AN EPISODE UNDER THE TERROR
AN EPISODE UNDER THE TERROR
HONORE DE BALZAC
On the 22nd of January 1793 towards eight o'clock in the evening an
old lady came down the steep street that comes to an end opposite the
Church of Saint Laurent in the Faubourg Saint Martin. It had snowed so
heavily all day long that the lady's footsteps were scarcely audible;
the streets were deserted and a feeling of dread not unnatural amid
the silence was further increased by the whole extent of the Terror
beneath which France was groaning in those days; what was more the
old lady so far had met no one by the way. Her sight had long been
failing so that the few foot passengers dispersed like shadows in the
distance over the wide thoroughfare through the faubourg were quite
invisible to her by the light of the lanterns.
She had passed the end of the Rue des Morts when she fancied that she
could hear the firm heavy tread of a man walking behind her. Then it
seemed to her that she had heard that sound before and dismayed by
the idea of being followed she tried to walk faster toward a brightly
lit shop window in the hope of verifying the suspicions which had
taken hold of her mind.
So soon as she stood in the shaft of light that streamed out across
the road she turned her head suddenly and caught sight of a human
figure looming through the fog. The dim vision was enough for her. For
one moment she reeled beneath an overpowering weight of dread for she
could not doubt any longer that the man had followed her the whole way
from her own door; then the desire to escape from the spy gave her
strength. Unable to think clearly she walked twice as fast as before
as if it were possible to escape from a man who of course could move
much faster; and for some minutes she fled on till reaching a
pastry-cook's shop she entered and sank rather than sat down upon a
chair by the counter.
A young woman busy with embroidery looked up from her work at the
rattling of the door-latch and looked out through the square window-
panes. She seemed to recognize the old-fashioned violet silk mantle
for she went at once to a drawer as if in search of something put
aside for the newcomer. Not only did this movement and the expression
of the woman's face show a very evident desire to be rid as soon as
possible of an unwelcome visitor but she even permitted herself an
impatient exclamation when the drawer proved to be empty. Without
looking at the lady she hurried from her desk into the back shop and
called to her husband who appeared at once.
"Wherever have you put?----" she began mysteriously glancing at the
customer by way of finishing her question.
The pastry-cook could only see the old lady's head-dress a huge black
silk bonnet with knots of violet ribbon round it but he looked at his
wife as if to say "Did you think I should leave such a thing as that
lying about in your drawer?" and then vanished.
The old lady kept so still and silent that the shopkeeper's wife was
surprised. She went back to her and on a nearer view a sudden impulse
of pity blended perhaps with curiosity got the better of her. The
old lady's face was naturally pale; she looked as though she secretly
practised austerities; but it was easy to see that she was paler than
usual from recent agitation of some kind. Her head-dress was so
arranged as to almost hide hair that was white no doubt with age for
there was not a trace of powder on the collar of her dress. The
extreme plainness of her dress lent an air of austerity to her face
and her features were proud and grave. The manners and habits of
people of condition were so different from those of other classes in
former times that a noble was easily known and the shopkeeper's wife
felt persuaded that her customer was a ci-devant and that she had
been about the Court.
"Madame" she began with involuntary respect forgetting that the
title was proscribed.
But the old lady made no answer. She was staring fixedly at the shop
windows as though some dreadful thing had taken shape against the
panes. The pastry-cook came back at that moment and drew the lady
from her musings by holding out a little cardboard box wrapped in
"What is the matter citoyenne?" he asked.
"Nothing nothing my friends" she answered in a gentle voice. She
looked up at the man as she spoke as if to thank him by a glance; but
she saw the red cap on his head and a cry broke from her. "Ah! YOU
have betrayed me!"
The man and his young wife replied by an indignant gesture that
brought the color to the old lady's face; perhaps she felt relief
perhaps she blushed for her suspicions.
"Forgive me!" she said with a childlike sweetness in her tones. Then
drawing a gold louis from her pocket she held it out to the pastry-
cook. "That is the price agreed upon" she added.
There is a kind of want that is felt instinctively by those who know
want. The man and his wife looked at one another then at the elderly
woman before them and read the same thoughts in each other's eyes.
That bit of gold was so plainly the last. Her hands shook a little as
she held it out looking at it sadly but ungrudgingly as one who
knows the full extent of the sacrifice. Hunger and penury had carved
lines as easy to read in her face as the traces of asceticism and
fear. There were vestiges of bygone splendor in her clothes. She was
dressed in threadbare silk a neat but well-worn mantle and daintily
mended lace--in the rags of former grandeur in short. The shopkeeper
and his wife drawn two ways by pity and self-interest began by
lulling their consciences with words.
"You seem very poorly citoyenne----"
"Perhaps madame might like to take something" the wife broke in.
"We have some very nice broth" added the pastry-cook.
"And it is so cold" continued his wife; "perhaps you have caught a
chill madame on your way here. But you can rest and warm yourself a
"We are not so black as the devil!" cried the man.
The kindly intention in the words and tones of the charitable couple
won the old lady's confidence. She said that a strange man had been
following her and she was afraid to go home alone.
"Is that all!" returned he of the red bonnet; "wait for me
He handed the gold coin to his wife and then went out to put on his
National Guard's uniform impelled thereto by the idea of making some
adequate return for the money; an idea that sometimes slips into a
tradesman's head when he has been prodigiously overpaid for goods of
no great value. He took up his cap buckled on his sabre and came out
in full dress. But his wife had had time to reflect and reflection
as not unfrequently happens closed the hand that kindly intentions
had opened. Feeling frightened and uneasy lest her husband might be
drawn into something unpleasant she tried to catch at the skirt of
his coat to hold him back but he good soul obeying his charitable
first thought brought out his offer to see the lady home before his
wife could stop him.
"The man of whom the citoyenne is afraid is still prowling about the
shop it seems" she said sharply.
"I am afraid so" said the lady innocently.
"How if it is a spy? . . . a plot? . . . Don't go. And take the box
away from her----"
The words whispered in the pastry-cook's ear cooled his hot fit of
courage down to zero.
"Oh! I will just go out and say a word or two. I will rid you of him
soon enough" he exclaimed as he bounced out of the shop.
The old lady meanwhile passive as a child and almost dazed sat down
on her chair again. But the honest pastry-cook came back directly. A
countenance red enough to begin with and further flushed by the bake-
house fire was suddenly blanched; such terror perturbed him that he
reeled as he walked and stared about him like a drunken man.
"Miserable aristocrat! Do you want to have our heads cut off?" he
shouted furiously. "You just take to your heels and never show
yourself here again. Don't come to me for materials for your plots."
He tried as he spoke to take away the little box which she had
slipped into one of her pockets. But at the touch of a profane hand on
her clothes the stranger recovered youth and activity for a moment
preferring to face the dangers of the street with no protector save
God to the loss of the thing she had just paid for. She sprang to the
door flung it open and disappeared leaving the husband and wife
dumfounded and quaking with fright.
Once outside in the street she started away at a quick walk; but her
strength soon failed her. She heard the sound of the snow crunching
under a heavy step and knew that the pitiless spy was on her track.
She was obliged to stop. He stopped likewise. From sheer terror or
lack of intelligence she did not dare to speak or to look at him. She
went slowly on; the man slackened his pace and fell behind so that he
could still keep her in sight. He might have been her very shadow.
Nine o'clock struck as the silent man and woman passed again by the
Church of Saint Laurent. It is in the nature of things that calm must
succeed to violent agitation even in the weakest soul; for if feeling
is infinite our capacity to feel is limited. So as the stranger lady
met with no harm from her supposed persecutor she tried to look upon
him as an unknown friend anxious to protect her. She thought of all
the circumstances in which the stranger had appeared and put them
together as if to find some ground for this comforting theory and
felt inclined to credit him with good intentions rather than bad.
Forgetting the fright that he had given the pastry-cook she walked on
with a firmer step through the upper end of the Faubourg Saint Martin;
and another half-hour's walk brought her to a house at the corner
where the road to the Barriere de Pantin turns off from the main
thoroughfare. Even at this day the place is one of the least
frequented parts of Paris. The north wind sweeps over the Buttes-
Chaumont and Belleville and whistles through the houses (the hovels
rather) scattered over an almost uninhabited low-lying waste where
the fences are heaps of earth and bones. It was a desolate-looking
place a fitting refuge for despair and misery.
The sight of it appeared to make an impression upon the relentless
pursuer of a poor creature so daring as to walk alone at night through