THE FRANCE OF LOUIS XV
THE COMTE DE SALVAN stood at the end of the canopied bed in red high heels and pacified his offended nostrils with a lace handkerchief scented with bergamot. He was dressed to attend a music recital in stiff gold frock, close-fitting silk breeches with diamond knee buckles, and a cascade of fine white lace at his wrists that covered soft hands with their rings of precious stones. His face was painted, patched and devoid of the disgust and discomfort his quivering nostrils dared display at the stench of the ill, and the smell that came from the latrines that flowed just beyond the closed door to this small apartment below the tiles of the palace of Versailles.
Its occupant, one Chevalier de Charmond, gentleman usher to the King, languished amongst feather pillows, his shaved head without its wig and in its place a Chinese cap. He was suffering from la grippe, but being a committed hypochondriac was convinced he had inflammation of the lungs. His physician could not tell him otherwise. He blew his nose constantly and coughed up phlegm into a bowl his long-suffering manservant emptied at irregular intervals. He had been bled twice that day but nothing relieved his discomfort. The presence of the Comte de Salvan promised a relapse.
The Comte listened to the Chevalier’s platitudes without a smile and waved aside the man’s apologies with a weary hand. “Yes it is a great honor I do you to descend into this stinking hole. How can you bear it? I am glad it is you and not I who must exist like a sewer rat. No wonder you are unwell. If you left that bed and went about your duties you would feel better in an instant. But it is your lot,” Salvan said in his peculiar nasal voice. He shrugged. “It is most inconvenient of you to take to your bed when a certain matter of great importance to me is left unfinished. If I thought you incapable of carrying out my wishes…”
“M’sieur le Comte! I—”
“To the benefit of us both, remember, dear Charmond, to the benefit of us both. I could have given Arnaud or Paul-René the privilege of doing this small favor for me. Indeed, does not Arnaud owe his alliance with the de Rohan family all because I made the effort to whisper in Sa Majesté’s ear? One cannot have one’s relatives, however removed, married to inferior objects.” He proceeded to take snuff up one thin nostril. “And Paul-René would still be scraping dung off Monsieur’s boots if I had not put in a good word on his behalf to have him promoted from the kennels to the Petite Écurie. And now you dare lie there when you are well aware my dearest wish must be fulfilled forthwith. I will certainly go mad if something is not done soon!”
The Chevalier attempted to sit up and look all concern with the first rise in the Comte’s voice. He schooled his features into an expression of sympathy and shook his head solemnly. “You cannot know what agonies, what nightmares, I have suffered on your behalf, M’sieur le Comte. Every night I have lain here not sleeping, my head pounding with the megrim, unable to breath, and I have thought of you, my dearest Comte, and only you. How best to serve you. How to successfully bring about a resolution to your torments. It has been a constant worry for poor Charmond.”
“Then why can you not do this small thing for me?” screeched the Comte. “Do you believe you are the only one I can trust? Do you? You promised me three days at the most and I have waited seven. And time is even more important now because the old General is dying; of a surety this time. And nothing is signed. Nothing is in writing. Nothing is fixed until you get me what I want! I must have what I want and I will. I will! Whether you get it for me or I go elsewhere—Why do you smile, eh?”
The Chevalier blew his nose and tossed the soiled handkerchief to the floor. “I offer my humble apologies, M’sieur le Comte, if you thought I smiled at you,” he said quietly. “I was not smiling at you but for you. I have a picture of the beautiful demoiselle in my mind’s eye and I am indeed happy for you. I congratulate you on your good fortune. It is not every day a man comes across one as she. You are a lucky man, M’sieur le Comte.”
The anger left Salvan’s eyes and he smiled crookedly, a picture of the girl in his mind’s eye. Some of the heat cooled in his rouged cheeks and he swaggered. Another pinch of snuff was inhaled, leisurely and long. “She is a beauty, is she not, eh, Charmond? Such round, firm breasts. A rosebud for a mouth. Hair shot with gold and eyes that slant ever so slightly, like a cat’s. Most unusual. And to think her delights are all untouched. Ah, it makes me hard just thinking about her! But I tell you, Charmond, I do her a great honor, a great honor indeed. I am lucky, yes, but she doubly so to even have a second look from Jean-Honoré Gabriel de Salvan. When she learns of the honor done her she will surely embrace me all the more sincerely and devotedly. Oh, Charmond, I cannot wait until she—”
“—becomes your son’s wife?” interrupted the Chevalier smoothly, which brought the color flooding back into the Comte’s face and caused his eyes to narrow to slits. “What a joyous day for the house of Salvan!” declared the Chevalier. “But an even more joyous day for the beautiful mademoiselle. Who would have thought the old Jacobite General’s granddaughter would be done such a great honor? Not she, I wager. She cannot but be grateful to you, my dear Salvan. She will embrace you! And show her gratitude? Of a certainty. She will repay you the way you desire her to do so.”
“I do not doubt that but…”
“But?” The Chevalier shrugged expressively. “What can go wrong?”
“Idiot!” snarled the Comte. “If you do not get me that lettre de cachet my plans, they will be ruined!”
The Chevalier threw the last of his handkerchiefs on the floor and rang the small handbell at his bedside for a lackey. “I am doing all I can to do just that, my dear good Comte. Even as we speak I am certain it is being attended to. Poor Charmond may be bedridden, on the point of pneumonia, but still he thinks only of you, my dear M’sieur le Comte, and your ever so desperate predicament. Poor Charmond only hopes, humbly hopes, M’sieur le Comte has not forgotten his own—not quite so desperate—predicament? After all, and I beg your pardon for even mentioning it to you because I know you would not disappoint me, a favor for a favor is what you promised.”
The lackey came into the room with clean handkerchiefs and the Chevalier boxed his ears and felt better for having done so. He settled back on the pillows and pretended to show an interest in his hands, but he was watching Salvan and he trembled inwardly at the black look on the man’s hideously painted face; the lead paint thick and white to cover pitted cheeks and chin. He thanked God he had never had the smallpox to such a disfiguring degree. He cleared his throat and the Comte looked at him.
“Forgive me for recalling to your memory our agreement, M’sieur le Comte,” said the Chevalier. “You shall have your lettre de cachet. I hope it brings your son into line. Why he does not want to wed a beautiful virgin is not for me to understand. He must be a little mad, eh, Salvan?” When the Comte did not laugh he dropped the smile into a frown. “Should he still not do as you wish once the letter de cachet is waved under his nose, and you clap him up in the Bastille or Bicêtre until he sees reason, you still owe Charmond his favor. I hope M’sieur le Comte intends to honor his bargain.”
“Honor it?” shouted Salvan. He went up to the bed, causing the Chevalier to cower, and lowered his voice, for he knew the walls between the apartments to be thin. “How dare you question my honor!” he hissed. “A Salvan’s word is never in question! You tell me I will have my lettre de cachet, and so I tell you I am doing all I can to steer Roxton away from Madame de La Tournelle’s orbit! Your task is the infinitely easier one, Charmond. Have you any suggestions on how to oust a consummate lover from an eager woman’s bed? Have you? No! I thought as much. And do not spout drivel at me that it is you who wants this favor. It is Richelieu who directs you, is it not?”
“M’sieur le duc de Richelieu?” blinked the Chevalier.
“Very well! Play out your game!” spat the Comte. “I know you have little interest in the de la Tournelle. Or to put it correctly she is not the sort of female to interest herself with an insignificant worm such as your—”
“M’sieur le Comte! I object most strongly to your tone. Have I been of insignificance to you? No! Charmond he has been most valuable to M’sieur le Comte!” The Chevalier blew his nose vigorously and looked offended.
The Comte sighed. “As you wish, Charmond.” He went to the looking glass in the corner and critically surveyed himself from powdered campaign wig to the sparkle of his oversized diamond shoe buckles. Ever the conceited nobleman, he was well-pleased with himself and this improved his mood, as did the thought of seeing the beautiful demoiselle at the recital. “I grant you have been helpful to me. But do not tell me you are interested in Marie-Anne de Mailly de La Tournelle. That I will not believe! It is Richelieu who wants her, or wants her for the King, and hopes to rule Louis through her. So he thinks. Whatever! His gyrations do not interest me.” He glanced at the Chevalier. “I will tell you why you want Roxton tumbled out of Marie-Anne’s bed: jealousy.”
“Jeal-ous-y?” It was the Chevalier’s turn to screech. Instead he coughed and wheezed until his face turned the color of blood. When he could speak again he said, “How can you say so? What do I care for Roxton’s conquests? I admit, my dear Salvan, I find it unbelievable that such a one as he is so sought after in the bedchambers of Versailles and Paris. Yet, he is! His reputation equals Richelieu’s. Some say it surpasses his conquests. What female has not thrown back the covers for M’sieur le duc de Roxton? And which ones does he disdain from favoring? Only the ugly and the virtuous. And as they are one and the same, my dear Comte, the number is small indeed!”
The Chevalier pulled a face of loathing and thumped his fist into the coverlet. “Why? Why do our women receive this Englishman with open arms who dares wear his own hair down his back like some Viking conqueror? He has a great beak for a nose, shoulders that are too broad and legs as thick as tree trunks! And as if to goad us all beyond permission, what does he do?” he continued in a thin voice. “He does not keep beagles or wolfhounds or greyhounds. No! He-he keeps whippets. A woman’s toy! He could very well parade about with two kittens in diamond collars as have those ill-looking animals at his heels. Ugh! I will say no more.” He collapsed against the pillows and wiped sweat from his florid face. “You must excuse me, M’sieur le Comte. I must be bled…”
Salvan came away from the looking glass and stood over the Chevalier, his eyes bright with a private humor. “You lie in that bed sweating like a pig, pouring scorn on my English cousin, when it is what he does with this,” he grabbed his own genitals, “and this,” stuck out his tongue and wiggled it, “is why your heart’s delight prefers the attentions of M’sieur le duc de Roxton.”
“You defend him only because his mother was a Salvan,” the Chevalier said sulkily.
“As it should be,” the Comte replied haughtily, adjusting himself. “I cannot answer for his English ancestry, except it is an ancient lineage. An English dukedom is no small thing. And his mother, my aunt, was of impeccable virtue and of a most noble character, and a Salvan by birth. Enough said! Do not try my patience to its limit, my dear Charmond.” He flicked open his gold snuffbox and took a pinch. “Your observations of Roxton amuse me because they are quite to the life, but when you dig beneath the muck you lose your footing!”
“Forgive me, my dear M’sieur le Comte,” said the Chevalier with excessive politeness. “I admit I harbored expectations that Félice would grant me certain liberties. That was until she caught the eye of your cousin at the Comédie Française. Yet I do not despair of having her, knowing Roxton tires so quickly of such easy prey. But resentment was not the only reason which prompted my outburst. Perhaps I will not voice my concerns at this time. It is late. You have a recital to attend, and I, I am tired. It is only—well, no, I shall not open my mouth—”
“Open it! Open it!” ordered the Comte. “Do not goad me, Charmond! You have wasted enough of my evening and still I am no nearer to having what I want in my hands!”
“Has not M’sieur le Comte considered the alternative?” asked the Chevalier smugly. “It would be infinitely simpler if you were to bed the beautiful demoiselle without consideration for the formalities. Why must you wed her to your son before you take her as your mistress? Is not your son’s marriage to the beautiful demoiselle the bone that sticks in your throat? Remove it! Voilà. All is as it should be.”
The Comte de Salvan had a great desire to choke the life out of the Chevalier de Charmond yet he restrained this murderous instinct. Instead he clapped an open palm to his powdered forehead and groaned aloud. “Why do I endure this imbecile? Mon Dieu. I am surrounded by fools and scoundrels!” He stuck his face up close to the startled Chevalier. “Do you think I did not think of that? Ah! You are too stupid. I will not explain. Do you think me a man of no honor? I, a Salvan? I do not go about as M’sieur le duc de Richelieu seducing unwed females. Preposterous! There is my unsullied reputation to think of. There is what I owe my name. That fever, it has entered what little brain you possess. I am done with you!” He turned on a heel to go to the door. “I will have the lettre de cachet by the end of this week—”
“Your so English cousin has turned his satyr’s eye on the beautiful mademoiselle.”
The Comte stood still. He did not turn or speak so the Chevalier continued after a pause and a blow of his red nose. “You think me a dolt and a scoundrel for advising you to cut through the formalities, but I tell you, my dear Salvan, if you do not, the girl will no longer be worth all the energies you expend to have her in your bed—wed or unwed. Roxton has noticed her and so it is only a matter of time before his tongue—”
“By the end of the week,” Salvan said without turning and slammed the door.
Had the Chevalier the benefit of seeing the Comte’s face he would have reveled in the effect of his words. As he did not he gave himself up to complex musings, and into the hands of his physician to be bled. He ordered his servant to scuttle across the palace to a particular suite of rooms to report all that had transpired between he and his visitor.
THE COMTE DE SALVAN repaired to the upper levels of the palace. Leaving the stench behind he forced himself to put aside the Chevalier’s warning and to wear his most gay public face. He tottered up the Grand Escalier to the first floor, crossed the Hercules drawing room, bowing and waving his handkerchief to all who acknowledged his existence. The opulence of this large ornate marbled room was a comfort to him and he breathed easier. He stopped to take snuff with two cronies who lounged by a Sarrancolin column and searched for his son amongst the crowd of powdered and beribboned nobles moving into the Appartement. Unsuccessful, he dismissed the moody boy from his thoughts hoping to catch sight of the one beautiful face amongst a hundred he desired to make his own. Alas, she had yet to appear.
He was one of the last to enter the Appartement. It was crowded and he could hear the orchestra but had no chance of seeing its members from the back of the room. He spied the Duc de Richelieu, newly returned from exile in Languedoc, and close by his side, languidly fanning herself, was Madame de La Tournelle. She was resplendent in petticoats of blue damask, embroidered with large sprays of flowers, and showed a pretty wrist covered with milky strands of pearls. For a long time he did not notice the Duke of Roxton standing by his side.
“You will not find what you are looking for,” drawled the Duke of Roxton, quizzing glass fixed on Madame de La Tournelle. “That which you desire is not here.”
Salvan spun about and stared up at the impassive aquiline profile.
“Continue to gawp and I will go elsewhere,” murmured the Duke. “Mademoiselle Claude has been beckoning with her fan this past half hour. Sitting next to that frost-piece is preferable to being scrutinized by you, dearest cousin.”
Salvan snapped open a fan of painted chicken skin and fluttered it like a woman, searching gaze returning to the sea of silk and lace. “To be abandoned for that hag would be an insult I could not endure, mon cousin. You merely startled me.”
“I repeat, your search is fruitless.”
“Ah! You see me scanning faces. I always do so. It is nothing,” Salvan said lightly. “Did you think me looking for someone in particular? No! Who—Who did you think I was looking for?”
“My dear Salvan,” drawled the Duke, “your son, your most obedient son.”
“D’Ambert? Yes-yes of course my son!” Salvan said with relief. He turned back to the performance in time for the final round of polite applause. When the King had taken his leave Salvan drew his arm through that of his cousin. They walked a little way off to a corner of the room that was less crowded to better observe the audience disperse. “That ghastly noise is at an end, thank God. Were you as bored as I? Don’t answer. I know it! Where have you been, mon cousin? I have missed you in the corridors of the palace this past week. Do not tell me you are fatigued with us and stay in Paris? Or are you weary with what is on offer?”
They bowed to a passing beauty, her hair dressed in an eye-catching creation of plumes and pearls and her lips painted a delicious red.
“She tries to catch your attention, Roxton. Now there is one who could cure your ennui.”
“Madame is not worth the effort.”
“Parbleu! How fortunate are those who can afford to choose.”
Roxton took snuff and flicked a speck of the fine mixture from a wide velvet cuff. He shrugged. “It is obvious M’sieur le Comte has not had the—er—privilege of madame without her skillful paint and uplifting bodice. You are welcome to her if that is to your taste.”
“No. Not I!”
“No. Your tastes lean toward the—er—uninitiated, do they not, my dear cousin?”
There was the slightest pause before the Comte let out a forced brittle laugh. He tapped the Duke’s velvet sleeve with the silver sticks of his fan. “That is as well or our paths would cross, and that would not amuse me at all!”
“You may rest easy, my dear,” said the Duke smoothly, quizzing glass allowed to dangle on its silk riband. “I have never yet had the urge to play nursery maid.”
Salvan flushed in spite of himself. He changed the topic immediately. “You saw Richelieu? He has been back at court this past week. They say he and the Tournelle plan to oust the dull sister as soon as it can be contrived. De Mailly is ignorant of the whole! She will see herself banished before she knows what she is about and—”
“My dear, this is old news,” interrupted the Duke. “But perhaps it is new to you? You need to spend less time lurking in corridors and a good deal more between the sheets—”
“As you do?” Salvan snapped before he could help himself.
Roxton swept him a magnificent bow. “As I do,” he confirmed.
“Ha! A novel approach. Do not tell me you expend any energy in conversation.”
“I was not about to tell you anything of the sort, my dear,” came the insolent reply. The Duke’s black eyes watched a storm cross his cousin’s ravaged face and he laughed softly and changed the subject. “Madame sends her regards,” he said politely. “She asks when next you intend to visit Paris. She longs to hear the latest gossip of court which I cannot bring myself to repeat. I said I would petition you on her behalf and beg you go to her. I beg and have done my duty. I leave it in your hands. Sisters weary me.”
The mention of the Duke’s lovely sister instantly transformed the Comte de Salvan, as Roxton knew it would. He clapped his hands in delight. “Estée has asked to see me? You do not jest?” he said expectantly, and fell in beside the Duke as he walked out of the Appartement and crossed the Hercules Room and went down the staircase. “Is she in good health? Does she pine away in that dreary hôtel of yours? You are most cruel to her, Roxton! Such beauty deserves to be admired, to be fawned over, and cherished. She has not been to court now in seven years or more. She the widow of Jean-Claude de Montbrail, the most decorated of Louis’ Generals. If he had not been cut down in his prime Estée would now be at court.”
“Yes, I forbid her the court. That is my right.”
“Even in the face of Louis’ displeasure?” whispered the Comte de Salvan, taking a quick, nervous look over his padded shoulder. “I cannot forget your private audience,” he continued with a shudder. “Me, I fainted. I expected a lettre de cachet at the very least. I praise God it did not happen so. You are still barely tolerated by Sa Majesté. He never forgives or forgets such slights, mon cousin. He might relent a little if you were to allow your sister to return to court—”
“I have not the least interest in Louis’ opinion of me.”
“M’sieur le duc! Please!” Salvan gasped in a broken voice. “Not so loud. I beg you!”
The Duke paused in the vestibule that led out into the Marble courtyard to permit a lackey to assist him into his many-capped roquelaure. “I repeat, what your king thinks of me or my actions is of supreme indifference. You forget I am of mixed blood. Only half is French, and that my mother’s. My allegiance is to a German-born King who sits on the English throne. Regrettable as that circumstance may be to many, it serves a purpose. And as I am a peer of that realm, and not this, I need not hold my actions accountable to your liege lord and master. If my presence at this court unnerves you, my dear cousin, I am happy for you to disassociate yourself with my family.” He bowed politely. “Versailles is no place for those of noble character, such as my sister.”
The Comte de Salvan tottered outside after him, a servant with a flambeau quick to follow on his heels. “And what of the rest of us?”
“Those of us of noble birth and no character amuse ourselves as best we can. I bid you a good night.”
Halfway across the courtyard two figures moving in shadow caught Salvan’s eye and he drew in a quick breath. Instantly, he tried to divert the Duke with some inconsequential tale about a notorious female and her present lover, all the while conscious of the raised voices traveling across the expanse of open air from the dark recesses of the Royal courtyard. But the Duke of Roxton was not diverted. He listened to his cousin’s chatterings as he slipped on a pair of black kid gloves then abruptly changed direction and sauntered toward the voices. His cousin made a protesting sound in the back of his throat and followed as best he could in red high heels.
A slim youth, richly clad in puce satin under a heavy coat thrown carelessly about his shoulders, and a girl, her gown concealed under a shabby wool cloak too large for her small frame and allowed to trail in the mud, were huddled under a red brick archway. In the light cast by a flickering flambeau, they were in heated discussion, the youth with an arm outstretched to the opposite wall to block the girl’s exit.
The Duke did not go so near as to disturb them, yet he showed enough interest to put up his quizzing glass. He was soon joined by the Comte de Salvan, who had hobbled across the pebbles in his high red heels, was chilled to the bone for having left his cloak indoors, and was mentally heaping curses upon his father’s memory for having permitted his name to be forever allied with a family of heretical Englishmen whom he blamed for all his past and present misfortunes.
“Permit me to explain,” Salvan rasped, catching his breath.
“Explain?” purred the Duke. “There is no need. Your so devoted son is of an age to defend his own actions.”
~ ~ ~
THE VICOMTE D’AMBERT despaired of making Antonia see reason. He gave an impatient grunt and looked away into the black night. “I tell you it is impossible!” he declared. “What do you not understand? The moment you leave the palace I cannot protect you. You have managed to avoid him until now. I say we wait for word from Saint-Germain. When we know how your Grandfather fares something will be contrived. I promise you.”
“It is you who do not understand, Étienne!”
“My grandfather is dying,” Antonia announced flatly. “He has gone to Saint-Germain to die, not to hunt or debauch but to die. He is old and infirm and his time has come. So be it. You think me unfeeling to speak the truth? Well, it is best I understand how it is and not allow silly expectations to fill my head. And do not tell me otherwise! Do not say I must hope because I know you only say so because I am a female and think to shield me from the truth. Such gallantry is wasted on me, Étienne.” When he kept his silence and refused to look at her she tried to rally him. “Do not sulk. You know what I say is the tr—”
“—the truth?” he repeated angrily. “Yes, it is the truth. I wish it was not so!”
“If you would convey me to Paris then I know I could make my own way to London. Your father will not find me in Paris, it is too big a city, and I have the money Grandfather gave me—”
“—to what?” The Vicomte threw up a hand in a gesture of hopelessness. “It is madness, Antonia. You, a pretty girl alone in Paris with not even a maid as chaperone? God grant me patience! You would not survive a day.”
“So you think? I am not afraid of a big city. Father and I lived in many strange cities and we enjoyed ourselves hugely.”
D’Ambert laughed. “Only an ignorant child would give me such an answer.”
“You are eighteen years old, does that not make you a child?” retorted Antonia.
He ignored the truth of this. “Have you been to Paris?”
“What does that signify?”
“Have you ever taken a diligence on your own?”
“No. But I am not so spiritless as to shy away from using public conveyances.”
“And once you took the diligence to Calais and by some miracle boarded a packet for Dover, what then? Assuming none of these journeys put you in the slightest danger—another miracle—what then? You have never visited England. I doubt you can speak the barbaric English tongue.”
“Wrong! I can,” Antonia announced proudly. The Vicomte’s sneer made her blush. “It is a very long time since I used the English tongue with Maman, but—but—I can read Grandfather’s English newssheets. And it is not as if I do not understand what is being said. That is the least little problem.”
“That is very true for no sooner set down in a Parisian street than one of a thousand scoundrels would abduct you. Before nightfall you would be clapped up in a brothel and your favors sold to the highest bidder by a fat bawd. Is that what you want?”
“No worse a fate than will befall me should I remain here.”
The Vicomte’s mouth dropped open at this statement, but there was nothing he could say in answer to it. He knew very well his father’s scheme and it sickened him. He blamed the Earl of Strathsay for all his present troubles. The old man should have left Antonia in Rome with a strict governess until his return. A convent better befitted girls of her breeding, where they were safe from lechers such as his father. But what convent school would take her when she stubbornly refused, in the face of her grandfather’s wrath, to embrace the one true faith?
He wished his hands would stop shaking. He felt hot and damp in his coat despite a bitter cold wind whistling through the archway. His manservant held a taper closer to cast light on his pockets whilst he rummaged for a snuffbox. Two pinches of the mixture and in a short while the shaking would cease and he would feel calmer, better able to think what to do next. But what could he do? What was he to do? Never mind Antonia was beautiful and young; there were many such girls at court. Why couldn’t his father find another diversion to occupy his time? But the Vicomte knew the answer. Antonia’s great beauty was equalled by a strong will and a naïve exuberance for life. And she was a virgin. A rare commodity in a place like Versailles. Strong attractions indeed for such a jaded roué as his father. And his was not the only jaundiced eye that had been cast in Antonia’s direction, thought d’Ambert with a growing depression.
Antonia touched his arm. “So you will take me to Paris?”
“You know why I cannot. My father has threatened a lettre de cachet.”
“That I will not believe. He is your father, not your jailer. Why should he do such a thing? You are his only son. It is unbelievable.”
“Would I lie to you?” he demanded.
Antonia looked at him frankly, clear green eyes searching his damp face and shook her head. “No. You would not lie to me, Étienne. He is quite abominable to threaten such a thing. Would it mean the Bastille?”
“Or any other fortress so named in the warrant. The stinking subterranean dungeons of Castle Bicêtre, if it suited his purpose. There everything is complete darkness. A living death! And at the King’s pleasure. I could not endure it.”
“He would never send you there,” Antonia said with confidence, though the thought of such places of torture made her inwardly shudder.
“Salvan will stop at nothing until he has what he wants,” said the Vicomte discouragingly. “He wants you and he says I must marry you. Mayhap—”
Antonia blinked. “But I do not want to marry you at all.”
“You could do worse than marry into my family!” Étienne flared up.
Antonia chuckled. “Oh, do not look so offended. When you pull that face you remind me of the Archbishop of Paris.”
He blushed and smiled. “I am sorry. It is just—If it was not for my father’s schemes perhaps you would consider?”
“No,” she stated. “I do not love you, Étienne. I am sorry. When I marry it will be for love. My father and mother married for love and I will not settle for less.”
The Vicomte bowed mockingly. “M’sieur d’Ambert thanks mademoiselle for her frankness. Mademoiselle has a most novel approach to marriage. Perhaps it is my person which offends? I am not tall enough? Too young? Do you prefer brown eyes to blue? Or does mademoiselle look higher? My name and lineage are impeccable, but I will only inherit the title of Comte. Perhaps it is a tabouret you crave? Yes! It is a Duke you want! Eh?”
“Now you are being childish,” said Antonia without heat. “It is when you are like this I dislike you.” She went to walk off but he blocked her exit. “Let me pass, Étienne. It is late and Maria will scold me if I do not return before she goes to mass.”
“Childish, am I?” he demanded and caught at her arm under the cloak. “You, who go at the beg and call of a whore—”
“Maria is no such thing!”
“No? She is your grandfather’s mistress?”
“She loves him, Étienne.”
“You are a child. A whore is a whore. Maria Casparti is a whore! A Venetian whore.”
“Let me go! You are hurting me!”
“Perhaps little Antonia has a particular nobleman in mind?” taunted the Vicomte with a sneering smile, twisting her arm. “Is that why she so easily dismisses me? Let me think who might take your fancy…”
“You do not even care for me,” said Antonia in exasperation. “Only three weeks ago you were ears over toes in love with Pauline Alexandre de Rohan. She is a very beautiful and accomplished girl and I know if you had pursued her your father could not have objected to such a match. She cared for you too—”
“Perhaps mademoiselle prefers men to boys? Is it my age you cavil at?” goaded the Vicomte. “Someone of my English cousin’s vintage and reputation intrigues you, does he not? Once you asked many questions about him and I know you sneak off to watch him fence cork-tipped in the Princes’ courtyard. I have had you followed. My English cousin is very good with his sword. He has one of the best wrists in France. He has also slept in every woman’s bed in this palace!”
“What of that? So have three-quarters of the gentlemen at court!”
“I am not of that number,” stated the Vicomte haughtily.
Antonia smiled up at him. “Foolish Étienne. That is what I most admired in you from the first. Now please let me go. I am certain you have bruised my wrist.”
He gave an embarrassed laugh and squeezed her wrist before releasing her. “My temper is very bad,” he said with a shrug. “Do not anger me and I will not hurt you, foolish Antonia. If you have a bruise I am sorry for it. Mayhap tomorrow we will hear from Saint-Germain. Unlike you I do not despair of good news—What is it?”
Antonia had heard the echo of high heels across the deserted courtyard and seen the Vicomte’s manservant give a start. She scooped up the cloak which had fallen from her shoulders at d’Ambert’s rough treatment and hastily threw it over her gown, not caring that the mud and grime of the cobbles splashed her petticoats.
“Listen, Étienne,” she whispered. “If we are caught—”
“Too late,” he answered and stepped into the pale orange light.
THE VICOMTE WATCHED the glow of a flambeau brighten as it crossed the courtyard, and three figures emerged out of the darkness. His whole being stiffened and he pulled Antonia behind him as he greeted the intruders with a stiff bow. He dared not look at his father who stood at the Duke of Roxton’s shoulder. “Good evening, M’sieur le duc,” he said politely.
Before the salutation could be returned the Comte de Salvan jumped at his son. “What are you doing here?” he demanded in a falsetto whisper. “Did I not warn you? Do not meddle in my affairs! You will ruin everything! Everything.”
“M’sieur, let me explain—”
“Taisez-vous!” snarled the Comte and instantly transformed himself into the gay courtier for Antonia’s benefit. “Mademoiselle Moran, allow me to apologize for my unthinking son’s behavior. To bring you out-of-doors on such a cold night is unforgivable. He is a clod! An inconsiderate dolt! I would be thrown into a thousand agonies if I thought a worthless piece of my flesh had caused you the slightest inconvenience.”
He took a step closer but Antonia shrunk from him, causing his son to stand taller. This incensed the little man but his painted face remained fixed in a coaxing smile. “Come now, you must not be frightened of Salvan. He thinks of little else but your well-being and how best to serve you.” He glared at his son’s unblinking countenance. “What has my son said to make you have a dread of poor Salvan?”
“Pardon, M’sieur le Comte, but what I discuss with M’sieur d’Ambert is not your concern.”
Salvan’s smile tightened. “Pardon, mademoiselle, but when my son takes it into his head to conduct clandestine meetings with unattended and very pretty females, it is very much my concern.” He bowed with formality.
Antonia was a little unnerved that the Duke of Roxton continued to stare at her in a leisurely fashion through his quizzing glass, but she did not allow this to stop her answering the Comte. “Pardon, M’sieur le Comte, I had not realized M’sieur le Comte’s life was of such a boredom he needs spy on his son’s.”
Far from taking offence the Comte de Salvan threw his hands together with delight. “Is she not refreshing, Roxton? What spirit! And in one so young! Mademoiselle is divine. Do you not agree, mon cousin? What next will she say?”
The Duke ignored his cousin’s exuberance and let fall his eyeglass. The girl’s haughty upward tilt of her chin and the insolent sparkle in her green eyes annoyed him. “You lack manners,” he said to Antonia and turned away into the darkness. “Walk me to my carriage, Salvan,” he ordered. “The boy can escort the girl back to the nursery.”
Salvan’s face fell and his shoulders slumped. “But, mon cousin…”
“Excuse me, M’sieur le duc,” retorted Antonia, “but as you refuse to own our connection, you have no right to comment on my manners.”
“Antonia, no,” whispered the Vicomte and felt his knees buckle with nervousness when the Duke of Roxton, who had not gone more than two strides, turned and came back to stand before Antonia. The Vicomte tugged at the girl’s sleeve to get her behind him but she would not go. She stood bravely beside him, the tinge of color in her cold, pale cheeks the only sign of her nervousness. “M’sieur le duc, I beg you to forgive Mademoiselle, she—”
“Be quiet, d’Ambert!” the Comte de Salvan hissed. “If anyone is to beg on Mademoiselle’s behalf it is I, you dolt!”
Father and son were ignored.
“Unlike my good cousin, I do not find Mademoiselle amusing,” the Duke enunciated icily, suppressed anger reflected in black eyes that stared down at the girl unblinkingly. “You mistake insolence for wit. A few more years in the schoolroom may correct the defect.”
Antonia pretended to demure and lowered her lashes with a sigh of resignation. “Sadly, I may not be given the opportunity for such correction, M’sieur le duc,” she answered despondently, a fleeting glance at the Comte de Salvan, “that is… unless M’sieur le duc he will own me as his kinswoman…”
The Duke caught the significance in her glance but he was not fooled by her veneer of humility. He saw the dimple in her left cheek and he knew what she was trying to do. It annoyed him more than it should have. He would not have his hand forced, not by anyone, certainly not by an impertinent chit whose disordered hair and ill-fitting clothes were more befitting a street urchin than the granddaughter of a much decorated General Earl. He gritted his teeth. “You are not my responsibility.”
“Of course she is not,” the Comte de Salvan proclaimed with a forced laugh of light-heartedness, his scented handkerchief up to his thin nostrils, yet a wary eye on the Duke’s implacable features. “Mademoiselle has a grandfather who has only her best interests at heart. Enfin. That said, let me see you to your carriage, mon cousin, before we all catch our deaths out in this night air.”
“My grandfather’s interests do not accord with my father’s last will and testament,” Antonia stated to the Duke, ignoring the Comte. “My father he sent M’sieur le duc a copy of his will from Florence, before his final illness.”
If Frederick Moran had sent him a copy of his will, it was news to the Duke, and surprise registered in his black eyes. Yet the girl continued to regard him with her clear green eyes, eyes that were accusatory; as if he had read and deliberately ignored her father’s last wishes and should account for his actions to her. Insolent creature. He would not give her the satisfaction of a response, and with a small nod at the Vicomte d’Ambert, he turned on a heel, beckoning the Comte to fall in beside him.
With a small, knowing smile, Antonia watched the Duke stride off into the darkness, deaf to the Vicomte’s monologue about how her ill-mannered behavior would get them both into trouble. The Duke might be angry with her, indeed the look on his face suggested he had washed his hands of her once and for all time, yet, Antonia was satisfied that this late-night encounter, unlike the half dozen letters she had written him about her predicament, had finally pricked at his conscience.
Confident she would soon be leaving Versailles, there was no time to lose. She must ensure her portmanteaux were packed and ready for the flight from this Palace and the Comte de Salvan’s menacing orbit. At the Galerie des Glaces masquerade in two days time, that’s when she would force the Duke of Roxton’s hand. She smiled at her own cleverness and, gathering the overlarge cloak about her small frame, she ran off across the Marble courtyard towards the Palace buildings, calling out to the Vicomte that she was a very good runner and would beat him to Maria Casparti’s apartment.
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