It is a little difficult to analyse the feelings of a man like St. John Devinne, for he was not really by nature an out and out blackguard. Vanity more than anything else was at the root of his present dishonourable actions. He imagined himself more deeply in love with Cécile de la Rodière than he had ever been before and more deeply than he actually was. Love, in a man of Devinne's type does not really mean much, except the satisfaction of vanity, and, looking back on the pages of history in every civilized land, one cannot help but admit that vanity in men and women has caused more mischief, more misery and greater disasters than any other frailty to which humanity is heir.
And so it was with this man who now was striding rapidly along the snow-covered road which leads down to Choisy. He was not aware of the time, nor of the cold, nor of the roughness of the road. At every dozen steps or so he stumbled over the slippery ground. Once or twice he measured his length in the ditch, but he didn't care. He had set a purpose in his mind, the best part of the night in which to carry it through and nothing else mattered. Nothing. At the cost of dishonour he had made up his mind that he would not lend a hand in any adventure that had for its object the rescue of Simon Pradel from the fate which apparently was waiting for him. Well, if it did, that was his look out, his own fault, too, for daring to court intimacy with his superiors and incurring thereby the enmity of this proletarian government. There was just one thing to be put down to the credit of this young traitor, and that is that mixed with his desire to leave Pradel to his fate, there was also the conviction that the only to ensure Cécile's safety was by concentrating on her and perhaps her mother, and leaving every other issue to take care of itself.
He had formed a plan, of course, and all the way between the heights of La Rodière and the outskirts of Choisy, running when he could, stumbling often, falling more than once, he elaborated this plan. He covered the ground quickly enough, for the way was downhill all the time and it was no longer very dark, now that a pale moon shed its cold silvery light on the carpet of snow. Somewhere in the far distance a church clock struck the half-hour. Half-past eight it must be, reckoned Devinne, and the Levets would have finished supper. There was their house just in sight. Now for a lucky chance to find the girl alone, the girl who in an access of jealousy as great as his own had cried out: "You only care because you are in love with Cécile!" He paused a moment outside the grill in order to shake the snow and dirt off his clothes, to straighten his hat and adjust his cravat. Then he walked up to the front door and rang the bell. It was old man Levet who opened the door. Devinne raised his hat and said:
"I have come with a message from Professeur D'Arblay. May I enter?"
"Certainly, Monsieur," the old man replied, and as soon as Devinne stood beside him in the vestibule he added: "What can I do for Professeur d'Arblay?"
"The message is actually for your daughter, Monsieur Levet. But if you wish I will deliver it to you."
"I will call my daughter," was Levet's simple response. He called to Blanche, who came out from the kitchen, a dishcloth still in her hand. Seeing a stranger, she quickly put the dishcloth down and wiped her hands on her apron.
"What is it, Father?" she asked.
"A message for you from Professeur d'Arblay. If you want me, you can call. Monsieur," he added, with a slight bow to Devinne, "at your service."
He went in to the sitting-room. Blanche and Devinne were alone. She turned anxious, inquiring eyes on him. He said:
"It is very important and urgent, Mademoiselle. It means life and death to Madame la Marquise up at the château and to Mademoiselle Cécile.
He noted with satisfaction that at the mention of Cécile's name the young girl's figure appeared to stiffen, and that an expression almost of hostility crept into her eyes. She was silent for a moment or two. Then she turned and said coldly:
"Will you come in here, Monsieur?" and led the way into the small dining-room, closing the door behind him. Chance, then, was bestowing her favours upon the traitor. He could talk to the girl undisturbed. Everything else would be easy. She offered him a chair by the table and sat down opposite him with a small oil-lamp between them, and Devinne, who studied her face closely, did not fail to see that the look of cold hostility still lingered in her eyes, and that her lips were tightly pressed together.
"I had best come at once to the point, Mademoiselle," he began, "for my time is short. The question which I must put to you first of all is this: would you have sufficient courage to go up to La Rodière to-night? I would accompany you, but only as far as the gate, and you would then go on to the château and transmit Professeur d'Arblay's message to Mademoiselle Cécile."
Blanche hesitated a moment, then she said coldly:
"That depends, Monsieur."
"I must know something more about the message."
"You shall, Mademoiselle, you shall. But first will you tell me this? Have you ever heard speak of the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
"What have you heard?"
"That he is a dangerous English spy. The sworn enemy of our country. His activities, they say, chiefly consist in helping traitors to escape from justice."
"Would you be very surprised, then, to learn that Professeur d'Arblay is none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel himself?
Once again Blanche paused before she answered. When she did, she spoke very slowly, almost as if she were searching her memory for facts which had been relegated up to now to the back of her mind.
"No, it would not surprise me. I always looked on Professeur d'Arblay as somewhat mysterious. Father liked him, and they often had long talks together, and maman, pauvre maman! looked upon him, I often thought, as a messenger of God. As a matter of fact, I never knew his name till quite lately, the day when the King was executed and the Abbé Edgeworth-"
"Yes? The Abbé Edgeworth? You know about him and his escape from the mob who tried to murder him?"
"Yes. It was Professeur d'Arblay who brought him to this house."
"It was the Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle."
"The Scarlet Pimpernel? the girl murmured, "and you know him, Monsieur?"
"I am English, Mademoiselle, and we Englishmen all know him. We work together in the secret service of our country. I told him that I should be going past your house this evening, so he asked me to bring you the message which he desires you to convey to Mademoiselle de la Rodière."
"A verbal message?"
"No. I will write it if you will allow me. It would not have been over safe for a lonely wayfarer as I was to carry a compromising paper about his person. There are many spies and vagabonds about."
"But when we go up to La Rodière?"
"I am going down into Choisy first, and will hire a chaise. We will drive up to the château, with a couple of men on the box."
Blanche looked intently at the young man for a second or two, then she rose, fetched paper, ink and a pen from a side table and placed them before him.
"Will you write your message, Monsieur?" she said simply.
"Will you promise to take it? he retorted.
"I will make no promise. It will depend on the message."
"Then I must take the chance that it meets with your approval," he decided, and with a smile he took up the pen and began to write. Blanche, her elbow resting on the table, her chin cupped in her hand, watched him while he wrote a dozen lines. In the end he made a rough drawing which looked like a device.
"What is that? she asked.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle, a small five-petalled flower. We always use it in our service."
"May I see what you have written?"
He handed her the paper; she glanced down on it and frowned.
"It is in English," she remarked.
"Yes! my written French is very faulty. But Mademoiselle Cécile will understand."
"But I do not."
"Shall I translate?"
"If you please."
She handed him back the missive and he translated it as he read:
"Will you and your august family honour the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel by accepting its protection. Your arrest is only a question of hours. A coach waits for you outside your gate. It will convey you and Madame la Marquise with all possible speed to a place of safety and then return to fetch Monsieur le Marquis, your two servants and Docteur Simon Pradel."
The girl gave a violent start.
"You know him, Mademoiselle?"
"Yes! . . . yes! . . . I know him. . . . But why?"
"He and Mademoiselle Cécile have arranged to get married as soon as they are in England."
"It's not true!" Blanche exclaimed vehemently. She then appeared to make an effort to control herself and went on more quietly: "I mean . . . Docteur Pradel has so many interests here . . . I cannot imagine that he would leave them and become an exile in England . . . even if his life were in danger, which I pray to God is not the case."
"I can reassure you as to that, Mademoiselle," Devinne said with deep earnestness. "Only to-day did I hear that the charge of treason preferred against the doctor before the Chief Commissary has been dismissed as non-proven. He is held in high esteem in the commune, and like yourself, I cannot believe that he would leave his philanthropic work over here except under constraint."
"What do you mean by constraint?" the girl asked, frowning.
He gave a smile and a shrug.
"Well!" he rejoined, "we all know that when a woman is in love, and sees that her lover is not as ardent as she would wish, she will exercise pressure, which a mere man cannot always resist."
"Then you do not think-" the girl cried impulsively, and quickly checked herself, realizing that she was giving herself away before a stranger. A blush, that was almost one of shame, flooded her cheeks, and tears of mortification came to her eyes.
"I don't know what you will think of me, Monsieur . . ." she murmured.
"Only that you are a wonderfully loyal friend, Mademoiselle, and that you are grieved to see a man of Docteur Pradel's worth throw up his career for a futile reason. After all, these troublous days will soon be over. Mademoiselle de la Rodière will then return from England, and if she and the doctor are still of the same mind, they could be affianced then."
Blanche's eager, inquiring eyes searched the young man's face, almost as if she tried to gather in its expression comfort and hope in this awful calamity which threatened to ruin her life. Simon Pradel gone from her for ever, married to Cécile de la Rodière, permanently settled in England probably! What would life be worth to her after that? She saw before her as in a vision, a long vista of years without Simon's companionship, without the hope of ever winning his love, of feeling his arms round her, or his kiss upon her mouth.
She felt a clutch cold as ice upon her heart, tearing at its strings till she could have cried out with the physical pain of it. She shuddered and murmured involuntarily under her breath: "If I could only see him once more."
There followed a few moments silence, while Devinne scrutinized the girl's face, aware though he was too young to be a serious psychologist, of the terrible battle which her better nature was waging against pride and jealousy. He had no cause now to doubt the issue of the conflict. Blanche Levet would be his ally in the act of treachery which he was about to commit. Ignorant and unsuspecting, she did not realize that she was on the point of sacrificing the man she loved, and depriving him of the protection of the one man who had resolved to save him. Jealousy won the day by letting her fall headlong into the trap which a traitor had so cunningly set for her. She was about to become the instrument which would deliver Simon Pradel into the hands of the revolutionary government.
"I will tell you what I can do, Mademoiselle," Devinne resumed after a time, "and I hope my plan will meet your wishes. I am going straight into Choisy now, and will call on Docteur Pradel and use all the eloquence I possess to persuade him to put off his journey to England, at any rate for a few days. I shall be able to assure him that in his case it is not a matter of life and death, whilst, in any event, Mademoiselle de la Rodière and her family are perfectly safe under the ægis of the Scarlet Pimpernel. And then I hope to bring you news within the hour that your friend will do nothing rash until after he has seen you again."
Blanche listened to him with glowing eyes. In every line of her pretty face the speaker could trace the mastery of hope over the doubts and fears of a while ago.
"You really would do that for me, Monsieur?" she exclaimed, and clasped her little hands together, while tears of emotion and gratitude gathered in her eyes.
"Of course I would, Mademoiselle. I shall only be doing what our brave Scarlet Pimpernel himself would have suggested."
Blanche's heart now felt so warm, so full of joy that she broke into a happy little laugh.
"It is my turn to write," she said almost gaily, and took up the pen and drew paper towards her. She only wrote a few lines:
"My Dear Simon,
"The bearer of this note is a gallant English gentleman who was instrumental in saving the Abbé Edgeworth from being murdered by the mob. You know all about that, don't you? And cannot wonder therefore, that I beg you to trust him in everything he may tell you."
She signed the short missive with her name, strewed sand over the wet ink, folded the paper into a small compass and handed it to Devinne, who rose as he took it from her.
"I will fly on the wings of friendship, Mademoiselle,: he said, and picked up his hat. "On my return I will pay my respects to Monsieur Levet. Will you tell him everything, and prepare him for the visit of adieu? Au revoir, Mademoiselle."
She went to the door and opened it for him.
"God guard you, Monsieur!" she said fervently, "and send an angel from heaven to watch over you, on your errand of mercy."
She accompanied him to the front door. As he was passing out into the cold and gloom, she asked naïvely:
"Your name, Monsieur? You never told me your name."
"My name is Collin, Mademoiselle," he replied with hardly a moment's hesitation, "a humble satellite of the brilliant Scarlet Pimpernel."