“I know.” Anticipation waged a war with reason in her heart. “But I don’t like to think of leaving.”
“Then perhaps you ought to view it not as leaving, but returning.” Her aunt laid a warm arm over Mary’s shoulders. Hugged her close. “We have been blessed to have you with us, but I think that always here”—she tapped her fingers on her cloak, above her heart—“you’ve had a little voice that calls to you. And maybe now, my darling, is the time for you to let it lead you home.”
Thou scarce hast been known to me…
—Macpherson, “Fingal,” Book Five
On the road near Poissy
January 22, 1732
His eyes were blue. She marked the fact because her own were brown, just like their mother’s in the portrait. And where her hair was brown, as well—a plain dark brown, and straight—her brother Nicolas had hair so fair that when he’d combed the front and sides up over the front edges of his wig, he’d needed hardly any powder to blend all into the same clean shade of white. His eyebrows, too, were fair, as were his lashes, and his features weren’t at all like hers. He had her mother’s oval face, the same long nose and narrow mouth, the steady eyes that made him look intelligent and thoughtful.
Her face, she knew, was like a heart, more pointed at the chin, and while she’d often been called pretty she’d met no one who, at first glance, had assumed she was intelligent. She didn’t really mind. It often worked to her advantage and she’d used it as a shield, having observed that people seemed to value wit above intelligence; vivacity and merriness above demure and shy behavior. Wanting to be liked, she’d learned to bury her own shyness and become another person when in public, one who entertained with turns of phrase and flirted with a confidence she rarely felt inside. It made her popular and sought-after at gatherings and village dances, and had drawn the admiration of a few young men, but it had also kept her safe.
She wore that braver face, so lively and at home in bright society, to guard the smaller girl within her who’d been left behind once, and who’d long ago determined she would never be so vulnerable again.
Except today. Today, that braver face gave no protection. This was Nicolas, her brother, and from earlier this morning when he’d greeted her so warmly with a genuine embrace, to this moment when she sat here pressed so closely to his shoulder in the confines of the horse-drawn chaise, she’d felt every inch that smaller girl. He only had to smile at her, as he was doing now, and she had no shields left to hide behind.
He said, “You always used to do that.”
They were speaking English, and for once she felt most grateful that her uncle had insisted she not lose that language, even if she had to think more carefully to answer, “Do what?”
“Frown so that it made this little line, just here”—he touched one finger lightly to the spot between his own pale brows—“whenever you were thinking.”
“Oh.” She consciously relaxed her forehead, trying to make light of it. “I can’t imagine that it happened often, then.”
He told her, “On the contrary. You were a small philosopher. I always had to work to make you smile.”
“You used to toss me in the air.”
“I did. You remember that, do you?” Nicolas looked pleased. “Our mother often scolded me and worried I would drop you, but I liked to hear you laugh.”
He would have been just a bit younger in those days than she was now, Mary decided—a young man of eighteen or nineteen—and yet in her memory he’d seemed so grown up, tall and strong in his long coat and boots with the sword at his side. And now he was nearing his midthirties, already showing the softness that men sometimes gained round their middles; the small lines of weariness and resignation that life settled into their features.
“You could not do it now,” she said. “You’d do yourself an injury.”
His laugh was not like hers. It was a lower sound, and brief, but it stirred memories. “Are you saying that the years have made me weak?”
She shook her head. “But they’ve made me too old to carry so.”
“You’re hardly old, my dear. You’ll not be two and twenty till July.”
The chaise lurched and Frisque shifted in protest on her lap, and Mary seized on that as an excuse to look down for a moment, feeling a tingling warmth at the back of her eyes that she sought to control. He’d remembered her birthday.
She hadn’t known what to expect when he’d come to collect her that morning. He had caused quite a sensation in the village by arriving in the chaise, its upright body painted fashionably green with two great yellow wheels that crisply cut the snow, the driver riding as postilion on the near horse of the well-matched pair in harness, looking every bit as grand as the Chevalier de Vilbray’s own team and coachman.
Mary’s cousins had been slightly disappointed when her brother had explained the chaise was merely hired, and not his own, and yet for Mary when her brother had alighted from the chaise and come towards her with a quick smile and a voice that she remembered, she would not have cared a whit if he had made the trip on foot. It was enough to have him there, and hear him greet her by her name, and feel the warmth as he had wrapped her in his arms.
He had not stayed there long. For all he’d started early in the morning, it had already been midday when he’d come to Chanteloup, and there would still be a long journey back to Saint-Germain ahead of them, so Nicolas had only lingered for the time it took to tend the horses, water them, and let the driver eat and briefly rest while Nicolas sat down to dinner with the family he’d not seen in years.