It was on her return from England that Theresia Cabarrus took to consulting the old witch in the Rue de la Planchette, driven thereto by ambition, and also no doubt by remorse. There was nothing of the hardened criminal about the fair Spaniard; she was just a spoilt woman who had been mocked and thwarted, and desired to be revenged. The Scarlet Pimpernel had appeared before her as one utterly impervious to her charms, and, egged on by Chauvelin, who used her for his own ends, she entered into a callous conspiracy, the aim of which was the destruction of that gang of English spies who were the enemies of France, and the first stage of which was the heartless abduction of Lady Blakeney and her incarceration as a decoy for the ultimate capture of her own husband.
A cruel, abominable act! Theresia, who had plunged headlong into this shameful crime, would a few days later have given much to undo the harm she had wrought. But she had yet to learn that, once used as a tool by the Committee of Public Safety and by Chauvelin, its most unscrupulous agent, no man or woman could hope to become free again until the work demanded had been accomplished to the end. There was no freedom from that taskmaster save in death; and Theresia's fit of compunction did not carry her to the lengths of self-sacrifice. Marguerite Blakeney was her prisoner, the decoy which would bring the English milor inevitably to the spot where his wife was incarcerated; and Theresia, who had helped to bring this state of things about, did her best to smother remorse, and having done Chauvelin's dirty work for him she set to to see what personal advantage she could derive from it.
Firstly, the satisfaction of her petty revenge: the Scarlet Pimpernel caught in a trap, would surely regret his interference in Theresia's love affairs. Theresia cared less than nothing about Bertrand Moncrif, and would have been quite grateful to the English milor for having spirited that embarrassing lover of hers away but for that letter which had wounded the beautiful Spaniard's vanity to the quick, and still rankled sufficiently to ease her conscience on the score of her subsequent actions. That the letter was a bogus one, concocted and written by Chauvelin himself in order to spur her on to a mean revenge, Theresia did not know.
But far stronger than thoughts of revenge where Theresia's schemes for her own future. She had begun to dream of Robespierre's gratitude, of her triumph over all those who had striven for over two years to bring that gang of English spies to book. She saw her name writ largely on the roll of fame; she even saw in her mind, the tyrant himself as her willing slave... and something more than that.
For her tool Bertrand she had no further use. By way of a reward for the abominable abduction of Lady Blakeney, he had been allowed to follow the woman he worshipped like a lackey attached to her train. Dejected, already spurned, he returned to Paris with her, here to resume the life of humiliation and of despised ardour which had broken his spirit and warped his nature, before his gallant rescuer had snatched him out of the toils of the beautiful Spaniard.
Within an hour of setting his foot on French soil, Bertrand had realized that he had been nothing in Theresia's sight but a lump of malleable wax, which she had moulded to her own design and now threw aside as cumbersome and useless. He had realized that her ambition soared far above linking her fate to an obscure and penniless lover, when the coming man of the hour - citizen Tallien - was already at her feet.
Thus Theresia had attained one of her great desires: the Scarlet Pimpernel was as good as captured, and when he finally succumbed he could not fail to know whence came the blow that struck him.
With regard to her future, matters were more doubtful. She had not yet subjugated Robespierre sufficiently to cause him to give up his more humble love and to lay down his power and popularity at her feet; whilst the man who had offered her his hand and name - citizen Tallien - was for ever putting a check upon her ambition and his own advancement by his pusillanimity and lack of enterprise.
Whilst she was aching to push him into decisive action, into seizing the supreme power before Robespierre and his friends had irrevocably established theirs, Tallien was for temporizing, fear that in trying to snatch a dictatorship he and his beloved with him would lose their heads.
"While Robespierre lives," Theresia would argue passionately, "no man's head is safe. Every rival, sooner or later, becomes a victim. St. Just and Couthon aim at a dictatorship for him. Sooner or later they will succeed; then death to every man who has ever dared oppose them."
"Therefore 'tis wiser not to oppose," the prudent Tallien would retort. "The time will come-"
"Never!" she riposted hotly. "While you plot, and argue and ponder, Robespierre acts or signs your death-warrant."
"Robespierre is the idol of the people; he sways the Convention with a word. His eloquence would drag an army of enemies to the guillotine!"
"Robespierre!" Theresia retorted with sublime contempt. "Ah, when you have said that, you think you have said everything! France, humanity, the people, sovereign power! - all that, you assert, is embodied in that one man. But, my friend, listen to me!" she went on earnestly. "Listen, when I assert that Robespierre is only a name, a fetish, a manikin set up on a pedestal! By whom? By you, and the Convention; by the Clubs and the Committees. And the pedestal is composed of that elusive entity which you call the people and which will disintegrate from beneath his feet as soon as the people have realized that those feet are less than clay. One touch of a firm finger against that manikin, I tell you, and he will fall as dust before you; and you can rise upon that same elusive pedestal - popularity, to the heights which he hath so easily attained."
But, though Tallien was at times carried away by her vehemence, he would always shake his head and counsel prudence, and assure her that the time was not yet. Theresia, impatient and dictatorial, had more than once hinted at rupture.
"I could not love a weakling," she would aver; and at the back of her mind there would rise schemes, which aimed at transferring her favours to the other man, who she felt would be more worthy of her.
"Robespierre would not fail me, as this coward does!" she mused, even while Tallien, blind and obedient, was bidding her farewell at the very door of the charlatan to whom Theresia had turned in her ambition and her difficulties.
Something of the glamour which had originally surrounded Mother Théot's incantations had vanished since sixty-two of her devotees had been sent to the guillotine on charge of conspiring for the overthrow of the Republic. Robespierre's enemies, too cowardly to attack him in the Convention or in the Clubs, had seized upon the mystery which hung over the séances in the Rue de la Planchette in order to undermine his popularity in the one and his power in the other.
Spies were introduced into the witch's lair. The names of its chief frequenters became known, and soon wholesale arrests were made, which were followed by the inevitable condemnations. Robespierre had not actually been named; but the identity of the sycophants who had proclaimed him the Messenger of the Most High, the Morning Star, or the Regenerator of Mankind, were hurled across from the tribune of the Convention, like poisoned arrows aimed at the tyrant himself.
But Robespierre had been too wary to allow himself to be dragged into the affair. His enemies tried to goad him into defending his worshippers, thus admitting his association with the gang; but he remained prudently silent, and with callous ruthlessness he sacrificed them to his own safety. He never raised his voice nor yet one finger to save them from death, and whilst he - bloodthirsty autocrat - remain firmly installed upon his self-constituted throne, those who had acclaimed him as second only to God, perished upon the scaffold.
Mother Théot, for some inexplicable reason, escaped this wholesale slaughter; but her séances were henceforth shorn of their slendour. Robespierre no longer dared frequent them even in disguise. The house in the Rue de la Planchette became a marked one to the agents of the Committee of Public Safety, and the witch herself was reduced to innumerable shifts to eke out a precarious livelihood and to keep herself in the good graces of those agents, by rendering them various unavowable services.
To those, however, who chose to defy public opinion and to disregard the dangers which attended the frequentation of Mother Théot's sorceries, these latter had lost little or nothing of their pristine solemnity. There was the closely curtained room; the scented, heavy atmosphere; the chants, the coloured flames, the ghost-like neophytes. Draped in her grey veils, the old witch still wove her spells and called on the powers of light and of darkness to aid her in fortelling the future. The neophytes chanted and twisted their bodies in quaint contortions; alone, the small blackamoor grinned at what experience had taught him was nothing by quackery and charlatanism.
Theresia, sitting on the dias, with the heady fumes of Oriental scents blurring her sight and the clearness of her intellect, was drinking in the honeyed words and flattering prophecies of the old witch.
"Thy name will be the greatest in the land! Before thee will bow the mightiest thrones! At thy word deads will fall and diedems will totter!" Mother Théot announced in sepulchral tones, whilst gazing into the crystal before her.
"As the wife of citizen Tallien?" Theresia queried in an awed whisper.
"That the spirits do not say," the old witch replied. "What is a name to them? I see a crown of glory, and thy head surrounded by a golden light; and at thy feet lies something which once was scarlet, and now is crimson and crushed."
"What does it mean?" Theresia murmured.
"That is for thee to know," the sybil replied sternly. "Commune with the spirits; lose thyself in their embrace; learn from them the great truths, and the future will be made clear to thee."
With which cryptic utterance she gathered her veils around her, and with weird murmurs of, "Evohe! Evohe! Sammael! Zamiel! Evohe!" glided out of the room, mysterious and inscrutable, presumably in order to allow her bewildered client to meditate on the enigmatical prophecy in solitude.
But directly she had closed the door behind her, Mother Théot's manner underwent a chance. Here the broad light of day appeared to diverst her of all her sybilline attributes. She became just an ugly old woman, wrinkled and hook-nosed, dressed in shabby draperies that were grey with age and dirt, and with claw-like hands that looked like the talons of a bird of prey.
As she entered the room, a man who had been standing at the window opposite, staring out into the dismal street below, turned quickly to her.
"Art satisfied?" she asked at once.
"From what I could hear, yes!" he replied, "though I could have wished thy pronouncements had been more clear."
The hag shrugged her lean shoulders and nodded in the direction of her lair.
"Oh!" she said. "The Spaniard understands well enough. She never consults me or invokes the spirits but they speak to her of that which is scarlet. She knows what it means. You need not fear, citizen Chauvelin, that in the pursuit of her vaulting ambition, she will forget that her primary duty is to you!"
"No," Chauvelin asserted calmly, "she'll not forget that. The Cabarrus is no fool. She knows well enough that when citizens of the State have been employed to work on its behalf, they are no longer free agents afterwards. The work must be carried through to the end."
"You need not fear the Cabarrus, citizen," the sybil rejoined dryly. "She'll not fail you. Her vanity is immense. She believes that the Englishman insulted her by writing that flippant letter, and she'll not leave him alone till she has had her revenge."
"No!" Chauvelin assented. "She'll not fail me. Nor thou either, citoyenne."
The old hag shrugged her shoulders.
"I?" she exclaimed, with a quiet laugh. "Is that likely? You promised me ten thousand livres the day the Scarlet Pimpernel is captured!"
"And the guillotine," Chauvelin broke in grimly, "if thou shouldst allow the woman upstairs to escape."
"I know that," the old woman rejoined dryly. "If she escapes 'twill not be through my connivance."
"In the service of the State," Chauvelin riposted, "even carelessness becomes a crime."
Catherine Théot was silent for a moment or two, pressed her thin lips together; then rejoined quite quietly:
"She'll not escape. Have no fear, citizen Chauvelin."
"That's brave! And now, tell me what has become of the coalheaver Rateau?"
"Oh, he comes and goes. You told me to encourage him."
"So I give him potions for his cough. He has one foot in the grave."
"Would he had both!" Chauvelin broke in savagely. "That man is a perpetual menace to my plans. It would have been so much better if we could have sent him last April to the guillotine."
"It was in your hands," Mother Théot retorted. "The Committee reported against him. His measure was full enough. Aiding that execrable Scarlet Pimpernel to escape...! Name of a name! it should have been enough!"
"It was not proved that he did aid the English spies," Chauvelin retorted moodily. "And Foucquier-Tinville would not arraign him. He vowed it would anger the people - the rabble - of which Rateau himself forms an integral part. We cannot afford to anger the rabble these days, it seems."
"And so Rateau, the asthmatic coalheaver, walked out of prison a free man, whilst my neophytes were dragged up to the guillotine, and I was left without means of earning an honest livelihood!" Mother Théot concluded with a doleful sigh.
"Honest?" Chauvelin exclaimed, with a sarcastic chuckle. Then, seeing that the old witch was ready to lose her temper, he quickly added: "Tell me more about Rateau. Does he often come here?"
"Yes; very often. He must be in my anteroom now. He came directly he was let out of prison, and has haunted this place ever since. he thinks I can cure him of his asthma, and as he pays me well-"
"Pays you well?" Chauvelin broke in quickly. "That starveling?"
"Rateau is no starveling," the old woman asserted. "Many an English gold piece hath he given me."
"But not of late?"
"No later than yesterday."
Chauvelin swore viciously.
"Then he is still in touch with that cursed Englishman!"
Mother Théot shrugged her shoulders.
"Does one ever know which is the Englishman and which is the asthmatic Rateau?" she queried, with a dry laugh.
Whereupon a strange thing happened - so strange indeed that Chauvelin's next words turned to savage curses, and that Mother Théot, which to the lips, her knees shaking under her, tiny beads of perspiration rising beneath her scanty locks, had to hold on to the table to save herself from falling.
"Name of a name of a dog!" Chauvelin muttered hoarsely, whilst the old woman, shaken but that superstitious dread which she liked to arouse in her clients, could only stare at him and mutely shake her head.
And yet nothing very alarming had occurred. Only a man had laughed, light-heartedly and long; and the sound of that laughter had come from somewhere near - the next room probably, or the landing beyond Mother Théot's anteroom. It had come low and distinct, slightly muffled by the intervening wall. Nothing in truth to frighten the most nervous child!
A man had laughed. One of Mother Théot's clients probably, who in the company of a friend chose to wile away the weary hour of waiting on the sybil by hilarious conversation. Of course, that was it! Chauvelin, cursing himself now for his cowardice, passed a still shaking hand across his brow, and a wry smile distorted momentarily his thin, set lips.
"One of your clients is of good cheer," he said with well-assumed indifference.
"There is no one in the anteroom at this hour," the old hag murmured under her breath. "Only Rateau... and he is too scant of breath to laugh... he..."
But Chauvelin no longer heard what she had to say. With an exclamation which no one who heard it could have defined, he turned on his heel and almost ran out of the room.