If you’ve just discovered my free read, click Archived Free Read and start at the beginning.
La Belle Christiane
2011 Copyright Lyn Cote
All rights reserved
Chapter Seventeen Scene 4
Colonel Mensing droned on, oblivious to the major’s irritation. Major Eastham shifted in his seat and glanced again at the tall clock at the end of the room. 4:45 p.m. Soon candles would have to be lit. He had been sitting, standing, speaking, and listening in this room since early morning. The weight of a letter in his inside coat pocket kept reminding him that this would be last interminable meeting for him, but that was no consolation right now. He wanted to be in his room, holding Christiane.
A tap at the door startled them all. The sergeant at the door opened it cautiously, then turned back. “Begging your pardon, my lords. Major Eastham’s man wants to see his lordship on an urgent matter.”
All heads turned to the major as he rose and walked to the door. Outside Eastham closed the door behind him, nodded to the sergeant, and led Alfred a little way down the hall. “What is it?”
“I apologize, my lord,” Alfred whispered with his head down.”But I have waited and waited for your meeting to end and I finally decided that I must interrupt you. It is Madame Belmond. She has disappeared.”
“What?” Ice flooded John’s stomach.
“She went riding this morning and hasn’t returned, my lord.”
“I saw her leave, but that was this morning, hours ago.” What had happened to her? His mind whirled with dreadful possibilities.
“I know, my lord. When she did not return to lunch, as she said she would, I went looking for her. When she was not back by two, I went out riding myself, looking for her. I had no luck, sir. Then,” the valet paused and looked up at his master, “I came back to the room to see if she had left any clue there as to where she was going. I found these under the paperweight on your desk.” He held up the two notes. “One is addressed to you and one to Lord Hazelton.” Their eyes met.
John stared at the two notes and then quietly unsealed the one for him with fingers that trembled. As he read and then re-read the note, the familiar, horrible icy flow that he had experienced before Christiane’s love steadily reclaimed him. “She has left me,” he said, low and gruff. He turned back to the room and entered quietly.
Again all eyes turned to him.
“Major,” Howe said, “we are just about to adjourn.”
“A moment, general,” he answered, steeling himself to do what he must do. He turned to the newcomer near the head of the table. “Lt. Beckett, I believe that your revolutionary name is Hansen?”
“I have just received a farewell note from Madame Christiane Belmond.”
There were looks exchanged up and down the length of the table.
John ignored them. “She closes with a brief message for you, ‘Please inform Captain Hansen that I would hate to attend his hanging, but I will if he returns to Valley Forge, whatever the personal cost to me. Ask him if he knows Christiane Kruger.'”
A shocked silence followed his reading.
Finally General Howe spoke, “May I see that, major?”
“I would rather not, sir. The main part of the note is personal.”
“There is nothing else that is pertinent? I have your word as a gentleman?”
“You do, sir.”
“Very well.” The general turned to the young agent. “Can you shed any light on this, Beckett? Do you know this Christiane Kruger?”
“Of course. Everyone at Washington’s headquarters knows her. Who is Christiane Belmond?”
Howe answered, “She has been associated with Major Eastham this month.” His intonation left little doubt as to the type of association. “Now again who is Christiane Kruger?”
“Well, sir,” the spy began, “she has many roles. She does many duties at Washington’s headquarters, household managing, French translation. When Mrs. Washington is away at Mt. Vernon, she acts as the general’s hostess. When Mrs. Washington visits, she acts as her companion and social secretary.”
Another round of unbelieving silence ensued.
“Am I to understand that Mrs. Kruger has been here and has used the name of Belmond?” the spy asked.
“That seems to be the case,” Howe replied. “Major, would you read us the line again?”
John complied woodenly.
“This is preposterous,” Lord Hazelton objected finally.
Without speaking, the major handed him his note. The older officer read his own in obvious disbelief.
“I don’t wish to intrude,” General Howe broke in, “but does your note shed any more light?”
“Not very much. She does say that she is innocent of any intrigue.”
“Major Eastham, I apologize for having to ask you this, but I am sure you understand my position. Is that correct?” Howe pursued. “Did Madame Belmond at any time try to use your association to gain military information?”
“No, general, on my honor as a gentleman, never at any time did we discuss military subjects.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Colonel Mensing said in a low voice.
“Would you care to repeat that, sir?” John said menacingly. His tone promised the challenge of a duel at the merest hint of further accusation.
Mensing pursed his lips.
The general went on, “I don’t understand then. Why was she here? It makes no sense.”
“She left Washington a few weeks after Germantown to visit her infant son somewhere in New Jersey,” Beckett said.
“That is what she told me also,” the major said grudgingly. “And if you remember, this all began when she was detained by sentries.”
Beckett continued, “No exact date was given for her return, but according to what has just been said here, she must have been intercepted enroute to Valley Forge. We did expect her to come back sometime before Mrs. Washington arrived.”
“Evidently that is true and she had returned today,” Howe said matter-of-factly. He turned to Eastham. “You hadn’t quarreled?”
“No, general,” he murmured.
“Then we must assume that she saw Beckett and feared exposure and a charge of espionage, so she fled. Under these circumstances and to prevent scurrilous gossip, I believe I will have to read both letters.” He put out his hand. Both Eastham and Hazelton gave him the notes reluctantly. The general read them quickly and looked up at the assembled men. “There is no hint of intrigue in either letter. Major, no doubt Madame Belmond feared for you also. Matters, of course, would have had to be handled differently if she were still here. There would have had to have been a formal military inquiry. Now it seems pointless.” He handed back the notes. “I am sorry, major,” Howe said genuinely.
Eastham nodded stiffly.
“I just cannot believe this all happened,” Lord Hazelton put in.
Mensing gave a look that said he believed it and more, but he carefully said nothing.
“It would seem that your usefulness as an agent has ended, Lieutenant Beckett,” Howe observed. “You will be re-assigned to more mundane duties, I’m afraid. And, unless anyone has anything further to offer, we will adjourn. I, for one, am sick of this room.”
Men stood and began to move about. They cast looks at Eastham, but held their tongues.
“I beg your pardon, Major Eastham,” Beckett said brashly as he stepped quickly over to catch the officer before he left. “I do not wish to be impertinent, but from your exchanges with the general may I assume that your relationship with Mrs. Kruger was more than just friendship?”
“She was his mistress,” Mensing could not resist saying.
Eastham and Mensing eyed each other with mutual distaste.
“May I congratulate you then, sir?”
“I don’t understand, Lieutenant,” John replied. He only wanted to escape this awful room.
“You, an English gentleman, have succeeded where no colonial has. Every officer in the Continental Army has thought of trying his hand at seducing the beautiful Mrs. Kruger and all failed. Why it was even rumored that the Marquis de Lafayette tried and failed. She evidently was playing her cards very carefully. Her first husband was a mere corporal, a farmer from the frontier, if you can believe that. Anyway just before she left, she became engaged to one of Washington’s captains, Henry Lee of the Virginia Lees. Quite a catch. I would love to tell him how his intended has whiled away her December.”
The major fixed his eye on the young spy. “You are impertinent, sir.” With that he left without further comment to anyone.
Hazelton approached the enthusiastic lieutenant. “Did you try your hand with Christiane?”
“Then it seems that some English officers are more successful than others,” Hazelton said acidly left also.
When the major arrived at his room, Alfred was waiting anxiously, but all he said was, “Will you want your tea now, my lord?”
John rested his hand on his servant’s shoulder. “Not now. Go and have yours.”
Alfred searched his lord’s face. He read there a desire to be alone, so he left quickly.
John went to stand by the fire. His mind was a tangle of thoughts and feelings. He could almost understand her leaving in light of Beckett’s arrival. But it demonstrated a complete lack of trust in him on her part. It was inconceivable that she could distrust him so completely, but it must be true. She had left. He read once more her note. It simply made no sense.
What facts had caused her to distrust him? His head ached and he felt physically miserable. The worst part was that he could not go to her or even communicate with her. She was the enemy and at the very seat of the rebellion. The thought that he might have put his trust in the wrong person chilled him. Slowly he pulled out the letter of resignation from his inner pocket and dropped it into the flames. Someday, he promised himself, I will ask her what I am guilty of.
Miles from Philadelphia, Christiane sat in her bed in her room at the headquarters. It was larger than her room at Morristown and had its own fire. She had snuffed out her bedside candle and now pensively watched the flames on the hearth. The warm fire, a nourishing supper, and two glasses of port had calmed her, but the thoughts and feelings she had avoided all day were closing in on her now. Tears slid unheeded out of her eyes and down her face. Could I have really been duped so completely?