What occurred during the next few seconds Chauvelin himself would have been least able to say. Whether he stepped of his own accord into the antechamber of Catherine Théot's apartment, or whether an unseen hand pushed him in, he could not have told you. Certain it is that, when he returned to the full realization of things, he was sitting on one of the benches, his back against the wall, whilst immediately in front of him, looking down on him through half-closed, lazy eyes, débonnair, well groomed, unperturbed, stood his arch-enemy, Sir Percy Blakeney.
The antechamber was gloomy in the extreme. Some one in the interval had lighted the tallow candles in the centre chandelier, and these shed a feeble, flickering light on the dank, bare walls, the carpetless floor, the shuttered windows; whilst a thin spiral of evil-smelling smoke wound its way to the blakened ceiling above.
Of Theresia Cabarrus there was not a sign. Chauvelin looked about him, feeling like a goaded animal shut up in a narrow space with its tormentor. He was making desperate efforts to regain his composure, above all he made appeal to that courage which was wont never to desert him. In truth, Chauvelin had never been a physical coward, nor was he afraid of death or outrage at the hands of the man whom he had so deeply wronged, and whom he had pursued with a veritable lust of hate. No! he did not fear death at the hands of the Scarlet Pimpernel. What he feared was ridicule, humiliation, those schemes - bold, adventurous, seemingly impossible - which he knew were already seething behind the smooth, unruffled brow of his arch-enemy, behind those lazy, supercilious eyes, which had the power to irritate his nerves to the verge of dementia.
This impudent adventurer - no better than a spy, despite his aristocratic mien and air of lofty scorn - this meddlesome English brigand, was the one man in the world who had, when he measured his prowess against him, invariably brought him to ignominy and derision, made him a laughing-stock before those whom he had been wont to dominate; and at this moment, when once again he was being forced to look into those strangely provoking eyes, he appraised their glance as he would to sword of a proved adversary, and felt as he did so just that same unaccountable dread of them which had so often paralysed his limbs and atrophied his brain whenever mischance flung him into the presence of his enemy.
He could not understand why Theresia Cabarrus had deserted him. Even a woman, if she happened to be a friend, would by her presence have afforded him moral support.
"You are looking for Mme de Fontenay, I believe, dear M. Chambertin," Sir Percy said lightly, as if divining his thoughts. "The ladies - ah, the ladies! They add charm, piquancy, eh? to the driest conversations. Alas!" he went on with mock affectation, "that Mme de Fontenay should have fled at first sound of my voice! Now she hath sought refuge in the old witch's lair, there to consult the spirits as to how best she can get out again, seeing that the door is now locked.... Deemed awkward, a locked door, when a pretty woman wants to be on the other side. What think you, M. Chambertin?"
"I only think, Sir Percy," Chauvelin contrived to retort, calling all his wits and all his courage to aid him in his humiliating position, "I only think of another pretty woman, who is in the room just above our heads and who would also be mightily glad to find herself the other side of a locked door."
"Your thoughts," Sir Percy retorted with a light laugh, "are always so ingenuous, my dear M. Chambertin. Strangely enough, mine just at this moment run on the possibility - not a very unlikely one, you will admit - of shaking the breath out of your ugly little body, as I would that of a rat."
"Shake, my dear Sir Percy, shake!" Chauvelin riposted with well-simulated calm. "I grant you that I am a puny rat and you are the most magnificent of lions; but even if I lie mangled and breathless on this stone floor at your feet, Lady Blakeney will still be a prisoner in our hands."
"And you will still be wearing the worst-cut pair of breeches it has ever been my bad fortune to behold," Sir Percy retorted, quite unruffled. "Lud love you, man! Have you guillotined all the good tailors in Paris?"
"You choose to be flippant, Sir Percy," Chauvelin rejoined dryly. "But, though you have chosen for the past few years to play the rôle of a brainless nincompoop, I have cause to know that behind your affectations there lurks an amount of sound common sense."
"Lud, how you flatter me, my dear sir!" quoth Sir Percy airily. "I vow you had not so high an opinion of me last time I had the honour of conversing with you. It was at Nantes; do you remember?"
"There, as elsewhere, you succeeded in circumventing me, Sir Percy."
"No, no!" he protested. "Not in circumventing you. Only in making you look a demmed fool!"
"Call it that, if you like, sir," Chauvelin admitted, with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. "Luck has favoured you many a time. As I had the honour to tell you, you have had the laugh of us in the past, and no doubt you are under the impression that you will have it again this time."
"I am such a believer in impressions, my dear sir. The impression now that I have your charming personality is indelibly graven upon my memory."
"Sir Percy Blakeney counts a good memory as one of his many accomplishments. Another is his adventurous spirit, and the gallantry which must inevitably bring him into the net which we have been at pains to spread for him. Lady Blakeney-"
"Name her not, man!" Sir Percy broke in with affect deliberation; "or I verily believe that within sixty seconds you would be a dead man!"
"I am not worthy to speak her name, c'est entendu," Chauvelin retorted with mock humility. "Nevertheless, Sir Percy, it is around the person of that gravious lady that the Fates will spin their web during the next few days. You may kill me. Of course, I am at this moment entirely at your mercy. But before you embark on such a perilous undertaking, will you allow me to place the position a little more clearly before you?"
"Lud, man!" quoth Sir Percy with a quaint laugh. "That's what I'm here for! Think you that I have sought your agreeable company for the mere pleasure of gazing at your amiable countenance?"
"I only desired to explain to you, Sir Percy, the dangers to which you expose Lady Blakeney, if you laid violent hands upon me. 'Tis you, remember, who sought this interview - not I."
"You are right, my dear sir, always right; and I'll not interrupt again. I pray you to proceed."
"Allow me then to make my point clear. There are at this moment a score of men of the National Guard in the room above your head. Every one of them goes to the guillotine if they allow their prisoner to escape; every one of them receives a reward of ten thousand livres the day they capture the Scarlet Pimpernel. A good spur for vigilance, what? But that is not all," Chauvelin went on quite steadily, seeing that Sir Percy had apparently become thoughtful and absorbed. "The men are under the command of Captain Boyer, and he understands that ever day at a certain hour - seven in the evening, to be precise - I will be with him and interrogate him as to the welfare of the prisoner. If - mark me, Sir Percy! - if on any one day I do not appear before him at that hour, his orders are to shoot the prisoner on sight...."
The word was scarce out of his mouth; it broke in a hoarse spasm. Sir Percy had him by the throat, shook him indeed as he would a rat.
"You cur!" he said in an ominous whisper, his face quite close now to that of his enemy, his jaw set, his eyes no longer good-humoured and mildly scornful, but burning with the fire of a mighty, unbridled wrath. "You damned - insolent - miserable cur! As there is a Heaven above us-"
Then suddenly his grip relaxed, the whole face changed as if an unseen hand has swept away the fierce lines of anger and hate. The eyes softened beneath their heavy lids, the set lips broke into a mocking smile. He let go his hold of the Terrorist's throat; and the unfortunate man, panting and breathless, fell heavily against the wall. He tried to steady himself as best he could, but his knees were shaking, and faint and helpless, he finally collapses upon the nearest bench, the while Sir Percy straightened out his tall figure, with unruffled composure rubbed his slender hands one against the other, as if to free them from dust, and said, with gentle, good-humoured sarcasm:
"Do put your cravat straight, man! You look a disgusting object!"
He dragged the corner of a bench forward, sat astride upon it, and waited with perfect sang-froid, spy-glass in hand, while Chauvelin mechanically readjusted the set of his clothes.
"That's better?" he said approvingly. "Just the bow at the back of your neck... a little more to the right... now your cuffs.... Ah, you look quite tidy again!... a perfect picture, I vow, my dear M. Chambertin, of elegance and of a well-regulated mind!"
"Sir Percy-!" Chauvelin broke in with a vicious snarl.
"I entreat you to accept my apologies," the other rejoined with utmost courtesy. "I was on the verge of losing my temper, which we in England would call demmed bad form. I'll not transgress again. I pray you, proceed with what you were saying. So interesting - demmed interesting! You were talking about murdering a woman in cold blood, I think-"
"In hot blood, Sir Percy," Chauvelin rejoined more firmly. "Blood fired by thoughts of just revenge."
"Pardon! My mistake! As you were saying-"
"'Tis you who attack us. You - the meddlesome Scarlet Pimpernel, with your accursed gang!... We defend ourselves as best we can, using what weapons lie closest to our hand-"
"Such as murder, outrage, abduction... and wearing breeches the cut of which would provoke a saint to indignation."
"Murder, abduction, outrage, as you will, Sir Percy," Chauvelin retorted, as cool now as his opponent. "Had you ceased to interfere in the affairs of France when first you escaped punishment for your machinations, you would not now be in the sorry plight in which your own intrigues have at last landed you. Had you left us alone, we should by now have forgotten you."
"Which would have been such a pity, my dear M. Chambertin," Blakeney rejoined gravely. "I should not like you to forget me. Believe me, I have enjoyed life so much these past two years, I would not give up those pleasures even for that of seeing you and your friends have a bath or wear tidy buckles on your shoes."
"You will have cause to indulge in those pleasures within the next few days, Sir Percy," Chauvelin rejoined dryly.
"What?" Sir Percy exclaimed. "The Committee of Public Safety going to have a bath? Or the Revolutionary Tribunal? Which?"
But Chauvelin was determined not to lose his temper again. Indeed, he abhorred this man so deeply that he felt no anger against him, no resentment; only a cold, calculating hate.
"The pleasure of pitting your wits against the inevitable," he riposted dryly.
"Ah?" quoth Sir Percy airily. "The inevitable has always been such a good friend to me."
"Not this time, I fear, Sir Percy."
"Ah? You really mean this time to-?" and he made a significant gesture across his own neck.
"In as few days as possible."
Whereupon Sir Percy rose, and said solemnly:
"You are right there, my friend, quite right. Delays are always dangerous. If you mean to have my head, why - have if quickly. As for me, delays always bore me to tears."
He yawned and stretched his long limbs.
"I am getting so deemed fatigued," he said. "Do you not think this conversation has lasted quite long enough?"
"It was none of my seeking, Sir Percy."
"Mine, I grant you; mine, absolutely! But, hang it, man! I had to tell you that your breeches were badly cut."
"And I, that we are at your service, to end the business as soon as may be."
"To-?" And once more Sir Percy passed his firm hand across his throat. Then he gave a shudder.
"B-r-r-r!" he exclaimed. "I had no idea you were in such a demmed hurry."
"We await your pleasure, Sir Percy. Lady Blakeney must not be kept in suspense too long. Shall we say that, in three days...?"
"Make if four, my dear M. Chambertin, and I am eternally your debtor."
"In four days then, Sir Percy," Chauvelin rejoined with pronounced sarcasm. "You see how ready I am to meet you in a spirit of conciliation! Four days, you say? Very well then; for four days more we keep our prisoner in those rooms upstairs.... After that-"
He paused, awed mayhap, in spite of himself, but the diabolical thought which had suddenly come into his mind - a sudden inspiration which in truth must have emanated from some unclean spirit with which he held converse. He looked the Scarlet Pimpernel - his enemy - squarely in the face. Conscious of his power, he was no longer afraid. What he longed for most at this moment was to see the least suspicion of a shadow dim the mocking light that danced in those lazy, supercilious eyes, or the merest tremor pass over the slender hand framed in priceless Mechlin lace.
For a while complete silence reigned in the bare, dank room - a silence broken only by the stertorous, rapid breathing of the one man who appeared moved. That man was not Sir Percy Blakeney. He indeed had remained quite still, spy-glass in hand, the good-humoured smile still dancing round his lips. Somewhere in the far distance a church clock struck the hour. Then only did Chauvelin put his full fiendish project into words.
"For four days," he reiterated with slow deliberation, "we keep our prisoner in the room upstairs.... After that, Captain Boyer has orders to shoot her."
Again there was silence - only for a second perhaps; whilst down by the Stygian creek, where Time never was, the elfish ghouls and impish demons set up a howl of delight at the hellish knavery of man.
Just one second, whilst Chauvelin waited for his enemy's answer to this monstrous pronouncement, and the very walls of the drabby apartment appeared to listen, expectant. Overhead, could be dimly heard the measured tramp of heavy feet upon the uncarpeted floor. And suddenly through the bare apartment there rang the sound of a quaint, light-hearted laugh.
"You really are the worst-dressed man I have ever come across, my good M. Chambertin," Sir Percy said with rare good-humour. "You must allow me to give you the address of a good little tailor I came across in the Latin Quarter the other day. No decent man would be seen walking up the guillotine in such a waistcoat as you are wearing. Ad for your boots-" He yawned again. "You really must excuse me! I came home late from the theatre last night, and have not had my usual hours of sleep. So, by your leave-"
"By all means, Sir Percy!" Chauvelin replied complacently. "At this moment you are a free man, because I happen to be alone and unarmed, and because this house is solidly built and my voice would not carry to the floor above. Also because you are so nimble that no doubt you could give me the slip long before Captain Boyer and his men came to my rescue. Yes, Sir Percy; for the moment you are a free man! Free to walk out of this house unharmed. But even now, you are not as free as you would wish to be, eh? You are free to despise me, to overwhelm me with lofty scorn, to sharpen your wits at my expense; but you are not free to indulge your desire to squeeze the life out of me, to shake me as you would a rat. And shall I tell you why? Because you know now that if at a certain hour of the day I do not pay my daily visit to Captain Boyer upstairs, he will shoot his prisoner without the least compunction."
Whereupon Blakeney threw up his head and laughed heartily.
"You are absolutely priceless, my dear M. Chambertin!" he said gaily. "But you really must put your cravat straight. It has once again become disarranged... in the heat of your oratory, no doubt.... Allow me to offer you a pin."
And with inimitable affectation, he took a pin out of his own cravat and presented it to Chauvelin, who, unable to control his wrath, jumped to his feet.
"Sir Percy-!" he snarled.
But Blakeney placed a gentle, firm hand upon his shoulder, forcing him to sit down again.
"Easy, easy, my friend," he said. "Do not, I pray you, lose that composure for which you are so justly famous. There! Allow me to arrange your cravat for you. A gentle tug here," he added, suiting the action to the word, "a delicate flick there, and you are the most perfectly cravatted man in France!"
"Your insults leave me unmoved, Sir Percy," Chauvelin broke in savagely, and tried to free himself from the touch of those slender, strong hands that wandered so uncomfortably in the vicinity of his throat.
"No doubt," Blakeney riposted lightly, "that they are as futile as your threats. One does not insult a cur, any more than one threatens Sir Percy Blakeney - what?"
"You are right there, Sir Percy. The time for threats has gone by. And since you appear so vastly entertained-"
"I am vastly entertained, my dear M. Chambertin! How can I help it, when I see before me a miserable shred of humanity who does not even know how to keep his tie straight or his hair smooth, calmly - or almost calmly - talking of - Let me see, what were you talking of, my amiable friend?"
"Of the hostage, Sir Percy, which we hold until the happy day when the gallant Scarlet Pimpernel is a prisoner in our hands."
"'M, yes! He was that once before, was he not, my good sir? Then, too, you laid down mighty schemes for his capture."
"And we succeeded."
"By your usual amiable methods - lies, deceit, forgery. The latter has been useful to you this time too, eh?"
"What do you mean, Sir Percy?"
"You had need of the assistance of a fair lady for your schemes. She appeared disinclined to help you. So when her inconvenient lover, Bertrand Moncrif, was happily dragged away from her path, you forged a letter, which the lady rightly looked upon as an insult. Because of that letter, she nourished a comfortable amount of spite against me, and lent you her aid in the fiendish outrage for which you are about to receive punishment."
He had raised his voice slightly while he spoke, and Chauvelin cast an apprehensive glance in the direction of the door behind which he guessed that Theresia Cabarrus must be straining her ears to listen.
"A pretty story, Sir Percy," he said with affected coolness. "And one that does infinite credit to your imagination. It is mere surmise on your part."
"What, my friend? What is surmise? That you gave a letter to Madame de Fontenay which you had concocted, and which I had never written? Why, man," he added with a laugh, "I saw you do it!"
"More impossible things than that will happen within the next few days, my good sir. I was outside the window of Madame de Fontenay's apartment during the whole of your interview with her. And the shutters were not as closely fastened as you would have wished. But why argue about it, my dear M. Chambertin, when you know quite well that I have given you a perfectly accurate exposé of the means which you employed to make a pretty and spoilt woman help you in your nefarious work?"
"Why argue, indeed?" Chauvelin retorted dryly. "The past is past. I'll answer to my country, which you outrage by your machinations, for the methods which I employ to circumvent them. Your concern and mine, my gallant friend, is solely with the future - with the next four days, in fact... After which, either the Scarlet Pimpernel is in our hands, or Lady Blakeney will be put against the wall upstairs and summarily shot."
Then only did something of his habitual lazy non-chalance go out of Blakeney's attitude. Just for the space of a few seconds he drew himself up to his full magnificent height, and from the summit of his splendid audacity and the consciousness of his own power, he looked down at the mean, cringing figure of the enemy who had hurled this threat of death against the woman he worshipped. Chauvelin vainly tried to keep up some semblance of dignity; he tried to meet the glance which no longer mocked, and to close his ears to the voice which, sonorous and commanding, now threatened in its turn.
"And you really believe," Sir Percy Blakeney said slowly and deliberately, "that you have the power to carry through your infamous schemes? That I - yes, I! - would allow you to come within measurable distance of their execution? Bah! my dear friend. You have learned nothing by past experience - not even this: that when you dared to lay your filthy hands upon Lady Blakeney, you and the whole pack of assassins who have terrorized this beautiful country far too long, struck the knell of your ultimate doom. You have dared to measure your strength against mine by perpetrating an outrage so monstrous in my sight that, to punish you, I - even I! - will sweep you off the face of the earth and send you to join the pack of unclean ghouls who have aided you in your crimes. After which - thank the Lord! - the earth, being purged of your presence, will begin to smell sweetly again."
Chauvelin made a vain effort to laugh, to shrug his shoulders, to put on those airs of insolence which came so naturally to his opponent. No doubt the strain of this long interview with his enemy had told upon his nerves. Certain it is that at this moment, though he was conscious enough to rail inwardly at his own cowardice, he was utterly unable to move or to retort. His limbs felt heavy as lead, an icy shudder was coursing down his spine. It seemed in truth as if some uncanny ghoul had entered the dreary, dank apartment and with gaunt, invisible hand was tolling a silent passing bell - the death-knell of all his ambitions and all his hopes. He closed his eyes, for he felt giddy and sick. When he opened his eyes again he was alone.