Soon after seven o'clock that evening the storm which had threatened all day burst in its full fury. A raging gale tore at the dilapidated roofs of this squalid corner of the great city, and lashed the mud of the streets into miniature cascades. Soon the rain fell in torrents; one clap of thunder followed on another with appalling rapidity, and the dull, leaden sky was rent with vivid flashes of lightning.
Chauvelin, who had paid his daily visit to the Captain in charge of the prisoner in the Rue de la Planchette, was unable to proceed homewards. Wrapped in his cloak, he decided to wait in the disused storage-room below until it became possible for an unfortunate pedestrian to sally forth into the open.
There seems no doubt that at this time the man's very soul was on the rack. His nerves were stretched to breaking point, not only by incessant vigilance, by obsession of the one idea, the one aim, but also by multifarious incidents which his overwrought imagination magnified into attempts to rob him of his prey.
He trusted no one - not Mother Théot, not the men upstairs, not Theresia: least of all Theresia. And his tortured brain invented and elaborated schemes whereby he set one set of spies to watch another, one set of sleuthhounds to run after another, in a kind of vicious and demoniac circle of mistrust and denunciation. Nor did he trust himself any longer: neither his instinct nor his eyes, nor his ears. His intimates - and he had very few of these - said of him at that time that, if he had his way, he would have had every tatterdemalion in the city branded, like Rateau, lest they were bribed or tempted into changing identities with the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Whilst waiting for a lull in the storm, he was pacing up and down the dank and murky storage house, striving by febrile movements to calm his nerves. Shivering, despite the closeness of the atmosphere, he kept the folds of his mantle closely wrapped around his shoulders.
It was impossible to keep the outer doors open, because the rain beat in wildly on that side, and the place would have been in utter darkness but for an old grimy lanthorn which some prudent hand had set up on a barrel in the centre of the vast space, and which shed a feeble circle of light around. The latch of the wicket appeared to be broken, for the small door, driven by the wind, flapped backwards and forwards with irritating ceaselessness. At one time Chauvelin tried to improvise some means of fastening it, for the noise helped to exacerbate his nerves and, leaning out into the street in order to seize hold of the door, he saw the figure of a man, bent nearly double in the teeth of the gale, shuffling across the street from the direction of the Porte St. Antoine.
It was then nearly eight o'clock, and the light treacherous, but despite the veil of torrential rain which intervene between him and that shuffling figure, something in the gait, the stature, the stoop of the wide, bony shoulders, appeared unpleasantly familiar. The man's head and shoulders were wrapped in a tattered piece of sacking, which he held close to his chest. His arms were bare, as were his shins, and on his feet he had a pair of sabots stuffed with straw.
Midway across the street he paused, and a tearing fit of coughing seemed to render him momentarily helpless. Chauvelin's first instinct prompted him to run to the stairs and to call for assistance from the Captain Boyer. Indeed, he was half-way up to the first floor when, looking down, he saw that the man had entered the place through the wicket-door. Still coughing and spluttering, he had divested himself of his piece of sacking and was crouching down against the barrel in the centre of the room and trying to warm his hands by holding them against the glass sides of the old lanthorn.
From where he stood, Chauvelin could see the dim outline of the man's profile, the chin ornamented with a three-days' growth of beard, the lank hair plastered above the pallid forehead, the huge bones, coated with grime, that protruded through the rags that did duty for a shirt. The sleeves of this tattered garment hung away from the arm, displaying a fiery, inflamed weal, shaped like the letter "M," that had recently been burned into the flesh with a branding iron.
The sight of that mark upon the vagabond's arm caused Chauvelin to pause a moment, then to come down the stairs again.
"Citizen Rateau!" he called.
The man jumped as if he had been struck with a whip, tried to struggle to his feet, but collapsed on the floor, while a terrible fit of coughing took his breath away. Chauvelin, standing beside the barrel, looked down with a grim smile on this miserable wreckage of humanity whom he had so judiciously put out of the way of further mischief. The dim flicker of the lanthorn illumine the gaunt, bony arm, so that the charred flesh stood out like a crimson, fiery string against a coating of grime.
Rateau appeared terrified, scared by the sudden apparition of the man who had inflicted the shameful punishment upon him. Chauvelin's face, lighted from below by the lanthorn, did indeed appear grim and forbidding. Some few seconds elapsed before the coalheaver had recovered sufficiently to stand on his feet.
"I seem to have scared you, my friend," Chauvelin remarked dryly.
"I - I did not know," Rateau stammered with a painful wheeze, "that anyone was here... I came for shelter...."
"I am here for shelter, too," Chauvelin rejoined, "and did not see you enter."
"Mother Théot allows me to sleep here," Rateau went on mildly. "I have had no work for two days... not since..." And he looked down ruefully upon his arm. "People think I am an escaped felon," he explained with snivelling timidity. "And as I have always lived just from hand to mouth..."
He paused, and cast an obsequious glance on the Terrorist, who retorted dryly:
"Better men than you, my friend, live from hand to mouth these days. Poverty," he continued with grim sarcasm, "exalts a man in this glorious revolution of ours. 'Tis riches that shame him."
Rateau's branded arm went up to his lanky hair, and he scratched his head dubiously.
"Aye," he nodded, obviously uncomprehending; "perhaps! But I'd like to taste some of that shame!"
Chauvelin shrugged his shoulders and turned on his heel. The thunder sounded a little more distant and the rain less violent for the moment, and he strode toward the door.
"The children run after me now," Rateau continued dolefully. "In my quartier, the concierge turned me out of my lodging. They keep asking me what I have done to be branded like a convict."
"Tell them you've been punished for serving the English spy," he said.
"The Englishman paid me well, and I am very poor," Rateau retorted meekly. "I could serve the State now... if it would pay me well."
"By telling you something, citizen, which you would like to know."
"What is it?"
At once the instinct of the informer, of the sleuthhound, was on the qui vive. The coalheaver's words, the expression of cunning on his ugly face, the cringing obsequiousness of his attitude, all suggested the spirit of intrigue, of underhand dealing, of lies and denunciations, which were as the breath of life to this master-spy. He retraced his steps, came and sat upon a pile of rubbish beside the barrel, and when Rateau, terrified apparently at what he had said, made a motion as if to slink away, Chauvelin called him back peremptorily.
"What is it, citizen Rateau," he said curtly, "that you could tell me, and that I would like to know?"
Rateau was cowering in the darkness, trying to efface his huge bulk and to smother his rasping cough.
"You have said too much already," Chauvelin went on harshly, "to hold your tongue. And you have nothing to fear... everything to gain. What is it?"
For a moment Rateau leaned forward, struck the ground with his fist.
"Am I to be paid this time?" he asked.
"If you speak the truth - yes."
"That depends on what you tell me. And now, if you hold your tongue, I shall call to the citizen Captain upstairs and send you to jail."
The coalheaver appeared to crouch yet further into himself. He looked like a huge, shapeless mass in the gloom. His huge yellow teeth could be heard chattering.
"Citizen Tallien will send me to the guillotine," he murmured.
"What has citizen Tallien to do with it?"
"He pays great attention to the citoyenne Cabarrus."
"And it is about her?"
"What is it?" Chauvelin reiterated harshly.
"She is playing you false, citizen," Rateau murmured in a hoarse breath, and crawled like a long, bulky worm a little closer to the Terrorist.
"She is in league with the Englishman."
"How do you know?"
"I saw her here... two days ago.... You remember, citizen... after you..."
"Yes, yes!" Chauvelin cried impatiently.
"Sergeant Chazot took me to the cavalry barracks.... They gave me to drink... and I don't remember much what happened. But when I was myself again, I know that my arm was very sore, and when I looked down I saw this awful mark on it.... I was just outside the Arsenal then.... How I got there I don't know.... I suppose Sergeant Chazot brought me back.... He says I was howling for Mother Théot.... She has marvellous salves, you know, citizen."
"I came in here.... My head still felt very strange... and my arm felt like living fire. Then I heard voices... they came from the stairs.... I looked about me, and saw them standing there...."
Rateau, leaning upon one arm, stretched out the other and pointed to the stairs, Chauvelin, with a violent gesture, seized him by the wrist.
"Who?" he queried harshly. "Who was standing there?"
His glance followed the direction in which the coalheaver was pointing, then instinctively wandered back and fastened on that fiery letter "M" which had been seared into the vagabond's flesh.
"The Englishman and citoyenne Cabarrus," Rateau replied feebly, for he had winced with pain under the excited grip of the Terrorist.
"You are certain?"
"I heard them talking-"
"What did they say?"
"I do not know.... But I saw the Englishman kiss the citoyenne's hand before they parted."
"And what happened after that?"
"The citoyenne went to Mother Théot's apartment and the Englishman came down the stairs. I had just time to hide behind that pile of rubbish. He did not see me."
Chauvelin uttered a savage curse of disappointment.
"Is that all?" he exclaimed.
"The State will pay me?" Rateau murmured vaguely.
"Not a sou!" Chauvelin retorted roughly. "And if citizen Tallien hears this pretty tale..."
"I can swear to it?"
"Bah! Citoyenne Cabarrus will swear that you lied. 'Twill be her word against that of a mudlark!"
"Nay!" Rateau retorted. "'Twill be more than that."
"Will you sweat to protect me, citizen, if citizen Tallien-"
"Yes, yes! I'll protect you.... And the guillotine has no time to trouble about suck muck-worms as you!"
"Well, then, citizen," Rateau went on in a hoarse murmur, "if you will go to the citoyenne's lodgings in the Rue Villedot, I can show you where the Englishman hides the clothes wherewith he disguises himself... and the letters which he writes to the citoyenne when..."
He paused, obviously terrified at the awesome expression of the other man's face. Chauvelin had allowed the coalheaver's wrist to drop out of his grasp. He was sitting quite still, silent and grim, his thin, claw-like hands closely clasped together and held between his knees. The flickering light of the lanthorn distorted his narrow face, lengthened the shadows beneath the nose and chin, threw a high light just below the brows, so that the pale eyes appeared to gleam with an unnatural flame. Rateau hardly dared to move. He lay like a huge bundle of rags in the inky blackness beyond the circle of light projected by the lanthorn; his breath came and went with a dragging, hissing sound, now and then broken by a painful cough.
For a moment or two there was silence in the great disused store-room - a silence broken only by the thunder, dull and distant now, and the ceaseless, monotonous patter of the rain. Then Chauvelin murmured between his teeth:
"If I thought that she..." But he did not complete the sentence, jumped to his feet and approached the big mass of rags and humanity that coward in the gloom. "Get up, citizen Rateau!" he commanded.
The asthmatic giant struggled to his knees. His wooden shoes had slipped off his feet. He groped for them, and with trembling hands contrived to put them on again.
"Get up!" Chauvelin reiterated, with a snarl like an angry tiger.
He took a small tablet and a leaden point from his pocket, and stooping toward the light he scribbled a few words, and then handed the tablet to Rateau.
"Take this over to the Commissary of the Section in the Place du Carrousel. Half a dozen men and a captain will be detailed to go with you to the lodgings of the citoyenne Cabarrus in the Rue Villedot. You will find me there. Go!"
Rateau's hand trembled visibly as he took the tablets. He was obviously terrified at what he had done. But Chauvelin paid no further heed to him. He had given him his orders, knowing well that they would be obeyed. The man had gone too far to draw back. It never entered Chauvelin's head that the coalheaver might have lied. He had no cause for spite against the citoyenne Cabarrus, and the fair Spaniard stood on too high a pinncable of influence for false denunciations to touch her. The Terrorist waited until Rateau had quietly slunk out by the wicket door; then he turned on his heel and quickly went up the stairs.
In the vestibule on the top floor he called to Capitaine Boyer.
"Citizen Captain," he said at the top of his voice, "You remember that to-morrow eve is the end of the third day?"
"Pardi!" the Captain retorted gruffly. "Is anything changed?"
"Then, unless by the eve of the fourth day that cursed Englishman is not in our hands, my orders are the same."
"Your orders are," Chauvelin rejoined loudly, and pointed with grim intention at the door behind which he felt Marguerite Blakeney to be listening for every sound, "unless the English spy is in our hands on the evening of the fourth day, to shoot your prisoner."
"It shall be done, citizen!" Captain Boyer gave reply.
Then he grinned maliciously, because from behind the closed door there had come a sound like a quickly smothered cry.
After which, Chauvelin nodded to the Captain and once more descended the stairs. A few seconds later he went out of the house into the stormy night.