The letter dropped from Mme. de Plelan's thin, white hand. She looked across at her daughter with eyes full of tears.
"And now that Monseigneur has gone," she said mournfully, "I feel as if I had lost the very mainstay of our valiant little party."
The girl sighed, somewhat impatiently.
"Monseigneur," she said, "would be the first to bid you smother your regrets for the past, maman, and to concentrate your thoughts on the dangers that still lie ahead."
She was busy at a desk that stood open before her, glancing at a number of papers, classifying some, throwing a great number into the fire which crackled cheerfully in the hearth, whilst others she tied together and put into a small tin box that stood close to her hand.
"It was kind and gracious of Monseigneur," continued Madame la Marquise dolefully, "to think of sending me a courier when he must have been so busy with his preparations for his sudden departure. Oh, that departure!" she added, as once again tears of wrath as well as of sorrow welled up to her eyes. "The shame of it! The humiliation as well as the bitter, bitter disappointment!"
Constance de Plelan made no comment this time on her mother's lamentations. She had apparently completed the work on which she had been engaged, for now she rose, closed the desk and locking the small tin box with a key which she selected from a bunch at her belt she took it up under her arm. Then she turned to her mother:
"Will you tell me, maman," she said, "just what Monseigneur says in his letter?"
Constance stood there in the grey light of the winter afternoon, with the flicker of the firelight playing on her tall, graceful figure, her arm extended, holding the metal box, her small head carried with the stately dignity of a goddess.
"Those devils will be here directly," continued the girl; and as she spoke the delicate lines of her face were distorted by an expression of intense and passionate hatred. "But we are ready for them. I have only this box to put away in its usual hiding-place -- after which, let them come!"
Mme. de Plelan again took up the letter, the perusal of which had caused her so much sorrow. It had arrived by courier a few minutes ago; now, at her daughter's request, she began to read it aloud:
"This is what Monseigneur the Bishop writes," she said.
"'My dear friend, immediately on receipt of this missive, set to work at once to destroy any compromising papers you may have in the house. I have no doubt that the posse of police which has just ransacked my place will pay you a visit also. My friendship for you is well known, and your name may appear in one or two of the letters which those brutes have confiscated. Alas! The landing of Monsieur le Comte d'Artois on these shores has ended in disaster. The spies of the Corsican upstart were on his track from the first. They followed His Royal Highness to my Palace, kidnapped him as if he were a bale of goods and shipped him straight back to England. My life and liberty are, it seems, to be spared, but I have been ordered into exile at my chateau in the Dauphine. God guard and preserve you all! We must wait for happier times!'"
Constance said nothing for a moment or two. She stood staring into the fire, her lips tightly pressed.
"And all," she mused after a while, speaking slowly and dreamily, "through the machinations of that extraordinary man, who is said to be a secret agent of Bonaparte's most powerful Minister."
"A man without a name!" added the Marquise, bitter scorn ringing through every word she spoke "A meagre, insignificant creature, grey and colourless as his coat."
"But clever -- and relentless," said the girl. "That Man in Grey is killing our hopes one by one."
"I loathe the brute!" ejaculated Madame fervently.
"Monsieur de Saint-Tropeze is dead," continued Constance in the same dreary, monotonous voice, "The Spaniard is a prisoner; Marie Vaillant a failure; Monseigneur an exile; and still that Man in Grey is allowed to live. Oh, it is monstrous!" she said, her whole body suddenly quivering with passion. "Monstrous and cowardly! Are there no men us who will rid the King of such a pestilential foe?"
Mme. de Plelan started as if she had been struck. She stared at her daughter, trying to fathom all that was going on behind that smooth young brow and within the depths of those passion-filled eyes.
"You mean--?" she murmured.
The girl nodded. "Why not?" she retorted quite calmly.
"Oh, if we could!" replied Madame. "But he is so cautious, so wary-and lately he has always had two or three spies at his heels."
"There are ways--"
"Oh, as to that, there are a number of our own men who would willingly take every risk in order to rid us of the brute. But in cases of that kind," she added slowly, "failure always means such terrible reprisals -- the death of two or three more of our leaders on the guillotine -- and we can ill spare them just now."
"I did not mean anything so clumsy," explained Constance quietly. "An attempted murder from behind a hedge is, as you say, foredoomed to failure. From what one knows of the Man in Grey he is not likely to fall a victim to such an artless trap."
"Then what did you mean, Constance?" asked Madame coldly.
"Men have been decoyed before now," replied the girl, as she looked her mother straight between the eyes; "and have of their own will walked into traps from which there was no escape. The man in the grey coat may be surrounded by spies, his precious life may be watched over by an army of myrmidons, but he is the most astute as well as the most relentless enemy of our King -- and what other women have done before now, surely we can do again."
Mme. la Marquise made no immediate reply. She was gazing almost with awe upon her daughter, who, flushed with ardour, quivering with excitement, appeared the very embodiment of that reckless patriotism which had already sent Charlotte Corday to the scaffold.
"Constance, in God's name," she murmured, "tell me what you mean--"
But before the girl could reply, the words died upon her lips. From the other side of the chateau there had come the sound of a great commotion, the clatter of horses' hoofs upon the flagged forecourt, the clanging of metal, the champing of bits, and finally loud and peremptory words of command.
"The police!" exclaimed Madame la Marquise in a hoarse whisper.
"Those devils!" ejaculated the girl with savage intensity of hate.
But neither of the women showed the slightest sign of fear, or even of agitation. They were made of that firm nerve which is always ready to meet danger in whatever form, at whatever hour it may present itself. Conspiracy and intrigue were in their blood.
They had never become reconciled to the new regime that had sent their King and Queen to the guillotine and kept their present uncrowned King in exile. They had never bowed their necks to the democratic or the military yoke. They still fought tooth and nail for the restoration of a system which they believed was based upon divine right -- caring little that that system had been rejected by the entire people of France. And since they could no longer fight in the open -- for their party had dwindled to vanishing-point and lacked both men and materials -- they plotted in the dark, in secret, but with unswerving loyalty to their King and unbounded belief in ultimate victory.
So now with a posse of police at their gates they did not lose their heads. On the contrary, Madame la Marquise de Plelan's attitude became if anything more dignified and more calm. She arranged her silk dress in prim folds around her, readjusting the set of her lace coif, and took up a piece of knitting wherewith she busied her perfectly steady fingers. Constance, still carrying the metal box, turned to go out of the room.
"I will return," she said, "when I have disposed of this box."
"What have you kept in it?" asked Madame rather anxiously. "From what I hear, secret hiding-places stand but little chance when that grey-coated ferret is about."
Apparently, however, the young girl had not heard her mother's query, for even as the usual ominous "Open, in the name of the law!" rang out through the silence of the chateau, she had run out of the room and was speeding down the long corridor towards her own apartments.
The Man in Grey, quiet and perfectly deferential, stood before Mme. la Marquise de Plelan and in a few words explained the duty that lay before him.
"By order of His Majesty's Minister of Police," he added firmly.
Mme. la Marquise waived aside his explanations with a quick gesture of her slender, aristocratic hand.
"I know, Monsieur, I know," she said calmly. "French men and women now are little better than slaves. Their very homes, their privacy, have ceased to be sacred in the eyes of the State which should be their protector, rather than their tyrant."
A search in a private house in those days was no small matter. Ordered by the Minister of Police or his accredited representative, it consisted in a thorough and rigid examination of every nook and cranny, of every corner wherein compromising papers might be hidden. The high-horn gentlemen and ladies, suspected of furthering the Cause of the exiled Bourbon princes by aiding and abetting the Chouans in their nefarious practices, were known to be past masters in the art of concealing every proof of their own guilt or that of their friends; the women especially, who reckoned on a certain amount of chivalry on the part of police officers, were the chief custodians of the papers and records belonging to those organised bands of marauding freebooters.
Madame la Marquise had only thrown one glance on the hated enemy when first he entered the room, but already she had appraised him in her mind: "Relentless in the exercise of duty," she thought. "Cold and dispassionate; no mercy or consideration could be expected from him. If only Constance has burned everything that was compromising--there was the tin box and papers which related to the agency at Jersey--and many more records which might mean the guillotine for some of us if they were found--"
Madame noticed that the moment the agent entered the room he cast one rapid look in the direction of the hearth, where the fire was half-smothered beneath a heap of burned paper. On this, however, he made no comment; only his glance appeared to harden and the orders to his men became more peremptory and more sharp. He asked Madame for her keys. She took a bunch from her basket and gave them up to him without remark beyond the curt statement:
"My daughter has the others."
The Man in Grey opened the desk and the drawers of other pieces of furniture in the room, then he left his men to do their work. Madame sat beside the fire, quietly knitting. When she was respectfully asked to move she did so with lips tightly pressed, as if determined not to give vent to her indignation. Cushions and stuffings of chairs and sofas were searched through and through; three men were busy in this room, others were dispersed throughout the house.
They tested the wainscotings and the window recesses; they climbed up the chimneys and tapped on the ceilings and the walls. The calm, colourless eyes of the Man in Grey appeared to be everywhere. Even Mme la Marquise felt a hot flush rising to her pale cheeks when she encountered that searching gaze, which seemed to probe her very thoughts.
"If only Constance would return!" she sighed' to, herself impatiently.
The shades of evening were beginning to draw in. The police were now busy in other parts of the house; only the secret agent was still in the room. His fingers were wandering over the elaborate carving of the wainscoting. Madame was silent, her ear strained to catch the sound of Constance's footfall on the corridor outside.
Suddenly she heard the familiar light footstep, and, strangely enough, the young girl's voice, clear as a bird's and exquisitely trained, singing an old French chanson. The next moment the door was opened and Constance stood under the lintel. She had changed her plain morning dress for a clinging gown of soft silk, embroidered in tiny, coloured rosebuds; her neck and arms were bare, and round her shoulders she had wound a diaphanous scarf of old lace. Her golden hair was dressed high in the prevailing fashion of the day; her cheeks and lips were slightly rouged, her eyes shone with intense excitement. It was obvious that she had been at pains to enhance her great personal attraction. Even the perfume of sweet peas which emanated from her was intended to intoxicate, and of a truth she presented an altogether adorable picture of youth and beauty, as well as of gay and childlike spirits.
Madame smothered the exclamation of astonishment which at sight of her daughter had risen to her lips, whilst the Man in Grey turned from his engrossing occupation and was gazing at the exquisite apparition in the doorway, offering it that tribute of silent admiration which no man--however hidebound--will ever grudge to a beautiful woman.
"Ah, Monsieur!" said Constance gaily, as with perfect unconcern she stepped into the room and turned a pair of appealing blue eyes to the impassive secret agent, "I entreat you, come to the rescue! Your sergeant insists that he must turn out all the things in my bedroom. Oh, he is a very worthy man!" she added, and a light of saucy mischief began to dance in her eyes; "but he--he tells me that he is not a married man, and--and he is too young--Monsieur, I pray you--must he look over my things?--my--my--you understand? Why, it is not convenable! Is it, maman?"
"Constance!" came involuntarily from Madame, together with a look of horror and reproach.
Even the Man in Grey appeared slightly embarrassed. The young girl ran up to him and suddenly linking her hands around his arm tried to drag him towards the door.
"Monsieur," she entreated and, under the charm of her gaiety and her girlishness, the icy reserve of the police agent already seemed to thaw. "I can trust you--I don't know if you are married, but--but I feel that you are more respectable than your sergeant--I entreat you, come! If my--my--you understand--are to be turned over by rough masculine hands, I feel that I could endure it if those hands were yours."
"Mademoiselle," protested the Man in Grey, who was making somewhat feeble efforts to disengage his arm, "I--"
"Oh, you won't refuse!" she pleaded with tender reproach.
Her lovely face was very close to his; the subtle scent of sweet peas rose to his nostrils and somewhat clouded his usually cool and discerning mind. Moreover, no male creature living could have withstood for long the appeal of those shimmering blue eyes. After all, she was not asking very much. Only that he should himself perform a duty which the clumsy sergeant might perhaps not have performed quite efficiently.
She was still clinging to his arm, still pleading with her eyes. After a brief hesitation, more assumed than real, he assented coldly.
"I am at Mademoiselle's service."
She gave a cry of pleasure, and he followed her out of the room.
Madame la Marquise was left bewildered, half-thinking that she must have been asleep and dreaming when she saw that dainty and puzzling apparition just now--Constance, her daughter, putting forth powers of fascination to please that odious and vulgar creature! It was unbelievable!
Charles, the footman, entered with the lamp Madame did not speak; she was wrapt in moody contemplation. Gradually a strange expression of disquietude and then of weird misgiving spread over he' pale face, and once or twice she put a handkerchief to her lips as if to crush a cry.
Gradually the commotion in the house became stilled. A while ago Madame had heard the tramp of those hateful police creatures going down the stairs in the direction of the offices and servants' quarters then for a time all was still in that part of the chateau. But presently, as Madame sat pondering and listening, she heard a sound which--though familiar and reassuring enough--caused her to jump to her feet in an access of abject horror. Her knees shook under her--she could hardly stand.
"My God!" she murmured. "Not that-- Don't let her do that--"
All that the Marquise had heard was the soft strain a spinet and a young girl's pure, fresh voice singing an old French ditty.
Mme. de Plelan stood rigid, as if turned to stone. The dim light of the lamp shone upon her face, which was the colour of pure snow. Then she slowly went to the door and out of the room. She walked along the corridor and up the stairs. Her daughter's rooms gave on the landing immediately above. Madame had to cling to the banisters as she went up, or she would have fallen. An icy horror gripped her heart; she was only conscious of a wild desire to interfere, to place herself at once and by any means athwart those schemes taking shape in Constance's turbulent brain.
The door of Mademoiselle de Plelan's boudoir was wide open. Opposite the door was the spinet at which the young girl sat, playing and singing. The light from the lamp gleamed through the soft tendrils of her golden hair, and the pure lines of her delicate profile were silhouetted against the glow. Not far from her stood the agent of His Imperial Majesty's Minister of Police, the most bitter enemy her friends and kindred had ever known. Constance was looking at him as she sang, and his deep-set eyes, usually so colourless, were fixed with a gaze of ardent admiration on the beautiful singer. On a table at his elbow was the tin box, with its lid thrown open. Only a few papers remained at the bottom of the box; the others he had in his hand.
Mme. de Plelan tottered as if ready to fall. An extraordinary emotion, born of a nameless terror, was paralysing her limbs. In trying to cross the landing she felt faint and all but measured her length on the ground. A weak cry escaped her lips. In an instant Constance ceased playing and, seeing her mother, ran to her side. The next moment her arms were round Madame's shoulders, and she almost carried her back into the room.
The Man in Grey had also made a movement as if to run to Madame's assistance; then he stood by, looking confused and awkward, as men are apt to do when women are ill. However, he helped Constance presently to lead Madame to a chair, and the girl immediately threw him a grateful look. "Maman is over-fatigued," she said softly. "She has gone through a great deal this afternoon."
Her tone of tender reproach and the glance which she cast him from the depths of her blue eyes completed the confusion of the Man in Grey. He stammered an apology, feeling that he was an unmitigated brute. At once Constance stretched out her hand to him.
"I did not mean to complain," she said gently "You have been so kind--so considerate--I--"
Her voice broke in a sob. The secret agent, deeply moved, took her hand and pressed it to his lips. Then hurriedly, he gathered up the remaining papers out of the tin box, slipped them into his pocket and left the room. By and by his firm voice was heard giving orders to his men to mount.
But as soon as his slim, grey-clad figure had disappeared across the landing, Constance ran to the door and closed it with a bang. For a moment she stood quite still, gazing in the direction whence came the sound of the enemy's retreating footsteps. An unmistakable look of triumph and satisfaction filled her eyes. The next instant, however, she was down on her knees beside her mother, half-sobbing, half-laughing, her cheeks flushed even beneath the rouge.
"There was nothing in the tin box, maman," she cried somewhat wildly. "Only a few worthless letters, with nothing in them to compromise any of us seriously. Oh, but I have got him, maman! I have got him as surely as he got Monsieur de Saint-Tropeze. In a month from now I shall be able to twist him round my little finger--and then--and then--"
But Mme. de Plelan did not hear the girl's strange, half-hysterical ravings. She was lying unconscious, her pale face looking ghostlike against the silk cushion of her chair.
Less than a month later, on a clear, cold afternoon early in February, a woman, wrapped from head to foot in a dark mantle, was making her way along the main road which cuts straight through the Cache-Renard woods between Alencon and Plelan. She came from the direction of the chateau and walked briskly, holding her mantle closely round her shoulders.
When she arrived at the clearing where crossroads met and intersected the main one, she paused for a moment, listened intently for a second or two, then struck into the wood along a side track on her left. She followed this track for two hundred metres or so, then suddenly plunged into the thicket.
The undergrowth here was very dense. Overhead, the grey light of the late winter's afternoon filtered through the branches of the trees, guiding the woman on her way.
Suddenly, out of the thicket, a gruff voice called out, "Who goes there?" and the woman without hesitation replied, "One who has courage and courts success."
Immediately a dark form detached itself from out the undergrowth.
"Is it you, Blue-Heart?" asked the woman sharply.
"At your service, Mademoiselle," said the rough voice which first had challenged her.
"It is all right," said Mademoiselle. "Are you prepared?"
"Oh, I am prepared right enough!" retorted the man whom she had called Blue-Heart. "My musket has been ready for that vermin this past fortnight. I've been here every afternoon," he continued, "since first I had my orders."
"It couldn't be managed sooner, my friend," answered Mademoiselle. "The fox was wary; he would not walk into the trap."
"It was baited often enough for him."
"Oh, yes! He met me in the town. He walked with me through the streets or along the river bank He even came to church with me once or twice," she added with a strained laugh. "But, unlike a beast a prey, he would not come out of nights."
"Did he suspect you, Mademoiselle?" asked Blue Heart; "or Madame?"
"Oh, no!" replied the girl. "Instinctive caution has saved him so far; nothing more."
"Think you he will come?"
"I am sure," she replied decisively. "You'll hear our voices--mine you will recognise. You'll not miss him?" she added with a strange quiver in her voice.
"Miss him?" retorted the man with a savage oath "Ever since he killed Hare-Lip and Mole-Skin last November not a hundred metres from this very spot, I have prayed that a bullet from my musket might lay him low."
The girl said nothing more. The man grasped his musket more firmly and cowered into the thicket, and she turned and went back towards the crossroads.
At this very moment a man was walking rapidly towards the same cross roads, but from the opposite direction. He, too, held his cloak wrapped closely up to his chin, for the air was cold. But soon he paused, threw back his mantle and unfolded a scrap of paper he had been holding tightly squeezed in his hand. Once again he read the lines which were so familiar to him, and when he had finished reading he pressed the precious scrap of paper once or twice to his lips. Then he continued on his way.
Some time before he reached the crossroads, he saw Constance de Plelan coming towards him. A moment or two later he was by her side, confused and shy, hardly able to speak owing to the overwhelming sense of happiness.
He tried to take her in his arms, but she evaded him, slipping away from him like a mischievous elf of the woods.
"Let us walk a little," she said.
He was ready to do anything she wished. His calm, reserved demeanour appeared in strange contrast to her exuberant vitality. He hardly could believe in the reality of this supreme moment, and he moved along beside her like a sleepwalker in a dream. He tried to lead the way towards the crossroads.
"There is a side-track there," he said, "sheltered against the wind and carpeted with moss. We should be more lonely there."
But she demurred and, with a laugh, clung to his arm and made him turn back towards the city. She talked at random, almost wildly, about irrelevant things, whilst he wished to speak of nothing but of his love for her--born on that afternoon when she had sung to him and with her own white hands had given him the tin box. The papers it contained were worthless, perhaps; but he had been deeply moved by her trust in him and his admiration had quickened into love. Since then he had dreamed of the happy time when she would trust him more fully and allow him to walk by her side and to sit with her, untrammelled by the presence of strangers. Hitherto she had been very shy and reticent, though at times she met him in the town when she was up for a day's shopping or to see her friends. Once or twice she had sent him a treasured little note, telling him that she would be going to church alone.
These had been happy times, and his love had grown in intensity with every meeting. But still he longed to have her all to himself. Timidly he ventured to suggest a walk in the woods or in the park of the chateau. And this morning the measure of his happiness appeared complete. She sent him word that she would walk in the woods as far as the crossroad close to the chateau, and would meet him there in the late afternoon. He was too unsophisticated and unversed in the usages of Society to marvel at Mademoiselle de Plelan's agreeing to a clandestine meeting with a man far beneath her in station and at an hour when only flirts were wont to walk abroad. He was far too infatuated by this time to see in this unconventional act aught but graciousness on her part.
But now, somehow, he felt disappointed. She insisted on keeping to the main road, where, at this hour, there were many passers-by. The Caen-Alencon coach had only just rattled past with much blowing of horn and clanging of metal chains. And there was such a beautiful side-track he knew of, if only he could induce her to follow him thither!
The time went by all too quickly. Constance de Plelan appeared anxious to go home.
"I have arranged to meet Annette," she said, "my mother's maid. Her mother lives in the cottage on the road to Plelan. Annette has been spending the afternoon with her, and we have agreed to walk back to the chateau together. I would not wish her to see you."
And the police agent, smothering a sigh of regret, escorted her back as far as the edge of the wood. He would have liked to walk on with her to the chateau, but this she resolutely forbade him to do.
"We must not be seen together by Annette," she reiterated somewhat tartly.
Fernand had not yet earned the right to insist. The parting was more disappointing than even the meeting had been. Constance de Plelan now appeared desperately anxious to be rid of him. He tried to take her hand, but even this privilege was denied him.
"The cottage is just round the bend of the road," she said with forced gaiety. "Annette may appear before us at any moment."
Whereupon she turned and left him standing alone and disconsolate, his longing eyes watching her graceful figure as she moved swiftly along and soon disappeared round a sharp bend in the road.
Then, with another bitter sigh, he, too, turned on his heel and started to walk back through the wood.
Constance de Plelan had walked on very rapidly, only looking back now and again to see whether the police agent had followed her. The road was now quite lonely; not even a belated passer-by was in sight. After a few minutes, the girl halted where a side-track, inches deep in mud, struck at right angles and, cutting across an intervening meadow, plunged into a dense part of the wood at some distance from the road. For a few seconds Constance appeared to hesitate; she pressed her trembling hands against her heart, which was beating so furiously that she felt sick and faint. Next moment, however, she started to run down the side-track as fast as the muddy ooze would allow her. A few minutes later she had reached the margin of the wood and, no longer hesitating, boldly entered the thicket.
The road along which the police agent was striding with his habitual quick and firm step wound in and out of thick masses of coppice; the footpath which Constance de Plelan followed so unerringly led by a direct short cut straight to the thicket where Blue-Heart lay in wait.
The shades of evening were falling fast; the wintry sunset had long since ceased to glimmer among the trees. Blue-Heart was cowering in his hiding place, grasping his musket and marvelling why Mademoiselle had not yet led her quarry into the trap which had been so carefully prepared. The hated police agent had not yet come. But Blue-Heart was patient and content to bide his time. He knew that the hatred he felt for the Man in Grey had its counterpart in the heart of Constance de Plelan. The secret agent had only been in the province four months, and already the Chouans had felt the weight of his relentless courage, his astuteness and his power. M. le Comte d'Artois, brother and messenger of the uncrowned King, had been sent hack to England with ignominy through the instrumentality of this one man, and when Mademoiselle de Plelan had asked for a volunteer to lay this powerful enemy low, Blue-Heart had offered himself, heart and soul, ready to strike and take every risk. If only the quarry would come, Blue-Heart's musket was not likely to err.
Suddenly the Chouan drew in his breath. His whole attitude grew at once more rigid and more tense. Cowering in the thicket, he shouldered his musket. The road stretched out before him, through a veil of coppice, for a length of some thirty feet or so, and at a distance of less than twenty paces from the spot where he crouched, on the alert, holding breath now that his keen ear had detected the sound of approaching footsteps.
Soon these footsteps drew nearer and Blue-Heart muttered an imprecation: "Malediction!" came between his clenched teeth. "Mademoiselle said that devil would come alone!"
But his rough, nervy hands grasped the musket with undiminished vigour. If that hated police agent came escorted with a whole posse of his own men Blue-Heart was not going to be done out of his vengeance.
Then suddenly the footsteps stopped and the melancholy call of a screech-owl pierced the silence of the night.
"White-Beak!" muttered the crouching Chouan as he lowered his musket. "What is he doing here at this hour?"
He, too, raised his fingers to his mouth, and the cry of a screech-owl rang shrilly through the wood. Next moment three or four men pushed their way cautiously through the thicket.
"Well, is it done?" queried the foremost amongst them, as soon as he had become conscious of Blue-Heart's presence close by.
"Done? No!" growled the latter. "What have you come for?"
"To lend you a hand," replied White-Beak, "with the body of the vermin."
"Too soon! I haven't got him yet."
"No hitch, I hope," broke in one of the others.
"Then we can give you a hand now as well as later. The fox may be armed."
"He may," rejoined Blue-Heart. "Go to the other side of the road," he added, "so as to intercept him in the rear. You have your musket?"
"Then you can hold him while I use mine. It will make assurance doubly sure."
They spoke in whispers scarcely audible above the manifold murmurs of the wood. Now, like creeping, furtive beasts of prey, White-Beak and his companions crawled on hands and knees through the thicket and across the road, and thence under cover once more. The trap was indeed well set for the quarry which could not fail to walk into it very soon. Indeed, less than five minutes later there came from some little way down the road the sound of a measured and firm footfall. With rapid steps the hated police agent was drawing nearer. A grim chuckle escaped the lips of the old Chouan as he once more shouldered his musket. The evening gloom was gradually enfolding the wood in its embrace. On either side of the road the miscreants in their hiding-place were peeping through the undergrowth, watching for the approach of their prey. Presently they could discern the vague outline of his slender figure walking unhesitatingly towards them. Within a few seconds he would be passing right in front of them, at a distance of less than twenty paces. Blue-Heart thought that he would wait and take no risks and only pull the trigger when the victim was quite near, the aim sure, and the fast gathering darkness not likely to play him any illusive trick. Not a sound, not the flutter of a dead leaf nor the crackling of a twig would have revealed to untrained ear the presence of a band of assassins, and for another minute or so the police agent walked along, wary and alert as was his wont but as yet unsuspicious. His footstep sounded unhesitating and firm.
Then suddenly he paused and threw a quick, searching look around him. "Who goes there?" he called in a loud and firm voice.
His ear, attuned to the faintest breath which might be drawn around him, had warned him, all at once, of the danger which awaited him if he continued on his path; it had betrayed to his keen consciousness the presence of human beings, living, breathing, close by--somewhere in the thicket--hiding and crouching in the darkness; obviously with evil intent.
Next moment something definite stirred in the thicket not twenty paces from where he stood; there was a faint click which to a trained ear was unmistakable. In a twinkling Fernand had drawn a pistol from his pocket, and with a swift and sudden spring, he threw himself against a tall beech which bordered the road; and here he stood, with his back against the massive trunk, pistol in hand and his keen eye searching the darkness around him.
There was a moment of tense suspense and of absolute silence, and in an instant the Man in Grey felt his arm seized from behind, the pistol was knocked out of his hand, a rough fist was thrust into his face, and he found himself pinioned against the tree, whilst a hoarse voice shouted lustily:
"You can shoot now, friend Blue-Heart. No chance of missing the vermin in the dark. We've got him tight."
Then it all happened in a second. A musket-shot rang through the evening air; its sharp report came simultaneously with a loud and piercing cry which rang right through and above it. The cry proceeded from a woman's lips; it was immediately followed by a violent imprecation from one of the Chouans. The Man in Grey, dazed, bewildered, not understanding, had only heard that cry, straight in front of him, right from out the thicket whence had come the report and flash of the assassin's musket. The rough hands that held him relaxed, and there was a wild confusion of cries and oaths and a scrambling and scrimmage in the undergrowth behind him.
What had happened within the depths of the shadows in front of him he did not know, but at a bound he cleared the intervening width of the road, and Constance de Plelan fell staggering in his arms.
"Constance!" he exclaimed, still mystified by the turn of events, "you are hurt!"
"No, no!" she said in a strange, hoarse whisper. "I am not hurt. Only save yourself--Go, in God's name, ere I forget that I am a woman and again think of you only as the enemy of my King."
"You have saved my life!" he said, as the horror of the situation rose with staggering vividness before his mind, "and at risk of your own."
But already she had disengaged herself from arms. She struggled to her feet and, as he tried assist her, pushed him with amazing strength away from her.
"Go, I tell you!" she said, and she tried to steady her voice, which came feeble and panting from her throat. "The hand that fired the first shot might fire another ere I could prevent it--and the others might come back."
"I'll not go," he rejoined firmly, "until I am sure that you are not hurt."
"Hush!" she retorted hurriedly. "I am not hurt, I say. And even if I were, you must go now--at once. Have I not said that I might repent? Behind that thicket lurks the man whom I employed to kill you--I came back here to gloat over his work. Yet, somehow, when the time came, and I saw you in the grip of those assassins, I could not bear to see you die--not like that--five against one--it was too horrible, too cowardly. But you must go. And you and I must never meet again, unless indeed you set your spies on us tomorrow and send us all to the guillotine."
"How you hate me, Constance!" he protested with passionate reproach.
"Perhaps I do," she rejoined softly. "I do not know. But believe me that the guillotine would have no terror for me. I have betrayed a great trust, for you are the enemy of my kindred and my King, and I ought not to have failed when the choice lay betwixt your life and theirs."
She tottered, and he thought she would fall.
"You are hurt!" he cried hoarsely.
"Even if I were dying," she parried feebly, "I would not have you help me now. If we did not part at this hour, perhaps--who knows ?--I might become even a blacker traitor than I am. You and I, Fernand, can have nothing in common. Our ways must for ever lie as far apart as are our ideals. The man who at my bidding would have been your murderer will carry me home and minister to my needs. He and I have everything in common--faith, friendship, community of ideals and disappointments of hopes and of sorrows. He is rough, uncultured, a potential assassin; but he and I strive for the same Cause and weep over the same failures. In thought he is my friend--you can never be aught but an enemy."
And suddenly, without giving him another look, she plunged into the thicket. For a few seconds only it seemed to the Man in Grey that he could see her slender form moving among the undergrowth and that he heard the crackling of dead twigs beneath her feet. She had gone for comfort and protection to the assassin who was still in hiding. She went to him because, as she had said, with those savage Chouans she, the irreconcilable Royalist, had everything in common.
Whereas with him, the stranger, the plebeian police agent, the obscure adherent of the newly-found Empire, she could have nothing to do. Nay, she had actually persuaded an assassin to shoot him-vilely in the back, when, at the fateful minute of crisis, thought of womanly compassion had prompted her save him from his doom. And, on his part, what was there for him to do but mourn the only illusion of his life? It served him right for being a visionary and a fool!
And with a bitter sigh of enduring regret, the police agent turned on his heel and went back the way he came.