After Martin-Roget and Chauvelin had left her, Yvonne had sat for a long time motionless, almost unconscious. It seemed as if gradually, hour by hour, minute by minute, her every feeling of courage and of hope were deserting her. Three days now she had been separated from her father--three days she had been under the constant supervision of a woman who had not a single thought of compassion or of mercy for the "aristocrat" whom she hated so bitterly.
At night, curled up on a small bundle of dank straw Yvonne had made vain efforts to snatch a little sleep. Ever since the day when she had been ruthlessly torn away from the protection of her dear milor', she had persistently clung to the belief that he would find the means to come to her, to wrest her from the cruel fate which her pitiless enemies had devised for her. She had clung to that hope through that dreary journey from dear England to this abominable city. She had clung to it even whilst her father knelt at her feet in an agony of remorse. She had clung to hope while Martin-Roget alternately coaxed and terrorized her, while her father was dragged away from her, while she endured untold misery, starvation, humiliation at the hands of Louis Adet: but now--quite unaccountably--that hope seemed suddenly to have fled from her, leaving her lonely and inexpressibly desolate. That small, shrunken figure which, wrapped in a dark mantle, had stood in the corner of the room watching her like a serpent watches its prey, had seemed like the forerunner of the fate with which Martin-Roget, gloating over her helplessness, had already threatened her.
She knew, of course, that neither from him, nor from the callous brute who governed Nantes, could she expect the slightest justice or mercy. She had been brought here by Martin-Roget not only to die, but to suffer grievously at his hands in return for a crime for which she personally was in no way responsible. To hope for mercy from him at the eleventh hour were worse than futile. Her already over-burdened heart ached at thought of her father: he suffered all that she suffered, and in addition he must be tortured with anxiety for her and with remorse. Sometimes she was afraid that under the stress of desperate soul-agony he might perhaps have been led to suicide. She knew nothing of what had happened to him, where he was, nor whether privations and lack of food or sleep, together with Martin-Roget's threats, had by now weakened his morale and turned his pride into humiliating submission.
A distant tower-clock struck the evening hours one after the other. Yvonne for the past three days had only been vaguely conscious of time. Martin-Roget had spoken of a few hours' respite only, of the proconsul's desire to be soon rid of her. Well! this meant no doubt that the morrow would see the end of it all--the end of her life which such a brief while ago seemed so full of delight, of love and of happiness.
The end of her life! She had hardly begun to live and her dear milor' had whispered to her such sweet promises of endless vistas of bliss.
Yvonne shivered beneath her thin gown. The north-westerly blast came in cruel gusts through the unglazed window and a vague instinct of self-preservation caused Yvonne to seek shelter in the one corner of the room where the icy draught did not penetrate quite so freely.
Eight, nine and ten struck from the tower-clock far away: she heard these sounds as in a dream. Tired, cold and hungry her vitality at that moment was at its lowest ebb--and, with her back resting against the wall she fell presently into a torpor-like sleep.
Suddenly something roused her, and in an instant she sat up--wide-awake and wide-eyed, every one of her senses conscious and on the alert. Something had roused her--at first she could not say what it was--or remember. Then presently individual sounds detached themselves from the buzzing in her ears. Hitherto the house had always been so still; except on the isolated occasions when Martin-Roget had come to visit her and his heavy tread had cause every loose board in the tumble-down house to creak, it was only Louise Adet's shuffling footsteps which had roused the dormant echoes, when she crept upstairs either to her own room, or to throw a piece of stale bread to her prisoner.
But now--it was neither Martin-Roget's heavy footfall nor the shuffling gait of Louis Adet which had roused Yvonne from her trance-like sleep. It was a gentle, soft, creeping step which was slowly, cautiously mounting the stairs. Yvonne crouching against the wall could count every tread--now and then a board creaked--now and then the footsteps halted.
Yvonne, wide-eyed, her heart stirred by a nameless terror was watching the door.
The piece of tallow-candle flickered in the draught. Its feeble light just touched the remote corner of the room. And Yvonne heard those soft, creeping footsteps as they reached the landing and came to a halt outside the door.
Every drop of blood in her seemed to be frozen by terror: her knees shook: her heart almost stopped its beating.
Under the door something small and white had just been introduced--a scrap of paper; and there it remained--white against the darkness of the unwashed boards--a mysterious message left her by an unknown hand, whilst the unknown footsteps softly crept down the stairs again.
For awhile longer Yvonne remained as she was--cowering against the wall--like a timid little animal, fearful lest that innocent-looking object hid some unthought-of danger. Then at last she gathered courage. Trembling with excitement she raised herself to her knees and then on hands and knees--for she was very weak and faint--she crawled up to that mysterious piece of paper and picked it up.
Her trembling hand closed over it. With wide staring terror-filled eyes she looked all round the narrow room, ere she dared cast one more glance on that mysterious scrap of paper. Then she struggled to her feet and tottered up to the table. She sat down and with fingers numbed with cold she smoothed out the paper and held it close to the light, trying to read what was written on it.
Her sight was blurred. She had to pull herself resolutely together, for suddenly she felt ashamed of her weakness and her overwhelming terror yielded to feverish excitement.
The scrap of paper contained a message--a message addressed to her in that name of which she was so proud--the name which she thought she would never be allowed to bear again: Lady Anthony Dewhurst. She reiterated the words several times, her lips clinging lovingly to them--and just below them there was a small device, drawn in red ink . . . a tiny flower with five petals. . . .
Yvonne frowned and murmured, vaguely puzzled--no longer frightened now: "A flower . . . drawn in red . . . what can it mean?"
But now suddenly all her fears fell away from her. Hope was once more knocking at the gates of her heart--vague memories had taken definite shape . . . the mysterious letter . . . the message of hope . . . the red flower . . . all were gaining significance. She stooped low to read the letter by the feeble light of the flickering candle. She read it through with her eyes first--then with her lips in a soft murmur, while her mind gradually took in all that it meant for her.
"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 freedom. Courage and secrecy."
When she had finished reading, her eyes were swimming in tears. There was no longer any doubt in her mind about the message now, for her dear milor' had so often spoken to her about the brave Scarlet Pimpernel who had risked his precious life many a time ere this, in order to render service to the innocent and the oppressed. And now, of a surety, this message came from him: him: from her dear milor' and from his gallant chief. There was the small device--the little red flower which had so often brought hope to despairing hearts. And it was more than hope that it brought to Yvonne. It brought certitude and happiness, and a sweet, tender remorse that she should ever have doubted. She ought to have known all along that everything would be for the best: she had no right ever to have given way to despair. In her heart she prayed for forgiveness from her dear absent milor'.
How could she ever doubt him? Was it likely that he would abandon her?--he and that brave friend of his whose powers were indeed magical. Why! she ought to have done her best to keep up her physical as well as her mental faculties--who knows? But perhaps physical strength might be of inestimable value both to herself and to her gallant rescuers presently.
She took up the stale brown bread and ate it resolutely. She drank some water and then stamped round the room to get some warmth into her limbs.
A distant clock had struck ten awhile ago--and if possible she ought to get an hour's rest before the time came for her to be strong and to act: so she shook up her meagre straw paillasse and lay down, determined if possible to get a little sleep--for indeed she felt that that was just what her dear milor' would have wished her to do.
Thus time went by--waking or dreaming, Yvonne could never afterwards have said in what state she waited during that one long hour which separated her from the great, blissful moment. The bit of candle burnt low and presently died out. After that Yvonne remained quite still upon the straw, in total darkness: no light came in through the tiny window, only the cold north-westerly wind blew in in gusts. But of a surety the prisoner who was within sight of freedom felt neither cold nor fatigue now.
The tower-clock in the distance struck the quarters with dreary monotony.
The last stroke of eleven ceased to vibrate through the stillness of the winter's night.
Yvonne roused herself from the torpor-like state into which she had fallen. She tried to struggle to her feet, but intensity of excitement had caused a strange numbness to invade her limbs. She could hardly move. A second or two ago it had seemed to her that she heard a gentle scraping noise at the door--a drawing of bolts--the grating of a key in the lock--then again, soft, shuffling footsteps that came and went and that were not those of Louise Adet.
At last Yvonne contrived to stand on her feet; but she had to close her eyes and to remain quite still for awhile after that, for her ears were buzzing and her head swimming: she thought that she must fall if she moved and mayhap lose consciousness.
But this state of weakness only lasted a few seconds: the next she had groped her way to the door and her hand had found the iron latch. It yielded. Then she waited, calling up all her strength--for the hour had come wherein she must not only think and act for herself, but think of every possibility which might occur, and act as she imagined her dear lord would require it of her.
She pressed the clumsy iron latch further: it yielded again, and anon she was able to push open the door.
Excited yet confident she tip-toed out of the room. The darkness--like unto pitch--was terribly disconcerting. With the exception of her narrow prison Yvonne had only once seen the interior of the house and that was when, half fainting, she had been dragged across its threshold and up the stairs. She had therefore only a very vague idea as to where the stairs lay and how she was to get about without stumbling.
Slowly and cautiously she crept a few paces forward, then she turned and carefully closed the door behind her. There was not a sound inside the house: every-thing was silent around her: neither footfall nor whisperings reached her straining ears. She felt about with her hands, she crouched down on her knees: anon she discovered the head of the stairs.
Then suddenly she drew back, like a frightened hare conscious of danger. All the blood rushed back to her heart, making it beat so violently that she once more felt sick and faint. A sound--gentle as a breath--had broken that absolute and dead silence which up to now had given her confidence. She felt suddenly that she was no longer alone in the darkness--that somewhere close by there was some one--friend or foe--who was lying in watch for her--that somewhere in the darkness something moved and breathed.
The crackling of the paper inside her kerchief served to remind her that her dear milor' was on the watch and that the blessed message had spoken of a friendly hand which would be stretched out to her and which she was enjoined to take with confidence. Reassured she crept on again, and anon a softly murmured: "Hush-sh!--sh!--" reached her ear. It seemed to come from down below--not very far--and Yvonne, having once more located the head of the stairs with her hands, began slowly to creep downstairs--softly as a mouse--step by step--but every time that a board creaked she paused, terrified, listening for Louise Adet's heavy footstep, for a sound that would mean the near approach of danger.
"Hush--sh--sh" came again as a gentle murmur from below and the something that moved and breathed in the darkness seemed to draw nearer to Yvonne.
A few more seconds of soul-racking suspense, a few more steps down the creaking stairs and she felt a strong hand laid upon her wrist and heard a muffled voice whisper in English:
"All is well! Trust me! Follow me!"
She did not recognize the voice, even though there was something vaguely familiar in its intonation. Yvonne did not pause to conjecture: she had been made happy by the very sound of the language which stood to her for every word of love she had ever heard: it restored her courage and her confidence in their fullest measure.
Obeying the whispered command, Yvonne was content now to follow her mysterious guide who had hold of her hand. The stairs were steep and winding--at a turn she perceived a feeble light at their foot down below. Up against this feeble light the form of her guide was silhouetted in a broad, dark mass. Yvonne could see nothing of him beyond the square outline of his shoulders and that of his sugar-loaf hat. Her mind now was thrilled with excitement and her fingers closed almost convulsively round his hand. He led her across Louise Adet's back kitchen. It was from here that the feeble light came--from a small oil lamp which stood on the centre table. It helped to guide Yvonne and her mysterious friend to the bottom of the stairs, then across the kitchen to the front door, where again complete darkness reigned. But soon Yvonne--who was following blindly whithersoever she was led--heard the click of a latch and the grating of a door upon its hinges: a cold current of air caught her straight in the face. She could see nothing, for it seemed to be as dark out of doors as in: but she had the sensation of that open door, of a threshold to cross, of freedom and happiness beckoning to her straight out of the gloom. Within the next second or two she would be out of this terrible place, its squalid and dank walls would be behind her. On ahead in that thrice welcome obscurity her dear milor' and his powerful friend were beckoning to her to come boldly on--their protecting arms were already stretched out for her; it seemed to her excited fancy as if the cold night-wind brought to her ears the echo of their endearing words.
She filled her lungs with the keen winter air: hope, happiness, excitement thrilled her every nerve.
"A short walk, my lady," whispered the guide, still speaking in English: "you are not cold?"
"No, no, I am not cold," she whispered in reply. "I am conscious of nothing save that I am free."
"And you are not afraid"
"Indeed, indeed I am not afraid," she murmured fervently. "May God reward you, sir, for what you do."
Again there had been that certain something--vaguely familiar--in the way the man spoke which for the moment piqued Yvonne's curiosity. She did not, of a truth, know English well enough to detect the very obvious foreign intonation; she only felt that sometime in the dim and happy past she had heard this man speak. But even this vague sense of puzzlement she dismissed very quickly from her mind. Was she not taking everything on trust? Indeed hope and confidence had a very firm hold on her at last.