It was with that muffled din still ringing in her ear and with the conception of all that was going on, on the other side of the partition, standing like an awesome spectre of evil before her mind, that Yvonne woke to the consciousness that her father was dead.
He lay along the last half-dozen steps of a narrow wooden staircase which had its base in the narrow, cupboard-like landing on to which the Lemoines had just thrust them both. Through a small heart-shaped hole cut in the door of the partition-wall, a shaft of feeble light struck straight across to the foot of the stairs: it lit up the recumbent figure of the last of the Ducs de Kernogan, killed in a brawl in a house of evil fame.
Weakened by starvation, by the hardships of the past few days, his constitution undermined by privations and mayhap too by gnawing remorse, he had succumbed to the stunning blow dealt to him by a half-drunken brute. His cry: "Yvonne! A moi!" was the last despairing call of a soul racked with remorse to the daughter whom he had so cruelly wronged.
When first that feeble shaft of light had revealed to her the presence of that inert form upon the steps, she had struggled to her feet and--dazed--had tottered up to it. Even before she had touched the face, the hands, before she had bent her ear to the half-closed mouth and failed to catch the slightest breath, she knew the full extent of her misery. The look in the wide-open eyes did not terrify her, but they told her the truth, and since then she had cowered beside her dead father on the bottom step of the narrow stairs, her fingers tightly closed over that one hand which never would be raised against her.
An unspeakable sense of horror filled her soul. The thought that he--the proud father, the haughty aristocrat, should lie like this and in such a spot, dragged in and thrown down--no doubt by Lemoine--like a parcel of rubbish and left here to be dragged away again and thrown again like a dog into some unhallowed ground--that thought was so horrible, so monstrous, that at first it dominated even sorrow. Then came the heartrending sense of loneliness. Yvonne Dewhurst had endured so much these past few days that awhile ago she would have affirmed that nothing could appall her in the future. But this was indeed the awful and overwhelming climax to what had already been a surfeit of misery.
This! she, Yvonne, cowering beside her dead father, with no one to stand between her and any insult, any outrage which might be put upon her, with nothing but a few laths between her and that yelling, screeching mob outside.
Oh! the loneliness! the utter, utter loneliness!
She kissed the inert hand, the pale forehead: with gentle, reverent fingers she tried to smoothe out those lines of horror and of fear which gave such a pitiful expression to the face. Of all the wrongs which her father had done her she never thought for a moment. It was he who had brought her to this terrible pass: he who had betrayed her into the hands of her deadliest enemy: he who had torn her from the protecting arms of her dear milor' and flung her and himself and the mercy of a set of inhuman wretches who knew neither compunction nor pity.
But all this she forgot, as she knelt beside the lifeless form--the last thing on earth that belonged to her--the last protection to which she might have clung.
Out of the confusion of sounds which came--deadened by the intervening partition--to her ear, it was impossible to distinguish anything very clearly. All that Yvonne could do, as soon as she had in a measure collected her scattered senses, was to try and piece together the events of the last few minutes--minutes which indeed seemed like days and even years to her.
Instinctively she gave to the inert hand which she held an additional tender touch. At any rate her father was out of it all. He was at rest and at peace. As for the rest, it was in God's hands. Having only herself to think of now, she ceased to care what became of her. He was out of it all: and those wretches after all could not do more than kill her. A complete numbness of senses and of mind had succeeded the feverish excitement of the past few hours: whether hope still survived at this moment in Yvonne Dewhurst's mind it were impossible to say. Certain it is that it lay dormant--buried beneath the overwhelming misery of her loneliness.
She took the fichu from her shoulders and laid it reverently over the dead man's face: she folded the hands across the breast. She could not cry: she could only pray, and that quite mechanically.
The thought of her dear milor', of his clever friend, of the message which she had received in prison, of the guide who had led her to this awful place, was relegated--almost as a memory--in the farthermost cell of her brain.
But after awhile outraged nature, still full of vitality and of youth, re-asserted itself. She felt numb and cold and struggled to her feet. From somewhere close to her a continuous current of air indicated the presence of some sort of window. Yvonne, faint with the close and sickly smell, which even that current failed to disperse, felt her way all round the walls of the narrow landing.
The window was in the wall between the partition and the staircase, it was small and quite low down. It was crossed with heavy iron bars. Yvonne leaned up against it, grateful for the breath of pure air.
For awhile yet she remained unconscious of everything save the confused din which still went on inside the tavern, and at first the sounds which came through the grated window mingled with those on the other side of the partition. But gradually as she contrived to fill her lungs with the cold breath of heaven, it seemed as if a curtain was being slowly drawn away from her atrophied senses.
Just below the window two men were speaking. She could hear them quite distinctly now--and soon one of the voices--clearer than the other--struck her ear with unmistakable familiarity.
"I told Paul Friche to come out here and speak to me," Yvonne heard that same voice say.
"Then he should be here," replied the other, "and if I am not mistaken . . ."
There was a pause, and then the first voice was raised again.
"Halt! Is that Paul Friche?"
"At your service, Citizen," came in reply.
"Well! Is everything working smoothly inside?"
"Quite smoothly; but your Englishmen are not there."
"How do you know?"
"Bah! I know most of the faces that are to be found inside the Rat Mort at this hour: there are no strangers among them."
The voice that had sounded so familiar to Yvonne was raised now in loud and coarse laughter.
"Name of a dog! I never for a moment thought that there were any Englishmen about. Citizen Chauvelin was suffering from nightmare."
"It is early yet," came in response from a gentle bland voice, "you must have patience, Citizen."
"Patience? Bah!" ejaculated the other roughly. "As I told you before 'tis but little I care about your English spies. 'Tis the Kernogans I am interested in. What have you done with them, Citizen?"
"I got that blundering fool Lemoine to lock them up on the landing at the bottom of the stairs."
"Is that safe?"
"Absolutely. It has no egress save into the taproom and up the stairs, to the rooms above. Your English spies if they came now would have to fly in and out of those top windows ere they could get to the aristos."
"Then in Satan's name keep them there awhile," urged the more gentle, insinuating voce, "until we can make sure of the English spies."
"Tshaw! What foolery!" interjected the other, who appeared to be in a towering passion. "Bring them out at once, Citizen Friche . . . bring them out . . . right into the middle of the rabble in the taproom. . . . Commandant Fleury is directing the perquisition--he is taking down the names of all that cattle which he is arresting inside the premises--let the ci-devant Duc de Kernogan and his exquisite daughter figure among the vilest cut-throats of Nantes."
"Citizen, let me urge on you once more . . ." came in earnest persuasive accents from that gentle voice.
"Nothing!" broke in the other savagely. "To h--ll with your English spies. It is the Kernogans that I want."
Yvonne, half-crazed with horror, had heard the whole of this abominable conversation wherein she had not failed to recognize the voice of Martin-Roget or Pierre Adet, as she now knew him to be. Who the other two men were she could easily conjecture. The soft bland voice she had heard twice during these past few days, which had been so full of misery, of terror and of surprise: once she had heard it on board the ship which had taken her away form England and once again a few hours since, inside the narrow room which had been her prison. The third man who had subsequently arrived on the scene was that coarse and grimy creature who had seemed to be the moving evil spirit of that awful brawl in the tavern.
What the conversation meant to her she could not fail to guess. Pierre Adet had by what he said made the whole of his abominable intrigue against her palpably clear. Her father had been right, after all. It was Pierre Adet who through some clever trickery had lured her to this place of evil. How it was all done she could not guess. The message . . . the device . . . her walk across the street . . . the silence . . . the mysterious guide . . . which of these had been the trickery? . . . which had been concocted by her enemy? . . . which devised by her dear milor'?
Enough that the whole thing was a trap, a trap all the more hideous as she, Yvonne, who would have given her heart's blood for her beloved, was obviously the bait wherewith these friends meant to capture him and his noble chief. They knew evidently of the presence of the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel and his band of heroes here in Nantes--they seemed to expect their appearance at this abominable place to-night. She, Yvonne, was to be the decoy which was to lure to this hideous lair those noble eagles who were still out of reach.
And if that was so--if indeed her beloved and his valiant friends had followed her hither, then some part of the message of hope must have come from them or from their chief . . . and milor' and his friend must even now be somewhere close by, watching their opportunity to come to her rescue . . . heedless of the awful danger which lay in wait for them . . . ignorant mayhap of the abominable trap which had been so cunningly set for them by these astute and ferocious brutes.
Yvonne a prisoner in this narrow space, clinging to the bars of what was perhaps the most cruel prison in which she had yet been confined, bruised her hands and arms against those bars in a wild desire to get out. She longed with all her might to utter one long, loud and piercing cry of warning to her dear milor' not to come nigh her now, to fly, to run while there was yet time; and all the while she knew that if she did utter such a cry he would hurry hot-haste to her side. One moment she would have had him near--another she wished him an hundred miles away.
In the tap-room a more ordered medley of sounds had followed on the wild pandemonium of awhile ago. Brief, peremptory words of command, steady tramping of feet, loud harsh questions and subdued answers, occasionally a moan or a few words of protest quickly suppressed, came through the partition to Yvonne's straining ears.
"Where do you live?"
"That's enough. Silence. The next."
"Where do you live?"
Men, women and even children were being questioned, classified, packed off, God knew whither. Sometimes a child would cry, a man utter an oath, a woman shriek: then would come harsh orders delivered in a gruff voice, more swearing, the grounding of arms and more often than not a dull, flat sound like a blow struck against human flesh, followed by a volley of curses or a cry of pain.
"George Amédé Lemoine."
"Where do you live?"
"In this house."
"I am the proprietor of the tavern, Citizen. I am an honest man and a patriot. The Republic . . ."
"But I protest."
"Silence. The next."
All with dreary, ceaseless monotony: and Yvonne like a trapped bird was bruising her wings against the bars of her cage. Outside the window Chauvelin and Martin-Roget were still speaking in whispers: the fowlers were still watching for their prey. The third man had apparently gone away. What went on beyond the range of her prison window--out in the darkness of the night which Yvonne's aching eyes could not pierce--she, the miserable watcher, the bait set here to catch the noble game, could not even conjecture. The window was small and her vision was further obstructed by heavy bars. She could see nothing--hear nothing save those two men talking in whispers. Now and again she caught a few words.
"A little while longer, Citizen . . . you lose nothing by waiting. Your Kernogans are safe enough. Paul Friche has assured you that the landing where they are now has no egress save through the tap-room, and to the floor above. Wait at least until Commandant Fleury has got the crowd together, after which he will send his Marats to search the house. It won't be too late then to lay hands on your aristos, if in the meanwhile . . ."
"'Tis futile to wait," here interrupted Martin-Roget roughly, "and you are a fool, Citizen, if you think that those Englishmen exist elsewhere than in your imagination."
"Hark!" broke in the gentle voice abruptly and with forceful command.
And as Yvonne too in instinctive response to that peremptory call was further straining her every sense in order to listen, there came from somewhere, not very far away, right through the stillness of the night, a sound which caused her pulses to still their beating and her throat to choke with the cry which rose from her breast.
It was only the sound of a quaint and drawly voice saying loudly and in English:
"Egad, Tony! ain't you getting demmed sleepy?"
Just for the space of two or three seconds Yvonne had remained quite still while this unexpected sound sent its dulcet echo on the wings of the north-westerly blast. The next--stumbling in the dark--she had run to the stairs even while she heard Martin-Roget calling loudly and excitedly to Paul Friche.
One reverent pause beside her dead father, one mute prayer commending his soul to the mercy of his Maker, one agonized entreaty to God to protect her beloved and his friend, and then she ran swiftly up the winding steps.
At the top of the stairs, immediately in front of her a door--slightly ajar--showed a feeble light through its aperture. Yvonne pushed the door further open and slipped into the room beyond. She did not pause to look round but went straight to the window and throwing open the rickety sash she peeped out. For the moment she felt that she would gladly have bartered away twenty years of her life to know exactly whence had come that quaint and drawling voice. She leaned far out of the window trying to see. It gave on the side of the Rat Mort over against Louise Adet's house--the space below seemed to her to be swarming with men: there were hurried and whispered calls--orders were given to stand at close attention, whilst Martin-Roget had apparently been questioning Paul Friche, for Yvonne heard the latter declare emphatically:
"I am certain that it came either from inside the house or from the roof. And with your permission, Citizen, I would like to make assurance doubly sure."
Then one of the men just suddenly have caught sight of the vague silhouette leaning out of the window, for Martin-Roget and Friche uttered a simultaneous cry, whilst Chauvelin said hurriedly:
"You are right, Citizen, something is going on inside the house."
"What can we do?" queried Martin-Roget excitedly.
"Nothing for the moment but wait. The Englishmen are caught sure enough like rats in their holes."
"Wait!" ejaculated Martin-Roget with a savage oath, "wait! always wait! while the quarry slips through one's fingers."
"It shall not slip through mine," retorted Paul Friche. "I was a steeple-jack by trade in my day: it won't be the first time that I have climbed the side of a house by the gutter-pipe. A moi Jean-Pierre," he added, "and may I be drowned in the Loire if between us two we do not lay those cursed English spies low."
"An hundred francs for each of you," called Chauvelin lustily, "if you succeed."
Yvonne did not think to close the window again. Vigorous shouting and laughter from below testified that that hideous creature Friche and his mate had put their project in immediate execution; she turned and ran down the stairs--feeling now like an animal at bay; by the time that she had reached the bottom, she heard a prolonged, hoarse cry of triumph from below and guessed that Paul Friche and his mate had reached the window-sill: the next moment there was a crash overhead of broken window-glass and of furniture kicked from one end of the room to the other, immediately followed by the sound of heavy footsteps running helter-skelter down the stairs.
Yvonne, half-crazed with terror, faint and sick, fell unconscious over the body of her father.
Inside the tap-room Commandant Fleury was still at work.
"Where do you live?"
The low room was filled to suffocation: the walls lined with Marats, the doors and windows which were wide open were closely guarded, whilst in the corner of the room, huddled together like bales of rubbish, was the human cattle that had been driven together, preparatory to being sent for trial to Paris in vindication of Carrier's brutalities against the city.
Fleury for form's sake made entries in a notebook--the whole thing was a mere farce--these wretched people were not likely to get a fair trial--what did the whole thing matter? Still! the commandant of the Marats went solemnly through the farce which Carrier had invented with a view to his own justification.
Lemoine and his wife had protested and been silenced: men had struggled and women had fought--some of them like wild cats--in trying to get away. Now there were only half a dozen or so more to docket. Fleury swore, for he was tired and hot.
"This place is like a pest-house," he said.
Just then came the sound of that lusty cry of triumph from outside, followed by all the clatter and the breaking of window glass.
"What's that?" queried Fleury.
The heavy footsteps running down the stairs caused him to look up from his work and to call briefly to a sergeant of the Marats who stood beside his chair:
"Go and see what that sacré row is about," he commanded. "In there," he added as he indicated the door of the landing with a jerk of the head.
But before the man could reach the door, it was thrown open from within with a vigorous kick from the point of a sabot, and Paul Friche appeared under the lintel with the aristo wench thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, his thick, muscular arms encircling her knees. His scarlet bonnet was cocked over one eye, his face was smeared with dirt, his breeches were torn at the knees, his shirt hung in strips from his powerful shoulders. Behind him his mate--who had climbed up the gutter-pipe into the house in his wake--was tottering under the load of the ci-devant Duc de Kernogan's body which he had slung across his back and was holding on to by the wrists.
Fleury jumped to his feet--the appearance of these two men, each with his burden, caused him to frown with anger and to demand peremptorily: "What is the meaning of this?"
"The aristos," said Paul Friche curtly; "they were trying to escape."
He strode into the room, carrying the unconscious form of the girl as if it were a load of feathers. He was a huge massive-looking giant: the girl's shoulders nearly touched the low ceiling as he swung forward facing the angry commandant.
"How did you get into the house? and by whose orders?" demanded Fleury roughly.
"Climbed in by the window, pardi," retorted the man, "and by the orders of Citizen Martin-Roget."
"A corporal of the Company Marat takes orders only from me; you should know that, Citizen Friche."
"Nay!" interposed the sergeant quickly, "this man is not a corporal of the Company Marat, Citizen Commandant. As for Corporal Friche, why! he was taken to the infirmary some hours ago with a cracked skull, he . . ."
"Not Corporal Friche," exclaimed Fleury with an oath, "then who in the devil's name is this man?"
"The Scarlet Pimpernel, at your service, Citizen Commandant," came loudly and with a merry laugh from the pseudo Friche.
And before either Fleury or the sergeant or any of the Marats could even begin to realize what was happening, he had literally bounded across the room, and as he did so he knocked against the hanging lamp which fell with a crash to the floor, scattering oil and broken glass in every direction and by its fall plunging the place into total darkness. At once there arose a confusion and medley of terrified screams, of piercing shrieks from the women and the children, and of loud imprecations from the men. These mingled with the hasty words of command, with quick orders from Fleury and the sergeant, with the grounding of arms and tramping of many feet, and with the fall of human bodies that happened to be in the way of the reckless adventurer and his flight.
"He is through the door," cried the men who had been there on guard.
"After him then!" shouted Fleury. "Curse you all for cowards and for fools."
The order had no need to be repeated. The confusion, though great, had only been momentary. Within a second or less, Fleury and his sergeant had fought their way through to the door, urging the men to follow.
"After him . . . quick! . . . he is heavily loaded . . . he cannot have got far . . ." commanded Fleury as soon as he had crossed the threshold. "Sergeant, keep order within, and on your life see that no one else escapes."