He looked at her then, and before he could guess at her thoughts Mary masked her expression, not letting him see how she felt. But the truth was, she knew that her chance had been ruined. The diligence d’eau would depart in an hour, and the others were up now and coming for breakfast. She heard Thomson’s voice on the stairs.
Inspiration struck suddenly. She held Frisque close against her midriff, close against the letter that was lying flat and snug between her stomacher and stays, and smiling at the younger sister used the same excuse that Mistress Jamieson had used to draw her out from crowded company. “My dog,” she said, “needs to be taken outdoors. Come and walk with me.”
A page had been torn from the diary. It had been done cleanly and carefully, close to the binding, without having any effect I could see on the day’s entry, which ran from the page before into the following page without breaking:
…and though we are relieved of Mr. Stevens for the moment, his diversion to Dijon will put him but two days behind us, and perhaps not even that if he can find a private boatman to convey him down the river. Mr. M—, although pretending sleep, did not relax his guard all day and even now is up and walking in the next room, keeping watch, which is I gather meant to ease our worries but in my case does the opposite. He seems to never sleep as would an ordinary man, but Mr. M—, for all his faults, is far from ordinary. Were I free to tell a proper fairy tale I’d cast him as an ogre, but the tales I have been telling have no magic in them, so I could do no more than depict him as the surly captain of the guard who stood at the town gate and was defeated by my brave Chevalier.
She had written down the story, all of it, just as she’d told it to her fellow travelers on the diligence d’eau that day, and I’d transcribed it faithfully although I couldn’t see how it would be of use to Alistair.
“She does this more and more as she goes on,” I told Denise. “She makes up stories.”
“They’re good stories,” was her judgment. I had finished reading two of them to her while she was busily assembling her galette des rois—the king cake for Epiphany—while I sat at the table in the kitchen being no help whatsoever, drinking coffee and complaining.
“Yes, well, sometimes they’re so good I don’t know if the people she’s talking about are real or not. And they take as much time to decipher and transcribe as do her proper diary entries, so really I’d be happier if she’d just left them out.”
“Perhaps she meant to publish them someday.” She was beating the eggs for the frangipane filling now, having already rolled out the first round of her homemade puff pastry. “You said she was hoping to visit a Paris salon in her time there, yes?”
I had to think. “Yes, she mentioned it when they were first getting settled in Paris, how wonderful it would be if she could go to that salon. I’d have to look it up.”
“Well, this is what the women did at that time, in salons. They told their stories. And the fairy tales for some years before that were very popular. It’s obvious she read them and admired them, from the name she gave the villain in her last tale.”
“Yes, that name is from a fairy tale, a famous one by the Countess d’Aulnoy, called ‘Prince Ariel.’ The villain is a wicked prince named Furibon.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one.”
“Well, these are not the fairy tales that we grew up with. These were written for adults, and they belonged to a distinct period of time, and a distinct group of writers, nearly all of them women of the noble class. It was a clever and subversive thing they did, to tell these fairy tales. Sometimes they would take well-known tales from folklore and adapt them, but as often they created them from their imaginations, and you see how they are commenting on how life is around them, on the world and how it limits them.” She folded the ground almonds in and stirred all to a flawless paste. “The heroines of these fairy tales, their lives are often dictated by overbearing men—by their fathers and their suitors, kings and princes whom they must outwit and guard themselves against, and the fairies who helped them were usually female, and powerful. They’re very feminist, these stories.”
“Which is probably,” I said, “why we don’t hear of them.”
She smiled. “Yes, very likely. There were men in these salons, too. Charles Perrault—you know, the writer of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’? He was always with these women. His own niece had a salon, a very famous one. But where her princesses were strong and stood up for their rights, her uncle’s heroines were meek and weak and beautiful, and needing to be rescued.”
“So why,” I asked, “did his stories survive all this time, while hers haven’t?”
“Because he was a man. And because the society those women skewered with their stories was just as quick to skewer them for their success, for being popular. It happens still today, I think. But those women, those writers,” she said, “they were really the start of the genre we now would call fantasy. Their fairy tales were not meant to be read on their own, in the way we now think of a fairy tale—they were woven into novels, into memoirs, and intended to reflect the larger themes and stories in those books. So really,” she concluded, “what this girl who keeps the diary, Mary Dundas, what she’s doing is a part of that tradition. She’s creating, in a way, a travel memoir, and the little stories she creates are just another part of that. You can’t just read them on their own, that’s like trying to listen to the words of an opera without the music—you’re only getting half the effect. You have to look at them in context. Like this last one, where she has her hero having to escape from his pursuers and outwit the evil merchant. I would think she’s working out her own plans how to leave these people, wouldn’t you? Whether she can do it or not, it’s what she’s wishing for, and so she puts it all into that story.”