In the midst of so much sorrow, such misery, and such deadly fear, never had Marguerite felt so happy, never had she felt him so completely her own. The inevitable bodily weakness, which had invaded even his splendid physique after a whole week's privations, had made a severe breach in the invincible barrier of self-control with which the soul of the inner man was kept perpetually hidden behind a mask of indifference and of irresponsibility. – Eldorado, 'The Caged Lion'
The way to the Place was lined with the citizens of France; every province, every city, town and village, had journeyed to Paris for this spectacle. It had been decreed that there would be a great celebration in the streets afterwards, where all would be welcome – man, woman and child, from the poorest family to the most exalted Republican names of the day – to share in the feasting and revelry. Who could have resisted such a generous bribe, even if the day had not been declared a public holiday and the order to attend been issued by Robespierre himself?
Yet the mood was sombre, and a blanket of silence seemed to smother the vast sea of heads in the crowd. Marguerite, jostled and crushed by bodies pressing in from all directions, could only stare at the mute, haunted faces around her; there was no expression, no emotion, no sound. She longed to scream at them: "This man has saved so many lives, spared hundreds of innocent people from the guillotine! He might have saved your brother, or your mother, or your whole family! He might have saved you! How can you all stand here and watch him die?"
But when she opened her mouth, she found that she had also been struck dumb; the words were in her mind, the air filled her lungs and rose into her throat – but she could not speak for him. She beat at her breast, pounding with her fist until it hurt, but it was as if she was choking on her own heartache and would soon suffocate.
Three sharp retorts, like gunfire or the signal for a play to start, temporarily distracted Marguerite from her panic. She pushed forwards and looked down the long, cobbled street. A tumbrel, with yet more citizens at its head, was beginning its ascent up the steep hill. Marguerite stared in horror at the sight – this was it. Turning to the man next to her, she mimed a frantic pantomime of desperate pleas, alternately dragging at his tattered scarlet jacket and forcing his face round to look at the tears in his eyes; yet her neighbour remained resolutely focused on the approaching death cart, rudely pushing Marguerite backwards into the lifeless crowd behind her.
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes was there to catch her, to stop her from falling underfoot and being trampled before she could do aught to prevent her husband's senseless death.
"Lady Blakeney! You shouldn't be here!"
Marguerite wanted to cheer, to laugh, to thank the heavens above – he could speak, Sir Andrew could help her! She patted her throat and her lips, then pointed at the street. He nodded grimly, and turned her to face the other way.
The tumbrel was upon them, halted exactly alongside where Marguerite and Sir Andrew were standing in the crowd. Even a cry of horror was muted to a weak gasp as she opened her eyes to the single prisoner before her: Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet, the Scarlet Pimpernel - her husband, her life - was strapped to a long board in the centre of the wagon, supported in his weakened state by four burly citizen soldiers; Chauvelin, that devil incarnate, had already prepared him for his final destiny, ensuring that there would be no miraculous reprieve from justice this time.
Marguerite met her husband's eyes, and gave a silent scream at the stab of pain that she felt in her heart. She forced herself to look over his face, to recognise the signs of suffering that were etched in every line and dark shadow; the mark of seventeen days at the hands of murderers and demons, whilst she had done nothing. His hair was lank and filthy, gathered at the nape of his neck – where it could be easily hacked away before the blade was dropped. He was clothed in a soiled white shirt, not his own, and the striped trousers of the sans-culottes; both garments hung loosely from his shrunken frame, his toned and powerful physique almost skeletal after Chauvelin's intensive term of deprivation. Those arms would never again envelope her in a deep, protective embrace; nor would she once more rest her ear against his broad chest and listen to the steady, strong beat of his heart. And it was her doing – if she could but speak aloud, the power to save him was hers. It was her duty.
"I can't stand this!"
Sir Andrew roared against the pathetic silence, his voice – the only voice – echoing around the surrounding buildings. He took hold of Marguerite's arms and roughly removed her from his path, before defiantly marching through the throng to reach the tumbrel where his best friend and chief was held trussed and defeated.
Only one report echoed in the still morning air this time.
Marguerite saw the dead form of her friend as a series of flickering frames, like words on the pages of a book riffling in the wind. The deafening atmosphere was ringing in her ears, pulsing with the rapid beat of her heart. She pressed the heel of one trembling hand to her eyes, and was not surprised to find them dry.
"Hé, none of that, now!"
She heard the voice in the distance, as she felt the large hands shaking her shoulders and forcing her to sit up. The harsh yet cultured tones sounded familiar, or the words did, but her eyelids were heavy and would not respond to the rough commands it was issuing.
"Lady Blakeney, the people are waiting."
An acrid smell finally brought her to, convulsing her body with violent retching. She sidled away from the touch of the brute behind her, whose breath on her neck was making her skin crawl, only to find, when she properly opened her bloodshot, aching eyes, that she was edging closer to the blood stained feet of the guillotine.
The scream that shattered her nerves was finally heard by the crowd, but only one man reacted: Chauvelin threw back his head and laughed hysterically, a shrill, shrieking humour that would have once sent Marguerite into a fury. Now it was lost to her.
"Too late!" Chauvelin gasped. "Too late again! Will you never heed your cue, Citoyenne St Just?"
Marguerite jerked herself awake, all too suddenly aware that she had been dreaming; her consciousness rushing like blood to the brain in the form of questions and senseless fears – had she shouted aloud? Could she speak?
"Ah," she sounded softly, in the back of her throat. Yes, she could speak.
Had she disturbed his rest?
Rising from her post by his bedside, Marguerite stepped on unsteady legs over her discarded blanket and lowered herself slowly to her knees. His gaunt face lay facing her, the candle that he insisted she kept burning flickering over the ridges and hollows of his features. He lay on the far side of the bed, away from Marguerite and the candle, but not because of the light on the table – indeed, Marguerite now wondered if it wasn't actually the light he was facing, like a flower seeking energy, and not herself as she had supposed; it was only that he was at his happiest when she would crawl onto the covers next to him, and rest in his arms as he stroked her glorious hair.
He wouldn't sleep until she came to him, and then his fingers would caress her hair until he could no longer hold his arm around her; he would take the soup and bread that was the staple diet of his recovery only if Marguerite would bring her own lunch and sit with him; instead of letting his body recuperate, asleep in a quiet, darkened room, he would ask Marguerite to read to him or just talk to him, and always with the candle burning beside the bed. He had been dragged past the bounds of exhaustion into near physical collapse, but the only medicine he seemed to welcome was the constant companionship of his wife.
And Marguerite was ecstatic. She allowed the servants to fetch and carry for her, only so that she would never have to leave him alone – but for that, if she could have been in two places at once, she would have loved to actually prepare the nourishment that was slowly rebuilding his strength as well as serving it to him. It was cruel – his honour and the love of adventure which stole him from her were only dormant and not dead – but Marguerite cherished every moment spent in this honeymoon of their reunion, as well as this brief lapse in his usual reserve. He was not the Scarlet Pimpernel, he was not Sir Percy Blakeney, 'Prince of Dandies' – he was hers.
"Margot?" Percy's groggy, parched voice sounded from the pillow, even though his eyes were still closed. "Where –" He struggled beneath the bedclothes to push himself up onto his elbows.
"Ici, mon cher," Marguerite whispered, lifting herself up against the bed. She raised her skirts slightly so that she could crawl over to him, and then lightly placed a hand against his chest. "Lay back."
He sank back against the pillow with a sigh. "Where were you?"
"My cover fell to the floor, that is all," she cooed, combing her fingers through the damp hair above his brow.
"You kicked it off," he said, watching her face as she kept her eyes locked somewhere above his. "In your sleep."
"Oh?" Marguerite gave a one-sided smile, and began absently caressing her husband's temple. "I don't remember," she said, which was partly true; the details of her terror had faded from memory, but a chill remained in the pit of her stomach.
She carefully turned onto her side and slipped down alongside Percy's covered form, lowering her head onto his chest. He hesitated briefly then curled his arm around her shoulders and hugged her to him. Marguerite inhaled the mixed perfume of the clean sheets and Percy's warm skin, comforting and familiar, and bit down hard on her lower lip. She could feel the touch of his fingers, stroking a slow, even circle against the material covering her arm, and wondered what he was thinking about. His heartbeat throbbed a steady rhythm below her ear.
Percy held his wife until her breathing began to flow evenly, and he felt her tense frame relax against him. She had called his name in her terror; the wild panic in her voice, involuntarily released, had been a return to the sharpest, deepest torture in Chauvelin's arsenal: the heartache of his wife. If he had never tied this beautiful woman to his unswerving cause, and the consequent uncertainty of tomorrow, then the guillotine could only have been a death in the free, if polluted, open air; but for her, and his duty to others.
Chauvelin, of course, had known this; Percy could not deny the man his malevolent talents, his piercing insight. Marguerite's very presence in that foul, humiliating dungeon had been at once a restorative charm and a twist of the knife: the scent of her hair, with the lingering chill of the sharp wind still locked at its roots, had only numbed his physical sufferings with the force of still greater longing; the tangible, tender warmth of her caress had sent him nigh senseless with memories of what had been and the thought that he might never touch her again. His precious time with her had been sacrificed, given over to instructions for Ffoulkes and the other men about the Dauphin that were crucial at the time but not what he had wanted most to tell her, to leave her with.
Didn't she know that his soul was torn, that his love for her was built upon this other driving passion in his life? She had once rebuked him, in the early days of their reunion, for putting the contentment of strangers before their own life together; "if you loved me" had been her cry. Now only his safety, his life, were her concern, as if she had surrendered her own happiness and expectations for the greater reward of never losing him. And only now, after sharing a cell with death, did Percy realise what he had found in this glorious creature who fit so easily into his embrace and always put his needs before her own. When she had been but a vision before his painful, near-blind eyes, a fleeting dream shattered by the shouts and distractions of Heron's soldiers, he had reached out for her and repented of his complacency; holding her in his arms, with every nerve ending declaring her loyal presence, Percy drew comfort and sanctuary from their bond. She seemed to understand and forgive every test that his adventurous caprices put her through, her love for him taken as unspoken permission to continue.
"Marguerite," he sighed into her hair. "If you didn't love me."