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Tuesday, 17 March 2020 23:25

Murder on High--Instalment 1

Escape into my current novel—and it’s my gift to you! A wonderful singer said to me this week: ‘I have nothing now but time.’ In fact he inspired me. Like our fellow citizens, creative artists are hit hard by the restrictions necessary in this global health crisis. But we still have so much to give. I’m a published author, so you can buy my previous books online—by contrast, my brand-new historical crime novel is free to all readers. Whether you’re feeling confined, or you're luxuriously cocooning, or you're in quarantine or even perhaps in hospital, here is your first instalment, so you can escape to another world, another time. That’s my promise: an instalment every day of Murder on High (containing death, be it said, but no disease!). And my hope: that you stay well and continue to love life in all its beautiful colours.

MURDER ON HIGH
by Cheryl Sawyer

Society is a vast amphitheatre
where everyone is placed by chance on a certain tier.
People believe supreme happiness resides in the top echelons:
what a mistake!   
VOLTAIRE

DAY ONE

On a hot afternoon in August, a postilion urged on the horses that drew a young gentleman’s coach across a high, forested plateau in the Champagne. Jolted about in the dim interior, with the curtains pulled across against the blinding sun, the Chevalier de Bassigny contemplated not the road through the forest but the destiny to which he was headed. In a hilltop castle a few miles ahead of him, he would be admitted into the royal family of France.

Two months ago this would have seemed impossible: he had an insignificant title and very little land, he was officially a bastard, and he was penniless—the beautiful noblewoman waiting for him in the castle had all the money he lacked. But a rescript signed by Louis XV changed everything: soon after his arrival at the Château d’en Haut, he would be legitimised as a prince and wedded to an heiress.

Driven by ambition and desire, the chevalier was travelling light. A league back on the road he had consigned his valet, personal firearms and everything but his most precious belongings to the baggage cart. Despite the discomfort—the swirling dust, the thundering hooves, the rocking coach—his brain was fixed on the vision of what lay ahead. When a shot rang out nearby, he took a few seconds to wake up from his reverie and pull aside the curtains.

It was a musket shot, fired not by a hunting party in the forest, but by a single rider emerging from the trees. The postilion was gone, blown from his horse’s back, but the beasts had not panicked and the coach was still on the road and slowing.

The bandit caught up with the vehicle and raced alongside it, musket bouncing from a strap over one shoulder and a pistol in the other hand, aimed straight at the chevalier’s head.

The young gentleman had no choice but to try calling the horses to a halt. He did so in a firm voice, and they obeyed. As the coach slowed, he stealthily took his sword, which was lying on the seat beside him, and buckled it on. Meanwhile the rider kept pace, ready to shoot if a firearm came into view. The passenger cursed himself for having left his pistol case in the baggage cart.

When the coach finally came to a stop, the chevalier’s military training prompted him to alight at once—should his entourage by some miracle catch him up, they would at least witness his predicament. However, as he stepped down, he could see that the road was empty behind him, except for the distant body of the postilion. Near the body was a carbine that the man clearly had not had time to use.

The rider turned in a neat circle and came to a halt, several paces away. No one else appeared. In that fraught moment, the horses were fidgety. No demands issued from behind the black scarf tied across the lower half of the attacker’s face, and the chevalier could not even see the eyes in the deep shadow under the hat brim. The silence was menacing, but the chevalier refused to be shocked into speech. Mentally, he shrugged at the absurdity of this encounter and prepared to be robbed. Whatever might be snatched from him was insignificant beside the treasures that awaited him in the Château d’en Haut.

***
Victor Constant was riding Milan against the current of the Marne, in deliciously cool water just over the height of his cavalry horse. Milan’s head and neck stretched out along the torrent and his powerful legs propelled him against it. Victor, riding bareback with his fists knotted into the black mane, could feel exhilaration surging through the big, slippery body beneath him. After a while he turned the horse’s head and let him find footing on the shore. Milan’s well-shod hooves ground into sand and pebbles, and his plunging legs sent fountains of spray into the summer air.

Milan let out a whinny and Victor laughed with him, glad of being soaked to the skin on this hot August day. He slipped off and waded to shore, leaving the bay stallion to take another long drink from the Marne. The horse’s tack was piled on the bank and Victor’s coat, boots, hat and weapons lay beside it. He sat down on an upturned boat and at once felt the raw heat of the sun begin to dry his shirt and breeches. If only he could strip off and go in naked—but he could not doff his whole uniform. He was a brigadier now, and had to set an example of military correctness.

It was Victor’s second summer in the Champagne since being transferred from Paris in 1735. The previous summer had been hot enough: this was punishing, and he must spend most of it in a town. Last year he’d had the lowest rank of cavalier in the Maréchaussée, patrolling the highways, escorting troops through the territory, apprehending criminals for the military police corps of France. This year, however, he was in command of his own brigade, and he had four cavaliers to carry out the patrols. He had not expected to miss being out in all weathers amongst the rolling hills of the Upper Marne and he’d been busy getting the barracks in order and forcing the new brigade into shape. However, on beautiful days when the river sparkled and the trees along its shores wore splendid green crowns, he envied his men as they rode out and left the town behind.

He raked his fingers through his hair, tied it back, put on his tricorne hat and cast an eye over Joinville from the sun-baked shore. The docks, rather sleepy at this time of day, lay not far downstream. Behind them stood the town wall and the gate called Saint-Jacques, and within rose well-kept streets with tiers of grey-stone houses, which were grander in size, the higher they were built on the steep hill. A tall church dominated the clustered dwellings and its spire drew the eye upward to the castle on the summit.

Founded by the princes of Joinville, the palatial fortress had passed to the Guises, princes of Lorraine, and since the 1690s had belonged to the far-off Orléans family, who left it in charge of a governor. There was some kind of celebration going on there at the moment, over which victuallers, wine merchants and other suppliers in Joinville had gone into a flurry of excitement, but despite the practical commerce between the two worlds, they were divided from each other. The aristocratic revellers could ignore the town at the foot of their private mountain and gaze at their vast estates, spread out in the picturesque valley below.

Victor had never had anything to do with the castle; his duties lay in Joinville itself, the surrounding countryside and the roads that led through it: south to Chaumont, north along the Marne, west towards distant Paris, east to the nearby border with the Lorraine.

When he stood up, Milan swung towards him, knee-deep in the river. Victor beckoned him with a jerk of the head and the stallion obeyed. He dried Milan’s back with a cloth, then saddled him. He was cinching the buckles on his thigh boots when a messenger leaped off the towpath above and came crunching down the bank: Jouy, town sergeant of Joinville. Jouy, who was in charge of the civic guards and jealous of his duties, normally kept his distance from Victor, but today he was in a hurry to see him.

The sergeant’s square frame came to a stop and he held out a sheet of paper with a broken seal. ‘This is addressed to the Maréchaussée. You were nowhere to be found so I took it straight to the mayor.’

‘You opened it. Why?’

‘Because it’s from the Duchesse d’Orléans! You don’t keep a princess of the blood royal waiting on an answer. The trouble I’ve had finding you! But the mayor said I must.’

Victor held out his hand. ‘Bad news?’

Jouy snorted and handed him the paper. ‘For you, maybe. The Mairie wants nothing to do with it.’

Victor scanned the letter.

To the commander of the Maréchaussée, Joinville

By order of Her Serene Highness, Françoise-Marie de Bourbon, Duchesse d’Orléans, Duchesse de Chartres

Her Serene Highness requests that you summon your forces for the punishment of a heinous crime committed this afternoon against the Chevalier de Bassigny, a guest at the Château d’en Haut. On his way by private coach to the château, the chevalier was shot and killed by bandits on the Val de Wassy road. These criminals are even now riding free in the Forest of Joinville, the duchess’s sovereign domain. The duchess wishes me to convey her outrage that such low and villainous persons should go unchecked in this region and be allowed to commit highway robbery and murder. She demands the immediate deployment of the troops under your command and the arrest and execution of the culprits. Please report to me at once, at the Château d’en Haut.

M. de Gassendi
Governor under Her Serene Highness

Murder! To Victor, the peremptory voice in the letter made the word ring like a reproach. He glanced down at the sergeant. ‘Who brought this to the Mairie?’

‘A servant from the castle.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘Back up top, I suppose.’

‘You should have made him wait.’

‘Not possible: he was charged with taking a reply. The mayor wrote a note assuring the Duchesse d’Orléans that you would be despatched to the castle at once.’

Victor frowned. He was not answerable to the mayor or the council of Joinville and took orders only from his superiors in Chaumont, thirty miles to the south. However, the nature and location of the murder automatically made it a matter for the Maréchaussée, because the military police dealt with all crimes committed on public thoroughfares. As brigadier in this territory, it was his duty to begin an investigation; he had no need of the mayor’s prompting.

He mounted Milan. ‘Thank you, sergeant. Tell the mayor I’ve taken charge. And please leave a message at barracks for my cavaliers. The moment they come in from patrol, they’re to ride to the castle and report to me. Got that?’

Jouy nodded grudgingly. ‘Anything else they ought to know?’

‘They’re to bring all the muskets and shot.’

Gravel spattered from Milan’s hooves as Victor rode up the bank to the towpath and headed to the Saint-Jacques gate. The way from town to hilltop began in Joinville, and to reach it he must ride up the rue des Royaux. It was not a market day, so traffic was scarce, and people moved quickly out of his way as he went by at a careful canter. Most watched him in silence, but a wag on a street corner yelled out, ‘Brigadier to the rescue!’ and someone else echoed him with an ironic cheer.

Of course the town knew about the murder. Fascinated by the gathering at the castle, avid for the smallest detail, even though they would never see the seigneurs or have anything to do with them, they must have instantly picked up the news—probably from the messenger who had brought the letter to the Mairie. The townspeople’s banter did not perturb Victor; what got under his skin was the duchess’s high-handed tone (or the governor’s). He did not like the implication that the Maréchaussée had ‘allowed’ the murder—just because they hadn’t hunted down every cursed brigand who roamed the roads of the Champagne …

He left town by the rutted road that led diagonally uphill. Hurrying to the top would be tough on his horse but it was vital to get there before the evidence became scrambled. The road on which the Chevalier de Bassigny would have approached the castle crossed the plateau above. Where on that road had the murder occurred, and how many attackers had there been? His heart sank at the thought that highwaymen could be operating in the territory where his brigade was supposed to keep the public thoroughfares safe. No reports of robbery on the highways had reached him since he’d been promoted to brigadier; in fact threats from armed beggars had actually decreased, probably because word of the new brigade had made them cautious, at least for a while.

Whatever the people at the castle might be expecting from him, he was certainly not going to offer any excuses over this crime! As far as the Maréchaussée was concerned, it had been impossible to predict or prevent. But he would pursue the culprits with rigour and therefore he must somehow see the Chevalier de Bassigny’s relatives and friends and get them talking. If the chevalier had been shot purely for what he possessed, then someone would have to tell Victor what he had had with him in his coach. Knowing what the robbers had snatched might help to identify them later, if some of it turned up elsewhere. Meanwhile they were fleeing through the forest of Joinville—a vast area of woodland designated as a royal hunting ground, over which the Orléans had exclusive rights. There was no chance of catching up with the villains, but they might somehow be traced …

To collect the information Victor needed, he’d have to interrogate more than the governor and his guards and staff. For now, he would be doing this on his own: his cavaliers would not be back from patrol until nightfall. He might of course have told the town sergeant this but he hadn’t felt like it. Up top, Victor must exact cooperation from the highest-born family in France, possibly even from the princess of the blood whose contemptuous summons he was about to answer. He steeled himself: none of it would be easy.

***
Somewhat to her surprise, Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, found herself the sole companion of the grief-stricken betrothed of the Chevalier de Bassigny. The young lady lay curled up on her bed in a sumptuous chamber of the castle, sobbing at intervals, with her head buried in a pillow. A maid hovered by the bed, but seemed too stupid to do anything unless she received a direct order from her incoherent mistress, so Émilie took over and commanded everything she could for the poor lady’s relief.

At last the sobbing ceased. Émilie retreated to a window to give the sufferer time to compose herself and perhaps take some of the refreshment at the bedside. They were strangers, brought together as guests at the castle, and Émilie had no wish to intrude any further on her privacy. She would let her speak first.

The bedchamber was in one of the best apartments, which on one side led out to a gallery overlooking the main courtyard of the castle and on the other had a stunning view of the town and valley. The magnificent building, with its steep roofs and tall towers capped with cones of blue slate, reminded Émilie of castles in the Loire where she had spent summers as a young girl. The view was breathtaking, because the castle had begun as a fortress; its massive walls and bastions had been erected at a crucial point on the military road from Orléans to Nancy, and from its commanding position it was intended to resist attack from any direction. But in these times the Orléans family had no use for it; in fact this was the first visit by the 55-year-old dowager duchess and would probably be her last.

Émilie had been astonished to receive an invitation for herself and Voltaire to attend the birthday celebrations and wedding of the Chevalier de Bassigny. She and Voltaire lived at the Château de Cirey, the Châtelet country mansion, less than a day’s drive from Joinville, and she was the principal chatelaine in the region. The chevalier, however, was unknown to her. His title suggested that he was from the Champagne, but she had never heard of him before. Nor, it transpired, had the dowager duchess—until the chevalier wrote to her announcing that he was the son of the late Duc d’Orléans, and that the king had consented to legitimise him. He entreated the duchess to allow him a meeting, ‘that he might pay his infinite respects to the illustrious head of his family’. Horrified, the duchess had at once contacted Chancellor de Fleury, only to find that the story was true: the government recognised that the chevalier was a bastard of the Duc d’Orléans, conceived at the Palais-Royal, Paris, in 1711, and a royal rescript of legitimisation would be handed to the chevalier when he was granted an audience with the chancellor in Paris.

The duchess’s late husband, nephew of Louis XIV, had been Prince Regent and therefore the most powerful man in France during the minority of Louis XV, but neither his gift for government nor his morals had matched his exalted position. Preferring the Palais-Royal to Versailles, the duke had led an ill-regulated and licentious life that his wife, a princess in her own right, found obnoxious. She had kept to her own apartments while the duke disported himself with a succession of mistresses, and she had developed her own set of friends. On his death she withdrew to the Château de Meudon, near Versailles, and that was still her main residence.

Only too aware of her late husband’s depravity, the duchess must have had no trouble believing that he had fathered this particular bastard—but she was hardly obliged to acknowledge or receive him! The idea that an upstart provincial was about to push his way into the top levels of Paris society and try to visit Meudon or even—heaven forfend—Versailles, would no doubt revolt her. If his connections proved to be authentic, she could not entirely destroy him, but if she made the right moves, he might be sidelined from any power or fortune to which he aspired. Émilie had at first wondered why the duchess should have offered to host both the chevalier’s birthday celebrations and his wedding at the Château d’en Haut, until she realised that it was an excellent opportunity to get a look at him and his bride in a corner of the country far from Versailles. If the duchess chose, he would never be allowed to show his face at court, or near the high nobility in Paris.

This strategy also explained the hand-picked guests at the Château d’en Haut, who were mostly Orléans family connections or local gentlefolk. The duchess could count on her lofty relatives to expel the chevalier from their company if he proved unworthy. The local aristocrats, of whom Émilie was by far the highest-ranking, were there as handy witnesses to the duchess’s generosity towards this new scion of the Orléans—and of his disgrace, should he prove a base pretender, an oaf, a fool, a devious schemer, or all of these at once.

This was the picture Émilie had formed of the duchess’s intentions, during two days at the castle. She was interested to note, however, that her hostess seemed to look quite kindly on the chevalier’s betrothed, who had arrived several days before and immediately charmed everyone. She, too, was a nobody, but her beauty and accomplishments were considerable. Born in the Champagne city of Troyes, she was the only child of a wealthy merchant who had contrived to marry her to the Vicomte de Saint-Loup, a childless widower. This undistinguished nobleman was not young when he took her to wife, but he did father a son on her, a year before he died. With an heir, a fortune and a pleasant country estate, the young viscountess might have been tempted to remain a widow, but fate intervened and she met the Chevalier de Bassigny, who fell instantly in love with her.

Émilie had no doubt that in return, Madame de Saint-Loup was in love with her unfortunate betrothed. When the news of his murder was brought to the duchess, almost the whole company happened to be assembled in a splendid reception room, and heard every word of the announcement. The bride screamed and collapsed to the floor in a dead faint. Émilie was on the other side of the room, with Voltaire beside her, and she looked around to see whether the hosts would do something, or at least call for assistance. But no one moved or spoke.

Voltaire muttered, ‘Good Lord, is she to lie there until the man’s buried?’

Émilie made up her mind and went forward. The lady had fallen on her side, with one arm flung out and her skirts in a fan shape on the parquet floor. She was very pale. Seeing the Marquise du Châtelet on her knees beside her afflicted guest prompted the duchess to action. Servants did the rest, and Madame de Saint-Loup revived several minutes later, stretched on her bed in her apartment. Inquiries came in from the duchess and other guests, and Émilie sent back the same message to everyone: Madame de Saint-Loup was as well as could be expected.

A piteous question came from the bed. ‘Where is he?’

Émilie turned. Fabienne de Saint-Loup’s slender body looked lost on the enormous silk bedcover. She was propped on one elbow, gazing at Émilie. The blue eyes in her perfect heart-shaped face gleamed with tears.

Émilie knew where the victim’s body now lay, because Voltaire had sent her a note. She blessed her lover for guessing exactly what the young bride would ask first. She said, ‘In the sacristy of Saint-Laurent.’ Émilie felt the poignancy of this: Saint-Laurent, within the castle ramparts, was the very church where the wedding was to have taken place. She stepped nearer the bed. ‘He’s in the right hands. The dean and canons will make sure all the proper things are done for his sake.’ She hesitated, then said doubtfully, ‘You wish to see him?’

‘Oh no! No!’ The young lady snatched a handkerchief from the maid and pressed it to her face. Her unpinned hair fell about her shoulders and she said in a muffled voice, ‘But I must know what happened.’

Émilie gave a sigh. ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t tell you. All I know is what you heard, and it touched me to see you in such distress. Apparently, his servants came upon his coach on the road, not much more than a mile from here. The postilion must have been wounded first—he lay unconscious at some distance behind the coach. The chevalier was on the ground … shot through the heart. It would have been instantaneous.’ The young lady flinched and Émilie went on, ‘There was no sign of the attackers. The chevalier’s servants brought his body here, and the postilion of course. I apologise: I don’t know any more. I was preoccupied with helping you, if I could. You must tell me how.’

Fabienne de Saint-Loup sat up and put her hands around her knees. ‘Thank you. You’re so kind.’ She looked at Émilie in confusion. ‘I can’t take it in.’ Then a look of horror came over her face, as though the event suddenly became only too real. She said, ‘Oh, if only!’ and stopped. After another struggle for control, she managed to say, ‘The postilion—will he live?’

‘I don’t know. Would you like me to make inquiries for you? Or can I have messages sent to anyone? Rest assured, the duchess will manage everything for you here, but what about your family and the chevalier’s? As soon as we know all the facts, there will be sad news to pass on. Who should be contacted?’

As Émilie intended, the practicalities penetrated the viscountess’s grief for a moment. ‘My parents are dead and so are his. He has no near relations and I have none except my little son. He’s at my home, at Millières in the Bassigny. He’s only two: I shall inform my household. René’s—that is, the chevalier’s estate, Les Grands Bois, is near mine. I shall send to his steward.’ She looked helplessly at Émilie. ‘I suppose I should contact my husband’s lawyer—but I don’t even know where he is. He went with René to Paris, and attended on the chancellor, but I don’t think he returned with René. Or was he in the coach!? Do you think he was? Can we find out?’ She swung her feet to the floor and sat on the edge, wild-eyed.

‘Madame, you’ve had a great shock. You need time to restore yourself. Let me help you with the facts, and then you can decide on the right action to take. I’ll inquire about Monsieur de Saint-Loup’s lawyer for you at once. What is his name?’

With hands at her sides, the viscountess gripped the coverlet of the bed and sat erect, gazing at the large windows on the courtyard side of the room. ‘Oh, I don’t mean Saint-Loup’s lawyer.’

‘But you said this man served your late husband.’

She shook her head. ‘No, he’s René’s lawyer. René, the Chevalier de Bassigny, is my husband.’ Her face was very pale but she said resolutely, ‘We were married in the chapel at Les Grands Bois, three weeks ago.’

Émilie took a step back. ‘But I— We all— The duchess brought us together to celebrate your wedding in Saint-Laurent in two days’ time!’

The viscountess rose. She looked very young but very dignified. ‘The chevalier loved me and would do anything for me. I believe it was mostly for my sake that he went through the terrible ordeal of claiming his legitimacy. He had nothing but his little estate and his military career to offer me, and he wanted to give me everything. On the day when he was granted an appointment with Chancellor de Fleury, he asked me to marry him in secret. He said he must be sure of me, before he faced the chancellor and claimed the title and land belonging to his real status. I told him I loved him too much ever to abandon him, no matter what happened in Paris. But he begged me to marry him at Les Grands Bois, and to ease his heart I said yes.’

Émilie, stunned, had nothing to say. It occurred to her that the duchess would find this news perplexing, to say the least.

As though she had read Émilie’s thought, the viscountess went to a nearby table, unlocked a coffer with a key from the bodice of her gown, and took out a document. She brought it over, a sad smile on her lips. ‘This records my private marriage to the chevalier, three weeks ago. It’s signed by the chaplain at Les Grands Bois and by my husband’s lawyer. You’ll see it hasn’t been notarised, but that’s unnecessary: after all, we were due to be wed in public here. What an honour and privilege that the Duchesse d’Orléans so very graciously chose Saint-Laurent for us—we would never have turned her down! No one can know how much I regret that the second ceremony cannot take place. But I shall never regret the first, however short our happiness has been. Madame, I was his wife.’ Her tears began again. ‘Now I’m his widow.’

 

Instalment 2 comes tomorrow! If you have any questions or comments, drop me a line in the Contacts page. Best wishes from the author: I know you'll respect my copyright.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 00:49