Not one of them had really trusted him for some time now. Heaven and his conscience alone knew what had changed my Lord Kulsted from a loyal friend and keen sportsman into a surely and dissatisfied adherent - adherent only in name.
Some say that lack of money had embittered him. He was a confirmed gambler, and had been losing overheavily of late; and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel demanded sacrifices of money at times from its members, as well as of life if the need arose. Others averred that jealousy against the chief had outweighed Kulmsted's honesty. Certain it is that his oath of fealty to the League had long ago been broken in the spirit. Treachery hovered in the air.
But the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, with that indomitable optimism of his, and almost maddening insouciance, either did not believe in Kulmsted's disloyalty or chose not to heed it.
He even asked him to join the present expedition - one of the most dangerous undertaken by the League for some time, and which had for its object the rescue of some woman of the late unfortunate Marie Antoinette's household: maids and faithful servants, ruthlessly condemned to die for their tender adherence to a martyred queen. And yet eighteen pairs of faithful lips had murmured words of warning.
It was towards the end of November, 1793. The rain was beating down in a monotonous drip, drip, drip on to the roof of a derelict house in the Rue Berthier. The wan light of a cold winter's morning peeped in through the curtainless window and touched with its weird grey brush the pallid face of a young girl - a mere child - who sat in a dejected attitude on a rickety chair, with elbows leaning on the rough deal table before her, and thin, grimy fingers wandering with pathetic futility to her tearful eyes.
In the farther angle of the room a tall figure in dark clothes was made one, by the lingering gloom, with the dense shadows beyond.
"We have starved," said the girl, with rebellious tears. "Father and I and the boys are miserable enough, God knows; but we have always been honest."
From out the shadows in that dark corner of the room there came the sound of an oath quickly suppressed.
"Honest!" exclaimed the man, with a harsh, mocking laugh, which made the girl wince as if with physical pain. "Is it honest to harbour the enemies of your country? Is it honest-"
But quickly he checked himself, biting his lips with vexation, feeling that his present tactics were not like to gain the day.
He came out of the gloom and approached the girl with every outward sign of eagerness. He knelt on the dusty floor beside her, his arms stole round her meagre shoulders, and his harsh voice was subdued to tones of gentleness.
"I was only thinking of your happiness, Yvonne," he said tenderly; "of poor blind papa and the two boys to whom you have been such a devoted little mother. My only desire is that you should earn the gratitude of your country by denouncing her most bitter enemy - an act of patriotism which will place you and those for whom you care for ever beyond the reach of sorrow or of want."
The voice, the appeal, the look of love, was more than the poor, simple girl could resist. Milor was so handsome, so kind, so good.
It had all been so strange: these English aristocrats coming here, she knew not whence, and who seemed fugitives even though they had plenty of money to spend. Two days ago they had sought shelter like malefactors escaped from justice - in this same tumble-down, derelict house where she, Yvonne, with her blind father and two little brothers, crept in of nights, or when the weather was too rough for them all to stand and beg in the streets of Paris.
There were five of them altogether, and one seemed to be the chief. He was very tall, and had deep blue eyes, and a merry voice that went echoing along the worm-eaten old rafters. But milor - the one whose arms were encircling her even now - was the handsomest among them all. He had sought Yvonne out on the very first night when she had crawled shivering to that corner of the room where she usually slept.
The English aristocrats had frightened her at first, and she was for flying from the derelict house with her family and seeking shelter elsewhere; but he who appeared to be the chief had quickly reassured her. He seemed so kind and good, and talked so gently to blind papa, and made such merry jests with Francois and Clovis that she herself could scarce refrain from laughing through her tears.
But later on in the night, milor - her milor, as she soon got to call him - came and talked so beautifully that she, poor girl, felt as if no music could ever sound quite so sweetly in her ear.
That was two days ago, and since then milor had often talked to her in the lonely, abandoned house, and Yvonne had felt as if she dwelt in Heaven. She still took blind papa and the boys out to beg in the streets, but in the morning she prepared some hot coffee for the English aristocrats, and in the evening she cooked them some broth. Oh! they gave her money lavishly; but she quite understood that they were in hiding, though what they had to fear, being English, she could not understand.
And now milor - her milor - was telling her that these Englishmen, her friends, were spies and traitors, and that it was her duty to tell citizen Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety all about them and their mysterious doings. And poor Yvonne was greatly puzzled and deeply distressed, because, of course, whatever milor said, that was the truth; and yet her conscience cried out within her poor little bosom, and the thought of betraying those kind Englishmen was horrible to her.
"Yvonne," whispered milor in that endearing voice of his, which was like the loveliest music in her ear, "my little Yvonne, you do trust me, do you not?"
"With all my heart, milor," she murmured fervently.
"Them, would you believe it of me that I would betray a real friend?"
"I believe, milor, that whatever you do is right and good."
A sigh of infinite relief escaped his lips.
"Come, that's better!" he said, patting her cheek kindly with his hand. "Now, listen to me, little one. He who is the chief among us here is the most unscrupulous and daring rascal whom the world has ever known. He it is who is called the 'Scarlet Pimpernel'!"
"The Scarlet Pimpernel!" murmured Yvonne, her eyes dilated with superstitious awe, for she too had heard of the mysterious Englishman and of his followers, who rescued aristocrats and traitors from the death to which the tribunal of the people had justly condemned them, and on whom the mighty hand of the Committee of Public Safety had never yet been able to fall.
"This Scarlet Pimpernel," said milor earnestly after a while, "is also mine own most relentless enemy. With lies and promises he induced me to join him in his work of spying and of treachery, forcing me to do this work against which my whole soul rebels. You can save me from this hated bondage, little one. You can make me free to live again, make me free to love and placed my love at your feet."
His voice he become exquisitely tender, and his lips, as he whispered the heavenly words, were quite close to her ear. He, a great gentleman, loved the miserable little waif whose kindred consisted of a blind father and two half-starved little brothers, and whose only home was this miserable hovel, whence milor's graciousness and bounty would soon take her.
Do you think that Yvonne's sense of right and wrong, of honesty and treachery, should have been keener than that primeval instinct of a simple-hearted woman to throw herself trustingly into the arms of the man who has succeeded in winning her love?
Yvonne, subdued, enchanted, murmured still through her tears:
"What would milor have me do?"
Lord Kulmsted rose from his knees satisfied.
"Listen to me, Yvonne," he said. "You are acquainted with the Englishman's plans, are you not?"
"Of course," she replied simply. "He has had to trust me."
"Then you know that at sundown this afternoon I and the three others are to leave for Courbevoie on foot, where we are to obtain what horses we can whilst awaiting the chief."
"I did not know whither you and the other three gentlemen were going, milor," she replied; "but I did know that some of you were to make a start at four o'clock, whilst I was to wait here for your leader and prepare some supper against his coming."
"At what time did he tell you that he would come?"
"He did not say; but he did tell me that when he returns he will have friends with him - a lady and two little children. They will be hungry and cold. I believe that they are in great danger now, and that the brave English gentleman means to take them away from this awful Paris to a place of safety."
"The brave English gentleman, my dear," retorted milor, with a sneer, "is bent on some horrible work of spying. The lady and the two children are, no doubt, innocent tools in his hands, just as I am, and when he no longer needs them he will deliver them over to the Committee of Public Safety, who will, of a surety, condemn them to death. That will also be my fate, Yvonne, unless you help me now."
"Oh, no, no!" she exclaimed fervently. "Tell me what to do, milor, and I will do it."
"At sundown," he said, sinking his voice so low that even she could scarcely hear, "when I and the three others have started on our way, go straight to the house I spoke to you about in the Rue Dauphine - you know where it is?"
"Oh, yes, milor."
"You will know the house by its tumbledown portico and the tattered red flag that surmounts it. Once there, push the door open and walk in boldly. Then ask to speak with citizen Robespierre."
"Robespierre?" exclaimed the child in terror.
"You must not be afraid, Yvonne," he said earnestly; "you must think of me and of what you are doing for me. My word on it - Robespierre will listen to you most kindly."
"What shall I tell him?' she murmured.
"That a mysterious party of Englishmen are in hiding in this house - that their chief is known among them as the Scarlet Pimpernel. The rest leave to Robespierre's discretion. You see how simple it is?"
It was indeed very simple! Nor did the child recoil any longer from the ugly task which milor, with suave speech and tender voice, was so ardently seeking to impose on her.
A few more words of love, which cost him nothing, a few kisses which cost him still less, since the wench loved him, and since she was young and pretty, and Yvonne was as wax in the hands of the traitor.
Silence reigned in the low-raftered room on the ground floor of the house in the Rue Dauphine.
Citizen Robespierre, chairman of the Cordeliers Club, the most bloodthirsty, most revolutionary club of France, had just re-entered the room.
He walked up to the centre table, and through the close atmosphere, thick with tobacco smoke, he looked round on his assembled friends.
"We have got him," he said at last curtly.
"Got him! Whom?" came in hoarse cries from every corner of the room.
"That Englishman," replied the demagogue, "the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
A prolonged shout rose in response - a shout not unlike that of a caged herd of hungry wild beasts to whom a succulent morsel of flesh has unexpectedly been thrown.
"Where is he?" "Where did you get him?" "Alive or dead?" And many more questions such as these were hurled at the speaker from every side.
Robespierre, calm, impassive, immaculately neat in his tightly-fitting coat, his smart breeches, and his lace cravat, waited awhile until the din had somewhat subsided. Then he said calmly:
"The Scarlet Pimpernel is in hiding in one of the derelict houses in the Rue Berthier."
Snarls of derision as vigorous as the former shouts of triumph drowned the rest of his speech.
"Bah! How often has that cursed Scarlet Pimpernel been said to be alone in a lonely house? Citizen Chauvelin has had him at his mercy several times in lonely houses."
And the speaker, a short, thick-set man with sparse black hair plastered over a greasy forehead, his shirt open at the neck, revealing a powerful chest and rough, hair skin, spat in ostentatious contempt upon the floor.
"Therefore will we not boast of his capture yet, citizen Roger," resumed Robespierre imperturbably. "I tell you where the Englishman is. Do you look to it that he does not escape."
The heat in the room had become intolerable. From the grimy ceiling an oil-lamp, flickering low, threw lurid, ruddy lights on tricolour cockades, on hands that seemed red with the blood of innocent victims of lust and hate, and on faces glowing with desire and with anticipated savage triumph.
"Who is the informer?" asked Roger at last.
"A girl," replied Robespierre curtly. "Yvonne Lebeau, by name; she and her family live by begging. There are a blind father and two boys; they herd together at night in the derelict house in the Rye Berthier. Five Englishmen have been in hiding there these past few days. One of them is their leader. The girl believes him to be the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"Why has she not spoken of this before?" muttered one of the crowd, with some skepticism.
"Frightened, I suppose. Or the Englishman paid her to hold her tongue."
"Where is the girl now?"
"I am sending her straight home, a little ahead of us. Her presence should reassure the Englishman whilst we make ready to surround the house. In the meanwhile, I have sent special messengers to every gate of Paris with strict orders to the guard not to allow anyone out of the city until further orders from the Committee of Public Safety. And now," he added, throwing back his head with a gesture of proud challenge, "citizens, which of you will go man-hunting to-night?"
This time the strident roar of savage exultation was loud and deep enough to shake the flickering lamp upon its chain.
A brief discussion of plans followed, and Roger - he with the broad, hairy chest and that gleam of hatred for ever lurking in his deep-set, shifty eyes - was chosen the leader of the party.
Thirty determined and well-armed patriots set out against one man, who mayhap had supernatural powers. There would, no doubt, be some aristocrats, too, in hiding in the derelict house - the girl Lebeau, it seems, had spoken of a woman and two children. Bah! These would not count. it would be thirty to one, so let the Scarlet Pimpernel look to himself.
From the towers of Notre Dame the big bell struck the hour of six, as thirty men in ragged shirts and torn breeches, shivering beneath a cold November drizzle, began slowly to went their way towards the Rue Berthier.
They walked on in silence, not heeding the cold or the rain, but with eyes fixed in the direction of their goal, and nostrils quivering in the evening air with the distant scent of blood.
At the top of the Rue Berthier the party halted. On ahead - some two hundred mètres farther - Yvonne Lebeau's little figure, with her ragged skirt pulled over her head and her bare feet pattering in the mud, was seen crossing one of those intermittent patches of light formed by occasional flickering street lamps, and then was swallowed up once more by the inky blackness beyond.
The Rue Berthier is a long, narrow, ill-paved and ill-lighted street, composed of low and irregular houses, which abut on the line of fortifications at the back, and are therefore absolutely inaccessible save from the front.
Midway down the street a derelict house rears ghostly débris of roofs and chimney-stacks upward to the sky. A tiny square of yellow light, blinking like a giant eye through a curtainless window, pierced the wall of the house. Roger pointed to that light.
"That," he said, "is the quarry where our fox has run to earth."
No one said anything; but the dank night air seemed suddenly alive with all the passions of hate let loose by thirty beating hearts.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, who had tricked them, mocked them, fooled them so often, was there, not two hundred mètres away; and they were thirty to one, and all determined and desperate.
The darkness was intense.
Silently now the party approached the house, then again they halted, within sixty mètres of it.
The whisper could scarce be heard, so low was it, like the sighing of the wind through a misty veil.
"Who is it?" came the quick challenge from Roger.
"I - Yvonne Lebeau!"
"Is he here?" was the eager whispered query.
"Not yet. But he may come at any moment. If he saw a crowd round the house, mayhap he would not come."
"He cannot see a crowd. The night is as dark as pitch."
"He can see in the darkest night," and the girl's voice sank to an awed whisper, "and he can hear through a stone wall."
Instinctively, Roger shuddered. The superstitious fear which the mysterious personality of the Scarlet Pimpernel evoked in the heart of every Terrorist had suddenly seized this man in its grip.
Try as he would, he did not feel as valiant as he had done when first he emerged at the head of his party from under the portico of the Cordeliers Club, and it was with none too steady a voice that he ordered the girl roughly back to the house. Then he turned once more to his men.
The plan of action had been decided on in the Club, under the presidency of Robespierre; it only remained to carry the plans through with success.
From the side of the fortifications there was, of course, nothing to fear. In accordance with military regulations, the walls of the houses there rose sheer from the ground without doors or windows, whilst the broken-down parapets and dilapidated roofs towered forty feet above the ground.
The derelict itself was one of a row of houses, some inhabited, others quite abandoned. It was the front of that row of houses, therefore, that had to be kept in view. Marshalled by Roger, the men, flatened their meagre bodies against the walls of the houses opposite, and after that there was nothing to do but wait.
To wait in the darkness of the night, with a thin, icy rain soaking through ragged shirts and tattered breeches, with bare feet frozen by the mud of the road - to wait in silence while turbulent hearts beat well-nigh to bursting - to wait for food whilst hunger gnaws the bowels - to wait for drink whilst the parched tongue cleaves to the roof of the mouth - to wait for revenge whilst the hours roll slowly by and the cries of the darkened city are stilled one by one!
Once - when a distant bell tolled the hour of ten - a loud prolonged laugh, almost impudent in it suggestion of merry insouciance, echoed through the weird silence of the night.
Roger felt that the man nearest to him shivered at that sound, and he heard a volley or two of muttered oaths.
"The fox seems somewhere near," he whispered. "Come within. We'll wait for him inside his hole."
He led the way across the street, some of the men following him.
The door of the derelict house had been left on the latch. Roger pushed it open.
Silence and gloom here reigned supreme; utter darkness, too, save for a narrow streak of light which edge the framework of a door on the right. Not a sound stirred the quietude of this miserable hovel, only the creaking of boards beneath the men's feet as they entered.
Roger crossed the passage and opened the door on the right. His friends pressed closely round to him and peeped over his shoulder into the room beyond.
A guttering piece of tallow candle, fixed to an old tin pot, stood in the middle of the floor, and its feeble, flickering light only served to accentuate the darkness that lay beyond its range. One or two rickety chairs and a rough deal table showed vaguely in the gloom, and in the far corner of the room there lay a bundle of what looked like heaped-up rags, but from which there now emerged the sound of heavy breathing and also a little cry of fear.
"Yvonne," came in feeble, querulous accents from that same bundle of wretchedness, "are these the English milors come back at last?"
"No, no, father," was the quick whispered reply.
Roger swore a loud oath, and two puny voices began to whimper piteously.
"It strikes me the wench has been fooling us," muttered one of the men savagely.
The girl had struggled to her feet. She crouched in the darkness, and two little boys, half-naked and shivering, were clinging to her skirts. The rest of the human bundle seemed to consist of an oldish man, with long, gaunt legs and arms blue with the cold. He turned vague, wide-open eyes in the direction whence had come the harsh voices.
"Are they friends, Yvonne?" he asked anxiously.
The girl did her best to reassure him.
"Yes, yes, father," she whispered close to his ear, her voice scarce above her breath; "they are good citizens who hoped to find the English milor here. They are disappointed that he has not yet come."
"Ah! but he will come, of a surety," said the old man in that querulous voice of his. "He left his beautiful clothes here this morning, and surely he will come to fetch them."
And his long, thin hand pointed towards a distant corner of the room.
Roger and his friends, looking to where he was pointing, saw a parcel of clothes, neatly folded, lying on one of the chairs. Like so many wild cats snarling at sight of prey, they threw themselves upon those clothes, tearing them out from one another's hands, turning them over and over as if to force the cloth and satin to yield up the secret that lay within their folds.
In the skirmish a scrap of paper fluttered to the ground. Roger seized it with avidity, and, crouching on the floor, smoothed the paper out against his knee.
It contained a few hastily scrawled words, and by the feeble light of the fast-dying candle Roger spelt them out laboriously:
"If the finder of these clothes will take them to the cross-roads opposite the foot-bridge which leads straight to Courbevoie, and will do so before the clock of Courbevoie Church has struck the hour of midnight, he will be rewarded with the sum of five hundred francs."
"There is something more, citizen Roger,"
said a raucous voice close to his ear.
"Look! Look, citizen - in the bottom corner of the paper."
"A scrawl done in red," said Roger, trying to decipher it.
"It looks like a small flower."
"That accursed Scarlet Pimpernel!"
And even as he spoke the guttering tallow candle, swaying in its socket, suddenly went out with a loud splutter and a sizzle that echoed through the desolate room like the mocking laugh of ghouls.
Once more the tramp through the dark and deserted streets, with the drizzle - turned now to sleet - beating on thinly clad shoulders. Fifteen men only on this tramp. The others remained behind to watch the house. Fifteen men, led by Roger, and with a blind old man, a young girl carrying a bundle of clothes, and two half-naked children dragged as camp-followers in the rear.
Their destination now was the sign-post which stands at the cross-roads, past the foot-bridge that leads to Courbevoie.
The guard at the Maillot Gate would have stopped the party, but Roger, member of the Committee of Public Safety, armed with his papers and his tricolour scarf, overruled Robespierre's former orders, and the party marched out of the gate.
They pressed on in silence, instinctively walking shoulder to shoulder, vaguely longing for the touch of another human hand, the sound of a voice that would not ring weirdly in the mysterious night.
There was something terrifying in this absolute silence, in such intense darkness, in this constant wandering towards a goal that seemed for ever distant, and in all this weary, weary fruitless waiting; and these men, who lived their life through, drunken with blood, deafened by the cries of their victims, satiated with the moans of the helpless of the innocent, hardly dared to look around them, lest they should see ghoulish forms flitting through the gloom.
Soon they reached the cross-roads, and in the dense blackness of the night the gaunt arms of the sign-post pointed ghostlike towards the north.
The men hung back, wrapped in the darkness as in a pall, while Roger advanced alone.
"Holà! A friend - with some clothes found in the Rue Berthier. Is anyone here? Holà! A friend!"
But only from the gently murmuring rover far away the melancholy call of a waterfowl seemed to echo mockingly:
Just then the clock of Courbevoie Church struck the midnight hour.
"It is too late," whispered the men.
They did not swear, nor did they curse their leader. Somehow it seemed as if they had expected all along that the Englishman would evade their vengeance yet again, that he would lure them out into the cold and into the darkness, and then that he would mock them, fool them, and finally disappear into the night. It seemed futile to wait any longer. They were so sure that they had failed again.
"Who goes there?"
The sound of naked feet and of wooden sabots pattering on the distant foot-bridge had caused Roger to utter the quick challenge.
"Holà! Holà! Are you there?" was the loud, breathless response.
The next moment the darkness became alive with men moving quickly forward, and raucous shouts of "Where are they?" "Have you got them?" "Don't let them go!" filled the air.
"Got whom?" "Who are they?" "What is it?" were the wild counter-cries.
"The man! The girl! The children! Where are that?"
"What? Which?" The Lebeau family? They are here with us."
Where, indeed? To a call to them from Roger there came no answer, nor did a hasty search result in finding them - the old man, the two boys, and the girl carrying the bundle of clothes had vanished into the night.
"In the name of Satan, what does this mean?" cried hoarse voices in the crowd.
The new-comers, breathless, terrified, shaking with superstitious fear, tried to explain.
"The Lebeau family - the old man, the girl, the two boys - we discovered after your departure, locked up in the cellar of the house - prisoners."
"But, then - the others?" they gasped.
"The girl and the children whom you saw must have been some aristocrats in disguise. The old man who spoke to you was that cursed Englishman - the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
And as if in mocking confirmation of these words there suddenly rang, echoing from afar, a long and merry laugh.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel!" cried Roger. "In rags and barefooted! At him, citizens; he cannot have got far!"
"Hush! Listen!" whispered one of the men, suddenly gripping him by the arm.
And from the distance - though Heaven only knew from what direction - came the sound of horses' hoofs pawing the soft ground; the next moment they were heard galloping away at breakneck speed.
The men turned to run in every direction, blindly, aimlessly, in the dark, like bloodhounds that have lost the trail.
One man, as he ran, stumbled against a dark mass prone upon the ground. With a curse on his lips, he recovered his balance.
"Hold! What is this?" he cried.
Some of his comrades gathered round him. No one could see anything, but the dark mass appeared to have human shape, and it was bound round and round with cords. And now feeble moans escaped from obviously human lips.
"What is it? Who is it?" asked the man.
"An Englishman," came in weak accents from the ground.
"I am called Kulmsted."
"Bah! An aristocrat!"
"No! An enemy of the Scarlet Pimpernel, like yourselves. I would have delivered him into your hands. But you let him escape you. As for me, he would have been wiser if he had killed me."
They picked him up and undid the cords from round his body, and later on took him with them back into Paris.
But there, in the darkness of the night, in the mud of the road, and beneath the icy rain, knees were shaking that had long ago forgotten how to bend, and hasty prayers were muttered by lips that were far more accustomed to blaspheme.