In the centre of the Place the guillotine stood idle -- the paint had worn off her sides -- she looked weather-beaten and forlorn -- stern and forbidding still, but in a kind of sullen loneliness, with the ugly stains of crimson on her, turned to rust and grime.
The Place itself was deserted, in strange contrast to the bustle and the movement which characterized it in the days when the death of men, women and children was a daily spectacle here for the crowd. Then a constant stream of traffic, of carts and of tumbrils, of soldiers and gaffers encumbered it in every corner, now a few tumble-down booths set up against the frontage of the grim edifice -- once the stronghold of the Dukes of Brittany, now little else but a huge prison -- a few vendors and still fewer purchasers of the scanty wares displayed under their ragged awnings, one or two idlers loafing against the mud-stained walls, one or two urchins playing in the gutters were the only signs of life. Martin-Roget with his colleague Chauvelin turned into the Place from the quay -- they walked rapidly and kept their mantles closely wrapped under their chin, for the afternoon had turned bitterly cold. It was then close upon five o'clock -- a dark, moonless, starless night had set in with only a suspicion of frost in the damp air; but a blustering north-westerly wind blowing down the river and tearing round the narrow streets and the open Place, caused passers-by to muffle themselves, shivering, yet tighter in their cloaks.
Martin-Roget was talking volubly and excitedly, his tall, broad figure towering above the slender form of his companion. From time to time he tossed his mantle aside with an impatient, febrile gesture and then paused in the middle of the Place, with one hand on the other man's shoulder, marking a point in his discourse or emphasizing his argument with short staccato sentences and brief, emphatic words. Chauvelin -- placid and impenetrable as usual -- listened much and talked little. He was ready to stand still or to walk along just as his colleague's mood demanded; in the darkness, and with the collar of a large mantle pulled tightly up to his ears, it was impossible to guess by any sign in his face what was going on in his mind.
They were a strange contrast these two men -- temperamentally as well as physically -- even though they had so much in common and were both the direct products of the same social upheaval which was shaking the archaic dominion of France to its very foundations. Martin-Roget, tall, broad-shouldered, bull-necked, the typical self-educated peasant, with square jaw and flat head, with wide bony hands and spatulated fingers: and Chauvelin -- the aristocrat turned demagogue, thin and frail-looking, bland of manner and suave of speech, with delicate hands and pale, almost ascetic face.
The one represented all that was most brutish and sensual in this fight of one caste against the other, the thirst for the other's blood, the human beast that has been brought to bay through wrongs perpetrated against it by others and has turned upon its oppressors, lashing out right and left with blind and lustful fury at the crowd of tyrants that had kept him in subjection for so long. Whilst Chauvelin was the personification of the spiritual side of this bloody Revolution -- the spirit of cool and calculating reprisals that would demand an eye for an eye and see that it got two. The idealist who dreams of the righteousness of his own cause and the destruction of its enemies, but who leaves to others the accomplishment of all the carnage and the bloodshed which his idealism has demanded, and which his reason has appraised as necessary for the triumph of which he dreams. Chauvelin was the man of thought and Martin-Roget the man of action. With the one, revenge and reprisals were selfish desires, the avenging of wrongs done to himself or to his caste, hatred for those who had injured him or his kindred. The other had no personal feelings of hatred: he had no personal wrongs to avenge: his enemies were the enemies of his party, the erstwhile tyrants who in the past had oppressed an entire people. Every man, woman or child who was not satisfied with the present Reign of Terror, who plotted or planned for its overthrow, who was not ready to see husband, father, wife or child sacrificed for the ultimate triumph of the Revolution was in Chauvelin's sight a noxious creature, fit only to be trodden under heel and ground into subjection or annihilation as a danger to the State.
Martin-Roget was the personification of sans-culottism, of rough manners and foul speech -- he chafed against the conventions which forced him to wear decent clothes and boots on his feet -- he would gladly have seen every one go about the streets half-naked, unwashed, a living sign of that downward levelling of castes which he and his friends stood for, and for which they had fought and striven and committed every crime which human passions let loose could invent. Chauvelin, on the other hand, was one of those who wore fine linen and buckled shoes and whose hands were delicately washed and perfumed whilst they signed decrees which sent hundreds of women and children to a violent and cruel death.
The one trod in the paths of Danton: the other followed in the footsteps of Robespierre.
Together the two men mounted the outside staircase which leads up past the lodge of the concierge and through the clerk's office to the interior of the stronghold. Outside the monumental doors they had to wait a moment or two while the clerk examined their permits to enter.
'Will you come into my office with me?' asked Chauvelin of his companion; 'I have a word or two to add to my report for the Paris courier to-night. I won't be long.'
'You are still in touch with the Committee of Public Safety then?' asked Martin-Roget.
'Always,' replied the other curtly.
Martin-Roget threw a quick, suspicious glance on his companion. Darkness and the broad brim of his sugar-loaf hat effectually concealed even the outlines of Chauvelin's face, and Martin-Roget fell to musing over one or two things which Carrier had blurted out awhile ago. The whole of France was overrun with spies these days -- every one was under suspicion, every one had to be on his guard. Every word was overheard, every glance seen, every sign noted.
What was this man Chauvelin doing here in Nantes? what reports did he send up to Paris by special courier? He, the miserable failure who had ceased to count was nevertheless in constant touch with that awful Committee of Public Safety which was wont to strike at all times and unexpectedly in the dark. Martin-Roget shivered beneath his mantle. For the first time since his schemes of vengeance had wholly absorbed his mind he regretted the freedom and safety which he had enjoyed in England, and he marvelled if the miserable game which he was playing would be worth the winning in the end. Nevertheless he had followed Chauvelin without comment. The man appeared to exercise a fascination over him -- a kind of subtle power, which emanated from his small shrunken figure, from his pale keen eyes and his well-modulated, suave mode of speech.
The clerk had handed the two men their permits back. They were allowed to pass through the gates.
In the hall some half-dozen men were nominally on guard -- nominally, because discipline was not over strict these days, and the men sat or lolled about the place; two of them were intent on a game of dominoes, another was watching them, whilst the other three were settling some sort of quarrel among themselves which necessitated vigorous and emphatic gestures and the copious use of expletives. One man, who appeared to be in command, divided his time impartially between the domino-players and those who were quarrelling.
The vast place was insufficiently lighted by a chandelier which hung from the ceiling and a couple of small oil-lamps placed in the circular niches in the wall opposite the front door.
No one took any notice of Martin-Roget or of Chauvelin as they crossed the hall, and presently the latter pushed open a door on the left of the main gates and held it open for his colleague to pass through.
'You are sure that I shall not be disturbing you?' queried Martin-Roget.
'Quite sure,' replied the other curtly. 'And there is something I must say to you . . . where I know that I shall not be overheard.'
Then he followed Martin-Roget into the room and closed the door behind him. The room was scantily furnished with a square deal table in the centre, two or three chairs, a broken-down bureau leaning against one wall and an iron stove wherein a meagre fire sent a stream of malodorous smoke through sundry cracks in its chimney-pipe. From the ceiling there hung an oil-lamp the light of which was thrown down upon the table, by a large green shade made of cardboard.
Chauvelin drew a chair to the bureau and sat down; he pointed to another and Martin-Roget took a seat beside the table. He felt restless and excited -- his nerves all on the jar: his colleague's calm, sardonic glance acted as a further irritant to his temper.
'What is it that you wish to say to me, citizen Chauvelin?' he asked at last.
'Just a word, citizen,' replied the other in his quiet urbane manner. 'I have accompanied you faithfully on your journey to England: I have placed my feeble powers at your disposal: awhile ago I stood between you and the proconsul's wrath. This, I think, has earned me the right of asking what you intend to do.'
'I don't know about the right,' retorted Martin-Roget gruffly, 'but I don't mind telling you. As you remarked awhile ago the North-West wind is wont to be of good counsel. I have thought the matter over whilst I walked with you along the quay and I have decided to act on Carrier's suggestion. Our eminent proconsul said just now that it was the duty of every true patriot to marry an aristo, an he be free and Chance puts a comely wench in his way. I mean,' he added with a cynical laugh, 'to act on that advice and marry Yvonne de Kernogan . . . if I can.'
'She has refused you up to now?'
'Yes . . . up to now.'
'You have threatened her -- and her father?'
'Yes -- both. Not only with death but with shame.'
'And still she refuses?'
'Apparently,' said Martin-Roget with every-growing irritation.
'It is often difficult,' rejoined Chauvelin meditatively, 'to compel these aristos. They are obstinate. . . '
'Oh! don't forget that I am in a position now to bring additional pressure on the wench. That lout Carrier has splendid ideas -- a brute, what? but clever and full of resource. That suggestion of his about the Rat Mort is splendid . . .'
'You mean to try and act on it?'
'Of course I do,' said Martin-Roget roughly. 'I am going over presently to my sister's house to see the Kernogan wench again, and to have another talk with her. Then if she still refuses, if she still chooses to scorn the honourable position which I offer her, I shall act on Carrier's suggestion. It will be at the Rat Mort to-night that she and I will have our final interview, and there when I dangle the prospect of Cayenne and the convict's brand before her, she may not prove so obdurate as she has been up to now.'
'H'm! That is as may be,' was Chauvelin's dry comment. 'Personally I am inclined to agree with Carrier. Death, swift and sure -- the Loire or the guillotine -- is the best that has yet been invented for traitors and aristos. But we won't discuss that again. I know your feelings in the matter and in a measure I respect them. But if you will allow me I would like to be present at your interview with the soi-disant Lady Anthony Dewhurst. I won't disturb you and I won't say a word . . . but there is something I would like to make sure of. . .'
'What is that?'
'Whether the wench has any hopes . . .' said Chauvelin slowly, 'whether she has received a message or has any premonition . . . whether in short she thinks that outside agencies are at work on her behalf.'
'Tshaw!' exclaimed Martin-Roget impatiently, 'you are still harping on that Scarlet Pimpernel idea.'
'I am,' retorted the other drily.
'As you please. But understand, citizen Chauvelin, that I will not allow you to interfere with my plans, whilst you go off on one of those wild-goose chases which have already twice brought you into disrepute.'
'I will not interfere with your plans, citizen,' rejoined Chauvelin with unwonted gentleness, 'but let me in my turn impress one thing upon you, and that is that unless you are as wary as the serpent, as cunning as the fox, all your precious plans will be upset by that interfering Englishman whom you choose to disregard.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean that I know him -- to my cost -- and you do not. But you will, an I am not gravely mistaken, make acquaintance with him ere your great adventure with these Kernogan people is successfuly at an end. Believe me, citizen Martin-Roget,' he added impressively, 'you would have been far wiser to accept Carrier's suggestion and let him fling that rabble into the Loire for you.'
'Pshaw! you are not childish enough to imagine, citizen Chauvelin, that your Englishman can spirit away that wench from under my sister's eyes? Do you know what my sister suffered at the hands of the Kernogans? Do you think that she is like to forget my father's ignominious death any more than I am? And she mourns a lover as well as a father -- she mourns her youth, her happiness, the mother whom she worshipped. Think you a better gaoler could be found anywhere? And there are friends of mine -- lads of our own village, men who hate the Kernogans as bitterly as I do myself -- who are only too ready to lend Louise a hand in case of violence. And after that -- suppose your magnificent Scarlet Pimpernel succeeded in hoodwinking my sister and in evading the vigilance of a score of determined village lads, who would sooner die one by one than see the Kernogan escape -- suppose all that, I say, there would still be the guard at every city gate to challenge. No! no! it couldn't be done, citizen Chauvelin,' he added with a complacent laugh. 'Your Englishman would need the help of a legion of angels, what? to get the wench out of Nantes this time.'
Chauvelin made no comment on his colleague's impassioned harangue. Memory had taken him back to that one day in September in Boulogne when he too had set one prisoner to guard a precious hostage: it brought back to his mind a vision of a strangely picturesque figure as it appeared to him in the window-embrasure of the old castle-hall: it brought back to his ears the echo of that quaint, irresponsible laughter, of that lazy, drawling speech, of all that had acted as an irritant on his nerves ere he found himself baffled, foiled, eating out his heart with vain reproach at his own folly.
'I see you are unconvinced, citizen Martin-Roget,' he said quietly, 'and I know that it is the fashion nowadays among young politicians to sneer at Chauvelin -- the living embodiment of failure. But let me just add this. When you and I talked matters over together at the Bottom Inn, in the wilds of Somersetshire, I warned you that not only was your identity known to the man who calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel, but also that he knew every one of your plans with regard to the Kernogan wench and her father. You laughed at me them . . . do you remember? . . . you shrugged your shoulders and jeered at what you called my far-fetched ideas . . . just as you do now. Well! will you let me remind you of what happened within four-and-twenty hours of that warning which you chose to disregard? . . . Yvonne de Kernogan was married to Lord Anthony Dewhurst and . . .'
'I know all that, man,' broke in Martin-Roget impatiently. 'It was all a mere coincidence . . . the marriage must have been planned long before that . . . your Scarlet Pimpernel could not possibly have had anything to do with it.'
'Perhaps not,' rejoined Chauvelin drily. 'But mark what has happened since. Just now when we crossed the Place I saw in the distance a figure flitting past -- the gorgeous figure of an exquisite who of a surety is a stranger in Nantes: and carried upon the wings of the north-westerly wind there came to me the sound of a voice which, of late, I have only heard in my dreams. On my soul, citizen Martin-Roget,' he added with earnest emphasis, 'I assure you that the Scarlet Pimpernel is in Nantes at the present moment, that he is scheming, plotting, planning to rescue the Kernogan wench, out of you clutches. He will not leave her in your power, on this I would stake my life; she is the wife of one of his dearest friends: he will not abandon her, not while he keeps that resourceful head of his on his shoulders. Unless you are desperately careful he will outwit you; of that I am as convinced as that I am alive.'
'Bah! you have been dreaming, citizen Chauvelin,' rejoined Martin-Roget with a laugh and shrugging his broad shoulders; 'your mysterious Englishman in Nantes? Why man! the navigation of the Loire has been totally prohibited these last fourteen days -- no carriage, van or vehicle of any kind is allowed to enter the city -- no man, woman or child to pass the barriers without special permit signed either by the proconsul himself or by Fleury the captain of the Marats. Why! even I, when I brought the Kernogans in overland from Le Croisic, I was detained two hours outside Nantes while my papers were sent in to Carrier for inspection. You know that, you were with me.'
'I know it,' replied Chauvelin drily, 'and yet . . .'
He paused, with one clawlike finger held erect to demand attention. The door of the small room in which they sat gave on the big hall where the half-dozen Marats were stationed, the single window at right angles to the door looked out upon the Place below. It was from there that suddenly there came the sound of a loud peal of laughter -- quaint and merry -- somewhat inane and affected, and at the sound Chauvelin's pale face took on the hue of ashes and even Martin-Roget felt a strange sensation of cold creeping down his spine.
For a few seconds the two men remained quite still, as if a spell had been cast over them through that light-hearted peal of rippling laughter. Then equally suddenly the younger man shook himself free of the spell; with a few long strides he was already at the door and out in the vast hall: Chauvelin following closely on his heels.
The clock in the tower of the edifice was even then striking five. The Marats in the hall looked up with lazy indifference at the two men who had come rushing out in such an abrupt and excited manner.
'Any stranger been through here?' queried Chauvelin peremptorily of the sergeant in command.
'No,' replied the latter curtly. 'How could they, without a permit?'
He shrugged his shoulders and the men resumed their game and their argument. Martin-Roget would have parleyed with them but Chauvelin had already crossed the hall and was striding past the clerk's office and the lodge of the concierge out toward the open. Martin-Roget, after a moment's hestitation, followed him.
The Place was wrapped in gloom. From the platform of the guillotine an oil-lamp hoisted on a post threw a small circle of light around. Small pieces of tallow candle, set in pewter sconces, glimmered feebly under the awnings of the booths, and there was a street-lamp affixed to the wall of the old château immediately below the parapet of the staircase, and others at the angles of the Rue de la Monnaye and the narrow Ruelle des Jacobins.
Chauvelin's keen eyes tried to pierce the surrounding darkness. He leaned over the parapet and peered into the remote angles of the building and round the booths below him.
There were a few people on the Place, some walking rapidly across from one end to the other, intent on business, others pausing in order to make purchases at the booths. Up and down the steps of the guillotine a group of street urchins were playing hide-and-seek. Round the angles of the narrow streets the vague figures of passers-by flitted to and fro, now easily discernible in the light of the street lanthorns, anon swallowed up again in the darkness beyond. Whilst immediately below the parapet two or three men of the Company Marat were lounging against the walls. Their red bonnets showed up clearly in the flickering light of the street lamps, as did their bare shins and the polished points of their sabots. But of an elegant, picturesque figure such as Chauvelin had described awhile ago there was not a sign.
Martin-Roget leaned over the parapet and called peremptorily:
'Hey there! citizens of the Company Marat!'
One of the red-capped men looked up leisurely.
'Your desire, citizen?' he queried with insolent deliberation, for they were mighty men, this bodyguard of the great proconsul, his spies and tools in the awesome work of frightfulness which he carried on so ruthlessly.
'Is that you Paul Friche?' queried Martin-Roget in response.
'At your service, citizen,' came the glib reply, delivered not without mock deference.
'Then come up here. I wish to speak with you.'
'I can't leave my post, nor can my mates,' retorted the man who had answered to the name of Paul Friche. 'Come down, citizen, an you desire to speak with us.'
Martin-Roget swore lustily.
'The insolence of that rabble . . .' he murmured.
'Hush! I'll go,' interposed Chauvelin quickly. 'Do you know that man Friche? Is he trustworthy?'
'Yes, I know him. As for being trustworthy . . . ' added Martin Roget with a shrug of the shoulders. 'He is a corporal in the Marats and high in favour with commandant Fleury.'
Every second was of value, and Chauvelin was not the man to waste time in useless parleyings. He ran down the stairs at the foot of which one of the red-capped gentry deigned to speak with him.
'Have you seen any strangers across the Place just now?' he queried in a whisper.
'Yes,' replied the man Friche. 'Two!'
Then he spat upon the ground and added spitefully: 'Aristos, what? In fine clothes -- like yourself citizen . . .'
'Which way did they go?'
'Down the Ruelle des Jacobins.'
'Two minutes ago.'
'Why did you not follow them? . . . Aristos and . . .'
'I would have followed,' retorted Paul Friche with studied insolence; ' 'twas you called me away from my duty.'
'After them then!' urged Chauvelin peremptorily. 'They cannot have gone far. They are English spies, and remember, citizen, that there's a reward for their apprehension.'
The man grunted an eager assent. The word 'reward' had fired his zeal. In a trice he had called to his mates and the three Marats soon sped across the Place and down the Ruelle des Jacobins where the surrounding gloom quickly swallowed them up.
Chauvelin watched them till they were out of sight, then he rejoined his colleagues on the landing at the top of the stairs. For a second or two longer the click of the men's sabots upon the stones resounded on the adjoining streets and across the Place, and suddenly that same quaint, merry, somewhat inane laugh woke the echoes of the grim buildings around and caused many a head to turn inquiringly, marvelling who it could be that had the heart to laugh these days in the streets of Nantes.
Five minutes or so later the three Marats could vaguely be seen recrossing the Place and making their way back to Le Bouffay, where Martin-Roget and Chauvelin still stood on the top of the stairs excited and expectant. At sight of the men Chauvelin ran down the steps to meet them.
'Well?' he queried in an eager whisper.
'We never saw them,' replied Paul Friche gruffly, 'though we could hear them clearly enough, talking, laughing and walking very rapidly toward the quay. Then suddenly the earth or the river swallowed them up. We saw and heard nothing more.'
Chauvelin swore and a curious hissing sound escaped his thin lips.
'Don't be too disappointed, citizen,' added the man with a coarse laugh, 'my mate picked this up at the corner of the Ruelle, when, I fancy, we were pressing the aristos pretty closely.'
He held out a small bundle of papers tied together with a piece of red ribbon: the bundle had evidently rolled in the mud, for the papers were covered with grime, Chauvelin's thin, claw-like fingers had at once closed over them.
'You must give me back those papers, citizen,' said the man, 'they are my booty. I can only give them up to citizen-captain Fleury.'
'I'll give them to the citizen-captain myself,' retorted Chauvelin. 'For the moment you had best not leave your post of duty,' he added more peremptorily, seeing that the man made as he would follow him.
'I take orders from no one except . . .' protested the man gruffly.
'You will take them from me now,' broke in Chauvelin with a sudden assumption of command and authority which sat with weird strangeness upon his thin shrunken figure. 'Go back to your post at once, ere I lodge a complain against you for neglect of duty, with the citizen proconsul.'
He turned on his heel and, without paying further heed to the man and his mutterings, he remounted the stone stairs.
'No success, I suppose?' queried Martin-Roget.
'None,' replied Chauvelin curtly.
He had the packet of papers tightly clasped in his hand. He was debating in his mind whether he would speak of them to his colleague or not.
'What did Friche say?' asked the latter impatiently.
'Oh! very little. He and his mates caught sight of the strangers and followed them as far as the quays. But they were walking very fast and suddenly the Marats lost their trace in the darkness. It seemed, according to Paul Friche, as if the earth or the night had swallowed them up.'
'And was that all?'
'Yes. That was all.'
'I wonder,' added Martin-Roget with a light laugh and a careless shrug of his wide shoulders, 'I wonder if you and I, citizen Chauvelin -- and Paul Friche too for that matter --have been the victims of our nerves.'
'I wonder,' assented Chauvelin drily. And -- quite quietly -- he slipped the packet of papers in the pockets of his coat.
'Then we may as well adjourn. There is nothing else you wish to say to me about that enigmatic Scarlet Pimpernel of yours?'
'No -- nothing.'
'And you still would like to hear what the Kernogan wench will say and see how she will look when I put my final proposal to her?'
'If you will allow me.'
'Then come,' said Martin-Roget. 'My sister's
house is close by.'