“Which house is yours?” I asked Luc without thinking what reason I might have for wanting to know.
“That one there, at the end of the lane.”
I could see little more than the peak of a roof and the bump of a chimney. It didn’t look large.
“I am two steps away,” he said. “And just behind, that’s the house where Diablo lives.”
“How does his owner mistreat him?”
He looked at me and raised one eyebrow slightly in a move that, while it spoiled his facial symmetry, was nonetheless attractive. “Pardon?”
“You said the treatment he got here was better.”
“Ah. Yes, well, he isn’t mistreated so much as neglected.”
“Neglect is a form of abuse, surely.”
Claudine Pelletier spoke up from the salon behind me as she made her way through from the entry hall. “I agree, but tell me, whom are you discussing?” She was simply dressed this morning in a finely knitted roll-neck sweater and a pair of jeans, but though her clothes were not much different from my own she looked more elegant. I put it down to how she moved, with easy unselfconscious grace.
Denise replied, “Diablo. He’s been making a nuisance of himself this morning, as usual, and Luc has been defending him, as usual.”
Luc told her, “I wasn’t defending him.” Then turned to me once again to confirm the facts. “Was I defending him?”
“No, you were saying he couldn’t be trusted.”
Luc nodded as though vindicated. “There you see? She speaks the perfect truth.”
His statement sobered me for reasons he would not have understood. I looked away, and met Claudine’s small smile.
“Denise informed me you spoke French,” she said, “but I didn’t expect that you’d speak it so well. I’m surprised your cousin didn’t mention it.”
“It wasn’t a requirement of the job. At least, it was my understanding that the diary—or the part that’s not in cipher—is in English. Is that right?”
“Yes. There is a single entry that begins the diary, all in English, so one would expect the cipher will be based in English also.”
Denise, setting down a bowl of fresh fruit salad on the table, asked me, “Could you solve it if it were in French?”
“I think so, yes.”
“What’s this?” Luc looked from one face to another, his one eyebrow raised a fraction in the same way it had been before. “What am I missing? What’s all this about a diary?”
Claudine told him, in the briefest terms. His eyebrow lifted higher and he looked at me.
“So this is quite a skill you have. A gift.”
“I’m not a professional.”
Claudine said, “Even so, you must have done very well to win Alistair’s confidence. He can be hard to impress. He is…” Pausing for thought, she half turned as my cousin came into the dining room, looking her usual smartly dressed self in the wake of her shower. Switching smoothly to English, Claudine told her, “I was just speaking of Alistair and of his drive for perfection. How would you describe him?”
“A thorn in my side,” Jacqui said with a smile, as she greeted Claudine with the double kiss. “Sorry I’m late.” When she reached to shake Luc’s hand across the wide table and wish him good morning as well, it reminded me I hadn’t yet washed my hands after petting the cat. I excused myself, using the moment to step out of everyone’s way and enjoy the warm peace of the kitchen.
It was the best kind of a kitchen—high ceilinged, with dark wood beams holding the plaster above, and a scrubbed stone floor under my feet, and tall multipaned windows to let in the light. On one wall an old fireplace, painted the same rich cream color as most of the walls and the cupboards, spoke of the age of the house and the time when that hearth would have been used instead of the enameled cooker—venerable itself, and likely wood-burning, but clearly still in use from the two pots that steamed and bubbled on its cast iron surface.
There were modern appliances, too, and a TV tucked off to one side on the worktop, but I liked the fireplace and old-fashioned cooker the best. I could happily have eaten breakfast here, amid the clutter of utensils at the sturdy-looking table in the center of the room, but from the scrape of chair legs and the clink of tableware I knew that everyone was taking up their places in the dining room and I would have to join them.
The table in the dining room was long and could have seated ten if called upon to do it, but there were only five places set. Ordinarily I would have picked the chair that had me facing Jacqui, for I found it easier to have her face to focus on if I felt overwhelmed in conversations, but this morning I sat down beside her, focusing instead on Luc.
His eyes were very blue.
The conversation had moved on while I’d been in the kitchen. The talk was all in English now, so Jacqui was included, though Denise appeared to find it fairly challenging to follow what was being said.
Claudine, in her educated English, was attempting to explain to Luc the background of the Jacobite community in France and how they’d come to live in exile here, with agents from the government in England sent to spy on them.
I would have found it incredibly difficult, living like that—never knowing if one of your friends had been threatened or bought off and turned to the enemy’s side, or if even your family could truly be trusted. The spies, from all that Alistair had told me, had been everywhere. Somebody’s servant or cousin or priest and confessor could be in the pay of the English King George and his government, opening letters and selling off secrets.