The Humble Wayside Flower
We drove in silence, as usual, all the way to Richmond. I could feel her beside me, and I wondered if she even thought about the deed she had been a party to that night. I certainly did.
To be betrayed by one's own wife! I had been right, it seemed, in not trusting her. She was French through and through, a sure Republican. How she had hidden her malicious feelings from me during our courtship was a great credit to her theatrical talents. I had been taken in by her beauty, tricked by her soft words . . . and now I stood alone, forsaken by her, condemned to death by her hand.
No, Percy! You're wrong . . . there's something faulty in your reasoning!
I did not listen to my heart--it had been tricked so many times before. My heart was far too trusting to be trusted.
We turned into the gate, and I left the carriage with the grooms, wandering across the lawn towards the river in thought. There was so much to think about, so much to do before I left. I had to go to France, still; Armand, de Tournay, and others were waiting, trusting in me. It didn't matter that it might be the last time I left English shore, indeed the last time I was free at all; I had to at least try, and trust to the goddess Fortune to be by my side. I gazed to the south, in the direction of the river, but the river was not what I looked at. I saw faces far beyond the river, far beyond a water wider even than that, faces frightened and in danger, who trusted me fully. Their trust, my word to them was foremost.
But what of Marguerite?
What of Marguerite? I had lost her love long ago, if I ever had it at all. For her, the best thing for me to do was to die honorably, and thus render her free. Would that I could deny her love as she had denied mine! I could never do that, not in truth. I would love her forever, no matter what she did. Even though she denounce me a hundred times over, as she had that night, I would still whisper her name lovingly as I died. It was my curse.
There was so much to be done before I could leave; I turned and headed for the house.
"Sir Percy!" a voice called. The entreaty sent a shaft into my heart. That she, of all people, would wish to speak to me tonight! Anyone else I could deny audience with; not her. One foot still on the terrace step, I turned and looked for my wife in the shadows. She stepped forward into the moonlight where I could see her--how beautiful she looked!
"At your service, Madame!" I said shortly and coldly, eager to be about my business even as I longed to stay in her presence.
"The air is deliciously cool, the moonlight peaceful and poetic, and the garden inviting," she said softly. "Will you not stay in it awhile; the hour is not yet late, or is my company so distasteful to you, that you are in a hurry to rid yourself of it?"
Distasteful! Nothing about you could ever cause me distaste. I would fain stay here with you forever, indulging in the luxury of gazing at your beautiful face, no matter what you may think of me. I paid my incontinent heart no heed.
"Nay, Madame, but ‘tis on the other foot the shoe happens to be, and I'll warrant you'll find the midnight air more poetic without my company: no doubt the sooner I remove the obstruction the better your ladyship will like it." I turned again to go, but she called me back.
"I protest you mistake me, Sir Percy," she said, coming closer to me. "The estrangement which, alas! has arisen between us, was none of my making, remember."
None of her making! I looked her straight in the eyes, daring her to deny the infamous denunciation of St. Cyr.
"Begad! you must pardon me there, Madame! My memory was always of the shortest."
Marguerite's eyes, first hard, then softening under influence of intuition, sought mine in entreaty.
"Of the shortest, Sir Percy! Faith! how it must have altered! Was it three years ago or four that you saw me for one hour in Paris, on your way to the East? When you came back two years later you had not forgotten me."
No, I had not forgotten you. I could never forget you . . . no matter how hard I try . . .
I clenched my hand, willing myself not to give in to her charms, the charms that had lured me before, the charms that lied to me now in telling me that she cared for me.
"You desired my presence, Madame. I take it that it was not with a view to indulging in tender reminiscences," I said coldly.
"Nay, Sir Percy, why not?" she asked, extending her hand to me. "The present is not so glorious but that I should not wish to dwell a little in the past."
And I should wish to dwell in the past too, in the time when I thought you loved me. I bowed ceremoniously, and kissed the tips of her outstretched fingers.
"I'faith, Madame, then you will pardon me, if my dull wits cannot accompany you there." A third time I turned to go; a third time she called me back.
I sighed, silently, turning to her again. "Your servant, Madame."
"Is it possible that love can die?" She was impassioned, vehement even now. "Methought that the passion which you once felt for me would outlast the span of human life."
And so it shall.
"Is there nothing left of that love, Percy . . . which might help you . . . to bridge over that sad estrangement?"
A bridge I shall cross only to have you cast me once more into the frigid waters below. You dare to ask me this now, after what you have done?
"With what object, I pray you, Madame?"
"I do not understand you," she said with some confusion.
"Yet ‘tis simple enough. I humbly put the question to you, for my slow wits are unable to grasp the cause of this, your ladyship's sudden new mood. Is it that you have the taste to renew the devilish sport which you played so successfully last year? Do you wish to see me once more a love-sick suppliant at your feet, so that you might again have the pleasure of kicking me aside like a troublesome lap-dog?" I had spoken with much more bitterness than I had planned. Why are your emotions so visible to this woman? Can you not hide them from her, as you hide them from the rest of the world?
Marguerite was astonished, almost frightened of me. "Percy! I entreat you!" she whispered hoarsely. "Can we not bury the past?"
"Pardon me, Madame, but I understood you to say that your desire was to dwell in it."
"Nay! I spoke not of that past, Percy!" she cried, almost tenderly. "Rather did I speak of the time when you loved me still! and I . . . oh! I was vain and frivolous; your wealth and position allured me: I married you, hoping in my heart that your great love for me would beget in me a love for you . . . but, alas! . . ."
Do you know how much I have wished, hoped for that? That my love for you had produced love for me in you? No. I could not give in, I would not. Remember St. Cyr . . . remember the Grenville ball. How painful it was, to remember.
"Twenty-four hours after our marriage, Madame, the Marquis de St. Cyr and all his family perished on the guillotine, and the popular rumour reached me that it was the wife of Sir Percy Blakeney who helped to send them there."
"Nay!" she protested. "I myself told you the truth of that odious tale."
"Not till after it had been recounted to me by strangers, with all its horrible details."
"And you believed them then and there," she said viciously, "without a proof or question--you believed that I, whom you vowed you loved more than life, whom you professed you worshipped, that I could do a thing so base as these strangers chose to recount. You thought I meant to deceive you about it all--that I ought to have spoken before I married you: yet, had you listened, I would have told you that up to the very morning on which St. Cyr went to the guillotine, I was straining every nerve, using every influence I possessed, to save him and his family. But my pride sealed my lips, when your love seemed to perish, as if under the knife of that same guillotine. Yet I would have told you how I was duped! Aye! I, whom that same popular rumour had endowed with the sharpest wits in France! I was tricked into doing this thing, by men who knew how to play upon my love for an only brother, and my desire for revenge. Was it unnatural?" At this point tears choked her voice, and she broke off suddenly, trying to compose herself.
Were you really tricked? You have lied before, do you lie now? I hated myself for the doubts that rushed to mind. And for revenge, you say. Have you not learned that revenge is not yours to seek? She was vainly trying to force back tears. How I hated to see her cry; it was all I could do to keep from reaching out and wiping the tears away tenderly, promising never to make her cry again. But I stayed strong and impassive, forcing the pain in my heart to dull as best I could.
"Listen to the tale, Sir Percy," Marguerite said sweetly, tenderly even. "Armand was all in all to me! We had no parents, and brought one another up. He was my little father, and I, his tiny mother; we loved one another so. Then one day--do you mind me, Sir Percy? the Marquis de St. Cyr had my brother Armand thrashed--thrashed by his lacqueys--that brother whom I loved better than all the world! And his offence? That he, a plebeian, had dared to love the daughter of the aristocrat; for that he was waylaid and thrashed . . . thrashed like a dog within an inch of his life! Oh, how I suffered! his humiliation had eaten into my very soul! When the opportunity occurred, and I was able to take my revenge, I took it. But I only thought to bring that proud Marquis to trouble and humiliation. He plotted with Austria against his own country. Chance gave me knowledge of this; I spoke of it, but I did not know--how could I guess?--they trapped and duped me. When I realised what I had done, it was too late."
I did not speak for some time. Her story was touching, to be sure; the Marquis was not in the right in having Armand beaten; but neither was Marguerite in the right, in seeking revenge against him. But hearing the dreaded story from her lips, instead of strange ones, had a calming effect; certainly she gave a much different view of what happened between her family and the St. Cyrs. But she had thought nothing of denouncing a man to a relentless tribunal. I could not overlook that.
"It is perhaps a little difficult, Madame, to go back over the past. I have confessed to you that my memory is short, but the thought certainly lingered in my mind that, at the time of the Marquis' death, I entreated you for an explanation of those same noisome popular rumours. If that same memory does not, even now, play me a trick, I fancy that you refused me all explanation then, and demanded of my love a humiliating allegiance it was not prepared to give."
"I wished to test your love for me, and it did not bear the test. You used to tell me that you drew the very breath of life but for me, and for love of me."
I still do, but those breaths become more painful by the day. Test my love! Was it not enough that I had married you, worshipped you for months? Were you then compelled to prove to yourself that I would never once stand in your way? "And to probe that love, you demanded that I should forfeit mine honour, that I should accept without murmur or question, as a dumb and submissive slave, every action of my mistress. My heart overflowing with love and passion, I asked for no explanation--I waited for one, not doubting--only hoping. Had you spoken but one word, from you I would have accepted any explanation and believed it. But you left me without a word, beyond a bald confession of the actual horrible facts; proudly you returned to your brother's house, and left me alone . . . for weeks . . . not knowing, now, in whom to believe, since the shrine, which contained my one illusion, lay shattered to earth at my feet."
I could not keep my voice from trembling. All that I had felt then, the sorrow, the grief at what I had lost, the passion I felt for her even now, came rushing back to memory as vivid as if I had only experienced it hours ago.
"Aye! the madness of my pride!" she said sadly. "Hardly had I gone, already I had repented. But when I returned, I found you, oh, so altered! wearing already that mask of somnolent indifference which you have never laid aside until . . . until now."
The mask I wished I had never laid aside, and yet I yearned to throw off forever. I assumed it once more, with a great effort of will, for her beautiful face and tear-filled eyes made me long to caress her, to calm her in my arms.
"Nay, Madame, it is no mask. I swore to you . . . once, that my life was yours. For months now it has been your plaything . . . it has served its purpose."
Once laid aside, the mask again assumed never had quite the effect it had before. I could tell that she wasn't believing a word I said.
"Sir Percy, Heaven knows you have been at pains to make the task, which I had set to myself, terribly difficult to accomplish. You spoke of my mood just now; well! we will call it that, if you will. I wished to speak to you . . . because . . . because I was in trouble . . . and had need . . . of your sympathy."
You have my love. My sympathy you shall have as well, when the situation calls for it, for I can refuse you nothing.
"It is yours to command, Madame."
She sighed. "How cold you are! Faith! I can scarce believe that but a few months ago one tear in my eye had set you well-nigh crazy. Now I come to you . . . with a half-broken heart . . . and . . . and . . ."
"I pray you, Madame, in what way can I serve you?" Anything, to soothe you even a bit. I cannot stand to see you so broken!
"Percy!--Armand is in deadly danger. A letter of his . . . rash, impetuous, as were all his actions, and written to Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, has fallen into the hands of a fanatic. Armand is hopelessly compromised . . . to-morrow, perhaps he will be arrested . . . after that the guillotine . . . unless . . . unless . . . oh! it is horrible! horrible! . . . and you do not understand . . . you cannot . . . and I have no one to whom I can turn . . . for help . . . or even for sympathy . . ." Her tears overflowed, and she leaned against the stone balustrade, trying not to fall.
Armand . . . letter . . . fanatic . . . compromised . . . unless . . . Certain words jumped out at me from her broken narrative. Armand wrote a letter to Andrew, probably with information about the upcoming expedition. That was the paper I had seen in Chauvelin's hand last night in the opera. Chauvelin, of course, was the fanatic she spoke of so vaguely. Armand was then, guaranteed of condemnation and execution if Chauvelin so much as returned to France in possession of that letter. Unless . . . Marguerite agreed to spy for him. She had been blackmailed.
Blackmail . . . the word had never held such joy for me before. Joy that I could never show. It pained me to watch her shaken with sobs, to be unable to console her. Even though she had been forced to spy that evening, she still could not be trusted.
"And so, the murderous dog of the revolution is turning upon the very hands that fed it? . . . Begad, Madame, will you dry your tears? . . . I never could bear to see a pretty woman cry, and I . . ."
I very nearly gave in. I reached out to embrace her and kiss away her tears. But at the last moment I caught myself, and stopped the impulse.
"Will you not turn to me, Madame, and tell me in what way I may have the honour to serve you?" I said, more gently than usual. She violently attempted to compose herself, and held out her hand to me. I kissed it, the normal gallant gesture; but I could not keep my hand from trembling.
"Can you do ought for Armand?" she asked, and her voice was genuinely sweet. "You have so much influence at court . . . so many friends . . ."
My court influence can do nothing for him now. It is a different influence I wish to exert on his behalf.
"Nay, Madame, should you not rather seek the influence of your French friend, M. Chauvelin? His extends, if I mistake not, even as far as the Republican Government of France."
"I cannot ask him, Percy . . . Oh! I wish I dared to tell you . . . but . . . but . . . he has put a price on my brother's head, which . . ."
Which you have paid. Tell me, Marguerite! Tell me what you have done. You don't understand how much it will help things if you will only tell me!
But she remained silent.
"Faith, Madame," I said finally, with a sigh, "since it distresses you, we will not speak of it. . . . As for Armand, I pray you have no fear. I pledge you my word that he shall be safe. Now, have I your permission to go? The hour is getting late, and . . ."
"You will at least accept my gratitude?" She was very close to me now, and her voice sounded genuinely tender. How easy it would be to hold her now! How tempting the notion was . . . her eyes were still brimming with unshed tears, tears that I felt sure my kisses would chase away . . . but I would not give in. There was too much to do, too much at stake to weakly give in to her now.
"It is too soon, Madame! I have done nothing as yet. The hour is late, and you must be fatigued. Your women will be waiting for you upstairs."
I stood to one side, letting her pass, and bowed low. I heard her sigh once, then again as she mounted the steps, mingling with the melodious rustle of her gown. When she had passed, I straightened to watch her as she entered the house. Only once did she look back at me, right as she reached the door. Then, quickly, she went in and headed for her rooms.
As I heard her footsteps die away, the self-control I had kept throughout the conversation vanished, wearied through constant strain. Immediately I dropped to my knees, in the attitude of a fervent worshipper, and pressed my lips to the cold stone over which she had walked just now, wishing only that her beautiful feet were still there for me to kiss. I pressed a kiss to each step in turn, mirroring the steps she had taken, then finally kissed the place on the balustrade where she had placed her little hand. Exhausted from emotional drain, I remained in that weak position on the terrace steps for several minutes, before wearily forcing myself to my feet and making my own way to the house. There was still much to do before I could leave, before I would leave for France that day.
Before I would leave Marguerite behind.
To be continued . . .