I’ll post a new Fraser Correspondence letter next week.
Suzanne fixed her gaze on Colin, her two year-old-son, leaning over the edge of the fountain in the Jardin du Tuileries to throw a piece to bread to the swans. Her companion, Blanca, kneeling beside him, had a light hand on his shoulder. Blanca’s other arm was wrapped round four-year-old Livia Davenport who was stretching her arms out over the water, om tiptoes on her black-kid-slippered feet.
“You’d never guess they were in a house full of wounded soldiers two months ago,” Cordelia Davenport said. “Children are wonderfully resilient.”
For a moment Suzanne saw the black-and-white marble tiles of their house in the Rue Ducale in Brussels, covered with wounded men on pallets, Cordelia bending over her injured husband, Malcolm dripping blood onto the floor. “I find it hard to remember myself. And yet in many ways the conflict isn’t over.”
The gravel crunched as a pair of British soldiers strolled by. They tipped their hats to the ladies. Suzanne returned the nod, though she flinched inwardly as she always did when she saw the foreign occupying troops on French soil.
Cordelia’s gaze lingered on Suzanne. For a disconcerting moment Suzanne was afraid her friend had seen through her. But instead, Cordelia said, “You and Malcolm had something to do with the Rivère business last night, didn’t you?”
Suzanne smiled. “Our friends know us too well.”
“I merely have to look for the most dangerous events to know where to find you. Another investigation?”
“Just a few questions for now. Did you know a Bertrand Laclos in England?”
“Of course. All the girls were mad for him. He had dark hair and broody eyes and that wonderful accent and all the romance of an émigré. He was bookish and not inclined the flirtation, but that only added to the romance. And he had an unexpected sense of humor.” Cordelia’s brows drew together beneath the satin straw of her hat. “It was quite a shock when he ran off to France to fight for Bonaparte. Especially then. The world seems more complex now.”
Suzanne’s gaze fixed on Colin, now tossing bread to the swans while Blanca gripped his waist. Her English son. Last summer in England, he’d wanted one of the white Royalist cockades that the vendors in Hyde Park were selling.
“Is Bertrand Laclos mixed up in this?” Cordelia asked.
“Possibly. We’re not sure how. I’ve been trying to find people who knew him more recently. Apparently he was friendly with Edmond Talleyrand after he came to France, but Doro claims to scarcely remember him. And she’s not precisely in a position to talk to Edmond about it.”
“How odd,” Cordelia said. “Bertrand Laclos and Edmond were the last sort of men I’d have thought would become friends. And Edmond never mentioned Bertrand to me.”
Suzanne cast a sharp glance at her friend.
Cordelia gave a wry smile. “Edmond Talleyrand and I were— Rather close for a time. In Paris a year ago. After Bonaparte was exiled the first time.” Cordelia’s gaze focused on her daughter as Livia set a toy boat to sail on the smooth water of the fountain. “Edmond was— Amusing in a certain crude way.” She turned her gaze to Suzanne. As usual Cordy didn’t flinch from an uncomfortable truth. “I’m sorry. I know how close you are to Dorothée.”
“Doro would be the first to say her marriage was over long before you met Edmond. Or that it never really began. I’m only surprised—”
“That I sank so low?” Cordelia’s mouth curved, this time with more bitterness. “I wasn’t very happy with myself a year ago. You could say I was wallowing. Not pretty.”
“Understandable,” Suzanne said, images from her own past clustering in her mind.
Two little girls in white frocks ran by rolling hoops along the gravel. Cordelia watched them vanish down a tree-lined walkway, their nurse trailing behind. A stir of wind brought the scent of the orange trees planted in wooden crates about the garden. A scent almost too intense in its sweetness. “There are hours at a time when I forget the past,” Cordelia said. “Even whole days occasionally. But it never really goes away. It’s folly to think it can.”
Livia’s boat had got stuck against the stone edge of the fountain. Blanca, Colin at her hip, Livia by the hand, was walking round the fountain the retrieve it. Livia looked over her shoulder to wave at her mother. Cordelia waved back.
“One has to learn to live with it,” Suzanne said.
Blanca had retrieved the boat. Livia held it aloft, then with great concentration set it in the water. Colin clamored to be put down. Livia held out the boat, and they set it to sail across the basin of the fountain together.
“No sense in hiding,” Cordelia said in a bright voice. “Edmond and I didn’t part on bad terms. Do you want me to talk to him?”
“Cordy—” Suzanne said, her mouth dry.
“I might as well put my past to use.” Cordelia gave a wry smile. “The truth is I’d like to be of use.” She watched Livia and Colin run round the fountain to catch the boat as it bobbed against the opposite side. “I know how Harry feels stuck behind a desk. Those days in Brussels when we were nursing the wounded— I’ve never been through anything so horrible. And yet there was a wonderful sort of—exhilaration I suppose is the best word—in doing something of such substance. It seems sadly trivial to be back to paying calls and sipping champagne and changing our dresses five times a day.”
“I feel much the same,” Suzanne said, recalling how empty she’d felt when she told Raoul she was stopping the work that had sustained her for more than five years. “It’s odd after life and death stakes that suddenly a seating arrangement is a matter of great moment.”
“You? You’ve never just paid calls and ordered champagne.”
No, but now instead of being a spy on her own she was a spy’s wife. A distinction she could not explain to Cordelia. “Cordy—” She looked at Cordelia—the experience in the curve of her mouth, the worldly wisdom in the blue eyes beneath her blackened lashes—and was swept by an unexpected wave of protection for her strong-minded friend. “The work Malcolm does. The work Malcolm and I do. Probing people’s pasts, uncovering secrets. It’s often not very pretty.” How odd. In the old days she’d have made use of an asset with no qualms and quibbles about anyone’s feelings.
“I know.” Cordelia returned her gaze, her eyes steady with understanding. “I saw enough of that in the investigation into my sister’s death. But I’m not the sort to need to be wrapped in cotton wool.”
Cordelia gave her a bright smile that at once defied the past and acknowledged its risks. “Harry and I can live with the past. Or we’re going to have to learn to do so.”