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Twenty-Four Hours


Disclaimer: We all know that I don't own these characters.  They were created by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, although I do so enjoy constructing hellish scenarios for them.  I don't make any money from this, etc., etc, and my therapist says it's healthy. :)


by: Christina

    Eyes shut, I can’t see a thing.  I only regret that my blindness cannot remain complete—a minute, maybe, of peace in the dark, and my mind’s eye forms images of blood and ghosts.  Then come the shouts for retribution, and I am forced into the real world once more.

    The real world.  Did I really think it would go away if I shut my eyes?  How childish, Marguerite; it remains unchanged.

    The scene:  The sun has beat a hasty retreat behind a cloud, taking its rosy light.  Now, the stark afternoon rays penetrate the window of the Blakeneys’ parlor, seeming to light each stick of furniture through to the skeleton.  All outer layers are stripped away; no illusions hold.

    The heroine perches on a chair by the window, a pretty, girlish figure in white muslin and lace.  She stares tragically into the distance, fingers distractedly shredding the edges of the letter she holds…

    Stop it, Marguerite!  You will not go through this like some character in a play!

    If this were a play, I would not be the heroine.

    I unfold the note once more; sure enough, I’ve managed to fray the edges nearly beyond legibility:

                Mademoiselle St. Just,
                    I regretfully inform you that it was beyond my ability to buy the
                 lives of St. Cyr and his family.
                                                                                             Your servant,
                                                                                             Mssr. Henri Crecy

    That is all it says.

    I pick up the other letter, more recently arrived.  Unlike it’s laconic predecessor, the author of this one made a pathetic attempt to sound witty.

                To the cleverest woman in Europe:
                    Three cheers to a brilliant performance!  You may now add to your
                resume (which already includes charming the entire population of
                France) the task of saving your country from Austrian invasion.  The St. Cyr
                heads rolled this morning, and may the same fate befall all of their kind!  In
                striking a blow against your own enemies, you smite the enemies of France
                as well.  Mlle. St. Just, your entire salon hails you with delight now more
                than ever, and hopes…

    I stop reading.  I crumple the letter.  I uncrumple it.  I tear it into a thousand tiny bits, and make sure each one falls inside the grate of the fireplace.  This sycophant has hit just the problem—Mlle. St. Just might be hailed for her actions in bringing the Marquis de St. Cyr and his family to “justice,” but what sort of reception will Lady Blakeney meet?

    Percy.  I will have to tell him, and soon, before he hears it from someone other than myself.  God only knows what sort of reaction that would provoke in the quintessential English aristocrat.

    We’d been married just 24 hours earlier—not even that long—and retired to his Paris home—our Paris home—for the honeymoon.  The ceremony itself has already become a hazy blur of excitement and nerves, but this last day we’ve spent in a dream of the happiest sort—Percy lounging at my feet and laughing lazily as I relate the backstage tales behind the shows he’s seen, Percy sitting beside me at the dinner table rather than across it, feigning outrage when I steal food from his plate, Percy…well, enough.  I am lucky beyond belief that he was not with me when the note arrived.  Just an hour ago he interrupted my own letter-writing to tell me very quietly, very seriously, and with the strangest look on his face that he would be in the garden if I needed to tell him…

    Oh Dieu.  He knows.

    How can I possibly tell him?  I move towards the fire with Crecy’s note, wanting to destroy all evidence, to wash all the blood from my hands.  Out, out, damned spot!

    No—better to keep this note.  I will show it to him, to make him see that I tried, at least.  I tuck it into my kerchief on my way out the door.

    He is sitting at the far end of the garden, my husband.  The large oak tree shadows his face and torso, changing him into some immovable, inscrutable megalith.  The sun has gone for good; a shiver chases through me.

    “My angel,” he greets my approach, and the tone is too carefully neutral, sleepy, unreadable.  “You are cold.  Let me warm you.”  He rises, wraps his arms all the way around me, and my hopes dare to soar.  He will see no wrong in my actions, of course!  How silly of me; he worships me!

    Then he draws back and cups my face in his hands, and in those blue eyes, those good-natured blue eyes, I see nothing but years and years of ice.  He is memorizing me, right now.

    “Don’t,” I whisper.  Don’t keep my memory.  Keep me.

    My timing could not have been worse.  He’s leaning in to kiss me—a goodbye kiss, no doubt—and he freezes.  “Very well.”  He moves back to the bench, sitting rigidly, and there’s no way I can correct the misunderstanding.

    Deliberately, I kneel at his feet, take his hand.  It’s cold.  I am cold.  “Sir Percy, you know…about the Marquis de St. Cyr and his family?”

    He makes no response; he has successfully melded himself with the stone of the bench.

    “You know that I played a role in his implication?”

    “I received word, yes, that Lady Blakeney denounced the Marquis to the tribunal.  I received word that the man, his wife, and the two younger children were guillotined this morning.  La, my dear, what sloppy work!  You missed the eldest daughter!”

    That stings.  With great effort, I manage to compose my face, to keep it from crumpling into tears, but I cannot steady my breathing.  I’ve just given him the satisfaction of seeing his barb hit its mark, and that increases my misery tenfold.  Pride.

    So he is not prepared to hear excuses.  Very well; with the remarks he’s making, I am not prepared to give them.  Just the bare facts at first, then.  I steel myself.  “Yes, I wanted revenge against that man for what he did to Armand.  I overheard a chance remark in my salon, and repeated it in indiscreet company, knowing that it would not be kept quiet.  When the tribunal called me before them, demanding testimony, I gave it.”

    I’ve had to deliver this in a cold, dead voice, for sanity’s sake, yet at some point during my narration, he’s turned to look at me attentively.  “And you thought this malicious act would go unpunished,” he finishes my story.

    Of all the presumptuous…  He doesn’t know what I thought!  Does he really believe that pride would matter more to me than a man’s life?  Haven’t I reached out to him twice, only to be rebuffed?  Let him reach out to me now, to prove his love. “Worse acts of malice have gone unpunished,” I retort.  This is difficult for me, and your coldness, Percy, has yet to be punished.  I need your support to get through this, and you are abandoning me as we speak!

    As I look into his face, his demeanor changes.  He lifts his gaze from me, turns to stare out across the garden, and a lazy, unconcerned air falls over him like a veil.  “Well, your method is very Frenchie, I suppose.  An eye for an eye, what?” he asks boredly.

    I was prepared for him to rage at me, to hate me.  I was not prepared for him to withdraw from me before I had even a chance to explain.  Anger, I could penetrate; apathy, I stand no chance against.  Still, I made a vow, and that compels me to push past my pride once more, to humiliate myself by trying to win him back, when I have little opportunity of doing so.  “Sir Percy, had I known what it would lead to, I would never have said a word.  Yes, I wanted balm for my pride, but not this!  I tried—I tried with every resource—”

    It is too late for explanations.  “What makes you think,” he cuts me off with a yawn, “That your little intrigues hold such an interest for one as notoriously slow-witted as myself, Lady Blakeney?”  The comment drips with the intonations of the bored effete, but he pronounces my title with icy deliberacy.

    Contempt.  From him!  Contempt from the one who should have believed in me before I gave an explanation, who should have stood by me in my guilt.  How dare he shut me out, side with those strangers, without even listening to me?

    When one is cut deeply enough, the wound does not bleed.  It does not even hurt for long minutes.  I feel no more need to cry, only a rage so thick it makes me dizzy.  Fury is a natural defense against pain, after all.  I draw myself up as straight as possible, but he stands, slumps easily against the tree, and still towers above me.  “Of course you need not trouble yourself with my affairs,” I tell him frostily.  “What concern is it of yours if I choose to send the blade crashing myself?  ‘A la lanterne les aristos,’ and all that.”  I force a mocking little laugh, and it comes out so much crueler than I meant it that I loathe myself.  “You claim to understand my motives?  You dare to play my judge, jury, and executioner, as if you belonged on that tribunal yourself?”  I can feel the color in my cheeks, the mad gleam in my face, my utter recklessness, and I wonder, irrationally, if he finds me attractive just now.  “Sir Percy, you are privileged that I let you hold on to the hem of my skirts.  That is somewhat more than I would allow most lapdogs.”

    I’m prepared to feel like the most heartless woman on earth, but his relaxed pose doesn’t stiffen in the least.  He would’ve taken more offense, I think, if I’d insulted the cut of his waistcoat.  “Sink me!  Is that what you think of me?  Then by all means, m’dear, go find yourself another fool to dance attendance on you.  I will find myself another pretty, common little wench, for I will not play your Macbeth.”

    I stare at him a moment, unable to force out a single word, until my vision clouds over with fury and humiliation, and I find myself somehow slumped against the door to the house, hanging onto the handle.

    My boudoir.  I can’t find my traveling bag.  It’s nowhere!  Fury and panic, panic and rage…I sag against the vanity, and my hand knocks over the small dressing mirror which perches upon it.  I mustn’t leave anything out of place, must make everything neat and pretty…  The mirror is smooth and cold under my hand; everything around me is smooth and cold and refuses to reflect my temper.  I’ll be damned if I won’t make a mess!

    The release of energy from throwing it is not enough, is nowhere near enough.  It bounces harmlessly off the rug and comes to rest next to the hearth, frustrating me once again.  Will nothing in this house break?!

    I smash it against the hearth, sighing with satisfaction as the glass cuts into my palm.  There’s something broken, at last.  I feel ridiculously better, and the traveling bag is in the wardrobe, of course.

    A change of clothing.  My hairbrush.  The mirror—no, not that, you simpleton!  A chemise.  My purse.  My purse.  What else?  Mon Dieu, this isn’t anger, this is panic!  I cannot see Percy again, of course, but he mustn’t leave.  If he leaves before I do, with no idea where I’ve gone, then regrets his words, he will have no way to contact me.  I’ll be alone.  I can barely see in the growing darkness, and I don’t want to be alone.  I don’t want him to leave.

    I scribble a note to let him know I’ve gone to find Armand’s lodgings for the night—I may be back tomorrow.  After all, I said some unforgivable things, and I owe him at least the hope that I will return.  Assuming he wants to see me ever again.

    I’ve got to leave before I go all to pieces!

*~

    The streets are crowded with people going home.  The carriage drops me off at Armand’s rooms, and leaves.  The second—the very second—that it pulls away, I remember.  Armand is not here; now that I have left, he’s taken rooms closer to the Palace of Justice (so that he can sleep later before going in to work in the mornings, no doubt).  The address of those rooms rests upon the vanity of the house I’ve just left, with half of a spilled ink pot on top of it.

    I could go to the café around the corner and think of what to do next.

    The lamp lighters are almost done with their task on this street.  I don’t want to go to the café; I want to find a cold street to wander, the darkest one possible.  Oh Dieu, oh Dieu, what a mess!

    “Lady Blakeney…Lady Blakeney…”  The words have no meaning for me.

    “Marguerite!”  I jump at the hand on my shoulder.

    “Sir Andrew!”

    Thank you, God; I will never doubt you again.

    He takes my bag from me, I think.  I don’t recall handing it over so much as letting it slip from my grasp.  Then, frowning, he sets the bag down and takes my hand into his for inspection.  “You are bleeding!”  The frown deepens as he scrutinizes my face.  I must look a fright…I feel a fright.  “Milady, are you well?”

    I shake my head emphatically.  “Armand’s lodgings.  I’ve lost the address…”

    He takes my arm, lifts my bag again.  “Let me take you home to—”

    “Take me to Armand!”  I hadn’t meant it to come out so loudly, or so hysterically.

    He stares at me for another moment.  “Very well.  I think I have the address with me.  I was out—” he clears his throat, “—trying to look up an old friend tonight, but he can wait.”

    He hails a carriage, and I feel strangely worse than before to be on my way once more.  When a wound like this starts to hurt, it occupies your whole mind, until you can’t think of anything but crawling out of your own skin to get away from it.

*~

    After I leave Marguerite with Armand—she’d gone completely hysterical at the sight of him, still refusing to explain anything, and he’d actually had the woman of the house go looking for laudanum—I make the short drive to Blakeney’s house so quickly that I feel sorry for the horses.

    I find him sitting in the garden, in the dark.  Had he been in his study, cheerily looking after the accounts, my estimation of him would have fallen, but this…I had hoped for better than this.

    “Percy?”

    He stares at his hands, and responds in a perfectly conversational tone.  “Andrew!  Did you set up plans with Mssr. de Mercoeur, then?”

    “Yes.  I took care of that.”

    “Excellent, excellent.”

    He continues to sit in abject misery, and it becomes apparent that, if I entertain any hopes of helping him, I must be the one to speak first.  “I encountered Lady Blakeney on my way back.”

    “Did you?” he asks quietly.

    The difficulty with Percy is that he’s so magnificent at playing parts that one never knows what he feels, only what he says.  I muster my most inoffensive voice.  “You asked her about St. Cyr, I take it?”

    “She came to me.”

    “And?”

    “It was bad.  Very bad.  I called her a common wench and told her to leave.”

    He winces as I suck in a quick breath.  “You did what?”

    He half-laughs and looks up at me, the lights from the house reflecting weirdly off of his eyes.  This is not the face of my friend; this face is nearly mad with a grief he has no idea how to handle.  “You should have seen her, Andrew.  It was a bloody remarkable performance.  One moment she’s kneeling at my feet, conciliatory and loving.  The next, she’s leapt up, telling me I’m lucky to occupy a position higher than her lapdog, and laughing at me.  So now I know what she really thinks.”  His head drops back down—the proud leader, the straight-backed Baronet Blakeney, slumped over a bench.

    A remarkable performance, indeed.  I ache for both of them, not wanting to imagine the words exchanged between two such proud people.  “She did not look so mocking when I saw her, Percy.”

    “Irritated, then?”

    “When I left her with Armand—and she had left here without the address to his lodgings, by the way—she went into hysterics.  She wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened.  I think they drugged her to calm her down.”

    He looks up anxiously.  “She is ill?”  Then a deeper anguish fills his eyes once more, attempting to drive away the look of concern.  “Andrew, she’s a spy!”

    I can’t let him continue with this self-torture.  I saw, in the church yesterday, the chance at happiness that these two held.  “Are you sure?”

    “She did not explain herself.  She murdered a man, his wife, and their children.  ‘Spy’ is the nicest word that comes to mind.  My Margot…”  He drops his head into his hands and sits for a moment.  I’m intruding, but I don’t think it’s safe to leave him just now.

    A few moments later he sits up, and all traces of that grief have been buried away.  This ability of his to put on a mask—if I didn’t know the real Percy, trust him implicitly through all the disguises, it would frighten me.  “All the better,” he remarks in an empty, careless voice.  “Who would expect the Scarlet Pimpernel to be married to a French spy?”

    I am watching my best friend martyr himself.  I am watching him sentence himself to a long, slow, painful death.  “Percy, what you propose would kill any man.  Can you keep up the act even in front of her?”

    “I have no choice, do I?” he asks with a bitter laugh.  “As of today, she has guillotined that other personality she knew, God forgive me.”

    He’s being honest now, painfully honest, and I can almost hear the unspoken thought—Marguerite, forgive me.


"Where, where, where is my storybook ending?"