Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

Gaudy things enough to tempt ye,
Showy outsides, insides empty;
Bubbles, trades, mechanic arts,
Coaches, wheelbarrows and carts.

--John Bancks, "A Description of London"

PART TWENTY-FOUR: "At Covent Garden"

 

Five. Six. Seven.

The colored balls flew from the hands of the juggler, whose narrow face was a study in concentration. Higher and faster the balls soared, then began to alternate in high and low circles about their points of contact. A collective "oooh!" rose from the small knot of spectators and Archie found himself clapping with the rest. The juggler's saturnine expression warmed into a slight smile; one eyelid flickered as his glance met Archie's.

Archie brushed at his mustache with one finger, as if to dislodge a stray crumb, and wandered casually down the street, where a young voice was raised in protest.

"Oh, I say! My ears aren't that big!"

The young man's complaint was drowned out by the laughter of his cronies. The caricaturist merely handed him the portrait in question and accepted the coins given in payment before turning to the next customer: a tall, bony man dressed in a distinctly foreign fashion, the dark, vivacious lady beside him was also unmistakably foreign. Archie continued past without a sign of recognition.

Covent Garden was lively today, as always. For centuries, merchants and craftsmen had plied their various trades here, undeterred and unintimidated by the imposing townhouses that comprised a goodly portion of the square. Archie remembered reading as a boy that trade had flourished right under the garden wall of the Duke of Bedford's former London mansion. Dukes came and went, after all, but the market went on forever.

The late afternoon sun shone steadily down on the covered booths, while other vendors wandered through the streets, displaying their wares in baskets and barrows and loudly proclaiming their excellence. A young girl offered bunches of "Sweet Lavender!" for sale; a lad smaller than she stood by a push-cart hawking hot pies. A nearby stall housed a merry-faced middle-aged woman selling ribbons and laces and apparently doing a brisk business indeed.

At the end of the street Archie turned the corner, came to an exaggerated stop before an elegantly dressed young woman, and raised his hat in salute.

"My dear Mrs. Munro. What an unexpected pleasure!"

"Why Mr. Lennox! Fancy meeting you here!" Caillean, her eyes still holding an untrustworthy glitter, nodded in response to his slight bow.

"Mr. Lennox" smiled wryly. After Archie's revelation of Medora's plans, Carmichael had studied the younger man thoughtfully, rubbed the back of his hand against his jaw, and sent him off to join the other observers assigned to Drury Lane for the remainder of the day. Archie had found himself grateful for the added responsibility. Better to be posted to action than continue to fret about Medora's engagement at the DeGuises', although even this duty presented its share of hazards.

Straightening, Archie warily offered his arm. Though Caillean accepted it demurely, he did not miss the deviltry in the blue-green eyes.

"You may buy me some flowers," she directed, with a sharp-toothed smile. "And then perhaps, a bit of ribbon to go with them."

His sense of danger aroused, Archie tried to take refuge in humor. "Your wish . . . is my very command, of course."

She sighed dramatically. "Ah, if only that were true!"

Risking a glance at her face, Archie saw her sparkling again with mischief.

"Then I beg your pardon, for having disappointed you in the past. It was most -- remiss of me."

An odd whistle sounded from above, not quite like a bird's call. Peculiar but not overly loud, it would go unnoticed to most of the occupants in the busy street except for those few who were waiting for it.

Archie glanced upward surreptitiously. Above his head, the lofty balustrades and classical pediments of the townhouses vied for space with the more rickety rooftops of humbler dwellings that had sprung up around them. Somewhere up there, a handful of Archie's associates were keeping a watch over the market in their own way.

With Caillean on his arm, Archie made his way back towards the center of the market. From a woman carrying a basket, Archie bought two sprays of lilac, one purple, one white, since his companion could not decide which she preferred. Caillean accepted the tribute with an enigmatic smile and, sniffing at her posy, walked on with him.

They had just sighted the ribbon-seller's stall when they heard that unusual whistle again, but this time, the reason for the signal was abundantly clear. Someone else was also bearing down upon the stall, someone for whom the agents had been watching and waiting most of the afternoon.

Barrington had given both divisions a detailed description of Madonna Florinda. Words, however, somehow failed to do the subject justice. Despite his own happily committed state, Archie found himself staring: the Vicomte's mistress drew the eye like a magnet among iron filings. Tall and voluptuous, with a full bosom that drew attention to the slenderness of her waist, and long, shapely legs just discernible through the flowing muslin of her walking dress. Perhaps in ten years' time that lush beauty would have turned to stoutness, but at the moment, Archie thought, the woman resembled nothing so much as a full-blown rose or a peach at its point of perfect ripeness.

The face was a match for the form. Madonna Florinda hailed from the north of Italy, so her complexion was fair rather than dusky, though her cleverly painted eyes were large, dark, and slumberous. And beneath an extravagant hat trimmed with fruit, flowers, and feathers shone a mass of ringlets the color of molten copper.

Archie caught his breath. "'Here she comes, i' faith, full sail, with her fan spread and her streamers out,'" he murmured, somewhat dazedly.

"She's not carrying a fan," Caillean objected, with a hint of sharpness in her voice. "And I wish you'd remember that I prefer the modern plays."

"Sorry." Archie's response was automatic as he focused upon the dancer and the ribbon-seller.

Even as he watched, the latter greeted the former with a knowing smile. "Good afternoon. The same as usual, ma'am?"

Madonna Florinda gave a rich, throaty laugh. "But, of course! I have no secrets from you."

The ribbon-seller's smile broadened as she measured out a length of narrow, emerald green ribbon. "There you are, then, ma'am," she announced as she wound the ribbon into a neat little roll. "Anything else? I've some lovely laces in today--fit for a queen, they are, and a bargain at any price."

Madonna Florinda's eyes lit with interest and another transaction ensued, with the two women haggling amiably over the price of the laces on display.

Archie smothered a smile. Bargaining was one of those things women appeared to learn at their mothers' knees, as he recalled from watching his own sisters at work.

"Oh, good Lord!"

The exclamation came from one of the young men who had been grouped around the portrait artist earlier. Hurrying through the street, he halted beside the ribbon-stall, pulling off his hat and ducking his head in a slightly awkward bow.

"Pardon me," he began, with an appealing mixture of diffidence and frankness, "but are you Madonna Florinda?"

The performer nodded her head, her brow creased slightly in puzzlement, her lips parted in a faint, quizzical smile.

"I'm Fielding--Kit Fielding, I should say. My cousin took me to see your opera for the first time last week, ma'am, and I . . . well . . . I just wanted to tell you that you were wonderful!" he finished in a rush.

The dancer's smile broadened. "Why, how very kind of you to say so, sir! But surely you flatter me?"

"Oh, no, not at all, I assure you!" her new admirer insisted. He appeared to take notice of his surroundings for the first time. "I don't think I've ever enjoyed the opera so much before. In fact, if you'll allow me the privilege . . ."

Reaching into his pocket, he brought out a handful of coins. "Just a . . . token of my appreciation, if you won't think me presumptuous." He nodded at the vendor. "Whatever madame wishes."

Madonna Florinda protested. "Oh, but really! Such extravagance--I cannot accept it, sir, from a stranger!"

"Oh, but I beg you!" the young man pleaded. "I would always treasure the memory of meeting you, ma'am -- and of doing you this little service."

She laughed, relenting. "Very well! But only one lace, though." She pointed, apparently making her selection. "That one, please," she told the vendor. "And my usual ribbon."

"What a lovely color!" Fielding exclaimed, as the ribbon was passed over. "How will you use it?"

Florinda laughed again. "I cannot tell you that, sir! It is one of the great secrets of the theater! And now I must be going, for rehearsals begin within the hour, but -- perhaps you would be kind enough to escort me to the theatre door?"

Her youthful gallant extended his arm; the dancer laid her hand upon it with the grace of flowing water. Watching them depart, Archie had to restrain the urge to applaud. Agent Christopher Fielding was actually closer to thirty than twenty, but his fair coloring and open face made him look considerably younger. He had been utterly convincing as a star-struck youth; Archie could remember his own days of haunting the Drury Lane environs in the distant hope of glimpsing one of his idols.

"What a performance!" Caillean's words uncannily echoed Archie's thoughts.

"Indeed," he answered. "And what do we do to improve upon such a show?"

"Follow my lead," Caillean murmured in his ear. "Let's pretend that I'm a -- would-be actress, and you are," her eyes glinted wickedly, "my *patron.*"

As Archie and his companion drew nearer to the ribbon-seller, there was a feminine exclamation of delight from nearby.

"Mon Dieu, monsieur le docteur! But this little picture, it is tres drôle!"

The foreign couple who had been patronizing the street artist had now drawn away a little distance, examining the drawings they had purchased.

"Yours is charming, I assure you, madame," the gentleman was saying. Holding what appeared to be his own portrait at arm's length, he continued, "This, however, appears to be much in the way of a caricature."

"Doin' a good business, he's been," the ribbon-seller commented to her new customers. "An' only a week since he first came here."

Archie murmured something meant to sound noncommittal. Caillean, ostensibly looking at the variety of ribbons presented, changed the subject. "Was that truly Madonna Florinda just now? My other acquaintances have often mentioned her."

"Oh, yes, indeed." The vendor's face was amused. "Comes down to buy a bit of ribbon before every performance, she does. And always the same color, too."

"How very odd." Caillean's face was a model of idle curiosity. "Is it just for luck? Or is it really . . . such a secret of the theater, as she said?"

Archie cleared his throat. "If that is the case, my dear, perhaps it would be best not to inquire further?"

The older woman chuckled. "Oh, nothin' like that! But she wouldn't want to say it in front of the lad, right enough." Her voice dropped, became confiding. "It's to help her with the dancin'. See, she don't always remember which is her left foot an' which is her right. So she ties on the ribbon to her left, to keep 'em straight."

"Well, fancy that!" Caillean exclaimed, and again Archie murmured a kind of echo. "And to think how famous she is for her dancing! I would never have guessed! How did you ever find out?"

"Sold her the ribbon myself, before her first openin' night," the vendor explained, smiling reminiscently. "Next day she came back, said she'd been a big success, swore as I'd brought her luck. Now she buys the same before every show, just to keep the luck goin'."

"Why, what a fascinating story!" Caillean turned to her escort. "Now I know exactly the kind of ribbon I want. Let me have what she buys, please--perhaps it will bring me luck as well."

Archie could not restrain a chuckle; fortunately, it seemed in character with his "role". "You're hardly going on the stage, my dear ma'am--and I know you know your right foot from your left!"

"Nevertheless," Caillean declared imperiously, "I've decided that's the ribbon I will have. And who would not wish for luck in one's chosen endeavors?" she finished challengingly, as the grinning vendor accepted Archie's coin and presented Caillean with her purchase.

"I believe . . . I would not dare to answer that question," Archie riposted, as his colleague took his proffered arm again and they drew away from the ribbon-seller's stall and turned in the direction of the theatre.

Across the way, the foreign couple who had earlier posed for the caricature artist had separated, the vivacious lady now eagerly approaching the crowd around the juggler. Her companion paused in front of what appeared to be a long-abandoned shop, then extracted his pocket-watch and began to reset it.

"Oi! Look out below!"

There was sharp cry of alarm from somewhere. Archie barely had time to look up himself before a dark object hurtled down from the roof directly above the foreign gentleman and smashed upon the pavement, missing him by inches.

A woman screamed. Archie dropped Caillean's arm, was aware of her following him as he hurried to the gentleman, who had gone noticeably pale.

"Are you hurt . . . sir?" he added just in time, trying to sound only like a concerned stranger.

Latour put out his hand to keep Archie back. "Only the shock, nothing worse. It will pass." His color was returning as he spoke. "But this," he indicated the debris at his feet, "this is a most interesting object."

Archie's eyes widened. The object that had so nearly struck Latour was--or rather, had been--a heavy wooden bucket, filled with jagged stones and roofing tiles; the bucket itself had split on impact with the pavement. He thought of the likely result of its collision with the doctor's head and felt rather sick.

"Sacre bleu!" The dark-haired lady had caught up her skirts and run over to them. She too paled when she saw what was lying at her companion's feet. "Nom d'un nom d'un nom! Monsieur, forgive me -- I should not have left you alone for an instant!"

"Calm yourself, my dear," Latour replied soothingly. "I am the one who insisted that we -- adhere to the original plan. Moreover, if you have stayed beside me, this might have struck you instead."

Agent Madeleine Dubois glanced again at the shattered bucket and shuddered. "Quel horror!"

"To say the least," Caillean remarked as she came up to them. "How fortunate that no one was harmed in this accident!"

Her last comment was pitched to carry, and most of the passers by who had glanced in their direction now turned again to their own affairs. Somewhat gingerly, Latour stepped back from the debris and out of throwing range from the roof.

Overhead, a peculiar shrill cacophony reached the agents' ears: a Highland war-cry filtered through an Edinburgh-gutter brogue. It was followed in short order by a snarled obscenity, a sound of scuffling, then -- abruptly -- silence.

Less than five minutes later, Archie heard the original whistle again, this time coming from the narrow alley just behind the abandoned shop.

"Our cue, I believe," Latour murmured to Archie. "Ladies," he turned to Caillean and Dubois, "if you will but cover our exit?"

Caillean pulled a slight face at being left behind, but complied, as did Dubois. Behind their companions' backs, Archie and Latour slipped into the alley, which opened into a dark little courtyard where three of their colleagues had already gathered. Carmichael, Arundel, and Rory, the latter with a firm hold on a skinny, sharp-faced youth close to his own age.

Carmichael caught sight of the new arrivals and Archie thought his posture eased slightly when he saw for himself that Latour was unharmed. "We got him," the Edinburgh commander reported. "Couldn't stop him dropping the bucket, but at least he won't get another chance!"

The prisoner spat on the cobbles and was promptly cuffed by Rory.

Latour raised his brows. "Has he admitted to anything?"

"Not yet." Arundel's tone was grim. "But we're working on it."

"I dun' 'arf to say nuffin' t' eny of you!" the youth snarled.

Latour regarded his would-be assassin coldly. "I believe a magistrate would disagree with that. I know the Bow Street Runners would, especially after learning that you had tried to murder a gentleman in the street--and not for the first time."

Whether it was the mention of the Runners or the earlier attempt on Latour's life that did it, the boy blenched visibly, some of his bravado vanishing.

"Well?" Rory growled, shaking his captive roughly. "Speak up, or it's the nubbing cheat for you!"

The prisoner wriggled in his grasp. "It were 'im, weren't it? Froggy doctor pokin' 'is long nose in where it don't belong?"

There was a brief choking sound in the background. Out of the corner of his eye, Archie saw Carmichael duck his head to hide a reprehensible grin at the description.

"''E'd pay good for that--to 'ave 'im out of 'is way."

"Who would pay?" Arundel persisted.

The prisoner glared at his listeners, impatient at their slowness. "'Oo else? The Grey Man--cost 'im a packet, dinnit? When the flash cove scarpered, an' they said it was on account of this Frenchy doctor wot queered their pitch. Grey Man 'ud pay 'andsome to see 'im got rid of."

There was a sudden silence.

"And do you know the name of the, er, . . . flash cove?" Arundel asked.

The young face hardened. "Wot's it to yer?"

"Try this." Arundel held up a coin. "Or remember--there's always the nick."

With the slight jerk of a nod, their prisoner accepted the coin. "Don't rightly know 'is name," he admitted. "But 'e's a toff, certain sure. Got 'imself a flash ken right enough, on 'Arf Moon Street. Priggin' gang's been on it too, but they reckon 'e's long gone."

"Could you show us this house?" Archie asked suddenly, drawing a nod of approbation from Arundel. "If we saw it, we might find the name of the co . . . the gentleman."

It took some further negotiation, a combination of veiled threats and the display of several more coins, before the prisoner consented to act as a guide. He was led off by Rory and Arundel. Carmichael, lingering behind, spoke briefly into Archie's ear.

"You lot get on back to the town house--and keep your eye out for him." A jerk of his head indicated Latour.

"You think he could be attacked again?" Archie kept his voice equally low.

The commander shrugged. "No telling how many are out there, but where there's one, there could easily be more. Keep your eyes open, and don't get separated along the way."

"I'll watch his back," Archie promised. The senior agent nodded, then followed the house-seeking party. Archie and Latour waited a few minutes before making their own way out of the alley. Caillean and Dubois were still waiting where they had left them, and Latour quickly informed them both of all the circumstances.

"The Grey Man," Caillean said thoughtfully. "Does that mean we're searching for Ainsley again?"

"He hasn't been seen since the drum--" Latour began.

"And you didn't speak to him there because I was assigned to him," Caillean reminded her colleagues.

"But the Grey Man's hunting for a French doctor--"Archie broke off, staring at Latour. "That other physician -- I can't recall his name . . . "

Latour was nodding. "Minard. Yes. The observers assigned to him have found nothing so far--but now may be the time to expand their inquiries. Perhaps we should so inform them. Madame," he turned to Dubois, "if you will remain in the Square until our -- other associate returns from the theatre?"

She bit her lip but nodded reluctant assent and began to drift again in the general direction where Jamieson had embarked on another round of his juggling act. Latour offered Caillean his arm, while Archie fell in close behind, trying to keep a wary, vigilant eye in all directions, including above, as they started back to Bedford Square.

Fortunately, they reached their destination without incident and, in the absence of Kilcarron or Barrington, made their report to Agent Stephenson. No sooner had that business been concluded than Carmichael's party arrived to confirm that, of his own volition, their guide had pointed out Ainsley's house on Half-Moon Street. Further speculations, however, were cut short by Agent Barrington's return.

"Doctor, commander . . . and you, and you," he pointed at Arundel and Archie, "come to the small library right away."

"What is it, then?" Carmichael asked.

There was a note of supreme satisfaction in Barrington's voice.

"Parillaud's come in."

*****

INTERLUDE

London 1804

"My goodness!" Kitty Cobham came briskly into her dressing room, unbuttoning her cloak. "Miss Smith, did you hear the news?"

The dresser looked up from her work. "What news, ma'am? I'm been trimming the new costumes and haven't stirred from here since the afternoon."

"The stage hands were all taking about it outside." Kitty hung up her cloak on its accustomed peg. "Over in Covent Garden . . . it was Madonna Florinda. They were saying she collapsed just at the end of rehearsal--fainted dead away! And then, when she revived . . . she was most vilely unwell."

"My word!" Miss Smith exclaimed. "How shocking! I hope she's not seriously ill."

"No." Kitty's expression was pensive as she seated herself at the vanity and reached for a hairbrush to tidy her tousled dark curls. "She usually has enjoyed the very best of health."

"I'd forgotten -- how long have you known her now, ma'am?"

"Oh--many more years than either of us would care to admit!" Kitty chuckled ruefully as she put down the brush. "Still, I do hope it's nothing more than a passing indisposition. Though, given what I've heard . . . " she stopped herself with a shake of the head. "Well, everything may look after itself in time."

Picking up her playscript of "The Fairies' Revels," she went off to find Mr. Northwood, with whom she intended to run lines.

Alone, Smith lingered over her work a moment longer, then, frowning, laid the costume aside. It was two hours yet before "curtain up" and no one could object to her taking a brief respite from her duties, as long as she returned in good time. Donning her cloak, she let herself out of the dressing room, then made her way out of the theater and turned in the direction of Covent Garden.

 

END PART TWENTY-FOUR