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Tuesday, 24 March 2020 22:16

Murder on High--instalment 7

Episode 7 of my gift to you, my latest historical crime novel, begins in the collegial church of Saint-Laurent, pictured above on the right. Victor Constant suspects that the person who planned the murder of the young Chevalier de Bassigny may be in the castle. To observe the aristocratic guests, he has commanded his troopers to attend the chevalier's funeral.

Émilie du Châtelet found the funeral of the Chevalier de Bassigny disturbing. She couldn’t shake the feeling that at least one person in Saint-Laurent knew a great deal more about the chevalier’s death than he or she cared to confess—because, according to what the dean had told the governor, the killer had purloined his disguise from the sacristy itself. Voltaire had been quick to point out that the piece of cloth found in the woods by Brigadier Constant might have nothing to do with the murder: not a soul had set eyes on the killer, so there was no proof that he’d ever worn anything of the kind. But everyone else was alarmed. They all imagined that the culprit, or at the very least his accomplice, had got into the Château d’en Haut before he ambushed the chevalier. The news sped to the chambers, the kitchens and the attics, and everyone began speculating that the killer might even be from the castle in the first place. What if, instead of fleeing with his booty, he had sneaked back in? What if he was here, and about to do more evil?

At dawn, as the guests sat through the obsequies to the victim, they slid anxious glances at one another and gazed into the dark corners of the church, beyond the candlelit nave, haunted by hidden dangers.

It chilled Émilie that the crime could no longer be seen as random; in some odd way, it must be connected with the castle and the people staying there. One or two guests were really uneasy; her neighbours, Mesdames de La Neuville and de Champbonin, talked about going home before they were all murdered in their beds. Émilie, who as a grand lady herself understood exactly how the duchess would feel about this, had so far persuaded them to stay on. 

The others showed a variety of reactions. The duchess’s cousin, a very quiet woman at the best of times, was rendered almost speechless by nervousness, while the Vicomtesse de Brienne frankly laughed—she claimed she slept with a pistol under her pillow, and she bade all intruders beware. The rest thought this a cynical fiction but Émilie was inclined to credit it: the year before, an armed gentleman had threatened the viscountess in her own castle, and she had shot him dead. She was afterwards acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. In company at the time, Voltaire had come out with ironical praise of the viscountess’s ferocity and her expertise with a weapon, but Émilie had not missed the admiration behind the mockery. Knowing Voltaire’s taste for drama, she’d been glad when the lady left her late husband’s ancestral castle and went to live in the Loire, and she hoped this return visit to the Champagne would be short.

Émilie looked at the raised pew near the altar, where the Orléans family traditionally sat, side-on to the rest of the worshippers. Today it was occupied by the duchess, her second cousin, her nephew the Prince de Conti and the Baron de Sabran, who did not belong there by blood or precedence. However, before the obsequies began, the baron had escorted the duchess to the platform and when he went to withdraw he had been graciously invited to sit beside her. Émilie noticed that the prince, a pace or two behind the baron and about to claim that very position, pulled a disagreeable face and chose a seat further off, muttering something in the process. It happened that today was the Prince de Conti’s birthday but he refused to see it honoured by any celebration: it gave him no pleasure to share the date with the chevalier’s birthday and funeral.

Seated near Conti was the widow, the Chevalière de Bassigny. Observing the lone, slender figure veiled in white, Émilie could only pity her and admire her dignity. She noticed that the prince could not help glancing at her, too, and wondered whether Voltaire’s surmise was correct—that the Prince de Conti was smitten by the beautiful widow. Émilie could not quite see it at this minute, but then he would hardly display his predilection in the church and in view of his aunt.

The Prince de Conti was married to the duchess’s daughter, who had not accompanied him to the Château d’en Haut, since her lying-in was expected next month. The couple already had an heir, but the first birth had been difficult and serious precautions surrounded the coming of the second baby. According to the duchess, the prince was extremely fond of his wife and fussed so much about her safety that the young princess had begged him to accept her mother’s invitation to the Champagne, and leave her in peace until he returned to the Château d’Issy in due time. The prince spoke warmly of his wife but his was a dynastic marriage and Émilie had no idea how deep his regard might really be: at any rate it didn’t cool his behaviour with ladies who took his fancy. He was especially charming with Émilie and Mesdames de La Neuville and Brienne, and very solicitous towards the Chevalière de Bassigny.

The Baron de Sabran on the other hand saved his public admiration for the duchess alone. Twenty years her junior, he had a small estate neighbouring her palace at Meudon, but because of his army career was rarely there with his family. Apparently the duchess had adopted him as a regular friend and visitor and he now spent much of each summer in her company. This was a singular honour for a gentleman of low rank and no position at court, and Émilie could only attribute it to his good looks, savoir faire and adroit flattery. Voltaire, however, believed the gossip from Paris that Sabran was much more than a friend: in fact he was the duchess’s secret present to herself in her fading years.

Émilie, too, loved gossip but she preferred it to come from the best source—her intimate friends at Versailles. Without evidence, believing anyone else was a waste of intellectual effort. Besides, because of their eminence the Orléans family had always been a target for malicious rumour and their history was full of conflict, rivalries, power play and scandal. To Émilie’s despair, Voltaire was only too ready to let hearsay into his satirical poems, and he had not spared the family in the past. As a young poetic genius he had been lavishly patronised by Philippe d’Orléans the Prince Regent, but, despite this high favour and all the fun of aristocratic parties at the Palais-Royal, he had been silly enough to pillory the Regent’s sexual habits in print. His worst libel concerned the Regent’s supposed incest with his notoriously depraved daughter, the Duchesse de Berry. The Regent had banished Voltaire from Paris and he was forced to spend a year rusticating in the Limousin. The incest rumour had died down long ago and Voltaire had been readmitted into aristocratic society in Paris, though not of course Versailles. Meanwhile he showed no sign of curbing his talent for satire.

Voltaire had a profound sensitivity to the best that human beings could do to one another and a savage sense of humour about the worst; in Émilie’s opinion the country was the safest place for her controversial lover and she hoped to keep him at Cirey for ever. She was pleased that the duchess had included Voltaire—however off-handedly—in the invitation to the Château d’en Haut and she was not going to let him annoy their hostess. She glanced sideways at his sharp profile and clear amber gaze, which was fixed on the canon reading the Liturgy of the Word.

He caught her slight movement, turned his head and murmured, ‘Canon Briard is in something of rush, isn’t he? You’d think he was conducting an auction, not a service.’

‘How do you know his name?’ Émilie looked at all the solemn clergy gathered about the altar. It was the first time she had seen any of them except the dean.

‘He spoke to me when I was in the sacristy, yesterday. The chevalière asked me to pay last respects to the corpse for her because she couldn’t bear to go herself.’ Émilie raised her eyebrows at him and he whispered, ‘I considered it a privilege to be asked. I got the feeling I was chosen because she thinks me best able to suit words to any occasion, so I told her he looked noble and at peace.’

‘And did he?’

‘Not entirely. My elegy was nearer the truth.’

‘You wrote her a poem?’

‘I thought she might appreciate it. In fact, she received it with tears.’

‘Honestly,’ Émilie hissed, ‘you’re incorrigible!’

‘Oh, it’s only four lines. It goes—’

Émilie frowned at him. ‘Later.’


***
Oddly enough, waiting at the back of the nave with his troopers, Victor found himself thinking less often about the dead man at the altar than about the deceased postilion, who would receive nothing like the splendour of this funeral in his parish church at Wassy. Having inspected the corpse the previous day, Victor had given permission for it to be conveyed back to the stables of the Golden Hind and claimed by the family. Madame de Bassigny had lent her late husband’s hired coach for the journey, pulled by the horses that had come from Wassy in the first place.

The widow was reportedly quite distressed by the death of the postilion, and Victor had his own regrets; he had hoped that the man might regain consciousness and tell them something about the attack. From the afternoon of the murder, the poor fellow had been looked after by the porter’s wife, in a corner of the long attic room where some of the grooms slept. The men took turns to watch over the postilion during the night and at dawn the porter’s wife came back, but she’d soon had enough: she declared she couldn’t run her household properly if she was tied up all day. Madame de Bassigny, who happened to be paying another visit to the wounded man, listened to the woman’s complaints and very kindly offered Louis Finot, her husband’s former valet, to take turns at tending him.

That same morning, Victor had sent Cavalier Picard to check on the postilion before he set off towards Troyes, but he’d heard nothing from Picard or anyone else to say that the man had ever regained consciousness. It appeared that the end had come when Louis Finot was on watch. He’d left the man alone for a few minutes while he visited the latrines behind the stables and, when he returned, he discovered that the victim was dead. He at once informed the gamekeeper, Lorichon, who took charge of the formalities.

Victor, who went back to examine the body at eleven after hearing of the death from Voltaire, was told that the postilion must have died very quietly. Indeed, the dead man looked almost serene, the only mark on him being the gash scored across his scalp by the musket shot. Remembering the chevalier’s bloodstained chest and startled expression, Victor thought how different this man’s eventual death must have been; it was as though his spirit had fled on one last, soft breath.

The funeral was drawing to a close, as the nobles partook of the Eucharist. Victor and his troops, who stood with Lieutenant Japiot and the guards near the doors of the nave, were not expected to approach the altar. The men in uniform had a specific task: when the service was over, six of the duchess’s men would bear the coffin out of the church and the others would provide a guard of honour as it exited the doors. It would be borne straight into the cloistered graveyard and laid in one of the ancestral mausoleums, which had been unlocked and prepared for the purpose.

The lieutenant told Victor that none of the worshippers would accompany the body to its final resting place. Victor was surprised that not even the widow would witness the Rite of Committal, but the lieutenant said that instead the chevalière had attended the first part of the funeral, held the night before, when the canons said the Vigil Service.

Again, Victor was surprised. ‘What, alone?’

‘No, the Prince de Conti very considerately kept her company.’

‘But not the duchess, or anyone else?’

‘No,’ Japiot said with asperity, ‘Her Serene Highness is already doing quite enough, don’t you think? Giving a princely funeral to a gentleman who claimed to be one of her family, when there’s not a scrap of paper to show that he was!’

The ceremony came to an end and Victor motioned his cavaliers to remain in place as everyone else in the church began to move. The duchess and her guests processed away towards the gallery connecting one side of the nave to the castle. Most of the canons glided towards the sacristy, while two waited before the altar with the dean as guards took charge of the coffin. Japiot and the remainder of his men marched in formation through the doors and lined up outside in the bright sunlight, which glinted on the gold filigree decorating their red livery.

Victor watched as the chevalier’s coffin was carried past him. He was interested to see that the cloth draped over it was embroidered with the Orléans coat of arms. At the head was a jewelled golden crown topped by fleurs de lys, and around the blue central shield stretched a massive chain of office in red and gold. The shield itself was decorated by three gold fleurs de lys, one of them bisected by the chevalier’s sword, which looked lonely and insignificant on the majestic ground.

Victor had a sudden, poignant vision of the chevalier as he must have been, on his way to the castle on Monday: a young officer in the prime of life, looking forward to embracing a beautiful bride and a sparkling future. But in the end, all the Orléans family could give him was a tomb.


***
Victor was on the roof of the watchtower again with the gamekeeper, Lorichon, overlooking the activity in the old castle courtyard below and in the potager gardens that flanked it, where servants were picking vegetables for the day’s meals. Behind these soared the ramparts and beyond again was the great green wall of the surrounding trees. The grandeur of the castle and the profusion of the forest struck Victor anew.

Meanwhile Lorichon pointed directly below, where Cavalier Franck Laval could be seen talking to the Prince de Conti’s master of hounds. ‘I don’t mind your man asking questions—he’s not in the way, with no hunting on. But what can he learn that you don’t know already?’

‘I want a clear picture of everyone who left the castle on horseback on Monday, what horse they were riding, and when they returned—if they returned.’

‘I thought you had that!’

‘I mean everyone, high or low. Guests, indoor and outdoor staff, the lot. All the horses are in the stables, I take it—there are none kept anywhere else?’

‘They’re all stabled here. Guests arriving at the castle come in the main gate and alight at the Deer Gate.’ Lorichon pointed to the far end of the grand courtyard that lay below the Renaissance wing of the castle. ‘They’re escorted into the castle on foot, and then their mounts and coach horses are brought around through the back gate and housed here.’

‘When the hunt’s on, do the quality come over here to the stables to mount up?’

‘Good heavens, no. We don’t really see a lot of them here—except the Prince de Conti when he’s fussing over his hounds. And Madame de Bassigny, worrying about the injured man. No, we get an order for their horses and the grooms saddle them up and lead them over that way, to the end of the castle proper, see?’ He pointed again, and Victor made out a grand entrance more than fifty yards away, with a portico and a shallow flight of steps. Beside these was a mounting block. ‘They mount up and wait for one another on that cobbled area, then when they’re all ready the party rides out through the Violin Gate and the back gate.’

Victor nodded. ‘I see. Same thing happens in reverse when they return—they dismount at those steps and grooms take the horses back to the stalls?’

‘Yes.’

‘So it would be impossible for any of the guests to leave the castle on horseback without your knowing in advance.’

‘Correct.’

‘What about the rest? Grooms, servants, messengers, foresters—if they need a horse they take it straight from the stables, right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Must be hard for you to keep track of them all.’ Victor nodded towards the courtyard below. ‘I mean, this place is as busy as Joinville market and it’s not even a hunt day.’

‘What are you saying?’ Lorichon said in a quick change of mood. ‘That someone from the castle grabbed a horse from under our noses and rode out to hold up the Chevalier de Bassigny? That couldn’t happen. Do we keep track of who rides what and when? You bet we keep track!’

‘I’m not suggesting anyone’s to blame, if it did happen,’ Victor said calmly. ‘In fact, Cavalier Laval has been very impressed by the order you maintain here, and so am I. But at any one moment there are plenty of people running around, on scores of different errands, and no one could keep an eye on the lot of them, it’s just not possible. You run a tight outfit and you expect everyone to do their duty, but a cunning criminal could use that as camouflage, and underneath it he might be doing something else entirely.’

Lorichon rounded on Victor, his grey eyes pale in the sunlight. ‘So you’ve joined the panic, have you? Jumped to conclusions like everyone else? Look, brigadier, just because you can’t find the villain outside the castle doesn’t mean he’s inside!’

‘So there’s panic, is there? Amongst the guests, or amongst your people, or both? I’d value your assessment.’

Lorichon looked at him askance. ‘No good asking me about the guests—haven’t seen any of them since Monday.’

‘Not even Madame de Bassigny?’

‘Not face to face, no. She slips in and out as she pleases and she has no need to speak to me.’

‘What about your staff?’

‘What do you expect? No one takes kindly to suspicion that there’s a thief and a killer amongst us, and all your questioning is putting everyone in a right muddle. People are getting confused. There was a lot of movement about the place on Monday, what with the hunting in the morning and a bloody corpse arriving in the afternoon. When you demand to know where our fellows and their mates were at a certain hour of the day they’re frightened of misremembering and getting someone in trouble—or being accused themselves!’

‘Monsieur, we don’t work like that. There’ll be no accusations without evidence.’

‘Ah, so that’s what your gendarmes are searching around here for? Evidence? You expect to find the chevalier’s goods and chattels under someone’s mattress? That’s an insult to every man in this place!’

‘We’re also searching the kitchens, storerooms and cellars in the castle proper,’ Victor said. ‘If the chevalier’s stolen property is on the premises we have a duty to find it. In this investigation, no one is above suspicion. Equally, our thoroughness is your protection: the innocent among you have nothing to fear.’

‘Doesn’t sound very equal to me,’ Lorichon said. His arm swept over the parapet as he indicated the lofty sections of the castle: the clock tower, the duchess’s tall White Tower, the Cardinal’s building and the elegant Renaissance wing with its myriad windows glittering in the strong sunlight. ‘You’ll not be searching there, will you?’

‘If necessary, yes, we will.’

Lorichon looked at Victor in surprise and doubt, but did not protest further. Victor, who felt nowhere near as confident as he sounded, was relieved. If Lorichon’s subordinates thought the gamekeeper was angry about the search, they might turn very restive, or even disrupt it by lying. The servants and staff all knew that the governor had approved this phase of Victor’s investigation but he still needed Lorichon’s cooperation on the ground.

‘Thank you for accepting the reason for the search, monsieur. I know it’s a nuisance but it’s unavoidable, and we’ll have it done as soon as we can.’ He nodded to Lorichon, backed away and clattered down the stairs before the man could think of any more grievances to throw at the Maréchaussée.

As he descended the tower, he smiled grimly at the idea of searching in the noble precincts of the duchess and her guests—despite his confidence before Lorichon, he knew this would never be permitted by the governor. Instead he’d pretended to be satisfied with deploying his cavaliers in the common areas of the castle. Laval and Dardel were conducting the search, doing the questioning as they went. The governor had ordered Lieutenant Japiot to deploy two guards to help them: Japiot had looked unwilling at first, until the governor remarked that the cavaliers would of course be searching the guardrooms as well, and Japiot realised he’d rather his men kept an eye on them.

Meanwhile Victor had sent Cavalier Roux on horseback to Wassy. Roux was officially escorting the body of the postilion to the man’s home town, but his main task was to question people at the village of Nomécourt en route, and also ask around Wassy, just in case the chevalier’s death had been the result of a highway robbery and the criminal had associates in that direction. If the murderer was not from the castle or nearby, but from further afield, Victor did not want to miss any clues. Roux was ordered to report back to barracks in the evening, and Picard was due to return from the foray towards Troyes; if either of these men had any leads about a highwayman in the region, Victor would be glad to move the Maréchaussée’s focus away from the Château d’en Haut.

In the old courtyard he had a word with Laval, who seemed to be conducting his work with care and attention. Victor was cautiously pleased with Laval—he kept his head, didn’t antagonise people unduly, and showed promise.

Then Victor walked past the stable blocks and the water cisterns, and emerged onto the high terrace, partly covered in grass, that was overlooked by the end of the guest wing, which was beautifully decorated with pilasters of stone and pierced by mullioned windows. Here he found the grand doorway that Lorichon had pointed out from the watchtower. It had an elegant portico over squared, shallow steps set at an angle to the façade, and it was to these steps that the aristocrats’ horses or carriages were brought, if they were leaving the castle for a ride or on a journey. No one was using the exit now, since this was a day of mourning for the chevalier, but the huge wooden doors, studded with metal, were wide open. The sun beat so brightly on the castle walls that the interior was very dark by comparison, and Victor had to mount the steps to see within.


***
Voltaire was restless and unwell. He hated funerals and had found the morning’s ceremony no comfort for the senseless waste of a young life. At the collation provided by the duchess afterwards, he avoided eating, but still by the end of it he had a stomach-ache that made standing about talking of nothing quite impossible—but with another day of idleness in store, that was all anyone else seemed prepared to do. He excused himself from the company and retired to his room, but not to lie down: he had a horror of falling seriously ill in any lodgings but his own. Eventually he decided it might help to keep on the move, so he forced himself along the gallery outside the guest chambers in the Renaissance wing, which looked down on the vast courtyard of honour, crisscrossed by busy figures.

His thoughts were restless, too. He surprised himself by realising that he had come to a stage in life when he could do without dukes and duchesses per se, unless they happened to be friends. He had calculated differently in his youth, when in order to advance into the heady world of letters he had courted the high aristocracy for their notice and patronage, without publicly condemning—in fact, in some cases relishing!—their foibles and vices. He had a gift for flattery and he saw no reason not to use it when he spied an aspect of someone’s character that he could admire. This judicious praise made a nice accompaniment to his mischievous, witty, satirical verse. He’d discovered with delight that he could make the nobility laugh at themselves—and could also find words to appeal to their better nature.

His ingenuity was wasted on the Duchesse d’Orléans, however; he could never feel at ease in her company and the sensation was no doubt mutual. Nor did he enjoy the brittle atmosphere with which she surrounded herself at the Château d’en Haut. Her attitude to the late, unfortunate Chevalier de Bassigny was ambivalent; she had buried him in becoming style but had decreed no period of mourning, and from tomorrow she would entertain her guests as before. She had even invited the lovely widow to remain with the company until she herself departed for her summer palace of Bagnolet, and it looked as though the young lady was staying on—whether she was too exhausted by grief to travel, or simply grateful for sympathetic company, Voltaire could not work out.

Amazingly, this morning the duchess had encouraged Voltaire to direct his scenes from Adélaïde du Guesclin after all, and present them to the aristocratic audience on Saturday—and the widow had not objected, though of course she would not be playing the lead. This was awkward for Voltaire, not because there were no other candidates for the role—he hoped to entice Madame de Brienne to accept it—but because he feared that the duchess, in her high-handed way, had imposed this choice on the new princess without any thought for her feelings. In other ways the duchess was being quite benevolent to her. In the absence of any word from Chancellor de Fleury as to her status, the duchess had decided that she should be known as the Princesse de Bassigny. This was a strategic concession, which at the same time denied her any claim as yet on the royal names of Bourbon or Orléans.

Before Voltaire began preparing his players he would have a private word with the princess and withdraw the performance if it gave her pain. He’d do this at the risk of annoying his hostess—and indeed Émilie, who on Monday had pronounced the play unsuitable, but now upheld the duchess’s right to afford her guests whatever pleasures she had at her command. Faced with this new enthusiasm, it had even crossed Voltaire’s mind to ask Émilie to play Adélaïde, but she was only too convincing an actress, and the prospect of seeing her in passionate exchanges with the Prince de Conti did not appeal to him.

While lost in these conflicting thoughts he reached the end of the building and, instead of retracing his steps along the gallery, took the wide spiral staircase to the ground floor. At the bottom he came face to face with Brigadier Constant, who was standing very still in the centre of a circular vestibule. Constant had obviously heard Voltaire coming down, for as soon as he saw him he bowed low.

Startled, Voltaire made a bad job of descending the last two stairs and ended up with a hand against the wall, grimacing as pain lanced through his vitals. Was it impossible to be alone and undisturbed in this place?

Last modified on Tuesday, 24 March 2020 22:38