‘Proper? A young woman tries to make away with herself and you tell me it isn’t proper?’
A maid appeared in the doorway, a basket piled with bloodstained linen in her arms, but the look of shock on Madame Eugenie’s broad face was more striking.
‘Make away with herself?’ The old lady’s mouth hung open for a moment, then snapped shut like a turtle’s. ‘Why would you think such a thing?’ She was regarding him with considerable suspicion. ‘And what are you doing here, for that matter? Who told you she was ill?’
A glimpse of a man in a dark robe, who must be the doctor, decided Michael that little was to be gained by engaging further with Madame Eugenie. He took her gently but firmly by the elbows, picked her up – she uttered a small shriek of surprise – and set her aside.
He went in and shut the bedroom door behind him.
‘Who are you?’ The doctor looked up, surprised. He was wiping out a freshly used bleeding-bowl, and his case lay open on the boudoir’s settee. Léonie’s bedroom must lie beyond; the door was open, and he caught a glimpse of the foot of a bed, but could not see the bed’s inhabitant.
‘It doesn’t matter. How is she?’
The doctor eyed him narrowly, but after a moment, nodded.
‘She will live. As for the child . . .’ He made an equivocal motion of the hand. ‘I’ve done my best. She took a great deal of the—’
‘The child?’ The floor shifted under his feet, and the memory of the dream flooded him, that queer sense of something half-wrong, half-familiar. It was the feeling of a small, hard swelling, pressed against his bum; that’s what it was. Lillie had been only two months gone with child, but he remembered all too well the feeling of a woman’s body in early pregnancy.
‘It’s yours? I beg your pardon, I shouldn’t ask.’ The doctor put away his bowl and fleam, and shook out his black velvet turban.
‘I want— I need to talk to her. Now.’
The doctor opened his mouth in automatic protest, but then glanced thoughtfully over his shoulder.
‘Well . . . you must be careful not to—’ But Michael was already inside the bedroom, standing by the bed.
She was pale. They had always been pale, Lillie and Léonie, with the soft glow of cream and marble. This was the paleness of a frog’s belly, of a rotting fish, blanched on the shore.
Her eyes were ringed with black, sunk in her head. They rested on his face, flat, expressionless, as still as the ringless hands that lay limp on the coverlet.
‘Who?’ he said quietly. ‘Charles?’
‘Yes.’ Her voice was as dull as her eyes, and he wondered whether the doctor had drugged her.
‘Was it his idea – to try to foist the child off on me? Or yours?’
She did look away then, and her throat moved.
‘His.’ The eyes came back to him. ‘I didn’t want to, Michel. Not – not that I find you disgusting, not that . . .’
‘Merci,’ he muttered, but she went on, disregarding him.
‘You were Lillie’s husband. I didn’t envy her you,’ she said frankly, ‘but I envied what you had together. It couldn’t be like that between you and me, and I didn’t like betraying her. But—’ her lips, already pale, compressed to invisibility, ‘I didn’t have much choice.’
He was obliged to admit that she hadn’t. Charles couldn’t marry her; he had a wife – and children. Bearing an illegitimate child was not a fatal scandal in high Court circles, but the Galantines were of the emerging bourgeoisie, where respectability counted for almost as much as money. Finding herself pregnant, she would have had two alternatives: find a complaisant husband quickly, or . . . he tried not to see that one of her hands rested lightly across the slight swell of her stomach.
The child . . . He wondered what he would have done, had she come to him and told him the truth, if she had asked him to marry her for the sake of the child. But she hadn’t. And she wasn’t asking now. He couldn’t bring himself to offer.
It would be best – or at least easiest – were she to lose the child. And she might yet.
‘I couldn’t wait, you see,’ she said, as though continuing a conversation. ‘I would have tried to find someone else, but I thought she knew. She’d tell you as soon as she could manage to see you. So I had to, you see, before you found out.’
‘She? Who? Tell me what?’
‘The nun,’ Léonie said, and sighed deeply, as though losing interest. ‘She saw me in the market, and rushed up to me. She said she had to talk to you – that she had something important to tell you. I saw her look into my basket, though, and her face . . . thought she must realise . . .’
Her eyelids were fluttering, whether from drugs or fatigue. She smiled faintly, but not at him; she seemed to be looking at something a long way off.
‘So funny,’ she murmured. ‘Charles said it would solve everything, that the comte would pay him such a lot for her, it would solve everything. But how can you solve a baby?’
Michael jerked as though her words had stabbed him.
‘What? Pay for whom?’
‘The nun. I told Charles that you woke, and it wouldn’t work, but he said it didn’t matter, because the comte would pay him for finding the nun, and—’
He grabbed her by the shoulders.
‘The nun? Sister Joan? What do you mean, pay for her? What did Charles tell you?’
She made a whiny sound of protest. Michael wanted to shake her hard enough to break her neck, but forced himself to withdraw his hand. She settled into the pillow like a bladder losing air, flattening under the bedclothes. Her eyes were closed, but he bent close, speaking directly into her ear.
‘This comte, Léonie. What is his name? Tell me his name.’
A faint frown rippled the flesh of her brow, then passed.
‘St Germain,’ she murmured, scarcely loud enough to be heard. ‘The Comte St Germain.’
Michael went instantly to Rosenwald, and by dint of badgering and the promise of extra payment, got him to finish the engraving on the chalice at once. He waited impatiently while it was done, and scarcely waiting for the cup and paten to be wrapped in brown paper, flung money to the goldsmith and made for the Convent des Anges, almost running.
With great difficulty, he restrained himself while making the presentation of the chalice, and with great humility, inquired whether he might ask the great favour of seeing Sister Gregory, that he might convey a message to her from her family in the Highlands. Sister Eustacia looked surprised and somewhat disapproving – postulants were not normally permitted visits – but after all . . . in view of Monsieur Murray’s and Monsieur Fraser’s great generosity to the convent . . . perhaps just a few moments, in the visitor’s parlour, and in the presence of Sister herself . . .
Michael turned, and blinked once, his mouth opening a little. He looked shocked. Did she look so different in her robe and veil?
‘It’s me,’ Joan said, and tried to smile reassuringly. ‘I mean . . . still me.’
His eyes fixed on her face, and he let out a deep breath and smiled, like she’d been lost and he’d found her again.
‘Aye, so it is,’ he said softly. ‘I was afraid it was Sister Gregory. I mean, the . . . er . . .’ He made a sketchy, awkward gesture indicating her grey robes and white postulant’s veil.
‘It’s only clothes,’ she said, and put a hand to her chest, defensive.
‘Well, no,’ he said, looking her over carefully, ‘I dinna think it is, quite. It’s more like a soldier’s uniform, no? Ye’re doing your job when ye wear it, and everybody as sees it kens what ye are and knows what ye do.’
Kens what I am. I suppose I should be pleased it doesn’t show, she thought, a little wildly.
‘Well . . . aye, I suppose.’ She fingered the rosary at her belt. She coughed. ‘In a way, at least.’
Ye’ve got to tell him. It wasn’t one of the voices, just the voice of her own conscience, but that was demanding enough. She could feel her heart beating, so hard that she thought the bumping must show through the front of her habit.
He smiled encouragingly at her.
‘Léonie told me ye wanted to see me.’
‘Michael . . . can I tell ye something?’ she blurted. He looked surprised.
‘Well, of course ye can,’ he said. ‘Whyever not?’
‘Whyever not,’ she said, half under her breath. She glanced over his shoulder, but Sister Eustacia was on the far side of the room, talking to a very young, frightened-looking French girl and her parents.
‘Well, it’s like this, see,’ she said, in a determined voice. ‘I hear voices.’
She stole a look at him, but he didn’t look shocked. Not yet.
‘In my head, I mean.’
‘Aye?’ He looked cautious. ‘Um . . . what do they say, then?’
She realised she was holding her breath, and let a little of it out.
‘Ah . . . different things. But they now and then tell me something’s going to happen. More often, they tell me I should say thus-and-so to someone.’
‘Thus and so,’ he repeated attentively, watching her face. ‘What . . . sort of thus-and-so?’
‘I wasna expecting the Spanish Inquisition,’ she said, a little testily. ‘Does it matter?’
His mouth twitched.
‘Well, I dinna ken, now, do I?’ he pointed out. ‘It might give a clue as to who’s talkin’ to ye, might it not? Or do ye already know that?’
‘No, I don’t,’ she admitted, and felt a sudden lessening of tension. ‘I— I was worrit – a bit – that it might be demons. But it doesna really . . . well, they dinna tell me wicked sorts of things. Just . . . more like, when something’s going to happen to a person. And sometimes it’s no a good thing – but sometimes it is. There was wee Annie MacLaren, her wi’ a big belly by the third month, and by six, lookin’ as though she’d burst, and she was frightened she was goin’ to die come her time, like her ain mother did, wi’ a babe too big to be born – I mean, really frightened, not just like all women are. And I met her by St Ninian’s spring one day, and one of the voices said to me, Tell her it will be as God wills and she will be delivered safely of a son.’
‘And ye did tell her that?’
‘Yes. I didna say how I knew, but I must have sounded like I did know, because her poor face got bright all of a sudden, and she grabbed onto my hands and said, ‘Oh! From your lips to God’s ear!’
‘And was she safely delivered of a son?’
‘Aye – and a daughter, too. It was twins.’ Joan smiled, remembering the glow on Annie’s face.
Michael glanced aside at Sister Eustacia, who was bidding farewell to the new postulant’s family. The girl was white-faced and tears ran down her cheeks, but she clung to Sister Eustacia’s sleeve as though it were a lifeline.
‘I see,’ he said slowly, and looked back at Joan. ‘Is that why— is it the voices told ye to be a nun, then?’