The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 13,14,15
Chapter XIII: Either—Or?
Summary: Marguerite saw in Ffoulkes’ note that the Scarlet Pimpernel plans to meet his agents at one o’clock that morning (just over two hours from the present time) in Lord Greenville’s supper room. She wrestles with her choice: should she give this knowledge to Chauvelin in order to save her brother Armand from the guillotine, even though doing so will betray the Pimpernel, whom she admires (and even worships) as a hero, into his enemy’s hands? In a somewhat evasive answer to Marguerite’s inquiries, Ffoulkes confirms that he is departing England on the morrow; Marguerite urges him not to, before remembering herself and covering with the excuse, “No one can throw a better ball.”
Analysis: In this brief chapter, we gain access to Marguerite’s inner anguish over the choice that lies before her, and it is indeed a stark one: “In two hours she must make up her mind whether she will keep the knowledge so cunningly gained to herself, and leave her brother to his fate, or whether she will willfully betray a brave man, whose life was devoted to his fellow-men, who was noble, generous, and, above all, unsuspecting” (p. 104). She is torn between the love of her brother and her extreme admiration for “a stranger, a man [she] does not know, whom [she] has never seen” (p. 105), as her brother’s imagined words accuse her. In the meantime, Orczy keeps the dramatic irony of Marguerite’s ignorance foregrounded, as the chapter concludes with the Prince’s mention of her husband: “Blakeney, not content with being the richest among my father’s subjects, has also the most outrageous luck” (p. 106)—a reference, so far as the Prince and Marguerite know, only to Sir Percy’s skill at the card table; but also, readers may infer, an allusion to his extraordinary success in his secret identity as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Chapter XIV: One o’Clock Precisely!
Summary: Sir Percy entertains the dinner guests with his jokes and doggerel about the Scarlet Pimpernel, while Marguerite, with her wit and elegance, continues to conceal her inner torment over the decision she must soon make. She finally but reluctantly resolves to meet with Chauvelin, and she tells him what she has learned of Ffoulkes’ impending meeting with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Delighted with this knowledge, Chauvelin promises Marguerite that he will ensure Armand’s safety while he, Chauvelin, tracks down the Pimpernel at a French coastal inn, Le Chat Gris, to which Chauvelin has learned the Comte de Tournay (whom the Pimpernel next intends to rescue) has been summoned. Chauvelin arrives at the supper room prior to the prearranged hour, finding it deserted—save for Sir Percy Blakeney, asleep on a sofa, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. Chauvelin likewise lies down, feigning sleep, as he waits to spring his trap.
Analysis: Some readers may take issue with Orczy’s characterization of Marguerite in this chapter as inadequate to the task ahead of her—for example, as she waits for the appointed hour, hoping that “something” will happen to “shift from her young, weak shoulders this terrible burden of responsibility, of having to choose between two such cruel alternatives” (p. 108). Even after she makes her decision, we are told she second guesses it: “had she done a vile action or one that was sublime? The recording angel, who writes in the book of gold, alone could give an answer” (p. 110). (The allusion is to a figure common to Jewish, Christian and Islamic angelologies; e.g., Ezek. 9:3-4, Malachi 3.16.) No doubt her dilemma is a difficult one, but to this point in the book we have been told repeatedly of the great renown in which people hold Marguerite (especially when contrasted with her husband; all Europe seems to regard the couple as an odd mismatch); we are reminded even again in this chapter that she is known as “the cleverest woman in Europe” (p. 113). Why now should she suddenly be depicted as young and weak—if not actually helpless, then seemingly not far from it? Perhaps the resolution lies in the fact that even the strongest character may feel helpless when confronted with a hard choice (indeed, see below: she feels “resigned to [Fate’s] decrees,” p. 108). The fact that Marguerite, despite her conflicted emotions, continues to assert herself as a moral actor in the situation, who does not wait for someone else to take the decision out of her hands, actually speaks to her strength, even if Orczy (or, to be more accurate and, perhaps, charitable, the narrative persona in which she writes) does not recognize it as such.
All of Marguerite’s literal and emotional handwringing is, of course, ironically juxtaposed with the sleeping figure of Sir Percy: “he lay there, placid, unconscious, at peace with all the world and himself” (p. 113). We do not know whether Sir Percy is aware of Chauvelin’s presence, but readers at this point would not be surprised to learn that this cunning man is “at peace” with himself and his surroundings because he is actually in control of the situation.
Chapter XV: Doubt
Summary: Lord Fancourt reports to Marguerite that he has delivered her message to her husband, whom he found still dozing in the supper room shortly past one o’clock. Marguerite inquires whether anyone else was in the room, expecting to thus learn of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity, but Fancourt tells her that Sir Percy was alone, save for Chauvelin. Marguerite fears that Chauvelin had failed to catch the Pimpernel, meaning that Armand’s life would again be in jeopardy. Just before leaving the ball, she encounters Chauvelin, who admits his failure to catch the Pimpernel but who plans to stop him at Calais. He assures her that, for the moment, and “by a thread,” her brother is still safe: “The day that the Scarlet Pimpernel and I meet on French soil, St. Just will be in the arms of his charming sister.”
Analysis: Marguerite’s conviction that, were she in the super room, she would “at once” recognize the Scarlet Pimpernel with “her woman’s penetration”—that she would see “that strong individuality which belongs to a leader of men” (p. 115)—is, of course, a supremely ironic beginning to the chapter. The irony is compounded by the depth of affection she feels for the Pimpernel as he is in her mind: “Ah! Had Armand’s life not been at stake!” (p. 115)—suggesting that she at the least would have preserved the Pimpernel’s secret meeting plans, and, at the most, might have devoted herself to him, her husband notwithstanding; indeed, we are told when Fancourt breaks her reverie that “Marguerite had forgotten all about her husband” (p. 116): the immediate context means she had forgotten she had sent him a message saying she was ready to depart, but the wider context suggests she has forgotten—or would at least be quite willing to forget—her vows to him. Orczy thus continues to establish the magnificent status that the Pimpernel, as an embodied but anonymous ideal, occupies in Marguerite’s mind. The establishment of his magnitude to her will no doubt only compound the effect of his eventual revelation.
Incidentally, Orczy shows herself a keen observer of human nature with the humorous treatment of Marguerite’s neglect of Lord Fancourt: “sitting opposite to a lady, however fair, who is evidently not heeding the most vigorous efforts made for her entertainment, is not exhilarating, even for a Cabinet Minster” (p. 117). The moment is not only an enjoyable commentary on relations between the sexes but also shows Fancourt to be self-absorbed—perhaps just as self-absorbed as Marguerite wrongly imagines her husband to be!