ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 26

 

     Epione awoke to the sound of Madame Reyne speaking her name, and started for a moment until she remembered where she was; Desclaires, and apparently slated to live a cosseted life for the foreseeable future—although Lisabetta had hinted that her future may be short, and not all that foreseeable.   

     “You will be needed downstairs for dinner soon, Mademoiselle.  I will dress your hair.”

     After noting that Lisabetta was no longer in evidence, Epione blinked the sleep from her eyes and asked, “What is my role here, Madame Reyne? Come, it is only fair that I am forewarned—I am the mistress, here, and I may need you as an ally.”

     The woman was silent for a moment as she picked up a brush. “I’m afraid I must not say, Mademoiselle.”

      Epione offered as a prompt, “Am I in danger? Lisabetta warned that if I’d like to remain alive, I should be pretty, and stay quiet.”

     The housekeeper seemed a bit shocked by this assertion, and hastened to assure her, “Oh, no, Mademoiselle—instead, you will be well looked-after.” After pursing her lips, the woman unbent enough to add, “It is not such a bad bargain; much, much better than your rooms in Soho.”

     “That depends,” said Epione slowly, “on what the bargain is.”  

     The housekeeper twisted Epione’s still-damp hair into a knot, and began to insert pins; Epione noted the woman was by no means an expert, but refrained from making suggestions and instead ventured, “And what of you, Madame? Why did you agree to this deception?”  

     “I’m afraid I must not say, Mademoiselle.” 

     Epione made a wry mouth. “You don’t strike me as a Napoleonite.”

     Stepping back to assess her handiwork, the woman replied with equanimity, “Such things matter little to me, Mademoiselle. I’ve had to look after myself my entire life, and I was only too happy to accept this offer, when it was made to me.”

     So; it seemed housekeeper would turn a benign eye to treachery in exchange for personal gain, which was a bit shocking to Epione, who had seen what such an attitude could foster firsthand, and had a dead sister to show for it. “Surely, the greater good is more important than one’s own comfort—you cannot want yet another war, after the misery caused by the last one.”

     But the woman was unrepentant, and strategically inserted a diamond pin beside the knot of curls atop Epione’s head.  “There’s nothing any one person can do to stop a war—and both sides are the same, in the end. I’ll be safe, and taken care of here, and that’s all I could wish for.  Up, now; I’m to deliver you downstairs at the top of the hour.” 

     Epione stood, and allowed the woman to carefully lower the bronze satin evening gown over her head with a luxurious rustle of fabric. The elegant gown was a bit short, and some judicious tugging on the bodice only partially obscured this unfortunate fact.  A necklace of very fine topazes was then strung around Epione’s throat; she was to have many jewels, Lisabetta had said, as though it had some sort of significance—but Epione could not guess what that significance could be.  Meeting the housekeeper’s eyes in the mirror, she ventured, “Was this necklace my mother’s?”

      “Your mother’s, Mademoiselle?”  The woman paused, obviously at sea.

     “My mother was the mistress of Desclaires, before The Terror.”

     Madame Reyne seemed rather surprised by this revelation.  “I understood that your mother was—is no longer with us.”

     “That is true—she died a few months ago.” Epione processed the interesting fact that the housekeeper was aware that her mother was dead, but was not aware of Epione’s connection to the château.  “I only mentioned it because she would often speak of her jewels—and her regret that she was forced to leave them behind, in her haste.”  In truth, a small casket of jewels had indeed been smuggled out and then sold, so as to set up the new widow in London.  “She was very fond of topazes—that is why I asked.”

     “They go well with this dress.”   The woman stood back to admire the effect. “And there are many more in the south tower—all variety, to match the other dresses.”

     Turning from side to side, Epione pretended to admire her reflection in the gilt cheval mirror, and then asked casually, “Is there a village, nearby? I may need to visit a seamstress, to lower the hems a bit.”

     But the subterfuge was unsuccessful. “I’m afraid you mustn’t leave the grounds, Mademoiselle; at least not as yet.”

     The housekeeper presented elbow length gloves of the finest kid, and as Epione pulled them on, she assessed her situation. It seemed clear that Madame Reyne would never be an ally, nor would Lisabetta, and she’d best find some way of fending for herself—or at least a means to aid de Gilles, when he came to rescue her. 

     Smiling at the housekeeper, she replied, “No matter; I can manage the hems myself—as long as you can find me a sewing kit, with shears, and a darning needle, please.  And perhaps a length of lace trimming; Alençon, if it is available.”  May as well get the strongest lace—she may find it necessary to bind up the housekeeper, and the woman seemed rather sturdy.

     “Yes, Mademoiselle; of course.”

     With a critical eye, the other woman stepped back to review her handiwork, and with an equally critical eye, Epione asked, “Have you any ribbons, to thread through my hair?”

     “I’m afraid not, Mademoiselle; no one consulted with me, or I’d have suggested it.” 

     “Then let us add ribbons to the list—nice, thick ones.” 

     The housekeeper smiled with ill-concealed relief that her charge seemed to be making the best of it, unaware that her charge was in fact looking forward to trussing her up like a Christmas goose.  Buoyed by this thought, Epione mentally steeled herself for whatever ordeal was to come. “Shall we go, then?  I confess I am hungry.”

     Stepping out once again into the silent hallway, the housekeeper escorted Epione to the main staircase—a sweeping, marble-balustraded affair that reminded Epione, with every plush step, that her new silken slippers were a bit too small. 

     The only sound was the rustle of her skirts sweeping down the stairs; there were no servants in evidence, and no one in the vestibule that Epione could see, as she peered over the railing to gaze all the way down to the marbled first floor.  This was to the good—if she were to tie up the housekeeper and attempt an escape, the fewer to raise the alarm, the better. On the other hand, if she did manage to escape, she’d hate to think that de Gilles might walk into the situation all unknowing—whatever the situation was.  Presuming that he was indeed coming to rescue her, and that he was not at this very moment flirting, in his elegant way, with the next naïve milliner.

     She was so busy dismissing this thought from her mind, that she almost didn’t realize they’d arrived at what appeared to be the château’s great hall—a high-ceilinged room, with wooden hammer beams arching overhead, and a fireplace that could roast an ox whole.  She was only to have a brief impression of the cavernous room and its massive oaken table, however, before her attention was drawn to the gentleman standing before the hearth.  Barely catching herself before gasping in surprise, Epione rapidly gathered her wits and sank into a respectful curtsey. “Comte deFabry.”   So—the grey-eyed spymaster had been proved right, and the vague and rather strange Comte deFabry—purportedly, Marie’s lover—was involved in this plot, somehow.

     To her immense surprise, the Comte crossed the room in swift strides to grasp her hands in his, and then press them to his chest, apparently too overcome to speak as he blinked back tears.  His appearance had changed, since last she’d seen him; he was grayer around the temples, and his hair was longer, and pulled into a queue. He was also bit leaner than before—and definitely more emotional about the younger sister whom, heretofore, he’d largely ignored.

      Her eyes downcast, Epione’s mind raced as she resisted the urge to pull her hands away.  Was he the murderer? The latest victim of the London murders was rumored to have had a liaison with the Comte, and this did not bode well.  It was hard to believe that such a harmless-seeming man had committed multiple murders, but perhaps his harmless appearance aided him in his evil efforts.

     The Comte had not moved, and seemed deeply affected. “Epione—ah, beautiful Epione. You are taller than Marie; I had forgotten.” 

     Feeling her way, and rather discomfited by the intensity of his gaze upon hers, she agreed, “Yes, a bit taller, Monsieur le Comte.  I am so very pleased to see you again.”

     “Louis,” he insisted with a small smile, as he gently lifted her hands to his mouth—one after the other—to kiss them. “You must call me Louis, and I will call you Epione—an apt name, for a goddess come to earth.”

     This was of interest, as she was fairly certain his name was Etienne, or at least that was what her mother and stepfather had called him.  “Louis, then. I confess I am surprised to see you here.”

      “You are well?”

     This, of course, was not an easy question to answer, but falling back on good manners, Epione assured him, “Very well. Although I regret to tell you that my mother has passed away; I don’t know if you were aware—?”

     “I am.” He dropped his gaze for a moment. “And your stepfather too, leaving you quite alone, my poor Epione.”

     For a moment, she was tempted to recoil yet again; there was something very strange about the underlying edge of satisfaction in his tone when he made this pronouncement, and she entertained the horrifying thought that perhaps he’d killed her parents himself.

     “You have no black gloves? You mustn’t allow the English to make light of your sister’s sacrifice—she must be properly mourned.”  With a solemn nod of his head, he indicated his own black gloves.

     “I’m afraid I was not given an opportunity to pack.”  Best not to mention she hadn’t worn mourning for any of them, being as she was trying to obscure her rather cloudy past.

      “Are you pleased to be here? To be given back your family home?” He continued to hold her hands, his gleaming eyes searching hers. 

     She was fast coming to the unsettling conclusion that her companion was perhaps a bit unbalanced, and so she ventured very carefully, “It is quite lovely—extraordinarily so.”

     This accolade seemed to please him, and he relinquished her hands, and indicated he would sit with her at the massive table. “You will live here, then; and with every comfort imaginable.  Hélas, I must be often away, but I insisted that you were to be installed here.  I insisted most vehemently, and would not hear otherwise.”

     Hiding her extreme confusion, Epione once again fell back upon good manners. “You are very kind, Monsieur le Comte.”

     “Louis,” he reminded her with a smile.  “It may take some getting used to, I’m afraid.”

     “Louis,” she agreed.  “How kind of you to think of me.” Probing carefully, she ventured, “The émigré community has fallen upon hard times, since last we met; there has been a spate of murders—have you heard?”

     Reaching to take her hand, the Comte met her gaze, his own solemn. “Sacrifices are sometimes necessary, Epione; the benefits of the call of history are—eh bien—measured against the resolution of those burdened by its demands.”  He bent his head.  “It is regrettable, but those who knew me well must bear the burden of such sacrifices.” As he struggled with his emotions, tears once again glistened in his eyes. “Oh, Epione; if only your beautiful sister were here with us, to witness the triumph of her ambition. She was—ah, your sister was une ange; an angel come to earth.”

      “Yes.” Epione replied in a gentle tone. Despite her increasing horror at the conclusions she was rapidly drawing, she felt a bit sorry for him. The Comte reminded her of Baron Givente, an impoverished aristo who’d haunted the fringes of the émigré community.  His wife and children had been killed in The Terror, and as a result, he’d gone a bit mad, and had become a figure of sympathy.  That the Comte deFabry entertained an unnatural devotion to her sister—and was now slightly unhinged as a result of her death—seemed evident.  That he’d managed to convince those in power to give Desclaires to her and—apparently—that he was connected in some way to the murders back in London also seemed evident.  But whatever could it mean? What hold could this rather unstable man have over the factions that battled for power in Europe? 

     “Shall we dine, my dear? They have installed an excellent cook.”  The Comte smiled at her kindly.

     “With pleasure.” She smiled in return, and decided that the sooner she was armed with a sewing basket, the better.