ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The True Pretender

Chapter 1

 

     Epione paused, the sewing needle poised in her hand, and strained to listen to the two women speaking in the next room.

     “Four dead, now—four.  And the authorities do nothing.”  The outraged customer in the milliner’s shop was speaking in low tones to the proprietoress, Madame Dumonde. “C’est infâme; the English do not care about us—they care only about their own.” 

     “I think you overreact,” Madame soothed. “I do not see any connection at all, between these victims. I think it merely an unfortunate coincidence.” 

     But the other woman was not to be placated. “Quant à moi, I will take my girls and stay with my sister in Hampstead, until the murderer is captured.  I will take no chances.” She added in ominous tones, “You should close the shop; it is better to lose a few days’ profit than to be murdered.”

     But Madame Dumonde was made of sterner stuff. “Come now; you must see that I cannot close the shop. We need only be vigilant, and take care not to be out-of-doors, after the sun sets.”

     Thoughtfully, Epione bent once more to piece together the capote bonnet—the brims were not as pronounced this year, merci le bon Dieu—and pressed her needle through the stiff taffeta with the aid of a thimble. A shame that Madame did not scare easily; it would be a pleasant diversion, if they were to close the milliner’s shop for a few days. Perhaps she would take a trip somewhere—she’d never been anywhere, after all, and it would be oh, so agreeable to be elsewhere, until the scandal died down—she lived in fear that someone might recognize her, despite having changed her name.   In a strange way, these recent murders had been helpful, in that they had replaced her sister’s scandal as the prime topic of conversation.

     Pulling at the thread, she made a wry mouth at her own foolishness—she was a practical girl, and the practicalities were as they were; she had no money, no prospects, and now she must once again readjust her dreams, after the bitter, bitter news from the banker yesterday.  With a stifled sigh, she rested the half-completed hat in her lap, and flexed her fingers for a moment, wishing she could keep her mind from thinking about her disappointment.  You were a little foolish, to think anything would come of your tendre for Sir Lucien, she admitted to herself; it comes of living in dread that someone will uncover your shameful secret, and of hoping that some kind man will rescue you from your difficulties—like the hero in a real-life fairy tale.

     But her life was no fairy tale and in truth, it had been a stroke of good fortune to have found this very agreeable job that so suited her abilities. Nevertheless, a diversion would be appreciated; she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something unnatural in the sameness of her days, something simmering just below the surface—although it may only have been her constant fear that at any moment, someone might enter who would know her true identity, and immediately recoil in horror.

      The customer’s voice could again be heard, giving advice to the milliner.  “You must lock your doors—and have you a dog?”

     “A cat, instead,” Madame replied.

     There was a dismayed pause. “Quel dommage—I can’t imagine that a cat would be of the least use.”

     With an amused smile, Epione gave herself a mental shake—she was overreacting, to think that there was something brewing, beneath the tedium of her days.  Although once again, the strange man was standing in the doorway across the street, and watching the shop. 

     Out of the corner of her eye, Epione glanced out the workroom window into the fading light, to see that the man still leaned against the bricks across the way, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low so that it shielded his face.  He’d been there during the last hour yesterday, too—she’d noticed, because he was directly in her line of sight.

     Madame’s customer had moved over to the purchase desk so that Epione could now see her through the workroom’s open doorway.  “You must admit it is alarming, Madame. This latest victim was an instructress from l’Académie—a woman, this time; the three before her were men.”

     “Is this so?  Was she—” there was a suggestive pause.

     “I have not heard; I think not.”

     Madame could be seen to shrug, as she toted up the woman’s purchases. “Who can say why she was killed?  A woman, with a dubious reputation; a bourgeoisie.”

     Epione noted that Madame’s voice held a trace of dismissal, because obviously, an aristo’s murder would be of greater interest than that of a mere bourgeoisie.  Amongst the French émigré population that now lived in London, the old castes were still revered despite the Revolution, so many years before.  Indeed, Madame Dumonde’s attitude toward Epione would undergo a dramatic change were she to learn that Epione was herself a daughter of the ancien régime, and indeed, from one of its noblest houses.  Not that Madame—or anyone, God willing—would ever know of it; after the scandal, hers was a name that would now inspire only shame.

     Epione slid another glance at the watcher-across-the-way, as she deftly tacked the dyed feathers into place along the hat’s peak.   He is not the murderer, she assured herself; murderers wouldn’t stand at their leisure in an exclusive shopping district. And even at this distance, she could see that he was a handsome man—it seemed unlikely that a handsome man would be inclined to go about killing people. Nevertheless, as she clipped off a thread, she resolved to exit out the back, tonight.

     Madame’s customer directed her footman to gather up the packages, but paused on the threshold to issue one last warning.  “The victims may be unconnected, but the authorities believe it is the same murderer.  If it is not a madman, then perhaps it is an aging Jacobin, who holds an old grudge.”

      But Madame only tilted her head in amused skepticism. “A Jacobin wouldn’t murder an instructress, one would think. Or a stabler.”

     “C’est cela,” the woman conceded. Nevertheless, she drew herself upright and announced, “The English authorities must be held to account; I will go to Bow Street this instant, and press them for more information.” 

     “As you wish,” Madame replied, with just a hint of amusement in her voice. “As for me, I must hope everyone would rather buy hats than hide in their homes.”

     The customer left in her carriage, and Madame observed her departure through the window, standing in place long after the woman was gone, as though lost in thought.  Although it was an hour before closing, Epione stood, and passed through the doorway into the showroom. “Would you mind very much, Madame, if I left early today?”

    Immediately, the woman was pulled from her abstraction, and faced Epione with all due alarm. “What is it, Epione? Are you ill?”

     Epione hid a smile; despite the woman’s brisk exterior, she was almost over-solicitous, when it came to her sole employee.  “No, Madame; I have an errand to run, is all.”   This, of course, was not exactly true; instead, Epione was hoping to avoid the watcher-across-the-way. As strange as it seemed, she had the uneasy feeling that it was she that he watched—although why a milliner’s assistant would incite such scrutiny was a puzzle.  She wondered, for a moment, if it had anything to do with the extraordinary news of the château in France, but this seemed unlikely; if the watcher was indeed her supposed cousin, there was no reason for him to stay back, lurking in the shadows. 

     As she packed away her materials, she considered her cousin’s letter—this “cousin” she’d never heard of, despite the fact that in all aristo families, careful track was kept of any surviving relatives.  The letter divulged that her cousin was to inherit her father’s estate in Normandy, and that he wished to meet so as to discuss the matter with her. 

    It all seemed very far-fetched, and in truth, she had little interest; she’d wanted nothing more than to remain here in London, patiently waiting for Sir Lucien to come and fall in love with her.   But yesterday, the banker had burst this particular bubble; Sir Lucien had unexpectedly married, the man informed her, unaware that the words had made her heart freeze. A whirlwind courtship with a foreign woman—apparently he had a penchant for foreign women, just not this particular one. You are foolish, Epione, she castigated herself. To have thought that he’d visit you to see how his stipend was spent, and then come to the realization that his dead wife’s sister was the right woman for him.  Foolish, especially after everything that had happened—the horrifying scandal that had made her assume another name, so as to sink into shameful obscurity. 

     Epione paused before her reflection in the gold-gilt mirror, as she pulled on her gloves—which should have been mourning-black, but she didn’t wish to give away any clues.  Perhaps she should indeed meet with this “cousin,” and see what he had to say—perhaps he would be the hero from a fairy tale, and would rescue her from her difficulties.  With an indulgent smile at herself, she pinned on her hat, and took her pelisse from the hook.   The past few days had brought all manner of unsettling news, and she must ignore this ridiculous feeling that it was something more than a coincidence.  You are being fanciful, she assured herself as she blew out the candle—no one has the slightest interest in you.

     Slipping quietly out the back door, she turned to walk down the back alley and closed her hand around the trimming shears in her pocket—until they captured the murderer, it would pay to be cautious.

     Epione smiled and nodded at the tailor who stood at the back stoop of his own shop as she passed by.  Monsieur Chauvelin was a bachelor, some ten years older than herself, and although he was rather stiff and unfriendly, he always made an effort to salute her as she came and went.  She thought that perhaps he admired her from afar, but was too shy to engage her in conversation, which was just as well; Epione was kind by nature, and didn’t wish to dash his hopes. 

     The lowering fog brought a bite of chill, and made her breath form a cloud as she stepped along the damp, uneven cobblestones.  The news of Sir Lucien’s marriage had forced her to face facts, and the facts were, at present, a bit grim. I must come up with a plan, she thought with resolution; I cannot live out my life as a milliner’s assistant, scraping by and ashamed to show my face.  And I would like a husband—now that the prime candidate is no longer available—so to this end, I should probably look to settle elsewhere.   

     Epione had never lived anywhere but London—her mother had fled the Terror when she was a baby—but she knew, instinctively, that she’d rather live somewhere a bit more peaceful, a bit less crowded. Perhaps she could find a quiet town—after all, as long as there were women who craved frivolous hats, she could always support herself—and look for some kind man to marry her. He’d have to be English, of course; no self-respecting Frenchman would take her, not after what her sister had done. 

     With a lighter heart, she quickened her step.  She would find a nice, obscure village in the English countryside, and sink into English obscurity.  She would then write to Sir Lucien; write, and request that the stipend be sent to her new address until she could find her feet, and also take the opportunity to congratulate him on his marriage.  There was always the off-chance that his banker was mistaken. 

     “You avoid me.” The words were French, and said in a mock-accusatory tone.

     With a startled gasp, she glanced up to see the watcher-from-across-the-street, only now falling into step beside her, as though they were old acquaintances. He was tall, with brown hair, and a dark stubble of beard which made a stark contract with the white, charming smile he bestowed upon her, his eyes alight with humor.   Rather than make a denial, she stammered, “I—I don’t know why you watch me; it makes me uneasy.” She glanced around to see if there was anyone near enough to offer aid.

    With an easy manner, he tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Have no fear—I am not the murderer.”

     Fairly, she pointed out, “I imagine that is precisely what the murderer would say—and I would rather speak English.”

     This surprised him, and he turned his face to hers. “Why is this?”

     “My English is better,” she lied.  He was indeed handsome—dark and handsome; it quite took one’s breath away.

      After giving her a skeptical look, he continued in English, “It would be best if you do not return home, just yet.”

      Startled, she paused, but he made a gesture with his hand. “Keep walking, s’il vous plait.”  He slid a mock-defiant glance at her, at his use of the French phrase.

     She complied, mainly because he was a force unto himself, and she was having trouble putting two thoughts together. “I—I don’t understand; who are you? Am I in danger?” 

     For whatever reason, he had to think about his answer for a moment.  “I think there has been a misunderstanding, and that yes, you may be in danger.  Do you have a pistol?”

     This seemed alarming, and she glanced up at him again. “No—should I?”

     He indicated her pelisse. “What is it you hold in your pocket?”

     “Oh—trimming shears.”  She could feel her color rise.

     “Eh bien.”  He gave her a nod of careless approval. “But a pistol would be more to the point. Shall I give you one of mine?”

     Aware that she should—perhaps—be screaming for help, instead she could not suppress a smile as she shook her head in exasperation. “Who are you? Please—I have half a mind to call the Watch.”  It would be a shame, though—handsome and charming didn’t come her way very often, working in a milliner’s shop. 

     He ducked his chin in regret. “I would rather not say—not yet; but you should not call the Watch.  The British authorities are searching your rooms, as we speak.” 

     She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. “What?”

     He stood before her, his brown eyes searching hers thoughtfully. “I think there has been a misunderstanding, only; but I would not go home, if I were you—not as yet.”

     With a knit brow, she regarded him for a long moment. “And why would I need a pistol, if it is the British authorities?”

     With a sigh, put his hands on his hips, and contemplated his boots—apparently he had little patience with formalities. She noted that he had a sword at his side—unusual, because he did not appear to be a military man.  The sword had a foreign-looking, hooked hilt, but she only glanced at it for a moment before he raised his gaze to hers.  “If I tell you too much, then I may bring more trouble to your doorstep—assuming it is all a misunderstanding.”

     She thought about this, and found that she very much wanted to continue this strange and alarming conversation, despite everything. “Can you give me a hint, do you think?”

     “Josiah.” His gaze was suddenly sharp upon her face.

     Epione shook her head, disclaiming. “I do not understand.”

     He nodded, rather gravely. “Yes—it is probably why you are still alive.”

     Aghast, she stared at him. “Why—whatever do you mean?”

     “You are supposed to speak English,” he reminded her in mock censure, as he took her arm.  “En-avant, walk this way.”

      In an attempt to gain some semblance of control over the situation, she protested, “You must see that I cannot—I’ve no idea who you are, or why you are saying these things to me—”

     “Hold! You there—”

      With an unhurried movement, Epione’s companion pulled her into a doorway, and then calmly drew a pistol at the man who hailed them, firing off a round as she gasped in dismay, and the report echoed loudly off the bricks around them.  

     With a curse, the other man scrambled for cover behind a stack of crates. As though nothing untoward were going forward, her companion turned to take her hand, and bow over it with his charming smile, sweeping his hat before him. “Au revoir, Mademoiselle d’Amberre; we will continue this conversation at another time.”  He then turned and bent over the door—apparently to pick the lock—and then exited into the building without a backward glance, whilst Epione stared after him in dismayed astonishment at his use of her true name.