Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
Disclaimer: GREAT NEWS!!! Fabio has agreed to pose for the cover art rendition of Don Massaredo in the mass market paperback edition of KC&TCOS!!! <SLAAAP...OOF> Ok, Ok, FINE!!!....<heavy sigh> 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, and just like the newspaper publication of the Vegas line, it is for entertainment purposes only. But I'll take DeVergesse and the points all the same, and Kitty in the over/under. Someone get my bookie on the phone.
"So, Colonel DeVergesse, what do you make of my prisoners?" Don Massaredo had ordered luncheon set for his French guests, and he had joined them over the simple spread of olives, bread, viands, and goat cheese from his own estates. "Do you think I shall be obliged to keep all of them here for the remainder of the war?"
DeVergesse rolled his eyes. "I sincerely hope not, Your Excellency. Thus far, the only thing that has impressed me is that you have kept them for the most part in excellent physical condition, and that most of them have a loyalty to their commanding officer that speaks well for him. But unless my instincts fail me, some of these fellows would do our alliance more service in uniform than out of it."
Don Massaredo drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "You amuse me. The Duchess of Wharfedale believes that if the prisoners impress you with their value to King George that their exchange is assured. She has been most definite on that point."
"Then she shows little understanding of the slowly grinding wheels of diplomacy between warring nations. Such things in my experience have more to do with the influence of their families than with the regard of their captains. To be sure, I will dispatch a report to the diplomats and they shall take it from there. Who can say how much these sad wretches are valued by their mad King? I make no promises I cannot keep. But I wonder, would you rather they remained here, or not?"
"Do I have any say in the matter?" Don Massaredo considered the implications carefully. Most of these English prisoners had been a sour, dispirited lot. Several of his guardsmen had told him that they thought Hornblower's hot-tempered second from Le Reve was determined to escape. This showed an appalling lack of intelligence, for if they did escape, where would they go? Still, he had found Mr. Hornblower very much to his taste as a young officer and had thought over time to know him better. It had occurred to him more than once that to have the regard of a man like Hornblower might come in very useful as alliances and misalliances formed and dissolved in this new and strangely tilting world.
DeVergesse's face was carefully neutral but the gaze he returned was alive with curiosity and Don Massaredo had come to understand that DeVergesse's curiosity was never idle.
"My reports can be slanted in a certain direction if there is a good reason to help an ally," he said.
"I should not regret to have Mr. Hornblower remain my 'guest' for many more months. In fact," Don Massaredo allowed a sly smile, "I think that our countries might come to regret returning that one to his ship, which I have been told is one of the most feared frigates in the British Navy. But as for the others..." he waved his hand dismissively. "I shall not miss them. And the sooner we can exchange Kennedy, the better. I do not want that young man to die in my prison. He has an unquiet soul and I do not care to meet his shade around a dark corner."
"And Her Grace?" DeVergesse smiled, "A blithe spirit in contrast. Shall you regret her departure, also? "
Don Massaredo shifted imperceptibly. The Duchess had come to occupy far more of his waking thoughts than he had anticipated, and he knew that he had dreamed of her, though he remembered naught upon awakening but hazy smiles and a sense of soft joy wedded to pensive regret.
"Of course, to lose the company of such a kind-hearted and attractive lady would be felt most keenly by all of us who have come to know her. But I would undertake no action to prevent Her Grace from gaining her heart's desire, so long as her safety and comfort were assured." This was all he felt honestly could be said of his feelings on the matter. "While she is considered a prisoner here at El Ferrol, this is more for her own protection until a suitable transport is found. I have allowed her considerable freedoms and I am satisfied she has not abused my generosity in any way."
"It is good for her that you feel that way," DeVergesse replied. "Yesterday I had a missive from the garrison at La Corunna. The Almeria is docking there for two days only, en route to Lisbon. I know the Captain of that vessel. With your permission, I would like to send him an immediate dispatch requesting passage for the Duchess. The Almeria is a fine ship, Your Excellency, and Captain Botella a most experienced sailor."
"Do I have his guarantee of safe passage to Portugal?"
"Pardonnez-moi." The Colonel rose and nodded to his aide, a tall young man whose entirely correct silence in the presence of Don Massaredo was belied by a disconcerting tendency to bite his lower lip as if holding in laughter. They conferred privately at the door for a few moments and then the younger man departed. "My aide has several routine duties to perform before we resume our interviews," he explained casually, "Mais certainement, she will be as safe as a woman alone can be aboard a ship. The Captain of the Almeria is in my debt, and I will make certain that he understands that by conveying Her Grace to Portugal, his debt will be discharged."
"A debt, Colonel?"
"Oui." DeVergesse paused to take a thoughtful sip of lemon water. He did not seem inclined to elaborate. "And I, too, will be on that vessel, for I am required to return to Toulon once my business here is concluded. I can easily find passage from Lisbon once I have seen Her Grace safely aboard some neutral vessel, bound for England."
Don Massaredo was not pleased with this plan, but he could find no flaw or reason to object except for the Duchess's own stated aversion to this French Colonel. A passage to Lisbon with a friendly Captain was exactly what he had promised her, and to be sure, if he did not agree the Frenchman would not hesitate to make the facts known to her. Since for reasons best left unexamined, Don Massaredo did not fancy her travelling under the protection of a man she esteemed, perhaps this was the best solution.
"If you do escort Her Grace to Lisbon, I hope you will not harry her with unwelcome conversation. Last night, I must confess that I did not know what you were about, Colonel DeVergesse. All that talk of the London theatre. Surely it was clear to you that Her Grace is too high-minded to associate herself with such scandalous things as the modern plays."
DeVergesse had the grace to be discomfited, for he spluttered noisily into his water, then attempted to hide his embarrassment behind his serviette. "Indeed, Your Excellency. I regret certain remarks that I made to the Duchess last night and I shall make my apologies as soon as the opportunity presents itself. No, I do not expect ours will be a congenial voyage to Lisbon, but I shall nonetheless take care that no harm comes to her. Her safe conduct to Portugal will be my paramount concern once I am finished with my report on your prisoners."
"I would be personally grateful to you for that, Colonel, and for one thing besides."
"I would care to be the one who tells Her Grace of her impending good fortune. It is my prerogative."
"I agree, Don Massaredo, but know this--the ship sails on the morning tide and it is an hour journey to La Corunna. If she misses this chance, it may be many months before another Captain willing to undertake that voyage can be found, given the losses to the British at Cape St. Vincent."
"Of that unhappy day, let us speak no more."
"But we must be realistic, Your Excellency. Any ship which is large enough to offer suitable quarters for Her Grace would be viewed by the British Navy as a prize worth taking and they now patrol these shores like a pack of hungry wolves. Unless you visualize sending the Duchess down the coast of Portugal in a pilchard boat, or you wish to send her on a perilous journey through the mountains into Portugal, there is no alternative. The Almeria is a fast sloop, and stands an excellent chance of reaching neutral waters. If it did not, I would hardly risk my own capture by the British by joining her aboard."
Don Massaredo sighed heavily, "Very well, Colonel DeVergesse. Such haste is, to my mind, unseemly, but I shall inform Her Grace tonight."
DeVergesse shot him a questioning look. "Do you dine with her?"
"Perhaps," Don Massaredo replied, the invitation already forming in his mind. "And afterwards, she has requested a private audience with me. And such an idea she had!" He sighed happily. "Perhaps she grows content in Spain, after all. Would you believe that she wishes me to tutor her in Spanish Literature? Colonel, you are a young man still and probably all that matters to you is beauty and sweetness of temper, for that is how it was for me when I was a young officer. Now, looking back through the years and all the women I have known in my life, I say to you that a woman who seeks to improve her mind as well as her looks is a rare find for any man."
"Your Excellency," DeVergesse rose slowly from the table, lightly brushing invisible crumbs from his uniform. "In that, we are allies indeed."
"Alors, Guilliame, did you send the message?"
"I did. Captain Botella should have it within the hour, and I took the liberty of requesting an immediate reply. Did Don Massaredo give his consent enfin?"
"Let us say that even if he did not, it would not matter. That woman will be on that ship if I personally have to convey her there bound and gagged and tied to the back of a stolen donkey like a sack of mangoes."
"If I did not know so well, sir, I would suspect your interest in this lady has become somewhat personal. But..." Guilliame rolled his eyes to the ceiling of the guardsman's cell, palms uplifted as if searching for guidance from above, "an Englishwoman? You? Pah! Incroyable!"
"You are both impertinent, and entirely mistaken. This Duchess is going to be very useful to my plan for tonight, but every day thereafter she spends in the company of Don Massaredo increases the chances of the sort of diplomatic debacle that France hardly needs with the alliance still in its infancy. Surely you can see that."
"What I see is that always it is work with you, planning and scheming for France. But I also saw in the hallway just now that she is a very attractive lady with a fine, high bosom." A smile sharp as the crack of a whip flashed across his handsome features. "I am as patriotic a Republican as you, sir, but for me, the People's business is most rewarding when I combine duty with pleasure."
"Really, Guilliame?" DeVergesse struggled to keep his rising bile from tingeing his sarcasm with any more personal animus. "I would think she would be far too old for you."
"There is much to be said for experience," his aide replied.
And with that logic, DeVergesse could find no fault.
He leaned back in the chair and sketched idly in the margins of the paper before him as he thought his plan through yet again, looking at it again this way and that, turning it around in his mind to account for anything unexpected that could possibly happen. Kitty Cobham had not disappointed him in any particular, and for some reason, he found this incredibly disappointing. She had quickly arranged a tete-a-tete with Don Massaredo. He had no doubt that after he had given her the last thing she would need to accomplish her task that he would be holding the key to the Don's mysterious chamber in his hands by midnight. That thought quickened his pulse as always, but his zealous curiosity was dampened by a memory.
"Then, why do you not see that I cannot steal from him?" she had asked last night in his own chamber.
He recalled her clear eyes glistening with dammed-up tears and concern. What possible use was a compassionate heart to a woman with a life like hers? Surely, it could only be a source of trouble.
He massaged his forehead in irritation.
This was why women were unfit for war, he decided. War is not personal. One cannot allow one's feelings about some individual to get in the way of one's duty. Yet here in his mind like a baleful specter was Madame Cobham, balking at performing a perfectly straightforward task which would ensure her own freedom and the safety of her young swain--for DeVergesse had NOT been bluffing when he had told her that he could easily make the case that she and Hornblower were spies--simply because she LIKED the Don and was grateful to him.
DeVergesse would not have given her such a mission if he had not felt that she were more than capable of lulling the old Spaniard into some species of trusting physical intimacy.
As he further recalled his brief embrace of her in the hallway when she ran into him, and her defiant expression and proud tilt of her head as they broke apart, the very thought of what he had asked her to do now made him exquisitely unhappy. He hoped sincerely that she would use the means he would give her to avoid satisfying the Don's obvious partiality, Non!-lechery, for lechery it must be in a man that advanced in years-for her. But...
An image of Kitty Cobham, begging with him, pleading with him, to make violent love to her flashed through his mind and his breath caught deep in his chest.
Perhaps after we are aboard the Almeria together, I can reveal a bit more of myself to her and she might...enfin, what is the use of that? I do not want her sympathy, or her compassion. This woman will never accept me sincerely so long as I have power over her. Truly, that much was clear last night when she was unable to continue her seductive charade. How she must hate me! I was certain from the movement of her hands on my body that she found my person pleasing enough, but such things are quite different for a woman, of course. A woman could more easily welcome an old, ugly man whose character she esteemed to her bed than a young and handsome one whose personality she despised. For men, and he could not resist a quick look as his young and handsome aide-de-camp as he thought this, it is exactly the opposite.
I must take my own advice, he berated himself. War is not personal. The stakes here are higher than the bedding of a middle-aged though still enticing actress. She is English, I am French. I am her enemy, who has threatened her. Don Massaredo may be her jailer, but he is clearly a reluctant one, sympathetic even, and no enemy to be feared.
"Colonel?" Guilliame asked. "Are you ready for the next prisoner? I do not wish to disturb your plotting and scheming but if we are to catch a ship for Lisbon tomorrow I suggest we adhere to the schedule."
DeVergesse started guiltily, appalled at his own woolgathering. This would never do. He must remain sharply focused on the tasks at hand; the officious duties of prisoner interrogations and the subsurface, unseen plans he had set into motion.
"Oui, of course. I confess I am eager to get to Mr. Hornblower. These ratings are excessively tiresome. Who is next on the list?"
"An older fellow. Seems sensible enough. When I searched their cell this morning he stood aside quietly and attempted to calm his cellmates. Told them it was routine. I suppose he has been captured before." The young man turned to leave.
"Guilliame? The diversionary tactics for tonight? Have you settled on a plan?"
"Almost, Mon Capitan. But the sooner we finish with these prisoners the sooner that plan will get laid."
"Fifteen minutes, that is all I shall require."
"Patience, Sir, I do not forget what Bonaparte said about making use of circumstance."
But despite his friendship with Bonaparte, it was a jest of Monsieur Talleyrand that echoed in his mind:
"Women sometimes forgive a man who forces an opportunity, but never a man who misses one."
Saturday, 1:00 pm
Kitty gasped in dismay as an avalanche of small sealed and folded papers cascaded over the desktop. There must be over thirty letters in this packet, all crushed as tightly flat as if they had been ironed. Glancing through her small, sunlit window, she made a quick estimate of the time by the height of the sun. It must be close on one o'clock. Within the hour, Conchita would bring in her tea and by then she must decide if she would attempt the rather bold plan that had finally gelled in her mind.
It was dishonest to be sure, she knew, but if Mr. Hornblower can dress his men as Frogs to take a ship then surely what she was planning to do was no different. The question was, would she have time?
She began to sort through the cream-colored missives. The first dispatch proved to be just the sort of thing Mr. Hornblower had anticipated, a letter addressed to a wife by the Captain of the Marines at Gibraltar. She recalled the man, a dour-looking fellow with a choleric face, and wondered if his wife missed him very much. Still, she placed that one, unopened, squarely to her left. The next two letters were added to that one to form a pile, both proved to be written by Sir Hew Dalrymple to his bailiffs back in England. She read them, and then resealed them, stamping the wax she melted onto the paper with her ersatz Admiralty seal.
The next missive was from Admiral Jervis, himself, and this one she opened with great care and read with strict attention. The bulk of it comprised two pages of speculation about the possible timing of the emergence of the Spanish fleet from the safe harbor of Cadiz, and a request that two additional Frigates be sent to shore up the British forces in that area in event of an attack. This letter, clearly, was so out of date as to be useless, for the Dons had come out to escort an incoming merchant fleet from the Indies much sooner than Admiral Jervis had anticipated when he wrote this dispatch. She scanned the letter three times over to make certain there was nothing in it that could be useful to Spain or to France, but Admiral Jervis had been careful to not reveal even so much as the source of his intelligence, unprescient as it was. Cape St. Vincent had made this speculation all quite irrelevant. Kitty carefully resealed that dispatch and placed it to her right.
The franking on the next two letters was almost as familiar to her as her own handwriting. Captain Sir John Morris! Letters written by her faithless former lover in Italy had been conveyed to Gibraltar, and now Sir Hew was forwarding them on to London. How like Sir John to use the Admiralty as his personal courier. She popped unsealed the enveloping sheets that held his letters within, caring little for the small rents in the paper that she inflicted in her haste. The first was addressed to Lord Hood at Admiralty House. She scanned the pages furiously.
The first few paragraphs were a summation of the political situation in the southern Italian states, in which Sir John made the case that Napoleon's successes in Austria and Northern Italy had had a salutary effect on their willingness to enter into alliances with British, and that the entirely worthy goal of reclaiming some of the British strongholds in the Mediterranean would be advanced by giving him his flag. He boasted of friendship with the King of Naples, an unstable man, grossly fat and completely dominated by his acquisitive mistresses.
"Hmph." Thought Kitty. "Braggart." She read on.
"....certain rumors may have reached you concerning a London actress. I assure you, for I know you tolerate no moral laxity in your commanders as I do not on board my ships, that this unfortunate creature followed me to Italy under the mistaken impression that my admiration of her performances on the stage translated into admiration of her person off the stage. While I could not bring myself to be uncharitable, there is no foundation to that vile gossip, which is simply being spread by the wives of one of my fellow captains who is jealous of my friendship with you and feels her own husband at a disadvantage. I am honorably engaged to a widowed noblewoman of sterling reputation, and look forward to presenting Her Grace to you at whenever duty calls me back to England."
Horrified to read such perfidy, she tore into the second letter.
My God! Kitty thought, I know this woman! She is a high-flyer, an opera singer!
"My Darling Giselle,
I think of you constantly, you are never far from my thoughts....." he wrote redundantly.
Kitty scanned the hastily written paragraphs, for she did not have to read them with much attention as she had received very nearly the same sentiments from him herself! He went to great lengths to assure the matchless Giselle that the vision of her ivory limbs, generous smiles, and womanly pleasures carried him into sea battles with the heart of a lion. He then went on to add that he very much hoped that if she had expenses that she should petition his agent in London and draw whatever she needed for he had left instructions for the advancement of such sums.
"...I must tell you that I do not intend to spend one single moment longer in the Mediterranean than I must. The climate here is most uncongenial and I miss my sweet and enchanting Giselle more with every passing day. Darling, I have some news, which I hope will not upset you, for I assure you that it alters nothing between us. I have contracted to marry the widow of the Duke of Wharfedale. She is a coarse, common creature distinguished only by an amiable nature and a great deal of money and property, which was left to her by her husband, who was Ambassador to Florence. I assure you, this woman does not engage my affections but her fortune will enable me to continue my generosity to you if prizes prove scarce here in the Med.
Your ever faithful,
I have been made a laughingstock, Kitty thought, and tears began trickling down her cheeks. I told everyone in London that I was going to marry this man before I left to follow him, and they probably all knew he had another mistress! But that mistress had a career that was flourishing, while mine was not. She thought bitterly over the past few months. Probably, all he ever cared for was that he had willing companionship. He never intended marriage at all.
Bastard! How could I have been taken in by such as this? I must have been desperate indeed! The word came to her mind in the deep French-accented tones of Colonel Etienne DeVergesse, who had cautioned her about "Desperate" men out in the corridors of El Ferrol.
Well, Colonel, she thought grimly, desperate women can also be dangerous!
And with that, she folded the letter to Giselle into the envelope addressed to Admiral Hood, then wrapped the letter intended for Hood inside the envelope addressed to the mistress, and dropped both envelopes in the pile to her left. That unfortunate episode in her life thus concluded to her satisfaction, she continued her examination of the rest of the packet.
The next letters contained more news that was clearly out of date, these she deposited on the pile to her right. Finally she reached a dispatch that quickened her pulse. It was a dispatch from a Major Ross, and she was quite surprised considering the contents that it was not written in code. Briefly, Major Ross identified by name a French intelligence agent who was opposed to the alliance with Spain and who was therefore passing such information to the British as would be useful to persuade the Portuguese away from neutrality and towards alliance with Britain. This double-agent advised that a strong British presence in Portugal and a Spanish population opposed to the presence of French troops in their country would turn French attention back where he felt it belonged, to shoring up the efforts of Bonaparte to the west. The dispatch directed His Majesty's government to set up an account with funds in London, in the name of this Frenchman, for his immediate use should he be obliged to emigrate.
This, surely, must the reason for Horatio's orders to destroy the packet. This letter amounted to a death sentence for the French double-agent if it fell into the hands of the French or the Spanish. Kitty put it aside.
The next letter in her stack was a letter from Captain Sir Edward Pellew, addressed to his wife. This, Kitty did not open, placing it with a smile upon the stack to her left. The next letters were from various Captains and they were much as Horatio had speculated; a litany of complaints about stores, provisions, and requests for more crewmen to be sent to the Captains who were actively working the blockade lines off the coast of France and Spain. The press gangs will be busy, Kitty thought, if this war continues. Well, she was conscious of the duty to see these letters delivered, but noting the small size of the stack to her left, she decided to augment it. Taking several pieces of parchment to the windowpane, she pressed fresh sheets over the Captain's requests for stores and men, and copied the letters as exactly as possible, changing only the quantities to wild figures and altering dates and locations slightly. At a glance, they would look like normal missives of their type, but surely a Captain who requested five thousand goats for his sloop would raise a Froggy eyebrow at least, and therefore cast doubt onto the veracity of the entire packet.
Finally, she came to the last missive, the thickest packet. The letter was sealed inside three other sheets of parchment, each carrying the Admiralty seal on paper marked with Sir Hew Dalrymple's own watermark. Such a document was not easily duplicable, for she had no such parchment to hand. The letter contained inside comprised four pages of numeric code. Kitty's heart sank, for she recognized it at once from Hornblower's description. A book code! And only Sir Hew's codewriters and those of Lord Castlereagh, his intended recipient, knew which book! She put it aside in disappointment, laying it still loose and unfolded upon her leftward stack. At least, she thought, still angry about the search of her quarters, I have enough false dispatches to satisfy any Frenchman who decides to stick his Gallic nose where it has no business to be. Enough excepting one.....
There was a knock at her door. "Senora la Duquesa?"
Surehandedly, Kitty wrapped the packet of forged and useless
dispatches back into the original covering parchment. Tearing
a hair ribbon from a drawer, she tied the packet into a loose
bundle and shoved them in her petticoat pocket. She neatly inserted
the dispatches that she had stacked on the left side of her little
writing desk one at the time between the pages of Don Quixote,
for she knew that was the one place Conchita's busily-acquisitive
brown hands were most unlikely to explore.
DeVergesse sat silently, taking in every detail of the man before him. In contrast to the prisoners he had interviewed that morning, this British captive was small, neat, wiry, and somewhat advanced in years. Sunlight reflecting off deep waters could age the skin of any man who spent decades at sea, so the little sailor could be anywhere from forty to sixty, in DeVergesse's estimation. His hair was mostly iron gray and his skin was as deeply tanned and creased as that of Don Massaredo, but his carriage and form beneath a trim striped shirt was that of a man not past his prime.
"Matthews, Able Seaman, Indefatigable, forty-five years old." There was an unmistakable Scottish burr to the seaman's rough tenor.
"You are Scots?"
"Aye. That I am."
"Mr. Matthews, have you ever been flogged?"
"Impressive, and have you ever been captured by the enemy?"
"Yessir, by the Fro-, French. During the fighting with the Colonies."
"Were you exchanged? Or ransomed?"
"Exchanged. Though it took more than a year," the wiry little sailor said with a trace of resentment.
"These things do take time. Mr. Matthews, why would a Scotsman serve in the British Navy? I thought you people resented the English."
"The Clearances, sir. My family was obliged to leave the croft. There weren't enough money for all of us, so I went to sea. No'much choice."
"A sad story." DeVergesse turned to his aide. "Guilliame, where did I find you?"
"I was forced to leave mon pere's vineyard. Our grapes were afflicted by the mold, and we were not able to raise the money to pay the aristocrat who owned our lands. Our father was obliged to send us into service."
"But in the Army of the Republic, you have begun to make your fortune, have you not?"
"Indeed I have. I send money home every month to my five homely sisters, widowed mother, and idiot brother."
"Mr. Matthews, it is unfortunate you were not born a Frenchman. Do you know what my friend Bonaparte says? He says 'Careers open to talents, without regard for birth or fortune.'" The seaman did not respond. "And speaking of careers open to talents, what do you think of Her Grace's friendship with your commanding officer?"
Matthews stood silently, staring a spot on the wall over DeVergesse's head.
"Mr. Matthews, do you have any idea why your country is at war with mine?"
At this, he brightened, thought furrowing his weathered forehead. "Well, there's prize money to consider. But, 'tis in the nature of an Englishman to fight Frogs, sir. No offense."
"Exactly," agreed DeVergesse. "None taken. Which is why it is entirely natural for me to wish the lot of you dead. Nothing personal. Take him back to his cell, Guilliame."
This one should remain to keep Hornblower and Styles company, he thought, making a series of rapid notations to his report. He is exactly the sort of honest, trustworthy seaman who keeps his head low, and knows no more than he should.
When Guilliame returned, DeVergesse said with no small degree of exasperation, "Incidentally, Guilliame, mold on grapes is generally considered to be a good thing."
"You would know better than I," replied Guilliame, then added. "I am not nearly as practiced at keeping my lies straight as you are, Mon Capitan."
"Something to aspire to as you progress in your career. Who is next?"
"There is a helmsman and two men recently pressed."
"Oh Lord, send them in as a group. I am eager to end this charade."
Kitty gently trailed her hands along Conchita's bruised face. "It is swelling. Let me apply a warm compress to your eye."
The girl was on the verge of tears. "I am so ugly now."
"No, my dear, you are never ugly, you simply look as though a man has used you ill."
Kitty struck a match in the grate and kindled a small fire in her bedroom.
"Senora la Duquesa, you should let me do that for you," the young woman moaned.
Kitty appeared not to listen and soon, a small but determined fire blazed away in the grate. She wet a warm cloth in her washbasin and held it over the flames with a pair of cast iron tongs until steam began to rise. Pressing the warm cloth to her maid's swollen face, she murmured, "There, Conchita. It is better already. And I have some powders and balms that will help to hide the bruises."
"You are so kind, Senora," the little maid began to sob softly.
"What is the matter?"
Her only answer was racking sobs from the Spanish girl.
"Conchita, I-, I need your help?"
"Oh yes," Kitty made a great show of warring with her better judgement, then relenting. "I was not entirely truthful with you this morning."
"You were not?"
"No. Do you recall when you said you had told your French soldier that I was far too respectable to have lovers?"
"Yes," the girl straightened in her chair, her dull eyes began to gleam with interest. "I did say that. But Senora, surely..."
"Now I need your help. You might find this difficult to understand," Kitty bit her lower lip and reached for one of the small jars of pigment she used to augment her naturally fine complexion. She began to pat some of it gently onto Conchita's bruises. "And perhaps you will think me rather free, but I do actually find that French Colonel very interesting. I should like to make him jealous. Will you help me?"
"Oh yes, Senora!" Conchita clapped her hands together, her private sorrows all but forgotten.
"Well then, let me show you something secret," Kitty whispered. Before Conchita's enormous dark brown eyes, she lifted her outer skirts to reveal the pocket in her petticoats, and the ribbon-bound bundle therein. "These are letters from my lover."
Conchita's sharp intake of breath revealed her surprise.
"No, child. An Admiral of the Fleet! See?" She showed Conchita a glimpse of the Admiralty seal pressed into the wax.
"But what do you need me to do?"
"I want you to tell this French soldier that you found a bundle of letters in my petticoats. He will tell his master, and then his master will be jealous!" Kitty winked. "If he is made jealous, perhaps he will act on his partiality for me. Oh, Conchita. It has been too long since I have had any romance in my life."
"But, your husband..."
"An old man. It was not a love match, though he was ever kind to me. But the Colonel DeVergesse, now, that is an attractive man. Not so handsome as your Guilliame of course, but well-favored enough for me at my age," Kitty paused, "Understand, Conchita, I am bored here at El Ferrol. I only wish to amuse myself until I am back in England, and must play the weeping widow again." She sighed dramatically.
Conchita nodded solemnly, impressed with the worldly sophistication of the older Englishwoman. She smiled. "Ah, Senora, thank you. I now have a reason to approach Guilliame today. I had been so unhappy that I had not seen him all morning."
"He no doubt has his duties, Conchita. If I were you, I should hang about the hallways of El Ferrol. You are certain to run into him. Here," she said, putting several small items of clothing in a basket. "I find I am rather short of stockings of a sudden, so I would have you wash these for me today. That should be good for several trips up and down these corridors at the very least."
When Conchita had departed, Kitty once again turned her attention to the hidden dispatches. Though the little stack of falsified and trivial dispatches would be a source of embarrassment to whoever attempted to pass them off as an intelligence coup, she was still dissatisfied. This act to her personal drama lacked a powerful closing line--one which would set the audience to buzzing the darkness as the next scene was set.
She removed the letter from Major Ross from her carefully hidden cache between the pages of Don Quixote, and she reread it several times. Really, if the name of the traitorous Frenchman had not been divulged, she would have wondered if it were Colonel DeVergesse himself who the Major was describing. A French intelligence officer, a friend to Bonaparte, operating in Spain but not fully committed to the cause of a French/Spanish Alliance?
Taking a clean piece of foolscap, she held the notice up to the windowpane and traced with no small care the signature of Major Ross. Kitty was not satisfied with the forged dispatches she had assembled in the packet in her petticoats. She reflected hotly on Conchita's swollen eye, the violation of her possessions, the perfidy of Sir John Morris, and finally, the insults to her pride by the manipulative Frenchman.
Code, she thought. I shall make this a simple numeric substitution code, shifting each number by three from the number that corresponds to the letter. By the time this code is broken, that bastard DeVergesse shall be well away and he will taste well-deserved humiliation and fear. So with a lighter heart, she began to transcribe Major Ross's letter word for word above his distinctive signature, substituting only the name "Colonel Etienne DeVergesse" for that of the traitorous French double-agent.
"Well? I am here. What do you want?"
Horatio Hornblower stood defiantly before the two Frenchmen, glaring furiously from one to the other. The sun was now high overhead and harsh light no longer assaulted the eyes of a prisoner as he stood in front of the desk.
DeVergesse, ignoring him, applied himself to the completion of another brief letter.
"What I want at the moment is for you, Guilliame, to deliver this very important 'Dispatch'." DeVergesse, casually passed a folded slip of paper over his shoulder to his aide-de-camp. He angled it in such a way that the tall young Briton could glimpse the name.
Guilliame glanced briefly at the name written on the outside, then asked, "Now, sir?"
DeVergesse shot him a telling look. "Mais oui, I should not be very long in here with Mr. Horn-BLOW-er. You may leave us, Guilliame. I shall see you back at our room, and I shall want my number one uniform in order. And Guilliame-take that damn thing off your head!" The younger man shrugged, saluted, peeled Kitty Cobham's stocking from around his temple with a flourish, and left directly.
DeVergesse leaned back on his chair and put his boots up on the edge of the desk. He returned Hornbower's smoky gaze dispassionately, idly scratching one muscular thigh and allowing just the hint of a smile to lift one corner of his mouth. So here again was the wonderful Mr. Hornblower, who none but one blamed for landing them all in prison through his refusal to take the navigational advice of his second. Irrationally, the fine curly hairs at the nape of his neck began to prickle, but he maintained his silence, gambling on a young man's impulsiveness.
His expectations were quickly met.
"Frankly, Colonel, it takes a good deal of nerve to write notes to a lady after what you did to her last night. I should expect she'd want nothing more to do with you."
"Really, Mr. Hornblower? And what, exactly, did I do to her last night, hmmm?" DeVergesse smiled down at his hand, beginning a minute examination of each fingernail in turn. Turning over his palm and curling his hand into a half fist, he worked the pad of his thumb over each nail, buffing it to a shine, then examining it again. "Did you have a nice walk with Mademoiselle, or is it more properly, Madame Cobham?"
Hornblower ran his tongue over his lips several times. "You know very well what you did. You are detestable."
"True, true, I do know very well what I did, but what I do not know is what you think I did. Why don't you enlighten me, Mr. Hornblower? Provided, of course, that you have the vocabulary to express yourself on that subject."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the young man tense, fingers working to form a fist.
"Non, none of that posture, Mr. Hornblower. Mon Dieu," DeVergesse put his feet back on the floor and swiveled around rapidly, clasping his hands in the center of the desk and meeting the young man's eyes squarely, "you can say it in Latin if that would make it easier for you. I hear you are quite a scholar."
"There cannot be much sport in jibes at a prisoner's expense," Hornblower responded.
"Now there is another thing you are wrong about, Mr. Hornblower. There is a great deal of sport to be had, but only if the prisoner doesn't act like one. Please sit down." DeVergesse waved at a chair. "Now, I believe it is customary under English law to let the accused hear the nature of his crime before his trial begins."
"Crime? I have not committed any crime, sir."
"I was not talking about you, Mr. Hornblower. I was talking about me." DeVergesse stood up and walked to the side of the desk, half-sitting on the corner. "You come in here, accusing me of detestable behavior, cloaked in your oh-so-tedious mantle of English self-righteousness and priggery, so I ask you, what is it you think I have done?"
"I thought that you were supposed to interrogate me," Hornblower said.
DeVergesse regarded him with lively interest, wondering if the frequency with which he licked his lips and swallowed was indicative of nervousness or simply thirst.
"I thought--Mr. Hornblower, do have some of this water-that it would be less dull to do it the other way around. You know why I am here of course, but you do not seem particularly interested in being exchanged."
Hornblower's eyes flashed. "First of all, Colonel, I do not have family with influence in the Admiralty. The one Captain who knew my father is dead. Second of all, even if the first thing were not true I would prefer not to owe my freedom to a man like you."
"I assure you, there is little chance of that," DeVergesse replied. "I have been interviewing your men all morning and I am now entirely convinced that to release you back into service would be a grave tactical error."
Hornblower's dark brows lifted.
"Mr. Hornblower, you have been paid a compliment."
"If you say so, Colonel DeVergesse. What about my men?"
"I have no objections to some of them returning to their ship, provided we get some of our own back for them."
"And you will write this in your report?"
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower. Those were my orders, and like you, I am bound to follow my orders even when they contradict common sense. Rather like your Mr. Hunter was obliged to set sails to carry Le Reve into the Spanish fleet." He noted with satisfaction the flash of anger in Hornblower's eyes. "But, I confess I am very uneasy in my mind about certain other things I have learned here in El Ferrol, and these things I can act upon based on my own judgement."
"Non. Not yet. You have not yet satisfied my curiosity," DeVergesse turned his attention to his cuffs, picking small pieces of lint and horsehair from them fastidiously. "Come now, Mr. Hornblower. We have no secrets from each other where Madame Cobham is concerned. You and I both know her real name, but I have the advantage of having known her years ago when she was a young actress on her way up in the world, while you have the advantage of having known her recently, when, it looks to me as if she heading in the opposite direction entirely. Perhaps if we put our heads together, we can determine exactly who this woman is and what her game here must be."
"I know who she is," Hornblower returned hotly. "Miss Cobham is a very brave lady, and I admire her for EVERYTHING she has done."
"I do. And furthermore, she is the woman whose body you used as the price of your silence," he continued bitterly.
"Now that is very interesting accusation, Mr. Hornblower. It seems to me that it was Miss Cobham who asked you to leave and me to stay. What makes you think that such an inelegant bargain was struck between us? Jealousy, perhaps? It would be natural under the circumstances."
"She had NO CHOICE!" Hornblower fairly shouted in frustration. "Surely you cannot think she gave herself to you willingly."
"No?" DeVergesse's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He rose from his half-perch on the edge of the desk, pulling himself up to his full height and squaring his shoulders and jaw. "Is that what she told you?"
"More or less. She said she sacrificed her pride and her self-respect."
DeVergesse shook his head sadly and clucked softly under his breath.
"You English have no imagination. Do you have so little imagination that you can only think of one way in which a woman can sacrifice these things? Look at me, Mr. Hornblower. Do I look like the sort of man who has to resort to blackmail to obtain the already indiscriminately bestowed favors of a middle-aged actress? Do I?"
"No," Hornblower admitted grudgingly. "But you look like the sort that might consider it sport," he continued with a nasty smile.
DeVergesse laughed aloud. "That is very good, Mr. Hornblower. I did not think you had it in you. Perhaps you are part French after all?"
"Have it your way, Mr. Hornblower." DeVergesse's tone was stern. "The important thing for you to remember is that Kitty Cobham is an actress, and a damn good one. One of the best. Mr. Hornblower, have you ever paid court to an actress?"
"Me? N-, no, of course not!"
"Why the 'of course not'? Surely actresses and Midshipmen are both human beings, with hearts that fall in love. Are you a snob?"
"No, no, you twist my meaning. I have been at sea from the time I was 17 years old. I have had neither the time nor money with which to attend a theatrical performance, let alone court an actress."
"Very well, then it is up to me to enlighten you on this very interesting subject. An actress is a woman who can make you believe she is dying painfully from the poisoned bite of an asp, and then a few minutes later, she rises from the sarcophagus with a lively smile on her face, and gathers bouquets with a wink and a special smile for every man in the audience."
"Sir-, this is irrele-"
"This is a woman who can look at a man as if she has never in her life seen anyone she finds more worthy of her love and admiration, throw her arms about him, sob into his embrace, and cover his hands with kisses. Then when the curtain goes down she can turn and walk away from him back to her room without giving him a moment's serious consideration."
"What is your point, Colonel? You said this would not take long."
"My point is, Acting Lieutenant, that you cannot trust an actress."
"I trust this one."
"Then the more fool, you, Mr. Hornblower. Would you care to know what I learned from your men this morning."
"Well, I'll tell you anyway. I learned that they admire you excessively, except for Mr. Hunter, who thinks you are an incompetent arse-kissing, barely-breeched puppy, that some are clever and some are stupid-"
"Oh VERY good, Colonel DeVergesse. I could have saved you a great deal of time by telling you all that myself. The Spanish Inquisition should take lessons from you."
"-BUT, that the one thing that they all do have in common with each other is that every man, from the Helmsman to the lowest deck-swabbing pressedman, thinks that you have enjoyed 'Her Grace's' most private and intimate personal attractions on the sandy beaches of El Ferrol."
Hornblower gasped. "No! I assure you I have never-"
"Because it would not be right. Because I would not force myself on a woman under my protection."
"Assuming for the moment that I believe you, and there is no more reason for me to believe your avowals than for you to believe mine, what does forcing her have to do with it? Or are you saying that she has simply never given you any encouragement?"
Horatio rolled his eyes angrily, but the tip of his nose betrayed him with a blush.
"What I am saying, Colonel, is that I see more evidence that you are lying than I."
"Really? What is this evidence?"
"Perhaps," Hornblower rose slowly from the chair, and placed his hands on the edge of DeVergesse's desk. "You might explain to me why your aide-de-camp is wearing one of Miss Cobham's stockings around his head like a spoil of war!"
DeVergesse leaned forward to put his face close to Hornblower's own. Eyes locked like the antlers of rutting stags, they scarcely breathed. Then DeVergesse hissed through gritted teeth, "Perhaps YOU would care to explain to ME how you can be so very sure that IS her stocking!"
The two men pulled apart, and DeVergesse shoved Hornblower roughly back into the chair, lips pursed into a hard, angry line.
"Mr. Hornblower, you have had weeks and weeks of walking and talking with a worldly and charming woman who is clearly no one's virgin bride. Do you expect me to believe that in all of that time you never once thought about what you might do if such a woman invited you, nay, begged you to embrace her?"
He scrutinized Hornblower's discomfited expression. "Ah, I see that you HAVE at least thought about it. What if she had patted the seat next to her in her bedchamber, and bid YOU to stay. Would it have been within your power to resist such an obvious invitation?"
"I would never allow her risk her reputation. I have honor, sir."
"But don't you see, her reputation is gone already with your men. Simply by spending so much time in private with her, you have insured that nobody would believe that you have not taken advantage of whatever this woman, who gives every appearance of fondness for you, was willing to offer? A lonely hen, surrounded by dozens of roosters. Do you know what usually happens in such cases, or were you never a farm boy, Mr. Hornblower? I wager Mr. Matthews could tell you if you asked him."
"And deprive you of the chance to enjoy your own cleverness at my expense? Nevah."
DeVergesse laughed softly again. "You know, Mr. Hornblower, I am almost starting to like you. But it is always the most experienced rooster with the longest spurs on his heels who wins the lonely hen, Mr. Hornblower. That is natural law." He sniffed and looked sadly at Hornblower's shoes. "Perhaps you should have joined the Cavalry."
"I do not care to discuss this any further. And I resent, SIR, your implications about Miss Cobham's past and I further resent your barnyard analogies. We are not animals, at least, I am not."
"Very well, Mr. Hornblower. But reflect on the impressions given by your own behavior, and hers, before you accuse me of blackmail or rape. And I resent, MONSIEUR, that your country holds talented, spirited women like Madame Cobham in such low esteem that they have little choice but to trade on their favors since a truly eligible marriage is denied them. In the New Republic of France, we do not make these distinctions based on occupation and birth."
"Are you quite finished? What a comfort it is for me to know that IF an eligible gentleman can actually keep you Republican barbarians from cutting off his head and confiscating his estates, that he can marry an actress with the full approval of the Pariesian mob. Can we please push along with the interrogation? If that is what this entirely farcical conversation is supposed to be."
"What did you expect? The Spanish Inquisition? Shall I put you on the rack, then, and torture you for awhile? I'm sure Don Massaredo keeps something of the sort about the place. Why don't you just hand over to me the packet of dispatches you carried on Le Reve and save us both a great deal of bother."
"Dispatches, sir?" Hornblower shook his head. "I do not know what you mean."
"Oh, do not play stupid. I know much more than you suspect. The only thing I do not know is whether or not you disposed of them at sea. But no matter, if they are here, I will find them."
"Yes, is there anything you can tell me about Mr. Kennedy that would help us to find his family? I know he is an upper-class Englishman and therefore an exchange should be easy to arrange for him. You know as well as I that he does not belong here."
Horatio frowned in thought, then nodded. "Well," he said, "I believe the Kennedy family seat is in the county of."
"Don't tell him anything, Horatio." Both men turned to the doorway in surprise.
"Archie.." Horatio gasped. "You are up on your feet."
"Yes." Pale and trembling, he stood in the doorway, leaning heavily against the frame. "I think I am to be returned to our cell today. The doctor told me to walk in the hallways and test my strength."
"How long have you been listening, Mr. Kennedy?" DeVergesse asked.
"Long enough," Kennedy replied weakly. "Long enough." He began to slide down the doorframe, his eyes fluttering white and insensible.
"I've got you," Horatio swooped to his friend's side and threw one arm over his shoulders, raising him back into a standing position. "I'm taking you back to bed."
"Pardonnez-moi," Guilliame said, arriving at the door to the brisk rhythmical clanking of his sword and boot heels. Bending his supple torso around the two entwined Englishmen in the doorway, he slithered past them, eyes glittering with excitement. "Colonel, un moment, s'il vous plait!"
"Mr. Hornblower, you may go. Take your friend back to his bed."
The two men put their heads together and Guilliame began to whisper rapidly in French, heedless of the two curious sets of eyes watching them from the doorway, one pair brown and sharp, and the other bright blue but struggling to stay focused.
"The Duchess has the dispatches!" Guilliame whispered. "Her maid just told me that she carries a packet of letters bound with a ribbon in a pocket sewn high up in her petticoats! She bears them there at all times, which is why I did not find them when I searched her room. Conchita thinks they are love letters, but we know better, n'est ce pas?"
DeVergesse fought hard to concentrate on his aide's breathless account of the conversation with the maid, though all the while he strained to hear the soft voices of the two slowly departing Englishmen.
"Horatio, how is your French?" Archie Kennedy whispered weakly.
"No better than it ever was," Horatio answered grimly. The last fleeting glimpse DeVergesse had caught of his face revealed that it had acquired an ashen hue. "How is yours?"
"Horatio, they speak the patois, but I understand--"
"Un moment, Guilliame." DeVergesse dashed to the doorway. "GUARDS!" He shouted. Several of Don Massaredo's soldiers came running down the hallway and DeVergesse addressed them in Spanish. "I believe these men are plotting to escape. I want them both confined to their cells until I have finished my interrogation."
"You LIE!" Archie shouted, surprising all of them with the unexpected strength of his voice.
"Of course I lie," DeVergesse said in English, blinking innocently at Hornblower. "I consider it...a sport." He whirled on his heel and strode briskly back into the interrogation room, successfully hiding a surprisingly radiant smile from the men in the hallway, but not from his aide-de-camp.
"Sacre bleu!" Guilliame stared curiously at his commander's unusually animated face. "Even I did not realize how badly you wanted those dispatches."
"The dispatches? Oh yes, I want those" DeVergesse's mind spiraled dizzily as he pondered the significance of what Guilliame had told him.
"Did you say that the hidden pocket was 'high' up in her petticoats?"
"Yes, yes I did. Definitely above the knee." Guilliame smiled wickedly. "And I would like to volunteer"
Above the knee and always on her person. DeVergesse held his breath until a knot of pain formed in his chest, remembering his hand caressing Kitty's knee, and then the gentle upward slide of his hand as he sought to put his fingers between the top of her silky stocking and the velvety skin of her inner thigh. And it was at that moment that she had hit him. Now, he knew why. She did want me! The realization sent a stab of excitement through his gut.
But, when should I attempt to take these dispatches from her? Should I wait until she has brought me the key? And then, he considered unhappily, I shall be obliged to seduce her and then this time it will be my duty remembered which tears me from our embrace.
"I am once again sorry to interrupt your plotting and scheming, for I assure you I could watch this fascinating process all day and never become bored, but the other thing I needed to tell you is that a messenger from Captain Botella of the Almeria is waiting outside."