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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
First published in 1913
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
There has of late years crept so much confusion into the mind of the student as well as of the general reader as to the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel with that of the Gascon Royalist plotter known to history as the Baron de Batz, that the time seems opportune for setting all doubts on that subject at rest.
The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is in no way whatever connected with that of the Baron de Batz, and even superficial reflection will soon bring the mind to the conclusion that great fundamental differences existed in these two men, in their personality, in their character, and, above all, in their aims.
According to one or two enthusiastic historians, the Baron de Batz was the chief agent in a vast network of conspiracy, entirely supported by foreign money — both English and Austrian — and which had for its object the overthrow of the Republican Government and the restoration of the monarchy in France.
In order to attain this political goal, it is averred that he set himself the task of pitting the members of the revolutionary Government one against the other, and bringing hatred and dissensions amongst them, until the cry of “Traitor!” resounded from one end of the Assembly of the Convention to the other, and the Assembly itself became as one vast den of wild beasts wherein wolves and hyenas devoured one another and, still unsatiated, licked their streaming jaws hungering for more prey.
Those same enthusiastic historians, who have a firm belief in the so-called “Foreign Conspiracy,” ascribe every important event of the Great Revolution — be that event the downfall of the Girondins, the escape of the Dauphin from the Temple, or the death of Robespierre — to the intrigues of Baron de Batz. He it was, so they say, who egged the Jacobins on against the Mountain, Robespierre against Danton, Hébert against Robespierre. He it was who instigated the massacres of September, the atrocities of Nantes, the horrors of Thermidor, the sacrileges, the noyades: all with the view of causing each section of the National Assembly to vie with the other in excesses and in cruelty, until the makers of the Revolution, satiated with their own lust, turned on one another, and Sardanapalus-like buried themselves and their orgies in the vast hecatomb of a self-consumed anarchy.
Whether the power thus ascribed to Baron de Batz by his historians is real or imaginary it is not the purpose of this preface to investigate. Its sole object is to point out the difference between the career of this plotter and that of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Baron de Batz himself was an adventurer without substance, save that which he derived from abroad. He was one of those men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing themselves headlong in the seething cauldron of internal politics. Though he made several attempts at rescuing King Louis first, and then the Queen and Royal Family from prison and from death, he never succeeded, as we know, in any of these undertakings, and he never once so much as attempted the rescue of other equally innocent, if not quite so distinguished, victims of the most bloodthirsty revolution that has ever shaken the foundations of the civilized world.
Nay more; when on the 29th Prairial those unfortunate men and women were condemned and executed for alleged complicity in the so-called “Foreign Conspiracy,” de Batz, who is universally admitted to have been the head and prime-mover of that conspiracy — if, indeed, conspiracy there was — never made either the slightest attempt to rescue his confederates from the guillotine, or at least the offer to perish by their side if he could not succeed in saving them.
And when we remember that the martyrs of the 29th Prairial included women like Grandmaison, the devoted friend of de Batz, the beautiful Emilie de St Amaranthe, little Cécile Renault — a mere child not sixteen years of age — also men like Michonis and Roussell, faithful servants of de Batz, the Baron de Lézardière, and the Comte de St Maurice, his friends. We no longer can have the slightest doubt that the Gascon plotter and the English gentleman are indeed two very different persons.
The latter’s aims were absolutely non-political. He never intrigued for the restoration of the monarchy, or even for the overthrow of that Republic which he loathed.
His only concern was the rescue of the innocent, the stretching out of a saving hand to those unfortunate creatures who had fallen into the nets spread out for them by their fellow-men; by those who — godless, lawless, penniless themselves — had sworn to exterminate all those who clung to their belongings, to their religion, and to their beliefs.
The Scarlet Pimpernel did not take it upon himself to punish the guilty; his care was solely of the helpless and of the innocent.
For this aim he risked his life every time that he set foot on French soil, for it he sacrificed his fortune, and even his personal happiness, and to it he devoted his entire existence.
Moreover, whereas the French plotter is said to have had confederates even in the Assembly of the Convention, confederates who were sufficiently influential and powerful to secure his own immunity, the Englishman when he was bent on his errands of mercy had the whole of France against him.
The Baron de Batz was a man who never justified either his own ambitions or even his existence; the Scarlet Pimpernel was a personality of whom an entire nation might justly be proud.
And yet people found the opportunity to amuse themselves, to dance and to go to the theatre, to enjoy music and open-air cafés and promenades in the Palais Royal.
New fashions in dress made their appearance, milliners produced fresh “creations,” and jewellers were not idle. A grim sense of humour, born of the very intensity of ever-present danger, had dubbed the cut of certain tunics tête tranchée, or a favourite ragoût was called à la guillotine.
On three evenings only during the past memorable four and a half years did the theatres close their doors, and these evenings were the ones immediately following that terrible 2nd of September — the day of the butchery outside the Abbaye Prison, when Paris herself was aghast with horror, and the cries of the massacred might have drowned the calls of the audience whose hands upraised for plaudits would still be dripping with blood.
On all other evenings of these same four and a half years the theatres in the Rue de Richelieu, in the Palais Royal, the Luxembourg, and others, had raised their curtains and taken money at their doors. The same audience that earlier in the day had whiled away the time by witnessing the ever-recurrent dramas of the Place de la Révolution assembled here in the evenings and filled stalls, boxes, and tiers, laughing over the satires of Voltaire or weeping over the sentimental tragedies of persecuted Romeos and innocent Juliets.
Death knocked at so many doors these days! He was so constant a guest in the houses of relatives and friends that those who had merely shaken him by the hand, those on whom he had smiled, and whom he, still smiling, had passed indulgently by, looked on him with that subtle contempt born of familiarity, shrugged their shoulders at his passage, and envisaged his probable visit on the morrow with light-hearted indifference.
Paris — despite the horrors that had stained her walls — had remained a city of pleasure, and the knife of the guillotine did scarce descend more often than did the drop-scenes on the stage.
On this bitterly cold evening of the 27th Nivôse, in the second year of the Republic — or, as we of the old style still persist in calling it, the 16th of January, 1794 — the auditorium of the Théâtre National was filled with a very brilliant company.
The appearance of a favourite actress in the part of one of Molière’s volatile heroines had brought pleasure-loving Paris to witness this revival of “Le Misanthrope,” with new scenery, dresses, and the aforesaid charming actress to add piquancy to the master’s mordant wit.
The Moniteur, which so impartially chronicles the events of those times, tells us under that date that the Assembly of the Convention voted on that same day a new law giving fuller power to its spies, enabling them to effect domiciliary searches at their discretion without previous reference to the Committee of General Security, authorizing them to proceed against all enemies of public happiness, to send them to prison at their own discretion, and assuring them the sum of thirty-five livres “for every piece of game thus beaten up for the guillotine.” Under that same date the Moniteur also puts it on record that the Théâtre National was filled to its utmost capacity for the revival of the late citoyen Molière’s comedy.
The Assembly of the Convention having voted the law which placed the lives of thousands at the mercy of a few human bloodhounds, adjourned its sitting and proceeded to the Rue de Richelieu.
Already the house was full when the fathers of the people made their way to the seats which had been reserved for them. An awed hush descended on the throng as one by one the men whose very names inspired horror and dread filed in through the narrow gangways of the stalls or took their places in the tiny boxes around.
Citizen Robespierre’s neatly bewigged head soon appeared in one of these; his bosom friend St Just was with him, and also his sister Charlotte; Danton, like a big, shaggy-coated lion, elbowed his way into the stalls, whilst Santerre, the handsome butcher and idol of the people of Paris, was loudly acclaimed as his huge frame, gorgeously clad in the uniform of the National Guard, was sighted on one of the tiers above.
The public in the parterre and in the galleries whispered excitedly; the awe-inspiring names flew about hither and thither on the wings of the overheated air. Women craned their necks to catch sight of heads which mayhap on the morrow would roll into the gruesome basket at the foot of the guillotine.
In one of the tiny avant-scène boxes two men had taken their seats long before the bulk of the audience had begun to assemble in the house. The inside of the box was in complete darkness, and the narrow opening which allowed but a sorry view of one side of the stage helped to conceal rather than display the occupants.
The younger one of these two men appeared to be something of a stranger in Paris, for as the public men and the well-known members of the Government began to arrive he often turned to his companion for information regarding these notorious personalities.
“Tell me, de Batz,” he said, calling the other’s attention to a group of men who had just entered the house, “that creature there in the green coat — with his hand up to his face now — who is he?”
“Where? Which do you mean?”
“There! He looks this way now, and he has a play-bill in his hand. The man with the protruding chin and the convex forehead, a face like a marmoset, and eyes like a jackal. What?”
The other leaned over the edge of the box, and his small restless eyes wandered over the now closely-packed auditorium.
“Oh!” he said as soon as he recognized the face which his friend had pointed out to him, “that is citizen Foucquier-Tinville.”
“The Public Prosecutor?”
“Himself. And Héron is the man next to him.”
“Héron?” said the younger man interrogatively.
“Yes. He is chief agent to the Committee of General Security now.”
“What does that mean?”
Both leaned back in their chairs, and their sombrely-clad figures were once more merged in the gloom of the narrow box. Instinctively, since the name of the Public Prosecutor had been mentioned between them, they had allowed their voices to sink to a whisper.
The older man — a stoutish, florid-looking individual, with small, keen eyes, and skin pitted with small-pox — shrugged his shoulders at his friend’s question, and then said with an air of contemptuous indifference: “It means, my good St Just, that these two men whom you see down there, calmly conning the programme of this evening’s entertainment, and preparing to enjoy themselves tonight in the company of the late Monsieur de Molière, are two hell-hounds as powerful as they are cunning.”
“Yes, yes,” said St Just, and much against his will a slight shudder ran through his slim figure as he spoke. “Foucquier-Tinville I know; I know his cunning, and I know his power — but the other?”
“The other?” retorted de Batz lightly. “Héron? Let me tell you, my friend, that even the might and lust of that damned Public Prosecutor pale before the power of Héron!”
“But how? I do not understand.”
“Ah! you have been in England so long, you lucky dog, and though no doubt the main plot of our hideous tragedy has reached your ken, you have no cognizance of the actors who play the principal parts on this arena flooded with blood and carpeted with hate. They come and go, these actors, my good St Just — they come and go. Marat is already the man of yesterday. Robespierre is the man of tomorrow. Today we still have Danton and Foucquier-Tinville; we still have Père Duchesne, and your own good cousin Antoine St Just, but Héron and his like are with us always.”
“Spies, of course?”
“Spies,” assented the other. “And what spies! Were you present at the sitting of the Assembly today?”
“I was. I heard the new decree which already has passed into law. Ah! I tell you, friend, that we do not let the grass grow under our feet these days. Robespierre wakes up one morning with a whim; by the afternoon that whim has become law, passed by a servile body of men too terrified to run counter to his will, fearful lest they be accused of moderation or of humanity — the greatest crimes that can be committed nowadays.”
“Ah! Danton? He would wish to stem the tide that his own passions have let loose; to muzzle the raging beasts whose fangs he himself has sharpened. I told you that Danton is still the man of today; tomorrow he will be accused of moderation. Danton and moderation! — ye gods! Eh? Danton, who thought the guillotine too slow in its work, and armed thirty soldiers with swords, so that thirty heads might fall at one and the same time. Danton, friend, will perish tomorrow accused of treachery against the Revolution, of moderation towards her enemies; and curs like Héron will feast on the blood of lions like Danton and his crowd.”
He paused a moment, for he dared not raise his voice, and his whispers were being drowned by the noise in the auditorium. The curtain, timed to be raised at eight o’clock was still down, though it was close on half-past, and the public was growing impatient. There was loud stamping of feet, and a few shrill whistles of disapproval proceeded from the gallery.
“If Héron gets impatient,” said de Batz lightly, when the noise had momentarily subsided, “the manager of this theatre and mayhap his leading actor and actress will spend an unpleasant day tomorrow.”
“Always Héron!” said St Just, with a contemptuous smile.
“Yes, my friend,” rejoined the other imperturbably, “always Héron. And he has even obtained a longer lease of existence this afternoon.”
“By the new decree?”
“Yes. The new decree. The agents of the Committee of General Security, of whom Héron is the chief, have from today powers of domiciliary search; they have full powers to proceed against all enemies of public welfare. Isn’t that beautifully vague? And they have absolute discretion; everyone may become an enemy of public welfare, either by spending too much money or by spending too little, by laughing today or crying tomorrow, by mourning for one dead relative or rejoicing over the execution of another. He may be a bad example to the public by the cleanliness of his person or by the filth upon his clothes, he may offend by walking today and by riding in a carriage next week; the agents of the Committee of General Security shall alone decide what constitutes enmity against public welfare. All prisons are to be opened at their bidding to receive those whom they choose to denounce; they have henceforth the right to examine prisoners privately and without witnesses, and to send them to trial without further warrants; their duty is clear — they must ‘beat up game for the guillotine.’ Thus is the decree worded; they must furnish the Public Prosecutor with work to do, the tribunals with victims to condemn, the Place de la Révolution with death-scenes to amuse the people, and for their work they will be rewarded thirty-five livres for every head that falls under the guillotine. Ah! if Héron and his like and his myrmidons work hard and well they can make a comfortable income of four or five thousand livres a week. We are getting on, friend St Just — we are getting on.”
He had not raised his voice while he spoke, nor in the recounting of such inhuman monstrosity, such vile and bloodthirsty conspiracy against the liberty, the dignity, the very life of an entire nation did he appear to feel the slightest indignation; rather did a tone of amusement and even of triumph strike through his speech; and now he laughed good-humouredly like an indulgent parent who is watching the naturally cruel antics of a spoilt boy.
“Then from this hell let loose upon earth,” exclaimed St Just hotly, “must we rescue those who refuse to ride upon this tide of blood.” His cheeks were glowing, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. He looked very young and very eager. Armand St Just, the brother of Lady Blakeney, had something of the refined beauty of his lovely sister, but the features — though manly — had not the latent strength expressed in them which characterized every line of Marguerite’s exquisite face. The forehead suggested a dreamer rather than a thinker, the blue-grey eyes were those of an idealist rather than of a man of action.
De Batz’ keen, piercing eyes had no doubt noted this, even whilst he gazed at his young friend with that same look of good-humoured indulgence which seemed habitual to him.
“We have to think of the future, my good St Just,” he said, after a slight pause, and speaking slowly and decisively, like a father rebuking a hot-headed child, “not of the present. What are a few lives worth beside the great principles which we have at stake?”
“The restoration of the monarchy — I know,” retorted St Just, still unsobered, “but, in the meanwhile—”
“In the meanwhile,” rejoined de Batz earnestly, “every victim to the lust of these men is a step towards the restoration of law and order — that is to say, of the monarchy. It is only through these violent excesses perpetrated in its name that the nation will realize how it is being fooled by a set of men who have only their own power and their own advancement in view, and who imagine that the only way to that power is over the dead bodies of those who stand in their way. Once the nation is sickened of these orgies of ambition and of hate, it will turn against these savage brutes, and gladly acclaim the restoration of all that they are striving to destroy. This is our only hope for the future, and, believe me, friend, that every head snatched from the guillotine by your romantic hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a stone laid for the consolidation of this infamous Republic.”
“I’ll not believe it,” protested St Just emphatically.
De Batz, with a gesture of contempt indicative also of complete self-satisfaction and unalterable self-belief, shrugged his broad shoulders. His short fat fingers, covered with rings, beat a tattoo upon the ledge of the box.
Obviously, he was ready with a retort. His young friend’s attitude irritated even more than it amused him. But he said nothing for the moment, waiting while the traditional three knocks on the floor of the stage proclaimed the rise of the curtain. The growing impatience of the audience subsided as if by magic at the welcome call; everybody settled down again comfortably in their seats, they gave up the contemplation of the fathers of the people, and turned their full attention to the actors on the boards.
This was Armand St Just’s first visit to Paris since that memorable day when first he decided to sever his connection from the Republican party, of which he and his beautiful sister Marguerite had at one time been amongst the most noble, most enthusiastic followers. Already a year and a half ago the excesses of the party had horrified him, and that was long before they had degenerated into the sickening orgies which were culminating today in wholesale massacres and bloody hecatombs of innocent victims.
With the death of Mirabeau the moderate Republicans, whose sole and entirely pure aim had been to free the people of France from the autocratic tyranny of the Bourbons, saw the power go from their clean hands to the grimy ones of lustful demagogues, who knew no law save their own passions of bitter hatred against all classes that were not as self-seeking, as ferocious as themselves.
It was no longer a question of a fight for political and religious liberty only, but one of class against class, man against man, and let the weaker look to himself. The weaker had proved himself to be, firstly, the man of property and substance, then the law-abiding citizen, lastly the man of action who had obtained for the people that very same liberty of thought and of belief which soon became so terribly misused.
Armand St Just, one of the apostles of liberty, fraternity, and equality, soon found that the most savage excesses of tyranny were being perpetrated in the name of those same ideals which he had worshipped.
His sister Marguerite, happily married in England, was the final temptation which caused him to quit the country the destinies of which he no longer could help to control. The spark of enthusiasm which he and the followers of Mirabeau had tried to kindle in the hearts of an oppressed people had turned to raging tongues of unquenchable flames. The taking of the Bastille had been the prelude to the massacres of September, and even the horror of these had since paled beside the holocausts of today.
Armand, saved from the swift vengeance of the revolutionaries by the devotion of the Scarlet Pimpernel, crossed over to England and enrolled himself under the banner of the heroic chief. But he had been unable hitherto to be an active member of the League. The chief was loath to allow him to run foolhardy risks. The St Justs — both Marguerite and Armand — were still very well known in Paris. Marguerite was not a woman easily forgotten and her marriage with an English “aristo” did not please those republican circles who had looked upon her as their queen. Armand’s secession from his party into the ranks of the émigrés had singled him out for special reprisals, if and whenever he could be got hold of, and both brother and sister had an unusually bitter enemy in their cousin Antoine St Just — once an aspirant to Marguerite’s hand, and now a servile adherent and imitator of Robespierre, whose ferocious cruelty he tried to emulate with a view to ingratiating himself with the most powerful man of the day.
Nothing would have pleased Antoine St Just more than the opportunity of showing his zeal and his patriotism by denouncing his own kith and kin to the Tribunal of the Terror, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose own slender fingers were held on the pulse of that reckless revolution, had no wish to sacrifice Armand’s life deliberately, or even to expose it to unnecessary dangers.
Thus it was that more than a year had gone by before Armand St Just — an enthusiastic member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel — was able to do aught for its service. He had chafed under the enforced restraint placed upon him by the prudence of his chief, when, indeed, he was longing to risk his life with the comrades whom he loved and beside the leader whom he revered.
At last, in the beginning of ’94 he persuaded Blakeney to allow him to join the next expedition to France. What the principal aim of that expedition was the members of the League did not know as yet, but what they did know was that perils — graver even than hitherto — would attend them on their way.
The circumstances had become very different of late. At first the impenetrable mystery which had surrounded the personality of the chief had been a full measure of safety, but now one tiny corner of that veil of mystery had been lifted by two rough pairs of hands at least; Chauvelin, ex-ambassador at the English Court, was no longer in any doubt as to the identity of Sir Percy Blakeney with the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, whilst Collot d’Herbois had seen him at Boulogne, and had there been effectually foiled by him.
Four months had gone by since that day, and the Scarlet Pimpernel was hardly ever out of France now; the massacres in Paris and in the provinces had multiplied with appalling rapidity, the necessity for the selfless devotion of that small band of heroes had become daily, hourly more pressing. They rallied round their chief with unbounded enthusiasm, and let it be admitted at once that the sporting instinct — inherent in these English gentlemen — made them all the more keen, all the more eager now that the dangers which beset their expeditions were increased tenfold.
At a word from the beloved leader, these young men — the spoilt darlings of society — would leave the gaieties, the pleasures, the luxuries of London or of Bath, and, taking their lives in their hands, they placed them, together with their fortunes, and even good names, at the service of the innocent and helpless victims of merciless tyranny. The married men — Ffoulkes, my Lord Hastings, Sir Jeremiah Wallescourt — left wife and children at a call from the chief, at the cry of the wretched. Armand — unattached and enthusiastic — had the right to demand that he should no longer be left behind.
He had only been away a little over fifteen months, and yet he found Paris a different city from the one he had left immediately after the terrible massacres of September. An air of grim loneliness seemed to hang over her despite the crowds that thronged her streets; the men whom he was wont to meet in public places fifteen months ago — friends and political allies — were no longer to be seen; strange faces surrounded him on every side — sullen, glowering faces, all wearing a certain air of horrified surprise and of vague, terrified wonder, as if life had become one awful puzzle, the answer to which must be found in the brief interval between the swift passages of death.
Armand St Just, having settled his few simple belongings in the squalid lodgings which had been assigned to him, had started out after dark to wander somewhat aimlessly through the streets. Instinctively he seemed to be searching for a familiar face, someone who would come to him out of that merry past which he had spent with Marguerite in their pretty apartment in the Rue St Honoré.
For an hour he wandered thus and met no one whom he knew. At times it appeared to him as if he did recognize a face or figure that passed him swiftly by in the gloom, but even before he could fully make up his mind to that, the face or figure had already disappeared, gliding furtively down some narrow unlighted by-street, without turning to look to right or left, as if dreading fuller recognition. Armand felt a total stranger in his own native city.
The terrible hours of the execution on the Place de la Révolution were fortunately over, the tumbrils no longer rattled along the uneven pavements, nor did the death-cry of the unfortunate victims resound through the deserted streets. Armand was, on this first day of his arrival, spared the sight of this degradation of the once lovely city; but her desolation, her general appearance of shamefaced indigence and of cruel aloofness struck a chill in the young man’s heart.
It was no wonder, therefore, when anon he was wending his way slowly back to his lodging he was accosted by a pleasant, cheerful voice, that he responded to it with alacrity. The voice, of a smooth, oily timbre, as if the owner kept it well greased for purposes of amiable speech, was like an echo of the past, when jolly, irresponsible Baron de Batz, erstwhile officer of the Guard in the service of the late King, and since then known to be the most inveterate conspirator for the restoration of the monarchy, used to amuse Marguerite by his vapid, senseless plans for the overthrow of the newly-risen power of the people.
Armand was quite glad to meet him, and when de Batz suggested that a good talk over old times would be vastly agreeable, the younger man gladly acceded. The two men, though certainly not mistrustful of one another, did not seem to care to reveal to each other the place where they lodged. De Batz at once proposed the avant-scène box of one of the theatres as being the safest place where old friends could talk without fear of spying eyes or ears.
“There is no place so safe or so private nowadays, believe me, my young friend,” he said. “I have tried every sort of nook and cranny in this accursed town, now riddled with spies, and I have come to the conclusion that a small avant-scène box is the most perfect den of privacy there is in the entire city. The voices of the actors on the stage and the hum among the audience in the house will effectually drown all individual conversation to every ear save the one for whom it is intended.”
It is not difficult to persuade a young man who feels lonely and somewhat forlorn in a large city to while away an evening in the companionship of a cheerful talker, and de Batz was essentially good company. His vapourings had always been amusing, but Armand now gave him credit for more seriousness of purpose; and though the chief had warned him against picking up acquaintances in Paris, the young man felt that that restriction would certainly not apply to a man like de Batz whose hot partisanship of the Royalist cause and hare-brained schemes for its restoration must make him at one with the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Armand accepted the other’s cordial invitation. He, too, felt that he would indeed be safer from observation in a crowded theatre than in the streets. Among a closely packed throng bent on amusement the sombrely-clad figure of a young man, with the appearance of a student or of a journalist, would easily pass unperceived.
But somehow, after the first ten minutes spent in de Batz’ company within the gloomy shelter of the small avant-scène box, Armand already repented of the impulse which had prompted him to come to the theatre tonight, and to renew acquaintanceship with the ex-officer of the late King’s Guard. Though he knew de Batz to be an ardent Royalist, and even an active adherent of the monarchy, he was soon conscious of a vague sense of mistrust of this pompous, self-complacent individual, whose every utterance breathed selfish aims rather than devotion to a forlorn cause.
Therefore, when the curtain rose at last on the first act of Molière’s witty comedy, St Just turned deliberately towards the stage and tried to interest himself in the wordy quarrel between Philinte and Alceste.
But this attitude on the part of the younger man did not seem to suit his newly-found friend. It was clear that de Batz did not consider the topic of conversation by any means exhausted, and that it had been more with a view to a discussion like the present interrupted one that he had invited St Just to come to the theatre with him tonight, rather than for the purpose of witnessing Mlle Lange’s début in the part of Célimène.
The presence of St Just in Paris had as a matter of fact astonished de Batz not a little, and had set his intriguing brain busy on conjectures. It was in order to turn these conjectures into certainties that he had desired private talk with the young man.
He waited silently now for a moment or two, his keen, small eyes resting with evident anxiety on Armand’s averted head, his fingers still beating the impatient tattoo upon the velvet-covered cushion of the box. Then at the first movement of St Just towards him he was ready in an instant to reopen the subject under discussion.
With a quick nod of his head he called his young friend’s attention back to the men in the auditorium.
“Your good cousin Antoine St Just is hand and glove with Robespierre now,” he said. “When you left Paris more than a year ago you could afford to despise him as an empty-headed windbag; now, if you desire to remain in France, you will have to fear him as a power and a menace.”
“Yes, I knew that he had taken to herding with the wolves,” rejoined Armand lightly. “At one time he was in love with my sister. I thank God that she never cared for him.”
“They say that he herds with the wolves because of this disappointment,” said de Batz. “The whole pack is made up of men who have been disappointed, and who have nothing to lose. When all these wolves will have devoured one another, then and then only can we hope for the restoration of the monarchy in France. And they will not turn on one another whilst prey for their greed lies ready to their jaws. Your friend the Scarlet Pimpernel should feed this bloody revolution of ours rather than starve it, if indeed he hates it as he seems to do.”
His restless eyes peered with eager interrogation into those of the younger man. He paused as if waiting for a reply; then, as St Just remained silent, he reiterated slowly, almost in the tones of a challenge: “If indeed he hates this bloodthirsty revolution of ours as he seems to do.”
The reiteration implied a doubt. In a moment St Just’s loyalty was up in arms.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel,” he said, “cares naught for your political aims. The work of mercy that he does, he does for justice and for humanity.”
“And for sport,” said de Batz with a sneer, “so I’ve been told.”
“He is English,” assented St Just, “and as such will never own to sentiment. Whatever be the motive, look at the result!”
“Yes! a few lives stolen from the guillotine.”
“Women and children — innocent victims who would have perished but for his devotion.”
“The more innocent they were, the more helpless, the more pitiable, the louder would their blood have cried for reprisals against the wild beasts who sent them to their death.”
St Just made no reply. It was obviously useless to attempt to argue with this man, whose political aims were as far apart from those of the Scarlet Pimpernel as was the North Pole from the South.
“If any of you have influence over that hot-headed leader of yours,” continued de Batz, unabashed by the silence of his friend, “I wish to God you would exert it now.”
“In what way?” queried St Just, smiling in spite of himself at the thought of his or anyone else’s control over Blakeney and his plans.
It was de Batz’ turn to be silent. He paused for a moment or two, then he asked abruptly: “Your Scarlet Pimpernel is in Paris now, is he not?”
“I cannot tell you,” replied Armand.
“Bah! there is no necessity to fence with me, my friend. The moment I set eyes on you this afternoon I knew that you had not come to Paris alone.”
“You are mistaken, my good de Batz,” rejoined the young man earnestly, “I came to Paris alone.”
“Clever parrying, on my word — but wholly wasted on my unbelieving ears. Did I not note at once that you did not seem overpleased today when I accosted you?”
“Again, you are mistaken. I was very pleased to meet you, for I had felt singularly lonely all day, and was glad to shake a friend by the hand. What you took for displeasure was only surprise.”
“Surprise? Ah, yes! I don’t wonder that you were surprised to see me walking unmolested and openly in the streets of Paris — whereas you had heard of me as a dangerous conspirator, eh? — and as a man who has the entire police of his country at his heels — on whose head there is a price — what?”
“I knew that you had made several noble efforts to rescue the unfortunate King and Queen from the hands of these brutes.”
“All of which efforts were unsuccessful,” assented de Batz imperturbably, “every one of them having been either betrayed by some d—d confederate or ferreted out by some astute spy eager for gain. Yes, my friend, I made several efforts to rescue King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette from the scaffold, and every time I was foiled, and yet here I am, you see, unscathed and free. I walk about the streets boldly, and talk to my friends as I meet them.”
“You are lucky,” said St Just, not without a tinge of sarcasm.
“I have been prudent,” retorted de Batz. “I have taken the trouble to make friends there where I thought I needed them most — the mammon of unrighteousness, you know — what?”
And he laughed a broad, thick laugh of perfect self-satisfaction.
“Yes, I know,” rejoined St Just, with the tone of sarcasm still more apparent in his voice now. “You have Austrian money at your disposal.”
“Any amount,” said the other complacently, “and a great deal of it sticks to the grimy fingers of these patriotic makers of revolutions. Thus do I ensure my own safety. I buy it with the Emperor’s money, and thus I am able to work for the restoration of the monarchy in France.”
Again St Just was silent. What could he say? Instinctively now, as the fleshy personality of the Gascon Royalist seemed to spread itself out and to fill the tiny box with his ambitious schemes and his far-reaching plans, Armand’s thoughts flew back to that other plotter, the man with the pure and simple aims, the man whose slender fingers had never handled alien gold, but were ever there ready stretched out to the helpless and the weak, whilst his thoughts were only of the help that he might give them, but never of his own safety.
De Batz, however, seemed blandly unconscious of any such disparaging thoughts in the mind of his young friend, for he continued quite amiably, even though a note of anxiety seemed to make itself felt now in his smooth voice.
“We advance slowly, but step by step, my good St Just,” he said. “I have not been able to save the monarchy in the person of the King or the Queen, but I may yet do it in the person of the Dauphin.”
“The Dauphin,” murmured St Just involuntarily.
That involuntary murmur, scarcely audible so soft was it, seemed in some way to satisfy de Batz, for the keenness of his gaze relaxed, and his fat fingers ceased their nervous, intermittent tattoo on the ledge of the box.
“Yes! the Dauphin,” he said, nodding his head as if in answer to his own thoughts, “or rather, let me say, the reigning King of France — Louis XVII, by the grace of God — the most precious life at present upon the whole of this earth.”
“You are right there, friend de Batz,” assented Armand fervently, “the most precious life, as you say, and one that must be saved at all costs.”
“Yes,” said de Batz calmly, “but not by your friend the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Scarce were those two little words out of St Just’s mouth than he repented of them. He bit his lip, and with a dark frown upon his face he turned almost defiantly towards his friend.
But de Batz smiled with easy bonhomie.
“Ah, friend Armand,” he said, “you were not cut out for diplomacy, nor yet for intrigue. So then,” he added more seriously, “that gallant hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, has hopes of rescuing our young King from the clutches of Simon the cobbler and of the herd of hyenas on the watch for his attenuated little corpse, eh?”
“I did not say that,” retorted St Just sullenly.
“No. But I say it. Nay! nay! do not blame yourself, my over-loyal young friend. Could I, or anyone else, doubt for a moment that sooner or later your romantic hero would turn his attention to the most pathetic sight in the whole of Europe — the child-martyr in the Temple Prison? The wonder were to me if the Scarlet Pimpernel ignored our little King altogether for the sake of his subjects. No, no; do not think for a moment that you have betrayed your friend’s secret to me. When I met you so luckily today I guessed at once that you were here under the banner of the enigmatical little red flower, and, thus guessing, I even went a step further in my conjecture. The Scarlet Pimpernel is in Paris now in the hope of rescuing Louis XVII from the Temple Prison.”
“If that is so, you must not only rejoice but should be able to help.”
“And yet, my friend, I do neither the one now nor mean to do the other in the future,” said de Batz placidly. “I happen to be a Frenchman, you see.”
“What has that to do with such a question?”
“Everything; though you, Armand, despite that you are a Frenchman too, do not look through my spectacles. Louis XVII is King of France, my good St Just; he must owe his freedom and his life to us Frenchmen, and to no one else.”
“That is sheer madness, man,” retorted Armand. “Would you have the child perish for the sake of your own selfish ideas?”
“You may call them selfish if you will; all patriotism is in a measure selfish. What does the rest of the world care if we are a republic or a monarchy, an oligarchy or hopeless anarchy? We work for ourselves and to please ourselves, and I for one will not brook foreign interference.”
“Yet you work with foreign money!”
“That is another matter. I cannot get money in France, so I get it where I can; but I can arrange for the escape of Louis XVII from the Temple Prison, and to us Royalists of France should belong the honour and glory of having saved our King.”
For the third time now St Just allowed the conversation to drop; he was gazing wide-eyed, almost appalled at this impudent display of well-nigh ferocious selfishness and vanity. De Batz, smiling and complacent, was leaning back in his chair, looking at his young friend with perfect contentment expressed in every line of his pock-marked face and in the very attitude of his well-fed body. It was easy enough now to understand the remarkable immunity which this man was enjoying, despite the many foolhardy plots which he hatched, and which had up to now invariably come to naught.
A regular braggart and empty windbag, he had taken but one good care, and that was of his own skin. Unlike other less fortunate Royalists of France, he neither fought in the country nor braved dangers in town. He played a safer game — crossed the frontier and constituted himself agent of Austria; he succeeded in gaining the Emperor’s money for the good of the Royalist cause, and for his own most especial benefit.
Even a less astute man of the world than was Armand St Just would easily have guessed that de Batz’ desire to be the only instrument in the rescue of the poor little Dauphin from the Temple was not actuated by patriotism, but solely by greed. Obviously there was a rich reward waiting for him in Vienna the day that he brought Louis XVII safely into Austrian territory; that reward he would miss if a meddlesome Englishman interfered in this affair. Whether in this wrangle he risked the life of the child-King or not mattered to him not at all. It was de Batz who was to get the reward and whose welfare and prosperity mattered more than the most precious life in Europe.
St Just would have given much to be back in his lonely squalid lodgings now. Too late did he realize how wise had been the dictum which had warned him against making or renewing friendships in France.
Men had changed with the times. How terribly they had changed! Personal safety had become a fetish with most — a goal so difficult to attain that it had to be fought for and striven for, even at the expense of humanity and of self-respect.
Selfishness — the mere, cold-blooded insistence for self-advancement — ruled supreme. De Batz, surfeited with foreign money, used it firstly to ensure his own immunity, scattering it to right and left to still the ambition of the Public Prosecutor or to satisfy the greed of innumerable spies.
What was left over he used for the purpose of pitting the bloodthirsty demagogues one against the other, making of the National Assembly a gigantic bear-den, wherein wild beasts could rend one another limb from limb.
In the meanwhile, what cared he — he said it himself — whether hundreds of innocent martyrs perished miserably and uselessly? They were the necessary food whereby the Revolution was to be satiated and de Batz’ schemes enabled to mature. The most precious life in Europe even was only to be saved if its price went to swell the pockets of de Batz, or to further his future ambitions.
Times had indeed changed an entire nation. St Just felt as sickened with this self-seeking Royalist as he did with the savage brutes who struck to right or left for their own delectation. He was meditating immediate flight back to his lodgings, with a hope of finding there a word for him from the chief — a word to remind him that men did live nowadays who had other aims besides their own advancement — other ideals besides the deification of self.
The curtain had descended on the first act, and traditionally, as the works of Monsieur de Molière demanded it, the three knocks were heard again without any interval. St Just rose ready with a pretext for parting with his friend. The curtain was being slowly drawn up on the second act, and disclosed Alceste in wrathful conversation with Célimène.
Alceste’s opening speech is short. Whilst the actor spoke it Armand had his back to the stage; with hand outstretched, he was murmuring what he hoped would prove a polite excuse for thus leaving his amiable host while the entertainment had only just begun.
De Batz — vexed and impatient — had not by any means finished with his friend yet. He thought that his specious arguments — delivered with boundless conviction — had made some impression on the mind of the young man. That impression, however, he desired to deepen, and whilst Armand was worrying his brain to find a plausible excuse for going away, de Batz was racking his to find one for keeping him here.
Then it was that the wayward demon Chance intervened. Had St Just risen but two minutes earlier, had his active mind suggested the desired excuse more readily, who knows what unspeakable sorrow, what heartrending misery, what terrible shame might have been spared both him and those for whom he cared? Those two minutes — did he but know it — decided the whole course of his future life. The excuse hovered on his lips, de Batz reluctantly was preparing to bid him goodbye, when Célimène, speaking common-place words enough in answer to her quarrelsome lover, caused him to drop the hand which he was holding out to his friend, and to turn back towards the stage.
It was an exquisite voice that had spoken — a voice mellow and tender, with deep tones in it that betrayed latent power. The voice had caused Armand to look, the lips that spoke forged the first tiny link of that chain which riveted him for ever after to the speaker.
It is difficult to say if such a thing really exists as love at first sight. Poets and romancists will have us believe that it does; idealists swear by it as being the only true love worthy of the name.
I do not know if I am prepared to admit their theory with regard to Armand St Just. Mlle Lange’s exquisite voice certainly had charmed him to the extent of making him forget his mistrust of de Batz and his desire to get away. Mechanically almost he sat down again, and leaning both elbows on the edge of the box, he rested his chin in his hand, and listened. The words which the late Monsieur de Molière puts into the mouth of Célimène are trite and flippant enough, yet every time that Mlle Lange’s lips moved Armand watched her, entranced.
There, no doubt, the matter would have ended; a young man fascinated by a pretty woman on the stage — ’tis a small matter, and one from which there doth not often spring a weary trail of tragic circumstances. Armand, who had a passion for music, would have worshipped at the shrine of Mlle Lange’s perfect voice until the curtain came down on the last act, had not his friend de Batz seen the keen enchantment which the actress had produced on the young enthusiast.
Now de Batz was a man who never allowed an opportunity to slip by, if that opportunity led towards the furtherance of his own desires. He did not want to lose sight of Armand just yet, and here the good demon Chance had given him an opportunity for obtaining what he wanted.
He waited quietly until the fall of the curtain at the end of Act II; then, as Armand, with a sigh of delight, leaned back in his chair, and closing his eyes appeared to be living the last half-hour all over again, de Batz remarked with well-assumed indifference: “Mlle Lange is a promising young actress. Do you not think so, my friend?”
“She has a perfect voice — it was exquisite melody to the ear,” replied Armand. “I was conscious of little else.”
“She is a beautiful woman, nevertheless,” continued de Batz with a smile. “During the next act, my good St Just, I would suggest that you opened your eyes as well as your ears.”
Armand did as he was bidden. The whole appearance of Mlle Lange seemed in harmony with her voice. She was not very tall, but eminently graceful, with a small, oval face and slender almost childlike figure, which appeared still more so above the wide hoops and draped panniers of the fashions of Molière’s time.
Whether she was beautiful or not the young man hardly knew. Measured by certain standards, she certainly was not so, for her mouth was not small, and her nose anything but classical in outline. But the eyes were brown, and they had that half-veiled look in them — shaded with long lashes — that seem to make a perpetual tender appeal to the masculine heart; the lips, too, were full and moist, and the teeth dazzlingly white. Yes! — on the whole we might easily say that she was exquisite, even though we did not admit that she was beautiful.
Painter David has made a sketch of her; we have all seen it at the Musée Carnavalet, and all wondered why that charming, if irregular, little face made such an impression of sadness.
There are five acts in “Le Misanthrope,” during which Célimène is almost constantly on the stage. At the end of the fourth act de Batz said casually to his friend: “I have the honour of personal acquaintanceship with Mlle Lange. An you care for an introduction to her, we can go round to the green-room after the play.”
Did prudence then whisper, “Desist”? Did loyalty to the leader murmur, “Obey”? It were indeed difficult to say. Armand St Just was not five-and-twenty, and Mlle Lange’s melodious voice spoke louder than the whisperings of prudence or even than the call of duty.
He thanked de Batz warmly, and during the last half-hour, while the misanthropical lover spurned repentant Célimène, he was conscious of a curious sensation of impatience, a tingling of his nerves, a wild, mad longing to hear those full, moist lips pronounce his name, and to see those large brown eyes throw their half-veiled look into his own.
The green-room was crowded when de Batz and St Just arrived there after the performance. The older man cast a hasty glance through the open door. The crowd did not suit his purpose, and he dragged his companion hurriedly away from the contemplation of Mlle Lange, sitting in a far corner of the room, surrounded by an admiring throng, and by innumerable floral tributes offered to her beauty and to her success.
De Batz without a word led the way back towards the stage. Here, by the dim light of tallow candles fixed in sconces against the surrounding walls, the scene-shifters were busy moving drop-scenes, back cloths and wings, and paid no heed to the two men who strolled slowly up and down silently, each wrapped in his own thoughts.
Armand walked with his hands buried in his breeches pockets, his head bent forward on his chest; but every now and again he threw quick, apprehensive glances round him whenever a firm step echoed along the empty stage or a voice rang clearly through the now deserted theatre.
“Are we wise to wait here?” he asked, speaking to himself rather than to his companion.
He was not anxious about his own safety; but the words of de Batz had impressed themselves upon his mind: “Héron and his spies we have always with us.”
From the green-room a separate foyer and exit led directly out into the street. Gradually the sound of many voices, the loud laughter and occasional snatches of song which for the past half-hour had proceeded from that part of the house, became more subdued and more rare. One by one the friends of the artistes were leaving the theatre, after having paid the usual banal compliments to those whom they favoured, or presented the accustomed offering of flowers to the brightest star of the night.
The actors were the first to retire, then the older actresses, the ones who could no longer command a court of admirers round them. They all filed out of the green-room and crossed the stage to where at the back, narrow, rickety wooden stairs led to their so-called dressing-rooms — tiny, dark cubicles, ill-lighted, unventilated, where some half-dozen of the lesser stars tumbled over one another while removing wigs and grease-paint.
Armand and de Batz watched this exodus, both with equal impatience. Mlle Lange was the last to leave the green-room. For some time, since the crowd had become thinner around her, Armand had contrived to catch glimpses of her slight, elegant figure. A short passage led from the stage to the green-room door, which was wide open, and at the corner of this passage the young man had paused from time to time in his walk, gazing with earnest admiration at the dainty outline of the young girl’s head, with its wig of powdered curls that seemed scarcely whiter than the creamy brilliance of her skin.
De Batz did not watch Mlle Lange beyond casting impatient looks in the direction of the crowd that prevented her leaving the green-room. He did watch Armand, however — noted his eager look, his brisk and alert movements, the obvious glances of admiration which he cast in the direction of the young actress, and this seemed to afford him a considerable amount of contentment.
The best part of an hour had gone by since the fall of the curtain before Mlle Lange finally dismissed her many admirers, and de Batz had the satisfaction of seeing her running down the passage, turning back occasionally in order to bid gay “good nights” to the loiterers who were loath to part from her. She was a child in all her movements, quite unconscious of self or of her own charms, but frankly delighted with her success. She was still dressed in the ridiculous hoops and panniers pertaining to her part, and the powdered peruke hid the charm of her own hair; the costume gave a certain stilted air to her unaffected personality, which, by this very sense of contrast, was essentially fascinating.
In her arms she held a huge sheaf of sweet-scented narcissi, the spoils of some favoured spot far away in the South. Armand thought that never in his life had he seen anything so winsome or so charming.
Having at last said the positively final adieu, Mlle Lange with a happy little sigh turned to run down the passage.
She came face to face with Armand, and gave a sudden little gasp of terror. It was not good these days to come on any loiterer unawares.
But already de Batz had quickly joined his friend, and his smooth, pleasant voice, and podgy, beringed hand extended towards Mlle Lange, were sufficient to reassure her.
“You were so surrounded in the green-room, mademoiselle,” he said courteously, “I did not venture to press in among the crowd of your admirers. Yet I had the great wish to present my respectful congratulations in person.”
“Ah! c’est ce cher de Batz!” exclaimed mademoiselle gaily, in that exquisitely rippling voice of hers. “And where in the world do you spring from, my friend?”
“Hush-sh-sh!” he whispered, holding her small bemittened hand in his, and putting one finger to his lips with an urgent entreaty for discretion, “not my name, I beg of you, fair one.”
“Bah!” she retorted lightly, even though her full lips trembled now as she spoke and belied her very words. “You need have no fear whilst you are in this part of the house. It is an understood thing that the Committee of General Security does not send its spies behind the curtain of a theatre. Why, if all of us actors and actresses were sent to the guillotine there would be no play on the morrow. Artistes are not replaceable in a few hours; those that are in existence must perforce be spared, or the citizens who govern us now would not know where to spend their evenings.”
But though she spoke so airily and with her accustomed gaiety, it was easily perceived that even on this childish mind the dangers which beset everyone these days had already imprinted their mark of suspicion and of caution.
“Come into my dressing-room,” she said. “I must not tarry here any longer, for they will be putting out the lights. But I have a room to myself, and we can talk there quite agreeably.”
She led the way across the stage towards the wooden stairs. Armand, who during this brief colloquy between his friend and the young girl had kept discreetly in the background, felt undecided what to do. But at a peremptory sign from de Batz, he, too, turned in the wake of the gay little lady, who ran swiftly up the rickety steps, humming snatches of popular songs the while, and not turning to see if indeed the two men were following her.
She had the sheaf of narcissi still in her arms, and the door of her tiny dressing-room being open, she ran straight in and threw the flowers down in a confused, sweet-scented mass upon the small table that stood at one end of the room, littered with pots and bottles, letters, mirrors, powder-puffs, silk stockings, and cambric handkerchiefs.
Then she turned and faced the two men, a merry look of unalterable gaiety dancing in her eyes.
“Shut the door, mon ami,” she said to de Batz, “and after that sit down where you can, so long as it is not on my most precious pot of unguent or a box of costliest powder.”
While de Batz did as he was told, she turned to Armand and said with a pretty tone of interrogation in her melodious voice: “Monsieur?”
“St Just, at your service, mademoiselle,” said Armand, bowing very low in the most approved style obtaining at the English Court.
“St Just?” she repeated, a look of puzzlement in her brown eyes. “Surely—”
“A kinsman of citizen St Just, whom no doubt you know, mademoiselle,” he explained.
“My friend Armand St Just,” interposed de Batz, “is practically a new-comer in Paris. He lives in England habitually.”
“In England?” she exclaimed. “Oh! do tell me all about England. I would love to go there. Perhaps I may have to go some day. Oh! do sit down, de Batz,” she continued, talking rather volubly, even as a delicate blush heightened the colour in her cheeks under the look of obvious admiration from Armand St Just’s expressive eyes.
She swept a handful of delicate cambric and silk from off a chair, making room for de Batz’ portly figure. Then she sat upon the sofa, and with an inviting gesture and a call from the eyes she bade Armand sit down next to her.
She leaned back against the cushions, and the table being close by, she stretched out a hand and once more took up the bunch of narcissi, and while she talked to Armand she held the snow-white blooms quite close to her face — so close, in fact, that he could not see her mouth and chin, only her dark eyes shone across at him over the heads of the blossoms.
“Tell me all about England,” she reiterated, settling herself down among the cushions like a spoilt child who is about to listen to an oft-told favourite story.
Armand was vexed that de Batz was sitting there. He felt he could have told this dainty little lady quite a good deal about England if only his pompous, fat friend would have had the good sense to go away.
As it was, he felt unusually timid and gauche, not quite knowing what to say, a fact which seemed to amuse Mlle Lange not a little.
“I am very fond of England,” he said lamely, “my sister is married to an Englishman, and I myself have taken up my permanent residence there.”
“Among the society of émigrés?” she queried.
Then, as Armand made no reply, de Batz interposed quickly: “Oh! you need not fear to admit it, my good Armand! Mademoiselle Lange has many friends among the émigrés — have you not, mademoiselle?”