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Saturday, 21 March 2020 01:06

Murder on High--Instalment 4

Here are Nicholas Gentile, composer, and opera star Julie Lea Goodwin at Sydney Opera House, rehearsing our opera, Émilie & Voltaire. Tomorrow the three singers--Julie, Rob McDougall and John Longmuir, are recording their tracks for the short film of the same name, which is being produced with the generous sponsorship of Opera Australia. 

In the present pandemic, this is as far as we can go along the way to staging the opera itself--but it is wonderful to have the support of a marvellous team of creative people, while we wait for better days to come ...

Meanwhile I'm delighted to be bringing you my brand-new novel in daily instalments. In Murder on High, military policeman Victor Constant struggles to investigate a crime that no one in the top echelons of society wants to talk about--and that's just where the murder occurred, amongst royalty, no less. If he's to get any cooperation from the guests in the castle owned by the Duchesse d'Orleans, his only hope may come from Voltaire and Émilie, who have been staying there for some days ...

Voltaire was idling away an hour or two with Émilie in her apartment, speculating what the evening would hold for the duchess and her guests. The death of the chevalier had thrown all the arrangements awry and until they received some sort of cue from their hostess the company had no idea what to do until supper, which was at nine. To play music, billiards or cards seemed callous in the circumstances and even a stroll on the grassy terraces along the ramparts would look unfeeling.

To see if anything was going on elsewhere he persuaded her to walk out into the gallery so he could look down on the big formal courtyard below, but it was deserted. The murder seemed to have brought the life of the castle to a gloomy halt. He felt sorry for the unfortunate chevalier, of course, but he also felt sorry for himself—during their stay he had looked forward to directing a few scenes from his play, Adélaïde du Guesclin, but this was now out of the question. In the past, when he’d been a darling of the high aristocracy, grandees had begged for private performances of his work whenever they invited him to their country estates. He delighted in choosing the right pieces for each gathering, and the preparation and rehearsals were as much fun as the performances, whether they played tragedy or comedy. He missed these impromptu dramatics and sorely regretted the magical world of the Parisian theatre, from which he had exiled himself by choosing to live with Émilie in this remote corner of the Champagne.

He murmured, ‘Alas, Adélaïde is denied an audience yet again.’

Émilie joined him at the window. ‘But the Comédie Française loved it!’

‘True, but Paris didn’t. It was a total flop. I took it off early, and paid the actors for the rest of the run. It wasn’t their fault that it failed.’

‘Have you ever tried to rewrite it?’

‘No. Its doom was spelt by the audience, which is just as it should be.’

‘But how do you know they were right?’

‘I dressed as a cleric and went to a performance. I hid behind pillars and listened to what they said during the interval.’

Émilie laughed. ‘A cleric! I wish I’d seen you lurking. Was I there? Did you overhear me?’

‘No, thank God.’

‘Well, what did they say about it?’

‘Nothing. It wasn’t worth their while. That’s why I gave it up.’ He caught her disbelieving look and said, ‘Émilie, I calculate there are about four thousand people in Paris who know a good play from a bad one. My work for the theatre depends on their judgment, and they condemned Adélaïde without mercy from the first performance—I can still hear the hissing.’

She shrugged. ‘So why did you want to put it on here? The duchess didn’t ask you for anything by title. In my invitation she just said: “We anticipate the enjoyment of Monsieur de Voltaire’s charming theatricals.”’

‘Look, just because Paris rejected the play doesn’t mean it isn’t sparkling with inimitable scenes. I’ve chosen the moment when Nemours, grievously wounded in battle, upbraids Adélaïde for being betrothed his brother—and she declares her love for him.’

‘For whom, the fiancé?’

‘No, you goose, you’ve forgotten—Nemours. From the moment we arrived I had Madame de Saint-Loup for Adélaïde and the Prince de Conti for Nemours—brimming with natural talent, both of them.’\

‘You must get used to calling her Madame de Bassigny. Good heavens, what a dreadfully unsuitable piece, under any circumstances!’

‘Conti loved it. He couldn’t wait for his intimate encounter with the beautiful Bassigny. He’s besotted.’

Émilie stiffened. ‘Nonsense, I’ve seen no sign of that.’

Voltaire grinned. ‘My love, just because Conti flirts so dexterously with you doesn’t mean he’s not languishing for her.’

‘Oh, look!’ Émilie touched his wrist as she glanced out the window. ‘There’s a gendarme out there. He’s riding down those steps! I didn’t know it could be done.’

A chill went through Voltaire at the word ‘gendarme’ but when he turned he recognised the tall rider and horse at once. ‘It’s Victor Constant! The duchess must have called in the Maréchaussée. He’s brigadier at Joinville now. I wonder how he’s fared since we last saw him?’

Émilie watched Constant ride across the paving. ‘Do you think he’s in charge of the case? He has no troops with him.’

‘They’re probably out chasing the bandits. Much good may it do them. Constant has an ungrateful job, chasing anyone for a murder like this.’

‘If the stolen goods turn up in the region, though, he may be able to trace the thief.’

Voltaire watched Constant until he disappeared, then turned from the window and gave her his arm. ‘Let’s go back in your room. Yes, possibly he can catch the thief, if theft was the motive for the attack. But on the other hand, theft may be just the excuse.’

Émilie said quietly, ‘You think this is more complicated than a robbery gone wrong?’

‘Frankly, I don’t know what to think. But in my experience, events that occur around the Orléans family are rarely simple. Why was the Chevalier de Bassigny killed? I’d advise Brigadier Constant not to answer that question too soon.’

DAY TWO

Victor was in the front room of the two-storey dwelling in Joinville allocated to him by the Maréchaussée. Next to it stood a former livery stables that had been converted into barracks for his brigade of four, who lodged in attic rooms above the horse stalls when they were in town. The two buildings were set in a busy quarter near the centre of town, but they simply looked out on the street and there was no view of the tall church steeple further up the hill, or of the castle up top, that sat like a magnificent crown, visible for mile upon mile to those approaching the town along the valley of the Upper Marne. As far as the Maréchaussée’s neighbours were concerned, events in Joinville itself occupied almost all their energies and any seigneurs who happened to be at the castle were a race apart, invisible and remote.

At this moment the cavaliers were standing along the wall on the opposite side of a big table, on which Victor had spread a Maréchaussée map of the district. He always kept the men on their feet when he summoned them to receive orders. They were all tough troopers from the Champagne and he was a stranger from Paris, plus two of them were older than he was, so for these reasons alone he’d treated them with iron discipline from the first. He hadn’t tried to get to know them, which meant they turned to one another for comradeship, forming a quartet that was wary but so far obedient. Their work on patrol was adequately performed but he had no idea how they’d do in a murder investigation.

‘I’ve sent my report to Lieutenant Beauregard in Chaumont and the Prévôt-Général in Châlons-sur-Marne. Until I hear from either, patrols are cancelled and you’re all on the case. You’ll need to stop thinking like soldiers and remember you belong to the police corps. The Marshals of France expect you to catch the murderer of the Chevalier de Bassigny.’ He fixed his eye on the man he guessed to be the most intelligent—though what did he know? ‘Laval, where would you look for him?’

Laval was squarely built and tried to keep up a smart appearance; his brown hair was always scraped back severely and his moustache neatly trimmed above his firm mouth. At this question Laval hesitated, which was perhaps a good sign. Victor would prefer to command men who used their heads for at least a second before responding. ‘Somewhere beyond the Blaise, brigadier, on his way to Troyes.’

Victor stepped to the table and spread his hand on the western side of the little river Blaise, which ran vertically across country, about eight miles west of Joinville. His thumb pointed towards the city that lay another hand’s breadth beyond. ‘Why Troyes?’

‘He needs a real big town, brigadier, to sell what he’s pinched.’

Victor nodded. ‘I’ve alerted the Maréchaussée and the civil police at Troyes to keep an eye out for his sort of business.’ He fixed his eye on the next cavalier in line and left his hand on the map. ‘Dardel, you think he’d have got this far?’

Dardel, younger and more eager, answered at once. ‘No, brigadier, if I was him I’d hide in the forest until dark. Going across country in broad daylight, I’d be scared of people spying me.’
‘You reckon he’d move at night?’ Victor took his hand from the map. ‘Easier said than done. There was only the sliver of a moon last night.’

‘But tonight it’s more of a crescent,’ Dardel said, his blue eyes very bright. ‘If I was him I’d be lying low and waiting for it. So if we comb the forest—we might have him!’

‘Which part of the forest?’ Victor said suddenly to Roux, whose fiery hair and moustache matched his name.

Of the four, Roux had the most aggressive air, but his voice was pleasant. ‘The Val de Wassy coomb, brigadier. It’s a deep ravine and it lies in the right direction, if he plans to head for Troyes. Tonight, he could nip out of the trees and cross the high road. The nearest village is Nomécourt, some way up the road, and no one will see him in the fields; folk will be indoors.’

‘You and Laval patrolled the high road last week,’ Victor said. ‘Any talk of armed beggars or robbers in those parts?’ He swung his gaze along the line of attentive men. ‘Or anywhere else for that matter?’

They shook their heads. Picard, the fourth, was the only one who answered. Thin and earnest, he had picked up a little education from somewhere, and politer manners to go with it. Picard fitted the military mould less than the others but in fact he’d had an excellent record in the army and might have eventually earned higher rank than cavalryman, but he’d joined the Maréchaussée to get back to his home country in the Upper Marne. He said, ‘No, brigadier. I would guess this fellow’s a foreigner. He came into the territory with no warning and he’s got out again just as quickly. If we don’t catch him it won’t be our fault—he’s long gone. I’d say there’s no point looking in the forest.’

‘Then I want you on his trail,’ Victor said at once, ‘armed with a description, so you can question anyone you see along the way.’

Picard gasped. ‘A description? Beg your pardon, brigadier, but how am I supposed to get that?’

‘You’ll come up to the castle and question the Chevalier de Bassigny’s valet, Louis Finot, in case he saw anything that Jean Gillet didn’t. You’ll interrogate the postilion if you can—he was unconscious when I saw him yesterday but you may have better luck. If possible, you’ll find out the man’s height, colour of hair, hat and clothing.’ Victor pulled the ragged black scarf from his pocket and tossed it onto the table. ‘I think he was wearing that over his face yesterday but he lost it in the forest. Also, you need to know everything that anyone remembers about the horse he was riding, plus accoutrements and weapons. Note it all down for yourself if you need to.’ Picard looked ready to protest again but Victor went on, ‘Then you give chase. You enter the forest from the castle, take the Val de Wassy road down to the highway and cross it below Nomécourt.’ He stepped forward again and laid a forefinger on the map. ‘You can ford the Blaise below Courcelles. Continue west on the plateau, on the little byroads and through the farms. If he’s keeping to the woods he may take advantage of the Bois de la Pissotte and the Bois Monsieur—ask everyone you see. If you get as far as the forest of Soulaines, however, go no further. At that point you turn around and come back with your report, whatever that may contain. It’s going to take you more than a day as it is.’

‘More than a day?’ Picard was aghast. ‘Sorry, brigadier, but where am I meant to eat and sleep?’

‘Take the full pack roll and supplies for two days. You’ll bivouac where you can. You need to get back here before sundown tomorrow evening. If you catch up with our man, remember the Maréchaussée wants him alive. Any more questions?’

Picard opened and shut his mouth, too overwhelmed to speak. Victor felt a stab of irritation: if he’d been given an assignment like this at the beginning of his career in the Maréchaussée, he’d have leapt at it! But Picard seemed to view it as a punishment for claiming that the culprit was out of reach. In fact, Victor had chosen him because he had the most legible handwriting of the four. When he got back, his entry in the journal de service, the record book that they filled out after each patrol, was likely to be a long one.

Finally Picard ventured, ‘Excuse me, but what if I come back empty-handed?’

‘You won’t. Because whatever you find out, up top or on the road, you’ll have information. Your orders are to bring it in, and the Maréchaussée adds it all up. Have you got that?’

A glimmer of relief appeared in Picard’s hazel eyes. ‘Yes, brigadier. Thank you, brigadier.’

‘I want you all mounted up in ten minutes.’


***
Victor and his cavaliers were admitted by the porter to the old part of the castle. There he had two armed foresters allotted to troopers Roux and Dardel, to guide them first to the Coomb of the Oak, then to the Coomb of the Val de Wassy. Victor might have split the tasks between his men to save time, but the cavaliers were used to working in pairs on patrol and if they did happen on the murderer at one of the coombs, he might have companions. Together, the cavaliers and foresters made four excellent marksmen against any opposition.

From the gamekeeper, Victor got permission for Laval to move at will amongst the domestic and outdoor staff of the castle and find out what everyone knew about the murder and about the Chevalier de Bassigny himself—his history, his career, his possessions and his plans for the future. He also told Laval to have a look at the cart and make another search of the coach.

‘I want every item of interest you can find,’ he said to Laval . ‘But take your time and don’t put anyone on the spot—try to get them to idle away a couple of minutes and gossip to you. Madame de Bassigny’s servants will know something about him, and he served in the Rhineland at the same time as the Prince de Conti, so the prince’s servants will know his military reputation.’

‘Is there anything special I should be looking for, brigadier?’

‘We need to learn what sort of gentleman the chevalier was when he faced a challenge. Gillet reckons he was courageous, but he didn’t draw his sword against his attacker. In action, was he usually hot-headed, or cool and careful? And most of all, did he make enemies? If so, who might they be? Take your time about it, and report to me at midday, at the kitchens.’

Having seen off the other cavaliers, Victor took Picard to interview the chevalier’s valet in his quarters. He wanted to show Picard how to extract information from possible witnesses.

Louis Finot turned out to be a slight, good-looking man of around twenty, with gleaming dark hair and thick eyelashes that gave his fresh face a rather girlish appearance—until he spoke, with a voice that was deep and attractive. He seemed glad to be speaking to the Maréchaussée, having waited almost a whole day to be questioned.

‘Seeing my master lying there in the dirt, covered in blood—I’ll never get it out of my mind. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him at first, but Gillet wasn’t able to lift him into the cart on his own, so I had to help him. We laid the chevalier in first. Couldn’t put him in the coach because of the blood. Then the postilion.’

‘Before you did so, Gillet handed you a musket and you took shelter by the coach and examined the surroundings—is that correct?’

‘Yes. I didn’t like that one bit. Never had anything to do with guns.’

‘No military experience, then? You weren’t with the chevalier at the front?’

Finot shuddered. ‘No, thank heaven! I served him for six months at Les Grands Bois, when he came home from the war. I was valet to the Vicomte de Saint-Loup before that, and when the old man died, madame recommended me to the chevalier. I believe I gave satisfaction, and I hope I did my duty by him yesterday.’

‘When you came across his body, did you see or hear anyone or anything amongst the trees by the road?’

‘No, and I was looking hard, I can tell you. Gillet and I—we feared for our lives.’

‘What about earlier, before you turned the corner and came upon the postilion? Anyone else on the road?’

‘There was no one. No other travellers, nothing.’

‘When you were making your way through the forest, there was a hunting party abroad. Did you catch sight of them?’

‘No, but there was a bugle call, and some shots. I took no notice when we heard the two ahead of us—I thought it was someone on the hunt.’

‘Are you sure you never saw a single rider, earlier on?’ Finot looked about to speak, then hesitated. Victor said, ‘Your perceptions are very important to the Maréchaussée. So far we have nothing to identify your master’s killer—no idea what he looked like, or what sort of horse he rode. If you saw anyone in the forest, even if it was a mere glimpse, you may help this investigation.’

Finot paused to take thought. To Victor’s eye, he seemed a fastidious kind of man. Unlike Gillet, he was not so much devoted to his master as proud of his own work. He was meticulous: a useful attribute in an observer. Finally the valet said, ‘I might have seen a horse in the trees, to the northern side of the road.’

‘When was this?’

‘About a quarter of an hour before we came across the chevalier. It turned away when I caught sight of it, so I just saw the flank. Then it disappeared.’

‘Was there a rider?’

Finot shook his head. ‘I didn’t see.’

‘Did you point it out to Gillet? He never said anything about it to me.’

‘I didn’t mention it, because I’m not even sure it was a horse. It might have been a wild animal—a stag, perhaps.’

‘Why, what colour was the coat?’

Finot paused again. ‘I think I’d say a light chestnut.’

Picard, who had been standing motionless beside Victor all this time, made a slight movement and said, ‘What colour was the tail?’

Finot did not even look at him. ‘Didn’t see the tail, just the flank.’

Victor said, ‘Thank you, monsieur. Is there anything else you’d like to add to your account?’

Finot relaxed, pleased by the ‘monsieur’. ‘Not at present. But if I think of anything else, brigadier, I’m at your service.’

‘When you approached the castle with the two bodies in the cart, were you met or challenged by the guards?’

‘No. We got no help from anyone until we reached the gate.’

‘You weren’t hailed by sentries on the walls?’

Finot sniffed in disdain. ‘What sentries? The guards in this place are half asleep. I’ll be right glad to leave it.’

‘Where will you go, now your master’s dead?’

‘Madame de Bassigny has engaged me as footman for when she’s in Paris. She’s going there soon and I’ll travel with her retainers. And I help the porter’s wife while she’s looking after the postilion. I take over now and then—she has demands on her time.’

‘Has your mistress also given employment to Jean Gillet?’

‘You would have to ask him,’ Finot said primly. ‘But she’s shown great consideration to the chevalier’s servants, even the postilion, who’s only a stranger from Wassy. She visited him herself, to see what could be done for him.’

‘When was that?’

‘At dawn this morning.’

Victor was touched; it seemed like a gesture of love on the widow’s part. The postilion was the last person to see the chevalier alive, apart from his killer. She might have been hoping to hear something about his final hour.

‘So the postilion has lasted the night?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good.’ Victor turned to Picard. ‘Be off now and have a word with him, if he’s conscious. You can leave as soon as you’ve seen him—you haven’t got time to bother with the guards. I’ll question them myself. The sooner you’re off, the better. I expect you at barracks before sundown tomorrow.’

Picard brought his heels together, bowed to Victor and left the room. Finot looked after him with a sour expression. Victor, hearing the regular tramp of boots in the courtyard below, went over to the window. Four guards in the duchess’s red-and-gold livery were being marched across the cobbles by a stout man wearing the three frogs of a lieutenant on his coat cuffs.

‘Thank you,’ he said to Finot, ‘the Maréchaussée appreciates your help.’ With a quick nod he left the room and strode downstairs to intercept Lieutenant Japiot.


***
The most impressive room in the long, elegant Renaissance building where the guests were housed was the Chamber of the League, so called because it was there that the Guises once signed a famous treaty with the King of Spain, to prosecute the Catholic wars on Protestants that began in 1562 and lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. On the upper storey, with its deep window casements dominating the eastern façade, it looked down on the town of Joinville and beyond to the wide, cultivated valley of the Marne.

While Émilie du Châtelet stood there talking with the Duchesse d’Orléans, she had a glorious view of a land now at peace, but she had reason to know that slaughter had occurred there long ago when the Duc de Guise took his troops through the territory. The old castle at Cirey had been razed to the ground when the du Châtelets, Catholic but not extremists, had defied the duke. In the same period de Guise had ordered the murder of hundreds of Protestant men, women and children in a single day, slaughtering them as they worshipped in the town of Wassy. Looking across to where the Prince de Conti stood talking with Voltaire, Émilie marvelled at how reluctant Voltaire had been to even set foot in this room. To him, the wars of religion were somehow in living memory. In fact, now that they were at Cirey together, she had discovered the bizarre circumstance that he fell sick every year on the anniversary of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the most horrifying abomination of the Catholic League’s war of persecution.

Like all the other guests, however—except for Madame de Bassigny—they had obeyed the summons to the treaty chamber, to see how the duchess was going to handle the assassination of one of their number. Her decisions had been made overnight, after consultation with Governor de Gassendi, the widow, and the dean of Saint-Laurent. Notice of the chevalier’s clandestine marriage and of his murder had been sent to Chancellor de Fleury in Paris. Assuming until further notice that the chevalier was a certified member of the Orléans family, the duchess had commanded his obsequies and burial, which would take place at Saint-Laurent the very next day, on Wednesday, 13 August.

The duchess stood for a while with Émilie by the windows, away from her other guests. ‘In heat like this,’ she said, inclining her head towards the sundrenched landscape below, ‘there is no cause to linger. For the comfort of the living, his body must join those of his ancestors without delay.’

Émilie studied the short, plump figure before her and reflected that during the Regency this had been the most powerful woman in France. The young Françoise-Marie de Bourbon had been a beauty, her looks doubtless inherited from her mother, Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan, Louis XIV’s most spectacular mistress—and she was known for her wit, which came down from the king himself. Traces of both could still be seen when the duchess was at her ease in surroundings of her own choice, and today she presided over the company with regal complacency. Émilie had the fleeting impression that the elimination of the Chevalier de Bassigny had rather cheered her than not.

Émilie said, ‘At what hour does the obit take place?’

‘The dean tells me that obsequies in Saint-Laurent follow the service of prime, which is of course at dawn. Rather early for us all, but at least it won’t go on too long.’ There was the tiny glint of a smile. ‘I’ve not commissioned a solemn obit: the simple form will do—psalms, three lessons and a high Mass. If I could be sure that the chancellor announced the chevalier a prince ad successionem, I might arrange things differently. But the royal rescript has not been found amongst his affairs, and for all we know he may have only been made prince for his lifetime, on his majority.’

Émilie said, ‘And since he died before he came of age, can he even be considered as a prince at all?’

‘I have no idea,’ the duchess said, ‘but I’m certainly hesitating whether to call his widow a princess! I’ve lodged a request with Chancellor de Fleury for a copy of the rescript to be sent to me, so we all know where we stand. Meanwhile I’ll do my best for the girl. She’s in a sad position, but she bears it with humility. She’s pretty, but not outlandishly so, well-behaved, and answered all my inquiries without fuss. She’s going to Paris as planned, at the end of this visit, but I detect no grandiose ambitions. At the same time I’m sure she’ll make a creditable showing in her way—she’s agreeable and quite harmless.’

Émilie did not argue with the duchess’s dismissive comments, because she knew why they were made. Françoise-Marie de Bourbon had but one obsession in life: her prestige and position as a daughter of Louis XIV. Legitimised at the age of four and married at fourteen to her first cousin, the king’s only legitimate nephew, Philippe d’Orléans, she had spent her life maintaining the exalted importance of her family. She clearly thought that the obscure Madame de Bassigny, briefly married to a bastard of Philippe d’Orléans, had scant qualifications for admittance into that august company, and Émilie could see her point of view. Émilie herself, however, did not underestimate the young widow’s beauty and accomplishments, and she was by no means sure that Madame de Bassigny, once in Paris, would underplay her connection with the Bourbons. Meanwhile it would be intriguing to see whether she made any headway with the duchess at the Château d’en Haut. Being thought agreeable and harmless was perhaps a good start.

Considering this, Émilie said without thinking, ‘Who was the chevalier’s mother? Is that known?’

‘Not generally, no!’ The duchess’s eyes flashed: her husband’s mistresses had been legion, but she did not relish their being named before her.

‘But you know it, Your Serene Highness?’ Émilie looked at her steadily. ‘Events like this give rise to rumour. I’m inclined to think that the best way to quell rumours—and inappropriate ambitions—is with facts.’

The duchess glanced away, her thin eyebrows haughtily raised. In profile her face was less attractive, because of the double chin that her self-indulgent life had bestowed on her, but her personality and sumptuous clothes kept her looking like the princess that she was. She expected to be addressed as Serene Highness but, unlike her oldest sister, the Princesse de Condé, she signed herself Duchesse, a title that left all the glory of the line to her son Louis, heir presumptive to the throne. Émilie had never met him; known as Louis the Pious, he was Governor of the Dauphiné, Grand Master of the Order of Saint-Lazaire and Jerusalem—and more interested in theology than in court politics. In this rather tricky moment, Émilie could almost pity Françoise-Marie: no matter how high one’s birth, upholding one’s position in the top echelons of the monarchy did not promote peace of mind.

At last the duchess said, ‘Very well. I have this from Madame de Bassigny in confidence, but I suspect she’ll be telling everyone before long. The mother was Sophie de Sallières: never met her or heard of her but she was a gentlewoman. Young enough and foolish enough to attend soirées at the Palais-Royal, with an even more foolish brother, I believe. When her pregnancy could not be concealed, she appealed to the prince my husband but he declined to assist her. She was repudiated by her family and banished to the nunnery at the Abbey of Septfontaines in the Bassigny.’

‘And the son?’

‘Through the influence of the nuns he was adopted at the age of two by the childless Chevalier de Bassigny and his lady, who never divulged his origins to him or anyone else. He had a quiet upbringing and went into the army young. Both adoptive parents died while he was abroad. He did not know who his real parents were until this year, when he received a letter from his mother. She was dying from a painful illness, and wished to see him before she breathed her last.’

‘What a tragic request!’

‘Unfulfilled, as it happened. The chevalier did not consent to give his mother the meeting—he sent his fiancée instead. Far more productive for him, because the girl listened to all the lady’s shameful confessions and gained her confidence. The mother then decided that to redeem her misdeeds, if not her disgrace, there was a last act she could do for her son, and a fine legacy to provide: she could write a letter to the king, begging for the chevalier to be legitimised. Her plea was successful, with the results that we all know.’

‘The lady has since died?’

‘Two days after she wrote the letter,’ the duchess said, with a look that Émilie could only read as satisfaction.

‘Have you seen it?’

‘No, of course not. It rests with the king and chancellor, who for better or for worse have put faith in it. And so do I, at least as far as the funeral is concerned. I doubt whether I would have done a great deal for the Chevalier de Bassigny during his life, but I will bury him with honour.’ She gave Émilie a shrewd smile. ‘That is a fact no one can deny.’


***
Victor was in the grand hall of the Cardinal’s Building, looking at a very old ground plan of the Château d’en Haut supplied by the governor, which was spread on a large marquetry table near a bank of windows looking up at the steep roofs and spire of Saint-Laurent. Governor de Gassendi had given him five minutes to examine the plan while he left the hall on other business. This concession was all Victor had got out of the governor, who was irritated by the Maréchaussée presence at the castle, considered the questioning of staff and guards a waste of time, and thought all Victor’s ‘troops’ should be out chasing the elusive highwayman. In the duchess’s name he refused to let Victor speak to any of the noble guests or to enter the premises where they were staying. Victor suspected that the plan itself was supposed to intimidate him, by showing the castle’s size and complexity.

He studied it with careful attention. There were some surprises in the areas named. Among them was a very large, oblong building outside the ramparts, clearly visible from the town below, that one passed on the uphill track to the main gate: he had not known that this was a tennis court, accessed by a spiral staircase that led down from the gardens below Saint-Laurent. The multiple storeys of the White Tower, attached to the Cardinal’s building, proved to be divided up into the royal apartments, from which the duchess and her family would see all comings and goings at the gate. The kitchens, where he would go at midday, were behind the tower, divided from it by a walled garden.

He looked at the big guard room beside the inner gate, and ground his teeth. His talk with Lieutenant Japiot had been short and uninformative, at least as regarded the murder, about which Japiot and his guards knew no more than anyone else. It turned out that six regular guards were stationed at the castle, with very little to do, and the rest—eight more men in livery—had come as escort to the duchess when she had arrived the week before. Victor had asked if sentries were routinely posted on the ramparts and Lieutenant Japiot had laughed. He saw no point in vigilance when the castle was unused year round, except for visits by the governor when he was in the district. He did however post a constant guard at the main gate, which was changed every eight hours, and once a week he sent four men out to patrol the perimeter. Two guards also accompanied the governor if he had affairs in Joinville—for instance, during the annual ceremony when he was presented with the keys to the town by the mayor.

Victor was irked that the so-called military at the castle had nothing to add to the evidence about the murder, but he’d suspected from the first that all they were skilled in defending was their own comfort.

He heard a sound behind him, turned and saw a very grandly dressed lady enter the great hall at the same moment as the governor returned from the tower. She could only be the Duchesse d’Orléans. Following her was the Marquise du Châtelet, who paused the moment she saw Victor. The duchess, too, came to a stop and stared at him.

When the governor reached the ladies and bowed, the duchess said to him, ‘Who is that?’

‘Brigadier Constant of the Maréchaussée, Your Serene Highness.’

‘I gave no permission for him to be here. You’ll send him out at once.’

In her musical voice, the Marquise du Châtelet said to the duchess, ‘Since he is here, you may like to hear what progress has been made about the murder.’

The duchess looked irritated, but said sharply to Victor, ‘Speak up, then! Where are the bandits that committed this outrage? Do you have them under arrest?’

Victor approached and gave a deep bow to both ladies. ‘Your Serene Highness, at the moment we are searching for just one man, who seems to have made the attack on the Chevalier de Bassigny alone. His Highness the Prince de Conti was very prompt in examining the site and sending his hounds on the trail. Right now, several of my men are following up the lead in the forest.’

The duchess, who had no doubt heard the full story from the prince, made no comment. Victor seized the moment to say, ‘The Maréchaussée would be deeply grateful for further advice from your guests, Your Serene Highness. This is theft as well as murder—and if we could track down what was stolen from the chevalier, we’d have a better chance of catching the killer. May I humbly beg to interview each of your guests, to see what details we can gather?’

The governor snapped, ‘Your Serene Highness, I’ve already refused permission for this, in your name.’

The duchess said smoothly, ‘Monsieur de Gassendi, every day of your life you have the duty of doing things in my name … in my absence.’ She gave a thin smile. ‘In my presence, however, you know that I make up my own mind.’

The Marquise du Châtelet glanced at Victor and said in a confidential voice, ‘Your Serene Highness, facts may sometimes be gathered from the most unexpected quarters.’

The duchess’s smile broadened and she said over her shoulder, ‘You and your facts, madame!’ She said to the governor, ‘I won’t have my guests disturbed in their chambers. But you may inform them that I wish them to see the gendarme here, ladies first and in order of precedence, including, if she will be so obliging, the … the … oh, Madame de Bassigny. The gentlemen will follow, beginning of course with the Prince de Conti. You will conduct each of them here yourself. Please have a chair brought to the table.’

Governor de Gassendi said, ‘Your Serene Highness, what is the good of these interviews? Most of your guests never knew the deceased.’

‘No matter, they can explain that to this man here! Go, and tell them my wishes.’ She swept on past him, saying to the marquise, ‘And now I’ll show you the library. You’ll find it vastly different from your own but I daresay there are some treasures gathering dust.’

With an amused glance at Victor and a slight nod to Gassendi, the Marquise du Châtelet followed her hostess out of the hall. Victor reflected that Madame du Châtelet was the highest-born lady at the castle after the duchess, and he should properly be interviewing her first—but she was compelled to visit the library.

After a second’s hesitation, Gassendi left the hall in the other direction, no doubt to try his luck with Madame de Bassigny, whose new status as an Orléans by marriage, however ambiguous, meant that she outranked the remaining ladies.

Victor took a last look at the plan, then folded it, laid it on the corner of the desk and put a notebook and pencil beside it. Next, he walked to a side wall and grabbed the least uncomfortable chair from beneath an enormous hanging tapestry. He set it before the desk, then went behind that, with his back to the windows, and observed how the light fell on the chair. He would not sit down himself—in this exalted company it would be unheard of. To those questioned, he would be an expressionless silhouette, but he was nervous; he did not look forward to interrogating aristocrats.