Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
The best mirror is an old friend.
--George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum
PART THIRTY-ONE: "Portrait of a Lady"
"Another cake, Julia?" Medora inquired. "I know you are partial to these."
Her guest blushed becomingly. "Oh, dear! I hope I have not made a shameful glutton of myself."
"Not at all," Medora assured her. Privately, she thought that Julia was showing remarkable restraint, considering her fondness for Philippe's lemon cakes. One of the disadvantages of being a marriageable miss was that Society expected such a creature to eat or to be seen eating no more than a sparrow.
Julia eyed the plate of tiny pastries longingly, then succumbed to temptation. "Very well, I shall take one more. They're so small, what harm could they do?"
Medora smiled and poured more tea for them both. When the Season had begun, she had not been sure about attending Alice's weekly "at-homes," much less holding any of her own. But when Alice had left for Scotland, it had seemed almost too much trouble to cancel them altogether; so, in the absence of any other business, she had fallen into the habit of staying in during those afternoons. She had doubted anyone would bother calling on her, but rather to her surprise, she'd received visits from a handful of friends and acquaintances, some made several years previously, a few met just this spring. Before Julia's arrival, she had spent a pleasant half-hour discussing music with Lady Barbara Wellesley.
Another advantage of "at homes," she reflected as she added a dollop of milk to her tea, was the distraction they provided from -- other things. Such as the clandestine, possibly dangerous activities of one's beloved.
Medora stifled a sigh and sipped from her teacup. It had been nearly two days since she had last spoken to Archie, after she had told him about Monsieur Daubigny. They had agreed that the murdered painter could well be the man Archie's colleagues were seeking; she had known that Archie would share the news with his fellow agents at the first opportunity. She only hoped that the resulting investigation would prove fruitful -- and that she would soon learn of its progress from Archie himself. The waiting, however, seemed interminable, and there had been no messages this morning . . .
"--do you not agree, Medora?"
The sound of her own name brought her back to the present, and she smiled apologetically. "Forgive me, Julia, for not attending. You were saying?"
Julia, to her credit, appeared not the least put-out. "I was merely remarking how generous the Vicomte has been, to offer the use of his home for the betrothal ball. I know Aunt Augusta would contrive handsomely in Berkeley Square, but the DeGuises' townhouse is ever so much larger and the ballroom is magnificent!"
"Oh!" Medora blinked. "So -- the DeGuises will be hosting the ball instead of your family?"
"In a manner of speaking," Julia replied. "The Vicomte has said it would be only fitting, since I am to join his family by marrying his son. However, he is deferring to my aunt upon all other matters, including the guest list and decorations."
"And your aunt is pleased with this arrangement?"
"Oh, she is completely in her element. And the Vicomte has assured her that she need not dread interference from any quarter when making her plans."
"Indeed." Medora wondered for a split second how the Vicomtesse had reacted to the news that another woman was to be giving orders under her roof. Then she tried to imagine the languid Vicomtesse exerting herself on behalf of the stepson she seemed to regard with polite indifference--and wondered no more at the Vicomte's decision.
"The invitations have already been sent out, but I thought I'd deliver yours personally," Julia continued, reaching into her reticule and handing Medora a creamy, embossed missive, sealed with colored wax. "I hope you will be able to attend."
"I should be delighted to," Medora replied. "I had originally planned to return to Cornwall soon, but now it appears that I have several engagements that will keep me in town for the time being."
"Oh, I'm so glad!" Julia exclaimed artlessly. "Do you think Lord and Lady Langford might be back by then? I can have an invitation made out to them as well."
"I am afraid that I do not know their exact plans," Medora confessed. "Though I believe her brother's wedding may have taken place by now -- perhaps I will learn more from her next letter."
They chatted a while longer--Julia was in transports over her new gown for the occasion--and then the younger woman reluctantly announced her departure. Accompanying Julia and her maid to the door, Medora was startled by the sight of a dashing little phaeton coming to a halt before the front steps -- and by the no less dashing figure who subsequently descended.
Lady Georgiana Westfield, resplendent in a pomona-green carriage dress and a bonnet trimmed with green and yellow feathers, held out her hands to Medora as she ascended the steps to Langford House. "My very dear!"
Medora took her friend's outstretched hands without hesitation and the two women exchanged a quick kiss of greeting. "What a lovely surprise! I received your letter but did not expect you so soon."
"Oh, we made excellent time on the road to London," Georgy replied. "Arrived at Westfield House just after sunset last night."
"You must be exhausted from the journey."
"Pooh, not in the least! A good night's sleep and I'm as right as rain." Releasing Medora, Georgy turned next to Julia who had been covertly eyeing the older woman's clothes with a wistfulness bordering on envy. "And can this be Miss Pearson? Why, I scarcely recognize you, so fashionable you've become!"
"Have I, really?" Julia asked artlessly. "Aunt Augusta won't let me wear anything but sprig muslins when I pay calls. I should love to have a frock as modish as yours, Lady Georgiana!"
Georgy smiled. "All in good time. Right now, you look exactly as a prospective bride should look. Allow me to congratulate you upon your engagement. Your sister conveyed all the particulars to me in her last letter."
Julia blushed. "Thank you! There's to be a betrothal ball at my intended's townhouse--I hope you and Mr. Westfield will be able to attend."
"Oh, I imagine we should be delighted to," Georgy assured her.
"I shall have an invitation sent to Westfield House at the earliest opportunity," Julia promised. Bidding a last farewell to her hostess, she and her maid departed in the Pearsons' barouche, leaving the two old friends to become reacquainted.
"You're looking very well," Georgy observed with evident approval as she and Medora linked arms and walked into Langford House together. "Far better than -- when I saw you last, in Cornwall," she added significantly.
Medora felt her face growing warm. It had been nearly two years since she and Georgy had met, and at the time she had believed herself utterly bereft, save for her infant daughter. Trust one of her oldest friends to remember those dark days. Not for the first time she regretted the need for secrecy, but there was no help for it. At least she could avoid telling an outright lie about her changed circumstances. "Thank you. I did mention that I had found some measure of contentment in my life."
"My dear, you appear far more than simply content. I would say you are blooming, and not merely because that shade of rose becomes you. My compliments, by the way--I am glad Alice persuaded you to have some new frocks made."
"Lady Langford is nothing if not persuasive," Medora agreed. "And hospitable. It's largely thanks to her that my stay in London has been successful. But I am composing again, and I have made some new friends."
"Indeed?" Georgy raised quizzical brows. "And do these new friends include -- gentlemen?"
"A few." Medora kept her tone light and inconsequential.
"Anyone particularly attentive?" There was a hopeful glint in Georgy's eyes and Medora stifled a sigh.
"I think such speculations are perhaps premature at this point," she said, with a firmness that she hoped precluded further discussion on the subject.
Georgy shook her head, regarding her friend with a mixture of affection and exasperation. "I declare, you're as secretive as when we were girls." Her tone gentled. "Dearest, I remember the depth of your -- previous attachment. Such loves do not grow on trees. But I would like to see you happy, again."
Oddly touched, Medora blinked back a sudden mist of tears. "Then, shall I just say that . . . I live in hope?" she inquired, more lightly.
Georgy smiled. "A fortunate condition. I am glad of it."
"As am I." Returning the smile, Medora quickly changed the subject. "So, how is Lionel? And young Gideon? He must be nearly three years old by now."
"In August," Georgy reported proudly. "He's in Derbyshire with his grandparents right now--we decided that the country air would be best for him at present, but we shall all be together for his birthday. And as for Lionel -- well, you know we'll be celebrating our anniversary soon. Which reminds me -- has my portrait arrived?"
Medora hesitated. Should she tell her friend of Monsieur Daubigny's unfortunate end? The news would inevitably come out, whether before or after Georgy presented her husband with the portrait. And then there was the additional complication of just what business the late artist had been up to in his final days, business that Archie and his cohorts were presently investigating . . .
No, let Georgy and her husband enjoy this gift for now; the bad news could wait. Indeed, barring an emergency, bad news could always wait.
"Yes," she replied at last. "It was delivered just before Lord and Lady Langford left for Scotland. Alice saw to its bestowal, so I'm not quite sure which room she put it in."
"Oh, it'll be in the library," Georgy declared with certainty. "Julian's cabinet would be my guess. Soames will have the keys."
Five minutes later, Georgy had unlocked a tall cabinet in one corner of her brother's library and was lifting out a large rectangular parcel, roughly two feet by three feet and swathed in coarse brown paper. Medora helped her carry it to the nearest sofa, where they propped it up against one arm.
Georgy picked up a penknife, borrowed from her brother's writing desk, and began to cut away the twine binding the wrappings together. "I might as well have a look, just to make it sure it arrived intact. Wait until you see, my dear--I commissioned a very talented portrait artist for this."
"Mm." Medora's reply was noncommittal. Time enough, later, to mention that she had already seen examples of Jean-Jacques Daubigny's work in Julia's miniature and the larger portrait of the Vicomtesse DeGuise. Nonetheless, she felt a thrill of mingled excitement and apprehension as first, the brown paper wrappings fell away, then the protective layer of unbleached muslin, to reveal a flattering likeness of a flaxen-haired young woman, stroking the strings of a great harp.
"Why, how odd!"
Medora looked up at Georgy's exclamation. Her friend was standing behind the sofa, frowning over something Medora could not see.
"There's something stuck to the back of the canvas, with sticking plaster." Georgy vanished temporarily behind the painting for several moments, then emerged with a flat packet, also wrapped in brown paper.
"This--looks like some kind of message," she reported, pointing at a cluster of scrawled lines on the brown wrapping. "It's addressed to Julian. And--it's marked 'Urgent'."
A chill crept up Medora's spine. "What does it say?"
"I can't quite make out all the words. Whoever wrote this must have been in a frightful hurry."
Or simply frightened? Perhaps to the point of fearing for his life? Medora suppressed a shiver, then held out her hand. "May I see? We might be able to read the message, with the help of a quizzing glass."
One known to us both once spoke of you to me as a man who could be trusted. I implore you to see that these are placed in the right hands. Alas, I was never told the name of that precise individual but I was led to believe that you would. If you do indeed know the one of whom I speak, use this name as a token: Jacques.
END PART THIRTY-ONE