El Dorado by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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Silence reigned in the narrow cell for a few moments, whilst two human jackals stood motionless over their captured prey.
A savage triumph gleamed in Chauvelin's eyes, and even Heron, dull and brutal though he was, had become vaguely conscious of the great change that had come over the prisoner.
Blakeney, with a gesture and a sigh of hopeless exhaustion had once more rested both his elbows on the table; his head fell heavy and almost lifeless downward in his arms.
"Curse you, man!" cried Heron almost involuntarily. "Why in the name of hell did you wait so long?"
Then, as the prisoner made no reply, but only raised his head slightly, and looked on the other two men with dulled, wearied eyes, Chauvelin interposed calmly: "More than a fortnight has been wasted in useless obstinacy, Sir Percy. Fortunately it is not too late."
"Capet?" said Heron hoarsely, "tell us, where is Capet?"
He leaned across the table, his eyes were bloodshot with the keenness of his excitement, his voice shook with the passionate desire for the crowning triumph. "If you'll only not worry me," murmured the prisoner; and the whisper came so laboriously and so low that both men were forced to bend their ears close to the scarcely moving lips; "if you will let me sleep and rest, and leave me in peace--" "The peace of the grave, man," retorted Chauvelin roughly; "if you will only speak. Where is Capet?"
"I cannot tell you; the way is long, the road--intricate."
"I'll lead you to him, if you will give me rest."
"We don't want you to lead us anywhere," growled Heron with a smothered curse; "tell us where Capet is; we'll find him right enough."
"I cannot explain; the way is intricate; the place off the beaten track, unknown except to me and my friends."
Once more that shadow, which was so like the passing of the hand of Death, overspread the prisoner's face; his head rolled back against the chair. "He'll die before he can speak," muttered Chauvelin under his breath. "You usually are well provided with brandy, citizen Heron."
The latter no longer demurred. He saw the danger as clearly as did his colleague. It had been hell's own luck if the prisoner were to die now when he seemed ready to give in. He produced a flask from the pocket of his coat, and this he held to Blakeney's lips.
"Beastly stuff," murmured the latter feebly. "I think I'd sooner faint--than drink." "Capet? where is Capet?" reiterated Heron impatiently. "One--two-- three hundred leagues from here. I must let one of my friends know; he'll communicate with the others; they must be prepared," replied the prisoner slowly. Heron uttered a blasphemous oath.
Where is Capet? Tell us where Capet is, or--"
He was like a raging tiger that bad thought to hold its prey and suddenly realised that it was being snatched from him. He raised his fist, and without doubt the next moment he would Lave silenced forever the lips that held the precious secret, but Chauvelin fortunately was quick enough to seize his wrist.
"Have a care, citizen," he said peremptorily; "have a care! You called me a fool just now when you thought I had killed the prisoner. It is his secret we want first; his death can follow afterwards."
"Yes, but not in this d--d hole," murmured Blakeney.
"On the guillotine if you'll speak," cried Heron, whose exasperation was getting the better of his self-interest, "but if you'll not speak then it shall be starvation in this hole--yes, starvation," he growled, showing a row of large and uneven teeth like those of some mongrel cur, "for I'll have that door walled in to-night, and not another living soul shall cross this threshold again until your flesh has rotted on your bones and the rats have had their fill of you."
The prisoner raised his head slowly, a shiver shook him as if caused by ague, and his eyes, that appeared almost sightless, now looked with a strange glance of horror on his enemy.
"I'll die in the open," he whispered, "not in this d--d hole."
"Then tell us where Capet is."
"I cannot; I wish to God I could. But I'll take you to him, I swear I will. I'll make my friends give him up to you. Do you think that I would not tell you now, if I could." Heron, whose every instinct of tyranny revolted against this thwarting of his will, would have continued to heckle the prisoner even now, had not Chauvelin suddenly interposed with an authoritative gesture.
"You'll gain nothing this way, citizen," he said quietly; "the man's mind is wandering; he is probably quite unable to give you clear directions at this moment."
"What am I to do, then?" muttered the other roughly.
"He cannot live another twenty-four hours now, and would only grow more and more helpless as time went on."
"Unless you relax your strict regime with him."
"And if I do we'll only prolong this situation indefinitely; and in the meanwhile how do we know that the brat is not being spirited away out of the country?" The prisoner, with his head once more buried in his arms, had fallen into a kind of torpor, the only kind of sleep that the exhausted system would allow. With a brutal gesture Heron shook him by the shoulder.
"He," he shouted, "none of that, you know. We have not settled the matter of young Capet yet."
Then, as the prisoner made no movement, and the chief agent indulged in one of his favourite volleys of oaths, Chauvelin placed a peremptory hand on his colleague's shoulder.
"I tell you, citizen, that this is no use," he said firmly. "Unless you are prepared to give up all thoughts of finding Capet, you must try and curb your temper, and try diplomacy where force is sure to fail."
"Diplomacy?" retorted the other with a sneer. "Bah! it served you well at Boulogne last autumn, did it not, citizen Chauvelin?"
"It has served me better now," rejoined the other imperturbably. "You will own, citizen, that it is my diplomacy which has placed within your reach the ultimate hope of finding Capet."
"H'm!" muttered the other, "you advised us to starve the prisoner. Are we any nearer to knowing his secret?"
"Yes. By a fortnight of weariness, of exhaustion and of starvation, you are nearer to it by the weakness of the man whom in his full strength you could never hope to conquer."
"But if the cursed Englishman won't speak, and in the meanwhile dies on my hands--"
"He won't do that if you will accede to his wish. Give him some good food now, and let him sleep till dawn."
"And at dawn he'll defy me again. I believe now that he has some scheme in his mind, and means to play us a trick."
"That, I imagine, is more than likely," retorted Chauvelin dryly; "though," he added with a contemptuous nod of the head directed at the huddled-up figure of his once brilliant enemy, "neither mind nor body seem to me to be in a sufficiently active state just now for hatching plot or intrigue; but even if--vaguely floating through his clouded mind--there has sprung some little scheme for evasion, I give you my word, citizen Heron, that you can thwart him completely, and gain all that you desire, if you will only follow my advice."
There had always been a great amount of persuasive power in citizen Chauvelin, ex-envoy of the revolutionary Government of France at the Court of St. James, and that same persuasive eloquence did not fail now in its effect on the chief agent of the Committee of General Security. The latter was made of coarser stuff than his more brilliant colleague. Chauvelin was like a wily and sleek panther that is furtive in its movements, that will lure its prey, watch it, follow it with stealthy footsteps, and only pounce on it when it is least wary, whilst Heron was more like a raging bull that tosses its head in a blind, irresponsible fashion, rushes at an obstacle without gauging its resisting powers, and allows its victim to slip from beneath its weight through the very clumsiness and brutality of its assault. Still Chauvelin had two heavy black marks against him--those of his failures at Calais and Boulogne. Heron, rendered cautious both by the deadly danger in which he stood and the sense of his own incompetence to deal with the present situation, tried to resist the other's authority as well as his persuasion. "Your advice was not of great use to citizen Collot last autumn at Boulogne," he said, and spat on the ground by way of expressing both his independence and his contempt.
"Still, citizen Heron," retorted Chauvelin with unruffled patience, "it is the best advice that you are likely to get in the present emergency. You have eyes to see, have you not? Look on your prisoner at this moment. Unless something is done, and at once, too, he will be past negotiating with in the next twenty-four hours; then what will follow?"
He put his thin hand once more on his colleague's grubby coat-sleeve, he drew him closer to himself away from the vicinity of that huddled figure, that captive lion, wrapped in a torpid somnolence that looked already so like the last long sleep.
"What will follow, citizen Heron?" he reiterated, sinking his voice to a whisper; "sooner or later some meddlesome busybody who sits in the Assembly of the Convention will get wind that little Capet is no longer in the Temple prison, that a pauper child was substituted for him, and that you, citizen Heron, together with the commissaries in charge, have thus been fooling the nation and its representatives for over a fortnight. What will follow then, think you?" And he made an expressive gesture with his outstretched fingers across his throat.
Heron found no other answer but blasphemy.
"I'll make that cursed Englishman speak yet," he said with a fierce oath. "You cannot," retorted Chauvelin decisively. "In his present state he is incapable of it, even if he would, which also is doubtful."
"Ah! then you do think that he still means to cheat us?"
"Yes, I do. But I also know that he is no longer in a physical state to do it. No doubt he thinks that he is. A man of that type is sure to overvalue his own strength; but look at him, citizen Heron. Surely you must see that we have nothing to fear from him now."
Heron now was like a voracious creature that has two victims lying ready for his gluttonous jaws. He was loath to let either of them go. He hated the very thought of seeing the Englishman being led out of this narrow cell, where he had kept a watchful eye over him night and day for a fortnight, satisfied that with every day, every hour, the chances of escape became more improbable and more rare; at the same time there was the possibility of the recapture of little Capet, a possibility which made Heron's brain reel with the delightful vista of it, and which might never come about if the prisoner remained silent to the end. "I wish I were quite sure," he said sullenly, "that you were body and soul in accord with me."
"I am in accord with you, citizen Heron," rejoined the other earnestly--"body and soul in accord with you. Do you not believe that I hate this man--aye! hate him with a hatred ten thousand times more strong than yours? I want his death-Heaven or hell alone know how I long for that--but what I long for most is his lasting disgrace. For that I have worked, citizen Heron--for that I advised and helped you. When first you captured this man you wanted summarily to try him, to send him to the guillotine amidst the joy of the populace of Paris, and crowned with a splendid halo of martyrdom. That man, citizen Heron, would have baffled you, mocked you, and fooled you even on the steps of the scaffold. In the zenith of his strength and of insurmountable good luck you and all your myrmidons and all the assembled guard of Paris would have had no power over him. The day that you led him out of this cell in order to take him to trial or to the guillotine would have been that of your hopeless discomfiture. Having once walked out of this cell hale, hearty and alert, be the escort round him ever so strong, he never would have re-entered it again. Of that I am as convinced as that I am alive. I know the man; you don't. Mine are not the only fingers through which he has slipped. Ask citizen Collot d'Herbois, ask Sergeant Bibot at the barrier of Menilmontant, ask General Santerre and his guards. They all have a tale to tell. Did I believe in God or the devil, I should also believe that this man has supernatural powers and a host of demons at his beck and call."
"Yet you talk now of letting him walk out of this cell to-morrow?"
"He is a different man now, citizen Heron. On my advice you placed him on a regime that has counteracted the supernatural power by simple physical exhaustion, and driven to the four winds the host of demons who no doubt fled in the face of starvation."
"If only I thought that the recapture of Capet was as vital to you as it is to me," said Heron, still unconvinced.
"The capture of Capet is just as vital to me as it is to you," rejoined Chauvelin earnestly, "if it is brought about through the instrumentality of the Englishman." He paused, looking intently on his colleague, whose shifty eyes encountered his own. Thus eye to eye the two men at last understood one another. "Ah!" said Heron with a snort, "I think I understand."
"I am sure that you do," responded Chauvelin dryly. "The disgrace of this cursed Scarlet Pimpernel and his League is as vital to me, and more, as the capture of Capet is to you. That is why I showed you the way how to bring that meddlesome adventurer to his knees; that is why I will help you now both to find Capet and with his aid and to wreak what reprisals you like on him in the end." Heron before he spoke again cast one more look on the prisoner. The latter had not stirred; his face was hidden, but the hands, emaciated, nerveless and waxen, like those of the dead, told a more eloquent tale, mayhap, then than the eyes could do. The chief agent of the Committee of General Security walked deliberately round the table until he stood once more close beside the man from whom he longed with passionate ardour to wrest an all-important secret. With brutal, grimy hand he raised the head that lay, sunken and inert, against the table; with callous eyes he gazed attentively on the face that was then revealed to him, he looked on the waxen flesh, the hollow eyes, the bloodless lips; then he shrugged his wide shoulders, and with a laugh that surely must have caused joy in hell, he allowed the wearied head to fall back against the outstretched arms, and turned once again to his colleague.
"I think you are right, citizen Chauvelin," he said; "there is not much supernatural power here. Let me hear your advice."