Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Exit, pursued by a Bear.

--William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

 

PART THIRTEEN: "Entrances and Exits"

 

"Alack, where are you?" exclaimed the pretty dark-haired girl upon the stage. "Speak and if you hear; / Speak, of all loves! I swoon almost with fear!"

Pausing, she glanced around anxiously, hugging herself with slim, pale arms as she climbed to her feet. "No? Then I well perceive you are not nigh: / Either death or you, I'll find immediately!"

The curtain descended immediately upon her exit, heralding the start of the first interval. Seated with the Halsteads in their box, Medora applauded along with the rest of those attending the opening of "The Fairies' Revels."

And truly, it was quite a good performance, she conceded, in spite of the many liberties taken with the text. The actors playing the Athenian lovers were appropriately youthful and befuddled, while Kitty Cobham exuded an ageless beauty and majesty as Titania, the fairy queen. Medora could not truly find fault with the way her music was being handled in this production either. The fairy choir's rendition of "Ye Spotted Snakes" had been note-perfect, and "Under the Greenwood Tree" had been slipped in as a song Hermia sang to Lysander just before they lay down to rest in the enchanted forest. Amazingly, it had worked rather well. Medora only hoped the insertion of "It was a Lover and his Lass" would prove equally adroit.

Mr. Kelly had appeared to have no doubts on that score--nor in Medora herself. Just this afternoon, she had received a letter from him asking her if she would compose a piece of instrumental music for a masque scene in the Lane's upcoming production of "King Henry the Eighth." Even now, half-formed chords and melodies were gradually taking shape inside her head.

The process of inner composition, however, was interrupted by a light knock on the door of the box. Splendid in pomona-green crape, Lady Halstead rustled over to admit the visitors herself, exclaimed in pleasure when she saw Miss Pearson and Edmond DeGuise standing there.

"My dears, do come in! Are you enjoying the performance?"

"Indeed we are, Corinna," Julia replied, smiling as she embraced her older sister lightly. "And so are Edmond's parents," she added, smiling at her intended.

Monsieur DeGuise bowed over Lady Halstead's hand. "They are enraptured by this so-delightful play, madame," he confirmed. Your theatre, it is incomparable!" He pronounced the word with a Gallic flourish that both amused and charmed his listeners.

"And the music is every bit as lovely as the acting," Julia continued, now turning her smile upon Medora. "And how splendid that your name appears in the playbill too, Miss Tresilian!"

Medora smiled and thanked her. Her name was indeed on the playbill--though by no means prominently displayed--as "M. R. Tresilian." She did not know if anyone beyond her circle of intimates would even notice, though she had no intention of denying her connection to this production--or any future production--if asked. A sheltered girl in her teens might prefer anonymity, but a woman of three-and-twenty knew there were far worse things to face than being known as a professional composer.

"And I love your gown!" Julia said artlessly. "I yearn to wear colors again. You cannot imagine how tedious it is to wear white all the time!"

In truth, Medora could imagine it with no trouble at all. White was more often than not the accepted color for young girls during their first season; she'd worn her share of it when she was Julia's age, although Alice's cleverness had ensured that she did not have to wear it all the time. She supposed she should be grateful that the color had not been unflattering to her, although it had had the exasperating effect of making her look younger than she was--not something that any seventeen-year-old girl desired!

Despite her complaints, Julia looked ethereally lovely in embroidered white gauze over satin, almost as if she too belonged in a fairy wood near Athens. Medora knew her own ensemble was more earthbound, though quite becoming all the same. This morning, she had awakened in an oddly defiant "damn your eyes" mood that only increased as the evening drew near. Perhaps knowing she was to be on display had had something to do with it. In any case, she had found herself dressing . . . not to be noticed, exactly, but certainly not to be overlooked. Thus, a previously sedate evening gown of dusty-rose silk had acquired further embellishments in a robe of figured ivory lace, long ivory gloves, a lacy fan, and rose-pink satin slippers. Jane had coaxed her mistress's hair into sleek curls and swept them up in an elegant cascade, held in place by an ivory comb and a single damask rose the exact shade of her gown. Medora had also chosen to wear her mother's pearl set, so a double strand encircled her throat and dainty drops dangled from her earlobes. And for the first time in over two years, she had dabbed rosewater--once her favored perfume--behind her ears and at the hollow of her throat. As she checked her appearance in the glass, she had felt as if a beloved shade had come to stand behind her, offering silent encouragement.

"Well, dearest heart?" she had asked the listening air. "Shall I do you proud?"

There had been no answer, but she had felt oddly cheered all the same as she descended the stairs to the waiting carriage.

Lady Halstead's voice recalled her to the present. "What a beautiful miniature, Julia! Is it new?"

"Oh, yes." Her sister glanced down proudly at the portrait hanging from a fine chain about her neck, then over at her intended, deep in conversation with Lord Halstead . "Now that an announcement of our betrothal has been sent to the Gazette, Edmond thought it was time he presented this to me. Is it not perfect?"

"An excellent likeness," Lady Halstead approved, leaning closer to admire Monsieur DeGuise's painted image.

"Edmond has one of me, as well--and by the very same hand."

"Most romantic. Who was the artist?"

"A French émigré, by the name of D'Aubigny. I met him only for one sitting . . . but I have heard the most shocking thing: the poor man was killed by thieves, in his own studio, less than a fortnight ago." Julia shuddered, her hand tightening almost protectively around the miniature. "This must have been among the last portraits he undertook before--"

Medora repressed a shiver of her own, remembering Georgy's portrait, but did not wish to distress Julia further by mentioning it.

"Quite dreadful," Lady Halstead sympathized.

"It frightens me a little, to think of it," Julia admitted.

"Understandable," her sister nodded. "But you mustn't let it spoil your pleasure in Edmond's gift to you."

"No--that would not be fair to his generosity or Monsieur D'Aubigny's skill." Julia brightened suddenly. "I had almost forgot! Edmond and I wanted to know if any of you would be attending Lady Theodosia Gresham's supper party afterwards!"

"Lady Theodosia Gresham?" Lady Halstead looked thoughtful. "I've often heard of her parties, but I've never had the opportunity to attend one."

"Oh, but you must come tonight! All of you!" she added, smiling at everyone in the box. "She is a friend of Edmond's family, and a celebrated hostess. Edmond tells me that she is always delighted to entertain additional guests."

"Well, I must own, I have always been rather curious about Lady Theodosia's soirées," Lady Halstead confessed with a faint smile. "Miss Tresilian, you would not mind attending?"

Thus addressed, Medora considered the question. In for a penny, in for a pound. "Why not?" she replied, after only a brief hesitation. "It sounds like a most enjoyable diversion."

"Gerald?" Lady Halstead appealed to her husband.

The viscount chuckled. "If I were to say 'no,' I should never hear the end of it, my dear! Well, I've no objection to the plan! We accept with pleasure," he added to Julia.

"Wonderful!" she exclaimed and gave them the direction of Lady Theodosia's house in Soho Square, before departing with her intended for the DeGuises' box as the interval concluded.

*****

Only in London, Medora thought as she gazed about Lady Theodosia's crowded salon some two hours later.

Although Soho Square was said to occupy the border between monied respectability and artistic eccentricity, Lady Theodosia's townhouse appeared completely unexceptional from the outside. It was only after the Halstead party had been admitted that the difference became immediately obvious: seldom had so diverse a throng been gathered under one roof, unless it was at Drury Lane itself. A barrage of colors, sounds, and scents assailed them from the moment they set foot in the brightly lit salon.

Alerted to their presence, their hostess had come forward to greet them. Alice, Lady Langford, might resemble a butterfly but Lady Theodosia put Medora forcibly in mind of a dragonfly: less fragile, yet with the same skittish, restless air. She was tall and slim to the point of thinness, with light brown hair styled in feathery curls and large, changeable grey-green eyes, complemented by her gown of pale celadon silk. An intricate necklace of brilliants shimmered around her throat, quivering each time she took a breath; Medora half-expected to hear the jewels chime like the prisms of a crystal chandelier.

For all her unsettled demeanor, Lady Theo--as she was familiarly called--offered her guests a warm welcome and bade them help themselves to the lavish supper laid out in one of the adjacent rooms. Thereafter, she had flitted off to greet more new arrivals--blithely unconcerned about whether her house could accommodate them all! But then, it was considered a great triumph for a social event of the season to be labeled "a crush."

Along with the rest of her party, Medora had proceeded to the designated room and enjoyed a light repast. Over supper, Edmond DeGuise had proffered another invitation to his future in-laws.

"My family would be honored if you would come to dine with us in four days' time," he said. "A connection of ma belle-mère, she is to visit London. Tante Agathe is . . . une femme d'un certain àge and will be coming all the way from Brussels. Ma belle-mère, she looks forward to hearing all the family news."

"An elderly connection, eh?" Lord Halstead remarked with a chuckle. "Well, we all have those, I think!"

"We should be pleased to attend, Edmond," Lady Halstead replied, with a slightly reproving glance at her husband.

"And you, Mademoiselle Tresilian," Monsieur DeGuise continued, turning to Medora, "I hope I may prevail upon you to join us as well."

"But, Monsieur, I am but the merest acquaintance!" she protested.

He held up a forestalling hand. "My father, he enjoys of all things your English theatre. It would not please him to learn that I knew but neglected to invite the composer of the so-charming songs he heard tonight!"

"Oh, do come, Miss Tresilian!" Julia pleaded. "I know I shall feel more at ease with some of my own friends in attendance! And if there is to be music," she brightened considerably, "perhaps you might even play for us?"

Medora laughed. "Who could resist so flattering a request? Very well, Monsieur--I accept your invitation gladly."

The Vicomte and Vicomtesse had not joined everyone else in the supper room, but they were to be found in the main salon. They greeted the Halsteads and Medora with perfect civility when Edmund performed the necessary introductions.

A handsome pair, Medora thought, though quite far apart in age; the Vicomtesse might be only two or three years older than her stepson. And she was undeniably beautiful, her dark loveliness set off to perfection by a dramatic burgundy-and-silver evening gown. As for the Vicomte, he looked like an older version of his son, only slightly broader in build and with a frosting of silver at his temples.

They also struck her as a courteous couple, rather than a fond one. Certainly, neither showed any disposition to hang upon the other as Medora had seen among some husbands and wives, though they appeared content enough in public. But if theirs had been an arranged marriage, it was more likely duty than affection that bound them; Edmond's own demeanor towards his young stepmother--punctilious but reserved--seemed further evidence of that. It therefore came as no surprise when the Vicomte politely excused himself, saying he had glimpsed an old acquaintance on his way to the supper room and wished to speak to him. Shortly after, the Vicomtesse herself drifted away in the company of another elegantly garbed woman.

Faint, sweet strains of music reached Medora's ears and she glanced toward the sound. In another room adjacent to the salon, a handful of couples were gracefully performing the steps of a gavotte. Lady Theo's soirées apparently included dancing for those who were so inclined. And perhaps, Medora speculated, that was one of the main attractions of her parties: that they offered so many diverse enjoyments. Spying the dancers himself, Edmund immediately expressed a wish to take the floor with his betrothed. A speaking look from his wife prompted Lord Halstead to voice the same inclination. Both Julia and Lady Halstead glanced at Medora as well, but she merely smiled and assured them that she would not feel herself deserted if they joined the dancers.

Indeed, there was great diversion to be found simply in the observation of Medora's fellow guests, not all of whom appeared tonnish, several of whom seemed to be "artistic." More people were now entering the salon: a tall, fair-haired man--in conservative but fashionable evening dress--was accompanied by a statuesque redhead in sheer, clinging white draperies, who was wafting an elaborate ostrich-feather fan. At the other end of the room, a soberly-clad man with a long, bony face was standing by a bookcase, a tome open in his hands as he conversed with a dainty, white-haired older woman whose natural milieu was more likely to be St. James's palace than Soho Square.

A hearty, braying laugh drew her attention to another corner of the salon. The sound had emanated from a broad-shouldered gentleman of no great height but with what looked like a vast array of glittering orders pinned to his coat and waistcoat. Beside him, apparently hanging upon his every word, was a slim, languid fellow arrayed in silver-grey and pale pink, who had frequent recourse to a quizzing glass.

Just then Lady Theo herself flitted across Medora's field of vision, her hands outstretched in welcome towards another new arrival. Curious, Medora directed her gaze to the hostess and her guest.

"Mrs. Finlay!" There was warmth as well as surprise in their hostess' voice. "How lovely to see you again, after so long! And Mr. Finlay too."

"Our pleasure as well, Lady Theodosia," a short, slightly foreign-looking woman replied, with a smile . The lanky, somewhat fidgety-looking man beside her bowed over Lady Theo's hand.

"And may we present our friend from Scotland, Mrs. Munro?" Mrs. Finlay continued, indicating a taller woman just at her shoulder.

Mrs. Finlay's companion was a striking brunette, wearing a rather splendid gown of green and gold gauze that left remarkably little to the imagination and a magnificent necklace that glowed like green fire above a creamy bosom.

Lady Theo smiled warmly at her in turn. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, of course. Have you been long in town?"

"Only a few days," Mrs. Munro replied in a low, attractively husky voice. "My dear friends have been showing me all the sights, and they said that I simply *must* attend one of your soirées as part of my 'London experience'!"

Lady Theo laughed lightly, but even from a distance, Medora could tell she was pleased. "I am deeply flattered--and I shall do my best to ensure satisfaction. Do come and have some supper."

Obediently, the trio began to thread their way through the crowd in their hostess's wake. Mrs. Murno's voice floated back towards Medora. "My dear ma'am, I hope you do not mind my asking, but I met the most charming young man at the Kendal-Joneses' drum last night, who said he was a friend of yours and that he would be here this evening. A Mr. Ainsley--has he arrived yet?"

Lady Theo paused to let two other guests straggle across her path. "Justin? He was invited, of course, but I do not recall seeing him so far this evening."

A brief silence had fallen as sometimes happened when several conversations lagged at once, and Lady Theo's next words rang with perfect clarity in the lull.

"No, now that I think of it--there's been no sign of Justin Ainsley all night! And after he told me to expect him, the wretch!"

The buzz of conversation resumed, but suddenly, there arose a sharp feminine outcry from the corner nearest Medora.

"Madame! Madame! Oh, can someone please fetch a glass of water?"

The attention of the entire room was now directed towards the furor which, to Medora's astonishment, turned out to involve the Vicomtesse DeGuise, who had collapsed in a crumpled heap of burgundy and silver upon a nearby chair. The acquaintance with whom she had been conversing knelt at her side, chafing her wrists with one hand and trying to fan her with the other.

Concerned, Medora started forward; although she had just met the Vicomtesse this evening, it was only right that she give what aid she could. At the very least she could offer the smelling-salts she carried in her reticule.

Just at that moment, however, she heard a low moan and saw the Vicomtesse stirring faintly. "Ah, Mon Dieu!" The Frenchwoman's voice was faint and querulous. "Qu'est-ce que . . . "

Lady Theo, who had flown immediately to the assistance of her stricken guest, gently took one of the limp hands in hers. "My dear, you appeared to have fainted. Are you feeling quite the thing?"

The Vicomtesse pressed her free hand to her temple. "Ah, non! Cela ne fait rien--un petit mal de tête, peut-être . . ." She made a half-hearted attempt to rise, but abandoned it, sinking back against the chair like a wilting flower.

"A headache?" Lady Theo translated, her brows lifting in renewed concern. "Ah, I know how wretched that can make one feel! Surely, there is no need to suffer so. I know a fine physician; he's here tonight as my guest--"

The Vicomtesse shook her head wanly, waving aside her hostess's suggestion. "Non, mais non! Je vous en prie--my own doctor, he is here as well. Monsieur le Docteur Minard . . . he can attend me--if you would send for him, s'il vous plaît?"

"As you wish, my dear," Lady Theo assured her.

A footman was quickly dispatched on this errand. Meanwhile, the lanky Mr. Finlay appeared at Lady Theo's elbow with a glass of water, from which the patient sipped cautiously. Within five minutes, however, a short, dark, narrow-faced man--perhaps in his forties--entered the salon and made his way purposefully to the Vicomtesse's side.

"Madame la Vicomtesse, she must 'ave room to breathe," he declared in a firm, strongly accented voice. "Then, of a certainty, she must take une poudre and rest for a time. Madame," he addressed Lady Theo, "'is there no chambre à coucher, where she might be comfortable until le mal de tête, it is gone?"

"Indeed there is, doctor," Lady Theo declared. "If you will both accompany me?"

With the help of the doctor and a footman, the Vicomtesse was coaxed from her chair and led from the room, leaning heavily upon her escort. The lady to whom she had been speaking before the attack came upon her was sent to inform the Vicomte of his wife's indisposition.

Aside from a few curious murmurs, the hubbub subsided almost immediately after the main participants left the room, the guests all resuming their previous activities. Medora could still hear the music from the far room, where the dancing had continued undisturbed.

"Miss Tresilian?" An oddly familiar voice hailed her.

Looking up, Medora barely concealed her surprise when she saw the tall, fair-haired woman--exquisite in pale blue and silver--now approaching her. But on further consideration, why should she be surprised that the Earl of Mornington's sister was attending Lady Theo's soirées? It was clear that quite a large portion of society did so as well.

"Lady Barbara," she replied, with a tentative smile. "A pleasure to see you again."

"Likewise, my dear," the other woman said, returning her smile. "I had hoped you might have called upon me this past week."

"Forgive me," Medora said with genuine contrition. "But I was much taken up with other responsibilites."

"So my playbill attests," Lady Barbara acknowledged. "Allow me to congratulate you upon your success. Your songs were utterly charming."

"You were there tonight--at Drury Lane?"

"Indeed, and I enjoyed every minute of tonight's performance. The theater is one of the things I have missed the most while on my travels, and to my mind, our London playhouses are the best the world has to offer."

"I love them too," Medora confessed. "We have a playhouse in Truro now, and the visiting troupes do their best when they come. But there is something almost . . . magical about the Lane."

"I could not agree with you more," said Lady Barbara. "And I do hope we might have leisure to discuss this subject further. But I came here with friends tonight--who are just about to take their departure--so may I prevail upon you to take tea with me tomorrow, at three o' clock?"

Medora hesitated only a moment. "I shall look forward to it, Lady Barbara," she replied, and found to her surprise that she meant it.

*****

INTERLUDE

London, 1804

 

Shirt. Waistcoat. Jacket. Neckcloth. All exquisitely arranged. A young man of good fortune, dressed in the height of fashion--who would think otherwise?

The haunted eyes reflected in the looking-glass gave him the lie; he quenched the urge to glance yet again over his shoulder. Memory stirred, of the words hissed in his ear.

We know the name of your chief creditor. He is not famed for his . . . patience. But we could pay you enough to be safe from him. Even enough to pay all your other debts--in full.

Everything paid in full. Dear God, how much money were they offering him? To be free of the burden: no more looking over his shoulder or listening for footsteps behind him if he walked alone after dark. No longer feeling himself the target of a hostile, predatory gaze the minute he stepped out of his door.

And there was only one thing they wanted in exchange. Such a small thing.

His word. His honor.

His country.

Difficult to keep his hands steady . . . he felt a tiny spurt of satisfaction when he managed to settle his hat securely on his head. Last of all, he picked up his cane and strode to the door, resisting the urge to look behind him once again.

 

END PART THIRTEEN