Kitty Cobham & The Chamber of Secrets
by Karen Lee
Disclaimer: WF, American, desperately seeking SWM, French Nationality. Prefer late 30's/early 40's. Tall, dark, handsome. No drugs/light social drinker OK. Morally ambiguous with curly hair a plus. Friends First, Eventual Object: Sacrifice pride and self-respect on daily basis. Oh, wait, wrong message board. Oops. :} Ok....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. And Ronald, I hated like hell to do this to you, baby, but that's what you get for agreeing to share the camera with that froggy gent.
She is beautiful tonight, the Duchess of Wharfedale.
Don Massaredo regarded his dinner partner across a table liberally strewn with savories and decorated with a startling arrangement of drooping peonies. He so hoped Her Grace had not noticed that some of them appeared to contain small but lively ants. Unlikely, he decided, considering the intense interest she had taken in picking the fringe of her shawl apart until one section was beginning to look decidedly frayed. Of course, it was natural she should be a little nervous, for this was the first time they had ever dined alone.
But she had kept up an agreeable stream of chatter, asking him for his opinions on everything from the likelihood of seeing a sea engagement off the coast of El Ferrol to the antecedents of her hired maid, Conchita.
As to the latter, Don Massaredo had little to say that could improve on what she had already learned herself. She was concerned for the girl, that much was obvious. Don Massaredo wondered that a noblewoman would have such an intense interest in the marital prospects of a fisherman's daughter, but then he recalled that she was herself reputed to be of somewhat humbler birth. He found himself extremely ill at ease with the entire subject.
But as for the former, the old Don had an answer for her.
"I have thought about that, Your Grace, and in truth, the dunes would provide an excellent vantage point for the observation of such a battle at sea. Do you know that in all of my voyages I have never once been part of an engagement between warships?" He sighed with regret. "Of course, in those days, it was Spain which ruled the southern oceans. Our ships came and went from the Americas unmolested by any but the boldest and most desperate pirates."
"Pirates?" The Duchess's eyes were huge. "And did you..."
"Alas, no. Two voyages to Mexico and one to Florida....all quite without incident. Well, until we landed, of course. Then we saw a great deal of action and many, MANY strange things."
"How I should love to see the New World someday."
"It is still a place where law rules at the point of a bayonet and in the shadow of a cannon, Your Grace. I cannot recommend it for a lady. At least, not those places still under the flag of Spain."
"Oh, I see. Still, you must have had some interesting adventures." She smiled encouragingly at him, but he was unmoved.
"I did. But none that would bear telling in polite company," he added with a gallant inclination of his head. Was that disappointment that crossed her face? Surely not. "No, Senora La Duchesa, the value of the New World is to fill the coffers of the old. I cannot but believe that if you British had not been so careless and complacent when revolution first reared its ugly head, that your American Colonies would not have been lost."
"We still have Canada," she defended.
"Cold," said the Don. "A cold place, and the soil is quite stony from what I hear. Useless, all of it, except for fish and whales, which could be yours for the taking whether you held Canada or not. No, I am sorry my dear Senora La Duchesa, but Spain's colonies still give up their gold, though we cannot risk such losses to the British so our ships carry little such treasure now that our countries are at war. But you asked about the waters off of El Ferrol and La Corunna."
"Yes, is this place strategic like Cape St.-Oh, I AM sorry. What I meant to say is, how likely is it that an engagement would take place off of these very shores?"
"Your Grace, I wonder that you should worry about such a thing."
"Why, for a very personal reason!" Her bright silvery-blue eyes snapped with indignation, and Don Masseredo felt his breath catch a little. She was spirited, this Englishwoman. "I assume you have not forgotten to put me on the next Spanish ship bound for Lisbon? What if the English should be patrolling these waters and fire upon that very ship? I assure you, Your Excellency, that as much as I enjoy the bracing sea air that I am a very poor swimmer."
An agreeable image of the Duchess, wading ashore in a dress so wet it outlined every curve of her body, seeped into Don Massaredo's mind and before he could fully enjoy it, he froze from shame. The Duchess must have noted something altered in his posture, and without bothering to signal the servant who waited patiently on the other side of the room, she took up the bottle of Madeira and splashed a healthy quantity into his goblet.
"Here, Your Excellency. Drink up like a good Don," she tittered. "You have come all over pale. It must be exhausting being in charge of a prison." She threw back her head and laughed, displaying her long, white throat and delicate collarbones.
Was she getting drunk? Or was he? Don Massaredo was beginning to notice little things in great detail. He noticed that her soft right breast, which threatened to spill out of the green silk dress, plumped and relaxed agreeably as she reached to fill his glass, then withdrew her pale, slim hand. He licked his lips, then wet them with another sip of Madeira. It had finally grown quite dark outside his windows and he could see a reflection in one of them of the Duchess from behind, her long thick coils of chestnut hair cascading down the wooden back of the stiff, shawl-draped dining chair in which she sat. It had certainly been a very long time since he had dined alone with such a well-dressed and attractive woman.
The Don cleared his throat. He thought about telling her that she was set to board a ship for Lisbon the very next morning, but decided that the news would so overwhelm her that further discourse between them tonight would be about nothing else. He decided to wait, and tell her of her good fortune at the end of the evening. After all, it was not as though she would need the extra notice to pack up her things. He had already directed her maid to pack everything but what she would need for the 'morrow neatly in her small sea chests. And the maid, he knew, would not spoil his surprise.
"Your Grace, I would be MOST surprised if any British warship were foolhardy enough to sail down the throat of El Ferrol. It would take a Captain of astonishing skill or profound stupidity to attempt such a thing."
"Why is that? We reached safe harbor here easily enough."
"True. But that was in a Spanish ship. The tides and currents here are most unusual, and there is but a small safe channel that leads into El Ferrol, and the situation at La Corunna is no different. In between lie The Devil's Teeth."
"The Devil's Teeth?" the Duchess gasped, hand fluttering to her cleavage, one finger circling idly where her pale, smooth skin met the satin-ribboned border of her bodice. She continued, "Are these, then, a hazard to any sailor not already thoroughly familiar with those obstacles?"
"Quite. Many clever sailors have met their ruin on those hidden but treacherous mounds and points." He coughed. "So you see, Your Grace, you are in little danger here so long as you sail with a Captain who knows the bottom contours."
"You cannot imagine my relief. I long for the sight of an English frigate, but I would prefer not to meet its cannon."
She toyed idly with the stem of her wineglass. A single drop of amber Madeira clung to the rim where her lips had last touched the glass. Heedless of her manners, she captured it with a fingertip and deposited it delicately on the tip of her tongue.
"This is really very good wine-I fear it goes straight to my head. No, what I feel certain I was about to say, Your Excellency, is that my one regret is that I have seen so little of this fascinating place."
"But I have allowed you to enjoy all of our countryside in the company of Mr. Hornblower, Your Grace. The town is a small, rude sort of place, though I admit the countryside and beaches are pleasing as any in all Spain. But I assure you, there is nothing of interest that you have not already seen."
"Your Excellency, I was not referring to the countryside, I was referring to your Hacienda itself. It so completely unlike any English estate. I am quite fascinated by the Spanish style."
Don Massaredo stroked his chin thoughtfully. This woman continually surprised him. Interested in architecture as well as literature? "My dear Duchesa, you have seen all of the public rooms. You are like a cat, perhaps, which must explore every dark corner before it feels truly at home?"
The Duchess flinched. "A cat you say? Oh, I suppose it is true. I am very curious about almost everything. But this is such a large house and I know I have seen but little of it and what I have seen, I admire immensely. I would, perhaps, like to take one or two little ideas," she smiled at him winningly, "back to England. For with me poor husband dead, God rest his soul, I shall finally be able to decorate our wing to my own taste. I should like to introduce something of the Spanish touch in me bedroom at least."
The old Spaniard cleared his throat. He felt quite certain that this lady could not possibly know how forward she sounded, but perhaps the English were like that. Having never before conversed with an Englishwoman before the Duchess of Wharfedale arrived; he believed it possible that he read more into her conversation than she intended. But this was, nonetheless, an opening. He reached forward and covered her hand lightly with his own.
"The loss of your husband is most tragic. You must miss him very much."
She inclined her head sadly, gracefully, and then said deep, husky tones, "You are a widower I understand. Then you know what it is like."
"I do." Don Masseredo felt his eyes begin to prickle, for he did miss his late wife.
She sighed and raised her unfocused gaze to the candles but still she allowed his covering hand to rest upon her cool one. "My husband was...well...he was quite a bit older than I am. Too old, sadly, to give me children to comfort me in my bereavement. But..." she took up her fan with her free hand and began to fan herself gently. "He was good company all the same."
The Don cleared his throat yet again. "That it is a sadness shared by many does not make it easier for each one who bears such a loss. Do you know that even the Colonel DeVergesse is a widower like myself?" As soon the words were out of his mouth, he wondered why he had spoken them.
"What? 'im?" She withdrew her hand with a startled jerk. "I mean, when? He does not have the manner of man in mourning."
"Oh, some years at least. No, his is not a recent bereavement."
"What happened to Madame DeVergesse? Did he 'ave her head cut off?"
"Senora La Duchesa!" Don Masseredo feigned shock. Privately, he was glad that she seemed to have no admiration for the tall, handsome younger man. He had been vaguely perturbed by the attitudes in which he had first seen them in his garden that afternoon. They had the look of lovers emerging from a secret meeting. "No, my Lady. Madame DeVergesse died of the grippe in the epidemic of '92 along with so many others."
"Oo' then I am sorry," the Duchess cooed. "Perhaps I simply do not understand his manner. Ah, here is our dessert."
She leaned forward a little as she continued to speak, swaying like a charmed cobra, the lace of her bodice nearly trailing in the sugared sauce on the plate that had just been set before her. Don Massaredo could not help but sneak glances of fascinated suspense at the spectacle.
"I cannot make him out at all. He seems utterly lacking in any real feeling. NOT a gentleman, sooch as yourself."
Again, she filled his glass. He had not realized it had become empty.
"The French are different," he mused aloud. "My father was an ambassador to the court of King Louis, that would be the father of the one who was beheaded, of course. He spent a great deal of time in Paris, and at Versailles. He told me that the hardest thing to get a Frenchman to do is to come to the point."
"Really?" the Duchess gushed, her face alight with interest. "I am not surprised to hear it. But, your family must be very important indeed."
Don Massaredo was flattered. "My dear Senora, you must understand that families fall in and out of favor depending on who is King. Now, I am just a simple country knight."
Her Grace propped her elbow on the table and rested the side of her face in her hand. "I love country life. Does the Colonel have children?"
"Pardon? Oh, yes. I believe he has at least one. A son, who lives with his sister on his estate somewhere--I think--in the south of France."
"Quite large. I knew his father. He was, of course, an art dealer as we discussed last night at dinner, but he inherited an estate from an older brother who died without an heir," Don Masseredo looked at her sharply, but her expression was one of polite interest.
"It is good to know something about the people one has met, so as not to put one's foot in it," she said with a laugh. "Well, enough about that Froggy gent." She hiccuped. "Do you have a first name?"
For the first time, Don Masseredo laughed. Her artless question had surprised him. "I have five, Senora."
She arched a startled eyebrow. "Five? What then, did your mother call you when she was pleased with you?"
"Simón," she smiled. "I like that."
Don Massaredo took a deep breath. "No one has called me that in years, though. It would be too strange to hear it now." He glanced significantly at the book she had placed beside her at the table. "Now, Your Grace, what is it that you wanted to ask me about Don Quixote."
The expression on her face was eager as a young girl's.
"So many, many things. I feel as though if I could understand the meaning of this story, I would understand the Spanish heart. Do you think that is foolish?"
Don Massaredo considered her question, mentally applauding her for more penetration than he would have credited her.
"I believe that what speaks to the heart of the Spaniard in this story is the reverence for the past. Don Quixote may be mad, but in his madness he seeks to reclaim the glory and honor of the Spanish knight."
He smiled sadly.
"You can, of course, see why. I am the legitimate article, a true Spanish Don, yet I do not slay giants, or joust with the ravishers of innocent virgins, I run a prison. To think of one's self in terms of the glories of the past is a very seductive idea. The Dons ruled Spain for centuries, each was King in their own domain and though they paid homage to the King, they had great power. Times have changed, though, and some would say not for the better."
The Duchess shot him a sympathetic look. "But there are no more giants to slay, are there? And probably never were. To hear that Colonel DeVergesse natter on, one would think the biggest man in Europe is that little Corsican runt. 'ow could such a one compare to real Royalty?"
"That is where we, English and Spaniards, have common ground. We respect and revere and honor the past. The French think only of the present."
"The buxom peasant girl, Aldonza. She reminds me so much of my maid, Conchita. Why did Don Quixote choose her for the object of his chivalry?"
"I suppose because she was the only presentable-looking young woman in his village. He renamed her Dulcinea and bestowed upon her a title so that she would be worthy of his knightly service. He could hardly be expected to do brave deeds for a peasant girl."
"Well that, at least, is one thing that has not changed," Kitty said, with an ironic little smile. She stood up of a sudden, so that the Don was obliged to rise stiffly to his own. Heedless of the hovering servants, she picked up the book and hugged it to her chest, sweeping around the table to stand before him. Startled, he stood frozen, his head politely inclined towards her as he waited to see what she would do next.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and, straining on tiptoe to reach his ear with her lips, she said in an entirely different tone of voice than she had hitherto used, "There is something I need to tell you. I am not exactly the sort of woman you think I am. Can we please go somewhere where we can be alone?"
Kitty smiled the smile that she felt certain had won her the role of Miss Hardcastle in "She Stoops To Conquer" as she eased away from the baffled old Spaniard. Goldsmith's Miss Hardcastle, she reflected, did not know the half of it. What was wrong with the man that he had not risen to such obvious baits? She simply had to get him to admit her to his bedchamber. La! How was she ever to get him out of his jacket and vest if he would not take her meaning?
If he does NOT invite me into his bedroom soon, she vowed, I will be forced to stoop so low I will dig my way back out. This man has decided I am too virtuous for such things. I must convince him that I am not or he will never let me at that damnable key!
If there is a key, Kitty thought sourly. There had better be a key, a key and a chamber, or I shall find that Frenchman and...
"Of course, Your Grace. But it is too dark in the garden for a walk. My study, perhaps?"
"I thought," Kitty said, raising her chin and looking him solemnly and directly in the eye, and handing him the copy of Don Quixote, "that you might be prevailed upon to indulge me with a tour of the rest of your beautiful home. Starting with...", She stroked the ivory ribs of her fan flirtatiously and then smacked the poor man in the chest with it, "your bedchamber. We are both of mature years, Your Excellency, two widowed people, keeping each other company. I do not think there can be any objections to a more private conversation."
There, it was out. She had said it. Without waiting for an answer, she reached for the bottle of Madeira and deftly scooped up both glasses.
The Don swallowed hard and coughed, but there was a rapacious gleam in his eye unless Kitty was very much mistaken. Oh dear, she thought. Oh dear, oh dear. This will not be anywhere near as dreadful as the time I had to let that George Fortescue with his rotten teeth paw me onstage every night for a three month run. No, I have endured much worse for the sake of my art alone. But I do wish I did not like this man quite so much.
Good heavens, Don Massaredo thought. I am about to get my secret wish and it may be the death of me.
His heart pounded so quickly in his chest that he marveled that he had been able to remain on his feet. Was it like this years ago when he was a young man courting? He did not recall it. Then he had felt sure of himself, knew he had a knighthood and young, lithe, muscular body to offer should his advances be met with encouragement, as they so often were. And then, all those years of familiarity and serene affection with his wife that followed, secure in the knowledge of his rights as her husband and lord. Now though...
Glancing surreptitiously at the much younger woman who sashayed beside him down the corridor, he wondered if perhaps she had had enough of the golden contents of the half-empty bottle of Madeira that she carried. But whenever she turned to comment on some aspect of the house, or stop him briefly in front of a portrait or painting to pepper him with questions, her speech was not slurred and her eyes were remarkably clear, even feverish. He wished that the sentries and guardsmen they encountered in the hallways would not stare at her quite so curiously and he stifled them with a stern look.
At one point, they met Colonel DeVergesse, who was headed in the opposite direction. He bowed politely and said that he was bound for the stables to see to his mount, which his aide had told him might have picked up a stone in one hoof. Perhaps the man had more breeding than the Duchess gave him credit for, as he showed no surprise or vulgar curiosity from seeing the English noblewoman being escorted alone into the far reaches of the house by her host. His manner was brusque; his concern for his animal pleased Don Massaredo, an old cavalryman himself. Her Grace, though, was ill at ease, and he noticed that she did not meet the Frenchman's eye.
It should be an interesting voyage to Lisbon, he thought, unless I can persuade her to stay.
The idea struck him as absurd as soon as it flashed across his mind. She was his prisoner and persuasion did not enter into the matter. His own honor and the respect customarily given an innocent civilian captive of titled rank, those were the things which would gain her release. Honor warred with a sense of his own desolation over her impending absence, but before his emotions had been put fully in check, the two of them had arrived at his bedchamber door.
"What an astonishing room!" she exclaimed, as he held open the thick wooden door for her. "It is so very big. I have never seen a bed like that; why, it must weigh a ton!" She left his side and, putting the glasses and bottle down on a small table, rushed to the bed to stroke the high, carved, post and rest her cheek against its cool surface for a moment.
"What sort of wood is this?"
"Ebony. It is the hardest wood in the world, Your Grace."
"It looks as though it could last a thousand years..." she trailed. She strode eagerly into the room, exclaiming over each detail and comfort.
Through her rapidly roaming eyes, he seemed to see his own bedchamber as if he were returning to it after a long absence abroad. It was a warm, inviting, spacious apartment and he was glad of the fine effect it gave. Two wing chairs faced a fire set by his manservant, which burned cheerfully in a flagstone hearth. There was his bed dominating the center of the room, massive and black, ornately carved on every surface of the exposed wood with a Moorish design of entwined leaves and vines. The walls were stark white; the wood frames of the windows and doors exposed beams darkly stained by contrast. Scattered all around were carpets from Morocco, ruby red glowing like stained glass through a tracery of yellow and black. And the wall behind his massive headboard was completely covered by an immense tapestry of a hunt scene.
He eyed it nervously as the Duchess ran her hand admiringly over it, expressing her admiration. She halted with her hand over the flank of the great rearing white horse that dominated the center of the tapestry. Did she feel the outline of the door on the other side?
"It is best not to touch the tapestry with your bare hands, Senora, it is very old and may crumble at your touch."
Moving more quickly than he had believed that he could, he grasped her by the wrist, gently but firmly, and removed her hand from the fine threads of the tapestry. She had been very close to finding the well-camouflaged seam. His breath came rapidly, and he feared that she misinterpreted his intent, for she slid into his embrace as if it had been his own idea to clasp her to his chest.
"Mmmmm, Your Excellency," she murmured as she nuzzled her face into his chest. He thought he heard one of her teeth click on a vest button. "I am honored by your regard, sir."
Don Massaredo lowered his mouth to brush against the fragrant, rose-scented curls. It was an exceptionally pleasant sensation.
"My Lady, I...we..."
He found he could think of no words to say, for he did not know what he wanted to tell her.
Was this strange painful stabbing sensation in his chest fear, excitement, or something much worse? He scarcely moved, fearing what any initiative on his part would elicit from the volatile Duchess. He needed time; time to think about this situation, about what was the right thing to do. It was all very well to indulge in an old man's pleasant imaginings, but the realization of at least some of these fantastic daydreams would carry real burdens of guilt and responsibility. Not to mention, he admitted, the prospect of pleasure, the possibility of failure, and a potential heartache such as he had thought never to know again. God, what did he want from this woman? He needed time.
But the Duchess of Wharfedale was like a runaway horse. Already she had withdrawn her arms from around his waist and was running her hands over his chest, looking up into his face as if she were searching desperately for an answer. She emitted a little sigh of satisfaction, almost relief, and smiled as if she had resolved her question to her own satisfaction. Such an enigmatic woman, but clearly a victim of her own strong and passionate nature. He was glad his body pleased her.
But finding a resolve he would never have had in his youth, he took her by the shoulders, he pushed her away gently and held her at arm's length.
"My dear," he gave her a very stern look, "I do not believe you have thought this through. You are impetuous, bold, and passionate. I admire that, but Your Grace...what if you were to become," he swallowed hard, wetting his dry lips with his tongue, "what if there should be a child?"
The Duchess closed her eyes and hung her head becomingly. She sighed, "You are right, of course. Very well, I am sorry for my rashness. It is just that it has been so long." She looked at him shyly from underneath her lashes. "So very long."
Then, she burst into tears. A thin trickle turned into a rivulet and then became a fountain accompanied by wet, gulping, racking sobs.
Don Massaredo felt himself standing slack-jawed and realized instantly that the picture could not be an attractive one. He mustered himself to be courtly and, putting a light hand at her waist, murmuring a variety of soothing nothings into the ringlets that framed her pretty ears, he propelled her towards one of the brocaded wing chairs by the hearth opposite his bed. There, he sat her and instantly put a fresh glass of Madeira in her hand. A clean handkerchief was proffered, gratefully accepted, and employed in an energetic and productive fashion.
"Oh, I am so sorry," she moaned. "What a fool I have made of myself. You must think me the lowest creature alive. Could I please have another handkerchief? This one is quite ruined."
Don Massaredo turned away and fished another fresh square of linen from the huge chiffonier in the corner. When he returned, he found that his own glass had been refilled and the Duchess was arranging her neckline again, which had, become a bit disordered and exposed in the heat of their embrace.
He turned his own chair to face her across the little table on which their glasses rested, sat down, and rested his elbows on his thin shanks as he leaned forward and spoke.
"My dear. My dear, dear Duchesa. You must not reproach yourself. I should not have brought you here, naturally, you thought that I expected your favors. You are under my protection. Naturally, I understand what that might signify to you."
The Duchess's mouth formed a thin, sad line. "No, it is I who was too forward. I..." she buried her face in the crumpled handkerchief, "I must look a fright. An ugly, old fright. No wonder you..."
"No, No!" Don Massaredo interjected with real feeling. "You are a lovely woman."
And just like a woman, she completely ignored him, already firm in her conviction that she knew his mind better than he did.
"No wonder you do not want me. I am grown too old, and my childbearing days are probably long over, though you are kind to give me that as an excuse to save my pride. Well, let us have a glass of wine in friendship," she grasped the stem of her wineglass in one hand, and pushed his glass towards him encouragingly.
The Don felt utterly confused. He sought to buy time to collect his thoughts by drinking from his glass, regarding her over the rim in what he hoped was a sympathetic way.
"You had something to tell me? Go ahead," he smiled, "once you have seen a Spanish gentleman's bedroom and blown your nose on his handkerchief, you can consider yourself an intimate friend."
The Duchess smiled tremulously at him. "I think you now know what I wanted to say to you. Let us speak of it no more."
Don Massaredo would have very much liked to know what she wanted to say to him. He suspected what weighed so heavily on her heart, but there was simply no substitute for hearing the thoughts said aloud in a woman's voice rich with emotion. But alas-to press the matter now after he had pushed her away would seem more like an interrogation than a lover's whispered confidences.
She appeared to brighten, though, resilient creature. Rolling her eyes dramatically, her smile cavalier, rakish, full of mischief, she sighed, "Small wonder I forgot myself. This would be such a dull place to be imprisoned if not for your company, Your Excellency. I have simply no one who cares about the same things I do. Just a callow youth to accompany me on my walks, though he is a nice boy, very respectful. But he cannot hold a candle to you, Don Massaredo, a truly educated gentleman."
"Your Grace, the pleasure has been entirely mine. I, too, feel the lack of true companionship here at El Ferrol."
"I know exactly how you feel, though I've had none of your advantages, Sir. Ah," she breathed, lifting her palms to the ceiling, "my soul hungers for beauty, art, literature...talk to me about Don Quixote and why you love that story, and of your love for Spain, and all the beautiful paintings that you have in your beautiful house. Talk to me like a Spanish Shaharizade, for if you do not fill my mind with exciting tales I shall have no choice but to relive my folly and I shall die of shame."
He reached for her hand, but she was jumpy, skittish as a colt. She answered his pressure and then withdrew, her posture that of an eager pupil. Suddenly, he thought that himself a great idiot, an idiot and a coward, for who could say if such a chance would present itself again. He resolved to do as she asked, and gentle her with conversation. He took another sip of wine and launched into a series of thoughts he had marshaled on the subject of Cervantes' work earlier that day in anticipation of their evening's discussion. As he spoke, he felt himself relaxing deeper and deeper into the chair. His limbs felt light, and he yawned pleasurably at one point, losing his train of thought unless prompted by the wide-eyed Duchess.
"Spain is full of legends and fantastic stories," she smiled. "I think the common Spaniard must be a very great liar. I heard one about you, Your Excellency, though I assure you I paid it no credit."
"And what is that? My life is quite dull. Or was, until you arrived."
"They say you keep a lady locked in a secret room that none may enter," she emitted a peal of laughter. "What a notion! A secret chamber in this lovely house with its big rooms and bright windows. Pish!"
His eyes darted towards the tapestry, then back to her. "An old story, Senora. It dates from my father's time. He had certain things he held valuable and so he locked them away to keep them from being stolen when he was away at court. It was not always easy to find trustworthy guards in a poor village like El Ferrol. But as I am still a soldier of Spain, I can choose from among the Spanish Army's best men and pay them well enough, so I have no need of fanciful tales to protect my...my.... valued possessions."
He yawned again, and shifted in the chair.
"You poor man," her Grace murmured. "You cannot be comfortable in that hot uniform. La! I am scarcely dressed and I feel the heat most keenly." She rose and came to him, leaning over the back of his chair so that her bosom brushed the top of his head as she tugged at his sleeves. "Let me help you off with that. I cannot feel right in making you sit there all stiff and formal, suffering for my sake."
Don Massaredo passively allowed her to continue, enjoying resting the back of his head upon her breasts as she unbuttoned his jacket from behind. He hoped she thought the contact inadvertent, but it was anything but. Perhaps if he proceeded with caution, he would find himself with another chance to embrace her without seeming too much the ridiculous, aging roué. If only he did not feel so damnably sleepy!
"That is better," he breathed deeply, sucking warm air into his lungs. The fire was too warm, the air not cool enough to clear his mind of thoughts of sleep.
"Ah, this reminds me of cheerful evenings by the fire with my late husband," she sighed. "I love to see a man comfortable in my presence."
Now she was loosening his neckcloth, unbuttoning the top buttons of his shirt to expose his collarbones and the silvery thatch of hair that crept up his chest to meet them. He captured her hand and kissed it, his lips lingering on the warm skin above her delicate knuckles. "That is enough, for now." He thought if he were just able to doze off for a few minutes, he would awaken refreshed. What a pity to be old.
The Duchess of Wharfedale, taking him at his word, had returned to her chair and was thumbing through Cervantes' novel as if looking for a favored passage. "I know I am forward, but I could not help but notice that you are becoming tired, dear man. Do take a little nap if you wish, and I shall entertain myself by finishing the story while you sleep. Here, finish the wine while it is still cool and refreshing. I confess I have never had better in Italy or London."
He did so obediently. "You will stay?"
The lovely chestnut-haired woman smiled back at him enigmatically. Already, his vision had gone dark and blurry and indistinct at the edges. Yes, just a brief nap. He was a cavalryman, after all, and could snatch refreshing sleep in short doses just as he had when he was younger. The worries aroused by the unexpected English prisoners, the sickly young man who might die, seeing to the comforts of her Grace, the puzzling Frenchman-small wonder he was exhausted. His last vision as he slipped into a warm oblivion was the pale face of the Duchess of Wharfedale, watching him affectionately over her book. Her face became a white, indistinct blur and he slept.
I thought he would NEVER go to sleep, Kitty grumbled to herself. I must have given him enough laudanum to drop a carthorse dead in the street. No stranger to using the drug herself, she had dosed his wine exactly when she sent him to get her a second handkerchief and knew just how much wine he should have to drink to render him insensate for several hours at least. But it had taken twice that much.
No matter, she thought. She glanced at the clock above the hearth. Almost eleven o'clock. DeVergesse must be frantic. A giggle escaped her, quickly stifled, for even now she did not know how deeply he slumbered. He is tough for an old boy, she mused. Perhaps it would not have been such an ordeal after all had it come to that.
Slowly, carefully, she went to work. She felt exultant, her being thrilled to the core by her own courage and cleverness. She had not had to bed him after all, she had retained his good opinion, and she knew now that everything DeVergesse had told her was true.
She had felt the unmistakable shape of a key through his waistcoats, seen the chain around his neck. She knew where the chamber was, for the outline of the metal bands through the tapestry as she caressed it revealed its presence just as surely as had the Don's worried glance when she had mentioned hearing the story of "The Lady".
Holding her breath, she gradually drew the chain from around the neck of the sleeping man. There, at the end, was the key. And just as she had hoped, it bore a striking resemblance to the key to DeVergesse's own room. She hiked up her skirts and removed the key she had pilfered from his jacket the night before. Undoing the clasp, she let the Don's key drop into her hand. She strung DeVergesse's key onto the chain, refastened the clasp, and carefully replaced it around Don Massaredo's neck.
He moved, shifting his body so that his head rested against the side wingback, and making a series of little smacking noises. He grimaced a little and Kitty realized that the key she had placed around his neck was cold, while the one she held in her hand was still warm from his body. She stood frozen, fearing that he might awaken.
As she waited to see if his sleep would deepen, she studied his lined face. It was a pleasant old face--the sagging lines and creases could not hide the essence of a man who had most certainly been tall, slender, and handsome as a youth. And he was a courtly old thing, but he had not hesitated to make his feelings known about peasant girls. Not for a common girl, his chivalry. No, she decided, DeVergesse had not lied about that. A wonton sluttish Duchess was perfectly acceptable, but a deceitful actress who had never come within sniffing distance of a title, no, that was not. She would be shortly washing his underthings elbow-to-elbow with some other used-up prison drudge had her secret become known to him.
Satisfied that she had the luxury of time when a rhythmic whistling took the place of his faintly smacking lips, she tossed the key lightly in her palm, and legged it for the tapestry and what lay beyond. Finding the seam, she discovered that the tapestry had two self-colored cords cleverly worked through it, which could be drawn from either end to split in half and pull back the lovely panorama so that the door with its bronze bands and ornate padlock could be easily seen. She chose, however, not to risk it, letting the tapestry fall shut behind her.
She slid the key into the lock and turned first left, then right. It sprang open with a quiet click. Success. She removed it and pulled the door open just a few inches, pushing her head partially through the opening to test the air. It was cool, but nothing unusual met her senses other than an impression of inky blackness and a faintly acrid odor to her. It smelled not unlike the Colonel's jacket. What was that smell? Woodsmoke? No, she had it; she knew it from her time aboard Ships of the Line. Powder. Gunpowder, to be exact.
She returned to the room and lit a taper. Surely there would be a lamp, or something. That Froggy Colonel wanted her to take great risks to bring him an impression of the key, but he did not think her clever enough to find the chamber itself. Well, she thought triumphantly, he will learn not to underestimate me.
She slid into the chamber, closing the door behind her. If Don Massaredo awakened, he would simply think she had gone back to her quarters.
With her heart pounding from excitement, she turned around and got her first glimpse of the chamber. Her eye was first caught by the gleam of gold upon the wall before her. She approached the glowing object with wonder. It was a mask, hideous and beautiful, and of a style she had never seen before. She remembered their conversation at dinner. Was this something that he had brought back with him from the New World?
She stroked it, finding it warmer to the touch than she would have imagined. It was pure hammered gold, and as such, was of such value as to warrant its secretion in a locked and hidden chamber. But was it a woman? Kitty passed her taper over the surface of the mask. Yes, it could be. A very ghastly woman, with hair like coiling snakes and a tongue which protruded, but a woman, nonetheless. Beautiful and terrible, but only in the manner of deadly, reptilian things. Surely this was not "The Lady".
She turned to inspect the rest of the room. In the center was another wing chair and a little table on which rested a decanter and a single glass. Behind it, on the wall, there was an enormous painting. Ah, this could be "The Lady". She held her taper high to see the woman's face. She had masses of dark hair and wore a strange costume of dark lace with a pale embroidered shawl. She looked like a dancer, perhaps, or a gypsy. Kitty studied her face. It was a heavy face, strong-featured; a peasant's face. A beautiful painting, but not a Lady. She saw the scrawl near the bottom. Goya. Kitty had not heard of him. Next to the painting in the far corner of the room, a tapestry was drawn back to reveal another door, this one unlocked. She pushed it open and was surprised to see stone steps leading down into darkness.
Step by step, her glowing taper dispelled the dark at the base of the stairs and she found herself standing in the middle of a large subterranean room, hacked out of stone, but the contents were extremely disappointing. Unlike the small chamber above, the room was not decorated at all and no attempt had been made to make it homey. Several rough, unvarnished wooden tables were placed about and these were covered with a litter of dusty old maps. Barrels were stacked in all corners and Kitty felt certain that the acrid smell she had noted upstairs was coming from them. Rifles and bayonets stood tented in the spaces between the barrels. The room appeared to stretch on endlessly and Kitty, disappointed, felt she had already seen enough. There would be no "Lady" here surrounded by this thoroughly masculine arsenal.
As she returned to the room, her taper threw light upon the wall opposite the single chair. Of course, she chided herself. The chair would naturally be arranged so that the sitter would have a good view of the most treasured object in the room.
And then she saw it, and knew it for what it was.
It was such a little thing. A little, little thing compared to the grandeur of the portrait of the dancer and the untold value of the golden mask. But as she leaned forward to illuminate it more brightly, she knew it was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen. It was not that it was colorful, no, it was entirely in shades of black, white, and gray. No, the marvel of it was in the rendering, the perfection of every line, smudge, and stroke. A Lady, indeed, like no other.
Kitty felt herself flush with anger as she thought of the man sleeping in the bedchamber beyond the door. She would not allow DeVergesse to steal it from him. She would not.
If it had been the golden mask, she might have had some sympathy for him. That alone, was wealth enough to tempt any man. But this...this could have value only to the owner. It was, she thought again with wonder, such a small, plain thing. The paper was stained here and there, yellowing in patches, the ink fading from black to rust in the stained areas at the edges, and she knew it to be quite a bit older than the painting of the Spanish dancer. But the evidence of the chair showed her the importance it held for Don Massaredo.
He may come into this room, she thought hotly, but he will not find her. I will keep her safe until he has decided she does not exist, then I will return her. I might even tell Don Massaredo once he is gone and he will be so grateful to me that I kept his treasure safe from that thieving Frog!
Without a moment's hesitation, she detached it from the wall in its little ebony frame, and clasped it to her bosom, locking the door to the chamber behind her as she returned to Don Massaredo's bedchamber. He was still sleeping peacefully.
Kitty, now that she had anointed herself his champion, felt a rush of affection for the old Don. Softly, she kissed his cheek and brow as she gathered up her shawl.
"There will plenty of time to make my amends for this, dear man, for I do not look to be leaving any time soon."
She put the volume of Don Quixote on top of the portrait of the Lady that she still clasped to her chest, and drew the shawl around her shoulders to cover them both, hugging her burdens tightly. Then, she kicked off her shoes like Cinderella, and leaving them scattered before the hearth, she left the bedroom and fled noiselessly back down the hallways, ducking in and out of the darkened corners and corridors, and finally, reaching the safety of her room, where she locked the door securely behind her.
In a fever of excitement, she popped The Lady from her frame, and hid her in the pages of Don Quixote, which she placed in the bottom of her sea chest and covered with her garments. What to do with the frame? She decided to hide it in plain sight, and tore a fashion plate from an old magazine she had amongst her things, inserting it into the frame and hanging it upon an old nail on the wall over her bed. She then removed the lump of soft clay from her petticoat pocket, gave the forged packet of dispatches a reassuring pat, and then pressed the key into the clay, making an excellent and true impression. She threw the key into a pot of face cream, screwed the lid on tightly, and expelled a great sigh of relief.
There was a soft knock on the door. She smiled wickedly.
"'Oo is it?"
"DeVergesse. May I come in?"