Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

. . . stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.

                        --William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

PART THIRTY-EIGHT: "Standing Down"

 

There was no black crape festooning the knocker of the Berkeley Square townhouse but the atmosphere was distinctly funereal all the same. Or so Medora thought, when she called there two days after the fateful ball.

Julia's Aunt Kempthorne, looking pale and distracted, received her in the drawing room. Julia herself was still in her chamber, to which she had fled as soon as the news of the Vicomtesse's murder had become known.  Without revealing her own knowledge of the situation, Medora lent a sympathetic ear to the older woman's lamentations over the tragedy and her niece's subsequent distress and then suggested that she herself visit the girl.  After a moment's hesitation, Lady Kempthorne had gratefully agreed and summoned a footman to escort Medora upstairs.

The chamber door was unlocked and the room itself in semi-darkness, all the curtains closed against the light and the mingled scents of lavender water and sal volatile hung heavily on the air. Medora hovered on the threshold, peering uncertainly through the gloom.

"Julia?" she ventured at last.

"I am here," a listless little voice responded from the bed.

With mounting concern, Medora came nearer. The bedcurtains were partially open--at least enough to see the slight figure huddled among the bedclothes.  "My dear," she began tentatively, "I've come to see how you are, and to express my sympathies -- about what has happened.  I am sure you must be feeling quite wretched."

Beneath the bedclothes, Julia stirred, then slowly sat up, and Medora felt a fresh wave of pity when she caught sight of her tragic countenance. Gone was the glowing, confident bride-to-be of two nights before. In her place was a wan-faced girl with shadowed, red-rimmed eyes and drooping lips. Even the bright hair looked dull and lank.

"My dear!" Medora came forward at once and embraced her.

 Julia's eyes flooded with tears and she clung to the older woman almost convulsively.  "Oh, M-Miss Tresilian!" she quavered. "I have been so unhappy!"

Slipping an arm around the girl's shoulders, Medora produced a large handkerchief from her reticule and let Julia cry for as long as she needed to. The storm lasted only a few minutes--after a final hiccupping sob, Julia mopped her face and blew her nose.  "F-forgive me," she choked out at last.  "I did not mean to lose my composure like this."

"Hush," Medora soothed. "I know that this must all have come as a terrible shock to you."

Julia wiped at her eyes again.  "I can scarce believe half of what I've heard. It is like a nightmare. Aunt tells me that the Vicomtesse was a -- a spy! And now we've heard that the Vicomte has been brought in for questioning . . . do you think he could be one too?"

"I could not say, my dear," Medora replied, after a moment's pause. "Has your fiance told you anything further?"

To her dismay, Julia's face crumpled and she sought refuge in the handkerchief once more. "Edmond has written," she gulped. "He apologized for his -- his change in circumstances and suggests that we end our betrothal.  He said -- he would take care of everything, send the notice to the papers, that I needn't be troubled by any of the details.  And he said -- he would call at noon today, to hear my answer."

Medora glanced surreptitiously at the mantel clock: the hour was approaching noon already. This did not bode well at all.

Julia choked on a sob, then looked up at Medora with eyes like drowned forget-me-nots.  "Oh, Miss Tresilian, what am I to do?  Aunt Kempthorne wonders if it might be best for me to cry off.  And Edmond -- his letter was so dreadfully formal and stiff! As though it were written by a stranger!"

"Doubtless, he hopes to shield you from the worst of the scandal by keeping his distance," Medora replied.  "And unfortunately, there is certain to be one. This was not merely a social indiscretion, but murder -- and treason." She continued evenly, holding Julia's gaze with her own.  "There will be talk, all of it curious and some of it malicious.  When you go out in public, people will stare and whisper--or fall silent if you approach.  Some may even be ill-bred enough to ask you just how much you knew of the whole business -- and not be convinced by your reply. There may be scurrilous things printed in the less reputable papers, in broadsheets and pamphlets.  Some of the ton may no longer receive the DeGuises or their -- intimates. Many might advise you to accept Monsieur DeGuise's proposal to end your engagement and then retire to the country for the remainder of the year and seek a more suitable match next Season."

Julia sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. "What do you advise?"

"Do you still care for Edmond?" Medora asked. "Enough to stand by him through all the unpleasantness, give up your dreams of a grand society wedding, and live quietly for a time -- at least until the scandal blows over?"

Julia hesitated, then gave the tiniest of nods.  "I do care," she managed to whisper. "I do, indeed. Only," her voice rose to a near-wail, "how can I be certain that he still cares?  How could he love me -- and then write to me so coldly?"

Medora smothered a smile.  "I think his attempt at coldness actually reveals the depth of his feelings. Not many men would be so honorable as to reject the women they love when they need them the most. Or so foolish," she added wryly, thinking of Archie.

Julia sniffled again. "They are very great fools, aren't they? Men, I mean."

"Indeed," said Medora gravely. "Now, it is nearly noon. Do you mean to receive Monsieur DeGuise in your nightrail?"

"Oh, heavens!" Julia's eyes widened and she flung back the bedclothes, swinging her feet to the floor. "I shall never be ready in time!"

But with the help of her maid and the application of cold water, followed by lashings of powder, she was indeed ready, with a few minutes to spare. Medora had prudently kept out of the way of these preparations, though she had approved the choice of a lavender morning gown, quite devoid of ornamentation, and matching slippers.  The maid arranged her mistress's fair hair in a simple chignon and Julia herself fastened the miniature of her fiance around her neck.

"Will I do?" she asked, turning to Medora for reassurance.

"Very nicely, I think," Medora told her. Julia still looked pale, but her loss of bloom was counterbalanced by a new, not unbecoming air of maturity.  For the first time since they had met, she seemed a woman rather than a girl.

There was a knock on the door. Julia's maid opened it to a footman who informed Miss Pearson that Monsieur DeGuise awaited her below, in the drawing room.

Julia swallowed, clutching Medora's hand with cold fingers.  "I just don't know what to say to him after -- after all this."

"You love him, do you not?"

"Yes," Julia breathed, her eyes swimming with fresh tears.

Medora squeezed her friend's hand one last time before releasing it.  "Then -- perhaps neither of you should speak at all."

******

It took all of Archie's eloquence to persuade Latour to allow him to leave his bed.  And even then the physician refused to allow him to leave the house.

Descending the stairs, Archie had to admit that Latour might have been right to forbid the latter. His arm, resting in a sling, scarcely hurt at all; likewise, the lump on his head was less painful, though still tender if touched. He did experience some dizziness whenever he stood up too quickly, and he sensed it would be foolish to walk at anything but the slowest pace. 

Eventually, he completed his tortoise-like progress to the morning room and seated himself with a grateful sigh on an armchair by the window.  The day seemed fine and mild; he imagined the breeze caressing his face and drifted into a light doze.

He awoke when something caressed his face in truth: long, cool fingers scented delightfully with rosewater. Opening his eyes, he saw Medora smiling down at him.

"My wounded hero." She stooped to kiss his brow. "I understand you've been giving your physician all manner of trouble."

Archie chuckled. "Slander, I assure you!" He gazed up at her with a sense of peace he had not felt in many years.  In her sky-blue frock and embroidered shawl, she seemed to have brought spring into the room with her.  "I hoped you would come by."

"Well, I had to call upon Julia this morning."

"Miss Pearson?" Archie said, with concern. "She must be quite distraught, now that the news about the Vicomtesse is out."

"She was, very. Even more so, as Edmond DeGuise suggested they terminate their betrothal. Fortunately, she was able to persuade him otherwise -- I left them in an embrace." Medora smiled, her grey eyes misting over. "It won't be easy for them, of course, but at least they have each other.  I do love a happy ending."

Archie reached up with his good arm and pulled her down onto his lap. "So do I, my rose. So do I."

They sat in companionable silence for some minutes, contemplating their own happy ending with satisfaction, when they heard brisk footsteps approaching. Seconds later, the door to the morning room burst open.

"There you are, Stewart.  Good morning!"  Carmichael's effusive greeting aroused Archie's suspicions, as did the tray stacked with cups that Rory was carrying as he trailed the commander into the room.

Archie set Medora on her feet and rose quickly to his own. "What's this about?" he demanded, fixing the two newcomers with a baleful eye.  Rory looked slightly flushed with what might have been excitement, and Carmichael, though clean enough, was noticeably unshaven.

"Come to drink to your wedding, we have!"  The north-country accent was very much in evidence as Carmichael pointed Rory towards the nearest table.  "Give a toast to your happiness--and a kiss to the bride!"

Archie glanced apprehensively at Medora, who was regarding the unfolding scene with considerable interest and no sign of discomfiture.   When she had stayed with him two nights before, he had told her something of his fellow agents, though neither Carmichael nor Latour had appeared to be formally introduced.  No time like the present, obviously. "My love, may I present two of my colleagues, Commander Carmichael and Agent MacCrimmon, of Edinburgh division? Carmichael, Rory," he spoke their names with unusual sternness, "this is my intended, Miss Tresilian."

"Charmed, ma'am," Carmichael said affably, from over his shoulder.  He had pulled the infamous flask from his pocket and was now filling the four cups--teacups, Archie noticed--on the tray.  He passed two cups to Rory, who gave one to Archie while ignoring the latter's glare, took one for himself and presented the last one with a flourish to Medora.

"To your very good health, ma'am!" he proclaimed, and tossed off the contents in one draught.

Archie opened his mouth but before he could protest, Medora raised her cup in reciprocal salute and took a healthy swallow. 

Archie tried not to stare. He had forgotten, as he sometimes did, that Medora had grown up with three older brothers.  She neither choked, coughed, nor exclaimed, but after a brief pause, she lowered her cup and met Carmichael's gaze squarely.

"This is really quite dreadful," she remarked, with devastating candor.  "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer some decent tea?"

Carmichael laughed aloud and seized her hand.  "My congratulations on your marriage, ma'am!"  In a courtly gesture as pronounced as the northern accent had been, he raised her hand to his lips, then leaned forward and kissed her cheek, as decorously as might any sober, titled peer in the most refined and respectable of drawing-rooms.

Medora smiled, set her cup down upon the tray, placed a hand on either side of Carmichael's unshaven face, then stood on her toes to kiss him full on the mouth. "Thank you for looking after him," she said, with the same directness as before.

Carmichael emerged grinning from the embrace, his eyes bright.  "She'll do!" he announced to the room at large.

"Carmichael," Archie began, then paused, frustrated and struggling for something suitably scathing to say.  "Get your own woman!" he concluded, reclaiming Medora with an arm around her waist.

"He can't, she's still on duty," Rory crowed, then ducked the Edinburgh commander's swing.

Medora stood within the circle of Archie's arm and laughed.

******

Half an hour later, Archie was escorting his betrothed most decorously to the door.  After the toast, Carmichael and Rory had obligingly departed and given the engaged pair some privacy. The business had been something of a test, Archie realized, of his conduct, now that he was all but a married man, and of Medora's mettle, to see just how she would react to being the wife of an intelligence agent, whose colleagues came from all walks of life. Strange as it seemed, they both appeared to have passed muster.

"I hate to chase you out, my rose," he said, on a sigh. "But when a mission ends--"

"I imagine there must be any number of things still left to do," she replied, with a rueful smile of her own.  "Never mind, dear heart! You know where to find me, after all."

"Indeed I do," Archie assured her, stealing another kiss while he could.

Just as they reached the entrance hall, Smitty came in, shedding her cloak and hanging it upon the peg beside the door. To Archie's surprise, the London commander caught Medora's eye and nodded briefly before continuing towards the stairs;  even more to his surprise, Medora returned the greeting.

"You've--met?" he asked curiously, once Smitty was out of earshot.

'The night of the ball," she explained.  "After you were--when the Earl of Kilcarron brought me here.  The doctor was still seeing to you--she lent me a plain frock, then she came with some tea and we talked for a long while.  She told me a great deal--about you, and about Drury Lane . . ." Seeing his puzzled expression, Medora elaborated. "She's Kitty Cobham's dresser.  Didn't you know?"

"I--" Archie shook his head, briefly staggered.  "No, I didn't."  No one had spoken of it, it had not been considered necessary for him to know, he supposed.  "Was there . . . anyone else who spoke with you?"

"There was a Mrs. Finlay who joined us for a time.   She was very kind. And there were one or two others also present, I think."

When she did not mention any other names; Archie prudently decided not to inquire further. Medora's expression was almost suspiciously serene, her grey eyes limpid and untroubled, as if she were smiling to herself as she took her leave of him.

******

INTERLUDE

London, 1804

"And this is 'Mrs Munro,'" Miss Smith said, indicating the striking dark-haired woman, who was carrying a plate of biscuits towards the table. "Caillean, this is Miss Tresilian."

"I believe we've met." Medora could not quite prevent a note of coldness from creeping into her voice.

Miss Smith glanced from one to the other. "I'll go and see about a fresh pot of tea," she announced and withdrew into the next room.

"Mrs. Munro" set the plate down on the table, then seated herself, her eyes carefully assessing Medora.  "Oh, dear," she began with surprising diffidence, "this is rather awkward."

"A bit, yes," Medora agreed warily.

"You must have -- a great many questions."

"I do," Medora admitted. "But I know better than to expect a great many answers."

"Well," said Mrs Munro, "I might be able to provide one or two about L--that is, about Stewart."

Medora looked at her with raised brows, and waited.

"I suppose I just wanted to explain. I didn't know he was married--or betrothed to you, anyway.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have  . . . " she paused, obviously measuring her words.  "I mean . . . I did fancy him, a bit.  But he never noticed. Now I know why."

Medora blinked, startled, wondering if she had received some strange sort of compliment.  Before she could frame a question, Caillean continued.

"Some men are just like that.  Married or--attached, and they never look at another woman.  Or they might look, but they never really *notice*. One does learn to recognize that sort, eventually, on the job, but it took me longer to realize . . ." She shook her head as if to rebuke herself.  "Just don't be afraid that I'll . . . well, your man's lovely, really, but quite slow, that way."

Medora blinked again, and felt--astonishingly--the faintest stirrings of amusement.  "I--thank you," she said finally, and then, because she could sympathize with 'Mrs Munro' on at least one subject, "Yes, I'm afraid he can be very obtuse about -- certain matters."

They both looked up with relief as Miss Smith re-entered with the tea.

 

END PART THIRTY-EIGHT