She blinked, surprised by his apparent acceptance of what she’d told him, but more so by the question.
‘Well . . . no. They never did. Ye’d think they would have, wouldn’t ye?’
He smiled a little.
‘Maybe so.’ He coughed, then looked up, a little shyly. ‘It’s no my business, but what did make ye want to be a nun?’
She hesitated, but why not? She’d already told him the hardest bit.
‘Because of the voices. I thought maybe— maybe I wouldna hear them in here. Or . . . if I still did, maybe somebody – a priest, maybe? – could tell me what they were, and what I should do about them.’
Sister Eustacia was comforting the new girl, half-sunk on one knee to bring her big, homely, sweet face close to the girl’s. Michael glanced at them, then back at Joan, one eyebrow raised.
‘I’m guessing ye havena told anyone yet,’ he said. ‘Did ye reckon ye’d practise on me, first?’
Her own mouth twitched.
‘Maybe.’ His eyes were dark, but had a sort of warmth to them, like they drew it from the heat of his hair. She looked down; her hands were pleating the edge of her blouse, which had come untucked. ‘It’s no just that, though.’
He made the sort of noise in his throat that meant, ‘Aye, then, go on.’ Why didn’t French people do like that? she wondered. So much easier. But she pushed the thought aside; she’d made up her mind to tell him, and now was the time to do it.
‘I told ye because— your friend,’ she blurted. ‘The one I met at your house. Monsieur Pépin,’ she added impatiently, when he looked blank.
‘Aye?’ He sounded as baffled as he looked.
‘Aye. When I met him, a voice said, “Tell him not to do it.” And I didn’t – I was frightened.’
‘I would ha’ been a bit disturbed myself,’ he assured her. ‘It didna say what he oughtn’t to do, though?’
She bit her lip.
‘No, it didn’t. And then, two days ago, I saw the man – the comte, Sister Mercy said he was, the Comte St Germain – in the market, and the voice said the same thing, only a good bit more urgent. “Tell him not to do it. Tell him he must not do it!” ’
‘Aye, and it was verra firm about it. I mean – they are, usually. It’s no just an opinion, take it or leave it. But this one truly meant it.’ She spread her hands, helpless to explain the feeling of dread and urgency.
Michael’s thick red eyebrows drew together.
‘D’ye think it’s the same thing they’re not supposed to do?’ He sounded startled. ‘I didna ken they even knew each other.’
‘Well, I don’t know, now, do I?’ she said, a little exasperated. ‘The voices didn’t say. But I saw that the man on the ship was going to die, and I didna say anything, because I couldn’t think what to say. And then he did die, and maybe he wouldn’t, if I’d spoken . . . so I— well, I thought I’d best say something to someone, and at least ye ken Monsieur Pépin.’
He thought about that for a moment, then nodded uncertainly.
‘Aye. All right. I’ll— well, I dinna ken what to do about it either, to be honest. But I’ll talk to them both and I’ll have that in my mind, so maybe I’ll think of something. D’ye want me to tell them, “Don’t do it”?’
She grimaced, and looked at Sister Eustacia. There wasn’t much time.
‘I already told the comte. Just— maybe. If ye think it might help. Now—’ Her hand darted under her apron and she passed him the slip of paper, fast. ‘We’re only allowed to write to our families twice a year,’ she said, lowering her voice. ‘But I wanted Mam to know I was all right. Could ye see she gets that, please? And— and maybe tell her a bit, yourself, that I’m weel and— and happy. Tell her I’m happy,’ she repeated, more firmly.
Sister Eustacia had come back, and was standing by the door, emanating an intent to come and tell them it was time for Michael to leave.
‘I will,’ he said. He couldn’t touch her, he knew that, so bowed instead, and bowed deeply to Sister Eustacia, who came toward them, looking benevolent.
‘I’ll come to Mass at the chapel on Sundays, how’s that?’ he said rapidly. ‘If I’ve a letter from your mam, or ye have to speak to me, gie me a wee roll of the eyes or something. I’ll figure something out.’
The Next Day
Sister Joan-Gregory, postulant of Our Lady Queen of Angels, regarded the bum of a large cow. The cow in question was named Mirabeau, and was of uncertain temper, as evidenced by the nervously lashing tail.
‘She’s kicked three of us this week,’ said Sister Anne-Joseph, eyeing the cow resentfully. ‘And spilt the milk twice. Sister Jeanne-Marie was most upset.’
‘Well, we canna have that now, can we?’ Joan murmured in English. ‘N’inquiétez-vous pas,’ she added in French, hoping that was at least vaguely grammatical. ‘Let me do it.’
‘Better you than me,’ Sister Anne-Joseph said, crossing herself, and vanished before Sister Joan might think better of the offer.
A week spent working in the cow-shed was intended as punishment for her flighty behaviour in the marketplace, but Joan was grateful for it. There was nothing better for steadying the nerves than cows.
Granted, the convent’s cows were not quite like her mother’s sweet-tempered, shaggy red Hieland coos, but if you came right down to it, a cow was a cow, and even a French-speaking wee besom like the present Mirabeau was no match for Joan Mac-Kimmie, who’d driven kine to and from the shielings for years, and fed her mother’s kine in the byre beside the house with sweet hay and the leavings from supper.
With that in mind, she circled Mirabeau thoughtfully, eyeing the steadily champing jaws and the long slick of blackish-green drool that hung down from slack pink lips. She nodded once, slipped out of the cow-shed, and made her way down the allée behind it, picking what she could find. Mirabeau, presented with a bouquet of fresh grasses, tiny daisies, and – delicacy of all delicacies – fresh sorrel, bulged her eyes half out of her head, opened her massive jaw, and inhaled the sweet stuff. The ominous tail ceased its lashing and the massive creature stood as if turned to stone, aside from the ecstatically grinding jaws.
Joan sighed in satisfaction, sat down, and resting her head on Mirabeau’s monstrous flank, got down to business. Her mind, released, took up the next worry of the day.
Had Michael spoken to his friend Pépin? And if so, had he told him what she’d said, or just asked whether he kent the Comte St Germain? Because if tell him not to do it referred to the same thing, then plainly the two men must be acquent with each other.
She had got thus far in her ruminations, when Mirabeau’s tail began to switch again. She hurriedly stripped the last of the milk from Mirabeau’s teats and snatched the bucket out of the way, standing up in a hurry. Then she saw what had disturbed the cow.
The man in the dove-grey coat was standing in the door to the shed, watching her. She hadn’t noticed before, in the market, but he had a handsome dark face, though rather hard about the eyes, and with a chin that brooked no opposition. He smiled pleasantly at her, though, and bowed.
‘Mademoiselle. I must ask you, please, to come with me.’
Michael was in the warehouse, stripped to his shirtsleeves and sweating in the hot, wine-heady atmosphere, when Jared appeared, looking disturbed.
‘What is it, cousin?’ Michael wiped his face on a towel, leaving black streaks; the crew were clearing the racks on the southeast wall, and there were years of filth and cobwebs behind the most ancient casks.
‘Ye haven’t got that wee nun in your bed, have ye, Michael?’ Jared lifted a beetling grey brow at him.
‘Have I what?’
‘I’ve just had a message from the Mother Superior of the Convent des Anges, saying that one Sister Gregory appears to have been abducted from their cow-shed, and wanting to know whether you might possibly have anything to do with the matter.’
Michael stared at his cousin for a moment, unable to take this in.
‘Abducted?’ he said stupidly. ‘Who would be kidnapping a nun? What for?’
‘Well, now, there ye have me.’ Jared was carrying Michael’s coat over his arm, and at this point, handed it to him. ‘But maybe best ye go to the convent and find out.’
‘Forgive me, Mother,’ Michael said carefully. Mother Hildegarde looked fragile and transparent, as though a breath would make her disintegrate. ‘Did ye think— is it possible that Sister J— Sister Gregory might have . . . left of her own accord?’
The old nun gave him a look that revised his opinion of her state of health instantly.
‘We did,’ she said. ‘It happens. However—’ She raised one stick-like finger. ‘One: there were signs of a considerable struggle in the cow-shed. A full bucket of milk not merely spilt, but apparently thrown at something, the manger overturned, the door left open and two of the cows escaped into the herb garden.’ Another finger. ‘Two: had Sister Gregory experienced doubt regarding her vocation, she was quite free to leave the convent after speaking with me, and she knew that.’
One more finger, and the old nun’s black eyes bored into his. ‘And three: had she felt it necessary to leave suddenly and without informing us, where would she go? To you, Monsieur Murray. She knows no one else in Paris, does she?’
‘I— well, no, not really.’ He was flustered, almost stammering, confusion and a burgeoning alarm for Joan making it difficult to think.
‘But you have not seen her since you brought us the chalice and paten – and I thank you and your cousin with the deepest sentiments of gratitude, monsieur – that would be two days ago?’
‘No.’ He shook his head, trying to clear it. ‘No, Mother.’
Mother Hildegarde nodded, her lips nearly invisible, pressed together amid the lines of her face.
‘Did she say anything to you on that occasion? Anything that might assist us in discovering her?’
‘I— well . . .’ Jesus, should he tell her what Joan had said about the voices she heard? It couldn’t have anything to do with this, surely, and it wasna his secret to share. On the other hand, Joan had said she meant to tell Mother Hildegarde about them . . .
‘You’d better tell me, my son.’ The Mother Superior’s voice was somewhere between resignation and command. ‘I see she told you something.’
‘Well, she did, then, Mother,’ he said, rubbing a hand over his face in distraction. ‘But I canna see how it has anything to do— she hears voices,’ he blurted, seeing Mother Hildegarde’s eyes narrow dangerously.
The eyes went round.
‘Voices,’ he said helplessly. ‘They come and say things to her. She thinks maybe they’re angels, but she doesn’t know. And she can see when folk are going to die. Sometimes,’ he added dubiously. ‘I don’t know whether she can always say.’