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A PURLOINED CIPHER
It was high noon on a mid-August morning of the year 1792, but Jeanne, the waiting-maid, had only just set the coffee down on the small table within the ruelle of Mme de Montargis' magnificent bed. Great ladies did not trouble themselves to rise too early in those days, and a beauty who has been a beauty for twenty years was not more anxious then than now to face the unflattering freshness of the morning air. Laure de Montargis stirred in the shadow of her brocaded curtains, put out a white hand for the cup, sipped from it, murmured that the coffee was cold, and pushed it from her with a fretful exclamation that made Jeanne frown as she drew the tan-coloured curtains and let in the mid-day glare. Madame had been up late, Madame had lost at faro, and her servants would have to put up with Heaven alone knew how many megrims in consequence.
"Madame suffers?" inquired Jeanne obsequiously, but with pursed lips.
The lady closed her eyes. Laying her head back against the delicately embroidered pillows, she indicated by a gesture that her sufferings might be taken for granted.
"Madame has the migraine?" suggested the soft, rather false-sounding voice. "Madame will not receive?"
"Heavens! girl, how you pester me," said the Marquise sharply.
Then, falling again to a languid tone, "Is there any one there?"
Jeanne smiled with malicious, averted face as she poured rose-water from a silver ewer into a Sévres bowl, and watched it rise, dimpling, to the flower-wreathed brim.
"There is M. le Vicomte as usual, Madame, and Mme la Comtesse de Maillé, who, learning that Madame was but now awakened, told me that she would wait whilst I inquired if Madame would see her."
"Good Heavens! what an hour to come," said the lady, with a peevish air.
"Madame la Comtesse seemed much moved. One would say something had occurred," said Jeanne.
The Marquise raised her head sharply.
"—And you stand chattering there? Just Heaven! The trial that it is to have an imbecile about one! The glass quickly, and the rouge, and the lace for my head. No, not that rouge,—the new sort that Isidore brought yesterday;—arrange these two curls,—now a little powder. Fool! what powder is this?"
"Madame's own," submitted Jeanne meekly.
The suffering lady raised herself and dealt the girl a sounding box on the ear.
"Idiot! did I not tell you I had tired of the perfume, and that in future the white lilac powder was the only one I would use? Did I not tell you?"
"Yes, Madame"—but there was a spark beneath the waiting-maid's discreetly dropped lids.
The Marquise de Montargis sat bolt upright, and contemplated her reflection in the wide silver mirror which Jeanne was steadying. Her passion had brought a little flush to her cheeks, and she noted approvingly that the colour became her.
"Put the rouge just here, and here, Jeanne," she ordered, her anger subsiding;—then, with a fresh outburst—"Imbécile, not so much! One does not have the complexion of a milkmaid when one is in bed with the migraine; just a shade here now, a nuance. That will do; go and bring them in."
She drew a rose-coloured satin wrap about her, and posed her head, in its cloud of delicate lace, carefully. Her bed was as gorgeous as it well might be. Long curtains of rosy brocade fell about it, and a coverlid of finest needlework, embroidered with bunches of red and white roses on a white satin ground, was thrown across it. The carved pillars showed cupids pelting one another with flowers plucked from the garlands that wreathed their naked chubbiness.
Madame de Montargis herself had been a beauty for twenty years, but a life of light pleasures, and a heart incapable of experiencing more than a momentary emotion had combined to leave her face as unlined and almost as lovely as when Paris first proclaimed her its reigning queen of beauty.
She was eminently satisfied with her own looks as she turned languidly on her soft pillows to greet her friends.
Mme de Maillé bent and embraced her; M. le Vicomte Sélincourt stooped and kissed her gracefully extended hand. Jeanne brought seats, and after a few polite inquiries Mme de Maillé plunged into her news.
"Ma chère amie!" she exclaimed, "I come to tell you the good news. My daughter and her husband have reached England in safety." Tears filled her soft blue eyes, and she raised them to the ceiling with a gesture that would have been affected had her emotion been less evidently sincere.
"Ah! chère Comtesse, a thousand felicitations!"
"My dear, I have been on thorns, I have not slept, I have not eaten, I have wept rivers, I have said more prayers in a month than my confessor has ever before induced me to say in a year. First I thought they would be stopped at the barriers, and then—then I pictured to myself a hundred misfortunes, a thousand inconveniences! I saw my Adèle ill, fainting from the fatigues of the road; I imagined assaults of brigands, shipwrecks, storms,—in short, everything of the most unfortunate,—ah! my dear friends, you do not know what a mother suffers,—and now I have the happiness of receiving a letter from my dearest Adèle,—she is well; she is contented. They have been received with the greatest amiability, and, my friends, I am too happy."
"And your happiness is that of your friends," bowed the Vicomte.
Mme de Montargis' congratulations were polite, if a trifle perfunctory. The convenances demanded that one should simulate an interest in the affairs of one's acquaintances, but in reality, and at this hour of the day, how they did bore one! And Marie de Maillé, with her soft airs, and that insufferable Adèle of hers, whom she had always spoilt so abominably. It was a little too much! One had affairs of one's own. With the fretful expression of half an hour before she drew a letter from beneath her pillow.
"I too have news to impart," she said, with rather a pinched smile. "News that concerns you very closely, M. le Vicomte," and she fixed her eyes on Sélincourt.
"That concerns me?"
"But yes, Monsieur, since what concerns Mademoiselle your betrothed must concern you, and closely, as I said."
"Mademoiselle my betrothed, Mlle de Rochambeau!" he cried quickly. "Is she then ill?"
Mme de Montargis smiled maliciously.
"Hark to the anxious lover! But calm yourself, my friend, she is certainly not ill, or she would not now be on her way to Paris."
"That, Monsieur, is, I believe, her destination."
"What? She is coming to Paris now?" inquired Mme de Maillé with concern.
The Marquise shrugged her shoulders.
"It is very inconvenient, but what would you?" she said lightly; "as you know, dear friend, she was betrothed to M. le Vicomte when she was a child. Then my good cousin, the Comte de Rochambeau, takes it into his virtuous head that this world, even in his rural retreat, is no longer good enough for him, and follows Madame, his equally virtuous wife, to Paradise, where they are no doubt extremely happy. Until yesterday I pictured Mademoiselle almost as saintly and contented with the holy Sisters of the Grace Dieu Convent, who have looked after her for the last ten years or so. Then comes this letter; it seems there have been riots, a château burned, an intendant or two murdered, and the good nuns take advantage of the fact that the steward of Rochambeau and his wife are making a journey to Paris to confide Mademoiselle to their care, and mine. It seems," she concluded, with a little laugh, "that they think Paris is safe, these good nuns."
"Poor child, poor child!" exclaimed Mme de Maillé in a distressed voice; "can you not stop her, turn her back?"
The Marquise laughed again.
"Dear friend, she is probably arriving at this minute. The Sisters are women of energy."
"At least M. de Sélincourt is to be congratulated," said Mme de Maillé after a pause; "that is if Mademoiselle resembles her parents. I remember her mother very well,—how charming, how spirituelle, how amiable! I knew her for only too short a time, and yet, looking back, it seems to me that I never had a friend I valued more."
"My cousin De Rochambeau was crazy about her," reflected Mme de Montargis; "he might have married anybody, and he chose an Irish girl without a sou. It was the talk of Paris at the time. He was the handsomest man at Court."
"And Aileen Desmond the loveliest girl," put in Mme de Maillé thoughtlessly; then, observing her hostess's change of expression, she coloured, but continued—"They were not so badly matched, and," with a little sigh, "they were very happy. It was a real romance."
Mme de Montargis' eyes flashed. Twenty years ago beautiful Aileen Desmond had been her rival at Court. Now that for quite a dozen years gossip had coupled her name with that of the Vicomte de Sélincourt, was Aileen Desmond's daughter to take her mother's place in that bygone rivalry?
Mme de Maillé, catching her glance, wondered how it would fare with any defenceless girl who came between Laure de Montargis and her lover. She was still wondering whilst she made her farewells.
When M. le Vicomte had bowed her out he came moodily back to his place.
"It is very inconvenient, Madame," he said pettishly.
"You say so," returned the lady.
"Pardon, Madame, it was you who said so."
The Marquise laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh.
"Of course it was I," she cried. "Who else? It is hardly likely that M. le Vicomte finds a rich bride inconvenient."
Sélincourt's face changed a little, but he waved the words away.
"Mademoiselle is nothing to me," he asserted. "Chère amie, do you suspect, do you doubt the faithful heart which for years has beaten only for one beloved object?"
The lady pouted, but her eyes ceased to sparkle.
"And that object?" she inquired, with a practised glance.
"Angel of my life—need you ask?"
It was indeed unnecessary, since a very short acquaintance with this fervid lover was sufficient to assure any one that his devotion to himself was indeed his ruling and unalterable passion; perhaps the Marquise was aware of this, and was content to take the second, but not the third place, in his affections. She looked at him coquettishly.
"Ah," she said, "you mean it now, now perhaps, Monsieur, but when she comes, when you are married?"
"Eh, ma foi," and the Vicomte waved away his prospective marriage vows as lightly as if they were thistle-down, "one does not marry for love; the heart must be free, not bound,—and where will the free heart turn except to the magnet that has drawn it for so long?"
Madame extended a white, languid hand, and Monsieur kissed it with more elegance than fervour. As he was raising his head she whispered sharply:
"The new cipher, have you got it?"
He bent lower, and kissed the fair hand again, lingeringly.
"It is here, and I have drafted the letter we spoke of; it must go this week."
"The Queen is well?"
"Well, but impatient for news. There is an Austrian medicine that she longs for."
"Chut! Enough, one is never safe."
"Adieu, then, m'amie."
"Adieu, M. le Vicomte."
Monsieur took his leave with an exquisite bow, and all the forms that elegance prescribed, and Madame lay back against her pillows with closed eyes, and the frown which she never permitted to appear in society. Jeanne threw a sharp glance at her as she returned from closing the door upon Sélincourt. Her ears had made her aware of whispering, and now her eyes showed her a small crumpled scrap of paper, just inside the ruelle of Madame's bed. A love-letter? Perhaps, or perhaps not. In any case the correspondence of the mistress is the perquisite of the maid, and as Jeanne came softly to the bedside she covered the little twisted note with a dexterous foot, and, bending to adjust the rose-embroidered coverlid, secured and hid her prize. In a moment she had passed behind the heavy curtains and was scanning it with a practised eye—an eye that saw more than the innocent-seeming figures with which the white paper was dotted. Jeanne had seen ciphers before, and a glance sufficed to show her the nature of this one, for at the foot of the draft was a row of signs and figures, mysterious no longer in the light of the key that stood beneath them. Apparently Jeanne knew something about secret correspondence too, for there in the shadow behind the curtain she nodded and smiled, and once even shook her fist towards the unconscious Marquise. Next moment she was again in evidence, and but for that paper tucked away inside her bodice she would have found her morning a hard one. Madame wished this, Madame wished that; Madame would have her forehead bathed, her feet rubbed, a thousand whims complied with and a thousand fancies gratified. Soft-voiced and deft, Jeanne moved incessantly to and fro on those small, neatly-shod feet, which she sometimes compared not uncomplacently with those of her mistress, until, at last, at the latter end of all conceivable fancies there came one for repose,—the rosy curtains were drawn, and Jeanne was free.
Half an hour later a deftly-cloaked figure stood before a table at which a dark-faced man wrote busily—a paper was handed over, a password asked and given.
"Is it enough now?" asked Jeanne the waiting-maid. And the dark-faced man answered, without looking up, "It is enough—the cup is full."CHAPTER 2
A FORCED ENTRANCE
Mademoiselle de Rochambeau had been a week in Paris, but as yet she had tasted none of its gaieties—for gaieties there were still, even in these clouding days when the wind of destiny blew up the storm of the Terror. The King and Queen were prisoners in the Temple, many of the noblesse had emigrated, but what remained of the Court circles still met and talked, laughed, gamed, and flirted, as if there were no deluge to come. To-day Mme de Montargis received, and Mlle de Rochambeau, dressed by a Parisian milliner for the first time, was to be presented to her cousin's friends.
She had not even seen her betrothed as yet,—that dim figure which she had contemplated for so many years of cloistered monotony, until it had become the model upon which her dreams and hopes were hung. Now that the opening of the door might at any moment reveal him in the flesh, the dreams wore suddenly thin, and she was conscious of an overpowering suspense. She hoped for so much, and all at once she was afraid. Husbands, to be sure, were not romantic, not the least in the world, and, according to the nuns, it would be the height of impropriety to wish that they should be. One married because it was the convenable thing to do, but to fall in love,—fi donc, Mademoiselle, the idea! Aline laughed, for she remembered Sister Séraphine's face, all soft and shocked and wrinkled, and then in a minute she was grave again. Dreams may be forbidden, but when one is nineteen they have a way of recurring, and it is certain that Mlle de Rochambeau's heart beat faster than Sister Séraphine would have approved, as she stood by Mme de Montargis' gilded chair and heard the servant announce "M. le Vicomte de Sélincourt."
He kissed Madame's hand; and then hers. A sensation that was almost terror caught the colour from her face. Was this little, dark, bowing fop the dream hero? His eyes were like a squirrel's—black, restless, shallow—and his mouth displeased her. Something about its puckered outline made her recoil from the touch of it upon her hand, and the Marquise, glancing at her, saw all the young face pale and distressed. She smiled maliciously, and reflected on the folly of youth and the kind connivance of Fate.
Sélincourt, for his part, was well enough satisfied. Mademoiselle was too tall for his taste, it was true; her beautifully shaped shoulders and bust too thin; but of those dark grey Irish eyes there could be no two opinions, and his quick glance approved her on the whole. She would play her part as Mme la Vicomtesse very creditably when a little modish polish had softened her convent stateliness, and for the rest he had no notion of being in love with his bride. It was long, in fact, since his small, jaded heart had beaten the faster for any woman, and his eyes left her face with a genuine indifference which did not escape either woman.
"Mademoiselle, I felicitate Paris, and myself," he said, with a formal bow. Mademoiselle made him a stately reverence, and the long-dreamed-of meeting was over.
He turned at once to her cousin.
"You have written to our friend, Madame?"
"I wrote immediately, M. le Vicomte."
He lowered his voice.
"The paper with the cipher on it, did I give you my copy as well as your own?"
"But no, mon ami. Why, have you not got it?"
Sélincourt raised his shoulders.
"Certainly not, since I ask if you have it," he returned.
Madame's delicate chin lifted a little.
"And when did you find this out?" she asked.
"I had no occasion to use the code until yesterday, and then ..." the lift of his shoulders merged into a decided shrug.
The Marquise turned away with a slight frown. It was annoying, but then the Vicomte was always careless, and no doubt the paper would be found; it must be somewhere, and her guests were assembling.
Excerpted from A Marriage Under the Terror by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 2, 2013
Novels especially this era. The writing is excellent but not even dickens tale of two cities appeals. otherwise thus would be four. I did buy rather than borrow not knowing how deep my dislike of the french revolution went in fiction. Sone eras just have too many bodies page counter
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Posted September 8, 2012
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Posted August 11, 2011
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