Chapter XII:

Chauvelin
~ 1


Theresia had opposed a stern refusal to Pepita's request that she might put her mistress to bed before she herself went to rest. She did not want to go to bed: she wanted to think. and now that that peculiar air of mystery, that silence and semi-darkness no longer held their gruesome sway in her apartment, she did not feel afraid.


Pepita went to bed. For awhile, Theresia could hear her moving about, with ponderous, shuffling footsteps; then, presently everything was still. The clock of old St. Roch struck three. not much more than half an hour had gone by since her guests had been departed. To Theresia it seemed like an infinity of time. The sense of a baffling mystery being at work around her had roused her ire and killed all latent fear.


But what was the mystery?


And was there a mystery at all? Or was Pepita's rational explanation of the occurrence of this night the right one after all?


Citoyenne Cabarrus, unable to sit still, wandered up and down the passage, in and out of the kitchen; in and out of her bedroom, and thence into the vestibule. Then back again. At one moment, when standing in the vestibule, she thought she heard some one moving on the landing outside the front door. Her heart beat a little more rapidly, but she was not afraid. She did not believe in housebreakers and she felt that Pepita, who was a very light sleeper, was well within call.


So she went to the front door and opened it. The quick cry which she gave was one of surprise rather than of fear. In her belated visitor she had recognized citizen Chauvelin; and somehow, by a vague process of reasoning, his presence just at this moment seemed quite rational - in keeping with the unsolved mystery that was so baffling to the fair Theresia.


"May I come in, citoyenne?" Chauvelin said in a whisper. "It is late, I know; but there is urgency."


He was standing on the threshold, and she, a few paces away from him in the vestibule. The candle, which now burned low in its socket, was behind her. Its light touched with a weird, flickering glow on the pale face of the once noted Terrorist, with its pale eyes and sharply hooked nose, which gave him the air of a gaunt bird of prey.


"It is late," she murmured vaguely. "What do you want?"


"Something has happened," he replied, still speaking below his breath. "Something which concerns you. And, before speaking of it to citizen Robespierre-"


At the dread name Theresia stepped farther back into the vestibule.


"Enter!" she said curtly.


He came in, and she closed the door carefully behind him. Then she led the way into the withdrawing room and turned up the wick of the lamp under its rosy shade. She sat down and motioned to him to do the same.


"What is it?" she asked.


Before replying, Chauvelin's finger and thumb - thin and pointed like the talons of a vulture - went fumbling in the pocket of his waistcoat. From it he extracted a small piece of neatly folded paper.


"When we left your apartment, citoyenne - my friend St. Just and I supporting poor palsied Couthon, and Robespierre following close behind us - I spied this scrap of paper, which St. Just's careless foot had just kicked to one side when he was stepping across the threshold. Some unknown hand must have insinuated it underneath the door. Now, I never despise stray bits of paper. I have had so many through my hands that proved after examination to be of paramount importance. So, whilst the others were busy with their own affairs I, unseen by them, had already stooped and picked the paper up."


He paused for a moment or two, then, satisfied that he held the beautiful woman's undivided attention, he went on in his habitual dry, urbane monotone:


"Now, though I was quite sure in my own mind, citoyenne, that this billet-doux was intended for your fair hands, I felt that, as its finder, I had some sort of lien upon it-"


"To the point, citizen, I pray you!" Theresia broke in harshly, tried by a show of impatience and of fatigue to hide the anxiety which had once more taken possession of her heart. "You found a letter addressed to me; you read it. As you have brought it here, I presume that you wish me to know its contents. So get on, man, get on!" she added more vehemently. "It is not at three in the morning that one cares for dalliance."


By way of reply, Chauvelin slowly unfolded the not and began to read:


"'Bertrand Moncrif is a young fool, but he is too good to be the plaything of a sleek black pantheress, however beautiful she might be. So I am taking him away to England where, in the arms of his long-suffering and loyal sweetheart, he will soon forget the brief madness which so nearly landed him on the guillotine and made of him a tool to serve the selfish whims of Theresia Cabarrus.'"


Theresia had listened to the brief, enigmatic epistle without displaying the slightest sign of emotion or surprise. Now, when Chauvelin had finished reading, and with his strange, dry smile had handed her the tiny note, she took it and for awhile contemplated it in silence, her face perfectly placid save for a curious and ominous contraction of the brows and a screwing-up of the fine eyes, which gave her a curious, snake-like expression.


"You know, of course, citoyenne," Chauvelin said after awhile, "who the writer of this - shall we say? - impudent epistle happens to be?"


She nodded.


"The man," he went on placidly," who goes by the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The impudent English adventurer whom citizen Robespierre has asked you, citoyenne, to lure into the net which we may spread for him."


Still Theresia was silent. She did not look at Chauvelin, but kept her eyes fixed upon the scrap of paper, which she had folded into a long, narrow ribbon and was twining in and out between her fingers.


"A while ago, citoyenne," Chauvelin continued, "in this very room, you refused to lend us a helping hand."


Still no reply from Theresia. She had just smoothed out the mysterious epistle, carefully folded it into four, and was in the act of slipping it into the bosom of her gown. Chauvelin waited quite patiently. He was accustomed to waiting, and patience was an integral part of his stock in trade. Opportunism was another.


Theresia was sitting on her favourite settee, leaning forward with her hands clasped between her knees. her head was bent, and the tiny rose-shaded lamp failed to throw its glimmer of light upon her face. The clock on the mantelshelf behind her was ticking with insentient monotony. Anon, a distant chime struck the quarter after three. Whereupon Chauvelin rose.


"I think we understand one another, citoyenne," he said quietly, and with a sigh of complete satisfaction. "It is late now. At what hour may I have the privilege of seeing you alone?"


"At three in the afternoon?" she replied tonelessly, like one speaking in a dream. "Citizen Tallien is always at the Convention then, and my door will be denied to everybody else."


"I'll be here at three o'clock," was Chauvelin's final word.


Theresia had not moved. He made her a deep bow and went out of the room. The next moment, the opening and shutting of the outer door proclaimed that he had gone.


After that, Theresia Cabarrus went to bed.