Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Thrice toss these oaken ashes in the air;
Thrice sit thou mute in this enchanted chair;
Then thrice three times tie up this true love's knot,
And murmur soft: "She will, or she will not."

--Thomas Campion, "Thrice Toss these Oaken Ashes"

PART SIXTEEN: "A Letter to My Love"

 

"Will you have one of these cakes, Miss Tresilian? My cook rather prides himself upon them."

Thanking her hostess, Medora selected one of the tiny, iced dainties from the indicated tray. It was indeed delicious, rich with butter and almonds, the icing lightly scented with rosewater. She murmured her appreciation, took a sip of hot, fragrant tea, while continuing to gaze about the sitting room.

A handsome residence, Lady Barbara's townhouse--the rooms airy, gracious, and decorated with exquisite taste. Pale stretched silks covered the walls and the furnishings were a pleasing mixture of French and English styles. Her hostess, cool and elegant in blue-sprigged muslin, looked as though she had been made to preside over such an establishment, and Medora was glad she had worn one of her better afternoon frocks--of embroidered, cream-colored linen--to this appointment.

"This house was my godmother's legacy," Lady Barbara had informed Medora upon the latter's arrival. "She had been widowed some years ago and her only son died at Flanders, so," she sighed, "everything came to me. I miss her sadly, of course--but I cannot help but be grateful for her generosity. It has made me a woman of independent means."

Independence clearly meant a great deal to Lady Barbara. Indeed, she had been disarmingly frank about her preference for remaining in the unmarried state as long as possible. Not that she had not had her share of offers, Lady Barbara had hastened to disclose, but she had yet to make the acquaintance of the gentleman with whom she wished to spend the rest of her life. "Unlike you, my dear," she had added to Medora, with a warmly sympathetic smile.

The house in Bond Street and a comfortable independence had come to Lady Barbara a little after she had attained her legal majority. She had immediately taken advantage of her new freedom to do some traveling, going first to India to see her brothers Richard and Arthur. There were several other countries she had longed to visit as well, but far too many of them were under Bonaparte's control and so too dangerous for an Englishwoman abroad.

"Arthur thinks he is insatiable," Lady Barbara reported, as she refilled Medora's tea cup. "And he believes it is merely a matter of time before our forces must engage him in open battle." She smiled a trifle wryly. "He only hopes that the British army will be up to the task."

Medora smothered a smile against the rim of her cup, remembering a number of pungent things Archie, Captain Harrow, and even Lord Edrington had said about the army's dismal failures against Bonaparte's troops.

"But that is quite enough about the war," her hostess declared emphatically. "Let us talk of pleasanter subjects. I very much enjoyed your music in last night's production. Shall you be composing anything more for Drury Lane this season?"

"Indeed," Medora replied. "Mr. Kelly has asked me to compose an occasional theme for their next play--'King Henry the Eighth.' It would accompany the masque for Queen Catherine."

She had spent all morning on the tune, which--fortunately--did not require to be especially long or elaborate: a slow, solemn stately theme, to be repeated as necessary for the duration of the masque. And it had provided a most welcome distraction from another task -- one that she could not delay much longer, for she had given her word . . .

"Miss Tresilian?"

Lady Barbara had said something. Medora recollected her thoughts and smiled apologetically at the other woman. "Forgive me. I am afraid my mind was wandering, as it often does when I am asked about my work!"

Her hostess smiled back. "No need to apologize. I was merely asking, how long you have been composing?"

"Oh." Medora thought back, then shook her head. "To tell the truth, I can hardly remember a time when I was not, though there must surely have been one. Music has always been important in my family, and I learnt to sing and play the pianoforte when I was a child. I suppose--I might have started coming up with tunes of my own when I was eleven or twelve. At least, that is when I began committing them to paper. Then, once I came to London, I was put under the tutelage of a music-master--and someone . . . very dear to me suggested composing for the theatre."

"Your intended?"

"Yes."

"Remarkable," Lady Barbara mused. "For my part, I too was instructed in music as a girl, and have learnt to perform with some proficiency. Yet the ability to compose has eluded me. I have the highest respect for those who can create as well as perform. And you participate in concerts as well?"

Medora nodded. "That is expected of most young ladies on coming out, is it not? Now, of course, I have the added incentive of wishing my compositions to be heard by more people."

"As they should," Lady Barbara agreed. "You do not become excessively nervous beforehand, do you?"

"Not excessively," Medora assured her. "I suppose there is always some initial anxiety, but it subsides quickly enough once I begin."

"Ah." Lady Barbara tapped her chin with a thoughtful forefinger. "Well, my dear--as it happens, I've a proposal to put to you."

Medora blinked. "You have, my lady?"

"Indeed. I number the Countess of Thorne among my friends, and she is to give a musicale herself tomorrow evening. One of the singers she engaged, however, has had to cry off because of some affliction of the throat. I was wondering if you would be willing to perform in her stead."

"I--should be honored," Medora said slowly, after a moment's pause. "Only . . . are you sure the Countess would not object? She may perhaps have another substitute in mind."

"Oh, no. As of this morning, she had found no one else nor thought herself likely to, upon such short notice. I think she would be delighted to learn you were willing to lend your talents to her soirée. And I shall be on hand, of course, to introduce you tomorrow night."

"Very well," Medora agreed. "As long as you are sure that the arrangement will suit Lady Thorne."

"I shall write to her directly after tea," Lady Barbara promised. "And then send you the time and the direction of the house once everything has been taken care of." She settled back in her chair with the air of one who has resolved matters to her complete satisfaction. "Another cake, my dear?"

*****

Dear Mr. Carrisford.

Dear Peter.

My dear Peter.

Definitely not. Grimacing, Medora crossed out the last salutation. What right had she to call him her dear Peter when she had made no commitment to him as yet? More irritable than ever, she crumpled up the page and lobbed it at the grate, missing the mark by at least a foot.

More than two hours had passed since she had returned from tea with Lady Barbara. And the whole of that time had been spent at her writing desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper that lay before her, mocking her with its pristine surface.

She had promised him an answer within the week. And he was a good man and a good friend . . . he deserved better than to be kept in suspense like this. If she had been in his position, she did not think she could have borne it.

Whatever she wrote, though--whatever she decided--her life would never be the same.

During the last two years, Peter's letters had brought her comfort and cheer when she needed them most. They had shone a light into the blackness of her grief for Archie, reminded her of happier days . . . when she had felt as if the whole world was before her and full of marvelous possibilities.

And Peter, she acknowledged, had been among those possibilities. She had not even turned sixteen when she first came to London--not yet ready for a Season but more than ready to be taken in hand by a music-master superior to any who could be found in her native Cornwall. What a delight it had been to meet other young people who loved music as she did and devoted serious study to it! People like Georgy, who had become a particular friend, and Peter, already a fine violinist at nineteen.

Lady Langford had taken pride and pleasure in her young protégés, arranging small concerts and informal parties that they could attend, even if they weren't officially "out" yet. And at one such party, Peter had danced with Medora, sent her a pink rose to wear in her hair . . .

Medora's fingers tightened about her quill. Her first flower from a young man, her first rose. She'd kept it, of course--carefully preserved in the pages of a book.

And yet it had been another rose she cherished more: a crimson rose plucked at sunset from Lady Langford's garden by a golden-haired naval officer with merry blue eyes and the sweetest smile she had ever seen.

Peter's hair was brown, as were his eyes. He bore a slight, chance resemblance to Archie's good friend, Lieutenant Hornblower, except that his features were more regular; anyone would consider him a personable young man. Physically, he and Archie could not have been more different: the former tall, lanky, and dark, the latter no more than average height, compact, and fair. Perhaps that was all to the good: she would not think of Archie when she looked at Peter.

Both men were kind, though. Dependable. She had known that she could trust either with her life.

She had trusted Archie with her heart as well--and he had broken it, dying.

But you did not mean to, did you, love? You'd have come home to us . . . if you could.

Tears were threatening; she squeezed her eyes shut against them. The last thing she needed to do was turn into a watering pot over this letter. If she was to decide tonight where her future lay, she had to maintain her composure, to think clearly and rationally.

When her eyes no longer stung, she opened them and reached for another sheet of paper, but she did not begin to write. Instead, she made herself think over Peter's offer and all its ramifications.

In so many ways, his proposal made perfect sense. They were friends who respected each other's abilities; she found him attractive and knew without vanity that he admired her looks as well; they had similar tastes and interests, even similar temperaments. Many couples started with far less. He would be a loyal husband, she knew--and she would repay that loyalty in kind. He would be a good father as well--to her daughter and whatever children might come after.

Her daughter was never far from her thoughts. As requested, Margaret wrote at least twice a week and all her reports spoke of the child's abounding health and happiness. Indeed, Medora suspected that, surrounded by two loving aunts, a doting uncle, and several fond cousins, her daughter scarcely had time to miss her absent mother.

How can I take her away from the only family she knows? And not just to another county, but another country, with an entire ocean between us?

And yet--there was no guarantee that life at Keverne would continue on its accustomed round forever. Peter had pointed that out himself and she had been unable to deny it. When Robin was old enough to go away to Eton or Harrow, Margaret might very well choose to follow the drum with her new husband. And Henry talked sometimes of finding another home for his own growing family.

She did not fear their abandonment, not after they had stood by her during the three most difficult years of her life. Rather, she had no wish to become an encumbrance to them. But she had means to set up her own household, if need be, and if her career prospered, she could offer her daughter all kinds of advantages.

But not a father. Nor brothers and sisters. Remembering what her own childhood had been like, Medora felt a pang for the sibling bonds her daughter might never know.

She could have them--if Medora married Peter. And then there was the not-to-be-underestimated promise of a new start, in a new country that did not know her parents' history.

In America . . . no one need ever learn of her daughter's illegitimacy. Indeed, would not most strangers there assume that Peter was the child's father? And for all intents and purposes, it would be true enough if Medora were to marry him.

And that was what it all came down to at the end, Medora realized with a bleak flash of insight. The question of marriage. She might tell herself that her daughter's needs were paramount, and so they were. But she would be doing her child no service at all by marrying someone to whom she could not commit herself, body and soul. Failed relations between husband and wife would surely spread outward to touch and taint everything, despite good intentions on both sides.

There was only one thing left to do, and she did it. Closing her eyes, she emptied her mind of all else but thoughts of Peter, trying to envision him not just as a kind friend but as a man who could be her husband and her lover. Remembering the warmth of his brown eyes, the pleasing resonance of his baritone voice, the unconscious sway of his upper torso as he bowed away at his beloved violin, the lemony scent of his cologne, the light pressure of his hands clasping her own . . .

When the clock chimed the quarter hour, she opened her eyes and breathed a long, long sigh. Then, feeling oddly at peace, she dipped her quill into the inkwell and began to write, making the only answer she could make.

Dear Peter . . .

*******

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1801

 

She could not tell what had awakened her at first . . . and then she heard the voices.

Margaret's, firm and clear, reached her first. "She is resting now. I will not have her disturbed, Edward."

Edward was here? Pulling the shawl more closely around her, Medora struggled into a sitting position upon the parlor sofa.

"Disturbed?" her eldest brother protested. "Margaret, I am Wrennie's guardian--"

"Who was all too conveniently absent when his wife threw her out of the house."

"I had business in Bodmin!" Edward's voice rose, a trifle querulously. "But I am here now--does that count for nothing?"

An ominous silence greeted that remark. Medora smothered a smile, all too able to envision the stony stare to which Margaret was undoubtedly subjecting Edward.

"Margaret?" she called tentatively, coughed to clear the huskiness of sleep from her voice, and tried again. "Margaret?"

"Medora?" Her sister-in-law appeared in the doorway. "Are you feeling any better, my dear?"

"A little," she replied. "Lying down for a while seems to have helped. Is Edward here? I thought I heard his voice."

Margaret hesitated only a moment. "Yes, love--he is here. Do you feel well enough to see him?"

Medora thought it over, then nodded. It was probably best, she thought, to get the whole unpleasant business over with. She gathered the shawl around her shoulders again, forced herself to sit up straighter as her eldest brother peered into the room.

"Wrennie?" His voice, usually so hearty and jovial when addressing her, sounded oddly uncertain.

"Edward." To Medora's relief, her own voice sounded calm and even.

"Shall I leave you two alone?" Margaret inquired.

Medora shook her head. "There's no need for that now."

Edward's shoulders slumped. "It's true, then." His tone was flat. "You're carrying Kennedy's child."

Medora met his gaze without flinching. "Yes."

"When did you--did he . . . ?" His voice trailed off helplessly.

"In March. His ship was in Falmouth and he was granted liberty. You and Henry were away--or he would have asked you again for permission to wed."

"So you took matters into your own hands."

"We had waited three years, Edward," she replied starkly. "What we felt was not going to change. And then there was the war."

He absorbed that in silence, his mouth still thin with disapproval. Then, at last, he said heavily, "March. Then you would be due in December?"

"Yes. Perhaps around Christmas." Despite all the recent turmoil in her life, Medora could not help feeling an odd thrill of excitement at the prospect. She did her best, however, to conceal it from Edward, who could hardly be expected to share her sentiments.

"Christmas." Edward sighed. "And just what do you plan to do until then?"

"Medora will always have a place here, with us," Margaret spoke up again from the doorway. "And if she desires to leave Cornwall for a time, I daresay that can be arranged as well."

"Thank you, Margaret, but I am still my sister's guardian and as such, I should expect to have some say in her future affairs!" Edward said testily.

Medora had been studying her hands but she looked up swiftly at that. "I am keeping my child!"

"Of course you are, my dear." Margaret's reply was immediate but it was towards Edward that Medora directed her gaze.

"I am keeping my child," she repeated, pronouncing every word with conscious deliberation. "I shall bear and raise it, God willing, in the fullness of time. And when Archie comes back, we shall be married and make a home of our own somewhere. For now, I mean to accept Margaret's kind offer and remain here, at Keverne."

Edward had flushed slightly, whether from anger or embarrassment Medora could not tell. " I--accept that you and Kennedy must marry at the first opportunity once he returns, but why can you not come home with me? Henry is to marry soon and will be bringing his bride here to live. There is far more room at the Manor and I will see that you and-- and the child have every comfort."

Medora smothered a sigh. "Edward, the only comfort I desire now is a peaceful atmosphere, and that I can never have at Tresilian Manor, especially not with your wife in residence!"

His flush deepened. "Wrennie," he began, but she continued determinedly.

"Fanny does not care for me, Edward. She never has--and she would not care for my child either."

"You cannot be sure of that!" he protested, coming forward to kneel awkwardly at her side.

"Oh, indeed I can!" Medora flashed back. "Your wife called me a slut and my baby 'that sailor's bastard' --surely that is ample proof of her feelings towards it and me!" Her heart was pounding, her temples beginning to throb. Mindful of the life she carried within, she paused to compose herself before resuming. "I will not bear my child in a household where it will be resented and despised for what it cannot help."

"My dear, collect yourself," Edward soothed, reaching for one of her hands and patting it. "You mustn't hold Fanny responsible for what she said in the heat of anger. She is a mother too--I am sure she will apologize once she is calmer, and then we may face things as a family again."

Medora pulled her hand away, staring at him in disbelief. "Since when has Fanny ever apologized?" she demanded. "And since when have we 'faced things as a family'?"

"Why--why, Wrennie," he stammered. "I thought you were happy with us at Tresilian Manor!"

Oh, dear heaven. Medora closed her eyes, wishing she could shut out the entire world by doing so. But that hope was in vain, so, after a moment, she opened them and subjected Edward to a long, measuring scrutiny.

Her brother. A kind, conscientious man who'd shouldered a father's responsibilities for her when he was barely past his majority. She had always loved and trusted him, known he would do anything in the world for her. Anything at all . . . except stand up to Fanny on her behalf.

So many snubs and rebuffs, so many hurtful criticisms uttered in a tone calculated to crush, rather than merely to correct. Was it really possible that he had noticed*none* of this? That he had been utterly blind to the complete lack of accord between his wife and his sister? Or had he merely chosen not to see it?

Whichever it had been, Medora had learned long since that Edward would always take Fanny's side over hers. Perhaps it was unfair of her to expect him to do otherwise. Fanny was his wife, after all, and in his devoted eyes she could do no wrong.

"You find it impossible to choose," she said at last. "And indeed I do not wish to force you to go against your inclination, Edward. So I shall choose for you."

He stared at her. "What are you saying?"

"I am saying that you are not 'my brother,'" Medora stated with weary resignation. "You are 'Fanny's husband'--and so your place is at Tresilian Manor, with her."

"Wrennie--"

She turned her face away. "Good afternoon, Edward. I am sure you know the way out." Her tone was still calm, betraying none of the regrets she felt.

Margaret came forward now. "Edward, I think you had better leave. Medora needs her rest."

He hesitated still; Medora could feel his gaze upon her, pleading for understanding, but she would not look back at him.

Finally, he sighed again, a heavy, defeated sound, and rose slowly to his feet. "I will be back," he warned. "This isn't over, Wren."

It has been over for years, Medora thought as she listened to the footsteps dying away in the hall, then the opening and shutting of the front door. Moments later, she heard Margaret's steps returning, then felt her sister-in-law settle onto the sofa beside her.

Bleakly, Medora turned to face her companion, whose expression held only kindness. "I've torn this family in two."

Margaret shook her head as she drew the younger woman into her embrace. "I would say Fanny bore an equal share of the blame--and probably more."

Medora shivered, leaned against her sister-in-law's shoulder. "Things have been said--and done--that can never be taken back."

"Shhh." Margaret rocked Medora in her arms as if she were ten instead of twenty. "You mustn't brood over this, my dear. Think of your child--yours and Archie's. Just concentrate on that, and trust that all will come out right in the end."

"Our child." Unconsciously, Medora's hand strayed to the slight curve of her belly, hardly visible yet to the naked eye. "Oh, Margaret--if only Archie were here!"

 

END PART SIXTEEN