The Scottish Prisoner

Page 22

“What the bloody hell are ye doing here!?” Without intent, he found himself on his feet, his fist bunched in Grey’s shirtfront. Grey smartly jerked his forearm up, breaking Jamie’s hold, and stepped back, stuffing his rumpled shirt back into his waistcoat.

“You are without doubt the touchiest son of a bitch I have ever encountered,” Grey said, his face flushed. “And I include in that roster such men as my brother and the King of Prussia. Can you not behave like a civil being for more than ten minutes together?”

“Touchy, is it?” The blood was pounding in Jamie’s temples, and it took some effort to keep his fists curled at his sides.

“I grant you, your situation is invidious,” Grey said, making an obvious effort at conciliation. “I admit the provocation. However—”

“Invidious. Is that what ye call it? I am to be your cat’s-paw. To preserve what ye’re pleased to call your honor.” He felt so far beyond fury that he spoke with perfect calm. “And ye call it provoking?”

“What?” Grey seized Jamie’s sleeve as he made to turn away, and withstood the look of contempt directed at him. “What the devil do you mean by that?”

He jerked his sleeve out of Grey’s hand.

“I speak English as well as you do, ye bloody coward, and ye take my meaning fine!”

Grey drew breath, and Jamie could see the thoughts cross the Englishman’s face in rapid succession: the urge to lunge at him, the urge to make it more formal and call him out, a rush of unnameable calculation, and, finally—all within the space of a moment—a sudden clamping down, a forcible cooling of fury.

“Sit,” Grey said through his teeth, jerking his head at the bucket.

“I am not a dog!”

Grey rubbed a hand over his face. “A casual observer might argue the point,” he said. “But, no. I apologize for the implication. Come with me.” He turned away, adding over his shoulder, “If you please, Mr. Fraser.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Jamie followed the man. There was no point in remaining with the garden rubbish, after all.

Grey pushed open the door of the glasshouse and beckoned him inside. It was near twilight, but the place glowed like a king’s treasure, reds and pinks and whites and yellows glimmering in an emerald jungle in the dusk, and the air flooded in upon him, moist and caressing, filled with the scents of flowers and leaves, herbs and vegetables. For an instant, he smelled his wife’s hair among them and gulped air as though he’d been shot in the lung.

Pulsing with agitation, he followed Grey past a group of palms and gigantic things with leaves like the ragged ears of elephants. Round a corner, a group of wicker furniture stood beneath an enormous arbor covered with grapevines. Grey stopped short here and turned to him.

“I’ve had a bloody long day, and I want to sit down,” he said. “You can suit yourself.” He promptly collapsed into a basket chair and leaned back, thrust out his booted feet, and closed his eyes with a little sigh.

Jamie hesitated, not knowing whether to turn on his heel and leave, sit down in his turn, or pull John Grey out of the chair by his collar and punch him.

“We’ll have a half hour or so of privacy here,” Grey said, not opening his eyes. “The cook’s already come for the vegetables, and Minerva’s hearing Benjamin’s recitation of Caesar. She won’t come for the table flowers ’til he’s done, and he’s doing De Bello Gallico; he never gets past Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt without losing his place and having to start over.”

Jamie recognized the passage without difficulty: Men always believe what they wish to believe. He pressed his lips tight together and sat down in the other basket chair, wicker creaking under his weight. Grey opened his eyes.

“Now. What exactly do you mean,” he said, sitting up straight, “about cat’s-paws and my so-called honor?”

The brief walk through the glasshouse and Grey’s unexpected equanimity had defused something of Jamie’s rage, but nothing had changed the conclusions he’d come to.

He considered it for a moment, but, after all, what was to be gained by keeping those conclusions to himself? Forewarned was forearmed, after all, and it might be no bad thing for the Greys to know he was forewarned.

He told Grey, shortly, what he’d been thinking and the conclusions to which he’d come, leaving out only the duchess’s visit to his room—and William.

Grey listened, sitting quite still, with no change of expression until Jamie had finished. Then he rubbed a hand hard over his face and said, “Damn Hal!” under his breath.

The grapevines had been cut back for winter, but the new spring growth was well sprouted, delicate rusty leaves deckling the rough-knuckled vines that roped through the arbor. A faint draft moved through the rich air of the glasshouse, ruffling the leaves.

“Right,” Grey said, dropping his hand. “You aren’t a cat’s-paw, to begin with. A stalking horse, perhaps. And for what the assurance is worth, I had nothing to do with your presence here, let alone the notion that you should accompany me to Ireland.” He paused. “Do you believe that?” he asked, looking intently at Jamie.

“I do,” Jamie said, after a brief silence.

“Good. I am, however, probably to blame for the fact that you are involved in this situation. My brother wished me to take that blasted poem to Helwater and request you to translate it. I refused, whereupon he took matters into his own hands.” He made a small gesture, indicating exasperated resignation.

“My interest in the matter is exactly what Hal told you. My friend Carruthers entrusted me with the job of bringing Major Siverly to a court-martial, and I will do that.” He paused once more. “Do you believe me?”

“Aye, I do,” Jamie said reluctantly. “But His Grace …”

“My brother does not let go of things,” Grey observed. “You may have noticed that.”

“I have.”

“But he is not, to the best of my knowledge, either a murderer or an unprincipled knave.”

“I’m obliged to take your word for it, Colonel.”

“You may,” Grey said politely. “He can—and will, I’m afraid—use you to accomplish his ends regarding Siverly, but those ends do not include either kidnapping or murder, and he intends you no harm. In fact”—he hesitated for a moment, but then firmed his jaw and went on, eyes fixed on the hands that hung between his knees—“should this venture end in success, I think I can promise you that you will … benefit from it.”

“In what way?” Jamie asked sharply.

“As to that … I cannot make specific promises without consulting my brother and … perhaps other people. But I do promise that you will not be harmed by the … association.”

Jamie made a noise in his throat, on the verge of rudeness, indicating what he thought of the Greys’ promises, and Grey’s head snapped up, his eyes direct, their pale blue darkened by the fading light.

“Either you take me at my word, Mr. Fraser,” he said, “or you don’t. Which is it?”

Jamie met his eyes and didn’t look away. The light had dimmed to a sea of gray-green dusk, but the flush that rose now in Grey’s face was still visible. It was the same dim light that had lain between them in the stable at Helwater, the last time they had spoken privately.

The last time he had taken Grey at his word. He had come within an inch of killing the man then—and both of them recalled that moment vividly.

Grey had said on that occasion, his voice barely audible with his passion, “I tell you, sir—were I to take you to my bed—I could make you scream. And by God, I would do it.”

Jamie had swung with all his force, by simple reflex—not so much at Grey, but at the memory of Jack Randall that Grey’s words unleashed in him—and had, by a miracle, missed. He sat without moving now, every muscle in his body hard as rock and aching with the memory of violence, of Jack Randall, and of what had happened in the dungeon of Wentworth prison.

Neither one of them would—or could—look away. There were sounds in the garden, people moving to and fro, the door to the house slamming, a distant treble of children’s voices.

“Why did ye follow me?” Jamie asked at last. The words didn’t seemed to be shaped right; they felt strange in his mouth. “This afternoon.”

He saw the look of surprise bloom on Grey’s face, pale in the gloom of the grape arbor. And remembered the same look on the man’s face when he had opened his eyes half an hour earlier, to see Grey standing in front of him.

“I didn’t,” Grey said simply. “I was looking for a place to be alone for a bit. And you were there.”

Jamie breathed deep and, with an effort that felt like lifting a cannon, rose to his feet.

“I’ll take ye at your word,” he said, and went out.

IT HAD BEEN a long day. Grey dressed for the evening meal, feeling tired but at peace, as though he had climbed some arduous peak and found himself now safe upon its summit. There might be more mountains to climb tomorrow, but for the moment the sun had gone down, the campfire had been lit, and he could eat his supper with an easy mind.

Tom Byrd was packing; they would leave in the morning for Dublin, and the room was strewn with stockings, hairbrushes, powder, shirts, and whatever else Tom considered essential to the credit of his employer’s public appearance. Grey never would have believed that all of these items would fit into one trunk and a couple of portmanteaux, had he not seen Tom accomplish the feat repeatedly.

“Have you packed up Captain Fraser already?” he asked, pulling on his stockings.

“Oh, yes, me lord,” Tom assured him. “Everything save what he’s wearing—and his nightshirt, to be sure,” he added as an afterthought. “I did try to make him wear powder for supper,” he said, with an air of reproach. “He says it makes him sneeze.”

Grey laughed and went down, meeting Hal on the stairs. His brother brandished a small book at him.

“Look what I’ve got!”

“Let me see … No! Where did you get it?”

“It” was a copy of Harry Quarry’s book of poetry, entitled Certain Verses Upon the Subject of Eros. The original, which Grey had presented to Denis Diderot, had been bound in calfskin, whereas this copy was a much cheaper version, done with plain buckram covers, and selling—according to the cover—at half a shilling a copy.

“Mr. Beasley had it. He says he bought it at Stubbs’s print-shop, in Fleet Street. I recognized it instantly from the title and sent him off to get me a copy. Have you read it?”

“No, I hadn’t the chance—only heard a few choice bits that Diderot read out over the piss pot … Oh, Christ!” He’d flipped the book open at random and now read out, “Bent upon scratching his unseemly itch / This self-fellating son of a bitch …”

Hal gave a strangled whoop and laughed so hard that he had to lean momentarily against the wall for support. “Self-fellating? Is that even possible?”

“You’re asking me? I certainly can’t do it,” said Grey.

“I havena any personal experience in that regard myself,” said a dry Scottish voice behind him, “but dogs dinna seem to find it difficult.”

Both Greys swung round, startled; they hadn’t heard him approach. He looked well, John thought, with a slight sense of pride. Upon Fraser’s arrival, Minnie had sent hastily to the Pettigrews, who kept a pair of immense blackamoor servants to carry their sedan chair, and borrowed a fairly new suit of livery. The shirt had been washed, starched, and ironed and the plain coat and waistcoat well brushed, and while neither the color—a deep navy blue—nor style were what a fashionable gentleman would wear, it suited Fraser’s own vivid coloring amazing well.

“It is possible, though,” Fraser added, coming even with them. “For a man, I mean.”

Hal had straightened up at Fraser’s arrival but didn’t abandon his own amusement, smiling broadly at Fraser’s remark.

“Really? Dare I ask how you come by this knowledge, Captain?”

Fraser’s mouth twitched slightly, and he shot a glance at Grey. He answered Hal readily, though.

“On one memorable evening in Paris, some years ago, I was the guest of the Duc di Castellotti, a gentleman with … individual tastes. He took a number of his dinner guests on a tour of some of the city’s more interesting establishments, one of which featured a pair of acrobats. Extremely”—he paused—“flexible.” Hal laughed and turned to his brother.

“D’you think Harry’s writing from personal experience, John?”

“It’s my impression that Colonel Quarry has considerable experience of various kinds upon which to draw,” Fraser said, before John could answer. “Though I shouldna have taken him for a man of letters. D’ye mean to say that he composed that remarkable bit o’ verse?”

“Astonishingly enough, yes,” Hal said. “And quite a lot more of a similar nature, if I am to believe the reports. Wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you?”

Hal had turned, quite naturally, with a lift of the shoulder that invited Fraser to walk beside him, and they now went down the corridor, conversing in a pleasant manner, leaving Grey to follow, book in hand.

Minnie had gone out to the theater with a friend, and the men dined alone, in a surprising atmosphere of friendliness. There was no sign of wariness or resentment in Fraser’s manner; he behaved with immense civility, as though the Greys were cordial acquaintances. Grey felt a sense of grateful astonishment; evidently Fraser had meant it when he said he would take Grey at his word.

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