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Authors: Charles O'Brien

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BOOK: Deadly Descent
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“Quick-witted,” remarked the colonel, feeling a tinge of admiration.

“Unfortunately, Sir, Roach's two companions leaped at Miss Cartier. She slashed one of them, but the other knocked her out and planted liquor on her.” In graphic detail Georges described her ordeal in the prison and the courtroom and on the scaffold. His face mirrored the horror.

Saint-Martin's outward composure threatened to crack. Raw images from the past were seeping into his mind. The grim, gray barracks of the military academy. The flickering light of candles. A shy young cadet, his only friend, awakened at night by older boys, gagged, stripped, and whipped. Sweating with fear, Paul was made to look on, his arms pinned behind his back, his head held in a vise-like grip. “Watch, or you're next,” one of them hissed. They laughed at his tears.

The cadet's suffering began to bleed into the story of Anne Cartier. The colonel stared sightlessly at the ground. He heard the crowd taunting: “French whore! Strip her!” The urge to strike out nearly overwhelmed him. He clenched his fists, grit his teeth.

Unaware of Saint-Martin's agitation, Georges went on with his story. “Roach might have planned originally to knock Miss Cartier unconscious, carry her away, torture, and kill her. The body would never have been found, and he couldn't be blamed. Her resistance forced Roach and Hammer to improvise a scheme for her trial and public punishment. According to Harriet Ware, the town first learned a woman was going to be whipped after the market opened on Tuesday morning.”

Saint-Martin had flinched at the word “kill.” He stopped in his tracks and glared at his adjutant. “If you're right, then Miss Cartier's life is still in danger.”

“Unfortunately. They say Roach always gets even.”

Drawing a deep breath Saint-Martin forced himself to recall that, by her solicitor's account, Miss Cartier was now alive and well. He gazed out over the water's calm surface to quiet the unease stirring within him. After a few moments, he resumed the walk. “Who saved her?” he asked.

“Some brave good people. She was lucky!” Georges told the story of her rescue in full, vivid detail. His report concluded as they reached the west end of the canal. Saint-Martin pointed to the right and set off at a brisk pace down the avenue that led to the Queen's Garden.

“What do you make of all this, Georges?”

His adjutant remained silent for several moments, staring into the mist, his brow furrowed in thought. When he finally spoke, he carefully measured his words. “Miss Cartier put herself in harm's way, walking home alone at night when she knew Roach was lurking about.”

Saint-Martin didn't dare say what had crept into his mind. Was this violence between Miss Cartier and Jack Roach a bizarre lovers' quarrel? He slowed the pace of the walk, mulling over the idea. “Georges,” he asked, filtering anxiety out of his voice, “do you think Miss Cartier might have given Roach any reason to believe she welcomed his advances?”

“Oh, no!” The adjutant protested vigorously. “People at the theater insist she never sold herself to anyone, least of all to him. He's alley scum.”

The colonel breathed more easily, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Extending Aunt Marie's invitation to this young woman seemed feasible now. “Did you find out anything about Mr. Roach?”

“A nasty bug, Jack Roach!” Georges paused, savoring the pun. “I met a former clerk from Hammer's court in Islington.” He grinned. “Cost me a pint of ale but he bent my ear for an hour.” The man had said Roach was involved with a ring dealing in contraband, one of several persons suspected of receiving gold, silver, and jewels stolen in France. He also informed for corrupt magistrates or paid them off. They protected him.

Saint-Martin drew a deep breath and lengthened his stride, forcing Georges nearly to a trot. He glanced at the older man, smiled indulgently, and slowed down. “Learn what you can about Mr. Roach.” The colonel looked into the distance, pursing his lips. “I have some pointed questions for Solicitor Barnstaple.”

***

Saint-Martin found the solicitor at his office the next day, sitting calmly behind his desk, his hands clasped over his ample paunch, a benign expression on his face. The French visitor's investigation of his client Anne Cartier did not perturb him. “It was better you learned about her tribulations by yourself rather than from me.” With a warning glint in his eye the solicitor added, “Since Jack Roach is at large, I must take care what I reveal about Miss Cartier.”

He leaned forward and met Saint-Martin's eye. “You will not be surprised to hear I have investigated you. The French king's representatives in London insist you are indeed Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin and, what's more, commander of the Royal Highway Patrol for the region surrounding Paris.” He leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. “What can I do for you?”

“We understand one another,” replied Saint-Martin. “Perhaps you could tell me, sir, how Miss Cartier has coped with the punishment she received from Justice Hammer and Mr. Roach.”

Barnstaple smiled brightly. “She's a resilient young lady. With treatment from Braidwood's physician, she recovered quickly from the shock she had received. As her health returned, however, she became very angry.” An ironic tone slipped into Barnstaple's voice. “This was her first personal contact with English criminal justice. She had no idea how venal and cruel it could be. She's a proud woman. The shame was almost more than she could bear.” He sighed heavily. “Then depression set in. She realized how vulnerable she was to abuse by rich and powerful men.”

“How are her spirits now?” asked Saint-Martin, his chest tightening with alarm.

“Oh, excellent,” Barnstaple replied, a bit too quickly. “Her teaching at the Braidwood Institute has been a tonic. The children leave her little time to brood.” He explained that the Brown family were caring people. They treated her more like one of the family than a servant, giving her a stall in the stable for her horse. “Riding's good for the spirits,” he added with a wink. “Sound body, sound mind.”

“Where's Roach?” the colonel asked pointedly. Barnstaple's words were too cheerful. With her assailant at large, Miss Cartier's situation appeared precarious.

The solicitor shifted his weight, adjusting to an uncomfortable issue. He explained the conviction in Islington had been set aside and Hammer deprived of his commission. But Roach and his men were still moving about, “slippery as eels and dangerous as sharks.” He grimaced. “Very unpleasant business.”

Saint-Martin doggedly pursued the issue. “Has Roach threatened her recently?”

“No,” replied Barnstaple. “I would expect him to wait until a half-year or so has passed, hoping that Miss Cartier, and those who care for her, will relax their vigilance. You can be sure Roach has not forgotten! She felled him twice; he hasn't evened the score yet.” His lips twisted with irony. “Now would be the right time, let us say, for Miss Cartier to suffer a serious, or even fatal accident. It would hardly be noticed. London is such a crowded and violent place.”

“It might be prudent for Miss Cartier to live abroad for a while,” suggested Saint-Martin, reaching into his pocket for his aunt's invitation. “She could perhaps become involved in our school for the deaf in Paris. Its director, the priest Charles-Michel, Abbé de l'Épée, has invented a new language for the deaf, trains them for useful occupations. I'm sure Braidwood's heard of him. Miss Cartier could hone skills to bring back later to England.” As he handed over the letter, he added: “My aunt, Comtesse Marie de Beaumont, could introduce her to the abbé. She's one of his patrons.”

The solicitor read the invitation with care, then returned it. “Braidwood might regard Abbé de l'Épée as a rival,” he said cautiously. “Professional jealousy, you know. But, he might also like to learn from Miss Cartier what the abbé is doing for the deaf. Yes, Braidwood would probably write for her.” Fortunately, the solicitor explained, the expense of the trip was within her means. Her grandparents, pleased that she would be safe and decently employed, would also help her.

The two men then came to an agreement. Saint-Martin would carry a letter from Barnstaple to Miss Cartier, commending the colonel and his proposal. While Saint-Martin whiled away a few minutes with a cup of tea and
The Gentleman's Magazine
, the solicitor dictated the letter, read it through and signed it. “There you are,” he said as he handed it over to the colonel. “That should persuade her.”

Barnstaple was indeed a fine fellow! thought Saint-Martin as he left the solicitor's office, pleased with the accommodation they had reached. But before he had taken more than a few steps into the street, he recalled with a start his next task. He must inform the young lady of Antoine Dubois' violent death.

Chapter 6

An Invitation

Under a cloudless sky, two horsemen rode through the lush green English countryside, singing a popular French tune,
Marlborough se va-t-en guerre
, “Marlborough is on his way to war.” With his right arm Colonel Saint-Martin vigorously beat the tempo as if he were leading the Sun King, Louis XIV's, army against the great English commander. Charpentier joined in the ghostly chorus,
Il ne se reviendra, il ne se reviendra
, “And he shall not return.”

The colonel and his adjutant knew that John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, had indeed returned victorious to Britain. But that didn't matter. They were enjoying the ride to Wimbledon. The colonel's friends, Gordon and Porter, had lent him a pair of high-spirited thoroughbreds, the finest in their stables.

It was noon when they drew near the Quaker family's country house, a large, square brick building sitting solidly on top of a low hill. At the near prospect of meeting Miss Cartier, a flutter of apprehension disturbed Saint-Martin's high spirits. He began to anticipate the pain she would feel upon hearing the news of her stepfather's death. How fragile was her recovery? he wondered. Could she deal with what he had to say? She and Dubois had seemed so fond of one another.

A servant met them at the entrance and went inside to announce their arrival. The master of the house, Mr. Thomas Brown, a tall, gentle man in plain brown breeches and white shirt, came to the door, a watchful look in his eye. Saint-Martin reassured the man, mentioning Barnstaple's name, then explained his mission. The Quaker listened with growing concern. “This will sorely test Miss Cartier. But I must call her.” He glanced down at the colonel's riding boots. “You may wish to change to something more comfortable, while she makes herself ready to see you.” He put Saint-Martin in the care of a servant and went looking for Miss Cartier. Georges left to tend to the horses and the saddlebags. They were prepared to stay overnight either with the Browns or at a nearby inn.

In a sitting room a short while later, Saint-Martin stared absently out a window at a meadow carpeted with spring flowers. Tiny beads of perspiration gathered on his upper lip. Had the incident in Islington scarred the young woman, broken her spirit? Footsteps, then a rustling gown sounded behind him. He turned, saw her, and felt a rush of pleasure. She stood in the doorway in a simple yellow muslin dress, head slightly inclined, eyes alive with curiosity.

He sensed she recognized him but wished him to make the first gesture. Bowing, he introduced himself. She smiled and walked toward him with uncommon grace and extended her hand. He kissed it, then drew back a step, taking in her appear-ance. She was no longer the puckish girl he had earlier known, but a self-assured young woman, lithe, and rather tall, with strong, expressive features. She bore no visible marks of her ordeal, other than the short cut of her golden hair. He breathed an inward sigh of relief.

“Colonel Saint-Martin, why…?” She gazed at him, her eyes perplexed. Finally she asked, “What brings you to Wimbledon?”

“I bear sad news,” he replied. “Antoine Dubois is dead.” With voice and gesture he tried to cushion the impact of his words, but still they shocked her. She shrank back as if struck. Her eyes widened with disbelief.

For a moment she was speechless, her mind struggling with what he had said. Then she glared at him, as if blaming the messenger. “That can't be,” she said in a low, taut voice, clenching her fists. Her eyes left her visitor for a few moments, fixing on some inner vision. Then, her face reddening, she tossed her head. “It's not fair! Antoine was a good man, one who truly cared for me.” She eased herself into a chair, dabbing her eyes with a small handkerchief. As she regained command of herself, she glanced at Saint-Martin. Her voice wavered, fighting with her pain. “My real father died when I was only a baby. I've never had any other father, only Antoine. I so wanted to see him, to talk to him again.”

She fell into a heavy silence. Her brow furrowed with confusion. Searching for words, she stammered, “What happened to him?”

Saint-Martin felt bound to explain the circumstances of Lélia Laplante's murder and Dubois' unfathomable death, labelled suicide by the Parisian authorities. He spoke evenly, avoiding conjecture.

“He would
never
do that!” the young woman exclaimed at the mention of the murder. The color drained from her face. “Not Antoine! How horrible!” Abruptly gathering her skirt, she rose to her feet and gripped the back of a chair. Rigid, erect, she asked Saint-Martin to continue. The violence of Dubois' death made her grimace. At the end of the report, deep lines of doubt lingered on her forehead. “The police are all alike,” she snapped. Her eyes locked on his. “They always blame the victim.”

Saint-Martin felt insulted, but he understood her state of mind and responded calmly. “That was surely true in your case, and it might be true in his.”

She was still for a few moments. Then she released her grip on the chair and breathed deeply. In the silence between them a clock ticked away minutes of grief and pain, until a quiet calm came over her face.

Meanwhile, Saint-Martin grew convinced his aunt would want to meet this young woman again. When Miss Cartier sat down and glanced expectantly at him, Saint-Martin sensed it was the right moment for the rest of his message. He reached for the valise he had left on a nearby table and handed her the letters from Barnstaple and Comtesse Marie. Reclining in a chair, he watched her grow absorbed in the reading. The hint of a smile softened the creases of anger at her mouth. Her fingers turning the pages were long and strong, her cheeks and forehead lightly tanned by wind and sun. Probably from frequent riding. No slave to fashion, he thought. The natural look was more to his taste than the garish facades of stylish Parisian women.

She looked up from the letters, smiling wanly. “This is generous of your aunt. I'll weigh her offer carefully. It would be a good way to learn more about Antoine's death.” She rang for a servant and ordered glasses of a cool local cider. Settling back in her chair, she inquired politely about the health of the comtesse, changes at Chateau Beaumont, and the like. Her voice was low and no longer strained. His replies appeared to spark genuine interest. Her eyes brightened and cleared. She seemed intrigued with the prospect he laid before her.

“I remember the comtesse fondly,” she said as the cider arrived. She thanked the servant, then poured for the colonel and herself. “She treated my parents with respect, even allowed Antoine to tease her.” She smiled over her glass. “And he was so pleased when the comtesse showed interest in me. After riding early in the morning, we'd have hot chocolate in her room.” She glanced at Saint-Martin, as if fearing her remarks had sounded naive.

“She also treated me to morning rides and chocolate,” he remarked, putting her at ease with a reassuring smile. “And to uplifting conversation as well. What did you two talk about?”

“Sometimes we'd walk in the gallery and she'd explain the pictures to me. ‘Chardin's narrow but honest,' she'd say. Or, ‘Boucher's a charming old satyr.' We'd go out into the park. She'd tell stories about the important people she knew. I think the comtesse wanted to open my eyes to the world.”

“She has opened mine as well,” admitted the colonel, aware of a personal debt of gratitude to his aunt. “I'm sure I've heard many of those stories.”

“Comtesse Marie also warned me about highborn men, some of them at least. Love was a game they played. When they came to her chateau, she hid the maids.” Her eyes brightened briefly with humor, then shadowed. She shot him an enigmatic glance. “She helped me understand things.”

Understand what? Saint-Martin wondered, then smiled. His aunt would have told Miss Cartier how to make her own way in a man's world. While she moved on to other memories of Chateau Beaumont, he lifted the glass to his lips, watching her over the rim while he sipped. Long-buried impressions surfaced in his mind. He had often watched her return from those morning rides, astride a glistening thoroughbred, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. She dismounted with ease, her body supple as a young willow. Her agility, her
grace
came mysteriously from within. He had felt an aching for her. But she was a commoner. His cousins called her the clown's daughter.

“May I pour again?” She was bending toward him, pitcher in hand, a fey look in her eye. She had noticed his distraction.

“I'm sorry,” he replied penitently, “for a moment you carried me back to those summers at Chateau Beaumont.” He raised his glass.

“To
A Midsummer Night's Dream
out in the park?” she asked while pouring the drink.

“Yes, indeed…,” he replied, recalling with a stab of pain the last time he had seen her. Ten years ago. It was the morning he had signed the articles of betrothal to a cousin, a nondescript woman he hardly knew. Sick with self-loathing, he had come to Chateau Beaumont, pleased to find no one but the servants, and walked out into the park.

When he reached the theater, he saw Anne Cartier rehearsing with four of his young male cousins. He stepped back into the shade of a tree and watched. She was clad like a boy in red and green striped tights and shirt. Her body undulated sinuously as if moved by a wicked spirit. A perfect Puck! But the young men were acting from a different script, grabbing at her and chasing her through the boxwood entrances. Finally, they cornered her, then crept up to her like animals in heat.

For a moment he was paralyzed with horror. Was he to stand there and watch them rape her? What matter, his peers would have said; let the boys practice on the clown's daughter. He felt nauseous, but he mastered himself long enough to order the boys out. He recalled staring down at her in shame and despair, but he couldn't speak. He had left abruptly and retched behind a tree.

The polite clearing of a throat brought Saint-Martin back to the present. Behind her glass of cider, Miss Cartier was attempting to suppress a bemused smile. “Indeed,
A Midsummer Night's Dream,
” the colonel repeated hastily, then went on to reminisce about Shakespeare's play. While speaking, he studied her expression. Had she deliberately alluded to the painful incident in the park? No, she seemed pleased with his company. In her blue eyes he detected no reproach or resentment, only the lingering marks of grief for her stepfather.

Gazing at her over the gulf of those many years, he sensed there might be a way across. “Should you accept Comtesse Marie's invitation,” he heard himself say, “we could travel to Paris together. My business in London will be finished in ten days. You are welcome to join me then.”

His suggestion did not seem to shock her. “I'll think it over and give you an answer tomorrow,” she replied, rising from her chair. “Meanwhile, Master Brown has said you are welcome to stay here for the night.” She hesitated as if unsure how he would react, then continued, “The children have prepared an hour of entertainment for later in the afternoon. Please join us.”

He bowed and said he'd be delighted to come. From the doorway he watched her beckon a servant for him. He watched her cross the hall, climb the stairs, turn, smile, and then disappear.

***

The performance was to begin shortly after tea. Colonel Saint-Martin entered a long room with a high ceiling. On a platform at the far end stood a small puppet theater. Sunlight slanted onto its stage from tall windows in the south wall. The audience of a dozen friends and family chatted softly. Mr. Brown beckoned to an empty seat next to him.

Saint-Martin learned from the Quaker that his children, Benjamin, a boy of ten, and Sarah, a girl of eight, had lost their hearing to a fever four years earlier. “Their vocal organs remained intact,” Brown remarked with the detachment of a parent who had long wrestled with a child's disability. “I immediately hired tutors to teach the children to speak properly. But, lacking system and method, the tutors floundered and the children became discouraged. When Mr. Braidwood moved his institute to Hackney two years ago, I enrolled the children with him.”

The Quaker's expression grew earnest. A touch of awe crept into his voice. “Braidwood expects Benjamin and Sarah to commit to memory the position of the lips and tongue for each sound they utter. To speak fluently, they need years of training at the institute and constant practice at home.”

“That's more discipline than soldiers endure,” observed Saint-Martin.

Brown nodded. “And it's hard on the children, even though they realize it's necessary. They are encouraged now that we understand better what they say. We are all happier.” Brown glanced up at the puppet stage. “To lighten their burden, our Miss Cartier devises entertainment like today's production of
Punch
. I'm told the children will open and close the curtain and speak the smaller parts. She's reserved Punch to herself.”

At four o'clock, from the back of the room came the familiar melody of
Marlborough se va-t-en guerre
. Colonel Saint-Martin smiled, recalling that the English used it in
For He's a Jolly Good Fellow
. He glanced over his shoulder. In a bright yellow costume covered with large red dots, and playing a fife, Miss Cartier strutted up the aisle and onto the platform, followed by the boy and girl in similar attire, beating drums and singing:

Mr Punch is one jolly good fellow,

His dress is all scarlet and yellow,

And if now and then he gets mellow,

It's only among his good friends.

Acting the theater proprietor, little Benjamin faced the audience, bowed three times, and delivered the prologue:

Ladies and Gentlemen, how do you do?

If you are all happy, I'm happy too.

Stop and listen to my merry little play;

If I make you laugh,

Don't forget to pay.

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