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"Well, now, Armand, what is it?" asked Blakeney, the moment the footsteps of his friends had died away down the stone stairs, and their voices had ceased to echo in the distance.
"You guessed, then, that there was ... something?" said the younger man, after a slight hesitation.
Armand rose, pushing the chair away from him with an impatient nervy gesture. Burying his hands in the pockets of his breeches, he began striding up and down the room, a dark, troubled expression in his face, a deep frown between his eyes.
Blakeney had once more taken up his favourite position, sitting on the corner of the table, his broad shoulders interposed between the lamp and the rest of the room. He was apparently taking no notice of Armand, but only intent on the delicate operation of polishing his nails.
Suddenly the young man paused in his restless walk and stood in front of his friend--an earnest, solemn, determined figure.
"Blakeney," he said, "I cannot leave Paris to-morrow."
Sir Percy made no reply. He was contemplating the polish which he had just succeeded in producing on his thumbnail.
"I must stay here for a while longer," continued Armand firmly. "I may not be able to return to England for some weeks. You have the three others here to help you in your enterprise outside Paris. I am entirely at your service within the compass of its walls."
Still no comment from Blakeney, not a look from beneath the fallen lids. Armand continued, with a slight tone of impatience apparent in his voice:
"You must want some one to help you here on Sunday. I am entirely at your service ... here or anywhere in Paris ... but I cannot leave this city ... at any rate, not just yet...."
Blakeney was apparently satisfied at last with the result of his polishing operations. He rose, gave a slight yawn, and turned toward the door.
"Good night, my dear fellow," he said pleasantly; "it is time we were all abed. I am so demmed fatigued."
"Percy!" exclaimed the young man hotly.
"Eh? What is it?" queried the other lazily.
"You are not going to leave me like this--without a word?"
"I have said a great many words, my good fellow. I have said 'good night,' and remarked that I was demmed fatigued."
He was standing beside the door which led to his bedroom, and now he pushed it open with his hand.
"Percy, you cannot go and leave me like this!" reiterated Armand with rapidly growing irritation.
"Like what, my dear fellow?" queried Sir Percy with good-humoured impatience.
"Without a word--without a sign. What have I done that you should treat me like a child, unworthy even of attention?"
Blakeney had turned back and was now facing him, towering above the slight figure of the younger man. His face had lost none of its gracious air, and beneath their heavy lids his eyes looked down not unkindly on his friend.
"Would you have preferred it, Armand," he said quietly, "if I had said the word that your ears have heard even though my lips have not uttered it?"
"I don't understand," murmured Armand defiantly.
"What sign would you have had me make?" continued Sir Percy, his pleasant voice falling calm and mellow on the younger man's supersensitive consciousness: "That of branding you, Marguerite's brother, as a liar and a cheat?"
"Blakeney!" retorted the other, as with flaming cheeks and wrathful eyes he took a menacing step toward his friend; "had any man but you dared to speak such words to me--"
"I pray to God, Armand, that no man but I has the right to speak them."
"You have no right."
"Every right, my friend. Do I not hold your oath? ... Are you not prepared to break it?"
"I'll not break my oath to you. I'll serve and help you in every way you can command ... my life I'll give to the cause ... give me the most dangerous--the most difficult task to perform.... I'll do it--I'll do it gladly."
"I have given you an over-difficult and dangerous task."
"Bah! To leave Paris in order to engage horses, while you and the others do all the work. That is neither difficult nor dangerous."
"It will be difficult for you, Armand, because your head Is not sufficiently cool to foresee serious eventualities and to prepare against them. It is dangerous, because you are a man in love, and a man in love is apt to run his head--and that of his friends-- blindly into a noose."
"Who told you that I was in love?"
"You yourself, my good fellow. Had you not told me so at the outset," he continued, still speaking very quietly and deliberately and never raising his voice, "I would even now be standing over you, dog-whip in hand, to thrash you as a defaulting coward and a perjurer .... Bah!" he added with a return to his habitual bonhomie, "I would no doubt even have lost my temper with you. Which would have been purposeless and excessively bad form. Eh?"
A violent retort had sprung to Armand's lips. But fortunately at that very moment his eyes, glowing with anger, caught those of Blakeney fixed with lazy good-nature upon his. Something of that irresistible dignity which pervaded the whole personality of the man checked Armand's hotheaded words on his lips.
"I cannot leave Paris to-morrow," he reiterated more calmly.
"Because you have arranged to see her again?"
"Because she saved my life to-day, and is herself in danger."
"She is in no danger," said Blakeney simply, "since she saved the life of my friend."
The cry was wrung from Armand St. Just's very soul. Despite the tumult of passion which was raging in his heart, he was conscious again of the magnetic power which bound so many to this man's service. The words he had said--simple though they were--had sent a thrill through Armand's veins. He felt himself disarmed. His resistance fell before the subtle strength of an unbendable will; nothing remained in his heart but an overwhelming sense of shame and of impotence.
He sank into a chair and rested his elbows on the table, burying his face in his hands. Blakeney went up to him and placed a kindly hand upon his shoulder.
"The difficult task, Armand," he said gently.
"Percy, cannot you release me? She saved my life. I have not thanked her yet."
"There will be time for thanks later, Armand. Just now over yonder the son of kings is being done to death by savage brutes."
"I would not hinder you if I stayed."
"God knows you have hindered us enough already."
"You say she saved your life ... then you were in danger ... Heron and his spies have been on your track your track leads to mine, and I have sworn to save the Dauphin from the hands of thieves.... A man in love, Armand, is a deadly danger among us.... Therefore at daybreak you must leave Paris with Hastings on your difficult and dangerous task."
"And if I refuse?" retorted Armand.
"My good fellow," said Blakeney earnestly, "in that admirable lexicon which the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel has compiled for itself there is no such word as refuse."
"But if I do refuse?" persisted the other.
"You would be offering a tainted name and tarnished honour to the woman you pretend to love."
"And you insist upon my obedience?"
"By the oath which I hold from you."
"But this is cruel--inhuman!"
"Honour, my good Armand, is often cruel and seldom human. He is a godlike taskmaster, and we who call ourselves men are all of us his slaves."
"The tyranny comes from you alone. You could release me an you would."
"And to gratify the selfish desire of immature passion, you would wish to see me jeopardise the life of those who place infinite trust in me."
"God knows how you have gained their allegiance, Blakeney. To me now you are selfish and callous."
"There is the difficult task you craved for, Armand," was all the answer that Blakeney made to the taunt--" to obey a leader whom you no longer trust."
But this Armand could not brook. He had spoken hotly, impetuously, smarting under the discipline which thwarted his desire, but his heart was loyal to the chief whom he had reverenced for so long.
"Forgive me, Percy," he said humbly; "I am distracted. I don't think I quite realised what I was saying. I trust you, of course ... implicitly ... and you need not even fear ... I shall not break my oath, though your orders now seem to me needlessly callous and selfish.... I will obey ... you need not be afraid."
"I was not afraid of that, my good fellow."
"Of course, you do not understand ... you cannot. To you, your honour, the task which you have set yourself, has been your only fetish.... Love in its true sense does not exist for you.... I see it now ... you do not know what it is to love."
Blakeney made no reply for the moment. He stood in the centre of the room, with the yellow light of the lamp falling full now upon his tall powerful frame, immaculately dressed in perfectly-tailored clothes, upon his long, slender hands half hidden by filmy lace, and upon his face, across which at this moment a heavy strand of curly hair threw a curious shadow. At Armand's words his lips had imperceptibly tightened, his eyes had narrowed as if they tried to see something that was beyond the range of their focus.
Across the smooth brow the strange shadow made by the hair seemed to find a reflex from within. Perhaps the reckless adventurer, the careless gambler with life and liberty, saw through the walls of this squalid room, across the wide, ice-bound river, and beyond even the gloomy pile of buildings opposite, a cool, shady garden at Richmond, a velvety lawn sweeping down to the river's edge, a bower of clematis and roses, with a carved stone seat half covered with moss. There sat an exquisitely beautiful woman with great sad eyes fixed on the far-distant horizon. The setting sun was throwing a halo of gold all round her hair, her white hands were clasped idly on her lap.
She gazed out beyond the river, beyond the sunset, toward an unseen bourne of peace and happiness, and her lovely face had in it a look of utter hopelessness and of sublime self-abnegation. The air was still. It was late autumn, and all around her the russet leaves of beech and chestnut fell with a melancholy hush-sh-sh about her feet.
She was alone, and from time to time heavy tears gathered in her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks.
Suddenly a sigh escaped the man's tightly-pressed lips. With a strange gesture, wholly unusual to him, he passed his hand right across his eyes.
"Mayhap you are right, Armand," he said quietly; "mayhap I do not know what it is to love."
Armand turned to go. There was nothing more to be said. He knew Percy well enough by now to realise the finality of his pronouncements. His heart felt sore, but he was too proud to show his hurt again to a man who did not understand. All thoughts of disobedience he had put resolutely aside; he had never meant to break his oath. All that he had hoped to do was to persuade Percy to release him from it for awhile.
That by leaving Paris he risked to lose Jeanne he was quite convinced, but it is nevertheless a true fact that in spite of this he did not withdraw his love and trust from his chief. He was under the influence of that same magnetism which enchained all his comrades to the will of this man; and though his enthusiasm for the great cause had somewhat waned, his allegiance to its leader was no longer tottering.
But he would not trust himself to speak again on the subject.
"I will find the others downstairs," was all he said, "and will arrange with Hastings for to-morrow. Good night, Percy."
"Good night, my dear fellow. By the way, you have not told me yet who she is."
"Her name is Jeanne Lange," said St. Just half reluctantly. He had not meant to divulge his secret quite so fully as yet.
"The young actress at the Theatre National?"
"Yes. Do you know her?"
"Only by name."
"She is beautiful, Percy, and she is an angel.... Think of my sister Marguerite ... she, too, was an actress.... Good night, Percy."
The two men grasped one another by the hand. Armand's eyes proffered a last desperate appeal. But Blakeney's eyes were impassive and unrelenting, and Armand with a quick sigh finally took his leave.
For a long while after he had gone Blakeney stood silent and motionless in the middle of the room. Armand's last words lingered in his ear:
"Think of Marguerite!"
The walls had fallen away from around him--the window, the river below, the Temple prison had all faded away, merged in the chaos of his thoughts.
Now he was no longer in Paris; he heard nothing of the horrors that even at this hour of the night were raging around him; he did not hear the call of murdered victims, of innocent women and children crying for help; he did not see the descendant of St. Louis, with a red cap on his baby head, stamping on the fleur-de-lys, and heaping insults on the memory of his mother. All that had faded into nothingness.
He was in the garden at Richmond, and Marguerite was sitting on the stone seat, with branches of the rambler roses twining themselves in her hair.
He was sitting on the ground at her feet, his head pillowed in her lap, lazily dreaming. whilst at his feet the river wound its graceful curves beneath overhanging willows and tall stately elms.
A swan came sailing majestically down the stream, and Marguerite, with idle, delicate hands, threw some crumbs of bread into the water. Then she laughed, for she was quite happy, and anon she stooped, and he felt the fragrance of her lips as she bent over him and savoured the perfect sweetness of her caress. She was happy because her husband was by her side. He had done with adventures, with risking his life for others' sake. He was living only for her.
The man, the dreamer, the idealist that lurked behind the adventurous soul, lived an exquisite dream as he gazed upon that vision. He closed his eyes so that it might last all the longer, so that through the open window opposite he should not see the great gloomy walls of the labyrinthine building packed to overflowing with innocent men, women, and children waiting patiently and with a smile on their lips for a cruel and unmerited death; so that he should not see even through the vista of houses and of streets that grim Temple prison far away, and the light in one of the tower windows, which illumined the final martyrdom of a boy-king.
Thus he stood for fully five minutes, with eyes deliberately closed and lips tightly set. Then the neighbouring tower-clock of St. Germain l'Auxerrois slowly tolled the hour of midnight. Blakeney woke from his dream. The walls of his lodging were once more around him, and through the window the ruddy light of some torch in the street below fought with that of the lamp.
He went deliberately up to the window and looked out into the night. On the quay, a little to the left, the outdoor camp was just breaking tip for the night. The people of France in arms against tyranny were allowed to put away their work for the day and to go to their miserable homes to gather rest in sleep for the morrow. A band of soldiers, rough and brutal in their movements, were hustling the women and children. The little ones, weary, sleepy, and cold, seemed too dazed to move. One woman had two little children clinging to her skirts; a soldier suddenly seized one of them by the shoulders and pushed it along roughly in front of him to get it out of the way. The woman struck at the soldier in a stupid, senseless, useless way, and then gathered her trembling chicks under her wing, trying to look defiant.
In a moment she was surrounded. Two soldiers seized her, and two more dragged the children away from her. She screamed and the children cried, the soldiers swore and struck out right and left with their bayonets. There was a general melee, calls of agony rent the air, rough oaths drowned the shouts of the helpless. Some women, panic-stricken, started to run.
And Blakeney from his window looked down upon the scene. He no longer saw the garden at Richmond, the lazily-flowing river, the bowers of roses; even the sweet face of Marguerite, sad and lonely, appeared dim and far away.
He looked across the ice-bound river, past the quay where rough soldiers were brutalising a number of wretched defenceless women, to that grim Chatelet prison, where tiny lights shining here and there behind barred windows told the sad tale of weary vigils, of watches through the night, when dawn would bring martyrdom and death.
And it was not Marguerite's blue eyes that beckoned to him now, it was not her lips that called, but the wan face of a child with matted curls hanging above a greasy forehead, and small hands covered in grime that had once been fondled by a Queen.
The adventurer in him had chased away the dream.
"While there is life in me I'll cheat those brutes of prey," he murmured.
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