"Ha!" I cried in triumph as I forced Andrew back two steps. "So, you thought you could outduel me, eh?"
"I still might," he replied as a series of swift moves forced me to give up a little ground. I responded quickly, but Andrew blocked every move I made. "Your arrogance weakens you, Tony," he chuckled.
I smiled and ducked his sword, dealing my own set of swift moves. Slowly I forced him back against the wall, then with a twist of my blade, I disarmed him and held my sword-point to his throat. It was my turn to chuckle.
"It seems you are without a sword, my friend."
Cheers, laughter, and applause broke out in the room; calls of "Bravo, Tony!" and "He's got you now, Ffoulkes!" came to my ears as I grinned triumphantly at Andrew. Andrew smiled depreciatively.
I withdrew my sword and replaced it in its sheath as Percy's laughter rang clear through the library.
"I seriously doubt if we shall often find ourselves crossing blades with the French," he said, "but if we ever do, we know who to turn to, what?" He laughed again, in that practiced manner he had adopted of late. Indeed, he was playing his role to perfection in society. We tried to follow his example, but for some reason I could not grasp the character of the inane fool. I compensated by appearing to be even more careless and light-hearted than before; a small feat it was to convince the London elite that I cared about nothing. They already believed it.
Percy was demonstrating to Hastings the common street pronunciation of the French language; something which we all had to learn. Though nearly every one of us was fluent in French, having learned it at school, it was proper French we had learned. As we would be accomplishing our work disguised as French peasants and sans-culottes, our proper accents would give us away immediately.
"No, it's more guttural," he was saying, and he followed with a demonstration. Guttural was certainly the right word; the noise he made sounded as if it rose straight from the gutters of Paris themselves. Yet it was this sort of sound that we had to teach our voices to make, if we were going to succeed. And we were.
"Did you ever hear such an awful sound?" I asked, turning to Andrew. But he was gone, disappeared straight into thin air from the spot where I had held him at sword-point only moments before.
"Where did he go? Did anyone see?" I asked, looking at one man after another. Each shook their head in confusion; they hadn't seen where he went either, and were as confused as I. I glanced at Percy, who was looking at me with a strange smile on his face.
"Percy, wha--" I was cut off by a hand around my mouth as someone gagged me and pinioned my hands behind my back. The room was laughing, although I couldn't see why.
"How was that, Percy?" I heard Andrew say behind me. It was he who held me his "prisoner."
"Marvelous, Ffoulkes. A cat would have made more noise than you, sneaking up on poor Tony."
Andrew released me with a soft laugh. "That's for holding a sword to my throat earlier, Dewhurst." I glared at him playfully.
"Now that you two are finished, Tony, come look at this map," Percy said seriously. "Tell me the names of these streets and the character of these areas of Paris," he instructed, pointing out several places on the map for me to identify.
"Perhaps you should have Andrew do it. He's the one who got lost," I mumbled with a grin, aiming one final shaft at my childhood friend before turning my attention to the map. This was the kind of work the League did for three months; learning stealth and silence, studying maps of Paris and the Northern French coast, reteaching ourselves how to speak French like a common Frenchman would. Percy was the teacher, and we were the students; having lived in France for so long, he knew much more about the country and about Paris than the rest of us did combined. So it wasn't until November that the League's real work began.
But Percy wasn't always in England with us. He was constantly traveling from England to France and back again, setting up safe houses and finding contacts for us there. Once we began our work, we were going to need places to hide the refugees until we could get them safely across the Channel, and we were going to need places for ourselves to hide. Percy was already placing his life in immediate danger before we ever did, setting up treasonous activities in Paris and the surrounding countryside. And, there was another reason for his constant travel to Paris that we would not learn until later. Really, Hastings, Andrew, and I ought to have guessed.
Very early in November, Percy took Andrew with him to Paris to help him make sure everything was ready for our work to begin. At least, that was the outward reason. When they returned four days later, Andrew sent word ahead that Percy had gotten married, with him as a witness, to Marguerite St. Just, the beautiful French actress he had been so smitten with two years earlier. He had been courting her for two months, and the marriage had been in secret; it would not have been wise to let the whole of Paris know that their most illustrious actress was marrying an English aristocrat. Andrew, on the other hand, was not going to let it remain a secret; he asked us all, Percy's friends and family, to be at Percy's Richmond home the next day, when they were going to arrive, as a surprise.
It was very much a surprise. The look Percy gave Andrew when he opened the door and saw all of us congratulating him and his new wife was priceless. The ladies present all fawned over Marguerite, and whisked her away to learn everything they could about her at once.
"Poor woman," I commented to Percy as I watched them drag Marguerite off, "I do hope they aren't too hard on her." With the ladies gone, the League were the only ones left with Percy.
"Have you told her?" Hastings asked.
"No, I haven't," he said, following her with his eyes in an expression of longing. "I'll wait a little while; it wouldn't be right to spring it on her at once." He turned and began walking to the library, signaling us to follow him.
"Hastings, I trust you continued the work in my absence," he whispered. "Is everything ready to begin?"
"Yes, we're all ready, I think. You'll have to test us, of course, before we'll know for sure; Richard here still isn't quite fluent in the low dialect, but I daresay he will be soon," Hastings replied, gesturing to the young Lord Spalinger. He frowned.
"I'm trying, I really am!" he protested. "I never was good with the French language, you know." Percy chuckled and clapped him on the back.
"Just try a little harder, sir, and you'll get it in no time!"
"How are things in Paris?" I asked. Percy frowned.
"They aren't getting better. But we do have enough contacts and safe houses secured to begin now, so stay alert for any instructions you might receive in the next few days. Be ready." We nodded and began to disperse.
"It's a good thing we're starting it up now," I heard Richard say to Percy in a low voice. It wasn't hard for me to overhear them; I was standing right beside Percy then.
"All sorts of terrible rumors have been circulating about the events in Paris these days. Stories of one denunciation after another . . . even the Marquis de St. Cyr. You know how influential he is. And he was denounced by the most popular actress in all of Paris, we hear."
Actress? No . . . it couldn't be . . . my head snapped up to look at Richard.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Certainly . . . some woman named Marguerite St. Just . . . he was executed only yesterday. You haven't heard? It's all over London . . ." He shrugged and followed the others out.
I glanced at Percy in apprehension, afraid of what I would see. His face had gone completely white, and he was trembling. He grabbed my shoulder with one hand.
"Dewhurst, hold me up . . . could she have done such a thing? Truly?"
I didn't know what to say. "Percy, it may not be true . . . surely, it must not be. It's only a rumor, after all . . ."
"Rumors have a way sometimes of being based on facts." His grip tightened, and I reached out to support him. He waved my efforts off, straightening. A hard, determined look was on his face now, hiding the wound dealt to his heart.
"I'll ask her tonight."
That was the last I heard from Percy on the subject. He never spoke of the Marquis de St. Cyr again, and so I assumed that everything had been resolved, and it was all a mistake. Then again, every time I saw Percy and Marguerite together after that first day, I noticed a change. Once they had gazed into each other's eyes warmly, lovingly, speaking words of love that only they could hear. Now, though, their eyes still met, but there was nothing of the warmth in their gaze that I saw before. Marguerite, when looking at her husband, could have frozen the earth in July. And Percy, well, he was to Marguerite what he was to the rest of England--nothing more than a mindless dandy, living for the thrill of balls and garden parties and tying one cravat after another.
But I didn't notice this change as abruptly as might be expected. To me, it seemed very gradual, largely because I had more important matters to think about from then on. A few days after Percy's return--November 20, 1791, I remember the date exactly--I received a note by special courier. The seal on it was an image of a small flower, set in red wax. Feeling my heart quicken its pace, I took it into the study; once alone, I opened it with care.
Meet me at Dover tomorrow evening at sundown. My schooner will be in harbor near "The Fisherman's Rest". Instructions will be given while we cross over. Do not forget to destroy this note, and do not fail in your obedience.
That was all. No date given, no salutation, not even a signature. Percy was very careful to say as little as possible that might give us away. But at the bottom of the note he had drawn a little flower in red ink, the same flower that adorned the seal. I smiled as I tossed the note into the fireplace and watched it burn. The Scarlet Pimpernel.