'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 to-day. 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 ?migr?s.'
'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.'*
* 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.