Mary guessed the merchant had not understood the whole of what the Englishman had said, but he too appeared captivated, leaning close to look at the engraving work, admiring the scrollwork of the lock.

They might have been children, thought Mary, entranced with a pretty new toy. It was pretty. She had a good view from her side of the table of the silver plate near the shoulder end, fancifully etched with a swan drifting past on the moat of a castle set deep amid trees. But the gilt mount at the front end of the trigger guard was cast in the shape of a wolf’s head, reminding her keenly that this was designed to bring death.

Stevens, mingling praise and insult, said, “This is no Spanish gun.” Looking to Thomson he asked, “Is it German?”

Again Thomson kept to his role and gave a convincingly French shrug while turning to Mary and waiting while she played her part in turn, doing the translating. Thomson was then free to ask the same question of Mr. MacPherson in Spanish—though Mary suspected that Thomson’s command of that language did not match the Scotsman’s, who when he replied sounded quite like a native. Still, with the younger of the sisters gone upstairs there was no one remaining who spoke any Spanish at all, so it was left to Thomson to turn what MacPherson had said into French, and then Mary turned that French to English, and so in this ungainly way Mr. Stevens at length got his answer.

“He wins it in Switzerland. But it is made in Vienna,” said Mary.

“Wins it?” Stevens frowned a little. “Wins it how?”

Again the question went round from Mary to Thomson to Mr. MacPherson and back again. This time, when Mary paused to try to phrase her own reply a little more inexpertly, the merchant seemed to leap to the conclusion she was only being modest, and because he was a Frenchman too and understood what Thomson had just told her, he attempted to come to her aid by telling Stevens on his own: “He won it in a game of drinking.”

“Ah.” The war showed for an instant on his face, between his wanting to possess that rifled long gun and his grudging but pragmatic realization that MacPherson, being larger, would perhaps have the advantage in a competition.

And that instant was enough. The Scotsman spoke again to Thomson, seeming nonchalant, but there was something in his tone that sounded rather like an insult of his own. And so it was.

“He says,” said Mary, when the words had come to her through Thomson, “this gun is for the brave, and this is why he wins it. It is not a gun for cowards. He says one day maybe someone comes who proves himself to be…” She knew the phrase, but for the purpose of disguising her abilities she turned now to the merchant and repeated it in French and asked for his advice in choosing English words.

The merchant had grown slightly flushed and seemed a bit uncomfortable with what was yet to come, but still he told her, “I would say, ‘the best,’ or no, ‘the better man.’”

She nodded. “Yes. The better man.” Returning her attention to the Englishman, she added in her sweetest tone, “And he does not believe, monsieur, that you will be this man.”

A flash of something dangerous was there and gone so rapidly in Mr. Stevens’s eyes that if it had not also raised a dark flush on his cheekbones Mary would have thought it had been but imagined. He passed the rifled gun into the Scotsman’s hands without so much as glancing at him. Then with slow, deliberate movements he reached for the bottle of the strong, fierce-tasting Marc de Bourgogne. He filled MacPherson’s glass, and then his own, and turning to MacPherson raised his own glass in a mocking gesture.

“Well, then,” he said, and with his gaze locked upon the Scotsman’s, drained his glass and set it with a thump upon the table in an open challenge. “May the best man win.”

Chapter 24

I am in the land of strangers, where is my friend…?

—Macpherson, “The Battle of Lora”

On the Saône

February 19, 1732

The gun was in its customary place amid the baggage of the diligence d’eau when they set out next morning for their journey down the river Saône, but Mr. Stevens had mysteriously vanished.

“It is odd,” the merchant said, as though still trying to make sense of it. “I’d formed the strong impression he was bound, as we were, for Lyon. It was indeed most fortunate that when we helped him to his room we spied that note upon the table and so learned he’d booked his passage on the coach this morning for Dijon, for as it was we had but barely half an hour to get him onto it. And it was fortunate also that señor Montero was not in the condition Mr. Stevens was, for even with my man to help it took the three of us together to convey him with his baggage to the coaching yard. ’Tis no small feat to move a man when he is all but senseless. I fear,” the merchant added, “he will have a rough day’s journey, but at least when he awakes he will be where he planned to be.”

He spoke in French now, for with Stevens gone there was no longer any need for him to speak in English, so his words would have been lost on the tall Scotsman sitting now across from Mary; though from how MacPherson sat with his eyes closed, his head resting carefully against the wall at his back, she was not at all sure he’d have paid much attention at any rate.

The movement of the diligence d’eau could not have helped. The river had an undulating current that was proving to have much the same effect on Madame Roy as had their travel over hilly roads by land, which had made Mary wonder why the older woman had been chosen to accompany them, given she could not have harbored any love of traveling.

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