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Wednesday, 18 March 2020 18:33

Murder on High--Instalment 2

Welcome back to the latest Victor Constant investigation, which comes to you every day. In the present health crisis I know people are especially grateful for free books to read--just at a time when library services are understandably not at their most efficient. Murder on High is here to bring you voices from another era. 

While he was a cavalier in the elite military-police corps in Paris, the Connétablie, Victor had sometimes been called upon to enter grand city mansions belonging to the aristocracy, and he told himself not to be disconcerted by the regal grandeur of the Château d’en Haut. The only thing that mattered in these places, whatever their size and whatever authorisation you carried, was the doors—if important people gave orders for them to be shut against you, there was no way through.

The big gate at the top of the hill yawned before him like an empty cavern carved out of bedrock, its high lintel still decorated with the escutcheons of the Guises of Lorraine. It was to this gate that the chevalier had been headed, before he was murdered on the Val de Wassy road that ran across the heights behind the castle. At least the massive portal was open: iron-studded doors were pushed inward to the stone walls on each side. As Victor rode Milan across cobbles, a second doorway came into view, slightly narrower, but with enough room for a carriage to pass through. This one was closed and the door looked as thick as the first. Together they made a double line of defence against any force gathered outside, which would in any case come under deadly fire from the tower that Victor had passed on the way up.

There was a guard standing by the second door, who fumbled with his musket the moment Victor came into view, and started when Victor’s voice boomed in the cavernous space, ‘Maréchaussée, for the governor.’

The guard collected himself, rested the musket against the wall and with an effort pushed the great door into the courtyard beyond. Victor rode through and got his first view of the northern courtyard of the castle. It was impressive—a paved, irregular area closed in by thick ramparts on three sides and a long inner wall dominated by the largest tower in the castle, which was of very pale stone and round, like a dungeon keep. In the centre of this vast courtyard stood the elegant Gothic church of Saint-Laurent, flanked by a cloistered graveyard.

Victor glanced up to his right at a turreted sentry tower. Unlike the rest of the castle it looked in bad repair, but he decided to ask about it later—it was nestled into the ramparts in the perfect position to overlook the access road from the forest to the main gate.

The ground on which the church was built sloped down to the east, towards the town. Saint-Laurent was tall and narrow, with a steep roof topped in the centre by a square tower and four-sided steeple. Victor rode past the cloister and turned to go down to the main door of the castle proper, with the enormous whitish tower rearing above him. In height, it outreached the church steeple.

Guards in red-and-gold livery stood on each side of a grand doorway, from which a couple of wide steps led down into a big square portico: a horseman could ride into it, but no carriage could be taken through. Where was the chevalier’s travelling coach? It might still be on the road, but more likely it had been used to bring the body to the castle after the murder was discovered. Perhaps it had been taken around to the other gate at the southern end of the ramparts.

Both guards came to attention but there was no challenge; their uniforms were immaculate but not their drill. Quartered at the castle, and no doubt spending year after year with nothing to do, they were not even much good at sentry duty. Victor could get one of them to escort him to the governor of the castle—or he could take a look at the chevalier first. He decided to see the dead man before discussing the murder with the governor.

Victor said to the nearest guard, ‘Where is the body of the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘In the sacristy.’

‘In the sacristy, brigadier. And where’s that?’

The guard pointed at the church. ‘Around the other side … brigadier. You enter through the warming room.’

‘Thank you.’ Victor rode past him on unpaved ground, down a wide corridor formed by the southern side of Saint-Laurent and the wall of the castle itself. He suspected that the high-windowed building to his right was the guardroom, which was usually to be found near a principal entrance. From the storey above, a gallery protruded, connecting the first-floor level of the building with the upper part of the church—a neat way to shelter the resident family if they went to Mass in rain or snow. Victor rode under it and continued slightly downhill to follow the curve created by the apse of the church, with its soaring buttresses and tall panels of stained glass. On his right was a large well, with a few garden plots beyond it, under the ramparts. There were flowers growing there in long beds—for the church?

Another left turn around the building and he was facing the point where he came in. The doors to this side of the church were at the end of a blank wall. No one was in sight to hold his horse, so he slipped to the ground and let Milan’s reins dangle. He gave him a pat on the neck to keep him there and stepped out of the sunshine into the church.

The contrast was so great, it was like plunging into cool water. He passed a dark staircase to his right and crossed straight into the next space. When his eyes adjusted he could see this was the warming room, where the canons arriving on a winter morning could gather around fire pits in the flagstone floor, before donning their robes in the sacristy and beginning their day of prayer. There were niches in the walls, with a carved figure standing in each, and between these were simple stone benches. Today the warming room was empty: all the heat was outside.

Victor went through a door at the far end and came upon a kind of vestibule, from which through an open doorway he glimpsed the vast and solemn interior of the church. This space must be where the canons gathered before processing in for Mass or prayers. Further along to his left was another door and when he pushed this open he found himself in the sacristy. It was dim: there was just one window in the far wall. The only other illumination came from four tall candles, which had been placed around a low dais in the centre. On the dais, which was protected by an oilcloth, lay a man’s body, in full court dress. The blue brocade of his coat gleamed and white lace at neck and cuffs made little flares of light. Two men, kneeling at each side of the dais, at once turned their heads. Victor took off his hat and stepped further into the sacristy, very aware of his heavy footsteps on the stone floor, which sounded threatening in this hushed place.

The man closer to Victor turned away and in a very low murmur concluded the prayer he had been engaged upon. Then he rose and looked up at Victor with an air of confident inquiry. He was of average height, with dark hair worn at medium length and brushed back off the forehead, but he wore no skullcap at the back of the head—the canons of Saint-Laurent wore instead the black, square headdress that Victor could see on pegs nearby, hanging amongst the coloured vestments around the walls. Sometimes, very early in the morning, he had watched these clergymen pass through Joinville on the long trudge to the hilltop from their houses below. He had never spoken to any of them but he did know how to address a canon.

‘Monsieur, forgive me for interrupting your prayers.’

The canon had a long, rather ascetic face but his voice was brisk. ‘They are over for the present. We have our duties to the departed—you obviously have yours.’

Victor bowed. ‘Brigadier Constant of the Maréchaussée, at your service.’

‘Canon Joseph Briard.’ He gestured with a long hand to the man standing on the other side of the dais. ‘This is Jean Gillet, head groom to the Chevalier de Bassigny, who took upon himself the melancholy task of bringing the body here. He has not left his side since.’

Victor examined Gillet, who was taller than the canon, aged about thirty and with a good head of brown, curly hair, tied back. He was in blue livery that looked new, and wore black breeches and very dusty boots. He bore no weapons.

‘You found the chevalier dead?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you see the attack?’

‘No, we were in the cart behind, well back, and it happened before we got there.’ The voice was guttural but comprehensible and the accent was Champenois, though he didn’t draw out his vowels the way they did in the Upper Marne.

‘Who else was with you?’

The canon’s precise voice cut in. ‘Brigadier, may I ask if you have reported to the governor?’

‘No, monsieur.’

‘Then I’m surprised to see you here. You require permission to enter our precinct, unless you happen to be a parishioner of Saint-Laurent—and I happen to know you are not. By what authority do you interrupt this vigil?’

‘By order of the Marshals of France, monsieur. This gentleman was killed in the jurisdiction of the Maréchaussée of the Champagne and I’m beginning the investigation now.’ The canon raised his eyebrows but did not speak, so Victor repeated his question to the groom. ‘Who was with you on the cart?’

‘I drove it and the chevalier’s valet was up beside me: Louis Finot.’

‘Where is Finot now?’

The canon said, ‘Both servants are accommodated at the stables. The governor will give you all these particulars when you get around to seeing him.’

‘You were how far behind the chevalier—quarter of an hour, half an hour, or longer?’ The man hesitated and Victor went on, ‘Did you hear any shots?’

‘We heard shooting all right, soon as we reached the plateau. It came from the forest, some ways off.’

The canon said, ‘Brigadier, there is a party of nobles here at the castle for the hunting. Deer, boar and lesser game abound in the forest and the duchess has given her guests superlative sport. Her visit is expected to last two to three weeks. Time enough, let us hope, for you to bring the murderer to justice.’

Victor said to Gillet, who looked troubled, ‘Give me a guess at how far away you were when your master was killed. Or put it another way: in what state was he when you found him? Was his skin warm? Was the blood still flowing? I’m told he was shot through the heart—is that right?’

‘He was cool and the blood had stopped. As for how he died: you can see that for yourself!’ Gillet pointed an unsteady hand at the body.

Victor strode closer and looked down. From the door, the corpse had looked statuesque, like the painted funerary effigies of noblemen. Up close, he could see that gouts of dried blood discoloured the brocade coat fastened across the chest and the face was handsome but not serene: the lips were drawn back a little from the teeth.

‘Were his eyes open when you found him?’

‘Yes. I closed them; I couldn’t bear him staring at me.’

‘What kind of master was he to you?’

‘Capital! As fine a gentleman as I could wish to serve. And brave! At the front or in France, a brave heart and an honest …’ Gillet seemed too moved to go on.

Victor said, ‘At the front? He was in the war in the Rhineland?’

Gillet nodded. ‘Captain of infantry. It’s all wrong for him to be shot dead on a country road by a common thief! He had his sword on him but he didn’t draw it—it was in the scabbard when I found him. If only he’d had his duelling pistols—but they were in the cart. He should have died a hero’s death.’

‘What did he have in the coach with him, apart from his sword?’

‘Cloak and hat. They’re still there. Nothing else that I remember. Except the satchel that he kept with him all the way.’

‘What did he have in it?’

Gillet fixed Victor with a reproachful stare. ‘I’ve never touched it, if that’s what you mean! As far as I know, there’s documents, and money, and some jewellery—rings, watches, buckles and such. He dressed well, and why not?’

‘Is the satchel missing?’

Gillet snapped, ‘What do you think? This is robbery and murder, brigadier.’

‘Anything else missing from the coach or his person?’ Victor looked at the chevalier again as he spoke and noted that he had expensive steel buckles on his shoes and rings on each fine-fingered hand. He was dressed not for travel but to make an impression, which was no doubt why he had chosen the route across the hilltop to the grand entrance—well, he had certainly created an unforgettable arrival.

‘Not that I saw,’ Gillet said gruffly.

‘The coach—it’s now in the stables, I take it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Please go to the stables and let the head groom know the coach is not to be touched until I examine it. Stay there until you hear from me: I need you to escort me to the spot where the chevalier fell.’

‘You won’t find anything there!’ Gillet said in distress. ‘I looked myself—what do you think? I loaded a musket, and gave one to Louis Finot—though a lot of good he’d have done with it—and we sheltered by the coach and scanned everything in sight in case the villain was still around, and if I’d seen so much as a hair of him I’d have blown him out of the saddle.’

‘You speak as though there was just one man. How could you tell that?’

‘Hoof prints, for God’s sake!’

The canon said, ‘Gillet, do not let your respect for your master make you disrespect the house of God. Try to consider this calmly. The brigadier believes there may be evidence at the murder site. You have just proved that indeed there is.’

Gillet bowed his head and said, ‘Forgive me, monsieur.’

The canon went on, ‘You served your master well, and you serve him no less at this moment. I advise you to go to the stables, as the brigadier asks. God understands grief, and your vigil is done. Jean Gillet, you may leave the Chevalier de Bassigny in the church’s care.’

Gillet bowed more deeply, to both men, and left the sacristy.

Victor, amused by the skill with which the canon had removed the groom from the scene, looked appreciatively at the thin, expressionless face and said, ‘It’s as well he doesn’t remain for the next bit—he might find it unpleasant. I need to examine the body.’

‘Why? The duchess always travels with her physician and she very kindly asked him to examine the chevalier. If you want his opinion—’

‘No. Cause of death is only too plain.’ The canon stepped away and Victor bent forward over the body. ‘But I must check for any signs of a struggle.’

There were none. The chevalier’s hands and fingernails were clean and there were no cuts or bruises on the forearms, or around the neck or head. When Victor undid the coat and waistcoat to reveal the blood-soaked shirt beneath, he uncovered a single hole made by a pistol ball. It must still be in the body, since there was no corresponding wound in the back. On penetrating, it had taken a piece of cloth with it, so that the torn shirt was partly caught in the chest. Victor guessed that the pistol had been fired at fairly close range, though not quite near enough to singe the clothing.

He felt between the layers and in the pockets of coat and waistcoat to unearth a handkerchief, a watch and a snuffbox, all of which he noted and replaced. No letters or documents. The canon observed him dispassionately from a few paces away and Victor reflected that the macabre scene by candlelight was almost commonplace for him—he and his fellows must be used to dealing with the dead.

Victor stood straight and the flame of a candle wavered, throwing a monstrous shadow across the room. He was taller than anyone he’d ever met, and preferred not to loom over people unless it served a handy purpose—but he needn’t worry about the canon, who preserved his self-confidence. Victor said, ‘Give me a day or so to contact headquarters in Chaumont and get a reply, and then I should be able to release the body. Where is the chevalier likely to be buried?’

‘That depends on his family. According to the gracious indulgence of Her Serene Highness, he will be either conveyed to the Bassigny or interred here.’

‘You mean at Joinville?’

‘No, I mean here at Saint-Laurent. Not of course in the crypt or the church, among the princes, but in the graveyard.’ Canon Briard raised his eyebrows slightly. ‘You haven’t heard? The chevalier claimed to be the illegitimate offspring of the late Duc d’Orléans, and was bringing here a royal rescript naming him as a member of the family. A Bourbon. Of royal blood. In two days’ time he would have come of age—twenty-five. On the same day, his birthday, he was to marry Madame de Saint-Loup, a guest of Her Serene Highness.’

Victor took a deep breath, the implications spinning in his head. ‘The document. The rescript. Where is it? Has it been found in the coach or the cart?’

‘That I think is a question for the governor.’ Briard cocked his head. ‘I’m sorry, I can give you very little more of my time. I hear my fellow canons descending from the gallery: we must prepare for Vespers.’

Victor looked over at a clock placed by the door. ‘At two o’clock in the afternoon? So early, in summer? When is Compline, then? Not in the dark, I’ll be bound!’

Canon Briard replied, ‘Brigadier, for more than five hundred years we have said the Liturgy of the Hours in this church according to the times set for us by the Bishop of Châlons. Thus we mark the hours of the day, and sacrifice the day with prayer. As written in the Officium Divinum, Compline is to be said before bedtime. Because our lodgings are below in the valley, and because we go to them on foot, Compline at Saint-Laurent is said before daylight is spent. However, the dean has asked me to stay on afterwards and spend tonight in vigil over the chevalier’s corpse. If your duties in this case keep you here after dark, you’re welcome to join me.’


***
According to the guard who escorted Victor into the castle, the grand edifice next to the big White Tower was called the Cardinal’s Building. The principal apartments were on its upper floor and in the tower beyond, but if they housed the duchess and her retinue at the moment, Victor saw no sign of them. Governor de Gassendi met him in a reception hall lined with tapestries and vast panoplies of ancient arms. Gassendi stood in the centre of the polished timber floor, a soberly dressed, tallish figure in a bag wig and low-heeled black shoes, with no papers about him and nothing in his long-fingered hands. He had the look of a man who kept all business neatly catalogued in his head.

Gassendi had light-grey eyes that focussed on Victor’s with disconcerting intensity. ‘You took your time! Her Serene Highness is usually obeyed with more promptitude. Remember that in future. Where are your men?’

‘On patrol, monsieur—one pair on the highroad to the Lorraine and the other to the north. The moment they return to barracks this afternoon, they’ll join the investigation.’

‘Four men? All elsewhere? Pitiful! And why isn’t there a patrol on the Val de Wassy road? If the Maréchaussée did its duty, you might have dealt with these bandits before one of them resorted to murder!’

‘Monsieur, the Val de Wassy road is not patrolled because it’s little used, except by those visiting the castle. Travellers avoid the plateau when they’re coming to Joinville from the west—they take the low road, which is patrolled, every fortnight. Don’t your guards keep an eye on the approaches to the castle? They should, especially when you are expecting guests. Do they keep sentries on the ramparts?’

Gassendi dismissed the questions with a flick of the fingers. ‘The guards are under the command of Lieutenant Japiot. You may speak to him about their deployment.’ He obviously knew how to delegate, as well he might, since he administered all the duchess’s estates in the region. Keeping up the ancient castle was the least of his tasks: he was responsible for exacting revenues from hundreds of properties, woods, arable land, vineyards and in some places whole villages, throughout the Upper Marne. ‘And it’s not his job to find the murderer—it’s yours. How long has he been running loose in these parts?’

‘Monsieur, no armed robberies have been reported anywhere in the district since I took charge at Joinville, which was in January. Have your guards ever had to deal with beggars or bandits around the castle?’

‘No.’

A bell in Saint-Laurent began tolling for Vespers and Victor said, ‘I’d like to know something else from you, monsieur. Might anyone have caught sight of the crime from the tower near the main gate? It has a view of the approach.’

De Gassendi looked irritated. ‘The first we heard of this disaster was when two servants arrived with the Chevalier de Bassigny’s coach, and the baggage cart carrying his body and a wounded postilion. Get moving and take a look at them: you’ll find them all at the stables.’

‘Thank you. I’ve already spoken to the groom, Jean Gillet. He’ll show me where the murder was committed and I’ll examine the site. I’ll then need to speak with anyone who is acquainted with the Chevalier de Bassigny and can shed light on what he had with him in the coach.’

‘Not possible: the chevalier is a complete stranger. No one here knows him except his servants. You may speak to his valet, but the hired postilion is unconscious.’

‘But I understand the chevalier was to be married here in two days’ time. Isn’t his bride a guest of Her Highness?’

The governor stiffened. ‘You surely don’t expect to be granted an interview with the Vicomtesse de Saint-Loup?!’

Just then there was the sound of boots and spurs approaching the room and a youth of middle height in hunting garb appeared in the doorway. ‘Talk! Is that all you can do?’ Without pausing, he strode towards the governor, his vigorous figure and heated face making a picture of indignation. ‘I just got in, and what do they tell me at the stables? The chevalier’s dead, his murderer’s off like a fox with his kill and not a soul’s gone in pursuit!’ He stopped in front of the governor, knuckles propped on his slim hips. Even in anger, he had a boyish grace, enhanced by his silky complexion and large, brilliant eyes.

The governor bowed. ‘Did you have good hunting today, Your Highness?’

‘Damn the hunting—the viscountess is no sooner a bride than she’s a widow, and she’s surrounded by cowards. She comes here to meet us, her fiancé’s cut down within yards of the castle and no one lifts a finger to avenge her!’

‘On the contrary, Your Highness, I—’

‘And this, I suppose,’ the young gentleman said, looking up at Victor, ‘is the great hope of the Maréchaussée. Where are your men? Digging holes to hide in? I certainly didn’t see any in the woods when I came in.’

Victor bowed very low. ‘Brigadier Constant of the Joinville brigade.’ He added, ‘Your Highness’, though he had no idea whom he was addressing. ‘My men will be back from patrol this evening. I am about to go and examine the murder site to see if the killer can be traced.’

‘With what? You have no troops, and the guards here are an ill-disciplined rabble with no brains and nothing to ride.’ The gentleman’s eyebrows, already arched, rode further up his high forehead. Below the long nose, his full mouth grimaced in disgust.

Victor said patiently, ‘I’m hoping the chevalier’s groom will be of help. I’ve ordered him—’

‘To come with you. So have I. I’ve grabbed him a horse. Stop wasting time: come.’

The prince strode away, his spurs making uncomfortable sounds on the polished floor. Governor de Gassendi looked after him with a mixture of chagrin and relief, then gave Victor a cold glance. ‘You’re dismissed, brigadier. Report to me again tomorrow morning.’

Victor bowed and murmured, ‘Monsieur, whom have I the honour of following to the scene of the crime?’

‘The Prince de Conti.’


***
The ride to the Val de Wassy road was swift. The prince was on a milk-white stallion of singular beauty and speed, well able to match the longer stride of Milan. The groom, Gillet, was on a muscular chestnut, a better horse than he could ever have expected to mount in his life; Victor strongly suspected it belonged to the impetuous prince. Gillet had been waiting with the horses at the big courtyard gate and without a word the prince had mounted up and put spurs to his, so that all three streamed out of the main gate at a dangerous pace. There was nothing on the road, the sun beat down as before and the horses kicked up a fine blond dust that drifted to the ground again at once: there was no breeze across the shimmering hilltop.

Because of Victor’s military career he had heard of the Prince de Conti, who had entered the army at an early age and held a command in the Rhineland. Victor had no idea why the prince should be keen to avenge the death of Chevalier de Bassigny—was the chevalier perhaps a fellow officer, even a friend? This seemed unlikely, given the prince’s elevated rank. Within the Bourbon family there were two great lines, the Orléans and the Condé, both at the moment presided over by dowagers: the Duchesse d’Orléans and her sister, Princesse de Condé. The Prince de Conti was the youngest son of the latter: this was all Victor knew of him, apart from his military reputation—impressive considering his age, which couldn’t be more than twenty. It puzzled Victor why Conti had been invited to the Château d’en Haut to greet the chevalier. How had the duchess been hoping he would act towards their brand-new relative—as friend or foe? Whatever, this death was surely a convenience to some. Soon they could all go on hunting and enjoying the other pleasures of their summer country retreat and forget about the chevalier. Yet Conti seemed inspired by a sense of chivalry towards him—or towards his bride.

They found the murder site on the Val de Wassy road, a mile or so from the castle, on a fairly straight stretch where the forest grew thick on either side. The groom recognised it without difficulty and the three horsemen came to a halt several yards away from the spot, in order not to trample through it. Although the ground was hard and dry, they could all see grooves in its surface, made when the coach slewed about before its pair of horses came to a halt. It was quite possible to see where coach and horses had stood when the chevalier was shot.

Victor said to Jean Gillet, ‘On which side of the coach was the chevalier lying when you came upon him?’

Jean Gillet pointed to the northern side of the road and was about to jump down off the chestnut when Victor said quickly, ‘Stay in the saddle. And keep to this side, away from the prints. I can see a patch of blood on the ground. And some heel marks—’

The Prince de Conti pointed with his whip. ‘You can also see where boots have scuffed through the stones—did you and the valet do that, Gillet, carrying your master to the cart?’

‘Yes, Your Highness.’

‘When you first got here, did you notice any other prints from boots or shoes?’

‘No, Your Highness.’

‘But you told me you saw hoof prints,’ Victor said sharply. ‘At that side of the road. Was the coach door open?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then the chevalier must have got down to confront his attacker. These prints—one horse or more?’

‘One! Like I keep telling you,’ Gillet growled. ‘Let me get another look and I’ll show you.’

‘No,’ the prince said. ‘Before you add any more marks around here, we need to picture what happened.’ He pointed to the forest on the other side. ‘That’s a perfect spot for ambush. A few men hidden in those trees could see anything coming from a decent way off. The moment the coach was close enough, they could come out and surround it in a trice, leaving the driver no time to load up a firearm.’

Victor said respectfully, ‘Your Highness, if a group of men were waiting for the coach as you say, they could have robbed it without bloodshed, because they had greater numbers. But there was bloodshed, right from the start: the postilion was shot off his horse, well before he could use a weapon.’ He nodded towards the trees opposite. ‘Imagine someone committing this crime on his own—that’s an excellent vantage from which to take aim as the coach comes into view. He uses a musket at medium range to deal with the postilion before the man has a chance to retaliate. And then when the coach comes to a stop, the killer confronts the passenger with pistols.’ He turned to Jean Gillet. ‘Has the postilion talked about the attack? Did he see anything?’

Gillet shook his head. ‘He’s past talking, brigadier. He hasn’t spoken since we picked him up off the road. The shot knocked him out and the physician says he has internal injuries from the fall. No telling if his heart and lungs will last out.’

‘Well he’s a lot of use,’ the prince remarked, and then a distinctive sound made him raise his head. It was a bugle, blown behind them in the forest, in the direction of the castle. ‘The saints be praised, my master of hounds!’ He turned to Victor. ‘We’re now going to cross the road, but keep off the main spot—we don’t want to muddle this any further. We’re going to circle across there and look for hoof prints on the other side, heading for the trees. Look out for crushed grass, scrape marks, scattered stones, flattened spoor. You, too,’ he said to Gillet, ‘but for heaven’s sake don’t ride over them. I want any scent to remain clear as day.’

The prince led the way, his horse going at a delicate walk, twitching its tail so that it caught the sunlight like filaments of silver. Victor followed without protest, his gaze riveted on the ground, where somewhat to his surprise there was confirmation of Jean Gillet’s hasty theory; there were enough signs on the hard, dry surface and among the patches of grass to suggest that one shod horse had galloped to the roadside, trampled the ground near the coach, then left again at speed. There were small rocks and pebbles on the surface, some of which had been displaced, leaving visible indentations.

It was impossible to tell if the rider had dismounted at any stage, but he would not have needed to. The chevalier must have been coerced into extracting his valuables from the coach himself—and then been shot. In cold blood, moreover, because he had offered no resistance; his sword had remained in the scabbard.

Victor was surprised how much evidence they could glean from the roadside, but as they approached the trees the grass ran out and the hard ground was littered with so many dried leaves and twigs that it revealed no pattern of a horse’s passing. They lost the trail.

Meanwhile Victor could hear hooves in the distance, and although the bugle did not sound again he knew that for some bizarre reason the Prince de Conti’s hounds were being brought through the forest to join him.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 21:19