Everything then had worked out to the entire satisfaction of this young traitor, who, unlike Judas, had no qualms of conscience for his shameful betrayal of his comrades and his chief. Not yet, at any rate. He had, of course, no intention of interviewing his enemy Pradel: in fact, he blotted the doctor entirely out from his scheme. It was good to think of him as remaining behind in Choisy while the girl whom he planned to marry was safely on her way to England without any help from him.
"What becomes of that miserable upstart after that I neither know nor care," was the substance of Devinne's reflections as he strode quickly downhill into town. A few minor details suggested themselves to him that would make his plan work more smoothly. He would stop the chaise at the smaller grille of La Rodière, the one opposite to the main gate, which gave on the narrow and less frequented cross-road to Alfort. Blanche Levet would take his message to Cécile, help her and Madame la Marquise to put a few things together, and accompany them to the chaise. She would have strict injunctions when going through the park with the two ladies to talk and move as if they were merely taking a stroll for the sake of fresh air. He certainly could reckon on Blanche to follow his instructions to the letter, she had as much at stake as he had himself, and jealousy, coupled with the desire to keep Simon Pradel in France, would be a powerful goad.
With the two ladies safely inside the chaise, he would then drive along to St. Gif as far as headquarters, where Galveston and Holte would be on the look-out for the chief and the refugees. This was a derelict house which had once been a wayside hostelry in the prosperous coaching days, but it had long fallen into disrepair, the landlord and his family having fled the country at the outbreak of the Revolution. It was now used as headquarters by the League whenever its activities required the presence of its members in this part of France. It had the great advantage of stables and barns which, though in the last stages of dilapidation, offered some sort of shelter for man and beast. Three or four horses were usually kept there in case they were wanted, and two members of the League took it in turns to remain in charge. There was always of course, a certain element of risk in all that, but what were risks and dangers to these young madcaps but the very spice of their lives?
Luck had favoured St. John Devinne from the start, since it was he who had been deputed to seek out Galveston and Holte, who were in charge at St. Gif, and give them the chief's instructions for the provision of horses, of fresh disguises and above all of passports, some of them forged, others purchased from venal officials or merely stolen, of everything, in fact, that was required to ensure the success of the expedition that was contemplated for the rescue of the La Rodières and their servants and their ultimate flight to England. Mention had been made of the coach, but not of the likely number of its occupants nor of the size of the escort, and whether it would be headed by the chief himself or not. Galveston was to remain on the lookout at headquarters with horses ready saddled, and Holte was to make for Le Perrey with all speed and make provision there for relays.
And chance continued to favour the traitor's plans.
He had no difficulty in hiring a coach in the town, giving himself out as an American merchant, a friend of General La Fayette, desirous to join a ship at St. Nazaire, and having no time to lose. The first halt would be made at Dreux. Is manner, his well-cut clothes, his money of which he was not sparing, gave verisimilitude to his story and enabled him to secure what he wanted. He required, he said, an extra man on the box beside the driver, as his sister would be travelling with him; he understood that the road past Le Perrey was lonely , and she was inclined to be nervous. His papers were in order, as papers in the possession of members of the League always were, and forty minutes after his departure from the Levets' house he was back there again and ringing the bell at the front door.
Blanche was on the look-out for him. As soon as she had opened the door he stretched both his hands out to her, and in a quick whisper said:
"Everything is well! I have seen Docteur Pradel. He laughed the idea to scorn that he was in any danger, and assured me that he had no intention of emigrating. Not just yet, at all events. I did not mention Mademoiselle de la Rodière's name, but he himself spoke of you and announced his intention of coming over to see you to-morrow."
The girl was dumb with emotion. All she could do was to allow her hand to respond to the pressure of his. He asked permission to pay his respects to Monsieur Levet. But father, it seems, was not in a mood to see anyone just now.
"I told him about the message which I was to take up to Mademoiselle," Blanche explained, "and he quite approved of my doing it. I told him that you were escorting me and that you were a friend of Professeur d'Arblay. This he already knew. He had also guessed, before I told him, that Professeur d'Arblay was in reality the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"Did you mention Docteur Pradel, also?"
"No, I did not. That is a matter which will remain between Simon and myself. I shall be eternally grateful to you for what you have done for him. But for you he would have made shipwreck of his life. Now he will, I know, take up its threads with is usual energy as soon as all this matter is past and forgotten."
"You are the best friend any man ever had," Devinne concluded as he escorted the girl to the coach; "Docteur Pradel is indeed a lucky man."
To himself he added: "And I hope that my luck will hold out to the end, and that Cécile and I will be well on the way to England before those two meet again."
Devinne ordered the driver to pull up on the Alfort road at a couple of hundred metres from the small grille of La Rodière. Grilles and gates were never bolted these days, by an order of the government which decreed that all parks and pleasure grounds were as much the property of the people as those aristos who had stolen them, and that every citizen had the right to use them for pleasure or convenience. Devinne jumped out of the chaise and helped Blanche to alight. Together they walked up to the grille, and the girl passed through into the park. The young man remained standing by the low wall close to the gate in the shadow of tall bordering trees. He strained his ears to listen to Blanche's light footstep treading the frozen ground. The road was quite deserted, and the moon had hidden her pale face behind a bank of clouds. Only the pale face behind a bank of clouds. Only a pawing and snorting of the horses in the near distance broke the silence of the night. Wrapped in his cloak Devinne appeared, but as part of the shadows that enveloped him. A dark, motionless figure.
A distant church clock struck eleven and then a quarter past. Devinne thought of all those men whom Blakeney, with his usual recklessness, had rendered helpless with drugged wine, of Chauvelin cursing in his dank prison, and of Blakeney himself and his satellites in the squalid hostelry the other side of the part, still discussing and elaborating the marvellous plan of rescue, which they little thought was frustrated already. And, thinking of all that, the young traitor felt wonderfully elated, proud of himself for the ease with which he had gone athwart the schemes of the invincible Scarlet Pimpernel, proud, too, of the fact that his nerves were perfectly calm, that he felt neither compunction nor fear. His heart beat perhaps a little faster than usual, but that was all.
Nearly half an hour went by before his ear once more caught the sound of a light footstep treading the frozen garden path. One step only. He heard it a long way off, but tripping very quickly. Running now. It must, he thought, be Blanche returning for something she may have forgotten or, perhaps, with a message for him from the château. It was Blanche, of course. The clouds overhead rolled slowly away. The pale light of the moon revealed the dark figure of the young girl against the white background of frozen lawn. And she was running. Running. She was alone, and Devinne felt that his heart suddenly froze inside his breast. He held open the grille. Blanche almost fell into his arms.
"They have gone," she gasped.
"All of them. There is no one in the château. Not a soul. The doors are all left open. I ran upstairs, downstairs, everywhere. There is no one. Madame la Marquise, Monsieur, Mademoiselle Cécile, Paul, Marie. They have all gone. What does it mean?"
Aye! What did it mean, but the one thing? The one awful terrible thing, that it was his treachery that had been frustrated by the man whom he had betrayed. What had happened exactly, he could not conjecture. The plan was to effect the mock arrest of the La Rodières in the early dawn, and it was not yet midnight. Had suspicion of treachery lurked in the mind of the Scarlet Pimpernel? He was not the man to change his plans once he had mapped them out, for every phase of them fitted one into the other, like the pieces of those puzzles that children love to play with. Or had a real arrest been effected by soldiers of the Republic? Had Chauvelin contrived to escape? To liberate the men imprisoned in the stables? To order the arrest of the aristos, pending the capture of the Scarlet Pimpernel? Anything may have occurred during these past three hours, and Devinne almost hoped that this last conjecture would prove to be the solution of the appalling riddle that faced him now. With half an ear he heard Blanche Levet tell him of her further adventures in the château.
"It seemed peopled with ghosts," she said, "for when I ran down into the sous-sol, I heard strange sounds proceeding from the cellar. Groans and curses they sounded like. But I was frightened and ran upstairs again. I lost my head, I think, and lost time, too, by running towards the great gate. Then I met Antoine. He is the groom, you know. He said to me: 'They've all gone: Monsieur le Marquis, Madame and Mademoiselle, and Paul and Marie. They walked down the avenue and went through this gate. They didn't see me.' I asked him which way they went," Blanche continued, "and he said: 'Up Corbeil way; about an hour ago, it was.' But before I could ask him any more questions he was gone. Then I ran back to tell you."
As Devinne said nothing, Blanche began to cry.
"What are we going to do now?" she asked, and tried to swallow her tears.
Devinne roused himself from his torpor. What a chivalry there was left in him urged him first of all to see to the girl's safety.
"We'll drive back to your house, of course. Come."
He took hold of her arm and led her back to the chaise. She climbed in and he gave instructions to the driver.
"Straight back to Citizen Levet's house in the Rue Micheline."
Not a word was spoken between the two of them on the way home. Blanche's delicate form was trembling as if in a fit of ague. A name and eager questions were forming on her lips, but for some in explicable reason she felt averse to uttering them. It was only when the chaise drew up outside her house, and Devinne, after he had escorted her to the front door, was taking his leave of her, that she spoke the name that was foremost in her thoughts.
But apparently he didn't hear her, for he made no reply. The next moment the door was opened. Old Levet had been sitting up, waiting for his daughter. At sight of her he took hold of her hand and drew her into the house. She turned to say a last word to Devinne, but he had already crossed the short path that led to the gate. Blanche could hear his voice speaking to the driver, but it was dark and she could not see him. The next moment there was the crack of the driver's whip, the jingle of harness, the snorting of horses and finally, the rumble of wheels. She was left with heart full of anxiety and fear for the man she loved. Many hours must go by before she could hope to glean information as to what had happened to him. And here was her father waiting to hear what had occurred at the château. She tried to tell him, but she knew so little. The family had gone, that was all she knew. Were they under arrest, awaiting trial, and perhaps, death? Or was their mysterious departure connected in any way with that strange personage the Scarlet Pimpernel?
In either case, where was Simon now? In the cells of the Old Castle, awaiting the same fate as Cécile and the others? Or was he on his way to England and to safety, gone out of her life for ever?
"Yes, Father," she murmured in answer to old Levet's command that she should go to bed now and give him further details on the morrow: "I will go to bed now. I am very tired."
Wearily she crept up the stairs.