‘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.
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.
‘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.
‘Ye look a bit better,’ Michael said, smiling at her. He was still pale himself, but he too seemed happier. ‘Are ye hungry, yet?’
‘I’m famished!’ She cast a starved look at the edge of the market. ‘Could we stop, maybe, and buy an apple? I’ve a bit of money . . .’ She fumbled for the coins in her stocking-top, but he stopped her.
‘Nay, there’ll be food a-plenty at the house. They were expecting me this week, so everything will be ready.’
She cast a brief longing look at the market, but turned obligingly in the direction he pointed, craning out the carriage window to see his house as they approached.
‘That’s the biggest house I’ve ever seen!’ she exclaimed.
‘Och, no,’ he said, laughing. ‘Lallybroch’s bigger than that.’
‘Well . . . this one’s taller,’ she replied. And it was – a good four storeys, and a huge roof of lead slates and green-coppered seams, with what must be more than a score of glass windows set in, and . . .
She was still trying to count the windows when Michael helped her down from the carriage and offered her his arm to walk up to the door. She was goggling at the big yew trees set in brass pots and wondering how much trouble it must be to keep those polished, when she felt the arm under her hand go suddenly rigid as wood.
She glanced at Michael, startled, then looked where he was looking – toward the door of his house. The door had swung open, and three people were coming down the marble steps, smiling and waving, calling out.
‘Who’s that?’ Joan whispered, leaning close to Michael. The one short fellow in the striped apron must be a butler; she’d read about butlers. But the other man was a gentleman, limber as a willow tree and wearing a coat and waistcoat striped in lemon and pink – with a hat decorated with . . . well, she supposed it must be a feather, but she’d pay money to see the bird it came off of. By comparison, she had hardly noticed the woman, who was dressed in black. But now she saw that Michael had eyes only for the woman.
‘Li—’ he began, and choked it back. ‘L— Léonie. Léonie is her name. My wife’s sister.’
She looked sharp then, because from the look of Michael Murray, he’d just seen his wife’s ghost. Léonie seemed flesh and blood, though, slender and pretty, though her own face bore the same marks of sorrow as did Michael’s, and her face was pale under a small, neat black tricorne with a tiny curled blue feather.
‘Michel,’ she said, ‘Oh, Michel!’ And with tears brimming from eyes shaped like almonds, she threw herself into his arms.
Feeling extremely superfluous, Joan stood back a little and glanced at the gentleman in the lemon-striped waistcoat – the butler had tactfully withdrawn into the house.
‘Charles Pépin, mademoiselle,’ he said, sweeping off his hat. Taking her hand, he bowed low over it, and now she saw the band of black mourning he wore around his bright sleeve. ‘À votre service.’
‘Oh,’ she said, a little flustered. ‘Um. Joan MacKimmie. Je suis . . . er . . . um . . .’
Tell him not to do it, said a sudden small, calm voice inside her head, and she jerked her own hand away as though he’d bitten her.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she gasped. ‘Excuse me.’ And turning, threw up into one of the bronze yew-pots.
Joan had been afraid it would be awkward, coming to Michael’s bereaved and empty house, but had steeled herself to offer comfort and support, as became a distant kinswoman and a daughter of God. She might have been miffed, therefore, to find herself entirely supplanted in the department of comfort and support – quite relegated to the negligible position of guest, in fact, served politely and asked periodically if she wished more wine, a slice of ham, some gherkins . . . ? but otherwise ignored, while Michael’s servants, sister-in-law, and . . . she wasn’t quite sure of the position of M. Pépin, though he seemed to have something personal to do with Léonie, perhaps someone had said he was her cousin? – all swirled round Michael like perfumed bathwater, warm and buoyant, touching him, kissing him – well, all right, she’d heard of men kissing one another in France but she couldn’t help staring when M. Pépin gave Michael a big wet one on both cheeks – and generally making a fuss of him.
She was more than relieved, though, not to have to make conversation in French, beyond a simple merci or s’il vous plaît from time to time. It gave her a chance to settle her nerves – and her stomach, and she would say the wine was a wonder for that – and to keep a close eye on Monsieur Charles Pépin.
‘Tell him not to do it.’ And just what d’ye mean by that? she demanded of the voice. She didn’t get an answer, which didn’t surprise her. The voices weren’t much for details.