Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
For her own breakfast she'll project a scheme,
Nor take her tea without a stratagem.
--Edward Young, Love of Fame
PART TEN: "Tactics and Strategy"
An assortment of fans, combs, gloves, reticules, and laces lay spread out across the table. Catching sight of this display as he entered the common room, Archie was tempted to comment on the resemblance to an arsenal, then realized the uncomfortable degree of truth in that simile.
The three women seated upon the nearby sofa looked up at his approach and he murmured a faintly uneasy "Good morning," trying to hide his self-consciousness at being the sudden focus of so much attention.
"Good morning." Smitty sounded as calm today as she had sounded agitated the previous night. " Come and join us. We need to consider how you should present yourself to Society, Mr. --" She broke off unexpectedly, shaking her head as though vexed with herself.
"Lennox," Caillean supplied. "I helped make out those cards myself."
"Lennox, then," Smitty repeated, with a nod, and Archie recognized the strategy: to accustom himself to hearing and being addressed by that name. "You'll appear one of m'lord's minor associates, nothing too specific. And your companion will be Mrs. Munro."
Archie blinked, recalling Caillean's new alias; she was smiling broadly and more than a little flirtatiously at him.
"It should appear," Grant took up the thread, "that your acquaintance should be of some long standing."
"Cousins, I think," Smitty proposed thoughtfully. "Rather distant."
"Cousins *by marriage*," Grant corrected. "That's why there would be no family resemblance."
"You're right," Smith admitted. Her gaze lingered on Caillean. "You'd best be the dashing Widow Munro -- it allows you far more license."
"License? Am I to be enacting the part of 'bird of paradise?'" Caillean's voice was laced with mischievous amusement.
"Not precisely," Smitty corrected her. "A touch of the adventuress, if you like, a suggestion that you may be a trifle fast, but nothing truly beyond the line. You must be admitted to the highest circles, after all. Of course," she added, sounding amused in her turn, "your admirers can always be persuaded to *hope* you might overstep the bounds of propriety -- "
Grant chuckled as Caillean sat up straighter, preening and fanning herself in a decidedly exaggerated manner.
"And you," Smitty's attention turned suddenly to Archie, who felt himself flushing slightly under the surveillance of three feminine gazes. Rising to her feet, Smitty first looked him slowly up and down, then circled him with an air of intense concentration. But she wasn't studying him in any of the ways he had ever seen a woman study a man before: this scrutiny, the measured calculation Archie saw in the dark grey eyes, was eerily reminiscent of Kilcarron at his coolest and most remote.
"It would be best, I think," Smitty said at last, "if you let your companion draw the attention, while you remain inconspicuous."
Beyond her shoulder, Archie saw Caillean smile again; he remained silent and attentive, struck by a sobering realization. This was a lesson, as substantive and vital as anything he had ever done with Rory in the map room, or had heard from Carmichael as the two of them walked up and down the hills around the lodge all the long months of Archie's convalescence. He was receiving instruction from a senior officer, who expected him to take heed of her advice and commands.
Smith reached out, tweaked a strand of henna-tinted hair free, and studied it critically. "A less -- memorable color might have been more prudent."
"There was a . . . greater need to alter my appearance," Archie explained. "I did have some acquaintance in the area."
"Ah." Smitty sounded more approving.
"Carmichael's idea." Grant spoke up from the sofa.
"It would be." Smitty's tone was indecipherable. "The man does know his business, mostly." She frowned. "Even if he still shouldn't be here."
"You didn't have a chance in hell of stopping him." The sudden vehemence in Caillean's tone made her audience blink. "He's right--it was bloody careless. And he won't back away now that it's begun."
Smitty's lips parted, as if shaping a retort; she restrained herself with a visible effort. "I know that," she admitted, with unexpected candor. "Maybe there was never a chance of it, once he'd heard what happened."
"It shouldn't have happened at all." The unexpected chill in Grant's voice would have been a match for Kilcarron's at its iciest.
"I won't argue the point," Smitty said, still with that edge of control showing. "But if we fulfill our orders, we at least have the chance to solve it."
She glanced back at Caillean and quirked an ironic eyebrow. "How showy do you think you can be--Mrs. Munro?"
A light laugh greeted her query.
"Don't forget to wear a hat whenever you go outdoors," Archie reminded Carmichael as the latter frowned at his reflection in the younger man's mirror. "And gloves, too--you'll need to have a properly fashionable London pallor."
It was early afternoon, and they had managed to escape to Archie's room to consider the matter of the Edinburgh commander's London disguise, which would have to be good enough to fool even Commander Smith.
"You sound like Tiverton," Carmichael muttered, still eyeing his reflection with disapproval.
"No need to be insulting."
Carmichael shrugged. "He has his uses. Don't think there's time for me to get as pale as him, though."
"Likely not." Archie considered the matter again. "We could dye your hair darker as well--your skin would look paler by contrast."
"Dark hair, pale skin," Carmichael mused. "Look a touch like Jamieson, I would."
"It's a common enough appearance. Or we could powder your face a bit, too." Archie chuckled at Carmichael's expression as the other turned away from the looking glass. "It's still a simple thing to do for five guineas!"
"Some things aren't worth any money," his senior grumbled.
A knock on the door precluded Archie's response. The tailor, it appeared, had worked more quickly than expected: a portion of the garments fitted the previous day were now complete. Thanking and dismissing the tailor's assistant, Archie placed the stack temporarily on the top of the chest-of-drawers.
"Never seen that many clothes before for just one man," Carmichael remarked idly.
"That's only half of them," Archie answered, sensing the incipient provocation. "The rest'll be finished tomorrow, so I'll have more changes for the evenings."
Carmichael snorted. "Now there's Tiverton, without a doubt! When I was in the army, all I had was an old uniform."
"No changes at all?"
Carmichael shrugged. "I had an older uniform."
Archie chuckled again, then noticed the hour. If he and Caillean were to arrive punctually at Lady Amhurst's "at-home," he must prepare in haste.
Opening up the wardrobe, he took out fresh linen and Arundel's second-best suit.
"Should I go?" Carmichael offered.
"That won't be necessary," Archie said absently. "Besides, depending on what disguise we decide upon for you, you may have to wear clothes like these yourself one day!"
Archie grinned and began his toilette in earnest.
Fifteen minutes later, he studied himself in the long mirror, smoothed back his hair--retinted to a subtler shade, as of this morning, and artfully tousled--and gave the waistcoat one last straightening tug.
"Fine feathers," Carmichael observed. He had sprawled lazily across Archie's bed--exhausted, he claimed finally, not only from their hour of strategy in how best to change his appearance, but from a morning spent reassigning the London agents.
"Assuredly of the first stare," Archie confirmed. "But to be truly a la mode: one's boots and outer garments should be so closely cut that one requires the assistance of numerous . . . servitors merely to assume them."
"You don't say." The northern brogue had grown considerably thicker, with amusement.
"I do, indeed." Concealing a smile, Archie intoned in his best imitation of the Earl of Edrington, "By the by, it might be better if you were to address me as 'my lord.'"
A rude snort came from his superior. "Put on your own damn jacket!"
"It was a great pleasure to make your acquaintance," Caillean was saying, in a throaty, almost purring voice, to the gentleman now taking his leave. "No doubt we shall meet again soon."
"Then the pleasure will be mine on that occasion, madame," he replied, raising Caillean's hand to his lips.
Not a little amused, Archie heard Caillean give a low, rippling laugh guaranteed to arouse interest in any man still in possession of a pulse. "Indeed, sir, you make me quite eager for such an encounter!"
"No less than I, je vous assure! Au revoir to you, my dear Lady Amhurst--and to the so charming Madame Munro and Madame Finlay." The bows to both ladies were equally deep as the Frenchman turned to depart the drawing room, accompanied by his hostess.
"Another conquest for you!" Laura Grant, established in her own role as "Mrs. Finlay," teased Caillean, who fluttered her lashes coquettishly. "You'll have half the men in London in leading-strings before long, if we don't have an eye to you!"
"As long as one of them is the man we want," Ferguson commented, and Archie nodded agreement.
The unspoken etiquette regarding "at-homes" dictated that visits were to be brief, not exceeding half an-hour. Cognizant of that rule, the four agents had made sure that they were the last of the guests to arrive, so no one would think twice if they were also the last to leave.
Despite the brevity of their contact with two of the suspects on Kilcarron's list, Archie thought they had managed to form an accurate initial impression of both
Dark-haired, handsome Edmond DeGuise had appeared quite a solemn young man, in contrast to the tales fashionable society told of his flamboyant father and stylish stepmother; further, he had seemed deeply in love. He had even announced his intention to alter his name to its English variation--Edmund--if it would please his chosen lady and her family.
Miss Julia Pearson had been a fair beauty, very much in the English style. Only her first season, and already she had formed a most eligible connection. But this match had not been made only for its advantages; the young girl's heart was most clearly in her eyes as she pleaded with her betrothed not to change in the least.
Archie had found himself touched by that ingenuous avowal, had even felt a reminiscent pang--"I was adored once too"--which he had quickly suppressed. Remembering his assigned role to remain unobtrusive and let Caillean draw all the attention, he had participated in the conversational exchanges only enough to appear civil. A chance reference to Miss Pearson's family had increased his efforts in that regard: it seemed that her oldest sister was, in fact, Lady Halstead, one of his sister Alice's greatest friends. Moreover, there was another sister, Letitia, whom Archie remembered meeting at a Langford House dinner party. Fortunately, Miss Julia would have still been in the schoolroom at that time.
Nevertheless, the unexpected coincidence had disconcerted him, and he redoubled his efforts to appear as insignificant as the furniture itself. Though the young couple had had, overwhelmingly, eyes for no one but each other.
Effacing himself did provide Archie with another opportunity: he realized that, despite two years of acquaintance, he had never seen Caillean perform in such a milieu as she was doing now, quite deliberately trailing her coat to attract the notice of Guillaume LeGrande.
LeGrande himself was playing to attract attention, Archie deduced. He had arrived clad in a rich but funereal suit, yet, at the same time, sparkling with what appeared to be various foreign Orders of Honor.
"My very last cousin," he had declared dramatically to his fellow guests. "Alas, he was of an age so advanced, I had not realized he yet survived until word reached me last week of his demise. He had lived out his final days in exile in Belgium. Naturellement, I have adopted for his sake the last of our family's remaining titles: I am le Baron de Saint-Jacques de L' Hermitage."
Archie had seen Rob Ferguson's lips twitch suspiciously, but all the ladies present had acted most impressed by "le Baron's" ascent to the ranks of the nobility. Caillean had even gone so far as to inquire whether a theoretical consort would be addressed as Baroness or simply as Madame Saint-Jacques. Archie himself had puzzled silently over the name: "Saint-Jacques of the Hermitage"? He had never heard of such a place--in France or anywhere else, for that matter! But the mention of "Jacques" . . .
Just then his eye had caught that of Ferguson and he had sensed that the older agent's thoughts mirrored his own. The title of "Saint-Jacques" had struck a chord because of its resemblance to the name of Commander Seaton's French contact, who remained yet unidentified. While Archie thought it unlikely that LeGrande would so blatantly flaunt his title if he were, in fact, the man, surely the coincidence--if coincidence it was--should be brought to Kilcarron's attention as soon as possible.
Their hostess returned, closing the drawing-room door behind her, and all four agents looked up expectantly. The Dowager Lady Amhurst was sweet-faced and quite small in stature, putting Archie in mind of a dainty porcelain statuette. Throughout the visits, her manner had been most amiable and very slightly abstracted as she had conversed with her guests over the tea-table.
With the departure of the other guests, however, the vague, almost fluffy demeanor fell away, to be replaced by an agent's formidable efficiency.
"Now you've been apprised of all their names and met two of them today," Lady Amhurst said briskly. "So, here are the further orders I've received to pass on to you. Agents Barrington and Tiverton will maintain their surveillance of LeGrande. Likewise, Doctor Latour and I shall continue to observe the other acquaintance of the Vicomte and Vicomtesse DeGuise. At Colonel Kendal-Jones' drum tomorrow evening, you," she indicated Grant and Ferguson, "will make contact with the other agents assigned to Colonel Parillaud, and I shall introduce you," she nodded at Caillean and Archie, "to the Honorable Justin Ainsley. His mother is among my acquaintance--though she seldom ventures into Society these days."
She turned back to Grant. "There was another order left, specifically for you: 'Besides Parillaud, watch for anyone unusual or unknown who approaches Ainsley or the Vicomte.' 'In the usual way' was the exact phrase I was given."
The younger woman nodded, apparently unsurprised. Archie blinked at this cryptic exchange, then remembered Grant's particular gift: her quick, artistic renderings of realistic likenesses. He had seen her talents utilized during the Irish mission last year.
"At what time does the drum begin?" Grant asked.
"Ten o' clock," Lady Amhurst replied. "I would advise you to arrive no later than half-past the hour, but not exactly on time. Either extreme might invite more attention than we desire. Evening dress, of course."
Caillean brightened, Grant looked speculative, and Ferguson appeared slightly pained at this last proviso. Archie thought back to the garments for which he had been fitted and remembered with relief that they had included several sets of evening clothes. At least he would not have to endure another session with the tailor--and Tiverton--before the drum!
On the sofa, Grant and Caillean had begun a discussion of what they would wear that evening, into which they had drawn a reluctant Ferguson. Concealing a smile, Archie let himself drift casually away--further practice for tomorrow night, at which time he would be playing his part before a much larger audience.
To his surprise, no sooner had he separated himself from the others than he found Lady Amhurst at his elbow.
"And now, Mr.--Lennox, isn't it?" The dowager surveyed him benevolently from head to toe. "May I offer you any assistance or advice? I understand that you have not been assigned to London before now?"
"No, my lady," Archie replied. "I have spent most of my time in Edinburgh. Although," he hesitated before volunteering the information--but Lady Amhurst had been among those included at the second meeting. "I am not -- unfamiliar with London. Commander Smith . . . has favored my role as a well-bred nonentity, partly for that reason."
"A useful suggestion," his hostess agreed, her expression thoughtful. "Society boasts its share of such respectable but undistinguished sorts. And I own they are quite easy to overlook, even by the most observant. But is there any other way in which I might assist you, on your first London mission?"
Archie considered the matter carefully. Kilcarron had already informed him of Alice's departure from London; on family business in Scotland, he had said--so it seemed unlikely that Archie would meet any other members of his clan in town. Miss Pearson's connection to the Halsteads had unnerved him a little. Still, he had not met Viscount and Lady Halstead above three or four times and he had never been the primary focus of their attention during those meetings; they were his sister's friends, after all.
Another possibility, slightly more alarming, occurred to him and he turned to Lady Amhurst. "Do you know, ma'am, if the Earl of Edrington is currently in town? We had a prior acquaintance, and a chance encounter might be--unfortunate."
"Ah." Lady Amhurst gave a brief nod. " I believe you need not concern yourself on that score. Lord Edrington, along with most of his family, has removed to one of the seaside towns--Brighton, I think--for the purpose of recruiting for the regiment."
Invasion fever again, Archie thought. "You're very kind," he said aloud, and was surprised to discover that he meant the words as more than a formality. A surge of curiosity overcame him. "How did you ever --" he began, then broke off, flushing. "Forgive me. I did not mean to intrude."
His hostess did not seem offended. "How did I become one of Nicholas Crawford's subordinates?" she inquired, smiling slightly. "That's a long story, in truth, but I don't mind telling it briefly." Her expression grew nostalgic. "My children were grown and married, and my husband gone long before that. I had reached an age where I no longer felt terribly necessary to anyone. Two people convinced me--that I could still be of service. One was Nicholas Crawford." She paused. "The other was Mary Seaton."
Archie blinked, hearing the lost commander's Christian name for the first time, and realizing the dowager would, in fact, be a match for her in age.
"I counted her my friend as well as my commanding officer," Lady Amhurst said candidly. "Nor, I think, am I the only one to do so."
Seaton turned her head. "Yes, Agent--Barrington, isn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am. It's -- the matter of this new man. M'lord wanted his training to begin."
"Yes?" Seaton prompted, her veteran governess's scrutiny taking note both of the junior agent's ruffled demeanor and the fact that he was not unaccompanied: a tall, shadowy form stood poised in the doorway behind him.
"Well, it's--I mean--to sort him out . . . he's not quite . . .well, he's just out of the Army, ma'am," Barrington concluded in a rush, as if this explained everything.
Seaton's brows rose. "We've had agents out of the army before, surely. How should this be a difficulty?"
Barrington fidgeted slightly. "It went well enough at first, but now . . .it's as if he just doesn't understand anything I say. And he's not quite a gentleman--if you take my meaning," he added with a faint, deprecating cough. "I don't know what more I can do."
For someone originally recruited from diplomatic circles, Seaton thought, the Honorable Ralph was exhibiting a sad failure of tact. Indeed, as he struggled to present his explanation, his loss of patience was becoming evident as well.
"Would you care for me to take charge of this, Agent Barrington?"
He was visibly grateful. "If you would, ma'am! M'lord thought he could be useful somewhere--maybe you can make something out of him." He beckoned to the shadow at the door, then made a hasty retreat himself.
Seaton eyed the approaching newcomer. Tall, yes, in a clean but well-worn uniform; there was a suggestion of truculence about the set of his mouth, though, and the tawny eyes held a glint of what might be impertinence. There were one or two particularly noteworthy details, she recalled, in the report Kilcarron had given her about this recruit.
"Well, sergeant?" she inquired.
"Ma'am?" His tone gave nothing away.
"You appear to have tried Agent Barrington's forebearance to a considerable degree, young man," she observed thoughtfully. "And what is more--you have been doing so deliberately! What do you have to say for yourself?"
"What'd you 'ave me say, then?" A north-country burr, though not overwhelmingly thick, was still noticeably evident.
"Ah." Seaton folded her hands together, her contemplative expression not altering in the least. "We'll see what other ways you can sound," she said matter-of-factly.
END PART TEN