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Friday, 20 March 2020 06:02

Murder on High--Instalment 3

For those who love free fiction but are cautious about going to the local library in the present health crisis, here are the continuing adventures of Victor Constant, coming to you every day.

Victor has just become the new brigadier in the Champagne town of Joinville when he is commanded to solve a highway murder, a special province of the military mounted police of France. The summons comes from royalty—the Duchesse d’Orléans, owner of the magnificent château that dominates the town. One of her guests has been robbed and shot dead near the castle and the supposed highwayman has disappeared into the vast Forest of Joinville. At the murder site, Victor receives unexpected help from none other than the illustrious--and impetuous--Prince de Conti ...

(To read the instalments in order, click on the lists on the right.)

‘This way,’ the prince said suddenly, and moved his horse well away from the spot. ‘The hounds need to get their bearings and I don’t want you confusing them.’

‘Your Highness, you don’t seriously believe hounds could track the killer?!’

‘Not him, of course! His mount.’ The prince grinned suddenly, more amused than annoyed by Victor’s outburst.

Victor exchanged a glance with Jean Gillet, but the groom looked just as baffled as he was. Victor said, ‘Forgive me, Your Highness, but what sort of scent could a horse leave? Especially on a day like this, with full sun and no breeze?’

‘Less scent than boar or deer, I grant you, but every animal leaves a trace that a good dog can pick up. By heaven, you’re ignorant! I’m astonished you know nothing about hunting; it’s the only thing this country’s good for.’ He went on in a condescending tone, ‘Listen. From fox or hare you get scent from the pads, directly on the ground, and to a good hound, it’s detectable for a long time. I have hounds that can follow a scent days after it’s laid, and stick to it until they find where the creature came to the very end of its run. Then there’s the other scent, which is stronger and sharper, emitted from under the tail and carried on the air. When my hounds get close enough to a deer, even when they can’t see it, they hold up their noses and run with their heads high for as long as it takes, and they never lose it—never.’

‘With respect, Your Highness, this horse that we seek is shod, its pads are well off the ground, and its air scent was stifled hours ago—the atmosphere is too still up here for it to linger.’

‘But pastern and fetlock brush against grass and leaves, brigadier. And in the forest our horse treads in softer, damper ground. And if we’re lucky there is spoor—more copious than any deer would leave behind!’ The prince gave a short laugh, then raised his head, and following his glance Victor saw a torrent of hounds flowing through the forest towards them. In the dimness under the trees they shed a pale glow as they glided silently around beech trunks, up and over hummocks in the ground and through patches of fern.

The hounds gave no tongue because they were not on a scent: they were following a tall man on horseback and their heads were raised to hear his command. They poured across the road and the prince spurred forward, lifted one arm high and opened his hand. The attentive master of hounds immediately brought his horse to a halt and shouted to the leader of the pack.

In seconds the hounds had broken their headlong rush and were milling around the legs of the master’s solid-looking hunter and the prince’s stallion. They were excited and ready for action, whimpering in their eagerness and looking up at their master and the prince. Victor had never seen anything like these animals: lean and sinewy, with long legs, pointed muzzles and whip-like tails, they had very short hair that was white all over the body, except for dark blotches on the back and spots on their big floppy ears.

Victor was pleased that his horse, Milan, had shown no alarm when the dogs burst on the scene. Years before, when Victor was in the French cavalry, he had found Milan straying on a battlefield in Italy, and had known he was claiming a prize well above his rank. But because of his conduct in the victory against the Austrians that day, he had been allowed to keep Milan, even though from the stallion’s quality it was obvious that the enemy who had ridden him onto the field must have been an aristocrat. Victor might know little about the noble sport of venery, but at least Milan was up to the mark. He and Gillet drew nearer.

The dogs writhed around the legs of the four horses gathered near the trees, and were allowed to do so—these were the scents that they would not be following when the chase began. Then the prince gave his orders to the master, and the leader of the pack and four other hounds were taken to the patch of ground where the riders had begun to lose the killer’s trail. The master put himself between them and the road, to prevent the hounds from swarming over the murder site and being confused by its mixture of scents.

Watching the animals cast back and forth, sniff the wind, then return to spiral over the same ground, Victor shook his head. Even if they could sense that a horse had passed by here, how were they supposed to know it was their prey?

The prince caught the movement and gave a superior grin. ‘Just wait. They’ll work it out. These are my Great Whites; there are none like them in the kingdom. I might have brought my Great Fauves but they’re savage—impatient for the kill. On the chase, if they’re frustrated they’d as soon rip each other to pieces, or take a bite out of us. My Whites are better bred and their noses are subtler, more discriminating.’ Suddenly he cried to the master, ‘Ah, look! Baude’s got it, she’s latched on!’ The master responded by spurring forward, as a bitch with one black ear moved away from the patch of ground towards the trees, with the pack looking on.

Baude! Allez, allez!’ the prince cried.

His voice electrified every creature. Baude never lifted her nose from the ground to acknowledge the call but her feathering became more urgent, the hounds just behind her honoured her line, and the whole pack, on a signal that Victor neither saw nor heard, rushed in an arc to crowd behind the leaders. The master came up on their heels, the prince beckoned Victor and Gillet, and a few seconds later, hounds and riders were in a dash for the trees.

Baude reached there first, with a cry that rang with confidence, and disappeared. Victor cursed: this would not be easy going. He was unfamiliar with the forest, which was vast and dense. In past centuries there would have been clearings and rides cut out of it for hunting but these had to be maintained or they eventually disappeared under natural growth, unless deer were especially numerous. The duchess’s gamekeeper and foresters would have needed months of notice to make arrangements for hunters’ sport in the great forest of Joinville this summer, and they’d probably had only weeks. As the hounds and riders darted in among the trees, Victor prepared himself to duck twigs and branches, to watch the going ahead in case Milan lost his footing, and to snatch glimpses of the pack leaders, so as not to deviate from their general direction and end up in the wilderness, out of their sight and hearing.

Milan, however, proved skilful at manoeuvring through the forest, avoiding the moss-covered hummocks of rock, neatly clearing fallen trunks and branches, and negotiating the deep leaf litter under the beech trees that predominated on the high ground, where the undergrowth was sparse. Ahead, the hounds checked now and then to rediscover the trail, and the riders behind them slowed to watch their progress: the master always level with the pack, the prince behind him, then Victor and the groom, Gillet.

Victor could not tell whether the prince was familiar with this ground: had a hunting party come here this morning? Meanwhile he tried to stay alert to the path the killer seemed to have taken. Gauging by the sunlight slanting through the trees, the man’s path went straight into the forest for a few hundred yards, northwards, then took a long curve to the left. Victor calculated that the chase was now heading southwest. The ground began to slope down and the oak and beech woods gave way to stands of hornbeam, under which ferns and undergrowth grew more thickly. Here and there, outcrops of limestone appeared, with the occasional pine clinging to the crest.

Then the hounds swung once more and Victor looked up through the foliage in bafflement, verifying the direction of the sunlight. If he was correct, the trail was at this moment heading around the mountain and towards the castle. Which meant that it would soon join up again with the Val de Wassy road, albeit at a lower level. Why would the killer expose himself on the road so soon after committing robbery and murder upon it? Surely he would retreat to a hideaway in the forest?

But the hounds were confident, leading the riders through a handsome grove of oaks, where the horses trampled across a layer of last year’s acorns. Suddenly Victor spied something that no one else noticed—a piece of black cloth suspended from a broken branch. He halted Milan and plucked it off. It was a large, square kerchief in a black fabric that almost matched that of Victor’s military shirt, though the sheen on it suggested it might be silk. It was roughly cut, with no hems, and there was a hole in one corner where it had snagged on the branch, which stuck out at Victor’s chest height. The killer’s?

He glanced ahead. At some distance from him, the pack and riders were rushing out into an area bathed in sunlight. His heart sank: if they had reached the road again, the trail would be hopelessly obscured by others.

He thrust the kerchief into a pocket and sent Milan flying towards the screen of trees and the brightness beyond. As he drew closer he realised the hounds had reached an ample clearing, where they were milling about amongst grass, meadow flowers and low bushes. It had probably been created long ago by the foresters who managed the Guises’ hunting grounds, and since then the deer herds had kept it just as they liked it, nibbling away new fronds and saplings around the edges.

When Victor emerged from the trees, he found the prince and his master of hounds frowning at the busy mass of white dogs darting about their horses’ legs. The prince was cursing. When the master of hounds ventured to say something, he said loudly, ‘Damn it! Damn it to hell! We came through here this morning!’ In his fury he swept off his hat and threw it to the ground, narrowly missing the bitch, Baude. ‘There are scores of scents all over here. They’ll never get the trail back. Listen to that babble!’

‘Perhaps over there …’ The master of hounds pointed with his whip to the opposite side of the clearing.

The prince snarled, ‘You mean towards the road? Towards the castle? He would never have gone that way! No, we’re done here. Fetch them in.’ He wheeled his horse to face Jean Gillet. ‘Pick up that hat. And bring that horse home. At once.’ With that, he trotted the white stallion through the hounds, which yelped and parted to let him through, then spurred his mount in amongst the trees. Without a word, Jean Gillet obeyed orders and followed him.

Victor urged Milan after them. He could not imagine the killer venturing out onto the Val de Wassy road again. It was most likely that he had gone downhill on a path parallel to the road but kept to the woods. If the prince thought his hounds could not pick up that trail, it was pointless to pursue the hunt.


***
Victor’s second entry into the Château d’en Haut was under a massive arch towards the southern end of the ramparts, commonly known as the ‘back gate’. At a high angle above the town and accessed by a road that circled right around through the forest from the main gate by Saint-Laurent, this was the giant ceremonial portal by which the dukes and cardinals of Guise and their entourages used to enter and depart in their coaches and cavalcades. Vehicles passed through to two courtyards, remains of the medieval castle, where the stables and most of the servants’ quarters were.

On the way back to the castle, Victor had found it hard to glean any information from the taciturn master of hounds, until he started phrasing all his questions in hunting terms. His own lack of knowledge was actually an advantage, because the master was thrilled to have an audience for his obsession. Disappointed by the Great Whites’ failure at the clearing, he was eager to tell stories about their prowess, to talk about the game they’d chased down in the forest and to praise the young prince, who was a paragon in his eyes.

‘So you bring the hounds out through here every day?’ Victor asked as they rode between the gates, opened for them by the porter whose dwelling stood just inside.

‘Every day except Sunday, and every day we come back with a prize.’

‘What did you get today?’

‘Two red deer, big ones, way to the west. We left some lads behind to butcher them and bring them back—I don’t think they’ll be home yet or I could show you. It was the Great Fauves that pulled them down.’

‘And when you brought the Great Fauves home, that’s when you heard about the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘Yes, the chevalier’s coach and horses were in the stables, the valet was lamenting, the postilion was out cold and everyone had a different story about the murder—except they all agreed the chevalier was shot through the heart. The prince was outraged. He asked me at once which beasts would do best on the bandits’ trail and I said the Great Whites. So he bade me get them out and around to the Val de Wassy road and wait for him.’

Victor said, ‘He loses no time, does he? How did he get to the governor’s quarters so quickly, if he had to go right around the castle to the main gate?’

‘Bless you,’ the master said, ‘he rode straight through from here. You can’t take any kind of vehicle from the old part to the new, because the main courtyard’s on a lower level than this, but that’s no obstacle to a fine rider on a good horse—there’s a grand flight of stone steps between, and the prince floats down them on that grey of his.’

‘It seems he’s partial to white horses and dogs.’

The master looked as though this was a new idea to him. ‘Ah, well, not really. The fauves aren’t white, they’re a mix: black, grey and tawny. The Great Whites just happen to be nearly all white, if you know what I mean. They’re bred from a pair that belonged to a maiden aunt of the prince. The bitch was called Baude and the dog was Souillard—filthy name for a pure-bred, don’t you think? Raised by a nobleman from Normandy. The best hounds come from Brittany or Normandy, take your pick.’

‘Which way did you hunt this morning, and who went with you?’

‘We crossed the Val de Wassy road just about where we did just now with the hounds, and not far beyond that is an old ride that goes pretty much due west. I’d say we chased the red deer five miles at least. Two foresters and four of our lads came, under my orders. The quality that hunted with His Highness were the Baron de Sabran, who’s an army officer, Madame de Saint-Loup and the Vicomtesse de Brienne.’

They passed under another archway called the Violin Portal and entered a triangular space formed by high walls on each side. Ahead to the left were two massive water cisterns inside high walls, and a gap leading onto a terrace. The hounds, which had been restless and noisy on the way home, seemed even more vocal now that they were almost at their kennels. Victor ignored their clamour, struck instead by one of the names he had just heard.

‘The Vicomtesse de Brienne? The lady who used to live at the Sarrasins, not far from Cirey?’

‘I don’t know. Sarrasins? Never heard of it. I’m not sure the viscountess is connected with these parts, though the old name of Brienne comes from here, doesn’t it? No, she hails from the Loire, and she came all this way at the duchess’s behest. Beautiful carriage horses she has—matched greys.’

The viscountess came vividly to Victor’s mind. A proud and independent noblewoman, by an unhappy stroke of fate she had been involved in his first Maréchaussée investigation in the Champagne, and it had affected her deeply. She had vowed to leave her late husband’s ancestral castle, the Sarrasins, go back to her own country and never return—but he knew she was a woman of strong impulses, and there must have been something about the Duchesse d’Orléans’s invitation that had attracted her. Victor was not at all surprised that she hunted: it would suit her fiery nature.

‘The Vicomtesse de Saint-Loup—the bride to be—why was she on the hunt? Didn’t she know the chevalier was arriving today?’

‘Oh yes she did, she received a message from him yesterday that said he was coming. But he wouldn’t be here first thing, so she swore to hunt this morning as usual. She’s come out with His Highness every day since she arrived, and you won’t see a prettier sight on horseback. Madame de Saint-Loup loves everything about hunting, including the hounds. I had the honour to show her a new litter just the other day and she came down special to see it when His Highness told her a Great White bitch had whelped and taken us all by surprise.’

‘Were both ladies in at the kill?’

‘Madame de Brienne, yes. Not Madame de Saint-Loup, though; she came back earlier. I don’t think her mind was really on the chase! More on the chevalier, and I couldn’t blame her. I’m told he was as handsome as she’s beautiful, and what young bride wouldn’t be aching to see the gentleman who was about to make her a princess?’ The master paused, seeking the right phrases for an earnest pronouncement: ‘There’s a lot of sympathy for her amongst us, and I’ve taken the liberty to ask His Highness to pass on how sorry we all are about the tragic loss that fell on her today.’

The terrace onto which they emerged was supposed to be in lawn, but grass grew only in scattered patches across the pale, sun-baked ground. To their right, at a much lower level, was the main courtyard, which was paved. Above this, the three-storeyed guest wing of the castle rose in elegant Renaissance style. In between terrace and courtyard was a wall pierced by a central gap, with wide, shallow steps beyond, down which the Prince de Conti had ridden to make his peremptory call on Governor de Gassendi.

Wheeling to the left and into the old courtyard, Victor and the master at last reached the stables, the kennels, and the living quarters of the outdoor staff who looked after the comfort and sport of the duchess’s summer visitors. The white hounds were making an even greater racket than before, which roused every animal in the buildings ahead. The master, red-faced at their lack of discipline, abandoned Victor and concentrated on getting them to kennels. To Victor, it seemed the hounds were disappointed by losing their line and their prey. He shared their displeasure.

The first man Victor tried to get hold of at the stables was Lieutenant Japiot. He needed to find out what Japiot’s palace guards knew about the murder, whether they routinely kept patrol in the castle environs and whether they had any local crime to report—but Jean Gillet told him that the lieutenant was closeted with the governor. Victor cursed inwardly and decided to tackle Japiot next morning.
He then examined the Chevalier de Bassigny’s coach, which stood under cover. It was a low-slung, two-person vehicle, black-lacquered and with black rainproof curtains, which gave it a funereal air. Gillet told Victor that it did not belong to the chevalier—he had hired it in Paris for the trip to the Champagne and when his visit in the Haute Marne was over he had meant to return to Paris in it with his wife. He had travelled the considerable distance to the Upper Marne in stages over several days, each day with fresh horses. The pair that had drawn the coach to the hilltop had been hired in Wassy, a half-day’s drive to the west, that very morning, and so had the unfortunate postilion. The governor had already informed the livery stables in Wassy that they would need to send men to take the horses back to their premises and the duchess had kindly pledged to pay any additional expenses.

Assisted by Gillet, Victor examined the coach. It was not new, but nor was it shabby, so the simple interior with its bench seat and comfortable cushions offered no cavities or rents in fabric into which the chevalier might have stuffed documents or small precious items before he confronted his killer. Victor left the cloak and hat where they were and had a good look around the foot well, where no doubt the chevalier had placed his satchel while on the road. He found nothing.

There was no damage to the exterior of the coach, beyond the scratches and dust caused by bouncing over the region’s stony, chalky roads, and there was now hardly a trace of the chevalier inside it. It was eerie to think how neatly he had been eradicated from life—snuffed out by one pistol shot.

Victor surveyed the coach with a frown. ‘What happens to this now?’

Gillet said, ‘The governor gave orders it’s to stay here until Madame de Bassigny decides what to do with it. It was her husband who hired it, so it’s up to her.’

‘Who on earth is Madame de Bassigny?’

‘Madame de Saint-Loup as was,’ Gillet said with an air of importance. ‘Strangest thing I’ve ever known, but I’ve done my duty by him and her. The chevalier married her three weeks ago on his estate. All under cover. Louis Finot and I were sworn to secrecy, and never said a word. But now it’s all over the castle because Madame de Bassigny has confessed it to the Duchesse d’Orléans, so I can make free with the news.’

Victor cursed. ‘Am I to be held back on everything to do with this murder?!’ He counted off the frustrations in his head: dismissed by the governor, dragooned and side-tracked by the Prince de Conti, lied to by a servant … ‘What else have you forgotten to tell me? Speak up: I won’t have obstruction.’

‘Obstruction!?’ Gillet said gruffly. ‘My master’s been murdered and there’s no one left to pay my wages. That’s obstruction enough for me! I’d as soon grab a musket and hunt down the villain who killed him as stand here listening to you. I did my duty by the chevalier and if the Maréchaussée doesn’t like it, go ahead, arrest me!’

Victor considered him calmly. ‘So we have your full cooperation in this case?’

‘Yes, what do you think?’

‘Then I expect you to help my men tomorrow. They’ll be here asking questions, and you’ll give them as much detail as you can. Sometimes it’s the small facts that lead to the culprit. Can we count on you?’

Gillet gave a grunt, which Victor took as consent.

‘Very well, now you can take me to the gamekeeper.’

The gamekeeper lodged with his wife and children in the first storey of a tall watchtower that overlooked the comings and goings in the old courtyard. To view the surrounding forest to the south, west and north, Gérard Lorichon had only to climb to the turreted roof, where he spoke with Victor.

Lorichon seemed very much at home at the Château d’en Haut and in fact his family had been there for centuries. His ancestors had served as falconers to the princes of the Lorraine, his father and grandfather before him had been gamekeepers to the Orleáns family and he directed everything to do with the Forest of Joinville, which included hunting, tree planting and timber getting.

‘The duchess makes an income from her timber?’ Victor asked, as he stood with Lorichon, looking down on the courtyard.

The man’s keen grey eyes flickered over the scene below, noting every movement. ‘Yes, but there’s no logging right now—the busy season for the teams is autumn. They’ll be concentrating on the fine stands of oak near the Combe du chêne.’ The king permitted great landowners to log trees on their estates and all sales of timber were regulated—and taxed—by Eaux et Forêts, the department that administered the laws on waterways and woodland in France. Victor was beginning to wish that the chevalier had been ambushed in the depths of the forest instead of on the road—then his death would have been a matter for Eaux et Forêts, not the Maréchaussée.

‘Are there many coombs in the forest? Would any of them make a good hideaway for bandits?’

‘There are three big coombs: the Oak far in the west, the Val de Wassy in the south—a deep ravine, that one, well camouflaged—and Saint-Roch. Saint-Roch is closest to the castle on the high road and we have a forest lodge there—too public a place for a criminal to hole up! What, you think the highwayman’s still in the forest? He’s long gone, if he knows what’s good for him. It may look like a wilderness to you but there’s little going on there that I and my foresters don’t know about. Especially now, when it’s crawling with hunters and hounds.’

‘I can’t help hoping that someone may have seen the killer in the woods today,’ Victor said. ‘Have you spoken with your foresters about the murder?’

‘Of course. They saw no strangers abroad.’

‘Nor did the Prince de Conti or his master of hounds. But there are others I can speak to. It seems the nobility went out on the hunt together but they came home at different hours. Counting back from the time I received the duchess’s summons, and back again from the time it took to bring the chevalier’s body to the castle and give the alarm, I calculate that the murder must have occurred around midday. Can you tell me who went out on the hunt this morning, and when they returned?’ The tall, rangy man beside him gave him a look that Victor found hard to interpret. ‘It’s my duty to question them and find out what they saw in the forest. I realise it might be hard for you to give me exact times: you’re a busy man and you’d not spend all day looking at a watch …’

The other gave an unexpected grin and pointed towards the far side of the grand courtyard, which was dominated by the White Tower. ‘The hour’s plain enough!’ Victor noticed a slender clock tower that rose from the inner wall between the ramparts and the White Tower. ‘And the bells of Saint-Laurent spell out the day besides. Let me see.’ Lorichon paused for half a minute, then said with confidence, ‘The party rode out early, at nine, to benefit from the coolness of the morning. I always send one of my lads with them and he rides back at once when they make a kill—to give me the size of the prey, tell me if there are any injuries to horses or dogs, let me know if more of my men should be sent to assist. So I know they made the kill at eleven, near the Coomb of the Oak. All were present when the two red deer were brought down, except for Madame de Saint-Loup—that is, I should say, Madame de Bassigny. She turned back before the end of the chase and rode home. I didn’t see her come in, but you can ask her servants what time that was.’

‘What about the others?’

‘Madame de Brienne and the Baron de Sabran each arrived back around one o’clock. At that hour the chevalier was still expected and we knew nothing about the murder. Shortly afterwards, word came to us that the chevalier’s body had been brought to Saint-Laurent—he’d been found by his servants on the road, shot dead. At about a quarter to two, the Prince de Conti returned and his master of hounds brought in the Great Fauves to kennels. As soon as the prince heard the news he was off again like a bullet to demand what the governor was doing about the murder.’

As the gamekeeper spoke, Victor wrote the names and times in a notebook, building a picture in his head that correlated with his own actions. He had sent Jean Gillet to the stables at a quarter to two, he had taken leave of Canon Briard just before Vespers at two o’clock, he had heard the prayer hour rung while he was having his unsatisfactory meeting with the governor, and within minutes the Prince de Conti had burst in and taken over. These later times all tallied, so it seemed he could trust Lorichon’s powers of recollection about the earlier ones.

‘Thank you.’ Victor closed the notebook. ‘Do you ever accompany the hunt?’

Lorichon shook his head. ‘My place is here when the princes go hunting. A gamekeeper does most of his work in the forest when royalty are not in residence. Once they arrive, he has to trust that he’s done everything right, because he needs to stay at the centre of things and keep control. The preparation and organisation of the sport is my responsibility—the chase is all theirs.’

‘So you didn’t go beyond the ramparts at any time today?’

‘No.’

‘I’m sending a couple of my cavaliers into the forest tomorrow to check the Coomb of the Oak and the Coomb of Val de Wassy. Can you spare two of your foresters to show them the way?’
Lorichon hesitated a moment, then said, ‘It’s not convenient, at a time like this. But we should get some respite tomorrow—the prince declares he’ll not go hunting, out of respect for Madame de Bassigny’s bereavement. Make sure your men come at first light. I’ll have the porter let them in the back gate.’

Victor nodded, grateful to have the gamekeeper’s cooperation. Lorichon answered of course to the governor in the end, but in practical terms the old part of the castle was his own particular domain, and he clearly knew how to command it.

‘Before I leave,’ Victor said, ‘I need to see the postilion who was injured in the attack. He lies somewhere at the stables, I believe?’

‘The porter’s wife is tending him where the grooms sleep. I’ll take you there. But I don’t think he’ll be up to talking.’

Last modified on Friday, 20 March 2020 06:44