Sir Percy Blakeney, as the chronicles of
the time inform us, was in this year of grace 1792, still a year
or two on the right side of thirty. Tall, above the average, even
for an Englishman, broad-shouldered and massively built, he would
have been called unusually good-looking, but for a certain lazy
expression in his deep-set blue eyes, and that perpetual inane
laugh which seemed to disfigure his strong, clearly-cut mouth.
It was nearly a year ago now that Sir Percy Blakeney,
Bart., one of the richest men in England, leader of all the fashions,
and intimate friend of the Prince of Wales, had astonished fashionable
society in London and Bath by bringing home, from one of his journeys
abroad, a beautiful, fascinating, clever, French wife. He, the
sleepiest, dullest, most British Britisher that had ever set a
pretty woman yawning, had secured a brilliant matrimonial prize
for which, as all chroniclers aver, there had been many competitors.
Marguerite St. Just had first made her debut
in artistic Parisian circles, at the very moment when the greatest
social upheaval the world has ever known was taking place within
its very walls. Scarcely eighteen, lavishly gifted with beauty
and talent, chaperoned only by a young and devoted brother, she
had soon gathered round her, in her charming apartment in the
Rue Richelieu, a coterie which was as brilliant as it was exclusive--exclusive,
that is to say, only from one point of view. Marguerite St. Just
was from principle and by conviction a republican--equality of
birth was her motto--inequality of fortune was in her eyes a mere
untoward accident, but the only inequality she admitted was that
of talent. "Money and titles may be hereditary," she would say,
"but brains are not," and thus her charming salon was reserved
for originality and intellect, for brilliance and wit, for clever
men and talented women, and the entrance into it was soon looked
upon in the world of intellect--which even in those days and in
those troublous times found its pivot in Paris--as the seal to
an artistic career.
Clever men, distinguished men, and even men of
exalted station formed a perpetual and brilliant court round the
fascinating young actress of the Comedie Francaise, and she glided
through republican, revolutionary, bloodthirsty Paris like a shining
comet with a trail behind her of all that was most distinguished,
most interesting, in intellectual Europe.
Then the climax came. Some smiled indulgently
and called it an artistic eccentricity, others looked upon it
as a wise provision, in view of the many events which were crowding
thick and fast in Paris just then, but to all, the real motive
of that climax remained a puzzle and a mystery. Anyway, Marguerite
St. Just married Sir Percy Blakeney one fine day, just like that,
without any warning to her friends, without a soiree de contrat
or diner de fiancailles or other appurtenances of a fashionable
How that stupid, dull Englishman ever came to
be admitted within the intellectual circle which revolved round
"the cleverest woman in Europe," as her friends unanimously called
her, no one ventured to guess--golden key is said to open every
door, asserted the more malignantly inclined.
Enough, she married him, and "the cleverest woman
in Europe" had linked her fate to that "demmed idiot" Blakeney,
and not even her most intimate friends could assign to this strange
step any other motive than that of supreme eccentricity. Those
friends who knew, laughed to scorn the idea that Marguerite St.
Just had married a fool for the sake of the worldly advantages
with which he might endow her. They knew, as a matter of fact,
that Marguerite St. Just cared nothing about money, and still
less about a title; moreover, there were at least half a dozen
other men in the cosmopolitan world equally well-born, if not
so wealthy as Blakeney, who would have been only too happy to
give Marguerite St. Just any position she might choose to covet.
As for Sir Percy himself, he was universally
voted to be totally unqualified for the onerous post he had taken
upon himself. His chief qualifications for it seemed to consist
in his blind adoration for her, his great wealth and the high
favour in which he stood at the English court; but London society
thought that, taking into consideration his own intellectual limitations,
it would have been wiser on his part had he bestowed those worldly
advantages upon a less brilliant and witty wife.
Although lately he had been so prominent a figure
in fashionable English society, he had spent most of his early
life abroad. His father, the late Sir Algernon Blakeney, had had
the terrible misfortune of seeing an idolized young wife become
hopelessly insane after two years of happy married life. Percy
had just been born when the late Lady Blakeney fell prey to the
terrible malady which in those days was looked upon as hopelessly
incurable and nothing short of a curse of God upon the entire
family. Sir Algernon took his afflicted young wife abroad, and
there presumably Percy was educated, and grew up between an imbecile
mother and a distracted father, until he attained his majority.
The death of his parents following close upon one another left
him a free man, and as Sir Algernon had led a forcibly simple
and retired life, the large Blakeney fortune had increased tenfold.
Sir Percy Blakeney had travelled a great deal
abroad, before he brought home his beautiful, young, French wife.
The fashionable circles of the time were ready to receive them
both with open arms; Sir Percy was rich, his wife was accomplished,
the Prince of Wales took a very great liking to them both. Within
six months they were the acknowledged leaders of fashion and of
style. Sir Percy's coats were the talk of the town, his inanities
were quoted, his foolish laugh copied by the gilded youth at Almack's
or the Mall. Everyone knew that he was hopelessly stupid, but
then that was scarcely to be wondered at, seeing that all the
Blakeneys for generations had been notoriously dull, and that
his mother died an imbecile.
Thus society accepted him, petted him, made much
of him, since his horses were the finest in the country, his fetes
and wines the most sought after. As for his marriage with "the
cleverest woman in Europe," well! the inevitable came with sure
and rapid footsteps. No one pitied him, since his fate was of
his own making. There were plenty of young ladies in England,
of high birth and good looks, who would have been quite willing
to help him to spend the Blakeney fortune, whilst smiling indulgently
at his inanities and his good-humoured foolishness. Moreover,
Sir Percy got no pity, because he seemed to require none--he seemed
very proud of his clever wife, and to care little that she took
no pains to disguise that good-natured contempt which she evidently
felt for him, and that she even amused herself by sharpening her
ready wits at his expense.
But then Blakeney was really too stupid to notice
the ridicule with which his wife covered him, and if his matrimonial
relations with the fascinating Parisienne had not turned out all
that his hopes and his dog-like devotion for her had pictured,
society could never do more than vaguely guess at it.
In his beautiful house at Richmond he played
second fiddle to his clever wife with imperturbable bonhomie;
he lavished jewels and luxuries of all kinds upon her, which she
took with inimitable grace, dispensing the hospitality of his
superb mansion with the same graciousness with which she had welcomed
the intellectual coterie of Paris.
Physically, Sir Percy Blakeney was undeniably
handsome--always excepting the lazy, bored look which was habitual
to him. He was always irreproachable dressed, and wore the exaggerated
"Incroyable" fashions, which had just crept across from Paris
to England, with the perfect good taste innate in an English gentleman.
On this special afternoon in September, in spite of the long journey
by coach, in spite of rain and mud, his coat set irreproachably
across his fine shoulders, his hands looked almost femininely
white, as they emerged through billowy frills of finest Mechline
lace: the extravagantly short-waisted satin coat, wide-lapelled
waistcoat, and tight-fitting striped breeches, set off his massive
figure to perfection, and in repose one might have admired so
fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the
affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one's admiration
of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.
He had lolled into the old-fashioned inn parlour,
shaking the wet off his fine overcoat; then putting up a gold-rimmed
eye-glass to his lazy blue eye, he surveyed the company, upon
whom an embarrassed silence had suddenly fallen.
"How do, Tony? How do, Ffoulkes?" he said, recognizing
the two young men and shaking them by the hand. "Zounds, my dear
fellow," he added, smothering a slight yawn, "did you ever see
such a beastly day? Demmed climate this."
With a quaint little laugh, half of embarrassment
and half of sarcasm, Marguerite had turned towards her husband,
and was surveying him from head to foot, with an amused little
twinkle in her merry blue eyes.
"La!" said Sir Percy, after a moment or two's
silence, as no one offered any comment, "how sheepish you all
look. . .What's up?"
"Oh, nothing, Sir Percy," replied Marguerite,
with a certain amount of gaiety, which, however, sounded somewhat
forced, "nothing to disturb your equanimity--only an insult to
The laugh which accompanied this remark was evidently
intended to reassure Sir Percy as to the gravity of the incident.
It apparently succeeded in that, for echoing the laugh, he rejoined
"La, m'dear! you don't say so. Begad! who was
the bold man who dared to tackle you--eh?"
Lord Tony tried to interpose, but had no time
to do so, for the young Vicomte had already quickly stepped forward.
"Monsieur," he said, prefixing his little speech
with an elaborate bow, and speaking in broken English, "my mother,
the Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive, has offenced Madame, who,
I see, is your wife. I cannot ask your pardon for my mother; what
she does is right in my eyes. But I am ready to offer you the
usual reparation between men of honour."
The young man drew up his slim stature to its
full height and looked very enthusiastic, very proud, and very
hot as he gazed at six foot odd of gorgeousness, as represented
by Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart.
"Lud, Sir Andrew," said Marguerite, with one
of her merry infectious laughs, "look on that pretty picture--the
English turkey and the French bantam."
The simile was quite perfect, and the English
turkey looked down with complete bewilderment upon the dainty
little French bantam, which hovered quite threateningly around
"La! sir," said Sir Percy at last, putting up
his eye glass and surveying the young Frenchman with undisguised
wonderment, "where, in the cuckoo's name, did you learn to speak
"Monsieur!" protested the Vicomte, somewhat abashed
at the way his warlike attitude had been taken by the ponderous-looking
"I protest `tis marvellous!" continued Sir Percy,
imperturbably, "demmed marvellous! Don't you think so, Tony--eh?
I vow I can't speak the French lingo like that. What?"
"Nay, I'll vouch for that!" rejoined Marguerite,
"Sir Percy has a British accent you could cut with a knife."
"Monsieur," interposed the Vicomte earnestly,
and in still more broken English, "I fear you have not understand.
I offer you the only posseeble reparation among gentlemen."
"What the devil is that?" asked Sir Percy, blandly.
"My sword, Monsieur," replied the Vicomte, who,
though still bewildered, was beginning to lose his temper.
"You are a sportsman, Lord Tony," said Marguerite,
merrily; "ten to one on the little bantam."
But Sir Percy was staring sleepily at the Vicomte
for a moment or two, through his partly closed heavy lids, then
he smothered another yawn, stretched his long limbs, and turned
"Lud love you, sir," he muttered good-humouredly.
"demmit, young man, what's the good of your sword to me?"
What the Vicomte thought and felt at that moment,
when that long-limbed Englishman treated him with such marked
insolence, might fill volumes of sound reflections. . . . What
he said resolved itself into a single articulate word, for all
the others were choked in his throat by his surging wrath--
"A duel, Monsieur," he stammered.
Once more Blakeney turned, and from his high
altitude looked down on the choleric little man before him; but
not even for a second did he seem to lose his own imperturbable
good-humour. He laughed his own pleasant and inane laugh, and
burying his slender, long hands into the capacious pockets of
his overcoat, he said leisurely--a bloodthirsty young ruffian,
Do you want to make a hole in a law-abiding man?. . .As for me,
sir, I never fight duels," he added, as he placidly sat down and
stretched his long, lazy legs out before him. "Demmed uncomfortable
things, duels, ain't they, Tony?"
Now the Vicomte had no doubt vaguely heard that
in England the fashion of duelling amongst gentlemen had been
surpressed by the law with a very stern hand; still to him, a
Frenchman, whose notions of bravery and honour were based upon
a code that had centuries of tradition to back it, the spectacle
of a gentleman actually refusing to fight a duel was a little
short of an enormity. In his mind he vaguely pondered whether
he should strike that long-legged Englishman in the face and call
him a coward, or whether such conduct in a lady's presence might
be deemed ungentlemanly, when Marguerite happily interposed.
"I pray you, Lord Tony," she said in that gentle,
sweet, musical voice of hers, "I pray you play the peacemaker.
The child is bursting with rage, and," she added with a soupcon
of dry sarcasm, "might do Sir Percy an injury." She laughed a
mocking little laugh, which, however, did not in the least disturb
her husband's placid equanimity. "The British turkey has had the
day," she said. "Sir Percy would provoke all the saints in the
calendar and keep his temper the while."
But already Blakeney, good-humoured as ever,
had joined in the laugh against himself.
"Demmed smart that now, wasn't it?" he said,
turning pleasantly to the Vicomte. "Clever woman my wife, sir.
. . . You will find that out if you live long enough in
"Sir Percy is right, Vicomte," here interposed
Lord Antony, laying a friendly hand on the young Frenchman's shoulder.
"It would hardly be fitting that you should commence your career
in England by provoking him to a duel."
For a moment longer the Vicomte hesitated, then
with a slight shrug of the shoulders directed against the extraordinary
code of honour prevailing in this fog-ridden island, he said with
"Ah, well! if Monsieur is satisfied, I have no
griefs. You mi'lor', are our protector. If I have done wrong,
I withdraw myself."
"Aye, do!" rejoined Blakeney, with a long sigh
of satisfaction, "withdraw yourself over there. Demmed excitable
little puppy," he added under his breath, "Faith, Ffoulkes, if
that's a specimen of the goods you and your friends bring over
from France, my advice to you is, drop `em `mid Channel, my friend,
or I shall have to see old Pitt about it, get him to clap on a
prohibitive tariff, and put you in the stocks an you smuggle."
"La, Sir Percy, your chivalry misguides you,"
said Marguerite, coquettishly, "you forget that you yourself have
imported one bundle of goods from France."
Blakeney slowly rose to his feet, and, making
a deep and elaborate bow before his wife, he said with consummate
"I had the pick of the market, Madame, and my
taste is unerring."
"More so than your chivalry, I fear," she retorted
"Odd's life, m'dear! be reasonable! Do you think
I am going to allow my body to be made a pincushion of, by every
little frog-eater who don't like the shape of your nose?"
"Lud, Sir Percy!" laughed Lady Blakeney as she
bobbed him a quaint and pretty curtsey, "you need not be afraid!
`Tis not the men who dislike the shape of my nose."
"Afraid be demmed! Do you impugn my bravery,
Madame? I don't patronise the ring for nothing, do I, Tony? I've
put up the fists with Red Sam before now, and--and he didn't get
it all his own way either--"
"S'faith, Sir Percy," said Marguerite, with a
long and merry laugh, that went enchoing along the old oak rafters
of the parlour, "I would I had seen you then. . .ha! ha! ha! ha!--you
must have looked a pretty picture. . . .and. . .and to be afraid
of a little French boy. . .ha! ha!. . .ha! ha!"
"Ha! ha! ha! he! he! he!" echoed Sir Percy, good-humouredly.
"La, Madame, you honour me! Zooks! Ffoulkes, mark ye that! I have
made my wife laugh!--The cleverest woman in Europe!. . .Odd's
fish, we must have a bowl on that!" and he tapped vigorously on
the table near him. "Hey! Jelly! Quick, man! Here, Jelly!"
Harmony was once more restored. Mr. Jellyband,
with a mighty effort, recovered himself from the many emotions
he had experienced within the last half hour. "A bowl of punch,
Jelly, hot and strong, eh?" said Sir Percy. "The wits that have
just made a clever woman laugh must be whetted! Ha! ha! ha! Hasten,
my good Jelly!"
"Nay, there is no time, Sir Percy," interposed
Marguerite. "The skipper will be here directly and my brother
must get on board, or the Day Dream will miss the tide."
"Time, m'dear? There is plenty of time for any
gentleman to get drunk and get on board before the turn of the
"I think, your ladyship," said Jellyband, respectfully,
"that the young gentleman is coming along now with Sir Percy's
"That's right," said Blakeney, "then Armand can
join us in the merry bowl. Think you, Tony," he added, turning
towards the Vicomte, "that the jackanapes of yours will join us
in a glass? Tell him that we drink in token of reconciliation."
"In fact you are all such merry company," said
Marguerite, "that I trust you will forgive me if I bid my brother
good-bye in another room."
It would have been bad form to protest. Both
Lord Antony and Sir Andrew felt that Lady Blakeney could not altogether
be in tune with them at the moment. Her love for her brother,
Armand St. Just, was deep and touching in the extreme. He had
just spent a few weeks with her in her English home, and was going
back to serve his country, at the moment when death was the usual
reward for the most enduring devotion.
Sir Percy also made no attempt to detain his
wife. With that perfect, somewhat affected gallantry which characterised
his every movement, he opened the coffee-room door for her, and
made her the most approved and elaborate bow, which the fashion
of the time dictated, as she sailed out of the room without bestowing
on him more than a passing, slightly contemptuous glance. Only
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, whose every thought since he had met Suzanne
de Tournay seemed keener, more gentle, more innately sympathetic,
noted the curious look of intense longing, of deep and hopeless
passion, with which the inane and flippant Sir Percy followed
the retreating figure of his brilliant wife.
to Chapter 7 -- THE SECRET ORCHARD
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