“I will never marry you,” she said loudly and firmly. “Never! I am not afraid to die. I am not afraid of the guillotine. There is no shame attached to death. So now you may do as you please—denounce me, and send me to follow in the footsteps of my dear father, if you wish. But whilst I am alive you will never come nigh me. If you ever do but lay a finger upon me, it will be because I am dead and beyond the reach of your polluting touch. And now I have said all that I will ever say to you in this life. If you have a spark of humanity left in you, you will, at least, let me prepare for death in peace.”
She went round to where poor old Lucienne still sat, like an insentient log, panic-stricken. She knelt down on the floor and rested her arm on the old woman’s knees. The light of the lamp fell full upon her, her pale face, and mass of chestnut-brown hair. There was nothing about her at this moment to inflame a man’s desire. She looked pathetic in her helplessness, and nearly lifeless through the intensity of her pallor, whilst the look in her eyes was almost maniacal.
Merri cursed and swore, tried to hearten himself by turning on his friend. But Rateau had collapsed—whether with excitement or the ravages of disease, it were impossible to say. He sat upon a low chair, his long legs, his violet-circled eyes staring out with a look of hebetude and overwhelming fatigue. Merri looked around him and shuddered. The atmosphere of the place had become strangely weird and uncanny; even the tablecloth, dragged half across the table, looked somehow like a shroud.
“What shall we do, Rateau?” he asked tremulously at last.
“Get out of this infernal place,” replied the other huskily. “I feel as if I were in my grave-clothes already.”
“Hold your tongue, you miserable coward! You’ll make the aristo think that we are afraid.”
“Well?” queried Rateau blandly. “Aren’t you?”
“No!” replied Merri fiercely. “I’ll go now because ... because ... well! because I have had enough to-day. And the wench sickens me. I wish to serve the Republic by marrying her, but just now I feel as if I should never really want her. So I’ll go! But, understand!” he added, and turned once more to Esther, even though he could not bring himself to go nigh her again. “Understand that to-morrow I’ll come again for my answer. In the meanwhile, you may think matters over, and, maybe, you’ll arrive at a more reasonable frame of mind. You will not leave these rooms until I set you free. My men will remain as sentinels at your door.”
He beckoned to Rateau, and the two men went out of the room without another word.