The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

We’ve all heard of this meddlesome Englishman, this accursed Scarlet Pimpernel. 
–Bibot, The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is the French Revolution, and the nobles have lost their exalted position.  Anyone even having any connection to the nobility fears for their lives, and the populace seeks to purge the land of the accursed oppressors.

Families, children…all are at risk.

It would take a brave (or foolhardy) person to try to rescue them from the crowd’s wrath.

Enter the Scarlet Pimpernel.  He is a master of disguise who uses his wits to win against overwhelming odds.  Like Batman, Zorro, or Sherlock Holmes, he is unpredictable.  His daring plans (and improvisations) make him a hero of the people and the scourge of those in power: especially the cruel and the indifferent bureaucrats.

Originally appearing as a novel in 1905 (following its incarnation as a play), Baroness Orczy’s novel was a huge success and is still in print (and in e-book form) today.

So big, in fact, that many novels followed…and the universe expanded to include books about ancestors and relatives.  In a sense, it was as big as Star Wars is today.

The similarity to Zorro is apparent (although Zorro followed more than ten years  later).  They both have a distinctive signature (the Pimpernel’s is a drawing of a flower…that’s the origin of his name.  A scarlet pimpernel is a flower).  Both have secret identities and foppish diletantes…just as Batman (who came decades later) had his Bruce Wayne identity.

Is he the first superhero?  Well, he’s not super…but then again, neither is Batman.  I’ve heard people argue that Hercules was a superhero.  Clearly, he fits some of the things you would expect, including  having “two faces”.  He risks his own life to save those in danger.  I think there is a clear argument to be made.

The Pimpernel also has “a league” of people helping him.  He is, though, in charge.

There is much more to the novel, including romance and estrangement.

The plot moves nicely: not too convoluted to follow, not so simple as to bore.

Several of the books are in the public domain in the United States (as well as in other countries), so you can often get them for free.

Through Amazon, one of the easiest way to get several of the novels is to get the

Works of Baroness Emmuska Orczy

This includes:

  • The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
  • I Will Repay (1906)
  • The Elusive Pimpernel (1908)
  • Eldorado (1913)
  • Lord Tony’s Wife (1917)
  • The League of the Scarlett Pimpernel (short stories) (1919)
  • The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922)

 That’s where the public domain titles finish, although there are several more.  This edition is from MobileReference, which tends to be formatted pretty well.   At time of writing, it is $4.79.  It also contains a number of non-Pimpernel works by the baroness.

If you’d rather just try it free first from Amazon, start at the beginning:

The Scarlet Pimpernel 

I tend to find FeedBooks to be better produced than the freebies at Amazon.   They also have the advantage of being available in DRM (Digital Rights Management) free EPUB: that should work on iPad, Sony, or nook (sic)…even that Delstar OpenBook

To give you a taste, here is the first part of a story entitled The Old Scarecrow from The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel:

THE OLD SCARECROW

Nobody in the quartier could quite recollect when it was that the new Public Letter-Writer first set up in business at the angle formed by the Quai des Augustins and the Rue Dauphine, immediately facing the Pont Neuf; but there he certainly was on the 28th day of February, 1793, when Agnes, with eyes swollen with tears, a market basket on her arm, and a look of dreary despair on her young face, turned that selfsame angle on her way to the Pont Neuf, and nearly fell over the rickety construction which sheltered him and his stock-in-trade.

“Oh, mon Dieu! citizen Lepine, I had no idea you were here,” she exclaimed as soon as she had recovered her balance.

“Nor I, citizeness, that I should have the pleasure of seeing you this morning,” he retorted.

“But you were always at the other corner of the Pont Neuf,” she argued.

“So I was,” he replied, “so I was. But I thought I would like a change. The Faubourg St. Michel appealed to me; most of my clients came to me from this side of the river—all those on the other side seem to know how to read and write.”

“I was just going over to see you,” she remarked.

“You, citizeness,” he exclaimed in unfeigned surprise, “what should procure a poor public writer the honour of—”

“Hush, in God’s name!” broke in the young girl quickly as she cast a rapid, furtive glance up and down the quai and the narrow streets which converged at this angle.

She was dressed in the humblest and poorest of clothes, her skimpy shawl round her shoulders could scarce protect her against the cold of this cruel winter’s morning; her hair was entirely hidden beneath a frilled and starched cap, and her feet were encased in coarse worsted stockings and sabots, but her hands were delicate and fine, and her face had that nobility of feature and look of patient resignation in the midst of overwhelming sorrow which proclaimed a lofty refinement both of soul and of mind.

The old Letter-Writer was surveying the pathetic young figure before him through his huge horn-rimmed spectacles, and she smiled on him through her fast-gathering tears. He used to have his pitch at the angle of the Pont Neuf, and whenever Agnes had walked past it, she had nodded to him and bidden him “Good morrow!” He had at times done little commissions for her and gone on errands when she needed a messenger; to-day, in the midst of her despair, she had suddenly thought of him and that rumour credited him with certain knowledge which she would give her all to possess.

She had sallied forth this morning with the express purpose of speaking with him; but now suddenly she felt afraid, and stood looking at him for a moment or two, hesitating, wondering if she dared tell him—one never knew these days into what terrible pitfall an ill-considered word might lead one.

A scarecrow he was, that old Public Letter-Writer, more like a great, gaunt bird than a human being, with those spectacles of his, and his long, very sparse and very lanky fringe of a beard which fell from his cheeks and chin and down his chest for all the world like a crumpled grey bib. He was wrapped from head to foot in a caped coat which had once been green in colour, but was now of many hues not usually seen in rainbows. He wore his coat all buttoned down the front, like a dressing- gown, and below the hem there peeped out a pair of very large feet encased in boots which had never been a pair. He sat upon a rickety, straw-bottomed chair under an improvised awning which was made up of four poles and a bit of sacking. He had a table in front of him—a table partially and very insecurely propped up by a bundle of old papers and books, since no two of its four legs were completely whole—and on the table there was a neckless bottle half-filled with ink, a few sheets of paper and a couple of quill pens.

The young girl’s hesitation had indeed not lasted more than a few seconds.

Furtively, like a young creature terrified of lurking enemies, she once more glanced to right and left of her and down the two streets and the river bank, for Paris was full of spies these days—human bloodhounds ready for a few sous to sell their fellow-creatures’ lives. It was middle morning now, and a few passers-by were hurrying along wrapped to the nose in mufflers, for the weather was bitterly cold.

Agnes waited until there was no one in sight, then she leaned forward over the table and whispered under her breath:

“They say, citizen, that you alone in Paris know the whereabouts of the
English milor’—of him who is called the Scarlet Pimpernel….”

“Hush-sh-sh!” said the old man quickly, for just at that moment two men had gone by, in ragged coats and torn breeches, who had leered at Agnes and her neat cap and skirt as they passed. Now they had turned the angle of the street and the old man, too, sank his voice to a whisper.

“I know nothing of any Englishman,” he muttered.

“Yes, you do,” she rejoined insistently. “When poor Antoine Carre was somewhere in hiding and threatened with arrest, and his mother dared not write to him lest her letter be intercepted, she spoke to you about the English milor’, and the English milor’ found Antoine Carre and took him and his mother safely out of France. Mme. Carre is my godmother….I saw her the very night when she went to meet the English milor’ at his commands. I know all that happened then….I know that you were the intermediary.”

“And if I was,” he muttered sullenly as he fiddled with his pen and paper, “maybe I’ve had cause to regret it. For a week after that Carre episode I dared not show my face in the streets of Paris; for nigh on a fortnight I dared not ply my trade…I have only just ventured again to set up in business. I am not going to risk my old neck again in a hurry….”

“It is a matter of life and death,” urged Agnes, as once more the tears rushed to her pleading eyes and the look of misery settled again upon her face.

“Your life, citizeness?” queried the old man, “or that of citizen-deputy
Fabrice?”

“Hush!” she broke in again, as a look of real terror now overspread her face. Then she added under her breath: “You know?”

“I know that Mademoiselle Agnes de Lucines is fiancee to the citizen- deputy Arnould Fabrice,” rejoined the old man quietly, “and that it is Mademoiselle Agnes de Lucines who is speaking with me now.”

“You have known that all along?”

“Ever since mademoiselle first tripped past me at the angle of the Pont
Neuf dressed in winsey kirtle and wearing sabots on her feet….”

“But how?” she murmured, puzzled, not a little frightened, for his knowledge might prove dangerous to her. She was of gentle birth, and as such an object of suspicion to the Government of the Republic and of the Terror; her mother was a hopeless cripple, unable to move: this together with her love for Arnould Fabrice had kept Agnes de Lucines in France these days, even though she was in hourly peril of arrest.

“Tell me what has happened,” the old man said, unheeding her last anxious query. “Perhaps I can help…”

“Oh! you cannot—the English milor’ can and will if only we could know where he is. I thought of him the moment I received that awful man’s letter—and then I thought of you….”

“Tell me about the letter—quickly,” he interrupted her with some impatience. “I’ll be writing something—but talk away, I shall hear every word. But for God’s sake be as brief as you can.”

He drew some paper nearer to him and dipped his pen in the ink. He appeared to be writing under her dictation. Thin, flaky snow had begun to fall and settled in a smooth white carpet upon the frozen ground, and the footsteps of the passers-by sounded muffled as they hurried along. Only the lapping of the water of the sluggish river close by broke the absolute stillness of the air.

Agnes de Lucines’ pale face looked ethereal in this framework of white which covered her shoulders and the shawl crossed over her bosom: only her eyes, dark, appealing, filled with a glow of immeasurable despair, appeared tensely human and alive.

“I had a letter this morning,” she whispered, speaking very rapidly, “from citizen Heriot—that awful man—you know him?”

“Yes, yes!”

“He used to be valet in the service of deputy Fabrice. Now he, too, is a member of the National Assembly… he is arrogant and cruel and vile. He hates Arnould Fabrice and he professes himself passionately in love with me.”

“Yes, yes!” murmured the old man, “but the letter?”

“It came this morning. In it he says that he has in his possession a number of old letters, documents and manuscripts which are quite enough to send deputy Fabrice to the guillotine. He threatens to place all those papers before the Committee of Public Safety unless… unless I….”

She paused, and a deep blush, partly of shame, partly of wrath, suffused her pale cheeks.

“Unless you accept his grimy hand in marriage,” concluded the man dryly.

Her eyes gave him answer. With pathetic insistence she tried now to glean a ray of hope from the old scarecrow’s inscrutable face. But he was bending over his writing: his fingers were blue with cold, his great shoulders were stooping to his task.

“Citizen,” she pleaded.

“Hush!” he muttered, “no more now. The very snowflakes are made up of whispers that may reach those bloodhounds yet. The English milor’ shall know of this. He will send you a message if he thinks fit.”

“Citizen—”

“Not another word, in God’s name! Pay me five sous for this letter and pray Heaven that you have not been watched.”

She shivered and drew her shawl closer round her shoulders, then she counted out five sous with elaborate care and laid them out upon the table. The old man took up the coins. He blew into his fingers, which looked paralysed with the cold. The snow lay over everything now; the rough awning had not protected him or his wares.

Agnes turned to go. The last she saw of him, as she went up the rue Dauphine, was one broad shoulder still bending over the table, and clad in the shabby, caped coat all covered with snow like an old Santa Claus.

You can continue the story for free from Amazon:

here 

and from FeedBooks (online or for your EBR…E-Book Reader)

here 

Tip of the day: you can comparison shop for particular e-books (even free ones) on line at AddAll.  Click “Show more options” to choose formats and stores.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

2 Responses to “The Scarlet Pimpernel”

  1. Natalie Says:

    I entirely forgot about the Scarlet Pimpernel! I read it in high school and must start over. I didn’t know there was a series! Thanks for this post!

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