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- The Elusive Pimpernel - 20/51 -
She thought Percy must soon be coming this way. Though it was so late, she knew that he would not go to bed. After the events of the night, his ruling passion, strong in death, would be holding him in its thrall.
She too felt wide awake and unconscious of fatigue; when she reached the secluded path beside the river, she peered eagerly up and down, and listened for a sound.
Presently it seemed to her that above the gentle clapper of the waters she could hear a rustle and the scrunching of the fine gravel under carefully measured footsteps. She waited a while. The footsteps seemed to draw nearer, and soon, although the starlit night was very dark, she perceived a cloaked and hooded figure approaching cautiously toward her.
"Who goes there?" she called suddenly.
The figure paused: then came rapidly forward, and a voice said timidly:
"Ah! Lady Blakeney!"
"Who are you?" asked Marguerite peremptorily.
"It is I ... Desiree Candeille," replied the midnight prowler.
"Demoiselle Candeille!" ejaculated Marguerite, wholly taken by surprise. "What are you doing here? alone? and at this hour?"
"Sh-sh-sh ..." whispered Candeille eagerly, as she approached quite close to Marguerite and drew her hood still lower over her eyes. "I am all alone ... I wanted to see someone--you if possible, Lady Blakeney ... for I could not rest ... I wanted to know what had happened."
"What had happened? When? I don't understand."
"What happened between Citizen Chauvelin and your husband?" asked Candeille.
"What is that to you?" replied Marguerite haughtily.
"I pray you do not misunderstand me ..." pleaded Candeille eagerly. "I know my presence in your house ... the quarrel which I provoked must have filled your heart with hatred and suspicion towards me ... but oh! how can I persuade you? ... I acted unwillingly ... will you not believe me? ... I was that man's tool ... and ... Oh God!" she added with sudden, wild vehemence, "if only you could know what tyranny that accursed government of France exercises over poor helpless women or men who happen to have fallen within reach of its relentless clutches ..."
Her voice broke down in a sob. Marguerite hardly knew what to say or think. She had always mistrusted this woman with her theatrical ways and stagy airs, from the very first moment she saw her in the tent on the green: and she did not wish to run counter against her instinct, in anything pertaining to the present crisis. And yet in spite of her mistrust the actress' vehement words found an echo in the depths of her own heart. How well she knew that tyranny of which Candeille spoke with such bitterness! Had she not suffered from it, endured terrible sorrow and humiliation, when under the ban of that same appalling tyranny she had betrayed the identity-- then unknown to her--of the Scarlet Pimpernel?
Therefore when Candeille paused after those last excited words, she said with more gentleness than she had shown hitherto, though still quite coldly:
"But you have not yet told me why you came back here to-night? If Citizen Chauvelin was your taskmaster, then you must know all that has occurred."
"I had a vague hope that I might see you."
"For what purpose?"
"To warn you if I could."
"I need no warning."
"Or are too proud to take one. ... Do you know, Lady Blakeney, that Citizen Chauvelin has a personal hatred against your husband?"
"How do you know that?" asked Marguerite, with her suspicions once more on the qui-vive. She could not understand Candeille's attitude. This midnight visit, the vehemence of her language, the strange mixture of knowledge and ignorance which she displayed. What did this woman know of Chauvelin's secret plans? Was she his open ally, or his helpless tool? And was she even now playing a part taught her or commanded her by that prince of intriguers?
Candeille, however, seemed quite unaware of the spirit of antagonism and mistrust which Marguerite took but little pains now to disguise. She clasped her hands together, and her voice shook with the earnestness of her entreaty.
"Oh!" she said eagerly, "have I not seen that look of hatred in Chauvelin's cruel eyes? ... He hates your husband, I tell you. ... Why I know not ... but he hates him .. and means that great harm shall come to Sir Percy through this absurd duel. ... Oh! Lady Blakeney, do not let him go ... I entreat you, do not let him go!"
But Marguerite proudly drew back a step or two, away from the reach of those hands, stretched out towards her in such vehement appeal.
"You are overwrought, Mademoiselle," she said coldly. "Believe me, I have no need either of your entreaties or of your warning. ... I should like you to think that I have no wish to be ungrateful ... that I appreciate any kind thought you may have harboured for me in your mind. ... But beyond that ... please forgive me if I say it somewhat crudely--I do not feel that the matter concerns you in the least. ... The hour is late," she added more gently, as if desiring to attenuate the harshness of her last words. "Shall I send my maid to escort you home? She is devoted and discreet ..."
"Nay!" retorted the other in tones of quiet sadness, "there is no need of discretion ... I am not ashamed of my visit to you to-night. ... You are very proud, and for your sake I will pray to God that sorrow and humiliation may not come to you, as I feared. ... We are never likely to meet again, Lady Blakeney ... you will not wish it, and I shall have passed out of your life as swiftly as I had entered into it. ... But there was another thought lurking in my mind when I came to-night. ... In case Sir Percy goes to France ... the duel is to take place in or near Boulogne ... this much I do know ... would you not wish to go with him?"
"Truly, Mademoiselle, I must repeat to you ..."
"That 'tis no concern of mine ... I know ... I own that. ... But, you see when I came back here to-night in the silence and the darkness--I had not guessed that you would be so proud ... I thought that I, a woman, would know how to touch your womanly heart. ... I was clumsy, I suppose. ... I made so sure that you would wish to go with your husband, in case ... in case he insisted on running his head into the noose, which I feel sure Chauvelin has prepared for him. ... I myself start for France shortly. Citizen Chauvelin has provided me with the necessary passport for myself and my maid, who was to have accompanied me. ... Then, just now, when I was all alone ... and thought over all the mischief which that fiend had forced me to do for him, it seemed to me that perhaps ..."
She broke off abruptly, and tried to read the other woman's face in the gloom. But Marguerite, who was taller than the Frenchwoman, was standing, very stiff and erect, giving the young actress neither discouragement nor confidence. She did not interrupt Candeille's long and voluble explanation: vaguely she wondered what it was all about, and even now when the Frenchwoman paused, Marguerite said nothing, but watched her quietly as she took a folded paper from the capacious pocked of her cloak and then held it out with a look of timidity towards Lady Blakeney.
"My maid need not come with me," said Desiree Candeille humbly. "I would far rather travel alone ... this is her passport and ... Oh! you need not take it out of my hand," she added in tones of bitter self-deprecation, as Marguerite made no sign of taking the paper from her. "See! I will leave it here among the roses! ... You mistrust me now ... it is only natural ... presently, perhaps, calmer reflection will come ... you will see that my purpose now is selfless ... that I only wish to serve you and him."
She stooped and placed the folded paper in the midst of a great clump of centifolium roses, and then without another word she turned and went her way. For a few moments, whilst Marguerite still stood there, puzzled and vaguely moved, she could hear the gentle frou-frou of the other woman's skirts against the soft sand of the path, and then a long-drawn sigh that sounded like a sob.
Then all was still again. The gentle midnight breeze caressed the tops of the ancient oaks and elms behind her, drawing murmurs from their dying leaves like unto the whisperings of ghosts.
Marguerite shuddered with a slight sense of cold. Before her, amongst the dark clump of leaves and the roses, invisible in the gloom, there fluttered with a curious, melancholy flapping, the folded paper placed there by Candeille. She watched it for awhile, as, disturbed by the wind, it seemed ready to take its flight towards the river. Anon it fell to the ground, and Marguerite with sudden overpowering impulse, stooped and picked it up. Then clutching it nervously in her hand, she walked rapidly back towards the house.
Chapter XV : Farewell
As she neared the terrace, she became conscious of several forms moving about at the foot of the steps, some few feet below where she was standing. Soon she saw the glimmer of lanthorns, heard whispering voices, and the lapping of the water against the side of a boat.
Anon a figure, laden with cloaks and sundry packages, passed down the steps close beside her. Even in the darkness Marguerite recognized Benyon, her husband's confidential valet. Without a moment's hesitation, she flew among the terrace towards the wing of the house occupied by Sir Percy. She had not gone far before she discerned his tall figure walking leisurely along the path which here skirted part of the house.
He had on his large caped coat, which was thrown open in front, displaying a grey travelling suit of fine cloth; his hands were as usual buried in the pockets of his breeches, and on his head he wore the folding chapeau-bras which he habitually affected.
Before she had time to think, or to realize that he was going, before she could utter one single word, she was in his arms, clinging to him with
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