A Necessary Deception
by Laurie Alice Eakes
Entrée into the prison proved easy for Lady Lydia Gale. As the stranger at her cottage door had assured her when he arrived at dawn to inform her of a certain French major’s presence as an enemy “guest” of England, a few shillings exchanging hands had placed her in the guardhouse. She held a handkerchief sprinkled with the honey-citrus aroma of linden blossom oil beneath her nose against the prison stench, awaiting the arrival of Chef de Batallon Christophe Arnaud.
Her cousin and companion, Barbara Bainbridge, stood beside her, her lips set, her hands twisting in the folds of a cloak soaked with the rain that had begun the moment they reached the walls of Dartmoor Prison. “We’re going to contract a chill or worse.”
“We’ll be in Plymouth with hot tea and fires sooner than you think.” Lydia raised her other hand to finger the pearl and ruby bracelet that had scarcely left her wrist in the three years since Monsieur Arnaud’s messenger had appeared on her doorstep at dawn, carrying her husband’s last letter and gift that were somehow smuggled out of French-occupied Spain. Even with it resting between the edge of her kid glove and the sleeve of her pelisse, the bracelet’s coldness of metal and stones chilled her skin. “And since this man is a major in the French Army, helping him is simple.”
And her chance to be a good wife, even if she was now a widow.
“If it will cost us money, you know you don’t have any to spare.”
“I’ll manage something, if he needs money.”
That too she had worked out on the journey from her cottage in Tavistock to Dartmoor Prison. Barbara would object, but Lydia thought no price too high if it helped her to accomplish something, to succeed at fulfilling a promise—at last.
“Hush.” Lydia raised one finger to her lips at the sound of voices outside the door, one the heavy burr of the Somerset militia that served as guards in the prison, the other the rich timbre of accented English.
The door opened. Rain-laden air swept into the chamber along with a fresh wave of foul air so strong it seemed to cling to Lydia’s lips like poison. But she made herself lower the handkerchief out of courtesy for the man who had given her husband aid and managed to get a letter and valuable bracelet to her through war-torn Europe. How, she never asked. One was better off not knowing of the doings of the smugglers who traveled between France and England.
“Remember she’s a lady and mind your manners, frog.” The guard shoved the newcomer through the doorway with the butt of a musket.
The man staggered, caught his balance with a hand against the desk of the prison governor, then straightened to his full height—a considerable height for a Frenchman, at least half a foot taller than her own above-average height. “Madame Gale?”
“Yes.” Lydia gulped down an odd tightening in her chest and looked up into eyes the color of the sea on a sunny day. “Monsieur Arnaud?”
Beside her, Barbara stiffened and drew in a sharp breath. Lydia forced herself to release her bracelet and hold out her hand. “I’m pleased to have this opportunity to thank you in person, though not under these circumstances. Comprenezvous l’anglais?”
“Yes, I speak English, but if you speak French . . .” He glanced at the guard looming behind him.
“Oui, je parle francais.”
Barbara didn’t know much of the language, but no matter. Lydia could convey the contents of the dialogue later.
She glanced at the guard. “Please close the door.”
The man obliged, then leaned against it, the tip of his bayonet poised a mere inch behind the Frenchman.
Arnaud switched to French. “Please forgive me for not shaking your hand, madame.” He glanced down at Lydia’s pearly gray glove, then his own bare hand, where grime circled each ragged nail and streaked the back. “We have little water for washing.”
Or laundry or barbering. His dark hair hung in lank strands around a gaunt face mostly obscured by a matted beard. His clothes had once been a uniform, to judge from the epaulets on the shoulders and shining brass buttons. Now the blue wool lay behind a layer of mud and she didn’t want to guess what else.
Her stomach rolled, but not from the odor of uncleanliness swirling through the office. She felt sickened that her own countrymen could let human beings live in such deprivation. No one, not even the enemies of England for nearly twenty years, should live like hogs on a farm. No, worse. Hogs were well fed.
“My husband Charles said you took care of him,” Lydia blurted out. “You gave him your own room in the officers’ quarters, fed him, got him a physician.” Tears of outrage and grief trickled from the corners of her eyes. “And we repay you with this.”
Barbara gripped her arm hard enough to hurt. “What are you saying?”
“That we’re cruel.” Lydia spoke the English explanation between gritted teeth.
“The frogs don’t deserve no better,” the guard protested.
Lydia clenched her hands into fists. “No one deserves this kind of treatment.” She turned back to Arnaud and switched back to French. “How did you come to offer your enemy such kindness?”
Arnaud’s shoulders lifted in an elegant shrug. “I found him after the English abandoned Spain. All the horses on the beach were wild from being left behind, and the chevalier had been knocked down. No one noticed in their scramble to escape.”
“You risked your own life.” Lydia blinked to clear her eyes of the tears threatening to overflow down her cheeks, afraid if she used her handkerchief to wipe them away, the scented linen would make him think his filth was offensive to her. “You didn’t have to help him.”
“But no, I did.” Arnaud smiled all the way to the corners of his beautiful eyes. “Perhaps you can think of me as the good Samaritan.”
“As the—” Lydia’s eyes widened. “You know the parable of the good Samaritan? I thought—I beg your pardon.”
“No need.” Arnaud chuckled deep in his throat. “Most of my countrymen did abandon their faith in the Lord when the revolution came, but my maman made certain I did not. She is une Americaine. Je suis un homme de foi. Comprenez-vous?”
“I understand,” Lydia murmured as a glow of joy ignited inside her.
From the look of amazement on Barbara’s face, she had gathered enough of the French dialogue to work out that, despite the broadsheets and prints declaring all Frenchmen to be godless heathens worshiping at the tree of liberty, Arnaud claimed to be a man of faith in God.
Lydia smiled and switched to English. “The Lord has honored your kindness to your enemy and sent you to where I can give you assistance. What do I have to do to procure your parole?”
“Lydia,” Barbara gasped.
“Such kindness from you is welcome, but, madame—” He dropped his gaze to the muddy floorboards, and his face darkened beneath the layer of whiskers and dirt. “To obtain a parole, I must have the means for shelter and living.”
Tears started in Lydia’s eyes again. A man proud of his faith—a man who had used his own resources to see that a stranger, an enemy, received comfort to the end of his life and got a message to that stranger’s widow—deserved better than this kind of humiliation.
“I know. I made enquiries of the governor as soon as I learned you were an officer and eligible for parole.” Lydia shoved her handkerchief up the sleeve of her pelisse and traced her fingertips around the corners of a ruby in her bracelet. “Tavistock isn’t far from here, and my cottage—”
“Lydia, you cannot,” Barbara cried.
“I will be absent from there for several months.” Lydia slid her fingers from the ruby to the clasp. “That will give you time to find work and other shelter.”
“Merci bien, mais, madame.” If possible, his face darkened further with obvious embarrassment. “Will I not be unwelcome there?”
“Tavistock is a parole town. They’re used to Frenchmen there. You should be able to find work this time of year. Until you do . . .” She hesitated. “Will the guards steal from you before we can procure your release?” She worked the bracelet clasp beneath the sleeve of her pelisse.
“That is one thing they leave to us—what little wealth we have.” Hope sparked in his brilliant eyes. “I will repay every franc—mmm, shilling.”
“You paid me well by making my husband comfortable at the end.” The bracelet slid into her fingers. “Take this to Mr. Denby on High Street in Tavistock. I have left him a letter. He is expecting you.”
“Lydia, no,” Barbara gasped.
“But, madame—” He shook his head and tucked his hands into his pockets. “That was your husband’s gift.”
“Which you ensured arrived at my door safely.” She tucked the bracelet into his pocket and changed to English. “Guard, fetch the governor. This man will be free by noon.”
Lydia’s husband had left her little more to live on than the ownership of the cottage, but he had been knighted before his death. Whereas impoverished Mrs. Gale, widow, might have been shoved aside, Lady Gale, widow of a fallen officer, got the attention she needed to ensure Christophe Arnaud indeed left Dartmoor Prison by noon and headed west on a hired moorland pony to the parole town of Tavistock.
“You were mad to give him your bracelet,” Barbara pronounced. She and Lydia jounced along in a hired chaise bound for Plymouth, where Lady Bainbridge and Lydia’s two younger sisters were spending a night on the long journey to London. “It was your last gift from dear Sir Charles.”
“It was a gift with a promise attached.”
Returning the bracelet was the least she could do for the man who had made her husband’s last hours as comfortable as possible. Charles’s letter had made clear to her what was expected of her should the occasion arise. It had arisen. It was one task she could claim as having accomplished with success.
Her cat’s basket cradled on her lap, Lydia leaned back against the cushions, closed her eyes to remember the joy on Arnaud’s face when he rode out of the prison gates, and waited for the peace of a task well done to sweep over her, run through her.
But all that swept over her was cold, damp air and the musty smell of the hired chaise. All that ran through her was the discomfort of knowing Mama would be worrying over why Lydia hadn’t yet arrived at the George. Lydia should have sent a message, but she had spent every extra penny she possessed on the cost of traveling to Dartmoor, then on delivering a message to the local jeweler to advance whatever coin possible if a Frenchman appeared with her pearl and ruby bracelet.
Out of habit, Lydia stroked her left wrist. “I’ll have to find something else to wear here or I’ll forever feel as though I’m forgetting something.”
“You shouldn’t have trusted him.” Barbara flounced on the opposite seat. “If you’d taken it to Mr. Denby yourself, you could have used some of the coin instead of letting that Frenchman have all of it.”
“I doubt Mr. Denby would have been willing to engage in satisfactory business at seven o’clock in the morning.” Lydia peered out the window. Gray mist swirled past the glass. She sighed. “This fog will slow us down, but we should arrive by dinner.”
They arrived when the after-dinner tea was being served. In the private parlor where Mama, Cassandra, and Honore sat around a small table, one inn servant had just taken away the last of the removes, and another was about to bring in the sweets. Damp and travel-stained, Lydia stood in the doorway, feasting her eyes on the three female members of her family. Mama, too thin and with too much silver showing in her blonde hair after one more lung fever of the winter, glanced from one daughter to the other, her lips curved in a gentle smile. Cassandra, as tall and dark as Lydia but more slender in build, glowed in her pink muslin gown and velvet pelisse. Across from her, Honore, petite, blonde, and vibrant, chattered nonstop and emphasized the description of a gown she’d seen in La Belle Assemblee with sweeping gestures of fork and knife.
Lydia wished to rush forward and embrace all of them at the same time, hug them close to make up for the months since they’d all been together. Instead, she took the basket of sweets from the waiter and carried it to the table.
“Lydia,” Cassandra and Honore cried.
The latter launched herself from her chair. The former rose with more dignity.
Mama remained seated but held out her hands. “I was so worried, Lydia. What delayed you?”
“I had some business to take care of.”
Although she hadn’t thought of it, Lydia decided at that moment not to mention that a Frenchman was by now residing in her cottage. If Mama didn’t like the notion, it would distress her for no reason, and Honore just might get romantic ideas.
“It couldn’t have been good business,” Honore declared. “You look dreadful. How old is that gown?”
“As old as you, I’m quite certain.” Lydia hugged her youngest sister. “I’ll leave fashionable attire up to you, since you’ll be the true belle of the Season.”
“With my blonde hair?” Honore shook back her honey-toned curls. “You and Cassandra are far more fashionable.”
“And I’m an ancient husk of a widow.” Lydia turned to her middle sister. “Being engaged seems to agree with you. Will your fiancé be in town?”
“In April,” Cassandra said. “He’s concerned about some sort of disturbance with workers in the north.” She embraced Lydia.
Something thudded against Lydia’s leg.
“I’m so sorry.” Cassandra blushed. “I was reading before dinner and slipped the book into my pockets . . .”
“Cassandra, you must stop doing that.” Honore gave her sister a look of horror. “It ruins the line of your gown.”
“I expect she’ll walk down the aisle to her groom with a book in her pocket.” Lydia rounded the table to clasp Mama’s hands. “I do apologize for worrying you over being late. It couldn’t be helped. But no scolding. Barbara has done enough of that already.”
“And where is Barbara?” Mama asked. “She did come with you?”
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving her behind. But she insisted on seeing that someone carried our luggage to our room. She’ll get the kitchen to send us up a cold collation. I’m far too dirty to sit at the table.” After all, she had brought the prison stench with her. “But before I bid you good night, how are Papa and our brother doing? Will they join us in town?”
“In April.” Honore grimaced. “All the men are waiting until the Season starts to join us. And Beau must wait until his term at Oxford is over, of course, if he doesn’t escape to the wilds of Scotland or someplace else instead.”
“They aren’t interested in shopping.” Mama laughed. “Your father turned green when I suggested he come be fitted for a new coat or two.”
“I understand.” Lydia plucked at a frayed edge of her sleeve that she hadn’t noticed with her bracelet on. “But I suppose I must get a gown or two.”
“A gown or two,” Honore fairly squeaked with horror. “You need a full wardrobe. No more dull widow colors. It’s been three years. Indeed, you should be looking for another husband to get you out of that little cottage.”
“I’d rather see you safely betrothed and Cassandra wed, thank you.” Lydia tried not to let her shudder show at the idea of another marriage, another male to direct her life into emptiness. “I had my chance.”
“When you were with him for only a week—”
“Honore.” Mama’s gentle but admonishing tone cut the youngest sister off. “Spend your energies persuading your eldest sister to let me buy her several new gowns.”
“I can fetch my periodicals.” Honore started to rise.
“Not tonight.” Lydia waved her youngest sister back to her chair. “I’ve been up since dawn and have a cat that needs a walk. We’ll have plenty of time in the carriage to discuss fashion.” After giving them each a kiss on the cheek, Lydia trudged up to the room she shared with Barbara, where she found her cat, Hodge, staring at a knothole in the wall.
“Find a mouse?”
“Let’s hope it stays in the wall.” Barbara removed a sliver of chicken from a covered tray on the room’s table. “I had the kitchen send up some fowl for him.”
“Thank you.” Lydia held the tidbit out to the cat.
Hodge’s pink nose sniffed at the chicken. His whiskers quivered, and he snatched the morsel from her fingers. After a second piece, he began to purr.
She stroked the long, silky white fur. “You’re such a good kitty. Would you like a walk?”
“You shouldn’t go outside alone,” Barbara said. “Let me fetch my cloak and I’ll join you.”
“I’ll get one of the inn maids to go with me. You eat your supper and get yourself into bed.” Lydia affixed a leash to Hodge’s collar and carried him downstairs.
He didn’t like the leash, but she feared losing him beyond a hedgerow, so she insisted he wear it whenever they traveled. Not that they had gone farther than her family home at Bainbridge since Charles had gifted her with the kitten seven years earlier. Lydia had used the leash on him since then, so he was used to it and only occasionally tried to bite it off.
Once on the ground floor, she saw no one to ask to accompany her. A chorus of voices from the kitchen suggested the servants enjoyed their dinner. She needn’t disturb them. No one would annoy her around this respectable inn.
No one annoyed her around any of the respectable inns in which the Bainbridge ladies spent their evenings and nights over the next six days. After being holed up in one of the carriages with Mama and Barbara discussing ailments and medicaments, or with Cassandra and Honore—the former managing to read despite the bouncing vehicle, the latter ceaselessly discussing gowns and beaux—Lydia welcomed her evening strolls with Hodge. She’d spent so much time alone in the past several years that so many persons close at hand left her exhausted. Fresh air cleared her head.
Not that the air of Portsmouth smelled particularly fresh. Too many naval vessels rode at anchor in the harbor, their stench of bilges, unwashed bodies, and pea soup dinners riding on the breeze. The inn garden plants, evergreen bushes vibrant beneath a March drizzle, helped mask the odors of the harbor. Peace, aloneness . . . save for the cat happy to prowl beneath the shrubbery.
Breathing deeply of the piney scent of the garden, Lydia set Hodge on the crushed shell path—
And a man stepped into her path. “Madame Gale.”
His voice was low, indistinct, as though he wore a muffler against the chill.
She retreated from the stranger. “You startled me, sir. I don’t know you.”
“Nor do you need to.”
“Then I needn’t speak to you.” She tugged on Hodge’s leash. The man glided in front of her, barring her path. “You helped Christophe Arnaud get a parole from Dartmoor Prison.”
“That’s no one’s business.” Cold in the evening wet, she stooped and picked up Hodge, turning away as she straightened. “It was all quite legal.”
The man closed his hand over her arm, halting her retreat. “You’re not going anywhere yet, madame.”
“I beg your pardon.” Lydia stiffened. “Unhand me or I’ll scream for help.”
“And create a scene? I think not. You wouldn’t want to reflect badly on your sisters.”
He was right, blast his eyes.
The man laughed. “We have some business to transact.”
“We do not. I fulfilled my promise. My debt is paid.”
“But at too high a price, I think.” The man’s fingers tapped on her arm as though he played a tune on a pianoforte. “You see, Madame Gale, Christophe Arnaud never arrived in Tavistock.”
“What happened to him?” Lydia focused all her attention on the stranger now. “I saw him leave. He had an escort. He had everything he needed. He—was he injured? Assaulted?”
She squeezed Hodge so tightly the cat shot out of her arms with a yowl.
How could she have made amok of such a simple act of kindness?
“He eluded his guard and escaped.”
“Escaped.” Lydia peered through the darkness, trying to see the man’s face. “What are you saying? He was paroled from Dartmoor. He didn’t escape.”
“Not Dartmoor, my lady, England.”
“But that’s not possible.” She shook her head, sending half of her hair sliding from its pins and into her face. “He wouldn’t have had the time or the means to get away.”
“Of course he did, and you provided both. In other words, my lady, you allowed an enemy of England to return to his country. Lady Gale, you have committed an act of treason.”