Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
On with the dance! Let joy be unconfined!
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing hours with flying feet.
--Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
PART THIRTY-FIVE: "Spreading the Net"
"Heavens, what a crush!" Lady Halstead exclaimed to Medora, as they stood side by side in the rapidly filling ballroom. "Aunt Augusta says everyone who is anyone will be here tonight!"
Medora did not doubt that. Each new arrival seemed more splendid than the last. There hardly seemed to be room to accommodate all the ladies, gorgeous in silks, laces, and jewels, or the gentlemen, scarcely less magnificent in evening coats of varying colors. At the top of the room sat the musicians, suited in black with blue sashes, tuning their instruments in anticipation of the dancing. The chandelier sparkled like a diamond coronet, its glitter reflected in the highly polished floorboards, and there were massed arrangements of flowers--lilies, roses, and ferns--everywhere, filling the room with their fragrance. All seemed in readiness for a night of revelry and celebration.
Medora wondered how soon she could leave.
All through dinner, she had been able to think of nothing but what Madame Dumont had told her. Fortunately, neither of the guests seated beside her had appeared to notice her distraction or expect her to participate more fully in conversation, a small mercy that both of her dinner companions had been French. Medora's sense of urgency had mounted with each successive course--how soon could she get word to Archie?
Except -- even as impulse had screamed at her to swoon or feign illness, the sooner to make her escape, common sense had reminded her that she must, on no account, draw attention to herself. To do so might bring the whole hunt down, not only upon herself but upon Archie and those mysterious colleagues of his. Moreover, she had no way of getting word to him of what she had learned--he had quite scrupulously refrained from telling her where he was staying, where his unknown employer was keeping him and the others.
So she had forced herself to remain calm, to consume her dinner with seeming equanimity, and even now to make light, desultory conversation with the other guests. Was this what Archie himself had had to learn? she wondered. This habit of control that masked all deeper anxieties and presented a blandly smiling face to the world? That could not have been easy for the open, impulsive young man with whom she had fallen in love. Indeed, maintaining such a facade required at least as much discipline as the service had ever expected.
"The Honorable Lionel and Lady Georgiana Westfield," the footman announced.
Rousing from her thoughts, Medora looked up to see Georgy, glowing in amber satin and blond lace, entering the ballroom on her husband's arm. Lionel Westfield was not classically handsome and his undeniably red hair made some of the fashionable shudder, but he had a pleasant countenance and an amiable disposition. His evening clothes--a dark brown coat and a gold striped waistcoat--complemented those of his wife.
The two friends greeted each other warmly, exchanging the usual pleasantries about each other's appearance and well-being. Georgy was full of questions regarding the course of the evening, so Medora directed her to Lady Halstead, who was far more familiar with the details of her sister's betrothal ball.
Everyone who is anyone . . .
Medora caught her breath as the thought occurred to her. When she had first met Archie in his new persona, it had been at the Countess of Thorne's musicale, a noted social event. He had been working then -- surely it was possible that he, or perhaps some of his colleagues, might be here tonight.
"The Earl of Kilcarron and Madame Dubois."
The first name sounded slightly familiar and Medora glanced briefly toward the doorway, through which a tall, fair-haired man in a black evening coat and an elegant dark-haired Frenchwoman in silver were now passing. One of Lord Langford's acquaintances, perhaps? Medora thought she remembered hearing Alice mention the name from time to time.
More people were following on the earl's heels--it seemed to be all the footman could do to announce them promptly.
"Mr. and Mrs. John Finlay, Mrs. Robert Munro . . . "
Oh, heavens. Medora's fingers tightened about her fan when she saw the second woman in that party. It was she! That flaunting piece in the peacock-colored gown who'd been at the musicale. She wore midnight-blue tonight, but the darker hue failed to diminish her beauty -- or her arrogance.
And if she were here, then . . .
"Mr. Andrew Lennox."
They were among the last to arrive, Archie reflected, doing his best to fade into relative obscurity behind the women in their fashionable gowns. At least dark colors were becoming increasingly the fashion in men's evening dress: in his black coat and knee breeches, he should blend in to a nicety.
Latour would have arrived nearly an hour before, escorting Lady Amhurst and making up a foursome with Barrington and a female London agent with whom Archie was not acquainted, by the name of Ingram. Tiverton, by contrast, had gone alone, resplendent in the glory of a sapphire-blue velvet evening coat and a waistcoat with white and silver stripes. So elegant, Grant had jibed, that he would surely have outshone any lady on his arm and must therefore escort none! Archie's mouth quirked as he remembered Tiverton's response to that jape: the fellow had been pleased rather than otherwise, remarking in his turn that Grant was resorting to base flattery but agreeing that any woman, however well-dressed, would have been entirely superfluous.
Carmichael was positioned outside the great townhouse: dressed in livery as one of several extra footmen hired for the occasion. Jamieson was with him in the same guise, and Rory . . .
Archie's glance went to a handsome clock standing in the entrance hall. Rory should be already in place.
"Lennox," Caillean murmured, just ahead of him on the stairs. Recalled to himself, Archie quickly followed the rest of his party up to the first floor landing.
Five people waited in the receiving line to greet the guests: the Vicomte and Vicomtesse, Lady Kempthorne (representing the bride's family), Edmond DeGuise, and Miss Julia Halstead. The latter was looking particularly fine tonight--in white satin, with an elaborate necklace of linked fleur-de-lys clasped about her throat. Something about the ornament teased Archie's memory but he could not linger to examine it more closely. Making his bow to the hosts, he trailed after Ferguson, also in evening black, Grant, dignified in deep plum, and Caillean, striking in midnight-blue, towards the grand salon where the dancing would soon begin.
Once his name was announced, he withdrew behind Caillean, preferring to let her draw the attention, while he scanned the crowd for Minard. He did not think the physician would recognize him in this company, but it was never wise to ignore potential hazards. To lessen "Mr. Lennox's" resemblance to a certain dark-haired underling, Archie's hair had been re-tinted to a paler, coppery hue , and his moustache had been waxed as well as re-dyed, so that it was now the most prominent feature on his face.
But there was no sign of Minard among the throng. Archie knew he was not the only agent searching for the man's whereabouts. All of Kilcarron's agents who were present tonight had been instructed to watch for the French physician.
A few more guests had entered behind them--the ballroom hardly seemed large enough to accommodate them all. Then, the Vicomte stepped forward and gestured towards the top of the room. There was a sudden musical flourish in response, succeeded by the opening strains of a stately minuet. As a nod to their betrothed status, Edmond DeGuise and Julia were the first couple to take the floor, followed by the Vicomte and Lady Kempthorne, and the Vicomtesse and the most highly ranked of the other gentlemen present.
Gradually, other couples joined them: Archie saw Ferguson leading out Grant (unfashionable though it might seem for a husband to dance with his wife) and followed suit by offering his own arm to Caillean, who took it with a smile. As they moved through the measured paces of the dance, she further observed fashion's dictates by initiating the conversation.
"Quite a crowd -- do you not agree, Mr. Lennox?"
Archie raised questioning brows. It was somewhat unlike Caillean to employ such obvious trivialities. "Indeed," he replied guardedly, wondering if there were perhaps a deeper meaning encoded in her words.
"Most of the fashionable world is here tonight, I expect," she went on, as they pivoted and began the figure anew. "It is said that, in London, one meets everyone, sooner or later. Including one's least favorite relative -- or most inconvenient acquaintance."
"I -- have heard something to that effect myself," Archie ventured, wishing he knew just what her game was.
Caillean gave him a brief, sparkling smile, but her tone, when she next spoke, was quite different. "She's the one, isn't she. That lovely girl in green who's staring daggers at us both."
Oh, Lord. Archie felt his blood literally run cold.
He should have guessed that Medora would be here. She was Julia's friend, she had dined not so long ago with the DeGuises, she was definitely part of the fashionable world. That he had been intent on setting the trap for Minard, to the exclusion of all else, was a poor excuse for having forgotten the obvious.
With an effort, he collected his straying wits and risked a glance about the room. Seconds later, he spotted her, wearing sea-green and looking beautiful -- and quietly furious. One could not tell from her expression, of course--Alice had taught her too well for that--but her back was as straight as a ramrod and her grey eyes gazed at them both with an unblinking intensity. With her left hand, she was plying an ivory fan in deliberate strokes that seemed oddly familiar.
Wait--had he not once heard Alice instructing Medora and Georgy in the language of the fan and showing them how to perform certain gestures with that accessory? Fanning oneself quickly was a declaration of love, fanning oneself slowly an expression of indifference. Carrying a closed fan in one's left hand meant the bearer was engaged, in the right that she only wished to be in that state.
Still watching Medora out of the corner of his eye, Archie wondered uneasily if there was a fan gesture signifying, "You're a dead man."
Then a handsome man in walnut-brown appeared beside Medora and offered her his arm. With mixed feelings, Archie saw her close her fan and accept the stranger's arm as he led her onto the dance floor as well. Not wanting to be caught staring, Archie turned back to Caillean, who gave him a faint, sardonic smile but made no further comment.
Soon, he vowed silently, he would find a chance to see her and explain.
It had started, years ago, as a game between her and Georgy--learning "the language of the fan" to hold secret conversations that no one else could understand. They had experimented together, practicing the traditional gestures and even inventing a few of their own. Although they had known even then that ladies used their fans to demonstrate their feelings regarding certain gentlemen, they had also wondered if those gentlemen ever bothered to acquaint themselves with those signals. Medora rather doubted it--there were more direct means of communication, after all, and men could be very obtuse. Nonetheless, she had committed her new "language" to memory and even now . . .
With a start, she realized just what she was saying. Fanning with one's left hand meant "Don't flirt with that woman."
Not that it mattered--of the gestures she had demonstrated for Archie, that had not been among them.
It was almost a relief when Monsieur de Valmy, who had sat at her right hand at dinner, presented himself to her as a partner for the minuet. Soon, they had joined the other couples treading the stately measure that opened the ball.
Following the figure helped restore her composure. She was thinking rationally again. Archie was here--that meant he must be working, then. Continuing his investigation. Might that mean that he already knew the information she had planned to impart?
No, she could not draw any such conclusion thus far. Most likely he was here to observe the DeGuise family on such an important occasion as Edmond's betrothal. Certainly not all was as innocuous as first appeared, Medora thought, remembering the Vicomte's gesture with the necklace. No, assuredly the Vicomte was playing a deeper game than perhaps anyone guessed. Including the Vicomtesse.
The minuet ended; she curtsied to her partner, accepted his escort off the dance floor. Behind her polished facade, her mind continued to work. She had to let him know what she had discovered--the only question was, how?
Again, she could do nothing to draw special attention to herself. Nobody knew she had any acquaintance with "Mr. Lennox"--she sensed it was safer that way. Still, there ought to be something she could do to enable them cross paths in a believable yet unobtrusive manner. Not for the first time, she wished it were not improper for a woman to invite a man to dance. Perhaps, if he went to the supper room to fetch refreshment for "Mrs. Munro," she could follow him there? Except that then there was the danger of encountering other guests on the same errand.
Fanning herself again, she risked a glance in his direction. Bother--he was standing with his back to her, talking with the other man in his party, the fidgety fellow known as Finlay. Pulse fluttering like the wings of a frantic moth, she waited in vain for him to turn around. Then, just as she was about to give up, he looked over his shoulder, his blue eyes locking with hers.
Medora swallowed. Then, almost without conscious thought, she raised her fan almost to the level of her eyes and ran her fingers along the spread ribs. Once, twice . . . too deliberately for it to be an idle gesture: "I want to speak to you."
That signal she had shown him; she only hoped he remembered it. She repeated the gesture one more time, then glanced aside, fanning herself the way most women might in a crowded ballroom on a summer evening.
It was more than an hour before she knew for certain whether he had understood. Country-dances began, interspersed with minuets and the occasional gavotte, as a concession to the older guests, some of whom lacked the vigor to participate in country-dances. Medora was sitting on a chair by the wall, watching one set end, when she became conscious of someone standing beside her.
Then a familiar voice spoke. "May I have this dance, madam?"
Medora dropped her gaze for a moment, the better to gather her composure, then looked up with a smile into "Mr. Lennox's" face. "You may indeed, sir," she replied and extended her arm.
He bowed and reached for her hand.
"We must speak," she murmured, behind her fan as he raised her to her feet .
"Later," he promised, in the same low undertone. "After the dance."
After two years of mourning and separation, after weeks of anxiety and doubt, they had earned this much. Her hand resting on his arm, she followed him onto the floor and they took up their place in the set as the musicians launched into the slow strains of "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot."
For a time, Medora lost herself in the familiar steps, the twining figure-eights and casts, the sheer joy of dancing with Archie again. Even the lightest hand-clasp was electric, and once, as they turned, his arm briefly encircled her waist in a caress she knew better than to believe was accidental. Fortunately, everyone else in the set seemed too intent on the figure to have noticed.
All too soon, however, the music ended and they were making their last bows to each other. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Archie took her arm and led her from the floor as the set broke up. Trusting him implicitly, she let him escort her towards the nearest set of french doors, as if they were any couple just seeking a breath of fresh air after a lengthy dance. Together they stepped out onto the balcony, and Archie eased the doors shut behind them.
No eavesdroppers below them or within earshot on the adjacent balconies--just the two of them. Archie glanced over his shoulder briefly, then came to join her at the balustrade. "Well, my rose?"
"I learned something tonight that could be important," she said, without preamble. "From Madame Dumont . . . "
"Did you think, ma mie, that I would not discover your imposture?" The dark eyes raked her scornfully from head to toe, and his finger and thumb pinched cruelly at her chin.
She swallowed but did not look away from his flinty gaze. "Of course not. " There was nothing for it but to face him out; boldness was all. "I thought, instead, that we might work to our mutual advantage."
He released her chin abruptly, his anger giving way to curiosity. "*Our* advantage?"
"If it is known that my sister is dead we will both get nothing," she explained. "If you marry me under her name, my family's fortune is yours."
He did not look horrified by the proposition, but regarded her quite shrewdly. "And why will you do this now, when you would not hear of it when you were a girl?"
"I was foolish, then." She shrugged, tried to sound petulant and ill-used. "As for now--I am weary of being poor. As you must be."
His face remained skeptical. "Ah, but I have always contrived to live on my expectations, cherie."
Steepling his fingers, he lapsed into frowning abstraction; she bit her tongue to keep from snapping at him.
At last he spoke, regarding her with a sidelong glance. "Eh bien, it is still a pretty fortune, your family's. Quite . . . useful." He nodded. "Very well, I shall agree to your--shall we call it a proposal?" He chuckled as she bit her lip in pique. "Assuredly, we shall both prosper by this--but why is it, cherie, that a little voice somewhere is telling me I have made a devil's bargain?"
She schooled her face to retain a neutral expression as he took his leave, closing the door of her lodgings behind him. As long as he thought her motivation was only avarice he would not make further guesses as to her true purpose; once again, the lesser deception would successfully conceal the greater.
END PART THIRTY-FIVE