Two hours later the Rue St. Honoré had resumed its habitual graveyard-like stillness. The stillness had to come at last. Men in their wildest passions, in their most ebullient moods, must calm down sooner or later, if only temporarily. Blood aglow with enthusiasm, or rage, or idolatry, cannot retain its fever-pitch uninterruptedly for long. And so silence of that turbulent scene of awhile ago.
Here, as in other quarters of Paris, the fraternal suppers had come to an end; and perspiring matrons, dragging weary children at their skirts, wended their way homewards, whilst their men went to consummate the evening's entertainment at one of the numerous clubs or cabarets where the marvellous doings in the Rue St. Honoré could be comfortably lived over again or retailed to those, less fortunate, who had not been there to see.
In the early morning the "nettoyeurs publiques" would be coming along, to clear away the débris of the festivities and to gather up the tables and benches which were the property of the several Municipal sections, and put them away for the next occasion.
But these "nettoyeurs" were not here yet. They, too, were spending an hour or two in the nearest cabarets, discussing the startling events that had rendered notorious one corner of the Rue St. Honoré.
And so the streets were entirely deserted, save here and there for the swift passage of a furtive form, hugging the walls, with hands in pockets and a crimson cap pulled over the eyes, anxious only to escape the vigilance of the night-watchman, swift of foot and silent of tread; and anon, in the Rue St. Honoré itself, when even these nightbirds had ceased to flutter, the noiseless movement of a dark and mysterious form that stirred cautiously upon the greasy cobblestones. More silent, more furtive than any hunted beast creeping out of its lair, this mysterious form emerged from under one of the tables that was standing nearly opposite the house where Robespierre lived and close to the one where the superhuman colossus had wrought his magic trick.
It was Bertrand Moncrif. No longer a fiery Desmosthenes now, but a hunted, terror-filled human creature, whom a stunning blow from a giant fist had rendered senseless, even whilst it saved him from the consequences of his own folly. His senses still reeling, his limbs cramped and aching, he had lain stark and still under the table just where he had fallen, not sufficiently conscious to realize what was happening beyond his very limited range of vision or to marvel what was the ultimate fate of his companions.
His only instinct throughout this comatose condition was the blind one of self-preservation. Feeling rather than hearing the tumult around him, he had gathered his limbs close together, lain as still as a mouse, crouching within himself in the shelter of the table above. It was only when the silence around had lasted an eternity of time that he ventured out of his hiding-place. With utmost caution, hardly daring to breathe, he crept on hands and knees and looked about him, up and down the street. There was no one about. The night fortunately was moonless and dark; nature had put herself on the side of those who wished to pass unperceived.
Bertrand struggled to his feet, smothering a cry of pain. His head ached furiously, his knees shook under him; but he managed to crawl as far as the nearest house, and rested for awhile against its wall. The fresh air did him good. The April breeze blew across his burning forehead.
For a few minutes he remained thus, quite still, his eyes gradually regaining their power of vision. He recollected where he was and all that had happened. An icy shiver ran down his spine, for he also remembered Régine and Mme de Serval and the two children. But he was still too much dazed, really only half conscious, to do more than vaguely marvel what had become of them.
He ventured to look fearfully up and down the street. Tables scattered pell-mell, the unsavoury remnants of fraternal suppers, a couple of smouldering braziers, collectively met his gaze. And at one point, sprawling across a table, with head lost between outstretched arms, a figure, apparently asleep, perhaps dead.
Bertrand, now nothing but a bundle of nerves, could hardly suppress a cry of terror. It seemed to him as if his life depended on whether that sprawling figure was alive or dead. But he dared not approach in order to make sure. For awhile he waited, sinking more and more deeply into the shadows, watching that motionless form on which his life depended.
The figure did not move, and gradually Bertrand nerved himself up to confidence and then to action. He buried his head in the folds of his coat-collar and his hands in the pockets of his breeches, and with silence, stealthy footsteps he started to make his way down the street. At first he looked back once or twice at the immobile figure sprawling across the table. It had not moved, still appeared as if it might be dead. Then Bertrand took to his heels and, no longer looking either behind him or to the right or left, with elbows pressed close to his side, he started to run in the direction of the Tuileries.
A minute later, the motionless figure came back to life, rose quickly and with swift, noiseless tread, started to run in the same direction.
In the cabarets throughout the city, the chief topic of conversation was the mysterious events of the Rue St. Honoré. Those who had seen it all had marvellous tales to tell of the hero of the adventure.
"The man was eight or else nine feet high; his arms reached right across the street from house to house. Flames spurted out of his mouth when he coughed. He had horns on his head; cloven feet; a forked tail!"
These were but a few of the asserverations which rendered the person of the fictitious citizen Rateau a legendary one in the eyes of those who had witnessed his amazing prowess. Those who had not been thus favoured listened wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
But all agreed that the mysterious giant was in truth none other than the far-fame Englishman - that spook, that abominable trickster, that devil incarnate, known to the Committees as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
"But how could it be the Englishman?" was suddenly put forward by citizen Hottot, the picturesque landlord of the Cabaret de la Liberté, a well-known rendezvous close to the Carrousel. "How could it be the Englishman who played you that trick, seeing that you all say it was citizen Rateau who... The devil take it all!" he added, and scratched his bald head with savage vigour, which he always did whene'er he felt sorely perplexed. "A man can't be two at one and the same time; nor two men become one. Nor... Name of a name of a dog!" concluded the worthy citizen, puffing and blowing in the maze of his own puzzlement like an old walrus that is floundering in the water.
"It was the Englishman, I tell thee!" one of his customers asserted indignantly. "Ask anyone who saw him! Ask the tappe-durs! Ask Robespierre himself! He saw him, and turned as grey as - as putty, I tell thee! he concluded, with more conviction than eloquence.
"And I tell thee," broke in citizen Sical, the butcher - he with the bullet-head and bull-neck and a fist that could in truth have felled an ox; "I tell thee that it was citizen Rateau. Don't I know citizen Rateau?" he added, and brought that heavy fist of his down upon the upturned cask on which stood pewter mugs and bottles of eau de vie, and glared aggressively round upon the assembly. He had only one eye; the other presented a hideous appearance, scarred and blotched, the result of a terrible fatality in his early youth. The one eye leered with a glance of triumph as well as of a challenge, daring any less muscular person to impugn his veracity.
One man alone was bold enough to take up the challenge - a wizened little fellow, a printer by trade, with skin of the texture of grained oak and a few unruly curls that tumbled over one another above a highly polished forehead.
"And I tell thee, citizen Sical," he said with firm decision; "I tell thee and those who aver, as thou dost, that citizen Rateau had anything to do with those monkey-tricks, that ye lie. Yes!" he reiterated emphatically, and paying no heed to the glowering looks and blasphemies of Sical and his friends. "Yes, ye lie! Not consciously, I grant you; but you lie nevertheless. Because-" He paused and glanced around him, like a clever actor conscious of the effect which he produced. His tiny beady eyes blinked in the glare of the lamp before him.
"Because what?" came in an eager chorus from every side.
"Because," resumed the other sententiously, "all the while that ye were supping at the expense of the State in the open, and had your gizzards stirred by the juggling devices of some unknown mountebank, citizen Rateau was lying comfortably drunk and snoring lustily in the antechamber of Mother Théot, the soothsayer, right at the other end of Paris!"
"How do you know that, citizen Langlois?" queried the host with icy reproval, for butcher Sical was his best customer, and Sical did not like being contradicted. But little Langlois with the shiny forehead and tiny, beady, humorous eyes, continued unperturbed.
"Pardi!" he said gaily, "because I was at Mother Théot myself, and saw him there."
That certainly was a statement to stagger even the great Sical. It was received in complete silence. Every one promptly felt that the moment was propitious for another drink; nay! that the situation demanded it.
Sical, and those who had fought against the Scarlet Pimpernel theory, were too staggered to speak. They continued to imbibe citizen Hottot's eau de vie in sullen brooding. The idea of the legendary Englishman, which has so unexpectedly been strengthened by citizen Langlois' statement concerning Rateau, was repugnant to their common sense. Superstition was all very well for women and weaklings like Langlois; but for men to be asked to accept the theory that a kind of devil in human shape had so thrown dust in the eyes of a number of perfectly sober patriots that they literally could not believe what they saw, was nothing short of an insult.
And they had seen Rateau at the fraternal supper, had talking with him, until the moment when... Then who in Satan's name had they been talking with?
"Here, Langlois! Tell us-"
And Langlois, who had become the hero of the hour, told all he knew, and told it, we are told, a dozen times and more. How he had gone to Mother Théot's at about four o'clock in the afternoon, and had sat patiently waiting beside his friend Rateau, who wheezed and snored alternately for a couple of hours. How, at six o'clock or a little after, Rateau went out because - the aristo, forsooth! - had found the atmosphere filthy in Mother Théot's antechamber - no doubt he went to get another drink.
"At about half-past seven," the little printer went on glibly, "my turn came to speak with the old witch. When I came out it was long past eight o'clock and quite dark. I saw Rateau sprawling upon a bench, half asleep. I tried to speak with him, but he only grunted. However, I went out then to get a bit of supper at one of the open-air places, and at ten o'clock I was once more past Mother Théot's place. One or two people were coming out of the house. They were all grumbling because they had been told to go. Rateau was one who was for making a disturbance, but I took him by the arm. We went down the street together, and parted company in the Rue de l'Anier, where he lodges. And here I am!" concluded Langlois, and turned triumphantly to challenge the gaze of every one of the sceptics around him.
There was not a single doubtful point in his narrative, and though he was questioned - aye! and severely cross-questioned, too - he never once swerved from his narrative or in any manner did he contradict himself. Later on it transpired that there were others who had been in Mother Théot's antechamber that day. They too subsequently corroborated all that the little printer had said. One of them was the wife of Sical's own brother; and there were others. So, what would you?
"Name of a name of a dog, then, who was it when spirited the aristos away?"