The Scottish Prisoner

Page 33

In the event, Tom returned with the landlord’s wife, bearing a moist cloth full of sliced, charred onions, which she applied, with many expressions of sympathetic horror (punctuated by loud expressions of astonishment as to how such a kind, sweet horse as our Bedelia, and her so gentle a soul as could have given our Lord a ride into Jerusalem, might ever have come to give the gentleman such a cruel toss, which made Fraser grind his teeth audibly), to the sufferer’s shoulder, leaving the more delicate application to Tom.

Owing to the nature of his injuries, Fraser could not lie comfortably on his back, or on either side, and was obliged to lie on his stomach, the bad shoulder cradled by a pillow and the air of the chamber perfumed with the eye-watering fragrance of hot onions.

Grey lounged against the wall by the window, now and then looking out, just in case Siverly might have organized some sort of pursuit, but the darkening road remained empty.

From the corner of his eye, he could see the woman completing her ministrations. She went and came again with a second poultice, then climbed the stairs once more, puffing slightly, with a dram of whiskey, which she held carefully with one hand, lifting Fraser’s head with the other to help him drink, though he resisted this assistance.

The movement had disarranged the first poultice, and she pulled back the neck of Fraser’s shirt to replace it. The firelight glinted across the white scars, clearly visible across his shoulder blade, and she gave a single, shocked click of the tongue when she saw them. She gave Grey a hard, straight look, then, with great gentleness but a tight mouth, she straightened the shirt, unplaited Jamie’s hair and combed it, then braided it loosely and bound it with a bit of string.

Grey was conscious of a sudden lurch within, watching sparks of copper glint from the thick dark-red strands that slid through the woman’s fingers. A sharp spurt of what began as simple jealousy ended as a sense of baffled longing as he saw Fraser, eyes closed, relax and turn his cheek into the pillow, his body yielding, unthinking, compliant to the woman’s touch.

When she had done, she went out, glancing sidelong at Tom. He looked at Grey and, receiving a nod of assent, went downstairs after her.

Grey himself poked up the fire and then sat down on a stool beside the bed.

“Do you need to sleep?” he inquired, rather gruffly.

The slanted blue eyes opened at once.

“No.” Fraser raised himself gingerly, weight resting on his left forearm. “Jesus, that hurts!”

Grey reached into his portmanteau and withdrew his flask, which he handed over.

“Brandy,” he said.

“Thank you,” Fraser said fervently, and uncorked it. Grey sat down again, with a small glow of gratification.

“Tell me, if you will, exactly what happened.”

Fraser obliged, pausing periodically to swallow brandy, wipe his eyes, or blow his nose, as the onion fumes made these run profusely.

“So, plainly he recognized the poem,” Grey said. “Which is reasonable; it confirms our original assumption that it had something to do with Siverly, as Carruthers had made a point of including it. What is more interesting is his question to you: ‘Who are you?’ That implies that the answer was something other than your name, does it not? Particularly if, as you say, he recognized you.”

Fraser nodded. “Aye, it does. It also implies that there are people he doesna ken personally, but who might be expected to recognize that poem—and to seek out others o’ the same ilk, using the poem as a signal. In other words—”

“A conspiracy,” Grey said, with a feeling between dread and excitement settling in his stomach.

Fraser gave a small grunt of assent and, handing back the half-empty flask, eased himself down, grimacing.

“What sort of conspiracy do you think it is, Mr. Fraser?” Grey asked, watching him closely. The Scot’s mouth tightened for a moment, but he’d plainly already done his thinking on the matter, for he answered without hesitation.

“Politics. There’s a wee reference in the poem to a white rose. That canna mean anything but Jacobites.” He spoke in a tone of absolute conviction.

“Ah.” Grey paused, then, striving for casualness, said, “I don’t believe you mentioned the white rose in your original translation.”

Fraser blew his nose with a vicious honk. “No,” he said calmly, sniffing, “nor after I showed it to Captain Lally. Neither did he.”

“And yet you tell me now,” Grey observed.

Fraser gave him a sideways look, put out a hand for the flask, and drank more brandy, as though considering his answer, though Grey was reasonably sure he’d considered it extensively already.

“Now it’s real,” he said finally, putting down the flask. He shifted a little, grimacing. “Ye wouldna ken, but in the time before the Rising in Scotland, and to nay little extent after, there were dozens—nay, hundreds—of tiny conspiracies. Plots, suggestions o’ plots, hints of plots—any man who could hold a pen writing coded letters, talking of money, praising his own connections, and blackening the names of others—and nearly all of it nothing but wind.”

He wiped his eyes, sneezed, and wiped his nose.

“Jesus, I may never eat onions again.”

“Does it help? With the pain, I mean.”

Fraser looked surprised, as though it had never occurred to him to wonder.

“Aye, it does; it warms the sore parts.” His mouth twitched. “That, or maybe it’s the brandy.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway. I saw hundreds of things like that, in Paris. For a time, it was my business to look for such things. That’s where I made the acquaintance of your sister-in-law.”

Jamie spoke casually, but Grey saw the Scot’s sidelong look and manfully concealed his own surprise.

“Yes, Hal said her father was a … dealer in documents.”

“That’s a verra tactful way to put it.” He sniffed and looked up, one eyebrow raised. “I’m surprised that she didna tell ye about the white rose herself,” he said. “She must ha’ seen it.” And then his gaze sharpened. “Oh,” he said, with a half smile. “Of course, she did. I should have kent that.”

“You should,” Grey agreed dryly. “But you said, ‘Now it’s real.’ Why? Only because Siverly is involved in some way?”

Jamie nodded and shifted himself, looking for a more comfortable way to lie. He settled for resting his forehead on his crossed forearms.

“Because Siverly’s rich,” he said, his voice a little muffled. “Whether he stole his money or made it, we ken he’s got it, do we not?”

“We do,” Grey said, a little grimly. “Or at least he had it at one point. For all I know, he’s spent it on all on whores and horses. Or that monstrous great house.”

Fraser made a motion of the head that might have been agreement.

“Either way, he has something to lose,” he said. “And there’s the minor consideration that he tried, verra seriously, to kill me.” He raised his head from the pillow, squinting at Grey. “He’ll try again, aye?” he observed, though without much concern. “Ye havena got much more than tomorrow morning before he turns up here.”

“I mean to call upon Major Siverly in the morning,” Grey assured him. “But you have not completely answered my question, Mr. Fraser. You said, ‘Now it’s real,’ and I understand that. But should not the possibility of a substantial conspiracy, well funded and decently managed, increase your loyalty to the Stuart cause?”

Fraser laid his head on his arms, but turned his face toward Grey and studied him for some time, eyes narrowed.

“I shall never fight in that cause again,” he said at last, softly, and Grey thought he spoke with a sense of true regret. “Not from cowardice, but from the sure knowledge of its futility. Major Siverly’s nay friend to me. And should there be men I know involved in this … I will do them nay service to let it go further.”

He turned his face away again and lay quiet.

Grey picked up the flask and shook it. There was very little left in it, but he drank this, slowly, watching the play of fire through the tangled strands of the peat bricks in the hearth.

Was Fraser telling the truth? He thought so. If so—was his assessment of that one phrase in the poem sufficient as to conjure up a complete Jacobite conspiracy? But that wasn’t the only evidence, he reminded himself. Minnie had said the same—and, above all, Siverly’s attempt on Fraser’s life argued that the poem itself was dangerous in some way. How else if not, as Fraser said, a signal of recognition? But a signal to whom?

He fell to thinking of how his meeting with Siverly might go, knowing what he now did. Ought he, too, present a copy of the same poem, to see what response it drew? He had made a point of seeking out Siverly after the Battle of Quebec, to thank him for his service in saving Grey from being brained by a tomahawk. Siverly had modestly dismissed the matter—but it would plainly be foremost in his mind at sight of Grey.

Grey grimaced. Yes, he owed Siverly a debt of honor. But if Siverly had done half what Carruthers claimed, he had forfeited his right to such consideration.

The room was warm. He loosened his neckcloth, which made him think of his dress uniform, its leather stock and silver gorget. Tom had packed it with great care, preserving it from loss and damage on the journey, for the sole purpose of being worn to arrest Gerald Siverly, if necessary.

Had the time come for that? He thought not yet. He’d take with him not only the poem but a few selected sheets from Carruthers’s packet and, depending upon Siverly’s reception of him, would decide whether—and which—to show him. Showing the poem would link him immediately with Jamie Fraser, and thus perhaps threaten Siverly. If he could persuade Siverly to go back to England voluntarily, that was by far the best result. But if not … He brooded for a bit, but he was sick of thinking of Siverly, and his mind wandered. The scent of onions had subsided to a pleasant odor that conjured thoughts of supper. It was very late. Perhaps he should go down; he could have the girl bring something up for Fraser.…

Once more he saw the woman’s hands, gentle on Fraser’s face and body, and the big Scot turning at once to her touch, a stranger’s touch. Only because she was a woman. If he himself had ventured to touch the man …

But I have. If not directly. The open neck of the shirt had slipped back, and the faint glimmer of the scars showed once more.

Jamie’s head turned, and his eyes opened, as though he had felt the pressure of Grey’s gaze. He didn’t speak but lay quiet, meeting John’s eyes. Grey was conscious all at once of the silence; the pub’s customers had all gone home, the landlord and his family retired for the night.

“I’m sorry,” he said, very softly.

“Ego te absolvo,” Fraser murmured, and shut his eyes.



THE BAY GELDING WAS LAME IN THE RIGHT FORE, AND JOHN Grey had declined to ride the unfortunate Bedelia, on grounds that she would be instantly recognized, thus establishing a link between himself and Jamie Fraser and causing Major Siverly to smell a rat. He therefore walked the two miles from Beckett’s inn to Siverly’s estate, Glastuig, reciting Latin poetry as a means of keeping his thoughts off the impending meeting.

He’d done what planning was possible. Once the strategy and tactics of a battle were decided, you put it out of your mind until you came to the field and saw what was what. Trying to fight a battle in your head was pointless and did nothing but fret the nerves and exhaust the energies.

He’d had a hearty breakfast of black pudding and buttered eggs with toasted soda bread, washed down with Mr. Beckett’s very good beer. Thus internally fortified, and dressed in a country gentleman’s good wool suit—complete with gaiters to save his lisle stockings from the mud—and with several documents carefully stowed in separate pockets, he was armed and ready.

Qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum

illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.

Now he goes along the dark road, thither whence they say

no man returns.

It was a very beautiful morning, and a small group of pigs were enjoying it to the maximum, snorting and rooting under a tumbled stone wall. Aside from these, the landscape seemed entirely empty, until after a mile or so a woman in a shawl came past him in the lane, leading an ass with a small boy sitting on it. He lifted his hat politely to the woman and wished her good morning. All of them stared at him, the woman and the boy turning round in order to keep staring after they’d passed him. Possibly strangers were not common in the neighborhood, he thought.

This conclusion was borne out when he rapped his walking stick on the door of Siverly’s manor, and a weedy-looking young butler with astonishingly vivid ginger hair and a large quantity of freckles blinked at him as though he’d sprung out from behind a mushroom.

“I’ve come to call upon Major Siverly,” Grey said politely. “My name is Grey.”

“Is it?” said the butler uncertainly. “You’re an Englishman, I daresay?”

“Yes, it is,” Grey assured him. “And, yes, I am. Is your master at home?”

“Well, he is, then, but—” The man glanced over his shoulder at a closed door on the far side of a spacious foyer. “Oh!” A thought seemed to strike him, and he looked back at Grey with the air of one who has successfully put two and two together to make four.

“You’ll be after being a friend of the other Englishman, sure!”

“The … other Englishman?”

“Why, the one what rode over this morning from Brampton Court!” the butler exclaimed happily. “He’s in the library with the master, and them talking away sixteen to the dozen. They’ll be expecting you, then, won’t they?”

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