The pavilion itself had been repurposed into a hotel and restaurant, too upscale for me to feel comfortable venturing in off the path for a look, in my old coat and scarf and laced boots, so I stayed by the railing and stood for a moment to focus my thoughts on the river. At least that, I thought, couldn’t be taken away. The view might have changed, with its bridges and cars and the skyscraper sprawl of the Parisian business hub of La Défense looming out of the mist just ahead, but still the olive-colored Seine wound through it all as it had done in Mary’s day.
Perhaps she’d stood just here and watched boats sliding by on their slow way upstream to Paris, like the long barge I was watching now. Perhaps she’d felt the same wind blowing strongly from the west, and heard the black crows calling roughly to each other from the slope below, above the sweeter trilling of the unseen birds that hid amid the tangle of the ivy-covered trees.
The crows I could see. There was one large crow perched very near to me, on the high hedge at the corner of the old pavilion, but the birds that attracted me most were the magpies. My mother had no love of magpies and chased them relentlessly out of our garden, but I’d always liked their bold plumage—the white and blue-black in predictable patterns that set them apart from their cousins the crows.
The ones here were scattered along the path, flying and flapping and hopping and searching the gravel for scraps as I made my way back up the broad promenade, a group of them gathering as I repeated the childish rhyme in my head, counting each bird I saw: One for sorrow. That suited the château, I thought, with the mist and the bare lonely trees and the hard gravel shifting beneath my feet as a reminder that nothing was permanent.
I went on counting:
Two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold…
Another magpie settled on the ground amid its fellows, casting a dark eye in my direction.
Seven for a secret never to be told.
“You might be right,” I told it. If I couldn’t break the cipher, then whatever Mary Dundas had experienced here would be lost to history altogether and remain a secret. Mary, who had lived and breathed and walked within this shadow court of Jacobites, whose voice I had the power to restore, would stay instead forever silent. The worry and weight of frustration began to close in again. So much for “changing my thoughts,” I conceded. I may have spent two hours out of my workroom, but I’d achieved little to show for it.
Eight for a wish, was the next magpie. Nine for a kiss. Hardly likely. The tenth took a hop from the ground to the edge of a large round low fountain not far from the gate where I’d entered the grounds. Ten a surprise…
“There you are.” A man’s voice, speaking French. A familiar voice.
Looking round sharply, I saw Luc Sabran strolling in through the gate with a casual ease that, because it was so unexpected, completely unsettled me. I had to take a moment to absorb the new turn of events and adjust, as though trimming the sails of a ship in response to a change in the wind.
He was several steps closer now. “So you decided to see the château after all.” With a smile and a glance at the clouds passing swiftly above, low and dark, he said, “Not the best day for it. What did you think?”
I could see his eyes now, and they helped me recover my balance. I wanted to bluntly ask what he was doing here, but I thought that might be rude, so I simply replied, “I’m not too keen on what they’ve done inside. The courtyard was beautiful, though. And the chapel.”
“You’ve been to see the terrace?” he asked. “There by the river? It runs nearly two thousand meters along, with the forest behind it. A nice place to walk when the weather is better.”
“I saw it. I didn’t try walking it. I only went there,” I told him, and pointed back down to the far distant railing. “I wanted to find all the parts of the château I’d seen in the model.”
“The model?” He tucked his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket.
“In the chapel.”
“Ah.” He gave a nod of understanding. “Right, I had forgotten. But those buildings are all gone. This old part is all that’s left now, and the pavilion of Henry IV at the end of the path where you were, and perhaps a few cellars. The rest was all lost in the time of the Revolution. All royal lands then were taken as national properties.”
“Yes, well, the nation,” I said, “should have taken a bit better care of them.”
Something in that evidently amused him, because he smiled. “You wouldn’t have made a good revolutionary.”
“Probably not. I don’t like to see things destroyed. It would have made me sad to see the château being taken down.”
“But this is how life is, yes? It moves forward, and the sadness of those times, it is now gone.”
But not entirely, I thought, as I looked up at those dark windows, gazing out across the gravel at the barren, leafless trees. The old château hadn’t lost all of its sadness. I felt it and shivered a little and turned from the fountain, now drained for the winter and empty.
I looked at my watch. It was 2:58. Only two minutes left till I’d promised to meet Denise where she had dropped me off. “I have to leave.”
“OK.” Still with his hands in his pockets, Luc fell into step just in front of me and to the side. That was actually where I liked people to walk—I felt shielded from all the uncomfortable empty space but not too crowded. Relaxing a little, I asked, “Do you work here?”