‘Have you?’ she interrupted, curious. ‘Seen him in a fight?’
‘I have, aye. BUT—’ he said, not willing to be distracted, ‘I didna mean he scared me. It was that I thought he was haunted. By the voices in the wind.’
That dried up the spit in her mouth, and she worked her tongue a little, hoping it didn’t show. She needn’t have worried; he wasn’t looking at her.
‘My own da said it was because Jamie spent so much time alone, that the voices got into his head, and he couldna stop hearing them. When he’d feel safe enough to come to the house, it would take hours sometimes, before he could start to hear us again – Mam wouldna let us talk to him until he’d had something to eat and was warmed through.’ He smiled, a little ruefully. ‘She said he wasna human ’til then – and looking back, I dinna think she meant that as a figure of speech.’
‘Well,’ she said, but stopped, not knowing how to go on. She wished fervently that she’d known this earlier. Her da and his sister were coming on to France later, but she might not see him. She could maybe have talked to da, asked him just what the voices in his head were like – what they said. Whether they were anything like the ones she heard.
Nearly twilight, and the rats were still dead. The comte heard the bells of Notre-Dame calling Sext, and glanced at his pocket-watch. The bells were two minutes before their time, and he frowned. He didn’t like sloppiness. He stood up and stretched himself, groaning as his spine cracked like the ragged volley of a firing squad. No doubt about it, he was ageing, and the thought sent a chill through him.
If. If he could find the way forward, then perhaps . . . but you never knew, that was the devil of it. For a little while, he’d thought – hoped – that travelling back in time stopped the process of ageing. That initially seemed logical, like rewinding a clock. But then again, it wasn’t logical, because he’d always gone back further than his own lifetime. Only once, he’d tried to go back only a few years, to his early twenties. That was a mistake, and he still shivered at the memory.
He went to the tall gabled window that looked out over the Seine.
That particular view of the river had changed barely at all in the last two hundred years; he’d seen it at several different times. He hadn’t always owned this house, but it had stood in this street since 1620, and he always managed to get in briefly, if only to reestablish his own sense of reality after a passage.
Only the trees changed in his view of the river, and sometimes a strange-looking boat would be there. But the rest was always the same, and no doubt always would be: the old fishermen, catching their supper off the landing in stubborn silence, each guarding his space with out-thrust elbows, the younger ones, barefoot and slump-shouldered with exhaustion, laying out their nets to dry, nak*d little boys diving off the quay. It gave him a soothing sense of eternity, watching the river. Perhaps it didn’t matter so much if he must one day die?
‘The devil it doesn’t,’ he murmured to himself, and glanced up at the sky. Venus shone bright. He should go.
Pausing conscientiously to place his fingers on each rat’s body and ensure that no spark of life remained, he passed down the line, then swept them all into a burlap bag. If he was going to the Court of Miracles, at least he wouldn’t arrive empty-handed.
Joan was still reluctant to go below, but the light was fading, the wind getting up regardless, and a particularly spiteful gust that blew her petticoats right up round her waist and grabbed her arse with a chilly hand made her yelp in a very undignified way. She smoothed her skirts hastily and made for the hatchway, followed by Michael Murray.
Seeing him cough and chafe his hands at the bottom of the ladder made her sorry; here she’d kept him freezing on deck, too polite to go below and leave her to her own devices, and her too selfish to see he was cold, the poor man. She made a hasty knot in her handkerchief, to remind her to say an extra decade of the rosary for penance, when she got to it.
He saw her to a bench, and said a few words to the woman sitting next to her, in French. Obviously, he was introducing her, she understood that much – but when the woman nodded and said something in reply, she could only sit there open-mouthed. She didn’t understand a word. Not a word!
Michael evidently grasped the situation, for he said something to the woman’s husband that drew her attention away from Joan, and engaged them in a conversation that let Joan sink quietly back against the wooden wall of the ship, sweating with embarrassment.
Well, she’d get into the way of it, she reassured herself. Bound to. She settled herself with determination to listen, picking out the odd word here and there in the conversation. It was easier to understand Michael; he spoke slower and didn’t swallow the back half of each word.
She was trying to puzzle out the probable spelling of a word that sounded like ‘pwufgweemiarniere’ but surely couldn’t be, when her eye caught a slight movement from the bench opposite, and the gurgling vowels caught in her throat.
A man sat there, maybe close to her own age of twenty-five. He was good-looking, if a bit thin in the face, decently dressed – and he was going to die.
There was a grey shroud over him, the same as if he was wrapped in mist, so his face showed through it. She’d seen that same thing, the greyness lying on someone’s face like fog, seen it twice before and knew it at once for Death’s shadow. Once it had been on an elderly man, and that might have been only what anybody could see, because Angus MacWheen was ill, but then again, and only a few weeks after, she’d seen it on the second of Vhairi Fraser’s little boys, and him a rosy-faced wee bairn with dear chubby legs.
She hadn’t wanted to believe it. Either that she saw it, or what it meant. But four days later, the wean was crushed in the lane by an ox that was maddened by a hornet’s sting. She’d vomited when they told her, and couldn’t eat for days after, for sheer grief and terror. Because, could she have stopped it, if she’d said? And what – dear Lord, what – if it happened again?
Now it had, and her wame twisted. She leapt to her feet and blundered toward the companionway, cutting short some slowly worded speech from the Frenchman.
Not again, not again! she thought in agony. Why show me such things? What can I do?
She pawed frantically at the ladder, climbing as fast as she could, gasping for air, needing to be away from the dying man. How long might it be, dear Lord, until she reached the convent, and safety?
The moon was rising over the Ile de Notre-Dame, glowing through the haze of cloud. He glanced at it, estimating the time; no point in arriving at Madame Fabienne’s house before the girls had taken their hair out of curling papers and rolled on their red stockings. There were other places to go first, though; the obscure drinking places where the professionals of the Court fortified themselves for the night ahead. One of those was where he had first heard the rumours – he’d see how far they had spread, and judge the safety of asking openly about Maître Raymond.
That was one advantage to hiding in the past, rather than going to Hungary or Sweden – life at this Court tended to be short, and there were not so many who knew either his face or his history, though there would still be stories. Paris held onto its histoires. He found the iron gate – rustier than it had been; it left red stains on his palm – and pushed it open with a creak that would alert whatever now lived at the end of the alley.
He had to see the frog. Not meet him, perhaps – he made a brief sign against evil – but see him. Above all else, he needed to know: had the man – if he was a man – aged?
‘Certainly he’s a man,’ he muttered to himself, impatient. ‘What else could he be, for heaven’s sake?’
He could be something like you, was the answering thought, and a shiver ran up his spine. Fear? he wondered. Anticipation of an intriguing philosophical mystery? Or possibly . . . hope?
‘What a waste of a wonderful arse,’ Monsieur Brechin remarked in French, watching Joan’s ascent from the far side of the cabin. ‘And mon Dieu, those legs! Imagine those wrapped around your back, eh? Would you have her keep the striped stockings on? I would.’
It hadn’t occurred to Michael to imagine that, but he was now having a hard time dismissing the image. He coughed into his handkerchief to hide the reddening of his face.
Madame Brechin gave her husband a sharp elbow in the ribs. He grunted, but seemed undisturbed by what was evidently a normal form of marital communication.
‘Beast,’ she said, with no apparent heat. ‘Speaking so of a Bride of Christ. You will be lucky if God Himself doesn’t strike you dead with a lightning bolt.’
‘Well, she isn’t His bride yet,’ monsieur protested. ‘And who created that arse in the first place? Surely God would be flattered to hear a little sincere appreciation of His handiwork. From one who is, after all, a connoisseur in such matters.’ He leered affectionately at madame, who snorted.
A faint snigger from the young man across the cabin indicated that monsieur was not alone in his appreciation, and madame turned a reproving glare on the young man. Michael wiped his nose carefully, trying not to catch monsieur’s eye. His insides were quivering, and not entirely from amusement or the shock of inadvertent lust. He felt very queer.
Monsieur sighed as Joan’s striped stockings disappeared through the hatchway.
‘Christ will not warm her bed,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Christ will not fart in her bed, either,’ said madame, taking out her knitting.
‘Pardonnez-moi . . .’ Michael said in a strangled voice, and, clapping his handkerchief to his mouth, made hastily for the ladder, as though sea-sickness might be catching.
It wasn’t mal de mer that was surging up from his belly, though. He caught sight of Joan, dim in the evening light at the rail, and turned quickly aside, going to the other side, where he gripped the rail as though it were a life-raft, and let the overwhelming waves of grief wash through him. It was the only way he’d been able to manage, these last few weeks. Hold on as long as he could, keeping a cheerful face, until some small unexpected thing, some bit of emotional debris, struck him through the heart like a hunter’s arrow, and then hurry to find a place to hide, curling up on himself in mindless pain until he could get a grip of himself.
This time, it was madame’s remark that had come out of the blue, and he grimaced painfully, laughing in spite of the tears that poured down his face, remembering Lillie – that time she’d eaten eels in garlic sauce for dinner; they always made her fart with a silent deadliness, like poison swamp gas. As the ghastly miasma had risen up round him, he’d sat bolt upright in bed, only to find her staring at him, a look of indignant horror on her face.
‘How dare you?’ she’d said, in a voice of offended majesty. ‘Really, Michel.’
‘You know it wasn’t me!’
Lillie’s mouth had dropped open, outrage added to horror and distaste.
‘Oh!’ she gasped, gathering her small pug-dog to her bosom. ‘You not only fart like a rotting whale, you attempt to blame it on my poor puppy! Cochon!’ Whereupon she had begun to shake the bedsheets delicately, using her free hand to waft the noxious odours in his direction, addressing censorious remarks to Plonplon, who gave Michael a sanctimonious look before turning to lick his mistress’s face with great enthusiasm.