A Trail of Fire (Page 44)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(44)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

He’d been surprised at the letter, and wondered whether that had anything to do with Joan’s distress. He’d had no notion that his uncle’s wife had anything to do with the Convent des Anges – though now that he cast his mind back, he did recall Jared mentioning that Uncle Jamie had worked in Paris in the wine business for a short time, back before the Rising. He supposed Claire might have met Mother Hildegarde then . . . but it was all before he himself was born.

He felt an odd warmth at the thought of Claire; he couldn’t really think of her as his auntie, though she was. He’d not spent much time with her alone at Lallybroch – but he couldn’t forget the moment when she’d met him, alone at the door. Greeted him briefly and embraced him in impulse. And he’d felt an instant sense of relief, as though she’d taken a heavy burden from his heart. Or maybe lanced a boil on his spirit, as she might one on his bum.

That thought made him smile. He didn’t know what she was – the talk near Lallybroch painted her as everything from a witch to an angel, with most of the opinion hovering cautiously around ‘faery’ – for the Auld Ones were dangerous, and you didn’t talk too much about them – but he liked her. So did Da and Young Ian, and that counted for a lot. And Uncle Jamie, of course . . . though everyone said, very matter-of-fact, that Uncle Jamie was bewitched. He smiled wryly at that. Aye, if being mad in love with your wife was bewitchment.

If anyone outside the family kent what she’d told them – he cut that thought short. It wasn’t something he’d forget, but it wasn’t something he wanted to think about just yet, either. The gutters of Paris running with blood . . . he glanced down, involuntarily, but the gutters were full of the usual assortment of animal and human sewage, dead rats, and bits of rubbish too far gone to be salvaged for food even by the street beggars.

He got up and walked, making his way slowly through the crowded streets, past La Chapelle and Montmartre. If he walked enough, sometimes he could fall asleep without too much wine.

He sighed, elbowing his way through a group of buskers outside a tavern, turning back toward the Avenue Trémoulins. Some days, his head was like a bramble patch, thorns catching at him no matter which way he turned, and no path leading out of the tangle.

Paris wasn’t a large city, but it was a complicated one; there was always somewhere else to walk. He crossed the Place de la Concorde, thinking of what his uncle’s wife had told them, seeing there in his mind the tall shadow of a terrible machine.

Joan had had her dinner with Mother Hildegarde, a lady so ancient and holy that Joan had feared to breathe too heavily, lest Mother Hildegarde fragment like a stale croissant and go straight off to Heaven in front of her. Mother Hildegarde had been delighted with the letter Joan had brought, though; it brought a faint flush to her face.

‘From my— er . . .’ Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, what was the French word for stepmother? ‘Ahh . . . the wife of my . . .’ Fittens, she didn’t know the word for stepfather, either! ‘The wife of my father,’ she ended, weakly.

‘You are the daughter of my good friend Claire!’ Mother had exclaimed. ‘And how is she?’

‘Bonny, er . . . bon, I mean, last I saw her,’ said Joan, and then tried to explain, but there was a lot of French being talked very fast, and she gave up and accepted the glass of wine that Mother Hildegarde offered her. She was going to be a sot long before she took her vows, she thought, trying to hide her flushed face by bending down to pat Mother’s wee dog, a fluffy, friendly creature the colour of burnt sugar, named Bouton.

Whether it was the wine or Mother’s kindness, though, her wobbly spirit steadied. Mother had welcomed her to the community and kissed her forehead at the end of the meal, before sending her off in the charge of Sister Eustacia to see the convent.

Now she lay on her narrow cot in the dormitory, listening to the breathing of a dozen other postulants. It sounded like a byre full of cows, and had much the same warm, humid scent – bar the manure. Her eyes filled with tears, the vision of the homely stone byre at Balriggan sudden and vivid in her mind. She swallowed them back, though, pinching her lips together. A few of the girls sobbed quietly, missing home and family, but she wouldn’t be one of them. She was older than most – a few were nay more than fourteen – and she’d promised God to be brave.

It hadn’t been bad during the afternoon. Sister Eustacia had been very kind, taking her and a couple of other new postulants round the walled estate, showing them the big gardens where the convent grew medicinal herbs and fruit and vegetables for the table, the chapel where devotions were held six times a day, plus Mass in the mornings, the stables and kitchens, where they would take turns working – and the great Hôpital des Anges, the order’s main work. They had only seen the Hôpital from the outside, though; they would see the inside tomorrow, when Sister Marie-Amadeus would explain their duties.

It was strange, of course – she still understood only half what people said to her, and was sure from the looks on their faces that they understood much less of what she tried to say to them – but wonderful. She loved the idea of spiritual discipline, the hours of devotion, with the sense of peace and unity that came upon the Sisters as they chanted and prayed together. Loved the simple beauty of the chapel, amazing in its clean elegance, the solid lines of granite and the grace of carved wood, a faint smell of incense in the air, like the breath of angels.

The postulants prayed with the others, but did not yet sing. They would be trained in music, though, such excitement! Mother Hildegarde had been a famous musician in her youth, it was rumoured, and considered it one of the most important forms of devotion.

The thought of the new things she’d seen, and the new things to come, distracted her mind – a little – from thoughts of her mother’s voice, the wind off the moors . . . She shoved these hastily away, and reached for her new rosary, this a substantial thing with smooth wooden beads, lovely and comforting in the fingers.

Above all, there was peace. She hadn’t heard a word from the voices, hadn’t seen anything peculiar or alarming. She wasn’t foolish enough to think she’d escaped her dangerous gift, but at least there might be help at hand if – when – it came back.

And at least she already knew enough Latin to say her rosary properly; Da had taught her the proper words. ‘Ave, Maria,’ she whispered, ‘gratia plena, Dominus tecum,’ and closed her eyes, the sobs of the homesick fading in her ears as the beads moved slow and silent through her fingers.

The Next Day

Michael Murray stood in the aisle of the ageing-shed, feeling puny and unreal. He’d waked with a terrible headache, the result of having drunk a great deal of mixed spirits on an empty stomach, and while the headache had receded to a dull throb at the back of his skull, it had left him feeling trampled and left for dead.

His cousin Jared, owner of Fraser et Cie, looked at him with the cold eye of long experience, shook his head and sighed deeply, but said nothing, merely taking the list from his nerveless fingers and beginning the count on his own.

He wished Jared had rebuked him. Everyone still tiptoed round him, careful of him. And like a wet dressing on a wound, their care kept the wound of Lillie’s loss open and weeping. The sight of Léonie didn’t help, either – so much like Lillie to look at, so different in character. She said they must help and comfort one another, and to that end, came to visit every other day, or so it seemed. He really wished she would . . . just go away, though the thought shamed him.

‘How’s the wee nun, then?’ Jared’s voice, dry and matter-of-fact as always, drew him out of his bruised and soggy thoughts. ‘Give her a good send-off to the convent?’

‘Aye. Well – aye. More or less.’ Michael mustered up a feeble smile. He didn’t really want to think about Sister Joan-Gregory this morning, either.

‘What did ye give her?’ Jared handed the check-list to Humberto, the Italian shed-master, and looked Michael over appraisingly. ‘I hope it wasna the new Rioja that did that to ye.’

‘Ah . . . no.’ Michael struggled to focus his attention. The heady atmosphere of the shed, thick with the fruity exhalations of the resting casks, was making him dizzy. ‘It was Moselle. Mostly. Jerez sherry. And a bit of rum punch.’

‘Oh, I see.’ Jared’s ancient mouth quirked up on one side. ‘Did I never tell ye not to mix wine wi’ rum?’

‘Not above two hundred times, no.’ Jared was moving, and Michael followed him perforce down the narrow aisle, the casks in their serried ranks rising high above on either side.

‘Rum’s a demon. But whisky’s a virtuous dram,’ Jared said, pausing by a rack of small, blackened casks. ‘So long as it’s a good make, it’ll never turn on ye. Speakin’ of which . . .’ He tapped the end of one cask, which gave off the resonant deep thongk of a full barrel, ‘what’s this? It came up from the docks this morning.’

‘Oh, aye.’ Michael stifled a belch, and smiled painfully. ‘That, cousin, is the Ian Alastair Robert MacLeod Murray Memorial uisgebaugh. My da and Uncle Jamie made it during the winter. They thought ye might like a wee cask for your personal use.’

Jared’s brows rose and he gave Michael a swift sideways glance. Then he turned back to examine the cask, bending close to sniff at the seam between the lid and staves.

‘I’ve tasted it,’ Michael assured him. ‘I dinna think it will poison ye. But ye should maybe let it age a few years.’

Jared made a rude noise in his throat, and his hand curved gently over the swell of the staves. He stood thus for a moment as though in benediction, then turned suddenly and took Michael into his arms. His own breathing was hoarse, congested with sorrow. He was years older than Da and Uncle Jamie, but had known the two of them all their lives.

‘I’m sorry for your faither, lad,’ he said, after a moment, and let go, patting Michael on the shoulder. He looked at the cask and sniffed deeply. ‘I can tell it will be fine.’ He paused, breathing slowly, then nodded once, as though making up his mind to something.

‘I’ve a thing in mind, a charaid. I’d been thinking, since ye went to Scotland – and now that we’ve a kinswoman in the church, so to speak . . . come back to the office with me, and I’ll tell ye.’

It was chilly in the street, the leaning buildings shutting out the sun, but the goldsmith’s back room was cosy as a womb, with a porcelain stove throbbing with heat and woven wool hangings on the walls. Rakoczy hastily unwound the comforter about his neck; it didn’t do to sweat indoors; the sweat chilled the instant one went out again, and next thing you knew, it would be la grippe at the best, pleurisy or pneumonia at the worst.

Rosenwald himself was comfortable in shirt and waistcoat, without even a wig, only a plum-coloured turban to keep his polled scalp warm. The goldsmith’s stubby fingers traced the curves of the octafoil salver, turned it over – and stopped dead. Rakoczy felt a tingle of warning at the base of his spine, and deliberately relaxed himself, affecting a nonchalant self-confidence.