Sir Percy's Mission
In the turbulent, morbid days just preceding the Reign of Terror, when heads rolled with unmeasured brutality as commonly as the tumbrels that carried agonized souls to, and dripping corpses from, Madame de la Guillotine, the doomed cried with one pitiable voice towards England, where lay their last hope of earthly salvation: The Scarlet Pimpernel and his hardy, blessed little league.
Deep in the corrupted heart of Paris, in fetid dungeons, where huddled captives breathed foul air and saw only their fellow wretched through vague, dusty dimness that cannot honestly be termed sunlight, a small, torn slip of paper fluttered through the single window slit into the dainty, grime-caked hands of Francoise du Mauriat.
Francoise du Mauriat, who had had the misfortune to marry a Marquis, whose youth, beauty, innocence the Revolution had ripped from her and mounted on a pike among the heads of her kinsmen, now, with young son and aged father, waited in dumb terror in a stinking pit for the day when a red-capped, delusional madman would sign his name to her death sentence. With sunken eyes and dull black curls, which used to shine in elegance above puffed sleeves and becoming jewelry, she anticipated her fate. At times, she prayed for a speedy end to starvation and suffering; at other times, she resolved to endure for the sake of her companions, neither of whom could exist on his own, now that the Marquis had gone before them. Yes, the MarquisÖGilbert du Mauriat, having recognized oppression and discontentment in the population throughout his father's time, had only just acquired the authority to undertake their reversal, but the bourgeoisie, embittered by generations of suffering, took matters into its own callused, bloodied hands and took an axe to the family tree. Few branches remained, shuddering, broken, scattered in the mud amongst the worms.
Francoise unfolded the scrap, staring blankly for a moment at its contents, allowing her tortured brain to analyze and absorb the words. Hunger and shock overpowered her briefly; her aching head whirled, and, in her unsteadiness, she fell against the unyielding, mold-ridden stone wall. Within seconds, she recovered her composure and knelt at her father's side.
"Mon Dieu!" whispered the ailing man weakly, as Francoise closed his trembling fist over that blood-red, star-shaped flower which she pressed into his palm, that emblem of The Scarlet Pimpernel which all of the thousands of shivering shackled prayed for until their final moments, but only a precious few could possibly receive.
Henri du Mauriat peered at his grandfather's curious expression, at the silent tears streaming from the old man's cloudy, tired eyes, at the frailty of the clenched hand which held the missive, and he struggled to comprehend what had passed to cause this alteration in the manners of his family. The child abandoned his position in the rotting, rancid hay scattered over the filthy floor of the infested cell and stood, tugging anxiously at his mother's skirt with doll-like fingers, gazing up into the tragic visage of his widowed mother with light, angelic eyes possessed of heartbreaking naiveté in the midst of a ruthless, hateful world.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est, Maman? Est-ce que Papa va retourner? Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" (What is it, Maman? Is Papa going to come back? What is there?)
Francoise burst into adoring tears at her son's words.
Dover, One Week Later
Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., his wife on his arm, loped down High Street in apparent ease and inanity, and only Marguerite recognized his offhand comments as detailing his newest escapade, to be carried out the following day.
"Odd's fish! How time flies!" he exclaimed casually, glancing at his pocket-watch, "Nearly four o'clock already. This aristocrat is rather in need of some victuals. What say you to The Fisherman's Rest and a good, solid, absolutely British tea?"
Marguerite assented with a loving smile to both the suggestion of tea and the plan to depart Dover at four o'clock the next morning to make the most of the turning tide.
"Begad, m'dear," Percy continued, "have you heard from Armand lately? He's not gotten himself thrown into jail, has he?"
"Has he, Sir Percy?" asked Marguerite ironically, to acknowledge that she understood, "He has not written me for at least two weeks." So her brother would purposely cast himself into jail, probably to identify and accompany a few fortunate souls out of the prison by whatever method Percy deemed appropriate, given the circumstances. But how?
As the pair moved through the crowd, turning a corner towards the coast and The Fisherman's Rest, Percy spotted a disagreeable acquaintance of his parading by the milliner's with overstated importance from the golden tips of his boots to the hideously flounced cravat cascading from his fleshy chins.
"I say, Lord Fotherdill," Sir Percy observed, inspecting the man's attire with an amused air, "From whhoooooomm did you exhuuuuumme that cravat? Wouldn't be caught dead in it, man!"
Marguerite, without disguise, burst into mirthful peals of contagious laughter at her brilliant husband's rather gruesome pun; donning his standard foppish mask, Sir Percy joined her with that half shy, half foolish chuckle which characterized his little act, a joke which he and his beloved wife now shared since the events of the previous year had removed the misunderstanding which had forced a rift between the two.
"If you have the inclination, and you certainly ought," Percy suggested, drawing a card from his coat, "you must visit one of my tailors. Let me read some of their names to you: Algernon Warfflebeak-Smith, Horsey de Horsey, Gervase Ainslie Williams, Elphinstone Fortesque Hitchbins, and Mr. Robert Jones."
The cleverest woman in Europe instantly understood her husband's meaning from the preposterous list of haberdashers he had invented: "tailors" referred to prisoners, and Percy planned to summon his designated escapees by substituting their names into the register of those to be executed, and thereby remove them from prison.
The insulted fellow writhed in fury, his huffy girth held all the more pompous, his multitudinous jowls undulating over his stiff neck-tie as he sputtered vehemently, "Insupportable!"
Lady Blakeney tossed her golden head. "Quite," she quipped with an impish smirk, recognizing Percy's low esteem for the man and adding her quick wit to the assault. "I shall order my husband to be polite to you, sir. Why, I have never in my life seen a better dressed boar!"
Sir Percy turned to his wife placidly, holding his quizzing glass to one lazy blue eye. "Do you really think him a bore, m'dear? Personally, I find him most intriguing!"
Lord Fotherdill quaked with indignation, his flushed cheeks puffing noticeably as he vainly attempted to check his seething anger. "I swear, Blakeney," he promised viciously, his comic appearance fading, "If I ever get my hands on you or your bloody wife, I'll—"
His outward calm only slightly ruffled by the venomous outburst, although Marguerite saw through to his inner turmoil, Percy raised his eyebrows and interrupted the man's frightfully meaningful vow. "What? Threatening to put your hands on my wife? You wretch!" he scolded good-humoredly, "Gad, old boy, she's quite off limits."
The couple, bidding their adieus, resumed their walk towards The Fisherman's Rest, leaving Lord Fotherdill next to the milliner's, rigid and apoplectic.
Tea and Scones With the Blakeneys
Lady Blakeney rustled elegantly along in a high-waisted summer gown, tapping the cobbles occasionally with her beribboned stick, and turning over the recent conversation in her mind with flickering regret.
"Perhaps," she mused, her eyes fixed ahead, "we should not have mocked him so, Sir Percy. He really had not offended us at all."
She looked to her husband for his answer; Percy laughed one dry, bitter "ha," and thrust his ornamental walking stick forcefully before him with each long stride.
"Do not waste your prized pity on Lord Fotherdill, m'dear," he advised. "Bestow it upon those who more deserve it." Percy pointed at nothing with his stick and returned his voice to its standard exaggeration of poshness as he continued. "Take my friend Frank, for instance, and his family. Not grandfather nor father nor son ever wronged a soul, and yet all have been jailed, charged with crimes that, not only did they not commit, but they had attempted to set right. Demmed unjust. Poor Frank."
Sir Percy, ever a gentleman, held the door of The Fisherman's Rest wide for his lovely French wife, who graciously mounted the step and passed through with a nod for her splendidly-attired husband.
"Halloa, my good Jelly!" Percy greeted the innkeeper with warmth, clasping and shaking his hand vigorously. "Tea and scones for my wife and me, if you would be so kind!"
The simple Jellyband smiled broadly, made a slight courteous bow to Lady Blakeney, who acknowledged him, and, with a flutter of his hand, indicated a comfortable, private dining room to which he then led the assenting Blakeneys.
A more spacious room, it boasted worn, embroidered chair cushions, lace tablecloths, a remarkably unobstructed view of the sea, and a refreshing breeze wandering in from the open window at the far end, where waited a setting for two. Without much regard for the worn, embroidered chair cushions, Percy, having escorted his wife to her own seat, flopped his tall, handsome self down lethargically, stretched his long legs to the side, and gazed absently out the window. Marguerite dismissed Jellyband with a fond nod, and he shuffled from the room to commission Sally in the kitchen.
"Oh, Jelly," Percy called after the departing host, whose face momentarily appeared around the door. "If Ffoulkes or Lord Tony happens to saunter in, do please conduct them to us here, wot?"
Honest Jellyband responded, "I'll do that, Sir," and, bowing himself out, touching his forehead, "Sir Percy, Lady Blakeney." The innkeeper disappeared once more, and calls to his daughter faded with the soft click of the door's latch.
Marguerite raised her childlike eyes to her husband in expectant curiosity, and he, remarking her, presently continued the litany concerning his unfortunate friend Frank. Throughout this encoded speech, Marguerite could not conceal her admiration for Percy and his daring exploits. A disguised Scarlet Pimpernel to drive the tumbrel, Armand to release the bonds, the cart to divert into an alley, the rescued to escape Paris over the Seine and across the Channel aboard the Day Dream—a brilliantly simple plan, really.
As Percy revealed the final details of the ploy, Jellyband interrupted the Blakeneys with a delightful platter of scones and a pot of tea.
A Paris Night—Two Days Later
Silently, ever so carefully, so as to remain as inconspicuous as possible, Armand followed, intent on his object. Silently, ever so carefully, he pursued another figure, a figure brightened by the flickering of the flaming branch in hand, darkened by sin and hatred and betrayal in heart.
Percy, Lord Tony, and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, all disguised, ran recklessly amongst the gruesome throng through the streets of Paris, shouting "liberte, egalite, fraternite!" as ferociously as the rest. They had a method to their madness, however, in that the mob carried them past the jail in question, past the square in question—where the fearsome guillotine hungered for more and the tumbrel would be destined not to arrive and unload its victims—past the river in question, past all the locations with which familiarity would be essential to the success of the League's mission, to the survival of the du Mauriats. As bullets split the air, shattering windows and felling anyone in their way, revolutionary or no, Percy recalled his wife's words to him at their parting, as Percy boarded the Day Dream, leaving Marguerite alone on the dock.
"Bon chance, mon mari. And be careful, darling," she had cautioned, concern creasing her brow and creeping into her childlike eyes and mouth, as he bowed and kissed her hand ceremoniously. "Gad, m'dear," he had chuckled, "I always am."
Letting fall its torch to sputter and die in the mud of the gutter, the figure turned down a narrow tunnel, breaking from the mob, slipping away unnoticed, save by one. Hugging the brick wall of the shadowy passage, the figure retreated, enshrouded in a billowing cloak from which it drew a cylindrical object which reflected the red glare of the Parisians' torches and appeared, for a moment, aflame itself. Amidst the bellowings and beltings of the riotous crowd, Armand St. Just skirted the human rapids and flattened himself against the wall next to the tunnel, where moments earlier he had remarked the figure disappear, headed, he assumed, for Robespierre's base—a ramshackle, shuttered stone building in a courtyard where the tunnel terminated. The dull roar of the mob, ubiquitous and hollow against the cobbles of the open courtyard, drowned neither the drip of stale, dirty water from roofs into barrels, nor the swift click-swish of the cloaked figure crossing towards a house at the far end. Armand, ducking into the courtyard, noted the building carefully and crept yet closer as the unknown figure mounted the building's steps and made to enter. Too late did Armand catch sight of the weapon the figure held, too late did he attempt flight; the head turned, the arm pointed, the finger wrenched the trigger. Amidst the pounding of the "Marseillaise," the shatter of glass through the streets, the animal shrieks that cut to the heart, the cry of agony and surprise that arose from the throat of one insignificant man as a molten bullet tore into his flesh went inaudible, melting into the Paris night.
"Good God, Armand!" breathed Percy in shock, as the fellow in question, his shirt bloodied from his right shoulder to the cuff where red coursed down his limp hand, stumbled into the cellar of Le Poisson Vert, an inn to which the League had shifted its French base. Momentarily unsure of what course to take, Percy rambled pointlessly, "We were only just about to leave in search of you!"
With a tiny outward breath and a slight totter, St. Just collapsed. Instantly, Percy and Sir Andrew rushed to him, lifting him and issuing orders to Tony, who raced frantically to locate the items requested and deliver them to his honored leader. "Water, cloths, salt, brandy!" Percy accepted the rag thrust into his hand without a word, never turning his eyes from his fallen brother-in-law, mopping Armand's glistening brow and stemming the flow of blood from the young man's shoulder.
"Obviously," observed a grave Sir Percy Blakeney to the revived Armand, as the Scarlet Pimpernel cleaned his comrade's gunshot wounds delicately, "You are quite unable to assist us in this or any other rescue for the time being. You had better return to England as soon as possible and get yourself some medical attention, my good man!" he continued with a half-hearted chuckle, vainly attempting to assuage the terror that darted across Armand's face. "Lud, old chap! How did you manage to have this done to you?"
Grimacing as Percy applied a saltwater-soaked cloth to his ravaged, slippery shoulder, Armand groaned a semi-intelligible reply before faintness overcame him again: "It wasÖthe one they call Sang RougeÖ"
Percy leaned back in his chair in cogitation and let Armand's sweaty palm drop.
Lord Antony Dewhurst, loyal and trustworthy to the death, but never noted for a wide mastery of language, advanced hesitantly.
"Songgrooge, did he say?"
Sir Percy tapped the long, pale fingers of his right hand on the chair arm and resumed tending Armand, shaking his head and correcting his friend. "No, Tony," he said grimly, "Sang Rouge. Red blood."
"Hastings!" Percy interjected abruptly, betraying no emotions, only urgency and determination, "Can you manage to take Armand across the Channel tonight in the Day Dream and return by tomorrow evening?"
Without a second thought, Lord Hastings donned a ragged cloak and cocked his tricornered revolutionary hat, an expression of stony resolve stealing over his person as he promised "I'll not fail you, Percy. Your schooner's the finest ever to take on those perilous waters."
Percy paused, leaning back as if startled and staring at Hastings with a hint of amusement in his handsome features, while a foolish grin spread over them. "I hope you don't mean to imply that my boat leaks?" joked The Scarlet Pimpernel, lapsing briefly into his foppish disguise.
The ambiance of the somber room lightened, and, with a hearty, somewhat forced laugh, Sir Percy stood, clapped Hastings solidly on the back, and sent him off to ready a rapid carriage for the purpose of the wounded Armand's conveyance to Calais.
"Men," Percy mentioned soberly, the moment the door had shut behind Hastings, "some re-arrangements are in order."
The crisp metallic clink of boot spurs on the dungeon stones roused Francoise du Mauriat from a fitful dream in which she looked on, helpless, as Madame de la Guillotine, in the height of her gruesome glory, claimed one soul after another—her husband, her dearest friend, her sister, her brother, her cousins, her father, and finally her own, innocent, darling child—under a keen, shimmering blade.
The door swung open on its rusted hinges, wailing in grief, mourning for the condemned, denounced lives which would be publicly cut short on that, the thirteenth of July, 1793. A tall, brawny soldier, nearly as dirty himself as the prisoners he would soon conduct from the room, unrolled the dreaded daily scroll, longer than the previous day's; to the revolutionaries, the scroll contained merely names to be read off, one by one, no more human than the paper the black ink marred with those legendary titles of France. The soldier spat contemptuously at the fallen aristos, grinding his saliva into the hay at his feet with all the grace and refinement of a truffle pig, and began to recite the list.
"The former Comte de Giverney, the former Comtess de Giverney!" he barked.
Two figures rose silently from the corner, clinging to each other, tears streaming down faces that told of suffering and hopelessness, but standing rigid and proud in the face of degradation, shame, and death. Several revolutionaries seized the couple hatefully, the doorway swallowed them, the soldiers herded them to the waiting tumbrels to be paraded through the streets and submitted to the attacks of a twisted population.
"Mademoiselle Cassandre Jean-Pierre, who sheltered an aristocrat!"
"The former Baron Guillame Legrand!"
"Madame Therese-Helene Bernard, plotter against la Republique!"
"Monsieur Hercule-Robert Toulouse!"
Francoise flinched at her father's name; suddenly, her mind went blank, every last flicker of denial and disbelief vanished.
"Henri du Mauriat!"
Her son's name rang in her ears, and, instinctively, she clutched him to her heart in one final, motherly effort to shield him from the harsh realities of the world.
"The former Marquise, Francoise du Mauriat!"
Helping her ailing father to his feet, Francoise led the ghost-like trio to the steps and out of the prison, their first true glimpse of the world for over a year—a hungry tumbrel crowded with wearied, broken spirits. Food for Madame de la Guillotine. Francoise boarded the tumbrel and closed her eyes.
"Odd's life," Percy muttered under his breath as his gaze fixed on a familiar face at the gate: a dark-haired Frenchman, nearer forty than thirty, of small stature, but with a brutal countenance, viciously assigning a cluster of soldiers their posts. "Citoyen Chauvelin. What a charming surprise." A look of unwavering determination, a look almost recalcitrant, appeared upon the hero's face, setting his jaw and hardening his eyes.
Sir Andrew, the tumbrel's driver, heard but did not acknowledge his leader's comment, and the Scarlet Pimpernel hurriedly removed his bayonet from the barrel of his stolen rifle and forced its deadly tip deep into the knot of rope that bound Francoise's hands behind her back. As the hindrances loosened, the woman's eyes snapped open and her head around, but the disguised Percy hushed the question upon her lips and she resumed her defiant pose, indicating, with an inclination of her head, the boy at her side. Stealthily, straining to keep his balance in the rattling, bouncing vehicle, the Scarlet Pimpernel simultaneously sliced Henri's bonds and clapped a hand over the child's mouth to silence any betraying outburst. He then moved to the old man.
"ProceedÖas usual," the tall guardsman commissioned the driver, as the cart approached a cul-de-sac on the left. "And we'll pray for good luck!" he added, in British.
"Yah!" Sir Andrew cried to the horses. Percy fired his rifle into the air, but in the courtyard, the place of the guillotine, the sound echoed from all directions, causing the wide-eyed horses to alternately shy and rear. In the confusion which followed, Sir Andrew managed to back the tumbrel into the alley, all the while feigning fury at the "uncontrollable" horses. Percy and the freed aristocrats hastened through a cellar door— the cellar door to Le Poisson Vert—and, abandoning his post to the tumultuous crowd, Sir Andrew mingled with the revolutionaries and soon joined his leader, his disappearance unobserved.
The closing door muffled the din from the streets, and Andrew descended five steps into the wine cellar, where Percy and the du Mauriats exchanged their telltale outfits for red caps, wooden shoes, and other ragged peasant garb.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, transformed from disdainful guard to fish-monger, scrubbed his face to redden it, preparing the family for the hazards which awaited. "I must be perfectly frank with you. Our plan has gone somewhat awry, my friends, and none of us knows what is to come. But I give you my solemn word, as a servant of my God, my country, and my king, that whatever the perils, the League will sacrifice itself to the last drop of its blood to keep you from harm and remove you from France. We shall be forced to take our chances with the gatesmen: we have no ruse to smuggle you through, but have courage and do not, under any circumstances, diverge from our goal. I cannot pretend that you are safe. Nay, nor can I assure you that this mission will leave you alive, but I can claim, and I believe it with all my soul, that these men you see around you, in whom you must place your fullest trust, comprise the finest, most lion-hearted, most capable little band in all of Europe. "And now," he continued, taking in the old tricotess (Toulouse), the young wine maker's wife (Francoise) stained with red, and the sack of potatoes (Henri) that stood before him, "We depart, and may God go with us."
The potato-sack on her lap, the aged tricotess knitted patiently in the pushcart, her trembling hands and weak eyes encumbering her work so that she dropped more stitches than she completed as the cart rumbled toward the gates in care of the wine maker's wife. Following close behind, the stooped fishmonger plied his odorous trade. As the common-place group approached their salvation—their passage out of Paris—the fishmonger halted, quivered almost imperceptibly, and, shuffling forward, caught the young wife on the shoulder.
"Les poissons, Citoyenne!" he urged her, delaying the cart's progress, "Achetez un poisson! Beware, Madame," he added under his breath, a dire warning clouding his handsome blue eyes, "We approach an enemy."(The fish, citoyenne! Buy a fish!)
"Qui est-ce?" whispered Francoise, and then, louder, as she pushed the cart onward, inspired with some inexplicable burst of courage, "Non, Citoyen, merci. Nous sommes tres pauvre."(Who is it?...No, citoyen, thank you. We are very poor.)
Yet again, the red-faced fishmonger pursued her, his tenacious grip on her wrist halting her in her tracks, freezing her heart; when The Scarlet Pimpernel, who never quailed from any peril, hesitated, the danger must be unspeakable indeed. "Mais, Citoyenne, je suis tres pauvre aussi! Je connais que vous avez faim! Let us delay a moment, Madame. I must think, I must think of what we should doÖ D~~ Chauvelin! D~~ him! He's not left the gate!"(But, Citoyenne, I am very poor too! I know that you are hungry!)
"This is mad!" muttered Sir Andrew. "We can't just stand here, Chief: that would make us appear more suspect than heading straight for the man!"
Percy scratched at the mane of bedraggled curls that hid his own smooth, fair hair, racking his brains for a solution to the deadly labyrinth in which he had led the du Mauriats and his faithful league. Suddenly, a spark lit his face, and a hint of his old, inane grin curled the edges of his lips.
"I have it, my friends! It's a gamble, but I think I have it! Buy some fish, Madame, and carry it as close to the guard's noses as possible. Take some for your tricotess and sack of potatoes as well."
Francoise complied without question, wrinkling her nose slightly at the repulsive stench of rotting fish that subsequently assaulted her delicate senses. Upon The Pimpernel's urging, and calling upon every nerve in her elegant frame, Francoise pushed the cart forward towards the portal beyond which lay her liberation from that warped "republic," that frenzied kingdom which boasted la guillotine as its monarch and court.
With a grating command, the gate sentry brought the little band to a halt and demanded their papers of identification, which the wine maker's wife provided readily.
"Suzanne Pepin, wine maker's wife," the guard read, and the sable-clad Chauvelin, standing next to him, surveyed the troupe warily, like some pale-eyed panther poised to strike. Continued the sentry, "Marie Larousse, widow. Claude Larousse, coal-heaver, and Alexandre Herbert, fishmonger."
Sniffing daintily and pointing an accusing finger at this last individual, Chauvelin queried suspiciously, "For what reason, Citoyen, do you leave Paris?"
The Scarlet Pimpernel's eyes twinkled merrily as he displayed a set of uneven, blackened teeth to his bitterest enemy and waved un poisson in the air under the fiend's nose. "Why, Jacques, I'm going fishing!"
Chauvelin paused, snarled contemptuously at the rancid fish, and waved the party on; as the fishmonger's boot crossed the threshold, however, a calm, succinct, cruel order passed Chauvelin's lips, and a soldier called the fellow back to the gate.
The most minute of flinches shook Percy's stooped form, and he wheeled slowly on his tattered boot heel, an air of annoyance o'erspreading his features as the Englishman boldly met the stare of the darkly forbidding figure to whom the Committee of General Safety entrusted the task of his capture.
Smirking diabolically, a wordless Chauvelin beckoned him to return. With a shrug of his broad, powerful shoulders, Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart., obeyed, and the gates shut behind him with a hollow clang.
His dedication to his honored leader compelled Sir Andrew to continue as planned, conducting the du Mauriats to Calais, where the Day Dream lay moored and ready to transport them all to England. Aware that Percy would not have them abandon their cause for any sake, especially to rescue their chief, Ffoulkes rallied the escapees and pressed on, although his own tormented mind churned as violently as theirs. The cart rattled down the road for three quarters of an hour, pushed most of the way by Sir Andrew, before it arrived in a grove of trees where Lord Antony Dewhurst sat patiently atop a carriage which would convey them to the desired location.
Upon catching sight of the approaching cart and its occupants, Tony met them in the road. Sir Andrew silenced his unspoken question with a telling glance, which indicated that the story would be revealed in its entirety en route to Calais. With a nod, good Tony handed Francoise into the coach, unpacked poor little Henri from his potato sack, and supported the fragile old man until he situated himself comfortably at his daughter's side.
Andrew shut the door, and the two faithful members of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel hoisted themselves onto the driver's box and passed not a word between them until the carriage had been some time on its way, untroubled by delays. Andrew ventured a comment first.
"Well, he's alive, as far as I know. Lud!" he sighed, at once awed and depressed, "Whoever would have thought that that ruse would succeed."
"The fish. The guards refrained from closer inspection of us because we all reeked of spoiled fish. They accepted our certificates of identification at first, but they withheld Percy's and called him back the moment he had stepped out of the foul, blood-soaked capital," spat Andrew, slapping the reins dispiritedly. "There was nothing I could do without jeopardizing all our lives."
A pause ensued, but Tony broke it with a sincere, purposeful utterance. "Are you re-entering that hell, or am I?"
The carriage bounced along the dock in Calais, and Sir Andrew and Lord Tony dismounted at Percy's swift schooner, which rocked pleasantly on the shining water, unconcerned with its captain's plight.
"Halloa, my good fellows!" called an unmistakable voice from the deck, causing Andrew to whirl from the coach door, which, thankfully, he had not yet opened. "I'm thrilled that you've made it safely!" continued Percy jovially, striding out to his dedicated followers. "So sorry I couldn't accompany you, but I was forced to take a different road, you see. Demmed inconvenient!" he added, with a nonsensical chuckle.
"A lucky escape," Percy later explained in the below-decks of the Day Dream, pouring each of his friends a glass of port. "The soldiers marched me by the lodgings of one Jean Paul Marat, the infamous radical revolutionary, and as we passed the door, the cry went up that he had been murdered—stabbed to death—and in his bath, of all places! Quite a ruckus ensued, and I broke away and tore out the nearest gate. All the soldiers had rushed to apprehend the villain, and no one troubled me, not even the chap whose horse I stole. Poor Citizen Chambertin," Percy finished lightly, brushing a speck of dust off his immaculate lace cuff as he purposely mispronounced Chauvelin's name, "lost me again, and due to such a demmed coincidence as is beyond my realm of comprehension!"
"And to what murderous Jacques do we owe your life?" put in Lord Tony, sipping from his glass as the Day Dream crossed the channel for England.
Percy paused from re-shelving the port to raise an eyebrow at Dewhurst, as if the man should already have heard the truth. "Lud love me! You had better to say 'what murderous Jacqueline,' my dear Tony."
Blakeney sat and reclined lazily at the table. "It was a woman, one Charlotte Corday." The Scarlet Pimpernel raised his glass and, gazing up into its sparkling contents, red as a dripping guillotine blade, proposed a toast. "To Citizeness Charlotte Corday," he said, "who upon this day, the thirteenth of July, in the year of our Lord seventeen ninety-three, preserved the life of The Scarlet Pimpernel."
Sir Andrew and Lord Tony followed suite.
"To Charlotte Corday. May God have mercy on her soul."
End of Part One
The Cleverest Woman in Europe
Her reading interrupted by the clatter of a carriage approaching Richmond, Marguerite marked her place with a ribbon and, abandoning the book on a table, smoothed her gown and proceeded to the front steps to receive the vehicle's occupant. To her utmost surprise, as a servant swung the door wide, Lady Blakeney observed her brother descend shakily from the interior, accompanied by a friend.
Armand, fully alert and enduring the afflictions to which his injury subjected him, cast his beloved sister a wan smile, which did little to assuage her apprehensions. The steps blurring beneath her frantic feet, she reached Armand and supported him with a steady, loving arm; her heart swelled with dread in remembrance of a previous occasion when her brother had required her aid: following his torture and near death at the hands of the Marquis de St. Cyr. Gritting her teeth in an effort to shut out such thoughts, Marguerite conducted her brother up the staircase, across the front hall, into the parlor, where she requested that tea be delivered to her and her two guests.
"Dear Armand," she inquired tenderly, as soon as the servant had departed, "Tell me what has happened! Who has done this to you? Who has hurt you?"
Sighing as Marguerite eased him onto a sofa, Armand related the events in Paris, sparing no detail, in accordance with his sister's bidding.
Marguerite listened with a keen mind, silent lips, and concerned heart to her brother's tale, and, for some inexplicable reason, experienced a writhing chill at the mention of the notorious radical spy, Sang Rouge, whose identity remained unknown to the Pimpernel's band, despite the League's repeated and valiant efforts to uncover it.
Sir Martin Straker-Smith voiced a reply to Lady Blakeney's fearful expression. "The nefarious villain is, undoubtedly, France's answer to your husband, Your Ladyship. Yes, and as enigmatical too. And three days ago, on another deranged Paris night, your brother became Sang Rouge's latest victim."
Conducting herself calmly, although the cleverest female mind in Europe erupted with a hundred fiery questions, Marguerite fixed her glance upon Sir Martin's.
"Who else has come to harm through this fiend?" she probed, the depths of her childlike blue eyes tinged with vengeance.
With some reluctance, despite his newly-formed conviction of Marguerite's uncommon self-control and emotional hardiness, Sir Martin divulged the extent of Sang Rouge's wrath upon the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a wrath which threatened to fell the League's very core.
"There are two of us dead because of that spy: Colin Follamend and Jeremy Greenwood—Earl Greenwood, with whom I believe you were acquainted. Three more have suffered injury, your brother included."
Rising to her feet in a whisper of silk, her face set and aloof, Marguerite delved further. "How and when did these attacks take place?"
Armand, more familiar with his sister's mental processes, followed her train of thought. "Follamend's horse threw him, supposedly. Two others also met accidents."
"And Earl Greenwood?" Marguerite demanded of her faltering brother, terror rising in her breast.
"Jeremy Greenwood, Your Ladyship," admitted Sir Martin hesitantly, taking a deep breath, "was guillotined."
"Good God!" rose slowly to Lady Blakeney's lips, breaking the pause which ensued after the horrific truth fell—a truth which weighed on the hearts of all in the room like an executioner pressing them to death, slowly smothering their breath, one restricting stone at a time. She continued in hushed tones, more to herself than her companions.
"Sang Rouge recognizes us in daylight—knows us to see us!"
"We suspect, Your Ladyship, that he obeys the direct commanded of Citoyen Chauvelin."
Pallor o'erspreading her lovely features, Marguerite sank into a chair. Her eyes darted wildly about the room, as if in expectation of glimpsing the spy who earned his name through the liquid he spilled.
"Then he must know the identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel! He must know that that name and Sir Percy Blakeney are interchangeable! Good God!" she repeated, springing to her feet and charging to the parlor door, "I must away to France immediately!"
Armand set his back against the single portal which stood between his sister and deadly peril in her native country, into which, he understood all too well, she would gladly enter, meant it aiding her husband and his noble cause.
She paused, dropping her hand from the door handle, furrowing her brow in cogitation, turning and striding to the window with eyes alight.
"Yes, Armand! You are correct. Why, Sang Rouge wants me in France! Why else would he employ such a pattern in his assaults? Think, Armand: with the exception of Earl Greenwood, all the others 'met accidents.' But you, Armand," she continued, wheeling to face her brother, "were shot! Shot in a situation which in no respect may be termed an accident." She paced the room, explaining herself further. "Since his former tactics failed to deter Sir Percy, Sang Rouge may have determined to wage a direct war against the Pimpernel's relations, which means you, Armand. And me," she added quietly. Privately, her heart, desiring to fly to Percy—to protect him, stand by him to the last—battled against her reason, which cautioned her to remain at Richmond, the better to serve Percy's interests.
"So here," Lady Blakeney resolved, her reason ultimately prevailing, "I will stay."
Four unendurable days following Armand's unexpected appearance at Richmond, Marguerite once again sat reading in a windowed alcove of her bedroom, facing the house's magnificent approach. Unable to concentrate, her mind overflowing with worries for her husband, Lady Blakeney started at the sound of a lone horse slowly plodding up the drive.
One name burned through her graceful frame: Percy! It must be Percy! Who else could it be? All other occupations cast aside, she leaned as far as possible out the window, strained to identify the figure astride the familiar mount, hardly daring to believe that, despite Sang Rouge, Percy had returned home safely. Yes! Yes! The tall, fair-haired, powerful rider could be no other!
Lady Blakeney heaved a sigh of relief as she bolted out the door, down the stairs, and across the threshold to meet him as he reached the lowest step of the terrace.
"Percy," she cried joyously, steadying the bridle of his horse as he dismounted, "Thank heaven you are alive and well!" Her husband, holding her eyes with his own rather than comforting her in his arms, as was his wont to do upon returning from each mission, made no reply.
Marguerite's confidence crumbled at this abnormal behavior. To convey the impression that his actions passed unnoticed, she strived to suppress her emotions and sustain her standard level of conversation; the result she so desired could hardly come to fruition, she knew, since Percy's perception never deserted him. Despite his wife's efforts, he still spoke not a word, and she abandoned her resolution as futile.
"Armand and Sir Martin told me everything," she revealed gravely as the couple entered their home and halted, facing each other, next to the staircase.
"Why," Marguerite continued, searching her husband's handsome face—unusually void of any happiness—for an answer, "did you not warn me of this murderous foe called Sang Rouge? Since the events of last year, I had grown to think we bared our souls to each other! Can you doubt that I would face danger at your side, holding your hand? No fear can strike my heart if I gaze upon fate with you. What possible motive could remain for concealment?"
During the course of this passionate speech, she had cupped his chin in her hands, but he gently brushed her away and stepped backwards, firmly pressing and releasing her palm, as if to reassure her of his equal love. He glanced down momentarily, selecting carefully his words, and finally ventured a quiet, pensive, and resigned reply.
"There may come the time, Margot, when concealment is no longer possible."
With this, he seemed to recoil from her presence, choosing to back into the library, leaving his wife more anxious and mystified than ever due to his vagueness.
Behind the Tortured Mask
Weighing every possibility in her mind as she lay wide awake in bed, even the cleverest woman in Europe reached no satisfactory conclusion to explain Sir Percy's statement and actions; her head whirled with uncertainty, new arguments constantly presented themselves, contradicted each other, ultimately formed only confused and wild patterns within her tortured brain. She shut her eyes, endeavoring to forget, and a ray of moonlight peeking through the curtains of the open window caught a single tear as it left its glistening trademark upon her cheek.
When the clock in the hall chimed two and still Percy had not come to bed, his troubled wife rose and padded delicately to the head of the staircase, with the intention of proceeding down to the library, where a cracked door allowed a ray of light to spread over the marble floor of the entrance hall. However, hushed voices which emanated from below halted her tread, and she stood motionless, listening.
"It's true then, Dewhurst?"
"There can be no question of it, Percy. Lord Hastings sent me word from Dover this afternoon, and I set out with the report instantly."
A brief pause followed, and Lady Blakeney crept halfway down the stairs lest she miss a single critical word that passed between her husband and his friend and colleague.
"I'll depart tomorrow morning, then," came Percy's resolute voice.
Something crashed to the floor in the library below, shattering, and Marguerite cringed, her breath suspended as her heart clutched within her.
"Percy! Percy!" exclaimed a shocked Lord Tony, "Percy are you all right?"
"Perfectly, perfectly!" the other assured him, but in wavering tones. "Go now," he advised, and the library door opened, admitting the two into the hallway and into Lady Blakeney's view. She shrank back into the shadows, watching as Dewhurst donned his cloak and hat and once again demanded and received Percy's confirmation of wellness.
"I'll meet you tomorrow, then, in The Fisherman's Rest."
Percy, folding a scrap of paper, only nodded distantly, and, fearing discovery, Marguerite retreated to bed to ponder the situation anew.
After precious few and fitful hours of sleep, Lady Blakeney yielded to the curiosity and concern which had haunted her through the night, proceeding, not to the breakfast room as habit directed, but to the library. Trying the handle, she discovered, to her dismay, that the door had been locked from the inside; assuming her husband to be beyond the wooden portals, she had raised a hand to knock when they opened unbidden. Percy stumbled past her wordlessly, running a hand across his shining forehead as he made for the staircase, a coolness in keeping with the previous day which served to plunge Marguerite into further unease, for she had hoped that Richmond would soon put an end to Percy's unaccountable behavior. She caught the door before it closed and began to pass through it when a harsh bark from her husband recalled her.
"Marguerite! Stay out!"
Wheeling, she swiftly leaned against the door to shut it, and her wide blue eyes focused on her husband with obvious and uncomfortable astonishment. After a moment's silent pause, he ascended the staircase, supporting himself heavily on the rail. Marguerite's thoughts struggled madly to comprehend: within the library, she had glimpsed ragged shards heaped unkemptly on the hearth upon a deep burgundy stain—the remains of a crystal wine decanter, a possession of Percy's father, a treasure which her husband had guarded almost selfishly and had, early that morning, sent splintering to the floor.
Percy appeared rather unsteady on his feet as he descended the terrace without so much as an adieu to the anxious Marguerite, framed in morning sunlight in the doorway. He proceeded cautiously to his mount, feigning nonchalance all the while, secured a booted foot in the stirrup, swung an extended leg over the horse's back, settled himself in the saddle; Lady Blakeney frowned at her husband's glistening brow and wandering blue eyes, which studied her face without sign of recognition.
No, no, no! C'est impossible! Not her husband, not Percy Blakeney, not The Scarlet Pimpernel, not of all things, mad! His mother before him, and his grandmother, and his great-grandmother, but not he. He had escaped. Hadn't he? An unspeakable dread wrapped its steely fingers around Marguerite's heart as she lifted one hand absently in farewell, as her terrified, intelligent eyes followed her beloved's erratic journey down the drive, as she observed, with mounting horror and throbbing pulse, his tall, grand figure stoop and totter over the reins, and, as if in a dream, tumble clumsily to the gravel with a sickening thud.
For one endless, breathless moment, Marguerite froze: her senses dulled, her brain burst, denying what she had seen. Then, with a passionate, frantic shriek, she tore down the terrace towards the deathly still body of the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel—genius, heroÖmadman.
The Madman of Richmond
The cleverest woman in Europe did not disprove her title, even in such a trying circumstance, at which any other might have lost her wits; Marguerite, although distressed and sobbing, her head nestled on the breast of her dearest earthly object, maintained the sense to call for the stableboy and Percy's manservant who, between the two of them, transported the unconscious Sir Percy to his chamber under Lady Blakeney's able direction.
Arranging herself on the side of the bed where the servants had laid the resisting form of her husband, Marguerite gently brushed a fair lock from his damp, burning forehead.
"Louise," she commanded her maid steadily, her eyes intent on Percy's pained face, "bring me a basin of cool water and a cloth. Vite!"
These items supplied to her, the lovely young wife of The Scarlet Pimpernel mopped his brow, attempting to hold him still with her free hand, as he flinched from her tender touch. He struggled continually against her, mumbling incoherently, and, although strong herself, she proved no match for the massive Englishman she tended so bravely throughout that day and the following night. Periodically, he regained semi-consciousness, and he twice made violent moves to rise, as if in the clutches of some dread enemy instead of the loving embrace of his wife. Twice she held him down, but a third battle saw her defeated, and Percy cast her aside, reeling, fumbling about the room. Swiftly, with trembling hands, Marguerite secured the door and beseeched her beloved to calm himself.
His feverish eyes turned upon her, something akin to fear flashing through their sapphire depths.
"Come not near me, Marguerite," he roared. "I'll kill you!"
Marguerite's blood froze. Naught but madness could invoke such a speech from a man who loved her so passionately. Silent tears coursed down her cheeks until she reasoned that her despair might have overrun the banks of the Seine, and forced herself to attend once more to this broken giant, this unfit hero, this frenzied man whom she worshipped without disguise.
His ranting fell upon her ears like searing embers as he wrestled with the locked portal. "One more, just one more! Free on English soil to die. Where is it? Where is it? Jellyband, fetch some brandy! Dear God, I'm no doctor, what can I do? Armand! Keep everything from her, at all costs. Oh, help me! What is wrong? Just one more!"
"Percy!" she pleaded, placing two firm palms on his chest to slow him, "Percy, you are very ill. For the love of heaven, please lie down!"
For a moment, his eyes spoke of his old self; he paused, reaching out to touch her golden hair, but he hardened again almost immediately, impervious to her miserable cries. He wheeled, reaching into his sweat-soaked shirt, stumbling towards the window, scanning the dawn-kissed grounds of Richmond as if gazing on a French guillotine.
"There are othersÖ" he insisted between gasping breaths, crumpling to the floor.
Marguerite seized the cloth and basin again and bathed his furrowed brow, forming a desperate resolution. She searched his person and claimed a reward: a folded scrap of paper concealed within his shirt, addressed to Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, and another, intended for the Marquise du Mauriat. Silently, she kissed them, tucked them both into her bodice and left the room. The servants greeted her with solemn, fearful faces, accompanied by fretful inquiries after their excellent master's condition, but Marguerite, her countenance like stone, merely bade them fetch a doctor for Sir Percy and acquaint her brother with the particulars of her husband's condition.
"I intend," she informed them, "to depart for Dover immediately, perhaps not to return for some time."
The maid's face expressed her puzzlement, but faithful Louise retired with her mistress to Lady Blakeney's dressing room, where she assisted Marguerite in donning riding attire. Heedless of her surroundings, thinking only of the mission she felt it her duty to fulfill out of devotion to her husband, Marguerite marched to the stables and mounted her fastest mare, whereupon she burst forth from the enclosure and galloped down the long drive. Reining in as she flew past the manor, she raised her eyes to Percy's window, where a weak candle flickered still. Hot tears blurring her vision once more, she kissed her hand fervently towards the window, and, as she spurred her horse onward, the misty dawn closed around her like a shroud.
There are Others
Prior to his departure from Richmond, Armand had informed Marguerite of the whereabouts of the famille du Mauriat: they lodged near Dover, in a quaint cottage of brick Tudor, set well back from the road and seeming to spring from the very roses which graced its garden and crept up its trellises. The dust cloud, roaring hooves, and piercing whinny which signaled Lady Blakeney’s unexpected arrival set the cottage buzzing with a curiosity and energy which contrasted this charming tranquillity.
A servant welcomed her, announced her, and ushered her into the parlor, where sat Francoise du Mauriat, clothed in mourning, and young Henri, playing with a wooden top, which his mother hastily prayed him set aside as Marguerite swept into the room.
Rising to meet her guest, Francoise dried her tears and uttered a confused greeting to the woman, scarce older than herself, whose name and features recalled no one of the Marquise's acquaintance.
Marguerite wasted no time in lavish explanation of her visit—she sketched her purpose succinctly, but without harshness, given the understandable delicacy of Francoise’s emotions. "I have come to you with a letter. What or who it involves, I don't know. I know only that it is from The League of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and it is for you. Vous applez-vous la Marquise du Mauriat, n’est-ce que pas?"(You call yourself the Marquise du Mauriat, no?)
Perplexed moreover by this news, Francoise could only reply, "Oui."
Henri, however, ventured an awed question, admiration and thrill radiating from the wide orbs of his eyes.
"Vous connissez Monsieur Scarlet Pimpernel?!"(You know Mr Scarlet Pimpernel?)
Marguerite could not but adore the boy, who obviously worshipped his mysterious liberator, and she smiled weakly at Henri as she indicated the affirmative; then, fearing that she had revealed, perhaps, too much, she added, "Un peu."(A bit)
To break the silence, Marguerite withdrew the appropriate note from the inner folds of her gown and presented it to the other woman, saying, in French, "I hope it contains good news."
With trembling fingers, Francoise broke the familiar seal, releasing a wave of memories which overcame her: acute misery to denial, bliss to terror, until the moment when she had stepped trance-like from the Day Dream, knelt, weeping, on English soil, and tasted freedom. She read no more than the first sentence before she paled, gasped painfully, and dropped the letter, which fluttered silently to the floor. Eyes clenched tightly shut, the stricken emigree whispered to Marguerite, "La lettre n’est pas pour moi. C’est pour mon mari, le Marquis, qui est mort depuis dix mois."(The letter is not for me. It is for my husband, the Marquis, who has been dead the past ten months.)
Shocked, Lady Blakeney snatched the letter from its resting place, perused it urgently, examined the hand in minutest detail, compared the intended recipients' names on the two missives she had entrusted to her own care. Of course! The writing on the documents—unsteadily, hastily penned, and similarly read—contrasted in one instance: placed next to each other, the "e" in "Ffoulkes," and the "e" in "Marquise" differed in the height of the loop and the flourish of the tail. Reflecting on what she had seen and heard two nights before, Marguerite concluded that the "e" in "Marquise" could not be an "e," but the result of Percy's physical and mental state, the infirmity of his hand and likely delirium of his once superb mind.
"There are others," she mumbled, recalling Sir Percy's final words to her, understanding instantly that he had held specific others in mind as he spoke, or at least that one man took precedence over scores of others who crouched, miserable and emaciated, in the squalor of Paris dungeons: Gilbert, Marquis du Mauriat, whom The League had vowed to rescue, failed to rescue, and re-discovered, alive!
The League, as always, would keep its word.
Collecting her belongings without waiting for the servant, Lady Blakeney took an abrupt leave of Francoise and Henri, bidding them farewell and parting with a promise that left Francoise dumbfounded. "I will return, and when I do, I will bring the Marquis back to you. I will bring him back or die in the attempt. Goodness knows I have little left to live for. Adieu, Madame. Adieu, petit Henri."
With a soft slap of her riding whip to her horse's flank, Lady Blakeney hurtled down the road towards Dover, head low, fingers clinging tenaciously to the reins, skirt and curls billowing out behind her impressively in a flutter of emerald and gold.
Henri broke from his mother's grasp, scurried out to the road, waved, and called to the mounted figure, rapidly decreasing in size as it sped away.
"Bon chance, Madame Scarlett Pimpernelle!"
Although her sensibility, tormented by visions of her dying husband and the honor which she strove to preserve by adopting his incomplete mission as her own, inclined Marguerite to pound upon Sir Andrew's door with all the zeal her emotions instilled in her, she contained herself and dealt the bell a light but urgent pull. This summons soon answered by Ffoulkes' servant, Wallace, Lady Blakeney stated her wish to speak with her husband's closest friend, only to learn, to her horror, that Sir Andrew had journeyed to France quite unexpectedly the previous afternoon. Desirous of further knowledge concerning this voyage, a voyage obviously undertaken without direct instructions from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Marguerite asked to be admitted to Suzanne's sitting room, where Wallace subsequently conducted her.
Suzanne Ffoulkes, delighted to see her friend, welcomed her warmly, kissing both cheeks in the customary French greeting.
"Margot! What brings you here?"
Then, observing her visitor's grim expression, her smile drooped and disappeared. "Ma cherie, something troubles you!"
Concerned, the innocent Suzanne conducted Lady Blakeney to a sofa and the two sat.
"Maintenant, mon amie, we will confide in each other, as we were used to do at school," she urged with child-like authority. "You will tell me what is wrong."
Lady Blakeney, for fear of alarming Sir Andrew's devoted wife, voiced her question in gentle, though serious tones. "Ma chere Suzanne, did your husband disclose where he was bound before he left you yesterday?"
"Oui, bien sur! Comme il fait toujours!"(Yes, of course! As always(roughly) )
Marguerite knelt at her friend's feet and begged for whatever details Suzanne could relate, suddenly unable to hide the urgency which gripped her and made her to feel that life and death hung suspended many times over.
Suzanne nodded and proceeded with her narrative, calmly and competently. "My husband said that Lord Antony Dewhurst had received a note from Sir Percy, which told him that Blakeney had been delayed and to continue to France without him, but he would soon follow. Andrew and Lord Tony hired a fishing vessel to transport them, because they decided that their leader would prefer to sail in the Day Dream. The three of us took tea at The Fisherman's Rest, and then I saw them off. They planned to dock at Calais, I think, as the note had instructed them."
Blue eyes wide, lips parted in astonishment, Marguerite's expression reflected all the puzzlement that assailed her sharp brain: Lord Tony had acted on Percy's commission, but how? Yes, certain events, which she shuddered to recall, had delayed Percy, but he had dispatched no missive. How could he have? And Lord Tony would have accepted no forgery—no letter which did not bear Percy's seal, a seal which he wore constantly, a seal which he had had in his possession when his wife had quitted Richmond. A thought seizing her, the cleverest woman in Europe posed a question to her friend.
"Was Lord Tony at The Fisherman's Rest when he received my husband's command?"
"I assume so, yes," Suzanne concluded.
"Then there is only one place that remains for me to visit in Dover, and there only my answer may lie. Farewell, Suzanne: I must go to The Fisherman's Rest."
Sally heaved six brimming pewter mugs onto a table, where lounged the same number of men, laughing at each other's anecdotes about the races, business transactions, and the charms of the Dover women. The buxom innkeeper's daughter made no objections to their bantering, having learnt, in her years at serving tables, to expect such behavior, which provided opportunities to exercise her natural flirtatiousness. Boxing the ear of the fellow nearest her in response to his wink, she turned coyly away and scolded him playfully.
"Now, don't you be treatin' Miss Sally like that, Sir, or my father'll 'ave your 'ide, and then you won't be allowed to come 'ere anymore, now will ya'?"
Through the open window floated a shrill whinny, followed by the rhythmic pulse of a horse slowing to a trot, and a fellow at a nearby table peered out and perceived an elegant, golden-haired woman—riding alone—rein in her frothing horse and dismount with the assistance of the inn's awed stableboys. Grunting uninterestedly, the fellow settled lower in his chair and resumed forking his meal into his mouth and swigging his ale, his head bent low over a book on the table.
Moments later, Lady Blakeney, removing her riding gloves and bonnet, preceded rather than followed Jellyband into the room. Searching for sharper wits than those of her good-natured, scripture-quoting, but frightfully dull host, Marguerite's eyes fixed on Sally, who now sat on the table among her six admirers, giggling and chatting, and quite unconcerned with the fact that her father stood glaring at her from the doorway.
"Sally, m'girl," Jellyband ordered, his voice boiling, "you get yesself down offa there an' outta this room an' into the kitchen an' brew some tea for Her Ladyship or—"
Raising a delicate hand to silence him, Marguerite called to his daughter in a friendly tone, requesting a brief interview over matters concerning a distinguished regular of the inn. The bright Sally—who, guessed Marguerite, knew everyone, saw everything, and lifted various bits of information from each conversation she overheard as she served the tables—hit instantly upon the identity of the "regular," and, easing herself to the floor, silently quit the room in Lady Blakeney's company.
A scarlet seal had indeed held the letter closed, Marguerite soon learned, and Lord Tony had recognized it instantly, as had Sally herself, as that of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She had, however, thought its delivery odd, as The League commonly dispatched commands from The Fisherman's Rest, but rarely received them.
"And where does The Pimpernel compose these letters?" demanded Lady Blakeney, beginning to formulate a theory. "A private chamber? A hidden room?"
Sally seemed to debate, glancing about as she chewed on a dark curl of her hair; ultimately, she decided that the empty foyer—its doors to the coffee room closed— afforded no opportunities for eavesdropping, and she led Lady Blakeney to the upper level of the inn. The room they entered, small and shuttered, cluttered and dusty, contained a single writing desk and chair beside the fireplace, and heaps of furniture and unused kitchenware against the far wall. Upon the desk lay a pen and some writing paper; next to them, a stick of scarlet sealing wax; and in the upper right corner stood a candle, burned down to a mere stub, and trailing its waxen coattails over the side of its base.
Marguerite subjected her surroundings to sharp scrutiny, examining everything for some sign of tampering, some clue that might guide her as she flailed in the darkness. "When did last my husband and his friends visit this inn?"
The innkeeper's daughter remembered clearly and immediately answered, "Oh, I should say they arrived on the fourteenth and left on, per'aps, the seventeenth or eighteenth. Your 'usband was very kind to the ol' man, and tended him 'til the poor soul passed on."
Marguerite whirled, Percy's meaningless ranting recalled and no longer unimportant. "Old man? What old man? Quick, Sally, think!"
Creases emerging on Sally's thoughful brow, she made an effort to recall the name, which, being French, she pronounced with some difficulty. "To-loos!" she proclaimed at length, snapping her fingers, "that was 'is name. 'Erkyool-Roabear To-loos. Father of that unfortunate Markeese, and Gran'father of that darlin' little boy, 'Enry."
The news took Marguerite entirely by surprise, and she felt her hands grow cold and the color drain from her face as that renowned sixth sense, which had served her so well in the past, roused and exerted itself, injecting her veins with trepidation.
"And how, pray tell," began Lady Blakeney, "did Monsieur Toulouse die?" "'E was taken quite sudden the morning after 'e arrived," confided Sally, "with a fever of some sort. Well, Sir Percy did 'is best, and we called for the Dover doctor on several occasions, but 'e could do nothing, as 'e couldn't figure what ailed the Frenchman. The dear man lingered for two days, but most of us was locked out of the room, so we know little of the matter ourselves." Here, the innkeeper's daughter lowered her voice and proceeded with raised eyebrows. "Your 'usband allowed me in three times, to deliver 'im 'is supper and a fresh basin of water. Mister To-loose was just lying on the bed, frail as can be, but flailing in agony nonetheless, eyes glazed over and moanin' fit to chill my marrow, an' anybody else's who 'appened by the door. 'E'd take nothing to eat nor quench 'is thirst, so you can see as 'ow the fellow couldn't last long. Mighty strange, it was."
"Lord Tony would have burnt the letter," muttered Lady Blakeney distractedly, as she sorted and pieced fragments of the mystery in her mind. On an impulse, she darted to the fireplace and, disregarding the cleanliness of both her riding habit or her hands, knelt in the ashes and rummaged through them for some remnant of the mysterious directions which had taken her husband's closest friends to France. With a cry of triumph, she resurrected something which had fallen through the grate and thereby been spared destruction; blowing gently upon it to clear away the grime, Marguerite held a round, cracked seal to the light which Sally admitted by swinging a shutter open slightly. Although half melted, the five-petaled flower which identified it as the seal of The Scarlet Pimpernel could still be traced by a keen eye.
She turned it over in her hands, commenting all the while, only partly to Sally. "It was bound to happen, and now, perhaps, I see how the fiend contrived it. Could it have been poison? If so, how administered? And who is Sang Rouge?!? He is bold, is he not, to attack The Pimpernel in England? Wretch! But I'll find him out. I'll find him out before he topples us, I swear I will."
Lady Blakeney clenched her fist around the seal in a death grip, and, when she unclenched it, wax dust and crumbs of scarlet pattered to the wooden floor.
The Scarlett Pimpernelle
When Marguerite descended to claim her gloves, bonnet, and riding whip, an arriving horseman doffed his splendid top hat to her and startled her preoccupied mind with the familiarity in his address. "Your Ladyship! Why, what a favorable surprise; but how come you to be in Dover, Madam?"
She froze in mid-glove-donning, meeting the man's pleasant, unconcerned face, which smiled at her above a tastefully flounced cravat. "Sir Martin!" she gasped, and, following a pause, she exclaimed, "Dieu soit loue!" and, hushing her tone when her outburst drew several glances from the stableboys, "I have much to explain to you, and you will accompany me to France, will you not? I cannot man the Day Dream alone."
Flabbergasted, Sir Martin sputtered, "Why, of course, Lady Blakeney, but why? You yourself, only a week ago—"
Marguerite interrupted, mounting her horse violently and setting off towards the docks through the town of Dover, which glowed like a blacksmith's forge in the glare of the setting sun. "Oui, je sais, je sais. But something terrible has happened, which I shall now endeavor to explain." She then gave a summary of the past week, from the overheard conversation in the library to Percy's terrifying illness, from the League's effort to free the last du Mauriat to Suzanne's information concerning the letter, which brought her to the episode at The Fisherman's Rest, an episode which she detailed.
"It is my belief," she stated, striving to vocalize a hypothesis which she had mentally rehearsed several times over, "that Sang Rouge trailed The League and the du Mauriats to England, probably going to such extremes as to lodge with them at The Fisherman's Rest. Unfortunately, Sally could not specifically recall a particular Frenchman who might prove our villain. He must have poisoned poor Monsieur Toulouse; if by design or accident, I do not know, but he undoubtedly intended to kill Sir Percy." She faltered, but regained control of her emotions and pressed on determinedly. "Which he may very well have accomplished by this time.
"The letter to Lord Tony, he quite easily effected: the upper room is left unlocked, for to lock it would draw more suspicion to it than the articles within, should they be found. It would be a simple matter, if one uncovered a seal in the fireplace as I did, to gently heat the underside, so as to fasten it anew to a different letter. Whether Percy wrote the letter at an earlier time and never sent it, who can tell? Either way, Sang Rouge used it to his own ends, to divert The League to France while he carried out his vile mission in England, or to tempt Sir Andrew and Lord Tony to sure doom. What will they do, in France with no instructions? Will they undertake a rescue alone? Or will they become the ones who require rescuing?"
The pair reached the schooner and, after having secured the safety of their horses with a fisherman often utilized by The League, boarded and prepared to set off, despite the onset of night.
"What of the Marquis du Mauriat?" questioned Sir Martin, taking the wheel. He looked to the noble, heartbroken Marguerite, who stood behind him to his right, staring off into the distance towards her native land, which now inflicted atrocities upon itself equal to any that had ever been inflicted upon it, which blinded itself to the inhumanity of it all, which ravaged the present and corrupted the future to avenge the past.
"We will rescue him," she pledged, her eyes never leaving the horizon. "Percy would want it. He promised, and he would never renege."
Turning the wheel to port to steer the vessel as his sextant directed, Sir Martin expressed his wonderment. "And you think Percy would have you do this? Risk your life like this, for the sake of his mission, when others could easily undertake it in his stead?"
Lady Blakeney sighed bitterly and moved to the edge of the Day Dream, leaning over the railing as she answered. "Perhaps my own peace of mind requires it. My own sense of duty and honor, and my understanding of the duty and honor which motivated Percy. Do you think me mad, Sir Martin, that when my husband, a hero whom I worship, whom I would move mountains for, whom I would willingly perish forÖthat when my husband falls, if I cannot help him up, I continue on where he can no longer go? That I may serve him and his cause, if it means devoting and, mayhap, abandoning my life to them? Is that so unreasonable?"
Sir Martin could only shake his head to indicate the negative.
"Then we proceed," finished Marguerite calmly as she took the tiller, blue eyes like steel.
In the foamy wake of the little ship, the white cliffs of Dover shrank to dots on the horizon, and vanished into the spray.
End of Part Two
At long last! The conclusion! Read!
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