Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
By: Karen Lee
Disclaimer: These characters were inspired by the performances of Cheri Lunghi as Kitty Cobham/Duchess of Wharfedale, Ronald Pickup as Don Masserado, Jean-Yves Berteloot as Col. Etienne De Vergesse, and A&E's other characters from Horatio Hornblower: The Duchess and The Devil. This section also contains blatant pandering to the baser element (You Know Who You ARE!), gratuitous fruit-chomping, and gratuitous references to Etienne's lips.
Saturday, 4:30 pm-The Chamber
Don Massaredo held up an ornate sword to catch the fire of the afternoon sun. The warm rays filtered through the high, small round window, the only source of natural light in the chamber. Taking a soft cloth, he rubbed the intricate filigree to a soft bronze patina. It was good that the vain Frenchman had come to remind him how important it was for an officer to be properly turned out at all times. It was even better that the Duchess had come to remind him why.
The old Spaniard smiled, recalling the bold figure he had cut when he was the same age as DeVergesse. As he rode through the villages with his men, the ladies' dark eyes followed him from behind their fans and in the evenings, some would contrive to put themselves in his way.
It had been fifteen years, nay, sixteen since Don Massaredo had mourned his wife and twelve since he had buried his last surviving son. Here in this well-guarded room was everything he now held dearest in this world, and that which he expected would gain him entry to the next.
The sunlight angled down onto his deep leather chair, but did not threaten to fade the delicate colors of The Lady's face, shaded as they were by a frame of darkest ebony. As always when he looked at her, he marveled that a face so plain could give such deep and abiding pleasure.
"Should I show you to my other favorite Lady, the Senora la Duchesa?" he asked the silently smiling image. "I should think you would understand each other well."
It was tempting to picture the Duchess's surprise and delight as he ushered her into this most private corner of El Ferrol, but he knew it would be a grave mistake. Colonel DeVergesse definitely cherished hopes that the exquisite object that his sire had sought unsuccessfully so many years ago was still in Don Massaredo's possession. Don Massaredo knew that if Her Grace were to let slip what she had seen here, that there would be no peace for him until the Frenchman had claimed it for his own.
A very strange thing to be obliged to entertain a Frenchman as an honored guest, he thought. I shall obey my Sovereign for now, and I do not exactly dislike this man, but I am damned if the treasures of my lifetime shall end up in a Parisian musee to be stared at by an ignorant French rabble.
His eye strayed to a large tapestry that hung over the wall behind his chair. Of course, he thought, there is what lies beyond that to consider as well. No, much as I would love to impress Her Grace with my collection, I cannot allow her to enter this room.
Kitty dozed languidly upon her coverlet. The excitement of seeing the dispatches and creating false ones had worn off an hour before. She shifted around in her loosened dress and corset, finding a more comfortable position. Many years of snatching refreshing sleep before an evening's performance now came to her aid. She had a hazy sense that Conchita had come in and removed the luncheon tray, then quietly fussed about the room tidying her things, but Kitty had not wanted to speak to her and had feigned an even deeper sleep.
As the shadows grew longer outside, it began to get warm and close in her room. She wished fretfully that Conchita would come back and open her window, but she felt too relaxed to rise and do it for herself. Instead, she sat up and removed the top of her dress and, tossing it on the floor beside her bed, she saw that a letter had been placed on the little wooden table at her bedside.
She blinked several times, clearing her gritty haze of sleep from her eyes. The writing was unfamiliar to her, a flamboyant scrawl: "Her Grace, the Duchess of Wharfedale. She turned it over; it was not sealed.
--If it pleases Your Grace, I humbly beseech you for the pleasure of your company this afternoon at five o'clock. I will meet you in Don Massaredo's garden under the usual olive tree. ~E. DV~
Humbly beseech? What a load of bullock crap! Kitty very much doubted that DeVergesse had ever sincerely humbly beseeched anyone for anything. This note was a summons, and she supposed that she would do well to answer it else the man would be at her very door. 'Twould be far better to meet him on neutral ground in the open air.
She rushed to the window to check the height of the sun. Damn! It must be very close to 5 o'clock already! Turning to the mirror, she made hasty repairs to her dampened curls and replaced the walking dress of the morning, pulling it over her undergarments and struggling to fasten it herself.
Her eye fell upon the Don Quixote. They had searched her room before, and may do so again once she was in the garden with DeVergesse. She patted her skirts; the outline of the packet of false dispatches was comfortably apparent. But where to hide the real ones? Ho! She had it!
Kitty pulled up her skirts and untied the coiled roll of linen from below her waistline that served to make her skirts flare out from the hips. She rolled the dispatches into a tight scroll and inserted them into the roll, cutting just enough stitches to allow her to easily insert and remove them. Then, she retied the whole affair about her waist. She turned about, noting that the addition of the dispatches only improved the appearance of her slim-hipped figure in the simple walking dress. There! That should do it! Once DeVergesse had found the false dispatches, he would never think to continue searching.
Hah! And once she had allowed him to find them, she laughed to herself, the Colonel could hardly conceal his prize in his own undergarments, tight-fitting as they were. No, Kitty considered with no small amusement, his own attractions had no such need of epistolary augmentation. To add to them at all would be quite a rude display.
She indulged herself in a quick giggle, picturing DeVergesse in her mind striving manfully to find enough room in his breeches to insert a thick packet of dispatches.
Kitty rechecked herself in the mirror before departing. Her eyes were wide and sparkling with excitement. She felt terribly bold, and her stomach roiled with a mixture of anticipation and fear. The prospect of besting this Froggy Colonel while helping her country's cause in the war against his was an irresistible one. I have been used and discarded, she thought, seduced and abandoned and humiliated beyond endurance, pride, and all decency. I would care to know what it feels like to be on the other end before I grow too old to play this game.
Saturday, 4:55 pm
"Let me give you a good brushing."
DeVergesse submitted patiently to the concerted attentions of his energetic aide-de-camp. Though Guilliame applied the fabric brush with the same vigor that he would use to scrape a day's worth of mud and sweat off one of their horses, it did bring out the richness of the deep blue in his jacket.
"Guilliame, sometimes you sound more like a wife than a soldier."
"From a groom to a bride, my career is looking up. Are we going to Italy after we are done here? You promised me Italy," Guilliame grumbled.
"Yes, yes, next we shall go to join up with Bonaparte. We shall pick up Monsieur David and his paintboxes in Toulon, and then go overland to find Bonaparte. Satisfied?"
"Good. In twenty-four hours, we shall be on board the Almeria with that Englishwoman, and I shall have both the dispatches and the key, and perhaps even the evidence of my own eyes to give to Napoleon. I tell you, Guilliame, this could be the start of a brilliant career for me."
"Then why do you look so unenthusiastic?" Guilliame searched his commander's mirrored face. It was true, Etienne DeVergesse thought, noting an unaccustomed hollowness at his temples. I do look rather grim.
"I am tired, Guilliame. I hardly slept last night. And there are still so many details to work out. So much depends on the woman herself."
"Pah!" Guilliame laughed. "I have seen you in action plenty of times. To get into this lady's skirts should pose no difficulties at all. She is a lonely widow, so says her maid, and she has probably never even known what it is to have a determined Frenchman battering at her gates. But why do you not simply demand at pistol point that she lift her skirts and..."
DeVergesse rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. He wet his hands and ran his damp fingers through his hair, patting the dark curls into neater, tighter coils. "Where DID I find you, Guilliame?"
"You did not find me, sir, it was I that found you."
"Only because you broke into my house."
"Times were hard, Mon Capitan."
"Yes, they were. But you see, your methods are entirely too direct. If I want something that belongs to someone else, I set up a situation that results in their giving it to me of their own accord. And that, Guilliame, THAT is why I have much more golden braid on my jacket than you do."
"And here I was, thinking it was simply because you are such an old man who has kissed the asses of Talleyrand and Bonaparte."
"Not too old to pommel your ass into paste tomorrow if you do not perform tonight. Do you have everything set up to your satisfaction?"
"And you can do everything by first light?"
"Absolument. Keys made while you wait, Sir! That was my livelihood, until I got a better offer and gave up my life of unofficial crime to come and work for the People in a more official capacity." He grinned impishly as he handed DeVergesse a somewhat pliant mass wrapped in a damp cloth that he had retrieved from his cloak pocket. "All is ready back at the encampment."
"Bien," DeVergesse said shortly, "And the diversion?"
"I think you will be pleased with what I have been able to work out," Guilliame said, "for like any of your good schemes it accomplishes two desirable things at once."
"Alors, the little maid sports a blackened eye this morning. I have taken the liberty of asking the man who gave it to her to meet me in Don Massaredo's stables this evening just before midnight," Guilliame said. "I can assure you there will be quite a loud disturbance."
"A duel? With a villager? Are you mad? You will kill him. We do not need to antagonize the townspeople, it could delay our escape tomorrow."
"No, no, not a duel. You are right, of course. To meet the stupid lout with sword or pistol would be an uneven match. No, I told him to leave his gaff at home and we could fight for the honor of the fair Conchita, mano a mano, as they say in these parts. I think the village idiots of El Ferrol will consider it a fine entertainment."
DeVergesse sighed, "Guilliame, is your interest in this Spanish girl becoming personal? Because if it is, then that is a problem."
In answer, the Frenchman gave his commanding officer a sardonic look.
Guilliame pointed to the knot on his temple. "He has this to answer for, aussi. And though the girl is a bit stupid, she is a sweet-natured creature and deserves better than that."
DeVergesse sighed, running his fingers through his short, dark curls in exasperation.
"Go and see if Her Ladyship has made our rendezvous."
As soon as Guilliame left, DeVergesse was able to indulge himself in a few minutes contemplation of his own appearance in the mirror. He tried on several facial expressions, finally settling on one he felt projected the necessary combination of ardor and self-confidence without revealing too much of the sour taste this whole enterprise had begun to leave in his mouth.
When Guilliame returned a few minutes later, he was smiling. "She is there," he said, "she sits upon the bench with a basket of flowers beside her. Une jolie tableaux." He looked curiously at the motionless DeVergesse. "Are you going?"
"Not yet. It would be better to make the lady wait and wonder."
Guilliame scoffed, "I hardly think such games are required, sir. How difficult can it be for you to seduce a lonely widow?"
DeVergesse whirled on him abruptly, "You do not know her as I do, or you would not speak so lightly. This is no foolish girl from the village who has never been anywhere or done anything. She has been feted by princes and bedded by peers. She could make our careers or land us both in prison next to those tiresome Englishmen. This woman is an opponent tres formidable and I hold her by a gossamer thread spun from lies and I am still not assured that she is as innocent of espionage as she claims to be. Do not EVER forget that."
"You are mad!" Guilliame asserted. "How could she put us in this prison? All advantage lies with us. She is a mere prisoner and we, we are representatives of the Republic of France, allies of Spain."
"Fool," DeVergesse retorted. "Don Massaredo is in love with her. In case you had not noticed, we are living amidst a Spanish garrison commanded by one man who is police, jurist, judge, and executioner. And I have coerced her into seducing him tonight." His face was grim. "By tomorrow morning, my guess is that there is little he would not do if she asked him."
"Then let us hope that you get her aboard the Almeria before she comes to her senses and sees you for the sort of man you are."
"That is, in fact, the plan, my impertinent lackey. You see, if I were to demand the dispatches then all I would have was the dispatches."
"But is that not a main objective of our mission?"
"Certainly it is, but you see the way I have set up events to unfold, I shall have not only the dispatches, but also information that is vital to the success of the Franco/Spanish alliance."
And, he thought but did not say, I might even have something which is of value for centuries after I am dead, instead of just for the next few months or until the next battle is waged and the maps, redrawn.
Guilliame's eyebrows shot up, and he exhaled a long breath in a low whistle as he fingered the braid that fringed DeVergess's lapels with mock reverence, adjusting the lines of his commander's uniform in a way that his tailor in Paris could not have helped but approve.
Etienne DeVergesse, looking so very much at ease and in command that she wished she had an excuse to slap his arrogant face, bowed and made a graceful leg to Kitty. She smiled and tapped her fingers on the bench next to her.
"Colonel DeVergesse, I greatly dislike being loomed over. Be seated and tell me why you summoned me."
Gazing up into his face, she once again experienced that brief flash of recognition as she saw a moment's hesitation, shyness even, and was reminded of the young DeVergesse from those many years ago in London and as it had before, it gave her heart.
"Naturally, Madame, your servant." He arranged himself gracefully on the other side of the bench, leaning back on one elbow and crossing his legs at the knee.
Kitty turned her head coolly away, then back again, allowing her gaze to linger slightly longer than propriety should allow upon his muscular calves and thighs. How wicked I feel, she thought, and how wonderfully exciting to be deliberately acting this part. Though she congratulated herself on her acting, the pleasant vibration from deep within her could only have come from the fleeting thought of those fencing-master legs stripped bare and entwined with her own.
"Well, Sir, I have done as you bade me. Tonight I shall have a private audience with His Excellency. Pleased?"
"I know this already. He told me of it over lunch, and I can tell you HE is very pleased by the prospect," DeVergesse murmured, "Yet, and you may find this quite foolish of me, I am not at all happy when I think of it now."
His eyes looked very blue indeed in the dappled sunlight. How soft and silky the dark hair on his legs had appeared in the candlelight, as he lectured and taunted her. The only soft thing about him, she imagined. Perhaps, though, he was not entirely without compassion. Kitty brightened a little at the thought.
"Then you release me from this obligation? You surprise me."
DeVergesse leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and buried his face in his hands, rubbing his temples. "No, I regret that I cannot. This is too important for me to allow my personal feelings to become involved...no...I should not have said anything." He raked his fingers through the dark curls that framed his forehead, then sat upright again. "Disregard what I just said, it can be of no consequence to you."
Kitty was surprised by this unexpected show of emotion from DeVergesse, and glad that it provided her with an opportunity to touch him. She leaned forward and placed a hand lightly upon his thigh, and was rewarded when he took it in his own. His hand was warm and dry, and engulfed hers completely; his thumb wrapped over her little hand so neatly she might have been a child. He gathered her delicate fingers gently into his firm grasp and conveyed her hand to his cheek, where he molded her hand around his square jawline and ear, pressing the side of his face into her palm.
Mesmerized and utterly too limp to resist, she allowed him to brush the tips of her fingers against his lips. At once, he turned her hand over and surprised her with a swift, burning kiss on her wrist. She felt the sensation of a sharp stabbing pain deep inside her ribs, and an inner burning that could only be assuaged by stroking his smooth-shaven cheek and trailing her hand slowly down over his collarbone and chest. With an effort of will, she weakly retrieved her hand and returned it to rest upon the cool surface of the bench.
"What would Don Massaredo make of this display, Sir?" she stammered huskily. "What if we were seen?"
"He would think I was making my apologies to you for my conduct at the table last night," the Colonel returned in an even, casual tone. His self-possession was infuriating, but there was a hint of naked desire flickering behind his mask of cool indifference.
"Well, why haven't you?" Kitty smiled slyly.
"I am terribly sorry I made insinuating remarks about Your Grace and the London stage," DeVergesse said with a slight inclination of his dark, curly head. He reached behind him and plucked a flower from a nearby bush. Kitty was shocked to see him brush the petals with his lips before laying it in her lap. "Am I forgiven?"
"For that? Yes. After all, it was no more than the truth. But that is by far the least of your offenses," Kitty replied, feeling her self-control return as she recalled his transgressions. "You threatened my friends, you threatened me, and you seem to think I should have no difficulty getting an old aristocrat to take off his clothing so that I can steal a key from around his neck. These things are quite unforgivable."
"That was just business, Madame. It was nothing personal." DeVergesse shrugged insolently, and the sight of this gesture coming so soon after his one display of actual feeling infuriated Kitty.
"You are an odious Frog and I hate you," she hissed. "How dare you flirt with me and tease me, and then act as though you do not care a farthing for me or my honor?" She hauled off and slapped him, hard, across the cheek.
DeVergesse caught her offending hand deftly by the wrist. She twisted in his grasp and struggled to free herself, but only succeeded in allowing him to capture her other wrist as well. His hold on her wrists was just this side of painful as he stood up and dragged her to her feet.
"And what do you think that Don Massaredo would make of THAT display?" he asked.
"Don Massaredo," Kitty spit, "Would assume that I did not accept your apology, SIR!"
For a long, long time, or so it seemed to Kitty, they silently gazed into each other's eyes. DeVergesse's expression was wary, guarded, almost grave. Kitty felt her breath come faster. He brought his face closer to hers, lips almost touching, but he did not kiss her.
Instead, he murmured, "You, Madame, should know all about flirting and teasing without caring a farthing for anything but your own self-interest. It took me a very long time to understand that, but now I do understand. Truly, I do. It was just business, nothing personal, all those years ago back in Drury Lane, and now I see that I was wrong to feel abused."
"You have a better memory than I, for I recall nothing of the sort."
"As you like it, Madame." He dropped her wrists and turned slightly to offer her his arm. Kitty was once again intrigued by the way he was able to switch so rapidly from near-violence to cool propriety. "You are right about one thing, we can be seen easily from the house. Walk with me, for we have things to discuss."
Kitty took his arm and they strolled deeper into the garden until they had put sufficient trees between them and the main house to be obscured from any who might watch from the windows. As their walk took them into ever more private depths of Don Massaredo's garden, Kitty felt a bubble of excitement swell within her to nearly unbearable proportions. She felt as though if she did not talk, she would burst like an overripe fruit.
"I confess I do not follow your reasoning, Colonel DeVergesse," she began, her words tumbling out rapidly. "You make me quite dizzy, for at one moment you appear as if you want to make love to me, and the next as if you would be quite happy enough to send me to Paris to have my bleedin' head chopped off if I do not do exactly as you command. You coerce and blackmail me into getting into Don Massaredo's bedchamber to do you a service, and then you tell me you cannot stand the thought of it. You must be mad!"
DeVergesse laughed bitterly, "I realize that I have put you in this position quite deliberately, but the very thought of you with Don Massaredo tonight makes me mad with jealousy."
Kitty stared at him, aghast, "I thought you consider me too 'experienced'," she said archly. "Why should you be jealous of me, who you spoke to last night as if I were an old, shopworn courtesan."
"J'regret, Madame, but you must admit to having put me in a somewhat-ah-humiliating position. I spoke in anger." Slowly he released her from his grasp.
"Then I do not understand you-not at all."
DeVergesse smiled sheepishly. Christ! Was that the hint of a dimple she saw? How could this blackmailing scoundrel of a Froggy enemy be in possession of something so intrinsically lovable as a dimple?
"Why should I make sense to you, Madame? I am French. I suspect that you are somewhat older than I am, but you are still a lovely woman."
Kitty glanced slyly at her companion.
"Are you really jealous of Don Massaredo?"
Perhaps he was. He certainly looked troubled.
"I think I know exactly how you feel," she drawled, "For a man his age, I must say the Don is still quite a dashing, fine-looking gentleman"
"Do not taunt me, Kitty. I flatter myself I have more self-control than most, but I am passionate by nature as all Frenchmen are."
"About everything that intrigues me." He reached up and fingered Kitty's hair, drawing a mass of it up and away from her ear to expose the side of her neck, which he stroked gently with his thumb.
"Colonel!" Kitty protested, but she found herself again helpless to draw away from his deliciously exciting caress.
"Etienne," he said. "When we are alone, call me Etienne."
"Etienne," Kitty asked him, recalling happily that her purpose was to entice him to find the dispatches, "would you still turn me in as a spy if I were to refuse to carry out your plan tonight? What I mean is," and she boldly removed her hand from the crook of his elbow and slid it under his jacket so that she was encircling his waist. "I think you might be much happier if you spent this evening with me instead of throwing me away on Don Massaredo...."
Kitty punctuated this thought by giving him a wink and a little squeeze just above his hip. My! she thought, that was not an easy thing to do. His waist was hard as a rock, and more besides.
But despite her conviction that physically, he was anything but indifferent to her, his voice was steady. "No, again I say, this is business. You will do what I say or at the very least I will see to it that your friends never leave this place until the end of the war." He swallowed hard, and kissing her forehead, he murmured into her hair. "I have made love to your memory a thousand times, Kitty, but no, providence has put you here and I cannot be handed such a splendid weapon and then refuse to use it in the service of my country."
Was it really only twenty-four hours since she had last trod this path, pretending to be the Duchess of Wharfedale while raptly watching this handsome Frenchman eat a pomegranate? She drew his body to hers, sliding her other hand inside his jacket and kneading the ropy muscles that ran along his spine.
"I believe that you want me, Etienne."
He groaned softly as she pressed her bosom against his chest.
"At times I have wondered if you were not a better actor than half of the drunken louts I have appeared with onstage, but at times like this I know that no one is THAT good of an actor."
Moving gently against him, she left him in no doubt as to what she was referring. As she did so, she succeeded in pressing the packet of hidden dispatches into his thigh, rubbing them across the hard muscles over his knee as he swayed sensuously into her embrace.
"Ah," he said, deliberately detaching her arms from around him. "But you see, you are THAT good of an actress, for last night I thought the same and then you struck me. I would not care to have such a performance repeated. It is a cowardly thing, Kitty, to strike a man for he cannot in all honor answer the blow."
Kitty cringed, recalling the incident. "I suppose I do owe you an apology, then. I do not wish to be thought a coward; I believe I should hate that above all things."
"You may be many things, Kitty Cobham, and some of them no doubt disreputable, but of one thing I am certain. You are NO coward. And I trust you anticipate no pleasure of a more personal nature from tonight's undertaking. Still, I give you something to help. Perhaps you shall not have to do anything more than make him comfortable in your presence."
He reached inside his jacket and brought out a small vial, handing it to her as he spoke.
"This is laudanum. The Don is very partial to Madeira and I am sure will join you in several glasses if you request. Just a few drops, Kitty. We do not want him to think that he was drugged. For of course, he would know it was you who drugged him."
"And I should tell him that it was you who blackmailed me into doing such a thing," Kitty retorted, with a sharp sidelong look.
"I do not think that you will."
"Because I alone can get you away from here. I tell you, Kitty, that Don Massaredo would not lift a finger to help you get home. Nothing would please him more than to see you here for the rest of his days."
Kitty's hand flew to her bosom, where she let the little vial slide down the front of her dress to rest against her tightly-cinched waistband. "I do not believe you."
"Search your heart, and you will know it is true. Better yet, ask him tonight, and I think he will reveal his true feelings to you."
Kitty stared straight ahead, arms folded, feeling her face harden. "But, then, this is a cruel plan!"
"Perhaps, but you see your fate has become entwined with my own. Do what I ask, and you shall be returned home to England."
"Why should I trust you?"
"Do you think you can trust me to act in my own self-interest? If we are successful tonight, then surely you can see that it would be most unwise of me to leave you here to bear witness once I have left. Though I do have power over where you English prisoners go from here, Don Massaredo is still the law in El Ferrol. He can dispense justice as he sees fit, yes, even to a visiting French ally."
"But what could he do?'
"He could track me down and return me to stand trial here for any crime he cares to accuse me of."
"And why should I care?"
"Because, Madame, I would be obliged to explain why you were able to be coerced into doing my bidding. A French officer could have no hold over the real Duchess of Wharfedale. Don Massaredo will not wish to believe this, but even he cannot stay blind forever to your deception. Can you imagine what sort of answer he will receive when he writes to the British Government to inform them that he holds the Duchess of Wharfedale in his prison? How do you know he has not already done so?"
"If he really does esteem me as you say." Kitty shrugged and feigned insouciance, but she was troubled by the reality behind his words.
"Your time draws very, very short. Once you are unmasked, and the Don realizes that you are not the English noblewoman you claim to be, your favored status will be lost. You will end up working in his kitchens and laundries, side by side with Conchita, for the remainder of what looks to be a very long war. Could you bear it?"
"And you would unmask me, even as you kiss and caress me?" She turned her face to his. "What manner of man are you?"
"I am a Frenchman. Madame, the problems of two people in a continent at war do not amount to a cargo of rice. I am duty-bound to aid my nation's cause. Here is something else," he handed her the cloth-rolled bundle.
"What is this?"
"It is a form of clay. Keep it warm and damp, Kitty. Hide it somewhere on your person where, ah, where something soft and warm and yielding in nature would be expected beneath your gown. All you need to do is make a good impression. Then bring it to me and I shall do the rest."
"Exactly. So you see, you shall not have to remove the key from around the Don's neck in order to accomplish your task. I have the greatest of admiration for your talents and I have no doubt that you will be successful."
Kitty thought bitter thoughts, chief among them were two: first, that she had always wished for a truly attractive and interesting man to admire her for her cleverness and courage, and not just for her beauty and stage glamour; and second that when she finally did meet such a man he was a despicable enemy Frog who would nonetheless put his gleaming hessian boot on her neck if it would advance his plans and schemes.
"I demand your promise of a reward for doing you such service," she said stoutly, "Because despite all your talk of France and duty, I think your business in Don Massaredo's chamber IS of a personal nature."
"I always try to combine the People's business with my own personal pleasure. To do otherwise would not be French! Bien sur--safe passage to Lisbon for you, and for your English friends, well, I shall give a favorable report to the diplomats. After that, matters are out of my hands. Not a bad bargain for you. Come, let us walk back." He extended his arm to Kitty, who took it.
"And tonight, after I present you with the impression of the key? Shall you ever tell me what it is you seek there?"
"Perhaps I will be able to share this information, perhaps not. It very much depends on what I find when I open that door."
Kitty saw his eyes gleam with excitement and wished, illogically, that she had been the one to spark it. He bent his head to her ear.
"May I come to you very late tonight, after all is quiet?"
They were once again in full view of the house. A door opened, and Don Massaredo emerged, followed by two of his soldiers. The two conspirators conversed quietly, lips barely moving as they watched the old soldier stroll across the lawn, his epaulette-fringed shoulders rolling with the slight hitch to his stride.
"I do not see how I could stop you, Sir."
"A word, a look, a frown..."
"A blow to the temple."
"That worked quite well, you must admit--"
"But it got me into even worse trouble, I believe, than if I had allowed you to proceed."
"Allowed me? I like hearing that very much from a woman who unlaces her own bodice." DeVergesse smiled agreeably, directing a little wave and bow at the approaching Don.
"You have no honor, Colonel," Kitty said, smiling and curtseying just before Don Massaredo arrived within earshot, "you can offer me nothing in return for my favors. No name, no security for my future, no improvement in my social standing. But I shall allow you to enter my chamber, if only to torment you with tales of my exploits with Don Massaredo. My! Doesn't he look frisky?" She turned and flashed him a secret smile. "Enter the Duchess of Wharfedale."
"Oh, Yer Excellency!" she cooed, extending her hand to the old Spaniard as he approached. "Don't you look splendid! Is that a NEW sword, then? Lovely piece of work, that is."
"Gracias, Your Grace," Don Massaredo made his knee and kissed her hand. His lips were dry and felt like paper. "No, an old sword, but one which still holds a fine edge."
"Thank 'eavens you've come to my rescue. This Froggy gent has been burning my ears off with his nonsense."
Don Massaredo's faded gray eyes twinkled as he directed a sharp look at the Frenchman. "And what nonsense was that? Not more tales of the London stage, I trust."
"Why, no, Your Excellency. Her Grace and I were having a debate."
"Oh yes. I had been telling her a story of a wet and miserable cat I once found pacing the banks of a river after a storm, yowling its wish to return to the other side."
"You were? I mean, yes, you were! And a very silly tale it was, too."
"Perhaps. Her Grace felt that I was wrong to take it into my tent for the night, and pet it and warm it and give it sweet milk since as a travelling soldier I had no means of providing it with a more permanent arrangement."
Don Massaredo stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I must agree with the Duchess that it is most ungentlemanly to raise false hopes."
"No doubt. But in this case, as the cat had made its wishes known from the beginning, I felt that no harm would be done to send it warmed, petted, and purring with contentment in my lap back to its heart's desire. Good day, Your Excellency. Your Grace." DeVergesse made his bows and left them.
"I suspect," Don Massaredo said carefully, "that the man is loco."
"Oh, Your Excellency," Kitty crooned, fanning her cleavage with a spread-fingered hand, "He cannot help it. He's joost being Frainch."
"True", the Don shook his head and shrugged. Then he gave Kitty another little bow and asked her if she would do him the great honor of joining him for dinner that evening.
As Kitty accepted his offer with much fluttering and many blushing curtseys, she found she was unable to keep her eye from straying towards the straight back and proud carriage of the departing DeVergesse. You have forced me to delude this sweet, dear old man to satisfy your own venal concerns. I shall send you warm, purring, and petted to a Parisian prison, she vowed, or my name ain't Katherine Rose Cobham.
"Why are you barring my way?"
Kitty Cobham, basket of fruit jutting sideways from the hand she had placed indignantly on her hip, stood at the door of Mr. Kennedy's sickroom. She glared furiously at the Spanish guardsmen whose crossed bayonets blocked her from entering the small room.
"Pardon, Senora la Duchesa," one of them spoke with all the assurance of one who finds a profound satisfaction in carrying out clearly-worded orders from above, "Only guardsmen and the doctor may see the prisoners."
Kitty replied in her perfect Spanish.
"But I have permission from Don Massaredo himself to visit this man whenever I wish! Surely his orders-"
"It is the orders of Colonel DeVergesse that we carry out this day, Senora. The prison was given over to his command during his interrogations."
"Don Massaredo is aware of this?"
"Don Massaredo directed us to obey Colonel DeVergesse in all matters pertaining to the Inglés, Senora."
"Hmpfh!" Kitty snorted. "We shall see about that. Don Massaredo has never kept me from visiting my countrymen. You!" she called out to a passing soldier. "Go and tell that Colonel DeVergesse that I wish to visit the sick man. It is no more than my Christian duty to comfort the sick, and he refuses my request at peril to his soul."
The soldier, though clearly dubious that Her Grace's influence extended any such distance beyond the confines of El Ferrol, sullenly agreed to seek out DeVergesse and relay the Duchess's message.
She tapped her foot impatiently while she waited for the reply. Don Massaredo would CERTAINLY hear about this outrage. The very idea! It seemed as though everywhere she turned in El Ferrol, she found herself battering against barricades erected and dodging webs spun by that Froggy Colonel.
Kitty found it hard to believe that he had been there less than two full days and already, he pervaded every crack and dark corner of El Ferrol like some low-lying, stagnant miasma. If he was not pawing through her underthings looking for dispatches, he was threatening an exposure that would reduce her to the merest prison drudge. If he was not frightening the hell out of her by grabbing her in the dark, he was busy sabotaging her friendships with other men. Worst of all, if he was not insinuating what a low sort of woman he suspected her to be, he was praising her wit, talent, and beauty while trying to get her dress off. Ridiculous! And how exactly like a man! Bugger all such.
Instead of the expected messenger, DeVergesse himself came down the hallway towards her.
"Ah-ha, we play Lady Bountiful," he said in English, which they both knew the guardsmen did not comprehend. "I am not surprised you feel a sudden need to improve your bargaining position with the Almighty by scheduling a few quick good works before this evening. How very providential for you we have a sick man for you to comfort, Your Grace."
"Cut the fancy talk, Colonel, and order these men to let me enter."
"I am afraid I cannot do that. But I will take Mr. Kennedy the basket of fruit and tell him it is from you. I believe that in most such cases, it is the purity of the impulse and not the act of completion that bears the most weight in the final judgement."
Kitty scrutinized him from under lowered brows. "What a nice concept. One wonders where a man like you would have stumbled across something like that."
"Martin Luther." DeVergesse was all innocence.
"Bollocks," Kitty returned. She thought through several arguments and then, biting her lower lip reflexively, she adopted a more pleading tone. "But, try to understand! I have to speak with him. He, well, the fact is that it was Mr. Kennedy who told Mr. Hornblower who I really am. I feel that I need to set matters right between us. I-I want to let him know that..."
DeVergesse waved an airy hand in front of her face. "I understand completely. You need say no more. But I cannot allow my interesting English captives to exchange observations until I feel my investigations are complete. No, I AM sorry," he continued, seeing Kitty's face set in mulish lines, "but I cannot allow you visit this man."
"How can you say you understand," Kitty complained, "when you have no regard for any of us and you bar me from even a few moments discourse with this poor, sick boy?"
"Oh, believe me, I do understand. But do not think that simply because I understand, that I care. That is a common-enough fallacy held dear by your sex. Understanding is not sympathy, nor is sympathy understanding. Now, I believe you have an engagement. It is time you got dressed, Temptress." He reached out and plucked a ripe, red fruit from her basket, holding it up and inspecting it with a critical eye.
He took a speculative bite, emitted a moan of satisfaction as he rolled the sweet pulp of the fruit around his palate, then took the basket of fruit firmly from her. Kitty stood in confused silence, her hand still empty and outstretched from where he had detached her fingers from the handle of the wicker basket. Before she knew it, the once-tasted fruit had been plopped unceremoniously into her palm, and without another word, DeVergesse oiled into Kennedy's room, the two guardsman closing the door firmly behind him.
He is simply not to be borne, she fumed, as she tossed the fruit down a convenient latrine and stalked back down the corridor to her quarters. He is a blot on this hideously sunblasted landscape, she decided, as she slipped out of her walking dress. He is pox on any and all houses, she determined, as she slid on her most daring pale green silk and dusted her exposed bosom with scented powder. He is the consummate Gallic excrescence, she raged, as she coiled her tresses with rose-scented pomade.
Well! She thought, as she evaluated her appearance in her mirror. This should kick any old plodding Spanish Cavalryman into a canter. And with that, she heard the knock upon her door which marked the arrival of the favored guardsman that Don Massaredo had always sent to her when he wished her to be escorted to his most excellent presence. Pah!
"Lead on, McDuff," she said.
"Que? Mi llamo es Manuel."
Christ, she thought, for a moment there I forgot the bally little man is from Barcelona.
Saturday, 7pm-Prison Sickroom
DeVergesse found Archie Kennedy sitting perched on the edge of his mattress, looking altogether better than he had just a few hours before. Though still extremely pale, the young man had at least summoned the inner resources to glower at him from under sandy eyebrows and a greasy fringe of overlong strawberry blonde bangs so dingy they looked almost brown.
This is getting rather tiresome, DeVergesse thought. Who on earth do these English idiots expect--the Vicar's wife? I am only doing my duty.
He set down the fruit basket on the seat of the chair nearest the bed.
"Compliments of Her Grace."
A brief confusion flashed across the young man's face, "Her Grace? Oh, of course. The Duchess of Wharfedale."
"That is what she calls herself these days."
Mr. Kennedy opened and shut his mouth several times, wanting to say something, but stopping himself just before.
"She--, she sent these to me? Why did she not bring them herself?"
"Because I would not allow it. Here," he handed Archie a plum. "you need this."
Kennedy took it as if it was a smoldering mortar, but after a few moments inspection, he bit into it so deeply that the juices ran down his chin. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his nightshirt.
"What I most need is a bath."
"A bath? Bien. An excellent sign. So you have decided to live. Don Massaredo was particularly distressed by the prospect of having you die in his prison."
The merest flicker of a sarcastic smirk flashed across the young man's grimy face.
"I would hate to be any bother."
"Mr. Kennedy, you have already caused a great deal of bother, particularly to your friends," DeVergesse replied.
He went to the door and gave an order to one of the guards, then turned back to Kennedy.
"I was unable to feel certain of Madame Cobham's true identity until you confirmed it for me. I think you can imagine the rest."
Something troubled and raw roiled behind Kennedy's blue eyes. He opened his mouth again as if to speak, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. An elderly maid appeared with a basin of steaming water, hot towels, and a bar of lye soap. DeVergesse asked her to put them beside the bed. Soon, they were alone in the room again, Kennedy sitting unmoving, shooting wistful glances at the hot basin.
"Go ahead, Mr. Kennedy. We can talk while you wash."
"Sir, I would rather-"
"Oh, that again." DeVergesse sighed with exasperation. "Look, you are a prisoner and therefore you do not have the luxury of privacy. But I can assure you, Mr. Kennedy, that the only interest I have in your fleabitten carcass is in making a broad and general assessment of your physical condition. That is part of my mission here, but I assure you, it gives me not the slightest pleasure."
"You presume to know my thoughts but you cannot---"
"Your face can be as plainly read as a placard advertisement for one of Madame Cobham's performances. You can either take advantage of the nice, warm, steaming basin now while we continue our conversation or you can wait until I am ready to go, and take a chance on bathing in cold water. It is a matter of complete indifference to me."
"I believe you."
Kennedy glared at him defiantly and then in a single motion, he ripped his soiled nightshirt off over his head.
"Indifference becomes you, Colonel."
He stood up and over the basin, and began to plunge his hands and forearms in again and again; lathering his face, neck, and torso with soap and then wiping himself clean with a dampened towel. DeVergesse took advantage of Kennedy's immersions to run his eye over the man's body discreetly. Aside from a scattering of bugbites and the slackened skin around the knees and waist of a man who has recently lost both weight and muscle tone, he had a strong frame and smooth, unblemished skin. His back and shoulders had the pale, fair creaminess of one who had never gone shirtless as a child. DeVergesse had noticed that Englishmen with young Kennedy's complexion usually developed a smattering of moles or freckles on their shoulders if they were from the laboring classes. Only the gentry refused to allow their children the pleasure of going shirtless on a hot summer day, insisting on proper dress at all times.
Between this observation, the man's soft, cultured speaking voice, and the high, firmly rounded buttocks which were, in profile, unmistakable as the remnants of a youth spent in stirrups, he was more convinced than ever that this prisoner came from the landed classes.
Kennedy was attempting now to wash his hair, rinsing it in soapy basin water with the ladle that had been placed at his bedside for drinking.
"Here, Mr. Kennedy. Best to get all the soap out."
DeVergesse finished his rinse with a cold dash from Kennedy's bedside water pitcher. Kennedy fairly leapt from the shock of the cold water on top of so much warm, and stood up, wiping wet cold tendrils of hair from his eyes and spluttering a shocking stream of French profanity.
"Very good, Mr. Kennedy," DeVergesse observed. "You do know quite a bit of French."
Kennedy smiled ruefully. "I confess I can never curse in English without feeling the blow to my ear that was sure to come whenever I did so as a youth. But French, now...after three years in French prisons, that comes all too naturally."
DeVergesse tossed him the last dry towel. "At least you are now very alert and ready to be questioned. Cover yourself, and sit down."
The French Colonel remained standing, and began to pace the small confines of the room.
"I say to you, Mr. Kennedy, that I know you are a rich man's son. As such, there was little need for you to have endured this lengthy imprisonment. Surely you must know that an able officer can always be exchanged so long as he does not violate his parole by attempting to escape, or is not suspected of spying."
Kennedy regarded him solemnly, attentively, but passively. DeVergesse had the odd feeling that he might be asked which of his points would be covered in the next examination, and a sudden rush of sympathy for his old tutor sparked unbidden in his mind. Rough sledding, this one.
"So why are you still here?"
"They put me here. You French. They brought me here with several other prisoners after Spain threw her lot in with you lot, papers were signed, and here I am. I assume our countries are still at war. Why are you here?"
DeVergesse ignored the question. "No, Mr. Kennedy. I mean, why are you STILL in prison after three years when all it would take is a well-worded entreaty to your family to encourage your country's miserably unenlightened government to offer a prisoner exchange which would free you."
"I do not have to answer that. In fact, I do not have to answer any of your questions."
"True enough. Well then, in the absence of cooperation, I shall answer them for you, for I must put something in my report. I think that you were captured under circumstances that you consider disgraceful..." he carefully watched the young Englishman's eyes, "or perhaps, it was that someone you esteem was at fault. Perhaps, it was a little of both. Ah-ha, I see I am close to the truth."
Kennedy turned his face away, mouth pursing into a thin, tight line.
"Now, I do not know what happened in the very beginning. Perhaps you thought the war would end quickly."
"Perhaps I wanted to die."
"Perhaps you thought that you could escape and return a hero."
"Perhaps I forgot who I was."
"Perhaps you are a coward delighted to find himself alive after all, and would choose prison over the hazards of battle and life at sea."
Kennedy spun around rapidly, leaping to his feet and reaching reflexively to his waist for a saber that was not there. The cloth he had wrapped around his waist came undone and fell to the floor around his bare ankles. DeVergesse successfully managed to contain first, his own instinct to draw his own pistol from his belted waistcoat and second, his laughter.
"That is not true!" Kennedy hissed, hurridly covering his loins yet again with the damp cloth. "I am not afraid of battle with any enemy, especially not you Frogs! And-and I love-loved--my life at sea."
"But you are afraid to face your family as a prisoner, a victim, a failure." A simple statement, but as soon as he uttered it, he knew from the look in the young man's eyes that it was the truth.
"You are damned strange interrogator. If you are going to fabricate such answers, then why ask questions at all?"
DeVergesse felt his lips curve involuntarily into an ironic smile. "Encoute, you sickly English cretin. If you were important enough to know anything worth torturing you to find out, you would not have been left here to rot. And you and I both know that if I ask you for a truthful answer on any other matter of importance that you will just lie to me. And the hostility is mutual, I assure you."
"Then I cannot see why you bother to ask anything at all."
"Because I do not need you to answer in order to discover the things I want to know. It is...a special talent. I can always tell when a man is lying to me. I make the accusation, then see how he reacts."
"And a woman? Can you always tell with a woman?" Kennedy's expression was smug. "If you are so good, then you would not have needed to question me to discover the Duchess's deception."
DeVergesse shrugged, and laughed softly. "Very good, Mr. Kennedy. A well-aimed thrust, but not a mortal injury to my vanity. In fact, I cannot imagine a more miserable state than to be stripped of one's illusions by the fair sex. With women, it is always better to take their words at face value. Unless, of course, they are spies."
He paused to allow this last its due weight.
"You ask why I am here, and this I tell you truthfully-I am un citoyen patriotique; I serve the interests of the French Republic. I do not need an officer's pay and I do not need to otherwise waste my valuable time in some hellhole of a Spanish prison trying to convince a lot of pigheaded, louse-ridden English sailors to represent themselves honestly and wait patiently for exchange."
Kennedy shook his head stubbornly and wrapped the blanket more tightly around his shoulders. "I shall not assist you, Colonel DeVergesse. I will not go unless they go with me. I will not be first ransomed simply because my family has money and title while Horatio's does not." He lifted up bright, determined blue eyes to meet DeVergesse's steely cold ones. "All of us, or none of us. We leave....together."
"Admirable sentiment." DeVergesse yawned, covering his mouth politely, then working his shoulders back and forth a little to stretch the taut muscles of his back and shoulders. Damn, he was getting tired. "And so typically, tediously English. By all means, stay here as a group. That makes so much more sense and does your country so much more good than if some of you could become free and actually wage war, take prizes, and fight battles."
The younger man fairly spluttered with indignation and his voice raised an octave. "Now see here! I won't have it! I won't! We are-were-ARE shipmates! It would be wrong to leave even a single man behind here."
"Even Mr. Hunter? Ah. I see that is one you might not miss. But here are some things I would have you consider before you rejoin your comrades from the Indefatigable. For there is only one true patriot among you three officers. Mr. Hunter is the only one of you who is in the Navy because he wants to serve the King, no matter how little his ability or talent. That makes him dangerous."
"Hunter? He is hardly a match for Horatio."
"No doubt. But he thinks he can escape from El Ferrol. Mr. Kennedy, there is nothing around El Ferrol for miles and miles but arid country, Spanish goatherds and fishermen, and rocky, inaccessible coast. There are two harbors, El Ferrol and La Corruna, both heavily patrolled. The chances that any of you would be able to escape without being either captured or killed are miniscule at best. When you are returned to the cells, watch the men, Mr. Kennedy. Look to the men."
Kennedy's face was expressionless. "All of my escape attempts failed...but I expect you know that already. Why would any of them listen to...and what is more to the point, why should you care? Would that not also be a matter of complete indifference to you?"
"Each one of you represents a French or Spanish officer right now languishing in prison in England who could be returned to fight for our side. I need no reason other than that to wish most fervently that you would not get your otherwise worthless hides shot full of holes trying to escape from El Ferrol."
"Oh. Well, there is that I suppose."
"And one more thing. Kitty Cobham would very much like for you to tell your friend Mr. Hornblower, when you see him next, that whatever he may hear about her once she is gone, that she did it with his welfare at heart and his best interests foremost in her mind."
He regarded Kennedy levelly, deriving private amusement from the puzzled consternation evident on the freshly-scrubbed, startlingly-handsome face. It was so like Kitty Cobham to have gotten herself imprisoned with a pair of fine-looking young bucks, one for each arm.
"But please, do not tell him this came from me. He will value the words more if he feels you got them directly from her own lips. And besides-I have my facade to maintain."
DeVergesse left the room softly whistling Les Marseillies,
closing the door quietly behind him. Well, he thought, that cost
me nothing. Nothing at all.