I. And The Days Pass Unnumbered
The storm that had so wracked the French nation had passed. The hideous maelstrom whose center was the Place de la Greve collapsed upon itself, even as the guillotine at last fell inexorably on the neck of the "Incorruptible" who once ruled Paris and the Revolution, riding the winds and stirring the tempest ever further across the countryside. It ended with him, as though like the Welshman Glendower he had conjured rebellion by sorcery.
When the storm season finally ended in that Thermidor, there came in its wake a curious clarity, a calm in which the ruins of the ancient regime, now coated in the blood of the Terror, loomed large. It was a time of contemplation, and of rebuilding. A time to sift through the wreckage and make sense of the chaotic years that had ended in that summer, as a delirium dissipates when the fever breaks. For some, it was a time of reckoning: no longer caught up in the storm's fury, they must account for themselves to those with cooler heads and cleaner hands. Others mourned blood spilt, innocent or otherwise, in too much haste. For most it was a time of release from fear or ecstasy, cooling and quenched by the winter snows.
But in the spring, the corpses of deeds not laid to rest emerge and lie stark in the filth, uncompromising on the barren earth. So the skeletons of the Terror, and the older ones of monarchy, were again laid bare in their hideousness, before some reconstruction could be accomplished and relegate them safely to the past. Not all revenants were so easily exorcised.
II. Interlude: Dream of a Hero
When at length he did open the door, his visitor proved to be neither Hastings nor Ffoulkes, nor any of the other worthies who often had occasion to beg sanctuary at Richmond at odd hours of the night. Still, Percy decided to err on the side of civility. 'Ah! My dear friend Chambertin - such an unexpected pleasure!'
'Chauvelin, Sir Percy. Chauvelin.' The thin Frenchman corrected him without hope or anger, and might not have bothered except from habit.
'Of course! Never could catch those demmed foreign names,' Percy smiled, letting his usual mask of near-idiotic congeniality cover his loathing of the little man before him. 'Pleasure to see you again, after we parted in such messy circumstances, eh?' He'd left the Frenchman bound hand and foot in the ruins of his revolution, facing arrest and execution, and good riddance to him. But of course Chauvelin would have arranged for his own safety - self-preservation above all among those monsters.
'Yes...they rather were, I'm afraid,' Chauvelin replied with a thin smile and eyes far away. 'But after all, you gave me a sporting chance - you Englishmen are so fond of your sports!'
'More amusing than your demmed guillotine, I assure you, Chambertin. I'd half a mind to fetch you from Paris myself; but business, alas.'
Chauvelin nodded absently. 'Business, yes.' The silence lengthened before he spoke again. 'My daughter, Blakeney?'
'La, but you've never asked for her before! Quite happy, I promise you.' A picture of innocence and nobility - nearly impossible to think that had come from this miserable vermin.
'Of course. I thank you for that, Sir Percy.' But Chauvelin turned away - to owe his worst enemy for his daughter's life still stung his pride, what little the Scarlet Pimpernel had left him over the years. Or perhaps it was something else; he leaned somewhat against the side-table for support.
'Think nothing of it, my good man. Such a charming girl could not have been left to your demmed incomprehensible idea of "justice" even for your sake.' The Scarlet Pimpernel paused for a second before loosing his next barb. 'A demmed pity you missed the wedding. Marvelous affair, really.'
Chauvelin's head jerked up. 'Wedding!' Percy let him sputter incoherently for a minute, then laughed heartily.
'Well, of course! She married that young man of hers, you remember? Oh, they wanted to ask your permission, but you have to admit it would've looked demmed bad for a man in your position... a rather precarious position, yes? ...To have received letters from a girl regrettably accused of treason and living in England. The dear child wouldn't dream of bringing harm to you...'
That shot struck home; Percy could see Chauvelin's hand clench against the table, his knuckles whitening. The man was shaking...
Percy's satisfied smile turned into a wince when that trembling upset the flower arrangement adorning the table. Marguerite was quite fond of that vase. The crash made the habitually nervous Frenchman whirl around. He stared down at the shattered vase, but Percy could see nothing in his face: no pleasure, regret, fear or even surprise. Only his hand still clutching the table, bearing his weight, and his face paler than the white roses now scattered on the carpet.
Percy allowed himself an exasperated sigh over the vase. 'I say, man...you're not ill? The crossing can be ghastly this time of year, and it's unseasonable wet besides.' Some chill seemed to have affected Chauvelin, of the mind if not the body - the man seemed quite subdued, the rage and fervor that drove him on, and provided such amusement for the stolid English gentleman, completely occluded.
'It is unseasonably cold,' Chauvelin repeated without inflection or irony. 'But it will pass. Something I caught at the Conciergerie, Sir Percy, of little consequence. It will pass.' The ex-agent favored Percy with a thin smile in a face drained of blood.
'La, but there's a wretched choice of lodgings! You must be cold... Demmed fatigued, anyway?' Hospitality constrained Percy from turning the man out into the night as he devoutly wished to, but at least he could get the wretch out of his sight for now, and into a fast carriage to London tomorrow. Let him inflict his unwelcome presence on such friends as he may find there.
'No... No, quite well rested, je t'assure.' His gaze flickered away again, restlessly. 'Tu pense... You think la Revolution is over? The Terror, you call it... It lives, Sir Percy. The crowds scream for blood, la guillotine is fed. She cares nothing if the blood is less aristocratic than before. But republican heads matter but little to the Scarlet Pimpernel, eh?' Chauvelin's accent, usually quite passable, had grown suddenly atrocious, and he seemed near to losing his command of the language altogether.
Percy, taking this for a resurgence of Chauvelin's temper, laughed. 'La, did you think I would fail you, my dear fellow? I'd have come quick enough, if you hadn't shown up at my door! Never fear!'
But Chauvelin failed to rise to the bait, staring into the shadows behind his reluctant host. 'There is no revelation, Sir Percy. no truth, no justice, no mercy -' Swaying, he caught himself on the table again. 'Ni le ciel ni l'enfer...'
'Damn you, and your English games...' Blakeney reached out, if not in comfort then at least to assure himself of his former adversary's solidity. But Chauvelin flinched away, further into the shadows.
'I say, Chambertin, you're acting demmed peculiar,' Percy broke in, with a slight frown. It was hardly possible that Chauvelin could have any power left, any means of revenging himself upon the Scarlet Pimpernel. Unless he'd decided that assassination was to his taste after all.
'Tourmente...madness, isolation...and death, Sir Percy. It should always have been 'and', rather than 'or'.
His suspicions seemed confirmed; Blakeney strode towards the small Frenchman. Still he retained the impenetrable facade of the fop that so infuriated Chauvelin and might yet make him falter. 'I entreat you, my good man, don't lose your -'
But the Frenchman, anticipating the idiom, dissolved into a chilling, hysterical laughter. He seemed scarcely aware of his knees giving way; of sliding down the wall and disappearing into the shadows there before the shocked and pitying gaze of Sir Percival Blakeney, who suddenly found himself with no desire to learn whether the creature before him was an apparition or a lunatic. The End.
III. In Circles
The Scarlet Pimpernel sailed for France scarcely a fortnight later, hounded by a morbid vision in sable in whose tortured laughter echoed all the screams of the Grecian Furies, whose law held no mercy for the accused.
Sir Percy himself had concluded that whatever guilt he felt for his part in the summer's events was solely on behalf of Fleurette, that innocent soul who anxiously awaited news of her beloved father. That his dreams dwelt more on ex-Agent Chauvelin himself it was his pleasure to overlook.
True to the country's chaotic condition, locating Chauvelin proved more difficult than obtaining an audience with him. In this one case, the merciful Tallien, goaded perhaps by the accusation of his wife, had proved less than merciful; some months after Robespierre had been marched to the guillotine, and his adherents variously executed or pardoned, that least of his allies remained in the Prison of the Conciergerie. However, by some administrative arrangement or accident, his name did not appear in the rolls of the accused, nor of the condemned, nor of the imprisoned. ex-Agent Chauvelin, disgraced, had been abandoned and now forgotten. Or, as perhaps it was some malice rather than oversight, he had been expunged.
Sir Percy thus spent a fruitless fortnight in the south of France, thinking that the fox had gone to ground in his own territory. He was quickly assured (when he got around to asking) that Citizen Armand had not been there since the time he had arrived on horseback in a perfect fury, firing his long-time servant and her daughter Adele and leaving his lovely cottage to desertion and ruin. That had been more than a year before. Of the household, Mme Louise now depended upon her sister for support and her daughter Adele had disappeared not long after to try her fortunes in the Revolution.
Deciding other lines of inquiry might bear better results, Blakeney returned to Paris and in the guise of a scrivener obtained access to the records of the de Chauvelin estate, in the thought that perhaps the man had gone to ground in some ancestral chateau, or thrown himself upon the mercy of more fortunate relatives. The bulk of the estate, it transpired, had passed from the hands of Chauvelin pere to a second or third cousin, his own son removed from the will for indiscretions unstated. The current Marquis had been left his title and a sizeable yearly income that hinted at gambling debts, a profligate lifestyle, or perhaps indiscriminate spending. None of which Percy could reconcile with the sober, almost puritanical atheist of his acquaintance. The cousin had lost both estate and head in 1792, and the ci-devant's lands had been confiscated.
He finally had a stroke of luck, stumbling upon the asthmatic veteran Rateau, whom he had impersonated to brilliant effect in his last adventure as the Pimpernel. This man told him, amid curses and coughs, that he himself had seen Chauvelin, imprisoned after all in the Conciergerie where he had obtained a job - finding honest work was difficult with a convict's brand, however honestly gotten. From there it was a simple matter to infiltrate the prison and see for himself how his enemy had fared, and how prophetic his own imaginings.
In prison Chauvelin had regained some of that dignity and nobility he had so willingly shed in the service of his country. Passionately devoted to his cause, he now made no pretences at martyrdom, and nor did he affect a change of conscience in this utmost disgrace. Chauvelin was fixed - not so loving of life as to cling to it, nor quite ready to abandon it for no purpose. He existed, silent and trapped, in his dungeon.
But his arrest had not failed to leave its mark - Chauvelin knew himself to be a broken man. Prepared to abase himself in any way to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel, he would utter no plea, scarcely a word in his own defense, save that he had served the Republic. The squalor that had reduced so many of the nobility to baseness had made of this Terrorist a noble in attitude, if not ideology. And too, there was something new in the attitude with which he regarded the motto of the Republic, scrawled haphazardly in chalk upon his wall. At times his pale eyes would fall upon the phrase 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la Mort' and mingled with his respect and love was now something that might be called cynicism, and the seeds of contempt.
Percy observed something of this on his clandestine visits to the cell. Not to compromise his identity, Percy acted Rateau to the hilt, coughing and flinging rough insults at the impassive prisoner. Chauvelin's pride, it seemed, would not now permit him to answer such accusations from such a man, nor to face his tormentor. Had he, he might have noticed an appraising look in the laborer's eyes, or how they measured his slightest response to the slanders on his good name, the curses on his former compatriots, the sneers at his vanished prestige. In short, he would have seen the Scarlet Pimpernel, looking for the slightest excuse to abandon him to a well-deserved fate. And, much to his dismay, finding none.
Deciding a more formal interview was in order, Sir Percy provided the guards with liberal quantities of alcohol to ensure their co-operation and distance; as fond as he was of risky ventures, it would not do to have Chauvelin executed as an English spy before he'd decided whether or not to save him.
He found Chauvelin idling over a half-eaten meal, contemplating the slogan on his wall. As was his custom, he ignored the intruder. Percy closed the cell door and, crossing to stand behind the Frenchman, laid a hand familiarly on his shoulder. 'Even you must admit that's not much in the way of decoration,' the asthmatic veteran observed quietly in the tones of British aristocracy.
'Sir Percy,' the other returned at the same volume, but with a catch in his voice from rage, or suppressed amusement. 'You just can't stay away, can you?' He brushed the Englishman's hand off with an irritable gesture, turning to face him. 'And when you've finished gloating, you're quite welcome to leave again.'
'And you'll miss your chance to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel?' Percy leaned nonchalantly against the dank wall. 'My, how the times do change.'
'I would denounce you in a second if it'd send you to the guillotine.' The Englishman's presence had caught, like a spark, rekindling a fervent hatred in Chauvelin's eyes and voice.
Percy grinned. 'You've denounced me so often, I'd be demmed surprised if anyone listened at all. But have no fear, my dear Chambertin - didn't I say I'd come back for you?'
'You must forgive me for not arranging my affairs to accommodate you.'
'Egad, sir - if this is your idea of an arrangement, you have far worse taste or far lower standards than I care to contemplate.'
'It is the will of the Republic,' the Frenchman returned acidly.
Blakeney stopped, caught up short. No, this wasn't the way to win; playing the fool only irritated Chauvelin, and somehow it wasn't enough to spirit him out of this hole. That would be no better than stealing aristocrats from the Terror when what he intended was to persuade away one of its staunchest supporters. He straightened, glanced out the window, and turned back to the Frenchman with a changed mien.
'Are you so intent on remaining here? Tell me, Chauvelin - what ideal of this republic inspires you? Egalité? Fraternité? Surely not you who sneer at the uncultured brutes responsible for massacres; you share their guilt, but when have you ever wished yourself brothers with them? Liberté for whom? Those few, those very few, you deem equal - that is, equally devoted - as yourself, sir? Or is it la mort you fancy, citizen? Death for them all, aristo and sans-culotte, ci-devant and patriot alike consumed in a sea of blood. By God, that's certainly the only one of the lot you've taken any part in, my dear Marquis.'
Seeing Chauvelin flinch at the title, defiant but hesitating over how to strike back, Percy suppressed a smile and concluded in a more conciliatory vein. 'The rest was never your cause, Armand, and the only death you can achieve now is your own. So let that go and come with me; I'll see you home well enough.'
'You speak nothing but nonsense even when you aren't acting, Blakeney,' Chauvelin hissed, a viper in the shadows. Backed into what Percy hoped was an inescapable trap.
'Even so,' Percy continued steadily, pressing his advantage. 'What would it accomplish that Danton's and Robespierre's heads did not? Surely you could better serve your Republic by living - if indeed she wants your service at all. Which,' he added pointedly, 'appears most unlikely.'
'And you, on the other hand, would have me disgrace myself and her by fleeing - like a traitor. I thank you, no.'
'You forget your other responsibilities. Fleurette -'
'Is, I should think, her husband's care.'
'She loves you still.'
'And has grown used to my absence.'
'She has not forgotten you. Your country has, and her remembrance would likely mean your death. You know your enemies better than I do.
'And I am as safe from them here as I wish to be. Good day, Sir Percy.' Chauvelin had risen, speaking through his teeth and like to lose his temper in another instant.
Blakeney sighed. 'Good day, M. Chauvelin. Au revoir.' He sketched a bow completely out of place on Rateau's figure.
Chauvelin gave him a malevolent stare, and though his eyes fairly glowed with hatred he tempered his voice, not to be overheard. 'Go home, Sir Percy. Go home to your English manor and harmless sport - and leave me at peace.'
Blakeney left, forecasting gloomily that it would take months to talk the madman back to sense, if it could be done at all, and wondering how on earth he would justify himself to Marguerite.
VI. A Flower And A Song
For a week he kept his distance, hoping time and the tedium of prison life might do more for Chauvelin's disposition than his presence would.
'Your daughter wrote,' he began when he did return.
'This week?' Chauvelin inquired ironically, unastonished by the Englishman's presence.
'Before I came, of course.' He handed the message over.
Chauvelin took the envelope casually. 'Asking me to visit, no doubt. She is as ignorant of my circumstances as she is of politics. Correct, Sir Percy?'
'I would not dream of causing the dear girl such pain on your behalf,' the baronet assured him readily. 'Er - before you read, I did have a question about your daughter.'
The prisoner set the letter down, trying to conceal his impatience. Despite his renunciation of all else, he seemed eager enough for news on this front.
'It occurs to me - she's nothing I'd expect from your relations. Those you'd acknowledge, at least. You raised her alone?'
'Yes.' Chauvelin's voice was tight, and Percy remembered that by all reports he had loved his wife while she lived, and had never remarried.
'Then why, man, did you raise her contrary to everything you profess to believe?'
'Nonsense again, Blakeney.'
'Come now! She's charming, naive, completely innocent of your Republic, indeed even a true Christian! You had renounced your rank so far as to live in a village where no one knew your status or wealth. You told the girl her own mother's name was "Marseillaise", and yet! Yet you named her after the standard of a dynasty you hoped to destroy, and raised her as a perfect nobleman's daughter! How do you explain yourself?'
'Not to you. Not to you at all, Blakeney; it's neither your right nor your concern.'
'To question your beliefs? To question how deeply you cherish them? Better me than the Prosecutor, Chauvelin. Remember how your own flesh and blood was condemned - by your own hand - for treason, because of what you had her taught?'
The fresher memory was the more painful. 'Enough!'
'You made her an aristocrat. A noble, by nature, by upbringing, according to your own standards. And you yourself played the country squire no less than I, on a scale easier to justify to yourself.'
'How much of this Revolution have you approved, Chauvelin? Which do you truly believe - the rhetoric of the Terror or that in which you instructed your daughter? How much of these past years have you been indulging an academic interest in politics while preserving your own household in the manner to which you were born and bred?'
'Get out before I call the guards.'
'You know they will not come. Think on it, Chauvelin. Promise me.' He shook Chauvelin sharply by the collar, heard his teeth rattle.
The former spy hissed. 'Yes... my word of honor, Blakeney. As a gentleman, if you like. For all it's worth.'
'More than you would like me to believe, I hope. Good day.'
VII. What Remains
Though he doubted Chauvelin could discern the distinction between himself and Rateau even now, Percy amused himself elsewhere while the man deliberated - or, considering his disposition, more likely stewed. Three days later, Rateau related, with not a little pleasure, that the Terrorist ate and slept poorly, and would not speak to anyone.
The night of the fourth day, therefore, Percy undertook the trip to Chauvelin's cell in the uniform of a guard, which was less offensive to his sensibilities than Rateau's garb, and would be of much more use in the rescue he hoped to effect.
He found Chauvelin much as Rateau had described; though he turned to face Percy, the Frenchman made no other move to acknowledge his presence for some time. Percy congratulated himself on having allowed time for such delays and waited patiently for the Frenchman to notice him.
At length, recognizing that the Englishman would have his answer, Chauvelin made a slight gesture of defeat. 'Blakeney.'
'Even so,' he replied evenly. 'Will you come?'
Chauvelin did not reply, turning to fix a haunted gaze on the motto of his state, the 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la Mort' even now visible in the dark. 'You are wrong, Sir Percy. I have always believed in the justice of the Revolution.'
'In your public life, certainly. Not the personal. That's all you can have left, now. If you choose it.'
'So it seems,' but he seemed disinclined to either discuss or act upon it.
Percy waited as long as he dared, but the night waned and he would have to depart, one way or the other. He extended his hand, resisting the temptation to speak. He could as easily provoke the man into staying as he could convince him to leave.
And Chauvelin, damning himself to the hell of traitors, took the proffered hand.