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Monday, 23 March 2020 22:28

Murder on High--Instalment 6

Another episode of my gift to those who crave free fiction in these difficult times: my latest novel about military policeman,Victor Constant. He has only four cavaliers (from the lowest rank in the  Maréchaussée) to deploy at the Château d’en Haut, a magnificent castle in the Champagne, and one of them is still riding across country hoping to track the killer.

Cavalier Franck Laval was full of nervous energy and found it hard to apply himself to his meal, although the food was fine. He and the brigadier were seated at a side table in the servants’ hall at the castle while the main board was occupied by most of the staff employed in the place, plus the guests’ retainers, getting a ‘coachman’s dinner’ that struck Franck as a right royal feast. He had a lot to tell and he answered questions rapidly between mouthfuls, meanwhile keeping the best bit of news until last so he could impress the hell out of the brigadier.

At first, Franck had felt disappointed and annoyed not to be given the task of dashing through the countryside towards Troyes and laying the highwayman by the heels. On patrol he was usually partnered with Roux, so he hadn’t seen Picard in action too often, but he doubted that Picard was the right man for the pursuit, and wished he’d spoken up smartly and grabbed the mission for himself. Then Roux and Dardel had got the next best tasks, combing the forest for villains, and he was stuck questioning servants!

However, the further he penetrated into the castle, the more fascinating he found it. Apart from his time in the regular cavalry, he’d never seen a big outfit from the inside, and he was amazed at how well it ran, considering that everyone was slated to do something different, and you never saw anyone striding about giving orders—it all seemed to happen as though each man or woman had a perfect pattern of it in their head. The stables with their splendid horses, dogs and carriages had delighted him, the main part of the castle looked like something in a picture, and once he’d co-opted a guard to show him around at ground level he had no trouble collaring people to question. He’d done as the brigadier asked—lingered to talk—but in his own way. He knew the power of his uniform and his military bearing and he didn’t mind using it. With the men, to save time he was brisk but not unpleasant. With the women he was no-nonsense but nice. He liked women and was ready to appreciate them—pretty or plain, young or old—and if he was straightforward and didn’t make a nuisance of himself with the pretty ones, they were at ease with him.

The guard was not sitting at the side table—the guards’ dinner was taken to the guardroom next to the big portico called the Deer Gate, on the other side of the Cardinal’s Building—and Franck inwardly gave thanks to the brigadier for scoring the meal. Constant had only had to mention the name ‘Voltaire’ and they’d been fed without a murmur. As a matter of fact, Franck knew why. The kitchen staff had told him that this Monsieur de Voltaire, who was famous for his writing, was used to travelling all over France to stay in aristocratic houses, and because he had a delicate stomach and needed special food, he always handed over a discreet bag of cash to his hosts, the moment he arrived, ‘to compensate for causing trouble and expense in the kitchens’. You could bet that no noble household had ever turned down the gesture!

‘The horses,’ the brigadier said, laying down his knife and taking up a pencil. ‘You made a list?’

Franck, his mouth full, nodded and handed it across. He watched as the brigadier read it. During normal duties, Constant could be stern and you needed to face up to him and not be intimidated. It was partly his height, but it was also the strength in his figure and face, which might have been cut out of a block of stone. His eyes were metallic, like cobalt, and they glittered when he got exercised about something. Up close, however, they were a nice enough blue and he had a smile that could make you feel dangerously at ease.

The brigadier ran his finger down the piece of paper. ‘The Prince de Conti: a grey—I know that one—plus a big chestnut and a black Arabian. Which did he ride to the hunt yesterday morning, did you ask?’

Franck swallowed. ‘The chestnut.’

Constant frowned and underlined that with his pencil.

‘The Prince de Lanville: three! One of them a chestnut stallion.’ Another underline. ‘Madame de Brienne: just the one mount, a dappled grey. What’s it like—a lady’s horse or does it look as though it has strength and speed?’

‘Very handy-looking, brigadier.’

Constant said, ‘Madame de Bassigny …’

‘She rides a beautiful mare. Strawberry roan with a white blaze.’

‘And the Baron de Sabran … a dun stallion.’ The brigadier frowned again. ‘You could describe dun as a “light chestnut”. Mane and tail?’

Franck said, ‘A creamy colour.’

‘And you’re sure the widow returned to the stables at half past eleven yesterday?’

‘That’s what Louis Finot told me.’

‘But he wasn’t here! He was with Jean Gillet on the Val de Wassy road, behind the chevalier. They must have got the timing from others. From whom? The gamekeeper couldn’t tell me, because he didn’t see the lady ride in—does anyone actually know?’

Franck tore off a piece of bread to wipe his dinner plate. ‘Yes, brigadier. Her maid said that Madame de Bassigny made sure to get back before midday to change out of her riding habit, and dress for when the chevalier arrived. She was well home before he was attacked.’

‘So she was in the castle when he died. Not only that, she had no motive for wishing him the slightest harm. Her whole future depended on him.’ Constant sighed and picked up his knife again. ‘Thank you, Laval. So we’ve got a picture of what happened yesterday among the quality. Now, what about the dead gentleman? What did the servants tell you about him?’

‘Well, it’s the same three. Finot, Gillet and the maid; no one else has a clue.’

‘What did you get from the prince’s staff?’

‘Nothing. The prince is a hero to them—anyone ranked lower in the army might as well not exist.’

‘All right, what about the Bassigny servants?’

‘Finot has been with the chevalier for six months—he was valet to the old husband of Madame de Bassigny before. He liked working for the chevalier and liked it even more after the marriage because his wages went up with his master’s fortunes. You won’t get Finot to say a bad word about him. Gillet is the same but worse; he’s been with him for ever and sings nothing but praise. Says he was an officer beyond compare—as if he was Marshal of France! Says he was a fine gentleman and liked by all—when I asked if he had enemies, Gillet blew up, like I was insulting his memory.’

‘Gillet’s loyal,’ Constant said. ‘No doubt about that. If he had any idea who might have killed the chevalier he’d be telling us all about them at once. What did the lady’s maid think of the chevalier?’

Franck laid his knife reverently on his plate and stifled a burp of satisfaction. ‘She reckons he was the best-looking gentleman who ever breathed, and her mistress was devoted to him. When he came home from the war he lived very quiet at his estate and she said her mistress knew she wasn’t marrying a courtier but a soldier, and was glad of it. But I got the feeling the maid and the mistress were pretty thrilled that he was really a prince, and they’re hit hard by him dying.’

‘And that’s all you learned about the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘It’s as much as anyone else would have,’ Laval said boldly. ‘So I thought I’d go and take a look at him.’ The brigadier started, and Laval felt his excitement rising at what he had to tell. ‘After all, he’ll be in his tomb tomorrow, so today’s the last chance to see him.’

‘What on earth were you expecting to find? We know how he died: nothing could be more obvious.’

‘Well, I thought I’d take a peek at his sword. If he was such a great warrior, why didn’t he draw it?’

‘No doubt because he was facing a pistol.’

Laval shrugged and went on, ‘The guards told me he was laid out in an open coffin in the sacristy. There was no one there: the canons were saying Sext in the church.’

Sext? Before midday? Good lord, they keep ridiculous hours here, and all for their own convenience. Never mind, go on.’

‘The sacristy had a terrible smell and I wasn’t keen on going near the body. You wouldn’t call him the handsomest gentleman in the world today! But I did examine the sword—it’s to be laid on the coffin lid when they bury him. It was clean as a whistle when I drew it out. There was still no one around so I had a look at the room. There were clothes hanging all around the walls and I wondered if the chevalier had had a coat or a hat and they’d hung it up—’

‘They didn’t. His cloak and hat are in the coach. Didn’t you examine the coach?’

‘I did,’ Laval said piously. ‘There was nothing in it.’

The brigadier grunted. ‘Perhaps Madame de Bassigny requested the hat and cloak as mementos. Go on.’

‘I found something.’ Laval felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck, just as they had then. ‘Something really weird. You know for normal days the canons wear black? Those long robes made of silky stuff. Well, in the far corner there were two hanging together, one over the other, and when I pulled aside the top one, the other had a hole in it.’

‘And?’ Constant was beginning to look irritated.

‘A big hole, more or less a square shape. Snipped out with scissors, in a hurry—the edges were ragged.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Brigadier, you know that piece of black cloth you showed us, that you found in the woods yesterday?’

‘Yes, what of it?’

‘Well, I reckon someone cut that very piece out of the robe in Saint-Laurent.’

DAY THREE

Victor opened his eyes early on Wednesday morning, looked up at the dark beams of his upstairs chamber and groaned. He was not looking forward to the day, which presented a series of dilemmas. The primary event was the funeral of the chevalier (or prince?), which Victor would attend with his brigade, minus Picard. Cavalier Picard was still somewhere on the byways to Troyes—but was the culprit really far off and in flight, or was he skulking about the Château d’en Haut?

Victor threw off the sheet that had covered him during the sultry night, and went to the bowl and pitcher of clean water sitting on a tripod under the dormer window. Yesterday afternoon, he and Laval had confirmed that the culprit’s makeshift mask was cut from a vestment in Saint-Laurent. Victor had pulled it from his pocket, thankful that he had not left it behind in Joinville, and held it across the mutilated garment. The edges fitted exactly. Ever since, Victor had been worried that the answer to the chevalier’s murder lay inside the castle, not beyond it. Which opened up a myriad more questions.

What had the assassin been doing in Saint-Laurent? Was he a hired man, receiving instructions from someone who wanted to lay hands on the chevalier’s valuables—or simply wanted him eliminated? But if the fellow were a common footpad, bandit or highwayman, wouldn’t he already have the tools of his trade about him, including a kerchief to disguise his features? And how did he get into the church?

Up until now Victor had suspected the attack was efficiently planned: but that hasty, impulsive act of ripping into a churchman’s robe didn’t fit. It was as though the murderer, or the person commanding the murder, had grabbed the first thing to hand for a disguise, reckless about whether it might be found later and its source uncovered.

Victor dried himself off and took a clean shirt from the chair back over which he had draped it, washed and wrung out, the night before. It was now only a little damp and felt cool on his skin. The silky black cloth was regulation issue, woven in the provincial town of Sedan. The canons’ garments had a similar texture and perhaps came from the same place. In colour and type this was serviceable cloth that no poor man could afford, but on the other hand it was not fine enough for an aristocrat or a rich burgher. Only a narrow stratum of society wore anything like it. So, could one of the duchess’s clergy possibly be involved in this sorry business?

Victor examined the items of his dress uniform, laid out over a chest in the corner.

Canon Joseph Briard had been in the sacristy when Victor and Laval had marched in the afternoon before, and he had cooperated when Victor produced the piece of cloth and explained what they were doing and why. With his help they found the garment and held the ragged piece of cloth against it. Seeing the result, Briard exclaimed in genuine outrage. He bustled off at once to tell the dean, the dean gathered all ten canons in the nave of Saint-Laurent and Victor had to wait for an age while they talked back and forth, with great acrimony, about who had been in and out of the church in the last few days, whether it was properly guarded or not (the answer to that was a shameful negative), and how often the sacristy had been left unattended. Joseph Briard insisted that no one who didn’t belong in the church could ever creep in without being seen by him or another canon, especially after the murder, when there’d been a constant vigil over the body. But Victor knew that this was not true—no one had been in the main part of the church or in the sacristy when Laval went in to make his examination of the corpse.

However, the crucial point was that these men had no idea who had ‘defiled the sanctity of Saint-Laurent’ by cutting up a canon’s robe, and they were of no use to Victor’s investigation.

As to suspecting the clergy themselves, it was ludicrous to imagine any of them being able to change into civilian garments, snatch up hidden weapons, grab a horse from somewhere and ride out in broad daylight to intercept the chevalier on the road. Moreover, it was unlikely that any of them rode at all. Victor got Laval to check at the stables and he found that none of the canons kept a horse; they had comfortable lodgings in town and walked up to the castle each day, via the rue des Royaux. The dean, the only one lodged at the castle, kept no horse either; when he travelled to see the bishop in Châlons, which was about once every two years, the governor allocated a vehicle for his use.

Victor bent to buckle up his thigh boots. Of course, it was just possible one of the clergy had hired a murderer—but where was the motive? For centuries, the dean and chapter of Saint-Laurent had been endowed by the royal family of the Château d’en Haut. Their entire livelihood came from its coffers, and their reason for existence—to say prayers in perpetuity for the family—derived from the collegial church built for that sole purpose. In addition, being a canon at Saint-Laurent held promise for the future; men like Joseph Briard could hope to be promoted within Holy Church and perhaps to take office at a cathedral elsewhere. In every aspect of their lives, the dean and chapter depended on Her Serene Highness the Duchesse d’Orléans—killing one of her guests would hardly appeal to them!

As for the duchess and the other nobles … here was the worst dilemma of all. It now seemed likely that the murderer, or the person who commanded the murder, had access to the Château d’en Haut. Was that person staying in the castle? If this were the case, Victor would have to re-examine everyone he had spoken to the day before—but would he be granted another chance to speak to them?

Yesterday he had only waited for his men to return from the forest before riding down through Joinville to the barracks to record his cavaliers’ reports. Roux and Dardel, guided by two foresters, had found no trace of any stranger in the forest hideaways that day. So Victor had been desperate for messages from elsewhere: perhaps one from Picard, saying he’d run the culprit down on the way to Troyes. He was also due a response from his superior, Lieutenant Beauregard at headquarters in Chaumont. It turned out that there was no word from Picard, but there was a short note from the lieutenant releasing the body of the Chevalier de Bassigny for burial and telling Victor to obey the governor of the castle in all matters while the investigation proceeded. Victor had wondered whether his lieutenant might decide to come rattling up from Chaumont to take charge, considering the very high-placed lady who had demanded the investigation—but it looked as though Lieutenant Beauregard was being cautious. He might be waiting for a bit more progress before he appeared on the scene to take the credit.

Immaculate in his dress uniform, Victor clattered down the stairs with a hand on each side of the stone staircase, unbolted his door and stepped out into the street. He locked it, then headed for a nearby baker’s, where every day he took a simple breakfast in a warm, fragrant room behind the shop. He was served by the baker himself, who also made him a strong coffee, an expensive indulgence that Victor could seldom resist. From the age of fifteen, when he and his sisters were orphans on the streets of Paris, he had shared his pay with them so they could stay together. As a cavalryman abroad with the army, and then as cavalier with the rural Maréchaussée, he’d sent regular sums back to Paris to help support them. Now, although his three sisters were independent, he still had the habit of dedicating spare cash to them. He had almost no possessions apart from his military gear, and no expensive pleasures apart from coffee—so he felt he could enjoy a cup now and then. Once he was settled, the baker left him alone at the table and returned to work at his oven in the basement, while Victor mentally surveyed the aristocratic residents at the castle, trying to pick out opportunity and motive.

Three of them had been in the forest at the time of the murder, armed and on horseback: the Prince de Conti, the Baron de Sabran and Madame de Brienne. On the way back from the hunt the prince had ridden with his master of hounds—but Victor had only the master’s word for that, and servants had been known to lie for their superiors. Similarly, the baron and the viscountess claimed they had ridden together the whole way, but Victor remembered a hesitation on the lady’s part when he asked her about their return.

Motive, for any of these people? He hadn’t the slightest clue. The only person at the castle who might find the chevalier’s death a relief and a convenience was the Duchesse d’Orléans. But why arrange a big celebration for him, travel all the way to the remote Champagne to stage it, and invite a privileged group as witnesses? Why not remain in Meudon or one of her other palaces nearer Paris, and pay a marksman to sneak to the chevalier’s estate in the Bassigny and assassinate him there, at much less expense and in total secrecy?

Victor frowned as he broke off a fresh piece of crusty bread and took some soft cheese to go with it. He shouldn’t rule out the duchess’s interests too early. He must examine the remote possibility that she had asked someone to rid her of the chevalier, using the day’s hunting as cover. The duchess, though she did not live at Versailles, was potentially one of the most influential women in France, she had almost infinite resources and she must know the secrets of many a noble family besides her own. She was well placed to apply pressure on a minor aristocrat if she wanted him or her to perform a discreet service for her.

Victor felt a tightness across his chest. The way the Maréchaussée was placed in this investigation, he had no chance of detecting a murder conspiracy between the duchess and one of her guests, let alone proving it. The funeral today was probably the last occasion on which he would see them, which was why he had chosen to go. Desperate for some insight, he would concentrate on those who’d had the physical opportunity for the deed and discount the rest, these being the duchess’s second cousin, the ladies Du Châtelet, La Neuville and Champbonin, and the chevalier’s widow. They had all been inside the castle at midday on Monday when the murder was done, along with Voltaire.

The devil was that if Victor did come up with a prime suspect, he could not confront him or her, because the duchess from her great height would repudiate the very thought of it. After the funeral, however, he had no intention of giving up and riding away from the Château d’en Haut. For as long as murder by a mysterious highwayman remained plausible, he would keep his cavaliers combing the district for clues and asking questions among the lower orders, including the castle staff. For himself, he must conceal his suspicions while trying to uncover more about the guests. Because of his past service, there were two ladies and one gentleman who might be willing to talk to him again: Mesdames du Châtelet and de Brienne, and Voltaire. Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire he considered incapable of any crime of violence, and they both had great powers of observation. Madame de Brienne on the other hand was capable of violence, and in other ways remained something of a mystery to him. He was afraid of what underlying truths he might hear from these people—but hear them he must.

Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2020 22:52