I have a special treat this week. The lovely and fabulously talented Lauren Willig will giveaway two copies of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and one audio copy of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily to commenters on this week’s post. If you haven’t yet discovered Lauren’s wonderful Pink Carnation Series, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. And if you’re already a devotee of the series, as I know many readers of this blog are, this is a great chance to have a copy autographed by Lauren.
Thinking about the inimitable Pink Carnation and Lauren’s other flower spies got me thinking about the Scarlet Pimpernel, an influence for Lauren (actually mentioned in the series) and for me and for countless other writers. My forthcoming The Paris Affair features a Scarlet Pimpernel type character coded named the Kestrel. I thought I would combine Lauren’s giveaway with my October teaser, an exchange between Suzanne/Mélanie and Raoul that introduces the Kestrel.
She stared at him. She used to be quicker. She’d been too absorbed by her own concerns. Now she saw the strain in the set of his mouth and the worry at the back of his eyes. “Who?”
“Who what?” He took another swallow of wine.
“You’re worried about someone new. Someone who’s been proscribed? Or is about to be. I should have seen it.”
She sat back against the bench, hit by the reality of how much things had changed. “You don’t trust me.” It was as though a well-worn cloak had been lifted from her shoulders on a cold day. “Can you honestly think I would betray one of our comrades—”
“I trust you with my life,” he said in a low, rough voice. “I’m trying to keep you from the intolerable burden of divided loyalties, my darling idiot.”
“It’s a bit late for that. You let me marry Malcolm. Not that I’m sorry you did.”
He kept his gaze on her face. “And I’m trying to avoid doing more damage to your marriage.”
“Since when have you been so driven by personal concerns?”
“Perhaps since personal concerns became all that are left to us. Or perhaps you had a somewhat exaggerated view of my ruthlessness.”
“You’ve quite neatly managed to change the subject.” She leaned forwards.”I won’t let you wrap me in cotton wool any more than I’ll let Malcolm do so.” That had become doubly important to her since she had left the work that had been the focus of her life for so long. “Who are you worried about now?”
Raoul released his breath in a harsh sigh. “Manon Caret.”
Suzanne drew a sharp breath. “But she’s—”
“No longer untouchable. She may still reign over Paris from the Comédie-Française, but that won’t hold much weight with Fouché.”
Suzanne swallowed. “Fouché knows Manon was a Bonapartist agent?”
“More to the point, others do and have denounced her. He’ll look soft if he doesn’t move against her. With the Ultra Royalists claiming he’s too moderate—God help us—he can’t afford any hint of softness. And I suspect he’s worried about what she knows.”
Suzanne shook her head at the idea of Manon Caret, the celebrated actress who had kept Raoul apprised of the doings of Royalists for years, facing arrest. “She’s on the proscribed list?”
“No, and I doubt she ever will be. Too many embarrassing questions. I doubt there’ll even be a trial. But Fouché’s planning to take her into custody. She’ll quietly disappear, probably never to be seen again.”
Suzanne nodded. Spies were rarely dealt with through official channels. “When?”
“According to my sources we have a week at most.”
Suzanne stared at the candlelight flickering in the depths of her wineglass. They had drunk Bordeaux the night she first met Manon Caret. Suzanne had been sixteen, raw from the dubious results of her first mission. Raoul had taken her along when he went to meet with Manon at the theatre late one evening. They’d watched the last act of The Marriage of Figaro, joined the throng of Manon’s admirers after the performance, then lingered on in her dressing room. Suzanne still recalled Manon going behind a gilt-edged dressing screen and emerging in a froth of sapphire silk and Valençiennes lace, despite the frivolous garment somehow transformed from charming, imperious actress to hardheaded agent. Hardheaded agent who had been remarkably kind to a sixteen-year-old girl still feeling her way in the espionage business, far more uncertain than she would admit to anyone, even herself.
She had drunk in the talk of the seasoned spies that night, as they sat round a branch of candles and a bottle of wine, surrounded by costumes and feathered masks and the smell of powder and greasepaint. She had met Manon a handful of times in the next two years, though Suzanne’s work had been on the Peninsula. And then, in 1811, Suzanne had been called upon to assist Hortense Bonaparte, the Empress Josephine’s daughter and Napoleon’s brother’s wife, who found herself with child by her lover. Suzanne had thought they were safe when Hortense delivered the baby safely in Switzerland and gave it into the care of her lover’s mother. But returned to Paris, Suzanne had learned that evidence about the child had fallen into the hands of Fouché, who wouldn’t hesitate to use it against Hortense or her mother. Suzanne had stolen the papers from the ministry of police before Fouché could make use of them. But she had had difficulty slipping out of the ministry. With a knife wound in her side and one of Fouché’s agents on her trail, she had sought refuge at the Comédie-Française with Manon. If she’d been caught with the stolen papers in her possession, she’d have faced prison and very likely execution as a spy, no matter that she was working for the French. Manon had dressed her wound between scenes, bundled her into a costume, and hidden her in plain sight onstage as one of Phèdre’s ladies-in-waiting. All at considerable risk to herself.
Suzanne snatched up her glass and took a sip of wine. “Manon probably saved my life. I’ve never forgot it.”
“Nor have I.” Raoul’s mouth turned grim.
One would almost think he blamed himself for her predicament that night, save that that was so very unlike Raoul. Suzanne pushed aside the thought. “What are you planning?”
“You must have a plan.”
He hesitated a moment. “I’ve made contact with the Kestrel.”
“The who? One of your former agents?” It wasn’t like Raoul to go in for fanciful code names.
He shook his head. “Not one of mine. Or anyone’s. He works for himself. For some years he wreaked havoc by rescuing Royalists from our prisons or from certain arrest.”
“And now he’s rescuing Bonapartists?”
“He claims to deplore wanton killing.”
“And you believe him?”
“I don’t have many other options. He was behind the rescue of Combre and Lefèvre’s escape.”
She leaned forwards. “I can help you.”
“No.” His voice cut across the table with quiet force.
“Since when have you been one to refuse aid? I assure you, I haven’t let myself grow rusty.”
Raoul’s gaze darkened. “For God’s sake, Suzanne. You have a husband, a son, a life. To be protected, for all the reasons you so cogently explained when you told me you were stopping your work.”
“This is different. Stopping my work doesn’t mean turning my back on my comrades.”
“The risk is still there.”
She gave a laugh, rough in her throat. “We live with risk.”
“You don’t have to anymore.”
She stared at him across the geraniums. “This isn’t like you.”
“Perhaps Waterloo changed me. Or perhaps I’ve always been less Machiavellian than you were inclined to believe.”
She pulled her wineglass closer. She’d loved Raoul, but she’d always known she couldn’t trust herself to him. Had her judgment of him been a form of defense, a way of protecting herself from disappointment? “I need to help. I need to do this.”
“Querida—” His gaze turned soft, in that way that always disconcerted her. “You don’t owe anyone anything. Least of all me. And Manon would tell you she knew the risks.”
Suzanne drew a harsh breath. For a moment, the table and the wineglass, the bottle and the vase of geraniums swam before her eyes. She saw Manon’s daughters, asleep on the sofa in the room that adjoined her dressing room. Then she saw Colin, eating a boiled egg with concentration when she had breakfast with him before she left the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré this morning. “I have to help, Raoul. Or I’ll go mad.”
“Because I’m safe. Or safer than most of us. Because I live in luxury, with the man I love and my child. Because I dine and dance with the victors and even count some of them as friends. Because for hours together I forget who I am and what I fought for. I forget that we lost.”
“All the more reason—”
“I wanted to stop betraying my husband. I didn’t want to lose myself.”
“You told me when you first recruited me that it was my decision, my choice what risks to run.” She saw them in the cramped, gaudy room in the brothel in Léon where he’d found her, surrounded by gilt and crimson draperies. “You always let me make up my own mind.” She swallowed, holding his gaze with her own. “It was one of the reasons I loved you.”
He returned her gaze for a long moment, his own steady and unreadable, then sat against the bench. “The Kestrel has a plan to get Manon out of Paris. Getting her out of France will be more difficult.”
Suzanne released her breath. “You’ll need travel documents. If I get you Castlereagh’s seal can you forge the rest?”
“It’s far less dangerous than half the things I did in Lisbon or Vienna. Castlereagh’s fond of me. I help smooth the waters with Malcolm.”
He took a drink of wine, as though still deciding. Then he gave a crisp nod, transformed back into the enigmatic spymaster. “I’ll be at the ball at the British embassy tonight.”
She nodded. “If you bring me the papers, I can add the seal, then return them to you. It will be simple—”
A faint smile crossed his face. “Don’t say it, querida. It’s like wishing an actor good luck.”
What do you think is responsible for the enduring appeal of the Scarlet Pimpernel? What are some of your favorite books and movies inspired by it?
I’ll post the winners of the contest nest Tuesday, 16 October.
I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Jane Chase to Mel/Suzette.