The Scottish Prisoner

Page 31

Father Michael was disconcerted by this sudden change of subject.

“I—why … Aye, there is.” He turned his head toward the west, where the sun was slowly sinking behind a scrim of cloud, red as a fresh-fired cannonball, and pointed beyond the edge of the bog. “A mile or so that way. There’s a wee circle of stones, standing in a field. One of them is cleft like that.” He turned back, looking curiously at Jamie. “Why?”

Why, indeed. Jamie’s mouth was dry and he swallowed, but without much effect. Must he tell the priest exactly why he was certain that this effort to restore the Stuarts would not succeed, any more than the Rising in Scotland had?

No, he decided. He wouldn’t. Claire was his, alone. There was nothing sinful in his love for her, nothing that concerned Father Michael, and he meant to keep her to himself.

Beyond that, he thought wryly, if I told him, he’d be convinced I’d lost my wits—or was trying to feign madness to wriggle out of this foolish coil.

“Why did ye bring that here?” he asked, ignoring the priest’s question and nodding at the cup.

Father Michael looked at him for a time without answering, then lifted one shoulder.

“If you should be the man that God has chosen for the task, then I meant to give it to you, to use as you thought best. If you are not …” He squared his shoulders under the black broadcloth of his habit. “Then I shall give it back to its original owner.”

“I am not, Father,” Jamie said. “I canna touch the thing. Perhaps it’s a sign that I am not the man.”

The look of curiosity returned. “Do you … feel his presence? The bog-man? Now?”

“I do.” He did, too; the sense of someone standing behind him was back and had about it something of … eagerness? Desperation? He could not say what it was exactly, but it was bloody unsettling.

Was the dead man one like Claire? Was that the meaning of the carving in the bowl? If so, what fate had come upon him, to leave him here, in this place of desolation, far from wherever he had come?

Doubt seized him suddenly in jaws of iron. What if she had not made it back through the stones, back to safety? What if she, like the man who lay beneath the black waters here, had gone astray? Horror clenched his fists so tightly that the nails cut into his palms, and he kept them so, clung to the realness of the physical pain with stubborn force, so that he might dismiss the much more painful thought as something unreal, insubstantial.

Lord, that she might be safe! he prayed in agony. She and the child!

“Absolve me, Father,” he whispered. “I would go now.”

The abbot’s lips pressed tight, reluctant, and the hair trigger of Jamie’s temper went off.

“Do you think to blackmail me by withholding absolution? Ye blackguard priest! You would betray your vows and your office for the sake of—”

Father Michael stopped him with an upraised hand. He glared at Jamie for a moment, unmoving, then traced the sign of the cross in the air, in sharp, precise movements.

“Ego te absolvo, in nomine Patris—”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Jamie blurted. “I shouldna have spoken to ye like that. I—”

“We’ll count that as part of your confession, shall we?” murmured Father Michael. “Say the rosary every day for a month; there’s your penance.” The shadow of a wry smile crossed his face, and he finished, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.” He lowered his hand and spoke normally.

“I didn’t think to ask how long it had been since your last confession. D’you remember how the Act of Contrition goes, or had I best help you?” It was said seriously, but Jamie saw the trace of the leprechaun lurking in those bright green eyes. Father Michael folded his hands and bowed his head, as much to hide a smile as for piety.

“Mon Dieu, je regrette …” He said it in French, as he always had. And as it always had, a sense of peace came upon him with the saying.

He stopped speaking, and the air of the evening was still.

For the first time, he saw what he had not seen before: the mound of slightly darker rock and soil, speckled with the sprouting green blades of fresh grass, spangled with the tiny jewels of wildflowers. And a small wooden cross at the head of it, just under the pine tree.

Dust to dust. This was the stranger’s grave, then; they had given him burial in the Christian way, letting the unseemly jumble of bones and leather, so long preserved in dark water, crumble at last in peaceful anonymity. Here, by the seat of kings.

The sun was still above the horizon, but the light came low, and shadows lay dark upon the bog, ready to rise and join the coming night.

“Wait for a bit, mo mhic,” Father Michael said, reaching to retrieve the cup. “Let me put this away safe, and I’ll see ye back.”

In the distance, Jamie could see the dark gash of the pit where the peat-cutters had been at work. They called that sort of place a moss-hag in Scotland, he thought, and wondered briefly what—or who?—might lie in other bogs.

“Dinna fash yourself, Father,” he said, looking out across the tumps and hummocks, the shallow pools glinting in the last of the sun. “I’ll find my own way.”


Stalking Horse

QUINN HAD GONE, PRESUMABLY TO TEND TO HIS OWN BUSINESS. Jamie found his absence soothing but not reassuring; Quinn hadn’t gone far. Jamie told Grey what the abbot had said regarding the Wild Hunt poem, and after some discussion it was decided that Jamie should make the first approach to Siverly.

“Show him the Wild Hunt poem,” Grey had suggested. “I want to know if he seems to recognize it. If not, there’s at least the possibility that it has nothing to do with him and was somehow included with Carruthers’s packet by mistake. If he does recognize it, though, I want to know what he says about it.” He’d smiled at Jamie, eyes alight with the imminence of action. “And once you’ve spied out the land for me, I’ll have a better notion of which tack to take when I see him.”

A stalking horse, Jamie noted dourly. At least Grey had been honest about that.

On Tom Byrd’s advice, Jamie wore the brown worsted suit, as being more suitable to a day call in the country—the puce velvet was much too fine for such an occasion. There had been an argument between Tom and Lord John as to whether the yellow silk waistcoat with the blackwork was preferable to the plain cream-colored one, as indicating Jamie’s presumed wealth, or not, as possibly being thought vulgar.

“I dinna mind if he thinks I’m common,” Jamie assured Tom. “It will put him at his ease if he feels himself my superior. And the one thing we know of him for sure is that he likes money; so much the better if he thinks me a rich vulgarian.”

Lord John made a noise that he hastily converted to a sneeze, causing both Jamie and Tom to look at him austerely.

Jamie was not sure how much—if at all—Siverly might recall him. He had seen Siverly only now and then in Paris, and only for a few weeks. He thought they might have exchanged words once in the course of a dinner, but that was the extent of their interaction. Still … Jamie recalled Siverly; it was not unthinkable that the man would remember him, particularly given Jamie’s noticeable appearance.

In Paris, he had worked in his cousin Jared’s wine business; he might reasonably have continued in trade, after the Rising. There would be no reason for Siverly either to have heard of his actions, nor to have followed his movements after Culloden.

Jamie hadn’t bothered noting that his English speech would likely cause Siverly to regard him as a social inferior, no matter what he wore, and thus when he gave his horse to the gatekeeper who came out of the lodge to meet him, he broadened his accent slightly.

“What’s the name of this place, lad?”

“Glastuig,” the man said. “Will it be the place ye’re lookin’ for, then?”

“The verra place. Will your master be at home the day?”

“Himself’s in the house,” the gatekeeper said dubiously. “As for bein’ at home … I’ll send and see, if ye like, sir.”

“Much obliged to ye, lad. Here, then, give him this—and that wee bawbee’s for yourself.” He handed over the note he’d prepared, enclosing the introduction from Sir Melchior and asking for an interview, along with a lavish thrupenny bit.

His role as a rich vulgarian thus promisingly begun, he furthered it by openly gaping at the imposing house and its extensive grounds as he walked slowly up the drive after the servant. It was an old house—he hadn’t yet seen a newly built one in Ireland—but well kept up, its dark stonework freshly pointed and the chimneys—fourteen, he counted them—all alight and drawing well. Six good horses in the far pasture, including one that he wouldn’t have minded seeing closer to—a big dark bay with a white blaze and a nice arse end; good muscle, he thought approvingly. A good-sized lawn spread out before the house, a gardener pushing a heavy roller over it with no perceptible enthusiasm, and the gardens themselves had a dull, prosperous gleam to their leaves, wet with the drizzling rain.

He was in no great doubt that he’d be admitted, and by the time he’d reached the door, there was a butler standing in it to take his hat and cloak and show him to a drawing room. Like the house itself, it was richly appointed—there was a huge silver candlestick, with six beeswax tapers shedding a gracious light—but lacking any great sense of style. He wandered slowly around the room, fingering the ornaments: a Meissen figurine of a woman, a dove perched on her hand, taking a comfit from her lips; a longcase clock with three dials, showing the time, the barometric pressure, and the phase of the moon; a tobacco humidor made of a dark, unfamiliar kind of wood that he thought might be African; a footed silver bowl full of sugared violets, jumbled and broken among a handful of ginger-nut biscuits; a vicious-looking club with a peculiar knob at the end; a curious piece of something … He picked it up to examine closer. It was a rectangular strip, perhaps ten inches by five (he measured it automatically, using the joints of his left middle finger as gauge), made of small, odd beads—what were they made of? Not glass … Shell?—strung on a woven thread in an interesting pattern of blue and white and black.

Surely no woman had assembled these things. He wondered just what the owner of such a magpie collection would be like. For all their delving into the man’s antecedents, the Greys had given Jamie no coherent picture of Siverly’s personality. Carruthers had painted a vivid portrait of the man—but his record was concerned only with the man’s crimes and did little to reveal the man himself.

“A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” he thought to himself. He had himself met personable villains. And amiable fools whose actions did more damage than deliberately wicked men. His mouth set at the memory of Charles Edward Stuart. He had no doubt that this Siverly was a villain—but what kind of villain?

A heavy, limping step came down the hall, and Major Siverly came in. He was still an imposing man, nearly as tall as Jamie himself, though a good deal older now and going to paunch. His face was slab-sided, the skin faintly gray, as though he’d been cut from the same rock as his house, and while he had adopted an expression of welcome, this was unable to conceal the clear lines of harshness and open cruelty in his face.

Jamie offered his hand and a cordial greeting, thinking to himself that any soldier unlucky enough to draw Siverly as a commander would have known at once what he was in for. “Failure to suppress a mutiny” was one of the charges against him.

“Your servant, sir,” Siverly said politely, offering his hand in return. He looked Jamie over with a practiced glance—nay a fool, no, Jamie thought, as he made his own courtesies—but if he recalled Jamie, there was no hint of it in his manner.

“So Melchior Williamson says that you’ve something in which I might have an interest,” Siverly said abruptly. No offer of refreshment, nor even a seat, Jamie noted. Evidently he was not sufficiently interesting in himself as to merit much of the man’s time.

“Aye, sir, I have,” he answered, reaching into his bosom for the copy of the Wild Hunt poem he’d brought. “Sir Melchior said that you’d some expertise in matters of antiquity—as I see ye have.” He nodded at the silver bowl, which he knew from its hallmark to have been made no more than fifty years prior and could plainly see was the work of a mediocre silversmith. Siverly’s lip twitched, not quite curling, and he took the paper from Jamie, jerking his head at the settee in what was not quite an invitation to sit down.

Jamie sat, nonetheless. Siverly glanced briefly at the paper, clearly not expecting anything of interest—and then stiffened, looked at Jamie with a brief, piercing glare, then returned to the sheet. He read it through twice, turned the paper over to examine the back, then set it down carefully on the mantelpiece.

He walked over and stood in front of Jamie, looking down. Jamie gave him a bland look, keeping his feet under him in case the man went for his throat—from the look of him, it was in his mind.

“Who the bloody hell are you?” Siverly demanded. His voice was pitched low and was meant to sound dangerous.

Jamie smiled up at him. “Who do ye think I am?” he asked softly.

That gave Siverly pause. He stood looking at Jamie, his eyes narrowed, for quite a long time.

“Who gave you that paper?”

“A friend,” Jamie replied, with complete truth. “His name is not mine to share.” Can I go further? “Is deonach é.” He is a volunteer.

That stopped Siverly as surely as if he had received a bullet in the heart. Very slowly, he lowered himself to a chair opposite, not taking his eyes from Jamie’s face. Did a flicker of recognition stir in those eyes, or only at last suspicion?

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