The League of Knaves

I

One of the letters written to the Man in Grey by Fouchee, Duc d'Otrante, is preserved in the Archives of the Ministry of Police. It is dated February 17th, 1810, and contains the following passage:


   "Do not let those official asses meddle with the affair, my good Fernand, for they are sure to mismanage it completely. That man de Livardot is an astute brigand and a regular daredevil. To apprehend or to deport him would not be of the slightest use to us; he has escaped out of three different prisons already, and has come back once--none the worse--from Cayenne. To murder him from behind a thicket would be more useful, but for the fact that he has many secrets of that damnable Chouan organisation in his keeping, which would be of incalculable value to us, if we could get hold of them. At any rate, see what you can do, my dear Fernand. I rely on your skill and discretion. De Livardot has left England for Jersey; he is at St. Helier now. I'd stake my life that he is on his way to France. The Emperor will be at Caen within the next month. Remember Cadoudal and his infernal machine, and for the love of Heaven keep an eye on de Livardot!"


   For obvious reasons the Man in Grey did not communicate the actual contents of the letter to the prefet of Caen, M. Laurens, a typical official of not too assured loyalty, or to M. Carteret, chief commissary of the district. But both these worthies had had news, through police spies, of the arrival of de Livardot in Jersey, and were alive to the fact that the wily Chouan leader was probably meditating a secret landing on the shores of France.


   Everyone was on tenter-hooks, with nerves on edge at the prospect of the visit of the Emperor, who in less than a month would be spending half a day and a whole night at the house of Marshal Cormier, lately created Duc de Gisors in recognition of magnificent services rendered during the last Austrian campaign.


   The Man in Grey, as was his wont, listened unmoved and in silence to the many expressions of loyal fears, anxieties and unswerving resolutions which flowed so freely from the lips of the various official personages who visited M. le Prefet that morning. But when the last caller had departed, and only he and the commissary were left to take their leave, he said quietly but significantly:


   "I shall leave you a free hand for a few days, Monsieur le Prefet. You have the list of persons on whom I have enjoined you and Monsieur le Commissaire to keep a watchful eye. I pray you do not slacken your vigilance during my absence."


   "You are going away, Monsieur Fernand?" queried the prefet, who tried to show some concern, even though in his heart he could not but rejoice at the prospect of being so soon rid of this interfering and dictatorial nincompoop from Paris.


   "I am going to meet de Livardot when he lands," replied the Man in Grey simply.


   "But you don't know where to find him!" exclaimed the commissary with a complacent laugh.


   "I daresay I shall contrive to find that out," rejoined the secret agent with a smile. "In any case," he added with deliberate solemnity, "remember while I am gone to double the number of your spies and not to slacken your vigilance either day or night. The most precious life in the whole world will be in your keeping for close on twenty-four hours, and France will hold you answerable for its safety."


   There was something curiously impressive about the small, colourless, grey-clad figure while this solemn warning crossed his usually silent lips. Both the prefet and the commissary, despite their covert antagonism to this obscure personage who had so authoritatively been placed above their heads, were conscious of a sense of respect and awe.


   "But you will be back here in time for the Emperor's visit, Monsieur Fernand?" rejoined the commissary, trying to speak lightly.


   "Such is my intention," replied the secret agent. "But we are all going to be at grips with a man who is both resourceful and utterly unscrupulous and one never knows. If I do not return, you must take it that de Livardot has proved the stronger of us two."


   "But you are not going alone?" interjected the prefet, throwing a quick glance at the slender form and delicate hands of this mysterious creature who, of a truth, appeared more of a dreamer than a man of action.


   The Man in Grey laughed.


   "The last time," he said carelessly, "that de Livardot landed in France, our friend Carteret here had a whole squadron of police ready to arrest him--we all know with what results. Murder, pillage, robbery, endless intrigues went on for three whole months, after which our crafty brigand disappeared as cunningly as he had come. Well, we are not going to repeat that blunder, are we, Monsieur le Prefet?" He added more seriously, "This time I go to meet de Livardot--and I go alone."
   The next moment he was gone, leaving the two worthies puzzled, wrathful and contemptuous.


   "'And de Livardot will do for you," growled the commissary after him with an oath. "And serve you right, too, you interfering, impudent shrimp, you!"



II



   In the narrow, sparsely furnished room, dimly lighted by tallow candles fixed in pewter sconces, the men sat waiting.


   It was a cold but brilliant night; a small fire smouldered in the little iron stove in one corner of the room. The window beyond was open, as was the communicating door, and from time to time violent gusts of wind would blow the flame of the candles about and cause the grease to trickle and splutter upon the unpolished table-top. Every now and again one of the men would get up, go through to the other room and, leaning out of the window, peer up and down the dark and narrow street. Then he would rejoin his comrades, who sat listlessly round the table, sipping wine out of pewter mugs.


   "I think we had best make up our minds," said one of them after a while.


   "I've feared it all along," said another.


   "The moment White-Beak returned with the news that that accursed grey-coated ferret was lurking in the neighbourhood of the Goat's Creek," continued he who had first spoken; "I for one--" He shrugged his shoulders, leaving the sentence unfinished. But the others understood. There was no need to put into words the fear that was uppermost in their minds.


   One of the men took up the metal snuffers and with studied care cut the wick of the smoking candle.

   "I would have done so if I could," retorted he who was called White-Beak because his lips appeared absolutely bloodless; "but he never came within range of my gun. And when I tried to creep closer he disappeared."


   "That cursed spy bears a charmed life," growled the other.


   "Methought de Livardot should have broken the spell," here interposed a third.


   "De Livardot may have been detained in Jersey," suggested another. "And the weather in the Channel has been very dirty of late."


   "Bah! From what I hear, Livardot is not like to be detained by bad weather. By all accounts he is a regular daredevil," assented White-Beak with a laugh.
   "Blue-Heart here says that, even as a lad, he had the pluck of Satan."


   "Tell us some more about him, Blue-Heart," added White-Beak. "The chiefs say we've got to do as he tells us, and we've all got a mighty lot at stake now We ought to know something of the man who is going to lord it over us. What is he like?"


   "Well," replied Blue-Heart after a moment's thought, "I used to see him when he was a lad and Monsieur le Chevalier his father lived in the house yonder, which now belongs to Marshal Cormier. It's because de Livardot comes from these parts, and knows the house so well, that the chiefs are sending him over from England to help us in our work."


   "But if he hasn't seen the place since he was lad--"


   "Even so! There are plans of the house and--"


   "Hush!" broke in White-Beak peremptorily.


   A sudden silence fell upon them. From away down the narrow street had come the weird and mysterious hooting of a screech-owl calling through the night.
   Blue-Heart jumped to his feet and in a trice was over the threshold in the other room. He strode across to the window and, leaning out, peered up and down the street.


   Before him, about a kilometre outside the city, pointed roofs and tall chimneys of Les Acacias peeped above the low houses opposite. It was the residence of Marshal Cormier, Duc de Gisors, and here the Emperor and his suite would sleep on the following night. The wintry moon picked out the metal ornaments of the roofs and the crests of the tall, encircling trees with shimmering lines of silver.


   Blue-Heart uttered a comprehensive curse.


   "Without de Livardot," he muttered between his teeth, "we shall fail!"


   He was about to close the window, thinking that once again his comrades' ears and his own had been deceived, when a solitary pedestrian at the far end of the street arrested his attention--a man walking very slowly, as if he were infinitely weary. He wore an old-fashioned three-cornered hat, and a voluminous mantle was wrapped closely round his shoulders. Blue-Heart waited, breathless, while the pedestrian came leisurely down the street. Presently he paused and, with nose in the air, studied the outside aspect of the houses. Then he put the fingers of both hands to his lips and once more the melancholy call of the screech-owl rang out through the night.


   Blue-Heart was holding his breath. His companions behind him had jumped to their feet and stood in a compact knot in and around the communicating doorway. Blue-Heart with his hand motioned them to be still; then he leaned still farther out of the window and, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, said, as he looked straight down on the passer-by:


   "The fearful wild-fowl is abroad."


   And the other, raising his head, gave reply:


   "And the wild duck comes with a feather in her mouth."


   "De Livardot!" exclaimed the men excitedly.


   Helter-skelter some of them ran down the stairs to greet the leader whom their chiefs were sending to command them, whilst the others placed a fresh jar of wine, some meat and a hunk of bread upon the table. A moment or two later the stranger entered.



III


   To those who had so eagerly expected him, de Livardot appeared as a short, spare man, prematurely grey, with face drawn, eyes sunk and cheeks wan with obvious fatigue verging on exhaustion. He sank into a chair beside the iron stove and eagerly drank the wine offered him.


   "I have been three weeks on the road," he murmured hoarsely; "and haven't tasted food for two days."


   He dragged his chair to the table and they allowed him to eat and drink in peace, after which he felt better and answered the inquiring glances of the men with an encouraging nod.


   "That cursed police-spy nearly did for me," he said.


   "We thought something of the sort had happened," muttered Blue-Heart with a savage oath.


   "The Captain of the Foam put me off at the Goat's Creek," continued de Livardot in a steadier voice. "Then he left me there to make my way inland, as I intended to do. I knew my way well enough, and my intention was to walk by night and to lie hidden by day where and how I could. I had no misgivings, but nevertheless my eyes and ears were on the watch for spies. I had climbed to the top of the Dog's Tooth; the coast seemed deserted--not a soul was in sight and the night had set in dark and stormy. I was standing on the edge of the cliff and at my feet the breakers were dashing themselves against the rocks two hundred feet below. All at once something sprang on me from behind a boulder. The attack was so violent and so sudden that, even as I veered round and closed with my assailant, I felt I was doomed. He was small and spare like myself, but he had unusual strength. We fought desperately--both of us--for our lives. Fortunately," continued de Livardot lightly, "I have spent my best years in England, where the art of self-defence is at its best. With a dexterous movement which I had learnt from a champion wrestler, I slipped out of his grip; the next moment he lost his footing. For a second or two his hands clawed the air, and then with a piercing shriek he fell, two hundred feet on to the rocks below.


   "Et voila'!" concluded the Chouan leader as he threw a look of triumph on his breathless hearers. "But that accursed spy, whom Satan now hath in his keeping, managed to dislocate my knee ere he went to join his colleagues in hell, with the result that I have been very slow in Coming. Oft times in the last three weeks, as I dragged my weary limbs along those interminable roads, I feared I would be just too late to be in at the death of the Corsican."


   "Thank God, you are here now!" ejaculated one of the men fervently.


   "All our work is ready," added Blue-Heart. "But if you hadn't come we shouldn't have known what to do afterwards."


   De Livardot rose and, holding his mug of wine aloft, said firmly:


   "Afterwards we'll proclaim his gracious Majesty Louis XVIII, King of France. We'll assemble here and march in triumph to the Hotel de Ville at the break of dawn, with banners flying, singing a Te Deum. Then by the time the city is astir the Fleur-de-Lys will be waving above every public building, and the worthy bourgeois of Caen will realise that France has awakened from her nightmare and that her lawful King sits upon his throne again."


   He sat down amidst loud applause from the group of ill-kempt, unwashed, surly-looking brigands around him. Mugs were re-filled and deep draughts of wine drunk to do honour to the toast.


   "And now to work, my friends!" continued de Livardot briskly.


   "To work!" exclaimed White-Beak. "I thought you were dog-tired."


   "So I was," he replied gaily, "till we drank that toast."


   He took out a bundle of papers from the pocket of his coat and glanced rapidly through them.


   "I shan't want all these in future," he said. "And the less of this sort of thing one has about one, safer for the rest of us."


   He turned to the iron stove which was close to hand and, selecting some of the papers, dropped them into the fire one by one, keeping up a running comment on their contents the while.


   "Here goes the list of your names, you fellows," he said. "Blue-Heart, whom I haven't seen since was five; White-Beak, I knew you at once; Great-Fang, Green-Eye--I recognised you all. The chiefs spoke to me about you. And here goes our pass-phrase. I had such trouble to commit it to memory. But now I feel that I shall never forget it again! Would you fellows have admitted me if I had made a mistake?" he added with a light-hearted laugh.


   "No," replied Blue-Heart curtly. Then he said more quietly, as if to atone for the bluntness of his negative: "Think of all that we have at stake--"


   "I know, of course," rejoined de Livardot earnestly. "I only wished to test the measure of your caution. And now," he continued, "here is the plan of Les Acacias, just as it was in my father's time."


   He drew his chair in closer to the table and spread the map out before him. He bent over it, shielding his face with his hand. The flickering light of the candles threw into bold relief the grim and sinister faces of the Chouans as they pressed eagerly round their new leader.


   "Now tell me what you've all done!" said de Livardot.


   "We followed closely the instructions you sent us from Jersey," Blue-Heart explained, as his grimy forefinger wandered along the surface of the map. "Great-Fang obtained work in the garden of Les Acacias and soon located the disused shaft you spoke of, quite close to the house. It had, just as you said, been used at one time for lowering wine barrels into the cellar. It was no trouble to Great-Fang, in the course of his work, when no one was about, to loosen the stone which closed the mouth of the shaft, and after that matters were quite easy." "I used to leave the postern gate on the latch," interpolated Great-Fang; "and the others took it in turns, two by two, to steal into the grounds by night. We very soon found the trap-door at the bottom of the shaft which gave directly on the cellars underneath the house, and when we had removed that our work was practically done."


   "Now we've got two kilogrammes of gunpowder stored down there," added the man who as called Green-Eye.


   "We carried it over, keg by keg, of nights," interposed Blue-Heart.


   "Our time-fuse is set," quoth White-Beak.


   "Even if you hadn't come, we should have fired it," concluded another. "We were not going to have our work for nothing."


   They all spoke at once, eager to have their say, anxious that the leader lately come from England should know the share everyone had in the dastardly work which was to rid France of her Emperor.


   "Thank Heaven I am in time, then," concluded de Livardot fervently. "When does the Corsican arrive?"


   "To-morrow afternoon," replied Blue-Heart.


   "And he sleeps at Les Acacias?"


   "For the one night."


   "There is to be a big fete in the evening. Marshal Cormier has issued hundreds of invitations," added White-Beak.


   "Nothing could be better!" exclaimed de Livardot. "And of course we wait till the guests have departed, and everyone in Les Acacias, including the Upstart, has gone to bed. Yours, Blue-Heart," he continued, "will be the honour of firing the time-fuse, which will send Napoleon Bonaparte to a tea-party among the stars. In the meanwhile all of you men must spend the best part of to-morrow in seeking out the friends you know of, who are at one with us in this great undertaking, and convene them in my name to a meeting in this house directly after the event. In fact, the explosion itself shall be the signal by which we'll all rally together for that glorious proclamation of our lawful King and our triumphal march to the Hotel de Ville. Is that understood?"


   "Perfectly!" they cried with one accord.


   The next half-hour was devoted to the discussion and copying out of the names of various personages whom the Chouans suggested as having been chiefly concerned in the present affair--men and women in and around the city who were ardent Royalists and would not shrink from a direct attack on the man whom they deemed a usurper; men and women for the most part who had countenanced if not directly participated in many of those hideous crimes which had already sullied the Cause they professed to uphold, and who would see in the base murder of the Emperor whom they hated, nothing but an act of lofty patriotism.


   Wary and cunning, they had hitherto escaped apprehension; though many of them were suspected, few had ever been confronted with proofs of actual conspiracy. They were wise enough to employ men like Blue-Heart or White-Beak to do their dirtiest work for them, men who had neither scruples nor conscience, and who hid their deeds of darkness behind weird masks of anonymity.


   It was long past midnight ere the party round that table was broken up. De Livardot was the first to go; he had given his orders and he knew he would be obeyed.


   "You will see nothing of me all day," he said when he finally took leave of his comrades. "I am too well known in these parts to dare show my face in the open. At dusk we shall meet here for a final word. Until then let our password be as before: 'The fearful wild fowl is abroad,' and the counterpass: 'And the wild duck comes with a feather in her mouth.' I have not forgotten it this time!" he concluded with a hearty laugh, which found its echo in the grim chuckle of his men.



IV



   The visit of the Emperor had sent Caen wild with enthusiasm. All day the streets leading towards Les Acacias were thronged with people eager to keep in sight the roofs and chimneys of the house which sheltered the Emperor. The town itself was magnificently beflagged, and all day the cheering was both constant and deafening. In the evening there was a popular fete with display of fireworks in the grounds of the Old Chateau on the north side of the town, whilst the rout given at Les Acacias by the Duc de Gisors to the notabilities of the neighbourhood, at which His Majesty himself was graciously pleased to be present, was the most brilliant affair the province had ever known. People had journeyed from far and wide to attend the rout; many who came from a distance had taken lodgings in the town for the occasion. Never had Caen been so full of strangers of quality.


   On the great night the stream of equipages which set down the guests at Les Acacias extended for close on a kilometre from the park gates to the confines of the city, and those who were not watching the fireworks at the Old Chateau stood about on the road, in spite of the cold, to see the gorgeous liveries, the painted coaches and caparisoned horses which were a regular feast for the eyes. For hours the streets were thronged. Only the narrow little Rue aux Juifs on the outskirts of the city appeared dark, solitary and unfestive. It consisted for the most part of tumbledown, half-derelict houses, the owners of which had been out of France for many years. And tonight, when the rest of Caen was out to make merry, only one of the low, grim-faced houses showed any sign of life. Here a feeble light shone dim through the cracks of an ill-fitting shutter on one of the floors above, and anyone who had taken the trouble to be on the watch would have seen dark forms, wrapped to the chin, gliding furtively in and out of the door.


   But the military, the police and the municipal servants were alike engaged in keeping watch over Les Acacias, the stately residence which sheltered the most precious life in Europe.


   The rout was kept up till the small hours of the morning. It was two o'clock before the last equipage drove through the monumental gates of Les Acacias, and these were finally closed upon the departing guests. But for an hour after that the roads around the house were still thronged with people too excited to go to bed. They swarmed around the encircling wall, above which they could only see the glimmer of lights behind the shuttered windows, and tried to peer through the wrought-iron gates, happy to see how completely their Emperor trusted them, and that he disdained the usual paraphernalia of military guards and sentinels--the relics of bygone times. The house was lighted up; no doubt a number of lackeys would be astir keeping watch over the illustrious guest, but there was no glimmer of fixed bayonets within the gates, no tramp of martial feet up and down the circular drive.


   Only at three o'clock did the citizens of Caen finally decide to go to bed. By half-past three the approaches to Les Acacias, as well as the streets, were at last deserted; the houses in the city had closed down their lights; only in the distance the house in which the Emperor slept was illuminated from within; but it, too, now appeared absolutely still.


   Then suddenly the slumbering city was awakened by an awful sound--a terrific crash which broke the window panes of hundreds of houses, and which reverberated for many kilometres around. Fragments of wood and stone and tiles appeared to rain down from the skies like death-dealing projectiles, crashing through the roofs of some houses on the confines of the city and causing much damage, fortunately without any loss of life.


   There was hardly a citizen inside the town who did not immediately jump out of bed, with beating heart and blanched cheeks and lips that quivered with horror, as he murmured the ominous words:


   "Les Acacias! The Emperor! My God!"


   Within a few minutes the garrison was astir. The whole sky was now suffused with a weird and lurid glow. In the direction of St. Martin, where stood Les Acacias, vivid tongues of flame were seen to leap intermittently into the night. The streets leading thither soon became crowded with people, clad in promiscuous garments, all running in the one direction, and headed by a company of infantry and a squadron of cavalry, rushing along with buckets, pumps and ladders, in the wake of the hastily summoned official fire-brigade. The confusion threatened to grow serious.


   The city police were quite unable to cope with it, and the military alone were in a measure able to enforce some semblance of order.


   Only the Rue aux Juifs, with its crazy houses, remained as before, silent and comparatively deserted. The distant conflagration lit up with a weird glow the ramshackle facades which lined the narrow thoroughfare. Neither the police, nor the military, nor yet the few sight-seers who drifted down the street in search of a short cut to the scene of excitement, had a mind to notice the sombrely clad passers-by who halted outside the door of one of these grim-faced abodes, about half-way down the street.


   Two men, dressed in rough blouses, and with wide-brimmed hats pulled over their eyes, appeared to be on guard at the door, and as each person passed from the street into the house, one of these men uttered a whispered challenge: "The fearful wild fowl is abroad." And instantly was heard the equally whispered reply: "And the wild duck comes with a feather in her mouth."


   After which the gloom beyond appeared to swallow up the newcomer. But a number of these, as they went by, added a quick and eager query:


   "Has he come?"


   And one of the men invariably replied:


   "Yes! Last night. Just escaped being murdered by one of those accursed spies."


   Outside were noise, bustle, wild excitement, made up partly of horror, partly and mainly of eager curiosity. Folk rushed aimlessly hither and thither; the military charged the populace with loud commands to make way; the police shouted and used their swords to cut a passage through the crowd for the firemen; everybody shouted or screamed; some women fainted; on everyone's lips was the one agonised query: "The Emperor! Is he dead?"


   But inside the derelict house in the Rue aux Juifs a dignified hush reigned. The narrow double room on the floor above was filled with a throng as passionately excited as was the one which shouted itself hoarse in the streets; but the men and women assembled here only spoke in whispers, even though the query which was on everyone's lips was not a whit less eager: "De Livardot! Is he here?"


   "He and Blue-Heart fired the fuse," said White-Beak in reply. "No doubt they are held up by the crowd. They will be here soon."


   A score or so of men and women wandered about aimlessly from room to room, or sat on the gimcrack chairs and the steps of the rickety stairs. They talked in whispers, communicating their excitement to one another. Only now and then a young voice would be raised in sudden, half-hysterical laughter.


   The shutters were hermetically closed so that no sound should filter through. The usurper was dead, but his sycophants were still abroad and his paid minions still in power, and the populace was still intoxicated with the glamour which Austerlitz and Wagram, Jena and Rivoli had cast over the hated Corsican's name. Therefore the conspirators, though certain of victory, still went about with bated breath, whilst an air of mystery still clung to the shabby, tumbledown house in the Rue aux Juifs.


   White-Beak and his mates, who had prepared the foul crime which had just achieved its grim culmination, stood apart from the rest of the company, in the narrow hall below--at respectful distance from the noble ladies and gentlemen who had paid them to do their cowardly task.


   But, noble and peasant alike, all these Chouans tonight--a veritable league of knaves--were here assembled in order to proclaim their triumphant exultation at the cold-blooded murder of the Emperor, and to hail the return of their rightful King.


   Despite the cold outside, the rooms and staircase felt overpoweringly hot. The tallow candles flickered and guttered in their sconces; weariness warring with excitement was depicted on every face.


   Then suddenly a woman's voice rang out buoyantly:


   "Why should we wait for de Livardot ere we drink the health of His Majesty the King?"


   "Why, indeed?" came in lusty response from every side.


   The effect of the suggestion was electrical. In a moment mugs and flagons were produced. The gentlemen poured out the wine, whilst everyone crowded round the table in the centre of the room. It seemed as if a load of anxiety had been lifted from every shoulder; the younger people began to laugh aloud; weariness fled as if by magic. The shutters were flung wide open. Of a truth, what cause was there now for fear or mystery. Perish the last misgivings, that unshakable sense of impending doom! Let there be noise and revelry and gaiety! The usurper is dead! Long live the King! And let every passer-by, an he would, pause to hear the rousing, loyal toast:


   "The usurper is dead. Long live His Majesty Louis XVIII, by the grace of God, King of France!"


   And the echo of the enthusiastic cry reverberated from attic to cellar of the old house. White-Beak and his mates in the hall below joined in the acclamation with a rollicking shout. The veil and gloom of doubt had lifted; spirits ran high, laughter rang from end to end of the narrow, fusty rooms.


   It was when these transports of delight were at their highest that the street door was suddenly thrown open, and Blue-Heart, panting, half-exhausted, with shaking knees and trembling hands, staggered into the narrow hall and fell headlong in the arms of his comrades.


   "We are betrayed!" he gasped. "They are on us! Sauve qui petit!"


   "We are betrayed!" The awful, ever-recurring cry of the conspirator, of the man who concocts deeds of evil under cover of darkness, and who mistrusts every hand he grasps! All these men, accustomed as they were to this ever-present danger--a danger which hung over them, even when they felt most secure--paused neither to question nor to reflect; they scarcely paused to warn the noble ladies and gentlemen above, who were still engaged in toasting the triumph of their Cause.


   "We are betrayed! Sauve qui peut!" they shouted and, not waiting to hear whether the warning were heeded, scrambled for the door.


   "Too late!" gasped Blue-Heart, as with trembling hands he strove to detain his struggling mates. "They were on my heels!"


   "They? Who?" queried the others hoarsely.


   "The police!"


   "Bah! The police!" exclaimed White-Beak in a feeble attempt at swagger. "The Corsican is dead. We have no cause to fear his police!"


   But already a nameless terror, like a pale, mysterious ghost, had floated upwards through the house. It had reached a small group of young men and women gaily chattering at the head of the stairs.


   "We are betrayed!"


   "Did you hear that?" queried someone, and suddenly excitement died away as if stricken down by a poisonous breath, and within a second or two the whisper was on every lip: "We are betrayed!"


   "Who said it?"


   "The men below!"


   There was a swift rush for the stairs, while one man hastily re-closed the shutters. Another was leaning over the banisters, trying to learn the truth.


   "White-Beak!" he called. "Is that you? What does it mean?"


   "That the police are on us!" was the gruff reply.


   "The police!" shouted those above. "Why, the Corsican is dead and--"


   "Hark!" came peremptorily from the men.


   And all the conspirators held their breath, listening.


   The sound was unmistakable; a number of men were outside the door. Quick words of command could be heard; the clanging of steel and the snorting and pawing of horses. "But the usurper is dead!" glided as a reassuring cry from a woman's lips.


   "He is not dead!" retorted Blue-Heart firmly.


   "Not dead? But the explosion--the fire--"


   As if to confirm these words, a gigantic sheet of flame in the direction of Les Acacias suddenly lit up the whole sky again, with such brilliancy that, despite the closed shutters, a lurid glow penetrated into the house, throwing for a moment into bold relief the pale, haggard faces, and illumining them with a light which was the colour of blood.


   At the same moment, in the distance was heard the sound of prolonged cheering. Louder and louder it grew as it seemed to spread to every corner of the town, till it became absolutely deafening. A wild medley of sounds filled the air with clamorous din; people rushed excitedly to and fro, shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" and singing the "Marseillaise." Horses galloped by at breakneck speed; the roll of coach-wheels went thundering along the cobblestones; from the chateau close by came the echo of bugle calls.


   And in the derelict house of the Rue aux Juifs there reigned silence as if of the dead, though well nigh two score men and women were there, huddled together in one common and agonising fear. What had happened no one could as yet even conjecture; all they knew was that Napoleon had escaped by a miracle and that the police were at the door.


   "And de Livardot? Where is he?" was one of the many questions on trembling lips.


   But to this query even Blue-Heart could give no conclusive reply. He had been with de Livardot until after they had fired the time-fuse together, then de Livardot ordered him to go back to the Rue aux Juifs and there to wait for him till he arrived, and in the meanwhile to tell all the friends to drink and make merry. He--Blue-Heart--had walked rapidly for a time, then curiosity had mastered him and he waited until the terrifying explosion rent the air and gave him assurance that his task was indeed accomplished. Then he turned back towards the city.


   When he reached the Rue aux Juifs he saw that it swarmed with police-spies. He heard words and whispered commands which left no doubt in his mind that somehow or other the conspiracy had been betrayed, and that a descent on the Chouan meeting-place was in contemplation. At first he made light of the affair. Was not the Corsican dead? And he--Blue-Heart--and his friends, were they not triumphant? What cause had they to fear the minions of an Empire that was now defunct? Nevertheless, he hung about the street under the shadows of doorways, on the qui vive. Then suddenly the rumour spread throughout the town that the Emperor was safe. He had left Marshal Cormier's house along with his host and the latter's family and entire staff of servants and retainers, directly after the last guest had departed.


   Not a soul was left at Les Acacias when the explosion occurred. Blue-Heart, realising that the plot must have been discovered and that the deadliest danger now threatened all his friends, contrived to reach the door of the meeting-place undetected, and to sound the note of warning which, alas! had already come too late.


   The house was surrounded. The police were swarming everywhere. The Chouans--save for a few of the gentlemen who wore their swords and one or two who carried pistols--were practically unarmed. They put up a certain measure of resistance, however; some of the men fired pistol shots through the windows, and there was a melee on the stairs, in the course of which several of the police were wounded; but these were armed with swords and muskets, and from the first the Chouans knew that they were doomed. After a struggle which lasted less than a quarter of an hour, they were forced to surrender; they were doing neither themselves, nor their Cause, nor the women who were with them, any good by senseless resistance.


   When the last of them was disarmed and men and women alike were marched as prisoners down the stairs, a whisper went round among them which was not destined for the ears of their captors:


   "Thank God," they said, "that at any rate de Livardot has escaped!"


   Blue-Heart and his comrades, who were in the fore-front, walking under strong escort--as they had offered by far the most determined and most savage hostility--caught the whisper and, pointing down in the hall where a man in a grey mantle and wearing a three-cornered hat stood in the midst of a group of police officers, one of them said with a grim oath "Escaped? Not he! There he is, like the rest of us, already half-way to Bicetre."


   "Livardot? Where?" came in an eager query from his fellow prisoners.


   "Why, there!" said Blue-Heart, once more pointing to the man below.


   "That's not Livardot!" retorted one of the prisoners emphatically, whilst the police laughed grimly, as at an excellent joke.


   "Of course it's not de Livardot," added one of the women. "You are dreaming, Blue-Heart. That's that beastly spy, whom we all know to our cost as the Man in Grey."


   "But," stammered Blue-Heart who, bewildered and utterly uncomprehending, was staring down before him like a man suddenly brought up against a measureless abyss; "the police-spy was killed by de Livardot on the Dog's Tooth rocks--"


   At this moment the Man in Grey looked up and caught Blue-Heart's glowering eyes and those of his mates fixed almost crazedly upon him.


   "Nay! friend Blue-Heart," he said - quietly-in the weird silence which had fallen upon the throng-"the police-spy, as you call him, arrived safely in the Rue aux Juifs, just in time to learn the details of the plot which you and these gentlemen and ladies were so confidently hatching. Your friend de Livardot, whom I certainly met face to face on the Dog's Tooth rocks, is quietly awaiting his friends in Bicetre."


   Then, while a string of muttered imprecations fell from the lips of the miscreants whom he had so cunningly outwitted, he gave the final word of command.
   "Forward! March! The carriages for the ladies are in the front; those for the men in the rear. Guard your prisoners well, my men!" he added. "They are as crafty as a tribe of foxes. Forward now, and may God always protect the Emperor!"



V



   Napoleon thanked the Man in Grey personally for the superb way in which he had not only saved his Emperor's life, but had also succeeded in gathering so many Chouans into his net.


   "How was it done, my good Monsieur Fernand?," His Majesty asked graciously.


   "Quite easily, sire," replied the Man in Grey. "Your Majesty's spies in Jersey gave us warning some time ago that de Livardot was making preparations to embark for France. My business then was to find out where he would land. This I did by watching the best-known Chouans in the district. One of them led me to the Goat's Creek, which I then kept in observation. A week later de Livardot did land there. I had him waylaid and arrested, and took possession of his papers. One of these gave me a pass phrase and the address in the Rue aux Juifs, another was a map of the house and grounds of Les Acacias.


   "It was not difficult to imagine a connection between that map and your Majesty's visit; nor would it, I hoped, be difficult to assume the personality of a man whom, presumably, they had not seen for years (I mean de Livardot), and to learn the whole of the plot against your Majesty's life. At any rate I chose to take the risk. From one or two of the papers I had gathered that he was being recommended by certain Chouan chiefs to a number of their followers who did not know him by sight. I went to the address in the Rue aux Juifs and there obtained full details of the infamous plot. My hope, of course, was not only to frustrate that plot, but also to bring the conspirators to justice. This I was able to do through your Majesty's gracious co-operation in leaving Les Acacias secretly at my suggestion, together with your host and retinue; and also through Monsieur le Duc de Gisors lofty patriotism in allowing his magnificent mansion to be sacrificed. The explosion I knew was to be the signal for the rallying of the infames who schemed in secret, while they left their humbler followers to do the poisonous work for them. Now the trap has closed on them all and your Majesty's clemency alone can save them from the gallows."

©Blakeney Manor, 2002