It was like an outraged divinity in the face of sacrilege that Theresia Cabarrus appeared in the antechamber of her apartment, ten minutes later.
Her rooms were full of men; sentries were at the door; the furniture was overturned, the upholstery ripped up, cupboard doors swung open; even her bed and bedding lay in a tangled heap upon the floor. The lights in the rooms were dim, one single lamp shedding its feeble rays from the antechamber into the living-room, whilst another flickered on a wall-bracket in the passage. In the bedroom the maid Pepita, guarded by a soldier, was loudly lamenting and cursing in voluble Spanish.
Citizen Chauvelin was standing in the centre of the living-room, intent on examining some papers. In a corner of the antechamber cowered the ungainly figure of Rateau the coalheaver.
Theresia took in the whole tragic picture at a glance; then with a proud, defiant toss of the head she swept past the soldiers in the antechamber and confronted Chauvelin, before he had time to notice her approach.
"Something has turned your brain, citizen Chauvelin," she said coolly. "What is it?"
He looked up, encountered her furious glance, and at once made her a profound, ironical bow.
"How wise was our young friend there to tell you of our visit, citoyenne," he said suavely.
And he looked with mild approval in the direction where Bertrand Moncrif stood between two soldiers, who had quickly barred his progress and were holding him tightly by the wrists.
"I came," Theresia retorted harshly, "as the forerunner of those who will know how to punish this outrage, citizen Chauvelin."
Once more he bowed, smiling blandly.
"I shall be as ready to receive them," he said quietly, "as I am gratified to see the citoyenne Cabarrus. When they come, shall I direct them to call and see their beautiful Egeria at the Conciergerie, whither we shall have the honour to convey her immediately?"
Theresia threw back her head and laughed; but her voice sounded hard and forced.
"At the Conciergerie?" she exclaimed. "I?"
"Even you, citoyenne," Chauvelin replied.
"On what charge, I pray you?" she demanded, with biting sarcasm.
"Of trafficking with the enemies of the Republic."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You are mad, citizen Chauvelin!" she riposted with perfect sang-froid. "I pray you, order your men to re-establish order to my apartment; and remember that I will hold you responsible for any damage that has been done."
"Shall I also," Chauvelin rejoined with equally perfect equanimity, "replace these letters and other interesting objects, there where we found them?"
"Letters?" she retorted, frowning. "What letters?"
"These, citoyenne," he replied, and held up to her gaze the papers which he had in his hand.
"What are they? I have never seen them before."
"Nevertheless, we found them in that bureau." And Chauvelin pointed to a small piece of furniture which stood against the wall, and the drawers of which had obviously been forcibly torn open. Then as Theresia remained silent, apparently ununderstanding, he went on suavely: "They are letters written at different times to Mme de Fontenay, née Cabarrus - Our Lady of Pity, as she was called by grateful Bordeaux."
"By whom?" she asked.
"By the interesting hero of romance who is known to the world as the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"It is false!" she retorted firmly. "I have never received a letter from him in my life!"
"His handwriting is all too familiar to me, citoyenne; and the letters are addressed to you."
"It is false!" she reiterated with unabated firmness. "This is some devilish trick you have devised in order to ruin me. But take care, citizen Chauvelin, take care! If this is a trial of strength 'twixt you and me, the next few hours will show who will gain the day."
"If it were a trail of strength 'twixt you and me, citoyenne," he rejoined blandly, "I would already be a vanquished man. But it is France this time who has challenged a traitor. That traitor is Theresia Fontenay, née Cabarrus. The trial of strength is between her and France."
"You are mad, citizen Chauvelin! If there were letters writ by the Scarlet Pimpernel found in my rooms, 'tis you who put them there!"
"That statement you will be at liberty to substantiate to-morrow, citoyenne," he retorted coldly, "at the bar of the revolutionary tribunal. There, no doubt, you can explain away how citizen Rateau knew of the existence of those letters, and led me straight to their discovery. I have an officer of the National Guard, the commissary of the section, and half a dozen men, to prove the truth of what I say, and to add that in a wall-cupboard in your antechamber we also found this interesting collection, the use of which you, citoyenne, will no doubt be able to explain."
He stepped aside and pointed to a curious heap which littered the floor - rags for the most part: a tattered shirt, frayed breeches, a grimy cap, a wig made up of lank, colourless hair, the counterpart of that which adorned the head of the coalheaver Rateau.
Theresia looked on those rags for a moment in a kind of horrified puzzlement. Her cheeks and lips became the colour of ashes. She put her hand up to her forehead, as if to chase a hideous, ghoulish vision away, and smothered a cry of horror. Puzzlement had given place to a kind of superstitious dread. The room, the rags, the faces of the soldiers began to whirl around her - impish shapes to dance a wild saraband before her eyes. And in the midst of this witch's cauldron the figure of Chauvelin, like a weird hobgoblin, was executing elf-like contortions and brandishing a packet of letters writ upon scarlet paper.
She tried to laugh, to speak defiant words; but her throat felt as if it were held in a vice, and losing momentary consciousness she tottered, and only saved herself from measuring her length upon the floor by clinging with both hands to a a table immediately behind her.
As to what happened after that, she only had a blurred impression. Chauvelin gave a curt word of command, and a couple of soldiers came and stood to right and left of her. Then a piercing cry rang through the narrow rooms, and she saw Bertrand Moncrif for one moment between herself and the soldiers, fighting desperately, shielding her with his body, tearing and raging like a wild animal defending its young. The whole room appeared full of deafening noise: cries and more cries - words of command - calls of rage and of entreaty. Then suddenly the word "Fire!" and the detonation of a pistol at close range, and the body of Bertrand Moncrif sliding down lip and impotent to the floor.
After that, everything became dark around her. Theresia felt as if she were looking down an immeasurable abyss of inky blackness, and that she was falling, falling....
A thin, dry laugh brought her back to her senses, her pride to the fore, her vanity up in arms. She drew her statuesque figure up to its full height and once more confronted Chauvelin like an august and outraged divinity.
"And at whose word," she demanded, "is this monstrous charge to be brought against me?"
"At the word of a free citizen of the State," Chauvelin replied coldly.
"Bring him before me."
Chauvelin shrugged his shoulders and smiled indulgently, like one who is ready to humour a wayward child.
"Citizen Rateau!" he called.
From the anteroom there came the sound of much shuffling, spluttering, and wheezing; then the dull clatter of wooden shoes upon the carpeted floor; and presently the ungainly, grime-covered figure of the coalheaver appeared in the doorway.
Theresia looked on him for a few seconds in silence, then she gave a ringing laugh, and with exquisite bare arm outstretched she pointed to the scrubby apparition.
"That man's word against mine!" she called, with well-assumed mockery. "Rateau, the caitiff against Theresia Cabarrus, the intimate friend of citizen Robespierre! What a subject for a lampoon!"
Then her laughter broke. She turned once more on Chauvelin like an angry goddess.
"That vermin!" she exclaimed, her voice hoarse with indignation. "That sorry knave with a felon's brand! In truth, citizen Chauvelin, your spite must be hard put to it to bring up such a witness against me!"
Then suddenly her glance fell upon the lifeless body of Bertrand Moncrif, and on the horrible crimson stain which discoloured his coat. She gave a shudder of horror, and for a moment her eyes closed and her head fell back, as if she were about to swoon. But she quickly recovered herself. Her will-power at this moment was unconquerable. She looked with unutterable contempt on Chauvelin; then she raised her cloak, which had slipped down from her shoulders, and wrapped it with a queen-like gesture around her, and without another word led the way out of the apartment.
Chauvelin remained standing in the middle of the room, his face quite expressionless, his clawlike hands still fingering the fateful letters. Two soldiers remained with him beside the body of Bertrand Moncrif. The maid Pepita, still shrieking and gesticulating violently, had to be dragged away in the wake of her mistress.
In the doorway between the living-room and the antechamber, Rateau, humble, snivelling, more than a little frightened, stood aside in order to allow the guard and their imperious prisoner to pass. Theresia did not condescend to look at him again; and he, shuffling and stumbling in his clumsy wooden shoes, followed the soldiers down the stairs.
It was still raining hard. The captain who was in charge of Theresia told her that he had a chaise ready for her. It was waiting out in the street. Theresia ordered him to send for it; she would not, she said, offer herself as a spectacle to the riff-raff who happened to be passing by. The captain had probably received orders to humour the prisoner as far as was compatible with safety. Certain it is that he sent one of his men to fetch the coach and to order the concierge to throw open the porte-cochère.
Theresia remained standing in the narrow vestibule at the foot of the stairs. Two soldiers stood on guard over the maid, whilst another stood beside Theresia. The captain, muttering with impatience, paced up and down the stone-paved floor. Rateau had paused on the stairs, a step or two just above where Theresia was standing. On the wall opposite, supported by an iron bracket, a smoky oil-lamp shed a feeble, yellowish flicker around.
A few minutes went by; then a loud clatter woke the echoes of the dreary old house, and a coach drawn by two ancient, half-starved nags, lumbered into the courtyard and came to a halt in front of the open doorway. The captain gave a sigh of relief, and called out: "Now then, citoyenne!" whilst the soldier who had gone to fetch the coach jumped down from the box-seat and, with his comrades, stood at attention. The maid was summarily bundled into the coach, and Theresia was ready to follow.
Just then the draught through the open door blew her velvet cloak against the filthy rags of the miserable ruffian behind her. An unexplainable impulse caused her to look up, and she encountered his eyes fixed upon her. A dull cry rose to her throat, and instinctively she put up her hand to her mouth, striving to smother the sound. Horror dilated her eyes, and through her lips one word escaped like a hoarse murmur:
He put a grimy finger to his lips. But already she had recovered herself. Here then was the explanation of the mystery which surrounded this monstrous denunciation. The English milor had planned it as revenge for the injury done to his wife.
"Captain!" she cried out shrilly. "Beware! The English spy is at your heels!"
But apparently the captain's complaisance did not go to the length of listening to the ravings of his fair prisoner. He was impatient to get this unpleasant business over.
"Now then, citoyenne!" was his gruff retort. "En voiture!"
"You fool!" she cried, bracing herself against the grip of the soldiers who were on the point of seizing her. "'Tis the Scarlet Pimpernel! If you let him escape-"
"The Scarlet Pimpernel?" the Captain retorted with a laugh. "Where?"
"The coalheaver! Rateau! 'Tis he, I tell you!" And Theresia's cries became more frantic as she felt herself unceremoniously lifted off the ground. "You fool! You fool! You are letter him escape!"
"Rateau, the coalheaver?" the captain exclaimed. "We have heard that pretty story before. Here, citizen Rateau!" he went on, and shouted at the top of his voice. "Go and report yourself to citizen Chauvelin. Tell him you are the Scarlet Pimpernel! As for you, citoyenne, enough of this shouting - what? My orders are to take you to the Conciergerie, and not to run after spies - English, German, or Dutch. Now then, citizen soldiers!..."
Theresia, throwing her dignity to the winds, did indeed raise a shout that brought the other lodgers of the house to their door. But her screams had become inarticulate, as the soldiers, in obedience to the captains impatient orders, had wrapped her cloak about her head. Thus the inhabitants of the dreary old house in the Rue Villedot could only ascertain that the citoyenne Cabarrus who lodged on the third floor had been taken to prison, screaming and fighting, in a manner that no self-respecting aristo had ever done.
Theresia Cabarrus was ignominiously lifted into the coach and deposited by the side of equally noisy Pepita. Through the folds of the cloak her reiterated cry could still faintly be heard:
"You fool! You traitor! You cursed, miserable fool!"
One of the lodgers on the second floor - a young woman who was on good terms with every male creature that wore uniform - leaned over the balustrade of the balcony and shouted gaily down:
"Hey, citizen captain! Why is the aristo screaming so?"
One of the soldiers looked up, and shouted back:
"She has hold of the story that citizen Rateau is an English milor in disguise, and she wants to run after him!"
Loud laughter greeted this tale, and a lusty cheer was set up as the coach swung clumsily out of the courtyard.
A moment or two later, Chauvelin, followed by the two soldiers, came quickly down the stairs. The noise from below had at last reached his ears. At first he too through that it was only the proud Spaniard who was throwing her dignity to the winds. Then a word or two sounded clearly above the din:
"The Scarlet Pimpernel! The English spy!"
The words acted like a sorcerer's charm - a call from the vasty deep. In an instant the rest of the world ceased to have any importance in his sight. One thing and one alone mattered; his enemy.
Calling to the soldiers to follow him, he was out of the apartment and down in the vestibule below in a trice. The coach at that moment was turning out of the porte-cochère. The courtyard, wrapped in gloom, was alive with chattering and laughter which proceeded from the windows and balconies around. It was raining fast, and from the balconies the water was pouring down in torrents.
Chauvelin stood in the doorway and sent one of the soldiers to ascertain what the disturbance had all been about. The man returned with an account of how the aristo had screamed and raved like a mad-woman, and tried to escape by sending the citizen captain on a fool's errand, vowing that poor old Rateau was an English spy in disguise.
Chauvelin gave a sigh of relief. He certainly need not rack his nerves or break his head over that! He had good cause to know that Rateau, with the branded arm, could not possibly be the Scarlet Pimpernel!