“Oh, Christ,” he said, very softly, to himself.
The door to the barn stood still ajar behind him, but there was no sound from the darkness within.
He would have left at once, save for the demands of courtesy. He sat through a final supper with the Dunsanys, replying automatically to their conversation without hearing a word, and went up afterward to tell Tom to pack.
Tom had already begun to do so, delicately alert to his employer’s mood. He looked up from his folding when Grey opened the door, his face showing an alarm so pronounced that it penetrated the sense of numb isolation Grey had felt since the events of the afternoon.
“What is it, Tom?”
“Ah…it’s nothing, me lord. Only I thought mebbe you were him again.”
“That big Scotchman, the groom they call Alex. He was just here.” Tom swallowed, manfully suppressing the remnants of what had plainly been a considerable shock.
“What, here?” A groom would never enter the house proper, unless summoned by Lord Dunsany to answer some serious charge of misconduct. Still less, Fraser; the household were terrified of him, and he had orders never to set foot further than the kitchen in which he took his meals.
“Yes, me lord. Only a few minutes ago. I didn’t even hear the door open. Just looked up from me work and there he was. Didn’t half give me a turn!”
“I daresay. What the devil did he say he wanted?” His only supposition was that Fraser had decided to kill him after all, and had come upon that errand. He wasn’t sure he cared.
The Scotchman had said nothing, according to Tom. Merely appeared out of nowhere, stalked past him like a ghost, laid a bit of paper on the desk, and stalked out again, silent as he’d come.
“Just there, me lord.” Tom nodded at the desk, swallowing again. “I didn’t like to touch it.”
There was indeed a crumpled paper on the desk, a rough square torn from some larger sheet. Grey picked it up gingerly, as though it might explode.
It was a grubby bit of paper, translucent with oil in spots and pungent, clearly used originally to wrap fish. What had he used for ink, Grey wondered, and brushed a ginger thumb across the paper. The black smudged at once, and came off on his skin. Candleblack, mixed with water.
It was unsigned, and curt.
I believe your lordship to be in pursuit of a wild goose.
“Well, thank you very much for your opinion, Mr. Fraser!” he muttered, and crumpling the paper into a ball, crammed it in his pocket. “Can you be ready to leave in the morning, Tom?”
“Oh, I can be ready in a quarter hour, me lord!” Tom assured him fervently, and Grey smiled, despite himself.
“The morning will do, I think.”
But he lay awake through the night, watching the early autumn moon rise above the stables, large and golden, growing small and pale as it rose among the stars, crossed over the house, and disappeared at last from view.
He had his answer, then—or one of them. Percy was not going to die, nor to live whatever remained of his life in prison, if Grey could prevent it. That much was decided. He was also decided that he himself could not lie before a court-martial. Not would not; could not. Therefore, he would find another way.
Precisely how he meant to accomplish this was not yet quite clear to him, but in the circumstances, he found his visit with Captain Bates at Newgate returning repeatedly to his mind—and in those memories, began to perceive the glimmerings of an idea. The fact that the idea was patently insane did not bother him particularly; he was a long way past worrying over such things as the state of his own mind.
While he considered the specifics of his emerging plan, though, he had another answer to deal with.
His first impulse, upon seeing Fraser’s one-line note, had been to assume that this was mockery and dismissal. And, given the manner of their final meeting, was willing to accept it.
But that disastrous conversation could not be expunged from memory—not when it held the answer to his quandary regarding Percy. And whenever some echo of it came back to him, it bore with it Jamie Fraser’s face. The anger—and the terrible nakedness of that last moment.
That note was not mockery. Fraser was more than capable of mocking him—did it routinely, in fact—but mockery could not disguise what he had seen in Fraser’s face. Neither of them had wanted it, but neither could deny the honesty of what had passed between them.
He had fully expected that they would avoid each other entirely, allowing the memory of what had been said in the stable to fade, so that by the time he next returned to Helwater, it might be possible for them to speak civilly, both aware of but not acknowledging those moments of violent honesty. But Fraser hadn’t avoided him—entirely. He quite understood why the man had chosen to leave a note, rather than speak to him; he himself couldn’t have spoken to Fraser face to face, not so soon.
He had told Fraser that he valued his opinion as an honest man, and that was true. He knew no one more honest—often brutally so. Which drove him to the inescapable conclusion that Fraser had very likely given him what he asked for. He just didn’t know what it bloody meant.
He couldn’t return to Helwater; there was no time, even had he thought it would be productive. But he knew one other person who knew Jamie Fraser. And so he went to Boodle’s for supper on a Thursday, knowing Harry Quarry would be there.
“I’ve found a ring, Harry,” Grey said without preamble, sitting down beside Quarry in the smoking room where his friend was enjoying a postprandial cigar. “Like yours.”
“What, this?” Quarry glanced at his hand; he wore only one ring, a Masonic emblem.
“That one,” Grey said. “I found one like it; I’d meant to ask if you knew whose it was.”
Quarry frowned; then his face cleared.
“Must be Symington’s,” he said, with the air of a magician pulling colored scarves from his sleeve. “He said he’d lost his—but that’s months ago! D’you mean to say you’ve had it all this time?”
“I suppose so,” Grey said apologetically. “I just found it in my pocket one day—must have picked it up accidentally.”
He put his hand into his pocket and, leaning over, emptied the contents onto the small table between their chairs.
“You are the most complete magpie, Grey,” Quarry said, poking gingerly through the detritus. “I wonder you don’t build nests. But no, of course, it’s Melton who does that. What’s that, for God’s sake, a pritchel?”
“Part of one. I believe you may throw that away, Mr. Stevens.” Grey handed the broken bit of metal to the steward, who accepted it with the air of one handling a rare and precious object.
“What’s this?” Harry had pulled out a smeared bit of paper, and was frowning at it, nose wrinkled. “Smells a bit.”
“Oh, that. It—”
“I believe your lordship to be in pursuit of a wild goose,” Quarry read. He paused for a moment, then looked up at Grey. “Where did you get this?”
“From one James Fraser, erstwhile Jacobite.” Something in Quarry’s face made Grey lean forward. “Does this actually mean something, Harry?”
Quarry blew out his cheeks a little, glancing round to see they were not overheard. Seeing this, Mr. Stevens retreated tactfully, leaving them alone.
“Fraser,” Quarry said at last. “One James Fraser. Well, well.” Quarry had preceded Grey as governor of Ardsmuir Prison, and knew Jamie Fraser well—well enough to have kept him in irons. Quarry smoothed the edge of the paper, thinking.
“I suppose you were too young,” he said finally. “And it wasn’t a term one heard much during the Rising in ’45. But there was—still is, I suppose—a certain amount of support for the Stuarts in Ireland. And for what the observation is worth, the younger Irish nobles who followed the Old Pretender—they called themselves ‘wild geese.’” He glanced up, quizzical. “Are you by any chance in search of an Irish Jacobite, Grey?”
Grey blinked, taken aback.
“To tell you the truth, Harry, I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said. “Perhaps I am.”
He plucked Symington’s ring out of the mess and handed it to Quarry.
“Will you see Symington gets this back when he returns?”
“Certainly,” Quarry said, frowning at him. “But why not give it to him yourself?”
“I don’t know quite where I might be then, Harry. Perhaps in Ireland—chasing a wild goose.” Grey shoveled the rest of his rubbish back into his pocket and smiled at Quarry. “Thank you, Harry. Enjoy your cigar.”
The district near St. Giles was known as the Rookery, and for good reason. Rooks could not be half so filthy, nor so noisy, as the poor Irish of London; the narrow lanes rang with curses, shrieks, and church bells, and Tom Byrd drove with one hand on the reins and the other on the pistol in his belt.
As the horse clopped into Banbridge Street, Grey leaned down from the wagon, a shilling in his hand. The glint of the metal drew a ragged boy from a doorway as though he were magnetized.
“Your honor?” The boy couldn’t decide where to stare—at the coin, at Grey, or at the contents of the wagon.
“Rafe and Mick O’Higgins,” Grey said. “You know them?”
“Good. I’ve something that belongs to them. Can you take me to them?”
The boy’s hand shot out for the coin, but he had decided where his attention properly lay; his gaze was rapt, riveted to the wagon.
“Aye, your honor. They’ll be at Kitty O’Donnell’s wake just now, I’d say. Near the end of O’Grady Street. But you’ll not get by this way,” he added, tearing his attention briefly from the wagon. “You’ll need to back up and go round by Filley Lane, that’s quickest.”
“You’ll take us?” Grey had another coin ready, but the boy was up on the seat beside him before he could offer it, neck craned round to look at the automaton.
Grey had paused just on the edge of St. Giles, and there removed both the discreet canvas that had covered the object on the drive through London, and also the upper cabinet, so the brilliantly colored figurine was now clearly visible, riding like an emperor in the bed of the wagon, its arms moving stiffly and its trunk rotating to the occasional whir of clockwork.
Tom Byrd, who had the reins, gave their guide a narrow look and muttered something under his breath, but clucked to the horse and guided the equipage carefully through the refuse-choked streets. Grey and the guide were both obliged to get down every so often and move some object—crushed barrels, a heap of spoilt cabbage, and on one notable occasion, a recently deceased pig—out of the way, but the distance was not great, and within half an hour, they had reached their destination.
“In there?” Grey looked dubiously at the building, which gave every evidence of being about to collapse. Structural integrity quite aside, it looked like a place that no one concerned with his personal safety would enter. Soot black faces peeped from the alley, loungers on the street drew casually upright, hands in pockets, and the doorless entry yawned black and lightless as the doorway to hell.
Somewhere above, inside the house, a tin whistle played something whining and lugubrious.
Grey drew breath to ask whether the boy might go inside and fetch out the O’Higgins brothers, but the sound of a door opening came from somewhere inside, and a sudden draft whooshed out of the entrance, wafting a stench that caught in his throat and made him gag.
“Bloody hell!” Tom Byrd exclaimed. He snatched a kerchief from his sleeve and clapped it to his nose. “What’s that?”
“Something dead,” Grey said, trying not to breathe. “Or someone. And a long time dead, at that.”
“Kitty O’Donnell,” their guide said, matter-of-fact. “Told ye ’twas a wake, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Grey agreed, and groped in his purse, breathing shallowly through his mouth. “I believe it is customary to contribute something to the, er, refreshment of the attendees?”
To his surprise, the boy hesitated.
“Well, so it is, sir, to be sure. Only that…well, d’ye see, it’s old Ma O’Donnell.”
“The dead woman?”
“No, her mother, it would be.”
It was indeed the custom to offer gin at least to the mourners who came to wake the dead, the boy explained, and sure, it was kindly taken if the mourners then might subscribe a few pennies toward the burial. But Kitty O’Donnell had been popular, and so many folk came and such a fine time was had in the singing and telling of tales that the gin was all drunk and more sent for, and by the end of it, all the subscription money had been spent, and not a penny left for the shroud.
“So she did it again,” the boy said, with a shrug.
“Did what—held another wake?”
“Aye, sir. Folk thought a great deal o’ Kitty. And there were folk who’d not heard in time to come before, and so…” He glanced reluctantly toward the open doorway. Someone had shut the inner door, and the stink had decreased, though it was still noticeable, even over the multifarious odors of the Rookery.
“How long’s that corpse been a-lying there, then?” Tom demanded through his handkerchief.
“Best part of two weeks,” the boy said. “She’s taken up six subscriptions, Old Ma has; stayed drunk as a captain’s parrot the whole time. The folk what live downstairs are fed to the back teeth see”—he nodded toward the windowless building—“but when they tried to complain, the mourners what hadn’t had anything yet put them out. So Rose Behan—it’s her what lives downstairs, with her six kids—she went to Rafe and Mick, to ask could they see about it. So I’m thinking, sir—not to discourage yer honor from a kindly thought—as might be ye should wait?”