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Authors: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

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BOOK: Hotel Transylvania
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La Comtesse d'Argenlac glanced up from her breakfast as Madelaine entered the room. "Ah, good morning, my dear. I hope you slept well?"

Madelaine still wore a smile. "Yes, aunt. I had the most wonderful dream."

"After your triumphs last night, I shouldn't wonder." La Comtesse chuckled, motioning Madelaine to sit down. "What do you want to eat, my dear? There is pastry, of course, and fruit. My cook can prepare an omelet if you would rather. You must keep a hearty appetite."

"That is what Saint-Germain told me last night. He got me two helpings of the pâté." She seated herself so that the light from the broad windows fell across her, making a pretty pattern on her quilted silk morning dress of blue and white stripes. Her hair, free of powder, shone dark with gold highlights. "If it would not be too much trouble, I would like some of the Chinese tea my father sent with me." She pulled an apple from a porcelain basket in the middle of the table and began to pare it with a small, sharp knife.

"Of course." Without turning la Comtesse issued orders for the tea to a lackey standing in the door. "Have some of this," she said to Madelaine, handing a plate of fruit-filled pastries across the table. "The lemon-curd filling is from my husband's forcing houses. He has said it is his ambition to eat peaches all year around."

"Where is le Comte? I did not see him last night, though he said he would join us."

For a moment a frown clouded Comtesse Claudia's face. "He was with friends. He likes to gamble, my dear. Indeed, it is his one besetting sin, and there are times when I fear I will die of worry." She picked up her napkin. "Ah, it is nothing. I have my inheritance and my holdings, which he cannot touch. If he ruins himself, eh bien, I suppose I will support him...." She sighed and took a sip of the hot chocolate by her elbow.

"Then you are not happy, aunt?" Madelaine looked truly shocked.

"I am happy as I can be, my dear. No sensible woman wishes for more in this world. You need not look far to see how true this is. You remember the woman we dined with last night?"

Madelaine's eyes grew soft as she answered. "Madame Cressie? She looked so drawn and so sad."

"She has been ill," la Comtesse said, as if that were nothing. "One day you will have the misfortune to meet her husband. He is one of those men... I do not mean to shock you, but it is something you must be made aware of. There are men in this world who have an antipathy for women...."

Madelaine nodded eagerly. "At home, the good Sisters said that it was often so with the saints, and that those with a real religious vocation fled the world so that they would not have to endure the fires of the flesh—"

Her aunt interrupted her with some asperity. "I am not speaking of priests—although there are those, I think, who would live as Achille Cressie does, given the chance." She clicked her tongue and got back on her subject. "These are fleshly men, Madelaine, and they use one another as women, so they have no need for union with our sex. You will hear of a great many of them. Quite often they are handsome men, of great rank and much respect. Le Duc de la Mer-Herbeux is one such, and I am sure he has no more use for women than Achille Cressie does. But of course," she said with a slight flush and a saddened laugh, "he is kind, very kind. I can think of no one I would sooner trust. And it is most unfair of those people who accuse him of wanting peace with England only because of his English Earl." She shook her head. "You will meet le Duc de la Mer-Herbeux shortly. Aside from private taste, he is no more like Achille Cressie than I am like that dreadful Spanish Baronesa with her sixteen lapdogs and her retinue of priests." Again she paused, saying with insight, "In fact, no matter what may be said, I doubt if le Duc de la Mer-Herbeux and Achille Cressie are very much alike
even
in matters of their private taste."

Madelaine gazed out the window, remarking to the air, "I have often thought, dearest aunt, that even among well- married couples, great diversity exists."

La Comtesse nodded with more emphasis than she knew. "Well, marriage is a special matter, is it not? I know that if Mer-Herbeux were looking for a wife and I were free, I would be delighted to entertain his suit." She encountered a shocked look from her niece and went on, "I assure you, he would make a delightful husband. He is a good friend, most charming, and sincere in his affection. Of how many men may one say that? And if he mislikes women in one sense, well, there are many men who do not keep company with their wives. Is another man so much worse than a score of mistresses?"

"But why marry at all? If Achille Cressie does not want his wife, why does he... ?" Madelaine had taken one of the lemon-curd pastries, but had set it aside.

"We all must marry, my dear. Unless there is genuine disgust, and even
then
I have known instances . .. Where monies and estates are involved, marriage is the favored contract. In such circumstances, affection may count for very little." There was a harshness in her voice now, and an expression in her eyes that might have alarmed her niece had it lasted longer. "My dear, marriage is the way of the world. Men may avoid it if they are younger sons, but women can be wives, or nuns, or courtesans, or they become an unwelcome burden. Or," she added with a shaky laugh, "they can become aunts."

Madelaine was staring down at the pared apple lying on her plate. "A bleak picture, aunt."

"Oh, heavens," Claudia d'Argenlac said, mocking her own plight. "Now you will think me a martyr, and I am no such thing. Come, Madelaine," she said in a rallying tone, "there is more to life than one's husband. And to be sure, it would be wearisome having them always fawning after us." She motioned for more chocolate, and acknowledged the service gracefully.

Madelaine realized that the subject had been closed, but she was still curious. "Aunt, why do you tell me about those men?"

La Comtesse lifted her brows. "You were much with Bellefont last night, and I did not want you to set too much store by his attentions."

"Is he one?" she asked in disbelief, and the little knife clattered against the fine china of her plate.

"There are rumors. And the company he keeps is not the best." La Comtesse drank the last of her chocolate and reached for an orange in the fruit bowl. "Also, he might not be an acceptable suitor in your father's eyes, even if he wanted to wed you. He is much too close to Beauvrai and his set."

"Beauvrai?" Madelaine sliced off a bit of apple and nibbled at it thoughtfully. "Is that the ridiculous old man in the dreadful wig? The one with le Baron de les Radeux?"

"You met de les Radeux?" her aunt asked quickly.

"While you were in the card room. De Bellefont introduced us, and I danced with him. He dances very well."

"Did you meet Beauvrai?" La Comtesse realized that this would never do. She had given her brother her word that she would not allow Madelaine to associate with any of Beauvrai's set, and now she had discovered that before Madelaine had been in Paris a week, she had been dancing with Beauvrai's nephew.

Madelaine sensed that her aunt was upset. "De les Radeux pointed him out to me as his uncle. He said that he had not been much in society for the last several years, which explains his odd appearance."

La Comtesse tapped her foot impatiently. "Paulin," she said to her lackey, "I wish you will find out if my niece's tea is ready, and if it is, that you will bring it to her." She nodded to her lackey as he left the room. "I do not want to say this where servants can hear. You must have nothing to do with Beauvrai, my dear. Nothing whatsoever. He is your father's sworn enemy. He may look the fool, but he is Saint Sebastien's crony, and there is no worse company to keep."

Madelaine's eyes were very wide. "I did not mean..."

Her aunt continued. "Some years ago, before you were born, there was a dreadful scandal. It was quickly hushed up, for it touched on high places. But at the time, we were all terrified. That was one of the reasons your father left court."

"I
knew
it." Madelaine leaned forward, and the lace fichu on her bosom rose and fell with her excited breath, and where it fanned out in a small ruff to frame her face, it felt suddenly tight. "I knew there was some reason for all this. My father has always said that he grew tired of the sordid venality of the court, but I knew there was something more."

La Comtesse had some difficulty as she went on. "You have heard of the old King's mistress, Montespan?... And the accusations of her involvement with certain witches and poisoners?... There were several executions, unofficial, of course... At the time, talk of Black Masses was rife, may God protect us"—she crossed herself—"and in the end, Montespan fell from favor, and in time became most religious, so they say. But there was talk that it was not over, that there were still those who devotedly worshiped Satan at court. Certain accusations were made, twenty years ago, about Beauvrai and Saint Sebastien. Your father, along with a dozen or so other young men, was implicated, but he left the court, and there was no further action taken in his case...." She looked up as the lackey came in.

"The tea, Madame," Paulin said as he set an English crockery pot on the table. "Will Mademoiselle want milk, as the English do?" he asked in a tone that suggested he thought milk in tea was one of the more disgusting perversions.

"Chinese tea is best taken plain," Madelaine said with awful hauteur. "But thank you."

Paulin bowed and drew back to his place by the door.

It took Madelaine a moment to make a recovery, and she masked this well by pouring tea for herself. When she spoke again, her tone was light. "Gossip is always diverting, aunt. But I can understand why you want me to behave so that I do not give rise to any."

"Good girl," her aunt said. Her appreciation of Madelaine's wits deepened. In spite of her youth, Madelaine was neither foolish nor naive. "I knew you would understand."

As she finished her lemon-curd pastry, Madelaine looked up again. "Tell me about Saint-Germain."

Glad to be on safe ground again, la Comtesse laughed. "Has he captivated you as well? I warn you that many another has come to grief over him."

Madelaine drank her tea thoughtfully. "I have heard he has no mistress. Is he as the other men you warned me of?"

"Not to my knowledge. No, that is not what I mean in his case." She ate another section of her orange. "We are all in raptures over him, of course. Such address, such wit. You must hear the enchanting tales he tells at supper. And those eyes. Most of us would sell our soul for such eyes."

"He did not join us at supper last night," Madelaine pointed out as she poured more tea.

"Oh, as to that, he does not eat with the others. I have seen him several times at dinners, but I have yet to see him touch either food or drink. I am sure it is part of the aura of mystery with which he surrounds himself. He has assured me that he sups in private." Quite suddenly she laughed, and the sound was as warm and as free as the laughter of a happy child. "It is always amusing to have a man like that paying court to one. The only mistake is to assume he is serious. Pray do not dwell too much on the pretty things he says."

"Then I should not believe the compliments he gave me?" Madelaine could not quite hide the hurt she felt. Saint- Germain's words had been so delightful, so very much what she had wanted most to hear.

"Well, no," la Comtesse said kindly. "His compliments are genuine. But it would be foolish to read into them more than what they are. After all, no one knows for sure who he is. It is lowering to think that in spite of all, Beauvrai might be right, and the man turn out to be a charlatan."

Madelaine sipped at her tea, her eyes far away. "But he is a Comte. Everyone says so."

"Ah." Her aunt nodded wisely. "But that is because
he
says so, and he has the manner and the jewels to back it up. You must see the carriage he drives—perfection! And his four lackeys wear lacings of gold on their snuff-colored clothes. I have never seen Saint-Germain wear the same waistcoat twice, and most of them have been embroidered silk. Obviously, whoever he is, he is fabulously wealthy. His diamond shoe buckles made me blink the first time I saw them." She finished her orange. "By all means, enjoy his attentions. It does you a great deal of good to be seen with him, for he is very much the rage just now. But do not set too much store by his dancing attendance on you."

Madelaine made a moue of disappointment. "Very well. But it is a shame such a splendid man should be an impostor."

"I did not say that he was—just that he might be. To be sure," she went on after a moment's hesitation, "he claims absolutely no one as kin, which is strange. Everyone must have relatives."

Madelaine frowned. "No one?"

"No one," her aunt announced. "And he is a very rich man, my dear. Rich men
always
have relatives." She pulled at the linen napkin in her lap. "Of course, he is not French, but one would think that someone would have encountered his family somewhere, but no one has, that I know of."

"Where is he from?" Madelaine poured more tea and offered some to la Comtesse.

"No, but thank you, my dear. I cannot abide tea." She brought her mind back to the matter at hand. 'That is something else no one seems to know. He has been everywhere, that is certain. His command of languages amazes us all— he has Russian and Arabic as well as all the European tongues. There are some who say he is a sea captain or a merchant." She paused again, obviously still puzzled. "He may be that, of course, but I will wager my eyes and largest jewels that he did not get that manner on the deck of a ship."

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