Paris: September, 1792 As The Scarlet Pimpernel opens, the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror is imminent, with dozens of aristocrats being guillotined daily. Sergeant Bibot ridicules the executed Grospierre, who allowed the daring, disguised Scarlet Pimpernel to slip an aristocrat family past his watch, but then Bibot lets a frightful hag drive a covered cart through his gate—and it is the rescuer himself.
Dover: ‘‘The Fisherman’s Rest’’ In his hostel on the southeast coast of England, Jellyband discusses the turmoil in France and the effects on Britain with his patrons, including two strangers in the corner, while preparing for the arrival of nobility from across the English Channel.
The Refugees After Lord Antony arrives by horse, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes escorts the comtesse de Tournay and her son and daughter into the hostel. The locals clear out, and Sir Andrew and the young Suzanne flirt while supper is prepared.
The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel One of the strangers ducks under a bench, and the other leaves; imagining themselves alone, the Englishmen and the French aristocrats freely discuss their escape and the league of the Scarlet Pimpernel, to which the two men belong. Marguerite St. Just, known to the comtesse for having denounced the executed marquis de St. Cyr, arrives by coach with her husband, Sir Percy Blakeney.
Marguerite As Lady Blakeney is fairly worshipped in England, although she is hated by French aristocrats, Jellyband and the others are stunned when the comtesse insults her. Though Marguerite and Suzanne were girlhood friends, the comtesse insists that her daughter follow her out.
An Exquisite of ’92 Though Sir Percy is rich and irreproachable in fashion, his dull wits and lazy manner are known to be hardly worthy of his brilliant wife. The vicomte de Tournay challenges Percy to a duel over the women’s discord, but Percy mocks the young man, to the others’ amusement, until he stands down.
The Secret Orchard Out by the cliffs, Marguerite shares parting words with her brother, Armand St. Just, before he returns by schooner to the republican government in Paris. She reveals her estrangement from Percy, whose honor was compromised by the rumors of her denouncement of the marquis de St. Cyr.
The Accredited Agent After watching Armand sail away, Marguerite returns toward the hostel, to be approached outside by an agent of the French government, Chauvelin. They exchange pleasantries, but then Chauvelin tries to persuade her, as a French citizen, to seek out the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, whom she esteems as a romantic hero. Marguerite refuses to help, despising the vicious French government’s slaughter of the aristocracy.
The Outrage Lord Tony and Sir Andrew are drinking wine, seemingly alone after Jellyband and all others have gone to bed, and start discussing plans for their league to rescue next the comte de Tournay. A noise startles them, and the hidden stranger and others appear and seize the two Englishmen. Papers they are carrying reveal that Armand St. Just is a traitor to France.
In the Opera Box In London, the city’s most important personages are gathered at the opera. The comtesse de Tournay is advised not to quarrel with the widely respected Lady Blakeney. Arriving late, Lady Blakeney is left alone by Percy to be visited by the many who wish to see him—including Chauvelin, who relates that he has evidence against Armand that will condemn him as a traitor. He wants her to help identify the Scarlet Pimpernel at Lord Grenville’s ball that evening.
Lord Grenville’s Ball At the magnificent ball, Chauvelin is shunned by the royalist British high society, including the Prince of Wales, who praises Lady Blakeney before the comtesse. A laughable comment by Percy eases the tension.
The Scrap of Paper With a few lines of petty verse by Percy being echoed around the room, Marguerite notices a note being passed to Sir Andrew. She follows him into the boudoir (his private room), where he is reading the note by candlelight. She sneaks behind him, and when he turns she pretends to swoon—then swipes the note as he is burning it, as if the burnt-paper odor is a remedy. As he tries to retrieve the note she knocks the candles over and then reads the note as he quickly puts out the fire. She pretends to believe the note an illicit love missive.
Either—Or? Having seen that the Scarlet Pimpernel should be in the supper-room at one o’clock, Marguerite dances with Sir Andrew before being escorted to dinner by the Prince of Wales, who has been losing at dice to Sir Percy.
One o’Clock Precisely! Marguerite speaks with Chauvelin in the boudoir, informing him of the contents of the note and asking for assurance that Armand will be spared. In the otherwise deserted supper-room, Chauvelin finds Sir Percy snoozing and lies down himself to pretend to sleep while waiting to see what will happen.
Doubt Marguerite regrets her decision to betray the Scarlet Pimpernel yet still values foremost her own brother’s life. She is told by Lord Fancourt that Percy and their coach are waiting. In departing she meets Chauvelin, who relates that he saw only Sir Percy in the supper-room.
Richmond The Blakeneys ride home in the dark, which they both much enjoy. Feeling pitiable and lonely, Marguerite meets her husband on the lawn and tries to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between them. She expresses how she aches for the happy times they once had, but Sir Percy will not put aside his resentment for her recent callous treatment; regarding her role in the death of St. Cyr, he feels that she forced him to choose between his honor and her love. Finally, though he remains cold, she begs him to keep Armand from harm—but she cannot go as far as to fully explain and confess her shameful deed of that night. He gives his word to protect Armand, and after she slips into the house, he kisses the ground she walked on.
Farewell Marguerite retires to her chamber as dawn breaks, vowing to win back her husband’s love. She nods off but is awakened by footsteps; Percy has left a note saying he is leaving for the north to deal with pressing business. She rushes out to bid him farewell as he gallops off on horseback, after which she returns inside and sleeps.
The Mysterious Device Awakening midday, Marguerite wanders into Percy’s private office, which is surprisingly orderly. Baffled by the French maps, she finds on the floor a seal ring bearing the insignia of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Scarlet Pimpernel Marguerite is dumbfounded and distracted when Suzanne arrives for the day. Finally, she realizes the truth of the situation—that her husband is indeed the daring rescuer, and that he is now in grave danger—especially since the arrival by runner of the letter revealing Armand’s guilt indicates that Chauvelin is hot on Percy’s trail. She bids Suzanne farewell before determining to seek Sir Andrew’s aid and intercept her husband in Calais, France.
The Friend Marguerite confesses everything to the hesitant Sir Andrew, who at last agrees to offer whatever assistance she needs. They will travel separately to the Fisherman’s Rest in Dover, thence to charter a schooner and cross the English Channel to France.
Suspense Jellyband and Sally are confounded by the midnight arrival of first Lady Blakeney and then Sir Andrew dressed as a servant, but Andrew assures them of the honesty of their travel together. Meanwhile, a storm coming from the south will prevent them—as well as Chauvelin, who is traveling the same route—from setting sail until the following day.
Calais Not until late in the day are Marguerite and Sir Andrew able to cast off and reach France, which has the feel of a nation in turmoil. They are shunned as aristocrats, even if English, around town as well as at the filthy Chat Gris tavern. At great length, the innkeeper, Brogard, serves food that is at least palatable and reveals that Percy is expected to have supper there that evening.
Hope Knowing that Chauvelin is on their trail less than an hour behind them, and hoping to save both Sir Percy and the men he has come to rescue, Sir Andrew steps out to seek Percy in the town while Marguerite conceals herself in the loft behind a curtain.
The Death-Trap Marguerite is optimistic until Chauvelin himself walks in the door, dressed as a churchman. She overhears that French patrols are everywhere about town and the beachfront is being closely watched. Wishing now above all to tell Percy how much she loves him, she hears him singing as he approaches the inn.
The Eagle and the Fox Percy enters and quickly throws Chauvelin off guard by identifying the disguised agent even before seeing his face. Playing dumb, Percy chats idly with Chauvelin, who anxiously awaits the return of his secretary, Desgas, with soldiers. As distant footsteps are heard, Percy fools Chauvelin into inhaling pepper; while the Frenchman suffers a sneezing fit, the Englishman slips out.
The Jew The enraged Chauvelin sends the arriving soldiers back out to find Percy; they locate instead an elderly Jewish man who claims that a tall Englishman rented a horse and cart from one Reuben Goldstein. Not hiding his contempt for the miserable old man, Chauvelin hires him to trail the others over the few leagues to the Pere ` Blanchard’s hut, the reported meeting place for the fugitives.
On the Track When the Jew and Chauvelin rumble off, Marguerite descends from the loft and trails them on foot, weary but determined. Along the road, two soldiers on horseback arrive from ahead to report that they have not seen the tall Englishman but have located the hut, where two men have arrived to wait for their rescuer. The cart rumbles onward.
The Pere ` Blanchard’s Hut The cart stops at the start of the footpath leading to the hut, some eight hundred meters toward the cliffs and shore. Marguerite crawls alongside the path to hear Chauvelin instruct the many soldiers to await the tall Englishman’s arrival. The Jew (whose name, Chauvelin now learns, is Benjamin Rosenbaum) protests that if left alone on the road he might ruin their plan out of fright; therefore, he is gagged and taken along. Panicking as they approach the hut, Marguerite rushes ahead intending to warn whoever is inside, but she is caught and gagged by Chauvelin.
Trapped With the Englishman’s schooner in sight on the sea, the French soldiers wait. Chauvelin removes Marguerite’s gag to allow her the choice of letting the Scarlet Pimpernel be caught, thus securing Armand’s release, or warning her husband, in which case all four men now in the hut will be slain. Percy’s singing voice is heard once more.
The Schooner Unable to restrain herself, Marguerite rushes to the hut, shrieking for Armand to act and for Percy to flee. Chauvelin’s men then seize her and storm the hut—but no one is inside. A soldier confesses that they had witnessed the men in the hut escaping but did nothing—in accord with their orders to await the Englishman. The four fugitives are already out at sea, having rowed to the schooner, meaning that Percy must still be ashore. In the hut, a note indicates that Percy expects to be picked up back near Calais and the Chat Gris. Chauvelin orders the beating of the Jew, who failed to properly assist them, then leaves the Jew and Marguerite behind as he and his soldiers head back toward Calais.
The Escape Suddenly, Percy’s voice is there with her—and Marguerite at last discovers that the Jew is none other than her husband in disguise. Having met Sir Andrew in town, he devised the plan to disguise himself so as to reach the hut, where he managed to slip instructions—and a false note to be left behind—in to the fugitives. Sir Andrew arrives on foot, and Percy carries his wife along to meet the boat that they take to board the schooner.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.