In the dark hours of a hot July night in 1815, sitting on the outside of a mail coach a few miles from Paris, I woke to the sound of a woman’s voice, speaking in French, deep and roughly textured, like limestone. We had stopped outside a village inn whose sign creaked in the night wind. Attention, she said to the driver. Be careful.
I opened my eyes as a tall figure, her head obscured by the hood of her cloak, climbed into the seat beside me. Groaning with the effort, the driver passed up to her a large bundle wrapped in a red velvet blanket. It was a sleeping child; I could just make out a dimpled hand, the sleep-hot flush of a cheek, and a curl of dark hair. The woman spoke softly to the child, soothing it, rearranging the folds of its blanket.
“There are several empty seats inside, madame,” I said in French, concentrating hard on my pronunciation.
She answered me in perfect English: “But who would want to sit inside on a night like this?”
Her voice was surprisingly low for a woman, and it stirred me. The black of the sky was already shading to a deep inky blue over toward the horizon. Mist hung over the fields and hedgerows and gathered a little in the trees on either side of the road.
“Is it safe in France for a woman to travel alone?” I asked as the coach lurched back into movement. The Edinburgh newspapers regularly reported attacks on carriages traveling at night across open country.
She laughed and turned toward me, her face illuminated by the light of a half-moon. Over to my left somewhere a rooster crowed; we must have been passing a farm or a village. “But I am not traveling alone,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper and leaning toward me. “I have Delphine. She is no ordinary child, you see. She is asleep now, of course, so it may be a little difficult for you to believe, but this child, she can fight armies and slay dragons. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen her lift an elephant and its rider with a single hand. Non, I am entirely safe with Delphine. Otherwise, of course, I would never travel alone. It is far too dangerous. What about you, monsieur? Are you not afraid?”
“No, of course you are not afraid.” She smiled. “You are a man.”
“I have never left England before,” I stammered. “I have never traveled so far or had to make myself understood in another language. Three times I decided I must take the next mail coach back to Calais . . . I’ve never felt so much of a coward.”
She laughed, her voice mesmerizing in the darkness. “There it is. Paris. See the lights ahead . . . on the horizon? We will be there by dawn. Imagine . . . ” She stopped suddenly, gazing out toward the flattened shapes of the distant hills. “Sometimes it’s easier to see all that water in the darkness.”
“I can’t see any water,” I said, confused.
She pointed from right to left. “Everything you see from there to there, the entire Paris basin, was under water thousands of years ago. Paris was just a hollow in the seafloor then. There were cliffs of chalk over there, see, where the land began. Picture it—giant sea lizards swimming around us, oysters and corals beneath us, creatures with bodies so strange we couldn’t possibly imagine them crawling across the seabed. Later, when the water retreated, the creatures pulled themselves onto the rocks to make new bodies with scales and fur and feathers. Mammoths wandered down from the hills to drink from the Seine, under the same moon as this one, calling to one another.”
“That’s a strange thing to think about,” I said.
“Oui.” She laughed. “I suppose it is. But I think about it often, this earth before man. I look at the fossils in the rocks, the remains of that time so long ago, and I think about how late we came. Even the sea slugs appeared before we did. It took thousands of years for these bodies of ours to take shape, for our clever eyes and our curious brains to come to be. And now that we are big and strong, we think everything belongs to us, that we know and own everything.”
“Come to be?” I said, surprised and a little alarmed. “So you think species have changed? You are a student of Professor Lamarck, the transformist?”
“I was once,” she said. “Lamarck is right about most things. Species are not fixed. Everything is changing, all the time. The animals, the people, the hills—even the little things, skin, hair, everything is constantly renewing itself, taking new shapes. Just think of what we have come from—simple sea creatures with no eyes or hearts or minds— then think of what we might yet become. Doesn’t that excite you?” She ran her fingers across the child’s face. She—Delphine, the dragonslayer—stirred, her eyes flickering open for a moment and then closing again.
“Paris is riddled with infidels,” Professor Jameson had warned me back in Edinburgh. “They are poets, these French transformists, not men of science. They dream up notions about the origins of the earth and the transmutation of species. Castles in the air. Most of them are atheists too—heretics. Steer clear.”
Jameson had not mentioned that there were women who had studied with Lamarck. I wondered what he would make of this infidel sitting beside me now. I would have to record this conversation in my notebook, I thought; Jameson would want a report. He would want to know the kind of words she used, what she had read, whom she talked to. So did I.
“It will get bigger, you know,” she said, her eyes shining in the dark with a touch of malevolence.
“The city. It doesn’t look so big now, at night, but it will swallow you up. Are you not afraid?”
“Yes.” I smiled. “Yes. Of course I’m afraid.”
Paris aroused complicated feelings in me then. What did I know of cities—the sound of thousands of people moving together, the tangled dealings of commerce and trade? I had always been a country boy. I knew the insides of the cave networks and mine workings of Derbyshire; I knew the angles and curves of the hills, the names of trees, ferns, lichens, and fishes; I could tell you how the light fell across the lakes, but I knew almost nothing of cities.
Edinburgh—quiet, solid, rainy Edinburgh, hewn out of the rock and built across a ravine—where I had lived and worked for four years, had overwhelmed me as a seventeen-year-old boy arriving by carriage one frosty morning. As I slipped through the crowd of Princes Street, I could scarcely feel the beginnings and ends of myself in the roar and flow of it. So I had anchored myself, establishing daily routes between the lecture theaters, the anatomy school, the libraries, museums, and taverns. Despite the best efforts of my fellow students, one of whom urged me with mock seriousness to fall in love for the sake of my health, I had lived largely in and among books.
I had seen London fleetingly, passing through from time to time on my way from Edinburgh to my family home in Derbyshire. One day in May I walked from the inn where I was staying to the optical-instrument maker’s shop in the Strand and bought a bronze-cased microscope in a velvet-lined box with money I had saved for three years. On that brief walk, London, for all its smoke and smell and noise, enraptured me. My curiosity, that shapeless thing that drove at me relentlessly, that propelled the search for origins and explanations and connections, my desire to see further and further into the insides of things that had compelled me from the day I had touched my first microscope, or turned the first page of Aristotle’s History of Animals, or opened the encyclopedia at the page marked “Anatomy,” had seemed all the more heightened in London. There were answers to be found in cities; there were libraries, instrument shops and museums and professors who knew how to pose extraordinary questions.
Now that I had graduated, I wanted more than anything to be part of what was happening in Paris—the conversations and discoveries in the debating rooms, the libraries, and the museums. The French professors, given authority, freedom, and money by Napoleon, were making new inroads into knowledge. The museums in Paris were remarkable, the lectures groundbreaking. But it was also the city my father and his friends feared and loathed, the Paris of the Revolution —a city of people so hungry they had marched on Versailles, stormed the Bastille, imprisoned and then killed a royal family. I thought about the newspaper reports my father had kept that described the guillotine swallowing up lives, thousands of them; blood in the streets; mobs; children with sticks and garden tools hunting down the children of aristocrats and beating them to death; a king made to wear a red cap; bloodied heads on spikes; the grocer burned alive on a pyre made of furniture thrown from the windows of the palaces of émigrés.
Then there was the Paris of Napoleon Bonaparte. I had seen drawings of the buildings and squares and streets the Emperor had built: the vast classical perspective of the Arc du Carrousel and the Arc de Triomphe; the new bridges and water fountains; the classical façades, colonnades, marble columns—all so cool and quiet—the imperial aspirations of the Emperor laid serenely on top of fire, blood, and death. Paris was to be the new Rome, Napoleon had declared.
Now that Napoleon had been captured, Wellington had restored the French king to the throne—Louis XVIII, they called this one; the brother of the guillotined king. But everyone was still half expecting Napoleon to rise again, like a body that just wouldn’t drown. Anything could happen, and I wanted to be there to see it. Whatever it was going to be. There was going to be a spectacle of some kind.
“Daniel into the lion’s den . . . ” she said.
“How do you know my name?” The coach lurched so that my body crushed up against her shoulder in the darkness. “Pardon, madame. Have we met before? ”
“A Portuguese priest taught me some tricks in a bar on the Amalfi coast,” she said, turning her head toward me with a slow smile. In the lightening of the morning, I could see her face for the first time against the black folds of her hood.
She was darkly, heavily beautiful. A woman of middle years with black eyes and olive skin and thick black eyebrows that almost touched in the middle, making the shape of an archer’s bow, a falcon in flight. Even in the half-light, the directness of her gaze startled me. She held me there, her eyes searching out mine, her lips forming the faintest of smiles, but I could not look back, not directly, though I wanted to. Always immersed in my studies, and growing up as a boy among boys, I had had little practice conversing with women. I felt myself blush and began to stammer. “What tricks?” I asked. “What did he teach you?”
“My friend, the abbé Faria,” she said, “is a magnetist. He is half Indian, half Portuguese. He taught me many things. I put you to sleep for a few minutes, and then you told me everything—first your name, your family, your dreams . . . and then your secrets. Now I know all your secrets. Every one.” She smiled.
“You didn’t put me to sleep,” I said. “That’s ridiculous.” I looked at my pocket watch. The hands were still moving clockwise at the same rate. It was half past five. I was certain I had lost no time.
“How can you be sure, monsieur?” She was no longer looking at my eyes; now her gaze had settled on my lips. Her eyes on my lips, her thigh against my thigh, her shoulder against mine. I could feel the heat of her body through my clothes. In the early-morning light, with the child sleeping in the crook of her arm, she looked like a painting. Almost sacred. Yet the intimacy of her talk and manner disturbed me.
“You must be about twenty,” she said, examining me more closely. “You remind me of someone I once knew. You have the look of a Caravaggio boy—your dark curls, your skin, your coloring, your eyes.”
“The Italian painter.”
“Yes, I know who Caravaggio is.”
“I think it’s something about your lips. Your beauty begins there, in your lips. Some of Caravaggio’s paintings are in the Louvre. You should go and see them.”
“I am twenty-three,” I said, exaggerating a little, while trying to steady my breathing. Could she see my discomfort, my body betraying its secrets?
She smiled. The wind had picked up. It tugged at her cloak and blew through her hair. She pulled the cloak further around the child’s head. The child, disturbed, woke for a moment and sat up, black eyes wide, her black hair disheveled and wild, and said in French, as if still dreaming: “M. Napoleon, il est mort.”
“No, no, little one, ” the woman replied in French, “it’s only a dream, just a dream. M. Napoleon is sleeping safely in his own bed. Really. His soldiers are guarding him. Now, go back to sleep. We will be in Paris soon.”
The child, comforted, dropped her shoulders, closed her eyes, pulled the cloak around her, and was soon sleeping again.
The woman turned back to me, her voice low and lingering. “Your name is Daniel Connor. You are studying anatomy at the medical school in Edinburgh. You have written up your dissertation. Probably, I think, on something to do with generation or embryology—”
“The circulation of the blood in the fetus . . . How did you . . . ”
“And now you come to Paris to study at the Jardin des Plantes, M. Daniel Connor. You think about philosophical questions. What else? Am I correct so far?”
“How can you possibly know that?”
My voice, when I spoke, was shaky. I was tired, I reminded myself. Just that. And this woman was a specter. Probably just a figment of my imagination, conjured in the night.
She laughed again and gestured toward my traveling bag, which sat between us on the seat, open.
“You are labeled, my friend . . . here.” She ran her fingers over the letters engraved on the inside of the bag. “You see: daniel connor, medical school, edinburgh. I guessed the rest. You are easy to read.”
“That is not fair,” I said, relieved. “You have taken advantage of me.”
“You see,” she said, “I am a great investigator. We say enquêteur. There are many Edinburgh medical students like you in Paris now. They come to listen to the French professors of the Jardin des Plantes: Professors Lamarck, Cuvier, and Geoffroy. I like to watch them. They amuse me.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott. Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Stott. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.