To be an actress, emotions had to be put to one side. Even if your heart breaks, you must still smile and play the part. Even if your world shatters, you must still walk as if you have not a care. Even if your eyes burn to weep, you must laugh.
The guillotine blade severed what hopes I had of salvation by the Scarlet Pimpernel, by Percy, by my husband.
There was little blood, but that would not save him now.
Chauvelin's grip on my arm was merciless, but I could feel no pain. I do not think I could feel anything in that moment. He drew me into the carriage and left me in the charge of his guards.
I could not breathe, could not think, could not move.
Percy, my husband, the Pimpernel, the man I loved was dead.
The cords on my arms were bound tight, and had I even wit in that moment, I could not have escaped. I was surrounded on all sides by enemies, in a country that I had once loved, but no longer. But I did not weep. I would not weep. I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing my heart's true feeling.
The journey was unbearable, and time and again, the image of the flashing blade and the tumbling golden head played in my mind. Armand was awaiting the same fate. Perhaps, he already had. My imagination did not hesitate to provide the image of my beloved brother beneath that cruel blade.
It was all I could do not to weep.
I do not know if I fell into sleep or if exhaustion simply overcame me, but I was shaken roughly to wakefulness. It was Chauvelin, and he was smiling his once-charming smile at me.
"Come, Citoyenne," he said. "You have a new home to make your own."
I was dragged from the carriage, stumbling on cold, aching limbs, but I would not let his poisonous touch support me. I pulled from his grip and stood straight-backed, though the sight before me made me shudder.
The Prison des Carmes. Everyone in France knew tales of the prison, of the massacre that took place there only months since, and now, I was to be its guest.
"Welcome, Citoyenne Blakeney."
It was almost more than I could bear. My eyes ached with tears I wished I could shed, but I would not grant him that satisfaction.
"My name, Chauvelin," I said with all the hauteur I could summon, "is St. Just. No English Aristocrat's name will ever truly be mine. Especially not one slain so easily."
Chauvelin's dark eyebrows rose. "As you will, Citoyenne," he said. He took my arm again, his grip cruel, and pulled me towards the forbidding doorway.
The prison lived well to its reputation. Dark, cold and miserable, every wall glistening with damp. The corridors were so narrow that the oozing surfaces left stains on my dress. It was a choice of brushing the walls or leaning against Chauvelin. I preferred the filth.
There were cries in the darkness. I could hear the coughs and whimpers of the sick among the prisoners, and shuddered at the drawn out screams from the depths of the prison.
"Don't worry, Citoyenne," Chauvelin said with pleasantness as false as his smile. "We have a private chamber arranged for you. I am assured it is quite comfortable."
The 'chamber' was little more than a box of stone. There was a crack in the wall, which I suppose was to be a window, and straw on the floor to serve as a bed. There were also rats. Though I could not see them, I could hear the rustle as they moved.
I stepped in before he could push me, and turned to face him. "Am I at least permitted to be unbound?" I asked as coldly as I could. He nodded to one of the guards, who severed my bonds.
"Rest well, Citoyenne," Chauvelin said. "I am sure you will have much to think about."
The door closed silently, though the sound of the bolts sliding home was deafening, echoing off the walls.
I remained standing, shivering on the spot, until I heard him walking away. I knew Chauvelin's step as well as I knew Percy's. Only then did I allow myself to sit, and for a moment, I could weep.
The Blakeney woman continued to defy me, to defy all normal boundaries of womanhood.
The first night in the prison was to be as restless as was possible. Those who would have been reserved for torment in the morning were roused as night fell. Their screams added to the cacophony of misery.
My man at her door looked in on her frequently through the night, and he reported that though she covered her face for a moment, he did not see her weep.
It was unnatural.
The woman had begged and pleaded. She had crawled on the dirt to save the thrice-accursed Pimpernel’s life. Now that he was dead, she behaved as if it was nothing more than a momentary nuisance. No woman could act so well, not even Marguerite St. Just.
She would not break in solitude, so it was forcing my hand to break her in humiliation.
It was unsuitable for a prisoner to be dressed in such fine attire as she was. Two guards fetched her from her cell. She walked tall between them, arrogant and beautiful as she ever had been.
I stood by as she was forced to the centre of the room. “Disrobe, Citoyenne Blakeney.”
She looked at me with such contempt it was quite breath-taking. “I have told you once before, Paul, that is not my name.”
“Your vows of marriage are denied so quickly?”
She laughed then. “One finds it easier to slumber in a golden bed, Paul.” She turned that piercing look upon me once more. “Surely you do not imagine I would delight in marrying an aristocrat any more than you would.”
I folded my arms. “All the same, you will disrobe, Citoyenne. If you will not bear his name, then you will no longer be burdened by his material possessions.”
Her lips pressed together, and for a moment, there was poison in her gaze. It was gone as quickly as it had appeared, and with amusing violence, she unbound her ornate gown and forced it down her arms. The heavy fabric gathered around her feet, leaving her in only a shift, and she stepped out of it, kicking it aside.
“Are you quite satisfied?” she demanded. She was pale now, and the skin of her bare arms rose in unappealing gooseflesh. The prison walls were built to contain, not to warm. I studied her, the woman I had known and the traitor that she now was.
“That will suffice,” I murmured. “Your hair, however, must be shorn.” She shook her head violently. “It will preserve you from the filth and fleas that infest so many of our honoured guests.”
“Take my clothing, my gems and whatever else that wretch gave me,” she said. She was shivering now, and her voice trembled. Perhaps it was not all from the cold. “But leave me that which is mine.”
"You speak as though it will make any difference, Citoyenne Blakeney," I replied. A gesture brought forward one of the servants of the prison with shears.
Only for a moment, she looked afraid, then she knelt and lifted her head. “Very well.”
I cannot deny that her resolution was impressive, even as her hair was unpinned and shorn. Dark clumps fell to the floor around her. She clenched her hands into fists and stared up at me, as if daring me to do worse.
It was not how she should respond. No woman would respond to such punishment with such a lack of emotion. Many others had gone before her, weeping and simpering. Not even the Autrichienne had been so icy in her manner.
I tapped my fingers on my sleeve, watching her, as the last of her pride was cut away. There were wounds on her skull where the shears had cut to close, yet she had not made a sound or protested. She only stared up at me.
When they were done with her, she was taken back to her cell. Let her sit there. No one could contain their emotions for long. A cold, plain cell without any of the luxury that had surrounded her for near a decade would be torment enough.
The first night in the prison was terrible, the screams ringing through the walls. I did not know if it was always so. It made sleep near impossible, though I had little desire to rest my eyes or my head. I knew what nightmares would await me.
With the morning, Chauvelin showed how cruel and petty he could be. I do not imagine myself to be a vain woman, but to be bereft of dignity, left like a bald, naked madwoman in a cell made me hate him all the more. What I had imagined was hatred, when first he blackmailed me, paled into insignificance by comparison.
It was easier to put aside grief for this darker emotion. I found myself imagining him being granted Madame la Guillotine’s tender embrace, broken by the very people whom he followed so slavishly.
Though it could not stave off the chill, it warmed my heart to think on it. He had taken all that I had, brother, husband, pride, but one day, I would see him fall, even if it meant rotting in this wretched prison until that day.
All the same, I did not intend to be held prisoner any longer than was necessary. I knew the tales of the Pimpernel, of his daring escapes and feats of ingenuity that could scarce be believed. This from Percy, who often acknowledged me as the cleverest woman in Europe. It would be a disgrace to his memory if I could not escape.
I knew my way through the prison. I had ensured that I was upright and walking freely, which gave me ample opportunity to get my bearings. As a former cloister, it was all straight halls and cells lining one side. I had seen glimpses of a courtyard, though I knew I would not be permitted to venture there. Chauvelin did not intend to allow me any civility.
The difficulty of the matter was firstly breaking free of my cell, and secondly walking abroad in the prison, without being impeded or retaken. The few guards I had seen all wore the same uniform of faded blue jackets over shirts and breeches. Naturally, every one of them also wore a cockade somewhere about their person.
There were three men who guarded my cell in their turn. No doubt every one of them was loyal to Chauvelin. I did not know if they were there to ensure I stayed where I was or to report any change in my demeanour to him. It was most likely both.
I walked the cell to warm myself, rubbing my arms, and I could feel eyes of the current guard upon me.
I supposed that if anything unusual did happen, rather than enter himself, he would call upon Chauvelin, who would come in all haste to gloat. The door would only be opened by Chauvelin himself, of that I had no doubt. He took far too much pleasure in the fact that I was his prisoner.
I looked to the window.
Even if I did escape, what role was there for me now?
Lady Blakeney, widow and grieving sister of Armand St. Just. A lifetime attired in mourning garb, reminded forever of what had been taken from me, and the solitude I would be condemned to. There would be wealth, of course, and there would be those who would whisper of the grasping woman who wooed the foolish Blakeney for his gold, then betrayed him to her homeland.
I drew breath enough to warm me.
The only avenue that remained was that of vengeance. It forewent the need for escape. I only required a blade and a moment alone with dear Citoyen Chauvelin. I have never killed before. I have never wished to. For Paul Chauvelin, I will make an exception.
Citoyen Chauvelin’s prisoner was not a difficult one to guard.
There have been a lot of troublemakers in our cells. Some of them shout and fight and others cry like babies. I even had a Countess offer herself to me in exchange for some bread. If she had been half the age, maybe I would have said yes.
The Citoyenne in the cell was not like any of them. She sat most of the time on the straw, and when she did not, she walked around the cell. She looked like the women in the lower levels with her shorn hair and her plain shift. I do not know why she needed a personal guard.
It was Citoyen Chauvelin’s orders.
You do not question Citoyen Chauvelin.
I heard tales that the last man who did ended up on the guillotine for treason. He was no traitor, but Chauvelin has his words and his papers, and if the right person signs them, then no man will save you.
I looked in the door at the woman.
She was sitting on the straw again, hugging her knees. She never made a sound, but she was rocking and staring at nothing. Perhaps Citoyen Chauvelin liked them mad after all. There were enough stories about him to fill a dozen books.
I should be happy I got a quiet one to guard. There are some who scream in the lower levels, and at night, they piss and puke all over. I even heard of one who bit his own tongue out to stop them torturing him.
She screamed suddenly.
I looked in through the opening in the door. The woman was on her back on the floor, flopping around like a landed fish. Her eyes were so far up in her head I could only see the whites, and she looked like she was foaming at the mouth.
I called out, telling them to get Citoyen Chauvelin. After all, I was to guard her. No one said anything about being a quack. If he wanted her to looked after, he could look after her all he wanted.
He came quickly and took one look through the door. “Open it!”
He ran through the door and grabbed his prisoner, holding her down. She was still thrashing and there was blood around her mouth.
“Blakeney!” He shook her and pinned her down onto the floor. “St. Just! Damn it, St. Just!” She went limp beneath him, eyes wide and staring. He grabbed her chin, turning her face to his. When he spoke, I could hardly hear him. “Marguerite.”
The woman kept staring blankly.
Citoyen Chauvelin beckoned me into the room. “You will help me move her,” he said. He looked sick and angry. I shrugged and knelt down to help lift her up. She looked like she would weigh hardly anything.
I still don’t know what happened next.
One minute, I’m trying to lift up a sick prisoner. The next, the prisoner has the knife from my belt and Citoyen Chauvelin is bleeding all over. I grabbed her and pulled her back. He fell to the floor and she screamed, kicking and biting.
Another guard ran in and hit her. She hit the floor and stopped moving.
Citoyen Chauvelin was leaning against the wall, his hand at his neck. There was blood all over his clothes and his face, but he was laughing. We pulled him out of the room, and left the woman where she fell.
Chauvelin smiled. Even his teeth were bloodied. “Good,” he hissed.
I had the blade in my hand and his throat bare to me, and I failed.
He made sure I was aware of my failure when next he came to my cell. I had been bound while unconscious, and left helplessly pinioned. He stepped into the room, as if my attack had not harmed him at all. He was pale. Linens were bound around his throat and beneath his jaw, but otherwise, he looked the same as he ever did.
“Citoyenne Blakeney,” he said with a mocking bow.
“Damn you to hell, you son of a whore,” I whispered. My head ached where I had been struck, and I felt weak with exhaustion.
He crouched down to look me in the eye. “Tut tut,” he said with a sarcastic smile. “I would hardly believe that the great and noble Lady Blakeney would use such base and degrading language. Are you... distressed about something?”
He was close enough for me to spit in his eye.
It was not his hand which struck me, but that of the new guard, knocking me to the floor and leaving me sprawled there. “You will show respect to Citoyen Chauvelin!” he barked. He was a savage-looking man, but his blow did not wound as much as it might have.
“Hold,” Chauvelin said. He wiped his eye with a kerchief and stood up. He studied the new guard. “I think you will do well here.” He nodded towards me. “Make sure she learns a lesson in respect.”
The guard, in a uniform of the French guard saluted sharply. “Yes, Citoyen.” He reached down to pull me back onto my knees, forcing my head down in something like a bow. I saw Chauvelin’s boots, then he walked from the cell.
“Get your hands off me,” I whispered.
His hand moved to my shoulder and squeezed. “Peace, Lady Blakeney,” he said softly, in English. “I am here to assist you. I’m demmed sorry about striking you, but it’s the look of the thing, you see.”
I could not have been more shocked if Chauvelin has apologised himself.
“If you would oblige me,” he continued softly, stepping around in front of me, “by crying out several times when I appear to strike?”
As one hypnotised, I complied, sobbing out and crying while he feigned blows upon me that never impacted with my flesh. All the while, he rained down the most obscene insults, knowing well that his voice would carry through the halls.
When he finally ceased and I fell back against the wall as one beaten, there was silence. I heard the familiar tread of Chauvelin’s footsteps retreating from the cell door.
The guard gave a soft relieved sigh. “I feared he would wish to see your injuries,” he admitted, kneeling to sever my bonds. I recognised him as one of Percy’s young friends now that I could look closely. Ozzy. “You are not grievously harmed, are you, my Lady?”
I shook my head, dazed.
“I am sorry we took so long. It is all a demmed mess,” he continued, pulling the cut cords from my wrists and ankles. “We had no inkling he would bundle you off in the carriage quite so quickly. Percy has never changed plans so swiftly.”
His begrimed hands wrapped around mine, rubbing them to warm them. “Percy is waiting,” he said with a quick, bright smile. “He would have come himself, had not that wretch Chauvelin known his face.”
“Ozzy, my dear fellow,” I whispered, “Percy is dead. They took off his head.”
“Not at all, my Lady,” he said, shedding his coat and wrapping it about my shoulders. “It was all a ploy to fool that villain who has been tormenting you so. We would have had no notion as to your location had you not sliced him so neatly.”
I stared at him. “Percy is alive?”
He nodded eagerly, boyishly. “Of course,” he said. “And Armand. They are awaiting you.”
My world swam then, and I fell.
The whole affair had turned into a demmed disaster.
Had I but trusted Marguerite, the poor creature would not have been taken prisoner. The truth, hidden as it was, has made fools of us all, and Chauvelin took full advantage of our ignorance. The wretched man will pay for his crimes against us. I do not know when or how, but one day, he will find that he erred in making an enemy of Percy Blakeney.
My Lady should never have been subjected to the Prison des Carmes, or any such horrid fate. It was my hand that led her there.
Had I not been so bent on confounding Chauvelin, she would have been safely smuggled away. The demmed man kept her close to and before I could reveal the charade of my ‘execution’, they were off as if the very devil were behind them. We gave chase, though luck and the coming night were against us.
It took us two days to learn where the deuce the fiend had taken her. He was sighted in Paris. The League, infuriated by his actions, were as eager to seek her hiding place as I. He roamed the prisons, which granted us no inkling of her whereabouts, until an unexpected boon came in a violent attack on our dear Chauvelin.
Hastings hastened back to inform us that Chauvelin had been attacked by some wild female prisoner, whom he had brought in only days earlier. My heart sang with relief that not only was she alive, but she was fighting the wretch every step of the way.
Neither Armand nor myself could show face in the prison, known too well to Chavelin, but Ozzy - young and eager - assured us that he would be able to infiltrate the guards. After all, he had been seen about Paris before, in the same guise, and that persona was known for being a coarse, staunchly Republican fellow. With two days growth on his chin, a blacked eye from a struggle with one of Chauvelin’s men at the coast, and teeth blackened with tar, he looked a regular reprobate.
He succeeded admirably. Though it is not the carriage I would have desired for her, my little Lady was borne from the prison, stitched into a sack and hidden among the corpses of the other unfortunates. The wagon driver was - as are so many loyal Republicans - quite willing to turn his eye for the press of a coin. I do not doubt he thought the Guard has some perverse interest in this peculiarly pretty corpse.
Half a dozen streets from the prison, Ozzy leapt down from the cart, hoisting his own sack over his shoulder, hurrying to meet us. We had a carriage waiting, and he hoisted his burden into my arms, before hurrying away.
I sliced the cords holding the sack closed, pulling it open. Marguerite, ashen and in a deep swoon, lay within. I drew her gently free, wrapping her in a warm blanket, as the carriage rumbled into the street.
Her pretty face was bruised and bloodied, and her beautiful hair chopped away in merciless clumps, but it was she, and she was safe and alive. I touched her cheek, hardly daring to believe it could be so.
It was not until we reached the house we used as a safe house that she began to stir. I climbed down from the carriage and hurried indoors with her, not wishing her to be any further exposed to the vile cruelties of her mother country.
Hastings rose as I entered. “Percy?”
“It is she,” I said, kneeling to place her on the couch. “Be a good fellow and run out to fetch some decent food for her, would you?”
I am sure he responded, but I could hardly pay heed to anything but the poor, worn creature who was the wife I loved more than words could say. I caught one of her slim hands between my own, chaffing them to warm them. Her pretty nails were broken and torn to pieces, and awful bruises marked her face.
I touched her wounded cheek tenderly.
Filthy, bloody and worn as she was, she had never looked more beautiful.
When consciousness returned to me, it brought new terror.
I could scarce trust my memories of what had happened before I had swooned. Surely, I had only imagined the presence of Ozzy in that hole.
I was bundled up in a warm blanket and could hear the crackle of a fire, which meant I was no longer in my cell, but it gave no clue as to my current location. I could hear voices close to, thought they were speaking too low for me to make out what they were saying.
I moved my hand slightly, barely a hair’s breadth.
“Margot!” The voice made my eyes fly open and my heart leapt as if it wished to break free of my ribs. Percy crossed the room in four long strides and caught my hands in his, lifting them to his lips and covering them in kisses and tears. “My darling.”
I stared at him, hardly daring to trust my eyes. “Percy?”
“Forgive me, beloved,” he whispered. “I never intended for you to be so endangered.”
He whispered some other apologies, but they fell on deaf ears. I could only stare at him in dazed wonder. The Fool Blakeney was gone, and I could see the man who was the Pimpernel, but also the man I had once loved and loved once more.
I drew one of my hands from his, and touched his cheek tenderly. “They took your head, Percy,” I whispered. The image returned once more: the blade dropping and the golden head tumbling. “I saw it myself.”
“A puppet, nothing more,” he whispered, holding my hand to his cheek and kissing my palm. “We hoped to divert Chauvelin better to liberate you, but the fiend snatched you from our very grasp and fled with you.”
“He thinks you dead,” I said softly. “And Armand...” My eyes welled with sudden tears. “My brother! Percy...”
“He is here! He is here!” he soothed urgently, gathering me in his arms. “Hush, beloved. I vow no harm came to any of us.” He brushed a hand over my shorn and abused head. “None but you, my most faithful darling.”
His arms were broad and warm, and he held me as he had not done in many months. I could not help but weep, clutching at him as if he might vanish from sight. Softly, he murmured my name over and over, until all my tears were spent.
It was only then, calmed by his closeness, that I could think on all that had happened. “I must look a fright,” I whispered.
He smiled against my brow. “You, my darling, look like a warrior queen.”
I laughed weakly, tiredly. “I hardly feel like one.”
He laid me down tenderly, still cradling my hand in his. “Rest, my love,” he said gently. “I will tend your wounds, and you shall have your fill of the best food we can find. And then, we shall be bound for home.”
“Home,” I murmured. “It is a very long way.”
He smiled and leaned down to kiss me. “It is here with you,” he said softly.