Into the Fire
by Pam and Del

 

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts . . .

--William Shakespeare, As You Like It

 

PART EIGHT: "Return to Drury Lane"

 

Lady Langford, Medora reflected as she lay back in the hip bath, was truly fortunate in her household staff. In the week or so since she had become the sole resident of Langford House, all the servants had adapted to her ways with astonishing speed. So there was always a bath waiting for her when she returned from her morning ride in Hyde Park and no one so much as blinked should she request another in the evening, if the day had been particularly warm. Likewise, they had accepted her decision to take most of her meals in her room, rather than downstairs, and, most impressively of all, they had apparently grown accustomed to hearing the pianoforte and harpsichord at odd hours of the day and night. Of course, it helped that the servants' quarters were located quite far away from the music room!

For her part, Medora did her best to be a considerate houseguest. She could not, however, alter that last, most idiosyncratic habit of hers. A composer could not choose the hour at which inspiration struck--and she had been much taken up with her latest composition, intended for Drury Lane's new Shakespearean production. Mr. Kelly, the theatre's musical director, expected to see her work that very afternoon. She would have just enough time after her bath to take some light refreshment and look over her composition before leaving the house.

For now, however, she could afford to luxuriate a little longer in the warm scented water. Closing her eyes, she allowed her thoughts to drift . . . then stiffened in dismay as Peter Carrisford's voice spoke again in her mind.

"On the contrary, it has been two years. Can you not allow yourself to be happy again?"

"I am asking you to marry me. And to begin a new life--in America."

Unbidden, her memory began to supply the rest of their exchange from the previous night.

"America?" She turned away to hide her momentary confusion. "But--Peter, my life is here."

"Truly?" he countered. "Or is it just that you have not considered the possibility that it might lie elsewhere?"

"My whole family is in England," she insisted. "You know how close we are!"

"Yes, I do. And I know how close you are to -- Kennedy's sisters as well. But . . . they have moved on with their lives, my dear. Your brother Henry has a wife and a child, now. And your sister-in-law--Mrs. Tresilian--has also remarried. Would you really be content to remain on the periphery of their lives for what is left of your own?"

Medora flushed, feeling her temper begin to fray. "It need not be like that! I have means, and if I chose, I daresay I could make a satisfactory life for myself and my child--even if it meant leaving Cornwall altogether!"

"Then, why not choose to come with me?" he persisted. "You know I shall do all within my power to provide for you both, to ensure your every comfort and happiness. And your daughter . . . I would be proud to claim her as my own and give her a father's love. Indeed, I would love her as much as any children that--that you and I might have, in future."

Oh, God. "I--I know you would," she said unsteadily, finding it difficult to meet his eyes.

"Medora." His tone was caressing. "Medora Rose--"

"Don't!" she broke in. "Please. He would call me that."

Peter flushed. "Forgive me. I did not know."

She tried to summon up a smile, abandoned the attempt as an abysmal failure. "You could not know. But--we have come to the heart of the matter, have we not?"

His smile was no more successful than hers. "It would appear so. But I could hardly fail to be aware of . . . your attachment to Kennedy, of his hold on your affections."

Not for the first time, Medora thought how inadequate words like "attachment" and "affections" could be. "I loved him," she said levelly. "I shall love him until the end of my days. I could not change that, even if I wished to--and I do not wish to."

"Fair enough. I do not expect you to forget him. Indeed, your constancy to him is one of the qualities I admire most about you, but . . . do you believe that he would want you to renounce all chance of future happiness?"

"Of course not!"

"Then let me be the one to make you happy!" he urged. "I realize that you do not feel the same depth of affection for me that I feel for you. But might that not change, someday? And in the meantime, I have love enough for us both." Before she had realized it, he had taken her hands in his. "Miss Tresilian, my dearest Medora--say you'll marry me!"

She had been unable to agree to any such thing at that moment. Too much was at stake, too many changes had to be made--especially for her, with a child to consider. It was unlikely that she could have sailed with him in three weeks' time; in all probability, he would have had to journey to America first and she would follow with her daughter as soon as their affairs in England were settled. A small sly voice in her head had whispered that she could accept his proposal now but change her mind at any time before her own ship was due to sail, but she had discarded that idea as unworthy. Once she had committed herself, one way or the other, there would be no going back.

And so she had promised him a definite answer within the week.

Medora shivered--and not merely because of the cooling bathwater. Saying yes to Peter, she acknowledged starkly, meant . . . saying goodbye to Archie. Admitting, as perhaps she never had before, that he was gone and that her future lay with someone else. The memories and the child of their love would always be hers, but her remaining years would be shaped by her marriage to another man.

But weren't these feelings common to any widowed spouse who decided to remarry? And did not many such widows find happiness, or at least contentment, in a second marriage? Margaret's own example was before her, and Margaret had loved Hugh Tresilian devotedly.

But Margaret had been alone for seven years before she had allowed another man into her life--and heart. Two years, by contrast, seemed hardly any time at all, not when the sight of Archie's eyes in their daughter's face could still fill her with longing, not when she could dream of him so vividly, as she had within the last fortnight. Which begged another question: was she truly ready to say goodbye?

Well, she could not sit here in the bath, brooding over this all day. Drury Lane awaited, and she was still a professional composer. Were the women of Boston permitted to write music or associate in any way with the theatre? She could not help suspecting that they might be far too straitlaced to engage in such a pursuit and unlikely to approve of any woman who had done so.

Enough. Climbing out of the hip bath, she wrapped herself in a towel and rang for her maid.

*****

"You spotted snakes with double tongue," Medora sang softly to herself as she pored over her composition.

What a strange play A Midsummer Night's Dream was, when one considered it! Despite its fairy-tale setting, it was a very unmusical work, yielding very few songs. And these days, it was hardly ever staged as written, but rather combined with elements of other Shakespeare plays--perhaps one reason why Mr. Kelly had expressed a wish to use her arrangements of "Under the Greenwood Tree" and "It was a Lover and his Lass" from "As You Like It"!

Frowning, she ran a distracted hand through her hair, drying in a cloud about her shoulders. She had partaken of a cold collation in deshabille, wearing only a cotton wrapper so old she could not recall when she had first acquired it. Jane, who had a keen appreciation of finery, had wistfully eyed the beautiful but never-worn silk robe that had been Lady Langford's birthday gift to her mistress; obedient to Medora's orders, however, she had fetched out the faded cotton garment to serve as a dressing-gown.

The clock chimed on the mantel, and she glanced up, giving a start of surprise when she saw the time. If she was to arrive punctually for her appointment, she had best get ready now. Rising from her desk, she rang for Jane again. While it was no trouble for her to dress unassisted, the same could not be said for putting up her hair, and her maid's hands were far more adept in that regard.

There was no response for several minutes and she was wondering if she should ring again in case Jane had not heard the first summons, when the door opened and her maid entered, carrying a large bandbox.

"Sorry, ma'am, but I met Thomas on the way up the stairs and he said this had just been delivered for you."

Medora blinked. "Strange--I was not expecting anything."

Frowning, she studied the bandbox that Jane had placed upon the sofa. Perhaps there had been a mistake? But the name upon the attached card was her own. Suddenly suspicious, she undid the ribbon, removed the lid, and lifted from the nest of tissue paper . . . a magnificent ball gown of shimmering sea-green silk.

Jane gasped. "Oh, ma'am!"

Medora had to admit the gown certainly merited a gasp or two. Made in the very latest fashion, it was of so clear a hue and so fine a cloth that it looked almost translucent in the afternoon light. Delicate silver embroidery edged the scalloped neck, sleeves, and hem, while here and there Medora caught the luminous gleam of a seed pearl twined among those silver threads.

Jane was still staring reverently at the gown. "Who could have sent it, ma'am?"

Medora sighed. "I have my suspicions. Is there anything else in the bandbox, Jane?"

The maid rummaged among the tissue paper, drew out what looked like a folded note. "Just this, ma'am."

Accepting the note, Medora quickly unfolded it -- and felt no surprise whatsoever when she saw Lady Langford's distinctive handwriting:

My Dearest Medora, [the Countess had written]

It has occurred to me, on the eve of my departure for Scotland, that, among all your New Clothes, we had never ordered a Ball Gown for you. An Unfortunate Oversight that I have taken upon myself to Remedy. I trust I am not mistaken in the Color? Pray accept this Gift as a Token of my Appreciation for your staying on and looking after the house in our absence. It would give me Great Pleasure to imagine you wearing it.

Your Loving Sister,
Alice

 

The note was dated the day before the Langfords had left London.

Medora closed her eyes, not knowing whether to laugh, swear, or weep. Typical Alice! To bestow such an extravagant gift upon her -- and to use all the charms and wiles at her disposal to compel her to accept it! If the wistful remark about imagining Medora in the gown had not done the trick, the affectionate closing of her note would have. And then to ensure that the gown was delivered while she was out of town, so the recipient could not argue with her!

"Shall I hang this up, ma'am?" Jane asked. "Silk creases so easily unless it's properly cared for."

Medora blinked stinging eyes, took a deep breath, then another. "Yes," she said at last. "By all means, see to its disposition."

Once Jane had tenderly placed the new gown within the wardrobe, she turned her attention to helping her mistress prepare for the afternoon. Together they selected a cream muslin dress printed with violets, a lavender shawl shot with silver threads, gloves and half-boots of lavender kid, and a bonnet trimmed with artificial violets and a cream silk ribbon. Half-mourning colors, Medora thought with a wry quirk of her lips as she donned the dress and shawl, though no one who saw this admittedly fetching ensemble would make that association. Meanwhile, Jane set to work on Medora's hair, producing a simple but elegant coiffure that would not be disarranged by the bonnet.

Armed with her reticule and her music, Medora departed by carriage for her appointment.

*****

Katharine Cobham, leading actress at Drury Lane, consulted the dainty pocket-watch that had been a gift from one of her many admirers. Half past three. More than an hour before rehearsals were due to begin, but Kitty had always preferred to come early to the theatre. Simply being there, in the place she thought of as her true home, brought her an odd sense of comfort, even security. Someday, she knew, she would be leaving the stage behind--but at the moment, it seemed impossible to consider any other life.

The sound of the dressing-room door opening roused Kitty from her thoughts. She glanced up, then broke into a smile as she recognized the new arrival.

"My dear, I am so glad to have you back!" Hurrying to the senior dresser's side, Kitty helped the other woman out of her cloak, which she hung on its accustomed peg. "How could I possibly face the opening of a new play, without your capable hands to assist me?"

The dresser looked slightly embarrassed by the attention. "I hope I've returned in time, ma'am. It was my uncle's family, you see--"

Kitty waved her to silence. "A problem in the family? Nothing serious, I hope--oh, don't even trouble yourself to explain! Then I'm even more delighted to see you, given the circumstances! They brought in this young Irish girl--some connexion of Mr. Sheridan's, perhaps--to assume your duties while you were away, and she was quite hopeless. I do not think she had ever been a dresser before. They told me she could sew well, but she never learnt to keep the costumes in order and she hadn't the least idea of how to pin on a wig! " The actress paused, as though for dramatic effect. "And the last straw was when she bent one of Titania's wings before the dress rehearsal!" she added darkly.

"Indeed?" The dresser raised her brows. "Oh, dear. Were you obliged to sack her?"

"I feared it would become necessary. Fortunately, one of my acquaintances embarking on the Midlands circuit took her on. I daresay she can learn the job while she's on tour, but at Drury Lane, we require a higher level of competence." Kitty watched with satisfaction as the dresser opened the wardrobe and began to examine its contents.

Taking out the fairy queen's elaborate costume, the other woman ran clever fingers over the damaged wing. "I think this can be mended, ma'am, with just a bit more wire and some gauze. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two."

"You may take all the time you need," Kitty assured her. "Titania's costume must appear both regal and ethereal--indeed, no simple task! Who else would I trust with it, except my own Miss Smith?"

"So it's to be Midsummer Night's Dream that opens next, not King Henry the Eighth?" The proposed sequence had been different just before the dresser had been called away.

"In three days' time." Kitty confirmed, then grimaced slightly. "Though not with that title, of course. The playbill will list it as The Fairies' Revels. There is to be much singing in the forest for the young lovers, and most of the clowns and rustics will not be shown. Though the character of Bottom will be kept on--I shall still fall in love with an ass!"

"And twine him with garlands?" Miss Smith essayed a faint smile.

"Just so. That is, if your recent replacement hasn't left them hopelessly tangled!"

Opening the prop box, the dresser grimaced at the knotted jumble of artificial flowers and vines that met her view. "I see I've much to do," she mused. "By the end of the day, though--we should have made great progress towards opening night."

Kitty frowned. "If you finish late, do remember to be careful walking home. I only heard yesterday there'd been another murder. Some artist fellow, they were saying--but there was that older woman, three weeks ago. Two in less than a month."

"Don't worry, ma'am," the senior dresser reassured her. "I can look out for myself."

"I've no doubt of it, but still--" Kitty frowned thoughtfully, then heard herself speculating aloud. "You may have your own ways, but I wonder sometimes."

"Ma'am?" The dresser's voice was patently quizzical; Kitty found her long-controlled curiosity bubbling over.

"Oh, your work is always excellent. I'd never say differently. And we understand each other well. But those few times--when you were away for two weeks last winter, and in the summer before that, and the past spring too, just when the Peace had started--" Realizing her speculations could be considered an intrusion of sorts, she tried to leaven her query with humor. "It's made me think you might have had a lover, for a time!"

"Oh, ma'am!" The dresser did look a trifle abashed, but not, to Kitty's relief, offended. "It's nothing like that, Miss Cobham, don't trouble yourself. It's all only . . . my mother came from a very large family, you see, and sometimes they ask me to help with their affairs."

"Ah." Kitty accepted the explanation with a faint nod. "Well, I'm glad it's nothing more serious. But do have a care to yourself and don't go too long at night unescorted. I wouldn't want any harm to come to you."

"Thank you, ma'am." Miss Smith resumed her work.

Kitty smiled. "I'll leave you to it, then. In the meantime, perhaps Mr. Northwood is about. We were thinking of running lines together."

"An excellent idea, ma'am," the dresser replied, a little absently.

Picking up her copy of the play-book, Kitty slipped out of the dressing-room.

*****
"Oh, yes--this suits our needs most admirably," Mr. Kelly declared, smiling as he tapped the pages Medora had brought.

"Yes, we are exceedingly pleased with the new song," Mr. Sheridan confirmed, appearing equally satisfied.

Medora smiled too, relieved at how well the meeting had gone. Of course, Mr. Kelly had insisted upon hearing how the song sounded in performance, so they had repaired to a backstage room that housed a pianoforte. Medora had accompanied the musical director while he sang (he had been an opera singer in his youth), then Mr. Sheridan--an unexpected presence at today's interview--had listened and given his approval when the song was over. The fact that he himself had little ear for music did not make the encouragement any less welcome, especially since Mr. Kelly voiced his enthusiasm for the composition too. He and Medora had then progressed to the songs from As You Like It, in which he had expressed an interest.

Once the impromptu rehearsal was over, they had returned to the office and negotiated financial terms satisfactory to all parties. Medora had known she would not receive significantly more than any other theatrical composer, but at least, this way, her music would be reaching a wider audience.

Now, her business concluded, she bade a courteous farewell to both men, who stood up as she rose from her chair. Mr. Sheridan himself accompanied her to the door. Except for the brilliant hazel eyes, little remained of the dashing youth who had eloped with his first wife under the nose of another suitor, fought a nearly fatal duel with his disappointed rival, then taken the theatre world by storm with The Rivals and The School for Scandal, all before his thirtieth year. But even now, he could summon up the necessary gallantry--and kindness.

"Once again, my dear Miss Tresilian, we thank you for your efforts in the theatre," he declared jovially, opening the door. "And we would be delighted to see any of your new work as well." He closed the door behind them, turned to greet someone waiting in the passage. "Ah, Kitty! Good day to you!"

"Good day, sir," the woman replied. "I was wondering if you had seen Mr. Northwood about."

"Not so far, but then, I have spent the last hour or so in this young lady's company," Sheridan replied, indicating Medora.

There was a sudden shock of mutual recognition as startled grey eyes met familiar blue ones. "Miss Cobham!" Medora exclaimed.

"Miss Tresilian!" The actress extended a welcoming hand. "I remember you, of course--and Lieutenant Kennedy," she added, after the briefest of pauses.

Sheridan was glancing from one to the other, his expression quizzical. "A friendship of long standing, ladies?"

Medora smiled. "I think, sir, that Miss Cobham is referring merely to a backstage visit I paid to her some years ago, in the company of my . . . late betrothed. You are kind to remember, ma'am," she added to the actress.

"Not at all. I always enjoy visits from those who truly love the theatre." Miss Cobham glanced at Mr. Sheridan, still watching this exchanged with interest, and broke into a dazzling smile. "If you would excuse us, sir?'

His eyes crinkled humorously. "Never let it be said that I could not recognize my cue! Your servant, ladies," he added, bowing to them both before turning around and reentering his office.

Miss Cobham waited until the door had shut behind him once more before speaking again, in a slightly lower tone this time. "As it happens, my dear, I remember rather more than your backstage visit with Mr. Kennedy. And," she hesitated, obviously unsure how her next words would be received by her listener, "I should like very much to speak with you again, if you've the time and inclination."

Unexpectedly, a distant memory flashed into Medora's mind--of Archie teasing her, a demure London miss, with the news that he was to take tea with Kitty Cobham and of her own undeniably miffed response.

"You, Mr. Kennedy, are a perfidious wretch!"

"Jealous, Miss Tresilian?"

"Positively green. But not for the reason you think, so you needn't look so pleased with yourself, sir! I should love to take tea with a famous actress, but it's not the sort of thing a 'proper young lady' does."

And no doubt, Medora reflected as she returned to the present, a proper young lady would make some polite excuse at this juncture and depart. What singularly dull lives proper young ladies led, to be sure!

Raising her head, she smiled brightly at the actress. "I should be delighted, Miss Cobham."

*****

Medora had never been sure whether the Green Room was so called because of the color of its walls or the green baize carpeting on the floor. Either would have been appropriate. Overall, however, the place was furnished like an elegant withdrawing room, with tables, chairs, and a divan, covered in pale damask, that extended about the entire periphery. There were several long mirrors hung upon the wall as well, the better for the actors to check their appearances before they were summoned onstage.

Miss Cobham led the way to the nearest section of the divan. "My dresser is a most excellent creature and the soul of discretion, but I do not wish to disturb her at her work." She seated herself with a graceful spreading of skirts; after a moment's hesitation, Medora followed suit.

"I am sorry there is no refreshment to offer you, Miss Tresilian," the actress apologized. "There is usually something here, after we open, but as we are still in rehearsals--"

"That's quite all right," Medora interposed. "I am content simply to have the chance to *see* a place about which I have heard so much!"

Miss Cobham laughed. "The Legends of the Green Room! I assure you, my dear, none of the tales has lost fat in the telling."

"I can readily believe that," Medora replied. She paused, then decided to venture beyond the preliminaries. "And now, what was it you wished to speak to me about, ma'am?"

"Well, first of all," the actress began, her blue eyes suddenly serious, "I wanted to offer my condolences upon your sad loss. Your Lieutenant Kennedy was a fine young man--and I could tell during your visit that you were deeply attached to each other."

"Thank you, ma'am." Medora attempted a smile that she hoped did not look too tremulous. "You are quite right on all counts: we were indeed deeply attached."

"You were fortunate to have found each other," Miss Cobham observed, "despite what happened later. But you have now returned to London, for an extended stay?"

Medora nodded. "I have been visiting Archie's sister for the last month, going about with her and her family. Life does go on, they say," she added, a trifle wryly.

"Even if one doesn't particularly want it to," Miss Cobham remarked, with a sympathetic quirk of her lips. "Well, at least you are working again. Believe me, that does help. Are your new compositions intended for the Shakespeare play or the afterpieces?" She broke into a smile at the younger woman's startled expression. "Don't look so surprised, my dear! You were 'James Drummond,' were you not?"

"I was," Medora admitted, after a moment. She had been only seventeen when Mr. Kelly bought her first song, for that year's Christmas pantomime. And inexperienced and underage as she had been, it had seemed prudent to adopt an alias--in this case, a masculine one. "But I was not aware that anyone else knew."

"Very few, I suspect," Miss Cobham assured her, smiling. "But I am usually able to put two and two together, successfully. Besides, it was to me that Mr. Kennedy confided the story of his young friend who was a promising composer. And I suggested to him that his 'friend's' work be sent to Mr. Kelly. So, when the compositions of a talented 'Mr. Drummond' became part of the evening's entertainments, I could not help but wonder. And then, when I met you, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place."

"Most perceptive of you, ma'am," Medora acknowledged. "It may be that others may come to the same conclusion after the play opens. I have decided to dispense with my alias, for now."

"So your new songs are for A Midsummer's Night's Dream?"

"Well, *one* is from that play, the others are my arrangements of songs from As You Like It."

Miss Cobham's eyes widened. "As You Like It? Really? I can't imagine why!"

"Perhaps because it also deals with lovers lost in a forest?" Medora ventured.

Blue and grey eyes met, and suddenly both women were laughing as if there was no barrier of either age or position between them.

"Oh, dear!" Miss Cobham dabbed at her eyes and hastened to compose herself. "I ought not to laugh--not when I've been given the part of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream -- or should I say, The Fairies' Revels?"

"I suppose it could be worse," Medora conceded. "Archie," the name slipped out with surprising ease, "once told me of a version that mingled not only Dream and As You Like It, but elements of Much Ado About Nothing, as well. It sounded like the most frightful mess!" She sighed. "We did wonder, he and I, if anyone would ever again stage Shakespeare's plays as written. It would be a pity if they remained forever buried under a mountain of adaptations."

"I quite agree," Miss Cobham nodded. "And some of the funniest parts in Midsummer Night's Dream never reach today's stage. Like the play within a play: I remember laughing myself into stitches as a child when my father enacted Bottom-as-Pyramus for me."

"Your father?"

"He was an actor too. Oh, he remained in the provinces all his life, but he was the one who made me want to go on the stage." Miss Cobham's voice warmed at the memory. "Mother called him a scapegrace, but I adored him, of course."

"So we were both brought into the theatre by men we loved." Medora's voice was equally soft.

"We were, indeed." Miss Cobham smiled. "So, in that spirit, I hope you will permit me to be the first--apart from Messrs. Sheridan and Kelly, of course--to welcome you back to Drury Lane!"

Medora smiled. "Thank you for your gracious welcome, Miss Cobham. I only wish--" A wave of memory surged over her; she blinked against a sudden mist of tears. I only wish that he were here to see this had been her unspoken thought, before she had recognized it and stopped herself. Catching Miss Cobham's eyes, she realized the other woman had noticed her lapse and perhaps had even guessed the reason for it. She changed the subject quickly. "Let us talk--of other matters."

"Yes. Although," the actress added apologetically, "I am afraid that the matter that has come next to my mind is of a serious nature as well." She looked down, her manner unexpectedly hesitant. "I wondered -- if you had heard anything at all . . . from Lieutenant Hornblower. I saw him myself," she qualified hastily, "just after the peace was declared--and I thought he was in a terrible state. I wanted to help him, but," she smiled wryly, "he removed himself from my presence before I could so much as offer."

That certainly sounded like Hornblower. "Archie's sister, Margaret, met him about two years ago, in London," Medora replied, after a moment's thought. "It might have been a few weeks after you saw him. She was able to persuade him to accept some assistance, but not much. He is--very proud."

She fell silent, remembering how distressed Margaret had been by the circumstances in which she had found Archie's closest friend: the squalid lodging-house, its shabby furnishings, the feeble fire sputtering in the grate. And Mr. Hornblower himself, pale and gaunt, with shadows beneath his eyes, reeling from the double blow of a friend's death and a severe professional setback.

But Margaret had brought more away from the encounter than that: once in Cornwall again, she had related to Medora the truth of Archie's last days, the sacrifice he had made for a friend, which had cost him--in the eyes of the Service, at any rate--his honor, his reputation, and his life. Medora had heard her out in silence, despite the torrent of conflicting emotions--love, pride, anger, and grief--seething inside of her like some witches' brew. And to her astonishment, anger had seemed to be the strongest of them all: anger at those Admiralty fools who had left a madman in command of a warship, anger at the tribunal that had cared more about a dead captain's reputation than about the lives of Renown's surviving officers, anger, even, at Archie himself for dying and leaving her alone, and anger, so much anger, at Hornblower, the beneficiary of his shipmate's misfortune.

"My dear," Margaret's blue eyes, so like her brother's, had studied her face intently. "Lieutenant Hornblower is suffering too."

For one raw, red, agonized moment Medora had wanted to scream that Hornblower should suffer, that it was right that he feel the same pain that they were feeling, that she wished he could experience it ten times over with no hope of surcease . . . and then, quite suddenly, those hateful words had congealed in her throat and she had been unable to utter even a syllable of that malediction. All that had remained -- was a terrible sadness.

She was thankful, later, that she had restrained herself. To have given voice to those darker emotions would have caused Margaret immense distress, for she was mourning as well. And Archie himself would have been deeply aggrieved and hurt. He had loved her--she knew that beyond any doubt--and he had loved his friend as well, and thought him in danger. And now she and Hornblower shared a common grief; she had, after several months, managed not to hate him, but she had not been able to make herself write to him--fearing perhaps that her suppressed anger and resentment would rise to the surface again once she put pen to paper--nor had she heard that he had found any situation.

"I'm sorry," she said, with perfect truth. "I have had no word of him. But with the war resumed--he must surely have returned to the Navy?" She mustered a smile. "He may even have been promoted again. England needs all the capable officers she can find, and Archie--believed that Mr. Hornblower was destined for great things in the service."

"One capable officer speaking of another capable officer." Miss Cobham was smiling too. "I hope you know, my dear, that I shall always remember Mr. Kennedy as a brave and honorable gentleman--and a true lover of the theatre."

Medora nodded. "Yes, but it is--very heartening to hear such things spoken."

"And to speak of him?" Miss Cobham inquired gently.

"That, as well."

"Miss Tresilian," the actress paused, "if you ever feel the need to talk of Mr. Kennedy, I hope you will consider coming to me. Either here -- or elsewhere, if you prefer. I can give you my direction . . . " She let the words trail off in an unspoken question. It was rare for an actress to make such an offer to a lady of quality, even rarer for a lady of quality to accept.

But Medora found herself smiling--no, grinning--broadly. "My dear Miss Cobham, I should like that above all things!"

******
INTERLUDE

 

London, 1802

 

While the popular wisdom generally held that March came in like a lion, this year it seemed intent on going out like one as well. Squinting through the sedan chair's window at the torrential rain, Kitty Cobham pitied every living creature who was not safely indoors tonight.

The chair men stopped just outside her lodgings; climbing out, she paid them and hurried towards the front door, wanting only to be inside as quickly as possible. In her haste, she nearly collided with the dark, dripping shape that lurched towards her out of the greater darkness.

Immediately, her hand flew to the knife in her hanging pocket, but a hoarse, oddly familiar voice brought her up short.

"M-Miss Cobham. K-Kitty."

A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the speaker's face and she caught her breath when she saw the unmistakable profile.

"Why, Mr. H.!" she breathed in disbelief.

He gave the barest nod, or at least she thought he did. But he was shivering so much she could not be certain. Feverish? she wondered--then she noticed the state of his garments.

"Dear heavens, Horatio! You're soaked through--you'd best come in out of this rain."

Taking charge before he could protest, she unlocked the door, pushed him quickly over the threshold, then closed the door behind them, shutting out the rain and the night.

"First thing to do is to get you out of those wet things," she said briskly, relieving him of his sodden greatcoat and hat. "And there'll be a fire in my room that just wants poking up, and I can give you something to keep out the cold. Up the stairs with you now!"

Rather to her surprise, he obeyed without protest, which argued for either the acquisition of more common sense since they had last met--or, she realized somberly, a distress of mind so great that it had not even occurred to him to protest. Frowning, she followed him up the stairs, then led the way to her rooms.

It was the work of only a few minutes to stir the fire into blazing life; Kitty invited Hornblower to warm himself, then spread his wet coat over a chair beside the hearth. The hat she hung upon the nearest peg, along with her own cloak, before turning her attention to her guest again.

"Here." Hurrying over to the table where the decanters stood, she poured him a glass of brandy. "This will take away the chill."

He mutely accepted the glass, his cold fingers brushing hers. No gloves, she noticed with perturbation. What could her Mr. H. have been doing, out in a bitter night like tonight? For a moment, the question hung unspoken on her lips, but a glance at his shuttered face changed her mind and she remained silent. Well, she would find the right time to ask--she was an actress, after all.

Almost absently, he raised the glass to his lips, sipped from it, then suddenly, eyes kindling into heightened awareness, he tossed off the contents almost greedily, in a single swallow.

Kitty stared, astonished, but rallied. "Another drink, Horatio?" she inquired and received a brief nod in response. After refilling his glass, she handed it back to him and remarked conversationally, "I didn't expect to find you in London."

His mouth twisted in what was either a grimace or a ghastly parody of a smile. "I had to--report to the Admiralty."

"To all the lords themselves? They must be 'right proud of you,' Mr. H.!" She smiled, remembering the bright career that had seemed to lie ahead for her young friend, but he was shaking his head in negation, his mouth still awry.

"Not that you'd notice." Hornblower glanced at the glass in his hand, downed half the contents, then gasped slightly at the burn of the liquor. I'm su--superfluous, now." He appeared to have some trouble pronouncing the word. "Since the peace."

"Peace?" Kitty echoed, puzzled. "The one that's just been signed?"

He nodded. "In Amiens, only last week. The day I brought my ship into port."

"Your ship?" Kitty's eyes widened. "You made commander? But that's good news, Horatio, even with the peace on--"

"Unconfirmed," he interrupted, with another shake of his head. "My appointment was unconfirmed." He pronounced the last word very carefully as if to make sure she understood. "I'm under stoppages too--until I can pay everything back." Raising the glass in an ironic toast, he tossed off the rest of the brandy.

An oath worthy of the Duchess of Wharfedale escaped Kitty before she could stop herself. "That's damnable!"

An almost imperceptible shrug. "Perhaps--it's what I deserve."

She stared at him, unable to believe what she had just heard. "How can you possibly think that? Nobody deserves to starve, Mr. H.--certainly not you, and I'll wager Captain Pellew and Mr. Kennedy would agree!"

By the stricken silence that followed her words, she realized that she had blundered terribly in some way. Hornblower's whole face seemed to collapse inward upon itself, and the dark eyes looked bruised and sunken.

"Horatio, what's wrong?" she demanded, her voice sharp with concern.

"Mr. Kennedy. He was--wounded." The long mouth, now quite colorless, compressed briefly over the painful revelation. "In our last action. He did . . . he did not survive."

The shock of the news was as sharp as a knife-thrust. For a moment Kitty could not think, let alone speak. Then the realization of all that this loss meant for Hornblower broke upon her

"Horatio, I am so sorry!" she breathed. "Such a fine young man, and so good a friend to you --"

"He was . . . the bravest man I know." Hornblower spoke as if every word caused him pain. "My dear . . . my dearest friend." He stared down at his hands, now shaking with a fine tremor, along with the rest of him. "He gave up -- everything, for me. And . . . in the end . . . it was all for nothing."

Kitty stared at him again, completely mystified. "Horatio--"

His shivering intensified; he went on as if she had not spoken. "No ship. And no friend. Not ever again."

Concern bloomed into suspicion; crossing to the fireplace, she took Hornblower's chin in her hand, made him turn his face towards her. "Horatio, when did you last eat?"

The dark eyes met hers waveringly. "Can't remember."

Kitty released his chin. "Stay right here," she ordered, and hurried from the room.

*****

The kitchen was deserted, which Kitty had expected at that hour, and her landlady, a woman of amiable disposition and erratic health, was a heavy sleeper. Nonetheless, Kitty moved about as quietly as possible, raising the candelabra to illuminate the darkened room as she made her search.

Broth on the hob -- still warm, thank goodness. She ladled some into a basin. A hunk of bread from yesterday--a little dry, but the broth would soften it soon enough. A bit of cheese, the end of a smoked sausage . . . she quickly sliced the latter into bite-sized rounds for easier eating, then piled all her offerings onto a tray. No more spirits, though--he was already "well to live" after two glasses of brandy on an empty stomach!

Back upstairs, she all but shoved the basin into his hands, prepared to feed him herself, if necessary. Fortunately, that proved not to be the case; he drank the broth obediently, then nibbled at the bread and cheese. Partly from nervousness, partly from a wish to be companionable, Kitty helped herself to a bit of sausage, watching Hornblower's face all the while. A little color seemed to be creeping back into his pale cheeks and some of the focus was returning to his eyes.

When the soup was nearly gone, he gave a long sigh and looked straight into her eyes. "Miss Cobham--Kitty, thank you."

She smiled. "No need for that, Mr. H. Are you feeling any better?"

He considered the question. "A little. Although I cannot tell whether it is the broth, the brandy . . . or the company."

"Why not all three?" Kitty said lightly. "Food sustains one, drink heartens one--and are we not all the better for a friend with whom to share our joys . . . and sorrows?"

He looked down, mouth curving in a faint, sad smile. "I had almost forgotten -- how that could be. Or rather," his voice grew lower still, "perhaps I could not bear to remember."

Mr. Kennedy again. Her heart aching for both young men, Kitty laid a hand over Hornblower's. "Maybe that's why you came," she suggested. "Because you needed to remember. Never forget you have another friend, Mr. H., right here."

She was half-prepared for what happened next--when Horatio put the tray aside and reached for her instead, his arms enfolding and pulling her close, his mouth descending hungrily upon hers. She was prepared, as well, for the ultimate outcome of that embrace, but she would no more have withheld the comfort of her body from him than she would have denied water to a man dying of thirst.

In her bed, he made love to her with a fierce desperation, seeking not only comfort but oblivion. But if, in his distress, he was less gentle than he had been on other occasions, it was still her name he called in his moment of release. And it was in her arms that he wept at last, discharging some of the terrible burden he carried.

*****

He fell asleep eventually, but Kitty lay wakeful for a long time afterwards. Raising herself on one elbow, she gazed down at him. His body was finally at peace, but his closed eyes were still dark-ringed and sunken, the bones showing too clearly and sharply in his face.

The losses he had endured, of which he had spoken, were terrible indeed. A ship, his own employment within the Navy . . . and a dear friend.

Kitty felt the sting of tears in her eyes, blinked them quickly away, then put her own grief aside for the moment. There was the future to consider, after all, for Horatio's sake. Tomorrow she was to leave for her Bath engagement in "the Scottish play." Her rent was paid up already--it would not be the first time her landlady had granted her the favor of letting an impecunious friend occupy the lodgings in Kitty's own absence. Horatio would have a decent roof over his head even if his pockets were still to let.

But when the sun rose the next morning, it showed her an empty bed--and an empty room. Hornblower had gone.

 

 

END PART EIGHT