It had always been a stately château ever since the day when Luc de la Rodière, returning from the war with Holland after the peace of Ryswick, received this quasi-regal residence at the hands of Louis XIV in recognition for his gallantry in the field. It was still stately in this year 1793, even though it bore the indelible marks of four years of neglect following the riots of 1789 when the populace of Choisy, carried away by the events up in Paris and the storming of the Bastille, and egged on by paid agitators, marched in a body up to the château, smashed a quantity of furniture and a few windows and mirrors, tore curtains down and carpets up, ransacked the larders and cellars, and then marched down again with lusty shouts of the new popular cry: "A la lanterne les aristos!"
Luckily, Madame la Marquise with her son and daughter were absent on that day: they had gone up to Paris for the funeral of Monsieur le Marquis. Whether it was the emptiness of the house, or its atmosphere of faded flowers, stale incense, and burnt-out candles, which dampened the ebullient spirits of the crowd, it is impossible to say. Certain it is that after they had done what mischief they could on the ground floor, and then marched upstairs to the monumental ballroom, where they found lackeys and valets busy sweeping up dead floral wreaths, they felt awed all of a sudden: something of their old beliefs, of their respect for the dead, of all that these burnt-out candles and stale incense stood for kept them silent and subdued, even though such things had by government decree been denounced as superstition, and unworthy the dignity of man.
They had come up to the château determined to demand all sorts of things-they didn't know exactly what-and as there was no one there to give satisfaction to these demands, and the paid agitator had, as usual, kept carefully out of the way, these poor people felt very like a lot of dogs who had taken to the water, hoping to find something to play with, and merely succeeding in getting very wet.
But the mischief was done, and when the young Marquise with Madame, his mother, and Mademoiselle Cécile returned to La Rodière three days later, they found the château in the state in which the riotous crowd had left it; the stately hall on the ground floor, the banqueting room, the monumental staircase, the cellars and the larders, were a mass of wreckage. The terrified personnel of lackeys and female servants had run away, leaving the ballroom where their late master had lain dead, still a litter of dead flowers and linen cloths, of torn lace and stumps of wax candles. Only Paul Leroux and his wife Marie had remained. They were old people-very old-who had served feu Monsieur le Marquis and his father and mother before him, first as kitchen wench and scullion then on through the hierarchy of maid and valet, to that of butler and housekeeper. They had never known any other home but La Rodière: if they left it, they would not have known where to go: they had no children, no family, no kindred. And so they stayed on, after the mob had cleared away, and one by one the château staff-young and old, indoors and out of doors, garden and stable-men-had packed up their belongings and betaken themselves to their own homes wherever these might be. Paul and Marie stayed on and did their best to feed the horses and dogs that had been left behind, and to get a few rooms tidy and warm for the occupation of Madame la Marquise. And thus the widow and the young Marquis and Mademoiselle Cécile found them and their devastated home. Marie had prepared a meagre supper, Paul had brushed his clothes and polished his shoes, and placed such pieces of silver on the table as had escaped the attention of the mob. He wore his white gloves and served his young master and the family with the same solemnity as he had done, when half a dozen footmen were in attendance round the dinner-table.
Madame la Marquise, herself a scion of the old French noblesse, was far too proud to display her feelings before her servants, or before her children. She bore herself with marvellous courage during the terrible trial of this first evening in the wrecked château. Nor did she lose any of her dignity during the years that followed. In that attitude she emulated those of her own class with whom the watchword seemed to be not to let those assassins in the government know how bitterly they felt the repeated onslaughts on their property and on their privileges. Not one of them believed, in those early days of the Revolution, that such a state of tyranny and mob-law could persist, and secretly most of them-especially the older generation-nursed thoughts of exemplary retaliation. But the years rolled on and tyranny and mob-law did persist, and hopes of retribution had perforce to give way to a kind of proud indifference in the men and silent resignation in the women: but in the same way as tyranny and hatred grew in intensity in those who for centuries had been little else than bondslaves to the privileged classes, so did contempt for them and their accession to power continue to dwell in the hearts of the aristocrats. Where the latter had felt condescension and often kindly tolerance toward their subordinates, as in the case of Madame la Marquise, they had now, for the most part, nothing but lofty scorn for those whom they looked on as spoliators and assassins. The middle classes, those at any rate who professed liberal ideas, however moderate, they treated with contumely far worse than before: the local lawyer, the local doctor, the artist, the musician, all those in fact who were to a certain extent still dependent on them for their living, they still kept at arm's length: as for their actual dependants, the workers on their estate, or in the towns, they were the rabble in their sight, plagues which God sent down to earth to punish France for her sins.
To this attitude there were, of course, many and often pathetic exceptions. There were men and women, high-born, bred in every conceivable luxury, and now reduced to comparative poverty, who could always be called upon to assist those who were poorer than themselves. Cécile de la Rodière was one of them, so was the old Marquise to a certain extent, though in a more detached and aloof way. There were some even who had real understanding for the conditions that had brought about the present social upheaval, but these belonged for the most part to the younger generation: the old found it wellnigh impossible to accommodate themselves to the new order of things, which had made them subservient to those whom they had been bought up to regard as inferior products of God's creative scheme.
Madame la Marquise scarcely ever went out of doors and never beyond the park gates. She had a horror of meeting people who in the past would have curtsied or bowed low as she went past, and now merely nodded-nodded!-in a surly kind of way, or, if they spoke at all, would perhaps say: "Good day, Citizeness." Citizeness! ! At least that is what she thought would occur if she set foot outside the house. So she remained most of the day in her boudoir doing crochet-work, or else turning out drawers full of beautiful laces and garments which she patted with loving hands, and put away again in soft paper with sachets of lavender. She invariably wore black, dresses from past days which she happened to have, some with hooped and quilted skirts, others with sacques, the rich silk of which had survived the wear and tear of years. She no longer wore powder on her hair, because she had used up the last box about a year ago, and when she desired Marie to buy her some more, Marie said that the commodity could no longer be bought. Madame did not ask why; she guessed, and thereafter wore elaborate caps of old lace which she fashioned herself, and which entirely covered her hair.
Thanks to the goodwill of Paul and Marie some semblance of order had been brought into the devastated part of the château: broken window-panes were replaced and torn carpets and curtains put out of sight. In the stables most of the horses and valuable dogs were sold or destroyed: Monsieur le Marquis only kept a couple of sporting dogs and two or three horses for his own use. Then, as the winter grew severe and fuel and food became scarce and dear, three pairs of willing hands were recruited from Choisy to supplement the exiguous staff of the once luxurious household. These willing hands, two outdoor men to help in the garden and stables and a girl in the house were now called aides-ménage, the appellation servant or groom being thought derogatory to the dignity of free-born citizens of France. Even then, special permission for employing these aides had to be obtained from the government: and this was only granted in consideration of the fact that Paul and Marie Leroux were old and infirm, and that it was they and not the ci-devants who required help.
This, then was the house to which the Abbé Edgeworth was conducted in the evening of that horrible day when he had seen his anointed King perish on the guillotine like a common criminal. Ever since that early hour in the morning when he had been called in to administer the sacraments to the man who had once been Louis XVI, King of France, he had lived in a constant state of nerve-strain, and as the afternoon and evening wore on he felt that strain more and more acutely. Towards seven o'clock two men who looked more like cut-throats than any voluntary revolutionary guards the abbé had ever seen had conducted him to La Rodière. Before he started out with them old Levet had assured him that everything was being done to ensure his safety: the same powerful and generous friend who had rescued him from the hands of a howling mob had further engineered the final means for his escape out of France.
The old priest accepted this explanation in perfect faith and trust. He assured his kind host that he was not the least bit afraid. He had gone through such a terrible experience that nothing could occur now to frighten him. Nor did anything untoward happen on the way. He got very tired stumping up the rugged track which was a short cut to the château. The monumental gates, no longer closed against intruders, were wide open. The abbé and his escort passed through unchallenged and walked up the stately avenue. The front door of the mansion was opened to them by Paul, who stood by deferentially in his threadbare but immaculately brushed suit of black, whilst the old priest stepped over the threshold.
Tired though he was the abbé did not fail to turn immediately in order to express his gratitude to the two enigmatic ruffians who had guided his footsteps so carefully, but they had gone. Their footsteps in the clumsy sabots echoed down the long avenue for a time but they themselves had already disappeared in the gloom. Later on an attempt was made to overtake them, but perhaps the attempt was too desultory to lead to any result: anyway, no trace was found of these pseudo-revolutionaries about whom the abbé knew as little as anybody.
But this is by the way. The priest who by now was on the verge of exhaustion both mentally and physically, sank into an armchair which Paul offered him, and here he waited patiently with eyes closed and lips murmuring a feeble prayer while his arrival was being announced to Monsieur le Marquis.
A few moments later a young man came running down the stairs with arms outstretched, shouting a welcome even before he had caught sight of the priest.
François de la Rodière was the only son of the late Marquis. He had inherited the title and estates four years ago on the death of his father; he was a well-set-up, athletic-looking youth, who might have been called handsome but for an arrogant, not to say cruel, expression round his thin-lipped mouth, and a distinctly receding chin. He was dressed with utmost elegance, in the mode that had prevailed before the present regime of equality had made tattered breeches, threadbare coats and soiled linen, the fashion.
The abbé rose at once to greet him.
"We were expecting you, Monsieur l'Abbé," the young man said cheerily. "My mother and sister are upstairs. I hope you are not too tired."
The abbé was certainly tired, but he contrived to smile and to ask with some surprise:
"You were expecting me? But how could you know . . .?"
"It is all a long story, Father," François de la Rodière replied thoughtfully; "we are all of us under its spell for the moment. But never mind about that now. We'll tell you all about it when you have had supper and a rest."
The welcome which Madame la Marquise extended to the priest was no less cordial than that of her son. The Abbé Edgeworth, by virtue of his holy office, and because he had been privileged to attend the royal martyr during the last hours of his life, stood on an altogether different plane in the eyes of Madame than the rest of the despicable bourgeoisie. Thus Mademoiselle Cécile, her daughter, was ceremoniously presented to Monsieur l'Abbé, and so was the young English gentleman, my lord Devinne, a friend of the family, who had ridden over from Paris that afternoon, bringing news of the terrible doings there. He had, it seems, also brought tidings of the Abbé Edgeworth's early arrival at La Rodière.
It was while the family and their guest were seated round the supper-table that Mademoiselle Cécile related to the priest the mysterious occurrence which had puzzled them all since morning.
"It was all so wonderful!" she explained, "and I cannot tell you, Father, how excited I am, because the first intimation we had that you were coming was addressed to me."
"To you, Mademoiselle?"
"Yes! to me," she replied, "and you shall judge for yourself whether the whole thing is not enough to excite the most placid person, and I am anything but placid. Early this morning," she continued, "when I took my usual walk in the park, I saw down the avenue a scrubby-looking man coming slowly towards me from the direction of the gate. He was at some distance from where I was so I didn't really see him well, but somehow I knew that he had nothing to do with our own small staff. We are accustomed nowadays," she added with a pathetic little sigh, "to all sorts of people invading our privacy. This man, however, was obviously doing no harm; he just walked along, quite slowly, with his hands in his pockets, looking neither to right nor left. I didn't take any more notice of him until he came to one of the stone seats in the avenue. Then I saw him take a paper out of his pocket and lay it down on the seat, after which he gave me a distinct sign, drawing my attention to the paper; he then turned and went back the way he came and I lost sight of him behind the shrubbery."
She paused a moment, almost out of breath with excitement, then she went on: "You may imagine, Father, how I hurried to the seat and picked up the mysterious message. Here it is," she said and drew from the folds of her fichu a crumpled piece of paper. "I have not parted from it since I picked it up and read its contents. Listen what it says: 'The Abbé Edgeworth, vicare of St. André, who accompanied the King of France to the scaffold will claim your hospitality to-day for the night.' Look at it, Monsieur l'Abbé. Isn't it extraordinary? I have shown it to maman, of course, and to François. They couldn't understand at all where it came from, until milord Divinne threw a still more puzzling light on the whole thing."
She held the paper out to the priest who took it from her, put his spectacles on his nose and glanced down on the mysterious note.
"It certainly is very curious," he said, "and it is not signed."
"Only with a rough drawing of a small scarlet flower," the girl observed. The priest handed the paper back to her. She took it, folded it together almost reverently and replaced it in the folds of her fichu. The abbé turned to the young Englishman:
"And you, milord," he asked, "can actually throw some light on the sender of this anonymous message?"
"Not exactly that," Devinne protested, "but I can tell you this: that small scarlet flower is a device adopted by the chief of a band of English gentlemen who have pledged themselves to save innocent men and women and children from the tragic fate that befell the King of France to-day."
The old priest hastily crossed himself.
"May God forgive the sacrilege," he murmured. Then he went on: "But what a high ideal, milord! Saving the innocent! And Englishmen, you say? Are you a member of that heroic band yourself?"
"I have that honour."
"And your chief? Who is he?"
"Ah!" Devinne replied, "that is our secret and his."
"Your pardon, milord! I had not thought to be indiscreet. The whole thing simply amazes me. It is so wonderful to do such noble deeds, to risk one's life for the sake of others who may be nothing to you, and do it all unknown, probably unthanked! And to think that I owe my life to such men as you, milord, to your friends and to your chief! And that little red flower? It is a Scarlet Pimpernel, is it not?"
"I seem to have heard something about it. But only vaguely. The police here speak of an anonymous English spying organization."
"We do no spying, Monsieur l'Abbé. The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel has nothing to do with politics."
"I am sure it has not. But I understand that even the government is greatly disturbed by its activities, and has offered a large reward for the apprehension, milord, of your chief. But God will protect him, never fear."
It was after this that the old priest seemed to collapse. He gave a gasp and sank back in his chair in a faint. François de la Rodière hastily called to Paul, and together the two men carried the old man upstairs to the room which had been prepared for him, and put him to bed. When they came back and explained that Monsieur l'Abbé appeared to be very ill, Madame la Marquise gave orders to Paul that Dr. Pradel be fetched at once.
"The doctor is in the house now, Madame la Marquise," Paul observed.
"Doing what?" Madame asked.
"I sent for him, Maman," François put in; "Stella needed a purge and César got a splinter in his paw. But I thought he would be gone by now."
"And why hasn't he gone?"
"Marie had one of her bad attacks of rheumatism, Madame la Marquise, and Berthe the kitchen girl had a poisoned finger. The doctor has been seeing to them."
"Tell him to go up to Monsieur l'Abbé at once," François commanded.
When Paul had gone, he turned to Lord Devinne.
"This is very unfortunate," he said. "I do hope it won't be a long affair. I don't mind the abbé being here, say, a day or two, but you didn't say anything about his being a sick man."
"I didn't know that he was," the Englishman observed.
"Your wonder chief should have told you," the other retorted with obvious ill-humour. "It won't be over-safe either for maman or for the rest of us to be harbouring a man who is under the ban of this murdering government. Believe me, milord, I-"
He was interrupted by the opening of the door and the entrance of Simon Pradel Madame la Marquise gave him a gracious nod, and Cécile a kindly glance. François, on the other hand, did not take the trouble to greet him.
"It is upstairs you have got to go," he said curtly; "a friend of ours who was here at supper was suddenly taken ill."
Simon took no notice of the insolence of the young man's tone. He only frowned slightly, took his professional tablet and pencil from his pocket and asked:
"What is the name of your friend, Monsieur le Marquis?"
"His name has nothing to do with you," the other retorted tartly.
"I am afraid it has, Monsieur le Marquis. I am bound by law to report to the local Section every case I attend within this area."
Madame la Marquise sighed and turned her head away; the word "Section" or "law" invariably upset her. But François suffered contradiction badly, especially on the part of this fellow Pradel whom he knew to hold democratic if not revolutionary views.
"You can go and report to the devil," he said with growing exasperation. He was still in a fume over the affair of the abbé's inconvenient sickness, and now, what he considered presumption on the part of this purveyor of pills and purges, turned his annoyance into fury.
"Either," he went on, not attempting to control his temper, "either you go and attend to my guest upstairs or you clear out of my house in double quick time."
There was not much meekness in Simon Pradel either. The arrogance of these aristocrats exasperated him just as much as his own attitude exasperated them. His face went very white, and he was on the point of making a retort which probably would have had unpleasant consequences for everyone concerned when he caught a glance, an appealing glance, levelled at him out of Cécile's beautiful eyes.
"Our friend is old, Monsieur le Docteur," she said gently, "and very ill. I am sure he will tell you his name himself, for he has no reason to hide it."
The glance and the words froze the sharp retort on Pradel's lips. He succeeded in keeping his rising temper under control and without another word, and just a slight inclination of the head he went out of the room. François on the other hand made no attempt to swallow his wrath: he turned on his sister and said acidly:
"You were a fool, Cécile. What that fellow wanted was a sound thrashing: your amiability will only encourage him in his insolence. All his like ought to have tasted the whip-last long ago. If they had, we shouldn't be in the plight we are in to-day. Don't you agree with me, Maman?" he concluded, appealing to his stately mother.
But Madame la Marquise who was very much upset by the incident had already sailed out of the room.