Oh, God. Guide my tongue.
“Ye ken he was a Jacobite, aye? Well, there was a plot he was involved in—a great matter, with great consequences, did it either fail or succeed. It failed, and the heart went out o’ the man.”
She let out her breath in a sigh that sank her shoulders, seeming to deflate before his eyes. She shook her head.
“Men,” she said flatly. “Men are fools.”
“Aye, well … ye’re no wrong there,” he said ruefully, hoping that she would not ask whether he had been involved in the great matter—or why the soldiers had taken him to start with.
He needed to go before the conversation became personal. She took his hand again, though, holding it between both of hers, and he could see that she was about to say something he didn’t want her to say. He’d shifted his weight, about to pull loose, when he heard footsteps on the walk behind him, heavy and quick.
“What’s going on here?” Sure enough, it was Roberts, face flushed and lowering. Jamie could have kissed the man.
“I brought sad news to Mistress Betty,” he said quickly, taking back his hand. “The death of a kinsman.”
Roberts looked back and forth between them, clearly suspicious, but Betty’s air of shock and desolation was unfeigned and obvious. Roberts, who was not, after all, a stupid man, went rapidly to her, taking her by the arm and bending solicitously down to her.
“Are you all right, my dear?”
“I—yes. It’s only … oh, poor Toby!”
Betty was not stupid, either, and burst into tears, burying her face in Roberts’s shoulder.
Jamie, being the third wise party present, silently praised God and backed hastily away, murmuring inconsequent regrets.
The wind was cold outside the shelter of the kitchen garden, but he was sweating. He made his way back toward the stables, nodding to Keren-happuch, who was standing outside the kitchen garden, holding a vegetable basin and waiting patiently for the godless behavior inside the walls to cease.
“A death, was it?” she said, having obviously come along to ensure that his aim had not been wicked canoodling, after all.
“A sad death. Would ye say a prayer, maybe, for the soul of Tobias Quinn?”
A look of surprised distaste crossed her face.
“For a Papist?” she said.
“For a poor sinner.”
She pushed out her thin lips, considering, but reluctantly nodded. “I suppose so.”
He nodded, touched her shoulder in thanks, and went on his way.
The Church did call despair a sin, and suicide an unforgivable sin, as the sinner could not repent. A suicide was therefore condemned to hell, and prayers thus useless. But neither Keren nor Betty was a Papist, and perhaps their Protestant prayers might be heard.
For himself, he prayed each night for Quinn. After all, he reasoned, it couldn’t hurt.
The Fog Comes Down
BOWNESS-ON-WINDERMERE WAS A SMALL, PROSPEROUS town, with a maze of narrow stone-paved streets clustered cozily in the town center, these spreading out into a gentle slope of scattered houses and cottages that ran down to the lake’s edge, where a fleet of little fishing boats swayed at anchor. It was a considerable coach ride from Helwater, and Lord Dunsany apologized for the effort required, explaining that his solicitor chose to live here, having left the London stews for what he assumed to be the bucolic pleasures of the country.
“Little did he know what sorts of things go on in the country,” Dunsany said darkly.
“What sorts of things?” Grey asked, fascinated.
“Oh.” Dunsany seemed mildly taken aback at being thus challenged, but furrowed his brow in thought, his cane tapping gently on the stones as he limped slowly toward the street where the solictor’s office lay.
“Well, there was Morris Huckabee and his wife—only it seemed she was, in fact, his daughter. And her daughter was in fact not Morris’s at all but born to the ostler at the Grapes, as the mother admitted in court. Now, ordinarily, the wife would inherit—old Morris had died, you see, thus precipitating the trouble—but the question arose: was a common-law marriage (for of course the old creature had never gone through with a proper marriage, just told everyone she was his wife, and no one thought to ask for details) based on an incestuous relationship valid? Because if it wasn’t, you see, then the daughter—the wife daughter, I mean, not the daughter of the wife—couldn’t inherit his estate.
“Now, under those circumstances, the money would then normally pass to the child or children of the marriage, save that in this case, the child—the younger daughter—wasn’t really Morris’s, and while in law, any child born in wedlock is considered to be the child of that marriage, regardless of whether he or she was really fathered by the butcher or the baker or the candlestick maker, in this case …”
“Yes, I see,” Grey said hastily. “Dear me.”
“Yes, it was quite a revelation to Mr. Trowbridge,” Dunsany said, with a grin that showed he still had the majority of his teeth, if somewhat worn and yellowed with age. “I think he considered selling up and going straight back to London, but he stuck it out.”
“Trowbridge? I thought your solicitor was a Mr. Wilberforce.”
“Oh,” Dunsany said again, but less happily. “He was, indeed. Still is, for matters of conveyancing. But I did not quite like to employ him for this particular matter, you know.”
Grey did not know, but nodded understandingly.
Dunsany sighed and shook his head.
“I do worry about poor Isobel,” he said.
“You do?” Grey thought he must have missed some remark that established a relationship in the conversation between Mr. Wilberforce and Isobel, but—
“Oh!” Grey exclaimed himself. He’d forgotten that Lady Dunsany had said that Mr. Wilberforce was paying considerable attention to Isobel—this remark being made in a significant tone that made it clear that Lady Dunsany had her doubts about Wilberforce.
“Yes, I see.” And he did. They were visiting the solicitor for the purpose of adding the new provision to Dunsany’s will, establishing Lord John’s guardianship of William. If Mr. Wilberforce had aspirations to Isobel’s hand in marriage, the last thing Lord Dunsany would want was for the lawyer to be familiar with the provisions of his will.
“Her sister’s marriage was so—” Dunsany’s lips disappeared into the wrinkles of his face, so hard pressed were they. “Well. I have concerns, as I say. Still, that is neither here nor there. Come, Lord John, we must not be late.”
IT WAS A RARE and beautiful day, one last warm breath of what the local people called “St. Martin’s summer,” before the chill rains and fogs of autumn fell like a curtain over the fells. Even so, Crusoe looked sourly up toward the distant rocks and rolled an eye at the sky.
“Something’s coming,” he said. “Feel it in me bones.” He straightened his back with an alarming crack, as though to make the point, and groaned.
Jamie surreptitiously flexed his right hand. He also frequently felt weather coming; the badly mended bones seemed to have odd spaces that cold crept into. He felt nothing now, but he wasn’t going to call Crusoe a liar.
“Aye, it might be,” he said equably. “But Miss Isobel and Lady Dunsany are wanting to take Master Willie up to the old shepherd’s hut for a wee wander.” Having heard the screams and roarings from the nursery as he passed under its windows after breakfast, he had the impression that the proposed outing was the outcome of a domestic counsel of desperation.
According to kitchen gossip, Master William had a new tooth coming, a back tooth, and it was coming hard—particularly for those who had to deal with him. Opinion was divided as to the best treatment for this ailment, some advising a leech upon the gums, some bleeding, others a poultice of hot mustard at the back of the neck. Jamie supposed that all these things would at least distract the child from his suffering by giving him something else to roar about but would himself have rubbed the lad’s gums with whisky.
“Use enough of it,” his sister had told him, a practiced finger in his new niece’s squalling mouth, “and they’ll go quiet. It helps to take a wee dram for yourself, too, in case they don’t.” He smiled briefly at the memory.
Isobel, though, had evidently decided that an outing would take Willie’s mind off his tooth and had sent word for horses and a groom. Lady Dunsany, Lady Isobel, Betty—old Nanny Elspeth had flatly refused to countenance getting on a horse, and Peggy had a bad leg, so Betty had been dragooned to mind the child, and Jamie wished her well of that job—Mr. Wilberforce, and Jamie himself would complete the party.
Jamie wondered what Lady Isobel would say when she found that he was to escort the party, but he was too pleased with the prospect of seeing Willie—roaring or not—for a few hours to worry about it.
In the event, Lady Isobel seemed barely to notice his presence. She was flushed and cheerful, doubtless because of lawyer Wilberforce’s presence, though her gaiety had a strange edge to it. Even Lady Dunsany, most of her attention fixed on Willie, noticed Isobel’s mood and smiled a little.
“You’re in good spirits, daughter,” she said.
“Who could not be?” Isobel said, throwing back her head dramatically and raising her face to the sun. “So intoxicating a day!”
It was a fine day. A sky you could fall into, and never mind how far. The copper beeches near the house had gone to gold and rust, and a sweet, nippy little breeze whirled the fallen leaves round in skittish circles. Jamie remembered another day with air like blue wine, and Claire in it.
Lord, that she may be safe. She and the child. For an odd moment, he felt as though he stood outside himself, outside time, sensing Claire’s hand warm on his arm, her smile as she looked at Willie—red-faced, tearstained, and obviously miserable, but still his bonnie wee lad.
Then the world snapped into place, and he picked up the boy to set him on Betty’s saddle. William kicked him in the stomach, scrunched his face, and howled.
“NOOoooooo! Don’t want her, don’t want HER, wanna ride with YOUuuuu, Mac!”
Jamie tucked Willie under one arm, so that his sturdy legs churned harmlessly in the air, and looked to the ladies for advice, one eyebrow raised.
Betty looked as though she would prefer to share her horse with a wildcat but didn’t say anything. Lady Dunsany glanced dubiously from the maidservant to Jamie, but Lady Isobel—her conversation with Mr. Wilberforce interrupted—drew up her reins and said impatiently, “Oh, let him.”
And so they rode up toward the fells, skirting the moss, though at this time of year it was dry and mostly safe. Willie was breathing thickly through his mouth, his nose being blocked from crying, and was drooling now and then, but Jamie found his small, solid presence a pleasure, though he was disturbed to find that the boy was wearing a corset under his shirt.
As soon as the party reached a place where the horses were not compelled to follow one another, he maneuvered his own mount so as to drop back and ride beside Betty, who affected not to notice him.
“Is the wean not ower-young to be trussed up like a Christmas goose?” he asked bluntly.
Betty blinked at him, taken by surprise.
“Like … Oh, you mean the corset? It’s only a light thing, barely any boning. He won’t have a real one ’til he’s five, but his grandmother and his aunt thought he might as well grow used to it now. While they can still overpower him,” she added in an undertone, with an unwilling twitch of amusement. “The little bugger kicked a hole in the wall of the nursery yesterday and broke six of the best teacups the day before. Stole them off the table and flung them against the wall to hear them smash, laughing all the time. He’ll be a right devil when he’s grown, you mark my words,” she said, nodding at William, who had a thumb in his mouth and was dreamily lost in the horse’s motion and the soothing proximity of Jamie’s body.
Jamie contented himself with a neutral sound in his throat, though he felt his ears grow hot. They would not discipline the boy, and yet they meant to case his sweet small body in linen and whalebone, to narrow his shoulders and sway his back to meet the demands of what they thought fashionable?
He knew that the custom of corseting children was common among the wealthy English—to form their bodies into the slope-shouldered, high-chested figure thought most fashionable—but such things were not done in the Highlands, save perhaps among the nobles. The odious garment—he could feel the hard edge of it pressing into Willie’s soft flesh, just below his oxter—made Jamie want to spur up and ride hell-bent for the Border, pausing only to strip the thing off and throw it into the mere as they passed.
But he couldn’t do that and so rode on, one arm tight around William, seething.
“He’s selling,” Betty murmured, distracting him from his dark thoughts, “but Lady D’s not buying. Poor Isobel!”
She nodded and he looked ahead, seeing Mr. Wilberforce riding between the two ladies, now and then casting a quick, possessive glance at Isobel but turning the most of his winsome charm on Lady Dunsany. Who, as Betty said, seemed less than overwhelmed.
“Why poor Isobel?” Jamie asked, watching this byplay with interest.
“Why, she’s sweet on him, you great nit. Surely even you can see that?”
Betty sighed and rolled her eyes dramatically but was sufficiently bored as to put aside her pose of disinterest.
“So,” she said, “Lady Isobel wants to marry him. Well,” she added fairly, “she wants to be married, and he’s the only one in the county that’s halfway presentable. But only halfway, and I don’t think that’ll be enough,” she said, squinting judiciously at Wilberforce, who was nearly falling out of his saddle in the effort to pay a compliment to Lady Dunsany, who was pretending to be hard of hearing.