A Trail of Fire (Page 53)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(53)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Leave,’ said Berthe with a flip of the hand, and the woman got up at once and went out. Michael saw that she’d been making a wreath of laurel leaves, and had the sudden absurd thought that she meant to crown Charles with it, in the manner of a Greek hero.

‘He cut his throat,’ Berthe said. ‘The coward.’ She spoke with an eerie calmness, and Michael wondered what might happen when the shock that surrounded her began to dissipate.

He made a respectful sort of noise in his throat, and touching her arm gently, went past her to look down at his friend.

Don’t do it. That’s what Joan said the voices had told her. Was this what they’d meant?

The dead man didn’t look peaceful. There were lines of stress in his countenance that hadn’t yet smoothed out, and he appeared to be frowning. The undertaker’s people had cleaned the body and dressed him in a slightly worn suit of dark blue; Michael thought that it was probably the only thing Charles had owned that was in any way appropriate in which to appear dead, and suddenly missed his friend’s frivolity with a surge that brought unexpected tears to his eyes.

Don’t do it. He hadn’t come in time. If I’d come right away, when she told me – would it have stopped him?

He could smell the blood, a rusty, sickly smell that seeped through the freshness of the flowers and leaves. The undertaker had tied a white neckcloth for Charles – he’d used an old-fashioned knot, nothing that Charles himself would have worn for a moment. The black stitches showed above it, though, the wound harsh against the dead man’s livid skin.

Michael’s own shock was beginning to fray, and stabs of guilt and anger poked through it like needles.

‘Coward?’ he said softly. He didn’t mean it as a question, but it seemed more courteous to say it that way. Berthe snorted and looking up, he met the full charge of her eyes. No, not shocked any longer.

‘You’d know, wouldn’t you,’ she said, and it wasn’t at all a question, the way she said it. ‘You knew about your slut of a sister-in-law, didn’t you? And his other mistresses?’ Her lips curled away from the word.

‘I— no. I mean . . . Léonie told me yesterday. That was why I came to talk to Charles.’ Well, he would certainly have mentioned Léonie. And he wasn’t going anywhere near the mention of Babette, whom he’d known about for quite some time. But Jesus, what did the woman think he could have done about it?

‘Coward,’ she said, looking down at Charles’s body with contempt. ‘He made a mess of everything – everything! – and then couldn’t deal with it, so he runs off and leaves me alone, with children, penniless!’

Don’t do it.

Michael looked to see if this was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t. She was burning now, but with fear as much as anger, her frozen calm quite vanished.

‘The . . . house . . .’ he began, with a rather vague wave around the expensive, stylish room. He knew it was her family house; she’d brought it to the marriage.

She snorted.

‘He lost it in a card game last week,’ she said bitterly. ‘If I’m lucky, the new owner will let me bury him before we have to leave.’

‘Ah.’ The mention of card games jolted him back to an awareness of his reason for coming here. ‘I wonder, madame, do you know an acquaintance of Charles’s – the Comte St Germain?’ It was crude, but he hadn’t time to think of a graceful way to come to it.

Berthe blinked, nonplussed.

‘The comte? Why do you want to know about him?’ Her expression sharpened into eagerness. ‘Do you think he owes Charles money?’

‘I don’t know, but I’ll certainly find out for you,’ Michael promised her. ‘If you can tell me where to find Monsieur le Comte.’

She didn’t laugh, but her mouth quirked in what might, in another mood, have been humour.

‘He lives across the street.’ She pointed toward the window. ‘In that big pile of— where are you going?’

But Michael was already through the door and into the hallway, bootheels clattering on the parquet in his haste.

There were footsteps coming up the stairs; Joan started away from the window, but then craned back, desperately willing the door across the street to open and let Michael out. What was he doing there?

That door didn’t open, but a key rattled in the lock of the door to the room. In desperation, she tore the rosary from her belt and pushed it through the hole in the window, then dashed across the room and threw herself into one of the repulsive chairs.

It was the comte. He glanced round, worried for an instant, and then his face relaxed when he saw her. He came toward her, holding out his hand.

‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, mademoiselle,’ he said, very courtly. ‘Come, please. I have something to show you.’

‘I don’t want to see it.’ She stiffened a little and tucked her feet under her, to make it harder for him to pick her up. If she could just delay him until Michael came out! But he might well not see her rosary – or, even if he did, know it was hers. Why should he? All nuns’ rosaries looked the same!

She strained her ears, hoping to hear the sounds of departure on the other side of the street – she’d scream her lungs out. In fact . . .

The comte sighed a little, but bent and took her by the elbows, lifting her straight up, her knees still absurdly bent. He was really very strong. She put her feet down, and there she was, her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow, being led across the room toward the door, docile as a cow on its way to be milked! She made her mind up in an instant, yanked free and ran to the smashed window.

‘HELP!’ she bellowed through the broken pane. ‘Help me, help me! Au secours, I mean! AU SECOU—’ The comte’s hand clapped across her mouth, and he said something in French that she was sure must be bad language. He scooped her up, so fast that the wind was knocked out of her, and had her through the door before she could make another sound.

Michael didn’t pause for hat or cloak, but burst into the street, so fast that his driver started out of a doze and the horses jerked and neighed in protest. He didn’t pause for that, either, but shot across the cobbles and pounded on the door of the house, a big bronze-coated affair that boomed under his fists.

It couldn’t have been very long, but seemed an eternity. He fumed, pounded again, and pausing for breath, caught sight of the rosary on the pavement. He ran to catch it up, scratched his hand, and saw that it lay in a scatter of glass fragments. At once he looked up, searching, and saw the broken window just as the big door opened.

He sprang at the butler like a wildcat, seizing him by the arms.

‘Where is she? Where, damn you?’

‘She? But there is no she, monsieur . . . Monsieur le Comte lives quite alone. You—’

‘Where is Monsieur le Comte?’ Michael’s sense of urgency was so great he felt that he might strike the man. The man apparently felt he might, too, because he turned pale, and wrenching himself loose, fled into the depths of the house. With no more than an instant’s hesitation, Michael pursued him.

The butler, his feet fuelled by fear, flew down the hall, Michael in grim pursuit. The man burst through the door into the kitchen; Michael was dimly aware of the shocked faces of cooks and maids, and then they were out into the kitchen-garden. The butler slowed for an instant going down the steps, and Michael launched himself at the man, knocking him flat.

They rolled together on the gravelled path, then Michael got on top of the smaller man, seized him by the shirt-front and shaking him, shouted, ‘WHERE IS HE?’

Thoroughly undone, the butler covered his face with one arm and pointed blindly toward a gate in the wall.

Michael leapt off the supine body and ran. He could hear the rumble of coach-wheels, the rattle of hooves – he flung open the gate in time to see the back of a coach rattling down the allée, and a gaping servant, paused in the act of sliding to the doors of a carriage house. He ran, but it was clear that he’d never catch the coach on foot.

‘JOAN!’ he bellowed after the vanishing equipage. ‘I’m coming!’

He didn’t waste time in questioning the servant, but ran back, pushing his way through the maids and footmen gathered round the cowering butler, and burst out of the house, startling his own coachman afresh.

‘That way!’ he shouted, pointing toward the distant conjunction of the Rue St André and the allée, where the comte’s coach was just emerging. ‘Follow that coach! Vite!’

‘Vite!’ Rakoczy urged his coachman on, then sank back, letting fall the hatch in the roof. The light was fading; his errand had taken longer than he’d expected, and he wanted to be out of the city before night fell. The city streets were dangerous at night.

His captive was staring at him, her eyes enormous in the dim light. She’d lost her postulant’s veil and her dark hair was loose on her shoulders. She looked charming, but very scared. He reached into the bag on the floor and pulled out a flask of brandy.

‘Have a little of this, Chérie.’ He removed the cork and handed it to her. She took it, but looked uncertain what to do with it, nose wrinkling at the hot smell.

‘Really,’ he assured her. ‘It will make you feel better.’

‘That’s what they all say,’ she said in her slow, awkward French.

‘All of whom?’ he asked, startled.

‘The Old Ones. I don’t know what you call them in French, exactly. The folk that live in the hills – souterrain?’ she added doubtfully. ‘Underground?’

‘Underground? And they give you brandy?’ He smiled at her, but his heart gave a sudden thump of excitement. Perhaps she was. He’d doubted his instincts, when his touch failed to kindle her, but clearly she was something.

‘They give you food and drink,’ she said, putting the flask down into the space between the squab and the wall. ‘But if you take any, you lose time.’

The spurt of excitement came again, stronger. She knows! She is!

‘Lose time?’ he repeated, encouraging. ‘How do you mean?’

She struggled to find words, smooth brow furrowed with the effort.

‘They – you – one who is enchanted by them . . . he, it? . . . no, he— goes into the hill and there’s music and feasting and dancing. But in the morning, when he goes . . . back . . . it’s two hundred years later than it was when he went to feast with the— the— Folk. Everybody he knew has turned to dust.’ Her throat moved as she swallowed, and her eyes glistened a little.

‘How interesting!’ he said. It was. He also wondered, with a fresh spasm of excitement, whether the old paintings, the ones far back in the bowels of the chalk mine, might have been made by these Folk, whoever they were.

She observed him narrowly, apparently looking for an indication that he was a faery. He smiled at her, though his heart was now thumping audibly in his ears. Two hundred years! For that was what Mélisande had told him was the usual period, when one travelled through stone. It could be changed by use of gemstones, or of blood, she said, but that was the usual. And it had been, the first time he went back.