ball given by the then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs--Lord
Grenville--was the most brilliant function of the year. Though
the autumn season had only just begun, everybody who was anybody
had contrived to be in London in time to be present there, and
to shine at this ball, to the best of his or her respective ability.
Highness the Prince of Wales had promised to be present. He was
coming on presently from the opera. Lord Grenville himself had
listened to the two first acts of Orpheus, before preparing
to receive his guests. At ten o'clock--an unusually late hour
in those days--the grand rooms of the Foreign Office, exquisitely
decorated with exotic palms and flowers, were filled to overflowing.
One room had been set apart for dancing, and the dainty strains
of the minuet made a soft accompaniment to the gay chatter, the
merry laughter of the numerous and brilliant company.
In a smaller
chamber, facing the top of the fine stairway, the distinguished
host stood ready to receive his guests. Distinguished men, beautiful
women, notabilities from every European country had already filed
past him, had exchanged the elaborate bows and curtsies with him,
which the extravagant fashion of the time demanded, and then,
laughing and talking, had dispersed in the ball, reception, and
card rooms beyond.
Not far from
Lord Grenville's elbow, leaning against one of the console tables,
Chauvelin, in his irreproachable black costume, was taking a quiet
survey of the brilliant throng. He noted that Sir Percy and Lady
Blakeney had not yet arrived, and his keen, pale eyes glanced
quickly towards the door every time a new-comer appeared.
somewhat isolated: the envoy of the Revolutionary Government of
France was not likely to be very popular in England, at a time
when the news of the awful September massacres, and of the Reign
of Terror and Anarchy, had just begun to filtrate across the Channel.
In his official
capacity he had been received courteously by his English colleagues:
Mr. Pitt had shaken him by the hand; Lord Grenville had entertained
him more than once; but the more intimate circles of London society
ignored him altogether; the women openly turned their backs upon
him; the men who held no official position refused to shake his
was not the man to trouble himself about these social amenities,
which he called mere incidents in his diplomatic career. He was
blindly enthusiastic for the revolutionary cause, he despised
all social inequalities, and he had a burning love for his own
country: these three sentiments made him supremely indifferent
to the snubs he received in this fog-ridden, loyalist, old-fashioned
all, Chauvelin had a purpose at heart. He firmly believed that
the French aristocrat was the most bitter enemy of France; he
would have wished to see every one of them annihilated: he was
one of those who, during this awful Reign of Terror, had been
the first to utter the historic and ferocious desire "that aristocrats
might have but one head between them, so that it might be cut
off with a single stroke of the guillotine." And thus he looked
upon every French aristocrat, who had succeeded in escaping from
France, as so much prey of which the guillotine had been unwarrantably
cheated. There is no doubt that those royalist emigres,
once they had managed to cross the frontier, did their very best
to stir up foreign indignation against France. Plots without end
were hatched in England, in Belgium, in Holland, to try and induce
some great power to send troops into revolutionary Paris, to free
King Louis, and to summarily hang the bloodthirsty leaders of
that monster republic.
therefore, that the romantic and mysterious personality of the
Scarlet Pimpernel was a source of bitter hatred to Chauvelin.
He and the few young jackanapes under his command, well furnished
with money, armed with boundless daring, and acute cunning, had
succeeded in rescuing hundreds of aristocrats from France. Nine-tenths
of the emigres, who were feted at the English court,
owed their safety to that man and to his league.
had sworn to his colleagues in Paris that he would discover the
identity of that meddlesome Englishman, entice him over to France,
and then. . .Chauvelin drew a deep breath of satisfaction at the
very thought of seeing that enigmatic head falling under the knife
of the guillotine, as easily as that of any other man.
there was a great stir on the handsome staircase, all conversation
stopped for a moment as the majordomo's voice outside announced,--
Highness the Prince of Wales and suite, Sir Percy Blakeney, Lady
went quickly to the door to receive his exalted guest.
of Wales, dressed in a magnificent court suit of salmon-coloured
velvet richly embroidered with gold, entered with Marguerite Blakeney
on his arm; and on his left Sir Percy, in gorgeous shimmering
cream satin, cut in the extravagant "Incroyable" style, his fair
hair free from powder, priceless lace at his neck and wrists,
and the flat chapeau-bras under his arm.
few conventional words of deferential greeting, Lord Grenville
said to his royal guest,--
Highness permit me to introduce M. Chauvelin, the accredited agent
of the French Government?"
immediately the Prince entered, had stepped forward, expecting
this introduction. He bowed very low, whilst the Prince returned
his salute with a curt nod of the head.
said His Royal Highness coldly, "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."
rejoined Chauvelin, bowing once again. "Madame," he added, bowing
ceremoniously before Marguerite.
"Ah! my little
Chauvelin!" she said with unconcerned gaiety, and extending her
tiny hand to him. "Monsieur and I are old friends, your Royal
said the Prince, this time very graciously, "you are doubly welcome,
someone else I would crave permission to present to your Royal
Highness," here interposed Lord Grenville.
is it?" asked the Prince.
Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive and her family, who have but
recently come from France."
"By all means!--They
are among the lucky ones then!"
turned in search of the Comtesse, who sat at the further end of
me!" whispered his Royal Highness to Marguerite, as soon as he
had caught sight of the rigid figure of the old lady; "Lud love
me! she looks very virtuous and very melancholy."
Royal Highness," she rejoined with a smile, "virtue is like precious
odours, most fragrant when it is crushed."
alas!" sighed the Prince, "is mostly unbecoming to your charming
Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive," said Lord Grenville, introducing
a pleasure, Madame; my royal father, as you know, is ever glad
to welcome those of your compatriots whom France has driven from
Highness is ever gracious," replied the Comtesse with becoming
dignity. Then, indicating her daughter, who stood timidly by her
side: "My daughter Suzanne, Monseigneur," she said.
said the Prince, "and now allow me, Comtesse, to introduce you,
Lady Blakeney, who honours us with her friendship. You and she
will have much to say to one another, I vow. Every compatriot
of Lady Blakeney's is doubly welcome for her sake. . .her friends
are our friends. . .her enemies, the enemies of England."
blue eyes had twinkled with merriment at this gracious speech
from her exalted friend. The Comtesse de Tournay, who lately had
so flagrantly insulted her, was here receiving a public lesson,
at which Marguerite could not help but rejoice. But the Comtesse,
for whom respect of royalty amounted almost to a religion, was
too well-schooled in courtly etiquette to show the slightest sign
of embarrassment, as the two ladies curtsied ceremoniously to
Highness is ever gracious, Madame," said Marguerite, demurely,
and with a wealth of mischief in her twinkling blue eyes, "but
there is no need for his kind of meditation. . . . Your amiable
reception of me at our last meeting still dwells pleasantly in
exiles, Madame," rejoined the Comtesse, frigidly, "show our gratitude
to England by devotion to the wishes of Monseigneur."
said Marguerite, with another ceremonious curtsey.
responded the Comtesse with equal dignity.
in the meanwhile was saying a few gracious words to the young
"I am happy
to know you, Monsieur le Vicomte," he said. "I knew your father
well when he was ambassador in London."
replied the Vicomte, "I was a leetle boy then. . .and now I owe
the honour of this meeting to our protector, the Scarlet Pimpernel."
the Prince, earnestly and quickly, as he indicated Chauvelin,
who had stood a little on one side throughout the whole of this
little scene, watching Marguerite and the Comtesse with an amused,
sarcastic little smile around his thin lips.
he said now, as if in direct response to the Prince's challenge,
"pray do not check this gentleman's display of gratitude; the
name of that interesting red flower is well known to me--and to
looked at him keenly for a moment or two.
Monsieur," he said, "perhaps you know more about our national
hero than we do ourselves. . .perchance you know who he is. .
. . See!" he added, turning to the groups round the room, "the
ladies hang upon your lips. . .you would render yourself popular
among the fair sex if you were to gratify their curiosity."
said Chauvelin, significantly, "rumour has it in France that your
Highness could--an you would--give the truest account of that
enigmatical wayside flower."
quickly and keenly at Marguerite as he spoke; but she betrayed
no emotion, and her eyes met his quite fearlessly.
replied the Prince, "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," he added, with wonderful charm and dignity,
"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.
Chauvelin," added Marguerite, looking almost with defiance across
at the placid, sphinx-like face of the Frenchman, "His Royal Highness
should add that we ladies think of him as of 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."
did no more than bow placidly both to the Prince and to Marguerite;
he felt that both speeches were intended--each in their way--to
convey contempt or defiance. The pleasure-loving, idle Prince
he despised: the beautiful woman, who in her golden hair wore
a spray of small red flowers composed of rubies and diamonds--her
he held in the hollow of hand: he could afford to remain silent
and to wait events.
A long, jovial,
inane laugh broke the sudden silence which had fallen over everyone.
"And we poor
husbands," came in slow, affected accents from gorgeous Sir Percy,
"we have to stand by. . .while they worship a demmed shadow."
laughed--the Prince more loudly than anyone. The tension of subdued
excitement was relieved, and the next moment everyone was laughing
and chatting merrily as the gay crowd broke up and dispersed in
the adjoining rooms.
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