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Chapter 1 The Nuptials of Corbal by Rafael Sabatini

Shadows moved behind the broad lattice that formed the upper part of the heavy wooden doors at the gallery's end. Those nearest, observing this and knowing what it portended, caught their breath. From these, apprehension ran like a wave over the groups assembled in that long narrow avenue of doom, stilling their chatter as it went, until in a moment all was silence.

Upon that silence the rasping of a key in its lock rang like a pistol-shot. One of the ponderous wings of the great door swung inwards. The turnkey entered, brawny and swarthy, his blue shirt gaping away from a broad hairy chest, a fur bonnet on his cropped head, a yellow bloodhound at his heels. He stood aside on the broad platform at the head of the steps, to give passage to a brisk young gentleman in a tight black frock and a round black hat that was adorned by a buckle in front and a cockade at the side. A paper in his hand drew the eyes—some scared, some apathetic, some proudly indifferent, and some defiantly scornful—of the hundred or so men and women assembled there from their various quarters for the daily purpose of hearing that paper's contents. For this slim young gentleman, Robert Wolf, clerk of the Revolutionary Tribunal, was the adjutant of the Public Accuser. His paper bore the list over whose preparation Fouquier-Tinville had laboured half the night, in his little room in the Tower of Caesar: that room of the Palais de Justice where he had his being, where he worked and slept, which he never quitted save to dine and to discharge before the Tribunal the dread functions of his office. For a man of unremitting zeal was this Fouquier-Tinville, a conscientious public servant who spared himself so little in his labours on behalf of the Nation, that in the pursuit of duty he neglected himself, his health, his wife and his children.

The Citizen Wolf stepped briskly to the edge of the platform, placed himself so that the light should fall upon his paper, and disposed himself to read the names of those whom Fouquier-Tinville summoned that morning to judgment: the fournée, or baker's batch, as it was called in the cynical jargon of the day.

Having chosen his position, the clerk waited until three men who followed him had come to a standstill, so that the hollow ring of their steps upon the planking should not obscure his utterance. Not on that account did they hurry themselves. Two of them, men of middle age, both dressed in black, one tall and portly, the other short and wizened, took their time deferentially from the third who, walking a little in advance, appeared to conduct them.

This was Chauvinière, the Nivernais deputy, a tall slim fellow, of an age not over thirty, of a certain vigorous elegance of figure and poise, of a certain elegance even in his dress. He wore a riding-coat with broad lapels and silver buttons, the tails of which reached almost to the heels of his Hessian boots. Spotless buckskins cased his long, lean legs so closely that every muscle was defined, and a cravat of spotless white clothed his neck stiffly to the chin. He was girt by a tricolour sash, and a tricolour cockade adorned his grey hat, which was cocked in front, à la Henri IV, and surmounted by a panache of black plumes. Thus were his office and his sans-culottism advertised, and if some there were who thought them advertised too elegantly for sincerity, our gentleman was not to be perturbed. His sans-culottism stood too high, had been too fully proven, to be shaken by any gibes at his apparel; whilst his arrogance, audacity, and self-assurance were a panoply against vulgar criticism. These qualities were to be read in his lean, sallow countenance with its high-bridged nose, its curled upper lip, and its keen light eyes under level black brows. There was a certain raffish-ness in his air, an indescribable quality that proclaimed him half-gentleman, half-valet; half-wolf, half-fox.

With a leisureliness that took no account either of the waiting clerk or of the agonized suspense and the pounding of a hundred hearts in that assembly, which he eyed so coldly, Chauvinière selected his point of vantage, at a little distance from Robert Wolf, and descended the first step, so that his two companions in black immediately behind him, obtained, from the summit of the platform, a clear view over his head.

His keen eyes raked the gallery and the men and women in that throng, most of whom were so scrupulously dressed that, saving for the absence of powder from their heads, they might have been gathered together for a lévee. This was a daily miracle performed upon slender enough resources by the prisoners in the Conciergerie.

The deputy's hungry eyes quested on until they came at last to rest upon Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, standing slim and straight, beside the chair into which her mother had nervelessly collapsed. Incredibly fearless and resolute she stood, with scarcely loss of colour to her lovely face. But the blue-green eyes dilated a little and flickered as they met the deputy's kindling glance. Her slight bosom moved perceptibly under its crossed muslin fichu, to betray a sudden agitation which not even the advent of the list had been able to arouse.

Chauvinière half-turned to the men in black behind him. He said something in a low voice into an obsequiously lowered ear, and with his silver-mounted cane—the only weapon he carried—he deliberately pointed. Three pairs of eyes followed the direction of the pointing, and Mademoiselle de Montsorbier stiffened under that volley of glances to whose purport she possessed no clue, but which instinctively she felt to bode no good.

Then the pointing cane was lowered, and the three men ranged themselves decorously, as Robert Wolf began to call the names of the doomed. His voice droned emotionlessly. Like Fouquier-Tinville himself, he was simply a part of the great revolutionary machine. There was no personal responsibility in what he did, and it was not for him to indulge feelings and emotions over actions that were not his own. He was a voice, no more: the summoning voice of the Tribunal. Because practised in his functions, he paused after each name, so as to allow the hush to be resumed, lest the next name should be lost to his audience in the sounds that ensued upon each of his utterances. To answer each summons there would now be a gasp, now a rustling stir about a person named, now a sob of terror, sometimes a laugh, occasionally a reckless answer, and more occasionally still an outcry of hysterical panic quickly sinking into shuddering sobs.

The voice droned on:

"The ci-devant Marquis de La Tourette."

The Marquis, a middle-aged exquisite in a blue coat with silver lace, threw up his head—the handsome head that so soon would leave his shoulders—and sharply caught his breath. In an instant he recovered. He remembered what was due to his blood and his self-respect. He shrugged and smiled in deprecation, for all that his face was of the colour of chalk.

"It will break the monotony," he said softly to a neighbour, as the next name was being called.

"The ci-devant Comtesse de Montsorbier."

Madame de Montsorbier, a slender little woman of fifty, half-rose from her chair, beginning an inarticulate cry on which she seemed to choke. Then her knees were loosened, and she sank down again, leaning sideways against her daughter. Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, rigid now and piteously white, set protecting arms about her half-swooning mother, listening the while to the clerk's voice and waiting to hear her own name, almost hoping to hear it, in her selfless anxiety to accompany her mother before the Tribunal and thence to the scaffold. All that she realized was that in her agony, the frail woman who had borne her would require her as she had never required her yet. Solicitude for her mother effaced all consideration of herself and her own fate. That was the mettle of Mademoiselle de Montsorbier, and her deepest dismay was not reached until the list had come to an end without her own name having been pronounced.

The summoned twenty were passing out, some faltering, some in grim resolve, a few with histrionically jaunty ease after brief farewells.

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier heard as in a dream the Marquis de La Tourette's pleasant level voice, addressing the Due de Chaulnes.

"For once I take precedence of you, Monseigneur."

To which his grace retorted lightly:

"To my infinite regret, since we lose your pleasant company, dear Marquis. But we shall rejoin you presently; I trust in Paradise. My compliments to Fouquier-Tinville."

Two gendarmes, coming she knew not whence, surged suddenly before her.

"The ci-devant Montsorbier," said one of them, and set a hand upon the drooping shoulder of Madame.

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier turned to him, deserted for once by her self-possession, and unable in her mental distress to marshal her tumultuous thoughts into coherent expression.

"But it is my mother! There is some error. She cannot go without me. You see how feeble she is. My name has not been called. It is an omission. You see that it is an omission. You will tell them that it is an omission. You will let me go with her."

Thus, in a confused torrent, the phrases tumbled from her lips.

The man looked at her sullenly, dubiously, his nether lip projected. He lowered his head. "Not our affair." He shook the Countess, who was not more than half-conscious. "You are to come along, citoyenne."

"But I may go with her? I may go with her?"

"It is not in the order."

Mademoiselle de Montsorbier wrung her hands. "But you can explain to your Tribunal!"

"Ah, bah! What's your hurry to sneeze into the basket? Your turn will come soon enough, citoyenne. Lend a hand, Gaston."

Between them, the two men dragged the Countess to her feet, and half-carried, half-led her away. The girl sprang after them.

"I may come, too; may I not? I may..."

A blow in the stomach from the elbow of one of the guards cut short her breath, and sent her hurtling backwards. "Faith! You're too cursedly persistent! You make yourself a nuisance, my girl!"

She reeled to the wooden chair the Countess had vacated, struck her legs against it, and fell into it rather than sat down.

"Mother!" she gasped aloud, when at last her breath returned. "Mother!"

White-faced she sat, in stony tearless grief, her long fine hands clutched between her knees.

Just so, a month ago, had her father been rent from them, to take his trial; and hers it had been since then to comfort and sustain her mother. Now her mother, too, was gone; and alone, that frail lady, who had never been alone, who was in all things helpless. She would not return. None of those who were summoned ever did return, and they were few, very few, who escaped the chill caress of the guillotine to be set at liberty.

Why had she been left? Why had it been denied her to continue to the end the only useful purpose she could serve in life? What now remained for her?

A voice was speaking at her elbow, a crisp, level voice, not unpleasant, although pitched in a tone almost ironical.

"This is the young woman who claims your attention, citizens. You observe her listlessness, her unnatural pallor, the vacancy of her stare. Perform your office. It is not for me to direct you, or even to suggest; but for you to judge."

She swung half-round, looking up, challenge, defiance, alarm all blending in her glance, like some trapped wild creature suddenly confronted by its trapper. She met the light eyes of Chauvinière, piercing, mocking eyes which she had grown to hate, and even to fear, she who had never feared anything in all her proud young life.

A half-dozen times in the last three weeks had she found those eyes upon her in a questing, measuring, soullessly appraising glance, which had scorched her from head to foot. Twice already had he found occasion to speak to her as he passed through the prisoners' gallery on a visit which appeared to have no Other object but that of addressing her. Each time she had commanded herself so as to dissemble from him her resentment at the insult which his look and word conveyed, and so as to answer him with an icy dignity which placed a whole world between them. She would command herself now. He should never guess her fear of him, this dishonouring fear for which she loathed herself.

The two men in black were gravely considering her, the taller one leaning forward a little. He extended a plump hand, and took her wrist.

"Your pulse, citoyenne."

"My pulse?" she heard herself questioning in a distant voice, and knew by the drumming of her temples that her pulses were galloping. Then, above considerations of herself, rose again the momentarily whelmed memory of her bereavement. "You, monsieur...citizen, citizen-deputy! They have taken madame my mother, and by an omission I have been left. Give order, monsieur, I implore you, that my name be added to the list of the day..."

"Ah!" said Chauvinière, with so singular an emphasis that it arrested her intercession.

He looked at the men in black with a significant lift of his black brows. "You hear her, citizen-doctors! Is that the request of a young woman who is sane. To desire—indeed, to implore—death at that age, when life unfolds itself like a perfumed rose, when the blood runs warm and clear! Is not that a sufficient confirmation of what already I suspected? But'—and again there was that flash of mockery from those light eyes—'it is not for me to influence your opinion. You must form judgment for yourselves. Proceed! Proceed!" He waved a hand, a hand that was long and slender as an aristocrat's and as graceful in the gesture, which subtly blended invitation with command.

The doctors sighed and grunted. "For my own part," said the shorter one, "I do not like her eyes. This wild, hunted look, and this general expression of distraction...hem! Hem!"

"And then her pallor, as the citizen-deputy says," put in the other. "Most unnatural! And this pulse! But feel it for yourself."

She laughed. It was the laugh of a bitterness too sharp for tears.

"Unnatural! My pallor, my pulse, my hunted look! Unnatural! And my mother has just been taken from me, to judgment and the scaffold. You would have me calm, messieurs? Gay, perhaps? My mother..."

"Sh, my child!" The little doctor's hand was on her brow, his thumb was doing something with her eyelids. But his manner was soothing, almost hypnotic. "Do not exalt yourself, citoyenne. Calm, if you please! Quite calm! Here is no need for transports or excitement. We are your friends, citoyenne. Friends." He addressed Chauvinière. "What she says, of course, is just. The excitement of the moment, the unhappy event of which she has just been the witness, her natural pain at the..." His voice trailed into silence, leaving the sentence unfinished, for Chauvinière's black brows were knit in a frown that made him shiver.

"Of course, of course," said the deputy's voice, and it was cold as ice, or—thought the little doctor despite himself—as the knife of the guillotine: cold and sharp, incisive and sinister. "It is for you to form the opinion. Not for me to direct you. But you will remember—that is, if you consider my observations worth remembering—that I brought you here precisely because I have upon other occasions witnessed these same traits in the citoyenne, at times when no external cause could be discerned such as may be held fortuitously to have arisen now."

The little doctor clutched at salvation. "Ah, but that is decisive," he exclaimed with complete conviction of tone. "If these symptoms—this pulse, this pallor, these twitchings, this glassy stare and...and the rest—have been manifest constantly and without adequate cause, one conclusion only is possible. At least," he added with a glance at his colleague, "that is my opinion."

"And mine," said the other sharply. "Emphatically, mine. It admits of no discussion. It leaps to the eye."

Chauvinière's lips twitched momentarily. "It is gratifying, citizen-doctors, for a layman to find his scientific suspicions confirmed by men of science. You will, then, certify the citoyenne, so that the Public Accuser may authorize her removal to a hospice; to the Archevêché, for instance."

"Justice demands no less," said the little man.

"And humanity," added the taller one.

"Naturally," said Chauvinière. "Justice and humanity must agree that this afflicted girl is in no case to plead; and the Revolutionary Tribunal has too high a sense of its duties to wish to arraign a person who is, be it temporarily or permanently, without the wit to defend herself. If you will send your certificate to the Public Accuser to-day, your responsibility in the matter ends. Citizens, there is no reason to detain you."

He inclined his head in dismissal, haughty as a prince of the Old Régime. The doctors bowed low and obsequiously as if to the blood royal, and turned to depart.

"Ah, but wait!" cried Mademoiselle de Montsorbier on a sudden note of sharpness. "Sirs, sirs!"

But the deputy's commanding hand waved them definitely away. Then his eyes swung slowly to the girl's face. She was on her feet now confronting him, and she was, or appeared to be, entirely fearless.

"Is it pretended that I am mad?" Her question was a challenge.

He admired her spirit, and commended the fastidiousness of the instincts which had rendered her desirable in his eyes. She was too fine, too clean-cut and delicately shaped to make appeal to a man of coarse sensibilities. His discernment had perceived in that slender, lissom body a spirit over which no gross fellow could ever hope for empire. He was something of a student, this Chauvinière—who in pre-revolutionary days had been, like so many others who were on the summits now, a failure as a man of law. He was, too, something of a poet at heart, and something of an epicure in sensations. He knew that abiding beauty is of the mind, and that where beauty of the mind is absent a superficial beauty of the body will soon grow nauseous.

The spirit which she now displayed, standing tense, defiant, almost scornful to challenge him, confirmed his first discernment. He smiled a little.

"Must you quarrel with a pretence which will give you life, which will snatch you from under the knife of the guillotine? If you do, and at your age, then you are as mad as they are about to certify you."

A dozen questions leapt to her tormented mind. She uttered one.

"What is your interest in me, monsieur, that my life should be your concern?"

"Ah, that!" His dark brows went up, a faint smile illumined his face, a smile so gently wistful, that it almost rendered sweet and delicate his whole expression. "Citoyenne, you ask too many questions; more than it would be discreet to answer. I take my leave."

He doffed his plumed hat and bowed, then turned and walked away, erect, his head thrown back, looking neither to right nor to left upon the aristocrat prisoners who made way for him. He ignored alike the malevolent glances of the men and the insults of the women expressed in a hasty drawing aside of skirts lest they should become contaminated by contact with his person.

He was a man who succeeded by disregarding trifles.

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