The man with the wooden leg was still at large, and M. le Procureur Impérial had died a hero's death whilst helping to capture a gang of desperate Chouans in the Cache-Renard woods. This was the public version of the tragic epilogue to those three mysteries, which had puzzled and terrified the countryside during the early days of October, 1809 -- the robbery of the mail-coach, the burglary in the Palace of Monseigneur the Constitutional Bishop of Alençon, and the murder of Mme. Marquise de Plélan's Valet, Maxence.
The intelligent section of the public was loud in its condemnation of the ineptitude displayed by the police in the matter of those abominable crimes, and chief commissary Lefèvre, bound by oath -- not to say terror -- to hold his tongue as to the real facts of the case, grumbled in his beard and muttered curses on the accredited representative of the Minister of Police -- ay, and on M. le Duc d'Otrante himself.
On top of all the public unrest and dissatisfaction came the outrage at the house of M. de Kerblay, a noted advocate of the Paris bar and member of the Senate, who owned a small property in the neighbourhood of Alençon, where he spent a couple of months every year with his wife and family, entertaining a few friends during the shooting season.
In the morning of November the 6th, the neighbourhood was horrified to hear that on the previous night, shortly after ten o'clock, a party of those ruffianly Chouans had made a descent on M. de Kerblay's house, Les Ormeaux. They had demanded admittance in the name of the law. All the servants had gone to bed with the exception of Hector, M. de Kerblay's valet, and he was so scared that he allowed the scélérats to push their way into the house, before he had realised who they were. Ere he could call for help he was set upon, gagged, and locked up in his pantry. The Chouans then proceeded noiselessly upstairs. Mme. de Kerblay was already in bed. The Senator was in his dressing-room, half undressed.
They took him completely by surprise, held a pistol to his head, and demanded the immediate payment of twenty-five thousand francs. Should the Senator summon his servants, the rogues would shoot him and his wife and even his children summarily, if they were stopped in their purpose or hindered in their escape.
M. de Kerblay was considerably over sixty. Not too robust in health, terrorised and subdued, he yielded, and with the muzzle of a pistol held to his head and half a dozen swords gleaming around him, he produced the keys of his secrétaire and handed over to the Chouans not only all the money he had in the house -- something over twenty thousand francs -- but a diamond ring, valued at another twenty thousand, which had been given to him by the Emperor in recognition of signal services rendered in the matter of the affairs of the ex-Empress.
Whereupon the wretches departed as silently as they had come, and by the time the hue and cry was raised they had disappeared, leaving no clue or trace.
The general consensus of opinion attributed the outrage to the man with the wooden leg. M. Lefèvre, chief commissary of police, who knew that that particular scoundrel was reposing in the honoured vault of the Saint-Tropèze family, was severely nonplussed. Since the sinister episode of the dual personality of M. de Saint-Tropèze he realised more than ever how difficult it was to deal with these Chouans. Here to-day, gone to-morrow, they were veritable masters in the art of concealing their identity, and in this quiet corner of Normandy it was impossible to shake a man by the hand without wondering whether he did not perchance belong to that secret gang of malefactors.
M. de Kerblay, more distressed at the loss of his ring than of his money, offered a reward of five thousand francs for its recovery; but while M. Lefèvre's zeal was greatly stimulated thereby, the Man in Grey appeared disinclined to move in the matter, and his quiet, impassive attitude grated unpleasantly on the chief commissary's feelings.
About a week after the outrage, on a cold, wet morning in November, M. Lefèvre made a tempestuous irruption into the apartments in the Rue de France occupied by the secret agent of the Minister of Police.
"We hold the ruffians!" he cried, waving his arm excitedly. "That's the best of those scoundrels! They are always quarrelling among themselves! They lie and they cheat and betray one another into our hands!"
The Man in Grey, as was his wont, waited patiently until the flood of M. Lefèvre's impassioned eloquence had somewhat subsided, then he said quietly:
"You have had the visit of an informer?"
"Yes," replied the Commissary, as he sank, panting, into a chair.
"A man you know?"
"By sight. Oh, one knows those rogues vaguely. One sees them about one day -- they disappear the next -- they have their lairs in the most inaccessible corners of this cursed country. Yes! I know the man by sight. He passed through my hands into the army a year ago. A deserter, of course. Though his appearance does not tally with any of the descriptions we have received from the Ministry of War, we know that these fellows have a way of altering even their features on occasions, and this man has 'deserter' written all over his ugly countenance."
"Well! And what has he told you?"
"That he will deliver to us the leader of the gang who broke into Monsieur de Kerblay's house the other night."
"On conditions, of course."
"Immunity for himself?"
"And a reward?"
"You did not agree to that, I hope," said the Man in Grey sternly.
M. Lefèvre hummed and hawed.
"There must be no question of bribing these men to betray one another," resumed the secret agent firmly, "or you'll be falling into one baited trap after another."
"But there's Monsieur de Kerblay's offer of a reward for the recovery of the ring, and in this case ----" protested Lefèvre sullenly.
"In no case," broke in the Man in Grey.
"Then what shall I do with the man?"
"Promise him a free pardon for himself and permission to rejoin his regiment if his information proves to be correct. Keep him in the police-cells, and come and report to me directly you have extracted from him all he knows, or is willing to tell."
The chief commissary of police was well aware that when the Minister's secret agent assumed that quiet air of authority, neither argument nor resistance was advisable. He muttered something between his teeth, but receiving no further response from the Man in Grey he turned abruptly on his heel and stalked out of the room, murmuring inaudible things about "officiousness" and "incompetence."
The man who had presented himself that morning at the commissariat of police offering valuable information as to the whereabouts of the leaders of his own gang, appeared as the regular type of the unkempt, out-at-elbows down-at-heels, unwashed Chouan who had of a truth become the pest and terror of the countryside. He wore a long shaggy beard, his hair was matted and tousled his blouse and breeches were in rags, and his bare feet were thrust into a pair of heavy leather shoes. During his brief sojourn in the army, or in the course of his subsequent lawless life, he had lost one eye, and the terrible gash across that part of his face gave his countenance a peculiarly sinister expression.
He stood before the commissary of police, twirling a woollen cap between his grimy fingers, taciturn sullen and defiant.
"I'll say nothing," he repeated for the third time, "unless I am paid to speak."
"You are amenable to the law, my man," said the chief commissary dryly. "You'll be shot, unless you choose to earn a free pardon for yourself by making a frank confession of your misdeeds."
"And what's a free pardon to me," retorted the Chouan roughly, "if I am to starve on it?"
"You will be allowed to at once rejoin your regiment."
The man spat on the ground, by way of expressing his contempt at the prospect.
"I'd as lief be shot at once," he declared emphatically.
M. Lefèvre could have torn his scanty hair with rage. He was furious with the Chouan and his obstinacy, and furious with that tiresome man in the grey coat who lorded it over every official in the district, and assumed an authority which he ought never to have been allowed to wield.
The one-eyed Chouan was taken back to the police-cells, and M. Lefèvre gave himself over to his gloomy meditations. Success and a goodly amount of credit -- not to mention the five thousand francs' reward for the recovery of the ring -- appeared just within his reach. A couple of thousand francs out of the municipal funds to that wretched informer, and the chiefs of one of the most desperate gangs of Chouans would fall into M. Lefèvre's hands, together with no small measure of glory for the brilliant capture. It was positively maddening!
It was not till late in the afternoon that the worthy commissary had an inspiration -- such a grand one that he smacked his high forehead, marvelling it had not come to him before. What were two thousand francs out of his own pocket beside the meed of praise which would fall to his share, if he succeeded in laying one or two of those Chouan leaders by the heels? He need not touch the municipal funds. He had a couple of thousand francs put by and more; and, surely, that sum would be a sound investment for future advancement and the recognition of his services on the part of the Minister himself, in addition to which there would be his share in M. de Kerblay's reward.
So M. Lefèvre sent for the one-eyed Chouan and once more interrogated him, cajoling and threatening alternately, with a view to obtaining gratis the information which the man was only prepared to sell.
"I'll say nothing," reiterated the Chouan obstinately, "unless I am paid to speak."
"Well! What will you take?" said the commissary at last.
"Five thousand francs," replied the man glibly.
"I'll give you one," rejoined M. Lefèvre. "But mind," he added with uncompromising severity, "you remain here in the cells as hostage for your own good faith. If you lie to me, you will be shot -- summarily and without trial."
"Give me three thousand and I'll speak," said the Chouan.
"Two thousand," rejoined the commissary, "and that is my last word."
For a second or two the man appeared to hesitate; with his one eye he tried to fathom the strength of M. le Commissaire's determination. Then he said abruptly:
"Very well, I'll take two thousand francs. Give me the money now and I'll speak."
Without another superfluous word M. Lefèvre counted out twenty one-hundred franc notes, and gave them into the Chouan's grimy hand. He thought it best to appear open-handed and to pay cash down; the man would be taken straight back to the cells presently, and if he played a double game he would anyhow forfeit the money together with his life.
"Now," said Lefèvre as soon as the man had thrust the notes into the pocket of his breeches, "tell me who is your chief, and where a posse of my police can lay hands upon him."
"The chief of my gang," rejoined the Chouan, "is called 'the Spaniard' amongst us; his real name is Carrera and he comes from Madrid. We don't often see him, but it was he who led the expedition to the house of Monsieur de Kerblay."
"What is he like?"
"A short man with dark, swarthy skin, small features, keen, jet-black eyes, no lashes, and very little eyebrow, a shock of coal-black hair and a square black beard and moustache; he speaks French with a Spanish accent."
"Very good! Now tell me where we can find him."
"At Chéron's farm on the Chartres road between la Mesle and Montagne. You know it?"
"I know the farm. I don't know Chéron. Well?"
"The Spaniard has arranged to meet a man there -- a German Jew -- while Chéron himself is away from home. The idea is to dispose of the ring."
"I understand. When is the meeting to take place?"
"To-night! It is market day at Chartres and Chéron will be absent two days. It was all arranged yesterday. The Spaniard and his gang will sleep at the farm; the following morning they will leave for Paris, en route some of them, so 'tis said, for Spain."
"And the farmer -- Chéron? What has he to do with it all?"
"Nothing," replied the Chouan curtly. "He is just a fool. His house stands isolated in a lonely part of the country, and his two farm hands are stupid louts. So, whenever the Spaniard wants to meet any of his accomplices privately, he selects a day when Chéron is from home, and makes use of the farm for his own schemes."
"You owe him a grudge, I suppose," sneered Lefèvre, who had taken rapid notes of all the man had told him.
"No," replied the Chouan slowly, "but those of us who helped to work the coup at Monsieur de Kerblay's the other night, were each to receive twenty francs as our share of the spoils. It was not enough!"
The commissary of police nodded complacently. He was vastly satisfied with the morning's work. He had before now heard vague hints about this Spaniard, one of those mysterious and redoubtable Chouan leaders, who had given the police of the entire province no end of trouble and grave cause for uneasiness. Now by his -- Lefèvre's -- own astuteness he stood not only to lay the villain by the heels and earn commendation for his zeal from the Minister himself, but, if this one-eyed scoundrel spoke the truth, also to capture some of his more prominent accomplices, not to mention the ring and M. de Kerblay's generous reward.
Incidentally he also stood to put a spoke in the wheel of that over-masterful and interfering man in the grey coat, which would be a triumph not by any means to be depreciated.
So the Chouan was taken back to the cells and the chief commissary of police was left free to make his arrangements for the night's expedition, without referring the matter to the accredited agent of His Majesty's Police.
Lefèvre knew that he was taking a grave risk when, shortly after eight o'clock on that same evening, he ordered a squadron of his police to follow him to Chéron's farm on the Chartres road. At the last moment he even had a few misgivings as to the wisdom of his action. If the expedition did not meet with the measure of success which he anticipated, and the accredited agent of the Minister came to hear of it, something exceedingly unpleasant to the over-zealous commissary might be the result. However, after a few very brief moments of this unworthy hesitation, M. Lefèvre chid himself for his cowardice and started on his way.
Since his interview with the one-eyed Chouan he had been over to the farm in order to get a thorough knowledge of the topography of the buildings and of their surroundings. Disguised as a labourer he had hung about the neighbourhood, in the wet and cold until he felt quite sure that he could find his way anywhere around the place in the dark.
The farm stood a couple of kilomètres or so from the road, on the bank of a tiny tributary of the Mayenne, surrounded by weeping willows, now stripped of their leaves, and flanked by a couple of tumble-down heather-thatched sheds. It was a square building, devoid of any outstanding architectural features, and looking inexpressibly lonely and forlorn. There was not another human habitation in sight, and the wooded heights which dominated the valley appeared to shut the inhabitants of the little farm away from the rest of mankind. As he looked at the vast and mournful solitude around, Lefèvre easily recognised how an astute leader, such as the Spaniard appeared to be, would choose it as headquarters for his schemes. Whenever the house itself became unsafe the thicket of willow and chestnut close by, and the dense undergrowth on the heights above, would afford perfect shelter for fugitive marauders.
It was close on ten o'clock of an exceptionally dark night when the posse of police, under the command of the chief commissary, dismounted at the "Grand Duc," a small wayside inn on the Chartres road, and, having stabled their horses, started on foot across country at the heels of their chief. The earth was sodden with recent rains and the little troop moved along in silence, their feet, encased in shoes of soft leather, making no sound as they stealthily advanced.
The little rivulet wound its sluggish
course between flat banks bordered by waste land on either side.
Far ahead a tiny light gleamed intermittently, like a will-o'-
After half an hour of heavy walking the commissary called a halt. The massive block of the farmhouse stood out like a dense and dark mass in the midst of the surrounding gloom. M. Lefèvre called softly to his sergeant.
"Steal along, Hippolyte," he whispered, "under cover of those willow trees, and when you hear me give the first command to open, surround the house so that the rascals cannot escape either by the door or the windows."
Silently and noiselessly these orders were executed; whilst the commissary himself stole up to the house. He came to a halt before the front door and paused a moment, peering anxiously round about him and listening for any sound which might come from within. The house appeared dark and deserted; only from one of the windows on the ground floor a feeble light filtered through the chinks of an ill-fitting shutter, and a mingled murmur of voices seemed to travel thence intermittently. But of this the eager watcher could not be sure. The north-westerly wind, soughing through the bare branches of the trees behind him, also caused the shutters to creak on their hinges and effectually confused every other sound.
The chief commissary then rapped vigorously against the door with the hilt of his sword.
"Open!" he called peremptorily, "in the name of the law!"
Already he could hear the sergeant and his men stealing out from under the trees; but from the stronghold of the Chouans there came no answer to his summons; absolute silence reigned inside the farmhouse; the dismal creaking of a half-broken shutter and the murmur of the wind in the leafless willows alone roused the dormant echoes of the old walls.
Lefèvre rapped once more against the massive panels.
"Open!" he called again, "in the name of the law!"
The men following their sergeant had now reached the open. In an instant, from somewhere in the gloom behind them, there came the report of two musket shots in rapid succession. Someone was hit, for there was the sound of a groan and a curse; but in the darkness it was impossible to see who it was.
The men halted irresolute.
"Run to the back of the house, some of you!" commanded the commissary, "and in Heaven's name do not allow a single ruffian to escape."
The men obeyed as quickly as the darkness would allow, and again two musket shots rang out from among the trees; this time the sergeant fell forward on his face.
"Corporal Crosnier, are you there?" cried Commissary Lefèvre.
"Present, my commandant!" was the quick reply.
"Take Jean Marie and Dominique and two or three others with you, and put up the game that is lurking under those willows."
Crosnier obeyed; he called half a dozen men to him and marched them up towards the thicket. The cowering enemy lay low; only from time to time shots rang out simultaneously out of the darkness. Sometimes they made a hit, but not often -- one or two of the men received a stray bullet in their shoulder or their leg -- a random shot which came from out of the gloom and to which they could not reply, for it was impossible to see whence it had come. Presently even that intermittent fire ceased. It seemed as if the thicket had finally swallowed up the lurking quarry.
In the meantime Lefèvre had ordered two or three of his picked men to use the butt-end of their muskets against the door.
"Batter it in, my men," he commanded, "and arrest everyone you find inside the house."
Strangely enough, considering the usually desperate tactics of these Chouan gangs when brought to bay, no resistance was offered from the interior of their stronghold. Whether the rascals were short of ammunition and were saving it for a hand-to-hand fight later, or whether they were preparing some bold coup, it was impossible to say. Certain it is that the vigorgus attacks against the front door were met by absolute silence -- so absolute, indeed, as vaguely to disconcert the commissary of police.
Still the men continued to pound away with their muskets against the panels of the door; but the latter was extraordinarily massive in comparison with the want of solidity of the rest of the house. It resisted every onslaught for some time, until at last it fell in with a terrific crash, and Lefèvre, leaving half a dozen men on guard outside, took another half-dozen with him and entered.
He had picked his men from among those whom he knew to be most intrepid, for he had expected a desperate resistance on the part of the Chouans; he was prepared to be greeted with a volley of musket-fire as he and his men crossed the threshold; he was prepared for a hand-to-hand fight across that battered door. In fact, M. Lefèvre, chief commissary of police, had been prepared for everything excepting the death-like stillness which he encountered by way of welcome.
Darkness and silence held undisputed sway everywhere. The men, with dark lanterns fixed to their belts and holding loaded muskets in their hands, paused for one moment irresolute. Then they started to make a thorough search of the place; first the ground floor, then the entrance hall and staircase, then the cellars. They explored every nook and cranny where human quarry might find shelter, but there was not a sign, hardly a trace of any Chouans, save in one small room on the ground floor which certainly appeared as if it had been recently occupied; the chairs had been hastily pushed aside, on the centre table were half a dozen mugs and two or three jugs, one of which was still half filled with wine, a handful of ashes smouldered in the hearth, and the lamp which hung from the ceiling above was alight. But for this, Lefèvre might have thought that he must have been dreaming when he stood by the front door and saw the narrow stream of light through the chink of a shutter.
Indeed, there was something unspeakably dreary and desolate in this dark and empty house, in which undoubtedly a gang of malefactors had lately held revel; and when the men went upstairs in order to explore the floor above, they were, every one of them, conscious of the quick sense of unreasoning terror when a weird and intermittent sound suddenly reached their ear.
The sound came from over their heads -- it was like a wail, and was piteous and disconcerting in the extreme.
"Like someone groaning," said one of the men in a hoarse whisper.
Soon their momentary feeling of dread passed away, and two or three of the men had already scaled the narrow, ladder-like stairs which led to a loft that ran the whole length and breadth of the house under the sloping roof.
But here an extraordinary sight met their gaze. Huddled up against a large supporting beam were an old man, a woman and two young girls. They had been tied together by ropes to the beam. Each of the unfortunates was in acute distress or bodily pain. The atmosphere of the place was both stuffy and bitterly cold. Incessant moaning came from the woman, sobbing from the girls; the man appeared stunned and dazed. When the light from one of the dark lanterns fell upon him, he blinked his eyes and gazed vacantly on the men who were already busy with the ropes, freeing him and the woman from their bonds.
They all appeared in the last stage of exhaustion and clung to one another for support and warmth, when Lefèvre with kindly authority ordered them to move. Fortunately one of the men recollected the jug of wine which had been left in the room on the ground floor. He ran to fetch it, and returned very soon jug and glasses in hand. In the meanwhile Lefèvre had remained staring at the wretched people and trying to extract a few words of explanation from them.
So far he had only been able to elicit the information that four members of the farmer Chéron's family, his father, his wife and his two daughters stood before him in this pitiable plight. It was only after they had drunk a little wine that they were able to speak coherently. In short, jerky sentences and with teeth still chattering with cold and terror, the old man tried to reply to the commissary's questions.
"How in the world came you to be up here," M. Lefèvre asked, "tied like cattle to a beam in your son's house?"
"My son is away at Chartres, Monsieur le Commissaire," replied the old man; "he won't return till to-morrow. We should have perished of hunger and cold if you had not come to our rescue."
"But where are those blackguardly Chouans? And who in the devil's name fired on us from under your trees?"
"Those execrable Chouans took
possession of my son's house this morning, Monsieur le Commissaire,
soon after his departure," answered the old man dolefully.
"They seized me and my daughter-
Lefèvre would have liked to say that twenty-four hours spent in a draughty loft does not necessarily mean starvation, but on the whole he refrained from badgering the poor people, who had suffered quite enough, with further expostulation.
"But what has happened to the Chouans?" he reiterated with a hearty curse.
"Gone, Monsieur le Commissaire," here interposed the woman woefully. "Gone! They caroused all day, and left about a couple of hours ago; since then the house has been as silent as the grave."
Lefèvre said nothing very coherent for the moment; he was mentally embracing the Chouans, the lying informer and his own folly in one comprehensive curse.
"But my men were fired on from behind the trees," he urged feebly after a while.
"I heard the firing, too, Monsieur le Commissaire," rejoined the old man. "It terrified us, for the Chouans had threatened to shoot us all if they were attacked by the police; and these two young girls -- think of it, Monsieur le Commissaire at the mercy of those brutes. I suppose," he added with a shudder, "that while the leaders of the gang made good their escape, they left a couple of men behind to cover their retreat."
Nothing more could, be got out of these poor people. They had been set upon quite early in the day by the Chouans, and knew little or nothing of what had gone on in the house while they were prisoners in the loft. They did not know how many of the ruffians there were -- six or eight they thought. The chief was a man with swarthy skin and a long black beard, who spoke French with a strange foreign accent.
The commissary of police went nearly mad with rage. He set his best men to search the farm-house through and through, in the hope that some of the rascals might still be lurking about the place. But the men ransacked the house in vain. They found neither trap-door nor secret panel, nor slinking quarry, and after a couple of hours' hunt were forced to own themselves defeated.
M. Lefèvre returned to Alençon with his posse of police in the small hours of the morning. He dismissed the men at the commissariat, and sought his own lodgings in the Rue Notre Dame, his mind a prey to the bitterest feeling of disappointment -- not unmixed with misgivings at thought of M. le Ministre's agent, should he get wind of the miscarriage.
To his terror and amazement, no sooner had he entered the house than the concierge came out of his lodge to tell him that a gentleman was upstairs in his rooms, waiting for him.
"Who is it?" he asked sharply. "You have no right to admit anyone to my rooms at this hour of the night."
"I could not help myself," retorted the concierge sullenly. "He exhibited some sort of order from the Ministry of Police, and was so high-handed and peremptory that I dared not refuse."
Filled with vague apprehension M. Lefèvre ran quickly up to his rooms. He was greeted in the ante-chamber by the Man in Grey.
"I was unfortunately too late to catch you before you started," said the latter as soon as Lefèvre had closed the door. He spoke in his even monotone -- his face was calm and expressionless, but there was something about his attitude which jarred unpleasantly on the commissary's nerves.
"I -- that is ----" he stammered, despite his stern effort to appear confident and at his ease.
"You have disobeyed the Minister's orders," interposed the secret agent quietly. "But there is no time now to discuss your conduct. The blunder which you have just committed is mayhap, beyond repair; in which case ----"
He broke off abruptly and M. Lefèvre felt a cold shiver running down his spine.
"There was no time to consult you ----" he began.
"I said that I would not discuss that," interposed the Man in Grey quietly. "Tell me where you have been!"
"To Chéron's farm on the Chartres road," replied the commissary sullenly.
"The informer gave you directions?"
"That you would find his leader there?"
"Yes, the man whom they call 'the Spaniard,' and some of his accomplices. The informer ----"
"The informer escaped from the cells during your absence this evening," said the Man in Grey curtly.
"Do not curse, my good man," advised the other dryly. "The rascal's escape may be the means of retrieving your blunder, since it gave me the knowledge of the whole affair."
"But how did it happen?"
"Surveillance slackened while
you went off on your wild-goose chase. Your prisoner used some
of the money wherewith you had bribed him -- against my express
command, remember -- to bribe his warder in his turn. Your sergeant-in-
Lefèvre had no longer the strength to argue or even to curse. He hung his head in silent dejection.
"I sent for you," continued the Man in Grey mercilessly. "When I found that you had gone no one knew whither, and that you had taken a posse of your men with you, I guessed the whole extent of your damnable blunder. I have waited here for you ever since."
"What can I do now?" murmured Lefèvre gloomily.
"Collect ten or twelve of the men whom you can most confidently trust, and then pick me up at my lodgings in the Rue de France. We'll go back to Chéron's farm -- together."
"But there is no one there," said Lefèvre with a dejected sigh, "only Chéron's father, his wife and two daughters."
"I know that well enough, you fool," exclaimed the Man in Grey, departing for the first time from his habitual calm, and starting to pace up and down the narrow room like a caged and fretting animal; "and that every proof against the villains who robbed Monsieur de Kerblay has no doubt vanished whilst you were getting the wrong sow by the car. To bring the crime home to them now will he very difficult. 'Tis red-handed we ought to have caught them, with the Jew there and the ring and the Spaniard bargaining, whereas now ----"
Suddenly he paused and stood quite still; the anger and impatience died out of his face, leaving it pale and expressionless as was its wont; only to Lefèvre who was watching him with keen anxiety it seemed as if for one fraction of a second a curious glitter had lit up his colourless eyes.
"In Heaven's name!" he resumed impatiently after a while, "let us get to horse, or I may be tempted, to tell you what I think of your folly."
The commissary, trounced like a recalcitrant schoolboy and not a little terrified at the consequences of his blunder, was only too ready to obey. Within half an hour he was in the saddle. He had Corporal Crosnier with him and half a dozen picked men, and together they went to the Rue de France where the Minister's agent was waiting for them.
It was close upon five o'clock of a raw, damp morning when the little party drew rein once more at the wayside inn on the Chartres road. The men appeared tired out and were grateful for the hot coffee which a sleepy ostler hastily prepared for them; but the Man in Grey seemed indefatigable. Wrapped to the chin in a long, dark mantle, he had ridden the whole way by the side of the commissary, plying him with questions the while. Bit by bit he had extracted from him the full history of the futile expedition, the description of the house, its situation and structure, and of the members of the Chéron family. Now, whilst sipping his coffee, he made Lefèvre give him final and minute directions how to reach the farm-house.
Ten minutes later he started on his way -- alone and on foot.
"Follow me in about five minutes," were his last commands to the commissary. "Then lie low under the trees. When you hear a pistol shot from inside the house rush in and seize every man, woman, or child whom you find; if you meet with any resistance order your men to use their muskets. Leave the Corporal with a strong guard outside the house, both back and front, and bid him shoot on sight anyone who attempts to escape."
After he had walked on through the darkness for a couple of mètres or so, he threw off his mantle and hat and kicked off his shoes. The commissary of police, had he been near him now, would of a truth have been staggered at his appearance. He wore a pair of ragged breeches and a stained and tattered blouse; his hair was unkempt, and his feet and legs were bare to the knees.
"Now for a little bit of luck," he murmured as he started to run. His bare feet squelched through the wet earth and spattered him with mud from head to foot, and as he ran the perspiration streamed down his face and mingled with the grime. Indeed, it seemed as if he took a special delight in tiring himself out, in getting breathless and hot, and by his active exercise making himself look even dirtier and more disreputable than he had been before.
When he reached the river side and the row of willow trees, he halted; the house, he knew, must be quite close now on the right, and as he peered into the darkness he perceived a tiny streak of light glimmering feebly through the gloom some way off. Throwing himself flat upon his stomach, he bent his ear to the ground; it was attuned to the slightest sound, like that of the Indian trackers, and he heard at a distance of four hundred mètres behind him the measured tramp of Lefèvre's men. Then he rose to his feet and, stealthily as a cat, crept up to the house.
The slender streak of light guided him and, as he drew nearer, he heard a confused murmur of voices raised in merriment. The occupants of the house were apparently astir; the light came through a half-open shutter on the ground floor as did the sound of the voices, through which presently there rang a loud and prolonged peal of laughter. The secret agent drew a deep sigh of satisfaction; the birds -- thank goodness -- had not yet flown. Noiselessly he approached the front door, the battered and broken appearance of which bore testimony to Lefèvre's zeal.
A bright patch of light striking through an open door on the right illumined a portion of the narrow hall beyond, leaving the rest in complete darkness. The Man in Grey stepped furtively over the threshold. Immediately he was challenged: "Who goes there?" and he felt rather than saw a gun levelled at his head.
"A friend," he murmured timidly.
At the instant the challenge had resounded through the house the light in the inner room on the right was suddenly extinguished; deathly silence had succeeded the debauch.
"What's your business?" queried a muffled voice peremptorily.
Before the Man in Grey could reply there was a commotion in the inner room as of chairs hastily thrust aside, and presently another voice -- one both gruff and commanding -- called out: "What is it, Pierre?"
A dark lantern was flashed about, its light fell full on the miserable apparition of the Man in Grey.
"What do you want?" queried the commanding voice out of the partial gloom. "Speak, or I fire!"
"A friend!" reiterated the Man in Grey timidly.
"Nicaise, sir, from Mauger's farm on the Mayenne road. I was asleep under a haystack, when a stranger comes to me and shakes me roughly by the shoulder. 'Run,' he says to me, 'to Chéron's up by the Chartres road. Run as fast as your legs will take you. Walk in boldly; the door is open. You will find company inside the farm. Tell them the police are coming back in force. Someone will give you a silver franc for your pains if you get there in time.' So I took to my heels and ran."
While he spoke another man and a woman had entered. Their vague forms were faintly discernible through the darkness; the light from the lantern still struck full on the Man in Grey, who looked the picture of woebegone imbecility.
From the group in the doorway there came a murmur: "The police!"
"A stranger, you say?" queried the man with the commanding voice. "What was he like?"
"I could not say," replied the secret agent humbly. "It was very dark. But he said I should get a silver franc for my pains, and I am a poor man. I thought at first it was a hoax, but when I crossed the meadow just now I saw a lot of men in hiding under the willow trees."
"Malediction!" muttered the man, as he turned, undecided, towards his companions. "Oh, that I had that one-eyed traitor in my power!" he added with a savage oath.
"Did you speak to the men of the police?" asked a woman's voice out of the darkness.
"No, madame," replied the secret agent. "They did not see me. I was crawling on my hands and knees. But they are all round the house, and I heard one man calling to the sergeant and giving him orders to watch the doors and windows lest anyone tried to escape."
The group in the doorway was silent; the man who had been on guard appeared to have joined them, and they all went back into the room and held a hurried consultation.
"There is nothing for it," said one man, "but to resume our former rôles as members of the Chéron family, and to do it as naturally as before."
"They suspect us now," said another, "or they would not he here again so soon."
"Even so; but if we play our parts well they can only take us back to the commissariat and question us; they must release us in the end; they have no proof."
In the meanwhile someone had relighted the lamp. There appeared to be a good deal of scurrying and scrambling inside the room; the Man in Grey tiptoed up to the doorway to see what was going on. Evidently, disguises which had hastily been put aside had been resumed; the group stood before him now just as Lefèvre had originally described them: the old man, the woman, the two young girls; the latter were striding about the room and holding their skirts up clumsily with both hands, as men are wont to do when they don women's clothes; the old man, on whom grey locks and well-stencilled wrinkles were the only signs of age, was hastily putting these to rights before a mirror on the wall.
But it was the woman's doings which compelled the attention of the Man in Grey. She was standing on a chair with her back to him, intent on manipulating something up the huge open chimney.
"It will be quite safe there," she said.
She appeared to he closing some heavy iron door which fell in its place with a snap. Then she turned to her companions and slowly descended from the chair. "When the present storm has blown over," she said, "we'll come and fetch it. Chéron will never guess; at any rate, we are sure the police cannot discover this most excellent hiding-place."
She was a short, square-built woman,
with a dark, almost swarthy skin, keen jet-black eyes which appeared
peculiarly hard and glittering owing to the absence of lashes,
a firm, thin-lipped mouth, square chin, and low forehead crowned
by a shock of thick, black hair cut short like a boy's. The secret
agent kept his eyes fixed upon her while she spoke to her friends.
He noted the head so full of character, and the strength and determination
expressed in every line of the face; he marvelled why the features
As the secret agent's practised glance took in during these few seconds the whole personality of the woman before him, he knew that his surmises -- based on intuition and on reasoning -- were correct. It was the Spaniard who stood before him now, but the Spaniard was a woman. And as he gazed on her, half in pity because of her sex, and half in admiration for her intrepidity, she turned, and their glances met. She looked at him across the narrow room, and each knew that the other had guessed.
The woman never flinched; she held the agent's glance and did not utter either word or cry whilst with a slow, deliberate movement, she drew a pistol from beneath her kerchief. But he, as quick and resourceful, had instantly stepped back into the hall. He seized the door, and, with a loud bang, closed it to between himself and the Chouans. Then, with lightning rapidity, he pushed the heavy bolt home.
The report of a pistol rang out. It came from inside the room. The Man in Grey was leaning his full weight against the door, wondering whether Lefèvre and his men would come to his assistance before the trapped Chouans had time to burst the panels.
He heard Lefèvre's call outside and the heavy tramp of the men. A few seconds of agonising suspense, whilst he literally felt the massive door heaving behind him under the furious onslaught of the imprisoned Chouans, and the commissary with the men of the police burst into the hall. The door fell in with a terrific crash.
The Chouans, caught like foxes run to earth, offered a desperate resistance. But the odds were too great; after a grim struggle across the threshold, which lasted close on ten minutes and left several men of the police bleeding or dead upon the floor, the gang was captured, securely bound and locked in one of the cellars underneath the house, where they were left in charge of half a dozen men until such time as they could be conveyed to Alençon and thence to Bicêtre to await their trial.
It has been impossible, owing to the maze of records, to disentangle the subsequent history of three of these Chouans. The Spaniard, however, was, we know, kept in prison for over five years until, after the Restoration, her friends succeeded in laying her petition of release before the King and she was granted a free pardon and a small pension from the privy purse, "in consideration of the services she had rendered to His Majesty and the martyrdom she had suffered in his cause." On the official list of pensioners in the year 1816 her name appears as "Caroline Mercier, commonly called the Spaniard."
But at Chéron's farm, when all was still, the men of the police gone and the prisoners safely under lock and key, the Man in Grey and the commissary returned to the little room which bad been the scene of the Chouans' final stand. A broken chair was lying by the side of the tall, open chimney, wherein the woman with the swarthy skin and jet-black eyes had concealed the stolen treasure. The accredited agent had no difficulty in finding the secret hiding-place; about a foot up the chimney an iron door was let into the solid wall. A little manipulation of his deft fingers soon released the secret spring, and the metal panel glided gently in its grooves.
M. de Kerblay's precious ring and some twenty thousand francs in money gladdened the sight of the worthy commissary of police.
"But how did you guess?" he asked of the Man in Grey, when, half an hour later, the pair were ambling along the road back towards Alençon.
"While you were getting ready for our second expedition, my dear Monsieur Lefèvre," replied the Man in Grey, "I took the simple precaution of ascertaining whether the farmer Chéron had a wife, a father, and two daughters. Your own records at the commissariat furnished me with this information. From them I learned that though he had a wife, he had no father living, and that he had three grown-up sons, long ago started out into the world. After that, everything became very simple."
"I suppose," quoth the commissary ruefully, "that I ought to have found out about the man Chéron and his family before I went off on that fool's errand."
"You ought, above all, to have consulted me," was the Man in Grey's calm reproof.