I had liked Yvette from the moment I had seen her but it had not occurred to me that her coming would be so important to me.
When she arrived at the castle Margot embraced her affectionately.
“It is wonderful that you were able to come,” she said, for the benefit of the servants.
“I have told you what has happened. You will love little Chariot.”
In Margot’s bedroom the three of us were together.
“It worked!” cried Margot.
“It worked magnificently.” She added rather patronizingly: “You both played your parts well.”
“Not as well as you did,” I commented wryly.
“Naturally you had the leading part.”
“And I was the author of our little play. It was a wonderful idea, you must admit.”
“I’ll tell you at the end,” I said.
“Spoilsport.” She put out her tongue at me as she used to when we were in school together. Then she turned to Yvette.
“He grows more adorable every day. I wonder if he’ll remember you.”
“Let’s go and see,” said Yvette.
Chariot kicked and crowed with obvious pleasure at the sight of Yvette.
Margot picked him up and hugged him.
“Not too pleased, my angel, or you will make me jealous Yvette took him from her and laid him back in his cot.
“You over-excite him,” she said.
“He loves to be excited. Don’t forget he is my own flesh and blood.”
That,” said Yvette gently, ‘is something we must try to forget. You have him now. He is your adopted son. That is very satisfactory.”
“Do you think I shall ever forget that he is my very own?”
Yvette shook her head.
was because life in the chateau was in fact affected by what was happening outside and people no longer visited each other as they once had. The Comte and Comtesse de Grasseville did not care to have extravagant parties when there was so much talk about the poverty in the country. I think the Comte and his Comtesse really preferred the simpler life.
In any case that was how it was and it meant that Yvette and I often sat or walked together in the gardens where we could talk more easily without being overheard, and I think we both feared that by a word we might betray the true story of Chariot’s arrival at the chateau.
It was not long before Yvette was talking of the past.
The most exciting years of her life had been spent at the Chateau Silvaihe.
“I went there when I was fifteen years old,” she told me.
“It was my first post as nursery maid under Madame Rocher … otherwise Nou-Nou. She had gone to the Comtesse Ursule when she was born and was always with her. She adored Madame Ursule. Her whole life was concentrated on her. There was a story about it. She was married briefly … obviously to a Monsieur Rocher. What he did I never learned, but I did hear that there was some accident before her child was due to be born. He died and she lost the child as well. That was why she went to Ursule and it was said that Ursule saved her reason and she transferred her affection to her employer’s child. It was very sad.”
“She was wet-nurse to Ursule and used to say: ” That child is part of me. ” She could scarcely bear her out of her sight and if ever Ursule was in trouble she would defend her without question. It was not good for the child. When she was very young, if any of us offended her she would threaten to tell Nou-Nou. Nou-Nou encouraged her in this and Ursule was quite an unpleasant little girl at that time. But she grew out of it. When she was about six or seven she drew away from Nou-Nou but not completely. They were too close for that, but she felt restrained, smothered by too much devotion. It can be like that.”
“What kind of woman was Ursule?”
“Before her marriage she was quite a normal girl, interested in balls and clothes. It was after her marriage that she changed.”
How long were you with her? “
“Until about six years ago. Margot was growing up then and there was no longer the need to keep a nursery. She had a governess and later she went to England, as you know. It was then that the Comte gave me my house and enough to live on and keep a servant. So I settled down with Jose and thought to spend the rest of my life there.”
“You will go back one day.”
“Yes, when Chariot is older, I dare say.”
“Do you miss the chateau! Your house with Jose must be very different.”
She was silent and a misty look came in her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, “I missed the chateau. I had one great friendship in my life. I don’t think I should ever want to go back.”
I longed to know of her great friendship though I felt it would be impolite to ask. I waited and soon it came.
“I know this sounds strange but our friendship grew up gradually. She was good-hearted but a little imperious. That was due to her upbringing.”
“You mean Ursule?”
“Yes. I had done something … I forget what now, but it offended her.
There was the usual cry of “I’ll tell NouNou.” I must have been in a perverse mood for I retorted: “All right, you little tale-bearer, tell her.” She stared at me. I remember now her little face, scarlet with rage. She must have been eight years old . yes, she was. I remember exactly. She ran to Nou-Nou, who of course came bearing down on me like an angel with a flaming sword to defend her darling. I said, “I am tired of always giving way to this spoilt child.”
“Then,” said Nou-Nou, “you had better pack your box and get out,”
“AU right,” I cried, “I will,” although I had nowhere to go. Nou-Nou knew my plight well.
“And where will you go?” she asked. I replied: “Anywhere is better than fussing over a silly spoilt child and her besotted old nurse.”
“Get out,” shouted Nou-Nou. Nou-Nou was the power in the Brousseau nursery. Madame and Monsieur Brousseau doted on their daughter and applauded Nou-Nou’s adulation, so if Nou-Nou said I was to go there could be no appealing less ness of my situation and gave way to despair. I put my head among my meagre treasures and sobbed in fear and misery. Then suddenly I was aware of being watched and when I lifted my head, saw Ursule standing there. I can still see her very clearly as she was at that moment.
Brown curls tied with blue ribbons and a white embroidered gown to her little ankles. She was a very pretty child with wide brown eyes and thick straight hair which Nou-Nou lovingly put into curl papers every night.
Previously I had thought her a little minx with no thought for anyone but herself. But no, she had some feeling in her.
“The odd part about it was, she told me later, that some feeling for me started to grow in her then. She didn’t know what it was. All she knew was that she did not want me to go. She said, imperious as ever:
“Don’t put any more in your box.” And then with an amazing gentleness she took the things out and laid them back in the drawers. Nou-Nou came in and, seeing me still kneeling on the floor, looking dazed, said:
“Come on, girl. It’s time you had done.” Then my little champion lifted her head in a way she had and said: “She is not going, Nou-Nou.
I want her to stay. “
“She’s a bad, insolent girl,” said Nou-Nou.
“I know,” replied Ursule, ” but I want her to stay. “
“Why, my little darling, she called you a tattle taler
“Well, I am, Nou-Nou. I do tattletale. want her to stay.” Poor Nou-Nou, she was nonplussed, but of course her little darling’s word was law. “p>
“So she changed from that day?”
“It wasn’t so sudden as that. We had our ups and downs. But I never gave way to her as Nou-Nou did, and I think she liked that. I was a good deal younger than Nou-Nou. I was about fifteen at this time when Ursule was eight. Then it was a big difference. It grew less as we grew older. From that day she took an interest in me. I was in a way her creation because but for her I should have been turned away.
Although she was still Nou-Nou’s little pet and was constantly in her company, she would often sneak away to me and she began to confide in me in an astonishing way. Nou-Nou was a little jealous at first but she realized that her relationship with her darling was very different from mine and so devoted was she to Ursule that she was ready to accept anything that gave her pleasure.
“I had a flair for clothes not making them … we had the seamstresses for that … but adding little touches to them, making suggestions which could lift a dress out of the commonplace. Ursule would have me with her when the seamstresses were fitting her. We used to go into the town together to make purchases, for she would insist that I accompany her.
“That was not all. She often asked my advice although she rarely took it. We became fast friends in a way which was not usual between a servant and the daughter of the house.
“The Brousseau parents, as I said, were indulgent. Yvette is a good girl, they used to say. She looks after Ursule as Nou-Nou couldn’t.
And so we grew together like two sisters. “
“And that was the greatest friendship of your life. What made you leave?”
“I offended the Comte. I told Ursule that she should stand up to him and criticized him to his face. He said that Marguerite no longer needed a nurse for I was looking after her at that time. And he seat me away.”
“I wonder Ursule allowed it.”
Yvette’s lips curled.
“Everything had changed very much by then. It did after her marriage. He frightened her from the first moment she saw him.”
“So in spite of the fact that he gave you your home and your comfortable retirement you do not like him.”
“Like him!” She laughed. It seems an odd word to use in connection with him. I wonder if anyone likes the Comte. People fear him. There’s no doubt of that. Many respect his wealth and position. Many more hate him. I suppose those who indulge in passing amours with him might say they loved him. Buth’feehim! “
“And you are one of those who hate him?”
“I would hate anyone who did what he did to Ursule.”
“Was he so cruel to her?”
“If she had never married him she would still be alive today.”
“You are not saying that he … killed her?”
“My dear Mademoiselle, I am saying just that.”
I shook my head and she put her hand over mine.
After that she said nothing more and for that day our tete-a-tete was over.
I thought a great deal about what Yvette had said. It was almost as though she had some secret information. If she had, I must discover what it was. That it would be detrimental to the Comte she had imp Bed
I shivered as I recalled vividly the expression on her face when she had talked of his killing his wife.
If he were there beside me I would be ready to believe this could not be true; when he was not with me I could assess the facts more calmly.
I must talk to Yvette. If I knew more of Ursule’s nature I might be able to throw some light on the subject.
Margot asked me to go into the town to buy ribbons for a gown that was being made for Chariot.
“You must go, Minelle,” she said.
“You will choose the right colour.”
I went alone. There had never been any question of our being escorted by day in -Grasseville and it would not be the first time I had gone into the town by myself.
The Chateau Grasseville far less grand than that of Silvaine was rather like a glorified country mansion scarcely worthy of the name chateau. The family owned another castle forty miles north-much bigger, I beard-but this was their favourite. It was gracious enough with its four pepper-pot towers and its grey stone walls rising from the slight incline which enabled it to remain in sight of the town and, standing aloof as it did, to dominate it.
It was mid-morning. The sun was beginning to climb. In a few hours it would be very hot.
As I walked into the town several people called a greeting. One woman seated on a basket asked how the little one was. I told her that Chariot was very well indeed.
“Poor mite! To be left like that. I would wring the neck of a mother.
Mademoiselle, who left a little one. Yes, I would, as easily as Monsieur Berray wrings the necks of his chickens. “
“No one could be better cared for than young Chariot is now, Madame.”
“I know it well. And young Madame … she is born to be a mother.
She has become one quickly, eh? Married but a few weeks . “
Clinging to her basket she tottered perilously, almost overcome by her own humour.
“Madame has a great fondness for babies,” I said. God bless her. “
I passed on. There was scarcely anyone who did not ask after the baby.
I was some time choosing the ribbons, and when I had done so I decided to have a cup of coffee and one of the delectable little cream cakes before I began to walk back.
I sat at a table under the blue umbrella and the coffee was brought to me by Madame Durand, who chatted a while about the baby who had had the good fortune to be left at the gates of the chateau.
When she had left me I sat brooding on what Yvette had told me and asking myself why she had conceived such a passionate hatred of the Comte. Nou-Nou had felt the same towards him. It could only be because of his treatment of Ursule as they both had such affection for her.
There was much I did not know of her. I had fancied her to be a peevish hypochondriac but it was not now easy to reconcile that assessment of her character with that of a woman who bad-inspired such devotion. With Nou-Nou who had lost her own child, it was understandable. Yvette was a different case. Yvette was a woman of good sense and independent spirit and since she had formed a great friendship with her employer’s daughter it must mean that there was something unusual about that daughter.
Always when I thought of the Comte and his affairs I was sooner or later in complete bewilderment.
As I sat there shielded from the sunshine by the blue umbrella, sipping my coffee and savouring my gateau, I had the strange feeling that I was being watched.
It was all the more extraordinary that I should feel this on a bright, sunny morning in the heart of the town. Turning as unobtrusively as I could, I noticed a man a few tables away from me. As I turned his head moved and he was staring straight ahead. I was sure he had been intent on me. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen him before. It was when we were on our way from Paris to Grasseville. He had been at an inn in which we had stayed the night. It was something about the way his head was set on his shoulders which made him recognizable. His neck was slightly shorter than average, his shoulders faintly rounded. He wore a dark wig and one of the tall hats with a brim which hid part of his face-the type of hat which could be seen everywhere. His jacket and breeches were of the same nondescript brown as the hat. He looked, in fact, like many other people one saw in towns and villages and would never have attracted attention by his dress. It was merely the set of his head on his shoulders which made me recognize him.
I must be imagining his interest in me. Why should it be there? Unless he had heard, of course, that I came from the chateau and was the cousin of the new Madame who had recently adopted the baby found at the gates.
Yet for the moment that man had given me a twinge of uneasiness. Ever since that distressing event in the lane when I could so easily have lost my life, I had been on the alert.
I was still thinking about the man in the dark wig when I rose and walked away. It did seem odd that he had been at the inn where we bad stayed. But perhaps he lived here. I must make discreet enquiries about him.
I walked back to the ribbon shop having decided to buy some lace which I had seen there. I came out of the shop and walked past the patisserie. The man was no longer sitting at the table.
I left the town and began the short walk to the chateau. When I reached the incline I turned and looked back. The man was walking along in the direction I had come as though following me at a discreet distance.
I went to the chateau still thinking of him.
It was not difficult to lure Yvette to talk of Ursule. I found her sitting in the gardens, some sewing in her hands, and I went to join her.
“We should make the most of this,” she said.
“It won’t last long.”
“You mean this peace.”
“I wonder what’s happening in Paris. It must be very hot there. It’s strange how heat makes tempers rise. At night people will be out in the streets. They will be gathering at the Palais Royale. There’ll be speeches and oaths and threats.”
“The government may have a solution. I believe the Comte is attending meetings of the council there.”
Yvette shook her head.
“The hatred is too strong … tempered with envy. There is little that can be done now. If the mob were to rise I would not care to be a member of the aristocracy who fell into its hands.”
I shivered, thinking of him, arrogant, dignified, seeming omnipotent in his own castle. It would be different in the streets of Paris.
“It is the reckoning,” said Yvette.
“The Comte Fontaine Delibes has been a despotic ruler. His word was law. It is time he was overthrown.”
“Why did Ursule marry him?” I asked.
“Poor child, she had no choice.”
“I thought the Brousseaux doted on her.”
“So they did, but they wanted the best possible marriage for her.
There could not have been a grander . outside royalty. They wanted honours for her. Happiness, they thought, would follow. She would have a fine chateau as her home, a grand name, a husband who was well known for the part he played in both Paris and the country. That he was the devil incarnate did not seem of any importance. “
“Was he so bad?” I asked almost plaintively, wanting her to say something good of him.
“When they were married he was not very old … only a year or so older than she was … but old in sin. A man like that is mature at fourteen. You may look disbelieving but I can assure you he had had his adventures even then. He was eighteen at the time of his marriage.
He already had an established mistress. You know her. “
“Gabrielle LeGrand yes.”
“And she had borne him a son. You know of this, how Etienne was brought to the chateau. Can you think of any thing more cruel than to bring a son by another woman to flaunt before your wife because she is unable to bear more children?”
“It is heartless, I agree.”
“Heartless indeed. He has no heart. He has never thought anything of greater importance than the gratification of his desires.”
“I should have thought with such parents, with NouNou and you, Ursule could have refused to marry him.”
“You know him.” She looked at me obliquely and I wondered what rumours she had heard about me and the Comte. Clearly she had heard something, for this was the reason behind her vehemence. She was warning me.
“There is about him a certain charm. It’s a sort of devilish allure.
It seems irresistible to quite a lot of women. To become involved with him is like stepping on to shifting sands. I believe they can be very beautiful, inviting you to walk on them and as soon as you take your first step you begin to sink, and unless youhave the wit and power to withdraw quickly you are lost. “
“Do you really think anyone is entirely evil?”
“I think some people glory in the power they have over others. They see themselves towering above everyone else. Their needs, their desires are all-important. They must be satisfied no matter who suffers in the process of gratification.”
“He looked after you when you left,” I reminded her.
“He gave you a home and enabled you to have Jose and live in comfort.”
“I thought it was good of him at the time. Later ]. began to think he might have a motive.”
“What motive could he have had?”
“He might have wanted me out of the way.”
“He might have had plans for Ursule.”
“You can’t mean…”
“My dear Mademoiselle, I am surprised that a young woman of your apparent good sense should allow herself to be so deceived. But that has happened to others. My poor little Ursule! I remember well the night they sent for her. She went down to the salon and was presented to him. The marriage contracts were already drawn up. Oh, it was to be such a grand match! The Brousseau family is an ancient one, but it had lost some of its wealth through the centuries. His family had retained theirs. Thus the family were gaining a son-in-law of equal nobility and vastly greater wealth and importance. They needed money and there was a very good marriage settlement which far exceeded the dowry they had to provide for their daughter. It was a most advantageous marriage-smiled on by both sides.”
“He charmed her … as he has many. She came to me afterwards … she always came to me. She would go to Nou-Nou as a child who has hurt itself and wants to be kissed and made better. To me she confided her real problems. She was bemused.
“Yvette,” she said, “I never saw anyone like him. Of course I haven’t. There isn’t anyone like him.”
She walked about in a sort of dream. She was so innocent. She knew nothing of the world. Life for her then was a romantic dream. “
“And when you saw him?”
“I did not know him then. I thought he had all the charm and grace which had attracted her. I was to learn later the sort of life he had led. We thought, both Nou-Nou and I, that he was almost worthy of her.
How quickly we were disillusioned. “
“How quickly?” I persisted.
They went to one of his country homes for the honeymoon. It was Villers Brabante, a beautiful house, small by chateau standards, but charmingly set in rural surroundings . quite peaceful . the ideal place for a honeymoon . providing of course that one has the ideal husband. He was far from that. “
“How did you know?”
“One only had to look at her. We … Nou-Nou and I … had gone on to Silvaine to be ready for them when they came back. It was the first time Nou-Nou had been parted from her. She was like a hen who has lost her chick. She was clucking all the time, getting distracted. She would sit up at the watch tower with the watchman looking out for their return. Then they came … and one took at her face and we knew. She was bewildered. Poor child, she had been taught nothing of life … particularly life lived with a man like that. She was bewildered and frightened. Frightened of him … frightened of everything. In two weeks she was quite changed.”
“He was young too,” I said in his defence.
“Young in years, old in experience. He must have found her very different from the loose women he had known. I think she was probably pregnant when they came back, for soon after it was obvious. That too was a great trial for her. She was terrified of having a child. We were closer than ever then. She turned to me.
“There are things I can’t talk of to Nou-Nou,” she used to say, and she told me how she had disappointed him, how she wanted to be alone, how marriage was so different from what she had thought it would be. We used to sit together during the waiting months and she told me something of what she called her ordeal. And now another awaited her: the birth of her child.
“There has to be a son, Yvette,” she said.
“If this child is a son I shall never go through it again. If it is a girl …” Then she shivered and clung to me trembling. I started to hate him then. “
“After all,” I said, ‘it is what one expects of marriage. Perhaps the trouble was that Ursule had not been prepared. “
“You find excuses for him. Poor Ursule! How ill she was before Marguerite’s birth. Nou-Nou was in terror that she would never come through. But we had the best doctors, the best midwife and at last the day came when the child was born. I shall never forget her face when she was told it was a girl. She was very, very ill and the doctors said that if she had another child she would run such risks that could well cost her her life.
“She must make no more attempts to have children,” said the doctors. You would have thought she was a Queen being crowned. Nou-Nou and I cried together in our relief. It was as though our darling was restored to us. “
“The Comte must have been a very disappointed man.”
“He was mad with rage. He used to go out riding or driving and they said he was like a madman. He was in a dilemma. They said he cursed the day he had married. He had an invalid wife … one daughter and no son. You must have heard that he killed a boy.”
“Yes. Leon’s twin brother.”
“It was nothing short of murder.”
“It was not done purposely. It was an accident. And he compensated the family. I have heard he was very good to them. We know what he did for Leon.”
“It cost him nothing. That is the sort of man he is … ruthless. Then he brought Etienne to the chateau … his bastard son … to show her that if she could not give him sons others could.
It was a cruel thing to do. “
“Was she hurt?”
“She said to me once: ” I don’t care, Yvette, as long as I do not have to submit. He may have twenty bastard sons here as long as I don’t have to try to give him a legal one. ” You see how ruthless he is. He cares so little for his wife’s feelings that he brings Etienne here.
Etienne’s hopes are raised; so are those of his mother. They are hoping that Etienne will be legitimized and made the Comte’s heir, but he keeps them on tenterhooks. It amuses him. “
“One can only feel sorry for everyone concerned,” I said. She looked at me sharply and shook her head as though in despair.
I went on: “At least Ursule had her daughter.”
“She never cared greatly for Marguerite. I think the child reminded her of her birth and all she had suffered.”
“It was not Marguerite’s fault,” I said sharply.
“I should have thought it would have been natural for a mother to care for her child.”
“Marguerite soon showed herself well able to look after herself.
Nou-Nou was not very interested in the child either. Her care fell mostly to me. I was very drawn to her. She was such a gay little thing, vivacious, very wayward, impulsive . well, she has not changed much. “
“I am surprised that Ursule was indifferent to her.”
“She was always listless at this time. Soon after Marguerite’s birth she suffered another shock. Her mother died. She had been very fond of her mother and her death was a great blow to her.”
“So it was unexpected.”
Yvette was silent for a while, then she said: Her mother took her own life. ” I was startled.
“Yes,” went on Yvette.
“It was a great shock to us all. We did not know that she was ill. She had been suffering some internal pains but she had mentioned this for some time. But when the pain increased she could keep it secret no longer. When she heard that nothing could be done for it, she took an overdose of a sleeping draught.”
“Like … Ursule,” I murmured.
“No,” said Yvette firmly.
“Not like Ursule. Ursule would never have taken her own life. I know she wouldn’t. We talked of this again and again. Ursule was deeply religious. She believed in an after-life. She used to say to me: ” No matter what one suffers here, Yvette, it is all fleeting. That’s what I tell myself. We must endure it and the greater the suffering, the more rejoicing there will be when one comes to rest. My mother suffered pain and would have suffered more and she could not endure it. Oh, if only she had waited. ” Then she turned to me and gripped my hands and said:
“If only I had known. If only I could have talked to her …”
“And yet when something similar happened to her …”
“She was not in great pain then. I know.”
“You were not at the chateau,” I reminded her.
“When I left the chateau, we wrote to each other. We wrote every week.
She wanted to know every detail of my life and she gave me every detail of hers. She opened her heart to me. She kept nothing back.
When I left we had made this pact. Later she wrote that our letters were more revealing than our daily contacts. She said that we had become even closer through the pen than we had been before because it was so much easier to say exactly what one meant on paper. That was why I learned so much about her . when I was away from her, more than when I was with her. That is why I know that she would never have killed herself. “
“How then did she die?”
“Someone murdered her,” she said.
I went to my room and stayed there. I did not want to talk of Ursule’s death. I would not believe what Yvette was suggesting. That Yvette believed the Comte had killed his wife was without question.
And I knew that the intention of these conversations was to warn me.
In her mind she had put me with those women who had become fascinated by him and were picked up and made much of for a while and before they were cast off . minor affaires in a long stream of such, some of greater importance than others, like the one which had brought him Etienne.
In spite of everything I would not believe this of him. That he had had adventures I knew-indeed, when had he ever made a secret of that? but that our relationship was different, I was certain.
At times I believed I would be ready to forget everything that had gone before. Everything? Murder? But I would not believe he had killed his wife. He had killed Leon’s brother but that was different a reckless, thoughtless act which had ended in tragedy but which was quite different from premeditated murder.
While I was brooding there the door opened and Margot looked in. She was not quite her exuberant self.
“Is something wrong?” I cried, raising myself on my arm, for I was lying on my bed.
She sat on the chair near the mirror and looked at me frowning.
She nodded slowly.
“What’s happened? Chariot…?”
“Is as beautiful and bonny as ever.”
Then what? “
“It’s a note I’ve had. Armand said a woman had given it to him and it was to be delivered either to me or to you.”
“A note? Armand?”
“Please don’t repeat everything I say, Minelle. It maddens me.”
“Why should a woman give a note to Armand?”
“Because she must have known he comes from the chateau.”
Armand was a groom we had brought with us from the Chateau Silvaine.
Etienne had said he was a good man and had recommended us to bring him with us.
Where’s the note? ” I asked.
She held out a piece of paper. I took it and read:
It would be well for one of you to come to the Cafe des Fleurs at ten o’clock on Tuesday morning. You will be sorry if you fail. I know about the baby.
I stared at her.
“Who on earth could it be …?”
She shook her head impatiently.
“Oh, Minelle, what are we going to do?
It’s worse than Bessell and Mimi. “
“It looks to me,” I said, ‘as if it’s the same thing as Bessell and Mimi. “
“But here … in Grasseville. I’m frightened, Minelle.”
“It’s someone trying to blackmail you,” I said.
“How can you be sure?”
“The tone of the note.
“You’ll be sorry …” It’s someone who has found out and wants to make something out of it. “
Whatever shall I do? “
Could you tell Robert the truth? “
“Are you mad? I never could … at least not yet. He thinks I’m so perfect, Minelle.”
“He’ll have to discover his error sooner or later. Why not sooner?”
“You can be so hard.”
“Then why not try someone else?”
“Someone else! You’re in this. It says ” one of you”. That means you as well.”
I think you should go. “
“I can’t Robert is taking me for a ride.”
Wen, cancel it. “
“What excuses could I make? I have to go. It would look so odd. He’d only want to know why…”
I hesitated. I flattered myself that this was a delicate situation which I could handle better than Margot. After all, I was involved. I had been with her during that fateful period. My mind ranged over who it could possibly be. Madame Gremond . someone from the house . perhaps someone to whom Bessell and Mimi had talked, someone who had seen them favoured and hoped to reap similar benefits.
When at length I said I would go she threw her arms round me. She knew she could rely on me to settle everything, she declared.
I said: “Listen. This is not settled. It has only just begun. I think you will have to consider telling Robert. That would scatter the blackmailers. You can never know when Bessell IS and Mimi are coming back with more demands.” E “Oh, Minelle, I’m so frightened. But you will go and you’ll ” ‘” know how to deal with them.”
“There is only one wise way in dealing with blackmailers and that is to tell them to do their worst.” ,.
She shook her head, real fear in her eyes. I was very fond “J of her and it was gratifying to see how happy she and Robert were together and I often laughed to think how ingeniously she had brought her baby into the family. But of course it was an uneasy situation and while she kept such a secret, which was inevitably shared by others, dangers could arise.
I was rather touched, too, by the manner in which she could shift everything on to my shoulders. I was sure she would be blithely happy during her morning with Robert. She could always live in the moment, which was perhaps a blessing in some ways, but it did sometimes leave the future to be cared for.
At five minutes to ten I arrived at the Cafe des Fleurs. I ordered my coffee and the usual gateau although I had no appetite for it, but I thought Madame would be surprised if I did not and I wanted this to be an ordinary morning. I received a little shock to see the man with the dark wig and the high shoulders walk over. He is the blackmailer, I thought. He has been watching me! But he took a seat some distance off and although he glanced my way he did not appear to be really looking at me.
A woman was coming towards me. Emilie! Madame Gremond’s maid, the quiet sister of the garrulous Jeanne. I might have known. I had always mistrusted those thin lips, those pale eyes which had never really looked straight at me.
“Mademoiselle is surprised?” she asked with an unpleasant smirk.
“Not entirely,” I replied.
“What is it you have to say? Please say it quickly and go.”
“Ill go in my own time. Mademoiselle. It is not you who calls the tune now, remember. It won’t take long to settle. I know now that the mother of the child was not Madame Ie Brun, but Madame de Grasseville, at that time Mademoiselle Fontaine Delibes, daughter of the great Comte.”
“You have worked very hard,” I said caustically.
“It’s a pity it was not in a more worthy cause.”
“It wasn’t difficult,” she said, with an air of modesty.
“We all knew that once Madame Gremond had been a great friend of the Comte Fontaine Delibes. She was very proud of it. He came to see her. Then all this happened. We thought Madame Ie Brun was one of his mistresses and the baby was his. Then Gaston took letters to Madame LeGrand … because she and Madame Gremond had kept in touch with t each other. Ladies of misfortune … not altogether cast off.”
She sniggered and how I hated her whey-coloured face el “Gaston saw you and hung about and caught a glimpse of Madame de Grasseville. He heard how she was going to get married and then the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. Gaston and Jeanne want a little something to set up home with and I’d like a bit for my old age. We’d like a thousand francs each to start with, and if we don’t get it I shall go to the chateau and tell Madame’s husband the whole story.”
“You are an unscrupulous and wicked woman.”
“Who in my position would not be unscrupulous for three thousand francs?”
“Many, I hope. Do you make a practice of this sort of thing?”
“Such good fortune does not often come my way. Mademoiselle. Madame de Grasseville as she now is … talked too much. She gave clues. My sister listened and we talked it over with Gaston. If she had been the Comte’s mistress we wouldn’t have dared. But you see this is different. We don’t have to deal with the Comte, do we … but with Monsieur de Grasseville.”
“I shall see that Madame Gremond knows the sort of people she employs.”
“When we have our fortune what shall we care? Madame Gremond has to be careful of herself. Times are not good for such as she is … and for such as you. You will have to be careful how you treat the people now.
Come. Bring the francs tomorrow and all will be well’ “Until the next demand?”
“Perhaps there will be no more demands.”
The perpetual promise of the blackmailer, and made to be broken, of course. “
Emilie shrugged her shoulders.
“Madame is the one who will have to decide. She is the one who will have to face her husband. I wonder how he will feel about supporting his wife’s little bastard baby.”
I could have slapped her face and might have done so had we not been sitting at a cafe table. I fancied the man with the wig was watching and trying to hear what was said.
I stood up.
“I will take your message,” I said.
“Please do not forget that blackmail is a criminal act.”
She grinned at me.
“We all have to be careful, do we not? And we should all try to help each other.”
I walked away. I could feel her eyes following me-and those of the man in the dark wig too.
I walked briskly to the chateau. When I reached the incline I looked back. The man was some little way behind, walking in the direction of the chateau. But my mind was full of Emilie and I had little thought to spare for him.
The three of us discussed Emilie’s threat myself, Yvette and Margot.
Yvette and I were of one opinion. There was only one way of dealing with the matter. Margot must confess to her husband. If she did not and complied with Emilie’s demand it would be the beginning of many.
“You will never have any peace,” I pointed out.
“You will never know from one moment to the next when she is going to appear with further demands.”
“I can’t tell Robert,” wailed Margot.
“It would spoil everything.”
“What else can you do?” I demanded.
“Leave it. Take no notice.”
“Then she might tell. If he has to know, it is better for it to come from you.”
I could give her the money. “
“That would be the utmost folly,” said Yvette.
Margot wept and stormed and declared she would never tell Robert, and demanded to know why people would not leave her alone. Hadn’t she suffered enough?
“Look, Margot,” I said, ‘if you tell him, perhaps he’ll understand and that will be an end of the matter. Just imagine how happy you would be without the burden of this secret. Think of all the people who might decide to blackmail you. You haven’t heard the end of Bessell and Mimi yet. “
“And I trusted them,” she said.
“It shows you can trust no one,” Yvette pointed out.
“Minelle is right. Robert is good and kind and he loves you.”
“Not enough for that perhaps,” said Margot. “
“I believe he does,” I said,
“How can you know that?”
“I know that you are very happy together and he won’t want that changed.”
“But it will be changed. He thinks me so wonderful… so unlike other girls…”
She stormed and raged and shut herself in her room and then came to me and demanded that I talk to her. We discussed it all again, going over and over the same points. I stuck to my opinion; she wavered from one to the other.
I reminded her that Bnrilie would be at the patisserie the next day.
“Let her be!” she cried.
At supper she was quite gay with Robert as though there was nothing at all on her mind. Though perhaps, I thought afterwards, she was a little too gay.
I spent a sleepless night wondering what would happen the next day, but in the early morning Margot came to me. She was radiant.
She had done it. She had taken our advice. She had told Robert that Chariot was her son.
She threw herself into my arms.
“And he still loves me,” she said.
I was so relieved I could not speak.
“He was a little taken aback,” she explained.
“But when he had got used to it he said that he was glad I had brought Chariot here. Then he said I would be a good mother to our children when they came. You see, Minelle, I have solved our problem.”
“Ours?” I said.
“You are in this as much as I am.”
“My part can hardly be compared with yours. But never mind that now. I am so pleased and happy. How lucky you are to have Robert. I hope you appreciate that.” ‘
I could not but relish my meeting with Emilie. She was waiting at the patisserie and she brightened with anticipation when she saw me.
“Have you brought the money?” she demanded.
“Hand it to me now.”
“You go too fast,” I retorted. I have not brought the money. You may go straight to the chateau and ask for Monsieur de Grasseville. You can tell him what you know of his wife. You will get short shrift from him for information that he already knows. “
“I don’t believe it.”
“Nevertheless it is true.”
“It’s not the story I heard.”
“Do you think you are in a position to hear what takes place between a wife and her husband?’ She looked deflated.
“You’re lying, of course.”
“It is not a habit of mine to do so.”
“Maybe not, but I reckon you sidestep now and then. You managed very well when you were with us. Madame Ie Brun … a husband who was dead drowned, wasn’t it. A fine story. You could lie then and you’re lying now.”
“There is one way of proving it. Go to the chateau and ask for Monsieur de Grasseville. I am sure he would grant you an interview.
But you might find someone waiting for you whom you do not expect. Now get out of here while you can safely do so. “
“Do not imagine, Mademoiselle, that I shall let this pass. I shall discover the truth and when I have done so I shall know how to act.”
“And if you are not careful, so shall we. There is nothing more despicable than a blackmailer. Goodbye. Take warning and never show your face here again.”
Emilie, looking sickly pale, rose and giving me a venomous look said:
“One day it will be different. One day we shall iave our revenge on such as you. It has been too easy for ou. Those days are over. The time is coming when there’ll ie change. Ill see the likes of you hanging on the lanterns ‘before long.”
She walked away, her head high. Her words had sent a shiver of dismay down my spine. My triumph in victory was gone. So absorbed was I that I forgot to see if the man in the dark wig had followed me.