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The Scarlet Pimpernel
By Baroness Orczy

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As in a dream, Marguerite followed on; the web was drawing
more and more tightly every moment round the beloved life, which had
become dearer than all. To see her husband once again, to tell him
how she had suffered, how much she had wronged, and how little
understood him, had become now her only aim. She had abandoned all
hope of saving him: she saw him gradually hemmed in on all sides, and,
in despair, she gazed round her into the darkness, and wondered whence
he would presently come, to fall into the death-trap which his
relentless enemy had prepared for him.

The distant roar of the waves now made her shudder; the
occasional dismal cry of an owl, or a sea-gull, filled her with
unspeakable horror. She thought of the ravenous beasts--in human
shape--who lay in wait for their prey, and destroyed them, as
mercilessly as any hungry wolf, for the satisfaction of their own
appetite of hate. Marguerite was not afraid of the darkness, she only
feared that man, on ahead, who was sitting at the bottom of a rough
wooden cart, nursing thoughts of vengeance, which would have made the
very demons in hell chuckle with delight.

Her feet were sore. Her knees shook under her, from sheer
bodily fatigue. For days now she had lived in a wild turmoil of
excitement; she had not had a quiet rest for three nights; now, she
had walked on a slippery road for nearly two hours, and yet her
determination never swerved for a moment. She would see her husband,
tell him all, and, if he was ready to forgive the crime, which she had
committed in her blind ignorance, she would yet have the happiness of
dying by his side.

She must have walked on almost in a trance, instinct alone
keeping her up, and guiding her in the wake of the enemy, when
suddenly her ears, attuned to the slightest sound, by that same blind
instinct, told her that the cart had stopped, and that the soldiers
had halted. They had come to their destination. No doubt on the
right, somewhere close ahead, was the footpath that led to the edge of
the cliff and to the hut.

Heedless of any risks, she crept up quite close up to where
Chauvelin stood, surrounded by his little troop: he had descended from
the cart, and was giving some orders to the men. These she wanted to
hear: what little chance she yet had, of being useful to Percy,
consisted in hearing absolutely every word of his enemy's plans.

The spot where all the party had halted must have lain some
eight hundred meters from the coast; the sound of the sea came only
very faintly, as from a distance. Chauvelin and Desgas, followed by
the soldiers, had turned off sharply to the right of the road,
apparently on to the footpath, which led to the cliffs. The Jew had
remained on the road, with his cart and nag.

Marguerite, with infinite caution, and literally crawling on
her hands and knees, had also turned off to the right: to accomplish
this she had to creep through the rough, low shrubs, trying to make as
little noise as possible as she went along, tearing her face and hands
against the dry twigs, intent only upon hearing without being seen or
heard. Fortunately--as is usual in this part of France--the footpath
was bordered by a low rough hedge, beyond which was a dry ditch,
filled with coarse grass. In this Marguerite managed to find shelter;
she was quite hidden from view, yet could contrive to get within three
yards of where Chauvelin stood, giving orders to his men.

"Now," he was saying in a low and peremptory whisper, "where
is the Pere Blanchard's hut?"

"About eight hundred meters from here, along the footpath,"
said the soldier who had lately been directing the party, "and
half-way down the cliff."

"Very good. You shall lead us. Before we begin to descend the cliff,
you shall creep down to the hut, as noiselessly as possible, and
ascertain if the traitor royalists are there? Do you understand?"

"I understand, citoyen."

"Now listen very attentively, all of you," continued
Chauvelin, impressively, and addressing the soldiers collectively,
"for after this we may not be able to exchange another word, so
remember every syllable I utter, as if your very lives depended on
your memory. Perhaps they do," he added drily.

"We listen, citoyen," said Desgas, "and a soldier of the Republic
never forgets an order."

"You, who have crept up to the hut, will try to peep inside.
If an Englishman is there with those traitors, a man who is tall above
the average, or who stoops as if he would disguise his height, then
give a sharp, quick whistle as a signal to your comrades. All of
you," he added, once more speaking to the soldiers collectively, "then
quickly surround and rush into the hut, and each seize one of the men
there, before they have time to draw their firearms; if any of them
struggle, shoot at their legs or arms, but on no account kill the tall
man. Do you understand?"

"We understand, citoyen."

"The man who is tall above the average is probably also strong
above the average; it will take four or five of you at least to
overpower him."

There was a little pause, then Chauvelin continued,--

"If the royalist traitors are still alone, which is more than
likely to be the case, then warn your comrades who are lying in wait
there, and all of you creep and take cover behind the rocks and
boulders round the hut, and wait there, in dead silence, until the
tall Englishman arrives; then only rush the hut, when he is safely
within its doors. But remember that you must be as silent as the wolf
is at night, when he prowls around the pens. I do not wish those
royalists to be on the alert--the firing of a pistol, a shriek or call
on their part would be sufficient, perhaps, to warn the tall personage
to keep clear of the cliffs, and of the hut, and," he added
emphatically, "it is the tall Englishman whom it is your duty to
capture tonight."

"You shall be implicitly obeyed, citoyen."

"Then get along as noiselessly as possible, and I will follow you."

"What about the Jew, citoyen?" asked Desgas, as silently like
noiseless shadows, one by one the soldiers began to creep along the
rough and narrow footpath.

"Ah, yes; I had forgotten about the Jew," said Chauvelin, and,
turning towards the Jew, he called him peremptorily.

"Here, you. . .Aaron, Moses, Abraham, or whatever your
confounded name may be," he said to the old man, who had quietly stood
beside his lean nag, as far away from the soldiers as possible.

"Benjamin Rosenbaum, so it please your Honour," he replied humbly.

"It does not please me to hear your voice, but it does please
me to give you certain orders, which you will find it wise to obey."

"So it please your Honour. . ."

"Hold your confounded tongue. You shall stay here, do you
hear? with your horse and cart until our return. You are on no
account to utter the faintest sound, or to even breathe louder than
you can help; nor are you, on any consideration whatever, to leave
your post, until I give you orders to do so. Do you understand?"

"But your Honour--" protested the Jew pitiably.

"There is no question of `but' or of any argument," said
Chauvelin, in a tone that made the timid old man tremble from heat to
foot. "If, when I return, I do not find you here, I most solemnly
assure you that, wherever you may try to hide yourself, I can find
you, and that punishment swift, sure and terrible, will sooner or
later overtake you. Do you hear me?"

"But your Excellency. . ."

"I said, do you hear me?"

The soldiers had all crept away; the three men stood alone together
in the dark and lonely road, with Marguerite there, behind the hedge,
listening to Chauvelin's orders, as she would to her own death sentence.

"I heard your Honour," protested the Jew again, while he tried
to draw nearer to Chauvelin, "and I swear by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
that I would obey your Honour most absolutely, and that I would not
move from this place until your Honour once more deigned to shed the
light of your countenance upon your humble servant; but remember, your
Honour, I am a poor man; my nerves are not as strong as those of a
young soldier. If midnight marauders should come prowling round this
lonely road, I might scream or run in my fright! And is my life to be
forfeit, is some terrible punishment to come on my poor old head for
that which I cannot help?

The Jew seemed in real distress; he was shaking from head to foot.
Clearly he was not the man to be left by himself on this lonely road.
The man spoke truly; he might unwittingly, in sheer terror, utter the
shriek that might prove a warning to the wily Scarlet Pimpernel.

Chauvelin reflected for a moment.

"Will your horse and cart be safe alone, here, do you think?"
he asked roughly.

"I fancy, citoyen," here interposed Desgas, "that they will be
safer without that dirty, cowardly Jew than with him. There seems no
doubt that, if he gets scared, he will either make a bolt of it, or
shriek his head off."

"But what am I to do with the brute?"

"Will you send him back to Calais, citoyen?"

"No, for we shall want him to drive back the wounded presently,"
said Chauvelin, with grim significance.

There was a pause again--Desgas waiting for the decision of
his chief, and the old Jew whining beside his nag.

"Well, you lazy, lumbering old coward," said Chauvelin at
last, "you had better shuffle along behind us. Here, Citoyen Desgas,
tie this handkerchief tightly round the fellow's mouth."

Chauvelin handed a scarf to Desgas, who solemnly began winding
it round the Jew's mouth. Meekly Benjamin Rosenbaum allowed himself
to be gagged; he, evidently, preferred this uncomfortable state to
that of being left alone, on the dark St. Martin Road. Then the three
men fell in line.

"Quick!" said Chauvelin, impatiently, "we have already wasted
much valuable time."

And the firm footsteps of Chauvelin and Desgas, the shuffling
gait of the old Jew, soon died away along the footpath.

Marguerite had not lost a single one of Chauvelin's words of
command. Her every nerve was strained to completely grasp the
situation first, then to make a final appeal to those wits which had
so often been called the sharpest in Europe, and which alone might be
of service now.

Certainly the situation was desperate enough; a tiny band of
unsuspecting men, quietly awaiting the arrival of their rescuer, who
was equally unconscious of the trap laid for them all. It seemed so
horrible, this net, as it were drawn in a circle, at dead of night, on
a lonely beach, round a few defenceless men, defenceless because they
were tricked and unsuspecting; of these one was the husband she
idolised, another the brother she loved. She vaguely wondered who the
others were, who were also calmly waiting for the Scarlet Pimpernel,
while death lurked behind every boulder of the cliffs.

For the moment she could do nothing but follow the soldiers
and Chauvelin. She feared to lose her way, or she would have rushed
forward and found that wooden hut, and perhaps been in time to warn
the fugitives and their brave deliverer yet.

For a second, the thought flashed through her mind of uttering
the piercing shrieks, which Chauvelin seemed to dread, as a possible
warning to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his friends--in the wild hope
that they would hear, and have yet time to escape before it was too
late. But she did not know if her shrieks would reach the ears of the
doomed men. Her effort might be premature, and she would never be
allowed to make another. Her mouth would be securely gagged, like
that of the Jew, and she, a helpless prisoner in the hands of
Chauvelin's men.

Like a ghost she flitted noiselessly behind that hedge: she
had taken her shoes off, and her stockings were by now torn off her
feet. She felt neither soreness nor weariness; indomitable will to
reach her husband in spite of adverse Fate, and of a cunning enemy,
killed all sense of bodily pain within her, and rendered her instincts
doubly acute.

She heard nothing save the soft and measured footsteps of Percy's
enemies on in front; she saw nothing but--in her mind's eye--that
wooden hut, and he, her husband, walking blindly to his doom.

Suddenly, those same keen instincts within her made her pause
in her mad haste, and cower still further within the shadow of the
hedge. The moon, which had proved a friend to her by remaining hidden
behind a bank of clouds, now emerged in all the glory of an early
autumn night, and in a moment flooded the weird and lonely landscape
with a rush of brilliant light.

There, not two hundred metres ahead, was the edge of the
cliff, and below, stretching far away to free and happy England, the
sea rolled on smoothly and peaceably. Marguerite's gaze rested for an
instant on the brilliant, silvery waters; and as she gazed, her heart,
which had been numb with pain for all these hours, seemed to soften
and distend, and her eyes filled with hot tears: not three miles away,
with white sails set, a graceful schooner lay in wait.

Marguerite had guessed rather than recognized her. It was the
DAY DREAM, Percy's favourite yacht, and all her crew of British
sailors: her white sails, glistening in the moonlight, seemed to
convey a message to Marguerite of joy and hope, which yet she feared
could never be. She waited there, out at sea, waited for her master,
like a beautiful white bird all ready to take flight, and he would
never reach her, never see her smooth deck again, never gaze any more
on the white cliffs of England, the land of liberty and of hope.

The sight of the schooner seemed to infuse into the poor,
wearied woman the superhuman strength of despair. There was the edge
of the cliff, and some way below was the hut, where presently, her
husband would meet his death. But the moon was out: she could see her
way now: she would see the hut from a distance, run to it, rouse them
all, warn them at any rate to be prepared and to sell their lives
dearly, rather than be caught like so many rats in a hole.

She stumbled on behind the hedge in the low, thick grass of
the ditch. She must have run on very fast, and had outdistanced
Chauvelin and Desgas, for presently she reached the edge of the cliff,
and heard their footsteps distinctly behind her. But only a very few
yards away, and now the moonlight was full upon her, her figure must have
been distinctly silhouetted against the silvery background of the sea.

Only for a moment, though; the next she had cowered, like some
animal doubled up within itself. She peeped down the great rugged
cliffs--the descent would be easy enough, as they were not
precipitous, and the great boulders afforded plenty of foothold.
Suddenly, as she grazed, she saw at some little distance on her left,
and about midway down the cliffs, a rough wooden construction, through
the wall of which a tiny red light glimmered like a beacon. Her very
heart seemed to stand still, the eagerness of joy was so great that it
felt like an awful pain.

She could not gauge how distant the hut was, but without hesitation
she began the steep descent, creeping from boulder to boulder, caring
nothing for the enemy behind, or for the soldiers, who evidently had
all taken cover since the tall Englishman had not yet appeared.

On she pressed, forgetting the deadly foe on her track,
running, stumbling, foot-sore, half-dazed, but still on. . .When,
suddenly, a crevice, or stone, or slippery bit of rock, threw her
violently to the ground. She struggled again to her feet, and started
running forward once more to give them that timely warning, to beg
them to flee before he came, and to tell him to keep away--away from
this death-trap--away from this awful doom. But now she realised that
other steps, quicker than her own, were already close at her heels.
The next instant a hand dragged at her skirt, and she was down on her
knees again, whilst something was wound round her mouth to prevent her
uttering a scream.

Bewildered, half frantic with the bitterness of disappointment,
she looked round her helplessly, and, bending down quite close to her,
she saw through the mist, which seemed to gather round her, a pair of keen,
malicious eyes, which appeared to her excited brain to have a weird,
supernatural green light in them. She lay in the shadow of a great boulder;
Chauvelin could not see her features, but he passed his thin, white fingers
over her face.

"A woman!" he whispered, "by all the Saints in the calendar."

"We cannot let her loose, that's certain," he muttered to himself.
"I wonder now. . ."

Suddenly he paused, after a few moment of deadly silence, he gave forth
a long, low, curious chuckle, while once again Marguerite felt, with a
horrible shudder, his thin fingers wandering over her face.

"Dear me! dear me!" he whispered, with affected gallantry,
"this is indeed a charming surprise," and Marguerite felt her
resistless hand raised to Chauvelin's thin, mocking lips.

The situation was indeed grotesque, had it not been at the
same time so fearfully tragic: the poor, weary woman, broken in
spirit, and half frantic with the bitterness of her disappointment,
receiving on her knees the BANAL gallantries of her deadly enemy.

Her senses were leaving her; half choked with the tight grip
round her mouth, she had no strength to move or to utter the faintest
sound. The excitement which all along had kept up her delicate body
seemed at once to have subsided, and the feeling of blank despair to
have completely paralyzed her brain and nerves.

Chauvelin must have given some directions, which she was too
dazed to hear, for she felt herself lifted from off her feet: the
bandage round her mouth was made more secure, and a pair of strong
arms carried her towards that tiny, red light, on ahead, which she had
looked upon as a beacon and the last faint glimmer of hope.



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