Chapter 6

THE RAT MORT

I

The guide had stepped out of the house into the street, Yvonne following closely on his heels. The night was very dark and the narrow little Carrefour de la Poissonnerie very sparsely lighted. Somewhere overhead on the right, something groaned and creaked persistently in the wind. A little farther on a street lanthorn was swinging aloft throwing a small circle of dim, yellowish light on the unpaved street below. By its fitful glimmer Yvonne could vaguely perceive the tall figure of her guide as he stepped out with noiseless yet firm tread, his shoulder brushing against the side of the nearest house as he kept closely within the shadow of its high wall. The sight of his broad back thrilled her. She had fallen to imagining whether this was not perchance that gallant and all-powerful Scarlet Pimpernel himself: the mysterious friend of whom her dear milor' so often spoke with an admiration that was akin to worship. He too was probably tall and broad--for English gentlemen were usually built that way; and Yvonne's over-excited mind went galloping on the wings of fancy, and in her heart she felt that she was glad that she had suffered so much, and then lived through such a glorious moment as this.

Now from the narrow unpaved yard in front of the house the guide turned sharply to the right. Yvonne could only distinguish outlines. The streets of Nantes were familiar to her, and she knew pretty well where she was. The lanthorn inside the clock tower of Le Bouffay guided her--it was now on her right--the house wherein she had been kept a prisoner these past three days was built against the walls of the great prison house. She knew that she was in the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie.

She felt neither fatigue nor cold, for she was wildly excited. The keen north-westerly wind searched all the weak places in her worn clothing and her thin shoes were wet through. But her courage up to this point had never forsaken her. Hope and the feeling of freedom gave her marvellous strength, and when her guide paused a moment ere he turned the angle of the high wall and whispered hurriedly: "You have courage, my lady?" she was able to answer serenely: "In plenty, sir."

She tried to peer into the darkness in order to realize whither she was being led. The guide had come to a halt in front of the house which was next to that of Louise Adet: it projected several feet in front of the latter: the thing that creaked so weirdly in the wind turned out to be a painted sign, which swung out from an iron bracket fixed into the wall. Yvonne could not read the writing on the sign, but she noticed that just above it there was a small window dimly lighted from within.

What sort of a house it was Yvonne could not, of course, see. The frontage was dark save for narrow streaks of light which peeped through the interstices of the door and through the chinks of ill-fastened shutters on either side. Not a sound came from within, but now that the guide had come to a halt it seemed to Yvonne--whose nerves and senses had become preternaturally acute--that the whole air around her was filled with muffled sounds, and when she stood still and strained her ears to listen she was conscious right through the inky blackness of vague forms--shapeless and silent--that glided past her in the gloom.

II

"Your friends will meet you here," the guide whispered as he pointed to the door of the house in front of him. "The door is on the latch. Push it open and walk in boldly. Then gather up all your courage, for you will find yourself in the company of poor people, whose manners are somewhat rougher than those to which you have been accustomed. But though the people are uncouth, you will find them kind. Above all you will find that they will pay no heed to you. So I entreat you do not be afraid. Your friends would have arranged for a more refined place wherein to come and find you, but as you may well imagine they had no choice."

"I quite understand, sir," said Yvonne quietly, "and I am not afraid."

"Ah! that's brave!" he rejoined. "Then do as I tell you. I give you my word that inside that house you will be perfectly safe until such time as your friends are able to get to you. You may have to wait an hour, or even two; you must have patience. Find a quiet place in one of the corners of the room and sit there quietly, taking no notice of what goes on around you. You will be quite safe, and the arrival of your friends is only a question of time."

"My friends, sir?" she spoke earnestly, and her voice shook slightly as she spoke, "are you not one of the most devoted friends I can ever hope to have? I cannot find the words now wherewith to thank you, but . . ."

"I pray you do not thank me," he broke in gruffly, "and do not waste time in parleying. The open street is none too safe a place for you just now. The house is."

His hand was on the latch and he was about to push open the door, when Yvonne stopped him with a word.

"My father?" she whispered with passionate entreaty. "Will you help him too?"

"Monsieur le Duc de Kernogan is as safe as you are, my lady," he replied. "He will join you anon. I pray you have no fears for him. Your friends are caring for him in the same way as they care for you."

"Then I shall see him . . . soon?"

"Very soon. And in the meanwhile," he added, "I pray you to sit quite still and to wait events . . . despite anything you may see or hear. Your father's safety and your own--not to speak of that of your friends--hangs on your quiescence, your silence, your obedience."

"I will remember, sir," rejoined Yvonne quietly. "I in my turn entreat you to have no fears for me."

Even while she said this, the man pushed the door open.

III

Yvonne had meant to be brave. Above all she had meant to be obedient. But even so, she could not help recoiling at sight of the place where she had just been told she must wait patiently and silently for an hour, or even two.

The room into which her guide now gently urged her forward was large and low, only dimly lighted by an oil-lamp which hung from the ceiling and emitted a thin stream of black smoke and evil smell. Such air as there was, was foul and reeked of the fumes of alcohol and charcoal, of the smoking lamp and of rancid grease. The walls had no doubt been white-washed once, now they were of a dull greyish tint, with here and there hideous stains of red or the marks of a set of greasy fingers. The plaster was hanging in strips and lumps from the ceiling; it had fallen away in patches from the walls where it displayed the skeleton laths beneath. There were two doors in the wall immediately facing the front entrance, and on each side of the latter there was a small window, both insecurely shuttered. To Yvonne the whole place appeared unspeakably squalid and noisome. Even as she entered her ears caught the sound of hideous muttered blasphemy, followed by quickly suppressed hoarse and mirthless laughter and the piteous cry of an infant at the breast.

There were perhaps sixteen to twenty people in the room--amongst them a goodly number of women, some of whom had tiny, miserable atoms of humanity clinging to their ragged skirts. A group of men in tattered shirts, bare shins and sabots stood in the centre of the room and had apparently been in conclave when the entrance of Yvonne and her guide caused them to turn quickly to the door and to scan the new-comers with a furtive, suspicious look which would have been pathetic had it not been so full of evil intent. The muttered blasphemy had come from this group; one or two of the men spat upon the ground in the direction of the door, where Yvonne instinctively had remained rooted to the spot.

As for the women, they only betrayed their sex by the ragged clothes which they wore: there was not a face here which had on it a single line of softness or of gentleness: they might have been old women or young: their hair was of a uniform, nondescript colour, lank and unkempt, hanging in thin strands over their brows; their eyes were sunken, their cheeks either flaccid or haggard--there was no individuality amongst them--just one uniform sisterhood of wretchedness which had already gone hand in hand with crime.

Across one angle of the room there was a high wooden counter like a bar, on which stood a number of jugs and bottles, some chunks of bread and pieces of cheese, and a collection of pewter mugs. An old man and a fat, coarse-featured, middle-aged woman stood behind it and dispensed various noxious-looking liquors. Above their heads upon the grimy, tumble-down wall the Republican device "Liberté! Egalité Fraternité!" was scrawled in charcoal in huge characters, and below it was scribbled the hideous doggerel which an impious mind had fashioned last autumn on the subject of the martyred Queen.

IV

Yvonne had closed her eyes for a moment as she entered; now she turned appealingly towards her guide.

"Must it be in here?" she asked.

"I am afraid it must," he replied with a sigh. "You told me that you would be brave."

She pulled herself together resolutely. "I will be brave," she said quietly.

"Ah! that's better," he rejoined. "I give you my word that you will be absolutely safe in here until such time as your friends can get to you. I entreat you to gather up your courage. I assure you that these wretched people are not unkind: misery--not unlike that which you yourself have endured--has made them what they are. No doubt we should have arranged for a better place for you wherein to await your friends if we had the choice. But you will understand that your safety and our own had to be our paramount consideration, and we had no choice."

"I quite understand, sir," said Yvonne valiantly, "and am already ashamed of my fears."

And without another word of protest she stepped boldly into the room.

For a moment or two the guide remained standing on the threshold, watching Yvonne's progress. She had already perceived an empty bench in the farthest angle of the room, up against the door opposite, where she hoped or believed that she could remain unmolested while she waited patiently and in silence as she had been ordered to do. She skirted the groups of men in the centre of the room as she went, but even so she felt more than she heard that muttered insults accompanied the furtive and glowering looks wherewith she was regarded. More than one wretch spat upon her skirts on the way.

But now she was in no sense frightened, only wildly excited; even her feeling of horror she contrived to conquer. The knowledge that her own attitude, and above all her obedience, would help her gallant rescuers in their work gave her enduring strength. She felt quite confident that within an hour or two she would be in the arms of her dear milor' who had risked his life in order to come to her. It was indeed well worth while to have suffered as she had done, to endure all that she might yet have to endure, for the sake of the happiness which was in store for her.

She turned to give a last look at her guide--a look which was intended to reassure him completely as to her courage and her obedience: but already he had gone and had closed the door behind him, and quite against her will the sudden sense of loneliness and helplessness clutched at her heart with a grip that made it ache. She wished that she had succeeded in catching sight of the face of so valiant a friend: the fact that she was safely out of Louise Adet's vengeful clutches was due to the man who had just disappeared behind that door. It would be thanks to him presently if she saw her father again. Yvonne felt more convinced than ever that he was the Scarlet Pimpernel--milor's friend--who kept his valiant personality a mystery, even to those who owed their lives to him. She had seen the outline of his broad figure, she had felt the touch of his hand. Would she recognize these again when she met him in England in the happy days that were to come? In any case she thought that she would recognize the voice and the manner of speaking, so unlike that of any English gentleman she had known.

V

The man who had so mysteriously led Yvonne de Kernogan from the house of Louis Adet to the Rat Mort, turned away from the door of the tavern as soon as it had closed on the young girl, and started to go back the way he came.

At the angle formed by the high wall of the tavern he paused; a moving form had detached itself form the surrounding gloom and hailed him with a cautious whisper:

"Hist! Citizen Martin-Roget, is that you?"

"Yes."

"Everything just as we anticipated?"

"Everything."

"And the wench safely inside?"

"Quite safely."

The other gave a low cackle, which might have been intended for a laugh.

"The simplest means," he said, "are always the best."

"She never suspected me. It was all perfectly simple. You are a magician, Citizen Chauvelin," added Martin-Roget grudgingly. "I never would have thought of such a clever ruse."

"You see," rejoined Chauvelin dryly. "I graduated in the school of a master of all ruses--a master of daring and a past master in the art of mimicry. And hope was our great ally--the hope that never forsakes a prisoner--that of getting free. Your fair Yvonne had boundless faith in the power of her English friends, therefore she fell into our trap like a bird."

"And like a bird she shall struggle in vain after this," said Martin-Roget slowly. "Oh! that I could hasten the flight of time--the next few minutes will hang on me like hours. And I wish too it were not so bitterly cold," he added with a curse; "this north-westerly wind has got into my bones."

"On to your nerves, I imagine, Citizen," retorted Chauvelin with a laugh; "for my part I feel as warm and comfortable as on a lovely day in June."

"Hark! Who goes there? broke in the other man abruptly, as a solitary moving form detached itself form the surrounding inky blackness and the sound of measured footsteps broke the silence of the night.

"Quite in order, citizen!" was the prompt reply.

The shadowy form came a step of two farther forward.

"Is it you, Citizen Fleury?" queried Chauvelin.

"Himself, Citizen," replied the other.

The men had spoken in a whisper. Fleury now placed his hand on Chauvelin's arm.

"We had best not stand so close to the tavern," he said, "the night hawks are already about and we don't want to scare them."

He led the others up the yard, then into a very narrow passage which lay between Louise Adet's house and the Rat Mort and was bordered by the high walls of the houses on either side.

"This is a blind alley," he whispered. "We have the wall of Le Bouffay in front of us: the wall of the Rat Mort is on one side and the house of the Citizeness Adet is on the other. We can talk here undisturbed."

Overhead there was a tiny window dimly lighted from within. Chauvelin pointed up to it.

"What is that?" he asked.

"An aperture too small for any human being to pass through," replied Fleury dryly. "It gives on a small landing at the foot of the stairs. I told Friche to try and maneuver so that the wench and her father are pushed in there out of the way while the worst of the fracas is going on. That was your suggestion, Citizen Chauvelin."

"It was. I was afraid the two aristos might get spirited away while your men were tackling the crowd in the tap-room. I wanted them put away in a safe place."

"The staircase is safe enough," rejoined Fleury, "it has no egress save that on the tap-room and only leads to the upper story and the attic. The house has no back entrance--it is built against the wall of Le Bouffay."

"And what about your Marats, Citizen Commandant?"

"Oh! I have them all along the street--entirely under cover but closely on the watch--half a company and all keen after the game. The thousand francs you promised them has stimulated their zeal most marvellously, and as soon as Paul Friche in there has whipped up the tempers of the frequenters of the Rat Mort, we shall be ready to rush the place, and I assure you, Citizen Chauvelin, that only a disembodied ghost--if there be one in the place--will succeed in evading arrest."

"Is Paul Friche already at his post then?"

"And at work--or I'm much mistaken," replied Fleury as he suddenly gripped Chauvelin by the arm.

For just at this moment the silence of the winter's night was broken by loud cries which came from the interior of the Rat Mort--voices were raised to hoarse and raucous cries--men and women all appeared to be shrieking together, and presently there was a loud crash as of overturned furniture and broken glass.

"A few minutes longer, Citizen Fleury," said Chauvelin, as the commandant of the Marats turned on his heel and started to go back to the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie.

"Oh yes!" whispered the latter, "We'll wait awhile longer to give the Englishmen time to arrive on the scene. The coast is clear for them--my Marats are hidden from sight behind doorways and shop-fronts of the houses opposite. In about three minutes from now I'll send them forward."

"And good luck to your hunting, Citizen," whispered Chauvelin in response.

Fleury very quickly disappeared in the darkness and the other two men followed in his wake. They hugged the wall of the Rat Mort as they went along and its shadow enveloped them completely: their shoes made no sound on the unpaved ground. Chauvelin's nostrils quivered as he drew the keen, cold air into his lungs and faced the north-westerly blast which at this moment also lashed the face of his enemy. His keen eyes tried to pierce the gloom, his ears were strained to hear that merry peal of laughter which in the unforgettable past had been wont to proclaim the presence of the reckless adventurer. He knew--he felt--as certainly as he felt the air which he breathed, that the man whom he hated beyond everything on earth was somewhere close by, wrapped in the murkiness of the night--thinking, planning, intriguing, pitting his sharp wits, his indomitable pluck, his impudent dare-devilry against the sure and patient trap which had been set for him.

Half a company of Marats in front--the walls of Le Bouffay in the rear! Chauvelin rubbed his thin hands together!

"You are not a disembodied ghost, my fine Scarlet Pimpernel," he murmured, "and this time I really think----"