When I mentioned to someone that I liked The Scarlet Pimpernel, about an Englishman who disguised himself and rescued those slated for the guillotine during the French Revolution, this person (sadly, I’ve forgotten who) told me the author, Baroness Orczy, wrote several books about The Scarlet Pimpernel’s adventures and she really liked I Will Repay. So I put I Will Repay on my TBR list, and recently took advantage of its being free for the Kindle and only $2.99 at Audible.com (at the time of this writing) to get both and use their “Whispersync” connection to go back and forth between text and audio, depending on my circumstances.
The story begins with a heated argument between young Vicomte de Marny and the older Paul Déroulède. Between rage and too much to drink, de Marny insists on a duel. Déroulède easily wins the duel, but de Marny tries to fight further. When Déroulède puts up his sword to disarm him, de Marny charges at that moment right into Déroulède’s sword and dies.
The young man is carried home to his invalid father and 14 year old sister Juliette. They are told by the young man’s friends that he died “in fair fight,” but the father, described as “almost a dotard,” makes Juliette swear that she will somehow avenge her brother’s death. He adds to the oath the torment he says that her brother’s soul will undergo until she exacts her revenge (though, of course, in reality nothing we say or do after a person has died has an effect on the state of their soul). Juliette, grieving, young, and impressionable, agrees to this oath and lives under the weight of it for the next ten years.
By this time the French Revolution is well underway. Juliette’s father has died and Déroulède has become a favorite of the people, probably due to the bourgeois ancestry which had kept him from being fully accepted by the aristocracy despite his wealth. Juliette tricks her way into becoming a guest in his home, but it takes several weeks for a plan to come to mind to deal with him. In the meantime, she finds qualities about him that she likes, and he falls in love with her rather quickly. Thus she is torn between her feelings and her oath to her father on her dead brother’s body. “That awful oath, sworn so solemnly, had been her relentless tyrant; and her religion – a religion of superstition and of false ideals – had blinded her, and dragged her into crime.”
When I first started the book, I was a little dismayed because I’ve always thought the whole tradition of duels was rather silly, and I was afraid the ensuing romance would be fairly silly, too. However, I was greatly surprised by the depth of the novel as well as the unexpected twists and turns the plot took. I had an idea how the story would ultimately end up, but it didn’t go any of the routes I thought it would. This is one audiobook that I looked for ways to listen to beyond the usual, even carrying it around with me while I dusted.
In a conversation with Sir Percy Blakeney, aka the Scarlet Pimpernel, Déroulède describes Juliette as a saint and an angel and says he has fallen “madly, blindly, stupidly, hopelessly” in love. Sir Percy responds,
“And ’twill be when you understand that your idol has feet of clay that you’ll learn the real lesson of love,” said Blakeney earnestly.
“Is it love to worship a saint in heaven, whom you dare not touch, who hovers above you like a cloud, which floats away from you even as you gaze? To love is to feel one being in the world at one with us, our equal in sin as well as in virtue. To love, for us men, is to clasp one woman with our arms, feeling that she lives and breathes just as we do, suffers as we do, thinks with us, loves with us, and, above all, sins with us. Your mock saint who stands in a niche is not a woman if she have not suffered, still less a woman if she have not sinned. Fall
at the feet of your idol an you wish, but drag her down to your level after that – the only level she should ever reach, that of your heart.”
I disagree that you have to sin together to really be in love, but I do agree that a couple needs to understand that they’re both sinners and that they’ll need grace to live with one another, that true love happens when that happens, not when we’re in a state of near worship. And indeed, Déroulède finds later “She had ceased to be a saint or a madonna; she had fallen from her pedestal so low that he could not find the way to descend and grope after the fragments of his ideal.” What happens then I will leave for you to discover.
And even though this is not a religious book per se, it does contain spiritual truth when more than one character has to learn that “‘Vengeance!’ which is not for man…[is] God’s alone.”
All in all I really enjoyed this novel. I don’t know that I’ll seek out any more of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adventures any time soon. I like a good swashbuckling adventure every now and then, but I don’t like to make a steady diet of them. Still, these books are as good a source as any of this kind of tale, so the next time I am in the mood for one, perhaps I’ll look up another in the series.
Some readers will want to know that the word “demmed” for “damned” occurs a handful of times.
The full text of I Will Repay can be found online through Project Gutenberg.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)