Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

How should I your true love know
From another one?--
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.

--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

PART SEVENTEEN: "The Convergence of the Twain"

 

"My most challenging role?" Kitty Cobham gave the question careful consideration, before breaking into an impish smile. "Why, that's easy! The Duchess, of course?"

Medora tilted her head questioningly. "Of Malfi?"

"No, of Wharfedale!" The actress's eyes danced at her companion's obvious confusion. "I'm afraid it's rather a long story, my dear."

"Then, you'll need more of this to keep it going," Medora countered with a smile of her own as she reached for the tea service. "I assure you, all your secrets are quite safe with me. And what is the use in hiring a private parlor if one cannot be private?"

"That's very true," her guest agreed. "And this is such a pretty place too," she added, glancing over the butter-yellow walls and lacy curtains of the daintiest and most discreet parlor in the Silver Swan. "I'll wager such racy stories have never been uttered within its sacred precincts."

"There should be a first time for everything," Medora pointed out.

Kitty laughed and capitulated. "Very well. To make a very long saga short, I found myself stranded abroad some years ago, with no way to get home. Far too dangerous by land, nearly as risky by sea--I was at my wit's end until I came up with the idea to . . . impersonate a titled aristocrat."

"This Duchess of Wharfedale."

"Exactly. There might not be many ships willing to ferry an actress home, but I was willing to wager people would be falling all over themselves to help an English duchess, even one who was vulgar born! As it happens," she remarked ruefully, "I was well served for my effrontery! Somehow I ended up everywhere except England. Gibraltar, a French prize ship, a Spanish prison . . . that's where I encountered your Mr. Kennedy, my dear."

Medora's eyes widened. "You were in El Ferrol too?"

"Oh, not as a prisoner," Kitty assured her. "Instead, I was an honored guest of Don Massaredo, at least until a ship could be found that would take me back to England. Mr. Hornblower was a prisoner, though--he had been in command of Le Reve when it was taken by the Spanish fleet."

"Yes, Archie did tell me that," Medora recalled. "Although . . . he never mentioned you being there."

The actress's smile turned wistful. "Well, I was supposed to be in disguise. But your man was the first to discover my identity--and he kept my secret, bless him. That is, he told only Mr. Hornblower, and neither of them betrayed me to the Don."

"No, Archie would not do such a thing," Medora averred. "Not unless he believed you were a threat to England or those he cared for. You boarded a ship, then, and left El Ferrol safely, with no one the wiser?"

"Oh, I left El Ferrol, but I wouldn't say my journey was especially safe. First, the blest ship couldn't get close enough to land, then she was wrecked upon a reef--I'd have drowned if it hadn't been for Horatio and the others rowing to our rescue." Kitty shook her head reminiscently. "In the end, I sailed back home on the Indefatigable--and abandoned my charade the moment I set foot on English soil again!"

Medora laughed. "I can't blame you for that! Nonetheless, some parts of it must have been tremendously exciting. To have had those adventures, to have seen all those places--even if not under the best of circumstances! Most of my life has been spent either at home in Cornwall or at my studies in London."

"Well, London is an adventure all by itself," Kitty said staunchly. "And reet glad I was to see it and shake the dust of the Continent off me feet for good-an'-all," she added in the Duchess's strong northern brogue. "Or at least until the war is over!"

"An adventure, yes," Medora agreed, smiling at her friend's impromptu performance. "But for someone of my station, an adventure with certain -- regrettable limits. There are still places where a 'proper young lady' is not supposed to venture, especially unescorted--and I'll own I find that very tedious."

"Oh?" Kitty raised quizzical brows. "Have you any particular places in mind?"

"Well, Vauxhall Gardens, I suppose. Although I could suggest the idea to friends for a party of pleasure there . . . but they've been so kind to me that I hesitate to inflict my whims upon them. And then, there's the Shakespeare Tavern. I did ask one of my friends about it, and she told me it was 'not at all the thing.' Naturally," Medora said, pulling a rueful little face, "that only made me more curious! Is it really such a den of iniquity?"

Kitty chuckled. "Well, it hasn't the same dreadful reputation as the Rose, on Russell Street. And its kitchen is quite fine. But I do remember hearing as a girl that Mr. Boswell used to frequent the Shakespeare--partly because it hired out rooms by the hour and turned a blind eye to female guests!"

"Good heavens!" Slightly to her annoyance, Medora felt herself flushing at this revelation.

"Not everyone who dined or stayed there was such an abandoned creature, of course," the actress continued. "Still, the wild stories tend to linger, and I suppose a lady of quality might be thought rather fast if she was seen there. You could try to go there in a large party. Or," her blue eyes grew mischievous, "if you were determined to see it alone, you could disguise yourself as one of the lower orders: a flower-seller, or a maidservant . . . or a demi-rep!"

"A demi-rep?" Despite her shock, Medora giggled. "Do you truly think I could--?"

"Oh, with the right plumage and enough paint, any woman could pass for one," Kitty assured her. "And I'm thinking you'd make a very pretty bird of paradise! But I mustn't lead you astray," she chided herself. "As it is, your friends would surely be shocked to see you taking tea with a common actress."

"You are not at all 'common,'" Medora said firmly. "And I suspect that some of my friends, at least, would be more likely to envy than censure me. The invitation was mine, after all. I had wanted to come round to the Green Room after your opening, but the party I was with was promised to another engagement immediately following."

"One of Lady Theo's, I presume?"

"How did you know?"

"Oh, she gives a soirée after every opening night, whether it's at the Lane or Covent Garden. I've been to a few myself, though I was much too tired to go that evening. Not as young as I used to be, no doubt," she added with a roguish smile. "So, who was there?"

"I don't know if I could remember half the people I met that night," Medora confessed. "But Vicomte and Vicomtesse DeGuise attended--a friend of mine is engaged to his son. Monsieur DeGuise mentioned that his father was a true devotee of the theatre."

Kitty smiled covertly into her teacup. "Well, that's one way of putting it!"

Medora eyed her with sudden suspicion. "You are not, I infer, speaking of his attendance at Drury Lane."

"Indeed not." Another covert smile. "Monsieur le Vicomte is also well-known for his devotion to an Italian opera dancer, for at least the last five years!"

"Heavens!" But on thinking it over, Medora discovered she was not entirely surprised. "Does the Vicomtesse know?"

Kitty shrugged. "Very likely. But I daresay she doesn't care, as long as he's discreet. They're so very far apart in age--and I've heard she's in the habit of taking her own pleasure elsewhere."

Medora did not really find that a surprise, either. As beautiful as the Vicomtesse was, she doubtless had her pick of male companions. The idea of a marriage where both parties continually sought satisfaction with others, though, seemed so cold-blooded. Better than the alternative of one remaining faithful while the other strayed, Medora supposed, but still . . . she did not think she could tolerate such an arrangement herself.

"Of course, I don't know the Vicomtesse at all, save by sight," Kitty continued. "The dancer, though--now we do have a nodding acquaintance. She used to perform in some of the afterpieces at Drury Lane, until she became a fixture at the Opera House. You might even have seen her at Lady Theo's: tall, voluptuous, flaming red hair--though that may owe more to art than nature these days."

Medora thought back. "I might have," she conceded. "But would Lady Theo invite a man's wife and mistress to the same social gathering?"

"Why not?--as long as neither makes a vulgar scene in public," Kitty rejoined. "Not that Signorina Florinda would be incapable of doing so," she added. "Half-English and half-Italian can make for a combustible combination."

"More combustible than fully French?" Medora wondered.

"Decidedly so. Perhaps the Italian half is trying to compensate for the noted phlegm of the English half!" Taking a last sip of tea, Kitty set her cup down upon the table and consulted the pocket-watch in her reticule. "Oh, my dear, I'm afraid I must be going! I promised Mr. Northwood--our Oberon--that I'd run through our first scene before this evening's performance. He thinks our quarrel over the page boy should be more passionate, although I own that I am not entirely convinced of that myself. I am playing a fairy queen, after all, not a fairy fishwife!"

Medora could not help but laugh at the image presented by Kitty's words. "Perhaps you'll arrive at a compromise satisfactory to you both."

"Shall you be there to see it? We've about ten performances left to go, I think."

"Oh, I've promised myself that treat before I must leave London," Medora assured her.

Kitty's brows rose. "Leave London? But I thought you'd planned to stay until Lady Langford returned from Scotland."

"That was the original plan," Medora admitted. "And certainly I will remain here until my full month has elapsed. But -- family matters may require my presence in Cornwall soon after." Quite deliberately, she refused to dwell upon a certain letter she had dispatched that very morning: the die was cast, and there was no going back.

"Ah," said Kitty, after a significant pause. "Forgive me--I had forgotten. Naturally, I can see how they might. But I hope you will not leave without a proper Drury Lane farewell."

Smiling, Medora assured the actress that she had no intention of doing so, and on that affectionate note, the two women parted.

******

"The same tactics, then?" Archie inquired of Caillean as they stood in the entrance hall, waiting for the carriage to be brought around. "With LeGrande, as for Ainsley?"

"Oh, I think so," she returned. "Only even more spectacularly, given the nature of whom we are dealing with! As you see," she added, turning in a circle for his inspection, "I have even dressed the part!"

"Very effective," Archie approved, admiring the daring cut of her peacock blue evening gown and the almost iridescent shimmer of the fabric itself. The brilliant shade set off Caillean's dark hair and fair skin to perfection.

By contrast, he was in peahen colors: dark brown coat, fawn waistcoat, and breeches in some indeterminate shade between brown and grey. He was conscious of a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, related not to his appearance but to his designated role for the evening. Although observation was vital to intelligence work, there were times when he longed for action instead. But Smitty had made it clear from the outset that Caillean was to be the showy one, and since Archie had been at the some pains to establish "Mr. Lennox" as a well-bred nonentity, it would attract unwelcome attention were he suddenly to alter his demeanor in public. Caillean would perform splendidly, he was sure; she had aroused LeGrande's interest already when they had first called upon Lady Amhurst.

Just then, he became aware of his colleague fidgeting at his side and turned to regard her with some surprise. "Nervous?"

"No, just a bit worried about this catch," she replied, touching the glittering necklace about her throat. "These are actually real sapphires and Agent Ingram would strangle me if I lost them. Can you tell me if the clasp is secure?"

"Of course," Archie said automatically, as she turned her back and bent her head to expose the nape of her neck to him. Her scent--a cool, exotic blend of sandalwood and patchouli--teased his nostrils as he leaned in to inspect the necklace. "The chain is slightly twisted," he announced, reaching out and setting it to rights. "But the clasp itself is sound."

"Are you sure?" Caillean asked, glancing at him over her shoulder.

"Perfectly," he assured her. "You need have no fears for this evening, I think."

He thought she sighed but could not understand why. Lingering tension, he supposed. If he were in her position, he would likely feel the same. "You'll be splendid," he told her, with a smile. "Between that gown and those jewels, Monsieur le Baron will find you impossible to ignore."

"Well, I hope so," she returned. "But then--one can never tell where some men are concerned."

The appearance of Ferguson and Grant, also resplendent in evening dress, and the subsequent arrival of the carriage brought their discussion to a close. Offering his arm to Caillean, Archie stepped through the doorway, hoping that the evening would not prove to be too dull for him.

*****

Medora's first glimpse of the Thornes' townhouse was enough to take her breath away. Even by St. James's standards, the residence was palatial, a fit dwelling for nobility. An impeccably-clad butler opened the front door to her knock, bowed her into the house, then led her up the stairs to the drawing room.

Back at Langford House, Medora had changed her mind twice about what to wear, opting at last for an evening gown of deep blue silk, the color of lapis lazuli, which lent a blue cast to her grey eyes. Jane had threaded a matching ribbon through her mistress's hair, then dressed the dark locks high and smooth. Blue satin slippers, a short necklet of creamy pearls, and a cream-white Kashmir shawl draped over the elbows completed the ensemble; the overall effect was simple but undeniably elegant.

And appropriate to the surroundings and the company, Medora observed with relief as she entered the drawing room after being announced by the butler. Those already assembled were dressed exquisitely but without ostentation--a hallmark of unerring good taste, Alice had told her many years ago. At the very least, her appearance would not arouse derisive comment. She was also glad to see a familiar face in the throng. Scarcely had she been announced than Lady Barbara Wellesley, slim and stately in her favorite slate blue, approached with outstretched hands.

"My dear Miss Tresilian, so very glad you could come. Ma'am," she added to a dark-haired lady in rose who had come up behind her, "this is the singer of whom I spoke. Miss Tresilian--the Countess of Thorne."

"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Tresilian," Lady Thorne said, smiling. "Lady Barbara has told me much of your talents, and I am grateful that you are willing to share them with us tonight, especially upon such short notice."

"I am honored to have been asked, my lady," Medora replied with an answering smile. Although the countess looked to be well into her forties, she was still a beauty, carrying herself with the grace of a queen. Something about her accent, though--a subtle inflection in the vowels, perhaps--made Medora wonder if the older woman had once lived elsewhere than in England. To ask on such short acquaintance, however, would be impertinent.

"Three people are set to perform tonight," the countess was now saying. "You would not object to going second, Miss Tresilian?"

"Not in the least, ma'am," Medora assured her. She knew that some performers were apt to play the prima donna, insisting on being either first or last at a concert, but in her own experience, one's placement was what one made of it.

"Splendid," the countess declared briskly. "We should be starting within the next half-hour. If you need time to prepare, there's a private room just at the end of the hall. You may join us when you are ready or I can send someone to fetch you before the musicale begins."

"Thank you, my lady," Medora said gratefully. "I would very much appreciate the chance to look over my music beforehand."

Lady Thorne smiled. "I'll have Parsons--our butler--show you the way, then."

*****

"You look very fine," Grant remarked to Caillean as their carriage rattled along the streets towards St. James's Square. "Fashionable enough to pass for a Londoner!"

Caillean rolled her eyes and uttered a ladylike snort in response. "Imagine that!"

Puzzled by this exchange, Archie looked uncertainly from one woman to the other. Grant noticed his bewilderment, however, and was quick to apologize.

"A jest from before your time, Stewart. I do beg your pardon." Glancing at their two companions, she began, "Some of the London agents . . . "

"Get far too above themselves," her husband finished for her.

Grant gave him a reproving look. "Now, Rob!" She turned back to Archie. "Because they're posted in the capital, they have a high opin--I mean, they think of themselves as the cleverer, more stylish group. Although truly, more than half the senior agents and all the commanders have worked in both places, at least for a short time. I think it's mere foolishness--or even vanity."

"But then, you chose to marry into Edinburgh," Ferguson teased. "The rough and ready sort!"

"And there were plenty who commiserated with me!" Grant fired back, giving as good as she got. "Just so you don't get above yourself!"

Her husband laughed. "You should hear what we used to say about London!" Catching Archie's eye he elaborated. "What you navy men would call a 'soft berth'. Suitable for the less canny sort who weren't hardy enough to work overseas, or those whose only gift was dressing well, or an old woman . . ."

He broke off as Grant elbowed him in the ribs, and a brief, uncomfortable silence descended.

"The . . . late commander?" Archie ventured, after a moment.

"Worked in Edinburgh for many years before she took over in London," Ferguson replied, his expression uncharacteristically grim. "She was -- one of ours."

The silence this time lasted until the carriage finally came to a halt before an impressive-looking townhouse, fully three stories high, with a curving marble staircase leading up to the front door. Alighting from the carriage after his colleagues, Archie offered Caillean his arm and they mounted the steps together, Grant and Ferguson bringing up the rear. Within seconds of their knock, they were admitted by a butler whose appearance matched the grandeur of his surroundings.

Just this morning, Smitty and Barrington had briefed the Edinburgh agents about their hosts for the evening. The Earl of Thorne was, in fact, a distant connection of Kilcarron's, on the distaff side. As a young man, he had served with the British army as both an officer and an intelligence agent during the American war and had acquired a reputation for cleverness and ingenuity.

"He may look half-asleep, but do not be deceived," Smitty had warned. "His lordship is very well-awake upon all counts."

Lady Thorne, whom the earl had met during the war, was an American and considered quite as intelligent as her husband, though without his deceptively languid air. The Thornes had both willingly lent themselves to this scheme to discover the Bonapartist spy, including as many suspects as possible on tonight's guest list.

Reflecting anew upon these revelations, Archie followed, along with his companions, in the butler's wake. Once announced, they were greeted cordially by their hostess, a darkly beautiful woman perhaps in her forties, who then called her husband over to welcome them too.

Archie was glad that Smitty had warned them about Thorne. With his heavy-lidded eyes and lazy, drawling voice, the earl did indeed give the impression of being half-asleep. A very handy façade, Archie decided, and one that might easily lead others to underestimate him, to their cost.

More guests were arriving, and of those already in attendance, Archie recognized the proud bearing and powerful figure of Colonel Parillaud. Alerted to his presence, Grant and Ferguson began to drift in his general direction. Meanwhile, Caillean spotted Lady Amhurst in the throng and excused herself to confer with the older woman on some matter.

Left to his own devices for the moment, Archie positioned himself by the wall nearest the door. Never too early to commence playing his role, he supposed, suppressing a sigh. And from his vantage point, he did have a fine view of those assembled in this room. None of the DeGuises had arrived yet, as far as he could tell, nor had LeGrande. He knew that some of the ton considered it more fashionable to arrive slightly late than on time, but it had always seemed discourteous to him to do so at musicales. Of course, he acknowledged with a pang, he had had a reason for wanting to be punctual to those.

A flutter of silk, a drift of some exquisite, expensive scent caught his attention, and he glanced towards the door where several women were making their entrance. A petite blonde in a debutante's white gown, a tall, fair woman with an aquiline profile, a dark-haired lady in blue . . .

He must have made some movement of which he was unaware because the last member of the trio paused just upon the threshold and turned in his direction.

And met his eyes with her own.

Wide grey eyes . . . as lovely as he remembered, although it had been three years since he had seen them. Since he had seen her.

And his mind formed her name, even as his stiffened, paralyzed lips refused to comply: Medora.

Medora.

*****

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1801

 

"You did not have to get up to see me off."

Medora shook her head. "I could not have borne to have woken up alone. And I'll wager Margaret will be up and about as well. You're not leaving us that easily, dear heart," she added, her tone deceptively light.

Archie swallowed. "Leaving you . . . can never be easy."

Their eyes met across the short distance separating them, and suddenly they were in each other's arms, holding on as though for dear life. Clasping his lady close, Archie could feel the wild flutter of the pulse at her throat, hear the quickened rhythm of her breathing.

"You will be careful, love--won't you?" There was just the faintest tremor in her voice, but it moved him more than if she had dissolved in tears upon his breast.

"As careful as I can be, given the circumstances," Archie promised. "And you--you'll write to me if anything . . . ?"

She nodded, pulling back slightly to look up at him. "Of course."

In the pale pre-dawn light, he gazed at her, barefoot and clad only in her wrapper, her dark hair loose about her shoulders, her eyes fixed upon him as if he were the dearest sight in all the world to her.

His. Utterly his. Pray God he would never fail or disappoint her. Swallowing hard again, he reached out to thread his hands through the silk of her hair. "I still feel as though I've taken shameful advantage of your innocence," he confessed.

"Never. Never. Remember, this was my choice as much as yours." Grey eyes locked with his. "My choice, husband."

The knot of tension inside him eased. "You've a way with words . . . my wife."

"So--no regrets," she affirmed. "Nor doubts. At least, as long as you do not have any."

"Not a one." Cupping her face in his hands, he kissed her long and deeply, taking comfort from the soft warmth of her lips against his own. "Forever, my rose?"

She smiled up at him, her eyes wide and brilliant. "For always--dearest, dearest heart."

 

END PART SEVENTEEN