Kitty Cobham and the Chamber of Secrets
By: Karen Lee
Disclaimer: These characters were inspired by the performances of Cheri Lunghi as Kitty Cobham/Duchess of Wharfedale, Ronald Pickup as Don Masserado, and Jean-Yves Berteloot as Col. Etienne DeVergesse and I am fully intend to do strange things to them. I will try to stay truer to A&E's other characters from Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and The Devil. I am not getting paid for this, nor will I. This isn't a Harry Potter takeoff either. I just liked the sound of the title.
Friday, 10pm-El Ferrol Prison
Colonel Etienne DeVergesse must have been drunk. That could be the only possible explanation for the man's bizarre behavior.
With a small grunt of satisfaction from having settled on a solution to the problem that had vexed him all evening, Don Massaredo eased himself into a well-worn leather chair. He winced slightly as he propped his feet on a dark red Moroccan settee. His hip pained him throughout his waking hours and pain had given him a look of patient good humor, from the near permanent squint that etched his eyes into merry wrinkles to the grimace that faintly upturned the corners of his mouth. Few would guess from looking at the gentle, lined face that he was often plagued by the injuries and infirmities common to most any retired cavalryman.
He took a deep draft from his glass of Madeira and reflected further on the disappointments of the evening. Dinner, he recalled, used to be a time for gentlemen to put aside their differences and pay proper attention to the pleasures of the table, to pleasant conversation in the company of ladies. Between young Mr. Hornblower's gaffes, Col. DeVergesse's appalling obtuseness in pursuing a line of conversation clearly offensive to the lovely Duchess of Wharfedale, and both gentlemen eyeing each other drawn daggers over the dessert it had hardly been the sort of evening the Don would wish to repeat.
And he had harbored such high hopes.
It was excessively difficult, he reflected, to find enough
intelligent, interesting people of sufficient standing to make
up a table in this small fishing village. So scarce were suitable
parties that he had been reduced to raiding his own prison simply
to stave off the boredom of another dinner alone. While Mr. Hornblower
was much too young, he seemed intelligent and honorable and had
a certain gravitas that pleased the Don. The Duchess of
Wharfedale herself, for all she seemed to be a commoner who had
married above her station, at least appeared to have taken the
opportunity to improve herself and she spoke very good Spanish
and French, and was quite as well-read as any high-born lady.
And Col. DeVergesse had been the very soul of charm and wit.
What an oddly-assorted lot they were, anyhow, he mused. A common Duchess, a stiff young British officer, their mutual jailer, though in the Duchesses' case, her prison was scarcely formidable enough to contain a songbird, and a Frenchman, until lately, an ally to none of them, who the Don felt certain was pursuing some private agenda. What an astonishing series of coincidences-what unexpected political forces and fortunes of war-had been brought to bear to assemble such a disparate group of dinner guests around himself, their host.
The world, he mused, was immense. He wondered if it was, however, large enough to contain his dinner guests without mischief in the offing.
The Don, secure in his private chamber, relaxed more deeply into his chair and raised his glass to his lady. She sat quietly, regarding him with wise eyes and a knowing smile, quietly respectful of the old aristocrat taking his ease. "Caro lindo", he murmured. "At least I can rely upon the pleasure of your company."
Friday, 4pm-El Ferrol Prison (earlier that day)
"Senora La Duchesa, I would present Your Grace to Col. Etienne DeVergesse, of the Republican Guard."
The Don had made his introductions in the walled garden behind his home, a haven of cool shade on a day when the white sunlight heated all the rocks and stones and sands of El Ferrol, making the air dance and shimmer in rippling sheets. When they had come upon her, she had been sitting on a shady bench under a spreading olive tree, her head lowered in concentration as she picked at the tip of a wine cork with a small nail file. She started at their approach and tucked the mangled stopper beneath her skirt.
Don Massaredo had chuckled and shot his companion the ghost of a wink.
"Ah, you see? It is exactly as I told you. Her Grace is suffering from a lack of occupation. I regret that my duties.but here is someone who has gallantly offered to assist me in any way he is able. The Colonel is a great traveler, like yourself, my dear Duchesa, and I am certain he will be a congenial companion for you. "
In fact, this was one of the few times she had seen Don Massaredo venture from his house without a small phalanx of soldiers. Here was just the Don and a companion, a somewhat swarthy sort of Frenchman, gaudy in his Republican uniform, with full lips and startling blue eyes.
She despaired, she really did. A French officer of whatever eye color or manner of dress was hardly the sort of visitor who could be expected to be of the slightest help to her, indeed, his presence might even inspire the aging Don to keep HER here even longer simply to entertain HIM! And contrary to the Don's assertions about her lack of occupation, she had been quite happily occupied, rolling a little scheme around in her mind.
Don Massaredo expressed his wish that they enjoy the fruits of his garden together, then departed, pleading his duty to see to the prisoners of El Ferrol, one of whom had been lodged in the infirmary for several nights with a wasting sickness.
The exigencies of introduction played out, and as they did, she favored the Frenchman with a superior smile.
"A pleasure", the Colonel had said, bending low over her proffered hand and displaying a crown fully covered by shockingly short dark curls which amused her in some fashion, perhaps because they looked so out of place on a military man. As his lips brushed the back of her wrist, she rapped him sharply on the shoulder with her fan, withdrawing her hand as she did so.
"There now," she screeched in a horrible Midlands cant that had become second nature, "what are you about, Colonel, pecking away like that. A bow will do noicely."
She brayed out a laugh, so harsh and unmelodic it even hurt her own ears.
The Colonel stood up abruptly, lips pursed and eyebrows sternly knitted. "Pardonnez-moi, Your Grace," he murmured, "I was presumptuous."
Good heavens, she thought. He reminds of someone. Aye, that he does. Her mind whirled. Had she seen him before? Ah. She had it. He put her rather in mind of that English frigate captain, Pellew. Sir Edward Pellew. Same sort of build, similar coloring, that must be it. It simply had to be. Despite his dark blue eyes and close-cropped head, it must be her dining partner from the Dalrymples that this Frenchman summoned from the back of her mind. She put a hand to her throat, covering up the modest necklace that she wore and tossing her abundant chestnut hair.
"Happen I'm right glad to have more company," she crowed. "What news from Paris? I 'spect you'll be of no use to me t'all for I donna' take mooch interest in this war. I 'ope you have somethin' else to talk about. I've no head for politics, sadly enoof."
Colonel DeVergesse chuckled politely. "Nor should you, Your Grace, despite your husband having been the Florentine ambassador." He scanned her morning dress with a practiced eye. "Perhaps we can discuss something of more...mutual interest. A walk around the garden, perhaps, while I make my poor attempt to amuse you? Unless you suffer from the heat as keenly as most Englishwomen of my acquaintance. But then, I have already seen you have your fan to hand."
His English inflexions were perfect, though his accent had the soft r's and rounder vowels of a native French speaker.
Kitty Cobham, now appearing before a VERY select audience in the role of The Duchess of Wharfedale, smiled brightly and rose from the bench to take his extended arm. She snapped her little cork in half and tossed the pieces into a nearby rose bush. "Oh, Colonel DeeVergessey."
"Oooh? Did I mangle it? I am 'opeless at Frainch," she laughed, draping herself heavily on the proffered elbow. "But I am no stranger to the heat. I daresay I bear up as well under it as any laidy you might have taken the trouble to know."
DeVergesse smiled enigmatically. "That can only be an advantage to you, Your Grace, situated here as you are."
She made her face a mask of cheerful doltishness, but she felt a good deal more troubled than she allowed herself to show. Kitty Cobham was playing her most difficult role ever, and she had not become one of England's finest stage actresses without having acquired a certain sense of when her audience had not yet suspended all disbelief.
Whenever Etienne DeVergesse felt the need to conceal some species of inner turmoil from a companion, he would close his eyes briefly and think of England. He opened a door in his mind to release long-remembered scents of overcooked cabbages, the rancid grease of cold sausages on the innkeeper's sideboard, and the dank aromas of brewery yeast and mildewed curtains. It should have been difficult to summon up such memories here in the stark, brilliant heat of a cloudless day in El Ferrol, but the grating prattle of the woman on his arm put him so very much in mind of that particularly pungent part of London.
If only, he mused, he could keep his eyes closed throughout his audience with the so-called Duchess of Wharfedale, so that he would not be so distracted by her appearance. For DeVergesse felt certain he knew her identity and was mystified by the manner of her speech. Surely Katherine "Kitty" Cobham, an actress whose performances he had enjoyed on many an occasion when he accompanied his father to London all those years ago, should not speak like an ignorant fishwife.
Was this, then, her real voice?
And this vulgar creature beside him drawing attention to herself through her complaints about the "French Fashions" she was wearing and how constricting the new bodice-was this her true manner of conversation when not reading lines written for her by Shakespeare and Sheridan? And how had she come to marry the Duke of Wharfedale? The man had made himself a laughingstock in society by marrying beneath him. That was all he knew of the Duke, outside of his political activities.
DeVergesse felt certain that if she wished to acknowledge her past on the stage that she would make mention of it. So he resolved to wait, and follow her lead. It was a strategy that had always served him well. He was jolted from this brief reverie by another sharp whack on the shoulder from Her Grace's fan, and a nonsensical question about a cat having gotten his tongue.
"Ah, Your Grace," he replied quickly, "Again, I beg pardon. I was simply thinking what an unexpected pleasure to find Your Grace here at El Ferrol." Encouraged by an expectant smile, he ventured further, "If it is not a difficult subject, I would be very interested to hear how the wife of an English Duke ends up an honored guest in a Spanish prison, and hardly the better sort of prison at that, conversing with a Frenchman."
"Well! As to that! If your Froggy gents 'adn't invaded Italy," the Duchess began, giving him a sour look, "I'd've still been kipping in luxury in Florence. I went all the way there joost to settle me husband's affairs and take 'is poor body back to England and as soon as I got there, I 'ad to leave!" She fairly crackled with indignation.
"This war has been most inconvenient for Your Grace," DeVergesse teased. "And you had little time to enjoy the delights of Florence? The Sculpture gardens are, I believe, the finest in Italy."
"Oh what is it with you men and sculpture!" The Duchess scolded. "Stomping through the flowerbeds looking at plump ladies warin' nothing but a handkerchief and a sorrowful look! Oi'd be lookin' tragic too, if all I had to wear was a scrap o' linen, not," she continued tartly, "that your fellow Bonerpart gave me time to pack up mooch else o' me belongings. Good thing I were used to roughing it. Three gowns only! Three!"
DeVergesse laughed at this. "I fear you are in the right of it, Your Grace. The male mind has no secrets from you."
"And then," she continued tartly, nudging him playfully in the ribs, "I'd scarcely arrived in Gibralter before they stuffed me full of wine and suckling pig, in my honor, says Sir Hew Dalrymple, as if I didn't know better, and then put me with me stomach all sick the next morning on the smallest tub you ever did see which weren't rowed by two stout women and then the next thing you know, this boy Captain sails me right into the middle of the Spanish fleet!" she finished up breathlessly. "And that's how I came to be 'ere! Oh, of course, there was the part when the Diegos put me on a ship out of Lisbon but the Captain of that one turned back as soon as he 'eard the news about Cape St. Vincent. And set me off here, glad to be rid of me, can't say why."
"And still further inconvenience! You have been sadly put out. But I regret that you were unable to pack your mourning dress." He raked her bright, lavishly-trimmed silk dress with a look of faint disapproval. "Surely it is still the custom in England for a widow to wear mourning costume. I should have expected to see your mode more somber."
He carefully watched her face for any sign of grief for her husband. Of course she would look older, even though he had never seen her out of her stage makeup or even in daylight. She had a clever, somewhat sharp-nosed face, saved from plainness by an elegant neck and clear, light blue eyes which managed to give her at least the appearance of candor. A generous mouth and skin of ivory fairness completed the picture. Lines around her eyes betrayed her as being around forty now, perhaps several years older than DeVergesse himself, who was thirty-nine. Other than appearing slightly thinner than he would have preferred, she showed no signs of having survived anything worse than a mild headache or a fitful sleep.
"Ah, there you have me. I cannot abide black, or purple. Makes me look a ghost! Besides, the Duke had been in Italy for two years afore he died, and he's been dead ten months at least! I scarcely remember him, so I'm not in mourning you see. I suppose I am quite the scandal, but then, I always have been, ever since the Duke married a mill owner's daughter. But I gave 'im no choice in the matter." She simpered coquetteishly at him, her meaning clear.
A mill owner's daughter pregnant by an elderly Duke? DeVergesse's mind whirled. Could he have mistaken this woman for that long-ago London stage actress? Or perhaps she simply did not wish to acknowledge her past life on the stage. To be sure, an actress was often thought one step above a whore, and in DeVergesse's experience of actresses, many were eager to sell their favors to any man who offered them his "protection" but not his name. Even a mill owner's daughter was more respectable than an actress. But surely she would have been recognized by society for her true past. Her performances were attended by all the first families in England. Why, the King himself had been in the Royal Box at the Globe the night DeVergesse had first seen her triumph in "The Rivals". It simply made no sense. Either she was the mill owner's vulgar, sluttish daughter or she was Katherine Cobham and never the Duchess of Wharfedale.
"Still, it must have been a great shock to you to hear of the carriage accident. I offer my condolences, all the same."
"Aye," the Duchess agreed. "That it was."
"Italian coachmen," DeVergesse continued in a confiding tone, "drive exactly as I would if I had just spilled scalding coffee on my lap."
The Duchess, spluttered noisely, swallowing laughter. "I am certain The Duke would never have come to such an end if he'd only had the good sense to remain in England with me."
"That would have shown excellent sense," DeVergesse flattered. "We shall speak no more of sadness. Might I direct Your Grace's attention to this flowering vine, which is called a Bougainvillae..."
As you like it, Kitty Cobham, DeVergesse thought sourly as he smoothly spun a nonsensical tale of how the Bougainvillae came from Brazil to Spain. The elderly Duke of Wharfedale had died of a stroke in his bed in his sumptuous apartments in Florence when the news that Napoleon had taken the Piedmont was delivered to him with his morning coffee. This news had been written to him by no less a personage than Napoleon himself, whose Florentine spies had insinuated themselves into the Ambassador's household staff.
He felt the skin on the back of his neck tighten with excitement. God in heaven, he loved a mystery.
"Och, Col, I'm forgetting me manners, again!" she interrupted. "Why have you come to El Ferool? 'ard to believe anyone would come 'ere of their own free will. Army business, or pleasure perhaps? Is the old Don a particular friend?"
"Duchess," he spun the word out so as to make it almost a question, "I am here on the Republic's Business, as a gesture of friendship between allies. My orders are to examine these prisoners and determine their value to your King. I make my report, and then I go back to my division. I had certain hopes that the men taken from Le Reve would prove a fair trade for Spanish officers taken in the action off Cape St. Vincent, but from what you have told me, I fear that your King will consider these men of little worth."
For the first time, DeVergesse saw her mask slip and something rather like fear flit across her face. "You see," he continued, allowing a faintly nasty tone to seep into his smooth baritone, "in France we now have equality among the Citizens, but your English King takes a different view of the worth of a man. Not even ten able seamen are valuable enough to ransom one captive, when the King can simply drag a net through a tavern and get ten more just like them. But give us the son of a nobleman or a commodore with friends at court and we could have back twenty of our finest officers in exchange for this one man alone."
The ersatz Duchess withdrew her hand from his elbow and regarded him warily.
"Ah," DeVergesse sighed, "What a pity I cannot find a spy. A spy would be worth almost as much in exchange as the son of a Lord. Or even better if the spy should be someone well-known, perhaps in society. To avoid the spectacle of a public execution of such a person." He mused out loud. "Ah, but politics is so boring, and, as you have said, a boy captain...one foolish enough to sail an important personage such as Your Grace into the Spanish fleet."
He sighed, then turned to her. "A shame, perhaps I waste my time here after all. You no doubt wish to see your countrymen returned to their ships, but what can I do?" he trailed off with an eloquent shrug of his shoulders.
"But Colonel, Mr. 'Aitch, that's our boy captain, was invited to dinner with Sir Hew," the Duchess argued. "I heard his Captain thinks the world of him."
DeVergesse noticed she had found some of her consonants.
"And now?" DeVergesse countered. "What can you know of this officer other than that he was at least considered worthy of bearing Your Grace back home. But perhaps I judge too quickly. I shall question him with an open mind, and now...shall we take another turn around the garden? I feel it would please our generous host, who frets that he cannot provide you with more amusement." He gestured upwards to a small-windowed turret. "Perhaps even now, the Don looks down from his secret chamber to see if my conversation pleases you."
Kitty stared up at the small window and thought that perhaps she did see a flicker of movement there behind the sun-streaked glass. "A secret chamber?"
"You've not heard?" DeVergesse feigned surprise. "That room is said to be Don Massaredo's private retreat. They say he has barred the door with a lock of his own devising, and allows none but his most trusted servant to enter."
"What?!" Kitty scoffed. "That old pussy? You make him sound like Count Moroni!*"
"I have never met him, alas. I can't help wondering if the Don's lock is there to keep others out or to keep something, or someone, in?" DeVergesse smiled. "But of course, you must never mention to him I told you this. I am dependent on Don Massaredo's goodwill to examine the English prisoners of El Ferrol. Your Grace, have you ever tried a pomegranate?"
He plucked one deftly from the tree under which they stood, put it on a wooden table, and slid his sword from his sheath. The silver blade flashed in the dappled light filtering through the branches of the pomegranate tree, and split the small round fruit perfectly into two equal halves. His companion started, and then began a wail of empty-headed exclamations over the unlikely appearance of the fruit's inner flesh and the multitude of seeds. But the half he placed with much ceremony and gentle instruction into the elegantly tapered outstretched hand was seen to tremble violently. Ah, my dear Miss Cobham--bright object of my youthful daydreams that you were--DeVergesse remembered with a secret smile as he cupped his sweet half to his lips, you are not a complete actress after all.
DeVergesse admired Napoleon Bonaparte for his ability to strike fear into the hearts of the English and for his cleverness in the use of spies. He did not think it likely that the English, with their hoary traditions of honor and patronage, would be capable of such ingenuity and duplicity in warfare. As he ran through his limited repertoire of English gallantries and witticisms, receiving encouragement and mock indignation in turn in that shopworn dance of advance and retreat, he found himself very much of the opinion that Kitty Cobham, actress-cum-Duchess impersonator, had arrived in El Ferrol on a ship of fools carried on a river of lies fed by a torrent of deceit.
Col. Etienne DeVergesse had no intention of leaving until he found out why. Indeed, frightening the English was something that might prove deeply satisfying, and ultimately rewarding. What a pity it had to be Miss Cobham, who had heretofore given him nothing but pleasure, who would need to be broken if he were to uncover the truth.
*This is in reference to Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's *Mysteries of Udolpho*, which was a huge best-seller in England in 1794.
(Note: One of Bonaparte's first big successes was the conquest of Austria and Northern Italy in 1796-97.)
He has a mouth made for eating pomegranates, Kitty thought as she watched Colonel DeVergesse gently nibble the seeds from the cup-shaped delicacy. What would it feel like to be kissed by those firm-looking, unusually-shaped, tanned lips? The thought sent a shiver right through to her outstretched hand. It trembled for a moment. Her own lips were by no means accustomed to eating such strange fruit and DeVergesse gracefully produced a handkerchief without comment from the breast of his immaculate blue coat. She noticed he had no similar need for the fine square of linen.
What a shame I have to present myself as this common-sounding woman, with crude wit and inelegant manner! A sow's ear in a silk purse-'tis what they all see, but the alias has so far served me well. Kitty could tell Colonel DeVergesse did not like the Duchess of Wharfedale very much, and that he was disappointed in her in some fashion. She was used to that particular reaction. It had been the same with the Dalrymples and Captain Sir Edward Pellew. They may have expected her to be a bit common, but not so horribly gauche.
Perhaps, as with young Mr. Hornblower, she would have the opportunity to let enough of her true nature show through the role she played that his opinion might.....Oh, STOP it, Kitty! What could you possibly be thinking? She hauled herself up by the short reins and reminded herself with no small disgust that the man was French! French, and an enemy officer at that! Confound her weakness for a handsome man in regimentals! She was getting far too old to make any more excuses for her own fey recklessness. If not for her reckless heart, she would not be in such a precarious position. Impersonating a Duchess while strolling a Spanish prison garden on the arm of the enemy, feeling her underwear sliding lower and lower on her hips from the weight of secret dispatches.
The only defensible reason to spend any time in the company of this Froggy Colonel was to undo the damage of her disparaging remarks regarding the competence of young Mr. Hornblower. Over dinner, she vowed, she would praise Mr. Hornblower and his prize crew. She would make Don Massaredo and Colonel DeVergesse realize that they should be honored to hold a group of prisoners whose combined worth to the Navy was scarcely less than if El Ferrol had boasted Admiral Jervis and his most trusted Lieutenants in its spare stone cells! Why, they would not be able to rest until they had shoved the hapless prisoners from Le Reve own the very throats of the Admiralty! All she would need was a little bit of time to set the scene. The diplomats could take matters from there. And afterwards, once she was safely aboard a vessel bound for England, she would not spare Etienne DeVergesse the merest thought.
So for now, affecting polite disinterest, she released the Colonel from any further obligation to keep her occupied in as gracious a manner as she thought the "mill owner's daughter" capable of supporting. "You are most generous, Colonel DeVergesse," she said, fanning herself briskly to show that she was beginning to suffer from the afternoon sun, "but I am quite done in from this blasted Spanish heat and need time to dress for dinner".
"Your servant, Your Grace. I look forward to seeing you there." Again, he bowed deeply and again, the thickly curling black hair intrigued her. Despite wearing his full dress uniform, he appeared to be not in the least affected by the heat that had begun to make Kitty feel like a wrung out dishrag. I am just certain my own curls have wilted, she thought as she fingered them idly and found the carefully ironed-in coils felt straggly and damp indeed. How terribly unfair he is, and how much he would resemble a common Greek fisherman with those curls and bronzed skin, if not for the unusually vivid blue eyes and haughty manner. I shall waste no more thought on his appearance, she resolved, for he is nothing but a Frog, and a puffed-up Frog at that. My concern must be for my own countrymen.
"Do you examine the prisoners today?" she asked. "If so, give them my good wishes. With one exception, I find them to all be excellent men. The very best my country has to offer and as you say you are such a good Republican, I feel certain you will not discount their worth should they not have aristocratic titles."
"And the one exception, Your Grace?" DeVergesse shot her a fleeting, sidelong glance of such self-evident slyness that she laughed her own low, musical trill instead of the Duchess of Wharfedale's loud bray.
"If you cannot find the wrong 'un in that lot, then I suggest you take up hortyculture, Colonel. You know such a lot about it. Why, there's even one o' the prisoners here that don't hesitate to make his opinions known when it comes to fruit. You may find something in common with that one."
"I doubt it." DeVergesse countered, "Gardening is, I believe, considered a gentlemanly pastime in England as everywhere else. Perhaps some other time," he continued with a disingenuous statement, "You can tell me something of the Duke's own gardens."
That will be the day hell freezes o'er, Kitty thought grimly. I've lived in London nearly all my life and scarcely know sod all about gardens. Dangerous ground to turn over, indeed.
DeVergesse continued. "I believe I am only to interview the sick prisoner today. The Don is not sanguine about his chances. Nor, after hearing more about this man, am I."
"I do not know that prisoner," Kitty admitted, "Except for that Mr. 'Aitch, that is. Mr. Hornblower, has told me he is an old friend."
"Is he now?" The man beside her froze for an instant, his interest as unmistakable as a spaniel 'on point'. Oh dear, had she said something wrong again?
"I thought so," Kitty said. "But I might have got it wrong. I suppose in the Navy, Colonel, everyone knows everyone after awhile."
"My superiors in Paris will no doubt be heartened when I tell them I have it on good authority that the English Navy is by no means as numerous as they feared. This prisoner, though, has been a most uncooperative young man," DeVergesse said flatly. "He refuses to give his bona fides to Don Massaredo. Perhaps he can be made to understand that it is in his best interest to be candid. If I could ransom this sickly, mewling whelp of an Englishman for a hale French or Spanish officer, I would consider it a good bargain indeed."
"You cannot think they will trust you."
"Nor should they. If I met them in battle I would run them through and gladly, and they, me. Such is the fortune of war."
"Then surely you cannot expect..."
"I do not expect their trust. I expect to discover the truth, with or without their assistance. It is a matter of time, only. No one will be leaving El Ferrol until I have done so to my satisfaction. No one. Good day, Your Grace."
Kitty fanned herself under the pomegranate tree, enjoying the play of his broad shoulders and trim hips as he strode briskly back into the Don's adobe fortress. I do not generally find it pleasing to be in the company of men who are prettier than I am, she laughed to herself. Unless they are very young men, and then they are quite charming and just the thing to be seen with by one's rivals. If only I could be certain who this Frog Colonel reminds me of, I could put him from my mind quite easily.
Frog. Frog. Frog. She repeated the epithet in her mind until the lithe handsome figure had grown webbing between his toes, slimy skin, and a pop-eyed, wide-mouthed lipless face in her imagination. One cannot trust a Frog.
Friday, 5:00pm-The Library at El Ferrol
"Don Massaredo," purred Kitty Cobham, curtseying nearly to the floor in the old manner, "I have another small request to make of you." She kept her eyes downcast, which she knew pleased the old gentleman, who was susceptible to feminine shyness. "I know I have made too many, have presumed too much upon Your Excellency..."
"Speak, Duchess," the Don encouraged. "A widow may presume upon my kindness."
"It is about dinner. Dinner with that French Colonel," she replied, lifting troubled silver-blue eyes to search his lined face.
"You did not enjoy his company?" Don Massaredo asked gently, "Then we shall not require you to attend. I had thought him a rather interesting man, Etienne DeVergesse, but of course, what could I know about his suitability as a conversational partner for Your Grace?"
"No, no!" Kitty protested, "I just feel, well, I think...no, it just seems to me that I would feel more at ease if I had one of my own countrymen at the table!"
"Ah, I see," Don Massaredo mused. He had noted her partiality for that oddly-named Mr. Hornblower, the highest-ranking of his captured crew of British Naval prisoners. This partiality did not disturb him. He thought it showed a pleasing maternal nature in the childless Duchess. "You wish me to ask Mr. Hornblower to join us." He halted over the syllables of the young officer's name; it was still difficult for him to pronounce.
The Duchess smiled happily in answer, pleased to be so well understood. He thought once again what a lovely woman she was and how keenly he would feel her absence when he found her a passage back to her home in England. Were she not so terribly English, he would be tempted to ask her to stay. Surely she was getting to the age where she must feel uncertain of finding another husband having married so far above her social class. With no children, long years of loneliness stretched ahead of her if she did not remarry.
The old Don was no longer much interested in young women. It was God's will that he had no heirs and he had accepted this fate. If he could only find a gentle, comely woman of mature years, one with womanly hair and a fine-boned, pleasant face he would be content. It gratified him to indulge Her Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale, in all small matters in which he was able to accommodate her wishes.
"I shall ask him," he said, "but you must not be disappointed in him if he prefers not to join my table tonight. The Frenchman is, after all, his enemy and I, his jailer." Don Massaredo placed his fingertips lightly under her chin, gently raising her eyes to his. "Except in this one instance. It would be best for him to make a favorable impression."
The dazzling smile of Duchess of Wharfedale was, Don Massaredo considered, reward enough for his magnanimity.
Friday, 7pm-El Ferrol Prison
Poor, dear Don Massaredo, Kitty Cobham gloated. Why, these old fellows were as easily made to dance her tune as young boys were. It was the men of middle years who caused all the real trouble for her sex.
She had repaired all the damages of sun, sweat, and heat and it was a freshly powdered Duchess in a cool calico dress who tripped lightly down the flagstoned hallways into the prison hospital. She had only to intercept Mr. Hornblower and his sick friend, Mr. Kennedy, before the French Colonel arrived to examine the stricken prisoner. Once she explained to them what DeVergesse was about, they would understand how vital it was to exaggerate their consequence.
She softly opened the door to the sickroom. Late afternoon sunlight filtered into the spartan white-walled room, illuminating the young man in the bed and lighting the chestnut curls of his companion, asleep in a bedside chair, with a russet glow.
The young man in the sickbed was pale, with bruised eyelids and a thin sheet of sweat covering his face, throat, and the bare chest revealed by his gaping nightshirt shirt. Long, slightly wavy thick hair which would have been dark blond were it not so dirty and mired with sweat spread out over the white pillowcase. Kitty felt certain that if he were healthy and washed, he would be a handsome fellow. She smiled warmly, for she could see a flash of blue under the partially-closed lids and the beginning of a weak smile touched the corners of his delicately-shaped mouth. He turned his head slightly towards the doorway and gazed back at her.
His companion's head drooped onto his chest, his long frame folded into a hard wooden chair. Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower was definitely asleep. Kitty felt a rush of warmth for the young man who slept beneath a cap of dusky dark curls, with long fingered hands relaxed on lean thighs, and strong profile outlined in halo against the dazzling glare of the thick-glassed windows. Such a loyal friend, her Mr. 'Aitch.
She returned her gaze to his friend in the bed, a Midshipman Kennedy, and was surprised to see clarity in bright blue eyes which she had hitherto only seen feverish and dulled. He stared back at her, and then his eyes widened in unmistakable recognition! He knew her! She was certain of it. She gave him a faint shake of her head, as if to say, "no, no, I am not who you think I am", but the young man's look of conviction grew ever stronger and his face even took on a little color.
Kitty Cobham felt as if she could not breathe. Mr. Hornblower slept on peacefully; unaware of the silent drama playing out as actress confronted what must surely be a former patron. She smiled beseechingly, but without result. The young man's jaw set in determination and she realized that it was only a matter of time before he revealed his discovery to his friend.
Very well, then. I shall simply have to find a suitable explanation,
she reassured herself as she fled back to her quarters. After
all, Mr. Hornblower was one who would don the disguise of a French
Captain if it were in the best interests of himself and his men,
so he will surely understand. I feel as if he is my friend. Surely,
he will understand.