Read Behind the Mask (House of Lords) Online
Authors: Meg Brooke
“And if you cannot, then a real spy does it?”
Colin laughed. “Yes, I suppose that’s right. Although sometimes a real spy already has the information. It’s all a game, you see. Sometimes you have the right cards, and sometimes you’re just bluffing—pretending that you know you will win.”
“I see,” Udad said. “And you want me to help you play this game?”
“I hope that you will be able to play it on your own someday.”
Udad shook his head. “I still do not know why. Why you help me. It is a...what is the word?” He let go the reins a moment and laced his fingers together.
“A puzzle,” Colin said.
“I’m not sure what the answer to your question is, Mr. Udad. You have useful skills, skills that should not go to waste. In this country I think we are sometimes so afraid of other cultures, of people from other lands, that we immediately suspect them, without looking deeper. When we do, we squander the opportunity to improve ourselves. It seems to me to be an awful waste, one I saw the chance to avoid with you.”
“I hope I will not make you...regret?” Udad asked.
“Regret is a good word. You hope that you will not disappoint me.”
“Disappoint,” Udad said, nodding with satisfaction. “Yes. I hope not. This place we go, it is a big city?”
Chuckling, Colin said, “Very big. One of the biggest in the world.”
Udad grew very quiet after that, and for much of the rest of the journey they did not speak. But as they neared the outskirts of London, he said softly, “Lady Pierce is a good woman. I give up much more for a woman so good.”
“Thank you for that vote of confidence,” Colin said, but Udad did not respond. He was too busy gawking at the forest of buildings rising up around them. Colin reveled in his awe and bewilderment, preferring to think about that rather than the conversation that lay before him as they drew nearer to Whitehall. When, at last, they drew up outside the buildings that housed the Foreign Office, Colin found it rather difficult to dismount and hand the reins of his horse to a boy waiting there. He handed the child a coin, but the boy hardly looked at him, he was so fascinated by Udad.
“Follow me,” Colin said, and in they went. Udad trailed Colin closely up the stairs, and almost bumped into him when Colin abruptly changed directions, veering into the office of the Under-Secretary. Sir George Shee, a sensible-looking man of about fifty, stood in the antechamber, looking at a worn copy of the Globe. When Colin came in he looked up. “Ah, Lord Pierce,” he said. “They’ve spelled ‘anticolonialist’ wrong in my piece.”
“For shame,” Colin said, smiling. Sir George’s chief passion was writing pieces for the Globe about matters of foreign policy, and he delighted in seeing his work in print, but he also had a keen sense of humor about the whole thing.
Sir George grinned. “Who is this?”
“May I present Mr. Meddur Udad, late of Algeria? Mr. Udad, this is Sir George Shee, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.”
“It is an honor,” Udad said, bowing.
“New recruit, My Lord?” Sir George asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” Colin replied smoothly. “And I have another for you.” He picked up a pen from the desk and wrote a name on a scrap of paper. “You’ll find him at home in Norfolk, I believe. He’ll make a valuable asset, if you can convince him.”
“I see,” said Sir George. He took the paper and looked at it thoughtfully for a few moments. “Thank you, My Lord.”
Colin nodded and led Udad out and down the corridor to the offices of the Foreign Secretary. When they arrived he gave his name and was told by the imperious clerk that he would have to wait. “Very well,” he said, and he and Udad took two empty chairs and stared silently at each other as the minutes passed.
With each second, Colin’s agitation grew, and when the doors finally opened his hands were shaking and his palms were clammy with perspiration. “Wait here,” he said to Udad, and he allowed the clerk to lead him in and announce him.
Viscount Palmerston looked rather surprised to see him, for which Colin could not really fault him. “Weren’t you on your way back to Sidney Park?” he asked as Colin strode into the room.
“I went,” Colin said. “Now I’m back again.”
Palmerston blinked at him as the clerk pulled the doors shut. When they were alone, he said, “Perhaps you’d better sit down and explain.” He gestured to a chair, which Colin sank into gratefully.
“Well, Lord Palmerston,” Colin said, taking a deep breath, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news...”
If Leo had not been there to talk sense into her, Eleanor would probably have ridden at breakneck speed all the way to London. As it was, they stopped to change horses at midday, which turned out to be a fortuitous choice.
“The innkeeper says they passed through here two hours ago,” Leo said as he came out of the public room.
“Good,” Eleanor said, “we may not catch them up, but we will come close.”
“Eleanor,” her brother said, “are you sure you can do this? You look rather wan.”
She would not admit it, but Eleanor was beginning to feel rather dizzy again, and her arm was throbbing. It would pass once she got back in the saddle, she told herself as she munched on one of the biscuits she had jammed into her pocket that morning at Sidney Park. They could not afford to waste any more time. Colin was about to make the greatest mistake of his life—besides, perhaps, for the one that had led to their marriage—and Eleanor was not about to let him throw his career away simply because he felt guilty for what had happened to her.
Freshly saddled horses were being led out of the stables. When the boy stared at Eleanor’s strange costume, it finally occurred to her to wonder what would happen if anyone she knew saw her in this getup on the streets of London. They wouldn’t, she promised herself. Everyone of her acquaintance was in the country, escaping the heat of the city.
Anyway, it didn’t matter now. There were more important things at stake than her reputation.
It was midafternoon by the time they rode into London, and the pain in her arm threatened to overwhelm her. As they rode down along the Thames they passed men in open carriages who stared pointedly at them. Clearly they recognized Leo, for some of them even nodded and tipped their hats to him. But their expressions changed when they noticed the hoyden at his side. As one carriage rolled away, Eleanor even heard the snippet of one man’s comment. “...were my daughter, I would have taught her better than to...” he muttered, his words drifting away on the breeze. In spite of her resolve Eleanor felt a flush creep up her throat. But she rode determinedly on, ignoring the furious expression on Leo’s face.
At last they pulled up before the Foreign Office. Whitehall was crowded at this time of day, with clerks and under-secretaries and Members of Parliament who had stayed in Town scurrying here and there.
Eleanor had trouble maintaining a dignified pace as Leo followed her into the building and up the stairs, but somehow she managed it. When they had, at last, arrived in the upper corridors, she looked around, unsure where to go next. A clerk came past, and she grabbed his arm. “Where are Viscount Palmerston’s offices?” she asked.
The clerk looked down his nose at her, but then Leo took a step closer. He did not have Colin’s height or Mr. Crawley’s bulk, but there was something imposing about him nonetheless, something that declared to all and sundry that he was not a man with whom one ought to trifle, and in that moment Eleanor was grateful for it, for the clerk said, “This way, madam.”
He led them into a large antechamber, where Mr. Udad was perched on the edge of a chair. Another clerk sat behind the desk, eyeing him nervously, but he stood when he saw Eleanor and Leo.
“My Lord,” Mr. Udad said, rising as well. He stepped closer and bowed his head to Eleanor. “My Lady, I am glad you come now.”
“Me, too,” Eleanor said.
“Do you have an appointment?” the clerk asked officiously.
“Lady Pierce has urgent business with her husband,” Leo said.
The clerk sniffed. “I’m afraid Lord Palmerston cannot be disturbed now.” It was no doubt what he had been told to say, but it was not good enough. Eleanor stormed past him and flung the doors open.
Colin had been speaking, but he stopped when he turned and saw her. He leaped out of his chair. Eleanor was so relieved to see him that she felt suddenly dizzy with joy—or perhaps it was pain. The room began to spin. She managed to say, “Colin, please—” before she fainted.
“Lady Pierce, I presume,” Viscount Palmerston said, coming out from behind his desk to stand over Eleanor, who still managed to look lovely even splattered with mud and sprawled on the expensive Turkish carpet.
“Indeed,” Colin said, kneeling down beside her. He wrestled her coat off and tore the buttons of her cuff so that he could roll up her bloodstained sleeve. The bandage that covered his stitches was bright red. He looked up at Leo, who shrugged.
“She would not be stopped,” he said. “When I told her you meant to resign, she practically leaped into the saddle in her ball gown.”
“For a woman who always does her duty,” Colin said, brushing that stubborn lock of hair from her face, “she seems to disobey with alarming frequency.”
Leo laughed. “I’m afraid that’s your problem now,” he said.
Eleanor moaned, and her eyelashes fluttered. “So this is the woman for whom you would give up a promising career?” Palmerston asked as she opened her eyes.
“Colin,” she murmured, attempting to sit up.
“Don’t try to move just yet,” he said, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Palmerston went to the door. “Bring some clean bandages,” he said to the clerk. Then he came back. “My Lady, I wish I had more men as determined as you.”
“She would, indeed, make a better spy than I ever did,” Colin said wryly, putting an arm around Eleanor and helping her into the chair he had just vacated. He began untying the bloody bandage. She winced, but made no sound beyond a sharp intake of breath.
“Ah, a fine battle wound,” Palmerston said approvingly when he saw the row of neat stitches.
“And a foolish patient,” Colin muttered.
Eleanor still looked rather pale, but her eyes were intense. “You cannot resign, Colin. You love your work.”
He took out his handkerchief and dabbed at the blood. “Not as much as I love you,” he said, not looking up. Still, he heard her gasp.
Leo cleared his throat as the clerk came in with a fresh roll of bandages. Colin bent over his work so that he did not have to meet the eyes of the other men. When he had tied the knot, he stood and offered her his hand. She took it, but her gaze was fixed on Viscount Palmerston as she rose.
“We are going to Brussels,” she insisted. “You cannot allow him to resign.”
Palmerston grinned. “What do you say to that, Pierce? She won’t let you quit.”
He turned to her, finally meeting her eyes. “Eleanor, do you really mean it?”
She nodded. “I told you I would follow you to the ends of the earth,” she said unabashedly, “and I meant it. Your country needs you, Colin.”
“What about your work here?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “I have faith in the others,” she said. “And since I can clearly travel the distance between Brussels and Dunkirk faster than you, I’m sure I could return to London if they needed me.”
“You are a lioness,” he said softly.
Now it was Palmerston’s turn to harrumph loudly. “I take it, then, that you are withdrawing your resignation?”
“It would appear so,” Colin said, and there in front of the motley crew of onlookers, he took his wife in his arms and kissed her soundly.