He’d smiled across the table at Colette and said, “You were a tiny thing when last I saw you, naught but eyes and curls. And you,” he’d said, to Gaspard, “were an infant still, all dressed in ruffles.”
Gaspard had flushed, not wanting a reminder of the childhood state that he was so impatient to discard, but young Jacques—who of course had not been born at all when Nicolas had paid a visit last to Chanteloup—had made the comment, “Gaspard still wears ruffles.”
Nicolas had glanced at the long falls of lace at Gaspard’s cuffs and shirtfront. “So I see. He would be perfectly at home at court, with such fine clothes. A match for any gentleman.”
And with that Gaspard, too, had been won over.
Even Frisque, who had no love of strangers, had seemed most content at dinner to sit under Nicolas’s chair. And even now, as they went rattling in the chaise across the bridge at Poissy, one light touch of Nicolas’s hand was all it took to reassure and calm the little dog, who settled once again in peace on Mary’s lap.
Her brother said, “He travels well, that dog.”
“It is the first time he has traveled.”
“Then I’m all the more impressed.” He looked at her, and Mary did not know what he was thinking. Perhaps he was contrasting her experience with his; her settled life with all the distance he had traveled, and the places he had lived.
She knew, from what he’d said at dinner, that he and their father had gone with King James to Avignon, a town beyond the French king’s jurisdiction.
“Why could he not stay in France?” young Jacques had asked, and Uncle Jacques had told him, “Because when the Spanish war was done, the father of our present king did sign a treaty promising he would no longer recognize or aid King James, but would instead acknowledge none but George, the Prince of Hanover, as Britain’s rightful king. I do not think it was a promise that he meant to keep. Our old king was the cousin of King James, and very fond of him, but then the old king died and King James went across to Scotland, where his armies were defeated, and when he returned to France our young king’s regent said he could not stay, and so…” His shrug had been expressive.
Nicolas had said, “And so we went to Avignon.”
The queen, as she’d been then—King James’s mother—had stayed on at Saint-Germain, allowed to keep the royal pension she was paid each year from France, but King James had been forced to seek a welcome elsewhere. Finding Avignon too isolating, he had moved first to Urbino, then finally to Rome, where he’d settled in his new court with the blessing and protection of the pope.
Nicolas had spoken, over dinner, of the ancient curiosities of Rome, and of the palace of the pope, and of the people who were living at King James’s court who had once been acquaintances of Mary’s aunt and uncle. He’d talked to Mary briefly of her other brothers: Charles, just one year older than herself, and John, four years above that, who had both been sent away to school the year that she’d been left behind, and who were now reportedly in Rotterdam and Spain. And he had told her of their father, who still worked as a perruquier for King James and his nobles, crafting wigs as fine as any made in France or England.
Gaspard, with his newfound love of wigs, had been intrigued. “Do you think Uncle Guillaume would make me a wig, were I to ask him?”
Nicolas had smiled. “Well, you would have to go to Rome to do the asking, for my father will not make the journey north. He’s too fond of the sunshine and the pleasures of the court, and there is nothing here to draw him back.”
Aunt Magdalene had quickly looked at Mary then, her kind eyes always ready to give sympathy, but Mary had already schooled her own face not to show the stab of hurt those words had caused.
“And what was it that drew you back?” she’d asked her brother, in a tone that strove for lightness.
He’d regarded her a moment while she waited for his answer, then he’d faintly smiled and looked away to share that smile with everyone and, lifting up his glass, had said, “I do confess it was the memory of my uncle’s fine red wine, for in these fifteen years I’ve never drunk its equal.”
The talk had turned to other things and Mary had not pressed him further, though she would have dearly loved to know the reason why he had returned to Saint-Germain, and why he’d waited two long years to tell them he was back, and why he’d chosen after all that time to come now and collect her.
They were questions that still hung between them now, in the close confines of the horse-drawn chaise, while Nicolas looked down at her and Mary did not know what he was thinking.
So she asked him, and he told her in that same plain, forthright manner, “You are not what I expected.”
No, thought Mary. No, of course she wasn’t. He would have expected that she’d grown to be the image of their mother, who from all accounts—and from the portrait’s evidence—had been a beauty of the court, a woman of accomplishments.
Guarding her reaction as she’d done before at dinnertime, and in a voice as light, she said, “You must be disappointed.”
“Quite the contrary.” He moved his hand and laid it over hers where it was resting on Frisque’s silken back, and gathering her fingers in his own he said a second time, more serious and quiet, “Quite the contrary.”
A warmth spread from his touch and, just as Frisque had calmed beneath it when they’d crossed the bridge, so Mary felt the comfort of it now, and felt the tension leave her body and her mind. She’d slept so poorly these past days with all the worry and excitement, waiting for her brother, both impatient for and dreading his arrival, and in truth she had not realized just how weary it had made her till that small but tender action and its show of his approval seemed to lift from her the burden of uncertainty.