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In the Rue Monge: A Short Story


  Title: In the Rue Monge Author: Emmuska Orczy * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0602931h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: July 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

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  * * *

  In the Rue Monge

  by

  Emmuska Orczy

  * * *

  I

  The Professor swung himself round on the high stool on which he was sitting, and blinked tired, watery eyes at his interlocutor.

  "You were saying, milor'?" he asked in his shaky, high-pitched voice.

  And the other resumed with exemplary patience:

  "I was trying to explain to you, my friend, that no one is safe these days, and that at any moment one of those devils on the Committee of Public Safety might set your name down on the list of the suspects. Now, I promised your daughter over in England that my friends and I would look after you; but even without such a promise. . ."

  He paused, for obviously the little man was not really listening. He had begun by trying to be attentive, by trying to understand the import of what his friend was saying; but his attention was already wandering and his pale, tired eyes were turned longingly in the direction of his test-tubes, his microscopes and other scientific paraphernalia which littered his table. Now, when his friend ceased speaking, he again tried to appear interested.

  "Yes, yes, my daughter!" he murmured vaguely. "Pretty girl, she was. Married that nice man Tessan; a prosperous farmer he was. They were on their honeymoon in England when this awful revolution fell upon us here. Lucky for them! They were never able to return to France."

  He continued to ramble on in this vague, inconsequent way; his friend listened to him with undivided attention. They were such a strange contrast, these two: the powerfully-built Englishman, dressed simply but with scrupulous care, a man with finely-moulded hands and lazy, grey eyes that had at times marvellous flashes in them of enthusiasm and command--a leader of men, obviously, a fearless sportsman and daring adventurer--and his learned friend, a man with wizened body and spine prematurely bent, with noble, thoughtful forehead and timid, quivering mouth. A worse-assorted pair could not easily be found. But they were friends, nevertheless. It was a friendship based on mutual respect, even though there was on the one side a strong element of protective affection and on the other a timid, almost childlike trust.

  "I would like to go to England with you some day, milor'," the professor went on with a yearning little sigh. "I believe I could do great things in England. I could meet your famous Jenner and show him some of my own experiments in the field of vaccine. These are not altogether to be despised," he added, with a quaint chuckle of self-satisfaction. "And, believe me, my friend, this Revolutionary government is not made up of asses. They have a certain respect for science, especially for the curative sciences; they know that sickness stalks abroad in spite of all their decrees and their talk of a millennium, and they are not likely to molest those of us who work for the better health conditions of the people."

  The Englishman said nothing for a moment or two. He regarded his ingenuous little friend with a kindly, gently-mocking glance. At last he said:

  "You really believe that, do you, my good Rollin?"

  "Yes, yes, I believe it. I had the assurance lately of no less a personage than the great Couthon, Robespierre's bosom friend, that the Committee of Public Safety will never touch me while I carry on such important experiments."

  "You could carry them on so much better in England, my friend. The sense of safety would add zest to your work and you would spare your daughter who loves you a cruel anxiety."

  "Ah, yes, yes," Rollin murmured in a somewhat querulous tone. "Poor little Marguerite! She was such a pretty girl! But I will come with you, milor'! Be sure that I will come Only, just now--you understand--I have this great work in hand--a work that would even interest the great Jenner. Therefore," he added, with a bashful little smile, "I will even ask you, milor', to excuse me. The light is growing dim, and I ."

  The Englishman rose, smothering a half-impatient sigh.

  "You want me to go?"

  "No, on no!" the other hastened to add. "Only, the daylight is--"

  "More precious in this case than life," the other broke in, with his engaging smile.

  He stood up in the narrow, bare room, a giant in height and strength, looking down with that kindly, all-understanding glance of his on this tiny, wizened form of his friend.

  "Do you know," he said lightly, "that I could pick you up now and carry you in my waistcoat pocket straight to your daughter's arms?"

  For the first time a look of terror crept into the Professor's eyes.

  "You would not do that, my friend," he ejaculated fervently; "not until my experiments--"

  "Nothing to do with your experiments, my good Rollin," the Englishman replied. He went to the window and stood for a few seconds looking down on the street below. Then he beckoned to the little man, who, compelled somewhat against his will, stepped down from his high stool, very much like a lean, long-legged stork getting off its perch. The Englishman was pointing to a group of men in the street and Rollin obediently looked down, too. The men wore tattered military tunics and ragged breeches. Their bare feet were thrust into shoes stuffed up with straw; they wore the regulation caps adorned with soiled tri-colour cockades. Two or three of them were leaning against the wall of the house opposite, the others stood desultorily about.

  "They are always there," the little Professor remarked. "That is because Citoyen Couthon lives next door. He is a great man, is Citoyen Couthon, and these men are, I think, his bodyguard."

  "Perhaps," the Englishman remarked drily. "But, anyway, they would search my waistcoat pocket if they saw it bulging with you in it."

  He gave a light laugh and then a sigh. Obviously there was nothing more to be said. The old scientist was like a bewildered rabbit, anxious to get back to its burrow. But there was astonishing courage in that feeble body with a quiet philosophy which so gallant a sportsman as Sir Percy Blakeney could not fail to admire.

  With a final hasty good-bye he left Professor Rollin to his tubes and retorts, and with a quick, firm step made his way out of the laboratory and then down several flights of stairs to a dark and disused cellar situated in the basement of the house.

  The house itself was one of those vast tenements, which for the past century and more had sprung up all over Paris. It had its inevitable square courtyard, with a well in the centre and rows of iron balconies overlooking it from every floor. Hundreds of lodgers in various stages of poverty, mostly abject, dwelt in the tenements. Families of three or four, or sometimes as many as seven, were herded in single rooms. At each of the four angles of the courtyard there was a staircase, dark, dank and unspeakably dirty, since it was no one's business to keep them clean.

  It was out of this rabbit warren that, an hour or two later, there stepped into the street an ugly, misshapen creature in ragged shirt and tattered breeches, wearing a knitted cap over a mop of unkempt and
mouse-coloured hair. He hobbled along on one leg and a wooden stump, which he banged against the stairs as he came up from the basement where were situated the most squalid of all the apartments, some of them little more than unlit, unventilated cellars.

  The group of men whom Professor Rollin had described as Couthon's bodyguard scarcely glance at him. Their attention appeared to be mostly taken up with a window on one of the upper floors, through which could be perceived the wizened figure of Professor Rollin, busy with his test-tubes and microscope.

  II

  The commissariat of police of the English Section was a low, narrow building sandwiched between a couple of taller houses in the narrow, ill-lit Rue Monge. It was not one of the busy commissariats of the city, because, being situated in so poor and squalid a quarter, there was not a great number of bourgeois and aristocrats to be hauled up before the commissary in the course of the day. True that once or twice proscribed aristos ahd been discovered lurking perdu in one of other of the tenement houses where only the poor congregate but, on the whole, the citizen commissary, by name Bossut, had mostly to deal with malefactors, night birds and suchlike, not bad enough to send to the guillotine, and thus obtain commendation for his zeal, or even promotion such as came in the way of colleagues who were able to make successful hauls of suspects and traitors.

  Indeed, the citizen commissary felt distinctly depressed on this evening. He had sent a couple of pilferers to gaol, three young ruffians to the whipping-post and arrested a stupid old man named Rollin, who styled himself professor and spent his time playing about with glass tubes and instruments and all sorts of poisonous concoctions. A harmless fool enough, but Bossut happened to catch a rumour that this Rollin had a daughter married to an emigré--a rich man, seemingly, who had lived all these years in luxury in England, the arch-enemy of France. Now a man who had a son-in-law of that type was clearly a traitor himself and Bossut, in ordering the arrest of the Professor, had vague hopes that something out of the common would come of it--a sensational trial, perhaps, that would bring in its train that commendation from his superiors, or even that promotion which was the dream of the obscure commissary.

  But, alas, nothing so far had come of this arrest. Of course, the old fool would be sent to the guillotine--that was a foregone conclusion--but strive as he might, Bossut could not discover anything in the Professor's dossier that would turn his trial into a sensation.

  It was hard luck. And now that the lamp was lighted and sent its black, sooty smoke up to the ceiling, without shedding much light into the room, Citizen Bossut felt that there was nothing else to do but to drown his melancholy in a bottle of wine, the best that could be got these hard times. He was just beginning to feel comfortably drowsy, and sat stretched out in a rickety armchair in front of the iron stove, toasting his legs, when his lieutenant, Citizen Grisar, came to announce that a man, who wouldn't give his name, desired to speak with the citizen commissary.

  "What does he want?" the latter asked between two prodigious yawns.

  "He wouldn't say, citizen," the lieutenant replied.

  "Then tell him to go to the devil!"

  "Yes, citizen."

  Grisar slouched out of the room and the worthy commissary once more tried to compose himself to sleep; but the next moment he was rudely brought to his feet by the sound of loud altercation, much shouting and swearing, and finally by the door of his own sanctum being violently thrown open and a raucous voice shouting hoarsely:

  "Ah ça! What kind of a sacré aristo is the citizen commissary, that honest patriots are denied access to his grandeur?"

  An ugly, misshapen creature stood in the doorway, still hurling anathemas over his shoulder at the unfortunate Grisar, whom he had sent sprawling across the room with a vigorous play of his elbow. Now he hobbled forward on one leg and a wooden stump, with which he banged the floor until it shivered and shook, as without further ceremony he entered the inner sanctum of Citizen Commissary Bossut.

  Grisar had in the meanwhile sufficiently recovered his balance to call for assistance from the men on duty, when the newcomer once more raised his raucous voice. But this time he neither sore nor stormed. His ugly face became distorted with an ugly leer; he put a grimy finger up to his very red nose and winked--yes, winked at the commissary himself.

  "Do not let those fellows touch me, citizen," he said, "for, if you do, you'll never know what I have come here on purpose to tell you. And," he added, with another knowing wink, "there'll never be another chance of promotion for you as long as you live."

  The word promotion acted like magic on Bossut's temper. It was the very breath of life to him: he thought of it all day, he dreamed of it by night. He ordered Grisar and the men out of the room, sat down at his desk, and demanded curtly:

  "Well, what is it?"

  These being the glorious days of fraternity and equality, the miserable caitiff was not going to allow any commissary to order him about. First, he made himself at home; sat down opposite the commissary; poured out a glass of wine, which he drank down at a gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, leaving a wide, sooty streak right across his nose and chin. Finally, he disposed his wooden leg as comfortably as he could, then only was he prepared to speak.

  Bossut smothered his wrath, resolved not to lose his temper with a man who had used the magic word, promotion.

  "You see, citizen commissary," the man began at last, "it's like this. The Committees have their spies, as you know, and I am one of them. But they are hard task-masters, worse than any tyrant, and you may take it from me that, all in good time, they will be sent to the guillotine. Every one of them--Danton, Hébert, Robespierre--they'll all go presently because--"

  "Yes, yes! Never mind about that," the commissary broke in impatiently. "My time is short. Get on with what you have to say."

  "All right, all right! I'm coming to it. What I wanted to say was that the Committees demand a lot of work and pay very little for it. I have often brought them information worth the weight of a man's head in gold. You think they would have given me something extra for my pains. Raised my wages. Not a bit of it! I am sick of them. Sick, I tell you. And, what's more, I told them--I told citizen Chauvelin--"

  "No wonder that he wouldn't listen to you, my man, you talk too much," Bossut put in, in exasperation.

  "He would have liked to know, though, what I alone can tell him about the English spy, the Scarlet Pimpernel."

  "What?"

  Bossut had jumped to his feet. In a moment his excitement was at fever point. The English spy! The Scarlet Pimpernel! There was no ambitious height to which a man could not reach if he helped in the capture of that poisonous enemy of the Republic.

  The cripple contemplated him with a leer upon his ugly face, while Bossut paced up and down the room in order work off his agitation. At last he sat down again, put his elbows on the desk and gazed with concentrated attention on the misshapen creature before him.

  "Tell me!" he commanded.

  But the other only grinned.

  "What'll you pay me for the information?" he asked.

  "One half of the reward offered for the capture of the English spy--if I get him."

  The caitiff nodded.

  "Put that down in writing, citizen commissary," he said, "and the spy is yours. My name's Goujon," he went on--"Amédé Goujon, in the service of the Committees. Put it down in writing, citizen commissary, that you will give me one half of the reward offered for the capture of the Scarlet Pimpernel."

  While Bossut, with a hand that shook visibly, put the promise down in writing, signed it and strewed sand over it, the cripple continued to mutter under his breath:

  "It'll want pluck. The Englishman is powerful--a giant, what? And cunning! Sacré nom, but he has slipped through Citizen Chauvelin's fingers more than once--just like an eel. Here to-day, gone to-morrow. But there's one man knows just where and how he can be found."

  "Tell me!" Bossut commanded.

  "Over a bottle of wine, comrad
e," Goujon declared with a loud guffaw. "Dash it, my friend, my throat is dry. How can I speak?"

  Bossut sore, but he went to his locker, produced a fresh bottle of wine with a second mug, and set the wine on the table.

  "Now then," he said peremptorily.

  "That old fool in the Rue des Pipots," Goujon said in a hoarse whisper, leaning his grimy arms on the table and eagerly watching the commissary as he filled the two mugs with wine, "he who plays about with glass tubes and instruments, eh?"

  "Rollin?"

  "That's the man."

  "But how do you know that Rollin-"

  Bossut was so agitated that he could hardly speak.

  "I have seen the old fool standing at his window in conversation with the Englishman," Goujon asserted. "Have him arrested, I tell you."

  "But I've got him," Bossut exclaimed. "He is in La Roche since this morning."

  "Send for him, then," the cripple retorted laconically. "Make him tell you. He knows."

  The order was at once given. Grisar and two men were dispatched to the prison of La Roche, not very far distant, with orders to bring along the prisoner, Rollin. Bossut by now was in a state bordering on frenzy, pacing up and down the room like a feline waiting for its food. Goujon, on the other hand, appeared entirely serene. His misshapen body was sprawling on a rickety chair which threatened to break down with every movement of his ungainly body; his wooden leg was stretched out in front of him and he was snorting like a winded nag while he read through, most carefully, the precious paper which the commissary had given him. Satisfied that it was duly dated and signed, he folded it and slipped it into the pocket of his tattered coat, after which he gave himself over to the delight of finishing the commissary's excellent bottle of red wine. He smacked his lips in token of great apprecation.

  "Ah!" he said. "It is not often a poor man gets such good wine these days."

  Half-an-hour later, Grisar and a couple of men returned with Professor Rollin, who looked more like a scared rabbit than ever. Bossut had resumed his seat behind the desk and Goujon was sprawling between the desk and the prisoner.

 
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