‘No, Sire. It is my ambition to make a career for myself.’
‘It is a prouder thing,’ said the Emperor, ’to found a family than merely to perpetuate one. I could not restore your estates, Monsieur de Laval, for things have come to such a pitch in France that if one once begins restorations the affair is endless. It would shake all public confidence. I have no more devoted adherents than the men who hold land which does not belong to them. As long as they serve me, as your uncle serves me, the land must remain with them. But what can this young lady require of me? Show her in, Constant!’
An instant later my cousin Sibylle was conducted into the room. Her face was pale and set, but her large dark eyes were filled with resolution, and she carried herself like a princess.
‘Well, mademoiselle, why do you come here? What is it that you want?’ asked the Emperor in the brusque manner which he adopted to women, even if he were wooing them.
Sibylle glanced round, and as our eyes met for an instant I felt that my presence had renewed her courage. She looked bravely at the Emperor as she answered him.
‘I come, Sire, to implore a favour of you.’
’Your father’s daughter has certainly claims upon me, mademoiselle. What is it that you wish?’
’I do not ask it in my father’s name, but in my own. I implore you, Sire, to spare the life of Monsieur Lucien Lesage, who was arrested yesterday upon a charge of treason. He is a student, Sire—a mere dreamer who has lived away from the world and has been made a tool by designing men.’
‘A dreamer!’ cried the Emperor harshly. ’They are the most dangerous of all.’ He took a bundle of notes from his table and glanced them over. ‘I presume that he is fortunate enough to be your lover, mademoiselle?’
Sibylle’s pale face flushed, and she looked down before the Emperor’s keen sardonic glance.
’I have his examination here. He does not come well out of it. I confess that from what I see of the young man’s character I should not say that he is worthy of your love.’
‘I implore you to spare him, Sire.’
’What you ask is impossible, mademoiselle. I have been conspired against from two sides—by the Bourbons and by the Jacobins. Hitherto I have been too long-suffering, and they have been encouraged by my patience. Since Cadoudal and the Due d’Enghien died the Bourbons have been quiet. Now I must teach the same lesson to these others.’
I was astonished and am still astonished at the passion with which my brave and pure cousin loved this cowardly and low-minded man, though it is but in accordance with that strange law which draws the extremes of nature together. As she heard the Emperor’s stern reply the last sign of colour faded from her pale face, and her eyes were dimmed with despairing tears, which gleamed upon her white cheeks like dew upon the petals of a lily.