The True Pretender
With his hands on her elbows, de Gilles guided Epione backwards between the row of coats, then steered her against the wall so that she was positioned behind them, instructing her to step into one of the pairs of men’s boots that lined the wall. Although his manner was reassuring and almost casual, her mouth went dry as he drew his pistol and followed suit, standing against the wall behind the row of coats. Taking a breath, she closed her eyes and leaned into the material that was pressed against her face, trying to breathe as lightly as she was able.
Although the sounds were muffled by the coats, Epione could hear the entry door open with a creak, and she strained to hear what was going forward—the haberdasher was speaking to men—two men, perhaps—and his voice was raised in alarm as he stepped toward the storeroom. “—an escaped felon, you say; and in broad daylight—although the rain may have aided such an endeavor. I must make certain the back door is bolted.”
“Yes, sir—could you allow us—”
“Of course, of course—”
He is good, thought Epione in admiration; just the right touch of alarm without overplaying it.
Boot steps could be heard echoing on the wooden floor in the hallway outside, and Epione held her breath whilst they paused for a moment, as though taking a careful look around, and then walked past. Snatches of further conversation could be heard near the back door, then the men retraced their steps toward the front of the shop. “If you see anything unusual—he may have a young woman with him—”
The front door was heard to creak open, then shut, and silence reigned; the danger had passed.
They emerged from their cocoon of coats, Epione nearly dizzy with relief. De Gilles began piling coats on the floor in the corner. “We must stay hidden here for a time, and wait for Monsieur Darton. Come, we will make ourselves comfortable.”
She nodded, and he settled them into the impromptu pallet, pulling her against his chest as he leaned against the wall with his arms around her. The shop seemed so peaceful and quiet; a far cry from the tumultuous events she’d experienced, this strange day. The haberdasher brought more tea laced with brandy—two cups, this time—and assured them he’d sent for his wife.
Drowsy from the brandy and bundled in the warm coat, Epione sat within de Gilles’ arms in the dim storeroom, the rain pattering on the roof while the British authorities presumably scoured the area, searching for her for reasons which no one seemed to understand, including the British themselves. After a moment, her companion spoke in a level tone, his voice soft against her temple. “I am sorry to press you, but I think it best we marry, Epione—we do not have the luxury of time.” Idly, he swirled the dregs of his tea. “You are a pawn to them—to the British, the French royalists, perhaps even Tallyrand himself—whoever seeks to discover why you are the object of so much interest to Napoleon’s supporters. If you are married to me, you are protected—they dare not abuse you.”
She thought about this for a moment. “They dare not abuse me, on the chance that you are the true pretender.” She glanced up at his face, bent over beside her. “Why would anyone think such a thing, when it is well-known that the Dauphin did not survive?”
He shrugged slightly, and she felt his chest rise and fall with a sigh. “It is part wishful thinking, and part a desire to create a controversy, so as to disrupt the Congress’ plans. Many are unhappy with the idea of the Dauphin’s uncle taking the throne as Louis the Eighteenth, particularly in light of the rumors that he played a role in his nephew’s death.”
Epione was well-aware of the story, as were all the émigrés who’d fled the Terror. After the execution of the King and Queen, the young heir to the throne had been imprisoned and treated terribly by the Jacobins—undoubtedly in the hope he would die without their having to actually murder him. Several plots had been hatched by loyalists to rescue the ten-year-old boy, but he’d eventually died in prison, nearly twenty years ago. Rumors were rife that the Dauphin’s uncle—now styled Louis the Eighteenth—had worked behind the scenes to thwart any rescue.
“And?” she prompted. De Gilles hadn’t yet explained why anyone would be under the impression that he was the dead Dauphin.
Subtly, she could sense a tension in his arms, and she was once again given a glimpse of the angry man beneath the handsome cloak. “I was involved in one of the plots to rescue the Dauphin—it was called L’ange d’Isaac. As was your brother.”
Astonished, Epione turned to stare at him. “My brother Denis?”
“Yes—we were all about the same age. The plot was to allow us to play with the Dauphin—in the guise of sans-culottes, of course—in an attempt to re-train the boy’s mind.” He paused, and Epione ran her hand along his arm in sympathy, as the topic was clearly one he was reluctant to discuss.
“One of the guards had been bribed to look the other way when a switch of the boys would be made—but then we were betrayed, and everyone involved was arrested. My nursemaid, Madame Griselde, was posing as my mother—” he paused again, and she could sense his grief, still sharp, after all the years. “She was executed, but not before she lowered me through a grate, to be rescued.” Resting his cheek on her head, he continued with gentle sympathy, “Your brother was not so lucky.”
Taken aback, Epione could only reply, “I—I never knew of any of this. And yet some still think that you are indeed the Dauphin? Surely, there is someone left who would know that you were not?”
“The Dauphin was held in prison for years, and few saw him. And the other boys in the rescue plot were chosen for their resemblance to him—we were brown-eyed, brown haired, and fair-skinned. And—as I mentioned—much of it is wishful thinking, by those who cannot accept the truth.”
“Yes,” Epione nodded slowly. “Everyone so desperately doesn’t want to believe that nothing is left of the old order. I saw it every day of my life—the bitterness, the refusal to assimilate.”
“Except for you.” His somber mien was suddenly replaced with his usual amused one, and he tightened his arms around her. “You were not bitter, Epione. Instead, the daughter of the Vicomte d’Amberre went forth to make hats.”
She smiled. “I like to make hats.”
“And that is why I am going to marry you, ma belle.”
It was all so very extraordinary—but much in keeping with this extraordinary day. L’ange d’Isaac—Isaac’s angel; the plot to swoop in, and rescue a young prince. Epione repeated in wonder, “I never knew this—never knew any of it; only that my father and my brother were executed. I suppose that explains why they stayed behind, and did not come to England with my mother—and then she was so resentful of their sacrifice that she never spoke of it.”
“It was kept very quiet.”
“Not quiet enough,” she observed, a bit sadly. “Do you think his uncle was indeed behind the Dauphin’s betrayal?”
Her companion’s chest moved again in a sigh. “Impossible to know, but I confess I would not be surprised—it was whispered he worked to thwart any rescue plots because he coveted the throne for himself.”
Gently, she felt obligated to point out, “On the other hand, you might have been killed, Alexis—if the plot had been successful, and you were the boy who was switched.”
But this observation was no comfort to him. “It would have been well worth it. Only see what has happened to France—and see the king she will now suffer under.”
Trying to sort it out, she ventured, “You support the Duc d’Orleans, then?” Those opposed to the Dauphin’s uncle were making a strong push on the other pretender’s behalf.
Absently, he stroked the wayward tendril back from her temple. “No one’s claim is perfect—or even very good—which means that anyone with a hereditary claim can find supporters, and the factions are splintered. It is a dangerous situation, with Napoleon waiting like a vulture, in the wings.”
But a memory was stirred, and Epione knit her brow, trying to remember. “Isn’t Louis Philippe—the Duc d’Orleans—related in some way to the Comte deFabry? Because the grey-eyed man—Tremaine’s spymaster—asked me about the Comte deFabry.”
De Gilles was suddenly alert—she could sense it, in the warm body alongside hers. “What did he ask?”
“He implied—well, he implied that Marie was having an affaire with the Comte deFabry.”
Her companion cocked his head, thinking this over. “And was she?”
“I do not know—he was an occasional visitor, but I don’t remember him very well; I think he kept mostly to himself.”
There was a pause, whilst he seemed to consider this information, but in the end he shook his head slightly. “Any connection seems unlikely to me. He is—he is a bit unstable; it is why he keeps to himself.”
She turned to glance up at him. “You know the Comte, then?”
“Oh, yes.” He offered nothing further.
But Epione could not forget how the grey eyes were sharp upon hers, when the questions had been asked. “The British spymaster was persistent about it, Alexis, and according to you, the man is no fool.”
“That is true,” he agreed. “It is puzzling.”
“Seigneur,” the haberdasher called out. “My wife approaches.”
“Oh,” said Epione. “Shall I stand up?” It was very agreeable to sit here, warm and momentarily safe in his arms, with the brandy warming her, and the rain on the roof.
“Yes; these people risk much.”
“Oh—oh, of course.” Thus reminded, she allowed him to pull her upright, and tried to look as composed as she could, considering she was a muddy mess, and hiding in a haberdasher’s storeroom. She needn’t have worried, however; the man and his wife appeared in the doorway and the quiet, grey-haired woman took one, timid glance at de Gilles, and then carefully dropped a curtsey, her eyes on the floor. She wore a black silk gown with a fine, Chantilly lace collar—obviously her Sunday best, even though it was mid-week.
“Madame,” said de Gilles, and bowed his head. “May I present Mademoiselle d’Amberre?”
“Mademoiselle.” The woman gave Epione a quick nod, and then her gaze returned to de Gilles, and then to the floor. She looked as though she half expected the floor to open up and swallow her at any moment.
“My wife has brought the boy’s clothes.”
Boy’s clothes? thought Epione, lifting her brows.
“And le déjeuner—pastries.” In a husbandly manner, he prompted his wife by giving her a meaningful glance, which seemed to bring the woman to her senses.
“Oui, Seigneur. Mincemeat pastries.”
“Excellent,” said de Gilles with his wonderful smile. “If you would assist Mademoiselle d’Amberre with her clothes, it will be my pleasure to taste these pastries of yours.”
“I’m to wear boy’s clothes?” Epione eyed him, thinking this development rather ominous.
He turned to her, and lifted her hand to kiss it. “You are. Much remains to be done this day, maker of hats; but first, you must marry me.”
Almost inaudibly, the haberdasher’s wife gasped.