Not one of them had really trusted him for some time now. Heaven and his conscience alone knew what had changed my Lord Kulmsted from a loyal friend and keen sportsman into a surly and dissatisfied adherent— adherent only in name.
Some say that lack of money had embittered him. He was a confirmed gambler, and had been losing over-heavily of late; and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel demanded sacrifices of money at times from its members, as well as of life if the need arose. Others averred that jealousy against the chief had outweighed Kulmsted’s honesty. Certain it is that his oath of fealty to the League had long ago been broken in the spirit. Treachery hovered in the air.
But the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, with that indomitable optimism of his, and almost maddening insouciance, either did not believe in Kulmsted’s disloyalty or chose not to heed it.
He even asked him to join the present expedition—one of the most dangerous undertaken by the League for some time, and which had for its object the rescue of some women of the late unfortunate Marie Antoinette’s household: maids and faithful servants, ruthlessly condemned to die for their tender adherence to a martyred queen. And yet eighteen pairs of faithful lips had murmured words of warning.
It was towards the end of November, 1793. The rain was beating down in a monotonous drip, drip, drip on to the roof of a derelict house in the Rue Berthier. The wan light of a cold winter’s morning peeped in through the curtainless window and touched with its weird grey brush the pallid face of a young girl—a mere child—who sat in a dejected attitude on a rickety chair, with elbows leaning on the rough deal table before her, and thin, grimy fingers wandering with pathetic futility to her tearful eyes.
In the farther angle of the room a tall figure in dark clothes was made one, by the still lingering gloom, with the dense shadows beyond.
“We have starved,” said the girl, with rebellious tears. “Father and I and the boys are miserable enough, God knows; but we have always been honest.”
From out the shadows in that dark corner of the room there came the sound of an oath quickly suppressed.
“Honest!” exclaimed the man, with a harsh, mocking laugh, which made the girl wince as if with physical pain. “Is it honest to harbour the enemies of your country? Is it honest—–”
But quickly he checked himself, biting his lips with vexation, feeling that his present tactics were not like to gain the day.
He came out of the gloom and approached the girl with every outward sign of eagerness. He knelt on the dusty floor beside her, his arms stole round her meagre shoulders, and his harsh voice was subdued to tones of gentleness.
“I was only thinking of your happiness, Yvonne,” he said tenderly; “of poor blind papa and the two boys to whom you have been such a devoted little mother. My only desire is that you should earn the gratitude of your country by denouncing her most bitter enemy—an act of patriotism which will place you and those for whom you care for ever beyond the reach of sorrow or of want.”