The antechamber, wide and long, ran the whole length of Mother Théot's apartment. Her witch's lair and the room where she had just had her interview with Chauvelin gave directly on it on the one side, and two other living rooms on the other. At one end of the antechamber there were two windows, usually kept closely shuttered; and at the other was the main entrance door, which led to landing and staircase.
The antechamber was empty. It appeared to mock Chauvelin's excitement, with its grey-washed walls streaked with grime, its worm-eaten benches and tarnished chandelier. Mother Théot, voluble and quaking with fear, was close at his heels. Curtly he ordered her to be gone; her mutterings irritated him, her obvious fear of something unknown grated unpleasantly on his nerves. He cursed himself for his cowardice, and cursed the one man who alone in this world had the power to unnerve him.
"I was dreaming, of course," he muttered aloud to himself between his teeth. "I have that arch-devil, his laugh, his voice, his affectations, on the brain!"
He was on the point of going to the main door, in order to peer out on the landing or down the stairs, when he heard his name called immediately behind him. Theresia Cabarrus was standing under the lintel of the door which gave on the sybil's sanctum, her delicate hand holding back the portière.
"Citizen Chauvelin," she said, "I was waiting for you."
"And I, citoyenne," he retorted gruffly, "had in truth forgotten you."
"Mother Théot left me alone for a while, to commune with the spirits," she explained.
"Ah!" he riposted, slightly sarcastic. "With what result?"
"To help you further, citizen Chauvelin," she replied; "if you have need of me."
"Ah!" he exclaimed with a savage curse. "In truth, I have need of every willing hand that will raise itself against mine enemy. I have need of you, citizeness; of that old witch; of Rateau, the coalheaver; of every patriot who will sit and watch this house, to which we have brought the one bait that will lure the goldfish to our net."
"Have I not proved my willingness, citizen?" she retorted, with a smile. "Think you 'tis pleasant to give up my life, my salon, my easy, contented existence, and become a mere drudge in your service?"
"A drudge," he broke in with a chuckle, "who will soon be greater than a Queen."
"Ah, if I thought that!..." she exclaimed.
"I am as sure of it as that I am alive," he replied firmly. "You will never do anything with citizen Tallien, citoyenne. He is too mean, too cowardly. But bring the Scarlet Pimpernel to his knees at the chariot wheel of Robespierre, and even the crown of the Bourbons would be yours for the asking."
"I know that, citizen," she rejoined dryly; "else I were not here."
"We hold all the winning cards," he went on eagerly. "Lady Blakeney is in our hands. So long as we hold her, we have the certainty that sooner or later the English spy will establish communication with her. Catherine Théot is a good jailer, and Captain Boyer upstairs has a number of men under his command - veritable sleuthhounds, whose efficiency I can guarantee and whose eagerness is stimulated by the promise of a magnificent reward. But experience has taught me that that accursed Scarlet Pimpernel is never so dangerous as when we think we hold him. His extraordinary histrionic powers have been our undoing hitherto. No man's eyes are keen enough to pierce his disguises. That is why, citoyenne, I dragged you to England; that is why I placed you face to face with him, and said to you, 'That is the man.' Since then, with your help, we hold the decoy. Now you are my coadjutor and my help. in your eyes I place my trust; in your wits, your instinct. In whatever guise the Scarlet Pimpernel presents himself before you - and he will present himself before you, or he is no longer the impudent and reckless adventurer I know him to be! - I feel that you at least will recognize him."
"Yes; I think I should recognize him," she mused.
"Think you that I do not appreciate the sacrifice you make - the anxiety, the watchfulness to which you so nobly subject yourself? But 'tis you above all who are the lure which must inevitably attract the Scarlet Pimpernel into my hands."
"Soon, I hope," she sighed wearily.
"Soon," he asserted firmly. "I dare swear it! Until then, citizeness, in the name of your own future, and in the name of France, I adjure you to watch. Watch and listen! Oh, think of the stakes for which we are playing, you and I! Bring the Scarlet Pimpernel to his knees, citoyenne, and Robespierre will be as much your slave as he is now the prey to a strange dread of that one man. Robespierre fears the Scarlet Pimpernel. A superstitious conviction had seized hold of him that the English spy will bring about his downfall. We have all seen of late how aloof he holds himself. He no longer attends the Committees. He no longer goes to the Clubs; he shuns his friends; and his furtive glance is for ever trying to pierce some imaginary disguise, under which he alternately fears and hopes to discover his arch-enemy. He dreads assassination, anonymous attacks. In every obscure member of the Convention who walks up the steps of the tribune, he fears to find the Scarlet Pimpernel under a new, impenetrable mask. Ah, citoyenne! what influence you would have over him if through your agency all those fears could be drowned in the blood of that abominable Englishman!"
"Now, who would have thought that?" a mocking voice broke in suddenly, with a quiet chuckle. "I vow, my dear M. Chambertin, you are waxing more eloquent than ever before!"
Like the laughter of a while ago, the voice seemed to come from nowhere. It was in the air, muffled by the clouds of Mother Théot's perfumes, or by the thickness of doors and tapestries. Weird, yet human.
"By Satan, this is intolerable!" Chauvelin exclaimed; and paying no heed to Theresia's faint cry of terror, he ran to the main door. It was on the latch. He tore it open and dashed out upon the landing.
From here a narrow stone staircase, dank and sombre, led downwards as well as upwards, in a spiral. The house had only the two stories, perched above some disused and dilapidated storage-rooms, to which a double outside door and wicket gave access from the street.
The staircase received its only light from a small window high up in the roof, the panes of which were coated with grime, so that the well of the stairs, especially past the first-floor landing, was almost in complete gloom. For an instant Chauvelin hesitated. Never a coward physically, he yet had no mind to precipitate himself down a dark staircase when mayhap his enemy was lying in wait for him down below.
Only for an instant however. The very next second had brought forth the positive reflection: "bah! Assassination, and in the dark, are not the Englishman's ways."
Scarce a few yards from where he stood, the other side of the door, was the dry moat which ran round the Arsenal. From there, at a call from him, a dozen men and more would surge from the ground - sleuthhounds, as he had told Theresia a moment ago, who were there on the watch and whom he could trust to do his work swiftly and securely - if only he could reach the door and call for help. Elusive as that accursed Pimpernel was, successful chase might even now be given to him.
Chauvelin ran down half a dozen steps, peered down the shaft of the staircase, and spied a tiny light, which moved swiftly to and fro. Then presently, below the light a bit of tallow candle, then a grimy hand holding the candle, an arm, the top of a shaggy head crowned by a greasy red cap, a broad back under a tattered blue jersey. He heard the thump of heavy soles upon the stone flooring below, and a moment or two later the weird, sepulchral sound of a churchyard cough. Then the light disappeared. For a second or two the darkness appeared more impenetrably dense; then one or two narrow streaks of daylight showed the position of the outside door. Something prompted him to call:
"Is that you, citizen Rateau?"
It was foolish, of course. And the very next moment he had his answer. A voice - the mocking voice he knew so well - called up to him in reply:
"At your service, dear M. Chambertin!" Can I do anything for you?"
Chauvelin swore, threw all prudence to the winds, and ran down the stairs as fast as his shaking knees would allow him. Some three steps from the bottom he paused for the space of a second, like one turned to stone by what he saw. Yet it was simple enough: just the same tiny light, the grimy hand holding the tallow candle, the shaggy head with the greasy red cap.... The figure in the gloom looked preternaturally large, and the flickering light threw fantastic shadows on the face and neck of the colossus, distorting the nose to a grotesque length and the chin to weird proportions.
The next instant Chauvelin gave a cry like an enraged bull and hurled his meagre person upon the giant, who, shaken at the moment by a tearing fit of coughing, was taken unawares and fell backwards, overborne by the impact, dropping the light as he fell and still wheezing pitiably whilst trying to give vent to his feelings by vigorous curses.
Chauvelin, vaguely surprised at his own strength or the weakness of his opponent, pressed his knee against the latter's chest, gripped him by the throat, smothering his curses and wheezes, turning the funeral cough into agonized gasps.
"At my service, in truth, my gallant Pimpernel!" he murmured hoarsely, feeling his small reserve of strength oozing away by the strenuous effort. "What you can do for me? Wait here, until I have you bound and gagged, safe against further mischief!"
His victim had in fact given a last convulsive gasp, lay now at full length upon the stone floor, with arms outstretched, motionless. Chauvelin relaxed his grip. His strength was spent, he was bathed in sweat, his body shook from head to foot. But he was triumphant! His mocking enemy, carried away by his own histrionics, had overtaxed his colossal strength. The carefully simulated fit of coughing had taken away his breath at the critical moment; the surprise attack had done the rest; and Chauvelin - meagre, feeble, usually the merest human insect beside the powerful Englishman - had conquered by sheer pluck and resource.
There lay the Scarlet Pimpernel, who had assumed the guise of asthmatic Rateau once too often, helpless and broken beneath the weight of the man whom he had hoodwinked and derided. And now at last all the intrigues, the humiliations, the schemes and the disappointments, were at an end. He - Chauvelin - free and honoured: Robespierre his grateful servant.
A wave of dizziness passed over his brain - the dizziness of coming glory. His senses reeled. When he staggered to his feet he could scarcely stand. The darkness was thick around him; only two streaks of daylight at right angles to one another came through the chinks of the outside door and vaguely illumined the interior of the dilapidated store-room, the last step or two of the winding stairway, the row of empty barrels on one side, the pile of rubbish on the other, and on the stone floor the huge figure in grimy and tattered rags, lying prone and motionless. Guided by those streaks of light, Chauvelin lurched up to the door, fumbled for the latch of the wicket-gate, and finding it pulled the gate open and almost fell out into the open.
The Rue de la Planchette was as usual lonely and deserted. It was a second or two before Chauvelin spied a passer-by. That minute he spent in calling for help with all his might. The passer-by he quickly dispatched across to the Arsenal for assistance.
"In the name of the Republic!" he said solemnly.
But already his cries had attracted the attention of the sentries. Within two or three minutes, half a dozen men of the National Guard were speeding down the street. Soon they had reached the house, the door where Chauvelin, still breathless but with his habitual official manner that brooked of no argument, gave them hasty instructions.
"The man lying on the ground in there," he commanded. "Seize him and raise him. Then one of you find some cord and bind him securely."
The men flung the double doors wide open. A flood of light illumined the store-room. There lay the huge figure on the floor, no longer motionless, but trying to scramble to his feet, once more torn by a fit of coughing. The man ran up to him; one of them laughed.
"Why, if it isn't old Rateau!"
They lifted him up by his arms. He was helpless as a child, and his face was of a dull purple colour.
"He will die!" another man said, with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.
But, in a way, they were sorry for him. He was one of themselves. Nothing of the aristo about asthmatic old Rateau!
They had succeeded in propping him up and sitting him down upon a barrel. His fit of coughing was subsiding. He had breath enough now to swear. He raised his head and encountered the pale eyes of citizen Chauvelin fixed as if sightlessly upon him.
"Name of a dog!" he began; but got no farther. Giddiness seized him, for he was weak from coughing and from that strangling grip round his throat, after he had been attacked in the darkness and thrown violently to the ground.
The men around him recoiled at sight of citizen Chauvelin. His appearance was almost death-like. His cheeks and lips were livid; his hair dishevelled; his eyes of an unearthly paleness. One hand, clawlike and shaking, he held out before him, as if to ward off some horrible apparition.
This trance-like state made up of a ghastly fear and a sense of the most hideous, most unearthly impotence, lasted for several seconds. The men themselves were frightened. Unable to understand what had happened, they thought that citizen Chauvelin, whom they all knew by sight, had suddenly lost his reason or was possessed of a devil. For in truth there was nothing about poor old Rateau to frighten a child!
Fortunately the tension was over before real panic had seized on any of them. The next moment Chauvelin had pulled himself together with one of those mighty efforts of will of which strong natures are always capable. With an impatient gesture he passed his hand across his brow, then backwards and forwards in front of his face, as if to chase away the demon of terror that obsessed him. He gazed on Rateau for a moment or two, his eyes travelling over the uncouth, semi-conscious figure of the coalheaver with a searching, undefinable glance. Then, as if suddenly struck with an idea, he spoke to the man nearest him:
"Sergeant Chazot? Is he at the Arsenal?"
"Yes, citizen," the man replied.
"Run across quickly then," Chauvelin continued; "and bring him hither at once."
The soldier obeyed, and a few more minutes - ten, perhaps - went by in silence. Rateau, weary, cursing, not altogether in full possession of his faculties, sat huddled up on the barrel, his bleary eyes following every movement of citizen Chauvelin with an anxious, furtive gaze. The latter was pacing up and down the stone floor, like a caged, impatient animal. From time to time he paused, either to peer out into the open in the direction of the Arsenal, or to search the dark angles of the store-room, kicking the piles of rubbish about with his foot.
Anon he uttered a sigh of satisfaction. The soldier had returned, was even now in the doorway with a comrade - a short, thick-set, powerful-looking fellow - beside him.
"Sergeant Chazot!" Chauvelin said abruptly.
"At your commands, citizen!" the sergeant replied, and at a sign from the other followed him to the most distant corner of the room.
"Bend your ear and listen," Chauvelin murmured peremptorily. "I don't want those fools to hear." And, having assured himself that he and Chazot could speak without being overheard, he pointed to Rateau, then went on rapidly: "You will take this lout over to the cavalry barracks. See the veterinary. Tell him-"
He paused, as if unable to proceed. His lips were trembling, his face, ashen-white, looked spectral in the gloom. Chazot, not understand, waited patiently.
"That lout," Chauvelin resumed more steadily after a while, "is in collusion with a gang of dangerous English spies. One Englishman especially - tall, and a master of histrionics - uses this man as a kind of double. Perhaps you heard...?"
"I know, citizen," he said sagely. "The Fraternal Supper in the Rue St. Honoré. Comrades have told me that no one could tell who was Rateau the coalheaver and who the English milor."
"Exactly!" Chauvelin rejoined dryly, quite firmly now. "Therefore, I want to make sure. The veterinary, you understand? He brands the horses for the cavalry. I want a brand on this lout's arm. Just a letter... a distinguishing mark..."
Chazot gave an involuntary gasp.
"But, citizen-!" he exclaimed.
"Eh? What?" the other retorted sharply. "In the service of the Republic there is no 'but,' Sergeant Chazot."
"I know that, citizen," Chazot, abashed, murmured humbly. "I only meant... it seems so strange..."
"Stranger things than that occur every day in Paris, my friend," Chauvelin said dryly. "We brand horses that are the property of the State; why not a man? Time may come," he added with a vicious snarl, "when the Republic may demand that every local citizen carry - indelibly branded in his flesh and by order of the State - the sign of his own allegiance."
"'Tis not for me to argue, citizen," Chazot rejoined, with a careless shrug of the shoulders. "If you tell me to take citizen Rateau over to the veterinary at the cavalry barracks and have him branded like cattle, why..."
"Not like cattle, citizen," Chauvelin broke in blandly. "You shall commence proceedings by administering to citizen Rateau a whole bottle of excellent eau de vie, at the Government's expense. Then, when he is thoroughly and irretrievably drunk, the veterinary will put the brand upon his left forearm... just on letter.... Why, the drunken reprobate will never fell it!"
"As you command, citizen," Chazot assented with perfect indifference. "I am not responsible. I do as I'm told."
"Like the fine soldier that you are, citizen Chazot!" Chauvelin concluded. "And I know that I can trust to your discretion."
"Oh, as to that-!"
"It would not serve you to be otherwise; that's understood. So now, my friend, get you gone with the lout; and take these few words of instructions with you, for the citizen veterinary."
He took tablet and point from his pocket and scribbled a few words; signed it "Chauvelin" with that elegant flourish which can be traced to this day on so many secret orders that emanated from the Committee of Public Safety during the two years of its existence.
Chazot took the written order and slipped it into his pocket. Then he turned on his heel and briefly gave the necessary orders to the men. Once more they hoisted the helpless giant up on his feet. Rateau was willing enough to go. He was willing to do anything so long as they took him away from here, away from the presence of that small devil with the haggard face and the pale, piercing eyes. He allowed himself to be conducted out of the building without a murmur.
Chauvelin watched the little party - the six men, the asthmatic coalheaver and lastly the sergeant - file out of the place, then cross the Rue de la Planchette and take the turning opposite, the one that led through the Porte and the Rue St. Antoine to the cavalry barracks in the Quartier Bastille. After which, he carefully closed the double outside doors and, guided by instinct since the place down here was in darkness once more, he groped his way to the foot of the stairs and slowly mounted to the floor above.
He reached the first-floor landing. The door which led into Mother Théot's apartments was on the latch, and Chauvelin had just stretched out his hand with a view to pushing it open, when the door swung out on its hinges, as if moved by an invisible hand, and a pleasant, mocking voice immediately behind him said, with grave politeness:
"Allow me, my dear M. Chambertin!"