The Scarlet Pimpernel: Chapter 24,25,26

Chapter XXIV: The Death-Trap

Summary: Chauvelin arrives at Brogard’s tavern, dressed as a parish priest, where he meets with his secretary and factotum (general assistant) Desgas. Desgas informs Chauvelin that surveillance for the Pimpernel is in place and awaiting Chauvelin’s further orders. Chauvelin tells Desgas to tell his agents to be on the watch for and to secretly follow any stranger, especially a tall one who may be stooping (since Chauvelin believes this is the only way the Pimpernel could disguise his height). The stranger is not to be shot except in the last resort. The fugitives the Pimpernel is scheduled to rescue will be left to wait in false security so that Chauvelin can catch the Pimpernel in the act of saving them—circumstances which would clearly establish France’s right to execute him. Secretly, Marguerite listens, horrified, to the plot. Unexpectedly, however, she hears Sir Percy call, “God save the King!”

Analysis: This chapter outlines the plans by which Chauvelin thinks he will entrap the Pimpernel. Orczy does an admirable job of soliciting readers’ sympathies for Marguerite as she hears what seems to be an impending impossible situation for the hero: “All the roads patrolled and watched, the trap well set, the net, wide at present, but drawing together tighter and tighter, until it closed upon the daring plotter, whose superhuman cunning even could not rescue him from its meshes now” (p. 188). Such well-written passages firmly establish the thorough-going nature of Chauvelin’s mind, leaving no possibility of escape for the Pimpernel unchecked and also intensify the reader’s reaction of surprise at Sir Percy’s unexpected entrance in the chapter’s final sentence. It is a nicely constructed “cliffhanger” moment that ensures the reader will stay with the story. The chapter also further develops the novel’s symbolic theme of disguises, as Chauvelin appears in the garb of a clergyman—ironically so, to Marguerite’s mind: “Marguerite wondered how so much hatred could lurk in one human being against another” (p. 189).

Chapter XXV: The Eagle and the Fox

Summary: Marguerite must stifle the impulse to call out a warning to Sir Percy as he sits at the table with Chauvelin—whom Sir Percy recognizes straightaway, despite the latter’s clerical disguise—calmly taking his supper. She watches the two men, each apparently aware of the other’s significance, taking stock of each other through their superficially polite conversation. Chauvelin keeps furtively checking his watch, waiting for Desgas’ arrival with reinforcements—but not so furtively that Sir Percy does not take note. Marguerite thinks she hears Desgas’ men about three minutes distant. Meanwhile, apparently relaxing, Sir Percy offers Chauvelin a pinch from his own snuff box. Chauvelin carelessly takes the “snuff,” which turns out to be, in fact, pepper. While his adversary is occupied with his violent sneezes, Sir Percy leaves the room.

Analysis: “Only he, who has ever by accident sniffed vigorously a dose of pepper, can have the faintest conception of the hopeless condition in which such a sniff would reduce any human being” (p. 199). Sir Percy’s clever and amusing outwitting of Chauvelin is the perfect cap to this chapter, in which we see the two adversaries tactically sizing each other up and attempting to outmaneuver each other. The Pimpernel is in fine form in his disguise as the foppish Sir Percy, from loudly bellowing “God Save the King” to making jokes at Chauvelin’s expense regarding the latter’s disguise as a clergyman: “You are expecting a friend, maybe?… Not a lady—I trust, Monsieur l’Abbé… surely the holy Church does not allow?” (p. 196). Meanwhile, Marguerite watches the entire exchange with bated breath. The narrator here may seem to reinforce some outmoded attitudes regarding the roles of men and women—“Marguerite indulged in the luxury, dear to every tender woman’s heart, of looking at the man she loved” (p. 195)—but overall the effect of the chapter is to increase suspense and thoroughly entertain as we watch the Pimpernel at work, escaping almost certain defeat the last moment by his wits (and, not a little, to Chauvelin’s lack thereof!)

Chapter XXVI: The Jew

Summary: Chauvelin recovers from his sneezing fit in time to inform Desgas that Desgas and his men have arrived five minutes too late to capture Sir Percy. The plan is thus altered: they will allow him to arrive at Père Blanchard’s hut, and will surround and capture him there. Desgas presents an elderly Jewish man to Chauvelin. The man informs Chauvelin, for a price, that Sir Percy has acquired the services of a horse and cart (to use in smuggling the Comte de Tournay out of the country). For more money, the man tells Chauvelin that he can drive him, in his horse and cart, to Blanchard’s hut. Still in hiding, Marguerite listens in terror as Chauvelin and Desgas plot to “enjoy a bit of rough sport” with the Pimpernel before killing him.

Analysis: This chapter further reduces Marguerite, who so recently had shown promising signs of being a woman of action and a major mover of the plot, to a passive role, a passivity sensed not only by the reader but also by the character: “Her own helplessness struck her with the terrible sense of utter disappointment. The possibility of being of the slightest use to her husband had become almost nil, and her only hope rested in being allowed to share his fate, whatever it might ultimately be” (p. 202). Marguerite’s function in this chapter, as it has been for the last several, is simply to be the eyes and ears through which other action and conversation may be accessed by the reader. Unfortunately, then, the action and conversation in this chapter, while important to the plot, is marred by anti-Semitism of the most blatant kind. The chapter’s titular character is not even named; he is, simply, “the Jew,” as though that identification tells readers all they need to know about him. (Even Reuben Goldstein, the fellow Jew on whom this man informs, is named!) Orczy does not lose any opportunity to present the man as a racial caricature rather than a true character. His clothes are “dirty” and “threadbare”; his face sports “a general coating of grime”; he has “the habitual stoop [that] those of his race affected in mock humility” (p. 203); and, of course, as befits centuries-old stereotypes of Jews, he is greedy: “The eyes of the Jew shot a quick, keen glance at the gold in his interlocutor’s hand” (p. 205). This Jewish man is presented, in every way, as a “loathsome specimen of humanity” (p. 203)—the narrator’s words, not a judgment given from a character within the text; and not a judgment given any indication of having been rendered ironically. Chauvelin treats the man like a dog—not allowing physical contact, dangling out gold in front of him the way one would offer a treat to a pet—because, in Chauvelin’s eyes, that is all the man is. The man’s scramble for the coins Chauvelin tosses is even presented for comic effect: “the Jew… knelt down, and on his hands and knees struggled to collect them. One rolled away, and he had some trouble to get it, for it had lodged underneath the dresser” (p. 206). The strong anti-Semitic strain of the novel has often been omitted in modern stage and screen adaptations—and for good reason. As offensive as it will be to most modern readers, however, it does reflect a historical reality in European history and in Orczy’s own aristocratic context.