The Elusive Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Chapter XXXI : Final Dispositions
To Chauvelin the day had been one of restless inquietude and nervous apprehension.
Collot d'Herbois harassed him with questions and complaints intermixed with threats but thinly veiled. At his suggestion Gayole had been transformed into a fully-manned, well-garrisoned fortress. Troops were to be seen everywhere, on the stairs and in the passages, the guard-rooms and offices: picked men from the municipal guard, and the company which had been sent down from Paris some time ago.
Chauvelin had not resisted these orders given by his colleague. He knew quite well that Marguerite would make no attempt at escape, but he had long ago given up all hope of persuading a man of the type of Collot d'Herbois that a woman of her temperament would never think of saving her own life at the expense of others, and that Sir Percy Blakeney, in spite of his adoration for his wife, would sooner see her die before him, than allow the lives of innocent men and women to be the price of hers.
Collot was one of those brutish sots--not by any means infrequent among the Terrorists of that time--who, born in the gutter, still loved to wallow in his native element, and who measured all his fellow-creatures by the same standard which he had always found good enough for himself. In this man there was neither the enthusiastic patriotism of a Chauvelin, nor the ardent selflessness of a Danton. He served the revolution and fostered the anarchical spirit of the times only because these brought him a competence and a notoriety, which an orderly and fastidious government would obviously have never offered him.
History shows no more despicable personality than that of Collot d'Herbois, one of the most hideous products of that utopian Revolution, whose grandly conceived theories of a universal levelling of mankind only succeeded in dragging into prominence a number of half-brutish creatures who, revelling in their own abasement, would otherwise have remained content in inglorious obscurity.
Chauvelin tolerated and half feared Collot, knowing full well that if now the Scarlet Pimpernel escaped from his hands, he could expect no mercy from his colleagues.
The scheme by which he hoped to destroy not only the heroic leader but the entire League by bringing opprobrium and ridicule upon them, was wonderfully subtle in its refined cruelty, and Chauvelin, knowing by now something of Sir Percy Blakeney's curiously blended character, was never for a moment in doubt but that he would write the infamous letter, save his wife by sacrificing his honour, and then seek oblivion and peace in suicide.
With so much disgrace, so much mud cast upon their chief, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel would cease to be. That had been Chauvelin's plan all along. For the end he had schemed and thought and planned, from the moment that Robespierre had given him the opportunity of redeeming his failure of last year. He had built up the edifice of his intrigue, bit by bit, from the introduction of his tool, Candeille, to Marguerite at the Richmond gala, to the arrest of Lady Blakeney in Boulogne. All that remained for him to see now, would be the attitude of Sir Percy Blakeney to-night, when, in exchange for the stipulated letter, he would see his wife set free.
All day Chauvelin had wondered how it would all go off. He had stage- managed everything, but he did not know how the chief actor would play his part.
From time to time, when his feeling of restlessness became quite unendurable, the ex-ambassador would wander round Fort Gayole and on some pretext or other demand to see one or the other of his prisoners. Marguerite, however, observed complete silence in his presence: she acknowledged his greeting with a slight inclination of the head, and in reply to certain perfunctory queries of his-- which he put to her in order to justify his appearance--she either nodded or gave curt monosyllabic answers through partially closed lips.
"I trust that everything is arranged for your comfort, Lady Blakeney."
"I thank you, sir."
"You will be rejoining the 'Day-Dream' to-night. Can I send a messenger over to the yacht for you?"
"I thank you. No."
"Sir Percy is well. He is fast asleep, and hath not asked for your ladyship. Shall I let him know that you are well?"
A nod of acquiescence from Marguerite and Chauvelin's string of queries was at an end. He marvelled at her quietude and thought that she should have been as restless as himself.
Later on in the day, and egged on by Collot d'Herbois and by his own fears, he had caused Marguerite to be removed from No. 6.
This change he heralded by another brief visit to her, and his attitude this time was one of deferential apology.
"A matter of expediency, Lady Blakeney," he explained, "and I trust that the change will be for your comfort."
Again the same curt nod of acquiescence on her part, and a brief:
"As you command, Monsieur!"
But when he had gone, she turned with a sudden passionate outburst towards the Abbe Foucquet, her faithful companion through the past long, weary hours. She fell on her knees beside him and sobbed in an agony of grief.
"Oh! if I could only know ... if I could only see him! ... for a minute ... a second! ... if I could only know! ..."
She felt as if the awful uncertainty would drive her mad.
If she could only know! If she could only know what he meant to do.
"The good God knows!" said the old man, with his usual simple philosophy, "and perhaps it is all for the best."
The room which Chauvelin had now destined for Marguerite was one which gave from the larger one, wherein last night he had had his momentous interview with her and with Sir Percy.
It was small, square and dark, with no window in it: only a small ventilating hole high up in the wall and heavily grated. Chauvelin, who desired to prove to her that there was no wish on his part to add physical discomfort to her mental tortures, had given orders that the little place should be made as habitable as possible. A thick, soft carpet had been laid on the ground; there was an easy chair and a comfortable-looking couch with a couple of pillows and a rug upon it, and oh, marvel! on the round central table, a vase with a huge bunch of many-coloured dahlias which seemed to throw a note as if of gladness into this strange and gloomy little room.
At the furthest corner, too, a construction of iron uprights and crossway bars had been hastily contrived and fitted with curtains, forming a small recess, behind which was a tidy washstand, fine clean towels and plenty of fresh water. Evidently the shops of Boulogne had been commandeered in order to render Marguerite's sojourn here outwardly agreeable.
But as the place was innocent of window, so was it innocent of doors. The one that gave into the large room had been taken out of its hinges, leaving only the frame, on each side of which stood a man from the municipal guard with fixed bayonet.
Chauvelin himself had conducted Marguerite to her new prison. She followed him--silent and apathetic--with not a trace of that awful torrent of emotion which had overwhelmed her but half-an-hour ago when she had fallen on her knees beside the old priest and sobbed her heart out in a passionate fit of weeping. Even the sight of the soldiers left her outwardly indifferent. As she stepped across the threshold she noticed that the door itself had been taken away: then she gave another quick glance at the soldiers, whose presence there would control her every movement.
The thought of Queen Marie Antoinette in the Conciergerie prison with the daily, hourly humiliation and shame which this constant watch imposed upon her womanly pride and modesty, flashed suddenly across Marguerite's mind, and a deep blush of horror rapidly suffused her pale cheeks, whilst an almost imperceptible shudder shook her delicate frame.
Perhaps, as in a flash, she had at this moment received an inkling of what the nature of that terrible "either--or" might be, with which Chauvelin was trying to force an English gentleman to dishonour. Sir Percy Blakeney's wife had been threatened with Marie Antoinette's fate.
"You see, Madame," said her cruel enemy's unctuous voice close to her ear, "that we have tried our humble best to make your brief sojourn here as agreeable as possible. May I express a hope that you will be quite comfortable in this room, until the time when Sir Percy will be ready to accompany you to the 'Day-Dream.'"
"I thank you, sir," she replied quietly.
"And if there is anything you require, I pray you to call. I shall be in the next room all day and entirely at your service."
A young orderly now entered bearing a small collation--eggs, bread, milk and wine--which he set on the central table. Chauvelin bowed low before Marguerite and withdrew. Anon he ordered the two sentinels to stand the other side of the doorway, against the wall of his own room, and well out of sight of Marguerite, so that, as she moved about her own narrow prison, if she ate or slept, she might have the illusion that she was unwatched.
The sight of the soldiers had had the desired effect on her. Chauvelin had seen her shudder and knew that she understood of that she guessed. He was now satisfied and really had no wish to harass her beyond endurance.
Moreover, there was always the proclamation which threatened the bread-winners of Boulogne with death if Marguerite Blakeney escaped, and which would be in full force until Sir Percy had written, signed and delivered into Chauvelin's hands the letter which was to be the signal for the general amnesty.
Chauvelin had indeed cause to be satisfied with his measures. There was no fear that his prisoners would attempt to escape.
Even Collot d'Herbois had to admit everything was well done. He had read the draft of the proposed letter and was satisfied with its contents. Gradually now into his loutish brain there had filtrated the conviction that Citizen Chauvelin was right, that that accursed Scarlet Pimpernel and his brood of English spies would be more effectually annihilated by all the dishonour and ridicule which such a letter written by the mysterious hero would heap upon them all, than they could ever be through the relentless work of the guillotine. His only anxiety now was whether the Englishman would write that letter.
"Bah! he'll do it," he would say whenever he thought the whole matter over: "Sacre tonnerre! but 'tis an easy means to save his own skin."
"You would sign such a letter without hesitation, eh, Citizen Collot," said Chauvelin, with well-concealed sarcasm, on one occasion when his colleague discussed the all-absorbing topic with him; "you would show no hesitation, if your life were at stake, and you were given the choice between writing that letter and ... the guillotine?"
"Parbleu!" responded Collot with conviction.
"More especially," continued Chauvelin drily, "if a million francs were promised you as well?"
"Sacre Anglis!" swore Collot angrily, "you don't propose giving him that money, do you?"
"We'll place it ready to his hand, at any rate, so that it should appear as if he had actually taken it."
Collot looked up at his colleague in ungrudging admiration. Chauvelin had indeed left nothing undone, had thought everything out in this strangely conceived scheme for the destruction of the enemy of France.
"But in the name of all the dwellers in hell, Citizen," admonished Collot, "guard that letter well, once it is in your hands."
"I'll do better than that," said Chauvelin, "I will hand it over to you, Citizen Collot, and you shall ride with it to Paris at once."
"To-night!" assented Collot with a shout of triumph, as he brought his grimy fist crashing down on the table, "I'll have a horse ready saddled at this very gate, and an escort of mounted men ... we'll ride like hell's own furies and not pause to breathe until that letter is in Citizen Robespierre's hands."
"Well thought of, Citizen," said Chauvelin approvingly. "I pray you give the necessary orders, that the horses be ready saddled, and the men booted and spurred, and waiting at the Gayole gate, at seven o'clock this evening."
"I wish the letter were written and safely in our hands by now."
"Nay! the Englishman will have it ready by this evening, never fear. The tide is high at half-past seven, and he will be in haste for his wife to be aboard his yacht, ere the turn, even if he ..."
He paused, savouring the thoughts which had suddenly flashed across his mind, and a look of intense hatred and cruel satisfaction for a moment chased away the studied impassiveness of his face.
"What do you mean, Citizen?" queried Collot anxiously, "even if he ... what? ..."
"Oh! nothing, nothing! I was only trying to make vague guesses as to what the Englishman will do after he has written the letter," quoth Chauvelin reflectively.
"Morbleu! he'll return to his own accursed country ... glad enough to have escaped with his skin. ... I suppose," added Collot with sudden anxiety, "you have no fear that he will refuse at the last moment to write that letter?"
The two men were sitting in the large room, out of which opened the one which was now occupied by Marguerite. They were talking at the further end of it, close to the window, and though Chauvelin had mostly spoken in a whisper, Collot had ofttimes shouted, and the ex-ambassador was wondering how much Marguerite had heard.
Now at Collot's anxious query he gave a quick furtive glance in the direction of the further room wherein she sat, so silent and so still, that it seemed almost as if she must be sleeping.
"You don't think that the Englishman will refuse to write the letter?" insisted Collot with angry impatience.
"No!" replied Chauvelin quietly.
"But if he does?" persisted the other.
"If he does, I send the woman to Paris to-night and have him hanged as a spy in this prison yard without further formality or trial ..." replied Chauvelin firmly; "so either way, you see, Citizen," he added in a whisper, "the Scarlet Pimpernel is done for. ... But I think that he will write the letter."
"Parbleu! so do I! ..." rejoined Collot with a coarse laugh.