The Humble Wayside Flower
I knocked on the door of Hastings' opera box.
"Hastings, my dear fellow, how are you enjoying tonight's presentation?" I drawled as I entered.
"Oh, it's not bad, Percy, not bad at all," Hastings said as he turned to me with a grin. "I'm usually not very fond of Gluck, but I'm rather liking this."
I glanced about the box hopefully, but neither Andrew nor Tony were there. Only Hastings, Wallescourt, and I occupied the box. Nervously I laughed.
"My friend, take care that you do not become over-fond of Herr Gluck's importations, lest you find yourself unable to leave this box for the rest of your days," I said lightly as I closed the door behind me. Only then did I let out a sigh and allow my voice to drop to its natural tone.
"Have either of you gentlemen see Ffoulkes or Dewhurst lately?" I asked, my voice scarcely above a whisper.
"No, not in the past week or more," Sir Jeremiah said slowly. Hastings frowned.
"Percy, what's wrong?"
"Neither of them have been at home in almost a week. Now, if this were just Tony, I might not worry so much, but Andrew isn't the kind of man to disappear for more than a few days without telling anybody. Something has happened to them."
I let my eyes drift to the stage, where Selina Storace was pouring her heart into an aria. Pity I couldn't properly enjoy it; my thoughts were elsewhere, at "The Fisherman's Rest" where I had last seen Andrew and Tony, and where for a brief moment I had noticed a slight movement underneath a bench. Then, I wasn't sure if I had seen it or not. Now, I was positive that I had.
"I slipped Andrew a note the last time I saw him," I whispered, just loud enough for the two to hear. "The note informed him that if he wished to speak with me, he could find me at Lord Grenville's ball tonight. If neither of them are there tonight, we're going to find out why."
"Do you think they might have been . . ."
"I don't know, Hastings. There are spies all about . . ."
I stopped mid-sentence, my eyes fixed on my own box, where Marguerite sat listening to the music. She was not alone. In the dark recesses of the box, a man in dark clothes was sitting, while Marguerite nervously tapped her hand against her chair. The dark-clothed man was fingering a scrap of paper and speaking to Marguerite.
Chauvelin. What does he have to do with Marguerite? I wondered, then remembered with a pang of bitter pain what she had done. Of course. He was probably the one she denounced the Marquis de St. Cyr to. And now he's come to solicit her services again?
She looks angry, upset. Why? Is he insulting her? I won't have that Frenchman insulting my wife, I thought, feeling the anger instinctively rise to my face in a flush. I forced it back down, calming myself. No. For the sake of all, I must stay calm. But I also must get to that box . . . to find out what's going on. I didn't want to believe it, but in actuality I already knew. Marguerite was being employed; it sickened me to think about it. Even now Chauvelin was handing her the scrap of paper; I was pretty sure that paper did not contain an invitation to dine.
"Percy? . . ." Hastings was saying. "Percy, are you all right?"
"Yes, yes . . . I'm fine . . . just lost myself in my own musings, what?" I said with a laugh, settling into character again. "Gentlemen, I must leave you now. I shall see you both at my Lord Grenville's ball," I said as I stood to go. Just before I opened the door, I added softly, "You shall receive my instructions there."
I strode down the corridor to the box and rapped on the door quietly as I opened it.
"Er . . . your chair is outside . . . m'dear," I drawled. "I suppose you will want to go to that demmed ball . . ."
When I came in, Chauvelin stood up, looking at me with even more contempt than Marguerite did. He immediately did not like me. Just as well; I did not like him either, but for different reasons. I pointed at him, as if only just noticing his presence.
"Excuse me--er--Monsieur Chauvelin--I had not observed you. . . . Are you coming, m'dear?" I said rather loudly. Hurried admonitions to silence came from different parts of the opera house, trying to keep me quiet. "Demmed impudence," I muttered, smiling.
Marguerite sighed, taking my arm. "I am ready to go." I led her to the door. Suddenly she turned to look at Chauvelin again.
"It is only au revoir, Chauvelin," she said in a pleasant voice, "we shall meet at my Lord Grenville's ball, anon." It certainly did not seem as though she were upset with Chauvelin, or that he had insulted her honor. Then again, she might be acting a pleasant part to cover her anger. I couldn't tell anymore.
"I did not know you were so intimately acquainted with M. Chambertin, m'dear," I said blandly as we left the box. "What, I pray, did you have to say to the dull man?"
"It would be more appropriate for you to look in the mirror before calling anyone else dull, Sir Percy," she said coldly, and I inwardly winced. Why, why couldn't I numb my heart to her insults? "And his name is Chauvelin."
I laughed stupidly. "I never was able to get my tongue ‘round the French language properly. But, I repeat, for my curiosity is aroused, what were you talking of?"
Marguerite. Tell me. Tell me what he's asked you to do--and please, tell me that you refused . . .
My heart rose on the faint hope that she might confide in me, that she would trust me enough to tell me her troubles. If she would only trust me, perhaps all was not lost between us . . . and perhaps I could find a way to trust her again . . .
For a few minutes she didn't say anything. It almost seemed that she would tell me, that she was trying to convince herself to say something about it. But she didn't.
"We knew each other in Paris," she said as we reached the top of the staircase that led down to the entrance. "We were talking over old times, Sir Percy . . . nothing that you would have any interest in."
As quickly as it had risen, my heart fell again to a lower level of despair than before. "You are probably right, m'dear," I said slowly. "I am not much interested in French matters."
She doesn't trust you. Why should she? You've given her plenty of evidence that you care nothing for her sorrows, her anxieties. Did you really think she might break the year-old pattern of silence between you? How foolish of you, Percy . . .
I have other things I have to think about. Andrew and Tony are missing . . . there are French spies in every corner. My own wife's hand in this is but a small matter . . . it has to be.
How long would I try to fool myself like this? Chauvelin had enlisted Marguerite in his roll of spies, or he had at least attempted to. The fact was I still could not trust her. But how different was that from the way I had refused to trust her since our wedding night? How much more had she ranged herself on the side of all I fought against? The unanswered questions rushed to mind, garbling and confusing themselves in my brain. That would not do; I had to be alert tonight, I needed something to clear my head . . .
The poem. Yes, the poem I had begun to formulate in my head that very evening, while dressing for the opera. I needed to finish it, after all . . . a simple ditty to be recited at the ball tonight, in honor of my friend Citizen Chauvelin, the French Ambassador . . .
"We seek him here, we seek him there . . . We cannot find him anywhere . . ." no, that doesn't sound quite right . . .
I kept control of my senses through aid of a simple poem, and a short carriage drive soon brought my lovely treacherous wife and I to the door of the Foreign Office.
Lord Grenville's ball was of course the highlight of the social season, the pinnacle of all social events. Everyone who did not wish to be ostracized from society altogether attended this one function every year, to show himself to the rest of London as a sociable fellow at least once. If Ffoulkes and Dewhurst weren't here tonight, something had to be dreadfully wrong. I could only hope they were.
His Highness the Prince of Wales had implored us to accompany him to the ball at the opera, and so we entered in his wake, Marguerite on his arm. With all eyes on my royal friend, I raised a spyglass to my eye and surveyed the crowd already arrived. Hastings and Wallescourt were there already, as well as most of the rest of the League. But of Andrew and Tony there was no sign. In vain did I scour the face of everyone I saw for a glimpse of Ffoulkes' gentle features or Tony's humorous expression. They weren't there.
I glanced back at Hastings. His eyes spoke of disappointment mixed with sheer panic; exactly what I had feared I would see.
"Your Royal Highness is most welcome this evening," Lord Grenville said with a very low bow.
"I thank you, Lord Grenville," His Highness returned with a gracious nod.
"Sir Percy, Lady Blakeney," Grenville then said, turning to Marguerite and I, "how kind of you to grace us with your presence." He kissed Marguerite's hand cordially as she curtsied.
"Ah, Lord Grenville, your ball is always a delight."
Lord Grenville bowed to me next, and I returned the bow. "Sink me, my Lord Grenville, how could we possibly refuse to attend? It would be the height of all impertinence."
Turning once more to his Highness, Lord Grenville said, "Will your Highness permit me to introduce M. Chauvelin, the accredited agent of the French Government?"
Chauvelin stepped forward and bowed very low to the Prince, quite elegantly for a republican agent who detested all class distinctions and pleasantries. He was rewarded with a brusque nod of the head.
"Monsieur," His Royal Highness said courteously but not warmly, "we will try to forget the government that sent you, and look upon you merely as our guest--a private gentleman from France. As such you are welcome, Monsieur."
Chauvelin bowed again imperturbably. "Monseigneur." He bowed solemnly before Marguerite. "Madame."
"Ah! my little Chauvelin!" Marguerite said gaily, though her light air was forced somewhat. She extended a hand to him. "Monsieur and I are old friends, your Royal Highness."
"Ah, then you are doubly welcome, Monsieur," the Prince said more graciously. Chauvelin kissed Marguerite's hand before turning to me.
"Hello again, Monsieur Chaubertin," I said with a laugh. "What a pleasure, to meet you twice in the course of a single evening."
I could see the muscles in his face tighten as he clenched his teeth, then deliberately relaxed as he bowed to me. "It is a pleasure, of course, to meet you again, Sir Percy, but I'm afraid you've not correctly pronounced my name. My name is Chauvelin, not Chaubertin, you see."
"Ah, Monsieur Chau--Chauvelin, many apologies," I said. "I see that France is not without her social virtues, despite her present political situation, monsieur. Your bows this evening have been most proper and elegant. I congratulate you."
"You do not approve of the political situation in France, Sir Percy?"
I laughed. "Oh, it's no concern of mine, is it, Monsieur Cham--pardon, Chaubelin? I simply imagine you don't have much opportunity to practice social pleasantries, since everybody in your society has been proclaimed equal."
"And you do bow so well, monsieur, one would never know you to be a republican. You are, it seems, a man of many talents."
Chauvelin sighed, already impatient of my pointless talk and inane smile. "You will excuse me, Sir Percy?" he said.
"Of course, my dear fellow. Surely we'll have a chance to speak later on in the evening."
By the end of this night, my friend, I do believe you are going to wish you'd never heard of me.
He walked off in the direction his Highness and Marguerite had gone, and I looked about for Hastings. He wasn't far away.
"Good to see you here, Hastings, my good fellow," I said, shaking his hand and trying to find something in his eyes to hold on to. Anything at all? Not even a word about where they might be?
I could find no hope. He evidently hadn't seen or heard anything about them, and he feared the worst . . . as I was beginning to.
The room became very quiet at that moment, and I looked up to find all attention focused on Chauvelin. The topic of discussion was, undoubtedly, the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.
"Faith then, Monsieur," the Prince was saying, "perhaps you know more about our national hero than we do ourselves . . . perchance you know who he is. . . . See! the ladies hang upon your lips . . . you would render yourself popular among the fair sex if you were to gratify their curiosity."
"Ah, Monseigneur," Chauvelin returned, "rumour has it in France that your Highness could--an you would--give the truest account of that enigmatical wayside flower."
But he would not. His Highness did know--he had guessed, and I could but tell the truth--but he was sworn to secrecy like the rest, and though not a member of the league itself, he enjoyed the game as much as we.
"Nay, man," he replied, "my lips are sealed! and the members of the league jealously guard the secret of their chief . . . so his fair adorers have to be content with worshipping a shadow. Here in England, Monsieur, we but name the Scarlet Pimpernel, and every fair cheek is suffused with a blush of enthusiasm. None have seen him save his faithful lieutenants. We know not if he be tall or short, fair or dark, handsome or ill-formed; but we know that he is the bravest gentleman in all the world, and we all feel a little proud, Monsieur, when we remember that he is an Englishman."
"Ah, Monsieur Chauvelin," Marguerite interposed, "His Royal Highness should add that we ladies think of him as a hero of old . . . we worship him . . . we wear his badge . . . we tremble for him when he is in danger, and exult with him in the hour of his victory."
Chauvelin displayed that excellent bow of his once more to both the Prince and Marguerite. A solemn and dignified air of silence had fallen over the crowd, with a significant amount of tension against the French representative as well. I laughed, loudly and inanely, to break up the seriousness.
"And we poor husbands," I drawled, "we have to stand by . . . while they worship a demmed shadow."
Everyone laughed, the tension broken, the silence happily disturbed, and chatting and laughing, they dispersed among the many opulent rooms of the Foreign Office.