Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

Rich gifts wax poor, when givers prove unkind.

            --William Shakespeare, Hamlet

PART THIRTY-FOUR:  "Timeo Danaos et Dona Ferentes”

One light.  Two.

"That's it, then."  Carmichael struck Archie a slightly celebratory thump on the shoulder as the two of them turned away back into the street.  "He's got the money--or he's been told to say he does.  The next move is up to Old Nick."

******
"A private place, but with many people," Kilcarron said.  "One where it would be unexceptional for both of us to be in attendance."

Archie racked his brains unsuccessfully but a suitable social event did not float to the top of his memory. 

Barrington rifled through a stack of papers and cards, produced one which he offered wordlessly to the earl.  Kilcarron considered it in silence before nodding.

"Ah.  That would indeed seem to answer our requirements," he remarked. "See that as many agents as possible are made available--there must be no oversights this time."

"Sir."  Barrington's face shuttered as he fell silent; Archie winced inwardly for the still-unforgiven, it seemed, Londoners, then braced himself as Kilcarron looked at him directly.

******

"The Vicomte DeGuise,"Archie said softly across the table, "will host the betrothal ball for his son's affianced in five days.  It will be expected for you to attend, will it not, monsieur le docteur?"

The Frenchman's mouth twisted as if in distaste for Archie's words.  "I shall be there."

"Then you will deliver the money to me and--"

"Non."

Archie stared, taken aback.

Minard's face had hardened.  "I will deliver nothing to you, monsieur.  You maintain that you are nothing more than a servant--very well, I will give the money only into the hands of your master.  Let him make himself known to me, at the ball, and he will receive the payment.  I will no longer deal with . . . underlings."

Archie kept his face controlled, inexpressive, waiting a few seconds for the charged silence to diminish.  "I think you forget yourself a little, monsieur," he said at last.  "But . . . my employer is willing to agree to your terms.  Until the ball."

Rising, he made his way out. Once out of sight he braced himself against the wall of the tavern, taking in cautious, deep, breaths.  Uncanny, uncanny . . . how had Kilcarron known?

"Are ye ailin' for summat, sor?"  Jamieson, in workman's garb, affecting an atrocious country accent but speaking so softly that only Archie could hear him.  "Per'aps I could 'elp see ye on your way?"

"I . . .thank you kindly."  Archie pushed away from the building, shaking his head slightly to feign an excess of ale, fell into wavering step with his companion.  Briefly, he made his report, finishing with the stroke that had flummoxed him.  "All the times he made me rehearse, talked about the possibilities, what the man might say or do--I didn't expect it, but he did!"

There was a momentary silence.

"Dunbar would call it the Sight," Jamieson said shortly.

"And Carmichael would just say, 'Old Nick'," Archie finished.  "I know.  What would you call it?"  He was suddenly curious about his taciturn colleague's perspective.

"He's a games'-player," the other said at last.  "He'd want to anticipate every move on the board."

That felt like truth.  Archie nodded in tacit agreement and continued walking.

Five days--time would crawl until then.

******

For Medora, the time fairly flew past.  There were meetings at Drury Lane to confer with Mr. Kelly about the music for Henry VIII, there were visits over tea with Lady Barbara Wellesley and Julia Pearson, the latter in high spirits over her upcoming betrothal ball, and there were shopping expeditions--several, in fact--with Georgy, who had not been to London in nearly two years and now declared much of her wardrobe to be sadly out of fashion.

Thanks to Alice's machinations, Medora already had a ball gown. Still, accompanying Georgy to her fittings and joining in the hunt for evening gloves, dancing slippers, and other trinkets was a pleasant enough occupation in her spare moments.  At one shop carrying unusual curios, she even found a string of delicate glass beads, sea-green flecked with silver gilt; Venetian work, the merchant told her, almost reverently. They were too lovely to resist, Medora had decided and, after some token haggling, they were hers. Besides, they matched her gown perfectly.

Archie managed to contact her at last, sending her a book from Hatchards.  Bearing it off to her own chamber, she quickly deciphered the coded message tucked within its pages. All was well, she learned, though he was being kept busy and doubted they would have a chance to meet within the next week.  Medora stifled her disappointment as best she could, taking some consolation in the likelihood that his unavailability meant further progress in his investigation.  Every now and then she allowed herself to daydream of what their life might be like when the whole business was concluded, but never for very long.  It was never wise to count one's chickens.

What with one thing and another, the minutes, hours, and days slipped by -- until the night of Julia's betrothal ball arrived.

******

"You look wonderful, ma'am," Jane said earnestly.

Medora hid a smile even as she murmured her thanks. She was accustomed to hearing such lavish compliments from her maid.  Still, on studying her image in the glass, she felt cautiously pleased by what she saw. The sea-green silk was most becoming and the Venetian beads complemented her gown as well as she could have hoped. Jane had dressed her hair in the classical mode and a delicate pearl ornament gleamed against its darkness. She felt a brief pang of regret that Archie could not see her like this tonight -- but perhaps there would be other opportunities in the future.

A warm evening, requiring only the lightest of wraps. Once Jane had draped a silk shawl over her mistress's elbows, Medora gathered up her fan and reticule and went downstairs, where the Halsteads' carriage awaited her just outside Langford House. Lady Halstead's approval of Medora's ensemble was even more reassuring than Jane's. The viscountess herself wore pale orchid, trimmed with a deeper purple satin, and a splendid diamond necklace. Lord Halstead and the Honorable Frederick Halstead also looked very fine, their dark evening coats forming a pleasing contrast to their snowy linen.

It was not such a great distance to St. James's, but progress was hindered by the number of carriages clearly bound for the same destination. Finally, they drew up before the DeGuise townhouse and alighted, one by one.

"And to think this is merely for dinner!" Lady Halstead murmured in Medora's ear as they made their way to the front door. "I can't imagine how many more will attend the ball afterwards."

Medora glanced back over her shoulder at the carriages lining the street. "A great many, I daresay. But I am sure our hosts have matters well in hand."

"Indeed. I would have been prepared to have held Julia's ball at Halstead House, but this is on a far grander scale," Lady Halstead remarked. "I confess to some relief at not being the one responsible for its success!"

The front door opened to Lord Halstead's knock and their party was once more escorted upstairs to the drawing room. Relieved of their cloaks and shawls, they entered the grand salon in the full glory of ball dress. Beholding the gorgeous toilettes of the ladies already assembled, Medora experienced renewed thankfulness for Alice's exquisite taste.  The appearance of their party, she decided, compared quite favorably with that of the other guests.

"Corinna!" Julia was coming forward with outstretched hands to greet her sister.  "I am so glad to see you! And you, Miss Tresilian," she added, turning next to Medora.  "I do love your gown. I wish I looked as well in green, but here I am in white again."

"You look quite dazzling just as you are," Medora assured her, interpreting the artless remark correctly. No dissembling was necessary, however. Julia looked utterly exquisite in white satin, embroidered with silver thread; she wore a simple pearl necklace and a pearl comb held her piled golden curls in place.  She fairly glowed, as much with happiness as with excitement; Edmond DeGuise, following a few paces behind, could hardly keep his eyes from her.

Julia dimpled and blushed. "I only hope I can remain this immaculate throughout dinner," she confided artlessly.  "It would be simply awful if I were to spill anything upon my gown!"

As Lady Halstead hastened to assure her that nothing of the kind would happen, Medora let her gaze rove about the room, taking stock of the assembled company. She recognized several people she had met at the DeGuise dinner party, including Madame Dumont herself, elegant in silver and flanked by a dark-haired couple in their middle years. The daughter and son-in-law to whom she had previously referred? It seemed likely.  The old lady looked in Medora's direction and nodded a gracious recognition. Medora inclined her own head, smiling in return.

Vicomtesse DeGuise, who stood languidly fanning herself by the fireplace, was also easy to spot. Even tonight, she was still the most splendidly gowned woman in the room, in claret-colored satin under a petticoat of gold net.  Cabochon rubies encircled her throat -- like a necklace of blood, Medora thought with a shiver before chiding herself for being superstitious. Hard to forget those sketches she had last seen of the two sisters; harder still to believe that the Vicomtesse had ever been that fragile girl, half-sheltered from sight by her bolder twin.  Had spying for Bonaparte--or shielding such a spy from the British--given her courage and purpose at last? It seemed plausible enough -- reluctantly, Medora acknowledged that she too would work with all she had to ensure the safety of a loved one in such a dangerous profession.

"Ma belle-fille!" A deep, masculine voice rose over the murmur of several conversations. Silence descended over the drawing room as Medora, along with the other guests, turned her head to see Vicomte DeGuise standing in the doorway. Like his wife, he was magnificently dressed: his dark velvet coat was heavy with embroidery and several orders glittered upon his pale satin waistcoat.  "Where is my new daughter-in-law?"

A blushing Julia stepped forward. "I am here, Monsieur."

"Bon." Smiling jovially, Vicomte Deguise approached and kissed her lightly on both cheeks.  "You are -- trés belle tonight, Julia. I would suggest but one thing more for your toilette." With a flourish, he handed her a flat velvet jewel-case. "This has been in my family for centuries--and now I give it to you, as my son's chosen bride."

Julia lifted the lid of the case and gasped at what lay within. "Why, this is magnificent, Monsieur! I have never seen anything like it!"

"Rare jewels for a rare young lady," the Vicomte replied. "Will you do me the honor of wearing it tonight, ma belle-fille?"

Rendered speechless, Julia could only nod her assent.

"Permittez-moi, cherie?" Removing and pocketing his betrothed's simple pearl strand, Edmond DeGuise lifted out the contents of the case and fastened them about her neck.

Medora's eyes widened and her grip tightened on her fan when she beheld the result. Circling Julia's slim throat was an elaborate collar of enameled blue links and silver fleur-de-lys  . . . a necklace she had seen adorning another affianced bride, in one of Monsieur Daubigny's sketches . . .

She was not the only one so affected. Madame Dumont was frankly staring, her fine brows arched so high they almost disappeared beneath her hair.  "Henri," she began, addressing the Vicomte, "is not that--?"

"Of a certainly it is, ma chere tante," he struck in before she could finish her question. "And what could be more fitting than that it should pass to -- the next generation? Do you not agree, Madame?" he addressed his wife.

The Vicomtesse's fan closed with an audible snap. To Medora's astonishment, the woman seemed to have roused from her customary languor. Her posture was stiff and affronted, her eyes blazing like dark diamonds. "You are all generosity, Monseigneur."

The Vicomte sketched a bow in her direction. "I am -- flattered that you should think so, ma mie."

Medora wondered if she was the only one who could hear the menace underlying the silken tone. She thought some of the guests nearest the Vicomte and Vicomtesse looked a trifle uneasy, but the butler's announcement of several more people seemed to break the spell. Conversations throughout the room resumed and the Vicomte turned away from his wife to welcome the new arrivals.

Strangely troubled, Medora took a turn about the room, thinking all the while.  Madame Dumont had been about to say something, she remembered, but the Vicomte had cut her off.  Perhaps she could illuminate the situation further.

As unobtrusively as possibly, Medora made her way to the older woman's side. Madame Dumont smiled and greeted her cordially but her expression was abstracted and she glanced occasionally at Julia and Edmond, who were now standing together by the pianoforte.

"Such a pretty child," the old lady remarked without preamble. "And Edmond so enamoured! I do hope all will be well."

Medora's pulse quickened; she forced herself to remain calm, plied her fan to occupy her restless hands. "You anticipate trouble, Madame? Surely there can be no great cause for concern--not if the Vicomte has given her so warm a welcome . . . and so splendid a gift."

"Indeed." Madame Dumont's fine brows drew together in a faint frown.  "That collar does look well on her. Only . . . I cannot think how it came to be in Henri's possession again."

"Again?" Medora queried.

Madame Dumont nodded vigorously.  "Vraiment.  I remember quite clearly that Louise took the necklace with her when she ran away--it was a great scandal, that she should disdain the man but not his jewels."

"Might she have sold it later, for her own purposes?" Medora ventured. "Wherever she meant to go, she would have needed money for food and shelter."

"Perhaps--but the whole piece at once?" the older woman asked. "A few links might have kept her for several months--and Louise was trés pratique, for all her wildness. And how Henri could have found it again . . . "

"Well, might there not have been two suchnecklaces in his family?" Medora suggested.

"Oh, no." Madame Dumont sounded quite definite. "I was given to understand that the piece was one of a kind when Henri first presented it to Louise."

"A copy, then--to replace the one that was taken?"

"That is possible," the old lady conceded.  "Of a certainty, Henri could have easily commissioned an exact duplicate had he so desired. It is the most . . . likely explanation."

The dubious note in her voice stirred corresponding doubts in Medora's mind as well. The most likely explanation . . . but the idea she was starting to entertain was neither likely nor plausible.  Was in fact the stuff of which sensational novels and highly colored stage dramas were made. And yet she could feel it taking root, gradually but tenaciously.

"Madame," she began, "might I ask you one question?"

******

INTERLUDE

Switzerland, 1803

"I--I never meant to take your place," the voice whispered.

She clasped the fragile fingers in her own, blinked to keep back tears.  "I know."

"The officer from the regiment wrote . . . to tell me that Pierre had fallen.  I had told no one of our promise, and then Papa---"

"Shh.  Don't trouble yourself."  Inwardly she cursed their father, dead from apoplexy these many years, but not soon enough.  He had tried, one last time, to link his family to the ancien regime . . .

The thread of voice was wandering on.  "We had sinned together, Pierre and I.  But we had hoped for so much . . . do you think . . . le bon Dieu . . . will we be forgiven?"

"Of course."  Her voice was thick in her own ears, but her sister did not seem to notice.  Always so sweet and gentle--almost too good for this world.  She had been the strong one . . . but when she had run away at last to freedom, another had paid the price.  Only a day or two longer, they had said, perhaps even less than that.

Her sister's eyes were closed, her breathing slow and light--she had drifted off again.  She kissed the thin, pale cheek, whispered the old blessing Maman had used to tuck them in at night.

The heavy step outside the door caught her attention; looking up she saw the man's impatient, scowling face.  There were many duties she must prepare herself for . . . but she stroked her sister's hair, one last time, almost defiantly, before she rose.

 

END PART THIRTY-FOUR