Mother Marie-Jocelyn closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. When she looked again, the small notations in the ledger had not changed. With a sigh, she laid aside the quill.
A month, maybe two, and she would be forced to close the doors, disperse the children and Sisters to other priories. Unthinkable. And unmistakable.
Non. She lifted her chin.
“Deus providebit.” God would provide.
A growl drew her attention to the window.
“Qu’est que c’est, Mitso?”
The big tom cat perched on the stone sill flicked an ear in her direction, but he did not look away from the darkness, and hailstorm battering the window pane. Pushing to her feet, Mother Marie-Jocelyn arched her spine, and groaned as she dug the balls of her thumbs into the tight muscles of her lower back. She’d spent far too long labouring over short facts.
Joining Mitso at the window, she smoothed the thick soft fur along the length of his broad back. “Qu’y a-t-il, mon ange?”
He meowed, pressed his nose to the glass.
“I checked,” she assured him. “The girls are quiet. No one is ready.”
A low growl rumbled in his chest. She forced open the casement. Wind whipped in and snuffed the guttering candle on her desk, casting the second-floor office into darkness.
“Better?” she murmured.
Mitso quieted, but his long tail continued its side-to-side sweep revealing his agitation. Crossing her arms against a rise of similar disquiet, she peered through the bombardment of thumb-sized ice pellets, at the flickering orange lights demarcating the city’s sprawl. The foul weather made the roads slick, near impassable. Only a fool, or someone desperate, would venture out on a night like this.
A faint echo of hooves on cobblestones suggested one, or the other, had risked the journey. And confirmed Mitso’s clairvoyance worked as well as ever.
Mother Marie-Jocelyn remained at the window, until the distant sound became a crescendo of synchronised clops resolving in to the dark shape of a coach-and-four topping the rise, bound for the portico. Snapping the window closed, she straightened her wimple, and nodded to Mitso.
“Oui, mon vieux, tu avais raison.” He was always right.
Mitso leaped gracefully to the floor and preceded her to the stairs, his black-tipped ears and broad head high, long black and white tail plumed elegantly over his back. She hastened after him, her appreciation of his unique abilities quelled only by her confusion over the late-night arrival.
Those able to afford wheeled transport did so by day. Of those, only the archbishop was a regular visitor, and not due for another month. The remainders were benefactors interested in assessing the worthiness of any potential donation. Yet even those had slowed to a sporadic trickle of late, as the clamour for charitable aid within the city escalated in direct proportion to its rapidly expanding boundaries.
More rail links meant more people flooding into the city from all over France, and elsewhere, in search of work, business, and scholarly pursuits. Those unable to swiftly secure jobs, or establish successful storefronts, found themselves adrift in a city where an abundance of people and scarcity of food meant everyone paid a prince’s sum for inconsequential quantities. An unconscionable number were lucky to eat once a day.
These were the people she was used to finding on the Abbey’s doorstep, the poor, the hungry, desperate, and remorseful; the terrified and the lost. And though certainly the wealthy were not immune to fear and remorse, or a sense of personal disaffection, they did not yank the bell rope and simultaneously pound on the door at half of midnight.
Mother Marie-Jocelyn arrived in the candle-lit foyer in time to stop Sister Bernadette who’d responded to the ruckus. “I will take care of this, Sister.”
Sister Bernadette acquiesced with a demure nod, and retreated to a polite distance. Mother Marie-Jocelyn knew better than to attempt to shoo her out entirely.
Short of stature and rotund of flesh, Sister Bernadette possessed the heart and soul of a Titan. She would quietly disappear into inner sanctums when, and only when, she was convinced the person on the other side of the door posed no threat to her Mother Superior, or the convent’s residents.
The man blew in with a spattering of hail, his hat clutched to his head with one hand, long overcoat flapping about his dark-trouser legs. “My wife is in the carriage. She’s in pain. Hurry.”
The same wind threatening to knock the man off his feet threatened to extinguish the meagre flames of the wall sconces; they wavered, tossing grotesque shadows around the stone corridor.
Shaking off her surprise that the late-night visitor was English, Mother Marie-Jocelyn shoved the oak door closed, but kept one hand on the handle, ready to aid the man’s exit. “Monsieur, this is not the Hôpital. It is—”
“I’m not interested in the hospital, nun. I’m interested in help. My wife’s ready to birth.”
Mother Marie-Jocelyn was taller than most men. Not this one. And having to lift her chin to meet his gaze was mildly unnerving. His behaviour, however, was comfortingly familiar. Worry and wealth often brought out the worst in people. He was crippled by both.
Summoning a smile, she murmured, “Monsieur—”
He cut her off with an imperious wave of his black-gloved hand. “I’ve made no mistake, nun. I was told we would receive good care here. And anonymity. Is that not so?”
“Oui, I offer both to those in need—”
“Good. Then collect my wife.”
This was a man used to being obeyed, to having his every wish, every command acted upon. Immediately. And this was her home, she its mistress. She did not take orders from anyone, least of all pompous foreigners.
“Certainly, Monsieur,” she said softly to mask her irritation, “your wife would prefer the comfort of a docteur, and to be in a place where she can receive visitors, non?”
“No.” He pursed his thin lips. “We’ve no intention of receiving visitors. We came here seeking privacy, and I expect you’ll provide it.”
“But Monsieur, this place is—”
“I know what this place is, nun.” His eyes widened marginally, an action that seemed to emphasize their glacial colour. “Now stop quibbling and aid my wife.”
Sister Bernadette’s cherubic features remained unchanged; her reaction burned in her eyes: sorrow, and anger.
Drawing a slow breath, Mother Marie-Jocelyn searched the man’s face, and sadly, found what she was looking for. Still, she had to be certain.
Clearing her throat, she murmured, “You do not intend to keep the child?”
His galenite stare was as icy as his tone.
“No,” he said. “I do not.”
Dianna and Jake’s love story continues in My Own…