Victor Constant is trying to track down a murderer who shot dead the young Chevalier de Bassigny on the highway to the magnificent Château d'en Haut in the Champagne, which belongs to a royal princess of France, the Duchesse d'Orléans. Voltaire, a guest in the castle, feeling restless, disturbed and in pain after the grand funeral, leaves the guests' apartments and ventures downstairs. Voltaire suffers from the same doubts as Constant: is the killer actually in the castle?
Constant’s glittering blue eyes saw his discomfort at once. ‘Monsieur de Voltaire, are you quite well?
Voltaire said through his teeth, ‘I could do with a chair, if there is one.’
The vestibule, surrounded by pillars and blank stone walls, was completely bare of furnishing. So, it appeared, was the long suite of rooms, visible through an archway, that formed the ground floor of the wing. Constant went at once to the opposite door, flung it open and disappeared into the cavernous space behind it.
Voltaire, breathing shallowly, willed the pain in his stomach to fade. He steadied himself and took a few steps towards the doorway as Constant reappeared.
‘Monsieur, this is an old guard room. If you can stand the dust, you might perch on one of the old bedsteads. The chairs and stools look too far gone.’
‘Let’s see,’ Voltaire said, and Constant stepped aside.
It was a big, square room with an enormous fireplace flanked by two large leather-backed chairs. There was a table pushed against the wall, with stools upended upon it, and two iron bedsteads on the far side, with no mattresses or any other furnishing in the place. It looked as though it had been cleared out a century ago, and the door had been closed on it ever since. Glad of the chance to rest a moment, even in this inhospitable spot, Voltaire crossed the flagstone floor and lowered himself gingerly onto the hard wooden rail of the bedstead, taking care not to brush the rusty bed-end with his sleeve. He gripped the rail to keep himself upright and noticed that the wood was smooth—Constant had wiped off the dust with one gauntlet, which he was thrusting back under the bandoleer that held his sword at the hip.
‘Thank you.’ He said it firmly enough, but Constant was still concerned.
‘Can I do you anything for you, monsieur?’
There was a silence: Voltaire could hardly say, Transport me to Cirey and my own bed.
Constant said, ‘On a hot day like this, perhaps you’d like something to drink?’
‘It’s no matter. I have a little indigestion, which will pass.’
Constant looked dissatisfied, then his brow cleared. ‘They’ve got some good lemonade at the watchtower, brought over this morning from the kitchens. I vow it’s fresh, monsieur; I tasted it myself. I’ll send my man for a glass.’ Before Voltaire could refuse, Constant strode from the room and across the vestibule and Voltaire heard him bellow, ‘Laval!!! Cavalier Laval!!!’ from the steps outside. Shortly there was the sound of hobnailed boots running across the hard-packed earth of the terrace and a quick consultation outside, followed by departure at a run.
When Constant returned, Voltaire said, ‘You mustn’t allow me to interrupt your duties, brigadier. What are you doing here?’
‘Carrying out a search for the stolen property of the Chevalier de Bassigny.’
‘What, here? In our apartments?’
‘No, the governor won’t let the Maréchaussée look in your part of the castle. So I haven’t requested it.’
‘But you’d like to?’ Voltaire’s own vague suspicions rose to mind again: that the chevalier’s death might have more to do with his situation in life than with his possessions. ‘You’re worried that the chevalier has an enemy at the Château d’en Haut. Where: in the lower echelons or the upper?’
Constant flinched at this directness. ‘The last is not a theory that’s likely to please Her Serene Highness or her guests, monsieur.’
‘But you’re not here to please, are you, Constant? You’re here for the truth. If I can help, please tell me.’ In the pause that followed he said, ‘Would you mind sitting down? You’re looming.’
Without a word, Constant circled the room to inspect the seating, then put a stool against the wall a couple of yards away and lowered himself carefully onto it. Voltaire, freed from the dreaded ache in his gut, made himself a little more at ease by stretching his legs out in front of him and examining the chiselled toes of his long, narrow shoes, now encased in dust.
Constant’s deep voice was thoughtful. ‘I wonder, monsieur, whether I might ask you about what the chevalier tried to achieve in Paris? Do you know anything about his legitimisation, and how it might affect the Orléans family? I’m not familiar with these matters.’
Voltaire grinned. ‘You’re lucky not to be—you and I both. Bastardy is not a happy state.’
At that moment Constant’s keen ear caught movement outside and he got up from the chair, excused himself and went out into the vestibule. A moment later he returned, carrying an almost full glass of lemonade with great care. Voltaire, amused at being waited on by the military, accepted the glass.
Constant said, ‘I hope you don’t mind lemonade, monsieur?’
‘Not at all. It saved my life once, when I had smallpox. My doctor insisted I took nothing else for weeks.’ He sipped the drink. ‘Excellent. I told you the cooks here know their business.’ He noticed that the word ‘smallpox’ had made an impact on Constant, who was gazing at him with consternation. He smiled. ‘Full recovery and no scars, as you see. Except within, perhaps.’ He balanced the glass beside him on the rail and collected his thoughts.
‘Yes, well, the royal family of France boasts more than its share of bastards. Louis XIV’s mistress Madame de Montespan had seven children by him and he eventually legitimised the three youngest. He endowed them liberally with rank, fortune and prestigious marriages—the present duchess received a dowry of two million livres when she married her first cousin, Philippe d’Orléans. Everything was done to remind the world that Louis’s offspring were the children of a king, and to diminish the memory of their mother: when Madame de Montespan died, her children were forbidden to attend her funeral or wear mourning.’ He paused, then said in a neutral tone, ‘To this day, the duchess’s guiding principle is pride in her descent from the monarchs of France. With such an upbringing, who can wonder at it?’
‘The three legitimised royals were the Duc du Maine, the Duchesse d’Orléans and the Princesse de Condé?’
‘After Louis XIV died, they quarrelled, did they not? There was some kind of struggle?’
‘Yes. In his will, the king named the Duc du Maine as preceptor to his grandson, the new king, who was then in his minority. But he named Philippe d’Orléans, his only legitimate nephew, as Prince Regent of France. I used to frequent the Duc and Duchesse du Maine—their hospitality was gargantuan and the amusements were endless. I’ll never forget du Maine’s fury when he was passed over for the regency. He and his wife pressed hard for the Parlement to contest the king’s will and make the Duc du Maine Prince Regent—and so did the Duchesse d’Orléans.’
‘Why?’ said Constant, amazed. ‘Why would she prefer her brother to be regent rather than her own husband?’
‘To uphold the duke’s superior hereditary status—and thereby her own. Her brother was born illegitimate, but he was the son of a king. Her husband was born legitimate, but he was merely the late king’s nephew. For the duchess, that meant the Duc du Maine should be regent. There was a welter of intrigue at the time; everyone took sides, everyone was being called a conspirator—including myself, being loosely aligned with the du Maines—and in the end the Duc du Maine got nothing out of his protest at all. The Parlement ratified the Duc d’Orléans as Prince Regent and our present chancellor was appointed preceptor. The Duchesse d’Orléans was honoured with the rank of “grand-daughter of France” and had to be content with that—and her position as first lady in the kingdom until Louis XV reached his majority.’
Constant was silent and thoughtful. All this had happened thirty years ago, before the brigadier was born, but Voltaire guessed he must know at least some of it.
Finally Constant said, ‘Monsieur, if Chancellor de Fleury influenced the king to sign the rescript legitimising the Chevalier de Bassigny, might he have done so to disoblige the Duchesse d’Orléans?’
Voltaire grinned. ‘Excellent question, but I can’t answer it. I’ve had my own quarrels with Chancellor de Fleury and I often wish I could read his mind—but it’s beyond me, I’m afraid. However, we can analyse official reasoning to some extent. I think any nuisance to the Duchesse d’Orléans rather depends on whether the chevalier was named a prince ad successionem, or only for life. If he was made an hereditary prince, several things would be expected to happen. For instance, he would be granted an estate, chosen from amongst the vast land holdings of the Orléans. In fact the king may have earmarked an estate already and the grant may be spelt out in the rescript. What a fascinating document that’s going to be when you find it, Constant!’
Constant smiled wryly. ‘Ad successionem: that would mean his heirs are princes also. But he has no heir.’
‘Ah, but his widow has a child, a boy of two. His mother tells me that the chevalier officially adopted the boy and gave him his name, immediately after their wedding in the Bassigny. She has a signed document to that effect.’
‘I see. So the title passes on to the boy if it’s hereditary. But if the rescript named the chevalier as prince for life, there would be no royal grant of land?’
‘Correct. He would simply have enjoyed the title of prince, a pension of some kind from the king, and certain privileges, none of which would greatly inconvenience the Orléans. But if it turns out that the chevalier was declared prince ad successionem, the duchess will be forced to admit a fresh hereditary line into the august ranks of the Orléans, with the added sting of a sacrifice of land. And the duchess, should she protest to Chancellor de Fleury, is in a cleft stick. Since her own legitimisation, she has maintained that direct descent from her royal father takes precedence over the fact that she was born on the wrong side of the blanket. If the Chevalier de Bassigny is legitimised as an Orléans son, his case is identical. To object to his status would weaken her own.’
Voltaire stopped. He could see that Constant was slightly disconcerted by such frankness concerning the Duchesse d’Orléans but he had asked about her for a reason, and Voltaire would be very glad to know what that reason was.
Constant remained silent for some time and when he spoke, his voice was gloomy. ‘Thank you, monsieur.’
‘Is that all you have to say?!’
Constant started, the stool under him creaked, and he got to his feet. ‘Forgive me, I meant to ask—would you care for more lemonade, or something stronger?’
Voltaire took up the glass by his side and drank the contents off. ‘Not in the least, thank you—I’m quite recovered. I should like to know how the duchess’s attitude towards the chevalier is relevant to your investigation.’
Constant looked gloomier still. ‘It may have nothing to do with it. But I must pursue all possibilities.’
‘And one of them is this: the chevalier may have an enemy within the Château d’en Haut. And you don’t know at which level he may be concealed.’ Constant made no reply to this interruption and Voltaire continued in jocular tone: ‘Come now, everyone in this place, high or low, is entertaining that very fear! Because of it, the governor has permitted your search amongst the hoi polloi, the guards will be on patrol on the ramparts every night from now on, and Madame de Brienne sleeps with a pistol under her pillow! The rest of us are left to defend ourselves as we may.’ He waited a moment, then said, ‘You asked me about Her Serene Highness the Duchesse d’Orléans. Does this mean you consider that the person guilty of this murder might be one of her servants … or connected to her in another way?’
Constant pulled himself together. ‘The Maréchaussée would need to know far more than you have told me, monsieur, to ever dare investigate in that direction.’
Until now, Voltaire had been conscious of talking to an intelligent and capable young man in need of information. He suddenly recollected that he was sharing his thoughts with a gendarme. ‘I would not wish the remarks I’ve just made to be misunderstood.’ He held Constant’s eye. ‘You asked about the chevalier’s rescript; I’ve said what it may contain. I’ve also spoken of the duchess’s attitudes, such as I’ve deduced over many years. Her actions are another matter and I am neither her intimate nor her judge; therefore I can tell you nothing of them.’
Voltaire might have added his personal opinion that the duchess’s pride and vanity made her passive, indeed catastrophically idle, to an extent that precluded anything so energetic as murder, but it would have sounded like another denigration of his hostess. He tried for something less critical but nonetheless true. ‘I can tell you this, however. If the murder was not carried out by a highwayman—if there was instead a conspiracy to bring it about—I find it hard to imagine the Duchesse d’Orléans having any idea of it, much less colluding with it. I might not say the same of some of her friends, but I do say that of her, founded on the best of my knowledge.’
‘Monsieur, I never said—’
‘No, and how wise of you, brigadier. You will share this conversation with no one else, and as far as I’m concerned it didn’t happen. However, don’t despair: you’re yearning to speak to persons of greater import than the average groom or chambermaid but the governor has shut the doors against you—is that right?’
‘There is something you might put to the governor—and I’m sure the duchess’s guests are nervous enough to back the idea to the hilt. You’re aware that the ramparts are now patrolled at night and all the main doors are guarded. However, one doorway has no guard on it, at any time’—he pointed, for emphasis, towards the vestibule—‘the one right here. It’s the most vulnerable spot in the building, because it allows free access from the stables, the kennels, the gardens and courtyards, the entire old part of the castle. Servants and anyone else are free to pass in and out at any time. The staircase from the vestibule leads straight to the gallery that runs past our guest apartments. You should tell the governor that this entrance needs to be guarded and the gallery patrolled, at least at night.’
Constant frowned. ‘Lieutenant Japiot has already deployed all the guards under his command.’
‘Brigadier, I’m talking about the Maréchaussée! You’re here at the duchess’s express command. You’re pledged to protect us, are you not? If you volunteer to stand sentry duty here each night until the murderer is caught, you’ll be doing us all a service.’ Voltaire got up from his perch, quite refreshed. ‘For the sake of her guests’ peace of mind, the duchess will approve, and the governor will comply. Tell him what this guardroom lacks and he’ll have it fitted out for you this afternoon. You can arrange the watches as you will—your man Laval is prowling about here already and you command three other cavaliers, I believe?’
To Voltaire’s relief, Constant regained the alert and competent aspect he usually wore. ‘I’ll speak to the governor, monsieur. Of course, it may be that these doors are bolted at night.’
‘So they should be!’ Voltaire walked out into the vestibule to look at them, squinting against the sunshine that poured in. ‘And in the present crisis they must be guarded as well. This end of the building must be as tight as a drum. I have every confidence you’ll convince the governor.’ He turned towards the stairs.
Constant made a deep bow. ‘Thank you, Monsieur de Voltaire, for your advice and support.’
Voltaire waved a hand in dismissal. ‘Tonight, you can loom to some effect. I’ll warn my fellow guests that you’ll be stalking the gallery.’ He set off upstairs without giving Constant time to reply.
Victor was sitting at the big table in his Joinville quarters, thinking about food. The table was bare, as always, because he ate outside his lodgings, as did his men. At the big barracks at Chaumont, thirty miles to the south, there were grooms to take care of the horses and a cook to take care of meals, but when the Prévôt-Général created the brigade at Joinville there were no provisions of this kind, and Victor wished he could get an increase in pay for the cavaliers, to compensate.
In his new role as brigadier, Victor missed the times when he and his partner from Chaumont, Auguste Renard, used to eat together on patrol and swap thoughts about their duties. He had a sudden wish that he and his brigade could sit down to a decent feed together while he got their views on the investigation so far—but it might look like a breach of discipline. Also, the main meal was in the middle of the day, not the evening. Roux would have had his at Wassy at some cheap cabaret, Picard would have eaten on the run—or not at all—on his way home through the Champagne countryside, while Laval and Dardel had been well fed in the castle kitchens as they took a break from their search.
Besides, he was supposed to be commanding these men, not turning to them for ideas. To the question ‘What next?’ he was meant to have a confident answer. He shrugged, got up from the table and began pacing. Truth was, he’d reached a dead end. Laval and Dardel had found nothing of interest in the day’s search, Picard had recovered not a trace of the murderer in his long excursion towards Troyes, and Roux was back from Wassy with no hint that the killer was a villain from the region. The record book for the day was a sorry affair, except for the news that the Maréchaussée’s sentry duty at the castle was approved.
He had given the men a time to come and receive their orders for the next day, but when the knock came on the door he was no nearer to making up his mind about them. He bellowed for them to enter and got them to line up along the opposite wall, studying their faces in silence. Two had ridden some distance today, but they’d all smartened themselves up and looked fit and eager. It struck him that the investigation was a cause of excitement to his men and they seemed to have no fear of failure—unlike himself! He must make the most of this energy that they miraculously possessed after a hot, punishing day.
‘Picard,’ he said. ‘Roux. You’ve gone furthest today. You’ve taken care of your horses?’
‘They’re in good condition? If you need to spell them, say so now.’ The cavaliers provided their mounts, uniform and weapons out of their own pockets—that is, from their pay—and neither they nor Victor could possibly afford a spare mount, so Victor paid great attention to the horses’ health and drilled the men on feed and care. He could see a glint of humour in Picard’s hazel eyes and knew the reason: his first question was so often about the horses, not his men.
‘Well?’ he growled at Picard.
Picard looked earnest again at once. ‘He’s in good shape, brigadier, never showed a lame leg all the way. And I got as far as the Aube!’
Victor nodded. ‘You brought nothing back, but at least you managed it in good time.’ He made up his mind. ‘You’ll rest him tomorrow. I want you and Roux to cover Joinville on foot, asking questions of householders and tradespeople. It’s time to see if anyone around here knows anything about the murder. We don’t want gossip: only ask people who look as though they’ve some kind of a brain.’ It seemed to be Roux’s turn to smile and Victor fixed him with a stare. ‘In the morning you’ll start with the armourers and smiths on the rue des Peceaux, in case any strangers have bought weapons or ammunition there recently. Next the hostelries; find out who’s been passing through.’
He waited until Roux and Picard gave a salute in reply and turned to Laval. ‘The Duchesse d’Orléans has asked the Maréchaussée to place a guard at night, on the southern entrance to the main wing of the castle. You’ll ride up there with me and make sure the guardroom is fully equipped. I’ll take first watch, eight o’clock to midnight. You’ll have the longer one, until after dawn.’
Dardel looked enviously at Laval as he saluted. Dardel as the youngest of the four was always worried about being overlooked. His bright blue eyes widened and he could not help saying, ‘What about me, brigadier?’
‘What about you indeed, Dardel? You didn’t turn up anything today. You’re coming with us—but not to the guardroom. I’ve arranged for you to sleep in the grooms’ quarters tonight.’ Dardel looked taken aback, unsure whether to be pleased or disappointed.
Victor said to them all, ‘There’s a lot of unease at the castle, right through the household. To build a sense of security, I’ve offered the presence of the Maréchaussée in the main wing and the old castle.’ He turned again to Dardel. ‘So you’re quartered at the stables. And you’re not there as a pretty face: I want more information. I’m not content with the picture you’ve given me about the comings and goings on Monday, around the time of the murder.’
‘With respect, brigadier,’ Laval said stoutly, ‘we took notes and they’re all in the record book.’
‘So we did!’ cried Dardel, and put a hand in a pocket of his blue coat. At once he blushed crimson. He drew his fingers out slowly, holding a folded piece of paper.
Without a word, Victor put out his hand. Dardel marched around the table, handed it over and went back to stand at attention, his eyes glassy.
Victor unfolded the paper. It was a list, headed up in Laval’s neat writing and filled in with Dardel’s misspelt scrawl.
PERSONS WHO HAD HORSES OUT
Monday morning 11 August
Prince de Conte—Chestnut
Baron de Sabran—Dun
Prince de Lanvie
Victesse de Brienne—Daple
Chevalière de Bassigny—Strawby roan
Master of Hounds
Whippers-in—Bardin, Groult, Messier, Jalopin
‘By thunder,’ Victor said. ‘I asked you for this list and you said you’d put it in the journal!’ He was also furious with himself—how had he failed to notice its absence from the report? He jabbed at it with his right forefinger: ‘The Prince de Lanville. He told me he was in the castle all day. Either you’ve got this wrong or he lied to me.’ He glared at Laval and Dardel. ‘Which is it?’
‘With respect’—Laval said, and Victor gritted his teeth—‘we were very particular with the questions about horses. We had that from the Prince de Lanville’s groom: the prince went out riding alone that morning, but not with the hunt.’
‘What was he doing, then?’
‘The groom said he likes getting out on his own, in full gear and with weapons, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s a fine marksman but he only does target shooting—he never goes after game. I asked the groom why the prince didn’t own up to you that he’d been out riding, and the man said his master is bored by the Maréchaussée and he’ll be glad to see the back of us. Looks as though the prince just told you a tale to avoid any more questions!’
Victor, annoyed, reflected that this was only too like Lanville’s lazy indifference. But that might well conceal other, more sinister designs. He said, ‘When did the Prince de Lanville get back to the castle that morning?’
‘The groom couldn’t tell us.’
‘All right, next question: the prince has a string of three—which was he riding that morning, in particular?’
Laval said, ‘I can’t call to mind if the groom ever said.’
Victor looked bitterly at Dardel and slapped the paper with the back of his hand. ‘Well, it’s not on this list! Cavalier, it’s your job to fill in the gap. Tonight or tomorrow you’ll speak to the Prince de Lanville’s groom. You’ll report where the prince went on Monday, for how long, and on which horse.’ He swept them all with his gaze and noted their stony expressions. ‘You’ve got your orders—one pair on foot in town, the other on duty with me at the castle. Laval and Dardel, I want you mounted and fully armed in half an hour. Dismissed.’
When they’d gone, he realised he’d made them all feel inadequate. What the hell—no worse than he felt himself.
It was eleven o’clock, and Victor was walking along the gallery of the Renaissance wing in the Château d’en Haut. Rain, lightning and thunder in the afternoon and early evening had given a special charge to the air. In the ample spaces under the high, vaulted ceilings, the atmosphere partook of the castle surrounds: faint smells of damp earth and leaves crept in at the casements, and far-off noises, like the last of the storm rolling upstream along the Marne, echoed eerily within the stone walls. To disturb the guests less and hear more, Victor had shed his hobnailed boots and wore a soft pair in calfskin, borrowed from gamekeeper Lorichon’s stores. If he came across a guest, he was ignored: in the few hours since he’d taken up sentry duty, he’d become invisible, like the servants who had plied the passageways earlier in the evening and passed in and out of the doorway that he and Laval were guarding.
At Victor’s suggestion, the governor had warned the household that these doors would be locked at ten, so at this hour no one was ferrying water from the cisterns or taking messages to the stables, and the personal servants were in their master’s or mistress’s quarters, waiting for them to retire for the night. Everyone was still up, and the stone precincts caught not only the murmur of life beyond the walls but the intermittent buzz of talk and activity within, accompanied by strains of distant music.
There were fat tallow candles burning in sconces at wide intervals along the gallery. Victor, pacing along in the semi-darkness, could tell that tonight’s crowd was spending time after supper in the Chamber of the League, where he assumed they took their cues from the Duchesse d’Orléans. Whenever she decided the entertainment was over, they’d all withdraw to their apartments.
Eventually the exodus began, and the nobles were lighted to the chambers in succession, by either the duchess’s footmen or their own attendants. From the far end of the gallery, Victor saw Madame du Châtelet appear and step into her lodgings near the Saint-Laurent end, and shortly afterwards the Baron de Sabran and Madame de Champbonin, who were quartered beside each other, did the same. In the middle of the gallery, Victor passed the slim, youthful figure of the new princess, escorted by Louis Finot, who was lighting her way with a candle. She was startled by Victor, and stifled a murmur of surprise when he appeared from the gloom, her blue eyes widening in fright.
He bowed at once. ‘Excuse me, Your Highness, I didn’t mean to alarm you. The Maréchaussée is here for your safety.’
Being addressed as a princess seemed to soothe her at once; she gave him a grateful look and walked by.
By the time Victor had turned around at the end of the gallery, most of the guests were behind closed doors. None had acknowledged his presence except the Prince de Conti, who nodded and passed on¬¬—and Voltaire, who produced a conspiratorial smile but said nothing. Victor had time to note that Voltaire’s stride was swift and his colour healthy. Apparently he was fond of late hours and often wrote long into the night. Tonight he could devote himself to literature—he would surely not be stealing the length of the gallery to visit Madame du Châtelet while a gendarme stalked around in the small hours … Victor wondered if the lady would mind this deprivation.
He had finished the return sweep of the gallery when he heard the soft step of a woman behind him and turned to find Madame de Brienne a few paces away, carrying her own candle. She stopped at a door and looked at him quizzically. He had been so lost in his own thoughts that he had not heard her—or she had deliberately crept along behind him. He glanced down: she was wearing silk indoor shoes instead of heels, which ladies often did in the evenings. There was a glint of humour in her eyes as she held his glance.
He brought his boots together and gave her a military bow. ‘Your servant, Madame la Vicomtesse.’
‘Not too much on the alert, I see.’ Her lips curved. ‘If I were the murderer, you’d be caught unawares.’
‘No man could have your grace and lightness, madame. And it’s a man that we seek.’
‘Is it?’ The mockery faded. ‘I wonder if that’s wise.’
He was about to ask what she meant when he heard voices at other end of the gallery and saw a light flickering towards them. The Prince de Lanville—by Victor’s calculation the last of the guests to come to bed—was about to enter his apartment.
Madame de Brienne put her free hand on her door latch and nodded to Victor. She would not wish to be seen chatting in the dark with a common gendarme, so he bowed again and withdrew, striding to the top of the stairs and entering the dark spiral stairwell.
He paused halfway down and leaned against the wall. There was no need to go right down to Laval, whom he’d ordered to get some sleep in the guardroom before taking the watch at midnight. There was no need to pace the vast ground floor, because it was completely deserted and the doorways were all sealed. Soon guests and servants alike would be in bed, and silence would draw in over the castle. There was something lonely in the thought, which surprised him. A few moments ago, the sounds of activity echoing through the cavernous spaces had sustained his spirits, even though they belonged to a life quite different from his own. Now as the castle settled into slumber it felt forbidding and cold. He leaned his head against the wall behind him. He was used to solitude, but this was of another kind. With one palm against the cool stone he tried to imagine how it would feel to have the touch of another’s hand, but his heart thumped when he considered how long ago that touch had been vouchsafed him, and he pushed away from the wall.
At that moment he realised that the noises had not ceased; two people lingered to talk in the gallery. In silence he felt his way up the dark stairway, stopping before the faint candlelight could catch him from above. He could not see the two, nor they him, but their low murmurs were audible.
The first full sentence he heard came from Madame de Brienne. When we do this play of Voltaire's, I’d be glad to cede Adélaïde du Guesclin to the princess: the character weeps rather too often for my taste. I should have liked to see Adélaïde braver.’
‘But she is brave, in her way.’ Even sotto voce, the Prince de Lanville’s court drawl was unmistakable. ‘A lady both adorable and adored. Since I’m to be the faithful Coucy, I must say it would be a delight to stand before you and express my adoration in Voltaire’s ardent words.’
‘Would it be much of a pleasure to face Adélaïde’s refusal? She has three admirers in the play, and at different moments she rejects each of them.’
‘Coucy is loyalty itself. He doesn’t actually propose—he knows she must marry his commander. But he can’t suppress his true aspirations. Consider what he says:
I thought you knew my dreams, that you would understand,
Accept without disdain my homage and my hand;
So I could join, with heart neither too bold nor blind,
The Guesclin laurel crowns with those of my own line.
Honour brought me to you and, dare I say, love,
More powerful and yet more gentle, also drove—’
He was interrupted by Madame de Brienne’s, low, ironical laughter. ‘Oh, you dare say love? What is it that brings you to my door tonight?’
There was a short silence. The Prince de Lanville had recited Voltaire’s verse with faultless diction—and a certain élan—that impressed Victor, but Madame de Brienne, who had clearly read it already, was unmoved, except by amusement.
After a momentary pause the prince went on, ‘I noticed that after you spoke to the gendarme, you hesitated. I wondered if you’d sought reassurance from him and found none. You were looking my way, so I approached. No gentleman could leave a lady alone in the dark without inquiring as to her peace of mind. Not being of the military, I can’t offer to stand guard for you—there are enough uniforms about this place as it is. But in circumstances like these, I think a friendly word does not go amiss. In fact it may do very much better than a pistol under one’s pillow.’
Madame de Brienne laughed again, very softly. ‘It was a kind impulse, and I thank you for it. Goodnight.’ The last word was said firmly; perhaps there was something in the prince’s expression that she could see and Victor could not.
‘If you’re wanting company, you know on whom you may depend.’
‘I know exactly on what I may depend, thank you. On my servants and my own arrangements.’
‘Forgive me, madame—I must tell you that your spirit is as intoxicating as your beauty. I wish I could arrange my own emotions with equal skill but tonight I find it impossible. Pray don’t deprive me—’
‘Leave me alone!’
Victor strode up the stairs two at a time and as soon as he came into view the Prince de Lanville let go Madame de Brienne’s sleeve and stepped away from her. They looked at him in astonishment and the lady dropped her candlestick, which clattered onto the floor, extinguishing the light.
Victor averted his gaze and walked past them with measured strides. As he disappeared down the long gallery he heard no further conversation. A door opened and closed—no doubt that of Madame de Brienne. After a while, Victor heard a man’s tread behind him, which ceased at a spot probably halfway along the gallery, where another door closed. Victor had been holding his breath at intervals in order to listen: he now took in a huge gasp of air and blew it out between his teeth.
At the Saint-Laurent end of the gallery he turned and surveyed the scene. Nothing disturbed the immense silence. The candles in the sconces along the walls were flickering down—they would not last until the dawn, but there was no need for them, because a fat crescent moon was up and its beams would soon be slanting through the tall, ornate windows.
There was something dreamlike about the long march back, because he could feel what was about to happen.
The candle and candlestick were lying outside the viscountess’s door and when he scooped them up she opened it a few inches. She shook her head at him and whispered, ‘Don’t speak yet,’ and beckoned with a hand.