Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740
At the beginning of 1793, after the death of King Louis XVI on the guillotine, France is menaced at its borders by practically all of Europe. Internally, the political leadership is torn apart by dissensions between the Montagnards and the Girondins. One night in March, Maurice Lindey, a lieutenant in the Civic Guard, meets a group of enlisted volunteers who are taking a woman to the guardhouse because she has no pass permitting her to be out at that time. The woman implores the officer for his protection against these men, who show the effects of having drunk many toasts to their future victories. He decides to conduct her to the guardhouse himself, but she talks him into escorting her to her home.
Louis Lorin, Maurice’s friend, tries to persuade the lieutenant to avoid involving himself with an unknown woman who is so afraid of the guardhouse and who might well be a ci-devant, an aristocrat. Maurice, however, is already in love with her; he is afraid only that she is returning from a lovers’ tryst. He escorts her home, but she refuses to tell him her name. Once they arrive in the old Rue Saint Jacques, in the center of the tanneries with their horrible smell, she orders him to close his eyes, gives him a kiss, and, leaving a ring between his lips, disappears. The next morning, he receives a short note in which the woman gives him her thanks for his gallant conduct and says good-bye to him forever. He treasures this note with the ring.
Now that he has the lovely unknown woman on his mind he is not too upset to learn that the same night the Chevalier of the Maison Rouge, back in Paris, attempted a new conspiracy to free Marie Antoinette. The immediate consequence is that the Dauphin is taken away from the apartment where he is imprisoned with his mother, sister, and aunt. The boy is given to Simon, a shoemaker, to receive a so-called republican education.
On another evening, Maurice goes back to the same spot where the beautiful stranger vanished. When he begins reading all the names on the doors in the hope that love will prompt him to identify the right one, he is suddenly surrounded by seven men and thrown into an enclosed space with his hands tied and his eyes blindfolded. Behind the door he can hear the men deliberating to determine whether he is a spy and whether they should kill him. The name of Madame Dixmer is also mentioned. Maurice gathers from their talk that she is the wife of one of the men, apparently the manager of a large tannery. The men continue talking, emphasizing that Madame Dixmer must know nothing of this happening. Maurice wonders why a tanner would want to assassinate him.
Meanwhile, he succeeds in freeing himself from his bonds, and when the door is opened he jumps out, only to find himself in an enclosed garden where he finds no visible means of escape. He leaps through a window and finds himself in a room where a woman is reading. Dixmer follows him and orders the woman to step aside so that he can shoot the intruder. Instead, she stretches out her arms to protect him. Geneviève Dixmer is the unknown woman of his previous encounter. Dixmer offers his apologies, explaining that he is using prohibited acids in his tannery business and that his smugglers were afraid that Maurice is an informer. Maurice is asked to stay for dinner, where he meets Dixmer’s business partner, Morand. At the end of the evening, he is invited to return.
One day in May, Maurice is on duty at the Temple—the apartment where Marie Antoinette is held—when Héloïse Tison comes to visit her mother, the prisoner’s keeper. She is accompanied by a friend who is allowed to go upstairs. After they leave, a letter is discovered in Marie Antoinette’s pocket, a note confirming the death of a friend. The handwriting is familiar to Maurice, and he wonders how Geneviève can have anything to do with the queen. The next day, Marie Antoinette asks to go to the top of the tower for a walk. After a while, turning to the east, she receives signals from a window. Maurice thinks he recognizes Geneviève and immediately goes to the Rue Saint Jacques, where he finds everyone very busy with a new dye. He is amused at his own suspicions.
While he believes that Geneviève feels esteem rather than real love for her husband, Maurice is growing more and more jealous of Morand, whom for no reason at all he suspects of being in love with her. One day he voices his jealousy; Geneviève pleads with him to remain her friend. On the following day, he receives a note from her asking him to send a letter to her husband giving any reason he might think of for stopping his visits. Once more he complies with her wish.
His action greatly upsets Dixmer and Morand, whose tannery business is only a cover to hide their conspiracies. Morand is the Chevalier of the Maison Rouge. After Geneviève refuses to write to Maurice or to invite him back to their home, Dixmer himself goes to see him. True to his promise, Maurice refuses to return. He becomes so lovesick that he cannot do anything until he receives a letter from Geneviève, in which, at her husband’s insistence, she invites him to call once more. He has no suspicion that the conspirators have great need of him. They buy a house close to the Temple and work all night to connect its caves with a trapdoor leading into the prison yard.
When Geneviève expresses a desire to see the queen, Maurice asks her to come to the Temple on the following Thursday. He also invites Morand. When a flower seller offers them some carnations, Maurice buys a bouquet for Geneviève. Later, as the queen walks by on her way to the top of the tower, she admires the flowers, and Geneviève offers her the bouquet.
Simon, who hates Lorin and Maurice because they protect the Dauphin against his cruelty, picks up a flower that falls from the bouquet and discovers a note hidden inside; but the note is blown away by the wind. After Simon gives the affair great publicity, the flower seller is found, tried, and condemned to death. The Chevalier of the Maison Rouge is unsuccessful in his efforts to rescue her; she is executed immediately. The flower seller was Héloïse Tison. Her mother contributed to her doom by further substantiating Simon’s accusations.
When the day set for the queen’s escape arrives, Marie Antoinette asks to go into the yard for a walk. She is to sit by the trapdoor, then pretend to faint; during the confusion, she and her daughter and sister-in-law can be carried away through the tunnel. However, as they are entering the yard, the queen’s little black dog jumps forward and barks toward the concealed tunnel. The conspirators are forced to retreat. The plot confirms Simon’s earlier charge, so he becomes the man of the day. Maurice falls under suspicion, together with his friend Lorin.
Determined to save his friend, Lorin insists that he join the expedition that is to arrest the man who bought the house to which the tunnel leads. Maurice accepts, only to learn that Dixmer is the man. He realizes that he is a mere instrument in the hands of his alleged friends. When he arrives at the house, Geneviève says that she truly loves him, and she promises to be his if he will let the Chevalier go free. He reveals the password to them, and the conspirators escape. The house is burned down. As Maurice runs everywhere desperately calling for Geneviève, Lorin realizes the woman’s identity. He follows his friend through the city on a fruitless search for his love and finally takes him home after he has become completely exhausted. There they find Geneviève waiting for Maurice.
Maurice decides to leave France to take Geneviève away. She is left alone to pack her few belongings while Maurice goes to see Lorin. During his absence, her husband comes after her and forces her to go away with him.
In the meantime, Marie Antoinette is transferred to the Conciergerie. The Chevalier manages to be hired as a turnkey there, replacing the former turnkey, whom he bribed. Dixmer also has a plan for the queen’s escape. His design is to introduce himself in the Conciergerie as a registrar. He hopes to get into Marie Antoinette’s room with Geneviève and kill the two keepers. Geneviève will then persuade the queen to change clothes with her and leave with Dixmer.
The Chevalier of the Maison Rouge brings a small file into the queen’s room with which she is supposed to cut the bars of her window. Meanwhile, he will keep the jailers busy at the other window. Unfortunately, the two attempts, taking place simultaneously, work against each other, and Geneviève is arrested.
After having searched all of Paris to find Geneviève again, Maurice goes to live with Lorin after narrowly missing arrest in his own quarters. He and Lorin are definitely marked as suspects.
It is not until Marie Antoinette’s trial, at which he meets the Chevalier, that Maurice learns what has happened to Geneviève. He goes to the Revolutionary Tribunal every day in the hope of finding her there. Finally she is brought in, and Maurice is surprised to see Lorin brought in as well. The commissary who came to arrest Maurice arrested Lorin instead when Maurice was not to be found. Geneviève and Lorin are sentenced to death.
Maurice sees Dixmer in the audience. After the trial, he follows him and kills him during a quarrel. He takes a pass that Dixmer, to harass his wife and accuse her of adultery, secured for the purpose of entering the room where the prisoners are kept. Maurice runs to the waiting room and, handing the pass to Lorin, tells him he, Lorin, is now free. Lorin, however, refuses his friend’s offer. Maurice is seized, and all three die on the scaffold.