We became a close-knit group, well known among all of London Society. Everyone knew that what one of us did, the others were behind wholeheartedly. We did a lot of traveling, mostly between London and Paris. Percy still had a separate estate in Paris at that time, and many friends among the French nobility. Most every month we would take at least one trip to the Continent, and over half of those trips were to France. I began to love the country as a second home.
What time we did spend in England was filled with sport. I rediscovered my love of horse-racing and became even better than I used to be at Oxford; but I never was able to beat Percy. The man had a way with horses that could urge them to run as fast as the wind. Even Andrew had improved; he could beat me easily. Then again, I had not raced at all in those four years on the Continent. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed it.
For four glorious years we traveled and gamed together; men in their twenties, acting like the schoolboys we felt like. It was not to last. The year 1789 brought turmoil to France, and it was quite unsettling. Some of the French aristocracy--not by any means all--had oppressed the peasantry under them for centuries. Now the people were having their say against them in the newly-formed National Assembly, and the entire system France had been based upon for centuries was crumbling beneath them. The French Republic had come.
We continued to visit France, but more cautiously, and not so often as we used to. The atmosphere of Paris became increasingly excited and dangerous, and it was not safe to be careless anymore. In July the people even took up arms to break into the Bastille--a prison holding less than ten political prisoners, all of them justly imprisoned, but also holding a rich supply of ammunition. One of our last trips to France was in October of that year--we were attending a banquet held by our friend the Duc de Mariset, honoring the managers of the Comedie Francaise for another successful year. Although our friend was a nobleman, and the managers were decidedly plebian, he was anxious to show his republican sympathies--conservativism wasn't very profitable in those days. As we entered, the Duc de Mariset came to greet us warmly.
"Ah! my English friends!" he said, grasping us by the hands. "Come, you must meet this fascinating young actress I've just had the pleasure of being introduced to." He led the way over to where a young woman was surrounded by several fawning young men. I couldn't even see her face for them.
"Mademoiselle, I have some friends for you to meet!" Mariset called as we approached. The crowd of men parted, allowing us to see her. She was breathtakingly beautiful, with auburn hair and deep blue eyes.
"Mademoiselle, this is Lord Timothy Hastings, Lord Antony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, and Sir Percy Blakeney, friends of mine from England. Friends, this is Mademoiselle Marguerite St. Just, the best and most beautiful actress in all of Paris," he said, and we stepped forward to kiss her hand in order of our introduction. Percy was the last to bow over her beautiful hand.
"I am delighted to meet you, mademoiselle," he said softly. I thought I could detect an unfamiliar tone to his voice . . . different from the light, careless tone he usually used. "You are one of the most beautiful women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting." His tone was genuine, and this time I was sure--Percy was in love. He was gazing into the woman's eyes with earnest tenderness, and she was gazing back. They stayed in this position for several seconds, before Mademoiselle St. Just found a voice to reply.
"Sir Blakeney, I am honored to be so complimented."
"Please, call me Percy, mademoiselle."
"Sir Percy, then. Surely you must have been introduced to many beautiful young ladies in England."
"The beauty of the ladies of England is far eclipsed by your own in my eyes, mademoiselle."
"If I am to call you Percy, sir, then you must call me Marguerite."
"Marguerite. I do hope we can become better acquainted tonight. If I may be so forward, having just met you, may I have the honor of the next dance?" At that very moment, as if on cue, the musicians began a minuet. Percy held out his hand to Marguerite St. Just.
"Of course, Sir Percy." I watched them begin to dance, and I could not help but smile. I had never seen Percy so taken with a young lady before in the entire four years I had known him. He seemed to dance in a dream world. I felt Andrew nudge me.
"Never seen our friend so smitten before, have you, Tony?" he grinned. I laughed.
"Andrew, I was just thinking that. I do believe he is in love. After one introduction, he has tumbled head-over-heels in love."
"I think you're right. We won't see any more of him all evening long, I'm afraid. We're going to have to find our own entertainment tonight." Andrew turned to Timothy, who was watching the couple dance with an amused grin. "Hastings, do they play cards in France, do you think?"
Timothy and I laughed. "Well, let's just find out, then," I said. "And if they don't, we can jolly well teach them how."
That was our last visit to France for a long while. The next day, October 5, 1789, the royal family were forced to leave their palace at Versailles and go to Paris. The Parisian women stormed Versailles demanding bread, and dragged the King back to Paris with them. We left Paris as soon as we could; the atmosphere was too dangerous. Another week, and we wouldn't have been allowed out of the city at all.
For two years we stayed out of France. Percy's Paris estate fell into the hands of the French government and was claimed for the people, unoccupied as it was. It would have been too dangerous to fight to get it back, and so he let it go. It was a hard thing for him to do; he had grown up there, and giving it up to the French was like relinquishing a piece of his life to strangers. My family had never held any land in France, so Julius and I had nothing to fear from the French government. But all around me I saw friends lose their French estates, who were anxious for their friends among the French elite. More and more of the French aristocrats were being blamed for the oppression the people had suffered for centuries. They were in real danger, and still they hung on to their family estates, hoping that the unrest would somehow end.
Percy, like all of us, tried to hide his anxieties behind carelessness. Andrew could tell how upset he was becoming, though, and when he alerted me to it I could as well. Every time we heard of some new atrocity in Paris, his jaw stiffened and he became more uptight. Every piece of news from France served to upset him still further, in his own way. He, we all were Englishmen; we were schooled to hide our emotions from all prying eyes. But Percy couldn't hide the clenching of his fists, the furrowing of his brow at every mention of the horrors in France from his friends. It all came to a head in May of 1791. Percy and I were visiting Andrew before the theatre that evening when we were interrupted by Timothy's sudden arrival. He burst into the room, wild-eyed, and seemed unable to speak for some minutes.
"Hastings, my friend, calm down. Have a seat," Andrew said, pointing to an empty chair. Mechanically, Timothy sat down, still staring into nothingness. Finally I could stand his silence no longer.
"What is it, man?"
"It--it's Mariset," he stammered, after some time. "He--he was arrested last week. Two days ago he was tried and condemned for treason, and yesterday--those damned murderers killed him!"
We were speechless.
"Mariset?" Andrew asked. "But he--he was the most moderate of all!"
"Are you sure?" I whispered, stunned.
"I just now heard word. He was hung from a lamp post, as usual." (In those days the guillotine was not yet in use--condemned aristocrats were hung from lamp posts.) "The courier was positive--de Tournay sent him to us."
De Tournay. Another friend of ours that wouldn't leave France. He was in danger too.
Percy was silent. Since Timothy's announcement, he had been looking down at something, his temples pulsating in anger. He seemed to be looking at his hands. Suddenly he got up.
"Gentlemen, I hope you will excuse me. I suddenly feel very tired--I'm afraid I won't be able to attend the theatre with you tonight. But you shall hear from me soon--very soon." After he left, I looked to Andrew.
"What did that mean?" I asked. Andrew shook his head.
"I don't know. Percy had known Mariset since his youth--he just couldn't take the news, I suppose. But for some reason, I think it goes deeper than that."
Andrew was right as usual. Three weeks later, I received a note from Percy. I sat in the study to read it, breaking the red seal on the back. Before I broke it--I don't know why--I noticed for the first time the design. A small, five-pointed wildflower. The scarlet pimpernel--the Blakeney family symbol. Dull and insignificant, like the Blakeneys had been for centuries. I tore open the note and read.
If you are in any way outraged by the events in Paris, and if you feel brave, come to my home tomorrow at three. I have an idea you might be interested in.
P.S. Please destroy this note and leave no trace. I await your reply.
I closed the note, puzzled. Of course I was outraged--Percy knew that. Those were our friends being killed over there; how could I not be outraged? But it was the second phrase that puzzled me most.
If you feel brave.
I had never before stopped to consider my bravery. I had never before had reason to. The most risky endeavor I had ever undertaken was a horse race or two. But I felt a new sensation at the thought of this required bravery, as if some new adventure awaited me. I knew I couldn't pass up such an adventure, even though I didn't yet know what it was. I got out pen, ink, and paper to write my reply.
An idea, you say? I will be there promptly at three, waiting to hear it. As for my bravery, well, I'm not sure I know what that is. But I have a feeling I'm going to find out.
I put down the pen, folded the note, and searched for my sealing wax. Why, why couldn't I keep my desk in better order? I never could find anything . . . finally I located the olive green sticks of wax. I heated the end of one in a candle and rubbed it onto the paper to seal it, then took off my seal-ring and pressed it into the hot wax. I examined the symbol thoughtfully as it dried; a laurel wreath, with two swords crossed through the middle. The Roman swords; another whim of my father's. I felt a single tear come to my eyes and roll down my cheek, for I hadn't thought of my father in years. Quickly I wiped it away and went to give the note to the runner.
"Give this to Sir Percy Blakeney, and only to him," I said, handing him the missive. "Make sure that he is the only one who sees it." The runner bowed and set off on his errand. I went back into the study and sat at the desk, still thinking of Percy's cryptical note--and my father.
Bravery. It was always foremost in his mind, in his father's mind, and his father's before that . . . I thought, burying my head in my hands. Even in our family motto, bravery was emphasized.
To the valiant be the honor, to the victorious the reward.
Bravery seemed to run in the family blood, passed down through the generations. So why didn't I know what the word even meant, at the age of twenty-seven? I felt ashamed for some reason, like I hadn't been true to my family tradition. If I didn't know what bravery was, it was time I found out.
At Percy's Richmond home the next day, his manservant Frank led me into his private study on the second floor. Percy was waiting, staring out of the window.
"Percy?" I asked. "What's this all about? You've raised my curiosity . . ."
He turned to face me. "Tony!" He smiled and shook my hand gratefully. "I'm glad you decided to come. You didn't disappoint me."
"You say you have . . . a plan? What sort of plan?"
Percy sat, and I did too. He seemed very serious.
"For two years, Tony, we've been sitting here in England, with news coming to our ears about the horrible things our friends in France have been suffering. Now, not a week goes by that we don't hear about another execution or massacre. When we heard about Mariset, I knew I couldn't stand it any longer and not do something. Before I continue, I must know; are you willing to do something about this, to brave dangers, to risk your very life?"
When Percy asked if I was brave, he wasn't joking. He really meant it.
"Yes, Percy," I said firmly. "I don't know what you're planning, but I'm with you."
Percy smiled again. He rose and shut the door, then came back to the desk. "Innocent men, women, and children are being murdered, senselessly killed in France these days. We may not be able to stop the killings altogether, but we can, by my plans, get what few victims we can away from those murderers. We can get them all the way to England. It will require a lot of planning, some acting, and a little luck, but I vow it will be the best sport you, my friend, have ever encountered." His serious manner vanished a little, and he grinned at me. He knew exactly how to appeal to me. "What do you say?"
"If it promises to be such fine sport, how can I refuse?" I said, grinning back. He laughed.
"I knew you wouldn't be able to resist the challenge!" He rose and clapped me on the back, then was once again serious. "I'll need some time to gather more men, but once I'm ready to begin this endeavor, I'll send you word."
He did send word; in August of that year I gathered in Percy's study with seventeen other men, excited and curious. Andrew was there, and Timothy as well. Percy took charge immediately.
"You know why you have been asked to be here, gentlemen. I have approached each one of you personally about my idea, and you have agreed to join me. I now ask all of you to swear secrecy and obedience to me. I must be sure of your loyalty before we begin. Do you swear?"
"I swear, Percy," we each said in turn. I said it as firmly as I knew how, but it was Andrew who seemed to express the most conviction of all of us.
"I swear with my life," he nearly whispered. Percy clenched his fists and set his face in a determined expression.
"Thank you, friends. We'll be a secret league of men, devoted to saving what few we can from death. We can do this, my friends; we will not fail. We must set to work immediately, preparing for our exploits. No one can know except the nineteen of us here of what we are doing; if we let the secret out, all is lost. I will, therefore, communicate with you by sealed anonymous note. You will know that the note comes from me by the seal; the seal of the scarlet pimpernel. I'll sign the notes with the same symbol. Destroy all my communications to you immediately after reading them, and never let anyone know that they are from me. Never speak on the business of our league in public; only when you are alone, and are sure no one is listening. Are there any questions?" We shook our heads, saying nothing. There was an excited tension in the air that spoke volumes without our uttering a word. Andrew was the only one who asked a question of Percy.
"When do we start?" We laughed quietly, even Percy.
"You are eager, Ffoulkes, aren't you? So am I," he confessed with a grin. "Meet me here two days from now, and we'll start training. We'll need to cultivate certain skills, perfect imitations of the French peasantry, learn the alleyways of Paris like we know our own homes. There is much to be done," he said, "but I, for one, am going to enjoy every bit of it!"
In my heart I knew that I would as well.