Forty-three

RELIEVED, ALMOST elated, he sprang from his bed, pulled the bell rope, and ordered the drowsy valet who staggered into his room to pack clothes and provisions because at daybreak he intended to set out for Grenoble in the company of his daughter. Then he dressed and chased the rest of the servants from their beds.

In the middle of the night, the house on the rue Droite awoke and bustled with life. The fire blazed up in the kitchen, excited maids scurried along the corridors, servants dashed up and down the stairs, in the vaulted cellars the keys of the steward rattled, in the courtyard torches shone, grooms ran among the horses, others tugged mules from their stalls, there was bridling and saddling and running and loading— one would have almost believed that the Austro-Sardinian hordes were on the march, pillaging and torching, just as in 1746, and that the lord of the manor was mobilizing to flee in panic. Not at all! The lord of the manor was sitting at his office desk, as sovereign as a marshal of France, drinking cafe au lait, and providing instructions for the constant stream of domestics barging in on him. All the while, he wrote letters to the mayor, to the first consul, to his secretary, to his solicitor, to his banker in Marseille, to the baron de Bouyon, and to diverse business partners.

By around six that morning, he had completed his correspondence and given all the orders necessary to carry out his plans. He tucked away two small traveling pistols, buckled on his money belt, and locked his desk. Then he went to awaken his daughter.

By eight o’clock, the little caravan was on the move. Richis rode at its head; he was a splendid sight in his gold-braided, burgundy coat beneath a black riding coat and black hat with jaunty feathers. He was followed by his daughter, dressed less showily, but so radiantly beautiful that the people along the street and at the windows had eyes only for her, their fervent ah’s and oh’s passing through the crowd while the men doffed their hats-apparently for the second consul, but in reality for her, the regal woman. Then, almost unnoticed, came her maid, then Richis’s valet with two packhorses-the notoriously bad condition of the road to Grenoble meant that a wagon could not be used-and the end of the parade was drawn up by a dozen mules laden with all sorts of stuff and supervised by two grooms. At the Porte du Cours the watch presented arms and only let them drop when the last mule had tramped by. Children ran behind them for a good little while, waving at the baggage crew as they slowly moved up the steep, winding road into the mountains.

The departure of Antoine Richis and his daughter made a strange but deep impression on people. It was as if they had witnessed some archaic sacrificial procession. The word spread that Richis was going to Grenoble, to the very city where the monster who murdered young girls was now residing. People did not know what to think about that. Did what Richis was doing show criminal negligence or admirable courage? Was he daring or placating the gods? They had only the vague foreboding that they had just seen this beautiful girl with the red hair for the last time. They suspected that Laure Richis might be lost.

This suspicion would prove correct, although the presumptions it was based upon were completely false. Richis was not heading for Grenoble at all. The pompous departure was nothing but a diversionary tactic. A mile and a half northwest of Grasse, near the village of Saint-Vallier, he ordered a halt. He handed his valet letters of attorney and transmittal and ordered him to bring the mule train and grooms to Grenoble by himself.

He, however, turned off with Laure and her maid in the direction of Cabris, where they rested at midday, and then rode straight across the mountains of the Tanneron toward the south. The path was an extremely arduous one, but it allowed them to circumvent Grasse and its basin in a great arc and to arrive on the coast by evening without being recognized… The following day-according to Richis’s plan-he would ferry across with Laure to the lies de Lerins, on the smaller of which was located the well-fortified monastery of Saint-Honorat. It was managed by a handful of elderly but quite ablebodied monks whom Richis knew very well, since for years he had bought and resold the monastery’s total production of eucalyptus cordial, pine nuts, and cypress oil. And there in the monastery of Saint-Honorat-which except for the prison of Chateau d’lf and the state prison on the He Sainte-Marguerite was probably the safest place in the Provence-he intended to lodge his daughter for the present. But he would immediately return to the mainland, this time circumventing Grasse on the east via Antibes and Cagnes, and arrive in Vence by evening of the same day. He had ordered his secretary to proceed there in order to prepare the agreement with baron de Bouyon concerning the marriage of their children Laure and Alphonse. He hoped to make Bouyon an offer that he could not refuse: assumption of his debts up to forty thousand livres, a dowry consisting of an equal sum as well as diverse landhold-ings and an oil mill near Maganosc, a yearly income of three thousand livres for the young couple. Richis’s only conditions were that the marriage should take place within ten days and be consummated on the wedding day, and that the couple should thereafter take up residence in Vence.

Richis knew that in acting so hastily he was driving the price excessively high for the union of his house with the house of Bouyon. He would have got it cheaper had he waited longer. The baron would have begged for permission to raise the social rank of the daughter of a bourgeois wholesaler through a marriage to his son, for the fame of Laure’s beauty would only grow, just as would Richis’s wealth and Bouyon’s financial miseries. But what did that matter! His opponent in this deal was not the baron, but the unknown murderer. He was the one whose business had to be spoiled. A married woman, deflowered and if possible already pregnant, would no longer fit into his exclusive gallery. The last mosaic stone would be tarnished, Laure would have lost all value for the murderer, his enterprise would have failed. And he was to feel his defeat! Richis wanted to hold the wedding ceremony in Grasse, with great pomp and open to the public. And even if he could not know his adversary, would never know him, he would take personal pleasure in knowing that he was in attendance at the event and would have to watch with his own eyes as that which he most desired was snatched away from under his nose.

The plan was nicely thought out. And once again we must admire Richis’s acumen for coming so close to the truth. For in point of fact the marriage of Laure Richis to the son of the baron de Bouyon would have meant a devastating defeat for the murderer of the maidens of Grasse. But the plan was not yet carried out. Richis had not yet rescued his daughter by marrying her off. He had not yet ferried her across to the safety of the monastery of Saint-Honorat. The three riders were still passing through the inhospitable mountains of the Tanneron. Sometimes the path was so bad that they had to dismount from their horses. It was all going too slowly. By evening, they hoped to reach the sea near La Napoule, a small town west of Cannes.

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