The Worst News
Try though she might, Jeanne had not been able to calm the sense that she was now into something over her head. It was not, that she felt sorry for the Cardinal, or even worried for her co-conspirators, it was the sense, she was not in control of events. Whether it was Cagliostro, or the Queen, she had the sensation she was part of someone else’s game, and she wasn’t sure of the rules. The Queen was a gambler, like many of her ladies at court. They understood and seemed to have developed a feel for chance. Jeanne, had spent much of her adult life trying to remove chance from it, having spent her childhood being bounced around on other people’s mistakes and weaknesses. She had tried very hard to make sure the she and Marie-Ann were isolated from other people, free from their ideas and plots. Most of all, free from their failings.
Now, she wasn’t sure what the game was, and whether people were playing the same game. She didn’t know if she was a pawn, or a piece of value. She couldn’t guess how much the others, that is, la Motte, or Françoise, knew or understood what was the end, or how much was at stake. It was keeping her awake. So she did not need to be awakened, when Françoise called for to come to the main room, in the middle of the night.
When she got there, a cold hand gripped her heart. Standing in the room were two sisters from the convent at Longchamp, both with serious faces.
“What’s happened?” Jeanne asked.
“If you could come with us, madame…”
“Is she alive?”
The sisters exchanged a silent communication before, “She is unwell, yes.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“If you can come, then you will know everything. But we must return quickly.”
“Right. I will be down with you straight away.”
Françoise, a silent observer asked, “Is there anything I can do?”
Jeanne, already on her way out of the door, “I don’t… tell the others where I am, I shall be back as soon as I can.”
It was about two hours later that, a small carriage pulled up outside of the convent, and the sisters led Jeanne to the door. As they approached the door swung open and they went inside. The sister at the door as still pushing it closed behind them, as she said,
“Mother said to go on up, straight away.”
The walked on, Jeanne’s sense of foreboding growing all the while. Every step she took marked another reason, for her to accuse herself of self absorbed thoughtlessness. She had neglected her sister, had not called on her frequently enough, had been so intent on revenge, she had not even thought about her once her morning and evening prayers had passed. She had let her down, it was Jeanne and not Marie-Ann who should be suffering… and on and on. The walk, one she had taken many times and never seemed so long, yet did not seem long enough. The halls echoed with their footsteps. She could hear the early morning prayers, and she knew the Matins were being said for the poor everywhere in the world, and all she could think of, was her own poor sister, abandoned and let down, by the one person who should have been there for her.
They turned the corner into the corridor where the nun’s cells lined each side. One alone had a light outside, and three of the sisters were kneeling saying Matins outside. The sisters accompanying Jeanne, joined their colleagues and knelt, pointing Jeanne into the room. She pushed on the door and it gave.
Inside, the room was silent and dark, save for the single candle beside the bed. At the side, knelt the reverend mother, who looked up from her prayers. Jeanne, had eyes only for the tiny figure in the bed. Pale and looking, even in the bed, gaunt, Jeanne looked for signs that her sister was still alive. After a moment she could just make out the rise and fall of the bed covers. Relief flooded through her, quickly replaced by both guilt and concern.
The reverend mother rose, “She is still with us, Jeanne.”
“What has happened?”
“We’re not sure. She has been melancholy for a few weeks, though of course she has never complained, I only know what I know, through watching her at prayer and at meals. But it is as though she has been fading, like ink on paper left in the sun.”
“You should have called me.”
“I was going to, but she had some sense that it was about to happen, and she came to me and asked that you not be, ‘bothered’ as she put it.”
“She has never been a bother. Is she…”
“Dying?” and mother held out her hands, “I have no idea. I have no reason to think so, but she is slipping away. She has no fever, she complains of no pain, but I think she is in pain. She eats, though not a lot, but still, enough to keep body and soul together, I think. Yet…” And she held out her hand at Jeanne’s pale sister.
“Why tonight? Why did you call me this evening?”
“She fell asleep earlier in the evening and we have not been able to waken her, I cannot but suppose we are in her last hours.”
It seemed impossible to Jeanne. Her mind rushed over the last days and weeks, the thought that all of these things had been going on, while her sister quietly slid from the world. She didn’t know what else, so she sat on the site of the bed and Marie-Ann opened her eyes.
“How not? Are you in pain?”
Marie-Ann smiled, “A little.”
Mother turned for the door, “I can get something for that.”
“No, I don’t want to lose touch with the world, while I am in it.”
“It will just ease any pain, child.”
Marie-Ann smiled and turned her attention to Jeanne. She held her eyes, “You see how they have fussed over me? I swapped one older sister for forty and a mother.”
Jeanne was aware of the silent suppression of a sob behind her. She smiled back at her sister.
“Is there anything in this world that could dim your goodness, Marie?”
“Oh, don’t you shame me, I fall so far short and have so much to live up to.” Her voice is thin and quiet, and Jeanne has to lean forward to hear. “But I am so glad to see you. You look well, but tired. How is your husband?”
“He is well, robust.”
And Marie-Ann took a deep breath and her eyes widened, and then she again looked into Jeanne’s eyes and smiled, “I..” She sighed.
Jeanne waited for the rest of the sentence, but it never came. The reverend mother, leaned over her and closed Marie-Ann’s eyes, and then knelt and whispered, “Confiteor deo omnipotenti, et vobis...” And on into the silence. The final confession of a sinless soul.
Jeanne was still. Inside her, she hunted for the scream she knew was hiding there, but could find nothing, bar the coldest of empty feelings. When she had left Marie-Ann in the convent’s care she had been burning with the sense of wrong, done to her sister. Now there was just a cold certainty that the world which had done this, caused this, would pay, even if she had to set the whole place ablaze to feel warm again.