‘I want— I need to talk to her. Now.’

The doctor opened his mouth in automatic protest, but then glanced thoughtfully over his shoulder.

‘Well . . . you must be careful not to—’ But Michael was already inside the bedroom, standing by the bed.

She was pale. They had always been pale, Lillie and Léonie, with the soft glow of cream and marble. This was the paleness of a frog’s belly, of a rotting fish, blanched on the shore.

Her eyes were ringed with black, sunk in her head. They rested on his face, flat, expressionless, as still as the ringless hands that lay limp on the coverlet.

‘Who?’ he said quietly. ‘Charles?’

‘Yes.’ Her voice was as dull as her eyes, and he wondered whether the doctor had drugged her.

‘Was it his idea – to try to foist the child off on me? Or yours?’

She did look away then, and her throat moved.

‘His.’ The eyes came back to him. ‘I didn’t want to, Michel. Not – not that I find you disgusting, not that . . .’

‘Merci,’ he muttered, but she went on, disregarding him.

‘You were Lillie’s husband. I didn’t envy her you,’ she said frankly, ‘but I envied what you had together. It couldn’t be like that between you and me, and I didn’t like betraying her. But—’ her lips, already pale, compressed to invisibility, ‘I didn’t have much choice.’

He was obliged to admit that she hadn’t. Charles couldn’t marry her; he had a wife – and children. Bearing an illegitimate child was not a fatal scandal in high Court circles, but the Galantines were of the emerging bourgeoisie, where respectability counted for almost as much as money. Finding herself pregnant, she would have had two alternatives: find a complaisant husband quickly, or . . . he tried not to see that one of her hands rested lightly across the slight swell of her stomach.

The child . . . He wondered what he would have done, had she come to him and told him the truth, if she had asked him to marry her for the sake of the child. But she hadn’t. And she wasn’t asking now. He couldn’t bring himself to offer.

It would be best – or at least easiest – were she to lose the child. And she might yet.

‘I couldn’t wait, you see,’ she said, as though continuing a conversation. ‘I would have tried to find someone else, but I thought she knew. She’d tell you as soon as she could manage to see you. So I had to, you see, before you found out.’

‘She? Who? Tell me what?’

‘The nun,’ Léonie said, and sighed deeply, as though losing interest. ‘She saw me in the market, and rushed up to me. She said she had to talk to you – that she had something important to tell you. I saw her look into my basket, though, and her face . . . thought she must realise . . .’

Her eyelids were fluttering, whether from drugs or fatigue. She smiled faintly, but not at him; she seemed to be looking at something a long way off.

‘So funny,’ she murmured. ‘Charles said it would solve everything, that the comte would pay him such a lot for her, it would solve everything. But how can you solve a baby?’

Michael jerked as though her words had stabbed him.

‘What? Pay for whom?’

‘The nun. I told Charles that you woke, and it wouldn’t work, but he said it didn’t matter, because the comte would pay him for finding the nun, and—’

He grabbed her by the shoulders.

‘The nun? Sister Joan? What do you mean, pay for her? What did Charles tell you?’

She made a whiny sound of protest. Michael wanted to shake her hard enough to break her neck, but forced himself to withdraw his hand. She settled into the pillow like a bladder losing air, flattening under the bedclothes. Her eyes were closed, but he bent close, speaking directly into her ear.

‘This comte, Léonie. What is his name? Tell me his name.’

A faint frown rippled the flesh of her brow, then passed.

‘St Germain,’ she murmured, scarcely loud enough to be heard. ‘The Comte St Germain.’

Michael went instantly to Rosenwald, and by dint of badgering and the promise of extra payment, got him to finish the engraving on the chalice at once. He waited impatiently while it was done, and scarcely waiting for the cup and paten to be wrapped in brown paper, flung money to the goldsmith and made for the Convent des Anges, almost running.

With great difficulty, he restrained himself while making the presentation of the chalice, and with great humility, inquired whether he might ask the great favour of seeing Sister Gregory, that he might convey a message to her from her family in the Highlands. Sister Eustacia looked surprised and somewhat disapproving – postulants were not normally permitted visits – but after all . . . in view of Monsieur Murray’s and Monsieur Fraser’s great generosity to the convent . . . perhaps just a few moments, in the visitor’s parlour, and in the presence of Sister herself . . .

Michael turned, and blinked once, his mouth opening a little. He looked shocked. Did she look so different in her robe and veil?

‘It’s me,’ Joan said, and tried to smile reassuringly. ‘I mean . . . still me.’

His eyes fixed on her face, and he let out a deep breath and smiled, like she’d been lost and he’d found her again.

‘Aye, so it is,’ he said softly. ‘I was afraid it was Sister Gregory. I mean, the . . . er . . .’ He made a sketchy, awkward gesture indicating her grey robes and white postulant’s veil.

‘It’s only clothes,’ she said, and put a hand to her chest, defensive.

‘Well, no,’ he said, looking her over carefully, ‘I dinna think it is, quite. It’s more like a soldier’s uniform, no? Ye’re doing your job when ye wear it, and everybody as sees it kens what ye are and knows what ye do.’

Kens what I am. I suppose I should be pleased it doesn’t show, she thought, a little wildly.

‘Well . . . aye, I suppose.’ She fingered the rosary at her belt. She coughed. ‘In a way, at least.’

Ye’ve got to tell him. It wasn’t one of the voices, just the voice of her own conscience, but that was demanding enough. She could feel her heart beating, so hard that she thought the bumping must show through the front of her habit.

He smiled encouragingly at her.

‘Léonie told me ye wanted to see me.’

‘Michael . . . can I tell ye something?’ she blurted. He looked surprised.

‘Well, of course ye can,’ he said. ‘Whyever not?’

br />

‘I want— I need to talk to her. Now.’

The doctor opened his mouth in automatic protest, but then glanced thoughtfully over his shoulder.

‘Well . . . you must be careful not to—’ But Michael was already inside the bedroom, standing by the bed.

She was pale. They had always been pale, Lillie and Léonie, with the soft glow of cream and marble. This was the paleness of a frog’s belly, of a rotting fish, blanched on the shore.

Her eyes were ringed with black, sunk in her head. They rested on his face, flat, expressionless, as still as the ringless hands that lay limp on the coverlet.

‘Who?’ he said quietly. ‘Charles?’

‘Yes.’ Her voice was as dull as her eyes, and he wondered whether the doctor had drugged her.

‘Was it his idea – to try to foist the child off on me? Or yours?’

She did look away then, and her throat moved.

‘His.’ The eyes came back to him. ‘I didn’t want to, Michel. Not – not that I find you disgusting, not that . . .’

‘Merci,’ he muttered, but she went on, disregarding him.

‘You were Lillie’s husband. I didn’t envy her you,’ she said frankly, ‘but I envied what you had together. It couldn’t be like that between you and me, and I didn’t like betraying her. But—’ her lips, already pale, compressed to invisibility, ‘I didn’t have much choice.’

He was obliged to admit that she hadn’t. Charles couldn’t marry her; he had a wife – and children. Bearing an illegitimate child was not a fatal scandal in high Court circles, but the Galantines were of the emerging bourgeoisie, where respectability counted for almost as much as money. Finding herself pregnant, she would have had two alternatives: find a complaisant husband quickly, or . . . he tried not to see that one of her hands rested lightly across the slight swell of her stomach.

The child . . . He wondered what he would have done, had she come to him and told him the truth, if she had asked him to marry her for the sake of the child. But she hadn’t. And she wasn’t asking now. He couldn’t bring himself to offer.

It would be best – or at least easiest – were she to lose the child. And she might yet.

‘I couldn’t wait, you see,’ she said, as though continuing a conversation. ‘I would have tried to find someone else, but I thought she knew. She’d tell you as soon as she could manage to see you. So I had to, you see, before you found out.’

‘She? Who? Tell me what?’

‘The nun,’ Léonie said, and sighed deeply, as though losing interest. ‘She saw me in the market, and rushed up to me. She said she had to talk to you – that she had something important to tell you. I saw her look into my basket, though, and her face . . . thought she must realise . . .’

Her eyelids were fluttering, whether from drugs or fatigue. She smiled faintly, but not at him; she seemed to be looking at something a long way off.

‘So funny,’ she murmured. ‘Charles said it would solve everything, that the comte would pay him such a lot for her, it would solve everything. But how can you solve a baby?’

Michael jerked as though her words had stabbed him.

‘What? Pay for whom?’

‘The nun. I told Charles that you woke, and it wouldn’t work, but he said it didn’t matter, because the comte would pay him for finding the nun, and—’

He grabbed her by the shoulders.

‘The nun? Sister Joan? What do you mean, pay for her? What did Charles tell you?’

She made a whiny sound of protest. Michael wanted to shake her hard enough to break her neck, but forced himself to withdraw his hand. She settled into the pillow like a bladder losing air, flattening under the bedclothes. Her eyes were closed, but he bent close, speaking directly into her ear.

‘This comte, Léonie. What is his name? Tell me his name.’

A faint frown rippled the flesh of her brow, then passed.

‘St Germain,’ she murmured, scarcely loud enough to be heard. ‘The Comte St Germain.’

Michael went instantly to Rosenwald, and by dint of badgering and the promise of extra payment, got him to finish the engraving on the chalice at once. He waited impatiently while it was done, and scarcely waiting for the cup and paten to be wrapped in brown paper, flung money to the goldsmith and made for the Convent des Anges, almost running.

With great difficulty, he restrained himself while making the presentation of the chalice, and with great humility, inquired whether he might ask the great favour of seeing Sister Gregory, that he might convey a message to her from her family in the Highlands. Sister Eustacia looked surprised and somewhat disapproving – postulants were not normally permitted visits – but after all . . . in view of Monsieur Murray’s and Monsieur Fraser’s great generosity to the convent . . . perhaps just a few moments, in the visitor’s parlour, and in the presence of Sister herself . . .

Michael turned, and blinked once, his mouth opening a little. He looked shocked. Did she look so different in her robe and veil?

‘It’s me,’ Joan said, and tried to smile reassuringly. ‘I mean . . . still me.’

His eyes fixed on her face, and he let out a deep breath and smiled, like she’d been lost and he’d found her again.

‘Aye, so it is,’ he said softly. ‘I was afraid it was Sister Gregory. I mean, the . . . er . . .’ He made a sketchy, awkward gesture indicating her grey robes and white postulant’s veil.

‘It’s only clothes,’ she said, and put a hand to her chest, defensive.

‘Well, no,’ he said, looking her over carefully, ‘I dinna think it is, quite. It’s more like a soldier’s uniform, no? Ye’re doing your job when ye wear it, and everybody as sees it kens what ye are and knows what ye do.’

Kens what I am. I suppose I should be pleased it doesn’t show, she thought, a little wildly.

‘Well . . . aye, I suppose.’ She fingered the rosary at her belt. She coughed. ‘In a way, at least.’

Ye’ve got to tell him. It wasn’t one of the voices, just the voice of her own conscience, but that was demanding enough. She could feel her heart beating, so hard that she thought the bumping must show through the front of her habit.

He smiled encouragingly at her.

‘Léonie told me ye wanted to see me.’

‘Michael . . . can I tell ye something?’ she blurted. He looked surprised.

‘Well, of course ye can,’ he said. ‘Whyever not?’

‘Whyever not,’ she said, half under her breath. She glanced over his shoulder, but Sister Eustacia was on the far side of the room, talking to a very young, frightened-looking French girl and her parents.

‘Well, it’s like this, see,’ she said, in a determined voice. ‘I hear voices.’

She stole a look at him, but he didn’t look shocked. Not yet.

‘In my head, I mean.’

‘Aye?’ He looked cautious. ‘Um . . . what do they say, then?’

She realised she was holding her breath, and let a little of it out.

‘Ah . . . different things. But they now and then tell me something’s going to happen. More often, they tell me I should say thus-and-so to someone.’

‘Thus and so,’ he repeated attentively, watching her face. ‘What . . . sort of thus-and-so?’

‘I wasna expecting the Spanish Inquisition,’ she said, a little testily. ‘Does it matter?’

His mouth twitched.

‘Well, I dinna ken, now, do I?’ he pointed out. ‘It might give a clue as to who’s talkin’ to ye, might it not? Or do ye already know that?’

‘No, I don’t,’ she admitted, and felt a sudden lessening of tension. ‘I— I was worrit – a bit – that it might be demons. But it doesna really . . . well, they dinna tell me wicked sorts of things. Just . . . more like, when something’s going to happen to a person. And sometimes it’s no a good thing – but sometimes it is. There was wee Annie MacLaren, her wi’ a big belly by the third month, and by six, lookin’ as though she’d burst, and she was frightened she was goin’ to die come her time, like her ain mother did, wi’ a babe too big to be born – I mean, really frightened, not just like all women are. And I met her by St Ninian’s spring one day, and one of the voices said to me, Tell her it will be as God wills and she will be delivered safely of a son.’

‘And ye did tell her that?’

‘Yes. I didna say how I knew, but I must have sounded like I did know, because her poor face got bright all of a sudden, and she grabbed onto my hands and said, ‘Oh! From your lips to God’s ear!’

‘And was she safely delivered of a son?’

‘Aye – and a daughter, too. It was twins.’ Joan smiled, remembering the glow on Annie’s face.

Michael glanced aside at Sister Eustacia, who was bidding farewell to the new postulant’s family. The girl was white-faced and tears ran down her cheeks, but she clung to Sister Eustacia’s sleeve as though it were a lifeline.

‘I see,’ he said slowly, and looked back at Joan. ‘Is that why— is it the voices told ye to be a nun, then?’

She blinked, surprised by his apparent acceptance of what she’d told him, but more so by the question.

‘Well . . . no. They never did. Ye’d think they would have, wouldn’t ye?’

He smiled a little.

‘Maybe so.’ He coughed, then looked up, a little shyly. ‘It’s no my business, but what did make ye want to be a nun?’

She hesitated, but why not? She’d already told him the hardest bit.

‘Because of the voices. I thought maybe— maybe I wouldna hear them in here. Or . . . if I still did, maybe somebody – a priest, maybe? – could tell me what they were, and what I should do about them.’

Sister Eustacia was comforting the new girl, half-sunk on one knee to bring her big, homely, sweet face close to the girl’s. Michael glanced at them, then back at Joan, one eyebrow raised.

‘I’m guessing ye havena told anyone yet,’ he said. ‘Did ye reckon ye’d practise on me, first?’

Her own mouth twitched.

‘Maybe.’ His eyes were dark, but had a sort of warmth to them, like they drew it from the heat of his hair. She looked down; her hands were pleating the edge of her blouse, which had come untucked. ‘It’s no just that, though.’

He made the sort of noise in his throat that meant, ‘Aye, then, go on.’ Why didn’t French people do like that? she wondered. So much easier. But she pushed the thought aside; she’d made up her mind to tell him, and now was the time to do it.

‘I told ye because— your friend,’ she blurted. ‘The one I met at your house. Monsieur Pépin,’ she added impatiently, when he looked blank.

‘Aye?’ He sounded as baffled as he looked.

‘Aye. When I met him, a voice said, “Tell him not to do it.” And I didn’t – I was frightened.’

‘I would ha’ been a bit disturbed myself,’ he assured her. ‘It didna say what he oughtn’t to do, though?’

She bit her lip.

‘No, it didn’t. And then, two days ago, I saw the man – the comte, Sister Mercy said he was, the Comte St Germain – in the market, and the voice said the same thing, only a good bit more urgent. “Tell him not to do it. Tell him he must not do it!” ’

‘It did?’

‘Aye, and it was verra firm about it. I mean – they are, usually. It’s no just an opinion, take it or leave it. But this one truly meant it.’ She spread her hands, helpless to explain the feeling of dread and urgency.

Michael’s thick red eyebrows drew together.

‘D’ye think it’s the same thing they’re not supposed to do?’ He sounded startled. ‘I didna ken they even knew each other.’

‘Well, I don’t know, now, do I?’ she said, a little exasperated. ‘The voices didn’t say. But I saw that the man on the ship was going to die, and I didna say anything, because I couldn’t think what to say. And then he did die, and maybe he wouldn’t, if I’d spoken . . . so I— well, I thought I’d best say something to someone, and at least ye ken Monsieur Pépin.’

He thought about that for a moment, then nodded uncertainly.

‘Aye. All right. I’ll— well, I dinna ken what to do about it either, to be honest. But I’ll talk to them both and I’ll have that in my mind, so maybe I’ll think of something. D’ye want me to tell them, “Don’t do it”?’

She grimaced, and looked at Sister Eustacia. There wasn’t much time.

‘I already told the comte. Just— maybe. If ye think it might help. Now—’ Her hand darted under her apron and she passed him the slip of paper, fast. ‘We’re only allowed to write to our families twice a year,’ she said, lowering her voice. ‘But I wanted Mam to know I was all right. Could ye see she gets that, please? And— and maybe tell her a bit, yourself, that I’m weel and— and happy. Tell her I’m happy,’ she repeated, more firmly.

Sister Eustacia had come back, and was standing by the door, emanating an intent to come and tell them it was time for Michael to leave.

‘I will,’ he said. He couldn’t touch her, he knew that, so bowed instead, and bowed deeply to Sister Eustacia, who came toward them, looking benevolent.

‘I’ll come to Mass at the chapel on Sundays, how’s that?’ he said rapidly. ‘If I’ve a letter from your mam, or ye have to speak to me, gie me a wee roll of the eyes or something. I’ll figure something out.’

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