3. The Demon Chance
St. Just would have given much to be back in his lonely squalid lodgings now.
Too late did he realise how wise had been the dictum which had warned him
against making or renewing friendships in France.
Men had changed with the times. How terribly they had changed! Personal safety
had become a fetish with most--a goal so difficult to attain that it had to be fought
for and striven for, even at the expense of humanity and of self-respect.
Selfishness--the mere, cold-blooded insistence for self-advancement --ruled
supreme. De Batz, surfeited with foreign money, used it firstly to ensure his own
immunity, scattering it to right and left to still the ambition of the Public
Prosecutor or to satisfy the greed of innumerable spies.
What was left over he used for the purpose of pitting the bloodthirsty
demagogues one against the other, making of the National Assembly a gigantic
bear-den, wherein wild beasts could rend one another limb from limb.
In the meanwhile, what cared he--he said it himself--whether hundreds of
innocent martyrs perished miserably and uselessly? They were the necessary
food whereby the Revolution was to be satiated and de Batz' schemes enabled
to mature. The most precious life in Europe even was only to be saved if its price
went to swell the pockets of de Batz, or to further his future ambitions.
Times had indeed changed an entire nation. St. Just felt as sickened with this
self-seeking Royalist as he did with the savage brutes who struck to right or left
for their own delectation. He was meditating immediate flight back to his
lodgings, with a hope of finding there a word for him from the chief--a word to
remind him that men did live nowadays who had other aims besides their own
advancement--other ideals besides the deification of self.
The curtain had descended on the first act, and traditionally, as the works of M.
de Moliere demanded it, the three knocks were heard again without any interval.
St. Just rose ready with a pretext for parting with his friend. The curtain was
being slowly drawn up on the second act, and disclosed Alceste in wrathful
conversation with Celimene.
Alceste's opening speech is short. Whilst the actor spoke it Armand had his back
to the stage; with hand outstretched, he was murmuring what he hoped would
prove a polite excuse for thus leaving his amiable host while the entertainment
had only just begun.
De Batz--vexed and impatient--had not by any means finished with his friend yet.
He thought that his specious arguments--delivered with boundless conviction--
had made some impression on the mind of the young man. That impression,
however, he desired to deepen, and whilst Armand was worrying his brain to find
a plausible excuse for going away, de Batz was racking his to find one for
keeping him here.
Then it was that the wayward demon Chance intervened. Had St. Just risen but
two minutes earlier, had his active mind suggested the desired excuse more
readily, who knows what unspeakable sorrow, what heartrending misery, what
terrible shame might have been spared both him and those for whom he cared?