The noises Stevens made while dying, while not loud, were nonetheless disturbing. Mary cupped her hands against her ears to shut them out, and when she saw MacPherson’s boots returning she shrank closer to the coldness of the ground.
He crossed to the coachman, who having been cudgeled and not run through had been attempting to stand with the aid of the horse harness. “Sir, I can drive,” he said hoarsely. MacPherson assisted him round to the coach step and said to the others inside, “Take him.”
Then he crouched low to look under the coach, finding Mary unerringly, even in such little light. Stretching his hand to assist her, he waited.
She knew there’d be blood on that hand. There was no way his hands could stay clean when he’d done so much violence. She shook her head to tell him she did not need help, and crawled out on her own, and he moved back to let her do it. He said nothing, only looked her over briefly as though seeking signs of damage. Mary warranted he’d find none save the rough disorder of her hair and scrapes of dirt along the bodice of her gown, which were, from what she could make out, no more than he himself had suffered in the fight.
He looked away from her and said to Thomson, who was only now emerging from the safety of the coach, “Come. We’ve little time.”
“To do what?” asked Thomson.
In a low, impatient voice that clearly felt the answer was self-evident, MacPherson said, “Hide them”—he nodded at the corpses—“change our horses, and be gone.”
“But…” Thomson glanced towards the dark wall of the inn, and Mary saw him working through the facts to realize, as she had already done, they could not stay the night. The wounded man who’d run off minutes earlier might even now be in the city finding friends to help him seek revenge, or at the least he might inform upon them, leaving them but little time to get away before they either faced a new attack or were discovered.
With a sigh that mourned the loss of his anticipated tankard of warm wine more than the loss of life around him, Thomson helped MacPherson drag the bodies of the two dead men into the stables. From the sounds that followed, Mary guessed they were pitching hay or straw over the bodies.
Frisque whined and Madame Roy leaned from the coach and told Mary, “Will you take him? He would come to you, and I can’t hold him.”
Mary took Frisque woodenly and cradled him against her, but she did not go inside the coach. She did not wish to be confined. A cage, however comfortably appointed, was a cage, and left the creatures in it vulnerable to those who were outside, and she already felt too vulnerable, her senses strained and heightened to the point of pain.
So when the shutters of an upstairs window in the inn banged open, she had heard the bolt slide back beforehand, and been warned in time enough to turn her face to meet the light that speared with sudden brightness down into the yard. A man, presumably the landlord, called in French, “What’s happening? What’s going on? Who’s there?”
She did not know how much he’d heard, or whether he’d conspired in the ambush, but she knew she didn’t have the luxury of time to sort things through, and being trapped upon the spot she took a chance and played her part. “Good evening, sir. Do you speak English?”
All the furtive noises from the stable had now ceased, and she was not the only one who waited for his answer.
“Yes,” he said, speaking more loudly. “A little.”
“Oh, I’m glad. My uncle’s fallen ill. He’s had a fever half the day that’s making him delirious and difficult to manage. I’m afraid, were we to stay here, we might pass on his contagion to your other guests, but as you see our horses cannot stir another step, they are exhausted. If we could but have some fresh ones…?”
“Yes, of course. Of course. I’ll send the palefrenier.”
She noticed he’d drawn back as if he feared the illness might spread upward on the air, but when she thanked him, she asked one thing more. “We’d also be most grateful for a meal, however small, that we could carry with us. Bread and cheese would do, perhaps with two bottles of wine?”
He promised those as well, and withdrew from the window, making sure to bolt the shutters as before, securely.
Mary felt her spine and shoulders sag against the stalwart lacing of her stays and breathed a little deeper in relief. Then she turned and saw MacPherson in the doorway of the stable. He was standing there and watching her, with Thomson close behind, and with the lantern hanging just above his shoulder she could see his features. He was looking at her closely, as he’d studied that small broken watch in Mâcon; as if she were made of gears and wheels and he would seek to understand her workings.
Let him look, she thought. And slipping on her calmest face, she held to Frisque more tightly so the Scotsman would not see her hands were trembling in reaction to the night of fear and trauma, as she simply said, “He’s sending out the groom.”
And turned away.
Ghosts are seen there at noon: the valley is silent, and the people shun the place…
—Macpherson, “The War of Caros”
The Bas-Vivarais, near the village of Maisonneuve
March 3, 1732
A week had gone by and she still was no closer to guessing the place where MacPherson was leading them.
Since killing Stevens at Valence the Monday before, he’d been more than annoyingly secretive, and if the others knew where they were going they hadn’t seen fit to tell Mary. They’d driven straight through that long night from Valence, getting what sleep they could in the coach, till at sunrise they’d come to a town called Étoile where they’d struck out on foot, crossing over the Rhône while the coachman, relieved of his passengers, carried on south with instructions to turn when he could to the east and proceed towards Switzerland, hopefully drawing off any men still in pursuit.