A woman of no conscience
A strong arm restrained her, choking her around the neck, even while she screamed "Roxton, run, run," But the man ran towards her even as the bullets rained over him. "No," she screamed in horror. He would certainly die. Please let him not die, please, please.
Marguerite sat up in bed. Her heart was pounding and she was drenched in sweat. "It's only a dream, a dream," she whispered to herself in relief even as she willed her heart to slow down. She reached out to the bedside carafe and poured out some water. After gulping it down, she tried to settle back in her pillows. But it was impossible. The images from the dream were much too vivid and the fears were too real.
So she got up again, wrapped the robe around herself and stumbled out to a chair by the window. Ghosts from the past surrounded her. From years of experience, she knew that surrendering to the memories was dangerous. They would drag her down a dark road of terror, guilt and self loathing. But in the dark of the night, there were no distractions and her defences were low. She was lost. She was utterly lost.
May 1916, in a naval camp in Germany (a fortnight before the Battle of Jutland)
Marguerite was a vision in a red dress with her hair pinned up as she sailed into an opulent officer's quarters on the arm of Franz, a much older German naval officer.
"One thing is for sure, the vice-admiral knows how to throw an excellent party," Marguerite remarked in German.
"And you, my English rose, " replied Franz with a proud smile, "were the belle of the ball."
Marguerite chortled merrily, "I'll say. Half the room believe that you have consorted with a viper from the enemy ranks."
He shook his head, "Not when you danced with the vice-admiral," he pointed out.
Marguerite gave him an arch look and then disappeared behind the dressing screen. Seconds later, her dress was flung over the screen.
"Where did you learn German, so well, my dear?" He asked curiously even as he lounged over the sofa checking his letters.
"I grew up in an orphanage not far from Berlin, Franz, as a child."
"Ah, that explains many things," he smiled.
At that moment, there was a knock and Deiter entered carrying a missive.
"Thank you, officer," said Franz. "What is it?"
Deiter hesitated. "A message from the vice-admiral," he announced in a low voice.
"Don't worry, sailor," barked Franz loudly, his voice carrying to Marguerite behind the screen. "Marguerite is a loyal servant of His Imperial Majesty."
Marguerite sauntered out from behind the screen wearing an insolent smile that made Deiter bite his lip in annoyance. She was in her night shift with a silken robe tied about her. Her hair rippled loose down her shoulders. She perched provocatively on the arm of Franz's sofa with her long leg in heels dangling.
"What is it, darling?"
Franz was reading the letter with growing excitement. "Finally," he exclaimed in triumph. He hurriedly scribbled a note and handed it to Deiter. "I will be there tomorrow," he promised.
Deiter did a quick salute and with a last suspicious glance at Marguerite, left the room.
Marguerite had noticed the suspicion. But she shrugged it off as she turned to Franz.
"What is it?" She asked again.
"For too long we have been skulking in the shadows. A skirmish here, a strike at a small merchant ship there. Such actions do not befit our navy, our nation, our race. What we need is bold and decisive action. To make the first strike." he bellowed.
Comprehension struck Marguerite. "Naval action against the Royal Navy?" She asked breathlessly.
"Yes," announced Franz as he paced the room in excitement. "They wont know what hit them. We will break through the blockade. Mark my words, my dear, our battleships will win the war for His Majesty. Not the U boats, those cocky bastards."
But Marguerite did not look happy. Her expression was somber and she was quiet. With a subtle move of her shoulders, she dropped her robe and sank into the seat, the very picture of fragile womanhood.
"What is it, my sweet?" Asked Franz as he turned to her.
"Do you have to go, Franz?"
"You think I am too old?" Barked the old man in anger.
She smiled gently even as she touched his lips sensuously. "We have been married less than a month. Aren't there any other officers?"
"Too many would be willing, the insolent pups," he chuckled even as he pinched her chin. "But, this old dog has a few more tricks up his sleeve."
Marguerite grew even more pensive.
"Hey," he chided gently even as his heart swelled with pride. The lads in the barracks were wrong. This extraordinarily beautiful and desirable young woman truly loved him and not his money. She would not look so crestfallen otherwise at the thought of him in the battle. "Surprise is the essence of the attack. They wont know what hit them."
When those words failed to cheer her up, he raised her chin to face him. "In just two weeks, we will have an even bigger ball to celebrate our grand victory. You, my dear, will be the cynosure of all"
Marguerite forced a smile as she wrapped her arms around the old man's neck. "And you, my brave captain, will be the hero," she teased even as they kissed.
Two weeks later, in London in a dingy room in MI5 headquarters
"Well done, Marguerite," Lionel congratulated her even as he poured out the champagne.
"To a woman of no conscience," he toasted her with an exultant smile as he handed out the fluted glass.
Marguerite smiled as she sipped the sweet liquid and acknowledged his praise with a tilt of her head. Nerves of steel, a heart of stone and a soul without a conscience. That summed her up. That was what made men, like Lionel and Winnie, prize her above all.
"The papers call it a stalemate," remarked Marguerite.
"Bah, the journalists. What do they know?"
"But we lost more men than the enemy," pointed out Marguerite.
"Yes, that was regrettable," Lionel agreed. "Breaty was slow, too slow. But the important thing is our blockage was not halted. The bigger picture, madam. Do not lose focus on the bigger picture. Those German fools will never dare a surface navy war again."
"And Captain Franz Shipper?" She enquired with studied indifference even as she focussed on a spot on a distant wall.
"Torpedo. First night," said Lionel studying her closely.
Marguerite swallowed. So Franz was dead. Another man dead. What did it matter, at the end of the day, to the leaders on either side? A pawn here, a rook there, they were just pieces on the chess board. And she? She was the Queen. More precious perhaps but just as expendable.
Her heart felt leaden. Tears smarted her eyes. But she could not show that to Lionel. To him, Franz was the enemy. Just that. Nothing more. Nothing less. Not a man with the pride of a lion for having a young and beautiful wife. Not a man who was quick to get offended but quicker to laugh at a joke.
What would Lionel say, she wondered, if she told him how similar he was to Franz? Both utterly single minded in their loyalty to king and country? Both fierce in their belief of the superiority of their culture, country and armed forces over the enemy. Both desired above all else the military distinction of defeating the great enemy. Life would be easier, she reflected, if she could simply believe, as Lionel and Franz did, that all enemies were rogues and villains. But she could not believe that. They were just men on both sides of a war - on all sides of life. Men with ambitions, fears, stupidity, envy, lust, cupidity, pettiness and the occasional kindness.
"So what happens now?" She asked.
Lionel cleared his throat and then said, "well, we have marked out someone for you." He passed her a picture. "Baron Von Helfing," he said. "Prussian. Currently in Vienna."
"Is he?" She enquired with an arch smile letting the question dangle.
Lionel laughed richly. "I assure you he will be worth your while."
And then suddenly the war was over. And her work was over. They called it victory and rejoiced, except she wasn't invited to the party. Winnie, Lionel, and all those men who had celebrated her before, avoided her now. They said it was for her safety. But she was not deceived. She perceived their secret loathing of her and her former traitorous actions that had resulted in the deaths of many men including her husband (even though they were the enemy). She understood then the full price of espionage - the very qualities that they had prized in a spy during war time, were abhorrent in peace. A woman of no conscience carried no worth In the new season of high morals and lofty ideals. All that she was left with were the ghosts of dead husbands, a price for her neck across five continents and nightmares.
In the wake of the disillusionment and in the emptiness that she was plunged in, she swore her allegiance not to man or country but to the gospel of gold. In the most secret recesses of her heart, she pledged to do whatever it took to uncover the mystery of her past. She owed nothing to anyone, least of all her life.
A single ray of light pierced through the dark night and the stars slowly paled in the sky. It was the start of a new day. Marguerite sighed. She now knew that Roxton loved her. That he would lay his life down for her. Probably give his last breadth for her. A master of deception though she was, she had never been able to successfully lie to herself. Even in the earliest days of their acquaintance when Roxton had despised her, he had jumped into the river to save her from the caiman. Drawn a T-rex away from her before she was eaten. And now? Now, the impossibly wonderful man ran facing a storm of bullets to reach her.
She could now fully appreciate the irony of life. For her past misdeeds, fate had punished her. Not with public humiliation, chains or even death. Instead, it dangled the most wonderful man in front of her, daring her to love him. And she did. She could no longer lie about that either. But they could never be together. For, how could a woman without a conscience and a heart of stone deserve an utterly devoted and loyal man like him?
She had to keep her distance. But it was impossibly hard. He had to just smile at her, whisper her name and she responded like a moth drawn to flame. Every harrowing experience, every battle of survival drew them together. Lord Roxton believed that it was inevitable that she would give in. And at times she believed in it herself. But somewhere, some instinct of caution drew her back. John Roxton deserved the love of a good woman, a woman of courage, of honour, of integrity. A woman worthy of him. All that she could offer him was a supremely accomplished con artist with no real feelings and no truth.
Marguerite took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Second chances, Arthur Summerlee had once said. A second change to leave behind who we once were and become something new. She smiled at that thought. How utterly comforting and wise Arthur had been. And yet he was wrong. She could not accept the gift. She had always believed that she could shape her own destiny but she was too pragmatic to believe that you could
Perhaps, she should be grateful for the here and now. They were all preoccupied with finding Malone and repairing the balloon to head home. She would have to be more careful and not allow any sign of love escape her. Meanwhile, for a brief while she could enjoy his friendship.