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.
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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. Duringhis 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?"
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