Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

This series is a sequel to Into the Game

She's like the swallow that flies so high,
She's like the river that never runs dry,
She's like the sunshine on the lee shore,
She loved her love but she'll love no more

--Newfoundland folk song

 

PART TWO: "Mistress of the House"

May 1804

 

"Archie," Medora said, and blinked awake, reaching out.

He was not there, of course--nor ever would be again. Two years now . . . yet she felt his loss all over again and her face and pillow, she discovered, were damp with tears she had shed in her sleep.

Medora lay still a moment longer, waiting for her vision to clear. Sometimes she thought she had wept more in the last two years than at any other time in her life, even more than when her parents and later, her brother Hugh had died.

"Does the pain ever stop?" she had asked Margaret during the first terrible weeks after the news had come from Kingston.

Margaret, Hugh's widow and Archie's sister, had not answered immediately, then, finally, she had shaken her head. "No, dearest--but it becomes endurable, with time."

Time. Well, she had plenty of that before her. And reason enough, she supposed, to continue to live--even if, during the bleak hours before dawn, she wished she did not. Through the window, she glimpsed the lightening sky. Time to face the day.

Pushing back the blankets, she rose from the bed and made her way first to the washstand, where she splashed cold water over her face. Any swelling about her eyes could be explained away as the lingering traces of sleep. Crossing to her wardrobe, she contemplated the gowns hanging there with only perfunctory interest. She had left off mourning-dress a few months ago, but she still favored subdued colors. Nonetheless, Lady Langford--Alice--had been quite determined that she should have some new things for her stay in London, and it had been easier, in the end, to comply than to resist. And what her hostess had to say held merit--if she had come to town for the purpose of promoting her first book of musical compositions, she had best look at least a little stylish and not like a complete dowd.

Dutifully, Medora selected a dark blue morning gown and matching accoutrements, then began to dress with the ease of one who had learnt to do for herself at an early age. Her maid, Jane, was still becoming accustomed to London hours and last night she had been heroically swallowing yawns as she helped her mistress to bed. Let her sleep.

Suitably gowned for the day, she sat down at the dressing-table and brushed her long dark hair. Sometimes she wondered, a little morbidly, why it had not turned white overnight or fallen out altogether. Examining herself critically in the glass, she thought, not for the first time, how strange it was that something that had changed her entire world had not left a more visible mark upon her. But the face in the mirror looked much the same as it had two years ago--a little thinner perhaps, more serious, and less ready to smile, but still, recognizably her own.

A dark blue ribbon caught her hair back simply from her face; she had no patience these days with elaborate coiffures. Her little pearl brooch would serve to pin the collar of her dress closed. Rummaging through the drawer in search of it, her fingers encountered instead the little leather case that held her scallop-shell locket. The sight stirred her memory: there was a task she had left undone for over two years, and she attended to it now, thoughtfully. As she tucked the case back into the drawer, another object within revealed itself to her attention.

Peter Carrisford's letter.

She knew its words all too well, she had simply not decided how to answer his question. It could--would--change all their lives. Yet her doubts lingered--fortunately she need not make her final decision at this moment. Continuing her search, she located the brooch in her jewel box, gleaming pallidly against several brighter objects--including a ring that burned with the fire of ruby, glowed with the gloss of pearl . . .

"Medora Rose Drummond Tresilian--will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

Medora swallowed, blinked stinging eyes. Tears and fire. She had known both--with Archie. And another ring he had given her, half-fancifully, during his last visit to Cornwall. She had worn them proudly, in token and pledge; at one point, however, her fingers had become too swollen for rings and they had been put off, to be resumed in happier days. Days which had never come. And later, she could not bear to be reminded of what had been, and so her fingers had remained unadorned. Yet she also knew she would not be able to part with those rings--at least not for a good many years.

Enough. Another minute and she'd be a complete watering pot. Glancing into the glass again, she decided that her toilette was complete.

Face the day.

Although she had taken breakfast alone in her room the first few days, it was poor recompense for the hospitality she had been shown. So, for the past week, she had made a point of going down to join the Langfords in the dining room before her kind, generous, and utterly intrepid hostess came in search of her.

*****

Rather to her surprise, the dining-room was deserted when she entered. According to Soames, the Langfords' butler, his lordship had breakfasted earlier and retired to his study to attend to his correspondence. Lady Langford was in the garden, gathering flowers for the house.

A tempting array of piping hot dishes was arranged upon the sideboard, however, and after a few minutes' thought, Medora rose from her chair and went to make her selections. Her appetite was erratic these days, even at the best of times, but she required sustenance in order to function.

Hot tea. Cornish as she was, she had never acquired the taste for coffee or even chocolate in the morning. Toast. A coddled egg. She hesitated over the meats, then chose the smallest slice of fried York ham, still sizzling in its chafing dish. Reseating herself at the table, she began to consume her solitary breakfast.

About halfway through the meal, Lady Langford entered with a spring in her step and a smile such as Medora had not seen in quite some time. "They're in bloom again!" the countess reported jubilantly. "Just when I had given up hope!"

Medora mustered a smile, knowing how much Archie's eldest sister delighted in her garden. "Which flowers would these be?"

"My roses." Lady Langford crossed to the sideboard and helped herself to moderate portions of eggs, toast, and sausage. "Every last one of my bushes has put out buds. Oh, it should be glorious--especially when one considers how dismal the last two summers have been!" Taking the seat opposite Medora, she added cream and sugar to her own tea, while her eyes scanned the younger woman's plate with evident approval.

To her irritation, Medora felt herself flushing slightly. Alice thought she was too thin; so did Margaret for that matter--their concern alternately warmed and chafed her. At times, she suspected that her current stay in London was the result of a sisterly conspiracy, to jar her loose from the retired existence she had led for the past two years.

"I think you should go, my dear," Margaret had said, after the letter about Medora's compositions had arrived. "You know I will look after everyone at home." And just a few days later, Alice's missive had come, inviting her to stay at Langford House, where there was sure to be a welcome audience for her music. And suddenly Medora had found herself and her trunks bundled aboard a stagecoach bound for London, while her family--just visible through the open window--had waved a cheery goodbye. The schoolgirl Medora had once been would have relished such an adventure; the woman she had become in the last two years had struggled against tears and the temptation to jump out of the coach and run all the way back to Cornwall. Only pride had kept her in her place, trundling along the road to London. Whatever else she had been, whatever else she had done, she would not be a coward too. "A Tresilian of Keverne is the equal of anyone and equal to anything," her father had been fond of observing. Perhaps she should work those words on a sampler as a reminder--except that she had never been much good at embroidery.

"More tea?" Alice's voice, recalling her to the present. Medora started, murmured a quick assent, and handed over her cup to be refilled.

"Do you know, my dear," Lady Langford continued, replacing the teapot on the sideboard and resuming her seat, "I've often wondered if flowers can sometimes sense good years and bad years--and respond accordingly. For example," her blue eyes clouded over briefly but she continued with scarcely a pause, "I know that these last two years have been particularly difficult, and so the gardens did not bloom as splendidly as they have in the past. But this year, they seem rejuvenated . . . could it be that they sense a change for the better?"

"That could be," Medora ventured cautiously. "I fear I have not your gardener's instinct. Perhaps the flowers are simply--attuned to you."

"Julian thinks something similar," the countess admitted. "Indeed, he refuses to credit that the improvement of the gardens is attributable to anything except renewed attention and interest on my part." She sighed. "Well, I suppose what truly matters is that everything is blooming just as it should. I shall be sorry not to be here when my roses open--but I suppose it cannot be helped. Now that Malcolm is finally getting married, someone in the Kennedy family should make the journey to attend his wedding. Duncan cannot, Margaret will not--so therefore, it falls to me to put in an appearance at our brother's nuptials."

"Is there much left to do, before you and Lord Langford depart for Scotland?" Medora asked. "I'd be glad to help, in any way I can."

"Oh, no, my dear--I assure you, everything is proceeding smoothly. We shall be able to leave in two days' time, just as we planned. But are you sure that you do not wish me to ask Marcus and Henrietta to come stay here with you while we are gone--for the companionship, if nothing else?"

Medora shook her head. "Your brother-in-law has his own establishment now, and his wife is expecting a child; I should not like to uproot them. Nor do I require chaperonage--as I am no longer a 'green girl.'"

"No, but neither are you a 'scarlet woman,'" her hostess retorted. "Indeed," she added, looking for all the world like a dainty golden dragon, "I think you will find that most doors in society are still open to you. I have made sure of that."

Medora smothered a smile. In the last two weeks, Lady Langford had been determinedly reintroducing her into society: giving dinner parties and musicales, while making it quite clear to her guests that she herself would not go where her protégée was not also welcome. And such was Alice's position and force of will, that Medora was readily asked to several social functions. Granted, her own inclination was to stay quietly at home most evenings, but Lady Langford had insisted that she accept the majority of her invitations. "Let society become used to you again," she had said firmly, at the outset. "And once it has--well, things will be much easier. And not just for you alone."

Reluctantly, Medora had conceded her point. To her relief, she had found that her hosts and fellow guests treated her with the utmost civility, at least to her face. That was a start, at any rate.

Now, she glanced at her hostess, who was carefully buttering the last of her toast. "Lady Langford--Alice--I cannot thank you enough, for your efforts on my behalf."

The countess smiled at her with a sweetness that reminded Medora, painfully, of someone else for a brief instant. "Nonsense, child! You are family--indeed, it is only by mischance that you do not share the Kennedy name. But most assuredly, you have shared everything else. Oh, my dear!" Tears sprang suddenly to Lady Langford's eyes and she stretched out her hand across the table to the younger women who took it, astonished. "That terrible year we lost both Archie and Papa--you have no idea what a comfort it was, to think of you down in Cornwall!"

Blinking back tears of her own, Medora squeezed the countess's hand, too moved to speak.

Lady Langford recovered her composure first, with a slightly watery laugh. "So, you see, my dear Medora, you are not to feel yourself under any great obligation to me or anyone else in this family. We are happy to do whatever we can to establish you creditably." She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, sniffed, and said briskly, "So let us have no more talk of indebtedness. I shall count myself amply recompensed by your continuing to stay here and look after things in my absence."

"I shall stay as long as I can," Medora promised. "Only -- things being as they are, I may need to leave for Cornwall before you are back in London."

"Understandable, given your situation. Nonetheless, I hope you will stay on at least until the end of the month, especially since that will give more people the chance to hear your music."

"Perhaps I shall," Medora conceded, after a moment's thought. "It would be foolish to have come all this way because of my compositions, then leave at the earliest opportunity without making a real effort to promote them."

"Very sensible, my dear," Alice approved. "Now, I have instructed my staff to see to your every comfort while you are here. Indeed, in my absence, they are to regard you as the mistress of the house!"

Medora laughed, surprising herself as much as her hostess. "Oh, I could never hope to fill that role as well as you! But I shall do my best to be a courteous and considerate guest throughout my stay."

"You always have been, before," Lady Langford replied, smiling.

A tentative cough drew their attention to the doorway, where Soames was standing.

"A man to see you, your ladyship," the butler announced, "from Monsieur Daubigny's studio. I have shown him into the drawing room."

"Ah, thank you, Soames. I shall see to this, directly." Lady Langford rose from her chair. "Pray excuse me, my dear. I believe this may be the delivery I was expecting."

"Of course," Medora replied almost absently, as Archie's sister flitted from the room.

*****

Her hostess returned just as the younger woman was finishing her breakfast. "Well, at least that's been dealt with!" the countess announced with satisfaction.

"What has?" Medora inquired, idly curious.

"Georgy's portrait--her gift to Lionel for their anniversary next month. Julian and I agreed to keep it at Langford House until the big day, especially since they're visiting his family in Derbyshire.and will not be in town for several weeks as yet. I hope you may still be here with us, then--I know Georgy would love to see you again."

Medora smiled; she and Langford's youngest sister had always been good friends. "I should like that as well, but I shall have to see how matters progress, both here and in Cornwall." She drank the last of her tea. "So, she chose a Monsieur Daubigny for the commission? A French emigre?"

"Indeed," Lady Langford confirmed. "He has lived in England since the terror, and I hear he is quite well-regarded as a portrait painter, though I am not familiar with his work."

"Well, Georgy has a good eye. I am sure he must be quite talented if she chose to engage his services. Did you happen to catch a glimpse of the portrait while it was being painted?"

Alice shook her head. "Georgy modeled for him at his studio--and Monsieur reportedly does not care to have people underfoot while he works. I shall have to wait, along with the rest of the world, for the unveiling. For now, though, I've had the portrait placed in a cabinet in the library, for safekeeping." Pausing by the sideboard, she selected a peach from a porcelain bowl and sat down at the table to peel it. "Would you like some of this, my dear? It is just ripe and bound to be quite delicious."

"No, thank you." Medora pushed away her cup and plate. "I am sure you are right but I could not swallow another morsel at present. I thought I would go up and practice my music."

"An excellent idea. The Halsteads are dining with us this afternoon--and you know how much Lady Halstead enjoys your playing."

Medora smiled acknowledgement and thanks, bade her hostess good-day, and headed for the stairs. The shadows of the morning still trailed after her, but she ignored them resolutely, determined to concentrate only upon her present task. The future was an unknown quantity, the past--dearly loved though it might be--was over and done with . . . all that remained was the here and now.

Scales and arpeggios, Signior Rossini had told her when she first came to him as a student. Scales and arpeggios, three times a day . . .

*****

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1801

 

The ceiling was so low at the entrance they both had to duck their heads but, fortunately, there was room enough to straighten up once they were inside.

Archie fumbled in his pocket, located his tinderbox, and set to work. Several attempts finally produced a spark, to which he touched the candle stub Medora passed him, and the flickering flame showed him a cave like so many on the Cornish coast: jagged stone walls, marked by fissures and crannies, carved out by the relentless sea.

"Not exactly the most romantic place to begin one's honeymoon," he said wryly, setting the candle down upon a jutting ledge.

"Perhaps not. But it will be private--and the tide is out." Medora shivered, drawing her cloak about her. "And we have no sea-wrack to clear away in this one. I remember exploring these caves as a child--you have no idea how dreadful that stuff could smell!"

Archie inhaled, detecting only the expected odors of brine and damp stone. "It may be cold. And wet. We shall have to put our cloaks down--and perhaps gather driftwood for a fire."

Her smile was just visible in the dim light. "I think, once we are together, we will be warm enough."

"Oh, love!" He drew her to him, burying his face in her hair. "I wish I could have given you a proper wedding! In a church, with our families present, you all in white--"

"Cream," she corrected lightly. "Or rose. I never show to best advantage in white!" She tightened her arms about him and stroked his hair, coming free of its queue as usual. "Oh, my dearest heart--do you think a church wedding could make me more yours than I already am?" She freed a hand, held it up so he could see the faint glimmer of gold and ruby. "Your rings are on my finger, and we have made our vows to each other. We are married, love, in God's eyes. That is enough--and more than enough for me."

He raised his head, the blue eyes brilliant. "Then--that is enough for me as well." Cupping her face in his hands, he kissed her until the walls of the cave spun around them.

Surfacing at last, they smiled into each other's eyes, then Archie reached for Medora's hand. "Come, love--I think we have until the turning of the tide."

She nodded, grey eyes huge in the pale oval of her face, then shivered again.

"Cold?" he asked, instantly concerned.

"N-no. Not cold."

Archie's gaze sharpened. "Frightened?"

She was too candid by nature to lie, especially to him. "Of this, a little," she admitted, then turned suddenly in the circle of his arm and embraced him fiercely. "Of you, never!"

Archie held her close again, breathing in her scent and marveling at the way her body fit against his own. "I am--a little frightened, too," he confessed. "Perhaps we will be less so, once we begin?"

"Two are warmer than one," Medora conceded. "But are two braver than one?"

He smiled, stroking back strands of her long dark hair. "Possibly. Shall we try and find out now--my wife?"

 

END PART TWO