Sweet Privacy - Jennifer Blake (10/10)

  • wangzi

    khoảng 2 10 năm trước
  • Nine

    By the next day Amélie had recovered her spirits to the point where she felt able to take a walk along the drive and levee. Estelle, in a rare burst of energy, agreed to accompany her. This left Caroline free to attend to a little of the housecleaning that had been neglected in their recent round of merriment.

    Watching the sisters walk away with their heads together, she felt an odd isolation, as if for some reason she were being shut out. After so many years it was strange to feel herself an interloper once more. Perhaps it was just as well that she had left her trunk packed. At this rate, there would be few ties of affection to hold her when the master and mistress of Beau Repos returned.

    Although she chided herself for being stupidly sensitive, the feeling persisted through the day. When dinner was over, the ladies sat for a while in the salon, but Estelle, pleading her late night the evening before and the fatigue of her unaccustomed walk, went early to her room. She was soon followed by Amélie. The withdrawal was no great loss since the two of them had not had a dozen words between them to say the whole evening. With Anatole and Theo out somewhere about their own concerns and the younger children asleep, Caroline was quite alone.

    So great was her feeling of separation from humankind that she looked up with a welcoming smile when her solitude was interrupted. M'sieur Philippe stood bowing in the doorway, the look of a man sure of his reception on his florid face.

    As he advanced toward her, Caroline noted with some amusement that he had improved his complexion this evening with an application of rouge over poudre à la Maréchal. There was even a small black patch adorning the corner of his mouth. With his magnificent coat of lavender satin trimmed with silver lace, and knee breeches of pale gray, he looked a gentleman of fashion, albeit the fashion of twenty-five years before.

    Hiding a smile, Caroline offered him a glass of wine.

    “No, no, Mam'zelle Caroline, you must not trouble yourself over my comfort. I hope I know enough to order a glass of Madeira for myself. Colossus will bring it soon."

    He was being very free with his employees wine stock, but Caroline did not demur beyond the slight raising of an eyebrow. “Won't you sit down?"

    “I trust I do not intrude at an inconvenient moment,” he said, flicking his coattails out of the way as he seated himself on the settee beside Caroline.

    “Not at all."

    “I was sure you would say so. This is a melancholy time of day for someone who is alone in the world, is it not?"

    Caroline was mystified by the rather pitying tone in his voice allied with his confident bearing. “It can also be a restful time when one has been gadding about for weeks."

    “The British are so stoical. I admire this quality in you, Mam'zelle, this ability to make a virtue of adversity."

    “I don't believe I take your meaning, sir,” she said, her gray eyes cool.

    “A week ago you were dancing. Tonight you sit alone."

    “Very true. And I find I like both. Contrary of me, isn't it?"

    “No, enchanting,” he said, and picking up her hand, he made as if to raise it to his lips. He stopped halfway as he saw the needle she still held turned uppermost in her fingers. Carefully, he replaced her hand upon the sewing in her lap.

    “You are too kind, M'sieur,” she murmured, slanting him a glance from the corner of her eye.

    “No, no. It wounds me to see you trying to keep up an appearance of cheerfulness. This is something I want to speak to you about."

    “Yes?” she said encouragingly, though she returned her attention to her Berlin work.

    “Mam'zelle—” he began, only to be interrupted by Colossus entering the room with a tray holding the Madeira and a glass. M'sieur Philippe tasted the wine, pronounced it excellent, then waited until the butler had taken himself off before continuing.

    “Mam'zelle, a short time ago I said to you that our relationship would proceed at your pace."

    “I recall that incident."

    Oblivious to the dry note in her voice, he went on. “Since that time the situation has changed."

    In what way?” She spoke more to stave off what she feared was coming than because she wished to know.

    Tossing off his wine, he set the glass aside. “Surely you must realize that everyone knows of your trunk which sits fully packed in your chamber? It is so, I assure you. From the faithful Colossus to the meanest stable boy, they all wonder when you mean to depart and where you intend to go."

    “I see.” Certainly she should have realized it even if she had not.

    “That being so, I am come this evening to save you from the ignominy of leaving under a cloud. I am come to lay my heart at your feet, and ask you to accept the protection of my name!” So saying, he slipped from the settee to balance on his bony knees at her feet.

    “Leaving under a cloud?” Caroline asked with a frown.

    “Because of what some are pleased to call your forwardness in passing time alone with the man who called himself a marquis. I, for one, have good reason to doubt these tales, knowing as I do of your great and true modesty.” M'sieur Philippe winced a little as he shifted on his knees.

    Her face sober, Caroline nodded. “I appreciate your faith in me."

    “I have cause to know it is not the false Marquis who holds your interest, do I not? Let us prove it to the others. Say you will be mine!"

    Before Caroline could open her mouth, the door swung open again to admit Colossus. If he saw the tutor scrambling hastily to his feet, the butler gave no sign. “Pardon, Mam'zelle, I thought you would wish to know. The maid of Mam'zelle Amélie has just come from her bedchamber. She is not there, nor is Mam'zelle Estelle in her bedchamber."

    “Perhaps they went out onto one of the galleries for a breath of air?"

    “I have looked, Mam'zelle. They were nowhere to be found. The maid believes there is a ball gown missing from the armoire of Mam'zelle Amélie, and also a domino."

    A domino, she thought, the kind of long, hooded cloak with matching mask preferred by the ladies of New Orleans for the many masked balls held every season. What was it Anatole had said? Something about Rochefort promising them the pleasure of a masquerade. She should have guessed Estelle would determine to go, especially after mentioning the possibility the evening before. If she had been less involved with her own emotions and concerns, she might have realized what was in the wind.

    Looking up, she asked, “Has a vehicle been taken from the stables?"

    “I will inquire, Mam'zelle,” Colossus replied and left the room.

    She turned to M'sieur Philippe. “I may have to request your escort to Felicity."

    “With the greatest pleasure. You suspect the young ladies may have gone in that direction?"

    “I fear so."

    “It is too bad of them to worry you so and to go upsetting everyone as if we all had nothing better to do than chase after them."

    “I imagine they would just as soon no one came after them,” Caroline said with hardly a glance in his direction.

    “You have the right of it, of course. But Mam'zelle, before you embark on this quest, can you not give me your answer?"

    “My answer? Oh, to your proposal. I am sorry, M'sieur, but I did tell you I had no affection for you."

    “It cannot be true. I have been told you were not indifferent to me, that you were, in fact, most enamored."

    “Even if it were so,” Caroline said astringently, “it would be in bad taste to throw it in my face, don't you think? However, it is not so. I am afraid you have been the victim of Mam'zelle Estelle's rather unusual sense of humor."

    “You mean—it was no more than a foolish jest?"

    “I am afraid that is about the size of it."

    He grew visibly paler. Drawing himself up, he turned toward the door.

    “M'sieur Philippe? Where do you go? We may have to leave for Felicity on the instant."

    “Forgive me. I find I cannot escort you."

    “But why?"

    “I must think. To be so used! It passes my understanding. How could I possibly be considered in such a light? I am not at all comical! Jest indeed! I cannot, I will not, tolerate it!"

    So great was his indignation that as he shook his head his small black patch fell from his face. He searched frantically for it among the ruffles of his shirt and the silver lace of his coat. Then, conceding it lost, he dismissed it with a flick of his fingers. That action dislodged the minute patch from his coat sleeve where it drifted to the floor. Instantly he was upon it, capturing it like a dog finding a flea. Holding it between two fingers, he got to his feet, straightened his shoulders, and with his nose in the air, minced away.

    No animals were missing from the stables, no vehicle from the carriage house. How Amélie and Estelle had departed the plantation remained a mystery, but there was one thing certain, they were gone.

    Caroline took a deep breath. “I suppose you had better tell them to put a horse to the cart,” she told Colossus.

    “It is being done. Jim the groom will have it at the front steps by the time you are ready, Mam'zelle."

    Was there sympathy in the voice of the huge butler? She could not tell from his impassive countenance. “Very good,” she answered and went away to find her bonnet, shawl, and gloves.

    It was a bright, moonlit night. There was no need of the lantern of pierced tin that Jim carried to see the road, but it helped to dispell the mystery of the silver-coated leaves which shook to no discernible wind and the mournful cries of nightbirds deep in the woods.

    Compared to the cool, pure moonlight, the yellow torchlight and candle glow that bathed Felicity had a garish look. Adding to the impression was the well-lighted outline of the steamboat from Natchez, tied up for the night beside the still hulk of the Egret. The river was too treacherous for travel after dark; no doubt the few paying steamboat passengers were availing themselves of Rochefort's hospitality.

    That quite a few people were doing so was plain from the clamor of voices that rose above the strains of music. As Jim brought the horse to a standstill, Caroline stared up at the house, a look of quiet grimness in her eyes. A boy ran forward to take the reins of their horse, but Jim refused to relinquish them. He got down and went to the horse's head, standing there as if he intended to wait forever, his eyes puzzled but wary as he stared at the house where his ankle had been set and made whole again.

    The front door opened at Caroline's approach. Head high, she asked to see Rochefort, then accepted the offer of a small salon in which to wait.

    It was a charming room, faintly feminine, done in pale green and silver with touches of Chinese yellow. It had an eastern aspect to catch the morning sun. Caroline was studying a group of glass animals set to capture the first rays of morning light when the door opened behind her.

    Rochefort paused with his hand on the knob. His gaze raked her from head to toe, then he quietly pushed the panel to behind him. “To what do I owe this honor?” he asked, his deep tone laced with irony.

    Caroline was suddenly aware of how dowdy she must look in the gray cambric gown she had donned early that morning to supervise the cleaning. Her bonnet of chip straw with a tartan ribbon could not be said to match by any stretch of the imagination. Throwing a paisley shawl over her shoulders had done nothing more than point up the inadequacies of her toilette. By contrast Rochefort was the image of sartorial perfection. His shirt points were stiff with starch, his cravat intricately tied but without an unnecessary fold or wrinkle. His coat set upon his shoulders as if molded to his form, and his evening pumps glittered with a mirrorlike shine.

    Caroline clasped her hands together to hide a betraying tremor. She opened her mouth to apologize for taking him away from his guests, and then the implication of his manner of dress struck her. “I thought you were having a masquerade,” she said bluntly.

    “Those of my guests who feel so inclined are in costume tonight. You disapprove?"

    “It is no concern of mine,” she answered as evenly as possible. “What does concern me is the fact that Amélie and Estelle may be among the maskers."

    A frown drew his brows together. “You have some reason for such a statement?"

    Quickly she outlined what had occurred. When she finished speaking, he swore softly and strode from the room. A quarter of an hour passed. Caroline was thinking seriously of going in search of the girls when the door was flung open. Rochefort stood back to allow Estelle in a purple domino to sweep past him. She was followed by Amélie with the hood of her cloak thrown back exposing her hair, and Victor in the guise of a “very parfit, gentle knight."

    Estelle halted at the sight of Caroline; then, jostled by the others, she came forward more slowly. Beneath her demimask she chewed at her bottom lip. Amélie clung to Victor's arm.

    “Your culprits,” Rochefort said, folding his arms to lean against the closed door.

    Caroline sent him a look of extreme irritation before she turned to the others. It was Victor who spoke first.

    “I realize how this must appear to you, Mademoiselle Pembroke,” he said. “Please accept my assurances that no harm was intended, only the most innocent of amusement to be added to the great privilege of seeing the woman who holds my heart, my Amélie. I cannot expect you to believe me, but I can, and will, make you understand that the blame is mine alone."

    “No, no!” Amélie cried. “I wanted to come. It was I who received Victor's note and concealed it, I who agreed to steal out of the house to meet him. Oh, Mam'zelle, I am sorry, so terribly sorry that I had to deceive you, but there was no other way! It was unreasonable of Maman to forbid us to meet, and I love Victor so. I would never have dreamed of disobeying if it were otherwise."

    That was no doubt true. Caroline could not feature the gentle girl defying her parent's command, and society's dictates, plus the terrors of the night, for anything less than a genuine attachment. She had thought the girl captivated by Rochefort, and he, perhaps, just as infatuated. A covert glance revealed nothing of what might be passing through that gentleman's mind, however. His sardonic gaze rested on Estelle, who stood twisting a fold of her domino in her hands.

    The girl looked from Rochefort to Caroline. “Coming here was my idea,” she said in a rush. “Victor and Amélie would have been content to do no more than stare at each other while I played gooseberry. It was ridiculous, taking a sister along for a clandestine meeting, as if there were such a thing as propriety to be observed at a rendezvous. It was much more sensible to arrange to go where they could be comfortable and where I could see Madame Fontaine."

    Caroline looked from one to the other. What could she say to them? Where was her sense of outrage and indignation? The answer was that she could say nothing, for she did not feel at all as she knew she should. Given the choice and a hint of welcome, she would doubtless have preferred to attend the masquerade also.

    “Were you recognized?” she asked Amélie.

    Amélie glanced at her sister as if for confirmation. “No,” she said, shaking her head, “I don't think so."

    “Then perhaps there is no harm done. Come, let us go home before anything can happen to change that situation."

    Rochefort held the door as the others filed through. Caroline had just stepped over the threshold when a loud cry echoed from the staircase that swept up to the ballroom.

    “Jean! Jean, my love, they told me you disappeared with Victor and a pair of ladybirds. I see now that it is worse than I thought. Three, mon cher! How many does it take to content you?"

    Caroline heard Amélie's small gasp, but she did not take her eyes from the actress descending to meet them. Madame Fontaine wore a gown of flesh-colored muslin edged at the low neckline and about the sleeves with gold embroidery. A golden girdle clasped her slender waist, fastening with long, gold cords that fell below her knees. The gown itself was modest enough; the addition of a long chemise would have made it unexceptional though a trifle gaudy. But the actress wore no chemise. Beneath the transparent muslin gauze she wore nothing. She had even gone so far as to dampen the material so that its transparency was increased, and it clung to every line and curve of her body. Her black hair was unbound, held only by a gold fillet on her forehead. Kid sandals, strapped about her ankles and up the calves of her legs, adorned her feet. In the face of such a blatant display of her charms, the demimask she wore seemed a coy affectation. And yet, there was something so jaunty about her, so engagingly joyous as she moved down the stairs, that Caroline could not own herself shocked. Watching her step to Rochefort's side and tack her hand into his arm, the feeling uppermost in her mind was a paralyzing jealousy.

    “Why, it's the little governess, isn't it? Mademoiselle Pembroke, I believe? I have been wondering what became of you. I have a few things I would like to tell you regarding Jean's past which you find so horrifying."

    “Not now,” Rochefort interrupted. “The ladies were just leaving."

    “Were they?” the actress asked, her mouth growing harder beneath her mask. “How sad, just when we were having so much fun."

    “You must forgive us,” Caroline said, her voice stiff as her face in her effort to hide her distress. “Mesdemoiselles, shall we—"

    Estelle glanced at Caroline apologetically before she stepped toward the actress. “Before I go, Madame Fontaine, I would like to tell you how much I admire you, and how much I enjoyed your performances last winter in New Orleans."

    “How nice of you to say so,” the actress exclaimed, extending her hand impulsively to grasp Estelles. “You must come backstage the next time you see me perform. I am always glad to see an admirer."

    “Do you mean that?” Estelle asked in wonder.

    “But of course I mean it, ma petite. I would not have said it else."

    “I would be so thrilled, I cannot tell you what it would mean to me."

    The sound of footsteps on the stairs brought Caroline's head up. The lively fear that Estelle and Amélie might still be discovered here among what could only be described as the demimonde sent alarm coursing along her veins. Instinctively, she turned to Rochefort.

    “There, I told you it was your sister's voice I heard,” Hippolyte said to Anatole as they came into view around the landing. “I knew I could not be mistaken."

    Anatole paid no attention as he hurried down the last few steps. “Mam'zelle Caroline,” he said in a low tone, “what can you be thinking of to bring my sisters here? It will not do, it will not do at all."

    Caroline wasted no time in defending herself. “What I am doing at the moment is trying to get them away,” she said. “I would appreciate your escort and the use of your curricle, if you have no objections. It was going to be a bit crowded in the cart."

    “Came in the cart, did you?” Hippolyte said, casting a shrewd eye over Estelle, who had gone suddenly pale and silent. “Wouldn't surprise me to learn you came on a rescue mission. Thought I saw that purple domino peeping out of one of the retiring rooms earlier, but it popped back in before I could get a good look at it."

    “You needn't talk as if I had done something criminal!” Estelle said, her eyes sparkling with wrath at this uncomplimentary description of her conduct. “After all, you have been mating yourself at home here anytime this past week!"

    “Not the same at all, kitten, and you know it. There's no need to fire up at me because you know you did wrong."

    “I know no such thing! And just who gave you leave to criticize my conduct?"

    “You did when you decided to behave like a hoyden."

    “A hoyden! How dare you?” Estellé cried. She would have said more had Rochefort not intervened.

    “I would advise you to continue this quarrel elsewhere,” he drawled, “or Mademoiselle Pembroke's efforts will be in vain. May I send for your curricle, Anatole?"

    Caroline took Amélie up with herself and Jim in the cart, leaving Estelle to come with her brother and Hippolyte. It was not the most diplomatic arrangement, but it could not be helped since Estelle, while Amélie was making her tearful farewells to Victor, clambered up over the wheel of the curricle and sat there huddled into her domino.

    The curricle, being a much swifter vehicle, reached Beau Repos well ahead of the cart. That the occupants of the first carriage had quarreled all the way home became obvious the moment Caroline and Amélie stepped down on the drive. Estelle's slippers were found on the front steps, lying there as if she had lost them while hurrying inside or had flung them at someone. The purple domino lay in a crumpled heap in the hall, and the contents of Estelle's reticule were scattered about as if she had vented her rage upon it. From the direction of her bedchamber came the sound of an armoire door slamming.

    Amélie, venturing to approach her bedchamber door to inquire if Estelle was all right, had her head bitten off for her pains. It was decided after some consultation to let Estelle calm down alone.

    At the door of her own bedchamber Amélie paused. “I suppose I owe you some—some attempt at an explanation,” she said with difficulty. “I—quite see what Estelle and I did tonight will inevitably affect you. I mean—if Maman should find out, she will be furious and it is you she will blame. I hadn't thought until we were on our way home just now, but you could lose your position."

    “That doesn't matter,” Caroline told her. “What matters is your good name. It is no pleasant matter to be ruined, even if it is for love."

    “No, I'm sure you are right."

    Caroline hesitated. “You are certain, quite certain, that it is Victor you love?"

    “Oh, yes, Mam'zelle Caroline."

    “Not—not Rochefort?"

    Amélie shook her head. “He has been extremely kind to me. In spite of everything—that has happened, I still admire him. But love him? I couldn't, not when there is Victor."

    “I see,” Caroline said, smiling a little at her vehemence. “I must have misunderstood. Never mind."

    “But the explanation—"

    “Let it go for tonight,” Caroline told her dismissingly as she noted with pity the girl's exhaustion, the dark circles under her eyes, and the faint tremor that could be heard in her voice. “We will talk in the morning. By then everything will look better."

    She was wrong. She discovered the extent of her error with the arrival of her morning coffee.

    “Forgive me, Mam'zelle,” said the little maid who stood beside her bed, tray in hand. “I would not wake you so early after a late night, but it is most important."

    Caroline struggled to a sitting position before reaching to take the petit noir, the small black cup of coffee, which she had come to like in place of chocolate as a morning reviver. Beyond the window curtain, the day was gray-green with the promise of rain. It was not early at all, closer to midmorning. “What is it?” she asked in tones still husky with sleep.

    “It is Mam'zelle Amélie. She is gone."

    Her hand jerked so she nearly spilled the hot coffee. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?"

    “She is not in her room. One of the gardenees boys said that a carriage came just after daybreak. The driver met Mam'zelle Amélie on the drive. They talked, and then Mam'zelle Amélie went back into the house. When she came out she had on her bonnet and shawl and carried a bandbox. She got into the carriage and they drove away at a great pace down the River Road."

    “A bandbox?” Caroline said faintly. No, it could not be. And yet, why else would a young lady get into a carriage with a man, carrying what must assuredly be provisions for a change of clothing, if not for a runaway marriage?

    “Did the boy recognize the driver of the carriage?"

    “He was the gentleman who used to come often with the man they called the Marquis. A tall gentleman, soft-spoken."

    It could be no one else. Amélie was eloping with Victor Rochefort. Setting her coffee aside, Caroline flung back the coverlet and slid from the bed. As a couple, Victor and Amélie might be beautifully suited, but this was not the way to their happiness. Amélie was not the kind to survive being ostracized, cut off from family and friends. While she might be willing, even glad, to give up everything for the man she loved, she would find in the end that the price was too dear. There was an additional objection, the question of what name he would bestow upon his bride. If Rochefort was nameless, then his cousin must be also.

    Dressing hastily, Caroline went along the hall to Estelle's bedchamber. That young lady might have something to add to what was already known. There was the possibility that she even knew the exact route the couple intended to take, or perhaps where they intended to stay on the road.

    Tapping on the door yielded nothing. Caroline knocked again, this time using her knuckles. There was still no answer. Her mouth set in a grim line, she pushed into the room.

    The scene which met her eyes was one of total confusion. Clothing torn from the armoire was spread over every surface. Bonnets spilled from boxes onto the floor, shawls were balled up and thrown into the corners. Trinkets were scattered over the dressing table in a tangle of necklet chains, broken feathers, toothless hair combs, and snapped fan sticks. It was possible to see, under the disarray, that the bed had been slept in. Estelle had been gone some time, however, for the candle she had used had burned to the socket and drowned in its own myrtle wax. It seemed absurd to suppose she had gone with the eloping couple, but still Caroline prayed that Estelle was with her sister.

    It needed only one thing more to fill Caroline's cup to overflowing. That was supplied by Colossus when she went in search of him to bid him wake Anatole and Hippolyte. He handed her a missive, from the tutor. It seemed their number was thinner by yet one more. M'sieur Philippe, grasping at the opportunity offered by the early-morning passing of the steamboat on its Natchez-to-New Orleans run, had also decamped. In a brief note to Caroline he declared that the humiliation of the discovery he had made the evening before was more than he could bear, coming as it did upon the pain of her cruel refusal of his suit. It was time he sought a larger field for his talents, time he left the stagnated backwaters for the swift rapids of the city. There was much more in a like vein, but Caroline did not trouble to read it. She directed Colossus to wake Anatole, inform him of what had happened, and tell him to make ready for a long drive. That done, she retired to the sitting room. Casting M'sieur Philippe's note to one side, she drew up a chair to the secrétaire and prepared to write.

    But what to say? While it seemed obvious that some message needed to be sent to Rochefort, she could not think how it should be worded. She did not want him to think she blamed him for what had happened, nor did she want it to seem she was begging for his help, though in this situation she was not certain his aid would not be the most valuable she could have. The only thing to do was to tell him plainly what had gone forth at Beau Repos, inquire as to the whereabouts of his cousin, and make certain before she went hazing off in all directions that Amélie and Estelle were not tucked up comfortably at Felicity enjoying their breakfast.

    Caroline sealed the page covered with her writing and handed it to a waiting maid. The girl went quickly from the room to give it to the groom standing beside his saddled horse at the front steps. As she passed out the door, Tante Zizi entered.

    “A good day to you, Caroline. You are up betimes this morning—but so is everyone else. There is such a stir, such a commotion and a running hither and yon of the servants, that no one answered my bell. I know I am the last to hear anything, tucked away in my room, but I told myself I really had to find out what is taking place."

    “You may as well know. Doubtless the entire community will be privy to the facts before the day is through. Estelle is missing, and apparently Amélie has eloped with Victor Rochefort."

    The old lady cocked her head on one side. “What are you going to do?"

    “What can I do? Amélie cannot be allowed to ruin herself by indulging in a runaway marriage with a nameless nobody. I suppose as soon as Anatole is ready, and as soon as I can ascertain positively that they are on their way to the Indian Mission, that I will have to go after them."

    “I for one, cannot understand the objection to Victor Rochefort. He seems an unexceptionable young man to me, with a temperament one might expect to match ideally with that of my grand-niece. True, he has no title, but you cannot precisely call him nameless. He comes from a very good family."

    Caroline stared at her in surprise. “Surely someone must have told you that the Marquis de Rochefort is the name assumed by the notorious privateer, the man I, myself, recognized as the Black Eagle?"

    “Oh, yes. Most enterprising of the young man to mend his fortunes in such a manner, I thought in my day we appreciated a bit of dash in a man, a hint of daring deeds. I cannot see that such a trifle makes him or his cousin ineligible, especially if he has mended his ways and intends to remain at home."

    Was the old lady being deliberately obtuse? Caroline could not tell. “But Tante Zizi, the man, both men, are imposters. Heavens alone knows what their real names may be."

    “My dear child!” the old lady exclaimed. “Whatever gave you such an odd notion? A privateer the man may have been, that is as may be; the nobility of France has turned its hand to stranger things in these last years. But he is also indisputably Jean Charles Henri, the Marquis de Rochefort. I could not mistake the look of the Rocheforts, a family I knew well when at Court. The present Marquis has exactly the look of his grandfather. Moreover, he gave to me details of that gentleman and of his grandmother, a good friend of mine, that none but a blood relative could have known. His knowledge of the family seat in the Loire valley was exact, his memory of relations, older men and women I had known, could not have been gathered by anything other than personal experience. No, no. The owner of Felicity is most definitely the Marquis de Rochefort!"

    A feeling of sickness moved over Caroline. On the strength of her word, a man had been shunned, branded an imposter, and held up to scorn and ridicule. She alone had turned him into an outcast in the society where he had hoped to find acceptance.

    “Why?” she whispered over the tightness in her chest. “Why didn't he defend himself? Why didn't he tell me I was wrong when I flung the charge into his face?"

    “At a guess, pride. They were always proud, the Rochefort men."

    “But to let himself be falsely accused—"

    “To be falsely accused was nothing compared to being accused at all. To a Rochefort, what he is and who he is must be obvious to those who have eyes to see."

    Caroline suddenly raised her hands to her face as she remembered the arrested look that had come into his eyes as she told him she had recognized him, the bitter irony with which he had asked her to be his wife. Why had he done that? What had caused him to treat her revelation in such a manner? He had promised to whisper his real name into the ear of the priest who would marry them. Was that to have been her punishment, to discover his true identity after they were wed? Or would he have repudiated her at the altar? Worse, could he have really thought she had some such ploy to persuade him into marriage in mind when she denounced him?

    “Why—why?” she whispered almost to herself.

    “Why the proposal which was so rudely interrupted? I cannot say, though I refuse to think his motives are anything but honorable. Perhaps next time you will consider longer before refusing such a prize."

    “There will never be a next time, and even if there were I could not accept. How could I, when it must seem the title is more important to me than the man?"

    “Such a thing is difficult, I agree, but it can be explained."

    With a wan smile, Caroline shook her head.

    Such considerations had to be thrust to one side as Anatole and Hippolyte erupted into the room. “What? You are not ready, Mam'zelle? Send a maid after your bonnet and gloves at once and let's be off. There's no time to waste if we are to catch up to them."

    “A moment, gentlemen,” she said as Anatole took her arm. “We don't even know where they have gone."

    “But it is as plain as the nose on your face. The Indian Mission, of course. Why anyone would take Estelle with them on an elopement is more than I can see. Silly of Amélie to think such a poor excuse for a duenna would make everything all right, but I expect she wasn't thinking straight—fact is, she couldn't have been or she wouldn't have gone in the first place!"

    “I tell you what I think, mon ami,” Hippolyte said. “I think she took that miserable tutor with her. She was enraged with me for daring to criticize her behavior, even threw her slipper at me, did she not? She said to my face she would rather marry the devil than me. What I mean to say is, maybe she did. There was this Philippe moaning about the place because Mam'zelle Caroline had refused him. Maybe she decided to run away with him to this Indian Mission she was in such raptures over."

    “And you think M'sieur Philippe would take her?” Anatole asked, his skepticism plain.

    “Why not? I would,” Hippolyte answered simply.

    “Then you should have told her so and saved us all a lot of trouble!"

    “I didn't say I wanted that kind of helter-skelter wedding,” Hippolyte protested, “only that I would have settled for it above nothing."

    Caroline hastily interrupted a scene that had the makings of a fine quarrel. “I am glad to say, M'sieur Gravier, that you are wrong in your conjecture. M'sieur Philippe did not go with Estelle, or she with him. He left us on the boat that passed the night at Felicity and steamed by here just after dawn."

    “I would think a frippery fellow like him would have a difficult time getting up so early,” Anatole commented. Then he went on, “Still, it doesn't matter. Regardless of who Estelle was going with or what she is going for, she and Amélie must be stopped. I have been thinking, Mam'zelle, that we could put the story about that my sisters have gone to be with my parents at the deathbed of my great-aunt. Hippolyte and I, when we come up to them, can send Victor Rochefort about his business, then escort you and the girls along to the house of my mother's brother. That should silence busy tongues, don't you think?"

    “An excellent suggestion, if you should happen to be right, and if you can overcome the objections M'sieur Rochefort is certain to put forth. He will not thank you for disarranging his wedding plans for him."

    “Perhaps not. We shall have to take care of that eventuality when it arises,” Anatole said, a grim look about his mouth.

    “You don't mean to use force?” Caroline asked in concern.

    “If it becomes necessary—and should the gentleman object to my methods, I suppose I will have to give him whatever satisfaction he may demand."

    “Anatole, not a duel—"

    “Pray don't upset yourself, Mam'zelle. Affairs of this sort sometimes come to that. I'm not at all sure that I should not call the fellow out for daring to spirit my sister away in such an irresponsible manner."

    “I believe it is your father who has the right to demand an explanation."

    “My father is absent."

    There was no arguing that fact, but as she rang for her bonnet and gloves Caroline vowed there would be no duel if she could possibly prevent it.

    There were a few things to be attended to, especially if they were to be gone for any length of time. While Anatole strode up and down the hall with his timepiece in his hand, Caroline gave instructions concerning the children and made certain Tante Zizi understood where they were going and why.

    She was tying the strings of her bonnet before the mirror of polished steel in the hall when the sound of carriage wheels penetrated the house. Anatole's curricle already stood waiting upon the drive. This could only be a new arrival.

    It was Rochefort. Impeccably clad in a caped driving coat and curly-brimmed beaver, he tossed the reins of his matched blacks to a stable hand and strode up the steps. There was no need for Colossus. Anatole stood waiting in the door.

    Caroline fumbled a little as she pulled her gloves on. Settling the fingers and smoothing away the wrinkles gave her an excellent reason for not looking up as he approached.

    “Rochefort,” Anatole said with a businesslike economy of words. “I am glad you came before we set out. You can tell us if Amélie and your cousin are at Felicity."

    “They are not,” Rochefort replied in the same clipped tones. “Victor was disturbed in mind about the effect of last night upon Mademoiselle Amélie. He set out early this morning to try to obtain a word with her and has not returned. That is all I know."

    “Then it is the Indian Mission. Mam'zelle, if you are ready?” Anatole held out his arm to Caroline.

    “The Indian Mission?” Rochefort asked, a frown between his brows. “Are you seriously suggesting Victor is taking Mademoiselle Amélie there to be married?"

    “It seems so,” Anatole replied. “We can no more conceive of Amélie doing it than you can your cousin, but the facts speak for themselves. In any case, there is no time to stand here talking of it. If we are to have the least chance of catching up with them, we must be gone."

    They were halfway down the steps when Rochefort called out “Wait!"

    Anatole turned unpatiently, “Yes?"

    “When you catch up to Victor and your sister, and if Mademoiselle Estelle happens to be with them, what will you do? You are already overcrowded with three of you in your curricle."

    “We thought to drop Hippolyte at Bonne Chance. He will have to have his horses put to his own vehicle and come along as soon as he can."

    “That will be unnecessary if I follow you now. It is even possible that my blacks and my lighter carriage can make better time. You must admit, I do have an interest in this outing."

    “Yes, certainly. That will do marvelously, sir."

    “I think Mam'zelle would also find my phaeton has a smoother ride. Not only will she be, perhaps, more comfortable, she can speed the time while we are traveling by filling me in on a number of details which were not in the note I received."

    “Mam'zelle?” Anatole inquired.

    To refuse would be churlish. It might even give rise to questions concerning her motives that were better left unanswered. “I—yes, it might be best."

    Anatole nodded and then cast an appraising eye over the blacks standing in their harness. “It might also be best if we let you lead the way. Mam'zelle will not like to breathe our dust, and there is every possibility that you will be able to outdistance us to the point where we will not have to eat yours. It will have settled before we reach it."

    “As you wish,” Rochefort agreed as he descended the steps, casting a weather eye at the overcast sky. “There is an even greater possibility that it will not be dust that will trouble us, but mud."

    They rolled sedately down the drive, but once upon the open road Rochefort gathered his horses in hand and sent them flying along. As Caroline felt her bonnet pushed back on her hair by the wind of their passage, she was reminded of Madame Fontaine, who only a few days before had sat in the seat of the phaeton holding her ridiculous hat on her head. She would not copy the woman, not if her bonnet burst its strings and took flight. Nor would she clutch at the man who was driving or hold onto the seat for dear life. With determination, she sat upright, her body absorbing the minor bounce and sway of the well-sprung vehicle. She was not in the least afraid of their breakneck speed. She felt completely safe with Rochefort in control of the ribbons, safe enough to admit to an underlying enjoyment which amounted almost to exhilaration.

    Leaning toward her, he asked, “Are you all right?"

    “Perfectly,” she answered, unable to prevent a smile from curving her mouth. She thought she saw a gleam in the depths of his eyes before he turned his attention back to the road.

    “How long has it been since you realized the young ladies were gone?” he asked after a moment.

    “Perhaps an hour and a half. I sat down and wrote you almost immediately."

    “I am grateful that you did. Have you any idea how long it was from the time they left the house until their departure was discovered?"

    “A half hour, an hour, I'm not sure. They were seen leaving by a gardenees boy, but it takes a little time for something like that to sift through the servants, from gardener to kitchen maid to butler to ladies’ maid to me."

    He nodded his comprehension. “Then we can be certain we are at least two hours, possibly three, behind them?"

    “Something like that."

    “With luck we can overcome that amount. They may not expect to be followed closely and will not push the horses. If Mademoiselle Estelle is with them they will be carrying more weight, meaning more frequent rest stops. Too, since both sets of horses are mine, I have reason to know that the grays Victor is driving, though superior to most, are no match for the ones we are behind."

    “Yes, that relieves my mind somewhat."

    “As much as I dislike to distress you, I find I can't be easy about this entire chase. I find it extremely difficult to believe Victor would go hieing off on an elopement with, so far as I can discover, no planning or preparations whatever, and taking with him his proposed wife's younger sister, a volatile chit just out of the schoolroom! In the first place I don't think he would have so little consideration for the woman he loved, but, saying he felt circumstances made it necessary, I take leave to doubt he would go about it in such a way as almost to guarantee it would turn into a debacle."

    “Yes, I will have to admit it seems most ill-managed to me also. Still, if they were in a hurry—"

    “My dear Mademoiselle Caroline, the wilderness of Louisiana is not the Great North Road of England, and this Indian Mission is not Gretna Green. I doubt there is so much as a riverboatman's hostel, much less a posting house or an inn, anywhere along the route they must take. To the best of my understanding they will have to abandon the carriage for the discomforts of a canoe, and that while surrendering themselves to the doubtful competence of an Indian guide to take them through the wilderness. If they are not relieved of their valuables and abandoned in the woods, they will die of exposure or be eaten alive by mosquitoes. What the—!"

    His exclamation was caused by the appearance around a curve of a horse-drawn cart squarely in the middle of the road. They swerved, brushing past the cart with no more than a hair's breadth between the wheels of the two vehicles. The groom driving the cart stared at them in openmouthed surprise as they swept past. Rochefort, recovering with precision, would have driven on without looking back if Caroline had not called out, “Stop!"

    “What is it?” Rochefort asked as he obeyed her command.

    “The cart from Beau Repos, I'm almost sure of it.” Turning in her seat, she beckoned to the groom who was driving.

    He climbed down, and holding his hat of woven straw against his chest, approached the phaeton. “M'sieur, Mam'zelle?” he said, ducking his head in greeting.

    “The cart you are driving, whom does it belong to?” Caroline inquired.

    “To Beau Repos, Mam'zelle. My maître, he say I must return it."

    “Your master is—?"

    “M'sieur Gravier of Bonne Chance, Mam'zelle."

    “Do you know how the cart came to be at Bonne Chance?"

    “Mais oui, Mam'zelle. It was driven ventre á terre by the man who teaches les enfants at Beau Repos. He was in the so big hurry because he wanted to catch the steamboat."

    “I see,” Caroline said. Anatole had been right. The boat had been too early for M'sieur Philippe. “Since you have the cart, I assume the gentleman caught the steamboat?"

    “Indeed yes, Mam'zelle, though he would not have if the Captain had not been waiting the so long time for Madame Gravier to finish her letter to her sister in Nouvelle Orléans. Even then he might have been left behind if the young lady who was with him had not screeched for the boat to stop with a noise fit to raise the dead."

    “The young lady?” Rochefort said quickly. “Was she known to you?"

    “But yes, M'sieur,” the man said, enjoying the close attention being paid him. “It was Mademoiselle Estelle Delacroix of Beau Repos."

    “And there was no one else with those two?"

    “No one, M'sieur."

    Her disappointment plain on her face, Caroline watched as Rochefort flipped the man a coin and motioned with his whip for him to step away from the horses.

    “A moment, M'sieur,” the man said, looking from Caroline to the shine of silver in his hand. “You seek, maybe, the elder sister of Mademoiselle? She too came to Bonne Chance. With my own eyes I see her with a gentleman in a carriage fine like this one."

    Rochefort took another coin from his watch pocket, weighing it in his hand. “You saw the direction they took, perhaps?"

    “But yes, M'sieur. They inquire after the younger sister, and learning she is on the boat, drive away very fast after it, but very fast, M'sieur—"

    “Yes, I know,” Rochefort said, tossing the coin. 'Ventre à terre.’”

    “Mais oui, M'sieur. Thank you, M'sieur,” the man said, stepping back.

    “Beware of another carriage coming behind us. It will also be traveling fast,” Rochefort called as he gave his horses the office to start.

    “But yes, M'sieur. Ventre à terre!” the man shouted, grinning as he watched them on their way.

    “Well?” Rochefort said as she sat frowning at the ears of the horses.

    “I cannot imagine why Estelle would take the steamboat with M'sieur Philippe. She is not at all attached to him, quite the opposite, in fact. She was always mocking him behind his back and scarcely ever had two civil words to say to him at the same time. As for any romantic feeling, I find that almost laughable. I seem to remember she considered you ancient; him she must think hovering on the brink of the grave."

    “Pray don't think of my vanity,” he instructed.

    “No, but it is Hippolyte Gravier Estelle cares for, and he seems to think she might be running away because she was angry with him for scolding her. Because of her conduct in coming to your house last night in disguise, you understand."

    “And you think that unlikely,” he said with a helpful air.

    “Very."

    “So do I. As much as I dislike to introduce her name into the conversation when we were going along so well, I fear I must tell you that Madame Fontaine was also on that steamboat. There was some discussion among her entourage last evening of leaving when the steamboat so conveniently presented itself, discussion which Estelle may have overheard. A—conversation I had with Francine—Madame Fontaine, after you had gone, made her departure this morning a certainty."

    It was none of her affair what manner of conversation he had held with Madame Fontaine, Caroline told herself firmly. “If Estelle chanced to see Madame Fontaine as the boat passed this morning, she may have decided on the spur of the moment to—to take advantage of the invitation extended her. She has had a fascination with the stage for some time now."

    “So I understood from one or two hints let drop in my company."

    “It was most improper of Victor to attempt to see Amélie so early this morning—but suppose Amélie had discovered her sister's absence or even chanced to see her leaving. If Victor had been to hand with his curricle, might she not have followed after in an effort to prevent Estelle from falling into another scrape such as last night's?"

    “She might,” Rochefort agreed. “I find that much easier to swallow than the idea of her and Victor, the most circumspect of couples, striking out for the Indian Mission, braving scorn and the terrors of the wilderness to be together."

    “How cynical you sound!"

    “No, no, merely practical. What will do for some will not do at all for others."

    She did not like the glance he sent her from beneath the brim of his beaver but saw no way to object to it. “If they are trying to overtake the steamboat, do you think they have a chance of success?"

    He gave a shake of his head. “Only if something untoward happens. The boat has the advantage of the current on the downriver run. Upstream, a team of horses could outdistance it, providing the road were passably dry and firm; downstream it's not worth the wager."

    Caroline took a deep breath. “If we are correct, there is little need to go on. Victor and Amélie must turn about and come home eventually."

    “Yes, but we may not be correct—and there is always that untoward something that may happen."

    He smiled down at her with such warmth that Caroline felt a faint flush rise to her cheeks. It was extraordinary how secure and optimistic she felt in his presence. There was a peculiar ache in the region of her heart, and she know an unwary hope that this drive would never end.

    Without warning, the light grew dimmer and rain began to fall. Thrusting the reins into Caroline's hands, Rochefort stripped off his driving coat and draped it around her shoulders. She tried to protest, but he only shook his head, the touch of his hands firm and lingering as he settled the folds of the caped coat under her chin. Pulling the brim of his hat lower, he retrieved the reins and they sped on.

    As the miles passed, the thought of the great wrong she had done Rochefort grew heavier in her mind. If for no other reason than simple justice, she knew she would have to tell him she knew the truth and make her apologies. But how to phrase it? Her newly acquired knowledge of herself where this man was concerned made her wary of revealing more than she intended. It would not do for him to suspect that her interest was personal. That she knew herself to be in love with him had nothing to do with the matter—well, very little. It was as a human being whom she had unjustly accused that she wished to approach him, not as a man whom she loved and who had, on their last discussion of this subject, asked her to marry him. His reasons for that were still obscure, but they need make no difference to the simple fact that she owed him some acknowledgement of her error.

    “My lord,” she began self-consciously, “there is something I must say to you—"

    Her words were drowned by Rochefort's sudden exclamation. Ahead of them, barely visible in the driving rain, was a carriage lying drunkenly in the ditch. One of its wheels was shattered and an axle was broken. The horses had been unharnessed and tethered to a sapling. The passengers sat beneath the shelter of a large live-oak tree which overhung the road. As they drew nearer, the man rose from beside the young lady, who, draped in the protective covering of his frock coat, remained seated. Snatching off his hat, the gentleman waved at them to stop. It was Victor.


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