Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
Disclaimer: These characters were inspired by the performances of Cheri Lunghi as Kitty Cobham/Duchess of Wharfedale, Ronald Pickup as Don Masserado, Jean-Yves Berteloot as Col. Etienne De Vergesse, and A&E's other characters from Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and The Devil. I dunno about these bits, but it seems I needed to do more cheesy setting-up before I launch into the cheesy denouement. Or should I say "Le Denouemont due Fromage". Yeah. That sounds better.
Dang. Now I'm hungry. Where did I leave that éclair?
The morning sun fell harsh and painful on Etienne DeVergesse's sleep-swollen eyelids. His first instinct was to turn over and scrub his face irritably back down into the nest of small cushions and blankets he had haphazardly created as the by-product of a disturbed sleep. This small pleasure was denied to him, as his creeping recollection of impending duty coincided with the sound of a ceramic cup hitting his bedstand with unmistakable impatience.
"Colonel, wake up," Guilliame said. "I have brought you this oily brown liquid, which the kitchen assures me passes for coffee in Spain."
"How can I resist such temptation?" DeVergesse shoved himself up on his elbows and reached for the pungent brown muck. "Phaugh!" he exclaimed with a grimace, as its acerbic bite assaulted his tongue. "What time is it? The sun is high, I have surely overslept." Disdainfully replacing the coffee on the stand, he swung his feet to the floor, dislodging the last of the disordered bedding so that it tumbled to the floor.
"Restless night?" his aide-de-camp asked. "Thought as much, so I did not wake you."
DeVergesse grunted assent and dressed quickly, donning the discarded uniform of the previous night. It had never ceased to amaze him that Guilliame could stumble back to their shared quarters nearly insensate from some late night debauch, then spring from his cot the next morning as serenely cheerful as if he had spent the previous day and evening in monklike continence. Youth, he thought bitterly. I used to be just like him.
"The search...?" he began.
"Already taken care of!" Guilliame explained with enthusiasm. "It was pure pleasure decanting the English pigdogs from their wretched beds onto the filthy dirt floors at first light." Noting his superior officer's air of expectation, he shrugged and shook his head. "We found nothing of interest, but I think I can promise you at least that certain of these prisoners will amuse. They have spirit, these limey bastards, though most of them of course are just rabble from the streets."
A shaft of light caught the young Frenchman at such an angle that it threw a rather large, bruised lump on his temple into sharp relief.
"As to that, I defer to your expertise. You of all of men should be able to spot rabble at twenty paces out, Giulliame. Did a prisoner do that?" he asked, with a pointed look at Guilliame's head.
"Non. Non. Far from it. That was the affianced of the Duchess's ladies maid, with a large gaff-a most impressive weapon for all its true purpose being the dragging aboard of large fish. Apparently, he was under the mistaken impression that I am a shark and his woman required rescuing."
"Well, cover it up! It seems to be swelling and should be bandaged." DeVergesse griped. Then curiosity overcame disinterest, "Did she?"
"If one takes into account the bottle she threw at his head when he came after me, I do not believe she thought so at the time, but who knows what persuasion was brought to bear once I made my excuses and left the scene."
As he chatted breezily about his near-seduction of Senorita Conchita, the young officer applied himself to the tidying of their quarters. The travel-stained uniform coat that DeVergesse had flung to Kitty the previous night evidently puzzled him by its reappearance from the wardrobe in which he had placed it after their arrival at El Ferrol, but he asked no questions. Guilliame had been in DeVergesse's service for three years, and had risen from a groom in the Colonel's stables to become DeVergesse's own chosen, commissioned Aide-de-Camp. DeVergesse was alternately amused and exasperated by his combination of high spirits and utter lack of morals where females were concerned, but there was no question the man was an energetic and efficient attendant. His natural duplicity had also proven useful.
Guilliame turned his attention to straightening his master's bedsheets. With a scarcely suppressed snort, he plucked several long, wavy brown hairs from the sheets.
"Cat hair?" he asked slyly. "Must be a foreign kind. J'regret I did not get to pet this cat."
"Complain to the laundry," DeVergesse snapped. "I am certain long hair is not uncommon among the women do Don Massaredo's washing. But since you are so very sharp-eyed, Guilliame, it would please me more if you could find those dispatches. I cannot believe our intelligence is faulty in that regard. Monsieur Tallyrand went through a great deal of trouble to compromise Gibralter." The concept that they chose to send such sensitive documents in the care of a raw youth like Hornblower, and in an unarmed vessel as well, still astonished him. Perhaps there was more to Acting Lieutenant Hornblower than met the eye.
He was alive to the possibility of disinformation, but the only way one could know for sure was to actually hold the documents in one's hands. Better in that case that he found them before they made their way into the hands of some of his more enthusiastic colleagues.
Perhaps it was Kitty Cobham herself who was the courier. DeVergesse pulled his boots on and straightened the ribbon that bound his queue. Dipping his hands in water from the basin, he smoothed cold water over his face and through the short curls that framed his face, effectively hiding a grimace of distaste from Guilliame. He had not enjoyed setting traps for Miss Cobham, but if they worked then he would soon be out of this godforsaken Spanish backwater and on the next ship to Lisbon.
"Ici, voila. I have made one alteration to the list." Guilliame handed him a sheet of paper on which was written an orderly column of names. "I have scheduled Mr. Hornblower's second in command and three of his crew to be interrogated while Mr. Hornblower is taking his morning promenade with Her Grace."
DeVergesse's breath caught and he flinched inadvertently. The possibility that Kitty might have private speech with the young officer prior to his interrogation had not occurred to him. "I thought they walked in the afternoon."
"Not today. So I thought that it would be best to interrogate the rest before Hornblower returns. "
"Yes. Yes, of course. Are you certain that they shall meet this morning?" After last night, he thought, it would be surprising if Hornblower would wish much to do with Kitty Cobham, unless they indeed shared some conspiracy which transcended any more personal relationship between the two. Though once Madame Cobham brought her powers of persuasion to bear, there might be considerable rapprochement. DeVergesse found the very idea of reconciliation between the two English prisoners irrationally disagreeable.
"Oh, mais oui, Colonel. I have verified this already. I do not think Hornblower knows he is shortly to be engaged, but I saw Her Grace making her way to their usual meeting place, dressed for walking."
DeVergesse groaned, "It would take a more experienced man than Hornblower to resist that very determined lady. Bien, I am ready to see these English prisoners. I find I am rather out of temper now and so a rousing interrogation or two appeals to me quite a lot."
"Poor devils," Guilliame laughed.
"And bandage your head!"
"Certainement," Guilliame said affably, rummaging through his kit. "Ah, just the thing."
DeVergesse stared intently at the silky looking strip of pale cream-colored fabric that Guilliame tied tightly around his temple. A bit of lace hung rakishly down to almost cover one eye. That looks rather familiar, he thought, but he could not seem to place it. Shaking his head in bemusement, he ordered Guilliame to lock the door to their chamber behind them.
"Ou la la," Guilliame crowed. "I am now, perhaps, too fine for these filthy limeys."
"Quiet, Guilliame. It is time to go to work." And I shall need my wits about me today, he mused, for I fear there is more than one way to gaff a Frog.
It had been a difficult awakening for Kitty as well. Exhaustion had settled in her joints and she ached vaguely in an unfamiliar way. She had not returned to her bed after her unceremonious ejection from the third floor guest quarters. Enormously relieved that the Frenchman had not insisted on escorting her to her door, she had instead found her way into Don Massaredo's study and palmed the objects of her original quest, then fled silently back to her own room. The copy of Don Quixote had already proven its utility as a hiding place for pilfered parchment and foolscap, pressed flat between the pages of the thick volume. An initial test of her copy of the Admiralty seal had proven so satisfactory in its resemblance to those she still carried hidden in her petticoats that the thrill of anticipation that tomorrow she might finally open and read the dispatches kept her awake for an hour more. Or perhaps, she admitted grudgingly, it was the lingering effects of the Colonel's kiss.
Bugger him, she had decided as she finally allowed exhaustion and mental fatigue to overwhelm her, pulling her down into a comforting dark well of insensibility. I have no affection for this Frog. None whatsoever. But I would be dishonest to myself if I did not allow that he shows an understanding of the way to kiss and caress a woman that is rare among my own countrymen. And this, she fretted, this is one of the many-the MANY--despicable things about him. How dare he make me feel this way when he can offer me nothing in return but peril? It is most ungentlemanly behavior.
The first sight that greeted her upon awakening, however, was Conchita bringing her a breakfast tray. As the only female in the prison, Kitty took her breakfast alone in her quarters attended by her maid, who generally prepared 'Her Grace's' gowns for the day and offered amateurish assistance with her hair and toilette. Kitty was unprepared, however, for Conchita's appearance. The young woman sported a deep red bruise around her left eye, which would surely turn purple in the near future, a scrape on her chin, and a look of utter bliss.
"Conchita! What on earth has happened to you, poor girl?" She took Conchita's hand and sat her on the corner of the bed. Gently, Kitty explored the damage to her face with a cloth soaked in cold water from the basin. Probing carefully, she was relieved to find no evidence of bone damage around Conchita's tender eye socket. The girl's looks should suffer no permanent alteration.
"Oh, Senora...you should have been there!" Conchita chattered. "There is a French soldier, so tall and handsome like a prince from a story come to life! And he was very attentive to me! Senora La Duchesa, you MUST see him for yourself! And he is very charming. And he wants to meet you very much. He asked so many questions about you. I am quite important in the village now that I am maid to a Duchesa!" She hugged herself tightly, shivering with remembered pleasure. "You have never seen a more beautiful man."
"Did he do this to your face, little one?" Kitty asked, outraged by the very thought that this Frog might have taken advantage of her maid's simple, trusting nature. "Conchita, you must never allow any man to strike you! They shall only do it again and again."
"No! Not the French soldier. It was 'Nando, the BASTARD!" she spat into the basin. "He caught us just talking and dancing-me and Guillaime-at the fiesta, and he and his stupid friends from the wharf decided to wait for Guilliame outside the tent and try to kill him. Idiots! These French are our allies now."
"But Conchita, what of your engagement?"
"You are right, Senora, in what you just said. I cannot be with a man who would hit me and who does not trust me, even if I do not deserve his trust he should trust me all the same. I shall not marry 'Nando after last night." She stood, looking into the mirror, gingerly feeling her swollen eye. "Guilliame, he says I am pretty as any woman in Paris and I should not stay here in this small town which smells of fish and prison garbage."
"This is your home," Kitty reminded her.
"Oh Senora!" She flung herself at Kitty's feet. "You must take me with you when you leave! I cannot stay here. I want to see London, Paris, all the great cities! I will work hard, I promise. Would you please try to convince Don Massaredo to grant me a passage home with you? One day, Guilliame says, there will be peace again between England and France and we can go to Paris! Paris! Think of it!"
"I have thought of it," Kitty murmured, stroking the young woman's long, thick coils of hair. "But Conchita, I do not think I can offer you exactly the life you think."
"Any life is better than this one. 'Nando, he might kill me someday. He is very jealous, this man. And I humiliated him in front of his amigos, breaking a wine bottle over his head."
"No! Surely not!"
"Si, Senora. I did." She spat again. "I do not know how I ever thought I loved him. He smells like tuna and has the manners of a pig."
"But what of your father, Conchita? He would not wish you to go to England, perhaps never to see you again."
In answer, Conchita swept one of Kitty's pearl and garnet earrings from the dressing table. "For the price of ONE of these--just one-he would sell me to you and congratulate himself on making a sharp bargain! You do not know what life has been like for me here in El Ferrol, crushed every day under my father's boot and then engaged to Fernando with no more romance than if my father had made for 'Nando another new fishing boat and taken 'Nando's money in return. Until you came," she sighed, "I knew of no other life, but now I have seen myself in your mirror with my hair worn up high as you showed me, Senora la Duchesa, and I think I can do better than 'Nando and stinking El Ferrol."
"This Frenchman...what is his name? Guilliame? He did not stay to protect you from 'Nando. That shows cowardice. I think you should forget him. He is no better."
"Oh, no, Senora. You do not understand. Guilliame did not see 'Nando strike me. He only knew that 'Nando was my affianced. But I had not told him, this, which is very bad of me though I hope to be forgiven. Once he had learned that I was not free to be courted, and he had been hit by 'Nando with the fish gaffer several times, he naturally left us alone together. After Guilliame left, that is when 'Nando hit me." Her brows knit and her softly-rounded jaw set stubbornly. "Senor Guilliame, he is an officer already and will be a gentleman someday soon. He is aide to that Colonel who was at Don Massaredo's table with you last night. The soldiers all say that Colonel is an educated man with much property."
Bloody wonderful, Kitty thought, remembering "Guilliame" the future 'Gentleman' stumbling DeVergesse's darkened bedroom and listening to his coarse discourse as she crouched motionless in DeVergesse's bed behind the painted screen. Kitty felt torn between wanting to protect this girl and a growing realization that her fixation on DeVergesse's aide-de-camp could be very useful in combating the schemes of that Froggy Colonel.
"I think," Conchita's tone became confiding, "that the Colonel himself is very intrigued with you, Senora! Do you know what Guilliame asked me?"
"What?" Kitty sighed, feeling terribly besieged.
"He asked me if you had a lover here at El Ferrol. He said that a widowed lady as handsome as you are said to be would surely have a suitor. Or maybe several! He teased me that I might help you keep mementos and love letters hidden in your room." The Spanish girl giggled, her hand over her mouth. "I told him no, you are too respectable. But I think he is sweet to consider you not too old for lovers."
Kitty was so startled by Guilliame's question that she did not even indulge herself in a moment of pique over yet another jibe about her age. An idea which had been fuzzy in the wee, small hours of the morning crystallized into sharp-edged focus. But was that the right thing to do? And would it not be worth the sacrifice of one foolish girl to end this plague of Frogs?
"Do you know what I think, Senora La Duchesa? I think that that Colonel DeVergesse is jealous of Don Massaredo! For what other man here is rich and important enough to be your lover?"
Kitty feigned appreciative laughter, second nature to her after so many years on the stage, but her thoughts churned in another direction entirely. Somehow, she realized, she had acquired a vain Spanish village girl with a bad case of heroine-worship, and there seemed little she could do but make what use she could of this dubious windfall, then attempt to give the child a fresh start somewhere else. Perhaps Lisbon would satisfy Conchita's desire for city life.
"Very well," she soothed. "I shall speak with Don Massaredo. I had intended to speak with him this morning on another matter but I will ask him if I may approach your father through him."
The Spanish girl clasped her hands in delight! "That would be so kind of you, Senora. Now I shall clean your room so very well and care for all your clothes. You shall see what a good worker I can be for you."
"Then please put out my walking dress with the little dark red flowers." Kitty hurriedly grabbed her petticoats herself and shoved it on. The girl was rifling through Kitty's cases and drawers as if she were determined to examine every one of Kitty's by-now-familiar possessions.
Conchita frowned in puzzlement as she exhumed the contents of a small drawer. "Have you ruined a stocking, Senora?" Kitty shook her head. "Ah, I am a careless girl sometimes. Perhaps I misplace it. Do not worry, Senora, I shall find it."
She is such a lovely, lovely woman, even if she does appear tired with those veins rimming her eyes with blue. Such beautiful skin these Englishwomen have, Don Massaredo thought, it is pale and translucent like skimmed milk. How I should enjoy the feel of it. He rested his own sun-hardened cheek in the palm of one hand grown horny and callused from many years of reining the hardy Spanish mustangs he favored for his own stable. Hardy and tough, not beautiful, but the pride of Spain. He imagined his fingers stroking Her Grace's smooth, lightly-powdered cheek and the contrast did not displease him. That is as it should be, between a man and a woman.
"Senora La Duchesa, I see you have something on your mind."
"I do indeed, Your Excellency. I do indeed." Her Grace stood before his desk dressed in a simple frock and carrying a straw bonnet. "It strikes me ill that I always seem to be asking you for favors, but here I am again to ask your indulgence."
"Your Grace can ask." Don Massaredo averred. "If it is within the power of a Spanish gentleman to grant, it may please me to do so."
"Well, two things Your Excellency. First, I would like to take my exercise this morning, with Mr. Hornblower, if it pleases Your Excellency."
"May I ask why?"
"Because I wish to complete Mr. 'Aitch's instruction. Don Massaredo, I do not trust Colonel DeVergesse and I fear now that these prisoners will never be exchanged. I hope to convince Mr. 'Aitch to address the Colonel with a bit more diplomacy and tact."
"The Colonel DeVergesse upset Your Grace last night at dinner. Now, now," Don Massaredo waved his hand in a gesture that broached no argument, "I could tell."
"Well, yes, he did upset me," she blushed. "I was quite undone by him. Clearly, he thought me someone else that he knew years ago. I suppose it was an honest mistake. They say there is an actress in London who could be my sister we are so very like."
"I did not care for his manner. I think he was teasing you."
"I think he was just stirring the pot," the Duchess replied tartly. "But no matter, Your Excellency, no matter what my opinion of this man is, I must do my duty by my countrymen."
"Quite right, Your Grace. And the second thing?"
"Oh, I am almost embarrassed to ask it of Your Excellency," she stood still, biting her lip in agitation. "It is just...just..." she blushed again. "You will think me very foolish."
"Come now," Don Massaredo murmured. "I do not think that I shall."
"I-, I feel so IGNORANT at times when I am with people who are truly learned. I so want to improve my mind. Don Massaredo, I have enough Spanish to get by in conversation, but I am trying to read a novel and I confess I cannot understand it."
"What novel is it, Your Grace."
"Don Quixote De La Mancha," she replied.
The Don's eyes widened in appreciation and he was unable to suppress a broad smile. "But that is one of my very favorite books, Your Grace. I would be delighted to instruct you."
"Oh, Your Excellency! You are always so kind! And I love my little maid, too. I should so love to keep her. What a precious girl she is and so very good with my dresses, as you can see!"
She fairly flew around the desk and grasped his hand, bringing it to her cheek then kissing it. He felt a stab of bright savage joy from having given her such pleasure.
"Perhaps you can, Your Grace. I shall speak with her father and see if he will not allow her to stay in your service a little longer. And as for your, ah, lesson..."
"Tonight, then? After dinner?"
"Your servant, Your Grace." Don Massaredo replied. Well, he thought happily, what else could I be?
Saturday, 9:15 am-The Prison Block
"State your name, rank, and age," Colonel DeVergesse said blandly. He did not look up from a sheaf of papers spread across the desk in the sparsely-furnished guardmen's office. He was glad to have the use of this spare little room, for it suited his purposes very well. The mid-morning late spring sunlight shone harsh and bright through the small, barred rectangular window directly over his head, falling full in the face of the prisoner before him. DeVergesse's own face was drenched in shadows, framed by an aureole of backlit short black curls tipped with silver from the pale morning sun.
The prisoner shuffled to regain his balance, having been thrust roughly through the door with his hands bound behind him. He spit on the floor defiantly.
"Untie him, Guilliame. He looks harmless enough." DeVergesse's brief glance up at the prisoner had revealed a compact little man with the weatherbeaten, suntanned face of a longtime sailor. Lank, wispy pale blond hair clung damply to a balding pate. His eyes were pale blue and brimmed with hostility and wariness, but no real intelligence shone through the disappointed lines of his face.
"State your name, rank, and age." DeVergesse repeated. "Now, if you please."
The little man still refused to answer, lower jaw pushed out in defiance. "I don't have to tell you anything, you Frog."
"Guilliame," DeVergesse said tiredly, pulling open a drawer in the desk and taking out a stonemason's hammer, "smash his left knee, then his right." Removing his pistol from his belt and cocking it, he trained it on the prisoner.
"Bien," Guilliame chortled, "I am so dreadfully out of practice, Colonel. Remember last time when it took me three attempts to hit the kneecap just so?"
"Hunter, Midshipman, HMS Indefatigable, 39 years old," the man said quickly, then spat again on the dirt floor.
"Quel dommage," the aide-de-camp sighed. "Again, the disappointment. And I had such high hopes for this sour little turd."
"Huntah." DeVergesse framed it as a statement. He sat very silently for a few minutes, staring the man down. Hunter began to fidget, shifting his weight almost imperceptibly from one foot to the other. "I am Colonel DeVergesse of the Army of the Republic of France. Let me explain your situation. You are entirely in my hands and at my mercy. I can exchange you for a French or Spanish prisoner and thereby send you back into service, or I can have you separated from your mates and sent deep into prison in France if I decide to call you an escape risk. I can even shoot you and say that you threatened me and nothing will happen to me at all in consequence. Is this clear?"
The Englishman flinched; an imperceptible nod followed.
"Very good, now do you have any idea why I am here at El Ferrol?"
"None. Except to search our quarters for something, which we've got nothing as your man could see. Dagos took everything from us but the clothes we were wearing when they captured our ship."
"As well they should have. Also, you will also address me as "Sir". I am here to make a report about you most interesting prisoners, and this report might lead to a prisoner exchange. You are famous men, Mr. Hunter."
"Sure you are. Front page news in Paris, for la comedie if for nothing else. A million Frenchmen laugh at you over their café au lait, Mr. Hunter. The unarmed ship who sailed into the middle of the Spanish Fleet, under the command of a boy captain who made you all dress as Frenchmen. Risible." DeVergesse scrutinized Hunter's face, seeing disgust where pride might have been. "As if any of you rabble would be a plausible Frenchman. But, he plays the rules of war rather fast and loose. I see you agree with me."
"I don't rightly--."
"You would not have done such a thing, would you, Mr. Hunter? Hmm? No. I do not see that in you. You prefer a more frontal assault, everything out in the open, face to face, a direct boarding action, a clean surrender. Now," DeVergesse continued, wagging a reproving finger, "do not deny it."
"Very well, Sir, have it your way," the little man replied. "Those were good enough tactics for my last Captain."
"Captain Torbush, Sir."
"The late Captain Torbush? Memento mori. May he rest in peace. Guilliame, please give the prisoner a chair, then kindly wait outside until I summon you." Once the door had clicked shut behind his aide, DeVergesse continued crisply, "Do you have any special skills, Mr. Hunter. Anything that would make you particularly valuable to the Admiralty?"
Hunter took a deep breath and the crease between his sparse eyebrows deepened, then the hint of an unpleasant little smile crept into his sallow countenance. "Navigation, sir. Navigation."
DeVergesse chuckled softly at this. "I see. So you blame Mr. Hornblower for your present predicament. I expect you gave him your sound advice, but he would not take it, is that how it was? Still, he has not fared so very badly here, has he? Pleased to be in company with Her Grace, The Duchess of Wharfedale? Dining at Don Massaredo's table and strolling about the streets of El Ferrol, engaged in flirtation with an attractive woman?"
Hunter shifted uncomfortably. "I'm the King's Man, Sir. I won't speak ill of my commanding officer, not to no Frog."
"But you ARE experienced. Experienced enough to warrant the respectful attention of a man of much fewer years in service. Would you say that you have devoted many years at sea to the study of Navigation?"
"That is true enough."
"And the sick man, Kennedy. Did you know him?"
"No, but I heard of him. That one was talked about."
"Not with admiration."
"No sir. Except by Hornblower and Matthews. Soft-hearted, that's what they are. "
DeVergesse glanced back at his notes.
"Thirty-nine. I am also thirty-nine, Mr. Hunter. That is quite old for a Midshipman, I believe. You must be very disappointed to see a man as young as Mr. Hornblower promoted to Acting Lieutenant, given the command of Le Reve, and then have to obey his orders to sail her straight into captivity and prison."
"Well, I-, I have had some ill luck. But I am the King's man and no arse-licker, unlike some."
"Some you could name, but dare not. Mr. Hunter, have you ever tried a Pomegranate?" DeVergesse, noticing the man's frequent darting looks towards the bowl of fruit he had placed on the desktop, pushed it towards him, indicating he should take one.
"Bloody HELL, not more fruit! I HATE fruit!" Hunter hissed. "I don't bleedin' want bally, thrice-damned fruit." He grabbed a pomegranate, and threw it hard against the wall behind DeVergesse where it splattered into an irregular, lumpen red blotch that ran down the walls. He then commenced to take each of the remaining fruits one by one from the bowl and stomp them into the dirt floor, punctuating his outburst with wet explosions. "It's English Beef I want and English BEER!"
DeVergesse leaned back in his chair and watched this display dispassionately, but with a great deal of private amusement. "Mistah Huntah, you are pathetic. I believe you would betray your Commanding Officer for a bland, gray, greasy, overcooked, rubbery, underseasoned boiled English chop. Well, luckily for Mr. Hornblower, some forms of torture are too horrible to contemplate, even for one such as I."
The man finally looked up at him from the mess he had made on the floor, and the furious fire in his troubled blue eyes damped down quickly into sly cunning.
"No exchange for me, then, eh? Well, I don't need a jumped-up Frog's help to get me out of this hole. Who couldn't make Colonel in YOUR army by 39? Way I hear it, there's what you might call a lot of attrition at the top." Hunter made a chopping motion to the back of his neck.
"Calm yourself, Mr. Hunter. I am finished with you. Guilliame, get him out of here-the very thought of English beef has made me feel quite ill."
Guilliame returned a few minutes later. "Well?"
DeVergesse rested his chin on his fingertips. "You know, IF I actually do end up submitting this report I believe that unpleasant little weasel will be at the top of my list. Our side would be well-served by putting," he flattened his tone in a precise imitation of the little Englishman's manner of speech, "Mistah Huntah back into service at the earliest opportunity. Who is next?"
"Oldroyd, mon capitan. You are going to love this guy."
Saturday, 9 AM-The Exercise Yard
Kitty leaned up against one of the columns that rimmed the courtyard where the prisoners took their exercise at El Ferrol, trying to relax her tense back muscles against the sun-warmed stone. In the light of mid-morning, she knew her face would look pale and the small lines around her eyes would show clearly how little sleep she had had the previous evening. Only her thick chestnut hair, blowing disordered and tousled around her face as the breeze worked it free from the ribbon she had loosely wound through it, made her feel at all girlish enough to captivate a youth like Mr. 'Aitch. Her stomach knotted with anxiety. It had been nearly half an hour since she had sent the Don's guardsman to inform Hornblower that Her Grace's pleasure depended up on his accompanying her on a morning promenade along the white sands that lined the ocean between El Ferrol and La Corunna.
All that Kitty knew was that it was important to her that he be made to understand her actions of the previous evening, and that she somehow in so doing would regain his respect and trust. She remembered the hot anger in his eyes and icy sarcasm in his voice as he accused her of lying like the memory of a painful blow. And yet, she knew her own conduct had been flippant in response. He simply must appear, she thought. I need a friend here so very badly.
And with that thought, he did appear from between the stucco, shying from her gaze like a young roe buck. Twitchily nervous and glowering with resentment, he came towards her.
"What do you want?"
Kitty drew in a sharp breath. This was going to be difficult, after all. "Your lack of civility does you no credit, sir," she scolded in her very best governess tone of voice.
Horatio approached her edgily, crossing in front of her, still unwilling to meet her eye. "How was your...friend, Colonel DeVergesse?"
"He is not a friend," Kitty retorted, exasperation evident.
"You were more than friendly," Horatio growled softly through clenched teeth.
"I did what was necessary to preserve my alias," she replied in a reassuring tone.
"It is lucky for you that you had such a valuable bargaining card to hand," Horatio spit back.
So that is how it always is, Kitty thought. He has leaped to the obvious conclusion and sadly, that is the conclusion that is most convenient for me. She toyed briefly with the idea of telling him everything, about Don Massaredo, his so-called Secret Chamber, and DeVergesse's threat to send both of them to France to be tried as spies if she did not steal Don Massaredo's key. But of course, she knew Mr. Hornblower's sense of honor would not allow him to countenance such a course of action on her part. But to part her legs for a French Colonel? That, he could be made to understand. Men!
She carefully pulled up her dress to expose her petticoats, where the dispatches still lay securely in her petticoats. Horatio's relief was palpable.
"You still have them."
"Clearly," Kitty replied sarcastically. "You were lucky last night I had another card to play. At least, it bought his silence."
"But how could you? How?" Horatio's face was close to hers now as he whispered the fervent question, and she could feel his breath ruffle her hair. He smelled like sun-warmed wool and a young man's own pleasantly musky scent beneath the rancid aroma of the cheap lye soap they provided to the prisoners to wash in. She looked into his large brown eyes and saw in them no worldliness about this subject, no hint of insinuation. To him, she was a maiden and therefore to have opened herself to a man like DeVergesse could only be the most hideous violation of every womanly sensibility she possessed. Oh, my dear sweet silly boy, Kitty thought, if you only knew how easy it would have been if not for your blasted dispatches, and how much more perilous and dishonorable the bargain I was forced to make instead. It is time you began to get a glimpse of what sort of woman I really am.
"What is it to you?" she teased, raising and lowering her eyes flirtatiously. "Are you jealous?"
Horatio gulped, trying to camouflage his discomfort with a cough.
"You completely misunderstand me. If I had resisted DeVergesse, he would announce my secret, which would lead to my arrest as a spy and the discovery of your precious dispatches. So, I sacrificed some small, insignificant things, such as my pride and my self-respect."
Kitty saw the disgust plainly written in his eyes. There is more than one way to sacrifice your pride and your self-respect, my young friend, she thought. Throwing yourself at the enemy with your breasts hanging out, then pushing him away like a well-coached 17 year-old parlour slut trying to snag a rich husband, then finally agreeing to help him steal something of great value from one of the few men who has treated you with unfailing courtesy and respect throughout your disreputable, debauched existence....well, that would just about do it. And then, just in case you still had some shreds of pride left, you could always sneak into his bedroom under the mistaken impression it was a bloody secret chamber, be captured at pistol point, and then receive a lecture on the correct modes of spying from a Frog in his underwear.
But no matter. She could tell her account had found fertile ground in young Hornblower's imagination, and his manner was already softening towards him.
"Your Grace-Miss Cobham, I'm sorry. I spoke hastily. But had you told me at first..."
"Would you have given me passage? Would you have entrusted His Majesty's secrets to an actress?"
Horatio's gaze shifted guiltily and again, he swallowed several times, moistening his lips before he began, "Please....I would have been...honored, to have you on board my ship, whether you were the Duchess of Wharfedale, or Kitty Cobham, or any woman seeking refuge. But the dispatches? No." He shook his head.
"Now that I know you, I would be grateful if you would keep them for me." His finely-chiseled jaw raised proudly as he said this, pleased to once again offer gallantry instead of censure.
"Wha'?" she cawed in her best Duchess of Wharfedale northern commoner accent, "You expect me to cahrt the damn t'ings around in me underwear again?!"
Horatio laughed, his brilliant smile creasing his thin, pale cheeks with deep dimples, "If Your Grace would be so kind." He made a stiff little bow and she knew she was forgiven.
"Thank you, Horatio." And indicating he should give her his arm, she tossed her head in a spirited invitation to depart the depressing prison and join her on their accustomed walk. It was indeed time to resume his instruction, for Kitty did know a thing or two she had not yet succeeded in sharing with him, and his suspicions about what had passed between her and DeVergesse would provide the ideal opening. But so sunny was her mood and so great her relief at Hornblower's magnanimity that not even the sour, resentful face of Mr. Hunter glimpsed against the bars of his cell as they passed could dampen her spirits.
Saturday, 10:15 am
"You are Mr. Oldroyd?"
DeVergesse swept him with a coldly appraising gaze. He was a tall, well-made young fellow with the hair of a Botticelli angel, a pinkish complexion helped little by a salmon-colored neckerchief, and a look of complete and utter doltishness in his sky-blue eyes. Slack-jawed and staring, fingers searching reflexively beneath his broad leather belt for a pistol that wasn't there, the fellow appeared to be at something of a loss as to how to deal with a Frenchman without a weapon to hand.
"You ARE Mr. Oldroyd?" he repeated.
"Yeah. Oi reckon."
"This is Oldroyd?" DeVergesse asked his aide. "I was expecting someone sentient."
"Dey' sent me in ta' see you, ya' Frog, din't dey?."
"Isn't he supposed to be speaking English? What the hell kind of name is Oldroyd anyway, Guilliame?"
Guilliame looked down at his list with furrowed brow, and licked the tip of a pencil. "It is Oldroyd's name, Sir."
"Hey, wha's that red stuff?" Oldroyd was staring at the red stain on the wall.
"I was obliged to smash Mr. Hunter's head against the wall several times to convince him to help us with our inquiries. Those are some of his brains. You were clever to notice that."
"'Cor!" Oldroyd looked impressed. But he grinned with goulish satisfaction, pleased with his powers of observation.
"Let's get this over with, shall we? Oldroyd, why are you here?"
"Are you bleedin' stupid? You sen' fer me, vous Savvy?"
"Not HERE in this room," DeVergesse said between gritted teeth. "Why are you imprisoned HERE at El Ferrol?"
Oldroyd's forehead creased in concentration. He opened his mouth to answer several times, then closed it swiftly, dissatisfied with his answer before it was even out. Finally, he smiled again, revealing a deep dimple on one cheek that gave him a look of childlike happiness. "Because," he said, "dere's a war on."
"Yes," DeVergesse drawled. "There is a war on, VERY good, Mr. Oldroyd. But why are YOU in prison?"
"Because Oi'm English?"
"Yes, of course, but why are YOU, Oldroyd, in prison in Spain while most English sailors are NOT in prison in Spain?" Guilliame, standing behind Oldroyd at the door was biting his fist to keep from laughing aloud.
It is painful to watch him try to think, DeVergesse thought to himself.
"Because our ship were captured by the Dagos!" Oldroyd crowed.
"And WHY was your ship captured by the Spanish? Think hard, Mr. Oldroyd."
"Because it was too foggy to see enny Dons until we were amid'em. Are you making fun o' me?" Oldroyd began to fidget, glaring suspiciously out of the corner of his eye at the smirking, spluttering Guilliame.
"Mr. Hunter said he told Mr. Hornblower the correct route to take Le Reve safely to England, but he wouldn't listen. Is that so, Mr. Oldroyd?"
Oldroyd shook his head violently. "That were just ill luck, our Mr. 'ornblower is a good man, sir. 'e didn't do it on purpose."
That's the first intelligent thing you've said, DeVergesse thought to himself. But he asked, "Are you so sure? After all, Mr. Hornblower did find his friend here, Mr. Kennedy. He has gotten himself a comfortable berth, dining with Don Massaredo and flirting with a lovely, rich, widowed Duchess. Are you certain he did not deliberately seek capture? Can you be sure he has shared everything he knows about this place with you?"
Oldroyd looked troubled, but he stubbornly repeated, "Our Mr. 'ornblower is a fine officer. He were in a great 'urry to get back to Portsmouth, an' 'at's why he were takin' that route."
"Was he? What was the great hurry, I wonder? Important dispatches, perhaps?"
"Dunno, Sir. That's officer's business." Oldroyd glared suspiciously at DeVergesse from beneath his thick, sandy eyebrows.
Oldroyd, is Mr. Hornblower a spy?"
"Naw!" Oldroyd screeched. God, DeVergesse thought, he sounds like a mynah bird.
"He's lying. Take him out in the back and shoot him. Not in here, it is already a mess what with Mr. Hunter's brains all over the wall."
Guilliame clamped a hand firmly on Oldroyd's shoulder but he shook it off, "Get yer' hands off me, ya' Frog! I ain't lyin'! Mr. 'ornblower is an 'onest officer, certain sure."
DeVergesse stared at him for a long, long minute.
"Can I shoot him now?" Guilliame asked. "It is almost time for lunch. I should hate to be late."
"Hey!" Oldroyd screeched again, genuine fear cracking his grating tenor voice.
"Maybe later," DeVergesse said. "Mr. Oldroyd, if you want to return to your ship, my advice to you is to follow the example of Mr. Hunter. Mr. Hornblower seems quite content here at El Ferrol."
DeVergesse shook his head sadly, and pressed his fingers to his temples.
"Get him out of here, Guilliame."
Another one I would like to see returned to active service as soon as it can be arranged, DeVergesse mused, massaging the beginnings of a headache.
"I suppose there was little danger when I asked that one why he was here of getting a more metaphysical explanation?" DeVergesse asked, when his aide returned.
"Little," Guilliame laughed aloud. "Damme, I love this job. That limey idiot just about pissed himself when you told me to take him out and shoot him."
"Alors, Guilliame, I cannot say based on those two exhibits that I am overly impressed with the flower of British manhood. Who is next?"
"One Styles, sir. Reputed to be a hard-boiled egg."
"Then we must crack him. Serve him up."
Horatio gazed out towards the horizon with that thousand-yard stare Kitty had come to recognize in Navy men. What a beautiful boy, she thought, though he does not know it. The morning was quite fine and it was a great pleasure to walk on the beach with such a handsome young fellow, admiring the way the sea breeze ruffled his curls and enjoying the rhythmic tensing of the muscles in his arm as he led her along the shore. She could tell, however, that the entire subject of their conversation was making him extremely uncomfortable. Still, these things must be said.
"It is not the worst thing in the world," she continued. "If true affections are engaged, it can be one of the best things in a woman's life."
"But it should be intolerable without affections," he said hesitantly, "For a lady, such as yourself, Miss Cobham."
Kitty shook her head gently and squeezed his arm. "Horatio, you are not so naive as that. I know you have had no mother or married sisters to look to for evidence of that sort of happiness, but you have roughed it at sea too long for me to think you know of no circumstances where men and women come together as strangers for mutual advantage."
Horatio turned to her in dismay, "Are you saying you didn't mind being used by DeVergesse?"
"Nay, I am not saying that, sir. Not at all. The very thought of it fills me with disgust and dismay."
Horatio sighed his relief.
"What I am saying is that I do not want you to feel sorry for me, or beholden to me, for I chose to do it. I did what I did last night because I felt it was in my, in OUR, best interests." She took a deep breath, and continued, "There is nothing he can show me with his clothes off, Horatio, that I have not already seen before, but I am terrified by what he could do to us when he wears the uniform of the Army of the Republic. But I do also feel he could help us if he wished to. He has great power here, Horatio. But if all goes well, I have a few more cards to play."
"I think you are very brave, ma'am," the young officer replied. "You are a heroine in life, as on the stage."
"Prettily-spoken, but perhaps spoken prematurely." Kitty drew him closer through their linked arms. As had ever been the case when she was alone with the young British officer, she felt terribly conflicted between feelings that could only be described as maternal, and a wild notion that she could have this young man in all his youthful passion right here on the sandy shores of El Ferrol if she only touched him here, and there, and here again. The thought of how ardent he could be in his inexperience sent warm blood coursing through her veins, but she resisted the impulse. He was so young. There could be no honor in such a joining.
She pursed her lips in self-disgust. All of these many weeks she had teased and flirted and enjoyed young Hornblower's company with never a thought of taking advantage of his inexperience and loneliness in such a fashion, and now, just because that puffed-up Frog had put his Froggy hands on her bodyLa! She was too old for this foolishness!
"I will not give you over to the enemy, Horatio. You are too important to England, and I confess, to me." She sighed. "Ah, it is good to have a friend who is a man without the considerable obligation that has usually entailed."
Horatio looked momentarily confused, then smiled and admitted, "And you, Your Grace, have been the only real lady friend I have ever had. It has been a privilege to know something of a woman's mind."
Which was, as it happened, the right thing to say to her. Kitty beamed with happiness.
"I hope you may profit by it someday, and know what it is to be truly loved by a woman you CAN marry," Kitty said. "But enough of this serious talk!" She nudged him playfully with her shoulder and smacked him with her fan. "I must confess a certain curiosity Mr. 'Aitch, and I think it is your turn to satisfy me."
"Concerning what?" Horatio was puzzled.
"Dispatches," Kitty said. "I really think it is only fair that if I have to risk my neck to cart the damn things back to England that you tell me just a little bit more about them! It would hearten me to understand why we risk so much to deliver them safely to the Admiralty."
"Fair enough," Hornblower said. "Dispatches. Right. I do not know what is in these particular dispatches, of course, but I have helped to prepare similar packets for Captain Pellew and so I do have a rough idea."
Kitty quirked a questioning eyebrow.
"Most of the packet would be of no interest to the enemy. Letters home to wives and children. Accounts of stores bought, problems with supplies, complaints about pursers and dockyards, and so forth. These things are, of course, important to those involved, but if they fell into the wrong hands they could do us little harm. Still, it is our duty to see them safely delivered."
"I see," Kitty prompted. "But surely letters to wives and complaints about maggots in the pickled beef could hardly constitute something worth you and I risking capture as spies to preserve."
Horatio gulped uncomfortably. "Miss Cobham, I really should not..."
"No, you should! I am one of you now, Mr. 'Aitch, serving His Majesty's interests. It is right that I should know what you know."
"Very well. I suspect these dispatches contain missives from Admiral Sir John Jervis. I do not know what, but they may be intelligence about the movements of the French Fleets, a proposed plan for attacking the enemy, a request for additional frigates to be sent here, or there...I cannot say."
"Would such messages be easy for the enemy to understand and profit by?"
"In time, certainly. Immediately, probably not."
"Well, Miss Cobham, that sort of sensitive document will generally be written in a Code or Cipher of some sort."
"A Cipher?" Kitty was dismayed. Would she open the dispatches and be unable to read them after all?
"Most certainly. Such letters would be encoded so that it would take some time to translate them and understand their meaning and import."
Kitty mulled this over, then volunteered, "I would wager my little all, Mr. 'Aitch, that you would be one of the very best Codebreakers in the fleet. You have such a logical, mathematical mind. Everyone says so." She favored him with a broad, dazzling smile.
Horatio blushed again under her worshipful gaze. "Well, ma'am, I hardly...."
"Oh, go on, Mr. 'Aitch! You cannot fool a friend. I am sure it is all too complicated and difficult for me to understand, but I should so like to try," she gushed, watering his thirsty young soul with her fulsome praise.
He seemed to swell beside her. Poor creature, she thought, I am glad that I can give you some words to help you glimpse your own worthiness even as I use you to advance my own scheme. Is that not often the way of it? Love and vengeance getting all mixed up. But in fairness, she considered, eyeing his strong profile outlined against the dunes, if you are willing to consider me too foolish to put this arcane knowledge to use, then you deserve to be fleeced just a little.
A sudden image of DeVergesse rose unbidden in her mind, and she was surprised by the thought that this man could never be so obviously flattered into revealing more to her than he should, simply because he was neither insecure about his own abilities, or dismissive of her intelligence and capacity for guile. What a great pity he was such a weasel. And, worse yet, a Frog.
"Very well, Miss Cobham. There are several main types of Ciphers. Some are meant to be decoded over time, and therefore can be cracked by anyone provided they know the language in which they are written and have sufficient time to spend in translation. For these, one need not have a key, or code book."
"Tell me about those first," Kitty said decisively. "The easy ones."
"These are the sort, I must confess, at which I have shown some small ability. The first sort is a substitution cipher. That is the easiest. One just substitutes one letter of the alphabet for another in a random pattern. The document looks like nonsense, but if one looks at it for a long enough time, one can see that certain letters are repeated more often than others. These are the vowels like 'a', 'e', and 'i' and other very common letters such as 't', 'r', 's' and 'n'. If you play around with it long enough, trying this letter and that, you will reach the right combination and can read the message."
"But that does sound simple."
"Well, it would be, except the code writers usually run all the words together and without punctuation marks or any spaces, it can be very difficult indeed."
"I see, yes, that would make it a neat trick. How long should it take to decode such a message?"
"Depending on length, several hours at least. This code is usually sent during a battle and the sender and the recipient have a key to the substitution. By the time an enemy would decode it, everything would have changed and so the message would be obsolete. But there is a second type of code that is similar, only harder and takes even longer to break."
"What sort is that?"
"A transposition cipher. The message is usually written without word divisions in rows of letters arranged in a rectangular block. The letters are then transposed in a prearranged order, such as by vertical columns, diagonals, or spirals, or by more complicated systems, such as the knight's tour, which is based on the move of the knight in chess. The arrangement of the letters in the enciphered message depends upon the size of the block of code words used and upon the route followed in inscribing and transposing the letters."
"Oh my, that sounds horribly complicated."
"That is what I am best at," he admitted. "But there is another sort of code, and this sort is impossible to break unless both the sender and the recipient have the same key. That type is called a "Book" code."
"A book code? Does that mean that each must have the same code book?"
"No, but each must have the same actual book. Usually a novel, although sometimes something much less interesting, like, for example, Clark's Seamanship, or Plutarch's Lives." Horatio grinned enthusiastically, warming to his subject. He waved his hands eloquently about for emphasis as he spoke. "In this sort of code, each word is indicated by a three numbers. The first number is a page number from the book itself. Then a second number would indicate the line on the page. And the third number would indicate which word in that line was the right word!" he laughed. "Wicked hard to decode, but impossible to break! We British invented that Cipher!"
"So, for example, if my dispatch started out "23.14.2" and I knew that the book was Mysteries of Udolpho, I would turn to page 23, find the 14th line down from the top, and the second word over and that is the first word of my document?"
"And it is usually something really thrilling like 'The'! After all that work."
Kitty laughed and, glancing about her to make sure they are unobserved, stretched up on tip-toe and kissed him on one wind-cooled cheek, squeezing his forearm affectionately as she did so. "Oh, Horatio, this is so thrilling. I feel much better knowing the damn things are in code."
"Er," he admitted uncertainly, "it is possible that these particular dispatches are not in code at all. I had orders to throw them into the sea if there was any risk of capture." He looked acutely uncomfortable, remembering how he had disobeyed these orders at 'Her Grace's' insistence. "I think it unwise of the Admiralty, if such be the case, but not all Naval dispatches are encoded as those sent over land would surely be."
"Do not have any fears on that account, Mr. 'Aitch. I will deliver your precious dispatches to Admiralty if it is the last thing I do, and I shall make sure you get your share of credit for having safeguarded them all these months. For to be sure, those toffs at Admiralty house would scarcely credit me as their guardian!"
Horatio smiled indulgently down at her, harmony restored completely between the two of them, then his expression darkened. "We should go back, Kitty Cobham. I believe I have an appointment with your Froggy Gent and I would as soon have done with him."
"He is not MY Froggy Gent!" Kitty spluttered. "But all the same, try to impress him that you are worth a French Captain at least to the Admiralty!" And with much companionable teasing, they set back for El Ferrol together.
"Sacre bleu!" DeVergesse sputtered as his aide practically fell into the door, locked in a side-by-side shoving match with a very large, rough-skinned bear of a man. The stranger's dirty plaid shirt had come untucked from his stained duck trousers, which might have been near white at some point but were now a uniformly brownish-gray.
Guilliame managed to wrench one arm behind his back and shoving him forward hard with a knee to his backside, announced, "Here is Mr. Styles--another lousy sailor!"
"Now you see 'ere, you pommy Frenchie!" the man barked back, struggling hard in Guilliame's grasp. "I ain't never been disrated for my sailing. I know the ropes as good as any man in the whole sodding Navy."
"Guilliame?" DeVergesse's keen eye noted every detail of the prisoner's physical condition.
"Oh, my apologies, Colonel. I did not mean any disrespect to Seaman Styles' seamanship. No, I meant lousy in the sense of a sailor who has lice."
The burly prisoner twisted his head back and with a mean little smile said, "Well if I got crabs, then it was your mother that gave them to me."
"Careful Mr. Styles," DeVergesse interjected. "You are closer to the truth than you know."
"I know his kind," Styles growled.
Guilliame flushed, then spat, "Good thing for me, then, that you did not pass them to your sister."
With a violent jerk, Styles broke free from the Frenchman's grasp and elbowed him viciously in the ribs. DeVergesse was prepared to intervene but did not expect he would be called upon to do so. Though the prisoner was a large man, Guilliame had both height and agility to his advantage, and he was an expert street brawler. In just moments, the two men stood before DeVergesse, chests heaving, Style's arm wrenched painfully behind him by the furiously triumphant Guilliame.
"Are you both finished? Good. I am Colonel DeVergesse and I have a few questions for you, Mr. Styles, and then you can go back to your cell and do--whatever it is you do there," he sniffed.
"Well, I have a question for you, Colonel DeeVergessey," the big sailor retorted insolently.
"You do? I am all enthusiasm to hear it."
"Why does your toad-eating, toffee-nosed lackey got some jade's skivvies tied around his hea-OWROOCH! HEY!"
"For pity's sake, Guilliame, tie his hands behind his back and come stand behind me."
DeVergesse struggled successfully to conceal his amusement from them both.
"I might wish you to stand witness."
The aide-de-camp did as he was told and took up a position behind DeVergesse. "Here, take my pistol. If Mr. Styles makes any sudden movements, you have my permission to shoot him."
Styles stood with his head lowered, rebelliousness evident in his glare, but he could not help periodic glances at the pistol in Guilliame's hand.
"Mr. Styles, I am hoping to find out some things that would assist me in getting your mangy selves exchanged. I am very much hoping for your sake that you are considered to be of some value to your ship. So I ask you, do you have any particular abilities that set you apart from most of your fellow ratings?"
Styles squinted, as if in thought, then rolled his eyes up towards the ceiling. An insolent smile rose to his lips and he said, "Killing Frogs. I reckon that would be my talent."
"Really? How many Frenchmen would you say you have killed, Mr. Styles?"
Styles made a great show of his mental tabulations and finally announced, "Forty-two."
"That is quite a few," DeVergesse said in mock dismay. "Hopefully no one I know."
"Well, that would just be this year's tally-so far. I reckon I have killed 'undreds." His pock-marked face shone with pride.
"Would you like to go back to killing my countrymen?"
"Sure I would, starting with that one behind you."
Hearing Guilliame's sharp intake of breath, DeVergesse raised his hand quickly to cover the muzzle of the pistol. "Coincidentally, Mr. Styles, Guilliame particularly enjoys killing Limeys. But in field of battle, not here, where you are so completely in our power. There is no sport in it under such circumstances. But perhaps someday you shall meet on a happier day and then you can take your chances against him."
For the next few minutes, DeVergesse ignored the prisoner, making notations in French, his pen scratching rapidly on the foolscap. As he suspected, the man was uncomfortable with silence and began to shift from foot to foot, his eyes roving constantly between the gun and DeVergesse's unintelligible writing.
"Mr. Styles, what do you think of the Duchess of Wharfedale?"
"Well," the man was puzzled by this strange new tack, "I don't rightly know. She, well..."
"Oh come on, Mr. Styles. Surely you have an opinion."
"She ain't no better than she ought to be, that's what I think," he admitted resentfully. "And it is bad luck to have a woman aboard, everyone knows that."
"And your commanding officer, Mr. Hornblower. Does he think the same?"
The mulish expression crept back into Styles' face. "It ain't my place to say what Mr. Hornblower thinks. But he is a fine officer and a real gentleman, for all he ain't got any money, and I ain't one to begrudge him his pleasure if a lady like her takes notice of him. I guess most of us would do the same if the same opportunity t'were offered." He grinned speculatively. "I know I would."
DeVergesse's eyebrows shot up, and he quelled his own irrational surge of jealousy with a quip, "Fine Republican sentiment, Mr. Styles."
"Kiss my arse, I am the King's man for all of that."
"Really? I'll bet you never even thought it through. Do you even have the slightest idea why your country is at war with mine?"
"The Frog is the enemy. Always 'as been."
"Yes, but why?"
"Just the way it is, Colonel. And that's the way I like it."
DeVergesse turned to his aide, "Guilliame, where did I find you?"
"In the gutter, sir. Living in the streets of Toulon."
"Now, my Colonel, I am an officer and have money, and will soon be able to buy my own land. And my service with you has given me an education, so I can speak well as any gentleman, unlike this morceau d'excrement."
"But where did you learn to speak English? Come now, Guilliame, I know the topic is unpleasant, but I think our Mr. Styles should understand why he fights, and why he kills our countrymen."
"I learned English," the young Frenchman said haltingly, "from the British Naval officers who visited my mother's house."
"You see, Mr. Styles? I suspect that Guilliame, here, was raised in greater poverty and debasement than even you. But I subscribe to the belief of my friend, Napoleon Bonaparte. Do you know what he says, Mr. Styles? For I assure you, THAT is what you fight against. Your King fears the power of new ideas. And this new idea is "Careers open to talents."
"That means that if you have ability, there is no limit to how far you can rise, how much money you can make, how much you can better yourself. Just because Guilliame, here behind me, is the son of a woman who made her living on her back under l'ancienne regime is no reason that he should not do far better for himself. He is bright, he fights well, he works hard, and I enjoy his company. His family did not need to purchase his commission for him, he earned it through the recommendation of his superiors."
DeVergesse stared deep into Styles' stagnant pondwater-colored eyes. "Imagine what you could be if you were lucky enough to be born a Frenchman, Mr. Styles. Could Mr. Hornblower do for you what I have done for Guilliame? Could he make a gentleman out of you?"
Styles' jaw set stubbornly. "I ain't buying yer fancy talk. The Frog is the enemy and that is all I need to know."
"Return him to his cell, Guilliame," DeVergesse said. "I shall finish writing up my report and then we shall lunch with Don Massaredo before interviewing any more prisoners."
"Hey!" Styles postured, as he was turned towards the door by a stern-faced Guilliame, "What are you going to write about me?"
"That you are large, Mr. Styles. Tres grande. Very, very large."
Hell will freeze over, DeVergesse thought grimly, before I return that murdering bastard to a ship of war. There is nothing in the world so dangerous as a man who only knows one thing, and knows it full well. Still, he smiled gently to himself as he finished up his letter to his sister, I rather liked the big ox. But I hope he was mistaken about Hornblower and Kitty Cobham.
Kitty was elated from her conversation with Mr. Hornblower. Not only had he forgiven her conduct of the previous evening, he had filled her mind with the most interesting ideas. She was hotly impatient to return to her quarters and begin to really examine those dispatches. Her heart pounded in her chest with an excitement she had scarcely felt except on opening night. A discerning audience, a new work, an uncertain reception, her own talent and ability to sell the work of a new and brilliant playwrite....these were the things that set her pulse to racing. Here, where there were few to appreciate her talent, and none who could be safely trusted to know how much of her deportment was an act, she had not expected to feel such thrilling excitement coursing through her veins. Finally, she was writing her own plot, and speaking her own lines.
Her slipper-shod feet fairly skittered over the rough cobblestones that lined the corridors from the main prison back to her own quarters. She rounded a corner and found herself gasping with shock, practically in the arms of Colonel Etienne DeVergesse. His chest against hers was hard and unyielding; all brass buttoned wool over taut muscle and bone. He grasped her shoulders and shoved her away roughly, centering her in his intense blue gaze.
"Madame, you should not be in this part of the prison unescorted. There are desperate men here."
Kitty recoiled in indignation, tartly replying, the words out of her mouth before she realized how self-pitying they must sound. "They would not have to be DESPERATE, Sir!"
She breathed heavily from the exertions of her rapid flight through the corridors of El Ferrol. "Besides, I trust my English friends here absolutely!"
It was at that moment that she got a full view of the man who was with the Froggy Colonel. Her breath caught in her throat and she could not seem to avoid a moment of slack-jawed admiration. He was young, perhaps Horatio's age, and taller even than Mr. 'Aitch. Slender, broad-shouldered, with a most unusual shade of wavy close-cropped hair that glimmered in the dim hallway like new bronze beneath a strange bandage he had wound around his temple. His eyes were the green of Venetian glass and his features were regular, smiling at her, with even white teeth and a strong, aquiline nose. No wonder her maid had been so immediately in thrall to this man. Few women could resist the lure to fall prey to such a specimen if he favored them with even the slightest attentions.
She was aware of DeVergesse's eyes watching her own marveling ones, as she took in every breathless detail of the mysterious 'Guilliame'. But her attention finally came to rest upon the bandage itself, for it had an oddly familiar look. She gasped with recognition, and a coarse exclamation of disgust came to her lips.
The young Frenchman laughed, looking down at her salaciously, and clapped his commanding officer on the shoulder saying, "Next time, I would like to take the widow and you can take the maid, Mon Capitan. Why should I always be the one to get hit on the head by the jealous fiancée?" And he twiddled the bandage saucily, almost skipping down the hallway as they returned to the prison block.
"Guilliame, you didn't," she heard DeVergesse say in French as they turned the corner into the main prison block, "If I have told you once I have told you a thousand times..."And then a final, "Chacon son gout!"
Kitty fled to her room. She bolted the door firmly behind her and searched her belongings. Bastards! They had searched everything of hers, French fingers had rifled through her most delicate personal articles of clothing, and the Frog Guilliame was wearing one of her very own stockings about his head. Her face reddened, suffused with outrage and indignation. She removed the packet of dispatches from her petticoats and ripped the ribbon and wax seal from it with her teeth.
She put her prizes of the previous evening out upon her desk: sealing wax, a quill pen, powdered ink, foolscap and parchment pressed flat and smooth betwixt the pages of Don Quixote, and the crown jewel of her acquisitions-the oddly-shaped key to DeVergesse's very own bedroom which she had pilfered from the inside pocket of his travel-stained uniform jacket as he escorted her to the door to eject her like a stray animal in the night.
Very well, she thought grimly, you want to find dispatches
my Froggy friends? Then by GOD you shall have your fill of them!
And may you live long enough to rue the day you found them, but
no longer. Kitty began to open the envelopes contained within
the covering foolscap one by one. But why, she thought to herself,
does the feeling I have deep inside feel so much more like mad
love than cold hate?