"Ha!" she let out a cry of triumph, and held out one of the Bach pieces to me. "See there?"
The paper was titled "Goldberg Variations," in a crabbed, smeared hand. I touched the paper with some awe, swallowed hard, and looked back at the "Lied." It took only a moment’s comparison to see what she meant.
"You’re right, it’s the same!" I said. "A note different here and there, but basically it’s exactly the same as the original theme of the Bach piece. How very peculiar!"
"Isn’t it?" she said, in tones of deep satisfaction. "Now, why is this anonymous composer stealing melodies and treating them in such an odd fashion?"
This was clearly a rhetorical question, and I didn’t bother with an answer, but asked one of my own.
"Is Bach’s music much in vogue these days, Mother?" I certainly hadn’t heard any at the musical salons I attended.
"No," she said, shaking her head as she peered at the music. "Herr Bach is not well known in France; I believe he had some small popularity in Germany and in Austria fifteen or twenty years ago, but even there his music is not performed much publicly. I am afraid his music is not the sort to endure; clever, but no heart. Hmph. Now, see here?" The blunt forefinger tapped here, and here, and here, turning pages rapidly.
"He has repeated the same melody—almost—but changed the key each time. I think this is perhaps what attracted your husband’s notice; it is obvious even to someone who doesn’t read music, because of the changing signatures—the note tonique."
It was; each key change was marked by a double vertical line followed by a new treble clef sign and the signature of sharps or flats.
"Five key changes in such a short piece," she said, tapping the last one again for emphasis. "And changes that make no sense at all, in terms of music. Look, the basic line is precisely the same, yet we move from the key of two flats, which is B-flat major, to A-major, with three sharps. Stranger yet, now he goes to a signature of two sharps, and yet he uses the G-sharp accidental!"
"How very peculiar," I said. Adding a G-sharp accidental to the section in D-major had the effect of making the musical line identical with the A-major section. In other words, there was no reason whatsoever to have changed the key signature.
"I don’t know German," I said. "Can you read the words, Mother?"
She nodded, the folds of her black veil rustling with the movement, small eyes intent on the manuscript.
"What truly execrable lyrics!" she murmured to herself. "Not that one expects great poetry from Germans in general, but really…still—" She broke off with a shake of her veil. "We must assume that if your husband is correct in assuming this to be a cipher of some sort, that the message lies embedded in these words. They may therefore not be of great import in themselves."
"What does it say?" I asked.
" ‘My shepherdess frolics with her lambs among the verdant hills,’ " she read. "Horrible grammar, though of course liberties are often taken in writing songs, if the lyricist insists upon the lines rhyming, which they nearly always do if it is a love song."
"You know a lot about love songs?" I asked curiously. Full of surprises tonight, was Mother Hildegarde.
"Any piece of good music is in essence a love song," she replied matter-of-factly. "But as for what you mean—yes, I have seen a great many. When I was a young girl"—she flashed her large white teeth in a smile, acknowledging the difficulty of imagining her as a child—"I was something of a prodigy, you understand. I could play from memory anything I heard, and I wrote my first composition at the age of seven." She gestured at the harpsichord, the rich veneer shining with polish.
"My family has wealth; had I been a man, no doubt I would have been a musician." She spoke simply, with no trace of regret.
"Surely you could still have composed music, if you’d married?" I asked curiously.
Mother Hildegarde spread her hands, grotesque in the lamplight. I had seen those hands wrench loose a dagger embedded in bone, guide a displaced joint back into alignment, cup the blood-smeared head of a child emerging from between its mother’s thighs. And I had seen those fingers linger on the ebony keys with the delicacy of moths’ feet.
"Well," she said, after a moment’s contemplation, "it is the fault of St. Anselm."
She grinned at my expression, her ugly face quite transformed from its stern public facade.
"Oh, yes. My godfather—the Old Sun King," she added casually, "gave to me a book of the Lives of the Saints for my own Saint’s Day when I was eight. It was a beautiful book," she said reminiscently, "with gilded pages and a jeweled cover; intended more as a work of art than a work of literature. Still, I read it. And while I enjoyed all of the stories—particularly those of the martyrs—still there was one phrase in the story of St. Anselm that seemed to strike a response in my soul."
She closed her eyes and tilted back her head, recalling.
"St. Anselm was a man of great wisdom and great learning, a Doctor of the Church. But also a bishop, a man who cared for the people of his flock, and looked after their temporal needs as well as those of the spirit. The story detailed all of his works, and then concluded in these words—‘And so he died, at the conclusion of an eminently useful life, and thus obtained his crown in Paradise.’ " She paused, flexing her hands lightly on her knees.
"There was something about that that appealed most strongly to me. ‘An eminently useful life.’ " She smiled at me. "I could think of many worse epitaphs than that, milady." She spread her hands suddenly and shrugged, an oddly graceful gesture.
"I wished to be useful," she said. Then, dismissing idle conversation, she turned abruptly back to the music on the rack.
"So," she said. "Plainly the change in the key signatures— the note tonique—that is the oddity. Where can we go with that?"
My mouth dropped open with a small exclamation. Speaking in French as we had been, I hadn’t noticed before. But observing Mother Hildegarde as she told her story, I had been thinking in English, and when I glanced back at the music it hit me.
"What is it?" the nun asked. "You have thought of something?"
"The key!" I said, half-laughing. "In French, a musical key is the note tonique, but the word for an object that unlocks…" I pointed to the large bunch of keys—normally carried on her girdle—that Mother Hildegarde had laid aside on the bookshelf when we came in. "That is a passe-partout, isn’t it?"
"Yes," she said, watching me in puzzlement. She touched the skeleton key in turn. "Une passe-partout. That one," she said, pointing to a key with barrel and wards, "is more likely called a clef."
"A clef!" I exclaimed joyously. "Perfect!" I stabbed a finger at the sheet of music before us. "See, ma mère, in English, the words are the same. A ‘key’ gives the basis of a piece of music, and a ‘key’ unlocks. In French, the clef is a key, and in English, the ‘clef’ is also part of the musical signature. And the key of the music is also the key to the cipher. Jamie said he thought it was an English cipher! Made by an Englishman with a really diabolical sense of humor, too," I added.
With that small insight, the cipher proved not too difficult to unravel. If the maker was English, the ciphered message likely was in English, too, which meant that the German words were provided only as a source of letters. And having seen Jamie’s earlier efforts with alphabets and shifting letters, it took only a few tries to determine the pattern of the cipher.
"Two flats means you must take every second letter, starting from the beginning of the section," I said, frantically scribbling down the results. "And three sharps means to take every third letter, beginning at the end of the section. I suppose he used German both for concealment and because it’s so bloody wordy; it takes nearly twice as many words to say the same thing as it would in English."
"You have got ink on your nose," Mother Hildegarde observed. She peered over my shoulder. "Does it make sense?"
"Yes," I said, my mouth gone suddenly dry. "Yes, it makes sense."
Deciphered, the message was brief and simple. Also deeply disturbing.
"His Majesty’s loyal subjects of England await his lawful restoration. The sum of fifty thousand pounds is at your disposal. As an earnest of good faith, this will be paid only in person, upon His Highness’s arrival on the soil of England," I read. "And there’s a letter left over, an ‘S.’ I don’t know if that’s a signature of sorts, or only something the maker needed to make the German word come out right."
"Hmph." Mother Hildegarde glanced curiously at the scribbled message, then at me. "You will know already, of course," she said, with a nod, "but you may assure your husband that I will keep this in confidence."
"He wouldn’t have asked your help if he didn’t trust you," I protested.
The sketchy brows rose to the edge of her wimple, and she tapped the scribbled paper firmly.
"If this is the sort of endeavor in which your husband engages, he takes considerable risk in trusting anyone. Assure him that I am sensible of the honor," she added dryly.
"I’ll do that," I said, smiling.
"Why, chère Madame," she said, catching sight of me, "you are looking quite pale! I myself often stay awake far into the night when I am working on a new piece, so I tend to pay little attention to the hour, but it must be late for you." She glanced at the hour-candle burning on the little table near the door.
"Gracious! It is growing late. Shall I summon Sister Madeleine to take you to your chamber?" Jamie had agreed, reluctantly, with Mother Hildegarde’s suggestion that I spend the night at the Couvent des Anges, so that I need not return home through the dark streets late at night.
I shook my head. I was tired, and my back ached from sitting on the stool, but I didn’t want to go to bed. The implications of the musical message were too disturbing to permit me to sleep right away, in any case.
"Well, then, let us take a little refreshment, in celebration of your accomplishment." Mother Hildegarde rose and went to the outer room, where I heard the ringing of a bell. Shortly one of the serving sisters came, bearing a tray of hot milk and small, iced cakes, and followed by Bouton. The serving sister placed a cake on a small china plate and set it on the floor before him as a matter of course, laying beside it a bowl of milk.
While I sipped my own hot milk, Mother Hildegarde set aside the source of our labors, laying it on the secretary, and instead placed a loose sheaf of music manuscript on the rack of the harpsichord.
"I shall play for you," she announced. "It will help to compose your mind for sleep."
The music was light and soothing, with a singing melody that wove back and forth from treble voice to bass in a pattern of pleasing complexity, but without the driving force of Bach.
"Is that yours?" I asked, choosing a pause as she lifted her hands at the conclusion of the piece.
She shook her head without turning around.
"No. A friend of mine, Jean Philippe Rameau. A good theorist, but he does not write with great passion."
I must have dozed, the music lulling my senses, for I woke suddenly to the murmur of Sister Madeleine’s voice in my ear, and her warm, firm grip under my arm, lifting me to my feet and leading me away.
Looking back, I could see the broad span of Mother Hildegarde’s black-swathed back, and the flex of powerful shoulders beneath the drape of her veil as she played, oblivious now to the world beyond the sanctum of her chamber. On the boards near her feet lay Bouton, nose on his paws, small body laid straight as the needle of a compass.
"So," Jamie said, "it’s gone a little further than talk—maybe."
"Maybe?" I echoed. "An offer of fifty thousand pounds sounds fairly definite." Fifty thousand pounds, by current standards, was the yearly income of a good-sized duchy.
He raised one eyebrow cynically at the musical manuscript I had brought back with me from the convent.
"Aye, well. An offer like that is fairly safe, it it’s contingent on either Charles or James setting foot in England. If Charles is in England, it means he’s gotten sufficient backing from other places to get him to Scotland, first. No," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "what’s interesting about this offer is that it’s the first definite sign we’ve seen that the Stuarts—or one of them, at least—are actually making an effort at mounting a restoration attempt."
"One of them?" I caught the emphasis. "You mean you think James isn’t in on this?" I looked at the coded message with even more interest.
"The message came to Charles," Jamie reminded me, "and it came from England—not through Rome. Fergus got it from a regular messenger, in a packet marked with English seals; not from a papal messenger. And everything I’ve seen in James’s letters—" He shook his head, frowning. He hadn’t yet shaved, and the morning light caught random sparks of copper among the auburn stubble of his beard.
"The packet had been opened; Charles has seen this manuscript. There was no date on it, so I dinna ken how long ago it came to him. And of course, we don’t have the letters Charles has sent to his father. But there’s no reference in any of James’s letters to anyone who could possibly be the composer, let alone to any definite promises of support from England."
I could see the direction in which he was heading.
"And Louise de La Tour was babbling about how Charles meant to have her marriage annulled and claim her as his wife, once he was king. So you think perhaps Charles wasn’t just talking through his hat to impress her?"
"Maybe not," he said. He poured water from the bedroom ewer into the basin and laved his face with water, preparatory to shaving.
"So it’s possible that Charles is acting on his own?" I said, horrified and intrigued by the possibility. "That James has set him up for a masquerade of pretending to start a restoration attempt, in order to keep Louis impressed with the Stuarts’ potential value, but—"
"But Charles isn’t pretending?" Jamie interrupted. "Aye, that’s how it seems. Is there a towel there, Sassenach?" Eyes screwed shut and face dripping, he was patting about on the surface of the table. I moved the manuscript to safety and found the towel, draped over the foot of the bed.
He examined his razor critically, decided it would do, and leaned over my dressing table to look in the mirror as he applied shaving soap to his cheeks.
"Why is it barbaric of me to take the hair off my legs and armpits, and it isn’t barbaric for you to take it off your face?" I asked, watching him draw his upper lip down over his teeth as he scraped under his nose with tiny, delicate strokes.
"It is," he replied, squinting at himself in the mirror. "But it itches like a fiend if I don’t."
"Have you ever grown a beard?" I asked curiously.
"Not on purpose," he replied, half-smiling as he scraped one cheek, "but I’ve had one now and then when I couldna help it—when I lived as an outlaw in Scotland. When it came to a choice between shaving in a cold burn with a dull razor every morning or itching, I chose to itch."
I laughed, watching him draw the razor along the edge of his jawbone with one long sweep.
"I can’t imagine what you’d look like with a full beard. I’ve only seen you in the stubbly stage."
He smiled on one side of his mouth, drawing the other up as he scraped under the high, broad cheekbone on that side.
"Next time we’re invited to Versailles, Sassenach, I’ll ask if we may visit the Royal zoo. Louis has a creature there that one of his sea-captains brought him from Borneo, called an orang-utan. Ever seen one?"
"Yes," I said, "the zoo in London had a pair before the war."
"Then you’ll know what I look like in a beard," he said, smiling at me as he finished his shave with a careful negotiation of the curve of his chin. "Scraggly and moth-eaten. Rather like the Vicomte Marigny," he added, "only red."
As though the name had reminded him, he returned to the main topic of discussion, wiping the remains of soap off his face with the linen towel.
"So I suppose what we must do now, Sassenach," he said, "is to keep a sharp eye out for Englishmen in Paris." He picked up the manuscript off the bed and riffled the pages thoughtfully. "If anyone is actually willing to contemplate support on this scale, I think they might be sending an envoy to Charles. If I were risking fifty thousand pounds, I might like to see what I was getting for my money, wouldn’t you?"
"Yes, I would," I answered. "And speaking of Englishmen—does His Highness patriotically buy his brandywine from you and Jared, or does he by chance patronize the services of Mr. Silas Hawkins?"
"Mr. Silas Hawkins, who is so eager to know what the political climate is like in the Scottish Highlands?" Jamie shook his head at me admiringly. "And here I thought I married you because ye had a fair face and a fine fat arse. To think you’ve a brain as well!" He neatly dodged the blow I aimed at his ear, and grinned at me.
"I don’t know, Sassenach, but I will before the day is out."
THE NATURE OF SULFUR
Prince Charles did purchase his brandywine from Mr. Hawkins. Beyond that discovery, though, we made little progress over the course of the next four weeks. Things continued much as before. Louis of France continued to ignore Charles Stuart. Jamie continued to run the wine business and to visit Prince Charles. Fergus continued to steal letters. Louise, Princesse de Rohan, appeared in public on the arm of her husband, looking doleful, but blooming. I continued to throw up in the mornings, work at the Hôpital in the afternoons, and smile graciously over the supper table in the evenings.
Two things happened, though, that looked like being progress toward our goal. Charles, bored at confinement, began to invite Jamie to go to taverns with him in the evenings—often without the restraining and discretionary presence of his tutor, Mr. Sheridan, who professed himself much too old for such revels.
"God, the man drinks like a fish!" Jamie had exclaimed, returning from one of these jaunts reeking of cheap wine. He examined a large stain on the front of his shirt critically.
"I’ll have to order a new shirt," he said.
"Worth it," I said, "if he tells you anything while he’s drinking. What does he talk about?"