Marguerite pulled her cloak more tightly about her, raising her hood against the thin, penetrating drizzle. City of Lights or not, she wasn't sure Paris had seen the sun yet this year, and the faces around her reflected much the same foulness of mood and general pessimism that she felt herself.
Of course, the majority of them had not, presumably, begun the new year in the sinking and humiliating consciousness of failure and loss. Or waited and watched every day for the pleading, loving letter that she was increasingly less sure must be wending its way across the Channel. Or sat down daily at their desks to compose and destroy unfinished half a dozen notes, ranging from the heartfelt and tear-spotted to flippant and biting, announcing their own return.
The day had begun dark and stayed overcast, with the approach of evening almost imperceptible, but the sonorous echo of bells from the Ile marked the hour and jerked her from her unpleasant reverie. She tightened her grip on the small bag of supplies and hurried forward. It was the girl's half-day, and so she had come out to do the shopping while poor Armand hastened back to his office. He had become suddenly both very busy and close-mouthed about much of his work, and she was grimly determined to not be a burden on him with foolish questions or demands. Their little life had fallen into rhythms that reminded her more of their early adolescence, those first awful hand-to-mouth years after Papa's death, than her glittering Parisian debut. And, oddly enough, she was not sorry. The little apartment Armand had taken to replace her salon was in a slightly shabbier neighborhood that was more convenient to his offices, and she had felt quite young again scrutinizing the shabby little market stalls for the best of a bad lot of vegetables and bread.
She rounded the corner, her mind still on the stew she would construct (and perhaps, beneath that, on what might be currently being prepared to be set before the elegant Sir Percival Blakeney in his empty house on the river) and walked into a table.
"Citoyenne! Excuse me!"
By the time she disentangled her skirts and her shopping from the legs of the rickety wooden structure, she had already succeeded in sending the poor man's little stock of paper, pens and ink sliding onto the damp cobblestones, where it was rapidly trod into mulch by indifferent feet.
"Oh! Oh my…"
Marguerite made a successful grab for at least the inkwell and managed to save it before it shattered. She set it back on the table, already rummaging for her reticule. It was all very well to romanticize the poverty of her youth, but she was just at this moment very happy that Armand had been recently paid and that the little stock she had taken away with her was still scarcely touched. The unfortunate letter-writer had scarcely moved, as if frozen in horror.
"I apologize most sincerely, citoyen. You must let me pay you the cost of the lost materials...and something for your trouble…"
She put out her hand with her most charming smile, looking up brightly into the face of the man beside her - what a tall fellow he was, to be sure..
The smile dropped from her face as if wiped off a slate. Her hand felt suddenly very cold, frozen on the grubby forearm emerging from the tattered sleeve, and she was abruptly conscious that her left foot was in an icy puddle, the liquid slowly seeping into her stocking.
But she could not move from staring into her husband's face.
"Not a word," he hissed, his voice shaking, a dreadful fear in his gaze. "Go home."
She opened her lips to disobey, everything spinning around her, a roaring in her ears. Percy - Percy in Paris, Percy disguised…
He shook his arm from her and spoke in a voice she'd never heard, peremptory and commanding.
"Not a word. I'll come to you tonight. If you speak now, it's my life. And others'."
His voice changed, became a whining plaint in perfect not-quite-gutter French, the precise accent one would expect of an indifferently-educated young clerk or would-have-been priest fallen on hard times.
"Running into people, preventing an honest citizen from making a living, giddy girls…"
He gathered his ruined materials, folded his little table and shuffled away, waving off the coins still frozen in her hands, and disappeared before she felt she could breathe again.
Armand, thank all the saints and angels, sent a note round by the office boy that he would be working late and she must just leave something on the hob for him. Marguerite thought any attempt at casual dinner conversation would have driven her completely mad.
Maybe she was mad? She contemplated the possibility thoughtfully, sitting by the fire in the empty apartment as darkness crept in and the night wore on. She didn't feel mad, but madwomen generally didn't, did they? She hadn't had any recent outbursts or unusual habits, and she didn't hear voices, but on the whole a sudden attack of madness seemed more likely than that, this afternoon, she had discovered her slightly stupid, rather dandified, and definitely English new-wedded lord flawlessly disguised as an impoverished Parisian letter-writer.
Until the knock on the door.
He was no longer the letter-writer but a laborer, a rough man-of-all-work she would have passed in the streets without a thought other than that it probably wouldn't do to listen too closely to anything he muttered upon seeing her. When she opened the door, he lifted the battered crimson cap with its stained cockade from his head as elegantly as if it were the finest hat matched to his exquisite outfit. But his eyes were fixed on her with a terrible expression of pleading and hope, and his voice did not match the carelessness of the gesture.
He seemed taller than she remembered, towering in the little hall.
She stepped back, opening the door and drawing a deep breath. This felt, somehow, a greater and more frightening step than the vows had been.
"I think you'd better come in and explain, Percy."