The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 16,17
Chapter XVI: Richmond
Summary: Back at their elegant home, Richmond, Marguerite, still in torment over her decision to save her brother Armand by alerting Chauvelin to the Scarlet Pimpernel’s planned meeting with Ffoulkes, and having grown nostalgic, then earnestly desirous of, rekindling the romance she and Sir Percy once shared, confronts her husband on the house’s front steps—who appears, inexplicably, to be making ready to leave the house—about his coldness toward her. He explains that she irreparably damaged his public reputation and his personal pride by not revealing, in advance of their marriage, that she had been responsible, however unwittingly, for the arrest and subsequent execution of the Marquis de Cyr. Marguerite protests, as she has in the past, her innocence, and the fact that she was used by de Cyr’s enemies. Sir Percy appears unmoved at first, but at length enough of his old affection toward Marguerite resurfaces that, when she confides in him about the danger her brother is in, he pledges his word that Armand will remain safe. Marguerite retires to her rooms for the night; unseen by her, Sir Percy falls to the ground, fervently kissing the steps upon which she has trod.
Analysis: This chapter is a set piece of sentiment, artfully executed by Orczy. She invokes symbolism throughout to reinforce the emotional interplay between the two characters: for example, we learn that Percy and Marguerite occupy separate chambers in Richmond, their elegant Tudor home, “well divided from each other by the whole width of the house, as far apart as their own lives had become” (p. 122). She also plays with the image of a “mask” in the chapter: Marguerite knows, as she talks with Percy, that his “very coldness was a mask” (p. 128) and it is, indeed, one that we the readers (but not Marguerite) see slip at the chapter’s close, as he breaks down and kisses where his wife has been standing: “He was a but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love…” (p. 131). The mask motif also, of course, serves to remind readers of Sir Percy’s secret identity. We have already seen (e.g., the novel’s very first chapter) that the Pimpernel disguises his face; in this chapter, we see that he is able to do so even without benefit of literal, physical costume. “The lazy, good-natured face looked strangely altered,” for example, when Marguerite pleads the love of her brother (p. 126); “Sir Percy’s face had become a shade more pale; and the look of determination and obstinancy appeared more marked than ever between his eyes” (p. 129)—the shift in his countenance as he resolves, within himself, to protect Armand. Even the couple’s approach to Richmond has to do with “masking”: the semi-darkness of the night “masks” (not Orczy’s word, but true nevertheless) the way Marguerite usually sees her husband—Percy’s “face in the moonlight looked singularly earnest, and recalled to Marguerite’s aching heart those happy days of courtship, before he had become the lazy nincompoop, the effete fop, whose life seemed spent in card and supper rooms” (p. 121). Even the way Percy drives the bay horses can be seen as a “slippage” of his mask, telegraphing to attentive readers a hint of his truly adventurous spirit: “To-night he seemed to have a very devil in his fingers, and the coach seemed to fly along the road, beside the river” (p. 120).
What is remarkable is that Orczy is developing Sir Percy as a rich and complex character beyond the mere fact of his double identity. He is also “doubled” within himself as Sir Percy, as the narrator’s allowance of readers into his thoughts (a shift in perspective that happens almost imperceptibly as the chapter progresses) makes clear: e.g., “Instictively, with sudden, overwhelming passion, at sight of her helplessness and of her grief, he stretched out his arms, and the next, would have seized her and held her to him… But pride had the better of it in this struggle once again…” (p. 129). In addition to concealing his secret identity as derring-doer from Marguerite, he also is concealing the true passion and abiding love he still feels for her. It is matched, we see, by the dormant depth of her feelings for him: “Suddenly it seemed to her that the only happiness in life could ever hold for her again would be in feeling that man’s kiss once more upon her lips” (p. 127)—language that, not inappropriately, evokes Marguerite’s reveries regarding the Pimpernel, her unknown idol, in previous chapters. Orczy has altogether deftly captured the estrangement between Marguerite and Percy, and readers can only wonder at this point whether their relationship will find satisfactory resolution.
Chapter XVII: Farewell
Summary: In the midst of a restless and fitful sleep, Marguerite hears Sir Percy leave a letter outside her door. She reads the letter to learn that Sir Percy, claiming he has been called away on important business, will be gone for the week. Clad only in her nightgown, Marguerite rushes to see him before he leaves. She stops him long enough to learn from him that his “business” has to do with ensuring Armand’s safety. Assured that her husband is working for her brother’s welfare, and having resolved to somehow win back his affections, Marguerite returns to bed and at last sleeps restfully.
Analysis: One interesting aspect of this chapter is the way that it structurally mirrors the incident in Chapters XII-XIII, in which Marguerite reads the Pimpernel’s note to Sir Ffoulkes. Then, she had to arrange a subterfuge by which to intercept the Pimpernel’s correspondence to his agent; now, her husband directly but secretly delivers to her a letter. Then, she noted the Pimpernel’s “distorted handwriting” (p. 102) and “hastily-scrawled little device” of the red flower (p. 104); now, she notes “her husband’s large, business-like looking hand” (p. 134). Then, the note was brief, only a few words; now, the letter is fulsome and overly formal in its manner of expression: e.g., Sir Percy signs with his full name (as opposed to the floral device he uses when writing as the Pimpernel). Then, the note was arranging a secret meeting; now, the letter is announcing Sir Percy’s departure (albeit for his own secret purposes). This clever structural mirroring underscores, for the reader, the identification of Sir Percy and the Pimpernel.