee of Public Safety. Fleuriot the mayor, and Payan, are raising the people, and mean to liberate them. If they do, you are "lost; for Robespierre has received information where Madame Duchenier and the other prisoners who escaped to-day are concealed. The Convention are afraid of what they have done. Will you fly?"
"No," said Duchenier, after a pause. "It were next to certain ruin with the Terrorists triumphant. The Convention must want officers. I will go down myself; but you must stay and take care of your mistress."
He ran up-stairs. "Marie, dearest!" he said, "the danger is not quite over. They are trying to liberate Robespierre. I must go out and obtain intelligence. But I will be back shortly. GOD, Who has preserved us so wonderfully, will not leave us now. Texier will be with you. I will be back as soon as possible." And he kissed her, and added something, in a low tone of voice, that made her smile and blush.
"Not a word of Robespierre's knowing where she is, Texier," he said as he left the house. In the Rue S. Antoine he was fortunate enough to find a cabriolet; the stands being usually deserted on account of the unsettled state of the city; and an extra fare soon set him down by the Tuileries. Here the tocsin was pealing incessantly; and Jacobins of the lowest grade were pouring in to the rescue, as the phrase went, of the mayor and Robespierre. But in all the sections that owned the authority of the Convention the drum was fast and furiously beating to arms; the National Guards, in small parties, were pouring in for the defence of the hall,--everything betokened the rapid approach of the crisis.
As Duchenier pressed up the steps a rumour spread through the crowd--"They have set Robespierre at liberty; he is at the Hôtel de Ville!"
"Then we are lost!" said two or three voices;--and Duchenier.merely saying, "Not if we are true to ourselves," hurried into the hall. Here all was confusion; some of the deputies were for withdrawing; a motion was made for dispersing; no one seemed ready with a plan; the President was surrounded with nine or ten deputies, all of them proposing different things.
"Let us offer terms,"
"Impossible!--we must fly instantly!"
"Let us proclaim an amnesty, and ask him to take his place again."
"M. le Président, adjourn!"
"I am going, or the gates will be shut."
"Offer some composition."
"What will he take but our heads?"
"Gentlemen," said Duchenier, quietly walking up the hall, "I am an officer, and have seen a good deal of service; can I be of any assistance in recapturing the miscreant?"
This firm tone had its effect.
"Silence, silence!" shouted the President. Comparative order being restored--"What is your name, monsieur?"
"Thévenot--Colonel Thévenot; I served in La Vendée."
"What do you propose?"
"Outlaw the prisoners--proclaim military law--march the National Guards on the Hôtel de Ville--order the Jacobins to disperse--cut them to pieces if they do not."
"Who moves this?"
"I will," cried Billaud Varennes.
"I second it," said Tallien.
" Is it your pleasure?"
"Ay, ay," echoed every part of the hall.
The President drew a sheet of paper before him, and put the motion into the shape of a decree: "Listen, gentlemen:
"Ordered by the Convention, that Maximilian Robespierre, Couthon, Saint Just, Lebas, Henriot, Fleuriot mayor of Paris, Payan, and Robespierre the younger, be, for their enormous crimes, and resistance to the sovereign majesty of the nation, held and reputed as outlaws; and that all persons now in arms on their behalf do, on pain of the same outlawry, forthwith repair to their several houses.
"Hall of Convention, Thermidor 9."
It was received with acclamation. A committee of twelve were appointed to carry it out; and Duchenier was requested to go with them. A body of fifteen hundred guards was drawn up in tolerable order; and with loud cries of "Vive la République!" they marched forward.
Robespierre's fate was now in his own hands. The Hôtel de Ville was barricaded; a body of two thousand Jacobins were at his and his companions' orders; they had a train of artillery; volunteers were pouring in on all sides; the tocsin rang out its peal; the scale hung between an empire and a grave. Had the democrat possessed common courage, the sun which had now set would have risen on Maximilien, King of France. One bold stroke, and the Convention must have expired at his feet. Dreux, who had from gaoler become prisoner and was instantly ordered to be hung, was in the room where the leaders of the Jacobins were assembled, no one having leisure to attend to his execution: he thought--and others thought too--that Robespierre's senses were failing.
"Now, now, Robespierre," cried Payan; "to the hall! to the hall!"
"I can't," said Robespierre dejectedly, sinking down into a chair.
"Can't? fool and dotard! Our lives are on the cast! Be a man for once; be a man, and you can't help being a king."
"No, it's impossible," muttered the infatuated man.
"Impossible! By all the devils, you'll drive me mad! Henriot, put yourself at their head."
"Oh, ay," cried Henriot, staggering up from his chair, and catching at the table to keep himself on his feet:
"Belle Phillis, tes doux regards
Font que je------"
"Drunken beast!" roared Payan.--"Come, Lebas--you are a man of sense--come down-stairs;" and they hurried to the troops. Ere they reached them the fiery strain,
"Allons, enfants de la patrie,"
burst on the evening air. At the end of the first stanza, however, the quick double beat of the drum told of the arrival of the National Guards. It was a bad omen for the Jacobins that their troops retreated closer to the walls of the Hôtel de Ville.
Robespierre, meanwhile, sat with his elbows on his knees, and hid his face in his hands. All his mind seemed changed; he looked the image of a criminal before his execution.
"Hallo!" hiccoughed Henriot; "somebody must--somebody must--hang--that gentleman--"pointing to Dreux; and attempting to move for that purpose he fell on the floor. Dumas and Saint Just were looking from the window in deep dejection; Couthon, pinned by his natural infirmity to his chair, sat caressing his spaniel.
In the meantime Duchenier's clear voice was heard below: "Second division, to the left-about wheel! March! Halt! To the right-about face! That piece opposite the door--those two by that house--that eight-pounder here! Stand to your guns! Now, gentlemen, I think you might read the proclamation."
Billaud Varennes did so. Duchenier marked the irresolution of the Jacobins; and directly the order was finished he gave the word, "Forward!" On came the long lines; the Terrorists slunk right and left; looked this way and that way; and dispersed with the utmost rapidity. Still the Hôtel itself was held out.
"Blow in that gate!" cried Duchenier.
Dreux heard the order; and at the same moment those of the Jacobins who had gone into the court came rushing up in wild disorder.
"Wretch!" cried Payan to Robespierre, "you have ruined us!"
"Is it all over?" asked Couthon.
"We shall be prisoners in a moment. Before I am, I will punish this drunkard." And, raising Henriot by a great effort of strength, he threw him out of the window.
"I never will be a prisoner," cried Lebas, drawing out a pistol. "Head or heart, Payan?"
"Head's surest," he answered.
"Very well." He looked to the priming of his pistol; put the muzzle to his forehead, brought his hand up to the level of his head, and saying, "I advise you to follow my example," pulled the trigger and fell a corpse on the floor.
Couthon was brandishing a long knife, and aiming it at his breast. "Pray kill me, pray kill me," he cried; "I cannot do it--oh, I cannot do it!" And, as he spoke, he inflicted a slight wound on his breast, and shrieked with the pain.
"Coward!" cried the younger Robespierre. "Here goes!" And he leaped out of the window; but was taken up by the National Guards alive.
"Must I do it? must I do it?" said Maximilien Robespierre, his face turning pale, his hands shaking, his knees knocking together. He took out a pistol, looked at the priming, held it to his head, put it down again, looked at it a second time, put it to his chest, and then laid it down on the table, saying, "I can't."
"Let me then," said Payan, coming up to him.
"No, no!" cried Robespierre, snatching up the pistol in terror; "I will myself." And he held it to his neck. At that moment the door was burst open; and whether he screwed up his courage to the point, or unintentionally pressed too hard on the trigger, it fell, the bullet shattered his jaw, and lodged in the wall.
There was a dismal cry of anguish. The monster fell; blood poured from his mouth and cheek; and the shouts of the advancing soldiers were heard.
"Oh, M. Dreux! oh, kind M. Dreux! pray, for GOD'S sake, look to my wound!" And two long screams ended the sentence.
Dreux said nothing; but, taking a dirty towel which lay on the table, he tied up the tyrant's head to his best ability. So hideous were the distortions and outcries of the wretch, that, as he put a deal box to serve for a pillow as he lay on the floor, the actor said to himself: "This is not chance. There must be a GOD."