THE ODD FELLOW
A Short Story by
THE ODD FELLOW
Copyright © 2017 Ian Honeysett
All Rights Reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover Design by The Book Khaleesi
Image: “Portrait of Jacques Cazotte”
Wikimedia / Public Domain
The Bastille Mysteries with Peter Stevens
The Eighth Prisoner
The Year of The Oath
I am Abbé Pierre Rene Reynard, Parish Priest of Saint-Merri church in Paris. I have been described as short and stocky. I like the word “stocky” as it sounds as though my excess weight is mostly muscle. However, that is a moot point. You may have seen me as I limp along the streets of Paris due to an accident many years ago. I’ll tell you the story some other time. I have a full head of hair which is rapidly greying. One Bishop said I smiled rather too often for comfort. I have achieved a certain fame because of my involvement in helping to solve one or two crimes. Recently, one of my parishioners asked me, jokingly, when I first developed an interest in crime? I asked him if he was proposing to hear my confession. He quickly changed the subject but, later, as I sipped a glass of wine with a couple of fellow clergy, I reflected on my previous criminal involvement.
About twenty years ago – back in the mid-1770s – I was a curate in Montmartre, Paris. It was a wealthy parish and I was regularly invited to dine by parishioners in their often palatial homes. I would like to claim that my tastes were simple but, in truth, I had always enjoyed a comfortable life as my father was a successful businessman and we lacked for nothing even though there were six children. However, I always liked to tell myself that such material comforts were not that important to me. I was a fervent reader – our father owned a substantial library – and particularly enjoyed reading the lives of the saints. My favourites were St Francis of Assisi and St Clare. Both had renounced riches for a life of poverty. I never quite managed that, even as a priest.
One evening, I was dining with the Baudins and, half way through the most delicious dinner of mushroom broth, stewed beef brisket and stuffed mullet, I recall, the conversation turned to a new arrival in the Parish.
“He’s an odd fellow, I must say,” commented Philippe Baudin, between mouthfuls. Philippe loved his food and his substantial girth confirmed this all too well. As did his shirt front. He was a very successful notary and, some said, a rather less successful member of the church choir. But he had immense self-confidence even when just missing that high note. Or several others on the way to it. Anyway, I digress.
“Which fellow is that, Philippe?” I enquired. We had quite a few parishioners who fitted that description.
“Why, this new fellow, Desres de Buerre, I think he calls himself.”
“Desrues de Bury, I think,” interjected his wife, Francoise. Now she was a most delightful woman. Roughly a quarter the size of her husband and with a particularly pleasant visage. She had the most expressive eyes. Poets might say you could drown in them. Though I am, of course, a celibate myself, I have always appreciated female beauty and her’s was surprisingly natural.
“Ah yes,” I replied, “I have met him only briefly. But why do you consider him odd?”
“Why, Abbé? Well, he claims to be a member of the aristocracy and was telling me about his extensive country estate just south of Paris but, when I mentioned that I knew several of the local gentry in that area, he quickly changed the subject. Also, the way he dresses. That waistcoat. That cravat. I ask you!”
“So, do you think he has fabricated the story? That there is no estate? But to what purpose?”
“Abbé Reynard, as you know, I have to deal with a great many unsavoury characters as a notary and I can smell duplicity. Whether the estate exists, I do not know but there is assuredly something not quite right there.”
“So, we should be on our guard if he proposes some grand scheme for the Parish involving fund-raising?”
“Quite so. Be on your guard, Abbé. Whatever you do, do not entrust him with any church funds! And now, a little more wine?”
The following Sunday, I made a point of looking out for Monsieur Desrues de Bury. I did not want to prejudge him in any way. I knew that Philippe Baudin was prone to rather hasty judgements on people – especially if they were thinner than himself. I saw him sitting towards the rear of the church. He appeared to be alone. He also seemed to be extremely devout. He even looked like he was listening quite attentively to my sermon. Unlike, perhaps, Monsieur Baudin, who appeared to have fallen asleep? Or perhaps he was in a state of deep meditation? Probably the former.
After Mass, I always stood outside the church door to speak to the faithful as they were leaving. Many of my dinner invitations came that way. I looked out for him but did not see him. Perhaps he had left by the side door? I returned, rather disappointed, to the church, and much to my surprise, saw that he was still in the pew saying his rosary. I sat behind him and started to read my breviary until I saw him cross himself and start to rise.
“Good morning, Abbé.”
“We’ve not really spoken before,” I replied.
“My fault entirely,” he protested. “I am Count Desrues de Bury but please call me Antoine. I am not very sociable, I’m afraid. I preferred to slip out of church quietly rather than get drawn into conversation and meeting people. But I certainly meant no disrespect to you. I have the very highest regard for the clergy. Even bishops.”
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Antoine and welcome to our Parish,” I replied. “I was dining with Monsieur and Madame Baudin the other evening and they mentioned that you have a country estate south of Paris?”
“Ah yes, Monsieur Baudin. A larger than life character indeed. I am sure he is a very effective notary as he never stopped asking me questions about my property. I half expected him to offer his legal services if I wished to sell it.”
“Is it near Fontainebleau? The Parish Priest there is an old friend.”
“It’s between Fontainebleau and Vaux-le-Vicomte, Abbé. But I must tell you, I am a very private person. I know very few people in the area. I prefer the company of my pigs. They rarely annoy me with their questions!”
Thus, gently chided, I ceased my enquiries and he bade me good-bye. I had a busy day and was due to have lunch at the local convent. I thought no more about our brief exchange until something rather odd happened a few weeks later.
I was attending a religious symposium and, over lunch, was discussing the reforms of our fairly new Pope, Pius Vl, with some fellow clergy. I was quite vocal in my support of his attack on corruption in the Church. The meeting was being held in the Parish of Fontainebleau and I found myself sat next to the local Parish Priest, Abbé Foss, an extremely genial individual with an impressive nose. I had known him since we were both at the seminary of St Sulpice in Issy.
“One of your local nobility has recently appeared in our Parish,” I told him.
“Really? Who can that be? And why would he wish to live in Paris if he has an estate here?”
“His name is Count Desrues de Bury,” I replied. “I’ve only spoken to him briefly. He said he was a very private individual and was happier with his pigs than with people.”
“I have found there is often little difference,” joked Abbé Foss.
“Do you know him – despite his desire for privacy? He seemed most devout. He said he had a high respect for the clergy.”
“I’m not sure I do, but I can only admire his good judgement. Which is his estate?”
“He simply said that it was between here and Vaux-le-Vicomte.”
“Describe him to me.”
“Somewhat ascetic-looking. Small in stature. Prominent Adam’s apple. A mark, probably a birth-mark, on his left cheek. He blinks a good deal.”
“Hmm, I think I might know him. Just a little. Your description brings to mind someone I think I met when I was making home visits. Let me see …. Yes, I think it was when I went to see…. No, it wasn’t. Perhaps it was at the home of….no, that wasn’t it. I may be mistaken. Leave it with me and I might remember – but I can’t guarantee it. Another glass?”
I was a little disappointed as, I must confess, I would love to have been able to tell Monsieur Baudin that his suspicions were unfounded and that there was nothing at all odd about the Count Desrues de Bury. But, by the end of the symposium, Abbé Foss had still not recalled whether he had met my noble parishioner. Soon I was back in my parish and fully embroiled in daily life and forgot all about the matter. Perhaps the fact that I did not see him again at Mass, reinforced this.
It was fully 3 months later that I received a letter from Abbé Foss. It simply read:
My dear Abbé Reynard,
[_I have just remembered meeting your parishioner. At least, I’m fairly sure it must be him. I was visiting Madame de la Motte at her rather run-down chateau near Vaux-le-Vicomte. Her husband had died some years before and she lived with her son, a youth of about fifteen. She welcomed me in a sort of whisper. I asked her if she had a problem with her throat – she had not enjoyed the best of health. She said, no, she was speaking quietly because they had a visitor. He was someone who was interested in buying their estate. She had often told me that it was too much work for the two of them and needed far more money to restore it to its former glory than she possessed. _]
She then introduced me to this potential purchaser. As you have probably surmised, it was your parishioner, the one who calls himself Desrues de Bury. He said he was a successful businessman, the owner of a flourishing grocery business in Paris – although, in truth, he did not look that successful. He said he was looking to purchase an estate not too far from Paris and this one might be suitable. We conversed for about ten minutes and then he said he must be on his way but would contact Madame soon and invite her to his Paris home – hopefully to conclude the purchase.
When he had gone, I remember commenting that he did not exactly look like a wealthy businessman. His clothes were a little shabby, especially his waistcoat. But Madame said he was probably just slightly eccentric. She was quite excited at the prospect of finally selling the estate and no longer having to worry about her finances.
Sometime later, Madame and her son left the area and I never saw them again. I heard that the estate had, indeed, been sold but I have never met the new owner. I understood he resided mainly in Paris.
Your old friend
Abbé Alexandre Foss
It so happened that I was not particularly busy at that time and, intrigued by the letter, I decided to see if I could find out more about my erstwhile parishioner. This proved to be quite challenging. No one seemed to know much about him. Not even where he lived. Until one Saturday when I was hearing confessions. One of my regular penitents, Madame Lafitte, said, just after I had given her absolution, that she had heard that I had been enquiring after monsieur Desrues. I confirmed this was true. She said that she had worked on a couple of occasions as a cleaner at his Paris house. She had had considerable difficulty, she said, getting payment for her work in the past as he seemed perennially short of funds. However, that seemed to have changed recently and she was, in fact, doing some cleaning there the following week. I said that I was keen to meet with him again as he no longer attended Mass and I was concerned for his spiritual welfare. She said I might accompany her on her next visit though he often seemed to be away, presumably at his country estate. I had no hesitation in agreeing as we knew each other quite well and she had often invited me to dine with her family. She was an excellent cook.
The following Tuesday, we arrived at his Paris home. It was in a very pleasant neighbourhood but had not been well maintained. As Madame Lafitte knocked on the door, I confess to having mixed feelings. Did I hope he was at home? Given that he had stopped attending Mass after our last conversation, would he be at all pleased to see me? If someone else, such as a housekeeper, answered the door, would they admit me? How would I explain why I was there? If they did admit me, say out of reverence for the cloth, then what would I do there while Madame was cleaning?
Such doubts were swept away when the door was opened by a young woman who said she was pleased to see my companion, whom she was expecting, as she had to go out and did not like to leave the house unattended. She said she was monsieur Desrues’ niece. She was an attractive woman but with a rather hard-faced expression. I always look closely at peoples’ eyes. When I was a seminarian, I remember attending a talk by Dr Dernes – who seemed old even then but is still practising – and he said he had made a study of the human eye. He said that, when people are worried or sad, they tend to furrow their brow, which makes their eyes seem smaller. When they’re feeling happy, they raise their eyebrows which makes their eyes appear bigger and brighter. Now it’s easy to fake a smile by altering the shape of your mouth but they usually forget about their eyes. When people are really happy, they crinkle the corner of their eyes. That’s what to look at to tell if they’re genuine.
Well, her eyes had no crinkle. She was not someone to trifle with. She said she would return in about an hour. She was clearly in a hurry. I watched her run down the street where she met a young man. I think she called out “Michel” as she embraced him. They seemed to know each other very well.
We went inside.
“You don’t need to stay, Abbé, if you don’t want to,” said Madame Lafitte,” as it does not appear monsieur Desrues is at home.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied,” I’ll stay while you clean and then accompany you back home.”
She happily began her cleaning but what was I to do? I had no right to be there of course. But I felt compelled to use this opportunity to allay my concerns that something was not quite right. I had no idea at all about what I might be looking for. I found myself trying one or two door handles, just for something to do. The first opened onto a larder. The second was a wardrobe with a large number of very fashionable dresses and ladies’ hats. As he seemed unmarried, perhaps they belonged to his niece?
The third door revealed an office. I stepped inside. It was admirably tidy. No piles of papers for me to look through. Should I try the drawers? I could find no possible justification for so doing other than to satisfy my curiosity. If the Count was involved in something dubious then I might be able to help him resist temptation. This was, perhaps, a rather thin justification morally for what I did next.[_ _]I quickly searched through each drawer. There were many, many bills. Most unpaid. Many threats of legal action if he did not pay them.
And then I found a receipt for the purchase of Madame de la Motte’s estate. Just in among the bills. How on earth could he afford it? Then I found another receipt for the same purchase. And another. It looked as though they were attempts to create a receipt that looked genuine. The signatures of Madame de la Motte all differed in various ways. Who could say which, if any, was genuine?
“Abbé Reynard, are you there?”
It was Madame Lafitte. She looked surprised to see me in the office. I was somewhat at a loss for words. I decided to be absolutely honest with her. I explained my reasons for my concerns about the Count. I braced myself for a good telling-off. Her response surprised me.
“Do you know, Abbé, I have had the same concerns myself. You’ve probably seen the cupboard full of expensive dresses? He’s completely in thrall to his “niece”. Everything changed when she appeared. And, as you may have seen, she clearly has a lover more of her own age. Let me see this receipt.”
“Which do you want to see – there are so many of them. Each with a rather different signature for Madame.”
“It confirms what we are both thinking – there is clearly no way he could have afforded to purchase that estate. The question is – what became of Madame de la Motte and her son?”
We looked at each other with a mixture of uncertainty and horror. I recalled Abbé Foss’ comments that they had left his parish and not been seen again. We both concluded that it was more than possible that they had met with the Count, presumably to agree the purchase of the estate, and then had disappeared. Either abroad or, more likely, underground. But were we jumping to conclusions? He might have found the necessary funds and simply paid for the estate.
Our thoughts were rudely interrupted by the sound of the front door opening and closing. I quickly returned the papers to the drawer and we both left the office and closed the door.
It was Count Desrues de Bury himself.
“Good day, Madame Lafitte and Abbé Reynard – why this is a surprise. Don’t tell me that you help out with the cleaning too?”
“No, monsieur, of course not. Madame Lafitte told me she was coming here to clean for you and, as I haven’t seen you recently at Mass, I said I would welcome the opportunity to see if there was a problem I might help with.”
“I see, Abbé. Very thoughtful of you. And, tell me, did that require you to explore my house?”
So, he had seen us both leave his office. Most awkward. Fortunately, Madame Lafitte thought more quickly than me.
“Abbé Reynard was simply assisting me to move some furniture so that I could ensure I did a thorough cleaning job throughout. My back is not what it used to be and I have to be careful.”
“Of course, Madame Lafitte, I quite understand. I hope you took no offence at my words, Abbé.”
I smiled at each in turn. My smile to her was very genuine indeed.
As we returned by coach to the parish, Madame Lafitte leaned forward and said: “Of course we shall have to return and see.”
“See if he has buried the bodies in the garden.”
“Oh, Madame Lafitte, surely you don’t think – that he has actually murdered them both? There could be all sorts of explanations for those receipts. Some of them might even be innocent.”
“Perhaps, Abbé, perhaps. I hate to judge people unfairly but, I ask you, a forged receipt and neither of them seen since. The garden is large and overgrown. No one would ever look there. I would wager that that is where we will find them. And time is of the essence. I’m certain he knows of our suspicions. Even now he is probably planning their disposal.”
I wasn’t convinced. Our Blessed Lord told us not to judge and here I was already convicting the Count for murder! But she definitely had a point. I felt we needed to do something to put our minds at rest. But what? We could hardly break in to the house and dig up the garden. It wouldn’t be seemly. Nor practical. I could do nothing that would put Madame Lafitte at risk and, alone, there was no way I could climb into the garden and start digging. Furthermore, even if the Count had actually murdered them both, was he likely to bury the bodies in his garden? Why not burn them, say? Or hide them in the cellar? There was any number of ways to be rid of a corpse – I assumed.
Then Madame Lafitte surprised me yet again.
“There’s always my son, Albert.”
“The one who sings in the church choir?”
“Yes, but he’s also a burglar. Or, at least, he was. He went through a difficult time in his youth. He was led astray, Abbé. He’s a good boy now but, for a worthy cause such as this, I am sure he will be ready to help us.”
“But it could be extremely dangerous, Madame. If the Count has already killed two people – and I do stress the “if” – then he won’t hesitate….”
“Don’t worry, Abbé, Albert can look after himself. And you.”
Naturally I abhor violence but assumed Albert would only use a weapon in self-defence. St Thomas Aquinas would surely have agreed that this complied with his definition of a Just War. Albeit in a rather more limited way.
That very night we met at a nearby tavern. Albert was what my mother would call a “strapping lad”. He was several inches taller than me – and very solidly built. I had heard that he was highly regarded as a bare-knuckle boxer. The bruises on his knuckles seemed to confirm this although they might have been simply due to him working the land.
“So, Abbé, this is different to our usual choir meetings, eh?”
“Indeed, Albert, this is not a meeting I have ever imagined happening!”
“Mother has told me all about this situation.”
“And I told her that I have no right whatsoever to involve anyone else in my suspicions. They might be completely unfounded. The Count may be absolutely genuine and I have no right to ….”
“Please, Abbé, there’s really no need. I don’t feel at all pressured into getting involved. As I’m sure you know, I’m no stranger to scrapes. And, yes, these bruises are due to my [_sporting _]interests. I know prize fighting doesn’t exactly fit with my singing in the church choir but, I do seem rather good at it.”
“I don’t doubt it, Albert – just as you are at singing. But I didn’t want you to think that, just because I am your Parish Priest, you had to agree to this.”
We had another drink. I was feeling distinctly nervous. Even with Albert’s involvement, this could all go horribly wrong in so many ways.
“You know, you don’t have to come with me, Abbé. I’ve already had a look at the property. I reckon I can easily climb the wall at the back. It’s well hidden by the trees. At the moment there is no light showing in the house so I suspect they’ve either gone to bed or are away. I won’t take any unnecessary chances. Why don’t you stay here and have another drink and I’ll see you here in about an hour? If, for any reason, I don’t return within two hours then bring help. How about that? If I’m caught, they’ll think it’s just a common or garden burglar.”
“Very good, Albert, common or[_ garden ]burgla[_r] – I like it. I don’t know. It’s tempting to let you take all the risks for, some may say, my obsession – and I do tend to have obsessions. But, not only would it be cowardly, I would also miss the excitement. I want to see for myself whether my suspicions are true.”
“I understand, Abbé, but, tell me, if we are both caught, how will you explain your presence in his garden?”
“A very good question to which I have no convincing answer. But no, Albert, it’s decided – it will be the two of us or we will abandon the whole idea. Drink up and let’s be on our way.”
Of course, I spoke with far more confidence than I really felt. If you had looked at my eyes when I made that declaration of intent, you would have known how false it was. But, fortunately, Albert was concentrating on finishing his drink.
Ten minutes later we were standing by the rear wall to the garden. In a hushed voice, he enquired: “So how will we go about digging for bodies?”
“How do you mean, Albert?”
“I mean, have you brought a spade, Abbé?”
“Of course not. Oh, how stupid of me. Of course, we will need spades. This shows how little I have thought this through. We’ll have to return….”
“Don’t worry, Abbé, I have brought two spades. They’re just here in the undergrowth. I’ve also brought an oil lamp as I’m not sure we can rely on moonlight alone, even though it is virtually a full moon. Now, how good are you at climbing?”
“I used to be a very good climber, I’ll have you know. At least until my….my recent accident that is. Now, though, I’m not sure. I haven’t done very much climbing since my accident. Being a priest doesn’t usually involve that much climbing.”
“I guess not, Abbé, otherwise you would be a bishop by now! Don’t worry, if you can climb onto my back, I’ll help lift you over. Just be prepared for the landing the other side. Don’t make too much noise, just in case.”
“What do you think are the chances that we might be seen – or heard?”
“Well, Abbé, I would say they are fairly small. There appears to be no one in the house – or, at least, no one who is awake or surely there would be a light showing somewhere there. And they’re hardly likely to be in the garden, are they? If he, indeed, buried the bodies then it would be some coincidence if he chose this very night to move them. Such coincidences simply don’t happen. Trust me, Abbé, if we are quiet then there is little chance we will be discovered. Much more likely is that there are no buried bodies here. Or that we are unable to find the graves, however hard we look. I reckon we should allow an hour and, if we’ve found nothing then we can return to the tavern and have another drink knowing we’ve done what we can.”
Albert’s words of wisdom made me feel much better about the whole enterprise. I readily agreed and was rather looking forward to that drink. With his help, I managed to get astride the wall. Fortunately, there was sufficient light that I could see that there were thick bushes right up to the wall. I offered up a prayer – though I couldn’t quite recall who the Patron Saint of burglars might be – and jumped into the undergrowth. Somehow, I survived – a sign, perhaps, that this was all morally justified.
As Albert had said, the garden was very overgrown. I could just about see the shape of the house in the distance and was relieved to find that it was still in darkness. Perhaps the Count had returned to his estate.
Acknowledging that Albert was very much in charge, I enquired where he thought we should start our search.
“Let me light the lamp and then we can see if there is any sign of recent digging. We’ll assume no one is in the house looking out. It’s a fair risk to take. But do be quiet, Abbé. Remember just whisper.”
Albert made his way through the dense bushes towards the nearest patch of open ground. He had wisely chosen to wear thick trousers so was relatively untroubled by the briars. I had, at least, put on my pantaloons rather than my knee-length breeches but they were relatively thin and I felt every single briar. However, I largely managed to suppress any cries of pain. I was by no means convinced that such noise would go unheard.
But neither of us could see any sign of recent digging. After ten minutes – which seemed far longer – I started to feel this was indeed, in the words of Shakespeare (I think) a wild goose chase. Even if the Count had murdered Madame de la Motte and her son, would he have risked burying them in his own garden here in Paris when he had a substantial estate where it’s unlikely they would ever be found? Or, of course, he might have burned their bodies. My spirits began to sink. And I had a sickening sensation that I would never be able to climb back over that wall. Or survive the fall the other side where there were no bushes to act as a cushion. I was just about to call out to Albert that there was really little point in continuing when, suddenly, I heard a voice – and it wasn’t his.
He had obviously heard it too. He whispered: “Did you hear that? Someone is out here. How unlucky is that? Not a sound.”
We froze in our steps and waited and listened. Nothing. Perhaps we were mistaken and it was simply the wind blowing through the trees. Or whatever wild life might inhabit this jungle. I was just about to speak when we heard the voice quite clearly. Or, rather, voices.
“Come on, don’t slow down. We haven’t got all night!”
It was a female voice. A young, female voice.
“I’m digging as hard as I can but I’m not as young as I used to be!”
“Don’t I know that!” came the dismissive reply. “I should have asked Michel to help us.”
“Michel? Who is Michel?”
“Oh, just a friend.”
“What kind of friend? A male friend?”
“Of course, a male friend.”
“And just a friend? You know I’ve done all this for you, don’t you, Nicole?”
“Don’t worry, Antoine, you are the only one for me. Michel is just an acquaintance. Now, keep digging. We need to get this done before it’s light. You have some very nosy neighbours.”
I was so intent on hearing every word that, suddenly, perhaps due to my weak leg, I slipped and fell over and let out a shout which must have awoken most of Montmartre.
Albert looked despairingly at me. I knew I should have left this to him. Or, rather, not have started any of this in the first place. What a fool I was!
“Look out!” shouted Albert as a light flickered through the shrubbery to our left. I was still trying to get back up so I stopped struggling and lay flat on the ground. I could hear the sound of someone moving rapidly towards us.
“Are you armed?” I called to Albert – there was no point whispering now.
“Of course,” he replied. “I always carry my trusty old Eustache knife with me.”
I felt a little reassured but had hoped he would have a pistol of some kind.
“I doubt that will be quite enough,” came a voice from our left. I looked up and found myself looking up at “Count Desrues de Bury”. Or, probably more correctly, simply Antoine. He didn’t appear to be armed. Albert clearly thought the same.
“So where is[_ your_] pistol then?” asked Albert.
“I don’t have one,” he admitted, smiling rather nervously. I doubted his eyes were crinkling.
“But I do,” came a voice from behind us.
We both looked in its direction. There stood the[_ niece_], Nicole. And, indeed, she did have a pistol. As far as I knew then, it could only fire one shot. If necessary, she would probably choose to shoot Albert, reckoning that I would be far slower than him, so giving her time to reload.
“I do believe it’s the priest from this morning,” she smiled. “So where’s the cleaning lady? Or have you found a new companion? Please do introduce him.”
She sounded very confident in a way that belied her years. Neither of us had the least doubt that she was prepared to shoot.
“What are you doing in our garden? Are you looking for something – or someone?”
“We know what you’ve done,” I replied with as much confidence as I could muster. “You won’t get away with it, you know.”
“So what is it we are supposed to have done, Abbé?” It was Antoine who spoke, perhaps, trying to reassert himself.
“You know very well,” I replied. “I found all those versions of a receipt for Madame de la Motte’s estate in your office. Forgeries clearly. There was no way you could afford to buy it. So, what have you done with her and her son?”
Antoine had no answer and so it was Nicole who replied.
“You’re a policeman as well as a cleaner!” she laughed derisively. “Well, well, how unfortunate for you that we have both chosen the same night to go gardening! So, you think that my dear uncle has murdered Madame and her son? And you a man of God! What a slander on a good man. I am appalled, Abbé, I really am.”
I felt truly ashamed. I looked at the Count and felt that maybe I really had misjudged him. And I a priest. Moreover, I had endangered Albert too and that was truly unforgiveable.
Nicole burst out laughing at my evident distress.
“Oh, Abbé, you really are a picture! You really are out of your depth. Let me put your mind at rest, at least for a minute. Please get up – you look most unseemly lying there. Come, the two of you, and see exactly what we were doing in the garden at this time of night.”
She pointed with her pistol to back where we had heard their voices originally. Antoine led the way. Albert and I followed with Nicole following behind. My mind was racing with every idea on how I could redeem the situation. Perhaps I could pretend to stumble and collide with her and then seize her pistol. How strong could she be? But she kept far enough back to avoid that possibility. I began praying for a miracle. She must have heard me mumbling as she sneered:
“That’s right, Abbé, start praying to your God for nothing else will save you! You really should have had the sense to keep your nose out of this. It’s nothing to do with you. It so happens that your guess is absolutely correct as you will shortly see. We had arrived at a sizeable hole in the ground and, in it, the bodies of Madame de la Motte and her son. A truly pitiful sight. I looked across at Antoine who looked almost as pitiful a sight as his victims. Nicole stood beside him with her pistol aimed at Albert.
“Well, take a good look, gentlemen, as this will be the last thing you ever see. You’re about to join them. Fortunately, we dug a big enough hole for you all. So please join them. For eternity!”
“Before you do anything you’ll regret,” I pleaded with no confidence at all, “consider how you will explain our deaths? Others know we were coming here. They will call the police if we have not returned within the hour. You don’t really think we would risk climbing into the garden to search for two dead bodies without telling others what we were doing?”
The Count looked panic-stricken. “The Abbé makes a valid point, Nicole.”
“Nonsense!” she replied with alarming confidence.” Even if what he says is true – and I doubt very much it is – then it is highly unlikely they will find the bodies since we will have burned them beyond recognition. And, even if they did, we will simply say that we found two intruders in our garden at night and feared for our lives. Fortunately, the Law is on the side of property.”
She pointed the pistol at Albert.
“Wait!” wailed Antoine. “Even if you’re right, we can’t kill any more innocent people. And we definitely can’t kill a priest!”
“Of course, we can, you silly old fool,” she laughed. “They die as easily as anyone else. In fact, we’ll be doing him a favour. He’ll be a martyr and go straight to heaven!”
There was no doubt she meant it. I had to admire her determination. I suspected it was she who had murdered Madame de la Motte and her son. And yet she looked so young. And innocent – but for that sneering face!
“Antoine!” I shouted. “You don’t want this! Think of your immortal soul. It’s not too late!”
“How long do you think you will outlive us?” shouted Albert. “She’s only after your money, Antoine. As soon as she’s killed us, she’ll kill you and be off with her lover, Michel.”
I could see from Antoine’s reaction that he knew this was true. If he had ever believed that Nicole loved him, he now saw the awful truth.
“Nicole, I’m sorry but I won’t be a party to any more deaths – especially not that of a priest. There must be some other way.”
“Of course, there’s no other way,” she spat back. “You really are weak and stupid, aren’t you? As though I could ever love you, Antoine.”
She went to push him out of the way but, suddenly, he reached out and pushed her with a surprising show of strength. She fell into the grave and, in doing so, dropped the pistol. Albert lurched forward and pushed the hapless Antoine into the now rather overcrowded grave. Then he calmly picked up the pistol.
“Abbé, I suggest you go and summon the police. I will keep guard here.”
It seemed a good idea. Within a couple of hours, the police arrived and took Antoine and Nicole away.
The rest of the story is well known. Antoine Desrues – the title of Count was a complete fiction of course – was sent for trial where he protested his innocence of murder throughout. He was probably telling the truth.
In the court proceedings, a full picture emerged of what had happened. At least, it did if you believed Antoine. I have read through the detailed records of the case and offer the following account.
Antoine confirmed that he had, indeed, been a successful grocer in Paris – hence his impressive town house. However, his wife had died and he went into a rapid decline. She had been highly organised and managed the finances. Without her, the business soon got into difficulties. However, this was not due to excessive spending on his part – in fact he led a very frugal life and lived almost like a hermit. He was very devout and generous with his charitable donations.
Then, one day, a young woman appeared and said she was his niece, Nicole. By then his memory was fading. She managed to persuade him that he did actually have such a niece. He had several sisters, now deceased, and assumed one of them was her mother. Naturally he invited her in. She soon explained that she had fallen on hard times and found herself homeless. Antoine insisted she stay with him for the moment. She readily agreed. Then the bills started arriving. She had a keen eye for fashion. When he, rather nervously, raised the subject, she explained that her doctor had advised her that such spending was positively therapeutic. It made her feel more worthwhile. But, of course, if Antoine felt it was excessive, she would stop immediately. She looked so very sad when she said this that, naturally, he could not insist. Her spending continued to escalate. He even noticed that some of her purchases were men’s clothing. Perhaps they were presents for him as people said he did look rather unkempt. But apparently not.
Nicole had been living with him for about a month when she told him that she was very fond of him. Not necessarily in the way a niece would be fond of her uncle. Was this wrong, she asked? Antoine had certainly enjoyed sharing his otherwise lonely existence with her. She had enormous vitality and could be an excellent companion at mealtimes. She was also an excellent cook. Slowly, he began to contemplate whether it was, indeed, proper to allow their relationship to deepen. He prayed for guidance. He went to confession in another parish as it would have been too embarrassing to raise such a delicate matter with anyone who might know him. He was delighted to be told that it was, indeed, possible with the proper dispensation.
Thus encouraged, he began to imagine Nicole as his future wife. But surely, an inner voice told him, it could never be. She was an elegant, vivacious young woman and he was an elderly – and increasingly indebted – widower.
One day, over dinner, their conversation took a rather alarming turn.
“Antoine, my love, wouldn’t you love to live in the country?”
“How do you mean, my dear? Are you unhappy here in Paris?”
“Oh, I don’t mean leave Paris entirely. No, I think we should acquire a second home somewhere.”
“I’m sure that would be very nice, Nicole, but I simply cannot afford it. I don’t like to burden you with my problems but I really don’t have the resources. In fact, I have rather a lot of debts. Not that I’m blaming you, my dear….”
“Don’t worry, Antoine, I have an idea. A friend tells me that there is a very nice estate for sale near Vaux-le-Vicomte. It’s owned by a Madame de la Motte. She’s very keen to sell.”
“Even so, Nicole, it’s simply not possible.”
“But it is, dear Antoine. You see, I have an idea on how we can find the money.”
“What does “legally” mean, Antoine? Laws are only man-made. It’s something that would make us both happy. Can that be wrong?” She gave him a look that he hadn’t seen for many years – and a kiss on the cheek that lingered for some time.
The matter was not raised again for a few weeks when Nicole surprised him by announcing that she had arranged for them to visit Madame de la Motte – “as we agreed”. He said he did not recall such an agreement but she was undeterred. She said it was set for the following Tuesday. She would explain what he should say to her. Nicole would not join them as it would only “complicate” matters.
Antoine had rarely felt so uneasy about something but it clearly meant a great deal to Nicole so he reluctantly agreed. She rehearsed him in exactly what he should say. And so, the following Tuesday, he visited Madame de la Motte. It seemed to go very well. She was very keen to sell her estate as it was far too much for her and her son to manage. He told her that he would invite her to his Paris home to complete the transaction. She should bring all the necessary documents with her.
The day before Madame’s visit, Nicole handed a document to Antoine. It was a receipt that, she said, had been drawn up quite legally by a notary she knew. It just needed Madame’s signature and the whole purchase would be resolved.
“But where is the money?” he enquired. “I certainly don’t have it – do you? She will hardly sign this receipt if I cannot pay her the agreed price.”
“I said, don’t worry about that. I will deal with it.” Another smile and another kiss.
Madame de la Motte arrived for lunch accompanied by her son, a rather quiet and sullen individual. Nicole had prepared a delicious meal for them. It included pumpkin soup, rump of beef with cabbage, larded breast of mutton with chicory and a variety of entrees. There was, naturally, a copious amount of wine to accompany each course. Madame protested that she rarely drank but Nicole insisted that wine was essential for such a celebration. Madame’s son had no such inhibition. Indeed, he seemed to have passed out before they reached the puddings.
“And now, Madame,” said Nicole,” if you would like to hand over all the necessary documents then we can complete our business.”
Madame had a fine drawstring bag with her and explained that everything was in good order. Nicole then presented her with the receipt.
“But, mam’selle,” she replied in somewhat slurred speech,” you haven’t yet mentioned the money? I assume you have it with you? Monsieur Desrues?”
Madame and Antoine both looked towards Nicole. There was an awkward silence. She smiled – but only with her mouth.
“There has been a slight problem, Madame. A temporary delay only I can assure you. You will have the money before you depart. But, please, sign the receipt while you are still able – I sense you have taken rather a lot of wine….”
“Only because…. because you insisted,” she protested. She attempted to rise from her chair but was unable to do so. A look of panic crossed her wrinkled old face. “Monsieur Desrues, I trusted you!” she wailed. “How could you do this to me? A widow.” She looked to her son but he was completely comatose beside her.
Antoine was as horrified as Madame. He too had drunk far too much and was struggling to understand exactly what was happening.
“Nicole! What are you doing? Is there no money after all? Is this a terrible deceit?”
“Oh, be quiet, you silly old fool,” she replied. “Of course, there is no money! Where on earth do you think we would get enough money to buy such an estate?”
She came across to Madame, took hold of her right hand and forced her to grip the pen and then ordered her to sign. Panic-stricken and fearing for her life, she began to do so. Nicole studied the result.
“This is no good, Madame! This signature is but a scrawl. Here is another copy, try again.”
This was repeated several times before Nicole declared herself reasonably satisfied with the result. She then turned to Antoine.
“Time for you to retire to bed. I fear you are drunk, my love. I will deal with matters now.”
Antoine tried to protest but she was correct. He was far too drunk to do anything. Nicole called for assistance and a young man, who must have been waiting just outside the dining room, appeared and helped Antoine up to his bedroom. That was all he could recall of events that day. He must have slept for many hours. When he finally awoke, Madame and her son had gone. Nicole told him that they had left once they were sober enough to do so. He asked her where they had gone. Surely to the police? Nicole said simply that he need have no fear on that account. The police would not be involved. Antoine was now the owner of a great estate and could, in fact, now call himself Count. Count Desrues de Bury.
The Court heard Antoine’s testimony and decided, despite his protests that he had done nothing wrong and was innocent of any murders, that he was guilty. The judge declared that Antoine’s attempt to show himself, in effect, as a victim of his young niece was scarcely credible. He had tried to portray her as some kind of master criminal. He had no hesitation in sentencing him to life in prison. Given how many relatively minor offences carried such a penalty, this seemed merciful indeed. Perhaps the judge was not quite as convinced of his guilt as he professed?
I returned to the parish in Montmartre hugely relieved that the whole matter was over. I thanked Albert and his mother for risking so much to humour me. Albert replied that he had enjoyed it all immensely – apart from when he thought he was about to die of course. They both agreed that justice had been done.
I was utterly amazed, a week or two later, when I learned that Antoine had chosen to appeal against his sentence. It was undoubtedly the most foolish decision of his life. There was a retrial and once again he was found guilty. But this time he was condemned to death. To be torn asunder alive and then burnt. I chose not to attend the execution.
But what, you might well ask, of Nicole? As you will have observed, I have not mentioned her account of what happened. And that is because she gave no account. She was never brought to trial. In fact, she was never heard of again. We saw her being arrested and taken away by the police that night. But there is no record of her arriving at the Châtelet prison with Antoine. She disappeared completely from[+ +]history and was never heard of again. I did hear later, though, that one of the police who arrested the pair of them was a certain Constable Michel. He, too, was never heard of again.
I hope you liked this short story.
You can find Abbé Pierre Rene Reynard in the following novels:
THE EIGHTH PRISONER
THE YEAR OF THE OATH
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Ian Honeysett is married to Jan with 3 children, and lives in Godalming, Surrey. His other interests are painting and playing the ukulele.
He has 2 books published with long-time friend, author Pete Stevens.
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It’s the mid-1770s and Pierre Reynard is a humble curate in Montmarte. One evening, over dinner, a parishioner warns him about a rather odd newcomer (just look at his waistcoat!) who claims to be a Count with a large country estate. But when Reynard meets him, he seems quite genuine albeit rather shabby for a Count. He thinks little of it until he learns that the former owners of the estate – a mother and son – suddenly disappeared just before the Count moved in. No one has seen them since. Reynard decides to investigate – somewhat against his better judgement. Who is this “Count”? How did he come to own such a substantial estate? And what has happened to the former owners? It looks like those may be the very last questions Reynard ever has answered.