ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 32

 

     With a loud report, Darton hit the wafer that was lodged in the chandelier, the impact making the crystal strands rock against each other with a tinkling sound.

     “Well done, chéri.”  Lisabetta called out.  She leaned in to Epione and disclosed, “And that is not all that he does well.”

    Feeling that it was not appropriate to make a reply, Epione instead reflected that her current divertissement was not one she could have imagined in  her past life, as they watched Luci dutifully lower the chandelier so as to replace the target wafers, and re-light any candles that had been damaged.  She’d never witnessed a shooting-match before, and was surprised to discover that the endeavor involved drinking a great deal of champagne, which seemed rather counter-intuitive. A very surprised Madame Reyne had been roused to serve them cold meats, and Luci was enlisted to man the chandelier so as to replace the candles as needed. And in truth, it was a strange sort of contest; it didn’t seem to Epione that anyone was keeping track.

     “Captaine,” called out Lisabetta. “It is your turn.”

     De Gilles stood, and approached Epione to raise her hand and kiss it with an exaggerated gesture. “Pour la gloire.”

     “La gloire, Monsieur.” She smiled into his eyes, and then he turned, and held the pistol at arm’s length to take careful aim. The proprieties had been abandoned; both men were standing in their shirtsleeves, while Lisabetta lounged beside Epione in a gilt chair, her skirts in disarray, and her bare legs drawn up beneath her.  When she’d returned with the ammunition and the servants, she’d sported a variety of impressive pearl necklaces, some of which she generously deposited around Epione’s neck.

     De Gilles fired, and the wafer flew.  Epione was past worrying about the effect the enterprise was having on the plaster walls; it was apparent that de Gilles had some ulterior aim in mind—indeed, it seemed that Lisabetta had tacitly decided to acquiesce in his madness—and so Epione sipped her champagne and hoped to keep her wits about her for whatever was about to unfold.

     “Tiens, he is a handsome man,” Lisabetta remarked to Epione. “We can switch tonight, yes?”

     “No,” said Epione firmly.   

     The girl shrugged, and continued her scrutiny of de Gilles, observing him from behind her wine glass. “What is his aim, do you suppose? Why does he court you?”

      Epione could not quite like the tenor of the question.  “I suppose it is because he admires me.”

      Lisabetta laughed aloud, spilling her champagne on her skirts.

      Before Epione could make a retort, they were interrupted by a voice, coming from the elaborate double doorway.  “Why—what is this?” The Comte stood in his dressing gown, holding a candelabra aloft, and the picture of dismayed disbelief.  “A shooting-match, and I was not invited?”

     De Gilles bowed low.  “It is unpardonable, indeed; a thousand apologies, mon ami. Tempers were high, and immediate retribution was demanded.”  

     “Ah; I understand completely. Say no more.”  With a knowing look, the older man’s glance encompassed the women.

     De Gilles smiled his engaging smile. “Come; you must take your turn.”

     “I have no pistol,” their host confessed.

     “Then take one of mine, please.”  De Gilles promptly handed one over.

     The Comte held it reverently, his cheeks flushed with pleasure.  “No—no, I couldn’t, Seigneur.”

      “It is Alexis, Etienne.”  With a graceful wrist, de Gilles tapped his glass against the other man’s. “You have forgotten we are old friends. And—” here he leaned in, and slid his gaze over to Epione, “I have much to be thankful for.”

     While Epione blushed at such plain-speaking, their host sketched a self-satisfied bow. “A beautiful girl.”

     “Ah—the most beautiful girl. I believe I am compelled to marry her.”  With a causal hand on his hip, de Gilles raised his glass to Epione.

     The Comte had the look of a man who could not believe his good fortune. “Marry her?  You are serious?”

     “I am. Will you have me, Mademoiselle d’Amberre?”

     “I will,” Epione replied, trying to match his light manner, and wondering what he was about.

     “Why—why, this is extraordinary news, Seigneur—Alexis—”

     “It is past time I am wed, I think.  It is only a shame that her sister is not here to support her.  You will miss her support, will you not, Mademoiselle?”

     “I will indeed,” said Epione, taking her cue. “I will miss her acutely.” 

     Overcome, the Comte bowed his head, blinking away tears.  “Yes, yes—if only she could have known of your triumph—”

     Firmly, Epione assured him, “She abides in heaven, Monsieur le Comte, and I am certain she smiles upon me, even now.”

     Inspired, the other man strode over to take both her hands in his. “Yes—yes; she is a saint in heaven, and surely, surely has her hand upon you.”

     De Gilles raised his glass in tribute. “We can expect more blessings, then. Perhaps we should arrange to have Marie interred here, Mademoiselle.  You can pray at her monument, as can anyone who seeks her blessing.”

     “Perfection,” breathed the Comte, battling his emotions, and nearly overcome; “Très marveleuse.”

     As though the matter were a mere trifle, de Gilles turned to the Comte.  “Is there a chapel on the grounds? I’ve a mind to be married quietly, and quickly.”   He bestowed a speaking glance upon the other. “An heir may be on his way, as we speak.”

     The Comte clipped his heels together, and bowed. “There is indeed a chapel—rather neglected, unfortunately.”

     “No matter.  I would ask that you stand as my supporter, Etienne; I insist, and would have no other.”

     The other man bowed his head in silent acquiescence, as it was apparent he was too overcome with emotion to speak.

     “Can we arrange for it, say—two days hence? I am afraid I cannot linger.”

     Faced with his dilemma, the Comte could be seen to hesitate.  “I am expecting some guests for a dinner party, two days hence; would it be possible—”

     De Gilles immediately spread his hands in contrition. “Ah; a thousand pardons, mon ami—I had forgotten. It is lamentable that I should impose myself upon you in this way; please do not think of it again, I beg of you.  We will be married elsewhere.”

     But the other man could not countenance such a thought, and drew himself up. “No, no—unthinkable.  It shall be done; it must be done. I haven’t the staff, as you see, so it will of necessity be a quiet affair.”

     With a small smile, de Gilles observed, “Enfin; it must be a quiet affair—there are those who would be very unhappy, to witness such an alliance.  Indeed, my very presence in the country—”

     “Say no more; I completely understand.  The affair will be kept very quiet, and you may rely upon me.”  Having come to his decision, the Comte was all smiles, and turned to Luci. “I’ll need a glass—I must lead a toast.”

      “As you wish, Monsieur le Comte,” said the girl, who then exchanged a covert glance with the sandy-haired footman.

      She is unhappy about this turn of events, thought Epione; and who can blame her—she is the only maidservant, here, with too much to do. And I was mistaken; obviously she does speak French, if she was able to follow the conversation.

      As the glasses were re-filled, Epione glanced over at Darton with a smile. “It seems you must wish me happy yet again, Monsieur.”    

     “With the greatest pleasure.”  The man took her hand and bowed, but it seemed to Epione that he was also preoccupied—or perhaps she was being too sensitive, after having been exposed to so many cross-currents, and double-dealings.   Thinking to test him, Epione added, “The last wedding didn’t count, you see, as the priest was a false one.”  

     Her tone caught his attention, and he met her gaze with rueful honesty, “The Capitaine informed me of this—forgive me; I wasn’t certain what to say to you, and I am mortified that I participated in the man’s imposture.”

     This was plausible, and rang true; Darton would be embarrassed to raise the matter, now that she’d spent a blissful night abed with de Gilles—although the night had unfortunately been cut short, so as to look for treasure and shoot at chandeliers.  She looked up to catch her betrothed’s eye, but he was too busy discussing the finer points of his pistol with his host. 

     Lisabetta seemed to find it all very amusing, and approached to lay a light hand on Darton’s arm. “I cannot bear to be a bridesmaid, chéri; perhaps we should make it a double wedding.”

      The other man grinned, and lifted her hand to kiss it. “I would live the remainder of my days looking under my bed for your lovers; I think not.”

      With a philosophical shrug, Lisabetta took the rejection in good part.  “Fah—I have yet to find a man who cares not for the proprieties.”  To emphasize this point, she casually fired at the chandelier out of turn, knocking one of the candles from its perch.

     Laughing, de Gilles called out, “Toss the bottle up.”

     Lisabetta launched the champagne bottle toward the ceiling, while Darton, de Gilles and the Comte all fired upon it, shattering it into a thousand pieces which fell in a cascade, and skittered across the wooden floor while Epione covered her head with her arms.

     “Well done,” applauded the Comte, pink with pleasure. “We must find the armory, and try our hand at duck hunting, tomorrow.”

     “Oh? Is there an armory?” asked de Gilles in a casual tone.

      But he was not to get an answer, because another voice could be heard from the entry doors. 

     “What is the meaning of this?”  They all turned to behold Monsieur Chauvelin, taking in the scene with barely-concealed incredulity.

      The Comte spread his hands with an amused, conspiratorial glance over at de Gilles. “A shooting-match, Monsieur; an affair of honor.”

     The other man’s gaze rested on de Gilles, and his color could be seen to rise. “You!”

     “Monsieur.” Gracefully, de Gilles made a sweeping bow.