Secrecy - By Rupert Thomson


He came on a November day, a cold wind blowing, the fields soaked with rain. The year was 1701. From my private lodge I watched his carriage creak to a halt, a spindly, spidery thing, black against the smoke-blue of the paving stones. The door opened a few inches. Closed again. Then opened wide. He climbed out, his foot tentative, almost fastidious, as it reached for the ground. In that moment, I realized he was dying. The knowledge took me by surprise, and made me watch him still more closely. A slight figure in a dark coat buttoned to the neck, he stared up at the dripping convent walls. My window was on the top floor; he didn’t notice me.

The month before, he had written me a letter. You don’t know me, it began, but I have something of great interest to tell you, which can only be relayed in person, face to face. His handwriting was as dense and wiry as a hawthorn hedge, and he had used more words than were strictly necessary. Was that nervousness? A lack of education? I couldn’t tell. I saw him speak to the gatekeeper, who looked beyond him at the driver of the carriage. There was resignation on their faces, and just a hint of mockery. Had they sensed what I had sensed? Perhaps there comes a time in your life when you lose the ability to command attention, when the world starts to ignore you because it no longer believes you can have much of an effect on it. With a shiver, I turned back into the room.

I sat down, thinking to prepare myself. Apart from the opal ring I wore on my left hand, the dressing table was my only concession to vanity, but there was precious little pleasure in it. The mirror showed me wrinkles, pouches, jowls – the random fretwork that years of recklessness and disappointment leave behind. Still, at least I’d lived. Fifty-six though … And the plain, shapeless robes of an abbess – me, Marguerite-Louise of Orléans! Who would have thought it? Not the dancing master, though he would probably have found the outfit entertaining. Not the cook, or the poet, or the groom. None of my many lovers, in fact – except, perhaps, for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Though I couldn’t pretend I’d ever thought of him as a lover. Husband, yes. Not lover. His half-hearted performances didn’t merit the word. But I was sure he had approved of the French king’s decision to have me dis patched to a convent. Best place for her, I could hear him saying. May his bones be ground to dust in hell. Amen.

I rouged my cheeks and pencilled in the haughty arches of my eyebrows. My lips, which had grown less generous with age, were also in need of some embellishment. Halfway through, I was interrupted by a novice, who blushed and looked away when she saw what I was doing.

She told me I had a visitor.

‘I know,’ I said.

By the time she showed him in, I was standing by the window in my drawing room. Bare walls, hard chairs. A fireplace heaped with logs that were struggling to burn.

‘Zumbo,’ I said.

He bowed. ‘Reverend Mother.’

Judging by his coat, which was foreign and far from new, he wasn’t a flamboyant man, or even one who was aware of current fashions. Tucked under one arm was a well-worn brown portfolio.

‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t sure how to address you …’

‘Reverend Mother will do.’

He looked at me steadily, with an odd mixture of curiosity and fondness. The skin around his eyes was puffy, almost bruised, as if he hadn’t slept.

I turned to the novice. ‘You can go.’ When she had left the room, I moved closer to my visitor. ‘You’re not well, are you?’

‘May I sit down?’

I showed him to a chair by the fire.

That summer, he told me, while in Marseilles, he had suffered a headache so abrupt and violent that it had thrown him to the ground. He had been taken to a hostel by the port. The air stank of fish guts and squid ink; he was sick the moment he came round. The woman who ran the place had bright red hair, and he believed, in his delirium, that she was on fire; he had asked for water, not because he was thirsty, but because he wanted to put out the flames. His lips twisted in a brief, wry smile, then he went on. The landlady sent