That one statement triggered a roar of questions, boasts, speculations, and off color Chauvelin jokes.  
"Oh what has happened?"
"Impossible that rat Chau. . ."
"The Pimpernel in trouble again?"
". . .uvelin doesn't have enough. . ."
"It really isn't that bad, is it?"
"Send me, everyone knows that I. . ."
"He's a mule.  Botches everything up.  Send me."
"I'd do *anything* for the Pimper. . ."
"Quiet, please!"  The room fell silent partially from respect, and partially from extreme embarrassment.  That Lady Hastings should have to raise her voice was rebuke enough for the Gilders present.
"I'm glad that you are all so eager to help out with this mission, but I would be more grateful if you would let me finish speaking before you volunteer.  As most of you know, the Pimpernel and his men are currently in France on one of their trips.  It has just come to my attention that one of the inns where the Pimpernel will be staying on his way back is not safe anymore."
A stunned silence muffled the room as the weight of this information slowly sunk in.  
"You don't mean to say that good *English* people have betrayed us?"  
All eyes instantly sought out the speaker, a young fashionably dressed young woman with wide blue eyes.  
"Did you really think that the French are the only people capable of treachery?"  An older man in the corner laughed dryly.
"Please, let me explain,"  Lady Hasting's eyes held a worried look as she continued, "I know this will come as a shock but Mr. Taylor and his wife were murdered last week.  Officially they died by natural causes, but I talked with their maid yesterday and she is certain that they were poisoned.  Their inn was sold almost immediately after the funerals to an anonymous French immigrant.  We have no way to warn the Pimpernel of this new trap, since he is in France, and short of burning the inn down, no way to divert him to another location.  It looks hopeless.  Does anyone have any ideas?  Will anyone now volunteer for this almost suicidal mission?"
The room was quiet for half a second before a soft voice spoke up in heavily accented English.
 "I will go."
 The general assembly started in surprise, for the speaker was a member who did not usually speak.  In an unobtrusive in a corner of the room, away from the main crowd sat a small, grave faced young woman.  She was not pretty, nor was she dressed fashionably, but her piercing gaze made up for any physical beauty that she lacked.  
"Dear, may I talk to you privately for a moment?"  
Lady Hastings didn't wait for a reply but headed toward the door that entered onto the hallway, not turning to see if the girl was following.  When they were both in the hallway with the door firmly closed, Lady Hastings turned on the young woman.  
"What may I ask are you doing, Estella?"
If this direct line of questioning disturbed Estella, she didn't show it.
"I am trying to help the cause, Lady Hastings."
"By getting yourself killed?"
"We should all have a cause that we are willing to die for."
"I have told you already Estella," Lady Hastings's eyebrows lowered, "You are already helping the cause."
Estella eyes burned brightly.  "Helping the cause?  Helping the cause?" Her voice rose heatedly as she slipped into her native French tongue.  "If I had wanted to stamp little violets on notes, clean up after parties, handwrite hundreds of pretty letters *in English* I would've joined a sewing circle, not the Violet Guild.  What I want is revenge!"        
"And your son?  Are you going to leave him motherless?"  It hurt Lady Hastings to bring it up, but it was a necessary question.
Estella closed her eyes.  She did not speak and although Lady Hastings could see her eyes water the girl did not let a single tear fall.  
At length she composed herself.  "My son is my son no more.  I have found another mother for him and he is to know nothing of me.  My aunt and uncle may not be rich but he will be relatively safe with them."
"I know you mean well Estella, but be reasonable.  You're eighteen, you have a limited English vocabulary, you are still recovering from a difficult birth, and you are a new member of the Violet Guild.  How are you going to accomplish this mission?"
Estella smiled innocently. "What's wrong with burning the inn down?  A girl doesn't need a fancy English vocabulary for that."
Estella shifted uncomfortably in the carriage.  It was a good hour before dawn and she knew that she was approaching the end of her journey. It had been a long ride through the night without sleep due to the bumpy roads.  At the 2,569th sheep she decided that counting sheep had nothing to do with sleep.  She absentmindedly picked at the edges of her stained woolen dress wondering who it had previously belonged to, temporarily fading back into the world of dreams.  
The carriage lurched suddenly and Estella knocked her head on the wooden wall.  For a moment the pain was so great that she didn't notice the carriage had stopped.  A man in a black cloak opened the door and offered her his hand.  In a daze she took it and jumped out of the carriage, glad to have the ground under her feet again.  
"It was a stroke of luck that we encountered that French dog back down the road a bit.  It certainly has made things easier."  Estella could just make out the carriage man's proud smile in the pre-dawn light.  They had been very fortunate finding that drunk French spy at the last inn.
It had almost been too easy. After Estella had told him her carefully planned out story in perfect French, he happily laid out everything he knew concerning the undoing of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which unfortunately wasn't much. Still it was relatively simple to lure him outside the inn and hinder his mission sufficiently.  It would be at least a day or two before someone found him and another day or two before he would be able to make it to the inn to raise the alarm.  By that time, he'd be too late. With the encrypted message they "borrowed" from him, there would be no problems in getting a room, whoever the new owner might be.  
"I have to leave now Mlle. Javert, but I'll be back at this same time the day after tomorrow. I'll wait for a day but if the sun sets on that third day and you're not here, you'll be on your own or. . ." he stopped short, but Estella knew what he was going to say.  Or dead.  Somehow the word didn't bother her as much as she had expected, but there wasn't time to ponder death then.  
"Just follow the road that way and at dawn you'll come to the inn.  It used to be called the Fox and Grapes but who knows what it might be called now.  Remember, the inn must be gone tomorrow night or the Pimpernel will have quite a few problems. Good luck to you, Mlle. Javert."
The carriage man climbed back into his seat and moments later he was riding off into the fog.  Estella stood shivering on the road for a moment, slowly waking up to her condition.
She was alone, but that was her and her stubborn pride's fault.  Lady Hastings had been quite alarmed when Estella had refused any help whatsoever but after a long talk, Estella had somewhat calmed Lady Hastings's fears. It was obvious that she was not going to be the only Violet Guilder working to keep the Pimpernel from that particular inn but nothing was said openly on the topic, perhaps to spare her the common feelings of mistrust the other Guild members harbored.  She didn't mind and had purposely avoided any information on the other plots for the simple reason that if worst came to worst, she wouldn't hesitate in her sacrifice.  She could not hope, when the final choice arrived, that someone else would do her job.
The horizon began to brighten.  Estella yawned, stretched and began the mile walk to the Fox and Grapes, numbly counting each step.
The sun had just risen when Estella arrived at the doorway of the goose and grapes.  It was a neat little inn, flowerboxes still in the front windows and an old shady tree in the courtyard.  It was a shame that she'd have to set it afire, but many beautiful things have burnt for less cause. She frowned thoughtfully.  The deed would have to be done that night or the Pimpernel might see the flames and try to rescue his already dead friends.  That would never do.
"Hello there. . .who are you what do you want?"  A mousy looking man thrust his head out of the door, looking very out of place with the scenery around him. With wrinkled clothing and matted hair, no one would guess that this was the owner of the inn.
"Hello, I would like a meal and a place to sleep for tonight."  Estella looked challengingly at the weaselly man, silently noting his reluctance to look her in the eyes..
The man smiled condescendingly, more than one tooth missing from his grimy grin.  "I'm expecting a well to do party so you'd best find another place to stay." With a quick glance at her stained dress he continued. "But if you can't, I'm warning you, it won't be cheap. We don't like housing troublemakers or riff raff."
Estella returned the smile, stepped closer, "I must stay here.  I'm willing to pay your price." A moment passed and added quietly in French, "You're expecting me.  Maurice was not able to make it.  He gotten himself very drunk and almost ruined the mission.  I have the note from Chauvelin and orders to replace you if I feel you are not doing your job.  Any questions?"  
The change in the man's behavior was drastic, causing the hairs on Estella's arms to prickle.  A warning light flashed through Estella's mind, and a sudden urge to flee swept over her.  It wasn't like Chauvelin to choose two poor spies for such a delicate mission.  One might be a mistake, but two?
Smiling widely the ratty man, bowed and held the door wide open for her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you at first.  Please come in.  We'd be happy to serve such a renowned lady as yourself."
 This last phrase convinced Estella that he knew she was connected with the Pimpernel but there was no other choice but to walk through the door, knowing some trap lay on the other side.  If she were to run, the mission would never be accomplished.  On the other hand as long as they kept her alive there was still a possibility of success.
As the door slammed behind her, she grasped a knife she had kept up her sleeve and with a single motion pulled the man's hand behind his back, bringing the knife close against his throat.  
"Breathe a word and you are dead." A soft clapping of gloved hands from a darkened corner of the room made Estella jump.  Looking up, her eyes strained to adjust to the darkness of that corner but found it impossible to make out anything more than outlines of maybe three people.  
"Bravo Mademoiselle, quite a good performance indeed."
"Move into the light or he dies."
 She wondered that her voice did not shake, for she was quivering inside.
The speaker shrugged and did as he was told.
 "It doesn't matter.  I'm doing this out of politeness entirely, you understand.  There are two men in the shadows there," he made a motion toward the corner, "that have their guns fixed on you.  You kill him, and we kill you.  It's as simple as that.  We prefer you don't kill Pierre but, put bluntly, he's not very important."  
At that point Pierre began to object but was effectively silenced by Estella's adjustment of her knife.  
"Surrender now and you'll have another day or two, perhaps several years if you cooperate, to prepare for death."
Estella dropped her knife.  Nothing would be gained by dying now.  She'd just have to wait for another chance.  It wouldn't be pleasant, but if she was lucky, that chance might present itself shortly.  "Who are you?"
The man smiled.  
"I was going to ask that very question of you, but I suppose it wouldn't hurt anything if I told you first.  I am Inspector Armand de Remney.  Now it is your turn."
"My name is Marie Charbeu."  
Estella looked down at the ground, attempting to look as defeated as possible.  If her captors thought that she was resigned to her fate, escape would be easier.
"It is not, but it will do for now.  I rather like the name Marie."
Inspector de Remney made an impatient motion towards the darkened corner and two burly men emerged, guns still pointed at Estella.
 "Plachet, show Mlle. Charbeu to her room and see what she knows about a certain flower I have much curiosity in."
"Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
"I asked you a question!"
"Why don't you answer me?"
"You wanted an answer?  I'm sorry sir, I thought that you were stating a common question that many people seem to ask."
 Estella repressed a smile. She had overheard Inspector de Remney give Plachet instructions not to physically harm her.  She wasn't sure why, but it gave her an excellent chance to test her captor's limits.  Plachet had been yelling at her for over an hour and it sounded like he was getting horse.   It would've been amusing if she hadn't been tied to a chair in a locked room, captive to a bunch of French spies.  
"Yes I want an answer." Plachet's voice quieted to a much more effectively threatening whisper.  "For the last time I am not talking about spies or colors or herbal remedies or religious symbols of a flower called the Scarlet Pimpernel.  I do not want to know what it tastes like, where it blooms, in what type of climate it grows, or who wore one in their hair during some damned marquis's winter masquerade ball.  I want to know the Christian name of the *MAN* who has been smuggling French criminals over the boarder into England and who just *HAPPENS* to call himself the Scarlet Pimpernel."  
"Oh, I see what you're asking.  You want to know the name of the man who calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel, right?"
The guard was quite obviously at the end of his rope and he began to pace excitedly back and forth across the room.  "Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
"That's an easy question to answer sir.  Maybe if you had put it that clearly an hour ago we would've been done by now.  This reminds me of a story that my cousin once told me two years ago. . . or was it three. . .no, it must've been two years ago because that was when. . ."
"Answer the question!"
"Which question?"  
      The guard muffled an infuriated cry of exasperation and grabbed Estella's shoulder, roughly dragging her, still attached to the chair, over to the far side of the room.
 "I don't give a damn what Inspector de Remney says, if you don't answer my question right this minute, I will gut you alive."
"You must be very strong to be able to pull me across the room like that. I don't think anyone has ever dragged me across a room tied to a chair before.  It's almost romantic." Estella smiled disarmingly.
"Thank you, now would you please tell me who the Scarlet Pimpernel is?" Plachet's voice held a mocking politeness as he struggled to control himself.
"Why?  You're in league with him aren't you?"
"Why then, will you not answer my question?'
"Because I don't know the answer."
"Yes you do!  You said yourself that it would be simple to answer my question!" Plachet's voice raised triumphantly, certain that he had pinned Estella in her own words.
"I said that it would be simple because I do not know the answer."
Estella paused then continued her explanation as if she were talking to a very slow child.  " It would've been difficult had I known who the Pimpernel was because I'd have to debate whether or not to tell the truth.  I am a very honest person you know, and I dislike lying."
 Plachet threw his arms up in the air and stormed out of the room, defeated.  Only when left to herself did Estella let out a small laugh.  She needed it.  
  All though that bizarre interview she had been testing the ropes that bound her to the chair but they were simply too tight to work with.  Plachet may not have known anything about questioning but he did know how to tie firm knots.  It was roughly midday and the time she had left was slowly dwindling.  If she could just reach further up her opposite sleeve then she'd be able to make short work of the ropes with her remaining knife but as it was, she was just a few short inches from escape. She surveyed the room, searching for something, that might free her from her bond.  The walls were bare of any hooks and the table in the room was circular. The situation was beginning to look more and more hopeless.
  "Ahh Mlle. Charbeu it seems that you've managed to work poor Plachet into quite a state." Inspector Remney glided into the room in much the same way Eve's famous snake must've glided through the branches of the tree of the forbidden fruit.  "He's quite upset at you, but then he is an idiot.  I didn't expect for him to gain any useful information.  I just find that guards do their job much better when they think that they have a mission or. . ." the Inspector flashed a reptilian smile, ". . .when they feel very strongly about their charges.  In any case, he'll not soon forget you."
  "I'm flattered," Estella shifted uncomfortably, "but why are you bothering to tell me?  I really don't care.  You're going to kill me shortly anyways, right?"    
            "Oh?  Who said anything about killing?" the Inspector absentmindedly toyed with a ring on his right hand, then began pacing the room. "No, Marie or should I say Estella?  When I first saw you, I knew that we had met before but I couldn't remember where.  It all became clear when Plachet relayed the conversation you two had.  The twisting of the questions, the mention of the winter ball, everything fell into place.  I still don't remember everything, just that, for some reason or other Chauvelin took an interest in you.  I can't kill you now, not without knowing exactly what he wanted your for.  It's a good thing that he's arriving later on tonight, or keeping you alive could get seriously complicated."
  "Chauvelin is coming tonight?"  Estella began to feel dizzy and fought to keep the tremor out of her voice.
  "Yes.  He rather likes to be present at these bigger events, or did you know that already?"  Inspector Remney paused then looked piercingly at Estella.  "I'm not going to bother to question you.  It would be a waste of my time."  
    "Well since it seems I'm going to be alive for a while, would you mind loosening these ropes.  They aren't very comfortable."  Estella attempted a crooked smile.
  Remney smiled back.  "If you don't mind giving me the knife that you have hidden up your right hand sleeve.  Neither of us would like you trying something foolish."  
  Estella tried to keep her mouth from dropping open.  This couldn't be just any ordinary inspector.  She had made no movements toward the knife when he was in the room and it was well hidden from view.  She struggled to produce an offhanded laugh.  "Sounds fair enough to me."
  With one quick motion Inspector Remney cut the ropes and slipped the knife from her sleeve.  Estella bit her tongue to keep from uttering an exclamation.  If she hadn't been expecting him to take her knife she would never have noticed the slight motion of fabric that was the only signal it was being removed.  The inspector bowed and flourished the knife before tucking it into his cape.  "Just a little trick I learnt from an old prisoner I met in my younger years.  Remember it and forget about escape."  Then almost as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.
  Night came quickly, too quickly for Estella.  After analyzing every square inch of the room she was unable to find anything of help.  The window was not barred but it was too small for her to fit through.  The room was empty except for the table, two chairs and medium sized barrels of something or other.  Plachet sat fuming outside her doorway alert to every move she made and more than once he had entered looking dumbly threatening.  His presence further limited her options.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing for her to work with.  
  She had requested that the fireplace be lit, but not unexpectedly, that request was denied.  Instead she was allowed one candle with a meal of tough bread and wine which she ignored despite her growling stomach. Drugging was a simple and easy way to keep a difficult captive quiet.
  Inspector Remney had not visited her again, and Estella was glad for that small blessing.  She couldn't feel anything but edgy while around him. Thinking hard she tried to remember where exactly she had seen him, but turned up with nothing.  After a good half hour of hard thought, she gave up.  If she had seen him anywhere it was only in passing, but it seemed that was all he needed.  She shuddered.  He was just too good.    
  She stood up and began pacing the room in agitation.  How did he know that she was a spy?  Where had he seen her before?  How could she complete her mission?  Could she complete it alive?  Doubt began to set in and she leaned against the stone fireplace deep in thought.  If there was just some way for her to light the fire in that room and be sure that Plachet wouldn't raise the alarm before the it was fully underway.  What she needed was a diversion.
   As she looked over the room, an idea nagged at her brain.  The barrels, what were in them?   Wasting no time she strode over to the barrels and pulled the corks out.  She stuck her finger in the hole and found that both were filled with some kind of bad wine, probably used for cooking. Suddenly she knew what she had to do.
 An instant later he was inside the room.
  "What do you want?"
  Plachet's tone was bitter, and it was clear that he had been brooding over his failure all that afternoon.
  Estella put on her most mournfully defeated face and tried to summon tears.
  "I can't do this anymore.  I am a French citizen.  I love my country. I was only doing what my English lover told me to do, but now I understand that he was just using me.  I want to tell Inspector Remney the truth.  I want to tell him everything I know.  Please get him for me.  Tell him I need to talk to him.  Tell him I don't want to help the Scarlet Pimpernel anymore. Please?"  
 The last word came out as a half sob, utterly confusing Plachet.  For a moment he hesitated, but as Estella began to weep he made up his mind.  A second later he was out the door and bolting it, two more seconds and his steps could be heard on the stairs.
  Estella moved quickly.  She had seen the Inspector walking outside and that gave her time, but not much.   Using all of her strength she moved the table to the door and propped it on it's side.  It was surprisingly heavy, and Estella to smiled with approval.  The table wouldn't keep anyone out for long but it would provide more precious time.  Moments later she was drenching the room with wine.   Her hands began to shake. It wouldn't be long now.
The wine splashed on the floor, sounding like a waterfall in the quiet inn.
As she reached for the candle a clatter of hooves rang on the street outside.  She stopped short, holding her breath.  A familiar voice, only a murmur but still recognizable seemed to echo through the room. Chauvelin.   Estella shook the spell and returned to her task with renewed vigor. Almost defiantly, she pulled fragment of paper from her sleeve and lit it in a particularly wine-drenched corner of the room.
The flame burned slowly at first, then began to blaze with a bright intensely. Estella didn't wait to see what would happen.  Darting to the fire chimney she ducked inside and began to climb.  The rough rocks scraped her knuckles and back, but also gave her valuable foot holds.  Her hands began to sweat, making the soot just slippery enough to be dangerous. Then the smoke started.  
At first she was relieved that her plan was working but as she climbed, it began to burn and choke her.  Midway up she could hear men banging at the door.  She was climbing fast but she began to climb still faster.  Angry words drifted up the chimney along with the smoke and Estella was beginning to tire.  There was only a little way to go.  With grim determination, she forced herself upwards.  
With a hacking cough, Estella pulled herself out of the chimney.  The fire was already beginning to lick at the roof and cold reality slowly dawned on Estella.  She was trapped. There were no buildings within jumping distance and the stable was on the other side of the house.  Her only escape lay in the tall tree that she had admired that morning, but that route would land her in the front courtyard, in full view of all the escaping spies. Unless. . .unless she didn't climb down.  
With a great amount of fear, Estella inched to the edge of the roof and grabbed the branch closet to her, praying that it would be strong enough to support her weight.  Grasping another branch above her, she stepped out onto a lower limb and half walked, half crawled towards the center of the tree.  After what seemed like an eternity she found herself sitting on a sturdy branch, away from the inn, and half hidden by the autumn leaves.  The spot she held gave her an excellent view of the front door that she almost wished she didn't have.  
The fire had spread and now the entire upper floor of the inn was burning. Neighbors were beginning to wake up and it would only be a matter of time before the alarm was given. Estella bit her lip nervously.  If the officials found her in the tree in this state she might as well be back in the flaming inn.  She would have to be questioned and detained and who knew what would happen then?  
She began to move downward but the opening of the front door stopped her. She heard the angry swears of Plachet and the other guard mixing with the whine of Pierre in such great clarity it surprised her.
 She tilted her head to get a better view.  They were carrying out a man who looked dead or nearly so but she couldn't make out the face.  Two other men strode out the door a moment later, arguing softly.
"She couldn't have gone far.  We can still catch her."
"Citizen, if we don't leave now we'll be the ones who are caught.  You must remember this isn't France and I don't believe the authorities will be sympathetic to our side of the story."
The first man walked forward until he stopped directly underneath Estella's branch.  
"I need to find that girl."
The second man stepped behind the first and lowered his voice so that Estella had to strain to make out the words.  "Yes, but have you forgotten that France needs to find the Pimpernel. It won't succeed with you as a prison in this dreary land.  We'll find her later.  There is always time."
"You're right.  We better leave now, I think they shall be giving the alarm soon."
As if on cue, fire bells began to ring and the first man abruptly dashed off towards the stables.  The second stood underneath the tree for a moment then looked up, almost directly at Estella.
 She didn't have to hold her breath because she had virtually stopped breathing from the time the two had walked out the door.  He stood staring up towards her so long that Estella feared that she had been caught again.
Was it a trick of the light?  Had something fallen in Inspector Remney's eye?  Did she imagine it?  Estella didn't know.  All she knew was, for a moment it seemed like he focused in on her, winked and was gone.  She didn't dare venture down until she heard the sound of horses hooves on cobblestone fading into the distance.  Only then did she stretch her legs and climb to the ground.  
A crowd was beginning to form, but no one had noticed her yet.  Silently she prayed that no one would ask her why she had dropped out of a tree. Slowly, ever so slowly, she slipped to the fence and climbed over. Perhaps she would never had been noticed if it hadn't been for a police officer who lived a short ways from the inn, and had arrived early.  
"You there, girl, come here!"  
It was too late.  Estella had darted off an alley and the policeman was too tired to try to chase her.  Still, he made a mental note of it and when reporting the incident to his supervisor, he exaggerated much.
The next evening a group of Gypsies slipped into the  town.  They spoke little English except for one who seemed to be their leader.  When they arrived at the ruins of the Fox and Grapes they began to speak amongst themselves quite loudly for several minutes.  The leader shook his head then approached a woman walking past the inn.    
      "Madam, do you know what has happened to the Fox and Grapes?"
 The gypsy's accent was so thick that the woman had to ask him to repeat himself.  
"Oh, the Fox and Grapes?  Last night it burned down.  Some girl was seen running away and the police are searching for her now." The woman began to walk off at a brisk pace.
"Were the Taylors killed?"
The gypsy's eye held a strange look that kept the woman from ignoring him.  This confused the woman enough to take the bite out of her words.
"You didn't hear then?  The Taylors have been dead for nearly two weeks. They died of natural causes, or so the newspaper says."
"Thank you."
The gypsy bowed.  Half an hour later, no one except for that one woman remembered  that there had even been gypsy travelers in the town that day.
The man who called himself Inspector Remney paced the floor of a room in a ship bound for France.  It was a small room 17 paces wide and 27 paces long, or rather 27 and a half pace.  He had checked the paces three times and was working on his forth.  
14. . .15 . . .something was bothering him. . .16. . .17. . .something that he had never done before. Yes it was exactly 17 paces wide.
 1. . .2 . . .3 . . .He had just done a most unprofessional thing.   When he had seen the girl in the tree, he should've told Chauvelin immediately.  She was helping the Pimpernel, that much was certain and she probably had some very important information on him.  Why had he let her go?  10. . .11 . . .12. . .She wasn't pretty or charming, in fact she was quite annoying.  19. . .20. . .21. . .
Annoying that was it.  She would've been a problem to carry along with them, and Chauvelin would've insisted that they did.  Most unreasonable for a man who was normally reason personified.  24. . .25. . .But there would be another time.  He would see to it that there would be more chances to run into that girl . . .26. . .27. . .and one half.  Everything comes to those who wait.
The End    

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