In order to reach the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie the two men had to skirt the whole edifice of Le Bouffay, walk a little along the quay and turn up the narrow alley opposite the bridge. They walked on in silence, each absorbed in his own thoughts.
The house occupied by the citizeness Adet lay back a little from the others in the street. It was one of an irregular row of mean, squalid, tumble-down houses, some of them little more than lean-to-sheds built into the walls of Le Bouffay. Most of them had overhanging roofs which stretched out like awnings more than half-way across the road, and even at midday shut out any little ray of sunshine which might have a tendency to peep into the street below.
In this year II of the Republic the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie was unpaved, dark and evil-smelling. For two thirds of the year it was ankle-deep in mud: the rest of the time the mud was baked into cakes and emitted clouds of sticky dust under the shuffling feet of the passers-by. At night it was dimly lighted by one or two broken-down lanthorns which were hung on transverse chains overhead from house to house. These lanthorns only made a very small circle of light immediately below them: the rest of the street was left in darkness save for the faint glimmer which filtrated through an occasional ill-fitting doorway or through the chinks of some insecurely fastened shutter.
The Carrefour de la Poissonnerie was practically deserted in the daytime; only a few children -- miserable little atoms of humanity showing their meagre, emaciated bodies through the scanty rags which failed to cover their nakedness -- played weird, mirthless games in the mud and filth of the street. But at night it became strangely peopled with vague and furtive forms that were wont to glide swiftly by, beneath the hanging lanthorns, in order to lose themselves again in the welcome obscurity beyond: men and women -- ill-clothed and unshod, with hands buried in pockets or beneath scanty shawls -- their feet, oft-times bare, making no sound as they went squishing through the mud. A perpetual silence used to reign in this kingdom of squalor and of darkness, where nighthawks alone fluttered their wings; only from time to time a joyless greeting of boon-companions, or the hoarse cough of some wretched consumptive would wake the dormant echoes that lingered in the gloom.
Martin-Roget knew his way about the murky street well enough. He went up to the house which lay a little back from the others. It appeared even more squalid than the rest, not a sound came from within -- hardly a light -- only a narrow glimmer found its way through the chink of a shutter on the floor above. To right and left of it the houses were tall, with walls that reeked of damp and of filth: from one of these -- the one on the left -- an iron sign dangled and creaked dismally as it swung in the wind. Just above the sign there was a window with partially closed shutters: through it came the sound of two husky voices raised in heated arguments.
In the open space in front of Louise Adet's house vague forms standing about or lounging against the walls of the neighbouring houses were vaguely discernible in the gloom. Martin-Roget and Chauvelin as they approached were challenged by a raucous voice which came to them out of the inky blackness around.
'Halt! who goes there?'
'Friends!' replied Martin-Roget promptly. 'Is citizeness Adet within?'
'Yes! she is!' retorted the man bluntly; 'excuse me, friend Adet -- I did not know you in this confounded darkness.'
'No harm done,' said Martin-Roget. 'And it is I who am grateful to you all for your vigilance.'
'Oh!' said the other with a laugh, 'there's not much fear of your bird getting out of its cage. Have no fear, friend Adet! That Kernogan rabble is well looked after.'
The small group dispersed in the darkness and Martin-Roget rapped against the door of his sister's house with his knuckles.
'That is the Rat Mort,' he said, indicating the building on his left with a nod of the head. 'A very unpleasant neighbourhood for my sister, and she has oft complained of it -- but name of a dog! won't it prove useful this night?'
Chauvelin had as usual followed his colleague in silence, but his keen eyes had not failed to note the presence of the village lads of whom Martin-Roget had spoken. There are no eyes so watchful as those of hate, nor is there aught so incorruptible. Every one of these men here had an old wrong to avenge, an old score to settle with those ci-devant Kernogans who had once been their masters and who were so completely in their power now. Louise Adet had gathered round her a far more efficient bodyguard than even the proconsul could hope to have.
A moment or two later the door was opened, softly and cautiously, and Martin-Roget asked: 'Is that you, Louise?' for of a truth the darkness was almost deeper within than without, and he could not see who it was that was standing by the door.
'Yes! it is,' replied a weary and querulous voice. 'Enter quickly. The wind is cruel, and I can't keep myself warm. Who is with you, Pierre?'
'A friend,' said Martin-Roget drily. 'We want to see the aristo.'
The woman without further comment closed the door behind the new-comers. The place now was as dark as pitch, but she seemed to know her way about like a cat, for her shuffling footsteps were heard moving about unerringly. A moment or two later she opened another door opposite the front entrance, revealing an inner room -- a sort of kitchen -- which was lighted by a small lamp.
'You can go straight up,' she called curtly to the two men.
The narrow, winding staircase was divided from this kitchen by a wooden partition. Martin-Roget, closely followed by Chauvelin, went up the stairs. On the top of these there was a tiny landing with a door on either side of it. Martin-Roget without any ceremony pushed open the door on his right with his foot.
A tallow candle fixed in a bottle and placed in the centre of a table in the middle of the room flickered in the draught as the door flew open. It was bare of everything save a table and a chair, and a bundle of straw in one corner. The tiny window at right angles to the door was innocent of glass, and the north-westerly wind came in an icy stream through the aperture. On the table, in addition to the candle, there was a broken pitcher half-filled with water, and a small chunk of brown bread blotched with stains of mould.
On the chair beside the table and immediately facing the door sat Yvonne Lady Dewhurst. On the wall above her head a hand unused to calligraphy had traced in clumsy characters the words: 'Liberté! Fraternité! Egalité!' and below that 'ou la Mort.'
The men entered the narrow room and Chauvelin carefully closed the door behind him. He at once withdrew into a remote corner of the room and stood there quite still, wrapped in his mantle, a small, silent, mysterious figure on which Yvonne fixed dark, inquiring eyes.
Martin-Roget, restless and excited, paced up and down the small space like a wild animal in a cage. From time to time exclamations of impatience escaped him and he struck one fist repeatedly against his open palm. Yvonne followed his movements with a quiet, uninterested glance, but Chauvelin paid no heed whatever to him.
He was watching Yvonne ceaselessly, and closely.
Three days' incarceration in this wind-swept attic, the lack of decent food and of warmth, the want of sleep and the horror of her present position all following upon the soul-agony which she had endured when she was forcibly torn away from her dear milor, had left their mark on Yvonne Dewhurst's fresh young face. The look of gravity which had always sat so quaintly on her piquant features had now changed to one of deep and abiding sorrow: her large dark eyes were circled and sunk: they had in them the unnatural glow of fever, as well as the settled look of horror and of pathetic resignation. Her soft brown hair had lost its lustre: her cheeks were drawn and absolutely colourless.
Martin-Roget paused in his restless walk. For a moment he stood silent and absorbed, contemplating by the flickering light of the candle all the havoc which his brutality had wrought upon Yvonne's dainty face.
But Yvonne after a while ceased to look at him -- she appeared to be unconscious of the gaze of these two men, each of whom was at this moment only thinking of the evil which he meant to inflict upon her -- each of whom only thought of her as a helpless bird whom he had at last ensnared and whom he could crush to death as soon as he felt so inclined.
She kept her lips tightly closed and her head averted. She was gazing across at the unglazed window into the obscurity beyond, marvelling in what direction lay the sea and the shores of England.
Martin-Roget crossed his arms over his broad chest and clutched his elbows with his hands with an obvious effort to keep control over his movements and his temper in check. The quiet, almost indifferent attitude of the girl was exasperating to his over-strung nerves.
'Look here, my girl,' he said at last roughly and peremptorily, 'I had an interview with the proconsul this afternoon. He chides me for my leniency toward you. Three days he thinks is far too long to keep traitors eating the bread of honest citizens and taking up valuable space in our city. Yesterday I made a proposal to you. Have you thought on it?'
Yvonne made no reply. She was still gazing out into nothingness and just at that moment she was very far away from the narrow, squalid room and the company of these two inhuman brutes. She was thinking of her dear milor and of that lovely home at Combwich wherein she had spent three such unforgettable days. She was remembering how beautiful had been the colour of the bare twigs in the chestnut coppice when the wintry sun danced through and in between them and drew fantastic patterns of living gold upon the carpet of dead leaves; and she remembered too how exquisite were the tints of russet and blue on the distant hills, and how quaintly the thrushes had called: 'Kiss me quick!' She saw again those trembling leaves of a delicious faintly crimson hue which still hung upon the branches of the scarlet oak, and the early flowering heath which clothed the moors with a gorgeous mantle of rosy amethyst.
Martin-Roget's harsh voice brought her abruptly back to the hideous reality of the moment.
'Your obstinacy will avail you nothing,' he said, speaking quietly, even though a note of intense irritation was distinctly perceptible in his voice. 'The proconsul has given me a further delay wherein to deal leniently with you and with your father if I am so minded. You know what I have proposed to you: Life with me as my wife -- in which case your father will be free to return to England or to go to the devils as he pleases -- or the death of a malefactor for you both in the company of all the thieves and evil-doers who are mouldering in the prisons of Nantes at this moment. Another delay wherein to choose between an honourable life and a shameful death. The proconsul waits. But to-night he must have his answer.'
Then Yvonne turned her head slowly and looked calmly on her enemy.
'The tyrant who murders innocent men, women and children,' she said, 'can have his answer now. I choose death which is inevitable in preference to a life of shame.'
'You seem,' he retorted, 'to have lost sight of the fact that the law gives me the right to take by force that which you so obstinately refuse.'
'Have I not said,' she replied, 'that death is my choice? Life with you would be a life a shame.'
'I can get a priest to marry us without your consent: and your religion forbids you to take your own life,' he said with a sneer.
To this she made no reply, but he knew that he had his answer. Smothering a curse, he resumed after a while:
'So you prefer to drag your father to death with you? Yet he has begged you to consider your decision and to listen to reason. He has given his consent to our marriage.'
'Let me see my father,' she retorted firmly, 'and hear him say that with his own lips.'
'Ah!' she added quickly, for at her words Martin-Roget had turned his head away and shrugged his shoulders with well-assumed indifference, 'you cannot and dare not let me see him. For three days now you have kept us apart and no doubt fed us both up with your lies. My father is duc de Kernogan, Marquis de Trentemoult,' she added proudly, 'he would far rather die side by side with his daughter than see her wedded to a criminal.'
'And you, my girl,' rejoined Martin-Roget coldly, 'would you see your father branded as a malefactor, linked to a thief and sent to perish in the Loire?'
'My father,' she retorted, 'will die as he has lived, a brave and honourable gentleman. The brand of a malefactor cannot cling to his name. Sorrow we are ready to endure -- death is less than nothing to us -- we will but follow in the footsteps of our King and of our Queen and of many whom we care for and whom you and your proconsul and your colleagues have brutally murdered. Shame cannot touch us, and our honour and our pride are so far beyond your reach that your impious and blood-stained hands can never sully them.'
She had spoken very slowly and very quietly. There were no heroics about her attitude. Even Martin-Roget -- callous brute though he was -- felt that she had only spoken just as she felt, and that nothing that he might say, no plea that he might urge, would ever shake her determination.
'Then it seems to me,' he said, 'that I am only wasting my time by trying to make you see reason and common-sense. You look upon me as a brute. Well! perhaps I am. At any rate I am that which your father and you have made me. Four years ago, when you had power over me and over mine, you brutalized us. To-day we -- the people -- are your masters and we make you suffer, not for all -- that were impossible -- but for part of what you made us suffer. That, after all, is only bare justice. By making you my wife I would have saved you from death -- not from humiliation, for that you must endure, and at my hands in a full measure -- but I would have made you my wife because I still have pleasant recollections of that kiss which I snatched from you on that never-to-be-forgotten night and in the darkness -- a kiss for which you would gladly have seen me hang then, if you could have laid hands on me.'
He paused, trying to read what was going on behind those fine eyes of hers, with their vacant, far-seeing gaze which seemed like another barrier between her and him. At this rough allusion to that moment of horror and of shame, she had not moved a muscle, nor did her gaze lose its fixity.
'It is an unpleasant recollection, eh, my proud lady? The first kiss of passion was not implanted on your exquisite lips by that fine gentleman whom you deemed worthy of your hand and your love, but by Pierre Adet, the miller's son, what? a creature not quite so human as your horse or your pet dog. Neither you nor I are like to forget that methinks . . .'
Yvonne vouchsafed no reply to the taunt, and for a moment there was silence in the room, until Chauvelin's thin, suave voice broke in quite gently:
'Do not lose your patience with the wench, citizen Martin-Roget. Your time is too precious to be wasted in useless recriminations.'
'I have finished with her,' retorted the other sullenly. 'She shall be dealt with now as I think best. I agree with citizen Carrier. He is right after all. To the Loire with the lot of that foul brood!'
'Nay!' here rejoined Chauvelin with placid urbanity, 'are you not a little harsh, citizen, with our fair Yvonne? Remember! Women have moods and megrims. What they indignantly refuse to yield to us one day, they will grant with a smile the next. Our beautiful Yvonne is no exception to this rule, I'll warrant.'
Even while he spoke he threw a glance of warning on his colleague. There was something enigmatic in his manner at this moment, in the strange suavity wherewith he spoke these words of conciliation and of gentleness. Martin-Roget was as usual ready with an impatient retort. He was in a mood to bully and to brutalize, to heap threat upon threat, to win by frightfulness that which he could not gain by persuasion. Perhaps that at this moment he desired Yvonne de Kernogan for wife, more even than he desired her death. At any rate his headstrong temper was ready to chafe against any warning or advice. But once again Chauvelin's stronger mentality dominated over his less resolute colleague. Martin-Roget -- the fowler -- was in his turn caught in the net of a keener snarer than himself, and whilst -- with the obstinacy of the weak -- he was making mental resolutions to rebuke Chauvelin for his interference later on, he had already fallen in with the latter's attitude.
'The wench has had three whole days wherein to alter her present mood,' he said more quietly, 'and you know yourself, citizen, that the proconsul will not wait after to-day.'
'The day is young yet,' rejoined Chauvelin. 'It still hath six hours to its credit . . . Six hours . . . Three hundred and sixty minutes!' he contined with a pleasant little laugh; 'time enough for a woman to change her mind three hundred and sixty times. Let me advise you, citizen, to leave the wench to her own meditations for the present, and I trust that she will accept the advise of a man who has a sincere regard for her beauty and her charms and who is old enough to be her father, and seriously think the situation over in a conciliatory spirit. M. le duc de Kernogan will be grateful to her, for of a truth he is not over happy either at the moment . . . and will be still less happy in the dépôt to-morrow: it is over-crowded, and typhus, I fear me, is rampant among the prisoners. He has, I am convinced -- in spite of what the citizeness says to the contrary -- a rooted objection to being hurled into the Loire, or to be arraigned before the bar of the Convention, not as an aristocrat and a traitor but as an unit of an undesirable herd of criminals sent up to Paris for trial, by an anxious and harried proconsul. There! there!' he added benignly, 'we will not worry our fair Yvonne any longer, will we, citizen? I think she has grasped the alternative and will soon realize that marriage with an honourable patriot is not such an untoward fate after all.'
'And now, citizen Martin-Roget,' he concluded, 'I pray you allow me to take my leave of the fair lady and to give you the wise recommendation to do likewise. She will be far better alone for awhile. Night brings good counsel, so they say.'
He watched the girl keenly while he spoke. Her impassivity had not deserted her for a single moment: but whether her calmness was of hope or of despair he was unable to decide. On the whole he thought it must be the latter: hope would have kindled a spark in those dark, purple-rimmed eyes, it would have brought moisture to the lips, a tremor to the hand.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was in Nantes -- that fact was established beyond a doubt -- but Chauvelin had come to the conclusion that so far as Yvonne Dewhurst herself was concerned, she knew nothing of the mysterious agencies that were working on her behalf.
Chauvelin's hand closed with a nervous contraction over the packet of papers in his pocket. Something of the secret of that enigmatic English adventurer lay revealed within its folds. Chauvelin had not yet had the opportunity of examining them: the interview with Yvonne had been the most important business for the moment.
From somewhere in the distance a city clock struck six. The afternoon was wearing on. The keenest brain in Europe was on the watch to drag one woman and one man from the deadly trap which had been so successfully set for them. A few hours more and Chauvelin in his turn would be pitting his wits against the resources of that intricate brain, and he felt like a war-horse scenting blood and battle. He was aching to get to work -- aching to form his plans -- to lay his snares -- to dispose his trap so that the noble English quarry should not fail to be caught within its meshes.
He gave a last look to Yvonne, who was still sitting quite impassive, gazing through the squalid walls into some beautiful distance, the reflection of which gave to her pale, wan face an added beauty.
'Let us go, citizen Martin-Roget,' he said peremptorily. 'There is nothing else that we can do here.'
And Martin-Roget, the weaker morally of the two, yielded to the stronger personality of his colleague. He would have liked to stay on for awhile, to gloat for a few moments longer over the helplessness of the woman who to him represented the root of every evil which had ever befallen him and his family. But Chauvelin commanded and he felt impelled to obey. He gave one long, last look on Yvonne -- a look that was as full of triumph as of mockery -- he looked round the four dank walls, the unglazed window, the broken pitcher, the mouldy bread. Revenge was of a truth the sweetest emotion of the human heart. Pierre Adet -- son of the miller who had been hanged by orders of the Duc de Kernogan for a crime which he had never committed -- would not at this moment have changed places with Fortune's Benjamin.
Downstairs in Louise Adet's kitchen, Martin-Roget seized his colleague by the arm.
'Sit down a moment, citizen,' he said persuasively, 'and tell me what you think of it all.'
Chauvelin sat down at the other's invitation. All his movements were slow, deliberate, perfectly calm.
'I think,' he said drily, 'as far as your marriage with the wench is concerned, that you are beaten, my friend.'
'Tshaw!' The exclamation, raucous and surcharged with hate came from Louise Adet. She, too, like Pierre -- more so than Pierre mayhap -- had cause to hate the Kernogans. She, too, like Pierre had lived the last three days in the full enjoyment of the thought that Fate and Chance were about to level things at last between herself and those detested aristos. Silent and sullen she was shuffling about in the room, among her pots and pans, but she kept an eye upon her brother's movements and an ear on what he said. Men were apt to lose grit where a pretty wench was concerned. It takes a woman's rancour and a woman's determination to carry a scheme of vengeance against another to a successful end.
Martin-Roget rejoined more calmly:
'I knew that she would still be obstinate,' he said. 'If I forced her into a marriage, which I have the right to do, she might take her own life and make me look a fool. So I don't want to do that. I believe in the persuasiveness of the Rat Mort to-night,' he added with a cynical laugh, 'and if that fails . . . Well! I was never really in love with the fair Yvonne, and now she has even ceased to be desirable . . . If the Rat Mort fails to act on her sensibilities as I would wish, I can easily console myself by following Carrier's herd to Paris. Louise shall come with me -- eh, little sister? -- and we'll give ourselves the satisfaction of seeing M. le duc de Kernogan and his exquisite daughter stand in the felon's dock -- tried for malpractices and for evil living. We'll see them branded as convicts and packed off like so much cattle to Cayenne. That will be a sight,' he concluded with a deep sigh of satisfaction, 'which will bring rest to my soul.'
He paused: his face looked sullen and evil under the domination of that passion which tortured him.
Louise Adet had shuffled up close to her brother. In one hand she held the wooden spoon wherewith she had been stirring the soup: with the other she brushed away the dark, lank hair which hung in strands over her high, pale forehead. In appearance she was a woman immeasurably older than her years. Her face had the colour of yellow parchment, her skin was stretched tightly over her high cheekbones -- her lips were colourless and her eyes large, wide-open, were pale in hue and circled with red. Just now a deep frown of puzzlement between her brows added a sinister expression to her cadaverous face:
'The Rat Mort?' she queried in that tired voice of hers. 'Cayenne? What is all that about?'
'A splendid scheme of Carrier's, my Louise,' replied Martin-Roget airily. 'We convey the Kernogan woman to the Rat Mort. To-night a descent will be made on that tavern of ill-fame by a company of Marats and every man, woman and child within it will be arrested and sent to Paris as undesirable inhabitants of this most moral city: in Paris they will be tried as malefactors or evil-doers -- cut throats, thieves, what? and deported as convicts to Cayenne, or else sent to the guillotine. The Kernogans among that herd! What sayest thou to that, little sister? Thy father, thy lover, hung as thieves! M. le Duc and Mademoiselle branded as convicts! 'Tis pleasant to think on, eh?'
Louise made no reply. She stood looking at her brother, her pale, red-rimmed eyes seemed to drink in every word that he uttered, while her bony hand wandered mechanically across and across her forehead as if in a pathetic endeavour to clear the brain from everything save of the satisfying thoughts which this prospect of revenge had engendered.
Chauvelin's gentle voice broke in on her meditations.
'In the meanwhile,' he said placidly, 'remember my warning, citizen Martin-Roget. There are passing clever and mighty agencies at work, even at this hour, to wrest your prey from you. How will you convey the wench to the Rat Mort? Carrier has warned you of spies -- but i have warned you against a crowd of English adventurers far more dangerous than an army of spies. Three pairs of eyes -- probably more, and one pair the keenest in Europe -- will be on the watch to seize upon the woman and to carry her off under your very nose.'
Martin-Roget uttered a savage oath.
'That brute Carrier has left me in the lurch,' he said roughly. 'I don't believe in your nightmares and your English adventurers, still it would have been better if I could have had the woman conveyed to the tavern under armed escort.'
'Armed escort has been denied you, and anyway it would not be much use. You and I, citizen Martin-Roget, must act independently of Carrier. Your friends down there,' he added, indicating the street with a jerk of the head, 'must redouble their watchfulness. The village lads of Vertou are of a truth no match intellectually with our English adventurers, but they have vigorous fists in case there is an attack on the wench while she walks across to the Rat Mort.'
'It would be simpler,' here interposed Louise roughly, 'if we were to knock the wench on the head and then let the lads carry her across.'
'It would not be simpler,' retorted Chauvelin drily, 'for Carrier might at any moment turn against us. Commandant Fleury with half a company of Marats will be posted round the Rat Mort, remember. They may interfere with the lads and arrest them and snatch the wench from us, when all our plans may fall to the ground . . . one never knows what double game Carrier may be playing. No! no! the girl must not be dragged or carried to the Rat Mort. She must walk into the trap of her own free will.'
'But name of a dog! how is it to be done?' ejaculated Martin-Roget, and he brought his clenched fist crashing down upon the table. 'The woman will not follow me -- or Louise either -- anywhere willingly.'
'She must follow a stranger then -- one whom she thinks is a stranger -- some one who will have gained her confidence . . .'
'Oh! nothing is impossible, citizen,' rejoined Chauvelin blandly.
'Do you know a way then?' queried the other with a sneer.
'I think I do. If you will trust me that is --'
'I don't know that I do. Your mind is so intent on those English adventurers, you are like as not to let the aristos slip through your fingers.'
'Well, citizen,' retorted Chauvelin imperturbably, 'will you take the risk of conveying the fair Yvonne to the Rat Mort by twelve o'clock to-night? I have very many things to see to, I confess that I should be glad if you will ease me from that responsibility.'
'I have already told you that I see no way,' retorted Martin-Roget with a snarl.
'Then why not let me act?'
'What are you going to do?'
'For the moment I am going for a walk on the quay and once more will commune with the North-West wind.'
'Tshaw!' ejaculated Martin-Roget savagely.
'Nay, citizen,' resumed Chauvelin blandly, 'the winds of heaven are excellent counsellors. I told you so just now and you agreed with me. They blow away the cobwebs of the mind and clear the brain for serious thinking. You want the Kernogan girl to be arrested inside the Rat Mort and you see no way of conveying her thither save by the use of violence, which for obvious reasons is to be deprecated: Carrier, for equally obvious reasons, will not have her taken to the place by force. On the other hand you admit that the wench would not follow you willingly -- Well, citizen, we must find a way out of that impasse, for it is too unimportant an one to stand in the way of our plans: for this I must hold a consultation with the North-West wind.'
'I won't allow you to do anything without consulting me.'
'Am I likely to do that? To begin with I shall have need of your co-operation and that of the citizeness.'
'In that case . . .' muttered Martin-Roget grudgingly. 'But remember,' he added with a return to his usual self-assured manner, 'remember that Yvonne and her father belong to me and not to you. I brought them into Nantes for mine own purposes -- not for yours. I will not have my revenge jeopardized so that your schemes may be furthered.'
'Who spoke of my schemes, citizen Martin-Roget?' broke in Chauvelin with perfect urbanity. 'Surely not I? What am I but an humble tool in the service of the Republic? . . . a tool that has proved useless -- a failure, what? My only desire is to help you to the best of my abilities. Your enemies are the enemies of the Republic: my ambition is to help you in destroying them.'
For a moment longer Martin-Roget hesitated: he abominated this suggestion of becoming a mere instrument in the hands of this man whom he still would have affected to despise -- had he dared. But here came the difficulty: he no longer dared to despise Chauvelin. He felt the strength of the man -- the clearness of his intellect, and though he -- Martin-Roget -- still chose to disregard every warning in connexion with the English spies, he could not wholly divest his mind from the possibility of their presence in Nantes. Carrier's scheme was so magnificent, so satisfying, that the ex-miller's son was ready to humble his pride and set his arrogance aside in order to see it carried through successfully.
So after a moment or two, despite the fact that he positively ached to shut Chauvelin out of the whole business, Martin-Roget gave a grudging assent to his proposal.
'Very well!' he said, 'you see to it. So long as it does not interfere with my plans . . .'
'It can but help them,' rejoined Chauvelin suavely. 'If you will act as I shall direct I pledge you my word that the wench will walk to the Rat Mort of her free will and at the hour when you want her. What else is there to say?'
'When and where shall we meet again?'
'Within the hour I will return here and explain to you and to the citizeness what I want you to do. We will get the aristos inside the Rat Mort, never fear; and after that I think that we may safely leave Carrier to do the rest, what?'
He picked up his hat and wrapped his mantle round him. He took no further heed of Martin-Roget or of Louise, for suddenly he had felt the crackling of crisp paper inside the breast-pocket of his coat and in a moment the spirit of the man had gone a-roaming out of the narrow confines of this squalid abode. It had crossed the English Channel and wandered once more into a brilliantly-lighted ball-room where an exquisitely dressed dandy declaimed inanities and doggrel rhymes for the delectation of a flippant assembly: it heard once more the lazy, drawling speech, the inane, affected laugh, it caught the glance of a pair of lazy, grey eyes fixed mockingly upon him. Chauvelin's thin claw-like hand went back to his pocket: it felt that packet of papers, it closed over it like a vulture's talon does upon a prey. He no longer heard Martin-Roget's obstinate murmurings, he no longer felt himself to be the disgraced, humiliated servant of the State: rather did he feel once more the master, the leader, the successful weaver of an hundred clever intrigues. The enemy who had baffled him so often had chosen once more to throw down the glove of mocking defiance. So be it! The battle would be fought this night -- a decisive one -- and long live the Republic and the power of the people!
With a curt nod of the head Chauvelin turned on his heel and without waiting for Martin-Roget to follow him, or for Louise to light him on his way, he strode from the room, and out of the house, and had soon disappeared in the darkness in the direction of the quay.
Once more free from the encumbering companionship of Martin-Roget, Chauvelin felt free to breathe and to think. He, the obscure and impassive servant of the Republic, the cold-blooded Terrorist who had gone through every phase of an exciting career without moving a muscle of his grave countenance, felt as if every one of his arteries was on fire. He strode along the quay in the teeth of the north-westerly wind, grateful for the cold blast which lashed his face and cooled his throbbing temples.
The packet of papers inside his coat seemed to sear his breast.
Before turning to go along the quay he paused, hesitating for a moment what he would do. His very humble lodgings were at the far end of the town, and every minute of time was precious. Inside Le Bouffay, where he had a small room allotted to him as a minor representative in Nantes of the Committee of Public Safety, there was the ever present danger of prying eyes.
On the whole -- since time was so precious -- he decided on returning to Le Bouffay. The concierge and the clerk fortunately let him through without those official delays which he -- Chauvelin -- was wont to find so galling ever since his disgrace had put a bar against the opening of every door at the bare mention of his name or the display of his tricolour scarf.
He strode rapidly across the hall: the men on guard eyed him with lazy indifference as he passed. Once inside his own sanctum he looked carefully around him; he drew the curtain closer across the window and dragged the table and a chair well away from the range which might be covered by an eye at the keyhole. It was only when he had thoroughly assured himself that no searching eye or inquisitive ear could possibly be watching over him that he at last drew the precious packet of papers from his pocket. He undid the red ribbon which held it together and spread the papers out on the table before him. Then he examined them carefully one by one.
As he did so an exclamation of wrath or of impatience escaped him from time to time, once he laughed -- involuntarily -- aloud.
The examination of the papers took him some time. When he had finished he gathered them all together again, retied the bit of ribbon round them and slipped the packet back into the pocket of his coat. There was a look of grim determination on his face, even though a bitter sigh escaped his set lips.
'Oh! for the power,' he muttered to himself, 'which I had a year ago! for the power to deal with mine enemy myself. So you have come to Nantes, my valiant Sir Percy Blakeney?' he added while a short, sardonic laugh escaped his thin, set lips: 'and you are determined that I shall know how and why you came! Do you reckon, I wonder, that I have no longer the power to deal with you? Well! . . .'
He sighed again but with more satisfaction this time.
'Well! . . .' he reiterated with obvious complacency. 'Unless that oaf Carrier is a bigger fool than I imagine him to be I think I have you this time, my elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.'