It was a thoughtful Theresia who turned into the narrow hall of The Fisherman's Rest a few moments later. The inn, when she left it earlier in the evening, had still been all animation and bustle consequent on the arrival of their lordships with the party of ladies and gentlemen over from France, and the excitement of making all these grand folk comfortable for the night. Theresia Cabarrus, in her disguise as a young stowaway, had only aroused passing interest - refugees of every condition and degree were frequent enough in these parts - and when awhile ago she had slipped out in order to enact the elaborate rôle devised by her and Chauvelin, she had done so unperceived. Since then, no doubt there had been one or two cursory questions about the mysterious stowaway, who had been left to feed and rest in the tiny living-room; but equally no doubt, interest in him waned quickly when it was discovered that he had gone, without as much as thanking those who had befriended him.
The travellers from France had long since retired to their rooms, broken with fatigue after the many terrible experiences they had gone through. The young English gallants had gone, either to friends in the neighbourhood or - in the case of Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Anthony Dewhurst - ridden away in the early part of the evening, so as to reach Ashford mayhap or Maidstone before nightfall, and thus lessen the distance which still separated them from the loved ones at home.
A good deal of noise and laughter was still issuing from the coffee-room. Through the glass door Theresia could see the habitués of The Fisherman's Rest - yokels and fisherfolk - sitting over their ale, some of them playing cards or throwing dice. Mine host was there too, engaged as usual in animated discussion with some privileged guests who sat in the ingle-nook.
Theresia slipped noiselessly past the glass door. Straight in front of her a second passage ran at right angles; two or three steps led up to it. She tip-toed up these, and then looked about her, trying to reconstruct in her mind the disposition of the various rooms. On her left a glass partition divided the passage from the small parlour wherein she had found shelter on her arrival. On her right the passage obviously led to the kitchen, for much noise of crockery and shrill feminine voices and laughter came from there.
For a moment Theresia hesitated. Her original intention had been to find Mistress Waite and see if a bed for the night were still available; but a slight noise or movement issuing from the parlour caused her to turn. She peeped through the glass partition. The room was dimly lighted by a small oil-lamp which hung from the ceiling. A fire still smouldered in the hearth, and beside it, sitting on a low stool staring into the embers, his hands held between his knees, was Bertrand Moncrif.
Theresia Cabarrus had some difficulty in smothering the cry of surprise which had risen to her throat. Indeed, for the moment she thought that the dim light and her own imaginative fancy was playing her a fantastic trick. The next, she had opened the door quite noiselessly and slipped into the room. Bertrand had not moved. Apparently he had not heart; or if he had cursorily glanced up, he had disdained to notice the roughly clad fellow who was disturbing his solitude. Certain it is that he appeared absorbed in gloomy meditations; whilst Theresia, practical and deliberate, drew the curtains together that hung in front of the glass partition, and thus made sure that intruding eyes could not catch her unawares. Then she murmured softly:
He woke as from a dream, looked up and saw her. He passed a shaking hand once or twice across his forehead, then suddenly realized that she was actually there, near him, in the flesh. A hoarse cry escaped him, and the next moment he was down on his knees at her feet, his arms around her, his face buried in the folds of her mantle.
Everything - anxiety, sorrow, even surprise - was forgotten in the joy of seeing her. He was crying like a child, and murmuring her name in the intervals of covering her knees, her hands, her feet in their rough boots with kisses. She stood there, quite still, looking down on him, yielding her hands to his caresses. Around her full red lips there was an undefinable smile; but the light in her eyes was certainly one of triumph.
After awhile he rose, and she allowed him to lead her to an arm-chair by the hearth. She sat down, and he knelt at her feet with one arm around her waist, and his head against her breast. He had never in his life been quite so exquisitely happy. This was not the imperious Theresia, impatient and disdainful, as she had been of late - cruel even sometimes, as on that last evening when he thought he would never see her again. It was the Theresia in the early days in Paris, when first she came back from Bordeaux, with a reputation for idealism as well as for beauty and wit, and with a gracious acceptance of his homage which had completely subjugated him.
She insisted on hearing every detail of his escape out of Paris and out of France, under the protection of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. In truth, he did not know who his rescuer was. He remembered by little of that awful night when, after the terrible doings at the Fraternal Supper, he had sought refuge in her apartment and then realized that, like a criminal and selfish fool, he was compromising her precious life by remaining under her roof.
He had resolved to go as soon as he was able to stand - resolved if need be to give himself up at the nearest Poste de Section, when in a semi-conscious state he became aware that some one was in the room with him. He had not the time or the power to rouse himself and to look about, when a cloth was thrown over his face and he felt himself lifted off the chair bodily and carried away by powerful arms, whither he knew not.
After that, a great deal had happened - it all seemed indeed like a dream. At one time he was with Régine de Serval in a coach, at others with her brother Jacques, in a hut at night, lying on straw, trying to get some sleep, and tortured with thoughts of Theresia and fear for her safety. There were halts and delays, and rushes through the night. He himself was quite dazed, felt like a puppet that was dragged hither and thither in complete unconsciousness. Régine was constantly with him. She did her best to comfort him, would try to wile away the weary hours in the coach or in various hiding-places by holding his hand and talking of the future - the happy future in England, when they would have a home of their own, secure from the terrors of the past two years, peaceful in complete oblivion of the cruel past. Happy and peaceful! My God! As if there could be any happiness or peace for him, away from the woman he worshipped!
Theresia listened to the tale, for the most part in silence. From time to time she would stroke his hair and forehead with her cool, gentle hand. She did ask one or two questions, but these chiefly on the subject of his rescuer: Had he seen him? Had he seen any of the English gentlemen who effected his escape?
Oh, yes! Bertrand saw a good deal of the three or four young gallants who accompanied him and the party all the way from Paris. He only saw the last of them here, in this inn, a few hours ago. One of them gave him some money to enable him to reach London in comfort. They were very kind, entirely unselfish. Mme de Serval, Régine, and the others were overwhelmed with gratitude, and oh, so happy! Joséphine and Jacques had forgotten all about their duty to their country in their joy at finding themselves united and safe in this new land.
But the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, Theresia insisted, trying to conceal her impatience under a veneer of tender solicitude - had Bertrand seen him?
"No!" Bertrand replied. "I never once set eyes on him, though it was he undoubtedly who dragged me helpless out of your apartment. The others spoke of him - always as 'the chief.' They seemed to reverence him. He must be fine and brave. Régine and her mother and the two young ones have learned to worship him. Small wonder! seeing what he did for them at that awful Fraternal Supper."
"What did he do?" Theresia queried.
And the story had to be told by Bertrand, just as he had had it straight from Régine. The asthmatic coal-heaver - the quarrel - Robespierre's arrival on the scene - the shouts - the mob. The terror of that awful giant who had dragged them into the empty house, and there left them in the care of others scarce less brave than himself. Then the disguises - the wanderings through the streets - the deathly anxiety at the gates of the city - the final escape in a laundry cart. Miracles of self-abnegation! Wonders of ingenuity and of daring! What wonder that the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel was one to be revered!
"On my knees will I pay homage to him," Bertrand concluded fervently; "since he brought you to my arms!'
She had him by the shoulders, held him from her at arm's length, whilst she looked - inquiring, slightly mocking - into his eyes.
"Brought me to your arms, Bertrand?" she said slowly. "What do you mean?"
"You are here, Theresia," he riposted. "Safe in England... through the agency of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
She gave a hard, mirthless laugh.
"Aye!" she said drily; "through his agency. But not as you imagine, Bertrand."
"What do you mean?"
"The Scarlet Pimpernel, my friend, after he had dragged you away from the shelter which you had found under my roof, sent an anonymous denunciation of me to the nearest Roste de Section, as having harboured the traitor Moncrif and conspiring with him to assassinate Robespierre whilst the latter was in my apartment."
Bertrand uttered a cry of horror.
"Impossible!" he exclaimed.
"The chief Commissary of the Section," she went on glibly, earnestly - never taking her eyes off his, "at risk of his life, gave me warning. Aided by him and a faithful servant, I contrived to escape - out of Paris first, then across country in the amidst of unspeakable misery, and finally out of the country into an open boat, until I was picked up by a chance vessel and brought to this inn more dead than alive."
She fell back against the cushion of the chair, her sinuous body shaken with sobs. Bertrand, speechless with horror, could but try and soothe his beloved as she had soothed him a while ago, when past terrors and past bitter experiences had unmanned him. After a while she became more calm, contrived to smile through her tears.
"You see, Bertrand, that your gallant Scarlet Pimpernel is as merciless in hate as he is selfless in love."
"But why?" the young man ejaculated vehemently. "Why?"
"Why he should hate me?" she rejoined with a pathetic little sigh and a shrug of the shoulders. "Chien sabe, my friend! Of course, he does not know that of late - ever since I have gained the regard of citizen Tallien - my life has been devoted to intervening on behalf of the innocent victims of our revolution. I suppose he takes me for the friend and companion of all those ruthless Terrorists whom he abhors. He has forgotten what I did in Bordeaux, and how I risked my life there, and did so daily in Paris for the sake of those whom he himself befriends. It may all be a question of misunderstanding," she added, with gentle resignation, "but 'tis one that wellnigh did cost me my life."
Bertrand folded her in his arms, held her against him, as if to shield her with his body against every danger. It was his turn now to comfort and to console, and she rested her head against his shoulder - a perfect woman rather than an unapproachable divinity, giving him through her weakness more exquisite bliss than he had ever dreamed of before. The minutes sped on, winged with happiness, and time was forgotten in the infinity of joy.
Theresia was the first to rouse herself from this dream of happiness and oblivion. She glanced up at the clock. It was close upon ten. Confused, adorable, she jumped to her feet.
"You will ruin my reputation, Bertrand," she said with a smile, "thus early in a strange land!"
She would arrange with the landlord's daughter, she said, about a bed for herself, as she was very tired. What did he mean to do?
"Spend the night in this room," he replied, "if mine host will let me. I could have such happy dreams here! These four walls will reflect your exquisite image, and 'tis your dear face will smile down on me ere I close mine eyes in sleep."
She had some difficulty in escaping fro his clinging arms, and 'twas only the definite promise that she gave him to come back in a few minutes and let him know what she had arranged, that ultimately enabled him to let her go. Even so, he felt inexpressibly sad when she went, watched her retreating figure, so supple and so quaint in the rough, masculine clothes and the heavy mantle, as she walked resolutely down the passage in the direction of the kitchen. From the coffee-room there still came the sound of bustle and of merriment; but this little room seemed so peaceful, so remote - a shrine, now that his goddess had hallowed it by her presence.
Bertrand drew a deep sigh, partly of happiness, partly of utter weariness. He was more tired than he knew. She had promised to come back and say good night... in a few minutes.... But the minutes seemed leaden-footed now... and he was half-dead with fatigue. He threw himself down on the hard, uncomfortable horsehair sofa, whereon he hoped to pass the night if the landlord would let him, and glanced up at the clock. Only three minutes since she had gone... of course she would not be long... only a few more minutes... a very few.... He closed his eyes, for the lids felt heavy... of a surety he would hear her come....