While the bodies they’d left in the stables would not have lain long without being discovered, it stood in their favor the night had been dark and their contact with those at the inn had been brief and thus few there got a good look at them. But there was always a risk, as they’d been well reminded by something MacPherson had come across while he’d been emptying Stevens’s pockets of evidence of his identity, before concealing the bodies with hay: a page torn from the London Gazette from October last, giving notice that anyone capturing John Thomson would be rewarded with the staggering amount of one thousand pounds. It had given a detailed description by which any person would know him, although that description had raised Thomson’s ire.
“I do not,” he’d said, “go with my knees in. Nor are my legs ‘thick.’ And to claim I’m ‘inclined to be fat’ is no less than a libel.”
He had continued irritated for the better part of that first day they had been walking, until Mary, seeking peace, had pointed out he should be grateful they’d described him so imperfectly, because it might then spare him being recognized.
But truly, she had written in her journal that same night, apart from those few things which wounded him—and reasonably so, for he is straight of leg and while not lean is not rotund—the notice Mr. Stevens carried listed Mr. Thomson’s features to the hazel of his eyes and color of his eyebrows, and it would take no great skill to match the man to that description, which if it be widely circulated could be very worrisome.
It was, she’d thought, the reason why they had not stayed at inns since they had started this new segment of their journey, but had stopped each evening at a farmhouse of MacPherson’s choosing and had paid well for whatever hospitality was granted them, most often beds on straw within an outbuilding or barn, and a good share of the plain food the families had on hand to offer. In the villages and towns through which they’d passed they’d stopped for water and bought bread and then moved on, the one exception being on the second morning when Madame Roy had insisted they begin their day by hearing Mass, because it was Ash Wednesday. There had been a short debate between the older woman and the Scotsman as to whether this was really necessary, being that the day was not a holy day of obligation on which people were required to go to Mass, but Madame Roy had not been swayed, and so they’d gone. MacPherson had stood with them in the church, though Mary doubted that the ritual—of being touched by ashes while the mournful priest intoned they had been born of dust and would someday return to it and should no longer sin but seek salvation—could have meant much to a man so comfortable with killing.
Thomson, as they’d left the church and started on their way again, had pointed out a different sort of irony. “We promise to observe a holy Lent in imitation of the days our Savior wandered in the wilderness,” he’d said. “And look where we now find ourselves.”
It was, in truth, a wilderness.
They’d traveled far enough now to the south there was no snow upon the ground, and from the place where they had crossed the Rhône the level plain had quickly given way to the forbidding mountain foothills of the Vivarais. The narrow paths and drover’s roads were full of rocks and stones that rolled with unpredictability, the ways forever climbing or descending through rough stunted trees and sheer faces of gray stone and forested hills rising steeply to either side.
In this wild and rugged place, the Scotsman’s stamina and strength were things to marvel at. He’d passed one portmanteau to Thomson, who could barely manage that together with his deal-box, but MacPherson kept the larger of the portmanteaus slung over his own shoulder so it rested on his back beside the long case of his gun. The heavy basket-hilted sword was at his side again, the ordinary sword hung at his other hip, his evil-looking dirk sheathed in its place along with heaven only knew how many other blades. A walking, breathing armory—and yet he moved in silence with a steady gait as though he carried nothing.
Mary, walking in his wake, had often found herself lulled into calmness by the rhythmic swagger of his stride that set his coat to swinging from his shoulders like a cape. He was a fine-looking man from the back, and she thought it a shame he had not been born handsome, nor reared with more care for his manners, for he would have otherwise made a good hero.
Her mind, in such moments, had frequently wandered to thoughts of new stories, new tales of adventure…and had just as frequently been yanked back down to reality by a new volley of Thomson’s complaints.
He’d deplored the poor make of his shoes, and the weight of his deal-box; the muscular soreness that sleeping on hay had produced, and the pace of their walking; the quality of the plain food they’d been eating, and his unendurable hunger, and even the sun, which in his view was either too bright or too little in evidence. Mary had once thought she never would hear someone find fault with so many things as her cousin Gaspard could, but as each day passed, Mr. Thomson continued to prove she’d been wrong. For a man who claimed to be “of an easy temper,” as he’d told her in Lyon, he did not rise well to adversity.
Madame Roy, on the other hand, had shown herself to be nearly as hardy as Mr. MacPherson. Mary thought this unsurprising, since they both were of the Highlands where such walking would have doubtless been a common thing, and where—from the few woodcuts she had seen—the land was similarly rugged. Mary, healthy as she was, had felt impatient with herself for tiring so easily upon the uphill paths, and pushed herself to match the others’ steps without complaining, though at times she’d wished she could, like Frisque, stop walking and sit stubbornly upon the ground till someone deigned to carry her.