He had been away three months now, during which time her heart had fed on its starving memories, and on the happiness of a brief visit from him six weeks ago, when – quite unexpectedly – he had appeared before her … 'Eldorado'
"Stop, driver!" Percy called, thumping on the roof with a fist that seemed indelibly etched with grime. He threw open the door and leapt to the ground before the carriage could come to a complete halt.
The driver looked over his shoulder. He had driven his hat down over his brow and tugged his collar up about his ears in a bid to muffle the creeping cold of the January night.Only his eyes were visible, and these he narrowed against the light of the coach lamp.
Lud love me, Percy thought to himself, noting with amusement the driver's apparent air of mistrust; I believe I am officially past master in the art of disguise!
"You sure you should be 'ere?" A gruff voice penetrated the barrier of the driver's collar.
"Aye," Percy replied, "this is the place, all right."
"You expected, then?"
Percy's reply was the proffering of a handful of gold coins from the pocket of his worn worsted coat. "Thank you, sir," he added, tugging at the brim of his hat.
"Gah!" The driver spat, collecting the coins from Percy's palm in one fluid sweep. What was it to him what his passengers did, once he had delivered them safely at their destination? "Gee-ah!" He then qualified for the horses, slapping the reins. The carriage pulled away into the night, leaving Percy stood at the side of the road. He listened until the wheels and the horses' hooves were but a distant patter in the sharp air, and then he turned to the tall iron gates beside him.
He paused, regarding the family crest carved into the stone of the gatepost closest to him. With a wistful sigh, he stretched out a hand and lightly traced the emblem with his slender fingers. He didn't know if it was a longing for home, or just a reflection on the social changes he had seen, but the badge of a noble family now had a powerful effect on him. Percy's frame shuddered briefly with a chill that was not from the winter weather.
Yet despite the biting cold, it was truly a beautiful night. The sky was velvet black, pierced with diamonds, and the ozone invigorated Percy as he breathed in the icy air. Dragging on the collar of his coat, which was heavy and well-made despite its appearance, he tried to almost hunch down inside the material. After a whole day exposed to the raw elements, his body was shivering so much that his back was beginning to ache, but Percy wasn't thinking about himself. His mind was focused on what lay ahead.
The gates were not locked, nor did he expect them to be. He eased through, gently pushing the heavy metal barrier closed behind him. Although the sky was cloudless and filled with bright stars, the house was obscured from view by the layout of the grounds and the turns of the gravel drive. Percy walked on, risking the path until he was closer to the property, at which point he decided he would cross to the lawn to mask the noise of his footsteps.
As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of two lighted oil lamps in the near distance. That was his signal: everything had been arranged, his instructions followed to the letter. Percy stepped from the gravel path, which had been easier to walk along because it was frozen, to the darker surface of the brittle grass encircled by the driveway in front of the house.
He could now discern the bulk of the mansion, where the steps that lead to the ornate front door were illumined by the lanterns. With a quickened step, he moved in that direction, trusting that the shadows would absorb the sober shades of his clothing. When he reached the edge of the lawn, he paused to listen, before quickly covering the last stretch of gravel with five long, graceful strides.
Percy stood before the main entrance, seemingly mesmerised by the carved wooden panels of the door, as he sought to regulate his breathing. Yet it wasn't exertion that had reduced him to taking in short gasps of air, it was anticipation. The moment had arrived once again: that line where the choice between safety and risk is made.
Although there was never really any choice for Percy.
He mounted the semi-circular stairs, and reached for the handle. Walking in through the front door was a slightly more brazen method of entry than he usually employed, but Percy had been assured that his way would be clear and that he would encounter no resistance.
As promised, the handle turned freely beneath his hand, and he eased the heavy door, unrestricted by internal locks and bolts, open before him. The house was silent, and the interior seemed darker than outside. Leaving a lamp or even a candle burning for the 'guest', however, would have alerted the lady of the house, so Percy accepted the shadows and hoped that he wouldn't stumble into anything.
The tool that most aided the Scarlet Pimpernel, apart from what Percy liked to think of as that one hair of luck on the bald head of Fate, was preparation. If everything was mapped out, as far as circumstances would allow, and if everybody knew their role, then impossible situations became a series of minor obstacles. And if secondary plans were made for as many different eventualities as the human mind could possibly suggest, nothing was impossible. Percy thrived on this heady mix of chance and forecast, but at this moment, it was mostly the latter that guided him.
Even with his sense of sight blanketed by the gloom, he knew exactly where he had to go. A strange combination of familiarity and displacement came to him as he hovered in the entrance hall, adjusting to another change in setting. The aromas he detected – winter blooms, wax polish, the lingering smell of smoke from extinguished lamps, and even, he fancied, the gentle perfume of lavender water – brought a sense of home to him. The laborious ticking of a grandfather clock close by, and the usual sounds of a grand house settling after the bustle of daily activity within its walls, made Percy feel comfortable and calm. Yet he didn't feel as though he belonged.
Slipping out of his rather passé buckled shoes, Percy ventured on. There was, he knew, a very heavy, very hard, antique table in the centre of this room. Footwear in one hand, with his other hand stretched out before him, he slid forward along the wide floorboards until his knuckles grazed the marble surface of that first obstacle. He traced the ornate edging to its tapered end, and then turned right. Ahead was the doorway leading to the grand staircase.
His stocking feet soon felt the firmer, chilled surface of a tiled floor as he passed through into the next room. Skating forward, his guiding hand now encountered a carved newel post and the wide banister beyond. Planning to adopt the age-old technique of keeping to the studier edges of the stairs, Percy felt for the first riser and clutched the handrail with his free hand. Performing a kind of climbing tight-rope walk, he slowly began his ascent.
As with most old houses, the floorboards along the landing were painfully vocal. With every step he took, a creak or a groan filled the air, breaking the perfect silence of the slumbering house. Percy tried to keep to the edges, barking his ankles against the skirting board as his hand dusted over various hanging portraits, but the trick was not as successful as on the stairs. He was nearing her room, and feared that he would alert her to his presence before he had control of the situation.
He had chosen the west wing of the immense riverside property, mounting a flight of stairs which lead to a suite of apartments, mirrored at the other end of the house, above the grand reception rooms of the first floor. My Lady's rooms. Three doors ahead of him opened onto her private boudoir,her dressing room, and her chamber, which were also connected from within. Percy chose the dressing room, leaving some distance between his entrance and her sleeping form.
He was greeted with the soft aromas that betrayed a lady's presence: fresh perfumes and powders over a worn palette of settled silks and tapestries. As he carefully crossed the antechamber, his feet sinking into the luxurious carpet, he brushed against a dress hanging close to the doorway. Percy blindly reached for the fabric, caressing the soft silk of a petticoat as he held the folds to his face, mindful of the stubble on his chin. The rustling of the material sounded like autumn leaves underfoot to his sensitive ears, however, and he guiltily let the dress fall back into place.
Using his knowledge of the room, Percy crept forward to where he knew the bed was positioned, facing the door of her dressing room. He reached the carved footboard, running his hand along it until he encountered one of the four barley twist posts, and then paused. He had to do this right: if he woke her before he was close enough, the shadowy presence of a stranger in her room would scare her, and the consequence would be a guard of devoted staff rushing to her aid.
In a snakelike movement of which he felt his coachman would have approved, Percy was all at once perched on the edge of the high bed. He leaned forward, ready to reassure or muffle, whichever proved necessary, only to realise that the bed was unoccupied. Still more or less blind, with even the natural light of the stars shut out behind the heavy curtains, Percy swept his hand over the surface of milady's counterpane, finding the material flat against the pillows and the mattress.
"Margot?" He whispered into the darkness. Then, with an impatient click of his tongue, he rolled across to the other side of the bed, jumped to his feet, and started towards the door to the landing.
"Sir?" A hushed male voice came at him from that direction.
"Merde!" Percy spat, feeling his heart convulse his chest. "Frank! Heavens, man! Have a care!" He cursed, as his valet entered the room, illumined from behind by the warm yellow glow of an oil lamp on the console table.
"I do apologise, sir," Frank bowed, "only I came to tell you that Milady is not in her room tonight."
"Your prompt attention to detail is duly noted."
"I was waiting up, sir, only I didn't see you approach, and it was only by chance that I heard you on the landing just now –"
"Wait!" Percy held up a hand to staunch his accomplice's explanation;
"Where is Lady Blakeney, Frank?"
"Oh – your rooms, sir," came the quick reply.
"She often sleeps in there when you are away, sir," Frank disclosed. "I didn't think it my place to try and dissuade her this night, nor would I have known what to say had I dared."
Percy didn't respond straightaway, and the valet noticed a strange smile soften his master's startlingly unkempt appearance, whilst Sir Percy's deep set blue eyes – the only aspect of his features currently identifiable as his own – seemed to shimmer for a fleeting moment in the lamplight.
"I shall find her there, then," he said quietly.
"Shall I light the lamps along the landing, sir?" Frank dutifully enquired, stepping to one side of the doorway.
"No, thank you."
"Take mine then, sir," he suggested, offering the small flickering lamp from the table.
"Nay, my good man," Percy laughed, resting a hand on his valet's extended arm, as he paused before starting back along the upstairs hallway, "I fear moving in the shadows has become so habitual to me that I no longer require such luxuries as night lights.
"Return to your room, I have kept you from your sleep long enough with my hare-brained schemes!" He bid his servant.
"Yes, sir," Frank replied automatically, turning away as a knowing smile twitched at the corners of his neutral mouth. "Goodnight, sir."
The valet hovered just long enough, however, to allow his master to reach his apartments with some degree of safety, fearing that the usually astute and perceptive mind of Sir Percy Blakeney, Bt., was tonight more than a little preoccupied. When Percy turned into his reception room, Frank silently drifted away to his own bed, taking the last glimmer of light with him.
On the other side of the door, Percy closed his eyes and smiled to himself. He had made a spontaneous decision to return from France, where recent events meant it was becoming harder and harder for him to abandon his self-appointed role of guardian and liberator. Without sufficient time to write Marguerite of his impending arrival, he had decided instead, rather childishly, to send a courier ahead to draw Frank into his plan to surprise her. He had paid a considerable amount to be driven home from Dover, rather than arrange to have his own carriage dispatched to him, and had not stopped to rest at any of the coaching inns along the way. However, it was beginning to seem that whatever advantage he might have gained with efficiency and speed, he was losing to the capricious nature of his wife.
Percy thought of Frank's words, 'She often sleeps in there when you are away', and his smile slipped. Why did he keep punishing her so? She saw his adventures as tempting providence, Percy knew, and feared for his life every time he set sail for her homeland. Yet she would never ask him to sacrifice his honour, and could only love him when he was home and pray for him when he was not. Their marriage was an unconventional relationship, as Percy knew that his dual personality of the Scarlet Pimpernel both attracted Marguerite and fired her jealous resentment. The daring hero had saved her love for her husband; the love which Percy's mistrust, and her youthful frivolity, had allowed a misunderstanding to threaten. Only now his apparent disregard for his own life involved another, one who loved him passionately and devotedly; and it was she whom he hurt every time he appeared before her, ready to leave, with that mute appeal for forgiveness in his eyes.
A deep sigh, and a stirring of covers, brought Percy back to his surroundings. He held his breath, muscles frozen automatically, as he listened for those soft sounds of slumber. Marguerite cleared her throat in her sleep, and Percy heard the tired wooden frame of his bed creak as she settled again. Depositing his shoes by the door, he stepped lightly through the connecting reception room to his bedroom. He paused in the entrance, adjusting to the silver glow that filtered through the uncovered windows. Another of his wife's foibles – she preferred the half-shades of moonlight to the suffocating blackness of shutters or curtains.
He could see the streaming mass of her ardent hair against the white pillows, her face turned towards the light. The dark form of one hand, contrasted against the bed linen, lay beside her head on the opposite pillow. Following the steady rhythm of her breathing, Percy moved to the side of the bed, where he lowered onto his knees.
"Margot, my love," he breathed, taking her hand.
"Mm – Percy?" Marguerite spoke in a voice still thick with sleep. She turned her head, raising herself up on her elbows. "Quand vous – ah –When did you get home?"
"Just this moment," he told her, deciding to omit how long it had taken him to creep around the house.
"Why didn't you send word?"
"There wasn't time to spare," he lied, kissing her hand.
"How long are you here for?" She asked, a quick sigh of resignation following her words. When he didn't answer, she reached out her free hand and held it against his face. "I only want to be able to love you, Percy. I know it's selfish, but I won't apologise. I want you to stay, here, with me, forever."
When he could finally speak, his voice sounded heavy: "I am the selfish one, my Margot."
"Yours is the most noble and altruistic soul I have ever met," she grudgingly admitted. Her delicate fingertips drifted slightly across her husband's cheek: "You haven't shaved?"
Percy chuckled. He was usually so fastidious about his presentation before her. "There wasn't time to spare," he repeated.
Marguerite was now alert enough to enter into the joke. "And where, pray, lies the great urgency?" She asked, mimicking perfectly the haughty voice favoured by society matriarchs, as Percy pressed his warm lips to the palm of her hand.
" 'Tis a lady, I confess," he rushed in between the kisses he was running up the length of her arm.
"Then I should have thought a basic toilet was the least you may have endured," Marguerite giggled in spite of herself. As Percy's lips moved up her arm, so he rose from his kneeling position on the floor. When he reached her shoulder, disturbing the sleeve of her gown with his progress, he had one knee on the bed itself. "Women do not like to be grated like cheese by men who cannot spare the time to acquaint themselves with a razor!"
Percy pulled away, keeping hold of only the tips of her fingers as he stood up straight next to the bed. "Of course you are right," he acquiesced, bowing his head, "forgive me."
But Marguerite didn't believe his sudden shame, or his retreat. "Percy …"
"I am not so proud as all that."