ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 

The True Pretender

Chapter 4

 

     “Tell me of this young man—he is un Français?”  Madame Dumonde was discreetly interested, her dark eyes sliding toward Epione as she rearranged the hats that were on display in the window—even if not sold, they would be rotated out, every few days, to give the impression they were going fast and that shoppers needed to strike quickly. 

     “So he says.” Epione kept her own conclusions to herself, as she pleated a ribbon with nimble fingers.

     “My spies tell me he is very handsome, and he escorted you to work this morning.” This delivered with an arch look that invited confidences.

     Willingly, Epione smiled at her teasing. “Yes—he is good-looking.” Her eyes lifted to contemplate the empty doorway across the way as there was handsome, and then again, there was handsome.  “It turns out we are distantly related, which is why he sought me out.”  She’d decided not to mention the marriage proposal, and the dazzling prospect of a French château, as she’d come to the conclusion she needed more information from the picker-of-locks.  Unfortunately—despite its being the appointed hour—that gentleman did not haunt his post.  However, Epione did not allow this setback to dismay her because she was convinced—for reasons which were unclear—that she would see him again, and soon.

     “Is that so—you are related? Well, that is a surprise—he so fair, and you so dark. Does he stay in town?”

     Epione flexed her fingers—tired after the day’s work—and reflected that Madame was showing a rather uncharacteristic curiousity, which may stem from the fear of losing her sole employee to matrimony. “I would think so, but I do not know his plans.”

     The bell rang, and Madame went to greet the Comtesse Toray’s dressing maid, who came in on a regular basis to choose a variety of hats to take home, so that milady could make decisions at her leisure—some of the old aristos would never deign to be seen in a shop, under any circumstances.  As their voices murmured in the salon, Epione tacked the ribbon on a veiled brim and then held the hat up—contemplating it for a moment with a critical eye—before pulling off the ribbon to start again.  The proportions were off, and she’d learned long ago that it was best simply to start over.

     Her thoughts were interrupted by the Comtesse’s maidservant, who entered the workshop and approached with a measured step to stand before her, ramrod straight, with her hands folded before her.  Often, the servants were every inch as aristocratic as their betters, and sometimes, even more so.  With a dry smile, the woman greeted her.  “Mademoiselle.”

      A bit surprised, Epione took the needle from her lips, and nodded in response.  Uusually, the maidservant did not deign to speak directly to her, but relayed any communications through Madame.  And it was apparent the woman was unused to smiling, as she gave the impression of a rather stringy gargoyle in this attempt to be friendly.

     “Milady is so very pleased with your fashions, Mademoiselle.   She asks that you make a home visit, so that she can discuss designs with you, and express her appreciation in person.”

      This was an unexpected accolade, and Epione was taken by surprise. “Oh—why, that is—”

     “How very splendid.” Madame interrupted from her position in the doorway, and cast a significant glance at Epione.  No doubt this request would lead to a lucrative order, with more to come—the Comtesse was by far the shop’s best customer.

     The maidservant bowed her head, acknowledging Madame’s obsequious attitude as her mistress’s due. “The carriage awaits outside; you will accompany me, s’il vous plait.”

      Amused that it was taken for granted she would accept the invitation, Epione debated what was best to do.  On one hand, she was reluctant to stray from her designated post in the event the handsome man made his much-anticipated return, but on the other, she couldn’t very well refuse.  In the end, she nodded and rose to her feet; it would take but a few hours at most, and with any luck she would be served a decent meal—always a consideration, in these uncertain times.  With a show of gratitude, she pulled the thimble from her thumb, and surreptitiously brushed the thread-ends from her lap.  “Willingly—which materials shall I bring?”

     Considering this, the servant paused for a moment, her expression unreadable.  “A sketchbook, perhaps; I believe Milady only wishes to discuss designs, this evening.”

     Epione gathered up her things and bid goodbye to Madame, who stood behind her desk and bowed her head in acknowledgement, her hands clasped rather tightly before her—so tightly that her knuckles showed white. Why, she is nervous, thought Epione with surprised amusement. Perhaps she is afraid I will disgrace her—and she has forgotten to ask me about the Del Valle order, which is just as well; it is due tomorrow, yet sits in a forlorn state on the worktable, only half-done.

     Once they were outside, the footman duly produced the step, and then handed them inside the carriage with solicitous care.  Epione smiled a greeting at Monsieur Chauvelin, the tailor, who watched without expression from his shop window.   My stock will rise with that one, she thought with amusement—perhaps yet another offer of marriage will soon be forthcoming.

      With a slap of the reins, the carriage rattled down the cobblestones and they were away, Epione enjoying the novel sensation of riding in a carriage and having an adventure—although it seemed there’d been no shortage, of late.  As Epione wasn’t certain how long the journey would take, she made a good-natured attempt at conversation with the imposing servant. “How long have you served the Comtesse, Mademoiselle?”

     “Many years,” the woman answered. “From before the Terror.”  After a pause, her eyes slid to Epione, a gleam of malice contained therein.  “Milady knew your mother.”

      Taken aback, Epione stammered, “Did she indeed?” Feeling the color flood her face, she quickly changed the subject. “And do you have family here?”

     “I do not.”

     Epione decided she’d rather watch the scenery pass by than plow ahead with this awkward conversation, and saw that they were coming to a more remote area, as dusk began to descend.

      It was a pleasing landscape, and Epione resisted the urge to lean out the window to admire it. The émigré community was insular, and as a result, she’d rarely traveled outside the immediate environs of the Soho district. Indeed, there had always been the sense, amongst her family’s acquaintances, that the world would soon be righted, and they would all return to their lands in France —despite the ever-increasing evidence that this was not to be the case. As a result, the general attitude toward their host country was one of slightly contemptuous tolerance; the sting of losing one’s land and heritage was intensified by the fact that one had to take refuge in such an inferior country. 

     Epione had been embarrassed for them, as it was beyond ungrateful—England had taken them in, and had defeated the enemy, for good measure. Epione would gladly have taken up English citizenship, and indeed, this had been her most fervent desire until she’d discovered two days ago that some foreign woman had beaten her to it. 

     After deciding she liked the prolonged silence less than she liked the conversation, Epione ventured, “Is it much further?”

      But before any response could be made, the carriage suddenly jolted, and both women were required to brace themselves so as not to tumble onto the floor. 

      “Fool!”  The maid straightened her bonnet in annoyance, and then composed herself, keeping one hand on the strap as a precaution. 

      As the carriage seemed steady once again, Epione tried to pick up the threads of the discussion. “Does the Comtesse have a special occasion in mind, or does she seek an everyday hat?”

     For whatever reason, the question ignited a gleam of humor in her companion’s cold eyes, as they turned to her.  “A very special occasion—a coronation.”

     “Oh—a bit premature, perhaps.” The poor King of England was mad, but Epione hadn’t heard any rumors that he was near death.  It seemed in poor taste, if it was a joke.

     “It is always best to be prepared.”  The woman rendered her dry little smile, and turned to gaze out the window again.

     “Perhaps a velvet turban, then.” Epione wasn’t certain how old the Comtesse was, as she seemed to purchase all variety of Epione’s creations—she was clearly one of those women who could not possess enough hats. If she was of the same generation as Epione’s late mother, though, a turban was probably most appropriate—although a prie-cap with an ostrich feather could work, if it were fashioned out of an elegant fabric. 

     As Epione debated whether it would be too impolite to ask her customer’s age, the maid suddenly frowned and leaned forward, peering out the window into the gathering darkness.  Epione followed her gaze, but saw only the branches of spreading trees, silhouetted against the fading sky as the carriage gently rocked along its journey. “Are we lost?” she asked, half in jest.

     “I do not understand this,” the woman muttered. “It is not right.”

     Nonplussed, Epione regarded her companion. “Are we headed in the wrong direction? Where does the Comtesse live?”

      The woman stilled at the question, and rigidly kept her gaze out the window.  “Just a bit further,” she replied in a clipped tone.  “We will arrive soon.”

     “Well then—that is excellent.” Epione settled back into the cushions, her mouth dry and her heart leaping into her throat. As she turned her gaze out her window, she assimilated the alarming fact that the maid had no ready answer to the question of where the Comtesse lived. In light of recent events, Epione decided that an escape was probably imperative, and the sooner the better. Out of the corner of her eye, she gauged the distance to the opposite door and then—taking a breath—she lunged to open it, and leap out into the roadway, as the maidservant cried out in alarm behind her.