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Jack shook his head. Now that he was safely on dry land again, he would soon recover from his confounded seasickness. More important was to stop Ben from betraying them, before their mission had even begun. Jack risked a quick glance over his shoulder. The port of Marseilles was crowded with people, but no one was close enough to have overheard Ben's unwary use of English.
Jack dropped an arm around Ben's shoulders, for all the world as if he needed his friend's support for his shaky legs. 'No English,' he hissed into Ben's ear. Then, switching to French, he began to bemoan the state of his health in a voice that was loud enough to be heard by anyone within twenty yards. Jack's French, learnt from his French mama, the Dowager Duchess of Calder, was flawless. He was able to pass for a Parisian without any trouble. Whereas Ben's French, though pretty fluent, had a definite foreign accent that might make him suspect. To avoid that, they had agreed, before leaving Vienna, that Ben would pretend to be a German.
It was still a hugely dangerous mission that the Duke of Wellington had given to these two members of the Aikenhead Honours spying band. From Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast, Jack and Ben were to travel slowly north to Paris and thence to Calais, gathering information as they went about the extent of rebellious feeling in the country. Wellington was very concerned that the restored French King's harsh rule was provoking unrest, especially among ex-members of the army. He needed to know just how many Frenchmen would be ready to agitate for Bonaparte's return and where rebellion was most likely to occur. In Wellington's view, thestrip of water dividing France from the island of Elba, Bonaparte's place of exile, was not nearly wide enough.
Jack slumped down on to a bollard by the water's edge. His legs really were wobbly. Why on earth was he, alone among the Aikenhead Honours, cursed with seasickness? Ben looked much frailer than Jack, but he had not had a moment's unease during their voyage. Jack—broader, heavier and much more robust in appearance—had collapsed almost before the ship had left Genoa harbour. It was shaming.
A barefoot sailor scampered nimbly down the gangplank with a valise in each hand. Spying the two young passengers who had been so generous to the crew during their voyage, he hurried along the quayside and deposited the bags at Jack's feet. Jack looked up. The sailor was waiting expectantly.
'Give the man some money, Benn,' Jack said, in French, using the nom de guerre they had been using since leaving Vienna. Ben, Baron Dexter, had become Herr Christian Benn and Lord Jack Aikenhead had become Mr Louis Jacques.
Ben dug into his pocket. 'I have no French francs,' he said, in French, staring down at the coins in his hand. 'But you might not want those anyway, I suppose.' He picked out a silver coin from Genoa and offered it to the sailor, who grinned and tested it with his few remaining teeth.
'Thank ye, sir,' the sailor said, and pocketed it before running back on board.
'Good,' Jack said in a low voice. 'I think we carried that off well enough. But now we must be doubly careful. All the crew on the ship were Italians. They had no way of knowing whether you were a Frenchman or not. But here, many ears will be listening. Take care.'
Ben nodded. 'If I think there is danger, I can always pretend to be mute.'
'Good idea,' Jack said, rising to his feet. His legs were feeling stronger now. He should be able to walk more or less normally. 'If needs must, you shall be my slow-witted travelling companion, who can barely speak and who needs me to look after him as we travel.' Jack grinned. 'Actually, that seems remarkably appropriate in the circumstances, don't you think?'
Ben grinned back and threw a mock punch at Jack's midriff, though they both knew that Jack was much too quick on his feet to be caught.
Jack sidestepped neatly. 'My dear Herr Benn,' he said, 'you will have to do better than that if you are to catch me. And now, as you are the junior partner in this enterprise, and also the one who is touched in the upper works, I suggest you pick up the bags and bring them.'
Ben spluttered a protest, but he was too late. Jack was already striding off past the Hôtel de Ville in the direction of one of the harbour inns. Ben had no choice but to pick up both their bags and follow.
After twenty yards, Jack stopped, turned and waited for his friend. Ben was not used to acting the servant. Back home in England, as heir to his grandfather, Viscount Hoarwithy, he was used to being waited on hand and foot. That would not be possible here in France, for they had both left their servants in Vienna. It was too dangerous to do otherwise. On the road to Genoa, they had relied on inn servants, but here in France, they might well have to shift for themselves. It would be only fair to break Ben in gently to the new routine.
Jack waited until Ben came level with him. He reached for his valise, but this time, Ben was too quick for him. He threw the valise at Jack, catching him on the shoulder. 'Servant, indeed!' Ben muttered. 'You, sir, are riding for a fall.'
With a wry smile, Jack hefted his valise under his injured arm and used his free hand to rub his shoulder. 'I can see that I shall have to be wary of you, my slow-witted friend. Come, then.' He turned to stare up at the harbour inn. 'What think you to this place? Good enough for one night?'
Marguerite Grolier stood in the middle of the floor while her groom and the hired servants stowed her remaining samples and the last of her purchases around the walls. She would barely have room to move, but these supplies were so valuable that she had to have them under her eye, for the future of the Grolier family weaving business depended on them. If any of this was lost or stolen, the whole family would suffer.
She smiled at Guillaume. He was groom, coachman and general factotum to her family, which he had served since before she was born. 'Have the coach ready to leave at first light, please, Guillaume,' she said. 'We will need to pack all this and leave as soon as we can. We must make the most of the daylight.'
Even this far south, darkness fell early in the first days of March. She would not normally have travelled from Lyons at this time of year, but the family could not afford to miss the opportunity of securing an export agent for their silks and velvets. He had been most impressed by the quality of Marguerite's wares and happy to take some to sell in Naples and Rome. Such sales might save their business, Marguerite knew, for the French market had become extremely difficult of late. Before the Revolution, Lyons had had thousands upon thousands of looms, and had provided silk to all the great houses of France, and beyond. But the continuing wars had taken almost all the men and, now that France had been defeated, the people who remained were more concerned about filling their bellies than putting fine clothes upon their backs.
The Grolier business could not afford to upset the few wealthy customers who remained in France. And one of the greatest of those—the Duchess of Courland—was waiting impatiently for the special silk for a court dress. Before this unexpected trip to Marseilles, Marguerite and her sister had been working day and night to finish it in time. As soon as she returned to Lyons, one of them would have to carry it to Paris for the Duchess's approval. The journey would be a huge expense, and Marguerite was only half-convinced that it was sensible, but her sister, Suzanne, maintained that it would be the making of their little business. Once the Duchess of Courland had approved Grolier silk, all the royalist ladies congregating around the restored King Louis XVIII would want to place orders. Marguerite and Suzanne would be able to employ more weavers, and to increase the number of their looms. They would no longer need to worry about having enough money to pay for bread and the medicines for their poor demented mama. They would be able to plan for the future at last.
It was not what they had been brought up to expect—it could never be that—but it might be tolerable.
Marguerite was finding it difficult to sleep, as she always did when she was away from her own bed. She would be very glad to be on the way home to Lyons in the morning. It was the first time that Suzanne had been left to run the household for more than just a day or two, and Marguerite was not sure how well she would have coped. She would have their maid, Berthe, to help her, of course, but Berthe spent much of her time watching over their sick mother, so Suzanne would be responsible for running the weaving shop as well as the house. There was a boy to help with the heavy work while Guillaume was away, but still
Suzanne was younger and slighter than Marguerite, and she was also used to looking to Marguerite for decisions, and to give instructions to the servants. Would Suzanne be able to overcome her shyness enough to assert her authority when it was needed? Perhaps it would not have been necessary, Marguerite told herself. Suzanne would be able to continue her work at the silk looms unless there were problems with customers, or money. Or with their mother's increasingly unpredictable starts.
Marguerite worried constantly about their mother. She was barely forty-five years old and yet, since the accident, she behaved like an old woman. Sometimes she did not know who or where she was. Sometimes she did not even recognise her own daughters. And yet, at other times, she was almost as lucid and as loving as she had ever been. The problem was that her periods of lucidity were becoming shorter and the episodes of demented behaviour longer and more frequent. Soon, the family would need to watch over her night and day, but there was not enough money to pay another servant to help Berthe. Even with the export sales that might come through the new agent, there would be only just enough to keep the family. The Duchess of Courland's approval was vital. Would Suzanne have been able to finish the Duchess's silk during Marguerite's absence? It was such a slow and laborious business, because of the gold cord that had to be threaded through at intervals and the fineness of the other threads. Even a whole day's weaving seemed to produce only a few more inches of cloth.
Marguerite turned over in bed, trying to find a cool spot on the inn's lumpy pillow. If she had been rich, she would have travelled with her own pillows, and her own linen, as aristocratic ladies had done before the Revolution. As her own mother had done, once, before the family's fortunes had fallen so low. If only Papa—
The heavy silence of the night was broken by a tiny scrabbling sound. A mouse, perhaps? Marguerite pulled the blankets more closely around her shoulders and listened hard. There it was again! But it was not coming from floor level, surely? It seemed to be coming from somewhere near the door, and quite high up.
She concentrated all her senses on the door to her chamber, straining her eyes as if, by willpower alone, she could force them to see in the blackness. Yes, the noise was still there, and getting a little louder, too. Someone was trying to enter her chamber!
Oh, where was Guillaume? Why had she not insisted he remain on guard outside her door? Because he needs to be rested enough to drive the coach in the morning, her sensible self reminded her. Even on the edge of panic, with an intruder—perhaps even a rapist—at her door, her sensible inner voice would not allow itself to be overwhelmed.
If there is an intruder, he will almost certainly be a thief, come to steal the silks and velvets. Many people must have seen what we were carrying in the coach and how valuable it is. I should have expected this.
And I will deal with it!
Very quietly, Marguerite slipped out of bed and donned the wrapper she had left lying across the end of the bed. Now that she was fully awake, she could actually make out the shapes of the furniture in the room. She looked around for a weapon. Yes, there! She seized the tall brass candlestick from the dressing table. Its weight was comforting.
She crept across the floor to stand behind the door. If he forced his way in, she would fell him with the candlestick before he had gone even a yard.
The noise outside was getting louder and louder. Did the intruder assume, because Marguerite had not screamed, that she was cowering in the corner?
She gripped the candlestick even more tightly. She would not cower. If she had had a pistol, she would be ready to shoot him.
There was a loud click. Silence. Had he forced the lock? Marguerite dared to touch her left hand to the handle. She could not see it in the gloom, but she could feel it. It was turning.
Jack was awake and half out of bed before the sound had died away. A woman's scream. He was almost sure of it.
He was tempted to bang on the wall that separated his room from Ben's. But there was no sound of movement from next door. Too much of the landlord's heavy red wine had done its work.
Jack wasted no time. He had to find the woman, who must be in real trouble. But even for that, Jack could not leave his room in his naked state. Where on earth were his breeches?
He could not remember. And in the dark, he could not see them. In desperation, he ripped the sheet off the bed and tied it round his waist. Barefoot, and with no light, he groped for the door, unlocked it by touch alone and flung it open. A glimmer of light! Somewhere further along the narrow corridor.
Then another scream echoed round the wood panelling.
Jack launched himself along the corridor towards the light. Just round the corner of the passage, a bedchamber door stood open. A dark lantern had been set down on the floor just outside.
In the gloom, Jack saw a fair-haired young woman struggling with a dark-clad man. The man was about to overpower her.
'Let her go, you blackguard!'
Posted June 22, 2009
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Posted November 17, 2009
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