The drums had been greeted by terrific yells, which effectually drowned their roll; the first movement of the cart was hailed by a veritable tumult.
Only the women who squatted round the gallows had not moved from their position of vantage; one of these Maegaeras was quietly readjusting the rope, which had got out of place.
But all the men and some of the women were literally besieging the cart, and threatening the soldiers, who stood between them and the object of their fury.
It seemed as if nothing now could save Deroulede and Juliette from an immediate and horrible death.
“A mort! A mort! A la lanterne les traitres!”
Santerne himself, who had shouted himself hoarse, was at a loss what to do. He had sent one man to the nearest cavalry barracks, but reinforcements would still be some little time coming; whilst in the meanwhile his men were getting exhausted, and the mob, more and more excited, threatened to break through their line at every moment.
There was not another second to be lost.
Santerre was for letting the mob have its way, and he would willingly have thrown it the prey for which it clamoured; but orders were orders, and in the year I. of the Revolution it was not good to disobey.
At this supreme moment of perplexity he suddenly felt a respectful touch on his arm.
Close behind him a soldier of the National Guard—not one of his own men—was standing at attention, and holding a small, folded paper in his hand.
“Sent to you by the Minister of Justice,” whispered the soldier hurriedly. “The citizen-deputies have watched the tumult from the Hall; they say, you must not lose an instant.”
Santerre withdrew from the front rank, up against the side of the cart, where a rough stable lantern had been fixed. He took the paper from the soldier’s hand, and, hastily tearing it open, he read it by the dim light of the lantern.
As he read, his thick, coarse features expressed the keenest satisfaction.
“You have two more men with you?” he asked quickly.
“Yes, citizen,” replied the man, pointing towards his right; “and the Citizen-Minister said you would give me two more.”
“You’ll take the prisoners quietly across to the Prison of the Temple —you understand that?”
“Yes, citizen; Citizen Merlin has given me full instructions. You can have the cart drawn back a little more under the shadow of the portico, where the prisoners can be made to alight; they can then given into my charge. You in the meantime are to stay here with your men, round the empty cart, as long as you can. Reinforcements have been sent for, and must soon be here. When they arrive you are to move along with the cart, as if you were making for the Luxembourg Prison. This manoeuvre will give us time to deliver the prisoners safely at the Temple.”
The man spoke hurriedly and peremptorily, and Santerne was only too ready to obey. He felt relieved at thought of reinforcements, and glad to be rid of the responsibility of conducting such troublesome prisoners.