Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

 

There were two sisters sat in a bour;
Binnorie, O Binnorie
There came a knight to be their wooer.
By the bonny mill-dams of Binnorie
--"The Twa Sisters,"
Traditional English ballad

 

PART TWENTY-SEVEN: "The Wayward Sister"

The questioning of Parillaud had continued for hours. Arundel had eventually relieved Archie of the note-taking duties; Archie's pleading look at Carmichael had been met with a faint, sympathetic smile but an unmistakable shake of the head. Archie hadn't liked it but he had understood--while the questions were put forth primarily by Kilcarron, with a few from the more senior agents, Archie's presence as a knowledgeable witness was still required.

He had yielded, in the end, to the needs of his body, and to the fresh coffee and food the earl had ordered sent to them in the library as the interrogation continued, telling himself that no benefit would come of a descent upon the DeGuise residence demanding the immediate presence of Miss Tresilian. Any remaining thoughts about a stealthy visit to Langford House were stymied by his erstwhile commander, who had most unregenerately laced Archie's second cup of coffee with enough brandy to make him give up any attempt at a late-night foray into London.

When the interview had finally ended and Parillaud had returned to his home, escorted for safety by Arundel, Jamieson, and Colonel Kendal-Jones (who would remain on guard while Kilcarron brought the latest information to his Admiralty contacts), Carmichael had dragged Archie away on still other business for an hour or two before finally dismissing him with direct orders to sleep, but with an assurance that the commander would arrange for him to be granted leave as soon as possible after daybreak.

*****
Archie paused on the landing, standing back in the shadows. Carmichael had been as good as his word: on awakening this morning, he'd found a note from his commander informing him that he had been given leave until noon. Washing and dressing quickly, he had hurried downstairs, only to discover that there was something of a crowd between him and the door. Wishing to avoid the notice of anyone who might still have the authority to require his presence, as well as any queries from the more inquisitive of his colleagues, he continued to linger out of their immediate line of vision.

Below, with the appearance of someone who had worked all night but fully intended to be active for a few more hours, Smitty held court in the hallway, flanked by Barrington, Ferguson, and Grant, holding one of Grant's sketches in her hand, deep in conversation.

"Contact all the at-large agents, have them set a watch on the streets by Parillaud's house. Also, get in touch with the Bow Street Runners . . . "

She was interrupted by the appearance of a tall, dark-haired footman in full livery, holding out a small silver tray, on which reposed a visiting card. Smith took the card, read its face, turned it over, and shook her head in puzzlement as she handed it back to the waiting servant.

"No, this isn't anyone of my acquaintance."

The footman inclined his head to her, then handed her the tray itself, on which a second card was now visible and then, quite oddly, turned on his heel and strode away.

"Oh!" A small cry from Smitty, staring at the second card; shockingly, she cast both card and tray aside, and darted after the retreating figure. Her fellow agents stood briefly immobile with surprise, then Grant stooped to retrieve the card; she glanced at it and then handed it to Ferguson, who began to laugh aloud.

Barrington was demanding enlightenment as Archie quietly descended the stairs and slipped out the side door, grinning to himself. He already knew what was written on the second card.

"You owe me ten guineas.
C."

*****

The ton might be an indolent lot, few rising before noon, but the London shops opened early and Hatchards was no exception. Approaching the bookseller's, Archie resigned himself to what he thought would be at least a half-hour's wait. On entering, however, he almost immediately spied a slim, dark-haired figure in a harebell-blue frock, standing before the nearest set of bookshelves.

Relief swept over him, making him feel light-headed and weak in the knees. He took a few deep breaths, inhaling the scents of leather and paper, then approached her casually.

"Good morning, my dear ma'am," he murmured, his voice pitched for her ears alone.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her lips curve in the faintest of smiles. "Good morning, sir," Medora returned, her own voice similarly low-pitched.

"Your business here is concluded?" he inquired.

"I believe so."

He offered her his arm and they strolled out of the shop together.

"Now, where?" Medora asked, once they were safely outside.

"Well, now that I am satisfied as to your well-being . . . " Archie gave the hand resting on his arm a brief but firm squeeze. "The Bristol Hotel, Cork Street. And unless you wish me to ravish you on a public thoroughfare, I suggest that you comply."

"Indeed, sir," she agreed with deceptive meekness, and allowed him to lead the way.

*****

"Well, Mrs. Montague?" Archie inquired lazily, nearly an hour later.

"Well, Mr. Montague?" Medora countered, turning in his embrace.

He chuckled, then exhaled deeply as he relaxed against the pillows. Medora smiled at him fondly. No sooner had they taken a room at the Bristol--under an assumed name, of course--than Archie had set about ascertaining whether she was indeed as well as she appeared. His examination had been most meticulous, leaving them both tired but glowing.

With a sigh of her own, she burrowed against him, resting her head upon his shoulder. If only the rest of their lives could be this uncomplicated! "Well, sir, are you sufficiently reassured of my continued good health?"

He considered the question, then gave her a wry but genuine smile. "For now. I shall not scruple to tell you, Medora Rose, that I believe I aged five years last night, worrying about you in that nest of . . . Frogs!"

Touched, she embraced as much of him as she could reach. "Oh, love, I was never in any danger, not even for a moment."

He made a sound that was like a cross between a sigh and a grunt. "But you'd have done it all the same, even if there were some risk involved, wouldn't you? Never mind," he hastened to add. "I don't think I truly need to know the answer. So --*did* you learn anything of use from your hosts? I don't suppose either of DeGuises invited one of their lovers to dinner last night?"

Medora shook her head. "I regret to say, I would not have known even if they had! From what I witnessed, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse were disappointingly discreet. Fortunately," she added, "the guest of honor was less so!"

"Oh?" Archie regarded her with renewed interest; Medora fancied she could see his ears pricking up.

She smiled. "One thing about old family friends -- most of them will gladly gossip if you give them the least bit of encouragement!"

Archie's eyes narrowed in speculation. "Go on."

And without further ado, Medora related what she had heard from Madame Dumont the previous night.

"A sister?" Archie repeated, after she had finished her recital.

"A *wild* sister, no less," Medora qualified. "A black sheep. Perhaps with republican--or even Bonapartist sympathies!"

Archie was already ahead of her. "She could be in London right now."

"Then . . . do you think the Vicomtesse knows of her presence?"

"I'm sure of it," he avowed. "It's said she's famous for her discretion: *this* could be her true secret. I'd wager she's in contact with her sister, or hiding her among the emigres . . . or perhaps even being blackmailed by her--well done, Medora Rose!" He took her face between his hands, bestowed an enthusiastic kiss that left her in no doubt of his approval. "You know I'll be telling this to my superiors?"

She nodded. "Of course. I only hope it's of some use."

He pulled a slight face. "At this point, I'd say any information at all would be useful!"

******

"A sister." Smitty's tone was thoughtful as she absorbed the implications of newly returned Agent Stewart's report.

Archie frowned, puzzled by her expression. "Might that not be of importance?"

"Indeed, it is important." But something in her words rang false to his ears; she looked up at him speculatively. "You've done very well in getting information, Stewart, especially for someone who hasn't worked in London until now. But this time--"

The realization struck Archie. "You already knew?"

Smitty nodded. "Your information is correct, but not entirely current. Nor, I'm afraid, was it . . . complete. We have notes already--there *was* a sister, but she died in Calais last year."

"Died?" Archie echoed, startled. "How?"

"Some sort of sailing accident, I believe. She was said to have drowned."

Archie blinked. There was something about those words . . .

"Calais," he mused aloud. Calais, the closest French port to England, just across from Dover. "Might I . . . see the notes?"

"They're in the small library, come with me." Smitty rose, leading the way from the common room. "You're thinking about Calais," she said as they walked. "Do you mean she might have intended to make the crossing to England?"

"It's possible," Archie persisted. He could not have explained, but the notion would not release him.

They had reached the library. Smith searched quickly along the shelves closest to the door, pulled out a ledger which she laid on the taable to open. "Here, this was entered from Agent Fontaine's report. He copied the civic record of the accident."

Archie looked over her shoulder as she ran her finger down the page, then stopped, pointing at the entry. She stood aside to let him see clearly, he translated the French aloud to himself as he read.

"Citizen Jean Lapine, death by drowning. Citizeness Helene Genet, death by drowning. Citizeness Marie-Louise Mailleux, missing, presumed drowned."

"That's the one," Smitty said. "The vicomtesse's sister--'Mailleux' was their maiden name. 'Missing, presumed drowned.'"

"What is it?" Archie asked, observing her faint grimace.

"Something we never like in this profession," she explained. " 'Presumed dead' always means there was no body recovered. Still, it may signify nothing. Is anything else there of interest to you?"

Archie looked back at the entry. "'Certified by the city magistrate and witnessed 30th of August 1803 by Citizens Paul Clary, Henri LeClerq, Claud Minard, Edouard Roget . . . wait." He stopped reading, moved his finger back to the unexpectedly familiar name.

"Let me see!" Smitty had noticed it too. "Minard . . . in Calais?" Pushing Archie's hand away, she pored over the entry again herself. "How did we not know . . . oh, in August. The Vicomtesse didn't come to England until late in the autumn. But Minard witnessed her sister's death report?"

Silence fell; Archie realized that they were both thinking furiously. "Colonel Parillaud said Minard was always about the Vicomtesse," he began.

"And Grant saw him with Ainsley. And the Grey Man may be hunting him as well--far too many coincidences!" Smitty closed the ledger abruptly. "Doctor Latour said Minard often recommended that his patients recover abroad, a common enough practice. We've kept him under observation recently. But perhaps it would be enlightening--though it may take some time--to inquire how often the good doctor himself has been passing through the ports, and what destination he states for the record."

She glanced at Archie with approving eyes. "We might not have checked these notes again, if ever--you've done well, after all, Stewart. It would make your usual commander furious," her mouth quirked slightly, "but perhaps we should ask Milord if we can keep you in London when this investigation is over."

*****
INTERLUDE

Brussels, 1794

 

Papa was shouting again. Even from several rooms away, Lucille could hear his voice raised in anger, and that of her sister shouting back.

"--master in my own house!" Papa bellowed.

Louise's words were unintelligible, but the shrill vehemence of her tone was unmistakable.

Shuddering, Lucille stifled a small cough and tried to lose herself once more in her little book of devotions. She had never liked scenes--they left her feeling faint and rather ill. Louise, however, almost seemed to enjoy them. One of the many ways in which they differed, Lucille thought.

At least this time Louise and Papa were quarreling over something important--namely, his wish that his elder daughter marry the Vicomte DeGuise. The Vicomte had paid several visits here in the past, Lucille remembered. He was a tall, dark man--good-looking, Lucille supposed, but so much older than Louise and herself, not to mention that he had been married once before and had a young son by his first wife. Still, the DeGuise name was an ancient one, and Papa was anxious that one of his daughters become a Vicomtesse. Lucille could only be grateful that Papa had chosen Louise.

No doubt it was a grand thing to marry a nobleman. The DeGuise fortune might be smaller than it once had been, but the family still possessed estates and some beautiful jewels, like the necklace the Vicomte had sent to his prospective bride, a magnificent collar made up of enameled blue links and silver fleur-de-lys. Louise had left it carelessly strewn upon her vanity before marching off to engage Papa in battle.

Lucille's hand stole to the narrow ribbon about her own throat: a simple locket hung there, well-hidden by the lace at the bosom of her gown. Knowing herself alone, she fished it out and prised it open, smiling over the contents. Obedient to her lightest wish, Pierre had cut off a single lock of his rich brown hair and given it to her before leaving with his regiment. Dearest Pierre -- she could not imagine ever marrying another! If anything should befall him . . . she crossed herself hastily against the thought.

The sound of running footsteps broke into her reverie. Hurriedly, she closed the locket and returned it to its hiding place, just before the bedchamber door burst open and Louise stormed in, eyes ablaze and cheeks flushed with fury.

 

END PART TWENTY-SEVEN