Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

And twenty more such names and men as these
Which never were, nor no man ever saw.

--William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew

 

PART TWENTY-NINE: "The Other Shoe"

 

"--and so my dear, Derbyshire and its various bucolic delights are behind us and we are even now journeying toward the Metropolis. We hope to arrive within a very few days. Dear as Lionel's parents are, I find myself absolutely pining for City Life -- for new clothes, new pastimes, and . . . old friends! Pray do not even consider departing for the wilds of Cornwall until we have met again! It has been too long since we were beneath one roof, and longer still since we have had the chance of a comfortable coze!

Your devoted,

Georgy"

Reaching the end of her letter, Medora found herself smiling nostalgically. So often as a child, surrounded by brothers, she had longed for sisters. Now, with Alice, Margaret, and Georgy, she felt as though she had a full complement. And in Georgy, she had a "bosom bow" as well: they had been friends ever since Medora had first come to London as a gawky schoolgirl. Marriage and motherhood had tempered Georgy's occasional flightiness, but she was as high-spirited and affectionate as ever.

There was much they had to tell each other -- including, Medora recollected with a grimace, the sad news about the artist who had painted her friend's portrait. Unfortunately, there were also some things which must remain secret, such as Archie's miraculous resurrection. Medora wished it were otherwise--Georgy had been a staunch ally during the early days of Archie's courtship--but she would not risk her lover's safety at any price, and that seemed to hinge on the world believing him to be someone else entirely.

Apropos of which -- her glance now fell on the small parcel, wrapped in brown paper, that the footman had brought to her, along with the morning post. Laying aside her letter, she took up the parcel and quickly removed the wrapping to uncover a small volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets--the very one she had lent to him that day at Gunter's.

The clue was where she had expected to find it. Scribbled on the back of a calling card was the following message:

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Tonight. Eight o'clock.

Medora glanced at the mantel clock and sighed. Eight o'clock seemed . . . so very far away.

*****

The hours leading up to this moment had been interminable, Archie thought as he made his way around to the Langfords' box that evening.

Searching for Jacques. Poring over reports, notes, and speculations about the still-unknown identity of Commander Seaton's contact. With Parillaud's defection to Kilcarron's side, it had become clear that his manservant Jacques LeBrun was not the Jacques they were seeking. The latest suggestion was to investigate all of Minard's patients and acquaintances and see if Jacques could be found among them. Ferguson had only half-jokingly proposed going door-to-door; Carmichael's response to that proposal had been brief but profane.

By evening, everyone was flagging, and Carmichael had dismissed them for the night. A fresher contingent of agents would be taking over the investigation, to see if they could shed new light on the collected evidence. Relieved that he would not have to cancel his tryst with Medora, Archie had quickly changed his clothes and hurried over to Drury Lane, reaching the theatre just before the curtain went up on The Fairies' Revels.

He had chosen his moment carefully, slipping into the upper gallery at the start of the performance. From his vantage point, he had enjoyed the spectacle of Kitty Cobham, majestic as Titania, and had been amused to hear one of Medora's songs from As You Like It inserted into the forest scenes. Although he had longed to see her, he'd realized that to approach the Langfords' box while the play was going on would have been to invite unwelcome scrutiny. During the interval, however, people moved about freely, visiting from box to box, to exchange opinions of the play and gossip about everyone else. No one would find Archie's own wanderings unusual.

The door to the box opened to his discreet tap, and Medora was standing there, smiling at him. She wore pale aqua tonight, and he recognized the matching gems at her throat and ears as the set he had given her five years ago on their betrothal.

"Good evening, Miss Tresilian." He maintained a formal tone, even as he returned her smile.

Medora's eyes danced but her tone was equally demure. "Good evening, Mr. Lennox. Won't you come in, sir?"

He inclined his head, stepped into the box, and, under cover of darkness, swept her into a kiss as the door closed behind them.

"Mmm." She leaned against him for several moments, savoring the embrace, before pulling away with obvious reluctance. "I thought this evening would never come! And then I could hardly wait for the interval!"

Archie brushed his fingers against the smooth, bare nape of her neck. "I am sorry that I could not be here sooner. But I thought it best to wait until now."

She nodded reluctant agreement. "Less suspicious, this way. Are you enjoying the performance?"

"The play's a mishmash, but I can't fault the actors. Or the music," he added, stroking her nape once more. "Still, am I correct in thinking that you would not mind leaving early?"

She arched her throat against his caressing fingers and gave him an unmistakably sultry look. "You have another destination in mind?"

"Grand Hotel, Covent Garden."

Medora's brows arched at the name of this exalted establishment. "We are rising in the world, dear heart!"

"Well, we deserve it, for just one evening. Besides, it's been a very frustrating day, at least for me!"

"Then I shall do my best to ensure that you do not have a frustrating night as well," she teased, as he draped her evening cloak about her shoulders.

*****

"Still frustrated?" she inquired an hour later, as they lounged among a tangle of bedsheets in one of the Grand Hotel's more elegant suites.

Archie grinned. "All better, I assure you!" He brushed back the dark hair from her brow, kissed her almost chastely on the lips. "But after all our labors, I find I require sustenance. And I suspect you do as well."

"Lovely," she said on a sigh. "It's been hours since I dined!"

Archie sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. "Let me see if our supper is still worth eating."

It was. Resuming their clothes, they sat down to enjoy the delicious repast that had been set out for them in the adjoining room.

"I've heard their kitchen is famous for its deviled kidneys," Archie remarked, removing the cover from one of the dishes. "But I thought you might prefer this."

"Thank you." Medora accepted a portion of roast chicken, murmured her appreciation at the first mouthful, seasoned with lemon and herbs. To sup like this every night would be an extravagance few could afford, but she was determined to enjoy it this evening.

Archie helped himself to the filet of beef, cooked with wine and mushrooms. "So, love--how was your day? Discover anything fascinating?"

He had asked the question lightly, but to his surprise, she answered in perfect earnestness. "As it happens, I've learned something that might be useful. Miss Cobham thinks Madonna Florinda is with child--by the Vicomte DeGuise."

"Good God!" Archie dropped his fork, not knowing whether he was more startled by the revelation or by Medora's ready acquisition of theatrical gossip. "Is this -- a certainty?"

"I do not think it's common knowledge," Medora amended. "According to Kitty, the lady's condition is not yet visible, but her symptoms are too obvious to be overlooked. And as for the paternity . . . " She colored slightly. "Well, apparently there is no one else in serious contention."

"Indeed." Bemused, Archie picked up his fork and resumed eating. "I can't imagine the Vicomtesse being pleased about this--if she knows."

"She's a strange one, no doubt of it," Medora replied. "I do not believe her to be even the least bit in love with her husband, but any woman might resent such a lapse, especially if she thought he meant to support the child with her funds."

"Sounds like a nasty domestic crisis in the making," Archie agreed, refilling their wineglasses. "Well, no doubt someone has been keeping an eye on Madonna Florinda's activities, but I'll be sure to pass along this information, just in case." He favored his betrothed with a wry smile. "You're becoming alarmingly accomplished at this, Medora Rose! Still, I should be glad that one of us discovered something useful today. I wish my own endeavors had been even half as profitable." He lapsed into silence, gloomily recalling the division's complete lack of progress that afternoon.

"Archie?"

"What -- oh!" He blinked, rousing from his brown study, then smiled sheepishly at her. "Sorry! I shouldn't be so rude in the company of a lady -- you have my full permission to kick me next time. Forgive me, Medora Rose. This is nothing more than a bow drawn at venture, but--while you were at the DeGuises'--did you happen to notice any servants, or acquaintances, who were called 'Jacques'?"

Medora fell silent, thinking back. "I don't remember hearing anyone called by that name," she said slowly. She bit her lower lip and frowned down at her hands; a vague, half-forgotten detail teased her memory, but refused to clarify itself any further. "Is that what you said you were trying to find out today?"

"I didn't precisely say that," he broke in hurriedly. "But . . . " he frowned, weighing his options. "I suppose they didn't actually forbid me to tell you. I was with -- several colleagues. We were trying to find a needle in a haystack . . . an informer among the emigres who uses the name 'Jacques.'"

"Oh, dear!" Medora's grey eyes widened in sympathy. "As easily find one John or George in the whole of London."

Archie sighed. "Exactly. He could be anyone at all. Aristo, tradesman, servant . . . whoever he is, he seems to have disappeared into thin air."

Medora rested her chin on her hand. "On the whole," she remarked, "I think it might be easier to -- disappear, if one were in a trade. The ton are usually under scrutiny of some kind, but who notices a footman? Or a costermonger?"

He groaned. "Imagine searching all through Covent Garden for such a one! He could be anyone from a lamplighter to a spinet-tuner! On the other hand," he added, struck by a sudden thought, "if he's indeed a Frenchman, he might have gravitated towards a particular profession . . . "

"A French chef?" Medora suggested. "Most of the quality has one, including your own sister."

"Possible," Archie conceded. "But how much freedom would a chef have, to come and go? I remember Philippe hardly ever leaves his domain."

"Fashion, then? He might be a jeweler or a wigmaker."

"Not much call for perukes these days," Archie pointed out, running a self-conscious hand through his own "Brutus" crop.

Medora refused to be deterred. "Well, what about a hatter -- or a haberdasher?"

Unexpectedly, Archie chuckled. "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. Rich man, poor man --"

"Beggar-man, thief." Medora finished the quotation and shook her head ruefully. "This isn't helping much, is it?"

"I don't know about that," Archie countered loyally. "Two heads are said to be better than one, after all. Perhaps someone in a humbler profession?" He frowned again, trying to think of the tasks required in maintaining the elaborate townhouses of London.

"What?" Medora asked a little tartly, as his voice trailed off again. "Archie, I would really prefer not to kick you!"

"I ask your pardon, my rose. But I couldn't help but remember how smoothly Alice would keep such domestic matters from Julian. I doubt he ever knew when the chimney sweep came to the house. Or," he found himself thinking of Rory, "a locksmith, if one was ever necessary."

"Or a roofer or carpenter?" Medora recalled Edward's transformation of the modest dwelling he had purchased into "Tresilian Manor." "A plasterer, perhaps?"

"Or a glazier," Archie mused. "A window-washer, a house painter . . ."

A painter. The vague detail in Medora's memory sprang suddenly into focus, and she caught her breath. "Archie, wait! I didn't hear the name 'Jacques', but I saw it. In a painting . . . it was inscribed beneath a portrait of the Vicomtesse, at the DeGuises' townhouse. The artist's signature -- not Jacques, but . . . Jean-Jacques, that was it! Jean-Jacques D'Aubigny--does that name help at all?"

Archie was staring, wide-eyed and intent. "A portrait painter? That's . . . that's excellent!" He leapt up from the table and began to pace excitedly before the fireplace. "Excellent," he said again.

Medora followed his progress bemusedly. "I'm afraid -- I don't quite understand yet."

Archie paused briefly in mid-stride. "Consider this, love. As a painter -- a man would be allowed entrance to many houses, speak to anybody from anywhere without question. Even travel abroad: it's another perfect opportunity!" His blue eyes fairly blazed with enthusiasm. "This may be the best lead we've got so far! Now, do you have any idea of his direction?"

"I . . . " Medora struggled for the right words, then abandoned the effort in favor of stark honesty. "Archie, he's dead! He was murdered in his own studio, several weeks ago."

Archie paled, coming to a complete halt this time. Then . . .

"I think you'd better start from the beginning," he said at last.

*****
INTERLUDE

London, 1804

 

His key turned silently in the well-oiled lock . . . she had always advised him to keep the lock and hinges in that condition.

There had been no sign of any tampering with his door from the outside, nor . . . as he glanced quickly around the studio, was there any other sign of intrusion. For a brief moment, it seemed, he was safe.

Safe. There was cognac on the kitchen shelf; he was just able to reach it before his knees gave way. He sank down at the kitchen table, watched his hands shake before him.

Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu, what he had seen . . .

It was intended to be no more than a routine meeting, although the information he had for her was more unusual than ever before. He still found the very idea to strain his belief, were it not for the accidents.

As he reached Russell Street, he had thought he had glimpsed her in the accustomed guise, an old, bent charwoman making her way home. He had quickened his pace, but had not yet reached her when the fight spilled out of the tavern, taking them both by surprise. They were separated by perhaps a score of drunken, brawling ruffians, all bellowing insults and determined to annihilate each other. He had been swept away from his course, trying to keep her in view, but had lost his bearings in the melee, as he tried to evade the swarming combatants. Searching for her on the outskirts of the fray, he had instead confronted another sight that chilled his blood.

A familiar face, now suspect in his thoughts for some days. Their eyes had met, briefly, and he had known himself recognized, but the other had stepped back into the shadows, his cold, predatory expression unchanging--and so at last, their adversary was identified.

Their enemy.

She had been there suddenly, catching him by the elbow to guide him away from the mob. He had tried to tell her he thought they were actually safer here in the midst of the fight, they must not become isolated -- but his protests were inaudible among the bawling crowd.

A knife had flashed in the dark, then. She had stumbled beside him in the shadows, even as she thrust him away, toward safety. Looking on in horror, he had seen her crumple and fall, then the fight had swirled between them once more. As his nerve failed and he took to his heels at last, he had again felt the enemy's cold eyes upon him, watching as he fled . . .

Watching him . . . he must not stay here overlong, or come back alone again.

He had thought about it all, running through the shadowed streets, straining to hear any sounds of pursuit above the tumult of his heart. "Always be ready," she had ordered him long ago. He had laughed a little then, insisting that he was in no manner cut out for such desperate measures as she proposed, but when she had pressed the issue, he had yielded to her counsel.

And now he was grateful to her again. Money, a change of clothes in a small bundle, one or two papers that could prove his identity if challenged. He thought of the newly-ground paints and his favorite brushes with a pang, but there was no time to pack and no question of bringing them--at the worst, if he were never able to return here, they could be replaced. He must go into hiding among his fellows, make sure he had escaped the enemy--and then? To whom could he turn?

She had not told him the name of her own superior. But there were others--hints she had dropped--that he could guess at. And by some fortunate circumstance he could claim legitimate business with the man.

The work in question was propped carefully to the side, dry at last. He seized two sheets of heavy paper and began to wrap it frantically, then paused.

What would she have advised? That old English saying, to kill two birds . . . he shuddered at the reminder, but it was good advice.

Soberly, he drew his proof out of his inner waistcoat pocket--the evidence he had not had the chance to give to her. He quickly pressed the proof face-down against the back of the larger work, then scribbled a brief, but he hoped coherent, message on the back of it with a charcoal stick left in his jacket. Now, to send it on to the person from whom it was intended.

Not now, though--his ears pricked at the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs, but they continued onward and did not stop at his landing.

He must not linger. Tying the last of the wrapping paper securely around its contents, he seized the parcel, along with his small bundle, and hastened from his rooms. The sheer size of the parcel made him feel exposed, conspicuous . . . and there was the nagging sense too, of something he had overlooked in his hurry.

But first, the parcel must reach its destination.

From a public place, he told himself, remembering more of her advice, with lights and many people. Where he would not feel hunted. Where he could lose himself in a crowd again, after sending the parcel on.

An hour later, seated at a table in the packed dining room of a popular inn, he had all of which he had gone in search. And he had recalled at last, what he had left behind, dropped in the jumble of old things where he had found his proof. His last message to her, and her reply to him, written at the bottom of the same paper. Perhaps it would serve to verify his identity to his new, unfamiliar contact . . .

No. He must not go back. She would have forbidden it, absolutely. What he had must be enough. Let the parcel be his bona fide to make the connection.

And now, to begin. A messenger-boy would be easy enough to hire, given the size of this crowd. Taking the charcoal stick once more from his pocket, he began to write the direction on the paper wrapping.

"Langford House."

END PART TWENTY-NINE