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...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)