For the first five minutes, Sir Percy Blakeney and Madame de Fontenay walked side by side in silence. Then she spoke.
"You are silent, milor?" she queried, speaking in perfect English.
"I was thinking," he replied curtly.
"What a remarkably fine actress is lost in the fashionable Theresia Cabarrus."
"Madame de Fontenay, I pray you, milor," she retorted drily.
"Theresia Cabarrus nevertheless. Madame Tallien probably to-morrow: for Madame divorced that weak-kneed marquis as soon as the lay 'contre les emigrés' allowed her to regain her freedom."
"You seem very well informed, milor."
"Almost as well as Madame herself," he riposted with a pleasant laugh.
"Then you do not believe my story?"
"Not one word of it!" he replied.
"Strange!" she mused. "For every word of it is true."
"Demmed strange!" he assented.
"Of course, I did not tell all," she went on, with sudden vehemence. "I could not. My lady would not understand. She has become - what shall I say? - very English. Marguerite St. Just would understand... Lady Blakeney - no?"
"What would Lady Blakeney not understand?"
"Eh bien! About Bertrand Moncrif."
"You think I did harm to the boy... I know... you took him away from me... You! The Scarlet Pimpernel!... You see, I know! I know everything! Chauvelin told me..."
"And guided you most dexterously to my door," he concluded with a pleasant laugh. "There to enact a delicious comedy of gruff-voiced bully and pathetic victim of merciless persecution. It was all excellently done! Allow me to offer you my sincere congratulations!"
She said nothing for a moment or two, then queried abruptly:
"You think that I am here in order to spy upon you?"
"Oh!" he riposted lightly, "how could I be so presumptuous as to suppose that the beautiful Cabarrus would bestow attention on so unworthy an object as I?"
"'Tis you now, milor," she rejoined drily, "who choose to play a rôle. A truce on it, I pray you; and rather tell me what you mean to do."
To this query he gave no reply, and his silence appeared to grate on Theresia's nerves, for she went on harshly:
"You will betray me to the police, of course. And as I am here without papers-"
He put up his hand with that gently deprecating gesture which was habitual to him.
"Oh!" he said, with his quiet little laugh, "why should you thin I would do anything so unchivalrous?"
"Unchivalrous?" she retorted with a pathetic sigh of weariness. "I suppose, here in England, it would be called an act of patriotism or self-preservation... like fighting an enemy... or denouncing a spy-"
She paused a moment or two, and as he once more took refuge in silence, she resumed with sudden, moving passion:
"So it is to be a betrayal after all! The selling of an unfortunate woman to her bitterest enemy! Oh, what wrong have I ever done you, that you should persecute me thus?"
"Persecute you?" he exclaimed. "Pardi, Madame; but this is a subtle joke which by your leave my dull wits are unable to fathom."
"It is no joke, milor," she rejoined earnestly. "Will you let me explain? For indeed it seems to me that we are at cross purposes, you and I."
She came to a halt, and he perforce had to do likewise. They had come almost to the end of the little lane; a few yards farther on it debouched on the main road. Beyond that, the lights of Dover Town and the Harbour lights glinted in the still, starry night. Behind them the lane, sunk between grassy slopes and overhung by old elms of fantastic shapes, appeared dark and mysterious. But here, where they stood, the moon shed its full radiance on the broad highway, the clump of copper beeches over on the left, that tiny cottage with its thatched roof nestling at the foot of the cliff; and far away, on the picturesque mass of Dover Castle, the church and towers. Every bit of fencing, every tiny twig in the hawthorn hedges, stood out clear cut, sharp like metal in the cold, searching light. Theresia - divinely slender and divinely tall, graceful despite the rough masculine clothes which she wore - stood boldly in the full light; the tendrils of her jet black hair were gently stirred by an imperceptible breeze, her eyes, dark and luminous, were fixed upwards at the man whom she had set out to subjugate.
"That boy," she went on quite gently, "Bertrand Moncrif, was just a young fool. But I liked him, and I could see the abyss to which his folly was tending. There was never anything but friendship between us; but I knew that sooner or later he would run his head into a noose, and then what good would his pasty-faced sweetheart have been to him? Whilst I - I had friends, influence - quoi? And I liked the boy; I was sorry for him. Then the catastrophe came... the other night. There was what those ferocious beasts over in Paris were pleased to call a Fraternal Supper. Bertrand Moncrif was there. Like a young food, he started to vilify Robespierre - Robespierre, who is the idol of France! There! - in the very midst of the crowd! They would have torn him limb from limb, it seems. I don't know just what happened, for I wasn't there; but he came to my apartment - at midnight - dishevelled - his clothes torn - more dead than alive. I gave him shelter; I tended him. Yes, I! - even whilst Robespierre and his friends were in my house, and I risked my life every moment that Bertrand was under my roof! Chauvelin suspected something then. Oh, I knew it! Those awful pale, deep-set eyes of his seemed to be searching my soul all the time! At which precise moment you came and took Bertrand away, I know not. But Chauvelin knew. He saw - he saw, I tell you! He had not been with us the whole time, but in and out of the apartment on some pretext or other. Then, after the others had left, he came back, accused me of having harboured not only Bertrand, but the Scarlet Pimpernel himself! -swore that I was in league with the English spies and had arranged with them to smuggle my lover out of the house. Then he went away. He did not threaten. You know him as well as I do. Threatening is not his way. But from his look I knew that I was doomed. Luckily I had François. We packed up my few belongings then and there. I left my woman Pepita in charge, and I fled. As for the rest, I swear to you that it all happened just as I told it to milady. You say you do not believe me. Very well! Will you then take me away from this sheltered land, which I have reached after terrible sufferings? Will you send me back to France, and drive me to the arms of a man who but waits to throw me into the tumbril with the next batch of victims for the guillotine? You have the power to do it, of course. You are in England; you are rich, influential, a power in your own country; whilst I am an alien, a political enemy, a refugee, penniless and friendless. You can do with me what you will, of course. But if you do that, milor, my blood will stain your hands for ever; and all the good you and your League have ever done in the cause of humanity will be wiped out by this execrable crime."
She spoke very quietly and with soul-moving earnestness. So was also exquisitely beautiful. Sir Percy Blakeney had been more than human if he had been proof against such an appeal, made by such perfect lips. Nature itself spoke up for Theresia: the softness and stillness of the night; the starlit sky and the light of the moon; the sent of wood violets and of wet earth, and the patter of tiny, mysterious feet in the hedgegrows. And the man whose whole life was consecrated to the relief of suffering humanity and whose ears were for ever strained to hear the call of the weak and of the innocent - he could far, far sooner have believed that this beautiful woman was speaking the truth, rather than allow his instinct of suspicion, his keen sense of what was untrustworthy and dangerous, to steel his heart against her appeal.
But whatever his thoughts might be, when she paused, wearied and shaken with sobs which she vainly tried to suppress, he spoke to her quite gently.
"Believe me, dear lady," he said, "that I had no thought of wronging you when I owned to disbelieving your story. I have seen so many strange things in the course of my chequered career that, in verity, I ought to know by now how unbelievable truth often appears."
"Had you known me better, milor-" she began.
"Ah, that is just it!" he rejoined quaintly. "I did not know you, Madame. And now, meseems, that Fate has intervened, and that I shall never have the chance of knowing you."
"How is that?" she asked.
But to this he gave to immediate answer, suggested irrelevantly:
"Shall we walk on? It is getting late."
She gave a little cry, as if startled out of a dream, then started to walk by his side with her long, easy stride, so full of sinuous grave. They went on in silence for awhile, down the main road now. Already they had passed the first group of town houses, and The Running Footman, which is the last inn outside the town. There was only the High Street now to follow and the Old Place to cross, and The Fisherman's Rest would be in sight.
"You have not answered my question, milor," Theresia said presently.
"What question, Madame?" he asked.
"I asked you how Fate could intervene in the matter of our meeting again."
"Oh!" he retorted simply. "You are staying in England, you tell me."
"If you will deign to grant me leave," she said, with gentle submission.
"It is not in my power to grant or to refuse."
"You will not betray me - to the police?"
"I have never betrayed a woman in my life."
"Or to Lady Blakeney?"
He made no answer.
"Or to Lady Blakeney?" she insisted.
Then, as he still gave no answer, she began to plead with passionate earnestness.
"What could she gain - or you - by her knowing that I am that unfortunate, homeless waif, without kindred and without friends, Theresia Cabarrus - the beautiful Cabarrus! - once the fiancée of the great Tallien, now suspect of trafficking with her country's enemies in France... and suspect of being a suborned spy in England!... My God, where am I to go? What am I to do? Do not tell Lady Blakeney, milor! On my knees I entreat you, do not tell her! She will hate me - fear me - despise me! Oh, give me a chance to be happy! Give me - a chance - to be happy!"
Again she had paused and placed her hand on his arm. Once more she was looking up at him, her eyes glistening with tears, her full red lips quivering with emotion. And he returned her appealing, pathetic glance for a moment or two in silence; then suddenly, without any warning, he threw back his head and laughed.
"By Gad!" he exclaimed. "But you are a clever woman!"
"Milor!" she protested, indignant.
"Nay: you need have no fear, fair one! I am a lover of sport. I'll not betray you."
She frowned, really puzzled this time.
"I do not understand," she murmured.
"Let us get back to The Fisherman's Rest," he retorted with characteristic irrelevance. "Shall we?"
"Milor," she insisted, "will you explain?"
"There is nothing to explain, dear lady. You have asked me - nay! challenged me - not to betray you to anyone, not even to Lady Blakeney. Very well! I accept your challenge. That is all."
"You will not tell anyone - anyone, mind you! - that Mme de Fontenay and Theresia Cabarrus are one and the same?"
"You have my word for that."
She drew a scarce perceptible sigh of relief.
"Very well then, milor," she rejoined. "Since I am allowed to go to London, we shall meet there, I hope."
"Scarcely, dear lady," he replied, "since I go to France to-morrow."
This time she gave a little gasp, quickly suppressed - for she hoped milor had not noticed.
"You go to France to-morrow, milor?" she asked.
"As I had the honour to tell you, I go to France to-morrow, and I leave you a free hand to come and go as you please."
She chose not to notice the taunt; but suddenly, as if moved by an uncontrollable impulse, she said resolutely:
"If you go, I shall go too."
"I am sure you will, dear lady," he retorted with a smile. "So there really is no reason why we should linger here. Our mutual friend M. Chauvelin must be impatient to hear the result of this interview."
She gave a cry of horror and indignation.
"Oh! You - you still think that of me?"
He stood there, smiling, looking down on her with that half-amused, lazy glance of his. He did not actually say anything, but she felt that she had her answer. With a moan of pain, like a child who has been badly hurt, she turned abruptly, and burying her face in her hands she sobbed as if her heart would break. Sir Percy waited quietly for a moment or two, until the first paroxysm of grief had quieted down, and he said gently:
"Madame, I entreat you to compose yourself and to dry your tears. If I have wronged you in my thoughts, I humbly crave your pardon. I pray you to understand that when a man holds human lives in his hands, when he is responsible for the life and safety of those who trust in him, he must be doubly cautious and in his turn trust no one. You have said yourself that now at last in this game of life and death, which I and my friends have played so successfully these last three years, I hold the losing cards. Then must I watch every trick all the more closely, for a sound player can win through the mistakes of his opponent, even if he hold a losing hand."
But she refused to be comforted.
"You will never know, milor - never - how deeply you have wounded me," she said through her tears. "And I, who for months past - ever since I knew! - have dreamed of seeing the Scarlet Pimpernel one day! He was the hero of my dreams, the man who stood alone in the mass of self-seeking, vengeful, cowardly humanity as the personification of all that was fine and chivalrous. I longed to see him - just once - to hold his hand - to look into his eyes - and feel a better woman for the experience. Love? It was not love I felt, but hero-worship, pure as one's love for a starlit night or a spring morning, or a sunset over the hills. I dreamed of the Scarlet Pimpernel, milor; and because of my dreams, which were too vital for perfect discretion, I had to flee from home, suspected, vilified, already condemned. Chance brings me face to face with the hero of my dreams, and he looks on me as that vilest thing on earth: a spy! - a woman who could lie to a man first and send him afterwards to his death!"
Her voice, though more passionate and intense, had nevertheless become more steady. She had at last succeeded in controlling her tears. Sir Percy had listened - quite quietly, as was his wont - to her strange words. There was nothing that he could say to this beautiful woman who was so ingenuously avowing her love for him. It was a curious situation, and in truth he did not relish it - would have given quite a great deal to see it end as speedily as possible. Theresia, fortunately, was gradually gaining the mastery over her own feelings. She dried her eyes, and after a moment or two, of her own accord, she started once more on her way.
Nor did they speak again with one another until they were under the porch of The Fisherman's Rest. Then Theresia stopped, and with a perfectly simple gesture she held out her hand to Sir Percy.
"We may never meet again on this earth, milor," she said quietly. "Indeed, I shall pray to le bon Dieu to keep me clear of your path."
He laughed good-humouredly.
"I very much doubt, dear lady," he said, "that you will be in earnest when you utter that prayer!"
"You choose to suspect me, milor; and I'll no longer try to combat your mistrust. But to one more word you must listen: Remember the fable of the lion and the mouse. The invincible Scarlet Pimpernel might one day need the help of Theresia Cabarrus. I would wish you to believe that you can always count on it."
She extended her hand to him, and he took it, the while his inveterately mocking glance challenged her earnest one. After a moment or two he stooped and kissed her finger-tips.
"Let me rather put it differently, dear lady," he said. "One day the exquisite Theresia Cabarrus - the Egeria of the Terrorists, the fiancée of the Great Tallien - might need the help of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"I would sooner die than seek your help, milor," she protested earnestly.
"Here in Dover, perhaps... but in France?... And you said you were going back to France, in spite of Chauvelin and his pale eyes, and his suspicions of you."
"Since you think so ill of me," she retorted, "why should you offer me your help?"
"Because," he replied lightly, "with the exception of my friend Chauvelin, I have never had so amusing an enemy; and if would afford me intense satisfaction to render you a signal service."
"You mean, that you would risk your life to save mine?"
"No. I should not risk my life, dear lady," he said with his puzzling smile. "But I should - God help me! - do my best, if the need arose, to save yours."
After which, with another ceremonious bow, he took final leave of her, and she was left standing there, looking after his tall, retreating figure until the turn of the street hid him from view.
Who could have fathomed her thoughts and feelings at that moment? No one, in truth; not even herself. Theresia Cabarrus had met many men in her day, subjugated and fooled not a few. But she had never met anyone like this before. At one moment she had thought she had him: he appeared moved, serious, compassionate, gave her his word that he would not betray her; and in that word, her unerring instinct - the instinct of the adventuress, the woman who succeeds by her wits as well by her charm - told her that she could trust. Did he fear her, or did he not? Did he suspect her? Theresia could not say. She had no experience of such men. As for the word "sport," she hardly knew its meaning; and yet he had talked of not betraying her because he was "a lover of sport"! It was all very puzzling; very mysterious.
For a long while she remained standing in the porch. From the square bay window on her right came the sound of laughter and chatter, issuing from the coffee-room, whilst one or two noisy groups of sailors and their girls passed her by, singing and laughing, down the street. But in the porch, where she stood, the noisy world appeared distant, as if she were alone in one of her own creation. She could, just by closing her eyes and ears to the life around her, imagine she could still hear the merry, lazy, drawling voice of the man she had set out to punish. She could still see his tall figure and humorous face, with those heavy eyes that lit up now and again with a strange, mysterious light, and the firm lips every ready to break into a smile. She could still see the man who so loved sport that he swore not to betray her, and risked the chance, in his turn, of falling into a trap.
Well! he had defied and insulted her. The letter which he left for her after he had smuggled Bertrand Moncrif out of her apartment, rankled and stung her pride as nothing had ever done before. Therefore the man must be punished, and in a manner that would leave no doubt in his mind as to whence came the blow that struck him. But it was all going to be very much more difficult than the beautiful Theresia Cabarrus had allowed herself to believe.