Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,
And the sun looked over the mountain's rim:
And straight was a path of gold for him,
And the need of a world of men for me.

--Robert Browning, "Parting at Morning"

PART TWENTY: "Aubade"

Awakening.

He did not know what it was that drew him back to consciousness--and for a moment, he resisted, not wanting to be roused from the most peaceful sleep he had known in years. Finally, reluctantly, he allowed himself to surface, opening heavy eyes and blinking in the half-light.

When he turned his head on the pillow, he felt the silkiness of hair beneath his cheek, inhaled the light fragrance of rosewater. Ah. Of course. He lay where he was, feeling the slow contentment spreading through him.

Medora. He could barely remember how they had got upstairs to her room, so intent had he been on the feel, scent, and taste of her. A feast, a banquet under the heavens after three years' privation. And she had matched him passion for passion, returning his kisses with fervor, running her skilled musician's hands over his entire body. She had caught her breath when she saw his scar, faded by time and healing but still visible, traced it with a gentle finger, then pressed her lips to it as if she could kiss away both past and present pain. He thought she might even have wept over it, had he not contrived to distract her at that point. Fortunately, his betrothed had always been a quick study.

A soft, hitching breath beside him brought him to full wakefulness. Concerned, he raised himself on one elbow; Medora lay a little distance away, her back towards him. Even as he watched, he heard her breath catch once more, then an audible swallow.

"My rose--" Suddenly anxious, he stretched out a hand, laid it upon her bare shoulder. "Are you all right?"

She tensed, just slightly, at his touch. "Forgive me, dearest." Her voice sounded suspiciously thick. "I did not mean to wake you."

Archie swallowed. Medora was no watering pot but he knew the sound of stifled tears when he heard them. ""My love--I hope I did not hurt you last night?"

"No, not that. Never that."

"What, then?"

She half-turned towards him, the curtain of dark hair partly obscuring her face. "You--you'll think I'm being foolish."

"Never," he assured her, tenderly stroking the curve of her damp cheek.

She sniffled, wiped at her face with the back of one hand. "It's--not that the cut is unbecoming. Or--or that you don't make quite a fetching redhead, but . . ."

"But?" Archie prompted gently.

"Your beautiful hair!" The words emerged as a muffled wail.

For the first time since he had submitted to Grant and her scissors, Archie found he could laugh about it. Chuckling, he reached out and pulled Medora into his embrace. "It will grow back, love, I promise!"

His betrothed sniffed again, managed a watery giggle. "I am being foolish!" she chided herself. "You're alive--and you're here with me. What're a few inches of hair compared to that?"

"Mmm." Archie ran his fingers through the dark silk fanning across the pillow. "Just as long as you don't feel obliged to cut your own, to keep me company."

"I wouldn't dream of it," she assured him, snuggling closer until she was half-draped across his bare torso.

Archie wrapped his arms around her, marveling at the softness and strength of her. How often he'd yearned for this, never dreaming it would ever be possible--not after Kingston.

Kingston. The memory heralded the onset of other, unwelcome realizations and he felt oddly chilled, despite the warmth of the bed and of the woman in his arms. The cold light of day . . .

"Medora, do you know what time it is?"

She stilled in his embrace, understanding. "Near dawn, I think, but the sun has not yet risen. Five o'clock, perhaps."

"You know I must go, before anyone comes and finds me here?"

"Yes." The word issued as a sigh of regret, but she met his gaze steadily. "And then?"

"We find a way to meet tonight. And -- a better place."

She sighed again. "I suppose it is too risky for you to come back here."

"And even riskier for you to come to me."

"So, then," Medora's brows drew together as she thought, "a third location. But it cannot be the usual haunts, at least not for me. I wish the ton would not make such a habit of minding everyone else's private affairs. Oh, you know what I mean!" she added impatiently when he grinned at her.

Archie chuckled again, then sobered as he considered the matter as well. "I suppose -- we could find an inn somewhere, take a room for the night under an assumed name . . . "

Grey eyes lit with a sudden, unholy amusement. "Would a tavern do?"

"A tavern?" Archie echoed, bemused. "You--have a particular place in mind?"

She smiled. "As a matter of fact, I have. Why not the Shakespeare?"

"Good God!" Archie stared at his love. "How did you find out about a place like that?"

"Considering its name, I'd have said it was inevitable that I should. In fact, it has become something of a Bluebeard's chamber with me."

He regarded her narrowly. "Are you, by any chance, aware of its . . . reputation?"

"You mean, that it is considered 'not quite the thing'?" Medora laughed softly. "But that is what makes it ideal, you see. No one would think to look for the mostly respectable Miss Tresilian there."

"And with reason!" Archie retorted. "If you were to be discovered, recognized--"

"I hope I am not such a fool as that! Naturally, I would not go there as myself, but no one would find it unusual for a shopgirl, or a flower seller, or even a maidservant going there for a drink or a bite to eat. Likewise, none of the staff would think it odd if I told them I meant to spend the evening at the theatre, whether for business or pleasure."

"But," Archie began, reluctant to concede just how much sense her proposal was starting to make.

"I've brought some old clothes from Cornwall--but if they won't serve, I could buy or borrow something that will. Please, love," she laid a finger across Archie's lips, "hear me out. I know 'tis not your first choice of a meeting-place, but we haven't time to argue further. Can we not agree upon this, just for tonight?"

Archie exhaled slowly. "Very well," he said at last. "But only for tonight."

Once the place was established, they came to a quick agreement about the remaining details, then rose from the bed to dress. Hastily donning her nightgown and wrapper, Medora helped Archie assume his own clothes once more--all but the shoes, which he intended to carry until he was safely downstairs.

Around them, the house was still dark and silent; nonetheless, both of them sensed that the staff would soon be awake and stirring. Medora led the way downstairs, her feet in their soft slippers making hardly a sound. Archie followed, relieved that his own descent was similarly noiseless.

From the entrance hall, they slipped into the sitting-room just off the terrace. Although that room, too, was dark, Archie glimpsed the lightening sky through the french windows: dawn was fast approaching. Along with their parting--morning always came too soon for lovers.

Stepping quickly into his shoes, he turned to Medora, pale and quiet beside him, and tried to summon up an encouraging smile. "So, my love . . ."

"So," she echoed, her own smile equally wan and unconvincing. "You will be careful, won't you?"

"I will," he promised. Taking her cold hands in his, he lifted each by turns to his lips, then leaned forward to kiss her. "Until tonight, my rose."

Incredibly, she was smiling again, the color creeping back into her cheeks. "I mean to hold you to that, dear heart."

"I certainly hope so." Archie stole another kiss before easing open the nearest window and stepping out onto the terrace . . .

******

Standing at the windows, Medora watched the compact form move with astonishing speed and lightness along the length of the garden wall. A pause among the ivy, then she saw him ease open the door in the wall, slip through it, and vanish from sight.

Safe. She exhaled, then realized dizzily that it was the first breath she had taken since he had left the house. A few more breaths restored her equilibrium; she was able to think once more.

Safe. Not only safe, but alive. Even now, she could scarce believe it, although her body still tingled from last night's caresses and thrilled to the prospect of more, tonight.

She had known happiness before in his company, in his embrace. But this exhilaration, this sense of heady, mindless delight--surely this was joy. Indeed, there could be no other word for it. She felt as though she had swallowed a star and its light was pouring through every inch of her skin. It took all her self-restraint not to fling her arms wide and greet the coming dawn with a peal of ecstatic song.

Except that would bring the servants running, doubtless convinced that Lady Langford's guest had finally lost her mind.

Calm, Medora thought. Coolness and calm. She needed both if she was to bring off tonight successfully.

They had met, they had loved, they had discovered they still loved, but not even she could believe that matters would be easily resolved. Shakespeare had written that "The course of true love never did run smooth," which was certainly proving to be the case for her and Archie.

They still had so much yet to discuss, though they had addressed the absolute essentials last night. He was an intelligence agent, now working for the man who had saved his life in Kingston. He had told her that much, but he was understandably reluctant to involve her any further in that business. Although, Medora recalled with a glimmer of amusement, there had been something else she had managed to prise out of him.

They had been lying in each other's arms in the calm just before sleep, his breath stirring her hair, when she had ventured her query.

"Archie--who was that woman I saw you with, at the Thornes'?"

"Hmm? Oh . . . " She had had the sense he was pulling himself back to consciousness to answer her. "You mean, Caillean?"

"The one calling herself Mrs. Munro," she had reminded him, trying to keep the edge from her voice.

"Right," he had agreed, around a yawn. " She's an agent too--we were working together last night."

"Working?"

He had furrowed his brow at that. "Well, she was working, trying to make contact with someone. I was just her escort. Bit boring, that--always having to play the--the," he had yawned again before concluding drowsily, "nonentity. But if I'd been busier, I mightn't have made it here to you tonight."

There had been no answer she could make to that and he was half-asleep in any case, so she had let it pass and they had both lapsed into slumber.

Half against her will, her lips quirked at the memory. Archie's fatigue had rescued him in an undeniably timely manner. Still . . . and now the quirk became a reluctant smile--when she considered his dear obtuseness during the early days of their courtship, perhaps he spoke nothing less than the truth about that "Mrs. Munro"!

Enough of that, she chided herself, turning resolutely from the window. There was much to accomplish before they met again tonight. The sky was already lightening to pale gold; soon, everyone in Langford House would be up and about. Medora let herself out of the sitting room and slipped back upstairs, before Jane could enter her chamber and discover her missing.

*****
Madness, Archie thought as he turned the corner and found himself once more in Bedford Square.

He'd taken a risk--one that could easily have blown up in his face. If Medora's justifiable anger had been stronger than her love for him . . . he was still amazed that it had not proven so. That her heart had not changed towards him in all their time apart. That they had a child.

He could not bring himself to regret what had happened last night. Nor could he deny that, for the first time in two years, he was utterly and unreservedly happy. And the thought of tonight was enough to make him delirious.

But for now, he reminded himself sternly as he made his way towards the side entrance, he was an intelligence agent who would be reporting for duty within a few hours--preferably after he had washed and shaved. He was suddenly and acutely aware of the disheveled figure he must present: hair mussed, trousers rumpled, jacket creased, but perhaps if he were fortunate no one would see him before he reached the sanctuary of his quarters. It was, after all, a highly unfashionable hour to be abroad.

He had overlooked the unconventional hours often kept by his colleagues, and the general capriciousness of fortune.

Closing the side door discreetly behind him, he was dismayed to discover a knot of agents deep in conversation just at the foot of the stairs. Smitty and Carmichael both--the Edinburgh commander's height made him unmistakable--Jamieson, whom Archie had not seen for some days, Arundel, and Ferguson.

Hell.

Setting his teeth and assuming an air of nonchalance, Archie mounted the steps close to the wall, trying to avoid eye contact while conveying the impression of a man simply going about his business--at this hour, most obviously, to bed. He would have felt more confident about this endeavor if he hadn't heard Ferguson's comment following him up the stairs.

"That must have been quite a walk . . ."

Archie ignored his burning ears and pretended he had heard nothing. Damn Ferguson for remembering.

At least no one called him back. And once he had reached the first floor landing, he quickened his pace, not stopping until he was safe within his room at last.

The bed looked soft and inviting; removing his jacket and shoes, he fell onto it and sank into a dreamless sleep.

*****

He awoke to the sound of a knock on the door. Yawning, he swung his stockinged feet to the floor and padded over to investigate. A covered tray and a brass can of hot water had been left for him; he carried them both inside, setting the former on a table, the later by the washstand. A quick glance at his pocket watch revealed that perhaps two hours had passed; moreover, the morning sun was brightening the room. Just enough time, Archie thought, to wash, dress, and eat before joining his colleagues downstairs. With luck, other, more pressing matters would have arisen to divert attention from his arrival this morning.

Breakfast consisted only of bread, cheese, fruit, and coffee, but Archie found it sufficient for his needs. Shaved and freshly clothed, he left his chamber and made his way to the common room. To his relief, he appeared to be one of the earliest arrivals. Carmichael, clustered with Smitty and Arundel, glanced Archie's way and nodded at him briefly before resuming his conversation with the other two.

Just then, however, a furious exclamation rent the air.

"Poseur!" The voice that shattered the silence and aroused the attention of the half-dozen or so agents in the common-room was masculine, but almost hysterically shrill. "That . . . that adventurer! That imposter! That char-la-tan!"

Archie frankly stared, and was aware of his colleagues doing likewise. Tiverton, the originator of this tirade, was nearly dancing with rage, clearly beside himself.

"What's amiss?" Arundel inquired, on behalf of all.

"We've heard from Marchand, in Belgium," Barrington reported, following Tiverton into the common room. "He was investigating LeGrande's family properties abroad." The senior agent's face looked carved from marble. "There aren't any."

"Confiscated by the government, perhaps?" Archie ventured.

Barrington's lips thinned. "They don't exist," he said curtly.

Tiverton elaborated. "No French properties! No family estates! No titles of nobility! The man doesn't even have a country house to his name! He's nothing but a take-in! A masquerader!"

"A fraud," Carmichael said bluntly.

Tiverton continued, unheeding. "And to think I cultivated his acquaintance. I rose before noon to call on him. I subjected myself willingly to that horrid, braying laugh! And all for this . . . this pretender!"

"What's worse," Barrington was ignoring his colleague's diatribe, "is that it's pissed away more than three months' work."

Archie blinked at the uncharacteristic crudity, then realized that for all Tiverton's vociferous complaints, Barrington was actually in the more dangerous mood. "Then--there's proof enough he's not the Bonapartist?"

"Or any other chance he might be 'Jacques'?" A harried-looking Londoner, whose name Archie did not recall, made the inquiry.

"Not our man, either way," Barrington confirmed. "Not even a gentleman, most likely. A professional swindler--but good enough to dupe the Admiralty into paying him off as impoverished nobility."

"What's milord saying about it?" Smitty inquired. "Will LeGrande be exposed for that?"

"And might that be a big enough secret to kill for?" Arundel asked; Archie saw Carmichael's mouth draw taut at the question.

Barrington's eyes narrowed briefly; he answered Arundel first. "That's doubtful--his type would flit away in the night sooner than resort to violence. As as for m'lord," he shook his head, "it's unfathomable, but--"

"He's not going to take action?" Smitty's voice was level, but a murmur of disbelief began to rise from the agents around her .

" 'As he is not, in fact, Bonaparte's man--then we need not concern ourselves with informing the Admiralty of other details. Such audacity should not perhaps go entirely unrewarded,' " Barrington's face was impassively well-bred once more. "Those were his precise words."

There was a brief silence. Carmichael chuckled finally. ""That settles LeGrande, then--his days are numbered!"

"What are you saying?" Archie gave in to curiosity.

"Good enough to squeeze money out of the admirals? Old Nick can find a use for him, certain sure!"

"You mean--he'd recruit him?" Archie found himself staring, was aware he wasn't the only one. "A . . . a Frog and a swindler?"

Barrington shut his mouth with a snap, Tiverton began to gibber with outrage, the murmurs resumed, but the other commander present retained her aplomb.

"Why not?" Smitty asked rhetorically. "As long as we know he's not a Bonapartist spy--letting him be arrested for fraud would be nothing short of waste." With the same decided air of self-possession, she seated herself on the arm of Carmichael's chair.

"And we all know how his lordship abominates waste," a new voice remarked dryly.

Looking up, Archie saw Doctor Latour standing--or, rather, leaning on a cane--in the doorway. Grant was beside him, holding a sheaf of papers.

"What happened to you?" Smitty asked on behalf of the entire room.

Carmichael had risen and taken a few quick strides toward the doctor, but Latour waved him off as he limped into the room.

"Nothing that a few days' rest won't cure," he replied, seating himself on the nearest chair. "A few of us were pursuing Lieutenant Baxter's investigation in the theatre district last night, in the course of which I nearly ended up under the wheels of a hackney." He glanced down at his left foot, which, Archie noticed, was swathed in bandages. "A twisted ankle seems a small price to pay for avoiding that fate."

"Were you pushed, then?" Carmichael's face had gone grim again.

Latour shrugged. "I may have been. But in such a crowd there was bumping and jostling enough that it might have been a genuine accident. I shall simply be more alert the next time I venture into that vicinity."

"And not go alone," Carmichael warned. He was frowning, obviously displeased by the latest turn of events. "Have another pair of eyes to watch your back."

"Lennox?"

Archie turned from watching this exchange to find Grant beside him, holding out three folded papers. "M'lord's orders. You're to acquaint yourself with more particulars regarding Colonel Parillaud."

"Still another change," Archie could not refrain from commenting; he wondered privately how widespread the news was about LeGrande's pretensions, and how Caillean had reacted. The amused glint in Grant's eyes told him she had not missed the implication in his remark.

"It could be worse," she murmured in a prison-yard fashion, without moving her lips. "You could be under Carmichael right now, searching all of London for 'Jacques,' like the unluckiest members of Seaton's division." Turning away from Archie, she raised her voice, and waved the remaining papers. "Commander Smith?"

"Is this fresh news?" Smitty asked, deserting her perch as Grant handed her the papers. "Oh!" Some feature of the loose pages caught her attention; she began to pore over them, intent and absorbed.

"The Admiralty finally gave m'lord the last of their agents' notes," Grant explained to the others. "Lieutenant . . .?"

"Baxter," Smitty confirmed, without looking up. "This is his handwriting. He was considering the Drury Lane vendors . . . yes, he mentioned to me once an idea he'd had concerning them as contacts. How easy it would be -- almost in plain sight of all . . . " Her voice trailed off briefly as she continued reading. "Ah. Here -- he was watching a certain ribbon-seller whose most notable patroness was . . . " she turned the page over, "Madonna Florinda."

The room had grown quiet again. Archie saw the London veterans spring to alertness while the Edinburgh agents waited expectantly.

"Madonna Florinda," Barrington said, "is the stage name of the Vicomte DeGuise's mistress."

"His mistress?" Grant's brow creased. "But--why would she be purchasing ribbons from a Drury Lane vendor? The Vicomte provides for her handsomely--surely she could afford to patronize a more fashionable establishment for such trinkets?"

"Economy, perhaps?" Bess Ingram, one of the London agents, speculated. "She might be laying aside money for--leaner times."

"You mean, if the Vicomte tires of her?" Smitty inquired, looking up from the papers again. "That could be. Of course, he has shown no sign of doing so yet, but I suppose it is a possibility. And another," she added, her own brows drawing together, "is that there may be more than coins and ribbons involved in her transactions with this vendor--namely, information."

No one disputed that assessment. "But if so," Grant began, "is she likely to be acting on her own initiative--or her lover's?"

"Either is possible," Barrington said. "After five years, there must be little Madonna Florinda does not know about the Vicomte."

"He's a bit of a cipher, though, isn't he?" Arundel remarked. "Of all the suspects, I think his activities have appeared the least suspicious. And despite his reputed extravagances, he has not yet found himself at Point Non Plus. Indeed, he has lived a comfortable enough existence here since the Terror--and more so since his remarriage."

"Perhaps he has found mere comfort insufficient to his needs," Smitty suggested. "Especially if he is now supporting two households."

"He would not be the first to betray his country for a woman," Barrington hinted darkly. "And England is only his country by adoption. Nor can we be entirely sure of Madonna Florinda's loyalties, either. She is half-Italian, after all."

"I do not know that the Italians have any great love for Bonaparte, either." Archie surprised himself by speaking up.

"Perhaps not," Barrington allowed. "But money has been known to overcome patriotic scruples, as we know to our cost. Finlay," he turned to Grant, "you were present at the Thornes' last night, and the DeGuises were expected to attend. Did you observe any signs of discord between them or anyone else?

"Quite the contrary, I fear. Everyone was on his or her best behavior," Grant reported regretfully. "Although . . . the possibility I mentioned last time, about the Vicomtesse DeGuise being enceinte, appears to have blossomed into a full-blown rumor. Rob and I were not the only ones to witness her swoon at Lady Theo's--or to draw the same possible conclusion."

"Any luck with her femme de chambre?" Barrington inquired.

"Nothing so far," Smitty revealed. "But she has a day off every other week and she's young and silly, by all accounts. It might not take much for her to gossip about her mistress to an interested stranger--most likely one who's young, male, and handsome."

"I daresay that can be arranged," Barrington said, with a decisive nod.

"Good. In the meantime, I think we can say that this morning's business is concluded. And as for the investigation itself, we can now strike LeGrande, along with Cotard and Ainsley, from the list." Smitty ticked them off on her fingers. "That leaves us with DeGuise, Parillaud--"

"And Doctor Minard," Latour reminded her. "As a possible liaison, in any case."

"Very well--Minard," she conceded. "Three suspects, and their intimates. I suppose that is progress."

Carmichael grunted. "I'll be happier once we've got results!" Rising from his chair, he looked the room over. "That settles that, then. Those of you not already assigned, come with me--I've got the new roster in the study."

******

Was there ever a time, Medora wondered, when Drury Lane was not busy?

Late afternoon, some hours yet before the evening's performance, yet there was still plenty of backstage activity going on. Stagehands lugging about scenery and props, dressers carrying armfuls of costume, even a few troupe members passing by with scripts in hand. Some glanced at Medora curiously as she made her way backstage but most were far too intent on their own business to pay her any heed.

By now she knew the way to Kitty Cobham's dressing room, so she proceeded confidently down the passage. Just outside the door, she heard a crisp female voice--not Kitty's--raised in speech.

"If you will be advised by me, ma'am--I would say that the talc and the poudre
á la Marechale
, and perhaps a bit of white of egg should suit your needs admirably. No white lead!"

"No, indeed," Kitty's voice replied. "Nasty stuff. Even as a young miss, I'd no use for it."

"Do you require further assistance, ma'am, or shall I take these down to be altered?"

"Oh, no, Miss Smith, I can manage quite well from here. Don't let me keep me from your work."

"Very good, ma'am," the other returned. A moment later, a tall, dark-haired woman of perhaps forty emerged from the room, her arms heaped high with brocade. She nodded briefly at Medora, then called back over her shoulder. "You've a visitor, Miss Cobham" before heading down the passage.

"Come in," Kitty called. "Ah, it's you, Miss Tresilian," she greeted Medora as the younger woman appeared in the doorway. "What a lovely surprise. Do forgive my paint--I am sure I look quite hideous at the moment."

"You certainly look -- different," Medora ventured. Privately, she thought Kitty looked at least ten years older, her face grooved with age lines and white with powder. Even the dark curls looked dull and lifeless.

The actress flung back her head and laughed heartily. "That, my dear, is an understatement if ever there was one. I look as though I've one foot in the grave, which is certainly true--at least where poor Queen Catherine is concerned."

"Oh!" Medora was enlightened. "Your new part."

"Just so," Kitty assured her. "We begin rehearsals on 'King Henry the Eighth' next week. I was trying to see which cosmetics would be most useful in making me look haggard and ill." She peered at her reflection more closely. "On second thought, I think I will apply the talc more sparingly. I am not playing Hecuba, after all, or a witch in the Scottish play." Unstoppering another jar, she began to apply cream to her face before wiping both cream and paint away with a towel. "So, my dear, what can I do for you?"

Medora tore her fascinated gaze away from the actress's toilette and seated herself on the chair beside the dressing table.

"My dear Miss Cobham," she began without further ado, "I think I will be needing your help--for a disguise."

****
INTERLUDE

London, 1804

 

Powdered talc, to whiten the skin and conceal tiny flaws. Rouge, to brighten lips and cheeks to a feverish glow. Chypre, musky and exotic, to beguile the senses of all who came near.

A formidable arsenal indeed.

Lining up the vials like a row of soldiers on parade, she stared critically at her reflection. No change as yet, at least not in her face. No additional fullness to her cheeks or chin. Her complexion had always been good, fair rather than dark, and lightly blushed with rose. It was easy enough for her to assume a fashionable pallor if need be.

Rising from her chair, she crossed to where the pier glass stood and resumed her scrutiny. Beneath the loose, flowing gown, her figure looked much as it always had: slender and full in all the right places.

But for how long? Teeth that her admirers had compared to matched pearls sank into her lower lip as she pondered. Then, with one fluid movement, she cast off her gown and stood naked before the mirror, examining herself from all possible angles.

Still no outward sign of her altered . . . condition.

Not for the first time she thanked God that the Season would be over before she grew fat and ungainly. She could repair to the country, she supposed--or perhaps venture abroad if she were careful. By this time next year, she would doubtless have regained her figure and no one would be the wiser.

Except--that she would have to tell him, of course. And she could not begin to anticipate his reaction to the news. Delight and horror seemed equally likely responses.

But whichever it was, she told herself firmly, she would survive. She always had before, after all.

Resuming her gown, she left the mirror and began her preparations for the day.

 

END PART TWENTY