Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Bait the hook well, this fish will bite.

            --William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing

PART THIRTY-THREE: "Rules of Engagement"

 

"That will be one burnt filbert cream," Georgy told the hovering waiter.  "And," she paused, giving the matter serious consideration, "one barberry."

The waiter bowed and hurried back across the street to Gunter's, dodging several equipages en route. Lady Georgiana Westfield and her companion were not the only fashionable customers who had chosen to eat their ices outside on this splendid day, stopping their carriages beneath the shady maples lining Berkeley Square.

Smiling, Georgy leaned back against the squabs of her barouche. "I sometimes consider ordering one of their more bizarre flavors like bergamot or brown bread but I can never quite bring myself to do it."

"Alice tried the brown bread ice the last time we were here," Medora informed her, "and said it was quite good, though she still prefers chocolate cream or pistachio nut."

"Dear Alice." Georgy smiled at the mention of her sister-in-law. "Have you heard from her recently? Is she on her way back to London?"

"I received a letter from her this very morning," Medora replied.  "The wedding is over, but she means to stop over in Warwickshire for perhaps a fortnight, to visit the children."

"So she's not likely to be attending Julia's betrothal ball."

"No. I wrote to her some time ago about the engagement, however, and she sent her good wishes to the bride and groom."

"Hmm." Georgy played idly with the string of her reticule. "Do you -- mean to write again soon?"

Her casual tone would not have fooled a child, let alone someone who had known her since girlhood. "I haven't decided yet," Medora replied.

"But what if she can tell us something about Julian -- and what we found behind my portrait?" Georgy's question held thinly veiled impatience.

"That's assuming she even knows," Medora countered. "If we were surprised, why might not Alice be? It's a rare marriage in which a husband and wife tell each other everything," she added, remembering the secrets she and Archie had had to keep from each other. "In fact, he might have been obligated not to tell her.  The very manner in which those -- items were sent seems indicative of secrecy."

"And yet you took charge of our findings," Georgy observed.  "Might I inquire what, exactly, you did with them?"

Medora met her gaze squarely. "I gave them to someone whom I believed might be able to make sense of them. Or, if nothing else, to pass them along to other persons who will."

"Would you care to elaborate on exactly who those persons might be?"

Medora paused, and then shrugged. "I fear I do not know exactly. Nor, on further reflection, do I find that I wish to."

Georgy sighed. "Have you no natural curiosity at all?"

"Oh, more than you know," Medora said feelingly. "But in this instance, I think curiosity is best tempered by caution." She hesitated a moment, then proceeded further. "You see, Georgy -- not long after your portrait had been delivered, I heard that Monsieur Daubigny had been killed. Murdered, in fact, by persons who broke into his studio."

"Good heavens!" Georgy exclaimed, paling visibly.

"I did not tell you of it before as I did not wish to distress you," Medora continued. "And then, in the excitement of our discovery, there simply was not time.  I do not know whether his sending Julian that packet had aught to do with the sad matter of his death, but if it has . . . then, in good conscience, I cannot endanger those I love, either by retaining what we found or meddling further in matters I do not understand.  Could you?"

The silence that greeted her query seemed interminable. Georgy seemed to be weighing various answers, then, at last, she shook her head and sighed. "No, not for a moment. If I thought that Lionel's safety or Gideon's, or even any of my brothers' and sisters' depended upon my discretion . . . I would remain as silent as the grave."

Medora exhaled with care, trying not to let her relief show too obviously.  "As must I. Though I might wish it otherwise."

Her friend's lips quirked in rueful smile. "My dear, it seems a murky brew you're dabbling your fingers in, and no mistake!"

"More by necessity than choice, I assure you."  Even as she spoke, Medora wondered if she were being entirely honest.  Despite her apprehensions, she could not deny that there was a certain -- excitement? satisfaction? in knowing she was at least doing something, even if it were slightly risky.  And yet -- she suspected she would trade it all for the assurance of a quiet life, somewhere, for Archie, Rosemary, and herself.

Their ices arrived at that point, toffee-brown and vivid pink, just spilling over the rim of their elegant glass dishes.  Not quite knowing what to say to Georgy and suspecting that her friend was equally uncertain of how to address her, Medora concentrated instead upon her treat, savoring its melting texture and the contrasting crunch of toasted filberts.  Beside her, Georgy spooned up her barberry ice with scarcely less enjoyment.

"You really do look splendid," she said at last, looking up from her dish. "More content than I have seen you in years." Her frank gaze traveled over Medora, taking in every detail from her new blue and cream afternoon dress to her modish hat trimmed with cream silk roses.  "Perhaps intrigue agrees with you."

Medora pulled a slight, deprecating face. "If so, it is intrigue only of the mildest kind. I suspect anything more serious would disagree with me excessively!"

A sudden motion out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she turned her head to see a very dashing phaeton stopping on the other side of the square. A liveried servant descended and made his way into Gunter's, clearly in search of a waiter.  Frowning, Medora peered more closely at the phaeton, her eyes widening when she saw the occupant: a gorgeously dressed woman with Titian hair and a figure that, even at this distance, seemed to promise abundant curves.

"Whoever could that be?" Georgy too was studying the new arrival.

"I don't know, precisely, but I have a suspicion," Medora said slowly. Then she saw the dark-haired gentleman, of decidedly mature years, strolling with a leisurely pace towards the phaeton and her suspicions were confirmed.  In silence, she and Georgy watched as the gentleman paused beside the phaeton, leaning casually against a park railing. He addressed a few remarks to the lady, which they could not hear. A moment later, her laughter rang out, rich and throaty.

"That," Medora said finally, "is the Vicomte DeGuise. And I think that woman is Madonna Florinda, an opera dancer at Covent Garden." Something she had once overheard a jaded society hostess say came suddenly to mind. to disguise a great scandal, expose a small one.  "I believe," she added casually, "that she has been the Vicomte's mistress for quite some time."

"DeGuise?" Georgy echoed. "The husband of the lady in the . . . ?" She let the words trail off questioningly.

"The very same," Medora confirmed.

Georgy leaned forward a little in the barouche to get a better glimpse of the couple. "He's very bold to be meeting his mistress in public, even at Gunter's.  What more can you tell me?"

Medora concealed a smile. Far better that she distract Georgy with gossip concerning illicit amours than alarm her with reports of Bonapartist spies. Drawing closer to her friend and lowering her voice, she prepared to share some of the juicier details Kitty had imparted to her.

******

Elephants never forget, Archie remembered the old saying as he regarded the public-house sign on Fenchurch Street, and prayed silently that for the part he must play his memory would prove as apt as that fabled beast's.

They had not colored his hair again.  A wig, this time.  Brown.  Grant had clipped his hair an inch or two shorter to fit more tidily underneath; Archie had bitten his lip and allowed it. Daubs of soot mixed with grease had darkened his eyebrows and moustache; Arundel had helped him attach the short brown false beard that matched the wig.

"Keep to the drill," Carmichael said in his ear as they approached the public house.  "We'll have an eye to your back, never fear it."

Archie nodded briefly.  "And what about his back?"

"He was told to come alone--but we'll be watching there, too.  Tell him that, if you think you need to set him back on his heels."

Carmichael clapped Archie lightly on the shoulder, then went ahead with Jamieson into the pub.  Archie took several strides past the meeting place, pretended to be studying items in a nearby shop-window; inhaling deeply, his mind went back to the drill.

"Make it clear from the first," the cool, measured voice instructed,  "that you are merely the servant, that it is your master who holds the proof in possession."

"And if he is not convinced?"

"Then it seems I have a higher opinion of your persuasive abilities than you do yourself.  Speak with conviction: as long as there is any doubt, he will hold his hand.  When he believes he is in possession of the evidence, and knows the identity of your employer--then he will strike."

"At both of you, if he can," Carmichael warned.

"True.  We must present him with that opportunity, if we wish to ensnare him--but this first engagement should be safe enough for all concerned."

Safe enough.  Archie licked his lips; his ears strained, listening for Rory's whistle.

There!  A high, familiar sound, barely loud enough to be recognized above the bustling clatter of the streets.  Archie waited, watching reflections in the window.  Yes, that was Minard, looking ill-pleased, as he strode along--but he entered the pub with no hesitation.  Archie waited, counting seconds carefully to himself, before he turned and sauntered casually toward the establishment where the doctor had disappeared.

The interior of the tavern was smoky and smelled strongly of spirits. Hogarth had lived here years before, Archie remembered, in rooms above the establishment. The walls of the taproom had once been covered with his drawings, which the artist had offered in settlement of a debt.  Little wonder if this place and its patrons had inspired some of those sketches.

Despite the room's murkiness, Archie spotted his quarry easily enough.  Still maintaining his casual demeanor, he paused just long enough to acquire a mug of ale before approaching Minard's table and sliding into the empty seat opposite.

The doctor looked up suspiciously as if to protest an intrusion; his dark eyes were surprisingly malevolent.  Archie kept his voice low and level, thinking of Kilcarron.

"You were expecting someone--Monsieur le docteur?" he inquired.  "I am not the man who left you a particular letter -- but I am his messenger."  Archie watched his words register with the other man.  "He expects my return with your reply within the hour--and there are others in his employ watching us even now."

The doctor's lips twisted in apparent displeasure.  "Then by all means, let us not waste time.  Have you the proof of what you claim?"

"A portion."  Archie reached into the inner pocket of his waistcoat, withdrew the fragment that had been carefully torn from the sketch.  "A very fine, distinctive hand, monsieur . . . or should I better address you as 'citizen'?"

Archie placed the fragment discreetly between them, the tear occurring in the middle of a signature, leaving the letters "ubigny" still visible.

"Well?" Archie prompted, keeping his voice low and rough.  "Do you claim this, m'sieur?"

"And if I do not?" Minard's eyes were narrowed, but otherwise his expression gave nothing away.

"There are others who would take an interest.  A man was murdered, was he not?  Indeed, perhaps more than one."  Archie kept his voice level, but felt the dryness in his throat.  Had he misplayed his part somehow? Doggedly, he returned to the contest, trying to pattern himself on Kilcarron.  "Is there not a lady involved as well?  Shall I describe her picture to you?  A titled lady, with very fine eyes. And other sketches--in which she is not alone. Many would wish to avoid . . .embarrassment."

He was relieved to see his shot find its mark.  Minard's face clouded with what seemed to be anger.

"What figure?" he demanded curtly.

"Ten thousand.  For the lot."

"That is a very great sum."

Again, Archie found himself imitating his employer's controlled tones. "I am sure your master has sufficient resource to supply it."

"Nevertheless it will take time to amass such a quantity," Minard argued.  "You can tell your master I accept his terms but cannot be ready for at least a fortnight."

"Too long a time, monsieur."  Archie reached out as if to take back the fragment of paper.  "If you are not interested perhaps others--in government positions-- will be . . ."

"Wait."  Minard set his own hand down over the paper. "Perhaps I could raise the sum within . . . let us say one week?

Archie paused to consider the offer, then inclined his head. "My employer might be -- amenable.  We have your direction.  Set two lamps in your bedroom window the first night you have the money, and we will contact you then."

Rising quickly from the table, he left the tavern without looking back.  His palms felt damp and his heart seemed to pound against his ribs as he walked. The urge to bolt was almost irresistible, but he kept his pace deliberate, hoping the tremor he felt in his knees would not be visible. 

He had baited the trap--and the bait had been taken.

*****
INTERLUDE

London, 1804

A few touches, only, had remained.  He laid aside his brush at last, and wiped his hands with a cloth.  Perhaps a day or two more to dry and then . . . the next time he returned to this house it would be to oversee the portrait's proper hanging.

Was that a speck of dust?  Using the edge of his smallest fingernail, he lifted away the mote from the corner of a painted eye, gazed fondly at the delicate curve of the cheek beneath, and then glanced aside, feeling a twinge of embarrassment at his satisfaction with his own work.

"Such a lovely color," he said aloud to the only other occupant of the sitting room.  "You are to be commended, monsieur le docteur, for the miracle you have wrought.

"Indeed?" The other's voice seemed oddly cold to his ear.

"Indeed!"  He echoed the word, only more warmly.  "I remember her as a girl--always so pale and delicate that the family feared for her.  And now, she is the very picture," he quipped, "of health.  Was it not your doing, that she was sent to Switzerland to recover her constitution?  And so here she is at last--almost a new woman!"

The physician was frowning slightly.  "You knew the family, before Madame la Vicomtesse came to England?"

"Knew them?  Ah, yes, mon ami."  He chuckled at the memory.  "I think I painted the whole family while they lived in Belgium!"

"Those were long ago days, in truth," the doctor replied. A brief silence fell, broken only when a footman came to escort the physician to his patient.

When he considered later, he felt there had been an odd quality to that silence, as if a discordant note had been struck in the middle of some familiar tune. But surely he had said nothing improper?  He took his own leave, puzzled and disquieted--somewhere, he had made a false step.

The next day the first accident occurred.

END PART THIRTY-THREE