Chauvelin, who, despite his many failures, was still one of the most conspicuous - since he was one of the most unscrupulous - members of the Committee of Public Saftey, had not attended its sittings for some days. He had been too deeply absorbed in his own schemes to trouble about those of his colleagues. In truth, the coup which he was preparing was so stupendous, and if it succeeded his triumph would be so magnificent, that he could well afford to hold himself aloof. Those who were still inclined to scorn and to scoff at him to-day would be his most cringing sycophants on the morrow.
He knew well enough - none better - that during this time the political atmosphere in the Committees and the Clubs was nothing short of electrical. He felt, as every one did, that something catastrophic was in the air, that death, more self-evident than ever before, lurked at every man's elbow, and stalked round the corner of every street.
Robespierre, the tyrant, the autocrat whose mere word swayed the multitude, remained silent and impenetrable, absent from every gathering. He only made brief appearances at the Convention, and there sat moody and self-absorbed. Every one knew that this man, dictator in all but name, was meditating a Titanic attack upon his enemies. His veiled threats, uttered during his rare appearances at the speaker's tribune, embraced even the most popular, the most prominent, amongst the representatives of the people. Every one, in fact, who was likely to stand in his way when he was ready to snatch the supreme power. His intimates - Couthon, St. Just, and the others - openly accused of planning a dictatorship for their chief, hardly took the trouble to deny the impeachment, even whilst Tallien and his friends, feeling that the tyrant had already decreed their doom, went about like ghostly shadows, not daring to raise their voice in the Convention lest the first word they uttered brought down the sword of his lustful wrath upon their heads.
The Committee of Public Safety - now re-named the Revolutionary Committee - strove on the other hand by a recrudescence of cruelty to ingratiate itself with the potential dictator and to pose before the people as alone pure and incorruptible, blind in justice, inexorable where the safety of the Republic was concerned. Thus an abominable emulation of vengeance and of persecution went on between the Committee and Robespierre's party, wherein neither side could afford to give in, for fear of being accused of apathy and of moderation.
Chauvelin, for the most part, had kept out of the turmoil. He felt that in his hands lay the destiny of either party. His one thought was of the Scarlet Pimpernel and of his imminent capture, knowing that, with the most inveterate opponent of revolutionary excesses in his hands, he would within an hour be in a position to link his triumph with one or the other of the parties - either with Robespierre and his herd of butchers, or with Tallien and the Moderates.
He was the mysterious and invisible deus ex machina, who anon, when it suited his purpose, would reveal himself in his full glory as the man who had tracked down and brought to the guillotine the most dangerous enemy of the revolutionary government. And, so easily is a multitude swayed, that that one fact would bring him popularity transcending that of every other man in France. He, Chauvelin, the despised, the derided, whose name had become synonymous with Failure, would then with a word sweep those aside who had mocked him, hurl his enemies from their pedestals, and name at will the rulers of France All within four days!
And of these, two had gone by.
These days in mid-July had been more than usually sultry. It seemed almost as if Nature had linked herself with the passions of men, and hand in hand with Vengeance, Lust and Cruelty, had rendered the air hot and heavy with the presage of on-coming storm.
For Marguerite Blakeney these days had gone by like a nightmare. Cut off from all knowledge of the outside world, without news from her husband for the past forty-eight hours, she was enduring mental agony such as would have broken a weaker or less trusting spirit.
Two days ago she had received a message, a few lines hastily scribbled by an unknown hand, and brought to her by the old woman who waited upon her.
"I have seen him," the message said. "He is well and full of hope. I pray God for your deliverance and his, but help can only come by a miracle."
The message was written in a feminine hand, with no clue as to the writer.
Since then, nothing.
Marguerite had not seen Chauvelin again, for which indeed she thanked Heaven on her knees. But every day at a given hour she was conscious of his presence outside her door. She heard his voice in the vestibule: there would be a word or two of command, the grounding of arms, then some whispered talking; and presently Chauvelin's stealthy footstep would slink up to her door. And Marguerite would remain still as a mouse that scents the presence of a cat, holding her breath, life almost at a standstill in this agony of expectation.
The remainder of the day time hung with a leaden weight on her hands. She was given no books to read, not a needle wherewith to busy herself. She had no one to speak to save old Mother Théot, who waited on her and brought her her meals, nearly always in silence, and with a dour mien which checked any attempt at conversation.
For company, the unfortunate woman had nothing but her own thoughts, her fears which grew in intensity, and her hopes which were rapidly dwindling, as hour followed hour and day succeeded day in dreary monotony. No sound around her save the incessant tramp, tramp of sentries at her door, and every two hours the changing of the guard in the vestibule outside; then the whispered colloquies, the soldiers playing at cards or throwing dice, the bibulous songs, the ribald laughter, the obscene words flung aloud like bits of filthy rag; the life, in fact, that revolved around her jailers and seemed at a standstill within her prison walls.
In the late afternoons the air would become insufferably hot, and Marguerite would throw open the window and sit beside it, her gaze fixed upon the horizon far away, her hands lying limp and moist upon her lap.
Then she would fall to dreaming. Her thoughts, swifter than flight of swallows, would cross the sea and go roaming across country to her stately home in Richmond, where at this house the moist, cool air was fragrant with the scent of late roses and of lime blossom, and the murmur of the river lapping the mossy bank whispered of love and of peace. In her dream she would see the tall figure of her beloved coming toward her. The sunset was playing upon his smooth hair and upon his strong, slender hands, always outstretched toward the innocent and the weak. She would hear his dear voice calling her name, feel his arms around her, and her senses swooning in the ecstasy of that perfect moment which comes just before a kiss.
She would dream... only to wake up the next moment to hear the church clock of St. Antoine striking seven, and a minute or two later that ominous shuffling footstep outside her door, those whisperings, the grounding of arms, a burst of cruel laughter, which brought her from the dizzy heights of illusive happiness back to the hideous reality of her own horrible position, and of the deadly danger which lay in wait for her beloved.