Chapter XIX:

A Rencontre
~ 1

For Marguerite, that wonderful May-day, like so many others equally happy and equally wonderful, came to an end all too soon. To dwell on those winged hours were but to record sorrow, anxiety, a passionately resentment coupled with an equally passionate acceptance of the inevitable. Her intimate friends often marvelled how Marguerite Blakeney bore the strain of these constantly recurring farewells. Every time that in the early dawn she twined her loving arms round the neck of the man she worshipped, feeling that mayhap she was looking into those dear, lazy, laughing eyes for the last time on earth - every time, it seemed to her as if earth could not hold greater misery.

Then after that came that terrible half-hour, whilst she stood on the landing-stage - his kisses still hot upon her lips, her eyes, her throat - and watched and watched that tiny speck, that fast-sailing ship that bore him away on his errand of mercy and self-sacrifice, leaving her lonely and infinitely desolate. And then the days and hours, when he was away and it was her task t smile and laugh, to appear to know nothing of her husband save that he was a society butterfly, the pet of the salons, an exquisite, something of a fool, whose frequent absences were accounted for by deer-stalking in Scotland or fishing in the Tweed, or hunting in the shires - anything and everything that would throw dust in the eyes of the fashionable crowd of whom she and he formed an integral part.

"Sir Percy not with you to-night, dear Lady Blakeney?"

"With me? Lud love you, no! I have not seen him these three weeks past."

"The dog!"

People would talk and ask questions, throw out suggestions and innuendoes. Society a few months ago had been greatly agitated because the beautiful Lady Blakeney, the most fashionable woman about town, had taken a mad fancy for - you'll never believe it, my dear! - for her own husband. She had him by her side at routs and river-parties, in her opera-box and on the Mall. It was positively indecent! Sir Percy was the pet of Society, his sallies, his inane laugh, his lazy, delicious, impertinent ways and his exquisite clothes, made the success of every salon in which he chose to appear. His Royal Highness was never so good-tempered as when Sir Percy was by his side. Then, for his own wife to monopolize him was preposterous, abnormal, extravagant! Some people put it down to foreign eccentricity; others to Lady Blakeney's shrewdness in thus throwing dust in the eyes of her none-too-clever lord, in order to mask some intrigue or secret amour, of which Society had not as yet the key.

Fortunately for the feelings of the fashionable world, this phase of conjugal affection did not last long. It had been at its height last year, and had waned perceptibly since. Of late, so it was averred, Sir Percy was hardly ever at home, and his appearances at Blakeney Manor - his beautiful house at Richmond - were both infrequent and brief. he had evidently tried of playing second fiddle to his exquisite wife, or been irritated by her caustic wit, which she was wont to sharpen at his expense; and the ménage of these two leaders of fashion had, in the opinion of those in the know, once more resumed a more normal aspect.

When Lady Blakeney was in Richmond, London or Bath, Sir Percy was shooting or fishing or yachting - which was just as it should be. And when he appeared in society, smiling, elegant, always an exquisite, Lady Blakeney would scarce notice him, save for making him a butt for her lively tongue.

~ 2

What it cost Marguerite to keep up this rôle none but a very few ever knew. The identity of one of the greatest heroes of this or any time was known to his most bitter enemy - not to his friends. So Marguerite went on smiling, joking, flirting, while her heart ached and her brain was at times wellnigh numb with anxiety. His intimates rallied round her, of course: the splendid little band of heroes who formed the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel - Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and his pretty wife; Lord Anthony Dewhurst and his lady, whose great dark eyes still wore the impress of the tragedy which had darkened the first month of her happy wedded life. Then there was my lord Hastings; and Sir Evan Cruche, the young Squire of Holt, and all the others.

And for the Prince of Wales, it is more than surmised by those competent to judge that His Royal Highness did indeed guess at the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, even if he had no actually been apprised of it. Certain it is that his tact and discretion did on more than one occasion save a situation which might have proved embarrassing for Marguerite.

In all these friends then - in their conversation, their happy laughter, their splendid pluck and equally splendid gaiety, the echo of the chief whom they adored - Marguerite found jus the solace that she needed. With Lady Ffoulkes and Lady Anthony Dewhurst she had everything in common. With those members of the League who happened to be in England, she could talk over and in her mind trace the various stages of the perilous adventure on which her beloved and the others were even then engaged.

And there were always the memories of those all too brief days at Dover or in Richmond, when her loving heart tasted such perfect happiness as is granted only to the elect: the happiness that comes from perfect love, perfect altruism, a complete understanding and measureless sympathy. On those memories her hungering soul could subsist in the intervals, and with them as her unalienable property, she could even bid the grim spectre of unhappiness begone.

~ 3

Of Madame de Fontenay - for as such Marguerite still knew her - she saw but little. Whether the beautiful Theresia had gone to London or no, whether she had succeeded in finding her truant husband, Marguerite did not know and cared less. The unaccountable antipathy which she had felt on that first night of her acquaintance with the lovely Spaniard still caused her to hold herself aloof. Sir Percy, true to his word, had not betrayed the actual identity of Theresia Cabarrus to his wife; but in his light, insouciant manner had dropped a word or two of warning, which had sharpened Marguerite's suspicions and strengthened her determination to avoid Mme de Fontenay as far as possible. And since monetary or other material help was apparently not required, she had no reason to resume an intercourse which, in point of fact, was not courted by Theresia either.

But one day, walking alone in Richmond Park, she came face to face with Theresia. It was a beautiful late afternoon in July, the end of a day which had been a comparatively happy one for Marguerite - the day when a courier had come from France with news of Sir Percy; a letter from him, telling her that he was well and hinting at the possibility of another of those glorious days together at Dover.

With that message from her beloved just to hand, Marguerite had felt utterly unable to fulfill her social engagements in London. There was nothing of any importance that claimed her presence. His Royal Highness was at Brighton; the opera and the rout at Lady Portarles' could well get on without her. The evening promised to be more than ordinarily beautiful, with a radiant sunset and the soft, sweet-scented air of a midsummer's evening.

After dinner, Marguerite had felt tempted to stroll out alone. She threw a shawl over her head and stepped out on to the terrace. The vista of velvet lawns, of shady paths and rose borders in full bloom, stretched out into the dim distance before her; and beyond these, the boundary wall, ivy-clad, overhung with stately limes, and broken into by the finely wrought iron gates that gave straight into the Park.

The shades of evening were beginning to draw in, and the garden was assuming that subtle veil of mysterious melancholy which perfect beauty always lends. In the stately elms far away, a blackbird was whistling his evensong. The night was full of sweet ordours - roses and heliotrope, lime and mignonette - whilst just below the terrace a bed of white tobacco swung ghost-like its perfumed censer into the air. Just an evening to lure a lonely soul into the open, away from the indifferent, the casual, into the heart of nature, always potent enough to soothe and to console

~ 4

Marguerite strolled through the grounds with a light foot, and anon reached the monumental gates, through which the exquisite peace and leafy solitude of the Park seemed to beckon insistently to her. The gate was on the latch; she slipped through and struck down a woodland path bordered by tangled undergrowth and tall bracken, and thus reached the pond, when suddenly she perceived Mme de Fontenay.

Theresia was dressed in a clinging gown of diaphanous black silk, which gave value to the exquisite creamy whiteness of her skin and to the vivid crimson of her lips. She wore a transparent shawl round her shoulders, which with the new-modish, high-waisted effect of her gown, suited her sinuous grace to perfection. But she wore no jewellery, no ornaments of any kind: only a magnificent red rose at her breast.

The sight of her at this place and at this hour was so unexpected that, to Marguerite's super-sensitive intuition, the appearance of this beautiful woman, strolling listless and alone beside the water's edge, seemed like a presage of evil. Her first instinct had been to run away before Mme de Fontenay was aware of her presence; but the next moment she chided herself for this childish cowardice, and stood her ground, waiting for the other woman to draw near.

A minute or two later, Theresia had looked up and in her turn had perceived Marguerite. She did not seem surprised, rather came forward with a glad little cry, and her two hands outstretched.

"Milady!" she exclaimed. "Ah, I see you at last! I have oft wondered why we never met."

Marguerite took her hands, greeted her as warmly as she could. Indeed she did her best to appear interested and sympathetic.

Mme de Fontenay had not much to relate. She had found refuge in the French convent of the Assumption at Twickenham, where the Mother Superior had been an intimate friend of her mother's in the happy olden days. She went out very little, and never in society. But she was fond of strolling in this beautiful Park. The sisters had told her that Lady Blakeney's beautiful house was quite near. She would have liked to call - but never dared - hoping for a chance recontre which hitherto had never come.

She asked kindly after milor, and seemed to have heard a rumour that he was at Brighton, in attendance on his royal friend. Of her husband, Mme de Fontenay had as yet found no trace. He must be living under an assumed name, she thought - not doubt in dire poverty - Theresia feared it, but did not know - would give worlds to find out.

Then she asked Lady Blakeney whether she knew aught of the de Servals.

"I was so interested in them," she said, "because I had heard something of them while I was in Paris, and seeing that we arrived in England the same day, though under such different circumstances. But we could not journey to London together, as you, milady, so kindly suggested, because I was very ill the next day.... Ah, can you wonder?... A kind friend in Dover took care of me. But I remember their name, and have oft marvelled if we should ever meet."

Yes; Marguerite did see the de Servals from time to time. They rented a small cottage not very far from here - just outside of town. One of the daughters, Régine, was employed all day at the fashionable dress-maker's in Richmond. The younger girl, Joséphine, and the boy, Jacques, was doing work in a notary's office. It was all very dreary for them, but their courage was marvellous; and though the children did not earn much, it was sufficient for their wants.

Madame de Fontenay was vastly interested. She hoped that Régine's marriage with the man of her choice would bring a ray of real happiness into the household.

"I hope so too," Lady Blakeney assented.

"Milady has seen the young man - Régine's fiancé?"

"Oh, yes! once or twice. But he is engaged in business all day, it seems. He is inclined to be morbid and none too full of ardour. It is a pity; for Régine is a sweet girl and deserves happiness."

"We have so much sorrow in common," she said with a pathetic smile. "So many misfortunes. We ought to be friends."

Then she gave a slight little shiver.

"The weather is extraordinarily cold for July," she said. "Ah, how one misses the glorious sunshine of France!"

She wrapped her thin, transparent shawl closer round her shoulders. She was delicate, she explained. Always had been. She was a child of the South, and fully expected the English climate would kill her. In any case, it was foolish of her to stand thus talking, when it was so cold.

After which she took her leave, with a gracious inclination of the head and a cordial au revoir. Then she turned off into a small path under the trees, cut through the growing racken; and Marguerite watched the graceful figure thoughtfully, until the leafy undergrowth hid her from view.