A GREAT ceremony was to take place that day at the basilica of the Sacred Heart. Ten thousand pilgrims were to be present there, at a solemn consecration of the Holy Sacrament; and pending the arrival of four o’clock, the hour fixed for the service, Montmartre would be invaded by people. Its slopes would be black with swarming devotees, the shops where religious emblems and pictures were sold would be besieged, the cafes and taverns would be crowded to overflowing. It would all be like some huge fair, and meantime the big bell of the basilica, “La Savoyarde,” would be ringing peal on peal over the holiday-making multitude.
When Pierre entered the workroom in the morning he perceived Guillaume and Mere-Grand alone there; and a remark which he heard the former make caused him to stop short and listen from behind a tall-revolving bookstand. Mere-Grand sat sewing in her usual place near the big window, while Guillaume stood before her, speaking in a low voice.
“Mother,” said he, “everything is ready, it is for to-day.”
She let her work fall, and raised her eyes, looking very pale. “Ah!” she said, “so you have made up your mind.”
“Yes, irrevocably. At four o’clock I shall be yonder, and it will all be over.”
“‘Tis well-you are the master.”
Silence fell, terrible silence. Guillaume’s voice seemed to come from far away, from somewhere beyond the world. It was evident that his resolution was unshakable, that his tragic dream, his fixed idea of martyrdom, wholly absorbed him. Mere-Grand looked at him with her pale eyes, like an heroic woman who had grown old in relieving the sufferings of others, and had ever shown all the abnegation and devotion of an intrepid heart, which nothing but the idea of duty could influence. She knew Guillaume’s terrible scheme, and had helped him to regulate the pettiest details of it; but if on the one hand, after all the iniquity she had seen and endured, she admitted that fierce and exemplary punishment might seem necessary, and that even the idea of purifying the world by the fire of a volcano might be entertained, on the other hand, she believed too strongly in the necessity of living one’s life bravely to the very end, to be able, under any circumstances, to regard death as either good or profitable.
“My son,” she gently resumed, “I witnessed the growth of your scheme, and it neither surprised nor angered me. I accepted it as one accepts lightning, the very fire of the skies, something of sovereign purity and power. And I have helped you through it all, and have taken upon myself to act as the mouthpiece of your conscience. . . . But let me tell you once more, one ought never to desert the cause of life.”
“It is useless to speak, mother,” Guillaume replied: “I have resolved to give my life and cannot take it back. . . . Are you now unwilling to carry out my desires, remain here, and act as we have decided, when all is over?”
She did not answer this inquiry, but in her turn, speaking slowly and gravely, put a question to him: “So it is useless for me to speak to you of the children, myself and the house?” said she. “You have thought it all over, you are quite determined?” And as he simply answered “Yes,” she added: “‘Tis well, you are the master. . . . I will be the one who is to remain behind and act. And you may be without fear, your bequest is in good hands. All that we have decided together shall be done.”
Once more they became silent. Then she again inquired: “At four o’clock, you say, at the moment of that consecration?”
“Yes, at four o’clock.”
She was still looking at him with her pale eyes, and there seemed to be something superhuman in her simplicity and grandeur as she sat there in her thin black gown. Her glance, in which the greatest bravery and the deepest sadness mingled, filled Guillaume with acute emotion. His hands began to tremble, and he asked: “Will you let me kiss you, mother?”
“Oh! right willingly, my son,” she responded. “Your path of duty may not be mine, but you see I respect your views and love you.”
They kissed one another, and when Pierre, whom the scene had chilled to his heart, presented himself as if he were just arriving, Mere-Grand had quietly taken up her needlework once more, while Guillaume was going to and fro, setting one of his laboratory shelves in order with all his wonted activity.
At noon when lunch was ready, they found it necessary to wait for Thomas, who had not yet come home. His brothers Francois and Antoine complained in a jesting way, saying that they were dying of hunger, while for her part Marie, who had made a
“But it wasn’t my fault,” said he; “I stupidly came up the hill by way of the Rue de la Barre, and you can have no notion what a crowd I fell upon. Quite ten thousand pilgrims must have camped there last night. I am told that as many as possible were huddled together in the St. Joseph Refuge. The others no doubt had to sleep in the open air. And now they are busy eating, here, there and everywhere, all over the patches of waste ground and even on the pavements. One can scarcely set one foot before the other without risk of treading on somebody.”
The meal proved a very gay one, though Pierre found the gaiety forced and excessive. Yet the young people could surely know nothing of the frightful, invisible thing which to Pierre ever seemed to be hovering around in the bright sunlight of that splendid June day. Was it that the dim presentiment which comes to loving hearts when mourning threatens them, swept by during the short intervals of silence that followed the joyous outbursts? Although Guillaume looked somewhat pale, and spoke with unusual caressing softness, he retained his customary bright smile. But, on the other hand, never had Mere-Grand been more silent or more grave.
“Ah! that bell,” exclaimed Francois; “it is really intolerable. I can feel my head splitting.”
He referred to “La Savoyarde,” the big bell of the basilica, which had now begun to toll, sending forth deep sonorous volumes of sound, which ever and ever winged their flight over the immensity of Paris. In the workroom they were all listening to the clang.
“Will it keep on like that till four o’clock?” asked Marie.
“Oh! at four o’clock,” replied Thomas, “at the moment of the consecration you will hear something much louder than that. The great peals of joy, the song of triumph will then ring out.”
Guillaume was still smiling. “Yes, yes,” said he, “those who don’t want to be deafened for life had better keep their windows closed. The worst is, that Paris has to hear it whether it will or no, and even as far away as the Pantheon, so I’m told.”
Meantime Mere-Grand remained silent and impassive. Antoine for his part expressed his disgust with the horrible religious pictures for which the pilgrims fought-pictures which in some respects suggested those on the lids of sweetmeat boxes, although they depicted the Christ with His breast ripped open and displaying His bleeding heart. There could be no more repulsive materialism, no grosser or baser art, said Antoine. Then they rose from table, talking at the top of their voices so as to make themselves heard above the incessant din which came from the big bell.
Immediately afterwards they all set to work again. Mere-Grand took her everlasting needlework in hand once more, while Marie, sitting near her, continued some embroidery. The young men also attended to their respective tasks, and now and again raised their heads and exchanged a few words. Guillaume, for his part, likewise seemed very busy; Pierre alone coming and going in a state of anguish, beholding them all as in a nightmare, and attributing some terrible meaning to the most innocent remarks. During
Shortly before three o’clock, Guillaume glanced at his watch and then quietly took up his hat. “Well,” said he, “I’m going out.”
His sons, Mere-Grand and Marie raised their heads.
“I’m going out,” he repeated, “
Still he did not go off. Pierre could divine that he was struggling, stiffening himself against the frightful tempest which was raging within him, striving to prevent either shudder or pallor from betraying his awful secret. Ah! he must have suffered keenly; he dared not give his sons a last kiss, for fear lest he might rouse some suspicion in their minds, which would impel them to oppose him and prevent his death! At last with supreme heroism he managed to overcome himself.
“Yes, yes. . . . Don’t worry about me, do plenty of work.”
Mere-Grand, still majestically silent, kept her eyes fixed upon him. Her he had ventured to kiss, and their glances met and mingled, instinct with all that he had decided and that she had promised: their common dream of truth and justice.
“I say, Guillaume,” exclaimed Marie gaily, “will you undertake a commission for me if you are going down by way of the Rue des Martyrs?”
“Why, certainly,” he replied.
“Well, then, please look in at my dressmaker’s, and tell her that I shan’t go to try my gown on till to-morrow morning.”
It was a question of her wedding dress, a gown of light grey silk, the stylishness of which she considered very amusing. Whenever she spoke of it, both she and the others began to laugh.
“It’s understood, my dear,” said Guillaume, likewise making merry over it. “We know it’s Cinderella’s court robe, eh? The fairy brocade and lace that are to make you very beautiful and for ever happy.”
However, the laughter ceased, and in the sudden silence which fell, it again seemed as if death were passing by with a great flapping of wings and an icy gust which chilled the hearts of everyone remaining there.
“It’s understood; so now I’m really off,” resumed Guillaume. “
Then he sallied forth, without even turning round, and for a moment they could hear the firm tread of his feet over the garden gravel.
Pierre having invented a pretext was able to follow him a couple of minutes afterwards. As a matter of fact there was no need for him to dog Guillaume’s heels, for he knew where his brother was going. He was thoroughly convinced that he would find him at that doorway, conducting to the foundations of the basilica, whence he had seen him emerge two days before. And so he wasted no time in looking for him among the crowd of pilgrims going to the church. His only thought was to hurry on and reach Jahan’s workshop. And in accordance with his expectation, just as he arrived there, he perceived Guillaume slipping between the broken palings. The crush and the confusion prevailing among the concourse of believers favored Pierre as it had his brother, in such wise that he was able to follow the latter and enter the doorway without being noticed. Once there he had to pause and draw breath for a moment, so greatly did the beating of his heart oppress him.
A precipitous flight of steps, where all was steeped in darkness, descended from the narrow entry. It was with infinite precaution that Pierre ventured into the gloom, which ever grew denser and denser. He lowered his feet gently so as to make no noise, and feeling the walls with his hands, turned round and round as he went lower and lower into a kind of well. However, the descent was not a very long one. As soon as he found beaten ground beneath his feet he paused, no longer daring to stir for fear of betraying his presence. The darkness was like ink, and there was not a sound, a breath; the silence was complete.
How should he find his way? he wondered. Which direction ought he to take? He was still hesitating when some twenty paces away he suddenly saw a bright spark, the gleam of a lucifer. Guillaume was lighting a candle. Pierre recognised his broad shoulders, and from that moment he simply had to follow the flickering light along a walled and vaulted subterranean gallery. It seemed to be interminable and to run in a northerly direction, towards the nave of the basilica.
All at once the little light at last stopped, while Pierre, anxious to see what would happen, continued to advance, treading as softly as he could and remaining in the gloom. He found that Guillaume had stood his candle upon the ground in the middle of a kind of low rotunda under the crypt, and that he had knelt down and moved aside a long flagstone which seemed to cover a cavity. They were here among the foundations of the basilica; and one of the columns or piles of concrete poured into shafts in order to support the building could be seen. The gap, which the stone slab removed by Guillaume had covered, was by the very side of the pillar; it was either some natural surface flaw, or a deep fissure caused by some subsidence or settling of the soil. The heads of other pillars could be descried around, and these the cleft seemed to be reaching, for little slits branched out in all directions. Then, on seeing his brother leaning forward, like one who is for the last time examining a mine he has laid before applying a match to the fuse, Pierre suddenly understood the whole terrifying business. Considerable quantities of the new explosive had been brought to that spot. Guillaume had made the journey a score of times at carefully selected hours, and all his powder had been poured into the gap beside the pillar, spreading to the slightest rifts below, saturating the soil at a great depth, and in this wise forming a natural mine of incalculable force. And now the powder was flush with the flagstone which Guillaume has just moved aside. It was only necessary to throw a match there, and everything would be blown into the air!
For a moment an acute chill of horror rooted Pierre to the spot. He could neither have taken a step nor raised a cry. He pictured the swarming throng above him, the ten thousand pilgrims crowding the lofty naves of the basilica to witness the solemn consecration of the Host. Peal upon peal flew from “La Savoyarde,” incense smoked, and ten thousand voices raised a hymn of magnificence and praise. And all at once came thunder and earthquake, and a volcano opening and belching forth fire and smoke, and swallowing up the whole church and its multitude of worshippers. Breaking the concrete piles and rending the unsound soil, the explosion, which was certain to be one of extraordinary violence, would doubtless split the edifice atwain, and hurl one-half down the slopes descending towards Paris, whilst the other on the side of the apse would crumble and collapse upon the spot where it stood. And how fearful would be the avalanche; a broken forest of scaffoldings, a hail of stonework, rushing and bounding through the dust and smoke on to the roofs below; whilst the violence of the shock would threaten the whole of Montmartre, which, it seemed likely, must stagger and sink in one huge mass of ruins!
However, Guillaume had again risen. The candle standing on the ground, its flame shooting up, erect and slender, threw his huge shadow all over the subterranean vault. Amidst the dense blackness the light looked like some dismal stationary star. Guillaume drew near to it in order to see what time it was by his watch. It proved to be five minutes past three. So he had nearly another hour to wait. He was in no hurry, he wished to carry out his design punctually, at the precise moment he had selected; and he therefore sat down on a block of stone, and remained there without moving, quiet and patient. The candle now cast its light upon his pale face, upon his towering brow crowned with white hair, upon the whole of his energetic countenance, which still looked handsome and young, thanks to his bright eyes and dark moustaches. And not a muscle of his face stirred; he simply gazed into the void. What thoughts could be passing through his mind at that supreme moment? Who could tell? There was not a quiver; heavy night, the deep eternal silence of the earth reigned all around.
Then Pierre, having quieted his palpitating heart, drew near. At the sound of his footsteps Guillaume rose menacingly, but he immediately recognised his brother, and did not seem astonished to see him.
“Ah! it’s you,” he said, “you followed me. . . . I felt that you possessed my secret. And it grieves me that you should have abused your knowledge to join me here. You might have spared me this last sorrow.”
Pierre clasped his trembling hands, and at once tried to entreat him. “Brother, brother,” he began.
“No, don’t speak yet,” said Guillaume, “if you absolutely wish it I will listen to you by-and-by. We have nearly an hour before us, so we can chat. But I want you to understand the futility of all you may think needful to tell me. My resolution is unshakable; I was a long time coming to it, and in carrying it out I shall simply be acting in accordance with my reason and my conscience.”
Then he quietly related that having decided upon a great deed he had long hesitated as to which edifice he should destroy. The opera-house had momentarily tempted him, but he had reflected that there would be no great significance in the whirlwind of anger and justice destroying a little set of enjoyers. In fact, such a deed might savour of jealousy and covetousness. Next he had thought of the Bourse, where he might strike a blow at money, the great agent of corruption, and the capitalist society in whose clutches the wage-earners groaned. Only, here again the blow would fall upon a restricted circle. Then an idea of destroying the Palace of Justice, particularly the assize court, had occurred to him. It was a very tempting thought-to wreak justice upon human justice, to sweep away the witnesses, the culprit, the public prosecutor who charges the latter, the counsel who defends him, the judges who sentence him, and the lounging public which comes to the spot as to the unfolding of some sensational serial. And then too what fierce irony there would be in the summary superior justice of the volcano swallowing up everything indiscriminately without pausing to enter into details. However, the plan over which he had most lingered was that of blowing up the Arc de Triomphe. This he regarded as an odious monument which perpetuated warfare, hatred among nations, and the false, dearly purchased, sanguineous glory of conquerors. That colossus raised to the memory of so much frightful slaughter which had uselessly put an end to so many human lives, ought, he considered, to be slaughtered in its turn. Could he so have arranged things that the earth should swallow it up, he might have achieved the glory of causing no other death than his own, of dying alone, struck down, crushed to pieces beneath that giant of stone. What a tomb, and what a memory might he thus have left to the world!
“But there was no means of approaching it,” he continued, “no basement, no cellar, so I had to give up the idea. . . . And then, although I’m perfectly willing to die alone, I thought what a loftier and more terrible lesson there would be in the unjust death of an innocent multitude, of thousands of unknown people, of all those that might happen to be passing. In the same way as human society by dint of injustice, want and harsh regulations causes so many innocent victims, so must punishment fall as the lightning falls, indiscriminately killing and destroying whatever it may encounter in its course. When a man sets his foot on an ant-hill, he gives no heed to all the lives which he stamps out.”
Pierre, whom this theory rendered quite indignant, raised a cry of protest: “Oh! brother, brother, is it you who are saying such things?”
Yet, Guillaume did not pause: “If I have ended by choosing this basilica of the Sacred Heart,” he continued, “it is because I found it near at hand and easy to destroy. But it is also because it haunts and exasperates me, because I have long since condemned it. . . . As I have often said to you, one cannot imagine anything more preposterous than Paris, our great Paris, crowned and dominated by this temple raised to the glorification of the absurd. Is it not outrageous that common sense should receive such a smack after so many centuries of science, that Rome should claim the right of triumphing in this insolent fashion, on our loftiest height in the full sunlight? The priests want Paris to repent and do penitence for its liberative work of truth and justice. But its only right course is to sweep away all that hampers and insults it in its march towards deliverance. And so may the temple fall with its deity of falsehood and servitude! And may its ruins crush its worshippers, so that like one of the old geological revolutions of the world, the catastrophe may resound through the very entrails of mankind, and renew and change it!”
“Brother, brother!” again cried Pierre, quite beside himself, “is it you who are talking? What! you, a great scientist, a man of great heart, you have come to this! What madness is stirring you that you should think and say such abominable things? On the evening when we confessed our secrets one to the other, you told me of your proud and lofty dream of ideal Anarchy. There would be free harmony in life, which left to its natural forces would of itself create happiness. But you still rebelled against the idea of theft and murder. You would not accept them as right or necessary; you merely explained and excused them. What has happened then that you, all brain and thought, should now have become the hateful hand that acts?”
“Salvat has been guillotined,” said Guillaume simply, “and I read his will and testament in his last glance. I am merely an executor. . . . And what has happened, you ask? Why, all that has made me suffer for four months past, the whole social evil which surrounds us, and which must be brought to an end.”
Silence fell. The brothers looked at one another in the darkness. And Pierre now understood things. He saw that Guillaume was changed, that the terrible gust of revolutionary contagion sweeping over Paris had transformed him. It had all come from the duality of his nature, the presence of contradictory elements within him. On one side one found a scientist whose whole creed lay in observation and experiment, who, in dealing with nature, evinced the most cautious logic; while on the other side was a social dreamer, haunted by ideas of fraternity, equality and justice, and eager for universal happiness. Thence had first come the theoretical anarchist that he had been, one in whom science and chimeras were mingled, who dreamt of human society returning to the harmonious law of the spheres, each man free, in a free association, regulated by love alone. Neither Theophile Morin with the doctrines of Proudhon and Comte, nor Bache with those of St. Simon and Fourier, had been able to satisfy his desire for the absolute. All those systems had seemed to him imperfect and chaotic, destructive of one another, and tending to the same wretchedness of life. Janzen alone had occasionally satisfied him with some of his curt phrases which shot over the horizon, like arrows conquering the whole earth for the human family. And then in Guillaume’s big heart, which the idea of want, the unjust sufferings of the lowly and the poor exasperated, Salvat’s tragic adventure had suddenly found place, fomenting supreme rebellion. For long weeks he had lived on with trembling hands, with growing anguish clutching at his throat. First had come that bomb and the explosion which still made him quiver, then the vile cupidity of the newspapers howling for the poor wretch’s head, then the search for him and the hunt through the Bois de Boulogne, till he fell into the hands of the police, covered with mud and dying of starvation. And afterwards there had been the assize court, the judges, the gendarmes, the witnesses, the whole of France arrayed against one man and bent on making him pay for the universal crime. And finally, there had come the guillotine, the monstrous, the filthy beast consummating irreparable injustice in human justice’s name. One sole idea now remained to Guillaume, that idea of justice which maddened him, leaving naught in his mind save the thought of the just, avenging flare by which he would repair the evil and ensure that which was right for all time forward. Salvat had looked at him, and contagion had done its work; he glowed with a desire for death, a desire to give his own blood and set the blood of others flowing, in order that mankind, amidst its fright and horror, should decree the return of the golden age.
Pierre understood the stubborn blindness of such insanity; and he felt utterly upset by the fear that he should be unable to overcome it. “You are mad, brother!” he exclaimed, “they have driven you mad! It is a gust of violence passing; they were treated in a wrong way and too relentlessly at the outset, and now that they are avenging one another, it may be that blood will never cease to flow. . . . But, listen, brother, throw off that nightmare. You can’t be a Salvat who murders or a Bergaz who steals! Remember the pillage of the Princess’s house and remember the fair-haired, pretty child whom we saw lying yonder, ripped open. . . . You do not, you cannot belong to that set, brother-“
With a wave of his hand, Guillaume brushed these vain reasons aside. Of what consequence were a few lives, his own included? No change had ever taken place in the world without millions and millions of existences being stamped out.
“But you had a great scheme in hand,” cried Pierre, hoping to save him by reviving his sense of duty. “It isn’t allowable for you to go off like this.”
Then he fervently strove to awaken his brother’s scientific pride. He spoke to him of his secret, of that great engine of warfare, which could destroy armies and reduce cities to dust, and which he had intended to offer to France, so that on emerging victorious from the approaching war, she might afterwards become the deliverer of the world. And it was this grand scheme that he had abandoned, preferring to employ his explosive in killing innocent people and overthrowing a church, which would be built afresh, whatever the cost, and become a sanctuary of martyrs!
Guillaume smiled. “I have not relinquished my scheme,” said he, “I have simply modified it. Did I not tell you of my doubts, my anxious perplexity? Ah! to believe that one holds the destiny of the world in one’s grasp, and to tremble and hesitate and wonder if the intelligence and wisdom, that are needful for things to take the one wise course, will be forthcoming! At sight of all the stains upon our great Paris, all the errors and transgressions which we lately witnessed, I shuddered. I asked myself if Paris were sufficiently calm and pure for one to entrust her with omnipotence. How terrible would be the disaster if such an invention as mine should fall into the hands of a demented nation, possibly a dictator, some man of conquest, who would simply employ it to terrorize other nations and reduce them to slavery. . . . Ah! no, I do not wish to perpetuate warfare, I wish to kill it.”
Then in a clear firm voice he explained his new plan, in which Pierre was surprised to find some of the ideas which General de Bozonnet had one day laid before him in a very different spirit. Warfare was on the road to extinction, threatened by its very excesses. In the old days of mercenaries, and afterwards with conscripts, the percentage of soldiers designated by chance, war had been a profession and a passion. But nowadays, when everybody is called upon to fight, none care to do so. By the logical force of things, the system of the whole nation in arms means the coming end of armies. How much longer will the nations remain on a footing of deadly peace, bowed down by ever increasing “estimates,” spending millions and millions on holding one another in respect? Ah! how great the deliverance, what a cry of relief would go up on the day when some formidable engine, capable of destroying armies and sweeping cities away, should render war an impossibility and constrain every people to disarm! Warfare would be dead, killed in her own turn, she who has killed so many. This was Guillaume’s dream, and he grew quite enthusiastic, so strong was his conviction that he would presently bring it to pass.
“Everything is settled,” said he; “if I am about to die and disappear, it is in order that my idea may triumph. . . . You have lately seen me spend whole afternoons alone with Mere-Grand. Well, we were completing the classification of the documents and making our final arrangements. She has my orders, and will execute them even at the risk of her life, for none has a braver, loftier soul. . . . As soon as I am dead, buried beneath these stones, as soon as she has heard the explosion shake Paris and proclaim the advent of the new era, she will forward a set of all the documents I have confided to her-the formula of my explosive, the drawings of the bomb and gun-to each of the great powers of the world. In this wise I shall bestow on all the nations the terrible gift of destruction and omnipotence which, at first, I wished to bestow on France alone; and I do this in order that the nations, being one and all armed with the thunderbolt, may at once disarm, for fear of being annihilated, when seeking to annihilate others.”
Pierre listened to him, gaping, amazed at this extraordinary idea, in which childishness was blended with genius. “Well,” said he, “if you give your secret to all the nations, why should you blow up this church, and die yourself?”
“Why! In order that I may be believed!” cried Guillaume with extraordinary force of utterance. Then he added, “The edifice must lie on the ground, and I must be under it. If the experiment is not made, if universal horror does not attest and proclaim the amazing destructive power of my explosive, people will consider me a mere schemer, a visionary! . . . A lot of dead, a lot of blood, that is what is needed in order that blood may for ever cease to flow!” Then, with a broad sweep of his arm, he again declared that his action was necessary. “Besides,” he said, “Salvat left me the legacy of carrying out this deed of justice. If I have given it greater scope and significance, utilising it as a means of hastening the end of war, this is because I happen to be a man of intellect. It would have been better possibly if my mind had been a simple one, and if I had merely acted like some volcano which changes the soil, leaving life the task of renewing humanity.”
Much of the candle had now burnt away, and Guillaume at last rose from the block of stone. He had again consulted his watch, and found that he had ten minutes left him. The little current of air created by his gestures made the light flicker, while all around him the darkness seemed to grow denser. And near at hand ever lay the threatening open mine which a spark might at any moment fire.
“It is nearly time,” said Guillaume. “Come, brother, kiss me and go away. You know how much I love you, what ardent affection for you has been awakened in my old heart. So love me in like fashion, and find love enough to let me die as I want to die, in carrying out my duty. Kiss me, kiss me, and go away without turning your head.”
His deep affection for Pierre made his voice tremble, but he struggled on, forced back his tears, and ended by conquering himself. It was as if he were no longer of the world, no longer one of mankind.
“No, brother, you have not convinced me,” said Pierre, who on his side did not seek to hide his tears, “and it is precisely because I love you as you love me, with my whole being, my whole soul, that I cannot go away. It is impossible! You cannot be the madman, the murderer you would try to be.”
“Why not? Am I not free. I have rid my life of all responsibilities, all ties. . . . I have brought up my sons, they have no further need of me. But one heart-link remained-Marie, and I have given her to you.”
At this a disturbing argument occurred to Pierre, and he passionately availed himself of it. “So you want to die because you have given me Marie,” said he. “You still love her, confess it!”
“No!” cried Guillaume, “I no longer love her, I swear it. I gave her to you. I love her no more.”
“So you fancied; but you can see now that you still love her, for here you are, quite upset; whereas none of the terrifying things of which we spoke just now could even move you. . . . Yes, if you wish to die it is because you have lost Marie!”
Guillaume quivered, shaken by what his brother said, and in low, broken words he tried to question himself. “No, no, that any love pain should have urged me to this terrible deed would be unworthy-unworthy of my great design. No, no, I decided on it in the free exercise of my reason, and I am accomplishing it from no personal motive, but in the name of justice and for the benefit of humanity, in order that war and want may cease.”
Then, in sudden anguish, he went on: “Ah! it is cruel of you, brother, cruel of you to poison my delight at dying. I have created all the happiness I could, I was going off well pleased at leaving you all happy, and now you poison my death. No, no! question it how I may, my heart does not ache; if I love Marie, it is simply in the same way as I love you.”
Nevertheless, he remained perturbed, as if fearing lest he might be lying to himself; and by degrees gloomy anger came over him: “Listen, that is enough, Pierre,” he exclaimed, “time is flying. . . . For the last time, go away! I order you to do so; I will have it!”
“I will not obey you, Guillaume. . . . I will stay, and as all my reasoning cannot save you from your insanity, fire your mine, and I will die with you.”
“You? Die? But you have no right to do so, you are not free!”
“Free, or not, I swear that I will die with you. And if it merely be a question of flinging this candle into that hole, tell me so, and I will take it and fling it there myself.”
He made a gesture at which his brother thought that he was about to carry out his threat. So he caught him by the arm, crying: “Why should you die? It would be absurd. That others should die may be necessary, but you, no! Of what use could be this additional monstrosity? You are endeavouring to soften me, you are torturing my heart!” Then all at once, imagining that Pierre’s offer had concealed another design, Guillaume thundered in a fury: “You don’t want to take the candle in order to throw it there. What you want to do is to blow it out! And you think I shan’t be able then-ah! you bad brother!”
In his turn Pierre exclaimed: “Oh! certainly, I’ll use every means to prevent you from accomplishing such a frightful and foolish deed!”
“You’ll prevent me!”
“Yes, I’ll cling to you, I’ll fasten my arms to your shoulders, I’ll hold your hands if necessary.”
“Ah! you’ll prevent me, you bad brother! You think you’ll prevent me!”
Choking and trembling with rage, Guillaume had already caught hold of Pierre, pressing his ribs with his powerful muscular arms. They were closely linked together, their eyes fixed upon one another, and their breath mingling in that kind of subterranean dungeon, where their big dancing shadows looked like ghosts. They seemed to be vanishing into the night, the candle now showed merely like a little yellow tear in the midst of the darkness; and at that moment, in those far depths, a quiver sped through the silence of the earth which weighed so heavily upon them. Distant but sonorous peals rang out, as if death itself were somewhere ringing its invisible bell.
“You hear,” stammered Guillaume, “it’s their bell up there. The time has come. I have vowed to act, and you want to prevent me!”
“Yes, I’ll prevent you as long as I’m here alive.”
“As long as you are alive, you’ll prevent me!”
Guillaume could hear “La Savoyarde” pealing joyfully up yonder; he could see the triumphant basilica, overflowing with its ten thousand pilgrims, and blazing with the splendour of the Host amidst the smoke of incense; and blind frenzy came over him at finding himself unable to act, at finding an obstacle suddenly barring the road to his fixed idea.
“As long as you are alive, as long as you are alive!” he repeated, beside himself. “Well, then, die, you wretched brother!”
A fratricidal gleam had darted from his blurred eyes. He hastily stooped, picked up a large brick forgotten there, and raised it with both hands as if it were a club.
“Ah! I’m willing,” cried Pierre. “Kill me, then; kill your own brother before you kill the others!”
The brick was already descending, but Guillaume’s arms must have deviated, for the weapon only grazed one of Pierre’s shoulders. Nevertheless, he sank upon his knees in the gloom. When Guillaume saw him there he fancied he had dealt him a mortal blow. What was it that had happened between them, what had he done? For a moment he remained standing, haggard, his mouth open, his eyes dilating with terror. He looked at his hands, fancying that blood was streaming from them. Then he pressed them to his brow, which seemed to be bursting with pain, as if his fixed idea had been torn from him, leaving his skull open. And he himself suddenly sank upon the ground with a great sob.
“Oh! brother, little brother, what have I done?” he called. “I am a monster!”
But Pierre had passionately caught him in his arms again. “It is nothing, nothing, brother, I assure you,” he replied. “Ah! you are weeping now. How pleased I am! You are saved, I can feel it, since you are weeping. And what a good thing it is that you flew into such a passion, for your anger with me has dispelled your evil dream of violence.”
“I am horrified with myself,” gasped Guillaume, “to think that I wanted to kill you! Yes, I’m a brute beast that would kill his brother! And the others, too, all the others up yonder. . . . Oh! I’m cold, I feel so cold.”
His teeth were chattering, and he shivered. It was as if he had awakened, half stupefied, from some evil dream. And in the new light which his fratricidal deed cast upon things, the scheme which had haunted him and goaded him to madness appeared like some act of criminal folly, projected by another.
“To kill you!” he repeated almost in a whisper. “I shall never forgive myself. My life is ended, I shall never find courage enough to live.”
But Pierre clasped him yet more tightly. “What do you say?” he answered. “Will there not rather be a fresh and stronger tie of affection between us? Ah! yes, brother, let me save you as you saved me, and we shall be yet more closely united! Don’t you remember that evening at Neuilly, when you consoled me and held me to your heart as I am holding you to mine? I had confessed my torments to you, and you told me that I must live and love! . . . And you did far more afterwards: you plucked your own love from your breast and gave it to me. You wished to ensure my happiness at the price of your own! And how delightful it is that, in my turn, I now have an opportunity to console you, save you, and bring you back to life!”
“No, no, the bloodstain is there and it is ineffaceable. I can hope no more!”
“Yes, yes, you can. Hope in life as you bade me do! Hope in love and hope in labour!”
Still weeping and clasping one another, the brothers continued speaking in low voices. The expiring candle suddenly went out unknown to them, and in the inky night and deep silence their tears of redeeming affection flowed freely. On the one hand, there was joy at being able to repay a debt of brotherliness, and on the other, acute emotion at having been led by a fanatical love of justice and mankind to the very verge of crime. And there were yet other things in the depths of those tears which cleansed and purified them; there were protests against suffering in every form, and ardent wishes that the world might some day be relieved of all its dreadful woe.
At last, after pushing the flagstone over the cavity near the pillar, Pierre groped his way out of the vault, leading Guillaume like a child.
Meantime Mere-Grand, still seated near the window of the workroom, had impassively continued sewing. Now and again, pending the arrival of four o’clock, she had looked up at the timepiece hanging on the wall on her left hand, or else had glanced out of the window towards the unfinished pile of the basilica, which a gigantic framework of scaffoldings encompassed. Slowly and steadily plying her needle, the old lady remained very pale and silent, but full of heroic serenity. On the other hand, Marie, who sat near her, embroidering, shifted her position a score of times, broke her thread, and grew impatient, feeling strangely nervous, a prey to unaccountable anxiety, which oppressed her heart. For their part, the three young men could not keep in place at all; it was as if some contagious fever disturbed them. Each had gone to his work: Thomas was filing something at his bench; Francois and Antoine were on either side of their table, the first trying to solve a mathematical problem, and the other copying a bunch of poppies in a vase before him. It was in vain, however, that they strove to be attentive. They quivered at the slightest sound, raised their heads, and darted questioning glances at one another. What could be the matter? What could possess them? What did they fear? Now and again one or the other would rise, stretch himself, and then, resume his place. However, they did not speak; it was as if they dared not say anything, and thus the heavy silence grew more and more terrible.
When it was a few minutes to four o’clock Mere-Grand felt weary, or else desired to collect her thoughts. After another glance at the timepiece, she let her needlework fall on her lap and turned towards the basilica. It seemed to her that she had only enough strength left to wait; and she remained with her eyes fixed on the huge walls and the forest of scaffolding which rose over yonder with such triumphant pride under the blue sky. Then all at once, however brave and firm she might be, she could not restrain a start, for “La Savoyarde” had raised a joyful clang. The consecration of the Host was now at hand, the ten thousand pilgrims filled the church, four o’clock was about to strike. And thereupon an irresistible impulse forced the old lady to her feet; she drew herself up, quivering, her hands clasped, her eyes ever turned yonder, waiting in mute dread.
“What is the matter?” cried Thomas, who noticed her. “Why are you trembling, Mere-Grand?”
Francois and Antoine raised their heads, and in turn sprang forward.
“Are you ill? Why are you turning so pale, you who are so courageous?”
But she did not answer. Ah! might the force of the explosion rend the earth asunder, reach the house and sweep it into the flaming crater of the volcano! Might she and the three young men, might they all die with the father, this was her one ardent wish in order that grief might be spared them. And she remained waiting and waiting, quivering despite herself, but with her brave, clear eyes ever gazing yonder.
“Mere-Grand, Mere-Grand!” cried Marie in dismay; “you frighten us by refusing to answer us, by looking over there as if some misfortune were coming up at a gallop!”
Then, prompted by the same anguish, the same cry suddenly came from Thomas, Francois and Antoine: “Father is in peril-father is going to die!”
What did they know? Nothing precise, certainly. Thomas no doubt had been astonished to see what a large quantity of the explosive his father had recently prepared, and both Francois and Antoine were aware of the ideas of revolt which he harboured in his mind. But, full of filial deference, they never sought to know anything beyond what he might choose to confide to them. They never questioned him; they bowed to whatever he might do. And yet now a foreboding came to them, a conviction that their father was going to die, that some most frightful catastrophe was impending. It must have been that which had already sent such a quiver through the atmosphere ever since the morning, making them shiver with fever, feel ill at ease, and unable to work.
“Father is going to die, father is going to die!”
The three big fellows had drawn close together, distracted by one and the same anguish, and furiously longing to know what the danger was, in order that they might rush upon it and die with their father if they could not save him. And amidst Mere-Grand’s stubborn silence death once more flitted through the room: there came a cold gust such as they had already felt brushing past them during
At last four o’clock began to strike, and Mere-Grand raised her white hands with a gesture of supreme entreaty. It was then that she at last spoke: “Father is going to die. Nothing but the duty of living can save him.”
At this the three young men again wished to rush yonder, whither they knew not; but they felt that they must throw down all obstacles and conquer. Their powerlessness rent their hearts, they were both so frantic and so woeful that their grandmother strove to calm them. “Father’s own wish was to die,” said she, “and he is resolved to die alone.”
They shuddered as they heard her, and then, on their side, strove to be heroic. But the minutes crept by, and it seemed as if the cold gust had slowly passed away. Sometimes, at the twilight hour, a night-bird will come in by the window like some messenger of misfortune, flit round the darkened room, and then fly off again, carrying its sadness with it. And it was much like that; the gust passed, the basilica remained standing, the earth did not open to swallow it. Little by little the atrocious anguish which wrung their hearts gave place to hope. And when at last Guillaume appeared, followed by Pierre, a great cry of resurrection came from one and all: “Father!”
Their kisses, their tears, deprived him of his little remaining strength. He was obliged to sit down. He had glanced round him as if he were returning to life perforce. Mere-Grand, who understood what bitter feelings must have followed the subjugation of his will, approached him smiling, and took hold of both his hands as if to tell him that she was well pleased at seeing him again, and at finding that he accepted his task and was unwilling to desert the cause of life. For his part he suffered dreadfully, the shock had been so great. The others spared him any narrative of their feelings; and he, himself, related nothing. With a gesture, a loving word, he simply indicated that it was Pierre who had saved him.
Thereupon, in a corner of the room, Marie flung her arms round the young man’s neck. “Ah! my good Pierre, I have never yet kissed you,” said she; “I want it to be for something serious the first time. . . . I love you, my good Pierre, I love you with all my heart.”
Later that same evening, after night had fallen, Guillaume and Pierre remained for a moment alone in the big workroom. The young men had gone out, and Mere-Grand and Marie were upstairs sorting some house linen, while Madame Mathis, who had brought some work back, sat patiently in a dim corner waiting for another bundle of things which might require mending. The brothers, steeped in the soft melancholy of the twilight hour, and chatting in low tones, had quite forgotten her.
But all at once the arrival of a visitor upset them. It was Janzen with the fair, Christ-like face. He called very seldom nowadays; and one never knew from what gloomy spot he had come or into what darkness he would return when he took his departure. He disappeared, indeed, for months together, and was then suddenly to be seen like some momentary passer-by whose past and present life were alike unknown.
“I am leaving to-night,” he said in a voice sharp like a knife.
“Are you going back to your home in Russia?” asked Guillaume.
A faint, disdainful smile appeared on the Anarchist’s lips. “Home!” said he, “I am at home everywhere. To begin with, I am not a Russian, and then I recognise no other country than the world.”
With a sweeping gesture he gave them to understand what manner of man he was, one who had no fatherland of his own, but carried his gory dream of fraternity hither and thither regardless of frontiers. From some words he spoke the brothers fancied he was returning to Spain, where some fellow-Anarchists awaited him. There was a deal of work to be done there, it appeared. He had quietly seated himself, chatting on in his cold way, when all at once he serenely added: “By the by, a bomb had just been thrown into the Cafe de l’Univers on the Boulevard. Three
Pierre and Guillaume shuddered, and asked for particulars. Thereupon Janzen related that he had happened to be there, had heard the explosion, and seen the windows of the cafe shivered to atoms. Three customers were lying on the floor blown to pieces. Two of them were gentlemen, who had entered the place by chance and whose names were not known, while the third was a regular customer, a petty cit of the neighbourhood, who came every day to play a game at dominoes. And the whole place was wrecked; the marble tables were broken, the chandeliers twisted out of shape, the mirrors studded with projectiles. And how great the terror and the indignation, and how frantic the rush of the crowd! The perpetrator of the deed had been arrested immediately-in fact, just as he was turning the corner of the Rue Caumartin.
“I thought I would come and tell you of it,” concluded Janzen; “it is well you should know it.”
Then as Pierre, shuddering and already suspecting the truth, asked him if he knew who the man was that had been arrested, he slowly replied: “The worry is that you happen to know him-it was little Victor Mathis.”
Pierre tried to silence Janzen too late. He had suddenly remembered that Victor’s mother had been sitting in a dark corner behind them a short time previously. Was she still there? Then he again pictured Victor, slight and almost beardless, with a straight, stubborn brow, grey eyes glittering with intelligence, a pointed nose and thin lips expressive of stern will and unforgiving hatred. He was no simple and lowly one from the ranks of the disinherited. He was an educated scion of the
For a few seconds, amidst the growing darkness, cold horror reigned in the workroom. “Ah!” muttered Guillaume, “he had the daring to do it, he had.”
Pierre, however, lovingly pressed his arm. And he felt that he was as distracted, as upset, as himself. Perhaps this last abomination had been needed to ravage and cure him.
Janzen no doubt had been an accomplice in the deed. He was relating that Victor’s purpose had been to avenge Salvat, when all at once a great sigh of pain was heard in the darkness, followed by a heavy thud upon the floor. It was Madame Mathis falling like a bundle, overwhelmed by the news which chance had brought her. At that moment it so happened that Mere-Grand came down with a lamp, which lighted up the room, and thereupon they hurried to the help of the wretched woman, who lay there as pale as a corpse in her flimsy black gown.
And this again brought Pierre an indescribable heart-pang. Ah! the poor, sad, suffering creature! He remembered her at Abbe Rose’s, so discreet, so shamefaced, in her poverty, scarce able to live upon the slender resources which persistent misfortunes had left her. Hers had indeed been a cruel lot: first, a home with wealthy parents in the provinces, a love story and elopement with the man of her choice; next, ill-luck steadily pursuing her, all sorts of home troubles, and at last her husband’s death. Then, in the retirement of her widowhood, after losing the best part of the little income which had enabled her to bring up her son, naught but this son had been left to her. He had been her Victor, her sole affection, the only one in whom she had faith. She had ever striven to believe that he was very busy, absorbed in work, and on the eve of attaining to some superb position worthy of his merits. And now, all at once, she had learnt that this fondly loved son was simply the most odious of assassins, that he had flung a bomb into a cafe, and had there killed three men.
When Madame Mathis had recovered her senses, thanks to the careful tending of Mere-Grand, she sobbed on without cessation, raising such a continuous doleful wail, that Pierre’s hand again sought Guillaume’s, and grasped it, whilst their hearts, distracted but healed, mingled lovingly one with the other.