Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
Disclaimer: This story is based upon characters from the Horatio Hornblower series of Meridian/A&E TV Movies. Warning: there are actual plot developments in this segment, which are critical to the plot and stuff like that. Those of you who just want to read about DeVergesse's all -over tan might want to skip it. I'll pay more attention to writing actual plot elements from now on, if I can get DeVergesse to quit blowing in my ear. Stop it! Stop it, Etienne, I mean it! I'm warning you, knock it off! Really. Stop. Please. I mean it. Seriously. Wait, don't stop. Hey! Where are you going? Wait. Come back! Dammit Etienne, GET BACK IN HERE RIGHT NOW!
Bloody Frogs.who needs 'em anyway?
1 AM El Ferrol Prison
"And do not forget to bring me MY shoes in the morning or I shall tell Don Massaredo everything!"
Such an amusing amateur, DeVergesse thought to himself, and a pretty one, too, with her hair all disordered and dress slipping down over white shoulders as she breathlessly flung his own shoes at his head. But if she thought that was any kind of threat, well, she had a lot to learn. He turned the corner and entered the corridors of the hacienda.
An amateur, definitely. For if she were not, she would have understood the significance of the copy of Don Quixote. But she was quite ignorant, of that he was quite certain. She was not working under the direction of anyone from her country's government; she was simply freelancing, trying to outwit him because it was her nature. A dangerous game, indeed. Luckily for her, he was the one sent here, and not some other, less imaginative agent of the people of France.
Less susceptible, more like, he admitted ruefully.
Was Mr. Hornblower similarly ignorant of the true nature of the documents he carried aboard Le Reve? He must have been, DeVergesse concluded, or he would have surely thrown them into the sea. But if he were not? Well, now it no longer mattered. Mr. Hornblower would remain in prison long after the intelligence had been put to good use.
DeVergesse could not resist smiling to himself as he paced back down the hall, though the wool of his uniform was already starting to make the unprotected skin on his shoulders and back itch. He wondered if he would get his shirt back. It would naturally be his pleasure to return her shoes, another opportunity to see her, and he never thought for a moment that she would dream of telling Don Massaredo everything.
She had already had her opportunity and had chosen not to make her confession. No, Madame Kitty Cobham wanted to be on a fast ship out of El Ferrol at her first opportunity, and would do nothing to ruin her chances. And he, DeVergesse, would be with her.
Idly, he wondered if she were sleeping with his shirt. Women did that, sometimes.
Why, it practically made him feel like whistling "La Marseillaise" all the way to the stables, but he resisted the impulse. DeVergesse possessed a positive talent for whistling, being both melodious and very, very loud.
The hacienda slept in silent hush. He paused at the door of Don Massaredo's chamber and quietly turned the handle, opening the door a crack. There, by the fading glow of the fire, sat Don Massaredo sunk in profound slumber, Kitty Cobham's shoes tumbled before him near the fire.
I should get these now, he thought, for if the Don awakens he might notice them and wonder why she felt the need to return to her room in her stocking feet. Actually, DeVergesse mused, I should wonder the same thing. If she had encountered a soldier in the hallway, it would have signified nothing. So her stealth, if that is what it was, must have had to do with her not wanting to encounter me. But why?
DeVergesse frowned as he stooped to pick up Kitty's pretty slippers. Sparing another glance at the sleeping Spaniard, he noted that Don Massaredo's breathing was even and deep. Should he simply remove the key from about his neck? No, too risky. He did not know how much laudanum Kitty had given the Don. If she had used the entire vial, he should sleep well into morning, but if she had only used a portion, he could be woken now.
With a longing look at the great tapestry which covered the wall behind Don Massaredo's bed, he left the bedchamber and, still carrying the shoes, he made his way to the Don's stables. A faint orange glow emerged from a small window to the rear, the blacksmith's shop where Guilliame, he assumed, was hard at work.
As he walked past the darkened stalls, he stopped to stroke the nose of his own horse, which had recognized his scent and was nickering softly and stamping his feet.
"You, too, are eager to depart." he said lightly. "But tomorrow you shall be in the hold of a ship, so enjoy the fresh air now while you can."
As he continued down the row of stalls to the back reaches of the stable, DeVergesse nearly tripped over the body of a large young man who was trussed up like a potted pheasant.
"Oof," the man grunted through his gag. "Mmpf, arggrroo, gurk!"
DeVergesse poked him idly with the toe of his boot. So this was the fisherman who wielded such an efficient gaff at the head of his aide-de-camp. He was certainly a large fellow. And my, DeVergesse thought, doesn't he look angry?
He passed on by and entered the blacksmith shop. Guilliame was deep in concentration, meticulously breaking apart a clay mold to liberate a small object inside, which proved to be a newly cast key. He picked it up with tongs, inspecting it in the firelight, turning it this way and that.
"Ah hah," he said.
"How much longer?"
"Not quite ready, but soon. Very soon."
Guilliame compared the key to a wax model, his face a mask of rapt concentration.
"Ici, there should be a little groove." He thrust the key momentarily into the forge and then, removing it, he pounded a groove near the tip with a small mallet and a sharp chisel. "Ah, voila. Perfect!"
Guilliame thrust the key into a bucket of water and a puff of steam hissed upwards into the slightly chill air of the room. He withdrew the key and, after inspecting and comparing it one more time with his wax replica, he handed it to DeVergesse.
"That is, perhaps, some of my best work. It was a very intricate key. I have never seen the like." He took in DeVergesse's appearance for the first time, his eyes alighting on the shoes that DeVergesse still carried in one hand. He tut-tutted, "Colonel! And after all the lectures you have given to me about not keeping souvenirs."
DeVergesse glared at him. "Do you recall that I ordered you to mind your own business where the Duchess is concerned?" He paused. "Besides, I retrieved these from Don Massaredo's bedchamber, NOT Her Grace's."
Guilliame's eyes grew wide with surprise. "You have been in the room already? He must sleep very soundly."
"His is a drugged sleep, and I think perhaps I can do all that I need to do without disturbing his slumber. But should he awake, he will need to be drawn from his room quickly, so that I can make my exit unnoticed."
"Very well, then, a slight change of plan. That shall be no problem at all." Guilliame grinned, then he said in Spanish, "Conchita, come into the light. It is time you two met each other."
A buxom, dusky-haired young woman materialized from the dark recesses behind DeVergesse. She had been sitting behind him on a stool the entire time. So focused had he been on the manufacture of the key that he had not scanned the room when he entered. A shocking lapse of his usual vigilance, and no doubt due to his agitated state. He must not make that mistake again.
"Senorita," he nodded curtly. "Do I have the honor of addressing the Duchess of Wharfedale's personal attendant?"
Conchita curtseyed, then retreated to the safety of Guilliame's casual embrace, regarding DeVergesse with enormous eyes as he looked dubiously at her protector.
"Do not be alarmed," Guilliame assured him, reverting to their own tongue, "she speaks no French at all. That, by the way, is her fiancé you met outside. She does not love him any more, but he is determined to force her to honor their engagement. So as you can see, the Senorita has compelling reasons for wishing to assist us in any way she can. I have arranged for her passage, also."
"Oh have you?"
DeVergesse's heart sank. What on earth were they going to do with this girl when they got to Lisbon? Did she think that she was going to England to continue her duties dressing an English Duchess? Or did she, perhaps, think to follow Guilliame and DeVergesse to Italy? Neither prospect was the slightest bit realistic.
"Conchita knows that Don Massaredo does not want to send the Duchess away on the ship tomorrow," Guilliame said, switching to Spanish, "She told me that he asked the Duchess to dinner and they were in his apartments for a long, long time." He squeezed her shoulder encouragingly and she nodded.
DeVergesse, playing along with the charade, prompted, "That is very bad of him, to attempt to take the advantage of a grieving widow. He promised her that she could go home." Conchita nodded angrily. "And that you could go home with her?"
Conchita looked uncomfortable, but after a moment's hesitation she blurted out, "Si!"
"But," Guilliame continued, "I have told her that if she will simply help us tonight if we need her then she can go on the big ship tomorrow with the Senora La Duchesa, and us of course!"
Sacre bleu! The child is quite pretty, but she must be extraordinarily stupid, DeVergesse thought. Even the most idiot female should know that two men hiding in the back of a stable and forging a key in the middle of the night could not possibly be trusted.
"My felicitations to both of you," DeVergesse said with genuine sincerity, "You are clearly meant for each other."
Conchita smiled radiantly, but Guilliame shot his commander a sour look.
"Bien sur, here is the plan. Conchita, you must wait in the hallway and watches through the crack in the door to see if Don Massaredo looks as if he is waking up, but you must on no account enter his bedchamber. I shall go inside room, where there are certain papers he is keeping under lock and key which I shall need in order to secure the passage on the Almeria so that we all can leave tomorrow morning. Do you understand so far?"
The girl nodded. "Si, Colonel. I watch Don Massaredo to see if he stays sleeping. What do I do if he awakens?"
"If he so much as opens an eye, you are to throw your body screaming against the door and pound on it with all your might."
Guilliame interjected, "That is right, Conchita, caro, you must yell and scream this over and over and then make Don Massaredo come out to the stables. Scream, 'He is going to kill him! He is going to kill him! Help! Help!' Can you remember that?"
"Si, he is going to kill him! Help! I can remember. But, who is going to kill who?"
"Nobody, caro, nobody will kill anybody tonight, but the thing is, we must make Don Massaredo believe that if he does not run outside and stop this big fight between Fernando and I that one of us will die."
"And this is very important, Conchita. If you do not make a great deal of noise, then Guilliame will not have enough time to untie your fisherman-"
"He is no longer MY fisherman," she spat.
"To untie your fisherman," he continued, "And prod him to start swinging fists. It would be very, very bad for Guilliame if Don Massaredo were to find your fisherman still tied up out here in the stable."
Conchita nodded solemnly, but her eyes sparkled with excitement. This made perfect sense to her, DeVergesse thought with wonder. He could not imagine Kitty listening to such a plan without asking a thousand pointed questions.
He clasped his aide on the shoulder. "Perfect," he said again. "And now, if I may have the honor of escorting this beautiful lady back into the house, we shall put our plan into action."
2:30AM El Ferrol Prison
Kitty woke up, her mind in a jumble. Shouting? Screaming? Footsteps of guardsmen, soldiers' boots ringing down the hall outside her bedroom-these noises parted the thick woolen blanket of her sleep.
She fought desperately to clear her throbbing head. It was like swimming through mud, not that Kitty had ever attempted such an act, but if in future she had occasion to, she thought the sensation would seem like deja vu. Blasted laudanum, she thought. What a good thing that there was so little left in the vial.
She crept to the door and opened it, looking out through the crack. What the devil could be going on? The hallway was drenched in deep, silent shadows. She went over to her small barred window and opened it. Her window looked out towards the back of the Don's hacienda. Standing on tip-toe, she could just make out a circle of light in front of the stable. A dozen shouting men were standing with lanterns and torches, watching something...what? A woman screeched again. There were too many branches in the way to see clearly, but she thought she saw two white-shirted forms grappling with each other in the dust.
Then a flash of gold braid on a dark jacket appeared at the periphery, as another man arrived in white pants and dark boots. He raised his arm into the air and firelight gleamed off something in his hand.
A pistol went off. One of the fighting men seized the other by the collar and swung hard. The other man went down, lay still. Then the group of soldiers and guardsmen crowded together, tightening the circle of torchlight around the victor and the vanquished. Kitty thought she saw a flash of white petticoats under a dark skirt and the figure of a woman pushing her way through the circle.
A fight then, that was all it was. Nothing but a fight. Probably drunken soldiers fighting over a girl. Kitty breathed a sigh of relief. DeVergesse had not been caught in the Don's chamber-had not been arrested.
She returned gratefully to her bed, burrowing down amongst the rough blankets. Her hand encountered something soft, finely-woven linen with a trimming of lace. She drew it towards her, examining it curiously. DeVergesse's shirt, she recalled, the laudanum haze clearing from her mind with activity and the cool, fragrant, Spanish night air.
The shirt smelled of him, a pleasant scent. No heavy powders or perfumes as so many of the London men wore, and much cleaner than the smell of either Don Massaredo or the unfortunate prisoners like Mr. 'Aitch, though the dear Lord knew it was hardly their fault they were unable to match the Colonel's standards of personal grooming in a dirt-floored prison cell.
Kitty breathed him in, and then out.
And suddenly, she had her answer.
"But there is another sort of code, and this sort is impossible to break unless both the sender and the recipient have the same key. That type is called a "Book" code,"
"A book code? Does that mean that each must have the same code book?"
"No, but each must have the same actual book. Usually a novel, although sometimes something much less interesting, like, for example, 'Clark's Seamanship', or 'Plutarch's Lives'." Horatio had grinned enthusiastically, warming to his subject.
"In this sort of code, each word is indicated by a three numbers. The first number is a page number from the book itself. Then a second number would indicate the line on the page. And the third number would indicate which word in that line was the right word!" he laughed. "Wicked hard to decode, but impossible to break! We British invented that Cipher!"
The key. A book code. Yes, but which book? Kitty's mind raced. She sat up in bed--all lingering effects from the laudanum dose banished by a surge of electricity through her every vein.
DeVergesse had thought she and Mr. Hornblower were spies. He was searching for the dispatches. He knew about their existence before he ever arrived, had searched her room for them, and had interrogated prisoners to try to find out where they were, and who had them. And he was always testing, testing, testing--her and everyone else. Setting traps and casting out lines-that was DeVergesse.
" But you shall need a key of your own to unlock the secrets of Don Massaredo's heart, and I have thought of what form that key might take. A good agent, Mademoiselle, does not go into a dangerous situation without a way in and a way out. Here," he had removed a book from HIS OWN disordered coverlets and handed it to her. "This is Don Quixote. It is a story about a man who jousts with windmills."
And Kitty had opened it, saying, "It is written in Spanish."
"Precisely. How much do you know about our host?"
With a scarcely-muffled squeal of excitement, Kitty tore off the blankets, lit several candles, and pounced upon her sea chest. There it was, the Don Quixote. She gave it a much closer inspection. The binding was cheap cloth and glue, stamped by machine, not the finely-handworked leather of a special edition made to order for a rich patron. Opening the book, she scrutinized the frontispiece. It had been printed in 1792, and was no doubt, one of hundreds of identical copies. Yes, indeed, this book could easily be in more than one set of hands; it was thick, it had many, many pages and many words.
She removed the portrait of The Lady she had pressed between the pages, tossed both on her little dressing table, and then dove underneath her bed and retrieved the dispatches she had hidden in her hip roll earlier that day.
She pulled the threads apart, extracting the documents. There it was, the cryptic dispatch written all in numbers. She looked at the first one.
Now let me see, she thought, that looks like it should be page 117, line 20, third word in. "Caro". That meant "Dear". So far so good. She continued on. The next word was "God", no could be "Lord". What was next? Castella. Kitty pursed her lips. Dear God Castle. What came next? "Real".
That meant "royal". Dear God Castleroyal? No! Dear Lord Castlereagh! That had to be it! He was Minister of War, that much she knew from attending parties with Sir John!
Oh dear, oh dear, Kitty thought. This is going to be harder than I thought.
She flipped back and forth, making notes rapidly but the going was very slow. Sometimes, the word was an exact translation of the Spanish word, but other times the word was made up of Spanish syllables which, spoken all together, sounded something like the word in English. Devilish clever, no wonder Horatio had said the code would be impossible to break without the book.
3:30am El Ferrol Prison
'Dear Lord Castlereagh and Admiral Lord Hood,
We have received diverse information from both our agents in Spain, and from the French double agent (of whose identity you are no doubt already made aware) as to the possibility of a Spanish resistance against the French alliance. To this end, we have sought to identify (? Name? Define?) those Dons who are opposed to the alliance. More importantly, we have uncovered reports of entire towns and villages who are hostile to the French, and whose Lords(? Dons? Rulers?) have already prepared for the prospect of an uprising against their King's direction (? Orders? Command?) by...
Kitty shoved the paper away. This was terribly uninteresting. Not at all the sort of thing that she had hoped for. It went on and on, the deciphering was terribly slow and tedious and so far, it did not seem to apply to her situation at all. No doubt it is useful to our side, and would be of interest to the French, but...
So this is what DeVergesse had been hoping to find on her person. Was this information worth losing her favors to obtain? She sighed and admitted to herself with a little ironic smile that men had thrown her over for far less. Still, she was happy she had not allowed the Frenchman to find it, and happy that she would soon be handing it over to the men who could truly understand and make use of it.
Her eye felt gritty and now that the initial excitement of discovery had worn off, the residual effect of the laudanum was urging her back towards the comforting cocoon of her bed.
In the morning, she thought, after just a little more sleep. I will finish the decoding in the morning. She smoothed the wrinkles out of the little portrait of the Lady and replaced her in the book, then hugging it to her chest, she slept.
4:30 AM-Sunday Morning
Don Massaredo's head ached and throbbed like it had been kicked by a horse. Was he becoming ill? It had taken the utmost effort to rouse himself to go out to the hallway and attempt to quiet the screams of the servant girl, whose name he still could not seem to recollect. Ah yes, she was the village girl he had retained to wait upon the Duchess of Wharfedale, that was it.
The Duchess of Wharfedale. She had left him, then, after all, still sleeping deeply in his wingback chair. He replayed the evening in his mind and quickly concluded that he must be, if not actually sick, verging on feverish. For what other excuse could he find for his behavior?
And then, Oh! Such an uproar!
The girl had screamed without stopping practically all the way to the stableyard, waking the entire establishment. His house guard had already arrived on the scene; these were shortly followed by several hastily-dressed guards from the prison itself.
He had separated the combatants by firing a single shot straight up into the air. The two men had ceased their grappling and risen unsteadily to their feet, but then the villager had unleashed a shocking streak of the coarsest and most vulgar profanity at the young Frenchman and swung at his head. The Frenchman had calmly parried the blow, landed a telling fist to the villager's jaw, dropped him where he stood, and then fainted dead away. The screaming girl had pushed through the throng and flung herself, to Don Massaredo's surprise, onto the prone body of the French soldier.
Odder still, the soldier's commanding officer was the last on the scene. DeVergesse must be a sound sleeper, Don Massaredo theorized, for he had dressed himself in haste, throwing his jacket on over his bare chest and not even bothering to button it. For all his appearance of haste, his arrival was certainly delayed.
The younger Frenchman had been brought around by that point, and he was immediately subjected to what Don Massaredo could only conclude was a colorful tongue-lashing in French. There was nothing for it but that DeVergesse would take the villager back home over the back of his very own horse and offer a bag of gold coins to his family by way of restitution.
"I regret this incident," he had said. "The very last thing that we would wish so early in our alliance is to give the people any reason to resent a French presence here. I must make my apologies to his family in person, no matter what the hour. I shall deal with my Sancho Panza," jerking a thumb at his aide-de-camp, "tomorrow. My apologies for this having disturbed your rest."
Don Massaredo thought this was very decent and honorable of the French Colonel, but he found it an odd coincidence that he had made that facetious reference to Don Quixote's faithful sidekick. There was something quite troubling, in fact, about the whole situation. He slid wearily into his bed, but neither sleep nor sudden illumination came to him as the sky outside his window began to purple.
His head continued to ache abominably. Perhaps he had drank too much Madeira? The Duchess had a supple wrist indeed. But then, she had ulterior motives, he recalled with a piquant mixture of pride and embarrassment. Had he ever felt so confused in all of his life? Don Massaredo suspected that he had not.
Perhaps a small glass, a very small glass, of sweet wine would help his head and ease him back into sleep. He recalled that the bottle of Madeira was quite empty, but his decanter of port in the chamber was still half-full. He slipped the chain from around his neck.
That was odd, he thought. The lock appeared to be jammed somehow. The key slid in easily, but it would not turn. The old Spaniard worked and wiggled and jiggled the key without result, finally admitting defeat. Don Massaredo was puzzled. There had not been the slightest difficulty unlocking the padlock the last time he had done so--the afternoon of the day before.
He replaced the tapestry and carried the key over to the darkening hearth, where he lit a taper on the last glowing embers. The light turned the old metal of the key to burning amber, and as the Don turned it thoughtfully to cast the grooves and notches into sharper relief, he broke out in a cold sweat of fear. For he realized that the key that he held in his hand, the key from around his neck, though superficially quite similar, was no longer the key to his chamber. No wonder it did not quite fit the lock.
With trembling hands, he lit the various lamps and candles around his bedchamber, to banish all darkness and gloom. What agent had wrought this change in his accustomed key? A spectral hand, or a human one?
Don Massaredo sank down into his chair and stared sightlessly
into the dying embers of the fire, trying to make sense of the
5:30 AM El Ferrol Prison
A knock on her door.
Kitty rolled over, unwilling to arise. She cracked an eye. Outside her small window, the stars were still faintly visible in a violet sky. Softly, insistently, the knocking continued, came more frequently, grew incrementally louder. Expelling a hiss of breath through clenched teeth, Kitty gingerly placed her bare feet on the cold stone floor and went to her door.
"'Oo is it?"
"Bollocks!" Kitty muttered, and then speaking more loudly. "What the bloody hell do you want?"
"I want to give you back your shoes, Madame."
"Leave them at the door and go away." Kitty waited to see if she would hear the Frenchman's footsteps retreating, but the hall outside her room was silent.
"Etienne, are you still there?"
"Yes. I shall not leave until I see you."
"I am not dressed. The hour is indecent."
"Neither argument is compelling. I will only be a moment."
Kitty sighed and tossed on a dressing gown, then opened the door just enough to extend her hand. "Give me my shoes."
DeVergesse brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it. Why do I keep letting him do this, Kitty wondered? She had no answer.
He handed her the shoes. She noticed he was no longer wearing his uniform, but was simply attired in a clean white shirt over bloodstained breeches. Kitty could not resist a startled look at a long smear of blood on his thighs.
"What happened to you?"
"Nothing happened to ME." He stared at her. "It surprises me just a little that you have not asked me the more obvious question."
Kitty opened the door a little more while she puzzled over this statement, and DeVergesse eased into the room uninvited.
"Did anyone ever tell you your manners were abominable?"
"Yes, many times. But as you can see, it had no effect. Are you not the slightest bit curious?"
Kitty grasped his meaning. "Yes," she stammered, "yes, I am. Did youfind what you expected?"
For a moment, DeVergesse looked almost sad. He laughed ironically, and replied, "Yes and no. I was a little disappointed in a matter which meant a great deal to me, though perhaps not to anyone else, but what I did find exceeded my expectations by so great a margin that I can only lay myself at your feet. I shall ever be your humble servant, for the assistance that you gave me, however much it was given under duress."
"And you really think you can get away with what you have done? How are you going to get out of El Ferrol without being caught? You rode in on a horse. How are you to hide your ill-gotten gains when you leave here?"
DeVergesse looked up at her with surprise, then beamed-a smile of pure delight and mischief. "Oh, is that what you thought? Cherie, I assure you that I had no intention of taking anything from that chamber but what could be carried right here," he tapped his temple. "Information, intelligence, and illumination. Strange currencies, but in some cases worth far more than gold. I did quite well, after all, for I obtained two of the three."
"I feel like a traitor. You have made me one."
"Do not, for what I have discovered has little importance to England though it has great importance to France. Besides, you have saved yourself and purchased my silence on the many, many suspicious aspects of your imprisoned friends. But I can say no more."
"But you did not findeverything? All that you expected?"
"Alas, no. But in a strange way, I am relieved. It was, perhaps, better that I did not. I am at least pleased that I no longer have to wonder about that, and can leave today with a light heart."
Kitty stood very still. "You are leaving today, also?"
"Yes Madame. In just a few hours, maybe less. The Don shall find his burden as host considerably lightened before the sun is well up. Which reminds me, your ship is sailing on the morning tide, and you should be packing. They shall be coming for you soon." His eyes began to roam the room. "There was one more thing."
"The Don Quixote. I want it back. I did not see it in the Don's bedchamber as you told me. Where is it?" His eyes grew cold and hard--inquisitor's eyes.
Good heavens, she thought. The Don Quixote has a half-translated secret dispatch and a most extraordinary spot of art pressed between its pages. If he were to see that, I would be great, great trouble and he would know that I still had the real dispatches.
Kitty bent all her resources to the task of keeping her eyes fixed on his face. Recalling the Don's inadvertent look towards the hidden door of his chamber, she was determined not to allow any unconscious gesture to betray her sudden nervousness over the Don Quixote which lay wrapped in DeVergesse's shirt under a heap of blankets on her bed.
"I have no idea," she lied. "Perhaps a servant entered the chamber and returned it to his library. It was his book, was it not?"
"No," said DeVergesse. "It was mine."
Kitty looked at him dubiously. "You do not seem like the novel type."
"Oh, I assure you, I am."
"Well, I am sorry to have mislaid it. I suppose that it will turn up somewhere."
DeVergesse looked her up and down shrewdly. "I am sure that it will, sooner or later."
Once again, they stood as they had several times before in the middle of her room, regarding each other suspiciously. Kitty broke the silence, extending her hand and saying, "Well, I suppose this is good-bye, then." She bit her lower lip. "I cannot say it was an honor and I definitely could not call it a pleasure, but I must admit that you made the last two days of my stay here at El Ferrol much more interesting."
"I, though, am honored. It is not every day I get to match my wits against one of the greatest actresses in the entire world, and in that, Madame, I am sincere."
Kitty was flattered against her will, and found herself softening. "Then Sir," she whispered, placing her hands upon his chest in supplication, "give me back the dispatches that you took from me. You have what you came here for---you just admitted as much. Let me take these British dispatches to my countrymen. No one shall ever know that I lost them to you, if only for a few hours."
DeVergesse's face grew hard. "I told you before, Madame, I cannot do that. Much as I would like to indulge your request, my duty to France forbids it. You would never expect such a thing of Mr. Hornblower, so why would you expect it of me?"
"Because I think you care for me, if only a little!" She blurted out, a sob tearing her voice. "I do not know why, but I think that you do. Perhaps because you remember me as I was, all those years ago, in London."
"HmmmAnd do you care for me?"
"I-, why should I?"
"That, Madame, is not an answer. Be honest. What do you really feel for me?"
Kitty slowly withdrew her hands from his chest, and slowly backed away. "What I really think of you isisis that it is a great pity that a man so attractive and interesting is such a self-serving, duplicitous, dishonorable, ill-mannered rake."
DeVergesse accepted her verdict calmly. "That is what you think. You still have not told me what you feel."
"You are my enemy. To feel anything for you other than hatred and contempt would be nothing but treason. I am an Englishwoman, Sir, and I could never love a Frog."
"Bien sûr, Madame, then if your heart is not at risk then there can be no dishonor in a trifling kiss from a dishonorable rake."
And having said it, he took her nightgown-clad form into his arms and wrapped her into an embrace so tight, and gave her a kiss so deep and true, that she wondered what on earth his kiss would feel like if he were seriously in love?
"Au Revoir," he said, releasing her. And without another word, he left her, striving without success to stop the wild hammering of her traitorous, traitorous heart.
6:15 AM El Ferrol Prison
"Wake up, you filthy swine!" DeVergesse tipped over the cot and rolled Guilliame onto the floor in a tumble of blankets. "We have less than an hour!"
The younger man grumbled and cursed, but disentangled himself from the blanket and rose to splash water on his face from a cold basin.
"What did you do with the fisherman?" he asked. "Did you dump him in the harbor? That is what I would have done."
"Ah, he will live," DeVergesse said. "They shall find him in the net house tomorrow morning no doubt. These good Catholics would never fish on a Sunday and by the time they find the big lout, we shall be well away."
Guilliame busied himself with putting away his belongings in a saddle bag.
"Give me that," DeVergesse commanded.
"I do not ride?"
"You ride, but you do not ride with me. I shall bring your horse."
Guilliame looked back at him, confused.
"Guilliame," his commanding officer explained, "I would have you ride as part of the escort that conveys the Duchess and her maid to the Almeria. But I wish you to join the coachman atop the carriage after Her Grace has entered it. But I wish you to join the escort after Her Grace has entered the carriage. I have a strong suspicion that if the lady knew I was to be one of the passengers that she would refuse to board. My plan is to arrive at the last possible moment."
"Then why should I go ahead?"
"Because I want you to ensure that nothing, NOTHING, keeps that woman from embarking on that ship."
Guilliame's skepticism was evident.
"No matter what happens-no matter what--she must leave, and leave today. I have given her my word."
Guilliame nodded, and returned to his packing.
"Oh, Mon Capitan," he said. "I was unable to find your key to this room. I still have mine, but yours seems to have gone missing from your 2nd best jacket."
"Umm hmmm," DeVergesse was lost in his own troubled thoughts. "Perhaps it fell out somewhere. The pockets are too small, I have told you that before."
Why did Kitty Cobham assume that what he would steal from Don Massaredo's chamber would be too large to smuggle out? Why was she so unhelpful in the matter of returning to him his own copy of Don Quixote? And why had she been so uncurious about what he had seen in the Chamber?
And why had she not offered to return his shirt?
6:30 AM-El Ferrol Prison
"Take it off the hinges but do not open it. I want the entire lock assembly able to be removed from the wall."
"It would be ever so much quicker and easier to simply break the lock," Don Massaredo's foreman said, adding, "I did not know you had another room here."
"It is for my personal papers, nothing more. One can never be too cautious with such things when one's home adjoins a prison."
"True enough. But the lock?"
"I have particular reasons for not wishing the lock damaged in any way. Do as I command."
"Si, Your Excellency."
The foreman and his assistant took out their tools and went to work. The pounding of mallet upon chisel did nothing for Don Massaredo's aching head. A sudden memory alarmed him, and he whirled on his heel and left his bedchamber.
He had NOT told the Duchess that she would be leaving on a ship this very morning. He hurried to her door, and knocked upon it.
"'Oo is it?"
The door was flung open and before him stood the Duchess of Wharfedale, already attired in her favored walking dress. Over her shoulder, he could see her bedclothes were in disarray and she had several items of a delicate nature draped across the foot of the bed. Tearing his eyes away and clearing his throat, he said, "I am pleased to find you already awake and dressed. I-," he sighed, "I should have told you last night, but I-"
"Yes," the Don colored. "I meant to surprise you at the end of the evening with the happy news that your passage has been arranged to Lisbon, but you must meet the ship at La Corunna early this morning."
Surprisingly, a corset flew across the room and landed in a heap with the other underthings on the bed. Her Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale, nodded in the direction from which the corset had been flung. Opening the door wider, she revealed her maid, the hysterical screamer of the previous evening, hard at work sorting through Her Grace's sea chest. The Spanish girl stood up abruptly, blushing and curtseying.
"As you can see, Your Excellency, my maidservant has already informed me and is even now helping me to pack." She arched a confiding eyebrow. "I am grateful to Your Excellency for the advance notice, all the same. But as you can see, we are hardly in a fit state to receive a gentleman."
Abashed to find her not alone and already apprised of her good fortune, Don Massaredo bowed stiffly and took his leave.
When he returned to his room, the workmen had removed all the bolts that held the brass bands in place, and had gently removed the entire lock assembly. Deep gouges disfigured the thick, dark wood, saddening Don Masseredo by the sight of them.
"You may go," he said.
Once the men were gone, he barred his own door and, with a heart full of dread, entered his chamber.
Two minutes later he emerged, and strode angrily down the corridors to the prison.
"We have three 'guests'," he spat out the word, "leaving us today. One is a thief. I want their bags searched before they are loaded, and I want their rooms searched as soon as they have vacated them. That is an order!"
"What are we looking for?"
"We are looking for a key, and a small portrait of a woman with writing on the back. As soon as either is found, you are to report to me immediately."
The Captain of the prison guard saluted his master.
"But be discreet," the Don added. "I wish only that the guilty party shall know that their belongings were searched."
"Consider it done, Your Excellency."
7 AM-El Ferrol Prison
Not another visitor!
Kitty started violently at the authoritative hammering on her door. It proved, however, to be no one more intriguing than one of Don Massaredo's guardsmen.
"Senora La Duchesa," he said in Spanish, as he favored her with a stiff little bow, "I beg pardon for the intrusion but His Excellency wanted you informed that the Almeria must sail with the tide, and so you and your baggage must be aboard the coach within twenty minutes time."
His eyes roamed the room behind her, seeing that several items of clothing remained to be stowed in her sea chest.
"How long shall the journey take?" Kitty asked the soldier.
"Nearly an hour, Senora La Duchesa."
"Send the men for my chest in ten minutes," she replied.
Ever since the early morning visit from DeVergesse, there had been a sickening tightness in the pit of her stomach and she felt as though she might even vomit her meager breakfast. Her mouth was dry; her hands trembled.
At other times in her life, she would have wished to spend the hours after such an attractive man had kissed her in such a way lolling in her bed, sorting pleasurably through her dreamily disordered thoughts and emotions until she decided exactly what she felt and whether she wished to encourage him. But under these circumstances, such luxury was remote to say the least, and not just because his egress was followed within minutes by the arrival of the erstwhile Conchita, babbling her usual stream of nonsense about Guilliame this, and Guilliame that, and Guilliame did and said thus and so.
It was very tiresome indeed.
There was, however, one thing that she knew very well. She knew that she wanted that Frenchman to find to his dismay and humiliation exactly how much cleverer she was than he had supposed her to be. A plan had begun to crystallize in her mind, and the more she rolled it over, the more she liked the effect. But first, she needed to get Conchita out of the room.
"Conchita," she ordered, "Go and take your own things to the coach. I can finish packing up these last few items and I shall need you to do something for me when you get back."
The girl curtseyed obediently and left. She was, if nothing else, eager to please.
Kitty ran through a series of rapid calculations in her mind. DeVergesse had told her that he, too, would be leaving early this very morning. But Kitty's departure was mere minutes away. She had glanced at intervals out the window at the entrances to the stables, but had not yet observed DeVergesse or his man saddling their horses to leave.
The one thing that Kitty did not wish to do was to give DeVergesse the slightest opportunity to steal Don Massaredo's "Lady". No, the portrait must be returned to Don Massaredo after the Frenchman had ridden away.
There was another thing. The copy of Don Quixote was the key to the coded Dispatch that she had partially-translated the previous evening. Not every copy, surely, would have the same page numbering, the same layout of words upon page. Therefore, it was essential that she keep both this book, and the dispatch, which had been coded to it, out of the hands of the French Intelligence officer.
He would know exactly what sort of woman he had thought to blackmail and use, oh my Lord, yes; he would know it full well.
A little less than an hour to La Corunna. A reasonable span of time to unload "Her Grace's" belongings and see to her embarkation. A little less than an hour back from La Corunna. Perfect.
Kitty removed the key from the pot of face cream and wiped it clean. She removed the frame that had previously adorned "The Lady" from the wall of her quarters and removed the cheap reproduction fashion plate, crumpling it and tossing it into the dustbin. DeVergesse's white linen shirt had been neatly camouflaged in the wad of bed linen she had molded into a heap in the center of her bed. She shook the wrinkles out of the shirt with a sharp snap of her wrists, and then buttoned it to the neck, inserting the frame into the shirt and folding the shirt around it. She dropped the key into the collar, and then wrapped the whole affair in brown paper and string.
She had scarcely finished when Conchita returned.
"My things are loaded, Madame."
"Very good, Conchita." Kitty smiled indulgently. "Now, I have something I must ask you to do, but you must be very discreet." She winked at the girl, whose dark eyes sparkled with excitement. "This," she said in a whisper, "is the Colonel's shirt."
"THE COLONEL'S SHIRT?!" Conchita shrieked.
"Sssshhh!" Kitty rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Conchita, if you wish to be a true Lady's Maid you MUST learn discretion!"
"Oh, Senora, I am sorry," the girl whispered, chastened.
"It became wrinkled and so I have put it on wooden stretchers so that the wrinkles will come out."
Conchita nodded solemnly.
"But the Colonel, he would not wish to be embarrassed in front of a Lady's Maid, you understand that, don't you?"
The Spanish girl nodded again.
"So you must now take this to Guilliame, and tell him that this is the Colonel's shirt which is now properly starched and stretched, and to put it in the Colonel's baggage. Tell him--"
"Tell Guilliame that I have put a little present in there for his master, as a remembrance of me."
"Si, Senora! I know such a trusted aide knows how to be discreet, too." Giggling, Conchita hugged the brown paper-wrapped parcel to her chest and left the room.
Within moments, there was another knock on the door and two Spanish guardsmen came in to take Kitty's sea chest.
"Take a few more minutes, Senora La Duchesa, to make certain you have left nothing behind, then wait for His Excellency," one of them told her. "Don Massaredo insists upon the honor of escorting you to your coach."
7:30 AM-El Ferrol Prison
"We found nothing, Senor. Nothing such as you described in either La Duchesa's chest or in the satchel of her maid."
Don Massaredo hoped that his sigh of relief was not visible to his men. He would not become a figure of fun to these young soldiers; he simply would not, though no doubt his partiality had been the subject of conjecture in the magazine.
The two soldiers closed the sea chest, and each grabbed a handle as they lifted it swaying between them, creaking on the stiff old leather straps. A surprisingly scarred old chest for a supposedly wealthy English Duchess, but when one is subject to misadventure, or even capture, travelling in these dangerous times, one might leave one's best things at home.
"Good," he said gruffly. "Then I shall go to her now. He glanced at the clock on the mantle. "As for our French guests, try to search their things without their knowing. I do not wish a to attract the attention of the diplomats in Madrid, but neither of the two is to leave without all of his belongings being searched."
The two men nodded and began to make their way out to the coach, the Don watching them from the shadowed doorway. An escort had already begun to assemble. The young Frenchman had just arrived and placed his own satchel upon the carriage roof, starting to secure it with leather straps. One of the Don's men came over to him and motioned towards the stable door. The Frenchman, assured by the other man that he would secure the bag to the roof, went into the stable with the first soldier. Don Massaredo watched as his man unbuckled the satchel and rifled through the contents quickly. He looked towards the doorway and shook his head slightly.
Don Massaredo was pleased. There was only one more of these visitors who could possibly be the thief, and this one the most likely candidate of all.
Moments later, he stood at the door to the Duchess of Wharfedale's quarters. He knocked lightly.
She was sitting on a stripped bed, in an attitude of one who had been ready and waiting for some time. Her straw bonnet was tied about her neck with a black bow, and she had a shawl upon her lap, which appeared to be wrapped about a thick book.
"Your Excellency." Her pale blue eyes were tinged with sadness and there was a pink-tinged translucence to the lids of them that showed she had scarcely slept. She looked wan and tired, pale as wax, and altogether lovely.
Don Massaredo bowed and smiled at her, extending his arm. "And so, Your Grace, it is time for you to go."
She nodded, biting her lip a little and hugging her shawl-wrapped parcel to her chest, but she took his arm and allowed him to raise her to unsteady feet.
"This has all happened so very fast, I confess I cannot get used to the idea that I am finally to leave El Ferrol."
"This is what you want, is it not? It is what duty requires of me, Your Grace. I cannot hold an English noblewoman in my prison indefinitely."
"Yes, Your Excellency. I do want to go home right enough. My friends, familythey must be very worried about me." The couple walked slowly through the corridor. Don Massaredo did his best to keep his gait smooth, to play down the hitch in his bad hip.
Why, in the face of her departure, am I still indulging an old man's vanity? He confessed he did not understand, but he found the sight of her grief-tightened face to be strangely gratifying all the same. So she was not happy to leave El Ferrol. That was good. But she was leaving El Ferrol. That was better. Don Massaredo had finally admitted to himself earlier than morning that he did not wish his life complicated in such a fashion, though the opportunity to do so had enlivened him in ways he never expected.
He touched the hard object she cradled to her body. "You take something to read, I see. That is good. You have a long journey ahead of you," he said, his voice a low, gentle murmur.
As they passed through the shadowed doorway and into the morning sunlight, he turned to him and smiled. The sun's rays caught her eyes, dazzling him with golden flecks picked out like the threads of a tapestry in the pale blue field of her irises. He had never noticed them before, had never actually walked with this woman in the morning sun of Spain. What a pity he had left that duty to Mr. Hornblower, and now it was too late.
"Indeed, Sir, I confess that after last night I am quite unwilling to let this marvelous book out of my sight. It has a new fascination for me. You cannot begin to imagine how interesting I find it after last night."
They arrived at the coach, and stopped before the door.
"I am pleased, Your Grace, that you take something of the glory of Spain with you." He gave her a formal bow, then placed his hand to his heart. "For you leave something of England, here."
And then surprisingly, she leaned forward and kissed him on his weathered cheek. "I shall never forget you, Sir, or your kindness to me. You shall hear from me. I shall write very soon, I promise. Very, very soon," she whispered.
The old Don blushed, just a little. He took her hand and pressed it to his lips. "I regret that last night-," her murmured.
"Think nothing of last night," she whispered back, her foot already upon the rail. "It is I who should apologize for my rash and impetuous behavior."
"Pray do not. I can only say that the memory of your-im-pet-u-ous," he stumbled over the word, "behavior will warm an old man's nights for years to come."
"Will it now? Why, Don Massaredo, you sly old fox!" Her face lit up with mock indignation, followed quickly by a wash of relief. As if from nowhere, she produced a fan and rapped the delighted Don on the shoulder with it. "La, Sir! Fie!" Then, without another word, she ducked her head and entered the darkness of the carriage, where her maid was waiting for her, pulling the door shut behind her.
Perhaps the war would not last so very long this time, Don Massaredo mused. La Corunna might even become fashionable for wealthy, titled Britons travelling to the Med.
He barked an order to the coachman to get under way directly. A lithe shadow emerged from the gloom of the stable, which proved to be DeVergesse's aide-de-camp. The tall, young man swung himself up to join the coachman as easily as if he were a Barbary ape. He grinned down at Don Massaredo, saluted, and with a crack of the coachman's whip, the equipage was off, escorted by four mounted soldiers.
Don Massaredo looked at the sun. It would be close, but they should make their rendezvous with the Almeria. He turned to walk into the house but was met by four more of his men, satisfaction oozing from their every pore.
"Your Excellency," they said. "We think we may have found it."
7:45 AM-El Ferrol, the Stableyard
"And where is Colonel DeVergesse?"
"The last time I saw him," one of the men said, "he was in your library."
"Oh was he?"
Don Massaredo accompanied his men to the stable where the Frenchmen's horses had been saddled and loaded with the Colonel's saddlebags and dunnage. The buckles on one side of the saddlebags of his own horse was unbuckled, a parcel wrapped in brown paper protruded from beneath the leather flap. One corner of the parcel had been torn, exposing what looked like a linen shirt wrapped tautly about a rectangular object comprised of four strips of wood."
Don Massaredo extracted the parcel with trembling hands. "A knife," he demanded, snapping his fingers, and one was produced. He ripped the white linen just enough to display the black wood beneath, but was unwilling to do more, for he did not wish to expose the portrait to the gaze of his soldiers.
Something was loose inside the parcel. He upended it and a large, ornate key fell at his feet.
As he bent over to pick it up, he felt his face suffuse with blood and there was a sudden roaring in his ears. Anger mixed with fear. How dare he-that French BASTARD! The Don recalled how soundly he had slept last night, and how difficult it had been for him to wake up. Then there was the disturbance, the fight, the late arrival of the French Colonel at the scene of the fracas. Was the young Spanish girl involved? Surely not. She was too stupid, her fright too genuine. And the Duchess herself? Absurd. If she had had her way they would have been bedded down together, and if she had wished to steal from him, she would have just taken his key and replaced it later. Don Massaredo thought he now knew very well what key he wore about his neck, and it was not a key the Duchess would have known about.
Yes, the son had returned to obtain what the father could not. Don Massaredo doubted that he had been content with simply finding The Lady, but had penetrated deeper still. Who, in his situation, could resist such a temptation? And now he must know all.
Don Massaredo had even started to like man, and enjoy his company. What a pity he must die.
The Don raged inwardly, but he did not allow the men to see the full violence of the emotions that caused his heart to skip and skitter, and his blood to boil in his veins. He returned the parcel to the saddlebag.
"You have done well," he said to the ones who had conducted the search. "Remain here and guard the French horses. Allow no one to come near until we return."
He turned to several more soldiers, who were shifting about uneasily in the doorway of the stable. "You!" he pointed at two of them, "Find the Colonel DeVergesse and arrest him. You should start your search at the library. Bring him before me in the great hall. I will be at my desk drawing up the necessary papers." To the remaining soldier he just said a curt, "Accompany me to the house."
They walked in silence to the great hall, where Don Massaredo's ornate desk held court before the massive flagstone hearth.
"Alert the guard to prepare a cell for our French 'guest'," he spat, "In the same block as the one occupied by our English friends." The man saluted and turned to leave on his mission. "And one more thing--," he halted the man with his words, "instruct the guardsmen to draw their lots and choose a company of six. I shall require a firing squad to assemble in the prison yard at noon."
"Sir?" for the first time, the soldier allowed doubt to creep into his expression. "A firing squad?"