He stopped dead, hand clutching a furry body.

‘What? You’ve seen him?’

She shook her head, and setting down her empty glass, rang the bell for her maid.

‘No, but I’ve heard the same from two people.’

‘Asking for me by name?’ Rakoczy’s heart beat faster.

‘Monsieur le Comte St Germain. That is you?’ She asked with no more than mild interest; false names were common in her business.

He nodded, mouth suddenly too dry to speak, and pulled the rat from the sack. It squirmed suddenly in his hand, and a piercing pain in his thumb made him hurl the rodent away.

‘Sacrebleu! It bit me!’

The rat, dazed by impact, staggered drunkenly across the floor toward Leopold, whose tongue began to flicker faster. Fabienne, though, uttered a sound of disgust and threw a silver-backed hairbrush at the rat. Startled by the sudden clatter, the rat leapt convulsively into the air, landed on and raced directly over the snake’s astonished head, disappearing through the door into the foyer, where – by the resultant scream – it evidently encountered the maid before making its ultimate escape into the street.

‘Jésus Marie,’ Madame Fabienne said, piously crossing herself. ‘A miraculous resurrection. Two months past Easter, too.’

It was a smooth passage; the shore of France came into sight just after dawn next day. Joan saw it, a low smudge of dark green on the horizon, and felt a little thrill at the sight, in spite of her tiredness.

She hadn’t slept, though she’d reluctantly gone below after nightfall, there to wrap herself in her cloak and shawl, trying not to look at the young man with the shadow on his face. She’d lain all night, listening to the snores and groans of her fellow-passengers, praying doggedly and wondering in despair whether prayer was the only thing she could do to help.

She often wondered whether it was because of her name. She’d been proud of her name when she was small; it was a heroic name, a saint’s name, but also a warrior’s name. Her mother’d told her that, often and often. She didn’t think her mother had considered that the name might also be haunted.

Surely it didn’t happen to everyone named Joan, though, did it? She wished she knew another Joan to ask. Because if it did happen to them all, the others would be keeping it quiet, just like she did.

You just didn’t go round telling people that you heard voices that weren’t there. Still less, that you saw things that weren’t there, either. You just didn’t.

She’d heard of a seer, of course; everyone in the Highlands had. And nearly everyone she knew at least claimed to have seen the odd fetch or had a premonition that Angus MacWheen was dead when he didn’t come home that time last winter. The fact that Angus MacWheen was a filthy auld drunkard and so yellow and crazed that it was heads or tails whether he’d die on any particular day, let alone when it got cold enough that the loch froze, didn’t come into it.

But she’d never met a seer; there was the rub. How did you get into the way of it? Did you just tell folk, ‘Here’s a thing . . . I’m a seer,’ and they’d nod and say, ‘Oh, aye, of course; what’s like to happen to me next Tuesday?’ More important, though, how the devil—

‘Ow!’ She’d bitten her tongue fiercely as penance for the inadvertent blasphemy, and clapped a hand to her mouth.

‘What is it?’ said a concerned voice behind her. ‘Are ye hurt, Miss MacKimmie? Er . . . Sister Gregory, I mean?’

‘Mm! No. No, I justh . . . bit my tongue.’ She turned to Michael Murray, gingerly touching the injured tongue to the roof of her mouth.

‘Well, that happens when ye talk to yourself.’ He took the cork from a bottle he was carrying and held the bottle out to her. ‘Here, wash your mouth wi’ that; it’ll help.’

She took a large mouthful and swirled it round; it burned the bitten place, but not badly, and she swallowed, as slowly as possible, to make it last.

‘Jesus, Mary, and Bride,’ she breathed. ‘Is that wine?’ The taste in her mouth bore some faint kinship with the liquid she knew as wine – just like apples bore some resemblance to horse turds.

‘Aye, it is pretty good,’ he said modestly. ‘German. Umm . . . have a wee nip more?’

She didn’t argue, and sipped happily, barely listening to his talk, telling about the wine, what it was called, how they made it in Germany, where he got it . . . on and on. Finally she came to herself enough to remember her manners, though, and reluctantly handed back the bottle, now half-empty.

‘I thank ye, sir,’ she said primly. ‘’Twas kind of ye. Ye needna waste your time in bearing me company, though; I shall be well enough alone.’

‘Aye, well . . . it’s no really for your sake,’ he said, and took a reasonable swallow himself. ‘It’s mine.’

She blinked against the wind. He was flushed, but not from drink or wind, she thought.

She managed a faint interrogative, ‘Ah . . . ?’

‘Well, what I want to ask,’ he blurted, and looked away, cheekbones burning red. ‘Will ye pray for me? Sister? And my— my wife. The repose of— of—’

‘Oh!’ she said, mortified that she’d been so taken up with her own worries as not to have seen his distress. Think you’re a seer, dear Lord, ye dinna see what’s under your neb; you’re no but a fool, and a selfish fool at that. She put her hand over his where it lay on the rail and squeezed tight, trying to channel some sense of God’s goodness into his flesh.

‘To be sure I will!’ she said. ‘I’ll remember ye at every Mass, I swear it!’ She wondered briefly whether it was proper to swear to something like that, but after all . . . ‘And your poor wife’s soul, of course I will! What . . . er . . . what was her name? So as I’ll know what to say when I pray for her,’ she explained hurriedly, seeing his eyes narrow with pain.

‘Lilliane,’ he said, so softly that she barely heard him over the wind. ‘I called her Lillie.’

‘Lilliane,’ she repeated carefully, trying to form the syllables like he did. It was a soft, lovely name, she thought, slipping like water over the rocks at the top of a burn. You’ll never see a burn again, she thought with a sudden pang, but dismissed this, turning her face toward the growing shore of France. ‘I’ll remember.’

br />

He stopped dead, hand clutching a furry body.

‘What? You’ve seen him?’

She shook her head, and setting down her empty glass, rang the bell for her maid.

‘No, but I’ve heard the same from two people.’

‘Asking for me by name?’ Rakoczy’s heart beat faster.

‘Monsieur le Comte St Germain. That is you?’ She asked with no more than mild interest; false names were common in her business.

He nodded, mouth suddenly too dry to speak, and pulled the rat from the sack. It squirmed suddenly in his hand, and a piercing pain in his thumb made him hurl the rodent away.

‘Sacrebleu! It bit me!’

The rat, dazed by impact, staggered drunkenly across the floor toward Leopold, whose tongue began to flicker faster. Fabienne, though, uttered a sound of disgust and threw a silver-backed hairbrush at the rat. Startled by the sudden clatter, the rat leapt convulsively into the air, landed on and raced directly over the snake’s astonished head, disappearing through the door into the foyer, where – by the resultant scream – it evidently encountered the maid before making its ultimate escape into the street.

‘Jésus Marie,’ Madame Fabienne said, piously crossing herself. ‘A miraculous resurrection. Two months past Easter, too.’

It was a smooth passage; the shore of France came into sight just after dawn next day. Joan saw it, a low smudge of dark green on the horizon, and felt a little thrill at the sight, in spite of her tiredness.

She hadn’t slept, though she’d reluctantly gone below after nightfall, there to wrap herself in her cloak and shawl, trying not to look at the young man with the shadow on his face. She’d lain all night, listening to the snores and groans of her fellow-passengers, praying doggedly and wondering in despair whether prayer was the only thing she could do to help.

She often wondered whether it was because of her name. She’d been proud of her name when she was small; it was a heroic name, a saint’s name, but also a warrior’s name. Her mother’d told her that, often and often. She didn’t think her mother had considered that the name might also be haunted.

Surely it didn’t happen to everyone named Joan, though, did it? She wished she knew another Joan to ask. Because if it did happen to them all, the others would be keeping it quiet, just like she did.

You just didn’t go round telling people that you heard voices that weren’t there. Still less, that you saw things that weren’t there, either. You just didn’t.

She’d heard of a seer, of course; everyone in the Highlands had. And nearly everyone she knew at least claimed to have seen the odd fetch or had a premonition that Angus MacWheen was dead when he didn’t come home that time last winter. The fact that Angus MacWheen was a filthy auld drunkard and so yellow and crazed that it was heads or tails whether he’d die on any particular day, let alone when it got cold enough that the loch froze, didn’t come into it.

But she’d never met a seer; there was the rub. How did you get into the way of it? Did you just tell folk, ‘Here’s a thing . . . I’m a seer,’ and they’d nod and say, ‘Oh, aye, of course; what’s like to happen to me next Tuesday?’ More important, though, how the devil—

‘Ow!’ She’d bitten her tongue fiercely as penance for the inadvertent blasphemy, and clapped a hand to her mouth.

‘What is it?’ said a concerned voice behind her. ‘Are ye hurt, Miss MacKimmie? Er . . . Sister Gregory, I mean?’

‘Mm! No. No, I justh . . . bit my tongue.’ She turned to Michael Murray, gingerly touching the injured tongue to the roof of her mouth.

‘Well, that happens when ye talk to yourself.’ He took the cork from a bottle he was carrying and held the bottle out to her. ‘Here, wash your mouth wi’ that; it’ll help.’

She took a large mouthful and swirled it round; it burned the bitten place, but not badly, and she swallowed, as slowly as possible, to make it last.

‘Jesus, Mary, and Bride,’ she breathed. ‘Is that wine?’ The taste in her mouth bore some faint kinship with the liquid she knew as wine – just like apples bore some resemblance to horse turds.

‘Aye, it is pretty good,’ he said modestly. ‘German. Umm . . . have a wee nip more?’

She didn’t argue, and sipped happily, barely listening to his talk, telling about the wine, what it was called, how they made it in Germany, where he got it . . . on and on. Finally she came to herself enough to remember her manners, though, and reluctantly handed back the bottle, now half-empty.

‘I thank ye, sir,’ she said primly. ‘’Twas kind of ye. Ye needna waste your time in bearing me company, though; I shall be well enough alone.’

‘Aye, well . . . it’s no really for your sake,’ he said, and took a reasonable swallow himself. ‘It’s mine.’

She blinked against the wind. He was flushed, but not from drink or wind, she thought.

She managed a faint interrogative, ‘Ah . . . ?’

‘Well, what I want to ask,’ he blurted, and looked away, cheekbones burning red. ‘Will ye pray for me? Sister? And my— my wife. The repose of— of—’

‘Oh!’ she said, mortified that she’d been so taken up with her own worries as not to have seen his distress. Think you’re a seer, dear Lord, ye dinna see what’s under your neb; you’re no but a fool, and a selfish fool at that. She put her hand over his where it lay on the rail and squeezed tight, trying to channel some sense of God’s goodness into his flesh.

‘To be sure I will!’ she said. ‘I’ll remember ye at every Mass, I swear it!’ She wondered briefly whether it was proper to swear to something like that, but after all . . . ‘And your poor wife’s soul, of course I will! What . . . er . . . what was her name? So as I’ll know what to say when I pray for her,’ she explained hurriedly, seeing his eyes narrow with pain.

‘Lilliane,’ he said, so softly that she barely heard him over the wind. ‘I called her Lillie.’

‘Lilliane,’ she repeated carefully, trying to form the syllables like he did. It was a soft, lovely name, she thought, slipping like water over the rocks at the top of a burn. You’ll never see a burn again, she thought with a sudden pang, but dismissed this, turning her face toward the growing shore of France. ‘I’ll remember.’

He nodded in mute thanks, and they stood for some little while, until she realised that her hand was still resting on his, and drew it back with a jerk. He looked startled, and she blurted – because it was the thing on the top of her mind – ‘What was she like? Your wife?’

The most extraordinary mix of emotions flooded over his face. She couldn’t have said what was uppermost, grief, laughter, or sheer bewilderment, and she realised suddenly just how little of his true mind she’d seen before.

‘She was . . .’ He shrugged, and swallowed. ‘She was my wife,’ he said, very softly. ‘She was my life.’

She should know something comforting to say to him, but she didn’t.

She’s with God? That was the truth, she hoped, and yet clearly to this young man, the only thing that mattered was that his wife was not with him.

‘What happened to her?’ she asked instead, baldly, only because it seemed necessary to say something.

He took a deep breath and seemed to sway a little; he’d finished the rest of the wine, she saw, and took the empty bottle from his hand, tossing it overboard.

‘The influenza. They said it was quick. Didn’t seem quick to me – and yet, it was, I suppose it was. It took two days, and God kens well that I recall every second of those days – yet it seems that I lost her between one heartbeat and the next. And I— I keep lookin’ for her there, in that space between.’

He swallowed.

‘She— she was . . .’ The words ‘with child’ came so quietly that she barely heard them.

‘Oh,’ Joan said softly, very moved. ‘Oh, a chiusle.’ ‘Heart’s blood’, it meant – and what she meant was that his wife had been that to him— dear Lord, she hoped he hadn’t thought she meant— no, he hadn’t, and the tight-wound spring in her backbone relaxed a little, seeing the look of gratitude on his face. He did know what she’d meant, and seemed glad that she’d understood.

Blinking, she looked away – and caught sight of the young man with the shadow on him, leaning against the railing a little way down. The breath caught in her throat at sight of him.

The shadow was darker in the morning light. The sun was beginning to warm the deck, frail white clouds swam in the blue of clear French skies, and yet the mist seemed now to swirl and thicken, obscuring the young man’s face, wrapping round his shoulders like a shawl.

Dear Lord, tell me what to do! Her body jerked, wanting to go to the young man, speak to him. But say what? You’re in danger, be careful? He’d think she was mad. And if the danger was a thing he couldn’t help, like wee Ronnie and the ox, what difference might her speaking make?

She was dimly aware of Michael staring at her, curious. He said something to her, but she wasn’t listening, listening hard instead inside her head. Where were the damned voices when you bloody needed one?

But the voices were stubbornly silent, and she turned to Michael, the muscles of her arm jumping, she’d held so tight to the ship’s rigging.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I wasna listening properly. I just— thought of something.’

‘If it’s a thing I can help ye with, Sister, ye’ve only to ask,’ he said, smiling faintly. ‘Oh! And speak of that, I meant to say – I said to your mam, if she liked to write to you in care of Fraser et Cie, I’d see to it that ye got the letters.’ He shrugged, one-shouldered. ‘I dinna ken what the rules are at the convent, aye? About getting letters from outside.’

Joan didn’t know that, either, and had worried about it. She was so relieved to hear this that a huge smile split her face.

‘Oh, it’s that kind of ye!’ she said. ‘And if I could – maybe write back . . . ?’

He smiled, the marks of grief easing in his pleasure at doing her a service.

‘Anytime,’ he assured her. ‘I’ll see to it. Perhaps I could—’

A ragged shriek cut through the air, and Joan glanced up, startled, thinking it one of the sea-birds that had come out from shore to wheel round the ship. But it wasn’t. It was the young man, standing on the rail, one hand on the rigging, and before she could so much as draw breath, he let go and was gone.

Paris

Michael was worried for Joan; she sat slumped in the coach, not bothering to look out of the window, until a faint waft of the spring breeze touched her face. The smell was so astonishing that it drew her out of the shell of shocked misery in which she had travelled from the docks.

‘Mother o’ God!’ she said, clapping a hand to her nose. ‘What is that?’

Michael dug in his pocket and pulled out the grubby rag of his handkerchief, looking dubiously at it.

‘It’s the public cemeteries. I’m sorry, I didna think—’

‘Moran taing.’ She seized the damp cloth from him and held it over her face, not caring. ‘Do the French not bury folk in their cemeteries?’ Because from the smell, a thousand corpses had been thrown out on wet ground and left to rot, and the sight of darting, squabbling flocks of black corbies in the distance did nothing to correct this impression.

‘They do.’ Michael felt exhausted – it had been a terrible morning – but struggled to pull himself together. ‘It’s all marshland over there, though; even coffins buried deep – and most of them aren’t – work their way through the ground in a few months. When there’s a flood – and there’s a flood whenever it rains – what’s left of the coffins falls apart, and . . .’ He swallowed, just as pleased that he’d not eaten any breakfast.

‘There’s talk of maybe moving the bones at least, putting them in an ossuary, they call it. There are mine workings, old ones, outside the city – over there – ’ he pointed with his chin, ‘and perhaps . . . but they havena done anything about it yet,’ he added in a rush, pinching his nose fast to get a breath in through his mouth. It didn’t matter whether you breathed through your nose or your mouth, though; the air was thick enough to taste.

She looked as ill as he felt, or maybe worse, her face the colour of spoilt custard. She’d vomited when the crew had finally pulled the suicide aboard, pouring grey water and slimed with the seaweed that had wrapped round his legs and drowned him. There were still traces of sick down her front, and her dark hair was lank and damp, straggling out from under her cap. She hadn’t slept at all, of course – neither had he.

He couldn’t take her to the convent in this condition. The nuns maybe wouldn’t mind, but she would. He stretched up and rapped on the ceiling of the carriage.

‘Monsieur?’

‘Au château, vite!’

He’d take her to his house, first. It wasn’t much out of the way, and the convent wasn’t expecting her at any particular day or hour. She could wash, have something to eat, and put herself to rights. And if it saved him from walking into his house alone, well, they did say a kind deed carried its own reward.

By the time they’d reached the Avenue Trémoulins, Joan had forgotten – partly – her various reasons for distress, in the sheer excitement of being in Paris. She had never seen so many people in one place at the same time – and that was only the folk coming out of Mass at a parish church! While round the corner, a pavement of fitted stones stretched wider than the whole River Ness, and those stones covered from one side to the other in barrows and wagons and stalls, rioting with fruit and vegetables and flowers and fish and meat . . . she’d given Michael back his filthy handkerchief and was panting like a dog, turning her face to and fro, trying to draw all the wonderful smells into herself at once.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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