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Monday, 23 March 2020 01:37

Murder on High--Instalment 5

I am in lockdown in my home on the Central Coast of NSW. Greetings and heartfelt wishes to all those in a similar situation: amongst your dearest pleasures, may you find some solace in books. Here is my latest free instalment of Murder on High (you'll see the others listed in the right-hand column). Victor Constant is investigating a murder at a castle that towered over the Champagne town of Joinville in the eighteenth century ... until it was razed to the ground in the Revolution. However, rest assured, there may be death in this novel, but no disease or civil disobedience :)! Escape to a byegone era with a military policeman of singular determination.

Madame de Bassigny was escorted into the hall by the governor, who announced her as though she were entering a grand reception, bowed to her and disappeared, presumably to find the next candidate. As she approached, Victor made a deep bow, and his breath caught as he looked at her. Of under average height and with a slim-waisted figure, Madame de Bassigny had a fine-boned face. Her eyes were of a startling blue and her lips pink, as though she had been biting them to keep her self-control. Her beauty was all the more radiant because she was dressed entirely in white, with a short white veil over the blonde hair gathered at the back of her head.

Victor indicated the chair and watched her arrange her skirts around her. He realised she must be dressed in second mourning for the chevalier. First or deep mourning required a well-born widow to wear black for at least three months, to put up black crepe in her house and to provide mourning clothes for her servants and relatives. But Madame de Bassigny was not in her own home and would have no mourning clothes at hand. Moreover, the duchess set the tone at the Château d’en Haut and she had clearly not commanded any style of mourning for herself, her guests or the castle. All alone in her grief, therefore, Madame de Bassigny had adopted second mourning, which was indicated by white: overnight, she must have had whatever ribbons or decorations there might have been on this dress removed, and found a piece of lace to cover her hair.

Victor was touched. He knew her to be twice married and the mother of a small child, but seated before him at this moment she looked very young and vulnerable, and he suspected from the way her hands were gripped in her lap that she was trembling inside. ‘Madame, please accept the deepest condolences of the Maréchaussée. I regret intruding on your privacy—but I hope you may know something to help us track down the man who murdered your husband.’

She closed her eyes briefly, then said in a distinct, well-modulated voice, ‘Ask what you will.’

‘Thank you. Can you tell me what the Chevalier de Bassigny had in the satchel he carried here from Paris?’

Her hands came apart and she gripped the gleaming folds of her skirt. ‘Why?’

‘He was robbed of it yesterday. It’s even possible he was killed because he refused to hand it over. I’m told he kept it with him at all times, so there must have been valuables in it—if we find any trace of these, we may find his killer. Can you think what they might have been?’ From what Victor had learnt so far, it sounded as though all the expensive items the chevalier possessed, including his clothes, had been paid for by his wealthy wife. He would have to put this tactfully. ‘Some of his belongings may have been gifts from yourself. Might he have kept any of these in the satchel? And what about letters or other documents?’

‘He carried the royal rescript concerning his birth and inheritance.’ Her voice was steadier and she held Victor’s gaze. ‘He had a message sent to me from Wassy, telling me that he would make all haste to reach me yesterday, and mentioning the rescript. As for other things, there would have been gold for the journey …’ she trailed off.

‘On his person I found a gold watch, a handkerchief and a snuffbox,’ Victor said. ‘He was wearing several rings, and steel shoe buckles. What other jewellery did he possess?’

‘A large brass watch, for hunting. He’s fond of hunting. I’ve brought …’ she struggled a moment to get the words out. ‘I brought his hunter with me from the Bassigny, so he could join us in the field when he arrived. So, the brass watch. And his seal ring.’

‘Ah! With the Bassigny crest?’

‘Yes, a stag’s head.’ She went on in a monotone, looking down at her hands. ‘He also had gold buckles with cabochon sapphires, and silver ones with diamonds. A miniature of me, on ivory. An Italian snuffbox with a glass mosaic of Saint Peter’s in Rome.’ She looked up at him, her eyes clouded. ‘The other snuffbox was returned to me with the handkerchief and the gold watch and rings—thank you. I’ve been through his trunks from the baggage cart. None of the other things are there. I can’t think any more.’

‘In his correspondence, did he mention anyone he associated with in Paris?’

‘No, he had no friends there. It was his first visit, and very short. He only went to see Chancellor de Fleury.’

‘And what about our district of the Upper Marne? Was he acquainted with any of the families here?’

She shook her head and said in a desolate voice, ‘No, these people were all strangers to him. And to me.’

Victor nodded. The chevalier’s life seemed to have been divided between his military duties and his home in the Bassigny. If he had any enemies, therefore, they were probably in the army. His young widow was quite the wrong person to interrogate on that issue.

‘The Prince de Conti says that you hunted with his hounds yesterday. At what hour did you turn back to the castle?’

She shook her head. ‘I can’t be sure. I wanted to avoid the worst heat of the day, and prepare for my—’ She hung her head. ‘I was determined to be here when my husband arrived.’

Victor did not pursue this further: he had asked Cavalier Laval to question the lady’s servants about the exact hour when she returned. Another thought struck him: ‘Did the chevalier tell you by which road he planned to reach the castle? There are two routes: the one most travellers take, around the foot of the mountain and then up through the town; and the one he used, the Val de Wassy road across the heights, which is rougher but possibly quicker.’

‘No. He didn’t say.’

He said gently, ‘I believe you visited the wounded postilion at dawn. Was he conscious? Was he able to tell you anything about the attack?’

‘No.’ She rose to her feet in one graceful movement. Her blue eyes were fixed on his. ‘I’ve lost the light of my life. I feel so alone here. But I’m grateful that you care what happened to him! I wish I could help you more.’

‘Madame, I appreciate what you’ve been able to tell me. I very much regret if this has distressed you. I promise we’ll do everything we can to bring the killer to justice.’

She looked at him nervously. ‘Where do you think he’s gone?’

Victor did not like talking about Maréchaussée business, except when he was asking the questions, but he felt so sorry for her that he told her the truth. ‘We’re currently searching the Forest of Joinville, and cross-country in the direction of Troyes.’

‘So far? Then your work must be finished here.’

‘It will finish when we find him, madame, God willing.’ He bowed very low and she walked away.

Just at that moment the Marquise du Châtelet emerged from the doorway leading to the tower, holding two books in her right hand. Without looking across at Victor, she gave the widow a sympathetic smile, and they left the hall, talking quietly together.

Victor was disappointed; he admired the Marquise du Châtelet, who had an acute and scientific mind. Was she declining to speak to him? He bent over the table to write a list of the chevalier’s intimate possessions.

A few minutes later, to his relief, the marquise returned and walked across the reception room towards him, no longer carrying the books.

He made her a deep bow and said, ‘Madame la marquise, I’ll be honoured to have your advice.’

She smiled, skirted table and chair, and strolled to the window beside him to look out at Saint-Laurent. She said, ‘I doubt if I can be of much use to your investigation.’

‘On the contrary, madame—without you I should never have gained permission to speak to the duchess’s guests!’

She turned to look at him. ‘But I didn’t know the chevalier. And he’s the subject of your questions, is he not?’

‘Yes, madame. We’d like to know what valuables he carried with him in the coach. Madame de Bassigny has helped us there.’

‘What else would you like to ask?’

He said quietly, ‘The Maréchaussée is interested to know whether he had enemies.’

Her gaze sharpened. ‘Ah! You don’t believe it was a fortuitous attack? You think the killer chose his victim in advance? But how could he know the chevalier was coming, and when? The duchess’s guest list was hardly common knowledge!’

‘The chevalier spent the last night of his journey in Wassy. He had two servants and he hired a postilion and horses from the Golden Hind. If his servants talked, as servants tend to do, his purposes would have been known to everyone in the town. I’m not saying the murderer would have had an accomplice at the Golden Hind, but inns are the very places where highwaymen and bandits pick up advance information. The idea of intercepting the chevalier on the heights would have been tempting: the road is little used by travellers and the forest gives good cover.’

There was a spark in the depths of the lady’s dark eyes. ‘So the attack might have been by an opportunistic thief. But it puzzles me that the chevalier was killed. The attacker got away unharmed, with precious property: why shoot his victim into the bargain?’

‘We don’t know the answer to that, madame. Has the duchess or any of the other guests said anything about the chevalier’s career in the army, his friends or enemies?’

‘Not to me. He really is a complete unknown.’

‘May I ask you a great favour: if anything about the chevalier comes to light that you judge the Maréchaussée should know, would you ask Governor de Gassendi to summon me to the castle, so I may hear it?’

She nodded, and stepped away from the window. ‘Certainly. It’s essential to know who killed him. If a robber is roaming our woods, he must be caught, for the safety of us all. If someone else commanded the man to do murder, then I wish you well in your search for the chevalier’s enemies.’ She gave him a troubled look. ‘For they must be of much higher degree than a common thief. And much more dangerous.’

He bowed to her as she walked away, and when he straightened he saw the Vicomtesse de Brienne enter the room and exchange a nod with her. As the ladies passed each other, Victor was struck by the contrast in their appearance. The marquise was dressed in court fashion, her tall, slender figure set off by a brocade gown lavishly decorated by bows and knots of flowers in varying shades of blue. Her dark hair was powdered to give it a silvery look, while the viscountess’s was untouched. Thick, black and glossy, it was swept back to frame a pale, oval face with very dark eyes. Her shapely body was clad in grey, shimmering silk and as she advanced it seemed to Victor that the only real colour about her was her full red lips, which were slightly compressed, as though she found this interview ironical. Perhaps she did—the first time she had ever spoken to Victor, much against her will, was after the murder of a young man whom she had passionately loved.

Victor bowed low and greeted her, suddenly self-conscious. At the end of his first investigation the year before, when he had been wounded in an encounter at the viscountess’s castle, it was she who had nursed him back to health. In turn, perhaps his presence had helped her overcome the grief of her lover’s death. Whatever the reason, he had felt there was a strange bond between them, but he had not expected it to last when she left the district, vowing never to return. Now, here she was, after all. What had brought her back to the Champagne?

‘Pray be seated, madame. I’m very grateful that you consented to this meeting.’

She said dryly as she took the seat, ‘Provincial life offers few diversions, but I fully expect to be entertained by your pursuit and capture of this criminal.’

She was always direct with him, as though the enormous gap between gentility and the humble military disappeared when they spoke together. He said, ‘Thank you for your confidence, madame, but the Maréchaussée will need a great deal of help before we catch him.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘I hear you solved another murder last year. A series of murders, in fact, that held the whole of Joinville in terror. Monsieur de Voltaire explained to me that you’re promoted to brigadier in consequence. Now that it’s you and your men against one dastardly highwayman, I know who will win.’ He did not respond, and after a moment she said in earnest, ‘Of course I’ll help if I can.’

‘Thank you, madame. Can you tell me anything about the Chevalier de Bassigny? Were you acquainted with him?’

‘Yes,’ she said, to Victor’s surprise. ‘I met him at a house party in the Bassigny, about two years ago. He was on leave from the army and attended with his parents—his adoptive parents, I suppose one should say, but they were such a fond family that I’d never have guessed. I’m still astonished that he was not their son; they were so alike, so close, and they kept the secret admirably.’

‘Did you meet the present Madame de Bassigny at the same time?’

‘No, not until I arrived here.’

‘How would you describe the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘Good-looking, well set-up, pleasant. Not super-educated: all his interests were outdoors. He was not witty, nor a conversationalist, but he had an open, unaffected way with him that made his company appealing.’

Victor watched her face, trying to detect whether she had been attracted to the chevalier, for he knew the viscountess had a weakness for young, handsome men.

To his embarrassment, she seemed to guess what he was thinking, and gave him a mocking smile. ‘I liked him. I should think anyone of sense and taste would.’

Victor felt his cheeks go warm. ‘Could you imagine him making enemies?’

Her expressive eyes widened. ‘Certainly not from his manners! I suppose he might have rubbed people up the wrong way in the army, if he were very ambitious—but it seemed to me that he took up his commission as a duty to his country and his heritage. He honoured his parents and they were proud of him. Do you know, if they had been alive when he heard from his real mother, I almost doubt whether he would have said a word on the matter, let alone allowed her to write to the king on his behalf …’

‘Is that how his true birth was revealed? By the mother?’

‘Yes. No one has told you the story of the fairy-tale prince? It’s almost as good as Cinderella’s. His mother was a young gentlewoman living in Paris, Sophie de Sallières, who used to frequent the Palais-Royal. When she told the Regent she was with child by him, he threw her off and her family banished her to a convent, in the Abbey of Septfontaines in the Bassigny. The son was secretly adopted at the age of two and brought up in seclusion. He inherited the title of chevalier at the end of last year when his adoptive father died. Some time ago his natural mother, on her deathbed, wrote to him with the truth about his birth, and begged him to see her. For reasons that no one knows (shame, resentment?) he refused, but sent his fiancée, Fabienne de Saint-Loup.’

‘Great heaven!’ Victor said involuntarily. The chevalier’s response struck him as cruel. Victor’s own mother had died giving birth to his youngest sister, and her suffering and his loss had gone deep. He couldn’t stand the idea of callousness to a woman in pain. He said nothing more, and after a pause realised that Madame de Brienne was looking quizzically into his face. ‘Please go on, madame.’

‘You know the end of the story. As a last gift to her son, Mademoiselle de Sallières petitioned the king to recognise him as the offspring of the Prince Regent, the Duc d’Orléans.’

Victor had a sudden thought. ‘Did his birth predate that of the regent’s legitimate heir?’

‘No, no. Louis, First Prince of the Blood, was born in 1703. You’ll recall that the chevalier was to come to his majority here—on his twenty-fifth birthday. So it follows that he was born in 1711.’

‘I see. Therefore when the king signed the rescript, he was hardly disobliging the Orléans family—the chevalier’s status would have no importance for them?’

She said with mild sarcasm, ‘You mustn’t expect me to say what does or does not interest the Orléans: I know the duchess only from the last few days and the rest of the family not at all. In fact I had no idea why I was invited here from the Loire, until I realised Her Highness saw me as part of the aristocratic landscape in these parts. Sarrasins remains in the Brienne family but I still have the use of it. I accepted her invitation so I could make a quick visit—and make sure it’s not falling down around the retainers’ ears.’

Victor avoided her eye, remembering the few days he had spent at the Sarrasins under her care, lying in the medieval bedchamber listening to her read aloud in her clear voice from books that she and her dead lover had once appreciated together. Looking back, it was hard to believe that that intimate yet dispassionate time had ever occurred—he pictured it as even more of a fairy-tale than the one she had just told him about the chevalier-prince.

She went on, as though there had been no pause, ‘I also accepted because of the hunting. I’m slightly acquainted with the Baron de Sabran and he may have told Her Highness that when I lived in the Champagne I used to hunt with my husband, at the Sarrasins, Cirey and elsewhere. The game hereabouts is exceptional.’

‘You were out on the hunt yesterday, madame?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did you notice anything unusual while you were in the forest? Did you hear any stray shots, for instance, or see any strangers?’

‘No.’

‘At what hour did you leave the castle?’

‘We rode out at nine, which was somewhat early for me. I rarely notice the time, but in this place it’s spelt out relentlessly by the church bells.’

‘You were in at the kill and returned in the afternoon before the Prince de Conti, is that correct?’

‘I saw the hounds take down the red deer, then rode back. I believe I got in at one o’clock. The Prince de Conti seems to have been about an hour behind us.’

‘You and the Baron de Sabran returned from the chase together, I believe?’

After a very slight hesitation, she said, ‘Yes.’ He was watching her face. He detected a moment of reluctance or concern, but she said nothing more. She must be aware that she had been in the forest on horseback, approaching the castle, at the same time as the attack on the chevalier was taking place.

He began, ‘Are you sure—?’ then stopped. It would be insulting to repeat the question about whether she had noticed anything odd on the ride home; she had always been frank with him and he felt this as a privilege.

She said coolly, ‘I told you, I’ll help if I can. Everything I know at present about this shocking affair, you also know. However, if I hear anything significant in the next few days, I’ll send you a message. Unsigned.’ She rose and said with an ironical lift of one brow, ‘You’re familiar with my handwriting.’

He felt his cheeks grow warm again. He had once read a letter of hers, produced as evidence by another young woman who was begging for his protection. Madame de Brienne’s passionate nature had blazed in every forthright line, leaving an indelible impression on his mind.

When he did not reply she said, ‘What became of that young lady whose future you saved so gallantly?’

‘She married in October last year.’

‘To someone worthy of her?’

He kept his voice firm. ‘To the son of the mayor of Joinville.’

She considered him. ‘And now you command the Joinville brigade. I hope that’s a satisfaction to you. How often it happens that we fail to receive what we want, and get what we don’t want at all.’

Knowing her words referred as much to her fate as to his, he said, ‘Thank you, madame, I am content to serve the Maréchaussée.’

She gave a genuine smile. ‘I expected no less of you. This case has nothing to do with me, thank God, but for the sake of the Maréchaussée I’ll take an interest. I wish you every success.’

She nodded to him, he bowed very low and she turned and left the room.


***
Victor gained very little information from the remaining ladies, a rather vapid second-cousin of the duchess and two local aristocrats, Mesdames de La Neuville and de Champbonin. These last had mansions not very far from the Marquise du Châtelet at Cirey and Victor guessed that she had asked them to tolerate the Maréchaussée’s questions, but neither they nor the cousin had anything to say about the chevalier or his murder. They did not hunt and had not been outside the castle the day before.

The La Neuville and Champbonin gentlemen were away with the military and had not accompanied their ladies to the castle, so the list of males for possible interview was short. He should have started with the Prince de Conti, but he did not turn up (‘Tell him I’ve had quite enough of the Maréchaussée!’). Next in order of rank were a prince of whom Victor had never heard—the Prince de Lanville—then Governor de Gassendi, who of course considered himself above interrogation, then the Baron de Sabran and Voltaire.

The Prince de Lanville was a handsome, dark-haired gentleman with a square chin and a lean, athletic look that quite belied his clothing and manners. Dressed in the first fashion, which included a great deal of lace, he had an indolent bearing and spoke with careless ease. His answers to the crucial issues were all negative: he had never met the Chevalier de Bassigny, he never hunted, and he had not been in the forest the day before.

Victor knew from the governor that the prince was a descendant of one of the great families of Burgundy—the Croÿs—‘Prince de Lanville’ being the title of one of its branches. He was in his thirties, unmarried, and the solitary owner of vast estates. The Croÿs had a formidable history in the army and the church, but from his manner and his replies, this particular prince appeared to have turned idleness into an art form. He freely said that he had but two interests—horses, and tapestries of hunting scenes. Explaining this to Victor, he laughed at his own contradictions: he bred superlative hunters but detested riding to hounds, and he was an expert on tapestries depicting the chase, the oldest hangings in his own collection dating back to the time of the crusades. He was at the castle not for sport but as a favour to the duchess, who needed his advice about whether to transfer some of the ancient wall decorations of the Château d’en Haut to her palace of Bagnolet when she returned there at the end of summer.

‘The Guises had taste,’ he said in his not unpleasant drawl, indicating the vast blue-and-green hanging that covered the wall near the windows, ‘but they were bad custodians. That piece is at least two hundred years old, and fifty years past its prime. It must remain where it is—were one to move it, it would go to ribbons the moment it came off the hooks. More’s the pity: give us a few weeks and there’ll be no one here to appreciate it.’ Then he glanced back at Victor, his brown eyes took on a shrewd expression and he said with another short laugh: ‘But I digress. You’re after other prey. How close do you think you’ve got?’

Victor hesitated. The interview with the prince had gone so casually that this blunt question took him by surprise. Where the Prince de Conti had been outraged by the chevalier’s death and chivalrous towards his widow, the Prince de Lanville seemed indifferent to both—but the pursuit of the killer clearly piqued his curiosity. Victor said, ‘We’re exploring in a number of directions.’

‘Not in the Forest of Joinville, one hopes. It’s practically impenetrable. From what I’ve seen, it has the worst maintained avenues in the country.’

‘Ah, so you do ride in the woods, Your Highness?’

‘When the mood takes me. I go alone or with one other person. Packs of hounds or packs of people make raucous company.’

‘Have you ever seen any strangers in the forest?’

‘No.’ The prince rose gracefully and Victor bowed on cue. As he watched him saunter away he reflected that this contact with the high aristocracy had been less disconcerting than he had feared, and he wondered how a gentleman of lower rank would behave with the Maréchaussée.

The baron turned out to be a tall, strapping gentleman in his thirties, with strong, regular features and light-brown eyes that gave nothing away except impatience for the interview to be over. He had a calm but powerful voice, which made his brief replies sound peremptory. He sat looking up at the windows behind Victor, a fine figure elegantly dressed, exuding complete self-possession and a hint of contempt for the man he faced.

By contrast, while he asked his dogged questions, Victor felt somehow over-large, awkward and unkempt. No one in the military had ever made him feel like this but he’d occasionally had the sensation with the well-born, and he disliked it. ‘And so, Monsieur le Baron, you returned after the chase with Madame de Brienne?’

‘Yes.’

‘Were you followed by your grooms?’

‘No, we took none yesterday.’

‘So there were just the two of you, riding alone?’

The baron brought his gaze back to Victor. ‘Yes, why ask?’

‘If you were not surrounded by hounds and other riders, I imagine you would have been able to hear noises from the woodland. Around midday, did you by any chance hear two shots, to your north, on the heights?’

‘No.’

‘Can you remember where you crossed the Val de Wassy road?’

‘At the point where we’d come to it in the morning. We rode on and entered by the back gate at around one o’clock.’ The baron shifted on his chair, tugging at his fine cuffs and adjusting the cravat at his throat as though about to get up and leave. ‘I never met the Chevalier de Bassigny and I know nothing about him and his regrettable death.’

The baron’s movements revealed something that made Victor curious: a mark across the base of his neck, on the left side, which had previously been concealed by the cravat. It was a welt—thin, red and recently caused, as though a branch had whipped across his skin on the hunt. The baron saw Victor’s look and gave an irritable twitch to the lace around his throat, hiding the mark once more.

Victor said, ‘Were there any mishaps on the chase yesterday?’

‘None that I know of.’ The baron rose from the chair. ‘My advice is to get back to your job and catch the bandit who did the deed. In fact that’s a command, direct from the Duchesse d’Orléans, who asked me to convey her displeasure at this delay. I agree with her, which is why I consented to come and see what you’re up to. I’ve now seen more than enough.’

Sabran walked away and Victor automatically bowed, though he bit back any thanks or farewell. He had no time to brood about the baron’s attitude, because next moment Voltaire walked in unannounced, and advanced with his long-legged stride, his high heels rapping on the polished floor.

‘What a mare’s nest this is, Constant!’ He stopped, grinned, held out his hand and shook Victor’s cordially, an eccentric habit of his that had begun when Victor solved a murder at Cirey the year before. ‘I’ve come to commiserate but I’ve no advice for you, more’s the pity—the whole thing is beyond me.’

‘Monsieur de Voltaire, I’m honoured.’

‘And you’ve just heard the Baron de Sabran’s valuable counsel?’ Voltaire gave a short laugh and sat down. As meticulously dressed as the baron, and at even more expense, Voltaire wore a full wig to the shoulders, framing a gaunt face with a prominent nose and brown eyes lit with a fiery intelligence that always gave Victor a lift of the spirits.

‘I was told to get out and join my cavaliers on the hunt, monsieur.’

‘With a prey as cunning as this, perhaps you should! The man’s frighteningly efficient. He commits theft and murder with no witnesses and at once he’s off with his gains, leaving two dead bodies behind.’

‘One body, monsieur. The postilion—’

‘Dead, Constant.’ Victor gasped and Voltaire looked regretful. ‘You didn’t know? I heard it just this minute from my valet, who got it from Madame de Bassigny’s maid.’

Victor cursed inwardly. ‘Poor devil. He never regained consciousness?’

‘I believe not. A humble man from Wassy, caught in the crossfire of a daring crime.’

Victor sighed. He would get the sorry details himself, at the stables. ‘Why do you call it daring, monsieur?’

‘Because it was! Think of where it happened—within yards of a castle occupied by royalty, and who better equipped to pursue and punish than royalty? In the Forest of Joinville, what’s more, which is pullulating with huntsmen and foresters, all armed to the teeth and escorted by packs of ravening hounds. To contemplate cold-blooded murder against such odds, the assassin must have been either mad, or playing for very high stakes.’

Victor stood staring at Voltaire after this dramatic outburst, which had been delivered in all seriousness. Suddenly the enormity of the chevalier’s death—and the mystery of it—struck him anew. He said, ‘You think the assassin knows the forest well?’

Voltaire nodded. ‘Therefore he may be local. In which case, perhaps he’s not yet fled with the goods, but is hiding in his lair.’

‘I have a man heading westward in case he’s aiming for Troyes, and two others searching for likely hideouts in the forest.’ Voltaire nodded again in approval and tapped his long fingers thoughtfully on the tabletop. Victor went on, ‘Do you know the forest at all, monsieur? Have you been out on the hunt?’

Voltaire grimaced and too late Victor reflected that he might not have been invited to take part in the chase. Voltaire’s name was a pure invention (he was the son of a Parisian notary called Arouet) and he had put the noble particle ‘de’ in it himself, for he was no aristocrat, except in the brilliant world of letters. He kept a splendid hunter at Cirey, but perhaps he had not brought it with him. By birth he was by far the lowest of the guests at the Château d’en Haut and he must only be there because his mistress Madame du Châtelet was the highest-born lady.

Voltaire said cheerfully, ‘Good Lord no, the Prince de Conti hunts like a demon and I value him not for his blood lust but for his conversation, which I can best enjoy after dark. He’s a remarkable young man. I remember, when I visited the Siege of Phillipsburg, he explained the war in the Rhineland to me with astonishing clarity—if war is ever really capable of explication.’

‘Has the prince mentioned anything to you about the chevalier’s military service?’

‘Only that by reputation he was a fine captain. The prince never came across him at the front. In fact the only person here who knew the chevalier is his widow, poor little soul. However, one can learn quite a lot about a gentleman from his servants.’ He grinned. ‘I’m terrified of anyone interrogating mine!’ He got to his feet. ‘I presume you have someone ferreting about in the lower echelons at this moment?’

‘Indeed, monsieur. I’ll have his report at midday, in the kitchens.’

‘Ah. Then you must sample what the duchess’s chef provides—he’s a wizard with pastry.’ Victor looked doubtful and Voltaire said at once, ‘Tell them to feed you, Constant! Tell them I said so; they won’t fail you.’

‘You’re very good, monsieur.’ Victor bowed low as Voltaire turned to leave.

Voltaire strode away, saying over his shoulder, ‘Only persist, and you’ll solve this. You cast a longer shadow than you think.’

Last modified on Saturday, 28 March 2020 22:09