Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets Part 4

In Which Kitty Shows her Claws and DeVergesse gets his kit back on, then off again.

Disclaimer: These characters were inspired by the performances of Cheri Lunghi as Kitty Cobham/Duchess of Wharfedale, Ronald Pickup as Don Masserado, Jean-Yves Berteloot as Col. Etienne De Vergesse, and A&E's other characters from Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and The Devil. This installment also involves some mature subject matter, though not as much as the last installment, so wipe the carpet fuzz off your tongues and put them back in your mouths. After this sordid affair is concluded, I am planning on putting DeVergesse out at stud, but so far, the writing of this story has been singularly unprofitable and so I am therefore not making a dime from co-opting characters created by C.S. Forester and the writers of the Hornblower miniseries.

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"CHRIST ALMIGHTY! THE DISPATCHES! DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!"

The words formed a silent scream in Kitty's brain and she reacted instinctively, lashing out at his shoulder to stop the advance of the exploring hand beneath her skirts. In swinging her free arm as hard as she could, she lost her balance, sliding sideways on the slick armrest of the brocaded couch and to her horror, she missed the shoulder entirely, boxing the amorous Frenchman soundly on the ear.

Colonel DeVergesse had come within a gnat's eyelash of placing his hand squarely upon the damning packet of dispatches that she had stubbornly refused to relinquish to Horatio. The consequences of such a discovery did not bear thinking about. Bloody dispatches, she cursed silently, I should have let him throw them into the sea when the Le Reve was taken by the Spanish.

And now, looking up into the face of Etienne DeVergesse, she saw in his furious blue eyes a shifting kaleidoscope of pain, shock, confusion, and hurt finally settle into a murderous rage. This is it, she thought, my life ends tonight. This man is going to kill me. She shook violently, exchanging the physical passion of moments before for genuine fear. The words from the Sunday reading of the Articles of War on the flagship that had conveyed her to Italy months ago echoed in her mind.

--The Penalty For Striking an Officer Is Death-

Instead, he lifted his body from hers, and stood silently, tucking his shirt back into his breeches and donning his vest and jacket. Kitty tried to keep her eyes on his face, but she could not resist the impulse to look down at his body, and she saw through the tight-fitting formal white breeches that he was still in a state of arousal.

The Frenchman's mouth hardened, seeing the direction of her gaze shift to his groin. He stood regarding her with legs apart and both fists on his hips. Now she was certain she was about to die. Her mind whirled with placating words she might say and excuses she might make that would save her.

"I'm s-sorry. So s-sorry....Etienne, forgive me!" she stammered. "I did not mean to strike you, truly I did not, it is just that I, well, suddenly it just seemed wrong to me to be with you like this. I panicked. You are, after all, a Fr-, that is to say, French and I just felt all of a sudden as if I was being a traitor to my country, but that was silly of me, wasn't it? Really very stupid and foolish for indeed, as Don Massaredo said, tonight we are in a state of truce under his roof and so please, please, I did not mean it."

"Dress yourself, Madame." DeVergesse turned his back deliberately on her and stood with his arms folded.

Kitty's rose shakily, her dress hanging loosely from her shoulders, hair tangled and damp. Placing a hand softly on his elbow, she said in a voice still quavering from the tightness of her throat, "Etienne, I will welcome you to my bed. Just give me a few minutes to compose myself. A little privacy, that is all that I ask." She slowly wrapped her arms around his torso, and pressed her bodice and cheek against his hard, lean back. "And when you come back, then I will be waiting for you in my nightshift, and tonight we can forget that our countries are at war."

She was pleased to have thought of this explanation, and fully expected that he would soften towards her.

He did not. DeVergesse whirled around violently and gripped her by her naked shoulders, pressing her back down against the couch and holding her so tightly she was unable to move, though she attempted to squirm from his grasp.

"Do not lie to me. I saw the fear plain on your face. So, let me put you straight on the finer points of the sort of encounter you so evidently think this is, Madame," he spat through bared teeth. "First of all, you are considerably older than the girls I generally ravish. Considerably."

"But, Sir-I did not think..."

"Second of all, Madame, you are a great deal more, ah, how shall I put it in English? Experienced. Yes. That is le mot juste. You are a FAR more experienced than the women I usually blackmail into giving up their bodies to preserve their lives, which takes all of the pleasure out of it for me."

Kitty stopped struggling; she stared back at him utterly fascinated and bewildered. He slowly released her and stood again as before, accusation and scorn evident in his stern expression. He has the mouth of a hedonist, Kitty thought, a pleasure-seeker who could deny himself nothing, yet his body under my hands is lean and disciplined, hard and spare. He is such a contradiction, she thought, staring at him with tears pricking her eyes, no wonder I forgot Horatio's precious dispatches. I do not know why but I am both drawn to him and repelled by him, and now I am mortified, for he thinks I am too old to ravish.

"Then what do you want from me?" she sobbed. A tear trickled down her cheek as she looked down at her trembling hands, tightening the laces of her bodice. "How can I satisfy you that I am telling you no less than the truth! I am just an woman who is trying to get back to England."

"Oh spare me, Madame, those false tears!" DeVergesse erupted, "Let us go down the list, shall we? This day, you have been many, many women. First, the vulgar, tres stupide Duchess of Wharfedale, mill owner's daughter." He counted on his fingertips as he continued. "Second, the Coquette, displaying your bosom to your elderly host, Don Massaredo, even as your slippers sought the young limbs of Lt. Hornblower under the table! Well, how was I, Madame? Did I put my foot up your skirts as well as he does?"

Kitty felt herself blushing uncontrollably.

"Y-, I mean, NO! That is not how it was, Sir!"

"Oh, REALLY? And then, third," DeVergesse spat, "we have the very resourceful woman, perhaps even a spy, who is brave enough to face down the 'Frog' Colonel DeVergesse, when he threatens to expose your true identity to Don Massaredo and how? By pretending to be a clumsy idiot who is deathly afraid of spiders! But you are not finished, are you? The performance continues. Next you become the wanton lover, a woman who can feign desire to distract a man from his duty. But you are not THAT good an actress, are you, for when reality intruded, you could no longer stomach the part."

"I do not have to endure this! You are unfair!" Kitty cried. "I have innocent reasons for all that I have done. I want you to leave, sir, right now! I demand that you leave me alone!"

Kitty sprang to her feet and stormed towards the door, grasping the handle to fling it wide, but DeVergesse was faster. He moved quickly and put his shoulder to the thick wood.

"And yet another part, now you play Virtue, Offended. Pah! Do you realize, Madame Cobham, that a word from me-a word!-would be sufficient to bring the guards to the door? What do you think the tribunals would make of what I would have to say? That I found you, nominally a prisoner but living in luxury as a guest of our Spanish ally, masquerading under an alias, having a daily rendezvous with a MUCH younger English officer whose own bona fides are extremely suspicious?"

Kitty retreated, and began to pace the room, wringing her hands in agitation.

"And no Lady Macbeth, if you please, Madame."

She returned his scorn with a heated glare of her own. DeVergesse laughed softly.

"That is better. I like that much better. At least your hatred of me is genuine."

"Very well, Colonel," Kitty retorted. "You have neither killed me nor sent for the guards, so why don't you just tell me what it is you want from me in exchange for your discretion, and quit wasting time with these threats. I am tired of YOUR act, Sir, it grows stale."

"Now I think I finally am talking to 'The Woman'," DeVergesse laughed. "Bien. You can start by telling me the truth. Why are you travelling as the Duchess of Wharfedale, if not to spy?"

"That is a private matter."

"Not anymore."

Kitty sighed, then shrugged. "Very well. I traveled to Italy to marry Captain Sir John Morris, but he did not honor his promises. I had no choice but to return to England, but the English merchant ship I booked passage on with the last of my money refused to sail farther than Gibralter once it became known that Spain had joined your country's war on England. So I petitioned the Admiralty to help me return home."

DeVergesse said sarcastically, "Seduced and abandoned, then? An old, trite story. Why should I believe it? What of your career on the stage? Did you give it up for this unreliable man? That would be a great pity."

"All right, yes, I did. A pity? Yes, I regret having done it, but I was getting to the time in my life when the roles I was offered were not paying so well as they had. I had debts, needed money. You have no idea what it costs to be a successful actress in London. You must have fashionable gowns, money for gambling at cards, and you must give parties of course. It is more expensive than you can imagine!"

"You might be surprised, Madame, at the extent of my imagination. But, continue, s'il vous plait."

"Very well, when you knew me, I was playing Juliet. But in a few years, Sir, I will be lucky to be considered for the part of Juliet's nurse," Kitty admitted bitterly, still wounded by his cruel taunts about her age.

"I see. So you saw a chance to set yourself up for the rest of your life with this man, and you took it. How very romantic."

"He paid my debts, and promised to marry me. We knew there would be scandal over the marriage, and his children would object. He convinced me that it would be easier to begin our married life in Italy. He told me that he loved me and I believed him because I wanted to believe him. I confess now that I was a fool."

"Did you love him in return."

Kitty rolled her eyes and grimaced. "I could not call it love, but I did admire him. I would have done my best to be a dutiful wife."

DeVergesse snorted. "Another role to play. Sometimes I wonder if all women are not actresses. But none of this explains your need for an alias. That is still most suspicious."

"Sir John, while in Italy, met a rich widow-a woman much like me in terms of age and appearance. I would not be so bitter if he had found someone younger, more beautiful, or one who had more breeding, but this woman had only money and a title by marriage and--though she was not highborn, she was considered more respectable than an actress. He had already been made uncomfortable by the cold reception I had gotten from his fellow Captains, and so when this woman appeared on the scene, he transferred his affections to her. And that, Sir, is when I left."

"So did they marry, this Sir John and his new lady?"

"I do not believe they have done so, yet. Her late husband was scarce cold in the ground and she had his estate to put in order. No, I found them together and so I knew the truth, but he had not yet made their intention to marry known within the fleet. A decent interval of mourning must pass, so he went off on his ship and she quietly remains in Rome, waiting for his return."

DeVergesse's mouth twitched at the corners and irrationally, a glint of amusement sparkled in his eyes.

"Dare I ask, Madame, the name of Sir John's matrimonial prize?"

Kitty raised her chin defiantly and said, "Why, the Duchess of Wharfedale! Of course!"

"And have you behaved yourself as the Duchess of Wharfedale, Miss Cobham? Would she recognize herself in your performance?"

"Certainly not. I have left a trail of scandal and outrageous behavior that will glisten like the slimy wake of a common slug and the stink of it will waft all the way to Sir John's ship 'ere he sees his Duchess again."

"Hell," DeVergesse observed, "hath NO fury. Is that not the saying?"

"You can bet your fine French arse on it, Colonel. So, do you believe me?"

DeVergesse, laughed softly, leaning against the door with his arms crossed. "Madame, I am inclined to believe you, but," he sighed in mock distress, "it is my duty-I am honor-bound-to reveal the truth in my report, and to tell Don Massaredo that I also believe you and young Hornblower are conspiring behind his back. Perhaps the safest thing would be to keep you here in prison for the rest of the war. Then you could hardly do any more damage. To either side. But-I cannot say how Don Massaredo will take this news of mine. He will be extremely disillusioned, for if I am not mistaken, he has tendre for you. Do you know, Madame, what an oubliette is?"

"An oubliette?"

"It is a small chamber, a dark hole in the ground, too small to stand in, with no comforts and no protection from cold or rain. It is used to punish the most difficult prisoners. Many do not survive it."

"What is your point, Colonel DeVergesse? Don Massaredo would never do that to me, he is a gentleman."

"I respectfully suggest, Madame, that based on the tale you have just told to me that you might not be the best judge of who is a gentleman and who is not. Attendez-moi, Don Massaredo is a fair man to his prisoners so long as they are both honest and respectful. But he does not appreciate having his good nature abused. He put that sickly boy, Kennedy, in the oubliette for several weeks simply because he refused to cooperate and tell Don Massaredo his true name and who his people are. You should have seen him smiling as he told me of why he did it."

"I do not believe you."

"Then ask Monsieur Kennedy. And then consider how Don Massaredo would view it if he were to learn that Lt. Hornblower knows your true identity but has been the beneficiary of special privileges extended to no other prisoner, simply because Don Masseredo believes that you are a Duchess and Hornblower is your friend. What do you think he would do to Mr. Hornblower?"

DeVergesse sighed again, a perfect imitation of Kitty's own theatrical gesture. "I suppose one can put one's faith in the good nature of this 'gentle'man...or, perhaps there is something you can do for me, something that would make me reconsider the importance of this information, something that would distract me from my duty even more than the display of your--."

"What?" Kitty was rapidly becoming exasperated. "For the love of God, will you give me your terms? I have offered you my body, and I have satisfied your accursed vulgar curiosity with the sordid details of my private life, so what else do you want from me?"

"Madame, I want the key to Don Massaredo's private chamber. Bring me the key, and I will say nothing about what I have learned this night."

Kitty gasped. "How do you expect me to get that key? This is impossible! First of all, I do not know where he keeps it. I have great freedom here, but I am still a prisoner. I do not have free range of every nook and cranny in El Ferrol!"

"He keeps the key on a chain around his neck, Madame."

Kitty regarded him in stunned silence, the implications clear to her.

"Now, you have satisfied me on one point tonight. You are a most resourceful lady, very clever, very devious. I admire that in you, Madame Cobham, though I doubt most men would find these qualities attractive. Now, since you have been so very forthcoming about Sir John, I shall tell you something about me and then we shall be bonded, you and I, not by mutual desire as I had thought earlier tonight, but as those who know each other's dark secrets."

DeVergesse's eyes glowed, and his words tumbled out breathlessly, "I believe that Don Massaredo has, in his chamber, an objet d'art so fabulous and important that it is beyond price. My father left behind him certain papers, old documents, and after studying these, I have come to the same conclusions. But His Excellency allows no one--NO ONE--to see it. I must know if my conclusions are correct. The discovery of this object would make my reputation in certain circles."

He grasped Kitty by the wrist so tightly that she winced from the pain of it. "Do you believe art is worth risking all for?"

"I do not know, Sir..."

"Miss Cobham, if I were to tell you that Shakespeare had written a play as great as Romeo and Juliet, but that it had been lost to the world for these past two centuries, and Don Massaredo had this play in his secret chamber, would you risk all just to enter the chamber and bring that play back into the world?"

Against all reason, Kitty felt her face flush with excitement. "Yes," she whispered. "yes, I would. I would risk all."

"Good night, Madame Cobham." DeVergesse opened the door and again stood framed, backlit against the candlelit hall. "We are allies now, you and I. Bring me that key, and you shall be on the very next ship bound for England. I am a man who does not make promises lightly, so those few that I do make, I keep."

He is taller by inches and looks better than I do, Kitty thought bitterly, hating him at that moment, and those eyes! She shivered, chilled by the memory of that cold, wounded, penetrating gaze. But he won't break me. That 'experience', of which he is so contemptuous, has taught me more about men than I ever wanted to know.

 

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Saturday, just past Midnight-Kitty's Quarters at El Ferrol

Kitty Cobham found herself at a loss, and the sensation was both unfamiliar and unwelcome to her. She pulled the encircling blue ribbon from her curled masses of hair and tossed it carelessly on her dressing table, where it lay limp as a hangman's discarded noose. Dropping onto the little bench stool with a heavy sigh, she once again loosened her stays and sat, the front of her dress undone and hanging, inspecting herself in the mirror.

"Experienced" he had said. He might as well have called her an old whore.

Damn that Frog, anyhow! What right did he have to leave her sitting her alone, alternately cursing him for his rudeness and then wryly allowing herself a grudging self-mockery at the thought that she, Kitty Cobham, was in the ridiculous position of being insulted that he had not wished to rape her. Did he really force himself on younger, more virtuous women as he had implied? That would make him an evil man indeed and to be sure, he was no gentleman even without his being a ravisher of young virgins. But, one simply could not trust a Frog. They would say anything just for the sheer exhilaration of being perversely au contraire. Bloody Frogs. No wonder we are always declaring war on the blighters.

Since her livelihood had always depended on her appearance, Kitty's one true conceit was that she had never allowed herself the luxury of dishonesty where her personal attractions were concerned. But now, seeing herself mirrored by the remarks of Colonel DeVergesse, she found the light of the oil lamps harsh and unflattering, throwing the fine lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth into stark relief, coarsening the pores of her smooth, pale cheeks and finally, revealing the first marks of age on the skin of her breasts and the smooth column of her neck.

She stared at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, and trying her hair this way and that for such a long time, that it surprised her when she realized that the gradual improvement in her looks was due not to her artful rearrangement of curls and stays but to the fading of the light from the guttering candles and lamp. I should sleep, she thought, and put on her loose nightshift. But sleep would not come. She lay upon her bed, willing sleep to descend upon her, but instead felt flushed and uneasy. Getting up to pace about the room, seeking the cool air, which flowed through the cracks around her door, she decided that her unease stemmed from inactivity. It was most unlike her, she considered, to sit and wait for things to happen.

Two things occupied the forefront of her mind. The first, and most odious, was the thought that Col. DeVergesse clearly expected her to seduce Don Massaredo and relieve him of the key to his sanctuary. While Kitty did not love the Don, seeing him as her jailer albeit a particularly benevolent one, she chafed at the thought that she might be repaying his small kindnesses with theft. And while there had certainly been times when she had found it advantageous to convince a much older, wealthier man that she desired him, she became conscious of a growing sense of outrage that DeVergesse not only recognized this in her, but felt that it would not be any great stretch of her talents or abilities. Kitty scarcely knew whether to be flattered or insulted by his assumption that she was capable of removing a key from the most intimate reaches of Don Massaredo's undershirts without his knowledge or consent.

She resolved that the sincere reaction, the best reaction, and the one which, she felt certain, would be shared by Lt. Hornblower, was outrage and insult. So, insulted and outraged, she paced the room picturing DeVergesse humbled by desire for her, begging her for the most trifling favor of a kiss as he beseeched her to forgive him his ungentlemanly conduct even as she rejected him with hauteur, indifference, and disdain. The image pleased her, and she felt it a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The second matter was more straightforward. The dispatches had very nearly been discovered due to her inattention. This situation had ceased to be a game with the arrival of the very inquisitive French Colonel, and had instead become exceptionally dangerous. Kitty felt more resolved than ever to deliver those dispatches to the Admiralty if they contained information that was truly vital to the success of Admiral Jarvis's fleet. However, if the dispatches should contain information now sadly out of date due to their many weeks of captivity, 'twould be much safer to destroy them. And should they, God forbid, fall into the wrong hands it would be very useful to know what sort of information they contained.

Wax, Kitty thought. I have carved a good likeness of Sir Hew's seal and now I only require sealing wax to make a test. If the imprint of my carved bit of soap is very like, then I shall break the seals and read these dispatches. I can then seal them up again and no one will be the wiser. Horatio Hornblower would never consent to this plan, she thought grimly, nor would he allow me to keep us both safe from discovery by seducing Don Massaredo and bribing Col. DeVergesse to remain silent with the purloined key. Horatio must remain in ignorance. It is the least I can do for the gallant lad, she resolved.

But the very first thing I must do is nick some sealing wax, she decided. And as I cannot sleep, I shall find some this very night. Padding silently on bare feet, she opened the door a crack with infinite patience and looked out into the hall. There was never a guard posted outside Kitty's door, for why would she wish to escape from the safety of El Ferrol Prison? She was not to be held there any longer than it took to find her safe passage to England. So Don Massaredo said.

All was silent in the shadowy corridors. Emboldened, Kitty glided out into the hall. She took with her no light for she knew the winding route to the large-windowed room where Don Massaredo's heavy desk rested solid and dark under its litter of sealing wax, papers, and quills. Her feet would carry her there unerringly in the dim light of the fading sconces and in the darkened room, she could pass her hand lightly over the unseen desktop and find a bit of red wax, then return with it quickly to her quarters.

As she left the corridors to the prison and entered the hacienda, her attention was caught by a moving light, glimpsed obliquely through the staggered doorways of the rooms that opened up before her. A boot scraped on sanded flagstones and she tucked herself quickly into an alcove. The unseen light-bearer might have caught the pale flash of her nightshift, for the shadows cast by the glow ceased their march across the walls of the room nearest to Kitty as if the bearer had paused to listen or stare back into the darkness into which she pressed herself. The shadows once more began to swing across the walls and by their direction, she realized that the light bearer was coming towards her. Glancing quickly over her shoulder, she saw a dark staircase ascending and she ran on tip-toe to it and climbed rapidly to evade the spreading pool of light from the advancing lantern. Crouching in the darkness atop the stairs, she was able to see the steely patina of Don Massaredo's lanky hair. His back was turned to her. He stood and gazed down the hallway from whence she had come, and then moved on towards her quarters and the prison block beyond.

Aghast, Kitty wondered if he would actually enter her room and realize she was not inside it! But the lantern light flickered, then held steady from a point somewhere down the long hallway and she heard no creak of door on hinges. Finally, the Don returned, walking slowly and with a more decided hitch to his stride than she had noticed before, the lantern light bobbing and dipping with his stiff-legged gait.

Kitty, knowing that the Don's own apartments were on the first floor of his hacienda, was not concerned that he might climb the stairs, but his manner was so restless that she decided that until she was quite certain he had finally gone to bed she could not risk roaming about on the lower level, or even returning to her own room. So she continued to climb the stairs to the third story of the Hacienda, a part of the house she had not yet explored, for during the daytime she was never truly alone except when in her own quarters.

The third floor was unlit by lamp or candle but the moonlight streamed through iron-barred windows set deep into alcoves and in this cold, silver light she perceived in the dark reaches before her the warm gleam of brass. Her eyes adjusted rapidly to the dimness and she saw at the very end of a short hallway an immense dark rectangular shape outlined against the pale, blue-tiled walls. It was a massive door. Other doors gaped open on either side of her and she could make out furnished rooms, spartan like her own. Heaped blankets from under which soft buzzing sounds emerged revealed the presence of shrouded sleepers. Perhaps these were servant quarters, she speculated.

However, it was the immense dark door that drew her as her bare feet slapped lightly towards it, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the puddles of moonlight that spotted the bare flagstones and haphazardly-arranged squares of carpet in the atrium which formed the center of the third story. As she crept closer, she saw that the door was heavily-carved with an ornate design that looked like intertwining leaves and fruits, flowers and birds. Brass bands were fixed by heavy bolts to the wood of the door, outlining and criss-crossing it with the glimmer of old gold.

Why, she thought, looking down through one of the windows and spotting the bench on which she had sat the morning before, this must be the very part of the house that Col. DeVergesse pointed to when he told me about the Don's secret chamber! The door itself had a queer sort of padlock dangling from a brass loop, but Kitty noticed that the lock hung open and the very door itself appeared to be imperfectly shut, standing open the merest crack, even appearing by a trick of the wind-shifted moonlight to move slightly on its hinges as if it were alive, a breathing thing.

Elated, she realized that this was her opportunity to trump that Froggy Colonel by finding out what it was he desired so zealously. Clearly, he did not intend to tell her or share with her his fortune should he obtain it through her efforts. I shall go inside, she thought. I shall find out what he seeks, and I shall hide it from him so that even with the key, he will not profit from my dishonor, and by doing so, I shall find my honor reclaimed. It is the least I can do for Don Massaredo, she smiled to herself, after his many kindnesses to me and to poor, dear Mr. 'Aitch.

So grasping the brass ring ever so carefully, she pulled slowly and was gratified to feel the door swing out on well-oiled hinges. With her breath held tightly and with infinite patience, she pulled open the heavy carved door until there was a space wide enough to admit both her body and some of the cold moonlight which streamed in her wake. Kitty's stomach contracted with excitement and fear. This was so easy, she thought. The Don, no doubt distracted by the uproar at the end of his lovely dinner party, has left his private retreat unlocked and unguarded. Kitty pursed her lips in determination. Once she knew what Col. DeVergesse hoped to find at El Ferrol, it would be no great feat to deny him his prize. All that it would take was courage on her part-the courage to examine the contents of this mysterious room.

The room thus revealed had a few, small windows of its own, and though these did not face the moon, there was enough faint starlight entering the room to allow Kitty to stand suddenly transfixed by her own image.
An involuntary gasp escaped her lips.

Though the details of the furnishings were hazy, the walls dark and indistinct from what appeared to be hanging tapestries or large paintings with murky patches of dark and light intertwined, a large mirror with a shimmering gilt frame dominated the wall opposite her. She saw reflected a pale wraith with streaming dark hair and the deep-set, dark-shadowed eyes of a madwoman glimmering insubstantially in the doorway, white nightshift glowing silvery blue in a shaft of moonlight, the contours of her body outlined through the sheer fabric.

And then, she saw herself suddenly vanish as a dark mass materialized from behind the door! A cool, dry hand grasped her arm and pulled her swiftly into the room, spinning her about into a rough woolen blanket. She gasped and tried to cry out, but a hand was clamped firmly over her mouth and her body was wrapped up so tightly in the blanket and in two strong arms that she was completely unable to move, crushed by this rough embrace against the lean, muscular length of a male torso and groin. A chin pressed against her cheek, rasping the sharp, short stubble of a man who shaved often but not lately against her tender skin while staccato bursts of warm air assaulted her ear as her captor panted from the exertion of subduing her wildly thrashing form.

Kitty trembled violently, whimpered softly and ceased her struggles, and felt the pressure ease up from around her ribs as that constraining arm was removed. A slight inclination of the body behind her and the feel of a bicep flexing against the base of her skull told her that her captor had reached for something on a low table near the door. The withdrawn hand returned with a click of metal against metal, and she felt the cold barrel of a pistol pressed to the side of her neck.

"I shall take my hand away from your mouth," came a low whisper in her ear, "but if you make a single sound or call for help, I will shoot you. I do not much love thieves, Madame, but I care even less for spies."

 

 

"Oh for the love of heaven, Colonel!" Kitty hissed, as the offending hand was withdrawn from her face. "Remove your pistol from my person, it prods me quite uncomfortably! And kindly do not brandish such a thing at me ever again unless you seriously intend to use it!"

Her captor abruptly dropped back, allowing the blanket in which she had been pinned to spiral downward into a loose heap about her knees. The door clicked shut behind her and she heard the scrape of a bolt being drawn.

"What are you doing here?" DeVergesse asked coldly, as she heard him fumbling about in the dark. A light flared as he struck a tinder, and within moments, several candles were blazing away cheerfully on the little table, throwing dancing shadows against the walls. Kitty scanned the room, disappointed. Though she had no clear picture of what she had expected to find in the Don's secret chamber, she was certain it should have been more fantastic than this rather mundane apartment.

The walls were hung with tapestries and several chairs and tables were scattered about. Across from her, a large six-paneled screen with painted designs blocked off a substantial portion of the room. Something that rather resembled an army camp bed was turned against one wall.

"I was going to ask you the same thing, Colonel DeVergesse," Kitty replied. "But now I think I would do better to call for the guards."

She turned her gaze to the man beside her and she saw to her shock that he was very nearly naked, wearing nothing more than a pair of underdrawers laced at the waist and paler in color than his lightly-bronzed skin. Unlike the chamber itself, the Frenchman's body would not have disappointed even a disinterested onlooker. The candlelight threw the contours of his torso into sharp-shadowed relief and he resembled nothing so much to Kitty as a time-polished marble statue of the god Mercury she had seen in Rome. A tracery of white scars marred the skin over his ribs on one side. Otherwise, the skin on his chest and stomach was smooth, excepting where a thin line of dark hair ran up from his navel to his sternum to join with a small patch of dark, curling hair that lightly covered the depression between the classically-molded muscles of his chest.

"And tell them, what? What would you tell them, these guardsmen, when they come? These are Spanish soldiers, Madame, my allies now, not yours."

He stood insolently, elbows out and fists balled on both lean hips. Despite his unabashed manner, she could see that his breast rose and fell rapidly in unison with her own rapid breathing, the only indication she had that his nerves were perhaps as disordered by this unexpected encounter as hers were. Kitty felt herself groping in the folds of her nightshift for the fan that was not there. How she would have loved to have something solid in her hand to quell her agitation.

"I should say that you dragged me up here at pistol-point and....Sir, you are practically naked! I think you should look rather the worse for being found in company with a weeping, trembling Duchess!" Kitty suddenly bit her lip, realizing that DeVergesse would, of course, reveal her true identity immediately under such circumstances. Then, after a moment's thought, she blurted, "And surely, Sir, your situation would be even more precarious if you were to have fired your pistol at my head! How would you have explained that?"

"I would simply say I had shot an intruder, Ma'am, then been truly heartbroken to discover it was Her Grace, come to pay her respects in the characteristic charming free and easy manner that undoubtedly captured the Duke. Don Massaredo would surely agree that a soldier has the right to protect his sleeping quarters from unexpected intruders."

"Sleeping quarters?" Kitty gasped. "But I thought..."

"Oui. Mais certainement. This is my bedchamber." He pulled the screen aside to reveal that a low bed with four dark wooden posts occupied the entire corner, its sheets winding and disordered, one pillow lying on the floor beside it. "Why else did you come here if not to search my belongings or attempt to commit some act of appalling violence or depravity on my person?" DeVergesse scanned her face intently, then a surprising smile of comprehension lit his face. "You are bold, Madame."

Kitty was incensed, but realized that she had no choice but to allow him to think that she had come into his room solely because she thought it was Don Massaredo's sanctum, since to confess the original purpose of her stealthy night wanderings was out of the question. "IF I had a mistaken impression as to THAT, it was entirely due to your own deceitfulness! YOU pointed at this very window when we walked in the garden!"

DeVergesse chuckled softly, "That I did, Madame."

Kitty felt her face flush hot with anger and embarrassment. "You are nothing but lies and intrigues, Colonel. Why," she snatched the pistol from the table on which he had laid it when he lit the candles, "I do not even believe this pistol is loaded. It would be quite like you to threaten me with an useless weapon."

She cocked the pistol and pointed it at him. Her hand shook slightly, but her grip was firm. DeVergesse met her gaze without flinching, never glancing downward at the barrel that was just inches from his chest. Her finger continued to tighten on the trigger as she waited for him to make some motion, some gesture, which would betray fear, but he did not. Finally, she lowered the weapon, turning its barrel away. DeVergesse took it from her gently and placed it high upon a lacquered cabinet.

"Now you shall never know, Kitten, if I am suicidal, deceitful, or if I simply doubted your resolve. Perhaps," he continued, plucking a frilled white shirt from a pile of linens in one of the chairs and slipping it over his shoulders, "I even trusted your gentleness. Here," he said, opening a wardrobe and removing one of his uniform jackets, "put this over your nightdress. As you so elegantly put it, it is not comme il faut to brandish weapons without the resolve to use them."

"Your manners, Sir, are atrocious," Kitty retorted, but she did slip into his jacket, which both engulfed her and smelled faintly of woodsmoke and horse sweat.

"Indeed, you are right. I must have forgotten them entirely to leave a lady standing so long. Please, be seated here for I have things to say to you."

"I will not!" Kitty said stoutly. "I shall return to my room at once."

DeVergesse grasped her by her shoulders and planted her firmly in the chair. "Nay, I do not think that you shall venture downstairs just yet." His grip was firm, verging on painful. "I am really becoming very annoyed with you. You do not seem to appreciate your position, Madame."

"Well, who the hell would? I protest, Sir, you cannot keep me here against my will!" Kitty exploded.

A lecture from a Frog in a gaping frilly shirt at two in the morning went considerably against Kitty's grain.

"You protest? You PROTEST?" DeVergesse mimicked sarcastically. "You are so typically English. I protest, Sir... Sir, I object...I will not have it...you and that Hornblower fellow are two of a kind. This is everything I most detest about the English. So sure that you always have the upper hand, so smug, so insufferably arrogant, God on your side and the Devil take the rest, the world in shades of black and white only, with black being all else and white being English and English alone..."

"Are you quite finished?" Kitty asked, arching a brow.

"I have scarce begun, Madame."

"That is Mademoiselle, to you, Colonel. I am a woman never married. You can take that Madame conceit and stick it up your fine Fr--,"

"Fine French Arse? So glad you noticed. Yours, then, was not a wasted journey to the third floor after all. Bien. You have considerable curiosity, Madame. Curiosity, yes, that and daring. You think to find out what it is I seek in Don Massaredo's chamber? But where has your daring gotten you?"

Kitty pouted silently.

"Madame? Most women in your position would have simply decided to cooperate to save themselves and their friends down in the prison a great deal of hardship, but not you. No, you must creep about at night trying to outfox the fox. And have ended up-where?"

"Specifically," she said nastily, "It has gotten me wrapped in a blanket and stuck in a chair in a bedchamber with a half-naked Froggy Colonel."

DeVergesse laughed softly. "Of course, some women would consider that their life fulfilled." Then his tone grew serious. "But not yourself, of course. Mademoiselle, I believe there is an English saying...something about 'curiosity' and 'the cat'. Do you know this saying?"

"Your English is too good for you to fool me that you do not know it as well as I. But I wonder, Colonel DeVergesse, how much you know of English sayings and children's stories. That saying about curiosity is no doubt no more true than the one that claims if you kiss a Frog he could turn into a Prince. I kissed a Frog tonight and he is still...just a Frog."

"Ah, yes, I know that story, for we have one very like it in France. But I believe, Mademoiselle, that the key to the transformation is that the maiden must be both pure in heart and sincere in her belief that the Frog really IS a prince. So you can hardly claim to have tested the veracity of the tale."

DeVergesse seated himself on the edge of his bed, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and palms flat on the mattress. He really is appallingly well-made, Kitty thought with resentment, eyeing his strongly-muscled calves, though of course, he is far too hairy for true refinement with all that dark, curling hair on his legs. He could never pass for an Englishman naked, that much was certain, even if he kept his sensual sarcastic taunting mouth securely shut.

But there was not much chance of THAT ever happening.

"You do not seem to perceive the reality of your situation. I have the advantage of you, and there is little you can do to alter that besides cooperate with me in the manner I have described. And to be frank, your approach lacks a certainfinesse. There is no professionalism to it."

"I do not know what you mean, Colonel. Stop speaking in riddles."

"Bien sur, you should not skulk around in the darkness of night. This is very suspicious sort of activity. A good spy, Madame, acts perfectly normally at all times, and is, if anything, more usual than most people in his habits and inclinations. To attract any sort of attention by making a spectacle of one's self is most disadvantageous to those who wish to exploit the false sense of security and entice others to let down their guard."

"Very well, Colonel. You have convinced me. I am unfit by temperament and ability to perform the task you set for me. You shall simply have to find another means to make me pay for your silence."

"No, Kitty, I do not feel that my faith in your abilities is at all misplaced in that regard."

"But I have been thinking of how the thing is to be accomplished and I do not like any of the possibilities over much."

"As have I."

"I do not see how I shall give you the key and it not be missed before you have leisure to use it."

"A very good point, and I have already thought of a solution."

"Then what is it?"

"Oh no, I shall not reveal it now for I would not wish to give you time enough to turn my plan against me. Tomorrow afternoon, that is soon enough."

"You do not trust me."

"Why should I?"

Kitty was silent, for she could not disagree. "I think it is a beastly thing to do to Don Masserado and I just want you to know that I do not esteem you for putting me into this position."

"Kitty Cobham, you do not have the slightest notion what your actual position is. And since I have never enjoyed the benefits of your esteem, I can hardly be expected to suffer from the lack of it."

"I did not give you leave to address me by my Christian name, Sir. You seek only to vex me."

"Ah, so formal and proper for a scarcely-dressed woman who is wearing my coat. But you shall need a key of your own to unlock the secrets of Don Massaredo's heart, and I have thought of what form that key might take. A good agent, Mademoiselle, does not go into a dangerous situation without a way in and a way out. Here," he removed a book from the disordered coverlets and handed it to her. "This is Don Quixote. It is a story about a man who jousts with windmills."

Kitty flipped through it. "It is written in Spanish."

"Precisely. How much do you know about our host?"

"Very little, but that he is a kind man, for a jailer."

"He is very proud to be a Spaniard. He fought in the Americas as a young man, did you know that? He was wounded there, and that is why he limps. He had two sons, both lost in battle before they gave him any grandchildren. His wife has been dead for many years. All he has left is his pride, his home, his treasures, and Spain. But Spain is now an ally of France, and though he is a dutiful soldier, this diminishes his country in his own eyes. In days past, Spain did not need to seek alliance with any nation to ensure the security of its borders and trade."

Kitty felt her eyes prickle and grow damp with unshed tears as DeVergesse's words conjured up this unexpectedly poignant image of Don Massaredo.

"Then, why do you not see that I cannot steal from him?"

"Madamoiselle, he jousts with windmills. He has no sons, no heirs. His walls may keep a great treasure safe for now, but what shall happen to it when he dies? El Ferrol is a desirable anchorage. It would not surprise me if this town were one day soon under British siege. What then? Would you have these things lost blown into a thousand pieces, their beauty unknown to all who come after?" He leaned forward and brushed the dampness from corner of her eye with a gently probing finger. "The world changes so quickly around us, Mademoiselle Cobham, and I, at least, recognize that time will not stand still, no, not even here in El Ferrol. With or without your help, I will find what I seek. I am a very determined man, but I will always choose the best weapon to hand. Save yourself, and your friends, by doing as I command. Don Masseredo will come to no lasting harm, I assure you. This book, this is your key."

"And you will not even tell me what it is that you are so eager to find?"

"Remember what I said about curiosity? Madame, if you were to see it I doubt you should even know it for the priceless treasure that it is. You have more dash than most, but a singular lack of discernment. Else you would not be here," he added, quite cruelly in Kitty's opinion. "Sir John Morris, pah! Would that the entire British Navy were commanded by such men. For if it were, I would be looting Scotland by now and.... "

Suddenly, the whole door shuddered as something crashed against it. There came a heavy knocking and in muffled, slurred French "Colonel, it is Guillame, open up!."

"Zut! Mon dieu!" DeVergesse sprang to his feet. "Be quiet, you lout! I am coming."

"Who is that?" Kitty whispered, as the knocking came louder.

"Mon aide-de-camp. Vite! He must not know you are here, it would be very bad for you. He is not discreet." DeVergesse shoved Kitty onto his bed, then drew the screen across the bed to cover it. "I am coming, for the love of Jesus! You wake the entire Hacienda!" And there were indeed muffled curses erupting from the rooms on the other side of the door.

Kitty heard the door unlatch, the bolt withdrawn, and heavy boot steps entered the room. The two men conversed in French, which she followed as best she could, though she did not understand all of the conversation, which was carried out in some form of patois.

"What a fiesta!" the newcomer groaned. "Too much ____. "

"You are late back. All returned several hours ago but you. Were you with the girl?"

"Non. Non. Well, at first I was, much earlier in the evening, but afterwards...I was hiding outside the village."

"Pourquoi?"

"Some ______, ________ fisherman tried to take my ______head off with a gaff, that is why! It seems he objected to the attentions I was paying to his fiancee," he groaned. "How was your evening, mon capitan? Less dangerous than mine no doubt. Did you get into that Duchess's sk--?"

"We reached an understanding," DeVergesse inserted quickly.

"I want to see her," his companion belched slightly. "The Don's men said she was quite a pretty piece for a woman that old."

"They spoke true." There was a scraping sound and then some creaking. "Guilliame, I want to start early tomorrow with the prisoners. I think we should begin by tossing their quarters and searching them all at first light."

"Still looking for letters and dispatches?" the newcomer slurred.

"There should have been some on Le Reve, and I mean to find out what happened to them." DeVergesse said calmly, as he blew the candles out one by one. "But regardless, I feel a really rousing search would set the proper tone for the rest of the day."

"Ymph," Guilliame agreed, lapsing into snores between words. "I...love a good...search."

"Quiet. You are a drunken idiot and I do not want to talk to you right now. As your commanding officer, I order you to sleep." For several minutes, Kitty and DeVergesse held their mutual places in the darkness in perfect stillness, though Kitty was surprised that the newcomer could not hear the hammering of her heart. Then she felt DeVergesse's weight pressing down on the mattress as he put one knee on the bed, reaching for her in the darkness.

"Come," DeVergesse murmured, as found Kitty's hand. Slowly, he pulled her to him so that her feet swung over the edge of his bed, finding the floor between his own. With both hands in his to steady herself, she rose to her feet, and before she quite knew what was happening, she found herself pressed full against him, both of her palms flat against the warm skin of his chest and his arms around her. He cupped the base of her head in one hand, whispering "shh...shh....", and then brought his mouth to hers, kissing her upper lip softly and then drawing her even tighter into an embrace as he caressed the length of her back. Then he released her, and she allowed herself to be drawn dizzily around the screen and towards the door as the uniform jacket was taken from around her shoulders. "That, Madame, is how to kiss a Frog," he whispered at the door.

"I despise you," she whispered, and in a sense, it was true. For at the mention of the prisoners she was reminded that she would have to face Lt. Hornblower in just a few hours, and what was he to think? This man had taken her comfortable identity from her, and undoubtedly lost her the respect of the one man whose friendship she had come to value highly.

"Are you going out?" the man in the cot shifted abruptly. "I heard the door."

"I am just putting out the cat," DeVergesse replied, as with a little shove, Kitty was ejected into the atrium. She paused a moment to listen through the door as it had been left slightly ajar behind her.

"Etienne, we do not have a cat..." the stranger mumbled into his blankets. "When did we get a cat?"

"You know how it is with cats, Guilliame. They just wander in from the street and expect to be treated like nobility."

"Are we keeping this one?"

"Non, probably not. It did not want to stay."