Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

The Scarlet Pimpernel was written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy and first published in 1905. This novel is the first in a series of tales that follows the fictional main character infamously known as the Scarlet Pimpernel. The story is set at the time of the French Revolution, which occurred in the latter part of the eighteenth century. This revolt involved the overthrow of the French monarchy. A notorious Englishman sympathetic to the crisis in the aristocratic ranks helped sneak French royals out of the country to safety across the English Channel. This Englishman was known by the name of the Scarlet Pimpernel because upon making a clean escape from the French patrols, he would leave a note describing the caper, and it would be signed with a red, star-shaped flower the English called a scarlet pimpernel.

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As the story opens, French soldiers have had their numbers increased at the gates of the Paris because the number of French aristocrats who have made successful escapes has dramatically increased in the past several weeks. The number has grown so dramatically that a new decree has been made stating that the guards who fail to stop the aristocrats will, themselves, be forced to place their necks under the guillotine.

The guillotine is one of the French public’s greatest entertainments during these times. Crowds gather to watch the aristocratic leaders, who had once ruled their world, be led to the guillotine platform and subsequently have their heads cut off. However, in recent days, the popularity of watching the guards at the city gates find lords and ladies hiding in common horse-drawn carts has become even more appealing than the guillotine deaths. One guard, Sergeant Bibot, is known for his ability to catch aristocrats no matter what their disguise, so his station draws the biggest crowds. Bibot is already accredited with sending more than fifty aristocrats to the guillotine. His most ambitious goal, though, is to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel.

As a crowd gathers around him, Bibot is asked about an incident that occurred a few days past in which a French guard was fooled by the Scarlet Pimpernel. Several dukes and ladies had gone through this guard’s gate without the guard’s being aware of it. Only later was it discovered that the aristocrats made it safely to a boat that sailed for England. Bibot has fun retelling this story. He calls the guard a fool for having come so close to catching the Scarlet Pimpernel but failing. This would never happen to him, he claims.

As the sun is about to set, an old hag with crooked fingers approaches the gate with her horse and cart. Bibot recognizes the old woman. He saw her earlier, sitting near the guillotine platform. In her cart, the woman has a collection of bundles of hair. She gathers the locks from the heads that fall from the guillotine. Bibot thinks her job is disgusting. However, even more repellant is the news this woman tells him—that she is on her way home to take care of a child with small pox. The woman adds that the doctors are not sure if the disease is the pox or the plague. At this pronouncement, Bibot and the crowd step away from the woman. Bibot quickly signals that the woman should continue on her way.

To Bibot’s amazement, several minutes after the woman drives away, a captain of the guard appears on horseback. The captain quickly questions Bibot about whether he saw an old woman driving a cart. There were several carts driven by old women, Bibot responds. Then the guard adds that this particular woman would have said her son had the plague. When Bibot confirms that this woman has indeed passed through the gate, the captain yells out that he just learned there were several aristocrats hiding in the woman’s cart. Furthermore, the woman is reported to have been none other than the...

(The entire section contains 16167 words.)

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