For several weeks or so following the homeward return of Sir Percival and Lady Blakeney, the pair had been, most noticably, more in love than ever . . . almost to a point that nauseated more pessimistic guests to the couple's Richmond estate. But the swift passage of time had, of late, lent an almost distracted quality to their romance, and within a month, Marguerite noticed a particular preoccupation present in her husband's every mannerism.
She knew what was wrong.
The couriers Percy sent daily to inquire after the whereabouts of the vanished "Shovelin'" returned, without fail, empty-handed. Naturally, this news was deeply disturbing within the household of the hunted Scarlet Pimpernel, of whom Chauvelin, as we know, had spent fervent months in driven pursuit.
Although the mere thought made poor Marguerite Blakeney shudder, she knew at heart that Percy could only have rid himself of Chauvelin forever by killing him that night on the French seacoast, when he had had the golden chance and taken, instead, a less hasty route. Planting the ring and identifying papers of the Scarlet Pimpernel on Chauvelin's person, Percy and his men had delivered him to a passing fisherman and informed the man that he had captured the Scarlet Pimpernel. The fisherman, delighted with thoughts of fame and fortune, had seemed almost too eager to obey . . . but Chauvelin was far too clever for his own good (let alone the good of others), the sort of wasp who could be trusted to use his dying breath to sting one last time. Until either he or Percy died, Marguerite knew that Chauvelin would always be there, watching . . .
She felt oddly out of place in her world nowadays. She knew the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, an item that much of English society lost sleep over nightly. Besides the fact that the Pimpernel was her own husband! Now there was a pretty paradox! Percy continued to act the fool in public, but it didn't hurt or dismay her as once it used to, for at long last, she knew the truth. But, although he never declared it plainly, she knew he was scared. Terrified, actually. Supposing Chauvelin truly had escaped and buried himself in some dark corner to think, to plot a way to shatter them all. There were numerous lives at stake; not just Percy and herself, but all of their friends and connections as well, not to mention the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Chauvelin wanted to, he could condemn half of England for treason. But no, he wouldn't. This was a private war now.
Marguerite wanted so dearly to reach out to Percy and comfort him in his time of difficulty, but she knew not where to begin. She was just as afraid as he was.
Marguerite's reverie faded as Percy's warm hand closed over her shoulder.
"Forgvie me, m'dear, but we musn't be late for our own garden party! I trust you will be ready soon?"
Marguerite smiled, reached to caress his hand, and noted the sad absence of the Scarlet Pimpernel's signet ring.
"Yes, of course, Percy. I must have been daydreaming."
Percy took her small hands tenderly in his as she rose from her velvet-cushioned dresser stool, and whirled her in a full, wild arc. "How lovely you look!" he exclaimed, admiring the way her full skirt belled massively around her, much like a blossoming rose.
"Mon Dieu, sir!" Marguerite cried, laughing as she tried to catch her breath. "Save some of that flourish for your guests!"
And, still laughing, she clung to her husband's arm and led him from the room.
Marguerite wore scarlet silk (the color meant so much to her now), and thus descended the stairs clad in discreet irony, the ostrich plumes in her hat bobbing daintily with each step. On her arm, Percy wore pale gold brocade, offsetting the golden trim of his wife's promenade gown with elegance, and his cravat, ever immaculate, spilled over his breast in a cascade of fine French lace. Not a soul present could deny that they were utterly ravishing together. In the hazy yellow light of the rose garden, Marguerite looked so radiantly beautiful and alive, as always, a fallen, wild star oddly out of place among the sophisticated Englishmen and women. And despite Percy's foppish ways and inane manner, he was, admittedly, "one demmed good-looking fellow", as many said of him, with his carefully-clubbed fair hair and somewhat sleepy-eyed appearance. Needless to say, their presence stirred profound awe among those assembled as the music in the whispering garden swelled to a grand climax.
The party was elegant, but not as refined and straight-laced as such affairs often are, for Percy had long ago discarded the traditional English laws of "amusement, but in all things sophistication" in favor of Marguerite's more bohemian one-word philosophy: "vivez". Thus, the chatter was often loud and risible, the dancing whole-hearted, the games absurd, and the guests were encouraged, overall, to have a good time. This fact made Percy and his wife two of the most controversial (and incidentally, most sought-after and well-liked) hosts in all of England. For one afternoon, at least, the men and women of society could relax their tenacities on the dignity of aristocratic life and simply "live". And in addition there was the fact that, for the span of at least that one afternoon, Percy was able to allow pleasure to dull panicky thoughts of Chauvelin. Of course, this was probably the pointed hope that had fueled Marguerite's desire for an all-day soiree in the first place.
The afternoon had waxed half away when Percy's butler discreetly drew the former aside.
"A word, sir?"
Uncertain, Percy nodded.
"There are two gentlemen in the library who would like a moment with you. They asked that I announce them immediately."
Percy couldn't suppress a sudden gulp of apprehension. Instantly his fears of Chauvelin rose again, pressing and fierce, in his throat.
"Did they leave their names, Jessup?"
"No, sir. They only said that they wanted to see you immediately. They did however, apologize for calling you away from your party."
Sounds an awful lot like Chauvelin to say such a thing, Percy noted silently. His eyes surveyed the festive scene around him briefly, as though searching for an escape route.
Calm yourself, Percy, his subconscious told him. So what if it is Chauvelin waiting for you in the library? He can't do anything to you here, in front of your guests! Calm!
He glanced about once more, specifically this time for a friend to accompany him----any friend---but of the four members of his League who had been able to attend that day, Percy saw not a one of them. So, like a prisoner dragging his weary feet to the scaffold of the guillotine, Percy thanked Jessup absently and made his hesitant way to the library.
Percy reached the final ascending step of the staircase short of breath, but hardly because the exertion wearied him. His breathlessness stemmed from sheer terror of immminent disaster.
Chauvelin's black-cloaked image haunted his mind. I'm a fool, he thought bitterly. How foolish of me to turn my back on him. He's waiting for me, and if he doesn't catch me today, I know he won't stop fighting until he does.
He reached the closed library door at long last and pressed his hand to the heavy wood cautiously. No sound came from that room. His eyes fell to the floor, and then to the mirror hung on the wall to his left. He eyed his own image thoughtfully for a moment, the youthful complexion tinged by the haughty air of a sophisticate, and for a moment he caught, in the midst of his personal familiarity, a glimpse of something rather strange. Only for a moment, it seemed to Sir Percival Blakeney that he really was the fool he so often pretended to be, and that the true charade lay not within his daily foppish inanities but in his courageous reputation as the Scarlet Pimpernel. In the uncertain mirrored reflection, Percy saw a creature who only fancied himself to be the dashing cavalier of the Reign of Terror, and in truth a weary, self-centered young man somehow desperate to shroud his true soul in lies and banality. What had he done? He had not only risked his own life again and again and somehow enjoyed it, but now he held at stake the lives of his every friend and relative. If Chauvelin caught him, who else would he try to catch? Marguerite? Armand? The list could go on and on! Oh, would that I had the chance to end this chase once and for all, Percy thought, and briefly fought an urge to run. No . . . he had to stand tall, Chauvelin or no Chauvelin. As the man in the mirror turned quietly to face the library door, the glorious deeds of the Pimpernel were lost to him.
Sensing that destiny, or perhaps Chauvelin himself, awaited just beyond that simple pannel of wood, he turned the handle.
The faces of the two men standing in the Blakeney library were quite unfamiliar. To the best of his memory, Percy had never laid eyes on them before. Inwardly, he was unspeakably relieved, and immediately heaved an involuntary sigh of pure gratitude towards heaven. Still, there was still one corner of his mind that stirred a certain uneasiness about these two men. The thought had barely manifested itself before one of them turned and opened his mouth to speak.
"Percy? By George, is it you?"
Confused, Percy didn't answer. Of couse it's me. He eyed the man who had spoken with interest; he was perhaps a couple of years Percy's senior, judging by the lines of his brow and the oddly strained look of his blunt English features, but he still looked young, rather handsome, and full of life nevertheless. He was imposing in his figure, costumed in the latest---if conservative---fashion from London, his dress consisting of a velvet suit of dark blue with a gold-tinted waistcoat. In stature, he was not as tall as his host, nor as thin, with dark hair and eyes, strange eyes that twinkled with an irresistable hint of joie de vivre. Even so, Percy found no shred of familiarity about him. Well, he thought, unbearably relieved, at least he isn't Chauvelin.
"You don't remember us?" the second, obviously younger man piped up. Unlike his companion, he was more playful in his tone of voice, leaner and fiesty-looking, with a prominent nose and glittering, non-calculating eyes almost identical to those of the man who was probably his elder brother. He wore a similar business-like suit, attractive in his every appearance, with an air of immaculacy that impressed. "We went to school together, Percy. Years and years ago."
"Edward and Henry, remember?" the older one urged. Percy pondered for a moment.
Then it suddenly dawned upon him.
"The Quartermaine brothers, of course! It's been so long!" Inhibitions lost in familiarity, Percy embraced first the larger man, then his younger brother, with almost schoolboy giddiness. A stray tear of memory twinkled in his left eye. "Well, well! It's been, what, a decade?"
"I'm afraid so, Percy. We've been travelling for most of the last decade! If you remember rightly, we stopped writing when we joined the London organization and moved to France . . . nine years ago, I believe," the older man, the one known as Edward, went on, much more easy in his manner now that he had been comfortably recognized. Percy reflected for a moment; he knew what his old-time friend meant by the "London organization". They had both, due to some scandal in the family, become avid members of the London secret police since then. They had moved to Paris almost ten years ago to investigate the revolutionary occurances then only blossoming in the handsome city, and fled again when Madame Guillotine made her ravishing debut. As to what they had been doing out of the country for the past several years, Percy was still clueless.
"Are you still with the agency, gentlemen?" Percy asked, intrigued, and directed his companions to a circle of armchairs in one of the library's spacious corners.
"La yes, most faithfully, Percy. Edward's become one of London's top agents," Henry said, smiling a little to his older sibling.
"My brother boasts about me, Percy," Edward put in, obviously flattered, "but he is quite a prized asset to the London police as well. But let's not talk business; I'm far to happy to see you to think about work!"
"We'd just come from Paris again (beastly place, that) and found ourselves in Richmond," rejoined brother Henry, almost bubbling over with enthusiasm. "So I turned to this old fool of a brother, and I said 'Edward, doesn't Percy Blakeney live in Richmond?' And he asked me who I was rambling on about! Can you believe it? Who could ever forget Percival Blakeney, baronette, a gentleman at thirteen?" His brother laughed out loud, only to be joined shortly by his good-humored sibling.
"We came right over. But we're terribly sorry, Percy, to interrupt. It seems that you're hosting some sort of festivity . . ."
"A silly garden party," said Percy, dismissing the import of the event with a flippant shrug. "Devil take the blasted thing. I would trade it all to have a quiet dinner with you two. And, of course, you shall have to meet my wife . . ."
"Gad Percy! So you did find someone?" cried Henry, directing a mischevious wink in his friend's direction. "Ha! We all joked that you never would! Never having a sweetheart in school, and all. Who is the devilish lucky maid?"
"Turn around," said Percy, grinning dreamily at the large, glistening new portrait of Marguerite Blakeney that had been hung on the large west wall just weeks ago.
"Why . . . she's splendid!" cried young Henry Quartermaine, swerving in his chair to examine the portrait at a better angle. "I trust you will introduce us soon?"
"Well," said Percy, lifting his head proudly, "it just so happens that I'm having a rather small dinner celebration 'ce coir' after the garden party. I would be indeed honored if you would stay and regale my friends and I with the stories of your travels."
"With relish, Percy!" Edward returned. "Lud, but it's good to see you again!"
"And I can't tell you gentlemen," said Percy slyly, "how happy I was to see you."
Percy led his newfound guests from the library with an agile spring in his step. The unexpected appearance of his old friends had lifted a great weight from his heart, and he felt that he could move lighter and freer in its absence. He was quite a different man as he introduced the Quartermaine brothers from circle to circle, as gay and charming as the stereotypical fop should be. The affair only seemed proof to him that his fears of Chauvelin's sudden appearance from limbo were utterly groundless in the realm of reality. No, he had nothing to fear.
He considered briefly the fact that the brothers, having quite a bit of power in their hands with the London government, could prove very beneficial assets to the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel; but the idea was only discarded abruptly. The subject of anything related to the Pimpernel's latest antics made Percy nervous, and, in the light of a promising evening, the last thing he wanted to be was nervous.
Still, there was one matter left to address before the sunset.
Most of the revelers crept home around dusk, leaving the more dear or more important guests to sit down to a more personal dinner with Percy and his wife. As the ladies took a brief pause to adjust their locks and laces, and the gentlemen to straighten their cuffs and cravats, Percy stole away to the study where he found, as planned, the only four members of the Pimpernel's League who had been able to attend the party that afternoon: Marguerite's handsome younger brother Armand, as well as Percy's friends John Osborne ("Ozzy") Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, and Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Upon seeing them, the dilemma at hand waxed fresh in his memory, and his face fell just a little. It was with not a little reluctance that he directed his step forth.
Each of Percy's friends rose respectfully as he entered, fingering one lace-frilled cuff uncertainly.
"No news of Chauvelin, then, Percy?" Sir Andrew queried anxiously.
"More's the pity, lads, no. No one knows what's become of him. Surely he wasn't arrested, as we had perhaps too hastily intended, else I daresay there would be some news by now."
Armand's response was quiet, dogged, as though he were at last giving voice to some long-spent inner trial. His young features, the rather round, naive face and bright, dark eyes, unhid a deep concern. "Then you suppose that he's escaped . . ."
With his spyglass, Percy began to tap a slow rhythm in the palm of his hand, drawing a remorseful breath. "Chauvelin's a slippery fellow. For all we know, he slit that poor, fool fisherman's throat and made a run for it. Lud knows we should have watched the wretched jackanapes a little more closely."
The Pimpernel's men, not missing the hint of general scorn in their leader's eyes, looked dejectedly at the carpet. A cold lapse of silence allowed him to go on.
Percy sighed and began to pace. "The state of things being as they are, I do think we should keep the Pimpernel's exploits at bay until we have some inkling of what is going on here."
There were small nods of concurrence from those assembled----except Lord Dewhurst, who had grown to the Pimpernel's cause perhaps more easily then some of the others in league. He approached Percy with a beat of urgency in his step, his more elderly features contorted in sudden alarm. "La, man!" he cried passionately. "Chauvelin or no Chauvelin, there are people, living people being slaughtered every day across the bloody Channel! We can't just give up now!"
Percy clamped one powerful hand on his friend's shoulder and stared deep into his eyes for a moment. "I admire your courage, my dear Dewhurst, but I have no intention of giving up. At the moment, our position is terribly precarious. You forget that Chauvelin knows who we are. Every one of us. A word from him, and we could all lose our heads. For the meantime, I would appreciate it if you would keep yours."
While Armand and Sir Andrew smiled faintly at the pun, Dewhurst only lost a fraction of his intensity. Ozzy was the next to speak up.
"This whole business is beastly, Percy. But what are we to do? If Chauvelin doesn't want to be found, he won't be. Odd's my life, what if he's lying dead at the bottom of the Channel this very moment? Are we to give up the Pimpernel for good, just because he won't show his bloody face?"
Pursing his lips, Percy paced silently to the study window and gazed out into the lengthening shadows, as if in a plea for guidance. His reflection in the window pane stared blankly back at him, reluctant to answer. His response to the question at hand was perfunctory, broken by a yawn. "Pardon, gentlemen, but I have no answer for you tonight. Sink me, I am far too fatigued."
"Percy . . !" Dewhurst began, in a tone of protest, but a slender shadow crossed the floor and stilled his thought. Marguerite Blakeney stood in the doorway.
"I am very sorry to interrupt, messieurs, but dinner is about to begin." Percy smiled gratefully at his wife as she took his arm, but not even the deliciously accented tones of Margeurite's exquisitely French speech could lessen the stifling apprehension of the hunted men present.
She noticed promptly.
"Please, messieurs, don't fret this way. If Chauvelin plans to do anything, he will do it soon." Marguerite took the cold hands of Lord Dewhurst and Andrew in hers, and eyed Armand affectionately. "Now I won't let this impatience of yours spoil my evening. Do come to dinner."
Despite themselves, Percy's gentlemen friends eyed each other with apologetic smiles and followed Sir Percy and his wife into the hallway. Ozzy shook his head and regretted the fact Lady Blakeney hadn't taken his hand as well.
There were probably a little less than a dozen people who sat down to dinner that night, among them what members of the League were present, as well as Ladies Digby and Llewelyn, their husbands, and various other prominent friends and associates, several pivotal faces in the circle of English society. And then, of course, the brothers Quartermaine had been officially escorted to the table that night, light-hearted with the prospect of lively conversation, fellowship, and good wine.
As Percy surveyed the collection of his company with pride, he couldn't help noticing one empty seat, just across from him at the opposite head of the long dinner table. Odd, he thought. The word lingered a little, flickering in curiousity for a moment or two, only to be swept away by something else in the next instant.
"La, but I daresay an assembly like this is worthy of a toast!" cried Percy gaily, once more assuming the role of public fop no. one. "Cheers then, to---"
Percy stopped short as the valet's cane struck the floor three sharp times, the echos silencing every passing murmur. A voice rang high and icy in the roomy hall.
"Announcing the arrival of one last dinner guest for this evening, one who requests pardon for his tardiness."
Percy swiveled in his seat at the head of the long table, his eyes intense on the broad wooden doors at the entry of the lush dining hall. Marguerite's reassuring hand closed over his, where it lay clenched firmly on the tablecloth.
"Proceed, m'dear fellow," said Percy, his mouth dry. Another surprise . . ?
The valet cleared his throat in readiness. "Then I present Citizen Chauvelin of Paris."
Percy felt, rather than saw, the volley of frantic, burning glances fired in his direction as Chauvelin entered majestically, one hand pressing open each of the heavy wooden doors. Clothed head to foot in black broadcloth, with the exception of a plain, snowy white cravat and stockings, he stood there only a moment, a complacent smile twitching at the corners of his thin mouth, before straightening and pacing stiffly to the one empty seat, across from his astounded host. As this sudden image festered in Percy's brain, the latter noted that the enemy's hauntingly pale eyes had never been more fierce, nor his bearing more proud, nor his smile more bitter, nor his slim figure more black. He was, indeed, most impressive as he crossed the waiting floor, his gaze a torrent of darkness in Percy's gaping senses. The latter dazedly figured that Chauvelin had asked the staff personally for an extra seat at the table, because Percy sure, sure as hell, hadn't invited him, hadn't even faintly expected . . .
"I apologize, of course," said Chauvelin gruffly. "Please, do continue."
Dewhurst surreptitiously dabbed at his prespiring forehead with a handkerchief.
Percy recovered quickly. "As I was saying, then, a toast to all of you, my friends, for being here tonight, and for enduring my boorish hostmanship all the day long."
Laughter, glasses raised, cries of "Here, here!" and "Oh, Percy!"
"A toast to Percy, the most excellent host in all of England!" cried Ozzy loudly.
"Here, here!" cried the guests.
"A toast to Lady Blakeney, my beautiful sister and the most excellent hostess this side of the English channel!" returned Armand.
"To Lady Blakeney!"
Marguerite, in turn, raised her own glass. "To life!"
"La, indeed!" said Percy, his laughter hollow. "Vivez!
"And at last, to our elusive friend, the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Percy gulped as the blood ran cold in his veins. Fortunately, the whole-hearted cries of "Lud, yes! To the Pimpernel!" concealed his immediate reaction from all present, that is, except for Chauvelin, who had himself proposed the toast and now stood glaring, smirking, at his arch enemy across the tablecloth. Percy stared unashamedly back.
"Ah, yes," said Henry Quartermaine, "in the wilds of Paris, we heard nothing but the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel! A valorous man, indeed!" He nodded towards Chauvelin respectfully. "And a very appropriate toast, sir! Percy, if you forgive me for interrupting, will you be kind enough to introduce me to this fine fellow?"
Percy's tabletop stare hardened. "Naturally, my good man. This is Citizen Chauvelin, chief agent of security of the Republic of France. Citizen, this is my close friend Henry Quartermaine and his elder brother, Edward."
"Enchante," Chauvelin replied, smiling with perfunctory charm.
"Ah. A Frenchman!" Edward joined in, his voice seeking to disguise an undisguisable solemnity. Like any other respectable Englishman, not to mention one in league with the London anti-revolutionary agency, Edward Quartermaine was plainly opposed to the gore of the Reign of Terror, if not ultimately repulsed by it. "I'm sorry . . . I must have missed your name when the valet announced you; we did hear of you quite a bit in Paris, Citizen."
"Good things, I trust?" Chauvelin responded, flashing a snide grin.
Henry laughed cooly; the emotion was oddly forced. "Mostly. But either way, I support your mention of the Pimpernel. Battlefield respect, then, eh? Well then, Percy, shall we continue with the toasts? I was quite rude to interrupt---"
Percy lowered his glass, but not his gaze towards Chauvelin. "Quite enough toasting for a day, I daresay. Now what is it you Frenchies say? Mangez?" (pronounced "monjay".)
Lady Digby laughed at the clever little rhyme. "My, my, Percy! Ever the lyricist! How do you do it?"
"Well, the pretty thing rhymes in four places, don't you see. And if a rhyme rhymes, it makes a poem . . . if you follow me."
"So, Sir Percy," said Chauvelin, with false sincerity. "I see you're still a poet."
"Sink me," said Percy, "and you know it." Percy chuckled so foppishly at his own silly rhyme that the guests couldn't help but join in merrily, totally unaware of the war that was being so carefully waged and parleyed over the tabletop. The feast began.
"Marvellous feast, Percy!" exclaimed Edward Quartermaine at length, leaning back luxuriously in his chair as the other guests finished their own meals. "And you call yourself a boorish host?"
Again the guests laughed and Percy, although his stomach was doing nervous cartwheels inside him, chortled back in an effort to mask his deep unrest. The dinner conversation had been lively, sponsored mostly by the two Quartermaine brothers, sharing gaily their adventures in far nations of the world. They had studied and traveled in France, Spain, and had even been to Africa. Percy was indeed interested, but his preoccupation with the dark man at the opposite end of the table made him tremble through and through. Each glance equivocated a cannonball, and each superficially polite word seemed a volley of grapeshot. The war had raged back and forth for an hour or so without visible progress, only to intensify when the Quartermaine brothers turned their conversation to the topic of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
With all the secret skill of a social sophisticate, Percy had silenced that branch of talk in its tracks. Now, dinner was over, and Chauvelin's passing glance of a moment before told Percy that he was ready to make his first strategical move.
"Sink me," said Percy, trying to draw attention to the lateness of the evening, "I couldn't down another morsel! And I don't know about you all, but I am exhausted!"
"Odd's my life, Percy, I could fall asleep right here!" said Ozzy, stretching and drawing a pretentious yawn.
Then, to the tremendous horror of Percy and his men, Chauvelin rose to speak, raising his wine glass respectfully.
"Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen," he began in that slow, mincing tone he had always possessed, "your company tonight has been a pleasure. I will bid you all a very respectful adieu, but first there is something that I must disclose to you."
More than one or two of Percy's men were sweating now; Percy felt his heart race and his mind throb between his ears so loudly that it seemed to him to fill the entire hall with it's insistent thud thud. Beside him, Marguerite's breathing quickened in anticipation.
"You all know, through conversation, gossip, or otherwise, that I have been tracing our invisible Scarlet Pimpernel for many long months now, as my duties to France require of of me, in pursuit of his identity. However, it is not until now, this very moment, in fact, that I feel called upon to reveal to you who the Pimpernel is."
"That is, if you do not mind my spoiling the grand secret . . ?"
Those yet ignorant at Percy's table bubbled over in their eagerness to know the truth.
"Oh, PLEASE, Monsieur Chauvelin, Gad, sir, don't keep us hanging any longer!" cried Lady Digby.
"La, sir, tell us quickly!" urged Lady Llewelyn.
"You, sir, have known all this time and not told us?" Henry laughed. "Lud, man, what were you thinking?"
Percy's stare was glassy and his eyes as frozen. "Sink me, Shovelin', who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?" he asked lightly.
Chauvelin's frighteningly pale eyes glittered with rapt, impish malice, but they seemed to be directly avoiding those of his arch rival...
A strange, masterful smile played over his lips. "Why, simple, really," he said boldly. Dozens of eyes gaped as his mouth opened once more:
"The Pimpernel is me."
For a long beat, no one moved. Percy looked around and saw instantly that no one believed a word of what Chauvelin had said. A good start.
Half an instant later, Percy summoned the most inane, loud, and utterly idiotic laugh he could summon and burst into tearful mirth, tempting his League and various other guests to laughter as well. Drawing his embroidered handkerchief from his sleeve, he dabbed pretentiously at the faux tears streaming down his cheeks.
"La-ha-ha! I've never seen our friend Shovelin' drunk before! Sink me, that's one matter I shall have to cherish! My dear fellow, get yourself home to bed! You shall have a miserable headache in the morning!" The laughter throbbed in the echoing hall, climbing as Percy's irresistable humor spread, like an infection, to everyone present. That is, of course, except for Chauvelin. The tongue-in-cheek expression on his lean face told Percy, in one glance, that Chauvelin knew exactly with whom he was fighting and already had his next move in mind.
"Truly, now, Sir Percival, I have proof," he said as he removed, from concealment in his long black coat, the incriminating letters, addressed to and by the Scarlet Pimpernel, planted on him by Percy that night on the coast of France.
"Proof of your drunkenness? La, yes! The bottle of Burgundy at your elbow was full at the beginning of the evening, was it not? Dewhurst, would you kindly see to that for me?"
Dewhurst, chuckling, lifted the empty bottle and tossed it deftly in Percy's direction as the guests continued to chortle at the boldness of their host.
"Catch, Percy! Voici!" Dewhurst shouted.
Effortlessly, Percy caught the dry bottle and held it up for all to see. Marguerite and the League applauded his performance in an effort to stall Chauvelin's next blow.
"Now, does this or does this not," cried Percy, brandishing the bottle pointedly, "reflect the presence of a fellow fond of good wine?" He waited for the nods and cries of assent from his guests, beckoning them to join the game with a wave of his hand. "We all know how the Frenchies love their wine, and odd's my life, but it always seemed to me, until now, that they could hold it rather well! But, Shovelin', you the Scarlet Pimpernel? Gad, sir! I should sooner expect your precious guillotine to jump over the moon!"
Punctuating the word "moon", Percy hurled the bottle back to Chauvelin, whereupon the latter ducked and the object whistled over his head, only to shatter upon contact with the stone fireplace against the far wall. The laughter was now deafening, and Chauvelin, visibly, was coming quite close to anger. Once more, he raised forth the papers in his hand and opened his mouth to speak.
Percy eyed Marguerite; they both knew what was coming. Percy leaned discreetly near her ear and whispered: "Now, m'dear, if you can, summon up a bit of that acting you were once so divine at!"
She nodded. Marguerite rose from her chair, laughing terribly hard, and suddenly allowed herself to fall against Percy weakly.
"Oh!" she cried. "Oh, I think I shall faint!"
Percy rushed to support her, and Armand leapt from his chair as well. Armand knew, of course, that this was all a simple charade; Marguerite would never cripple her dignity by fainting, as most English women were known, at that time, to do.
"My dearest, what can we do for you?" Armand cried, drawing obvious attention to himself and the scene at Percy's end of the table.
"Mother . . . always said that . . . a burnt feather . . . was good for calming . . . giddiness!" Marguerite breathed.
"Ho, a feather! Can someone not spare a feather?" Percy hollered.
"If not a feather," Marguerite went on, "burnt paper works just as well."
Sir Andrew, whose seat was nearest to Chauvelin's, got the idea instantly and seized the papers from Chauvelin's powerfully clenched hand. Chauvelin, unnerved far beyond the meaning of the word, was too dumbfounded to react, and before he had time to cry "Merde, no!!!!!!" the paper was already afire, thrust through the flame of the nearest candle by Sir Percy himself. The latter held it just under Marguerite's nose and allowed her to breathe a little of the calming fumes of the smoke. In a moment's time, she was herself again.
"Good gracious, what a scene!" cried Lady Llewelyn, fanning herself excitably.
"What gallant men we have the pleasure of dining with!" noted Lady Digby, clapping politely in honor of Percy's skillful act of desperation.
"Good show, Percy! Good show!" Edward put in. Percy bowed deeply and took Marguerite into his arms as his guests clapped and slowly began to rise to their feet. It had been a wonderful evening, but now it was indeed past bedtime.
"Wait!" Chauvelin cried, rather urgently, stepping obstinately in front of the hallway doors. "I have not yet finished!"
"Shovelin' please, I must get my wife up to---"
Percy ceased as Chauvelin drew from his left hand something small, glittering, and bitterly familiar. The Frenchman drew Ladies Digby and Llewelyn into the center of attention and held the object into the light.
"Now then, mesdames, do you recognize the symbol on this signet ring, this one here in my possession?"
The pair eyed it very carefully for a moment or two. The band had been formed of gold and sported a very large round red stone, lined with two small pearls at four evenly-spaced intervals. In the very center of the red stone, one could quite plainly see the pressed image of a small flower.
"Winifred . . ." Lady Lleweyln whispered in her friend's ear, "isn't that just what a scarlet pimpernel looks like?"
"La, yes, do you remember, we saw some just the other day, when we stopped in the coach from London?"
"Why, yes, and they looked just like that!"
"And we know how those horrible French gendarmes searched all of our rings when we crossed the channel last month; do you remember, they were looking for the Pimpernel's ring! We've heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel's signet ring ten thousand times, dear."
"You don't suppose . . ."
Two sets of large, lovely eyes froze on Chauvelin's gloating smile. Percy almost gagged as Chauvelin began to recite:
"'They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!'
Care to finish your own poem, Sir Percy?"
Percy pressed his spyglass to his tightly-pursed lips. "But of course. 'Is he in heaven?
He may be in hell.'"
Here Percy leaned in close and looked Chauvelin straight in the eye.
"'But you are not the Pimpernel.'"
An icy silence.
"Dare you refute this evidence?" Chauvelin muttered coldly. "Come, everyone, rest your eyes on the ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
"Lud!" cried Lord Digby. "He is the Pimpernel! I recognize that seal!"
"Sink me, look!" bellowed Edward and Henry Quartermaine, in unison. "'Tis the seal of the Scarlet Pimpernel!"
Lady Digby whispered to Lady Llewelyn, just within Percy's hearing. "La, but I am disappointed. I expected the Pimpernel to be devilish handsome!"
Percy bit his lip and gripped Marguerite's hand for strength. He didn't move, didn't even look at Chauvelin as his own ignorant guests crowded round.
" . . . but you musn't let a word of this get over the channel," Chauvelin was saying, "else I'm done for. And I may need your help in the future on particular exploits."
"Yes, oh, la yes, of course we'll help!" the guests cried, one by one.
"But, Citizen, what of all your work in tracking down this Pimpernel, if he is no other than yourself?" asked young Henry pointedly. "And haven't you yourself sent numerous individuals to the guillotine?"
"Why . . . this," here Chauvelin indicated the red, white and blue ribbon pinned to his lapel, "this...this disgusting display is simply a facade, so that my people won't suspect me, anymore than you people did moments ago." Percy watched carefully as Chauvelin's inhospitable features softened suddenly, as if in a call for pity. The dilligent deceit of his execution was truly sickening! "I never actually sent any of those poor, innocent people to thier deaths; I merely took the bitter credit for it. But besides," he added, his face brightening with a wry wink and smile, "isn't it easier to tear a government apart from the inside rather than without?"
Edward nodded, understanding. "I see. That's incredibly clever! You'll never be caught at that rate!" And he laughed happily at his observation.
"La, what cheek!" Lady Digby giggled.
"Such an ingenious plan! But why reveal it to us now?" asked Henry, supportive, but still inquisitive.
"Why, so I may have the benefits of your fine aid and support to me, sir. That of you and your friends'."
"Oh, well, in that case, of course we'll help! Onward, ho!" cried Edward excitedly. "The Pimpernel's cause is a most noble one, and I for one am most ready to devote my deepest loyalty to his most courageous quest!"
"Good. I thank you for your support, but I must, regrettably, be leaving now." Then, casting a stray glance about the wide chamber, the man in black leaned forth a bit in mock discretion. "If necessary, I shall communicate with any one of you by sealed note only. I think you'll recognize the seal."
Then, after kissing a few hands and relishing a moment more in his newfound power, Citizen Chauvelin stalked away as abruptly as he had come.
On the dark pathway behind the Blakeney mansion, as Chauvelin was approaching a waiting carriage blacker than the night itself, Percy caught him by the arm.
"Shovelin'! Whose silly, mixed-up ass are you? I don't pretend to understand your motives in this situation and, personally, I think you must be mad!"
Chauvelin wrenched fiercely away and chortled a little. "Why, my dear Sir Percival, I believe this is the first time you've addressed me as a man, and not the idiotic fop you pretend to be. The same idiotic fop that everyone in there, except for your wife and your four men, knows by your good name." Chauvelin resettled his long, heavy black cloak across his shoulders. "And as for my motives and my reasoning, I believe that those lie not in your hands to understand, but in those of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Percy was speechless.
"For as far as English society will now know, I am the Scarlet Pimpernel."
"This is absurd."
"That's only because you don't undertand it just yet. But just keep your little brain pounding at it, and you'll have it in no time. Perhaps you thought you had solved your problems in burning my papers, but I still have the ring. And I do intend to use it."
With a brief smile, Chauvelin put one foot on the step of his coach and then turned round once more. "How careless of you, Sir Percy. I would have thought you would have learned by now to trust no one. For in this slippery world, not even a stupid, senile old fisherman is trustworthy. The fellow's richer than a marquis now, or will be, at least, until I arrest him for being in league with the Scarlet Pimpernel. You see, I always get my way, one way or another, Sir Percy." He smiled wrily. "Now, I'm off, as you say, 'into the fire'. Adieu."
And as Chauvelin tried to leap into the carriage he fell flat on his face in the pavement, for Percy hadn't even noticed that he was standing on Chauvelin's cloak. The Frenchman must have flushed scarlet as he picked himself up, but Percy didn't see. He didn't even laugh. He had no power to laugh.
As Chauvelin's carriage rattled into oblivion, Sir Percival Blakeney, ex-Scarlet Pimpernel, sat down there, down on the gravel, to think.
Citizen Robespierre was at first quite startled when, on looking up from his paper-strewn desk, he saw Chauvelin perched in his open office doorway, looking decidedly pleased with himself.
"Citizen Chauvelin?" he exclaimed, his voice raw with a surprise that quickly developed into irritation. "Well! I wasn't sure if you were ever coming back!"
Chauvelin removed his hat and bowed with perfunctory respect. "Neither was I."
The man at the desk stared at his companion for a long moment and shook his head. "Have a chair," he said, flatly indicating a seat across from him. "The Committee has been going haywire without you to hold the reins. It's about time you decided to show yourself."
Perhaps a little haughtily, Chauvelin lifted his chin an inch or so. "It could not be helped."
Feigning disinterest, Robespierre returned his attention to his papers. "But then on the other hand, as I was saying, I'm sure your delay was well-reasoned. I trust that you have succeeded in that particular 'mission' you spoke of last month?"
Chauvelin thought for a moment, choosing his words carefully. "More or less, Citizen. But I think you will be quite pleased. Before I go into all that, however, there is something I must show you." Saying this, Chauvelin placed both of his thin hands on his superior's desk, spread far apart, and leaned forward a little.
Robespierre looked at him as though he were mad. His voice sounded tired. "Citizen, you are making less than no sense today. Explain yourself immediately."
Chauvelin nodded at his left hand, slyly drawing Robespierre's eyes to the desired locale. The latter's response was flustered. "What is the meaning of...sacre terre, man, isn't that the ring---?"
As the ring glittered dully in the lazy afternoon light, Robespierre choked on his words. Chauvelin finished for him.
"The ring you've been looking for? Why, yes, indeed, Citizen. This is the ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel."
In a sudden charge of victory, Robespierre leapt to his feet and slammed his fists on the rickety old desk. "Pardieu!" he cried breathlessly. "Then you've captured him? Where the devil is he? Who the devil is he?!"
"You don't quite see, I'm afraid, Citizen," Chauvelin scoffed. "I am the Scarlet Pimpernel."
Robespierre's brow blackened threateningly, and in unspeakable frustration, he sat down and held is head in his hands, slightly tousling his carefully-clubbed white wig. "Citizen Chauvelin, you're giving me a terrible headache. Now, zut alors, either you start behaving sensibly or I call my guard! Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel, dammit?!"
Chauvelin started, as though waking from a trance. "Forgive me, Citizen. I shall explain myself presently." Taking a seat, Chauvelin found himself silently gloating once more. He found it amazing how that diminuitive circle of gold on his finger gave him so much power! And, just as silently, he cursed himself for allowing this power surge to mar his respect for his superior. His following words were immaculately polite. "You see," he began slowly, "at the present time, England believes me to be the Scarlet Pimpernel. I, on the other hand, know otherwise."
The other man extended one hand in an almost beseeching gesture. Chauvelin was quick to proceed.
"Have you ever had the pleasure, Citizen Robespierre, of meeting Sir Percival Blakeney of England?"
The other laughed mirthlessly. "You mean Percy Blakeney, Great Britain's most prominent idiot? The richest---and silliest---ass this side of the globe? 'La grande gentilhomme bete d'Angleterre?*', as the gossips call him? Sadly, Chauvelin, no, although I must have heard the man's name a hundred times since he married Marguerite St. Just of Paris, I think it was. Words travel. It's said that he's an utter imbecile."
Chauvelin grimaced. "Imbecile, idiot, ass, it's all the same. Any Englishman who so frequents our city these days can be considered so. You've just described him in a nutshell. Or have you?"
Baffled, but seeing that Chauvelin was obviously getting somewhere, Robespierre paused thoughtfully. "I only know the man by what others have said of him, and they say he's a fool."
"Ah ha! And that," Chauvelin resumed, his voice quavering with enthusiasm, "is merely because said 'others' have no idea that this particular Englishman is our Scarlet Pimpernel."
Citizen Robespierre did nothing but stare Chauvelin stoically in the eye. At length, he blinked and arched one cynical eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
Chauvelin allowed the edges of his mouth to creep slightly upward. "The Scarlet Pimpernel is none other than Sir Percival Blakeney, baronet."
A long pause. "You're playing me for a fool, Chauvelin. I know you've had some strange ideas in the past, but really, this is absurd." Robespierre's voice was weary and calm, the quiet before the storm, building gradually into a fury. Chauvelin listened with great patience (which was indeed a chore for him, as he was, by nature, far from being a patient man and even further from being an understanding one). "I've seen a great lot of people in my time, Citizen, and I can tell you plainly that no man, particularly an Englighman, as foppish, dimwitted, fastidious and cowardly as this ass Blakeney is known---by the world!---to be, would even think of risking his own precious neck for anyone, let alone a foreigner, unless, of course, that someone happened to be a haberdasher! You're stark-raving mad!!!!" Robespierre brought his fist down viciously on the desk and winced in pain. "Merde!"
Chauvelin heaved a deep, flustered sigh to himself. He knew it would take at least an hour to explain the absurd little matter, but had no idea of where to begin.
Precisely as foreseen, Chauvelin had cleared up every last detail within sixty-three minutes' alottment. He told of Percy's noble ambitions, in detail, and of the climax of those ambitions on the English Channel that night, where both men had tried separately to rid themselves of the other and, simultaneously, failed. Robespierre looked on the edge of his seat the entire time...that is, except for the odd moment when the intensity of his agent's story knocked him out of his chair altogether. By the end of it, he was most obviously impressed, of not entirely satisfied.
"Very well, then, Chauvelin. I finally understand how our Pimpernel was able to operate so efficiently for so long. I understand why your efforts to capture him failed, and why his efforts to destroy you failed as well. I understand all that you've done with Sir Percival's ring in your possession, but the one thing I don't understand is...why?"
Chauvelin was about ready to tear the hair out of his head. As we have said, he was not by nature a patient man. "Well you see, Citizen, with both France and England on my side, we shall have the greatest ease in capturing and executing the Pimpernel and his men, which will, in turn, quite plainly discourage all other efforts to help those doomed to the guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel is as good as finished."
"I admire your integrity, Chauvelin," said Robespierre, his words aglow with new intrigue, "but, parbleu, what makes you so sure that you'll be able to capture the Pimpernel now, when all other efforts to trap him have failed? The fact that you know who he is doesn't make him any less clever."
Like a wolf in anticipation of a kill, Chauvelin licked his lips and turned his eyes, glittering and hungry, to the rising moon, just barely visible over the sill of the office window. "No, but it certainly makes him weaker," he said, and absently fingered the signet ring on his left ring finger.
~* * The great gentleman fool of England?
"Damnation, Neville, what is the time?"
"Quarter past noon, and still no sign of Percy. I don't like this one bit."
Neville Malory tucked his pocket watch back into his waistcoat and eyed his surroundings anxiously. "Perhaps we should read the note over again."
"If you say so, although I doubt it will have changed a bit since the last time we read it," Ben Malory sighed, drawing the note from his sleeve and reading aloud for his elder brother:
"'Gentlemen,it is of the most pressing import that you meet me precisely at noon behind Les Trois Chevres, a small fisherman's inn situated only a quarter of a mile southwest of Miquelon, a port with which, I daresay, you are both familiar. This meeting must be of the utmost confidence. Share with no one, not even others of the League, on pain of betrayal. There is no need to reply to this; we must not take the risk. I will merely depend on your arrival. There is an emergency regarding a mutual friend. I shall be alone.'
"And, as usual, 'tis signed by Percy's own symbol. Nothing amiss."
Neville kicked a scrap of garbage at his feet. "Well . . . then what of the first note, the one left for us on Tuesday?"
Obediently, Ben reached into his sleeve, produced the less recent note and began to read, but not without a great sigh and an effort to look put upon.
'My dear friends,good news has arrived at last. Our mutual threat, the individual over whom we triumphed the night of our last adventure . . .'
"He means Chauvelin, of course, Neville," noted Ben quietly.
"' . . .was indeed arrested upon the charge we expected and is now watched securely in the Temple Prison of Paris. Hence, the exploits of the true Scarlet Pimpernel may safely proceed. As you have probably noted by the seal of this note, I was, most fortunately, blessed with the recovery of my family ring (it was auctioned of late, and I was able, via courier, to purchase it back again). I will communicate with you soon and, as before, by sealed note only. For the meantime, adieu.'
"And, as expected, Percy's symbol marks the end. Nothing unusual here either."
"I still don't like it," Neville said. "I suggest we wait five more minutes, at most, and for safety's sake, leave if nothing happens by then."
Ben nodded and set to picking at the broken wax seal, showing quite plainly the embossed symbol of the Scarlet Pimpernel, at the top fold of the foremost letter. He didn't see, as Neville did, a black, cloaked shadow that seemed to detach itself from a dark corner and approach.
"Percy! You startled us! We thought you'd been captured or---"
"Or what?" Chauvelin said, smiling as Neville Malory's shoulders slumped in despair. The latter had already seen what his brother only now noticed: that they were both surrounded by red-white-and-blue-clad French guards, armed to the teeth.
Too late, Ben attempted to hide the incriminating papers in his possession. Chauvelin saw and growled an order to the nearest soldier, whereupon the papers were seized from the quavering hand of the younger Malory brother and surrendered to the steady, be-gloved palm of the dark agent of the Republic of France. He pretended to look the notes over with care.
"Well, well, well," he said, in mock surprise. "These are signed by the Scarlet Pimpernel himself. Arrest them."
His orders were acted upon immediately, and although the brothers resisted, there was no help for it. Their arms were held fast as Chauvelin studied each of their faces slowly.
"Funny," he said quietly, as though to himself. "You're brothers, judging by your likeness. But I don't remember you from that night on the Channel." Chauvelin stared a moment longer, relishing in the terror burning yellow behind the Malory brothers' eyes. "Ah well, we all look the same in the night, I suppose. Take them to Paris. Now then," Chauvelin eyed the soldiers around him and selected half-a-dozen with the indication of his forefinger, "you, there, stay here and wait for the Pimpernel. This note claims he is bound to show himself at this spot today. Report back to Paris by six o' clock this evening." Then he turned back to the Pimpernel's captive men. "Now then gentlemen, if you would be so kind as to follow me?"
Stifling an insidious laugh of pleasure, Chauvelin led the bewildered Malory brothers into the black maw of a waiting carriage and set off for the domain of Madame la Guillotine.
As the carriage jounced right and left on the rough, unpaved road to Paris, Chauvelin reflected.
The ordeal of this afternoon, namely, the apprehension of the Malory brothers, had become a daily routine for Citizen Chauvelin over the past week. Now, at last, he held seven of the Pimpernel's men in his clutches, all so blindly trusting that each man had knelled his own death sentence by stepping into that same rat trap, just behind Les Trois Chevres, every single day.
It had all begun last Saturday, Chauvelin recalled, with the simple apprehension of one George Farleigh (Chauvelin liked to move in alphabetical order where applicable). The quarry had arrived at the spot seemingly a bit nervous in journeying to France alone, but his trust in Percy was obvious in his determined step, up until the very moment when he had realized his tragic mistake.
Chauvelin had almost felt vaguely pained by the intensity of the horror in the man's face---but he willingly acknowledged that his supposed "heart of stone" allowed for no more emotion than an "almost".
One by one, ever since that first treacherous afternoon, Percy's men had fallen like stars, and followed each other, like lemmings, so faithfully into the abyss of their mutual doom. It was so foolishly simple that it was almost humorous. The routine was the same on every occasion: to each of the Pimpernel's men, Chauvelin had addressed a sealed note of the exact same character, the sort read above by Ben Malory himself. Each note had arrived without interception or interference, for while Chauvelin's couriers delivered the letters quickly and successfully, his spies in turn intercepted the warning messages sent to each individual by Sir Percy, who had rightfully feared the seriousness of his opponent's game from the beginning. Thus, none of the fools had suspected a thing . . . until the last possible moment of course, but by then it was always too late. Every day at a quarter after noon, Chauvelin had stepped from the same deep shadows, summoning an attitude of profound surprise at finding, unprotected and unarmed, one of the Scarlet Pimpernel's right hand men, caught red-handed in an empty rendez-vous. It was too easy.
Marguerite would be proud, Chauvelin thought, as he reflected upon the feigned charade of "surprise, surprise" that he had dutifully played out to its end. She used to be such a fine actress herself. Not that her performance last week at Percy's dinner party hadn't been exceptional; now that deserved an ovation!
Marguerite. Chauvelin still wasn't sure how precisely she was to fit into the scheme of things, but he knew indeed that there was yet a role written for her. Well, perhaps not a role of his own decision; he doubted he would be able to trick her into helping him again, after what they had been through in the past. Marguerite wasn't stupid.
The carriage jolted roughly to the left, and Chauvelin cursed softly as his elbow struck the passenger door. The jolt reminded him of one problem he still possessed: how to obtain the Scarlet Pimpernel, his wife, and the four remaining men who already knew of his intentions? Here was another need for a trap, but what to use as bait? . . .
The men already held prisoner in the Bastille? No, too easy. Naturally, the Pimpernel would come sooner or later to retrieve his own men. But he had succeeded in so many jailbreaks already; if Chauvelin let these men escape, he would have to start from less than scratch. He couldn't afford to lose them. They would be marched to the Place de la Greve quickly, quietly, and without interference. But then there was nothing to bait the trap. O, complication!
Well, as there are always two roads to the same mountaintop, Chauvelin, of all people, would find a way. He had the ring of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the trust of the Scarlet Pimpernel's most avid supporters all in the palm of his hand. What more did he need to win?
For, this time, he would win.
Thus he vowed, and thus he would advance until he had sucked the last, sweet drop of vengeance from the situation at hand.
"More bad news, I'm afraid, Percy," Lord Dewhurst sighed grimly.
Percival Blakeney, at his wit's end and beyond, peeled his face off of his unkempt library desk and looked wearily up at his friend, eyes glazed. In silence he accepted the unsealed note handed to him and, reluctantly, looked it over.
"Blast!" he bellowed. The old desk splintered audibly beneath the furious blow of his clenched fist. "Not the Malory brothers as well!"
"I know Percy. It's horrible." Dewhurst slumped heavily into an armchair adjacent to the desk. "The tricky bastard's got seven of us now."
"Seven! Damn!" Percy resumed, badgering his poor desk anew. "Damn, damn, damn, DAMN, DAMN!!"
Dewhurst eyed his friend sorrowfully. Percy had been in torment for the past week-and-a-half now, helplessly watching his dearest friends slip from his fingers like so many grains of sand. Farleigh, Hastings, Leggett, Elton, Neville, Ben and Hal, all gone, nearly as good as dead in Chauvelin's hands. Dewhurst had seen the proud, brilliant, and flamboyant man he had known so well grow pale, gaunt, and wax close to madness, his eyes always raw, intense, burning, like those of a beast at bay a stone's throw away from death. Now, staring blindly out of the library window, his cravat, waistcoat, and hair messily undone, gripping the fist he had, no doubt, bruised in beating the desk, Percival Blakeney, baronet, looked no more human than a cornered fox.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel," he breathed, his voice an echo of profound realization, "is done for."
"Don't you see?" he retorted, passionate again. "As long as he has the ring, Chauvelin isn't finished yet! Not remotely! First, he'll come after you. And Andrew. And Ozzy. And Armand. He'll use my damned ring and twist everything it's done for us into something hideous, something deadly. He will catch us, every one of us. We have no guard against him!"
"And when all of you are, inevitably, tried and sentenced to death for treason, he will laugh out loud and come after me. And Marguerite . . ."
Percy lifted haunted eyes reverently to Marguerite's portrait on the library's far wall. A fleeting, happy memory danced across his dizzy mind: he remembered a warm afternoon, shortly after his and Marguerite's return to England after that supposedly victorious night on the Channel. He had entered the library in search of something and turned to find the portrait just hanging there, faintly scenting the sprawling room with the soft fragrance of fresh paint. It was a gift to him from Marguerite, in honor of his bravery of past, present, and future. "I would have commisioned one of you, love, but your portrait in the parlor would be far to difficult to surpass!" Marguerite had laughed. She referred, of course, to the portrait done of him by Madame Toussaud, as she was now known. Marguerite had hired the same talented lady to paint her own portrait. In truth, Percy loved the portrait of his wife far, far more than the painting of himself, and probably more than any other gift he had ever received in his lifetime. On the library wall, in the room of the lavish mansion which Percy frequented the most often, the painting stood out as the most beautiful, thoughtful, majestic, and awe-inspiring gift a gentleman could receive. Marguerite wore scarlet in the painting, a color that set her eyes and lips afire, and gave accurate birth to that aura of pure life that followed her everywhere. She was seated gracefully on a long couch of fawn-colored embroidered silk, and behind her stood a lively vase of flowers, on pedestal, and the backdrop of several heavy velvet curtains, a deep shade of green. In one hand, mysterious and romantically ironic, she fingered a fresh-picked scarlet pimpernel.
Percy clenched his fists furiously as his sides. Spiraling upward, where would this madness end? At the last possible moment, the eleventh hour? And how would it end? By whose sacrifice? Who, when it all ended, would lose the day? Percy, or Chauvelin?
Or . . . Marguerite?
Percy loved her so much. And his love for her, a love which he nurtured at the roots of his existence, made him fear Chauvelin's menace all the more.
Percy abandonned the room in a dreadful state. Dewhurst had left him an hour earlier, and in the span of that hour, his ponderings had brought him nowhere. The sun had set and Marguerite, desperately concerned for her husband, had taken a seat on a sofa just outside the library doors, waiting for Percy to come out, but only when he was ready. She wouldn't disturb him until then.
She had waited patiently for almost half an hour when the heavy doors creaked gently open, spilling lamplight across the dark hallway floor. Percy's tall shadow masked it a moment later.
He paced just past the open door, closed it behind him and leaned back against it, arms crossed, face pensive. Marguerite, just a stone's throw to his right, didn't say a word. Instead, she rose from her seat soundlessly and approached him; she gently laid one small hand on his arm.
Percy jolted, as though suddenly called back from a trance . . . or another world. His eyes softened as he recognized his wife standing in the shadows.
"Marguerite, dearest . . . I didn't see you there."
"I was waiting for you," she said soflty. He smiled a little and reached for her hand.
"Oh, well . . .I . . . I'm sorry, m'dear, but I feel I must apologize if I've been . . . well, distant, I guess you could say, as of late. This whole business with Chauvelin----"
Pressing her fingers to his lips, she hushed him. "I know. I'm as scared as you are, Percy."
He nodded and hung his head a little. "The Malory brothers are gone now, too," he noted quietly.
She pressed both her hands to his. "Oh, Percy, not them as well . . ?"
With an inexpressible weariness, Percy closed his eyes and said nothing. The hallway was very quiet for a moment or two. Then Marguerite slowly raised her hand to his face and opened her mouth to speak . . . but didn't. She couldn't find the words. Speechless, she embraced him instead.
They held each other wordlessly then, at once silenced and protected by the love that they would always share. Despite himself, Percy allowed a little of his tension to slip away in the light of her warmth, thinking to himself that, as long as Marguerite loved him, and he continued to love her, nothing in the world could best him.
Not even Chauvelin.
Absently, as he held the woman he loved with every aspect of his being, he reflected upon whether anything, material or otherwise, could withstand the disasters he knew were coming for him. If there was one thing he prayed, that night and beyond, it was that his God would protect her. He had danced with death so many times, had saved himself successively without fail . . . and now Marguerite was involved, more than ever, and every bit as threatened as he. But river had to have almost run its course; it had to end soon. Any day now.
We must be strong, Percy thought. Above all things, help us be strong!
Seated alone in the meager glow of a single flickering candle, Chauvelin leaned back in his desk chair and stretched. It had to be close to the middle of the night, he noted. Before him, alone upon his office desk, lay two folded letters, both bearing the cooling wax pressed with the seal of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He had sat up deep into the night writing them, researching and thinking his way through every last sentence, and had only moments ago completed his task. The first note, the thicker one, would reach its destination tomorrow morning, and the second, thinner but attached to a small packet that made up for its weight, the morning after. A courier waited just outside the door of Chauvelin's Paris office to carry the letters into the night. Once the wax was dry, Chauvelin had but to address them, and they would be speedily on their way.
Chauvelin knew the recipients wouldn't fail him. Each letter served the same express purpose: to finish the Scarlet Pimpernel once and for all. By the end of the week, he would certainly have Percy and his wife in his clutches. And these two letters would get the job done for him, clean and simple. And final.
Which was all he needed! Triumph was so very near!
It didn't matter to Citizen Chauvelin, as he sat there in the looming darkness, that this new step forward abounded in new deceit, in treachery that, on any other occasion, would have drawn reprimands and gasps of alarm from his superiors. That is, if they had known about it. Well, he reasoned, if deceit was what he had to invoke to win, then he would do so, as simple as that. And it was all for the welfare of the Republic, of course! Where was the wrong in it?
He drew his handkerchief from his sleeve and began to dab at a few last crumbs of dark red wax clinging to the seal insignia of Sir Percival's ring, noticing as he did so that the wax had dried. Then, he lifted his quill pen and addressed both letters in a wide and very legible hand:
"The Brothers Quartermaine, the Blakeney Mansion, Richmond, England."
Chapters Eight through EpilogueMail the Author