AN EXQUISITE OF '92
Sir Percy Blakeney, as the chronicles of the time inform us,
was in this year of grace 1792, still a year or two on the right side
of thirty. Tall, above the average, even for an Englishman,
broad-shouldered and massively built, he would have been called
unusually good-looking, but for a certain lazy expression in his
deep-set blue eyes, and that perpetual inane laugh which seemed to
disfigure his strong, clearly-cut mouth.
It was nearly a year ago now that Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart.,
one of the richest men in England, leader of all the fashions, and
intimate friend of the Prince of Wales, had astonished fashionable
society in London and Bath by bringing home, from one of his journeys
abroad, a beautiful, fascinating, clever, French wife. He, the
sleepiest, dullest, most British Britisher that had ever set a pretty
woman yawning, had secured a brilliant matrimonial prize for which, as
all chroniclers aver, there had been many competitors.
Marguerite St. Just had first made her DEBUT in artistic
Parisian circles, at the very moment when the greatest social upheaval
the world has ever known was taking place within its very walls.
Scarcely eighteen, lavishly gifted with beauty and talent, chaperoned
only by a young and devoted brother, she had soon gathered round her,
in her charming apartment in the Rue Richelieu, a coterie which was as
brilliant as it was exclusive--exclusive, that is to say, only from
one point of view. Marguerite St. Just was from principle and by
conviction a republican--equality of birth was her motto--inequality
of fortune was in her eyes a mere untoward accident, but the only
inequality she admitted was that of talent. "Money and titles may be
hereditary," she would say, "but brains are not," and thus
charming salon was reserved for originality and intellect, for
brilliance and wit, for clever men and talented women, and the
entrance into it was soon looked upon in the world of intellect--which
even in those days and in those troublous times found its pivot in
Paris--as the seal to an artistic career.
Clever men, distinguished men, and even men of exalted station
formed a perpetual and brilliant court round the fascinating young
actress of the Comedie Francaise, and she glided through republican,
revolutionary, bloodthirsty Paris like a shining comet with a trail
behind her of all that was most distinguished, most interesting, in
Then the climax came. Some smiled indulgently and called it
an artistic eccentricity, others looked upon it as a wise provision,
in view of the many events which were crowding thick and fast in Paris
just then, but to all, the real motive of that climax remained a
puzzle and a mystery. Anyway, Marguerite St. Just married Sir Percy
Blakeney one fine day, just like that, without any warning to her
friends, without a SOIREE DE CONTRAT or DINER DE FIANCAILLES or
other appurtenances of a fashionable French wedding.
How that stupid, dull Englishman ever came to be admitted
within the intellectual circle which revolved round "the cleverest
woman in Europe," as her friends unanimously called her, no one
ventured to guess--golden key is said to open every door, asserted the
more malignantly inclined.
Enough, she married him, and "the cleverest woman in Europe"
had linked her fate to that "demmed idiot" Blakeney, and not even
most intimate friends could assign to this strange step any other
motive than that of supreme eccentricity. Those friends who knew,
laughed to scorn the idea that Marguerite St. Just had married a fool
for the sake of the worldly advantages with which he might endow her.
They knew, as a matter of fact, that Marguerite St. Just cared nothing
about money, and still less about a title; moreover, there were at
least half a dozen other men in the cosmopolitan world equally
well-born, if not so wealthy as Blakeney, who would have been only too
happy to give Marguerite St. Just any position she might choose to covet.
As for Sir Percy himself, he was universally voted to be
totally unqualified for the onerous post he had taken upon himself.
His chief qualifications for it seemed to consist in his blind
adoration for her, his great wealth and the high favour in which he
stood at the English court; but London society thought that, taking
into consideration his own intellectual limitations, it would have
been wiser on his part had he bestowed those worldly advantages upon a
less brilliant and witty wife.
Although lately he had been so prominent a figure in
fashionable English society, he had spent most of his early life
abroad. His father, the late Sir Algernon Blakeney, had had the
terrible misfortune of seeing an idolized young wife become hopelessly
insane after two years of happy married life. Percy had just been
born when the late Lady Blakeney fell prey to the terrible malady
which in those days was looked upon as hopelessly incurable and
nothing short of a curse of God upon the entire family. Sir Algernon
took his afflicted young wife abroad, and there presumably Percy was
educated, and grew up between an imbecile mother and a distracted
father, until he attained his majority. The death of his parents
following close upon one another left him a free man, and as Sir
Algernon had led a forcibly simple and retired life, the large
Blakeney fortune had increased tenfold.
Sir Percy Blakeney had travelled a great deal abroad, before
he brought home his beautiful, young, French wife. The fashionable
circles of the time were ready to receive them both with open arms;
Sir Percy was rich, his wife was accomplished, the Prince of Wales
took a very great liking to them both. Within six months they were
the acknowledged leaders of fashion and of style. Sir Percy's coats
were the talk of the town, his inanities were quoted, his foolish
laugh copied by the gilded youth at Almack's or the Mall. Everyone
knew that he was hopelessly stupid, but then that was scarcely to be
wondered at, seeing that all the Blakeneys for generations had been
notoriously dull, and that his mother died an imbecile.
Thus society accepted him, petted him, made much of him, since
his horses were the finest in the country, his FETES and wines the
most sought after. As for his marriage with "the cleverest woman in
Europe," well! the inevitable came with sure and rapid footsteps. No
one pitied him, since his fate was of his own making. There were
plenty of young ladies in England, of high birth and good looks, who
would have been quite willing to help him to spend the Blakeney
fortune, whilst smiling indulgently at his inanities and his
good-humoured foolishness. Moreover, Sir Percy got no pity, because
he seemed to require none--he seemed very proud of his clever wife,
and to care little that she took no pains to disguise that
good-natured contempt which she evidently felt for him, and that she
even amused herself by sharpening her ready wits at his expense.
But then Blakeney was really too stupid to notice the ridicule
with which his wife covered him, and if his matrimonial relations with
the fascinating Parisienne had not turned out all that his hopes and
his dog-like devotion for her had pictured, society could never do
more than vaguely guess at it.
In his beautiful house at Richmond he played second fiddle to
his clever wife with imperturbable BONHOMIE; he lavished jewels and
luxuries of all kinds upon her, which she took with inimitable grace,
dispensing the hospitality of his superb mansion with the same
graciousness with which she had welcomed the intellectual coterie of
Physically, Sir Percy Blakeney was undeniably handsome--always
excepting the lazy, bored look which was habitual to him. He was
always irreproachable dressed, and wore the exaggerated "Incroyable"
fashions, which had just crept across from Paris to England, with the
perfect good taste innate in an English gentleman. On this special
afternoon in September, in spite of the long journey by coach, in
spite of rain and mud, his coat set irreproachably across his fine
shoulders, his hands looked almost femininely white, as they emerged
through billowy frills of finest Mechline lace: the extravagantly
short-waisted satin coat, wide-lapelled waistcoat, and tight-fitting
striped breeches, set off his massive figure to perfection, and in
repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood,
until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane
laugh, brought one's admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.
He had lolled into the old-fashioned inn parlour, shaking the
wet off his fine overcoat; then putting up a gold-rimmed eye-glass to
his lazy blue eye, he surveyed the company, upon whom an embarrassed
silence had suddenly fallen.
"How do, Tony? How do, Ffoulkes?" he said, recognizing the
two young men and shaking them by the hand. "Zounds, my dear fellow,"
he added, smothering a slight yawn, "did you ever see such a beastly
Demmed climate this."
With a quaint little laugh, half of embarrassment and half of sarcasm,
Marguerite had turned towards her husband, and was surveying him from
head to foot, with an amused little twinkle in her merry blue eyes.
"La!" said Sir Percy, after a moment or two's silence, as no
one offered any comment, "how sheepish you all look. . .What's up?"
"Oh, nothing, Sir Percy," replied Marguerite, with a certain
amount of gaiety, which, however, sounded somewhat forced,
"nothing to disturb your equanimity--only an insult to your wife."
The laugh which accompanied this remark was evidently intended to
reassure Sir Percy as to the gravity of the incident. It apparently
succeeded in that, for echoing the laugh, he rejoined placidly--
"La, m'dear! you don't say so. Begad! who was the bold man
who dared to tackle you--eh?"
Lord Tony tried to interpose, but had no time to do so, for
the young Vicomte had already quickly stepped forward.
"Monsieur," he said, prefixing his little speech with an
elaborate bow, and speaking in broken English, "my mother, the
Comtesse de Tournay de Basserive, has offenced Madame, who, I see, is
your wife. I cannot ask your pardon for my mother; what she does is
right in my eyes. But I am ready to offer you the usual reparation
between men of honour."
The young man drew up his slim stature to its full height and
looked very enthusiastic, very proud, and very hot as he gazed at six
foot odd of gorgeousness, as represented by Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart.
"Lud, Sir Andrew," said Marguerite, with one of her merry
infectious laughs, "look on that pretty picture--the English turkey
and the French bantam."
The simile was quite perfect, and the English turkey looked
down with complete bewilderment upon the dainty little French bantam,
which hovered quite threateningly around him.
"La! sir," said Sir Percy at last, putting up his eye glass
and surveying the young Frenchman with undisguised wonderment, "where,
in the cuckoo's name, did you learn to speak English?"
"Monsieur!" protested the Vicomte, somewhat abashed at the way
his warlike attitude had been taken by the ponderous-looking Englishman.
"I protest `tis marvellous!" continued Sir Percy,
imperturbably, "demmed marvellous! Don't you think so, Tony--eh?
I vow I can't speak the French lingo like that. What?"
"Nay, I'll vouch for that!" rejoined Marguerite, "Sir Percy
has a British accent you could cut with a knife."
"Monsieur," interposed the Vicomte earnestly, and in still
more broken English, "I fear you have not understand. I offer you the
only posseeble reparation among gentlemen."
"What the devil is that?" asked Sir Percy, blandly.
"My sword, Monsieur," replied the Vicomte, who, though still
bewildered, was beginning to lose his temper.
"You are a sportsman, Lord Tony," said Marguerite, merrily;
"ten to one on the little bantam."
But Sir Percy was staring sleepily at the Vicomte for a moment
or two, through his partly closed heavy lids, then he smothered
another yawn, stretched his long limbs, and turned leisurely away.
"Lud love you, sir," he muttered good-humouredly. "demmit,
young man, what's the good of your sword to me?"
What the Vicomte thought and felt at that moment, when that
long-limbed Englishman treated him with such marked insolence, might
fill volumes of sound reflections. . . . What he said resolved itself
into a single articulate word, for all the others were choked in his
throat by his surging wrath--
"A duel, Monsieur," he stammered.
Once more Blakeney turned, and from his high altitude looked
down on the choleric little man before him; but not even for a second
did he seem to lose his own imperturbable good-humour. He laughed his
own pleasant and inane laugh, and burying his slender, long hands into
the capacious pockets of his overcoat, he said leisurely--a
bloodthirsty young ruffian, Do you want to make a hole in a
law-abiding man?. . .As for me, sir, I never fight duels," he added,
as he placidly sat down and stretched his long, lazy legs out before him.
"Demmed uncomfortable things, duels, ain't they, Tony?"
Now the Vicomte had no doubt vaguely heard that in England the
fashion of duelling amongst gentlemen had been surpressed by the law
with a very stern hand; still to him, a Frenchman, whose notions of
bravery and honour were based upon a code that had centuries of
tradition to back it, the spectacle of a gentleman actually refusing
to fight a duel was a little short of an enormity. In his mind he
vaguely pondered whether he should strike that long-legged Englishman
in the face and call him a coward, or whether such conduct in a lady's
presence might be deemed ungentlemanly, when Marguerite happily interposed.
"I pray you, Lord Tony," she said in that gentle, sweet,
musical voice of hers, "I pray you play the peacemaker. The child is
bursting with rage, and," she added with a SOUPCON of dry sarcasm,
"might do Sir Percy an injury." She laughed a mocking little laugh,
which, however, did not in the least disturb her husband's placid
equanimity. "The British turkey has had the day," she said.
"Sir Percy would provoke all the saints in the calendar and keep
his temper the while."
But already Blakeney, good-humoured as ever, had joined in the
laugh against himself.
"Demmed smart that now, wasn't it?" he said, turning
pleasantly to the Vicomte. "Clever woman my wife, sir. . . . You
will find THAT out if you live long enough in England."
"Sir Percy is right, Vicomte," here interposed Lord Antony,
laying a friendly hand on the young Frenchman's shoulder. "It would
hardly be fitting that you should commence your career in England by
provoking him to a duel."
For a moment longer the Vicomte hesitated, then with a slight shrug of
the shoulders directed against the extraordinary code of honour prevailing
in this fog-ridden island, he said with becoming dignity,--
"Ah, well! if Monsieur is satisfied, I have no griefs. You
mi'lor', are our protector. If I have done wrong, I withdraw myself."
"Aye, do!" rejoined Blakeney, with a long sigh of
satisfaction, "withdraw yourself over there. Demmed excitable little
puppy," he added under his breath, "Faith, Ffoulkes, if that's
specimen of the goods you and your friends bring over from France, my
advice to you is, drop `em `mid Channel, my friend, or I shall have to
see old Pitt about it, get him to clap on a prohibitive tariff, and
put you in the stocks an you smuggle."
"La, Sir Percy, your chivalry misguides you," said Marguerite,
coquettishly, "you forget that you yourself have imported one bundle
of goods from France."
Blakeney slowly rose to his feet, and, making a deep and
elaborate bow before his wife, he said with consummate gallantry,--
"I had the pick of the market, Madame, and my taste is unerring."
"More so than your chivalry, I fear," she retorted sarcastically.
"Odd's life, m'dear! be reasonable! Do you think I am going
to allow my body to be made a pincushion of, by every little
frog-eater who don't like the shape of your nose?"
"Lud, Sir Percy!" laughed Lady Blakeney as she bobbed him a
quaint and pretty curtsey, "you need not be afraid! `Tis not the
MEN who dislike the shape of my nose."
"Afraid be demmed! Do you impugn my bravery, Madame? I don't
patronise the ring for nothing, do I, Tony? I've put up the fists with
Red Sam before now, and--and he didn't get it all his own way either--"
"S'faith, Sir Percy," said Marguerite, with a long and merry
laugh, that went enchoing along the old oak rafters of the parlour, "I
would I had seen you then. . .ha! ha! ha! ha!--you must have looked
a pretty picture. . . .and. . .and to be afraid of a little French
boy. . .ha! ha!. . .ha! ha!"
"Ha! ha! ha! he! he! he!" echoed Sir Percy, good-humouredly.
"La, Madame, you honour me! Zooks! Ffoulkes, mark ye that!
I have made my wife laugh!--The cleverest woman in Europe!. . .Odd's
fish, we must have a bowl on that!" and he tapped vigorously on the
table near him. "Hey! Jelly! Quick, man! Here, Jelly!"
Harmony was once more restored. Mr. Jellyband, with a mighty
effort, recovered himself from the many emotions he had experienced
within the last half hour. "A bowl of punch, Jelly, hot and strong,
eh?" said Sir Percy. "The wits that have just made a clever woman
laugh must be whetted! Ha! ha! ha! Hasten, my good Jelly!"
"Nay, there is no time, Sir Percy," interposed Marguerite.
"The skipper will be here directly and my brother must get on board,
or the DAY DREAM will miss the tide."
"Time, m'dear? There is plenty of time for any gentleman to
get drunk and get on board before the turn of the tide."
"I think, your ladyship," said Jellyband, respectfully, "that
the young gentleman is coming along now with Sir Percy's skipper."
"That's right," said Blakeney, "then Armand can join us in
merry bowl. Think you, Tony," he added, turning towards the Vicomte,
"that the jackanapes of yours will join us in a glass? Tell him that
we drink in token of reconciliation."
"In fact you are all such merry company," said Marguerite,
"that I trust you will forgive me if I bid my brother good-bye in
It would have been bad form to protest. Both Lord Antony and
Sir Andrew felt that Lady Blakeney could not altogether be in tune
with them at the moment. Her love for her brother, Armand St. Just,
was deep and touching in the extreme. He had just spent a few weeks with
her in her English home, and was going back to serve his country, at the
moment when death was the usual reward for the most enduring devotion.
Sir Percy also made no attempt to detain his wife. With that
perfect, somewhat affected gallantry which characterised his every
movement, he opened the coffee-room door for her, and made her the
most approved and elaborate bow, which the fashion of the time
dictated, as she sailed out of the room without bestowing on him more
than a passing, slightly contemptuous glance. Only Sir Andrew
Ffoulkes, whose every thought since he had met Suzanne de Tournay
seemed keener, more gentle, more innately sympathetic, noted the
curious look of intense longing, of deep and hopeless passion, with
which the inane and flippant Sir Percy followed the retreating figure
of his brilliant wife.
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