And whilst the whole of Europe was in travail with the repercussion of the gigantic upheaval that was shaking France to its historic foundations, the last few years had seen by very little change in this little corner of England.
The Fisherman's Rest stood where it had done for two centuries and long before thrones had tottered and anointed heads fallen on the scaffold. The oak rafters, black with age, the monumental hearth, the tables and high-backed benches, seemed like mute testimonies to good order and to tradition, just as the shiny pewter mugs, the foaming ale, the brass that glittered like gold, bore witness to unimpaired prosperity and an even, well-regulated life.
Over in the kitchen yonder, Mistress Sally Waite, as she now was, still ruled with a firm if somewhat hasty hand, the weight of which, so the naughty gossips averred, even her husband, Master Harry Waite, had experienced more than once. She still queened it over her father's household, presided over his kitchen, and drove the young scullery wenches to their task with her sharp tongue and an occasional slap. But The Fisherman's Rest could not have gone on without her. The copper saucepans would in truth not have glittered so, nor would the home-brewed ale have tasted half so luscious to Master Jellyband's faithful customers, had not Mistress Sally's strong brown hands drawn it for them, with just the right amount of creamy foam on the top and not a bit too much.
"And so it was still many a "Ho, Sally! 'Ere Sally! 'Ow long'll you be with that there beer!" or "Say, Sally! A cut of your cheese and homebaked bread; and look sharp about it!" that resounded from end to end of the long, low-raftered coffee-room of The Fisherman's Rest, on this fine May day of the year of grace 1794.
Sally Waite, her muslin cap set at a becoming angle, her kerchief primly folded over her well-developed bosom, and her kirtle neatly raised above a pair of exceedingly shapely ankles, was in and out of the room, in and out of the kitchen, tripping it like a benevolent if somewhat substantial fairy, bandying chaff here, administering rebuke there, hot, panting and excited.
The while mine host, Master Jellyband - perhaps a shade more portly of figure, a thought more bald of pate, these last two years - stood with stubby legs firmly planted upon his own hearth, wherein, despite the warmth of a glorious afternoon, a log fire blazed away merrily. He was giving forth his views upon the political situation of Europe generally with the self-satisfied assurance born of complete ignorance and true British insular prejudice.
Believe me, Mr. Jellyband was in no two minds about "them murderin' furriners over yonder" who had done away with their King and Queen and all their nobility and quality, and whom England had at last decided to lick into shape.
"And not a moment too soon, hark'ee, Mr. 'Empseed," he went on sententiously. "And if I 'ad my way, we should 'ave punished 'em proper long before this - blown their bloomin' Paris into smithereens and carried off the pore Queen afore those murderous villains 'ad 'er pretty 'ead off 'er shoulders!"
Mr. Hempseed, from his own privileged corner in the inglenook, was not altogether prepared to admit that.
"I am not for interfering with other folks' ways," he said, raising his quaking treble so as to stem effectually the torrent of Master Jellyband's eloquence. "As the Scriptures say-"
"Keep your dirty fingers from off my waist!" came in decisive tones from Mistress Sally Waite, whilst the shrill sound made by the violent contact of a feminine hand against a manly cheek froze the Scriptural quotation on Mr. Hempseed's lips.
"Now then, now then, Sally!" Mr. Jellyband thought fit to say in stern tones, not liking his customers to be thus summarily dealt with.
"Now then, father," Sally retorted, with a toss of her brown curls, "you just attend to your politics, and Mr. 'Empseed to 'is Scriptures, and leave me to deal with them impudent jackanapes. You wait!" she added, turning once more with a parting shot directed against the discomfited offender. "If my 'Arry catches you at them tricks, you'll see what you get - that's all!"
"Sally!" Mr. Jellyband admonished, more sternly this time. "You'll 'ave my lord Hastings 'ere before 'is dinner is ready."
Which suggestion so overawed Mistress Sally that she promptly forgot the misdoings of the forward swain and failed to hear the sarcastic chuckle which greeted the mention of her husband's name. With an excited little cry, she ran quickly out of the room.
Mr. Hempseed, loftily unaware of interruption, concluded his sententious remark:
"As the Scriptures say, Mr. Jellyband: ' 'Ave no fellowship with the unfruitful work of darkness.' I don't 'old not with interfering. Remember what the Scriptures say: ' 'E that committeth sin is of the devil, and the devil sinneth from the beginning,'" he concluded with sublime irrelevance, sagely nodding his head.
But Mr. Jellyband was not thus lightly to be confounded in his argument - no, not by any quotation, relevant or otherwise!
"All very fine, Mr. 'Empseed," he said, "and good enough for them 'oo, like yourself, are willin' to side with them murderin' reprobates...."
"Like myself, Mr. Jellyband?" protested Mr. Hempseed, with as much vigour as his shrill treble would allow. "Nay, but I'm not for them children of darkness-"
"You may be or you may not," Mr. Jellyband went on, nothing daunted. "There be many as are, and 'oo'd say 'Let 'em murder,' even now. but I say that them as 'oo talk that way are not true Englishmen; for 'tis we Englishmen 'oo can teach the furriner just what 'e may do and what 'e may not. And as we've got the ships and the men and the money, we can just fight 'em as are not of our way o' thinkin'. And let me tell you, Mr. 'Empseed, that I'm prepared to back my opinions 'gainst any man as don't agree with me!"
For the nonce Mr. Hempseed was silent. True, a Scriptural text did hover on his thin, quivering lips; but as no one paid any heed to him for the moment its appositeness will for ever remain doubtful. The honours of victory rested with Mr. Jellyband. Such lofty patriotism, coupled with so much sound knowledge of political affairs, could not fail to leave its impress upon the more ignorant and the less fervent amongst the frequenters of The Fisherman's Rest.
Indeed, who was more qualified to pass an opinion on current events than the host of that much-frequented resort, seeing that the ladies and gentlemen of quality who came to England from over the water, so as to escape all them murtherin' reprobates in their own country, did most times halt at The Fisherman's Rest on their way to London or to Bath? And though Mr. Jellyband did not know a word of French - no furrin lingo for him, thank 'ee! - he nevertheless had mixed with all that nobility and gentry for over two years now, and had learned all that there was to know about the life over there, and about Mr. Pitt's intentions to put a stop to all those abominations.
Even now, hardly had mine hosts conversation with his favoured customers assumed a more domestic turn, than a loud clatter on the cobblestones outside, a jingle and a rattle, shouts, laughter and bustle, announced the arrival of guests who were privileged to make as much noise as they pleased.
Mr. Jellyband ran to the door, shouted for Sally at the top of his voice with a "Here's my lord Hastings!" to add spur to Sally's hustle. Politics were forgotten for the nonce, arguments set aside, in the excitement of welcoming the quality.
Three young gallants in travelling clothes, smart of appearance and debonair of mien, were ushering a party of strangers - three ladies and two men - into the hospitable porch of The Fisherman's Rest. The little party had walked across from the inner harbour, where the graceful masts of an elegant schooner lately arrived in port were seen gently swaying against the delicately coloured afternoon sky. Three or four sailors from the schooner were carrying luggage, which they deposited in the hall of the inn, then touched their forelocks in response to a pleasant smile and nod from the young lords.
"This way, my lord," Master Jellyband reiterated with jovial obsequiousness. "Everything is ready. This way! Hey, Sallee!" he called again; and Sally, hot, excited, blushing, came tripping over from the kitchen, wiping her hot plump palms against her apron in anticipation of shaking hands with their lordships.
"Since Mr. Waite isn't anywhere about," my lord Hastings said gaily, as he put a bold arm round Mistress Sally's dainty waist, "I'll e'en have a kiss, my pretty one."
"And I, too, by gad, for old sake's sake!" Lord Tony asserted, and planked a hearty kiss on mistress Sally's dimpled cheek.
"At your service, my lords, at your service!" Master Jellyband rejoined, laughing. Then added more soberly: "Now then, Sally, show the ladies up into the blue room, the while their lordships 'ave a first shake down in the coffee-room. This way, gentlemen - your lordships - this way!"
The strangers in the meanwhile had stood by, wide-eyed and somewhat bewildered in face of this exuberant hilarity which was so unlike what they had pictured to themselves of dull, fog-ridden England - so unlike, too, the dreary moroseness which of late had replaced the erstwhile lighthearted gaiety of their own countrymen. The porch and the narrow hall of The Fisherman's Rest appeared to them seething and vitality. Every one was talking, nobody seemed to listen; every one was merry, and every one knew everybody else and was pleased to meet them. Sonorous laughter echoed from end to end along the solid beams, black and shiny with age. it all seemed so homely, so happy. The deference paid to the young gallants and to them as strangers by the sailors and the innkeeper was so genuine and hearty without the slightest sign of servility, that those five people who had left behind them so much class-hatred, enmity and cruelty in their own country, felt an unaccountable tightening of the heart, a few hot tears rise to their eyes, partly of joy, but partly too of regret.
Lord Hastings, the youngest and merries of the English party, guided the two Frenchmen toward the coffee-room, with many a jest in atrocious French and kindly words of encouragement, all intended to put the strangers at their ease.
Lord Anthony Dewhurst and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes - a trifle more serious and earnest, yet equally happy and excited at the success of their perilous adventure and at the prospect of reunion with their wives - lingered a moment longer in the hall, in order to speak with the sailors who had brought the luggage along.
"Do you know aught of Sir Percy?" Lord Tony asked.
"No, my lord," the sailor gave answer; "not since he went ashore early this morning. 'Er Ladyship was waitin' for 'im on the pier. Sir Percy just ran up the steps and then 'e shouted to us to get back quickly. 'Tell their lordships,' 'e says, 'I'll meet them at The Rest.' And then Sir Percy and 'er ladyship just walked off and we saw naun more of them."
"That was many hours ago," Sir Andrew Ffoulkes mused, with an inward smile. He too saw visions of meeting his pretty Suzanne very soon, and walking away with her into the land of dreams.
"'Twas just six o'clock when Sir Percy 'ad the boat lowered," the sailor rejoined. "And we rowed quick back after we landed 'im. but the Day-Dream, she 'ad to wait for the tie. We wurr a long while gettin' into port."
Sir Andrew nodded.
"You don't know," he said, "if the skipper had any further orders?"
"I don't know, sir," the man replied. "But we mun be in readiness always. No one knows when Sir Percy may wish to set sail again."
The two young men said nothing more, and presently the sailors touched their forelocks and went away. Lord Tony and Sir Andrew exchanged knowing smiles. They could easily picture to themselves their beloved chief, indefatigable, like a boy let out from school, exhilarated by the deadly danger through which he had once more passed unscathed, clasping his adored wife in his arms and wandering off with her, heaven knew whither, living his life of joy and love and happiness during the brief hours which his own indomitable energy, his reckless courage, accorded to the sentimental side of his complex nature.
Far too impatient to wait until the tide allowed the Day-Dream to get into port, he had been rowed ashore in the early dawn, and his beautiful Marguerite - punctual to the assignation conveyed to her by one of those mysterious means of which Percy alone knew the secret - was ready there to receive him, to forget in the shelter of his arms the days of racking anxiety and of cruel terror for her beloved through which she had again and again been forced to pass.
Neither Lord Tony nor Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, the Scarlet Pimpernel's most faithful and devoted lieutenants, begrudged their chief these extra hours of bliss, the while they were left in charge of the party so lately rescued from horrible death. They knew that within a day or two - withing a few hours, perhaps - Blakeney would tear himself away once more from the clinging embrace of his exquisite wife, from the comfort of luxury of an ideal home, from the adulation of friends, the pleasures of wealth and of fashion, in order mayhap to grovel in the squalor and filth of some outlandish corner of Pairs, where he could be in touch with the innocents who suffered - the poor, the terror-stricken victims of the merciless revolution. Within a few hours, mayhap, he would be risking his life again every moment of the day, in order to save some poor hunted fellow-creature - man, woman or child - from death that threatened them at the hands of inhuman monsters who knew neither mercy nor compunction.
And for the nineteen members of the League, they took it in turns to follow their leader where danger was thickest. It was a privilege eagerly sought, deserved by all, and accorded to those who were most highly trusted. It was invariably followed by a period of rest in happy England, with wife, friends, joy and luxury. Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Anthony Dewhurst and my lord Hastings had been of the expedition which brought Mme de Serval with her three children and Bertrand Moncrif safely to England, after adventures more perilous, more reckless of danger, than most. Within a few hours they would be free to forget in the embrace of clinging arms every peril and every adventure save the eternal one of love, free to forswear everything outside that, save their veneration for their chief and their loyalty to his cause.