The Elusive Pimpernel
XII : Time--Place—Conditions
It would be very difficult indeed to say why--at Blakeney's lightly spoken words--an
immediate silence should have fallen upon all those present. All the actors in the little
drawing-room drama, who had played their respective parts so unerringly up to now, had
paused a while, just as if an invisible curtain had come down, marking the end of a scene,
and the interval during which the players might recover strength and energy to resume
their roles. The Prince of Wales as foremost spectator said nothing for the moment, and
beyond the doorway, the audience there assembled seemed suddenly to be holding its
breath, waiting--eager, expectant, palpitation--for what would follow now.
Only here and there the gentle frou-frou of a silk skirt, the rhythmic flutter of a fan, broke
those few seconds' deadly, stony silence.
Yet it was all simple enough. A fracas between two ladies, the gentlemen interposing, a
few words of angry expostulation, then the inevitable suggestion of Belgium or of some
other country where the childish and barbarous custom of settling such matters with a
couple of swords had not been as yet systematically stamped out.
The whole scene--with but slight variations--had occurred scores of times in London
drawing-rooms, English gentlemen had scores of times crossed the Channel for the
purpose of settling similar quarrels in continental fashion.
Why should the present situation appear so abnormal? Sir Percy Blakeney--an
accomplished gentleman--was past master in the art of fence, and looked more than a
match in strength and dexterity for the meagre, sable-clad little opponent who had so
summarily challenged him to cross over to France, in order to fight a duel.
But somehow everyone had a feeling at this moment that this proposed duel would be
unlike any other combat every fought between two antagonists. Perhaps it was the white,
absolutely stony and unexpressive face of Marguerite which suggested a latent tragedy:
perhaps it was the look of unmistakable horror in Juliette's eyes, or that of triumph in
those of Chauvelin, or even that certain something in His Royal Highness' face, which
seemed to imply that the Prince, careless man of the world as he was, would have given
much to prevent this particular meeting from taking place.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that a certain wave of electrical excitement swept over
the little crowd assembled there, the while the chief actor in the little drama, the
inimitable dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney himself, appeared deeply engrossed in removing a
speck of powder from the wide black satin ribbon which held his gold-rimmed eye-glass.
"Gentlemen!" said His Royal Highness suddenly, "we are forgetting the ladies. My lord
Hastings," he added, turning to one of the gentlemen who stood close to him, "I pray you
to remedy this unpardonable neglect. Men's quarrels are not fit for ladies' dainty ears."