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The Devil Man had come.
Madame Leblanc had threatened to send for him, and it appeared she had done so.
Diane watched the carriage slow to a stop in front of the school's entrance. Green and gold, with abundant carving, it was drawn by four white steeds. A prince might use such a carriage.
He had not always come in such grand style. There were times he rode a horse, and once he had walked. One year he had not visited at all. Madame Leblanc had come close to sending her to the Dominican orphanage for the poor before a woman had arrived instead and paid for her keep for a while longer.
A bilious sensation churned in Diane's stomach. A guardian who only visited annually out of duty would not appreciate being summoned because of a disaster.
The brave plan she had hatched suddenly struck her as hopeless. Facing the inevitable, she had concluded that fate decreed a future that she had been too cowardly to embrace on her own.
Watching the carriage, her fragile courage abandoned her. The sanctuary of this school might be lonely and small, but it was safe. The quest that beckoned her could wait.
Maybe with time it could even be ignored.
The Devil Man stepped out of the carriage, resplendent in a midnight-blue cloak and high boots. The wind blew through his dark hair. He was not wearing a hat. He never did.
He had not always looked so rich. She vaguely remembered years when he had appeared almost rustic. There had been the time, ages ago, when she had thought him ill. Rich or poor, their meetings always followed the same pattern. He would glance at her, barely, and ask his questions.
Are you being treated well? Do you have any complaints? Are you learning your school lessons? How old are you now?
He did not care about the answers. She told him what he wanted to hear. Except once. She had been whipped for a transgression she had not committed and the humiliation was very raw when he visited. She impulsively complained to him. Amazingly, she had never been whipped again. Before he left he forbade it, much to Madame Leblanc's frustration. From then on she could not be physically punished without his permission.
Which was why he had been summoned today.
He strode to the entrance. She barely caught a glimpse of his face, but she saw enough of that severe countenance to know for sure who it was.
"Denounce me and I will kill you."
The sharp whisper pulled Diane out of her thoughts. She spun around.
Madame Oiseau, the music teacher, glared at her from the door, which she blocked with her body. Short and slight in stature, she still made an effective barrier. Her eyes glowed like two tiny coals in her fine-boned face. Her dark hair appeared mussed, as if she had rushed through her morning toilet.
"Do not doubt that I will do it, Diane. Take the punishment, keep your silence, and I will be your friend. Otherwise . . " She raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
A chill slid through Diane, as if evil breathed on her nape.
"No one will believe you," Madame said. "And when it is over, we will both still be here. You are smart enough to make the right choice." She opened the door. "Come down when you are called. I will bring you in."
Stunned, Diane watched her leave.
She glanced around her spartan chamber, seeking reassurance from the familiar objects. She had an odd fondness for the hard bed and old coverlet, for the wood chair and simple desk. The wardrobe needed painting and the pink washbowl had gotten very chipped over the years. The physical comforts were few, but time had made the narrow room the center of her life. It was the only home she could remember.
She pictured herself living in this chamber for a few years more. Not happy, but content. Not such a bad future, even with what she faced today, even with Madame Oiseau nearby. The alternative stretched in front of her like an endless void, dark and unfathomable.
The old questions began intruding, robbing the chamber of its meager comfort. Questions from her childhood, eternally unasked and unanswered. Who am I? Why did I come here? Where is my family? For a few years she had stopped wondering, but recently the questions had returned, louder and more insistently, until they ran in a silent chant echoing in a hollow part of her heart.
The answers were not here. Learning the truth meant abandoning this little world.
She only needed to grab the opportunity that fate had created.
Should she do it? Should she throw herself at the mercy of the Devil Man?
". . . if she goes unpunished, I must insist that she leave. I cannot have the virtue of my girls corrupted. . . ."
Madame Leblanc rambled on in severe tones. Distracted by thoughts of the unfinished business he had left in Paris, Daniel St. John only half-listened.
Something about a book. Of course the girl would have books. It was a school.
He forced his attention to the gray-haired, buxom schoolmistress and broke her incessant flow. "Your summons said that this was serious, madame. I assumed she had taken ill and lay on death's door."
It had been a bizarre stroke of luck that the letter had found him in Paris at all. He certainly had not planned to interrupt his visit there to make this journey. He was annoyed that he had been bothered for such a minor matter. "If she has broken the rules, deal with it as you normally do. As I pay you to do. There was no need to send for me."
Madame lowered her chin and glared at him. "This transgression requires more than bread and water for a few days, m'sieur, and you gave strict orders she was not to be punished with the rod without your permission."
"Did I? When was that?"
"Years ago. I told you that such leniency would lead to grief, and now it has."
Yes, he vaguely remembered the earnest expression on a gamine-faced child, asking him for justice. He could not recall giving instructions about it. If he had known it would prove this damned inconvenient he would not have been so generous.
He straightened in the chair, prepared to rescind the order. His gaze fell on the willow rod lying across the desk. The memory of tearful eyes and a choking voice accusing Madame Leblanc of unwarranted brutality came back to him again.
"You said something about a book. Let me see it."
"M'sieur, that is not necessary. I assure you that it is of a nature to be forbidden, to say the least."
"That could mean it is only a volume of poems by Ovid, or a religious tract by a dissenter. I would like to see it and judge for myself."
"I do not think--"
"The book, madame."
She strode to a cabinet. Using one of several keys on a cord around her neck, she unlocked it and retrieved a small, red volume. She thrust it at him and retreated to a window. She took up a position with her back to him, physically announcing her condemnation of the literature in his hands.
He flipped it open, and immediately saw why.
Not literature. In fact, no words at all. The thin volume contained only engravings that displayed carnal intercourse in all its inventiveness.
He paged through. Things started out simply enough, but got increasingly athletic. Toward the end there were a few representations that struck him as totally unworkable.
"I see," he said, snapping the book closed.
"Indeed." Her tone said he had seen more than was necessary.
"Call for the child, madame."
Satisfaction lit her face. "I would like you to be here when it is done. She should know that you approve."
"Send for her."
Madame Oiseau escorted Diane in.
As expected, a visitor waited in the headmistress's study. The Devil Man lounged in Madame Leblanc's chair behind the fruitwood desk. Madame stood beside him rigidly, a bulwark of censure. Two items lay upon the spotless desk. A willow rod, and the book.
Typically, Daniel St. John barely glanced at her. He appeared a little annoyed and very bored. She half-expected him to yawn and pull out his snuffbox.
He did not really look like a devil. She had given him that name as a young girl because of his eyes. Dark and intense, they were framed by eyebrows that peaked in vague points toward the ends. Those eyes could burn right into you if he paid attention.
Since he never did, she did not find them so frightening anymore.
His mouth was set in a straight, hard, full line, but then it always was. Even when he smiled, it only curved enough to suggest that whatever amused him was a private joke. Along with the eyes and chiseled face, it made him look cruel. Maybe he was. She wouldn't know. Still, she suspected that women thought him very handsome, and maybe even found his harshness attractive. She had seen Madame Oiseau flush and fluster in his presence.
He was not as old as she had once thought. He had grown more youthful as she had matured. She realized now that he could not be more than thirty. That struck her as peculiar. He had been an adult her whole life, and should be older.
It was easy to forget how hard he could appear. Every year the months hazed over her memory. Seeing him now, she knew that her plan had been stupid. He would never take on more inconvenience, and she would be left here to await Madame Oiseau's vengeance.
"M'sieur has learned of your disgraceful behavior," Madame Leblanc intoned. "He is shocked, as one would expect."
He quirked one of his sardonic smiles at the description of his reaction. He tapped the book. "Is there an explanation?"
Madame Oiseau moved closer, a physical reminder of her threat. Madame Leblanc glared, daring her to make excuses. The Devil Man looked indifferent, as always. He wanted this to be done so he could be gone.
Diane made her choice. The safe, cowardly choice. "No explanation, m'sieur."
He glanced up at her, suddenly attentive. It only lasted an instant. He sank back in the chair and gestured impatiently to Madame Leblanc.
The two women readied the chamber for punishment. A prie-dieu was dragged into the center of the room. A chair was pushed in front of it. The headmistress lifted the willow rod and motioned for the sinner to take the position.
The Devil Man just sat there, lost in his thoughts, gazing at the desk, ignoring the activity.
He was going to stay. Madame Leblanc had insisted that he witness it.
Diane had known remaining here would mean punishment. Madame Leblanc firmly believed that sins deserved whipping, and she did not reserve the rod for her students. Several months ago a serving woman of mature years was caught sneaking out to meet a man and the same justice had been meted out to her.
Burning with humiliation and praying that he remained in his daze, Diane approached the prie-dieu. Stepping up on the kneeler, she bent her hips over the raised, cushioned armrest and balanced herself by grasping the seat of the chair.
Madame Oiseau ceremoniously lifted the skirt of her sack dress. Madame Leblanc gave the usual exhortation for her to pray for forgiveness.
The rod fell on her exposed bottom. It fell again. She ground her teeth against the pain, knowing it was futile. They would whip her mercilessly until she begged heaven's pardon.
"Stop." His voice cut through the tension in the room.
Madame Leblanc got one last strike in.
"I said to stop."
"M'sieur, it must--"
"Stop. And leave."
Diane began to push herself up.
Madame Oiseau pressed her back down. "It appears her guardian is so outraged that he feels obliged to mete out the punishment himself, Madame Leblanc," she said in oily tones. "It is appropriate for such a sin, no?"
Madame Leblanc debated in a string of mumbles. Madame Oiseau walked around the prie-dieu. The two women left.
She heard him rise and walk toward her. She hoped that he would be quick about it. She would gladly accept any pain just to be done with the mortification that she felt, positioned there, half-naked.
The skirt fluttered down. A firm grasp took her arm. "Get up."
She righted herself and smoothed the sack gown. Biting back her humiliation, she faced him.
He sat behind the desk again. No longer bored. Definitely paying attention. She squirmed under his dark gaze.
He gestured to the book. "Where did you get it?"
"Does it matter?"
"I should say it does. I put you in a school that is almost cloistered. I find it curious that you came by such a thing."
The threat in her chamber rang in her ears. She could do it. Madame Oiseau could kill someone. And when it happened, the Devil Man would not care at all. He would be grateful to be spared the journey each year.
"I stole it."
"From a bookseller?"
"I stole it and Madame Leblanc found it among my belongings. That is all that matters. Madame says that excuses and explanations only make the sin worse."
"Does she? What nonsense. Do you understand why Madame was so shocked that you had this book?"
"The women are undressed, so I assume that it is about sins of the flesh."
That seemed to amuse him, as if he thought of a clever response but kept it to himself. "I believe that you stole this book, but I think it was from someone here. Madame Leblanc?"
She shook her head.
"I did not think so. It was the other one, wasn't it? The one more than happy to leave you alone with me." He speared her with those eyes. "Tell me now."
She hesitated. He really didn't care about her. This was the first time in years that he had even really looked at her.
He was definitely doing that. Sharply. Deeply. It made her uncomfortable.
He had helped her that time when she complained. Maybe if she told him, he would agree to keep silent and things could continue as before. Or perhaps if he complained, Madame Leblanc would believe him, and Madame Oiseau would be dismissed.
There was something in his expression that indicated he would have the truth, one way or another. Something determined, even ruthless, burned in those devil eyes.
She much preferred him bored and indifferent.
"It belongs to Madame Oiseau, as you guessed," she said. "There is a young girl, no more than fourteen, to whom she has been showing it. The girl told me how Madame Oiseau described the riches to be had for a woman who did such things. I went to Madame's chamber and took it. I was looking for a way to bring it down to the fire, but Madame Oiseau claimed a brooch had gone missing and all the girls' chambers were searched. The book was found in mine."