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 boyyour dark curls, your skin, your coloring, your eyes.
The Italian painter.
Yes, I know who Caravaggio is.
I think its something about your lips. Your beauty begins there, in your lips. Some of Caravaggios 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 childs 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, its 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.
Excerpted from The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Stott. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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