AT first there was a good deal of talk in the neighbourhood when the de Romaines, returned from England and made their home in the tumbledown Lodge just outside St. Lô. The Lodge, surrounded by a small garden, marked the boundary of the beautiful domain of Torteron, which had been the property of the de Romaines, and their ancestors for many generations. M. le Comte de Romaine had left France with his family at the very outset of the Revolution and, in accordance with the decree of February, 1792, directed against the Emigrants, his estates were confiscated and sold for the benefit of the State. The château of Torteron, being so conveniently situated near the town of St. Lô, was converted into a general hospital, and the farms and agricultural lands were bought up by various local cultivators. Only the little Lodge at the park gates had remained unsold, and when the Emigrés were granted a general amnesty, the de Romaines obtained permission to settle in it. Although it was greatly neglected and dilapidated, it was weatherproof, and by the clemency of the Emperor it was declared to be indisputably their own.
M. le Comte de Romaine, worn out by sorrow and the miseries of exile, had died in England. It was Mme. la Comtesse, now a widow, who came back to Torteron along with M. le Comte Jacques, her son, who had never set foot on his native soil since, as a tiny lad, he had been taken by his parents into exile, and Mademoiselle Mariette, her daughter, who, born in England, had never been in France at all.
People who had known Madame la Comtesse in the past thought her greatly aged, more so in fact than her years warranted. She had gone away in '91 a young and handsome woman well on the right side of thirty, fond of society and show; now, nineteen years later, she reappeared the wreck of her former self. Crippled with rheumatism, for ever wrapped up in shawls, with weak sight and impaired hearing, she at once settled down to a very secluded life at the Lodge, waited on only by her daughter, a silent, stately girl, who filled the duties of maid of all work, companion and nurse to her mother, and her brother.
On the other hand, young M. le Comte de Romaine was a regular "gadabout." Something of a rogue and a ne'er-do-well, he seemed to have no defined occupation, and soon not a café or dancing hall in St. Lô, but had some story to tell of his escapades and merry living.
M. Moulin, the préfet, had received an order from the accredited agent of the Minister of Police to keep an eye on the doings of these returned Emigrants, but until now their conduct had been above suspicion. Mme. la Comtesse and Mlle. Mariette went nowhere except now and again to the church of Notre Dame; they saw no one; and for the nonce the young Comte de Romaine devoted his entire attention to Mademoiselle Philippa, the charming dancer who was delighting the audiences of St. Lô with her inimitable art, and dazzling their eyes with her showy dresses, her magnificent equipage and her diamonds.
The préfet, in his latest report to the secret agent, had jocularly added that the lovely dancer did not appear at all averse from the idea of being styled Mme. la Comtesse one of these days, or of regilding the faded escutcheon of the de Romaines with her plebeian gold.
There certainly was no hint of Chouannerie about the doings of any member of the family, no communication with any of the well-known Chouan leaders, no visits from questionable personages.
Great therefore was the astonishment of M. Moulin when, three days later, he received a summons to present himself at No. 15 Rue Notre Dame, where the agent of His Majesty's Minister of Police had arrived less than an hour ago.
"I am here in strict incognito, my dear Monsieur Moulin," said the Man in Grey as soon as he had greeted the préfet, "and I have brought three of my men with me who m I know I can trust, as I am not satisfied that you are carrying out my orders."
"Your orders, Monsieur -- er -- Fernand?" queried the préfet blandly.
"Yes! I said my orders," retorted the other quietly. "Did I not bid you keep a strict eye on the doings of the Romaine family?"
"But, Monsieur Fernand ----"
"From now onwards my men and I will watch Jacques de Romaine," broke in the secret agent in that even tone of his which admitted of no argument. "But we cannot have our eyes everywhere. I must leave the women to you."
"The old Comtesse only goes to church, and Mademoiselle Mariette goes sometimes to market."
"So much the better for you. Your men will have an easy time."
"I pray you do not argue, my good Monsieur Moulin. Mademoiselle Mariette may be out shopping at this very moment."
And when the accredited agent said "I pray you," non-compliance was out of the question.
Later in the day the préfet talked the matter over with M. Cognard, chief commissary of police, who had had similar orders in the matter of the Romaines. The two cronies had had their tempers sorely ruffled by the dictatorial ways of the secret agent, whom they hated with all the venom that indolent natures direct against an energetic one.
"The little busybody," vowed M. Moulin, "sees conspirators in every harmless citizen and interferes in matters which of a truth have nothing whatever to do with him."
Then in the very midst of the complacency of these two worthies came the memorable day which, in their opinion, was the most turbulent one they had ever known during their long and otiose careers.
It was the day following the arrival of the secret agent at St. Lô, and he had come to the commissariat that morning for the sole purpose -- so M. Cognard averred -- of making matters uncomfortable for everybody, when Mademoiselle de Romaine was announced. Mademoiselle had sent in word that she desired to speak with M. le Commissaire immediately, and a minute or two later she entered, looking like a pale ghost in a worn grey gown, and with a cape round her shoulders which was far too thin to keep out the cold on this winter's morning.
M. Cognard, fussy and chivalrous, offered her a chair. She seemed to be in a terrible state of mental agitation and on the verge of tears, which, however, with characteristic pride she held resolutely in cheek.
"I have come, Monsieur le Commissaire," she began in a voice hoarse with emotion, "because my mother -- Madame la Comtesse de Romaine -- and I are desperately anxious -- we don't know -- we ----"
She was trembling so that she appeared almost unable to speak. M. Cognard, with great kindness and courtesy, poured out a glass of water for her. She drank a little of it, and threw him a grateful look, after which she seemed more tranquil.
"I beg you to compose yourself, Mademoiselle," said the commissaire. "I am entirely at your service."
"It is about my brother, Monsieur le Commissaire," rejoined Mademoiselle more calmly, "Monsieur le Comte Jacques de Romaine. He has disappeared. For three days we have seen and heard nothing of him -- and my mother fears -- fears ----"
Her eyes became dilated with that fear which she dared not put into words. M. Cognard interposed at once, both decisively and sympathetically.
"There is no occasion to fear the worst, Mademoiselle," he said kindly. "Young men often leave home for days without letting their mother and sisters know where they are."
"Ah, but, Monsieur le Commissaire," resumed Mademoiselle, with a pathetic break in her voice, "the circumstances in this case are exceptional. My mother is a great invalid, and though my brother leads rather a gay life he is devoted to her and he always would come home of nights. Sometimes," she continued, as a slight flush rose to her pale cheeks, "Mademoiselle Philippa would drive him home in her barouche from the theatre. This she did on Tuesday night, for I heard the carriage draw up at our door. I saw the lights of the lanthorns; I also heard my brother's voice bidding Mademoiselle good night and the barouche driving off again. I was in bed, for it was long past midnight, and I remember just before I fell asleep again thinking how very quietly my dear brother must have come in, for I had not heard the opening and shutting of the front door, nor his step upon the stairs or in his room. Next morning I saw that his bed had not been slept in, and that he had not come into the house at all -- as I had imagined -- but had driven off again, no doubt, with Mademoiselle Philippa. But we have not seen him since, and ----"
"And -- h'm -- er -- have you communicated with Mademoiselle Philippa?" asked the commissary with some hesitation.
"No, Monsieur," replied Mariette de Romaine gravely. "You are the first stranger whom I have consulted. I thought you would advise me what to do."
"Exactly, exactly!" rejoined M. Cognard, highly gratified at this tribute to his sagacity. "You may rely on me, Mademoiselle, to carry on investigations with the utmost discretion. Perhaps you will furnish me with a few details regarding this -- er -- regrettable occurrence."
There ensued a lengthy period of questioning and cross-questioning. M. Cognard was impressively official. Mademoiselle de Romaine, obviously wearied, told and retold her simple story with exemplary patience. The Man in Grey, ensconced in a dark corner of the room, took no part in the proceedings; only once did he interpose with an abrupt question:
"Are you quite sure, Mademoiselle," he asked, "that Monsieur le Comte did not come into the house at all before you heard the barouche drive off again?"
Mariette de Romaine gave a visible start. Clearly she had had no idea until then that anyone else was in the room besides herself and the commissary of police, and as the quaint, grey-clad figure emerged suddenly from out the dark corner, her pale cheeks assumed an even more ashen hue. Nevertheless, she replied quite steadily:
"I cannot be sure of that, Monsieur," she said; "for I was in bed and half asleep, but I am sure my brother did not sleep at home that night."
The Man in Grey asked no further questions; he had retired into the dark corner of the room, but -- after this little episode -- whenever Mariette de Romaine looked in that direction, she encountered those deep-set, colourless eyes of his fixed intently upon her.
After Mademoiselle de Romaine's departure, M. Cognard turned somewhat sheepishly to the Man in Grey.
"It does seem," he said, "that there is something queer about those Romaines, after all."
"Fortunately," retorted the secret agent, "you have complied with my orders, and your men have never once lost sight of Mademoiselle or of Madame her mother."
M. Cognard made no reply. His round face had flushed to the very roots of his hair.
"Had you not better send at once for this dancer -- Philippa?" added the Man in Grey.
"Of course -- of course ----" stammered the commissary, much relieved.
Mademoiselle Philippa duly arrived, in the early afternoon, in her barouche drawn by two magnificent English horses. She appeared dressed in the latest Paris fashion and was greeted by M. Cognard with the gallantry due to her beauty and talent.
"You have sent for me, Monsieur le Commissaire?" she asked somewhat tartly, as soon as she had settled herself down in as becoming an attitude as the office chair would allow.
"Oh, Mademoiselle," said the commissary deprecatingly, "I did so with deep regret at having to trouble you."
"Well? And what is it?"
"I only desired to ask you, Mademoiselle, if you have seen the Comte de Romaine recently."
She laughed and shrugged her pretty shoulders.
"The young scamp!" she said lightly. "No, I haven't seen him for two days. Why do you ask?"
"Because the young scamp, as you so pertinently call him, has disappeared, and neither his mother nor his sister knows what has become of him."
"Disappeared?" exclaimed Mademoiselle Philippa. "With my emeralds!"
Her nonchalance and habitual gaiety suddenly left her. She sat bolt upright, her small hands clutching the arms of her chair, her face pale and almost haggard beneath the delicate layer of rouge.
"Your emeralds, Mademoiselle?" queried M. Cognard in dismay.
"My emeralds!" she reiterated with a catch in her voice. "A necklace, tiara and earrings -- a gift to me from the Emperor of Russia when I danced before him at St. Petersburg. They are worth the best part of a million francs, Monsieur le Commissaire. Oh! Monsieur de Romaine cannot have disappeared -- not like that -- and not with my emeralds!" She burst into tears and M. Cognard had much ado to re-assure her. Everything would be done, he declared, to trace the young scapegrace. He could not dispose of the emeralds, vowed the commissary, without being apprehended and his booty being taken from him.
"He can dispose of them abroad," declared Mademoiselle Philippa, who would not be consoled. "He may be on the high seas by now -- the detestable young rogue."
"But how came Mademoiselle Philippa's priceless emeralds in the hands of that detestable young rogue?" here interjected a quiet, even voice.
Mademoiselle turned upon the Man in Grey like a young tiger-cat that has been teased.
"What's that to you?" she queried.
"Are we not all trying to throw light on a mysterious occurrence?" he asked.
"Monsieur de Romaine wanted to show my emeralds to his mother," rejoined Mademoiselle, somewhat mollified and not a little shamefaced. "I had promised to be his wife -- Madame la Comtesse had approved -- she looked upon me as a daughter -- I had been up to her house to see her -- she expressed a wish to see my emeralds -- and so on Tuesday I entrusted them to Monsieur de Romaine -- and -- and ----"
Once more her voice broke and she burst into tears. It was a pitiably silly story, of course -- that of the clumsy trap set by a fascinating rogue -- the trap into which hundreds of thousands of women have fallen since the world began, and into which as many will fall again so long as human nature does not undergo a radical change.
"And when you drove Monsieur de Romaine home on that Tuesday night," continued the Man in Grey; "he had your emeralds in his possession?"
"Yes," replied Mademoiselle through her tears. "He had them in the inside pocket of his coat. I took leave of him at the Lodge. He waved his hand to me and I drove off. That, is the last I have seen of him -- the scamp!"
Mademoiselle Philippa was evidently taking it for granted that Jacques de Romaine had stolen her emeralds, and she laughed derisively when M. Cognard suggested that mayhap the unfortunate young man had been waylaid and robbed and afterwards murdered by some malefactor who knew that he had the jewels in his possession.
"Well!" commented the dancer with a shrug of her shoulders, "'tis for you, my good Commissaire, to find either my emeralds for me or the murdered body of Monsieur le Comte de Romaine."
After which parting shot Mademoiselle took her departure, leaving an atmosphere of cosmetics and the lingering echo of the frou-frou of silken skirts.
The commissary accompanied Mademoiselle Philippa to the door. He was not looking forward with unadulterated pleasure to the next half-hour, when of a surety that fussy functionary from Paris would set the municipal authorities by the ears for the sake of an affair which, after all, was not so very uncommon in these days -- a handsome rogue, a foolish, trusting woman, valuable jewellery. The whole thing was very simple and the capture of the miscreant a certainty.
"How was he going to dispose of the emeralds," argued M. Cognard to himself, "without getting caught?" As for connecting such a mild affair with any of those daring Chouans, the idea was preposterous.
But when M. Cognard returned to his office, these specious arguments froze upon his lips. The Man in Grey was looking unusually stern and uncompromising.
"Let me have your last reports about Mademoiselle de Romaine," he said peremptorily. "What did she do all day yesterday?"
The commissary, grumbling in his beard, found the necessary papers.
"She only went to church in the morning," he said in an injured tone of voice, "with Madame la Comtesse. It was the feast of St. Andrew ----"
"Did either of the women speak to anyone?"
"Not on the way. But the church was very crowded -- both ladies went to confession ----"
The Man in Grey uttered an impatient exclamation.
"I fear we have lost the emeralds," he said, "but in Heaven's name do not let us lose the rogue. When brought to bay he may give up the booty yet."
"But, Monsieur Fernand ----" protested the commissary.
The other waved aside these protestations with a quick gesture of his slender hand.
"I know, I know," he said. "You are not at fault. The rascal has been too clever for us, that is all. But we have not done with him yet. Send over to the Lodge at once," added the secret agent firmly, "men whom you can trust, and order them to apprehend Monsieur le Comte Jacques de Romaine and convey him hither at once."
"To the Lodge?"
"Yes! Mariette de Romaine lied when she said that her brother had not been in the house since Tuesday. He is in the house now. I had only been in St. Lô a few hours, but I had taken up my stand outside the Lodge that night, when I Mademoiselle Philippa's barouche drew up there and Jacques de Romaine stepped out of it. I saw him wave his hand and then turn to go into the house. The next moment the door of the Lodge was opened and he disappeared within it. Since then he has not been outside the house. I was there the whole of that night with one of my men, two others have been on the watch ever since -- one in front, the other at the back. The sister or the mother may have passed the emeralds on to a confederate in church yesterday -- we don't know. But this I do know," he concluded emphatically, "that Jacques de Romaine is in the Lodge at this moment unless the devil has spirited him away up the chimney."
"There's no devil that will get the better of my men," retorted the commissary, carried away despite himself by the other's energy and sense of power. "We'll have the rogue here within the hour, Monsieur Fernand, I pledge you the honour of the municipality of St. Lô! And the emeralds, too," he added complacently, "if the robbers have not yet disposed of them."
"That's brave!" rejoined the Man in Grey in a tone of kindly encouragement. "My own men are still on the spot and will lend you a hand. They have at their fingers' ends all that there is to know on the subject of secret burrows and hiding-places. All that you have to remember is that Jacques de Romaine is inside the Lodge and that you must bring him here. Now go and make your arrangements; I will be at the Lodge myself within the hour."
It was quite dark when the Minister's agent arrived at the Lodge. M. Cognard met him outside the small garden gate. As soon as he caught sight of the slender, grey-clad figure he ran to meet it as fast as his portliness would allow.
"Nothing!" he said breathlessly.
"How do you mean -- nothing?" retorted the secret agent.
"Just what I say," replied the commissaire. "We have searched this tumbledown barrack through and through. The women are there -- in charge of my men. They did not protest; they did not hinder us in any way. But I tell you," added M. Cognard, as he mopped his streaming forehead, "there's not a cat or a mouse concealed in that place. We have searched every hole and corner."
"Bah!" said the Man in Grey with a frown. "Some secret hiding-place has escaped you!"
"Ask your own trusted men," retorted the commissaire. "They have worked with ours."
"Have you questioned the women?"
"Yes! They adhere to Mademoiselle's story in every point."
"Do they know that I -- a member of His Majesty's secret police force -- saw Jacques de Romaine enter this house on Tuesday night, and that I swear he did not leave it the whole of that night; whilst my own men are equally ready to swear that he has not left it since."
"They know that."
"And what is their answer?"
"That we must demand an explanation from the man who was lurking round here in the dark when Jacques de Romaine had priceless jewels in his possession," replied the chief commissary.
The stern features of the Man in Grey relaxed into a smile.
"The rogues are cleverer than I thought," he said simply.
"Rogues?" growled M. Cognard. "I for one do not believe that they are rogues. If Jacques de Romaine entered this house on Tuesday night and has not left it since, where is he now? Answer me that, Monsieur Fernand!"
"Do you think I have murdered him?" retorted the secret agent calmly.
Then he went into the house.
He found Mme. la Comtesse de Romaine entrenched within that barrier of lofty incredulity which she had set up the moment that she heard of the grave suspicion which rested upon her son.
"A Comte de Romaine, Monsieur," she said in her thin, cracked voice in answer to every query put to her by the Man in Grey, "who is also Seigneur de Mazaire and a peer of France, does not steal the jewels of a dancer. If, as that wench asserts, my son had her trinkets that night about his person, then obviously it is for you who were lurking around my house like a thief in the night to give an account of what became of him."
"Your son entered this house last Tuesday night, Madame," answered Fernand firmly, "and has not been out of it since."
"Then I pray you find him, Sir," was Madame de Romaine's rejoinder.
Mademoiselle Mariette's attitude was equally uncompromising. She bore every question and cross-question unflinchingly. But when the secret agent finally left her in peace to initiate a thorough search inside that house which so bafflingly refused to give up its secret, she turned to the chief commissary of police.
"Who is that anonymous creature," she queried with passionate indignation, "who heaps insults and tortures upon my dear mother and me? Why is he not being questioned? Whose is the hidden hand that shields him when retribution should be marking him for its own?"
Whose indeed? The commissary of police was at his wits' end. Even the Man in Grey -- resolute, systematic and untiring -- failed to discover anything suspicious in the Lodge. It had often been said of him that no secret hiding-place, no secret panel or lurking-hole could escape his eagle eye, and yet, to-day, after three hours' persistent search, he was forced to confess he had been baffled.
Either his men had relaxed their vigilance at some time since that fateful Tuesday night, and had allowed the rogue to escape, or the devil had indeed spirited the young Comte de Romaine up the chimney.
Public opinion at once went dead against the authorities. Mademoiselle de Romaine had taken good care that the story of the man lurking round the Lodge on the night her brother disappeared should be known far and wide. That that man happened to be a mysterious and anonymous member of His Majesty's secret police did not in any way allay the popular feeling. The worthy citizens of St. Lô loudly demanded to know why he was not brought to justice. The préfet, the commissary, the procureur, were all bombarded with correspondence. Indignation meetings were held in every parish of the neighbourhood. Indeed, so tense had the situation become that the chief departmental and municipal officials were tendering their resignations wholesale, for their position, which already was well-nigh intolerable, threatened to become literally dangerous. Sooner or later the public would have to be told that the Man in Grey, on whom so grave a suspicion now rested, had mysteriously vanished, no one knew whither, and that no one dared to interfere with his movements, on pain of having to deal with M. le Duc d'Otrante, His Majesty's Minister of Police, himself.
Towards the end of December Mme. la Comtesse de Romaine announced her intention of going abroad.
"There is no justice in this country," she had declared energetically, "or no power on earth would shield my son's murderer from the gallows."
Of Jacques de Romaine there had been no news, nor yet of the Man in Grey. The procureur impérial, feeling the sting of Madame's indignation, had been over-courteous in the matter of passports, and everything was got ready in view of the de Romaines' departure. Madame had decided to go with Mademoiselle Mariette to Rome, where she had many friends, and the first stage of the long journey had been fixed for the 28th, when the two ladies proposed to travel by private coach as far as Caen, to sleep there, and thus be ready in the early morning for the mail-coach which would take them to Paris.
A start was to be made at midday. In the morning Mademoiselle de Romaine went to High Mass at Notre Dame, it being the feast of the Holy Innocents. The church was very crowded, but Mariette had arrived early, and she had placed her prie-dieu behind the shelter of one of the pillars, where she sat quite quietly, fingering her rosary, while the large congregation filed in. But all the while her thoughts were plainly not at her devotions. Her dark eyes roamed restlessly over every face and form that gathered near her, and there was in her drawn face something of the look of a frightened hare, when it lies low within its form, fearful lest it should be seen.
It was a bitterly cold morning, and Mariette wore a long, full cape, which she kept closely wrapped round her shoulders. Anon a verger came round with foot-warmers which he distributed, in exchange for a few coppers, to those who asked for them. One of these he brought to Mariette and placed it under her feet. As he did so an imperceptible look of understanding passed from her to him. Then the priests followed in, the choir intoned the Introit, the smoke of incense rose to the exquisitely carved roof, and everyone became absorbed in prayer.
Mariette de Romaine, ensconced behind the pillar, sat still, until, during the Confiteor, when all heads were buried between clasped hands, she stooped and apparently rearranged the position of her foot-warmer. Anyone who had been closely watching her would have thought that she had lifted it from the ground and was hugging it tightly under her cloak. No doubt her hands were cold.
Just before the Elevation a man dressed in a rough workman's blouse, his bare feet thrust into shabby shoes of soft leather, came and knelt beside her. She tried to edge away from him, but the pillar was in the way and she could not retreat any farther. Then suddenly she caught the man's glance, and he -- very slowly -- put his grimy hand up to the collar of his blouse and, just for an instant, turned it back: on the reverse side of the collar was sewn a piece of white ribbon with a fleur-de-lys roughly embroidered upon it -- the device of the exiled Bourbon princes. A look of understanding, immediately followed by one of anxious inquiry, spread over Mariette de Romaine's face, but the man put a finger to his lips and gave her a scarcely perceptible reassuring nod.
After the conclusion of the service and during the usual noise and bustle of the departing congregation the man drew a little nearer to Mariette and whispered hurriedly:
"Do not go yet -- there are police spies outside."
Mariette de Romaine was brave, at times even reckless, but at this warning her pale cheeks became almost livid. She hugged the bulky thing which she held under her cloak almost convulsively to her breast.
"What am I to do?" she whispered in response.
"Wait here quietly," rejoined the man, "till the people have left. I can take you through the belfry and out by a postern gate I know of."
"But," she gasped hoarsely, for her throat felt dry and parched, "afterwards?"
"You can come to my lodgings," he replied. "We'll let Madame know -- and then we shall have to think what best to do."
"Can you find White-Beak?" she asked.
"I could give him the ----"
"Hush!" he broke in quickly.
"I should like Monsieur le Chanoine to keep them again; we shall have to make fresh arrangements ----"
"Hush!" he reiterated more peremptorily. "We can do nothing for the moment except arrange for your safety."
The man spoke with such calm and authority that instinctively Mariette felt reassured. The bustle round them, people coming and going, chairs creaking against the flagstones, had effectually drowned the whispered colloquy. Now the crowd was thinning: the man caught hold of Mariette's cloak, and she, obediently, allowed him to lead her. He seemed to know his way about the sacred edifice perfectly, and presently, after they had crossed the belfry and gone along a flagged corridor, he opened a low door, and she found herself in the open in the narrow passage behind the east end of the church. Her guide was supporting her by the elbow and she, still hugging her precious burden, walked beside him without further question. He led her to a house in a street close by, where he appeared to be at home. After climbing three flights of steps, he knocked vigorously at a door which was immediately opened by a man also dressed in a rough blouse, and ushered Mariette de Romaine into an apartment of the type usually inhabited by well-to-do artisans. After crossing a narrow hall she entered a sitting-room wherein the first sight that greeted her tired eyes was a bunch of roughly fashioned artificial white lilies in the centre of a large round table. Fully reassured, though thoroughly worn out with the excitement of the past few minutes, the girl sank into a chair and threw open the fastening of her cloak. The bulky parcel, cleverly contrived to look like a foot-warmer, lay upon her lap.
"Now we must let Madame la Comtesse know," said the man who had been her guide, in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone. "Oh, it will be quite safe," he added, seeing a look of terror had spread over Mariette de Romaine's face. "I have a comrade here, Hare's-Foot -- you know him, Mademoiselle?"
She shook her head.
"He is well known in St. Lô," continued the man simply. "Supposed to be harmless. His real name is Pierre Legrand. The police spies have never suspected him -- the fools. But he is one of us -- and as intrepid as he is cunning. So if you will write a few words, Mademoiselle, Hare's-Foot will take them at once to Madame la Comtesse."
"What shall I say?" asked Mariette, as she took up pen and paper which her unknown friend was placing before her.
"Only that you became faint in church," he suggested, "and are at a friend's house. Then request that Madame la Comtesse should come to you at once: the bearer of your note will guide her."
Obediently the girl wrote as he advised, the man watching her the while. Had Mariette de Romaine looked up she might have seen a strange look in his face -- a look that was almost of pity.
The letter was duly signed and sealed and handed over to Hare's-Foot -- the man who had opened the door of the apartment -- and he at once went away with it.
After that perfect quietude reigned in the small room. Mariette leaned her head against the back of her chair. She felt very tired.
"Let me relieve you of this," said her companion quietly, and without waiting for her acquiescence he took the bulky parcel from her and put it on the table. Then Mariette de Romaine fell into a light sleep.
She was aroused by the sound of her mother's voice. Madame la Comtesse de Romaine was in her turn being ushered into the apartment, and was already being put in possession of the facts connected with her daughter's letter which had summoned her hither.
"I guessed at once that something of the sort had happened," was Madame's dry and unperturbed comment. "Mariette was not likely to faint while she had those emeralds in her charge. You, my men," she added, turning to her two interlocutors, "have done well by us. I don't yet know how you came to render us and our King's cause this signal service, but you may be sure that it will not go unrewarded. His Majesty himself shall hear of it -- on the faith of a de Romaine."
"And now, Madame la Comtesse," rejoined the man in the rough blouse quietly, "I would suggest that Mademoiselle and yourself don a suitable disguise, while Hare's-Foot and I arrange for a safe conveyance to take you out of St. Lô at once. We have most effectually given the police spies the slip, and while they are still searching the city for you you will be half way on the road to Caen, and there is no reason why the original plans for your journey to Rome should be in any way modified."
"Perfect! Perfect!" exclaimed Madame enthusiastically. "You are a jewel, my friend."
There was nothing of the senile invalid about her now. She had cast off her shawl and her bonnet, and with them the lank, white wig which concealed her own dark hair. The man in the rough blouse smiled as he looked on her.
"My mate and I have a number of excellent disguises in this wardrobe here, Madame la Comtesse," he said, as he pointed to a large piece of furniture which stood in a corner of the room, "and all are at your service. I would suggest a peasant's dress for Mademoiselle, and," he added significantly, "a man's attire for Madame, since she is so very much at home in it."
"You are right, my man," rejoined Madame lightly. "I was perfectly at home in my son's breeches, and I shall never cease to regret that Jacques de Romaine must remain now as he is -- vanished or dead -- for as long as I live."
The two men then took their leave, and the ladies proceeded to select suitable disguises. Silently and methodically they proceeded in their task, Mariette de Romaine making herself look as like a labourer's wench as she could, whilst Mme. la Comtesse slipped into a rough suit of coat and breeches with the case born of constant habit. Her short dark hair she tied into a knot at the nape of her neck and placed a shabby three-cornered hat jauntily upon it. Her broad, unfeminine figure, her somewhat hard-marked features and firm mouth and chin made her look a handsome and dashing cavalier.
When a few moments later the sound of voices in the hall proclaimed the return of the men, Mme. la Comtesse was standing expectant and triumphant facing the door, ready for adventure as she had always been, a light of daring and of recklessness in her eyes, love of intrigue and of tortuous paths, of dark conspiracies and even of unavowable crimes glowing in her heart -- all for the sake of a King whom France with one voice had ejected from her shores, and a régime which the whole of, France abhorred.
The door was opened: a woman's cry of joy and astonishment rang out.
"Why Jacques, you young scamp!" exclaimed Mademoiselle Philippa who, dressed in a brilliant dart green silk, with feathered hat and well-rouged cheeks was standing under the lintel of the narrow door like a being from another world. "Where have you been hiding all this while?"
But her cry of mingled pleasure and petulance had already been followed by a double cry of terror. Mme. la Comtesse, white now to the lips, had fallen back against the table, to which she clung, whilst Mariette de Romaine, wide-eyed like a tracked beast at bay, was gazing in horror straight before her, where, behind Philippa's flaring skirts, appeared the stern, colourless face of a small man in a grey coat.
"It was for the mean spies of that Corsican upstart," she exclaimed with passionate indignation, "to have devised such an abominable trick."
Already the Man in Grey had entered the room. Behind him, in the dark, narrow hall, could be seen the vague silhouettes of three or four men in plain clothes.
"Trick for trick, Mademoiselle, and disguise for disguise," said the secret agent quietly. "I prefer mine to the one which deceived and defrauded Mademoiselle Philippa here of close on a million francs' worth of jewels."
"A trick?" exclaimed the dancer, who was looking the picture of utter confusion and bewilderment.
"My jewels? -- I don't understand ----"
"Madame la Comtesse de Romaine, otherwise Jacques, your fiancé and admirer, Mademoiselle, has time to explain. The private coach which will convey her to Rennes will not be here for half an hour. In the meanwhile," he added, as he took up the parcel of jewels which still lay upon the table, "you will find these at the commissariat of police whenever you care to call for them. Monsieur Cognard will have the privilege of returning them to you."
But Mademoiselle Philippa was far too much upset to wait for explanations. At the invitation of the Minister's accredited agent, she had followed him hither, for he had told her that she would see Jacques de Romaine once more. The disappointment and mingled horror and excitement when she realised what an amazing trick had been played upon her literally swept her off her nimble feet. It was a month or more before she was well enough to fulfill her outstanding engagements.
The de Romaines -- mother and daughter -- offered no resistance. Indeed, resistance would have been futile, and theirs was not the temperament to allow of hysterics or undignified protestations. Every courtesy was shown to them on their way to Rennes, where they were tried and condemned to five years' imprisonment. But twelve months later the Imperial clemency was exercised in their favour, and they were released; after the Restoration they were handsomely rewarded for their zeal in the service of the King.
The Comte Jacques de Romaine who, as a little lad, had been taken over to England, never came to France till after Waterloo had been fought and won. At the time that his mother impersonated him so daringly and with such sinister results, he was serving in the Prussian Army. Mariette de Romaine subsequently married the Vicomte de Saint-Vaast. She and her husband emigrated with Charles X in 1830, and their son married an Englishwoman, and died in a house at Hampstead in the early 'seventies.