Agnes de Lucines’ pale face looked ethereal in this framework of white which covered her shoulders and the shawl crossed over her bosom: only her eyes, dark, appealing, filled with a glow of immeasurable despair, appeared tensely human and alive.
“I had a letter this morning,” she whispered, speaking very rapidly, “from citizen Heriot—that awful man—you know him?”
“He used to be valet in the service of deputy Fabrice. Now he, too, is a member of the National Assembly... he is arrogant and cruel and vile. He hates Arnould Fabrice and he professes himself passionately in love with me.”
“Yes, yes!” murmured the old man, “but the letter?”
“It came this morning. In it he says that he has in his possession a number of old letters, documents and manuscripts which are quite enough to send deputy Fabrice to the guillotine. He threatens to place all those papers before the Committee of Public Safety unless... unless I....”
She paused, and a deep blush, partly of shame, partly of wrath, suffused her pale cheeks.
“Unless you accept his grimy hand in marriage,” concluded the man dryly.
Her eyes gave him answer. With pathetic insistence she tried now to glean a ray of hope from the old scarecrow’s inscrutable face. But he was bending over his writing: his fingers were blue with cold, his great shoulders were stooping to his task.
“Citizen,” she pleaded.
“Hush!” he muttered, “no more now. The very snowflakes are made up of whispers that may reach those bloodhounds yet. The English milor’ shall know of this. He will send you a message if he thinks fit.”
“Not another word, in God’s name! Pay me five sous for this letter and pray Heaven that you have not been watched.”
She shivered and drew her shawl closer round her shoulders, then she counted out five sous with elaborate care and laid them out upon the table. The old man took up the coins. He blew into his fingers, which looked paralysed with the cold. The snow lay over everything now; the rough awning had not protected him or his wares.
Agnes turned to go. The last she saw of him, as she went up the rue Dauphine, was one broad shoulder still bending over the table, and clad in the shabby, caped coat all covered with snow like an old Santa Claus.
It was half-an-hour before noon, and citizen-deputy Heriot was preparing to go out to the small tavern round the corner where he habitually took his dejeuner. Citizen Rondeau, who for the consideration of ten sous a day looked after Heriot’s paltry creature-comforts, was busy tidying up the squalid apartment which the latter occupied on the top floor of a lodging-house in the Rue Cocatrice. This apartment consisted of three rooms leading out of one another; firstly there was a dark and narrow antichambre wherein slept the aforesaid citizen-servant; then came a sitting-room sparsely furnished with a few chairs, a centre table and an iron stove, and finally there was the bedroom wherein the most conspicuous object was a large oak chest clamped with wide iron hinges and a massive writing-desk; the bed and a very primitive washstand were in an alcove at the farther end of the room and partially hidden by a tapestry curtain.