Chapter XXVII:

Terror or Ambition
~ 1


Chauvelin had sufficiently recovered from the emotions of the past half-hour to speak coolly and naturally to Theresia. Whether he knew that she had waylaid Sir Percy Blakeney on the stairs or no, she could not conjecture. He made no reference to his interview with the Scarlet Pimpernel, nor did he question her directly as to whether she had overheard what passed between them.


Certainly his attitude was a more dictatorial one than it had been before. Some of his first words to her contained a veiled menace. Whether the sense of coming triumph gave him a fresh measure of that arrogance which past failures had never wholly subdued, or whether terror for the future caused him to bluster and to threaten, it were impossible to say.


"Vigilance!" he said to Theresia, after a curt greeting. "Incessant vigilance, night and day, is what your country demands of you now, citizeness! All our lives now depend upon our vigilance."


"Yours perhaps, citizen," she rejoined coolly. "You seem to forget that I am not bound-"


"You? Not bound?" he broke in roughly, and with a strident laugh. "Not bound to aid in bringing the most bitter enemy of your country to his knees? Not bound, now that success is in sight?"


"You only obtained my help by a subterfuge," she retorted; "by a forged letter and a villainous lie-"


"Bah! Are you going to tell me, citizeness, that all means are not justifiable when dealing with those whose hands are raised against France? Forgery?" he went on, with passionate earnestness. "Why not? Outrage? Murder? I would commit every crime in order to serve the country which I love, and hound her enemies to death. The only crime that is unjustifiable, citoyenne, is indifference. You? Not bound? Wait! Wait, I say! And if by your indifference or your apathy we fail once more to bring that elusive enemy to book, wait then until you stand at the bar of the people's tribunal, and in the face of France, who called to you for help, of France, who beset by a hundred foes, stretch appealing arms to you, her daughter, you turned a deaf ear to her entreaties, and, shrugging your fair shoulders, calmly pleaded, 'Bah! I was not bound!'"


He paused, carried away by his own enthusiasm, feeling perhaps that he had gone too far, or else had said enough to enforce the obedience which he exacted. After awhile, since Theresia remained silent too, he added more quietly:


"If we capture the Scarlet Pimpernel this time, citizeness, Robespierre shall know from my lips that it is to you and to you alone that he owes this triumph over the enemy whom he fears above all. Without you, I could not have set the trap out of which he cannot now escape."


"He can escape! He can!" she retorted defiantly. "The Scarlet Pimpernel is too clever, too astute, too audacious, to fall into your trap."


"Take care, citoyenne, take care! Your admiration for that elusive hero carries you beyond the bounds of prudence."


"Bah! If he escapes, 'tis you who will be blamed-"


"And 'tis you who will suffer, citoyenne," he riposted blandly. With which parting shaft he left her certain that she would ponder over his threats as well as over his bold promise of a rich reward.


Terror and ambition! Death, or the gratitude of Robespierre! How well did Chauvelin gauge the indecision, the shallowness of a fickle woman's heart! Theresia, left to herself, had only those two alternatives over which to ponder. Robespierre's gratitude, which meant that the admiration which already he felt for her would turn to stronger passion. He was still heart-whole, that she knew. The regard which he was supposed to feel for the humble cabinet-maker's daughter could only be a passing fancy. The dictator of France must choose a mate worthy of his power and of his ambition; his friends would see to that. Robespierre's gratitude! What a vista of triumphs and of glory did that eventuality open up before her, what dizzy heights of satisfied ambition! And what a contrast if Chauvelin's scheme failed in the end!


"Wait," he had cried, "until you stand at the bar of the people's tribunal and plead indifference!"


Theresia shuddered. Despite the close atmosphere of the apartment, she was shivering with cold. Her loneliness, her isolation, here in this house, where an appalling and grim tragedy was even now in preparation, filled her with sickening dread. Overhead she could hear the soldiers moving about, and in one of the rooms close by her sensitive ear caught the sound of Mother Théot's shuffling tread.


But the sound that was most insistent, that hammered away at her heart until she could have screamed with the pain, was the echo of a lazy, somewhat inane laugh and of a gently mocking voice that said lightly:


"The best of life is folly, dear lady. I would not miss this moment for a kingdom."


Her hand went up to her throat to smother the sobs that would rise up against her will. Then she called all her self-control, all her ambition, to her aid. This present mood was sentimental nonsense, an abyss created by an over-sensitive heart, into which she might be falling headlong. What was this Englishman to her that thought of his death should prove such mental agony? As for him, he only laughed at her; despised her still, probably; hated her for the injury she had done to that woman upstairs whom he loved.


Impatient to get away from this atmosphere of tragedy and of mysticism which was preying on her nerves, Theresia called peremptorily to Mother Théot, and when the old woman came shuffling out of her room, demanded her cloak and hood.


"Have you seen aught of citizen Moncrif?" she asked, just before going away.


"I caught sight of him over the way," Catherine Théot replied, "watching this house, as he always does when you, citoyenne, are in it."


"Ah!" the imperious beauty retorted, with a thought of spite in her mellow voice. "Would you could give him a potion, Mother, to cure him of his infatuation for me!"


"Despise no man's love, citoyenne," the witch retorted sententiously. "Even that poor vagabond's blind passion may yet prove thy salvation."


A moment or two later Theresia was once more on the dark stairs where she had dreamed of the handsome milor. She sighed as she ran swiftly down - sighed, and looked half-fearfully about her. She still felt his presence through the gloom; and in the ghostly light that feebly illumined the corner whereon he had stood, she still vaguely saw in spirit his tall straight figure, stooping whilst he kissed her hand. At one moment she was quite sure that she heard his voice and the echo of his pleasant laugh.


Down below, Bertrand Moncrif was waiting for her, silent, humble, with the look of a faithful watch-dog upon his pale, wan face.


"You make yourself ill, my poor Bertrand," Theresia said, not unkindly, seeing that he stood aside to let her pass, fearful of a rebuff if he dared speak to her. "I am in no danger, I assure you; and this constant dogging of my footsteps can do no good to you or to me."


"But it can do no harm," he pleaded earnestly. "Something tells me, Theresia, that danger does threaten you, unbeknown to you, from a quarter least expected."


"Bah!" she retorted lightly. "And if it did, you could not avert it."


He made a desperate effort to check the words of passionate protestations which rose to his lips. He longed to protect her from harm, how happy he would be if he might die for her. But obviously he dared not say what lay nearest to his heart. All he could do now was to talk silently by her side as far as her lodgings in the Rue Villedot, grateful for this small privilege, uncomplaining and almost happy because she tolerated his presence, and because while she walked the ends of her long scarf stirred by the breeze would now and again flutter against his cheek.


Miserable Bertrand! He had laden his soul with an abominable crime for this woman's sake; and he had not even the satisfaction of feeling that she gave him an infinitesimal measure of gratitude.