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Authors: Edward Marston

5 A Very Murdering Battle

BOOK: 5 A Very Murdering Battle
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A Very Murdering Battle
 

E
DWARD
M
ARSTON

 

To Judith
with love and thanks
for the way that she fought every battle
in the War of the Spanish Succession beside me.

 
C
HAPTER
O
NE
 
 
January, 1709
 

France was in the grip of the coldest winter for a century. Rivers froze, animals died in vast numbers and the seed corn for the next harvest perished in the ground. An almost perpetual frost blanketed the country. Icy fingers closed around the throat of Paris and tried to throttle it, choking off its commerce, squeezing the breath out of its administration and killing off at random the old, the infirm, the sick, the poor and anyone unable to find adequate protection against the relentless chill. It was the worst possible time to visit the French capital but Daniel Rawson had no choice in the matter. While his regiment was shivering in its winter quarters, he’d been dispatched into enemy territory on important business. It was not an enticing prospect. What made the visit bearable was the fact that he was able to stay with an old friend in a house that offered him a warm welcome and a roaring fire.

Ronan Flynn tossed another log onto the blaze, then appraised him.

‘What, in the bowels of Christ, has got into you, man?’ he asked. ‘Only a lunatic would come to Paris in this weather. It will freeze your balls off.’

‘It’s the same wherever I’ve been,’ said Daniel, ‘and I hear that England fares just as badly. The Thames is solid ice and they hold a frost fair on it.’

‘Then at least they get some pleasure out of the winter. There’s none of that for us, Dan. The last harvest failed and we’re facing a famine. Think what that means for me. I’m a baker now, remember.’

Daniel nodded. ‘How could I ever forget?’

Flynn was a tall, rangy, raw-boned Irishman in his forties with long, grey hair that curled at the edges and which hung so low over his forehead that he was always brushing it back. He and Daniel had once fought together in the Allied army but his most recent military service had been in one of the Irish regiments in the pay of the French. The change of sides had not affected their friendship because the bond between them was too strong. After a rescue on the battlefield, the Irishman owed Daniel his life and would always be indebted to him. For his part, Daniel admired the ebullient Flynn both as man and soldier. Also, in view of what happened during his last stay at the house, he had reason to be eternally grateful to his old comrade.

‘Bakers need flour,’ said Flynn, worriedly, ‘and there’s little to be had. The Treasury tried to buy corn from the Beys of North Africa but they were stopped from shipping it to France by squadrons of British and Dutch warships.’

‘You can’t expect me to apologise for that, Ronan. War is war.’

‘And bread riots are bread riots.’

‘I’m sure you’ll survive somehow.’ Seeing the anxiety in his friend’s eyes, Daniel quickly changed the subject. ‘It’s wonderful to see you and your family looking so well. Charlotte is as beautiful as ever and I can’t believe the change in Louise. She was a babe in arms when I last saw her. How old is she now – three?’

Flynn brightened immediately. ‘She’s almost four, Dan, but she gives herself such airs and graces that you’d take her for a young lady, so you would. Louise can be a little devil sometimes and I love her for it. The girl has got such spirit.’

‘She inherited that from her father.’

‘Yes, she has Charlotte’s looks and my mettle. Thank goodness it’s not the other way round,’ Flynn went on with a laugh, ‘because I’m an ugly bugger and my dear wife – God bless her – is placid as they come. That’s why I married her. After all this time, mind you, I still don’t know why she married
me
.’ He laughed again then narrowed one eye as he looked at Daniel. ‘But talking of beautiful women, what happened to that darling creature you brought here the last time you stayed under our roof? She had the face of an angel. What was her name – Emilia?’

‘Amalia,’ said Daniel, fondly. ‘Amalia Janssen.’

‘I can tell from your voice that she set your blood racing. What man could resist her? You shouldn’t have let her slip through your fingers, Dan.’

‘I didn’t.’

Flynn’s interest quickened. ‘You’re still in touch with her?’

‘I always will be, Ronan.’

Daniel gave him a brief account of the way that his friendship with Amalia Janssen had matured into something far more significant and satisfying. He’d first met her when he’d been sent in disguise to Paris to track down her father, Emanuel, a celebrated tapestry maker employed at Versailles by Louis XIV. Unknown to his patron, Janssen had also been working as a spy on behalf of the Allied army and, when exposed, he was promptly imprisoned in the Bastille. It fell to Daniel to rescue him from captivity, then spirit Janssen, his daughter, his assistant and his servant all the way back to Amsterdam. Such a feat would have been impossible without the help and advice of Flynn, who sheltered the fugitives until they were ready to sneak out of the city by means of cunning stratagems devised by Daniel.

Flynn was a good listener, sipping wine and tossing in the odd question to keep the narrative flowing. He was delighted to hear that his friend had finally found someone with whom he was ready to share his life.

‘You’ve changed, Dan,’ he teased. ‘When we bore arms together, you had an eye for the ladies and took your pleasures where you found them. The handsome Captain Rawson broke lots of female hearts in his time.’ He smothered Daniel’s interjection with a raised palm. ‘Yes, I know, I was just as bad – far worse, if truth be told. I had more than my fair share of conquests and I shudder at the thought of what I once was.’ He looked upwards. ‘May the Lord forgive me my sins!’ he said with feeling. ‘I was a different man then. It was before I met Charlotte and realised what it was like to love someone with every fibre of my body. When Louise came along, my life felt complete for the first time.’

‘I’m very happy for you, Ronan – and full of envy.’

‘Does that mean you’ll follow my example and give up soldiering?’

‘Oh, no,’ said Daniel, seriously, ‘I’d never do that.’

‘You could if you had real sympathy for your wife. See it from her side. Marriage to an army officer is a species of hell. You never know from one day to the next if your husband is still alive. The constant anxiety will wear any woman down.’

‘This war will be over one day.’

Flynn raised an eyebrow. ‘How many years have you been saying that?’

‘Peace talks are taking place at this very moment.’

‘I’ll wager anything you like that they’ll come to nothing. You know that as well as I do. Be honest, Dan – can you
really
sniff peace in the air?’

Before Daniel could reply, Charlotte came down the stairs and emitted a sigh of relief. Wearing a plain dress that showed off her shapely figure, she had a shawl around her shoulders. She didn’t seem to have aged at all since the last time Daniel saw her and looked more like Flynn’s daughter than his wife.

‘I finally got her off to sleep,’ she said.

‘That was Dan’s fault,’ argued Flynn, lapsing into the French he habitually used in conversation at home. ‘That doll he brought for Louise got her so excited that I thought she’d be up all night.’

‘It was a lovely gift. Thank you, Daniel.’

‘No thanks are needed,’ said Daniel. ‘It’s such a pleasure to see her again.’

‘Don’t leave it so long next time.’

Charlotte sat beside them and warmed her hands at the fire. Fluent in French, Daniel chatted happily with her, struck yet again by the fact that such an attractive young woman had somehow met and married a wild Irishman with a chequered past who was all of eighteen years older. It was an unlikely union but man and wife were supremely contented with each other. When Daniel asked how dire the situation was in Paris, she became more animated, gesticulating with both hands and bemoaning the economies they’d been compelled to make.

‘It’s been a real ordeal,’ she said.

‘We’re better off than many, my love,’ Flynn reassured her.

‘That’s no comfort to me, Ronan.’

‘It ought to be.’

‘I wonder how much longer we can go on like this.’

‘There’s bound to be a change in the weather soon,’ said Daniel, more in hope than with any certainty. ‘Everything will be back to normal then.’

‘I’ve prayed for that to happen a hundred times or more,’ she said, sadly, ‘but God doesn’t listen to me. Madame Vaquier thinks that this terrible winter is his way of punishing us.’

‘For what?’ asked Flynn with mild outrage. ‘Why punish me when I lead such a blameless life? I’m the next best thing to a saint.’

Charlotte giggled. ‘I wouldn’t say that, Ronan. Saints don’t use some of the rude words that you do. But,’ she went on, turning to Daniel, ‘we mustn’t bore our guest by complaining about our woes. What brings you to Paris this time, Daniel?’

It was a question that Flynn had the sense not to ask, knowing that his friend would, in all probability, be there to gather intelligence and not wishing for any further detail. He preferred to offer unconditional hospitality.

‘Well?’ pressed Charlotte with an enquiring smile.

Daniel weighed his words. He was about to speak when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He flicked his gaze to the staircase where Louise, the bright-eyed child with her mother’s arresting loveliness, was sitting on a step in her nightdress. She was hugging the gift that Daniel had brought for her and was clearly entranced with her new doll. The girl unwittingly provided him with his cue.

‘I came all this way to give Louise a present from Holland,’ he said, beaming at her. ‘Can you think of a better reason?’

 

 

Encrusted with frost, the palace of Versailles looked rather forlorn, its magnificence dimmed, its celebrated gardens turned to a white wilderness, its countless fountains no more than slabs of ice and its statuary deformed and diminished by the bitter weather. A veritable army of servants was deployed to keep the fires blazing in the rooms and the bedchambers but the long, wide corridors were avenues of gnawing cold. Huddled into a corner, the courier pulled his cloak around him and wished that he could slip off to the kitchens where there was sure to be a reviving warmth and even the possibility of a hot drink. Orders were orders, however, and he was forced to obey them. He was a dark-haired man of medium height and middle years. A regular visitor to Versailles, he was usually glad to leave it. Not on this occasion. When he glanced through the window and saw snow beginning to fall, he quailed inwardly. It would be a testing ride to Paris and one that he would rather not make, but his inclination carried no weight. The work was too well paid to ignore and too important to postpone. He was committed.

Everything was done by numbers. He was not allowed to move until the various clocks began to strike eleven times. Only when their echo had died away could he leave his post and take the second passageway to the left. Just beyond the third door on the right was a small oak chest. Inside it was the package for him. The courier never knew who put it there or who would take it from him in Paris. He was merely an intercessory. Even the signals used were in the form of numbers, allowing him to deliver the package to the right person in the right place at the right time. Conversation was unnecessary. What was in his secret cargo, he had no real notion. It was not his place to speculate. Discretion was absolute. That had been impressed upon him from the start.

It seemed to be getting even colder. Cupping his hands together, he blew into them to give his palms fleeting warmth then tucked them under his armpits. Time hung heavy. The wait became increasingly tedious. His fear of being discovered and challenged grew more intense. Then, at long last, he heard the clocks begin their choral tribute on the hour. One, two, three, four – he stamped his feet in time to the melodic chimes. Five, six, seven, eight – here was action at last. Nine, ten, eleven – he heard the crucial number fade into silence then he was off. Marching along the corridor, he turned left at the appropriate place then counted three doors on the right. Stopping beside the oak chest, he looked up and down to make sure that nobody was watching. It was the work of a second to lift the lid of the chest, snatch the package, hide it in a pocket and replace the lid.

When he stepped out of the building, he discovered that the snow had enlisted the help of an accomplice – a knifing wind that made the flakes swirl and that stabbed at his face. Pulling his hat down over his forehead, he hurried to the stables. His horse was even less willing to go out in a snowstorm and bucked mutinously. Once in the saddle, he mastered it with a fierce tug on the reins and a sharp dig with both heels. It emerged resentfully from the stables and trotted off into the wind. So intent was he on his mission that the courier didn’t notice the two men concealed in the shadows. As he went past, they stepped out to watch. The younger of them was impatient.

‘Let’s go, Armand,’ he urged.

‘There’s no hurry,’ said Armand, lazily. ‘We know where he’s heading and his horse will leave plenty of hoof prints in this snow. We only need to get closer when we near Paris.’

‘Do we kill him or take him alive?’

‘We kill him, Yves. He’s only a messenger and can tell us nothing. The man we’re after is the one awaiting the delivery. He’s the real catch.’

 

 

By the time that Daniel reached the little shop, the snow had stopped falling. It was, however, still more than cold enough to justify his thick cloak, wide-brimmed hat and gloves. He rode with a blanket over his horse so that it had some insulation against the elements. Paris was fairly empty at that time of the evening and nobody saw him turn into the side street where the premises were located. Since the shop was closed, he banged on the door and the owner was instantly roused. The door opened to reveal the diminutive figure of Claude Futrelle, the apothecary, white-haired and with a wispy, white beard. As he studied his visitor through bloodshot eyes, his voice was flat and his face motionless.

‘The shop is closed, monsieur,’ he pointed out.

‘I didn’t come for medicine,’ said Daniel.

‘Then I can’t help you.’

‘I was told that you could, Monsieur Futrelle.’

BOOK: 5 A Very Murdering Battle
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