The intense August sun continued to blaze down upon the English nobles who had gathered for an afternoon of cricket and had taken its toll on the gentlemen playing. Over the course of the game, they had removed their coats, waistcoats, and even cravats and now stood in their shirt sleeves gazing longingly at spectators seated in the shade of a grove of trees. But in spite of the temptation of that countryside oasis, they were all entirely too British to suggest quitting.
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes leaned against his knees as he waited for Lord Hastings to choose his bat. Hastings would be the last batsman of the game and all that stood between Sir Andrew and victory was preventing milord from scoring 2 runs. With a deep sigh, Ffoulkes straightened his stooped torso and wiped his shirt sleeve across his face, brushing the damp hair from his forehead. He eyed Hastings' red face. His opponent was also suffering from the sweltering temperatures and was losing his enthusiasm for the game. Ffoulkes prepared to finish him off.
For the first several bowls, Hastings swatted the little ball away from the stumps. But the oppressive sun had worn him down to the point where he could no long muster the strength to do any more than defend his wicket. His being called out was inevitable, for even if he finally manage a hit, it was unlikely that he would be able to outrun a throw to the wicketkeeper. And so, it came as somewhat of a relief when Sir Phillip Glynde finally caught him out.
However, Lord Tony did not accept the loss as calmly as Lord Hastings. Exhaustion and losing a close race to the popping crease had addled his temper. During the following at bats, he had sat fuming and silently criticizing the other players, but now he could no longer maintain his silence.
"Demmit Hastings! Even Lady Blakeney could have hit that!"
Lord Hastings rolled his eyes. "Come now, Tony, you exaggerate! Sir Andrew is an excellent bowler and Lady Blakeney has never so much as held a cricket bat!"
"And she is also French! But she still would have fared better against Ffoulkes than you did!"
"Dewhurst," Hastings admonished as he retied his cravat, "it was well bowled and even with all her talent and charm, Lady Blakeney could not have come out any better than I did."
"I would risk twenty quid to see you proved wrong!" Tony declared.
Just moments before, Hastings had been hot, exhausted, and had quite had his fill of cricket for the day. But Tony's taunts and arrogance had irked him and now he could not resist the opportunity to silence him. "And I would gladly relieve you of it, " He answered.
The Prince of Wales watched the heated exchange between milords with interest. His Highness had earned one of the early outs and had soon after had lost interest in cricket. However, the developing wager was a refreshing change in events. Besides, he was bored with Grenville's opinions on the effects of the revolt in America on Jamaican sugar profits. Upon hearing Hastings's intentions to lighten Lord Tony's pockets, he passed his glass of wine to one of the more attentive member's of Grenville's audience and strode toward the tree that sheltered the most talented woman in all of Europe.
"Lady Blakeney," He began, as he kissed her hand in greeting, "I must beg your help in settling this disagreement between Hastings and Dewhurst."
Marguerite Blakeney laughed in response. "You can't expect me to make a fool out of myself only because two milords are sore losers, Your Highness!"
"But my dear Lady Blakeney, the cleverest women in all of Europe could never be mistaken for a fool."
"But in this stifling heat, I would have to disagree. Any woman would be a fool to believe herself immune from its dangers, so I dare say that milords Dewhurst and Hastings will have to be gentlemen and fight a duel!" She smiled winningly at the Prince, "Would you be so kind, Your Highness, as to take me to find Sir Percy?"
This should have been the end of the afternoon, however as Lady Blakeney took his Highness's arm, a conversation between two courtiers reached her ears. Snorting into his wine, one cited her recent exchange with the Prince of Wales and questioned whether Lady Blakeney, a former French Republican, could ever give any royal the loyalty and respect due to their station. This, Marguerite Blakeney could bear. She had born such accusations since her arrival in England almost two years ago. And so, she pasted on the well-practiced, thin smile and said nothing. However when the target of their insults changed and her husband became the recipient of their criticism, her resolve to not grant them the dignity of a response faltered.
"Bah!" exclaimed the second, a certain Mr. Wilkes. "But if only Sir Percy was less concerned with cravats, horses, and yachts, his wife would have learned acknowledge the prestige of the British crown."
However, Sir Robert Bird, the first man who had spoken, reminded Mr. Wilkes that Sir Percy was rarely at home to instruct his foreign wife and insisted that the fault instead lay with Sir Percy's frequent absences.
But Mr. Wilkes did not agree that Lady Blakeney's lack of decorum could be as easily remedied as her husband spending less time on his property in the north and paying more attention to his wife. Decorum should have led him to keep his opinion to himself, but the wine and the sweltering heat had added to the offense of what he had perceived as an affront to the Prince. Speaking loudly, Mr. Wilkes responded, "I, for one, cannot be persuaded that Sir Percy's frequent absences were entirely for business. I am convinced that the poor fellow only wants a little respite from the humiliation of not being able to control his wife!"
Although the drone of the various conversations of the gathered party had drowned out most of the Sir Robert and Mr. Wilkes's conversation, the last and most serious insult to the Blakeneys had reached the ears of Marguerite and the Prince of Wales. His Highness immediately sensed the indignation suffered by the woman on his arm as it stiffened her posture and the heat of her embarrassment rose to color her cheeks. Gently patting the hand tucked into the crook of her arm, he murmured assurances that he had only been joking and that she had done nothing to offend him or the line that he represented. But after giving the Prince the briefest flash of a grateful smile and her excuses, Lady Blakeney strode determinedly across the pitch.
"Sir Andrew!" Her gay voice called out, full of confidence. "I do believe that you and I have been called upon to settle wager."
Sir Andrew and His Highness exchanged a look of shock. Lady Blakeney had arrived wearing a new dress that Sir Percy had bought during his latest visit to the tailors of Paris. The dress was of the simple style that she had favored, lacking the extravagant lace and skirts that were popular in London, however every woman present that afternoon had admired the effect of the pale cream and blue stripes printed on the fine muslin fabric and the prettiness of the small ruffles attached to the hem. These little ruffles daintily brushed the grass as the wearer walked to select one of the willow bats, but it seemed unlikely that they would survive the running between wickets that was essential to the game.
However, as she marched towards her popping crease, it became obvious that Lady Blakeney, regardless of the fine quality of her dress, was resolved to settle the dispute between milords Hastings and Dewhurst. Immediately the crowd that had gathered turned its attention to Sir Percy, half-expecting the Baronet to put an end to this ridiculousness, but he had already seen the determination in his wife's expression and knew that in spite of anything that he could say, the afternoon's cricket was not yet finished. In his own silent consent to the spectacle, he retook the field and flipped the little red ball to Sir Andrew.
Standing in front of her wicket, Marguerite watched as Ffoulkes walked towards her husband. For a moment they stood together looking in her direction, chatting. Sir Percy wore his typical, jovial expression and seemed to carry the conversation. Lady Blakeney knew that the more serious Sir Andrew was not listening to a word that passed her husband's lips and was instead considering how to throw the little ball held in his hand. Ffoulkes was an analytical bowler who carefully pondered every possible scenario before beginning his run-up. An incredible memory allowed him to recall how successful the batsmen had been in past innings and he used this information to adjust his bowl. Typically his analysis led to the decision to bowl faster or put more spin on the ball, but this time the issue was more delicate. His gentlemanly upbringing would not let him hurl the ball past Lady Blakeney as he had done to milords Dewhurst and Hastings. However, as this match was to settle a wager, his honor dictated that he bowl fairly. Sighing, he fixed his attention on a point just above the stumps so that Lady Blakeney would not be bowled out on the first.
The bowl was beautifully delivered. The ball struck the ground just in front of the popping crease and barely cleared the wicket. However, Lady Blakeney did not swing the bat. Instead, she leapt backwards as if she feared that she would be struck.
A genial chuckle came from the direction of the mid-off. "La, m'dear, you must swing the bat!" Although this advice seemed to be offered with the intent to gently heckle the batsman, it was ironic that in the last match, Sir Percy himself had been bowled out when he had been distracted by his wife's pretty laugh and had forgotten to swing his own bat.
As usual, the mistress of Blakeney Manor refused to be ruffled by her dull witted husband's quips. Only raising an eyebrow in response, she took guard once again and looked towards Ffoulkes for the next bowl. It came hurtling down the pitch just as fast as the first. This time, however, Sir Andrew had adjusted his aim so that the ball would collide with Lady Blakeney's bat. Being a skilled bowler, Sir Andrew hit his target. The sharp report of the resulting collision of the bat and the ball startled the spectators who had expected to hear the clatter of falling stumps. But as mighty as the stroke sounded, the ball rolled only a short distance, not allowing enough time to try for a run.
"'Zounds madam! You must hit it harder!" Sir Percy called.
"I will make the sincerest effort to do as you say and not as you do, Sir Percy" came Lady Blakeney's response delivered in her husband's distinct drawl and punctuated with the imitation of one of his deep bows. Immediately the crowd and the players erupted in laughter. As the merry ruckus continued, Sir Andrew darted forward launching the ball towards Lady Blakeney once again. This time she swung the bat and the little red ball bounced to a spot of field somewhere between her husband and Mr. Fox.
For a moment, it seemed that no one, including the batsman noticed that the ball was in play. But then Sir Percy's guffaws ceased and he looked from the ball to his wife.
"Odd's m'life! Run! Run Margot!" His voice sounded over the general din, willing his wife to move from her shocked position behind her own popping crease.
It was with these shouts that the pitch came to life, causing Mr. Fox to spring for the ball and Lady Blakeney to dash for the far wicket. In her haste, she had neglected to gather the train of her dress and not three paces from the popping crease, her feet became entangled in the hem. Down she fell, scuffing her hands and bruising her knees. She ignored this and struggled to rise to her feet, but was unable to free them from the muslin tangled about her ankles. Just as Mr. Fox retrieved the ball, her husband's cries reached Marguerite's ears.
"Ground the bat!" Sir Percy cried. "Touch it to the popping crease!"
As Fox prepared to make his throw to the wicket, Lady Blakeney redoubled her efforts and attempted to crawl towards the wicket. With a horrible tearing sound, she ripped her gown as she reached out with the wooden bat, lunging to make up the distance. Alas, her efforts were all in vain for the Fox's quick throw reached the wicket first and it was just after the strike of the ball toppled the stumps that milady's bat crossed the white chalk line. At that same instant, a cry of victory rose from both milords Dewhurst and Hasting.
"Come, fetch your purse Hastings!" Lord Tony crowed. "I believe you owe me twenty pounds."
To this Hastings rolled his eyes and snorted, "Gads, Tony! You mustn't have been watching the same match as I for Lady Blakeney didn't score!"
"No, but she put the ball in play, which was far more than you managed to do!" Said Dewhurst, as he playfully jabbed Lord Hastings chest. The banter continued in this jovial manner, although each milord maintained that he had won the bet. It was finally the Prince of Wales who ended it with the suggestion that milords Dewhurst and Hastings ought to each give twice that sum to the lady as compensation for her ruined dress. It was then that Lord Tony turned to compliment Sir Percy on his wife's pluck but saw that his friend had already left the field.
As the gentlemen had left the shade to surround the two milords,Sir Percy had started to maneuver through the gathering crowd. He moved through them inconspicuously, much as the Pimpernel blended into the Parisian mob, taking advantage of his neighbors' eagerness to reach the center and then slipping behind them to fill their former space. Unnoticed, he had reached the edge of the crowd and then slipped discreetly across the lawn. His long strides carried him quickly across that vacant space to the side of the house where he intercepted the servant. The poor fellow was at least at least a head shorter than milord and mindful of his burden. Although the lady was not heavy, he was shrewder than the nobility he served and had perceived the great value that the baronet placed on his wife.
"Demme, but I hate this keeping up of appearances!" Sir Percy muttered as he stooped and in one fluid motion deposited a guinea in the servant's pocket and took his wife into his own arms. Placing her gingerly on the seat of a nearby bench, Sir Percy kneeled before her and began to assess her injuries. Her knees were bruised, the hem of her dress was torn, but the worst of it seemed to be her injured pride.
Satisfied that she would live, he rose to sit beside her. It was clear from the admiration reflected in his eyes that Sir Percy was in awe of his wife. All of his British coolness could not suppress how this wonderment reflected in every line of his face and the involuntary way that he murmured, "If you ever learned to bowl, the pride of every English gentleman would be in very real danger."
"They may rest in ease for I will never again set foot on that blasted field!" Hot tears of embarrassment welled up in the lady's eyes. She felt foolish for having allowed herself to be baited into making such a spectacle and in her shame, she refused to meet her husband's earnest gaze.
"M'dear, I don't believe that that is an option." He paused to see that he had her attention and cleared his throat. "You see,
they seek her in Bath, they seek her at Oxford.
She's a natural, at least from what I've heard!
Can it be true that she is a Frenchman?
That demmed fantastic cricket batsman!"
"I am sure that it is all just a momentary distraction from the real object of their admiration." Lady Blakeney replied as she rested her head against his shoulder.
"And who might that be m'dear?" He asked.
For a moment, his wife remained silent, smiling, as she toyed with the signet ring on her husband's finger. With her nail, she traced the raised star shaped flower on its face. "Sometimes, Sir Percy, I almost believe them when they say that I married a fool."