The servant looked the sealed note over again. "It is addressed to the brothers Quartermaine, nothing more."
"Who sent it? Is it sealed?"
"By the symbol of what looks like a flower."
Edward and Henry Quartermaine exchanged thrilled, boyish glances and leapt, as one, for the letter. Henry, being lighter and swifter than his sibling, siezed it first, whooping for joy as he did. The servant, a little unnerved, left the room quietly.
"It's from the Pimpernel!" the younger man cried, almost dancing in his eagerness.
"Well, open it, open it, you damn fool! Quickly!"
Suddenly remembering himself, Henry tore the seal and unfolded the letter with quivering hands. He read aloud:
"'Gentlemen, I trust you remember me from Sir Percival's dinner party a few weeks back. I have kept your pledge to loyalty in mind since then, and now I have need of that pledge. In fact, I am most fortunate to have such ambitious young men as you willing to aid me in my often difficult quest.'"
"Just think!" cried Edward gaily. "The brothers Quartermaine in league with the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
Henry let out another whoop and continued to read.
"'You are, I have learned, still resident at the home of Sir Percival Blakeney, bart.. You have known him since boyhood, as I gathered from our first meeting at his table that evening, and it does, in a certain sense, pain me to have to communicate with you about him in this manner.'"
"About Percy? What could he mean?" Edward asked, his brow suddenly furrowed with concern.
"Hush up and listen:
'Some rather dismaying information has, of late, fallen into my hands regarding your friend. Some time ago, it appears, at the dawn of Sir Percival's marriage to Mlle. Marguerite St. Juste, the lady was discovered to have denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr of France and accused him of treason. This perhaps reckless action on her part resulted in the deaths of the unfortunate Marquis and his entire family at the guillotine.'
"St. Cyr . . . I've heard mention of that name before. It was kept in our files back in London, I believe," Edward remarked quietly. "You remember what a tragedy it was, when they were executed, the St. Cyrs?"
"Of course, a terrible tragedy. Now let me finish.
'Stemming from this bitter truth, the idea grew that Lady Blakeney had, furthermore, been an active spy for the Republic of France prior to her wedding and perhaps even after. As a note, I was neither able to confirm nor prove this theory otherwise. In short, to protect his beloved wife's honor, Sir Percival soon succumbed to blackmail by the French Republic.'"
"Scandalous!" Edward exclaimed.
"Brother, dear, would you kindly shut up?" Henry snapped, more than eager to read on. Edward lapsed into silence.
"'For almost a year now, Sir Percival has used his mammoth personal funds to placate numerous expenses of the Revolution, which, as we all know, is ill-financed anyway.'"
Henry looked up from the letter, aghast. "Of course . . . but . . . can this be true?"
"Shut up and read!" Edward cried.
"'I believe that, without Sir Percival's dependable support, the Revolution may crumble. Without the abundant flow of his English pounds to promote the flow of blood in French streets, more lives can be saved than by any other of my previous ventures.'"
"Read on!" Edward urged. "What does he want us to do?"
"I'm getting there!
'Talking to him will do no good; any fool or even a man of sense would deny such a charge. He and his wife must be removed from the country immediately and his funds assumed by another. I have a plan which I shall communicate to you tomorrow morning. In the meantime, speak not a word to your friend Percy of this. Not only will he deny it automatically, but he will immediately be on his guard. You will know he suspects the two of you if he tries to convince you that he himself is the true Scarlet Pimpernel.'"
A pause. "Fool!" spat Henry, disgusted. "How could he claim such a stupid thing? He has no proof!"
"Percy's changed, I think, Henry," Edward said sadly, shaking his head. "If this letter is true, it would seem that we've severely misjudged him."
"It's a terrible pity. He could have made such an incredible man of himself," said Henry, shaking his head.
"Well . . . read on!"
"'This man is a tricky one. Keep a sharp eye on him, and let him go nowhere far until our plan of tomorrow is carried out.' And it is signed, at the end, by the drawn symbol of a small flower. Incredible!" Henry handed the letter to his brother and allowed him, in turn, to peruse it.
"Well then . . . what do we do?" Edward said thoughtfully, sounding rather painfully torn on the inside.
"What do you mean, sir?" Henry asked hurriedly. "We will do what justice commands of us!"
"Can you be so hasty?" Edward reprimanded sharply. "Which do we choose? Friendship . . . or humanity?"
Then, lost in his ponderings, Edward Quartermaine paced coldly away from his brother and turned to consult his conscience and his moral senses of justice.
"Gentlemen, I have so many difficulties in my life. I think I am quickly, ever so quickly, losing control, and in this time of trouble, I feel that I can turn to no one . . . but you."
The brothers exchanged uncomfortable glances. As was the daily agenda, Percy had invited his friends to tea that afternoon with himself, Marguerite, and Armand, who was, at the moment, absent, gone out of town that morning with Ozzy, Sir Andrew, and Lord Dewhurst in an attempt to gain further information on the fates the the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Percy had called the brothers to meet him a little earlier than usual, so that he could speak to them alone; they could tell by the agitation of his step that he had something of extreme importance to discuss with them, which unnerved them even more. Still, Percy looked significantly more . . . well, normal, they supposed, than he had, as of late. Marguerite hadn't been the only one to notice his constant "spookiness" and consequential neglect of his appearance. This morning, he looked at once very calm and immaculate, himself once more, in his claret-colored silk waistcoat, frilled cravat, and contrasting fawn-tinted trousers. In grand style, he looked as though he were out to win a valuable impression.
Although Edward and Henry Quartermaine had at last resolved that following the Pimpernel's instructions was for the best, each man found himself fighting a precarious battle with his own conscience at the moment, and had been since the afternoon of the first note's arrival. Edward fancied himself rather like the biblical Judas Iscariot, doing what he thought best suited the man he loved and those around him, and Henry in turn fancied himself the Shakespearean Brutus, betraying fraternity and committing a miserable crime for the welfare of the big picture.
But neither man felt that he was quite cut out for the part.
"Do continue, Percy," Henry urged, affecting a supportive tone of voice.
Percy smiled a little, encouraged. "I know I can trust you two. Sink me, how glad I am that you came in the first place, just when I needed you the most! I . . . have a rather unusual confession to make."
The parlor was totally silent except for the remote ticking of a clock and the vague chirrup of a bird in a distant tree. Percy paced back and forth, hesitant, until finally, he glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder and stood facing both men directly. In an instant's time, he transformed from the foppish mood he so often assumed and became the Percy the world never knew: bold, imposing, and brilliantly calculating.
"I . . . I'm the Scarlet Pimpernel."
The Quartermaie brothers didn't move, didn't even look at one another. Each man had memorized the Pimpernel's words to the letter:
'You will know he suspects the two of you if he tries to convince you that he himself is the true Scarlet Pimpernel.'
Edward gulped. The frantic, sly flash of his eyes told his younger brother that they must hurry and get this business over with.
Stalling, Henry spoke slowly, imitating deep interest. "Is this . . . true, Percy?"
Percy passed a nervous hand over his eyes. "Why . . yes, gentlemen, of course! You see, it's a very long story, but I . . . I lost my ring to that fool Chauvelin in a skirmish; he had been on my trail for several long months, and had finally succeeded in tracking my men and I down about a month ago, on the Channel. . ."
Percy proceeded, in a panicked hurry, to tell them the entire story, his lips loosened by promises of brotherly support. In a matter of minutes, he had told them everything, from the sentencing of Marguerite and her brother to the guillotine, to that daring seaboard duel on the English Channel, wherein Citizen Chauvelin had so skillfully relieved the Pimpernel of his sword and, in a word, doomed him to the guillotine, to the final outwitting of Chauvelin and Percy's victorious homeward return to England. The brothers listened with both feigned patience and interest, all the while not buying a word of Sir Percy's yarn and thinking, as he supposedly bared his soul to them, that the man had to be sick and ultimately desperate to make up such an inconceivable tale. Still, they didn't contest a word of it. To follow through with the real Pimpernel's orders, the last thing they needed was Sir Percy's suspicion.
Percy, at the close of his story, drew a deep, hesitant breath. "You haven't said a word, gentlemen," he resumed, his dark, handsome eyes pleading as he twisted one lace-draped cuff in nervous circles. "You . . . you don't doubt my sincerity, I trust?"
"No, Percy," Edward replied quietly; the words seemed a brief strain to him. "Of course not."
Percy smiled sheepishly. "Well, then," he said, sitting down and gripping his friends' hands in a brotherly manner, "I thank you for your sympathy, my dear fellows. At last, I am so relieved to have allies in this. But promise me one thing."
"Go on, Percy."
"If Chauvelin tries to use my ring and my seal to communicate with you, and try to turn you against me, please, for your love of me and our friendship, please, don't accept a word of his?"
Edward gulped, wavering a little, but Henry's voice was solemn and resolute. "You can count on us to do the right thing, Percy." And he lapsed into a final, incontestable silence.
Percy's smile fell just a little. He didn't like the sound of Henry Quartermaine's words one bit. Am I too late . . ?
Just then, shattering Percy's bitter thought, Marguerite flounced down the hallway stairs in a flurry of white lace, her dark locks bouncing merrily with each happy step. Percy, his fears forgotten, moved enthusiastically to greet her, his back turned towards his two guests.
Now or never . . .
In the doorway, Percy kissed the beaming Marguerite's hands, her cheek, her forehead, and embraced her tenderly, all the while murmuring in her ear his usual endearments. Neither he nor the lady saw the Quartermaine brothers make their crucial decision.
Then, taking his wife by the hand, Percy led her to her daily seat at the tea table, smiling hopefully once more at his two guests. Edward found himself sweating. Henry half-smiled, rather guiltily, back.
"La, but you look particularly radiant this afternoon, m'dear," said Percy affectionately.
"I should hope so, my darling," Marguerite replied, her voice a bright, coquettish addition to the tense scene at hand. As she spoke she poured a generous serving of tea into each of the four teacups between them. The Quartermaine brothers watched closely.
"I have some very good news for you today."
"But first," Henry interrupted, hurriedly, raising his own teacup in respect, "my brother and I should like to thank the two of you for your hospitality. You don't know how much we've appreciated our stay here."
Enigmatically, Edward nodded and tried to smile.
A little confused, Percy smiled back and raised his own teacup. Marguerite did likewise.
"To our host Percy, then," Edward urged.
Marguerite looked at her husband quixotically, her eyes plainly asking whether or not one should toast with tea. Percy shrugged and drank, smiling at her once more.
Marguerite, charmed by his ever-nonchalant charm, drank too.
"Now then, m'dear, what is it you had to say?" said Percy eagerly, resettling his cup back on the saucer.
Marguerite's eyes glowed, and she paused to draw a long, calming breath. "Well, Percy, you see, I . . . I . . ."
Suddenly he saw her raise one white, shaky hand to her forehead and swoon faintly; he overturned his chair in his haste to reach her side.
"Marguerite! Marguerite, my dearest!"
Stricken, she gripped his outstretched hand and lost consciousness, her head slumping heavily to his shoulder. In his panic, Percy barely noticed the breathless lethargy creeping over him as well.
Holding her, he sank to his knees as the brothers rose slowly to their feet, in the pretense of wanting to help. Percy looked at them, amazed, and only had time to murmur one faint word before succumbing to a looming black oblivion:
Edward and Henry Quartermaine eyed the strange scene at their feet uncertainly for a half a moment, and then sprang into action.
Righting the overturned chairs, Edward shot a pressing glance to his brother. "Henry," he whispered, his respectable, gentlemanly morals lost to those of a murderer, "bring the carriage around to the back. I'll see to them."
Henry nodded and, with a furtive glance over his shoulder, darted from the room.
Left alone, the elder Quartermaine brother moved towards the intertwined heap of the sleeping Percy and his wife with criminal caution. Suddenly, he was terribly unsure. Yes, the Scarlet Pimpernel had told him to do this, had delivered to him and his brother the tiny pellet with which to drug the tea. The Scarlet Pimpernel had wanted this done . . . but did that necessarily make it right? This was what the elder Quartermaine brother, cold with trepidation, pondered as he drew, from concealment in his long velvet coat, a coil of rope and a knife and bound the hands of the inanimate pair. By the time his brother re-entered the parlor, Edward found himself almost slick with nervous sweat.
"The carriage is waiting," Henry gasped, trying to catch his breath after a long run to the hired carriage and back.
"See if you can carry Percy; you're stronger than I, I'll admit."
Without a word, Henry hoisted one of Percy's limp arms around his neck and began to drag the tall man towards one of the parlor's floor-length open windows, the one opening directly into a shady grove scented by the dreams of the past summer. The delightful fragrance, however, didn't serve to soothe the mutual tension that both brothers carried with them.
Edward lifted Marguerite almost without effort and followed; out of fundamental respect, he strove, in his haste, to avoid tripping on the white satin dress, with white lace cresting the shimmering folds like breaking waves, that trailed after them.
The guilty party had specifically requested to take tea in the parlor because they knew that it offered a direct escape route to the Blakeney mansion's shady sideyard. On the well-worn pathway in the grassy expanse just outside the large windows, a dark carriage, hired the previous afternoon by Edward himself, had crept into the shadows beneath a spreading oak tree and now waited discreetly in the shade for the brothers and their hostages, waiting to carry the four that evening to the coast. There, they would be met by the Scarlet Pimpernel himself . . .
At the threshold of the tall window, which had been opened to admit a warm afternoon breeze, Henry, in the lead, halted and surveyed the serene plot of land beyond. The gauze-like curtains of the windows moved softly in the fragrant, stirring air, caressing his face and body with admonishing softness. He shivered. Behind him, Edward, afraid for his soul, began to pray that he would not burn in hell for this act of deceit. Kidnapping not only shattered, with the beat of each passing moment, his blossoming relationship with a wholly-trusting boyhood friend, but it directly rent the dictates of the law he had fought, for the majority of his life, to preserve.
The yard was deserted as the brothers stumbled towards their carriage, moving as fast as their separate burdens would permit. The faint wind cooled the sweat on Edward's furrowed brow as he gently settled Marguerite Blakeney on the carriage seat, shortly to be followed by his brother and Percy, the revolutionary demon himself. Every tree seemed to whisper accusations and every bird seemed to cry in alarm as the carriage sped towards the English coast, and while Edward swallowed hard against his guilt, Henry couldn't suppress a waking feeling of pride. Within a few hours, Citizen Chauvelin would have his arch enemy in the flesh . . . and it was he, Henry Quartermaine, and his elder, less courageous brother, that would make that possible.
Feeling like an archangel pleased with the good works of his own hand, Henry leaned his face a litte out of the carriage window held his head high to the rolling winds of oncoming evening, totally unaware of the infinite webs of chaos he had so unknowingly laid for his most trusting friend, the still man bound and drugged at his elbow.
The one and only Scarlet Pimpernel . . .
Baffled, the newly-arrived Armand St. Juste drew aside from the company of his three friends to watch the unfamiliar carriage sway behind the speed of four black horses. He was about to turn to Lord Dewhurst and call attention to its peculiar presence, and even more peculiar departure, when something caught the in corner of his eye froze every passionate drop of blood in his veins.
He could have recognized Marguerite's face anywhere, even, as it was, almost hidden in the shadows of the carriage---
Without really even knowing what he was doing, Armand seized the reins of one of the carriage horses, a gray one being led home to the stables by an elderly groom, and leapt onto the animal's supple, unsaddled back. With a fierce kick to the horse's sides, he cried a frantic "allez!" and lunged after the fleeing carriage, overturning the startled groom in his tracks.
Ozzy looked helplessly at his friends and asked them if the little Frenchman had lost his mind.
"Well, if we keep standing around gawking at him, we'll never find out!" Lord Dewhurst cried, launching himself onto the back of the nearest steed, also being unsaddled at the moment. He too spurred off.
Shaking their heads, Ozzy and Sir Andrew followed as best as they could; they had to haggle a bit for their horses, and when that didn't work, physical force was always applicable. Sprawled in the dust behind the fleeing men, the flustered stable groom hollered curses after them. Only Ozzy had generousity enough to shout a hurried apology.
Charging forth, Armand knew nothing but that there was something very dark and very sinister being played out, and that the answer lay in the hoofprints of those charging black horses up ahead . . .
Chauvelin fingered the Pimpernel's ring in feverish anticipation.
At any moment, the carriage would come rattling out of the night, its lanterns burning like the eyes of some nightmarish chimera, manifest out of the darkness as though come to claim his soul.
Despite the grimness of the analogy, Chauvelin found his lips taught with a smirk of boyish delight. There are so many fools in the world, he thought to himself, placed here for one express purpose: to bow to the ingenious devices of men like me. In the heavy silence, he almost allowed himself to laugh.
Drawing his cloak closer to his thin frame, seeking what warmth he could, Chauvelin gazed down into the dark, moonlit void below him and saw distant lamps shedding their meager light aboard the deck of Corinthos, a hired vessel rocking gently on the shimmering black sea. She waited just offshore for him, and when he boarded her next, perhaps not until sunrise of the next morning, he would not be alone.
The pungent aroma of salt assailed his nostils from the still waters of the Channel; he breathed deeply, langorously, and closed his eyes.
The rhythmic drum of hoofbeats awakened him moments later, and Chauvelin whirled to see, as expected, the lanterns of the Quartermaine carriage piercing the night like twin ivory blades. Upon the first notion of the carriage's arrival, Chauvelin had thought that he would at last be thrilled by the prospect of arresting the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel . . . but he found that Percy was the furthest thing from his mind as the coach drew near. In the early morning stillness, Chauvelin found his mind permeated by thoughts of Marguerite.
In the domain of reality, he had cast her from his heart long ago . . . it seemed like an eternity since he had last dreamt of her kiss in the sultry evening air. But Chauvelin had loved deeply, far too deeply for a man of his strength and intense pride, and the tides of passion had seared him, clothed his heart in scarred tissue that yielded to no one . . . but Percival Blakeney's wife. No matter how deeply Chauvelin lied to himself, he loved her still. The carriage lights were still but pinpoints on the cobalt horizon, and he felt that he could already breathe the scent of roses in her hair, and touch the fury of the heat that burned where she walked, like a wave. She danced in the mists of his mind and dazzled his senses...she was so near!
And yet so far away...
In great agony, he closed his mind against her intrigues and glared coldly to the stars.
The carriage arrived at the given rendez-vous within ten more minutes, and the crystal silence of early morning was shattered as the Quartermaine brothers recognized the dark figure of their fanciful Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Monsieur!" whispered Henry eagerly. "Monsieur, we've brought them, as you said! They're in the carriage, sleeping, the both of them."
Almost invisibly, Chauvelin nodded. He was not in the mood for this fawning right now; his dreams of Marguerite had left him embittered, and the youthful enthusiasm of the man before him only grated on his nerves.
"Well done, sir," he muttered, his voice fit to freeze the Channel itself, "and again I thank you for your most valiant assistance."
Edward leapt from the carriage then. "Dear me! Dear me, what a ride! I think I shall be sick!" and he sat down on a small, dry patch of bare ground to rest.
The carriage now vacant of the conscious, Chauvelin moved, with impeccable caution, to survey his captives. The pair lay immobile, Percy's tall, rather gangly form draped almost entirely across one seat...and Marguerite sat up, leaning against the carriage door, looking at him.
Chauvelin felt a dagger of sudden humiliation plunge into his heart.
"Well, monsieur, I see that you're gloating over your newest prisoners," she noted quietly, her voice raspy from a long, deep, drug-induced sleep. "How noble of you."
"I . . . I wanted to see if you had arrived safely," he said indignantly.
A fleeting smile crossed her red lips. "You never were much of a liar, Chauvelin. But then you never were a noble man, either."
The words hurt, plunged deep into the pride that she alone had ever been able to wound. With great effort, he donned a weary shroud of stoicism.
"It doesn't matter what you think, anyway," he sighed brusquely, stifling a yawn; he had been awake all night long.
"By dawn, we'll be sailing south, and this time, you won't escape me." "I won't escape death?" she asked icily. "Or I won't escape you?"
Chauvelin's emotional defense crumbled, split throught the keystone. With a quick glance at the Quartermaine brothers, now carrying on a conversation of their own, and at Percy, still apparently sleeping soundly, he threw himself at her feet.
"Marguerite, you torture me! Can't you see that I...I..."
Marguerite pulled gently away from him. "You don't love me, monsieur. You musn't love me. At all costs, you must deny what you think you feel for me. I can feel it too, no matter how you conceal it. It burns inside you. But what you feel, monsieur, is false and must never, not ever, be heeded. It is a lie!"
"No, Marguerite, no. I can feel its sincerity. I can feel it in the very depths of my soul---"
"And it will destroy you!"
I know, Chauvelin thought, his face taut with passion. That's why I trust it.
"Leave me, monsieur," Marguerite chided softly. "We don't know each other anymore."
"It seems we never did."
And she turned herself to look to the stars. Had Chauvelin been alone with her, the conversation would not have ended upon this sour note. No, he would have pried from her lips, from the passions locked away deep within her, the truth that she still loved him too. She had to love him still, in some forgotten corner of her heart and soul. Chauvelin couldn't let himself believe otherwise.
Tearing himself from his reverie, he turned to face his devoted followers, now waiting quietly a few paces away. He pressed his handkerchief to his mouth in an effort to smother the last dying fragments of emotion in his expression and, with words dogged and inwardly miserable, set his plan into action.
Hidden in the shadows, Armand was called upon to summon every ounce of his innate bourgeouis ingenuity. Percy and Marguerite would surely die at Chauvelin's hands...and it was up to him to save them both.
Well, it was up to him, and Dewhurst, and Andrew, and Ozzy. In silence behind him, Armand could almost hear the wheels clunking round in his friends' heads, thinking every bit and mightily as he.
He longed to approach the carriage and have a word with Marguerite or, possibly, his brother-in-law, if only to let them know that they were not alone in this...but the carriage was too heavily guarded, and there was no guarantee that Percy would even be awake. Thus, the only opportunity left to Armand and his companions was to watch and listen...
An hour later, the carriage had been dismissed and Corinthos, determined to carry its precious cargo safely over the Channel, set sail.
The prisoners had been taken to a large room just beneath the deck of the small ship, a room sparsely illuminated by one lamp, fighting the looming night with its diminuitive brightness. Settled on a bench on one corner. Marguerite, almost hidden in the thick folds of a heavy, borrowed black coat, had gone back to sleep, exhausted. Personally, she had already decided that being awake was far worse. At her side Percy, as always, slept like a log and wouldn't be awakened until he saw fit. Chauvelin had fallen asleep likewise, his head rested on his arms on a large wooden table, bolted to the floorboards to prevent movement. The Quartermaine brothers had come along, too, at the faux Pimpernel's insistence, and had gone to bed in the bunks further below deck. For the moment, at least, the night was peaceful.
As the first pale slivers of light began to creep over the sea, Percy began to stir noisily, waking Chauvelin with a start as he did so. With a yawn that sounded more like a roar, he looked up and noted his surroundings with surprising flippancy.
"Oh, hullo, Shovelin'. Fancy seeing you here."
Chauvelin, noting his sarcasm, shook his bedraggled head, and looked at Sir Percy as though he were mad. "You . . . idiot."
Percy smiled back, anxious to hide from his captor the stirring panic inside him. Chauvelin didn't appear to notice this charade, just as he hadn't noticed that Percy hadn't really been sleeping ever since his encounter with Marguerite in the coach. In reality Percy had been quite awake, listening to every word around him and thinking for all he was worth, the wheels in his head turning out the trappings of an idea.
"How long until Paris?" Percy asked, stretching as thoroughly as he could with his hands, as they were, bound.
Chauvelin grinned slyly through his fatigue. "We're not going to Paris, Sir Percival."
"What, what?" Percy responded, with an excellent expression of mock surprise. "Why not to Paris?"
Chauvelin chuckled mirthlessly. "Come, sir. I haven't forgotten that you still have four very devoted friends out there. The only four men left of your pestilent League. They would expect me to take you to Paris, wouldn't they? And after all the times they've broken in and out of the prison so skillfully, they would have a plan, wouldn't they? Disguises and everything!"
Chauvelin spoke with great animation, as though trying to communicate to Percy that he still considered him to be an idiot.
"But they aren't counting on the fact that I have yet another trap laid them. My men---my own men, you understand, not yours in disguise---are, at this moment, watching every man who enters any French port, from England or elsewhere, instructed to trail any man who looks or sounds even remotely suspicious, and draw him into conversation regarding the internment of the Pimpernel and his wife in the Temple Prison last night. And my men are clever, Sir Percy, not the imbeciles you've so easily outwitted a hundred times before. These men have been trained their whole lives in discreet interrogation. They will find your men and they, too, will be sent to the guillotine."
All roads lead to the guillotine, thought Percy grimly, gulping against the dryness in his throat. "And what of my other men? Have they been guillotined already?"
Chauvelin paused to adjust a cufflink. "Your other men? No, they have been removed from Paris. But don't worry yourself about them. None of you will be rescued. I have made that quite impossible."
"What? Removed? To where?"
"Does it matter? We all die eventually, anyway." And with that, he leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, as though signifying the end of the conversation.
Percy's smile was bitter. "This is quite humorous, in a sick way, Shovelin'. I mean that you went as far as to hire my own friends to poison and kidnap my wife and I. Lud love me, why didn't you have them poison us to death, while you were at it?"
A complacent glitter danced in Chauvelin's pale, calculating eyes. "Elementary, Sir Percy. That would have been called murder."
"And the antics of Madame Guillotine aren't?"
The waves carressed the ship's sides with a gentle hiss as the dark man rose to his feet and stretched, grimacing as his spine crackled faintly. "No, no, no, no. That is called justice."
Percy stared at him incredulously for a moment, tension humming in the air. Then he shrugged and leaned back against the sealed wooden wall at his back. "Sink me. If we aren't going to Paris, Shovelin', then where, pray tell, are you taking us?"
"Stop calling me that, dammit!" Chauvelin cried, his weary eyes suddenly alive. "You know what my name is!!!!!!!"
Percy yawned. "Gad sir. You'll give yourself a nosebleed. Would you kindly refresh my memory?"
Chauvelin trembled with rage as he turned fiery eyes towards heaven. "Why am I always surrounded by imbeciles?"
"Sink me, you know I have trouble with French names," said Percy lightly.
Chauvelin clenched his fists at his sides and struggled to keep his temper in check. "Fine then," he said, "I'll tell you my name one more time, but only so that you may know precisely to whom you lost in this ordeal. I won't have you misusing my name on the scaffold." He striaghtened his long black coat then, rumpled from sleep, and began, throwing his proud shoulders back majestically. He spoke with inexorable slowness. "My name is Chauvelin. Chau-vel-in. C-h-a-u-v-e-l-i-n. Now, Sir Percival, repeat after me: 'Chau'."
"Precisely!" Chauvelin cried, as if congratulating a child on some minimal achievement. "All together now!"
"Zounds!" cried Percy, grinning impishly. "Shovelin'! La, indeed, that's so much better. Let me repeat it, so as not to forget: Shovelin', Shovelin', Shovelin', Sho-vel-in'..."
With a growl of fierce, terrible rage, Chauvelin delivered a swift kick to the table beside him and stormed from of the chamber helplessly, roaring: "Merde, this man is still a nitwit!!!!!"
In the silence, Percy found himself half-smiling.
A moment later, he realized that his sudden penchant for impertinence had cost him Chauvelin's reply: where was he taking them? Oh well, it didn't matter. Percy already knew.
The deserted fortress at Mont St. Pierre was far from a crumbling ruin, a strong and impregnable prison even in its years of isolation in the cold Channel waters. Situated on an island less than half a mile off the French coast, the fortress was a desperately lonely place, out of use for years now. There, Percy and his wife, as well as the members of the Pimpernel's league that had been so mysteriously "relocated", could be executed quickly and quietly, leaving no quarter for hope or rescue...
Suddenly, Percy felt his eyes drawn, of their own will, to Marguerite, still sleeping gently beside him. The sight of those ropes about her fragile wrists infuriated him...but this newfound anger scarcely rivaled the fury of his hatred to Chauvelin. Somehow, his own worst enemy was still in love with his wife, and, somehow, cherished the misled idea that she reciprocated that love. Was it passion that fired Percy's blood as he bent to kiss his still wife's forehead? Or could it have been...jealousy..?
Chauvelin...the man was an enigma. And, unfortunately, it was up to Percy to figure him out. He shuddered to think of all that his arch rival had successfully accomplished thus far, with so many helpless fates now resting in the palm of his menacing claw. Chauvelin was a genius.
Well, not quite a genius, Percy thought, as he began to skillfully sever the bindings of his wrists. After many hours of discreet and strategically planned fidgeting, he had managed to expose a nail securing the heel of his left boot. In moments, the rope that bound him would be frayed enough by that nail to snap, and his plan could take flight...
For indeed, as always, Sir Percy had a plan.
The morning fog hung dense and silver over the frigid sea as Corinthos sailed onward.
A curtain of wet mist obstructed each of Citizen Chauvelin's usually piercing senses as he stared gloomily into that looming oblivion. He felt the slight cold he had had acquired in the first journey over the Channel growing steadily worse and, to add to that, he found himself quite seasick.
Or perhaps sick at heart? . .
Mont St. Pierre was waiting somewhere beyond the mist . . . and there, at long last, the greatest thorn in the side of the Revolution would be eliminated. And, in the same blow, the greatest arrow in Chauvelin's own heart would be cast aside as well.
But Marguerite . . . dead? Yes, one distant night on the Channel, he had indeed thought her dead by his own heralded guillotine, but the sound of that hungry blade supposedly slicing her slender white throat had given him only superficial pleasure . . . in the same violent thwack, Chauvelin had felt his only ties to human feeling rend as well. How close he had come to insanity, faced with her faux severed head! The mist seemed to scoff at him in the quiet morning air. And once the insidious black island came into view, so would the firing squad that awaited her today . . .
There was a faint tap on his shoulder, and Chauvelin turned to see Henry Quartermaine, sleepy-eyed, but certainly awake.
"Pardon, Citizen. Sir Percy, has asked for a word with you."
Chauvelin muttered a colorful oath and pressed his handkerchief to his forehead. "Well, pardieu, I'm too sick to shamble around below decks. Bring the fool up here." Then, suddenly alerted by one of his sharper hidden senses, he added the instruction that the captive be heavily guarded. Improvisation had indeed proved one of Sir Percy's strong points in the past.
Henry nodded and rushed to obey.
A minute or so later, a tall form of Sir Percy himself, flanked on either side by three armed guards, manifested eerily out of the mist. The younger Quartermaine brother, at the head of this odd procession, led his followers to the prow of the boat, where Chauvelin stood leaning distemperedly against the carved wooden railing.
He addressed Percy with obvious impatience. "What is so important, Sir Percival, that it couldn't wait until we've reached our destination?"
With a flippant shrug, Percy adopted his usual air of nonchalance. "Ah yes. Well, Shovelin', I was just wondering how you were planning on killing us this time. My lovely wife and I, I mean. Positively couldn't sleep thinking about it." Arching one sly eyebrow, Percy paused to affect an idiotic half-smile, while Chauvelin's gloomy expression seemed frozen to his face. "And I also thought I'd ask you, as none your more fatal schemes have worked in the past, what it is that makes you think you'll win this time?"
Damn, Chauvelin thought, squinting into the mist over Percy's left shoulder. Beyond a radius of mere twenty paces, everything, even the main mast of the small ship, was totally enveloped in an opaque grayness. If Percy was plotting anything, Chauvelin's eagle-sharp vision certainly wouldn't be enough to catch him in time . . .
"You idiot," Chauvelin said slowly, steadying himself on the rail as the ship gave a sudden pitch. He felt much sicker all of a sudden. "What do I have to do to make you realize that there is no way out for you this time? I've told you already. There is no possible way for either you or your wife to escape this today. None. Not the slightest chance."
Silence, but for the quiet hiss of passing water. His jaw set like stone, Chauvelin attempted to stare his opponent down, but the lightness of Percy's expression only served to impassion him further. He shifted his feet anxiously and drew a few inches closer to his enemy's face.
"Well . . . what the devil are you waiting for? Wipe that silly grin off that stupid, stupid, face of yours and acknowledge, for once in your lifetime, that you've lost!"
Percy didn't move, and neither did his icy smile. Chauvelin encompassed their surroundings with an aggravated sweep of his long arms.
"Look at yourself. Just look. Surrounded by nothing but water and armed guards. I mean, what in God's name can you do with your hands tied anyway?!"
Percy tilted his head thoughtfully. "Why, are my hands tied, Shovelin'? Really?" And before anyone could move, Percy had siezed a rapier from the scabbard of the nearest guard, his hands quite free and unbound, and had cleared himself a safe arc, back to the prow railing, of a couple dozen square feet of clear deckspace.
"En garde!" he cried, his dancing blade challenging.
One or two of the guards stepped nervously forth; Chauvelin's commanding hand and Percy's quick blade worked as one to hold them off.
"Back men, back," the darker man ordered. "I'll handle this myself." Then, to match Percy, who had worn no coat the hour of his capture and wore none now, Chauvelin discarded first his cloak, then hat, then long broadcloth coat, and accepted thoughtlessly the blade handed to him by a rather awed Henry Quartermaine. Weighing the weapon casually in his clenched hand, Chauvelin advanced.
The first touch of the twin blades was shockingly viscious, but Percy didn't move from his position, seemingly intent on preserving the cushion of space around him. In compensation, his defense was ready and eager. Chauvelin pressed forth again, his blade twice as alive and tenfold more wicked. Percy backed away a little.
"Ha!" Chauvelin laughed, his sickness momentarily forgotten in the heat of the moment, eyeing the distance between Percy's bootheels and the perimeter railing. "Fine position you're in! A few feet further, and there's nothing behind you but the sea!"
"Who says I'm going back any further, Shovelin'?" Percy responded quickly.
Chauvelin chuckled briefly and charged forth, blade shredding the mist in every direction. By now, a sort of small crowd had gathered to watch the terrible battle. Among the eager faces, Percy saw the Quartermaine brothers, their eyes intense. The disgust of their gaze to him distracted his wits for half a second, and he suddenly found himself crushed against the rail by Chauvelin's bony shoulder.
"It's a long way to the water, Sir Percy," Chauvelin grunted, his sword pressing Percy's flat to the wood, immobile. Percy struggled valiantly and, kicking Chauvelin spitefully in the shin, managed to shove him aside long enough to regain control of his weapon. Breathless, Chauvelin spun round and saw that his opponent had darted past him and now stood about ten feet away, his blade circling in anticipation. Now it was Percy's turn to charge.
With a roar, he ran forth, blade aimed for Chauvelin's throat; the latter sidestepped the blow and Percy toppled over the rail . . .
There was a hollow scream and a distant splash somewhere past the fog's mysterious curtain . . .
In the next instant, the deck was a swarm of chaos, men clambering to the railing and peering rather pathetically into the shroud-like obscurity beyond. Chauvelin alone remained obstinately rigid, hunched against his lonely spot on the rail and staring blankly at the empty circle where Percy had stood only a moment ago. His sword dangled limply in one hand and his face was a mask of illegible expression.
Cries of "man overboard!" swept the sky in broad circles and in the vague ring of Chauvelin's vision, he barely discerned three faces coming towards him: Henry Quartermaine and his bedraggled brother, newly roused by the racket on deck, and Marguerite, thrashing through the crowd with her hands stilll securely bound.
"Did someone cry 'man overboard'?" Edward dazedly demanded at Chauvelin's elbow.
Henry shoved his brother roughly out of the way. "He went over? Did Percy go over?"
"Percy?" Marguerite screeched, casting her dark eyes about frantically, desperately. "Percy?!"
It took mere moments to circulate the word that Sir Percival Blakeney had indeed fallen overboard and probably lay floundering in the wake of the speeding ship; the chaos, particularly among Chauvelin's three interrogators, became furious.
"Percy? Overboard? Lud, man, we've got to do something!" Edward cried, exhibiting great, panicked animation.
Marguerite's eyes prodded the mist in silence, while Henry nudged past her and seized Chauvelin's sleeve, exasperated. "Well, don't just stand there! We've got to go back for him!" he cried, attempting the whole while to draw him away from the crowded railing. His smooth complexion registered a sudden shock when Chauvelin wrenched violently away.
"You imbeciles!" he barked, his sickness rising again with the effort. "Do you actually think that all this was an accident? That Percival Blakeney would really be stupid enough to fall off the side of the ship unless he thought he could get something out of it?"
Edward stared back at him stupidly. "Well . . . yes."
Henry, a little sharper than his brother, caught the edge of Chauvelin's drift, intrigued. "What makes you suppose otherwise?"
Seeming greatly relieved to have at least one semi-intelligent mind in his presence, Chauvelin drew Henry Quartermaine closer and pointed the tip of his sword blade to a bare spot upon the deck, tracing a slow line across the wooden planks and up over the railing. Henry, followed shortly by his brother Edward, and even Marguerite, who payed somewhat detached attention, watched closely with intense eyes and suddenly made out the form of a taut brown rope, the very line that Chauvelin's sword so accurately traced.
"Now then, sirs, what do you suppose is attached to the other end of this rope, the end hanging over the railing, of course, to make it so taut?" Chauvelin asked slowly.
A faint breath of realization escaped young Henry's lips as he understood, and then turned to explain it to his brother . . . and in the same beat to prove his sharpness to Chauvelin.
"I see. Percy took that end of the rope, fastened the other end to this ship, held or attached his end to himself when he jumped over, so that he would live while making us all believe he'd fallen and died!" Instantly, his voice sank to a whisper. "He may be climbing back up here now!"
"That's right, that's the idea," Chauvelin nodded. "He'll be back as soon as he can change his clothes and his dialect."
Henry laughed a little. "I see! He'll disguise himself! And in this fog, we'd never know! Well, what are we to do?"
"Simple," said Chauvelin, handing Henry Quartermaine his sword. "Cut the rope."
"No!!!!!" Marguerite shrieked . . . even in her weary delirium, she had not missed the drift of the conversation. She knew that Percy was somewhere on the other end of that rope . . . but she was too late. Just as she hurled her small body against that of the young Quartermaine brother's, the sword sliced the rope and it whizzed over the deck, the severed half hissing into oblivion. Chauvelin thought he heard a faint splash far below.
For a long, seemingly endless moment, the Frenchman stood there at the railing, staring into the swirling haze before him and allowing it to speak to his every sense. He closed his eyes, as though searching for something, and breathed deeply as the brothers watched him in baffled silence.
"And there you are," he said at last, gripping Henry's arm with bitter satisfaction. "He can't come back now."
"But . . . well, do you think it's safe to just leave without knowing . . ?" Henry began.
"Trust me, he's not coming back. I feel it. And supposing he does survive, he won't know his right from his left in this fog, and by the time he figures it out, it will be too late."
"Too late . . ?"
With a malicious smirk, Chauvelin released Henry's arm roughly and turned away, accepted his coat and hat from the extended hands of one of his soldiers. Marguerite stood forlornly apart from the crowd, staring at nothing at all. Chauvelin couldn't help but admire, as he had so often admired before, her flawless, delicate beauty.
"Come, Marguerite," he said, taking her arm with casual gentleness, "you should go back below decks. This damp air is no place for you."
She didn't pull away, didn't stir an inch where she stood, and when Chauvelin attempted to draw her away, she collapsed against him faintly, barely conscious. Momentarily concerned, Chauvelin lifted her, almost effortlessly, in his arms and rushed her into the warmer storage room below the deck, to the rear of the boat, and settled her on the very bench where she and Percy had sat together a quarter of an hour ago. She moved her head weakly to look at him as he loosened the doubtless uncomfortable bindings of her delicate wrists.
"Are you all right?" he asked gruffly, careful to keep emotion from his words as he spoke.
"Percy . . . I never got to say goodbye . . ." she whispered. "I never got to tell him . . ."
His interest sparked, Chauvelin leaned a little closer to her. "Tell him what?"
As she raised her glance to him again, Chauvelin was deeply alarmed by the riveting hatred that transformed the fascinating dark eyes, twisting their beauty into something ugly and poisonous. "You killed him, didn't you? You killed him . . . I know it . . ." she accused, her voice still barely audible. "I . . . I suppose you are satisfied now."
"If ever . . . if ever I harbored any last love for you monsieur, of the past we had, you have killed it today." And she pressed one clammy hand to her forehead, as though very dizzy.
Chauvelin almost turned away. "Hush now and rest. You . . . you're not talking sense."
Chauvelin felt himself broken throughout his entire being . . . he was speechless. At length, he managed a shattered whisper: "Marguerite . . ."
"You can kill Percy, you can kill me. But you can't kill my love for him. Nor can you kill the truth that . . . the truth that . . ." breathless, she leaned against the sealed wooden wall and attempted to calm her tears.
"Truth . . . what truth?"
Marguerite stifled a sob and looked deep into his soul, fathoming his eyes with her fiery, probing stare. "The truth that I . . . I am carrying Sir Percival Blakeney's first child."
"Marguerite, you . . . you're telling me you're going to have . . . a child?" Chauvelin asked her softly, his mouth crackling dry.
She didn't lift her eyes from the floor to look at him, but rather hung her head wearily and chose her words with care. "If . . . if I were remain alive by the spring then, yes, I would indeed taste the joys of motherhood. But, as I am to die..." and in mid-sentence, she pressed white knuckles to her lips, as though to suppress a sincere explosion of hysteria, and turned away.
Chauvelin rose stiffly from the bench and cast a lost glance about the chamber, as though seeking to secure privacy. The room was deserted, all but for him...and Marguerite.
His chest felt cold and constricted; his heart seemed to be fighting him. A breathtaking pain arose in his gut, driving him to a sudden insanity, consuming him. Percy was gone, he knew in the depths of his empty heart, and Marguerite had been so cruelly left behind this day, a lavishly wealthy widow, doomed to counter the world with only Percy's unborn child (and his sheltered millions, he though bitterly) to comfort her. That is, of course, if she were to live . . .
But could he really kill her now, in this delicate physical amd emotional state? And could he kill the baby guilty of nothing but the misfortune of being the Scarlet Pimpernel's own son or daughter? Wasn't that almost murder?
Across the room, Marguerite rocked back and forth a little, clutching the dark coat she wore protectively about her small, shivering frame. She looked up and saw Chauvelin standing several paces away, his back to her, his whole shape black, black as the devil. She felt nothing for him as she beheld him then; not love, not hate . . . only a profound sense of mystification. He had loved her deeply once, and perhaps, locked away somewhere, he loved her still . . . and try as she might, she could not bring herself to deny her reciprocation of such feelings in the past . . . albeit the distant past.
She watched him for a moment more, her eyes widening in surprise as he seemed to shudder, as though in torment, as though warring with some possessive inner demon. He seemed to be tearing himself away from something, or crossing some secret point of no return, perhaps some great breach of character. She waited, breathless.
Suddenly he whirled and gazed at her with a desperate passion she had not forgotten from her early life with him, when the Revolution, in its ruddy glory, had begun. Momentarily, he frightened her.
"Marguerite . . ." he began, somehow struggling for the words, "if I were to spare your life, and . . . and send you away from France, perhaps even from England, if I were to help you escape . . ."
"If?" she urged, raising her eyes with a twinge of hope.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the passion, the fire of the lost lover's eyes was gone again, and in his place stood, once more, the man with the heart of stone. He cast his shoulders back and stood erect, as though the action could pardon his sudden, unwarranted outburst of feeling. "No, no . . ." he resumed, speaking under his breath to himself, as though half mad. He muttered something unintelligible, and raised his drawn face to her again. "Marguerite, I . . . you know as well as I that I cannot, as much as I long to in my heart, help you to escape. I cannot let myself betray everything I believe for a love that is not returned, or any love, but love of the Republic. You know that."
"How patriotic," Marguerite sighed, affecting all the weary sarcasm she could summon.
Chauvelin didn't seem to notice, and so went on. "I cannot let you live simply because I see it fit. You . . . are a traitor, Marguerite. But, if you wish to save your life and the life of your child, I may find it plausible to give you one last chance to redeem yourself."
No reply. Marguerite waited.
"Still evading my grasp are four men, Marguerite, the last four of the Pimpernel's men. They are, by name, Lord Antony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, one John Osborne, and your brother, Armand St. Juste. Marguerite . . ." he he knelt before her, reached to touch her hand and abruptly drew back, "if you can find it in yourself to help deliver them to me, I can release you, as an ally."
"Betray Armand . .?"
Chauvelin interceded quickly. "I would need you to write a letter to each man, pleading for help. They will come to find you, and Percy, and . . . Marguerite, I know this is difficult for you, but---"
Marguerite stared at him as a minute or so skipped by. Then she burst into a fit of bitter, mirthless laughter. "You, monsieur . . . you are a fool!" she cried incredulously. "How dare you summon the audacity to even consider such a thing? You ask me to become twice the traitor, and betray not only my country, as you have accused me, but my own flesh and blood? You must be insane, or simply stupid! You make me feel more stupid for listening to you!"
Maddened by her incongruous reaction, Chauvelin took her slender arms and attempted to shake the laughter from her quivering frame. "But the child, Marguerite, think of the child!" he cried, shouting to be heard over her, holding her inches from his desperate face.
Then silenced, she drew one hand aside and slapped the side of his head violently. Chauvelin couldn't help being amazed by her strength. Then she allowed her eyes to burn into his with a flame that could only conjured by pure black hatred. Her voice plummeted to a whisper. "How dare you flatter yourself thinking I would accept pity from your hand, and sell my soul to you this way. And of the child, monsieur, you killed the child, you killed the mother, when you killed the father. No child should be sentenced to life in a world where love has no meaning, monsieur. You have proved today that it does not."
Chauvelin felt as though his head had been whisked from his shoulders. The burn of her conscious hand on his face ran cold in his veins as a final, impregnable eternity passed between him and the fascinating woman he still somehow loved.
At long last, he released her roughly and abandonned the chamber, without looking back, and without leaving a passing word to his memory.
Marguerite drew a deep, resolute breath and, clutching the hand that still ached from her driven blow to Chauvelin, she burst into weeping grief.
Perhaps an hour later, a dark spot manifested itself on the horizon and began to spread across the sea, much like a spot of spilt ink.
The crumbling silver battlements of St. Pierre beckoned and, just beyond it, France waited in silent mystery.
It shouldn't have taken nearly that long to reach the island, but Citizen Chauvelin, the only man aboard who knew precisely where they were going, had gone below decks with orders not to be disturbed, locking himself away in his designated cabin. The elderly captain of Corinthos had been hired quickly and, nearly blinded by the heavy fog anyway, had lost his route and taken a great while to find it again, never having travelled to the assigned destination in all his years of travel along the Channel. The guards slowly began to talk; Citizen Chauvelin, as obsessively attentive as he was reputed to be, should have noticed the delay and complained . . . something had to be terribly wrong with him to influence his whims otherwise.
The difficulties, however, did not end with the length of the voyage. Finding a decent spot to land was yet another escapade. Docking on the island's south side was out of the question; the route was split through the middle by a wide stone causeway, still amazingly intact after all of its years in and out of use, that aptly connected the mountain fortress to the mainland. And, besides that inconvenience, there was still the damned mist.
Finally, just as the ship had drawn its sails, Chauvelin reappeared on deck, shrouded darkly in his black cloak, with the collar pulled close up to his face. By the fury in his step, it was obvious he preferred not to be approached . . . so no one dared.
The Quartermaine brothers resurfaced wordlessly as well, and set about preparing a small rowboat to carry the necessary party to shore. They boarded the small vessel without a word and guiltily lead Marguerite to a seat in the boat's rear, flanked by four soldiers and, of course, Chauvelin himself. The mood of the small company, as the brothers picked up their paddles and began to stroke, was irrepressibly gloomy. Not a word was said, for there were simply no words that needed voice.
Henry cast many a wary glance to his brother over the course of the short trip; Chauvelin had told them that Marguerite and her husband, before he had fallen from the ship, were to be taken to the fortress of Mt. St. Pierre to be held prisoner until arrangements of exile could be made. But if this was the case, why had Chauvelin instructed the brothers to join him at the fortress? What had he planned for them to do there? It all seemed a trifle unnerving to young Henry Quartermaine, who, unlike his brother, thought these things through in advance. He didn't like a bit of it, and hadn't throughout the aftermath of Percy's abrupt departure. His one long-time childhood friend was now dead at his hands; had he done the right thing . . ?
The boat touched the rocky beach with a brief, vulgar scraping sound that made poor Marguerite shudder. Her escort of armed guards disembarked quickly, followed then by Henry and brother Edward; Marguerite suddenly noted that she hadn't taken time yet to recognize the fact that the brothers seemed to be working for Chauvelin. A sudden chill coursed over her as she realized that these vile men had been living off her and Percy's friendly hospitality for the past week or so. Her thought faded as Chauvelin rose, towering masterfully over the trembling lady at his side, and extended one cool hand to help her onto the shore. She stared blankly at that hand for a long, tense beat, contemplating deeply on whether she ought to accept it. At long last, she reached her decision and spat vindictively into Chauvelin's palm, shoving past him and onto dry land on her own. In the heavy, curling fog, Chauvelin's face was quite invisible, particularly in the shade of his hat and cloak, but a few of the waiting soldiers chuckled a little on imagining his probable rage. Chauvelin didn't seem to hear their daring jests; he stalked from the boat without a word and pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes, signifying plainly the deepening of his ill-tempered mood.
Marguerite followed the guards away from the water doggedly, noting as she did that they were not costumed in the crisp red-white-and-blue French uniforms of the current times, but in long, cumbersome black coats, worn because of the biting chill in the morning air. Winter was certainly on its way. What month was it, anyway? Marguerite paused to wonder, and couldn't remember. Frankly, she didn't give a damn; nothing mattered anymore. Not the month, not the year, not life, not escape, not even her own life. She thought wistfully of the child she felt growing inside her, and realized that there was no hope for him either, not unless she accepted Chauvelin's offer . . . but she knew she couldn't. As much as she adored that unborn life, that blessed product of her love for Sir Percy Blackeney, she knew that to succumb to Chauvelin's wicked bargain was to sentence herself and, far worse, the child to an unhospitable life of seclusion and shame perhaps even worse than death. And would she really be able to live with herself if she surrendered . . ?
A tall, imposing form manifested itself from the mists; its proud bearing and stride told her that it must have been the captain of Chauvelin's guard, sent to the island in advance. He approached and saluted briskly. Marguerite watched dully as the latter pulled the collar of his cloak closer to his face, in a hopeless effort against the cold, and pressed his handkerchief surreptitiously to his nose as he addressed his companion.
"Damn this fog. Damn this dampness," he grumbled. "I have a cold as it is."
The captain was quick and brusque in his reply. "I'm sorry, monsieur. I suggest we finish our business here promptly."
"Yes, well then, captain, where are you keeping the seven prisoners I sent in advance?"
"In the keep, monsieur. They have been carefully guarded since their arrival last night."
Chauvelin nodded and sniffled a little; his voice sounded rough and muffled beneath his handkerchief. "Very good. I should like to speak to them immediately."
A pause. "Whatever for, monsieur?"
"Zut alors, in search of last-minute information before we kill them all, you idiot! What else?" he snapped irritably. "And when I return, I shall expect all to be ready for the executions. I want to leave this damned island as quickly as possible."
As Chauvelin moved to depart, the captain's voice was quieter and distinctly more cordial. "The firing squad is awaiting my orders up ahead. They don't like the cold either; St. Pierre is a miserable place this time of year. We shall be prompt. And your couriers are waiting as well."
Chauvelin turned round quickly, suddenly on his guard, drawing the handkerchief to his face again. "What couriers?"
"Why . . . the couriers you instructed us to bring along. They're waiting on the mainland shore, just off the causeway, ready to carry news of the executions to Paris."
"Ah yes. Good. We shall begin in about fifteen minutes, then. In the meantime, I shall find my own way to the keep." Then, with a brief bow of his chin, Chauvelin began to slink away again. He had not gone far, however, before he was accosted by the Quartermaine brothers, who bounded directly into his path with a mutual air of enormous distress.
"Monsieur, monsieur! Pardon, but did you mention the term 'execution'?" Edward stuttered.
Henry, as was his habit, shoved his brother aside. "Do you mean to tell us, monsieur Chauvelin, that you intend to have Percy's wife slaughtered before a firing squad? Zounds, you spoke of exile, sir, not execution!"
"And what of the other men you mentioned? Are they to---"
"ENOUGH!" Chauvelin roared, tearing the mist with a great, melodramatic sweep of his thin arms. "Why am I always surrounded by idiots?!" he cried aloud, clapping his thin gloved hands to his face as the fog seemed to swarm thicker around his furious shape. Leading the brothers angrily out of the hearing of his guards, his voice fell to a harsh whisper. "The two of you took an oath of unquestioning loyalty when you joined me and my cause. Now, trust me for the moment, pardieu, and shut your damn mouths!"
Speechless, the brothers stood and watched their bold leader storm fiercely into the looming silver oblivion of a few paces forward, and watched it swallow him hungrily in his wake.
Henry glanced at his brother solemnly. "I . . . I suppose it's this beastly weather that's made him so disagreeable."
"I suppose so," returned Edward, affecting a sorrowful shake of his baffled head.
The captain of the guard watched Chauvelin in his departure until his shadow had faded entirely, waited a moment or so, and turned to face the patient procession behind him.
"I propose we get at least one of these executions done now. No sense wasting a quarter of an hour loafing about like this. After all, there's seven more to go after this one."
Marguerite felt her throat constrict as the captain flashed her a bitter smirk; still, she didn't protest in the least as they marched her to her first---and last---meeting with the seven armed soldiers constituting a firing squad.
With his long cloak belling behind like the shroud of some sinister death angel, Chauvelin's black shape darkened the doorway of the main building, a large, empty stone hall adjoined to the ancient fortress keep. Suddenly he turned, apparently alarmed by the faint sound of a nearby footfall . . . but he had not time to react, because four sets of arms siezed him from behind and dragged him, struggling fiercely, into an unlit corrider. A cold hand was clamped over his mouth, stifling the mighty scream of shock rising in his throat. The black-cloaked man fought valiantly, but not valiantly enough, for, in mere moments, he was gagged silent with his hands bound firmly behind his back. A knee between his shoulderblades pinned him, on his stomach, to the icy stone floor as he fought to breathe. With the passion of a cornered beast, shadowed eyes cast their frantic gaze upward and widened as they recognized the youthful features of Armand St. Juste.
The man in black attempted to shout in a sudden panic, writhing under the weight of the hands that had so precisely trapped him.
Uncertain, a very flustered John "Ozzy" Osborne beat the captive deftly over the head with the butt of his horse pistol and watched, deeply disturbed, as his quarry slumped, unconscious, against the floor.
"Odd's my life!" he breathed, as though combatting the questioning glances shot in his direction by Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, and Armand St. Juste. "He could have got us captured, what with all that ruckus!"
Lord Dewhurst, shaking his head, rose to his feet and began to issue some sort of command, only to be interrupted by a sudden exclamation from an excitable Armand.
"Wait!" he cried, holding back the actions of his friends with one quavering hand. "Just one moment, please!"
Baffled, the last of the League watched as their young Frenchman first loosened the cloth sash serving as a gag, and then drew aside the tall cloak collars that hid the man's face from plain view.
Four sets of lungs constricted with twin gasps of horror as each of the men present found themselves looking on no other but . . .
"What have we done?" Armand breathed, watching Percy's still features fearfully.
Lord Dewhurst pushed past his friend and knelt at Percy's side. "Well, let's wake him up! Come on, quickly!" and he began to shake Percy roughly, slapping his fine face from side to side now and then in desperation.
"Percy, Percy! For God's sake, get up!" he hissed.
"But what the devil do you suppose Percy was doing in Chauvelin's clothes?" Sir Andrew inquired in a hushed tone, using his dagger to saw through the hasty bindings of his inanimate leader's black-gloved hands.
"Knowing Percy," Armand began, looking on quietly, "he had a plan."
"And probably a demmed ingenius one too, until our friend Ozzy here had to go and botch it," Dewhurst remarked, his voice crested by a mere touch of teasing mirth.
"I? I, botch it?" Ozzy protested, indignant. "Who's the one what told us to jump him, Lord Brilliant?"
Armand allowed himself to laugh a little, ceasing as quickly as Dewhurst cast a silencing glance in his direction. The younger man, still grinning, knelt to Percy's side as Dewhurst drew aside to stand watch in the doorway.
"Percy? Percy, can you hear me?" Armand whispered, shaking him. "Percy, se reveille! Percy!"
Then, with a brief groan, Percy came to. "Oh la la, mon tete . . ." he mumbled, lapsing into a slurred, alternate tongue in his delirium.
"Come Percy, this is no time to go Frenchie on us!" Ozzy told him commandingly.
"Percy! How many fingers am I holding up?" asked Armand, displaying his fore, middle, and ring fingers. Percy looked up, blinked, and said, "Eighteen."
Pausing, Sir Andrew gestured to Armand and together they managed to lift Percy to his feet, offering him the uneven support of their shoulders.
"La!" Percy exclaimed, passing a stray hand through his disheveled fair hair. "If I didn't know better, I'd guess I spent the night in a bottle of cognac! Sink me, it's fine seeing you gentlemen here, but may I ask which one of you hit me?"
Three forefingers targeted poor Ozzy, who only shrugged guiltily and offered a frail, but sincere, apology.
Percy smiled a little and had set to wondering why exactly he was dressed in Chauvelin's most tasteless wardrobe when a new, strange sound caught his attention, a distant echo carried on the drift of the morning chill.
"About face!" came the captain's voice, ringing crystal clear across the cold beach.
"What's going on out there?" asked Percy, his mood darkening bitterly as memory returned to him. "Where's Marguerite?"
No one responded; Percy pressed past them, past the corridor, past the open door and gazed uncertainly into the mist beyond.
Marguerite . . . Percy thought feverishly. "Marguerite!" he cried, bolting into the haze before a one of his men could advise him otherwise.
Breathless and dizzy, he ran on and stumbled on a scrap of stone in the shore. "Marguerite!!"
And the bullets riddled the morning sky in a deafening volley of crackling terror. Percy felt as though he himself had been pierced by each menacing bullet, bleeding inwardly as he drove himself forth, knowing he was too late . . .
At last, the sinister line of men came into view, guns lowered and smoking in the cold. Dizzier still and staggering as though intoxicated, Percy propelled himself forth and saw, indeed, a dark body strewn prostrate in the sand.
I'm too late, he screamed inwardly, falling to his knees beside the corpse. "Oh, my God, I'm too late!"
He lifted the body into his arms, a limp mass weighed down and almost completely hidden by the great black coat it wore. Feeling the tears creep into his eyes, Percy clutched the figure close to his breast and didn't notice that a small circle of men had gathered around him, all looking at him very strangely. Percy stared at the form steadily; he wanted to see her, kiss her one last time. His hand shook as he moved the cloak collars aside from her face and . . .
Percy dropped the body like a hot potato. The face wasn't Marguerite's at all, but the visage of some man Percy had never seen before in his life. Well, at least, not clearly enough to remember . . .
The captain of the guard?
"Percy!!!" came a shrill, sharp, excited scream just to his left.
Percy jerked his head upward and barely recognized, in the light of one golden moment, the radiant features of his living wife.
"Marguerite," he whispered, his voice reaching a sudden crescendo of joy, "Marguerite!!" Then, jolted to his feet as though propelled by the winds of a hurricane, he embraced her fiercely as she wrapped desperate arms around his neck.
"Percy! You're alive!!" she wept frantically. "I thought you were---"
The rest of her sentence was muffled in Percy's, or, rather, Chauvelin's, coat as Percy held her tenderly to his heart, surrendering to the tears that needed to come. At last, he held his head back to look at her, and was, as always, dazzled speechless by her exquisite beauty.
"Marguerite . . . oh, my God, I love you!"
She studied his own features for a moment and finally told him to hush up and kiss her. Obediently, Percy, inclined his head and reciprocated her kiss with a smile.
Realizing how easily he could lose himself in the moment, Percy broke the embrace and, ever so gently, pulled away. Patiently, Marguerite waited for him to speak.
"I . . . I don't understand, m'dear," he said quietly, still holding her close. "I heard them fire . . . why didn't they . . ." pausing, he laughed a little, "well, you know! . ."
Marguerite smiled at him and looked up as Neville Malory removed his cockaded French hat and detached himself from the would-be firing squad. "Ask rather, Percy," he said boldly, "what happened to the real firing squad."
Percy tilted his head a little and chuckled heartily as, one by one, he recognized each of his abducted men, every one of them disguised immaculately as a French soldier. "'Twas a bit of shame to have to kill that captain of the guard though," Ben Malory was saying, indicating the still form in the sand to Percy's near left. "He seemed like a decent sort."
Instantly, Percy realized what had happened: Chauvelin's nameless captain, totally ignorant of the truth that his squadron had been, remarkably, dispatched and replaced by Percy's own daring soldiers, had led the fire as directed . . . only to be miserably surprised when he, not the lovely female prisoner, received the brunt of the volley. Somehow, Percy's men had managed to break free of their captivity and conceive the whole demmed thing in a matter of hours . . . it was brilliant.
"Sink me, you're all geniuses!" Percy laughed, turning and surveying his reunited League with unbounded pride. "How ever did you do it all?"
"No time to explain now, Percy," Armand broke in, lifting his sister, who seemed to him to be dangerously weak and pale, into his arms. "We've got to get out of here before---"
"What's all this?" cried Henry Quartermaine, entering the scene prehaps a little too pretentiously. Edward appeared, and both brothers darted to the spot where the Chauvelin that was really Percy stood frozen on the beach. "Monsieur Chauvelin, what's going on?"
"Just a moment!" cried Edward, almost angrily, tugging frantically at his brother's sleeve. As Percy brushed the sand from his dreary garments, Henry found himself gaping. "You're . . . you're not Citizen Chauvelin?" he stuttered.
"A pleasure, as always, gentlemen," Percy said dashingly, bowing deeply and grinning as his friends simply stared at him, aghast.
Henry turned, flabbergasted, to the staggered line of guards behind him. "What are you doing?! Seize them!"
No one moved. Chauvelin's four original guards appeared then, weapons brandished uncertainly.
"I said, seize them!"
"That's right, men," Percy said, addressing his own guards, and the only four authentic guards, with a fraudulent air of Chauvelin-like authority. "Seize them." And he pointed to the brothers with one menacing finger.
Chauvelin's guards were the first to move, laying hold of the brothers with a dogged obedience that made Percy's men chuckle under their breath.
Shaking his head merrily, Percy turned to kiss Marguerite one last time before allowing himself to form a new plan.
In less than an hour, Percy, Marguerite, Armand, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the captive brothers were reunited on the deck of the Daydream, Percy's large yacht. Chauvelin's guards alone had not joined the party on their way to the boat; Percy, after relieving the guards of their hostages (the Quartermaine brothers), ordered them to cross over the causeway, where Chauvelin had a number of couriers waiting, and inform the men waiting there that the Scarlet Pimpernel and all of his men were dead. The guards had seemed a little puzzled; had the prisoners all been executed already? They did not have much time to think about it, however, for "Chauvelin" set to screaming at them and they ran to obey as though they had demons in their pants. The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel had laughed about that all the way to the yacht; Chauvelin indeed had his soldiers trained well.
Percy only learned later how precisely the yacht had come to be there: when Armand, Dewhurst, Andrew, and Ozzy had arrived at the coast the previous night, less than a mile trailing the Quartermaine carriage, the Daydream had been docked below, as had been Chauvelin's chartered Corinthos, in the port nearest Percy's Richmond residence. The yacht was always at port there, ready, as always, to launch a quick and easy voyage over the Channel. In paying close attention to Chauvelin's orders that night, the last of the Pimpernel's League learned the sought-after destination, the gloomy Mt. St. Pierre, and spoke to the captain of the Daydream immediately. The man lived in the small port village there and was, needless to say, rather disturbed when four man came out of the night to pound on his door. The captain, chosen and hired by Percy himself, had been selected particularly because of his familiarity with the Channel; he knew where to find St. Pierre, even in the dark of midnight. Thus, the Daydream reached the island fortress almost half and hour before the Corinthos did, and by the time the latter ship had come within visible distance of the location, Armand and his followers had already set to breaking the captive League free from their fortress prison, disguised from the rare "emergency" costume wardrobe Percy kept in the storage holds of Daydream's hull.
And all this had been already laid and set into action by the time Percy had appeared on the deck of Corinthos, when he had lost that bogus battle with Chauvelin, while he saved himself from that deadly plummet to the sea by the rope attached to his shoulders, clung desperately to the side of the ship when the rope came coiling down from the deck, severed by Chauvelin's quick sword, while he clambered up the side of the vessel and over the railing once more, found his way to Chauvelin's designated cabin and waited there, waiting to ambush him and obtain one golden chance to save himself, his wife, and, with any luck, his men. La, but the Lord worked in mysterious ways!
Percy was in quite a state of awe; God and Christ themselves had to be on his party's side to allow any scheme so ludicrous to work so flawlessly. He left the island singing praises to the heavens and encouraging his company to join in.
Bewildered, the brothers Quartermaine only scowled at him all the way to the Daydream's deck. Percy ignored their sour gazes and flippantly figured he'd explain the whole thing later, perhaps when pride was less boisterous and victory less sweet. For the meantime, he'd let them suffer.
The deck of the Daydream was quiet . . . almost too quiet. Even so, Percy was too happy, and too proud of the ingenius warriors he had cultivated as the Scarlet Pimpernel, to care. Among Percy and his men, the mood was bright and jovial despite the dreariness of the day, and despite the disaster that each person present had only so narrowly avoided. There was too much victory in their blood to make them feel sorrow, or even to let them be afraid.
Afraid of what? Hadn't they conquered the day?
The refreshing glow of glory wasn't enough to make Percy forget all his concerns, however. To be rid of them for the moment, he had jokingly ordered the Quartermaine brothers tied to the main mast of the ship, where could keep a stray eye on them until he had time to explain everything a little later. Still, there was no guarantee that they would believe his story, no matter how dilligently he tried to convince them. After all, if they hadn't believed his confession of secrecy in the privacy of his own home, why would they believe it now, in the midst of this warth of treachery? He remotely regretted the loss of two honest friends to Chauvelin's clutches, but he still took to heart the idea that those two honest friends had almost caused him, his wife, and all of his men to die that day. It would take quite a bit for them to make up for that.
These lonely poderings faded the moment Percy set foot on the deck of the yacht, for he saw it then his immediate obligation to put Marguerite to bed below decks. She had fallen asleep on his shoulder on their way to the Daydream, and the pallor of her usually radiant cheeks almost frightened him. True, she had almost died that morning, and, true, she had almost lost her husband within the same hour. But Percy almost caught a trace of something else in her taut face . . . something that he had never seen in those flawless features before. Guessing that he would learn the answer when the time was fit, he tucked her into the wide bed in his cabin and left her with a small, lovely kiss on her forehead.
Percy assumed that the captain of the yacht was sleeping, as he was nowhere to be seen on deck, and so, not wanting to waste time in waking him, he helped his men prepare to take the sea. The undivided League of the Scarlet Pimpernel had only moments ago set sail, and had begun breaking into the good wine supply always kept on the well-stocked yacht, when Percy caught something out of the corner of his eye that greatly disturbed him, some incongruous movement in the shadows of the aft deck. It looked like a flash of metal, perhaps a musket, or a sword . . .
"A toast!" Armand was saying, raising a newly-filled wine glass proudly. "A toast, to the one and only Scarlet Pimpernel!"
And in a terrifying flash of darkness, Chauvelin appeared on board the deck of the Daydream, black and menacing, as always. He stood far apart from the crowd that had gathered near the ship's center and stood perched on the roof of the main cabin, towards the rear of the vessel. Only Percy noticed him.
A sharp glance from the latter silenced Armand and his other mirthful companions as, one by one, they turned round to see who had crashed the celebration. Chauvelin was, as always, uninvited.
"Well, Shovelin'," Percy said lightly, "I had expected to see you again soon, but, sink me, you always seem to show yourself at the most demmed inconvenient moment possible. Must you always spoil my parties?"
Chauvelin's smile was hardly visible in the morning mist. "Indeed, Sir Percy, it seems that I was fated to be a spoiler of your parties. But after today, I doubt you will have a party for me to spoil for a very long time."
Armand, infuriated, muttered a curse and seized the nearest musket; a number of Percy's other men did the same. Chauvelin chortled bitterly.
"Oh, oh I see. You think I'm alone. Well, actually . . ."
And before another word could be said, the once-victorious company assembled on Percy's deck was both surrounded and outnumbered by fully-costumed French guards.
"You look puzzled, Sir Percy," Chauvelin said teasingly, leaping down from his vantage point with the sleek agility of a cat. "You want to know how I got here? Well, you see, it's really rather simple. I got up, after you had so rudely knocked me down on board my ship, and had a number of my men, just enough to outnumber yours, join me to meet you here. A sort of a surprise party, you could say. You'll find your own captain and crew below decks, taking a nice, long nap. But not of their own free will, of course. After all, it would only have been a bother with them in the way."
"In the way of what, Shovelin'?" Percy asked, calculating the two men sent to guard him with one sly glance.
"Why . . . the executions, of course!" Chauvelin said, nodding to the muskets brandished by his own soldiers, drawing near enough to his opponent to stare him down with a smirk. "Surely you don't think I'd forgotten!"
"You cannot do this, monsieur Chauvelin," said Armand passionately, incredulous. "You could not dare!"
"Gad sir," said Percy, "don't be too sure of yourself. Don't look now, but here come the rest of my men now."
And then, as a very perplexed Chauvelin turned to look over his shoulder, Percy struck him a powerful blow across the face, knocking him to the plank floor. A beat later, he had dispatched both of his guards and launched a great fight scene in the center of the deck.
Fists flew in every direction; men fell and rose again to fight viciously back. Percy saw only one immediate solution to win this battle: he seized his sword and began to back Chauvelin's men to the Daydream's perimeter railing, convincing his own men to follow and drive them, if possible, over the side. The air stirred with great splashes of hungry water as a number of the guards, weighed down by their heavy uniforms as surely as by their cowardice, fell or jumped overboard. Within minutes, Chauvelin's fifteen original soldiers had been reduced to half that. At last Percy, in the process of collaring a huge, furious soldier two feet taller than him, watched the action around him intently through the corner of his eye. Just to his left, Armand was driving two weak-looking soldiers dangerously close to the port side railing, and on his left, he caught Ozzy swinging the butt of a large musket in a fierce arc, knocking many a villain to the deck in a dizzy haze. Percy acknowledged, as he kicked his own quarry's legs out from under him and watched the man topple overboard, that Ozzy seemed to be very good at that sort of thing.
Percy gasped sharply as someone seized him from behind and wrapped massive arms about his throat, cutting off his air. Then he felt his sword slip from his fingers. Swerving quickly away from the treacherous railing, he staggered into the center of the deck and began to thrash about desperately in an effort to lose his attacker. He turned his head a little and saw Ozzy there, still blindly swinging the musket about in his defense. Percy backed a little in that direction, edging slowly closer to his fighting companion . . . and it was only a moment before Ozzy's musket struck Percy's assailant from behind and the man slumped to the deck with a groan.
Drawing a deep breath of relief, Percy thanked Ozzy whole-heartedly before dashing into the fray again. Ozzy stared after him only a moment, puzzled, before swinging the musket around some more.
As Percy stooped to retrieve his fallen weapon, the heel of a great black boot stamped down on the blade, pinning it firmly to the deck. With a small gulp of protest, Percy's eyes followed the boot upwards and saw Chauvelin, sword in hand, waiting for him. Percy jolted to his feet.
"I had hoped, Sir Percy," said the enemy slowly, "that our last duel would not be our final one. I like to win, you see."
Percy smiled flippantly as he threw his shoulders back proudly. "You do know, of course, Shovelin', that I lost that last fight on purpose?"
"Indeed?" Chauvelin slipped the toe of his boot beneath the midpoint of Percy's blade and kicked it to him; Percy caught it in one fluid sweep of movement. "Now is your chance to make up for it. En garde," Chauvelin went on, smiling wickedly.
The larger battle of the Daydream had reduced significantly in the past few moments, and what combattants were still fighting ceased immediately and turned intense gazes to the circling men in the center of the deck. There were only about five or six of Chauvelin's soldiers left.
"Interesting," Chauvelin was saying, casting off the cloak and coat he wore, almost identical to the ones Percy had also adorned aboard Corinthos, "that we always manage to fight these wretched battles on the sea. I think we would find them far more enjoyable on level ground."
"Yes, but what precisely, sir, do you intend to do even if you win?" Percy asked boldly, who had likewise removed his outer garments and stood weighing his weapon in one clenched fist. "Your soldiers are gone. And I've already sent your couriers to spread the word in Paris that the Scarlet Pimpernel is dead."
Chauvelin lunged forward and laughed as Percy parried away. "How thoughtful of you! It will save me the effort!"
The blades rent the air with a terrifying silver fury, a glitter that preceeded the sound of biting metal much like lightning before the thunder. Percy and Chauvelin held the complete attention of their accumulated audience; even bound upright against the mast, the Quartermaine brothers felt their throats grow dry in the intensity of the duel. But the battle was not made intense by skill alone; there was also the truth that, as both men wore almost the exact same loose shirt, plain white cravat, black vest, black trousers and black leather boots and gloves, no one could tell, in the gauze-like veil of the fog, who was who and who was winning.
"Fine taste in fashion you have there, Sir Percy," said Chauvelin, at last realizing how they so ironically played the twins. "I shall want that particular suit back when you're done with it."
Percy's sword shivered as he launched a singular, powerful thrust, one that made Chauvelin lose a few inches of his ground in response. "If you say so, as I do expect to see my own garments again," Percy remarked, ducking beneath his opponent's extended right arm as he dodged a fierce upper blow, "because I must confess that I truly detest your own sense of fashion."
Instead of responding with some sort of witty insult, Chauvelin whirled and attacked with a charge, the whole while thrashing his blade in either direction with a violence that made his unskilled movements twice as deadly as his strategical ones. Percy sidestepped the charge, a trifle startled, and laughed a little. "Well, apparently, you don't care to have your wardrobe insulted. But then, who does?"
Out of breath, Chauvelin whirled and parried a bit at Percy's sword. "What precisely is wrong with my wardrobe, Sir Percival?" he panted.
"Everything!" Percy scoffed, and thrust forth a couple of feet; his sword shrilled as it struck a silver chord across Chauvelin's own blade. "At first glance, you Frenchies are demmed clever people, but you all go to pieces around the neck!"
"What are you jawing about, you imbecile?!" Chauvelin growled, dropping his guard just long enough for Percy to thrust his blade upward, holding it inches from his enemy's throat. Chauvelin paused, uncertain, as Percy drew nearer and stared him down.
"Why, sir, I am referring to your miserable cravat, of course. What else?" And then, much to Chauvelin's surprise, Percy used the tip of his blade to totally unwind the cravat and then danced away again, laughing a little at Chauvelin's startled reaction. The latter only shook his head in disdain once before launching himself once more into the fight.
"And then," Percy went on, pausing to fend off a furious blow over his left shoulder, "there's your ill taste in your cut of a waistcoat."
"This is ridiculous! You are ridiculous!!"
Percy's backed Chauvelin precariously close to the railing and glared threateningly into his face. "Ridiculous, perhaps. But ill-dressed? Certainly not!" Brandishing his weapon again, Percy charged with a growl and smacked the flat of his blade against Chauvelin's hilt, knocking it from his unsure hand. And then, just as Chauvelin felt Percy's last blow upon him, he was again caught off guard. This time Percy used the tip of his agile point to slice the buttons from Chauvelin's waistcoat, leaving it hanging limply against his shirt.
"Good riddance," Percy remarked, backing away a bit with feigned disgust. "The thing was ugly as an opossum's widow."
Gritting his teeth, Chauvelin lunged forward and began to hack his blade at his opponent aimlessly, leaving him with an ugly cut across the right forearm. Percy almost dropped his sword as he gasped sharply in pain.
Several cries of alarm rose from the spectators; as Percy's men had come to recognize their leader as the man who was more fully dressed, they had come to distinguish his movements and set to following him much closer than before. Percy's wound wasn't severe, of course; rather, it served as tangible proof, to both gathering and gladiator, that the fatality of the fight was real, and not the game Percy had somehow turned it into.
Percy only held back his step for a moment. "I see," he noted quietly, tightening his grip around the hilt of his weapon. "You want to study the blouse now. Very well, then, Shovelin', but first---"
And in mid-sentence, Percy darted past him and tore the ruined waistcoat from his opponent's shoulders, knocking him flat to the deck as he did so. Chauvelin lost grip his sword.
Catching it on the point of his blade, Percy tossed the vest to the crowd, where there was an absent bit of a struggle to catch it. He paid no attention to that, however, as he advanced.
"Shall we begin with those beastly cuffs?" Percy asked, looking down at Chauvelin coldly, where he lay sprawled helpless on the deck. The humor in the former's voice was gone. "Or shall we go straight for the collar?"
There was a long moment of silence as Percy held the tip of his weapon to Chauvelin's bare throat . . . he seemed to be serious this time. No one dared to breathe.
"If you're going to finish this, monsieur, do it now," Chauvelin breathed. "I'm ready."
Percy reflected briefly; could he really kill this man, after all they'd been through together? True, Chauvelin was a murderer, a traitor, a theif, a fiend, a menace, and an all-around double-crossing bastard. But he was still a human being. Wasn't he?
This small distraction was all Chauvelin needed, for in a second's hushed passage, he had knocked Percy's feet out from under him and kicked the weapon from his enemy's hand. Percy struggled to rise and, in amazement, saw Chauvelin slowly back away from him, rather than advance and attempt to make the kill. He was backstepping, sword extended, slowly towards the railing.
"We will meet again soon, Sir Percival," he promised, his husky voice barely audible to anyone but Percy.
"You're . . . you're leaving, then, Shovelin'?" Percy asked, clenching the linen of his shirt about the bleeding cut in his forearm. "Without fighting out this duel?"
Chauvelin smiled bitterly. "You know what they say. He who fights and runs away lives to kill another day." Then, half-turning, he seemed to suddenly recall something and faced Percy once more, an obvious and insidious gloat situated about his lean features. "And you've forgotten, Sir Percy, that I still have your ring." Then Chauvelin, shifting his sword to the crook of his arm, removed the glove masking his left hand and displayed, before all, the majestic red stone set in gold.
Percy froze where he stood; he recalled that he had been more than deeply disturbed when, on ambushing Chauvelin in his cabin aboard Corinthos, the ring had been found nowhere on Chauvelin's person. Percy hadn't time to search for it. Marguerite's life had been far more important than the glory of the Scarlet Pimpernel, as it always would be. Still, as long as Chauvelin had the ring, the name of the Pimpernel was a curse, open to manipulation, to twisted causes, a gateway to sin, murder and deeper betrayal. Percy had to get it back! And soon . . .
"I want my ring back, sir, and I intend to get it back," Percy swore quietly.
Chauvelin laughed and eyed the ring in deep satisfaction. "Perhaps so, but I have no intention of giving it up, either. And now monsieur, if you'll excuse me, I have a boat waiting." And he leapt up on the starboard railing, gripped the unnoticed length of rope that had been attached there at the time of the ambush, and began to lower himself into the small rowboat that had been held for him below by one of his own guards.
Baffled, Percy did nothing until Chauvelin had reached the boat and cut the rope down after him. Then, propelled by something that could only be attributed with the name of madness, Percy jumped over the side of the yacht after Chauvelin . . . and, mere seconds later, landed smack in the desired spot: right on top of Chauvelin's single guard. The boat rocked powerfully and gave an audible crack as he struck it.
"YOU IDIOT! Merde, what in hell are you doing?" Chauvelin screamed, too shocked to really react with anything but a scream, which was his first natural reaction to just about anything that made him mad. He sat and stared at Percy in awe instead, raising his sword blade in panicked defense.
Struggling to detach himself from the incessed guard that had broken his fall, Percy found himself in the midst of a new battle, and solved it by shoving the guard overboard. The man floundered in the water for a moment before casting his arms over the side of the boat and clinging there, not wanting to risk capsizing the small vessel, the only route of escape left to Chauvelin and himself, by climbing back in.
Watching Percy carefully, Chauvelin seized the oars and began to row for all he was worth, as his companion simply sat there, waving flippantly to the faces bent over the Daydream railing.
"Surely you're not going to get very far, Shovelin'," Percy said, gripping the painful wound in his arm anew, "but if you hand the ring over quietly, I'll let you go."
Chauvelin didn't reply; he only kept rowing. But when his eyes of stone rose to meet Percy's, they shrieked "I hate you".
"Sink me!" was all Percy said.
Finally Chauvelin blew up, casting the oars aside and seizing his sword once more, the blade dancing dramatically in the air. "Damn you! If you're just going to sit there like that and antagonize me, do think of something more creative to say than 'sink me'!!"
Percy looked up innocently. "Oh, no, no, you see, I really meant it that time."
Chauvelin only stared at him, too sick of him to fly into a rage over the matter.
"I said, 'sink me', because there's a hole in the boat."
And, with a terrible scream of defeated rage, Chauvelin cursed the air blue as he noticed the great pool of water forming in the bottom of the boat, pouring through the crack caused by the fall of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
"There's no way out for you, Shovelin'," Percy told him, painfully realizing that he was unarmed against Chauvelin's single blade.
"I'll give you a way out!" the other shouted, and plunged his sword straight towards Percy's throat. Reaching to grapple the blade's hilt with one leather-gloved hand, Percy bent it roughly from Chauvelin's grasp; both men watched as it jounced aside and faded forlornly into the grey water, leaving only a stray splash to its memory.
After staring into the water wordlessly for almost a minute, Chauvelin shrugged and sighed deeply, as though in resolution. "My hat is off to you, Sir Percy. It appears you've won the day." He stared at Percy hatefully and removed the ring with rigid fingers. It was with even greater reluctance that he extended the hand that held the diminuitive object outward, just within Percy's reach. Smiling, the true Scarlet Pimpernel reached for it . . . just as Chauvelin cast it aside, into the mist-cloaked waters gently cradling the small boat.
"No!" cried Percy, and, with a desperate spring in his step, he cast himself overboard as his hand sought blindly in the waves. Gasping once for air, Percy plunged himself into the sea and began to swim, with every ounce of the passion that had given him the glory of the Pimpernel in the first place, towards a tiny, swiftly-fading glimmer mere inches from his frantic reach. He kicked harder; the water held him back and seemed to laugh in his ears. Just a couple more inches!
Percy didn't care about what he left behind on the water's surface; suddenly he didn't care about anything but the ring. In that heartbeat, Percy realized that the ring meant so much more than what it was: a forgotten family heirloom passed onward as an afterthought. No, it was life, liberty, and salvation for so many souls that needed him, that waited for him. It symbolized, in its perfect simplicity, a renaissance in the morals of man, a fragment of proof that man was still a trace of what God had intended him to be, and still posessed the backbone in him to stand up for himself in a world overrun by the criminal and debauched.
Suffocated by the water as well as the poetic ideals that drove his mind, Percy couldn't breathe . . . his lungs ached as he fought downward instead of upward, where life, if not victory, waited. He prayed silently, in some dark corner of his mind, for strength . . .
Feeling helpless and constricted, Percy shot one hand outward . . . it closed over something small, supple, and thrilling.
With a whoop of exaltation, Sir Percival Blakeney, Scarlet Pimpernel revisited, emerged from the sea with the ring upraised in one magnificently-clenched fist, held upward for all the world to see.
Bound upright against the Daydream's mast, Chauvelin had confessed all.
Percy's men had dragged him from the sea with at once a bitter comtempt and light-hearted cheer in their every movement. It was all over!
They had tied him to the mast in the place of the Quartermaine brothers, releasing them alone, and in the meantime had quartered Chauvelin's remaining guards in a storage room in the hull. The brothers, seeing that they were most obviously outnumbered, had fought not at all, but waited patiently for the whole blasted matter to work itself into some shade of reason. Such it came when Chauvelin, at Percy's "request", relayed the entire story to all those present.
Chauvelin's confession, as bitter and half-hearted as it had been, inflamed the brothers Quartermaine into a rigid passion. Yes, "the Scarlet Pimpernel" had lied to them, convinced them that he was the hero they would pledge their lives to, and he had lied so well and so outrageously that the life of the brothers' most noble friend, as well as his lovely wife and his courageous cause, had so nearly been snuffed out. Chauvelin had done the unforgivable . . . but what he didn't know was that he had done the unforgivable to a pair of men with a considerable amount of power on their hands.
Edward and Henry Quartermaine arrested Chauvelin on the spot for treason and kidnapping; he would join the brothers in their return to London and there be placed in some obscure English prison for a long, long time. His day of glory had once more, as always, fallen short.
"You should have learned by now, Shovelin'," Percy had said, perched on the bluffs overlooking the fascinating English seacoast, in bidding farewell to the voyagers of a heavily-guarded carriage bound for London, "that even heartless betrayal won't get the job done right all the time."
And, with a smile, Percy had bowed adieu to his long-time enemy and left him, scowling, behind. These words would, with any luck, be the last that Chauvelin would ever hear from him.
His farewell to the brothers Quartermaine had been far more heartfelt, but to say that he had entirely forgiven them for the disaster they had brought upon his head would be a lie. Still, they seemed genuinely sorry, and promised to keep in touch throughout their stay in London. Percy had, surprisingly, found himself almost near to tears in bidding them good-bye; somehow, the emnity of the adventure had made them closer friends. And, in addition, the brothers renewed their vows of loyalty to the true Scarlet Pimpernel, offering in the same beat the most desirable resources and such of the London underground police to the cause that Percy would continue to serve.
Marguerite slept throughout the journey back to England, and awoke in renewed strength and vitality. She was a little startled that, during the spell of one, long sleep, the entire Percy/Chauvelin conflict had been resolved, and in such perfection. Percy, meanwhile, was thankful that she had had so little a part of it as she did.
Armand hardly left Marguerite's bedside throughout the long hours in returning home as Percy set about making preparations for what was to come. Percy loved Armand all the more for his own feelings to his sister, and he reflected that his wife had to be the most fortunate lady in the world to be always surrounded by so much love and so much undying devotion; Percy loved her with all the love in the world, and he didn't doubt that, in that sweet, brotherly faithfulness of his, Armand did too.
Without, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, their blood fired by passion for further adventure, pledged their allegiance to Percy anew and prepared for a renaissance of their quest like nothing the world had seen before.
That morning at St. Pierre, Chauvelin's remaining soldiers had fled in confusion, without a clue of what had happened that entire wild day, a nightmarish daze of chaos and a mysterious veil of fog . . . and in the meantime, Robespierre and his brutal new Paris received, with rapture, the news that the Scarlet Pimpernel was dead. At long last, the revolution could proceed in peace . . . or so they thought.
Now Percy, as he stood looking out over the bluffs tinted golden by the dying rays of the sunset, fingered his family ring and pondered thousands of new ways to save lives in Paris. The danger of glory seemed to be calling him . . .
He felt Marguerite's soft, warm presence at his elbow and turned to take her hands in his.
"I trust you are not going back 'into the fire' anytime soon, Percy?" she asked gently.
"Alas, my dearest," he said, kissing her hands, then her forehead, lovingly. "Those poor people of Paris need me."
She smiled coquettishly. "I need you as much, Percy," she whispered, caressing his face, "and there is another, one whom you don't know just yet, who needs you too."
Percy smiled, a little uncertain. "Really, dearest? Who?"
Blushing with scarlet radiance, dulling the panoramic sunset with the glitter of her star-like eyes, Marguerite pressed Percy's hand to her belly and leaned her lips close to his ear, for the secret blossoming inside her could no longer, in the light of their replenished and everlasting love, be ignored.