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Monday, 30 March 2020 23:05

Murder on High--Instalment 12

Escape into another place, another time, with Victor Constant, brigadier in the Maréchaussée, France's military police of the eighteenth-century. These instalments of Murder on High are my gift to all those isolated at home and craving #freefiction. To begin at Instalment 1, click in the listing for March blogs in the column on the right.

Voltaire was in the grand hall of the Cardinal’s Building with Governor de Gassendi. He had mentioned to the duchess that the panoplies of arms in the hall might yield something to decorate the stage for Adélaïde du Guesclin and the duchess had referred him to Gassendi, who had embraced the idea with surprising enthusiasm. It turned out that the governor was hopelessly enamoured of the theatre, and whenever he went to Paris he was sure to see the latest successes. He had seen several of Voltaire’s plays, and admired each of them for well-considered reasons. When they stopped inspecting the weaponry—which Voltaire found after all much too showy and distracting—they spent a pleasant hour discussing theatrical life. 

Voltaire considered Gassendi to be in an unenviable position at the Château d’en Haut. He spent much of his time there but it was not his home: his own household was somewhere in the Loire, and he spent the rest of the year travelling around the very widespread Orléans estates, which he managed with considerable staff at his command. He had a title and a post of high responsibility, and was annually given the keys to Joinville as representative of the great family, but when the duchess was in residence with guests, he was not treated as one of the company. At the duchess’s behest he dined but did not sup with them, he did not hunt with them and he was absent from their entertainments. At the dinner table, Voltaire had disliked Gassendi’s officious air and found him altogether a dull dog, but today, discoursing fervently about the theatre, the governor let down his guard. There was an eager note in his voice as he asked questions about Voltaire’s dealings with the Comédie Française.

When Voltaire discovered that Gassendi had never seen Adélaïde du Guesclin, and had not even been invited to the next day’s performance, he said at once, ‘But you must come! I insist. The more discerning the audience, the better our actors will play their parts. I shall inform the duchess; consider it settled.’

Gassendi, thrilled, was offering his thanks when a servant stepped inside the hall and announced Brigadier Constant. Gassendi opened his watch and looked regretfully at Voltaire. ‘I had no idea of the time! This has been very pleasant, monsieur, and I’m sorry for the interruption. I summoned Constant for a short announcement and it will not take a moment. Will you do me the indulgence of waiting? There is no reason why you shouldn’t hear it—a routine matter.’

‘By all means,’ Voltaire said. ‘I’ll leave you to it and have another look at those suits of armour.’

‘Thank you.’ Gassendi gave a curt order for Constant to be admitted and readopted his businesslike demeanour.
Out of the corner of his eye, Voltaire watched Constant walk across the hall and bow to the governor. At times like this and in such surroundings, his height and military bearing made him stand out, as though he belonged on horseback, in open country, rather than pacing through aristocratic precincts. But Voltaire also knew Constant’s intelligence and acuity. He did not like the idea of seeing him outmanoeuvred in this case simply because the murderer, whoever that might be, relied on the privileges of rank.

Constant caught Voltaire’s eye as he came to attention before the governor, but Voltaire gave a slight shake of the head, to indicate that he would not join the conversation, and strolled along examining an ancient tapestry, making sure he stayed within earshot.

Without preamble, Gassendi said to Constant, ‘I’ve summoned you by order of Her Serene Highness to terminate the Maréchaussée investigation. It has drawn no result and gone on long enough. Staff are forever falling over your cavaliers in the yards and the stables. Even the canons of Saint-Laurent are discommoded. It’s time for you to withdraw your troopers, brigadier. Please report to me this evening when you have done so.’

Constant sounded alarmed. ‘Governor, is Her Serene Highness no longer concerned about the security of her guests? We’re here for their protection. While there’s any chance of danger, we must patrol the gallery again tonight, as agreed.’

‘As to that, we’ve had complaints there as well.’

Constant’s response was very quick. ‘From whom? And why?’

Gassendi paused a moment, then decided to come out with the name, which he pronounced in a tone meant to be intimidating. ‘The Prince de Lanville.’

‘His objections?’

‘There’s simply no need for a patrol inside the building. The courtyard doors to the guest wing are now locked at night, which keeps any danger out. Your troopers are not required indoors. The prince finds your presence intrusive. Her Serene Highness is of the same mind.’

Constant’s pause was even longer, but he finally said, very distinctly, ‘Governor, you oblige me to mention something that is extremely disturbing to the Maréchaussée. I beg you not to share it with anyone else at the moment, because it is part of the investigation. There is enough evidence to make us suspect that the murderer, or at least a conspirator in murder, may be one of the duchess’s guests. You see why we must be inside the doors rather than standing guard without.’

Gassendi gasped. ‘This is outrageous! Evidence? What evidence, for heaven’s sake?’

‘It only came to light today. It’s not enough in itself to identify the criminal. That’s why it’s crucial for my brigade to remain at the Château d’en Haut, to protect the innocent and try to pinpoint the guilty. I repeat, no one else must know—’

‘Protect the innocent? Are you suggesting someone else is under threat!?’

‘He already has been, and he is dead—the postilion who was shot during the attack on the chevalier. We know he regained consciousness on Tuesday morning and tried to identify the murderer. I have his brief testimony on record. Later in the morning he died. It’s more than likely he was killed, to stop him talking further.’

At this point, Voltaire stole a look at Gassendi, who looked baffled and angry. ‘Good God! Why do you bring all this up now? Why have you not kept me and the duchess informed?’

‘Because I’m commanded to share it first with the Marshals of France, monsieur, and I’ve not yet made my full report.’

‘I know why you bring it up now—because we’re about to sling you out! For all we know this is pure invention!’

Constant’s voice was urgent. ‘Governor, I beg you to believe it, and to share it with no one else at the moment, not even Her Serene Highness.’ The governor gave an exclamation but he went on rapidly, ‘The criminal must have no forewarning, no idea of our suspicions. If you confide in Her Serene Highness, in a moment of justified concern she might let something slip and our chances of finding the culprit would disappear.’

Voltaire did not like to see Constant backed into a corner like this. Appealing to the governor was clearly a last resort that he had not wanted to use—and it looked as though it wasn’t going to work. Voltaire also felt some of Constant’s fear, but from a different perspective. He and Émilie had toyed with the notion that the chevalier’s murderer might have high connections—even joked about it—but now the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the seriousness of Constant’s convictions. He walked straight across the room to the other two men.

‘Governor, thank you for permitting me to listen to this very grave matter. I’d like to speak to Brigadier Constant for a moment.’ He turned briskly to Constant. ‘By whose authority did you set up this investigation in the first place?’

‘By command of Her Serene Highness, monsieur.’

‘And you informed your superiors immediately?’

‘Yes, monsieur. Lieutenant Beauregard in Chaumont and Monsieur Frénot de Caradoc, the Prévôt-Général, in Châlons-sur-Marne.’

‘Since then, you have been under direct command of the Marshals of France?’

‘Yes, monsieur.’

‘I don’t see—’ Gassendi began impatiently.

‘And what did the Maréchaussée order you to do?’

‘Pursue the investigation, monsieur.’

‘Which you have done with great thoroughness. If you wished to abandon it, have you the authority to do so?’

Constant thought for a moment, not looking at either of the gentlemen before him, and took the lifeline. ‘No. That would require an order from the Prévôt-Général.’

‘If you requested the order from him this afternoon, how soon might you receive it?’

A glimmer of hope appeared in Constant’s blue eyes. ‘Tomorrow morning, as a matter of fact. You see, messieurs, I’ve just received a despatch from the Prévôt: he’s on his way to Joinville. He will stay tonight at Mon Désir, on the outskirts of town, the residence of a noble friend …’ He pulled a folded, unsealed letter out of his pocket and handed it to the governor. ‘Here is his despatch, governor, if you wish to read it. He’ll be at the barracks early tomorrow. You’ll see that he hopes to pay his respects to Her Serene Highness later in the morning.’

Gassendi stood with the despatch in his hand, briefly overwhelmed by all these details. Voltaire said heartily, ‘This is excellent news for everyone! Governor, may I suggest you leave everything as it is for now? Constant and his brigade can carry out their duties as normal and return to their barracks at dawn. Then the Prévôt himself will assess the situation, issue new orders if necessary, and inform the duchess where the case stands. Tonight, you need simply let the duchess know that the Prévôt is about to take charge of the investigation and begs to consult with her as soon as possible in the morning. That is surely a relief to us all?’

Gassendi stood for a moment looking at Voltaire with a residue of his former annoyance. Then he handed the letter back to Constant. ‘I’ve no need to read this. It’s a matter between Her Serene Highness and the Prévôt-Général. I’ll inform her at once. If you receive no notice to the contrary, please carry out your patrol tonight and return to barracks at dawn with your brigade.’ He made a quick bow to Voltaire, who returned the compliment, and left the hall.

As soon as they were alone, Constant said very low, ‘Thank you, monsieur. I was at my wits’ end. I dreaded the duchess knowing we suspect one of her guests.’

‘I shan’t ask you why she should not know,’ Voltaire said dryly. ‘But I must ask: whom do you suspect?’

‘That’s something I can only discuss with the Prévôt, monsieur.’

Voltaire felt heat rise to his face. ‘Good lord, brigadier, I just saved your investigation for you. You can use the Prévôt as an excuse to the governor, but not to me!’

‘At the moment there’s a list of three. The culprit might be any of them.’

‘Or none. What sort of evidence do you have against them?’

‘Not sufficient to make an arrest yet, monsieur.’

‘Then give me their names and I might be able to find some for you.’

Constant set his jaw, frowned and remained grimly silent.

Voltaire exclaimed in credible outrage, ‘Great heaven, you’re not going to tell me Madame du Châtelet and I are on your cursed list?’

Constant recoiled. ‘I’d never dream of such a thing!’

‘Then put my mind at rest, if you please. Three names. They are?’

‘The Prince de Conti. The Prince de Lanville. Madame la Vicomtesse de Brienne.’

The heat remained, flooding Voltaire’s forehead. He could scarcely speak. ‘The Prince de Conti! How dare you think it? How dare you even pronounce it?’

‘It gives me no pleasure, monsieur, but the facts point to those three.’

Voltaire snapped, ‘Well, you can forget about the Prince de Conti. I would never have thought you such a deficient judge of character, Constant. You appal me. The Prince de Lanville I hardly know—I find his personality somewhat aloof. Whether he is capable of bathing in the chevalier’s blood I cannot say.’ He paused, shaken, and desperately disappointed in Constant, whose attitude he did not look forward to describing to Émilie. He said in the same vicious tone, ‘I’d set your sights on Madame de Brienne if I were you. A fine shot but, fortunately for you, not here to defend herself. I suppose you realise your opportunity to arrest her may be as evanescent as her guilt? She has left for the Bassigny. Arm yourself for the possibility that she won’t return.’

At this, Constant looked even more devastated than Voltaire had wished him to. The only conclusion to this disastrous dialogue seemed to be a rapid exit, which Voltaire made without further speech.


***
Victor was in the guardroom at the castle with his four cavaliers. They made a line in front of the vast, empty fireplace and he stood facing them to detail their duties. He could tell they felt nervous about the Prévôt-Général’s arrival the next day. Their provincial commander was a mighty, distant figure to them, and they had no idea what to expect of him at close quarters. Victor, knowing him only too well, was even more nervous than they, but had no intention of letting this show.

‘This is not a routine visit: the Prévôt is coming here specifically about the investigation. That means you’ll have to work doubly hard before he arrives. The barracks and stables must be in tip-top condition, to stand inspection in the usual way. Your uniforms, gear and horses must be immaculate. As for the investigation—it’s important that the record book is up to date and you must be ready to give clear answers when questioned about anything you’ve written.’

He looked at them sombrely, knowing that his relations with his brigade would shift once the Prévôt was amongst them. In the last few days he had come to know them better as individuals, and they had begun to show talents that they’d perhaps not recognised in themselves before. If the Prévôt closed down the investigation and sent them all back on patrol, they might view these new experiences as a waste of time. ‘You’ve all performed well on this case and I shall say as much to the Prévôt. You can be proud of what you’ve performed in the line of duty. I expect you to take the same pride in this brigade’s presentation tomorrow.’

He held out the Prévôt’s letter to Roux, who had brought it up from the barracks as soon as it arrived in the middle of the day. ‘Roux, place this with the correspondence in my desk, complete the record book with what I’ve told you this afternoon, lock everything inside it and tidy the top. Make sure the shelves are neat as well. Here’s the key to the desk.’ He took it from his pocket and handed it over. ‘Then you’ll join Dardel and Picard in the stables to concentrate on getting everything up to scratch. You’ll keep at it, all three of you, until you’re satisfied that it will stand my inspection at six tomorrow morning. Then get a good night’s sleep. I want you all awake and alert for whatever the day brings.’

They saluted, and he transferred his gaze to Laval. ‘You’re on sentry duty with me tonight and I want extra vigilance, because it may be our last patrol here.’ Laval started, and the others looked taken aback, but no one said anything. Victor debated with himself for a moment, then said, ‘The course of the investigation now depends on the judgment of the Prévôt-Général. Once he’s sifted the evidence we shall give him, and conferred with the Duchesse d’Orléans, I don’t want you to be surprised or disheartened if he decides to move it in another direction. Or to terminate it.’

Dardel burst out, ‘But the evidence, brigadier—it’s enough to convince anyone! What we found today is—’

Victor said swiftly, ‘What we found today, Dardel, is not written down in the record book, and I’ve asked you not to speak of it! I’ll report it to the Prévot-Général tomorrow. He’ll have all the facts and from then on the matter will rest in his hands.’ He frowned at Dardel. He didn’t want to mention the cache of clothing to anyone in the castle and he would delay including it in the record book until he had discussed it with the Prévôt. In the meantime he had simply commanded Roux to copy into the journal a sentence that he’d written on a piece of paper: We have some evidence to suspect either the Prince de Conti, the Prince de Lanville, or the Vicomtesse de Brienne.

Laval spoke next. ‘Permission to put something forward, brigadier.’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘The chevalier’s satchel. It’s never been found. If the Prince de Lanville, say, killed the chevalier, what did he do with the satchel? He might have thrown it away in the woods—but who’d ditch valuables like that? You say we need more evidence, brigadier. Well, that satchel would be evidence, all right! We’ve searched just about every nook in this castle, and not located it—because we were looking in all the wrong places. By your leave, couldn’t we search the chambers of the prime suspects? If we found it in one of them, that would be damning, wouldn’t it?’

‘A good point, Laval. I’ve already decided to put it to the Prévôt-Général. Any request to search the guests’ quarters is likely to offend the Duchesse d’Orléans, but perhaps if it comes from the commander of the military police in the Champagne, it will carry sufficient weight.’

Laval seemed dissatisfied. He opened his mouth to protest, then caught Victor’s admonitory look and subsided. The others gazed at Victor with disappointment. He knew why—he would have felt the same in their place, with affairs brought to a standstill just because high command was about to sweep in and take over.

‘Roux, Dardel, Picard, you’re dismissed. Go straight back to barracks and get to work.’ The three cavaliers saluted and marched out. ‘Laval, report to Lieutenant Japiot in his guardroom and tell him from me that we’re mounting the patrol in the gallery tonight, at the same time as before. You’ll confirm the hour when the guards lock the doors to all the buildings—we understand it’s ten pm but we need to be quite sure. Come back here and give me that confirmation, then you’ll need to get over to the stables and groom your horse. And mine, if you please.’

Laval cheered up at this order—why, Victor could not guess. ‘Shall I check Milan’s tack as well, brigadier?’

‘I think you’ll find it stands scrutiny,’ Victor said dryly. He looked after all his gear with a care that his troopers considered fanatical. But it was a time-saver at moments like this: Laval would have to put in a good hour to get his own horse and tack up to anything like the same standard. ‘Off you go. And no gossip with guards or stable hands about Maréchaussée business.’

After Laval had gone, Victor stopped thinking about the cavaliers and forgot for a moment about the Prévôt. The disasters of the day crowded in on him, the most immediate being the altercation with Voltaire, whose last words stung. Victor had brought the scathing cascade of anger on himself. He found Voltaire’s brilliant mind and acute observations fascinating, and he’d willingly told him about Maréchaussée matters—while forbidding Laval to do exactly the same thing!—because he valued his assistance. Today, he’d been too frank and he was punished for it. To be on the receiving end of Voltaire’s towering temper made him wretched.

Worse still was the dilemma of Madame de Brienne. One hour with her had created an obsession he could not shake. When she shared that astonishing intimacy with him, he’d thought it a sudden impulse on her part. Afterwards, for the rest of the sleepless night, he’d felt as though she had taken over his life and nothing else mattered, not even the Maréchaussée. Then she’d slipped away at dawn and he was alone again. His life resumed its military pattern and her absence underlined the fact that she did not belong anywhere near him. They had simply come together by accident, because she was a witness in a murder case. Now, catastrophically, she was a suspect.

When she tempted Victor into her chamber, had she already realised that the Maréchaussée might come to suspect her? Had she found the night patrol threatening, and decided to draw him closer still, to influence him, make him see her as an ally? Her journey to the Bassigny on his behalf might be a mission to find him information—or it could equally well be her means of escape, for good.

However much it hurt, he had to admit the possibility that she had accepted the invitation to the Château d’en Haut solely to challenge the chevalier. Perhaps she’d hoped to exert her power over her lover again in that bold, mad ambush, and persuade him to marry her instead of Fabienne de St-Loup. The first gunshot on that hot afternoon on the Val de Wassy road might have been simply a warning to the postilion to stop the coach, and she had wounded him by mistake. Perhaps she’d confronted the chevalier to demand that he share with her his good fortune and his future. But once she was face to face with him she would have learned at once that he was already married, and that all her hopes of him were over. If, rejected and furious, she had drawn her pistol … Remembering the look on the chevalier’s dead face, Victor shivered: had he known his killer?

Thereafter, everything Madame de Brienne had said to anyone, himself included, might have been a mask for her actions. When first questioned, she had lied about her return to the castle on the day of the murder and said she came back with Sabran. But alone with Victor in her room she had told the story of her contretemps with Sabran in the woods. Victor didn’t doubt that their quarrel had occurred, but now he wondered whether she had deliberately exacerbated it, so she could lash out and get rid of the baron—and then go alone to ambush the chevalier.

But how could she have borne to wear those filthy, blood-soaked garments? What did they say about her state of mind when she planned her grotesque reunion with the chevalier? In the past, Victor had known Madame de Brienne when she felt both grief and despair, and somehow these had only increased his admiration for her. Now, if she were the chevalier’s murderer, he had to acknowledge that he did not know the real woman at all.


***
That night, Victor’s lone patrol along the gallery was unbearable. Not because of any storms or incidents—the long, stone-lined space was empty and so were the chambers that opened from it. It was past eleven o’clock, and not a soul appeared in the pale moonlight slanting in from a cloudless sky. The cheerful sound of distant voices in the grand salons exaggerated the dismal silence at this deserted end of the building. Every time Victor passed Madame de Brienne’s door he felt a stab of dread and desire—fearing that she was guilty and had fled, while at the same time wishing she would come back and tempt him all over again.

Finally he tried the door, found it unlocked, and stepped in. The big chamber smelled of dust but there was also a trace of her perfume, a hint of cedar. Moonlight crept through the doorway but he could not afford to leave it open, so he crossed the gallery and took a candle from a sconce.

With the door shut he searched for the chevalier’s satchel. Naturally he did not expect to find it, but his suspense rose nonetheless, and the search itself felt like a betrayal. If she were innocent, there would be nothing of the chevalier’s in this room. If she were guilty, she would have taken it with her to the Bassigny. Unless—he stopped in the centre of the room to consider this—she had worried lest he became actively suspicious of her and ordered her to be pursued en route, in which case she might have chosen to come back to the castle as promised and recover it then.

Sick at heart, he lifted the candle higher and surveyed the room once more. He had not touched the bed, which was remade with clean sheets for her return. The festoons were looped back to the carved wooden posts. He went closer, looked behind the headboard and knelt on the floor to look beneath, without touching anything, and discovered only plateaus of dust.

He tried the cupboards and drawers a second time, with just one forlorn wish: that a groove in the parquet floor, the dark corner of an armoire, might yield something of hers—a hairpin, a piece of ribbon. But her maid had been scrupulously thorough. He left the room, shut the door and replaced the candle in the sconce.

As midnight approached, about half the guests had been escorted to their chambers. Tonight there were no lingering conversations outside the doors and no one exchanged a word or glance with Victor. He was glad not to glimpse Voltaire who, by the sound of the low, frequent laughter echoing down the gallery, was keeping the rest of the party entertained, including Madame du Châtelet. As Victor paced back towards the spiral stairwell he heard footsteps, and another door opening and shutting, more than halfway up the gallery. He looked over his shoulder but saw no one. Perhaps it had been the Prince de Lanville—he could not be sure.

It must be time for Laval to come on watch. Victor heard a bit of commotion on the spiral stairwell, as though Laval had fumbled his footing on a step, and when he came to attention before Victor he looked in a state of suppressed excitement.

Victor drew out his watch and sprang the cover. ‘Right on midnight—you’re well rested?’

Laval said, ‘Yes, brigadier. It’s officially Saturday morning, is it not? And Monsieur le Prévôt commands today?’
Victor raised his eyebrows. ‘The Maréchaussée commands you every day, Cavalier Laval. I expect extra vigilance from you tonight. There’s been nothing untoward so far. Half the guests are in their chambers—the others are still to arrive. Keep a sharp eye out for anything unusual.’

‘Yes, brigadier!’ Laval’s voice was unnecessarily loud, and Victor was glad the gallery was empty. Then the cavalier did something extraordinary. He stepped away from the stairwell, called ‘La Harpe! To me!’ at the top of his voice, and the bitch from the day’s forest hunt leaped up the stairs and paused for a second between the two men, her muzzle lifted in excitement.

Next thing, Laval dug in Victor’s pocket, whipped something out of it and held it down before La Harpe. Victor, starting back, had time only to recognise the highwayman’s mask before La Harpe was off, her nose questing along the flagstones below the massive windows of the gallery.

Laval waved the kerchief in the air. ‘Let’s see who it belongs to!’

Victor opened his mouth for a roar of fury but La Harpe got in first, with a high-pitched whine that he recognised.

So did Laval. ‘She’s onto someone!’ he cried, and set off at a run.

La Harpe glided sinuously through the serried bars of moonlight, her claws clicking on the stone floor, her tail high. She did not hesitate at any of the nearby doors, but continued at a pace that outstripped Laval.

Victor strode in their wake. ‘Stop her!’ he yelled, but without much hope—La Harpe had responded well to Dardel but she would not treat Laval with the same respect. No doubt it was from Dardel that he’d got this unforgivable plan of rebellion.

Victor was a few paces behind Laval when it happened. La Harpe let out a whine that was higher than ever, for all the world like a young girl being strangled, flung herself to the right and thumped bodily into a door. She picked herself up and crouched, Laval gave a shout and caught up with her, and she threw herself at the door again. This time it opened and she plunged in, teeth bared, with a savage howl that woke all the echoes in the castle.

Laval, scrambling around the doorpost, disappeared into the room beyond.

There was a gunshot that in the enclosed space sounded like a thunderclap.

A woman screamed and Victor, running, drew his sword.

He reached the doorway, which was blocked by long legs and big boots. Laval was face down, unmoving. At his head lay La Harpe, writhing in silent agony, shot in mid-air as she lunged for the prey. Behind her was the Prince de Lanville with a pistol in his hand, aimed towards the doorway. But he lowered it, the instant Victor appeared.

To one side, her hand on the door, stood Madame de Bassigny, fully dressed and with her hair still neatly arranged. She shrieked, ‘I thought it was a lady crying! I thought it was a lady in distress! I opened the door!’

Lanville said in horror and revulsion, ‘That infernal dog …’ But his gaze was fixed on Laval.

Victor made a risky guess that Lanville had acted in pure self-defence, and stepped across his cavalier’s body. ‘Give me the pistol and stand back, monsieur.’ He took the empty pistol, stuck it in his bandoleer and handed his sword to Lanville. ‘Despatch the dog, if you please.’

He dropped to his knees by Laval and glanced up at the Princesse de Bassigny. ‘Please leave the room, madame. Would you care to return to yours?’

She was in tears of terror. ‘This is my room!’

There was a voice from the doorway that Victor recognised as Madame du Châtelet’s. ‘Princess, step this way and come to mine. Allow me to shelter you for the night: you can’t possibly stay here.’ As Victor bent to examine Laval, the princess obeyed and picked her way past him, sobbing. He heard Madame du Châtelet say firmly, ‘Brigadier, I shall send for the duchess’s physician. In the meantime, Monsieur de Voltaire will make sure you have anything else you need.’

Victor’s breath came short as he tried to heave Laval onto his side. It was so awkward in the narrow space that the prince lent a hand. Fear that Laval was dead seemed to confuse Victor about everything else, so when he caught the smell of blood and saw it spreading darkly on the floor, he gave a groan. But by now his hand was exploring Laval’s chest and he could feel no dampness there, and he realised the prince had finished off La Harpe and was kneeling on the other side of Laval’s body and speaking as though it were Victor who needed help and not Laval.

‘I’m going to open his coat, brigadier, if you can hold him just like that. The dog came straight for my throat. I snatched up one of the chevalier’s pistols and thank God it was loaded. I shot it through the mouth and I swear I didn’t even know your man was there until he fell. The bullet went through the creature and into his chest. Ah, here! Here’s the hole.’

With amazing steadiness, the prince’s hand guided Victor’s to a point on the right shoulder, under the collarbone, where blood was now flowing sluggishly. The prince kept talking, saying something about God being merciful and the bullet having missed the heart, and there was a louder hum of voices around the doorway.

Victor bellowed, ‘Shut up, all of you!’ and bent right over, cramped as he was in a ridiculous huddle, jammed up against the princess’s door, and put his ear close to Laval’s mouth and nose. After a moment he said in a hushed voice, ‘He’s breathing.’ Because he was upside-down, the tears of shock ran over his temples and into his hair.

 

Published in Blog
Sunday, 29 March 2020 22:24

Murder on High--Instalment 11

After days of trying to identify a killer amongst the high-born guests at a royal chateau in the Champagne, military policeman Brigadier Victor Constant is back in the vast Forest of Joinville once again, searching along a cold trail.

Victor groaned and Cavalier Dardel looked at him sharply. Dardel was riding parallel to Victor through a grove of oaks, and between the two horses ran a white hound with black and brown patches, her sharp muzzle lifted towards Dardel in anticipation.

The cavalier’s light blue eyes widened. ‘Are we lost, brigadier?’

‘Of course not!’ Victor was confident that they were heading towards the big clearing in the woods where Baude and the rest of the Prince de Conti’s hounds had lost the trail of the killer’s horse on the day of the murder. Of course, if the prince were himself the murderer, bringing the hounds to a standstill on that spot would have been by cunning design on his part. He’d created a dramatic spectacle of chasing the culprit, then given up at the first plausible opportunity. The only thing Victor had gained from that exercise was the killer’s ragged kerchief, caught on a branch in the depths of the forest.

He’d had no trouble finding the route from the castle towards the clearing, because the moment he rode away from the ramparts and set Milan’s head in the general direction, the stallion had understood where he was supposed to go. He had picked his way along the forest trails, crossed the Val de Wassy road, then plunged into the trees on the other side with Dardel and the borrowed bitch following behind.

‘My horse knows the way,’ Victor said, ‘though he’s only been along here once, in the opposite direction. We’ve not far to go. We’ll soon come to a clearing where the Great Whites lost the scent of the killer’s horse. Somewhere between that clearing and the road, I calculate that the man dismounted and changed his clothing. He’d already lost the mask. He needed to get rid of whatever he wore as a highwayman, and put on the clothes he wore in the morning.’

‘You don’t think he’d have ambushed the Chevalier de Bassigny in his own clothes?’

‘Certainly not, if we’re talking about the Prince de Conti or the Prince de Lanville.’ Much less Madame de Brienne! he thought to himself, but couldn’t say it. ‘Their gear is unmistakable—blue chamois hunting jackets, fine leather breeches, spurs, all of the first quality. The gentleman couldn’t risk being recognised by anyone else; he needed a disguise to make the kill. Depend on it, he rode out that morning as fine a figure as you’d see in the field. Then when the hunt was over, he went straight to the place where he’d hidden the rough clothes he needed for the job, changed and headed up parallel to the Val de Wassy road, to the place of ambush. After the attack he came back in a wider sweep, much deeper into the forest, then returned to his hiding place to change back into a gentleman again.’

‘You think the rough clothes are still in the forest?’ Dardel looked thrilled. ‘Is that what La Harpe is for, to sniff them out?’

‘Why not?’

Victor was grateful for Dardel’s experience with dogs and hunting, which he’d picked up from his father. Dardel was the reason they had La Harpe with them: the prince’s master of hounds would never have lent the valuable Baude to the Maréchaussée for a second, but he was confident enough about Dardel to let them take her sister on this search, though Victor had not told him what they were looking for. Victor suspected the name La Harpe was something of a joke, as he’d never heard anything less like a harp than a hound in full cry, but he was glad to have her and watch her obey Dardel’s commands. She glided silently between Milan and the cavalier’s gelding, keen for a chance to perform.

Milan pricked his ears forward and increased the pace: the clearing was near. As they entered it, a little huddle of roe deer on the other side darted off the meadow grass into the trees. La Harpe made a move as if to follow them but obeyed Dardel’s command to stay put.

Victor wheeled Milan around. ‘Now we go back the way we came. Thanks to the Great Whites, we know the killer went at full tilt after the attack and never stopped anywhere. We traced him to this clearing and then the scent got trampled under a hundred others. It stands to reason he changed back into his hunting gear somewhere between here and the road. No good trying to find the horse’s scent, so we have to look for his.’

‘You mean, where he dismounted, and changed his clothes?’

‘Exactly.’ Victor took the black kerchief from his pocket and tossed it to Dardel. ‘Give La Harpe a smell of this. Dismount and follow her on foot. We’ll take it slowly—let her cast about to either side of the trail. If she goes off at a tangent, leave her to wander.’ Dardel slid to the ground. ‘Give me your reins; I’ll come behind you.’

To Victor’s surprise, La Harpe responded instantly to the kerchief. She whimpered as Dardel held it towards her, and when her nose touched it she let out a yelp and looked from Dardel to Victor as though puzzled or disturbed. Then she yelped again and Dardel cried, ‘Brigadier, you could swear she knows this scent!’

‘Well, point her in the right direction and let’s get going.’

They made an odd hunting party: the hound out in front, weaving sinuously back and forth and occasionally disappearing into the undergrowth, without ever finding a line; Dardel striding along, a lithe, youthful figure in his hobnailed thigh boots; Victor a few yards behind on Milan, leading Dardel’s gelding. Since they were entirely dependent on La Harpe’s nose, and had no idea of the killer’s actual route back to the castle, the chances of discovering the cache of clothes were thousands to one. Nonetheless, evidence was so scarce in this case, and the chevalier’s death was surrounded by so many ambiguities, that Victor was determined to pursue facts, however slender.

If he happened upon the killer’s disguise, it would indicate that his picture of the crime was accurate. That at least would be something to hand to his superiors if they chose to take over the investigation. So far Lieutenant Beauregard had not threatened to ride up from Chaumont to interfere; Victor suspected he would await orders from the Prévôt-Général, who was based in Châlons-sur-Marne. As for the Prévôt himself, Victor did not look forward to hearing from him. Very proud of the Maréchaussée’s reputation in the province, and especially alive to its prestige where a crime might be seen to touch army command or the high aristocracy, Olivier Frénot de Caradoc would not hesitate to take charge personally if he thought the investigation was not moving fast enough. To make matters worse, this affair involved the royal house of Orléans, on which he would strive to make a good impression. Any day now, Victor expected to have the Prévôt-Général breathing down his neck. It would be humiliating if the case were unsolved by then. He had left Roux at barracks today in case a despatch arrived from the lieutenant or the Prévôt.


***
Émilie expected to find Madame de Bassigny watching the tennis match between Conti and Lanville, but the young lady was in her apartment. The old tennis court building took the full heat of the sun in the morning, so she had retired to the relative coolness of her rooms. In fact, she confided to Émilie that she’d heard word of the courier from Paris, guessed that the duchess had received a reply from Chancellor de Fleury, and escaped to be alone while she awaited the news.

This confession made it easier for Émilie to deliver the duchess’s message, for which the princess had prepared herself well. She showed neither surprise nor resentment at the king’s verdict and her beautiful face expressed instead a kind of tremulous resignation. She did not reply at once; she sat with her hands in her lap, her eyes fixed the tall windows that looked eastwards across the great sweep of the Upper Marne valley, with its hills, farms, stretches of woodland and tiny villages.

When Émilie finished speaking, the silence went on so long that she decided to venture a sympathetic comment. ‘I imagine it’s disappointing to you that your little son doesn’t inherit the title of prince. However, at least you can be sure that before your husband died, he knew he was legitimised as a member of the Orléans family. In that, his petition was successful and he received his rights.’

The princess returned her faraway gaze to Émilie’s. ‘He did it for me.’ Her tone of voice was so odd that Émilie could not be sure whether this answer was an expression of love, or guilt that her husband had met his death while doing something for her.

‘In his last days, he must have felt happy that he was bringing you a gift of such value. Do not regret that happiness—he earned it.’

The princess gasped and grimaced. ‘But he died! Where is his happiness now?’ She sprang to her feet. ‘And where is mine?’ She went to the windows and stood there, wringing her hands. ‘You say he received his rights. What about mine? I have none!’

Émilie said, ‘If that is how your situation seems to you, I think it might benefit you to read the rescript. There you will see exactly what the king has or has not granted in your case. You might apply to the duchess, to—’

The princess gave a short, painful laugh. ‘The rescript! Why would I need that?’ She stepped towards Émilie, hands by her sides and her shoulders bowed, her voice low and vibrant. ‘I’ve lost everything. He is punished—I am punished—for his mother’s sins. Our fathers are never punished! Where is the point in struggling? We’re all doomed from the start. From before we’re even born, our path is set. Our fathers decree how much we have, whom we marry. Then it gets worse. Our husbands hold complete power over us. We own nothing, we have no choices.’

Émilie was startled by this train of thought, but even more by the girl’s intensity. She said slowly, ‘I agree, the inequality of women is enshrined in the laws of our country, but—’

‘The persecution of women!’

‘But it is still within the law for us to make personal choices. Let me understand you. No one, I assume, forced you to marry the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘No, no!’

‘Then you chose him of your own accord.’

‘Yes—and my choice was doomed! All I wanted was my life with the man I loved. And it was denied me.’ She put her hands over her face.

Émilie rose, profoundly touched by this despair. She thought of her own struggles to create a haven with Voltaire at Cirey, against opposition from the church, the government and her own family. She thought of the anxious manoeuvring she had done at Versailles to keep Voltaire a free man, the delicate negotiations with her husband to ensure that his comfort and sense of honour, and the care of her children, were not jeopardised. So far, she had succeeded. By contrast with the princess, she had the life she wanted, with the man she loved. How could she bear it, if tomorrow she lost it all?

She put her hands on the young woman’s shoulders. ‘My dear, I agree—for us, love and happiness are hard won. Therefore our losses are greater, and so must our strength be. Please, if you can, think of this: from what you’ve told me, you loved each other as equals. His life is over, but for as long as you live, you know that as a truth. No one can deny it to you.’


***
In the oppressive heat, the forest was very still. Birds called now and then as La Harpe darted though the undergrowth on cues that neither Victor nor Dardel could pick up, and rustled amongst the foliage, but there were no sounds from other living beings, except the rhythmic thud of the horses’ hooves. Dardel, careful lest La Harpe be led astray by the trail of fox, hare or deer, made her sniff the kerchief now and then to remind her what she was supposed to latch onto, and encouraged her with low murmurs as she zigzagged ahead of him on her slender white legs.

The quest seemed very long to Victor. He judged time and direction by the sunlight slanting through the branches above and did not look at his watch. He had allowed an hour from the start of this frustrating excursion and he had a nasty feeling they’d gone well beyond that. Somewhere in this forest was a little patch of ground, probably no more than two yards across, where the killer had left his scent on the earth—and also on the clothes he had hidden there. Victor had tried to narrow down the area in which these might be found, but that didn’t seem to be helping La Harpe.

Suddenly she came to a stop, quivering. Her tail was rigid, her muzzle pointing in the direction of an old oak, several yards off the track. All at once she rushed towards it and threw herself at the trunk, letting out spine-tingling howls that made Dardel dash on in pursuit. La Harpe continued to leap at the tree, her claws catching in the bark below a hollow in the trunk. Each howl ended in a whine that made it sound as though she were being strangled.

Unsettled by the eerie clamour, Victor brought the two horses trampling through ferns towards the tree. ‘Pull her off and calm her down!’ he shouted to Dardel.

Dardel got his gauntleted hands around La Harpe’s neck and hauled her a couple of yards away, admonishing her in a hard tone. She stayed put, but still whimpered piercingly.

Dardel’s gelding was spooked by the noise. Victor slid off Milan, tied up the gelding and strode to the massive oak. ‘I’ll see what we’ve got here. Keep the hound off.’

The hole was deep and he couldn’t see anything in the blackness inside the trunk. He plunged his left arm in, thankful for his gauntlet in case of snakes. There was a soft mound at the bottom and he yanked it out and shook it loose. It was a thigh-length hempen coat such as beaters might use on a hunt, to be cinched in at the waist over stout leggings. Victor saw at once some marks that looked like dried blood at the ends of the long sleeves, and involuntarily he dropped it. Feeling around once again, he located more fabric and a belt, which he drew out together. The belt was of worn leather and quite long, with multiple holes, to suit any waist size. The leggings were of heavy serge, with a drawstring at the waist and buttons at the ankles: worn inside boots, they were intended to protect the legs of beaters, foresters or dog handlers employed to follow the chase. The leggings were filthy and stained, and there was no mistaking the red-brown splashes of colour above both knees—thick gouts of dried blood.

Victor’s stomach churned. He held the garment out towards Dardel. ‘Christ alive, look at this!’ He was relieved when Dardel took it out of his hands. ‘Could that be human blood?’

Dardel held the leggings up and contemplated them for a moment. ‘Wrong sort of angle for when he shot the chevalier, and he wouldn’t have got that close. And the smell!’ Gingerly, he approached the foul garment to his nose. ‘Boar’s blood! Can’t be anything else.’ He jerked his head towards La Harpe, who was quivering with excitement. ‘Good girl! That’s what got her so worked up—she could smell this blood from yards off. Never mind the scent of the killer; this is what she was after.’

Victor took the leggings and laid them on the ground beside the coat and belt. ‘Tell me how the blood gets sprayed like this, without the hunter getting ripped to pieces by tusks.’

‘Well, brigadier, once you corner a boar and the dogs lay hold of him, you’ve got two choices for the kill. If any of the noblemen fancy sticking the beast with a lance, they’ve got to be quick about it, for a boar with a couple of hounds hanging off it is still nimble, and deadly in a charge. If the boar’s been slowed down enough—if it’s tired or the hounds have a real good grip—then the order will come for one of the followers to stick it with a knife. That’s what this fellow’s done: he’s stepped in and cut the boar’s throat and got showered with blood for his pains.’

‘What a terrible business!’ Victor stood looking down at the suit of clothes. ‘Where would the killer have got these?’ Then he realised. ‘Ah, from the tack room where I borrowed the boots.’

There were three huge tack rooms at the stables, dedicated to different equipment. Amongst other stores, one room held racks of clothing and boots for use by the grooms and foresters. If men came in from their tasks wearing heavily soiled or damaged clothing they were allowed to drop their gear on a pile just inside the door and pull fresh garments from the racks. The washing was taken care of by the gamekeeper’s wife, Madame Lorichon, who supervised the laundresses.

Victor shook his head. ‘But why choose this hellish stuff to wear? Why not pinch clean clothing?’

Dardel said, ‘He picked these up because they wouldn’t be missed. Madame Lorichon is chary of her clean stuff and keeps a good eye on who gets issued with what. But she’d never expect dirty clothes to disappear, so she wouldn’t notice.’

‘Maybe he snatched them up in a hurry,’ Victor said. ‘Think of the way he snipped the mask out of the canon’s robe. That was a hasty job. The idea of the ambush, the disguise—it looks as though it all came to him on the spur of the moment. When? Maybe the day he learned the chevalier was due to arrive at the castle. He didn’t plan far in advance; he decided on murder, and then scrabbled around for the means to bring it off.’ He bent down and picked up the hempen coat. ‘I’m not going to ask you to put this on, Dardel. Just turn around so I can look at the fit.’

Dardel stepped closer and turned his back, holding himself very straight.

Victor stretched the coat out by the tops of the sleeves and shook it. He grunted. ‘It’s the right shoulder width for you. Plenty of room in the waist and hips. Stay as you are.’ He dropped the coat and gingerly picked up the leggings. Holding them close to Dardel without letting them touch his uniform, Victor could see that they, too, would accommodate a man of the cavalier’s size. ‘Thank you. Step away.’ He dropped the leggings and chose his words carefully. ‘A man any broader than you would have no chance of getting into these garments. So that rules out the Baron de Sabran. The Prince de Conti is leaner than you and the Prince de Lanville has longer legs, but either could have worn them.’

So could the Vicomtesse de Brienne. But he didn’t say it. The mere idea of her touching the bloodied outfit made him nauseous. He rolled up the clothes and thrust them into Milan’s big shoulder holster. No doubt the murderer had brought them into the forest by the same means. Then it would have been easy to slip them into the hollow oak while on the hunt—the rider would only have needed to fall back behind the others for an instant. The tree itself was not far off the main trail and its size made it a landmark, easily locatable on the return journey.

Victor held out his hand for the kerchief and Dardel pulled it out of a pocket and gave it back, saying wistfully, ‘You know what I’d like to do with this, brigadier? Line up every guest and servant in the castle courtyard, and give La Harpe another sniff of this thing and set her at them—and watch who she runs to. How would that be for marking the killer?’

Victor thrust the kerchief away and gave a despairing laugh. ‘Useless.’ Dardel looked offended and he growled, ‘I can’t blame you, I wouldn’t mind trying it myself. But there are any number of reasons why it wouldn’t work. For a start, the governor would never agree to the test. Next, the law would throw out the result—what judge would allow a murderer to be identified on a hound’s testimony?! Then there’s the original scent—that cloth was first worn by a canon, so there’s an equal chance that La Harpe would throw herself at Joseph Briard. She’s served her turn; attempt anything else with her and we risk making public fools of the Maréchaussée. La Harpe is a grand little bitch and she’s just done us a service in private. We’ll keep what she’s found to ourselves for now.’

‘Why?’ The truculence in Dardel’s voice was in contrast to the gentleness with which he fondled La Harpe’s ears.

‘Because if the murderer doesn’t hear about this morning’s work, he can’t guess that we’re one step closer to him. Picard and Laval may have found out more about the visitors to the stables on Monday morning, and they may have a list of people who came into the church. If so, we might work out who purloined the pieces of this foul disguise.’ He felt around in the hollow of the tree once more, knowing it was empty. ‘There’s no sign of the chevalier’s satchel. It could have been dumped in the forest right after the attack. But maybe it’s hidden around here. Help me look.’

They searched for a while amongst the bushes and ferns thereabouts, and La Harpe got up off her haunches and joined in, weaving about and getting in their way. Finally Victor said, ‘This is pointless. Mount up, Dardel. When we’re back at the castle, not a word about this to anyone.’

Dardel swung up onto his gelding. After a while he said quietly, ‘Brigadier: permission to commandeer a morsel for La Harpe, as a reward?’

‘Granted.’


***
At the stables, Victor collected the information that Picard had been able to pick up about the death of the postilion. It turned out that the intervals when he’d been left alone had been quite frequent. The porter’s wife, who had looked after him by turns during the morning, was twice called away to her household. Louis Finot, when he took over from her, arrived a few minutes later than promised, and thereafter left the postilion alone whenever he needed to relieve himself at the latrines behind the stables. And no one confessed to having seen, let alone stolen, the note left by Picard.

Meanwhile there had been many visitors to the stables, besides the grooms and dog handlers already there. If the man had been smothered in his bed, there was nothing to pinpoint his killer. It had been the morning after the hunt and all the principal guests who had been out the day before had checked on their horses or dogs in the course of the morning. Any of them could conceivably have got access to the postilion without being noticed. In addition the duchess had kindly sent her physician, not long after daybreak and before Picard saw the man awaken.

Laval had had slightly more luck trying to narrow down who might have cut the highwayman’s mask out of the canon’s robe in Saint-Laurent. It appeared that valets, maids and the lower servants were seldom seen in the church and never in the sacristy. Only the noble guests came to Saint-Laurent alone, for various reasons. The first was to bow in prayer after their journey to the Château d’en Haut: every one of the guests, after their welcome from the duchess, had gone down into the nave to offer thanks for their safety. Apparently this was an old tradition of the Orléans when they received at their palaces, and the duchess expected her guests to uphold it. Thereafter, so the canons could confirm, nobles had spent from a few minutes to half an hour in the church. The Prince de Conti had been seen, for instance, presumably offering up prayers for his wife, so soon to be delivered of another child. In the same way, Canon Joseph Briard had at different times noticed the Baron de Sabran, the new Princesse de Bassigny, the Prince de Lanville and Madame de Brienne.

Laval and Picard then led Victor to inspect the horses that the four suspects had ridden the morning before. Victor did not tell them that he had now definitively eliminated the Baron de Sabran, and he was pleased to see that Cavalier Dardel, who must have been bursting to tell what they’d discovered in the forest, said nothing about it. As they walked amongst the stalls, Victor tried to suppress a feeling of dread about the appearance of Madame de Brienne’s. What if hers was the only horse with white markings?

They began with Sabran’s, a tall, dun stallion with a masterful air. The face was even paler than the rest. ‘Perhaps from a distance, brigadier, it would show up white?’

‘Perhaps. What about the Prince de Lanville’s chestnut?’

Laval walked two stalls away, where Victor could see a burnished rump, a russet tail and two white legs beyond the partition. He drew nearer. The stallion was feeding from a hay basket fixed to the back wall, but sensing the attention he swung his head around to look at them inquiringly, pieces of straw dangling from his mouth. The lips were a mottled pink and the lower part of his nose was white, like his back legs and the long socks on his forelegs.

‘Look at that!’ Dardel breathed.

Victor quelled him with a glance and said to Laval, ‘What about the Prince de Conti’s hunter? He rode the chestnut on the chase, and the grey in the afternoon. He lent the chestnut to Gillet, the chevalier’s groom, when we went on the pursuit after the murder. It’s a fine, muscular horse and I well remember the colour, but I don’t recall any markings.’

‘He’s down the end there, brigadier. It’s not up to me to fault your memory for a horse, but it surprises me, it does, that you didn’t notice: he has a white star between the eyes.’

Victor strode so quickly between the stalls that all the horses’ heads came out over the rails to watch him. When he got to Conti’s chestnut, the stallion tossed his nose in the air and whickered very low, his eyes rolling down to keep Victor in view. The long, thick forelock whipped back off the brow and Victor clearly saw the star. ‘No, I didn’t notice that,’ he muttered, dissatisfied with himself. ‘Too busy looking for other things.’

The three cavaliers exchanged glances. It was the first time they’d caught him out in any inattention to horses. He didn’t regret that, but he did regret having to keep the Prince de Conti on the list of suspects. He would have liked to think the prince as chivalrous and noble as he appeared—not a cold-blooded killer.

‘All right: the Vicomtesse de Brienne. I know what her carriage greys look like. Where’s her hunter?’

‘The lady has taken it with her,’ Laval said, surprised. ‘Didn’t you know she left the castle yesterday morning? Her maid and groom have gone with her and the groom rides the horse.’

Victor let this sink in. For some reason it deepened the sense of unease that he felt whenever he thought of her connection with the chevalier. ‘But you have its description?’

‘Oh yes we do, brigadier,’ said Picard. ‘Anyone here can say what it looks like. And I’m double sure from what the chevalier’s groom told us, Jean Gillet. He knows the mare well because he’s seen her before, when the viscountess was at the chevalier’s estate in the Bassigny. The mare’s high-bred, and fleet as a swallow, with a white blaze right down her nose.’

 

Published in Blog
Saturday, 28 March 2020 21:34

Murder on High--Instalment 10

My goodness, here we are at the tenth episode of my #freefiction gift to you, the eighteenth-century crime novel Murder on High! For newcomers, please note you can start at Instalment 1 in the column on the right. Brigadier Victor Constant, military policeman, is investigating the murder of a young aristocrat near the magnificent castle that stands over the Champagne town of Joinville. His investigation is now slightly complicated by the fact that he has just slept with a witness: the Vicomtesse de Brienne.

Victor was sitting in the main room at the barracks at Joinville, with nothing on the table before him, not even a beaker of drink to counter the stifling heat. He was alone; Roux and Picard were still out asking questions around the town. His afternoon had been entirely unproductive. He’d asked permission of Governor de Gassendi at the castle to speak to the Baron de Sabran and the Prince de Lanville again but had been refused. 

The baron was gallantly driving the Duchesse d’Orléans about the least overgrown avenues in the forest so she could inspect her domain—and make the most of being with Sabran on his own, presumably, though they were of course protected by armed grooms at a discreet distance before and behind. When Victor expressed surprise at the risk, considering how lately the chevalier had been killed in this very forest, the governor said, ‘Her Serene Highness believes the highwayman is long gone. Admit it: the Maréchaussée has found no trace of him!’ Victor had asked about the Prince de Lanville, only to hear that he was playing tennis in the ancient indoor court, in a match against the Prince de Conti that was being watched by the ladies. After this, the two princes would be sequestered with the Princesse de Bassigny, going over some of their scenes from Adélaïde du Guesclin.

To keep himself busy, Victor had paid a visit to the big castle guardroom and spent some time with Lieutenant Japiot. Together they’d inspected the end of the guest wing near Saint-Laurent, and Victor had walked for the first time along the extension of the gallery that crossed from the castle into the clerestory of the church, and down a stone staircase into the nave. There was also access on the upper level to the Cardinal’s Building and thence to the White Tower. At the duchess’s command, these passageways were neither locked nor guarded at night, since the church was secure and so were the tower and the adjacent buildings, all doors on ground level being bolted at ten pm. The implications of the duchess’s command were obvious: if she wished to receive noble visitors in the dead of night, they could reach her without her other guests or retainers being any the wiser. Victor did not touch on any of this with Japiot, who held the firm view that the chevalier’s killer, if he ever turned out to be connected with the castle, would hail from the lower orders.

Victor sat alone trying to work out how he might re-interrogate the Baron de Sabran, and all he could think about was ‘M.-É. de St. Chinian, V-esse de Brienne’, which was the way she’d written her signature on a letter regarding the murder at Cirey, the year before. He had no idea what her first names might be. Last night, while they whispered to each other in her bed, he’d continued to call her Madame.

In retrospect, the hour he’d been able to spend with her felt like a night entire. They had made love twice, the second time more slowly and luxuriously, and perhaps with more consideration on his part, though her pleasure on each occasion had been shatteringly complete. He could still feel the imprint of her skin on his, her warm breath in his ear. She inhabited him, at catastrophic intervals blocking out all other thoughts and sensations. He couldn’t keep his mind on the investigation, except to admit that he’d compromised it, by bedding a witness! He tried to bring judgment to bear on his conduct, but he felt that his intimacy with her was no mistake—it was a miracle. He couldn’t give any thought to consequences, because the event consumed him. He guessed that she hadn’t cared to examine her own impulses either. She’d acted with a freedom that was intoxicating to him and quite natural to her.

Their staccato exchanges of speech had been dictated by their sensual discoveries. They’d discussed nothing of importance and he only began to emerge from her spell when she asked him how long he could stay.

‘Until midnight.’

‘My hunting watch is on the dressing table.’

He drew back the sheet and went to consult it. It was tiny, of gilded steel on a gold chain. He found the miniature catch and the lid sprang back.

‘Midnight,’ he said.

‘You must go.’

She reclined on her side with her knees drawn up a little and watched his every movement as he cleansed himself with her cloths and water, padded about her room to gather his things, fumbled with belts and buckles. He felt clumsy, half-drunk, elated. He couldn’t look at her, or he would have abandoned everything and thrown himself down beside her again. But eventually she said with tender clarity, ‘I shan’t talk to anyone about this,’ and he turned towards her.

‘Nor shall I. Except to you.’

She smiled and sparks flared in her dark eyes, as though he’d said something witty. ‘What? What will you say?’

He stood in the middle of the room, desire annihilating invention.

She patted the space on the mattress that lay in the crook of her naked body. ‘Come and tell me.’

She withdrew her hand as he sat down but he caught it. It was small but strong, her skin the colour of ivory. On one tapering finger she wore a seal ring of lapis lazuli set in gold and incised with the Brienne arms: a lion rampant. His gaze travelled to the pearly depression inside her elbow, the full mounds of her breasts, her white throat and pale oval face. Her lips, swollen with kissing, smiled gently.

‘You’re beautiful.’

She withdrew her hand and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the sparkle was gone. He rose, ready to say more, to seal the moment onto her mind before it passed, but the right words would not come. Finally he said, ‘When do you leave?’

‘At dawn. Don’t try to see me. No one must know until I’ve gone.’ She did not get out of bed. She drew the sheet over her, as though she shared the temptation that kept his gaze riveted on her, and must quell it if he were to leave her bedchamber.

He’d said ‘Adieu’ and let himself out. He’d done so without peering along the gallery first, an insane lack of caution on his account and hers. He’d even stood with his hand on the latch of her door, wanting to remind her to lock it behind him, but there was no movement from inside so she must still be in bed, and he hadn’t trusted himself to go back in and see her again in all her radiant dishevelment.

Now, sitting in his Spartan quarters, the memory of each instant with her flowed through his veins like wine, while his mind struggled to accept what had happened. Certain recollections shocked him into an outlet of breath that sounded loud against the bare stone walls. Here he was, exclaiming alone in his room, when he’d been practically tongue-tied in hers! He thought of her, on the road today on her mission to Septfontaines. She was investigating the chevalier’s history for his sake, with the sacrifice of tiredness and trouble that the journey demanded … In her eyes, how could he possibly be worth it?

There was a knock on the door. He must let in Roux and Picard and hear their report on what townspeople had said about highway robbery and murder on the Val de Wassy road. As they marched in, he got the record book from its shelf and opened it on the table: he’d make notes himself rather than get them to write up the day’s doings. Although he appreciated the neatness of Picard’s handwriting he didn’t want him or Roux hanging around to update the journal—he’d like them both out as soon as possible.

Roux, looking satisfied with himself after a hard day’s work, had elected himself as spokesman. He was a tough-looking fellow with his strong, fit body and his wiry red hair and moustache—townspeople would think it wise to answer his questions. Roux’s agreeable voice would help, and Picard’s courtesy. Victor asked which streets they’d covered, and entered them rapidly, his head bent. For some reason he preferred not to look at his cavaliers and by contrast he had the idea that they were examining him with undue attention. Roux gave the names of the armourers they’d seen in the rue des Peceaux and Victor said as he wrote in the last: ‘Any significant purchases by strangers?’

‘No, brigadier.’

‘Any rumours about town of trouble on the roads, before Monday or after?’

‘No, brigadier. This incident’s been a shock to everyone. But it happened up top and they reckon it’s got nothing to do with Joinville.’

‘Did anyone in town know that the Chevalier de Bassigny was due at the Château d’en Haut on Monday?’

‘No. Not only that, they’d never heard of him!’ Victor frowned. Roux hesitated a moment, then said with what tact he could muster, as a born and bred Champenois to a Parisian: ‘You see, the Bassigny is a foreign country to folks around here.’

Victor sighed inwardly. ‘But not to the Maréchaussée. We’re responsible for some of the roads that lead into the Bassigny. Picard, get the map.’

Picard fetched the Maréchaussée route map eagerly: Victor was pleased to see that his foray into ‘foreign country’ in a different direction had given him a taste for exploring beyond their usual boundaries.

‘Come and look here,’ Victor said, smoothing the big sheet of paper over the table before him. The cavaliers came to stand on each side, leaning forward. His forefinger swept southeast from Joinville. ‘Here lies the Bassigny, along the border with the Lorraine. What happens in this territory, between the Marne and the Lorraine, is close enough to matter to us on occasions. It’s right next to our own—if there’s crime on the roads, who else is there to deal with it? For instance, let’s see how close the chevalier’s estate would be to us. You see the green area called Les Grands Bois? His estate is much smaller but it has the same name, so it must be around there somewhere. There’s a village there called Écot-la-Combe. Now, you notice this key at the bottom with miles marked on it? See if you can work out how far you’d have to ride to get to that village from barracks.’

Roux and Picard looked at each other, frowned, and remained silent in concentration for some time.

Roux muttered at one point, ‘Wish I had a piece of string!’

Picard added, ‘I’m sorry, but what about the state of the roads? Sheep tracks, probably!’

‘I’m not expecting you to get the exact distance,’ Victor said. ‘It’s just to show you the Bassigny’s not halfway across Europe.’

His secret calculations were different from theirs, as his eye travelled the viscountess’s probable route to her friend’s estate. With a jolt to the senses, he caught the name of the Abbaye de Septfontaines, set on a highroad a mile or two outside a town called Andelot-Blancheville. If the abbey was near the friend’s home, the viscountess would have reached it by nightfall. She might be there right now. But perhaps she’d needed to travel further, nearer the Lorraine. The thought of the rugged miles between them suddenly made him desolate. He wrenched his mind back to his troopers’ problem.

‘To get a clue, you’ve only to consider this route.’ He ran a finger down the highroad next to the river Marne, between Joinville and Chaumont. ‘You know the distance to headquarters, I hope! Chaumont is thirty miles south. Now, take your eye back to Joinville and measure out this way: how far must you ride from barracks to get to Écot-la-Combe?’

‘Less than thirty miles!’ Picard cried at once.

‘A lot less,’ Roux declared. ‘But I couldn’t say for sure, brigadier, without a piece of string.’

Victor gave a short laugh. ‘All right, roll up that map and put it away. Now I want you to hear what Laval and Dardel learned today, up top. It wasn’t much, so I won’t keep you long.’

It was a depressing recital and he didn’t try to avoid the inconvenient conclusion—if the chevalier had been killed by any of the guests who happened to be out on horseback at the time, there was a surplus of possible suspects: the Baron de Sabran, the Prince de Lanville, Madame de Brienne and the Prince de Conti. ‘But I’m not putting that in the record book. We need more evidence.’

Picard was taken aback. ‘You’d surely not suspect the lady, brigadier?’

‘I’d prefer not to.’ Victor’s face felt hot. ‘But I have to keep an open mind until more evidence comes in. Madame de Brienne didn’t tell us the truth at first about returning from the hunt alone.’ Her lie was in Monday’s report in the record book, for all to see. He’d corrected it in today’s, without mentioning her altercation with the baron or giving the real reason for her departure to the Bassigny. He couldn’t let the Maréchaussée see that he was considering her any differently from the duchess’s other guests—just as it was vital to hide last night’s encounter!

Roux said with concern, ‘And the Prince de Conti, brigadier. Do you really think His Highness is capable of this kind of wickedness?’ There was a note of awe in his voice. As far as Victor knew, Roux had never set eyes on the prince himself, but few military men were unaware of his heroic reputation.

‘I think his retainers might be, if so persuaded. I’m talking of possibilities here. What we need is more evidence, to narrow down the field.’ Victor was annoyed with himself; he had not meant to discuss ideas with his men—just share the facts, such as they were.

Picard cried, ‘Brigadier, that means you can forget about the Baron de Sabran!’

‘What?’

‘I’ve heard he’s tall, brigadier. Far too tall for what the postilion told me. He said it was only a lad that shot him.’

‘What?’

‘I wrote it all down! In the note! Every word. He didn’t say much; he couldn’t hardly talk, poor sod.’

‘What note?’ Victor sprang out of his chair. ‘You mean the postilion woke, and talked? Never! He didn’t wake or utter a word from the moment he was shot. You saw him when?—at eight on Tuesday morning. By eleven he was dead. I never got any note, damn you!’

Picard’s voice went rather shrill. ‘I’m sorry but I take it badly, brigadier, to be damned for doing my duty! I was alone with the postilion. He came to, and talked to me. By your order I wrote down everything he said—I took it all down, like you told me to. Then he dropped off to sleep and I knew I had to go straight to my horse and set off on the chase, like you ordered. So I thought, I must leave the note for the brigadier. I folded it and wrote your name on the outside and left it by the bed.’

Victor took a gasp of air. ‘For God’s sake, why didn’t you tell me this yesterday, when you got back?’

‘I thought you knew it all. I thought you were going in to see the postilion yourself and you’d pick up the note.’

Roux burst out, ‘Someone must have found it and took it, brigadier! They must have!’

‘And then later they killed the postilion. Just to make sure he didn’t talk to anyone else.’ Conviction hit Victor so hard, he had to lean on the table. He sat down again. ‘If he was asleep, it would have been easy to smother him with his own pillow.’ He looked up into Picard’s hurt, angry eyes. ‘I’m sorry for cursing you, Picard. In fact you’ve got the best lead we’ve had so far. If only you’d told me before! Why on earth didn’t you?’

‘I thought you had the note. I thought it would be copied into the record book and you wouldn’t want me reporting it twice. Last night, you never once asked me about the postilion: you asked me about what I did on the chase.’

It was true that Victor had not questioned Picard for long on his return; he’d felt discouraged because the expedition had been a waste of time and effort. He put his head in his hands.

‘What does the killer look like, then? What did the postilion say?’

Picard spoke carefully. ‘He said he was not a solid type and not tall. Thin, kind of slight. When the postilion first saw him he was just waiting on his horse, partly in the trees, by himself. No threat about him. The postilion got closer and then he saw the lad wore a black mask, so he reached for his carbine and it was in his hand but the lad got a musket up first and that was it. He didn’t remember a thing after that.’

‘Did he say anything about the horse?’

Neither Roux nor Picard were in the mood to find anything amusing about this question. Picard’s hazel eyes were regretful. ‘I did ask, brigadier, like you ordered me. I had to give him a drink before he could answer. No idea of the horse’s colour—it was in the shade, facing him, and it didn’t move. But he said the nose was pale—it had maybe a white blaze or a star. He dozed off after that, and I left. When I got below I heard someone tramping up the stairs behind me and I thought he’d be all right and looked after.’

Roux muttered, ‘We need to find out who that was.’

‘You acted correctly, Picard.’ This was not quite true, since the cavalier should never have left a note to his commander lying about—but it was Victor who’d suggested he write one.

Victor rose and nodded to Roux. ‘Dismissed, cavalier.’

He went to the shelf, retrieved the record book and opened it before his own place. ‘Sit down, Picard.’ He got the tray of writing materials from the top shelf and placed them by Picard’s right hand. ‘You’ll put down everything you can remember about the postilion.’ Picard opened the inkwell and dipped in the pen. ‘But first you’ll write that you left me a note on Tuesday, and I never got it, and that’s why you’re making a record of it now, at my request.’

Picard did not look up. ‘Yes, brigadier.’

Victor laid a hand briefly on his shoulder. ‘Thank you.’

DAY FIVE

Although art is long and life is short, Voltaire at the Château d’en Haut experienced the opposite: the idle days could be lengthy to the point of tedium, and time that he might have devoted to his writing was often curtailed by his hostess. The lazier the duchess felt, the more activity she desired to see in those around her. She had not invited them all to this remote royal castle for them to go off and hide in corners. By and large the guests understood this and tended to gather round. Their apartments encouraged them to seek company, for though splendid to look at, they were not overflowing with comforts. Able courtiers like the Prince de Conti, the Prince de Lanville and Émilie drew the high-born guests together and kept the general conversation lively. Alongside these were aristocrats of lesser lineage who added a different spice to the gatherings: the Baron de Sabran, Madame de Brienne and, in her touching way, the new Princesse de Bassigny. Voltaire was aware that he fulfilled a low but unique function, as a ‘character’ who provided the unexpected. The only means of escape was to go out on the hunt, but Voltaire was not so inclined; thus he accepted his role as court jester and poet without complaint.

This morning, the Duchesse d’Orléans asked for a private talk with the Marquise du Châtelet and implied that Émilie would bring Voltaire along. Voltaire was uncertain what kind of entertainment he might furnish at this meeting, though of course he knew that the duchess was predisposed to laugh at him at any time, whatever was happening to him. She was very amused by what she heard about his theatricals (she delighted in teasing the Baron de Sabran over Vendôme’s shifting loyalties to the kings of France) and expected great enjoyment from the performance; but if the king’s gendarmes should march to the Château d’en Haut and arrest Voltaire for publishing an illicit book, she would derive just as much fun from his predicament.

When they joined her in the library, the duchess was in expansive mood. She said to Émilie, ‘I chose this room in case you thirst after more reading—you find your way about these shelves much better than I do.’ Her glance travelled over Voltaire as she gestured at the walls, ‘I imagine this is the place in the castle where you would feel most at home.’

Voltaire, looking warily at the collection, could tell that extracting any single volume would release cascades of dust. There could not be a greater contrast between this neglected array of tomes and his glass-fronted, lacquered cabinets at Cirey.

Émilie said, ‘I’ve not yet read the books you so kindly lent me on Tuesday. I selected some plays by Corneille. Then later I spoke to the Princesse de Bassigny and she asked me for them. It occurred to me that they might be a … distraction, shall we say … and she still has them.’

The duchess said to Voltaire, ‘And now she’s thrown herself into your heroics—from El Cid to Vendôme!’

‘I should never compare my poetry with Corneille’s.’

‘But the period of the dramas is the same, I understand?’

Voltaire bowed slightly. ‘Give or take a couple of hundred years.’

The duchess’s eyes narrowed. ‘Madame de Bassigny told me yesterday that you’ve written an elegy on her late husband. I asked her for the poem but she didn’t have it with her. I should be interested to hear it.’

‘It’s tragic thus to witness such nobility,
Such grace, good looks, allied with the most tender age,
The hope of two fine houses, of posterity,
Sent to the tomb by ruthless violence and rage.’

The duchess said quickly, ‘Two fine houses—which might they be, pray?’

‘Why, his own and yours, Your Serene Highness.’

‘His own may be honourable, but I’ve heard no one call it fine. Mine is royal, and on the day when you wrote your verse, we had no proof that the chevalier was an Orléans. It was premature, Monsieur de Voltaire, and therefore displeasing to me.’

Voltaire said, ‘Premature indeed, Your Serene Highness; you’re quite right. The lines come from an early play of mine.’ He avoided looking at Émilie and fished for a title. ‘Tancrède.’

‘Never heard of it.’

‘I wrote it as a youth, in college. One day perhaps I’ll rework it for the Comédie Française.’

Émilie said to the duchess, ‘I think what we want is to bring a little comfort and relief to Madame de Bassigny. You’ve been very kind to her, and we all follow your lead as best we can.’

The duchess nodded. ‘That’s why I asked to see you privately. It seems to me that since her tragic loss, Madame de Bassigny regards you as something of a friend. I believe you would be the fittest person to relay what I’ve just received from Chancellor de Fleury. She’s young and quite inexperienced in matters of heredity, rank and precedence. If the news comes from me, however tactfully I put it, it may seem like another misfortune from on high. From your lips, she will hear the truth properly balanced.’

At this preamble, Voltaire and Émilie looked at the duchess with rising expectation. There was no need to ask her for the full story; she was only too delighted to tell it.

‘I’ve received a letter from Chancellor de Fleury and a copy of the king’s rescript.’ Voltaire could not help glancing at the library table to see whether these documents were in evidence, but it was bare. ‘His Majesty accepted the information sent by the mother of the Chevalier de Bassigny and legitimised the chevalier. Though he died before his majority, the decrees in the rescript all apply. He is recognised as belonging to the Orléans family and receives the title of Prince—but for his lifetime only, not in successionem. The name of Bourbon is not bestowed upon him, nor is there any grant of land. His title is Prince de Bassigny—derived from his present estate, of course—but he cannot pass the title on to his adopted son, who reverts to Chevalier.’

The duchess paused here and examined their reactions. Voltaire gave an inward shrug and thought, ‘Not a bad outcome for a bastard.’ Émilie clearly could not match the duchess’s satisfaction; no doubt she was thinking how to break this to the widow, who could be forgiven for having much higher hopes.

Émilie said, ‘In the chancellor’s letter, is there any recommendation as to how the prince’s lady is to be addressed?’

‘No, the official communication deals exclusively with the chevalier’s heredity and status. The chancellor leaves the delicate fate of the widow to the Orléans.’ She paused, enjoyed the suspense for a moment, then said, ‘At my request, the lady is already known here as Princesse de Bassigny. Having buried her husband as a prince, and considering her shocking bereavement, I felt it right to show her this indulgence. When I return to Bagnolet, I shall discuss the whole matter with my son, who as head of the family has the last word. Please tell her that her title continues to be Princesse de Bassigny. She may sign herself and be presented as such, wherever she goes. However, her husband having died and the title not being hereditary, she should not be addressed in person or by letter as “Your Highness”. I shall continue addressing her as “Madame” and I expect everyone else to do the same.’

Émilie nodded. ‘It will now be possible to order the carving of the prince’s tombstone. May I tell her what the wording will be?’

The duchess waved a hand. ‘I’ll sort that out with Governor de Gassendi and let her know. Please say that I hold it a duty and an honour to adhere to the king’s every wish concerning her and her son. Her comportment has been admirable and my only regret about her being here is that she should have suffered bereavement under my roof. She continues very welcome as a guest, and I hope she will stay as long as I do myself.’ She gave Émilie a bright smile. ‘As of course I hope you will, Madame la Marquise.’

Émilie bobbed her head and took a step back. ‘Thank you, Your Serene Highness. I’ll go at once and pass your words on to the princess. I think she deserves to know as soon as possible.’

Voltaire bowed, the duchess dismissed them, smiling, and they left the library together. A few minutes later, crossing the great hall in the Cardinal’s Building, Voltaire said, ‘You didn’t ask if the widow will be allowed to see the copy of the rescript.’

‘That might have been a little presumptuous, coming from me. The princess will have more luck making the request herself. As every day passes, she gets on better with our hostess, as no doubt you’ve noticed.’

‘What I’ve noticed—apart from her undeniable charms—is her self-control. She’s taken over Adélaïde like a professional. Amazing, in the circumstances.’

‘Oh, your eternal play-acting!’ Émilie sighed. ‘You nearly got yourself in hot water with that elegy.’ She paused. ‘I gather Tancrède is non-existent?’

‘Yes. Like the chancellor’s letter and the rescript, perhaps.’

Émilie stopped dead and faced him. ‘You don’t mean the duchess was lying to us? She has both documents, I’m sure of it! My maid tells me a courier came to the castle this morning, from Paris.’

‘No, I don’t really think she would lie in essentials. But what if the chancellor laid out more privileges for the little widow than the duchess has allowed?’ He shrugged. ‘Never mind, it’s immaterial now. No one will ever know the details except by approaching the chancellor—and he’s washed his hands of it.’

‘One will know the details,’ Émilie said thoughtfully, ‘if the original rescript is recovered. I hope for the princess’s sake that it is.’


***
Victor was riding his stallion, Milan, through a heavily wooded stretch of the Forest of Joinville, relieved to be in the open air instead of in his solitary quarters, brooding over his own blunders. He’d come to hate the record book because his omissions showed up so starkly in its pages. For instance, from day one he should have set a guard over the postilion. True, his cavaliers had had vital duties elsewhere and he couldn’t have spared them—but why hadn’t he thought to commandeer one of Lieutenant Japiot’s men? As it was, a potentially major witness had been left vulnerable. Every man and his dog went up and down the stairs to the grooms’ quarters all day, and there’d been no one to supervise their comings and goings. This morning Laval, Roux and Picard were at the stables trying to find out who might have had access to the postilion alone, but Victor feared they’d never get evidence sound enough for a courtroom. Proving that the postilion had been murdered in that room was a lost cause—all Victor could do was put this failure on the official record.

He was convinced, however, that on the morning after the death of the chevalier, when Picard had written his note and left the attic, someone’s servant had got in undetected, seen the note and taken it. They’d shown it to an interested party and that party had decided to silence the postilion for good. The servant had gone back to smother him while he was once again unattended. Or the interested party had waited for the right moment to commit the murder himself.

Or herself. The thought lanced across Victor’s mind and his gloved hands tightened on the reins. The postilion had been light-headed and confused, but he’d been very certain about the appearance of the ‘lad’ who’d been waiting beside the Val de Wassy road. The person’s lack of height ruled out the Baron de Sabran. That left the princes Conti and Lanville, who were of average height and both lean and wiry enough to be mistaken at a distance for the man that the postilion had seen in the shade of the trees … and finally there was Madame de Brienne, shorter than the princes, with a lissom figure, slim waist and a perfect seat on a horse.

Again, Victor hated the idea of writing down the suspects in the record book, because he could find no excuse to leave her off the list. The Maréchaussée must continue to examine her opportunities for murder until new facts ruled her out. His heart told him it was impossible for her to be the killer, but his head dictated that he do his duty. He was also obliged to consider motive, though at this stage he could not bring himself to write his speculations into the record. The most likely motives came inexorably to mind, however. She had, after all, named them herself: hatred, jealousy, revenge.

How often in the past had Madame de Brienne visited her friend in the Bassigny, and enjoyed the company of the chevalier? She had admitted that she’d known him, and liked him, and something in her demeanour told Victor that there had been an attraction between them. Victor ground his teeth: had they become lovers at some time last year—the beautiful, sophisticated older woman and the handsome young officer with his ardent ways?

Victor drew a painful mental picture of what might have happened after the chevalier was recalled to the front and Madame de Brienne departed for her family’s estates in the Loire. If she still felt a fiery passion for him when they were separated, they might have corresponded. Or she might have simply waited, with impatience, for chances to meet again. But instead she had received the duchess’s invitation to the chevalier’s wedding and the sudden news of his glorious fortune. Did it torment her to learn that she now meant nothing to him, that he was beyond her reach, elevated to royal status at the side of a new, rich bride? Was that why she had come all this way from the Loire: to challenge him, to have it out with him, to punish him?

Published in Blog
Friday, 27 March 2020 00:31

Murder on High--Instalment 9

Victor Constant is pacing the long, empty gallery of a castle at night, having pledged the protection of the military police of France for the aristocratic guests in the magnificent chambers beyond. Suddenly the Vicomtesse de Brienne opens her door and beckons him in.

Inside she had wax candles burning in several parts of the enormous room, which had the usual appurtenances of a lady’s boudoir inside the entrance and a four-poster bed in the shadows at the opposite end near the windows, with its curtains drawn. No servant waited. There was a writing desk by the wall and another lower table in the centre of the boudoir, with three delicately wrought chairs by it. Victor placed her candle stick and candle on this table as she locked the door. He heard the key turn.

She came to stand before him, very intent. ‘Thank you.’

‘Don’t mention it. I was glad to be here at the right time. You saved me once—this was nothing.’

‘Not nothing. But we won’t talk of the past.’ She moved away, as though restless. ‘That part of my life is over and I’m busy creating a new one. I don’t get on very well, because widowhood doesn’t suit me. But a meaningless marriage would be worse.’ She gave a short, self-mocking laugh, and then her mood changed and her dark eyes glowed with sudden energy. She turned towards him and gestured with both hands. ‘Please, sit down. I swore to help you but I couldn’t see how. Now I must talk to you, because I think I know why you’re here. It’s not to protect us from some villainous servant or hanger-on, is it? You suspect one of us!’

He held out a chair for her, since he couldn’t sit unless she did, but she didn’t take it. She stood at the other end of the table and said, ‘Well if you won’t sit, at least unbuckle that sword and prop it somewhere.’ As he obeyed her she said, ‘You think the same as I, I know you do. Something here is very wrong. We’re all consorting with murder.’

Victor left sword, sheath and bandoleer leaning against the wall next to her dressing-table and turned back. ‘I agree it’s possible the chevalier wasn’t killed for his possessions. He may have had an enemy, of his own rank or higher. That enemy may be amongst you. But until we can figure out the murderer’s motive, we’ve little chance of guessing who he is.’

‘Then let’s consider the strongest motives. Wealth, power.’ She lowered her gaze. ‘Hatred, jealousy, revenge …’ He remembered her pronouncing the last three a year before, with bitterness and grief, when she begged him to unmask her lover’s killer.

He said evenly, ‘Wealth: the chevalier had none. Power: receiving the title of prince would have given him no real influence—he would have had to go to Versailles and fight for it, if that’s what he wanted.’

‘Perhaps he did want it!’ she said quickly. ‘And others didn’t want him to have it. That cannot be ruled out.’

‘When you say “others”, do you mean to include the Duchesse d’Orléans?’

She hesitated, then said, ‘I’m not prepared to slander my hostess to the Maréchaussée. But I do point out this truth to you: the death of the chevalier serves no interests more surely than hers.’

‘Though she would have needed someone else to bring it about. All right, let us go on. Hatred: well, the chevalier seems to have been generally liked and admired. He may have annoyed someone in the army, but neither the Prince de Conti nor the Baron de Sabran have any tales to tell.’

‘But if one of them was the murderer, he’d hardly give himself away, would he?’

He could see she was in earnest. ‘You suspect the prince or the baron? But both were with other people for the whole duration of the hunt—the prince with the hounds, the baron with you.’

She said, ‘I don’t know about the prince because I didn’t see him after the kill. What he said to you may be true … or it may not. But no, I can’t suspect Conti: he’s my idea of a hero. As for the baron, we were together for most of the morning, but before we got back to the castle we parted.’

He moved closer to her, his palm brushing the back of an empty chair. ‘You told me you returned together!’

‘I was annoyed with him and embarrassed to talk to you about it. I prefer to solve my own problems in my own way. Ah!’ She gave a half smile and, reaching out, just touched his sleeve with her fingers. ‘You’ve had to rescue me before, so you have leave to mock me for that! I apologise: I should have told you at once but I didn’t think it was significant then. The fact is, while the baron and I were riding back from the hunt, he began a conversation with me that was very like the one that Lanville had with me just now. They’re both inept at making love to a woman and I’m astonished the baron has managed to make a career of it with the Duchesse d’Orléans—if I were her I’d have flicked him off after the first tryst.’

‘The baron importuned you?’

‘What a tactful word. Yes, while we were on horseback, in the middle of the woods. It was quite ridiculous then, and it’s ludicrous to think of it now. Of course he’s bored to tears with the duchess but to believe he could tempt me!’

‘At what hour?’

She said with some asperity, ‘I certainly wasn’t looking at a watch! Before midday, in all probability.’

‘So. You discouraged him, and he rode off and left you?’

‘He’s not an easy fellow to discourage. His success with the duchess makes him think anyone he may fancy is easy prey. When he wouldn’t leave me alone I slashed at his head with my whip. He beat a very hasty retreat.’

Victor gazed at her in admiration. ‘I saw the mark, on his neck! And I thought he might have got it on the hunt. But he denied any accidents. Where did he go after that?’

She shook her head. ‘I didn’t see him again until the evening. He and Lanville were laughing furtively together and I wondered if the baron had tried to turn the thing into a private joke. For all I know, Lanville was aiming to succeed tonight where the baron failed.’ She shrugged. ‘Never mind, I despise them both.’

Victor thought of the Baron de Sabran riding off through the trees at the very time of the murder, with not a soul to witness what he did next … The viscountess looked at him expectantly. He returned to her list of motives. ‘Jealousy, or should we say envy: do you seriously suspect that anyone here would kill the Chevalier de Bassigny because he was about to become a prince?’

‘Don’t forget he was also about to marry Fabienne de Saint-Loup.’ She frowned thoughtfully, her full, red lips in a pout. ‘All I can tell you is that every gentleman in this place has been besotted with that girl from the moment she arrived.’

‘Revenge,’ he said, to finish the list. ‘What can you possibly suggest in support of that motive?’

‘Nothing whatsoever.’ She gave him an ironical smile. ‘Because almost nothing is known about him. There’s a gigantic gap in your investigation: you don’t know enough about the victim of this crime. If it was committed by one of us, or by more than one, you’ll never guess the murderer unless you can work out what it was about the Chevalier de Bassigny that meant someone had to kill him. You must find out more about him.’

He said uncomfortably, ‘When it comes to murder in places like this, I can only pace around the sidelines. People like the Chevalier de Bassigny are beyond my ken.’

‘But not beyond mine!’ She took two steps forward and laid her hand on his. ‘I told you I’d help you if I can. And I can. Who was the chevalier really? What were his origins, his life, his true circumstances? I can find out for you—from the Abbey of Septfontaines in the Bassigny. That’s where they locked his mother away when she fell pregnant. That’s where she wrote that letter to the chancellor for him, and where she died.’

He did not dare to move in case she took her hand away. He looked into dark eyes that gleamed with the knowledge of her own powers, and was dazzled. He said, bewildered, ‘What, you’ll write to the convent?’

‘No, I’ll go there. Remember, I have a friend in the Bassigny. Her older sister happens to be the Mother Superior of the convent. I’ll visit my friend for a day or two—I promised to do so on the way back to the Loire but now will do much better. I’ll arrange an invitation to the convent in the abbey and find out everything there is to know about the chevalier, his birth and inheritance. The duchess hasn’t heard from the chancellor yet—and when she does, she’ll pass on only as much as she wants us to know. Whereas I shall bring back the whole truth for you. That poor young man will only have justice if the truth is known.’

‘That’s a great deal for you to do.’ He gripped her fingers.

She smiled, and from then on it was as though their words floated on currents that flowed deep beneath the surface. ‘It’s no trouble. Travel is agreeable to me.’

‘When do you leave?’

She put her free hand to his temple and looked up at him with a frank anticipation that caught him by the throat. ‘Tomorrow morning.’

‘And return?’ He slid his arms around her waist.

‘As soon as I can.’

He kissed her.

Everything that followed was both miraculous and inevitable. Under his hands she felt small, vivid and imperious. There was laughter as she tried to undo the silver buttons of his coat, and sighs as he struggled with the lacing of her slippery gown. No words were exchanged now. Their impatience was mutual; the wonders of their discoveries halted them in long moments when they ceased to breathe. Everything about the other was foreign; nothing divided them. Unto their very essence they were quite unalike, yet they burned with an equal flame.

DAY FOUR

Émilie was playing the final passage of a harpsichord piece by Couperin in the music room, which had been chosen as the theatre for Voltaire’s play performance. The place was ample, with plenty of space for the chairs that had been brought in from the Chamber of the League. Rich hangings were draped around the auditorium, over the windows on one side and the wall on the other. The ‘stage’ was the dais on which court musicians must have performed in days gone by, and behind it was an old tapestry representing a battle scene: a medieval French victory over the English. This was appropriate since the play, set in the fourteenth century, centred around a victorious Général de Vendôme, who allied himself with the English against his own king, but at the end of the story was persuaded to back the throne of France after all.

Émilie’s contribution to the play was impromptu. Normally she played only at home and she’d brought no music to the Château d’en Haut, but as soon as Voltaire saw the harpsichord he coaxed her to supply an overture. Of course the instrument was woefully out of tune, but the canon who directed the music at Saint-Laurent was ordered to adjust it. In the end she chose a piece by Couperin that she had by heart, and now all the people involved in the play were gathered to hear her.
When she had finished they clapped, including Voltaire. He looked from her to the company and said, ‘Beautifully played. But perhaps a little lugubrious? What do we think?’

Émilie straightened and put her hands in her lap. ‘I think of it as dignified. However, I could give you something jauntier. From the same composer’s Splendours of the Great and Ancient Minstrelsy, perhaps.’ She said with a straight face, ‘It’s a romp, full of hurdy-gurdy players, jugglers, tumblers and mountebanks …’

The Prince de Conti threw her a flashing glance. ‘Don’t change a note; I love this one. I can hear the drumbeats of soldierly courage in it, but also the solemnity of profound sentiment.’ He grinned at Voltaire. ‘It’s perfect for your elevated masterpiece, monsieur.’

Voltaire raised an eyebrow at him and turned to Émilie. ‘Very well. When your piece is over, madame, there will be a slight pause while you leave the stage on this side and take the chair at the end of the front row.’ He pointed to the seat nearest the windows. ‘Are you content to watch from there? Her Serene Highness will be seated in the middle of the row, with I think her cousin on one side of her and Madame de La Neuville on the other.’

Émilie rose. ‘I’m content wherever I sit.’ She came out from behind the instrument, walked across the apron of the stage, stepped down and stood before them, her eyes fixed not on Voltaire but on the new Princesse de Bassigny, who had volunteered to play Adélaïde du Guesclin. ‘But I can’t enjoy the performance, madame, unless I know you are content. Do you really wish to take the boards? Are you certain we’re not asking too much of you? The other characters are all warriors, and most of the dialogue is about war, injury and death—’

‘I’ve made cuts,’ Voltaire said swiftly. ‘I agree it’s a searingly emotional part, but we’ve looked it over together and I believe there’s nothing in it now to wound the princess’s sensibilities. She has been very brave to accept it’—here he beamed at the princess, who lowered her eyes—‘and in return, these three gentlemen have pledged to honour her feelings to the hilt.’

Émilie sighed inwardly. Voltaire’s use of ‘to the hilt’ made her suspect him of sly amusement, but the three actors took him seriously and gazed at the princess with varying degrees of tenderness. They were the Baron de Sabran, who played Vendôme, ally of the British; the Prince de Conti, Vendôme’s brother Nemours, who served the King of France; and the Prince de Lanville, who played Coucy, a commander loyal to Vendôme. All three characters were in love with Adélaïde. Following the princess’s modest glance as she raised her eyes and looked at them in turn, it occurred to Émilie that their concentrated adoration might bring the young widow a kind of respite from the dreadful grief of the last three days.

The princess said quietly, ‘Madame la Marquise, I learned the part when I first came here, and since Madame de Brienne has deserted us, I think it would be ungenerous not to step into the breach. I should feel terrible if Monsieur de Voltaire’s wonderful play could not go on.’

Émilie gave Voltaire an ironical look, then smiled serenely at the princess and the rest of the company. ‘I leave the stage to you.’

As the rehearsal proceeded, Émilie was not disappointed—in fact in the princess’s case she was agreeably surprised. On rereading the play she had felt the troubled character of Adélaïde seemed too much of a victim to be sympathetic. The young princess, however, did not languish. She came across as upright and resilient rather than downtrodden, and even her tears seemed those of a strong-minded woman. Adélaïde’s life was saved by Vendôme and when he asked her to marry him she acknowledged a moral debt to do so, but she made two honest confessions: she loved his brother Nemours, who was fighting for the King of France, and she was herself loyal to the king.

Until today, Émilie had felt pity for the new princess, who had seemed delicate and in need of protection. But the lady gave a backbone to the part of Adélaïde that belonged to quite another woman: someone resourceful, unwilling to be bowed down by fate. Voltaire’s instinct had been right: she was a born actor. Likewise the Prince de Conti, who was sensational as Nemours. Captured and critically wounded by his traitorous brother, he collapsed onto the chaise longue—the only other item on stage apart from the harpsichord—and wrung everyone’s heart.

The Baron de Sabran with his uncompromising manliness and his height—he was inches taller than the two elegant princes—made a powerful Vendôme, and the scene where he condemned his brother to execution was scarily convincing. Which gave his change of heart at the end—forgiving his brother, relinquishing Adélaïde, pledging renewed allegiance to his king—a ring of nobility. Émilie knew that Voltaire did not much like the Baron de Sabran, and she had no respect for him herself, but on stage he emerged as a striking and complex character. Meanwhile the Prince de Lanville as Coucy was a perfect foil to Vendôme. He operated throughout as the steady voice of Vendôme’s conscience—such as the tyrant possessed—and Coucy’s unassuming declaration to Adélaïde was poignant.

One could almost believe Voltaire had written the play for precisely these four people. Watching him guide them from the sidelines or dart about amongst them, pronouncing their lines with verve and showing them exactly where to stand, she could see that he was possessed with a special delight that only he could both create and feel. She was happy for him.

She was also happy that Adélaïde was played by the princess and not by Madame de Brienne. Voltaire had a tendency to fall for his leading ladies—another good reason for keeping him away from Paris and the Comédie Française—and Émilie had never felt she could really trust him with Madame de Brienne, who had the kind of dramatic presence that he was drawn to. Fortunately, Madame de Brienne had received a message late the previous night, informing her that a friend whom she had planned to visit later in the Bassigny would be travelling from home at the appointed time and wanted to see her earlier. So she had left at daybreak to go southeast for a few days, leaving a note for her hostess to apologise for the sudden departure and promising to return. The duchess would normally have been offended by this casual treatment, but Émilie had found her surprisingly forgiving. It crossed her mind that the duchess might have a reason to bless Madame de Brienne’s absence: Émilie noted that the Baron de Sabran had taken a covert interest in the viscountess when everyone first arrived at the castle, and had gone hunting with her at every opportunity; perhaps the duchess felt some jealousy.

When the rehearsal was over, the company departed and Voltaire came to sit by Émilie and leaf through the notes he’d made on his copy of the script.

‘Satisfied?’ she said after a while.

‘Ecstatic. They’re a hundred times better than I thought they’d be. Conti gasps and writhes a bit too much from his wounds but I think he’ll tire of that before the audience does. The others are inspired.’

‘My goodness, Sabran does everything with gusto, doesn’t he? Vendôme’s rages are awe-inspiring. Where does all that violence come from?’

Voltaire tidied the script with his long fingers and looked at her cheerfully. ‘From a very natural release of feeling, I suspect. Being so nice to the duchess day and night—especially the night—would surely put some strain on a man.’

She giggled. ‘He is so very devoted, so flattering in front of us all, I wonder that he doesn’t feel rather silly about it.’

Voltaire shook his head. ‘Who knows, the devotion may be genuine. As an onlooker, it’s hard to judge.’

She looked at him fearfully. ‘Might it be genuine enough for him to do whatever she asked? Seeing him in action today was a revelation. Could he be capable of removing an obstacle to her contentment, to serve her whim?’

Voltaire looked around the big, empty room and said in a low voice, ‘You mean ambush and murder the Chevalier de Bassigny? Because she hated having her husband’s bastard thrust upon her notice? The motive is abject and the crime appalling.’

She recoiled a little; he sounded almost accusing. ‘I don’t take this lightly, you know! It troubles me that we might be lodging side by side with a murderer. For heaven’s sake, doesn’t it worry you?’

He looked contrite and reached over to take both her hands. ‘Yes, that’s why I’m glad we have Constant nearby. I think the best thing is to carry on as usual, and see what he can uncover. You won’t be alone tonight; I’ll sneak in to you and bring my dress sword. It’s a great deal handier than it looks. Like me.’ He kissed her and she laughed and kissed him back.


***
It was midday and Franck Laval was approaching the kitchens, rather light-headed from hunger and fatigue. From the outside, the building was impressive, because there were five huge fireplaces, each of them backed by a rounded stone wall and topped by a conical chimney, and when these were all smoking they looked like a row of goblin furnaces lit to make meals for giants. Franck went in the back entrance past the sculleries and ducked along a passageway that led to the servants’ dining hall, where he could see Brigadier Constant waiting for him at the table they’d had before.

No one else sat nearby, which was how the brigadier liked it, and Franck did too, because you needed to preserve people’s respect for the Maréchaussée, wherever you happened to be and whomever you were dealing with, and he admired Brigadier Constant’s habit of authority, except of course when he came down hard on his men. Franck was really impressed that the brigadier had got them into the upper storey of the castle amongst the nobility, and although they weren’t to set foot anywhere except the gallery, when he was shown the sentry duty yesterday afternoon he could see through some of the doors into bedchambers and the big reception rooms, and the magnificence made him wonder for a few seconds if he were dreaming.

At midnight, when the brigadier had woken him up for the night watch, he’d felt nervous about being alone up there in the dark. He wasn’t in the least afraid of not being able to handle an intruder—what he feared was encountering one of the quality that he was supposed to be protecting, and not knowing what to say or how to behave.
He’d said hopefully, ‘Are they all abed and asleep, brigadier?’

The question had annoyed the brigadier for some reason. ‘None of your business. Arm yourself and get up there.’

Fortunately it had been quiet all night and he hadn’t seen a single aristocratic face because he went off duty at eight am, by which time he’d encountered just a few servants scurrying around for their masters and mistresses, who would wake very much later and be glad of their hot chocolate and rolls in bed. The brigadier had said that if staff wanted access after dawn the doors could be stood open downstairs, and when the Baron de Sabran’s valet made the request Franck had gone down to unbolt them. As he returned to the gallery he glimpsed a tall figure moving through a doorway at the far end, and by asking servants, he concluded that he’d just spotted the Baron de Sabran. It looked as though the baron had slipped out of his chamber on the brigadier’s watch, and had been trying to sneak back unseen on Franck’s. On hearing this, the brigadier made no comment—just told Franck that he suspected the baron had a liaison with a lady in another part of the castle, and Franck was to spend the morning talking to servants again, to very discreetly find out more about him and his doings.

A lady in another part of the castle! Well, Franck soon found out there were only two, both in the White Tower: the Duchesse d’Orléans and her second cousin, who was an old maid and frankly past it, which left—scandalously—just the duchess herself. Answers to the morning’s questions were buzzing in Franck’s brain as he saluted the brigadier and got the order to sit down.

‘Where’s Dardel?’

‘At the kennels, brigadier. The lads took a liking to him because he knows hounds. His father was a beater on an estate. He’s eating with them while they tell him more about the hunt on Monday.’

‘You’d better have your meal first; it’s been a long day for you already.’

Gratified at this recognition of just how hungry he must be—on his feet since midnight, no less!—Franck did as he was told. The brigadier meanwhile sat side-on to the table and surveyed the hall, with an expression Franck hadn’t seen before, as though some disturbance were smouldering away in his head. Finally he turned to Franck, who was just finishing a very good ale, and said, ‘What did you dig up about the Baron de Sabran?’

‘Nothing from his lot: they’re dead scared of him. They’re a closed door to me, domestics and grooms alike. The princes’ and princess’s people are too snotty to talk to me for long either, except for the Prince de Lanville’s valet. The baron’s servants are envious of Lanville’s staff because he pays them really well and Lanville’s staff are jealous of Sabran being a favoured pet of the duchess, and the two valets got into a bit of a fracas last night and this morning they’re still fuming. I got a whole lot from Lanville’s valet. He’s a smooth talker.’

‘You believe him?’

‘Well, it all fits together nicely.’

‘Go on.’

‘The Baron de Sabran is the duchess’s lover.’ Laval was irritated to feel that he was blushing as he said this, but Constant just said, ‘I thought as much. Go on.’

‘He spent hours with her last night. You never saw him slip out, brigadier? Because I saw him come back, after dawn.’

‘No. Go on.’

‘He’s her lover all right but he’s not faithful, not under this roof, anyway. The Prince de Lanville’s valet reckons the baron’s been after Madame de Brienne for days but he’s had no luck and the viscountess has actually gone to the Bassigny to get away from him and the duchess is right glad to see the back of her!’

Franck was pleased to hear the brigadier draw in his breath at the mention of the viscountess and he congratulated himself on the facts he’d garnered: they couldn’t fail to hit home. ‘I found out from a stable lad that the viscountess and the baron didn’t return together on Monday after the hunt. She got in first at around one, and him later. Some time after one, the Prince de Lanville came in, from a ride on his own; he wasn’t on the hunt.’

The brigadier was disappointingly calm at this piece of news. ‘We know that. If you remember, I want to know which horse Lanville chose to ride.’

‘The chestnut.’

‘When he rode out on this excursion of his, was he armed?’

‘Yes, they were all armed. The lady had a very nice fowling piece and a pistol. The baron had a musket and side-arm. The prince also carried two weapons. They’re all excellent shots.’

‘Therefore any of them could have been at the right place at the opportune time. On a dappled-grey, a dun stallion and a chestnut.’ The brigadier put his head in his hands.

‘The lady,’ he said in troubled tones, and stopped.

Franck said helpfully, ‘Rides like an Amazon in skirts. The horse is top class, no bandit’s nag. Bit hard to disguise herself as a common highwayman!’

The brigadier looked up. ‘It wouldn’t have been easy to shoot the postilion at long range with a fowling piece. And it was a bullet that knocked him out, not pellets.’

Franck couldn’t understand why the brigadier was giving the viscountess a moment’s thought as a suspect, but he felt duty-bound to remark: ‘With a gun like that you can just as easily put a bullet up the spout as use bird-shot.’

‘Of the gentlemen, whom do we keep in our sights, Sabran or the Prince de Lanville?’

Franck was thrilled that his commanding officer wanted his opinion at this juncture. He tried to pull his mind together and consider the most important things, such as motive. Finally he said, ‘Sabran.’ Cutting the name short in the disrespectful way the brigadier had just done made it sound extra convincing.

‘Motive?’

Franck gave himself another mental pat on the back. ‘To do a service for the Duchesse d’Orléans.’

‘You can’t imagine a motive for the Prince de Lanville?’ Franck’s mind went blank and he didn’t reply. No answer was better than a stupid guess. After a while the brigadier said, ‘Well I can’t either—except one. If he wanted to supplant the baron in the duchess’s little court, it would be an effective ploy to commit the crime and then throw suspicion on the baron.’

‘How?’

‘By coaching his valet to tell the right kind of story to the Maréchaussée.’

‘You mean, to me,’ Franck burst out. ‘You think the man gulled me? Look, he’s not the only one I spoke to!’

‘Cavalier,’ the brigadier said patiently, ‘you’ve done a good job today. Everything you’ve just passed on to me may be true to the last detail. But a place like this can be frustrating when you’re on the hunt for evidence. I’m in the same situation as you, only worse. If anyone’s been spinning you a few lies, depend upon it someone else will have spun me a hundred more.’

Franck was not in the least cheered by this. ‘Then how do we get to the bottom of it?’

‘We persist. I think whoever brought off this murder, directly or by hiring an assassin, is starting to worry. By patrolling inside the castle, we’re too near them for comfort. People’s behaviour has changed: some are clamming up on us, some are talking much more than they did before. Truth or lies—very soon we’ll hear something that unravels the imbroglio and shows us the culprit.’

Franck sat up straight and placed both hands on the tabletop. Imbroglio… A new word that Constant must have brought back from the wars in Italy. He’d try it out on Dardel. ‘What am I to do this afternoon, brigadier?’

‘Join Dardel and fraternise at the stables for an hour or two. Then withdraw to our guardroom and get some rest. You need it and so does he: he’ll stand first watch in the gallery tonight and you’ll stand the second. I’ll be down at the barracks tonight but here until five. If anything important comes up, send Dardel to find me at once.’

The brigadier rose and so did Franck. It was on the tip of Franck’s tongue to ask what Constant would be doing this afternoon and whether it concerned the Baron de Sabran in any way—but it would have been cheek to question him, and he also had the very odd feeling that at this moment the brigadier hadn’t any line of attack in mind at all.

Published in Blog
Thursday, 26 March 2020 00:55

Murder on High--Instalment 8

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?’

‘Indeed.’

‘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?’

‘Yes, monsieur.’

‘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?’

‘Yes, brigadier!’

‘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
On hunt
Master of Hounds
Whippers-in—Bardin, Groult, Messier, Jalopin
All bays

‘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.

 

Published in Blog
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?

Published in Blog
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.

Published in Blog
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.’

Published in Blog
Saturday, 21 March 2020 01:06

Murder on High--Instalment 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you ever tried to rewrite it?’

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

‘But how do you know they were right?’

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

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

‘No, thank God.’

‘Well, what did they say about it?’

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

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

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

‘For whom, the fiancé?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘When was this?’

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

‘Was there a rider?’

Finot shook his head. ‘I didn’t see.’

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

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

‘Why, what colour was the coat?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘When was that?’

‘At dawn this morning.’

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

‘So the postilion has lasted the night?’

‘Yes.’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And the son?’

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

‘What a tragic request!’

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

‘The lady has since died?’

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

‘Have you seen it?’

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Blog
Friday, 20 March 2020 06:02

Murder on High--Instalment 3

For those who love free fiction but are cautious about going to the local library in the present health crisis, here are the continuing adventures of Victor Constant, coming to you every day.

Victor has just become the new brigadier in the Champagne town of Joinville when he is commanded to solve a highway murder, a special province of the military mounted police of France. The summons comes from royalty—the Duchesse d’Orléans, owner of the magnificent château that dominates the town. One of her guests has been robbed and shot dead near the castle and the supposed highwayman has disappeared into the vast Forest of Joinville. At the murder site, Victor receives unexpected help from none other than the illustrious--and impetuous--Prince de Conti ...

(To read the instalments in order, click on the lists on the right.)

‘This way,’ the prince said suddenly, and moved his horse well away from the spot. ‘The hounds need to get their bearings and I don’t want you confusing them.’

‘Your Highness, you don’t seriously believe hounds could track the killer?!’

‘Not him, of course! His mount.’ The prince grinned suddenly, more amused than annoyed by Victor’s outburst.

Victor exchanged a glance with Jean Gillet, but the groom looked just as baffled as he was. Victor said, ‘Forgive me, Your Highness, but what sort of scent could a horse leave? Especially on a day like this, with full sun and no breeze?’

‘Less scent than boar or deer, I grant you, but every animal leaves a trace that a good dog can pick up. By heaven, you’re ignorant! I’m astonished you know nothing about hunting; it’s the only thing this country’s good for.’ He went on in a condescending tone, ‘Listen. From fox or hare you get scent from the pads, directly on the ground, and to a good hound, it’s detectable for a long time. I have hounds that can follow a scent days after it’s laid, and stick to it until they find where the creature came to the very end of its run. Then there’s the other scent, which is stronger and sharper, emitted from under the tail and carried on the air. When my hounds get close enough to a deer, even when they can’t see it, they hold up their noses and run with their heads high for as long as it takes, and they never lose it—never.’

‘With respect, Your Highness, this horse that we seek is shod, its pads are well off the ground, and its air scent was stifled hours ago—the atmosphere is too still up here for it to linger.’

‘But pastern and fetlock brush against grass and leaves, brigadier. And in the forest our horse treads in softer, damper ground. And if we’re lucky there is spoor—more copious than any deer would leave behind!’ The prince gave a short laugh, then raised his head, and following his glance Victor saw a torrent of hounds flowing through the forest towards them. In the dimness under the trees they shed a pale glow as they glided silently around beech trunks, up and over hummocks in the ground and through patches of fern.

The hounds gave no tongue because they were not on a scent: they were following a tall man on horseback and their heads were raised to hear his command. They poured across the road and the prince spurred forward, lifted one arm high and opened his hand. The attentive master of hounds immediately brought his horse to a halt and shouted to the leader of the pack.

In seconds the hounds had broken their headlong rush and were milling around the legs of the master’s solid-looking hunter and the prince’s stallion. They were excited and ready for action, whimpering in their eagerness and looking up at their master and the prince. Victor had never seen anything like these animals: lean and sinewy, with long legs, pointed muzzles and whip-like tails, they had very short hair that was white all over the body, except for dark blotches on the back and spots on their big floppy ears.

Victor was pleased that his horse, Milan, had shown no alarm when the dogs burst on the scene. Years before, when Victor was in the French cavalry, he had found Milan straying on a battlefield in Italy, and had known he was claiming a prize well above his rank. But because of his conduct in the victory against the Austrians that day, he had been allowed to keep Milan, even though from the stallion’s quality it was obvious that the enemy who had ridden him onto the field must have been an aristocrat. Victor might know little about the noble sport of venery, but at least Milan was up to the mark. He and Gillet drew nearer.

The dogs writhed around the legs of the four horses gathered near the trees, and were allowed to do so—these were the scents that they would not be following when the chase began. Then the prince gave his orders to the master, and the leader of the pack and four other hounds were taken to the patch of ground where the riders had begun to lose the killer’s trail. The master put himself between them and the road, to prevent the hounds from swarming over the murder site and being confused by its mixture of scents.

Watching the animals cast back and forth, sniff the wind, then return to spiral over the same ground, Victor shook his head. Even if they could sense that a horse had passed by here, how were they supposed to know it was their prey?

The prince caught the movement and gave a superior grin. ‘Just wait. They’ll work it out. These are my Great Whites; there are none like them in the kingdom. I might have brought my Great Fauves but they’re savage—impatient for the kill. On the chase, if they’re frustrated they’d as soon rip each other to pieces, or take a bite out of us. My Whites are better bred and their noses are subtler, more discriminating.’ Suddenly he cried to the master, ‘Ah, look! Baude’s got it, she’s latched on!’ The master responded by spurring forward, as a bitch with one black ear moved away from the patch of ground towards the trees, with the pack looking on.

Baude! Allez, allez!’ the prince cried.

His voice electrified every creature. Baude never lifted her nose from the ground to acknowledge the call but her feathering became more urgent, the hounds just behind her honoured her line, and the whole pack, on a signal that Victor neither saw nor heard, rushed in an arc to crowd behind the leaders. The master came up on their heels, the prince beckoned Victor and Gillet, and a few seconds later, hounds and riders were in a dash for the trees.

Baude reached there first, with a cry that rang with confidence, and disappeared. Victor cursed: this would not be easy going. He was unfamiliar with the forest, which was vast and dense. In past centuries there would have been clearings and rides cut out of it for hunting but these had to be maintained or they eventually disappeared under natural growth, unless deer were especially numerous. The duchess’s gamekeeper and foresters would have needed months of notice to make arrangements for hunters’ sport in the great forest of Joinville this summer, and they’d probably had only weeks. As the hounds and riders darted in among the trees, Victor prepared himself to duck twigs and branches, to watch the going ahead in case Milan lost his footing, and to snatch glimpses of the pack leaders, so as not to deviate from their general direction and end up in the wilderness, out of their sight and hearing.

Milan, however, proved skilful at manoeuvring through the forest, avoiding the moss-covered hummocks of rock, neatly clearing fallen trunks and branches, and negotiating the deep leaf litter under the beech trees that predominated on the high ground, where the undergrowth was sparse. Ahead, the hounds checked now and then to rediscover the trail, and the riders behind them slowed to watch their progress: the master always level with the pack, the prince behind him, then Victor and the groom, Gillet.

Victor could not tell whether the prince was familiar with this ground: had a hunting party come here this morning? Meanwhile he tried to stay alert to the path the killer seemed to have taken. Gauging by the sunlight slanting through the trees, the man’s path went straight into the forest for a few hundred yards, northwards, then took a long curve to the left. Victor calculated that the chase was now heading southwest. The ground began to slope down and the oak and beech woods gave way to stands of hornbeam, under which ferns and undergrowth grew more thickly. Here and there, outcrops of limestone appeared, with the occasional pine clinging to the crest.

Then the hounds swung once more and Victor looked up through the foliage in bafflement, verifying the direction of the sunlight. If he was correct, the trail was at this moment heading around the mountain and towards the castle. Which meant that it would soon join up again with the Val de Wassy road, albeit at a lower level. Why would the killer expose himself on the road so soon after committing robbery and murder upon it? Surely he would retreat to a hideaway in the forest?

But the hounds were confident, leading the riders through a handsome grove of oaks, where the horses trampled across a layer of last year’s acorns. Suddenly Victor spied something that no one else noticed—a piece of black cloth suspended from a broken branch. He halted Milan and plucked it off. It was a large, square kerchief in a black fabric that almost matched that of Victor’s military shirt, though the sheen on it suggested it might be silk. It was roughly cut, with no hems, and there was a hole in one corner where it had snagged on the branch, which stuck out at Victor’s chest height. The killer’s?

He glanced ahead. At some distance from him, the pack and riders were rushing out into an area bathed in sunlight. His heart sank: if they had reached the road again, the trail would be hopelessly obscured by others.

He thrust the kerchief into a pocket and sent Milan flying towards the screen of trees and the brightness beyond. As he drew closer he realised the hounds had reached an ample clearing, where they were milling about amongst grass, meadow flowers and low bushes. It had probably been created long ago by the foresters who managed the Guises’ hunting grounds, and since then the deer herds had kept it just as they liked it, nibbling away new fronds and saplings around the edges.

When Victor emerged from the trees, he found the prince and his master of hounds frowning at the busy mass of white dogs darting about their horses’ legs. The prince was cursing. When the master of hounds ventured to say something, he said loudly, ‘Damn it! Damn it to hell! We came through here this morning!’ In his fury he swept off his hat and threw it to the ground, narrowly missing the bitch, Baude. ‘There are scores of scents all over here. They’ll never get the trail back. Listen to that babble!’

‘Perhaps over there …’ The master of hounds pointed with his whip to the opposite side of the clearing.

The prince snarled, ‘You mean towards the road? Towards the castle? He would never have gone that way! No, we’re done here. Fetch them in.’ He wheeled his horse to face Jean Gillet. ‘Pick up that hat. And bring that horse home. At once.’ With that, he trotted the white stallion through the hounds, which yelped and parted to let him through, then spurred his mount in amongst the trees. Without a word, Jean Gillet obeyed orders and followed him.

Victor urged Milan after them. He could not imagine the killer venturing out onto the Val de Wassy road again. It was most likely that he had gone downhill on a path parallel to the road but kept to the woods. If the prince thought his hounds could not pick up that trail, it was pointless to pursue the hunt.


***
Victor’s second entry into the Château d’en Haut was under a massive arch towards the southern end of the ramparts, commonly known as the ‘back gate’. At a high angle above the town and accessed by a road that circled right around through the forest from the main gate by Saint-Laurent, this was the giant ceremonial portal by which the dukes and cardinals of Guise and their entourages used to enter and depart in their coaches and cavalcades. Vehicles passed through to two courtyards, remains of the medieval castle, where the stables and most of the servants’ quarters were.

On the way back to the castle, Victor had found it hard to glean any information from the taciturn master of hounds, until he started phrasing all his questions in hunting terms. His own lack of knowledge was actually an advantage, because the master was thrilled to have an audience for his obsession. Disappointed by the Great Whites’ failure at the clearing, he was eager to tell stories about their prowess, to talk about the game they’d chased down in the forest and to praise the young prince, who was a paragon in his eyes.

‘So you bring the hounds out through here every day?’ Victor asked as they rode between the gates, opened for them by the porter whose dwelling stood just inside.

‘Every day except Sunday, and every day we come back with a prize.’

‘What did you get today?’

‘Two red deer, big ones, way to the west. We left some lads behind to butcher them and bring them back—I don’t think they’ll be home yet or I could show you. It was the Great Fauves that pulled them down.’

‘And when you brought the Great Fauves home, that’s when you heard about the Chevalier de Bassigny?’

‘Yes, the chevalier’s coach and horses were in the stables, the valet was lamenting, the postilion was out cold and everyone had a different story about the murder—except they all agreed the chevalier was shot through the heart. The prince was outraged. He asked me at once which beasts would do best on the bandits’ trail and I said the Great Whites. So he bade me get them out and around to the Val de Wassy road and wait for him.’

Victor said, ‘He loses no time, does he? How did he get to the governor’s quarters so quickly, if he had to go right around the castle to the main gate?’

‘Bless you,’ the master said, ‘he rode straight through from here. You can’t take any kind of vehicle from the old part to the new, because the main courtyard’s on a lower level than this, but that’s no obstacle to a fine rider on a good horse—there’s a grand flight of stone steps between, and the prince floats down them on that grey of his.’

‘It seems he’s partial to white horses and dogs.’

The master looked as though this was a new idea to him. ‘Ah, well, not really. The fauves aren’t white, they’re a mix: black, grey and tawny. The Great Whites just happen to be nearly all white, if you know what I mean. They’re bred from a pair that belonged to a maiden aunt of the prince. The bitch was called Baude and the dog was Souillard—filthy name for a pure-bred, don’t you think? Raised by a nobleman from Normandy. The best hounds come from Brittany or Normandy, take your pick.’

‘Which way did you hunt this morning, and who went with you?’

‘We crossed the Val de Wassy road just about where we did just now with the hounds, and not far beyond that is an old ride that goes pretty much due west. I’d say we chased the red deer five miles at least. Two foresters and four of our lads came, under my orders. The quality that hunted with His Highness were the Baron de Sabran, who’s an army officer, Madame de Saint-Loup and the Vicomtesse de Brienne.’

They passed under another archway called the Violin Portal and entered a triangular space formed by high walls on each side. Ahead to the left were two massive water cisterns inside high walls, and a gap leading onto a terrace. The hounds, which had been restless and noisy on the way home, seemed even more vocal now that they were almost at their kennels. Victor ignored their clamour, struck instead by one of the names he had just heard.

‘The Vicomtesse de Brienne? The lady who used to live at the Sarrasins, not far from Cirey?’

‘I don’t know. Sarrasins? Never heard of it. I’m not sure the viscountess is connected with these parts, though the old name of Brienne comes from here, doesn’t it? No, she hails from the Loire, and she came all this way at the duchess’s behest. Beautiful carriage horses she has—matched greys.’

The viscountess came vividly to Victor’s mind. A proud and independent noblewoman, by an unhappy stroke of fate she had been involved in his first Maréchaussée investigation in the Champagne, and it had affected her deeply. She had vowed to leave her late husband’s ancestral castle, the Sarrasins, go back to her own country and never return—but he knew she was a woman of strong impulses, and there must have been something about the Duchesse d’Orléans’s invitation that had attracted her. Victor was not at all surprised that she hunted: it would suit her fiery nature.

‘The Vicomtesse de Saint-Loup—the bride to be—why was she on the hunt? Didn’t she know the chevalier was arriving today?’

‘Oh yes she did, she received a message from him yesterday that said he was coming. But he wouldn’t be here first thing, so she swore to hunt this morning as usual. She’s come out with His Highness every day since she arrived, and you won’t see a prettier sight on horseback. Madame de Saint-Loup loves everything about hunting, including the hounds. I had the honour to show her a new litter just the other day and she came down special to see it when His Highness told her a Great White bitch had whelped and taken us all by surprise.’

‘Were both ladies in at the kill?’

‘Madame de Brienne, yes. Not Madame de Saint-Loup, though; she came back earlier. I don’t think her mind was really on the chase! More on the chevalier, and I couldn’t blame her. I’m told he was as handsome as she’s beautiful, and what young bride wouldn’t be aching to see the gentleman who was about to make her a princess?’ The master paused, seeking the right phrases for an earnest pronouncement: ‘There’s a lot of sympathy for her amongst us, and I’ve taken the liberty to ask His Highness to pass on how sorry we all are about the tragic loss that fell on her today.’

The terrace onto which they emerged was supposed to be in lawn, but grass grew only in scattered patches across the pale, sun-baked ground. To their right, at a much lower level, was the main courtyard, which was paved. Above this, the three-storeyed guest wing of the castle rose in elegant Renaissance style. In between terrace and courtyard was a wall pierced by a central gap, with wide, shallow steps beyond, down which the Prince de Conti had ridden to make his peremptory call on Governor de Gassendi.

Wheeling to the left and into the old courtyard, Victor and the master at last reached the stables, the kennels, and the living quarters of the outdoor staff who looked after the comfort and sport of the duchess’s summer visitors. The white hounds were making an even greater racket than before, which roused every animal in the buildings ahead. The master, red-faced at their lack of discipline, abandoned Victor and concentrated on getting them to kennels. To Victor, it seemed the hounds were disappointed by losing their line and their prey. He shared their displeasure.

The first man Victor tried to get hold of at the stables was Lieutenant Japiot. He needed to find out what Japiot’s palace guards knew about the murder, whether they routinely kept patrol in the castle environs and whether they had any local crime to report—but Jean Gillet told him that the lieutenant was closeted with the governor. Victor cursed inwardly and decided to tackle Japiot next morning.
He then examined the Chevalier de Bassigny’s coach, which stood under cover. It was a low-slung, two-person vehicle, black-lacquered and with black rainproof curtains, which gave it a funereal air. Gillet told Victor that it did not belong to the chevalier—he had hired it in Paris for the trip to the Champagne and when his visit in the Haute Marne was over he had meant to return to Paris in it with his wife. He had travelled the considerable distance to the Upper Marne in stages over several days, each day with fresh horses. The pair that had drawn the coach to the hilltop had been hired in Wassy, a half-day’s drive to the west, that very morning, and so had the unfortunate postilion. The governor had already informed the livery stables in Wassy that they would need to send men to take the horses back to their premises and the duchess had kindly pledged to pay any additional expenses.

Assisted by Gillet, Victor examined the coach. It was not new, but nor was it shabby, so the simple interior with its bench seat and comfortable cushions offered no cavities or rents in fabric into which the chevalier might have stuffed documents or small precious items before he confronted his killer. Victor left the cloak and hat where they were and had a good look around the foot well, where no doubt the chevalier had placed his satchel while on the road. He found nothing.

There was no damage to the exterior of the coach, beyond the scratches and dust caused by bouncing over the region’s stony, chalky roads, and there was now hardly a trace of the chevalier inside it. It was eerie to think how neatly he had been eradicated from life—snuffed out by one pistol shot.

Victor surveyed the coach with a frown. ‘What happens to this now?’

Gillet said, ‘The governor gave orders it’s to stay here until Madame de Bassigny decides what to do with it. It was her husband who hired it, so it’s up to her.’

‘Who on earth is Madame de Bassigny?’

‘Madame de Saint-Loup as was,’ Gillet said with an air of importance. ‘Strangest thing I’ve ever known, but I’ve done my duty by him and her. The chevalier married her three weeks ago on his estate. All under cover. Louis Finot and I were sworn to secrecy, and never said a word. But now it’s all over the castle because Madame de Bassigny has confessed it to the Duchesse d’Orléans, so I can make free with the news.’

Victor cursed. ‘Am I to be held back on everything to do with this murder?!’ He counted off the frustrations in his head: dismissed by the governor, dragooned and side-tracked by the Prince de Conti, lied to by a servant … ‘What else have you forgotten to tell me? Speak up: I won’t have obstruction.’

‘Obstruction!?’ Gillet said gruffly. ‘My master’s been murdered and there’s no one left to pay my wages. That’s obstruction enough for me! I’d as soon grab a musket and hunt down the villain who killed him as stand here listening to you. I did my duty by the chevalier and if the Maréchaussée doesn’t like it, go ahead, arrest me!’

Victor considered him calmly. ‘So we have your full cooperation in this case?’

‘Yes, what do you think?’

‘Then I expect you to help my men tomorrow. They’ll be here asking questions, and you’ll give them as much detail as you can. Sometimes it’s the small facts that lead to the culprit. Can we count on you?’

Gillet gave a grunt, which Victor took as consent.

‘Very well, now you can take me to the gamekeeper.’

The gamekeeper lodged with his wife and children in the first storey of a tall watchtower that overlooked the comings and goings in the old courtyard. To view the surrounding forest to the south, west and north, Gérard Lorichon had only to climb to the turreted roof, where he spoke with Victor.

Lorichon seemed very much at home at the Château d’en Haut and in fact his family had been there for centuries. His ancestors had served as falconers to the princes of the Lorraine, his father and grandfather before him had been gamekeepers to the Orleáns family and he directed everything to do with the Forest of Joinville, which included hunting, tree planting and timber getting.

‘The duchess makes an income from her timber?’ Victor asked, as he stood with Lorichon, looking down on the courtyard.

The man’s keen grey eyes flickered over the scene below, noting every movement. ‘Yes, but there’s no logging right now—the busy season for the teams is autumn. They’ll be concentrating on the fine stands of oak near the Combe du chêne.’ The king permitted great landowners to log trees on their estates and all sales of timber were regulated—and taxed—by Eaux et Forêts, the department that administered the laws on waterways and woodland in France. Victor was beginning to wish that the chevalier had been ambushed in the depths of the forest instead of on the road—then his death would have been a matter for Eaux et Forêts, not the Maréchaussée.

‘Are there many coombs in the forest? Would any of them make a good hideaway for bandits?’

‘There are three big coombs: the Oak far in the west, the Val de Wassy in the south—a deep ravine, that one, well camouflaged—and Saint-Roch. Saint-Roch is closest to the castle on the high road and we have a forest lodge there—too public a place for a criminal to hole up! What, you think the highwayman’s still in the forest? He’s long gone, if he knows what’s good for him. It may look like a wilderness to you but there’s little going on there that I and my foresters don’t know about. Especially now, when it’s crawling with hunters and hounds.’

‘I can’t help hoping that someone may have seen the killer in the woods today,’ Victor said. ‘Have you spoken with your foresters about the murder?’

‘Of course. They saw no strangers abroad.’

‘Nor did the Prince de Conti or his master of hounds. But there are others I can speak to. It seems the nobility went out on the hunt together but they came home at different hours. Counting back from the time I received the duchess’s summons, and back again from the time it took to bring the chevalier’s body to the castle and give the alarm, I calculate that the murder must have occurred around midday. Can you tell me who went out on the hunt this morning, and when they returned?’ The tall, rangy man beside him gave him a look that Victor found hard to interpret. ‘It’s my duty to question them and find out what they saw in the forest. I realise it might be hard for you to give me exact times: you’re a busy man and you’d not spend all day looking at a watch …’

The other gave an unexpected grin and pointed towards the far side of the grand courtyard, which was dominated by the White Tower. ‘The hour’s plain enough!’ Victor noticed a slender clock tower that rose from the inner wall between the ramparts and the White Tower. ‘And the bells of Saint-Laurent spell out the day besides. Let me see.’ Lorichon paused for half a minute, then said with confidence, ‘The party rode out early, at nine, to benefit from the coolness of the morning. I always send one of my lads with them and he rides back at once when they make a kill—to give me the size of the prey, tell me if there are any injuries to horses or dogs, let me know if more of my men should be sent to assist. So I know they made the kill at eleven, near the Coomb of the Oak. All were present when the two red deer were brought down, except for Madame de Saint-Loup—that is, I should say, Madame de Bassigny. She turned back before the end of the chase and rode home. I didn’t see her come in, but you can ask her servants what time that was.’

‘What about the others?’

‘Madame de Brienne and the Baron de Sabran each arrived back around one o’clock. At that hour the chevalier was still expected and we knew nothing about the murder. Shortly afterwards, word came to us that the chevalier’s body had been brought to Saint-Laurent—he’d been found by his servants on the road, shot dead. At about a quarter to two, the Prince de Conti returned and his master of hounds brought in the Great Fauves to kennels. As soon as the prince heard the news he was off again like a bullet to demand what the governor was doing about the murder.’

As the gamekeeper spoke, Victor wrote the names and times in a notebook, building a picture in his head that correlated with his own actions. He had sent Jean Gillet to the stables at a quarter to two, he had taken leave of Canon Briard just before Vespers at two o’clock, he had heard the prayer hour rung while he was having his unsatisfactory meeting with the governor, and within minutes the Prince de Conti had burst in and taken over. These later times all tallied, so it seemed he could trust Lorichon’s powers of recollection about the earlier ones.

‘Thank you.’ Victor closed the notebook. ‘Do you ever accompany the hunt?’

Lorichon shook his head. ‘My place is here when the princes go hunting. A gamekeeper does most of his work in the forest when royalty are not in residence. Once they arrive, he has to trust that he’s done everything right, because he needs to stay at the centre of things and keep control. The preparation and organisation of the sport is my responsibility—the chase is all theirs.’

‘So you didn’t go beyond the ramparts at any time today?’

‘No.’

‘I’m sending a couple of my cavaliers into the forest tomorrow to check the Coomb of the Oak and the Coomb of Val de Wassy. Can you spare two of your foresters to show them the way?’
Lorichon hesitated a moment, then said, ‘It’s not convenient, at a time like this. But we should get some respite tomorrow—the prince declares he’ll not go hunting, out of respect for Madame de Bassigny’s bereavement. Make sure your men come at first light. I’ll have the porter let them in the back gate.’

Victor nodded, grateful to have the gamekeeper’s cooperation. Lorichon answered of course to the governor in the end, but in practical terms the old part of the castle was his own particular domain, and he clearly knew how to command it.

‘Before I leave,’ Victor said, ‘I need to see the postilion who was injured in the attack. He lies somewhere at the stables, I believe?’

‘The porter’s wife is tending him where the grooms sleep. I’ll take you there. But I don’t think he’ll be up to talking.’

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