Authors: Anne Perry
‘Is he—’ His voice broke a little. ‘Is he dead?’
Célie bent to her knees and touched Bernave’s neck and then his lips. They were warm, but there was no breath. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She looked at Amandine who was closest to her.
Amandine held her hand over her mouth, as if to prevent herself from saying anything. She forced her eyes from the still figure on the floor to St Felix, and then to the shattered window and the street beyond, now with no more than a handful of people in it. They had stopped shouting, and one or two of them were looking towards the house.
‘What happened?’ Fernand asked hoarsely. He followed Amandine’s gaze. ‘One of those bloody idiots out there shot wild, and it hit him?’
‘Must have ...’ Monsieur Lacoste spoke at last, coming closer and taking the candle from Célie’s trembling hand, and holding it in front of him to guard it from the cold air which threatened to quench it.
‘I’ll go and tell them what they have done,’ Fernand said slowly, shaking his head a little. ‘Otherwise we’ll get the blame for it!’ And without waiting for approval or otherwise, he went out of the door, and a moment later they saw him in the street and heard him shouting at the men still there.
Marie-Jeanne appeared in the doorway from upstairs. She saw the smashed window and felt the cold, smoky air. She was about to speak, anger darkening her face, when she realised there was something seriously wrong. She looked at her mother-in-law, then at Célie, still on her knees beside Bernave.
‘Oh! Mother of God!’ she breathed out, putting her hands up to her face. ‘What happened? Is that my father?’ Her voice caught in her throat and she lurched forward.
‘Don’t look!’ Monsieur Lacoste said harshly, reaching out to prevent her, catching her by one arm. ‘It was all over in a moment.’
Marie-Jeanne slumped into an awkward crouch beside Célie, hands stretched forward.
Célie held her, restraining her from touching the body. “There’s nothing you can do,’ she told her gently. ‘The rioters broke in. They thought we had food. Fernand has gone to tell them out there what they did. He’ll fetch the National Guard.’
Marie-Jeanne snatched her hand away. ‘Why?’ she demanded angrily. ‘They can’t help! Get a doctor! Dr Martineaux lives only three doors down ... fetch him!’ She looked up at Monsieur Lacoste.
Célie shook her head. ‘There is no point.’ She held Marie-Jeanne’s arm, trying not to hurt her, but strongly enough to keep her from touching Bernave. ‘He’s dead.’
‘What do you want the National Guard for?’ Marie-Jeanne was still numb, confused. ‘We don’t want them in here!’
‘Because he’s dead.’ Monsieur Lacoste bent down beside her, very grave, as became those suffering a death in the family, now that his initial shock had worn off. He touched Marie-Jeanne gently, putting one arm round her and his other hand under her elbow, helping her to her feet, lifting her weight. ‘We have to show them what happened, just as it is, or else they may afterwards question it. Some busybody may blame us. After all, this is his house.’
‘What?’ She stared at him, uncomprehending.
He made a small, bleak gesture of irony. ‘Well, I suppose as his only relative, it’s yours now,’ he corrected.
She gave a choked gasp. ‘They couldn’t think—’
‘No, of course not!’ he said quickly. ‘We must just do it the right way, that’s all. Things must be right.’
She relaxed her resistance against him, but she said nothing. Her face was filled with emotion, conflicting loss, and anger. She kept glancing back at the motionless figure on the floor, and then away again, as if she did not understand her own feelings.
Célie looked at Amandine, but she was staring at St Felix, still motionless in the middle of the room. He looked bemused, almost as if he could not fully comprehend what had happened. He did not seem able to take his eyes from Bernave. She might have wanted to go to him, but everything in his expression, the angle of his body, isolated him. He seemed to be alone with some overwhelming emotion which excluded everyone else. Even if she had touched him, it was easy to believe he would not have felt her.
Madame Lacoste was still paralysed, her face a mask.
Torches were passing in the street outside and Célie smelled the smoke of them, sharply astringent from the tar. There was a bang as the front door swung wide against the wall again, and a moment later there were three National Guardsmen in the room, followed by Fernand. Two of them stopped by the door; the third, a slender man, neat and straight, came forward to where Bernave lay. He had fairish hair, falling a little forward over his brow and his wide eyes were pale, but it was impossible to see of what colour in the wavering light.
He stared down at Bernave, then at the window, then very slowly he looked at each of their faces.
‘They broke in,’ Fernand said, pointing to the street, then to the hallway. ‘They thought we had food. But I suppose you know that ...’ He stopped.
‘Menou,’ the man introduced himself. ‘Yes, I was there. They’re half starved, poor devils. Willing to steal from anyone they think is hoarding.’ His face darkened as he looked down at Bernave again. ‘Bad business.’ He turned to the window, squinting a little against the sting of smoke from the torches as it drifted in on a gust of icy air.
Everyone in the room watched him. No one offered anything else to say.
Menou walked slowly over to the body and squatted down beside it, regarding the wound with a frown, then very gently he turned Bernave over.
Célie did not want to look at Bernave’s face. He had been so vividly alive, it seemed an intrusion now to stare at him when he was no longer there, the flesh so vulnerable without him.
Menou raised his head and looked at them each in turn.
St Felix was the first to speak.
‘It must have been one of the men who broke in,’ he said huskily. His voice sounded odd, lacking in timbre. Célie guessed how shocked he was, yet it could hardly be grief. He must have hated Bernave for the way he treated him.
Marie-Jeanne sat down heavily in one of the chairs. She was obviously close to tears. Her face was flushed and her lips trembling.
Fernand went to her and put his arm around her shoulders.
‘He won’t have felt anything,’ he said quietly. ‘He won’t have known.’
She buried her head in his shoulder, clinging on to him. Her body shook with sobs, but curiously she made no sound.
Menou hesitated. For a moment ordinary human grief such as touched people in Paris, or anywhere else, was more real than issues of belief, loyalties to revolution or aristocracy, questions of blame for riots, hoarding or carelessness.
‘One of the men who broke in,’ Menou repeated thoughtfully. ‘Did they have guns? Who saw a shot inside here?’ He searched their faces.
Monsieur Lacoste drew in his breath, then apparently changed his mind and let it out again without speaking.
There had been no shots inside, Célie knew that. And worse, Bernave had been facing the crowd in the doorway, not with his back to them. They were intruders, angry and desperate men who had broken into his house. He would never have turned away from them, leaving himself so exposed.
‘Citizeness?’ Menou prompted. ‘A flash? A report?’ he looked at Madame.
‘No ...’ she said slowly, her voice a dry whisper. ‘Not in here ...’
Menou looked at St Felix.
‘I didn’t see ...’ he admitted. ‘There was confusion—shouting ...’
‘Threatening?’ Menou asked, his eyes wide.
‘Yes,’ St Felix agreed. ‘They thought we were hoarding food.’
‘We aren’t,’ Fernand put in. ‘We have no more than anybody else.’
‘Did they have weapons?’ Menou would not let go.
‘Of course they had weapons!’ Monsieur Lacoste said exasperatedly. ‘They killed Citizen Bernave, didn’t they?’
Menou stood still in the middle of the room, frowning. ‘Men, armed with weapons, broke into the house determined to find the food they thought you had, threatening you in this room ...’
‘Yes,’ St Felix and Monsieur Lacoste agreed together.
‘Citizen Bernave went towards them and told them—what?’ Menou asked, his eyebrows raised.
‘That we had no extra food, and that they should leave, or something like that,’ Fernand answered.
‘And did they?’
‘You know they didn’t!’ Monsieur Lacoste snapped.
Menou stared at him. ‘But he turned his back on them?’ he said slowly, his eyes still wide.
Célie was shivering. The room had lost all the heat through the gaping window, but it was not that which chilled her, it was the knowledge inside her hardening like stone. She knew which way he had faced, and what it meant.
‘I think not,’ Menou said slowly. ‘I think Citizen Bernave would never have turned his back on armed intruders in his house. No man would!’
Amandine was rigid. She too had understood what Célie had known. It was written in the fierce angles of her body and the pallor of her skin in the candlelight. She was staring at St Felix.
Madame seemed past caring. Her face was gaunt, her cheeks hollow, eyes black, her brows too straight, her whole bearing too dark, too fierce, for loveliness. Only her mouth was beautiful, Célie thought, all the pain in the world etched in its lines.
‘You see my logic, Citizeness,’ Menou said calmly, dragging her attention back. ‘I am afraid it is inescapable. Bernave was killed by someone standing behind him—someone at his back, where he expected no danger ...’
‘None of us has a gun!’ Fernand protested. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘I can see that,’ Menou nodded, his lips tight.
They stared at him in disbelief.
‘We assumed it was a shot, because we heard them fired,’ Menou went on in the silence. ‘But it could as easily have been a knife ... a thick-bladed, narrow knife, plunged in from the back.’
Amandine jerked her hands up to her mouth, stifling a gasp.
Fernand held Marie-Jeanne closer.
St Felix sank very slowly on to the edge of one of the chairs. It was an awkward position, neither sitting nor standing. Célie could see only his profile. His expression was curious: passionate but unreadable. It seemed a strange mixture of relief—and utter and final loss. Except that that made no sense. It must be exhaustion, and the light.
Madame Lacoste spoke. Now her voice was surprisingly steady, except for the thickness in it, as though her throat were so tight it nearly choked her. ‘You are saying that one of us murdered him!’
Menou looked at her unblinkingly. ‘Yes, Citizeness, that is exactly what I am saying. And I intend to find out who, because Citizen Bernave was a loyal friend of the revolution, a man who worked tirelessly and secretly for justice, without seeking any reward for himself. His murderer must be punished.’
No one answered him. Célie stared round at their faces. Who could believe such a thing? It was the complete opposite of the truth! But of course no one else knew that. No one knew he was planning to rescue the King, and that the mission would all crumble to the ground without his knowledge and skill, and courage. He had been exquisitely careful, even to the minutest detail precisely because he knew the price of exposure.
Fernand’s surprise was obvious, but it was almost immediately followed by relief, a sort of dawning amazement as if he were seeing Bernave for the first time.
Célie turned to Monsieur Lacoste, but he was further from the torches so his expression was thrown into shadow and half-profile, his features blurred.
‘Was he?’ he said, not a question but a comment on an irrelevance.
St Felix started to speak, and then changed his mind.
Menou saw it and looked at him sharply. ‘You were going to say something, Citizen?’
‘Only that we did not know that,’ St Felix replied levelly. ‘He was very discreet. We had no idea.’
‘I hope not.’ Menou made the words portentous and he turned his clear, bright eyes on each of them. ‘Because, of course, if you did, it might give us cause to doubt your loyalty.’
‘We are all ardent supporters of the revolution in this house!’ Monsieur Lacoste said vehemently, and there was far more anger in his voice than fear. ‘You insult us, Citizen Menou. Is it not enough that your men cannot control the crowds in the street, and they break into our house and—’ He stopped abruptly. It was impossible to read his face.
‘Yes, Citizen?’ Menou prompted. ‘You were going to say “and kill our benefactor.” Then you remembered that it was one of you in here, one of your loyal revolutionaries, who did that.’
‘I ...’ Lacoste was lost for an answer.
It was Marie-Jeanne who replied. ‘He was not our benefactor,’ she contradicted Menou. ‘He was my father, and in return for living here we looked after him and kept the house. You speak as if he were a stranger, and that’s not true.’
Menou glanced around, eyes appreciative. ‘A large house. Sufficient for many people,’ he remarked. He looked back at Marie-Jeanne. ‘Who inherits it now, Citizeness? Are there any other relatives—you have brothers?’
Suddenly she realised her own predicament and her voice wavered. ‘No.’
‘None at all?’
‘No. I was the only child, and my mother died when I was born.’
‘A nice inheritance, Citizeness. Your father must have been a very wealthy man.’
They all caught the edge of criticism in his voice, perhaps of envy also. Property of any sort was a contentious matter these days.
Marie-Jeanne stiffened, but it was Madame Lacoste who answered, her head high, eyes burning.
‘He worked hard and he saved to buy a house that many people could live in. That was his wish. Is it not what you would expect from a good revolutionary, Citizen Menou? To shelter the homeless, in return for work, and dignity?’ She looked at him without a shred of fear.
Menou was taken aback. It showed naked for a moment in his eyes, then it was gone, deliberately masked, as if it were something he was ashamed of.
‘Yes, Citizeness,’ he agreed. ‘He was a fine man. I will see that justice is done for him, don’t doubt it. His murderer will go to the guillotine, along with all other traitors to the people.’
Célie stared at him. Did he really think it was political? It could be, but for the very opposite of the reasons he believed. Fernand and Monsieur Lacoste were ardent enough in their support of the new way to have betrayed Bernave, if they had known he was fighting to save the King’s life. They would not have understood his reasons. Marie-Jeanne did not care one way or the other, but she would have killed to save her children. Placid as she seemed, Célie knew her well enough to understand that. She had seen the animal fury and courage in her when a soldier had tried to be vulgarly intimate with her small daughter. She had reacted instantly and without the slightest thought of consequence to herself. The soldier had been taken totally by surprise, and backed off as if his pet dog had suddenly sunk its teeth into his hand.