It was some few hours later. The ladies sat in the drawing-room, silent and anxious.
Soon after supper a visitor had called, and had been closeted with Paul Déroulède in the latter's study for the past two hours.
A tall, somewhat lazy-looking figure, he was sitting at a table face to face with the Citizen-Deputy. On a chair beside him lay a heavy caped coat, covered with the dust and the splashing of a long journey, but he himself was attired in clothes that suggested the most fastidious taste, and the most perfect of tailors; he wore with apparent ease the eccentric fashion of the time, the short-waisted coat of many lapels, the double waistcoat and billows of delicate lace. Unlike Déroulède he was of great height, with fair hair and a somewhat lazy expression in his good-natured blue eyes, and as he spoke, there was just a soupçon of foreign accent in the pronunciation of the French vowels, a certain drawl of o's and a's, that would have betrayed the Britisher to an observant ear.
The two men had been talking earnestly for some time, the tall Englishman was watching his friend keenly, whilst an amused, pleasant smile lingered round the corners of his firm mouth and jaw. Déroulède, restless and enthusiastic, was pacing to and fro.
"But I don't understand now, how you managed to reach Paris, my dear Blakeney!" said Déroulède at last, placing an anxious hand on his friend's shoulder. "The government has not forgotten The Scarlet Pimpernel."
"La! I took care of that!" responded Blakeney with his short, pleasant laugh. "I sent Tinville my autograph this morning."
"You are mad, Blakeney!"
"Not altogether, my friend. My faith! 'twas not only foolhardiness caused me to grant that devilish prosecutor another sight of my scarlet device. I knew what you maniacs would be after, so I came across in the Day Dream just to see if I couldn't get my share of the fun."
"Fun, you call it?" queried the other bitterly.
"Nay! what would you have me call it? A mad, insane, senseless tragedy, with but one issue?--the guillotine for you all."
"Then why did you come?"
"To--What shall I say, my friend?" rejoined Sir Percy Blakeney, with that inimitable drawl of his. "To give your demmed government something else to think about whilst you are all busy running your heads into a noose."
"What makes you think we are doing that?"
"Three things, my friend--may I offer you a pinch of snuff--No?--Ah well!--" And with the graceful gesture of an accomplished dandy, Sir Percy flicked off a grain of dust from his immaculate Mechlin ruffles.
"Three things," he continued quietly; "an imprisoned Queen, about to be tried for her life, the temperament of a Frenchman--some of them--and the idiocy of mankind generally. These three things make me think that a certain section of hot-headed Republicans with yourself, my dear Déroulède, en tête, are about to attempt the most stupid, senseless, purposeless thing that was ever concocted by the excitable brain of a demmed Frenchman."
"Does it not seem amusing to you, Blakeney, that you should sit there and condemn anyone for planning mad, insane, senseless things."
"La! I'll not sit, I'll stand!" rejoined Blakeney with a laugh, as he drew himself up to his full height, and stretched his long, lazy limbs. "And now let me tell you, friend, that my league of The Scarlet Pimpernel never attempted the impossible, and to try and drag the Queen out of the clutches of these murderous rascals now, is attempting the unattainable."
"And yet we mean to try."
"I know it. I guessed it, that is why I came: that is also why I sent a pleasant little note to the Committee of Public Safety, signed with the device they know so well: The Scarlet Pimpernel."
"Well! the result is obvious. Robespierre, Danton, Tinville, Merlin, and the whole of the demmed murderous crowd, will be busy looking after me--a needle in a haystack. They'll put the abortive attempt down to me, and you may--ma foi! I only suggest that you may--escape safely out of France--in the Day Dream, and with the help of your humble servant."
"But in the meanwhile they'll discover you, and they'll not let you escape a second time."
"My friend! if a terrier were to lose his temper, he never would run a rat to earth. Now your Revolutionary Government has lost its temper with me, every since I slipped through Chauvelin's fingers; they are blind with their own fury, whilst I am perfectly happy and cool as a cucumber. My life has become valuable to me, my friend. There is some one over the water who weeps when I don't return--No! no! never fear--they'll not get The Scarlet Pimpernel this journey--"
He laughed, a gay, pleasant laugh, and his strong, firm face seemed to soften at thought of the beautiful wife, over in England, who was waiting anxiously for his safe return.
"And yet you'll not help us to rescue the Queen?" rejoined Déroulède, with some bitterness.
"By every means in my power," replied Blakeney, "save the insane. But I will help to get you all out of the demmed hole, when you have failed."
"We'll not fail," asserted the other hotly.
Sir Percy Blakeney went close up to his friend and placed his long, slender hand, with a touch of almost womanly tenderness, upon the latter's shoulder.
"Will you tell me your plans?"
In a moment Déroulède was all fire and enthusiasm.
"There are not many of us in it," he began, "although half France will be in sympathy with us. We have plenty of money, of course, and also the necessary disguise for the royal lady."
"I, in the meanwhile, have asked for and obtained the post of Governor of the Conciergerie; I go into my new quarters to-morrow. In the meanwhile, I am making arrangements for my mother and--and those dependent upon me to quit France immediately."
Blakeney had perceived the slight hesitation when Déroulède mentioned those dependent upon him. He looked scrutinizingly at his friend, who continued quickly:
"I am still very popular among the people. My family can go about unmolested. I must get them out of France, however, in case--in case--"
"Of course," rejoined the other simply.
"As soon as I am assured that they are safe, my friends and I can prosecute our plans. You see the trial of the Queen has not yet been decided on, but I know that it is in the air. We hope to get her away, disguised in one of the uniforms of the National Guard. As you know, it will be my duty to make the final round every evening in the prison, and to see that everything is safe for the night. Two fellows watch all night, in the room next to that occupied by the Queen. Usually they drink and play cards all night long. I want an opportunity to drug their brandy, and thus to render them more loutish and idiotic than usual; then for a blow on the head that will make them senseless. It should be easy, for I have a strong fist, and after that--"
"Well? After that, friend?" rejoined Sir Percy earnestly, "after that? Shall I fill in the details of the picture?--the guard twenty-five strong outside the Conciergerie, how will you pass them?"
"I as the Governor, followed by one of my guards--"
"To go whither?"
"I have the right to come and go as I please."
"I' faith! so you have, but 'one of your guards'--eh? Wrapped to the eyes in a long mantle to hide the female figure beneath. I have been in Paris but a few hours, and yet already have I realized that there is not one demmed citizen within its walls who does not at this moment suspect some other demmed citizen of conniving at the Queen's escape. Even the sparrows on the house-tops are objects of suspicion. No figure wrapped in a mantle will from this day forth leave Paris unchallenged."
"But you yourself, friend?" suggested Déroulède. "You think you can quit Paris unrecognized--then why not the Queen?"
"Because she is a woman, and has been a queen. She has nerves, poor soul, and weaknesses of body and of mind now. Alas for her! Alas for France! who wreaks such idle vengeance on so poor an enemy? Can you take hold of Marie Antoinette by the shoulders, shove her into the bottom of a cart and pile sacks of potatoes on the top of her? I did that to the Comtesse de Tournai and her daughter, as stiff-necked a pair of French aristocrats as ever deserved the guillotine for their insane prejudices. But can you do it to Marie Antoinette? She'd rebuke you publicly, and betray herself and you in a flash, sooner than submit to a loss of dignity."
"But would you leave her to her fate?"
"Ah! there's the trouble, friend. Do you think you need appeal to the sense of chivalry of my league? We are still twenty strong, and heart and soul in sympathy with your mad schemes. The poor, poor Queen! But you are bound to fail, and then who will help you all, if we too are put out of the way?"
"We should succeed if you helped us. At one time you used proudly to say: 'The League of The Scarlet Pimpernel has never failed.'"
"Because it attempted nothing which it could not accomplish! But, la! since you put me on my mettle--Demm it all! I'll have to think about it!"
And he laughed that funny, somewhat inane laugh of his, which had deceived the clever men of two countries as to his real personality.
Déroulède went up to the heavy oak desk which occupied a conspicuous place in the centre of one of the walls. He unlocked it and drew forth a bundle of papers.
"Will you look through these?" he asked, handing them to Sir Percy Blakeney.
"What are they?"
"Different schemes I have drawn up, in case my original plan should not succeed."
"Burn them, my friend," said Blakeney laconically. "Have you not yet learned the lesson of never putting your hand to paper?"
"I can't burn these. You see, I shall not be able to have long conversations with Marie Antoinette. I must give her my suggestions in writing, that she may study them and not fail me, through lack of knowledge of her part."
"Better that than papers in these times, my friend: these papers, if found, would send you, untried, to the guillotine."
"I am careful, and, at present, quite beyond suspicion. Moreover, among the papers is a complete collection of passports suitable for any character the Queen and her attendant may be forced to assume. It has taken me some months to collect them, so as not to arouse suspicion; I gradually got them together, on one pretence or another: now I am ready for any eventuality--"
He suddenly paused. A look in his friend's face had given him a swift warning.
He turned, and there in the doorway, holding back the heavy portière, stood Juliette, graceful, smiling, a little pale, this no doubt owing to the flickering light of the unsnuffed candles.
So young and girlish did she look in her soft, white musling frock that at sight of her the tension in Déroulède's face seemed to relax. Instinctively he had thrown the papers back into his desk, but his look had softened, from the fire of obstinate energy to that of inexpressible tenderness.
Blakeney was quietly watching the young girl as she stood in the doorway, a little bashful and undecided.
"Madame Déroulède sent me," she said hesitatingly, "she says the hour is getting late and she is very anxious. M. Déroulède, would you come and reassure her?"
"In a moment, mademoiselle," he replied
lightly, "my friend and I have just finished our talk. May
I have the honour to present him?--Sir Percy Blakeney, a traveller
from England. Blakeney, this is Mademoiselle Juliette de Marny,
my mother's guest."