Chapter XX:

~ 1

The next morning's sun rose more radiant than before. Marguerite greeted it with a sigh that was entirely a happy one. Another round of the clock had brought her a little nearer to the time when she would see her beloved. The next courier might indeed bring a message naming the very day when she could rest once more in his arms for a few brief hours, which were so like the foretaste of heaven.

Soon after breakfast she ordered her coach, intending to go to London in order to visit Lady Ffoulkes and give Sir Andrew the message which was contained for him in Percy's last letter. Whilst waiting for the coach, she strolled out into the garden, which was gay with roses and blue larkspur, sweet william and heliotrope, alive with a deafening chorus of blackbirds and thrushes, the twittering of sparrows and the last call of the cuckoo. It was a garden brimful of memories, filled in rich abundance with the image of the man she worship. Every bird-song seemed to speak his name, the soughing of the breeze amidst the trees seemed to hold the echo of his voice; the perfume of thyme and mignonette to bring back the savour of his kiss.

Then suddenly she became aware of hurrying footsteps on the gravelled path close by. She turned, and saw a young man whom at first she did not recognize, running with breathless haste towards her. He was hatless, his linen crumpled, his coat-collar awry. At sight of her he gave a queer cry of excitement and relief.

"Lady Blakeney! Thank God! Thank God!"

Then she recognized him. It was Bertrand Moncrif.

He fell on his knees and seized her gown. He appeared entirely overwrought, unbalanced, and Marguerite tried in vain at first to get a coherent word out of him. All that he kept on repeating was:

"Will you help me? Will you help us all?"

"Indeed I will, if I can, M. Moncrif," Marguerite said gently. "Do try and compose yourself and tell me what is amiss."

She persuaded him to rise, and presently to follow her to a garden seat, where she sat down. He remained standing in front of her. His eyes still looked wild and scared, and he passed a shaking hand once or twice through his unruly hair. But he was obviously making an effort to compose himself, and after a little while, during which Marguerite waited with utmost patience, he began more coherently:

"Your servants said, milady," he began more quietly, "that you were in the garden. I could not wait until they called you, so I ran to find you. Will you try and forgive me? I ought not to have intruded."

"Of course I will forgive you," Marguerite rejoined with a smile, "if you will only tell me what is amiss."

He paused a moment, then cried abruptly:

"Régine has gone!"

Marguerite frowned, puzzled, and murmured slowly, not understanding:

"Gone? Whither?"

"To Dover," he replied, "with Jacques."

"Jacques?" she reiterated, still uncomprehending.

"Her brother," he rejoined. "You know the boy?"

Marguerite nodded.

"Hot-headed, impulsive," Moncrif went on, trying to speak calmly. "He and the girl Joséphine always had it in their minds that they were destined to liberate France from her present state of anarchy and bloodshed."

"Like you yourself, M. Moncrif!" Marguerite put in with a smile.

"Oh, I became sobered, reasonable, when I realized how futile it all was. We all owe our lives to that noble Scarlet Pimpernel. They were no longer ours to throw away. At least, that was my theory, and Régine's. I have been engaged in business; and she works hard.... Oh, but you know!" he exclaimed impulsively.

"Yes, I know all your circumstances. But to the point, I pray you!"

"Jacques of late has been very excited, feverish. We did not know what was amiss. Régine and I oft spoke of him. And Mme de Serval has been distraught with anxiety. She worships the boy. He is her only son. But Jacques would not say what was amiss. He spoke to no one. Went to his work every day as usual. Last night he did not come home. A message came for Mme de Serval to say that a friend in London had persuaded him to go to the play and spend the night with him. Mme de Serval thought nothing of that. She was pleased to think that Jacques had some amusement to distract him from his brooding thoughts. But Régine, it seems, was not satisfied. After her mother had gone to bed, she went into Jacque's room; found some papers, it seems... letters... I know not... proof in fact that the boy was even then on his way to Dover, having made arrangements to take ship for France."

"Mon Dieu!" Marguerite exclaimed involuntarily. "What senseless folly!"

"Ah! but that is not the worst. Folly, you say! But there is worse folly still!"

With the same febrile movements that characterized his whole attitude, he drew a stained and crumpled letter from his pocket.

"She sent me this, this morning," he said. "That is why I came to you."

"You mean Régine?" Marguerite asked, and took the letter which he was handing to her.

"Yes! She must have brought it round herself... to my lodgings... in the early dawn. I did not know what to do... whom to consult.... A blind instinct brought me here... I have no other friend..."

In the meanwhile Marguerite was deciphering the letter, turning a deaf ear to his ramblings.

"My Bertrand," so the letter ran, "Jacques is going to France. Nothing will keep him back. He says it is his duty. I think that he is mad, and I know that it will kill maman. So I go with him. Perhaps at the last - at Dover - my tears and entreaties might yet prevail. If not, and he puts this senseless project in execution, I can watch over him there, and perhaps save him from too glaring a folly. We go by coach to Dover, which starts in an hour's time. Farewell, my beloved, and forgive me for causing you the anxiety; but I feel that Jacques has more need of me than you."

Below the signature "Régine de Serval" there were a few more lines, written as if with an afterthought:

"I have told maman that my employer is sending me down into the country about some dresses for an important customer, and that as Jacques can get a few days' leave from his work, I am taking him with me, for I feel the country air would do him good.

"Maman will be astonished and no doubt hurt that Jacques did not send her word of farewell, but it is best that she should not learn the truth too suddenly. If we do not return to Dover within the week, you will have to break the news as gently as you can."

Whilst Marguerite read the letter, Bertrand had sunk upon the seat and buried his head in his hands. He looked utterly dejected and forlorn, and she felt a twinge of remorse at thought how she had been wronging him all this while by doubting his love for Régine. She placed a kindly hand on the young man's shoulder.

"What was your idea," she asked, "in coming to me? What can I do?"

"Give me advice, milady!" he implored. "I am so helpless, so friendless. When I had the letter, I could think of nothing at first. You see, Régine and Jacques started early this morning, by the coach from London, long before I had it. I thought you could tell me what to do, how to overtake them. Régine loves me - oh, she loves me! If I knelt at her feet I could bring her back. But they are marked people, those two. The moment they attempt to enter Paris, they will be recognized, arrest. Oh, my God! have mercy on us all!"

"You think you can persuade Régine, M. Moncrif?"

"I am sure," he asserted firmly. "And you, milady! Régine thinks the whole world of you!"

"But there is the boy - Jacques!"

"He is just a child - he acted on impulse - and I always had great authority over him. And you, milady! The whole family worship you!... they know what they owe you. Jacques has not thought of his mother; but if he did-"

Marguerite rose without another word.

"Very well," she said simply. "We go together and see what we can do with those two obstinate young folk."

Bertrand gave a gasp of surprise and of hope. His whole face lighted up and he gazed upon the beautiful woman before him as a worshipper would on his divinity.

"You, milady?" he murmured. "You would... really... help me... like that?"

Marguerite smiled.

"I really would help you like that," she said. "My coach is ordered; we can start at once. We'll get relays at Maidstone and at Ashford, and easily reach Dover to-night, before the arrival of the public coach. In any case, I know every one of any importance in Dover. We could not fail to find the runaways."

"But you are an angel, milady!" Bertrand contrived to stammer, although obviously he was overwhelemed with gratitude.

"You are ready to start?" Marguerite retorted, gently checking any further display of emotion.

He certainly was hatless, and his clothes were in an untidy condition; but such trifles mattered nothing at a moment like this. Marguerite's household, on the other hand, were accustomed to these sudden vagaries and departures of their mistress, either for Dover, Bath, or any known and unknown destination, often at a few minutes' notice.

In this case the coach was actually at the gates. The maids packed the necessary valise; her ladyship changed her smart gown for a dark travelling one, and less than half an hour after Bertrand Moncrif's first arrival at the Manor, he was searted beside Lady Blakeney in her coach. The coachman cracked his whip, the postilion swung himself into the saddle, and the servants stood at attention as the vehicle slowly swung out of the gates; and presently, the horses putting on the pace, disappeared along the road, followed by a cloud of dust.

~ 2

Bertrand Moncrif, brooding, absorbed in thoughts, said little or nothing while the coach swung along at a very brisk pace. Marguerite, who always had plenty to think about, did not feel in the mood to try and make conversation. She was very sorry for the young man, who in very truth must have suffered also from remorse. His lack of ardour - obviously only an outward lack - toward his fiancée and the members of her family, must to a certain extent have helped to precipitate the present catastrophe. Coolness and moroseness on his part gave rise to want of confidence on the other. Régine, heart-sick at her lover's seeming indifference, was no doubt all the more ready to lavish love and self-sacrifice upon the young brother. Marguerite was sorry enough for the latter - a young fool, with the exalté Latin temperament, brimming over with desires for self-immolation as futile as they were senseless - but her generous heart went out to Régine de Serval, a girl who appeared redestined to sorrow and disappointments, endowed with an exceptionally warm nature and cursed with the inability to draw whole-hearted affection to herself. She worshipped Bertrand Moncrif; she idolized her mother, her brother, her sister. But though they, one and all, relied on her, brought her the confidences of their troubles and their difficulties, it never occurred to any one of them to give up something - a distraction, a fancy, an ideal - for the sake of silent, thoughtful Régine.

Marguerite allowed her thoughts thus to dwell on these people, whom her husband's splendid sacrifice on their behalf had rendered dear. Indeed, she loved them like she loved so many others, because of the dangers which he had braved for their sakes. Their lives had become valuable because of his precious one, daily risked because of them. And at the back of her mind there was also the certainty that if these two young fools did put their mad project in execution and endeavoured to return to Paris, it would again be the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel who would jeopardize his life to save them from the consequences of their own folly.

~ 3

Luncheon and a brief halt was taken at Farningham and Maidstone reached by three o'clock in the afternoon. Here Lady Blakeney's own servants took leave of her, and post-horses were engaged to take her ladyship on to Ashford. Two hours later, at Ashford, fresh relays were obtained. The public coach at this hour was only some nine or ten miles ahead, it seems, and there was now every chance that Dover would be reached by nightfall and the young runaways met by their pursuers on arrival.

All was then for the best. Bertrand, after the coach had rattled out of Ashford, appeared to find comfort and courage. He began to talk, long and earnestly - of himself, his plans and projects, his love for Régine, to which he always found it so difficult to give expression; of Régine herself and the de Servals, mother, son and daughters. His voice was toneless and very even. The monotony of his diction acted after awhile as a soporific on Marguerite's nerves. The rumble of the coach, the closeness of this long afternoon in July, the rocking of the springs, made her feel drowsy. After a while took, a curious scent pervaded the interior of the coach - a sweet, heady scent that appeared to weigh her eyelids down and gave her a feeling of delicious and lazy beatitude. Bertrand Moncrif droned on, and his voice came to her fast-fading senses as through a thick pulpy veil. She closed her eyes. That sweet, intoxicating scent came, more marked, more insistent, to her nostrils. She laid her head against the cushions, and still she heard the dreary monotone of Bertrand's voice, quite inarticulate now, like the hum of a swarm of bees....

Then, all of a sudden she was fully conscious; only just in time to feel the weight of an iron hand against her mouth and to see Bertrand's face, ghastly of hue, eyes distorted more with fear than rage, quite close to her own. She had not the time to scream, and her limbs felt as heavy as lead, so that she could not struggle. The next moment a thick woollen scarf was wound quickly and tightly round her head, covering her mouth and eyes, only barely giving her room to breathe, and her hands and arms were tied together with cords.

This brutal assault had been so quick and so sudden that at first it seemed to Marguerite like part of a hideous dream. She was not fully conscious, and was half suffocated by the thick folds of the scarf and that persistent odour, which by its sickened sweetness caused her wellnigh to swoon.

Through this semi-consciousness, however, she was constantly aware of her enemy, Bertrand Moncrif - the black-hearted traitor who had carried out this execrable outrage: why and for what purpose, Marguerite was too dazed to attempt to guess. He was there, that she knew. She was conscious of his hands making sure of the cords round her wrists, tightening the scarf around her mouth; then presently she felt him leaning across her body and throwing down the window, and she heard him shouting to the driver:

"Her ladyship as fainted. Drive as fast as ever you can till you come to that white house yonder on the right, the one with the green shutters and the tall yew at the gate!"

The driver's reply she could not hear, nor the crack of his whip. Certain it is that, though the coach had rattled on at a great pace before, the horses, as if in response to Bertrand's commands, now burned the ground under their hoofs. A few minutes went by - an eternity. Then that terrible cloying perfume was again held close to her nostrils; an awful dizziness and nausea seized her; after which she remembered nothing more.