Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
By: Karen Lee
Disclaimer: By this point, some of you more alert readers may have wondered how I have managed to keep DeVergesse in my rumpus room during this writing process without tipping off my husband to the presence of an amorous Frenchman in da' house. Well, he is getting suspicious. He is beginning to ask pointed questions about why we have Coquilles St. Jacques every other night, but never seem to have any leftovers to take to work the next day for lunch. And yesterday he announced that he has finally determined that the slick substance on the Barcalounger in the office is Bain de Soleil. I can see that I need to end this story quickly, as I know what side my baguette is buttered on around here.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that these characters, though by now completely unrecognizable even by their own mothers, are based on the novels of C.S. Forester, and various supporting roles written in by the writers of Meridian's Horatio Hornblower television movies.
8 AM-El Ferrol: The Library
"Where is itwhere is it?"
To DeVergesse, it seemed as if he had put his hand on every volume in the Don's vast library without encountering the one book he sought. Though there were no fewer than three copies of Cervantes' novel, none was the edition that he, DeVergesse, had brought to El Ferrol.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. He should leave right away. It had been ten minutes, at least, since he had watched the departure of the coach through the library windows.
He sighed softly, admitting defeat. On his own fast stallion, leading Guilliame's sleek mare, he could easily catch up with the coach if he left within the next few minutes. If he tarried much longer, though, he would miss his passage on the Almeria. The Captain could wait for no one, for he would dare not risk the treacherous tides and rips that guarded the entrance to La Corunna harbor at all but the highest flood.
That woman, he thought, a faint smile lifting the corners of his mouth, must have taken it with her after all. I wondered why she lied to me about it? One might almost think she enjoyed being searched. A predatory gleam lit his eyes as he considered how much pleasure it would give him to steal it back from her once they were aboard the Almeria and well out to sea. She would not be able to hide such a thing in her petticoats this time, of that he was certain.
Brushing gray smudges of dust from the bookshelves from his coat sleeves, he strode briskly towards the door.
As he reached for the handle, the library door banged open. Two armed soldiers stood in the entrance, leveling bayonets at his chest.
"What is the meaning of this?" he cried.
One stepped forward, bayonet still pointed at his breast. The second man lowered his bayonet and removed a pistol from his belt, aiming it at the Frenchman's head.
"Colonel DeVergesse," the first man said in clipped, formal Spanish, "You are under arrest by order of His Excellency, Don Massaredo de la Corunna. You will come with us."
A dozen possibilities flashed through his mind as they escorted him down the passage, and he liked none of them.
The soldiers brought him before the massive oaken desk in the great hall, where Don Massaredo sat writing on a sheet of parchment. He signed the bottom with a flourish, then looked up at DeVergesse.
The room was filled with dazzling sunlight, which caught the glass eyes of the mounted heads of deer and boar that were hung high upon the stone walls of the vaulted hall. He was surrounded by sightless, soulless eyes, glittering through the dust motes that danced in the sunbeams from the high windows. Don Massaredo's own pale gray eyes were scarcely less cold and remote.
In such a situation, DeVergesse knew the value of waiting, of not being the first to speak.
"Do you know what I am signing, Colonel?"
DeVergesse shook his head slightly, then raised his chin and stared at a spot on the stone hearth above and beyond the old Don's head.
"These are the orders for your execution."
He said it as if he were telling DeVergesse he had decided what to tell the cook to serve them for dessert that night.
A sharp stab of fear pierced the French Colonel's gut. "Whose orders?"
Leaning back in his chair, the Don regarded DeVergesse speculatively, propping his iron-stubbled chin on tented fingers. "Mine."
"I am not one of your subjects, Your Excellency. It would not sit well with Their Most Catholic Majesties in Madrid if you execute an officer of the Republican Army without a trial."
"Colonel DeVergesse, you are a thief. I am the law here in El Ferrol, and I think that you will find there is more than enough evidence against you."
"I have stolen nothing."
"A liar, then, too." Don Massaredo shook his head sadly. He motioned to his men and they positioned themselves on either side of DeVergesse. The Don untied his cravat and, working his fingers down underneath the collar, he slowly drew out a chain. A bronze key gleamed in the light.
"What do you think this key opens?" he asked. "What room, here, in my house, can be entered with this key?"
DeVergesse's confusion was genuine, though his ignorance was not. Why was the Don showing him the key to his chamber?
"I could not say, Your Excellency, all keys look very much the same. What has this to do with me? I demand that you show the evidence against me. No doubt there is a simple misunderstanding, for I have stolen nothing from you. Search my belongings and you will see that it is true."
"Ah, but we have. That is just it."
DeVergesse fought to suppress an involuntary groan. No, it could not be. He did not wish to believe such a thing was possible.
"But you are correct, Colonel. You should see the evidence against you. Guards!"
In silence, they wound through the house and up the staircase, finally arriving to DeVergesse's surprise at the doorway to his now empty quarters. The Don removed the chain from about his neck, and pointed at the lock that hung upon the door. He closed the door, then snapped the lock shut about the bolts.
"Colonel DeVergesse, I gave both you Frenchmen a key to this lock on your quarters when you arrived. Your man returned his this morning, but I have been told that you have not. You will now unlock this door for me. Take out your key, and unlock it."
"I do not have my key. It was lost. It must have fallen out of my pocket."
As he said it, he realized how lame it sounded.
"Quel dommage" Don Massaredo murmured sarcastically. "Well, no matter. For we have this one." He handed DeVergesse the key on the chain. "Now there is a funny thing about this key. I thought it went to my private chamber. Yesterday afternoon, before I went to sleep and before your man dragged some drunken lout of a villager back to my stables and woke up the entire hacienda, it fit my chamber. But this morning, when I went to use this key, it no longer fit my chamber lock."
The old Spaniard's eyes narrowed, as he handed DeVergesse the key.
"Go ahead, Colonel. Try this one."
Fighting to keep his hand steady despite a rising tide of panic, DeVergesse inserted the key into the lock. He turned it gingerly and the lock sprang open almost at once.
"Now," the Don smiled unpleasantly. "Can you explain this?"
DeVergesse supposed that he could, but he doubted it would aid his cause.
"So you think I switched a key. That is absurd. Why would I do a thing like that? What possible benefit is it to me to be locked out of my own quarters?"
"Do not play stupid with me," Don Massaredo hissed, clutching DeVergesse's wrist painfully with surprising strength for a man of his advanced years. "You came back here to finish what your father could not."
"You have shown me no evidence that I have stolen anything from you at all. Anyone could have found that key where it fell from my pocket. End this charade, Your Excellency. I insist you release me at once. I am very near to missing the Almeria."
The Don laughed softly. "Oh, there is little chance of my releasing you. But you are right. Your horse is saddled, loaded, waiting for your arrival in the stable. Your man did a very nice job of packing your saddlebags. Come."
As DeVergesse was marched to the stableyard at point of bayonet, a series of images cascaded through his mind. Kitty Cobham, her face illuminated in the darkness of his bedroom by the light of a single candle, wrapped in his coat-the very coat he had been wearing on his arrival when he was given the key to his quarters.. Kitty Cobham, surprisingly uncurious about the outcome of her efforts to provide him with a mold of Don Massaredo's key. And more imagesthe shoes tumbled before the hearth--why the need for such stealth? And also last night--a picture on the wall of her bedroom that DeVergesse did not recall having seen the evening before.
DeVergesse had a sick feeling that Madame Cobham had returned his shirt to him after all. So much, he thought, for my stupid romantic fantasies of her resting her fair cheek upon it as she slept. No dashing romance novel hero, me.
"It might interest you to know, Colonel DeVergesse, that I had the door to my storeroom taken completely apart earlier this morning."
"Why should it interest me?" DeVergesse feigned nonchalance, but his bowels were slowly turning to water. "I should not be interested if you were to tell me you took apart a hundred doors."
"It was then," Don Massaredo continued in a low tone, "that I discovered the theft of a small object. An object that I hold dear, but which most thieves would have passed by without interest."
DeVergesse stared back at him blankly.
Don Massaredo now switched to French, perhaps, DeVergesse presumed, because he did not wish his soldiers to understand their conversation.
"Yes, most thieves would have gone for the golden mask. That was the original reason, you understand, why I decided put my private art collection in such a secure place."
His eyes narrowed shrewdly, watching DeVergesse's reaction. "But you are not most thieves, are you? No common peasant without taste or intellect, who seeks only riches. You, Sir, know art."
"Bien, Your Excellency. I cannot feign ignorance as to the nature of some of the objects that you hold at El Ferrol. My father left papers and diaries. But an attempt to steal the golden mask would be madness for a man who must leave on horseback. To have this knowledge does not make me a thief. I would never have come here had you not been charged with guarding the prisoners from Le Reve. I, like those men in your prison, am a victim of circumstance."
They had arrived in the stable, where soldiers stood guard over the French horses.
"True, prior knowledge alone does not prove that you are a thief. But this does."
Don Massaredo threw up the leather flap to the saddlebag on the patient bay stallion.
DeVergesse gasped when he saw the rectangular parcel withdrawn from his bag, the torn paper in the corner revealing the dazzling white of a fine linen shirt.
"You seem surprised," Don Massaredo said sarcastically. "Naturally, after discovering I had been robbed, I ordered my men to search the bags of all persons that were set to leave these walls today. The Duchess of Wharfedale and her maid-pfft-nothing!" He rubbed his fingers together then snapped them open. "The satchel that your aide-de-camp brought with him to the coach-also nothing. Which left one. Yourself. And here it is."
"Then if you think there is something in there that belongs to you, open it at once and show it before your men." DeVergesse, despite his fear, was excited by the prospect of finally seeing the object of his fruitless search. "For if you have not even opened it, then how can you be so certain this is your stolen property?"
Don Massaredo hesitated for a moment, then upended the parcel, shaking out the key. It fell to the dirt floor of the stable as before. "Before my men, I discovered this key, wrapped in the parcel. I believe this is the key that was taken from the chain around my neck last night. I believe that this is your shirt-it is certainly not mine. This black wood, though, by contrast, looks all too familiar."
He waved the parcel in DeVergesse's face.
DeVergesse grabbed the parcel, tearing it from the grasp of the older man who let out a hoarse cry.
"Jesu! Be careful. You may damage her!"
Don Massaredo pleaded with him, motioning wildly at his soldiers to stop him from opening the parcel.
The soldiers attempted to pin his arms, but DeVergesse shrugged them off easily, fear and excitement giving him a fluid grace and strength. He neatly dodged their efforts to subdue him. Within seconds, the brown paper had been ripped from the shirt, and DeVergesse had reached into the folds of linen and drawn out
an empty rectangle of dark wood. For a moment, neither man so much as blinked as they stared in stunned disbelief at what DeVergesse held in his hands.
I have been framed. The thought came to him like a blow to the gut, and suddenly, he could not keep from laughing. I have been framed by a beautiful woman. He turned the ebony rectangle over and over, remarking to himself how similar it was in size to an all-too-familiar copy of Don Quixote.
"Where is she? Where is she?" Don Massaredo shrieked, grabbing DeVergesse by his cravat. "Where did you put her? Tell me at once, you French son of a yellow cur bitch."
DeVergesse ran through a series of rapid mental calculations. If he were to accuse Kitty, he knew it would not save him, it would only condemn her to prison. If he affected to know, but refused to reveal, the hiding place of Don Massaredo's lady, it might buy him time.
"I will not."
"Search him," Don Massaredo ordered. Rough hands stripped off his jacket, probing fingers roamed over his body. How many times had he, himself, ordered just such a search of a prisoner? DeVergesse clenched his teeth and endured.
"Here, Your Excellency." One of the men handed over the packet of dispatches that DeVergesse had taken from the petticoats of Kitty Cobham just hours before. "This is all he has on him."
The old Don squinted at the seal. "These are English dispatches. I see you found them after all, but did not see fit to inform me." There was considerable steel in the old man's expression as he waggled the packet of dispatches at DeVergesse. "There is much more going on here than meets the eye."
"Those dispatches are now the property of the French Government," DeVergesse said stoutly.
"Then the French Government may have them, just as soon as I have verified that they contain nothing which is of personal interest to me." He barked a series of orders at his men. "You four, ride now to La Corunna. Arrest the Frenchman, Guilliame DuPree, and return him to El Ferrol. He can join his commanding officer before the firing line."
"The man knows nothing. He is an imbecile. Even I do not trust him," DeVergesse's voice finally cracked with real fear. He hoped fervently that Guilliame would be safely aboard the Almeria, and headed out to sea when the soldiers rode into La Corunna.
"Perhaps he knows more than you think. Perhaps it can be tortured out of him. I say to you, Colonel DeVergesse, I am a patient man, but I am not afraid to be cruel."
"He knows nothing. I, and I alone, know the answer. Execution seems rather a harsh penalty for stealing a scribble, however beautifully-rendered, does it not? You Spaniards are a barbarous, bloodthirsty lot."
The two men glared at each other.
Don Massaredo put his face very close to DeVergesse's; his breath, hot and acrid, assaulted the Frenchman's nose. "No, Sir, I am not executing you for stealing a portrait, though God knows I would like to. You and I both understand the real reason you must die. You have seen my secret. I cannot allow you to carry that intelligence back to France."
Now that, DeVergesse agreed silently, I do understand. I have been framed by a beautiful woman, who took a beautiful woman from a frame, and now I am going to die.
7:50 AM-The Road to La Corunna
"What? What did you say?" Kitty swayed back and forth from the motion of the coach as it bumped along the rutted road to La Corunna. Without a doubt, this was the bumpiest ride she had ever had.
"Senora?" Conchita looked up at her mistress.
"You said, 'Guilliame says when WE are aboard Almeria HE will escort us onto the upper deck whenever we want fresh air'. That is what you said, is it not?"
"Si, Senora. He will take care of us, while we are at sea."
"What?!" Kitty shrieked. "Are those Frenchmen going with us to Lisbon?" The girl nodded happily. "Lord in heaven," Kitty groaned, sinking down into the cushioned seat, "which sin--which particular sin among so many has brought me this plague of Frogs?"
She tried to make herself as grumpy as possible about the prospect, but found she could not. Instead, she was captive to a secret thrill. Why had DeVergesse not told her that he would be accompanying her to Lisbon? And would she be spending the entire voyage fending off his advances in order to protect the true dispatches? And by now he must know that she had lied to him about leaving the book behind at El Ferrol. He would once again suspect her of being a spy.
The prospect, oddly, dismayed her not at all. Thinking back, she realized that she had ceased to feel frightened from the moment she had torn boldly into the packet of dispatches, finally understanding his mission. Knowledge had been, for her, power. On a neutral ship, well away from Don Massaredo's prison, she felt certain she could outsmart him again. Even as a prisoner, once armed with the knowledge of his true objectives, she had been able to arrange everything to thwart him, and in so doing, she felt certain that she had only gained in fascination in his eyes.
An image of his eyes bloomed in her mind. Such a surprisingly clear blue under short, thick lashes of coal black, wanting only real feeling and warmth to make any woman's heart pound with excitement.
"Did you return the shirt as I told you?"
"Discreetly, like a good Lady's Maid?"
"Si. I gave it to Guilliame. He put it directly into the Colonel's saddlebag with the rest of the Colonel's shirts," she giggled. "He has a great many shirts, Guilliame says, so many he would hardly miss one, but he thanked me all the same. Would you like to know how he thanked me? He--"
"Conchita," she said, smiling at the girl across from her, as she interrupted, "upon consideration I am glad they shall be joining us to Lisbon. I shall enjoy the opportunity to get to know the great Guilliame," she teased, "since I have heard SO much about him. Now, I wish you to be quiet. I have a letter to write."
Conchita visibly relaxed and satisfied now that she felt her mistress was pleased with her, nodded, and returned her gaze to the window.
Kitty removed the copy of Don Quixote from beneath her shawl and shook a stubby pencil from her reticule. She had little time to finish decoding the cipher before she must again hide the dispatches from the French. But she was determined to know what sort of knowledge the Colonel was willing to forgo a night of passion with her to obtain.
This, she thought ironically, had better be damn good. DAMN good.
She went to work.
Minutes later, she was hung up on a series of words. She read over what she had so far-
'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 stockpiling all manner of weaponry to use to arm the citizens. The Spaniard peasant, you should know, is not like the English tenant farmer. Though little more than an undisciplined rabble, they delight in using the terrain of their countryside to mount ambushes and surprise attacks. They have no honor, they fight like the gypsies that are common in their lands, and they would creep silently into an enemy camp and slit every throat. The arming of the populace, therefore, is a considerable hazard to the French troops who are even now pouring into Spain to occupy the towns and villages on the border of Portugal and at vital strategic harbor towns along the coast.
The French seek by these maneuvers to intimidate the Portuguese government into signing a treaty of alliance. This would leave our base at Gibraltar vulnerable and isolated and must not be allowed to happen. I am advising that a strong British military and diplomatic presence in Portugal be created without delay. Furthermore, I advise that Spanish-speaking agents be sent undercover to the sympathetic Dons who rule the harbor towns, to provide assurance that if they do choose to rise up against the French interlopers, that the British Navy will protect their domains from sea attack.
A battle over the succession is expected when the current King dies, which by all reports shall be soon. These are the Dons who are reputed to be preparing their people for an uprising against the French/Spanish alliance and the Spanish crown, should the crown pass to the oldest son of the king, who is considered by many to be too sympathetic to France.
And here, trying to read the names, Kitty was stuck. The names all began with Don, but as she flipped back and forth in the book, piecing the words together, she felt she did not quite have it.
Don Mas, "mas" as in "no mas". That meant "More". And the next word. Serrado. That meant 'saw'. Moresaw was not a Spanish name. Don. Mas. Serrado.
Her blood ran cold. The first name on the list was that of Don Masseredo. With chilling clarity she recalled the great cavernous room that ran beneath the floor of El Ferrol. The tented bayonets, the smell of gunpowder, the curling maps, and finally, the stacks and stacks of barrels.
That must have been DeVergesse's true objective! And he had seen it, and known it for what it was. This information would no doubt save the lives of many French soldiers. HIS people!
Kitty shook her head slightly as she thought through every angle. DeVergesse is French, so it is right of him, it is good of him, it is indeed his duty to do whatever he must to discover such a plot against his government. Don Massaredo is a traitor to his crown, for His Most Catholic Majesty has signed a treaty with France and demands that his subjects honor it, and particularly his subjects who wear the uniform of Spain. But Don Massaredo may not be a traitor to his people, for to be sure, they have no love for the French. She recalled her conversations with the Don. He, certainly, did not wish to acknowledge that his country had grown so weak that it required an alliance with any nation to protect its borders.
"This is Don Quixote. It is a story about a man who jousts with windmills."
But was it too late for Spain? Was Don Massaredo's desire to restore to his corner of Spain her pride and self-determination as futile as Don Quixote's battles with imaginary giants?
Suddenly, her thoughts returned to the concrete and unassailable realities of the present day. My God, thought Kitty, if Don Massaredo were to discover that DeVergesse had seen that room, then he would have to kill him, certain sure. But she, Kitty, as an Englishwoman, was no threat to his plans. In fact, she was in favor of them-a secret ally.
Kitty sorted through her feelings. She was a patriotic Englishwoman, first and foremost. Therefore, she had to protect Don Massaredo. She could not admire him for plotting rebellion against his own King, yet she knew that in so doing, he would be acting, however inadvertently, in the best interests of England.
But why? Why are we fighting the Frogs, anyhow? Kitty couldn't recall it.
".King George commands, and we obey. Over the hills, and far away"
DeVergesse was an officer of the French; therefore he was her enemy. But although she might pick up a London gazette and rejoice to read of battles won and French warships sent to the bottom of the sea, although she might exult in reports of large numbers of French casualties and prisoners, she could not find it within herself to wish this particular enemy dead. Truth to tell, she looked forward to seeing him again. She found him utterly fascinating in a disreputable sort of way. He was completely unlike the stolid, stalwart British officers she had come to admire and esteem, and this, in and of itself, made him interesting to her.
It would be best if Don Masseredo were to suspect him of planning to steal The Lady, but nothing more. It was right that Kitty should let the Don know that he should be suspicious of the Frenchman, and that he should not trust him. Suspicion alone would not cause the Don to send a ship to stop the Almeria and capture DeVergesse. She would deal with the Frenchman in her own time and in her own way, once they were safely off the coast of Spain. Now she knew what she must write to Don Massaredo. She wanted to see him again; she did not want him to die.
Kitty glanced at her maid, making sure she was still unobserved. Conchita's head had drooped forward to rest against the window. Dark circles could be seen beneath the lashes of her closed eyelids. Kitty knew the girl was tired after a night during which she could have had little sleep.
She hastily folded the dispatches and tucked them into the pocket of her petticoat. She tore a blank page from the back of Don Quixote and began to write.
Dear Don Massaredo,
I am returning to you some property, which I took from your chamber last night. I hope that you will not think ill of me for doing this, but I feared the French Colonel, whose father also sought this object as you know, intended to deprive you of it. I have kept it safe, so that I might return it to you after he was well away from El Ferrol.
I am not what I seemed. I am sorry it was necessary to fool you, but I had to be certain of your intentions.
Happily, I was able to thwart the Frenchman and he remains ignorant of all that concerns you.
Please give this book to Mr. Hornblower, and please bid him farewell from his friend, the Duchess of Wharfedale, and bid him to use this novel to improve his Spanish.
Your most sincere,
Katherine Cobham, lately, The Duchess of Wharfedale
There, she thought, signing the note with a flourish. The Duchesse of Wharfedale, she sighed, what a silly woman. I shall be glad to see the last of her and the day I set foot on English soil will be the day that person will disappear forever from the earth.
8:30 AM-The Wharf at La Corunna
She had finished her letter not a moment too soon, for the sound of the horses' hooves had changed from the dull rhythmical tattoo on the sandy road to a sharp ringing as iron horseshoes struck the first cobblestones of a village street.
Conchita woke up with a start.
"I am sorry, Senora, I was very tired. I hope you did not need me."
Kitty smiled indulgently. She did not have the slightest idea what she would do with Conchita once they reached Lisbon, but she felt certain something would occur to her. She was flushed with her success. Everything had worked out perfectly. She had only to see her belongings aboard the boat, and then present the Don Quixote to one of Don Massaredo's men, instructing him to return it directly to his master.
The coach ground to a halt, and the door opened, revealing the tall Frenchman, Guilliame, who smiled mischievously at both of the women.
"Bonjour! Hurry, ladies. The Captain, he waves to us. We must go aboard."
Kitty still held the Don Quixote in her arms. She watched as the men handled her chest. It was fastened to a hoist and lifted onto the ship, a sleek-looking packet sloop tied to the dock by thick, mildewed ropes that the seamen were already beginning to uncoil. It was a brilliant day. She could not have felt any finer. It was as if the very air she breathed was the breath of freedom.
The Captain, a sturdy, middle-aged man with very bronzed skin and a long salt-and-pepper queue falling over his shoulder, waved and bowed and flourished his hat at the two women. He was dressed as a prosperous merchant seaman; his ship sailed under the colors of Portugal. Kitty curtsied back at him and he looked pleased.
Guilliame, his movements long-limbed and fluid, pitched in with the rest unloading every satchel and bag from the coach. From time to time, he glanced back at the road they had come in on, his expression gradually taking on a worried aspect.
A gangplank was lowered into place, and the boson motioned at the ladies that they should board.
"Parar! Parar! Arrête!"
Suddenly, there was a great clattering of hooves and four mounted soldiers rode onto the dock, shouting in Spanish and French that all loading should stop at once.
They instantly surrounded the Frenchman, who, unarmed, raised his hands in disbelief.
Kitty stormed forward, shouting in her perfect Spanish. "What is the meaning of this? Let this man go at once. He is part of my escort. I, the Duchess of Wharfedale, demand it!"
The Captain of the Guardsmen turned to Kitty. "Pardon, Senora la Duchesa, but this man is under arrest by the order of Don Massaredo. He must be returned to El Ferrol immediately."
"May I ask why? What has this young man done? Is this about the fight last night? He is young--he is foolish about my maid. That is no crime." To her shock, two soldiers had already begun to search the Frenchman, stripping him to his shirt and running their hands over every part of his body, even checking his boots. Conchita, shrieking, tried to fling herself at the soldiers, but they threw her roughly onto the dock, where she sat crumpled in a miserable heap, sobbing.
"His commanding officer has been arrested on suspicion of theft," the guardsman told Kitty. "I found evidence in his saddlebags this morning."
"Theft?" Kitty's mouth went bone dry. "Of what?"
"Of a painting of some sort, I believe. So far, all we have found is the frame, but it is certain that he took it."
Should she confess to the soldier right then that she was the actual thief? No, she had not really stolen it, not as such. Her intentions were the best; she sought only to protect it, and Don Massaredo's interests. But these men, they did not have the authority to judge her here on the dock. They would have to return her to be interrogated by Don Massaredo. She gazed longingly at the Almeria, so close to freedom.
It was not right that she should have to go back to prison. She had committed no crime.
"And what defense does the Colonel offer?"
"None. He will not say where he hid it, so we hope we can get the truth out of his man."
"What will happen to him if they find the portrait?"
"If they do not find it, I believe Don Massaredo intends to put the Colonel before the firing squad this very afternoon." The soldier grinned conspiratorially. "That should please you, Senora. The Frenchman is your enemy, is he not?"
Hazy spots danced before her eyes and for a moment, she felt as if she might swoon. DeVergesse? Killed for a few daubs of pastel and ink? No, it could not be. And it would be her fault, too. Why had he not accused her as he had threatened to do? Why had he not given her up to Don Massaredo to save himself? Had she misjudged him so egregiously? She began to tremble violently.
"Come aboard, Senora! We must leave."
"Help him, Senora!" Guilliame cried as they hauled him away. "You know the truth!"
"Wait!" Kitty called up to the Captain of the Almeria. "I left something behind in the coach! Conchita, come with me."
"Typical woman," the Captain was heard to mutter. "She probably just wants to use the chamber pot and look, her maid even has to go with her. They will be in there all day."
Kitty glowered up at him. His turn would come.
The two women entered the coach and Kitty opened the Don Quixote and removed the note she had written. Whipping out her pencil, she added:
'Colonel DeVergesse has some dispatches that should be of interest to you. Do not execute him until you have translated all of them.'
She exhaled, a clammy sweat suddenly bathing her back and neck unpleasantly.
There was a sharp rapping on the door. "Now, Senora. We must leave now!"
Folding the letter in the inside cover of the book, she handed it to Conchita.
"If you want to save your man, give this book to the Captain of the Guard. Tell him that it is from me and that he must give it to Don Massaredo immediately upon their return to El Ferrol."
The younger woman nodded, tears streaming from her dark eyes.
Kitty and Conchita left the carriage to find the Captain of the Almeria waiting for her. Without a look back at Conchita, she raised her head proudly, every inch the Duchess, and took his proffered arm, allowing him to steady her steps as she negotiated the gangplank. She swept into her cabin, grandly pronounced it "a bit rough", and finally found herself alone, the door closed behind her. Gratefully, she sank down onto her bed, fanning her flushed face with her bonnet. The small cabin was rolling from the motion of the boat as it cast off from the docks. Already, she felt ill-as ill as she had been that first day aboard Le Reve.
She lay immobile on her cot, no hammock for her on Almeria, and hoped, hoped, hoped.
In the fullness of time, there came another knock on her door. If I never hear another knock on my door, Kitty thought, that would be fine with me. It has been days since a knock on my door has been followed by anything other than trouble.
"'Oo is it?"
"Conchita, Senora, may I come in?"
Kitty sat upright, the speed of her sudden movement causing her to feel dizzy. "Y-yes. Please. Come in, child."
Conchita came in, her face was tear-streaked, and she was working something nervously in her hands. Kitty looked at it in horror.
"Senora?" she said hesitantly. "The Captain of the Guards, he took your book and letter and stuck it in his saddlebag, but I found this. I think it is yours that you left in the book. It almost fell out and blew away." She held it out with a pleased, little smile. "It is very good. Did you draw this yourself?"
Kitty Cobham buried her head between her knees and vomited all over the floor. No fluffy romance novel heroine, she.
Colonel Etienne DeVergesse stood rigid in the center of a darkened prison cell. His hands were clasped behind his back and his eyes were closed. A ray of sunlight pierced the gloom, striking the back of his blue woolen jacket, warming the space between his shoulder blades. He was thinking.
The taunts of the British sailors still echoed in his mind, but he tried to put the image of their gleeful faces, grinning through the barred doors of their own cells, from his thoughts. To dwell upon such a humiliation would gain him nothing.
The big one, Styles, had green teeth. This mental picture, he also tried not to relive, but with less success.
Hornblower had ordered the men to desist. DeVergesse did not care to be in Hornblower's debt for anything, however trivial. Kitty Cobham's evident regard for the younger man irritated DeVergesse in a way that he could not but acknowledge was puerile. Still, simply knowing his feelings were foolish and unworthy did not banish them from his heart.
There had been no sympathy in Hornblower's level brown gaze, only a speculative sort of curiosity which followed a surprise so genuine and unmistakable as to absolve the young Briton from any suspicion of complicity in Kitty's deeds.
Kitty Cobham had acted alone.
DeVergesse had spent the past hour feeling the patch of sunlight caress him slowly, passing down the length of his back as the sun rose in the sky. He imagined the warmth came from the sun in his native Provence, tried to convince himself that he could scent a trace of lavender on the slight breezes that stirred the fetid dirt-floored cell.
He wondered if Kitty really wished him dead, and if so, why had she put the frame and key in his saddlebag instead of someplace it would have been more likely to be found? Could she have known that Don Massaredo was going to attempt to re-enter his chamber before their departure and would then order the search? He thought back. Kitty had not known when she entered the chamber that she was leaving at dawn, for Don Massaredo had not told her. Perhaps she thought she would have other opportunities to switch the keys again. She had kept the Don's key for her own use, to return the portrait after DeVergesse had entered the Chamber himself. But the hurried morning departure and the Don's sudden decision to search the baggage of the departing visitors had upset what should have been a rather straightforward plan.
He did not wish to believe that she truly wished him dead.
Kitty had not thought the Don would discover the substitution before she had had a chance to return his key. Therefore, she did not expect a search and so to place these items in his saddlebag must have been her way of showing him that she had defeated him after she was gone and he could do nothing about it. She must have some alternate plan for returning the portrait. She had not been told he, DeVergesse, was supposed to be leaving on the Almeria with her.
If he had been more forthcoming, what would she have done ? Might he not be even now aboard Almeria in safety with Kitty Cobham? He grimaced. Safety, where Madame Cobham was concerned, was a word not to be tossed about in a cavalier fashion.
How could he have been so blind?
He indulged in a brief fantasy, imagining her refusing to board the Almeria, demanding that she be taken back to El Ferrol to reveal her own complicity in the theft of the Lady. But of course, that would alter nothing. Once resolved to be truthful, she would have to admit that he, DeVergesse, had entered the chamber himself and had seen the stockpiled munitions, maps, and plans. And why should she attempt to save him, when it was her own intrigues which had put him in this very cell?
A useless fantasy. There was nothing to be gained by having her return to witness his execution.
He thought of his son, a boy of ten, and wished he had not spent so many of the past few years travelling in the service of France. He thought of his sister, and was glad that she had been willing to take over the care of the boy when his wife had died. His sister was a most indulgent Aunt--his son would thrive; though he would not be there to see it.
The sound of approaching voices and a scraping of boots startled him from his reverie. A pair of guardsmen opened the door and thrust Guilliame rudely into the room. The young man showed the marks of having been beaten, but whether from recent torture or the wounds of the previous night opened up in his struggles with his captors, DeVergesse could not tell.
Guilliame sank to the floor and buried his head in his hands. "Jesu." He moaned softly, over and over. DeVergesse rested a hand on his shoulder, calling his name. When he felt the man cease trembling, he encouraged him to be seated on one of the bunks.
"Guilliame," DeVergesse began, in a quiet authoritative voice, "what did you tell them?"
"Nothing!" he hissed. "How could I? I do not even know why you were arrested. What is all this about some stupide picture? I thought we were here on an intelligence mission, not to steal art."
He glared angrily at DeVergesse.
"Your desire to please Napoleon by bringing back art treasures for his Musée de Republique has sent us before the firing squad! Tell them where the damn thing is and maybe they will let us go."
"I do not know where it is."
"Then how--? Then who--? And WHY are we under arrest? If you are innocent, then, I suppose there is still a chance."
DeVergesse sighed. "Guilliame, the Duchess of Wharfedale has it."
"Did the Duchess board the Almeria?"
"Mais oui. I called out to her, and begged her to help, but whatever hold you had on her did not extend to La Corunna. She took her chance for freedom."
"Ah, it is just as well."
DeVergesse shook his head.
"I told you we should have gone to Italy with Bonaparte! What is the plan, Mon Capitan? Surely you have one."
"The plan?" DeVergesse's laughter rang hollow. "The plan is, we spend the next two hours hoping for a miracle, then we die like Frenchmen."
"Mon dieu! That is not a plan!" Guilliame cried.
"Shhhhssh." He put his arm around the young man's shoulders and braced him. "I will not have us mocked as cowards by these British. They will hear our execution, you know. The firing squad will assemble right out there in the yard."
Guilliame squared his shoulders. "I will die like a Frenchman," he vowed. "But I did not think to die in someone else's mésalliance des curs; in fact, I thought I should be far my likely to die for my own!"
"But you are, and so am I. You took the package without question from the girl, and put it into my saddlebag. If you had been more suspicious, we should not be here."
"Perhaps. But how was I to know that the Duchess was capable of such treachery? For MY amoureux wished us no ill, I am sure of it."
"I did warn you."
"We were fools. We should have expected the Duchess to use her maid's interest in you to"
DeVergesse broke off, recalling that it was the maid who had told Guilliame about the Duchess' hiding place and the existence of the dispatches. Could that, too, have been another of Kitty Cobham's traps?
He muttered darkly to himself, working through several possibilities.
Guilliame stared at DeVergesse with something very close to alarm. "As they were taking me away, I saw the women do something quite strange."
"Really? And what was that?" DeVergesse looked at him with keen interest. The dispatches, he had just concluded, must have been fakes, plants, disinformation. Kitty had kept his Code Book, which meant that she probably was very much aware of its significance to the actual letter he was seeking. And now, Don Masseredo was in possession of the dispatches he had taken from Kitty's petticoat. What sort of dispatches, DeVergesse wondered, might Kitty Cobham have been willing to give over to her enemy?
Guilliame was still explaining.
"They went back into the coach for a few minutes, and then when they came back out, Conchita was carrying a book, which she gave to the Captain of the Guard." He bit his lower lip. "Do you think that was the Duchess's côup de grace?"
DeVergesse pondered this information, and then smiled. He rose and went to the barred window, gazing out and down at the harsh patterns of sun and shadow cast upon the white sands by the trees and rocks around the prison walls.
For an interminable time, he stood there, gazing out, saying nothing. When he finally turned back to his companion, there was a faint hope in his countenance.
"It is now well past noon," he said. "And we still live. Perhaps there will be miracle after all."
11:30 AM El Ferrol Hacienda
Don Massaredo rubbed tired eyes, bloodshot and weary from his night of little sleep and the distressing events of the morning. For at least the tenth time that hour, he opened the Don Quixote and reread the Duchess's letter. How could he have been so blind?
Never mind that, he thought. I am not the first to be so blinded and I am sure I will not be the last.
His English was scarcely good enough to decode the dispatch that this 'Kitty Cobham' person, whoever she was, had so evidently wished him to read before deciding the fate of the Frenchman in his prison. How he wished he could have asked one of the English, such as the rapidly recovering Mr. Kennedy, to help him. A pair of younger eyes and a better grasp of the language would surely not go amiss.
If she had wished them to know the contents of the coded dispatch, though, she would have suggested it. So there was nothing for it but to do the work entirely on his own.
He looked at what he had so far, the words and phrases that made up the dispatch coming only slowly to light as he figured out each letter in the substitution-the vowels and more common consonants first.
When the letter finally lay before him, the code broken and the translation complete, what he read surprised him so much that checked and rechecked his substitutions to be certain he had not made many mistakes.
But no, there was no doubt what the letter contained and he saw at once why Colonel Etienne De Vergesse was so determined to keep any eyes but HIS own from seeing this particular dispatch. But what could possibly be HER motive in sharing this intelligence with Don Massaredo?
The old Don smiled as the answer came to him. The Duchess of Wharfedale was surely an English spy. How tremendously clever she was, and how very exciting to have had a beautiful woman spy sent to his isolated prison. Don Massaredo took it as a singular honor to have been thought worthy of such attentions by the British. He had no idea they were the least bit aware of his own importance.
He rang the bell for his guardsman. The Captain of his Guard entered.
"Was there by any chance something else in this book when the girl gave it you?"
"Si, Your Excellency. The girl removed a scrap of paper before she gave it to me. A drawing, she said, that she thought her mistress might have left in the book by accident and-," he stopped abruptly, then began to plead. "Pardon, Your Excellency, I was busy carrying out your orders, arresting the Frenchman, and paid little attention to the girl...I never expected that"
"Nor did I." Don Massaredo waved his hand regretfully, but his mood had lightened. "She tried to send it back once. No doubt she will eventually succeed."
He shifted back, glanced at the clock, and rose from the depths of his leather chair. "Assemble the firing squad and bring out the two Frenchmen. March them to the side yard and put them both up against the wall."
"Shall you come to watch, or would you have me report back to you when justice has been done?"
"I shall do more than watch," Don Masseredo smiled ever so slightly. "The firing squad shall ensure they do not attempt to flee, but I shall take care of them myself." He rubbed his hands together, easing the stiffness in his fingers. "In fact, I welcome the pleasure."
Ten minutes later, in rapid succession, the sharp sound of
two shots echoed off the stone walls of El Ferrol.