Chapter 9

THE PROCONSUL

I

From round the angle of the house Martin-Roget and Chauvelin were already speeding along at a rapid pace.

"What does it all mean?" queried the latter hastily.

"The Englishman--with the wench on his back? have you seen him?"

"Malediction! what do you mean?"

"Have you seen him?" reiterated Fleury hoarsely.

"No."

"He couldn't have passed you?"

"Impossible."

"Then unless some of us here have eyes like cats that limb of Satan will get away. On to him my men," he called once more. "Can you see him?"

The darkness outside was intense. The north-westerly wind was whistling down the narrow street, drowning the sound of every distant footfall: it tore mercilessly round the men's heads, snatching those bonnets from off their heads, dragging at their loose shirts and breeches, adding to the confusion which already reigned.

"He went this way . . ." shouted one.

"No! that!" cried another.

"There he is!" came finally in chorus from several lusty throats. "Just crossing the bridge."

"After him," cried Fleury, "a hundred francs to the man who first lays hands on that devil."

Then the chase began. The Englishman on ahead was unmistakable with that burden on his shoulder. He had just reached the foot of the bridge where a street lanthorn fixed on a tall bracket on the corner stone had suddenly thrown him into bold relief. He had less than a hundred metres start of his pursuers and with a wild cry of excitement they started in his wake.

He was now in the middle of the bridge--an unmistakable figure of a giant vaguely silhouetted against the light from the lanthorns on the further end of the bridge--seeming preternaturally tall and misshapen with that hump upon his back.

From right and left, from under the doorways of the houses in the Carrefour de la Poissonnerie the Marats who had been left on guard in the street now joined in the chase. Overhead windows were thrown open--the good burghers of Nantes, awakened from their sleep, forgetful for the nonce of all their anxieties, their squalor and their miseries, leaned out to see what this new kind of din might mean. From everywhere--it almost seemed as if some sprang out of the earth--men, either of the town guard or Marats on patrol duty, or merely idlers and night hawks who happened to be about, yielded to that primeval instinct of brutality which causes men as well as beasts to join in a pursuit against a fellow creature.

Fleury was in the rear of his posse, Martin-Roget and Chauvelin, walking as rapidly as they could by his side, tried to glean some information out of the commandant's breathless and scrappy narrative:

"What happened exactly?"

"It was the man Paul Friche . . . with the aristo wench on his back . . . and another man carrying the ci-devant aristo . . . they were the English spies . . . in disguise . . . they knocked over the lamp . . . and got away . . ."

"Name of a . . ."

"No use swearing, Citizen Martin-Roget," retorted Fleury as hotly as his agitated movements would allow. "You and Citizen Chauvelin are responsible for the affair. It was you, Citizen Chauvelin who placed Paul Friche inside that tavern in observation--you told him what to do . . ."

"Well?"

"Paul Friche--the real Paul Friche--was taken to the infirmary some hours ago . . . with a cracked skull, dealt him by your Englishman, I've no doubt . . ."

"Impossible," reiterated Chauvelin with a curse.

"Impossible? why impossible?"

"The man I spoke to outside Le Bouffay . . ."

"Was not Paul Friche."

"He was on guard in the Place with two other Marats."

"He was not Paul Friche--the others were not Marats."

"Then the man who was inside the tavern? . . ."

"Was not Paul Friche."

". . . who climbed the gutter pipe . . . ?"

"Malediction!"

And the chase continued--waxing hotter every minute. The hare had gained slightly on the hounds--there were more than a hundred hot on the trail by now--having crossed the bridge he was on the Isle Feydeau, and without hesitating a moment he plunged at once into the network of narrow streets which cover the island in the rear of La Petite Hollande and the Hôtel de la Villestreux, where lodged Carrier, the representative of the people. The hounds after him had lost some ground by halting--if only for a second or two--first at the head of the bridge, then at the corners of the various streets, while they peered into the darkness to see which way had gone that fleet-footed hare.

"Down this way!"

"No! That!"

"There he goes!"

It always took a few seconds to decide, during which the man on head with his burden on his shoulder had time mayhap to reach the end of a street and to turn a corner and once again to plunge into darkness and out of sight. The street lanthorns were few in this squalid corner of the city, and it was only when perforce the running hare had to cross a circle of light that the hounds were able to keep hot on the trail.

"To the bridges for your lives!" now shouted Fleury to the men nearest to him. "Leave him to wander on the island. He cannot come off it, unless he jumps into the Loire."

The Marats--intelligent and ferociously keen on the chase--had already grasped the importance of this order: with the bridges guarded that fleet-footed Englishman might run as much as he liked, he was bound to be run to earth like a fox in his burrow. In a moment they had dispersed along the quays, some to one bridge-head, some to another--the Englishman could not double back now, and if he had already crossed to the Isle Gloriette, which was not joined to the left bank of the river by any bridge, he would be equally caught like a rat in a trap.

"Unless he jumps into the Loire," reiterated Fleury triumphantly.

"The proconsul will have more excitement than he hoped for," he added with a laugh. "He was looking forward to the capture of the English spy, and in deadly terror lest he escaped. But now meseems that we shall run our fox down in sight of the very gates of la Villestreux.

Martin-Roget's thoughts ran on Yvonne and the Duc.

"You will remember, Citizen Commandant," he contrived to say to Fleury, "that the ci-devant Kernogans were found inside the Rat Mort."

Fleury uttered an exclamation of rough impatience. What did he, what did any one care at this moment for a couple of aristos more or less when the noblest game that had ever fallen to the bag of any Terrorist was so near being run to earth? But Chauvelin said nothing. He walked on at a brisk pace, keeping close to commandant Fleury's side, in the immediate wake of the pursuit. His lips were pressed tightly together and a hissing breath came through his wide-open nostrils. His pale eyes were fixed into the darkness and beyond it, where the most bitter enemy of the cause which he loved was fighting his last battle against Fate.

II

"He cannot get off the island!" Fleury had said awhile ago. Well! there was of a truth little or nothing now between the hunted hare and capture. The bridges were well guarded: the island swarming with hounds, the Marats at their posts and the Loire an impassable barrier all round.

And Chauvelin, the most tenacious enemy man ever had, Fleury keen on a reward and Martin-Roget with a private grudge to pay off, all within two hundred yards behind him.

True, for the moment the Englishman had disappeared. Burden and all, the gloom appeared to have swallowed him up. But there was nowhere he could go; mayhap he had taken refuge under a doorway in one of the narrow streets and hoped perhaps under cover of the darkness to allow his pursuers to slip past him and then to double back.

Fleury was laughing in the best of humours. He was gradually collecting all the Marats together and sending them to the bridge-heads under the command of their various sergeants. Let the Englishman spend the night on the islands if he had a mind. There was a full company of Marats here to account for him as soon as he attempted to come out in the open.

The idlers and nighthawks as well as the municipal town guard continued to run excitedly up and down the streets--sometimes there would come a lusty cry from a knot of pursuers who thought they spied the Englishman through the darkness, at others there would be a call of halt, and feverish consultation held at a street corner as to the best policy to adopt.

The town guard, jealous of the Marats, were pining to lay hands on the English spy for the sake of the reward. Fleury, coming across their provost, called him a fool for his pains.

"My Marats will deal with the English spies, Citizen," he said roughly; "he is no concern of yours."

The provost demurred: an altercation might have ensued when Chauvelin's suave voice poured oil on the troubled waters.

"Why not," he said, "let the town guard continue their search on the island, Citizen Commandant? The men may succeed in digging our rat out of his hole and forcing him out into the open all the sooner. Your Marats will have him quickly enough after that."

To this suggestion the provost gave a grudging assent. The reward when the English spy was caught could be fought for later on. For the nonce he turned unceremoniously on his heel, and left Fleury cursing him for a meddlesome busybody.

"So long as he and his rabble does not interfere with my Marats," growled the commandant.

"Will you see your sergeants, Citizen?" queried Chauvelin tentatively. "They will have to keep very much on the alert, and will require constant prodding to their vigilance. If I can be of any service . . ."

"No," retorted Fleury curtly, "you and Citizen Martin-Roget had best try and see the proconsul and tell him what we have done."

"He'll be half wild with terror when he hears that the English spy is at large upon the island."

"You must pacify him as best you can. Tell him I have a score of Marats at every bridge-head and that I am looking personally to every arrangement. There is no escape for the devil possible save by drowning himself and the wench in the Loire."

III

Chauvelin and Martin-Roget turned from the quay on to the Petite Hollande--the great open ground with its converging row of trees which ends at the very apex of the Isle of Feydeau. Opposite to them at the further corner of the Place was the Hôtel de la Villestreux. One or two of the windows in the hotel were lighted from within. No doubt the proconsul was awake, trembling in the remotest angle of his lair, with the spectre of assassination rampant before him--aroused by the continued disturbance of the night, by the feverishness of this man-hunt carried on almost at his gates.

Even through the darkness it was easy to perceive groups of people either rushing backwards and forwards on the Place or congregating in groups under the trees. Excitement was in the air. It could be felt and heard right through the soughing of the north-westerly wind which caused the bare branches of the trees to groan and to crackle, and the dead leaves, which still hung on the twigs, to fly wildly through the night.

In the centre of the Place two small lights, gleaming like eyes in the midst of the gloom, betrayed the presence of the proconsul's coach, which stood there as always, ready to take him away to a place of safety--away from this city where he was mortally hated and dreaded--whenever the spectre of terror became more insistent than usual, and drove him hence out of his stronghold. The horses were pawing the frozen ground and champing their bits--the steam from their nostrils caught the ray of the carriage lamps, which also lit up with a feeble flicker the vague outline of the coachman on his box and of the postilion rigid in his saddle.

The citizens of Nantes were never tired of gaping at the carriage--a huge C-springed barouche--at the coachman's fine caped coat of bottle-green cloth and at the horses with their handsome harness set off with heavy brass bosses: they never tired of bandying words with the successive coachmen as they mounted their box and gathered up the reins or with the postilions who loved to crack their whips and to appear smart and well-groomed, in the midst of the squalor which reigned in the terror-stricken city. They were the guardians of the mighty proconsul; on their skill, quickness and presence of mind might depend his precious life.

Even when the shadow of death hangs over an entire community, there will be some who will stand and gape and crack jokes at an uncommon sight.

And now when the pall of night hung over the abode of the man-tiger and his lair, and wrapped in its embrace the hunted and the hunters, there still was a knot of people standing round the carriage--between it and the hotel--gazing with lack-lustre eyes on the costly appurtenances wherewith the representative of a wretched people loved to surround himself. They could only see the solid mass of the carriage and of the horses, but they could hear the coachman clicking with his tongue and the postilion cracking his whip, and these sights broke the absolute dreary monotony of their lives.

It was from behind this knot of gaffers that there rose gradually a tumult as of a man calling out in wrath and lashing himself into a fury. Chauvelin and Martin-Roget were just then crossing La Petite Hollande from one bank of the river to the other: they were walking rapidly towards the hotel, when they heard the tumult which presently culminated in a hoarse cry and a volley of oaths.

"My coach! my coach at once . . . Lalouët, don't leave me. . . . Curse you all for a set of cowardly oafs . . . My coach, I say . . ."

"The proconsul," murmured Chauvelin as he hastened forward, Martin-Roget following closely on his heels.

By the time that they had come near enough to the coach to distinguish vaguely in the gloom what was going on, people came rushing to the same spot from end to end of the Place. In a moment there was quite a crowd round the carriage, and the two men had much ado to push their way through by a vigorous play of their elbows.

"Citizen Carrier!" cried Chauvelin at the top of his voice, trying to dominate the hubbub, "one minute . . . I have excellent news for you . . . the English spy . . ."

"Curse you for a set of blundering fools," came with a husky cry from out the darkness, "you have let that English devil escape . . . I knew it . . . I knew it . . . the assassin is at large . . . the murderer . . . my coach at once . . . my coach . . . Lalouët--do not leave me."

Chauvelin had by this time succeeded in pushing his way to the forefront of the crowd: Martin-Roget, tall and powerful, had effectually made a way for him. Through the dense gloom he could see the misshapen form of the proconsul, wildly gesticulating with one arm and with the other clinging convulsively to young Lalouët who already had his hand on the handle of the carriage door.

With a quick, resolute gesture Chauvelin stepped between the door and the advancing proconsul.

"Citizen Carrier," he said with calm determination, on my oath there is no cause for alarm. Your life is absolutely safe . . . I entreat you to return to your lodgings . . ."

To emphasize his words he had stretched out a hand and firmly grasped the proconsul's coat sleeve. This gesture, however, instead of pacifying the apparently terror-stricken maniac, seemed to have the effect of further exasperating his insensate fear. With a loud oath he tore himself free from Chauvelin's grasp.

"Ten thousand devils," he cried hoarsely, "who is this fool who dares to interfere with me? Stand aside man . . . stand aside or . . ."

And before Chauvelin could utter another word or Martin-Roget come to his colleague's rescue, there came the sudden sharp report of a pistol; the horses reared, the crowd was scattered in every direction, Chauvelin was knocked over by a smart blow on the head whilst a vigorous drag on his shoulder alone saved him from falling under the wheels of the coach.

Whilst confusion was at its highest, the carriage door was closed to with a bang and there was a loud, commanding cry hurled through the window at the coachman on his box.

"En avant, Citizen Coachman! Drive for your life! through the Savenay gate. The English assassins are on our heels."

The postilion cracked his whip. The horses, maddened by the report, by the pushing, jostling crowd and the confused cries and screams around, plunged forward, wild with excitement. Their hoofs clattered on the hard road. Some of the crowd ran after the coach across the Place, shouting lustily: "The Proconsul! the Proconsul!"

Chauvelin--dazed and bruised--was picked up by Martin-Roget.

"The cowardly brute!" was all that he said between his teeth, "he shall rue this outrage as soon as I can give my mind to his affairs. In the meanwhile . . ."

The clatter of the horses' hoofs was already dying away in the distance. For a few seconds longer the rattle of the coach was still accompanied by cries of "The Proconsul! the Proconsul!" Fleury at the bridge-head, seeing and hearing its approach, had only just time to order his Marats to stand at attention. A salvo should have been fired when the representative of the people, the high and mighty proconsul, was abroad, but there was no time for that, and the coach clattered over the bridge at breakneck speed, whilst Carrier with his head out of the window was hurling anathemas and insults at Fleury for having allowed the paid spies of that cursed British Government to threaten the life of a representative of the people.

"I go to Savenay," he shouted just at the last, "until that assassin has been thrown in the Loire. But when I return . . . look to yourself, Commandant Fleury."

Then the carriage turned down the Quai de la Fosse and a few minutes later was swallowed up by the gloom.

IV

Chauvelin, supported by Martin-Roget, was hobbling back across the Place. The crowd was still standing about, vaguely wondering why it had got so excited over the departure of the proconsul and the rattle of a coach and pair across the bridge, when on the island there was still an assassin at large--an English spy, the capture of whom would be one of the great events in the chronicles of the city of Nantes.

"I think," said Martin-Roget, "that we may as well go to bed now, and leave the rest to Commandant Fleury. The Englishman may not be captured for some hours, and I for one am over-fatigued."

"Then go to bed an you desire, Citizen Martin-Roget," retorted Chauvelin dryly, "I for one will stay here until I see the Englishman in the hands of Commandant Fleury."

"Hark," interposed Martin-Roget abruptly. "What was that?"

Chauvelin had paused even before Martin-Roget's restraining hand had rested on his arm. He stood still in the middle of the Place and his knees shook under him so that he nearly fell prone to the ground.

"What is it?" reiterated Martin-Roget with vague puzzlement. "It sounds like young Lalouët's voice."

Chauvelin said nothing. He had forgotten his bruises: he no longer hobbled--he ran across the Place to the front of the hotel whence the voice had come which was so like that of young Lalouët.

The youngster--it was undoubtedly he--was standing at the angle of the hotel: above him a lanthorn threw a dim circle of light on his bare head with its mass of dark curls, and on a small knot of idlers with two or three of the town guard amongst them. The first words spoken by him which Chauvelin distinguished quite clearly were:

"You are all mad . . . or else drunk . . . The citizen proconsul is upstairs in his room . . . He has just sent me down to hear what news there is of the English spies . . ."

V

No one made reply. It seemed as if some giant and spectral hand had passed over this mass of people and with its magic touch had stilled their turbulent passions, silenced their imprecations and cooled their ardour--and left naught but a vague fear, a subtle sense of awe as when something unexplainable and supernatural has manifested itself before the eyes of men.

From far away the roll of coach-wheels rapidly disappearing in the distance alone broke the silence of the night.

"Is there no one here who will explain what all this means?" queried young Lalouët, who alone had remained self-assured and calm, for he alone knew nothing of what had happened. "Citizen Fleury, are you there?"

Then as once again he received no reply, he added peremptorily:

"Hey! some one there! Are you all louts and oafs that not one of you can speak?"

A timid voice from the rear ventured on explanation.

"The citizen proconsul was here a moment ago . . . We all saw him, and you, Citizen Lalouët, were with him . . ."

An imprecation from young Lalouët silenced the timid voice for the nonce . . . and then another resumed the halting narrative:

"We all could have sworn that we saw you, Citizen Lalouët, also the citizen proconsul. . . . He got into the coach with you . . . you . . . that is . . . they have driven off. . ."

"This is some awful and treacherous hoax," cried the youngster, now in a towering passion; "the citizen proconsul is upstairs in bed, I tell you . . . and I have only just come out of the hotel . . . ! Name of a name of a dog! am I standing here or am I not?"

Then suddenly he bethought himself of the many events of the day which had culminated in this gigantic feat of legerdemain.

"Chauvelin!" he exclaimed. "Where in the name of h--ll is Citizen Chauvelin?"

But Chauvelin for the moment could nowhere be found. Dazed, half-unconscious, wholly distraught, he had fled from the scene of his discomfiture as fast as his trembling knees would allow. Carrier searched the city for him high and low, and for days afterwards the soldiers of the Compagnie Marat gave aristos and rebels a rest: they were on the look-out for a small, wizened figure of a man--the man with the pale, keen eyes who had failed to recognize in the pseudo Paul Friche, in the dirty, out-at-elbows sans-culotte--the most exquisite dandy that had ever graced the salons of Bath and of London: they were searching for the man with the acute and sensitive brain who had failed to scent in the pseudo-Carrier and the pseudo-Lalouët his old and arch enemy Sir Percy Blakeney and the charming wife of my lord Anthony Dewhurst.