No one, save a very few intimates, knew of the little nest wherein Sir Percy Blakeney and his lady hid their happiness on those occasions when the indefatigable Scarlet Pimpernel was only able to spend a few hours in England, and when a journey to their beautiful home in Richmond could not be thought of. The house - it was only a cottage, timbered and creeper-clad - lay about a mile and a half outside Dover, off the main road, perched up high on rising ground over a narrow lane. It had a small garden round it, which in May was ablaze with daffodils and bluebells, and in June with roses. Two faithful servants, a man and his wife, looked after the place, kept the nest cosy and warm whenever her ladyship weared of fashion, or else, actually expecting Sir Percy, would come down from London for a day or two in order to dream of that elusive and transient happiness for which her soul hungered, even while her indomitable spirit accepted the inevitable.
A few days ago the weekly courier from France had brought her a line from Sir Percy, together with the promise that she should rest in his arms on the 1st of May. And Marguerite had come down to the creeper-covered cottage knowing that, despite obstacles which might prove insuperable to others, Percy would keep his world.
She had stolen out at dawn to wait for him on the pier; and sure enough, as soon as the May-day sun, which had risen to-day in his glory as if to crown her brief happiness with warmth and radience, had dissipated the morning mist, her yearning eyes had spied the smart white gig which had put off from the Day-Dream leaving the graceful ship to await the turn of the tide before putting into port.
Since then, every moment of the day had been one of rapture. The first sight of her husband in his huge caped coat, which seemed to add further inches to his great height, his call of triumph when he saw her, his arms outstretched, there, far away in the small boat, with a gesture of such infinite longing that for a second or two tears obscured Marguerite's vision. Then the drawing up of the boat against the landing-stage; Percy's spring ashore; his voice, his look; the strength of his arms; the ardour of his embrace. Rapture, in truth, to which the thought of its brief duration alone lent a touch of bitterness.
But of parting again Marguerite would not think - not to-day, while the birds were singing a deafening paean of joy; not while the scent of growing grass, of moits, travailing earth, was in her nostrils; not while the sap was in the trees, and the gummy crimson buds of the chestnuts were bursting into leaf. Not while she wandered up the narrow lane between hedges of black-thorn in bloom, with Percy's arm around her, his loved voice in her ear, his merry laughter echoing through the sweet morning air.
After that, breakfast in the low, raftered room - the hot, savoury milk, the home-backed bread, the home-churned butter. Then the long, delicious, intimate talk of love, and of yearnings, of duty and of gallant deeds. Blakeney kept nothing secret from his wife; and what he did not tell her, that she easily guessed. But it was from the members of the League that she learned all there was to know of heroism and selflessness in the perilous adventures through which her husband passed with so lighthearted a gaiety.
"You should see me as an asthmatic reprobate, m'dear," he would say, with his infectious laugh. "And hear that cough! Lud love you, but I am mightily proud of that cough! Poor old Rateau does not do it better himself; and he is genuinely asthmatic."
He gave her an example of his prowess; but she would not allow him to go on. The sound was too weird, and conjured up visions which to-day she would fain forget.
"Rateau was a real find," he went on more seriously; "because he is three parts an imbecile and as obedient as a dog. When some of those devils are on my track, lo! the real Rateau appears and yours truly vanishes where no one can find him!"
"Pray God," she murmured involuntarily, "they never may!"
"They won't, m'dear, they won't!" he asserted with lighthearted conviction. "They have become so confused now between Rateau the coalheaver, the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, and the problematic English milor, that all three of these personalities can appear before their eyes and they will let 'em all escape! I assure you that the confusion between the Scarlet Pimpernel who was in the ante-chamber of Mother Théot on that fateful afternoon, and again at the Fraternal Supper in the Rue St. Honoré, and the real Rateau who was at Mother Théot's while that same exciting supper party was going on, was so great that not one of those murdering reprobates could trust his own eyes and ears, and that we got away as easily as rabbits out of a torn net."
Thus did he explain and laugh over the perilous adventure where he had faced a howling mob disguised as Rateau the coalheaver, and with almost superhuman pluck and boldness had dragged Mme de Serval and her children into the derelict house which was one of the League's headquarters. That is how he characterized the extraordinary feat of audacity when, in order to give his gallant lieutenants time to smuggle the unfortunates out of the house through a back and secret way, he showed himself on the balcony above the multitude, and hurled dummy figures into the brazier below.
Then came the story of Bertrand Moncrif, snatched half-unconscious out of the apartment of the fair Theresia Cabarrus, whilst Robespierre himself sat not half a dozen yards away, with only the thickness of a wall between him and his arch enemy.
"How the woman must hate you!" Marguerite murmured, with a slight shudder of acute anxiety which she did her best to conceal. "There are things that a woman like the Cabarrus will never forgive. Whether she cares for Bertrand Moncrif or no, her vanity will suffer intensely, and she will never forgive you for taking him out of her clutches."
"Lud, m'dear!" he said lightly. "If we were to take heed of all the people who hate us we should spend our lives pondering rather than doing. And all I want to ponder over," he added, whilst his glance of passionate earnestness seemed to envelop her like an exquisite warm mantle, "is your beauty, your eyes, the scent of your hair, the delicious flavour of your kiss!"
It was some hours later on that same glorious day, when the shadows of ash and chestnut lay right across the lane and the arms of evening folded the cosy nest in their mysterious embrace, that Sir Percy and Marguerite sat in the deep window-embrasure of the tiny living-room. He had thrown open wide the casements, and hand resting in hand, they watched the last ray of golden light lingering in the west and listened to the twitterings which came like tender "good nights" from the newly-built nests among the trees.
It was one of those perfect spring evenings, rare enough in northern climes, without a breath of wind, when every sound carries clear and sharp through the stillness around. The air was soft and slightly moist, with a tang in it of wakening life and of rising sap, and with the scent of wild narcissus and of wood violets rising like intoxizating incense to the nostrils. It was in truth one of those evening when happiness itself seems rudely out of place, and nature - exquisite, but so cruelly, transient in her loveliness - demands the tribute of gentle melancholy.
A thrust said something to its mate - something insistent and tender that lulled them both to rest. After that, Nature became quite still, and Marguerite, with a catch in her throat which she would have given much to suppress, laid her head upon her husband's breast.
Then it was that suddenly a man's voice, hoarse but distant, broke in upon the perfect peace around. What it said could not at first be gathered. It took some time ere Marguerite became sufficiently conscious of the disturbing noise to raise her head and listen. As for Sir Percy, he was wrapped in the contemplating of the woman he worshipped, and nothing short of an earthquake would have dragged him back to reality, had not Marguerite raised herself on her knees and quickly whispered:
The man's voice had been answered by a woman's raised as if in defiance that seemed both pitiful and futile.
"You cannot harm me now. I am in England!"
Marguerite leaned out of the window, tried to peer into the darkness which was fast gathering over the lane. The voices had come from there: first the man's, then the woman's, and now the man's again; both speaking in French, the woman obviously terrified and pleading, the man harsh and commanding. Now it was raised again, more incisive and distinct than before, and Marguerite had in truth some difficulty in repressing the cry that rose to her lips. She had recognized the man's voice.
"Chauvelin!" she murmured.
"Aye, in England, citoyenne!" that ominous voice went on drily. "But the arm of justice is long. And remember that you are not the first who has tried - unsuccessfully, let me tell you! - to evade punishment by flying to the enemies of France. Wherever you may hide, I will know how to find you. Have I not found you here, now? - and you but a few hours in Dover!"
"But you cannot touch me!" the woman protested with the courage of one in despair.
The man laughed.
"Are you really simple enough, citoyenne," he said, "to be convinced of that?"
This sarcastic retort was followed by a moment or two of silence, then by a woman's cry; and in an instant Sir Percy was on his feet and out of the house. Marguerite followed him as far as the porch, whence the sloping ground, aided by flagged steps here and there, led down to the gate and thence on to the lane.
It was close beside the gate that a human-looking bundle lay huddled, when Sir Percy came upon the scene, even whilst, some fifty yards away at the sharp bend of the lane, a man could be seen walking rapidly away, his pace wellnigh at a run. Sir Percy's instinct was for giving chase, but the huddle-up figure put out a pair of arms and clung to him so desperately, with smothered cries of: "For pity's sake, don't leave me!" that it would have been inhuman to go. And so he bent down, raised the human bundle from the ground, and carried it bodily up into the house.
Here he deposited his burden upon the window seat, where but a few moments ago he had been wrapped in the contemplation of Marguerite's eyelashes, and with his habitual quaint good-humour, said:
"I leave the rest to you, m'dear. My French is too atrocious for dealing with the case."
Marguerite understood the hint. Sir Percy, whose command of French was nothing short of phenomenal, never used the language save when engaged in his perilous undertakings. His perfect knowledge of every idiom would have set any ill-intentioned evesdropper thinking.
The human bundle looked very pathetic lying there upon the window seat, propped up with cushions. it appeared to be a youth, dressed in rough fisherman's clothes and with a cap that fitted tightly round the head; but with hands delicate as a woman's and a face of exquisite beauty.
Without another word, Marguerite quietly took hold of the cap and gently removed it. A wealth of blue-black hair fell like a cascade over the recumbent shoulders. "I thought as much!" Sir Percy remarked quietly, even whilst the stranger, apparently terrified, jumped up and burst into tears, moaning piteously:
"Oh, mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Sainte Vierge, protégez-moi!"
There was nothing to do but to wait; and anon the first paroxysm of grief and terror passed. The stranger, with a wry little smile, took the handkerchief which Lady Blakeney was holding out to her and proceeded to dry her tears. Then she looked up at the kind Samaritans who had befriended her.
"I am an impostor, I know," she said, with lips that quivered like those of a child in grief. "But if you only knew...!"
She sat bolt upright now, squeezing and twirling the wet handkerchief between her fingers.
"Some kind English gentlemen were good to me, down in the town," she went on more glibly. "They gave me food and shelter, and I was left alone to rest. But I felt stifled in the narrow room. I could hear every one talking and laughing, and the evening air was so beautiful. So I ventured out. I only meant to breathe a little fresh air; but it was all so lovely, so peaceful... here in England... so different to..."
She shuddered a little and looked as if she was going to cry again. But Marguerite interposed gently:
"So you prolonged your walk, and found this lane?"
"Yes. I prolonged my walk," the woman replied. "I did not notice that the road had become lonely. Then suddenly I realized that I was being followed, and I ran. Mon Dieu, how I ran! Whither, I knew not! I just felt that something horrible was at my heels!"
Her eyes, dilated with terror, looked as black as sloes. They were fixed upon Marguerite, never once raised on Sir Percy, who, standing some way apart from the two women, was looking down on them, silent and apparently unmoved.
The stranger shuddered again; her face was almost grey in its expression of fear, and her lips seemed quite bloodless. Marguerite gave her trembling hands an encouraging pat.
"It was lucky," she said gently, "that you found your way here."
"I had seen the light," the woman continued more calmly. "And I believe that at the back of my mind there was the instinct to run for shelter. Then suddenly my foot knocked against a stone, and I fell. I tried to raise myself quickly, but I had not the time, for the next moment I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice - oh, a voice I dread, citoyenne! - called to me by name."
"The voice of citizen Chauvelin?" Marguerite asked simply.
The woman looked up quickly.
"You knew-?" she murmured.
"I knew his voice."
"But you know him?" the other insisted.
"I know him - yes," Marguerite replied. "I am a compatriot of yours. Before I married, I was Marguerite St. Just."
"We are cousins, my brother and I, of the young deputy, the friend of Robespierre."
"God help you!" the woman murmured.
"He has done so already, by bringing us both to England. My brother is married, and I am Lady Blakeney now. You too will feel happy and safe now that you are here."
"Happy?" the woman ejaculated, with a piteous sob. "And safe? Mon Dieu, if only I could think it!"
"But what have you to fear? Chauvelin may have retained some semblance of power over in France. He has none over here."
"He hates me!" the other murmured. "Oh, how he hates me!"
The stranger made no immediate reply. Her eyes, dark as the night, glowing and searching, seemed to read the very soul behind Marguerite's serene brow. Then after awhile she went on, with seeming irrelevance:
"It all began so foolishly!... mon Dieu, how foolishly! And I really meant nothing treacherous to my own country - nothing unpatriotic, quoi?" she suddenly seized Marguerite's two hands and exclaimed with childlike enthusiasm: "You have heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel, have you not?"
"Yes," Marguerite replied. I have heard of him."
"You know then that he is the finest, bravest, most wonderful man in all the world?"
"Yes, I know that," Marguerite assented with a smile.
"Of course, in France they hate him. Naturally! He is the enemy of the republic, quoi? He is against all those massacres, the persecution of the innocent. He saves them and helps them when he can. So they hate him. Naturally."
"But I have always admired him," the woman continued, enthusiasm glowing in her dark eyes. "Always; always! Ever since I heard what he had done, and how he saved the Comte de Tournay, and Juliette Marny, and Esther Vincent, and - and countless others. Oh, I knew about them all! For I knew Chauvelin well, and one or two of the men on the Committee of Public Safety quite intimately, and I used to worm out of them all the true facts about the Scarlet Pimpernel. Can you wonder that with my whole soul I admired him? I worshipped him! I could have laid down my life to help him! He has been the guiding star of my dreary life - my hero and my king!"
She paused, and those deep, dark eyes of her were fixed straight out before her, as if in truth she beheld the hero of her dreams. There was a glow now in her cheeks, and her marvellous hair fell like a sable mantle around her, framing the perfect oval of the face and enhancing by vivid contrast the creamy whiteness of chin and throat and the rose-like bloom that had spread over her face. Indeed, this was an exquisitely beautiful creature, and Marguerite, herself one of the loveliest women of her time, was carried away by genuine, wholehearted admiration for the stranger, as well as by her enthusiasm, which, in very truth, seeing its object, was a perfectly natural feeling.
"So now," the woman concluded, coming back to the painful realities of life with a shudder, which extinguished the light in her eyes and took all the glow out of her cheeks, "so now you understand perhaps why Chauvelin hates me!"
"You must have been rather indiscreet," Marguerite remarked with a smile.
"I was, I suppose. And Chauvelin is so vindictive. He hates the Scarlet Pimpernel. Out of a few words, foolishly spoken perhaps, he has made out a case against me. A friend gave me warning. My name was already in the hands of Foucquier-Tinville. You know what that means! Perquisition! Arrest! Judgment! Then the guillotine! Oh, mon Dieu! And I had done nothing! - nothing! I fled out of Paris. An influential friend just contrived to arrange this for me. A faithful servant accompanied me. We reached Boulogne. How, I know not! I was so weak, so ill, so wretched, I hardly lived. I just allowed François - that was my servant - to take me whithersoever he wished. But we had no passports, no papers - nothing! And Chauvelin was on our track. We had to hide - in barns... in pig-styes... anywhere! But we reached Boulogne at last... I had some money, fortunately. We bribed a fisherman to let us have his boat. Only a small boat - imagine! A rowing boat! And François and I alone in it! But it meant our lives if we didn't go; and perhaps it meant our lives if we went! A rowing boat on the great, big sea!... Fortunately the weather was fine, and François lifted me into the boat. And I just remember seeing the coast of France receding, receding, receding - farther and farther from me. I was so tired. It is possible that I slept. Then suddenly something woke me. I was wide awake. I had heard a cry. I knew I had heard a cry, and then a splash - an awful splash! I was wet through. One oar hung in the rowlock; the other had gone. And François was not there. I was all alone."
She spoke in hard, jerky sentences, as if every word hurt her physically as she uttered it. For the most part she was looking down on her hands, that twitched convulsively and twisted the tiny wet handkerchief into a ball. But now and again she looked up, not at Marguerite always, rather at Sir Percy. Her glowing, tear-wet eyes fastened themselves on him from time to time with an appealing or a defiant gaze. He appeared silent and sympathetic, and his glance rested on her the whole while that she spoke, with an expression of detached if kindly interest, as if he did not quite understand everything that she said. Marguerite as usual was full of tenderness and compassion.
"How terribly you must have suffered!" she said gently. "But what happened after that?"
"Oh, I don't know! I don't know!" the poor woman resumed. "I was too numbed, too dazed with horror and fear, to suffer very much. The boat drifted on, I suppose. It was a beautiful, calm night. And the moon was lovely. You remember the moon last night?"
"But I remember nothing after... after that awful cry... and the splash! I suppose my poor François fainted or fell asleep... and that he fell into the water. I never saw him again.... And I remember nothing until - until I found myself on board a ship with a lot of rough sailors around me, who seemed very kind.... They brought me ashore and took me to a nice warm place, where some English gentlemen took compassion on me. And... and... I have already told you the rest."
She leaned back against the cushions of the seat as if exhausted with the prolonged effort. Her hands seemed quite cold now, almost blue, and Marguerite rose and closed the window behind her.
"How kind and thoughtful you are!" the stranger exclaimed, and after a moment added with a weary sigh, "I must not trespass any longer on your kindness. It is late now, and... I must go."
She struggled to her feet, rose with obvious reluctance.
"The inn where I was," she said, "it is not far?"
"But you cannot go out alone," Marguerite reckoned. "You do not even know the way!"
"Ah, no! But perhaps your servant could accompany me... only as far as the town.... After that I can ask the way... I should no longer be frightened."
"You speak English then, Madame?"
"Oh, yes! My father was a diplomat. He was in England once for four years. I learned a little English. I have not forgotten it."
"One of the servants shall certainly go with you. The inn you speak of must be The Fisherman's Rest, since you found English gentlemen there."
"If Madame will allow me?" Sir Percy broke in, for the first time since the stranger had embarked upon her narrative.
The stranger looked up at him with a half-shy, half-eager smile.
"You, milor!" she exclaimed. "Oh no! I would be ashamed-"
She paused, and her cheeks became crimson whilst she looked down in utter confusion on her extraordinary attire.
"I had forgotten," she murmured tearfully. "François made me put on these awful clothes when we left Paris."
"Then I must lend you a cloak for to-night," Marguerite interposed with a smile. "But you need not mind your clothes, Madame. On this coast our people are used to seeing unfortunate fugitives landing in every sort of quise. To-morrow we must find you something wherein to travel to London."
"To London?" the stranger said with some eagerness. "Yes! I would wish to go to London."
"It will be quite easy. Mme de Serval, with her son and two daughters and another friend, is travelling by the coach to-morrow. You could join them, I am sure. Then you would not be alone. You have money, Madame?" Marguerite concluded, with practical solicitude.
"Oh, yes!" the other replied. "I have plenty for present needs... in a wallet... under my clothes. I was able to collect a little - and I have not lost it. I am not dependent," she added, with a smile of gratitude. "And as soon as I have found my husband-"
"Your husband?" Marguerite exclaimed.
"M. le Marquis de Fontenay," the other answered simply. "Perhaps you know him. You have seen him... in London?... Not?"
Marguerite shook her head.
"Not to my knowledge."
"He left me - two years ago... cruelly... emigrated to England... and I was left alone in the world.... He saved his own life by running away from France; but I - I could not go just then... and so..."
She seemed on the verge of breaking down again, then recovered herself and continued more quietly:
"That was my idea, you see; to find my husband one day. Now a cruel Fate has forced me to fly from France; so I thought I would go to London and perhaps some kind friends will help me to find M. de Fontenay. I have never ceased to love him, though he was so cruel. And I think that... perhaps... he also has not quite forgotten me."
"That were impossible," Marguerite rejoined gently. "But I have friends in London who are in touch with most of the emigrés here. We will see what can be done. It will not be difficult, methinks, to find M. de Fontenay."
"You are an angel, milady!" the stranger exclaimed; and with a gesture that was perfect in its suggestion of gracious humility, she took Marguerite's hand and raised it to her lips. Then she once more mopped her eyes, picked up her cap and hastily hid the wealth of her hair beneath it. After which, she turned to Sir Percy.
"I am ready, milor," she said. "I have intruded far too long as it is upon your privacy.... But I am not brave enough to refuse your escort. Milady, forgive me! I will walk fast, very fast, so that milor will return to you very soon!"
She wrapped herself up in a cloak which, at Lady Blakeney's bidding, one of the servants had brought her, and a moment or two later the stranger and Sir Percy were out of the house, whilst Marguerite remained for awhile on the porch, listening to their retreating footsteps.
There was a frown of puzzement between her brows, a look of troubled anxiety in her eyes. Somehow, the brief sojourn of that strange and beautiful woman in her house had filled her soul with a vague feeling of dread, which she tried vainly to combat. There was no real suspicion against the woman in her heart - how could there be? - but she - Marguerite - who as a rule was so compassionate, so understanding of those misfortunes, to alleviate which Sir Percy was devoting his entire life, felt cold and unresponsive in this case - most unaccountably so. Mme de Fontenay's story differed but little in all its grim detail of misery and humiliation from the thousand and one other similar tales which had been poured for the past three years into her sympathetic ear. She had always understood, had always been ready to comfort and to help. But this time she felt very much as if she had come across a sick or wounded reptile, something weak and dumb and helpless, and yet withal unworthy of compassion.
However, Marguerite Blakeney was surely not the woman to allow such fancies to dry the well of her pity. The gallant Scarlet Pimpernel was not wont to pause in his errands of mercy in order to reflect whether the objects of his selfless immolation were worthy of it or no. So Marguerite, with a determined little sigh, chided herself for her disloyalty and cowardice, and having dried her tears she went within.