ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 36

 

     Epione stood, holding her hat against the sea breeze, and soberly considered the view from the main terrace.  The grounds stretched out before them, and beyond the distant walls lay the churning sea. Although the prospect was impressive, the grounds themselves were overgrown, with a rather forlorn pall of neglect hanging over them.  The near acre was laid out for a formal garden, but the pathways were overgrown, and the weeds outnumbered the flowers in their beds so that it was almost impossible to see the geometric design. “It is very impressive,” she offered. 

     “Your rightful legacy.” The Comte stood resolute, apparently unaware of her own lack of enthusiasm, as he looked toward the distant vineyards with his hands clasped behind his back.  “I was adamant that it be returned to you, Mademoiselle.”

     “I thank you.”  It remained to be seen, of course, whether she would ever act as chatelaine for Desclaires.  Unless de Gilles’ plan was successful, none of them would be allowed to survive—which was a sobering thought, here in the cool breeze, and Epione fervently hoped that the combined wiles of de Gilles and the British would prevail over Napoleon’s supporters. And Lisabetta was right; it did look as though it was going to rain, which was very much in keeping with this rather foreboding place.

     “Perhaps we should seek a lady’s weapon from the armory, for Mademoiselle to use.”  De Gilles made a casual gesture toward the inner bailey, behind them.  “It is in the south tower, I believe.”

     Epione threw him a glance, but his mild gaze was fixed on the Comte, who apparently thought this an excellent idea. “Indeed; a lady should always be armed.”  Then, in an open aside to her, “Essential for a happy marriage, I think.”

     She laughed as though this was a witty remark, thinking that he obviously wasn’t thinking of Marie, or he wouldn’t have said it.

     De Gilles took Epione’s elbow, and began to steer her toward the bailey. “I hope it is well-stocked; I have need of more ammunition, myself, after the excesses of last night.”

     “Then you shall have it. It may be locked, though—and I confess that I am not certain who holds the key.”

     “The Jacobin, perhaps?”  De Gilles’ tone was faintly scornful.

     Startled, deFabry looked up in dismay. “Why—whoever do you mean?”

     His jaw set, de Gilles considered the path ahead for a moment, as they made their way toward the bailey. “Monsieur Chauvelin is an ardent Jacobin, mon ami. I cannot cavil, because I do not choose your guests for you.”  He paused, and then added fairly, “And as I am an uninvited guest, myself, it would be very bad manners.”

     But the Comte was aghast, and begged his companion to reconsider. “You—you are mistaken, Seigneur; I would not allow such a–a cretin on the premises, I assure you.  Monsieur Chauvelin is a Napoleonite, instead.”  He paused. “He must be tolerated for that reason; I owe it to Marie—to the cause for which she gave her life.”

     For the first time, de Gilles’ casual elegance was replaced by a certain stiffness—a hint of distance.  “It is you who are mistaken, Monsieur le Comte; I have known him for many years, je vous assure.”

     Struggling for words, the other man forgot himself so much as to step in front of Epione, the better to opportune de Gilles.  “Yes—I agree he is a scoundrel, but it cannot be true—”

     Pausing in apparent dismay, de Gilles turned to the other man, and placed a conciliatory hand on his arm. “Mille pardons, Etienne; I am thoughtless to raise such a subject, when you have been all that is hospitable. Forgive me, mon ami; you must think me a sorry guest.”

     With obvious relief, the Comte shook his head. “There is nothing to forgive; I am mortified, if this is indeed true.”

     “We will not speak of it again; instead tell me what you know of this place.”

     Epione trailed behind them, listening as the men discussed the layout of the château’s ancient fortifications, and speculated as to the age of each addition.   It seemed evident that de Gilles was laying the groundwork to make the Comte come out from under the grip of the tailor, who held power, here, for undisclosed reasons—although the man had certainly capitulated to de Gilles’ presence last night, despite his barely-controlled rage. It was a strange state of affairs; the conspirators dared not cross the Comte, and the Comte seemed to consider himself de Gilles’ courtier.  It was almost absurd, that the fate of France hung on the caprices of a slightly mad nobleman.

     They approached the inner bailey, the ancient walls rising up before them; foursquare, thick and impregnable.  The Comte paused before the scarred oaken door, and pulled on the iron ring with no success. With a flourish, de Gilles produced his lock-picking tool, and bent to apply it, while the Comte watched with unfettered admiration.  “Parbleu, there is a talent.”

     “It has served me well, my friend.”  With a conspiratorial look, he raised his eyes to the Comte as the door clicked open, and Epione thought it interesting that de Gilles always seemed to make a reference to female conquests when he was with the Comte, even though it seemed apparent that the Comte had never been much in the petticoat line—and the man’s inexperience had no doubt been exploited by Marie.   But the Comte always seemed well-pleased to be included in de Gille’s ribald remarks, and she could only admire her betrothed’s shrewd reading of their companion.

     They passed through the thick entry door, and entered the armory; the arrow slits in the venerable stone walls the only source of light.  Arrayed along the tower’s interior walls were wooden racks which supported only a few weapons, and even to Epione’s unpracticed eye, they seemed old, and outdated.

     “Not much to see.” The Comte reviewed the offerings, and made a clucking sound. “It was too much to be hoped for, that we would find something worthwhile.” He turned to Epione in apology. “I see no lady’s weapon, chère Mademoiselle.”

     De Gilles lifted a blunderbuss from the rack, and examined it. “Who held this place, after it was seized by the Jacobins?”

     “I understand it was a biens nationaux—held by the state.  I am not certain who resided here.”

     De Gilles nodded, and returned the heavy weapon to its rack. “And who will hold it after Mademoiselle d’Amberre? Not Monsieur Chauvelin, surely?”

     Once again, the Comte was seen to be acutely dismayed. “Why—why, no; this I swear to you!  Mademoiselle will hold the title as long as she lives—and you, Seigneur, as her husband.” 

     De Gilles lifted another weapon from the rack, and tilted his head in mild disagreement. “Come, my friend. Napoleon would never allow this place to be held by one such as me.”

     But the other man was passionately adamant, and made a slashing gesture with his fist. “I will insist upon it—I have insisted upon it, and I have received assurances.”

     Epione thought it prudent to add, “I do hope you are right, Monsieur le Comte.  If Marie is to be interred here; who will care for her grave, otherwise?”

     The Comte faced her, trying with little success to hide his dismay at the turn the conversation had taken.  “You will hold Desclaires forever—my promise on it.”  But a hint of uncertainty had crept into his voice. 

     “As long as the Jacobin does not.” De Gilles casually opened a cupboard, and examined several silken bags of black powder, perched haphazardly along the shelves.

     The Comte was silent for a moment, struggling with his emotions. “I confess your concerns alarm me; I hadn’t thought of the reaction by—I mean to say—”

     “Yes; my presence makes the situation most awkward.”  De Gilles smiled at Epione with mock-chagrin. “My Epione has chosen the wrong husband, perhaps.”

     At this remark, the Comte drew himself up, resolute. “All will be well, and I beg you not to think of it again—I have been given the most solemn assurances.”

     De Gilles glanced at him sidelong, an ironic smile on his lips.  “By whom?”

     The Comte declared, “I have a document, under the seal of Napoleon, himself.”

     As he returned to his inspection of the ammunition, de Gilles made a small sound which indicated his skepticism of such an assurance. “You and I have both seen what lawless men can do, mon ami—and that one is more lawless than most.”

      Unable to argue, the Comte bowed his head. “Indeed.”

      De Gilles lifted a leather ammunition satchel, and began loading it with musket balls and black powder. “What is on the next floor?”

      “I know not,” said the other man, relieved at the change in subject. “Shall we see?”

     De Gilles and Epione followed the Comte up the narrow, winding stairwell, Epione holding her skirts up to keep them off the crude flooring.  The second level was similar to the first in terms of layout, but instead of weapons, there were a variety of new-looking wooden caskets, stacked against the wall.

    De Gilles leaned down, and with a negligent gesture, lifted a lid to reveal a luminous tangle of pearls. “Now, here is an inheritance, Mademoiselle.”

     “Ah, yes—the pearls.” The Comte nodded, stepping over to take a look. “I am given to understand there will be more to come—although they are not slated to remain here, you understand.  Merely temporary storage, until they can be moved to Paris.”

     “The other caskets contain jewels?” asked Epione, remembering Lisabetta’s comment.

     “Many jewels—indeed, a fortune,” the Comte assured them placidly, clasping his hands behind his back.  “All is in train, to honor Marie’s dreams.”

     De Gilles arched a brow. “Who is donating such an honor?”

     The Comte shrugged with benign disinterest. “Why—I am not certain, but I am given to understand the treasure will be transferred to Paris, within the next month.”

     De Gille’s hands stilled for a moment, then he slowly lowered the lid on the pearls casket. “Ah. I see.”

     Epione found the reference confusing. “But why—”

      Moving with casual grace toward the stairwell, de Gilles interrupted her. “There are unsuspecting ducks awaiting us, ma belle. Since we can find no lady’s weapon, I will gladly lend you my pistol.”

      “I don’t think the ducks have much to fear from me,” Epione confessed. “But I will be happy to assist you gentlemen, with your hunting.”

      The Comte offered his hand to Epione, as he stood beneath her on the stairwell. “Your assistance will be much appreciated, my dear, but where is your manservant, Seigneur?”

     De Gilles’ voiced echoed off the narrow walls. “I would not be surprised if he was assisting la belle Lisabetta.”

     The Comte laughed aloud, as they rounded the final twist of the stairwell, only to behold Monsieur Chauvelin, standing in the entry door, and observing their approach with stone-faced incredulity.  “What is the meaning of this?”

     “We take a tour.” De Gilles pulled the brim of his hat in a mock-salute.  “Mademoiselle d’Amberre is counting her strongboxes.” 

     The man’s expression did not change, but a dull red flush spread up his face. “You will leave this place, Monsieur, and immediately.”

     “Fie—you do not hold sway here.”  The Comte’s tone was cold, and it was clear de Gilles’ earlier remarks had made an impression.  “You will mind your manners, Monsieur.”

     With ill-concealed displeasure, the newcomer met the Comte’s gaze for a long moment, and then made a visible effort to control himself.  “Your pardon.”  Bowing his head, he stepped aside to allow them to pass. 

     Epione, however, stood rooted to the spot; the tailor’s expression—coldly furious—had pricked her memory, so that she now knew why he seemed so familiar.  His face—so rigid with suppressed rage—was the image of her mother’s.