ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 25

 

     The landlady-turned housekeeper paused before an ornately carved set of double doors, and then opened them to reveal an elaborate suite of rooms, richly appointed and flanked at the other end by long, diamond-paned windows that were framed by velvet curtains, pooling onto the thick Aubusson rug.  “Your rooms,” the woman announced, pleased to reveal such splendor. “I will arrange for your baths, and Luci will deliver your tea.”

     Bemused, Epione walked across the suite’s main room, and stood beside the window, which looked out over the sparkling ocean—the view was breathtaking, but she was preoccupied by Lisabetta’s ominous remark, and so could not appreciate it in full.  “Who else is in residence?” she asked the housekeeper.

     The woman’s gaze rested doubtfully on Lisabetta for a moment, but as the other girl offered no comment, she responded, “I am sorry, Mademoiselle, but I am instructed to answer no questions.”  They stood for an awkward moment, and then the woman brightened and made a consolatory gesture toward the armoire which stood against the wall. “Your wardrobe has many lovely gowns—go, look at them.”  With a final smile, the woman nodded and withdrew, reaching to close the doors behind her with a soft click.

     “Cease asking questions,” Lisabetta warned, slouching onto the settee with a rustle of skirts, and kicking off her shoes with no further ado. “Peste, it is tedious in the extreme.”

     “Then I’ll thank you not to make dire pronouncements.”  Epione crossed to the armoire, which opened to reveal a marvelous variety of gowns—evening, day, and walking dresses in an assortment of colors and styles.  Utterly bemused, Epione fingered a bronze evening gown and turned its hem to examine the fine stitching and beadwork; none knew better than she the quality of the wardrobe—it was of the finest, and would have been ridiculously expensive.

     Lisabetta raised her arms over her head and stretched.  “Do you see? I told you; you will be treated like a princesse.”

     But Epione glanced over at the other girl. “I’d rather not be treated as a princesse if I’m slated to be buried in such a gown.”

     “Perhaps you will survive,” her Job’s comforter offered. “We shall see.”

     Absently, Epione rubbed the skirt of another silk satin evening gown—this one Pomona green—between her fingers.  “Tell me where you hail from, Lisabetta—unless it another in the long list of things I am not allowed to know.”

     With a small smile, the girl leaned back on the settee, tucking one leg under the other. “I am from Martinique.”

     This was a surprise, and Epione turned to her. “Like the former Empress?”  Napoleon’s Josephine was from the island of Martinique.

     “Eh bien, the very same.” Lisabetta arched a brow, as though privately amused.

     Epione debated how much she should ask, and then remembered she was trying to acquire information for de Gilles.   “How did you come to be here, then?”

     The other girl gazed out the windows at the sea. “I was found to be useful, by those who have need of usefulness.”

     Epione quirked her mouth. “I suppose that is a sufficiently vague description, given how you earn your keep.”

     The girl shrugged her shoulders, unrepentant. “It is the most explanation you will be given.”

     With a small sigh, Epione returned to her inventory of the armoire. “Whereas I am not mysterious in the least—everyone, it seems, knows everything about me. And I can’t lay claim to being of much use.”

     But her companion disagreed, as she examined her fingernails. “Au contraire, mignonne; you have been remarkably useful, and will continue to be so.”

     As Epione reverently stroked the ermine cuff on a pelisse, she returned in a tart tone, “I cannot see how—unless I am required to trim a poke bonnet for the successor to the throne.”

     Lisabetta only clucked her tongue in a chiding fashion, as Luci the maid entered with the tea tray, the girl’s brow knit in concentration as she moved carefully, so as to keep the cups from rattling. Epione came to her assistance, and together they placed the tray on the tea table.  “Thank you very much, Luci—it looks delicious.”

     “You speak English.”  Luci gazed upon her in surprise, her clear green eyes wide.

     “I do—I’ve lived in England all my life. I am Epione.” She held out a friendly hand.

     After a moment, the other girl took it, clearly a bit overawed, and uncertain how to react. “I am Lucrezia.”

     “Lucrezia—I see.”  Epione tried to hide her surprise that someone would give this simple girl such a bloodthirsty name.  “Can you tell me—”

     “Do not browbeat the help,” Lisabetta interrupted in English, from her position on the settee. “I said no more questions; have you no shame?”

     Her freckled brow knit, Luci looked from Lisabetta to Epione in confusion, but then took refuge in protocol. “Shall I pour out, Miss?”

     “Yes, please.” Epione smiled upon the maid, and took her steaming cup with gratitude.  A plate of macaroons had been included, and she was grateful; the last time she’d eaten was at The Moor’s Head, which now seemed like a thousand years ago—pausing, she was suddenly struck.  “What were you doing at the tavern, Lisabetta? Were you seriously hoping to abduct me from such a place, with every eye on de Gilles?

     The girl popped a macaroon in her mouth. “That is none of your business.”

     With a sound of exasperation, Epione quickly gathered up a few of the treats in a napkin, to prevent the other girl from eating them all. “It was certainly my business when you started shooting.”

     Luci stilled, and stared at Lisabetta in acute dismay.  “You were—you were shooting?

     Lisabetta did not disclaim, but fastened a cold eye on the maidservant. “Out, before I shoot at you, too.”

     Hastily, the maid picked up her skirts and fled, as Epione chastised Lisabetta in a low tone, “You mustn’t take advantage of her—it is cruel.”

     But Lisabetta only looked amused, and made no reply.

     Tentatively encouraged by the fact Lisabetta had been willing to impart some scraps of information—however unuseful, Epione sipped her tea and ventured, “You are acquainted with Monsieur Chauvelin, and I have the impression you do not care for him.”

     The other girl contemplated the now-empty macaroon plate, and sucked on a fingertip. “It matters not whether I care for him; I do as he asks.”

     “He is a Jacobin, I think.  He doesn’t like aristos much.”

     Lisabetta leaned, and plucked a sweet from Epione’s napkin. “No one likes aristos much.”

     “He needs me for a dinner party, though—which seems a bit strange, if he’s a Jacobin.”

     “No more questions—I will not tell you again.”

     They sat in silence for a few minutes, until a tap on the door signaled the bath water’s arrival, and a sandy-haired footman entered, carrying the steaming brass buckets.  Madame Reyne directed that they be deposited by the hearth, and then looked about the room. “Why, where is Luci?”

     “She left,” said Lisabetta succinctly.  

     “She is very sensitive,” the housekeeper scolded. “Please do not upset her; I need her help.”

     “I’ll go fetch her,” offered the sandy-haired footman.

     “Tell her to bring me more macaroons, and much more wine,” Lisabetta called after him as she began to roll off her stockings.

      “I’m bathing first,” Epione said firmly.

      The other girl sat down again on the settee, and propped her bare feet on the serving table. “Bien entendu, princesse. I ask only that you leave some hot water for me.”

     “I’ll be quick.”  And in short order, Epione was blessedly clean again, and sitting before the fire so that her hair could dry, while Lisabetta took her turn. As Epione had experienced a very tumultuous day, it was no surprise that she fell asleep, wrapped in the thick chenille robe, and sunk down in the upholstered silk chair.   She dreamed a strange dream; of standing in the grotto to watch the tailor, as he sat on the wharf and stitched together a shroud, whilst Lisabetta quietly urged her to slip into the water, and swim for England.  “I cannot,” Epione whispered to her; “Alexis will come for me.”

     “Too late,” Lisabetta whispered back; “the war will come first.”