Bibot was very sure of himself. There never was, never had been, there never would be again another such patriotic citizen of the Republic as was citizen Bibot of the Town Guard.
And because his patriotism was so well known among the members of the Committee of Public Safety, and his uncompromising hatred of the aristocrats so highly appreciated, citizen Bibot had been given the most important military post within the city of Paris.
He was in command of the Porte Montmartre, which goes to prove how highly he was esteemed, for, believe me, more treachery had been going on inside and out of the Porte Montmartre than in any other quarter of Paris. The last commandant there, citizen Ferney, was guillotined for having allowed a whole batch of aristocrats - traitors to the Republic, all of them - to slip through the Porte Montmartre and to find safety outside the walls of Paris. Ferney pleaded in his defense that these traitors had been spirited away from under his very nose by the devil's agency, for surely that meddlesome Englishman who spent his time in rescuing aristocrats - traitors, all of them - from the clutches of Madame la Guillotine must be either the devil himself or at any rate one of his most powerful agents.
"Nom de Dieu! Just think of his name! The Scarlet Pimpernel they call him! No one knows him by any other name! And he is preternaturally tall and strong and superhumanly cunning! And the power which he has of being transmuted into various personalities - rendering himself quite unrecognizable to the eyes of the most sharp-seeing patriot of France, must of a surety be a gift of Satan!"
But the Committee of Public Safety refused to listen to Ferney's explanations. The Scarlet Pimpernel was only an ordinary mortal - an exceedingly cunning and meddlesome personage it is true, and endowed with a superfluity of wealth which enabled him to break the thin crust of patriotism that overlay the natural cupidity of many Captains of the Town Guard - but still an ordinary man for all that, and no true lover of the Republic should allow either superstitious terror or greed to interfere with the discharge of his duties which at the Porte Montmartre consisted in detained any and ever person - aristocrat, foreigner, or otherwise traitor to the Republic - who could not give a satisfactory reason for desiring to leave Paris. Having detained such persons, the patriot's next duty was to hand them over to the Committee of Public Safety, who would then decide whether Madame la Guillotine would have the last word over them or not.
And the guillotine did nearly always have the last word to say, unless the Scarlet Pimpernel interfered.
The trouble was, that that same accursed Englishman interfered at times in a manner which was positively terrifying. his impudence, certes, passed all belief. Stories of his daring and of his impudence were abroad which literally made the lank and greasy hair of every patriot curl with wonder. 'twas even whispered - not too loudly, forsooth - that certain members of the Committee of Public Safety had measured their skill and valour against that of the Englishman and emerged from the conflict beaten and humiliated, vowing vengeance which, of a truth, was still slow in coming.
Citizen Chauvelin, one of the most implacable and unyielding members of the Committee, was known to have suffered overwhelming shame at the hands of that daring gang, of whom the so-called Scarlet Pimpernel was the accredited chief. Some there were who said that citizen Chauvelin had for ever forfeited his prestige, and even endangered his head by measuring his well-known astuteness against that mysterious League of spies.
But then Bibot was different!
He feared neither the devil nor any Englishman. Had the latter the strength of giants and the protection of every power of evil, Bibot was ready for him. Nay! he was aching for a tussle, and haunted the purlieus of the Committees to obtain some post which would enable him to come to grips with the Scarlet Pimpernel and his League.
Bibot's zeal and perseverance were duly rewarded, and anon he was appointed to the command of the guard at the Porte Montmartre.
A post of vast importance as aforesaid; so much so, in fact, that no less a person than citizen Jean Paul Marat himself came to speak with Bibot on that third day of Nivôse in the year I of the Republic, with a view to impressing upon him the necessity of keeping his eyes open, and of suspecting every man, woman and child indiscriminately until they had proved themselves to be true patriots.
"Let no one slip through your fingers, citizen Bibot," Marat admonished with grim earnestness. "That accursed Englishman is cunning and resourceful, and his impudence surpasses that of the devil himself."
"He'd better try some of his impudence on me!" commented Bibot with a sneer, "he'll soon find out that he no longer has a Ferney to deal with. Take it from me, citizen Marat, that if a batch of aristocrats escape out of Paris within the next few days, under the guidance of the damned Englishman, they will have to find some other way than the Porte Montmartre."
"Well said, citizen!" commented Marat. "But be watchful to-night... to-night especially. The Scarlet Pimpernel is rampant in Paris just now."
"The ci-devant Duc and Duchesse de Montreux and the whole of their brood - sisters, brothers, two or three children, a priest, and several servants - a round dozen in all, have been condemned to death. The guillotine for them to-morrow at daybreak! Would it could have been to-night," added Marat, whilst a demoniacal leer contorted his face which already exuded lust for blood from every pore. "Would it could have been to-night. But the guillotine has been busy; over four-hundred executions to-day... and the tumbrils are full - the seats bespoken in advance - and still they come... But to-morrow morning at daybreak Madame la Guillotine will have a word to say to the whole of the Montreux crowd!"
"But they are in the Conciergerie prison surely, citizen! out of the reach of that accursed Englishman?"
"They are on their way, an I mistake not, to the prison at this moment. I came straight on here after the condemnation, to which I listened with true joy. Ah, citizen Bibot! the blood of these hated aristocrats is good to behold when it drips from the blade of the guillotine. Have a care, citizen Bibot, do not let the Montreux crowd escape!"
"Have no fear, citizen Marat! But surely there is no danger! They have been tried and condemned! They are, as you say, even now on their way - well guarded, I presume - to the Conciergerie prison! - to-morrow at daybreak, the guillotine! What is there to fear?"
"Well! well!" said Marat, with a slight tone of hesitation, "it is best, citizen Bibot, to be over-careful these times."
Even whilst Marat spoke his face, usually so cunning and vengeful, had suddenly lost its look of devilish cruelty which was almost superhuman in the excess of its infamy, and a greyish hue - suggestive of terror - had spread over the sunken cheeks. He clutched Bibot's arm, and leaning over the table he whispered in his ear:
"The Public Prosecutor had scarce finished his speech to-day, judgment was being pronounced, the spectators were expectant and still, only the Montreux woman and some of the females and children were blubbering and moaning, when suddenly, it seemed from nowhere, a small piece of paper fluttered from out of the assembly and alighted on the desk in front of the Public Prosecutor. He took the paper up and glanced at its contents. I saw that his cheeks had paled, and that his hand trembled as he handed the paper over to me."
"And what did that paper contain, citizen Marat?" asked Bibot, also speaking in a whisper, for an access of superstitious terror was gripping him by the throat.
"Just the well-known accursed device, citizen, the small scarlet flower, drawn in red ink, and the few words: 'To-night the innocent men and woman now condemned by this infamous tribunal will be beyond your reach!'"
"And no sign of a messenger?"
"And when did-"
"Hush!" said Marat peremptorily, "no more of that now. To your post, citizen, and remember - all are suspect! let none escape!"
The two men had been sitting outside a small tavern, opposite the Porte Montmartre, with a bottle of wine between them, their elbows resting on the grimy top of a rough wooden table. They had talked in whispers, for even the walls of the tumble-down cabaret might have ears.
Opposite them the city wall - broken here by the great gate of Montmartre - looking threateningly in the fast-gathering dusk of this winter's afternoon. Men in ragged red shirts, their unkempt heads crowned with Phrygian caps adorned with a tricolour cockade, lounged against the wall, or sat in groups on the top of piles of refuse that littered the street, with a rough deal plank between them and a greasy pack of cards in their grimy fingers. Guns and bayonets were propped against the wall. The gate itself had three means of egress; each of these was guarded by two men with fixed bayonets at their shoulders, but otherwise dressed like the others, in rags - with bare legs that looked blue and numb in the cold - the sans-culottes of revolutionary Paris.
Bibot rose from his seat, nodding to Marat, and joined his men.
From afar, but gradually drawing nearer, came the sound of a ribald song, with chorus accompaniment sung by throats obviously surfeited with liquor.
For a moment - as the sound approached - Bibot turned back once more to the Friend of the People.
"Am I to understand, citizen," he said, "that my orders are not to let anyone pass through these gates to-night?"
"No, no, citizen," replied Marat, "we dare not do that. There are a number of good patriots in the city still. We cannot interfere with their liberty or-"
And the look of fear of the demagogue - himself afraid of the human whirlpool which he had let loose - stole into Marat's cruel, piercing eyes.
"No, no," he reiterated more emphatically, "we cannot disregard the passports issued by the Committee of Public Safety. But examine each passport carefully, citizen Bibot! If you have any reasonable ground for suspicion, detain the holder, and if you have not-"
The sound of singing was quite clear now. With another wink and a final leer, Marat drew back under the shadow of the cabaret, and Bibot swaggered up to the main entrance of the gate.
"Qui va là?" he thundered in stentorian tones as a group of some half-dozen people lurched towards him out of the gloom, still shouting hoarsely their ribald drinking song.
The foremost man in the group paused opposite citizen Bibot, and with arms akimbo, and legs planted well apart, tried to assume a rigidity of attitude which apparently was somewhat foreign to him at this moment.
"Good patriots, citizen," he said in a thick voice which he vainly tried to render steady.
"What do you want?" queried Bibot.
"To be allowed to go on our way unmolested."
"What is your way?"
"Through to Porte Montmartre to the village of Barency."
This query, delivered in Bibot's most pompous manner, seemed vastly to amuse the rowdy crowd. He who was the spokesman turned to his friends and shouting hilariously:
"Hark at him, citizens! He asks me what is our business. Ohé, citizen Bibot, since when have you become blind? A dolt you've always been, else you had not asked the question."
But Bibot, undeterred by the man's drunken insolence, retorted gruffly:
"Your business, I want to know."
"Bibot! my little Bibot!" cooed the bibulous orator, now in dulcet tones, "dost not know us, my good Bibot? Yet we all know thee, citizen - Captain Bibot of the Town Guard, eh, citizens! Three cheers for the citizen captain!"
When the noisy shouts and cheers from half a dozen hoarse throats had died down, Bibot, without more ado, turned to his own men at the gate.
"Drive these drunken louts away!" he commanded; "no one is allowed to loiter here."
Loud protest on the part of the hilarious crowd followed, then a slight scuffle with the bayonets of the Town Guard. Finally the spokesman, somewhat sobered, once more appealed to Bibot.
"Citizen Bibot! you must be blind not to know me and my mates! And let me tell you that you are doing yourself a deal of harm by interfering with the citizens of the Republic in the proper discharge of their duties, and by disregarding their rights of egress through this gate, a right confirmed by passports signed by two members of the Committee of Public Safety."
He had spoken now fairly clearly and very pompously. Bibot, somewhat impressed and remembering Marat's admonitions, said very civilly:
"Tell me your business, then, citizen, and show me your passports. If everything is in order you may go your way."
"But you know me, citizen Bibot?" queried the other.
"Yes, I know you - unofficially - citizen Durand."
"You know that I and the citizens here are the carriers for citizen Legrand, the market gardener of Barency?"
"Yes, I know that," said Bibot guardedly, "unofficially."
"Then, unofficially, let me tell you, citizen, that unless we get to Barency this evening, Paris will have to do without cabbages and potatoes to-morrow. So now you know that you are acting at your own risk and peril, citizen, by detaining us."
"Your passports, all of you," commanded Bibot.
He had just caught sight of Marat still sitting outside the tavern opposite, and was glad enough, in this instance, to shelve his responsibility on the shoulders of the popular "Friend of the People." There was general searching in ragged pockets for grimy papers with official seals thereon, and whilst Bibot ordered one of his men to take the six passports across the road to citizen Marat for his inspection, he himself, by the last rays of the setting winter sun, made close examination of the six men who desired to pass through the Porte Montmartre.
As the spokesman had averred, he - Bibot - knew every one of these men. They were the carriers to citizen Legrand, the Barency market gardener. Bibot knew every face. They passed with a load of fruit and vegetables in and out of Paris every day. There was really and absolutely no cause for suspicion, and when citizen Marat returned the six passports, pronouncing them to be genuine, and recognizing his own signature at the bottom of each, Bibot was at last satisfied, and the six bibulous carriers were allowed to pass through the gate, which they did, arm in arm, singing a wild carmagnole, and vociferously cheering as they emerged out into the open.
But Bibot passed an unsteady hand over his brow. It was cold, yet he was in a perspiration. That sort of thing tells on a man's nerves. He rejoined Marat, at the table outside the drinking booth, and ordered a fresh bottle of wine.
The sun had set now, and with the gathering dusk a damp mist descended on Montmartre. From the wall opposite, where the men sat playing cards, came occasional volleys of blasphemous oaths. Bibot was feeling much more like himself. He had half forgotten the incident of the six carriers, which had occurred nearly half an hour ago.
Two or three other people had, in the meanwhile, tried to pass through the gates, but Bibot had been suspicious and had detained them all.
Marat, having commended him for his zeal, took final leave of him. Just as the demagogue's slouchy grimy figure was disappearing down a side street there was a loud clatter of hoofs from that same direction, and the next moment a detachment of the mounted Toan Guard, headed by an officer in uniform, galloped down the ill-paved street.
Even before the troopers had drawn rein the officer had hailed Bibot.
"Citizen," he shouted, and his voice was breathless, for he had evidently ridden hard and fast, "this message to you from the citizen Chief Commissary of the Section. Six men are wanted by the Committee of Public Safety. They are disguised as carriers in the employ of a market gardener, and have passports for Barency!... The passports are stolen: the men are traitors - escaped aristocrats - and their spokesman is that damned Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Bibot tried to speak; he tugged at the collar of his ragged shirt; and awful curse escaped him.
"Ten thousand devils!" he roared.
"On no account allow these people to go through," continued the officer. "Keep their passports. Detain them!... Understood?"
Bibot was still gasping for breath even whilst the officer, ordering a quick "Turn!" reeled his horse round, ready to gallop away as far as he had come.
"I am for the St. Denis Gate - Grosjean is on guard there!" he shouted. "Same orders all round the city. No one to leave the gates!... Understand?"
His troopers fell in. The next moment he would be gone, and the cursed aristocrats well in safety's way.
The hoarse shout at last contrived to escape Bibot's parched throat. As if involuntarily, the officer drew rein once more.
"What is it? Quick! - I've no time. That confounded Englishman may be at the St. Denis Gate even now!"
"Citizen Captain," gasped Bibot, his breath coming and going like that of a man fighting for his life. "Here!... at this gate!... not half and hour ago... six men... carriers... market gardeners... I seemed to know their faces..."
"Yes! yes! market gardener's carriers," exclaimed the officer fleefully, "aristocrats all of them... and that damn Scarlet Pimpernel. You've got them? You've detained them?... Where are they?... Speak, man, in the name of hell!..."
"Gone!" gasped Bibot. His legs would not longer bear him. He fell backwards on to a heap of street débris and refuse, from which lowly vantage ground he contrived to give away the whole miserable tale.
"Gone! half an hour ago! Their passports were in order!... I seemed to know their faces! Citizen Marat was here... He, too-"
In a moment the officer had once more swung his horse round, so that the animal reared, with wild forefeet pawing in the air, with champing of bit, and white foam scattered around.
"A thousand million curses!" he exclaimed. "Citizen Bibot, your head will pay for this treachery. Which way did they go?"
A dozen hands were ready to point in the direction where the merry party of carriers had disappeared half an hour ago; a dozen tongues gave rapid, confused explanations.
"Into it, my men!" shouted the officer; "they were on foot! They can't have gone far. Remember the Republic has offered ten thousand francs for the capture of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Already the heavy gates had been swung open, and the officer's voice once more rang out clear through a perfect thunder-clap of fast galloping hoofs:
"Ventre à terre! Remember! - ten thousand francs to him who first sights the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
The thunder-clap died away in the distance, the dust of four score hoofs was merged in the fog and in the darkness; the voice of the captain was raised again through the mist-laden air. One shout... a shout of triumph... then silence once again.
Bibot had fainted on the head of débris.
His comrades brought him wine to drink. he gradually revived. Hope came back to his heart; his nerves soon steadied themselves as the heavy beverage filtrated through into his blood.
"Bah!" he ejaculated as he pulled himself together, "the troopers were well-mounted... the officer was enthusiastic; those carriers could not have walked very far. And, in any case, I am free from blame. Citoyen Marat himself was here and let them pass!"
A shudder of superstitious terror ran through him as he recollected the whole scene: for surely he knew all the faces of the six men who had gone through the gate. The devil indeed must have given the mysterious Englishman power to transmute himself and his gang wholly into the bodies of other people.
More than an hour went by. Bibot was quite himself again, bullying, commanding, detaining everybody now.
At that time there appeared to be a slight altercation going on on the farther side of the gate. Bibot thought it his duty to go and see what the noise was about. Someone wanting to get into Paris instead of out of it at this hour of the night was a strange occurrence.
Bibot heard his name spoken by a raucous voice. Accompanied by two of his men he crossed the wide gates in order to see what was happening. One of the men held up a lanthorn, which he was swinging high above his head. Bibot saw standing there before him, arguing with the guard by the gate, the bibulous spokesman of the band of carriers.
He was explaining to the sentry that he had a message to deliver to the citizen commanding at the Porte Montmartre.
"It is a note," he said, "which an officer of the mounted guard gave me. He and twenty troopers were galloping down the great North Road not far from Barency. When they overtook the six of us they drew rein, and the officer gave me this note for citizen Bibot and fifty francs if I would deliver it to-night."
"Give me the note!" said Bibot calmly.
But his hands shook as he took the paper; his face was livid with fear and rage.
The paper had no writing on it, only the outline of a small scarlet flower done in red - the device of the cursed Englishman, the Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Which way did the officer and the twenty troopers go?" he stammered, "after they gave you this note?"
"On the way to Calais," replied the other; "but they had magnificent horses, and didn't spare them either. They are a league and more away by now!"
All the blood in Bibot's body seemed to rush up to his head, a wild buzzing was in his ears...
And that was how the Duc and Duchesse de Montreux, with their servants and family, escaped from Paris on that third day of Nivôse in the year I of the Republic.