I'll be on the telly with Tucker in an hour or so - 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific. Ahead of that, it's time for Part Seven of our serialization of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. The best adventures need the best villains, and in tonight's episode we meet ours - Citizen Chauvelin:
'Citoyenne St Just.'
Marguerite uttered a little cry of astonishment, at thus hearing her own familiar maiden name uttered so close to her. She looked up at the stranger, and this time, with a cry of unfeigned pleasure, she put out both her hands effusively towards him.
'Chauvelin!' she exclaimed.
'Himself, citoyenne, at your service,' said the stranger, gallantly kissing the tips of her fingers.
Marguerite said nothing for a moment or two, as she surveyed with obvious delight the not very prepossessing little figure before her. Chauvelin was then nearer forty than thirty—a clever, shrewd-looking personality, with a curious fox-like expression in the deep, sunken eyes...
'Chauvelin... my friend...' said Marguerite, with a pretty little sigh of satisfaction. 'I am mightily pleased to see you.'
No doubt poor Marguerite St Just, lonely in the midst of her grandeur, and of her starchy friends, was happy to see a face that brought back memories of that happy time in Paris, when she reigned—a queen—over the intellectual coterie of the Rue de Richelieu. She did not notice the sarcastic little smile, however, that hovered round the thin lips of Chauvelin.
'But tell me,' she added merrily, 'what in the world, or whom in the world, are you doing here in England?
Citoyen Chauvelin is such a compelling villain, and has been played on screen by so many fine actors from Raymond Massey to Ian McKellen, that he has all but obliterated the real-life historical figure from whom Baroness Orczy drew his name and a few central facts - Bernard François, Marquis de Chauvelin. When the French Revolution began in 1789, M le Marquis was Master of the King's Wardrobe but chose to support the revolutionaries. In 1792 he was sent to London as "the Ambassador's Cloak" - ie, deputy to Ambassador Talleyrand. The real Chauvelin was well received, up until August 10th, when King Louis XVI was dethroned. And thus, as the emissary of a non-reigning sovereign, the Marquis was no longer recognized by George III. The new French Republic eventually sent replacement credentials, but following Louis XVI's trial and beheading in January 1793 the Marquis de Chauvelin was expelled from Britain. Nevertheless, for the purposes of her tale, set in the autumn of 1792, Baroness Orczy took the real-life fact of a man called Chauvelin representing republican France to the Court of St James's, and then, as novelists will, went her own way.
Earlier installments of The Scarlet Pimpernel can be found here - and thank you for your many interesting comments on aspects of this tale. Speaking of Louis XVI on the guillotine, Elizabeth Lorenz, a First-Day Founding Member whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Massachusetts a couple of weeks back, writes:
I've read documentation from a number of decapitations indicating that the person doesn't die right away as one would suppose given the loss of blood pressure must be almost immediate. The brain continues to function at least briefly. It was said that Mary Queen of Scots' mouth continued to move for awhile after she was decapitated and a similar claim was made of Anne Boleyn.
Indeed. Elizabeth cites Gabriel Beaurieux on the execution of the common criminal Languille:
The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefore have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make...
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
Some years back I wrote a little story deriving from the phenomenon of "lucid decapitation". Maybe we'll dust it off one of these days.
If you'd like to know more about The Mark Steyn Club, please click here - and don't forget, for fellow fans of classic fiction and/or poetry, our Steyn Club Gift Membership. Or come catch me on my very first stage tour with the great Dennis Miller.
See you on the TV at 8pm Eastern - and do join me back here tomorrow for Part Eight of The Scarlet Pimpernel.