Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.
--William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
PART THIRTY-TWO: "The Final Player"
"I don't know," Archie said, after a lengthy pause, "if I should be more delighted or horrified, my rose."
He shook his head, indicating with a sweep of his hand the evidence she had brought to their assignation at the Bristol Hotel. "These cost two lives--perhaps even three--that I know of."
Somberly, they gazed down at what lay spread out before them on the table: three sketches in pen and ink, labelled with the fine, spidery hand Archie had come to recognize as Daubigny's. "Vicomtesse DeGuise" read the first one--and there she was, reclining upon her chaise. Even in draft form, the likeness was unmistakable--the artist had captured the elegant bones and slumberous dark eyes, the languid droop of the full lips. But there were other things of which to take note as well: smaller drawings about the edges of the page. Fine detail work--a lady's crumpled glove, a jewelry box out of which was spilling what looked like the links of a heavy necklace, a handkerchief monogrammed with the initial "M", a vase, what appeared to be part of a curtain or wall hanging . . .
Archie sighed and rubbed his eyes, unable to take it all in at once, and then looked at the second sketch. "Marie-Louise Mailleux, à l'occasion de ses fiançailles." On the occasion of her betrothal.
A girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen posed somewhat stiffly, wearing a chain of linked fleur-de-lys and an elaborate pendant about her neck. She was a handsome girl, Archie observed, dark and slender with a hint of fire in her eyes and a determined set to her full lips. Ah yes--Medora had mentioned that Louise, the elder sister, had been engaged first to the Vicomte DeGuise. By the looks of her, it was difficult to imagine her making a tractable bride.
The last sketch was perhaps the most revealing of all: "Marie-Louise et Marie-Lucille." Gowned similarly in high-waisted frocks, the sisters sat beside each other on a sofa, the arm of one around the shoulders of the other in a position that suggested intimacy and protectiveness. But . . .
'Is't possible?’ Archie almost uttered the thought aloud as he stared down at the sketch, enthralled.
Utterly perfect mirror images. Or one face--shared between two bodies--the two faces bore such similarity.. The arch of the eyebrows, the cheekbones and jawline, the hair . . . As he looked closer, more slowly, he saw that Marie-Lucille's face seemed slightly thinner, dominated by huge dark eyes; she had the more delicate, fragile air. Marie-Louise, by contrast, gazed boldly out of the sketch, the hint of a pout hovering at the corners of her practiced smile. Was one truly the elder and the other the younger? Or . . . ?
"What do you make of this, my rose?" Archie tried to keep his tone casual, needing confirmation of what he himself was coming to believe.
She hesitated only a moment. "Well . . . they're twins, aren't they? It's true that in this sketch--when I look closely, one seems much frailer than the other--but when one first sees them, their features are the same. And then there's this." Leaning over his shoulder, she pointed at Daubigny's notation. "The names: Marie-Louise and Marie-Lucille."
"Why do you consider those important?" he asked guardedly.
"Parents do strange things when it comes to naming twins. Either they suffer from a total lack of inspiration, or," Medora pulled a slight face, "they succumb to excessive cleverness."
Jean and Jeanette, Archie thought, remembering the Heavenly Twins with the unimaginative mother.
"They give them names that begin with the same letter, like Daphne and Diana," Medora continued. "Or rhyming names, like Anna and Hannah. Or names from the same source: my mother and her twin were called Rose and Violet."
Archie looked up, momentarily diverted. "Good God--really?"
Her grimace was answer enough. "So the Mademoiselles Mailleux were both called Marie, but, according to Madame Dumont, they were known by their second names, which are different." She paused, studying the last sketch again. "And, I think, if Monsieur Daubigny's depiction is indeed accurate . . . that they must have been quite devoted. Sisters of any stripe can be close, but twin sisters -- can be closer yet. "
Archie raised his brows. "Some sisters detest each other, you know."
"True," she conceded. "But would you say that was the case with Marie-Louise and Marie-Lucille?"
"To judge from this sketch alone, I would say not," he admitted. "If nothing else, I think they must have cared deeply for each other at the time this likeness was rendered. We cannot know if those feelings altered, later." Or could they? Unbidden, Archie's thoughts turned to Colonel Parillaud; serious political differences had riven the French officer's family--and yet he still desired news of his brother, had risked being suspected as a spy to send a message of condolence . . .
Another thought, even more outlandish, struck him. That drowning in Calais, which had resulted in no body being found . . . what if Marie-Louise lived -- and Marie-Lucille knew of it? What if, in fact, Marie-Lucille was in contact with her twin or even actively shielding her from discovery -- and exposure as a Bonapartist spy? And where better to hide, after all, than London? That Jacques had apparently died in the search for the sketches seemed to be proof of some kind.
"Archie . . . " Medora was watching him intently. "Have you thought of something?"
"Several somethings, love," he replied after a pause. "But I do not feel quite at liberty to discuss them yet. Not until I have spoken with . . . someone else first."
She sighed, her mouth quirking wryly. "Well, that's honest, at least."
Archie set one hand on either side of her face and kissed her. "I think what you've brought may turn out to be invaluable, Medora Rose. Thank you."
"Oh, I hope so! Only . . . " Medora bit her lip. "I still do not understand why these should have been addressed to Lord Langford. Is Julian a spy, then? An agent like you, all these years?" She sounded as if the world had turned upside down.
Archie considered the question, images of Kendal-Jones, Lady Amhurst, and the Earl of Thorne all running through his head. "Not necessarily. He may simply have issued an invitation, hosted a dinner party, provided an introduction or two . . . anything of that nature." He was a little surprised he had not considered the idea much sooner.
Sooner. Dear God -- time was of the essence now. He gathered the sketches together hurriedly. "Forgive me, my rose, but I must be going. You know I will have to show these to -- certain people."
"Yes," she acknowledged. "And -- I think you should know that Georgy saw these too."
Archie paused, his apprehension growing. "She did?"
"She could hardly avoid doing so, they were fastened to the back of her portrait," Medora reminded him, a little tartly.
"Oh, Lord. Does she suspect anything --?"
"Naturally, she's quite curious--Julian is her brother, after all." Seeing Archie's consternation, Medora took pity on him. "Leave her to me."
He hesitated. "Are you sure--?
"She is as dear to me as a sister," Medora replied, placing her own hands briefly upon his shoulders. "But when it comes to protecting you or even those shadowy colleagues of yours, I am prepared to be quite ruthless."
"You believe her still to be alive?" Kilcarron, to whom Archie had reported on his return to headquarters, eyed his subordinate keenly.
"On reflection, yes, I do," Archie replied. En route he had entertained any number of speculations regarding Marie-Louise's possible whereabouts, the most bizarre of which involved her masquerading as Madonna Florinda, the Vicomte's mistress! However, it seemed unlikely that a girl who had run away in her teens rather than become DeGuise's lawful wife would embroil herself in a liaison with him now. And he had seen Madonna Florinda for himself and had not then noted any resemblance between her and the Vicomtesse. "Do not you believe it possible, sir?"
Kilcarron did not immediately reply. Instead, he steepled his fingers and stared down with hooded eyes at the sketches now laid upon his desk. "Indeed, I do think it possible," he said at last, his level tone giving nothing way. "Agent Stewart," he glanced up as if only then recollecting Archie's presence, "will you find Commander Smith and Commander Carmichael, and inform them that there will be a meeting of all divisions in the library -- in no less than fifteen minutes?"
"If she is alive," Smitty began speculatively, "that would be--"
"A secret greater than any of her lovers," Barrington declared.
"Indeed." Smith sounded a touch impatient at the interruption. "More to the point, since she has been so flawlessly discreet--there must be a go-between, or perhaps even more than one. The Vicomtesse is not known for spending time among the emigres. There must be some other contact."
"And I'll wager I can put a name to at least one of them." Ferguson spoke up, his finger planted down on one point of the sketch before him. "I've seen this before, and . . ." his gaze wandered past Archie. "Mac, come have a look, will you?"
Rory, thus summoned, made his way forward to glance over the other agent's shoulder. "You're right," he agreed. "That's the same."
"The same what?" Archie demanded.
"The handkerchief," Ferguson said briefly, holding up the paper with the sketch in question. "We both went through his linens."
"The doctor," Rory elaborated. He passed the sketch over to Archie's outstretched hand, and several other agents crowded in to look at the monogram: a neat, squared-off "M."
"Minard again," Archie said, and heard someone make a low, thoughtful noise. Minard had been a witness for the court in Marie-Louise's death certificate, Minard as physician to the Vicomtesse, the Vicomtesse painted by Daubigny, and now a link between Daubigny and Minard, perhaps the last remaining link necessary . . .
Archie shook himself, suddenly realizing that the last words had been spoken aloud, but this time by someone else.
"I believe it is time to change our strategy," Kilcarron said steadily. "With this last proof, the moment has come to directly engage."
And who will bell the cat?
The line from the old fable ran through Archie's head as he listened to his disputing colleagues. Yet unlike the original source, these combatants were vying for the hazard of drawing feline attention, even converting that risk into a post of honor.
"One of the London division," Barrington declared. "An established figure--that would be most believable."
"And useless ever after, once he's seen," Carmichael argued. "Let a name or face be exposed--Boney's men will have it forever--or Fouche, most likely. Take someone who's not London-bred--and not likely to remain."
Edinburgh division. Archie realized where the argument was going.
"As if they would find you a credible source?" Barrington scoffed.
Carmichael stood his ground. "Not saying it should be me, was I? Someone else, who's been out and about among the Frogs, perhaps, or seen in the drawing rooms."
Archie felt the commander's gaze rove in the direction of Ferguson and Archie himself.
Barrington actually snorted. "And so one of your lot found these how? Dropped by accident in the street or left behind in a chair or the mail-coach? Still hardly credible."
"Then perhaps someone completely unexpected," Caillean intervened. "Someone so gaudy no one would ever have suspected her--"
"Or a domestic," Smith took the thread in a different direction. "Someone so unexceptional they are never noticed and never suspected--a model servant. Much easier to explain how they could acquire something like this."
"But would they be knowledgeable or enterprising enough to discover who to contact? Especially among the emigres?" Arundel asked.
"A reputation as a physician may travel far and wide," Latour commented. "Perhaps--as another physician and a foreigner--I could muddy the waters a bit and cause some useful confusion."
"No, doctor!" Carmichael's growl was emphatic. "The Grey Man's hunting down Froggy doctors, d'you remember? We can't have you drawing cross-fire."
"You are *all* overlooking one salient fact," Kilcarron's cool, contained voice made a sudden, intense quiet spread throughout the room. "I submit a far better candidate is already in place."
The silence continued; Archie felt his eyes widen as he--and the other agents--discovered the earl's meaning.
"You, sir?" he exclaimed involuntarily, and felt his face heat at his own impetuousness.
"My position is more than high enough to gain entrance into government and even Admiralty circles. And there have been very useful rumors enough in the past. Let them appear to be well-founded in fact; they will doubtless continue in the future. And--there is a debt, as well, that should be paid."
Archie was not sure he understood the very last statement, but saw Smitty nod to herself, as if in agreement.
"But, the danger--" Agent Petrie began.
"He has the right." Carmichael's voice was suddenly cold, causing a new silence to fall.
Smith's voice echoed him abruptly. "He has the right."
"And now that is established," Kilcarron resumed, "let us all consider how best to proceed."
Discussion continued after another brief pause. Archie found himself still silent, considering the earl in a new light. As a fledgling agent, still convalescent from his wounds in Kingston and his emotions raw from loss, he had viewed Kilcarron half with trepidation, half with resentment. Most recently, the discovery of his past manipulations had roused Archie to a brief, beserker fury, followed by frustrated exasperation. But now, watching his superior give unquestioned, unflinching instructions to all subordinates present that he was to assume the post most in harm's way, Archie felt another emotion, surprising in its simplicity: respect.
The first time the signs had been very subtle: a book or two shifted on the corner of his desk, a neat stack of shirts slightly askew. And his tell-tale by the window vanished completely: an absent-minded man might have thought he had overlooked it through his own forgetfulness.
There was nothing subtle this time.
Even from a distance he had seen his door was ajar. A bureau drawer had been pulled out and an unfolded handkerchief dangled over its edge. A cold draught of air blew through the the opened window, fluttering the curtains.
And a glove lay in the middle of his desk.
He studied it intently: an old=fashioned riding gauntlet, with no crest or monogram to reveal its identity. Still, its meaning was unmistakeable. When he picked it up with the fire-tongs, a slip of paper fluttered down onto the desk.
It has come to my attention there is an item of value that is of some interest to you. I believe what you are seeking is in my possession. If you would inquire after it, come at two o'clock tomorrow--"
The name of a public house, located in Fenchurch Street, followed.
He stood frowning in the middle of his hired lodgings, his fist clenched . . . crushing the paper into a ball.
END PART THIRTY-TWO