(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.
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.
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,"
"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
The gentlemen mounted and awaited
Miss Blakeney. Frederick noticed that George eyed him with some
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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.
" he gasped as he tried to walk. Marguerite was
quick to support him.
"Here, Percy, lean on
"Now, leave off,"
Sir Percy complained. "I shall be as right as rain in a
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!"