Lady Alexis Cassadine
A Story of Phillipe de Pontmercy and Isabella Charboneau
Chapter Two: The Many Providences of a Nunnery Veil
Realizing their helplessness in the Place de la Grève, Lady Hastings quickly led her quarry into a ramshackle building just around the corner. The facade looked to be the remnants of a large storage building of some sort, but now the empty doorway and broken window panes revealed, as though in testimony, the charred identification of a ravaging fire.
It was black as pitch inside, and the air hung rank with the scent of rotted wood. Isabella wrinkled her nose in disgust as Lady Hastings, with the aid of the moonlight spilling from a hole in the thatched roof, drew a tinderbox from a rickety shelf and lit a candle.
Isabella noted that Lady Hastings' face, now entirely illuminated as she held the candle before her, looked fiercely drawn and upset; no doubt the news from the alley spy had come as quite a bitter shock.
Turning, the Guild leader beckoned her two young friends into an even darker room at the rear of the narrow building, a room where no moonlight found quarter to penetrate. The candlelight revealed, as the trio passed into the maw of the chamber, a room much more intact than that in the building's fore; the fire had not consumed as much here. Enormous barrels and broken crates cluttered the floor about the legs of a lopsided wooden table sporting a lantern and a folded map. It was to this table that Lady Hastings directed her guests.
Phillipe closed the back room door, or, what was left of it, behind him and took a seat on one of four barrels encircling the table, motioning for Isabella to do the same.
"I must say that your news provides an unexpected twist to our plans," said Lady Hastings, seating herself and shakily lighting the lantern in the center of the table. "It's time for a bit of reformation, I'm afraid."
"So you brought us to Paris to help the Scarlet Pimpernel with his jailbreak in the morning," Phillipe thought aloud, keeping his voice barely above a whisper. "What are we to do now that they expect it?"
Lady Hastings glanced at Phillipe, arched one fine eyebrow, and grimaced. "That's precisely what I'd like to know!"
Isabella looked dejectedly at the floor as Lady Hastings turned and closed one cold hand over hers.
"Don't you fret, my dear. Without knowing what you've learned, we could all have fallen into a very, very well-laid trap. It's only your encounter in that alley that is going to save us all."
Isabella jolted her head up in shock...it almost sounded as though Lady Hastings was grateful to her for toppling into that man's trap!
She opened to mouth to protest, but one burning glance from Phillipe silenced the words in her throat. "Won't you tell us, Lady Hastings," Phillipe began, "what exactly the Pimpernel plans to do this morning? There must be a way to get around it."
Lady Hastings took a deep breath and cast a furtive glance into the shadows over both shoulders. Then, nodding in satisfaction, she leaned forward a bit to tell her story.
"Very well. The Scarlet Pimpernel and his League have made plans to watch the Temple Prison just after dawn, in disguise, of course, and rescue the Marquis de Vauche and his two young sons as they are brought out to be executed. His exact method is unknown to me. All I know is that, if what that man in the alley said holds true, there will be a detailed snare laid for the Pimpernel and, as he does not expect it, I daresay there is the likelihood that he will be caught. At all costs, it is our duty in the Violet Guild to prevent this from happening."
"But how?" Isabella whispered, terrified by the prospect that it was up to the three of them to save the entire League of the Scarlet Pimpernel from discovery.
Lady Hastings looked her companions over carefully. "That's just what we have three hours to decide."
Then, spreading the map of the Temple Prison and surrounding streets before them, Lady Hastings set to constructing a plan.
An hour later, the working trio had thrown out the vague trappings of a few separate ideas. It was already clear that there was no way to discourage the Pimpernel's rescue plan unless the Guilders themselves moved to rescue the Marquis and his sons...but that would require entry into the Temple Prison! The risks seemed to outnumber the stars, as did the complications!
"We could use disguises, then," Phillipe was saying, stifling a tremendous yawn. "We could disguise ourselves as soldiers, or—"
"Yes, but there's only three of us!" Isabella broke in, still a bit incredulous.
Lady Hastings scratched a vague trail on the map with one fingernail. "Yes, there are three of us, but only two of us will be able to get into the Prison. The last will have to remain outside to escort the Marquis and his sons to Percy's lodgings at Rue St. Anne."
Phillipe's head snapped up suddenly. "Then you know where he is? Well, why don't you just send a messenger there immediately, and tell Sir Percy to call the whole thing off?!"
"I'm afraid you don't understand," said Lady Hastings, shaking her head sadly. "Sir Percy doesn't know we exist. As the Violet Guild, I mean. He mustn't know we exist. Do you really think he would trust, or even accept, a note from anyone but a dear friend in Paris?"
Phillipe opened his mouth to argue, only to be cut off by Lady Hastings' persistent rebuke. "Besides, hiring a courier risks everything. We mustn't trust anyone. And you yourself said that the streets are carefully watched! That's why ourselves we must hide here until sunrise."
Sunrise. Probably only two hours away by now...Phillipe noted in silence.
"Well, let's go back to the idea of disguises," Isabella motioned, absently twisting a dark lock of her hair about two fingers. A long pause as everyone pondered. At last, she shrugged emphatically and shook her head, saying, "Oh, right. We haven't any disguises!"
Phillipe was a little surprised to see Lady Hastings smile a little, take the candle in her hand, and rise from the table in silence. Four eyes followed her slight frame as she moved towards the darkest corner of the chamber, picking her delicate way over the broken wood and like debris that littered the floor, until at last the candlelight unhid the shape of a large plank door, hitherto concealed by the night. Lady Hastings paused for a moment and seemed to search the walls for something. Then, apparently finding what she sought (a small item that looked like a key), she turned and opened the door, drawing twin gasps from the lips of her two companions. There, in the darkness, was a closet stocked full of wigs, costumes, and disguises of all sorts, hung in layers on a row of pegs in the wall.
Smiling faintly, Lady Hastings replaced the key to its hook on the wall and set to explaining. "This back room was once used by Sir Percy and the League themselves, until the fire. It was in this room that they plotted a good many of their last-minute schemes. We have all the disguises we need right here."
Isabella smiled and nodded slowly in understanding. "And the fire? How did it happen?"
"My husband, Lord Timothy Hastings, of course, told me that the Bounders staged the fire themselves, to avoid suspicion by the French authorities. They were afraid that, since they were using the deserted building so frequently at that time, the authorities would notice and begin watching them. So they burnt it and found a new rendez-vous point, on the Rue St. Anne. This supply room here," and she indicated the closet, "was kept locked here for emergencies."
"Like this one," Phillipe added.
Rising from the table and discarding her heavy cloak,
Isabella moved forward. "Well, I suppose we should all have a look."
At the sideyard entry of the Temple Prison, a guard tore his wistful gaze away from the sunrise and saw three figures approaching. Blinking, he raised his musket and tried to look formidable. Squinting into the breaking sunlight, his eyes noted the foremost character first. It looked to be clad in the robes of a prioress, or senior nun, of the Catholic or Benedictine church, and seemed to wobble rather than walk, hands stationed easily on the stomach. Then, the soldier's eyes bulged as he noted the figure's stoutness; it seemed to him that he had seen houses with less volume! Pardieu, the woman was huge! Even more so when compared to the two slight figures flanking her, nuns of lesser station, perhaps, both of them small and fragile in build. All three wore their faces veiled, as all ladies of the cloister, at that time, were required to do when seen out in the open.
Out of perfunctory respect, the soldier bowed his head a little as the three ladies drew near; he was even more shocked by the central woman's size up close.
"We've come to pray with the prisoners this morning," said the central nun, the apparent prioress, speaking in a voice that was quite nasal and far from charming.
"I'm sorry, mesdames," the soldier answered, contorting his mouth to keep from laughing. Beneath the gauze veil, the woman's face was as unbelievable as her size; her nose was large enough to be indecent. Thank the Lord, the guard thought to himself, that such women become nuns and have to wear veils. "No one is allowed into the Temple Prison at this hour."
The prioress stomped her feet and looked abhorred. "But...but...we've been sent all the way from the convent of Rue Petit-Picpus! Shall we go all the way back without our morning penitence?"
The soldier jerked upright in attention. Petit-Picpus! Although he was a simple soldier and knew very little of religion, he knew that the Benedictine nuns of Petit-Picpus were among the most holy in the nation. They were so religious that they were all, with the exception of the central nun, now undoubtedly a high-stationed prioress, sentenced to a lifetime vow of silence, never ate meat, slept on straw mats at all times of the year, and never even took baths. He gulped as he realized that his soul could be damned to hell—or worse—if he didn't let them in.
Still, out of sense of duty, he attempted a brief protest. "But my orders, mesdames—"
The soldier nearly leapt three feet backwards as the prioress spread her arms in a wild arc and brought them down again clasped in prayer. Seeing her actions, the two lesser sisters bowed their heads and likewise folded their hands. "Oh, Lord!" the great prioress sang out to the sky, her voice throbbing with a dramatic and grand vibrato, "please take pity on this foolish, simple man and spare him from the flames! Help him, rather, to see the folly of his ways and, by Your majestic hand, turn from them!"
"Let him turn from them," the two smaller nuns chanted in unison.
The soldier felt a bitter chill run along his spine as each of his accumulated superstitions aroused themselves.
"Lord, I pray You will not condemn this pitiful man's soul merely because he stands in our noble way of pleasing You, Lord of the Universe! I beg you direct his step from the way of Evil as he stands now, preventing our holy ventures with his thanklessly-granted authority!"
"Forgive his thanklessly-granted authority," the nuns chanted.
One of the lesser nuns caught the soldier casting frantic glances about the sideyard, as though he expected to be struck down by lightning at any moment.
"I pray Thee, Heavenly Father, save him and let not the clutches of Hellfire fall upon him and his ignorance of You and reluctance to—"
"Pardon, mesdames," the soldier interjected, his brow beaded with cold sweat, "but I just remembered that the rules have been changed. You may enter the prison freely, and with my escort."
The prioress, seemingly satisfied, silenced her wailings and stared at him. Then a brief smile crept serenely over her homely face. She looked to heaven once more and cried, very loudly, "Thank you, Lord!"
The soldier grimaced shyly. "Come then, I'll lead you to the prisoners."
Bustling past him, and barely squeezing herself through the door as she did so, the largest nun made the sign of the cross wildly in the air and said, "Bless you, my son."
The soldier blushed a bit and followed her down the dark hallway, signaling to another sentry up ahead to take his place at the doorway. He didn't notice Lady Hastings, in disguise, of course, detaching herself from the trio of nuns and making her silent way back to the sideyard, to wait eagerly for the return of her victorious quarry.
Once the guard
had led them to the main area of the prison, he left their company promptly,
apparently still embarrassed by his odd encounter in the sideyard. The remaining
two nuns were glad of his departure, and set to work immediately.
Phillipe, disguised immaculately as the huge prioress, moved quickly to one of the nearest prisoners and asked where the Marquis de Vauche could be found. Absently, the man pointed to the furthermost corner of the room, where indeed sat a very handsome, if very sad-looking, man, probably in his early thirties, and two young boys, one asleep in his knee, the other on his shoulder. They looked to be very close in age.
Isabella felt a tremendous lump forming in her throat. There were children everywhere, with wide eyes, torn clothes and dirty faces, some crying, but most asleep on their parents' laps. And the poor parents...to have to sit helplessly and wait for themselves and their children to be lead to their deaths...everywhere, through the mask of her nunnery veil, she saw tarnished silks and shredded laces where once had been divine finery, disheveled wigs and filthy, distorted faces where once had been grace and beauty, and haunted eyes and lips where smiles had once danced and laughter had rippled the air.
Here and now, she saw only condemnation and profound misery.
Misery, and the prevailing, warning presence of death...
Phillipe motioned to her, and staggered, gathering his weight in his hands once more, to the corner harboring the shattered-looking Marquis de Vauche and his children.
The Marquis gazed forlornly up at them as they approached; not a trace of mirth touched his expression, unlike the soldier at the sideyard door. He waited patiently for the faux prioress to speak.
"We've come to pray with you, sir," said Phillipe in a low, soothing voice that woke one of the boys from his faint sleep. "If you would come with us to the back of the prison...?" and he gestured to a dark room in the rear of the main chamber, where the prisoners were, once every two weeks, allowed to go to confession, at the holy insistence of the Catholic church.
The Marquis followed the direction of the hand wordlessly, then returned his gaze to that of the prioress. "I'm afraid there would be little object to that, madame," he said, in a broken voice that plunged deep into Isabella's already-softened heart. "My boys and I are to be led from here today."
Phillipe sadly noted that the Marquis directly avoided using any words more articulate than "led from here" for the benefit of the two young children stirring about him.
"Perhaps, but if you will keep faith and come with us to the confessionary, you shall be saved."
The Marquis took a moment to tousle the dark hair of the boy on his knee, and then rose slowly, wearily, and moved to the rear of the chamber. Phillipe and Isabella, casting stray glances over their shoulders, followed closely behind.
The confessionary door closed with a discreet "click" and Phillipe turned to address the Marquis seriously.
"Come," he said, lifting his robes, much to the utter shock of the Marquis, and detaching from his belt the bundle of straw and additional nun costume that had made him so enormous in the first place. "Put this on."
The Marquis accepted the nun costume in incredulous shock. "What—what is the meaning of this?" he asked quietly.
Isabella laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Don't be afraid. We've been sent to get you out of here today."
"And...and my boys?" the Marquis asked desperately, his voice suddenly raw with amazement.
"Come here, children," Phillipe said, bending down with ease now that his cumbersome belly had been removed. "We're going to take you away from this place."
The Marquis, at last deciding that these two visitors knew what they were doing, turned to clad himself in the nun's costume as Isabella moved forward to help the boys. The latter thought she heard the older man murmur a series of tearfully beautiful prayers to heaven.
Ever so gently, she lifted the first child, who looked to be no more than two or three, and secured his hands into two loops on Phillipe's belt, until he could hang there quite easily, with his knees drawn up to his chest and his feet settled in a pair of stirrups attached to the special belt, procured that very morning from stable accessories by Phillipe himself. Next, his slightly older brother was attached in the same manner, giggling a bit at the odd position in which they both found themselves. The giggles increased when the Marquis turned round; Isabella was just helping him drape the veil over his face as the boys recognized their father in women's clothing. The Marquis shushed them promptly.
Isabella knelt then and placed a trembling hand on each of the boys' faces.
"Now then, children, there is only one way for us to get out you of here, and that is for you to be completely silent until we tell you that it is safe. Do you understand?"
The boys nodded absently and giggled a little.
Isabella cast an uncertain glance at the veiled Marquis.
Nodding, the man knelt in the hay and turned to his children, his face unsmiling. Isabella removed the veil to produce a more serious effect.
"Boys, you listen to me. Not a word until our friends here tell you that it is safe. Not a single sound. You want to get out of here, don't you?"
The boys nodded feverishly.
"Very well then. Not a sound."
The boys were silent as Phillipe dropped the folds of his padded black robe over the boys' heads and shifted his weight. Isabella helped him to adjust the shape of his belly as the Marquis looked on with wondering eyes.
"Let's get out of here then," Isabella said, and, replacing the Marquis' veil over his still-awed face, she turned the handle of the confessionary door and prepared to go back into the fire.
Only a few heads turned as the trio abandoned the confessionary, and those only turned back again in the next instant. The only guards to be found in the spreading chamber were cluttered near the main entryway, chatting and paying less than no attention to the movements of the three harmless-looking ladies in black.
As the three of them drew up close to the doorway, the soldier from the beginning of the venture looked them over with curiosity.
"Finished so soon, mesdames? Haven't you any more prayers for the day?"
"There is little praying to be done here, sir," said Phillipe the prioress, once more assuming that same cranky, nasal tone. "These people are all doomed, are they not?"
"Well...yes, of course," said the soldier, throwing his shoulders back with pride at recalling the misguided import of his occupation. "They're all wretched aristocrats. We all know the city will be better off without them."
Phillipe held back a vicious urge to attack the guard for such words...then, remembering the silent children clinging to his waist, fully dependent on the discretion of his actions, he restrained himself and departed down the tunnel with a forced and pretentious "harumph!"
A couple of the soldiers snickered a little as Phillipe attempted to squeeze himself and his generous padding once more through the prison door. The sentry from the sideyard hushed them frantically, and attempted to quickly explain the consequences of teasing a lady of God so, only receiving a volley of riotous laughter for his efforts. Indignant, he turned to escort the nuns from the prison in silence.
Isabella, Phillipe, and the Marquis crossed the sideyard with the weight of the soldier's gaze upon them. They felt him thinking...three had gone in, and three had gone out again. Perfect. With any luck, there would be no suspicion, until later that morning when the Marquis de Vauche and his children were found missing...
The carriage hired by Lady Hastings, now replaced in her usual garments, waited just ahead, placed at the corner just out of the sight of the guards at the Temple. Isabella, her heart heavy as lead with the memory of all she had seen in the grim prison, found herself falling a step behind her companions. Pensive, she couldn't seem tear her thoughts away from the sorrow, the infinite humiliation and— Only the rattle of an approaching carriage brought her back to reality. A black carriage, drawn by two equally black horses, was headed straight for her. She dodged the wheels effortlessly, turning to watch the carriage reel to the side, and, as she did, something there in the darkness of the vehicle made her blood run like winter rain. The man from the alley! He sat there, in the carriage, with the bearing of a king, looking out at her...their eyes met for only a second...
Isabella recognized him in a heartbeat; the little she had seen of him in the alley seemed forever engraved into her mind, and she felt that she could have identified his lean features anywhere. Fortunately, by the providence of the veil, he didn't seem to recognize her. Or did he..? Then, the face was gone, but she watched in horror as the carriage slowed to a halt in the sideyard of the Temple Prison. She took a furtive glance over her shoulder...Phillipe, by this time, was on his way a few dozen paces ahead; he had quickened his step with the appearance of the speeding carriage.
A sudden urge drove her to act against her every conviction; instead of following Phillipe, as she knew she should have done, she hid herself behind a vacant cart in the sideyard to watch the antics of the men in the carriage, removing her nun's robes, habit, and veil and concealing them beneath the very handy cart. She knew not why she removed them, now standing clad in the new lavender gown she had purchased before her journey to France...she only assumed that it would be easier to make a hasty escape without the cumbersome outer garments... Just in case, of course, a very hasty escape was called for...
The first to step forth was a soldier, clad in the same intimidating red, white, and blue of the new Republic. The next was a lackey of some sort, clad in very simple black-and-white lower-class garb, who stepped down from the carriage to hold the door open for the next to disembark. The soldier at the Temple door approached the carriage and opened his mouth to speak...Isabella leaned forth, ears attentive.
"The Temple does not open for another half-hour, Citizen Chauvelin."
The next man to emerge from the carriage, clad head to foot in solid black broadcloth but for the Republic ribbon pinned to his lapel, the man from the alley, answered at the sound of his name.
"The governor of the Prison expects me."
That voice! Chauvelin. That most wretched of names... Isabella turned to flee in terror...the air flew from her lungs in a rush as her body collided with those of two French soldiers, the both of them far taller, stronger, meaner, and more fluently armed than she. Thus, she didn't even attempt to fight as they took her arms and marched her, scarcely holding off a fit of hysteria, into the darkness of Citizen Chauvelin's black shadow on the cobblestone pavement.
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