Read Deadly Descent Online

Authors: Charles O'Brien

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

Deadly Descent (22 page)

BOOK: Deadly Descent
10.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Georges grinned as Anne stepped into the parlor. “You look like one of the Furies. But it's nothing that can't be fixed.” He bent forward simpering, could he be of service. Before she could curse him, he waved his hands in apology, then went on to explain that Madame Soucie had suggested him when an extra footman was needed. “You have nothing to fear during the reception. I'll be close by, either outside in the courtyard or in the servants' common room.”

He walked briskly to the hall door, lingered briefly, looked back at her. For a moment he dropped his sprightly, jocular mask. She read in his face a longing and a concern that wrenched her heart. He slowly closed the door.

For a few seconds, she stood in the middle of the parlor, shaken by his departure. Then she carried the breakfast tray to the window sill. A pleasant morning breeze caressed her face. She ate standing up, gazing absently out over the garden.

A nagging thought disturbed her. Chevalier de Pressigny would certainly hear that a man had spent the night in her apartment. She shrugged. What Pressigny might think of her hardly mattered. She did feel uneasy about how he might misuse the information. Suppose he brought it back to Paul, blown up into a tawdry affair?

The colonel and Georges had quarreled last night about whether to arrest Pressigny. She sensed other issues lurked in the background. Was she one of them? She liked both men and didn't want them quarreling over her.

She raised a cup of coffee to her lips. An image of Paul came to her mind. A deep, fascinating man. Graceful in his bearing. Kindly as well. She recalled the way he bent forward to catch her words, the warmth of affection in his eyes, even when he and she disagreed. The rumor of an affair behind his back between Georges and herself would upset him. She might lose his respect.

She sighed, then drained the cup. Her imagination was running out of control. One thing at a time. Behind her a door opened. Michou entered the room with an empty breakfast tray. Anne smiled a greeting. First she would see Michou occupied for the day, and next deal with the Amateurs. Any problem with Paul would have to wait.

Chapter 22

A Question of Love

Paul de Saint-Martin rose an hour after dawn and walked to an open window overlooking Beaumont's garden. The smell of damp grass braced him. Men were already at work, trimming the boxwood edges of the flowerbeds before the heat of the sun grew too strong. Several magpies had gathered on the terrace below him. He threw out pieces of dry bread, raising a frantic flapping of wings and a raucous quarrel.

As he watched them scramble for food, the stronger birds shoving aside the weaker, he grimaced. They reminded him of a similar morality among humans. Rich, privileged families in the city's Saint-Germain quarter dined at sumptuous tables while their footmen chased away poor women begging for their garbage. The image chilled him.

He lifted his eyes to the English park beyond the formal garden. A mist hung over the groves of oak and beech, concealing whatever violence nature's creatures might do to one another there. He stood at the window for a few more minutes, allowing the serene beauty of the park to lift his spirits. Then he sat at a desk, rolled back its cylinder top, and picked up a manuscript of his aunt's memoirs.

He had promised to read a chapter before breakfast, an engaging task. As a younger woman, Comtesse Marie had attended the brilliant Parisian salons frequented by Voltaire, Diderot, and other luminaries, foreign and domestic, including, occasionally, the eccentric Rousseau. She also counted among her acquaintances the most distinguished churchmen, military officers, and statesmen of the generation that flourished after the Peace of Paris in 1763. An observer more than a participant, she kept an inner distance from the celebrities around her, recognizing their personal failings, sorting out their ideas in her own mind.

The rays of sunlight crept across the floor, while he slowly turned the pages of the neat, closely written text. He had just finished her reflections on the occasion of Voltaire's death in 1778 when a chambermaid announced that Comtesse Marie had returned from her morning ride. He said he would join her for breakfast. He laid down the manuscript and pondered her opinion of the great philosophe: a Socrates in silk who had chosen exile rather than hemlock. Near the mark, he thought.

He closed the desk, stroking its smooth shiny surface, and glanced at himself in a wall mirror. His aunt would approve. He was wearing the buff breeches of his field uniform, but was otherwise dressed for warm weather in a simple cotton shirt, open at the neck. His face was tanned, his dark brown hair combed back and tied with a black ribbon. In his eyes, however, he detected a glimmer of anxiety. Anne was about to play her part at Chateau Debussy.

At nine o'clock, he followed a servant carrying a breakfast tray into his aunt's room. She was seated at a small round table. Lightly clothed in a soft rose morning robe, her thick silvery hair newly brushed, she could have posed for an intimate portrait. He noticed a touch of rouge powder on her cheeks, a small concession to vanity. While coffee was being poured, she looked at him sideways. “Paul, what brings you to Chateau Beaumont? Merely the pleasure of my company?” She turned her gaze to a basket of biscuits. After a few moments of deliberation, she picked out a currant scone.

“What I say must remain within these walls,” he warned.

“Of course,” she replied, as if insulted.

“Our investigation into the deaths of the actress Laplante and Antoine Dubois has led us to Chateau Debussy.” He paused to take a biscuit. “We've found an opportunity to look inside.”

“We?”

He explained what Miss Cartier and Georges were doing at the Amateurs' reception. They had already discovered new evidence linking Chevalier de Pressigny to the actress' death, lifting guilt from Dubois.

“What a risk you've taken, defying the orders of the lieutenant-general of police.”

“Does anyone suspect us?” He filled her cup with coffee. “What have you learned on your recent trip to Paris?”

“Nothing to do with your investigation.” She hesitated, as if reluctant to continue. “But you and Miss Cartier are another matter—she is said to be your mistress.”

He felt a frisson of embarrassment. Had he been careless? He shrugged, he didn't think so. “Rumor, as so often, is wrong. It's best ignored.” He sipped some coffee.

Gazing into her cup, the comtesse remained silent for a few moments. Then she glanced up at him. “Consider Miss Cartier.”

“Yes?” he replied, searching for his aunt's point.

She looked at him with reproach. “Is it nothing to be regarded as a man's trophy or his pet?”

He weighed her remark, stung by its sharp edge. “You are right, dear aunt, I should be mindful of her reputation.”

“And, of her safety,” she added, meeting his eye.

He nodded soberly. “Miss Cartier's a remarkably resourceful person, capable of taking care of herself, and determined to see justice done for her stepfather. I've arranged for Georges and the stablemaster to look after her.” Saint-Martin pushed his cup aside, then leaned back. “Is anything else on your mind?”

“Let's stroll in the garden while it's still cool,” she replied, throwing a gossamer mauve scarf over her shoulders. She rang for a maid to clear the table.

At the steps down to the formal garden she waved to men trimming the boxwood edges. The cuttings were piled high in a cart hitched to a donkey. She petted the animal as she walked by, then called her nephew's attention to a row of stem roses. They both bent low to smell the fragrance.

An ear-piercing bray suddenly interrupted their pleasure.

“Bottom!” The comtesse wagged a finger at the animal and turned to her nephew. “He expects a piece of sugar when I pet him.” She drew a small bag from her pocket. “Sorry, Bottom,” she said, palming him a treat.

When she returned to the rose bushes, Paul bowed to her. “Queen Titania! Gulled again by a donkey!”

She smiled quizzically for a moment before catching his meaning. “Shakespeare, of course.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
was one of your favorite summer plays. I recall Antoine Dubois was an hilarious Bottom.” A twinge of pain seemed to work the corners of her mouth. She turned her eyes away.

The donkey and his companions soon departed. The comtesse led Paul into the shade of a bower covered with roses and jasmine, one of four at a crossing of gravel paths that divided the garden into four squares. A small fountain in the crossing trickled water into a basin.

“Are you in love with Miss Cartier?” she asked abruptly, when they had seated themselves. For a few moments she looked out at the fountain, while he tried to mask the feelings stirring within him.

He didn't take offense. “I've grown fond of her.” He looked up hesitantly for the effect of his words.

His aunt asked gently, “Is she fond of you?”

“I think so. But she guards her feelings closely.” His pulse quickened. He walked to the opening of the bower and stared at the fountain, his back to his aunt. “I feel drawn to her. To marriage.” He surprised himself; he had not meant to say that. He had not even thought of marrying again. The words lingered in his ears, as he turned to face his aunt. “Miss Cartier's… bracing, like a gust of fresh air. She fascinates me.”

Comtesse Marie was silent for a few seconds, then spoke in a low, measured voice. “I dearly wish for you—and Miss Cartier— the mutual love and respect of a good marriage. I believe you love one another, and I'm pleased. But in this matter you must listen to your head as well as your heart. Let me be blunt for a moment. Imagine, Paul, if you married Miss Cartier.” She paused, engaging his eye. “She might hurt your career. At best, she could not advance it, having little money and few connections. How much would that matter to you?”

He sat down next to her. “Frankly, it
would
matter. But loving someone like Miss Cartier matters more.”

She leaned back against the bench, folding her arms. “And Miss Cartier? She could expect society to ignore her. Or worse. What kind of life would she have?”

“The life she has now,” he snapped. “Free from mindless convention.” He sought the comtesse' eye and saw there only compassion. “Dear Aunt, you have also chosen your own way. Can you imagine Miss Cartier and I doing that as well?”

His aunt smiled, then smoothed her gown. “You are an army officer, accustomed to giving orders, controlling people.” She rose slowly from the bench and faced him. “Miss Cartier is used to managing her own affairs. I believe she'd like to direct an institute for the deaf. If you two married, would you expect her to gladly give up that idea and submit to you like one of your soldiers?” She eyed him askance.

***

The outdoor theater was deserted—the comtesse had left him with his thoughts. He stood quietly in the entrance between the statues of Thalia and Terpsichore, and listened for sounds lingering from the past. Leaves rustled faintly, like music from an ancient chorus. Sitting on one of the shaded upper benches, he stared at the stage. The questions raised by his aunt might be moot, for marriage with Anne Cartier seemed doubtful. She was fully absorbed in pursuing her father's vindication. And he certainly had enough problems with the Royal Highway Patrol to occupy his mind.

Yet work filled only the mind. He also hungered for companionship, affection, tenderness. Neither nostalgic memories of a sensuous, adolescent Puck, nor distant prospects of marital union with a vigorous, self-assured young woman, met the needs of his heart now. He felt lonely and desolate.

He walked down the grassy aisle to the stage, checking his watch. It was past noon. Anne would be wearing an exotic costume and displaying the jewels. He yearned to see her.

Pacing back and forth across the stage, he began to feel uneasy. He imagined that sybarite, Pressigny, gripping her arm and leading her among the Amateurs. A lamb among wolves! The thought turned his stomach. Suddenly, she appeared to his mind's eye, pressed back against a wall, eyes wide with terror. Young men closed in on her. She opened her mouth in a voiceless scream.

With a strong effort of will he drove these horrid images from his mind. Still, he wondered, could something be going wrong at the reception? He felt a twinge of fear, but he told himself she was safe. Georges was there to protect her. Georges, again! Discharging a duty the colonel wished was his.

He looked out over the empty rows. Could she conceivably prefer Georges to him? He hadn't realized he might meet competition for her affection. Least of all from his own subaltern—rough ugly Georges! Envy stabbed at his heart.

A bell rang. Startled, he glanced about, then realized it came from his aunt's chateau. “Time for dinner,” he said aloud to an invisible audience. He stopped pacing and listened until the final peal.

Chapter 23

A Threat

Tension crackled in the air of the small, ground floor antechamber. A maid put a pair of purple slippers on Anne's feet, another fitted the turban to her head, while Claudine, the dressmaker, stared critically at her skirt. Anne glanced into a large gold-rimmed mirror and discovered herself biting on her lower lip. Smiling nervously, she raised her arms for the dressmaker, who deftly adjusted the fit of the bodice and gave her a pat of approval.

A knock on the door startled the women. Before a maid could react, Chevalier de Pressigny rushed in and fixed his eyes on Anne. “Excellent, she's ready for the jewels.” He turned to Claudine, who nodded in agreement. He left without another word, but Anne understood the reception would soon begin.

Shortly before noon, Krishna came to the door with the burnished wooden box. Two muscular servants stood alert in the entrance. Earlier, the Indian had been a shadowy figure in the background. Now, Anne took note of him, a lean, graying man in his forties. Near her height. Remarkably fit. He was dressed in a patterned white silk Indian costume, a feathered white turban on his head, an ornate, curved knife at his waist. His dark intelligent face gleamed like delicately sculpted mahogany. His facial muscles, however, were taut, and his expression joyless.

Brusquely waving his wife aside, he slipped behind Anne to clasp the necklace around her neck and hang the ropes of diamonds over her shoulders and the pendants over her ears. She felt the heat of his body and smelled his scent, a strong, pleasant musk. He came around in front of her to place the tiara, the ceramic flower, and the ornate feather on the turban. His eyes—amber, like smoldering fire—met hers. He nodded. She held out her arms. He slipped on the bracelets, then bent down to fit other bracelets on her ankles. He rose, surveyed his work, then drew near to arrange the ropes of diamonds across her bosom. In his eyes she detected the hint of a leer. She looked away over his shoulder. His closeness unsettled her.

When he stepped back, she walked to the mirror, keying herself, as if for the stage. The costume fit perfectly, the diamonds sparkled. The maids flitted about her, tucking wayward strands of blond hair into the turban. She wondered whether Comte Debussy would escort her; he could hardly walk. It would look absurd for him to be carried, with her trotting alongside like a gilded poodle.

Krishna smiled politely, proffered his arm and led her to the great hall that looked out over the main courtyard. With a bow he passed her arm to Chevalier de Pressigny. Incredible, she thought. He looked none the worse for last night's party.

Resplendent in a purple linen suit trimmed with embroidered gold flowers, a sword at his side, he nearly danced in anticipation. His eyes darted about, assuring that everything was as it should be. She sensed his tension in the hand gripping her arm as he gave commands to the servants. He stopped for a moment just short of the entrance, held her at arm's length in a shaft of light and gazed at her with a rapt expression. It was for her, she realized, as well as for the jewelry.

Through the open door she surveyed the hall, a starkly simple space that would be cold and austere, were it empty, especially on a gray day. It was now flooded with sunlight, alive and noisy. The Amateurs, their patrons, and their guests milled about, fashionably dressed for a summer feast at a country place, the women in light country gowns, the men in silk waistcoats and breeches, shirts open at the neck.

This hardly looked like a nest of vipers, she murmured to herself, but she knew appearances could deceive. Pressigny leaned toward her, remarking that the white walls of the room had at one time been hung with hundreds of antlers. “They were removed,” he whispered. “The comte worships at the altar of Venus rather than Diana.”

A gong sounded. Stroking the Chanavas tiara with nervous fingers, she moved forward a few steps until she stood framed in the entrance. A hush came over the hall. All eyes turned toward her. A soft murmur of admiration swelled to a roar. She felt exhilarated. The cold weight on her chest, however, was a reminder that the jewels, not she, deserved the crowd's attention. Yet, she was an actress. It cost her an effort not to compete.

Pressigny guided her through the hall, Krishna following a few paces behind. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed, the Amateurs parted as Anne moved among them. She raised and lowered her head, turned left, then right, bowed, lifted up her arms. She heard audible gasps of amazement, whispered estimates of the jewelry's worth.

The Amateurs and their female consorts admired
her
as well, some glancing slyly, others staring shamelessly. She pretended not to notice, being more concerned to study the men, some thirty of them between twenty and forty years old. Common to all was the self-assurance mounting to arrogance that money and rank could confer. Despite their youth, they seemed jaded. As soon as she passed, the wonder left their eyes. She sensed them incapable of great passion for anything.

“A rather dull lot, wouldn't you say?” Pressigny whispered, as they moved away from an obese, pasty-faced young man, upon whom the jewelry's impact seemed typically shallow.

Surprised he would share this opinion with her, Anne hesitated, struggling for appropriate words. “They may be so accustomed to paste jewelry that they cannot appreciate the real thing. The glitter is nearly the same.”

He squeezed her arm and smiled.

Having completed a circuit, Pressigny led Anne into the large pillared vestibule on the garden side of the great hall where a half-dozen of the most prominent patrons had gathered. Quickly scanning the room, she noticed Georges, who nodded to her almost imperceptibly. A few paces away Monsieur Robert LeCourt conversed with three other gentlemen in front of several large pieces of East Indian glazed pottery in niches in the wall. One of them, a tall pale blue vase, had captured his attention. Anne stared: she could not help but admire the studious slant of his head, the elegance of his light green suit trimmed with silver. He seemed even more distinguished than when she had observed him earlier in Café Marcel.

As she drew near, he turned. A frisson of fear warned her. He surely suspected she was the woman Derennes had intended to question in the dungeon of Palais-Royal.

LeCourt gave her a brief, sharp glance, then greeted Chevalier de Pressigny with a few curt words. The young man appeared to stiffen. A question mark flitted across his face before he returned a polite reply. There was an awkward moment.

Then, to Anne's relief, the financier's eyes fastened on the jewels. Lips slightly parted, dark eyebrows raised, he grew engrossed. “May I touch them?” he asked Pressigny, as if unaware of Anne, an arm's length away.

“Of course,” he murmured, clearly caught by surprise and loath to refuse his patron.

LeCourt slipped both hands under the necklace, lifting up the diamonds, caressing their smooth, cabochon surfaces, dangling them from his fingers to refract the colors of the spectrum.

His presence was overpowering. Anne felt faint from the heat of his breath, from his hands at her throat. Her body began to tremble, to perspire. She fought back her feelings with a powerful effort of will. Then the memory of crouching beneath him under the balcony at Café Marcel forced itself into her mind. She could barely breathe.

A bell tinkled. A servant was announcing the banquet. LeCourt tore his eyes from the jewels, bowed to Pressigny, and rejoined his companions. Anne's gaze followed him to the door. It swung open and he disappeared. She gulped air, as if freed from a strangler's grip.

***

Anne stood for a few minutes in the wide doorway, peering into the banquet salon. The Amateurs and their guests were taking their seats, assisted by a dozen liveried servants in silver and blue. The tables were set with elegant Sèvres porcelain, gleaming silver utensils, and floral arrangements from the chateau's gardens. Large landscape paintings hung on the cream-colored walls. Its lofty, richly textured plaster ceiling gave the spacious room a lively, airy aspect. Two large windows opened to the garden. The graveled terrace outside shimmered in the early afternoon sun.

She walked slowly by the windows, allowing streams of sunlight to play upon the gold and the precious stones she wore. Georges came out of a service entrance, carrying a tray of food to a sideboard. He gave her an encouraging glance. She followed Krishna to a table of honor on a low platform opposite the windows. Comte Debussy, who was now just arriving, beckoned to a seat next to him. He appeared to be in excellent spirits.

He bowed, then lightly touched her arm. “You look lovely, Mademoiselle. I feel we've made the right choice.” He inspected the tiara, then the necklace, and finally the lesser pieces, his brown eyes glowing with satisfaction.

Chevalier de Pressigny welcomed his guests, concluding with “Let the banquet begin.” There was a scraping of chairs on the parquet floor, a light clatter of silverware, and a growing buzz of conversation. Waiters glided among the tables with bottles of wine.

Anne's frail elderly companion turned away course after course, taking only broth for nourishment. And he paid little attention to the visitors, favoring them with a quick glance from time to time. He seemed pleased with her company. His cheeks gained color and his voice grew lively. Sensing a propitious moment, Anne fingered the necklace and asked when he had acquired it.

He threw her a fleeting smile, then beckoned a waiter who removed the dishes. “As a young man I spent several years with the French East India Company in the Deccan, a region in southern India.” He fell into the past. His eyes misted in reverie. “I was helping an Indian ruler, a client of the French king, recover his lands from a usurper, Chanavas Khan. After months of fighting, we laid siege to the khan's palace. In the final assault, he was killed and his treasure discovered.”

As he spoke, the tone of his voice grew darker. He glanced at Anne, then fastened his eye on the tiara. “Since I commanded the force, I could claim the jewels.” She suspected her question had touched a tender spot.

At a sign from the comte, a servant shifted his chair a quarter turn to face Anne in profile. “I believe the tiara is my favorite.” He stroked his chin wistfully. To please him she moved her head slowly back and forth. The deep green of the emeralds, the red of the rubies, the sparkle of the diamonds, and the glitter of the gold splashed on a silver salver in front of her, blending into new living colors. She understood how this beauty could fascinate Debussy.

He looked up at his Indian steward standing impassively behind Anne. “It had actually been found by Krishna, then a boy who had recently entered my service.” The Indian glanced at his master, but did not smile.

“A few years later,” the comte continued, “when the English and their Indian allies seized most of the Deccan, I returned to France with the jewels.” He coughed, complained of a dry throat, and signaled for water.

Anne seized the opportunity to glance toward Georges, now framed by a pair of colossal oriental vases. He had placed himself close enough to Pressigny to overhear his conversation. The comte followed the drift of her eyes, then snorted: “Lazy fellow!” Anne's heart leaped. Debussy wagged a finger in Georges' direction. “He's hiding between two of the finest pieces of East Indian pottery in France.” Perceiving he had been noticed, Georges slid back to a sideboard. Anne breathed easier.

Meanwhile, Krishna had begun to fan the comte and Anne. Debussy smiled, remarking that Krishna had returned with him to France and eventually married the daughter of a former French colonial officer and his Indian wife. “Claudine and Krishna have been with me thirty years. Very loyal, both of them.”

While listening to the comte speak of India, Anne kept Monsieur LeCourt in the corner of her eye. Unlike many patrons and Amateurs who had brought along mistresses or female companions, he had come alone. He ate and drank very little and did not take part in the general frivolity. Sitting next to him, Henriette Picard glanced furtively at Anne, then bent toward him, veiling her mouth with bejeweled fingers. His eyes turned to Anne. She noticed his lips move slightly.

When the comte paused for another sip of water, Anne inquired about LeCourt, mentioning his singular appreciation of the jewelry.

“He must have good taste,” Debussy observed. “But I do not know him personally. He arrived in Paris when I retired to the chateau. We have not met.”

Nor, Anne realized, did the comte feel a need to make LeCourt's acquaintance on this occasion, though the man was sitting at a table scarcely ten paces away. Through his illness Debussy had become a recluse, finding satisfaction only in his art treasures.

“I've heard about him,” he continued indifferently. “His name suggests a Huguenot family that fled from France to Holland.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I'm told he worked abroad for many years in the Dutch East India Company and became rich.”

“Why did he come to France?” asked Anne, narrowly avoiding LeCourt's eye.

“Good question, Mademoiselle,” Debussy replied. “He represents a group of Dutch investors and financiers. Due to the wretched condition of our royal finances, the king's ministers are ‘paying court' to LeCourt.” He paused, then smiled when she caught the pun. “They are hoping to borrow money from the Dutch to repay loans we incurred during the American war.” He spluttered in disgust, “A fool's errand!”

Anne felt she could safely probe further. “If LeCourt's such an important man of affairs, why does he bother with the Amateurs?”

Debussy spread his hands toward the young noblemen at table before him. “Fools, every one of them. Fish to his bait. As their patron, he entices them and their families to invest in his own dubious financial enterprises. Sugar. Slaves. Exports to Britain. He promises to double their money. For a year or two, they will receive handsome dividends, then nothing. Before they realize what has happened, he will have left the country, much richer than when he arrived.” Debussy continued with a sneer. “The French nobility has apparently forgotten how John Law tricked them sixty-five years ago with similar schemes.”

BOOK: Deadly Descent
10.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Crypt of the Moaning Diamond by Jones, Rosemary
Rescued: A Festive Novella by Brooker, J'aimee
Betraying Innocence by Phoenix, Airicka
Frostborn: The World Gate by Jonathan Moeller