+~Life's Just Begun~+

Chapter One: The Handkerchief

 "O God, our help in ages past . . ."
   Isabella dutifully, if softly, sang the words of the hymn with the rest of the congregation. She was quickly learning the customs of these English worship services, so different from those she had attended as a child, before the Republic had emerged to abolish Christianity. Indeed, she was becoming more and more English every day . . . and she considered that extremely favorable. The excesses of the Revolution had made her ashamed of her French heritage; France was not what she was. She was not something to be proud of anymore.
   ". . . Thy saints have dwelt secure . . ."
   Her seat in the back was advantageous, for she could see almost everything and everyone. Isabella was an observer. She did not mind sitting in the back of the sanctuary with the rest of the common people; it made it easier to watch people.
   Looking then at the lords and ladies in the front, Isabella saw many familiar faces: Lord and Lady Hastings, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and his wife Suzanne, Lord Tony Dewhurst, nearly all the members of the League could be seen amongst the high-born crowd. She also saw many fellow Guild members, not only among the elite, but in the back with the plebian crowd as well. And far away from her, nearly on the very front bench, she saw Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife Marguerite, undoubtedly the most elite among the congregation. She allowed her eyes to rest on him unconsciously in admiration. Such a brave man . . .
   "Be Thou our guard while life shall last, And our eternal home."
   The hymn came to a close, and Isabella silently received the benediction before preparing to leave. As she stepped into the aisle, her handkerchief dropped from her hand and floated down to the floor. Embarrassed, she stooped to retrieve it. Before she could reach it, however, another hand closed over it. Following it up, she found herself face to face with a handsome young man, obviously an aristocrat. She stood up nervously and curtsied to him as elegantly and she could, not daring to speak.
   "I believe this belongs to you, miss," the young man said with a smile. Finding her voice at last, Isabella replied,
   "Thank you, sir."
   She did not know what to call him, and she dared not ask. She could not trust herself to say any more than that. The two stood for a moment in uncomfortable silence.
   Isabella, you dolt, she thought, why are you still standing here? He must think you ill-bred and presumptuous!
   The young man broke the silence. 
"I'm sorry, I haven't yet introduced myself. I am Sir James Whitsfield. What is your name, miss?" he asked with a friendly smile.
   "Mademoiselle Isabella de Roche, my lord," she answered with another nervous curtsey.
   "You are French, then?"
   Isabella sighed sadly. "Yes, my lord."
   "You do not sound very happy about that fact, mademoiselle," Sir James replied.
   "If my lord would remember what France represents in these days, he might understand why I am not proud to be considered French," Isabella said, unaware of the bitter tone that had crept into her voice.
   "Yes, mademoiselle. I see." Sir James decided it was best not to bring up the subject again. He was pleasantly surprised at the girl's intelligence. And for some strange reason, he could not seem to stop looking at her face . . .
They stepped outside and watched the congregation disperse. Isabella was too shy to speak to Sir James, but still she did not want to leave this young man's charming presence . . .
   "Do you have an escort home, mademoiselle?" he suddenly asked. Isabella was more than surprised.
   "I usually walk, my lord. It is not far."
   "I would be honored if you would share my coach."
   "It is not proper, my lord! My position is nowhere near your social class. It would not be fitting for you to share your coach with a plebian such as I," Isabella replied in shock.
   And yet I want to so much . . . anything to be with him a little while longer . . .
   "Nonsense, mademoiselle. I insist. You cannot possibly think of walking home - it is so cold today."
   "But, my lord, it would not be right for you to admit a young lady to your coach unaccompanied," Isabella reluctantly said.
   "Alas, mademoiselle, you have no need for fear! My sister will accompany us, so you will have a chaperone," he replied, almost sadly. "So you see, you have run out of protests! You must share my coach now, unless you would rather not?" 
He looked at Isabella anxiously.
   "As you say, my lord." 
Isabella, on her part, was quite happy with the way the situation had turned out. It was rather cold today . . . and she could spend a few more minutes with Sir James if she shared his coach. She felt a strange attraction to him . . .
   "Ah, there she is! Anne, you must meet Mademoiselle Isabella de Roche. I have invited her to share our coach to take her home, as she must walk otherwise," Sir James exclaimed as a slight young woman approached. It seemed as though breathing took all the strength she possessed.
   "Good afternoon, mademoiselle," she said softly, then pursed her lips together. She said not a word to Isabella the rest of the afternoon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
   "Thank you for sharing your coach with me, my lord," Isabella said as Sir Jams helped her down in front of the small townhouse that one of the League members had provided for her when she was brought to England. It was small, yes, only a few rooms where she and her friend Angele lived, but it was another thing she was grateful to the Scarlet Pimpernel for - one of the very reasons she joined the Guild.
   "Not at all, mademoiselle. It was a pleasure - for both of us," Sir James said quickly, glancing back at Anne. "I hope to see you again soon. Will you, perhaps, be at Lord Hastings' ball next Thursday?" he ventured tenatively.
   Isabella was astonished. He wished to see her again! Somehow she felt this was not common politeness on his part . . .
   "Yes, my lord, I will." 
All the members of the Guild and League had been invited, even those outside of the aristocracy. "Will I see you there?"
   "Most definitely, mademoiselle," he said softly, bending low to kiss her hand, as if she were a lady. "Most definitely. Goodbye, mademoiselle."
   "Goodbye, my lord," she managed to say. She stood there, in front of the townhouse, watching the coach drive away, then went in, meeting Angele in the front hall.
   "Cherie, what is wrong?" Angele asked, confused at the strange look on Isabella's face.
   Isabella sighed. "He is an extraordinary man, Angele . . ."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
   Sir James and his sister rode along in silence. Finally Anne spoke up.
   "What were you thinking, James?" she asked quietly, in exasperation.
   "What do you mean, Anne?"
   "Inviting a common girl to share our coach. People will talk, James!"
   Sir James sighed. Anne was a sweet girl, but she always was too worried about appearances. "The girl is charming, Anne. Quite charming," he added with a little smile. "I see no disgrace in inviting her to share our coach. We have more than enough room, and she would have had to walk if I had not. You know how cold it is today. You might even call it an act of charity."
   Now it was Anne's turn to sigh. "It just isn't proper, James."
   Sir James hadn't heard. His thoughts had wandered to the other girl that had spoken those words, and her enchanting brown eyes . . .

Chapter 2: Caught in the Middle

Mlle. de Roche,
   I would like to request your company tomorrow afternoon at three o'clock at the Hastings home. Please be prompt.
                                                               Lady Hastings

   The note was sealed with a little flower - a violet.
   Isabella understood the note immediately. It was a Guild meeting, and it was urgent. She looked around to make sure she was alone, and quickly tossed the note into the fireplace and watched to make sure it burned without leaving a trace. Something was seriously wrong . . .
   She arrived at the house five minutes early the next day. She met the Hastings' butler at the door.
   "Bonjour, Richard," she said.
   "Good afternoon, mademoiselle. I assume you know the way?"
   "Yes, thank you. Don't trouble yourself - I'll go back alone."
   She made her way to the parlor and took her accustomed seat in the back. The room was full of nervous chatter. Presently Lady Hastings stood, and the room instantly fell silent.
   "My friends, we have an emergency on our hands," she began. "The Comte de Boulete has unexpectedly been arrested in Paris. In a matter of days, he will be sentenced to the guillotine. The League was not expecting this; they had planned to get the Comte out of France sometime next month. Therefore, with Lord Hastings' consent, the Pimpernel has called an emergency League meeting to take place during our ball tomorrow night, since all available League members will be present. However, such a thing is not easy to hide at a crowded social function. We must make sure this meeting goes undetected and undisturbed. We know not what spies and informers of the Revolutionary Government may be about, and so we can trust no one but ourselves, I am afraid. Even a friend might be a French spy in disguise."
   Lady Hastings began to give out assignments to various Guild members - where to stand, what areas to patrol, and so forth. Isabella vaguely wondered what her assignment would be, and whether or not she would be able to see Sir James Whitsfield at the ball after all. Would her assignment prevent her from doing so? Could she even trust Sir James? He might be a spy as well, masquerading as an English lord. She saw his face in her mind, and wondered whether that might be the face of a traitor or revolutionary.
   Pull yourself together! she told herself. You can't go through life suspecting everyone you meet of ulterior motives. Still . . . it doesn't pay to be careless . . .
   "Mlle. de Roche," she heard Lady Hastings say, "you will act as lookout in the hall directly opposite the stairs. From there you should have an unobstructed view of the staircase. As the meeting is to take place in my lord Timothy's study upstairs, anyone wishing to interrupt or investigate that meeting then must pass you. As a signal to us all that the meeting has begun, Timothy will go up last of all. After he goes up to the study, you must not let anyone else ascend the stairs until they all come back down, by ones or twos so as not to arouse any suspicions."
   Isabella nodded in reply. Lady Hastings then lowered her voice and spoke more urgently.
   "Isabella, you are the last of us anyone must pass to get to that meeting. You must use any means necessary to prevent them from reaching the study. You may have to use violence." She looked hard at Isabella in concern. "Are you sure you can do this? If you would rather not take this assignment, I can assign one of the men to take your place, or even to accompany you. You don't have to do it alone."
   Isabella sighed thoughtfully. It certainly would be nice not to have to worry about carrying such a large responsibility. With a smaller assignment she might have more time to spend with Sir James. But what about next time? The next time she was given a big assignment, she might not have such a cushion to fall back upon. To give this up would only be to delay the inevitable. Sooner or later she would have to take on a heavy responsibility such as this.
   Lady Hastings trusted her. That was evident; if not, she wouldn't have given Isabella such a large assignment in the first place. For some reason, Isabella felt that if she shirked her duty now, she would lose that trust. Or was it her self-respect that she would lose? Either way, she knew what her answer must be.
   "Lady Hastings, you have trusted me with this assignment. To decline it would be to deny your authority as our leader. If you trust me this much, I must accept it and do what I can."
   Lady Hastings smiled a bit uncertainly. "All right, Isabella, if you're sure. Now," she said, addressing the group, "you all have your instructions. Remember to be discreet and inconspicuous. No one must know that we are preventing people from reaching the study. I need not tell you that secrecy is important with League members as well. When they start to move, you can move to your positions, but do not let them know what you are doing. Move slowly; act nonchalant. And trust no one."
   Isabella looked around the room. Every face was stricken with worry, and for once, no one spoke a word as the meeting came to a close.    
Isabella absentmindedly bid farewell to Lady Hastings and left the house. Her mind was full of musings and unanswered questions. Vaguely she noticed that the meeting had run longer than she first thought. The winter day was already growing dark; she guessed it to be about four-thirty. And like the day, Isabella's mood was growing darker.
   "Trust no one," Lady Hastings had said. No one meant Sir James as well. How ironic; she finally met an Englishman outside of the Guild who she felt she could trust, and the next thing she knew she was told not to trust him. Can anyone in this world be trusted anymore? she wondered. Sir James did not seem to be the traitorous kind; but, then again, the best spies don't seem to be spies at all. Her heart wanted so much to trust him, and yet her brain warned her to be cautious of him.
   She let herself in the door of the townhouse and wearily collapsed on the couch in the sitting room.
   When did everything get so complicated? she asked herself, as she began to sob in frustration.

It's Only Love

"Cherie, you are beautiful!"
Isabella turned from the mirror to see Angele in the doorway, smiling appreciatively. She turned back to the mirror and took another look. She was dressed in her very finest, a pale violet gown with delicate embroidery on the bodice and full skirts enhanced by thick petticoats, but she was not beautiful. However, Isabella was pleased with her appearance. She looked refined enough to appear at a ball without embarrassment, yet her attire clearly defined her social position as separate from the aristocratic lords and ladies.
"Angele, you are much too kind. I am not beautiful; only just fine enough for the Hastings' ball."
Angele frowned at her friend's indifference.
"Isabella, you are truly lucky to have Lady Hastings as your friend. You have connections through her to the high society of London. Why, just look--you, a common French girl, have been invited to a society ball, where the Prince Regent himself might even be in attendance! Sometimes I wonder if you appreciate your luck."
There's more than luck to it, Angele, Isabella thought, but of course said nothing. Angele, as everyone else in England, knew nothing about the Violet Guild. Isabella, when she was assigned to missions in France, told her that she was visiting old friends in the country. Indeed, Angele was surprised at the number of English friends Isabella had.
Lady Hastings is more than a connection--she is my leader, whom I would trust with my life. Trust--that's what it is. Trust. It seemed to be a very important word these days.
Isabella felt shaky inside. She was not a woman of the stage, but she knew all the same that she was feeling stage fright. She was going to play a part tonight, and there was more resting on her performance than the approval of a fickle audience. On her shoulders were resting the lives of twenty men, including that of the Scarlet Pimpernel himself. It was better if she didn't think about it, or her nerves might get the better of her.
There was a knock at the door. Angele rushed to answer it, as Isabella attached a fine silver necklace around her neck. Angele opened the door, and was astonished to find a man in fine evening clothes standing on the step. She didn't know quite who he was, but she could see he was an aristocrat, and she recognized him as the man who brought Isabella home last Sunday.
"Good evening, mademoiselle," he said quietly and cordially. "Would you please inquire if Mlle. de Roche is free to see Sir James Whitsfield?"
"Of--of course, my lord. Sit down, please. I'll see if she is ready." Angele nervously showed Sir James into the small parlor, then rushed up to Isabella's dressing room.
"Cherie, there is a Sir James Whitsfield here to see you!" she gasped.
Isabella started, alarmed. Why was he here? Was something wrong? She rushed down to the parlor. Sir James stood when she came in.
"Yes, my lord? You came to see me?" she asked carefully.
"It is nice to see you again, mademoiselle," he said with a smile. "I remember you said you would be attending Lord Hastings' ball tonight, and I wondered . . ."
He hesitated for a moment, then continued somewhat awkwardly. "Do you have an escort tonight, mademoiselle?"
"Why, no, my lord, I was going to attend with friends."
"Then, would you kindly accept my escort?" He seemed nervous. Isabella was nervous, too, and this time not about the assignment.
"I would gladly accept your kind offer, my lord," she managed to say.
Sir James smiled, relieved. "Are you ready to leave, mademoiselle?" he asked, offering her his arm.
"Yes, my lord," Isabella answered, in a daze, as she took it and Sir James led her out to the carriage, smiling at her all the way. Angele watched from the doorway, open-mouthed, as they drove away.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The ball was a glorious function. Nearly all of fashionable society was there; why, even the Prince Regent was in attendance, as Angele had said. But Lord and Lady Hastings were not revelling in their success this evening. There were more pressing matters on their minds.
Isabella, for the moment at least, was blissfully happy. She didn't even mind the stares she had earned, entering on Sir James' arm, stares of indignation from some of the guests, stares of surprise from the Guild members there. The only stare she seemed to care about was Sir James'. She greeted her host and hostess with a graceful curtsey--she had been practicing Society manners for several months, and was steadily improving. As she did so, she gave Lady Hastings a nervous smile, trying to assure herself of her confidence. Lady Hastings stepped forward to kiss Isabella gently on the cheek, and whispered a single sentence quickly into her ear.
"I believe in you, Isabella."
Dear Lady Eliza! She had instantly surmised Isabella's worries. Isabella began to feel a little more confident, and she gave Lady Hastings a grateful smile.
The musicians began a gavotte in the next room. Sir James turned to Isabella.
"Mademoiselle de Roche, may I have the first dance?"
Isabella smiled shyly, blushing. "Of course, my lord," she said with a curtsey.
Sir James led her into the dancing room, and they joined the couples in the dance.
"Mademoiselle, you are always so formal with me," he said.
"That is because of our separate social stations, my lord."
"Call me James, please, and may I call you Isabella? I would like us to be on less formal terms."
"Why, yes, my--James, you may call me Isabella," she said nervously. Was it possible he might feel love for her? As she was beginning to understand she felt for him?
Calm down, Isabella! He probably just wants to be friends.
But as their conversation progressed, Isabella began to feel that Sir James was feeling more than friendship for her. His conversation was pleasant, more than polite. He was frank with her about his past, and his openness led her to tell him about her past in France. He was from a wealthy, aristocratic family, of course, and his parents died when he was still a youth. He had no living relatives, save his sister Anne. He met Sir Andrew Ffoulkes as a boy, and they had been friends ever since.
A definite plus on his side. Isabella found herself telling him all about herself--how she had grown up the daughter of a peasant shopkeeper, how she had embraced the Revolution's ideals, then how she turned away in disgust when the Reign of Terror began. She even told him how she had been saved from the guillotine herself and brought to England.
"I've been living in our townhouse ever since," she finished as the dance ended. "It's small, but quite comfortable. Angele and I don't need much."
"Isabella, do you mind if we step out onto the balcony and talk?" Sir James asked as the crowd began to grow stifling. "We could have more privacy there, I believe."
She nodded. "It is crowded in here." Her initial shyness had melted away.
Out on the balcony, Isabella took in a deep breath of fresh air.
"How sweet the air seems! The ball room is stuffy as well as crowded."
She turned to find Sir James gazing at her with clear blue eyes. She blushed, turning away quickly. He dropped his gaze in shame.
"Forgive me, Isabella, but I do adore looking at you." He moved closer and took her arm gently. "I can't explain it, but gazing at your beauty makes me feel so happy."
He spoke awkwardly, as if he knew what he wanted to say, but not how to say it. Isabella blushed a deeper red, embarrassed.
"Please, James, you needn't say that. I am not beautiful."
"You are beautiful to me, Isabella."
In wonder, Isabella looked up into his eyes. They were filled with a tender light, and she instinctively knew her own eyes looked much the same. He spoke again, more softly this time, and wth greater ease.
"Isabella, I have not known you for very long at all, but I know, without a doubt, that I love you." Isabella was astonished, at his boldness and his feelings.
"Is it possible, James?" she wondered aloud.
"Is what possible?" he asked, worriedly. "Is it possible that you might feel for me the same love that I feel for you?"
"Oh, Isabella, do you mean--"
"Yes, James. I wasn't sure at first, but now I am. I love you," she said simply.
Silently he reached downward and touched her cheek, smiling in his gentle way. She began to cry for happiness, and he gently wiped away the tears befroe leaning down slowly and taking her lips with his own. The world stood still, as she allowed him to slip his arms around her waist before she returned his kiss, holding on to him as to her very life. The musicians in the ball room began a minuet, while Isabella and Sir James kissed on the balcony, blissful in each other's arms, bonded together by love.
Go To Chapters Four and Five!

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