A man was sitting, huddled up in the ingle-nook of the small coffee-room, sipping hot ale from a tankard which he had in his hand.
Anything less suggestive of a rough sea-faring life than his appearance it would be difficult to conceive; and how he came by the appellation 'the Captain' must for ever remain a mystery. He was small and spare, with thin delicate face and slender hands: though dressed in very rough garments, he was obviously ill at east in them; his narrow shoulders scarcely appeared able to bear the weight of the coarsely made coat and his thin legs did not begin to fill the big fisherman's boots which reached midway up his lean thighs. His hair was lank and plentifully sprinkled with gray: he wore it tied at the nape of the neck with a silk bow which certainly did not harmonize with the rest of his clothing. A wide-brimmed felt hat something the shape of a sailor's, but with higher crown -- of the shape worn by the peasantry in Brittany-- lay on the bench beside him.
When the stranger entered he had greeted him curtly, speaking in French.
The room was inexpressibly stuffy, and reeked of the fumes of stale tobacco, stale victuals and stale beer; but it was warm, and the stranger, stiff to the marrow and wet to the skin, uttered an exclamation of well-being as he turned to the hearth, wherein a bright fire burned cheerily. He had put his hat down when first he entered and had divested himself of his big coat: now he held one foot and then the other to the blaze and tried to infuse new life into his numbed hands.
'The Captain' took scant notice of his comings and goings. He did not attempt to help him off with his coat, nor did he make an effort to add another log to the fire. He sat silent and practically motionless, save when from time to time he took a sip out of his mug of ale. But whenever the new-comer came within his immediate circle of vision he shot a glance at the latter's elegant attire -- the well-cut coat, the striped waistcoat, the boots of fine leather-- the glance was quick and comprehensive and full of scorn, a flash that lasted only an instant and was at once veiled again by the droop of the flaccid lids which hid the pale, keen eyes.
'When the woman has brought me something to eat and drink,' the stranger said after a while, 'we can talk. I have a good hour to spare, as those miserable nags must have some rest.'
He too spoke in French and with an air of authority, not to say arrogance, which caused 'the Captain's' glance of scorn to light up with an added gleam of hate and almost of cruelty. But he made no remark and continued to sip his ale in silence, and for the next half-hour the two men took no more notice of one another, just as if they had never travelled all those miles and come to this desolate spot for the sole purpose of speaking with one another. During the course of that half-hour the woman brought in a dish of mutton stew, a chunk of bread, a piece of cheese and a jug of spiced ale, and placed them on the table: all of these good things the stranger consumed with an obviously keen appetite. When he had eaten and drunk his fill, he rose from the table, drew a bench into the ingle-nook and sat down so that his profile only was visible to his friend 'the Captain.'
'Now, citizen Chauvelin,' he said with an attempt at ease and familiarity not unmixed with condescension, 'I am ready for your news.'
Chauvelin had winced perceptibly both at the condescension and the familiarity. It was such a very little while ago that men had trembled at a look, a word from him: his silence had been wont to strike terror in quaking hearts. It was such a very little while ago that he had been president of the Committee of Public Safety, all powerful, the right hand of citizen Robespierre, the master sleuth-hound who could track an unfortunate 'suspect' down to his most hidden lair, before whose keen, pale eyes the innermost secrets of a soul stood revealed, who guessed at treason ere it was wholly born, who scented treachery ere it was formulated. A year ago he had with a word sent scores of men, women and children to the guillotine -- he had with a sign brought the whole machinery of the ruthless Committee to work against innocent of guilty alike on mere suspicion, or to gratify his own hatred against all those whom he considered to be the enemies of that bloody revolution which he had helped to make. Now his presence, his silence, had not even the power to ruffle the self-assurance of an upstart.
But in the hard school both of success and of failure through which he had passed during the last decade, there was one lesson which Armand once Marquis de Chauvelin had learned to the last letter, and that was the lesson of self-control. He had winced at the other's familiarity, but neither by word nor gesture did he betray what he felt.
'I can tell you,' he merely said quite curtly, 'all I have to say in far less time than it has taken you to eat and drink, citizen Adet. . . '
But suddenly, at sound of that name, the other had put a warning hand on Chauvelin's arm, even as he cast a rapid, anxious look all around the narrow room.
'Hush, man!' he murmured hurriedly, 'you know quite well that that name must never be pronounced here in England. I am Martin-Roget now,' he added, as he shook off his momentary fright with equal suddenness, and once more resumed his tone of easy condescension, 'and try not to forget it.'
Chauvelin without any haste quietly freed his arm from the other's grasp. His pale face was quite expressionless, only the thin lips were drawn tightly over the teeth now, and a curious hissing sound escaped faintly from them as he said:
'I'll try and remember, citizen, that here in England you are an aristo, the same as all these confounded English whom may the devil sweep into a bottomless sea.'
Martin-Roget gave a short, complacent laugh.
'Ah,' he said lightly, 'no wonder you hate them, citizen Chauvelin. You too were an aristo here in England once -- not so very long ago, I am thinking-- special envoy to His Majesty King George, what? -- until failure to bring one of these satané Britishers to book made you . . . er. . . well, made you what you are now.'
He drew up his tall, broad figure as he spoke and squared his massive shoulders as he looked down with a fatuous smile and no small measure of scorn on the hunched-up little figure beside him. It had seemed to him that something in the nature of a threat had crept into Chauvelin's attitude, and he, still flushed with his own importance, his immeasurable belief in himself, at once chose to measure his strength against this man who was the personification of failure and disgrace --this man whom so many people had feared for so long and whom it might not be wise to defy even now.
'No offence meant, citizen Chauvelin,' he added with an air of patronage which once more made the other wince. 'I had no wish to wound your susceptibilities. I only desired to give you timely warning that what I do here is no one's concern, and that I will brook interference and criticism from no man.'
And Chauvelin, who in the past had oft with a nod sent a man to the guillotine, made no reply to this arrogant taunt. His small figure seemed to shrink still further within itself: and anon he passed his think, claw-like hand over his face as if to obliterate from its surface any expression which might war with the utter humility wherewith he now spoke.
'Nor was there any offence meant on my part, citizen Martin-Roget,' he said suavely. 'Do we not both labour for the same end? The glory of the Republic and the destruction of her foes?'
Martin-Roget gave a sigh of satisfaction. The battle had been won: he felt himself strong again --stronger than before through that very act of deference paid to him by the once all-powerful Chauvelin. Now he was quite prepared to be condescending and jovial once again:
'Of course, of course,' he said pleasantly, as he once more bent his tall figure to the fire. 'We are both servants of the Republic, and I may yet help you to retrieve your past failures, citizen, by giving you an active part in the work I have in hand. And now,' he added in a calm, business-like manner, the manner of a master addressing a servant who has been found at fault and is taken into favour again, 'let me hear your news.'
'I have made all the arrangements about the ship,' said Chauvelin quietly.
'Ah! that is good news indeed. What is she?'
'She is a Dutch ship. Her master and crew are all Dutch. . .'
'That's a pity. A Danish master and crew would have been safer.'
'I could not come across any Danish ship willing to take the risks,' said Chauvelin dryly.
'Well! And what about this Dutch ship then?'
'She is called the Hollandia and is habitually engaged in the sugar trade: but her master does a lot of contraband --more that than fair trading, I imagine: anyway, he is willing for the sum you originally named to take every risk and incidentally to hold his tongue about the whole business.'
'For two thousand francs?'
'And he will run the Hollandia into Le Croisic?'
'When you command.'
'And there is suitable accommodation on board her for a lady and her woman?'
'I don't know what you call suitable,' said Chauvelin with a sarcastic tone, which the other failed or was unwilling to note, 'and I don't know what you call a lady. The accommodation available on board the Hollandia will be sufficient for two men and two women.'
'And her master's name?' queried Martin-Roget.
'Some outlandish Dutch name,' replied Chauvelin. 'It is spelt K U Y P E R. The devil only knows how it is pronounced.'
'Well! And does Captain K U Y P E R understand exactly what I want?'
'He says he does. The Hollandia will put into Portishead on the last day of this month. You and your guests can get aboard her any day after that you choose. She will be there at your disposal, and can start within an hour of your getting aboard. Her master will have all his papers ready. He will have a cargo of West Indian sugar on board -- destination Amsterdam, consignee Mynheer van Smeer-- everything perfectly straight and square. French aristos, émigrés on board on their way to join the army of the Princes. There will be on difficulty in England.'
'And none in Le Croisic. The man is running no risks.'
'He thinks he is. France does not make Dutch ships and Dutch crews exactly welcome just now, does she?'
'Certainly not. But in Le Croisic and with citizen Adet on board. . .'
'I thought that name was not to be mentioned here,' retorted Chauvelin dryly.
'You are right, citizen,' whispered the other, 'it escaped me and . . .'
Already he had jumped to his feet: his face suddenly pale, his whole manner changed from easy, arrogant self-assurance to uncertainty and obvious dread. He moved to the window, trying to subdue the sound of his footsteps upon the uneven floor.
'Are you afraid of eavesdroppers, citizen Roget?' queried Chauvelin with a shrug of his narrow shoulders.
'No. There is no one there. Only a lout from Chelwood who brought me here. The people of the house are safe enough. They have plenty of secrets of their own to keep.'
He was obviously saying all this in order to reassure himself, for there was no doubt that his fears were on the alert. With a febrile gesture he unfastened the shutters, and pushed them open, peering out into the night.
'Hallo!' he called.
But he received no answer.
'It has started to rain,' he said more calmly. 'I imagine that lout has found shelter in an outhouse with the horses.'
'Very likely,' commented Chauvelin laconically.
'Then if you have nothing more to tell me,' quoth Martin-Roget, 'I may as well think about getting back. Rain or no rain, I want to be in Bath before midnight.'
'Ball or supper-party at one of your duchesses?' queried the other with a sneer. 'I know them.'
To this Martin-Roget vouchsafed no reply.
'How are things at Nantes?' he asked.
'Splendid! Carrier is like a wild beast let loose. The prisons are over-full: the surplus of accused, condemned and suspect fills the cellars and warehouses along the wharf. Priests and such like trash are kept on disused galliots up stream. The guillotine is never idle, and friend Carrier fearing that she might give out --get tired, what?-- or break down-- has invented a wonderful way of getting rid of shoals of undesirable people at one magnificent swoop. You have heard tell of it no doubt.'
'Yes. I have heard of it,' remarked the other curtly.
'He began with a load of priests. Requisitioned an old barge. Ordered Baudet the shipbuilder to construct half a dozen portholes in her bottom. Baudet demurred: he could not understand what the order could possibly mean. But Foucaud and Lamberty --Carrier's agents -- you know them-- explained that the barge would be towed down the Loire and then up one of the smaller navigable streams which it was feared the royalists were preparing to use as a way for making a descent upon Nantes, and that the idea was to sink the barge in midstream in order to obstruct the passage of their army. Baudet, satisfied, put five of his men to the task. Everything was ready on the 16th of last month. I know the woman Pichot, who keeps a small tavern opposite La Sécherie. She saw the barge glide up the river toward the galliot where twenty-five priests of the diocese of Nantes had been living for the past two months in the company of rats and other vermin as noxious as themselves. Most lovely moonlight there was that night. The Loire looked like a living ribbon of silver. Foucaud and Lamberty directed operations, and Carrier had given them full instructions. They tied the calotins up two and two and and transferred them from the galliot to the barge. It seems they were quite pleased to go. Had enough of the rats, I presume. The only thing they didn't like was being searched. Some had managed to screte silver ornaments about their person when they were arrested. Crucifixes and such like. They didn't like to part with these, it seems. But Foucaud and Lamberty relieved them of everything but the necessary clothing, and they didn't want much of that seeing whither they were going. Foucaud made a good pile, so they say. Self-seeking, avaricious brute! He'll learn the way to one of Carrier's barges too one day, I'll bet.'
He rose and with quick footsteps moved to the table. There was some ale left in the jug which the woman had brought for Martin-Roget a while ago. Chauvelin poured the contents of it down his throat. He had talked uninterruptedly, in short, jerky sentences, without the slightest expression of horror at the atrocities which he recounted. His whole appearance had become transfigured while he spoke. Gone was the urbane manner which he had learnt at courts long ago, gone was the last instinct of the gentleman sunk to proletarianism through stress of circumstances, or financial straits or even political convictions. The erstwhile Marquis de Chauvelin -- envoy of the Republic at the Court of St. James' -- had become citizen Chauvelin in deed and in fact, a part of that rabble which he had elected to serve, one of that vile crowd of bloodthirsty revolutionaries who had sullied the pure robes of Liberty and of Fraternity by spattering them with blood. Now he smacked his lips, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and burying his hands in the pockets of his breeches he stood with legs wide apart and a look of savage satisfaction settled upon his pale face. Martin-Roget had made no comment upon the narrative. He had resumed his seat by the fire and was listening attentively. Now while the other drank and paused, he showed no sign of impatience, but there was something in the look of the bent shoulders, in the rigidity of the attitude, in the large, square hands tightly clasped together which suggested the deepest interest and an intentness that was almost painful.
'I was at the woman Pichot's tavern that night,' resumed Chauvelin after a while. 'I saw the barge-- a moving coffin, what?-- gliding down stream towed by the galliot and escorted by a small boat. The floating battery at La Samaritaine challenged her as she passed, for Carrier had prohibited all navigation up or down the Loire until further notice. Foucaud, Lamberty, Fouquet and O'Sullivan the armourer were in the boat: they rowed up to the pontoon and Vailly the chief gunner of the battery challenged them once more. However, they had some sort of written authorization from Carrier, for they were allowed to pass. Vailly remained on guard. He saw the barge glide further down stream. It seems that the moon at the time was hidden by a cloud. But the night was not dark and Vailly watched the barge till she was out of sight. She was towed past Trentemoult and Chantenay into the wide reach of the river just below Cheviré where, as you know, the Loire is nearly two thousand feet wide.'
Once more he paused, looking down with grim amusement on the bent shoulders of the other man.
Chauvelin laughed. The query sounded choked and hoarse, whether through horror, excitement or mere impatient curiosity it were impossible to say.
'Well!' he retorted with a careless shrug of the shoulders. 'I was too far up stream to see anything and Vailly saw nothing either. But he heard. So did others who happened to be on the shore close by.'
'What did they hear?'
'The hammering,' replied Chauvelin curtly, 'when the portholes were knocked open to let in the flood of water. And the screams and yells of five and twenty drowning priests.'
'Not one of them escaped, I suppose?'
Once more Chauvelin laughed. He had a way of laughing -- just like that-- in a peculiar mirthless, derisive manner, as if with joy at another man's discomfiture, at another's material or moral downfall. There is only one language in the world which has a word to express that type of mirth; the word is Schadenfreude.
It was Chauvelin's turn to triumph now. He had distinctly perceived the signs of an inward shudder which had gone right through Martin-Roget's spine: he had also perceived through the man's bent shoulders, his silence, his rigidity that his soul was filled with horror at the story of that abominable crime which he -- Chauvelin -- had so blandly retailed and that he was afraid to show the horror which he felt. And the man who is afraid can never climb the ladder of success above the man who is fearless.
There was silence in the low raftered room for awhile: silence only broken by the crackling and sizzling of damp logs in the hearth, and the tap-tapping of a loosely fastened shutter which sounded weird and ghoulish like the knocking of ghosts against the window-frame. Martin-Roget bending still closer to the fire knew that Chauvelin was watching him and that Chauvelin had triumphed, for --despite failure, despite humiliation and disgrace -- that man's heart and will had never softened: he had remained as merciless, as fanatical, as before and still looked upon every sign of pity and humanity for a victim of that bloody revolution -- which was his child, the thing of his creation, yet worshipped by him, its creator -- as a crime against patriotism and against the Republic.
And Martin-Roget fought within himself lest something he might say or do, a look, a gesture should give the other man an indication that the horrible account of a hideous crime perpetrated against twenty-five defenceless men had roused a feeling of unspeakable horror in his heart. That was the punishment of these callous makers of a ruthless revolution -- that was their hell upon earth, that they were doomed to hate and to fear one another; every man feeling that the other's hand was up against him as it had been against law and order, against the guilty and the innocent, the rebel and the defenceless; every man knowing that the other was always there on the alert, ready to pounce like a beast of prey upon any victim -- friend, comrade, brother -- who came within reach of his hand.
Like many men stronger than himself, Pierre Adet --or Martin-Roget as he now called himself -- had been drawn into the vortex of bloodshed and of tyranny out of which now he no longer had the power to extricate himself. Nor had he any wish to extricate himself. He had too many past wrongs to avenge, too much injustice on the part of Fate and Circumstance to make good, to wish to draw back now that a newly-found power had been placed in the hands of men such as he through the revolt of an entire people. The sickening sense of horror which a moment ago had caused him to shudder and to turn away in loathing from Chauvelin was only like the feeble flicker of a light before it wholly dies down -- the light of something purer, early lessons of childhood, former ideals, earlier aspirations, now smothered beneath the passions of revenge and of hate.
And he would not give Chauvelin the satisfaction of seeing him wince. He was himself ashamed of his own weakness. He had deliberately thrown in his lot with these men and he was determined not to fall a victim to their denunciations and to their jealousies. So now he made a great effort to pull himself together, to bring back before his mind those memory-pictures of past tyranny and oppression which had effectually killed all sense of pity in his heart, and it was in a tone of perfect indifference which gave no loophole to Chauvelin's sneers that he asked after awhile:
'And was citizen Carrier altogether pleased with the result of his patriotic efforts?'
'Oh, quite!' replied the other. 'He has no one's orders to take. He is proconsul -- virtual dictator in Nantes: and he has vowed that he will purge the city from all save its most deserving citizens. The cargo of priests was followed by one of malefactors, night-birds, cut-throats and such like. That is where Carrier's patriotism shines out in all its glory. It is not only priests and aristos, you see -- other miscreants are treated with equal fairness.'
'Yes! I see he is quite impartial,' remarked Martin-Roget coolly.
'Quite,' retorted Chauvelin, as he once more sat down in the ingle-nook. And, leaning his elbows upon his knees he looked straight and deliberately into the other man's face, and added slowly: 'You will have no cause to complain of Carrier's want of patriotism when you hand over your bag of birds to him.'
This time Martin-Roget had obviously winced, and Chauvelin had the satisfaction of seeing that his thrust had gone home: though Martin-Roget's face was in shadow, there was something now in his whole attitude, in the clasping and unclasping of his large, square hands which indicated that the man was labouring under the stress of a violent emotion. In spite of this he managed to say quite coolly: 'What do you mean exactly by that, citizen Chauvelin?'
'Oh!' replied the other, 'you know well enough that I mean-- I am no fool, what? . . . or the Revolution would have no use for me. If after my many failures she still commands my services and employs me to keep my eyes and ears open, it is because she knows that she can count on me. I do keep my eyes and ears open, citizen Adet or Marin-Roget, whatever you like to call yourself, and also my mind-- and I have a way of putting two and two together to make four. There are few people in Nantes who do not know that old Jean Adet, the miller, was hanged four years ago, because his son Pierre had taken part in some kind of open revolt against the tyranny of the ci-devant duc de Kernogan, and was not there to take his punishment himself. I knew old Jean Adet. . . . I was on the Place du Bouffay at Nantes when he was hanged . . .'
But already Martin-Roget had jumped to his feet with a muttered blasphemy.
'Have done, man,' he said roughly, 'have done!'
And he started pacing up and down the narrow room like a caged panther, snarling and showing his teeth, whilst his rough, toil-worn hands quivered with the desire to clutch an unseen enemy by the throat and to squeeze the life out of him. 'Think you,' he added hoarsely, 'that I need reminding of that?'
'No. I do not think that, citizen,' replied Chauvelin calmly, 'I only desired to warn you.'
'Warn me? Of what?'
Nervous, agitated, restless, Martin-Roget had once more gone back to his seat: his hands were trembling as he held them up mechanically to the blaze and his face was the colour of lead. In contrast with his restlessness Chauvelin appeared the more calm and bland.
'Why should you wish to warn me?' asked the other querulously, but with an attempt at his former over-bearing manner. 'What are my affairs to you --what do you know about them?'
'Oh, nothing, nothing, citizen Martin-Roget,' replied Chauvelin pleasantly, 'I was only indulging the fancy I spoke to you about just now of putting two and two together in order to make four. The chartering of a smuggler's craft-- aristos on board her -- her ostensible destination Holland -- her real objective Le Croisic . . . . Le Croisic is now the port for Nantes and we don't bring aristos into Nantes these days for the object of providing them with a feather-bed and a competence, what?'
'And,' retorted Martin-Roget quietly, 'if your surmises are correct, citizen Chauvelin, what then?'
'Oh, nothing!' replied the other indifferently. 'Only . . . take care, citizen . . . that is all.'
'Take care of what?'
'Of the man who brought me, Chauvelin, to ruin and disgrace.'
'Oh! I have heard of that legend before now,' said Martin-Roget with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders. 'The man they call the Scarlet Pimpernel you mean?'
'What have I to do with him?'
'I don't know. But remember that I myself have twice been after that man here in England; that twice he slipped through my fingers when I thought I held him so tightly that he could not possibly escape and that twice in consequence I was brought to humiliation and to shame. I am a marked man now -- the guillotine will soon claim me for her future use. Your affairs, citizen, are no concern of mine, but I have marked that Scarlet Pimpernel for mine own. I won't have any blunderings on your part give him yet another triumph over us all.'
Once more Martin-Roget swore one of his favourite oaths.
'By Satan and all his brood, man,' he cried in a passion of fury, 'have done with this interference. Have done, I say. I have nothing to do, I tell you, with your satané Scarlet Pimpernel. My concern is with. . .'
'With the duc de Kernogan,' broke in Chauvelin calmly, 'and with his daughter; I know that well enough. You want to be even with them over the murder of your father. I know that too. All that is your affair. But beware, I tell you. To being with, the secrecy of your identity is absolutely essential to the success of your plan. What?'
'Of course it is. But . . .'
'But nevertheless, your identity is known to the most astute, the keenest enemy of the Republic.'
'Impossible,' asserted Martin-Roget hotly.
'The duc de Kernogan. . .?'
'Bah! He had never the slightest suspicion of me. Think you his High and Mightiness in those far-off days ever looked twice at a village lad so that he would know him again four years later? I came into this country as an émigré stowed away in a smuggler's ship like a bundle of contraband goods. I have papers to prove that my name is Martin-Roget and that I am a banker from Brest. The worthy bishop of Brest -- denounced to the Commitee of Public Safety for treason against the Republic -- was given his life and a safe conduct into Spain on the condition that he gave me --Martin-Roget -- letters of personal introduction to various high-born émigrés in Holland, in Germany and in England. Armed with these I am invulnerable. I have been presented to His Royal Highness the Regent, and to the élite of English society in Bath. I am the friend of M. le duc de Kernogan now and the accredited suitor for his daughter's hand.'
'His daughter!' broke in Chauvelin with a sneer, and his pale, keen eyes had in them a spark of malicious mockery.
Martin-Roget made no immediate retort to the sneer. A curious hot flush had spread over his forehead and his ears, leaving his cheeks wan and livid.
'What about the daughter?' reiterated Chauvelin.
'Yvonne de Kernogan has never seen Pierre Adet the miller's son,' replied the other curtly. 'She is now the affianced wife of Martin-Roget the millionaire banker of Brest. To-night I shall persuade M. le duc to allow my marriage with his daughter to take place within the week. I shall plead pressing business in Holland and my desire that my wife shall accompany me thither. The duke will consent and Yvonne de Kernogan will not be consulted. The day after my wedding I shall be on board the Hollandia with my wife and father-in-law, and together we will be on our way to Nantes where Carrier will deal with them both.'
'You are quite satisfied that this plan of yours is known to no one, that no one at the present moment is aware of the fact that Pierre Adet, the miller's son, and Martin-Roget, banker of Brest, are one and the same?'
'Quite satisfied,' replied Martin-Roget emphatically.
'Very well, then, let me tell you this, citizen,' rejoined Chauvelin slowly and deliberately, 'that in spite of what you say I am as convinced as that I am here, alive, that your real identity will be known-- if it is not known already-- to a gentleman who is at this present moment in Bath, and who is known to you, to me, to the whole of France as the Scarlet Pimpernel.'
Martin-Roget laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
'Impossible!' he retorted. 'Pierre Adet no longer exists. . . he never existed . . much. . . Anyhow, he ceased to be on that stormy day in September, 1789. Unless your pet enemy is a wizard he cannot know.'
'There is nothing that my pet enemy -- as you call him-- cannot ferret out if he has a mind to. Beware of him, citizen Martin-Roget. Beware, I tell you.'
'How can I,' laughed the other contemptuously, 'if I don't know who he is?'
'If you did,' retorted Chauvelin, 'it wouldn't help you . . . much. But beware of every man you don't know; beware of every stranger you meet; trust no one; above all, follow no one. He is there when you lease expect him under a disguise you would scarcely dream of.'
'Tell me who he is then-- since you know him-- so that I may duly beware of him.'
'No,' rejoined Chauvelin with the same slow deliberation, 'I will not tell you who he is. Knowledge in this case would be a very dangerous thing.'
'Dangerous? To whom?'
'To yourself probably. To me and to the Republic most undoubtedly. No! I will not tell you who the Scarlet Pimpernel is. But take my advice, citizen Martin-Roget,' he added emphatically, 'go back to Paris or to Nantes and strive there to serve your country rather than run your head into a noose by meddling with things here in England, and running after your own schemes of revenge.'
'My own schemes of revenge!' exclaimed Martin-Roget with a hoarse cry that was like a snarl. . . It seemed as if he wanted to say something more, but that the words choked him even before they reached his lips. The hot flush died down from his forehead and his face was once more the colour of lead. He took up a log from the corner of the hearth and threw it with a savage, defiant gesture into the fire.
Somewhere in the house a clock struck nine.
Martin-Roget waited until the last echo of the gong had died away, then he said very slowly and very quietly:
'Forgo my own schemes of revenge? Can you even remotely guess, citizen Chauvelin, what it would mean to a man of my temperament and of my calibre to give up that for which I have toiled and striven for the past four years? Think of what I was on that day when a conglomeration of adverse circumstances turned our proposed expedition against the château de Kernogan into a disaster for our village lads, and a triumph for the duc. I was knocked down and crushed all but to death by the wheels of Mlle. de Kernogan's coach. I managed to crawl in the mud and the cold and the rain, on my hands and knees, hurt, bleeding, half dead, as far as the presbytery of Vertou where the curé kept me hidden at risk of his own life for two days until I was able to crawl farther away out of sight. The curé did not know, I did not know then of the devilish revenge which the duc de Kernogan meant to wreak against my father. The news reached me when it was all over and I had worked my way to Paris with the few sous in my pocket which that good curé had given me, earning bed and bread as I went along. I was an ignorant lout when I arrived in Paris. I had been one of the ci-devant Kernogan's labourers --his chattel, what?-- little better or somewhat worse off than a slave. There I heard that my father had been foully murdered -- hung for a crime which I was supposed to have committed, for which I had not even been tried. Then the change in me began. For four years I starved in a garret, toiling like a galley-slave with my hands and muscles by day and at my books by night. And what am I now? I have worked at books, at philosophy, at science: I am a man of education. I can talk and discuss with the best of those d---d aristos who flaunt their caprices and their mincing manners in the face of the outraged democracy of two continents. I speak English -- almost like a native-- and Danish and German too. I can quote English poets and criticize M. de Voltaire. I am an aristo, what? For this I have worked, citizen Chauvelin --day and night--oh! those nights! how I have slaved to make myself what I now am! And all for that one object--the sole object without which existence would have been absolutely unendurable. That object guided me, helped me to bear and to toil, it cheered and comforted me! To be even one day with the duc de Kernogan and with his daughter! to be their master! to hold them at my mercy!. . . to destroy or pardon as I choose! . . . to be the arbiter of their fate! . . . I have worked for four years: now my goal is in sight, and you talk glibly of forgoing my own schemes of revenge! Believe me, citizen Chauvelin,' he concluded, 'it would be easier for me to hold my right hand into those flames until it hath burned to a cinder than to forgo the hope of that vengeance which has eaten into my soul. It would hurt much less.'
He had spoken thus at great length, but with extraordinary restraint. Never once did he raise his voice or indulge in gesture. He spoke in even, monotonous tones, like one who is reciting a lesson; and he sat straight in front of the fire, his elbow on his knee, his chin resting in his hand and his eyes fixed upon the flames.
Chauvelin had listened in perfect silence. The scorn, the resentful anger, the ill-concealed envy of the fallen man for the successful upstart had died out of his glance. Martin-Roget's story, the intensity of feeling betrayed in that absolute, outward clam had caused a chord of sympathy to vibrate in the other's atrophied heart. How well he understood that vibrant passion of hate, that longing to exact an eye for an eye, an outrage for an outrage! Was not his own life given over now to just such a longing? -- a mad aching desire to be even once with that hated enemy, that maddening, mocking, elusive Scarlet Pimpernel who had fooled and baffled him so often?
Some few moments had gone by since Martin-Roget's harsh, monotonous voice had ceased to echo through the low raftered room: silence had fallen between the two men-- there was indeed nothing more to say; the one had unburthened his overfull heart and the other had understood. They were of a truth made to understand one another, and the silence between them betokened sympathy.
Around them all was still, the stillness of a mist-laden night; in the house no one stirred: the shutter even had ceased to creak; only the crackling of the wood fire broke that silence which soon became oppressive.
Martin-Roget was the first to rouse himself from this trance-like state wherein memory was holding such ruthless sway: he brought his hands sharply down on his knees, turned to look for a moment on his companion, gave a short laugh and finally rose, saying briskly the while:
'And now, citizen, I shall have to bid you adieu and make my way back to Bath. The nags have had the rest they needed and I cannot spend the night here.'
He went to the door and opening it called a loud 'Hallo, there!'
The same woman who had waited on him on his arrival came slowly down the stairs in response.
'The man with the horses,' commanded Martin-Roget peremptorily. 'Tell him I'll be ready in two minutes.'
He returned to the room and proceeded to struggle into his heavy coat, Chauvelin as before making no attempt to help him. He sat once more huddled up in the ingle-nook hugging his elbows with his thin white hands. There was a smile half scornful, but not wholly dissatisfied around his bloodless lips. When Martin-Roget was ready to go he called out quietly after him:
'The Hollandia remember! At Portishead on the last day of the month. Captain K U Y P E R.'
'Quite right,' replied Martin-Roget laconically. 'I'm not like to forget.'
He then picked up his hat and riding whip and went out.
Outside in the porch he found the woman bending over the recumbent figure of his guide.
'He be azleep, Mounzeer,' she said placidly, 'fast azleep, I do believe.'
'Asleep?' cried Martin-Roget roughly, 'we'll soon see about waking him up.'
He gave the man a violent kick with the toe of his boot. The man groaned, stretched himself, turned over and rubbed his eyes. The light of the swinging lanthorn showed him the wrathful face of his employer. He struggled to his feet very quickly after that.
'Stir yourself, man,' cried Martin-Roget savagely, as he gripped the fellow by the shoulder and gave him a vigorous shaking. 'Bring the horse along now, and don't keep me waiting, or there'll be trouble.'
'All right, Mounzeer, all right,' muttered the man placidly, as he shook himself free from the uncomfortable clutch on his shoulder and leisurely made his way out of the porch.
'Haven't you got a boy or a man who can give that lout a hand with those sacré horses?' queried Martin-Roget impatiently. 'He hardly knows a horse's head from its tail.'
'No, zir, I've no one to-night,' replied the woman gently. 'My man and my son they be gone down to Watchet to 'elp with the cargo and the pack-'orzes. They won't be 'ere neither till after midnight. But,' she added more cheerfully, 'I can straighten a saddle if you want it.'
'That's all right then--but. . .'
He paused suddenly, for a loud cry of 'Hallo! Well! I'm. . .' rang through the night from the direction of the rear of the house. The cry expressed both surprise and dismay.
'What the --- is it?' called Martin-Roget loudly in response.
'What about them?'
To this there was no reply, and with a savage oath and calling to the woman to show him the way Martin-Roget ran out in the direction whence had come the cry of dismay. He fell straight into the arms of his guide, who promptly set up another cry, more dismal, more expressive of bewilderment than the first.
'They be gone,' he shouted excitedly.
'Who have gone?' queried the Frenchman.
'The horses? What in --- do you mean?'
'The 'orzes have gone, Mounzeer. There was no door to the ztables and they be gone.'
'You're a fool,' growled Martin-Roget, who of a truth had not taken in as yet the full significance of the man's jerky sentences. 'Horses don't walk out of the stables like that. They can't have done if you tied them up properly.'
'I didn't tie them up,' protested the man. 'I didn't know 'ow to tie the beastly nags up, and there was no one to 'elp me. I didn't think they'd walk out like that.'
'Well! if they're gone you'll have to go and get them back somehow, that's all,' said Martin-Roget, whose temper by now was beyond his control, and who was quite ready to give the lout a furious thrashing.
'Get them back, Mounzeer,' wailed the man,' 'ow can I? In the dark, too. Besides, if I did come nose to nose wi' 'em I shouldn't know 'ow to get 'em. Would you, Mounzeer?' he added with bland impertinence.
'I shall know how to lay you out, you satané idiot,' growled Martin-Roget, 'if I have to spend the night in this hole.'
He strode on in the darkness in the direction where a little glimmer of light showed the entrance to a wide barn which obviously was used as a rough stabling. He stumbled through a yard and over a miscellaneous lot of rubbish. It was hardly possible to see one's hand before one's eyes in the darkness and the fog. The woman followed him, offering consolation in the shape of a seat in the coffee-room whereon to pass the night, for indeed she had no bed to spare, and the man from Chelwood brought up the rear -- still ejaculating cries of astonishment rather than distress.
'You are that careless, man!' the woman admonished him placidly, 'and I give you a lanthorn and all for to look after your 'orzes properly.'
'But you didn't give me a 'and for to tie 'em up in their stalls, and give 'em their feed. Drat 'em! I 'ate 'orzes and all to do with 'em.'
'Didn't you give 'em the feed I give you for 'em then?'
'No, I didn't. Think you I'd go into one o' them narrow stalls and get kicked for my pains.'
'Then they was 'ungry, pore things,' she concluded, 'and went out after the 'ay what's just outside. I don't know 'ow you'll ever get 'em back in this fog.'
There was indeed no doubt that the nags had made their way out of the stables, in that irresponsible fashion peculiar to animals, and that they had gone astray in the dark. There certainly was no sound in the night to denote their presence anywhere near.
'We'll get 'em all right in the morning,' remarked the woman with her exasperating placidity.
'To-morrow morning!' exclaimed Martin-Roget in a passion of fury. 'And what the d---l am I going to do in the meanwhile?'
The woman reiterated her offers of a seat by the fire in the coffee-room.
'The men won't mind ye, zir,' she said, 'heaps of 'em are Frenchies like yourself, and I'll tell 'em you ain't a spying on 'em.'
'It's no more than five mile to chelwood,' said the man blandly, 'and maybe you get a better shakedown there.'
'A five-mile tramp,' growled Martin-Roget, whose wrath seemed to have spent itself before the hopelessness of his situation, 'in the fog and gloom, and knee-deep in mud. . . . There'll be a sovereign for you, woman,' he added curtly, 'if you can give me a clean bed for the night.'
The woman hesitated for a second or two.
'You shall 'ave my son's bed. I know 'e'd rather 'ave the zovereign if 'e was ever zo tired. This way, zir,' she added, as she once more turned toward the house, 'mind them 'urdles there.'
'And where am I goin' to zleep?' called the man from Chelwood after the two retreating figures.
'I'll look after the man for you, zir,' said the woman; 'for a matter of a shillin' 'e can sleep in the coffee-room, and I'll give 'im 'is breakfast too.'
'Not one farthing will I pay for the idiot,' retorted Martin-Roget savagely. 'Let him look after himself.'
He had once more reached the porch. Without another word, and not heeding the protests and curses of the unfortunate man whom he had left standing shelterless in the middle of the yard, he pushed open the front door of the house and once more found himself in the passage outside the coffee-room.
But the woman had turned back a little before she followed her guest into the house, and she called out to the man in the darkness:
'You may zleep in any of them outhouses and welcome, and zure there'll be a bit o' porridge for ye in the mornin'!'
'Think ye I'll stop,' came in a furious growl out of the gloom, 'and conduct that d---d frogeater back to Chelwood? No fear. Five miles ain't nothin' to me, and 'e can keep the miserable shillin' 'e'd 'ave give me for my pains. Let 'im get 'is 'orzes back 'izelf and get to Chelwood as best 'e can. I'm off, and you can tell 'im zo from me. It'll make 'im sleep all the better, I reckon.'
The woman was obviously not of a disposition that would ever argue a matter of this sort out. She had done her best, she reckoned, both for master and man, and if they chose to quarrel between themselves that was their business and not hers.
So she quietly went into the house again; barred and bolted the door, and finding the stranger still waiting for her in the passage she conducted him to a tiny room on the floor above.
'My son's room, Mounzeer,' she said; 'I 'ope as 'ow ye'll be comfortable.'
'It will do all right,' assented Martin-Roget. 'Is "the Captain" sleeping in the house to-night?' he added as with an afterthought.
'Only in the coffee-room, Mounzeer. I couldn't give 'im a bed. "The Captain" will be leaving with the pack 'orzes a couple of hours before dawn. Shall I tell 'im you be 'ere.'
'No, no,' he replied promptly. 'Don't tell him anything. I don't want to see him again: and he'll be gone before I'm awake, I reckon.'
'That 'e will, zir, most like. Good-night, zir.'
'Good-night. And --mind--that lout gets the two horses back again for my use in the morning. I shall have to make my way to Chelwood as early as may be.'
'Aye, aye, zir,' assented the woman placidly. It were no use, she thought, to upset the Mounzeer's temper once more by telling him that his guide had decamped. Time enough in the morning, when she would be less busy.
'And my John can see 'im as far as Chelwood,' she thought to herself, as she finally closed the door on the stranger and made her way slowly down the creaking stairs.