The Sacrifice (Sabatini)
By RAFAEL SABATINI
"PAUL, you must go away; you must leave Marseilles," she wailed.
He turned from the window at which he had stood—a fine figure, straight and lithe as a rapier, and a fine face which dissipation had made white and haggard. His sable hair was tied into a slovenly queue, and escaping streaks of it were matted about his forehead. His dress, though slovenly as well, showed yet signs of a modishness which it was dangerous for a patriot to affect, lest the ever-ready breath of suspicion should whisper the fatal charge—aristocrat. He laughed a laugh that was half a sneer.
"You forget, Citoyenne, that I am not in Marseilles for my amusement, but upon the business of the French Republic—One and Indivisible. You forget that I am become a priest of the gospel of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death."
"Do you mock me, Paul?"
"Mock you? Oh no, Citoyenne, I mock myself. I am reminded to-day that it was for you that I became all this; whilst you"—he paused, his lip curling contemptuously—"you have married. Oh, no, Citoyenne, I do not mock you. I admire your well-balanced mind that led you to make so wise a choice, and link your fate with that of a man so powerful as the Prefect, your husband." He spat the last word from his mouth like a foul thing.
"Paul, you are cruel. You do not know what you say. Ah, Dieu! I have been a coward, but no worse. After you left Boisvieux, I was suspected of being in correspondence with emigrés. There was no foundation for the suspicion, but of what account is evidence in these times? I was thrown into prison. The guillotine was ever hungry, and victims were everywhere being sought for it. I was doomed, and I was afraid to die. And then, in my extremity, Duroc saw me in prison. He returned again and again; he spoke to me, and in the end he offered to save me if I would marry him. As I live, as Heaven is my witness, Paul, his offer was loathsome, and I thought of you. But I thought also of death. Ah, do not sneer, Paul! Had you been there, or had I had news of you to strengthen me, I think I could have withstood him. But it was six months since I had heard from you, and—and I was afraid to die."
She paused and sat rigid, her frail hands clasped and gripped between her knees, her grey eyes looking up to him out of her pale delicate face, in an agony of appeal.
Meeting her gaze he smiled. Then his face took on a grim expression.
"This is true, Berthe?"
"It is true, Paul."
He approached, and set a strong nervous hand upon her brown head; she started under his touch, and drew away. "Berthe," said he, quietly, "few know the power that is mine. Before long my name shall ring through France as that of one of the great ones of the Republic. Few know the business that brings me South. Your husband certainly does not. In Paris a battle of giants is being fought, and Robespierre, who is my friend, and on whose business I am here, shall triumph. My mission to Marseilles, Berthe, is of such a character and invests me with such power, that at a word from me this husband of yours shall vanish as the snow vanishes beneath the sun. I have no need to even lie away his life. I need but say that I have learnt that he uses the power intrusted him to advance his own interests, to serve his own vile ends. He has done this in your own case, as you have told me. For this, within a little week, the Citoyen Prefect, Cassius Duroc, shall mount the steps of the patriotic guillotine. And then, Berthe——," he cried, opening wide his arms, and smiling down upon her. But she drew away from him with a cry of horror.
He stood still. His arms fell heavily to his sides, and his face grew hard.
"I understand. You have lied to me. This story of the fear of death was a fabrication to——"
"It was true, Paul. I swear it as Heaven is my witness."
"Heaven!" he sneered. "There is no Heaven. The Republic has abolished it—just as it has abolished truth and honesty."
"Paul," she pleaded, stretching out her hands, "have pity!"
"Pity!" he echoed fiercely, and as he spoke he caught her wrists in a grip that made her wince with pain. "Pity on whom? On you or on him? Speak, you little fool. Answer me. Let me know something of what is in your heart. On whom shall I have pity?"
"On me and him. Leave Marseilles. Forget me, Paul. I am only a poor, cowardly thing."
He flung her hands from him, and turning, he crossed again to the window.
"What need to fool me? Why could you not in honesty have said that you had changed your fickle mind?—that this provincial Prefect, this kennel-bred canaille. pleased you better than the unfortunate Paul de Lavoisie? Is it ever a woman's way to act a part—to live a lie?"
"I have done neither; I have told you the truth," she insisted.
He swung round again, his black eyes afire.
"But you love this man?"
"I have a child," she murmured, "and it is my duty to my little son to preserve his father."
He made a sudden gesture of anger or of loathing. Then checking himself, he crossed to the table and took up his cocked hat on which the Convention's Tricolor was ostentatiously displayed.
"Citoyenne," said he, deliberately and coldly, "I shall leave Marseilles within a week. While I am here, I shall not again intrude myself upon you. Will you give yourself the trouble of telling the Citoyen-Prefect Duroc that I regret not to have found him here, but that I shall expect to see him without delay at my lodging—32, Rue de Larive? Say the Deputy Lavoisie on pressing business of the Republic. Adieu, Citoyenne."
He made her a bow of the old salons, where first they had met, and setting his hat upon his black, ill-kempt head, he passed out and down the stairs into the sunlit street.
In a marvelling silence she watched his departure. Once her face grew almost eager, and she half rose to call him back. But ere she could obey the impulse the light had faded again from her grey eyes, and sinking into her chair she sat and thought, and presently she wept.
Later she dried her tears, and her mood was one of resentment. What right, she asked herself, had this man to come to her out of the past? She had thought him dead; indeed, for the past two years she had already ceased to think of him, and now of a sudden he was returned to sow unrest and fear in her soul. He was returned invested with an awful power, and her knowledge of his bold, unyielding character gave rise to the fear that he would over-ride all obstacles that lay betwixt them, recking nothing of the cost. Her husband, the father of her child, was doomed if this man had his way. Had he not shown her how a word from him could destroy Duroc? It was true that she did not love her husband, but Habit often sits so closely in the place that should be Love's that the one may be confounded with the other. So was it now with her. She remembered only that Duroc was the father of her boy. She confessed to herself that perhaps she did not love him, but neither did she any longer love Lavoisie. Had he come to her hunted and proscribed, pity might have re-ignited the old flame. But he came powerful; commanding where he should have pleaded; harsh where he should have been tender; scornful where he should have been compassionate.
Since he had left her side it seemed to her that she had grown to hate him, for as fine and as easy to overstep is the line between love and hate as that which divides the lofty from the grotesque. And so out of her sorrow had anger grown, and out of anger hatred, bringing with it hatred's desire for the destruction of the hated. As she sat and thought her resolve grew strong and assumed a definite shape. Ere Lavoisie could be given time to strike her husband he must himself be laid low. In Paris he might be powerful, the beloved of the sans-culottes, the friend and confidant of Robespierre, the very arbiter of the Republic. But here in Marseilles was not her husband equally powerful, given that, forewarned, he should have the advantage of the first blow? Would not a word from him arouse the rabble—that greatest power in terror-ridden France—His Majesty King Mob.
She had known Paul in the old days for an aristocrat; his name had then been de Lavoisie. Would it not suffice that she should tell her husband this? Her zeal for the Republic would please him. His own zeal and his vulgar sycophancy to the majesty of the People would do the rest. He would visit Lavoisie with the rabble at his heels. There would be no tribunal, no chance for the young deputy to present his papers, the tone of which might intimidate the public prosecutor and make him pause to communicate first with the great ones in Paris. No; he would be pointed out to the mob as an aristocrat; his name and title—the Chevalier Paul de Lavoisie—should be their warrant; he would be lanterné upon the spot, and thus should her fears be laid to rest.
Had she but had for one brief moment the gift of Asmodeus—had she been able, through walls and roofs, to take one glimpse of her poor lover—perhaps she had been less pitiless in her fell determination.
In the mean lodging he had hired in the Rue de Larive sat the Deputy Lavoisie, his chin in his palms, and his eyes upon a bundle of letters spread before him on the table, whilst his soul was writhing under the pain of the old wound whose cicatrice had been so rudely re-opened. The letters were letters she had written him long ago, and which he carried ever with him, treasuring them as the faithful treasure the relics of their patron saints. Again he read pages here and there, fervid with the instinctive poetry that is youth's when it loves. They mostly began "Mon bien aimé"; they mostly ended "Whilst I live I am thine—Berthe." They were mostly undated—for what does love reck of time or days?
"Whilst I live I am thine," he read aloud. Then with a hard, sudden laugh he rose, gathered the papers together and tied them into a bundle, which he contemptuously flung into the valise lying open on the floor.
Thereafter he set himself to pace the chamber, awaiting the Prefect's visit. By not so much as one hair's breadth had he swerved from his determination to depart as soon as he should have concluded the Convention's business at Marseilles, never again to cross the path of Berthe Duroc or her husband, and well might she have spared herself the playing of the treacherous rôle she was resolved upon.
The evening faded into dusk. Mechanically Paul lighted the candles on his table, and sat down to prepare his report for the Incorruptible.
At last steps sounded on the stairs, and a knock fell upon his door. He went to admit a short, bulky man with a red, coarse face and straggling greasy beard and hair of black, wearing a sword and a dirty Tricolour sash. He was followed by two soldiers of the National Guard. Marvelling at this military escort, Paul eyed the man with pardonable curiosity and justifiable disgust.
"You are the Citoyen-Prefect Duroc?" he inquired.
"I am that humble servant of the Nation," answered the newcomer grimly.
"I have been expecting you these two hours. Will you be seated?"
Paul closed the door, observing that the soldiers ranged themselves on either side of it, as though to guard the threshold.
The Prefect advanced slowly towards the table, his lips pursed and his shaggy head bent forward. He had not taken the line of action his wife had suggested. She had dared tell him nothing of what she knew of this man's present connection with Robespierre. She had not foreseen that to Duroc it should appear more profitable to arrest and arraign Lavoisie, and thus cover himself with glory, not only in the eyes of the people of Marseilles, but also of the Executive in Paris for his shrewdness and diligence in discovering and apprehending a suspicious ci-devant. In this spirit had he come, leaving Berthe in an agony of apprehension.
He turned now, and bent a bloodshot eye on the young deputy.
"So you expected me?" he leered. "You had cause to, in all truth. I am glad not to disappoint you."
"You take a strange tone, Citoyen-Prefect. Do you know who I am?"
"Perfectly," answered the other, with grim facetiousness. "You are the ci-devant Chevalier Paul de Lavoisie, and I arrest you as an aristocrat, an enemy of the Convention, and a danger to the public safety." He made a sign, and the soldiers to place themselves on either side of Paul advanced before he could recover from his astonishment. "We have eyes in Marseilles, my aristocrat," said Duroc, with an unpleasant laugh.
"You have fools, too, it seems," returned the deputy with an answering laugh no less unpleasant. "The Republic, my friend, has a way of curing folly by depriving fools of the cause of it—their heads."
The confidence of Paul's tones gave the Prefect pause. "Is that all you have to advance in your defence?"
The temptation to allow this man to execute his egregious blunder and carry him before the tribunal of Marseilles proved irresistible to Paul. In his pocket was Robespierre's passe-partout, the sight of which should make the public prosecutor very humble, and cause Duroc anon to pay very dearly for his mistaken zeal.
"Neither is this a time, nor are you a man to whom I have any defence to offer. Even at the proper season I shall have no defence to advance—merely a fact."
"You brazen it after the manner of your kind," sneered Duroc. He shrugged his broad shoulders and took up one of the candles. "Meanwhile, my friend, we will look through your effects."
What is there swifter than thought? In a second of time Paul had remembered Berthe's letters; he had remembered that they were undated; he had in that second considered the brutality of this man's appearance, the possible—the certain—brutality of his ways; in that second he had had a vision of the future—Berthe's future—with this loathsome creature informed of the contents of those letters, ignorant of when they were written, ill-treating—possibly going the length of killing—her in his jealous brutality. At all costs—even at the sacrifice of the pleasure of working this ruffian's discomfiture before the tribunal—he must declare himself and prevent the search being made.
"Wait!" In a shout that was like the crack of a pistol, he delivered the imperative word.
Duroc turned, candle in hand, and raised his eyebrows. The note of sudden alarm in the voice hitherto so calm had not gone unperceived.
"It seems I have touched you, eh?"
"Fool!" thundered the deputy. "I was the Chevalier Paul de Lavoisie; but I have marched with the times. To-day I am the Citoyen-Deputy Paul Lavoisie, a member of the Executive, and here on the Convention's business, as this warrant of Maximilien Robespierre shows."
He stepped forward now and thrust his warrant under the Prefect's nose. The soldiers, hesitating in view of this announcement, hung back. Duroc saw the warrant, and his countenance fell. Then suddenly remembering again the unmistakable alarm with which Lavoisie had arrested him in his intention to search, and coupling it with this disclosure following upon the declaration that this was neither the time nor Duroc the person to whom he had any defence to offer, the Prefect's suspicions awoke again.
"It seems in order," said he, guardedly, and had you shown it me when first I entered, all would have been well. But you appear to conceal something, Citoyen, and I shall not bow to that document until I have made my search."
"But do you not understand that a man in my position has papers which are not for the eyes of everybody. I warn you that in tampering with State secrets you risk your head."
The Prefect grinned for answer.
"You talk like a follower of Capet. The Republic, my friend, has no secrets she cannot make known to her officers and to the nation. You forget that the Republic is the people. I shall make my search."
"At your peril."
Turning, the prefect came upon the valise. He stooped, and when he rose again Lavoisie was at his side.
"What are these?"
"Private papers of my own," answered Paul, whose cheeks were very white.
"Let us look at them."
Duroc turned again to the table, and set down the candlestick. For an instant he put down the packet to unfasten it. In that instant Paul had pounced upon it, and suddenly drawing a pistol from his breast, he presented it at Duroc's head.
"If you or either of your men moves an inch, I'll shoot you," said he, with a calm smile on his pale face.
"You fool, this will cost you your life," he muttered.
But Paul answered nothing. With his right hand holding the pistol to the head of Duroc, he was weighing in his left the bundle of letters, just as in his mind he was weighing the step he was about to take. If he gave those letters up to Duroc he had nothing to fear for himself; if he did not, everything. But on the other hand was Berthe. He settled the matter in his mind, and, that done, he held the letters over the flame of the candle.
"Bethink you," cried Duroc, "that by burning those papers you are acknowledging their treasonable nature in the presence of three witnesses, and you are destroying yourself."
"I know it," answered Paul coldly. The letters were curling up and beginning to crackle with the heat.
"Do not delude yourself that your warrant from Robespierre can save you from the consequences of such an act Robespierre himself, were he to come hither in person, could not save you from the guillotine."
"I know it," answered Paul again. "I have thought of all that."
The package burst suddenly into flame. The blaze crept up and licked his hand; but like a modern Mutius he shrank not, nor did he relinquish his hold until the flames were dead, and naught but a little heap of black ashes was left to flutter from his scorched and blistered hand. Then, with a ghastly laugh, he stepped back, and flung his pistol on the table.
"Do your will, Citoyen. I am your prisoner."
And thus did Paul Lavoisie, who had entered that house one of the most powerful personages of the Revolution, pass out a doomed man. He had for consolation the fact that he was sacrificing his life for the sake of the woman he loved; he did it without regret, with, in fact, a glow of exultation in his soul. But even of this was he to be robbed.
"Citoyen-Prefect," said he, struck by a sudden thought, "how came you to learn that I was the ci-devant Chevalier de Lavoisie?"
"From my wife, Citoyen," said Duroc, who saw no reason for concealing the fact. "She is from Boisvieux, and she recognised you when you presented yourself at my house to-day."
One of those all-illuminating flashes of revelation that at times we are accorded—and which often it were better we were not—came then to Lavoisie. He reeled suddenly forward, his hand going up to his head.
"Mon Dieu!" he gasped.
"What is the matter?" inquired Duroc.
"Nothing, Citoyen. A sudden faintness; the pain in my hand," he faltered. "Give me your arm, Citoyen Soldier."