JANE AUSTEN'S FIGHTING MEN by Jack Caldwell


The Last Adventure of
the Scarlet Pimpernel
a sequel to Northanger Abbey

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(Excerpt from Chpater 3:)

Frederick had heard much about the Blakeney estate in Richmond, but the reality exceeded all expectations. The estate had been built centuries before, and the Blakeneys were not disinclined over improvement. The massive brick and stone edifice was softened by the number of windows that adorned the aspect as well as the trees planted nearby. The grounds were extensive and well cared for by an attentive hand. The stables were the finest Frederick had ever beheld, and he was jealous on behalf of the Blues own horses.

Frederick and George stood before the estate's stables, awaiting their mounts, and Frederick spent the time complementing Richmond. He was keen in his approval for all that he had seen, an enthusiasm that was slightly embarrassing for his friend.

"Thankee, Frederick." George blushed. "It is a fine place, I know, but 'tis just home to me, you see."

"You must be proud of it," Frederick insisted. "I have never seen its like. Surely Northanger is nothing to it, nor is any other great house in which I have stepped foot."

"Oh, I am not sure about that! It is not a palace by any means. Do not mistake me," George explained. "I do love the old place, but one day it will be mine -- and all the responsibly, too. I can tell you, I own that the prospect of becoming the master is overwhelming."

Frederick's first consideration was to speak -- to reassure his young friend and give empty words of empathy. He found his voice stuck in his throat, however, for he recalled that George's fears were his own. Indeed, Northanger Abbey was nothing to Richmond, but it was a sizable estate. There were duties and responsibilities that a sensible man would not leave to his steward. However, General Tilney had insisted his first-born and heir follow in his footsteps and had purchased Frederick's commission at the earliest age possible. For almost half his life, the army had been his passion, and he had excelled in his lessons of horse and sword and drill. Because of that, he knew almost nothing of accounts or finances or crop rotation, for his father had neglected that part of his education.

Henry Tilney had been correct -- the army was never to be his permanent profession. Frederick, for all his bluster, knew his abilities and his limitations. He feared no man with his sword in his hand, and he would obey an order to charge directly into Bonaparte's redoubtable Imperial Guard without hesitation. Asked to discuss the price of wheat against barley, however, and he was utterly at sea.

Frederick's thoughts flew through his mind in an instant, and George hardly noticed the hesitation. Before his guest could change the subject, fate did it for them.

"Violet!" cried George. "Will you join us on our ride?"

Frederick's eyes followed George's to see the girl approaching from the house. Miss Blakeney had made quite an impression the night before -- all in golden and white -- in the best that money could buy. Her outfit now was a revelation: good fabrics, made and chosen for riding rather than show, were tailored to show the rider to best advantage. Frederick knew instantly that Miss Blakeney would look as comfortable and as lovely on a horse as she had in a ballroom, and for a man who lived in the out-of-doors and loved it, his admiration for the lady could only grow.

"Capitan Tilney," Violet said with a surprised smile as she curtsied in response to his bow, "I did not know you were to be here today." She glanced at her brother. "George did not tell us."

"I sent a note to Mama," George muttered.

"Your brother was kind enough to invite me to take in the beauties of Surrey on horseback --"

"At your insistence!" cried George good-naturedly.

Frederick's smile grew. "I believe your attendance would only add to our enjoyment."

Violet looked Frederick dead in the eye. "Indeed -- the beauties of Surrey?" Her sweet voice was tinged with challenge and reproach, and Frederick was wise to consider his reply.

"Yes, Miss Blakeney, if you and your brother would be so kind as to show them to me."

The girl was visibly pleased with his polite and correct response. "It would be my pleasure, sir." She nodded and followed the groom to retrieve her horse.

The gentlemen mounted and awaited Miss Blakeney. Frederick noticed that George eyed him with some agitation.

Blakeney said in a low voice, "Remember yourself. She is my sister."

The captain opened his mouth to defend himself, but once again could say nothing, Henry's words coming back to him.

"Do not be surprised if James keeps any lady dear to him away from your company."

Good God! Does George think me so base as to dally with Miss Blakeney?

He swallowed his pride for the time being. "Of course, George. Never fear. I have nothing but the highest respect for all of your family."

Blakeney had the good grace to reply abashedly, "Sorry, old man. I should not have said that. I do not know what came over me --"

At that moment, Miss Blakeney emerged from the stable, her mare as fine an example of horseflesh as Frederick had ever seen.

"Ah, Violet! Shall we set off?" cried her brother.

Captain Tilney was all gallantry. "After you, Miss Blakeney."

She acquiesced, and the three set off. It did not take Frederick long to see his blunder. From behind, he found it near impossible not to admire Miss Blakeley's seat.

***

Most of the improvements made to Blakeney Manor were to satisfy Lady Blakeney's desire for more light in the house. Scores of windows had been added or enlarged. Few great houses in England could boast of the Versailles-like walls of glass that adorned the home of Sir Percy. It was Marguerite's delight.

There was one area in the house that her improvements could not reach, and it was in the bowels of the keep. It was there that Lady Blakeney searched for her husband. Opening a well-greased door in the basement, she quietly entered a long, dark room, the meager sunlight from the small, narrow bank of windows along one wall near the ceiling insufficient to the task of properly illuminating the space. Oil lamps and candles were employed to compensate for the inadequacy with middling results. It did not help that the cool, dank place -- even the floor -- was made entirely of stone. A few tapestries and war banners adorned the otherwise bare walls. At the far end, placed high in a spot of prominence, was a great seal with a red, five-petal flower at its center. Swords, muskets and suits of armor were stored with great care in racks opposite the windows. A long table with chairs dominated one side of the room, the other side given totally to the sport of fencing.

Most of Blakeney Manor had been remade in the image of its mistress, but this place was not hers. This was the domain of the Pimpernel.

Marguerite's eyes were drawn to the far side of the long room, where a tall gentleman in his shirtsleeves practiced fencing. Slowly, deliberately, the man worked through the motions of defense and offense against a burlap-covered object in the shape of a human torso, several black targets painted on its surface. He stood sideways, right foot forward, his foil held as an extension of his arm. So engrossed was he in his labors, he appeared to have no knowledge that there was a witness to his exercises.

A quarter-century before, the Parisian actress, Marguerite St. Just, had been captivated by the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Since then, Lady Blakeney had made her husband her secret standard of perfection in a gentleman, and many a dashing courtier would be slighted by her as bearing no comparison with Sir Percy.

She stood silently, taking great pleasure in observing the play of the still-considerable muscles of his broad shoulders and back as they moved gracefully under his sweat-drenched, almost transparent shirt. A warm heat filled her belly as she recalled the countless times her fingertips had run along those same muscles while she joyfully made love to him. Past fifty, she thought, and he can still turn my head.

The idyllic moment was shattered when, with an oath, Sir Percy dropped his foil and gripped his sword-hand, the blade's metallic contact with the floor echoing throughout the hall.

"Percy!" Marguerite dashed to his side, as quickly as her little feet would allow. Sir Percy watched her approach with a mixture of mortification and resignation on his wet face.

"Ahh, 'tis nothing, m'dear," he drawled. He tried to hide his discomfort, but his wife could see the pain behind his eyes. Ignoring his protests, she tenderly inspected his right hand.

"Is it the rheumatism again?"

"It comes and goes," Sir Percy admitted. "I have been trying to work it out."

Marguerite gently but firmly pulled Sir Percy towards a bench. "Come, sit down. I will fetch the white willow bark." She noticed that he walked to the bench with a decided limp.

It took but a moment, once he was settled and easy. The local apothecary had concocted a tincture of white willow bark for just such an occasion, and a vial of it was stored in one of the cabinets in the room. A draught was produced, and Sir Percy choked it down.

The baronet coughed as he handed the glass to his wife. "Gad, but that is vile! Where is my brandy -- or better yet, my good port?"

Marguerite's gaze was drawn to the pink, M-shaped scar on Percy's left forearm -- evidence of the Pimpernel's last battle of wits with their nemesis, the fiend Chauvelin -- May he burn in Hell! She recalled how her fearless and clever husband had bribed a French veterinary to brand him with the mark of a convict, all the better to disguise himself and rescue Marguerite from certain death. She remembered all the chances and pains her beloved had undertaken as the Pimpernel to foil Chauvelin and his terrible master, Robespierre, and save countless Frenchmen from the guillotine -- all, Percy claimed, in the name of sport.

It was a lie, of course. Percy may have enjoyed himself, but what drove him was love of his fellow man and an iron will to do what was right. Yet, the abuses he had suffered and the years that had past conspired now to bring him low.

Marguerite kissed his brow. "Rest a moment, love -- recover, and we will have a glass together in your study."

"That would please me above all things," Percy said as he kissed her fingers. "So, what brings you down here to my dark cave?"

"We have a guest tonight; George has brought Captain Tilney. They are to return to London tomorrow."

"Tilney, eh? Good -- I would like to further my acquaintance with the man. Ahh…" Sir Percy groaned as he got to his feet. "A bit of a sip, then off to me bath. Must look our best for the good captain. Ohh…" he gasped as he tried to walk. Marguerite was quick to support him.

"Here, Percy, lean on me."

"Now, leave off," Sir Percy complained. "I shall be as right as rain in a moment."

Marguerite knew what would appease him. She whispered in his ear, "I know, m'dear, but will you deny me the pleasure of standing so close to you?"

"Oh!" he laughed. "Well, if you put it that way, lead on, my lovely!"

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