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 womans 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 . . . Ive 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 its easier to see all that water in the darkness.
I cant 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 itgiant sea lizards swimming around us, oysters and corals beneath us, creatures with bodies so strange we couldnt 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.
Thats 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.
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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