Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

"Oh, I see the love that I lost long syne,
I touch the hope that I may not see,
And all that I did o' hidden shame,
Like little snakes they hiss at me."

--Rudyard Kipling, "The Last Rhyme of True Thomas"

PART EIGHTEEN: "Pray, Love, Remember"

Oh. God.

Archie found himself literally unable to think. Or speak, or move . . . his feet felt rooted to the floor with shock. He tried to look away, to keep himself from staring but he could not even seem to move his head. Perhaps she had not noticed--would turn away and walk on. But she remained as still as he was, her eyes wide, meeting his, and a faint crease appearing between her brows.

Three years and countless changes since he had last seen her. And while time had not stood still for either of them, its hand lay more lightly upon her. She was all a woman now--not a great, classical beauty, perhaps, but few men, he remembered, had passed her by without a second glance. And he had always admired her fine-boned grace, loved her tilted smile and the brilliance of her expressive eyes . . .

Those eyes were studying him now with the concentration she usually reserved for musical scores. Or for him, when he had worn the uniform of a naval officer and called himself Archie Kennedy. And not all of his training within Kilcarron's organization could force him to turn aside now.

Training. While his heart thudded in his chest, its pulses pounding in his ears, and he could feel the blood draining from his face. He had heard the phrase 'struck dumb' before, but there was only one other time he had ever experienced it--when he had been all but insensible with terror. But it was not fear that held him immobile now. He struggled to find words, any meaningless social pleasantry to break the increasingly awkward silence and divert attention from his paralysis. Silently, frantically, he prayed that he had retained some vestige of control over his expression.

Meanwhile, his betrothed continued to stare, the pallor of shock rendering her eyes nearly black and her lips almost colorless. And the silence stretched between them, wide as the sea and brittle as glass. Bracing himself, Archie prepared to shatter it with some innocuous commonplace.

But it was Medora who spoke first, her voice sounding husky and uncertain. "Pardon me, sir, but . . . have we met before?"

Archie just managed to compose himself enough to answer. "I can't say I've had the honor, ma'am." Deliberately, he roughened the timbre of his voice, attempting to sound more Scottish than he ever had in his life. To his own ears, the effort seemed barely passable---when not at sea, he had spent almost his whole life on the English side of the border, but two years of constant exposure to both Highland and Lowland brogues at least gave him some basis for imitation--perhaps she would not discern any awkwardness?

The crease between her brows deepened. "I am Miss Tresilian, sir. And you are--?" She let the words trail off inquiringly.

"L-Lennox, ma'am. Andrew Lennox. A pleasure to make your acquaintance." He licked his lips, trying to think of something more to add, unsure whether he wished to end or prolong this exchange. An approaching step and the waft of exotic perfume effectively removed the decision from his hands.

"Ah, there you are, my dear. Will you not introduce me to your charming companion?" Caillean, playing her assigned part.

"Of--of course." There might have been more difficult public moments in his life, but Archie could not have thought of a single one of them now. "Miss Tresilian, may I present Mrs.--" abruptly and disastrously, Caillean's work-alias escaped him.

"Catriona Munro," Caillean finished smoothly, before Archie's lapse became too noticeable. "Our hostess said you were one of the guests slated to play for us tonight. It must be delightful to be so talented. We shall look forward to your performance. Come, Andrew," she invited, turning purposefully towards Archie. "Lady Thorne has just ordered the salon to be opened, and we must go and seat ourselves."

As if in a dream, Archie held out his arm and Caillean took it, bestowed a dazzling last smile upon Medora, and moved towards the door. He retained just enough command of himself to nod casually to the woman he loved with all his heart before Caillean led him from the drawing room.

******

Her lover's eyes.

Dazed, Medora found her way to a chair and stood behind it, grasping the back firmly for support. If she sat down now, she doubted she would ever be able to rise again.

Her lover's eyes. And, despite those traces of a Scottish brogue, she would have sworn it was her lover's voice as well.

But the neat, copper-haired gentleman with the mustache and the expensive evening clothes had denied that they had ever met before.

They said that everybody had a twin, somewhere in the world.

But right here--in London?

Well, why not? A man who resembled Archie so closely would hardly be living in the wilds of Africa or even India.

But he looked so stricken when I saw him . . .

Perhaps he was merely displeased at being accosted by a strange woman at a party. Medora supposed that she should be grateful to Mr. Lennox's companion for towing him off before she could make a complete fool of herself with further inquiries.

Except that Medora found that she was not grateful at all. And certainly not to that flaunting creature in her dazzling peacock-colored gown!

"My dear." Lady Barbara was at her side, concern in her eyes. "Are you all right? You look quite pale."

So might anyone who had just seen a ghost. Recollecting her scattered thoughts, Medora managed a faint smile. "Just--a touch of nervousness, ma'am. It will pass, I assure you. But, perhaps, if I might have a glass of water?"

"I'll see to it right away," Lady Barbara promised.

*****

"Stewart?"

Focusing at last, Archie realized Caillean was peering at him through narrowed eyes; she repeated his Edinburgh name in a near-hiss.

"You've gone white as a sheet," she persisted. "Is it one of your headaches again?"

He opened his mouth to deny it, when he heard something entirely different emerge: a cold, detached part of his mind had suddenly taken control, despite the flood of emotions threatening to overwhelm him. "I . . . it may be you're right. I fear I've slept but poorly this last week -- perhaps it is catching up with me."

"Then you'd best come sit down," Caillean advised. "It may do you good."

Obediently, he let himself be towed into the salon, a handsome, gracefully proportioned room decorated in blue and silver-grey. No one else had yet entered, so they had their choice of seats. After a quick glance around, Archie seated himself upon a chair at the end of one row.

Caillean was eyeing him with a concern that bordered on anxiety. "You still look rather ill. A pity I didn't think to bring a vinaigrette, or spirits of hartshorn."

Archie managed a feeble smile at that. "That won't be necessary, I assure you. Only a few moments of quiet, and I shall be myself again. But the other guests will surely be arriving soon--Monsieur le Baron among them, I have no doubt. You'd best not let his attention wander."

She grimaced. "He hasn't even put in an appearance yet, as far as I know, though I suppose I should go and see if he's arrived by now. You'll--be all right?"

Archie nodded his reassurance. "I shall see you later this evening, Mrs. Munro."

Caillean sighed, seeming to gather her flirtatious demeanor around her like a shawl. "Very well. But if LeGrande's done a flit like Ainsley, so help me, I'll--" she broke off with an irritated shake of her head, then to Archie's relief, she sallied forth from the salon, leaving him to his own thoughts.

Inevitably, those led back to the woman he had encountered just minutes before. Memories surged like a tide and this time, he made himself confront them.

Not in Cornwall. In London. Bare inches away--how could he stand this? Endure this? To remain unmoving and appear unmoved, when after three years . . .

Still grieving.

Three years since they had parted, and for the last two years the world had believed him dead. Two years full of loss. But not a day had passed when he had not forced himself not to think about her, repeated to himself what he had been told: that it was not possible. Yet deep in his heart, a small, secret hope had never been completely extinguished. And just now--she had been right before him. Close enough to touch . . .

Archie looked down at his hands, found himself numbly pleased they were not shaking. He took a careful breath, still wary of betraying himself any further, hoping his emotions were no longer as easy to read upon his face as they once would have been.

Control. Training. Discipline. Kitty Cobham and a deck of cards.

But there was a price to pay, if one withdrew completely behind an emotionless mask--sooner or later, the feelings so ruthlessly restrained must find their outlet, and their release could be all the more violent for having been suppressed. He remembered arguing that point: first, with Horatio, many times; later, with another.

"But--one can't simply not feel!" Archie protested.

Over the tankard, Carmichael raised quizzical brows. "And you a Navy man? To say that to a soldier?"

Archie felt himself flushing. "That's not--I wasn't referring to battle! I meant--"

He paused, glaring at Carmichael, whom he suspected of enjoying his discomfiture. "I think you do take my meaning, sir. To find oneself bereft of all . . . others--"

The emotions of which he had been trying to speak so dispassionately suddenly caught in his throat; he took a quick and lengthy drink to avoid betraying himself. Looking up then, he found the tawny eyes studying him and realized he hadn't deceived his commander at all.

Carmichael touched his shoulder lightly. "I told you before--no easy answers. You can feel--but not always necessary to show it, eh?"

The sounds of footsteps roused him from his thoughts. Looking up, he saw more people entering the salon at last. Doubtless the musicale would begin shortly--and Caillean had said Medora was among the performers. Once again, just within touching distance . . .

Quite suddenly, his whirling thoughts stilled and hardened into resolve. He must see her, somehow, find his way to her . . . where in London could she be staying? Langford House seemed the most likely guess, but--had not Kilcarron mentioned that Alice and her husband had left town? Would Alice truly have left a houseguest reside in her London establishment during her absence?

Not merely a houseguest. Medora--whom Alice had introduced into society and who had so nearly become her sister-in-law. On further reflection, Archie thought, Alice would have had no qualms whatsoever about leaving Medora in charge. Some discreet inquiries after the musicale might settle the question to his satisfaction . . . that is, if he could survive the strain of the next few hours.

*****
Calm. Composure. Discipline.

"A lady does not give way to emotion in public," Alice had said once, during an early lesson in deportment intended for both Medora and Georgy. "She waits until she is in private, later."

Waiting with the other performers just outside the salon, Medora wished, not for the first time, that she was not a lady. But the training she had received over the years held fast--a loss of self-control would benefit neither her nor the mysterious Mr. Lennox.

Was he truly none other than he seemed? Had the days spent agonizing over her reply to Peter's letter addled her wits to the extent that she was seeing Archie in the face of a complete stranger? Or was it just that she longed so much for Archie that she wanted to see him?

All possibilities -- and yet she could not forget the expression, however fleeting, on that other man's face. As if he were as surprised as I . . .

But how could that be, unless . . . ? Abruptly, her thoughts came to a halt, as though confronted by a brick wall.

Just as well, though, for Lady Thorne was beckoning to the performers. Obediently, Medora followed the others into the salon, where they seated themselves upon the row of chairs against the back wall, to await their turn.

It seemed to Medora that two out of every three musicales began with a youthful soprano, and this one was to be no exception. Miss Emma Cathcart, a pretty blonde with a full bosom that seemed to promise an impressive vocal range, was the first performer. Accompanied by her music master, she sang an aria by Gluck, then, more unexpectedly, one from Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Her encore, a mere formality given her enthusiastic reception by the audience, was from "The Beggar's Opera."

Medora applauded mechanically at the end of each selection, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Scanning the room, she saw a glimmer of peacock blue in one of the front rows; however, neither person seated next to "Mrs. Munro" had red hair. Curious, considering how possessive the woman had seemed towards her escort, but an unexpected stroke of luck for Medora. If she could just see Mr. Lennox again, perhaps hold a brief conversation with him, surely that would answer all of her unspoken questions.

The cessation of sound, followed by another round of applause, recalled her to the present: a flushed and smiling Miss Cathcart was making her curtsy and preparing to yield the floor. Once she had done so, Lady Thorne reappeared to announce the next performer -- Medora herself.

Introduced as the composer of "Shakespeare's Songs," Medora rose and made her way towards the front of the room and the now-vacated pianoforte. A steely calm had settled over her, blocking out all traces of fear and anxiety. However trying the present circumstances, she had performed too often to be incapacitated by nerves.

Nonetheless, she was relieved that the first piece she had chosen was purely instrumental. Removing her gloves, she set the music on the stand before her, turned briefly to address the room. "Pavane for Queen Catherine," she announced, secretly amazed that her voice was so steady. And without further ado, she seated herself at the pianoforte and began.

One virtue of instrumental selections was that they required the performer to concentrate only upon one thing. For the duration of the composition, Medora focused upon playing each note with precision, allowing the sad, stately chords to speak for themselves. By the time she had finished, she was fully mistress of herself again, her experience as a performer having taken over.

They applauded the pavane, and--she sensed--not only because it was courteous to do so. Mr. Kelly had expressed approval too, when she had played it for him only this morning. Still, the mood evoked was somber, even funereal. Time to alter that, to prove her versatility. She had rehearsed both "Under the Greenwood Tree" and "O, Mistress Mine," but the former would already be known to those who had seen "The Fairies' Revels." Better to give them something new.

"Twelfth Night" had long been one of her favorite plays and "O, Mistress Mine" one of the first Shakespearean songs she had set to music. Composed during that memorable summer of six years ago, when she had looked into the eyes of a friend and fallen hopelessly and forever in love. She sang it full-throated now, letting the husky note of yearning color the lyrics:

"What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure."

No, youth did not endure. There were times when she felt as though her own had died, along with Archie in Kingston, and the unbidden memory made her eyes sting, blurred the keys momentarily before her. Fortunately, her fingers did not fail her and she swept the song to a successful conclusion and a no less successful reception.

She took advantage of the applause to blink furiously and regain her composure. But when she ventured to glance at the audience again, she was struck by the sight of a lone face in the crowd, its pallor accentuated by vivid hair and wide, startled blue eyes.

Oh, dear life. She knew that face, and those eyes -- just as she knew that mouth, now drawn thin and tight in a way that stunned her with its familiarity.

Archie. It had to be. Whatever he said, whatever he called himself--none of that mattered beside the certainty blooming in her soul. But how . . . ?

The salon felt unbearably warm all of the sudden -- or was that merely the blood roaring in her ears? She was not going to faint; she had done so but once in her life and this was assuredly not the moment for a repeat performance. Clenching her hands together in her lap, Medora willed herself to remain upright and conscious, breathing deeply. After a few moments, the room stopped spinning but she could still hear that roaring in her ears . . .

Not roaring, she realized suddenly. Applause. Oh. They seemed to want an encore. Glancing up from her hands, Medora saw Lady Thorne smiling expectantly at her, though her eyes held a trace of concern. Medora managed to smile back reassuringly, then turned that smile upon the audience as well.

Freed of its shock, her mind began to function once more. There might be a way to make sure, once and for all, of what she had seen. If she were mistaken, there would be no harm done: her message would simply sail right over the head of its intended recipient. But if she was not mistaken . . .

Acknowledging the audience's request with a bow, she took a sustaining breath and announced quite casually, "For my last piece, I have chosen a Scottish ballad that my mother especially favored. It is a song about separated lovers."

Turning back to the pianoforte, she sounded the first chords . . .

*****

Separated lovers?

The phrase sent a sudden shock through Archie; it took every ounce of self-control for him not to show it.

What could she mean by it? Had she realized the truth, despite his denials?

Biting his lip, he gazed at Medora as she began the introduction. So lovely--he had grown so accustomed to the ache in his heart since he lost her that he had forgotten just how much it could hurt. Watching her play, coax melting chords from the pianoforte, hearing her voice again--pure and clear as ever, but now holding a mature richness like the patina on heirloom silver . . . he had been consumed with longing all over again. Not just for Medora herself, though she was at the center of it, but for all he had been forced to leave behind.

She was deep in her music now, so deep no one could reach her. But the tune shaping beneath her hands sounded oddly familiar. In the next instant, the silver voice rose in plaintive lament:

"My heart is sair, I daurna tell
My heart is sair for Somebody;
I wad walk a winter's night,
A' for a sight o' Somebody.

If Somebody were come again,
Then one day he must cross the main,
And everyone will get his ain,
And I will see my Somebody."

Ochon, for Somebody!
Och hey, for Somebody!
I wad do - wad I do not,
A' for the sake o' Somebody!"

Oh, God. Archie tensed in his chair. That ballad. There could be no mistaking it: a Jacobite code song that was at once an expression of yearning for an exiled prince across the sea and an exhortation to that prince to come back to claim "his ain." And Medora would never have forgotten that; not only was her ancestry part Scottish, like his own, but she had been the first to share this particular code song with him. Moreover, he knew beyond any doubt that the message contained in the song was intended for him, not the long-dead Bonnie Prince Charlie.

At the pianoforte, Medora had ceased singing for the moment, was playing instead some bridging chords. To give him time, perhaps, to absorb whatever she was trying to say? With the chandelier's lights shining upon her bowed head and limning her profile like a rare cameo, she looked like a modern-day Saint Cecilia, as unlikely a conspirator as one could imagine. But Archie had learnt long ago never to underestimate the woman he loved. Even as he watched, she lifted her head and sang again, her voice intimate but reaching to every corner of the salon.

"Why need I comb my tresses bright,
Or why should coal or candlelight
E'er shine in my bower day or night,
Since gane is my dear Somebody?

Oh, I hae wept for mony a day
For one that's banished far away;
I cannot sing, and must not say
How sair I grieve for Somebody.

Ochon, for Somebody!
Och hey, for Somebody!
I wad do - wad I do not,
A' for the sake o' Somebody!"

 

As the chords thrummed away into a mournful silence, Archie felt his hands clench upon the arms of his chair. Her message had been understood--dared he let her know that? As the applause broke out, he looked again, purposefully, towards the front of the room where Medora, now risen to her feet, was taking her final bows. For just a moment, it seemed that her eyes looked straight into his in silent acknowledgement, then her gaze swept over him as though taking in the whole of her appreciative audience. One last graceful curtsy to the room at large, and she was making her way unhurriedly back towards her seat as the last performer and his accompanist strode up to take their places.

Archie exhaled shakily. It was done -- now, all that remained was the waiting.

*****

In later years, Medora was never to remember the rest of the evening very clearly. After the musicale ended, there was a cold supper laid out for guests and performers alike, there were well-wishers in plenty who praised her singing and asked about her compositions. Lord Thorne, in particular, had eyed her thoughtfully beneath his drooping lids and complimented her upon her unusual choice of songs, especially the last one. His mother, he informed her, had been a Drummond, whose clan had held to the Stewarts' claim.

Of Mr. Lennox Medora had seen no trace, but then she had not expected to. Nor did she inquire after him, but stood with a bright, social smile, making bright, social talk with the Thornes' guests. As soon as courtesy permitted, however, she made her excuses to her host and hostess, pleading an early business appointment the following morning.

Ensconced once more in the Langfords' carriage, she drew the curtains and sank back against the cushioned squabs, the energy that had sustained her throughout the evening now draining away. Her mind, however, was whirling like a child's top.

When she had met his gaze at the end of her performance, she had wanted nothing more than to run to him, touch his dear face, and feel his arms about her, to know with every part of her body that he was alive, and real--but something had held her back. Not merely the suspicion that such a move would have been potentially disastrous, but those two years of mourning, of standing alone and facing a life by herself, of becoming a mother, of sharing grief with Margaret and Alice. That bitter time was not so easily put aside, nor should it be.

There were things that had to be said, and things that had to be known. And the greatest of them was: Why? Why had they never been told he was alive, where had he been and what had he been doing for all these two years? How had it come about that they had all been informed of his death, not his survival? Why was he going about in London, using another name? And, yes--although it seemed minor by comparison--who was that woman who had been on his arm tonight?

Perhaps, if she herself had been another sort of woman, what she had seen tonight would have been enough to damn him in her eyes forever. But she could never, would never condemn him out of hand. The touchstone of love was the ability to trust blindly--in the face of appearances and beyond every rational consideration. To trust blindly--and without limits. From the day she had given her heart and soul into his keeping, she had so trusted him.

And until they actually spoke, until he uttered the words that would irreparably shatter that faith, she would continue to do so, even while she berated herself for a fool a thousand times over.

She was dimly aware that she was weeping, tears spilling down her face in a ceaseless torrent, but she paid them no heed, being far too intent on the storm of emotions raging within her. Shock, disbelief, anger, remembered grief--and stronger than all of them, a wild, singing joy so intense she felt as though her body would fly apart in the effort to contain it.

He was alive.

And now so was she.

******

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1802

 

Medora stared blankly at the housemaid, not quite believing her ears. "Who did you say was here, Ruth?"

"Her ladyship, ma'am," Ruth repeated patiently. "Sir Edward's wife. I showed her into the parlor."

Fanny? Medora barely concealed her incredulity. "She must have come to see Mrs. Tresilian. But Margaret has gone out."

Ruth shook her head. "If you please, miss, Lady Tresilian said she wished to speak to you."

Heavens! Given the circumstances under which she had left Tresilian Manor, Medora could not imagine what her sister-in-law might have to say to her. But she did not doubt Ruth's word. Thanking the maid, she descended the stairs, lost in thought.

It was always best to be wary where Fanny was concerned, she supposed ruefully. There had been times in the past when she had wondered if she and Lady Tresilian might arrive at an understanding, but those hopes had always been dashed. Unless Edward had somehow prevailed upon his wife to come and make some kind of friendly overture . . .

"Friendly" and "Fanny"--now there was a contradiction in terms, Medora thought with a wry smile as she approached the parlor door. Pausing with her hand upon the knob, she gave silent thanks that her infant daughter was safely upstairs in the nursery. She was determined to be civil towards her brother's wife but if Fanny uttered a word of disparagement towards her child--Archie's child--Medora would not answer for the consequences!

Taking a deep breath, Medora opened the door and entered the parlor. "Good morning, Fanny," she greeted her sister-in-law with cool courtesy. "What brings you here today?"

"Medora." Lady Tresilian, elegant in grey and lavender, rose from the sofa as the younger woman approached. "How are you, my poor child? I think you will agree that, under such circumstances as these, our previous -- disagreements must be forgotten."

"Circumstances?" Medora echoed, staring at the older woman. "I do not understand--"

"Exactly as I feared," Fanny declared, shaking her head and dabbing at her eyes with a wispy lace handkerchief. "But then it is not given to us to understand God's will, but merely to accept it--as I pray you will learn to do. Indeed, I am here to help you to do so!" She dabbed her eyes again. "Dear me, such a tragedy! I can feel nothing but pity for any young woman, however insolent or disobedient, who finds herself in your situation--"

"Fanny," Medora broke in, trying to suppress her mounting alarm, ignore the cold sickness growing in the pit of her stomach. "Please, stop speaking in riddles and tell me what has happened!"

Lady Tresilian's pale eyes widened. "You do not subscribe to the Naval Chronicle?"

"We do, but we have not received the latest issue."

"Oh, my dear!" Fanny exclaimed, delving into her reticule. "You mean, you have not seen this yet?"

"Seen what?" Medora began, but her sister-in-law was thrusting a newspaper at her, folded back to one particular page.

Bewildered, Medora scanned the page. Halfway down the middle column, a name caught her attention--and she looked more closely. Looked -- stared -- until the words seemed burnt into her brain and the blood in her veins turned to ice.

No. Her lips tried to form the words but without success.

"Of course, the moment I saw this, I knew you would desire the comfort and support of your family--"

An infinitesimal part of Medora's mind that was not focused upon the Chronicle wondered how Fanny could have deluded herself into believing she was the person to offer such things, but that part was soon swallowed up by the whole, by the desolation contained in a few stark lines of print.

A lie. It has to be. Or some stupid mistake.

"Truly, though, I never held Lieutenant Kennedy in high esteem, I own that it is a pity that he should have died so young."

Aged 25 years, the paper said. He is twenty-six. It cannot be the same man.

The hated voice was droning on. "And an even greater pity that he should have left you in such dire straits. A mother, but neither a wife nor widow. Why, every proper feeling must be offended--"

He's not dead. He cannot be dead. He's coming home to me--and to our child. Just as he promised. Archie always keeps his promises.

I will not let him be dead!

"--and I daresay you will not even be entitled to his pension."

"Shut up." The words came out guttural and harsh, like the croak of a raven.

Fanny drew herself up to her full height, offended. "I beg your pardon?"

"I said, shut up, you spiteful hag!" Medora's voice was shaking, along with the rest of her, like an aspen in a high wind. "I don't believe a word of it!" Glancing down at the paper in her hands, she flung it away from her as if it were something poisonous. "He wouldn't do that to me," she insisted. "He wouldn't--" Abruptly, she found herself unable to speak further.

Fanny regarded her with pitying superiority. "Wouldn't what? Leave you? Die? My dear, I am afraid he has done both. But then, the Kennedys have never been a very dependable family."

Medora shook her head, not even knowing which of Fanny's venomous remarks she was denying. "No," she maintained hoarsely, forcing the word out between stiff lips. "No, it can't be true--I won't let it be--" Wildly, she glanced about the parlor, now spinning around her. Putting out a hand to steady herself, she knocked against a vase on the table, sent it toppling to the floor with a crash.

"Medora." Fanny was approaching, hands outstretched, that same horrible, pitying look upon her face.

"No!" She tried to back away, but now the floor was swaying beneath her feet. Or was it just that her legs were no longer capable of holding her up? And the air--suddenly, there did not seem to be enough of it in here. She was gasping for breath, her heart racing, the room swimming in and out of focus. And as the world darkened around her, she experienced a moment of furious indignation amidst the overwhelming anguish: that she was going to faint, for the first time in her life and in front of Fanny.

*****

Henry was in the passage, heading towards the kitchen, when he heard the crash from the parlor, followed by a woman's startled cry. Reversing direction, he ran to the parlor, flung open the door, and stared in shock at the scene before him: his sister, lying crumpled on the floor like a broken doll, and Fanny standing over her.

Immediately, Henry hurtled inside, dropping on his knees beside Medora. "Snip?" He took one cold hand in his, chafed her wrist anxiously. "Snip? Wake up!"

No response. Henry glared up at Fanny. "What happened?" he demanded. "What did you do to her?"

Lady Tresilian bridled. "What have I done to her? How dare you take that tone with me? I'll have you know that I --"

"Save your breath," Henry snapped, gathering up his sister's limp form and carrying it to the sofa. "Or better still, ring for some hartshorn or smelling-salts! Make yourself useful for once in your life!"

"Well, I never--"

"That I can readily believe!" Henry retorted, chafing Medora's wrists again and peering worriedly into her face, chalk-white against the tumbled dark hair. "This isn't like you, love," he told his sister gently. "You've never been one for the vapors. Or for going down like a set of ninepins over the least little thing. But I promise not to tease you too much about it, if you'll just open your eyes now --"

Nothing. Not even the merest flutter of an eyelid. Frustrated and more than slightly alarmed, Henry turned another fierce glare upon his sister-in-law. "What happened?" he asked again. "You were with her when she fainted, damn it--tell me!"

Fanny sniffed, still affronted. "Doubtless you won't believe me, but my motive in coming here was pure Christian kindness. How was I to know that the news would come as such a shock to her?"

"News?" Henry stared about the room, saw a folded newspaper lying on the floor a little distance away. Snatching it up, he scanned it rapidly -- and froze when he saw . . . what Medora must have seen. The end of a life in a few terse sentences. The death of hope, to which Medora had clung all through these long difficult months. The death of love.

Laying down the paper, Henry exhaled slowly and looked up at the one who had brought his sister this report. At the sculpted, coolly beautiful face that seemed so indifferent to another's devastation--and all the loathing he had ever felt for his brother's wife uncoiled with the speed of a striking snake.

"You . . . bitch." The cold fury consuming him made his voice unrecognizable even to his own ears.

That produced a reaction, where Medora's distress had produced none. Fanny gasped, twin spots of color suddenly burning in her cheeks. "How dare you?"

"How dare you?" Henry countered. "To spring this upon her, without a word of warning--"

"She is my husband's ward! And once I saw this, I had to tell her--"

"Couldn't wait to tell her, more like!" he spat. "And I'll bet you enjoyed every second of it!"

"It was duty!" Fanny insisted, guilty color now flooding the rest of her face.

"It was spite--and malice!"

Lady Tresilian stiffened, outraged. "I do not intend to stand here and be insulted--"

"Then get out," Henry ordered stonily. "Get out--before I throw you out!"

She gaped at him, clearly unable to believe her ears, but when he took a single menacing step towards her, she was the one who broke, all but fleeing from the parlor. Seconds later, he heard the front door slam, then the sound of horses' hooves as Fanny's carriage bore her away.

"Good riddance to bad rubbish," he said aloud. And looked towards the sofa as if expecting his sister to awaken and agree with him.

She did not, of course. And, knowing now what he knew, he wondered if it would be more merciful to let her remain unconscious, rather than rouse her to face a world without the man she loved.

Oh, Snip--I'm so damnably sorry . . .

Sinking down in an armchair, he leaned his head upon his clasped hands and grieved for them both: his sister and the bright, brave young officer to whom she had given her heart.

"Henry?"

He looked up at his name and the familiar voice: Margaret, now entering the parlor and untying her bonnet as she came.

"Is everything all right?" she inquired, then, as her gaze traveled to Medora, "Good heavens! What's happened?"

"Fanny," he said succinctly, but that was enough.

"That Woman is here?" Margaret drew herself upright, her blue eyes sparkling dangerously.

"Was here," Henry corrected. "I threw her out."

"For upsetting Medora?"

He nodded.

"I am sorry to have missed that," Margaret said grimly. "And I'd have liked to throw her out myself! What did that wretched woman do this time?"

Henry swallowed, realizing that it was not only his sister's heart that would be broken by what he was about to say. "Margaret . . . I have the most terrible news."

END PART EIGHTEEN