ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 37

 

     “Monsieur Chauvelin is Denis,” she whispered through stiff lips to de Gilles, as they emerged into the weak sunlight.  “He is my brother Denis, is he not?”

     With a quick glance toward the Comte, de Gilles bent his head to look into her face. “Hush, ma belle; wait until we have an opportunity to speak.”

     The Comte’s footstep was heavy behind them. “Mille pardons, Seigneur; such insolence will not be tolerated.”

     “It is only to be expected, from such a one.”  De Gilles lifted his face to smile his engaging smile at the other man. “Come—it is my wedding day, and I will not be cast down. Is it too early for claret?  After all, the ducks must have a sporting chance.”

     Relieved by the turn the conversation had taken, the Comte nodded affably. “It is never too early for claret—let me find the maidservant.”

     With his arm supporting hers, de Gilles led Epione aside into the overgrown garden, the gravel crunching underfoot, and asked in a voice soft with concern, “Do you need to sit, Epione?”

     “No—I am not faint, only amazed. Does he know who I am?”

     “He does.”  

     She stared at him, trying to make sense of it. “Why has he said nothing? I don’t understand.” 

     De Gilles looked away for a moment, and she could see he debated what to reveal.

     “You can tell me the truth, Alexis; I deserve to know, I think.”  Taking a guess, she ventured, “He was part of the L’ange d’Isaac plot—but he survived, obviously.  What has happened to him?”

     He placed an arm across her shoulders, and drew her to him. “Yes; he was part of the plot. Your father was executed, but your brother was taken in by the Jacobins, and raised as a revolutionary.”  He paused, and said a bit grimly, “It was considered fitting—that your father’s heir would be turned to their purposes.  They were not kind, and his mind has been twisted.”

     Epione pondered this for a few moments, trying to assimilate the extraordinary story.  “Then he is indeed a Jacobin, just as you said.”

     “Not precisely; currently, he serves Napoleon.”  He paused.  “He is a very dangerous man, Epione—I will have your promise that you     will say nothing to him of this.”

     “Why is he so dangerous? Why is he here?”  The tailor was not an imposing man, yet the others definitely seemed wary of him.  She lifted her head, struck with a thought. “Why, he should be the true heir to Desclaires.” 

    Her companion tilted his head, and gently corrected her. “If there hadn’t been a Revolution, perhaps. There is no longer an heir to Desclaires; you hold title because Napoleon is indulging the Comte.”

     She glanced up at him, holding the brim of her hat against the persistent breeze. “Yes—have you determined why this is? Does the Josiah plot have something to do with the jewels in the tower?”

     He glanced around, to be certain they were quite alone. “I can guess. We know the Comte is needed to impersonate Louis Philippe; I believe he will placed on the throne, and then he will willingly abdicate to Napoleon. He swear allegiance, and then surrender the contents of the Royal Treasury.”

     Epione stared at him in wonder. “They plan to steal from the Treasury?”

     But he corrected, “There is little to steal—except that the Congress of Vienna has been infusing funds, so as to keep France in operation. But the Emperor will need a formidable treasury to aid his efforts—there are bribes to be paid, and generals to be rewarded.”

     Epione shook her head in amazement. “Grand Dieu, but it is a diabolical plot—they plan to murder two of the pretenders, and then steal the throne from their own imposter.”

     “It is extraordinary,” he agreed. “But then again, we live in extraordinary times.”

     The breadth of this nefarious plot led Epione to one, ominous, conclusion. “Denis must be the murderer—he is the killer; that is why he makes everyone nervous.”

     Facing her, he held her elbows and said gently, “It is rumored that he was used by the Emperor for years, as an assassin.  I am sorry, Epione.”

     Bleakly, she stared up into his sympathetic gaze for a moment, considering the poor, remaining wreckage of what was once a proud family, and—incongruously—how it didn’t seem to matter as much as it should. “Thank le bon Dieu for you.”

     He drew her into his warm, reassuring embrace. “I will say the same.”

     She sank into the comfort of his arms for a moment, then drew a steadying breath, and asked, “What now?”  It went without saying that their own lives would be forfeit, if they were not able to thwart the evildoers.

     “I will go shooting with the Comte. I will ask that you return to your chambers, and stay there until the wedding.”

     “It looks to rain,” she warned. “Don’t be caught out-of-doors.”

     “All the better; I would spend some time with him alone.”

     Hard on this thought, the Comte could be heard to hail them. “Ah—behold the fond lovers. Shall I leave you to it?”

     Epione stepped away from de Gilles, and smiled at him in apology. “I’ve decided I must bow out of the shooting expedition, Monsieur le Comte.  If it rains, my poor hair will be a disaster for the wedding.”

     “Of course.”  The Comte took her hand, and raised it to his lips.  “Eh bien, it is a very special day.”  He indicated Luci, who attended him, bearing a claret jug.  “The girl will accompany you back to the house, Mademoiselle; we can see to the claret, ourselves.”

     But Luci seemed dismayed. “Oh—are you certain? I will be very quiet.”

     Again, Epione noted that the girl seemed conversant in French. “The gentlemen wish to be alone, Luci; if you would, please come with me.”

    “D’accord.” De Gilles took up the jug, and nodded to the Comte. “Come, mon ami, we shall see who strikes first.”