“No, gentlemen, I must insist you leave the girl to me. She is a fille à la casquette, and as such is under the protection of the Ursuline nuns.” Sister Marie Madeleine positioned herself in the doorway to their room, holding the door half closed before her. She had told Lenobia to go immediately to her pallet and then had squared off against the Bishop and the Commodore, who hovered in the hallway. The Bishop was still blustering and red-faced. The Commodore didn’t seem to know how to look—he appeared to vacillate between anger and humor. As the nun spoke, the military man shrugged and said, “Yes, well, she is your charge, Sister.”
“She is a bastard and an impostor!” the Bishop said.
“Bastard she is—impostor she is no more,” the nun said firmly. “She has admitted her sin and asked for forgiveness. Is it not now our job as good Catholics to forgive and help the child find her true path in life?”
“You could not possibly believe I would allow you to marry that little bastard to a nobleman!” said the Bishop.
“And you could not possibly believe I would involve myself in deceit and break my vow of honesty,” the nun countered.
Lenobia thought she could feel the heat of the Bishop’s anger all the way across the room.
“Then what are you going to do with her?” he asked.
“I am going to complete my charge and be certain she arrives in New Orleans safe and chaste. From there it will be up to the Ursuline Council and, of course, the child herself, as to her future.”
“That sounds reasonable,” said the Commodore. “Come, Charles, let us leave the women to women’s dealings. I have a case of excellent port that we have not yet opened. Let us sample it and be sure it has survived the voyage thus far.” Giving the Sister a dismissive nod, he clapped the Bishop on his shoulder before walking away.
The purple-robed man didn’t immediately follow the Commodore. Instead he looked past Sister Marie Madeleine to where Lenobia sat, arms hugging herself, on her pallet. “God’s holy fire burns out liars,” he said.
“I think God’s holy fire does not burn out children, though. Good day to you, Father,” Sister Marie Madeleine said, and then she closed the door in the priest’s face.
The room was so quiet Lenobia could hear Simonette’s excited little breaths.
Lenobia met Sister Marie Madeleine’s gaze. “I am sorry,” she said.
The nun raised her hand. “First, let us begin with your name. Your real name.”
“Lenobia Whitehall.” For a moment the rush of relief at being able to reclaim her name overshadowed fear and shame, and she was able to draw a deep, fortifying breath. “That is my real name.”
“How could you do it? Pretend to be a poor, dead girl?” Simonette said. She was staring at Lenobia with huge eyes as if she were an unusual and frightening species of creature newly discovered.
Lenobia glanced at the nun. The Sister nodded, saying, “They will all want to know. Answer now and be through with it.”
“I did not so much pretend to be Cecile, but rather I simply kept quiet.” Lenobia looked at Simonette, dressed in her silks trimmed in sable, pearls and garnets twinkling around her slim, white neck. “You do not know what it is to have nothing—no protection—no future. I did not want to be Cecile. I just wanted to be safe and happy.”
“But you are a bastard,” said Aveline de Lafayette, the beautiful blonde youngest daughter of the Marquis de Lafayette. “You do not deserve the life of a legitimate daughter.”
“How could you believe such nonsense?” Lenobia said. “Why should an accident of birth decide the worth of a person?”
“God decides our worth,” said Sister Marie Madeleine.
“And last time I checked, you were not God, mademoiselle,” Lenobia said to the young de Lafayette.
Aveline gasped. “This daughter of a whore will not speak to me like that!”
“My mother is not a whore! She is a woman who was too beautiful and too trusting!”
“Of course you would say that, but we already know you are a liar.” Aveline de Lafayette picked up her skirts and began to brush past Lenobia, saying, “Sister, I will not share a room with a fille de bas.”
“Enough!” The sharpness of the nun’s voice had even the arrogant de Lafayette pausing. “Aveline, at the Ursuline convent we educate women. We make no distinction between class or race in doing so. What is important is that we treat everyone with honesty and respect. Lenobia has given us honesty. We will return that with respect.” The nun shifted her gaze to Lenobia. “I can listen to the confession of your sin, but I cannot absolve you of that sin. For that you need a priest.”
Lenobia shuddered. “I will not confess to the Bishop.”
Marie Madeleine’s expression softened. “Begin by confessing to God, child. Then our good Father Pierre at the convent will hear your confession when we arrive.” Her gaze moved from Lenobia to each of the other girls in the room. “Father Pierre would hear any of your confessions because we are each imperfect and in need of absolution.” She turned back to Lenobia. “Child, would you join me on deck, please?”
Lenobia nodded silently and followed the Sister above. They walked the short way up to the aft part of the ship and stood beside the black railing and ornately carved cherubic figures that decorated the rear of the Minerva. They stood without speaking for a few moments, each woman looking out to sea and keeping to her own thoughts. Lenobia knew being discovered as an impostor would change her life, probably for the worse, but she couldn’t help feeling a small thrill of release—of freedom from the lie that had been haunting her.
“I hated the lie.” She heard herself speak her thought aloud.
“I am glad to hear you say it. You do not seem a deceitful girl to me.” Marie Madeleine moved her gaze to Lenobia. “Tell me truly, did no one else know of your ruse?”
Lenobia did not expect the question and she looked away, not able to say the truth and not willing to tell another lie.
“Ah, I see. Your maman, she knew,” Marie Madeleine said, not unkindly. “No matter, what is done cannot be undone. I will not ask you about it again.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Lenobia said quietly.
The nun paused, and then with a sharper tone continued. “You should have come to me when you first saw the Bishop instead of pretending illness.”
“I did not know what you would do,” Lenobia said honestly.
“I am not quite certain myself, but I do know I would have done everything in my power to avert an ugly confrontation with the Bishop such as the one we had today.” The nun’s gaze was sharp and clear. “What is it that is between the two of you?”
“Nothing on my part!” Lenobia said quickly, then sighed and added, “Some time ago, my maman, who is devout, said that we would no longer go to Mass. Instead she kept me home. That did not keep the Bishop from coming to the château—it did not keep his eyes from searching me out.”
“Did the Bishop take your maidenhead?”
“No! He did not touch me. I am still a maid.”
Marie Madeleine crossed herself. “Thank the Blessed Mother for that.” The nun exhaled a long breath. “The Bishop is a worriment to me. He is not the type of man I would want on the Seat of Saint Louis. But, God’s ways are sometimes difficult for us to understand. The voyage will be over in a few weeks, and once we are in New Orleans the Bishop will have many duties to keep him occupied and not thinking of you. So, it is only for a few weeks that we must keep you from the Bishop’s eye.”
Marie Madeleine’s brows raised. “Ursuline nuns are servants of the Holy Mother of us all, and She would not want me to stand idly by while one of Her daughters is abused—not even by a Bishop.” She brushed away Lenobia’s thanks. “You will be expected at dinner now that you have been found out. That cannot be avoided without setting you up for more ridicule and disdain.”
“Ridicule and disdain are less offensive than the Bishop’s attention,” Lenobia said.
“No. They make you more vulnerable to him. You will dine with us. Just call no notice to yourself. Even he cannot do anything in front of the crowd of us. Other than that, even though I am quite sure you are weary of pretending illness and remaining in your quarters, you must stay out of sight.”
Lenobia cleared her throat, lifted her chin, and took the plunge. “Sister, for several weeks I have been leaving our quarters before dawn and returning before most of the ship awakens.”
The nun smiled. “Yes, child. I know.”
“Oh. I thought you were praying.”
“Lenobia, I believe you will discover many of my good sisters and I are able to think and pray at the same time. I do appreciate your honesty. Where is it you go?”
“Up here. Well, actually, over there.” Lenobia pointed to a shadowy part of the deck where the lifeboats were stored. “I watch the sunrise and walk around a little. And then I go down to the cargo hold.”
Marie Madeleine blinked in surprise. “The cargo hold? Whatever for?”
“Horses,” Lenobia said. I am telling the truth, she rationalized. Horses drew me there. “A matched pair of Percherons. I like horses very much, and I am good with them. May I continue visiting them?”
“Do you ever see the Bishop on your dawn outings?”
“No, this was the first morning, and that is only because I stayed out too long after dawn.”
The nun shrugged. “As long as you are careful, I see no reason to trap you in your quarters any more than I absolutely must. But do be careful, child.”
“I will, merci beaucoup, Sister.” Impulsively, Lenobia threw her arms around the nun and hugged her. After only a moment strong, motherly arms encircled her in return and the nun patted her shoulder.
“Do not worry, child,” Sister Marie Madeleine murmured consolingly. “There is a great shortage of good Catholic girls in New Orleans. We will find you a husband, do not fear.”
Trying not to think of Martin, Lenobia whispered, “I would rather you find me a way to earn my living.”
The nun was still chuckling as they made their way back to the women’s quarters.
* * *
In the Commodore’s private sitting room, directly below where Lenobia and Marie Madeleine had so recently been speaking, Bishop Charles de Beaumont stood by the open window silent as death, still as a statue. When the Commodore returned from the galley with two dusty bottles of port under his beefy arms, Charles put on a show of being interested in the year and vineyard. He pretended to enjoy the rich wine, when instead he drank deeply and without tasting it, needing to douse the flame of rage that burned so brightly within him while bits and pieces of the conversation he’d overheard boiled through his mind: What is it that is between the two of you? Did the Bishop take your maidenhead? Ridicule and disdain are less offensive than the Bishop’s attention. But do be careful, child …
The Commodore blustered on and on about tides and battle strategies and other such banal subjects and Charles’s anger, dampened by wine, simmered slowly and carefully, cooking fully in the juices of hatred and lust and fire—always fire.
* * *
The evening meal would have been a disaster had it not been for Sister Marie Madeleine. Simonette was the only girl who would speak to Lenobia, and she did so in awkward starts and stops—as if the fifteen-year-old kept forgetting she wasn’t supposed to like Lenobia anymore.
Lenobia concentrated on her food. She thought it was going to be like heaven to be able to eat a full meal, but the Bishop’s hot gaze made her feel so sick and scared that she ended up pushing most of the delicious sea bass and buttery potatoes around her plate.
Sister Marie Madeleine made everything work, though. She kept the Commodore engaged in a discussion about the ethics of war that included the Bishop and his ecclesiastical opinions. He couldn’t ignore the nun—not when she was showing such obvious interest in the Bishop’s opinion. And in much less time than Lenobia would have imagined, the Sister was asking to be excused.
“So soon, madame?” The Commodore blinked blearily at her, face florid from the port. “I was enjoying our conversation very much!”
“Do forgive me, good Commodore, but I wish to go while there is still some light left in the evening sky. The mademoiselles and I should very much like to take a few turns about the deck.”
The mademoiselles, obviously shocked by the nun’s proposal, stared at her in varying degrees of surprise and horror.
“Walk? About the deck? And why would you wish to do that, Sister?” asked the Bishop in a sharp voice.
The nun smiled placidly at the Bishop. “Oui, I think we have too long been cooped in our rooms.” Then she shifted her attention to the Commodore. “Have you not explained many times about the healthful benefits of sea air? And look at you, monsieur, such a big, strong man. We would do well to emulate your habits.”
“Ah, indeed, indeed.” The Commodore’s already massive chest swelled even fuller.
“Excellent! Then with your permission, I am going to recommend the girls and I take frequent walks around the ship at varying times of the day. We must all be mindful of our health, and now that the last of the seasickness has dissolved, there is nothing to keep us to our quarters.” Marie Madeleine said the last with a quick, knowing glance at Lenobia, followed by an apologetic look to the Commodore, as if including him in her chagrin at the girl’s behavior. Lenobia thought Sister Marie Madeleine was absolutely brilliant.
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