Theresia, being a woman, was necessarily the more accomplished actor. While Tallien retired into a gloomy corner of the room, vainly trying to conceal his agitation, she rose quite serene in order to greet her visitors.
Pepita had just admitted into her mistress's apartments a singular group, composed of two able-bodied men supporting a palsied one. One of the former was St. Just, one of the most romantic figures of the Revolutionary period, the confidant and intimate friend of Robespierre and own cousin to Armand St. Just and to the beautiful Marguerite, who had married the fastidious English milord, Sir Percy Blakeney. The other was Chauvelin, at one time one of the most influential members of the Committee of Public Safety, now little more than a hanger-on of Robespierre's party. A man of no account, to whom not even Tallien and his colleagues thought it worth while to pay their court. The palsied man was Couthon, despite his crimes an almost pathetic figure in his helplessness, after his friends had deposited him in an armchair and wrapped a rug around his knees. The carrying chair in which he spent the greater part of his life had been left down below in the concierge's lodge, and St. Just and Chauvelin had carried him up the three flights of stairs to citoyenne Cabarrus's apartment.
Close behind these three men came Robespierre.
Heavens! if a thunderbolt had fallen from the skies on that night of the 26th of April, 1794, and destroyed house No. 22 in the Rue Villedot, with all those who were in it, what a torrent of blood would have been stemmed, what horrors averted, what misery forefended!
But nothing untoward happened. The four men who sat that night and well into the small hours of the morning in the dingy apartment, occupied for the present by the beautiful Cabarrus, were allowed by inscrutable Providence to discuss their nefarious designs unchecked.
In truth, there was no discussion. One man dominated the small assembly, even though he sat for the most part silent and apparently self-absorbed, wrapped in that taciturnity and even occasional somnolence which seemed to have become a pose with him of late. He sat on a high chair, prim and upright. Immaculately dressed in blue cloth coat and white breeches, with clean linene at throat and wrist, his hair neatly tied back with a black silk bow, his nails polished, his shoes free from mud, he presented a marked contrast to the ill-conditioned appearance of those other products of revolutionary ideals.
St. Just, on the other hand - young, handsome, a brilliant talker and convinced enthusiast - was only too willing to air his compelling eloquence, was in effect the mouthpiece of the great man as he was his confidant and his right hand. He had acquired in the camps which he so frequently visited a breezy, dictatorial manner that pleased his friends and irritated Tallien and his clique, more especially when sententious phrases fell from his lips which were obviously the echo of some of Robespierre's former speeches in the Convention.
Then there was Couthon, sarcastic and contemptuous, delighting to tease Tallien and to affect a truculent manner, which brought abject flattery from the other's lips.
St. just the fiery young demagogue, and Couthon the half-paralysed enthusiast, were known to be pushing their leader toward the proclamation of a triumvirate, with Robespierre as chief dictator and themselves as his two hands; and it amused the helpless cripple to see just how far the obsequiousness to Tallien and his colleagues would go in subscribing to so monstrous a project.
As for Chauvelin, he said very little, and the deference wherewith he listened to the others, the occasional unctuous words which he let fall, bore testimony to the humiliating subservience to which he had sunk.
And the beautiful Theresia, presiding over the small assembly like a goddess who listens to the prattle of men, sat for the most part quite still, on the one dainty piece of furniture of which her dingy apartment boasted. She was careful to sit so that the rosy glow of the lamp fell on her in the direction most becoming to her attitude. From time to time she threw in a word; but all the while her whole attention was concentrated on what was said. At her future husband's fulsome words of flattery, at his obvious cowardice before the popular idol and his cringing abjectness, a faint smile of contempt would now and then force itself up to her lips. But she neither reproved nor encouraged him. And when Robespierre appeared to be flattered by Tallien's obsequiousness she even gave a little sigh of satisfaction.
St. Just, now s always the mouthpiece of his friend, was the first to give a serious turn to the conversation. Compliments, flatteries, had gone their round; platitudes, grandiloquent phrases on the subject of country, intellectual revolution, liberty, purity, and so on, had been spouted with varying eloquence. The fraternal suppers had been alluded to with servile eulogy of the giant brain who had conceived the project.
Then it was that St. Just broke into a euphemistic account of the disorderly scene in the Rue St. Honoré.
Theresia Cabarrus, roused from her queen-like indifference, at once became interested.
"The young traitor!" she exclaimed, with a great show of indignation. "Who was he? What was he like?"
Couthon gave quite a minute description of Bertrand, and accurate one, too. He had faces the blasphemer - thus was he called by this compact group of devotees and sycophants - for fully five minutes, and despite the flickering and deceptive light, had studied his features, distorted by fury and hate, and was quite sure that he would know them again.
Theresia listened eagerly, caught every inflection of the voices as they discussed the strange events that followed. The keenest observer there could not have detected the slightest agitation in her large, velvety eyes - not even when the met Robespierre's coldly inquiring gaze. No one - not even Tallien - could have guessed what an effort it cost her to appear unconcerned, when all the while she was straining every sense in the direction of the small kitchen at the end of the passage, where the much-discussed Bertrand was still lying concealed.
However, the certainty that Robespierre's spies and those of the Committees had apparently lost complete track of Moncrif, did much to restore her assurance, and her gaiety became after awhile somewhat more real.
At one time she turned boldly to Tallien.
"You were there, too, citizen," she said provokingly. "Did you not recognise any of the traitors?"
Tallien stammered out an evasive answer, implored her with a look not to taunt him and not to play like a thoughtless child within sight and hearing of a man-eating tiger. Thereisa's dalliance with the young and handsome Bertrand must in truth be known to Robespierre's army of spies, and he - Tallien - was not altogether convinced that the fair Spaniard, despite her assurances to the contrary, was not harbouring Moncrif in her apartment even now.
Therefore he would not meet her tantalizing glance; and she, delighted to tease, threw herself with greater zest than before into the discussion, amused to see sober Tallien, whom in her innermost heart she despised, enduring tortures of apprehension.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, apparently enraptured by St. Just's glowing account of the occurrence, "what would I not give to have seen it all! In truth, we do not often get such thrilling incidents every day in this dull and dreary Paris. The death-carts with their load of simpering aristos have ceased to entertain us. But the drama in the Rue St. Honoré! à la bonne heure! What a palpitating scene!"
"Especially," added Couthon, "the spiriting away of the company of traitors through the agency of that mysterious giant, who some aver was just a coal-heaver named Rateau, well known to half the night-birds of the city as an asthmatic reprobate; whilst others vow that he was-"
"Name him not, friend Couthon," St. Just broke in with a sarcastic chuckle. "I pray thee, spare the feelings of citizen Chauvelin." And his bold, provoking eyes shot a glance of cool irony on the unfortunate victim of his taunt.
Chauvelin made no retort, pressed his thin lips more tightly together as if to smother any incipient expression of the resentment which he felt. Instinctively his glance sought those of Robespierre, who sat by, still apparently disinterested and impassive, with head bent and arms cross over his narrow chest.
"Ah, yes!" here interposed Tallien unctuously. "Citizen Chauvelin has had one or two opportunities of measuring his prowess against that of the mysterious Englishman; but we are told that, despite his talents, he has met with no success in that direction."
"Do not tease our modest friend Chauvelin, I pray you, citizen," Theresia broke in gaily. "The Scarlet Pimpernel - that is the name of the mysterious Englishman, is it not? - is far more elusive and a thousand times more resourceful and daring than any mere man can possibly conceive. 'Tis woman's wits that will bring him to his knees one day. You can take my word for that!"
"Your wits, citoyenne?"
Robespierre had spoken. It was the first time, since the discussion had turned on the present subject, that he had opened his lips. All eyes were at once reverentially turned to him. His own, cold and sarcastic, were fixed upon Theresia Cabarrus.
She returned his glance with provoking coolness, shrugged her splendid shoulders, and retorted airily:
"Oh, you want a woman with some talent as a sleuthhound - a female counterpart of citizen Chauvelin. I have no genius in that direction."
"Why not?" Robespierre went on drily. "You, fair citoyenne, would be well qualified to deal with the Scarlet Pimpernel, seeing that your adorer, Bertrand Moncrif, appears to be a protégé of the mysterious League."
At this taunt, uttered by the dictator with deliberate emphasis, like one who knows what he is talking about, Tallien gave a gasp and his sallow cheeks became the colour of lead. But Theresia placed her cool, reassuring hand upon his.
"Bertrand Moncrif," she said serenely, "is no adorer of mine. He foreswore his allegiance to me on the day that I plighted my troth to citizen Tallien."
"That is as may be," Robespierre retorted coldly. "But he certainly was the leader of the gang of traitors whom that meddlesome English rabble chose to snatch away to-night from the vengeance of a justly incensed populace."
"How do you know that, citizen Robespierre?" Theresia asked. She was still maintaining an outwardly calm attitude; her voice was apparently quite steady, her glance absolutely serene. Only Tallien's keen perceptions were able to note the almost wax-like pallor which had spread over her cheeks and the strained, high-pitched tone of her usually mellow voice. "Why do you suppose, citizen," she insisted, "that Bertrand Moncrif had anything to do with the fracas to-night? Methought he had emigrated to England - or somewhere," she added airily, "after - after I gave him his definite congé."
"Did you think that, citoyenne?" Robespierre rejoined with a wry smile. "Then let me tell you that you are under a misapprehension. Moncrif, the traitor, was the leader of the gang that tried to rouse the people against me to-night. You ask me how I know it?" he added icily. "Well, I saw him - that is all!"
"Ah!" exclaimed Theresia, in well-played mild astonishment. "You say Bertrand Moncrif, citizen? He is in Paris, then?"
"Strange, he never came to see me!"
"What does he look like? Some people have told me that he is getting fat."
The discussion had now resolved itself into a duel between these two: the ruthless dictator, sure of his power, and the beautiful woman, conscious of hers. The atmosphere of the drabbily furnished room had became electrical. Every one felt it. Every man instinctively held his breath, conscious of the quickening of his pulses, of the accelerated beating of his heart.
Both the duellists appeared perfectly calm. Of the two, in truth, Robespierre appeared the most moved. His staccato voice, the drumming of his pointed fingers upon the arms of his chair, suggested that the banter of the beautiful Theresia was getting on his nerves. It was like the lashing of a puma's tail, the irritation of a tempter unaccustomed to being provoked. and Theresia was clever enough - above all, woman enough - to note that, since the dictator was moved, he could not be perfectly sure of his ground. He would not display this secret irritation if by a word he could confound his beautiful adversary, and openly threaten where now he only insinuated.
"He saw Bertrand in the Rue St. Honoré," was the sum total of her quick reasoning; "but does not know that he is here. I wonder what it is he does want!" came as an afterthought.
The one that really suffered throughout, and suffered acutely, was Tallien. He would have given all that he possessed to know for a certainty that Bertrand Moncrif was no longer in the house. Surely Theresia would not be foolhardy enough to provoke the powerful dictator into one of those paroxysms of spiteful fury for which he was notorious - fury wherein he might be capable of anything - insulting his hostess, setting his spies to search her apartments for a traitor if he suspected one of lying hidden away somewhere. In truth, Tallien, trembling for his beloved, was ready to swoon. How marvellous she was! how serene! While men held their breath before the inexorable despot, she went on teasing the tiger, even though he had already begun to snarl.
"I entreat you, citizen Robespierre," she said, with a pout, "to tell me if Bertrand Moncrif has grown fat."
"That I cannot tell you, citoyenne," Robespierre replied curtly. "Having recognized my enemy, I no longer paid heed to him. My attention was arrested by his rescuer-"
"That elusive Scarlet Pimpernel," she broke in gaily. "Unrecognizable to all save to citizen Robespierre, under the disguise of an asthmatic gossoon. Ah, would I had been there!"
"I would you had, citoyenne," he retorted. "You would have realized that to refuse your help to unmask an abominable spy after such an episode is tantamount to treason."
Her gaiety dropped from her like a mantle. In a moment she was serious, puzzled. A frown appeared between her brows. Her dark eyes flashed, rapidly inquiring, suspicious, fearful, upon Robespierre.
"To refuse my help?" she asked slowly. "My help in unmasking a spy? I do not understand."
She looked from one man to the other. Chauvelin was the only one who would not meet her gaze. No, not the only one. Tallien, too, appeared absorbed in contemplating his finger nails.
"Citizen Tallien," she queried harshly. "What does this mean?"
"It means just what I said," Robespierre intervene coldly. "That abominable English spy has fooled us all. You said yourself that 'tis a woman's wit that will bring that elusive adventurer to his knees one day. Why not yours?"
Theresia gave no immediate reply. She was meditating. Here, then, was this other means to her hand, whereby she was to propitiate the man-eating tiger, turn his snarl into a purr, obtain immunity for herself and her future lord. but what a prospect!
"I fear me, citizen Robespierre," she said after awhile, "that you overestimate the keenness of my wits."
"Impossible!" he retorted drily.
And St. Just, ever the echo of his friend's unspoken words, added with a great show of gallantry:
"The citoyenne Cabarrus, even from her prison in Bordeaux, succeeded in snaring our friend Tallien, and making him the slave of her beauty."
"Then why not the Scarlet Pimpernel?" was Couthon's simple conclusion.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel!" Theresia exclaimed with a shrug of her handsome shoulders. "The Scarlet Pimpernel, forsooth! Why, meseems that no one knows who he is! Just now you all affirmed that he was a coal-heaver named Rateau. I cannot make love to a coal-heaver, can I?"
"Citizen Chauvelin knows who the Scarlet Pimpernel is," Couthon went on deliberately. "He will put you on the right track. All that we want is that he should be at your feet. It is so easy for the citoyenne Cabarrus to accomplish that."
"But if you know who he is," she urged, "why do you need my help?"
"Because," St. Just replied, "the moment that he lands in France he sheds his identity, as a man would a coat. Here, there, everywhere - he is more elusive than a ghost, for a ghost is always the same, whilst the Scarlet Pimpernel is never twice alike. A coal-heaver one day; a prince of dandies the next. He has lodgings in every quarter of Paris and quits them at a moment's notice. He has confederates everywhere: concierges, cabaret-keepers, soldiers, vagabonds. He has been a public letter-writer, a sergeant of the National Guard, a rogue, a thief! 'Tis only in England that he is always the same, and citizen Chauvelin can identify him there. 'Tis there that you can see him, citoyenne, there that you can spread your nets for him; from thence that you can lure him to France in your train, like you lured citizen Tallien to obey your every whim in Bordeaux. Once a man hath fallen a victim to the charms of beautiful Theresia Cabarrus," added the young demagogue gallantly, "she need only to beackon and he will follow, as does citizen Tallien, as did Bertrand Moncrif, as do so many others. Bring the Scarlet Pimpernel to your feet, here in Pairs, citoyenne, and we will do the rest."
While his young devotee spoke thus vehemently, Robespierre had relapsed into his usual pose of affected detachment. His head was bent, his arms were folded across his chest. He appeared to be asleep. When St. Just paused, Theresia waiting awhile, her dark eyes fixed on the great man who had conceived this monstrous project. Monstrous, because of the treachery that it demanded.
Theresia Cabarrus had in truth identified herself with the Revolutionary government. She had promised to marry Tallien, who outwardly at least was as bloodthirsty and ruthless as was Robespierre himself; but she was a woman and not a demon. She had refused to sell Bertrand Moncrif in order to pander to Tallien's fear of Robespierre. To entice a man - whoever he was - into making love to her, and then to betray him to his death, was in itself an abhorrent idea. What she might do if actual danger of death threatened her, she did not know. No human soul can with certainty say, "I would not do this or that, under any circumstances whatever!" Circumstance and impulse are the only two forces that create cowards or heroes. Principles, will-power, virtue, are really subservient to those two. If they prove the stronger, everything in man must yield to them.
And Theresia Cabarrus had not yet been tried by force of circumstance or driven by force of impulse. Self-preservation was her dominant law, and she had not yet been in actual fear of death.
This is not a justification on the part of this veracious chronicle of Theresia's subsequent actions; it is an explanation. Faced with this demand upon her on the part of the most powerful despot in France, she hesitated, even though she did not altogether dare to refuse. Womanlike, she tried to temporize.
She appeared puzzled; frowned. Then asked vaguely:
"Is it then that you wish me to go to England?"
St. Just nodded.
"But," she continued, in the same indeterminate manner, "meseems that you talk very glibly of my - what shall I say? - my proposed dalliance with the mysterious Englishman. Suppose he - he does not respond?"
"Impossible!" Couthon broke in quickly.
"Oh!" she protested. "Impossible? Englishmen are known to be prudish - moral - what? And if they man is married - what then?"
"The citoyenne Cabarrus underrates her powers," St. Just riposted glibly.
"Theresia, I entreat!" Tallien put in dolefully.
He felt that the interview, from which he had hoped so much, was proving a failure - nay, worse! For he realized that Robespierre, thwarted in this desire, would bitterly resent Theresia's positive refusal to help him.
"Eh, what?" she riposted lightly. "And it is you, citizen Tallien, who would push me into this erotic adventure? I' faith, your trust in me is highly flattering! Have you not thought that in the process I might fall in love with the Scarlet Pimpernel myself? He is young, they say, handsome, adventurous; and I am to try and capture his fancy... the butterfly is to dance around the flame.... No, no! I am too much afraid that I may singe my wings!"
"Does that mean," Robespierre put in coldly, "that you refuse us your help, citoyenne Cabarrus?"
"Yes - I refuse," she replied calmly. "The project does not please me, I confess-"
"Not even if we guaranteed immunity to your lover, Bertrand Moncrif?"
She gave a slight shudder. Her lips felt dry, and she passed her tongue rapidly over them.
"I have no lover, except citizen Tallien," she said steadily, and placed her fingers, which had suddenly become ice-cold, upon the clasped hands of her future lord. Then she rose, thereby giving the signal for the breaking-up of the little party.
In truth, she knew as well as Tallien that the meeting had been a failure. Tallien was looking sallow and terribly worried. Robespierre, taciturn and sullen, gave her one threatening glance before he took his leave.
"You know, citoyenne," he said coldly, "that the nation has means at its disposal for compelling its citizens to do their duty."
"Ah, bah!" retorted the fair Spaniard, shrugging her shoulders. "I am not a citizen of France. And even your unerring Public Prosecutor would find it difficult to frame an accusation against me."
Again she laughed, determined to appear gay and inconsequent through it all.
"Think how the accusation would sound, citizen Robespierre!" she went on mockingly. "'The citoyenne Cabarrus, for refusing to make amorous overtures to the mysterious Englishman known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and for refusing to administer a love-philtre to him as prepared by Mother Théot at the bidding of citizen Robespierre!' Confess! Confess!" she added, and her rippling laugh had a genuine note of merriment in it at last, "that we none of us would survive such ridicule!"
Theresia Cabarrus was a clever woman, and by speaking the word "ridicule," she had touched the one weak chink in the tyrant's armour. But it is not always safe to prod a tiger, even with a child's cane, or even from behind protecting bars. Tallien knew this well enough. He was on tenterhooks, longing to see the others depart so that he might throw himself once again at Theresia's feet and implore her to obey the despot's commands.
But Theresia appeared unwilling to give him such another chance. She professed intense fatigue, bade him "good night" with such obvious finality, that he dared not outstay his welcome. A few moments later they had all gone. Their gracious hostess accompanied them to the door, since Pepita had by this time certainly gone to bed. The little procession was formed, with St. Just and Chauvelin supporting their palsied comrade, Robespierre detached and silent, and finally Tallien, whose last appealing look to his beloved would have melted a heart of stone.