Madame Roy sat gratefully onto the bed. “Thank you, my dear, for your help. I can manage a post chaise, but I fear the motion of anything larger has never agreed with me. No, no, you’ve no need to fuss over me. I’ll be fine again once I’ve had sleep.”
“But you’ll miss supper.”
“I’ve no appetite for supper. If you send a maid up with some broth and bread, that will be more than ample. Leave the dog here, if you like,” she added. “I’ll share my meal with him and we can keep each other company.”
Frisque seemed content with that arrangement, snuggling deep into the blankets of the bed while Mary, with assistance from the looking glass above the mantel, made what small repairs she could to her appearance and went down to sup.
She found the other women there before her, sitting waiting in the little parlor open to the dining room. The fireplace here was decorated finely with a mantel of mahogany and topped with polished candlesticks that, with the others set in sconces round the room, created quite a brightness.
“Mademoiselle,” the elder of the daughters, who was close to Mary’s age, enticed her over to their table, holding up a pack of cards. “Do come and play piquet while we are waiting. Both my sister and my mother have refused me.”
Mary liked to play piquet. It was her favorite game, in fact—fast-paced and often favoring the player who possessed the better memory. But after such a long day’s journey, following so closely on the drama of the day before, and having had but little sleep since they’d been forced to flee their lodgings in the rue du Coeur Volant, she would have much preferred to sit in peace until the landlord called them to their meal. Her hesitation must have shown enough that Mr. Thomson, entering the room behind her, sought to save her by remarking in apologetic tones, “My sister only rarely plays at cards.”
It was not Mr. Thomson, though, who drew her eye. It was the tall man walking in his shadow, and aware of his unwavering regard that seemed dismissive of all cowardice, she strove again to cloak herself in courage that was not her own. She crossed the room as bidden, took her seat, arranged her skirts, and squared her shoulders all at once, in imitation of the graceful Mistress Jamieson.
She said, “I make exceptions in good company.” And showed a most deliberate smile to the young woman opposite, who in delight held out the pack of cards so they could draw to see who would be first to deal.
If not entirely good company, it was at least diverting. Both the daughters and their mother kept a constant conversation going, moving from one topic to another with the flightiness of butterflies, and yet they were too friendly in their speech to be annoying. Thomson settled in an elbow chair beside the fire and set to charm the women by appearing to be interested in anything they told him, while the Scotsman, having neither the ability nor will to charm, apparently preferred to stand. He stayed close to the doorway that stood open to the dining room, his shoulder to the door frame in an attitude of ease. It was, so Mary reasoned, only logical that after being forced to sit so long in close confinement in the diligence, a man so tall should wish to give his limbs relief by standing, but she wished he might have found a place to do it that did not put him directly at her back. She had to fight the fleeting chills that brushed the bent back of her neck when she was looking at her cards.
There was a strategy to piquet that appealed to her and helped her keep her focus. There were cards to be discarded and exchanged, and calculations to be made from what the other player first declared in terms of what they held—how many cards of the same suit, or the same rank—that let her guess at what they had been dealt, and so make choices of her own in play that gave her the best chance to win the tricks.
In the first hand she was able to not only win the tricks she led, but steal one for an extra point. And in the second she found herself with that rare hand that had no court cards in it—a carte blanche.
She carefully kept her face neutral while thinking. Declaring a carte blanche would gain her an instant ten points, and would bar her opponent from later declaring a pique or repique, but it came at a cost, for to claim a carte blanche, she would have to reveal her whole hand—turn the cards round, though briefly, and let her opponent see all for that moment. Which meant that the woman she played against would then have gained the advantage in play. Mary weighed both the possible gains and the risks, and deciding that one did not balance the other she chose to say nothing, selecting three cards and exchanging them silently as though the ones she’d been dealt had been ordinary.
Her caution was rewarded as the cards she gained in her exchange turned out to be the king and queen and knave of diamonds, giving her the whole eight cards available in that suit, which allowed her to not only score well in the declarations, but to so control the play that she won nearly all the tricks, and thus the hand.
The younger daughter teased her sister, “You would be advised, I think, to charm our fellow guest, here, into aiding you by giving you some signal as to what Mademoiselle Robillard is holding in her hand.” She cast a smile past Mary’s shoulder at the Scotsman to include him in the joke, but must have had no answering response, for Mary saw her smile falter, and the mother in a faintly disapproving tone remarked to Thomson, “Monsieur Robillard, your man does not believe in conversation, so I see.”
“You will excuse him,” Thomson said, “for it is only that he finds our language difficult.”
The mother asked, “Is he not French, then?”