“Curse it, Percy, we need her!” Lord Edward Hastings pounded his fist against the desk. “Bounders rise above personal squabbles to accomplish their purpose. Now, is she a bounder, or not?”
Lord Blakeney gave him a chilling glance from beneath lids that were no longer lazy, and said quietly, “Armand has suggested that he—or another of our number—disguise himself in order to make contact with the Abbess and warn her of their danger. I—”
“—would not be able to do it.” Galveston put in. “You may get away with being a disgusting old hag driving a cart, Percy, but none of us is going to fool a group of women. Not even Armand.”
Marguerite rose from the armchair underneath the bay window of the study, drawing all eyes to her where she stood in the early morning light, and silencing the debate. “I will bet a small fortune that none of you could disguise himself well enough to gain admission into the abbey. Either I enter, disguised as the novitiate, or we take only the refugees and leave the sisters to their fate,” she said calmly. “Any other plan would prove impossible.”
“Not impossible, my dear, just very difficult,” Percy spoke up.
Marguerite cocked an eyebrow at him. “Demmed difficult,” she quipped. “Do things the way that will prove smoothest for once, Sir Percy.”
The bounders ceased all movement; the room fell even more silent.
“If you go,” he said, “If you go, what guarantee have we that Mlle. de St. Cyr won’t hold you until the soldiers come—there is bad blood between you—trusting your capture to buy her freedom?”
She sighed. “Armand’s confidence. My ingenuity. Give me some credit, Sir!”
He looked at her with pleading eyes for a moment, could not say what he wanted to in so public a setting. She held firm. He sighed, bowed his head in defeat.
“We have our plan, then. Glynde, Dewhurst, Hastings, you are with me. Ffoulkes?” His order changed to a question.
Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, lieutenant and best friend of the Scarlet Pimpernel, stepped forward. In the past few months, he had been to France with increasing infrequency. He hated to leave his new wife worrying, but this time… “I’m with you, Percy.”
“Good man.” Blakeney’s face broke into its usual confident grin.
“Percy!” Armand spoke up, from the back of the room.
“I know you want to come along, Armand, but I would prefer not to play right to Chauvelin, if this is a trap.”
The young man’s face wore that deadly solemn look which meant he was planning to be particularly stubborn on a certain point. “If my sister goes, I go with her,” he swore.
A pause. “Fine, then,” Percy returned, unable to deny his brother-in-law the ability to act on the same impulses he felt. “I will see the lot of you in Dover.”
They had been travelling over land for three exhausting days, the journey made longer and more difficult by the mountainous terrain, when they at last caught sight of the abbey of the Sisters of Saint Scholastica. Sir Philip Glynde was driving; he called a halt, and they all got out for a quick supper. “Eat when you can, my dear,” Percy said gaily, imparting sage advice as if this entire adventure were a gigantic joke he played on France. “You never know but that it might be your last meal for a good bit.”
Despite the chill of the October afternoon, the whole company wanted out of the carriage. Lady Blakeney spread a blanket in the shade of a pine tree, a bit away from the crowd. Sir Percy went to work out some last minute details with Sir Andrew. As Marguerite peeked impatiently around the tree for the twenty-seventh time, she beheld him walking steadily towards her, dressed in the ragged finery which would serve as his costume for this caper, sandwiches in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. “La, but rescuing this prize from those ruffians,” he laughed, tossing her the wine, “was a feat accomplished only through the inspiration of your Ladyship’s imagined gratitude.”
She shook her head at him, laughing, and fished glasses from her basket where it sat against the tree. Percy leaned over her, kissing her on the cheek sweetly and retrieving from the basket—of all things—her hairbrush. Then his arm wrapped around her waist, and he pulled her to him.
Marguerite shrieked, “I’ll spill your prize!” but he merely delivered another soft kiss to her neck, and searched for the pins which would let her hair fall heavily down her back.
Depositing the sandwiches, too, on his wife’s lap, Percy instructed, “Eat your lunch, my heart, while the master of disguises does his work. That is an order.”
Margot turned a questioning glance over her shoulder as she bit into the deliciously cool sandwich, but her husband merely placed the tips of his fingers on the back of her head, turning her to face away from him as he began brushing her hair smooth.
Marguerite did not recall her husband displaying any skill in hairdressing before that moment, though he’d always loved to run his fingers through her curls. He drew the brush through them gently, exactly as if he were caressing her to sleep, until her head dropped forward drowsily. Then, he bound the whole mass tightly into a braid, and replaced the pins so that it was secure at the nape of her neck.
“Are you awake, darling?” he asked. She offered a sandwich in response, which he took greedily. “Odd’s fish!” he commented, washing it down with a hearty sip of the purloined wine, “put on the habit, and I won’t recognize you myself! Lud, you’re costumed exactly like dear old Shovelin’s female counterpart.”
Marguerite laughed, and smoothed hands down the simple black dress she wore. “You’re dressed a bit shabbily yourself, Sir Percy!” she commented.
“Why yes, my dear, but for all my bedraggledness, would you think me the type to sully a woman of the cloth?”
Her smile turned a bit watery at the thought of their impending separation. Even to be with him this long—bumpy, nausea-inducing carriage and all—was nothing short of heavenly.
Turning suddenly serious, Percy took his wife’s face in both of his hands. “If only you would give me some excuse to avoid sending you in there…If I could say that you weren’t aware of the gravity of the situation…that you couldn’t meet the challenges with sufficiently quick thinking…” He sighed heavily. “But of all the people whose wits I need worry about, you fall very low on the list. You do understand, and you can meet the challenges.”
Marguerite wondered if he felt as much pain as she did, watching him charge off into danger.
He spoke again, somewhat less intensely. “When you arrive, try and talk to the Abbess as soon as possible. Let her know the plans. Persuade her, my dear…Do so preferably before you take any kind of vows,” he grinned.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, earning a questioning look. “Keep this for me. Keep it safe.” With much effort, she worked her wedding band off of her finger and delivered it tenderly into his keeping. She very nearly wept.
Percy watched her for a long moment. “I don’t trust that woman,” he said at last, a sharp note creeping into his voice. “If you—” but he did not finish. He kissed her then, swiftly, a kiss of farewell coupled with a desperate desire to stop time. Marguerite had given that kiss quite a few times, herself. “You must be oh, so careful, my Margot. If anything were to happen…”
It will not, she could have said. She chose a more effective reassurance. Crawling into his lap, she drew his head to her shoulder and stroked his fair hair. The two sat silently, his arms encircling his wife as she leaned into him, for long moments.
“Eat your lunch, darling,” Percy said after some time. Sighing, Marguerite disengaged herself from her husband and grabbed her sandwich from where she had thrown it on the blanket. She watched him sharply until he did the same, and the two finished their meal in contemplative silence.
Marguerite leaned against a pine tree, closing her eyes and attempting to catch her breath. One more rest—she promised herself that this would be her last, and thanked heaven, for the twentieth time, that she did not need a corset under her garment.
She spared a glance at the autumn vista her climb afforded. Further
down the mountainside, the bounders would soon start on the shorter path
to the grottos which harbored aristocratic refugees. Marguerite herself
had spent the last two hours climbing the tortuous path to the abbey proper,
which towered like a fortress, ruling over all it surveyed. The switchback
she had just rounded, as she had hoped, proved the last—just ahead of her
stood an imposing wooden gate. She marked, briefly, that the Republic
had been wise to leave this place alone; it looked near impenetrable.
Snowdrifts piled as high as Marguerite’s head against the gate showed that it had not been used for some time. Glancing quickly around, she noted a small door just to the left of it, with an area swept clean in front.
No time like the present. She let out a last breath and, reminding herself that she was an actress, which meant, for the present, that she was a nun, strode determinedly to the little door.
She knocked. It echoed faintly. She waited. The echoes fell silent, and still no one came.
Marguerite understood that a novitiate would not approach the abbey in the company of men. Nor would she make the trip in a fine carriage, or any kind of coach at all. Nevertheless, she suddenly felt very small and alone in the silence of the mountainside. She raised her fist to knock again, and this time, as the echoes died away, a voice from within responded, “I’m coming, I’m coming! Do have a bit of patience.”
As the door creaked open, Marguerite found herself facing a laughing old woman, who whisked her authoritatively inside, and shut the door with a bang, clucking and commenting all the while about how chilled the Poor Dear must be.
“A new novitiate! Lovely! We so seldom get them, especially these days. And now two within the space of a fortnight! Ah, well. It never rains but it pours! I expect you must be half-frozen, dear. Imagine us, making guests come through the scullery door! Come with me to the kitchen, and we’ll warm you some before giving you the tour. We still have a few hours before vespers, you know! No sense in rushing things!”
Marguerite could only gape in silent astonishment. No sense in rushing things? she wondered wryly. The old woman had delivered this entire diatribe in one breath! All the same, she comforted herself, it’s better than being greeted with suspicion.
Placing her hand on Marguerite’s back, the sister guided her bossily down the long, dim passage which marked the entryway. Margot prudently restrained her amusement—the old woman was bent to nearly half of her own height!
“I’m Sister Anne,” her companion continued, evidently satisfied that her charge was moving in the right direction. “I think mostly they let me watch the door to keep me out of the kitchen, but I can’t complain. It’s quiet work.”
“I’m Marguerite—“ Lady Blakeney introduced herself. “Marguerite Lenoir.” She was not quite sure what to make of this garrulous character, so vastly different from any sister she’d encountered during her education in the convent.
Catching the younger woman’s dazed look, Sister Anne laughed, a surprisingly hearty sound from one who looked so frail. “I see I’ve startled you a bit, Mademoiselle Lenoir. Oh, not all the sisters are like me, but we don’t take a vow of silence, you can count on that. No, our vow to St. Scholastica revolves around the work of study, as I’m sure you know. Listen to me; I’ll explain anything for the chance to talk! But it is rather attractive, for the cloistered life! Speaking of cloistering, I’m afraid we won’t get you in to see the Mother Superior for a few days. She has been quite busy of late.”
A few days? Marguerite grimaced. But Percy wants to leave tomorrow! ‘Persuade her’, he said. How can I persuade her if I can’t even see her?
Sister Anne must have caught the look of dismay on her face, for she continued her monologue, “Don’t worry, though, we’ll see that you become official soon enough! But here I’ve run on and on, and caught not one word from you but your name. And here is the kitchen already!”
It was indeed the kitchen, a warm and bright (if Spartan) area. After introducing Marguerite to the occupants therein, Sister Anne proceeded to take her on a vigorously narrated tour of the whole building, up staircases and down passages, until the poor woman was convinced that she wouldn’t be able to find her way out of a closet in this place.
The tour ended at the chapel, as vespers were being rung. The old
nun pointed her charge in the direction of the other novitiates, then left
to take her own place, as all filed into church.
This was the first Marguerite had seen of the group as a whole, and with a sinking feeling she wondered how her husband planned to smuggle nearly fifty women, who would not allow themselves to come into contact with any non-clergymen, out of the country. She had little time to worry, however, for the next moment she was turning to form a neat line with her fellow “novitiates,” and file into the chapel, herself.
In one of those lucky accidents of fate, Marguerite turned to survey the others just as one of the black-habited figures turned to get a better view of her. Brown eyes met blue in the shock of recognition, shock which in one quickly turned bitter. Then the line moved between them, cutting off eye contact, and Marguerite knew who the other novitiate in the last fortnight had been.
If Angèle was playing nun, too—and she might be sincere in entering the sisterhood, but if— Marguerite had the distinct and sinking feeling that the League had much more to worry about than staying ahead of Chauvelin’s men on a jaunt through the mountains.
And what would Mlle. de St. Cyr do with the knowledge that Marguerite Lenoir was not who she claimed to be?
Her forebodings were relieved before long, though not in the way she would have preferred. The chapel bells had scarcely pealed to let them out of mass when she heard a sharp cry—“Marguerite!” Turning, she acknowledged the speaker, who only continued, “Marguerite St. Just! Why, fancy meeting you here! I never would have thought,” Angèle continued in her loudest voice, “That I would meet the wife of the richest gentleman in England in a nunnery!” By now she had the attention of all. “But then, you always were a consummate actress, weren’t you, Lady Blakeney?…It’s only too bad that this time, you don’t look the part.” And with this, Mlle. de St. Cyr roughly thrust Marguerite’s hand into the air, revealing where, despite her best efforts, the skin around her wedding band had grown slightly but distinctly darker.
On to Chapter 3
We seek him here. We seek him there...