Kitty Cobham and the Chamber of Secrets
By: Karen Lee
Disclaimer: These characters were inspired by the performances of Cheri Lunghi as Kitty Cobham/Duchess of Wharfdale, Ronald Pickup as Don Masserado, and Jean-Yves Berteloot as Col. Etienne De Vergesse, and also the rest of the Hornblower cast from the A&E series. I really don't know what got into me, but whatthehell. Did I mention that Jean-Yves Berteloot is a stone fox? Well, he is. So there.
Friday, 8:30pm-El Ferrol, the Dining Hall
Don Massaredo did not quite know what to make of Col. DeVergesse. At times the man seemed quite distracted when the Don was speaking, staring with intense curiosity about him as if he were trying to see through the walls. Then he would snap to abruptly and ask a question so pointed that it was apparent he had been paying close attention the entire time. But he felt that on the whole, the Frenchman appeared to be an urbane sort and could be trusted to conduct himself with propriety over dinner. Ah well, the Don sighed as his man put the finishing touches on his cravat, if there is any unpleasantness it will at least allow me the chance to play the diplomat. He consoled himself with an image of the Duchess's eyes widening in admiration.
Entering his cavernous dining hall, he found that DeVergesse had arrived early. His guest stood stock-still, staring out of the darkened windows and idly polishing the buttons of his waistcoat with his gloved thumb. Surely the Colonel could not be apprehensive, the Don fretted. Diffidence would never do. Tonight he intended to show Her Grace that he, Don Massaredo, was the equal of any Lord or Duke in England when it came to giving a dinner party. Even the French soldiers had been let in on the treat, with a fiesta already in progress at their encampment and food and drink having been transported there from the Don's own kitchens. Perhaps, after his interview with the ill man in sickbay the Colonel simply needed to relax.
He began by inviting DeVergesse to have some Madeira with him, to which the Frenchman agreed.
"And a very good thing, indeed, Your Excellency, that Portugal remains neutral, but if your cellars are not already overstocked I would purchase as much Madeira as I could, in case the Portuguese choose to cast their lot with the English."
"You think that likely, Colonel? I find it more likely they will side with Spain. We are, after all, neighbors. Our Royal families have intermarried for centuries. What are the English to Portugal?"
"Merely the country whose naval might could keep their merchant ships afloat and their trade routes to Brasilia protected." DeVergesse replied. "I am not easy in my mind about them. I fear they will choose riches over blood loyalty."
"That would be most unfortunate," Don Massaredo agreed. "But we have a lady at our table this evening, and I do not wish to dwell upon matters political. In fact, I absolutely forbid it." DeVergesse nodded tacit agreement. "I must ask you, Colonel, how did you find my sick prisoner, Mr.__ Kennedy?"
"Most intriguing. I agree with you that he is probably an aristocrat of some sort. His very manner of speech betrays it."
"Fodder to feed your Madame Guilliotine?" Don Massaredo said lightly. The Frenchman's expression darkened, and Don Massaredo felt it politic to change his tack.
"I have found it very strange that he will not give me any information I could use to contact his family. Than one has been here for many months now, a most troublesome prisoner until he became weakened by sickness."
"Sickness of the body or of the mind?"
"Who can say?"
"Perhaps he does not wish to leave El Ferrol until the war is over."
"Then that would make him a coward," Don Massaredo replied abruptly. "But I do not think that is the reason." He drank soundlessly, then a secretive smile flashed across his wrinkled visage. "I did, ah, torture him a little. A very little. Solitary confinement in the oubliette. I thought that would coax him to the opinion that even battle or being tormented by shipmates over his affliction was a paradise compared to staying here in El Ferrol."
"He has the falling sickness, Colonel."
"You have seen this?"
"I have. It was most alarming."
Both men were silent, considering the implications.
"Well," DeVergesse said, "In that case, I can see why he is not eager to return to his ship. But what I do not see is"
"But the really interesting thing," the Don interrupted, speaking rapidly, Madeira having made him garrulous, "about this prisoner is that he has a history of attempting to escape!"
"Did he violate parole?"
"Yes, I believe he did. Several times. Which is why I would not offer it to him here, though he is an officer. Of sorts."
"So, we have a prisoner who does not wish to go home, but who keeps trying to escape into enemy countryside with no companions and no way to get back to his ship." DeVergesse's eyebrows knitted thoughtfully. "There is much here that puzzles me, Your Excellency, and certain conclusions suggest themselves but I cannot put much faith in any of them having seen what a sad wretch he is. I suppose he is good with languages?"
"He raves in fever in English, French, Spanish, and Latin," said the Don, "And cursed me in three of the four whilst he was in the oubliette, unless I am mistaken."
"Interesting hardly begins to describe it, then."
A rustling of skirts and a the soft hiss of slippers on flagstones announced the entrance of the Duchess of Wharfedale. She wore a very pretty pale green gown of elegant simplicity and her hair was arranged in quite a romantic style shot through with blue-green ribbons. Very natural for a Duchess, thought the Don, like those French paintings of the pretty shepherdesses he had seen on his last journey to Paris. Artful disarray. Any political movement that freed the ladies from those high, powdered wigs that always smelled to Don Massaredo like a dusty donkey could not be without considerable merit. Vive la Republique, he thought to himself, and pray only the fashions catch on, as he and DeVergesse made their legs prettily enough for the arriving lady. His thoughts on French painting triggered yet another memory.
"Your Grace, I bid you welcome," Don Massaredo said, advancing to offer his arm to the newly arrived Duchess. "I was just about to ask Colonel DeVergesse about his family. I had the strangest feeling I had seen him before and then it came to me!" The Don tapped his temple and beamed. "I do believe I have met your father, Colonel. You are very like him."
"Oh really?" DeVergesse said blandly. "A Frenchman, like myself?"
"Oh, French, what else? It must have been years ago, twenty at least. A gentleman by the last name of DeVergesse, much like you, Sir, tall with dark curly hair and blue eyes and that same way of tilting his head and appearing to be interested in what I was saying when actually he was more interested in looking about him." The Don chuckled appreciatively at his own barb, seeing it had hit home.
"Oh MY, Your Excellency. I must watch meself, else you tell tales on me someday," the Duchess said with a smile. "And was this visitor also a soldier?"
"No, no. Far from it. As far as can be imagined." Don Massaredo replied. "He was an art merchant. I think he thought I had something here to sell him--something he very much wanted to buy--and he offered me a Fragonard AND a Bernini bronze for whatever he thought I had. But of course, he was mistaken. Though I have a few not entirely ill-looking portraits of my ancestors, El Ferrol is a very strange and isolated place to go looking for the work of great artists, do you not agree, Col. DeVergesse?"
Don Massaredo was quite pleased to see that his remarks had unsettled the Frenchman, but he recovered his composure quickly enough.
"One never knows where works completed and sold before an artist became fashionable will turn up. Did not El Greco...? But that is not really your question, is it, Your Excellency? I suppose that, oui, that was my father, God rest his soul. One seldom knew where he might turn up, either. He had the honor to represent the greatest houses of France in such matters, and he sold for many of the best Parisian artists all over Europe. I would not, however, refer to him as a merchant," he continued stuffily. "He was, in a general way, an agent. No doubt, Madame, you are familiar with the term and what that signifies?" DeVergesse smiled blandly at the Duchess.
Don Massaredo watched this exchange keenly. An odd sort of gallantry. The French had a word for it.
"Seems strange to me you'd choose war as a profession 'aving been raised around paintings and such," the Duchess said, charmingly uninterested in the entire topic of agents. "But, indeed, sir, if I'd done 'as me father wished, I'd've been married to a gristmiller early on and no Duchess of anything, so there's mooch to be said for not following in the family line if you can choose your fate," she finished, and shot a telling look at the Colonel. "And I chose to become a Duchess. Look, 'ere's Mr. Hornblower."
And to be sure, Mr. Hornblower was standing uncertainly in the doorway, making an awkward leg. His salutations were correct, but he seemed to be glowering at Her Grace from under his dark, thick eyebrows as he made his bow. Don Massaredo perceived a certain stiffening in DeVergesse's posture as he looked over the newcomer. Mi Dios, thought the Don, if these men had hackles they would be all the way up. He glanced at the Duchess, whose expression had changed to one of almost maternal affection as she regarded the young British officer, even as she swayed her skirts gently from side to side so that her dress ruffles fluttered in what could only be described as a flirtatious manner. 'Gauche', that is the word I sought, the Don concluded with satisfaction.
"Madeira?" Don Massaredo suggested, as his footman brought more glasses and the bottle in on a tray. "Colonel, it would please me if you would take a little more. While we can, we should enjoy it." He raised his glass. "Gentlemen. Your Grace. a toast to the continued neutrality of the Portuguese, so that Her Grace might find safe passage to home and our poor selves enough Madeira to console us for the loss of her company."
This will be a most interesting gathering, the Don thought, as he motioned for the servant to join him in conference apart from the others. It would be best, the Spaniard considered, to instruct the footman to remove the sharpest of the knives unobtrusively from the table settings during the presentation of the soup.
"Speaking of art," DeVergesse began as their chairs were drawn up to the table. "I have not abandoned my father's profession entirely." DeVergesse was already feeling some ill effects from the two glasses of sweet Madeira he had consumed (with every evidence of outward appreciation). In fact, DeVergesse loathed Madeira and would have given much for the dry red wines of his own native France. One became so quickly drunk upon sweet wines and tonight he felt that would be a great mistake. But of course, one could not insult one's host.
The tribulations of being an officer, he mused, recalling evenings when he was obliged to get very, very drunk simply to please some red-faced General who did not consider an officer's party a success unless all in attendance were unable to move from their tents the next day. Perhaps if he spoke the most, it would not be noticed if he drank the least.
He glanced surreptitiously at the young Briton to his right, and was disturbed to find that the young man's gaze was fixed upon the Duchess's swelling bosom on the opposite side of the table. The man's nostrils flared slightly and DeVergesse suspected he was out of temper with her. But why? Very well, he should know by the end of the meal no doubt. But for now, he had his own concerns to advance.
"You still derive part of your income from the sale of paintings?" Don Massaredo inquired.
"No, not exactly. In fact, I am often able to perform my duty as a soldier AND to carry out a certain commission for my friend, Bonaparte. For that is how we met, through mutual interests."
At the sound of the name, Mr. Hornblower's gaze shifted abruptly from what seemed to be vain attempts to capture the full attention of Her Grace, and his level brown gaze met DeVergesse's icily blue one with obvious disbelief. "You know Bonaparte? And you say you are his friend? Then, why are you not with him, Colonel DeVergesse, instead of rusti--, that is to say, stationed here at El Ferrol so far from the battlefronts interrogating sick prisoners? Seems like a task I would wish on an enemy, were I a General, not a friend."
"Ah, Mr. Horn-blo-wer," DeVergesse drew out the name mockingly, enjoying the ridiculous pomposity of it. "There is much you do not understand about Bonaparte. To you English, he is simply a victorious General, someone whose successes in Italy and Austria are unparalleled in your brief experience."
"That is taking it rather farther than I would," Hornblower retorted, "In fact, His Majesty's Navy..."
"Come now, Colonel," DeVergesse intervened, "Recall your promise. Political discussions are forbidden tonight, as agreement on any point would be impossible. Enough of Bonaparte, if you please."
"But Your Excellency, with respect, it is not politics but art I plan to speak of. A topic you yourself raised. Besides," DeVergesse lifted his glass to his lips, wetting them with the sweet liquid, "Mr. Hornblower cannot expect that I would sit here and divulge anything of political or military importance. After all, it is possible he might even be ransomed before the end of our mutual hostilities. Our countries' mutual hostilities, of course, that is what I meant." Hornblower's nostrils flared again and he shot another angry look at the Duchess who, paying no attention to him, was rearranging her bodice with a frown. DeVergesse had the distinct impression that Her Grace was not dissatisfied with her dress for reasons of modesty, in fact, he was virtually certain it was the opposite. A fascinating process and one which he might have liked to-
"Very well, then. Continue," said the Don.
"Do encourage him, Your Excellency," the Duchess leaned towards Don Massaredo, lowering her fan and displaying a creamy expanse of bosom. "I so enjoy looking at pretty blobs of paint. Why, me 'usband, the Duke, had hundreds of them all over the castle. Frightful lot of sourpusses some of them were, too, but I loved the dresses on the ladies."
"Her Grace is a connoisseur, I see. I understand that it has recently become fashionable in England to paint portraits of actresses in classical poses, have you seen any of those yet, Your Grace? No?" DeVergesse said sarcastically. He was rapidly becoming impressed with her composure if not her honesty. "Very well, Bonaparte and I share an interest in the great paintings and the artists who gave them life. In particular, he admires the French, Spanish, and Italian artists and would not wish to see their finest works lost to the people. So, as we seek new alliances and make new conquests, I, and certain others are charged with locating such works and bringing them back to Paris."
"But that is nothing but looting," sputtered Hornblower. "It is piracy, to my way of thinking."
"I do not need an Englishman to lecture me about plunder, Mr. Hornblower. Your countrymen have hacked great chunks of marble frieze from the great temples of Greece. In fact, I daresay you English would steal the Parthenon Temple itself if you could figure out a way to tear it from the rock on which it sits."
"Sir, I object!"
"Let the Colonel finish, Mr. Hornblower," said Don Massaredo. "I am sure his explanation will amuse us all."
Hornblower held silent, and DeVergesse felt as if he finally held the reins of conversation firmly in his hands.
"You misunderstand me. Often, we purchase these works from noblemen of distressed means. Sometimes, we use gentle persuasion to convince the owner that he will receive special consideration from Napoleon Bonaparte if he offers to generously share his art treasures with the people. A most noble and philanthropical act."
"With the people?" The woman who DeVergesse now believed without question to be Kitty Cobham put her hand to her bosom, eyes wide with surprise. "Common, ordinary people?"
"Yes, the people. Common, ordinary people. At the Muséum Central des Arts. It is Napoleon's opinion, an opinion which I share, that great works of art should belong to the people, Mr. Hornblower, and should be housed where the people can see them instead of kept locked inside thick walls where none but aristocrats may enter. But perhaps you disagree, Don Massaredo?"
"I do not share General Bonaparte's exalted opinion of the common taste, Colonel DeVergesse, but all the same I wish you luck in your quest." Don Massaredo said firmly. "Now I hope you like this soup, it is a specialty of Corunna."
"Good Heavens!" gasped the Duchess. "I hope those are not eyeballs floating in there. Though, I ate some very odd things in Italy, to be sure." She leaned over the bowl and poked suspiciously at several floating round, white, gelatinous-looking objects with her spoon.
DeVergesse could not resist. "I advise caution, Your Grace, for I fear if you persist in these exertions they will spill over the side and then cause who know how much mischief at the table. They have been most elegantly presented to us in bowls scarcely large enough to contain them."
"What? These white things in 'ere?"
"What else?" DeVergesse blinked back at her innocently.
"Those," Don Massaredo said huffily. "Are pheasant eggs."
"Really?'," said DeVergesse. "I should have thought them rather large to be that, but indeed I expect Mr. Hornblower is delighted to feast his eyes on such a lavish spread after the deprivations of prison. My compliments, Your Excellency, you are the most thoughtful host." DeVergesse was rather used to making his own amusement in this fashion, and accustomed to not being understood to have said anything witty or vulgar at all.
He turned to his right, having assembled his features into what he hoped was an expression of bland arrogance, and was surprised to find his neutral gaze met by a look of such intelligent hostility that he realized that Mr. Hornblower was not only the only one at the table who understood his double-entendre but that he was also very close to losing his temper. Good, thought DeVergesse, smiling politely, then conveying one of the pheasant eggs to his lips on the Don's heavy silverware. He delicately tasted it with the tip of his tongue, rolled his eyes towards the Duchess, and then with a knowing look back at Hornblower, he devoured the egg at once.
So, he is protective of this woman, the Frenchman mused, though I do not think he likes her very much. He is not at all the doltish English sailor I expected, and this alone is highly suspicious. Perhaps it is time to see how much he really knows about her true identity. That would tell me quite a lot. Very well then. It will be interesting to see how far this youngster can be pushed before he loses control of himself and gives them both away.
"So, Mr. Horn-blow-er. Her Grace tells me that you were careless enough to sail your ship straight into the middle of the Spanish Fleet...."
Author's Note: The Museum that DeVergesse alludes to became known as The Louvre. Napoleon had a LOT to do with acquiring the foundation of the collections. It was first begun in 1793 using art confiscated from escaping Emigre aristocrats. Napoleon took a great deal home with him from his conquests of Austria and Northern Italy, and to be sure, a good deal was donated but we cannot know under what sort of pressure. This is a wonderful example of the dual nature of Napoleon. He was an avid art collector himself, but he was one of the very first people anywhere to believe that great non-religious works of art should be available for public viewing, that it was wrong to keep the common person from having the chance to see these great masterpieces. But of course, the way he acquired some of them was rather as Horatio suspected--looting, plunder, and spoils of war. Still, anyone who has enjoyed their visit to the world's greatest art museum is in his debt for assembling some of the really fine pieces of classical, renaissance, baroque, and rococo art under one roof.
"I must protest, Colonel. Those were not my words." Kitty spoke with greater firmness and elocution than she had used all evening. The flash of anger in Horatio Hornblower's eyes alarmed her greatly. It had been her intent to impress Colonel DeVergesse with the intelligence and poise of the young man on the opposite side of Don Massaredo's elegantly-laid table. Impress him so that he might consider young Hornblower to be worth exchanging for a valuable French or Spanish officer, thereby hastening his return to the service.
But with a few ill-considered words, the young man could ruin his chances. The last thing he needed to do was make an enemy of this man, this froggy Colonel who sat on her right so self-satisfied, preening himself in an immaculate blue jacket as he once again rubbed the brass of his buttons to a brilliant patina with an inconspicuously-applied serviette. She silently willed Mr. Hornblower to control his passions and his righteous indignation. This is an audition, she whispered somewhere down deep inside of herself, speaking to him with her eyes alone across the table. Deliver your lines, my young gallant; stay in character, and do not allow anything to distract you.
Kitty was quite capable of following her own advice, for she had remained in character throughout a most difficult half-hour, torn between the twin distractions of DeVergesse and Lt. Hornblower. Disapproval radiated from Hornblower like the afternoon heat from the white rocks of El Ferrol, and she was fairly certain she knew the reason for it. Her mind whirled with possible scripts she could follow which would convince him of her innocent intentions and of her ineluctable need for such subterfuge to insure her safety and now, his own. This, she knew, was well within her powers. Though she might lose the young man's affection, she was hopeful of regaining his trust.
But DeVergesse, that was another matter entirely. Though Kitty had command of all of her outer faculties, her body and that deep womanly part of her mind seemed bent on betrayal and folly. She felt warm, flushed, and glowing with the incandescence born of being the only woman at a table of three men, all of whom were evidently fascinated by her, though for very different reasons.
"Come now, fog and wind can make fools of any man," Don Massaredo intervened in soothing tones. Kitty smiled gratefully at him, for she realized at once that he did not intend to allow the Colonel to torment Mr. Hornblower with such little provocation.
"I mean no insult to Mr. Hornblower," the Colonel continued, assumed innocence fitting his darkly masculine features quite ill in Kitty's opinion. "I mean to thank him. For if he had not had his unlucky rendezvous we would not be graced with Her Grace's company here tonight."
Something caught deep in Kitty's corseted ribs and she wondered for a moment if it was the pheasant eggs she had just eaten, but then she recalled the sensation and knew it to be one once familiar that she had not thought to feel again.
"It has been many years since I have been in London but I feel certain I have seen you before," the Frenchman continued.
Kitty's mouth went dry and she took a futile sip of sweet Madeira. She felt a little dizzy from a sudden, disorienting rush of recognition. Her thoughts tumbled through a head already grown somewhat clouded by sweet wine. No, this man did not remind her of someone. She knew him. No, she did not know him but she had seen him before. Him, not someone very like him.
"I don't recall it, sir. Did you find London pleasing?"
A pale shimmering image of him was at the edge of her memory and she clawed for it desperately, but before she could gain purchase on that misty shade from long ago her question was answered, and this required the whole of her attention. His tone was casual, but his eyes were very cold indeed.
"After a fashion. After Paris I found it dirty and crowded, and the food, well..." He sniffed, made a dismissive gesture, then swept his gaze around the table in an eloquent unspoken approval of what Spain had to offer by way of comparison. Don Massaredo's softly wrinkled countenance took on a certain pleased hauteur.
Arrogant bastards, Kitty thought. Neither one of you two foppish provincials would be the least bit the worse for a nice steaming helping of kidney pie, OR a bit of London society for that matter. But she held her wineglass lightly in fingertips, no telltale tremor betraying her inner turmoil. If only that pox-ridden, toad-eating Mr. Sheridan could see THIS performance, she thought, he would not have been so very quick to dismiss her as too old to play...
"But its theatre, second to none."
Cold sweat pricked at the base of Kitty's neck under her heavy fall of ringlets.
"The Rivals. That was the play I saw."
"I hear it is a sad piece," Kitty volunteered in the flat tones of a Midland rustic.
"No. It is most comical. But it is a play about deceit."
"Well, you would know better than I. I'm not often in London."
The Don cleared his throat in an officious manner, displeased that he and Mr. Hornblower had been left out of this increasingly private and insinuating conversation. He was staring curiously at Kitty, and she took another bite of whatever was in front of her (she had ceased to care as it all had begun to feel like cotton batting in her mouth) and smiled appreciatively at him. His manner softened and he waved the attending footmen to serve the next course.
Horatio was fidgeting in his chair, jaw muscles clenching and unclenching. Kitty, seized anew by the fear that he would say something rash and regrettable and thinking for the moment only of his own future safe return, smiled again at Don Massaredo, toasted him with her eyes, and carefully slid her foot across the floor under the table.
Encountering a large male foot in a buckled shoe, she placed her own satin-clad arch over it and rocked it gently back and forth. She sought Horatio's eye, but he was licking his lips and preparing to address his host, evidently oblivious to her warning. So, she thought, you too are an actor. So much the better.
But then, the target of her gentle communiqué slid cautiously out from under Kitty's small slipper and wrapping itself around her ankle, lifted her skirts and stroked her calf gently several times with its smooth leather toe before being silently withdrawn. My goodness, Kitty thought, shocked, he was practically up my skirts to the back of my knee!
"I hear that there was a recent engagement off Cape St. Vincent." Hornblower's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Do you wish to embarrass a Spanish Gentleman in front of his guests?" The Don's iron-gray eyebrows arched in affronted pride.
Kitty's heart sank, appalled that Hornblower had rashly rejected the Don's earlier generosity in favor of a clumsy counter-riposte surely calculated to distract attention from DeVergesse's insinuations about having met Her Grace in London. You young fool, can you not accept clemency? Allowances made for youth and inexperience or plain bad luck? Why must you behave so, with such stiff-necked pride?
Now she could see that Don was seriously displeased. And she had tried to warn Hornblower. Tried to warn him and he had flirted with her, had put his big clodhopping shoe up under her skirts. It was so unlike him, what had possessed him? Had he now lost all respect for her character since learning her secret? How very unfortunate, she thought, that I took it upon myself to look in on Mr. Kennedy this afternoon. It further complicates a most delicate situation.
She hazarded a glance to her right and was appalled to see that a definite look of satisfied curiosity tugged playfully at the corners of the French Colonel's full lips and glinted in the depths of his deep-water blue eyes. Again, she felt that odd sensation of a momentary stab of pain somewhere deep inside her ribcage.
Wasted. Altogether wasted on this enemy Frog. And yet, she was even more certain she had seen him before, with that very expression upon his face. A younger face. Much younger. Where? Dressed...how?
He turned towards her and for a moment, he looked almost as if he were in pain, though his expression changed so quickly to a dazed sort of delighted amazement that she could not be certain that she had read him aright. He snapped his fingers and exclaimed "But of course! Don Massaredo, Your Excellency, I think you would be most interested to hear where I first encountered the-"
"MOTHER OF GOD!" Kitty screeched, and with a violent sweep of her fan she swept her wineglass and a plate of some sugared red fruits that had just been placed at her elbow into the Colonel's very white lap. He leapt instantly to his feet, exclaiming rapidly in French, brushing off pieces of fruit and dabbing at the spreading wine stain on the front of his breeches. The other two men had also bolted to their feet, Hornblower reaching reflexively for a pistol no longer there, Don Massaredo's hand resting upon his scabbard ready to draw his sword.
"I felt it crawling on me leg," she sobbed convulsively, fanning herself hysterically, crumpling a little, and putting the back of her hand to her mouth. Hornblower came rapidly around the table to her side.
"Your Grace!" he took her elbow, his voice cracking in alarm. "What is the matter? What was crawling on you?"
She looked down at DeVergesse's ruined breeches and stockings and saw to her horror that they had large silver buckles while Hornblower's own shoes were bare of such ornamentation.
"OH! There it is again!" She stomped down hard on DeVergesse's foot, then buried her face in her hands. "I cannot abide the sight of it."
"My dear Duchess, what do you see? What?" Don Massaredo was now at her other elbow and she turned to him, resting her forehead on his shoulder and putting a hand flat against his chest. She could smell the familiar acrid, musky scent of an older man and the faint aroma of limes. He patted her shoulder gently as she gasped hysterically for breath, taking in great whooping gulps of air between her halting sentences.
"A sp- spider! A g-great n- nasty dark crawling spider, Your Excellency! Horrid things, spinning their webs and sitting there just waiting to trap a poor, innocent lovely creature and suck it dry. Hateful things, spiders, hateful! Oh how they frighten me! I've a positive horror of spiders."
"I do not see it, Your Grace, I suppose you must have mashed it into the carpet." Hornblower volunteered, frowning down at the carpet around DeVergesse's feet. "But," he continued, "I have seen many such creatures down in the prison block."
"Don Massaredo, I am so sorry," Kitty continued in a fluttery rush, though genuinely contrite about the wreckage of his table. "Look what I've done 'ere. Such a mess I made with your lovely fruit. And the poor Colonel's nice, white britches, too! Lawd, what a fright!" She tittered a little behind her fan.
DeVergesse covered his stained quarters with his napkin and bowed stiffly. "Do not trouble yourself on my account, Madame. An entirely understandable reaction to such an unwelcome guest. Although for my part, I consider the spider a useful, misunderstood creature, as he snares pests who would otherwise destroy the garden. But the spider must know his place, and his place is clearly not at dinner with Your Grace. Not if he knows where his best interests lie, for Your Grace employs a remarkably eloquent slipper. Do not," he added with a slight smile, "feel remorse on my account. I shall go repair these slight damages to my wardrobe immediately. Lt. Hornblower, we shall speak again tomorrow. Your servant, Madame." He bowed again and left.
Don Massaredo watched his departure with tired irony. "I cannot claim to have understood him this evening, but I think perhaps for reasons of diplomacy it is better that way. These French persons lack the directness of you English. That is something I have always admired about your countrymen, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio cleared his throat. "Your Excellency, about Cape St. Vincent...I regret..."
"You regret? You regret? You are too young to fully comprehend the meaning of the word. Pray do not apologize, Mr. Hornblower. Such things are naturally unpleasant to dwell upon. You may make your amends by escorting Her Grace back to her quarters this evening. Make certain she is quite recovered from her shock before you take leave of her and return to your companions back in the cells. I find I need to attend to certain matters. Linger here as long as you wish and good evening. This guard," he motioned towards an attendant who stood by the door well away from the table, "will light your way for you."
In answer to a question he seemed to read in Kitty's eyes he added, "He speaks no English, Your Grace. Have no fear your conversation will be understood or repeated."
DeVergesse stalked down the hallway towards the staircase to his quarters and found his Aide-de-camp, Guilliame, loitering about clearly impatient to have speech with him. He looked at the stains on DeVergesse's clothing with bemusement.
"Perhaps I go to the wrong fiesta tonight."
"Lay out my number two uniform, por favor and kindly do not ask questions about things you know nothing about."
"Bien, Colonel." The two men continued in silence down the hallway, Guilliame's shoulders shaking with scarcely-repressed laughter. DeVergesse felt an unreasoning rush of anger. He had been bluffed, then trumped, by that actress and was now losing face with his aide. She knew he knew who she was, but she had shown no fear. The woman was brazen. Brazen! And she and the young British officer-impudent puppy, Cape St. Vincent indeed!--were in this together. Of this he was certain, for he had at the very least been the recipient of a misdirected communiqué she had attempted to send to her young swain.
It had been these things, and not just the wine, DeVergesse concluded, which had made him nearly give away her identity tonight to Don Massaredo. Idiot! When you can make much better use of your knowledge by NOT revealing what you know just yet. And for the preservation of his valuable hold card, he must acknowledge that it was the quick wit of the Cobham female and not his own customary tactical brilliance to which he was in debt.
They reached his quarters and DeVergesse began stripping off his clothing. "Well?" he snapped at Guilliame. "Do you have anything to tell me that might improve my disposition?"
"J'regret, Colonel. I searched quite thoroughly but found nothing unusual. She has rather few possessions for a Duchess, not much jewelry, but I suppose that these things could have been lost or bartered in her travels."
"None. A few small books, novels by the look of them. There was," he continued nervously, "one problem."
"Her maidservant, Conchita, found me there. I was obliged," he coughed delicately, "to pretend that it was her that I had come to see."
"And was this...Conchita creature, pleased or displeased?"
"She was eventually pleased, Sir. Very pleased indeed. She is, ah--, expecting to see me at the fiesta where she will be serving the tables so it is best I leave at once."
DeVergesse considered this information, then allowed himself to laugh softly. "Very well. Perhaps this silly girl, for silly she must be not to see you, Guilliame, at once for the hound you are, can be of some use to us. You have my blessing. Pretty girl, is she?"
"For a Spaniard, pas mal. She is dark, of course." Guilliame said with slight deprecation, then with a glance at his commanding officer's stern deeply tanned visage he added. "Of course, the brown complexion has a certain charm. But I am sorry to have found nothing else of interest in the Duchess's quarters."
"If that woman is a Duchess," DeVergesse grumbled,
"Then I am King Louis. But it is well that as she has shown
me how very good she is at keeping her head, she has given me
no reason yet to oblige her to lose it." He fastened the
remaining buttons and took a brief glance at his mirrored reflection;
satisfied that he once more looked the prosperous, immaculate
French officer. "Bien sur, I go to her now. We have
unfinished business between us."
"Did you enjoy yourself at dinner tonight, Mr. 'Aitch?" Kitty asked as Horatio escorted her out of the dining hall and into the maze of narrow blue-tiled corridors that wound through Don Massaredo's hacienda and led past Kitty's own guest quarters to the lower levels of El Ferrol prison.
"I found it interminable." Horatio said acidly, lips drawn together in a hard, angry line. He paced down the hallway beside her, hands clasped behind his back, curving his long, lean body away from her so as to avoid even the most incidental contact. "And Don Massaredo's guest--what did you make of him? Is that the sort of conversation you would have me learn? He was certainly not loath to debate, discuss, or exchange opinions, I noticed. Is this, then, what you would have me aspire to become?"
"Like that Colonel? I don't 'alf mind telling you what I think, though I would not wish to insult our 'ost. I didn't like that Froggy gent, Mr. 'Aitch. Not at all!" Kitty, flushed from nerves, fanned herself vigorously.
"He seemed to like you."
"I've no idea why."
"Perhaps because you were in the play he saw. The Rivals, was it? Or perhaps Macbeth, but I do believe you would have made a fine Lydia Languish, Miss....Cobham."
Kitty paused, searching his fine, intelligent, mobile face. Such a handsome, serious young man. Was he forgiving? Understanding? Would he apply the rigid, unbending standards he forced upon himself to her as well, and having done so, found her whole life worth nothing more than his scorn and contempt?
"Do you deny it?"
"Why should I?" At once, Kitty discarded the lower-class nasality of the Duchess of Wharfedale. Horatio blinked in surprise, for it was the first time he had heard her normal speaking voice.
"But I don't understand. Why?" His words came out as a hiss. They had come to the door of her room. She pulled him inside and shut the door quickly behind her, leaving the trailing Spaniard with the lantern out in the hallway beyond.
"Because-I want to go home."
"But this whole charade, the Duchess of Wharfedale!" he whispered hoarsely. The candlelight threw his cheekbones into sharp relief as the words exploded from deep in his chest, and she saw he was dreadfully pale.
"Oh, she exists! Exactly as I played her," Kitty drew herself up and smacked her palm emphatically with her fan, pride in her talents evident in the proud carriage of her head and the saucy tilt of her chin.
"Where are my dispatches?" Hornblower growled. Kitty bristled.
"Give them to me."
"What? Am I suddenly untrustworthy because I do not have a title?" You are just like all the others, she thought sourly to herself. I show you courage and I show you brilliance, and all you see is a woman without fortune or family.
"You are untrustworthy because you lied." He extended his hand, palm upraised, and crooked his long fingers. "The Dispatches." His tone was coldly preemptory.
Suddenly, there was a soft knock on the door.
"'Oo is it?" Kitty asked, sliding effortlessly back into the ersatz skin of the Duchess of Wharfedale.
Horatio exhaled sharply, and squared his shoulders as if to battle.
This would never do.
"Follow my lead," Kitty whispered.
She opened the door, and there he stood, framed against the candlelit hall and all of a sudden, a memory flooded her mind and she knew exactly who he was.
She had noticed him over many months, as she cycled through her roles in the plays of that London season it must be, lawd! Twenty years ago! At first, he was a face in the stalls, then he took to loitering about outside the back doors of the theater with several other youths, just, it seemed, to watch her leave with the crowd of actors and actresses after they had stripped off the last of the greasepaint and costumes. It was customary in those days for the theatre folk to go to a public house on Drury Lane, and laugh and play cards long hours into the night.
"I think you have picked up some silly young mooncalfs, Kitty, my girl." The rich, middle-aged merchant backer of the show had laughed at the youths, pointing them out to her from the big table in the back of the public house. The young men, including the exotic-looking, sallow fellow with the black hair pulled tightly into a queue, were stealing surreptitious glances at her. "I've seen that one," he pointed his pipestem towards the French boy, "he's been in the second row every night this week. Queer-looking sort, ain't he? 'Lo, what light in yonder window'-ing for all he's worth, no doubt, my fair sun, my little Juliet."
Kitty waved away an acrid tendril of pipe-smoke, which he took as her agreement. Later on, she allowed to her friend, another actress from the company, that his eyes were an interesting color and he might look well-enough one day. They giggled, sighed, teased each other and then spoke wistfully of how nice it would be to walk through the streets of London, holding hands with a sweet boy who was too shy to touch them anywhere else. But of course, they never had and never would. They were not for those boys, the sons of respectable men.
A week later, he had stood just that way in the doorway of her dressing room, a French boy still in his teens, slender as a reed and gawky as a young colt, clothed in screwed-up courage and brocaded-satin, and looking as if he had gained height since he last saw his tailor. He had brought her bruised roses, but she was not alone and so she dismissed the young Frenchman. After he had left, she had laughed with that other man, that older man, who wanted to become her protector and had brought her a jeweled pin in the shape of a cat.
"I did not know you were already entertaining, Madame." DeVergesse's expression was guarded, as he hesitated in the doorway.
"Oh, just two prisoners keeping each other company, that's all."
DeVergesse entered Kitty's quarters with the noiseless, fluid, gliding step of a predatory beast and fixed his cool, blank stare on Hornblower.
"Two very interesting prisoners. The actress who pretends to be a Duchess, and the boy who pretends to be a Captain."
"I take offense, Sir!" Hornblower interjected. Kitty signaled him frantically to desist, catching his eye over the braided shoulder of the French Colonel. DeVergesse must have noted Hornblower's slight shift of focus and moved to where he could see them both.
"It is of course, an excellent way of gathering information-The Duchess and the English Naval Officer whose ship just happens to sail into the middle of the Spanish Fleet." His voice, a rich, pleasant baritone, carried an unmistakably insinuating hint of danger. Where had he learned to speak such excellent English, Kitty wondered? This man is un adversaire tres formidable.
But somewhere behind that stern face and those cold blue eyes that yearning, mooncalf boy still lived, this much she hoped was true. I saw him again in the doorway; in that moment of hesitation I knew him. I will never get us out of here now that he knows my identity unless I can reach that boy and fascinate him again. Horatio Hornblower must be made to go.
"You give him too much credit," Kitty said scornfully.
She flashed DeVergesse a self-deprecating smile, then pursed her lips seductively at him. His composure remained absolute, but she saw that he had exhaled deeply through slightly parted lips and that as he did, his eyes narrowed lazily.
The two men faced her, men being an audience whose susceptibilities she knew all too well, but at this moment, an audience of stark contrasts. Here is Horatio, my earnest Mr. 'Aitch all pale and austere, with the terrible eyes of an avenging angel. And beside him stands Etienne DeVergesse, cool and sensual and sleek, like a minion from the other side come to show me a more original kind of sin. I cannot play to both, she decided, so I must please the devil to spare the angel, and then pray the angel comes to understand. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, is that not how the saying goes? And my intentions here are actually quite good.
At least, she thought wryly, and this thought touched her smile with a genuine anticipation of pleasure, he is a handsome Devil and a clever one, too. 'Tis past time I started to debase myself with a better class of scoundrel.
DeVergesse had been charmed against his will from the instant Kitty Cobham dropped that horrible lower-class manner of speech and reverted to the fine, rich womanly voice that had captivated him so many years before. The warmth of this memory warred with his anger at once again finding her ensconced with a man behind her closed door, an anger augmented by suspicion that he was somehow being made a fool of again. It was virtually certain that these two had some shared secret and he had interrupted a conversation that was important to Hornblower at least. Unlike Miss Cobham, Lt. Hornblower was no actor. Impatience and frustration could be read in the rigid lines of his body and the tension that knit his brow and clenched his jaw.
Of course, DeVergesse could think of other reasons why a young man might feel frustrated about having his tete-a-tete with an actress interrupted by unexpected male visitor. However, for reasons that he did not care to examine too deeply, DeVergesse did not wish to seriously consider the more prosaic explanations, finding more merit in the idea that he had interrupted a meeting between two conspirators.
But what the hell game did they think they were playing here? Spying, intelligence-gathering-these dangerous activities were not for amateurs! Did they even realize they could be executed if they were caught? Did they know it was his duty to turn them in if he got proof that they had come to El Ferrol as spies? Was Le Reve a Trojan Horse? No documents, no dispatches, no letters, no cargo, and no way to defend herself from attack. Appearing out of the mist in the middle of the Spanish Fleet, gift-wrapped with an infamous actress aboard. The thought of depriving the stage of the magnificent Kitty Cobham simply because she was foolish enough to believe she could play a spy in real life sickened him. Young Hornblower had chosen his life of risk and had accepted the possibility that he might die for his country, as DeVergesse had for France. But he very seriously doubted that Madame Cobham had any inkling of the stakes involved. How could she?
Looking quickly from one to the other, he allowed his anger to seep into his mind unchecked, and flood his voice with silken menace. He exhaled the breath he had been holding with a soft shudder.
"Did I?" He responded to Kitty's dismissal of Hornblower's capacity to execute the bold gambit of sailing into the Spanish Fleet as if by accident. "I wonder what the penalty for spying is here? Death for him, certainly. And for you," DeVergesse moved closer to the actress, looming over her, "in the new Republic of France, the guillotine does not discriminate between sexes."
He was astonished to see no fear in her eyes at all to this threatening statement, though the young officer glared fiercely at him still. Instead, she raised her chin and shrugged dismissively.
"I confess, sir!" she shrugged, looking no more shamed than a cream-caught cat.
"You confess to what, Madame?"
"To my foolishness," Kitty Cobham shot back, swinging her skirts from her hips like a bell as she crossed her small room, "in trusting this boy." Pointing her fan at Hornblower, she tossed her head coquettishly and arranged herself artfully on a fainting couch. Then in a confiding tone, she continued, "Had I known he would sail me into a nest of Dons, I can assure you that I would still be resting in comfort at Gibraltar."
She rolled her eyes towards the ceiling, sighed theatrically, and continued.
"This is such a dull post to be imprisoned on. I have no one for company, except an old aristocrat and a callow youth. It does me such good," she patted the brocade seat beside her lightly with her elegant, tapering fingers, "to speak to a man again."
DeVergesse, whose every instinct was telling him that this was all a much of a ruse as her Duchess act, was shamefully unable to resist that oh-so-obvious invitation. Before he realized what he was doing he had done it; he was sitting next to her and her arm was draped casually over the back of the couch, encircling his body though she did not touch him. Their faces were close now, and he found that the very air he breathed was infused with the faint scent of a clean, healthy woman, unadorned by powders, cloying perfumes or pomades. His mouth was becoming dry, always a bad sign.
"But to whom do I speak? The Duchess? Or the Actress?" DeVergesse wrenched himself into reality, reminding her that he neither believed nor trusted her.
"Both the Duchess and the Actress want to go home. Let us say, you are talking to-the Woman."
Instincts still on guard, he ran his eyes over her face, her neck, her very bosom, checking for those familiar signs of reciprocal desire. True, it had been several years since DeVergesse had laid with a woman who claimed to love him, but he would not do so with a woman who was merely acquiescing. Kitty's eyes were wide, candid, the pupils huge. No tremor at the edges of her lips betrayed her, her neck had acquired a faint, attractive flush, and when he took up her hand in his own, it was warm and gently trembling.
How often had he dreamed of her as a youth, just sitting with her and daring to touch her? And if he had touched her, and she had found it pleasing, and had indicated that she wished for more, he would not have known what to do with her. Inexperience and unslaked desire makes for an awkward lover, he recalled, with a quick glance at the glowering young Briton who stood impotently in the center of the room.
"Horatio? Are you still here?" Kitty never took her eyes off of DeVergesse's face as she asked the question.
"Er, Your Grace...," he blustered, evidently uncomfortable with the thought of leaving them alone together, and yet mortified almost beyond endurance by their closeness to each other.
It would no doubt surprise you, poor fish, to know that I understand what you are feeling at this moment, DeVergesse thought. But I survived such humiliations at the hands of the fair sex and so shall you, unless you vex me further, so spare yourself further discomfort and leave.
"Go to your cell, Horatio," the actress commanded, and the youth did so reluctantly, shutting the door softly behind him.
"Madame Cobham," DeVergesse said hoarsely. She had drawn him closer to her with that encircling arm about his shoulders and even now, her fingers played lightly, tracing the outline of his knee through his fine white breeches.
"Kitty," she interrupted, smiling at him. "Please. I do remember you now, it is just that you changed so very much. You loved my Juliet. You never missed a night."
"I loved every performance I ever saw you give, save one. The Duchess of Wharfedale is not to my taste, and the role is unworthy of you."
She laughed, "She was a frightful old cow, wasn't she? But this, Sir, is not acting." she plunged her fingers into the curls on the back of his head. "How I have longed to do this very thing, ever since I first saw you. Such unusual hair you have. I've never seen its like on an Englishman. I remember you, you know. I do. And I am pleased to find you are handsome, for I recall thinking that you would be."
DeVergesse leaned forward, lightly rubbing his cheek against her neck as he kissed the top of her shoulder. "Madame, Kitty, do not think that you can influence me by doing...this...to me." He lifted her hand and placed it on his chest, pressing it firmly so that she could feel the rapid beating of his heart. "No man could resist you at this moment, but I am not an animal, Kitty. My duty to my country is first with me, always, even if it means I must send you to Paris in chains. To allow you to think otherwise would be a lie. If you do not want this for itself, me for myself alone, then now is the time to say it."
He felt her shudder, with fear or desire he could not know,
but within moments, she was easing his jacket from his shoulders
and it had fallen to the floor. Her hands roamed up and down his
arms, stroking the taut muscles of his shoulders and back. DeVergesse
felt his loins flood with warmth, and his breath coming faster,
but he proceeded slowly and cautiously, gently caressing the skin
of her shoulders, now bare where he had eased the stiff material
of her dress down to expose them more fully. He lifted her hair
with one hand as he kissed her softly on the mouth, stroking the
back of her neck with his index finger as she moaned and shifted
beneath his questing lips, parting her own and meeting his tongue
with hers, kissing him back more deeply.
"Etienne," Kitty breathed into his ear, as she began to unbutton his vest, sliding her hand inside to explore his abdomen, sliding her hands up inside his still partially-buttoned vest to stroke his ribs and hardened nipples through his shirt. "I am not a spy, I swear to you. I am just a woman caught in troubles not of my making. Please let me go home, back to my stage, my theatre, my audience, my friends. One day, this war will be over and..." she brushed his jawline with her lips as she spoke, sighing softly in his ear, "God willing, you can come again to the theatre in London and I promise I shall not be so cruel as before."
"Kitty, I cannot..." He trailed the back of his fingertips lightly across the top of her breasts, which were still covered enough for fashion, if not modesty. Her skin was faintly downy, and despite her unremembered thinness, the soft feel of her body beneath his hand was that of a peach in its last fading hours of sweet velvety summer ripeness. DeVergesse recognized the feel of her as that of a woman whose youth was long past, but he did not find the sensation displeasing.
"If you are telling me the truth, as the woman not as the actress, then yes, I will let you go. I will even help you to get home. Kitty, you are...who? Which?"
"Mmmm...," she answered.
Again, he searched her eyes for answers, but could read nothing new in her face. She leaned back, eyes half closed, appearing lost in dreamy enjoyment as he caressed her. She lazily pulled the ribbon that held her dress front taut and took a shuddering breath as she drew air into her corseted lungs. Her breasts looked less rounded now, more pendulous, soft half-moons above a lacy undergarment that now peeked out from the loosened bodice.
DeVergesse's loins were on fire now; his clothes were hot, constricting, a torment to him. Casting off his vest and pulling his shirt from his breeches so that his shirttails hung loosely around his hips, he took Kitty full into his arms and kissed her deeply, thrilling to the answering feel of her chest as she pressed herself into his embrace. He reached down now with one hand as he nibbled her lips, and eased her skirts up gently, caressing her knee, playfully working his fingers inside her garter. Finally, when he could stand no more waiting, he began to slide his hand up her thigh, rolling her petticoats back as he did so.
The next thing he knew, his head was ringing from a mighty blow to his ear she had given him with her closed fist. She scrabbled frantically out from under him, eyes wide with fear, voice cracking with hysteria.
"NO! Stop this at once, Sir! Get your filthy French hands out of my petticoats, you..you...FROG!"
(End of Part 3)
Why did Kitty clobber the Colonel? Will his balles turn
bleu before he clears up the mysteries at El Ferrol?