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Authors: Charles O'Brien

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BOOK: Deadly Descent
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She drew a deep breath. “Postpone this trial until my lawyer can investigate last night's events and call witnesses in my defense.”

Another uproar broke out. The gavel pounded furiously. Hammer leaned forward, speaking softly as if addressing a naughty child. “My dear, if you need a lawyer, you shall have one.” He gestured to a young man standing in the rear of the room. “Get Boomer, the notary. You'll know where to find him.” A roar of laughter broke out among Roach's men.

The young man returned a few minutes later with a bent, bleary-eyed, middle-aged man. He tottered through the courtroom in a shabby food-stained coat, pulling up soiled breeches.

“He's drunk,” Anne shouted, glaring at Hammer. “I demand my own solicitor, Edward Barnstaple of Jermyn Street, London!”

More hoots and shouts. The gavel pounded out enough silence for Hammer to be heard. “Drunk or sober, Boomer's the best lawyer in Britain.” Hammer motioned for the man to approach. A hurried, whispered conference. Boomer shuffled to his seat.

Hammer called out to him. “Sir, how plead you for your client?”

Boomer rose, took a step toward Anne, and cocked his ear.

“Innocent!” she shouted.

He returned to the bar, glanced anxiously at Roach and then at Hammer. “Your honor…,” Boomer stammered helplessly. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead, his voice faded. He dropped down on a nearby bench, shaking violently, unable to speak.

Pandemonium broke out. Anne shifted her weight from one leg to the other, studying tufts of hair growing out of Hammer's ears. He followed her eye, puzzled for a second, then tugged at his wig. He lifted his gavel and restored order again.

“I've heard enough.”

Meg's women pulled Anne closer to the magistrate.

“Anne Cartier,” he said, “you are herewith convicted of public drunkenness, lewd solicitation, and battery upon two gentlemen of this community.” He looked around with a crooked grin on his face. “At noon today you shall be clipped, stripped, and whipped in the marketplace.” He paused for a roar of coarse laughter. “Tender as we are to the ladies, we prescribe a soft lashing. Ten strokes with a smooth leather strap.” He paused again to allow cries for more, then raised his hand for silence. “Ten's enough. Mr. Roach will apply them to your back.” Huzzahs burst out from Roach's clique. Hammer leaned back, looking pleased with himself.

Anne nearly choked with rage, but she stood erect at the bar, outwardly ignoring the tumult. Her stoic posture gradually drew all eyes to her, and the noise died down.

Yielding to her unspoken demand and his own curiosity, Hammer asked if she had something to say.

“Yes, I do.” She coolly surveyed the crowd and then looked Hammer in the eye. “This trial is a farce, a crime against the laws of England, and you, sir, are unworthy of your office.” Hammer's gavel prevented her from saying more. Roach's men stamped their feet.

Over the din, Hammer screeched, “Contempt of court! Ten more lashes! And you'll hang till sundown!”


Anne paced the cell, jangling her manacles. She was alone. Waves of anger and fear churned in her mind. Was this a bad dream? She had heard of filthy prisons and corrupt judges but she couldn't believe this was happening to her. The stench of the place brought her back to harsh reality. Whatever happened, she told herself again and again, she would hold on to the truth of her innocence. Somehow, she would be vindicated.

As a distant bell struck the half-hour before noon, Meg and her two companions entered the room. “Time to change,” she said grimly. “Take off your clothes.” She searched the ring on her belt for the key to the manacles.

“No!” Anne crossed her arms defiantly.

“Then we'll tear them off.” The three women quickly stripped her, pulled a thin linen skirt over her hips, tied a long halter top on her shoulders and a cord around her waist. Outside the workhouse, they secured her to a bench in a small cart pulled by a donkey. Across the yard Justice Hammer awaited them. Grinning, he raised a crude placard for Anne to see—
French whore
—and hung it around her neck. The procession set off for the scaffold. The magistrate led the way. His clerk followed, ringing a bell and calling out the court's verdict.

The marketplace was packed with country people, more raucous and excited than usual. In a round pit off to the left, a pair of mastiffs were tearing at each other's throats, saliva mixed with blood dripping from their jaws. Their partisans pressed up against the fence, shaking fists in the air, and urging on the dogs with their curses. To the right, Anne glimpsed a beggar sitting in the pillory, covered with filth.

Snatches of talk reached her as the cart drove through the crowd.

“I know them Frenchies,” exclaimed a bald, sallow-faced journeyman in a gray woolen smock and worn leather breeches. “They're wild as alley cats. They'll scratch your eyes out.”

“Right,” agreed a loutish companion, glancing at Anne, “and she's probably a papist too.”

She groaned inwardly and gritted her teeth.

In the center of the marketplace, amid a deafening din, Roach and Hammer called men to tables of free beer and ale, joints of roast beef, wheels of cheese, and freshly baked pies. Anne glanced to her left at a stall of flowers. Harriet Ware, a shopping bag on her arm, was staring with horror at the macabre scene. Their eyes met. Anne mouthed a silent cry for help. Harriet nodded cautiously, as if fearing recognition by Roach's men. She backed out of the crowd and disappeared down a lane.

At the far end of the marketplace stood the scaffold, a temporary platform with two posts supporting a bar between them. A crowd of men and women from the parish workhouses, factories, and nearby farms had gathered there, eagerly awaiting a rare spectacle—Anne being shamed and beaten. It seemed unreal, as if it were happening to someone else. She wanted to scream but the sound stuck in her throat.

At the twelfth stroke of the parish church bell the ritual of punishment began. She was suspended from the cross bar, her toes barely touching the platform. Hammer addressed the crowd like a carnival barker. “What have we here?” he bellowed, pointing to the sign hanging on Anne's chest.

“A French whore!” replied the crowd, clapping their hands.

“And how do good men of Islington deal with whores?” He held up a pair of shears.

“We clip them!” came a thunderous response.

With a flourish Hammer removed the pins from Anne's hair, letting it fall nearly to her waist, glistening in the sun. He gathered it tightly in his hand, then cut it. He held it up to the crowd like a golden trophy. A tear trickled down her cheek. Her lips quivered.

“Behold, whore's hair!” Roach's men whinnied and broke into raucous laughter.

When the crowd quieted, Hammer paced back and forth. He frowned, as if wrestling with a problem. Then he turned to the crowd.

“What do we do with whores who strike and slash gentlemen?”

“Strip and whip them!” roared the crowd.

Hammer beckoned to Roach and handed him the strap. He flourished it, leering broadly, while the magistrate walked up to strip Anne. Her jaw clenched, she pulled hard against the ropes binding her, cutting into her wrists, but they held her fast.

Suddenly, over Hammer's shoulder, she noticed a commotion, as if an enormous wedge were cleaving the crowd. Louis Fortier was plunging toward her, thrusting men left and right, his jaw set in a fierce scowl. In his wake came Mr. Newton in his black clerical suit and Mr. Braidwood, followed by Harriet Ware and Tom and Winifrid Atkinson. Over the crowd's confused babble, Newton's voice thundered again and again, each time louder. “This must stop!”

Hammer swung round from Anne. His eyes narrowed with fury as he recognized Newton. They had clashed before, Anne sensed. Roach pointed with his whip at the advancing vicar, rallying his men who gathered into a block, and tried to stop Fortier's forward thrust. Towering over the bullies, the strong-man seized two of them by the hair and banged their heads together. They fell senseless to the ground. With a powerful shove, he scattered the rest like tenpins. Anne sensed Hammer's resolve weaken. He moved away without looking at her.

Approaching the scaffold, the vicar spoke to the magistrate in a low deliberate tone. “You'd better listen to me, Mr. Hammer, or you will certainly hear from the Lord Chancellor.”

Hammer quickly surveyed the crowd, his brow furrowed. He might change his tune, Anne thought. Prior to Mr. Newton's intervention, the crowd had been aroused by Hammer's harangue into a common depraved enthusiasm to see her whipped. Now, the crowd broke up into small, confused groups, quarreling with one another. The magistrate shouted for order, but few paid him any heed. Most seemed fascinated or frightened by the French Hercules.

The vicar stepped up on a bench by the scaffold and faced the crowd. “Miss Cartier…,” he pointed to Anne, “is a good Christian woman. Born in Britain. Baptized in the Church of England. Honorably employed by Mr. Braidwood of Hackney to teach the deaf. She's innocent of all charges. The victim of an unprovoked assault. At the least, like all of us, she deserves a fair trial.”

To Anne's relief, the crowd began to quiet down and attend to the vicar, some of them nodding their heads. A tall gray-haired man in front remarked loudly, she didn't look like any whore he'd ever seen.

Roach's men gathered furtively around their leader, who had abandoned the platform. While Newton went on speaking, Roach looked to Hammer for a signal. None was given. Hammer stood rigid with frustrated anger, unable to speak or act. The vicar had seized the crowd's attention, and drawn in the merchants and their customers from the stalls, many of whom disliked the magistrate.

Roach and his men slipped away, while Newton laid out the affair, gesturing toward Anne, still tied to the crossbar, now more like a martyr than a criminal. He called Braidwood and the Atkinsons forward to testify on her behalf. In conclusion, Newton shook a clenched fist at Hammer and shouted, “Free her.” The crowd stirred, then repeated after him, “Free her.”

Newton spoke to Louis Fortier, who leaped onto the platform. He untied Anne's wrists and eased her down from the crossbar, releasing her slowly, as if he sensed her will to stand on her own feet. Harriet laid a cloak lightly over her shoulders. Anne leaned on her friend and said softly, “I was headstrong, I should have stayed with you.” Harriet caressed her cheek and helped her off the platform to a bench nearby. Mr. Braidwood held a flask of brandy to her lips. She sipped, then pushed the flask aside.

Newton approached her. “Are you well?”

She nodded. “And eternally grateful!”

He threw a tactful glance at her cropped hair. “I wish we could have come earlier. But we needed to organize. It was risky to challenge Hammer in the public market. The crowd's reaction was hard to predict.” The vicar exchanged glances with Braidwood. “We'll ask the Lord Chancellor to quash your conviction and deny Hammer a commission of the peace.” Newton leaned forward, his brow knitted with concern. “Roach, unfortunately, is still free. And angry. You must take care.”

“I shall.” She rose from the bench and embraced him.

Chapter 4

Chateau Beaumont, April 1786

A red lacquered carriage halted at Montrouge on the Orléans highway a few miles south of Paris. Its two black horses pawed the stony roadbed, rattling their harness. A simple coat of arms on the carriage door, a sword slashing a military cape, identified its owner and sole passenger, Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin. He stepped out of the cab and climbed up next to the coachman. The filth of the city was behind them. The colonel took a deep breath of fresh country air. Thin lines of stress faded from his face. The carriage turned left on the road to Chevilly, crossed the Bièvre River, drove north toward Villejuif, and stopped near the village of L'Hay.

The colonel pointed to a vine-covered sign on a post. “This is it, Chateau Beaumont.” The coachman nodded, then cracked his whip. The carriage lurched through the open gate and rolled at an even pace down the graveled lane. The rhythmic crunching of wheels and hooves blended with the bird songs of spring. Through the thickening foliage of chestnut trees, the colonel glimpsed the large stone building ahead.

He shivered slightly in anticipation, as if coming home from long absence in a distant and alien land. His father had always been away at court or war. At his death in 1762, his debt-burdened widow sank into deep despondency. Only at Beaumont could young Paul find someone who cared for him: Aunt Marie, Comtesse de Beaumont, his mother's younger sister. She had chosen his earliest tutors and had directed his moral instruction.

“Be worthy of your name,” she had said, as he left for the military academy. Into his hand she had pressed a small book, its leather cover worn and stained. “De Berville's story of the Chevalier de Bayard. Your father's copy.” Laying both hands on his shoulders, she had caught his eye. “Serve your king like Bayard, a gentle knight, without fear or reproach, regardless of the evil you encounter. And help the needy, like your namesake, Martin of Tours, who shared his cape with a beggar.” A heavy charge to put on a trembling little boy. That was twenty-three years ago, but as clear in his mind as if yesterday.

Nearing the wide iron gates, the carriage slowed down. The curved wings of the chateau reached toward him like arms in welcome. For a few moments he was once again a first-year cadet, fleeing from merciless hazing at the academy. Older cadets had mocked his high principles. “Saint-Bayard,” they called him and tried every imaginable trick to corrupt him. On his thirteenth birthday, when they put a prostitute in his bed, he had stolen a horse and escaped to Beaumont.

He had heard not a word of rebuke from his aunt. She negotiated his safe return to the academy, then taught him to win the affection and respect of his peers. “Excel in the military arts and submit to discipline,” she had said, “but be your own person.” He had grimly followed her advice, at great personal cost, as if all joy had been pressed out of his heart. The first year had been the worst. The following years had been tolerable only because he could retreat during vacations to Beaumont.

The carriage clattered across the cobblestones of the courtyard and halted in front of a porticoed entrance. A servant smiled in recognition, showed him into a reception room, and left in search of the comtesse. He drew his aunt's note from his pocket. An invitation to tea, urgent in tone. A curious message, he thought, wondering what might be troubling her.

Brushing specks of dust off his blue coat and its red cuffs and lapels, he glanced in a mirror. The reflected image startled him—the face of a stranger, with lonely, troubled eyes. He frowned. He had thought he was happy. With a sigh he looked down and inspected the polish on his boots. They shone. Even when visiting an indulgent aunt, he mused, one must be careful of appearances.

She entered as he finished grooming. He bowed to the tall, erect woman striding toward him. A light pink robe hung loosely over a paler muslin dress. They embraced. “It's been too long since my last visit,” he said. He stepped back, holding her hands, and gazed at her. “You're as lovely as ever.” Her finely etched brow, cheek, and jaw had resisted the ravages of time. Her gray hair was lightly powdered, her complexion clear. And her eyes! Cool gray-blue, discerning, and wise. A genuine jewel of her class, he thought, unlike so many paste imitations.

She returned his gaze. “You seem a little thinner,” she remarked. “Are you taking care of yourself?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Work takes its toll.”

“True,” she said, “and not only on the body.”

He released her hands. “There are remedies—sport, music, and a few good friends.”

She hesitated for a second, searching his face. “And women?”

“I measure them by your standard,” he bowed slightly, “and, thus far, have found them wanting.”

Shaking her head in mock denial, she took his arm. “Come with me to the picture gallery.”

They walked between slender Ionic columns into a long room illumined by a soft, northern light filtering through tall windows. Marble busts of Diderot, Voltaire, and other enlightened authors favored by the comtesse stood on pedestals between the windows. A row of family portraits shared the opposite wall with paintings by Watteau, Boucher, and Chardin, hung with an eye for symmetry and balance.

His aunt suggested he might enjoy some quiet time with the collection. How considerate of her, he thought. This was a sacred place, evoking in him a reverence for his ancestors akin to the filial piety of Aeneas toward his father in ancient Rome. Comtesse Marie moved to the far end of the room, opened a cabinet and busied herself, rearranging small precious objects. He was grateful his aunt knew when to leave him alone, and not only in an art gallery. Other relatives badgered him to get married or to connect with influential persons at the royal court and advance his military career.

He was drawn, as many times before, to a portrait of his father in the uniform of a lieutenant-general of cavalry. The intrepid brow spoke of valor; the resolute chin, of decisive action; the proud lift of the head, of indomitable honor. The eyes…Paul wanted to find hidden in them a sign that his father had loved him. But, opaque as ever, they kept their secret. He sighed, then turned away.

He glanced at his aunt, who seemed concerned there was no longer any woman in his life. There had been one, a wife he had learned to love, delicate as a porcelain figurine. She had died in childbirth nine years ago, and the baby with her. His grief lingered, mocking his attempts to suppress it with forced marches and battles in America at the side of the colonists fighting the British.

He felt grief stirring again and sought to distract it, when his aunt caught his eye. He joined her at an excellent copy of Chardin's still-life painting, the
. A soft light from a window in the opposite wall brought out bright yellows, greens, and reds, subtly hidden in the artist's somber palette. The picture drew Paul into its illusion. He smelled the sea beast's oily scent.

His eyes strayed to the window. A worry crept into his mind. He glanced from window to window. They were secured by simple latches. “A professional thief could easily break in here,” he said in gentle reproach, “though Chardin's pictures wouldn't interest him. Too difficult to market.” He pointed toward an open cabinet. “But he'd surely pick up those gold and silver vessels and that ivory chess set.”

“Must I put iron bars on the windows?” his aunt asked, hugging herself as if trapped. “The room would feel like a prison!”

“Strong grillwork and locks needn't be ugly,” he replied dryly, adding he would send an architect to advise her.

Her face clouded with doubt. “Can't you get more men to protect our homes from burglars? Nothing seems safe here anymore.”

“I've asked for another adjutant,” he replied levelly, biting back a sharp retort. She had hit a sore nerve. Rich aristocrats paid no taxes but expected police protection night and day. “‘Can't afford it,' Baron Breteuil told me. The thieving's worse in the city.” He silently chided himself for the irritation he had felt even though he hadn't vented it. He bowed graciously and offered her his arm. Her eyes warmed. She nodded toward the door. Arm in arm, as if on review, they passed beneath the sightless gaze of their ancestors.


Tea was ready in her study, a room with a view over a garden in the English style. Here, during the summers as a boy, he had fed the part of himself that was starved at the military academy. Shelves of gold-embossed, leather-bound books covered the walls from floor to ceiling, feasting the eyes as well as the mind. He passed his fingers lightly over Voltaire's
and Beccaria's
On Crimes and Punishments
. They had taught him to abhor torture and arbitrary arrest and to practice enlightened principles of criminal justice. On a library table stood the large world globe he had often explored. He had been to America in his imagination long before he reached its shores as a soldier.

Comtesse Marie led him through the room, spinning the globe as they passed. A vase of freshly cut daffodils from the garden beckoned them to a small round table set with fine Sèvres porcelain. He smiled with pleasure. Her impeccable taste had always lifted his spirits out of the vulgarity of military company. Servants in pale blue livery attended them, pouring from shining silver pots and offering pastry on silver trays engraved with the Beaumont coat-of-arms.

Having dismissed the servants, his aunt turned the conversation to his forthcoming trip to England. He admitted never having been there, but he felt prepared. He had mastered the language while serving with French forces in America during the recent war. During lulls in campaigning he spoke nothing but English, visiting the homes of American officers he had come to know. When the fighting ended at Yorktown, he was given custody of two captured British officers, Captains James Gordon and William Porter. They became his friends and then his teachers, claiming his English had taken on a colonial accent.

“I'll meet them in London,” he said, as his aunt rose to fill their cups again. Looking up at her, he anticipated a question forming in her mind. “May I do something for you there?”

She replied slowly, as if weighing her words. “A painful errand, I fear. Do you recall the Dubois family?”

“I'm not sure I do.”

“They were here before the war,” she explained. “For several summers they entertained us and taught us English. Antoine Dubois was French. His wife Pauline, English, of French stock. She had a daughter, Anne, from a previous marriage.” The comtesse smiled fondly. “Anne! A beautiful girl. Sweet and kind, like her mother. But stronger. Her acrobatics with Antoine were incredible.”

Sipping from his cup, the colonel pictured slender limbs cartwheeling elegantly across a green summer lawn. Long blond hair whirling. Shrill, clashing music.

When the war came, his aunt continued, the Dubois family was in London. She lost contact with them. “After the war, I learned from Anne that her mother had died.” A pained expression came over the comtesse's face. “Several months ago…” Her voice broke. “Several months ago in Paris, it appears that Antoine killed himself after murdering an actress he was living with.”

Saint-Martin leaned forward and stroked her hand. “How shocking it must have been for you!” After a quiet moment he went on, searching his memory. “I recall the case; the city police handled it. At the time, I didn't connect the murder and suicide to the actor at Beaumont years ago.”

In a strained voice the comtesse went on with her story. While in Paris recently, she had chanced to learn that the police had searched the city in vain for the actor's next of kin. They were too busy to inquire in England. “That's wrong, Paul,” the comtesse said emphatically. She stared at her nephew. “Antoine's stepdaughter
to know.”

His aunt's visible distress touched Saint-Martin. He spoke softly. “Give me her last address. I'll start from there and perhaps put a notice in a London newspaper.”

“I knew I could count on you.” She cast a quick, brilliant smile, then lightly gathered the folds of her gown. “I've already written a message.” She rose, picked up a letter on her desk, and handed it to him. “You may read it. I'm inviting Anne to visit me in Paris.”

After scanning the letter, Saint-Martin looked up at his aunt. “Any instructions?”

“Use your best judgment about the young woman, whether to extend the invitation. One doesn't know what to expect after so many years.” She regarded him quizzically. “You will have time for this, won't you?”

He frowned in mock reproach, then replied gently, “I'll make time.”


After tea they walked to an outdoor theater in a clearing among oak trees, delicately crowned with the light green of spring. The slope of the ground formed a shallow amphitheater, enclosed by a low, semicircular stone balustrade. They passed between two stone maidens guarding the entrance—Thalia, the muse of comedy, and Terpsichore, the muse of dance and song—and walked down the center aisle.

“The Dubois family performed there,” reminisced the comtesse, gesturing toward a closely trimmed sod stage framed by thick boxwood hedges.

“Tell me about them,” the colonel asked as they sat down on a stone bench. He wondered why this family had so deeply touched his aunt.

Comtesse Marie reflected for a few moments, tenderness filling her eyes. “I knew Pauline best,” she began. “She came from a Huguenot family that fled to England early in the century and later prospered in the manufacture of fine silver. A beautiful, lively woman, she was fluent in French and English and musically talented. And unconventional! For a few years she performed in London theaters. When Comte de Beaumont and I visited London in 1769, I inquired for someone to tutor me in English. Mrs. Dubois was recommended. She proved to be an excellent teacher and a charming guide to the city. My English improved remarkably. When the comte and I left London after a few months, I realized I didn't want to lose Pauline's companionship. The comte enjoyed her husband and her daughter in vaudeville. He agreed we would all benefit by having the Dubois at Chateau Beaumont for the summer. They came back every year for a decade. Pauline and I grew close. I could confide in her.”

BOOK: Deadly Descent
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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