Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

He pass'd the portal, cross'd the corridor,
And reach'd the chamber as the strain gave o'er:
"My own Medora! sure thy song is sad-"

--George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Corsair

 

PART NINETEEN: "Tryst"

In the end, it had turned out to be far easier than Archie had anticipated.

He had managed to pass the return carriage-ride in silence. Caillean had been successful beyond expectation with LeGrande, who had apparently showered her with gallantries; she and Grant had been absorbed in conversation over strategy--and wardrobe--for the entire interval. Ferguson, an expression of mild indulgence on his face, had leaned back against the cushions, retreating into masculine reticence and apparently seeing nothing unusual in Archie's doing the same.

One stroke of luck had succeeded another. Arriving back at headquarters, they had heard from Arundel that none of the commanders was currently on the scene. Barring the revelation of any earth-shattering development, reports were to be given the following morning. Beyond Caillean's potentially fruitful flirtation with LeGrande, there was little to disclose and so the four of them trailed up the stairs to their respective rooms.

At that point, it had been remarkably easy for Archie to press his fingers to his temples, to murmur about changing clothes and taking a walk to clear his head. Ferguson had nodded a bit absently, his gaze fixed upon his wife, ascending the stairs just ahead of him.

Once in his own room, Archie had searched his own wardrobe for a dark shirt, jacket, and trousers--the clothes he used for night work with Rory had been left back in Edinburgh--and slipped downstairs and out the servants' entrance without encountering any other agents.

Earlier, at the Thornes', a few judicious inquiries had settled the question of Medora's direction. So now . . . here he was, hiding in the shadows and gazing up at the darkened windows of Langford House.

He could not begin to guess which window was hers. But might she have left some sign for him--a candle burning in her bower, as her song had suggested? If so, it seemed that he could rule out any of the front bedrooms. Now that he thought on it, he remembered that his betrothed had usually preferred the smaller, quieter chambers towards the back of the house.

Which meant that he would have to go in from the garden--and make damned sure he did not get caught. The consequences, if he were . . .

"The orchard walls are high and hard to climb, / And the place death, considering who thou art, / If any of my kinsmen find thee here. "

Strangely enough, the quotation steadied him, restoring a measure of calm. He was not in such straits as the hapless Romeo: no band of hostile Capulets lay in wait for him. And as for scaling the walls . . . fortunately, there was no need for that. If memory served, there was a door, albeit well-concealed by overhanging ivy.

Slipping from the shadows, Archie made his stealthy way along the perimeter of the house and the brick walls enclosing the gardens. Langford House was one of the few mansions in London to possess its own grounds and gardens. During that golden summer, he and Medora had wandered over every inch of them together. Little short of miraculous that he remembered as much--at the time, he had been wholly intent upon her . . . as she had been upon him.

Working his way by touch along the wall, he finally located the door: between the darkness and the ivy, it was all but invisible to the naked eye. Brushing aside the clinging vines, Archie extracted a picklock from his sleeve and set to work.

A good, stout lock, as it turned out. Fortunately, Archie had been taught by the best: ten minutes later, he heard the tiny "click" as the tumblers shifted, then felt the door give slightly when he leaned his weight against it. Mouth drawn tight in concentration, he eased the door open, just enough to peer around it into the garden. All was dark, however, and silent.

He waited a few minutes more, to make sure that no one was wandering the grounds, then pushed the door sufficiently ajar to slip inside, then let it close quietly behind him. He could not help the faint creak it made as it swung back into place, but when the sound did not bring the entire household down upon him, he began to breathe again and take a closer look at his surroundings.

No lanterns had been lit in the garden, but there was enough moonlight to guide him. Still keeping to the shadows, Archie made his way slowly towards the terrace. Just within sight of the house, he paused, looked up . . . and then looked more closely, his heart beginning to pound at what he saw: the light burning at a familiar first-floor window.

Not her bedchamber, after all. The music room.

******

It had taken some effort but by the time the carriage reached Langford House, Medora had regained her composure. Upstairs, she had submitted quietly to Jane's ministrations, exchanging her evening frock for a nightgown and letting the maid brush out her hair. Afterwards, she had dismissed Jane for the night, mentioning idly that she might sit up and read for a while, or perhaps compose. Long accustomed to her mistress's eccentric habits, the girl had retired to her own quarters, discreetly concealing her yawns behind her hand.

Alone, Medora fetched a dressing gown from the wardrobe and donned it quickly. The cool slither of silk over her body was oddly soothing and the mundane act of knotting the sash about her waist further restored her equilibrium. No dream, any of this. Tonight had been real . . . whatever followed would be real as well, and she meant to face it head-on, as a Tresilian should. Pausing only to clasp a certain necklace about her throat and to slide her feet into a pair of soft slippers, she took up a branched candelabrum from the mantel and slipped from the room.

To her relief, no servants were about, so she continued unimpeded to the music room. Setting down the candelabrum on top of the harpsichord, she stirred the banked fire to life again, lit the lamps, and carried one over the wide sill of the window overlooking the garden. Brighter than any candle, its beams would be the more easily seen by . . . whoever happened to be watching for it.

Letting the curtain drop back into place, Medora found a moment to wonder about her own preternatural calm. By rights, she supposed she should be prostrate with nerves and remembered grief over tonight's discovery . . . and it might yet come to that, she reflected with a bleak little smile, depending on what happened next. But for now--she had but to wait and keep a cool head.

Easier said than done, of course. Tears and vapors might be in abeyance, but beneath the thin layers of silk and muslin, her skin tingled with a heightened awareness of what was to come. The very air felt charged with electricity, the way it did just before a storm.

If she could not do something, she thought she would go mad, which could hardly be considered a useful response in these circumstances. Music came to her aid then, music with its "charms to soothe the savage breast." Medora breathed in, breathed out, then seated herself at the harpsichord and began to play.

Scales first, the simplest of student exercises. The light, glittering notes danced upon the air, forming their comfortingly familiar patterns. Not for the first time, Medora was grateful that Alice's staff was so attuned to her unusual composing habits. Granted, it was unlikely that the servants could even hear the harpisichord up in the attics--but nobody would come to investigate in any case.

From scales, she progressed to the familiar tunes of her girlhood: the gentle ballads her mother had used to sing. Almost without conscious thought, she found herself singing too, her unspoken thoughts directing her choice:

"Long have we parted been,
Laddie, my dearie,
Now we have met again,
Laddie, lie near me."

Before the song was over, she knew she was no longer alone.

*****

The lock on the terrace door was child's play, compared to the one in the garden wall. Perhaps he should tell Medora--that is, if they were even on speaking terms by morning. Strange that his mind should be leaping ahead like this, when they had yet to exchange a word as themselves, when he had not the faintest idea of what to say. But he could feel the rapid flutter of the pulse at his throat, the accelerated beat of his heart as he entered the house at last--and knew the cause was more than mere anxiety.

Inexorably, she drew him--as the moon drew the tides, as the flame enticed the moth. Knowing that she was here, within reach at last . . . to retreat now would be to tear the living heart from his body, to consign himself to an existence that would make the last two barren years seem tolerable by comparison. Forward, then--"once more unto the breach."

Strains of music reached his ears as he ventured into the entrance hall. He recognized without difficulty the delicate ripplings of the harpsichord and the light, skilled touch upon the keys. Who else but Medora would be playing at such an hour? And for whom but himself might she be playing?

As he had often done before in night work, he removed his shoes before mounting the stairs, keeping close to the walls on the latter endeavor. No board creaked to betray his activities and soon he had reached the first floor. The music was more audible now, and as he made his way down the passage towards the music room, he could hear her singing, softly but with the utmost clarity.

A Scottish ballad, different from the one she had sung at the Thornes', but the longing contained in the words caught at his heart:

"Long have we parted been,
Laddie, my dearie,
Now we have met again,
Laddie, lie near me."

Did he dare hope for such an outcome, after two years? The silver voice, achingly pure, sang on:

"Long have I sought thee,
Thy face to cheer me,
Dear has it cost me,
Laddie, lie near me.

Near me, near me
Laddie, lie near me
Now we have met again
Laddie, lie near me."

Archie swallowed, briefly closed his stinging eyes: no siren could have sung to better effect. It took all his self-control not to abandon caution and run the rest of the way. But he forced himself to maintain his outward calm and gradual pace. Reaching his destination at last, he paused in the doorway and ventured a cautious glance into the room.

Lamplight and firelight cast a soft, flickering glow over the walls and upon the lady seated at the harpsichord, her back to him. Archie's throat constricted at the sight. Medora. Clad in a pale blue wrapper, with her long hair unbound and reaching nearly to her waist, she looked very young and virginal--scarcely older than when they had met, in fact. But her voice was unquestionably a woman's, laced with yearning and passion.

"Here in the firelight,
What joy to see thee
All the long winter night,
Laddie, lie near me."

He moved without conscious thought, stepping into the room and easing the door shut behind him. He did not think he had made any noise, but Medora's perceptions had always been quick. In the next instant, she had taken her hands from the keys, and silence descended like a thunderclap, broken only by the sound of two people breathing.

Archie froze where he was, caught in an agony of indecision. Then, after what felt like an eternity, Medora turned a pale, outwardly composed face towards him. Grey eyes stared into blue; he braced himself for an immediate onslaught of fury.

But when Medora spoke, her voice sounded uncannily serene and unruffled. "Mr. Lennox, I presume. Courteous of you not to keep a lady waiting."

For one heartstopping moment Archie wondered if he had got everything wrong after all. "You--know me, then?" he ventured at last.

"But of course." Her voice held the same eerie calm. "'When I lived, I was your other wife. / And when you loved, you were my other husband.'"

The implied reproach cut him to the quick, and the words came tumbling forth. "Medora, I swear to you, not a day has passed since we parted that I have not loved you--and longed for you!"

"Then -- why?" Two years of anguish in one syllable, as her own control shattered. "All this time, believing you dead--and not one word?"

God, how to explain? Could anything he said ever make up for what had been lost? Not merely time, but trust, the faith she had once had in him . . .

"I don't . . . " He swallowed dryly before continuing. "I don't -- quite know where to begin."

"You could try--'at the beginning.'" The sudden levelness of her tone indicated some restoration of composure. "We had a letter, of course, from Sir Edward Pellew--giving the particulars of Renown's last action. Naturally, it would never have occurred to us to question his account." Almost idly, she pleated a fold of silk between her fingers, her eyes scanning him coolly from top to toe. "So--were you ever really wounded? Clearly, you were never really dead."

Archie flushed, equally stung by her words and her unblinking, almost disdainful scrutiny. "Yes, I was wounded! And they all thought I would die of it. I thought I would die of it. And there were accusations made, over Captain Sawyer and how he came to lose his command. We might all have been hanged--so I made a confession. It wasn't true but I needed . . . I had to protect someone. And then afterward, when I had survived -- the people who saved me, they told me there was no going back. My death had already been reported. If I were known to be alive, I would be a condemned felon. My life would have been . . . forfeit."

He licked dry lips. Hard, even now, to remember that time, and the pain of loss. Of all the losses. She remained silent, the wide grey eyes still fixed on him. He could not begin to guess her thoughts.

"For weeks -- they weren't even sure I would live." Latour had never known that Archie had overheard his remarks about how dangerously weak his patient yet remained and how great the risk of a relapse. "But then, as I recovered--they said, for even my family to know, could endanger you all. I couldn't bring that risk upon those I loved."

Medora's voice was taut. "You did not think it might have been our risk to take? We loved you, we would have done anything to keep you alive and safe--"

"I know!" Archie's voice roughened and broke. God, he was doing this so badly--making a mess of it as usual. "I know!" he repeated when he could speak again. "But you could have paid dearly for harboring a fugitive. And I could not have borne that, not for my sisters and especially not for you!" He swallowed, moistened dry lips again. "You were so young--and loving. I had meant to bring you joy, not ruin."

His heart was hammering in slow, painful strokes, his eyes burning with unshed tears, his throat and gut knotting until speech felt impossible. He wanted only to pull her close, fold his arms around the sweetness of her, but her set face told him she was not ready to allow that.

"I -- I wanted you to be happy." Archie forced himself into speech again. "I thought, in time, there would be someone else, someone better . . . who would help you to forget me."

Even her lips went paler now. "If I were a different sort of woman -- I think I would strike you for that."

"Perhaps you should, in any case," Archie said hoarsely.

She shook her head, her eyes dark with pain. "I have loved you since I was fifteen. Did you think I would be so quickly consoled?"

"I never thought so!" he protested. "But you had so much to give--and a right to happiness after so many sorrows. Even Margaret and Alice would not have begrudged your finding that with someone else!"

"No," she conceded, her tone still bleak. "But neither would they have pushed me, willy-nilly, into the arms of another man, when I wanted none but you."

Archie swallowed again. "There are -- worthier men."

"Not for me." Her lips trembled in what might have been an attempt at a smile. "Oh, Archie, have you forgotten so completely? I'm a Tresilian--we choose young and we don't change our minds!"

"No one would have blamed you if you had. Your family--"

She shook her head again, held up a forestalling hand. "Archie, do you know how I came to learn of your -- your death?"

He frowned. "You said Commodore Pellew wrote to you--"

"That was later. As it happened, I was indebted to Fanny for the news."

Dear God -- Fanny. Lady Tresilian, who detested his whole family and would have spared Medora nothing in her recital.

"When she first told me," Medora continued, her eyes hazed with remembered anguish, "I could not breathe. And after -- it was like falling from the t-top of a -- of a cliff. Then s-striking the g-ground and breaking every b-bone in my body . . . " She pressed a hand against her mouth, swallowed hard before resuming starkly. "I did not think it was possible to hurt so much -- and live."

And he was hurting her still, Archie realized bleakly, this woman who had loved him so devotedly. In the end, what had he ever given her, save pain? "You have every reason to think ill of me," he acknowledged, forcing the words past the tightness in his chest. "With all that's happened, I wouldn't blame you if you hated me."

"Hate you?" She was staring at him, the grey eyes wide with shock. " Do you truly think I could?"

"I've given you precious little cause to love me these last two years."

She caught her breath on a half-laugh, half-sob. "Oh, my dear life! If you only knew -- "

"Knew what?"

She closed her eyes but not before he saw the glitter of tears on her lashes. "That I have had a very good reason to keep your memory alive these last two years. That I have not gone a single day without thinking of you, or looking for you in our daughter's face . . ."

The words crashed over Archie like a storm wave. Stunned, he stood rooted to the spot, staring at her. "Our d-d-daughter?" he echoed "We have--have--"

The tears were running unchecked down her face now, but she met his gaze without flinching. "We have a child, dear heart."

Dazed, Archie shook his head. "B-but we can't. You wrote me and said--"

"I was mistaken," she broke in, dashing away the tears impatiently. "I believed -- but I spoke too soon, as it turned out. You know that my courses have never been -- predictable. Forgive me. " Her voice was a low whisper. "I hadn't intended to tell you this way."

."Did you intend to tell me at all?" Archie asked tautly.

"Yes!" Grey eyes flashed indignation. "But how could I, while you were serving aboard Renown? I knew something was wrong, even though you would not speak of it to me. And I could not bring myself to add to your worries, especially after I received your letter."

"My letter?" Archie stared at her.

A corner of her mouth lifted ruefully. "You could not disguise your relief when I told you I was not with child. 'No hostages to fate,' you said. That, perhaps more than anything else, convinced me that all was not well. How could I write you again and tell you that I had conceived, after all? There was . . . nothing you could have done."

"I suppose not," he conceded at last. "Any more than you could have done anything about the Renown--or what followed."

"Touché," she whispered, lowering her head as though in defeat. "And so, in seeking to spare each other pain, we have caused each other pain." A single tear fell upon the hands lying clenched in her lap. "Is there any way back for us at all?"

He swallowed painfully. "I don't know. They gave me a new name and a new life. But before God, I never ceased to mourn for the old one . . . "

Medora raised her head, her eyes still brilliant with tears, and fumbled with something about her throat. "Dear heart . . . would you like to see our daughter?"

Mutely, Archie held out his hand and she rose from the bench and went to him, slipping the miniature into his palm. Still beyond speech, he gazed down at the pictured face, at the rosy, dimpled cheeks, the tousled dark curls . . . and the blue eyes that were unquestionably his legacy to her. After several moments, that bright face blurred before him and he realized that he was weeping, the hot, difficult tears trickling down his cheeks.

Clearing his throat, he wiped his face with his free hand. "How have you called her?" His voice was as husky as if he had not spoken in years.

Her lips curved in a bittersweet smile. "Rosemary--for remembrance."

"Pray, love, remember," he said softly.

"Love," she whispered, her eyes gazing deep into his, "I have never forgotten."

So close he could touch her, feel her warmth against him, breathe in the scent of her--roses spiced with cinnamon, bury his face in her hair. Hold her--and never let her go.

As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love; if I have rang'd,
Like him that travels, I return again . . .

Returning. Coming home.

When he reached for her, she flowed into his arms, and he knew without a word uttered that her resistance had only ever been token. Supple and lithe, her form seemed to melt into the very contours of his body, and he felt himself awake and fully alive again, desire flooding his veins. Medora's arms twined about him with equal passion and ferocity; when he sought her lips, they parted warm and yielding against his own, like some rare flower bursting into bloom.

His rose. His love.

Whatever morning brought, whatever the future held, tonight was theirs alone.

******
INTERLUDE

Warwickshire, 1801

Snow was falling again--but more lightly this time, the downy flakes whispering against the glass walls of the conservatory before drifting down to blanket the earth. There would be a white Christmas, after all.

Seated on one of the stone benches, Medora watched it fall, the folded letter resting upon her knee. By now she could have recited every sentence from memory, but there was still something infinitely dear about the sight of her lover's words, written in his own hand.

At the moment, however, some of those words were a little less than comforting. Glancing down, Medora unfolded the pages, smoothed them out, and read the familiar lines once more.


H.M.S. Renown
, 15 April 1801

My Own Medora Rose,

An unexpected stroke of luck brought your letter to me in a matter of weeks rather than months. As you can imagine, love, I have devoured it with enthusiasm, and shall doubtless savor it again throughout the duration of our tedious patrol. I only hope my reply reaches you within a reasonable interval as well.

With regard to the matter of which we spoke before my departure from Cornwall: my rose, I share your disappointment over its resolution, but--will you forgive me if I confess that I am also relieved? Though I could never regret any part of our love, I would not see you burdened so young, were any mischance to befall me at sea or in battle. Let there be no hostages to fate at this point.

While I pray that my forebodings will prove groundless, I cannot help but experience misgivings when I consider the future. The uncertainties to which I alluded when we were last together loom ever larger, like some monstrous "shadow in the sun." Yet perhaps I am afflicted by nothing more than a sailor's superstitions! And perhaps Heaven or Providence will yet "make two lovers happy," so that when we next return to England, I may claim you as my bride at last.

Your devoted

Archie

"My dear." A familiar voice, the light touch of a hand upon her shoulder roused Medora from her brown study. Looking up, she saw Alice, Archie's eldest sister, standing beside her, her blue eyes warm with concern.

"My dear," Lady Langford resumed, "are you sure you do not wish to write and tell him how things are with you? Especially now."

Medora glanced ruefully down at herself. "You mean, when I am so near my time? I have thought of doing so, I confess."

"If you wish it, I could undertake the task for you," Alice suggested. "I am told that I have an aptitude for dispelling lingering--awkwardness."

"No--thank you," Medora interposed with a shake of her head. "I appreciate your kind offer but I have not held off writing to Archie because -- because I fear his reaction!"

Alice studied her keenly. "But you do fear something, my dear, do you not?"

She took a deep breath before responding. "Yes. I fear for Archie himself. He does not say it in his letters, but I cannot help feeling that something is very wrong aboard that ship of his!"

"Is it merely that he's been posted to the West Indies?" Alice inquired. "I know the climate is considered unhealthful, but Archie does have a strong constitution--"

Medora shook her head again. "I could wish he was not so far away, but that is not my greatest concern." She glanced again at the pages on her lap. "Archie has expressed -- certain misgivings about his present situation."

"What has he said?"

"It is more a matter of when he does not say. When he served aboard Indefatigable, he had no reservations about sharing his thoughts and feelings with me on aught to do with her." Medora smiled reminiscently. "Indeed I often felt as if I knew that ship and her crew nearly as well as he did. But Renown . . . he has not been so forthcoming there." She bit her lip, then resumed, a trifle hesitantly. "When he was in Cornwall, he did mention that the captain seemed a trifle--erratic, and that much of the crew was lacking in discipline. Perhaps I am fretting overmuch, but -- I do not think matters have improved since then."

Alice seated herself on the bench beside Medora. "I understand you do not wish to add to his concerns. But might not the news of his impending fatherhood give him further incentive to cope with his situation?"

"Perhaps," Medora acknowledged. "But is it not equally likely that knowing might distract him from his duty, when he can least afford it? There is nothing he can do for me--it would not be fair to burden him with this. Once the child is safely born, or even after his mission is completed . . . I might write to him then. But now--" She broke off with a gasp as a slow, squeezing cramp rippled through her belly. And another. Catching her breath, she laid a hand upon her abdomen, now hard and taut as a drum.

"Medora!" Alice's voice was sharp, her eyes probing. "Are you unwell?"

Medora breathed in and out carefully, then met the older woman's gaze as calmly as she could. "I am not sure--but I think my pains have started."

 

END PART NINETEEN