ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 31

 

     Epione hastily scrambled back into her crumpled satin gown while de Gilles waited, and once she was more-or-less clad, he allowed Darton entry into the bedchamber. 

     “Mademoiselle—forgive the intrusion.” The newcomer bowed apologetically to Epione.

     “Madame,” de Gilles corrected him easily.

     “Of course—Madame.” He turned to de Gilles. “I am searching for Lisabetta.”

     De Gilles made a gesture toward the rumpled bed. “I have not seen her here.”

     With a grin, Darton conceded this point. “I’m afraid she has disappeared, along with my knife.”

     “I have hers,” Epione informed him.  “We’ll have to straighten it out.”

     “How did she manage to lift your knife, mon ami?”  De Gilles sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots, which Epione viewed with some misgiving, as it spoke of an end to her warm cocoon of silken sheets and handsome man. With a sigh, she went to hunt for her own slippers, under the bedclothes on the floor.

     Darton shrugged in a self-deprecatory gesture. “Hélas, I am easily distracted—it is a failing of mine.”

     Amused, de Gilles paused, and glanced up at him. “Well?”

     Again, Darton shrugged. “I could not tell.”

     It seemed evident they were speaking of something Darton was supposed to discover from Lisabetta, and Epione was impressed that the man had bundled the woman off to bed in such a sincere manner if, in fact, it wasn’t at all sincere.  “Is there something you wish to know about Lisabetta? I spent some time talking with her—could I help?”

     As he stood, de Gilles exchanged a look with Darton, and then explained, “We would like to know why she is included in whatever is going forward. It is a high-level operation, and only a trusted few know of it; her role is unclear.”

     But Epione thought this was evident. “I think she is another spy, is she not?  She was tasked with capturing me, and now she is making certain I don’t escape.”

     But de Gilles was not convinced, and put his hands on his hips. “She was tasked with bringing you here—that much is clear. But now it has been accomplished, and she is no longer needed—you have little chance of escape.  The British spymaster believes she must have a further role in the plot, or she wouldn’t have accompanied you to France.”

     Her brow knit, Epione thought about this. “I am not certain that is true; she is chafing to leave this place; and Monsieur Chavelin told her that after the dinner party, she would be allowed to go.”

     The two men exchanged a glance. “Perhaps she is needed to lure le Duc to a private place,” Darton suggested.

     De Gilles shrugged. “There is no need for secrecy; they could murder him on the front steps, if they wished.”

     They thought about it in silence for a few moments. “I will endeavor to obtain more information,” Darton offered.

     De Gilles grinned. “Try to ensure that she does not elicit more than you do, mon ami; I fear for you.”

     “She is from Martinique,” Epione remembered. “Perhaps she wishes to return home.”

      “A Creole family,” de Gilles affirmed. “She has a sister, Eugenie.”

     “The sister is trouble, also,” Darton disclosed to Epione. “As blonde as this one is dark.”

     “I will defer to your knowledge,” observed de Gilles in a dry tone, and Epione blushed, although she truly hadn’t any grounds for it, considering the rumpled bed and her general state of dishevelment.

     De Gilles rose to hold out his hand to her. “Come, Madame; I would like to celebrate our reunion by sharing a fine bottle of wine.  Shall we search for the cellars?”

     The night was well-advanced, they were in a hostile place, and surrounded by a deadly earnest enemy.  “If you wish.” She took his hand without a qualm, and bade farewell to the old Epione, who would have preferred hiding under the bed.

     And so, ten minutes later, she found herself creeping quietly down the servants’ stairs in the company of de Gilles, who in turn followed Darton, with the other man leading them with a passage candle. The light flickered off the white plastered walls, and there was no sound—only their footsteps, carefully muffled on the wooden slats as they descended the stairs.  “May I speak?” she whispered near his ear.

     “Of course, ma belle.” De Gilles’ voice was low, his sharp gaze on the darkness below them. “Only not too loudly, if you please.”

     “Why would the Comte consent to be the Josiah?  Was Marie such an influence upon him that he would ally with Napoleon?”   She had been puzzling over this aspect ever since the plot had been disclosed to her.  It was hard to imagine any member of the ancien régime willingly acquiescing to such a plan, no matter how deep the devotion to a woman.

     But her companion did not share her disbelief.  “No doubt he seeks to please her, even after her death; she may have even convinced him to aid her while she lived.”

     “Oh—he did say he was a witness to her death, so perhaps that is so.”  She thought about this for a few moments, as they cautiously stepped their way down the winding stairs.  “It is hard to imagine—such blind devotion. I must warn you, Alexis, that if you decide to aid Napoleon, I will not be so accommodating.”

     This amused him, and he paused for a moment to turn and kiss her lightly, their heads at the same level, due to the stairs. “Quant a ca, you have my permission to shoot me in such a case, and my eternal gratitude, besides.”

     “I don’t know if I could bring myself to shoot you,” she confessed. “I cannot imagine how Sir Lucien shot Marie, no matter the incentive.”

     His attitude became grave, even though she couldn’t see his face, and he ran his hands lightly up her bare arms. “There are some things that transcend mere life and death, Epione.  You cannot allow your affections to sway you, in such a case.”

     Unhappy that she’d grieved him, somehow, she teased, “Then I must learn how to shoot a pistol.”

     He was amused again, in his turn. “We must remedy this problem so that you may indeed shoot me, if the occasion warrants.”

     He turned again, and they continued their descent for a few moments, following the lurching candle beneath them.  Epione offered, “They bribed him, too—the Comte, I mean. They gave him Desclaires—or more correctly, gave it to me. Nonetheless, it seems almost inconceivable—that he would betray his heritage.”

     “Perhaps—” her companion said slowly, his low voice emanating from the darkness below her, “perhaps he felt there was nothing left to betray.”

     Before Epione could react to the somber timbre of this remark, Darton’s voice drifted up to them. “Where do we go now?” He’d reached the ground floor, and a sweep of the candlestick disclosed only the silent servant’s hallway.

     Epione gestured in the direction of the stillroom. “The stairs to the grotto are through there; it was how I was brought in.”

     De Gilles nodded. “A likely place to put the cellars; let’s continue on.”

     She showed them the unassuming door near the pantry, and as they passed through it, the smell of the sea was suddenly strong, and they descended the crude steps which had been carved into the limestone. It was cold, and as her dress made little effort to cover her shoulders, she began to shiver, unable to control it.

     De Gilles paused to remove his coat, and tuck it around her shoulders.  “A few minutes, only, and then we can return to where it is warmer.”

     “It’s not much warmer inside,” she noted, as he lifted the collar around her neck.  “The whole place is a bit bleak, and well-suited for the evil plan that has been hatched.”

     “Then we must warm each other,” he decided, and leaned to bestow a kiss.

     Darton, who was waiting at the base of the steps, observed with amused impatience, “Parbleu; this is no time to be stealing kisses, mon ami.”

     Epione reminded him, “You are hardly one to make such a rebuke, Monsieur Darton.” 

     De Gilles laughed aloud, while Darton bowed in mock apology. “Touché—I shall say no more.” 

     After listening to the silence for a moment with their pistols drawn, they carefully opened the ancient oaken door, and then walked out onto the dock, their footsteps echoing unnaturally on the rough-hewn planks.  As there was a half-moon, the cave was dimly illuminated through its opening, with the still water reflecting the silvery light. For a thoughtful moment, the men contemplated the area.

     “They cannot offload easily here,” Darton observed. “Only a small vessel can fit through the opening.”

     “But the fortifications are ideal—and the cargo is not large.”

     Epione listened to the water lapping quietly against the pilings, clutching de Gille’s coat close around her. “What is the cargo?” 

“Treasure,” said de Gilles succinctly. “The means for war; we believe it is being gathered, and stored here.”

     Darton gave him a warning glance, but de Gilles shook his head slightly. “Madame de Gilles will say nothing; do not fear.”

     “I won’t,” she affirmed.  “Are we speaking of the jewels?”

     Both men turned to stare at her.  “Where did you hear this?”

     “Lisabetta.  She was trying to reconcile me to my fate, by promising many jewels.”

     Darton looked to de Gilles. “Then the treasure must indeed be stored here—somewhere.”

      But Epione had even more to reveal. “Yes; it is stored in the south tower.”

      Darton laughed aloud, throwing his head back.  “We did not think to ask Madame, my friend; we could have saved ourselves much trouble.”

     De Gilles took both her hands in his. “Epione, you astonish me. How did you discover this?”

     “Madame Reyne told me there were plenty of jewels to match my dresses, in the south tower.”

“     Bien,” said de Gilles. “It begins to fall into place.”  He addressed Darton with mock-exasperation.  “It is just as well that we depend upon my wife, as you have learned nothing from the fair Lisabetta, and have lost your knife in the process.”

     Gesturing with the candle, Darton shook his head in rueful acknowledgment. “You must be patient—I’ve yet to mount a proper campaign.”

     “Coxcomb.” Lisabetta’s voice rang out from the darkness of the steps.  “Your campaign is not much of a mount.”

     Epione froze in horror, but Darton turned toward the voice, and spread his hands, unfazed. “Chérie; you wound me. You did not seem so disappointed at the time.”

     “I will do more than wound you, if I do not get some answers.  What is it you do here?”

     “We were looking for the wine cellars,” Epione offered, hoping she didn’t sound nervous. “The Comte mentioned there were cellars somewhere, but he wasn’t certain where.”

     If she’d hoped to deflect Lisabetta’s interest, though, it appeared de Gilles had other plans, and he shrugged his broad shoulders.  “As for me, I look for the treasure.”

     There was a small silence, while Epione wished they weren’t so exposed, with the candle the only light in the grotto.  “You are a trader,” Lisabetta conceded in a generous tone.  “You cannot be blamed, I suppose.”

     “Do you know of it, Lisabetta?”

     “What, so that you can steal it? I am not quite so stupide.”

     De Gilles tilted his head. “I believe you owe me a favor.”

     An annoyed sound emanated from the shadows. “You will never let me forget, will you? But I am not one of your aristos, who thinks she is beholden by such things.”  With a click, the sound of a pistol cocking could be heard in the silence.

     “Chérie—” admonished Darton.

     “You don’t dare,” Epione interrupted in as calm a voice as she could muster. “Cease this foolishness, Lisabetta.  You need my cooperation, and I will not hesitate to tattle to the Comte.”

     “She will not shoot; there would be a ricochet,” de Gilles explained to Epione in a patient tone.  “She is posturing, is all.”

     But the other woman apparently did not appreciate his dismissal, and could be heard to bristle. “Posturing, am I?  I will use the ricochet to my advantage, and down the both of you with one shot.”

     De Gilles chuckled, and negligently leaned against the wooden dock post.  “Is that so? I do not recall such fine shooting in Dover.”

      The other girl was instantly outraged.  “That was not my fault—I am a good shot.” 

     With a shrug, de Gilles looked to the dark stairway, and said with patent disbelief, “If you say.”

     “That was not my fault,” the girl repeated. “Peste, but you are an annoyance beyond bearing, Capitaine.”

     “Shall we have a contest, then?”

      Epione slid her eyes to him, wondering if she had heard him aright, but Lisabetta stepped out of the shadow of the stairwell, her pistol lowered. “Now?”

     De Gilles spread his hands. “If you would rather not—”

     “What would be the prize?”

     “Dinner,” said Darton promptly. “I haven’t eaten, this night.”

     Lisabetta arched a brow. “Food, you mean.”

     “Food.” The man bowed to her, and swept his hat before him. “And I have been required to exert myself to no small extent.”

     “We will need ammunition.”  De Gilles’ gaze met Lisabetta’s, his own with a hint of a challenge.

     The girl regarded him with an unreadable expression. “Enfin; I will fetch ammunition, and we will meet in the ballroom.”

     But de Gilles was not yet finished with his demands, and indicated Epione with a nod of his head. “Epione requires a pistol—she must learn to shoot.” 

     But this was apparently a request too far. “I am not such a fool, Capitaine.”

     “As you say.”

     With a defiant flounce, Lisabetta picked up her skirts and turned to march up the stairs.

     Into the silence, Epione ventured, “Do we know where the ballroom is?”

     “I imagine a shooting-match will raise the house,” Darton observed, as though it mattered little to him, one way or the other.

     “Yes, I imagine it will,” replied de Gilles, and offered his arm to Epione.