He’d assumed that she meant she’d tell Lord Dunsany that he’d been secretly meeting an Irish Jacobite on the fells. But looked at logically … would she?
Quinn was, after all, her brother-in-law. And presumably she liked the man well enough, or why carry his messages? Would she risk having him arrested?
Was the note she had tried to give him from Quinn, in fact? He’d thought so, seeing the willow branchlet, but perhaps it was her own silly attempt at further seduction, in which case he’d just mortally offended her. He breathed heavily through his nose.
Putting that aside … it might cause Jamie a bit of bother if she mentioned his meeting Quinn, but if you came right down to it, the one advantage of his present position was that there really wasn’t much anyone could do to make it worse. He was not Dunsany’s prisoner; the baronet couldn’t lock him up, put him in irons, feed him on bread and water, or flog him. The most Dunsany could do was to inform Lord John Grey.
He snorted at the thought. He doubted that wee pervert could face him, after what had been said during their last meeting, let alone take issue with him over Quinn. Still, he felt a cramping in his middle at the thought of seeing Grey again and didn’t want to think too much about why.
At least there was cake for the servants’ tea. He could smell its aroma, warm and yeasty, and his step quickened.
IF HE DREAMED that night, he had the mercy of not remembering it. He kept a wary eye out, but no green branches lay across his path or fell from his clothes as he dressed. Perhaps Betty had told Quinn about his ungracious response to the proffered note and the man had given up.
“Aye, that’ll be the day,” he muttered. He knew a number of Irishmen, and most of them persistent as saddle burrs. He also knew Quinn.
Still, the day looked like an improvement over the last—at least until word came down from the house that Lady Isobel required a groom to drive her into the town. Hanks had fallen down the ladder this morning and broken his arm—or at least he said it was broken and retired, groaning, to the loft to await the attentions of the local horse leech—and Crusoe avoided the town, he having gotten into an altercation with a blacksmith’s apprentice on his last visit that had left him with a flattened nose and two black eyes.
“You go, MacKenzie,” Crusoe said, pretending to be busy with a piece of harness in need of mending. “I’ll take your string.”
“Aye, thanks.” He felt pleased at the thought of getting off Helwater for a bit. Large as the estate was, the feeling that he could not leave if he wanted to chafed him. And it had been some months since he’d been to town; he looked forward to the journey, even if it involved Lady Isobel.
Isobel Dunsany was not the horsewoman her sister, Geneva, had been. She was not precisely timid with horses, but she didn’t like them, and the horses knew it. She didn’t like Jamie, either, and he knew that fine well; she didn’t hide it.
Nay wonder about that, he thought, handing her up into the pony trap. If Geneva told her, she likely thinks I killed her sister. He rather thought Geneva had told Isobel about his visit to Geneva’s room; the sisters had been close. Almost certainly she hadn’t told Isobel that she’d brought him to her bed by means of blackmail, though.
Isobel didn’t look at him and jerked her elbow free of his grip the instant her foot touched the boards. That was nothing unusual—but today she turned her head suddenly, fixing him with an odd, piercing look before turning away, biting her lip.
He got up beside her and twitched the reins over the pony’s back, but was aware of her eyes burning a hole in his right shoulder.
What burr’s got under her saddle? he wondered. Had bloody Betty said something to her? Accused him, maybe, of interfering with her? Was that what the little besom had meant by “I’ll tell”?
The lines came to him suddenly, from a play by Congreve: Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, / Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d. Damm it, he thought irritably. Was it not possible to refuse a woman’s bed without her feeling scorned? Well … possibly not. He had a sudden distant memory of Laoghaire MacKenzie and an ill wish, a bundle of herbs tied with colored thread. He shoved it aside.
He’d read the Congreve play in Ardsmuir prison, over the course of several weekly dinners with Lord John Grey. Could still hear Grey declaim those lines, very dramatic.
As you’ll answer it, take heed
This Slave commit no Violence upon
Himself. I’ve been deceiv’d. The Publick Safety
Requires he should be more confin’d; and none,
No not the Princes self, permitted to
Confer with him. I’ll quit you to the King.
Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base Injustice thou hast done my Love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those Ills which thou so long hast mourn’d;
Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.
“What?” said Lady Isobel, rather rudely.
“I beg your pardon, my lady?”
“I beg your pardon, my lady.”
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
’Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?
He wondered whether music really did help. He could not himself distinguish one tune from another. Still, he was pleased to know that he could recall so much of the play and passed the rest of the journey pleasantly in reciting lines to himself, being careful not to snort.
AT LADY ISOBEL’S DIRECTION, he deposited her at an imposing stone house, with instructions to come back in three hours. He nodded—she glowered at him; she thought him insolent, because he never tugged his forelock in the manner she thought proper deference (Be damned to her for a high-heided wee baggage, he thought, smiling pleasantly)—and drove to the square, where he could unhitch and water the pony.
People looked at him, startled by his size and coloring, but then went about their own business and left him to his. He hadn’t any money but enjoyed himself in strolling through the narrow streets, luxuriating in the feeling that—for however short a time—no one in the world knew exactly where he was. The day was bright, though cold, and the gardens had begun to bloom with snowdrops, tulips, and daffodils, blowing in the wind. The daffodils reminded him of Betty, but he was too much at peace with himself just now to be bothered.
It was a small town, and he’d passed the house where he’d left Isobel several times. On the fourth passage, though, he glimpsed the wind-tossed feathers of her hat through a screen of thinly leaved bushes in the back garden. Surprised, he walked to the end of the street and went round the corner. From here, he had a clear view of the back garden, neat behind a black iron fence—and a very clear view of Lady Isobel, locked in passionate embrace with a gentleman.
He ducked hastily out of sight before either of them should look up and made his way back to the square, nonplussed. Carefully casual inquiry among the loungers near the horse trough elicited the information that the house on Houghton Street with the black iron fence belonged to Mr. Wilberforce, a lawyer—and from the description of Mr. Wilberforce, it was indeed this gentleman who had been making love to Lady Isobel in his gazebo.
That explained Isobel’s manner, he thought: excited, but wary lest he discover her secret. She’d had a parcel under her arm, a taped packet of documents; no doubt she’d brought them to the lawyer, her father being ill. Lord Dunsany had had a bad winter, having taken a chill that turned to pleurisy, and Isobel had come often to the town during his sickness, presumably on the family’s business. Whereupon …
Aye, well. Perhaps I’m none so worrit by what Betty might say to her ladyship.
Whistling tunelessly through his teeth, he began leisurely to hitch up the pony.
THERE WAS A NOTABLE LACK of green branches for the next few days, nay a squeak out of Betty, and he began to relax. Then on Thursday, a warm bright day, Lord Dunsany came down to the paddock where Jamie was shoveling manure, accompanied by old Nanny Elspeth with William in her arms.
Lord Dunsany beckoned to the deeply suspicious nursemaid and waved to Jamie to approach. He did, his chest feeling tight, as though the air had suddenly grown too thick to breathe.
“My lord,” he said. He didn’t bob his head, let alone knuckle his forehead or make any other physical sign of subservience, and he saw the nurse’s mouth purse in disapproval. He gave her a straight, hard look and was pleased to see her rear back and glance away, sallow cheeks flushing.
He was prey to the most extraordinary array of emotions. For the most part, he succeeded in keeping his thoughts of William strictly confined, though he thought of him every day. He seldom saw the child, and when he did, it was only as a glimpse of a woolly bundle in the arms of Nanny Elspeth or Peggy, the nursemaid, taking the air on one of the balconies. He had accustomed himself to thinking of William as a sort of small, glowing light in his mind, something like the flame of a wax candle lit before a saint’s statue in a dark chapel. He couldn’t afford such a candle, and wouldn’t be allowed into the Helwater chapel, but liked to imagine himself lighting one when he said his prayers at night. He would watch the flame catch and swell, wavering a bit and then growing tall and still. He would go to sleep then and feel it burn, a peaceful watch fire in his heart.
“MacKenzie!” Dunsany said, beaming at him and waving at the child. “I thought it time my grandson became acquainted with the horses. Will you fetch out Bella?”
“Of course, my lord.”
Bella was a fine old mare, long past breeding but kept by Dunsany for the sake of their long association; she was the first broodmare he had acquired when he established the Helwater stables. She had a kind eye and a good heart, and Jamie could not have chosen better for the purpose.
He had a burning in his chest now, but this was drowned by a wash of panic, guilt, and a ferocious cramp that knotted his belly as though he’d eaten bad meat.
The old nurse eyed him suspiciously, looking slowly up from his sandaled feet to his stubbled face. Plainly she was reluctant to surrender her charge to anything that looked like that. He smiled broadly at her, and she flinched, as though menaced by a savage. Aye, fine, he thought. He felt savage.
He plucked the little boy neatly out of her arms, though, scarcely ruffling his gown. The boy gave a small yelp of startlement and turned his head round like an owl in amazement at being suddenly up so high.
Relief washed through him, as the wide eyes stared into his face. His guilty conscience had convinced him that William was an exact small replica of himself, whose resemblance would be noted at once by anyone who saw them together. But William’s round face and snub nose bore not the slightest likeness to his own features. While the child’s eyes could be called blue, they were pale, an indeterminate shade between gray and blue, the color of a clouded sky.
That was all he had time to take in, as he turned without hesitation to settle the little boy on the horse’s back. As he guided the chubby hands to grasp the saddle’s edge, though, talking in a conversational tone that soothed horse and child together, he saw that William’s hair was—thank God!—not at all red. A soft middling brown, cut in a pudding-bowl style like one of Cromwell’s Roundhead soldiers. True, there was a reddish cast to it in the sunlight, but, after all, Geneva’s hair had been a rich chestnut.
He looks like his mother, he thought, and sent a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving toward the Blessed Virgin.
“Now, then, Willie,” said Lord Dunsany, patting the boy’s back. “Just you hold on tight. MacKenzie will take you round the paddock.”
Willie looked very dubious at this proposal, and his chin drew back into the neck of his smock. “Mo!” he said, and, letting go the saddle, swung his fat little leg awkwardly to the rear, plainly intending to get off, though the ground was some feet below him.
Jamie grabbed him before he could fall.
“Mo!” Willie repeated, struggling to get down. “Momomomomo!”
“He means ‘no,’ ” the nurse murmured, not displeased, and reached for the boy. “I said he was too young. Here, poppet, you come to Nanny Elspeth. We’ll go back to the nursery and have our nice tea.”
“Mo!” Willie said shrilly, and capriciously flung himself round, burrowing into Jamie’s chest.
“Now, now,” his grandfather soothed, reaching for him. “Come to me, lad, we’ll go and—”
Jamie put a hand over the child’s mouth, stilling the racket momentarily.
“We’ll go and speak to the horses, aye?” he said firmly, and hoisted the child up onto his shoulders before Willie could make up his mind to shriek some more. Diverted by this splendid new perch, Willie crowed and grabbed Jamie’s hair. Not waiting to hear any objections, Jamie took hold of the chubby knees wrapped round his ears and headed for the stable.
“Now, this sweet auld lad is Deacon,” he said, squatting down to bring Willie to eye level with the old gelding, who lifted his nose, nostrils flaring with interest. “We call him Deke. Can ye say that? Deke?”