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Page 22

Violet scanned the audience as she spoke, dividing them into categories—true believers, watchful skeptics, and those who’d come here to be entertained. As usual, only a few hands went up at first, one or two hopeful, one or two from gentlemen obviously out to catch Violet and her mother in a trick.

Violet nodded at one of the hopefuls, a middle-aged woman in black. Violet held up her hand before the woman had spoken more than a few words. “It is difficult, I know,” Violet said, twisting her French to sound as though someone from Saint Petersburg spoke it. “He went too soon, long before his time. In battle, was it?”

The woman nodded, looking surprised. Poor thing. Violet had seen the lady’s bleak expression, coupled with the lock of hair in a brooch on her chest next to an insignia denoting an officer in the French army. She’d lost a son in some colonial war, either in Africa or Asia.

“He was so very far away,” Violet said. “I am sorry.”

The woman’s face crumpled, and Violet’s heart ached for her. There were those who claimed Violet and her mother played upon the grieving to take their money, and Violet didn’t always disagree, but at the same time, she knew that what she and her mother did brought some comfort. This woman, for instance, wanted to make certain her son was all right. He likely had died in much pain, in a distant land, and his mother hadn’t been able to hold his hand when he went. Mothers who had lost sons or daughters had the most haunted looks of all.

Not natural, Violet thought with anger. Mothers shouldn’t lose their children. She thought about Daniel, and pictured the bleak look in his father’s eyes when the news was brought to him.

Violet forced herself to turn from the edge of the stage and continue. “Countess?”

“Yes.” Celine lifted a handkerchief to dab away real tears of sympathy. “I will find him.”

The hall went quiet. Celine closed her eyes, rested her hands on her lap, and went into her trance.

Violet watched her closely, ready to assist at any sign of illness or faintness. Sometimes her mother could render herself unconscious—once, she’d fallen from her chair and struck her head before Violet could catch her, and had bled profusely.

“The veil,” her mother murmured, her breath coming rapidly. “It is parting. I see light, I see . . . ah.”

Celine trailed off. When she spoke again, her voice took on a high-pitched, childlike tone—her spirit guide, Adelaide, a Parisian child of ten. “Do not worry, Madame. I will find him. He is here, and so lonely.”

The mother’s cry rang out from the audience. The young woman sitting next to her—a stranger from the way she’d kept herself as distant as the seats allowed—now patted the woman’s arm comfortingly.

Celine spoke again. This time, her voice was deep, the Russian accent gone, her French flawless, but provincial. From the coast, in a town not far from here, Violet guessed.

“Maman, are you there?”

The woman sprang to her feet, handkerchief clutched to her breast. “Jules? Jules, is it you?”

Celine remained silent until Violet turned and said to Celine in her halting accent, “She wishes to know whether this is her son.”

“Maman,” came the answer in relief, spoken through Celine’s mouth. “I am here, Maman. Do not cry, I beg of you.”

“You are all right? She said you were lonely.”

Violet conveyed the question, and Celine answered. “Lonely for you, Maman. I am worried for you, now that you are alone.”

“I am fine. Really, my darling. I have my friends, and they care for me. But what about you? I can’t bear thinking of you, lying alone . . .”

“The form in the grave is but clay. I have left it far behind and crossed over. Papa is here, and little . . . little . . .”

“Brigitte? Brigitte is with you?”

The hope in the woman’s voice broke Violet’s heart. Celine, she knew, would firmly believe she spoke to the dead soldier called Jules, but Celine was also using the trick—whether consciously or not—of getting the client to supply information they didn’t have.

“Yes, Brigitte is here. She misses you.”

“And I miss her. Tell her that her maman misses her so much. And you, Jules. But you are happy, that is good. One day we will all be together.”

Statements like this always worried Violet, but the woman looked healthy and possibly was too staunch a Catholic to contemplate suicide. She also looked very relieved to learn that her family was all together in the afterlife. If they were taking care of one another, she wouldn’t have to worry about them.

“I must go, Maman. The veil is thin. You have my love . . . my love.” The voice drifted away, and the childlike voice returned. “He has gone.”

The woman sat down, tears on her face. The young woman next to her, less of a stranger now, put her arm around the woman’s shoulders.

The crowd was more eager now to petition Celine to contact those dear to them. Violet sifted through the requests, granting one to a man who needed to apologize to his sister, another to a scared-looking young woman who asked her mother whether she should stay with her stepfather who beat her. The first man’s sister accepted the apology with gracefulness. The second woman’s mother, when contacted, agreed that the stepfather had always been a brute, and the young woman was not obligated to live with him.

The audience grew more excited, happier with every person able to speak to their loved ones and learn answers.

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