The evening was spent - strangely enough - in silence and in gloom. Josette, who a few hours before had thought to have gained her point and to have brought both hope and faith into Louise's heart, found that her friend had fallen back into that state of dejection out of which nothing that Josette said could possibly drag her. Josette put this down to Bastien's influence. Bastien too had always been skeptical about the Scarlet Pimpernel, didn't believe in his existence at all. He somehow confused him in his mind with that Austrian agent Baron de Batz, of whom he had had such bitter experience. De Batz, too, had been full of schemes for rescuing the King, the Royal family, and many a persecuted noble, threatened with death, but months had gone by and nothing had been done. The mint of Austrian money promised by him was never forthcoming. De Batz himself was never on the spot when he wanted. In vain had Bastien de Croissy toiled and striven his hardest to bring negotiations to a head between a certain few members of the revolutionary government who were ready to accept bribes, and the Austrian emissaries who professed themselves ready to pay. Men like Chabot and Bazire, and Fabre d'Eglantine had been willing enough to negotiate, though their demands became more and more exorbitant as time went on and the King's peril more imminent: even Danton had thrown out hints that in these hard times a man must live, so why not on Austrian money, since French gold was so scarce? but somehow, when everything appeared to be ready, and greedy palms were already outstretched to receive the promised bribes, the money was never there, and de Batz, warned of his peril if he remained in France, had fled across the border.
And somehow the recollection of that intriguer was inextricably mixed up in de Croissy's mind with the legendary personality of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Josette is quite convinced of his existence," Louise had said to her husband that afternoon, when they stood together in sorrow and tears beside the sick-bed of Charles-Léon, "and that he can and will get me the permit to take our darling away into the country."
But Bastien shook his head, sadly and obstinately.
"Don't lure yourself with false hopes, my dear," he said. "Josette is an angel, but she is also a child. She dreams and persuades herself that her dreams are realities. I have had experience of such dreams myself."
"I know," Louise rejoined with a sigh.
Hers was one of those yielding natures, gentle and affectionate, that can be swayed one way or the other by an event, sometimes by a mere word; and yet at times she would be strangely obstinate, with the obstinacy of the very weak, or of the feather-pillow that seems to yield at the touch only to regain it's own shape the next moment.
A word from Bastien and all the optimism which Josette's ardour had implanted in her heart froze again into scepticism and discouragement.
"If we cannot save Charles-Léon," she said, "I shall die."
Twenty-four hours had gone by since then, and to-day Bastien de Croissy sat alone in the small musty office of the Rue de la Monnaie. He had sent his clerk, Maurice Reversac, off early because he was a kindly man and had not forgotten the days of his own courtship, and knew that the happiest hours of Maurice's day were those when he could meet Josette Gravier outside the gate of the Government workshop and take her out for a walk.
De Croissy had also sent Maurice away early because he wanted to be alone. A crisis had arisen in his life with which he desired to deal thoughtfully and dispassionately. His child was ill, would die, perhaps, unless he, the father, could contrive to send him out of Paris into the country under the care of his mother. The tyranny of this Government of Liberty and Fraternity had made this impossible; no man, woman or child was allowed to be absent from the permanent domicile without a special permit, which was seldom, if ever, granted; not unless some powerful leverage could be found to force those tyrants to grant the permit.
Now Bastien de Croissy was in possession of such a leverage. The question was: had the time come at last to make use of it? He now sat at his desk and a sheaf of letters were laid out before him. These letters, if rightly handled, would, he knew, put so much power into his hands that he could force some of the most influential members of the government to grant him anything he chose to ask.
"Get as much letter-writing as you can out of the black-guards," the Austrian emissary had said to him during that memorable interview in the Cabaret des Trois Singes, and de Croissy had acted on this advice. On one pretext or another he had succeeded in persuading at any rate three influential members of the existing Government to put their demands in writing. Bastien had naturally carefully preserved these letters. De Batz was going to use them for his own ends: as a means wherewith to discredit men who proclaimed their disinterestedness and patriotism from the housetops, and not only to discredit them, "but to make them suffer the same humiliation and the same shameful death which they had planned for their King." These also had been the emissary's words at that fateful interview; and de Croissy had kept the letters up to now, not with a view to using them for his own benefit, or for purposes of blackmail, but with the earnest hope that one day chance would enable him to use them for the overthrow and humiliation of tyrants and regicides.
But now events had suddenly taken a sharp turn. Charles-Léon might die if he was not taken out of the fever-infested city, and Louise, very rightly, would not trust the sick child in a stranger's hands. And if Charles-Léon were to die, Louise would quickly follow the child to his grave.
Bastien de Croissy sat for hours in front of his desk with those letters spread out before him. He picked them up one by one, read and re-read them and put them down again. He rested his weary head against his hand, for thoughts weighed heavily on his mind. To a man of integrity, a high-minded gentleman as he had always been, the alternative was a horrible one. On one side there was that hideous thing, blackmail, which was abhorrent to him, and on the other the life of his wife and child. Honour and conscience ruled one way, and every fibre of his heart the other.
The flickering light of tallow candles threw grotesque shadows on the whitewashed walls and cast fantastic gleams of light on the handsome face of the great lawyer, with its massive forehead and nobly sculptured profile, on the well-shaped hands and hair prematurely grey.
The letter which he now held in his hand was signed "François Chabot," once a Capuchin friar, now a member of the National Convention and one of Danton's closest friends, whose uncompromising patriotism had been proclaimed on the housetops both by himself and his colleagues.
And this is what François Chabot had written not much more than a year ago to Maître de Croissy, advocate:
"My friend, as I told you in our last interview, I am inclined to listen favourably to the proposals of B. If he really disposes of the funds of which he boasts, tell him that I can get C. out of his present impasse and put him once more in possession of the seat which he values. Further, I and the others can keep him in a guarantee that nothing shall happen (say) for five years to disturb him again. But you can also tell B. that his proposals are futile. I shall want twenty thousand on the day that C. enters his house in the park. moreover, your honorarium for carrying this matter through must be paid by B. My friends and I will not incur any expense in connection with it."
Bastien de Croissy now took up his pen and a sheet of paper, and after a moment's reflection he transcribed the somewhat enigmatic letter by substituting names for initials, and intelligible words for those that appeared ununderstandable. The letter so transcribed now began thus:
"My friend, as I told you in our last interview, I am inclined to listen favourably to the proposals of de Batz. If he really disposes of the funds of which he boasts, tell him that I can get the King out of his present impasse and put him once more in possession of his throne..."
The rest of the letter he transcribed in the same way: always substituting the words "the King" for "C." and "de Batz" for "B."; his house in the park" Maître de Croissy transcribed as "Versailles."
The whole text would now be clear to anybody. Bastien then took up a number of other letters and transcribed these in the same way as he had done the first: then he made two separate packets of the whole correspondence; one of these contained the original letters, and these he slipped in the inside pocket of his coat, the other he tied loosely together and put it away with other papers in his desk. He then locked the desk and the strong box, turned out the lights in the office and finally went home.
His mind was definitely made up.
The same evening Bastien made a clean breast of all the circumstances to Louise. Maurice was there and Josette of course, and there was little Charles-Léon, who lay like a half-animate bird in his mother's arms.
For Maurice the story was not new. He had known of the first interview between de Croissy and the Austrian emissary, he had watched the intrigue developing step by step, through the good offices of the distinguished advocate. As a matter of fact he had more than once acted as messenger, taking letters to and fro between the dingy offices of the Rue de la Monnaie and the sumptuous apartments of the Representatives of the People. He had spoken to Chabot, the unfrocked friar who lived in unparalleled luxury in the Rue d'Anjou, dressed in town like a Beau Brummel, but attended the sittings of the National Convention in a tattered coat and shoes down at heel, his hair unkempt, his chin unshaven, his hands unwashed, in order to flaunt what he was pleased to call his democratic ideals. He saw Bazire, Chabot's brother-in-law, who hired a mudlark to enact the part of pretended assassin in order that he might raise the cry: "The royalists are murdering the patriots!" (As it happened, the pretended assassin did not turn up at the right moment, and Bazire had been left to wander alone up and down the dark cul-de-sac waiting to receive the stab that was to exalt him before the Convention as the victim of his ardent patriotism.) Maurice had interviewed Fabre d'Eglantine, Danton's most intimate friend, who was only too ready to see his palm greased with foreign gold, and even the ruthless and impeccable Danton had to Maurice's knowledge nibbled at the sweet biscuit held to his nose by the Austrian agent.
All these men Maurice Reversac had known, interviewed and despised. But he had also seen the clouds of bitterness and disappointment gather in Bastien de Croissy's face: he guessed more than he actually knew how one by one all the hopes born of that first interview in the Cabaret des Trois Singes had been laid to dust. The continued captivity of the Royal family, the severance of the Queen from her children had been the first heavy blows dealt to those fond hopes. The King's condemnation and death completely shattered them. Maurice dared not ask what the Austrian was doing, or what final preposterous demands had come from the Representatives of the People, which had caused the negotiations to be finally broken off. For months now the history of those negotiations had almost been forgotten. As far as Maurice was concerned he had ceased to think of them, he only remembered the letters that had passed during that time, as incidents that might have had wonderful consequences, but had since sunk into the limbo of forgetfulness.
To Louise and Josette, on the other hand, the story was entirely new. Each heard it with widely divergent feelings. Obviously to Louise it meant salvation. She listened to her husband with glowing eyes, her lips were parted, her breath came and went with almost feverish rapidity, and every now and then she pressed Charles-Léon closer and closer to her breast. Never for a moment did she appear in doubt that here was complete deliverance from every trouble and every anxiety. Indeed the only thing that seemed to trouble her was the fact that Bastien had withheld this wonderful secret from her for so long.
"We might have been free to leave this hell upon earth long before this," she exclaimed with passionate reproach when Bastien admitted that he had hesitated to use such a weapon for his own benefit.
"It looks so like blackmail," Bastien murmured feebly.
"Blackmail?" Louise retorted vehemently. "Would you call it murder if you killed a mad dog?"
Bastien gave a short, quick sigh. The letters were to have been the magic key wherewith to open the prison door for his King and Queen: the mystic wand that would clear the way for them to their throne.
"Is not Charles-Léon's life more precious than any King's?" Louise protested passionately.
And soon she embarked on plans for the future. She would take the child into the country, and presently, if things didn't get any better, they would join the band loyal émigrés who led a precarious but peaceful existence in Belgium or England; Josette and Maurice would come with them, and together the would all wait for those better times which could not now be very long in coming.
"There is nothing," she declared emphatically, "that these men would dare refuse us. By threatening to send those letters to the Moniteur or any other paper we can force them to grant us permits, passports, anything we choose. Oh, Bastien!" she added impetuously, "why did you not think of all this before?"
Josette alone was silent. She alone had hardly uttered a word the whole evening. In silence she had listened to Bastien's exposition of the case, and to Maurice's comments on the situation, and she remained silent while Louise talked and reproached and planned. She only spoke when Bastien, after he had read aloud some of the more important letters, gathered them all together and tied them once more into a packet. He was about to slip them into his coat pocket when Josette spoke up.
"Don't do that, Bastien," she said impulsively, and stretched out her hand for the packet.
"Don't do what, my dear?" de Croissy asked.
"Let Louise take charge of the letters," the girl pleaded, "until those treacherous devils are ready to give you the permits and safe-conducts in exchange for them. You can show your transcriptions to them at first: but they wouldn't be above sticking a knife into you in the course of conversation, and rifling your pockets if they knew you had the originals on you at the time."
Bastien couldn't help smiling at the girl's eagerness, but he put the packet of letters into her outstretched hand.
"You are right, Josette," he said: "you are always right. The angel in the house! What will you do with them?"
"Sew them into the lining of Louise's corsets," Josette replied.
And she never said another word after that.