“Go, my nephew,” said old Father Jacob to me, “and complete thy studies at Strasburg: Heaven surely hath ordained thee for the ministry in these times of trouble, and my excellent friend Schneider will work out the divine intention.”
Schneider was an old college friend of uncle Jacob’s, was a Benedictine monk, and a man famous for his learning; as for me, I was at that time my uncle’s chorister, clerk, and sacristan; I swept the church, chanted the prayers with my shrill treble, and swung the great copper incense-pot on Sundays and feasts; and I toiled over the Fathers for the other days of the week.
The old gentleman said that my progress was prodigious, and, without vanity, I believe he was right, for I then verily considered that praying was my vocation, and not fighting, as I have found since.
You would hardly conceive (said the Captain, swearing a great oath) how devout and how learned I was in those days; I talked Latin faster than my own beautiful patois of Alsacian French; I could utterly overthrow in argument every Protestant (heretics we called them) parson in the neighborhood, and there was a confounded sprinkling of these unbelievers in our part of the country. I prayed half a dozen times a day; I fasted thrice in a week; and, as for penance, I used to scourge my little sides, till they had no more feeling than a peg-top: such was the godly life I led at my uncle Jacob’s in the village of Steinbach.
Our family had long dwelt in this place, and a large farm and a pleasant house were then in the possession of another uncle — uncle Edward. He was the youngest of the three sons of my grandfather; but Jacob, the elder, had shown a decided vocation for the church, from, I believe, the age of three, and now was by no means tired of it at sixty. My father, who was to have inherited the paternal property, was, as I hear, a terrible scamp and scapegrace, quarrelled with his family, and disappeared altogether, living and dying at Paris; so far we knew through my mother, who came, poor woman, with me, a child of six months, on her bosom, was refused all shelter by my grandfather, but was housed and kindly cared for by my good uncle Jacob.
Here she lived for about seven years, and the old gentleman, when she died, wept over her grave a great deal more than I did, who was then too young to mind anything but toys or sweetmeats.
During this time my grandfather was likewise carried off: he left, as I said, the property to his son Edward, with a small proviso in his will that something should be done for me, his grandson.
Edward was himself a widower, with one daughter, Mary, about three years older than I, and certainly she was the dearest little treasure with which Providence ever blessed a miserly father; by the time she was fifteen, five farmers, three lawyers, twelve Protestant parsons, and a lieutenant of Dragoons had made her offers: it must not be denied that she was an heiress as well as a beauty, which, perhaps, had something to do with the love of these gentlemen. However, Mary declared that she intended to live single, turned away her lovers one after another, and devoted herself to the care of her father.
Uncle Jacob was as fond of her as he was of any saint or martyr. As for me, at the mature age of twelve I had made a kind of divinity of her, and when we sang “Ave Maria” on Sundays I could not refrain from turning to her, where she knelt, blushing and praying and looking like an angel, as she was. Besides her beauty, Mary had a thousand good qualities; she could play better on the harpsichord, she could dance more lightly, she could make better pickles and puddings, than any girl in Alsace; there was not a want or a fancy of the old hunks her father, or a wish of mine or my uncle’s, that she would not gratify if she could; as for herself, the sweet soul had neither wants nor wishes except to see us happy.
I could talk to you for a year of all the pretty kindnesses that she would do for me; how, when she found me of early mornings among my books, her presence “would cast a light upon the day;” how she used to smooth and fold my little surplice, and embroider me caps and gowns for high feast-days; how she used to bring flowers for the altar, and who could deck it so well as she? But sentiment does not come glibly from under a grizzled moustache, so I will drop it, if you please.
Amongst other favors she showed me, Mary used to be particularly fond of kissing me: it was a thing I did not so much value in those days, but I found that the more I grew alive to the extent of the benefit, the less she would condescend to confer it on me; till at last, when I was about fourteen, she discontinued it altogether, of her own wish at least; only sometimes I used to be rude, and take what she had now become so mighty unwilling to give.
I was engaged in a contest of this sort one day with Mary, when, just as I was about to carry off a kiss from her cheek, I was saluted with a staggering slap on my own, which was bestowed by uncle Edward, and sent me reeling some yards down the garden.
The old gentleman, whose tongue was generally as close as his purse, now poured forth a flood of eloquence which quite astonished me. I did not think that so much was to be said on any subject as he managed to utter on one, and that was abuse of me; he stamped, he swore, he screamed; and then, from complimenting me, he turned to Mary, and saluted her in a manner equally forcible and significant; she, who was very much frightened at the commencement of the scene, grew very angry at the coarse words he used, and the wicked motives he imputed to her.
“The child is but fourteen,” she said; “he is your own nephew, and a candidate for holy orders:— father, it is a shame that you should thus speak of me, your daughter, or of one of his holy profession.”
I did not particularly admire this speech myself, but it had an effect on my uncle, and was the cause of the words with which this history commences. The old gentleman persuaded his brother that I must be sent to Strasburg, and there kept until my studies for the church were concluded. I was furnished with a letter to my uncle’s old college chum, Professor Schneider, who was to instruct me in theology and Greek.
I was not sorry to see Strasburg, of the wonders of which I had heard so much; but felt very loth as the time drew near when I must quit my pretty cousin, and my good old uncle. Mary and I managed, however, a parting walk, in which a number of tender things were said on both sides. I am told that you Englishmen consider it cowardly to cry; as for me, I wept and roared incessantly: when Mary squeezed me, for the last time, the tears came out of me as if I had been neither more nor less than a great wet sponge. My cousin’s eyes were stoically dry; her ladyship had a part to play, and it would have been wrong for her to be in love with a young chit of fourteen — so she carried herself with perfect coolness, as if there was nothing the matter. I should not have known that she cared for me, had it not been for a letter which she wrote me a month afterwards — THEN, nobody was by, and the consequence was that the letter was half washed away with her weeping; if she had used a watering-pot the thing could not have been better done.
Well, I arrived at Strasburg — a dismal, old-fashioned, rickety town in those days — and straightway presented myself and letter at Schneider’s door; over it was written —
COMITÉ DE SALUT PUBLIC.
Would you believe it? I was so ignorant a young fellow, that I had no idea of the meaning of the words; however, I entered the citizen’s room without fear, and sat down in his ante-chamber until I could be admitted to see him.
Here I found very few indications of his reverence’s profession; the walls were hung round with portraits of Robespierre, Marat, and the like; a great bust of Mirabeau, mutilated, with the word Traître underneath; lists and republican proclamations, tobacco-pipes and fire-arms. At a deal-table, stained with grease and wine, sat a gentleman, with a huge pigtail dangling down to that part of his person which immediately succeeds his back, and a red nightcap, containing a TRICOLOR cockade as large as a pancake. He was smoking a short pipe, reading a little book, and sobbing as if his heart would break. Every now and then he would make brief remarks upon the personages or the incidents of his book, by which I could judge that he was a man of the very keenest sensibilities — “Ah, brigand!” “O malheureuse!” “O Charlotte, Charlotte!” The work which this gentleman was perusing is called “The Sorrows of Werter;” it was all the rage, in those days, and my friend was only following the fashion. I asked him if I could see Father Schneider? he turned towards me a hideous, pimpled face, which I dream of now at forty years’ distance.
“Father who?” said he. “Do you imagine that citizen Schneider has not thrown off the absurd mummery of priesthood? If you were a little older you would go to prison for calling him Father Schneider — many a man has died for less;” and he pointed to a picture of a guillotine, which was hanging in the room.
I was in amazement.
“What is he? Is he not a teacher of Greek, an abbé, a monk, until monasteries were abolished, the learned editor of the songs of ‘Anacreon?’”
“He WAS all this,” replied my grim friend; “he is now a Member of the Committee of Public Safety, and would think no more of ordering your head off than of drinking this tumbler of beer.”
He swallowed, himself, the frothy liquid, and then proceeded to give me the history of the man to whom my uncle had sent me for instruction.
Schneider was born in 1756: was a student at Würzburg, and afterwards entered a convent, where he remained nine years. He here became distinguished for his learning and his talents as a preacher, and became chaplain to Duke Charles of Würtemberg. The doctrines of the Illuminati began about this time to spread in Germany, and Schneider speedily joined the sect. He had been a professor of Greek at Cologne; and being compelled, on account of his irregularity, to give up his chair, he came to Strasburg at the commencement of the French Revolution, and acted for some time a principal part as a revolutionary agent at Strasburg.
[“Heaven knows what would have happened to me had I continued long under his tuition!” said the Captain. “I owe the preservation of my morals entirely to my entering the army. A man, sir, who is a soldier, has very little time to be wicked; except in the case of a siege and the sack of a town, when a little license can offend nobody.”]
By the time that my friend had concluded Schneider’s biography, we had grown tolerably intimate, and I imparted to him (with that experience so remarkable in youth) my whole history — my course of studies, my pleasant country life, the names and qualities of my dear relations, and my occupations in the vestry before religion was abolished by order of the Republic. In the course of my speech I recurred so often to the name of my cousin Mary, that the gentleman could not fail to perceive what a tender place she had in my heart.
Then we reverted to “The Sorrows of Werter,” and discussed the merits of that sublime performance. Although I had before felt some misgivings about my new acquaintance, my heart now quite yearned towards him. He talked about love and sentiment in a manner which made me recollect that I was in love myself; and you know that when a man is in that condition, his taste is not very refined, any maudlin trash of prose or verse appearing sublime to him, provided it correspond, in some degree, with his own situation.
“Candid youth!” cried my unknown, “I love to hear thy innocent story and look on thy guileless face. There is, alas! so much of the contrary in this world, so much terror and crime and blood, that we who mingle with it are only too glad to forget it. Would that we could shake off our cares as men, and be boys, as thou art, again!”
Here my friend began to weep once more, and fondly shook my hand. I blessed my stars that I had, at the very outset of my career, met with one who was so likely to aid me. What a slanderous world it is, thought I; the people in our village call these Republicans wicked and bloody-minded; a lamb could not be more tender than this sentimental bottle-nosed gentleman! The worthy man then gave me to understand that he held a place under Government. I was busy in endeavoring to discover what his situation might be, when the door of the next apartment opened, and Schneider made his appearance.
At first he did not notice me, but he advanced to my new acquaintance, and gave him, to my astonishment, something very like a blow.
“You drunken, talking fool,” he said, “you are always after your time. Fourteen people are cooling their heels yonder, waiting until you have finished your beer and your sentiment!”
My friend slunk muttering out of the room.
“That fellow,” said Schneider, turning to me, “is our public executioner: a capital hand too if he would but keep decent time; but the brute is always drunk, and blubbering over ‘The Sorrows of Werter!’”
I know not whether it was his old friendship for my uncle, or my proper merits, which won the heart of this the sternest ruffian of Robespierre’s crew; but certain it is, that he became strangely attached to me, and kept me constantly about his person. As for the priesthood and the Greek, they were of course very soon out of the question. The Austrians were on our frontier; every day brought us accounts of battles won; and the youth of Strasburg, and of all France, indeed, were bursting with military ardor. As for me, I shared the general mania, and speedily mounted a cockade as large as that of my friend, the executioner.
The occupations of this worthy were unremitting. Saint Just, who had come down from Paris to preside over our town, executed the laws and the aristocrats with terrible punctuality; and Schneider used to make country excursions in search of offenders with this fellow, as a provost-marshal, at his back. In the meantime, having entered my sixteenth year, and being a proper lad of my age, I had joined a regiment of cavalry, and was scampering now after the Austrians who menaced us, and now threatening the Emigrés, who were banded at Coblentz. My love for my dear cousin increased as my whiskers grew; and when I was scarcely seventeen, I thought myself man enough to marry her, and to cut the throat of any one who should venture to say me nay.
I need not tell you that during my absence at Strasburg, great changes had occurred in our little village, and somewhat of the revolutionary rage had penetrated even to that quiet and distant place. The hideous “Fête of the Supreme Being” had been celebrated at Paris; the practice of our ancient religion was forbidden; its professors were most of them in concealment, or in exile, or had expiated on the scaffold their crime of Christianity. In our poor village my uncle’s church was closed, and he, himself, an inmate in my brother’s house, only owing his safety to his great popularity among his former flock, and the influence of Edward Ancel.
The latter had taken in the Revolution a somewhat prominent part; that is, he had engaged in many contracts for the army, attended the clubs regularly, corresponded with the authorities of his department, and was loud in his denunciations of the aristocrats in the neighborhood. But owing, perhaps, to the German origin of the peasantry, and their quiet and rustic lives, the revolutionary fury which prevailed in the cities had hardly reached the country people. The occasional visit of a commissary from Paris or Strasburg served to keep the flame alive, and to remind the rural swains of the existence of a Republic in France.
Now and then, when I could gain a week’s leave of absence, I returned to the village, and was received with tolerable politeness by my uncle, and with a warmer feeling by his daughter.
I won’t describe to you the progress of our love, or the wrath of my uncle Edward, when he discovered that it still continued. He swore and he stormed; he locked Mary into her chamber, and vowed that he would withdraw the allowance he made me, if ever I ventured near her. His daughter, he said, should never marry a hopeless, penniless subaltern; and Mary declared she would not marry without his consent. What had I to do? — to despair and to leave her. As for my poor uncle Jacob, he had no counsel to give me, and, indeed, no spirit left: his little church was turned into a stable, his surplice torn off his shoulders, and he was only too lucky in keeping HIS HEAD on them. A bright thought struck him: suppose you were to ask the advice of my old friend Schneider regarding this marriage? he has ever been your friend, and may help you now as before.
(Here the Captain paused a little.) You may fancy (continued he) that it was droll advice of a reverend gentleman like uncle Jacob to counsel me in this manner, and to bid me make friends with such a murderous cut-throat as Schneider; but we thought nothing of it in those days; guillotining was as common as dancing, and a man was only thought the better patriot the more severe he might be. I departed forthwith to Strasburg, and requested the vote and interest of the Citizen President of the Committee of Public Safety.
He heard me with a great deal of attention. I described to him most minutely the circumstance, expatiated upon the charms of my dear Mary, and painted her to him from head to foot. Her golden hair and her bright blushing cheeks, her slim waist and her tripping tiny feet; and furthermore, I added that she possessed a fortune which ought, by rights, to be mine, but for the miserly old father. “Curse him for an aristocrat!” concluded I, in my wrath.
As I had been discoursing about Mary’s charms Schneider listened with much complacency and attention: when I spoke about her fortune, his interest redoubled; and when I called her father an aristocrat, the worthy ex-Jesuit gave a grin of satisfaction, which was really quite terrible. O fool that I was to trust him so far!
The very same evening an officer waited upon me with the following note from Saint Just:—
“STRASBURG, Fifth year of the Republic, one and indivisible, 11 Ventose.
“The citizen Pierre Ancel is to leave Strasburg within two hours, and to carry the enclosed despatches to the President of the Committee of Public Safety at Paris. The necessary leave of absence from his military duties has been provided. Instant punishment will follow the slightest delay on the road.
Salut et Fraternité.”
There was no choice but obedience, and off I sped on my weary way to the capital.
As I was riding out of the Paris gate I met an equipage which I knew to be that of Schneider. The ruffian smiled at me as I passed, and wished me a bon voyage. Behind his chariot came a curious machine, or cart; a great basket, three stout poles, and several planks, all painted red, were lying in this vehicle, on the top of which was seated my friend with the big cockade. It was the PORTABLE GUILLOTINE which Schneider always carried with him on his travels. The bourreau was reading “The Sorrows of Werter,” and looked as sentimental as usual.
I will not speak of my voyage in order to relate to you Schneider’s. My story had awakened the wretch’s curiosity and avarice, and he was determined that such a prize as I had shown my cousin to be should fall into no hands but his own. No sooner, in fact, had I quitted his room than he procured the order for my absence, and was on the way to Steinbach as I met him.
The journey is not a very long one; and on the next day my uncle Jacob was surprised by receiving a message that the citizen Schneider was in the village, and was coming to greet his old friend. Old Jacob was in an ecstasy, for he longed to see his college acquaintance, and he hoped also that Schneider had come into that part of the country upon the marriage-business of your humble servant. Of course Mary was summoned to give her best dinner, and wear her best frock; and her father made ready to receive the new State dignitary.
Schneider’s carriage speedily rolled into the court-yard, and Schneider’s CART followed, as a matter of course. The ex-priest only entered the house; his companion remaining with the horses to dine in private. Here was a most touching meeting between him and Jacob. They talked over their old college pranks and successes; they capped Greek verses, and quoted ancient epigrams upon their tutors, who had been dead since the Seven Years’ War. Mary declared it was quite touching to listen to the merry friendly talk of these two old gentlemen.
After the conversation had continued for a time in this strain, Schneider drew up all of a sudden, and said quietly, that he had come on particular and unpleasant business — hinting about troublesome times, spies, evil reports, and so forth. Then he called uncle Edward aside, and had with him a long and earnest conversation: so Jacob went out and talked with Schneider’s FRIEND; they speedily became very intimate, for the ruffian detailed all the circumstances of his interview with me. When he returned into the house, some time after this pleasing colloquy, he found the tone of the society strangely altered. Edward Ancel, pale as a sheet, trembling, and crying for mercy; poor Mary weeping; and Schneider pacing energetically about the apartment, raging about the rights of man, the punishment of traitors, and the one and indivisible republic.
“Jacob,” he said, as my uncle entered the room, “I was willing, for the sake of our old friendship, to forget the crimes of your brother. He is a known and dangerous aristocrat; he holds communications with the enemy on the frontier; he is a possessor of great and ill-gotten wealth, of which he has plundered the Republic. Do you know,” said he, turning to Edward Ancel, “where the least of these crimes, or the mere suspicion of them, would lead you?”
Poor Edward sat trembling in his chair, and answered not a word. He knew full well how quickly, in this dreadful time, punishment followed suspicion; and, though guiltless of all treason with the enemy, perhaps he was aware that, in certain contracts with the Government, he had taken to himself a more than patriotic share of profit.
“Do you know,” resumed Schneider, in a voice of thunder, “for what purpose I came hither, and by whom I am accompanied? I am the administrator of the justice of the Republic. The life of yourself and your family is in my hands: yonder man, who follows me, is the executor of the law; he has rid the nation of hundreds of wretches like yourself. A single word from me, and your doom is sealed without hope, and your last hour is come. Ho! Gregoire!” shouted he; “is all ready?”
Gregoire replied from the court, “I can put up the machine in half an hour. Shall I go down to the village and call the troops and the law people?”
“Do you hear him?” said Schneider. “The guillotine is in the court-yard; your name is on my list, and I have witnesses to prove your crime. Have you a word in your defence?”
Not a word came; the old gentleman was dumb; but his daughter, who did not give way to his terror, spoke for him.
“You cannot, sir,” said she, “although you say it, FEEL that my father is guilty; you would not have entered our house thus alone if you had thought it. You threaten him in this manner because you have something to ask and to gain from us: what is it, citizen? — tell us how much you value our lives, and what sum we are to pay for our ransom?”
“Sum!” said uncle Jacob; “he does not want money of us: my old friend, my college chum, does not come hither to drive bargains with anybody belonging to Jacob Ancel?”
“Oh, no, sir, no, you can’t want money of us,” shrieked Edward; “we are the poorest people of the village: ruined, Monsieur Schneider, ruined in the cause of the Republic.”
“Silence, father,” said my brave Mary; “this man wants a PRICE: he comes, with his worthy friend yonder, to frighten us, not to kill us. If we die, he cannot touch a sou of our money; it is confiscated to the State. Tell us, sir, what is the price of our safety?”
Schneider smiled, and bowed with perfect politeness.
“Mademoiselle Marie,” he said, “is perfectly correct in her surmise. I do not want the life of this poor drivelling old man: my intentions are much more peaceable, be assured. It rests entirely with this accomplished young lady (whose spirit I like, and whose ready wit I admire), whether the business between us shall be a matter of love or death. I humbly offer myself, citizen Ancel, as a candidate for the hand of your charming daughter. Her goodness, her beauty, and the large fortune which I know you intend to give her, would render her a desirable match for the proudest man in the republic, and, I am sure, would make me the happiest.”
“This must be a jest, Monsieur Schneider,” said Mary, trembling, and turning deadly pale: “you cannot mean this; you do not know me: you never heard of me until today.”
“Pardon me, belle dame,” replied he; “your cousin Pierre has often talked to me of your virtues; indeed, it was by his special suggestion that I made the visit.”
“It is false! — it is a base and cowardly lie!” exclaimed she (for the young lady’s courage was up) — “Pierre never could have forgotten himself and me so as to offer me to one like you. You come here with a lie on your lips — a lie against my father, to swear his life away, against my dear cousin’s honor and love. It is useless now to deny it: father, I love Pierre Ancel; I will marry no other but him — no, though our last penny were paid to this man as the price of our freedom.”
Schneider’s only reply to this was a call to his friend Gregoire.
“Send down to the village for the maire and some gendarmes; and tell your people to make ready.”
“Shall I put THE MACHINE up?” shouted he of the sentimental turn.
“You hear him,” said Schneider; “Marie Ancel, you may decide the fate of your father. I shall return in a few hours,” concluded he, “and will then beg to know your decision.”
The advocate of the rights of man then left the apartment, and left the family, as you may imagine, in no very pleasant mood.
Old uncle Jacob, during the few minutes which had elapsed in the enactment of this strange scene, sat staring wildly at Schneider, and holding Mary on his knees: the poor little thing had fled to him for protection, and not to her father, who was kneeling almost senseless at the window, gazing at the executioner and his hideous preparations. The instinct of the poor girl had not failed her; she knew that Jacob was her only protector, if not of her life — heaven bless him! — of her honor. “Indeed,” the old man said, in a stout voice, “this must never be, my dearest child — you must not marry this man. If it be the will of Providence that we fall, we shall have at least the thought to console us that we die innocent. Any man in France at a time like this, would be a coward and traitor if he feared to meet the fate of the thousand brave and good who have preceded us.”
“Who speaks of dying?” said Edward. “You, Brother Jacob? — you would not lay that poor girl’s head on the scaffold, or mine, your dear brother’s. You will not let us die, Mary; you will not, for a small sacrifice, bring your poor old father into danger?”
Mary made no answer. “Perhaps,” she said, “there is time for escape: he is to be here but in two hours; in two hours we may be safe, in concealment, or on the frontier.” And she rushed to the door of the chamber, as if she would have instantly made the attempt: two gendarmes were at the door. “We have orders, Mademoiselle,” they said, “to allow no one to leave this apartment until the return of the citizen Schneider.”
Alas! all hope of escape was impossible. Mary became quite silent for a while; she would not speak to uncle Jacob; and, in reply to her father’s eager questions, she only replied, coldly, that she would answer Schneider when he arrived.
The two dreadful hours passed away only too quickly; and, punctual to his appointment, the ex-monk appeared. Directly he entered, Mary advanced to him, and said, calmly —
“Sir, I could not deceive you if I said that I freely accepted the offer which you have made me. I will be your wife; but I tell you that I love another; and that it is only to save the lives of those two old men that I yield my person up to you.”
Schneider bowed, and said —
“It is bravely spoken. I like your candor — your beauty. As for the love, excuse me for saying that is a matter of total indifference. I have no doubt, however, that it will come as soon as your feelings in favor of the young gentleman, your cousin, have lost their present fervor. That engaging young man has, at present, another mistress — Glory. He occupies, I believe, the distinguished post of corporal in a regiment which is about to march to — Perpignan, I believe.”
It was, in fact, Monsieur Schneider’s polite intention to banish me as far as possible from the place of my birth; and he had, accordingly, selected the Spanish frontier as the spot where I was to display my future military talents.
Mary gave no answer to this sneer: she seemed perfectly resigned and calm: she only said —
“I must make, however, some conditions regarding our proposed marriage, which a gentleman of Monsieur Schneider’s gallantry cannot refuse.”
“Pray command me,” replied the husband elect. “Fair lady, you know I am your slave.”
“You occupy a distinguished political rank, citizen representative,” said she; “and we in our village are likewise known and beloved. I should be ashamed, I confess, to wed you here; for our people would wonder at the sudden marriage, and imply that it was only by compulsion that I gave you my hand. Let us, then, perform this ceremony at Strasburg, before the public authorities of the city, with the state and solemnity which befits the marriage of one of the chief men of the Republic.”
“Be it so, madam,” he answered, and gallantly proceeded to embrace his bride.
Mary did not shrink from this ruffian’s kiss; nor did she reply when poor old Jacob, who sat sobbing in a corner, burst out, and said —
“O Mary, Mary, I did not think this of thee!”
“Silence, brother!” hastily said Edward; “my good son-inlaw will pardon your ill-humor.”
I believe uncle Edward in his heart was pleased at the notion of the marriage; he only cared for money and rank, and was little scrupulous as to the means of obtaining them.
The matter then was finally arranged; and presently, after Schneider had transacted the affairs which brought him into that part of the country, the happy bridal party set forward for Strasburg. Uncles Jacob and Edward occupied the back seat of the old family carriage, and the young bride and bridegroom (he was nearly Jacob’s age) were seated majestically in front. Mary has often since talked to me of this dreadful journey. She said she wondered at the scrupulous politeness of Schneider during the route; nay, that at another period she could have listened to and admired the singular talent of this man, his great learning, his fancy, and wit; but her mind was bent upon other things, and the poor girl firmly thought that her last day was come.
In the meantime, by a blessed chance, I had not ridden three leagues from Strasburg, when the officer of a passing troop of a cavalry regiment, looking at the beast on which I was mounted, was pleased to take a fancy to it, and ordered me, in an authoritative tone, to descend, and to give up my steed for the benefit of the Republic. I represented to him, in vain, that I was a soldier, like himself, and the bearer of despatches to Paris. “Fool!” he said; “do you think they would send despatches by a man who can ride at best but ten leagues a day?” And the honest soldier was so wroth at my supposed duplicity, that he not only confiscated my horse, but my saddle, and the little portmanteau which contained the chief part of my worldly goods and treasure. I had nothing for it but to dismount, and take my way on foot back again to Strasburg. I arrived there in the evening, determining the next morning to make my case known to the citizen St. Just; and though I made my entry without a sou, I don’t know what secret exultation I felt at again being able to return.
The ante-chamber of such a great man as St. Just was, in those days, too crowded for an unprotected boy to obtain an early audience; two days passed before I could obtain a sight of the friend of Robespierre. On the third day, as I was still waiting for the interview, I heard a great bustle in the courtyard of the house, and looked out with many others at the spectacle.
A number of men and women, singing epithalamiums, and dressed in some absurd imitation of Roman costume, a troop of soldiers and gendarmerie, and an immense crowd of the badauds of Strasburg, were surrounding a carriage which then entered the court of the mayoralty. In this carriage, great God! I saw my dear Mary, and Schneider by her side. The truth instantly came upon me: the reason for Schneider’s keen inquiries and my abrupt dismissal; but I could not believe that Mary was false to me. I had only to look in her face, white and rigid as marble, to see that this proposed marriage was not with her consent.
I fell back in the crowd as the procession entered the great room in which I was, and hid my face in my hands: I could not look upon her as the wife of another — upon her so long loved and truly — the saint of my childhood — the pride and hope of my youth — torn from me for ever, and delivered over to the unholy arms of the murderer who stood before me.
The door of St. Just’s private apartment opened, and he took his seat at the table of mayoralty just as Schneider and his cortège arrived before it.
Schneider then said that he came in before the authorities of the Republic to espouse the citoyenne Marie Ancel.
“Is she a minor?” asked St. Just.
“She is a minor, but her father is here to give her away.”
“I am here,” said uncle Edward, coming eagerly forward and bowing. “Edward Ancel, so please you, citizen representative. The worthy citizen Schneider has done me the honor of marrying into my family.”
“But my father has not told you the terms of the marriage,” said Mary, interrupting him, in a loud, clear voice.
Here Schneider seized her hand, and endeavored to prevent her from speaking. Her father turned pale, and cried, “Stop, Mary, stop! For heaven’s sake, remember your poor old father’s danger!”
“Sir, may I speak?”
“Let the young woman speak,” said St. Just, “if she have a desire to talk.” He did not suspect what would be the purport of her story.
“Sir,” she said, “two days since the citizen Schneider entered for the first time our house; and you will fancy that it must be a love of very sudden growth which has brought either him or me before you today. He had heard from a person who is now unhappily not present, of my name and of the wealth which my family was said to possess; and hence arose this mad design concerning me. He came into our village with supreme power, an executioner at his heels, and the soldiery and authorities of the district entirely under his orders. He threatened my father with death if he refused to give up his daughter; and I, who knew that there was no chance of escape, except here before you, consented to become his wife. My father I know to be innocent, for all his transactions with the State have passed through my hands. Citizen representative, I demand to be freed from this marriage; and I charge Schneider as a traitor to the Republic, as a man who would have murdered an innocent citizen for the sake of private gain.”
During the delivery of this little speech, uncle Jacob had been sobbing and panting like a broken-winded horse; and when Mary had done, he rushed up to her and kissed her, and held her tight in his arms. “Bless thee, my child!” he cried, “for having had the courage to speak the truth, and shame thy old father and me, who dared not say a word.”
“The girl amazes me,” said Schneider, with a look of astonishment. “I never saw her, it is true, till yesterday; but I used no force: her father gave her to me with his free consent, and she yielded as gladly. Speak, Edward Ancel, was it not so?”
“It was, indeed, by my free consent,” said Edward, trembling.
“For shame, brother!” cried old Jacob. “Sir, it was by Edward’s free consent and my niece’s; but the guillotine was in the court-yard! Question Schneider’s famulus, the man Gregoire, him who reads ‘The Sorrows of Werter.’”
Gregoire stepped forward, and looked hesitatingly at Schneider, as he said, “I know not what took place within doors; but I was ordered to put up the scaffold without; and I was told to get soldiers, and let no one leave the house.”
“Citizen St. Just,” cried Schneider, “you will not allow the testimony of a ruffian like this, of a foolish girl, and a mad ex-priest, to weigh against the word of one who has done such service to the Republic: it is a base conspiracy to betray me; the whole family is known to favor the interest of the émigrés.”
“And therefore you would marry a member of the family, and allow the others to escape; you must make a better defence, citizen Schneider,” said St. Just, sternly.
Here I came forward, and said that, three days since, I had received an order to quit Strasburg for Paris immediately after a conversation with Schneider, in which I had asked him his aid in promoting my marriage with my cousin, Mary Ancel; that he had heard from me full accounts regarding her father’s wealth; and that he had abruptly caused my dismissal, in order to carry on his scheme against her.
“You are in the uniform of a regiment of this town; who sent you from it?” said St. Just.
I produced the order, signed by himself, and the despatches which Schneider had sent me.
“The signature is mine, but the despatches did not come from my office. Can you prove in any way your conversation with Schneider?”
“Why,” said my sentimental friend Gregoire, “for the matter of that, I can answer that the lad was always talking about this young woman: he told me the whole story himself, and many a good laugh I had with citizen Schneider as we talked about it.”
“The charge against Edward Ancel must be examined into,” said St. Just. “The marriage cannot take place. But if I had ratified it, Mary Ancel, what then would have been your course?”
Mary felt for a moment in her bosom, and said —“He would have died to-night — I would have stabbed him with this dagger.”4
4 This reply, and, indeed, the whole of the story, is historical. An account, by Charles Nodier, in the Revue de Paris, suggested it to the writer.
The rain was beating down the streets, and yet they were thronged; all the world was hastening to the market-place, where the worthy Gregoire was about to perform some of the pleasant duties of his office. On this occasion, it was not death that he was to inflict; he was only to expose a criminal who was to be sent on afterwards to Paris. St. Just had ordered that Schneider should stand for six hours in the public place of Strasburg, and then be sent on to the capital to be dealt with as the authorities might think fit.
The people followed with execrations the villain to his place of punishment; and Gregoire grinned as he fixed up to the post the man whose orders he had obeyed so often — who had delivered over to disgrace and punishment so many who merited it not.
Schneider was left for several hours exposed to the mockery and insults of the mob; he was then, according to his sentence, marched on to Paris, where it is probable that he would have escaped death, but for his own fault. He was left for some time in prison, quite unnoticed, perhaps forgotten: day by day fresh victims were carried to the scaffold, and yet the Alsacian tribune remained alive; at last, by the mediation of one of his friends, a long petition was presented to Robespierre, stating his services and his innocence, and demanding his freedom. The reply to this was an order for his instant execution: the wretch died in the last days of Robespierre’s reign. His comrade, St. Just, followed him, as you know; but Edward Ancel had been released before this, for the action of my brave Mary had created a strong feeling in his favor.
“And Mary?” said I.
Here a stout and smiling old lady entered the Captain’s little room: she was leaning on the arm of a military-looking man of some forty years, and followed by a number of noisy, rosy children.
“This is Mary Ancel,” said the Captain, “and I am Captain Pierre, and yonder is the Colonel, my son; and you see us here assembled in force, for it is the fête of little Jacob yonder, whose brothers and sisters have all come from their schools to dance at his birthday.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13