A Complex Problem
Fandom: The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Orczy)
Rating: General Audiences
No Archive Warnings Apply
Category: F/F (genderswap. With secondary M/F)
Characters: Peggy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Armand St. Just, Andrew Ffoulkes, Suzanne de Tournay
A Yuletide gift for croik
A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
This is in total an 18,000 word story, that basically retells the Scarlet Pimpernel, so no canon knowledge required! I’m going to post it over here in installments because no one wants an 18,000 blog post to turn up on their blogroll, but the whole thing is available on the Ao3
Nothing was ever going to be the same again.
It was a time of revolution; it exploded out of Paris and touched the entire country, even the rest of Europe. Before the true cost of the revolution emerged, the young intelligentsia of Paris rejoiced in the society they strove for: where brains and courage and strength of conviction would matter more than an accident of birth.
At the beginning, before the stream of blood became unstoppable, the young, artistic minds of Paris began to model the very free society they dreamed of. A meritocracy, not a monarchy, but in those days nevertheless a veritable Queen emerged in the middle of Paris, holding court among an aristocracy of minds.
Marguerite St Just, the beloved actress of the Comedie Francais, hosted nightly soirees in the tiny Paris apartment she shared with her brother. Actors, poets and philosophers mixed with headstrong politicos, and the witticisms flowed as freely as the wine. Before their dreams became a nightmare of murder, the Rue de Richelieu was a revolutionary Versailles.
How this exclusive circle of intellects broke long enough to let in the idiotic English lady Margaret Blakeney, no one really agreed. But there she was, chaperoned sometimes by her father’s valet, although often she even arrived sans chaperone. And in the heady days of revolutionary Paris, no one mentioned the impropriety. What she might want from the soirees, however, was as much a mystery as what the company saw in her. Half the time, she simply sat with a bored expression on her pretty face, as high art and the complications of revolutionary politics flew about in the air above her head, most often in French, of which language she spoke not a word. Sometimes she offered an inane comment in English, which would be met with laughter, rarely of the kindest intent.
Impropriety was one matter, but the issue of safety on the streets quite another. Ever the most gracious hostess, Mlle St Just would never hear of her English friend walking back to her lodgings alone in the night, despite the latter’s lazy protest that she did not mind the cold air. So Miss Blakeney frequently stayed with the St Justs after the other guests had returned home for the night. On one of these occasions, Marguerite took it on herself to ask her friend if she was not dreadfully bored by the evening’s conversation.
“La! Most terribly, I’m afraid,” she replied. “Especially when the conversation whips around so quickly in French, and I can only catch every third word.”
“Oh, Peggy, then why do you come and subject yourself to such tedium?”
“What else is there to do? The life of a lady must ever be tedium, must it not? We are not permitted to do anything of interest.”
“Nothing of interest!”
“Indeed. Were I a gentleman, you can be sure I’d be hunting every night; exploring the world like Cook; playing cricket at Lords. Perhaps I’d even join the army and serve the King. Instead I must content myself with looking pretty and avoiding the talk of marriage.”
“And here am I, busying myself on the stage and delighting in company every night. Am I then not a lady? Or am I tedious?”
“Margot, darling, I did not mean you,” Peggy said in a more gentle tone that she only used when the girls were alone together. “You could make even the dullest of soirees the brightest in Europe. You hardly need my endorsement for that.”
Marguerite reddened the slightest amount, for the esteem of this particular friend always seemed the most worthy, perhaps because it came from such an unlikely direction, and possibly because, were she and Miss Blakeney not such good friends, they might very well become rivals for the attention of society.
Miss Blakeney was certainly a beauty. Tall to almost a man’s height, with that particular rosy complexion the English were so proud of, always dressed and coiffed to the very height of fashion. It was not unheard of for a young man to declare his love for her on sight alone, although this conviction was frequently challenged by the dull, lazy look in her pale blue eyes, and more often than not completely dissolved when she opened her mouth. Margaret Blakeney had a witch’s screech of a laugh, which she employed often, and frequently in response to jokes at her own expense. She was known to be slow-witted, shallow and interested in nothing but clothes and society, and was popular at events for the amusement she supplied. Despite the enormity of her dowry and the increasing frailty of her father Sir Algernon Blakeney, Bart., it was considered no great surprise in either London and Parisian society that she had yet to secure a husband.
Her friendship with Mlle St Just was a source of great bafflement, but generally it was supposed that the French actress simply enjoyed the opportunity to sharpen her wits at the expense of her aristocratic friend, knowing that by acquaintance she seemed all the more brilliant. They could not imagine that the “Cleverest Woman in Europe” simply believed that she saw something in those lazy blue eyes – a friendship more devoted and true than that of any of the intellectual elites that demanded she perform her brilliance for them nightly, not just on stage but in their very society.
More likely, they decided, it was Armand St Just who encouraged the friendship. Paris was becoming a dangerous place to be, and it was not beyond imagination that the man was doing what many people were doing at the time: looking for a way out. And what better way out than by marrying the richest woman in England? It was not, the gossips remarked, the first time St Just had shown mercenary tendencies, and Miss Blakeney was hardly likely to see his machinations coming.
When the match came about, Parisian society nodded their heads, exchanged significant looks and then let it lie, as suddenly they were plunged into bloody revolution and had other items to worry about than the marriage of one of their most vocal republicans.
They would perhaps have been surprised had they known that Miss Blakeney engineered the match herself, with a directness of purpose that might have shocked English society, but for Armand himself was merely amusingly unusual. His reasons for pursuing the path she clearly laid for him were not mercenary as much as they were made out of fondness for Marguerite. Valuing his sister’s health and happiness beyond his own, Armand had acted to secure for Marguerite, not simply safe transport out of France, but also a sister who would be as loyal and devoted to her as he was himself.
So they arrived in England, and the Frenchman suddenly found himself heir to one of the greatest single fortunes in England, and thrown into courtly circles in a way he had never thought to dream for himself and his sister. Sir Algernon was the holder of an old Scottish title that was free of English primogeniture, and thus his only daughter stood to inherit the baronetcy herself on his passing. While she glided through courtly circles, St Just recoiled from English society: he had far too many pressing concerns in his home country, but he left his sister in the care of his young wife. With her patronage, Mlle St Just had the whole of English society orbiting her brilliance as surely as she had the French. St Just was widely praised solely for the great favor he did in giving his sister to them. As for his loveless marriage to England’s richest heiress, that was considered no less than what the silly girl deserved for her folly.
Marguerite, for her part, had no lack of a suitor, but kept them all at bay, crying ignorance of English customs and her desire to experience society before she made a choice. Glorying in her new place in society, she seemed for all the world to be the happiest woman alive. But in truth she had not been happy since her brother’s wedding.
It was the very morning after the wedding. Sir Algernon had arrived in Paris long enough to give his approval before the ceremony, and the entire combined family of Blakeney and St Just had travelled together to Calais, where they rested in an inn overnight. The young lovers had, by rights, been given the night to themselves, but shortly after breakfast the bride was stolen away by her new sister for a stroll in the crisp sea air.
They had walked companionably, arm in arm, for quarter of an hour, before Marguerite had felt obliged to break the silence.
“Peggy, my dearest,” she started. “Now we are sisters, we can have no secrets from each other.”
“Lud, Margot, please do not tell me you pulled me away from my wedding so we can catalogue all our histories,” Peggy protested. “What secret could you possibly expect me to have that it warrants such a long excursion?”
“Oh, darling, I’m sure that you have nothing but honesty for me,” Marguerite protested. “But I feel I must tell you my darkest shame, for I know that you could not love me any less. I must tell you about the Marquis St Cyr.”
Their walk stopped, and Peggy turned to her friend. Marguerite was tall, but the Englishwoman, when she was not idly slouching, had the advantage. Marguerite knew, from just the look in her eyes, that Peggy had already heard the story.
“Do you mean how you denounced him? Sending him and his entire family to the guillotine?”
It was the cool manner in which she asked it, her icy blue eyes not leaving Marguerite’s own, that pierced Marguerite’s heart deeply. That idle silliness passed away in an instant, revealing accusation and distrust; the devotion Marguerite had imagined she’d see forever had vanished.
She reached for Peggy’s hands, but found them so cold and unyielding that she dropped them at once
“Then you’ve heard the story.”
“Is it true?”
Oh, how Marguerite wanted to tell Peggy everything in that moment, to explain how Armand had become so jaded he would take a wife without love just so his Margot could have a sister! How she wanted to throw herself on her friend’s mercy! She longed to confess how little she knew about the swiftness of the new French justice; how she had thought she was passing on little more than barbed gossip, never thinking of the terrible consequences in her love for an abused brother.
But that ice in Peggy’s eyes froze her heart. She was never going to beg for forgiveness from a sister who had made up her mind.
A sister now, but never again a friend.
So she drew herself up, despair vanishing under pride, and she confirmed that this terrible crime did indeed lie at her feet.
All of society was abuzz with news of the Scarlet Pimpernel: that valiant Englishman who, along with his loyal band of followers, risked life and limb to steal away condemned French aristocrats, sometimes from under the very nose of Madame Guillotine herself. Social circles began to swell with the numbers of these refugees from across the Channel, and they came with yet more stories of his bravery and heroics.
Most recently, he had been heard of leading a whole family of aristocrats out of Paris; all on horseback, all dressed as soldiers of the Revolution, claiming themselves to be hot on the heels of the Pimpernel. The joke, as Lord Antony Dewhurst explained to a fascinated supper table, was that they were indeed following the Pimpernel, for he was dressed as the Captain of the Guard himself!
He firmly rejected all appeals from the ladies present to explain what exactly his own involvement with the escapade was, explaining that he spoke only from rumor, but they might appeal to the Duc de Chalis for the truth of it.
“I think you must know the man, Lord Tony,” Marguerite teased him gently, “for your report to be so accurate.”
“On that matter, madam, my lips are sealed,” he replied. “But I’m sure you will note that on the very night that escape took place, I was dancing with you at Lord Thurlow’s ball.”
“Indeed, I cannot be expected to remember every person with whom I dance at every ball. But la, I believe you are right, for that was the night you sent your carriage to escort me, so much did you wish to see me dance to exhaustion.”
“I did so on royal orders. Your highness?”
Hearing himself being appealed to, the Prince of Wales, who had seated himself between Mme and Mlle St Just, let out a guffaw.
“And rightly so. We couldn’t have Mademoiselle St Just missing a ball just because her brother was out of the country, what?”
“I say.” This was Lady Somerset, who wore a broach styled exactly like a red star-shaped blossom. She leant forward to towards Marguerite, adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Your brother does spend much of his time in France, does he not?”
Marguerite laughed gaily at the very idea, but her response was lost by a loud snort from the other side of His Highness.
“My husband?” Peggy put in, “Lud, my lady, if only he would spend as much time in England as the Scarlet Pimpernel must do, to deliver all those Frenchies to London.”
The Earl of Somerset agreed. “St Just and the Pimpernel share one thing in common: wives who must spend much of their time waiting alone.”
“You think he is married?” Marguerite asked.
“If he is, I pity her,” his lordship said. “She must spend every moment of her life fearing for his, if the risks are to be believed.”
“But surely the pride she felt for him would belay those fears,” Marguerite replied quickly. “To be married to a man capable of such bravery in the face of dangers.”
Peggy snorted. “My sister hopes he is not married, for she wishes his hand to himself.”
Marguerite flushed lightly, and turned the conversation quickly around, but not before noticing that, whatever her own feelings, there were a few unmarried – and indeed married – ladies at the table that seemed to share that sentiment.
The truth was, Marguerite had indeed found her thoughts turning frequently towards the Pimpernel, that dashing, heroic stranger who, rather than embroiling himself in politics and outright condemnation of the Revolution, took on himself the dangerous task of allaying the very worst excess of the movement, stemming the stream of blood one head at a time.
She was never sure what to make of these daydreams. Not once before had Marguerite found herself reflecting on the possibility of loving a man; she had decided long since that she might as well be incapable of such emotion. She enjoyed their company, of course, but as conversational partners, intellectual equals. Not once before had the thought of a man ever made her sigh.
Enough; it was admiration, nothing more. And who would not admire that great hero? Even as Marguerite found her heart yearning for the country she left behind, she found herself mourning for the grand future Republic that had so far fallen from the lofty ideals her circle had dreamt of in the Rue de Richelieu. That a man would put himself forward to save just a few of those lives destined for the guillotine, at great risk to himself and the men who were said to obey his every word, she found herself stirring with the same loyalty that must inspire his followers.
She sometimes wished that Armand was the mysterious gallant, but he was still a sworn republican, and gave his time to his country, using what political influence he yielded in the attempt to stop the massacre. He had no time to mastermind a never ending series of daring attempts, and even so, the first rescues had occurred before his marriage and escape to England. No, Armand St Just was not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but his sister would love him no less if he were.
The dreadful loneliness Marguerite had felt since her brother’s marriage was alleviated gently whenever he came home to stay with his wife and his sister in Richmond. Ever sensible to his sister’s heart, he was aware of the broken friendship between them, but could do nothing to relieve that. The truth behind St Cyr’s condemnation was Marguerite’s to confess when she was ready, and besides, he could not trust himself to talk of that man without reliving the pain of having lost Angèle de St Cyr, the girl he had loved so ardently those years ago. Peggy never asked him about it, and he could never bear to broach the subject.
For all he loved his sister and longed to keep her company, he could never stay in England long. France was his home, and she needed him at this time even more than did Marguerite. It was almost as great a happiness for him as for herself, therefore, when her dearest school friend Suzanne de Tournay, along with her mother and brother, were brought to the safety of England by the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
It was the greatest of coincidences that allowed Marguerite to be in Dover, to bid her brother farewell, on the very night that Suzanne and her family arrived. In the tiny parlor of The Fisherman’s Rest, they rushed to each other, clasping their hands together dearly. Not even the Comtesse de Tournay, who did her very best to disgrace and humiliate Marguerite out of revenge for her act against St Cyr, could completely destroy the tenderness of the moment. When the Comtesse ordered her daughter out of the room, she could not depart without hurrying to her childhood friend and kissing her dearly.
The witnesses to that scene were all moved. In particular, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, one of the gentleman who had led the rescue of the family, had developed a tender fondness for Suzanne on the journey from Paris. When he saw the way in which she dashed and embraced her old friend, his esteem rose even further. So engrossed was he in those sweet thoughts, that he completely missed the look of deep envy and longing on the usually vapid face of Peggy St Just as she watched the girls together.
With that arrival, at least, Armand could leave the island with a lighter heart, knowing that finally Marguerite had a friend she could confide in. So he kissed her profoundly there in Dover, and left her waiting, completely unaware that on that very night, another of Marguerite’s old friends would appear in England, in order to strike her at the most tender part of her heart: the love she held for a brother that was more like a father to her. Armand St Just left England, oblivious to the danger that waited for him, personally.
Two evenings later, on the night of Lord Grenville’s ball, Marguerite was visited in her box at the opera by that same friend, Armand Chauvelin, French Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. There he delivered the blow to her heart: St Just had been captured, a known accomplice of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and would face the very worst of French justice unless she would aide the ambassador by identifying and betraying that worthy gentlemen before the night was through.
With that loathsome task weighing on her, in the face of those terrible consequences, did Marguerite and her sister-in-law accompany the Prince of Wales to the ball. His highness chattered jovially to them both, laughing at his own wit, at the gay remarks put forward by Marguerite, and the occasional inanity from Peggy. Marguerite tried once to steer the conversation towards the Scarlet Pimpernel, only to have the conversation taken over by Peggy’s insistence on reciting a ridiculous piece of doggerel on the subject.
Marguerite considered letting Peggy know about Armand’s predicament, but to do so in front of the Prince of Wales was unthinkable. And then they were thrown into the busy society of supper and a ball, and never were the ladies alone together.
Marguerite was the belle of any ball. With her sparkling wit and every physical grace honed to perfection on the boards she adored and was adored at every event. Even with the shadow of her brother’s doom darkening her step, the actress played the part of the unaffected gay Frenchwoman, dazzling society with her wit and her charm, while her heart ached in her breast.
Contrarily, Peggy took no particular enjoyment in the dancing element of balls. Oh, she enjoyed dining and conversation, and she delighted in the act of dressing up and observing fashions around her, but with her long limbs and lazy posture she was a clumsy dancer, and would frequently forget the progression even while part of the lead couple herself. It had led to a reluctance on the part of the gentlemen to ask for her hand beyond the barest requirements for polite society, and she retreated to the card tables as soon as possible.
It was at the card tables, Marguerite supposed, that Peggy maintained the few friendships she enjoyed with the men of London society. Sir Andrew Ffloulkes was chief among these: a gentle, honest young man who had but recently come into his inheritance. He tolerated Peggy St Just as many did, with a smile and a sigh for her silliness. Of all her acquaintance, however, he seemed more friendly than mocking towards her ridiculousness. They were old friends, and he often came visiting at Richmond, where he was fully courteous to Marguerite and Armand, and counted them as friends as well as he did Peggy.
Sir Andrew was universally popular, and more than any of his friends, gave no great effort in hiding his association with the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. “Nineteen to follow, one to lead,” he often said these days, and spoke of his leader in cryptic, but admiring tones.Marguerite resolved to keep watch on his behaviour more than anyone’s. If the Pimpernel was to be found that night, Sir Andrew would be her lead.
She observed him closely that night, and saw him frequently exchange words with those gentlemen she knew to be associated with the League. this meant nothing, of course: He was popular and spoke to everyone. It was when she happened to spy Lord Hastings pass him a scrap of paper in a surreptitious manner, which Ffoulkes pocketed without a glance, that Marguerite knew she had fixed on the right gentleman.
She seized on the opportunity, using every tool provided to her by her quick mind and her skill as an actress. Securing Sir Andrew for the Scotch reel, it was no great forgery to act faint, and have him escort her to a quiet room. There, when he read his note and attempted to burn all evidence, she seized the smoldering paper, with every act of gratitude that he should attempt to relieve her giddiness with smoke.
Marguerite managed to catch the slightest glance at the paper before returning it to its owner, professing her delight that he be exchanging love notes with her dear friend Suzanne de Tournay. Flustered, he finished burning it, and the evidence was destroyed forever.
Start myself tomorrow…
“…if you wish to speak to me again, I shall be in the supper-room at one o’clock precisely.”
And signed at the end with the device of the tiny five petaled flower, the image of which was the talk of London.
Mortified at her own actions, but driven to despair in her devotion to Armand, Marguerite mechanically conveyed the contents to Chauvelin, and left him to close his tightening noose around the neck of England’s most celebrated hero.
As one o’clock approached, Chauvelin retreated into the supper-room, determined to finally uncover the identity of that blasted Pimpernel. As late as it was, the room lay abandoned by revelers and servants alike, frozen in the same disarray that the diners had left it in. Deserted, that is, except for one occupant, laid out on a sofa in the corner of the room.
It was Mrs St Just, that vain and silly lady, still sitting on the sofa as if she had intended simply to take the weight off her feet when exhaustion and intoxication overcame her. One long hand still curled around the stem of a wine glass on the table next to her, giving weight to that hypothesis. Her legs stretched out beneath her, inelegantly poking her feet out from under her exquisite skirts, and her head lolled back against the back of the sofa, her fair curls framing a pink face, fashionably painted lips parted by a fraction as she slumbered.
Another gentleman would have left immediately, leaving the lady to her necessary sleep. Or perhaps to fetch her sister- in-law, and alert her to the situation, suggesting that it might be time for the ladies to return to their home. Chauvelin did neither, his mission was so urgent. He simply regarded the lady snoring gently, oblivious to the ball that spun away on the floors above them, and the dire situation in which her husband found himself.
As Chauvelin watched her, a sneer of contempt arose on his face: he could have just as easily gone to St Just’s wife with his fatal threat, and had her, or both ladies working for him for the man’s life. But this vapid ignorama would have been useless to him compared to the ingenuity and intelligence he had been right to expect from the sister.
And so, M. Chauvelin found himself a seat in that same room as the lady, and sat back to wait for his prey.
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