The Scottish Prisoner

Page 53

For now Jamie was surprised at the sense of peace he felt in the stable. It wasn’t homecoming, precisely—this place would never be home to him—but it was a place he knew, familiar in its daily rhythms, and with open air and the calm sweet presence of the horses always there at the bottom of it, no matter what the people were like.

He took his string of horses out along the road past the mere, then up a little way—not onto the fells but beyond the outer paddocks, where a grassy track led the way up and over a series of small hills. He paused at the summit of the highest, to breathe the horses and to look down over Helwater. It was a view he liked, when the weather was clear enough to see it: the big old house couched comfortably in its grove of copper beeches, the silver of the water beyond, rippling in the wind, its lacy edging of cattails spattered with blackbirds in spring and summer, their clear high song reaching him if the breeze lay right.

Just now there were no birds visible save a small hawk circling below the crest of the hill, alert for mice in the dead grass. There were tiny figures coming out along the drive, though; two men, mounted—Lord Dunsany and Lord John. He recognized the first by his stooped shoulders and the way his head jutted forward, the second by his square, solid seat and his easy, one-handed way with the reins.

“God be with ye, Englishman,” he said. Whatever John Grey had thought of Jamie’s announcement that he meant to court Betty Mitchell—Jamie grinned to himself at memory of Lord John’s face, comically trying to suppress his astonishment in the name of courtesy—he’d brought Jamie back to Helwater.

Grey would leave in a few days, he supposed. He wondered if they would speak again before that happened, and, if so, how. The odd half-friendship they had forged from necessity could not in justice be forgotten—but neither could the resumption of their present positions as, essentially, master and slave. Was there any ground that would let them meet again as equals?

“A posse ad esse,” he muttered to himself. From possibility to actuality. And, gathering up his leading rein, shouted, “Hup!” to the horses, and they thundered happily down the hill toward home.

THE DAY WAS COLD and windy but bright, and leaves from the copper beeches flew past in wild flurries, as though pursued. Grey had worried momentarily when Dunsany suggested a ride, for the old man was very frail, noticeably more so than on Grey’s last visit. The giddy flights of sun, wind, and leaves lent the day a sense of mild excitement, though, which seemed to communicate itself to Dunsany, for his face took on a faint glow and his hands seemed strong enough on the reins. Nonetheless, Grey took care to keep their pace moderate and one eye on his ancient friend.

Once out of the drive, they took the lake road. It was muddy—Grey had never known it not—and the churned earth showed numerous hoof hollows slowly filling with water; a number of horses had passed this way not long before. Grey felt the small spurt of excitement that he had been experiencing whenever horses or stables were mentioned at Helwater—a more or less hourly occurrence—though he knew that encountering Jamie Fraser out with a horse was a long shot, there being other grooms on the estate. Still, he couldn’t help a quick glance ahead.

The road lay empty before them, though, and he bent his attention to Lord Dunsany, who had slowed his horse to a walk.

“Has he picked up a stone?” he asked, reining in and preparing to dismount and attend to it.

“No, no.” Dunsany waved him back into his saddle. “I wished to talk with you, Lord John. Privately, you know.”

“Oh. Yes, of course,” he said, cautiously. “Er … about Fraser?”

Dunsany looked surprised, but then considered.

“Well, no. But since you mention him, do you wish to … make other arrangements for him?”

Grey bit the inside of his cheek. “No,” he said carefully. “Not for the present.”

Dunsany nodded, not seeming bothered at the prospect. “He’s a very good groom,” he said. “The other servants don’t make things easy for him—well, they wouldn’t, would they?—but he keeps much to himself.”

“He keeps much to himself.” Those casual words gave Grey a sudden insight into Fraser’s life at Helwater—and a slight pang. Had he not kept Fraser from transportation, he would have remained in the company of the other Scots, would have had companionship.

If he hadn’t died of seasickness, he thought, and the pang faded, to be replaced by another moment of insight. Was this the explanation for Fraser’s decision to marry Betty Mitchell?

Grey knew Betty fairly well; she’d been Geneva Dunsany’s lady’s maid since Geneva’s childhood and, with Geneva’s death, had become Isobel’s maid. She was quick-witted, good-looking in a common way, and seemed to be popular with the other servants. With her as wife, Jamie would be much less strange to the Helwater servants, much more a part of their community.

Little as Grey liked that idea, he had to admit that it was a sensible way of dealing with isolation and loneliness. But—

His thoughts were abruptly jerked back to Dunsany.

“You—I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t quite hear …?” He’d heard, all right; he just didn’t believe it.

“I said,” Dunsany repeated patiently, leaning closer and raising his voice, “that I propose to amend my will and wish to ask your permission to add a provision appointing you as guardian to my grandson, William.”

“I—well … yes. Yes, of course, if you wish it.” Grey felt as though he’d been struck behind the ear with a stocking full of sand. “But surely there are other men much better qualified for the office. A male relative—someone on William’s father’s side of the family?”

“There really is no one,” Dunsany said, with a helpless, one-shouldered shrug. “There are no male relations at all; only a couple of distant female cousins, neither of them married. And there is no one in my own family who is near enough, either in terms of geography or degree of relation, to make a competent guardian. I would not have the boy shipped off to Halifax or Virginia.”

“No, of course not,” Grey murmured, wondering how to get out of this. He could see why Dunsany wanted to amend his will; the old man was feeling his years, and with good reason. He was ill and frail and might easily be carried off by the winter’s chills. It would be irresponsible to die without providing for William’s guardianship. But the possible imminence of Dunsany’s demise also meant that Grey’s putative guardianship had an uncomfortable immediacy, as well.

“Besides not wanting to uproot the child so drastically—and my wife and Isobel would be quite desolate without him—he is the heir to Ellesmere. He has considerable property here; he should be raised with a knowledge of it.”

“Yes, I see that.” Grey pulled his horse’s head away from the clump of grass it was nosing after.

“I know this is gross presumption on my part,” Dunsany said, perceiving his hesitation. “And doubtless you were not expecting such a request. Should you like time to consider it?”

“I—no.” Grey made up his mind on the moment. He hadn’t seen that much of William but did like the little boy. While he was small, he wouldn’t need that much in the way of help; Lady Dunsany and Isobel could care for him very well, and Grey could stay longer on his visits to Helwater. As William grew older … he’d need to go to school, of course. He could divide his holidays, perhaps, coming with John to London sometimes, the two of them coming to Helwater.

Just as he had once come with his friend Gordon Dunsany. When Gordon had been killed at Culloden, Grey had come then alone, to grieve and to comfort. Over time, he had become not Gordon’s replacement, of course, but almost an adopted son of the house. It was that intimacy that had allowed him to make his arrangements with Dunsany for Fraser’s parole. And if a son had privileges within his family, he had also responsibilities.

“I’m most honored by your request, sir. I promise you, I will execute the office to the very best of my ability.”

Dunsany’s withered face lighted with relief.

“Oh, you relieve my mind exceedingly, Lord John! I confess, the matter has been pressing upon me to a terrible degree.” He smiled, looking much healthier. “Let us finish our ride and then go back for our tea; I believe I shall have an appetite for the first time in months!”

Grey smiled back and accepted the old baronet’s hand on the bargain, then followed him as they sped up to a canter past the ruffled waves of the mere. Movement in the distance caught his eye, and he saw a string of horses running down the slope of a distant hill, graceful and wild as a flurry of leaves, led by a horseman.

It was too far to be sure, but he was sure, nonetheless. He couldn’t take his eyes off the distant horses until they had rounded the bottom of the slope and disappeared.

Only then did his interrupted chain of thought restring itself. Yes, marrying Betty would make Jamie Fraser more comfortable at Helwater—but he need not stay at Helwater; it had been his choice to return. So it must in fact be Betty that drew him back.

“Well, bloody hell,” Grey muttered. “It’s his life.” He spurred up, passing Dunsany on the road.

JAMIE WAS SURPRISED at how quickly Helwater reabsorbed him, though he supposed he shouldn’t have been. A farm—and Helwater was a working farm, for all its grand manor house—has a life of its own, with a great, slow-beating heart, and everything on a farm listens to that beat and lives to its rhythm.

He knew that, for the rhythm of Lallybroch was deep in his bones, always would be. That knowledge was both sorrow and comfort, but more of the latter, for he knew that should he ever go back, that familiar heartbeat would still be there.

… and his place shall know him no more, the Bible said. He didn’t think that was exactly what was meant; his place would always know him, should he come again.

But he would not come to Lallybroch again for a long time. If ever, he thought, but quickly put that thought out of his head. He turned his ear to the ground and felt the beating of Helwater, a quicker sound, one that would support him in his weakness, comfort him in loneliness. He could hear the speaking of its waters and the growing of the grass, the movement of horses and the silence of its rocks. The people were part of it—a more transient part, but not an unimportant part. And one of those was Betty Mitchell.

It couldn’t be put off. And one benefit of the inexorable daily rhythm of a farm was that the people were part of it. He lingered for a moment after breakfast, to speak to Keren-happuch, the middle-aged Welsh kitchen maid, who liked him in a reserved, thin-lipped, dour sort of way. She was deeply religious, Keren—as evidenced by her name—thought him a Roman heretic, and wouldn’t stand for carryings-on in any case, but when he told her that he had come back with news for Betty of a kinsman, she was willing to take his message. Everyone would know, of course, but under the circumstances, that wouldn’t matter. At least he hoped not.

And so in the quiet part of the afternoon, an hour before tea, he came to the kitchen garden and found Betty waiting.

She turned at his step, and he saw that she’d put on a clean fichu and a little silver brooch. She lifted her chin and looked at him under her straight dark brows, a woman not quite sure of her power but clearly thinking she had some. He must be careful.

“Mrs. Betty,” he said, bowing his head to her, formal. She had stretched out her hand, and he was obliged to take it but was careful not to squeeze or breathe on it.

“I came to tell ye about Toby,” he said at once, before she could say anything. She blinked and her gaze sharpened, but she left her hand in his.

“Toby Quinn? What’s happened to him, then?”

“He’s died, lass. I’m sorry for it.”

Her fingers curled over his and she gripped his hand.

“Died! How?”

“In the service of his king,” he said. “He’s buried safe in Ireland.”

She was plainly shocked but gave him a sharp look.

“I said how. Who killed him?”

I did, he thought, but said, “He died by his own hand, lass,” and said again, “I’m sorry for it.”

She let go his hand and, turning, walked blindly for a few steps, put out her hand, and held tight to one of the espaliered pear trees that stood against the garden wall, spindly and vulnerable without its leaves.

She stood for some minutes, holding on to the branch, head bowed, breathing with a thickness in the sound. He’d thought she was fond of the man.

“Were you with him?” she said at last, not looking at him.

“If I had been, I should have stopped him.”

She turned round then, lips pressed tight.

“Not then. Were you with him when you … went away?” Her fingers fluttered briefly.

“Yes. Some of the time.”

“The soldiers who took you—did they catch him?”

“No.” He understood what she was asking: whether it was the prospect of captivity, transportation, or hanging that had made Toby do it.

“Then why?” she cried, fists curling. “Why would he do it?”

He swallowed, seeing again the tiny dark room and smelling blood and excrement. Seeing “Teind” on the wall.

“Despair,” he said quietly.

She made a small huffing sound, shaking her head doggedly to and fro.

“He was a Papist. Despair’s a sin to a Papist, isn’t it?”

“Folk do a great many things they think are sins.”

She made a little noise through her nose.

“Yes, they do.” She stood for a moment staring at the stones in the walk, then looked up suddenly at him, fierce. “I don’t understand at all how he could have—what made him despair?”

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