Excerpt: Chapter One
Nice, Thursday, January 24, 1788
"The Marseille strangler is still at large," said Paul de Saint-Martin, handing his wife Anne a letter. "Georges writes that he can't find him in Paris."
Anne Cartier set aside her coffee and took the letter with a mock show of displeasure. Under a mild January sun, she had been enjoying breakfast on the terrace with a view of the distant, blue Mediterranean.
"Do you mean that escaped convict, Jean Lebrun?"
"Yes, Georges asks if anyone has found traces of him here in the County of Nice?"
Anne recalled the bits she had heard over the past few months. Magistrates in Marseille had convicted Lebrun, a journeyman, of robbing and strangling his employer Jacques Duclos, a master cabinetmaker. They sentenced him to life in the naval prison at Toulon, a large port seventy-five miles west of Nice. In early November, after twenty years in chains, he escaped and was still at large. He might have fled back home to Paris, where he still had family.
Paul took a chair next to Anne. "Lebrun has inspired many false alarms, been sighted all over France, even in northern Italy."
Anne scanned the letter, then asked, "Why so much interest in him? He hasn't strangled anyone else in twenty years."
"Many masters believe that he sets a bad example for other journeymen."
She returned the letter to Paul, "If masters treated journeymen fairly, there would be fewer murders. What can you do for Georges?"
"I'll talk to the commandant, Comte de Maistre, since he's in charge of the local police. The authorities in southern France have surely warned him that Lebrun might pass through Nice if he were to flee to Italy. When I visit the naval prison in Toulon, I might interrogate a few of the fugitive's comrades."
Anne frowned. She thought Paul should instead remain in Nice, rest, relax, soak up the sunshine, fill his lungs with fresh air.
* * *
Anne and Paul had come to Nice for his health. The cold, damp, and infected air of Paris and the stress of work had brought on a debilitating, hacking cough and chronic fatigue. Conscientious to a fault, he hadn't taken a vacation from work since becoming provost of the Paris region's highway patrol four years ago.
His patron and superior, Baron Breteuil, had insisted that he spend the winter months in Nice. He would be at a safe distance from his work, not only four hundred miles from Paris, but also in a foreign country where he would have no authority or responsibilities. The County of Nice was in the Kingdom of Sardinia—if just barely. The French border was only a few miles to the west. An elderly, retired colonel would serve as Paul's nominal substitute as provost of the highway patrol. Paul's veteran adjutant, Georges Charpentier, would remain in Paris and do the bulk of the work.
Still, Paul wasn't to be entirely free. The baron, who often used Paul as an investigator, requested brief weekly reports on conditions in Nice and the surrounding area. When Paul felt well enough, he should also unofficially visit Toulon's naval prison and Marseille's police administration and report on whatever seemed worthy of note. The baron's oversight as a royal minister of state included these southern cities, the French kingdom's chief ports on the Mediterranean Sea. He and other enlightened government ministers were discussing possible reforms.
Recently, the baron had written that unrest was spreading throughout the city. A conspiracy was suspected at the Palais-Royal. Paul had grown anxious, felt that he should return. But Anne had reminded him that the country was in crisis before he left and would continue to be in crisis for the foreseeable future. The royal government was virtually bankrupt. In any case, he wasn't responsible for policing the city, only the countryside. He should stay in Nice and repair his health. He agreed that he hadn't fully recovered. And Georges, back in Paris, appeared to have things under control.
This winter vacation had thus far been nearly perfect. As the sun warmed the terrace, Anne closed her eyes, brought up images from her memory, and enjoyed them a second time. She and Paul had left Paris in early November and traveled leisurely by coach and boat to Toulon, thence to Nice along the Mediterranean coast in a felucca, a small, narrow boat propelled by lateen sails and the muscles of several sturdy oarsmen. The stern was partially covered by a roof of canvas but shelter wasn't necessary. The sun shone gently, the wind was favorable, the sea moderate. So, for two days, they sat on the open deck and enjoyed the rocky beauty of coastal Provence.
Anne's older cousin Beverly Parker had invited them to live with her in a palatial summer villa near the village of Cimiez, two miles inland from the city of Nice. The villa was situated on a high plateau and surrounded by olive groves, fruit trees, gardens, and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Cemenelum. Like many of the winter visitors, Beverly suffered from chronic shortness of breath and could not tolerate the cold, damp English winter.
Fortunately for her health, she had married a rich London merchant, Thomas Parker, who had made a fortune in sugar and slaves. He could afford to lease the villa and its estate, as well as the other high costs of wintering in a Mediterranean climate. An avid collector of Roman antiquities, he found an outlet for his passion in the ancient ruins scattered throughout Provence and northern Italy. In particular, Cemenelum caught his fancy. Off the beaten track, it was less encumbered with tourists than Naples or Rome. Promising sites were only a stone's throw from the villa's terrace. His excavations yielded ordinary artifacts and weapons, common pottery, bronze figurines, a few coins, and simple jewelry. This was a modest harvest but sufficient to pique his interest. He hoped eventually to find greater treasures.
In late October, Mr. Parker had brought his deaf niece Janice into the household. Sixteen years old and asthmatic, the young woman suffered severely in London's damp, gloomy weather. Parker put her in his wife's reluctant care. Defiant and moody, as well as deaf, the young woman threatened to fly out of control. Back in November, when Anne arrived in Nice, Beverly was already desperate and had asked Anne for help.
Anne in turn had asked, "Has she always been difficult?"
Beverly had sighed. "From infancy Janice has been a bright, lively, head-strong person. Her parents indulged her every whim. She was ten, and thoroughly spoiled, when they died. Mr. Parker became her guardian and put me in charge of her upbringing. A thankless task! For two years she resisted my efforts to teach her how a proper young lady should behave. Then she lost her hearing due to complications from a severe scarlet fever. I was frankly happy to hand her over to Mr. Braidwood."
Anne knew Braidwood, head of a school for deaf children, where she had once worked for several months. The school taught Janice how to read lips and to sign, as well as how to utter words that she could no longer hear, but failed to teach her how to behave in respectable society. That task fell again to Beverly.
"Ungrateful girl!" Beverly exclaimed. "She resents whatever I try to do for her." Beverly seemed close to tears.
To comfort her Anne had promised that she would try to win the young woman's trust, and to improve her articulation of words. Anne had said, "If Janice were to speak better, she would feel more comfortable with the people around her and less unhappy with herself." Since leaving Braidwood's institute a year ago, the young woman's speech had begun to deteriorate. She noticed that people sometimes couldn't understand what she was saying, or they stared at her because her inflection sounded monotone or a bit odd. So, for the past few months, Anne worked with her almost every day on speech as well as on signing. They developed a friendly relationship, and her speech improved, but her attitude toward Beverly remained hostile.
Anne opened her eyes, glanced at her husband sitting next to her, dozing, his head bent over an open book. For Paul, after the dark gray skies of Paris, Nice was almost like heaven, enjoying warm dry air and clear blue skies nearly every day. A couple of months in this paradise had begun to work a cure. The lines of fatigue that had come with him from Paris had vanished. His hacking cough was gone.
Many other winter visitors came to Nice hoping for similar improvement to their health. Some four hundred British men, women, and children, together with a sprinkling of Swiss, Germans, and French, gathered apart from the local people and rented houses in the new, western district, called New Borough or Villeneuve, that stretched along the road to France. The visitors found the old quarter of the city much too noisy and crowded.
Preoccupied with their health, without the bustle of society, business, and politics, these wealthy, civilized visitors created an isolated seaside village that was remarkably quiet, restful. At least on the surface, Anne thought. Her skepticism was born of bitter personal experience. Among human beings things were never quite what they seemed. Pride, greed, lust, and the other evil passions must be stirring in New Borough as in more lively places, such as London or Paris.
* * *
Early in the afternoon, Anne was reading in her room. Suddenly, she heard the clatter of horse's hooves in the courtyard below. She rushed to the window. The commandant of Nice, the Comte de Maistre, and several of his men had arrived on horseback, armed with sabers and muskets. Anne hurried to the ground floor. A servant had already opened the door, and the count stood in the foyer, a stern look on his face.
A moment later, Mr. Parker arrived, his eyes wide with consternation. "What may I ask is going on, sir?"
"A criminal investigation," replied the count. "This morning I received word that the escaped French convict was hiding somewhere on your estate. My source is reliable. I must conduct a thorough search."
Anne guessed that the promise of a reward must have brought one of the servants forward. It would be an odd coincidence, she thought, if the convict were to be caught here on the very day when Georges's message arrived.
"I'm pleased that you've come," said Parker. "Otherwise, we would never again enjoy a sound sleep. The villain might cut our throats. My steward, Mr. Jack Grimshaw, would be happy to accompany you. He knows every nook and cranny of this place."
Grimshaw was summoned. He frowned at the startling news, but readily agreed to assist in the search. The count's party divided into several pairs, some searching the villa, others the farm buildings. After an hour's vain effort, they spread out across the estate, searching the archaeological excavations, the vineyards, the olive groves, and the desolate hillside at the far edge of the estate.
At the end of the second hour, the count met with the Parkers in the foyer. Beverly asked Anne and Paul to be present.
The count sighed with frustration, then began, "I'm quite sure that the convict was here yesterday. My informant described him accurately in specific detail: bald, slim, average height, light complexioned, blue-eyed. For a week or more, he did odd jobs, slept in the barn. Mr. Grimshaw, however, couldn't be certain that any of the day laborers he hired fitted the convict's description."
"If he were hiding here, he must have left overnight for Italy," remarked Paul.
Mr. Parker agreed. "We're too close to France. He would have known that he might soon be recognized and handed over to French authorities."
The count looked sour, shook his head. "Somehow he saw us coming and has escaped again. We've searched everywhere else in Nice and its vicinity and are confident that he's not there. I'll report our efforts to the naval commandant at Toulon. We'll continue to be on the lookout for the fugitive." He bowed to the Parkers. "Sorry to have disturbed you. Good day." He joined his men outside.
As Anne watched them ride away, she struggled with nagging questions. Later, as she and Paul sat in the shade of an orange tree, he gazed at her and asked, "What are you thinking, Anne?"
"I'm trying to recollect the recent day laborers. They were mostly small, wiry men, dressed in ragged clothes, some dark-skinned, others light. Several of them I saw only from a distance. I don't recall one who would closely match the fugitive's description." She paused, stroking her chin. "If he really were here, I wonder who could have warned him?"