A Trail of Fire (Page 42)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(42)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

She couldn’t tell whether the voices were male or female; they didn’t seem either one, and she wondered whether they might maybe be angels – angels didn’t have a sex, and doubtless that saved them a lot of trouble. Joan of Arc’s voices had had the decency to introduce themselves, but not hers, oh, no. On the other hand, if they were angels, and told her their names, she wouldn’t recognise them anyway, so perhaps that’s why they didn’t bother.

Well, so. Did this particular voice mean that Charles Pépin was a villain? She squinted closely at him. He didn’t look it. He had a strong, good-looking face, and Michael seemed to like him – after all, Michael must be a fair judge of character, she thought, and him in the wine business.

What was it Mr Charles Pépin oughtn’t to do, though? Did he have some wicked crime in mind? Or might he be bent on doing away with himself, like that poor wee gomerel on the boat? There was still a trace of slime on her hand, from the seaweed.

She rubbed her hand inconspicuously against the skirt of her dress, frustrated. She hoped the voices would stop, in the convent. That was her nightly prayer. But if they didn’t, at least she might be able to tell someone there about them without fear of being packed off to a mad-house or stoned in the street. She’d have a confessor, she knew that much. Maybe he could help her discover what God had meant, landing her with a gift like this, and no explanation what she was to do with it.

In the meantime, Monsieur Pépin would bear watching; she should maybe say something to Michael before she left. Aye, what? she thought, helpless.

Still, she was glad to see that Michael grew less pale as they all carried on, vying to feed him tidbits, refill his glass, tell him bits of gossip. She was also pleased to find that she mostly understood what they were saying, as she relaxed. Jared – that would be Jared Fraser, Michael’s elderly cousin, who’d founded the wine company, and whose house this was – was still in Germany, they said, but was expected at any moment. He had sent a letter for Michael, too, where was it? No matter, it would turn up . . . and La Comtesse de Maurepas had had a fit, a veritable fit at court last Wednesday, when she came face to face with Mademoiselle de Perpignan wearing a confection in the particular shade of pea-green that was La Comtesse’s alone, and God alone knew why, because she always looked like a cheese in it, and had slapped her own maid so hard for pointing this out that the poor girl flew across the rushes and cracked her head on one of the mirrored walls – and cracked the mirror, too, very bad luck that, but no one could agree whether the bad luck was de La Tour’s, the maid’s, or La Perpignan’s.

Birds, Joan thought dreamily, sipping her wine. They sound just like cheerful wee birds in a tree, all chattering away together.

‘The bad luck belongs to the seamstress who made the dress for La Perpignan,’ Michael said, a faint smile touching his mouth. ‘Once La Comtesse finds out who it is.’ His eye lighted on Joan, then, sitting there with a fork – an actual fork! and silver, too – in her hand, her mouth half-open in the effort of concentration required to follow the conversation.

‘Sister Joan, Sister Gregory, I mean; I’m that sorry, I was forgetting. If ye’ve had enough to eat, will ye have a bit of a wash, maybe, before I deliver ye to the convent?’

He was already rising, reaching for a bell, and before she knew where she was, a maid-servant had whisked her off upstairs, deftly undressed her, and wrinkling her nose at the smell of the discarded garments, wrapped Joan in a robe of the most amazing green silk, light as air, and ushered her into a small stone room with a copper bath in it, then disappeared, saying something in which Joan caught the word ‘eau’.

She sat on the wooden stool provided, clutching the robe about her nak*dness, head spinning with more than wine. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths, trying to put herself in the way of praying. God was everywhere, she assured herself, embarrassing as it was to contemplate Him being with her in a bathroom in Paris. She shut her eyes harder and firmly began the rosary, starting with the Joyful Mysteries.

She’d got through The Visitation before she began to feel steady again. This wasn’t quite how she’d expected her first day in Paris to be. Still, she’d have something to write home to Mam about, that was for sure. If they let her write letters in the convent.

The maid came in with two enormous cans of steaming water, and upended these into the bath with a tremendous splash. Another came in on her heels, similarly equipped, and between them, they had Joan up, stripped, and stepping into the tub before she’d so much as said the first word of the Lord’s Prayer for the third decade.

They said French things to her, which she didn’t understand, and held out peculiar-looking instruments to her in invitation. She recognised the small pot of soap, and pointed at it, and one of them at once poured water on her head and began to wash her hair.

She had for months been bidding farewell to her hair whenever she combed it, quite resigned to its loss, for whether she must sacrifice it immediately, as a postulant, or later, as a novice, plainly it must go. The shock of knowing fingers rubbing her scalp, the sheer sensual delight of warm water coursing through her hair, the soft wet weight of it lying in ropes down over her br**sts – was this God’s way of asking if she’d truly thought it through? Did she know what she was giving up?

Well, she did, then. And she had thought about it. On the other hand . . . she couldn’t make them stop, really; it wouldn’t be mannerly. The warmth of the water was making the wine she’d drunk course faster through her blood, and she felt as though she were being kneaded like toffee, stretched and pulled, all glossy and falling into languid loops. She closed her eyes and gave up trying to remember how many Hail Marys she had yet to go in the third decade.

It wasn’t until the maids had hauled her, pink and steaming, out of the bath and wrapped her in a most remarkable huge fuzzy kind of towel, that she emerged abruptly from her sensual trance. The cold air coalesced in her stomach, reminding her that all this luxury was indeed a lure of the devil – for lost in gluttony and sinful bathing, she’d forgot entirely about the poor young man on the ship, the poor, despairing sinner who had thrown himself into the sea.

The maids had gone for the moment. She dropped at once to her knees on the stone floor and threw off the coddling towels, exposing her bare skin to the full chill of the air in penance.

‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,’ she breathed, knocking a fist against her bosom in a paroxysm of sorrow and regret. The sight of the drowned young man was in her mind, soft brown hair fanned across his cheek, young eyes half-closed, seeing nothing – and what terrible thing was it that he’d seen before he jumped, or thought of, that he’d screamed so?

She thought briefly of Michael, the look on his face when he spoke of his poor wife – perhaps the young brown-haired man had lost someone dear, and couldn’t face his life alone?

She should have spoken to him. That was the undeniable, terrible truth. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know what to say. She should have trusted God to give her words, as He had when she’d spoken to Michael.

‘Forgive me, Father!’ she said urgently, out loud. ‘Please – forgive me, give me strength!’

She’d betrayed that poor young man. And herself. And God, who’d given her the terrible gift of Sight for a reason. And the voices . . .

‘Why did ye not tell me?’ she cried. ‘Have ye nothing to say for yourselves?’ Here she’d thought the voices those of angels, and they weren’t – just drifting bits of bog-mist, getting into her head, pointless, useless . . . useless as she was, oh, Lord Jesus . . .

She didn’t know how long she knelt there, nak*d, half-drunk, and in tears. She heard the muffled squeaks of dismay from the French maids who poked their heads in, and just as quickly withdrew them, but paid no attention. She didn’t know if it was right even to pray for the poor young man – for suicide was a mortal sin, and surely he’d gone straight to Hell. But she couldn’t give him up; she couldn’t. She felt somehow that he’d been her charge, that she’d carelessly let him fall, and surely God would not hold the young man entirely responsible, when it was her who should have been watching out for him?

And so she prayed, with all the energy of body and mind and spirit, asking mercy. Mercy for the young man, for wee Ronnie and wretched auld Angus – mercy for poor Michael, and for the soul of Lillie, his dear wife, and their babe unborn. And mercy for herself, this unworthy vessel of God’s service.

‘I’ll do better!’ she promised, sniffing and wiping her nose on the fluffy towel. ‘Truly, I will. I’ll be braver. I will.’

Michael took the candlestick from the footman, said goodnight, and shut the door. He hoped Sister Joan-Gregory was comfortable; he’d told the staff to put her in the main guest-room. He was fairly sure she’d sleep well. He smiled wryly to himself; unaccustomed to wine, and obviously nervous in company, she’d sipped her way through most of a decanter of Jerez sherry before he noticed, and was sitting in the corner with unfocused eyes and a small inward smile that reminded him of a painting he had seen at Versailles, a thing the steward had called La Gioconda.

He couldn’t very well deliver her to the convent in such a condition, and had gently escorted her upstairs and given her into the hands of the chambermaids, both of whom regarded her with some wariness, as though a tipsy nun was a particularly dangerous commodity.

He’d drunk a fair amount himself in the course of the afternoon, and more at dinner. He and Charles had sat up late, talking and drinking rum-punch. Not talking of anything in particular; he had just wanted not to be alone. Charles had invited him to go to the gaming rooms – Charles was an inveterate gambler – but was kind enough to accept his refusal and simply bear him company.

The candle flame blurred briefly at thought of Charles’s kindness. He blinked and shook his head, which proved a mistake; the contents shifted abruptly, and his stomach rose in protest at the sudden movement. He barely made it to the chamber-pot in time, and once evacuated, lay numbly on the floor, cheek pressed to the cold boards.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t get up and go to bed. It was that he couldn’t face the thought of the cold white sheets, the pillows round and smooth, as though Lillie’s head had never dented them, the bed never known the heat of her body.

Tears ran sideways over the bridge of his nose and dripped on the floor. There was a snuffling noise, and Plonplon came squirming out from under the bed and licked his face, whining anxiously. After a little while, he sat up, and leaning against the side of the bed with the dog in one arm, reached for the decanter of port that the butler had left – by instruction – on the table beside it.

The smell was appalling. Rakoczy had wrapped a woollen comforter about his lower face, but the odour seeped in, putrid and cloying, clinging to the back of the throat, so that even breathing through the mouth didn’t preserve you from the stench. He breathed as shallowly as he could, though, picking his way carefully past the edge of the cemetery by the narrow beam of a dark-lantern. The mine lay well beyond it, but the stench carried amazingly, when the wind lay in the east.