I am bored to death.
Blakeney Manor in 1791 has its charms, I suppose, but its owner – in total honesty – is the most idiotic idiot to ever have the misfortune of being granted permission to walk this earth. I hate parties, and I hate soirees, and I would avoid this damned party if only poor Charles Bingley did not beg me to come.
You see, Sir Percy Blakeney is a baronet, and Bingley, being a tradesman’s son, is understandably nervous about meeting a nobleman, and the Prince of Dandies, no less.
As for myself, I think him a hopeless moron with not even passion to his credit. He is lazy, stupid, and above all frivolous, and all that I know in his favour is that he is persistent, but that is more often irritating than not. I do not hate him, but I loathe his presence. It feels like he is sucking all the intelligent discourse from whatever room he occupies.
My lips twist in a sneer of contempt and my hazel eyes with their unusual golden ring flash as I remember what Charles would say. “Be more cheerful, Darcy,” he would cajole. “Smile!”
But I cannot smile when I must frown.
“La! My dear fellow, what causes you to frown so? This is a ball, not a demmed funeral!”
The drawly voice startled me out of my angry reverie – and it is the voice of the very man I am annoyed with. “Sir Percy.” I bow. “May I be excused, my lord, for some fresh air? Methinks the air twixt your ears is a bit stale.” He nods jovially, missing my insult, and I sweep out of sight.
I huff as I lean on a balcony. That man is the most infuriating idiot I have ever had the misfortune of associating with.
I turn, only to see Sir Percy again. “My lord.” I am moments away from slapping my forehead in frustration and exasperation.
“Come with me.” His voice is sharp and seems deeper because it is no longer lazy and slow.
“What…?” What the hell happened? When did you get here? Why are you beckoning me with no trace of your usual sloth?
“Only come with me, Mr. Darcy, and I shall explain all.” His blue eyes, which I only now realize are always half-closed, are open and blazing intensely. I absentmindedly take note of their electric blue as I take in this completely new expression on his usually smirking face.
I follow, and he leads me down passageways I am too confused to count, to a door so nondescript I would normally bypass it. He opens it, and I step inside to the plainest, most simply furnished study I have ever seen.
My study is filled with books, and a tall window is stationed beside my desk, so that I may turn my head one way and see my tenants, and turn my head the other way and see my family. The furnishings are mostly blue, green, and gold; soft and understatedly fine. There would be no doubt to a viewer that that is the study of a man brought up with wealth and affluence.
Sir Percy’s, on the other hand, is almost painfully bare. The hangings are heavy, red-hued, and dark, with wide-spaced candles on wall-sconces providing golden light. On the dark, wooden desk rests a candlestick with three unlit candles and a stack of neat papers. The square wooden chair with upholstery only on the seat is nothing like I would expect from Sir Percy Blakeney. There is nothing on the walls, save two maps – of France, I realize – and a portrait of what I assume is Sir Percy’s mother, signed by Boucher.
This study is nothing like I thought, like its owner.
The man lights the three candlesticks, illuminating his face and his eyes. They are bright now, blazing with purpose. “How do you value innocence in a war, Mr. Darcy?” he asks, seating himself. His blond hair, so fair as to be called white, catches the light faintly.
There are no other chairs, and so I remain standing. “Innocence is ruined by war, in my opinion,” I state, fiery. “The innocent must be protected from the battlefield and the march.”
“That is damned true,” he says, truly cursing for the first time since I have met him.
He says nothing more, and I think he has dozed off until he asks, “Would you save innocents though their countrymen condemn them? Would you save them though you risk your own life doing it?”
I need not think before I answer. “I would, and gladly.”
“French, English, Irish alike?” His mouth is set in a grim line, quite unlike the annoying smirk he usually wears. What has come over the fellow?
I repeat my answer, my heart ringing with sincerity. I once was innocent – but then I became the master of an estate which was more than ten miles round. Floods, epidemics, murders – all of these have come under my jurisdiction, and they have been burned onto my mind and my heart. Death is a terrible thing, but misery is still more horrible. I have had to live with both.
“Very well answered,” Sir Percy says, and once more lapses into silence. I turn to leave.
“Would you like to do that, here and now?”
His question startles me just as I have my hand on the doorknob. I turn back to him, and say, hotly, “Show me the way and give me a sword, and I shall do it.”
He laughs – and it is not the fact that he laughs that surprises me, but the laugh itself. It is not the half-shy, half-inane laugh I have come to know as his trademark, but a deep, genuinely amused laugh that sounds better suited to Sir Percy.
“Ffoulkes! Dewhurst! Hastings!” he calls, and three men troop past me into the study, nearly bowling me over. I recognize Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Antony Dewhurst.
“What is it?” Sir Andrew inquires, his eyes flicking towards me with a speed I never knew he possessed.
“Why, it is Darcy!” my lord Dewhurst exclaims. “Is he here for –?”
“Indeed he is,” Sir Percy says. “Ffoulkes, Dewhurst, and Hastings – meet our newest member.”
I am stunned back into coherent speech. “Member?” Well, not as coherent as I hoped.
“Yes.” Sir Percy stands, and I back away. “I am recruiting members for a league that shall protect the innocent of the French aristocracy. Terrible thing, these demmed stirrings. There have been uprisings in France already – it would not surprise me if the ‘peasants’ rise up next week or next month.”
I knew this, but I had only cursed my inability to act. Now I am being given the chance, and I jump at it. “Are you asking me?” Swiftly the possibility of my demise flashes in my mind, and I think, ‘Richard or Alex can take care of Pemberley, and Richard is already a good cousin to Georgiana. I will do this. I will help as many as I can.’
His fair head bobs once. “Yes.”
“Then I shall join you, with all my heart,” say I fervently.
Sir Percy laughs. “That is the Darcy I have come to know. But here we are, and you must swear allegiance to the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.”
I interrupt him. “The Scarlet Pimpernel? That is a very… odd… nom de guerre.”
“Indeed.” A smile steals onto his lips. “Makes it all the more annoying, does it not, for those Frenchies to find that their ‘demmed aristocrats’ have been snatched from under their noses by a humble wayside flower?” He doffs an imaginary hat with a mocking bow.
I laugh. “Of course. But why scarlet?”
“Because we plan to avoid the spillage of blood,” Lord Dewhurst answers.
“La! We have already strayed far enough, men,” Sir Percy reproves. “Darcy – er… what’s your given name?”
“Fitzwilliam,” I reply sheepishly.
Sir Andrew laughs. “Fitzwilliam? Really?”
I strangely feel less fierce around the genially smiling group than among normal society, and so, unlike what I expected, I do not feel the urge to snarl ‘Don’t ask’ at him. Instead, I explain: “It was my mother’s maiden name.”
“No more questions, blast it!” Sir Percy snips, irritated but amused.
“Alright, alright!” chorus the three Leaguers.
“Fitzwilliam Darcy, do you swear allegiance to the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, to the Scarlet Pimpernel his very self” – here he winks at me – “and to your brothers-at-arms?”
What am I supposed to say? Er… “I swear.”
“Do you swear to save as many as you can, and to obey the commands of your leader implicitly?” The bounder, he’s enjoying this too much!
“And do you swear to keep this secret until the end of your life, only to mention your membership, the identities of the other members, and most of all the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel to those permitted by your leader?”
“I swear,” I answer, attempting his drawling accent.
Everybody laughs, even Sir Percy, and he finally says, “Sink me, Darcy, but you have it well!”
“Thank you, my lord,” I say.
“La! None of that!” he replies. “What name do you prefer?”
“Darcy,” I answer. I reserve the nicknames William, Will, and Fitz for my closest friends and family, and so I was not prepared to extend the privilege of those names to four men I hardly knew. Darcy was the default name I used, since Fitzwilliam was three syllables long and much more awkward than the easier Darcy. Even after being friends for years, Charles still calls me Darcy.
“Alright, Darcy – it takes so long to pronounce the names Society imposes on us, what? So to you, I am simply Percy, and this is Andrew – or Ffoulkes, he says it’s easier to say – Tony, and – is it Ed or Hastings?”
“Hastings,” says the only black-haired man in the group.
“Odd’s life! No need to be so irritated, Ed.” Sir Percy turns to me with a grin. “Lord Hastings’ name is Edward, but he prefers Hastings for some reason I can’t make out.”
I realize that I stand in front of two baronets and two lords. “I am a gentleman farmer, not nobility like you four,” I protest. “I should not address you so familiarly.”
“Bosh, my dear fellow. Titles mean nothing in the League,” Sir Percy tells me. “I would not have recruited you if I didn’t know for certain that you would do your tasks and demmed well too.”
I can do nothing but smile. “Thank you, sir.”