With a last push, the boat drifted into the water, leaving Tony and I alone in the faint dampness from the lapping waves beneath the steel sky. I waited for him to leap into the vessel as it moved swiftly away, the slow steady strokes of the grave men within gaining momentum. Glynde and Hastings sat wordless in the stern, watching us -- Dewhurst made no move. I turned to look at him, and spoke in a low voice.
He remained stock-still, his gaze focused on the boat now nearly 4 meters away. He was utterly rigid; his shoulders were tense, his hands at his side gripped so tightly the knuckles showed white, his cheek stretched taut over the clenched teeth. I seized his shoulder and almost shoved him toward the waves.
He turned to face me, his gaze rife with the desperate anger and helplessness that ripped at my own soul; then he shook me off with a savage gesture and an oath.
"D--n it, Ffoulkes..!"
With harsh, biting movements he was gone, running toward the boat so swiftly there were almost no splashes, and vaulted into it with such force the small vessel rocked dangerously and nearly capsized, but there was no reproach from the other men. I watched him push his way through the rowers to the prow and fling himself down there, crouched and staring ahead. An indistinct figure -- Phillip, I think -- raised one hand in solemn farewell; I raised my own in answer for half a moment, then turned on and strode quickly up the beach toward the city. My task no longer seemed quite so unbearable...I, too, had to wait, but the waiting would be easier here than in the cabin of a yacht whose owner might already...
I quickened my step.
Andrew is searching for news of Blakeney in Le Portel several days later
No one knew anything. No one had heard anything, seen anything, in all the taverns I frequented, gulping down thin wine that stuck in my throat. One man had arrived from Paris who had traveled there expressly to see the Pimpernel executed, but could speak of nothing but his bitter disappointment at being cheated; he had left the city only a few days after I, and had heard no word of strange happenings at a deserted chateau near Crecy. There was nothing to know, and it had been now six days since Marguerite and I read his final letter.
I returned from another fruitless expedition to the filthy lodgings I had taken and barely seen. The grimy walls and woebegone furniture, identical to half a dozen I had seen with Blakeney, seemed to demand as much as did the skies, my conscience and the lurid silhouette of the town square guillotine that I do something, know something, learn something, sacrifice something.
God, simply to KNOW..!!
I thrust open the shuttered window and stared intently down at the street, seeking decipherable messages in the irregular cobblestones or a ghostly informant among the shadows. It was near sunset and the boulevard was empty, save only for a tattered, weary woman, perhaps twenty-five and appearing sixty, herding her equally exhausted children home. They hugged the shadows and the wall as if open air and sunlight might scorch them, and yet for all that one of the tired mites dared to raise her head and glance around. I lifted my hand to her, and she waved exuberantly back.
The mother checked her motion with a terrified glance upward, and I pulled back from the window to spare her. Unbidden, there came the image of Suzanne and I, walking with a small girl, or boy perhaps, through our garden..
I had almost forgotten. These three weeks, I had nearly forgotten the woman who waited and prayed in England, the woman with a precious, precious burden. I missed her -- it came to me in a flash that I missed Suzanne, would miss her whatever the news I eventually found, and it came to me too, to my horror, that life would go on. Blakeney might die, might already be dead. Even Marguerite might perish, and her brother be released from his guilt in dying in her or her husband's defense -- and I would wait in Le Portel a few more hellish days, and then go to the Daydream and tell them what I had not found. And we would go home, and I would tell Suzanne, and we would mourn and life would go on...
That was the most terrifying moment of those terrifying three weeks.
I slammed the shutters closed with an impatient gesture and rose, thrusting my chair away from the window. I had meant to rest, and perhaps to eat, for I had scarcely done either since turning my back on the sails of the Daydream -- but the unbearable image of three still forms in the woods would have choked away the softest bread and most savory broth (and what was available from my landlord's grubby better half was neither), and the restlessness that had seeped into my bones and quickened my heartbeat for what seemed like forever chased away even the thought of quiescence. I would circle the city again..
There was a poor ragged wretch huddled in the dim corridor outside my door, near the street; some mendicant who had ducked in for protection from the cold and the snow that was beginning to fall again even this near the coast. The landlord would discover him soon enough and return him to his haunts, but he evidently meant to gain what he could from the respite. He thrust out a smudged hand as I approached, speaking in a plaintive, mechanical whine.
"A sou, citoyen? A sou for a poor man, a hungry man in these hard times, just a sou..."
Scarcely pausing, I dug into what professed to be a pocket of my clothes, which were in scarcely better condition than his. There had been enough misery in the world this past fortnight that I had been powerless to mend; I could at least alleviate one helpless victim's suffering. My half-numb fingers found a few coins and, not pausing to glance at the currency, I thrust them down into outstretched, quavering fingers and heard the beginning of an abject, grateful litany.
"Oh, monsigneur, citizen, thank you, merci, merci..."
And the trembling, uncertain, clinging grasp became suddenly a firm and powerful hand that gripped my arm in a familiar hold, and the wavering creak became a low, resonant, remembered voice with laughter just beneath the surface.
"Haven't gambled with Wallescourt for some time, eh, my man? You've money to throw away."
I stared at the still huddled figure for a long moment, seeking out the piercing blue eyes that gleamed merrily up at me, and then came the nearest to fainting I have ever come in my life. I gripped his arm, waiting for him to vanish into thin air, melt, dissolve, and then my legs grew weak and I simply sat down, right there on the filth-coated floorboards, and grinned like an idiot.
He had half risen, bending toward me concernedly, and now laughed again, the mellow laugh I had heard incessantly since I was ten years old.
"In the flesh, my dear fellow; what remains of it."
He was pulling me to my feet.
"Buck up, eh, Ffoulkes?" He laughed a little anxiously, but with a note in his tone that said he understood. "Forgive me, old man...nearly a score years and still not used to my theatrics, I see. Come, your hovel is this way, I believe?"
Somehow we traversed the few feet back into my suddenly radiant apartment, Percy keeping an arm at my elbow, but the door had scarce closed behind us when my shock began to dissipate and in its wake came a sheer jubilant, grateful relief. I twisted out of his solicitous attempt to force me into one of the rickety chairs and seized him by the shoulders.
"Percy, it is you!" I laughed again, gaily, and half-shook him. "You damnable..why did you not..." as the remembrance of business returned to me, I sobered, "Lady Blakeney..?"
His face softened and he clapped me on the shoulder.
"Safe on the Daydream, my friend, despite my sometime hosts' attempts to the contrary."
"Likewise; he's a nasty knock on the head from some ill-timed heroics, but nothing Aincourt and a night's rest won't cure."
I looked at him closer in the dim light, seeking for damage.
He laughed again; the old laugh, filled to the brim with the unquestioning conviction that let him live another thousand years or merely another ten minutes, he would have no regrets. He spread his arms and turned slowly.
"La, man, am I not the picture of health?"
I laughed with him, simply because I must laugh or else weep and burst into loud praises of my God, for he was my friend, and he was indeed, against all odds, alive; though anything but the picture of health. Perhaps to Marguerite, to any who had seen him a week since, he seemed a veritable Apollo of well-being; but to mine eyes, that had last seen him standing tall and unbent beneath the driving rain, he was but a phantom, a shadow of the man I knew. There were dark hollows in his cheek and darker shadows beneath his red-rimmed eyes, and though his grip on my arm had been strong it had not been the grip of a month ago. A fortnight of enduring the unendurable will take its toll on even a paragon; and after his flourishing pirouette Percy dropped back into the chair opposite mine as though he were glad to have it there. He was pale, exhausted and emaciated -- and in sore need of a wash. Let it be counted to him, in the name of friendship, at the dreadful day of Judgment; Sir Percy Blakeney, the most sybaritic sybarite that ever sought to rival the lilies of the field, had come in search of me to remove me from the rack he knew I was stretched upon before even breaking a 3-weeks' fast from bathwater.
To be sure...there was a faintly seawater smell about him, and I suppose he would not be to blame had he, after seeing his lady safely embarked on the boat of the Daydream, swam briefly in the Channel to cleanse what he could.
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