When I began the Fraser Correspondence, I thought I would jump about chronologically with the letters, but I got absorbed in the events of 1813 and have been sticking with that year. However, “Secrets of a Lady,” takes place in November so I thought it would be fun to show a glimpse of Charles and Mélanie and Colin and Jessica and friends over the holidays in 1819. This week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a series of short letters from late December 1819.
“The Mask of Night” begins just a bit later, on 6 January (Twelfth Night) 1820. This week’s excerpt from “The Mask of Night” takes place late that night (or rather, very early the morning of 7 January) and bridges the end of Chapter 5 and the opening of Chapter 6, with a viewpoint switch from Charles to Mélanie at the chapter break. A dead body has been discovered at Oliver and Isobel Lydgate’s Twelfth Night masquerade. Home in Berkeley Square, Charles and Mélanie finally have a chance to discuss the events of the evening in private.
Wishing everyone a cosy, book-filled midwinter, and the happiest of holidays to all those celebrating!
Charles had suspected there was something Mélanie wasn’t telling him from the moment he stepped back onto the terrace after his interview with Carfax and Castlereagh. But even when they left the Lydgates, he was not immediately able to ask her about it for they had Roth and Officer Dawkins with them, as well as David and Simon whom they had driven to the ball in their carriage. It was a silent journey. Most of what could be said had been said in Oliver and Isobel’s library. David frowned into the shadows. So, uncharacteristically, did Simon. Roth stared out the dark window, as though the flashes of lamplight in the gloom beyond held answers. Dawkins, a tow-headed young man of little more than twenty, shifted nervously on the watered silk seat.
As he swung down from the carriage in front of the Bow Street Public Office, Roth murmured that he’d call on Charles and Mélanie the next day. David said something similar when they reached the Albany. He paused at the base of the carriage steps and stared at Charles for a moment, his gaze night-black, as it had been since their school days when he was trying to warn Charles of danger. Simon touched his arm and he turned and strode across the forecourt, his cavalier cloak billowing about his shoulders. Simon walked beside him, an incongruous match in his Francois Villon tunic and boots.
Charles squeezed Mélanie’s hand, but he didn’t attempt to discuss the events of the night and neither did she. There was too much to say and not enough time before they reached their own house in Berkeley Square.
They lit candles in the entrance hall, nodded to Michael, the footman, and climbed the stairs. A cream-colored note card stood on the demi-lune table on the second floor landing. Mélanie snatched it up and held it to the light of her candle.
Colin fell asleep while I was reading Robinson Crusoe to him. No nightmares.
Since Colin’s abduction last autumn, Laura Dudley, the children’s governess, had taken to leaving word for them when they were out for the evening. They eased open the door of their son’s room and heard the soft, even sound of his breathing. He was sprawled beneath the quilt, not curled into a tight ball as he’d been wont to do just after the abduction. Charles stared at his son’s tousled dark hair, cursing Julien St. Juste and Carfax and Castlereagh and whomever had wielded the knife in the Lydgates’ garden.
Jessica, their three-year-old daughter, was sound asleep as well in her room next door, with Berowne, the family cat on the foot of her bed. Charles closed the door softly and he and Mélanie retreated to their own bedchamber. At last they had leisure and privacy to speak, but he wasn’t sure how to begin. Despite all they’d been through together they were stepping onto unfamiliar territory, without a map or even a compass to guide them.
Mélanie turned up the Agrand lamp and struck a flint to light the branch of tapers on the Pembroke table by the fireplace. Her jet-beaded mask, which she had set on the polished wood of the table, caught the flare of light.
“Carfax can be difficult,” Charles said, “but I owe him a great deal. He got me the post in Lisbon when I desperately needed to be out of Britain.”
“And without that we’d never have met.” Mélanie scraped some wax from the wick of a candle that had guttered out. “You couldn’t have refused, Charles.”
“I did refuse. Several times. Like most politicians, Carfax isn’t above trading on old debts.”
Mélanie set down the tinderbox and dropped into a chair. The black velvet folds of her gown pooled about her, gleaming like the jet of the mask. “This is nothing we haven’t done in the past.”
The candlelight hollowed out her cheeks and deepened her eyes. Her brows were sooty smudges against her pale skin. A trace of lip rouge was smeared at the corner of her mouth. She looked more fragile to him since the revelations of two months ago. Or perhaps it was simply that he was more aware of the fragility of everything in life, even the bonds between two people. Especially the bonds between two people.
He crossed to her side and perched on the arm of her chair. “No, it isn’t the first time.” He brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek. “But—“
“But it’s the first time since you learned I was a French spy.”
He forced himself to smile. “That’s my Mel. Never afraid to put things into words.”
She echoed the smile, but her eyes remained serious. “I’ve spent far too much time not telling the truth as it is, darling.”
Charles smoothed away the rouge smear and stroked his thumb over her lips. “We should have gone to Scotland when we left Aunt Frances’s after Christmas.”
“We couldn’t have stayed forever.” Mélanie caught his hand in her own. “We can’t run away from things. We agreed on that. We’d neither of us forgive the other if we started making compromises.”
“No.” He leaned down and pressed his lips to her pearl-dressed hair. “Tell me.“
She pulled back and twisted her neck to look up at him. “Tell you what?”
“Whatever it is you discovered while I was talking with Carfax.” Charles looked into his wife’s sea-green eyes. Like water that is glassy calm on the surface while God knows what turbulence lurks beneath. “Did you recognize St. Juste before I told you who he was?”
She drew a long, uneven breath. “I was going to tell you. I was just trying to work out where to begin. I’m afraid the investigation’s going to be more complicated than you think.”
The last time she’d had that note in her voice, his world had come tumbling down about his ears. “You didn’t tell me you recognized the dead man as St. Juste when we were alone in the garden.”
“I couldn’t be sure we were safe from being overheard. Besides, I thought it might just be my mind playing tricks on me. I wasn’t sure until Roth and I examined the body.” Mélanie swallowed. The stiff lace of her ruff stirred at her throat. “We removed all his clothing in case there was any clue to identify him. He had a scar on his chest and a birthmark on the inside of his right thigh. St. Juste had identical markings on his body.”
Charles stared at his wife, lover, best friend, partner in adventure. The woman he understood better than anyone else on earth and yet sometimes felt he was still coming to know.
Once again, Mélanie said it for him. Her voice was as inexorable as a rapier blade and at the same time stretched like frayed silk; her gaze at once bruised and steady. “I saw both the night I went to bed with him.”
Mélanie stared up at her husband. His face was inches from her own, his eyes more black than gray, his face sharp and vulnerable in the candlelight. He already knew the worst about her, and he had come to terms with it, after a fashion. But to hear his wife say I was a spy was not the same as hearing the details of a specific mission. To accept that she had used her body for information was different from hearing her name a man she’d taken to her bed.
“Was St. Juste at the ball tonight to meet you?” he asked.
“Good God no.” She swallowed, her throat squeezed raw. “Do you believe me?”
Her heart began to beat again beneath the boned velvet of her bodice.
Charles stood and took a turn about the room. “You’d better tell me everything you remember about him.”
She spread her hands palm down on her velvet skirt. “It was the autumn of 1809. Rao– I’d been recruited a few months before.”
“O’Roarke recruited you,” Charles said, naming her former spymaster and lover.
“Yes.” She felt her fingers pressing into the flesh of her thighs through the velvet. “We’d been traveling round Spain, but that autumn he took me to Paris. While we were there, he got an unexpected summons. And he told me he had my first mission.”
She plucked at a fold of velvet. “No one seems to know where Julien St. Juste came from or what was his original nationality. The first anyone reports of him is in Paris in 1795. He would have been quite young. He knew the Empress Josephine—before she married Bonaparte.”
“Carfax told me. They were lovers.”
“Yes. Then years later, in 1809, Napoleon was being pressed to divorce her. St. Juste had a paper that could have been particularly damaging to the Empress if it came to her husband’s eyes.”
“O’Roarke sent you to steal it.”
“He and Josephine had been friends for a long time—”
“They met in prison during the Terror.”
Mélanie nodded. She forgot sometimes how much Charles knew about Raoul O’Roarke.
“What was in the paper?” Charles asked.
“I never learned. It was in code. My job was simply to steal it.”
“We’d learned that St. Juste would be at the Comédie Française. I posed as a country girl from Provence, newly married to a Lieutenant in the Imperial Guard, enjoying my first taste of Paris while my husband fought in Spain. We’d found out blue was St. Juste’s favorite color. I wore a peacock blue gown and sapphires. During the interval, I contrived to collide with an elderly general wearing a number of medals and stumble into St. Juste’s arms.”
“Crude but effective.”
“He bought me champagne.” The close, hot air in the salon and the scent of wine on his breath raked at her skin. “He invited me to his box and then took me to super in the Palais Royale. We ended up at his lodgings. Once he was asleep I searched his rooms. He caught me in the act.”
“We all have our failures.”
“I was a fool. I’m lucky it didn’t cost me my life. But when I admitted what I was doing, he said Josephine was one of the few people on this earth he’d never hurt. I had the oddest sense that he meant it.”
Charles stopped by the satinwood pier table and picked up the decanter of whisky. “What else?”
“That’s all. I went to Malmaison and told the Empress what had transpired. I don’t think she took much comfort from St. Juste’s assurances. Whatever was in the paper it terrified her.”
“Before you left his rooms.” Charles poured out two glasses of whisky with a hand that would have seemed steady to anyone but her.
“Charles, for God’s sake—“
“You were with the man for half the night, Mel. Anything a person does can reveal something about his or her character. Particularly in the bedchamber.”
He set the decanter down with barely a clatter. “Whom you slept with before you married me was never one of my concerns.”
That was true. It was also true that he hadn’t had to hear a detailed account of it. “I told you, we went to his lodgings—“
“Where?” he said, in the same light, ruthless voice.
“A house near the Tuileries. A large house with a wrought iron gate worked with ivy leaves. He had a suite of rooms and a manservant, though I never saw the servant. His things were expensive—”
“His clothes were mostly French, as were his toiletries.” The smell washed over her—citrus and sandalwood and spice. “He had books in English, French, Spanish. And German– I remember a Werther that wasn’t translated.”
“You couldn’t tell his nationality from his accent?”
“No, though I spent most of the evening trying.”
Charles crossed the room and handed her one of the whiskies. “What next?”
“He kept cognac in his room. 0Most definitely French and expensive. We drank some.” She could feel herself stalling, the way she might prevaricate with a man she didn’t want to go to bed with. Silly. She’d never been squeamish, either in what she did or what she spoke about afterwards.
“What did you talk about?”
“The merits of Beaumarchais versus Molière. The delights of Paris. My boredom with my supposed husband.” She took a sip of whisky, wishing the smoky bite was enough to wash away the memories. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the fluted mahogany posts of the bed she shared with Charles. “We didn’t didn’t finish the cognac. Some of it got spilled on my gown.”
Charles leaned against the mantle, a half-dozen paces from her. “And then?”
Her fingers tightened on the crystal glass, etched with the crest of her husband’s family. “Darling, you don’t seriously want it spelled out for you.”
“I told you. What people do in the bedchamber can be revealing.”
“Charles, if you’re testing yourself or me—“
“That would be a singularly stupid thing to do.” His gaze had turned maddeningly opaque, the way it sometimes did. His arm rested along the mantle, whisky glass casually in hand. “I’m trying to make sense of the man whose murder we have to solve. You’re the only person we have access to who knew him.”
She tossed down another sip of whisky. It burned her throat. “Perhaps I don’t remember. There were a lot of them after all.”
“Gammon. You have a memory like an encyclopedia. I’m adult enough to handle this, Mel.”
She stared at the candlelight glinting off the polished beads of her mask. Sometimes she thought it would be infinitely easier to be married to a man who would settle for something less than the truth. She looked at her husband and took up the challenge he’d thrown down. “He was aggressive. Inventive. Greedy about his own needs but not blind to his partner’s. He wasn’t particularly interested in kissing but he spent a lot of time unpinning my hair. He told me I reminded him of his first love, which seemed a bit fulsome for his general style. He ripped a seam in the side of my gown. He undressed me completely except for my stockings. He tied me to the bed posts—“
Charles’s arm jerked, spattering whisky on the hearth rug. “What?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, darling, you’ve read the Marquis de Sade. At least I assume you have. His books are in our library.”
“And you let him—“
“Do you think I’d let anyone tie me up if I wasn’t certain I could get myself free in ten seconds if I needed to?”
“It wasn’t the first time. Dearest, there isn’t a lot I haven’t done. Besides I rather”—she glanced down at the glass in her hand, then forced herself to look back at him—“–it had a certain piquancy.”
He drew a breath.
“Don’t look at me like that, Charles, it’s not something I want you to do. That is”—her fingers clenched on the glass; odd how one could share a bed with someone for seven years and not be sure of certain things—“you could if you wanted to, but—“
“Thank you. No.” Charles set down his glass and rubbed his hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry. I was the one who claimed this wasn’t personal.”
“No, you’re right. It may be relevant.” She scoured her memory of touches and scents and tastes. “He liked to be in control. I’d go so far as to say he needed to be in control. I got my hands untied at one point. I was playing, but he didn’t like my changing the rules. He lost his temper. And yet if there was one moment in the whole evening when I could have overpowered him, that was it. Losing control of the situation made him vulnerable. And brought out his violent streak.”
“Did he hurt you?” Charles said in a voice that belonged more to a husband than an agent.
“He didn’t do anything I wasn’t perfectly willing to allow.”
“Would have done it anyway if you hadn’t been willing?”
Silk cords. Demanding lips. A compelling touch. A murmur that was close to a command. “Possibly. Probably. He was dangerous.” And that danger had been exciting. She didn’t say so, but she knew Charles could see it in her eyes. His own gaze said as much.. “You’re right,” she said. “Whatever brought him here, the odds are he was on a mission. The question is who hired him.”
“As I told Oliver it could be anyone–a foreign government, Spanish rebels. Disaffected Englishmen, even Bonapartists. Or someone in our Government for all we know.”
“Castlereagh or Carfax?”
Charles stared at her. “Do I think the Foreign Secretary or the Chief of Intelligence—who happens to be my closest friend’s father—might have hired an assassin?” He pushed his hair back from his forehead. “Yes, I do, given the right motivation. But why the hell would they insist I investigate?”
“A point.” Mélanie had an image of Oliver standing with his arm round Isobel when they left St. James’s Place and then of Simon and David, shoulders brushing as they climbed the steps of the Albany. She wondered if the other two couples were still discussing the events of the night or if they’d already abandoned discussion and were asleep in each other’s arms, secure in the knowledge that, however distressing, those events were only a ripple on the secure waters of their lives.
“Did you see St. Juste again?” Charles asked.
She took another sip of whisky, her mouth dry. “Raoul employed him on more than one occasion, but I never worked with him in the Peninsula. The last time I caught a glimpse of him was at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. It was after we’d got the news that Napoleon was moving, and the ballroom had erupted into chaos. You were closeted with Wellington and Charles Stuart. I was leaving the supper room and I brushed past a man wearing a rifleman’s uniform. I’d swear it was St. Juste.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“He didn’t give any sign of it. But then I flatter myself that I gave no sign of recognizing him. He had a pretty girl in a white frock on his arm. No one I knew.” The story, as far as it went, was perfectly true. It merely left out the details of her association with St. Juste between their first meeting and their last.
Her interview with Hortense tonight played itself out in her mind. Her years of intelligence work had taught her to be wary of coincidence. But if she told Charles of her meeting with Hortense, she would have to ask him to conceal Hortense’s presence in England from Castlereagh and Carfax. And she would risk revealing those other, more dangerous secrets that were not hers to share. Secrets that could ruin lives and ripple across countries. Barely two months and she was lying to her husband again.
“I never should have brought Roth into this,” Charles said. “He might guess—“
“My dear Charles. He doesn’t have to guess. He already knows, as hard as we’re all pretending to ignore that fact.” Two months ago, at the conclusion of the investigation of Colin’s abduction, Roth had come into possession of a letter that revealed Mélanie’s past. He had returned the letter to Mélanie with the seal unbroken, but closer investigation had revealed that the seal had been steamed open.
Charles leaned toward her, hands on the tabletop. “I like Roth. He’s a good man with a lot of integrity. But that very integrity could compel him—“
“To betray me. Only it hasn’t done.”
“Yet. Because so far he’s been on our side. Think, Mel. If Roth finds out about your past connection to St. Juste, he could decide St. Juste was at the ball to see you and that you or I killed him.”
“There’s no reason for him to find out I had anything to do with St. Juste.”
“It’s too damned dangerous.”
“It’s always going to be dangerous, dearest. We’re going to have to get used to it.”
It hung in the air between them, the stark fact of what they risked, what they would risk for the rest of their lives. Assuming they were lucky enough not to get caught.
“Better to have Roth on our side,” Mélanie said. “If we confide in him, he’ll confide in us. And if we tell him enough of the truth to make it look as though we’re being honest, there’s less chance he’ll go poking about for more.”
Charles held her gaze for a long moment. “A nice, self-interested argument,” he said at last.
He drew a breath that had the scrape of sandpaper. “And at the risk of compromising my political ideals, for once I find self-interest convincing.”
“Good.” Mélanie got to her feet and walked toward him.
“But we’ll have to be sure—”
“Enough talking, Mr. Fraser.” She slid her hand behind his neck and pulled his head down to her own.
His arms closed round her waist. “Mel—”
She caught his lower lip between her teeth. “What?”
“This doesn’t change anything.”
“No. It’s just another moment of parley.”
His mouth came down hard on hers. He lifted her against him and carried her to the bed. She wrapped her arms round his neck and closed her eyes, knowing that for a brief while she could make him forget they weren’t the people they’d been two months ago.
The danger, of course, was that she’d forget it as well.