"Really?" he said. "I understood the Stuarts were poor as church mice. You’re sure he’s not gulling you?"
"I have no wish to cast aspersions, or arouse suspicions," chipped in Jules de La Tour, "but it is well known at Court that the Stuarts have no money. It is true that several of the Jacobite supporters have been seeking funds lately, but without luck, so far as I have heard."
"That’s true," interjected the younger Duverney, leaning forward with interest. "Charles Stuart himself has spoken privately with two bankers of my acquaintance, but no one is willing to advance him any substantial sum in his present circumstances."
I shot a quick glance at Jamie, who answered with an almost imperceptible nod. This came under the heading of good news. But then what about the Comte’s story of an investment?
"It is true," he said belligerently. "His Highness has secured a loan of fifteen thousand livres from an Italian bank, and has placed the entire sum at my disposal, to be used in commissioning a ship and purchasing the bottling of the Gostos vineyard. I have the signed letter right here." He tapped the breast of his coat with satisfaction, then sat back and looked triumphantly around the table, stopping at Jamie.
"Well, milord," he said, with a wave at the decanter that sat on the white cloth in front of Jamie, "are you going to allow us to taste this famous wine?"
"Yes, of course," Jamie murmured. He reached mechanically for the first glass.
Louise, who had sat quietly eating through most of the dinner, noted Jamie’s discomfort. A kind friend, she turned to me in an obvious effort to change the course of the conversation to a neutral topic.
"That is a beautiful stone you wear about your neck, ma chère," she said, gesturing at my crystal. "Where did you get it?"
"Oh, this?" I said. "Well, in fact—"
I was interrupted by a piercing scream. It stopped all conversation, and the brittle echoes of it chimed in the crystals of the chandelier overhead.
"Mon Dieu," said the Comte St. Germain, into the silence. "What—"
The scream was repeated, and then repeated again. The noise spilled down the wide stairway and into the foyer.
The guests, rising from the dinner table like a covey of flushed quail, also spilled into the foyer, in time to see Mary Hawkins, clad in the shredded remnants of her shift, lurch into view at the top of the stair. There she stood, as though for maximum effect, mouth stretched wide, hands splayed across her bosom, where the ripped fabric all too clearly displayed the bruises left by grappling hands on her br**sts and arms.
Her pupils shrunk to pinpoints in the light of the candelabra, her eyes seemed blank pools in which horror was reflected. She looked down, but plainly saw neither stairway nor crowd of gaping onlookers.
"No!" she shrieked. "No! Let me go! Please, I beg you! DON’T TOUCH ME!" Blinded by the drug as she was, apparently she sensed some movement behind her, for she turned and flailed wildly, hands clawing at the figure of Alex Randall, who was trying vainly to get hold of her, to calm her.
Unfortunately, from below, his attempts looked rather like those of a rejected seducer bent on further attack.
"Nom de Dieu," burst out General d’Arbanville. "Racaille! Let her go at once!" The old soldier leaped for the stair with an agility belying his years, hand reaching instinctively for his sword—which, luckily, he had laid aside at the door.
I hastily thrust myself and my voluminous skirts in front of the Comte and the younger Duverney, who showed symptoms of following the General to the rescue, but I could do nothing about Mary’s uncle, Silas Hawkins. Eyes popping from his head, the wine merchant stood stunned for a moment, then lowered his head and charged like a bull, forcing his way through the onlookers.
I looked wildly about for Jamie, and found him on the edge of the crowd. I caught his eye and raised my brows in silent question; in any case, nothing I said could have been heard above the hubbub in the foyer, punctuated by Mary’s steam-whistle shrieks from above.
Jamie shrugged at me, then glanced around him. I saw his eyes light for a moment on a three-legged table near the wall, holding a tall vase of chrysanthemums. He glanced up, measuring the distance, closed his eyes briefly as though commending his soul to God, then moved with decision.
He sprang from the floor to the table, grasped the banister railing and vaulted over it, onto the stairway, a few feet in advance of the General. It was such an acrobatic feat that one or two ladies gasped, little cries of admiration intermingled with their exclamations of horror.
The exclamations grew louder as Jamie bounded up the remaining stairs, elbowed his way between Mary and Alex, and seizing the latter by the shoulder, took careful aim and hit him solidly on the point of the jaw.
Alex, who had been staring at his employer below in openmouthed amazement, folded gently at the knees and crumpled into a heap, eyes still wide, but gone suddenly blank and empty as Mary’s.
AN OATH IS SWORN
The clock on the mantelpiece had an annoyingly loud tick. It was the only sound in the house, other than the creakings of the boards, and the far-off thumps of servants working late in the kitchens below. I had had enough noise to last me some time, though, and wanted only silence to mend my frazzled nerves. I opened the clock’s case and removed the counterweight, and the tick ceased at once.
It had undeniably been the dinner party of the season. People not fortunate enough to have been present would be claiming for months that they had been, bolstering their case with bits of repeated gossip and distorted description.
I had finally got my hands on Mary long enough to force another strong dose of poppy juice down her throat. She collapsed in a pitiful heap of bloodstained clothes, leaving me free to turn my attention to the three-sided argument going on among Jamie, the General, and Mr. Hawkins. Alex had the good sense to stay unconscious, and I arranged his limp form neatly alongside Mary’s on the landing, like a couple of dead mackerel. They looked like Romeo and Juliet laid out in the public square as a reproach to their relatives, but the resemblance was lost on Mr. Hawkins.
"Ruined!" he kept shrieking. "You’ve ruined my niece! The Vicomte will never have her now! Filthy Scottish prick! You and your strumpet"—he swung on me—"whore! Procuress! Seducing innocent young girls into your vile clutches for the pleasure of bastardly scum! You—" Jamie, with a certain long-suffering grimness, put a hand on Mr. Hawkins’s shoulders, turned him about, and hit him, just under the fleshy jaw. Then he stood abstractedly rubbing his abused knuckles, watching as the stout wine merchant’s eyes rolled upward. Mr. Hawkins fell back against the paneling and slid gently down the wall into a sitting position.
Jamie turned a cold blue gaze on General d’Arbanville, who, observing the fate of the fallen, wisely put down the wine bottle he had been waving, and took a step back.
"Oh, go ahead," urged a voice behind my shoulder. "Why stop now, Tuarach? Hit all three of them! Make a clean sweep of it!" The General and Jamie focused a glance of united dislike on the dapper form behind me.
"Go away, St. Germain," Jamie said. "This is none of your affair." He sounded weary, but raised his voice in order to be heard above the uproar below. The shoulder seams of his coat had been split, and folds of his linen shirt showed white through the rents.
St. Germain’s thin lips curved upward in a charming smile. Plainly the Comte was having the time of his life.
"Not my affair? How can such happenings not be the affair of every public-spirited man?" His amused gaze swept the landing, littered with bodies. "After all, if a guest of His Majesty has so perverted the meaning of hospitality as to maintain a brothel in his house, is that not the—no, you don’t!" he said, as Jamie took a step toward him. A blade gleamed suddenly in his hand, appearing as though by magic from the ruffled lace cascading over his wrist. I saw Jamie’s lip curl slightly, and he shifted his shoulders inside the ruins of his coat, settling himself for battle.
"Stop it at once!" said an imperious voice, and the two Duverneys, older and younger, pushed their way onto the already overcrowded landing. Duverney the younger turned and waved his arms commandingly at the herd of people on the stairs, who were sufficiently cowed by his scowl to move back a step.
"You," said the elder Duverney, pointing at St. Germain. "If you have any feeling of public spirit, as you suggest, you will employ yourself usefully in removing some of those below."
St. Germain locked eyes with the banker, but after a moment, the noble shrugged, and the dagger disappeared. St. Germain turned without comment and made his way downstairs, pushing those before him and loudly urging them to leave.
Despite his exhortations, and those of Gérard, the younger Duverney, behind him, the bulk of the dinner guests departed, brimming with scandal, only upon the arrival of the King’s Guard.
Mr. Hawkins, recovered by this time, at once lodged a charge of kidnapping and pandering against Jamie. For a moment, I really thought Jamie was going to hit him again; his muscles bunched under the azure velvet, but then relaxed as he thought better of it.
After a considerable amount of confused argument and explanation, Jamie agreed to go to the Guard’s headquarters in the Bastille, there—perhaps—to explain himself.
Alex Randall, white-faced, sweating, and clearly having no idea what was going on, was taken, too—the Duke had not waited to see the fate of his secretary, but had discreetly summoned his coach and left before the arrival of the Guard. Whatever his diplomatic mission, being involved in a scandal wouldn’t help it. Mary Hawkins, still insensible, was removed to her uncle’s house, wrapped in a blanket.
I had narrowly avoided being included in the roundup when Jamie flatly refused to allow it, insisting that I was in a delicate condition and could on no account be removed to a prison. At last, seeing that Jamie was more than willing to start hitting people again in order to prove his point, the Guard Captain relented, on condition that I agreed not to leave the city. While the thought of fleeing Paris had its attractions, I could hardly leave without Jamie, and gave my parole d’honneur with no reservations.
As the group milled confusedly about the foyer, lighting lanterns and gathering hats and cloaks, I saw Murtagh, bruised face set grimly, hovering on the outskirts of the mob. Plainly he intended to accompany Jamie, wherever he was going, and I felt a quick stab of relief. At least my husband wouldn’t be alone.
"Dinna worry yourself, Sassenach." He hugged me briefly, whispering in my ear. "I’ll be back in no time. If anything goes wrong…" He hesitated, then said firmly, "It wilna be necessary, but if ye need a friend, go to Louise de La Tour."
"I will." I had no time for more than a glancing kiss, before the Guardsmen closed in about him.
The doors of the house swung open, and I saw Jamie glance behind him, catch sight of Murtagh, and open his mouth as though to say something. Murtagh, setting hands to his swordbelt, glared fiercely and pushed his way toward Jamie, nearly shoving the younger Duverney into the street. A short, silent battle of wills ensued, conducted entirely by means of ferocious glares, and then Jamie shrugged and tossed up his hands in resignation.
He stepped out into the street, ignoring the Guardsmen who pressed close on all sides, but stopped at sight of a small figure standing near the gate. He stooped and said something, then straightened, turned toward the house and gave me a smile, clearly visible in the lanternlight. Then, with a nod to the elder Monsieur Duverney, he stepped into the waiting coach and was borne away, Murtagh clinging to the rear of the carriage.
Fergus stood in the street, looking after the coach as long as it was in sight. Then, mounting the steps with a firm tread, he took me by the hand and led me inside.
"Come, milady," he said. "Milord has said I am to care for you, ’til his return."
Now Fergus slipped into the salon, the door closing silently behind him.
"I have made the rounds of the house, milady," he whispered. "All buttoned up." Despite the worry, I smiled at his tone, so obviously an imitation of Jamie’s. His idol had entrusted him with a responsibility, and he plainly took his duties seriously.
Having escorted me to the sitting room, he had gone to make the rounds of the house as Jamie did each night, checking the fastenings of the shutters, the bars on the outer doors—which I knew he could barely lift—and the banking of the fires. He had a smudge of soot from forehead to cheekbone on one side, but had rubbed his eye with a fist at one point, so his eye blinked out of a clear white ring, like a small raccoon.
"You should rest, milady," he said. "Don’t worry, I’ll be here."
I didn’t laugh, but smiled at him. "I couldn’t sleep, Fergus. I’ll just sit here for a bit. Perhaps you should go to bed, though; you’ve had an awfully long night of it." I was reluctant to order him to bed, not wanting to impair his new dignity as temporary man of the house, but he was clearly exhausted. The small, bony shoulders drooped, and dark smudges showed beneath his eyes, darker even than the coating of soot.
He yawned unashamedly, but shook his head.
"No, milady. I will stay with you…if you do not mind?" he added hastily.
"I don’t mind." In fact, he was too tired either to talk or to fidget in his usual manner, and his sleepy presence on the hassock was comforting, like that of a cat or a dog.
I sat gazing into the low-burning flames, trying to conjure up some semblance of serenity. I tried summoning images of still pools, forest glades, even the dark peace of the Abbey chapel, but nothing seemed to be working; over all the images of peace lay those of the evening: hard hands and gleaming teeth, coming out of a darkness filled with fear; Mary’s white and stricken face, a twin to Alex Randall’s; the flare of hatred in Mr. Hawkins’s piggy eyes; the sudden mistrust on the faces of the General and the Duverneys; St. Germain’s ill-concealed delight in scandal, shimmering with malice like the crystal drops of the chandeliers. And last of all, Jamie’s smile, reassurance and uncertainty mingled in the shifting light of jostling lanterns.
What if he didn’t come back? That was the thought I had been trying to suppress, ever since they took him away. If he was unable to clear himself of the charge? If the magistrate was one of those suspicious of foreigners—well, more suspicious than usual, I amended—he could easily be imprisoned indefinitely. And above and beyond the fear that this unlooked- for crisis could undo all the careful work of the last weeks, was the image of Jamie in a cell like the one where I had found him at Wentworth. In light of the present crisis, the news that Charles Stuart was investing in wine seemed trivial.
Left alone, I now had plenty of time to think, but my thoughts didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere. Who or what was "La Dame Blanche"? What sort of "white lady," and why had the mention of that name made the attackers run off?
Thinking back over the subsequent events of the dinner party, I remembered the General’s remarks about the criminal gangs that roamed the streets of Paris, and how some of them included members of the nobility. That was consistent with the speech and the dress of the leader of the men who had attacked me and Mary, though his companions seemed a good deal rougher in aspect. I tried to think whether the man reminded me of anyone I knew, but the memory of him was indistinct, clouded by darkness and the receding haze of shock.
In general form, he had been not unlike the Comte St. Germain, though surely the voice was different. But then, if the Comte was involved, surely he would take pains to disguise his voice as well as his face? At the same time, I found it almost impossible to believe that the Comte could have taken part in such an attack, and then sat calmly across the table from me two hours later, sipping soup.
I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration. There was nothing that could be done before morning. If morning came, and Jamie didn’t, then I could begin to make the rounds of acquaintances and presumed friends, one of whom might have news or help to offer. But for the hours of the night, I was helpless; powerless to move as a dragonfly in amber.
My fingers jammed against one of the decorated hairpins, and I yanked at it impatiently. Tangled in my hair, it stuck.
"Here, milady. I’ll get it."
I hadn’t heard him pass behind me, but I felt Fergus’s small, clever fingers in my hair, disentangling the tiny ornament. He laid it aside, then, hesitating, said, "The others, milady?"
"Oh, thank you, Fergus," I said, grateful. "If you wouldn’t mind."
His pickpocket’s touch was light and sure, and the thick locks began to fall around my face, released from their moorings. Little by little, my breathing slowed as my hair came down.
"You are worried, milady?" said the small, soft voice behind me.
"Yes," I said, too tired to keep up a false bravado.
"Me, too," he said simply.
The last of the hairpins clinked on the table, and I slumped in the chair, eyes closed. Then I felt a touch again, and realized that he was brushing my hair, gently combing out the tangles.
"You permit, milady?" he said, feeling it as I tensed in surprise. "The ladies used to say it helped them, if they were feeling worried or upset."
I relaxed again under the soothing touch.
"I permit," I said. "Thank you." After a moment, I said, "What ladies, Fergus?"
There was a momentary hesitation, as of a spider disturbed in the building of a web, and then the delicate ordering of strands resumed.
"At the place where I used to sleep, milady. I couldn’t come out because of the customers, but Madame Elise would let me sleep in a closet under the stairs, if I was quiet. And after all the men had gone, near morning, then I would come out and sometimes the ladies would share their breakfast with me. I would help them with the fastening of their underthings—they said I had the best touch of anyone," he added, with some pride, "and I would comb their hair, if they liked."
"Mm." The soft whisper of the brush through my hair was hypnotic. Without the clock on the mantel, there was no telling time, but the silence of the street outside meant it was very late indeed.
"How did you come to sleep at Madame Elise’s, Fergus?" I asked, barely suppressing a yawn.
"I was born there, milady," he answered. The strokes of the brush grew slower, and his voice was growing drowsy. "I used to wonder which of the ladies was my mother, but I never found out."
The opening of the sitting-room door woke me. Jamie stood there, red-eyed and white-faced with fatigue, but smiling in the first gray light of the day.
"I was afraid you weren’t coming back," I said, a moment later, into the top of his head. His hair had the faint acrid scent of stale smoke and tallow, and his coat had completed its descent into total disreputability, but he was warm and solid, and I wasn’t disposed to be critical about the smell of the head I was cradling next my bosom.