The Next Day

Sister Joan-Gregory, postulant of Our Lady Queen of Angels, regarded the bum of a large cow. The cow in question was named Mirabeau, and was of uncertain temper, as evidenced by the nervously lashing tail.

‘She’s kicked three of us this week,’ said Sister Anne-Joseph, eyeing the cow resentfully. ‘And spilt the milk twice. Sister Jeanne-Marie was most upset.’

‘Well, we canna have that now, can we?’ Joan murmured in English. ‘N’inquiétez-vous pas,’ she added in French, hoping that was at least vaguely grammatical. ‘Let me do it.’

‘Better you than me,’ Sister Anne-Joseph said, crossing herself, and vanished before Sister Joan might think better of the offer.

A week spent working in the cow-shed was intended as punishment for her flighty behaviour in the marketplace, but Joan was grateful for it. There was nothing better for steadying the nerves than cows.

Granted, the convent’s cows were not quite like her mother’s sweet-tempered, shaggy red Hieland coos, but if you came right down to it, a cow was a cow, and even a French-speaking wee besom like the present Mirabeau was no match for Joan Mac-Kimmie, who’d driven kine to and from the shielings for years, and fed her mother’s kine in the byre beside the house with sweet hay and the leavings from supper.

With that in mind, she circled Mirabeau thoughtfully, eyeing the steadily champing jaws and the long slick of blackish-green drool that hung down from slack pink lips. She nodded once, slipped out of the cow-shed, and made her way down the allée behind it, picking what she could find. Mirabeau, presented with a bouquet of fresh grasses, tiny daisies, and – delicacy of all delicacies – fresh sorrel, bulged her eyes half out of her head, opened her massive jaw, and inhaled the sweet stuff. The ominous tail ceased its lashing and the massive creature stood as if turned to stone, aside from the ecstatically grinding jaws.

Joan sighed in satisfaction, sat down, and resting her head on Mirabeau’s monstrous flank, got down to business. Her mind, released, took up the next worry of the day.

Had Michael spoken to his friend Pépin? And if so, had he told him what she’d said, or just asked whether he kent the Comte St Germain? Because if tell him not to do it referred to the same thing, then plainly the two men must be acquent with each other.

She had got thus far in her ruminations, when Mirabeau’s tail began to switch again. She hurriedly stripped the last of the milk from Mirabeau’s teats and snatched the bucket out of the way, standing up in a hurry. Then she saw what had disturbed the cow.

The man in the dove-grey coat was standing in the door to the shed, watching her. She hadn’t noticed before, in the market, but he had a handsome dark face, though rather hard about the eyes, and with a chin that brooked no opposition. He smiled pleasantly at her, though, and bowed.

‘Mademoiselle. I must ask you, please, to come with me.’

Michael was in the warehouse, stripped to his shirtsleeves and sweating in the hot, wine-heady atmosphere, when Jared appeared, looking disturbed.

‘What is it, cousin?’ Michael wiped his face on a towel, leaving black streaks; the crew were clearing the racks on the southeast wall, and there were years of filth and cobwebs behind the most ancient casks.

‘Ye haven’t got that wee nun in your bed, have ye, Michael?’ Jared lifted a beetling grey brow at him.

‘Have I what?’

‘I’ve just had a message from the Mother Superior of the Convent des Anges, saying that one Sister Gregory appears to have been abducted from their cow-shed, and wanting to know whether you might possibly have anything to do with the matter.’

Michael stared at his cousin for a moment, unable to take this in.

‘Abducted?’ he said stupidly. ‘Who would be kidnapping a nun? What for?’

‘Well, now, there ye have me.’ Jared was carrying Michael’s coat over his arm, and at this point, handed it to him. ‘But maybe best ye go to the convent and find out.’

‘Forgive me, Mother,’ Michael said carefully. Mother Hildegarde looked fragile and transparent, as though a breath would make her disintegrate. ‘Did ye think— is it possible that Sister J— Sister Gregory might have . . . left of her own accord?’

The old nun gave him a look that revised his opinion of her state of health instantly.

‘We did,’ she said. ‘It happens. However—’ She raised one stick-like finger. ‘One: there were signs of a considerable struggle in the cow-shed. A full bucket of milk not merely spilt, but apparently thrown at something, the manger overturned, the door left open and two of the cows escaped into the herb garden.’ Another finger. ‘Two: had Sister Gregory experienced doubt regarding her vocation, she was quite free to leave the convent after speaking with me, and she knew that.’

One more finger, and the old nun’s black eyes bored into his. ‘And three: had she felt it necessary to leave suddenly and without informing us, where would she go? To you, Monsieur Murray. She knows no one else in Paris, does she?’

‘I— well, no, not really.’ He was flustered, almost stammering, confusion and a burgeoning alarm for Joan making it difficult to think.

‘But you have not seen her since you brought us the chalice and paten – and I thank you and your cousin with the deepest sentiments of gratitude, monsieur – that would be two days ago?’

‘No.’ He shook his head, trying to clear it. ‘No, Mother.’

Mother Hildegarde nodded, her lips nearly invisible, pressed together amid the lines of her face.

‘Did she say anything to you on that occasion? Anything that might assist us in discovering her?’

‘I— well . . .’ Jesus, should he tell her what Joan had said about the voices she heard? It couldn’t have anything to do with this, surely, and it wasna his secret to share. On the other hand, Joan had said she meant to tell Mother Hildegarde about them . . .

‘You’d better tell me, my son.’ The Mother Superior’s voice was somewhere between resignation and command. ‘I see she told you something.’

‘Well, she did, then, Mother,’ he said, rubbing a hand over his face in distraction. ‘But I canna see how it has anything to do— she hears voices,’ he blurted, seeing Mother Hildegarde’s eyes narrow dangerously.

The eyes went round.

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The Next Day

Sister Joan-Gregory, postulant of Our Lady Queen of Angels, regarded the bum of a large cow. The cow in question was named Mirabeau, and was of uncertain temper, as evidenced by the nervously lashing tail.

‘She’s kicked three of us this week,’ said Sister Anne-Joseph, eyeing the cow resentfully. ‘And spilt the milk twice. Sister Jeanne-Marie was most upset.’

‘Well, we canna have that now, can we?’ Joan murmured in English. ‘N’inquiétez-vous pas,’ she added in French, hoping that was at least vaguely grammatical. ‘Let me do it.’

‘Better you than me,’ Sister Anne-Joseph said, crossing herself, and vanished before Sister Joan might think better of the offer.

A week spent working in the cow-shed was intended as punishment for her flighty behaviour in the marketplace, but Joan was grateful for it. There was nothing better for steadying the nerves than cows.

Granted, the convent’s cows were not quite like her mother’s sweet-tempered, shaggy red Hieland coos, but if you came right down to it, a cow was a cow, and even a French-speaking wee besom like the present Mirabeau was no match for Joan Mac-Kimmie, who’d driven kine to and from the shielings for years, and fed her mother’s kine in the byre beside the house with sweet hay and the leavings from supper.

With that in mind, she circled Mirabeau thoughtfully, eyeing the steadily champing jaws and the long slick of blackish-green drool that hung down from slack pink lips. She nodded once, slipped out of the cow-shed, and made her way down the allée behind it, picking what she could find. Mirabeau, presented with a bouquet of fresh grasses, tiny daisies, and – delicacy of all delicacies – fresh sorrel, bulged her eyes half out of her head, opened her massive jaw, and inhaled the sweet stuff. The ominous tail ceased its lashing and the massive creature stood as if turned to stone, aside from the ecstatically grinding jaws.

Joan sighed in satisfaction, sat down, and resting her head on Mirabeau’s monstrous flank, got down to business. Her mind, released, took up the next worry of the day.

Had Michael spoken to his friend Pépin? And if so, had he told him what she’d said, or just asked whether he kent the Comte St Germain? Because if tell him not to do it referred to the same thing, then plainly the two men must be acquent with each other.

She had got thus far in her ruminations, when Mirabeau’s tail began to switch again. She hurriedly stripped the last of the milk from Mirabeau’s teats and snatched the bucket out of the way, standing up in a hurry. Then she saw what had disturbed the cow.

The man in the dove-grey coat was standing in the door to the shed, watching her. She hadn’t noticed before, in the market, but he had a handsome dark face, though rather hard about the eyes, and with a chin that brooked no opposition. He smiled pleasantly at her, though, and bowed.

‘Mademoiselle. I must ask you, please, to come with me.’

Michael was in the warehouse, stripped to his shirtsleeves and sweating in the hot, wine-heady atmosphere, when Jared appeared, looking disturbed.

‘What is it, cousin?’ Michael wiped his face on a towel, leaving black streaks; the crew were clearing the racks on the southeast wall, and there were years of filth and cobwebs behind the most ancient casks.

‘Ye haven’t got that wee nun in your bed, have ye, Michael?’ Jared lifted a beetling grey brow at him.

‘Have I what?’

‘I’ve just had a message from the Mother Superior of the Convent des Anges, saying that one Sister Gregory appears to have been abducted from their cow-shed, and wanting to know whether you might possibly have anything to do with the matter.’

Michael stared at his cousin for a moment, unable to take this in.

‘Abducted?’ he said stupidly. ‘Who would be kidnapping a nun? What for?’

‘Well, now, there ye have me.’ Jared was carrying Michael’s coat over his arm, and at this point, handed it to him. ‘But maybe best ye go to the convent and find out.’

‘Forgive me, Mother,’ Michael said carefully. Mother Hildegarde looked fragile and transparent, as though a breath would make her disintegrate. ‘Did ye think— is it possible that Sister J— Sister Gregory might have . . . left of her own accord?’

The old nun gave him a look that revised his opinion of her state of health instantly.

‘We did,’ she said. ‘It happens. However—’ She raised one stick-like finger. ‘One: there were signs of a considerable struggle in the cow-shed. A full bucket of milk not merely spilt, but apparently thrown at something, the manger overturned, the door left open and two of the cows escaped into the herb garden.’ Another finger. ‘Two: had Sister Gregory experienced doubt regarding her vocation, she was quite free to leave the convent after speaking with me, and she knew that.’

One more finger, and the old nun’s black eyes bored into his. ‘And three: had she felt it necessary to leave suddenly and without informing us, where would she go? To you, Monsieur Murray. She knows no one else in Paris, does she?’

‘I— well, no, not really.’ He was flustered, almost stammering, confusion and a burgeoning alarm for Joan making it difficult to think.

‘But you have not seen her since you brought us the chalice and paten – and I thank you and your cousin with the deepest sentiments of gratitude, monsieur – that would be two days ago?’

‘No.’ He shook his head, trying to clear it. ‘No, Mother.’

Mother Hildegarde nodded, her lips nearly invisible, pressed together amid the lines of her face.

‘Did she say anything to you on that occasion? Anything that might assist us in discovering her?’

‘I— well . . .’ Jesus, should he tell her what Joan had said about the voices she heard? It couldn’t have anything to do with this, surely, and it wasna his secret to share. On the other hand, Joan had said she meant to tell Mother Hildegarde about them . . .

‘You’d better tell me, my son.’ The Mother Superior’s voice was somewhere between resignation and command. ‘I see she told you something.’

‘Well, she did, then, Mother,’ he said, rubbing a hand over his face in distraction. ‘But I canna see how it has anything to do— she hears voices,’ he blurted, seeing Mother Hildegarde’s eyes narrow dangerously.

The eyes went round.

‘She what?’

‘Voices,’ he said helplessly. ‘They come and say things to her. She thinks maybe they’re angels, but she doesn’t know. And she can see when folk are going to die. Sometimes,’ he added dubiously. ‘I don’t know whether she can always say.’

‘Par le sang sacré de Jésus-Christ,’ the old nun said, sitting up straight as an oak sapling. ‘Why did she not— well, never mind about that. Does anyone else know this?’

He shook his head.

‘She was afraid to tell anyone. That’s why – well, one reason why – she came to the convent. She thought you might believe her.’

‘I might,’ Mother Hildegarde said dryly. She shook her head rapidly, making her veil flap. ‘Nom de nom! Why did her mother not tell me this?’

‘Her mother?’ Michael said stupidly.

‘Yes! She brought me a letter from her mother, very kind, asking after my health and recommending Joan to me – but surely her mother would have known!’

‘I don’t think she— wait.’ He remembered Joan fishing out the carefully folded note from her pocket. ‘The letter she brought – it was from Claire Fraser. That’s the one you mean?’

‘Of course!’

He took a deep breath, a dozen disconnected pieces falling suddenly into a pattern. He cleared his throat, and raised a tentative finger.

‘One point: Claire Fraser is the wife of Joan’s stepfather. But she’s not Joan’s mother.’

The sharp black eyes blinked once.

‘And a second point: my cousin Jared tells me that Claire Fraser was known as a— a White Lady, when she lived in Paris many years ago.’

Mother Hildegarde clicked her tongue angrily.

‘She was no such thing. Stuff! But it is true that there was a common rumour to that effect,’ she admitted grudgingly. She drummed her fingers on the desk; they were knobbed with age, but surprisingly nimble, and he remembered hearing that Mother Hildegarde had been a famous musician in her youth.

‘Mother . . .’

‘Yes?’

‘I don’t know if it has anything to do— do you know of a man called the Comte St Germain?’

The old nun was already the colour of parchment; at this, she went white as bone and her fingers gripped the edge of the desk.

‘I do,’ she said. ‘Tell me – and quickly – what he has to do with Sister Gregory.’

Joan gave the very solid door one last kick, for form’s sake, then turned and collapsed with her back against it, panting. The room was huge, extending across the entire top floor of the house, though pillars and joists here and there showed where walls had been knocked down. It smelled peculiar, and looked even more peculiar.

‘A Dhia, cuidich mi,’ she whispered to herself, reverting to the Gaelic in her agitation. There was a very fancy bed in one corner, piled with feather pillows and bolsters, with writhing corner-posts and heavy swags and curtains of cloth embroidered in what looked like gold and silver thread. Did the comte haul young women up here for wicked ends on a regular basis? For surely he hadn’t set up this establishment solely in anticipation of her arrival . . . the area near the bed was equipped with all kinds of solid, shiny furniture with marble tops and alarming gilt feet that looked like they’d come off some kind of beast or bird with great curving claws.

He’d told her in the most matter-of-fact way that he was a sorcerer, too, and not to touch anything. She crossed herself, and averted her gaze from the table with the nastiest-looking feet; maybe he’d charmed the furniture, and it came to life and walked round after dark. The thought made her move hastily off to the farther end of the room, rosary clutched tight in one hand.

This side of the room was scarcely less alarming, but at least it didn’t look as though any of the big coloured glass balls and jars and tubes could move on their own. It was where the worst smells were coming from, though; something that smelled like burnt hair and treacle, and something else very sharp that curled the hairs in your nose, like it did when someone dug out a jakes for the saltpetre. But there was a window near the long table where all this sinister stuff was laid out, and she went to this at once.

The big river – the Seine, Michael had called it – was right there, and the sight of boats and people made her feel a bit steadier. She put a hand on the table to lean closer, but set it on something sticky and jerked it back. She swallowed, and leaned in more gingerly. The window was barred on the inside. Glancing round, she saw that all the others were, too.

What in the name of the Blessed Virgin did that man expect would try to get in? Gooseflesh raced right up the curve of her spine and spread down her arms, her imagination instantly conjuring a vision of flying demons hovering over the street in the night, beating leathery wings against the window. Or – dear Lord in heaven! – was it to keep the furniture from getting out?

There was a fairly normal-looking stool; she sank down on this and, closing her eyes, prayed with great fervour. After a bit, she remembered to breathe, and after a further bit, began to be able to think again, shuddering only occasionally.

He hadn’t exactly threatened her. Nor had he hurt her, really – just put a hand over her mouth and his other arm round her body, and pulled her along, then boosted her into his coach with a shockingly familiar hand under her bottom, though it hadn’t been done with any sense that he was wanting to interfere with her.

In the coach, he’d introduced himself, apologised briefly for the inconvenience – inconvenience? The cheek of him – and then had grasped both her hands in his, staring intently into her face as he clasped them tighter and tighter. He’d raised her hands to his face, so close she’d thought he meant to smell them or kiss them, but then had let go, his brow deeply furrowed.

He’d ignored all her questions and her insistence upon being returned to the convent. In fact, he almost seemed to forget she was there for a moment, leaving her huddled back in the corner of the seat while he thought intently about something, lips pursing in and out. She’d thought of jumping out – had almost got up her nerve to reach for the door-handle, though the coach was rattling on at such a pace she was almost sure to be killed – but then his eyes had fastened on her again, pinning her to the seat as though he’d stabbed her through the chest with a knitting-needle.

‘The frog,’ he’d said, intent. ‘You know the frog, don’t you?’

‘Any number of them,’ she’d said, thinking that if he was mad, she’d best humour him. ‘Green ones, mostly.’

His nostrils had flared in sudden anger, and she’d shrunk back into the seat. But then he had snorted, and relapsed into a sort of brooding stare, emerging from this only to say, ‘The rats didn’t all die,’ in a sort of accusing tone, as though it were her fault.

Her mouth was so dry that she could barely speak, but had managed to say, ‘Oh? Did ye try rat’s-bane, then?’ But she’d spoken in English, too rattled to summon any French, and he didn’t seem to take any note.

And then he had lugged her up here, told her briefly that she wouldn’t be hurt, added the bit about being a sorcerer in a very offhand sort of a way, and locked her in!

She was terrified, and indignant, too. But now that she’d calmed down a wee bit . . . she’d believed him when he said he meant her no harm. He hadn’t threatened her or tried to frighten her. Well, he’d frightened her, all right, but didn’t seem like he’d meant to. But if that was true . . . what could he want of her?

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