It was not an easy thing to obtain an audience of the great proconsul at this hour of the night, nor was Chauvelin, the disgraced servant of the Committee of Public Safety, a man to be considered. Carrier, with his love of ostentation and of tyranny, found great delight in keeping his colleagues waiting upon his pleasure, and he knew that he could trust young Jacques Lalouët to be as insolent as any tyrant's flunkey of yore.
"I must speak with the proconsul at once," had been Chauvelin's urgent request of Fleury, the commandant of the great man's bodyguard.
"The proconsul dines at this hour," had been Fleury's curt reply.
"'Tis a matter which concerns the welfare and the safety of the State!"
"The proconsul's health is the concern of the State too, and he dines at this hour and must not be disturbed."
"Commandant Fleury!" urged Chauvelin, "you risk being implicated in a disaster. Danger and disgrace threaten the proconsul and all his adherents. I must speak with Citizen Carrier at once."
Fortunately for Chauvelin there were two keys which, when all else failed, were apt to open the doors of Carrier's stronghold: the key of fear and that of cupidity. He tried both and succeeded. He bribed and he threatened: he endured Fleury's brutality and Lalouët's impertinence but he got his way. After an hour's weary waiting and ceaseless parleyings he was once more ushered into the ante-chamber where he had sat earlier in the day. The doors leading to the inner sanctuary were open. Young Jacques Lalouët stood by them on guard. Carrier, fuming and raging at having been disturbed, vented his spleen and ill-temper on Chauvelin.
"If the news that you bring me is not worth my consideration," he cried savagely, "I'll send you to the moulder in Le Bouffay or to drink the waters of the Loire."
Chauvelin silent, self-effaced, allowed the flood of the great man's wrath to spend itself in threats. Then he said quietly:
"Citizen Proconsul I have come to tell you that the English spy, who is called the Scarlet Pimpernel, is now in Nantes. There is a reward of twenty thousand francs for his capture and I want your help to lay him by the heels."
Carrier suddenly paused in his ravings. He sank into a chair and a livid hue spread over his face.
"It's not true!" he murmured hoarsely.
"I saw him--not an hour ago. . . ."
"What proof have you?"
"I'll show them to you--but not across this threshold. Let me enter, Citizen Proconsul, and close your sanctuary doors behind me rather than before. What I have come hither to tell you, can only be said between four walls."
"I'll make you tell me," broke in Carrier in a raucous voice, which excitement and fear caused almost to choke in his throat. "I'll make you . . . curse you for the traitor that you are. . . . Curse you!" he cried more vigorously, "I'll make you speak. Will you shield a spy by your silence, you miserable traitor? If you do I'll send you to rot in the mud of the Loire with other traitors less accursed than yourself."
"If you only knew," was Chauvelin's calm rejoinder to the other's ravings, "how little I care for life. I only live to be even one day with an enemy whom I hate. That enemy is now in Nantes, but I am like a bird of prey whose wings have been clipped. If you do not help me mine enemy will again go free--and death in that case matters little or nothing to me."
For a moment longer Carrier hesitated. Fear had gripped him by the throat. Chauvelin's earnestness seemed to vouch for the truth of his assertion, and if this were so--if those English spies were indeed in Nantes--then his own life was in deadly danger. He--like every one of those bloodthirsty tyrants who had misused the sacred names of Fraternity and of Equality--had learned to dread the machinations of those mysterious Englishmen and of their unconquerable leader. Popular superstition had it that they were spies of the English Government and that they were not only bent on saving traitors from well-merited punishment but that they were hired assassins paid by Mr. Pitt to murder every faithful servant of the Republic. The name of the Scarlet Pimpernel, so significantly uttered by Chauvelin, had turned Carrier's sallow cheeks to a livid hue. Sick with terror now he called Lalouët to him. He clung to the boy with both arms as to the one being in this world whom he trusted.
"What shall we do, Jacques?" he murmured hoarsely, "shall we let him in?"
The boy roughly shook himself free from the embrace of the great proconsul.
"If you want twenty thousand francs," he said with a dry laugh, "I should listen quietly to what Citizen Chauvelin has to say."
Terror and rapacity were ranged on one side against inordinate vanity. The thought of twenty thousand francs made Carrier's ugly mouth water. Money was over scarce these days: also the fear of assassination was a spectre which haunted him at all hours of the day and night. On the other hand he positively worshipped the mystery wherewith he surrounded himself. It had been his boast for some time now that no one save the chosen few had crossed the threshold of his private chamber: and he was miserably afraid not only of Chauvelin's possible evil intentions, but also that this despicable ex-aristo and equally despicable failure would boast in the future of an ascendancy over him.
He thought the matter over for fully five minutes, during which there was dead silence in the two rooms--silence only broken by the stertorous breathing of that wretched coward, and the measured ticking of the fine buhl clock behind him. Chauvelin's pale eyes were fixed upon the darkness, through which he could vaguely discern the uncouth figure of the proconsul, sprawling over his desk. Which way would his passions sway him? Chauvelin as he watched and waited felt that his habitual self-control was perhaps more severely taxed at this moment than it had ever been before. Upon the swaying of those passions, the passions of a man infinitely craven and infinitely base, depended all his--Chauvelin's--hopes of getting even at last with a daring and resourceful foe. Terror and rapacity were the counsellors which ranged themselves on the side of his schemes, but mere vanity and caprice fought a hard battle too.
In the end it was rapacity that gained the victory. An impatient exclamation from young Lalouët roused Carrier from his sombre brooding and hastened on a decision which was destined to have such momentous consequences for the future of both these men.
"Introduce Citizen Chauvelin in here, Lalouët," said the proconsul grudgingly. "I will listen to what he has to say."
Chauvelin crossed the threshold of the tyrant's sanctuary, in no way awed by the majesty of that dreaded presence or confused by the air of mystery which hung about the room.
He did not even bestow a glance on the multitudinous objects of art and the priceless furniture which littered the tiger's lair. His pale face remained quite expressionless as he bowed solemnly before Carrier and then took the chair which was indicated to him. Young Lalouët fetched a candelabra from the anteroom and carried it into the audience chamber: then he closed the communicating doors. The candelabra he placed on a console-table immediately behind Carrier's desk and chair, so that the latter's face remained in complete shadow, whilst the light fell full upon Chauvelin.
"Well! what is it?" queried the proconsul roughly. "What is this story of English spies inside Nantes? How did they get here? Who is responsible for keeping such rabble out of our city? Name of a dog, but some one has been careless of duty! and carelessness these days is closely allied to treason."
He talked loudly and volubly--his inordinate terror causing the words to come tumbling, almost incoherently, out of his mouth. Finally he turned on Chauvelin with a snarl like an angry cat:
"And how comes it, Citizen," he added savagely, "that you alone here in Nantes are acquainted with the whereabouts of those dangerous spies?"
"I caught sight of them," rejoined Chauvelin calmly, "this afternoon after I left you. I knew we should have them here, the moment Citizen Martin-Roget brought the Kernogans into the city. The woman is the wife of one of them."
"Curse that blundering fool Martin-Roget for bringing that rabble about our ears, and those assassins inside our gates."
"Nay! Why should you complain, Citizen Proconsul, rejoined Chauvelin in his blandest manner. "Surely you are not going to let the English spies escape this time? And if you succeed in laying them by the heels--there where every one else has failed--you will have earned twenty thousand francs and the thanks of the entire Committee of Public Safety."
He paused: and young Lalouët interposed with his impudent laugh:
"Go on, Citizen Chauvelin," he said, "if there is twenty thousand francs to be made out of this game, I'll warrant that the proconsul will take a hand in it--eh, Carrier?"
And with the insolent familiarity of a terrier teasing a grizzly he tweaked the great man's ear.
Chauvelin in the meanwhile had drawn the packet of papers from his pocket and untied the ribbon that held them together. He now spread the papers out on the desk.
"What are these?" queried Carrier.
"A few papers," replied Chauvelin, "which one of your Marats, Paul Friche by name, picked up in the wake of the Englishmen. I caught sight of them in the far distance, and sent the Marats after them. For awhile Paul Friche kept on their track, but after that they disappeared in the darkness."
"Who were the senseless louts," growled Carrier, "who allowed a pack of foreign assassins to escape? I'll soon make them disappear . . . in the Loire."
"You will do what you like about that, Citizen Carrier," retorted Chauvelin dryly; "in the meanwhile you would do well to examine these papers."
He sorted these out, examined them one by one, then passed them across to Carrier. Lalouët, impudent and inquisitive, sat on the corner of the desk, dangling his legs. With scant ceremony he snatched one paper after another out of Carrier's hands and examined them curiously.
"Can you understand all this gibberish?" he asked airily. "Jean Baptiste, my friend, how much English do you know?"
"Not much," replied the proconsul, "but enough to recognize that abominable doggerel rhyme which has gone the round of the Committees of Public Safety throughout the country."
"I know it by heart," rejoined young Lalouët. "I was in Paris once, when Citizen Robespierre received a copy of it. Name of a dog!" added the youngster with a coarse laugh, "how he cursed!"
It is doubtful however if Citizen Robespierre did on that occasion curse quite so volubly as Carrier did now.
"If I only knew why that satané Englishman throws so much calligraphy about," he said, "I would be easier in my mind. Now this senseless rhyme. . . . I don't see . . ."
"It's importance?" broke in Chauvelin quietly. "I dare say not. On the face of it, it appears foolish and childish: but it is intended as a taunt and is really a poor attempt at humour. They are a queer people these English. If you knew them as I do, you would not be surprised to see a man scribbling off a cheap joke before embarking on an enterprise which may cost him his head."
"And this inane rubbish is of that sort,"
concluded young Lalouët. And in his thin high treble he began
"We seek him here; We
seek him there!
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in h--ll?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel?"
"Pointless and offensive," he said as he tossed the paper back on the table.
"A cursed aristo that Englishman of yours," growled Carrier. "Oh! when I get him. . . ."
He made an expressive gesture which made Lalouët laugh.
"What else have we got in the way of documents, Citizen Chauvelin?" he asked.
"There is a letter," replied the latter.
"Read it," commanded Carrier. "Or rather translate it as you read. I don't understand the whole of the gibberish."
And Chauvelin, taking up a sheet of paper which was covered with neat, minute writing, began to read aloud, translating the English into French as he went along:
"Here we are at last, my dear Tony! Didn't I tell you that we can get in anywhere despite all precautions taken against us!"
"The impudent devils!" broke in Carrier.
--"Did you really think that they could keep us out of Nantes while Lady Anthony Dewhurst is a prisoner in their hands."
"Who is that?"
"The Kernogan woman. As I told you just now, she is married to an Englishman who is named Dewhurst and who is one of the members of that thrice cursed League."
Then he continued to read:
"And did you really suppose that they would spot half a dozen English gentlemen in the guise of peat-gatherers, returning at dusk and covered with grime from their work? Not like, friend Tony! Not like! If you happen to meet mine engaging friend Monsieur Chambertin before I have that privilege myself tell him I pray you, with my regards, that I am looking forward to the pleasure of making a long nose at him once more. Calais, Boulogne, Paris--now Nantes--the scenes of his triumphs multiply exceedingly."
"What in the devil's name does all this mean?" queried Carrier with an oath.
"You don't understand it?" rejoined Chauvelin quietly.
"No. I do not."
"Yet I translated quite clearly."
"It is not the language that puzzles me. The contents seem to me such drivel. The man wants secrecy, what? He is supposed to be astute, resourceful, above all mysterious and enigmatic. Yet he writes to his friend--matter of no importance between them, recollections of the past, known to them both--and threats for the future, equally futile and senseless. I cannot reconcile it all. It puzzles me."
"And it would puzzle me," rejoined Chauvelin, while the ghost of a smile curled his thin lips, "did I not know the man. Futile? Senseless, you say? Well, he does futile and senseless things one moment and amazing deeds of personal bravery and of astuteness the next. He is three parts a braggart too. He wanted you, me--all of us to know how he and his followers succeeded in eluding our vigilance and entered our closely-guarded city in the guise of grimy peat-gatherers. Now I come to think of it, it was easy enough for them to do that. Those peat-gatherers who live inside the city boundaries return from their work as the night falls in. Those cursed English adventurers are passing clever at disguise--they are born mountebanks the lot of them. Money and impudence they have in plenty. They could easily borrow or purchase some filthy rags from the cottages on the dunes, then mix with the crowd on its return to the city. I dare say it was cleverly done. That Scarlet Pimpernel is just a clever adventurer and nothing more. So far his marvellous good luck has carried him through. Now we shall see."
Carrier had listened in silence. Something of his colleague's calm had by this time communicated itself to him too. He was no longer raving like an infuriated bull--his terror no longer made a half-cringing, wholly savage brute of him. He was sprawling across the desk--his arms folded, his deep-set eyes studying closely the well-nigh inscrutable face of Chauvelin. Young Lalouët too had lost something of his impudence. That mysterious spell which seemed to emanate from the elusive personality of the bold English adventurer had been cast over these two callous, bestial natures, humbling their arrogance and making them feel that here was no ordinary situation to be dealt with by smashing, senseless hitting and the spilling of innocent blood. Both felt instinctively too that this man Chauvelin, however wholly he may have failed in the past, was nevertheless still the only man who might grapple successfully with the elusive and adventurous foe.
"Are you assuming, Citizen Chauvelin," queried Carrier after awhile, "that this packet of papers was dropped purposely by the Englishman, so that it might get into our hands?"
"There is always such a possibility," replied Chauvelin dryly. "With that type of man one must be prepared to meet the unexpected."
"Then go on, Citizen Chauvelin. What else is there among these satané papers?"
"Nothing further of importance. There is a map of Nantes, and one of the coast and of Le Croisic. There is a cutting from Le Moniteur dated last September, and one from the London Gazette dated three years ago. The Moniteur makes reference to the production of Athalie at the Théâtre Molière, and the London Gazette to the sale of fat cattle at an agricultural show. There is a receipted account from a London tailor for two hundred pounds worth of clothes supplied, and one from a Lyons mercer for an hundred francs worth of silk cravats. Then there is the one letter which alone amidst all this rubbish appears to be of any consequence. . . ."
He took up the last paper: his hand was still quite steady.
"Read the letter," said Carrier.
"It is addressed in the English fashion
to Lady Anthony Dewhurst," continued Chauvelin slowly, "the
Kernogan woman you know Citizen. It says:
"Keep up your courage. Your friends are inside the city and on the watch. Try the door of your prison every evening at one hour before midnight. Once you will find it yield. Slip out and creep noiselessly down the stairs. At the bottom a friendly hand will be stretched out to you. Take it with confidence--it will lead you to safety and to freedom. Courage and secrecy."
Lalouët had been looking over his shoulder while he read: now he pointed to the bottom of the letter.
"And there is the device" he said, "we have heard so much about of late--a five-petalled flower drawn in red ink . . . the Scarlet Pimpernel, I presume."
"Aye! the Scarlet Pimpernel," murmured Chauvelin, "as you say! Braggadocio on his part or accident, his letters are certainly in our hands now and will prove--must prove, the tool whereby we can be even with him once and for all."
"And you, Citizen Chauvelin," interposed Carrier with a sneer, "are mighty lucky to have me to help you this time. I am not going to be fooled, as Candeille and you were fooled last September, as you were fooled in Calais and Héron in Paris. I shall be seeing this time to the capture of those English adventurers."
"And that capture should not be difficult," added Lalouët with a complacent laugh. "Your famous adventurer's luck hath deserted him this time: an all-powerful proconsul is pitted against him and the loss of his papers hath destroyed the anonimity on which he reckons."
Chauvelin paid no heed to the fatuous remarks.
How little did this flippant young braggart and this coarse-grained bully understand the subtle workings of that same adventurer's brain! He himself--one of the most astute men of the day--found it difficult. Even now--the losing of those letters in the open streets of Nantes--it was part of a plan. Chauvelin could have staked his head on that--apart of a plan for the liberation of Lady Anthony Dewhurst--but what plan?--what plan?
He took up the letter which his colleague had thrown down: he fingered it, handled it, letting the paper crackle through his fingers, as if he expected it to yield up the secret which it contained. The time had come--of that he felt no doubt--when he could at last be even with his enemy. He had endured more bitter humiliation at the hands of this elusive Pimpernel than he would have thought himself capable of bearing a couple of years ago. But the time had come at last--if only he kept his every faculty on the alert, if Fate helped him and his own nerves stood the strain. Above all if this blundering, self-satisfied Carrier could be reckoned on! . . .
There lay the one great source of trouble! He--Chauvelin--had no power: he was disgraced--a failure--a nonentity to be sneered at. He might protest, entreat, wring his hands, weep tears of blood and not one man would stir a finger to help him: this brute who sprawled here across his desk would not lend him half a dozen men to enable him to lay by the heels the most powerful enemy the Government of the Terror had ever known. Chauvelin inwardly ground his teeth with rage at his own impotence, at his own dependence on this clumsy lout, who was at this moment possessed of powers which he himself would give half his life to obtain.
But on the other hand he did possess a power which no one could take from him--the power to use others for the furtherance of his own aims--to efface himself while others danced as puppets to his piping. Carrier had the power: he had spies, Marats, prison-guards at his disposal. he was greedy for the reward, and cupidity and fear would make of him a willing instrument. All that Chauvelin need do was to use that instrument for his own ends. One would be the head to direct, the other--a mere insentient tool.
From this moment onwards every minute, every second and every fraction of a second would be full of portent, full of possibilities. Sir Percy Blakeney was in Nantes with at least three or four members of his League: he was at this very moment taxing every fibre of his resourceful brain in order to devise a means whereby he could rescue his friend's wife from the fate which was awaiting her: to gain this end he would dare everything, risk everything--risk and dare a great deal more than he had ever dared and risked before.
Chauvelin was finding a grim pleasure in reviewing the situation, in envisaging the danger of failure which he knew lay in wait for him, unless he too was able to call to his aid all the astuteness, all the daring, all the resource of his own fertile brain. He studied is colleague's face keenly--that sullen, savage expression in it, the arrogance, the blundering vanity. It was terrible to have to humour and fawn to a creature of that stamp when all one's hopes, all one's future, one's ideals and the welfare of one's country were at stake.
But this additional difficulty only served to whet the man's appetite for action. He drew in a long breath of delight, like a captive who first after many days and months of weary anguish scents freedom and ozone. He straightened out his shoulders. A gleam of triumph and of hope shot out of his keen pale eyes. He studied Carrier and he studied Lalouët and he felt that he could master them both--quietly, diplomatically, with subtle skill that would not alarm the proconsul's rampant self-esteem: and whilst this coarse-fibred brute gloated in anticipatory pleasure over the handling of a few thousand francs, and whilst Martin-Roget dreamed of a clumsy revenge against one woman and one man who had wronged him four years ago, he--Chauvelin--would pursue his work of striking at the enemy of the Revolution--of bringing to his knees the man who spent life and fortune in combating its ideals and in frustrating its aims. The destruction of such a foe was worthy a patriot's ambition.
On the other hand some of Carrier's bullying arrogance had gone. He was terrified to the very depths of his cowardly heart, and for once he was turning away from his favourite Jacques Lalouët and inclined to lean on Chauvelin for advice. Robespierre had been known to tremble at sight of that small scarlet device; how much more had he--Carrier--cause to be afraid? He knew his own limitations and he was terrified of the assassin's dagger. As Marat had perished, so he too might end his days, and the English spies were credited with murderous intentions and superhuman power. In his innermost self Carrier knew that despite countless failures Chauvelin was mentally his superior, and though he never would own to this and at this moment did not attempt to shed his overbearing manner, he was watching the other keenly and anxiously, ready to follow the guidance of an intellect stronger than his own.
At last Carrier elected to speak.
"And now, Citizen Chauvelin," he said, "we know how we stand. We know that the English assassins are in Nantes. The question is how are we going to lay them by the heels?"
Chauvelin gave him no direct reply. He was busy collecting his precious papers together and thrusting them back into the pocket of his coat. Then he said quietly:
"It is through the Kernogan woman that we can get hold of him."
"Where she is, there will the Englishmen be. They are in Nantes for the sole purpose of getting the woman and her father out of your clutches . . ."
"Then it will be a fine haul inside the Rat Mort," ejaculated Carrier with a chuckle. "Eh, Jacques, you young scamp? You and I must go and see that, what? You have been complaining that life was getting monotonous. Drownages--Republican marriages! They have all palled in their turn on your jaded appetite. . . . But the capture of the English assassins, eh? . . . of that League of the Scarlet Pimpernel which has ever caused citizen Robespierre much uneasiness--that will stir up your sluggish blood, you lazy young vermin! . . . Go on, go on, Citizen Chauvelin, I am vastly interested!"
He rubbed his dry, bony hands together and cackled with glee. Chauvelin interposed quietly:
"Inside the Rat Mort, eh, Citizen?" he queried.
"Why, yes. Citizen Martin-Roget means to convey the Kernogan woman to the Rat Mort, doesn't he?"
"And you say that where the Kernogan woman is there the Englishmen will be. . . ."
"The inference is obvious."
"Which means ten thousand francs from that fool Martin-Roget for having the wench and her father arrested inside the Rat Mort! and twenty thousand for the capture of the English spies. . . . Have you forgotten, Citizen Chauvelin," he added with a raucous cry of triumph, "that commandant Fleury has my orders to make a raid on the Rat Mort this night with half a company of my Marats, and to arrest every one whom they find inside?"
"The Kernogan wench is not at the Rat Mort yet," quoth Chauvelin dryly, "and you have refused to lend a hand in having her conveyed thither."
"I can't do it, my little Chauvelin," rejoined Carrier, somewhat sobered by this reminder. "I can't do it . . . you understand . . . my Marats taking an aristo to a house of ill-fame where presently I have her arrested . . . it won't do . . . it won't do . . . you don't know how I am spied upon just now. . . . It really would not do. . . . I can't be mixed up in that part of the affair. The wench must go to the Rat Mort of her own free will, or the whole plan falls to the ground. . . . That fool Martin-Roget must think of a way . . . it's his affair, after all. He must see to it. . . . Or you can think of a way," he added, assuming the coaxing ways of a tiger-cat; "you are so clever, my little Chauvelin."
"Yes," replied Chauvelin quietly, "I can think of a way. The Kernogan wench shall leave the house of Citizeness Adet and walk into the tavern of the Rat Mort of her own free will. Your reputation, Citizen Carrier," he added without the slightest apparent trace of a sneer, "your reputation shall be safeguarded in this matter. But supposing that in the interval of going from the one house to the other the English adventurer succeeded in kidnapping her. . . ."
"Pah! is that likely?" quoth Carrier with a shrug of the shoulders.
"Exceedingly likely, Citizen; and you would not doubt it if you knew this Scarlet Pimpernel as I do. I have seen him at his nefarious work. I know what he can do. There is nothing that he would not venture . . . there are few ventures in which he does not succeed. He is as strong as an ox, as agile as a cat. He can see in the dark and he can always vanish in a crowd. Here, there and everywhere, you never know where he will appear. He is a past master in the art of disguise and he is a born mountebank. Believe me, Citizen, we shall want all the resources of our joint intellects to frustrate the machinations of such a foe."
Carrier mused for a moment in silence.
"H'm!" he said after awhile, and with a sardonic laugh. "You may be right, Citizen Chauvelin. You have had experience with the rascal . . . you ought to know him. We won't leave anything to chance--don't be afraid of that. My Marats will be keen on the capture. We'll promise commandant Fleury a thousand francs for himself and another thousand to be distributed among his men if we lay hands on the English assassins to-night. We'll leave nothing to chance," he reiterated with an oath.
"In which case, Citizen Carrier, you must on your side agree to two things," rejoined Chauvelin firmly.
"What are they?"
"You must order Commandant Fleury to place himself and half a company of his Marats at my disposal."
"You must allow them to lend a hand if there is an attempt to kidnap the Kernogan wench while she is being conveyed to the Rat Mort. . . ."
Carrier hesitated for a second or two, but only for form's sake: it was his nature whenever he was forced to yield to do so grudgingly.
"Very well!" he said at last. "I'll order Fleury to be on the watch and to interfere if there is any street-brawling outside or near the Rat Mort. Will that suit you?"
"Perfectly. I shall be on the watch too--somewhere close by. . . . I'll warn commandant Fleury if I suspect that the English are making ready for a coup outside the tavern. Personally I think it unlikely--because the Duc de Kernogan will be inside the Rat Mort all the time, and he too will be the object of the Englishmen's attacks on his behalf. Citizen Martin-Roget too has about a score or so of his friends posted outside his sister's house: they are lads from his village who hate the Kernogans as much as he does himself. Still! I shall feel easier in my mind now that I am certain of Commandant Fleury's co-operation."
"Then it seems to me that we have arranged everything satisfactorily, what?"
"Everything, except the exact moment when Commandant Fleury shall advance with his men to the door of the tavern and demand admittance in the name of the Republic."
"Yes, he will have to make quite sure that the whole of our quarry is inside the net, eh? . . . before he draws the strings . . . or all our pretty plans fall to nought."
"As you say," rejoined Chauvelin, "we must make sure. Supposing therefore that we get the wench safely into the tavern, that we have her there with her father, what we shall want will be some one in observation--some one who can help us draw our birds into the snare just when we are ready for them. Now there is a man whom I have in my mind: he hath name Paul Friche and is one of your Marats--a surly, ill-conditioned giant . . . he was on guard outside Le Bouffay this afternoon. . . . I spoke to him . . . he would suit our purpose admirably."
"What do you want him to do?"
"Only to make himself look as like a Nantese cut-throat as he can. . . ."
"He looks like one already," broke in Jacques Lalouët with a laugh.
"So much the better. He'll excite no suspicion in that case in the minds of the frequenters of the Rat Mort. Then I'll instruct him to start a brawl--a fracas--soon after the arrival of the Kernogan wench. The row will inevitably draw the English adventurers hot-haste to the spot, either in the hope of getting the Kernogans away during the mêlée or with a view to protecting them. As soon as they have appeared upon the scene, the half company of the Marats will descend on the house and arrest every one inside it."
"It all sounds remarkably simple," rejoined Carrier, and with a leer of satisfaction he turned to Jacques Lalouët. "What think you of it, Citizen?" he asked.
"That it sounds so remarkably simple," replied young Lalouët, "that personally I should be half afraid . . ."
"Of what?" queried Chauvelin blandly.
"If you fail, Citizen Chauvelin. . . ."
"If the Englishmen do not appear?"
"Even so the citizen proconsul will have lost nothing. He will merely have failed to gain the twenty thousand francs. But the Kernogans will still be in his power and citizen Martin-Roget's ten thousand francs are in any case assured."
"Friend Jean-Baptiste," concluded Lalouët with his habitual insolent familiarity "you had better do what Citizen Chauvelin wants. Ten thousand francs are good . . . and thirty better still. Our privy purse has been empty far too long, and I for one would like the handling of a few brisk notes."
"It will only be twenty-eight, Citizen Lalouët," interposed Chauvelin blandly, "for Commandant Fleury will want one thousand francs and his men another thousand to stimulate their zeal. Still! I imagine that these hard times twenty-eight thousand francs are worth fighting for."
"You seem to be fighting and planning and scheming for nothing, Citizen Chauvelin," retorted young Lalouët with a sneer. "What are you going to gain, I should like to know, by the capture of that dare-devil Englishman?"
"Oh!" replied Chauvelin suavely, "I shall gain the citizen proconsul's regard, I hope--and yours too, Citizen Lalouët. I want nothing more except the success of my plan."
Young Lalouët jumped down to his feet. He shrugged his shoulders and through his fine eyes shot a glance of mockery and scorn on the thin, shrunken figure of the Terrorist.
"How you do hate that Englishman, Citizen Chauvelin," he said with a light laugh.
Carrier having fully realized that he in any case stood to make a vast sum of money out of the capture of the band of English spies, gave his support generously to Chauvelin's scheme. Fleury, summoned into is presence, was ordered to place himself and half a company of Marats at the disposal of Citizen Chauvelin. He demurred and growled like a bear with a sore head at being placed under the orders of a civilian, but it was not easy to run counter to the proconsul's will. A good deal of swearing, one or two overt threats and the citizen commandant was reduced to submission. The promise of a thousand francs, when the reward for the capture of the English spies was paid out by a grateful government, overcame his last objections.
"I think you should rid yourself of that obstinate oaf," was young Lalouët's cynical comment, when Fleury had finally left the audience chamber; "he is too argumentative for my taste."
Chauvelin smiled quietly to himself. He cared little what became of every one of these Nantese louts once his great object had been attained.
"I need not trouble you further, Citizen Carrier," he said as he finally rose to take his leave. "I shall have my hands full until I myself lay that meddlesome Englishman bound and gagged at your feet."
The phrase delighted Carrier's insensate vanity. He was overgracious to Chauvelin now.
"You shall do that at the Rat Mort, Citizen Chauvelin," he said with marked affability, "and I myself will commend you for your zeal to the Committee of Public Safety."
"Always supposing," interposed Jacques Lalouët with his cynical laugh, "that citizen Chauvelin does not let the whole rabble slip through his fingers."
"If I do," concluded Chauvelin dryly, "you may drag the Loire for my body to-morrow."
"Oh!" laughed Carrier, "we won't trouble to do that. Au revoir, Citizen Chauvelin," he added with one of his grandiloquent gestures of dismissal, "I wish you luck at the Rat Mort to-night."
Jacques Lalouët ushered Chauvelin out. When he was finally left standing alone at the head of the stairs and young Lalouët's footsteps had ceased to resound across the floors of the rooms beyond, he remained quite still for awhile, his eyes fixed into vacancy, his face set and expressionless; and through his lips there came a long-drawn-out sigh of intense satisfaction.
"And now, my fine Scarlet Pimpernel," he murmured softly, "once more a nous deux."
Then he ran swiftly down the stairs and a moment later was once more speeding toward Le Bouffay.