Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
‘An Episode Under the Terror’
By Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850)
ON the 22d of January, 1793, towards eight o’clock in the evening, an old gentlewoman came down the sharp declivity of the Faubourg Saint-Martin, which ends near the church of Saint-Laurent in Paris. Snow had fallen throughout the day, so that footfalls could be scarcely heard. The streets were deserted. The natural fear inspired by such stillness was deepened by the terror to which all France was then a prey.  1
  The old lady had met no one. Her failing sight hindered her from perceiving in the distance a few pedestrians, sparsely scattered like shadows, along the broad road of the faubourg. She was walking bravely through the solitude as if her age were a talisman to guard her from danger; but after passing the Rue des Morts she fancied that she heard the firm, heavy tread of a man coming behind her. The thought seized her mind that she had been listening to it unconsciously for some time. Terrified at the idea of being followed, she tried to walk faster to reach a lighted shop-window, and settle the doubt which thus assailed her. When well beyond the horizontal rays of light thrown across the pavement, she turned abruptly and saw a human form looming through the fog. The indistinct glimpse was enough. She staggered for an instant under the weight of terror, for she no longer doubted that this unknown man had tracked her, step by step, from her home. The hope of escaping such a spy lent strength to her feeble limbs. Incapable of reasoning, she quickened her steps to a run, as if it were possible to escape a man necessarily more agile than she. After running for a few minutes, she reached the shop of a pastry-cook, entered it, and fell, rather than sat, down on a chair which stood before the counter.  2
  As she lifted the creaking latch of the door, a young woman, who was at work on a piece of embroidery, looked up and recognized through the glass panes the antiquated mantle of purple silk which wrapped the old lady, and hastened to pull open a drawer, as if to take from thence something that she had to give her. The action and the expression of the young woman not only implied a wish to get rid of the stranger, as of some one most unwelcome, but she let fall an exclamation of impatience at finding the drawer empty. Then, without looking at the lady, she came rapidly from behind the counter, and went towards the back-shop to call her husband, who appeared at once.  3
  “Where have you put —— ——?” she asked him, mysteriously, calling his attention to the old lady by a glance, and not concluding her sentence.  4
  Although the pastry-cook could see nothing but the enormous black-silk hood circled with purple ribbons which the stranger wore, he disappeared, with a glance at his wife which seemed to say, “Do you suppose I should leave that on your counter?”  5
  Surprised at the silence and immobility of her customer, the wife came forward, and was seized with a sudden movement of compassion as well as of curiosity when she looked at her. Though the complexion of the old gentlewoman was naturally livid, like that of a person vowed to secret austerities, it was easy to see that some recent alarm had spread an unusual paleness over her features. Her head-covering was so arranged as to hide the hair, whitened no doubt by age, for the cleanly collar of her dress proved that she wore no powder. The concealment of this natural adornment gave to her countenance a sort of conventual severity; but its features were grave and noble. In former days the habits and manners of people of quality were so different from those of all other classes that it was easy to distinguish persons of noble birth. The young shop-woman felt certain, therefore, that the stranger was a ci-devant, and one who had probably belonged to the court.  6
  “Madame?” she said, with involuntary respect, forgetting that the title was proscribed.  7
  The old lady made no answer. Her eyes were fixed on the glass of the shop-window, as if some alarming object were painted upon it.  8
  “What is the matter, citoyenne?” asked the master of the establishment, re-entering, and drawing the attention of his customer to a little cardboard box covered with blue paper, which he held out to her.  9
  “It is nothing, nothing, my friends,” she answered in a gentle voice, as she raised her eyes to give the man a thankful look. Seeing a phrygian cap upon his head, a cry escaped her:—“Ah! it is you who have betrayed me!”  10
  The young woman and her husband replied by a deprecating gesture of horror which caused the unknown lady to blush, either for her harsh suspicion or from the relief of feeling it unjust.  11
  “Excuse me,” she said, with childlike sweetness. Then taking a gold louis from her pocket, she offered it to the pastry-cook. “Here is the sum we agreed upon,” she added.  12
  There is a poverty which poor people quickly divine. The shopkeeper and his wife looked at each other with a glance at the old lady that conveyed a mutual thought. The louis was doubtless her last. The hands of the poor woman trembled as she offered it, and her eyes rested upon it sadly, yet not with avarice. She seemed to feel the full extent of her sacrifice. Hunger and want were traced upon her features in lines as legible as those of timidity and ascetic habits. Her clothing showed vestiges of luxury. It was of silk, well-worn; the mantle was clean, though faded; the laces carefully darned; in short, here were the rags of opulence. The two shopkeepers, divided between pity and self-interest, began to soothe their conscience with words:—  13
  “Citoyenne, you seem very feeble—”  14
  “Would Madame like to take something?” asked the wife, cutting short her husband’s speech.  15
  “We have some very good broth,” he added.  16
  “It is so cold, perhaps Madame is chilled by her walk; but you can rest here and warm yourself.”  17
  “The devil is not so black as he is painted,” cried the husband.  18
  Won by the kind tone of these words, the old lady admitted that she had been followed by a man and was afraid of going home alone.  19
  “Is that all?” said the man with the phrygian cap. “Wait for me, citoyenne.”  20
  He gave the louis to his wife. Then moved by a species of gratitude which slips into the shopkeeping soul when its owner receives an exorbitant price for an article of little value, he went to put on his uniform as a National guard, took his hat, slung on his sabre, and reappeared under arms. But the wife meantime had reflected. Reflection, as often happens in many hearts, had closed the open hand of her benevolence. Uneasy, and alarmed lest her husband should be mixed up in some dangerous affair, she pulled him by the flap of his coat, intending to stop him; but the worthy man, obeying the impulse of charity, promptly offered to escort the poor lady to her home.  21
  “It seems that the man who has given her this fright is prowling outside,” said his wife nervously.  22
  “I am afraid he is,” said the old lady, with much simplicity.  23
  “Suppose he should be a spy. Perhaps it is a conspiracy. Don’t go. Take back the box.” These words, whispered in the pastry-cook’s ear by the wife of his bosom, chilled the sudden compassion that had warmed him.  24
  “Well, well, I will just say two words to the man and get rid of him,” he said, opening the door and hurrying out.  25
  The old gentlewoman, passive as a child and half paralyzed with fear, sat down again. The shopkeeper almost instantly reappeared; but his face, red by nature and still further scorched by the fires of his bakery, had suddenly turned pale, and he was in the grasp of such terror that his legs shook and his eyes were like those of a drunken man.  26
  “Miserable aristocrat!” he cried, furiously, “do you want to cut off our heads? Go out from here; let me see your heels, and don’t dare to come back; don’t expect me to supply you with the means of conspiracy!”  27
  So saying, the pastry-cook endeavored to get back the little box which the old lady had already slipped into one of her pockets. Hardly had the bold hands of the shopkeeper touched her clothing, than, preferring to encounter danger with no protection but that of God rather than lose the thing she had come to buy, she recovered the agility of youth, and sprang to the door, through which she disappeared abruptly, leaving the husband and wife amazed and trembling.  28
  As soon as the poor lady found herself alone in the street she began to walk rapidly; but her strength soon gave way, for she once more heard the snow creaking under the footsteps of the spy as he trod heavily upon it. She was obliged to stop short: the man stopped also. She dared not speak to him, nor even look at him; either because of her terror, or from some lack of natural intelligence. Presently she continued her walk slowly; the man measured his step by hers, and kept at the same distance behind her; he seemed to move like her shadow. Nine o’clock struck as the silent couple repassed the church of Saint-Laurent. It is the nature of all souls, even the weakest, to fall back into quietude after moments of violent agitation; for manifold as our feelings may be, our bodily powers are limited. Thus the old lady, receiving no injury from her apparent persecutor, began to think that he might be a secret friend watching to protect her. She gathered up in her mind the circumstances attending other apparitions of the mysterious stranger as if to find plausible grounds for this consoling opinion, and took pleasure in crediting him with good rather than sinister intentions. Forgetting the terror he had inspired in the pastry-cook, she walked on with a firmer step towards the upper part of the Faubourg Saint-Martin.  29
  At the end of half an hour she reached a house standing close to the junction of the chief street of the faubourg with the street leading out to the Barrière de Pantin. The place is to this day one of the loneliest in Paris. The north wind blowing from Belleville and the Buttes Chaumont whistled among the houses, or rather cottages, scattered through the sparsely inhabited little valley, where the inclosures are fenced with walls built of mud and refuse bones. This dismal region seems the natural home of poverty and despair. The man who was intent on following the poor creature who had had the courage to thread these dark and silent streets seemed struck with the spectacle they offered. He stopped as if reflecting, and stood in a hesitating attitude, dimly visible by a street lantern whose flickering light scarcely pierced the fog. Fear gave eyes to the old gentlewoman, who now fancied that she saw something sinister in the features of this unknown man. All her terrors revived, and profiting by the curious hesitation that had seized him, she glided like a shadow to the doorway of the solitary dwelling, touched a spring, and disappeared with phantasmagoric rapidity.  30
  The man, standing motionless, gazed at the house, which was, as it were, a type of the wretched buildings of the neighborhood. The tottering hovel, built of porous stone in rough blocks, was coated with yellow plaster much cracked, and looked ready to fall before a gust of wind. The roof, of brown tiles covered with moss, had sunk in several places, and gave the impression that the weight of snow might break it down at any moment. Each story had three windows whose frames, rotted by dampness and shrunken by the heat of the sun, told that the outer cold penetrated to the chambers. The lonely house seemed like an ancient tower that time had forgotten to destroy. A faint light gleamed from the garret windows, which were irregularly cut in the roof; but the rest of the house was in complete obscurity. The old woman went up the rough and clumsy stairs with difficulty, holding fast to a rope which took the place of baluster. She knocked furtively at the door of a lodging under the roof, and sat hastily down on a chair which an old man offered her.  31
  “Hide! hide yourself!” she cried. “Though we go out so seldom, our errands are known, our steps are watched—”  32
  “What has happened?” asked another old woman sitting near the fire.  33
  “The man who has hung about the house since yesterday followed me to-night.”  34
  At these words the occupants of the hovel looked at each other with terror in their faces. The old man was the least moved of the three, possibly because he was the one in greatest danger. Under the pressure of misfortune or the yoke of persecution a man of courage begins, as it were, by preparing for the sacrifice of himself: he looks upon his days as so many victories won from fate. The eyes of the two women, fixed upon the old man, showed plainly that he alone was the object of their extreme anxiety.  35
  “Why distrust God, my sisters?” he said, in a hollow but impressive voice. “We chanted praises to his name amid the cries of victims and assassins at the convent. If it pleased him to save me from that butchery, it was doubtless for some destiny which I shall accept without a murmur. God protects his own, and disposes of them according to his will. It is of you, not of me, that we should think.”  36
  “No,” said one of the women: “what is our life in comparison with that of a priest?”  37
  “Ever since the day when I found myself outside of the Abbaye des Chelles,” said the nun beside the fire, “I have given myself up for dead.”  38
  “Here,” said the one who had just come in, holding out the little box to the priest, “here are the sacramental wafers—Listen!” she cried, interrupting herself. “I hear some one on the stairs.”  39
  At these words all three listened intently. The noise ceased.  40
  “Do not be frightened,” said the priest, “even if some one asks to enter. A person on whose fidelity we can safely rely has taken measures to cross the frontier, and he will soon call here for letters which I have written to the Duc de Langeais and the Marquis de Beauséant, advising them as to the measures they must take to get you out of this dreadful country, and save you from the misery or the death you would otherwise undergo here.”  41
  “Shall you not follow us?” said the two nuns softly, but in a tone of despair.  42
  “My place is near the victims,” said the priest, simply.  43
  The nuns were silent, looking at him with devout admiration.  44
  “Sister Martha,” he said, addressing the nun who had fetched the wafers, “this messenger must answer ‘Fiat voluntas’ to the word ‘Hosanna.’”  45
  “There is some one on the stairway,” exclaimed the other nun, hastily opening a hiding-place burrowed at the edge of the roof.  46
  This time it was easy to hear the steps of a man sounding through the deep silence on the rough stairs, which were caked with patches of hardened mud. The priest slid with difficulty into a narrow hiding-place, and the nuns hastily threw articles of apparel over him.  47
  “You can shut me in, Sister Agatha,” he said, in a smothered voice.  48
  He was scarcely hidden when three knocks upon the door made the sisters tremble and consult each other with their eyes, for they dared not speak. Forty years’ separation from the world had made them like plants of a hot-house which wilt when brought into the outer air. Accustomed to the life of a convent, they could not conceive of any other; and when one morning their bars and gratings were flung down, they had shuddered at finding themselves free. It is easy to imagine the species of imbecility which the events of the Revolution, enacted before their eyes, had produced in these innocent souls. Quite incapable of harmonizing their conventual ideas with the exigencies of ordinary life, not even comprehending their own situation, they were like children who had always been cared for, and who now, torn from their maternal providence, had taken to prayers as other children take to tears. So it happened that in presence of immediate danger they were dumb and passive, and could think of no other defence than Christian resignation.  49
  The man who sought to enter interpreted their silence as he pleased; he suddenly opened the door and showed himself. The two nuns trembled when they recognized the individual who for some days had watched the house and seemed to make inquiries about its inmates. They stood quite still and looked at him with uneasy curiosity, like the children of savages examining a being of another sphere. The stranger was very tall and stout, but nothing in his manner or appearance denoted that he was a bad man. He copied the immobility of the sisters and stood motionless, letting his eye rove slowly round the room.  50
  Two bundles of straw placed on two planks served as beds for the nuns. A table was in the middle of the room; upon it a copper candlestick, a few plates, three knives, and a round loaf of bread. The fire on the hearth was very low, and a few sticks of wood piled in a corner of the room testified to the poverty of the occupants. The walls, once covered with a coat of paint now much defaced, showed the wretched condition of the roof through which the rain had trickled, making a network of brown stains. A sacred relic, saved no doubt from the pillage of the Abbaye des Chelles, adorned the mantel-shelf of the chimney. Three chairs, two coffers, and a broken chest of drawers completed the furniture of the room. A doorway cut near the fireplace showed there was probably an inner chamber.  51
  The inventory of this poor cell was soon made by the individual who had presented himself under such alarming auspices. An expression of pity crossed his features, and as he threw a kind glance upon the frightened women he seemed as much embarrassed as they. The strange silence in which they all three stood and faced each other lasted but a moment; for the stranger seemed to guess the moral weakness and inexperience of the poor helpless creatures, and he said, in a voice which he strove to render gentle, “I have not come as an enemy, citoyennes.”  52
  Then he paused, but resumed:—“My sisters, if harm should ever happen to you, be sure that I shall not have contributed to it. I have come to ask a favor of you.”  53
  They still kept silence.  54
  “If I ask too much—if I annoy you—I will go away; but believe me, I am heartily devoted to you, and if there is any service that I could render you, you may employ me without fear. I, and I alone, perhaps, am above law—since there is no longer a king.”  55
  The ring of truth in these words induced Sister Agatha, a nun belonging to the ducal house of Langeais, and whose manners indicated that she had once lived amid the festivities of life and breathed the air of courts, to point to a chair as if she asked their guest to be seated. The unknown gave vent to an expression of joy, mingled with melancholy, as he understood this gesture. He waited respectfully till the sisters were seated, and then obeyed it.  56
  “You have given shelter,” he said, “to a venerable priest not sworn in by the Republic, who escaped miraculously from the massacre at the Convent of the Carmelites.”  57
  “Hosanna,” said Sister Agatha, suddenly interrupting the stranger, and looking at him with anxious curiosity.  58
  “That is not his name, I think,” he answered.  59
  “But, Monsieur, we have no priest here,” cried Sister Martha, hastily, “and—”  60
  “Then you should take better precautions,” said the unknown gently, stretching his arm to the table and picking up a breviary. “I do not think you understand Latin, and—”  61
  He stopped short, for the extreme distress painted on the faces of the poor nuns made him fear he had gone too far; they trembled violently, and their eyes filled with tears.  62
  “Do not fear,” he said; “I know the name of your guest, and yours also. During the last three days I have learned your poverty, and your great devotion to the venerable Abbé of—”  63
  “Hush!” exclaimed Sister Agatha, ingenuously putting a finger on her lip.  64
  “You see, my sisters, that if I had the horrible design of betraying you, I might have accomplished it again and again.”  65
  As he uttered these words the priest emerged from his prison and appeared in the middle of the room.  66
  “I cannot believe, Monsieur,” he said courteously, “that you are one of our persecutors. I trust you. What is it you desire of me?”  67
  The saintly confidence of the old man, and the nobility of mind imprinted on his countenance, might have disarmed even an assassin. He who thus mysteriously agitated this home of penury and resignation stood contemplating the group before him; then he addressed the priest in a trustful tone, with these words:—  68
  “My father, I came to ask you to celebrate a mass for the repose of the soul—of—of a sacred being whose body can never lie in holy ground.”  69
  The priest involuntarily shuddered. The nuns, not as yet understanding who it was of whom the unknown man had spoken, stood with their necks stretched and their faces turned towards the speakers, in an attitude of eager curiosity. The ecclesiastic looked intently at the stranger; unequivocal anxiety was marked on every feature, and his eyes offered an earnest and even ardent prayer.  70
  “Yes,” said the priest at length. “Return here at midnight, and I shall be ready to celebrate the only funeral service that we are able to offer in expiation of the crime of which you speak.”  71
  The unknown shivered; a joy both sweet and solemn seemed to rise in his soul above some secret grief. Respectfully saluting the priest and the two saintly women, he disappeared with a mute gratitude which these generous souls knew well how to interpret.  72
  Two hours later the stranger returned, knocked cautiously at the door of the garret, and was admitted by Mademoiselle de Langeais, who led him to the inner chamber of the humble refuge, where all was in readiness for the ceremony. Between two flues of the chimney the nuns had placed the old chest of drawers, whose broken edges were concealed by a magnificent altar-cloth of green moiré. A large ebony and ivory crucifix hanging on the discolored wall stood out in strong relief from the surrounding bareness, and necessarily caught the eye. Four slender little tapers, which the sisters had contrived to fasten to the altar with sealing-wax, threw a pale glimmer dimly reflected by the yellow wall. These feeble rays scarcely lit up the rest of the chamber, but as their light fell upon the sacred objects it seemed a halo falling from heaven upon the bare and undecorated altar.  73
  The floor was damp. The attic roof, which sloped sharply on both sides of the room, was full of chinks through which the wind penetrated. Nothing could be less stately, yet nothing was ever more solemn than this lugubrious ceremony. Silence so deep that some far-distant cry could have pierced it, lent a sombre majesty to the nocturnal scene. The grandeur of the occasion contrasted vividly with the poverty of its circumstances, and roused a feeling of religious terror. On either side of the altar the old nuns, kneeling on the tiled floor and taking no thought of its mortal dampness, were praying in concert with the priest, who, robed in his pontifical vestments, placed upon the altar a golden chalice incrusted with precious stones,—a sacred vessel rescued, no doubt, from the pillage of the Abbaye des Chelles. Close to this vase, which was a gift of royal munificence, the bread and wine of the consecrated sacrifice were contained in two glass tumblers scarcely worthy of the meanest tavern. In default of a missal the priest had placed his breviary on a corner of the altar. A common earthenware platter was provided for the washing of those innocent hands, pure and unspotted with blood. All was majestic and yet paltry; poor but noble; profane and holy in one.  74
  The unknown man knelt piously between the sisters. Suddenly, as he caught sight of the crape upon the chalice and the crucifix,—for in default of other means of proclaiming the object of this funeral rite the priest had put God himself into mourning,—the mysterious visitant was seized by some all-powerful recollection, and drops of sweat gathered on his brow. The four silent actors in this scene looked at each other with mysterious sympathy; their souls, acting one upon another, communicated to each the feelings of all, blending them into the one emotion of religious pity. It seemed as though their thought had evoked from the dead the sacred martyr whose body was devoured by quicklime, but whose shade rose up before them in royal majesty. They were celebrating a funeral Mass without the remains of the deceased. Beneath these rafters and disjointed laths four Christian souls were interceding with God for a king of France, and making his burial without a coffin. It was the purest of all devotions; an act of wonderful loyalty accomplished without one thought of self. Doubtless in the eyes of God it was the cup of cold water that weighed in the balance against many virtues. The whole of monarchy was there in the prayers of the priest and the two poor women; but also it may have been that the Revolution was present likewise, in the person of the strange being whose face betrayed the remorse that led him to make this solemn offering of a vast repentance.  75
  Instead of pronouncing the Latin words, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” etc., the priest, with divine intuition, glanced at his three assistants, who represented all Christian France, and said, in words which effaced the penury and meanness of the hovel, “We enter now into the sanctuary of God.”  76
  At these words, uttered with penetrating unction, a solemn awe seized the participants. Beneath the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, God had never seemed more majestic to man than he did now in this refuge of poverty and to the eyes of these Christians,—so true is it that between man and God all mediation is unneeded, for his glory descends from himself alone. The fervent piety of the nameless man was unfeigned, and the feeling that held these four servants of God and the king was unanimous. The sacred words echoed like celestial music amid the silence. There was a moment when the unknown broke down and wept: it was at the Pater Noster, to which the priest added a Latin clause which the stranger doubtless comprehended and applied,—“Et remitte scelus regicidis sicut Ludovicus eis remisit semetipse” (And forgive the regicides even as Louis XVI. himself forgave them). The two nuns saw the tears coursing down the manly cheeks of their visitant, and dropping fast on the tiled floor.  77
  The Office of the Dead was recited. The “Domine salvum fac regem,” sung in low tones, touched the hearts of these faithful royalists as they thought of the infant king, now captive in the hands of his enemies, for whom this prayer was offered. The unknown shuddered; perhaps he feared an impending crime in which he would be called to take an unwilling part.  78
  When the service was over, the priest made a sign to the nuns, who withdrew to the outer room. As soon as he was alone with the unknown, the old man went up to him with gentle sadness of manner, and said in the tone of a father,—  79
  “My son, if you have steeped your hands in the blood of the martyr king, confess yourself to me. There is no crime which, in the eyes of God, is not washed out by a repentance as deep and sincere as yours appears to be.”  80
  At the first words of the ecclesiastic an involuntary motion of terror escaped the stranger; but he quickly recovered himself, and looked at the astonished priest with calm assurance.  81
  “My father,” he said, in a voice that nevertheless trembled, “no one is more innocent than I of the blood shed—”  82
  “I believe it!” said the priest.  83
  He paused a moment, during which he examined afresh his penitent; then, persisting in the belief that he was one of those timid members of the Assembly who sacrificed the inviolate and sacred head to save their own, he resumed in a grave voice:—  84
  “Reflect, my son, that something more than taking no part in that great crime is needed to absolve from guilt. Those who kept their sword in the scabbard when they might have defended their king have a heavy account to render to the King of kings. Oh, yes,” added the venerable man, moving his head from right to left with an expressive motion; “yes, heavy, indeed! for, standing idle, they made themselves the accomplices of a horrible transgression.”  85
  “Do you believe,” asked the stranger, in a surprised tone, “that even an indirect participation will be punished? The soldier ordered to form the line—do you think he was guilty?”  86
  The priest hesitated. Glad of the dilemma that placed this puritan of royalty between the dogma of passive obedience, which according to the partisans of monarchy should dominate the military system, and the other dogma, equally imperative, which consecrates the person of the king, the stranger hastened to accept the hesitation of the priest as a solution of the doubts that seemed to trouble him. Then, so as not to allow the old Jansenist time for further reflection, he said quickly:—  87
  “I should blush to offer you any fee whatever in acknowledgment of the funeral service you have just celebrated for the repose of the king’s soul and for the discharge of my conscience. We can only pay for inestimable things by offerings which are likewise beyond all price. Deign to accept, Monsieur, the gift which I now make to you of a holy relic; the day may come when you will know its value.”  88
  As he said these words he gave the ecclesiastic a little box of light weight. The priest took it as it were involuntarily; for the solemn tone in which the words were uttered, and the awe with which the stranger held the box, struck him with fresh amazement. They re-entered the outer room, where the two nuns were waiting for them.  89
  “You are living,” said the unknown, “in a house whose owner, Mucius Scævola, the plasterer who lives on the first floor, is noted in the Section for his patriotism. He is, however, secretly attached to the Bourbons. He was formerly huntsman to Monseigneur the Prince de Conti, to whom he owes everything. As long as you stay in this house you are in greater safety than you can be in any other part of France. Remain here. Pious souls will watch over you and supply your wants; and you can await without danger the coming of better days. A year hence, on the 21st of January” (as he uttered these last words he could not repress an involuntary shudder), “I shall return to celebrate once more the Mass of expiation—”  90
  He could not end the sentence. Bowing to the silent occupants of the garret, he cast a last look upon the signs of their poverty and disappeared.  91
  To the two simple-minded women this event had all the interest of a romance. As soon as the venerable abbé told them of the mysterious gift so solemnly offered by the stranger, they placed the box upon the table, and the three anxious faces, faintly lighted by a tallow-candle, betrayed an indescribable curiosity. Mademoiselle de Langeais opened the box and took from it a handkerchief of extreme fineness, stained with sweat. As she unfolded it they saw dark stains.  92
  “That is blood!” exclaimed the priest.  93
  “It is marked with the royal crown!” cried the other nun.  94
  The sisters let fall the precious relic with gestures of horror. To these ingenuous souls the mystery that wrapped their unknown visitor became inexplicable, and the priest from that day forth forbade himself to search for its solution.  95
  The three prisoners soon perceived that, in spite of the Terror, a powerful arm was stretched over them. First, they received firewood and provisions; next, the sisters guessed that a woman was associated with their protector, for linen and clothing came to them mysteriously, and enabled them to go out without danger of observation from the aristocratic fashion of the only garments they had been able to secure; finally, Mucius Scævola brought them certificates of citizenship. Advice as to the necessary means of insuring the safety of the venerable priest often came to them from unexpected quarters, and proved so singularly opportune that it was quite evident it could only have been given by some one in possession of state secrets. In spite of the famine which then afflicted Paris, they found daily at the door of their hovel rations of white bread, laid there by invisible hands. They thought they recognized in Mucius Scævola the agent of these mysterious benefactions, which were always timely and intelligent; but the noble occupants of the poor garret had no doubt whatever that the unknown individual who had celebrated the midnight Mass on the 22d of January, 1793, was their secret protector. They added to their daily prayers a special prayer for him; night and day these pious hearts made supplication for his happiness, his prosperity, his redemption. They prayed that God would keep his feet from snares and save him from his enemies, and grant him a long and peaceful life.  96
  Their gratitude, renewed as it were daily, was necessarily mingled with curiosity that grew keener day by day. The circumstances attending the appearance of the stranger were a ceaseless topic of conversation and of endless conjecture, and soon became a benefit of a special kind, from the occupation and distraction of mind which was thus produced. They resolved that the stranger should not be allowed to escape the expression of their gratitude when he came to commemorate the next sad anniversary of the death of Louis XVI.  97
  That night, so impatiently awaited, came at length. At midnight the heavy steps resounded up the wooden stairway. The room was prepared for the service; the altar was dressed. This time the sisters opened the door and hastened to light the entrance. Mademoiselle de Langeais even went down a few stairs that she might catch the first glimpse of their benefactor.  98
  “Come!” she said, in a trembling and affectionate voice. “Come, you are expected!”  99
  The man raised his head, gave the nun a gloomy look, and made no answer. She felt as though an icy garment had fallen upon her, and she kept silence. At his aspect gratitude and curiosity died within their hearts. He may have been less cold, less taciturn, less terrible than he seemed to these poor souls, whose own emotions led them to expect a flow of friendship from his. They saw that this mysterious being was resolved to remain a stranger to them, and they acquiesced with resignation. But the priest fancied he saw a smile, quickly repressed, upon the stranger’s lip as he saw the preparations made to receive him. He heard the Mass and prayed, but immediately disappeared, refusing in a few courteous words the invitation given by Mademoiselle de Langeais to remain and partake of the humble collation they had prepared for him.  100
  After the 9th Thermidor the nuns and the Abbé de Marolles were able to go about Paris without incurring any danger. The first visit of the old priest was to a perfumery at the sign of the “Queen of Flowers,” kept by the citizen and citoyenne Ragon, formerly perfumers to the Court, well known for their faithfulness to the royal family, and employed by the Vendéens as a channel of communication with the princes and royal committees in Paris. The abbé, dressed as the times required, was leaving the doorstep of the shop, situated between the church of Saint-Roch and the Rue des Fondeurs, when a great crowd coming down the Rue Saint-Honoré hindered him from advancing.  101
  “What is it?” he asked of Madame Ragon.  102
  “Oh, nothing!” she answered. “It is the cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah, we saw enough of that last year! but now, four days after the anniversary of the 21st of January, we can look at the horrid procession without distress.”  103
  “Why so?” asked the abbé. “What you say is not Christian.”  104
  “But this is the execution of the accomplices of Robespierre. They have fought it off as long as they could, but now they are going in their turn where they have sent so many innocent people.”  105
  The crowd which filled the Rue Saint-Honoré passed on like a wave. Above the sea of heads the Abbé de Marolles, yielding to an impulse, saw, standing erect in the cart, the stranger who three days before had assisted for the second time in the Mass of commemoration.  106
  “Who is that?” he asked; “the one standing—”  107
  “That is the executioner,” answered Monsieur Ragon, calling the man by his monarchical name.  108
  “Help! help!” cried Madame Ragon. “Monsieur l’Abbé is fainting!”  109
  She caught up a flask of vinegar and brought him quickly back to consciousness.  110
  “He must have given me,” said the old priest, “the handkerchief with which the king wiped his brow as he went to his martyrdom. Poor man! that steel knife had a heart when all France had none!”  111
  The perfumers thought the words of the priest were an effect of delirium.  112

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