It happened rather quickly. Marguerite found herself at the center of a void of silence, and a circle of questioning eyes. Moments later, two of the older nuns had whisked her down a hallway as if she brought some kind of contamination. Marguerite stepped briskly to keep up with these women. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, even though she now stood a head taller than either of them, she was actually little more than an eight-year-old, being called onto the carpet in front of the Mother Superior for some heinous prank.
Then, up and up and up they climbed, into what must have been the tallest tower in the edifice. The sisters paused outside of a grand oak door, and, with scathing looks and strict instructions to “Wait here,” they disappeared inside, leaving Marguerite in the foyer with her thoughts.
Her first thought ran something along the lines of: Why that little, sneaking, bold piece of… She caught herself halfway through it with the admonition to be fair; Angèle’s denouncement of Marguerite had been nothing compared to Marguerite’s denouncement of the girl’s father.
Well, she’d never intended to play the novitiate for long, anyway. She’d simply hoped that she could reveal herself in a slightly more constructive way.
The sisters emerged, said shortly, “The Abbess will see you, now,” and escorted Marguerite none too gently into her fate. This was the woman Percy had told her to seek out, then; she owed Angèle a favor for inadvertently arranging such a meeting.
But I’m not ready to speak with her, yet! Mon Dieu, they intend to call me up before the Inquisition! I can’t persuade her like this! Margot thought wildly. She forced down her panic, recalling words spoken long ago to her younger self—“No excuses, Mlle. St. Just. You are an actress; if you cannot manage, act like you can.”
“Yes?” called an imperious voice from within the bowels of the office. Bracing herself, head held high, Marguerite strode into the inner room.
The walls were covered, floor to ceiling, in books. They were the first things which struck her upon entering—rows and rows of books, with the lamplight gleaming off of gold lettering. The woman who hunched over papers at the huge oak desk stood then, walking over to Marguerite and shaking her hand firmly. “Mademoiselle,” she acknowledged. “Or should I say, Madame?” She stood taller than Lady Blakeney, even; behind spectacles, her clouded blue eyes held a world of practicality. Marguerite breathed a sigh of relief at finding this woman here, rather than a doppelganger of the two who had led her to the interview.
“It is Madame, Mother,” she admitted. “And I do apologize for coming into your presence and your abode in such a way, but—I had to see you!” she stated with conviction.
The Abbess’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “We are not so strict as you think, Madame—”
“Lenoir will do for now. You will understand why in a moment, I hope.”
“Very well, then,” the imposing woman cut off Marguerite’s attempts at further speech. “We are not so strict as you think. Ours is an order of scholars, not penitents. We live a very isolated life to start with, as you might imagine.” She glanced sadly towards the window. “When news began to reach us of the events in France—we were an open convent then; we had the occasional traveler to Spain come by with news—I felt that no human being who had dedicated her life to God could isolate herself while her countrymen were slaughtered.” Another smile, self-mocking. “And I, myself, come from a noble family. We opened our doors to those needing sanctuary, as the church has always done. Obviously, though, we could not have every noble living among us. Understand, Madame, that many of the sisters are still quite young, and I must avoid placing them in a compromising position, at all costs.”
“We closed our doors. We opened the grotto, provided food and fuel and blankets, but we closed the doors between the abbey and the grotto, and locked them from the inside.”
Again, Marguerite merely nodded, but she took careful note of what she was being told. Her mind already worked at the idea of those locked doors between Percy and herself—she would have to speak with him soon—
“So, Madame Lenoir,” the Abbess concluded, “your presence is not quite the contaminant some of the more conservative sisters might have lead you to believe it, but I would appreciate it if you refrained from passing yourself off as something you are not.” Her eyebrows raised teasingly at this last remark, and Marguerite felt herself turning scarlet. “Now, child, what was so important that it caused you to don a disguise and climb a mountain to explain to me?”
Given the opening at last, the story came pouring out in Marguerite’s usual impassioned language. “Mother, you are not safe here! Most of the other Holy Orders have been disbanded already, their members sent to the guillotine, or left to rot in prison. A man—one of Robespierre’s most trusted and twisted lackeys—by the name of Chauvelin even now leads a troop of armed guards to this place. You and the others can expect no mercy!”
The Abbess merely looked at her mildly. “We know that.”
Marguerite pause for a moment. “—Then you must flee!”
“And have you, young one, come with a plan to lead us from danger?”
“Well—yes. My husband—yes, this is the crux of it—you may have heard of. France and England call him the Scarlet Pimpernel.” Now, she had the older woman’s full attention. “He and his men will lead you to his yacht, which waits to take us all to safety.”
The Abbess had turned to face the window again, and gaze out onto the inky dark of the mountains. She seemed not to heed her companion. Marguerite, in frustration, cried, “Please, Mother, we have no time to lose!”
“There are fourty-three of us here,” the woman said softly, conversationally. “Fourty-three women, most of whom have not been outside of these walls in years. Just how do you propose to sail that many, plus your refugees, plus yourselves, to England?”
Marguerite had fretted over that conundrum quite a bit herself, but she replied with perfect confidence. “My husband is a genius. He will have a plan.”
The Abbess turned, fixing an intense gaze upon her radiant companion. “You and I are so different,” she mused, after a moment of examination. “And yet, I think we have a certain strength in common.” Marguerite remained silent. “Let me tell you one more story, if you have the patience, Madame. Our order was founded by St. Scholastica. We are among the oldest of the holy orders, and although the saint did not found this monastery herself, we too have our grotto of miracles. I am currently allowing that grotto—those grottos, more correctly—to suffer indignity in the name of human kindness. I will not—will not—allow them to be violated by murdering savages. The other sisters would not have taken vows if they did not feel the same way.”
“But they’ll kill you!” exclaimed Marguerite. “They’ll kill you and pillage it all, anyway! All those lovely books will be burned, all the sisters—dear God, let me not imagine it!”
“That is quite enough!” snapped the Mother Superior. “We may not be able to stop them, but we will not desert our posts. You may stay in the abbey as our guest until such time as you wish to leave; I have no objections. We, however, will stay.”
Marguerite clenched her hand in the folds of her dress in frustration. She opened her mouth to try once more.
“This interview is concluded. I am honored to have met you, Madame.”
“But you must—”
“Now, I believe the young lady who will escort you to your room has arrived by now.” She rang a bell, and the door opened and closed with a bang, as yet another annoyed party strode into the room. “Mlle. de St. Cyr, would you show Madame Lenoir—”
“St. Ju—” began Angèle, the newest addition to the conversation.
“—Lenoir,” emphasized the Abbess, “to an extra room. She will be staying with us as long as she wishes. Goodnight, ladies.”
Angèle fixed an imperious gaze on Marguerite and, without a word, turned and walked briskly from the room. Marguerite, also seething, followed.
She’d wondered at first if Angèle meant to lead her down some deep, dark passage, push her out a back door and down the mountain, and leave her for dead. Evidently, though, the girl’s intentions were honorable, for the door she opened was just off the main hall, near the chapel, and led to a sparse, but clean, room. Above petty murder, then—but was she above betraying her companions to the guillotine, or would she consider that only fair to repay a St. Just?
Marguerite leaned into the doorway to survey her room.
“I trust you find it to your satisfaction.” Spoken mechanically, they were the first words Angèle had actually addressed to her during the walk. Without waiting for an answer, the girl turned on her heel to stride away.
“Marquise!” Marguerite called anxiously.
Angèle whirled on her, and the hatred which had momentarily dulled blazed into life on her face more clearly than ever. “What can you possibly have to say to me, Lady Blakeney?” she asked viciously.
Truthfully, Margot had no idea why she had called out. She was a little hesitant to be left alone in this cold stone place at night, but that had not made her reach past her pride to the girl. She simply felt that something needed to be said—not a reparation, never that, but something…And she saw in this girl’s vengeful anger a danger familiar to her from a time not very far in the past. So, Marguerite steeled herself and spoke. “Nothing. Whatever I say to you would prove meaningless.”
The girl snorted derisively. “This is true.”
Marguerite forged on. “I only hope that someday you will be able to forgive—if not for my sake, as I do not deserve your forgiveness, then for your own.” Clearly, the words had no effect. “Please, Angèle—look at what I did out of vengeance. Do not do the same!”
Angèle seemed to speculate as to what those words meant. When finally she spoke, it was to say casually, “I thought your brother was a sweet boy.”
Marguerite almost cried out, so surprised was she at the rather civil statement.
“I did not care for him, but I did not approve of what Papa had done.” She turned her eyes on her companion once more, brought back to the present, and what Marguerite saw there horrified her. “I once thought he was sweet. What you did, Lady, you did out of petty vengeance for a baby brother’s hurt pride. You have no idea what danger is,” Angèle spat. “You have no idea what it’s like to sin to buy back a brother’s life.” Her face was pale and red; she had worked herself into a rage. “I thank you, so very much, for your sage advice, but no! If I could sell my soul to bring back the lives of my family, I would do so. Without a second thought, I would do so! Your comfort, citoyenne, means very little to me in comparison.”
And without a moment’s pause to explain her cryptic comments, Angèle turned and walked briskly down the corridor.
Marguerite did not move as the younger girl walked away. The sound of footsteps faded around a bend in the corridor, and still she stood like a statue. Once everything around her had fallen silent, she walked carefully into her room, shut the door behind her without a noise, and leaned against it, eyes shut tightly. Angèle’s words had cut, deeper than she’d known it was possible to wound. She was not entirely sure she dared breathe.
The high, thin keening noise that forced itself past the lump in her throat surprised her with its eeriness. It turned quickly into whispered pleas, then full-blown sobs. “Please Dieu, I did not know! I did not mean to kill, only wound a little. I take it back; only forgive, forgive…”
After a long time, she fell into an exhausted, fitful sleep against the cold stone of the floor.
On to Chapter 5
"But it was difficult to pin one's attention down to the adventures of Master Tom Jones when one's mind was fully engrossed with those of Sir Percy Blakeney..."