The Scottish Prisoner

Page 29

Jamie had a sudden odd feeling that someone was standing just behind his shoulder, but fought back the urge to turn round.

“He was lying on his back, as though he’d been laid out dead, and he had on rough breeks and a cloak with a small gold brooch to fasten it at the throat. Speaking of throats, someone had cut his for him, and had bashed in his head for good measure.” The abbot smiled, though without his usual humor. “And to make quite sure of the thing, there was a thin rope wrapped tight round his neck.”

The feeling of someone behind him was so strong that Jamie shifted his position, as though to relieve some stiffness, and took the opportunity for a quick glance. No one there, of course.

“You’ve not the Irish, you say—so I suppose you’ll not know the Aided Diarnmata meic Cerbaill? Or Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca?”

“Ah … no. Though … does aided mean, perhaps, ‘death’?” It was nothing like the Gàidhlig word for it, but he thought he’d maybe heard it from Quinn, muttering about Grey.

The abbot nodded, as though this ignorance was forgivable, if regrettable.

“Aye, it does. Both those poems tell of men who suffered the threefold death—that being a procedure usually reserved for gods or heroes, but, in the case of Diarnmata and Muirchertaig meic Erca, was imposed for crimes committed against the Church.”

Jamie backed a little away from the table and leaned against the wall, folding his arms in what he hoped was a casual manner. The hair still prickled under the clubbed queue at his neck, but he felt somewhat better.

“And ye’re thinking that this”—he nodded at the hand—“gentleman had done something o’ the sort?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” the abbot said, “but the sorry fact is, we don’t know.” He put down the lid of the glass box with gentle fingers and left them resting there.

“We dug quite a bit and harvested three months’ worth of peats for our trouble, which was quite enough reward in itself, as I told the brothers who did the work, but we found near the body the gold hilt of a sword—I’m afraid peat does not preserve baser metals at all well—and a cup, inlaid with jewels. And some little distance away—those.” He gestured toward the far wall of the study, where two large curving bits of metal gleamed in the shadow.

“What are they?” Jamie was loath to leave the shelter of his wall, but curiosity drove him toward the objects, which upon inspection proved to be a sort of primitive trumpet, though with a curved long stalk and a flattened end rather than a bell.

“A very old woman who lives near the bog told me that they’re called lir, but I’ve no notion how she knows, and neither did she. Obviously there was more ceremony than murder about this man’s death, though.”

The abbot rubbed a knuckle absently across his upper lip.

“Word got about, of course,” he said. “And the talk! The folk of the country thought he might be everything from the High King of the Druids—assuming there ever to have been such a creature—to Fionn MacCumhaill, though why he should be lying in a bog and not having it away with the female denizens of Tír na nÓg, I don’t know—to St. Hugelphus.”

“St. Hugelphus? Is there a St. Hugelphus?”

The abbot’s hand dragged down over his chin and he shook his head, defeated by the perversity of his flock.

“No, but not a whit of good does it do for me to tell them so. They were after building a special chapel and putting the poor fellow’s body in it in a glass case, with beeswax candles burning at the head and foot.” He glanced at Jamie, one brow lifted. “You say you’re newly come to Ireland, so you’ll maybe not know how it is with the Catholics here, since the penal laws.”

“I could maybe guess,” Jamie said, and the abbot smiled in wry response.

“Maybe you could, at that. Leave it that the monastery once owned as much land as a man could walk over in half a day. Now we’ve the buildings left, barely the ground to grow a few heads of cabbage, and lucky to have it. As to dealings with the government and the Protestant landowners, especially the Anglo–Irish settlers …” His lips tightened. “The very last thing I need is to have flocks of pilgrims making their way here to venerate a false saint covered in gold.”

“How did ye stop it?”

“We put the poor fellow back in the bog,” the abbot said frankly. “I doubt he was a Christian, but I said a proper Mass for him, and we buried him with the words. I let it be known that I’d taken his jewels off and sent them to Dublin—I did send the brooch and the sword hilt—to discourage anyone looking to dig him up again. We mustn’t put folk in the way of temptation, now, must we? D’you want to see the cup?”

Jamie’s heart gave an unexpected thump, but he nodded, keeping an expression of mild interest on his face.

The abbot stretched up on his tiptoes to reach down a bunch of keys that hung from a hook by the door and beckoned Jamie to come along.

Outside in the cloister walk, the day was fine, and fat bees buzzed over the herb garden that lay within the square of the cloister, dusted thick with the yellow pollen. The air was mild, but Jamie could not get rid of the sense of chill that had struck him at sight of that clawed black hand with its gold ring.

“Father,” he blurted, “why did you keep his hand?”

The abbot had reached a carved wooden door and was groping through his ring of keys, but looked up at that.

“The ring,” he said. “There are runes upon it, and I think them maybe done in the old Ogham way of writing. I didn’t like to take the thing off, for it’s plain to see that you couldn’t do it without pulling the finger to pieces. So I kept the hand, in order to make a drawing of the ring and its markings, meaning to send it to a fellow I know who claims to have some notion of Ogham. I was meaning to bury the hand with the rest of the body—and still am,” he added, finding the key he wanted. “I just haven’t found the time to do it. Here, now—” The door swung open, silent on leather hinges, revealing a set of steps, and a smell of onions and potatoes floated up from the depths of a dark cellar.

For an instant, Jamie wondered why one would lock a root cellar but then realized that, with the famine Quinn had spoken of still green in the memory of Ireland, food might be the most valuable thing the monastery had.

There was a lantern and a tinderbox standing on the top step; Jamie lighted the lantern for the abbot, then followed him down, privately amused at the abbot’s practicality in finding a hiding place for a valuable thing, shoved casually behind a row of last winter’s apples wizened by now into wrinkled things the size of a cow’s eyeball.

It was valuable, too; a glance was enough to show him that. The cup was about the size of a small quaich and fit in the palm of his hand when Abbot gave it to him.

It was made of a polished wood, to his surprise, rather than gold. Stained and darkened by immersion in the peat, but still beautifully made. There was a carving in the bottom of the bowl, and gemstones—uncut, but polished—were set round the rim, each one sunk into a small carved depression and apparently fastened there with some sort of resin.

The cup gave him the same feeling he’d had in the abbot’s study: the sense that someone—or something—was standing close behind him. He didn’t like it at all, and the abbot saw that.

“What is it, mo mhic?” he asked quietly. “Does this speak to you?”

“Aye, it does,” he said, trying for a smile. “And I think it’s saying, ‘Put me back.’ ” He handed the cup to the abbot, repressing a strong urge to wipe his hand on his breeks.

“Is it an evil thing, do you think?”

“I canna say that, Father. Only that it gives me the cold grue to touch it. But”—he clasped his hands behind his back and leaned forward—“what is the thing carved into the bottom there?”

“A carraig mór, or so I think. A long stone.” The abbot turned the bowl, holding it sideways so that the lantern light illumined the dish. The cold grue slid right down the backs of Jamie’s legs, and he shuddered. The carving showed what was plainly a standing stone—cleft down the center.

“Father,” he said abruptly, making up his mind on the moment. “I’ve a thing or two to tell ye. Might ye hear my confession?”

THEY STOPPED BRIEFLY for Father Michael to fetch his stola, then walked out across the sheep field and into a small apple orchard, thick with scent and the humming of bees. There they found a couple of stones to sit upon, and he told the abbot, as simply as he could, about Quinn, the notion of a fresh Jacobite rising from Ireland, and the idea of using the Druid king’s Cupán to legitimize the Stuarts’ last bid for the throne of three kingdoms.

The abbot sat clutching the ends of the purple stola that hung round his neck, head down, listening. He didn’t move or make any response while Jamie laid out for him Quinn’s plan. When Jamie had finished, though, Father Michael looked up at him.

“Did you come to steal the cup for this purpose yourself?” the abbot asked, quite casually.

“No!” He spoke from astonishment rather than resentment; the abbot saw it and smiled faintly.

“No, of course not.” He was sitting on a rock, the cup itself perched on his knee. He looked down at it, contemplating. “Put it back, you said.”

“It’s no my place to say, Father. But I—” The presence that had hovered near him earlier had vanished, but the memory of it was cold in his mind. “It—he—he wants it back, Father,” he blurted. “The man ye found in the bog.”

The abbot’s green eyes went wide, and he studied Jamie closely. “He spoke to you, did he?”

“Not in words, no. I—I feel him. Felt him. He’s gone now.”

The abbot picked up the cup and peered into it, his thumb stroking the ancient wood. Then he put it down on his knee and, looking at Jamie, said quietly, “There’s more, is there not? Tell me.”

Jamie hesitated. Grey’s business was not his to share—and it had nothing to do with the bog-man, the cup, nor anything that was the abbot’s concern. But the priest’s green eyes were on him, kind but firm.

“It’s under the seal, you know, mo mhic,” he said, conversationally. “And I can see you’ve a burden on your soul.”

Jamie closed his eyes, the breath going out of him in a long, long sigh.

“I have, Father,” he said. He got up from the stone where he’d sat and knelt down at the abbot’s feet.

“It’s not a sin, Father,” he said. “Or most of it’s not. But it troubles me.”

“Tell God, and let him ease you, man,” the abbot said, and, taking Jamie’s hands, placed them on his bony knees and laid his own hand gently on Jamie’s head.

He told it all. Slowly, with many hesitations. Then faster, the words beginning to find themselves. What the Greys wanted of him, and how they had made him come to Ireland. How it was, caught between the loyalty of his old friendship to Quinn and his present forced obligation to John Grey. Swallowing, face burning and hands tight on the black cloth of the abbot’s habit, he told about Grey’s feeling for him and what had passed between them in the stable at Helwater. And finally—with the feeling of jumping from a high cliff into a roaring sea—he told about Willie. And Geneva.

There were tears running down his face before he had finished. When Jamie had come to the end of it, the abbot drew his hand softly down Jamie’s cheek before dipping his hand into his robe and coming out with a large, worn, mostly clean black handkerchief, which he handed him.

“Sit, man,” he said. “Bide for a bit, and rest while I think.”

Jamie got up and sat on the flat stone again, blowing his nose and wiping his face. He felt emptied of turmoil, purged. And more at peace than he’d been since the days before Culloden.

His mind was blank, and he made no effort to inscribe anything on it. He breathed freely, no tightness in his chest. That was enough. There was more, though: the spring sun came out from behind the clouds and warmed him, a bee lighted briefly on his sleeve, spilling grains of yellow pollen when it rose, and the bruised grass where he’d knelt smelled of rest and comfort.

He had no idea how long he’d sat in this pleasant state of exhausted mindlessness. But Father Michael stirred at last, stretched his old back with a muffled groan, and smiled at him.

“Well, now,” he said. “Let’s begin with the easy bits. You’re not in the habit of fornicating regularly with young women, I hope? Good. Don’t start. If you feel you—no.” He shook his head. “No. I was going to recommend that you find a good girl and marry her, but I saw how it is with you; your wife’s still with you.” He spoke in an entirely matter-of-fact tone of voice.

“It wouldn’t be fair on a young woman, were you to marry while that’s the case. At the same time, you mustn’t cling over-long to the memory of your wife; she’s safe with God now, and you must deal with your life. Soon … but you’ll know when it’s right. Meanwhile, avoid the occasion of sin, aye?”

“Aye, Father,” Jamie said obediently, thinking briefly of Betty. He’d avoided her so far, and certainly meant to keep doing so.

“Cold baths help. That and reading. Now, your son …” These words were equally matter-of-fact but gave Jamie a breathless feeling, a small bubble of happiness beneath his ribs—one that popped with the abbot’s next words.

“You must do nothing to endanger him.” The abbot looked at him seriously. “You’ve no claim on him, and from what you say, he’s well settled. Might it not be better—for the both of you—for you to leave this place where he is?”

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