She scarcely comprehended why she had been thus torn from her home and the mechanism of her dull tasks. She scarcely knew what meant those kindly groups, that, struck with her exceeding loveliness, had gathered round her in the prison, with mournful looks, but with words of comfort. She, who had hitherto been taught to abhor those whom Law condemns for crime, was amazed to hear that beings thus compassionate and tender, with cloudless and lofty brows, with gallant and gentle mien, were criminals for whom Law had no punishment short of death. But they, the savages, gaunt and menacing, who had dragged her from her home, who had attempted to snatch from her the infant while she clasped it in her arms, and laughed fierce scorn at her mute, quivering lips,—they were the chosen citizens, the men of virtue, the favourites of Power, the ministers of Law! Such thy black caprices, O thou, the ever-shifting and calumnious,—Human Judgment!
A squalid, and yet a gay world, did the prison-houses of that day present. There, as in the sepulchre to which they led, all ranks were cast with an even-handed scorn. And yet there, the reverence that comes from great emotions restored Nature’s first and imperishable, and most lovely, and most noble Law,—the inequality between man and man! There, place was given by the prisoners, whether royalists or sans-culottes, to Age, to Learning, to Renown, to Beauty; and Strength, with its own inborn chivalry, raised into rank the helpless and the weak. The iron sinews and the Herculean shoulders made way for the woman and the child; and the graces of Humanity, lost elsewhere, sought their refuge in the abode of Terror.
“And wherefore, my child, do they bring thee hither?” asked an old, grey-haired priest.
“I cannot guess.”
“Ah, if you know not your offence, fear the worst!”
“And my child?”—for the infant was still suffered to rest upon her bosom.
“Alas, young mother, they will suffer thy child to live.’
“And for this,—an orphan in the dungeon!” murmured the accusing heart of Viola,—“have I reserved his offspring! Zanoni, even in thought, ask not—ask not what I have done with the child I bore thee!”
Night came; the crowd rushed to the grate to hear the muster-roll. (Called, in the mocking jargon of the day, “The Evening Gazette.”) Her name was with the doomed. And the old priest, better prepared to die, but reserved from the death-list, laid his hands on her head, and blessed her while he wept. She heard, and wondered; but she did not weep. With downcast eyes, with arms folded on her bosom, she bent submissively to the call. But now another name was uttered; and a man, who had pushed rudely past her to gaze or to listen, shrieked out a howl of despair and rage. She turned, and their eyes met. Through the distance of time she recognised that hideous aspect. Nicot’s face settled back into its devilish sneer. “At least, gentle Neapolitan, the guillotine will unite us. Oh, we shall sleep well our wedding-night!” And, with a laugh, he strode away through the crowd, and vanished into his lair.