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- The Elusive Pimpernel - 10/51 -
a woman who had been wrongfully persecuted, who had suffered and had forgiven those who had caused her to suffer. She bitterly accused herself for her original mistrust of this noble-hearted, unselfish woman, who was content to tramp around in an alien country, bartering her talents for a few coins, in order that some of those, who were the originators of her sorrows, might have bread to eat and a bed in which to sleep.
"Mademoiselle," she said warmly, "truly you shame me, who am also French-born, with the many sacrifices you so nobly make for those who should have first claim on my own sympathy. Believe me, if I have not done as much as duty demanded of me in the cause of my starving compatriots, it has not been for lack of good-will. Is there any way now," she added eagerly, "in which I can help you? Putting aside the question of money, wherein I pray you to command my assistance, what can I do to be of useful service to you?"
"You are very kind, Lady Blakeney ..." said the other hesitatingly.
"Well? What is it? I see there is something in your mind ..."
"It is perhaps difficult to express ... but people say I have a good voice ... I sing some French ditties ... they are a novelty in England, I think. ... If I could sing them in fashionable salons ... I might perhaps ..."
"Nay! you shall sing in fashionable salons," exclaimed Marguerite eagerly, "you shall become the fashion, and I'll swear the Prince of Wales himself shall bid you sing at Carlton House ... and you shall name your own fee, Mademoiselle ... and London society shall vie with the elite of Bath, as to which shall lure you to its most frequented routs. ... There! there! you shall make a fortune for the Paris poor ... and to prove to you that I mean every word I say, you shall begin your triumphant career in my own salon to-morrow night. His Royal Highness will be present. You shall sing your most engaging songs ... and for your fee you must accept a hundred guineas, which you shall send to the poorest workman's club in Paris in the name of Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney."
"I thank your ladyship, but ..."
"You'll not refuse?"
"I'll accept gladly ... but ... you will understand ... I am not very old," said Candeille quaintly, "I ... I am only an actress ... but if a young actress is unprotected ... then ..."
"I understand," replied Marguerite gently, "that you are far too pretty to frequent the world all alone, and that you have a mother, a sister or a friend ... which? ... whom you would wish to escort you to- morrow. Is that it?"
"Nay," rejoined the actress, with marked bitterness, "I have neither mother, nor sister, but our Revolutionary Government, with tardy compassion for those it has so relentlessly driven out of France, has deputed a representative of theirs in England to look after the interests of French subjects over here1"
"They have realised over in Paris that my life here has been devoted to the welfare of the poor people of France. The representative whom the government has sent to England is specially interested in me and in my work. He is a stand-by for me in case of trouble ... in case of insults ... A woman alone is oft subject to those, even at the hands of so-called gentlemen ... and the official representative of my own country becomes in such cases my most natural protector."
"You will receive him?"
"Then may I present him to your ladyship?"
"Whenever you like."
"Now, and it please you."
"Yes. Here he comes, at your ladyship's service."
Desiree Candeille's almond-shaped eyes were fixed upon a distant part of the tent, behind Lady Blakeney in the direction of the main entrance to the booth. There was a slight pause after she had spoken and then Marguerite slowly turned in order to see who this official representative of France was, whom at the young actress' request she had just agreed to receive in her house. In the doorway of the tent, framed by its gaudy draperies, and with the streaming sunshine as a brilliant background behind him, stood the sable-clad figure of Chauvelin.
Chapter VII : Premonition
Marguerite neither moved nor spoke. She felt two pairs of eyes fixed upon her, and with all the strength of will at her command she forced the very blood in her veins not to quit her cheeks, forced her eyelids not to betray by a single quiver the icy pang of a deadly premonition which at sight of Chauvelin seemed to have chilled her entire soul.
There he stood before her, dressed in his usual somber garments, a look almost of humility in those keen grey eyes of his, which a year ago on the cliffs of Calais had peered down at her with such relentless hate.
Strange that at this moment she should have felt an instinct of fear. What cause had she to throw more than a pitiful glance at the man who had tried so cruelly to wrong her, and who had so signally failed?
Having bowed very low and very respectfully, Chauvelin advanced towards her, with all the airs of a disgraced courtier craving audience from his queen.
As he approached she instinctively drew back.
"Would you prefer not to speak to me, Lady Blakeney?" he said humbly.
She could scarcely believe her ears, or trust her eyes. It seemed impossible that a man could have so changed in a few months. He even looked shorter than last year, more shrunken within himself. His hair, which he wore free from powder, was perceptibly tinged with grey.
"Shall I withdraw?" he added after a pause, seeing that Marguerite made no movement to return his salutation.
"It would be best, perhaps," she replied coldly. "You and I, Monsieur Chauvelin, have so little to say to one another."
"Very little indeed," he rejoined quietly; "the triumphant and happy have ever very little to say to the humiliated and the defeated. But I had hoped that Lady Blakeney in the midst of her victory would have spared one thought of pity and one of pardon."
"I did not know that you had need of either from me, Monsieur."
"Pity perhaps not, but forgiveness certainly."
"You have that, if you so desire it."
"Since I failed, you might try to forget."
"That is beyond my power. But believe me, I have ceased to think of the infinite wrong which you tried to do to me."
"But I failed," he insisted, "and I meant no harm to YOU."
"To those I care for, Monsieur Chauvelin."
"I had to serve my country as best I could. I meant no harm to your brother. He is safe in England now. And the Scarlet Pimpernel was nothing to you."
She tried to read his face, tried to discover in those inscrutable eyes of his, some hidden meaning to his words. Instinct had warned her of course that this man could be nothing but an enemy, always and at all times. But he seemed so broken, so abject now, that contempt for his dejected attitude, and for the defeat which had been inflicted on him, chased the last remnant of fear from her heart.
"I did not even succeed in harming that enigmatical personage," continued Chauvelin with the same self-abasement. "Sir Percy Blakeney, you remember, threw himself across my plans, quite innocently of course. I failed where you succeeded. Luck has deserted me. Our government offered me a humble post, away from France. I look after the interests of French subjects settled in England. My days of power are over. My failure is complete. I do not complain, for I failed in a combat of wits ... but I failed ... I failed ... I failed ... I am almost a fugitive and I am quite disgraced. That is my present history, Lady Blakeney," he concluded, taking once more a step towards her, "and you will understand that it would be a solace if you extended your hand to me just once more, and let me feel that although you would never willingly look upon my face again, you have enough womanly tenderness in you to force your heart to forgiveness and mayhap to pity."
Marguerite hesitated. He held out his hand and her warm, impulsive nature prompted her to be kind. But instinct would not be gainsaid: a curious instinct to which she refused to respond. What had she to fear from this miserable and cringing little worm who had not even in him the pride of defeat? What harm could he do to her, or to those whom she loved? Her brother was in England! Her husband! Bah! not the enmity of the entire world could make her fear for him!
Nay! That instinct, which caused her to draw away from Chauvelin, as she would from a venomous asp, was certainly not fear. It was hate! She hated this man! Hated him for all that she had suffered because of him; for that terrible night on the cliffs of Calais! The peril to her husband who had become so infinitely dear! The humiliations and self-reproaches which he had endured.
Yes! it was hate! and hate was of all emotions the one she most despised.
Hate? Does one hate a slimy but harmless toad or a stinging fly? It seemed ridiculous, contemptible and pitiable to think of hate in connection with the melancholy figure of this discomfited intriguer, this
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