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Authors: Evelyn Anthony

The Heiress

BOOK: The Heiress
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The Heiress

Evelyn Anthony

Also by Evelyn Anthony

Anne Boleyn

Charles the King

Clandara

Curse Not the King

Elizabeth

Imperial Highness

Victoria

One

‘My hand, I think!'

The Marquis de Charlot threw his cards down on the table and looked in triumph at the man sitting opposite to him. The game had begun in noisy banter, but as it progressed and the Marquis's winnings mounted, silence grew between the players and the spectators, because the Marquis was a rich man and his opponent could not afford to lose as he had been doing. Everyone gambled at Versailles, following the example of the King Louis XV and his mistress Madame Dubarry, and it was nothing for men to be ruined after a night's play. But it was quite another thing to take ten thousand louis from a man like Charles Macdonald. De Charlot had been drinking heavily, and the wine had made him reckless. He leant across the table and tapped his cards.

‘You owe me ten thousand louis, Monsieur,' he said.

The young man sitting opposite to him sipped his wine before answering. His expression was rather bored, but the pale green eyes glinted dangerously.

‘So it seems,' he said. ‘It's been a good night's play, my dear Marquis. I congratulate you.'

‘I warned you to stop two hours ago.' The Vicomte de Renouille was one of the few friends that Charles Macdonald had at Versailles, principally because he was too stupid and good-natured to quarrel with him. He tapped Charles's shoulder. ‘Never go on when the luck's against you,' he said. Macdonald brushed his hand away.

‘Be a good fellow and keep your opinions to yourself,' he said softly. Ten thousand louis. He did not possess a quarter of that sum. He looked into the flushed face of de Charlot and smiled, a slow, lazy smile that made his thin, handsome face look strangely cat-like. The smile did not reach his eyes.

‘I congratulate you,' he said. ‘But you appreciate that you will have to wait—'

‘Wait! Are you saying that you can't pay?' the Marquis demanded. He stood up and the table rocked.

‘Steady,' Charles Macdonald said. ‘You'll knock the table over. I knew fortune favoured fools, but it's the first time I've seen her smile on a drunkard too.'

‘Ah,' de Charlot sneered, ‘I know what you're about, Monsieur. You're hoping to provoke me so you won't have to pay. But not this time, my friend. We played fair and you lost. I want my winnings!'

‘And I've told you, you'll have to wait. I'll pay in due course. That will have to satisfy you.'

‘You'll pay within three days at the latest,' de Charlot shouted, and now both men were standing, glaring at each other. ‘I know your reputation, Monsieur. You run up debts and then kill the man you owe them to—but you won't play your tricks with me. I'll go to the King; my father's well in favour, you know. He'll have a word in His Majesty's ear about these Scottish exiles who live at Court, and how they could do with a lesson …'

‘Are you threatening me?' Charles asked him quietly. ‘Be careful, I warn you.'

‘And I warn you,' de Charlot said. ‘You'll pay this debt within three days or by God I'll use my influence to have you sent to the Bastille until it's settled.'

‘Make one complaint against me to anyone outside this room,' Charles Macdonald said, ‘and I promise you I'll kill you. As I think of it, I'll kill you if you dare even mention the matter again! Is that clear, Monsieur? Annoy me and I'll cut your throat!'

The Comte stared at him and his flushed face began to turn pale. He addressed himself to the others in the room.

‘Gentlemen! I call on you to witness this: Monsieur Macdonald owes me ten thousand louis. He has refused to pay and threatened to murder me! By God,' he spat at Charles, ‘by God you'll hear more of this!'

He pushed his way past them and went out; some of his steadiness deserted him and he stumbled at the door. De Renouille turned to Charles. ‘You shouldn't have threatened him,' he said. ‘He's a vindictive swine and a coward as well, but his family's got the King's ear. He'll have you arrested if you don't produce the money. I only wish I could oblige you, my dear friend, but my own debts are as much as I can manage.… Is there anywhere you can borrow?'

Charles looked at him and smiled. ‘Yes,' he said, ‘there is, but I'm damned if I'll ask them.' He bowed to the captain of cavalry who was the last spectator left, and he and de Renouille began the long walk down the corridors of Versailles Palace towards their quarters. These quarters, in common with most of the space available in the enormous Palace, were no better than a corner in some attic; among the most privileged in the thronging Court were Charles's own parents, Sir James and Lady Katharine Macdonald of Dundrenan, who actually enjoyed the privacy of one small room. The Marquis de Charlot's jibe about the Scottish exiles was true indeed of most of the families living in France nearly thirty years after the last Highland rising for Bonnie Prince Charlie. Many were mercenaries and adventurers, living on their wits and on the charity of any rich nobleman who could be persuaded to take an interest in them. But the Macdonalds had found favour with the mean and capricious Louis XV; Sir James had fought in the armies of France and distinguished himself in the Seven Years War against England, and his wife had treated Madame Dubarry with courtesy in the days when she was no more than a new recruit to the King's collection of casual mistresses and no one imagined her sway would last more than a few weeks. That mistake cost many their fortunes and their favour at Court; there was no more powerful person in the whole of France than the vulgar little courtesan who was Queen in all but name.

‘What are you going to do?' de Renouille asked Charles.

‘Wait,' was the answer. ‘I'll certainly kill him if he goes sniffing round the King. As for the money—I'll come by it somehow. Don't concern yourself, my friend; I'll survive this little awkwardness.'

‘Why not go to your parents?' de Renouille asked. ‘Surely in this case you can forget your pride.… The Bastille is a damned uncomfortable place. And damned difficult to get out of once you're inside.'

‘I've never asked my parents for anything,' Charles retorted. ‘And I'll see myself in hell before I do. They've paid debts for me before, but never because I asked their help or wanted it. They can't have me jeopardizing their position. They've told me so over and over again. And I've told them, let me settle my own affairs in my own way.'

‘You came very close when you killed that fellow Augustin last year. Your parents are right, Charles. If you fight de Charlot and kill him, even your family won't survive the scandal.'

‘Oh yes, they will.' He paused and looked at the Vicomte, and laughed mockingly.

‘They'll survive anything, even having me as their only son. But I must admit it's tried them. By God, it's really tried them to the limit! Good night, my dear fellow. I see my miserable hole in the wall is near.'

‘Good night.' De Renouille hesitated awkwardly. They enjoyed a spasmodic friendship, of which the feeling was all on the younger, slower man's side, for the ruthless, reckless Scot of whom he was even a little afraid in his heart. He tried once more.

‘You're sure you won't reconsider?… You won't go to your father?'

‘I won't,' Charles said softly. ‘And unless you want a sudden end to our association, my dear Vicomte, you won't refer to it again. Good night!'

Charles Macdonald slept soundly that night, far less troubled in mind than the Marquis de Charlot, who woke sweating after a nightmare in which he had met the Macdonald coming at him with a drawn sword. Charles's reputation as a duellist was only equalled by his prowess as a seducer. He was generally disliked by men, who treated him with caution, and pursued by women, all of whom imagined themselves capable of arousing his love, and not one of whom had survived the encounter without suffering pain and humiliation in the end. His enemies said that he hated women; a very few observers of the microcosm of Court life said that it was because his mother hated him.

Twenty-four hours after the game ended in the little card-room the story of de Charlot's threat was all over the Palace, and by the end of the day Charles received a message to go to his parents' apartment immediately.

‘Monsiuer le Chevalier, your son!' Sir James Macdonald of Dundrenan, Chevalier of France and assistant to the Minister of War, took his wife's hand in his and pressed it gently. He looked up at her, into the lovely face which had changed so little after nearly thirty years of marriage, and said quietly: ‘Try to be patient with him, Katharine. He'll agree.'

‘I don't want to speak to him at all; this last episode is too much to forgive!'

‘Remember,' her husband said, ‘we have an object in view!' He turned to the lackey.

‘Admit Monsieur Charles.'

Their only son had been waiting in the ante-room for nearly twenty minutes while his parents discussed his latest indiscretion. They were used to women; he could remember the disgust and anger on his mother's face when she discovered that two of her little chambermaids were pregnant by him at the same time, and he was only just sixteen himself. He had accepted her reproaches in the same mood in which he waited for them now: bored, impenitent and mocking.

He took out his watch and swore. Twenty minutes; it was his mother, of course, who kept him waiting as if he were a lackey. It was just another way of showing how she hated him. It almost made him laugh when he thought of how angry she would be when she knew the exact amount of money that he owed de Charlot.… They had paid his debts before, grudgingly and angrily comparing his extravagance with the probity of other people's sons, and he had taken their help and shrugged off their reproaches. He had never asked for money, it was always his father who stepped in and paid his losses rather than let Charles settle the debt by picking a quarrel with his creditor and risking his life in a duel. They were still exiles, dependent upon the favour of the French monarch for their existence; they could not afford the scandal of their reprobate son killing some high-born gambling companion whose family would complain to the King.

‘Monsieur Charles, will you go in please, Monsieur and Madame will see you now.'

Charles walked past the servant without looking at him; he never looked at servants; even when he kicked his own valet for some fault, he hardly bothered to glance at him.

‘My dear father; Madame my mother.' He bowed low to both his parents. They were standing side by side and, as usual, his mother was holding his father's arm. Their fidelity to each other bored their son; he was only more bored by people who asked him if the story of their escape and marriage were really true … Had all members of his mother's family perished in the attack the Macdonalds led upon their castle and had his father actually come on her with a drawn sword and then eloped with her instead?…

Dear God, he thought, how smug and virtuous they were. He met his mother's eye, that blue cold eye which had never once looked on him with maternal feeling. He rather admired her for that. Whatever she was, his mother was no fool. It was his father who spoke to him.

‘I suppose you know why we've sent for you?'

‘I can guess. You've heard the rumours about that miserable de Charlot and myself, and not unnaturally you want to know how much?'

Sir James's very dark eyes narrowed angrily.

‘No, my son,' he said. ‘We
know
how much you owe the Marquis de Charlot. I have spoken to him. He also informed me today that you had refused to pay him. Is that correct?'

‘It is,' Charles answered coolly. ‘Since I had no money to my credit, and other—er—rather pressing bills, I couldn't do anything else. I did ask him to wait, though.'

‘Not according to Monsieur de Charlot,' his father cut in. ‘I understood from him that you had threatened to kill him if he pressed you for the money. He came to me in some alarm.'

Charles laughed. ‘The miserable little cur! I daresay he
was
alarmed when he was sober. I told him if he pestered me for a few paltry thousands I'd take him out and cut his throat!' There was no grin on his face now; his father appreciated only too well why the Marquis de Charlot had sought him out, stuttering with fright and indignation, and ended the interview by repeating his threat to complain to the King.

‘Did he tell you how much I owed him?'

‘Ten thousand louis!' Lady Katharine spoke for the first time. ‘Ten thousand louis lost in a night at faro. Do you know how much your father and I possessed to live on in our first years here? Less than half that! And when you lose it you behave like some common cut-throat and threaten the man. James, tell him what we've decided and let's get the business over before I lose my temper with him.'

BOOK: The Heiress
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