Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

. . . Rumor is a pipe,
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy, and so plain a stop,
That the blunt monster, with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wav'ring multitude,
Can play upon it

--William Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV

 

PART FIVE: "A Touch of Scandal"

 

"You look lovely, ma'am," Jane said earnestly. "There won't be a woman there can hold a candle to you!"

Since this was Jane's first visit to London and she had never seen a gathering of the ton in full-fig before, Medora accepted the compliment with a grain of salt, knowing that there would be ladies far more grandly arrayed than she at Lady Halstead's musicale tonight. Nonetheless, the maid's sincere admiration warmed her and she smiled her thanks before turning back to the mirror.

Not a dowd. Alice had been quite adamant about that, insisting upon the latest fashions and the finest materials for her new gowns. She had reluctantly given way to Medora about colors, however: subtle shades, nothing harsh or garish that might smack of desperation, or attract the wrong kind of attention. Once Medora had caught Lady Langford eying a bolt of shimmering sea-green silk speculatively but she had desisted when the younger woman firmly shook her head. Despite her resolve, Medora had felt a brief, ghostly pang of regret: her seventeen-year-old self would have loved to have a gown made up of that silk--but she had left that young girl far behind her and no amount of fine feathers could change that.

But the gown she wore tonight was not at all unbecoming. Silver-grey taffeta over an underdress of shot-sarcenet, in shades of blue and pale violet. Her slippers were violet as well, and so were her long evening gloves. Slipping the last over her hands, Medora felt a pang over their perfection of fit. Time was when she had had to split the seam of one finger to accommodate her betrothal ring or even cut a thin horizontal slit in that finger, to allow the stone to show through. No need for that tonight; these gloves encased her hands like a second skin, smooth and inviolate.

"Your pearls, ma'am?" Jane's voice recalled her to the present.

"No," Medora said after a moment's consideration. "No, I'll wear the moonstones instead--and my diamond ear-drops."

"Very good, ma'am." Deftly, Jane fished the desired items out of the jewel-box and helped her mistress assume them. "Any scent?"

Medora did not reply right away; instead, she gazed at the colored glass bottles lined up on one side of the dressing table. So many to choose from . . . as a girl, she had happily experimented with different scents, trying to find the one that best suited her, then, later, the one that best pleased the man she loved. In the end, she had not had to search very far. Automatically, she reached for the once-favored bottle, unstoppered it, releasing the rich, evocative fragrance of the rose--and a flood of memories that, even now, threatened to overwhelm her with their poignancy.

No more. Restoppering the bottle, she reached instead for the one beside it: lavender water, cool and soothing. She dabbed on a little, just behind both ears and at the hollow of her throat, then rose from her chair. Jane draped her evening cloak about her shoulders, then handed her her fan, reticule, and, most important of all, her book of compositions.

Murmuring her thanks, Medora dismissed her maid for the night and made her way downstairs to where the carriage awaited her. Despite her outward composure, she felt her heart beating rapidly and the familiar flutter of apprehension just below her ribs. If she lived to be ninety, she suspected it would be no different--always supposing that anyone would care to ask such a beldame to play and sing for them!

Of course this evening marked her first appearance in public without Alice and Langford's bolstering presence--and the prospect daunted her more than she cared to admit. She had come to rely on them during her stay, to appreciate their steadfast support --tonight, however, she would be walking into the lions' den alone . . .

Stop right there, Medora adjured herself sternly as she stepped through the door Soames obligingly held open for her. My dear life, what are you made of? A Tresilian of Keverne did not shrink from anything--and neither, she recalled with a bittersweet pang, did a Kennedy. Well, then--she would try to do both families proud tonight.

Screwing her courage "to the sticking place," she allowed the footman to hand her into the carriage.

*****

Although it had rained earlier in the day, the night sky was clear and the carriage rolled smoothly along the streets, unimpeded by puddles or flooded gutters. During the short ride from Park Lane to Grosvenor Square, Medora sat quietly, hands folded in her lap, doing her best to maintain composure.

At least she could depend upon a sincere welcome from the hostess. Lady Halstead had long been one of Alice's friends, and she had expressed her appreciation of Medora's abilities on previous occasions, such as the concerts given at Langford House during the Christmas holidays. And when Lady Langford had started reintroducing Medora to the ton, Lady Halstead had been among the first to welcome her back into society.

What was the occasion of tonight's musicale? Oh, yes--a welcoming party of sorts, for another friend of Lady Halstead's: a nobleman's daughter, with properties in Ireland. Medora racked her brain but could not remember the name at present. Lady Halstead had mentioned that her guest of honor was passionately fond of music, though--and much of an age with Medora herself.

No doubt the resemblance ended there! Medora thought with a wry smile. What could she and this nobleman's daughter--probably sheltered since childhood from all manner of worldly vices--possibly have in common? In all likelihood, Lady Halstead's guest was a pattern-card of propriety, unable to tolerate even the suggestion of scandal.

Fortunately, I am here to provide music tonight, nothing more. There was no reason to assume that subjects of a more personal nature should even arise. And if they gave any indication of doing so . . . well, like any lady in society, she knew how to direct a conversation into more appropriate channels. Not to mention how to turn a cold shoulder to those impertinent enough to persist in their inquiries!

She had learnt how to administer the cut direct, though she had never had the occasion to use it. Nonetheless, she supposed there was a first time for everything . . .

*****

"Welcome, my dear--I am so glad you will be playing for us this evening," Lady Halstead said warmly, holding out her hands to Medora.

A bit hesitantly, the younger woman took them with a smile. "Thank you for inviting me. I am flattered that you think well enough of my music to ask me to perform."

Lady Halstead returned the smile. "Oh, I am not your only admirer, I assure you! A number of people who have heard your recent compositions have praised them highly." She linked her arm through Medora's as they proceeded further into the drawing room. "There will be three others performing tonight," she explained. "A soprano making her debut, a violoncellist, and a very fine tenor who has been studying abroad until quite recently. I had thought to have you as the third performer--will that be all right?"

"Quite all right," Medora assured her. Third was comfortably in the middle, without the expectations that came with being first or last. She glanced about the room, noticing that relatively few guests had made their appearance so far. "If I could have a bit of time beforehand, though, to arrange my music . . . "

"Of course," Lady Halstead agreed instantly. "And I suspect a bit of privacy would not come amiss, either?"

"Not at all amiss," Medora replied gratefully.

"There's a little antechamber just through that door. You may join us as soon as you are ready. I daresay we shall not be entering the salon for another twenty minutes--you are the first of our performers to arrive."

Thanking her hostess, Medora made for the door and found herself in an elegant little room, paneled in white, hung with blue silk, and, to her eternal thankfulness, completely deserted. Seating herself upon the nearest chair, she opened her book of compositions, looked over the pages she had marked as well as the loose sheet music she had also brought. Although she would be playing her own songs tonight, it might be best to start with something already known and popular. Or something with the charm of the outlandish: a ballad, perhaps, or one of Burns's Scottish airs. She was Scottish herself, on her mother's side, and had mastered songs in dialect at an early age.

Ten minutes later and she believed she had settled matters to her satisfaction: she already knew she would be performing two pieces for certain and, if her performance was well-received, she had a third chosen for an encore. Feeling much more confident, she closed her book, rose to her feet, and went to rejoin the others in the drawing room.

More guests had arrived in the interim, she noticed, as she closed the antechamber door behind her. Her hostess was at the other end of the room, welcoming a stocky man carrying a case that was certainly large enough to contain a violoncello. Other people were also milling about in groups of two and three. Medora thought she recognized some of them, but decided against making overtures at this time. After the performance would be soon enough.

Running smoothing hands down her skirts, she prepared to enter the room as discreetly as possible but had to sidestep to avoid colliding with a tall woman in elaborate evening-dress, complete with ostrich plumes, who was not looking where she was going.

Annoyed, the guest glanced in Medora's direction--and a shock of recognition passed between them.

"You!" Cold, glass-green eyes raked Medora from head to foot.

Medora swallowed, feeling her heart slide down to her slippers. She had known she would not meet her former guardian here tonight, but she had not anticipated encountering one of Fanny's bosom bows instead. Nonetheless, she stood her ground and met that condemning stare unflinchingly. "Good evening, Lady Wilton."

The older woman's nostrils flared. "You dare to show yourself--in this company?"

"Oh, it is natural enough to feel daunted whenever one must play and sing in public ," Medora replied, deliberately misunderstanding her. "But Lady Halstead asked so charmingly, I could not refuse her invitation. Are you fond of music, Lady Wilton? I do hope you will enjoy the performance."

"Performance?" Lady Wilton's eyes widened, then narrowed into catlike slits. "Are you so dead to decency that you would flaunt yourself and your shame before the whole of society? That you should have the presumption, the effrontery to --"

"No, Lady Wilton, I shall not hear you," Medora interrupted, her voice steady even as her knees threatened to turn to water. "I have come to this house as a guest and a performer. I do not intend to discuss my private concerns, which are certainly no business of yours--or society's, for that matter."

"Insolence!" Lady Wilton hissed, drawing herself up in outrage. "You stand there, having committed gross improprieties against your family and your kind, and expect not to be shunned for the--the abandoned creature that you are?"

Unexpectedly, another voice, cool and cultured, entered the lists. "I have too often found that those whose tongues clack the loudest against improprieties are invariably the first to bring them up--in circumstances that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be deemed appropriate."

Startled, Medora turned to face the new arrival: a tall fair woman, close to her own age, dressed impeccably in a silk gown the exact same shade as her slate-blue eyes, which now fixed Lady Wilton with a penetrating stare. The effect on the older woman was remarkable: she paled visibly, almost to the color of suet, and her mouth opened and closed several times but produced no sound.

Clearly a person of consequence, Medora thought--and managed not to flinch as the level gaze turned in her direction. But the woman in blue appeared to be smiling slightly.

"You are Miss Tresilian? Splendid," she added as Medora nodded speechlessly. "I have been most eager to make your acquaintance--Lady Halstead has told me so much about you. Will you walk apart with me for a few minutes? I should like to speak with you before the performance."

Medora found her voice again. "Of course." To her relief, her voice sounded almost normal.

Without hesitation, she followed her rescuer out through one of the side doors opening onto the terrace. Lady Wilton, she noted with surprise and satisfaction, was still standing where she was, as though she had taken root. Or turned to stone, like those unfortunate enough to look upon Medusa!

The woman in blue was certainly no Gorgon, though neither was she a beauty, not with those long bones and high arched nose. But very striking, nonetheless--her form willowy, her complexion fashionably fair, her hair a soft shade between blonde and brown.

As they neared the balustrade, Medora plucked up the courage to address her companion at last. "I fear we have not yet been formally introduced," she ventured. "To whom do I have the honor of speaking?"

The woman smiled. "Pardon the oversight, Miss Tresilian. I am Lady Barbara Wellesley."

So this was the guest of honor! Wellesley--Medora had read just last year of a General Arthur Wellesley who had won a notable victory at Assaye. He was also, she now recalled, a younger son of the late Lord Mornington and brother to the present earl. Lady Barbara must belong to that family as well: a sister, in all likelihood. But whatever her pedigree, she had come to the aid of a stranger in discomfort, if not distress, and for that Medora could only be grateful.

"Thank you for your kindness, Lady Barbara," she began tentatively.

"Not at all." The other woman's smile was slightly rueful. "I fear I enjoyed myself--odious woman! Unfortunately she's some kin by marriage to one of Lady Halstead's cousins, so she was sent an invitation. But it was a positive pleasure to give her a set-down! Although I also meant it," she continued, with the air of one changing the subject, "about your music, my dear ma'am. Someone gave me a copy of your book before I embarked upon my travels, and I found it most diverting during my journey. I should find it a great pleasure to talk about music with you, though I don't wish to distract you from your performance this evening. Perhaps I could invite you to call upon me during this next week?"

Medora hesitated. "I shouldn't wish to cause you any--difficulties, should it become known that you have received me."

Lady Barbara raised elegant brows. "Difficulties? Surely every hostess aspires to entertain someone whose appearance may cause an instant sensation!"

Medora caught her breath, stung. So that was it. Granted, she should have been prepared for this response as well, but even so . . . the discovery that she might be courted as well as shunned for her past indiscretion filled her with a profound sense of disillusionment. Lady Wilton had wished to flaunt her moral superiority, Lady Barbara her bold unconventionality. Well, to hell with both of them, she thought, as anger flared to life inside her. Raising her chin, she gave a brittle laugh. "That may be so, my lady--but I venture to say that I might provide far more 'sensation' than you are comfortable with! Just ask Lady Wilton--or my sister-in-law, Lady Tresilian!"

A faint displeased frown creased Lady Barbara's alabaster brow. "Since neither happens to be available at the moment, perhaps I might apply to you for the necessary clarification?" she suggested tartly.

"By all means. Whatever questions you have about me can be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no.'" Medora closed her eyes briefly, opened them, then recited with a steady calm, "Yes, I had a lover; he was in the service. No, he is no longer living. Yes, I bore his child. No, he never knew. Yes, we planned to wed. No, I don't regret a damned thing."

Lady Barbara stared at her, then suddenly broke into laughter. "Oh, my dear! What you did was practically respectable!"

It was Medora's turn to stare. "Respectable?" she echoed, not certain she had heard correctly.

"Oh, indeed," Lady Barbara assured her, almost placidly. "For a London scandal of the highest order, you would need to have borne a child to someone else's intended, while still remaining publicly affianced to your own--and perhaps planning to elope with a third man! Instead," she continued, "you took as your lover the young man who was to be your husband in any case. Was there some impediment to your marriage, besides his being in the service?"

"Only my age. My guardians were quite strict; they wished us to wait until I was one-and-twenty. At first, it seemed reasonable, but as time passed, it felt less and less so. We had been engaged for nearly three years before we . . . " She let the words trail off, hardly believing that she was having this conversation with a virtual stranger.

"Not an uncommon occurrence, I should think," Lady Barbara remarked. "And while the outcome may have been . . . inconvenient, it cannot have been entirely unexpected by either of your families. And if not unexpected, why should your actions go unforgiven? I have traveled extensively during the last few years," she added by way of explanation. "They say it does broaden the mind."

Medora collected her straying wits. "You are very kind. But society still does not approve of such--transgressions."

"Not--approve," Lady Barbara agreed. "But still, much can be--overlooked, if the parties involved have been discreet. The very highest sticklers, perhaps, would feel the need to maintain their disapproval. But I understand that you have a most loyal and generous patron in Lady Langford."

"Partly motivated by family feeling," Medora confessed. "It was her youngest brother to whom I was betrothed."

"Ah. Well, if your intended's family has openly accepted you and the child, I suspect that most of society will follow suit. And truly, as you said earlier, this is a purely private matter. There is no question of any title, inheritance, or point of law to concern anyone else. I have noticed, as well, there is often a certain--latitude permitted, to those who form attachments to men in the service, perhaps because such couples must spend so much time apart."

Medora nodded, blinked against a sudden stinging in her eyes. "Every hour, every *minute* together becomes precious, because there are so few of them."

"Indeed. And it is plain to see that you loved your intended dearly." Lady Barbara's gaze softened slightly. "To feel so about another--and to have that affection returned--one might choose to risk the consequences. The child must be a great comfort to you."

"There are ways in which she resembles him greatly," Medora said, her voice suddenly husky. "He--he had the most wonderful eyes . . . I see them every day, in Cornwall."

"So your daughter is in the country."

"Yes." Medora cleared her throat and mustered up a tremulous smile. "No doubt being shockingly spoilt by the rest of my family!"

Lady Barbara smiled back. "You may find quite a hoyden awaiting you when you decide to return home." She laid a hand briefly over Medora's, lying atop the balustrade. "My dear, I do apologize for having distressed you earlier. I did, truly, only wish to express my appreciation of your music."

Medora shook her head. "I am the one who should apologize, Lady Barbara. My encounter with Lady Wilton must have left me more shaken than I had thought, but I should not have turned my anger upon someone who meant nothing but kindness."

Lady Barbara waved a dismissive hand. "Forgotten, my dear Miss Tresilian. Shall we begin anew? I should very much like to receive a visit from you in the near future."

"I should be happy to call upon you--and to receive you as a visitor, as well."

"Excellent."

After they had exchanged directions and the hours at which they were both at home to callers, Lady Barbara glanced back towards the house. "We should rejoin the others; I daresay the musicale will starting soon."

"Indeed." Medora breathed in and out, carefully. "Only--if you do not mind, I should like to take some time out here--to compose myself. But I shall be along presently."

"Understandable," her new acquaintance said kindly. "I shall convey your message to Lady Halstead."

"Thank you."

*****

The soprano had started her performance, her voice rising high and clear in Handel's "Silent Worship." A charming voice, Medora decided as she lingered upon the terrace, if a little thin and stretched on the topmost notes. She herself was a mezzo, although all but the most demanding pieces for soprano were well within her range. Signior Rossini had told her she would never be a prima donna of the opera, but she could make a living from her music, if need be.

As an heiress with over twelve thousand pounds at her disposal, she supposed she did not need to sing for her supper in the strictest sense of the word. But if she could succeed through her music . . . it might be easier when the time came to bring out her daughter, despite any stigma of illegitimacy. On that she was utterly resolved. Her love had made sure she was introduced to a larger world; his child--their child--deserved no less, along with all the advantages of financial security, social acceptance, and, most importantly, unquestioned love.

The soprano had finished with Handel and gone on to Gluck, for whom Medora did not greatly care, but the audience applauded enough at the conclusion to warrant an encore. Mozart, Medora noted with pleasure, admiring the soprano's bright, clear rendition of an aria from Le Nozze di Figaro. She did not yet feel ready to join the others in the salon; nonetheless, even at this distance, the music acted as a soothing balm to her spirit.

As the violoncellist succeeded the soprano as the next performer of the evening, Medora marshaled her thoughts and came at last to a conclusion. She had told Lady Barbara she did not regret anything. Well, then--perhaps it was time she started acting like it!

Archie Kennedy . . . had not loved her because she was meek and unobtrusive, or because she had gone about hiding her head as though she had done something shameful. And to behave as though she had . . . was that not a betrayal of their love, of all that they had shared?

Falstaff had said that discretion was the better part of valor. While that might be true at times, surely there were other moments when it was far better to brazen things out than to creep into a corner, hoping to be overlooked. And perhaps . . . this was one of those moments.

Raising her head, Medora drank in the cool spring air and felt the slow but steady return of her Tresilian pride, coming at need to stiffen her resolve and her backbone. Pride--and something more . . . could it be Archie's fighting spirit? She hoped so. Oh, love, stay with me--as long as you can!

Another deep breath, two--and a revivifying spark of anger. Who was Lady Wilton, who were any of them, to judge her or him, not knowing what they had endured? The endless separations, the intransigence of her guardians, the dangers that had beset him every day that he served in His Majesty's Navy--and that had finally taken him from her.

But she would not weep. Not now. Later, perhaps, in the privacy of her room, she might allow herself the luxury of tears shed--for all they had both lost and for the unexpected kindness offered her by a stranger. At the moment, however, she had more pressing concerns.

The violoncellist had ended his second number. Not surprisingly, the guests wanted an encore from him as well. It would be her turn next. Gathering her courage about her like a cloak, Medora left the terrace and slipped back inside, passing through the now-deserted drawing room and from there into the salon. Under cover of the continuing applause, she found a chair towards the back of the room and seated herself, waiting.

The violoncellist's last piece was slow and sonorous, oddly restful. Medora let the majestic chords wash over her, then clapped with the others when he finished. After he had made his bow and retired to the far corner of the room, Lady Halstead came forward to introduce "Miss Medora Tresilian, composer of the recently published 'Shakespeare's Songs and Other Ancient Airs.'"

Moderate applause greeted her announcement. Medora had often thought that was the best way to begin: a reception too cool or too vigorous could cause the performer greater anxiety. She wondered if Lady Halstead had invited many people who had known her when she had first come out and were disposed to receive her kindly because of that. Lady Wilton was doubtless withholding her applause along with her approval--but Lady Wilton could go to the devil!

Rising from her chair, Medora made her way steadily but without undue haste to the pianoforte. Seating herself at the instrument, she removed her gloves and arranged her music upon the stand, taking all the time she needed.

And a certain amount of additional time was needed, to accommodate a last-minute change. Originally, as a nod to her Scottish ancestry, she had intended to begin with "Bonnie Jean Cameron," a sweet, unexceptionable song about a girl sick of love for the Young Pretender. Now, however, she found that innocuous ditty entirely incompatible with her current mood. No, something more--stirring, even martial, would suit her best. Something like . . . yes, that one!

Smiling, she struck a decisive chord that became a pulsing, thrumming tune that had always reminded her of galloping hooves. She sensed the audience's slight start of surprise; no doubt they had been expecting something softer and blander too, but their reaction only increased her determination. A few more chords and she raised her voice--gratifyingly strong and sure--in song:

"There was a battle in the north,
And nobles there were many,
And they hae kill'd Sir Charlie Hay,
And they laid the blame on Geordie.

O, he has written a lang letter -
He sent it to his lady:--
'Ye maun cum up to Edinburgh town
To see what news o' Geordie.'

When first she look'd the letter on,
She was baith red and rosy;
But she had not read a word but twa,
When she grew pale as a lily.

'Gae fetch to me my gude grey steed,
My men shall a' gae wi' me,
For I shall neither eat or drink
Till Edinburgh town shall see me.' "

A brief pause as she repeated the bridging chords and gauged the audience's response. So far, so good--she had piqued their curiosity, if nothing else, and she had always loved this ballad, no less Scottish than her former selection but far more exciting and unusual. Resuming her song, she brought the lady and her men-at-arms to Edinburgh where they beheld the executioner's block and Geordie in irons, awaiting the headsman's axe.

"But tho' he was chain'd in fetters strang,
Of iron and steel sae heavy,
There was na ane in a' the court
Sae braw a man as Geordie.

O, she's down on her bended knee,
I wat she's pale and weary;
'O pardon, pardon, noble king
And gie me back my dearie!

'I hae born seven sons to my Geordie dear
The last ne'er saw his daddy:
O, pardon, pardon, noble king,
Pity a waefu' lady!'

'Gae bid the headin'-man mak haste!'
Our king reply'd fu' lordly:
'O noble king, tak a' that's mine
But gie me back my Geordie.'

She had them now--she could feel it, and the knowledge coursed through her veins like strong wine, bringing heat and heart. Perhaps it was true what her mother had told her once--that however jaded and sophisticated people might wish to appear, few could resist the lure of a good story. Increasing the tempo and infusing her voice with new urgency, she drew the net more tightly around her listeners, as the king's prolonged intransigence spurred the lady and her men-at-arms to prepare for possible battle:

"The Gordons cam and the Gordons ran
And they were stark and steady;
And ay the word amang them a',
Was, 'Gordons keep you ready.' "

Mounting tension and she let it build a few moments longer before launching into the final part of the song:

"An aged lord at the king's right hand
Said: 'Noble king, but hear me: -
Gar her tell down five thousand pound,
And gie her back her dearie.'

Some gae her marks, some gae her crowns,
Some gae her ducats many;
And she's tell'd down five thousand pound,
And she's gotten again her dearie.

She blinkit blythe in her Geordie's face,
Says: 'Dear I've bought thee, Geordie,
But the bluid would hae flow'd upon the green
Before I lost my laddie!' "

An easing of the tension, rather like the whole room exhaling as Geordie and his wife were reunited against the odds, then Medora swept the ballad to its conclusion:

"He claspit her by the middle sma',
And he kist her lips sae rosy,
'The fairest flower o' woman-kind
Is my sweet bonnie Lady!' "

A few more thrumming chords as the lovers rode away to safety, then she struck the final note with a near-flourish, letting it hang quivering on the air . . .

They paid her the tribute of silence first, then the applause began--warmer and more enthusiastic than she had dared to expect, even knowing her worth as a performer. Light-headed with relief, feeling as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Medora bowed and smiled her thanks. In the front row, she could see Lady Barbara Wellesley regarding her with a mixture of surprise and what seemed to be approval. And behind her, clapping vigorously, was . . . Peter Carrisford.

A moment's pause as the memory of his letter and the question it contained passed through her mind. Then, resolutely, she put it aside. The applause was subsiding, the audience awaiting her next effort. Taking a deep breath, Medora turned back to the pianoforte and struck up a lilting, carefree tune, this time of her own composition:

"Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And tune his merry note
Unto the sweet bird's throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither!
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather . . . "

*****

As with the first two performers, Lady Halstead's guests demanded an encore. Medora obliged with "Sigh no more, ladies," which amused most of the women and piqued most of the men in the audience, though no one appeared to take umbrage. The tenor was the last performer of the evening; accompanied by his own music-master on the pianoforte, the young man sang several operatic arias faultlessly, receiving rapturous applause. Medora paid tribute to his talents along with the others, glad that her own part in the proceedings was concluded and that matters had gone so smoothly.

Supper was announced immediately after the concert; for various reasons, Medora was relieved to find herself partnered not with Peter, but with Mr. Barton, the violoncellist. Moreover, Lady Wilton had been seated far away from her end of the table; Medora wondered briefly if Lady Barbara, ensconced at Lord Halstead's right hand, had had anything to do with that but concluded it was unlikely.

The food was excellent and Medora surprised herself by tackling the meal with more appetite than she had had in months. Had a successful performance truly made such a difference? It would appear so. Nonetheless, she chose modest portions, not wanting to dull her wits with an excess of food and drink. Although most of Lady Halstead's guests had seemed friendly, she did not feel she could let her guard down completely--especially if there were others like Lady Wilton in the throng.

As was the custom, men and women separated after supper; during which time Medora became pleasantly engaged in conversation with several ladies--including the soprano, Miss Dearborn--about music. So she felt relaxed, even tranquil, when the whole company reassembled in the drawing room perhaps half an hour later, and it was no great surprise when she soon found Peter Carrisford at her elbow.

They greeted each other in low murmurs, old friends not entirely at ease in each other's company, by dint of what had passed between them so recently. Fortunately, they were both prudent enough to avoid emotionally charged subjects for the nonce. With a sensitivity Medora could not fail to appreciate, her erstwhile suitor confined their present conversation to the events of the evening.

"You were superb tonight," he told her. "I enjoyed all of your selections, but I was especially taken by the first one. Had you heard it as a child?"

Medora nodded. "It is usually attributed to Robert Burns. I have always loved it, because it is so unusual. You do not often hear about a woman rescuing a man--it's nearly always the other way round, in even the oldest ballads."

Peter smiled. "Ah, but that is because we men are such vain creatures! Our pride dictates that we be the rescuer, rather than the rescued--in art and in life!"

Medora shook her head, smiling back. "Silly! I do hope that you, at least, would have more sense than to refuse rescue from a predicament simply because it was offered by a woman."

"That would depend upon the woman, I think."

No mistaking the warmth in his eyes, the subtle change in his voice. Medora dropped her gaze to her lap, feeling the color rising to her cheeks. Perhaps feeling he had said too much, Peter lapsed into silence.

A snatch of conversation between several men reached them from another corner of the room.

"--must have surprised the thieves in the act. I've heard," the speaker's voice dropped to a low but carrying whisper, "that they stabbed him with his own palette knife and left him to die on the floor of his studio!"

"Shocking!" one of his listeners exclaimed. "And such a tragedy--just when he was making a name for himself as a portrait artist!"

"But is it confirmed that this was merely a robbery?" another man asked. "One can never tell with the French! Perhaps Monsieur Daubigny had enemies across the Channel?"

Daubigny! Medora raised her head, her eyes widening. The artist who had just finished Georgy's portrait--it must be the same one, surely. Oh, dear--the poor man! And Georgy herself could hardly fail to be upset when she heard. Should she write to her friend, or break the news when the other woman came to London? The latter course might be preferable--no sense in casting a pall over Georgy's stay in Derbyshire.

Across the room, the conversation was continuing. "A nest of French spies--in London?" the first speaker's voice held a note of skepticism. "I shouldn't think so, myself! Not unless it was on the stage!"

"Miss Tresilian." Peter's voice again, breaking into her thoughts. She looked up, startled, to see him standing before her, his hand held out.

"Might I persuade you to take the air with me, upon the terrace?"

*****

The spring night was balmy but the temperature had dropped slightly since Medora had first stepped out onto the terrace in Lady Barbara's company, so she was glad of the shawls Lady Halstead had laid out for her female guests to borrow should they wish to venture outside. Swathed in its folds, she promenaded sedately on Peter's arm, talking in a light, desultory fashion, even as she sensed him nerving himself up to steer their conversation into deeper waters.

The moment could not be indefinitely prolonged, however, and at last --

"You received my letter." It was not a question.

"Yes," Medora acknowledged, without prevarication. "I am--giving it the consideration it deserves. That you deserve."

"I expected no less," Peter replied. "I know you are not the sort of woman who would take this lightly. And I know I promised you all the time you needed. However," he gave her a charming, apologetic smile, "I fear that some circumstances have changed--which impels me to ask you for an answer much sooner."

"Circumstances?"

"My uncle--on my mother's side--owns a publishing firm in Boston. He has no children of his own, and so he has asked me to come and learn the trade, possibly take over from him when the time comes. And I have decided to accept his invitation." Again that self-deprecating smile. "It is a very good opportunity, for a younger son."

"Your uncle would be fortunate to have you at his side," Medora said, almost automatically, her mind whirling with the implications. "How--how long before you must leave?"

"Two or three weeks. It will take some time to settle my affairs in England, but I do not anticipate any major delays. You do understand, though--the change in my situation?"

"Of course." Medora bit her lip. "Forgive me if I seem . . . a bit scatter-brained. It's just that--this is so sudden!" She broke off with a shake of her head, despising herself for the inanity.

"On the contrary, it has been two years." Peter's voice was gentle. "Can you not allow yourself to be happy again?"

Medora stared up at him, realizing that he was referring to far more than his relocation to Boston but she was loath to put that thought into words. "What are you saying, Mr. Carrisford?"

"My dear Miss Tresilian--Medora--I am asking you to marry me. And to begin a new life--in America."

*****

INTERLUDE

Cornwall, 1801

 

A savage yank on her arm brought her upright and awake, struggling to find her feet on the drawing-room floor. A box on the ear, hard enough to make her cheek tingle and her eyes water, roused her still further. Cradling her smarting cheek, Medora blinked the last of the sleep from her eyes, stared into her sister-in-law's livid face, so distorted with rage it was barely recognizable.

"You little whore!" Fanny's fingers tightened on her shoulders, shook her bruisingly back and forth. "Is this how you repay our trust?" She released her grip so suddenly that the younger woman staggered backwards, and once more had to fight for balance.

Catching hold of the sofa's arm, Medora managed to struggle upright again--and betrayed herself in the next instant as her hand moved instinctively to shield the child in her womb. And from the fury in Lady Tresilian's eyes, she knew her sister-in-law had seen the gesture too.

"You slut!" Fanny's second blow caught her on the other side of her face. "You trollop! You're increasing--carrying that sailor's bastard!"

Abruptly, the world became tinged with red--in the split second that followed, all Medora could hear was the sound of flesh violently striking flesh. Then, just as suddenly, her vision cleared, but her right hand was stinging, burning like the fires of hell . . .

And a huge welt was forming on Fanny's right cheek. Medora stared at it, too shocked to speak. Nor was she the only one. Pale blue eyes glared at her in outraged disbelief.

Dear God, what have I just done? The answer came to her in a blinding flash of clarity: I was protecting my child. Rational thought came back, bolstered by a steely determination. Panic, fear, self-reproach all gave way before it. Drawing herself upright, Medora met Fanny's gaze unflinchingly. "I am no slut." Remarkably, her voice sounded as though it was coming from someone much older and braver. "And were it not for your envy and spite, I would be a wife--and my child would have the protection of a father!"

"Get out," Fanny quavered hoarsely. "Get out, you . . . you . . ."

"Oh, be assured I will," Medora retorted, lifting her chin defiantly. "For I'll not stay another minute under the same roof with you!" Turning on her heel, she stalked from the room, her head held high.

Stables, a cool voice spoke in her head, and obedient to its prompting, she left by the door that brought her closest to that destination. It occurred to her, briefly, to wonder why--now that the moment she had dreaded had arrived, precipitously and violently--she was not more distressed. In the space of less than five minutes, Fanny had discovered her secret and upbraided her for it, she had struck back, and now she was leaving Tresilian Manor, possibly never to return, with nothing more than the clothes she stood up in. Maybe a small part of her mind was off having hysterics somewhere--fortunately, that was not the part in charge.

At least she was still wearing her cloak. She had been so weary when she came in from the garden that she hadn't thought to remove it when she sat down on the sofa for "just a few minutes' rest." Glancing up at the overcast sky, she drew the hood up to cover her head. Better safe than sorry and it had the advantage of partly concealing her bruised face, which meant she would not have to deal with awkward questions at present.

A few words to the groom and Kestrel was quickly saddled and brought out for her. Tom held the reins as she mounted from the block, settled herself securely into the sidesaddle.

"Are you sure about this, Miss?" he asked skeptically. "The weather looks to turn right nasty."

"Oh, I am sure we'll reach Keverne long before then," Medora said with a lightness she was far from feeling. "And you know Mrs. Tresilian will have us wait out the storm, should there be one."

"Very good, Miss." He gave her a nod, stepped back as she took up the reins herself. Summoning up all her reserves of calm and composure, Medora kicked Kestrel into a trot and rode out through the gates, doing her best to appear as though she really was going out for an afternoon jaunt and not running away from home.

Except that it had never been home--not really. Keverne was home, and so were the people who lived there. At least she hoped so. Margaret, she thought, would understand; Henry, however, was not so easy to predict. Still, whatever else he might say, he would never side with Fanny against his own sister.

Kestrel wanted very much to gallop, but she held him to a brisk walk throughout. She was not going to fall and put the child she carried at risk--of that she was completely certain. Not when she had just defied one of her guardians for that child's sake. Come, little one--we're going where we will be safe from Fanny. Fortunately, horses took their moods from their riders, and Kestrel soon sensed her earnestness and obeyed her without protest. Thank you, Kes--just bring me safely home, and I promise you several days of pampering, and later, a good hard gallop, when we're BOTH in better condition for it.

"'Now go we in content,'" she murmured as they made their way along the beaten track, "'To liberty and not to banishment!'"

*****

Drops were falling cold on her face when she reached the courtyard of Keverne, but it was not yet raining so hard that she could not recognize her brother and sister-in-law, miraculously returned from an afternoon ride of their own.

"Medora!" Margaret caught up the skirts of her habit and hurried to her side. "My dear, this is a surprise! Are you all right?"

She nodded, then suddenly felt almost too weary to speak. But Margaret's blue eyes--so like Archie's--were wide with worry; she swallowed, found her voice again. "I've come to stay. If you'll have me."

"Of course, of course! But, love, whatever's the matter?"

All at once, Medora found herself shaking like a leaf, as the long-delayed reaction set in. The steel in her backbone was dissolving, with shameful speed, into something that felt very much like jelly. She wanted nothing more than to fling herself into Margaret's comforting embrace and sob out her woes like a child. But I'm NOT a child anymore . . . I'm going to be a mother. The knowledge forced her upright again. "Edward's away, at Bodmin--and Fanny threw me out." To her secret amazement, her voice did not falter; raising her head, she looked steadily at Margaret, then at Henry, now standing at their sister-in-law's shoulder. "She knows. About the baby."

A moment's stunned silence--then Henry began to swear under his breath. Margaret, however, only nodded and reached up to help her from the saddle, steadying the younger woman as her knees buckled slightly.

"I'm--I'm all right," Medora managed to get out. "Except for--"

"Except for your 'interesting condition,'" Henry finished, his good-natured face unusually stern. "You and Kennedy jumped the fence, didn't you? Of all the hen-witted things to do!"

Medora stiffened, felt the steel reasserting itself. "We waited three years." Her voice was deceptively soft. "Three years, Henry. We asked, we pleaded, we even begged to be allowed to marry--and all the while Edward found more reasons to put us off and Fanny denied us altogether!"

Another moment, and his gaze dropped before the contained anger in hers. Margaret, the ever-practical, came to their rescue. "We can talk about all of this inside," she declared, putting an arm around Medora's shoulders. "John," she called to the groom leading her own mare back to the stables, "please see to Miss Tresilian's horse along with ours."

"Yes, ma'am." John beckoned one of the stableboys forward to take Kestrel by the bridle.

Once inside, Margaret removed Medora's cloak, sent a maid to the kitchen for tea and scones, and ushered her sister-in-law into the parlor. Boneless with exhaustion, Medora sank down on the sofa, her family on either side of her. "Th-thank you," she began, a little haltingly. "I do not--quite know, what I would have done--had you not taken me in . . . "

"Hush!" Margaret squeezed her chilled hands. "You are family, my dear--there was no question of turning you away." She reached up to smooth the younger woman's disheveled hair, drew back with an exclamation of dismay. "Medora, your face!"

"Oh!" She had forgotten, in the haste to get away. Now, as though roused by the memory, her cheek and ear again began to throb dully. "Fanny struck me--before she threw me out of the house."

Margaret gasped. Henry's face hardened. "I hope you repaid her with interest," he remarked.

For answer, Medora held out her right hand for him to inspect the reddened, slightly swollen knuckles. "I believe it's called a backhand cross." Her voice sounded a little shaky even to her ears; she took a deep breath and looked into her family's faces, Margaret's pinched with concern, Henry's showing a certain grim satisfaction. "I don't regret it in the least. She called my baby--Archie's baby-- 'that sailor's bastard.'"

Her sister-in-law's eyes narrowed. "I'll fetch you a cool cloth," was all she said.

"Make it two cloths," Henry corrected, gently taking Medora's injured hand in his.

 

END PART FIVE