“She didn’t … actually give you her address, did she?” he asked, and cleared his throat, trying not to glance at the hearth rug. It had been there for years and years, a very worn small carpet with the family crest woven into it, much pocked with burn marks and the edge of it scorched. He thought it had been a wedding present from Hal’s first wife, Esmé, to her husband.
“No, of course not. Neither did she tell it to the coachman—persuaded him to let her out at Kettrick’s Eel-Pye House, then legged it down the alley and disappeared. Took me nearly six months to find her.”
Hal disposed of his own sherry with dispatch, then plucked the questionable sheet off the desk again.
“Let me show her this. She’s not had much opportunity to practice of late, but she might be able at least to tell us if it is encoded.”
Left alone with the decanter and the hearth rug, Grey poured another drink and went back to the balcony. The garden was quiet now; the sky had clouded over and the boys had gone in for their tea—he could hear them rumpusing in the nursery overhead. Dottie and her nurse were both sound asleep on the grass by the fish pool, Dottie’s gown still firmly in the nurse’s grasp.
He wasn’t quite sure whether Hal’s story had shocked him or not. Hal made his own rules; John had long been aware of that. And if he’d temporarily had the upper hand of Minerva Wattiswade, he’d long since lost it—Hal himself knew that.
He glanced up at the ceiling, the recipient of a loud crash as a chair was overturned, shrill voices rising in the aftermath. How old was his nephew Benjamin? He glanced at the hearth rug. He’d been abroad when Benjamin was born, but his mother had written to apprise him of the event—he remembered reading the letter in a tent, with rain pattering on the canvas overhead. He’d lost three men the day before and was suffering some depression of spirit; news of the child’s birth had comforted him.
He imagined it had comforted Hal, too. Grey had learned—recently, and quite by accident—that Hal’s first wife, Esmé, who had died in childbirth and the child with her, had been seduced by one of Hal’s friends, Nathaniel Twelvetrees, and that Hal had subsequently killed Twelvetrees in a duel. He thought that his brother had likely been quite insane at the time. How long after that had he met Minnie?
A flash of white showed at the door of the conservatory, on the far side of the garden. Minnie herself, and he drew back instinctively, though she couldn’t see him. She looked up calculatingly at the sky, then glanced at the house. It wasn’t raining yet, though, and she went back into the conservatory. A moment later, Hal appeared from the kitchen door and went in after her, paper in hand.
He was deeply startled at what Hal had told him—but not, on consideration, all that surprised that Hal had told him. His brother was secretive and self-controlled to a fault, but a tight-closed kettle will spurt steam when it reaches the boiling point. To Grey’s knowledge, Hal had only three people in whom he would confide—his own mother not being among them.
The three were Grey himself, Harry Quarry—one of the regimental colonels—and Minnie.
So what, he wondered, was presently boiling under Hal? Something to do with Minnie? But Grey had spoken to her when he came in, and she’d given no indication that anything was wrong.
A spatter of rain on the window and shrieks from below made him look; a sudden shower had floated over the garden, and the nursemaid was dashing for the house, Dottie crowing in delight at the raindrops and waving her arms. He put his head out, to feel the rain himself, and smiled at the fragrant freshness of the air and the splash of rain on his skin. He closed his eyes, abandoning all thought, speculation, and worry in the momentary pleasure of breathing.
“What the devil are you doing, John?”
He withdrew his head reluctantly, drew the window to, and blinked water from his lashes. Hal was staring at him in disapproval, page in hand. There was a dark pink camellia in his buttonhole, leaning drunkenly.
“Enjoying the rain.” He wiped a hand over his face and shook himself a little; his hair was damp, as was his collar and the shoulders of his coat. “Was Minnie able to be of help?”
“Yes.” Hal sounded surprised at the admission. “She says it’s neither a code nor a cipher.”
“That’s helpful? What is it, if it’s neither code nor cipher?”
“She says it’s Erse.”
ERSE. THE WORD GAVE Grey a very odd sensation. Erse was what folk spoke in the Scottish Highlands. It sounded like no other language he’d ever heard—and, barbarous as it was, he was rather surprised to learn that it existed in a written form.
Hal was looking at him speculatively. “You must have heard it fairly often, at Ardsmuir?”
“Heard it, yes. Almost all the prisoners spoke it.” Grey had been governor of Ardsmuir prison for a brief period; as much exile as appointment, in the wake of a near scandal. He disliked thinking about that period of his life, for assorted reasons.
“Did Fraser speak it?”
Oh, God, Grey thought. Not that. Anything but that.
“Yes,” he said, though. He had often overheard James Fraser speaking in his native tongue to the other prisoners, the words mysterious and flowing.
“When did you see him last?”
“Not for some time.” Grey spoke briefly, his voice careful. He hadn’t spoken to the man in more than a year.
Not careful enough; Hal came round in front of him, examining him at close range, as though he might be an unusual sort of Chinese jug.
“He is still at Helwater, is he not? Will you go and ask him about Siverly?” Hal said mildly.
“I would not piss on him was he burning in the flames of hell,” Grey said politely.
One of Hal’s brows flicked upward, but only momentarily.
“Just so,” he said dryly. “The question, though, is whether Fraser might be inclined to perform a similar service for you.”
Grey placed his cup carefully in the center of the desk.
“Only if he thought I might drown,” he said, and went out.
An Irishman, a Gentleman
JAMIE DRESSED AND WENT DOWN TO FORK HAY FOR THE horses, disregarding the dark and the chill in his hands and feet as he worked. An Irishman. A gentleman.
Who the devil could that be? And—if the Irishman existed—what had he to do with Betty? He kent some Irishmen. Such Irish gentlemen as he knew, though, were Jacobites, who’d come to Scotland with Charles Stuart. That thought froze what small parts of him weren’t chilled already.
The Jacobite Cause was dead, and so was the part of his life connected with it.
Have sense, though. What would such a man want with him? He was a paroled prisoner of war, held in menial servitude, not even allowed to use his own notorious name. He was no better than a black slave, save that he couldn’t be sold and no one beat him. He occasionally wished that someone would try, to give him the excuse of violence, but he recognized the desire as idle fantasy and pushed the thought aside.
Beyond that … how did anyone, Jacobite, Irishman, or Hottentot, know where he was? He’d had a letter from his sister in the Highlands only a week before, and she’d certainly have mentioned anyone inquiring after him, let alone an Irishman.
The air of the stable was changing, gray light seeping in through the chinks of the walls. The dark was growing thin and with it the nightly illusion of space and freedom, as the grimy boards of his prison faded into view.
At the end of the row, he put down his pitchfork and, with a hasty glance over his shoulder to be sure neither Hanks nor Crusoe had come down yet, he ducked into the empty loose box.
He let out his breath slow, as he would when hunting, and drew it in again slower, nostrils flaring to catch a scent. Nothing but the dry smell of last August’s hay in the stall; behind him, the tang of fresh manure and the sweetness of mash and horses’ breath. The hay was tumbled, trampled in spots. He could see where he had lain last night—and a slow flush rose in his cheeks—and another spot, perhaps, where someone might have stood, in the far corner.
Little wonder the man hadn’t spoken to him, in the circumstances. He coughed. If he’d been there, and Jamie rather hoped he hadn’t.
Irishman. An Irish gentleman. The only connection he could think of … His fists curled tight as the thought came to him, and he felt the echo of impact in the bones of his knuckles. Lord John Grey. He’d found an Irishman—or the hint of one—for John Grey, but surely this could have nothing to do with Grey’s matter.
He hadn’t seen Grey in over a year and, with luck, might never see him again. Grey had been governor of Ardsmuir prison during Jamie’s imprisonment there and had arranged his parole at Helwater, the Dunsany family being longtime friends. Grey had been in the habit of visiting quarterly to inspect his prisoner, and their relations had gradually become civil, if no more.
Then Grey had offered him a bargain: if Jamie would write letters making inquiries among those Jacobites he knew living abroad regarding a matter of interest to Grey, Lord John would instruct Lord Dunsany to allow Jamie also to write openly to his family in the Highlands and to receive letters from them. Jamie had accepted this bargain, had made the desired inquiries, and had received certain information, carefully worded, that indicated that the man Lord John sought might be an Irish Jacobite—one of those followers of the Stuarts who had called themselves Wild Geese.
He didn’t know what use—if any—Grey had made of the information. Things had been said at their last meeting that—He choked the memory of it off and picked up his fork, driving it into the pile of hay with some force. Whoever Betty’s Irishman might be, he could have nothing to do with John Grey.
WITH THE USUAL VAGARIES of spring, the day had not so much dawned as it had merely stopped being night. Fog lay on the fells above Helwater in huge dirty banks, and the cold sky was the color of lead. Jamie’s right hand ached. It had been broken once in a dozen places, and every one of them now informed him in a piercing whinge that it was going to rain.
Not that he needed telling; the steel-gray light aside, he could feel the heavy damp in his lungs and his sweat chilled on him, never drying. He worked like an automaton, his mind in two places, and neither of those where his body was.
Part of his thoughts dwelled on Betty. He needed to talk with that wee besom, preferably in a place where she couldn’t get away from him easily.
The lady’s maids usually took their meals with the housekeeper in her sitting room, rather than joining the lower servants in the kitchen. He couldn’t go beyond the kitchen into the house—not openly. He paused for an instant, hayfork in hand, to wonder just what would happen if he entered surreptitiously and was caught? What could Lord Dunsany do to him? He couldn’t be dismissed, after all.
That ludicrous thought made him laugh, and he went back to his work and his thinking in a better humor.
Well, there was church. The Dunsanys were Anglican and usually attended St. Margaret’s, the village church in Ellesmere. They traveled by coach, and Betty normally went with Lady Dunsany and Lady Isobel, her mistress. He was under parole as a prisoner of war; he couldn’t set foot off the estate at Helwater without leave from Lord Dunsany—but the big coach required a team of four, which meant two drivers, and Jamie was the only groom who could drive more than a gig.
Aye, that might work; he’d see. If he could get within reach of Betty, he could perhaps slip her a note that would bring her out to talk to him. God knew what he’d say, but he’d think of something.
He could of course entrust such a note to one of the kitchen maids when he had his breakfast, but the fewer people who had to do with this business, the better. He’d try it alone first.
That much tentatively decided, he stopped to wipe his face with the grubby towel that hung on a hook over the bran tub and turned his mind again toward Betty’s Irish gentleman.
Did he exist at all? If he did, what the devil did he want with Alex MacKenzie? Unless, of course, it wasn’t Alex MacKenzie but instead Jamie Fraser whom he—
This embryonic train of thought was severed by a skittering thud and the appearance of Hanks at the foot of the ladder, yellow-jowled and smelling rancid.
“Here, Mac,” he said, trying to sound jovial. “Do me a favor?”
Hanks managed a ghastly half smile.
“Doncher want to know what it is?”
“No.” What he wanted was for Hanks to leave, and now. The man stank as though he were dead inside, and the horses near him were whuffling and snorting in disgust.
“Oh.” Hanks rubbed a trembling hand over his face. “ ’S not much. Just … can you take my string out? I’m not …” The hand fell limp in sweeping illustration of all the things that Hanks was not.
A gust of wind came in cold beneath the stable door, smelling of the coming rain, whirling chaff and straw along the bricks between the boxes. He hesitated. It would be pouring within the hour. He could feel the storm brooding up there on the fells, dark with its gathering.
Rain wouldn’t trouble the horses; they loved it. And the fog would go when the rain fell; no great danger of getting lost.
“Meet him on the fells,” Betty had said. “Where the old shepherd’s hut is.”
“Aye, fine.” He turned his back and began to measure out the bran and flaxseed for the mash. After a moment, he heard Hanks stumble toward the ladder and he half-turned, watching in idle curiosity to see whether the man might fall and break his neck. He didn’t, though.