He had a good sense of direction, though, and knew that the chapel was at the northwest corner of the house. He worked his way through the twisting corridors as he would a maze, keeping a running count in his head of the turns, in order that he might find his way back again, and found that the exercise allowed him to keep his emotions at bay, if only for the moment.
The rain had kept up steadily all day, in that dismal winter downpour that darkens the spirit as it weights the land. The wind had come up now, and rain beat upon the shuttered windows in fitful bursts, marking his passage along the darkened corridors. He had brought a taper from his room, a faint glow to light his path. Something moved in the shadows and he stopped short.
Green eyes glowed for an instant and disappeared as the cat—it was only a cat—twined past his feet and vanished, silent as smoke. Was that Geneva’s cat? She had had a kitten once, he knew. Would she not have taken it to Ellesmere? Perhaps her mother had brought it back. Perhaps…perhaps he was trying to occupy his mind with pointless trifles in order to avoid thinking of Geneva dead, even as he made his way toward her bier.
Heart still beating like a drum, he wondered what he thought he was doing, but he had come thus far; to turn back now would seem an abandonment of her. He closed his eyes for an instant, reestablishing the map of the house he was building in his head, then opened them and set off again with purpose.
Several more turnings brought him abruptly to what seemed an outer wall of the house, its lichened blocks pierced by an arched lintel of honey-colored stone.
This was clearly the chapel’s entrance; the figures of saints and angels were carved into the arch. They had escaped the mutilations of Cromwell’s vandals in the last century—he made out the figure of what must be Michael the archangel in the center of the arch, flaming sword held aloft. Below him, Adam and Eve cowered behind crude fig leaves, Eve’s hands crossed modestly over her generous breasts. Not saints, after all. On the other side of the arch, a serpent hung in looping coils from the branches of an apple tree, looking smugly amused.
Blessed Michael defend us. The words came to him suddenly, though he was neither Catholic nor even religious. It was a common saying among the Scottish prisoners at Ardsmuir, though. He had heard it in the Gaelic, many times, and finally had asked Jamie Fraser for the English meaning, one night when they had dined together.
Plainly he had found the right place. A small oil lamp burned in the passage, throwing the archangel’s visage into stern relief, and the flicker of candlelight was visible through the crack between the wooden doors under the archway. Wondering anew just what he was doing here, he hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and murmured “Blessed Michael defend us.” He passed beneath the arch.
The chapel was tiny, and dark save the tall white candles that burned at head and foot of the closed coffin. It was draped in white silk, and glimmered like water.
He took a step toward it. Something large stirred in the darkness at his feet.
He dropped the taper, clapping a hand to his belt—where, alas, he had not placed his dagger.
A dark figure rose immense, very slowly, from the flags at his feet.
Every hair on his body stood erect and his heart thundered in his ears, as recognition tried vainly to overcome shock. The taper had gone out, and the man was visible only as a dark silhouette, haloed with the fire of the candles behind him.
He swallowed hard, trying to force his heart from his throat, and groped for words that were not altogether blasphemous.
“Bloody…Christ,” he managed, after several incoherent tries. “What in the name of God Himself are you doing here?”
“Praying,” said a soft Scots voice, its softness no disguise for the shock in it—and an even more patent anger. “What are you doing here?”
“Praying?” Grey echoed, disbelief in his voice. “Lying on the floor?”
He couldn’t see Fraser’s face, but heard the hiss of air through his teeth. They stood close enough to each other that he felt the cold emanating from Fraser’s body, as though the other had been carved from ice. Christ, how long had the man been pressed to the freezing flags? And why? His eyes adjusting, he saw that the Scot wore nothing but his shirt; his long body was a shadow, the candlelight glowing dim through threadbare fabric.
“It is a Catholic custom,” Fraser said, his voice as stiff as his posture. “Of respect.”
“Indeed.” The shock of the encounter was fading, and Grey found his voice come easier. “You will pardon me, Mr. Fraser, if I find that suggestion somewhat peculiar—as is your presence here.” He was growing angry now himself, feeling absurdly practiced upon—though logic told him that Fraser had risen as he did only because Grey would have stepped on him in another moment, and not with the intent of taking him at a disadvantage.
“It is immaterial to me, Major, what you find peculiar and what ye do not,” Fraser said, his voice still low. “If ye wish to suppose that I have chosen to sleep in a freezing chapel in company with a corpse, rather than in my own bed, you may think as ye like.” He made a motion as though to pass, obviously intending to leave the chapel—but the aisle was narrow, and Grey was not moving.
“Did you know the—the countess well?” Curiosity was overcoming shock and anger.
“The countess…oh.” Fraser glanced involuntarily over his shoulder at the coffin. Grey saw him draw breath, the mist of it briefly white. “I suppose she was. A countess. And, yes, I kent her well enough. I was her groom.”
There was something peculiar about that remark, Grey noted with interest. There was a wealth of feeling in that statement, “I was her groom,” but damned if he could tell what sort of feeling it was.
He wondered for an instant whether Fraser had been in love with Geneva—and felt a surprising sear of jealousy at the thought. Knowing Fraser’s feeling for his dead wife, he would suppose…but why in God’s name would he come at night to pray by Geneva’s coffin, if not—but no. That “I was her groom” had been spoken with a tone of…hostility? Bitterness? It wasn’t the respectful statement of a loyal and grieving servant, he’d swear that on a stack of Bibles.
Grey dismissed this confusion and took a breath of cold air and candle wax, imagining for an instant that he smelt the hint of corruption on the frigid air.
Fraser stood like a stone angel, no more than a foot from him; he could hear the Scot’s breathing, faintly hoarse, congested. My God, had he been weeping? He dismissed the thought; the weather was enough to give anyone the catarrh, let alone anyone mad enough to lie half naked on freezing stones.
“I was her friend,” Grey said quietly.
Fraser said nothing in reply, but continued to stand between Grey and the coffin. Grey saw him turn his head, the candle glow sparking red from brows and sprouting beard, limning the lines of his face in gold. The long throat moved once, swallowing. Then Fraser turned toward him, his face disappearing once more into shadow.
“Then I leave her in your hands ’til dawn.”
It was said so quietly that Grey was not sure he’d heard it. But something touched his hand, light as a cold wind passing, and Fraser moved past him and was gone, the muffled thud of the chapel door the only sound to mark his leaving.
Grey turned in disbelief to look, but there was nothing to be seen. The chapel was dark, and silent save for the sound of rain thrumming on the slates of the roof.
Had that remarkable encounter really happened? He thought for an instant that he might be dreaming—must have fallen asleep in his chair by the fire, lulled by the rain. But he put a hand on the end of the pew beside him and felt hard wood, cold under his fingers.
And the coffin stood before him, stark and white in the candlelight. The flames quivered, the air in the chapel disturbed, then settled, pure and steady. Keeping watch.
Not quite knowing what to do, he sat down in the front pew. He should pray, perhaps, but not yet.
What was it Fraser had said? I suppose she was. A countess.
So she had been—for the brief months of her marriage. And now there was nothing left of her or her husband, save that small, enigmatic morsel of flesh, the ninth Earl of Ellesmere.
I leave her in your hands ’til dawn.
Had Fraser himself meant to keep watch all night, prostrate before her coffin? Plainly he meant Grey to stay through the remaining hours of cold dark. Grey shifted uneasily on the hard wood, aware that he could not now bring himself to leave.
He shivered, then wrapped his cloak more tightly, resigned. The chill of the slate floor was seeping through his slippers; his feet had gone numb already. He thought of Fraser in his shirt, and shivered again at the thought of pressing his own bare flesh against the icy slates.
Respect, Fraser had said. It scarcely seemed respectful, such an extraordinary act. What, he wondered, would have happened, had he actually stepped on the man? He still held that overwhelming impression of Fraser’s presence, towering, cold as stone, and pushed aside a fleeting thought of what that frozen flesh might feel like, had he touched it. Restless, he stood and went forward, drawn like a moth to the glimmering white of the coffin.
More like something from the Middle Ages, he thought, and snorted, breath white in the dark air. Those Catholic buggers who walked barefoot through Paris or flagellated themselves to bloody shreds as an act of penance.
An act of penance.
He felt the words drop into place in his mind, like the tumblers of a lock. Recalled his sense of the Dunsanys, that some deep uneasiness tinged their grief.
“Oh, Geneva,” he said softly.
He saw again that vision of her at his window, pale-faced, wide-eyed, adrift in the night. So cold, and all alone. The outline of the stable behind her. From somewhere in the house, he thought he heard the creak of footsteps, and a far-off infant’s cry.
“Oh, my dear. What have you done?”
I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.
Well, he hoped so, to be sure. The words hadn’t yet been spoken, but repeated themselves in his mind, a comforting refrain. Though another bit from the Book of Common Prayer whispered a counterpoint in the background.
…not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.
He hadn’t gone to his father’s funeral—didn’t know if there had been one.
In spite of the weather, the church was full. The Dunsanys were liked by their tenants, friendly with most of the country gentry, and kind to their servants; everyone wished to comfort the family in its grief. Besides, it was the country, and entertainment was rare; no one would miss a good funeral, even if they were obliged to tramp through waist-deep snow to attend it.
Grey glanced over his shoulder, to see whether the tall figure of Jamie Fraser loomed among the crowd of grooms and chambermaids who stood at the back of the church, but there was no sign of the Scot. Fraser was, of course, forbidden to leave the boundaries of Helwater, but surely he would have been given leave to attend the funeral with the other servants—if he wished to.
Grey still felt the chill of his night watch in the chapel in his bones, but this deepened as he heard the rustle of anticipation at the door, and turned with everyone else to see the coffin of Ludovic, eighth Earl of Ellesmere, being brought in.
He made no attempt not to stare. Everyone was staring. The minister had come forth, and was waiting, stone-faced, at the altar, where Geneva’s coffin already stood. Grey himself had helped to carry that, dreadfully conscious of the silent weight within.
What was causing his bones to freeze within him now, though, was the sight of Jamie Fraser, tall and grim, serving as pallbearer with five other sturdy manservants.
Someone had given him coat and breeches of a cheap black worsted, very ill-fitting. He should have looked ridiculous, bony wrists protruding from the too-short sleeves, and every seam strained to bursting. As it was, he reminded Grey of a description he had read in Demonologie, a nasty little treatise discovered in the course of researches undertaken after his experience with the Hellfire Club.
The men set down the earl’s coffin and retreated to a bench set under the gallery. Grey was not surprised in the least to see Fraser sitting alone at one end, the other men bunched unconsciously together, as far away from him as they could get.
The vicar cleared his throat with an ominous rumble, the congregation rose, flustered and murmuring, and the service began. Grey heard not a word, his responses entirely mechanical.
Could he be right? He went back and forth on the matter, unsure. On the one hand, the thought that had come to him in the darkness of the chapel seemed incredible. A complete delusion, born of grief, fatigue, and shock. On the other…there was Lady Dunsany’s behavior. Grief-stricken, certainly, but grief covering a rocklike determination. Determination to put the past behind her and raise her grandchild? Or determination to perpetrate a daring deception in order to protect him?
And Lord Dunsany, the target of his own blame—and his wife’s. For arranging the marriage with Ellesmere, he’d said…but also for allowing Geneva too much freedom. What the devil had he said, mumbling in his cups? Something about her horse, spending hours roaming the countryside, alone on her horse. Not alone, surely. In the company of her groom, said a cynical voice in his mind.
And then there was said groom himself, and that remarkable encounter in the middle of the night. Even though Grey had not slept, it still seemed the product of a dream. He turned deliberately in his seat and looked at Fraser. Nothing whatever showed on the Scot’s face. He might have been looking back at Grey—or at something a thousand miles beyond him.