Chapter XXI:

~ 1

When Marguerite Blakeney finally recovered consciousness, the sun was low down in the west. She was in a coach - not her own - which was being whisked along the road at terrific speed. She was alone, her mouth gagged, her wrists and her ankles tied with cords, so that she could neither speak nor move -a helpless log, being taken... whither?... and by whom?

Bertrand was not here. Through the front window of the coach she could perceive the vague outline of two men sitting on the driver's seat, whilst another was riding the off-leader. Four horses were harnessed to the light coach. It flew along in a south-easterly direction, the while the shades of evening were fast drawing in.

Marguerite had seen too much of the cruelties and barbarities of this world, too much of the hatred that existed between enemy countries, and too much of the bitter rancour felt by certain men against her husband and indirectly against herself, not to realize at once whence the blow had come that had struck her. Something too in the shape of that back which she perceived through the window in front of her, something in the cut of the threadbare coat, the set of the black bow at the nape of the neck, was too familiar to leave her even for a moment in doubt. Here was no ordinary foot-pad, no daring abduction with a view to reward or ransom. This was the work of her husband's enemies, who, through her, were once more striving to get at him.

Bertrand Moncrif had been the decoy. Whence had come the hatred which prompted him to raise his hand against the very man to whom he owed his life, Marguerite was still too dazed to conjecture. He had gone, and taken his secret of rancour with him, mayhap for ever. Lying pinioned and helpless as she was, Marguerite had but the one thought: in what way would those fiends who had her a prisoner use her as a leverage against the life and honour of the Scarlet Pimpernel? They had held her once before - not so very long ago - in Boulogne, and he had emerged unscathed, victorious over them all.

Marguerite, helpless and pinioned, forced her thoughts to dwell on that time, when his enemies had filled to the brim the cup of humiliation and of dread which was destined for each him through her hands, and his ingenuity and his daring dashed the cup to the ground ere it reached her lips. In truth, her plight then, at Boulogne, was in no way less terrible, less seemingly hopeless than now. She was a prisoner then, just as she was now; in the power of men whose whole life and entire range of thought had for the past two years been devoted to the undoing and annihilation of the Scarlet Pimpernel. And there was a certain grim satisfaction for the pinioned, helpless woman in recalling the many instances where the daring adventurer had so completely outwitted his enemies, as well as in the memory of those days at Boulogne when the life of countless innocents was to be the price of her own.

~ 2

The embarkation took place somewhere on the coast around Brichington. When, at dead of night, the coach came to a halt, and the tang of sea air and salt spray reached Marguerite's burning cheeks and parched lips, she tried with all her might to guess at her exact position. But that was impossible.

She was lifted out of the coach, and at once a shawl was thrown over her face, so that she could not see. It was more instinct than anything else that guided her perceptions. Even in the coach she had been vaguely conscious of the direction in which she had been travelling. All that part of the country was entirely familiar to her. So often she had driven down with Sir Percy, either to Dover or more often to some lonely part of the coast, where he took ship for unknown destinations, that in her mind she could, even blinded with tears and half-conscious as she was, trace in her mind the various turnings and side-roads along which she was being borne at unabating speed.

Birchington - one of the favourite haunts of the smuggling fraternity, with its numberless caves and retreats dug by the sea in the chalk cliffs, as if for the express benefit of ne'er-do-wells - seemed the natural objective of the miscreants who had her in their power. In fact, at one moment she was quite sure that the square tower of old Minister church flitted past her vision through the window of the coach, and that the horses immediately after that sprinted the hill between Minster and Acoll.

Be that as it may, there was no doubt that the coach came to a halt at a desolate spot. The day which had begun in radiance and sunshine, had turned to an evening of squall and drizzle. A thin rain soon wetted Marguerite's clothes and the shawl on her head through and through, greatly adding to her misery and discomfort. Though she saw nothing, she could trace every landmark of the calvary to the summit of which she was being borne like an insentient log.

For a while she lay at the bottom of a small boat, aching in body as well as in mind, her eyes closed, her limbs cramped by the cords which owing to the damp were cutting into her flesh, faint with cold and want of food, wet to the skin yet with eyes and head and hands burning hot, and her ears filled with the dreary, monotonous sound of the oars creaking in the rowlocks and the boom of the water against the sides of the boat.

She was lifted out of the boat and carried, as she judged, by two men up a companion ladder, then down some steps and finally deposited on some hard boards; after which the wet shawl was removed from her face. She was in the dark. Only a tiny streak of light found its way through a chink somewhere close to the floor. A smell of tar and of stale food gave her a wretched sense of nausea. But she had by now reached a stage of physical and mental prostration wherein even acute bodily suffering counts as nothing, and is endurable because it is no longer felt.

After a while the familiar motion, the well-known sound of a ship weighing anchor, gave another blow to her few lingering hopes. Every movement of the ship now bore her farther and farther from England and home, and rendered her position more utterly miserable and hopeless.

Far be it from me to suggest even for a moment that Marguerite Blakeney lost either spirit or courage during this terrible ordeal. But she was so completely helpless that instinct forced her to remain motionless and quiescent, and not to engage in a fight against overwhelming odds. In mid-Channel, surrounded by miscreants who had her in their power, she could obviously do nothing except safeguard what dignity she could by silence and seeming acquiescence.

~ 3

She was taken ashore in the early dawn, at a spot not very far from Boulogne. Precautions were no longer taken against her possible calls for help; even the cords had been removed from her wrists and ankles as soon as she was lowered into the boat that brought her to shore. Cramped and stiff though she was, she disdained the help of an arm which was held out to her to enable her to step out of the boat.

All the faces around her were unfamiliar. There were four or five men, surly and silent, who piloted her over the rocks and cliffs and then along the sands, to the little hamlet of Wimereux, which she knew well. The coast at this hour was still deserted; only at one time did the little party meet with a group of buxom young women, trudging along barefooted with their shrimping nets over their shoulders. They stared wide-eyed but otherwise indifferent, at the unfortunate woman in torn, damp clothes, and with golden hair all dishevelled, who was bravely striving not to fall whilst urged on by five rough fellows in ragged jerseys, tattered breeches, and bare-kneed.

Just for one moment - a mere flash - Marguerite at sight of these girls had the wild notion to run to them, implore their assistance in the name of their sweethearts, their husbands, their songs; to throw herself at their feet and beg them to help her, seeing that they were women and could not be without heart or pity. But it was a mere flash, the wild vagary of an over-excited brain, the drifting straw that mocks the drowning man. The next moment the girls had gone by, laughing and chattering. One of them intoned the "Ca ira!" and Marguerite, fortunately for her own dignity, was not seriously tempted to essay so futile, so senseless an appeal.

Later on, in a squalid little hovel on the outskirts of Wimereux, she was at last given some food which, though of the poorest and roughest description, was nevertheless welcome, for it revived her spirit and strengthened her courage, of which she had sore need.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. Within the first hour of making a fresh start, she had realized that she was being taken to Paris. A few words dropped casually by the men who had charge of her apprised her of the fact. Otherwise they were very reticent - not altogether rough or unkind.

The coach in which she travelled during this stage of the journey was roomy and not uncomfortable, although the cushions were ragged and the leatherwork mildewed. Above all, she had the supreme comfort of privacy. She was alone in the coach, alone during the halts at way-side hostelries when she was allowed food and rest, alone throughout those two interminable nights when, with brief intervals whilst relays of horses were put into the shafts or the men took it in turns to get food or drunk in some house unseen in the darkness, she vainly tried to get a snatch or two of sleep and a few moments of forgetfulness; alone throughout that next long day, whilst frequent summer showers sent heavy raindrops beating against the window-panes of the coach, and familiar landmarks on the way to Paris flitted like threatening ghouls past her aching eyes.

Paris was reached at dawn of the third day. Seventy-two hours had crept along leaden-footed, since the moment when she hat stepped into her own coach outside her beautiful home in Richmond, surrounded by her own servants, and with that traitor Moncrif by her side. Since then, what a load of sorrow, of anxiety, seemed as nothing beside the heartrending thoughts of her beloved, as yet ignorant of her terrible fate and of the schemes which those fiends who had so shamefully trapped her were even now concocting for the realization of their vengeance against him.