ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 24

 

     Her hands cold from clutching the skiff’s gunwale, Epione watched the cliffs come ever closer.  The small vessel plowed through the waves, and the salty spray stung Epione’s eyes as the tailor and the false priest urged the rowing sailors to keep up their pace. 

     After a tense few minutes, Epione realized they were headed toward a grotto at the base of the cliffs which was only visible once they’d cleared the inlet.  As the skiff skimmed under the low, rocky outcropping, they entered into a natural cave, and the water suddenly became still, with the sound of the oars echoing off the rock walls as they dipped into the water. 

     Leaning to look ahead past the oarsmen, Epione could see a wooden dock along the opposite end of the grotto, and the figures of two women standing thereon, clearly expecting them. As they drew closer, Epione was unsurprised to discover that one of them was Madame Reyne, her treacherous landlady.

     As the skiff approached the dock, it suddenly occurred to Epione that she was probably returning to the same secret exit where her mother—with two small daughters—had fled from the Jacobins, over twenty years before.  In this somber, echoing place, it was a simple thing to imagine her mother’s fear and despair, on that long-ago occasion.  My mother was a very unhappy woman, she thought; but it could not have been easy—fleeing one’s home and country, and all the while knowing that you may never see your husband or son again.

     The skiff bumped up against the dock, and the sailors leapt out to secure the small craft as Madame Reyne dipped a quick curtsey. “Welcome to Desclaires, Mademoiselle.”

      But Epione was having none of it, and replied with a full measure of contempt, “You should be ashamed of yourself, Madame.”

      But the older woman only clasped her hands before her.  “You will see, Mademoiselle—it will be much the better for you, here in this fine place.”

     Epione met the other’s gaze with open scorn. “I’d rather not have my choices taken from me.”  She noted that the maidservant who stood beside the woman raised her gaze for the briefest moment, before returning it to the wooden planks at her feet.  The girl—a redhead, with a mass of freckles—seemed rather cowed, which was not a surprise; Epione was rather cowed herself, although she was striving mightily to disguise this unfortunate fact.

     The women were handed out of the skiff, and then Chauvelin turned to the false priest. “Best be off; the ship may invite curiosity, and you are needed in Bengal.”

     The other nodded, and indicated to the sailors that they were to cast off again. “Good luck to both of us, then.”  He bowed with mock-gallantry to the women. “Ladies; adieu.”

     As the small vessel made its silent way out of the grotto, Lisabetta turned to Madame Reyne. “En avant, and I am in need of a bath. How many servants have you here?”

     “It is a small staff—of necessity,” the woman apologized.  “But Luci, here, will see to both of you—she’s a bit simple, but she is very biddable.”

     Hearing this, the tailor made an impatient sound, as he walked down the dock toward the door that was embedded in the cave’s wall. “Surely, we will have more servants for the dinner party? We cannot be seen to be lacking.”

     “Am I holding a dinner party?” Epione was cross and tired, and decided it was time to assert herself—she wanted a bath every bit as much as Lisabetta.

     Chauvelin answered over his shoulder, “You will not ask questions, Mademoiselle; all will be revealed in time.”

      Epione was heartily tired of being patronized by the traitorous tailor, and forgot her resolution not to antagonize him.  “I believe we have already established that you must answer to me, sir.”

      For whatever reason, this remark caused the man to turn on his heel, and stride angrily toward her, halting with his face only inches away from hers; his rage barely controlled.  “Do not play the aristo with me, Mademoiselle. The old order has passed away, and will never return.  You would do well to remember this.”

     Rather taken aback by his overreaction, Epione tempered her tone. “You forget that I am but a milliner, Monsieur.  But a milliner who nonetheless holds title to this place.”

     For a tense moment, she could see that he struggled with an urge to make a curt rejoinder, then thought the better of it, and stepped away. “Your pardon, Mademoiselle.”

      Epione was not fooled—as it was apparent he would have gladly strangled her on the spot—but once again, she was made aware that she did have some sort of power, even if the reason for it was unclear.  “I would have some answers,” she continued in an even tone.  “Now that we have arrived, surely the time for secrets has passed.”

     After a moment’s thought, the man turned to Madame Reyne. “He is in residence?”

     “He is,” the woman nodded.

     The tailor assessed her with his cold gaze. “Then you shall have your answers this evening, Mademoiselle.”

     “And who is ‘he’?” Epione was understandably suspicious, but Lisabetta covertly squeezed her arm in warning, and so she subsided, and walked with the other girl to the grotto’s door. Best hold her tongue and await events—whatever was going forward, it did not seem to be overly-dangerous, if it was to involve dinner parties. And she continued to hold out hope that de Gilles would come to her rescue—although how this was to be accomplished remained unclear, since she was now locked away in a fortified château.  No matter; he seemed a very resourceful pretender, and she would listen and learn as much as she could, in the meantime.  He would come, she was certain of it, and—considering the circumstances—he would need as much aid as she could provide.

      Strengthened by this resolve, she followed Lisabetta up a narrow stairway, and even though it was daytime, Madame Reyne lit a candle against the dimness.  They emerged through a plain and narrow door into a stillroom of some sort, and then crossed into what appeared to be the servants’ hall behind the kitchen—deserted, and a bit dusty.  Their footsteps echoed on the wooden floor, and Epione noted that it was very quiet—she heard only a profound silence, as Madame led them to the narrow servants’ stairwell.  A daunting place, she thought, suppressing a shudder; cold, and unfriendly—it was just as well that they’d escaped, long ago.

     At the base of the stairwell, Chauvelin indicated he would leave them, and instructed Lisabetta, “You will stay with Mademoiselle at all times, and I will speak with you later.”

     But it seemed evident that Lisabetta was chafing at her role as Epione’s keeper. “You must discover how long before I can leave this place—it was not made clear.” 

     The tailor frowned. “It is my understanding you are to stay until after the dinner party. After that time, you may leave.”

     With an impatient gesture, Lisabetta shrugged her shoulders. “How long is that?”   

    “Two days hence, I believe.”  He looked to Madame for verification, and she nodded in confirmation.  “I will speak with you at a later time.  Au revoir.”

     Lisabetta watched him go for a moment, then signaled to Madame.  “Something to eat, if you please. I am trѐs affamé, from all this nonsense.”   

      The older woman turned to the red-headed maid, and spoke to her in English, using simple words. “Go tell the cook that the ladies would like tea served in their rooms. Can you do this, Luci?”

     The girl nodded eagerly, and hurried away, clearly pleased to be given a task.

     Epione watched the maidservant’s exit thoughtfully.  If the girl was English, perhaps she could be enlisted to betray her employers. “She seems a sweet girl. Where did you find her?”

     Madame Reyne looked back over her shoulder, as she lifted her skirts to mount the stairs.  “Luci was hired from a service in London, and very pleased to take a trip to France. She’ll not say anything she oughtn’t to the wrong people, which was why she was hired.”

     They followed the woman up two flights of stairs until they emerged into the main living quarters, and then walked softly down the plaster-walled hallway, the wall sconces unlit; the atmosphere tomb-like. Despite her best efforts, Epione knew a moment’s dread; they don’t want witnesses, she realized—there is a skeleton staff, and the only maidservant does not understand what is being said. 

      Made uneasy by these thoughts—or at least more uneasy than she was already—she asked Lisabetta, “Tell me about the dinner party two days hence; am I to attend?”

     But Lisabetta seemed preoccupied, and said only, “You will do as you are told.”

     Tired of hearing the same refrain, Epione retorted, “And what if I refuse? What if I refuse to play the hostess, in this charade?”

     But Lisabetta was unfazed, as she followed Madame Reyne down the hall, her skirts swishing on the wooden floor. “Je vous assure, you do not dare refuse; it is the only thing that keeps you alive.”