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La Comtesse

La Comtesse by Joan Smith
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London society buzzed around the scandalous Comtesse de la Tour. Lord Dashwood was assigned to discover whether the beautiful red-head was a French spy—or perhaps something just as unsavory to his enchanted vision. At one moment Renée seemed as chaste as a nun, at another as flirtatious as a courtesan…

Regency Romance by Joan Smith

Belgrave House; February 1978
138 pages; ISBN 9780449234907
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: La Comtesse
Author: Joan Smith
 
Excerpt

In a small oak-paneled office in the labyrinth of White­hall, Sir Edgar Hopley sat twiddling his thumbs and thinking. He looked a jolly little gnome with a fringe of whitehair around his face. It was the sharp blue eyes that indicated the man had more to consider than the gyrations of his thumbs. There was information of a delicate nature leaking out of the sieve of the Horse Guards, and Bathurst was down his neck to discover the source of the leak. The place was riddled with dipsomaniac old crones of the Prince Regent whose tongues wagged freely after their second bottle. The “filing system,” as they called it, had to be seen to be believed. The last missing document, an important letter from the Duke of Wellington, had been found in a waste basket after Sir Edgar had gone through every file and folder in the office. With that sort of carry-on, they expected to keep the nation’s secrets from the cleverest bunch of French spies ever assembled in one city. And the chief suspect in the case was not to be in­vestigated, or followed, or even suspected!

He thought the world had run mad. That tasty French tart, la Comtesse de la Tour, was living with the Foreign Minister of England, if you please. Had managed to get herself accepted by Lady Castlereagh, patroness of Almack’s, wife of the Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, and one of the greatest sticklers in the kingdom. While it was known that she was a French aristocrat, widow of an illustrious comte of academic leanings and daughter of a fermier-général, it was also known she was the ex-mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte.

This fascinat­ing interlude in her history appeared to have been brief. During his forced retreat to Paris after his defeat at Leipzig, he had met la Comtesse and she stayed with him till his abdication in April of 1814. Some said Napoleon had broken with her because of supposed treachery and double-dealing; some said she had transferred her fickle affections to his chief aide-de-camp; and others claimed she had broken with him because of his abdication, and because he would not divorce his Austrian wife, Marie Louise, and marry her. It was known they had parted in great anger, with la Comtesse becoming an inveterate foe of the Emperor. This being the case, it was not wondered at that she hopped the first lugger which could transport her to England when he suddenly came marching back from Elba, gaining power as he advanced. And since she hated Napoleon as violently as the most patriotic English­man, the English were ready to take her to their bosoms and make her a heroine.

While Napoleon battled it out with the Allied armies in this spring of 1815, the French tart flaunted herself in London in gowns no self-respecting female would be seen in. Dined with the Prince Regent and his mistress, was seen at the opera with the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool and his party, drove in the park with illustrious peers, and went to the Chapel Royal on Sunday to pray amongst the mighty.

Hopley’s heart pounded in anger to think of this French chancre thriving under Castlereagh’s roof. The house was littered with red—why red, the most atten­tion-grabbing color in the world?—dispatch boxes from the Foreign Office, for the sly little Frenchie to open up and peer into. Her ear could be put to the keyhole any time a courier went to Castlereagh with news too impor­tant to commit to paper. As well hold their secret meet­ings in public, and publish the minutes in the Observer. How was a body to plug a leak with this sort of shenanigans going on?

And the Frenchie had the backing of them all, from Liverpool himself down through Bathurst and the lot. They all agreed la Comtesse de la Tour was not to be considered suspect. He wondered at times if the government had turned French and forgotten to let him know.

But if they had, he had not. He knew his duty as an Englishman, and the Comtesse would be suspected, and followed, and investigated—and found guilty too, by God, or his name was not Edgar Hopley! There was a sharp tap at the door, and his thumbs became still. “Come in,” he called.

A tall, dark gentleman wearing a well-cut jacket of sober hue entered and said, with no ceremony whatsoever, “What’s up, Ed?”

“Not consols, eh Dashford?” he replied, and laughed at his joke, till he recalled how pitifully the stock was down, and his fortune with it.

“You must have got out before the crash to be able to joke about it. But I’m not here to discuss finances, am I? Tierney is our financial expert, you recall.”

“No, by God, it’s not money that’s troubling me. It’s treason! Treason is what you’re here to discuss.”

“How interesting,” Dashford said in a bored voice, and took a chair beside the battered desk of Sir Edgar, the head of Intelligence. “I wondered at your calling in a Whig; because really, you know, we are not interested in throwing over the government, except by an election. Nor even in assassinating Prinney. We just want to put a lock on the national treasury, before he breaks us with his openhandedness. He’s costing us as much as the war.”

“Treason in high places,” Hopley went on, “and I can’t get a Tory to listen to reason; so in desperation I’m turn­ing to the Whigs. We’re all Englishmen, I hope, and you’ve done the odd job for me before, Dashford. This ain’t the sort of thing I can entrust to a commoner. You lords have your uses.”

“I suppose this involves Bonaparte’s escape from Elba?”

“Aye, his escape, and his getting information funneled out of the Horse Guards.”

“I’m not in a position to do much about that. Prinney has his creatures cluttering up the place. I have no friends on Bathurst’s staff.”

“I’m glad to hear it, for I begin to think there’s not a man jack of them to be trusted.”

“That sounds like treason all right. What is it you want of me?”

“I want you to flout the Prime Minister’s orders, and the Foreign Secretary’s orders, and the orders of the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies—Liverpool, Castlereagh, Bathurst—the lot of them. They’re all grown senile, or I am.

“I’ll opt for the old boys. Go on.”

“Well, you know Boney beat us at Ligny—and if he didn’t have information to let him avoid Wellington and Blucher and get to Charleroi, I’m a monkey’s uncle. And where is he getting his information? Bathurst’s office, or Castlereagh’s.”

“Or from spies on the continent, within the rank of the army itself. But I’m aware things are in a muddle at the Horse Guards. What is it you want of me?”

“To do what you do best, Dashford. To make love to a pretty woman, and find out what she’s up to.”

“La Comtesse de la Tour?”

“None other. She is considered to be above suspicion by the wise heads that rule this country. She, a Frenchie living with the Foreign Secretary, and sleeping with him for all we know. Partying and drinking with all the top dogs. God only knows what she hears, and what she does with what she hears. But she is not to be investigated. Oh, no! Madame la Comtesse is not to be known to exist, so far as Iam concerned. I am to turn a blind eye like the others while she seduces our ministers and pries their secrets out of them, and runs to her Corsican lover with our plans.”

“You actually have ordersnot to check up on her?” Dashford asked, his face a picture of astonishment.

“Orders from the Prime Minister’s office. So what I’m asking you to do amounts to treason, I suppose. Will you do it?”

“I’ll be delighted, but I don’t see what I can accom­plish. Lady Castlereagh is her chaperone, and you may imagine my chances of getting into that Tory citadel.”

“La Comtesse goes everywhere. You may meet her with no trouble; I’m surprised you haven’t already. What you must do is convince her you are enamored of her beaux yeux,and weasel your way into her heart—if she has one. It’s our only chance to discover what she’s up to. See who she’s close to, watch her at parties. I’m putting some other fellows to follow her. Tonight she attends a musical soirée at Lord Eldon’s in company with the Duchesse de Noailles—a friend of the Prince Regent’s who was rescued by him at Brighton when she escaped the Terror in France. We’ll put our knowledge and suspi­cions together and see if we can catch la Comtesse in the act. If we catch her red-handed, Liverpool must listen, or admit outright he’s turned Republican.”

“What excuse do they give for not having such an obvi­ous person investigated? I half thought Castlereagh had taken her in to keep an eye on her. Having befriended such an ardent Bourbon supporter as she has become since being jilted by Napoleon would put him in Louis’ good books after this damned war is over, too.”

“No such thing! Castlereagh personally vouches for her integrity. It is enough.”

“It is, you know. I loathe every bone in the man’s body. He is wrong on all matters of social policy—so reactionary and repressive—but it was he who led the coalition against Bonaparte. He has made it a personal crusade to crush the Emperor. He is wrongheaded, but he’s unquestionably loyal, and he is no fool. I can’t be­lieve his flint-like heart is touched by the Comtesse’s beauty. He is using her, very likely, for some purpose of his own. We don’t want to upset whatever he’s up to.”

“It won’t upset anything for you to keep an eye on her. I’m not asking you to do anything but watch her, talk to her, and see what you can find out.”

“I don’t see that there can be any harm in that. I'll try to scrape an acquaintance, but I doubt I’ll be allowed to get on any intimate footing with her. She does not indulge in tête-à-têtes with young gentlemen, despite all the tattle. There is Maldon, of course, but I imagine she plans to marry him eventually. Her other escorts are elderly gentlemen, friends of Castlereagh. I have not been completely unaware of la Comtesse’s presence amongst us, as you can imagine. She goes everywhere, but she goes guarded like a vestal virgin.”

“Her behavior is not so vestal-like as it could be. Am I correct in thinking the idea of a flirtation with her has al­ready occurred to you?” Hopley asked with a quirk of his white brow.

“She does have those awfully beaux yeux, Ed, and I was always partial to red-heads.”

“That’ll be news to your latest lightskirt. Ablonde, ain’t she?”

“No, no, that was last month. She’s a brunette, but I’m broad-minded.”

“See she don’t turn you into a Frenchie, like the others."

“I’ll watch out for that,” Dashford laughed. He rose to saunter to the door, fairly filling it with his broad shoulders. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I’ve made contact.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Hopley called after him. “Oh, Dashford, before you go—this is private. Don’t run to Brougham with it.”

“My party leader ought to be informed of this, I think.”

“We’ll inform him right enough when we find anything. Meanwhile, it’s just entre nous.”

“Very well,” he answered. “It might be best to keep him out of it, in case it becomes messy.”

“You’ll go far,” Hopley said with a shake of the head. As cool a cucumber as there was in the city, and the very one to handle a Comtesse.

Lord Dashford’s curricle was waiting for him a block away. It was not necessary for Hopley to give him the hint his meetings were secret. He hopped up and took the reins from his tiger, and drove himself home to Belgrave Square to consider in private how to proceed with his as­signment.

It was an affair much to his liking. Like all the other gentlemen, he had been watching la Comtesse, and look­ing for an excuse to meet her. This business of her being in Lady Castlereagh’s charge was an impediment, but Whigs and Tories mixed socially, and if she was not at Almack’s assembly tomorrow night he would be much surprised. Dashford did not attend Eldon’s musical eve­ning, and would not have done had he been invited, despite Hopley’s information that la Comtesse would be there. He went instead to a large ball. Before he reached home he heard for a second time where she had spent the evening, and in whose company. If she had got la Duchesse de Noailles to accept her, she was indeed a clever woman. His own companion consisted of a different red-head, one not nearly so attractive. She had fashioned her titian curls in the style of la Comtesse, wore a black patch at the corner of her eye to ape la Comtesse’s natural beauty spot, and peppered her speech with many French phrases, whereas the original was reported to speak faultless English without a trace of a French accent. An oddity, when one came to consider it, but then there were so many oddities in the affair that this minor one had not attracted much attention.

It was no easy matter to arrange an introduction to la Comtesse de la Tour. The Marquess of Dashford had the entrée to all the best homes, and had for a number of years engendered unfulfilled hopes in the bosoms of noble mothers and their nubile daughters. He was known to fa­vor high flyers for his flirts, and that this highest flyer of them all should capture his interest would cause no suspi­cions of anything other than another affair. His plump pockets would not be unwelcome to la Comtesse, whose own wealth was understood to have been lost in the jumble of revolution, Directory, empire and monarchy that had recently been France’s lot. But even for Lord Dashford the introduction was not easy. Besides the length of the line of black coats waiting a chance to stand up with her, there was the invincible Countess of Castle­reagh, who appeared to have abrogated all her other chores at Almack’s to devote herself to this one guest. Dashford soon realized that if he was to get within speak­ing distance of the French beauty, it must be through that dame’s good offices. It was she who personally presented one male after another to the woman, putting her stamp of approval on him as a partner. Undaunted, he approached the countess, under the protection of a Tory friend, and made a few polite sallies as to the great success of the élite club of Almack’s of which the lady was so proud. He praised her wisdom in closing its portals to all but the chosen few, and spoke mendacious words of his pleasure in knowing that at least at one club one was sure of good company. As the cotillion in progress drew to a close, he said, as though in afterthought, “I see you have brought your French guest with you this evening. I have not had the pleasure of her acquaintance.”

Lady Castlereagh eyed him narrowly and tallied up his points. There was that whopping Whig label on the debit side, and of all Whigs, it was Dashford who was anath­ema to Lord Castlereagh, for he was the Wing critic for foreign policy. He was the honorable member who would undoubtedly be Foreign Minister himself when and if the Whigs ever came into power. He had been fighting tooth and nail with Castlereagh for years, and the feelings be­tween them were of mutual white-hot hatred, tempered with cold respect for a worthy foe. But on the credit side there was his unexceptionable breeding, his tall and hand­some frame, his eligibility, and his youth. It was necessary to find Renée's escorts amongst her husband’s friends, and they were of an age with himself or older—late for­ties, fifties, even sixties. There was no reason why the girl shouldn’t have a spot of romance to cheer her in her time of trouble, and Lord Dashford could supply it admirably if he chose to. And after the trouble was over, as it must be sooner or later, she would require a very respectable husband indeed to reestablish her. These many consider­ations flitted through her head in a second, and she an­swered with no perceptible pause, “Have you not, Dashford? I can’t think how that came about. I thought I had introduced her to all the eligible gentlemen.” She laughed and made a joke of it, but she made the desired introduction all the same, and smiled graciously as Dashford led Renée to the floor for the waltz. They were a beautiful sight to behold, the dashing red-head and the dark-haired gentleman, a head taller than she, inclining his head to hear what she said, with a look of open admi­ration on his face.

There was a trace of surprise on that face too, though the countess didn’t mark it. She’s not a day over twenty, Dashford was thinking, and was startled to make the discovery. Not a wrinkle or a sign of a crow’s foot marred that pale ivory face, with the natural beauty mark at the left eye’s outer tip. Her easy, coquettish manners as seen from afar had bespoken an older woman. La Comtesse had been married five years ago to the Comte de la Tour. She must have been married from the schoolroom. Not uncommon in France, he supposed. The accent, too, sur­prised him. Not the slightest trace of her French ancestry was revealed in her speech. Even those sounds usually difficult for a Frenchman to enunciate were spoken clearly—the final r’s all pronounced, the stresses on the proper syllable.

“You are to be commended on your excellent English, ma’am,” he said.

“Thank you. I had English nannies and governesses, and have spoken English as well as French practically from the cradle. In fact, I had last an Irish governess for five years, and some people find a trace of an Irish lilt in my speech.”

He had not remarked it, but when she mentioned it, it was noticeable. He remembered that Castlereagh was from Ireland, and wondered if there could be a con­nection. A clue for Hopley, for what it was worth. To try to confirm it, he asked, “Where was she from?”

“From Killyleagh, in County Down,” she answered readily. Yes, and Lord Castlereagh was from the same county.

“What was her name?” he asked, as though making polite conversation.

“Molly,” she answered with a smile, which told him ex­actly nothing, and a query as to the last name would be too obvious.

“A good Irish name,” he answered blandly. “Have you been to Ireland?”

“No, this is the first time I have left France, but for a short visit to Italy when I was very young. I have no memories of it.”

“You did not meet the Castlereaghs there then?”

“No, I didn’t,” she replied unhelpfully, and smiled again, lifting the beauty mark at the corner of her eye a fraction.

“Were you at the Congress of Vienna?” she asked, adroitly steering the conversation away from her back­ground.

“Unfortunately no. It was impossible for me to go. I had no official capacity—a member of the opposition in the House, you know—and had not the time to make it a holiday.”

“Oh dear, am I standing up with a Whig?” she laughed.

“Your chaperone is becoming derelict in her guardian­ship of you. Take care or you’ll find yourself standing up with lepers and Methodists. But really, you know, we Whigs are not all blackguards. In fact, you should be one yourself. You are patched for it on the right side, which is to say the left side. It was the custom in England some years ago for ladies to show their political preference by such a patch.”

“A custom long forgotten, I hope. I cannot well move my patch to the proper side unless I remove a portion of my skin with it.”

“In my opinion, the patch is on the proper side, ma’am, and very fetching it is, too; but I suppose I’ll never con­vince you of that.”

“I am convinced already, Lord Dashford. You are not the first to say it is fetching.”

 He stared at the vain woman, and decided to give her a setdown. “I meant rather to imply I would not convince you of the correctness of its position. You possess, no doubt, a mirror to convince you of its attractiveness, with­out requiring gentlemen to assure you.”

“I find the English to be without a sense of humor. I knewwhat you meant, milord."

He saw then the teasing laughter in her eyes. “Amongst our many faults is a lack of levity, which we look to charming French ladies to teach us.”

“Your Lord Byron is droll, and he is a Whig, too, I believe.”

“He is indeed, and a good friend of mine.”

“I suppose he would be. But in any case, poetry takes precedence over mere politics, and I insisted on meeting him, despite his leftist tendencies.”

“We have something in common. Pulchritude also takes precedence over politics, and Iinsisted on making your acquaintance, despite my leftist tendencies.”

“How gallant of you,” she answered easily, not flat­tered or flustered at his compliment, but apparently bored at it. Compliments would get him nowhere.

“How do you like your first trip to England?”

“It is beautiful. Very lively and gay,” she replied duti­fully.

“We make no claims to gaiety in comparison with you French. We have not the Gallic joie de vivre. But I am happy you like England.”

“The people are very kind. I had not expected that.” The wistful face, so characteristic of her, looked up at him, and she smiled sadly. For a moment Hopley’s fears that she had transmogrified the whole cabinet to French­men seemed justified. Here was a face a man would risk his country for.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, the first words to leave his lips on impulse.

“Matter? Why nothing is the matter,” she answered, smiling brightly, but he saw at this close range that it was a spurious smile: The eyes remained clouded. “You must think me confoundedly hard to please, to be unhappy when surrounded by so many good friends and so much goodwill. And when standing up with the handsomest man in the room,” she added impishly.

This was the sort of conversation he expected from la Comtesse, and he fell into line with it mechanically. “With the most fortunate man in the room, in any case, to have the honor of your company,” he replied with a bow.

There was no sparkling rejoinder, only a mechanical smile that did not lift the beauty mark. “Our Frenchmen have the reputation for dalliance, but it is you mauvais anglais that must be watched, I think.”

“Only when confronted with irresistible temptation, Comtesse. It takes a Frenchwoman to raise our sangfroid to a warmer temperature. May I have the pleasure of call­ing on you tomorrow?”

“Oh, I don’t think the countess— That is—well, you are a Whig!” she laughed, to cover the awkward pause.

“So was Castlereagh, once upon a time.”

“Yes, I remember.” That appeared to have slipped out unnoticed, but Dashford leapt on it in a moment. If la Comtesse remembered anything of the sort, she remem­bered it from her cradle. Castlereagh had switched coats in 1795, when he doubted very much that this ravishing lady had even been born. If she “remembered” it, she remembered having heard it spoken of, and that bespoke a longer connection with the Foreign Secretary than was generally thought to be the case. More tidbits for Hopley. His idea of striking up an acquaintance with her had not been a bad one. But how did she come to be so in­discreet? A French spy used in such a delicate position ought to have been much more subtle.

“I’ll speak to Lady Castlereagh, if you have no objec­tion?” he asked.

“I have no objection,” she said, and looked at her part­ner with a new interest.

He was pleasingly different from her other escorts. It was actually possible to like him, and that might be dan­gerous, considering his politics. It would even be possible to do a good deal more than likethis man. She had seen him lurking in the background for two weeks, looking at her with his dark, probing eyes, deciding whether to take her up.

The dance continued to its conclusion with a little more light flirtation, and then la Comtesse was being handed back into her chaperone’s capable hands, to stand up with a young Tory peer—an Irishman, Dashford noticed and recorded mentally for Hopley.

“She is charming,” Dashford said to the countess, al­lowing a moonstruck look to settle on his strong features, as he followed la Comtesse around the room with his eyes.

“She is, is she not?” Lady Castlereagh asked happily. “And she seemed to like you prodigiously. You must call on us one morning, Dashford.”

“I hardly dared to ask permission, ma’am. Would I be vulgarly eager to suggest tomorrow?”

“You are never vulgar, Dashford, and in such a case eagerness is no fault. Call on us, and take Renée out for a drive. It will do her a world of good to get away from the old fogies. Try to cheer her up. She is not happy.”

“I noticed.”

“You are observant. With her country in such turmoil, it is not to be wondered that she is worried.”

“She is surely safe from reprisals by the Emperor here, on English soil?”

“Oh yes, she is safe enough, I suppose,” the careless dame answered, opening up a plentiful field of conjecture. Dashford bowed himself away, and soon left the assem­bly, as he had achieved his night’s aim and the rigorous rules of Almack’s did not recommend the place to him. He considered neither lemonade nor orgeat a treat, and they were the only beverages served.

The countess’s statement seemed to indicate the pres­ence in France of someone dear to la Comtesse who was not safe—the cause of those pitiful smiles the world wondered about. Was it the Emperor himself? Odd how one went on calling Bonaparte the Emperor, though he had been stripped of his title by the Congress of Vienna. Perhaps, too, one went on thinking of him as her lover af­ter he had ceased to be one. Did she nurture still a secret passion for the little Corsican adventurer? Her husband was dead, and obviously in no danger from Bonaparte nor anyone else. Have to ask Hopley about her family, rela­tives, other lovers. Have to be careful, too, that she didn’t change him into a Frenchman, with those dangerous green eyes.

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