Tante Margot

Opening Note: I don't own the Scarlet Pimpernel, or any sequel thereof; this is just a fan fiction piece, ruminating on what might have happened during the near month-long period when readers of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel sequel, Mam'zelle Guillotine (set, in the series, after Eldorado, but actually written in 1940 as Orczy's final Pimpernel novel), are told that Marguerite traveled through Belgium with Ffoulkes, Glynde, Dewhurst, St. Dennys, and the two daughters of the Marquis de Saint-Lucque, while Percy engineers the rescue of Marquis's wife from Gabrielle Damiens, the "Mam'zelle Guillotine" of the book's title. I've closed my story with three chapters that move events slightly beyond the book's conclusion, in an attempt to advance a theory concerning how the plot developments in Mam'zelle Guillotine might be reconciled with what we are told in Chapter 15 of The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel: "Blakeney kept nothing secret from his wife; and what he did not tell her, that she easily guessed."

I have imagined the Blakeney marriage as rather passionate, which is why this piece might be rated on the taller end of "T," but I mean no offense, and hope none is taken. I want to thank all the participants on this website for setting inspiring examples of lyric, evocative, and imaginative writing. I am especially grateful to Elyse3 and Maisedoat, for their kind, gracious, and sympathetic correspondence; to Sadarticle, who read an earlier version of this piece and offered several crucially valuable comments; and to BaronessOrc, who gave generously of her time and command of the writer's craft to offer a number of insightful suggestions, a few of which I have incorporated to doubtless represent the best of what I offer below. I continue to be grateful for all comments, negative or positive.

Chapter I/Introduction: Leaving the Cozy Corner

For the third time in ten minutes, Marguerite rearranged the cushions Percy had given her, vainly attempting to make herself comfortable on the dusty floorboards of the ruined inn where Percy and other members of the League had found shelter. Muffled laughter floated through the heavy door to the adjoining room and she strained her ears to make out distinct words. At least once, Percy's dear drawl had been followed by a shout of laughter from Sir Andrew, Lord Tony and the others. Moments later, Marguerite could have sworn she'd heard Percy's voice uttering reference to her: "Lady Blakeney will know nothing…"

Marguerite Blakeney, born Marguerite Saint Just, was an exquisitely beautiful woman. Delicate bone structure constructed a face of perfect proportions: finely arched brows over eyes of piercing sapphire; a sensuously curved mouth and a gently rounded chin. Artists in London and Paris had fought to paint that face, animated by a witty remark; vied to depict the elegant figure, the luxuriant opulence of auburn curls.

In this moment, however, Marguerite's skin wore the translucence that attends too many nights without rest. Her face was pale, her brow furrowed with consternation. Know nothing of what? Wasn't it hard enough that Percy had determined to dispatch her to the coldest, remotest province of France in little more than a cart that would doubtless be encumbered with mud within the first hour past their departure? That she should shiver alone in a room while he joked and bandied words with his friends? That she should have nothing to anticipate but a week—if it was a mere week, she thought grimly to herself—of furtive fright and frantic worry? Must he keep her in the dark concerning the details of where he'd gone, what he'd done, the risks he'd run during the time they would be apart?

Her eyes wandered morosely to the two sleeping bundles Percy had deposited in the middle of the room. Had he even bothered to tell her the names of the children he had consigned to her care, as if she were a nursemaid? She knew nothing of children, she thought sadly. How could she, when Percy's long absences made it less and less likely she would ever conceive?

Her frown deepened at the thought of the minutes they'd stolen in the dilapidated room where she now sat, abandoned, on the floor. He'd kissed her so tenderly, held her so gently, but there had seemed a limit, a restraint to his ardor to which Marguerite was unaccustomed. Where was the passion she had grown so used to tasting on his lips, the shiver he could start so easily whenever they were reunited, as his hand kneaded her shoulders, pushed back her cloak? Why had he favored his left shoulder? Why had he seemed to flinch when she'd tried to pull him closer?

The few moments of indignation Marguerite had allowed herself were swiftly replaced by the anxiety that had come to shadow her lonely hours over the past year. She thought again of the subtle wince Percy had endeavored to hide from her when she'd touched him. What, in God's name, had happened in Mézières? What on earth was Percy up to?

The hum of unanswered questions continued to torment Marguerite as she moved mechanically to assist Andrew and Tony as they settled her and the unconscious children into the cart. She arranged her skirts about her person along one side of the covered wagon and watched as the men loaded a basket full of the supplies her husband had provided for the children to sup upon until they reached Perignon: a liter or two of cow's milk, laced, Percy had assured her with a merry wink, with a drop of two of brandy to help the little ones sleep; four loaves of bread, procured at special advantage from a baker who cooperated with her husband's league; a half kilo of hard cheese and a few dull apples. Marguerite peeked under the hood of the cart to feast her eyes upon the diminishing form of her husband as they departed, then stole a furtive glance at Sir Andrew as she finally shifted to face forward in her seat. The mouth that had delighted audiences at the Comédie Française and captivated London society with a ready jest was set now, in a grim line of determination.

Whatever it was her husband had attempted to hide from her, she'd ferret it out of Sir Andrew before their journey was done.

Chapter 2: Weary Musings

The gentle rocking of the cart made Marguerite drowsy. She had slept little in the last few days and felt herself nodding off as her mind wandered. The words of a passage that had struck Marguerite in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women—a work she'd had leisure to read in the stretch of solitary hours she'd endured at home in Richmond—floated back, once more, to haunt her: " One grand truth women have yet to learn…In the choice of a husband, they should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover—for a lover, the husband, even supposing him to be wise and virtuous, cannot long remain. Were women more rationally educated..they would be contented to love but once in their lives; and after marriage calmly let passion subside into friendship—into that tender intimacy, which is the best refuge from care…"

Marguerite laughed grimly to herself as she had when she had first read the mad, tragic, Englishwoman's words. Two years earlier, when Percy's sudden coldness, a mere day after they had taken their vows, had left her lost and confused, Marguerite might have agreed that no husband could ever remain a lover. In the year since she'd first discovered the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, in the year since their estrangement had ended, Marguerite had nevertheless discovered a joyous sensuality in her attachment to her husband that belied Wollstonecraft's predictions of calm friendship and tender intimacy.

From the first time she'd given herself to Percy, Marguerite had discovered a passion beyond imagination in her husband's embrace. An eyebrow raised with the ironic humor she'd come to know so well; the intensity of his gaze when they were alone; a touch to her shoulder, a hand tinkering at her curls; and she could feel herself melt into a heated pool of need. It had been a revelation and a torment. For Marguerite, the revelation had lain in the delight that consumed her when she and Percy were united in furtive rendezvous in between the social functions at which her husband appeared to camouflage the full extent of his forays abroad. Marguerite often thought that she lived most keenly during those precious, lazy days at their home in Richmond when she and Percy would emerge from hours of lovemaking to walk by the pond or sit at night beneath the stars. Yet it was no less a torment of loneliness when Marguerite was left bereft by Percy's departures. And as she'd lie alone in bed, staring at the ornate ceiling of their ancestral home, her heart welling over with a bitter longing, Marguerite would wonder if the revelation of pleasure one could discover in a man's arms were not a trick of the devil to condemn every woman in love to hell on earth.

It was her sensuality, she thought ruefully, that had landed her in this scrape. "If you go, I go with you," she had declared. And Percy had agreed, less, she suspected, from any force she'd manifested in argument than simply because he'd been too utterly stunned by her demand to prepare an adequate refutation. And so she'd set sail with him, luxuriated in a few precious hours of love aboard the Day Dream, but watched, then, dismayed, as her husband had seemed to metamorphose into someone she barely knew with every league that brought them closer to France: the sportsman who won his deadly games of chance with stratagems and disguise; the dedicated, obsessed hero.

Now it was her fate to act as handmaiden to that obsession with the rescue of the innocent; to speed through the inky blackness of an early morning, whirling past forests of trees barely illuminated by the moonlight reflected on their snow-encrusted branches; to be jostled in a cart that took her farther and farther from the man she'd hoped to protect, and to care, instead, for another woman's children.

The cart pitched forward for a moment, shifting the bundles laid on the opposite bench sharply against the canvas hood. Marguerite held her breath, dreading a wakeful crying child. What on earth was she to do with them? She sighed with relief, when the jolt did not wake them as she'd feared.

Suzanne would know, Marguerite thought to herself, as the carriage continued through the thick darkness. Years before, Suzanne de Tournay Ffoulkes, Sir Andrew's wife and Marguerite's dearest friend, had protected the plebian Marguerite from the contemptuous barbs leveled by the young de Tournay's fellow aristocrats at the convent school they'd both attended. Suzanne's quiet generosity encompassed everyone from sick chambermaids to Suzanne's own domineering mother. Suzanne braved her husband's absences, Marguerite was often obliged to acknowledge, with rather better a disposition than Marguerite did. But it was no wonder, Marguerite thought with a smile. Underneath Suzanne's demure, childlike demeanor lay hidden a spirit of steel.

Marguerite could recall endless lonely afternoons and evenings made bearable by Suzanne's company, as sister-in-arms. One night, she remembered, she and Suzanne, abandoned to the anxiety engendered by their husband's adventures abroad, had decided to spend the night together at Richmond, awaiting the weekly word that came with a courier each Saturday morning. Long into the night, the two friends had played at cards, growing tipsy with myriad draughts of punch offered each in contrapuntal toasts to their husbands. When the courier they'd awaited had finally arrived in the early hours of the morning, bearing letters each from Sir Percy and Sir Andrew, Marguerite and Suzanne had tottered off to their respective beds, each clutching a precious missive, deliciously drunk and triumphantly replete.

Suzanne, Marguerite thought to herself, would have known how to comfort these children. Suzanne would have invented means to amuse them over the time that might lie between these dark hours and when they'd next see their mother. In a fresh burst of longing, Marguerite found herself fervently wishing that Suzanne had insisted upon accompanying Andrew as she had doubtless antagonized Percy by journeying at his side. Perhaps, Marguerite thought to herself, the League would have fared better had it been Suzanne, rather than she, who bumped over these rough roads with Sir Andrew. But then, she thought, she would not at least have seen Percy at The Cozy Corner—and Percy had seemed glad to see her, even if his reticence continued to gnaw at some inarticulate corner of Marguerite's consciousness, warning her that something she could not name was terribly wrong….

As exhaustion and the gentle rocking of the cart finally overcame her, Marguerite slipped finally into a troubled sleep.

Chapter 3: The Dreaded Meeting

When Marguerite opened her eyes, a grey light flooded the cart's interior. The horses' steps had slowed. Marguerite blinked as she levered herself up to peek out from under the canvas hood. Still disoriented, she heard Sir Andrew's voice behind her, answering the question she had not yet found the wit to ask: "We're nearly at the border, Lady Blakeney," he explained. "We made good time. Soldiers were asleep at two checkpoints, and took our papers at the third. We'll be able to stop soon, at a farm house nearby. We'll rest the horses and feed the children before we continue for the coast. You'll wish to stretch your legs, I imagine, and break your fast."

Marguerite was still in that limbo between sleeping and waking, but anxious to demonstrate she could counterfeit acuity. "How did the children fare while I slept?" she asked.

"They, too, slept."

"And you, Sir Andrew?"

"I snatched an hour or two. There is no need to be concerned for me, Lady Blakeney."

Suzanne might disagree, Marguerite thought, but decided arguing the matter was pointless.

Querulous after her difficult night, Marguerite allowed herself the luxury of venting a little of her frustration. "Sir Andrew, you will forgive me, but how old are these children? They are girls, are they not---do they have names? Percy provided me with little detail and surely I'd be best advised to know."

Sir Andrew stared at the floor of the cart, embarrassed by the non-too-subtle censure he'd heard of his friend and chief in the voice of Percy's wife. "I am uncertain of the answers to these questions, Lady Blakeney," he began slowly, "and it is likely that Percy did not know either. They were arrested with their mother after they were discovered—betrayed—as they were hiding on an abandoned estate. There was little time to do aught but intervene to bring the children to safety."

As Sir Andrew spoke, the cart slowed to a final halt, pulling into an open barn.

Marguerite was startled to full wakefulness by the energy of the men. Tony seemed to leap, in his bedraggled second-hand uniform, to the ground, and immediately set about untethering the horses. Glynde, with instructions to meet with the barn's proprietor, set off in a northerly direction with purposeful strides. Andrew swiftly climbed out of the back of the cart and, pinning back its canvas cover, instructed Marguerite to hand each of the now-stirring children down to St. Dennys.

Taking up the first child awkwardly in her arms, Marguerite saw her husband's careful bundling slip away to reveal a sleepy, fussing little girl with a mop of golden curls. The second child, also female, seemed a somewhat older, slight, willowy girl with straight, dark hair. Andrew helped her carry the squirming children and their blankets into the barn and settle them on the straw.

The little golden-haired angel began to cry.

Marguerite felt a headache beginning. She cast a glance at the wailing little one. She could hardly blame the babe for crying, marooned among strangers.

The older girl now sat up and rubbed her eyes and looked about. A pang Marguerite could not understand seemed to echo as she watched the child, clad in a dress of stained lace and matted velvet, take in her surroundings with a solemn expression that seemed oddly adult. The child then settled her gaze upon Marguerite, her little features, pinched by hardship and anxiety, communicating abundant mistrust.

"Where's my maman?" the child demanded. It was, Marguerite thought, not so much a question as an accusation.

"She's not here," Marguerite replied, inwardly bewailing the severity of her reply. Why did her response make her feel guilty? How could a child's eyes be so intimidating?

"Where is she?" the child insisted.

Marguerite looked helplessly at Sir Andrew, who was wishing, as fervently as Marguerite had wished hours earlier, that his Suzanne had been as adamant as Marguerite about traveling with them. Surely his lovely wife would have known what to say to settle a child who had faced so much.

Sir Andrew faced the child squarely. "Your mother remains in captivity, but she has friends who are working to rescue her, as they have already rescued your father and brother. We are your friends, and we have rescued you."

The girl regarded the man and woman before her with the same penetrating, inquisitorial gaze. "Are you the Scarlet Pimpernel?"

Marguerite was genuinely startled. Damn Percy not to warn her of this, not to advise her what to say! "What do you know of the Scarlet Pimpernel, child?" she asked.

"I know that he was going to rescue us. Maman said so." The girl turned now to Sir Andrew. "Are you the Scarlet Pimpernel?" she queried again, in the same demanding tone.

Sir Andrew answered in the careful manner that was his wont, sifting through his mind for those words his gentle wife might have found. "No, I am not the Scarlet Pimpernel. But I know of him, stand by him, and follow his commands. Every member of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel is working tirelessly to deliver your mother from danger, Mademoiselle. And this woman," and here, Sir Andrew gestured in Marguerite's direction, "is the woman dearest to him in all the world. He has left you and your sister in her care because it is she he trusts above all others."

The girl digested that, and turned to Marguerite. "What is your name?" she asked, her tone a bit softer now.

Marguerite shook herself free from the gaze of gratitude she had been locked into, staring as she had at Sir Andrew, and found her voice. "They call me Madeleine Saint Just," she said, keeping the name that Percy and Andrew had assigned to her for the duration of their journey. "But you may call me Tante Margot."

"Why should I call you Tante Margot? You aren't my aunt; you aren't related to my papa nor to my maman."

Sir Andrew now interposed on Marguerite's behalf for the third time. "Because Madame Saint Just is prepared to love and care for you as an aunt would until we can reunite you with your mother."

As the girl turned, then, to her, it was Marguerite who was ready, this time, with a question of her own. "As you say, Mademoiselle," she began as respectfully as she could, "we are not related. But I have met your Papa's friend, the Abbé Prud'hon, and he has told me how anxious your father and brother are to see you again. It would give us great joy if you would tell us your name, and that of your sister."

The girl drew herself up in an aristocratic pose that would have almost seemed comical, but for the circumstances.

"I am Valentine de Saint-Lucque," the child said, her words conveying a precocious air of dignity. "My sister is Mariette de Saint-Lucque."

"And how old are you, Mademoiselle Saint-Lucque?" Marguerite asked.

"I am six years old; my sister is four."

Mariette had stopped crying through this exchange, and crept closer to sit by Valentine. She spoke now, for the first time. "I'm hungry," she whined.

Marguerite and Lord Andrew exchanged glances of what might have been relief. Here, at least, was one problem they could solve.

Chapter 4: The Orphan of China

The little party of seven had been traveling over a week when their journey toward the coast was halted by rain. Over the past ten days, Marguerite had done things she would never have quite imagined. She'd bathed two squealing children in fresh, freezing water she'd drawn from a country well. She'd sacrificed her hat to the cause, turning it into a ball the children could toss about a field by stuffing it with straw and tying a rough rope around its edges. She'd dined on hard cheese and stale bread for nearly two weeks, washed down with sour beer furnished by a series of dour Belgian farmers, all, miraculously known to her husband and his men.

Another such stalwart was sheltering them now, in another barn that had become indistinguishable from the rest, except for the fact that the rain had made its odors of wet straw, stale hay, and fresh animal excrement more pungent than usual. Although the roof leaked, Glynde had contrived to prop a lantern on a stool, safely away from the animals and their bedding, but in between the pools of rain forming on the floor.

The children, who had long since consumed the store of brandy-laced milk, were now thoroughly wide awake and dangerously restless in the manner of youngsters pent up with insufficient exercise. They had run up and down the length of the barn. They had scattered breadcrumbs heedlessly to the fowl. And while the adults worried that horses or cattle might be provoked, and admonished them to subdue themselves, the children giggled hugely, enjoying a risk they did not fully understand.

Marguerite, watching them, could not but find their high spirits infectious. Surely, she thought evil could not triumph when there was such exuberant innocence in the world. She could not blame her husband for wanting to protect such beautiful girls from predators. She was doing her part, she assured herself, to assist him, although every hour seemed to bring new challenges.

At last Mariette, tired, sweaty, still laughing, had slid to sit beside Marguerite—as she might, Marguerite supposed, have rested by her mother--against one wall of the barn.

Valentine, always more reserved, sat a few feet away.

"Tell us a story, Tante Margot," Mariette ordered.

Marguerite regarded her with a wariness that matched Valentine's. "What story would you like?" Marguerite asked.

"Maman always tells us about the Three Bears."

"Who?" Marguerite drew a complete blank.

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears," Valentine echoed, her little voice stern with censure. "Don't you know about the Three Bears?"

Marguerite cast her mind back to the days of her own childhood, and realized her disadvantage. Without a mother past the age of nine, there had been no one to tell her such tales as she'd been growing up. Whatever childhood rhymes she'd learned had long since left her memory. The only stories she knew were the arguments of the plays she'd performed at the Comédie Française. But surely, she thought, these were good tales to tell—hadn't Armand regaled her, as a young girl, with the myths of the Greeks and Romans, with the chapters of Voltaire's Candide he'd read aloud each evening?

"Perhaps I could tell you a story you haven't heard, one your maman hasn't told you," Marguerite suggested.

"What story?" Valentine asked, ever the inquisitor.

"Well," Marguerite began, and then hesitated. The children really were too young for Candide, she supposed, and not all the dramas she'd played in were appropriate either. Phaedre and Oedipe were out of the question. She'd played Chimène in Racine's El Cid, but its argument was too bloody for little ones exposed to so much death and violence. She thought of her role as Zara in Voltaire's Zaire, and decided that this, too, was entirely too somber a tale.

And then, inspiration struck.

"Once upon a time," she began, "far, far away in China, there was a brave and learned scholar named Zamti. The scholar had a wife who was very beautiful, named Idamé, and they had a little son." Marguerite's mind was working fast. She would tell them the story of Voltaire's Orphelin de la Chine, she thought, with just a few changes—she'd leave out the dangers to the couple's little boy, and delight the children with a tale to reassure them in their own affliction.

Marguerite's voice gained strength and confidence, and began to take on the expressive lilt that had been her trademark at the Comédie Française. "The couple had to be very brave when a fierce and invincible warrior, named Genghis Khan, came with a great army and conquered China. Genghis Khan had captured and killed all the members of the royal family to become the Emperor of China, but there was one person he hadn't been able to find: the young prince, the Orphan of China."

"Where was he?" Valentine asked, despite herself.

"He was being hidden in the woods by the brave Zamti and his beautiful wife," Marguerite answered. "The tyrant demanded that the two hand over the child, but Zamti and Idamé stood firm. They took the orphan from the woods and hid him in the Great Tombs of China, where no one would be able to find him and he would be safe."

"What are those?" asked Mariette.

"A thousand statutes of mighty warriors, each one different from the next," Marguerite replied. "Because the scholar and his wife had a son of their own, they knew how precious the life of a child was. They were certain that the soldiers of Genghis Khan would never discover the child in that hiding place, and they kept him safe."

Idamé had been one of Marguerite's greatest roles. Percy, Marguerite remembered, had come to see her play Idamé after his return to Paris from the East. She had still been removing the satin pins of her costume from her hair when she had been arrested by the intensity of his gaze, staring at her in her dressing room mirror. Much, much later, Percy had laughingly confessed to her, "I vow I knew I loved you, m'dear, when you still had the power to set my heart yearning, even in that deemed ridiculous Oriental get-up!"

She had slapped him playfully on the shoulder. He had retaliated by pulling her to him and kissing her senseless.

She pushed the memory away, and continued.

"When the Great Conqueror, Genghis Khan, could not find the child, he appealed to the scholar's beautiful wife. Genghis Khan had once loved Idamé, and asked for her hand in marriage, but Idamé had spurned him to marry Zamti. Genghis Khan had tried to forget Idamé but could not." And here, Marguerite launched into Genghis Khan's speech from Act III:

The Fair Idamé has some secret power

That charms me more than victory and empire

I thought I could have driven her from my heart

But she returns and triumphs.

The barn was silent as even the men listened. St. Dennys, who'd always found the theatre a dreadful bore, was drawn in despite himself. Tony marveled at the musical quality of Marguerite's voice, the grace of her gesture.

In that moment, as she'd recited Genghis Khan's speech, every member of the League could see, precisely, why Marguerite Saint Just had been the only woman who could truly capture the heart of Percy Blakeney.

Even in the most profound moments of distress, Marguerite Blakeney was a woman who could draw upon extraordinary reserves of intellect and courage--a woman whose beauty was matched only by her keen appreciation of the power of art.

And how remarkable that she had found a use for her art here, in a cold, wet barn where five adventurers had banded together to save two innocents!

Marguerite, conscious, now, that she had an audience, fed upon a delight she'd long forgotten how to feel. "Genghis Khan offered Idamé the whole of China--the world," she continued. "If she would tell him where the child was, if she would leave her husband, he would place all his power at her feet."

"And did she?" Valentine had crept closer to Marguerite, and was now sitting nearly as close as Mariette.

"No," Marguerite smiled, reassuringly. "She loved her husband, Zamti. Idamé desired neither fame, nor riches, nor power. She loved Zamti with all her heart because he was brave, and clever; because he loved her, and would have done anything to save the prince."

Sir Andrew, listening to the story, smiled to himself. Marguerite had chosen brilliantly, he thought. Percy had been right, he thought, to consign the children to her care. "My Margot may doubt herself on occasion," Percy had warned him, "but give her but a minute or two, and her glorious eyes discern a solution to every problem. She's more resourceful than she allows herself credit for."

Marguerite was exhilarated. Old, fond, memories crowded about her as she seasoned her tale with judicious quotations from the play. Her voice lifted into declaiming tones she had not utilized in years as she described the desperate wooing of Genghis Khan, Idamé's courageous resistance. The voice that had captivated hundreds of spectators at the Comédie Française held only a small audience in thrall, but it seemed to the children that that even the animals were silent as Marguerite continued.

"The husband and his wife were so much in love that they were prepared to die rather than allow their bond to be severed, or the two little children to be hurt. And Genghis Khan was so moved and impressed by their bravery that he had a miraculous change of heart. Genghis Khan decided to raise the young Orphan as heir to the throne he had conquered. Zamti became his minister, and lived happily ever after with Idamé and their son."

Mariette clapped her hands gaily as the story came to an end. Valentine, now nestled by Marguerite's right side, sat in rapt silence, studying her with an intensity of gaze that Marguerite found vaguely unsettling.

"How do you know that story, Tante Margot?" Valentine asked finally. It was the first time she had addressed Marguerite by that sobriquet.

Sir Andrew looked up inquiringly at Marguerite, thinking to offer a smile of reassurance, but saw that she was not looking at him.

She was staring, rather, at Valentine.

Marguerite strove for lightness of tone, as, moved by the child's confidence, she answered with the candor she'd learned was the only way to earn Valentine's respect. "It's the story of a play I acted in, many years ago, when I worked at the Comédie Française. It was written by a great philosopher and writer named Voltaire."

"Maman told us about Voltaire," Valentine responded. "Grand-père used to invite him to come to our home sometimes." She wrinkled her nose. "Maman said he was an old man, and he shouted a lot." Valentine looked speculatively at Marguerite now. "What's it like to be an actress on the stage?"

Marguerite reflected. "Well, it's…." She paused. "A thousand glittering lights illuminate the stage you stand on—there are so many lights that you can only see the other actors, not the faces of the people in the audience. You only hear them. They'll shout foul things to you when they don't like you or your character."

"Did they shout at you, Tante Margot?" asked Valentine.

"Sometimes—if I forgot my lines…in the very beginning." She smiled at Valentine. "Paris audiences can be very…" she searched for the correct word. "Strict." "If you make a mistake, they become very angry. But if you do everything right, they cheer and throw flowers."

"Did they throw flowers at you?" Valentine asked.

"Oh yes."

"What kind of flowers?" Mariette wanted to know.

"Roses, Camellias, sometimes…once or twice, even a tulip. Foreigners," she added.

Mariette giggled.

"And after a while," Marguerite went on, forgetting how young the children were, how much they still might not understand, "you never forget your lines. You let the poetry flow through your body. It transports you because it is so beautiful and so moving that simply to speak it is to become your character."

Moved by her memories, Marguerite began to quote again, this time, from one of her own favorite speeches, in the final act of Racine's Berenice:

Nevermore! Ah, have you thought how ghastly

that cruel word can be when one loves?

In a month, in a year, how much will we suffer?

My lord, how many seas will separate me from you?

When the day begins and the day ends,

Nevermore will Titus see Berenice

Nevermore will I be able to see Titus…

Once again, the barn was silent, cast into a somber mood by the sound of the rain, and the timbre of Marguerite's words.

Mariette was the first to break the reverie.

"Tante Margot," she cried in distress, "what does it mean?"

Marguerite realized her mistake. "The Princess Berenice is sad because Titus, the man she loves, is sending her away for the sake of his honor, and she fears she will never see him again."

"And does she?" the child asked anxiously.

"No." Marguerite put her arm around Mariette's shoulder as reassuringly as she could, realizing she'd forgotten her charge, and her company. "But it is only a story, my dear."

Valentine regarded Marguerite thoughtfully. "You are afraid you'll never see the Scarlet Pimpernel again."

Marguerite was genuinely startled. Good lord, the child missed nothing!

Once again, Marguerite hedged. "Why do you say that?"

"Because Uncle Honoré said you were dear to him," said Valentine, referring to Sir Andrew by the alias he'd supplied alongside Marguerite's title. "That's why you're crying, isn't it?"

There were tears in her eyes. She'd hoped the children hadn't noticed.

Valentine's brows knit together as if she were arriving at the solution to a difficult problem. "You are frightened you won't see him," she said slowly, but with growing self-assurance. "Just as I am frightened I will not see my maman."

Drawn in by the girl's perception, Marguerite turned to face Valentine squarely. How, strange, she thought, that the child should have grasped their parallel situations so clearly. It made Marguerite want to offer something, anything, in return. "We're all a little frightened of what could happen to us," she said, putting her arm around Valentine's shoulder for the first time, "but you must have faith that you will see your mother soon." And then Marguerite repeated the words she'd used to reassure the Abbé Prud'hon, in a comfortable drawing room, on a night that seemed now, like years earlier. "The Scarlet Pimpernel never fails."

Valentine nodded solemnly. "Then you mustn't cry either," she said simply.

She turned into Marguerite's arms and raised her lips to kiss Marguerite's cheek.

Marguerite's heart clutched. For a moment, she allowed herself to hold the girl, tentatively threading her fingers through Valentine's cap of soft brown hair.

She rose, then, embarrassed, edgy with unexpected emotion.

"And now you should try to sleep," she said to the children, as the rain made a gentle patter on the roof, and the drip of the leak grew louder, and steadier. "As soon as the rain stops, we will need to leave this place and move on."

Chapter 5: Revelation

It was not until several days later, rattling once again in the pony cart through Belgian fields glowing under a cold, moonlight night, that Marguerite remembered the promise she'd made to herself to unearth the mystery of what had happened in Mézières.

The children were asleep, huddled under blankets and curled along either side of her on the bench along one side of the cart. She slanted a furtive look at Sir Andrew, who sat across from the three of them, his legs stretched a bit for comfort. He was wide awake, she noticed, staring out the makeshift window created by the opening in the canvas at the rear of the compartment at the dwindling road behind them. Was he thinking of Suzanne, she wondered? And, if he was, surely he could understand her solicitude for the man she loved?

"Sir Andrew," she began. She spoke in a low tone so as not to wake the children, but one which she prayed bespoke a seriousness of purpose that would not be denied. "I beg you to tell me what transpired during Percy's sojourn in Mézières. Was Percy hurt?"

Sir Andrew was immediately on his guard. "Lady Blakeney…"

"I overheard you, Percy, the others—saying that I must not know. But I will know, Sir Andrew. What is it that took place? What danger is Percy in?

"Lady Blakeney," he began again, "I am sworn…"

"Oh never mind that, man," Marguerite interrupted him impatiently. "I am weary of being treated as if I were a child. Surely you can see that I am doing my duty as much as any member of the League."

"Better, madam," replied Sir Andrew, hoping to distract her. "Who would have thought that any of our number could have single-handedly entertained us with an evening at the Comédie Française?"

His charming compliment earned him only a stony look.

"Do not keep me in the dark, Sir Andrew," she pleaded, her hand reaching out to touch his arm in appeal. "I must know."

Sir Andrew looked at her and wondered if she would, ultimately, thank him for giving her the information she sought. Percy, he thought, had warned she would ask. But was there anything, anything he could tell her without the risk that she would guess the rest?

Once again, Sir Andrew spoke slowly, carefully. "It was Gabrielle Damiens, the virago they call Mam'zelle Guillotine. Percy took a beating to distract her while Philip, Tony, and Hastings took the children."

Marguerite felt a grip of cold anxiety. For a moment, her eyes seemed to glow with the force of a reaction she kept in check as carefully as she'd controlled her emotions as The Cozy Corner weeks before.

"And why, may I ask," she inquired, with a softness of tone that belied her rising sense of dread, "would Damiens have wished to thrash my husband?"

Andrew coughed uncomfortably and wished he had elected to ride at the front of the cart with Tony and the others. At that moment, he could have wished himself in hell.

"She believed herself a woman betrayed," he confessed, finally.

"Betrayed?"

For a moment, time seemed to stop, as the full import of Sir Andrew's words came to her consciousness. Marguerite had endured a great deal over the past year. She remembered the fear of the weeks when Percy had been in prison at the Conciergerie, the horror of her own capture at Boulogne. But until that moment, it had never occurred to her to doubt Percy's fidelity, to imagine that he might have sought to triumph over Damiens by distracting her as a woman might be distracted.

Marguerite felt a vague nausea rising that quickly became mighty. "Stop the cart!" she cried, falling forward to pound on the floorboards for attention.

She hardly waited for it to come to a halt before she staggered off the cart's end and was violently sick.

As she tumbled forward a few feet to rest under a nearby tree, she heard Sir Andrew behind her. She heard the murmur of inquiry from Tony and the others from the front, heard Sir Andrew make some excuse before running back to join her. She closed her eyes and cursed her own curiosity. Would it not have been better, far better, not to know?

"Has he sent me away, then," she wheezed, "to make love to this woman?"

Andrew stepped forward to where Marguerite sat, and said nothing.

At last he replied, weighing his words, as always. "I don't know the extent of their intimacy, Lady Blakeney," he told her. "I believe you can be confident that he did no more than he considered absolutely necessary to accomplish his purpose—a few kisses, some rough attentions, perhaps. Little, I would think, beyond that."

Marguerite had no words of response. She stared out in the darkness, perversely savoring the taste of bile in her mouth, struggling vainly to collect herself.

"When Percy was in the Conciergerie," Marguerite said, finally, "I couldn't sleep." Her voice trembled with the force of memory. "After Chauvelin told me what they were doing to him, I couldn't sleep. My head would tilt toward the pillow. I would close my eyes, and I would see him, there, bent over that damned table, sitting on that hard stool, exhausted. And I would think: if I can stand it, he can. If I can stay alive, he can stay alive. Plenty of time to sleep, later, if I were to find myself alone…." Her voice finally broke, and the tears came, now. "Oh Sir Andrew, I love him so much, but Percy is such a very, very taxing man to be married to."

Sir Andrew's voice was gentle, now, but intense. The fear that he had might have betrayed his chief gave him the courage to speak with a force that he seldom allowed others—even Suzanne—to see.

"What would you have him do, Lady Blakeney?" He asked in a tone that was dangerously quiet, and firmer than Marguerite had ever heard him use. "I do not deny that some of these Latin aristocrats are weak, and may have brought this on themselves. They are not our sturdy English stock, who were always taught that lordship carries responsibilities, as well as privilege, from their tenderest years. They did not pay taxes, as we have been compelled to do since the days of the Magna Carta. But would you condemn them to death for that? Is it not for God, and not man, to judge?"

Her head came up at that, as she felt a pang of guilt for the thoughts he seemed to know she'd had.

"How else could Percy have prevailed?" Andrew went on. "Look at those children," and here, Sir Andrew gestured toward the still sleeping forms of Valentine and Mariette, stretched within the cart. "Damiens is a twisted monster, warped, maddened, and embittered by her years in durance. She would have fed two tender innocents to the guillotine for no greater crime than being their father's daughters. Would you sacrifice them?" Andrew's voice rose a bit now. "Would you sacrifice their mother, whose only crime is giving her affection to a man who sinned in his youth? Would you sacrifice any of the others Percy has saved? Would you sacrifice my wife—whom we both love?"

Marguerite was staring at Andrew, while tears she was heedless of tracked down her cheeks.

Andrew stopped to draw a breath, surprised at the warmth of his own rhetoric, but possessed by it, as well. "And they are no different," Andrew pressed on. "No different from the scores of innocents for whom he has risked his life— for whom we have all risked our lives! Every one of them precious, and beloved, to others. Every one of them with a heart, a mind, an eternal soul. After you have sheltered those children in your arms, comforted them in your own bosom, can you doubt his purpose?"

Marguerite was weeping openly now.

"No, no, Sir Andrew," she answered, her voice breaking, her grief layered over with shame that Andrew should have recognized her selfishness so clearly. "I know Percy acts from principle, not just honor, or sport, as he'd say, but because he values the lives of all he tries to save. Only there are times," and now she appealed to him, struggling to articulate the inchoate thought, the tingle of self-pity, that had run through her mind that first evening at The Cozy Corner, "times when it is so hard to be alone, to know Percy runs these risks without anyone to protect him; times when imagining myself—all unworthy, I know—an equal to you men of the League, gives me no comfort. I know that what Percy does is right, but living without him can be so ferociously daunting. Please try to understand," she pleaded, "for the sake of your own sweet wife, whom I have missed mightily in these last weeks…" Her voice dissolved into tears with these last words, and she wept again.

Andrew softened then, remembering the conversation he'd had with Percy, moments before they'd left The Cozy Corner. "You can't keep anything from a clever woman," Percy had warned him. "She's bound to figure it out, and it's no good to lie to her—she always knows." He had given Andrew that level look of confidence shared between men who knew each other better than brothers.

Handing Marguerite a handkerchief, Sir Andrew made ready to recite the words that Percy had thereafter instructed him, in haste, to repeat, should his brilliant wife divine the true extent of the ruse he'd undertaken to save Eve de Saint Lucque.

"Lady Blakeney," he began, "I have a message for you from Percy."

"You gave me his letter before we came to the inn," she sniffed.

"No. There is another message, which he asked me to relay to you if your courage faltered before we reached Dover. I was to wait until—unless, I confess—I deemed that it were truly warranted, but perhaps now is the time."

Sir Andrew drew another deep breath and spoke: "He asked me to tell you that you travel at his side every second of every day; that there goes not an hour when his mind is not occupied with thoughts of you; that your presence in the inn healed his body and restored his spirit as nothing else could. Percy wanted me to tell you how grateful he is that you are with the children, and how humbled he is that you would share his enterprise, and that, wherever he may journey, his heart stays always with you."

Marguerite shifted her gaze away from Sir Andrew, the cart, the children within and the men without. She stared into the darkness, allowing herself a private minute to absorb so intimate a message. She let the words settle over her like lover's hands, to soothe her swollen eyes, dry the tears she had not found the energy to yet scrub away from her reddened nose. She closed her eyes, hoping to catch the illusion of Percy's voice, speaking them.

And then the silence of the night was broken by a wail. Mariette had awoken in the still, idled cart, tormented by a nightmare. Within seconds, she'd roused her sister, whose cries of distress mingled with hers.

And Marguerite, emboldened by her husband's words, found the courage she'd lost. The humor that had made her the toast of London society was back in the eyebrow she found energy to arch, the brave smile that now tilted the corners of her mouth.

"Lud, Sir Andrew," she said lightly, as she got to her feet, "Perhaps Sir Percy is just as fortunate that only his heart is here with me."

She stepped forward to comfort the children.

Chapter 6: The Fisherman's Rest

Marguerite was sitting under the shade of a tree in the garden outside the celebrated Dover inn, The Fisherman's Rest, luxuriating in the breezy sparkle of a noonday sun with the two daughters of the émigré Marquis de Saint Lucque, Valentine and Mariette.

On this glorious day, winter had finally been chased away by spring. The bricks of the historic inn sparkled in a warm, clear sunlight that seemed even to soften the jagged drama of the nearby cliffs into a kind of gentle beauty.

It had been five days since Marguerite, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Sir Philip Glynde and my Lord St. Dennys had arrived in Dover, and Percy was still nowhere to be seen. In the unendurable stretch of waiting, Sir Andrew had allowed himself the luxury of sending for his dear Suzanne, who had arrived the previous day to Marguerite's great joy. Yet, as she looked out over the gardens and the nearby cliffs, it was the company of the children Marguerite found she craved even beyond that of her friend. Their antics made her laugh and distracted her from the mounting terror that Percy would not come at all.

The crossing from Oostende had not been easy. Little Mariette had been brutally sea-sick. Valentine had weathered the voyage somewhat better, but upon the party's arrival in Dover, had developed a fever that had kept Marguerite at the child's bedside two nights, patiently nursing the elder child through a sore throat and a painful ear ache.

Now fully recovered, Valentine had regained her voice and was lifting it with her sister in incessant rendition of the most recent song Marguerite had taught them, sung to the tune of Marlborough Went Off to War, from the second act of Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro:

My charger is getting breathless

While my heart is getting restless

I wander endlessly aimless

Astride my charging steed,

Astride my charging steed,

Astride my charging steed,

I'm neither varlet nor horseman,

When I arrive at the fountain,

I'm miserable and heartbroken,

Thinking of my distant love.

I feel my tear drops fall,

I feel my tear drops fall,

My heart is nearly at sea

When I rest under a tree

She has no letter from me,

When who should pass but the king

When who should pass but the king

His Barons and Clergy too...

The volume at which the children were singing had driven most of the inn's adult guests into the coffee room of The Fisherman's Rest to escape the racket of the children's exuberance. Sir Andrew had thought privately that it would be a very, very long time before he would desire to hear that song sung again. There were ten verses, and the children had sung them all, several times, hardly understanding their meaning but rejoicing in the rhyming words, the buoyant rhythm. At the end of every verse, the girls would vie with one another to see who could hold a note the longest, reducing Marguerite and eventually both contending children to helpless peals of laughter.

And thus it was that Sir Percy Blakeney, returned at last from his latest adventure, first saw his lady as he stepped outside the inn to find the San Lucque children and reunite them with their mother. The hair he had felt between his fingers in furtive dreams was loose, its tendrils escaping to caress her face in the wind. Her mouth was open and laughing, her glorious eyes glowing with amusement and affection for the two little girls as they clutched her shoulders and doubled over with mirth.

Percy's heart seemed to turn over. He was home at last.

Marguerite looked up and gazed, for the first time in nearly a month, upon the figure of her husband. He saw the amusement in her eyes fade into a flash of joy that seemed to flare and join with his own. For a moment, it seemed, time stopped as their eyes locked together. Yet, while Percy's continued to shine with love and longing, he saw those of his wife grow shuttered and guarded with an expression of sorrow and something that looked almost like fear.

Percy felt a chill fall across his heart. "Ah," he thought. "My Margot has found me out."

Suddenly, the air was filled with childish shouts of delight. "Maman!"

Escorted by Lord Anthony Dewhurst, and Sir Andrew and Lady Suzanne Ffoulkes, Eve de Saint Lucque had emerged from the inn's interior to be reunited with her children. Marguerite watched as the children ran to a petite, exquisitely beautiful woman with curling, blond hair. She tried to ignore the lump forming at the back of her throat as the children threw themselves into the woman's outstretched arms.

Oblivious to the adult drama unfolding around them, Valentine and Mariette chattered over and past each other as accounts of the past three and a half weeks tumbled from their lips. They had ridden miles and miles in a bumpy wagon. Tante Margot had told them stories from plays she'd acted in the Comédie Française: the story of the Chinese Orphan, and the Princess Berenice. And she'd taught them songs! Mariette, the more musical of the two, launched into another tune, to demonstrate:

Let's dance the Carmagnole

Long live the sound

Long live the sound

Let's dance the Carmagnole

Listen to cannons boom-ing!

The sound of the rustling breeze absorbed the moment of shocked silence with which the adults greeted Mariette's childish serenade. Sir Andrew's eyes narrowed, while Suzanne's hand, trembling with concern for her friend, pressed into her husband's arm.

Lord Antony Dewhurst began studying the toe of his boots with an intensity that was nearly religious.

For a moment, Marguerite's eyes widened, willing Percy to remain silent if he would have spoken; but Sir Percy Blakeney, with an inscrutable expression on his face, said nothing.

Bewildered and appalled, Eve de Saint Lucque cast a measuring and somewhat contemptuous glance at Marguerite and pursed her perfect mouth in disapproval. Had her children really been left in the care of a Republican actress? She was grateful, of course, to the man who had saved her life, but had it really been necessary to choose such low company for her daughters?

"It appears I am indebted to you, Madame, for your kindness to my children," the Marquise said finally, her voice stiff with reserve and thinly-hidden disapproval.

"Oh no, Madame," Marguerite replied courteously. "It is rather I who must thank you, for allowing me to share the company of your charming daughters." Marguerite sensed the other woman expected her to curtsey, but her body stayed resolutely upright. She had known too many women like Eve de Saint Lucque at her convent school.

She would not, she thought, be intimidated.

Eve de San Lucque drew herself up. "Valentine Marie, Mariette Hélène, we must go now," she commanded. "Say goodbye to Madame Margot. We are leaving in a carriage to go to your father."

Mariette was the first. She walked up to Marguerite, who knelt, now, to be eye level with the child. "Adieu, Tante Margot," said Mariette, kissing Marguerite's cheek.

"Adieu ma petite," Marguerite replied. Defiantly, she put her arms around the child, and kissed her hard enough for Mariette to slither out of her embrace and return to take her mother's outstretched hand.

It was Valentine's turn. "Adieu, Mademoiselle Saint Lucque," Marguerite said gravely. Knowing the child would prefer an adult goodbye, she stretched out her hand, which Valentine took up. "Adieu, Tante Margot," Valentine replied.

Marguerite watched them re-enter the inn. She trailed them slowly as they walked through the building and out into the courtyard toward the inn's stables, where Glynde, Hastings, and St. Dennys were readying a carriage to take Madame de Saint-Lucque and her daughters back to the Marquis and their brother in London.

Neither she, nor Eve de Saint Lucque, were quite prepared for what happened then. Quick as a shot, Valentine wrenched her hand from her mother's and ran like a bullet back toward the inn, straight at Marguerite. Throwing her arms around Marguerite's waist, Valentine bestowed one last, fierce hug upon the woman who had protected her over the past month.

"Adieu, Tante Margot," Valentine repeated.

"Adieu ma petite chéri," Marguerite replied, dropping a kiss on the child's head. "Va, Va ma petite---go to your maman," she said, pushing Valentine back in her mother's direction.

Marguerite watched Valentine trot back across the courtyard to rejoin her startled mother and sister. Mariette turned to wave one more time as she entered the carriage. Marguerite held her gaze steady as she watched the carriage sway slightly as it took the weight of mother and children, as the carriage door closed, and My Lord Hastings and Sir Philip Glynde climbed to the top. She saw Glynde take the reins, click to the horses, and drive the carriage off.

Marguerite stared after the carriage, concentrating upon maintaining her composure. "I should, perhaps, order a bath," she finally announced, and turned toward the inn's entrance to walk upstairs to the room she had stayed in over the past week.

Suzanne stepped forward to follow her friend, but spared a glance, first, for the brave leader of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the intrepid followers who stood beside him. Not a one, she'd noted, had risen to say a word in Marguerite's defense. She leveled a look at her husband that communicated quiet censure and distress in equal measure. "I'll go up to her," Suzanne murmured softly.

Sir Andrew shot his wife a grateful look, and turned his attention to Percy.

Throughout the reunion of mother and children, Percy had said nothing, and registered no expression. A slight coldness had seemed only to issue from him, Andrew had noted, as Percy contemplated the spectacle of his wife, snubbed by the aristocrat he'd just risked his life to save.

It was Andrew who spoke first. "La, man," he said aloud. "The woman reminds me of my mother-in-law. Twenty years from now, when she's grown fat and those threads have turned to gray, her sharp tongue won't be nearly as becoming."

Percy turned now, from the entrance to The Fisherman's Rest, where his gaze had been fixed upon the tragic, departing figure of his wife. "We should walk a while, Andrew," was all he said.

Sir Andrew spent the next half hour walking about the grounds of The Fisherman's Rest and bringing his chief up to date. Routes followed and papers produced had all been handled smoothly, despite delays imposed by inclement weather. There had been some trouble with the Walloon farmer Meyvaert outside Bruges, who had demanded more money than the agreed-upon sum; the League might wish to seek a more reliable host for future expeditions. Sir Andrew also described Marguerite's contact with the children. Just as Percy had predicted, her rapport with the little ones had been truly extraordinary. "But," and here Sir Andrew had lowered his voice for emphasis, "I was obliged to convey the message we discussed, as there came a time when it became necessary."

"I thought as much," Percy replied, "When did she discover it?"

"About ten days ago."

"Kept it from her that long, eh? I suppose I'm grateful."

Sir Andrew stared at the ground and remembered Marguerite's tearful confession at the side of a lonely Belgian road: Percy is such a very, very taxing man to be married to.

It occurred to him then that Marguerite might have spoken no more than the truth. He had sought only to defend his comrade and leader that night. Yet perhaps, Sir Andrew thought now, it was not Marguerite alone who was at fault.

He spoke then, in the slow and careful way that all who knew him had learned to respect. "She's heartsick, Percy. You must go to her and speak with her plainly."

"Odd's Fish! Are you telling me how to deal with my wife, now?" Percy asked, a twinkle starting in his eye. "Hadn't you better look to your own, before I put you to work again?"

"That was my intention," Andrew replied, smiling back at his old friend. "But have a care, man," he advised again.

"You should take your lady home," Percy suggested. "I'll see you at His Royal Highness's garden party, three days hence."

Sir Andrew nodded and turned toward the inn to collect his wife. Rather than walking with him, Percy remained outside in the warm glow of the afternoon, staring at the clouds and endeavoring to collect his thoughts.

Chapter 7: Bedchamber "Interlude"

Marguerite was standing by the window as Percy entered the bedchamber that had become her temporary boudoir at The Fisherman's Rest, her lovely eyes clouded with tears.

Percy tried gentle humor. "Odd's Fish, m'dear! Did you really need to teach them the Carmagnole?" he joked. "I suppose we should all be grateful it was that and not Ça ira!"

How was it, that even in the worst moments, he could always make her laugh?

Without another word, Percy walked toward his wife and folded her into his arms.

"Andrew said the Marquise de Saint Lucque reminded him of his mother-in-law." Percy spoke again in a lower voice, to cheer, and to comfort.

Marguerite laughed weakly. "Suzanne said the same." With a mimic's precision that had once delighted audiences at the Comédie Française, Marguerite captured the dulcet accents of her staunchest female friend. "Chéri, you must pay her no heed. She is as bigoted as Maman."

Percy smiled and only held her tighter.

"I won't see them again, will I Percy?" Marguerite's question was muffled against the crisp linen of his shirt.

"No." His voice held solemnity, and regret. "I'm afraid it would be best if you didn't. If the children were to recognize you, it could compromise the anonymity of the League, and the safety of those we seek to protect."

She had known his answer before he spoke.

His heart was heavy with regret for what his wife had suffered, for the pain he had forced her to endure. His arms were tight bands around his wife as he stroked his hands up and down her back, willing them to heal the woman he loved so deeply and had clearly wounded so profoundly—far worse, he realized now, than he had ever intended, or imagined he might. "I'm heartily sorry for it, Margot—deeply and sincerely sorry for all of it. I never meant for you to be hurt, not by any of this."

"It's all right, it's all right." Marguerite raised her hands, then, taking the measure of her husband's well-loved cheek, his brows, his hair. Her hands skimmed the knot of his cravat as she lifted her face to his. "You are safe, Percy. That's all that matters." She wound one arm around him now, and began kissing him with passionate intensity. "You are safe."

They fell on the bed. Time seemed to slow as he caressed her, kissed her tears away, one by one, lacing his hands through her curls to grip her head and deepen their kiss until it seemed to Marguerite that her body had melded to her husband's. Yet as they made a world unto themselves in the tiny bedroom, nagging doubts continued to spider through Marguerite's mind. Had Percy's hands roamed over Gabrielle Damiens as he now handled her body? Had he kissed, caressed her the same way? Marguerite pushed her bitter suspicions away, determined to revel in the moment. There would be time, later, to say what she must say, do what she must do. But not yet, she thought, as her body rose to respond to her husband's. Not yet….

Now, when his arms were once more round her and she looked into his merry deep-set eyes, the joy of reunion was almost more than she could bear. She tried to make him tell her something of what he had endured and gone through for the sake of an unfortunate woman and two innocent children now happily reunited to husband, father, and brother.

"Luck was on my side, light of my life," was all he said, "because you were so near me all the time. And luck was backed by the courage and understanding of brave men like Ffoulkes and Tony, Glynde and St. Dennys, and your adorable self."

"But Percy," she insisted, "if luck had failed you. If….."

"Luck, my beloved," he said, and once more that wonderful look of the born adventurer, the gambler, the fearless sportsman, the look which she dreaded to see more than any other, came back into his eyes; "Luck is just an old woman, m'dear, bald save for one hair on her head. It is up to her courtier to seize her by that one hair when perchance she flits by past him at arm's length. But, by George," he concluded with his infectious, merry laugh, "having got hold of that hair, it is up to him not to let it go. And that is all I did, my adored, I did not let it go." (Baroness Emma Orczy, "Interlude," in Mam'zelle Guillotine).

"Perhaps Luck is not an old woman, but a little younger, Percy?" Marguerite said then, withdrawing herself, slowly, from his arms. "Perhaps not bald but with strands in sufficient abundance to tug toward you for an embrace?"

Her tone held a coldness, an edge of bitterness that Percy had not heard from his wife since the days of their estrangement.

For over an hour, Percy had been evading Marguerite's attempts to elicit from her husband a full accounting of what had happened in Mézières, and thereafter. Percy had told himself that the apology he had offered earlier should be enough to reassure his beloved of his remorse for what she had endured. She did not need to know more, he assured himself. Indeed, the less detail he supplied, the less she knew, the less she would suffer.

His certainty of this nonetheless began to fade as his wife's tone brought back the words of Andrew's warning: She's heartsick… Percy watched as his wife wrapped herself in one of the bed sheets they had tugged free amidst their embraces. His eyes narrowed in consternation as she rose from the bed to seat herself in the room's single chair, next to the bureau.

He levered himself to sit up, careful still to situate his wounded back against the bed's headboard, safe from Marguerite's discerning gaze.

It still hurt a bit now, but he had become accustomed to ignoring such things.

She looked so lovely in the glow of the late afternoon sun, he thought. It flooded the room and created a halo about her luxuriant dark red hair. It made him yearn to hold her.

He would have called to her then, summoned her back to the bed, but he saw that Marguerite was not looking at him but at her hands, tangled in her lap.

It seemed to her as she sat, wrapped in sheets, that she would speak as a penitent. Marguerite thought of the nuns who had educated her so many years before, and taught her to examine her conscience: I accuse myself of the sin of pride. Now, as she began the speech she'd rehearsed in her mind for the past ten days, her voice was shaking with emotion, her heart praying for courage to voice the frightening words she had steeled herself to utter.

Marguerite drew a steadying breath and spoke.

"Percy," she began, "I have had ample leisure to reflect over the past fortnight concerning the motives that underlie what you have termed your 'enterprise.' Indeed," she added drily, "you could not have found a more eloquent exponent for your reasons than Sir Andrew. He might consider a career in Parliament when this matter is done." She tried a smile, looking up at her husband.

Percy was staring at her intently, but said nothing.

Evidently, Percy was not going to make this easy for her.

Marguerite took another deep breath and pressed on. "When I first came to the Comédie Française, I imagined myself to be superior to the other women I knew in the theatre, actresses such as Anne Lange, who found male protectors to pay their expenses. With Armand to squire me about Paris safely, I supposed myself more independent, more virtuous, than they. But you and I both know," and here Marguerite fixed her husband's eyes with a meaningful look, "that Armand's loyalties were…distractible. Had you not come into my life when you did, it is quite possible, even probable, that his attention would have wandered elsewhere eventually, his protection faltered. My affections would have stumbled, and my virtue with them." She looked at Percy with quiet emphasis and spoke in a low, serious voice. "It would only have been a matter of time."

He was conscious, now, of his effort not to lean forward, and his voice was wary. "Margot," he asked carefully, "What are you saying? Why are you speaking in this manner?"

"When you were in prison, Percy," Marguerite continued. "There was nothing…nothing...I would not have done to save you." She lifted her head now, to face him squarely. "I would have offered my body to Chauvelin—to the entire guard regiment at the Conciergerie—if I'd imagined it would have secured your freedom—or the tiniest measure of respite for you—a single hour of sleep!"

Percy was leaning forward now, and his face was white with shock. He thought of Chauvelin's oily threats in Boulogne, the single instance at which he had ever seriously come close to losing his temper and attacking his old adversary. But he had sworn himself to silence concerning this incident. Marguerite would never know how dangerously close she had come to being treated in exactly the manner she detailed.

His voice was fierce, and purposeful with a timbre of banked anger she seldom heard. "You would have done nothing of the sort." Percy spoke his words tightly through clenched teeth. "I would never have allowed it."

"You would not have been able to prevent it," Marguerite retorted triumphantly, empowered as she realized she had unsettled her husband at last. With grim satisfaction, she repeated the words Chauvelin had used to torment her, the phrase that had clutched at her heart with cold fingers in Paris: "You could barely walk steadily across a room! Do you imagine for a moment that I would value the honor of such a fragile thing as my body one jot above your safety?"

And it would have been my choice, Percy," she went on, radiating an intensity of argument, a self-assurance, that her husband had never seen Marguerite demonstrate anywhere, perhaps, but on the stage. "It would have been my choice to sacrifice myself to save your life! Just as it was my choice to follow you to France like a dog—or perhaps more accurately, like a cat." Marguerite closed her eyes in bitter-self- accusation. "Just as it was my choice to assume responsibility for those children despite my misgivings. My choice to care for them. My choice to return them to their mother."

"It is precisely because of these choices that I can understand your choice to lie with that woman for the sake of those two angelic children and the mother they love," Marguerite's voice, which had soared through her previous speech, broke a bit now, softened into the grieving accents that bespoke the anguish of her heart. "But that you would keep it from me, Percy, and continue to evade all detail and explanation, even now…If you think so little of me, then ours is not a marriage, but a mere dalliance. I have been imprisoned by the erotic delights we have found together, but I can bear it no longer. And so it will be my choice," and here Marguerite drew a deep breath, "to leave you Percy."

It seemed to Percy Blakeney then that all the air had suddenly gone out of his lungs. The world had tilted to a strange, geometrically impossible angle. He strove for self control, a light tone. "Zooks, m'dear, what the devil are you talking about?"

"I am leaving you, Percy," Marguerite's voice was steadier than she'd feared it would be, surprising her. "I'll go to London, return to the stage. I can make my own living," she added, with a firmness of tone that belied inner, jeering, doubts. "I did so before, and can again."

She rose, then, to dress.

Throughout this speech, Percy Blakeney had been staring at his wife with the bemusement that he might have bestowed on an inexplicably runaway horse. His first thought might have been to christen her a madwoman. Percy watched his wife competently locate her shift, and climb into it. For a month now, Marguerite had foresworn the luxury of a lady's maid. She had eschewed a corset, hardly necessary when she had grown so thin amidst the strain of the past few months. Percy's heart broke a little, watching her fragile form bend to retrieve her dress, the same she'd worn at The Cozy Corner.

He bounded out of bed to dress himself, all thoughts of keeping his back hidden banished from his mind by an acute, mounting sense of crisis. She wouldn't leave him, he thought, as he struggled to keep pace with her deliberate and ominous toilette. He'd make damned sure of that, he told himself with more determination than confidence. But if he should be obliged to run after her, and truss her like a turkey, he told himself grimly, it would be best to have his breeches fastened.

He had told himself that she was best off being given no more detail than was strictly necessary—indeed, he thought ruefully, he had hoped to tell her nothing at all. But when a clever woman divined everything nonetheless, was there not a serious risk that she would hold his silences against him?

Did the fragile security of his autonomy count against the real danger of losing her?

"Margot, listen." His voice was urgent and held a pleading tone that he was too desperate to find humiliating.

"There is nothing further to discuss, Percy." Marguerite's words were calm, but her eyes were glowing with unshed tears, her movements hastened and spasmodic.

"Zounds, woman, you will listen!" Percy was shouting now.

All movements ceased. Marguerite simply stared.

"Sit down, damn you!" He took a menacing step toward her, as if he might have pushed her into the chair.

Marguerite sat, her mind too numb with shock to think, so stunned was she by Percy's completely uncharacteristic burst of temper.

Percy leaned over the chair where his wife sat, his face looming into hers. "I…did…not… lie…with…Gabrielle…Damiens." Every word was enunciated with precision.

Marguerite continued to stare, her mind now awoken, as fear warred with hope. She eyed her husband warily and said nothing.

"I kissed Damiens—this I will confess to—and made several extravagant protestations of affection," Percy conceded, speaking somewhat more calmly now, as he continued to hold his wife's gaze. "But you should trust me, Margot, to know my enemy, to measure my strategy, to achieve that which I undertake to accomplish. You are not thinking about the character of a woman such as Damiens."

"A woman such as Damiens," Percy went on, taking his wife for the first time into the interior of his mind, the inner recesses of his calculations, "desires to be desired, not seduced." He gave his wife a level look. "Had I attempted to seduce, rather than merely woo her, Mam'zelle Guillotine would have been on her guard, and would hardly have allowed me near her. As it was," and here Percy looked straight into his wife's eyes, "a few effusions of sentiment, a few embraces, and she imagined me under her thumb, a tool she could use at her pleasure. The beating she gave me arose from mere disappointment that the tool she'd estimated ripe for her machinations had failed to bring her the victims she desired: the family de Saint Lucque."

It was the skilled strategist, the persona Marguerite had judged a stranger a month before aboard The Day Dream, who now went on to briefly outline the remainder of his ruse: the second disguise as the new André Renaud, the frantic night ride, the final escape with Madame le Marquise.

Marguerite listened with rapt attention, drinking in her husband's long-delayed confidences as a starving wanderer might have lapped water from an oasis in the desert. "When I returned as the second Renaud," Percy finally explained, "it was far, far easier to confuse and trick Damiens with my new disguise precisely because she had already become disgusted by the useless attentions of my first, flamboyant version of the man, but could not recognize the precise dimensions of my figure. Had I lain with her," and here he once again enunciated his words for emphasis, fixing his wife at the same time with a steely glance that communicated irritation alongside a fervent desire to persuade, "this would hardly have been possible."

Marguerite looked down at the floor and for the first time began to imagine herself a fool. She remembered Sir Andrew's words, I believe you can be confident that he did no more than he considered absolutely necessary to accomplish his purpose. At the time, she'd disbelieved him, imagining that her husband's friend and second-in-command had spoken only to defend his chief.

Had she really lain retching in the road like a drunken highwayman over a few strategic kisses?

She tried to lead with the anger that lingered. "If all this is true," she confronted her husband, "why didn't you tell me this before? Why not explain it to me at The Cozy Corner, in the time it took you to tell Andrew what to say to me if you were found out? Surely you could have spent those minutes telling me what you had done, what you were planning to do."

"And would you have let me go if I had told you? If you knew I'd been hurt?" Percy looked deep into his wife's beautiful eyes, and spoke with a quiet gravity that shamed her to silence as his earlier temper had stilled her with shock. "Wouldn't you have insisted I rest, tended to my wounds? Ministered to me with those graceful, gentle hands of yours?"

Marguerite cast her eyes downward again, shamefaced as a scolded child. "I imagine so."

"As did I. And I would not have been able to restrain myself from taking you in my arms. And we would soon have finished as we were, in this chamber, not long ago. And in that precious interval, Damiens might have dispatched soldiers after Tony and Hastings. She might have left for Paris with Madame de Saint Lucque, recaptured the children. She would still be about her dastardly work, slaughtering the innocent." Percy's voice dropped to an emphatic whisper. "All would have been lost."

"As it was," Percy finished, in a more settled tone, "Madame de Saint Lucque and her children were saved, and Damiens was foiled, and neutralized, I am hoping, permanently."

"Where is she now?" Marguerite asked quietly.

"Zooks, m'dear, demmed if I know." Percy's voice was lighter now. "Madame de Saint Lucque and I left her sleeping, drugged, in a wayside inn. But she's no longer there, and our friends report that she's not been seen these past six days." "If she's not dead," Percy continued, "she's as good as dead, for power was the only thing she cared for, and she's powerless now. She'll harm no one else."

Percy pulled Marguerite up to her feet now, staring into her eyes with a tender intensity. "How could you possibly imagine that you would have anything to fear from Damiens? Damiens is—or was--a bloodthirsty monster, a crazed, vicious lunatic. My wife," Percy's voice softened now, his hands now roaming over her back in a way that never failed to turn her skin to fire, "is a brave and courageous woman who remains married to a man who is, as he realizes, entirely unworthy. My wife," and here his tone deepened, "is a gentle soul, who loses her generous heart to children she barely knows, and cannot keep."

The poetry of his words nearly brought forth the tears Marguerite had been struggling to hold back. Still she clutched about her the shreds of her tattered pride. "I want to see your back, Percy."

Percy began to protest: "M'dear, I hardly think it necessary…"

"Oh, but it is necessary, Percy. Are we not one, in sickness and in joy?" She threw at him, now, the words he'd spoken to her at The Cozy Corner. "If we are," Marguerite continued with some vehemence, "then surely it is my right to know, to see what you have suffered. And if it is not my right," Marguerite finished, "then I return to my earlier contention, that I am no more to you than a mistress, and that this is no marriage, but a mere alliance of our two bodies."

It was unsettling to confront Marguerite in a mood such as this one, but Percy yielded. Removing his shirt, he turned his back to her.

"Oh, mon dieu!"

Marguerite's breath drew in sharply as she surveyed the damage of the past month. There were old scars here, certainly, even a few she recognized, but the freshest ones were livid and angry. Two, a bruise across the shoulder, and one across the lower back, were now dull trails of red and browning purple, painful when they were first inflicted, but clearly healing. But the worst was a gash that ran across her husband's spine. It had opened and reopened more than once, as Percy had ridden with Damiens to save Madame de Saint Lucque. Dark, scabrous tissues covered much of its length. Black, coagulating blood lodged within the indentation made by Damien's lethal leather horsewhip. How had she not felt it hours before? Marguerite reproached herself. Had she been so lost in her own pleasure that she had failed to notice?

Marguerite stepped closer to her husband now. Placing her hands, hesitantly, on either side of his body, she leaned forward to kiss the vicious wounds. Her first kisses were reverent, and careful. When she came to the nearly healed welts on his shoulder, however, her restraint began to desert her. Her mouth opened slightly, almost as if to suckle them.

Percy was trembling, He reached his hand to cover hers.

"Margot." His voice was hoarse.

"Margot," he said again, and there was pleading, as well as command, implicit in his tone.

He turned to face her now, to look into her eyes, which brimmed with emotion.

"You won't leave me, Margot." His eyes were burning into hers. His hands, heavy on her shoulders, made her body ache.

"No." Her voice was a soundless whisper. "I won't leave you."

Chapter 8: A Pledge of Honor

It was hours later when Percy Blakeney came awake in the darkened bedroom chamber of The Fisherman's Rest. The candle he had lit to illuminate his passionate reconciliation with his wife had long since sputtered out. The room was lit now only by a shaft of moonlight, which wavered from side to side as the wind moved the leaves of a nearby tree from side to side. The dark quiet of the night was interrupted only by the rustling of its branches, the nattering of a few birds, the sounds of a distant church bell ringing the hour as quarter past three.

It came to Percy Blakeney that he was hungry. He had nothing to eat since the lavish breakfast he had graciously offered to Eve de Saint Lucque and shared with loyal members of the League aboard The Day Dream before their arrival in Dover the previous morning. The noises from the first floor of the inn, the sounds of cooks at work in the inn's kitchen, faintly heard as he and Margot had cried out to one another, had long since stilled. Dinner had been served long ago. The time for evening supper had come and gone as well. Those in the coffee room had sought their beds hours before.

Percy gazed a while at the spear of moonlight on the ceiling and considered.

The evening's events had obliged him to reflect, as he had never reflected before, that the conclusion of his estrangement with his wife might have carried one consequence he had not bargained upon: the erosion of his sacrosanct masculine privacy.

He had clung, even amidst the luxury of their renewed happiness, to bachelor notions of the League. He had cherished his masculine secrets, telling himself always that it was his loving desire to shield Marguerite from the anxiety fuller knowledge might impose that led him to keep silent. Indeed, after the debacle of his imprisonment in the Conciergerie, had it not proved desirable to hide things from his wife? Was not her own brother's betrayal better kept a secret? Surely such details would only have tormented her further?

It had never occurred to Percy that it was it was his attempt to keep her in ignorance that might have constituted the greatest torment for his wife. Nor had he realized, until this afternoon, that it was he, rather than his wife, who preferred that Marguerite remain in the dark. He had spoken to her of their love as rendering them a single linked being, joined inextricably by their mutuality of sentiment. Yet there had been much that he had remained reluctant to explain to her. Had it been lingering distrust of a woman's indiscretion? Uncertainty that she would truly understand?

Percy shifted his arms behind his head, and stretched a bit.

Marguerite's threats might have been excessive, drawing upon the drama of the stage to threaten departure. And yet, he thought, he was no less a fool. His Margot had risked everything for him, time and time again, whatever misgivings she harbored concerning the merits of those he saved. She had endured the privation of their separations, the anxiety of his captivity, and her own—if not with graceful serenity, he thought wryly to himself—at least with a courage that would have put many a lesser woman to shame. If he could not share all his hours with her, perhaps he did owe her an accounting of his actions.

Certainly, a failure to fully account for his actions had cost him an evening's quiet, and a number of satisfying meals.

He cast a wayward eye at his wife's graceful, reclining form.

"Margot," he whispered softly, "are you awake?"

"Yes, Percy." Her voice was eerily alert in the darkened room.

"Margot," he used her pet name again, "there's a small cottage not far from here—just three or four rooms, and a little garden with a docking area. A few months ago, I was approached by the owner, who had interest in a sale. I had thought," he went on, "to purchase it as a refuge for those I might rescue, but I'm wondering now if it might not be helpful to us."

"To us?" Marguerite turned over to face her husband, and propped herself upon on one elbow. "Whatever for?"

"A quiet cottage in Dover could be a discrete hideaway," Percy explained. "A place where I might interrupt my adventures abroad to visit more regularly than I have done up to now. I'm thinking," he went on, as he turned to face her, to gaze directly into those blue eyes he loved so dearly, "that a greater frequency of meeting would allow me to sustain a greater…candor that I may have displayed in our conversation up to now. If I could come and go with greater discretion," he finished finally, "it might be easier to keep my little woman abreast of my affairs, and lessen the onerous demands I place upon her saintly forbearance."

Percy was smiling at her now, his blue eyes beaming upon her with the gentle, merry humor she loved so dearly.

Marguerite lifted her own gaze to her husband's with a lingering look of caution.

"When could we see this cottage?"

"As soon as you like. First light tomorrow, if you wish."

Then he amended, "Perhaps after breakfast."

He heard his wife smother a laugh.

"And when would we purchase it?"

"The owner made the offer some months ago. Now that the Saint Lucque matter is put to rest, I could attend to it by week's end.

Marguerite levered herself forward to sit up, and exacted one last promise: "You will never keep anything from me again, Percy," Marguerite said, emphatically.

"I will never keep anything from you again," Percy repeated solemnly. He sent up a silent prayer that this was a promise he could keep; but he knew now that he would try. "You have my pledge of honor, Madam."

He looked up and saw that his wife's beautiful eyes were filled with tears. But at last they were tears of joy and not sorrow.

And their pledge was sealed with a kiss.

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