Read Deadly Descent Online

Authors: Charles O'Brien

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

Deadly Descent (8 page)

BOOK: Deadly Descent
10.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“The Chevalier de Bayard,” he replied. “Commander of French forces in Italy early in the sixteenth century. One of our national heroes, the one without fear or reproach.”

She stared at him, feigning a look of surprise. “I've heard of Jeanne d'Arc. She's
French hero. I didn't know there was another one.”

He smiled quietly, searching her eyes, detecting the irony. His brow furrowed as if hurt.

She excused herself gently. “A man truly without reproach is rare in any country.”

He handed her the book. “My father's copy. Bayard was his ideal French officer. Brave, loyal to his king, loved by the men serving under him, and respected by his enemies. A gentleman who pursued honor, not money.”

The son's ideal, as well, she sensed, opening the book and fanning the frayed pages. “Would you mind telling me about yourself?” she asked directly. She had already learned he was a marquis.

His forehead wrinkled for a moment, as if he seldom needed to explain who he was or what he did. But he quickly recovered his composure. “It's not a secret.” For the past three years he had been in charge of the Royal Highway Patrol for the area around Paris. Someone else looked after the city. His expression turned apologetic. “I earned that position.” Winking, he added, “By being born into one of the oldest families in France.”

“I'm sure you have other qualifications.” She leaned back, frowning in mock reproof.

“Baron Breteuil, the Minister for Paris, thinks I can work miracles, in view of the small budget he gives me.”

“Do you enjoy what you do?”

He nodded. “I like to work when I can see results. In a regiment of the royal army, I'd be idle.” He sighed. “There are too many officers in service now that our country is at peace. Many of them waste their lives drinking, gambling, and chasing women.”

“You chase criminals instead.” Her voice rippled with amusement. “And keep them from robbing travellers like us going to Paris.”

He soberly explained that his troopers had chased the highwaymen away from the roads to the city. His problem now was thieves who looted rich country houses in the outlying area. He needed more investigators. He pointed upward in the direction of his adjutant, whose bursts of laughter drifted into the coach. “Georges is one of the best, but he's the only one I've got. The criminal investigation bureau in Paris can't help. Too busy with the affair of the queen's necklace. I suppose you've heard about that in England, where many of the diamonds disappeared.”

“I know that Cardinal de Rohan tried to win the French queen's favor with an expensive necklace. It never reached her.”

“A daring scheme!” He explained that the necklace was made of some five hundred large, perfect diamonds commissioned by the jeweler Boehmer and offered to Louis XV as a present for Madame du Barry. The king had declined the purchase. A few years later the cardinal's mistress, Comtesse de la Motte, persuaded him to contract for the necklace on behalf of Queen Marie Antoinette. La Motte would arrange for its delivery. “In fact,” Saint-Martin concluded, his voice rich with irony, “she passed it to her husband, who fled to England and sold it off stone by stone.”

Anne tapped her cheek, reflecting on the bizarre fraud. “It wouldn't surprise me to hear that Jack Roach's fingers have touched some of them.”

“Georges agrees but couldn't find any proof in London.”

By the time they reached Boulogne, the colonel had told her quite a bit about himself. For the present, he lived alone in Paris, except for his adjutant and the servants. As he spoke, Anne sensed an engaging simplicity. His peers must wonder about him, perhaps envy him, but he didn't seem to care. He enjoyed work and the company of a few friends. To keep fit he rode, fenced, and played court tennis, and, she guessed, lived moderately.

A fine figure of a man, she had earlier observed. Agile, muscular, and a few inches taller than herself. Stealing a sidelong glance, she admired his fine brown wavy hair, gathered and tied back with a black bow; his brown eyes and long black lashes; his frank, generous expression. Yes, she admitted to herself, a man she could grow fond of.

At dusk the carriage rattled over the cobbled streets of Boulogne into the courtyard of the Auberge Royal, a comfortable old inn, where they were to spend the night. After a simple evening meal in a private room, they remained at the table. Anne opened the box of Antoine's things that Saint-Martin had asked her to bring along. He studied each item—the miniature portrait, the letters, the diaries and odd scraps— encouraging her to reminisce.

Meanwhile, glancing frequently at the miniature, Georges sketched a remarkable life-like portrait. He held it up and asked, “Does this look like a man who would murder a woman and then kill himself?” Saint-Martin looked at the sketch and, hesitantly, passed it on to Anne. She held it to the light, studied it carefully. Georges had shadowed the eyes and given the dead man a menacing smile, lacking in the formal portrait.

“Antoine Dubois?” asked Saint-Martin.

“Yes, but not as I knew him.” She handed the sketch to Georges.

“Perhaps it's the face he presented to those who crossed him,” Georges remarked. “I questioned people who knew him at Vauxhall. Amiable but touchy, they said.”

Prodded by the sketch, Anne's mind drifted back to a summer evening in London during the American war. Feelings were running high against foreigners. While Antoine was on stage at Vauxhall, several scoundrels in the audience had taunted him for his French accent. “Frog,” they called him, and “papist.” Why hadn't he ignored them and moved on? she wondered. No, he had to give them the finger, the royal shaft. “English dogs,” he retorted. The scoundrels pelted him with oranges. He caught several and threw them back. One hit its mark. Splat! Right between the eyes. His tormentors threatened to storm the stage. A riot seemed imminent. At that moment, she had leapt out of the wings, seized the back of his costume, and pulled him spluttering to safety.

Georges stared at the sketch. “A clown's mask. Hard to penetrate.” He pushed back his chair. “Time to speak to our driver.” At a wave from Saint-Martin, he left the room wishing Anne good night.

Her gaze returned to the sketch of her father. Was the face he had showed her for so many years also a mask? She passed the sketch to the colonel. He held it with both hands, studying it intently, then met her eye. “Who can tell what a man might do,” he said quietly, “if sufficiently provoked.”

After several minutes, Saint-Martin looked up from Dubois' papers and turned to Anne. “His letters and other papers reveal little of his mind other than his affection for you. Come to think of it, we have no record of his life before he met and married your mother.”

Anne fell momentarily silent, embarrassed by how little she knew about Antoine. He had appeared to live intensely in the present, more disinterested than secretive about the past. “I'm afraid I can't help you. He said he came from Rouen, in Normandy. Had relatives there.”

Saint-Martin rose from the table and shuffled through the papers. “I'll write to an acquaintance in Rouen who may be able to help us.” He dropped a few of Dubois' letters into his valise. “I'll study these before going to bed.” At the door he threw her a preoccupied glance. “Get a good night's rest, Anne.”

Lingering at the table, she repeated her name, imitating the way he had spoken it for the first time. She leaned back, hearkening. His footsteps echoed ever fainter in the hall. A candle sputtered and died. The room grew unearthly still, as if sensing the loss of his presence.

Chapter 9

Getting Acquainted

“Comtesse Marie will join you shortly.” With a bow the servant left Anne and Colonel Saint-Martin in a small reception room. It was Saturday, the 20th of May. From Boulogne they had reached the town house on Rue Traversine in less than three days, with a stop at the colonel's residence nearby for a change to fresh clothes.

Saint-Martin stood in the center of the room, arms akimbo. “Voltaire has also waited here,” he remarked, a touch of awe in his voice.

Anne felt uneasy. She was about to meet a clever aristocratic lady, who had known her only as a girl. She couldn't help wondering what Comtesse Marie would think of her now. She drew little comfort from learning that Voltaire had also been in this room. The famous French writer had surely not been as anxious as she. His
mocked anyone who irritated him, even kings. Comtesse Marie was too wise to have kept him waiting long.

Hiding her distress, Anne surveyed the room for marks of its mistress. Uncluttered, it spoke of a simple, elegant taste. To the right of the entrance, between a pair of matching chairs, stood a mahogany side table with gilded brass fittings. Cream drapery framed the windows. An intricate Turkish rug lay on the parquet floor. On one wall hung a gold-framed mirror. On another, pastel sketches of country scenes.

Intrigued, Anne walked up to the sketches for a closer look. With a sure, deft hand the artist had created enchanting visions of young lovers at ease by thatched-roof cottages. Shepherd boys lounging in lush pastures played pastoral tunes on pan flutes to their sheep. A girl soared on a swing, while another poured water from a pitcher.

The room's refined taste, Anne sensed, was meant to set the tone for visitors meeting the comtesse, to dispose them to rise to her expectations. Anne stepped back from the sketches, seeing the woman in a new light. Years ago, as a girl, Anne had looked up to her as to a kind, rather distant aunt. Now, from an adult's vantage point, she recognized Comtesse Marie as a woman with power that worked subtly behind a gracious appearance. “Voltaire had waited here.” The words echoed again in Anne's mind. And so, no doubt, had other great men.

Anne glanced in the mirror. How common she looked! No lace, no jewelry, no powder or rouge. The pearl grey dress she had chosen to wear—so plain, so out of place in this room. What had she gotten herself into?

Removing her bonnet, she bit her lips for more color, then touched her hair with trembling fingers. The colonel was watching her, thin lines of concern creasing his brow. She began to feel distressed. Her skin tingled. Comtesse de Beaumont would come presently, the servant had said. The waiting seemed to stretch out endlessly, though only a few minutes had passed.

Coming to her side, Colonel Saint-Martin tried to reassure her. “The comtesse will be most pleased to see you again. She still thinks fondly of your mother.”

Whistling in the wind, Anne thought. Much had changed since those summers at Chateau Beaumont. Fortunately, the comtesse would not be taken by surprise. From Boulogne the colonel had prudently alerted his aunt by courier of their arrival. She had replied with a brief note to the colonel's residence: she would receive them in her town house.

Footsteps, then voices sounded in the hallway. As the comtesse walked into the room, Anne felt her chest tighten. For a brief moment she could hardly breathe. The comtesse smiled, but her cool gray eyes searched Anne's soul…then softened. She stepped forward and embraced Anne. A warm, but cautious woman, Anne thought, breathing more freely. Fair enough, she was really a stranger in the house, but she was over the first hurdle.

“Let me show you to your rooms,” the comtesse said, gesturing toward the door. “We need to get acquainted again.” She turned to her nephew. “Paul, I'm sure you have work to do. Come back in the evening for supper.” He threw her a knowing glance and took his leave.

Comtesse Marie led Anne to her rooms on the second floor. The parlor reminded her of a privileged servant's apartment, rather like the one she had in Wimbledon. The furnishings seemed modest compared to those in the public rooms, but comfortable. A worn Turkish rug lay on the floor; a pair of upholstered chairs and a tea table stood by the window, which was open to air out the room. She looked out over the street to the jumble of roofs beyond. Traffic rumbled below. To the left of the parlor was a small kitchen with a glazed tile stove, a dry sink, a cabinet, a plain wooden table and two benches. A simple meal could be prepared and eaten there. To the right of the parlor was the bedroom, also lighted by an opened window.

There was a soft knock on the door. A young maid entered, curtsied, and set a large vase of red and yellow tulips on the tea table, then laid out towels, closed the windows, and quietly left the room.

“Now that we are alone, we may speak freely,” said Comtesse Marie. They sat down by the window and Anne began to tell her story. When she mentioned her doubting the official version of Antoine's suicide, the countess stiffened. “I have precisely the same feeling.” She pressed Anne's hands between hers. “Settle in here over the weekend. I'll show you Paris. And make a few enquiries. I think I know where you might begin to seek the truth.”


At the Palais-Royal on Monday morning, the two women found a bank in the Montpensier arcade for Anne's London letter of credit. Leaving the building, Comtesse Marie remarked that they still had some time for shopping. “With new clothes you will look like a Parisian rather than a foreigner and attract less notice as you go about your investigation.” She cast a keen glance at Anne's figure. “My dressmaker is only a few steps away in this arcade. She will take your measurements today. I can lend what you may need until she's finished your things.”

A few hours later, the two women emerged from the dress-maker's shop. The comtesse turned to Anne. “It's time now to think of ways to learn about Antoine.” She pointed with a gloved hand toward the south end of the arcade. “The Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes is the place to start. He and Lélia Laplante often performed there. We'll soon meet its directeur, a Monsieur Bouvin. I've arranged for tea at Café du Foy.”

Anne smiled. “Are you thinking of recommending me for a role at his theater?”

“The idea has crossed my mind,” the comtesse replied easily. “You will find persons there who knew Antoine.” She waved a finger of caution. “But don't reveal he was your stepfather. You don't know how they might react.”

Directeur Bouvin arrived at the café shortly after the women, his face flushed from dinner at the Café de Conti. He often dined well, Anne thought, judging from his wide girth. A short man, he carried his chin high in a futile effort to look down on people. Anne was tempted to smile at him, but she held back. There was a certain glint in his eyes. Ruthless and cunning, the directeur was not a man to trifle with.

The comtesse had reserved a private room. Seated between the two women, Bouvin drank brandy to their tea. Feminine charm conspired with the liquor to bring him to an amiable mood. He regaled the women with tales of scandal from the world of Parisian theaters.

The women feigned interest until the comtesse managed to turn the conversation toward Anne. “A gifted performer! She's worked at Sadler's Wells and the Vauxhall in London.”

“Really!” Bouvin inspected Anne with a practiced eye.

At a word from the comtesse Anne rose from the table and removed the gauze scarf covering her chest. Leaning back in his chair, hands clasped on his paunch, Bouvin ogled the rise of her breasts. Anne caught his eye, then moved gracefully about the room in the steps of a minuet and an English country dance. Pausing in front of him, she sang a medley of country airs. Before the end of an hour he had engaged her for a minor part on his stage. As he was leaving, Anne glanced at the comtesse. Her eyes shone with amusement. She mouthed, “Well done!”


The next morning, feeling almost at home on Rue Traversine, Anne waited again in the small reception room. She and the comtesse had agreed to visit Abbé de l'Épée's institute for the deaf on Rue des Moulins—just a short distance away. Anne glanced once more in the mirror. Out of the scant wardrobe she had brought from England, she had chosen a dark red dress trimmed with black lace. She eyed herself critically, nodded approval, then straightened her black bonnet.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway. Comtesse Marie entered, dressed for the street in moss green and orange. On her arm was a matching green cloak. For a moment, the two women stood reflected in the mirror together, both of them aware of an uncanny resemblance—same height and similar bodies, the comtesse slightly narrower in the shoulders. And similar facial features, though Anne's eyes were blue, the comtesse's gray. They could have passed for mother and daughter, Anne thought, had they gone through more of life together.

“The good man expects us at nine,” the comtesse remarked cheerfully, as they descended the stairs to the courtyard. She explained that the abbé opened the institute from seven until noon, Tuesdays and Fridays, to a steady flow of visitors, some of them distinguished foreigners. “Three months ago, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, the American ambassador, came while I was there. A tall man, loose-limbed, with an ambling gait and the most remarkable gray-blue eyes.”

Leaving the courtyard, the comtesse paused. Traffic outside was chaotic. Nearby, a wagon had lost a wheel and overturned, dumping its load of charcoal across most of the narrow street. Carts were backed up as far as Anne could see, their drivers screaming at each other.

“Even the sedan chairs are stopped,” remarked Comtesse Marie, unperturbed. “We shall walk.” She gathered up her skirts. Anne did the same, and the two women threaded their way through a small opening by the cart as oncoming pedestrians yielded place to them.

Once free of the congested traffic, the comtesse continued her story. “While the abbé was busy, I had the pleasure of being Mr. Jefferson's guide.” At a glance from Anne, who knew the ambassador was a widower, the comtesse added, “He and I had not been introduced, but I felt I knew him. My nephew, Colonel Paul, met him during the war. They visit occasionally.”

A few paces ahead of them, a maid opened a door and without looking left or right threw slop into the street. Comtesse Marie, engrossed in her account of the American diplomat, appeared not to notice. Anne reached out a hand too late to stop her, but the comtesse stepped adroitly over the puddle without losing a syllable of her narrative.

“What an inquisitive mind!” she went on. “Jefferson was fascinated by the hand signing of our students. They seemed especially dexterous and quick that day. In the past, he told me in his halting French, he had believed deaf people were incapable of abstract thought, that they could only understand the meaning of words related to sensory experience, that terms used in philosophy and science—God, Love, Nature—were beyond their capacity. He asked me whether the institute could overcome that basic deficiency. I told him the abbé would fully satisfy his curiosity. And he did.” She glanced at Anne. “Just as he will satisfy yours.”

In a few minutes the two women reached the institute, one in a row of four- or five-story, plain, stuccoed buildings fronting Rue des Moulins. Abbé de l'Épée met them at the door and bowed, recognizing in the comtesse an important patron. A small round-faced man in a plain black soutane, he was stooped with age.

“Mr. Braidwood has written that you wish to learn something from us,” he said to Anne, leading the two women into a narrow room where a demonstration had been prepared. “We are happy to oblige.”

The priest directed them to a wooden bench, then nodded to the students. A boy next to Anne signed a question to a girl at the chalk board. Anne missed its meaning until the girl wrote, “What has Jesus Christ done for us?” Another student at the board wrote, “He has saved us from our sins.”

After several such exchanges the abbé signaled a halt and approached Anne. “Do you understand them?” he asked with a doubting smile.

“I'm confused by their signs,” she admitted without embarrassment.

“Mr. Braidwood mentioned you might not comprehend. The students are using my own system of conventional signs that transforms the everyday sign language of the deaf into an instrument for expressing the most abstract ideas of science and religion.”

He sat down beside Anne, his face brightening with fervor. “Even educated persons used to believe deaf people were a primitive form of human life who could not reason beyond the evidence of their remaining senses. Barely superior to the beasts.” He stamped his foot. “Rubbish! With my system their minds and hearts can reach the heights of what is truly human, the knowledge of God and His creation. And sing out His praise. Angels also lack voices. Who would
call them beasts?”

The priest surveyed his students affectionately, his hands signing to them an eloquent tribute. They signed their gratitude in return, grinning at the priest, then at one another.

Épée returned to Anne's bench and sat beside her. “If
were diligent, you could learn the essentials of our local sign language in six weeks and master my system in a year.”

“I would like to try,” she said without hesitation. She had seldom, if ever, met a man of such conviction. And so willing to share what he had invented.

The priest led Anne and the comtesse to the next room. A dozen students sat at plain wooden tables. Their instructor was a slim young dark-haired woman in a gray dress with bits of white lace at the collar and cuffs. Her hands were signing with dazzling speed. “Mademoiselle Françoise Arnaud. She comes from a poor family,” whispered the priest to his two guests. “Lost her hearing as a child.” He gazed at the young woman, pride in his old watery eyes. “Now she reads and writes Latin and Italian, as well as French, and knows my system better than anyone.”

BOOK: Deadly Descent
10.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Classic Scottish Murder Stories by Molly Whittington-Egan
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? by William Lane Craig
Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
DoingLogan by Rhian Cahill