Chauvelin had not yet regained full possession of his faculties, when a few seconds later he saw Theresia Cabarrus glide swiftly across the antechamber. She appeared to him like a ghost - a pixie who had found her way through a keyhole. But she threw him a glance of contempt that was very human, very feminine indeed, and the next moment she was gone.
Outside on the landing she paused. Straining her ears, she caught the sound of a firm footfall slowly descending the stairs. She ran down a few steps, then called softly:
The footsteps paused, and a pleasant voice gave quiet reply:
"At your service, fair lady!"
Theresia, shrewd as well as brave, continued to descend. She was not in the least afraid. Instinct had told her before now that no woman need ever have the slightest fear of that elegant milor with the quaint laugh and gently mocking mien, whom she had learned to know over in England.
Midway down the stairs she came face to face with him, and when she paused, panting, a little breathless with excitement, he said with perfect courtesy:
"You did me the honour to call me, Madame?"
"Yes, milor," she replied, in a quick, eager whisper. "I heard every word that passed between you and citizen Chauvelin."
"Of course you did, dear lady," he rejoined with a smile. "If a woman once resisted the temptation of putting a shell-like ear to a keyhole, the world would lose many a cause for entertainment."
"That letter, milor-" she broke in impatiently.
"Which letter, Madame?"
"That insulting letter to me... when you took Moncrif away.... You never wrote it?"
"Did you really think that I did?" he retorted.
"No. I ought to have guessed... the moment that I saw you in England...."
"And realized that I was not a cad - what?"
"Oh, milor!" she protested. "But why - why did you not tell me before?"
"It had escaped my memory. And if I remember rightly, you spent most of the time when I had the honour of walking with you, in giving me elaborate and interesting accounts of your difficulties, and I, in listening to them."
"Oh!" she exclaimed vehemently. "I hate that man! I hate him!"
"In truth, he is not a lovable personality. But, by your leave, I presume that you did not desire to speak with me so that we might discuss our friend Chauvelin's amiable qualities."
"No, no, milor!" she rejoined quickly. "I called to you because-"
Then she paused for a moment or two, as if to collect her thoughts. Her eager eyes strove to pierce the gloom that enveloped the figure of the bold adventurer. She could only see the dim outline of his powerful figure, the light from above striking on his smooth hair, the elegantly tied bow at the nape of his neck, the exquisite filmy lace at his throat and wrists. His head was slightly bent, one arm in a curve supported his chapeau-bras, his whole attitude was one befitting a salon rather than this dank hovel, where death was even now at his elbow; it was as cool and unperturbed as it had been on that May-day evening, in the hawthorn scented lanes of Kent.
"Milor," she said abruptly, "you told me one - you remember? - that you were what you English call a sportsman. Is that so?"
"I hope always to remain that, dead lady," he replied with a smile.
"Does that mean," she queried, with a pretty air of deference and hesitation, "does that mean a man who would under no circumstances harm a woman?"
"I think so."
"Now even if she - if she has sinned - transgressed against him?"
"I don't quite understand, Madame," he rejoined simply. "And, time being short - Are you perchance speaking of yourself?"
"Yes. I have done you an injury, milor."
"A very great one indeed," he assented gravely.
"Could you," she pleaded, raising earnest, tear-filled eyes to his, "could you bring yourself to believe that I have been nothing but a miserable, innocent tool?"
"So was the lady upstairs innocent, Madame," he broke in quietly.
"I know," she retorted with a sigh. "I know. I would never dare to plead, as you must hate me so."
He shrugged his shoulders with an air of carelessness.
"Oh!" he said. "Does a man every hate a pretty woman?"
"He forgives her, milor," she entreated, "if he is a true sportsman."
"Indeed? You astonish me, dear lady. But in verity you all in this unhappy country are full of surprises for a plain, blunt-headed Britisher. Now what, I wonder," he added, with a light, good-humoured laugh, "would my forgiveness be worth to you?"
"Everything!" she replied earnestly. "I was deceived by that abominable liar, who knew how to play upon a woman's pique. I am ashamed, wretched.... Oh, cannot you believe me? And I would give worlds to atone!"
He laughed in his quiet, gently ironical way.
"You do not happen to possess worlds, dear lady. All that you have is youth and beauty and ambition, and life. You would forfeit all those treasures if you really tried to atone."
"Lady Blakeney is a prisoner.... You are her jailer.... Her precious life is the hostage for yours."
"Milor-" she murmured.
"From my heart, I wish you well, fair one," he broke in lightly. "Believe me, the pagan gods that fashioned you did not design you for tragedy... And if you ran counter to your friend Chauvelin's desires, I fear me that that pretty neck of yours would suffer. A thing to be avoided at all costs! And now," he added, "have I your permission to go? My position here is somewhat precarious, and for the next four days I cannot afford the luxury of entertaining so fine a lady, by running my head into a noose."
He was on the point of going when she placed a restraining hand upon his arm.
"Milor!" she pleaded.
"At your service, dear lady!"
"Is there naught I can do for you?"
He looked at her for a moment or two, and even through the gloom she caught his quizzical look and the mocking lines around his firm lips.
"You can ask Lady Blakeney to forgive you," he said, with a thought more seriousness than was habitual to him. "She is an angel; she might do it."
"And if she does?"
"She will know what to do, to convey her thoughts to me."
"Nay! but I'll do more than that, milor," Theresia continued excitedly. "I will tell her that I shall pray night and day for your deliverance and hers. I will tell her that I have seen you, and that you are well."
"Ah, if you did that-" he exclaimed, almost involuntarily.
"You would forgive me, too?" she pleaded.
"I would do more than that, fair one. I would make you Queen of France, in all but name."
"What do you mean?" she murmured.
"That I would then redeem the promise which I made to you that evening, in the lane - outside Dover. Do you remember?"
She made no reply, closed her eyes; and her vivd fancy, rendered doubly keen by the mystery which seemed to encompass him as with a supernal mantle, conjured up the vision of that unforgettable evening: the moonlight, the scent of the hawthorn, the call of the thrush. She saw him stooping before her, and kissing her finger-tips, even whilst her ears recalled every word he had spoken and every inflexion of his mocking voice:
"Let me rather put it differently, dear lady," he had said then. "One day the exquisite Theresia Cabarrus, the Egeria of the Terrorists, the fiancée of the great Tallien, might need the help of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
And she, angered, piqued by his coolness, thirsting for revenge for the insult which she believed he had put upon her, had then protested earnestly:
"I would sooner die," she had boldly asserted, 'than seek your help, milor!"
And now, at this hour, here in this house where Death lurked in every corner, she could still hear his retort:
"Here in Dover, perhaps.... But in France?"
How right he had been!... How right! She - who had thought herself so strong, so powerful - what was she indeed but a miserable tool in the hands of men who would break her without scruple if she ran counter to their will? Remorse was not for her - atonement too great a luxury for a tool of Chauvelin to indulge in. The black, hideous taint, the sin of having dragged this splendid man and that innocent woman to their death, must rest upon her soul for ever. Even now she was jeopardizing his life, every moment that she kept him talking in this house. And yet the impulse to speak with him, to hear him say a word of forgiveness, had been unconquerable. One moment she longed for him to go; the next she would have sacrificed much to keep him by her side. When he wished to go, she held him back. Now that, with his wonted careless disregard of danger, he appeared willing to linger, she sought for the right words wherewith to bid him go.
He seemed to divine her thoughts, remained quite still while she stood there with eyes closed, in one brief second reviewing the past. All! All! It all came back to her: her challenge to him, his laughing retort.
"You mean," she said at parting, "that you would risk your life to save mine?"
"I should not risk my life, dear lady," he had said, with his puzzling smile; "But I should - God help me! - do my best, if the need arose, to save yours."
Then he had gone, and she had stood under the porch of the quaint old English inn and watched his splendid figure as it disappeared down the street. She had watched, puzzled, uncomprehending, her heart already stirred by that sweet, sad ache which at this hour brought tears to her eyes - the aching sorrow of that which could never, never be. Ah! if it had been her good fortune to have come across such a man, to have aroused in him that admiration for herself which she so scorned in others, how different, how very different would life have been! And she fell to envying the poor prisoner upstairs, who owned the most precious treasure life can offer to any woman: the love of a fine man. Two hot tears came slowly through her closed eyes, coursing down her cheeks.
"Why so sad, dear lady?" he asked gently.
She could not speak for the moment, only murmured vaguely:
"Four days," he retorted gaily, "as you say! In four days, either I or a pack of assassins will be dead."
"Oh, what will become of me?" she sighed.
"Whatever you choose."
"You are bold, milor," she rejoined more calmly. "And you are brave. Alas! what can you do, when the most powerful hands in France are against you?"
"Smite them, dear lady," he replied airily. "Smite them! Then turn my back upon this fair land. It will no longer have need of me." Then he made her a courteous bow. "May I have the honour of escorting you upstairs? Your friend M. Chauvelin will be awaiting you."
The name of her taskmaster brought Theresia back to the realities of life. Gone was the dream of a while ago, when subconsciously her mind had dwelt upon a sweet might-have-been. The man was nothing to her - less than nothing; a common spy, so her friends averred. Even if he had not presumed to write her an insulting letter, he was still the enemy - the foe whose hand was raised against her own country and against those with whose fortunes she had thrown in her lot. Even now, she ought to be calling loudly for help, rouse the house with her cries, so that this spy, this enemy, might be brought down before her eyes. Instead of which, she felt her heart beating with apprehension lest his quiet even voice be heard on the floor above, and he be caught in the snare which those who feared and hated him had laid for him.
Indeed, she appeared far more conscious of danger than he was; and while she chided herself for her folly in having called to him, he was standing before her as if he were in a drawing-room, holding out his arm to escort her in to dinner. His foot was on the step, ready to ascend, even whilst Theresia's straining ears caught the sound of other footsteps up above: footsteps of men - real men, those! - who were set up there to watch for the coming of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and whose vigilance had been spurred by promise of reward and by threat of death. She pushed his arm aside almost roughly.
"You are mad, milor!" she said, in a choked murmur. "Such foolhardiness, when your life is in deadly jeopardy, becomes criminal folly-"
"The best of life," he said airily, "is folly. I would not miss this moment for a kingdom!"
She felt like a creature under a spell. He took her hand and drew it through his arm. She went up the steps beside him.
Every moment she thought that one or more of the soldiers would be coming down, or that Chauvelin, impatient at her absence, might step out upon the landing. The dank, murky air seemed alive with ominous whisperings, of stealthy treads upon the stone. Theresia dared not look behind her, fearful lest the grim presence of Death itself be suddenly made manifest before her.
On the landing he took leave of her, stooped and kissed her hand.
"Why, how cold it is!" he remarked with a smile.
His was perfectly steady and warm. The very feel of it seemed to give her strength. She raised her eyes to his.
"Milor," she entreated, "on my knees I beg of you not to toy with your life any longer."
"Toy with my life?" he retorted gaily. "Nothing is further from my thoughts."
"You must know that every second which you spend in this house if fraught with the greatest possible danger."
"Danger? Ne'er a bit, dear lady! I am no longer in danger, now that you are my friend."
The next moment he was gone. For awhile, Theresia's straining ears still caught the sound of his form footfall upon the stone steps. Then all was still; and she was left wondering if, in very truth, the last few minutes on the dark stairs had not all been part of a dream.