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Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

 

That most knowing of persons--gossip.

--Seneca, Epistles

PART TWENTY-SIX: "L'Affaire DeGuise"

 

Medora was not sure if the separation of men and women after dinner was a Continental as well as English custom. Nonetheless, she was not wholly surprised when the Vicomtesse rose from the table, the signal for the other ladies to depart the dining-room. Standing up, Medora cast her own eyes down modestly and followed in her hostess's wake.

There had been twelve at dinner: an elegant company, with "everything handsome about them," that had perfectly matched their surroundings. The DeGuises' townhouse was among the grandest in St. James's Square. It was decorated much in the fashion of King Louis XIV, or so Julia had told Medora in hushed tones after the latter had been shown up to the drawing room before dinner. Glancing about at the furniture, all gilding and elaborate scrollwork, and the many works of art distributed tastefully about the room, Medora could understand why her young friend felt overawed and could not regret that she had come, despite the sharp exchange between her and Archie that morning.

She felt a twinge of guilt at the memory. Finding him again when she had thought them sundered forever had been a joy almost beyond bearing, but those years apart had changed them both. She loved him as deeply as ever, still trusted him in her heart . . . however, given what she had learned, she found she could no longer accept certain things at face value, without asking questions.

Asking questions and seeking answers. She had come here this evening for that very purpose. Throughout the lavish dinner, which had featured many French delicacies among a few simple English dishes, she had taken the opportunity to study her dinner companions, all resplendent in rich fabrics and some of them glittering with jewels. Remembering Alice's past advice that gilding the lily or dressing like a dowd invariably made one stand out, Medora had dressed to blend in, choosing a fashionable but conservative gown of apricot silk trimmed with blond lace; a cameo on a fine gold chain was her only ornament. The dramatic Vicomtesse, arrayed in midnight blue with a necklace of sapphires and diamonds clasped about her throat, had easily outshone every other woman present. Her demeanor, however, had been reserved, even distant. It had been the Vicomte who set the tone of the meal; unlike his wife, he had been voluble and expansive, relating anecdotes, which, while not exactly improper, were perhaps a trifle -- warm, for mixed company.

In this, he had been aided and abetted by the guest of honor. Madame Agathe Dumont was a dainty, silver-haired lady who appeared to be in her sixties. In her evening gown of lavender silk and grey lace, she embodied mature respectability, but her lively dark eyes and delicately arched brows put Medora in mind of a naughty fairy in a pantomime. Her English was excellent and her accent rather less pronounced than that of her host and hostess. When the Vicomte occasionally lost the thread of his tale or left out a juicy detail, Madame Dumont did not hesitate to prompt him or supply the missing information herself.

Many anecdotes dealt with events that were more than a decade in the past--especially, the Terror and how the Vicomte and some of his acquaintances had managed to survive and make their way across the Channel to safety before they could be arrested and sent to the guillotine. Another guest contributed a story of one aristocratic family who had supposedly escaped with the aid of a daring band of Englishmen, whose true identities were shrouded in mystery.

"And on my arrival in town I heard an even wilder tale!" Madame Dumont had declared, as the sweets were served. "There's a claim that one among the emigres is not what he seems--not a nobleman at all, or even a gentleman, but only a common swindler. And that half of fashionable London is entirely taken in!"

There were one or two gasps and shocked exclamations among her listeners, but the Vicomte had only laughed and shaken his head. "Je vous assure, ma chere madame, I myself have heard the same tale--no less than four times! Bah, such ridiculousness--c'est impossible! No man could ever maintain such a great impersonation --to so deceive us all! Nom d'un nom d'un nom!" And he had chuckled at the mere thought of it for the remainder of the meal.

The Vicomtesse had not participated in the storytelling. But then, she had joined her husband in England only recently--and such was the difference in age between them that his tales could hold little personal significance for her. Even taking the woman's customary languor into account, Medora thought that she looked frankly bored. Her suspicions were confirmed by the alacrity with which the Vicomtesse prepared to take her leave after the desserts had been consumed.

From the dining room, the ladies continued upstairs to the magnificent Louis Quatorze drawing room. Under the guise of modesty, Medora lingered in the rear of the procession, again studying her companions. Between the cuisine and the conversation, she had felt very English, even provincial, throughout the meal. And rather to her surprise and amusement, she had experienced a faint stirring of what might be called republican sympathies. While invariably charming and cultured, her French companions had struck her as more than a little arrogant, which might have partially explained the revolution, if not the savagery that followed.

It had also struck her that the schism between public and private life was even more pronounced than it was for the English ton, especially when she considered the DeGuises' domestic situation. Thanks to Kitty Cobham, she knew about the Vicomte's opera dancer, and Archie had mentioned that the Vicomtesse was suspected of having lovers as well. Mariage de convenance--Medora repressed a shudder. No, such an arrangement was decidedly not for her. If she and Archie had married, she would have wanted to carve out his liver and lights with a dull knife if he'd taken a mistress. Did it not trouble the Vicomtesse in the slightest to know that her husband sought his pleasures elsewhere? If so, there had been no sign of it that Medora could see.

The voices of her companions recalled her to the present. Just ahead of her, Madame Thibault, an Englishwoman who had married one of the Vicomte's compatriots, was asking Madame Dumont how long she intended to stay in London.

"Oh, I shall be here at least a month," the older woman replied. "Until my daughter and her husband can join me here. Some business of his family keeps him in the country at present or he'd have come up for the Season when it began. Henri," she spoke the Vicomte's name without the slightest hesitation, "has most kindly offered me his hospitality pour le nonce. I cannot tell you how delighted I was by his invitation--and by the chance to see him and dear Lucille again."

"Dear Lucille," the Vicomtesse, inclined her head and essayed a faint smile that seemed curiously perfunctory, to Medora's eyes. "Je vous assure, Tante Agathe, you are welcome here."

By now they had reached the drawing room and the Vicomtesse led them all inside. The chamber looked even more opulent on closer inspection; this time, Medora noticed not only the works of art but the handsome pianoforte on the far side of the room.

The Vicomtesse was turning to her stepson's betrothed. "Ma chere Julia, will you not sing for us, as you did the other evening?"

"Oh, but--" Julia glanced around the room somewhat helplessly.

"Do you need an accompanist?" Medora offered, accurately reading the panicked expression on her young friend's face.

Julia accepted with relief and they made their way to the pianoforte together. All three of the Pearson sisters enjoyed music, Medora knew, but none of them was especially accomplished at it. Still, Julia had a sweet, if rather thin, soprano that sounded well enough in the intimate setting of a private drawing room, and the pianoforte, Medora noted as she began Julia's introduction in the chosen key, was an excellent one, with a warm rich tone.

Julia sang "Early One Morning" and "I know a lady sweet and kind," neither of which taxed her voice overmuch. Her audience applauded when she was finished, and, looking flushed and pleased, she took her seat among the other ladies. Medora began to rise from the bench herself, but the Vicomtesse held up a forestalling hand.

"Mais non! Mademoiselle Tresilian, will you continue, si vous plait? Mon beau-fils, he tells me you are une musicienne très douée."

Thus invited to play on, Medora murmured her thanks for the compliment and hesitated only briefly before beginning to pick out a simple French chanson that her music master had taught her many years earlier. Hardly had she played more than a few chords than Madame Dumont interrupted.

"Mademoiselle, do you know the words as well?"

"I know them," Medora confessed, somewhat cautiously. "But I hesitate to sing them, given the quality of my accent."

"That is of no importance," Madame Dumont declared, with a charmingly imperious wave of her hand. "I would hear them sung, if you please."

"If you would, Madmoiselle Tresilian," the Vicomtesse added, after the briefest of pauses. "It would give Tante Agathe--and the rest of us such pleasure."

"Very well," Medora acquiesced. Thanks to the efforts of Miss Pritchard and Signior Rossini, her French and Italian were sound enough, but she had no illusions that she spoke either language like a native.

So much for her plan to remain inconspicuous. At least she had practiced the entire song, words as well as music, before she came to this house. She played the introduction again to give herself time to recover her aplomb, then began to sing, pitching her voice at half-strength to suit her surroundings.

"A la claire fontaine,
M'en allant promener
J'ai trouvé l'eau si belle
Que je m'y suis baigné

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime
Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

By the clear fountain, I went to walk. I found the water so beautiful that I bathed myself in it.

I have loved you long. Never shall I forget you.

The simplicity of the melody and the words were oddly soothing: As always, she found herself becoming caught up in the music's spell.

"Sous les feuilles d'un chêne,
Je me suis fait sécher
Sur la plus haute branche,
Un rossignol chantait."

Beneath the leaves of an oak, I dried myself. On the highest branch, a nightingale sang.

"Chante, rossignol, chante,
Toi qui as le cur gai
Tu as le cur à rire,
Moi je l'ai à pleurer."

Sing, nightingale, sing--you who have a merry heart. You have a heart that laughs, I have one that weeps.

"J'ai perdu mon amie,
Sans l'avoir mérité
Pour un bouquet de roses,
Que je lui refusais."

I have lost my friend, without having deserved it. For a bouquet of roses that I refused him.

"Je voudrais que la rose,
Fût encore au rosier
Et que ma douce amie
Fût encore à m'aimer

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime
Jamais je ne t'oublierai."

I would that the rose was still in bloom and that my sweet friend were here to love me again.

I have loved you long. Never shall I forget you.

"Très charmant!" Madame Dumont declared when the last chord had died away. "You sang it quite well--for an Englishwoman."

Choosing to be amused rather than indignant, Medora smiled at the old lady. "Thank you, Madame."

"That is a chanson I remember quite fondly from my girlhood," Madame Dumont continued, rising from her chair and approaching the pianoforte. "Do you know any others?"

"A few, though I fear I cannot remember them all," Medora confessed. "My music-master taught me songs in several different languages."

"As did mine." Madame Dumont sighed. "I was not without talent when I was une jeune fille. It is one of my chief regrets that none of my children are musical. And neither was my husband!"

"A pity," Medora agreed, almost automatically. Across the room, she heard Madame Thibault asking a question, then Julia's voice offering a reply. The word "wedding" was discernible in the latter.

Ah. Julia's forthcoming nuptials. Fortunately, Medora had already listened to her young friend's comments on the subject; she doubted that anything new would be revealed here. Turning back, she gave her undivided attention to Madame Dumont.

"I wonder that Lucille does not sing," the older lady mused, her own gaze resting upon their companion. "She had a sweet voice as a girl, though it was never strong.

"Dear child--how wonderful to see her restored to health! This Swiss treatment must have finally cured her. And so happily married, at last. We had all told Gerard--her father--that she would make Henri a much better match."

Medora blinked, confused. There had been another prospective bride for the Vicomte?

Noticing the younger woman's puzzlement, Madame Dumont explained, "It was her sister Louise who was engaged to Henri at first, as she was so slightly the older. But Gerard was so intent on what was customary that he paid no heed to what was truly practical!" She chuckled softly. "As if Louise cared about propriety! She was ever the wild one, in truth. Every month the letters would arrive from the convent--she led the good sisters such a dance! Indeed, we wondered if Gerard arranged the match more to advance the family or to relieve the poor nuns at last! But then Louise would have none of the marriage, when she was told of it. She raged and swore that she would never agree, and Gerard was just as enraged. He sent her back to the convent in disgrace, swearing she would cool her heels there until she learned obedience."

The old eyes gleamed with a slightly malicious amusement. "Of a certainty, Gerard was always a bit pompous. We next heard that she had run away, along the road, with the money and valuables the family had sent as a gift to the abbess. Nom d'un nom d'un nom--it was une affaire scandaleuse!"

Medora murmured in astonishment, as Madame Dumont clearly expected her to do. "Indeed, ma'am. Was she -- ever heard from again?"

"Oh, in a manner of speaking." The old lady glanced about the room, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial near-whisper. "If you will but walk with me, Mademoiselle?"

Medora rose from the bench and offered Madame Dumont her arm. Family gossip was probably best taken with a grain of salt. Still, she reasoned, she was at least learning more about their reserved hostess than anyone else had told her, including Julia.

"For years there were rumors about her," Madame Dumont continued, as they promenaded slowly towards an unoccupied corner of the drawing room "Each one more preposterous than the last: that she was in Paris among the sans-culottes, that she had dressed as a man to serve as a soldier in the republican army, that she had become the darling of the Paris Opera, that she was living in the gutters of Marseilles, that she was the mistress of General Hoche or of Minister Fouché, and admired even by the Emperor himself. So many different tales that at least one or two of them had to be true!" The old lady chuckled again, shaking her silver head. "And with each new story, Gerard would grow purple with rage and remind the whole family that he had legally disowned her and her name was never to be spoken in his presence."

Madame Dumont paused before an alcove, where a single portrait was hanging. Not so large a painting as the huge "Judgment of Paris" suspended over the drawing room mantelpiece, Medora noticed, but a good-sized one nonetheless. A fine likeness of the Vicomtesse, and apparently of recent execution.

"And then there was Lucille," Madame Agathe continued. "Like a nun herself, always so pious and obedient. I am sure she never expected to marry her sister's intended bridegroom. And she never begrudged Louise the attention she received as the elder."

"Were they very close, the Vicomtesse and her sister?" Medora ventured.

"Oh, I think they must have been! Gerard's only son died in infancy, so he intended to settle the bulk of his fortune upon his daughters. But, of course, it all went to Lucille."

Madame Dumont turned back to study the portrait. " I remember there was another one painted--the two girls together--by this very same artist. It would have been in '91, just before the Terror--Lucille's family barely escaped in time. And the artist too, it seems. I wonder if Lucille remembered him from the old days when this portrait was commissioned, or if it was all Henri's doing."

Intrigued, Medora's glance followed the old lady's finger as she pointed towards the narrow brass plate mounted at the bottom of the gilt frame A small shock of recognition went through her when she read the inscription.

"The Vicomtesse De Guise, by Jean-Jacques Daubigny."

*******

INTERLUDE

London 1804

 

"My old friend:

For once it seems I have been indiscreet. A misplaced confidence--I had thought him a safe listener when I brought forth my questions--but now I fear I was mistaken."

He paused with his pen in mid-air, frowning at his own stupidity. She would be more than justified in reprimanding him sternly for his folly. But she was more than welcome to do so, if the danger could be averted.

He dipped the quill and went on.

"You will no doubt think to yourself how often you have warned me about such things, I am sure, but indeed, how was I to know, or even guess? At first glance, the idea, it is preposterous, like something from a novel, or a bad piece written for the theater--c'est incroyable!"

Was that a step on the landing outside his door?

He laid the pen down, rose on silent feet to approach the threshold. Standing rigidly still, breathing shallowly through his mouth, straining his ears for any betraying sound on the other side of the wooden barrier which now seemed all too frail. His hand reached out to draw back the well-oiled bolt . . . grasped the knob and flung the door open.

There was no one on the landing.

He inhaled deeply, felt his heart racing, as he shut and re-locked the door, then pushed a heavy chair against it as an additional barricade. On his way back to the table he paused beside the window, careful to stand at a concealing angle.

Only a scant handful of passers-by on the street below. Those who might hunt him had too much subtlety to stand rooted on a corner staring at the building. No, he would not be able to spot them, but they *must* be present, though unseen. The last few days had taught him that.

Still keeping his body to the side he drew the curtain over the window. It blocked much of the light but he felt oddly safer.

Returning to the desk at last he began to write more quickly.

 

END PART TWENTY-SIX