It was no, Heaven help us all! a very uncommon occurrence these days: a woman almost unsexed by misery, starvation, and the abnormal excitement engendered by daily spectacles of revenge and of cruelty. They were to be met with every day, round every street corner, these harridans, more terrible far than were the men.
This one was still comparatively young, thirty at most; would have been good-looking too, for the features were really delicate, the nose chiseled, the brow straight, the chin round and small. But the mouth! Heavens, what a mouth! Hard and cruel and thin-lipped; and those eyes! sunken and rimmed with purple; eyes that told tales of sorrow and, yes! of degradation. The crowd stood round her, sullen and apathetic; poor, miserable wretches like herself, staring at her antics with lack-lustre eyes and an ever-recurrent contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.
The woman was dancing, contorting her body in the small circle of light formed by a flickering lanthron which was hung across the street from house to house, striking the muddy pavement with her shoeless feet, all to the sound of a beribboned tambourine which she struck now and again with her small, grimy hand. From time to time she paused, held out the tambourine at arm's length, and went the round of the spectators, asking for alms. But at her approach the crowd at once seemed to disintegrate, to melt into the humid evening air; it was but rarely that a greasy token fell into the outstretched tambourine. Then as the woman started again to dance the crowd gradually reassembled, and stood, hands in pockets, lips still sullen and contemptuous, but eyes watchful of the spectacle. There were such few spectacles these days, other than the monotonous processions of tumbrils with their load of aristocrats for the guillotine!
So the crowd watched, and the woman danced. The lanthron overhead threw a weird light on red caps and tricolour cockades, on the sullen faces of the men and the shoulders of the women, on the dancer's weird antics and her flying, tattered skirts. She was obviously tired, as a poor, performing cur might be, or a bear prodded along to uncongenial buffoonery. Every time that she paused and solicited alms with her tambourine the crowd dispersed, and some of them laughed because she insisted.
"Voyons" she said with a weird attempt at gaiety, "a couple of sous for the entertainment, citizen! You have stood here half an hour. You can't have it all for nothing, what?"
The man - young, square-shouldered, thick-lipped, with the look of a bully about his well-clad person - retorted with a coarse insult, which the woman resented. There were high words; the crowd for the most part ranged itself on the side of the bully. The woman backed against the wall nearest to her, held feeble, emaciated hands up to her ears in a vain endeavour to shut out the hideous jeers and ribald jokes which were the natural weapons of this untamed crowd.
Soon blows began to rain; not a few fell upon the unfortunate woman. She screams, and the more she screamed the louder did the crowd jeer, the uglier became its temper. Then suddenly it was all over. How it happened the woman could not tell. She had closed her eyes, feeling sick and dizzy; but she heard a loud call, words spoken in English (a language which she understood), a pleasant laugh, and a brief but violent scuffle. After that the hurrying retreat of many feet, the click of sabots on the uneven pavement and patter of shoeless feet, and then silence.
She had fallen on her knees and was cowering against the wall, had lost consciousness probably for a minute or two. Then she heard that pleasant laugh again and the soft drawl of the English tongue.
"I love to see those beggars scuttling off, like so many rats to their burrows, don't you, Ffoulkes?"
"They didn't put up much fight, the cowards!" came from another voice, also in English. "A dozen of them against this wretched woman. What had best be done with her?"
"I'll see to her," rejoined the first speaker. "You and Tony had best find the others. Tell them I shall be round directly."
It all seemed like a dream. The woman dared not open her eyes lest reality - hideous and brutal - once more confronted her. Then all at once she felt that her poor, weak body, encircled by strong arms, was lifted off the ground, and that she was being carried down the street, away from the light projected by the lanthorn overhead, into the sheltering darkness of a yawning porte cochère. But she was not then fully conscious.
When she reopened her eyes she was in what appeared to be the lodge of a concierge. She was lying on a horsehair sofa. There was a sense of warmth and of security around her. No wonder that it still seemed like a dream. Before her stood a man, tall and straight, surely a being from another world - or so he appeared to the poor wretch who, since uncountable time, had set eyes on none but the most miserable dregs of struggling humanity, who had seen little else but rags, and faces either cruel or wretched. This man was clad in a huge-caped coat, which made his powerful figure seem preternaturally large. His hair was fair and slightly curly above his low, square brow; the eyes beneath their heavy lids looked down on her with unmistakable kindness.
The poor woman struggled to her feet. With a quick and pathetically humble gesture she drew her ragged, muddy skirts over her ankles and her tattered kerchief across her breast.
"I had best go now, Monsieur... citizen," she murmured, while a hot flush rose to the roots of her unkempt hair. "I must not stop here... I-"
"You are not going, Madame," he broke in, speaking now in perfect French and with a great air of authority, as one who is accustomed to being implicitly obeyed, "until you have told me how, a lady of culture and of refinement, comes to be masquerading as a street-dancer. The game is a dangerous one, as you have experienced to-night."
"It is no game, Monsieur... citizen," she stammered; "nor yet a masquerade. I have been a street-dancer all my life, and-"
By way of an answer he took her hand, always with that air of authority which she never thought to resent.
"This is not a street-dancer's hand, Madame," he said quietly. "Nor is your speech that of the people."
She drew her hand away quickly, and the flush on her haggard face deepened.
"If you will honour me with your confidence, Madame," he insisted.
The kindly words, the courtesy of the man, went to the poor creature's heart. She fell back upon the sofa and with her face buried in her arms she sobbed out her heart for a minute or two. The man waiting quite patiently. He had seen many women weep these days, and had dried many a tear through deeds of valour and of self-sacrifice, which were for ever recorded in the hearts of those whom he had succoured.
When this poor woman had succeeded in recovering some semblance of self-control, she turned her wan, tear-stained face to him and said simply:
"My name is Madeleine Lannoy, Monsieur. My husband was killed during the émeutes at Versailles, whilst defending the persons of the Queen and of the royal children against the fury of the mob. When I was a girl I had the misfortune to attract the attentions of a young doctor named Jean Paul Marat. You have heard of him, Monsieur?"
The other nodded.
"You know him, perhaps," she continued, "for what he is: the most cruel and revengeful of men. A few years ago he threw up his lucrative appointment as Court physician to Monseigneur le Comte d'Artois, and gave up the profession of medicine for that of journalist and politician. Politician! Heaven help him! He belongs to the most bloodthirsty section of revolutionary brigands. His creed is pillage, murder, and revenge; and he chooses to declare that it is I who, by rejecting his love, drove him to these foul extremities. May God forgive him that abominable lie! The evil we do, Monsieur, is within us; it does not come from circumstances. I, in the meanwhile, was a happy wife. My husband, M. de Lannoy, who was an officer in the army, idolized me. We had one child, a boy-"
She paused, with another catch in her throat. Then she resumed, with calmness that, in view of the tales she told, sounded strangely weird:
"In June last year my child was stolen from me - stolen by Marat in hideous revenge for the supposed wrong I had done him. The details of that execrable outrage are of no importance. I was decoyed from home one day through the agency of a forged message purporting to come from a very dear friend whom I knew to be in grave trouble at the time. Oh! the whole thing was thoroughly well thought out, I can assure you!" she continued, with a harsh laugh which ended in a heartrending sob. "The forged message, the suborned servant, the threats of terrible reprisals if anyone in the village gave me the slightest warning or clue. When the whole miserable business was accomplished, I was just like a trapped animal inside a cage, held captive by immovable bars of obstinate silence and cruel indifference. No one would help me. No one ostensibly knew anything; no one had seen anything, heard anything. The child was gone! My servants, the people in the village - some of whom I could have sworn were true and sympathetic - only shrugged their shoulders. 'Que voulez-vous, Madame? Children of bourgeois as well as of aristos were often taken up by the State to be brought up as true patriots and no longer pampered like so many lap-dogs.'
"Three days later I received a letter from that inhuman monster, Jean Paul Marat. He told me that he had taken my child away from me not from any idea of revenge for my disdain in the past, but from a spirit of pure patriotism. My boy, he said, should not be brought up with the same ideas of bourgeois effeteness and love of luxury which had disgraced the nation for centuries. No! he should be reared amongst men who had realized the true value of fraternity and equality and the ideal of complete liberty for the individual to lead his own life, unfettered by senseless prejudices of education and refinement. Which means, Monsieur," the poor woman went on with passionate misery, "that my child is to be reared up in the company of all that is most vile and most degraded in the disease-haunted slums of indigent Paris; that, with the connivance of that execrable fiend Marat, my only son will, mayhap, come back to me one day a potential thief, a criminal probably, a drink-sodden reprobate at best. Such things are done every day in this glorious Revolution of ours - done in the sacred name of France and of Liberty. And the moral murder of my child is to be my punishment for daring to turn a deaf ear to the indign passion of a brute!"
Once more she paused, and when the melancholy echo of her broken voice had died away in the narrow room, not another murmur broke the stillness of this far-away corner of the great city.
The man did not move. He stood looking down upon the poor woman before him, a world of pity expressed in his deep-set eyes. Through the absolute silence around there came the sound as of a gentle flutter, the current of cold air, mayhap, sighing through the ill-fitting shutters, or the soft, weird soughing made by unseen things. The man's heart was full of pity, and it seemed as if the Angel of Compassion had come at his bidding and enfolded the sorrowing woman with his wings.
A moment or two later she was able to finish her pathetic narrative.
"Do you marvel, Monsieur," she said, "that I am still sane - still alive? But I only live to find my child. I try and keep my reason in order to fight the devilish cunning of a brute on his own ground. Up to now all my inquiries have been in vain. At first I squandered money, tried judicial means, set an army of sleuth-hounds on the track. I tried bribery, corruption. I went to the wretch himself and abased myself in the dust before him. He only laughed at me and told me that his love for me had died long ago; he now was lavishing his treasures upon the faithful friend and companion - that awful woman, Simonne Evrard - who had stood by him in the darkest hours of his misfortunes. Then it was that I decided to adopt different tactics. Since my child was to be reared in the midst of murderers and thieves, I, too, would haunt their abodes. I became a street-singer, dancer, what you will. I wear rags now and solicit alms. I haunt the most disreputable cabarets in the lowest slums of Paris. I listen and spy; I question every man, woman, and child who might afford some clue, give me some indication. There is hardly a house in these parts that I have not visited and whence I have not been kicked out as an importunate beggar or worse. Gradually I am narrowing the circle of my investigations. Presently I shall get a clue. I shall! I know I shall! God cannot allow this monstrous thing to go on!"
Again there was silence. The poor woman had completely broken down. Shame, humiliation, passionate grief, had made of her a mere miserable wreckage of humanity.
The man waited awhile until she was composed, then he said simply:
"You have suffered terribly, Madame; but chiefly, I think, because you have been alone in your grief. You have brooded over it until it has threatened your reason. Now, if you will allow me to act as your friend, I will pledge you my word that I will find your son for you. Will you trust me sufficiently to give up your present methods and place yourself entirely in my hands? There are more than a dozen gallant gentlemen, who are my friends, and who will help me in my search. But for this I must have a free hand, and only help from you when I require it. I can find you lodgings where you will be quite safe under the protection of my wife, who is as like an angel as any man or woman I have ever met on this earth. When your son is once more in your arms, you will, I hope, accompany us to England, where so many of your friends have already found a refuge. If this meets with your approval, Madame, you may command me, for with your permission I mean to be your most devoted servant."
Dante, in his wild imaginations of hell and of purgatory and fleeting glimpses of paradise, never put before us the picture of a soul that was lost and found in heaven, after a cycle of despair. Nor could Madeleine Lannoy ever explain her feelings at that moment, even to herself. To begin with, she could not quite grasp the reality of this ray of hope, which came to her at the darkest hour of her misery. She stared at the man before her as she would on an ethereal vision; she fell on her knees and buried her face in her hands.
What happened afterwards she hardly knew; she was in a state of semi-consciousness. When she once more woke to reality, she was in comfortable lodgings; she moved and talked and ate and lived like a human being. She was no longer a pariah, an outcast, a poor, half-demented creature, insentient save for an infinite capacity for suffering. She suffered still, but she no longer despaired. There had been such marvellous power and confidence in that man's voice when he said: "I pledge you my word." Madeleine Lannoy lived now in hope and a sweet sense of perfect mental and bodily security. Around her there was an influence, too, a presence which she did not often see, but always felt to be there: a woman, tall and graceful and sympathetic, who was always ready to cheer, to comfort, and to help. Her name was Marguerite. Madame Lannoy never knew her by any other. The man had spoken of her as being as like an angel as could be met on this earth, and poor Madeleine Lannoy fully agreed with him.
Even that bloodthirsty tiger, Jean Paul Marat, has had his apologists. His friends have called him a martyr, a selfless and incorruptible exponent of social and political ideals. We may take it that Simonne Evrard loved him, for a more impassioned obituary speech was, mayhap, never spoken than the one which she delivered before the National Assembly in honour of that sinister demagogue, whose writings and activities will for ever sully some of the really fine pages of that revolutionary era.
But with those apologists we have naught to do. History has talked its fill of the inhuman monster. With the more intimate biographists alone has this true chronicle any concern. It is one of these who tells us that on or about the eighteenth day of Messidor, in the year of I. of the Republic (a date which corresponds with the sixth of July, 1793, of our own calendar), Jean Paul Marat took an additional man into his service, at the instance of Jeannette Maréchal, his cook and maid-of-all-work. Marat was at this time a martyr to an unpleasant form of skin disease, brought on by the terrible privations which he had endured during the few years preceding his association with Simonne Evrard, the faithful friend and housekeeper, whose small fortune subsequently provided him with some degree of comfort.
The man whom Jeannette Maréchal, the cook, introduced into the household of No. 30, Rue des Cordeliers, that worthy woman had literally picked one day out of the gutter where he was grabbing for scraps of food like some wretched starving cur. He appeared to be known to the police of the section, his identity book proclaiming him to be one Paul Molé, who had served his time in gaol for larceny. He professed himself willing to do any work required of him, for the merest pittance and some kind of roof over his head. Simonne Evrard allowed Jeannette to take him in, partly out of compassion and partly with a view to easing the woman's own burden, the only other domestic in the house - a man named Bas - being more interested in politics and the meetings of the Club des Jacobins than he was in his master's ailments. The man Molé, moreover, appeared to know something of medicine and of herbs and how to prepare the warm baths which alone eased the unfortunate Marat from pain. He was powerfully built, too, and though he muttered and grumbled a great deal, and indulged in prolonged fits of sulkiness, when he would not open his mouth to anyone, he was, on the whole, helpful and good-tempered.
There must also have been something about his whole wretched personality which made a strong appeal to the "Friend of the People," for it is quite evident that within a few days Paul Molé had won no small measure of his master's confidence.
Marat, sick, fretful, and worried, had taken an unreasoning dislike to his servant Bas. He was thankful to have a stranger about him, a man who was as miserable as himself had been a very little while ago; who, like himself, had lived in cellars and in underground burrows, and lived on the scraps of food which even street-curs had disdained.
On the seventh day following Molé's entry into the household, and whole the latter was preparing his employer's bath, Marat said abruptly to him:
"You'll go as far as the Chemin de Pantin to-day for me, citizen. You know your way?"
"I can find it, what?" muttered Molé, who appeared to be in one of his surly moods.
"You will have to go very circumspectly,"
Marat went on, in his cracked and feeble voice.
"And see to it that no one spies upon your movements. I have many enemies, citizen... one especially... a woman... She is always prying and spying on me... So beware of any woman you see lurking about at your heels."
Molé gave a half-audible grunt in reply.
"You have best go after dark," the other rejoined after a while. "Come back to me after nine o'clock. It is not far to the Chemin de Pantin - just where it intersects the Route de Meaux. You can get there and back before midnight. The people will admit you. I will give you a ring - the only thing I possess... It has little or no value," he added with a harsh, grating laugh. "It will not be worth your while to steal it. You will have to see a brat and report to me on his condition - his appearance, what?... Talk to him a bit... See what he says and let me know. it is not difficult."
Molé helped the suffering wretch into his bath. Not a movement, not a quiver of the eyelid betrayed one single emotion which he may have felt - neither loathing nor sympathy, only placid indifference. He was just a half-starved menial, thankful to accomplish any task for the sake of satisfying a craving stomach. Marat stretched out his shrunken limbs in the herbal water with a sigh of well-being.
"And the ring, citizen?" Molé suggested presently. The demagogue held up his left hand - it was emaciated and disfigured by disease. A cheap-looking metal ring, set with a false stone, glistened upon the fourth finger.
"Take it off," he said curtly.
The ring must have all along been too small for the bony hand of the once famous Court physician. Even now it appeared embedded in the flabby skin and refused to slide over the knuckle.
"The water will loosen it," remarked Molé quietly.
Marat dipped his hand back into the water, and the other stood beside him, silent and stolid, his broad shoulders bent, his face naught but a mask, void and expressionless beneath its coating of grime.
One or two seconds went by. The air was heavy with steam and a medley of evil-smelling fumes, which hung in the close atmosphere of the narrow room. The sick man appeared to be drowsy, his head rolled over to one side, his eyes closed. He had evidently forgotten all about the ring.
A woman's voice, shrill and peremptory, broke the silence which had become oppressive:
"Here, citizen Molé, I want you! There's not a bit of wood chopped up for my fire, and how am I to make the coffee without firing, I should like to know?"
"The ring, citizen," Molé urged gruffly.
Marat had been roused by the woman's sharp voice. He cursed her for a noisy harridan; then he said fretfully.
"It will do presently - when you are ready to start. I said nine o'clock... it is only four now. I am tired... Tell citizeness Evrard to bring me some hot coffee in an hour's time... You can go and fetch me the Moniteur now, and take back these proofs to citizen Dufour. You will find him at the 'Cordeliers,' or else at the printing works... Come back at nine o'clock... I am tired now... too tired to tell you where to find the house which is off the Chemin de Pantin. Presently will do..."
Even while he spoke he appeared to drown into a fitful sleep. His two hands were hidden under the sheet which covered the bath. Molé watched him in silence for a moment or two, then he turned on his heel and shuffled off through the anteroom into the kitchen beyond, where presently he sat down, squatting in an angle by the stove, and started with his usual stolidness to chop wood for the citizeness' fire.
When this task was done, and he had received a chunk of sour bread for his reward from Jeannette Maréchal, the cook, he shuffled out of the place and into the street, to do his employer's errands.
Paul Molé had been to the offices of the Moniteur and to the printing works of L'Ami du Peuple. He had seen the citizen Dufour at the Club and, presumably, had spent the rest of his time wandering idly about the streets of the quartier, for he did not return to the Rue des Cordeliers until nearly nine o'clock.
As soon as he came to the top of the street, he fell in with the crowd which had collected outside No. 30. With his habitual slouchy gait and the steady pressure of his powerful elbows, he pushed his way to the door, whilst gleaning whisperings and rumours on his way.
"The citizen Marat has been assassinated."
"By a woman."
"A mere girl."
"A wrench from Caen. Her name is Corday."
"The people nearly tore her to pieces awhile ago."
"She is as much as guillotined already."
The latter remark went off with a loud guffaw and many a ribald joke.
Molé, despite his great height, succeeded in getting through unperceived. He was of no account, and he knew his way inside the house. It was full of people: journalists, gaffers, woman and men - the usual crowd that come to gape. The citizen Marat was a great personage. The Friend of the People. An Incorruptible, if ever there was one. Just look at the simplicity, almost the poverty, in which he lived! Only the aristos hated him, and the fat bourgeois who battened on the people. Citizen Marat had sent hundreds of them to the guillotine with a stroke of his pen or a denunciation from his fearless tongue.
Molé did not pause to listen to these comments. He pushed his way through the throng up the stairs to his late employer's lodgings on the first floor.
The anteroom was crowded, so were the other rooms; but the greatest pressure was around the door immediately facing him, the one which gave on the bathroom. In the kitchen on his right, where a while ago he had been chopping wood under a flood of abuse from Jeannette Maréchal, he caught sight of this woman cowering by the hearth, her filthy apron thrown over her head and crying - yes, crying for the loathsome creature, who had expiated some of his abominable crimes at the hands of a poor, misguided girl, whom an infuriated mob was even now threatening to tear to pieces in its rage.
The parlour and even Simonne's room were also filled with people: men, most of whom Molé knew by sight; friends or enemies of the ranting demagogue who lay murdered in the very bath which his casual servant had prepared for him. Everyone was discussing the details of the murder, the punishment of the youthful assassin. Simonne Evrard was being loudly blamed for having admitted the girl into citizen Marat's room. But the wench had looked so simple, so innocent, and she said she was the bearer of a message from Caen. She had called twice during the day, and in the evening the citizen himself said that he would see her. Simonne had been for sending her away. but the citizen was peremptory. And he was so helpless... in his bath... name of a name, the pitiable affair!
No one paid much attention to Molé. He listened for a while to Simonne's impassioned voice, giving her version of the affair; then he worked his way stolidly into the bathroom.
It was some time before he succeeded in reaching the side of that awful bath wherein lay the dead body of Jean Paul Marat. The small room was densely packed - not with friends, for there was not a man or woman living, except Simonne Evrard and her sisters, whom the bloodthirsty demagogue would have called "friend"; but his powerful personality had been a menace to many, and now they came in crowds to see that he was really dead, that a girl's feeble hand had actually done the deed which they themselves had only contemplated. They stood about whispering, their heads averted from the ghastly spectacle of this miserable creature, to whom even death had failed to lend his usual attribute of tranquil dignity.
The tiny room was inexpressibly hot and stuffy. Hardly a breath of outside air came in through the narrow window, which only gave on the bedroom beyond. An evil-smelling oil-lamp swung from the low ceiling and shed its feeble light on the upturned face of the murdered man.
Molé stood for a moment or two, silent and pensive, beside that hideous form. There was the bath, just as he had prepared it; the board spread over with a sheet and laid across the bath, above which only the head and shoulders emerged, livid and stained. One hand, the left, grasped the edge of the board with the last convulsive clutch of supreme agony.
On the fourth finger of that hand glistened the shoddy ring which Marat had said was not worth stealing. Yet, apparently, it roused the cupidity of the poor wretch who had served him faithfully for these last few days, and who now would once more be thrown, starving and friendless, upon the streets of Paris.
Molé threw a quick, furtive glance around him. The crowd which had come to gloat over the murdered Terrorist stood about whispering, with heads averted, engrossed in their own affairs. He slid his hand surreptitiously over that of the dead man. With dexterous manipulation he lifted the finger round which glistened the metal ring. Death appeared to have shriveled the flesh still more upon the bones, to have contracted the knuckles and shrunk the tendons. The ring slid off quite easily. Molé had it in his hand, when suddenly a rough blow struck him on the shoulder.
"Trying to rob the dead?" a stern voice shouted in his ear. "Are you a disguised aristo, or what?"
At once the whispering ceased. A wave of excitement went round the room. Some people shouted, others pressed forward to gaze on the abandoned wretch who had been caught in the act of committing a gruesome deed.
"Robbing the dead!"
The were experts in evil, most of these men here. Their hands were indelibly stained with some of the foulest crimes ever recorded in history. But there was something ghoulish in this attempt to plunder that awful thing lying there, helpless, in the water. There was also a great relief to nerve-tension in shouting Horror and Anathema with self-righteous indignation; and additional excitement in the suggested "aristo in disguise."
Molé struggled vigorously. He was powerful and his fists were heavy. But he was soon surrounded, held fast by both arms, whilst half a dozen hands tore at his tattered clothes, searched him to his very skin, for the booty which he was thought to have taken from the dead.
"Leave me alone, curse you!" he shouted, louder than his aggressors. "My name is Paul Molé, I tell you. Ask the citizeness Evrard. I waited on citizen Marat. I prepared his bath. I was the only friend who did not turn away from him in his sickness and his poverty. Leave me alone, I say! Why," he added, with a hoarse laugh, "Jean Paul in his bath was as naked as on the day he was born!"
"'Tis true," said one of those who had been most active in rummaging through Molé's grimy rags. "There's nothing to be found on him."
But suspicion once aroused was not easily allayed. Molé's protestations became more and more vigorous and emphatic. His papers were all in order, he vowed. He had them on him: his own identity papers, clear for anyone to see. Someone had dragged them out of his pocket; they were dank and covered with splashes of mud - hardly legible. They were handed over to a man who stood in the immediate circle of light projected by the lamp. He seized them and examined them carefully. This man was short and slight, was dressed in well-made cloth clothes; his hair was held in at the nape of the neck in a modish manner with a black taffeta bow. His hands were clean, slender and claw-like, and he wore a tricolour scarf of office round his waist which proclaimed him to be a member of one of the numerous Committees which tyrannized over the people.
The papers appeared to be in order and proclaimed the bearer to be Paul Molé, a native of Besancon, a carpenter by trade. The identity book had recently been signed by Jean Paul Marat, the man's latest employer, and been countersigned by the Commissary of the section.
The man in the tricolour scarf turned with some acerbity on the crowd who was still pressing round the prisoner.
"Which of you here," he queried roughly, "leveled an unjust accusation against an honest citizen?"
But, as usual in such cases, no one replied directly to the charge. It was not safe these days to come into conflict with men like Molé. The Committees were all on their side against the bourgeois as well as against the aristos. This was the reign of the proletariat, and the sans-culotte always emerged triumphant in a conflict against the well-to-do. Nor was it good to rouse the ire of citizen Chauvelin, one of the most powerful, as he was the most pitiless, members of the Committee of Public Safety. Quiet, sarcastic rather than aggressive, something of the aristo, too, in his clean linene and well-cut clothes, he had not even yielded to the defunct Marat in cruelty and relentless persecution of aristocrats.
Evidently his sympathies now were all with Molé, the out-at-elbows, miserable servant of an equally miserable master. His pale-coloured, deep-set eyes challenged the crowd, which gave way before him, slunk back into the corners, away from his coldly threatening glance. Thus he found himself suddenly face to face with Molé, somewhat isolated from the rest and close to the tin bath with its grim contents. Chauvelin had the papers in his hand.
"Take these, citizen," he said curtly to the other. "They are all in order."
He looked up at Molé as he said this, for the latter, though his shoulders were bent, was unusually tall, and Molé took the papers from him. Thus for the space of a few seconds the two men looked into one another's face - eyes to eyes - and suddenly Chauvelin felt an icy sweat coursing down his spine. the eyes into which he gazed had a strange, ironical twinkle in them, a kind of good-humoured arrogance, whilst through the firm, clear-cut lips, half hidden by a dirty and ill-kempt beard, there came the sound - oh, a mere echo - of a quaint and inane laugh.
The whole thing - it seemed like a vision - was over in a second. Chauvelin, sick and faint with the sudden rush of blood to his head, closed his eyes for one brief instant. The next the crowd had closed round him, anxious inquiries reached his re-awakened senses.
"Hébert! A moi! Are you there?"
"Present, citizen!" came in immediate response. And a tall figure in the tattered uniform affected by the revolutionary guard stepped briskly out of the crowd. Chauvelin's claw-like hand was shaking visibly.
"The man Molé," he called in a voice husky with excitement. "Seize him at once!" And, name of a dog! do not allow a living soul in or out of the house!"
Hébert turned on his heel. The next moment his harsh voice was heard above the din and the general hubbub around:
"Quite safe, citizen!" he called to his chief. "We have the rogue right enough!"
There was much shouting and much cursing, a great deal of bustle and confusion, as the men of the Sûreté closed the doors of the defunct demagogue's lodgings. Some two score men, a dozen or so women, were locked in, inside the few rooms which reeked of dirt and of disease. They jostled and pushed, screamed and protested. For two or three minutes the din was quite deafening. Simonne Evrard pushed her way up to the forefront of the crowd.
"What is this I hear?" she queried peremptorily. "Who is accusing citizen Molé? And of what, I should like to know? I am responsible for everyone inside these apartments... and if citizen Marat were still alive-"
Chauvelin appeared unaware of all the confusion and of the woman's protestations. He pushed his way through the crowd to the corner of the anteroom where Molé stood, crouching and hunched up, his grimy hands idly fingering the papers which Chauvelin had returned to him a moment ago. Otherwise he did not move.
He stood silent and sullen, and when Chauvelin, who had succeeded in mastering his emotion, gave the peremptory command: Take this man to the dépôt at once. And do not allow him one instant out of your sight!" he made no attempt at escape.
He allowed Hébert and the men to seize him, to lead him away. He followed without a word, without a struggle. His massive figure was hunched up like that of an old man; his hands, which still clung to his identity papers, trembled slightly like those of a man who is very frightened and very helpless. The men of the Sûreté handled him very roughly, but he made no protest. The woman Evrard did all the protesting, vowing that the people would not long tolerate such tyranny. She even forced her way up to Hébert. With a gesture of fury she tried to strike him in the face, and continued, with a loud voice, her insults and objurgations, until, with a movement of his bayonet, he pushed her roughly out of the way.
After that Paul Molé, surrounded by the guard, was led without ceremony out of the house. Chauvelin gazed after him as if he had been brought face to face with a ghoul.
Chauvelin hurried to the dépôt. After those few seconds wherein he had felt dazed, incredulous, almost under a spell, he had quickly regained the mastery of his nerves, and regained, too, that intense joy which anticipated triumph is wont to give.
In the out-at-elbows, half-starved servant of the murdered Terrorist, citizen Chauvelin, of the Committee of Public Safety, had recognized his arch enemy, that meddlesome and adventurous Englishman who chose to hide his identity under the pseudonym of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He knew that he could reckon on Hébert; his orders not to allow the prisoner one moment out of sight would of a certainty be strictly obeyed.
Hébert, indeed, a few moments later greeted his chief outside the doors of the dépôt with the welcome news that Paul Molé was safely under lock and key.
"You had no trouble with him?" Chauvelin queried, with ill-concealed eagerness.
"No, no, citizen, no trouble," was Hébert's quick reply. "He seems to be a well-known rogue in these parts," he continued with a complacent guffaw; "and some of his friends tried to hustle us at the corner of the Rue de Torraine; no doubt with a view to getting the prisoner away. But we were too strong for them, and Paul Molé is now sulking in his cell and still protesting that his arrest is an outrage against the liberty of the people."
Chauvelin made no further remark. He was obviously too excited to speak. Pushing past Hérbert and the men of the Sûreté who stood about the dark and narrow passages of the dépôt, he sought the Commissary of the Section in the latter's office.
It was now close upon ten o'clock. The citizen Commissary Cuisinier had finished his work for the day and was preparing to go home and to bed. He was a family man, had been a respectable bourgeois in his day, and though he was a rank opportunist and had sacrificed not only his political convictions but also his conscience to the exigencies of the time, he still nourished in his innermost heart a secret contempt for the revolutionary brigands who ruled over France at this hour.
To any other man than citizen Chauvelin the citizen Commissary would, no doubt, have given a curt refusal to a request to see a prisoner at this late hour of the evening. But Chauvelin was not a man to be denied, and whilst muttering various objections in his ill-kempt beard, Cuisinier, nevertheless, gave orders that the citizen was to be conducted at once to the cells.
Paul Molé had in truth turned sulky. The turnkey vowed that the prisoner had hardly stirred since first he had been locked up in the common cell. He sat in a corner at the end of the bend, with his face turned to the wall, and paid no heed either to his fellow-prisoners or to the facetious remarks of the warder.
Chauvelin went up to him, made some curt remark. Molé kept an obstinate shoulder turned towards him - a grimy shoulder, which showed naked through a wide rent in his blouse. This portion of the cell was well- nigh in total darkness; the feeble shaft of light which came through the open door hardly penetrated to this remote angle of the squalid burrow. The same sense of mystery and unreality overcame Chauvelin again as he looked on the miserable creature in whom, an hour ago, he had recognized the super-exquisite Sir Percy Blakeney. Now he could only see a vague outline in the gloom: the stooping shoulders, the long limbs, that naked piece of shoulder which caught a feeble reflex from the distant light. Nor did any amount of none too gentle prodding on the part of the warder induce him to change position.
"Leave him alone," said Chauvelin curtly at last. "I have seen all that I wished to see."
The cell was insufferably hot and stuffy. Chauvelin, finical and queasy, turned away with a shudder of disgust. There was nothing to be got now out of a prolonged interview with his captured foe. He had seen him: that was sufficient. He had seen the super-exquisite Sir Percy Blakeney locked up in a common cell with some of the most scrubby and abject rogues which the slums of indigent Paris could yield, having apparently failed in some undertaking which had demanded for its fulfillment not only tattered clothes and grimy hands, but menial service with a beggarly and disease-ridden employer, whose very propinquity must have been positive torture to the fastidious dandy.
Of a truth this was sufficient for the gratification of any revenge. Chauvelin felt that he could now go contentedly to rest after an evening's work excellently done.
He gave orders that Molé should be put in a separate cell, denied all intercourse with anyone outside or in the dépôt, and that he should be guarded on sight day and night. After that he went his way.
The following morning citizen Chauvelin, of the Committee of Public Safety, gave due notice to citizen Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor, that the dangerous English spy, known to the world as the Scarlet Pimpernel, was now safely under lock and key, and that he must be transferred to the Abbaye prison forthwith and to the guillotine as quickly as might be. No one was to take any risks this time; there must be no question either of discrediting his famous League or of obtaining other more valuable information out of him. Such methods have proved disastrous in the past.
There was no safe Englishman these days, except the dead ones, and it would not take citizen Fouquier-Tinville much thought or time to frame an indictment against the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel, which would do away with the necessity of a prolonged trial. The revolutionary government was at war with England now, and short work could be made of all poisonous spies.
By order, therefore, of the Committee of Public Safety, the prisoner, Paul Molé, was taken out of the cells of the dépôt and conveyed in a closed carriage to the Abbaye prison. Chauvelin had the pleasure of watching this gratifying spectacle from the windows of the Commissariat. When he saw the closed carriage drive away, with Hébert and two men inside and two others on the box, he turned to citizen Commissary Cuisinier with a sigh of intense satisfaction.
"There goes the most dangerous enemy our glorious revolution has had," he said, with an accent of triumph which he did not attempt to disguise.
Cuisinier shrugged his shoulders.
"Possibly," he retorted curtly. "He did not seem to me to be very dangerous, and his papers were quite in order."
To this assertion Chauvelin made no reply. Indeed, how could he explain to this stolid official the subtle workings of an intriguing brain? Had he himself not had many a proof of how little the forging of identity papers or of passports troubled the members of that accursed League? Had he not seen the Scarlet Pimpernel, that exquisite Sir Percy Blakeney, under disguises that were so grimy and so loathsome that they would have repelled the most abject, suborned spy?
Indeed, all that was wanted now was the assurance that Hébert - who himself had a deadly and personal grudge against the Scarlet Pimpernel - would not allow him for one moment out of his sight.
Fortunately as to this, there was no fear. One hint to Hébert and the man was as keen, as determined, as Chauvelin himself.
"Set your mind at rest, citizen," he said with a rough oath. "I guessed how matters stood the moment you gave me the order. I knew you would not take all that trouble for a real Paul Molé. But have no fear! That accursed Englishman has not been one second out of my sight, from the moment I arrested him in the late citizen Marat's lodgings, and by Satan! he shall not be either, until I have seen his impudent head fall under the guillotine."
He himself, he added, had seen to the arrangements for the disposal of the prisoner in the Abbeye: an inner cell, partially partitioned off in one of the guard-rooms, with no egress of its own, and only a tiny grated air-hole high up in the wall, which gave on an outside corridor, and through which not even a cat could manage to slip. Oh! the prisoner was well guarded! The citizen Representative need, of a truth, have no fear! Three or four men - of the best and most trustworthy - had not left the guard-room since the morning. He himself (Hébert) had kept the accursed Englishman in sight all night, had personally conveyed him to the Abbaye, and had only left the guard-room a moment ago in order to speak with the citizen Representative. He was going back now at once, and would not move until the order came for the prisoner to be conveyed to the Court of Justice and thence to summary execution.
For the nonce, Hébert concluded with a complacent chuckle, the Englishman was still crouching dejectedly in a corner of his new cell, with little of him visible save that naked shoulder through his torn shirt, which, in the process of transference from one prison to another, had become a shade more grimy.
Chauvelin nodded, well satisfied. He commended Hébert for his zealm, rejoiced with him over the inevitable triumph. It would be well to avenge that awful humiliation at Calais last September. Nevertheless, he felt anxious and nervy; he could not comprehend the apathy assumed by the factitious Molé.
That the apathy was assumed Chauvelin was keen enough to guess. What it portended he could not conjecture. But that the Englishman would make a desperate attempt at escape was, of course, a foregone conclusion. It rested with Hébert and a guard that could neither be bribed nor fooled into treachery, to see that such an attempt remained abortive.
What, however, had puzzled citizen Chauvelin all along was the motive which had induced Sir Percy Blakeney to place the rôle of menial to Jean Paul Marat. Behind it there lay, undoubtedly, one of those subtle intrigues for which that insolent Scarlet Pimpernel was famous; and with it was associated an attempt at theft upon the murdered body of the demagogue... an attempt which ha failed, seeing that the supposititious Paul Molé had been searched and nothing suspicious been found upon his person.
Nevertheless, thoughts of that attempted theft disturbed Chauvelin's equanimity. The old legend of the crumpled roseleaf was applicable in his case. Something of his intense satisfaction would pale if this final enterprise of the audacious adventurer were to be brought to a triumphant close in the end.
That same forenoon, on his return from the Abbaye and the dépôt, Chauvelin found that a visitor was waiting for him. A woman, who gave her name as Jeannette Maréchal, desired to speak with the citizen Representative. Chauvelin knew the woman as his colleague Marat's maid-of-all-work, and he gave orders that she should be admitted at once.
Jeannette Maréchal, tearful and not a little frightened, assured the citizen Representative that her errand was urgent. Her late employer had so few friends; she did not know whom to turn until she bethought herself of citizen Chauvelin. It took him some little time to disentangle the tangible facts out of the woman's voluble narrative. At first the words: Child... Chemin de Pantin... Leridan," were only a medley of sounds which conveyed no meaning to his ear. But when occasion demanded, citizen Chauvelin was capable of infinite patience. Gradually he understood what the woman was driving at.
"The child, citizen!" she reiterated excitedly. "What's to be done about him? I know that citizen Marat would have wished-"
"Never mind now what citizen Marat would have wished," Chauvelin broke in quietly. "Tell me first who this child is."
"I do not know, citizen," she replied.
"How do you mean, you do not know? Then I pray you, citizeness, what is all this pother about?"
"About the child, citizen," reiterated Jeannette obstinately.
"The child whom citizen Marat adopted last year and kept at that awful house on the Chemin de Pantin."
"I did not know citizen Marat had adopted a child," remarked Chauvelin thoughtfully.
"No one knew," she rejoined. "Not even citizeness Evrard. I was the only one who knew. I had to go and see the child once every month. It was a wretched, miserable brat," the woman went on, her shriveled old breast vaguely stirred, mayhap, by some atrophied feeling of motherhood. "More than half-starved... and the look in its eyes, citizen! It was enough to make you cry! I could see by his poor little emaciated body and his nice little hands and feet that he ought never have been put in that awful house, where-"
She paused, and that quick look of furtive terror, which was so often to be met with in the eyes of the timid these days, crept into her wrinkled face.
"Well, citizeness," Chauvelin rejoined quietly, "why don't you proceed? That awful house, you were saying. Where and what is that awful house of which you speak?"
"The place kept by citizen Leridan, just by Bassin de l'Ourcq," the woman murmured. "You know it, citizen."
Chauvelin nodded. He was beginning to understand.
"Well, now, tell me," he said, with that bland patience which had so oft served him in good stead in his unavowable profession. Tell me. Last year citizen Marat adopted - we'll say adopted - a child, whom he placed in the Leridans' house on the Pantin road. Is that correct?"
"That is just how it is, citizen. And I-"
"One moment," he broke in somewhat more sternly, as the woman's garrulity was getting on his nerves. "As you say, I know the Leridans' house. I have had cause to send children there myself. Children of aristos or of fat bourgeois, whom it was our duty to turn into good citizens. They are not pampered there, I imagine," he went on dryly; "and if citizen Marat send his - er - adopted son there, it was not with a view to having him brought up as an aristo, what?"
"The child was not to be brought up at all," the woman said gruffly. "I have often heard citizen Marat say that he hoped the brat would prove a thief when he grew up, and would take alcoholism like a duck takes to water."
"And you know nothing of the child's parents?"
"Nothing, citizen. I had to go to Pantin once a month and have a look at him and report to citizen Marat. But I always had the same tale to tell. The child was looking more and more like a young reprobate every time I saw him."
"Did citizen Marat pay the Leridans for keeping the child?"
"Oh, no, citizen! The Leridans make a trade of the children by sending them to beg. But this one was not to be allowed out yet. Citizen Marat's orders were very stern, and he was wont to terrify the Leridans with awful threats of the guillotine if they ever allowed the child out of their sight."
Chauvelin sat silent for a while. A ray of light had traversed the dark and tortuous ways of his subtle brain. While he mused the woman became impatient. She continued to talk on with the volubility peculiar to her kind. He paid no heed to her, until one phrase struck his ear.
"So now," Jeannette Maréchal was saying, "I don't know what to do. The ring has disappeared, and the Leridans are suspicious."
"The ring?" queried Chauvelin curtly. "What ring?"
"As I was telling you, citizen," she replied querulously, "when I went to see the child, the citizen Marat always gave me this ring to show to the Leridans. Without I brought the ring they would not admit me inside the door. They were so terrified with all the citizen's threats of the guillotine."
"And now you say the ring has disappeared. Since when?"
"Well, citizen," replied Jeannette blandly, "since you took poor Paul Molé into custody."
"What do you mean?" Chauvelin riposted. "What had Paul Molé to do with the child and the ring?"
"Only this, citizen, that he was to have gone to Pantin last night instead of me. And thankful I was not to have to go. Citizen Marat gave the ring to Molé, I suppose. I know he intended to give it to him. He spoke to me about it just before that execrable woman came and murdered him. Anyway, the rung has gone and Molé too. So I imagine that Molé has the ring and-"
"That's enough!" Chauvelin broke in roughly. "You can go!"
"You can go, I said," he reiterated sharply. "The matter of the child and the Leridans and the ring no longer concerns you. You understand?"
"Y-y-yes, citizen," murmured Jeannette, vaguely terrified.
And of a truth the change in citizen Chauvelin's demeanour was enough to scare any timid creature. Not that he raved or ranted or screamed. Those were not his ways. He still sat beside his desk as he had done before, and his slender hand, so like the talons of a vulture, was clenched upon the arm of his chair. But there was such a look of inward fury and of triumph in his pale, deep-set eyes, such lines of cruelty around his thin, closed lips, that Jeannette Maréchal, even with the picture before her mind of Jean Paul Marat in his maddest moods, fled, with the unreasoning terror of her kind, before the sternly controlled, fierce passion of this man.
Chauvelin never noticed that she went. He sat for a long time, silent and immovable. Now he understood. Thank all the Powers of Hate and Revenge, no thought of disappointment was destined to embitter the overflowing cup of his triumph. He had not only brought his arch-enemy to his knees, but had foiled one of his audacious ventures. How clear the whole thing was! The false Paul Molé, the newly acquired menial in the household of Marat, had wormed himself into the confidence of his employer in order to wrest from him the secret of the aristo's child. Bravo! bravo! my gallant Scarlet Pimpernel! Chauvelin could now see it all. Tragedies such as that which had placed an aristo's child in the power of a cunning demon like Marat were not rare these days, and Chauvelin had been fitted by nature and by temperament to understand and appreciate an execrable monster of the type of Jean Paul Marat.
And Paul Molé, the grimy, degraded servant of the indigent demagogue, the loathsome mask which hid the fastidious personality of Sir Percy Blakeney, had made a final and desperate effort to possess himself of the ring which would deliver the child into his power. Now, having failed in his machinations, he was safe under lock and key - guarded on sight. The next twenty-four hours would see him unmasked, awaiting his trial and condemnation under the scathing indictment prepared by Fouquier-Tinville, the unerring Public Prosecutor. The day after that, the tumbril and the guillotine for that execrable English spy, and the boundless sense of satisfaction that his last intrigue had aborted in such a signal and miserable manner.
Of a truth Chauvelin at this hour had every cause to be thankful, and it was with a light heart that he set out to interview the Leridans.
The Leridans, anxious, obsequious, terrified, were only too ready to obey the citizen Representative in all things.
They explained with much complacency that, even though they were personally acquainted with Jeannette Maréchal, when the citizeness presented herself this very morning without the ring they had refused her permission to see the brat.
Chauvelin, who in his own mind had already reconstructed the whole tragedy of the stolen child, was satisfied that Marat could not have chosen more efficient tools for the execution of his Satanic revenge than these two hideous products of revolutionary Paris.
Grasping, cowardly, and avaricious, the Leridans would lend themselves to any abomination for a sufficiency of money; but no money on earth would induce them to risk their own necks in the process. Marat had obviously held them by the threats of the guillotine. They knew the power of the "Friend of the People," and feared him accordingly. Chauvelin's scarf of office, his curt, authoritative manner, and an equally awe-inspiring effect upon the two miserable creatures. They became absolutely abject, cringing, maudlin in their protestations of goodwill and loyalty. No one, they vowed, should as much as see the child - ring or no ring - save the citizen Representative himself. Chauvelin, however, had no wish to see the child. He was satisfied that its name was Lannoy - for the child had remembered it when first he had been brought to the Leridans. Since then he had apparently forgotten it, even though he often cried after his "Maman!"
Chauvelin listened to all these explanations with some impatience. The child was nothing to him, but the Scarlet Pimpernel had desired to rescue it from out of the clutches of the Leridans; had risked his all - and lost it - in order to effect that rescue! That in itself was a sufficient inducement for Chauvelin to interest himself in the execution of Marat's vengeance, whatever its original mainspring may have been.
At any rate, now he felt satisfied that the child was safe, and that the Leridans were impervious to threats or bribes which might land them on the guillotine.
All that they would own was to be afraid.
"Afraid of what?" queried Chauvelin sharply.
That the brat may be kidnapped... stolen. Oh! he could not be decoyed... they were too watchful for that! But apparently there were mysterious agencies at work...
"Mysterious agencies!" Chauvelin laughed aloud at the suggestion. The "mysterious agency" was even now rotting in an obscure cell at the Abbaye. What other powers could be at work on behalf of the brat?
Well, the Leridans had had a warning!
"A letter," the man said gruffly. "But as neither my wife nor I can read-"
"Why did you not speak of this before?" broke in Chauvelin roughly. "Let me see the letter."
The woman produced a soiled and dank scrap of paper from beneath her apron. Of a truth she could not read its contents, for they were writ in English in the form of a doggerel rhyme which caused Chauvelin to utter a savage oath.
"When did this come?" he asked. "And how?"
"This morning, citizen," the woman mumbled in reply. "I found it outside the door, with a stone on it to prevent the wind from blowing it away. What does it mean, citizen?" she went on, her voice shaking with terror, for of a truth the citizen Representative looked as if he had seen some weird and unearthly apparition.
He gave no reply for a minute or two, and the two caitiffs had no conception of the tremendous effort at self-control which was hidden behind that pale, rigid mask of the redoubtable man.
"It probably means nothing that you need fear," Chauvelin said quietly at last. "But I will see the Commissary of the Section myself, and tell him to send a dozen men of the Sûreté along to watch your house and be at your beck and call if need be. Then you will feel quite safe, I hope."
"Oh, yes! quite safe, citizen!" the woman replied with a sigh of genuine relief.
Then only did Chauvelin turn on his heel and go his way.
But that crumpled and soiled scrap of paper given to him by the woman Leridan still lay in his clenched hand as he strode back rapidly citywards. It seemed to scorch his palm. Even before he had glanced at the contents he knew what they were. That atrocious English doggerel, the signature - a five-petalled flower traced in crimson! How well he knew them!
"We seek him here, we seek him there!"
The most humiliating moments in Chauvelin's career were associated with that silly rhyme, and now here it was, mocking him even when he knew that his bitter enemy lay fettered and helpless, caught in a trap, out of which there was no escape possible; even though he knew for a positive certainty that the mocking voice which had spoken those rhymes on that far-off day last September would soon be stilled for ever.
No doubt one of that army of abominable English spies had placed this warning outside the Leridans' door. No doubt they had done that with a view to throwing dust in the eyes of the Public Prosecutor and causing a confusion in his mind with regard to the identity of the prisoner at the Abbaye, all to the advantage of their chief.
The thought that such a confusion might exist, that Fouquier-Tinville might be deluded into doubting the real personality of Paul Molé, brought an icy sweat all down Chauvelin's spine. He hurried along the interminably long Chemin de Pantin, only paused at the Barrière du Combat in order to interview the Commissary of the Section on the matter of sending men to watch over the Leridans' house. Then, when he felt satisfied that this would be effectively and quickly done, an unconquerable feeling of restlessness prompted him to hurry round to the lodgings of the Public Prosecutor in the Rue Blanche - just to see him, to speak with him, to make quite sure.
Oh! he must be sure that no doubts, no pusillanimity on the part of any official would be allowed to stand in the way of the consummation of all his most cherished dreams. Papers or no papers, testimony or no testimony, the incarcerated Paul Molé was the Scarlet Pimpernel - of this Chauvelin was as certain as that he was alive. His every sense had testified to it when he stood in the narrow room of the Rue des Cordeliers, face to face - eyes gazing into eyes - with his sworn enemy.
Unluckily, however, he found the Public Prosecutor in a surly and obstinate mood, following on an interview which he had just had with citizen Commissary Cuisinier on the matter of the prisoner Paul Molé.
"His papers are all in order, I tell you," he said impatiently, in answer to Chauvelin's insistence. "It is as much as my head is worth to demand a summary execution."
"But I tell you that those papers of his are forged," urged Chauvelin forcefully.
"They are not," retorted the other. "The Commissary swears to his own signature on the identity book. The concierge at the Abbaye wears that he knows Molé, so do all the men of the Sûreté who have seen him. The Commissary was known him as an indigent, good-for-nothing lubbard who has begged his way in the streets of Paris every since he was released from gaol some months ago, after he had served a term for larceny. Even your own man Hébert admits to feeling doubtful on the point. You have had the nightmare, citizen," concluded Fouquier-Tinville with a harsh laugh.
"But, name of a dog!" broke in Chauvelin savagely. "You are not proposing to let the man go?"
"What else can I do?" the other rejoined fretfully. "We shall get into terrible trouble if we interfere with a man like Paul Molé. You know yourself how it is these days. We should have the whole of the rabble of Paris clamouring for our blood. If, after we have guillotined him, he is proved to be a good patriot, it will be my turn next. No! I thank you!"
"I tell you man," retorted Chauvelin desperately, "that the man is not Paul Molé - that he is the English spy whom we all know as the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"Eh bien!" riposted Fouquier-Tinville. "Bring me more tangible proof that our prisoner is not Paul Molé and I'll deal with him quickly enough, never fear. But if by to-morrow morning you do not satisfy me on the point... I must let him go his way."
A savage oath rose to Chauvelin's lips. He felt like a man who has been running, panting to reach a goal, who sees that goal within easy distance of him, and is then suddenly captured, caught in invisible meshes which hold him tightly, and against which he is powerless to struggle. For the moment he hated Fouquier-Tinville with a deadly hatred, would have tortured and threatened him until he wrung a consent, an admission, out of him.
Name of a name! when that damnable English spy was actually in his power, the man was a pusillanimous fool to allow the rich prize to slip from his grasp! Chauvelin felt as if he were choking; his slender fingers worked nervily around his cravat; beads of perspiration trickled unheeded down his pallid forehead.
Then suddenly he had an inspiration - nothing less! It almost seemed as if Satan, his friend, had whispered insinuating words into his ear. That scrap of paper! He had thrust it awhile ago into the breast pocket of his coat. It was still there, and the Public Prosecutor wanted a tangible proof... Then, why not...?
Slowly, his thoughts still in the process of gradual co-ordination, Chauvelin drew that soiled scrap of paper out of his pocket. Fouquier-Tinville, surly and ill-humoured, had his back half-turned towards him, was moodily picking at his teeth. Chauvelin had all the leisure which he required. He smoothed out the creases in the paper and spread it out carefully upon the desk close to the other man's elbow. Fouquier-Tinville looking down on it, over his shoulder.
"What is that?" he queried.
"As you see, citizen," was Chauvelin's bland reply. "A message, such as yourself have oft received, methinks, from our mutual enemy, the Scarlet Pimpernel."
But already the Public Prosecutor had seized upon the paper, and of a truth Chauvelin had no longer cause to complain of his colleague's indifference. That doggerel rhyme, no less than the signature, had the power to rouse Fouquier-Tinville's ire, as it had that of disturbing Chauvelin's well-studied calm.
"What is it?" reiterated the Public Prosecutor, white now to the lips.
"I have told you, citizen," rejoined Chauvelin imperturbably. "A message from that English spy. It is also the proof which you have demanded of me - the tangible proof that the prisoner, Paul Molé, is none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"But," ejaculated the other hoarsely, "where did you get this?"
"It was found in the cell which Paul Molé occupied in the dépôt of the Rue de Tourraine, where he was first incarcerated. I picked it up there after he was removed... the ink was scarcely dry upon it."
The lie came quite glibly to Chauvelin's tongue. Was not every method good, every device allowable, which would lead to so glorious an end?
"Why did you not tell me of this before?" queried Fouquier-Tinville, with a sudden gleam of suspicion in his deep-set eyes.
"You had not asked me for a tangible proof before," replied Chauvelin blandly. "I myself was so firmly convinced of what I averred that I had well-nigh forgotten the existence of this damning scrap of paper."
Damning indeed! Fouquier-Tinville had seen such scraps of paper before. He had learnt the doggerel rhyme by heart, even though the English tongue was quite unfamiliar to him. He loathed the English - the entire nation - with all that deadly hatred which a divergence of political aims will arouse in times of acute crises. He hated the English government, Pitt and Burke and even Fox, the happy-go-lucky apologist of the young Revolution. But, above all, he hated that League of English spies - as he was pleased to call them - whose courage, resourcefulness, as well as reckless daring, had more than once baffled his own hideous schemes of murder, of pillage, and of rape.
Thank Beelzebub and his horde of evil spirits, citizen Chauvelin had been clear-sighted enough to detect that elusive Pimpernel under the disguise of Paul Molé.
"You have deserved well of your country," said Tinville with lusty fevour, and gave Chauvelin a vigorous slap on the shoulder. "But for you I should have allowed that abominable spy to slip through our fingers."
"I have succeeded in convincing you, citizen?" Chauvelin retorted dryly.
"Absolutely!" rejoined the other. "You may now leave the matter to me. And 'twill be friend Molé who will be surprised to-morrow," he added with a harsh guffaw, "when he finds himself face to face with me, before a Court of Justice."
He was all eagerness, of course. Such a triumph for him! The indictment of the notorious Scarlet Pimpernel on a charge of espionage would be the crowning glory of his career! Let other men look to their laurels! Those who brought that dangerous enemy of revolution to the guillotine would for ever be proclaimed as the saviours of France.
"A short indictment," he said, when Chauvelin, after a lengthy discussion on various points, finally rose to take his leave, "but a scathing one! I tell you, citizen Chauvelin, that to-morrow you will be the first to congratulate me on an unprecedented triumph."
He had been arguing in favour of a sensational trial and no less sensational execution. Chauvelin, with his memory harking back on many mysterious abductions at the very foot of the guillotine, would have liked to see his elusive enemy quietly put to death amongst a batch of traitors, who would help to mask his personality until after the guillotine had fallen, when the whole of Paris should ring with the triumph of this final punishment of the hated spy.
In the end, the two friends agreed upon a compromise, and parted well pleased with the turn of events which a kind Fate had ordered for their own special benefit.
Thus satisfied, Chauvelin returned to the Abbaye. Hébert was safe and trustworthy, but Hébert, too, had been assailed with the same doubts which had wellnigh wrecked Chauvelin's triumph, and with such doubts in his mind he might slacken his vigilance.
Name of a name! every man in charge of that damnable Scarlet Pimpernel should have three pairs of eyes wherewith to watch his movements. He should have the alert brain of a Robespierre, the physical strength of a Danton, the relentlessness of a Marat. He should be a giant in sheer brute force, a tiger in caution, an elephant in weight, and a mouse in stealthiness!
Name of a name! but 'twas only hate that could give such powers to any man!
Hébert, in the guard-room, owned to his doubts. His comrades, too, admitted that after twenty-four hours spent on the watch, their minds were in a whirl. The Citizen Commissary had been so sure - so was the chief concierge of the Abbaye even now; and the men of the Sûretè!... they themselves had seen the real Molé more than once.. and this man in the cell... Well, would the citizen Representative have a final good look at him?
"You seem to forget Calais, citizen Hébert," Chauvelin said sharply, "and the deadly humiliation you suffered then at the hands of this man who is now your prisoner. Surely your eyes should have been, at least, as keen as mine own."
Anxious, irritable, his nerves well-night on the rack, he nevertheless crossed the guard-room with a firm step and entered the cell where the prisoner was still lying upon the palliasse, as he had been all along, and still presenting that naked piece of shoulder through the hole in his shirt.
"He has been like this the best part of the day," Hébert said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "We put his bread and water right under his nose. He ate and he drank, and I suppose he slept. But except for a good deal of swearing, he has not spoken to any of us."
He had followed his chief into the cell, and now stood beside the palliasse, holding a small dark lantern in his hand. At a sign from Chauvelin he flashed the light upon the prisoner's averted head.
Molé cursed for awhile, and muttered something about "good patriots" and about "retribution." Then, worried by the light, he turned slowly round, and with fish-like, bleary eyes looked upon his visitor.
The words of stinging irony and triumphant sarcasm, all fully prepared, froze on Chauvelin's lips. He gazed upon the prisoner, and a weird sense of something unfathomable and mysterious came over him as he gazed. He himself could not have defined that feeling: the very next moment he was prepared to ridicule his own cowardice - yes, cowardice! because for a second or two he had felt positively afraid.
Afraid of what, forsooth? The man who crouched here in the cell was his arch-enemy, the Scarlet Pimpernel - the man whom he hated most bitterly in all the world, the man whose death he desired more than that of any other living creature. He had been apprehended by the very side of the murdered man whose confidence he had all but gained. He himself (Chauvelin) had at that faithful moment looked into the factitious Molé's eyes, had seen the mockery in them, the lazy insouciance which was the chief attribute of Sir Percy Blakeney. He had heard a faint echo of that inane laugh which grated upon his nerves. Hébert had then laid hands upon this very same man; agents of the Sûreté had barred every ingress and egress to the house, had conducted their prisoner straightway to the dépôt and thence to the Abbaye, had since that moment guarded him on sight, by day and by night. Hébert and the other men as well as the chief warder, all swore to that!
No, no! There could be no doubt! There was no doubt! The days of magic were over! A man could not assume a personality other than his own; he could not fly out of that personality like a bird out of its cage. There on the palliasse in the miserable cell were the same long limbs, the broad shoulders, the grimy face with the three days' growth of a stubbly beard - the whole wretched personality of Paul Molé, in fact, which hid the exquisite one of Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart. And yet!...
A cold sweat ran down Chauvelin's spine as he gazed, mute and immovable, into those fish-like bleary eyes, which were not - no! they were not those of the real Scarlet Pimpernel.
The whole situation became dreamlike, almost absurd. Chauvelin was not the man for such a mock-heroic, melodramatic situation. Common sense, reason, his own cool powers of deliberation, would soon reassert themselves. But for the moment he was dazed. He had worked too hard, no doubt; had yielded too much to excitement, to triumph, and to hate. He turned to Hébert, who was standing stolidly by, gave him a few curt orders in a clear and well-pitched voice. Then he walked out of the cell, without bestowing another look on the prisoner.
Molé had once more turned over on his palliasse and, apparently, had gone to sleep. Hébert, with a strange and puzzled laugh, followed his chief out of the cell.
At first Chauvelin had the wish to go back and see the Public Prosecutor - to speak with him - to tell him - what? yes, what? That he, Chauvelin, had all of a sudden been assailed with the same doubts which already had worried Hébert and the others? - that he had told a deliberate lie when he stated that the incriminating doggerel rhyme had been found in Molé's cell? No, no! Such an admission would not only be foolish, it would be dangerous now, whilst he himself was scarce prepared to trust his own senses.
After all, Fouquier-Tinville was in the right frame of mind for the moment. Paul Molé, whoever he was, was safely under lock and key.
The only danger lay in the direction of the house on the Chemin de Pantin. At the thought Chauvelin felt giddy and faint. But he would allow himself no rest. Indeed, he could not have rested until something approaching certainty had once more taken possession of his soul. He could not - would not - believe that he had been deceived. he was still prepared to stake his very life on the identity of the prisoner at the Abbaye. Tricks of light, the flash of the lantern, the perfection of the disguise, had caused a momentary illusion - nothing more.
Nevertheless, that awful feeling of restlessness which had possessed him during the last twenty-four hours once more drove him to activity. And although common sense and reason both pulled one way, and eerie sense of superstition whispered in his ear the ominous words, "If, after all!"
At any rate, he would see the Leridans, and once more make sure of them; and, late as was the hour, he set out for the lonely house on the Pantin Road.
Just inside the Barrière du Combat was the Poste de Section, where Commissary Burban was under orders to provide a dozen men of the Sûreté, who were to be on the watch round and about the house of the Leridans. Chauvelin called in on the Commissary, who assured him that the men were at their post.
This satisfied, he crossed the Barrière and started at a brisk walk down the long stretch of the Chemin de Pantin. The night was dark. The rolling clouds overhead hid the face of the moon and presaged the storm. On the right the irregular heights of the Buttes Chaumont loomed out dense and dark against the heavy sky, whilst to the left, on ahead, a faintly glimmering, greyish streak of reflected light revealed the proximity of the canal.
Close to the spot where the main Route de Meux intersects the Chemin de Pantin, Chauvelin slackened his pace. The house of the Leridans now lay immediately on his left, from it a small, feeble ray of light, finding its way no doubt through an ill-closed shutter, pierced the surrounding gloom. Chauvelin, without hesitation, turned up a narrow track which led up to the house across a field of stubble. The next moment a peremptory challenge brought him to a halt.
"Who goes there?"
"Public Safety," replied Chauvelin. "Who are you?"
"Of the Sûreté," was the counter reply. "There are a dozen of us about here."
"When did you arrive?"
"Some two hours ago. We marched out directly after you left the orders at the Commissariat."
"You are prepared to remain on the watch all night?"
"Those are our orders, citizen," replied the man.
"You had best close up and round the house, then. And, name of a dog!" he added, with a threatening ring in his voice. "Let there be no slackening of vigilance this night. No one to go in or out of the house, no one to approach it under any circumstances whatever. Is that understood?"
"Those were our orders from the first, citizen," said the man simply.
"And all has been well up to now?"
"We have seen no one, citizen."
The little party closed in around their chief and together they marched up to the house. Chauvelin, on tenterhooks, walked quicker than the others. He was the first to reach the door. Unable to find the bell-pull in the dark, he knocked vigorously.
The house appeared silent and wrapped in sleep. No light showed from within save that one tiny speck through the cracks of an ill-fitting shutter, in a room immediately overhead.
In response to Chauvelin's repeated summons there came anon the sound of someone moving in one of the upstairs rooms, and presently the light overhead disappeared, whilst a door above was heard to open and to close and shuffling footsteps to come slowly down the creaking stairs.
A moment or two later the bolts and bars of the front door were unfastened, a key grated in the rusty lock, a chain rattled in its socket, and then the door was opened slowly and cautiously.
The woman Leridan appeared in the doorway. She held a guttering tallow candle high above her head. It's flickering light illumined Chauvelin's slender figure.
"Ah, the citizen Representative!" the woman ejaculated, as soon as she recognized him. "We did not expect you again to-day, and at this late hour, too! I'll tell my man-"
"Never mind your man," broke in Chauvelin impatiently, and pushed without ceremony past the woman inside the house. "The child? Is it safe?"
He could scarcely control his excitement. There was a buzzing, as of an angry sea, in his ears. The next second, until the woman spoke, seemed like a cycle of years.
"Quite safe, citizen," she said placidly. "Everything it quite safe. We were so thankful for those men of the Sûreté. We had been afraid before, as I told the citizen Representative, and my man and I could not rest for anxiety. It was only after they came that we dared go to bed."
A deep sigh of intense relief came from the depths of Chauvelin's heart. He had not realized himself until this moment how desperately anxious he had been. The woman's reassuring words appeared to lift a crushing weight from his mind. He turned to the man behind him.
"You did not tell me," he said, "that some of you had been here already."
"We have not been here before," the sergeant in charge of the little platoon said in reply. "I do not know what the woman means."
"Some of your men came about three hours ago," the woman retorted; "less than an hour after the citizen Representative was here. I remember that my man and I marvelled how quickly they did come, but they said that they had been on duty at the Barrière du Combat when the citizen arrived, and that he had dispatched them off at once. They said they had run all the way. But even so, we thought it was quick work-"
The words were smothered in her throat in a cry of pain, for, with an almost brutal gesture, Chauvelin had seized her by the shoulders.
"Where are those men?" He queried hoarsely. "Answer!"
"In there and in there," the woman stammered, wellnigh fainting with terror as she pointed to two doors, one on each side of the passage. "Three in each room. They are asleep now, I should say, as they seem so quiet. But they were an immense comfort to us, citizen... we were so thankful to have them in the house..."
But Chauvelin had snatched the candle from her hand. Holding it high above his head, he strode to the door on the right of the passage. It was ajar. He pushed it open with a vicious kick. The room beyond was in total darkness.
"Is anyone here?" he queried sharply.
Nothing but silence answered him. For a moment he remained there on the threshold, silent and immovable as a figure carved to stone. He had just a sufficiency of presence of mind and of will power not to drop the candle, to stand there motionless, with his back turned to the woman and to the men who had crowded in his wake. He would not let them see the despair, the rage and grave superstitious fear, which distorted every line of his pallid face.
He did not ask about the child. He would not trust himself to speak, for he had realized already how completely he had been baffled. Those abominable English spies had watched their opportunity, had worked on the credulity and the fears of the Leridans and, playing the game at which they and their audacious chief were such unconquerable experts, they had made their way into the house under a clever ruse.
The men of the Sûreté, not quite understanding the situation, were questioning the Leridans. The man, too, corroborated his wife's story. Their anxiety had been worked upon at the moment that it was most acute. After the citizen Representative left them, earlier in the evening, they had received another mysterious message which they had been unable to read, but which had greatly increased their alarm. Then when the men of the Sûreté came... Ah! they had no cause to doubt that they were men of the Sûreté!... their clothes, speech, their appearance... figure to yourself, even their uniforms! They spoke so nicely, so reassuringly. The Leridans were so thankful to see them! Then they made themselves happy in the two rooms below, and for additional safety the Lannoy child was brought down from its attic and put to sleep in the one room with the men of the Sûreté.
After that the Leridans went to bed. Name of a dog! how were they to blame? Those men and the child had disappeared, but they (the Leridans) would go to the guillotine swearing that they were not to blame.
Whether Chauvelin heard all these jeremiads, he could not afterwards have told you. But he did not need to be told how it had all been done. It had all been so simple, so ingenious, so like the methods usually adopted by that astute Scarlet Pimpernel! He saw it all so clearly before him - he, who alone knew and understood the adversary with whom he had to deal.
But these people here should not have the gratuitous spectacle of a man enduring the torments of disappointment and of baffled revenge. Whatever Chauvelin was suffering now would for ever remain the secret of his own soul. Anon, when the Leridans' rasping voices died away in one of the more distant portions of the house and the men of the Sûretè were busy accepting refreshment and gratuity from the two terrified wretches, he had put down the candle with a steady hand and then walked with a firm step out of the house.
Soon the slender figure was swallowed up int eh gloom as he strode back rapidly towards the city.
Citizen Fouquier-Tinville had returned home from the Palais at a very late hour that same evening. His household in his simple lodgings in the Place Dauphine was already abed: his wife and the twins were asleep. He himself had sat down for a moment in the living-room, in dressing-gown and slippers, and with the late edition of the Moniteur in his hand, too tired to read.
It was half-past ten when there came a ring at the front door bell. Fouquier-Tinville, half expecting citizen Chauvelin to pay him a final visit, shuffled to the door and opened it.
A visitor, tell, well-dressed, exceedingly polite and urbane, requested a few minutes' conversation with citizen Fouquier-Tinville.
Before the Public Prosecutor had made up his mind whether to introduce such a late comer into his rooms the latter had pushed his way through the door into the ante-chamber, and with a movement as swift as it was unexpected, had thrown a scarf round Fouquier-Tinville's neck and wound it round his mouth, so that the unfortunate man's call for help was smothered in his throat.
So dexterously and so rapidly indeed had the miscreant acted that his victim had hardly realized the assault before he found himself securely gagged and bound to a chair in his own ante-room, whilst that dare-devil stood before him, perfectly at his ease, his hands buried in the capacious pockets of his huge caped coat, and murmuring a few casual words of apology.
"I entreat you to forgive, citizen," he was saying in an even and pleasant voice, "this necessary violence on my part towards you. But my errand is urgent, and I could not allow your neighbours or hour household to disturb the few minutes' conversation which I am obliged to have with you. My friend Paul Molé," he went on, after a slight pause, "is in grave danger of his life owing to a hallucination on the part of our mutual friend citizen Chauvelin; and I feel confident that you yourself are too deeply enarmoured on your own neck to risk it willfully by sending an innocent and honest patriot to the guillotine."
Once more he paused and looked down upon his unwilling interlocutor, who, with muscles straining against the cords that held him, and with eyes nearly starting out of their sockets in an access of fear and of rage, was indeed presenting a pitiful spectacle.
"I dare say that by now, citizen," the brigand continued imperturbably, "you will have guessed who I am. You and I have often crossed invisible swords before; but this, methinks, is the first time that we have met face to face. I pray you, tell my dear friend M. Chauvelin that you have seen me. Also that there were two facts which he left entirely out of his calculations, perfect though these were. The one fact was that there were two Paul Molé's - one real and one factitious. Tell him that, I pray you. It was the factitious Paul Molé who stole the ring and who stood for one moment gazing into clever citizen Chauvelin's eyes. But that same factitious Paul Molé had disappeared in the crowd even before your colleague had recovered his presence of mind. Tell him, I pray you, that the elusive Pimpernel whom he knows so well never assumes a fanciful disguise. He discovered the real Paul Molé first, studied him, learned his personality, until his own became a perfect replica of the miserable caitiff. It was the false Paul Molé who induced Jeannette Maréchal to introduce him originally into the household of citizen Marat. It was he who gained the confidence of his employer; he, for a consideration, borrowed the identity papers of his real prototype. He again who for a few francs induced the real Paul Molé to follow him into the house of the murdered demagogue and to mingle there with the throng. He who thrust the identity papers back into the hands of their rightful owner whilst he himself was swallowed up by the crowd. But it was the real Paul Molé who was finally arrested and who is now lingering in the Abbaye prison, whence you, citizen Fouquier-Tinville, must free him on the instant, on pain of suffering yourself for the nightmares of your friend.
"The second fact," he went on with the same good-humoured pleasantry, "which our friend citizen Chauvelin had forgotten was that, though I happen to have aroused his unconquerable ire, I am but one man amongst a league of gallant English gentlemen. Their chief, I am proud to say; but without them I should be powerless. Without one of them near me, by the side of the murdered Marat, I could not have rid myself of the ring in time, before other rough hands searched me to my skin. Without them I could not have taken Madeleine Lannoy's child from out that terrible hell to which a miscreant's lustful revenge had condemned the poor innocent. But while citizen Chauvelin, racked with triumph as well as with anxiety, was rushing from the Leridans' house to yours, and thence to the Abbaye prison, to gloat over his captive enemy, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel carefully laid and carried out its plans at leisure. Disguised as men of the Sûreté, we took advantage of the Leridans' terror to obtain access into the house. Frightened to death by our warnings, as well as by citizen Chauvelin's threats, they not only admitted us into their house, but actually placed Madeleine Lannoy's child in our charge. Then they went contentedly to bed, and we, before the real men of the Sûreté arrived upon the scene, were already safely out of the way. My Gallant English friends are some way out of Paris by now, escorting Madeleine Lannoy and her child into safety. They will return to Paris, citizen," continued the audacious adventurer, with a laugh full of joy and of unconquerable vitality, "and be my henchman as before in many an adventure which will cause you and citizen Chauvelin to gnash your teeth with rage. But I myself will remain in Paris," he concluded lightly. "Yes, in Paris, under your very nose and entirely at your service!"
The next second he was gone, and Fouquier-Tinville was left to marvel if the whole apparition had not been a hideous dream. Only there was no doubt that he was gagged and tied to a chair with cords, and here his wife found him an hour later when she woke from her first sleep, anxious because he had not yet come to bed.