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"YOU can't touch Malzieu! Whatever you do, you dare not touch him!"
And the speaker, a stout florid man with thick features and flaccid hanging mouth, brought his clenched fist down with a crash upon the table.
"And why not, if you please, Citizen Desor?" the other man retorted sharply. "Why should any traitor be inviolate, however popular he may be?"
This second speaker was a small spare man, with white, almost cadaverous face and pale, deep-set eyes that darted from time to time piercing, steel-like glances at his interlocutor. But Desor only shrugged his broad shoulders.
"Because," he said, and made a wide sweeping gesture with his thick grimy hand, "because of the whole neighbourhood, Citizen Chauvelin. St. Brieuc is not Paris you must remember: no man with a touch of genius gets lost in this town as he would in your big city. And you must admit that Malzieu is a genius. Did you ever see him in Molière? No? Or as Figaro? Name of a dog, he makes you die of laughter. And handsome, I tell you! The women just adore him, and all St. Brieuc is justly proud of him, for this is his birthplace. The Château de Maljovins close by here belonged to his grandfather and is now in the possession of his cousin Désiré. You can't touch him, I say, for if you do there will be riots in St. Brieuc, and not a single servant of the Republic, civil or military, would be left alive to take the tale as far as Paris."
Chauvelin remained silent after that with eyes closed and lips tightly as if he were striving to shut every ingress to his mind against the other's prying. Then presently he said with quiet emphasis:
"We can't allow a man to remain in such a position. Any man who is the idol of a rabble is a danger to the State."
"He will be a danger," Desor retorted, "if you arrest him."
"That would surely depend on the grounds for the arrest," Chauvelin rejoined blandly.
"I don't understand you," Desor muttered. "Malzieu has done nothing. He is a good patriot, he----"
"If Malzieu, for instance, were to commit a crime----"
Desor laughed. "Malzieu?" he exclaimed. "A crime? He wouldn't harm a cat."
Chauvelin uttered an ejaculation of impatience.
"You are obtuse, my friend," he said. "If Malzieu were to commit a crime--a brutal, cowardly crime--I imagine that the rabble who adore him now, discovering that their idol had feet of clay, would quickly enough hurl him down from his pedestal."
"Yes!" Desor admitted. "If!"
"Well, then!" Chauvelin rejoined significantly, and fixed those pale, scrutinizing eyes of his on his companion. Desor met those eyes, interrogated them for a second or two, until something in their cold, steely gaze mirrored the dark thoughts within.
"You mean--?" he murmured.
Chauvelin merely shrugged and retorted: "Why not?"
"A difficult problem, Citizen Chauvelin!" was Desor's dry remark.
"But not one above your powers, Citizen," Chauvelin concluded blandly.
It was on a cold, gusty day in late September that Citizen Fernand Malzieu received the visit of one Desor, a lawyer of somewhat shady antecedents, settled in St. Brieuc since poor Pégou, the old-established notary, had paid on the guillotine the price of his own loyalty to former clients. Desor brought some interesting news, none the less welcome because it came through such an unpleasant channel. Malzieu's cousin, Désiré, who owned the old château of Maljovins, had died, leaving the property to his next of kin, Fernand, the last of his name. Désiré Malzieu had all his life been an eccentric, not to say a maniac. For years he had lived in the old château, all alone, seeing no one, waited on by one old woman who ministered to all his wants. Nothing was known about his life, save that periodically he would go to Paris, taking his old servant Julie with him. Désiré kept an old horse and chaise: he would harness the one to the other and off he and old Julie would go: they would remain absent sometimes two months, sometimes as much as six; but no one knew when they went or when they came back. The old château appeared equally lonely, equally desolate whether the master was in residence or no: of late he had been absent for the best part of a year, and the news of his death had, it seems, come from Paris. For nearly a year the old château had been deserted: it stood perched high up on the cliffs, above the turbulent ocean, and the booming of the waves against the granite rocks had been the only sound that broke the silence of the grim solitude.
But Fernand, with the mercurial, artistic temperament of his class, had always loved Maljovins. As a boy, when Désiré's father and mother were still alive, he had been a constant visitor at the château, but of late he and his cousin had drifted apart. Désiré's eccentricities, his maniacal love of solitude, had kept Fernand's attempts at friendship at bay. And now he was dead and Fernand the rover, the mountebank, found himself in possession of what he had coveted more than anything else in the world: the old family château. It was dull and grey and lonely, but it was Maljovins. Fernand laughed when Desor reminded him of a somewhat curious condition attached to the legacy.
"The place is only yours, Citizen," the notary said, "as long as you make it your habitual dwelling-place. If you are ever absent from it more than three months in any one year, the estate and the château become the property of Julie Navet, the faithful servant of your late cousin, Désiré."
"I have no greater wish, Citizen Notary," Fernand retorted, "than to live at Maljovins for the rest of my days."
"And you are not afraid?"
"Afraid of what?"
"Oh, I don't know," the notary said, and he gave a shudder, as if a wave of cold had passed down his spine. "They say the place is haunted."
"I would love to see a ghost."
"It has been deserted for so long, they say, that malefactors have, before now, made it a place of refuge."
"They'll be welcome to anything I take there with me."
"You are determined, then, Citizen?"
"Certainly I am. Would you have me refuse so brilliant a legacy? I am a poor man, Citizen Notary," Malzieu continued with simple dignity, "and my marriage to the Citizeness Céleste Gambier is delayed through my lack of means."
"Ah!" concluded the notary, "that accounts for everything. Well, I wish you luck, Citizen! When do you go to Maljovins?"
Already the lawyer had collected his papers and stuffed them into a leather wallet which he carried under his arm. He now reached for his hat and took his leave.
"Good luck, Citizen," he said once more as Malzieu escorted him through the ante-room and there bade him good-bye.
A quarter of an hour later Fernand Malzieu was speeding through the streets of St. Brieuc. Daylight was quickly fading into dusk. The streets were ill-lighted, and in the shelter of doorways and obscure passages furtive figures crouched under cover of the darkness. But Malzieu paid no heed to these. He feared no one in this town, for he was conscious of his own.popularity and of the love which his fellow-townsmen--even those of the underworld--had for him. For the past ten years Malzieu had made France laugh, and France had very great need of laughter these days; and he was handsome withal, and genial, spent as freely as he got, and, despite tempting offers to settle down permanently in Paris as a member of the Comédie française, he had continued to make St. Brieuc his headquarters and went on living there, in his native town, simply, unostentatiously, waiting for better times so that he might marry pretty Céleste, the daughter of Citizen Gambier, the municipal doctor.
Malzieu had come to a halt outside a low, narrow house in the Rue des Remparts. It was the house inhabited by the Citizen Gambier and his daughter Céleste. Fernand had just plied the knocker with his accustomed impatience when a tall man wearing a huge caped coat and chapeau-bras, which further enhanced his stature, accosted him by slapping him lustily on the back.
"Well, luckiest of mortals!" the new-comer said gaily, "how goes the world with you?"
"Milor!" Malzieu exclaimed with a thought of consternation in his voice, "what are you doing in this town?"
"Passing through St. Brieuc," the other replied, "on my way to Paris. Are you not rehearsing a new rôle? I must see you in that."
"Ye gods! Do you know Citizen Chauvelin is in St. Brieuc? He is here on some mission of mischief, you may be sure."
"To keep an eye on you probably, my friend," the stranger retorted dryly. "But you have never answered my first question yet."
"How the world goes with me?" Malzieu rejoined lightly. "Well! We produce the new play on Thursday, and I have just become the proprietor of my ancestral château."
"Two excellent bits of news," the Englishman said. "I shall hope to applaud you on Thursday. When do you take possession of your château?"
"To-morrow, if all's well. It is only mine, I must tell you on condition that I am never absent from it longer than three months at a time."
"Ah! An eccentric will, then? Whose was it?"
"My cousin, Désiré de Malzieu, left me the property."
The Englishman frowned. "Ah!" he said, "I did not know he was dead."
"You knew him?"
"I had heard of him--in Paris."
The two men were about to part, and Malzieu was already grasping his friend's hand, bidding him good night, when the Englishman suddenly said with grave earnestness:
"Don't go to Maljovins to-morrow, Fernand. Wait a week or two. You lose nothing by waiting and the whole affair sounds to me like a trap."
"A trap, milor?" Fernand retorted, with a merry laugh, "who should want to entrap me? I am not worth killing. I only possess a thousand livres in all the world, and I shan't have them in my pocket when I go to Maljovins."
"I know, I know," the Englishman rejoined with an impatient sigh. "But you'll admit that I have had some experience of these revolutionary devils over here, and of their methods, and there's something about this will----"
"Now, milor," Malzieu broke in lightly, "if you are going to warn me of danger, it is not to-morrow that I shall go to Maljovins, but to-night."
Whereupon the Englishman said no more, but went his way, whilst Fernand ran up the stone stairs of the house in the Rue des Remparts two at a time, for he was in a mighty hurry to tell his beloved Céleste of the good fortune that had just fallen to his lot.
That same evening, half an hour after Fernand had taken leave of Dr. Gambier and Céleste, and whilst the girl was tidying up the little apartment preparatory to going to bed, she saw that a slip of paper had been mysteriously inserted underneath the front door. Not being of a nervy disposition, she picked up the note and unfolded it. In it was written:
If you ever need a friend, ask advice from the public letter-writer at the angle of Passage Fontaine.
Céleste had been gravely puzzled when she read the note: but she had also been amused. Was it likely that she would be in need of a friend, when she had her father and Fernand in whom she could always confide? But two days had gone by since then, and now she was indeed badly in need of a friend. She did not want to worry her father, who had plenty of troubles and cares of his own; as for Fernand--well! The trouble was about Fernand. It took Céleste some little time to make up her mind: these were times when it was not prudent to trust anyone or anything. That note may have been a trap: and yet----
A few moments later Céleste was speeding along the Rue des Remparts. She noticed that at the angle of the Passage Fontaine a public letter-writer had of late set up his wares. It was five o'clock of the afternoon: a thin drizzle was falling: Céleste wrapped her shawl close round her head and shoulders and looked cautiously about her. The evening was drawing in, and there were few passers-by: some fifty mètres on ahead the rickety awning that sheltered the letter-writer's table flapped dismally in the wind. The man himself appeared to be dozing under the awning: Céleste hesitated a second or two longer, then she went boldly up to the table.
"I am Céleste Gambier," she said softly, "and have need of a friend.
The letter-writer did not appear to move, but from somewhere out of the semi-darkness, a kindly voice murmured: "What is it?"
"Fernand Malzieu has not been at his lodgings for four days," she said in a hurried whisper. "Last Friday evening, he said good night to me, telling me that he was going to Maljovins the next day to explore the old château. No one has seen or heard anything of him since. This is Tuesday. There was a dress-rehearsal at the theatre this morning. He did not put in an appearance. People make light of this. They say Fernand is engrossed with his good fortune, and has forgotten his duties. They say he will not fail to put in an appearance on Thursday for the production of the play, but I know Fernand better than they do: I know that nothing would make him forget his duties. Something has happened to Fernand, and I am scared to death."
As soon as she had begun her tale, the public letter-writer had roused himself from slumber, and while she spoke he made as if he were writing from her dictation. He was a funny old fellow, with spectacles on his nose, and a shaggy mop of white hair above his high, wrinkled forehead. It was fortunate that the shades of evening were drawing in so quickly in this corner of the narrow street, and that the weather was too bad for clients of the letter-writer to be demanding his services. When Céleste had done speaking, the old man continued for awhile to scribble aimlessly upon the sheet of paper before him, then, when there was not a single passer-by in sight, he said:
"Go home now! Try not to appear anxious. I will bring you news of Fernand to-morrow."
Céleste wanted to ask him a question or two, but, very abruptly, the old man rose, and without paying any further heed to her, he began collecting his traps together and folding up his awning.
"It is getting dark, Citizeness," he said in a loud, gruff voice. "I am going home now and to bed. I advise you to do the same."
And Céleste perforce had to follow this advice.
An hour later two men were speeding down the Chemin de la Digue which leads to the seashore. When they had reached the edge of the cliffs they turned sharply to the left toward the village of Maljovins.
"It is infernally dark," one of the men said impatiently. "Are you sure of the way?"
"Quite sure, Citizen," the other replied; "that sombre mass of building over there is the château."
"And you have provided for everything?"
"For everything, Citizen, and I know that you will be satisfied. Our men succeeded in capturing Fernand Malzieu in the courtyard of the château when he arrived there on Saturday: he has been under lock and key in one of the tower rooms ever since. His cousin Désiré returned from Paris this morning. My man is already there, ready to act if he has not done so already, and the old woman, Julie Navet, has agreed to my terms for giving the evidence which I require. In less than an hour we can have Fernand Malzieu under arrest for the peculiarly brutal murder of his aged cousin, and there will be two eye-witnesses to the crime. Directly afterwards, we will publish the will of Désiré Malzieu, which I have prepared and which I have already shown to Fernand. This will provide us with the motive for the murder and will render the assassin doubly odious to his former worshippers. No!" Desor concluded, with absolute complacence, "we have left nothing to chance, and the Committee of Public Safety will, I hope, give me due recognition for my work."
To this broad hint Chauvelin gave no direct reply, and after a moment's silence he asked abruptly:
"You are sure of your man, I imagine?"
"I could not have found a better," Desor replied. "Orgelet is a man who ought to have been guillotined ages ago, he has half a dozen crimes on his conscience and to-day would murder his own mother for a few francs. I have him in the hollow of my hand, as I hold proofs of certain forgeries and trafficking with our enemies which would send him to the guillotine to-morrow. He knows that, and knows, too, that if he ever played me false or betrayed us in any way, I would use those proofs without hesitation. He has a kind of rough intelligence, too, and will act his part rightly, you may be sure."
"And the woman--what is her name?"
"Julie Navet? Oh, with her, greed is master of all her actions. The way I have worded the will of Désiré Malzieu she becomes sole beneficiary under it, if Fernand does not comply with the conditions. And he cannot do that if we send him to the guillotine for murder."
"The signature to the will? Is that in order?"
"Quite in order, Citizen: and there are the signatures of the two witnesses. Indeed, indeed," the notary concluded emphatically, "you need have no fear on that score either. It is not the first time," he went on cynically, "that I have had to concoct a document of that sort, and I am not likely to bungle this one."
"No," was Chauvelin's equally cynical retort, "for it would not be to your interest, Citizen, to make an enemy of me. As for your reward," he added more lightly, "you need have no fear. It will be adequate: I promise you."
After which there was silence for a while between these two partners in the infamous plot. They walked on rapidly, bending their heads to the wind: soon an irregular mass of masonry, partially hidden by clumps of trees, loomed out of the fast-gathering darkness. It was the chateau of Maljovins. The two men, silently and cautiously, began by making a tour of inspection of the entire building. The main body of the house consisted of two stories only, but in the centre of the façade an extra story had been added; it only consisted of one room, with a window and a balcony. The front of the house was approached by a paved courtyard, and it was ornamented by a colonnaded porch which gave support to another and larger balcony; under this porch was the main entrance into the château. To right and left the house was flanked by square, projecting towers, each of which had doors giving direct access into them from the courtyard. As the château was built on the side of the cliff, the upper story was on the level at the back: a broken-down veranda, covered with overgrown wild vine, gave access through glazed doors into this side of the house. Here, too, and to the left of the veranda there was an additional tower, taller than the others and octagonal in shape: this tower also had, a door which gave direct access into it. From this multiplicity of doors it was easy to infer that the rooms on the ground floor of the towers had no direct communication with other parts of the house, and that there was possibly only one staircase in the centre of the château.
The two men had completed the tour of the building: with their linen carefully concealed by the dark lapels of their coats, and their hats pulled well over the eyes, they moved about the darkness noiselessly, like ghosts. They had just reached the veranda and were cautiously peering about them, when a slight sound coming from the darkest angle caused Desor suddenly to dart forward with an angry oath: the next moment there was the sound of a sharp struggle, a smothered curse, a choking murmur, and the notary dragged a man out from under the veranda into the open.
"What is the meaning of this?" Chauvelin queried in a whisper.
"Name of a dog," came in a hoarse reply from the victim of Desor's sudden onslaught, "if that is the way you treat a patriot----"
"Citizen Orgelet--!" murmured the notary.
"Who else?" the other retorted. "A fine fright you gave me, I can tell you. And why do you interfere with my business, I'd like to know."
"It was a mistake, Citizen," Desor whispered apologetically. "I thought----"
"You have lost your nerve, Citizen Desor," Orgelet riposted, with a sneer. "Seeing ghosts, what? Well, am I to finish this business, or am I not?"
"I thought to find it all done--" grunted Desor.
"I had no opportunity," was Orgelet's gruff rejoinder, "the aristo arrived late in the afternoon. He bolted and barred all the doors and windows himself. It took me some time to get one undone."
"Why all this to-do?" Desor retorted roughly, "there is no one in the house but the old woman, and she won't interfere with you."
But apparently Orgelet was inclined to be truculent. "If you can find someone else to do the work for you," he began; but Chauvelin once again broke in impatiently:
"Stop this wrangling!" he commanded; "and you, Citizen Orgelet, get to business: we've wasted too much time already."
Orgelet shook himself like a big, shaggy dog: then, with hands in pocket, he shuffled back up the shallow steps of the veranda, Chauvelin and Desor following closely behind him.
"I have got these shutters undone," Orgelet whispered, and softly disengaged first the outside latch of one of the shutters, and then the bolt of the glazed doors. A moment later he had stepped cautiously into the house, whilst Desor and Chauvelin remained outside--watching. It was pitch dark. For a moment or two everything was as silent, as motionless as a grave--then from out of the darkness a soft shuffling sound made itself heard, the sound of stealthy footsteps creeping down some unseen stairs, and anon a voice came whispering through the gloom:
"Hist, is that you; Citizen Orgelet?"
At your service, Citizeness," Orgelet replied.
The footsteps came nearer and suddenly a shaft of light pierced the darkness, and lit up the grotesque figure of an old woman, scantily dressed in a petticoat and shawl. Orgelet had opened the shutter of a small, dark lantern which he carried in his belt: the old woman only just succeeded in smothering the scream which had risen to her throat.
"How you frightened me, Citizen!" she murmured hoarsely.
"Too late now to think of fright," Orgelet retorted. "Is everything ready?"
"Yes!" the woman replied, "he has gone to bed, and there's no one in the house but me."
"Which is the bedroom?"
"Just up those steps, then turn sharply to your right. The door in front of you, at the end of the passage. I have left it on the latch."
"Then stay down here until I call you. I shall not be long," was Orgelet's final, cynical retort, as he tiptoed toward the stairs.
The old woman remained crouching somewhere in a dark angle of the room: Chauvelin, closely followed by Desor, had stepped noiselessly into the room. They watched, fascinated, the movements of the shaft of light that cam.e from the lantern at Orgelet's belt. Up the stairs it travelled, then took a sharp turn to the left, and crept along a short passage: Orgelet's footsteps were noiseless, but presently the watchers heard the soft sound of a door being cautiously opened, followed almost immediately by a loud cry of "Qui va là"?
The old woman gave a smothered cry and buried her face in her hands. Desor, with hands that shook and dripped with moisture, gripped the edge of his companion's coat. Only Chauvelin remained motionless and unmoved. The first cry had been followed by another: "Voleur! Assassin! The silent, deserted château seemed suddenly alive with noise: a tramping of feet overhead, a struggle, another cry, quickly smothered this time, then a dull thud. After that, silence again.
And a few minutes later the watchers from below saw the tell-tale shaft of light come creeping back, first along the passage, then down the stairs. Orgelet had done his work.
"Is he dead?" Chauvelin asked.
He had spoken quite calmly, hardly raising his voice, and yet the sound reverberated like dull thunder through the silence and the gloom.
"I believe you," Orgelet grunted in reply: then added with a cynical laugh: "It was tough work, I can tell you." He was intent on nursing one of his wrists, rubbing it with the palm of his other hand and muttering a coarse oath or else a groan from time to time. The bright eye of his lantern wandered aimlessly from point to point about the room with every movement that he made: one moment it lit up the huddled figure of the old woman, and the next it alighted on Desor's bloated face or on Chauvelin's shrunken figure and pale, thin hands. The room appeared large, running right through from the veranda at the back of the house to the balcony above the porch in front. The staircase was somewhere on the left encased in gloom. There was very little furniture about: a horse-hair sofa in one angle, a desk in another: in the centre, a round table, with three or four upright chairs around it.
The old woman had begun to whimper, her teeth could be heard chattering.
"Stop that snivelling," Chauvelin broke in impatiently.
"My poor, poor master," she moaned.
"You should have thought of that sooner, my good woman," Chauvelin retorted dryly. "Are you forgetting perchance, that Citizen Orgelet has just put you in possession of a very nice château and some valuable land?" he added with a sneer.
At once the sound of whimpering ceased
"You won't go back on that, Citizen?" she asked.
"Not unless you play me false."
"I won't play you false," the woman said more steadily, even though she could not quite stop the chattering of her teeth, "tell me what to do and I'll do it."
"It won't be difficult either," Desor grunted. "And what a reward!"
"It is close on nine o'clock now," Chauvelin resumed in curt, incisive tones. "At ten o'clock you will go upstairs into your master's room----"
"Saints in Heaven!" the woman broke in shrilly, "how shall I do that?"
"By thinking, I imagine, of the will which your master has made, leaving all his property to you," Chauvelin replied with a dry chuckle. "That ought to steady your knees as you go up those stairs. Well, you will carry a candle, and you need only go as far as the door, but you'll open the door wide and then let yourself sink down on the threshold, as if you were in a faint, and there you will remain until the Commissary of Police arrives on the scene. You understand?"
"Yes, yes!" she murmured, "but, my God, how shall I do it?"
"The Commissary of Police will question you, and you will tell him that Citizen Orgelet here is your nephew, that he had been doing some work in the stables for your master and had then come in to have supper with you: that your master went up to bed at nine o'clock, and that you and your nephew followed an hour later: that going up the stairs you both heard certain sounds that alarmed you: that you went to the door of your master's room, found it on the latch, pushed it open, and saw--you understand me?--saw Citizen Malzieu, whom you know well by sight, standing over your master with his two hands around his throat; that you screamed, and Citizen Orgelet rushed forward to apprehend the murderer, after which you must have fainted for you remember nothing more. Is that clear?"
"Quite--quite clear, Citizen," the woman muttered feebly.
"And what did I do," here broke in Orgelet, with a dry cackle, whilst my respected aunt fainted on the doorstep?"
"You overpowered the assassin," replied Chauvelin curtly. "pinioned him to a chair by securing his hands with his belt and his feet with yours, wound your scarf around his mouth then you ascertained that poor Désiré Malzieu was dead, and finally ran to the nearest commissariat of police, like the good citizen that you are."
"Hm! And the assassin?"
"We have him under lock and key. He has been shut up in one of the tower-rooms since Saturday; he will be too hungry to struggle much."
"So long as it seems reasonable that I overpowered him and pinned him to a chair, single-handed---- "
"What? A sturdy, big gossoon like you?--and Fernand Malzieu is an actor--puny--effete----"
"I am not objecting, Citizen, if you are satisfied!"
"Then go and fetch the fellow. You'll find him in the ground-floor room of the octagonal tower on this side of the château. We must get our mise-en-scène right, eh, Citizen Desor?"
But Desor did not seem over-inclined to talk. There was something ghoulish in the matter-of-fact way in which Citizen Chauvelin was directing the staging of this grizzly comedy of which he, Desor, was the principal author.
"Are you dreaming, Citizen," Chauvelin said abruptly in that trenchant voice of his which always seemed to contain a menace. "Give your friend Orgelet the key of the tower-room. After which we'll go and set up the scene for the last act of the play."
Silently Desor fumbled in the capacious pocket of his coat and silently he handed a key to Orgelet.
"The ground-floor room in the octagon tower, you said?" the ruffian remarked, and then shuffled across the room toward the veranda. The next moment he had disappeared through the glazed door; his lantern went with him, and the two men and the old woman remained in utter darkness. Orgelet's heavy, dragging footsteps could be heard quite distinctly, first on the wooden flooring of the veranda, then squelching the soft, rain-sodden ground of the pathway round the house. the silence around was death-like; way below the cliffs, the outgoing tide made no sound of breaking surf, or rattle of pebbles on the beach: the rain fell, soft and persistent; soundless, too. The darkness alone seemed to carry sounds within its folds--Orgelet's footsteps, and after awhile the grating of a rusty key in a lock, somewhere in the near distance, and a murmur as of a man's voice.
"Get a candle, woman," Desor said suddenly in a husky voice, "this darkness is enough to choke a man."
"No, no, leave it alone," Chauvelin riposted. "Orgelet will be back directly."
Somewhere close by a wooden shutter flapped, weirdly, persistently, like the knocking of ghostly knuckles seeking admittance into the house of death, then once again heavy footsteps squelched the muddy path. They sounded heavier, slower, than before. Soon a narrow shaft of light loomed through the darkness: it drew nearer, and presently fell across the veranda floor.
"Name of a name of a dog, this is work for beasts, not for man," came from a gruff voice, even as Orgelet reappeared under the lintel of the glazed door. A heavy burden lay right across his shoulders: a ray of light from the lantern in his belt caught the tip of his big nose and the point of his chin covered with a grimy stubble.
"Take him upstairs," Chauvelin commanded; "we'll follow."
Orgelet muttered a few more oaths, but never thought to disobey. He toiled laboriously up the narrow, winding stairs, with Chauvelin close on his heels, and Desor, dragging Julie Navet by the hand, following on behind.
Outside the door of the room where Désiré Malzieu lay lifeless, Orgelet paused and deposited his burden on the ground, propping it up against the wall.
"I thought I would lock our friend Désiré in," he said, with his coarse, callous laugh, "in case the dead took to walking."
He took a key out of his pocket, but before inserting it in the lock, he looked down on the burden which he had brought on his shoulders all this way from the tower-room. The light from his lantern fell on Fernand Malzieu's pale, wan face; his eyes were open and had a dull, feverish glow in them, his hair lay matted against his forehead, his mouth and chin were hidden by a woollen scarf wound loosely around his mouth.
"He doesn't look much like a desperate murderer now, does he?" Orgelet remarked sarcastically.
Then he turned the key in the lock and threw open the door. He took the lantern from his belt and held it high above his head, moving it to and fro to illumine different parts of the room. The light fell on the tumbled bed, the blankets dragged to the floor, the broken crockery and overturned chair, and in the centre of the room the motionless form of old Désiré Malzieu lying on his face with claw-like fingers clutching convulsively at the carpet.
"A pretty sight, what?" Orgelet remarked with a ghoulish cackle. "What do you think of it, Citizen Chauvelin?"
With a cry of impatience Chauvelin snatched the lantern from him and stepped briskly into the room; Desor still dragging the woman by the hand, was hard on his heels.
The next moment the door behind them fell to with a loud bang, and the key grated in the lock. A noise as of a hundred demons let loose issued from inside the room, whilst on the other side of the door Orgelet cautiously lifted the inanimate figure of Fernand Malzieu from the ground and once more hoisted him up on his shoulders. Quickly, but as swiftly as he could, guiding himself with one hand to the banisters, and steadying his burden with the other, he hurried down the stairs, across the room, out once more through the glazed door, then through the veranda back into the open. He skirted the house and crossed the courtyard: here he paused a moment to lend an ear to the shouting, the cursing and the banging that still issued from the top story of the château. Quietly chuckling to himself, he re-started on his way, and this time he did not halt until he had reached the path at the top of the cliffs. Here he came to a standstill, and gently laid his bundle down: then he gave a cry like that of a sea-mew, and thrice repeated it.
All around the same silence still held sway, only from below at this point the gentle murmur of the waves rose and fell in rhythmic cadence that was soothing and agreeable to the ear.
Two men emerged now out of the darkness, and Citizen Orgelet called out to them in an extraordinarily cultured and well-modulated voice and in amazingly perfect English:
"Hastings, is that you?"
"At your command," a pleasant voice gave reply. "Galveston is with me. Have you got your man?"
"You bet I have. But I fear me he cannot walk."
"We have a couple of horses not two hundred mètres from here," my lord Hastings explained, "and we can carry him so far."
"I'll leave him in your hands, then," the pseudo-Orgelet rejoined. "You can take him to his lodgings in the Rue des Moines, number 17, over against the jeweller's shop at the sign of the opal ring. Give him in charge of his man-of-all-work, and then go at once to the house of the Citizen Doctor Gambier, see Mademoiselle Céleste, his daughter, and tell her the news. After that, meet me at my lodgings. I must get some of this filth off me before I can think of anything else."
He watched my lord Hastings and Sir Richard Galveston while they lifted the still unconscious body of Fernand Malzieu in their arms, and then he waited until these two devoted followers had disappeared in the darkness with their precious burden. After which, he turned on his heel and walked back toward the old château.
An hour later in a dingy lodging situated not far from the one where Fernand Malzieu was slowly recovering consciousness under the loving eyes of Céleste Gambier, we men were delighting in the story of this latest adventure of their beloved chief.
"I could not resist going back to that old crow's nest," Blakeney was saying gaily, "just to see how that unsavoury rabble was getting on. I was just in time to see the elegant form of my ever-engaging friend Chauvelin silhouetted against the light behind him; he was apparently mentally gauging the distance from the top balcony to the one below and marvelling if he might venture on a jump. He had succeeded in opening the window and the shutter: the door, I imagine, holding fast; it was of oak, very stout, and the lock was good. He was silent as usual: but in the room behind him, his precious mate, Desor, as well as old Désiré Malzieu and that abominable hag, were making a noise fit to bring all the evil spirits out of Hades."
"Old Malzieu was not hurt, then?" one of the young men asked.
"Not he!" Sir Percy replied. "You see, what actually happened was this: after poor, little Céleste had confided her anxiety to me, and I had arranged to meet some of you on the cliffs, I put on some rags and set off at once, as you know, for the old château. I knew, of course, that poor, unsuspecting Fernand had walked straight into a trap which those devils had set for him. What that trap was I could only conjecture, but I had shot a guessing arrow into the air and it had not fallen wide of the mark. My only fear was that we should be too late, and that I should find the abominable deed already done. The château was all in darkness when I arrived, door and windows hermetically closed; but peeping through one of the shutters under the veranda I saw old Désiré sitting at the table, having some supper and waited on by that old hag Julie. Of Fernand I saw no sign. A moment or two later I became conscious that I was not the only night-bird prowling round the old château. A bulky, clumsy form was lurking in the shadows, obviously intent on mischief. He, too, like myself, peeped through the shutters of the veranda, then he ensconced himself in its darkest angle and waited. I, in the meanwhile, had found cover behind some rough shrubbery from whence I had observed his movements. I give you my word that the whole sinister plan invented by those fiends was by this time as clear as daylight to me. A lurking assassin! A will supposed to have been made in favour of Fernand whose popularity disturbed the complacence of the Terrorists! A charge of wilful murder! Odium cast on the popular actor! The idol of the people turned into an execrated criminal! Well, we had to put a spoke in that abominable wheel or shame the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel for ever.
"You know the rest," Blakeney went on lightly.
"Skirting the house, I succeeded in effecting an entrance into it by climbing by way of the two balconies up to the top floor window, which luckily was not so securely latched as those on the lower floors. The room which I entered was obviously the master's bedroom: everything was prepared for him for the night. Trusting to luck, I hid underneath the bed and waited. After awhile, Désiré Malzieu came upstairs. Then came the dramatic moment. What exactly happened in the room below I cannot, of course, tell you. I was just trusting to luck. But presently I heard shuffling footsteps, then voices from below, finally the opening of the bedroom door. You can easily guess the rest: whilst Orgelet feil on old Désiré Malzieu, who was shouting 'Voleur! Assassin!' fit to wake the dead, I fell on Orgelet, who was so taken by surprise that has never uttered a sound. What with his belt and my own and a length of rope which I had stuffed into my pockets, I managed to get him well trussed and silenced and stuffed underneath the bed: old Désiré was sprawling on the floor, but I did not think that he was very grievously hurt. From Orgelet I had taken the dark lantern which proved such a valuable friend, for it lit up everything round me and left my face in darkness. After that, the whole thing became child's play. I was sent by Desor to fetch poor Fernand: until that moment I did not know where he was and never had the time or opportunity to look for him. When I first saw him, he was more dead than alive, but we may take it at this moment, under the able ministrations of Mademoiselle Céleste, he is more alive than dead. And so, home, friends," the daring adventurer concluded with his merry, last laugh; "frankly, I am demmed fatigued. At dusk to-morrow we make for the Day-Dream and set sail for England, and unless the little party's obstinacy prove greater than our determination, we'll have Fernand Malzieu and his pretty Céleste and possibly old Doctor Gambier on board, too."