In the peaceful moments following, with Nicolas’s shoulder pressing close against her own within the jolting chaise, she watched the fall of snow between the branches of the dark trees growing close beside the road, a sign they’d entered the great forest that belonged to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. She had so often looked towards this forest and imagined it, but now she let her eyes drift closed against the sight and wondered if she’d ever felt this measure of contentment in her childhood, with no cares or fears to vex her for the moment, and her brother close beside her, and the sense that she was loved and safe and wanted.
* * *
She had slept. The trees were gone, replaced by level farmland lying thick with shadows in the blue of twilight, and the night was coming on. Already shapes were indistinct; through the front window of the chaise she saw the driver’s figure outlined by the yellow braid that trimmed his coat and by the paleness of the powdered wig beneath his hat, but both the horses, being dark, were nigh invisible, the bursts of their warm labored breath appearing in the winter air like shapes of passing ghosts.
In faint confusion Mary raised her head from where it had been resting on her brother’s shoulder. “Are we nearly there?” she asked. For surely, if it was now nearly night…
“We were diverted,” said her brother, “by an accident. A wagon overturned upon the road, so we were told, and one horse injured, and a rider was sent back to give a warning that the way was quite impassable. We had to turn and come the southern route along the river, which has cost us time and daylight, I’m afraid.”
She sat more upright, holding Frisque a little closer. Up ahead, she saw a long and jagged slash of forest showing black between the deep blue-gray of sky and the dark green-gray of the land. It stood some distance off still. “And is that the woods of Saint-Germain-en-Laye?”
“No. No, we are two leagues to the east of Saint-Germain. That is the forest at Chatou. There is a bridge there we can cross.”
The shadows of the night had nearly swallowed all the light now, till the blackness of that forest drew the color from both land and sky and flattened them to nothing. Tiny flecks of yellow gleamed and glittered and were one by one extinguished—all the windows of the houses by the river, Mary realized, being shuttered. Only two small lights were left to burn, to mark the bridge.
She did not relish traveling across that bridge and through the wood so late, but she’d resigned herself to doing it when Nicolas remarked, “I have an old friend at Chatou who keeps a grand house and a grander table, and is always keen to welcome company. We’ll stop here for the night.”
She masked her own relief with calmness. “If you think it wise.”
“I do.” She could not see her brother’s features in the dimness, but she heard the reassurance in his voice and felt it as he warmly laid his hand on hers again. “I would not have you journey in the dark.”
The light never lasted at this time of year. There had still been a hint of late afternoon sun when we’d landed in Paris, but that had been fading so steadily I was now finding it difficult to read my map well enough to direct Jacqui while she was driving.
I told her, “I think we should keep to the right, here.”
“I’m sure we can find it.”
“You said you’d been here before.”
“Only once,” she defended herself, “when Alistair sent me to look at the diary and offer to buy it. And that wasn’t in the winter, it was June.”
I wasn’t sure what difference that made, since a road should lead you to the same place every time you took it, but another concern had distracted me. “You said they’d had a falling out. Claudine Pelletier and Alistair,” I added, when she glanced at me.
Claudine, who’d be our hostess here in France, was a photographer who’d closely worked with Alistair on the first two books of his trilogy about the exiled Jacobites of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. I’d looked her up. She was about his own age, early sixties, though the portraits I had found of her online had shown her as a younger woman, mostly—taking photographs herself, the cameras hiding her own features.
Jacqui answered, “That’s my understanding, yes. It’s all a bit before my time, I don’t know all the details, but I’m told they haven’t spoken for some years.”
“Is that why she’s being difficult about the diary?” After all, the easiest approach, short of buying it, would be to have the whole thing copied. I could take it with me then, and work in private back at home in England, and not inconvenience her at all.
“I’ve no idea,” Jacqui said. “One doesn’t argue with Claudine, I’m told, or try to second-guess her. This is how she wants to do it, so it’s how it will be done.” She glanced at me again and smiled. “Don’t worry, though. You’ll like Claudine.”
The question was, would she like me? She had agreed to give me room and board and space to work within her own house for a month or maybe more, but she might change her mind once she’d met me. She obviously valued the encrypted diary highly, and she’d probably already formed a mental image of the kind of person who’d be sent by an historian like Alistair to do this job. I doubted I looked anything like Claudine had imagined. She might not even let me near the book.
My cousin, if she shared my worries, didn’t let it show. She was steering our rental car over a bridge on the Seine, with a lovely old church rising out of the twilight to greet us. “We’re here,” she said. “This is Chatou.”