Dragonfly in Amber (Page 21)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(21)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

"These are pretty things, after all." A finger’s touch set the swans on the clock revolving, curved necks stately in twofold procession. "Worth preserving. But who’d bother keeping an old, patched tea cozy, or a worn-out automobile-tire?" A pretty blonde in glasses this time, who smiled and tittered briefly in response.

"But it’s the useful objects, the things that aren’t noted in documents, which are used and broken and discarded without a second thought, that tell you how the common man lived. The numbers of these pipes, for example, tell us something about the frequency and types of tobacco use among the classes of society, from high"—a finger tap on the lid of the enameled snuffbox—"to low." The finger moved to stroke the long, straight pipestem with affectionate familiarity.

Now a middle-aged woman, scribbling frantically to catch every word, hardly aware of the singular regard upon her. The lines creased beside smiling hazel eyes.

"You needn’t take down everything, Miss Smith," he chided. "It’s an hour’s lecture, after all—your pencil will never last."

The woman blushed and dropped her pencil, but smiled shyly in answer to the friendly grin on Frank’s lean, dark face. He had them now, everyone warmed by the glow of good humor, attention attracted by the small flashes of gilt and glitter. Now they would follow him without flagging or complaint, along the path of logic and into the thickets of discussion. A certain tenseness left his neck as he felt the students’ attention settle and fix on him.

"The best witness to history is the man—or woman"—a nod to the pretty blonde—"who’s lived it, right?" He smiled and picked up the cracked horn spoon. "Well, perhaps. After all, it’s human nature to put the best face on things when you know someone will read what you’ve written. People tend to concentrate on the things they think important, and often enough, they tidy it up a bit for public consumption. It’s rare to find a Pepys who records with equal interest the details of a Royal procession, and the number of times each night that he’s obliged to use his chamber pot."

The laugh this time was general, and he relaxed, leaning casually back against the table, gesturing with the spoon.

"Similarly, the lovely objects, the artful artifacts, are the ones most often preserved. But the chamber pots and the spoons and the cheap clay pipes can tell us as much or more about the people who used them.

"And what about those people? We think of historical persons as something different than ourselves, sometimes halfway mythological. But someone played games with this"—the slender index finger stroked the counter-box—"a lady used this"—nudged the scent bottle—"dabbing scent behind her ears, on her wrists…where else do you ladies dab scent?" Lifting his head suddenly, he smiled at the plump blond girl in the front row, who blushed, giggled, and touched herself demurely just above the V of her blouse.

"Ah, yes. Just there. Well, so did the lady who owned this."

Still smiling at the girl, he unstoppered the scent bottle and passed it gently under his nose.

"What is it, Professor? Arpège?" Not so shy, this student; dark-haired, like Frank, with gray eyes that held more than a hint of flirtation.

He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring over the mouth of the bottle.

"No. It’s L’Heure Bleu. My favorite."

He turned back to the table, hair falling over his brow in concentration as his hand hovered over the row of miniatures.

"And then there’s a special class of objects—portraits. A bit of art, and at the same time, as much as we can see of the people themselves. But how real are they to us?"

He lifted a tiny oval and turned it to face the class, reading from the small gummed label affixed to its back.

"A Lady, by Nathaniel Plimer, signed with initials and dated 1786, with curled brown hair piled high, wearing a pink dress and a ruffle-collared chemise, cloud and sky background." He held up a square beside it.

"A Gentleman, by Horace Hone, signed with monogram and dated 1780, with powdered hair en queue, wearing a brown coat, blue waistcoat, lawn jabot, and an Order, possibly the Most Honorable Order of the Bath."

The miniature showed a round-faced man, mouth rosily pursed in the formal pose of eighteenth-century portraits.

"The artists we know," he said, laying the portrait down. "They signed their work, or they left clues to their identity in the techniques and the subjects they used. But the people they painted? We see them, and yet we know nothing of them. The strange hairstyles, the odd clothes—they don’t seem people that you’d know, do they? And the way so many artists painted them, the faces are all alike; pudding-faced and pale, most of them, and not a lot more you can say about them. Here and there, one stands out.…" Hand hovering over the row, he selected another oval.

"A Gentleman…"

He held up the miniature, and Jamie’s blue eyes blazed out under the fiery thatch of his hair, combed for once, braided and ribboned into an unaccustomed formal order. The knife-edged nose was bold above the lace of his stock, and the long mouth seemed about to speak, half-curled at one corner.

"But they were real people," Frank’s voice insisted. "They did much the same things you do—give or take a few small details like going to the pictures or driving down the motorway"—there were appreciative titters amongst the class—"but they cared about their children, they loved their husbands or wives…well, sometimes they did…" More laughter.

"A Lady," he said softly, cradling the last of the portraits in his palm, shielding it for the moment. "With brown hair curling luxuriantly to her shoulders, and a necklace of pearls. Undated. The artist unknown."

It was a mirror, not a miniature. My cheeks were flushed, and my lips trembled as Frank’s finger gently traced the edge of my jaw, the graceful line of my neck. The tears welled in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks as I heard his voice, still lecturing, as he laid down the miniature, and I stared upward at the timbered ceiling.

"Undated. Unknown. But once…once, she was real."

I was having trouble breathing, and thought at first that I was being smothered by the glass over the miniature. But the material pressing on my nose was soft and damp, and I twisted my head away and came awake, feeling the linen pillow wet with tears beneath my cheek. Jamie’s hand was large and warm on my shoulder, gently shaking me.

"Hush, lassie. Hush! You’re but dreaming—I’m here."

I turned my face into the warmth of his nak*d shoulder, feeling the tears slick between cheek and skin. I clung tightly to his solidness, and the small night sounds of the Paris house came slowly to my ears, bringing me back to the life that was mine.

"I’m sorry," I whispered. "I was dreaming about…about…"

He patted my back, and reached under the pillow for a handkerchief.

"I know. Ye were calling his name." He sounded resigned.

I laid my head back on his shoulder. He smelled warm and rumpled, his own sleepy scent blending with the smell of the down-filled quilt and the clean linen sheets.

"I’m sorry," I said again.

He snorted briefly, not quite a laugh.

"Well, I’ll no say I’m not wicked jealous of the man," he said ruefully, "because I am. But I can hardly grudge him your dreams. Or your tears." His finger gently traced the wet track down one cheek, then blotted it with the handkerchief.

"You don’t?"

His smile in the dimness was lopsided.

"No. Ye loved him. I canna hold it against either of you that ye mourn him. And it gives me some comfort to know…" He hesitated, and I reached up to smooth the rumpled hair off his face.

"To know what?"

"That should the need come, you might mourn for me that way," he said softly.

I pressed my face fiercely into his chest, so my words were muffled.

"I won’t mourn you, because I won’t have to. I won’t lose you, I won’t!" A thought struck me, and I looked up at him, the faint roughness of his beard stubble a shadow on his face.

"You aren’t afraid I would go back, are you? You don’t think that because I…think of Frank.…"

"No." His voice was quick and soft, a response fast as the possessive tightening of his arms around me.

"No," he said again, more softly. "We are bound, you and I, and nothing on this earth shall part me from you." One large hand rose to stroke my hair. "D’ye mind the blood vow that I swore ye when we wed?"

"Yes, I think so. ‘Blood of my blood, bone of my bone…’ "

"I give ye my body, that we may be one," he finished. "Aye, and I have kept that vow, Sassenach, and so have you." He turned me slightly, and one hand cupped itself gently over the tiny swell of my stomach.

"Blood of my blood," he whispered, "and bone of my bone. You carry me within ye, Claire, and ye canna leave me now, no matter what happens. You are mine, always, if ye will it or no, if ye want me or nay. Mine, and I wilna let ye go."

I put a hand over his, pressing it against me.

"No," I said softly, "nor can you leave me."

"No," he said, half-smiling. "For I have kept the last of the vow as well." He clasped both hands about me, and bowed his head on my shoulder, so I could feel the warm breath of the words upon my ear, whispered to the dark.

"For I give ye my spirit, ’til our life shall be done."

11

USEFUL OCCUPATIONS

Who is that peculiar little man?" I asked Jamie curiously. The man in question was making his way slowly through the groups of guests gathered in the main salon of the de Rohans’ house. He would pause a moment, scanning the group with a critical eye, then either shrug a bony shoulder and pass on, or suddenly step in close to a man or woman, hold something to their face and issue some sort of command. Whatever he was doing, his actions appeared to be the occasion of considerable hilarity.

Before Jamie could answer, the man, a small, wizened specimen in gray serge, spotted us, and his face lit up. He swooped down on Jamie like a tiny bird of prey suddenly descending upon a large and startled rabbit.

"Sing," he commanded.

"Eh?" Jamie blinked down at the little figure in astonishment.

"I said ‘Sing,’ " answered the man, patiently. He prodded Jamie admiringly in the chest. "With a resonating cavity like that, you should have a wonderful volume."

"Oh, he has volume," I said, amused. "You can hear him across three squares of the city when he’s roused."

Jamie shot me a dirty look. The little man was circling him, measuring the breadth of his back and tapping on him like a woodpecker sampling a prime tree.

"I can’t sing," he protested.

"Nonsense, nonsense. Of course you can. A nice, deep baritone, too," the little man murmured approvingly. "Excellent. Just what we need. Here, a bit of help for you. Try to match this tone."

Deftly whipping a small tuning fork from his pocket, he struck it smartly against a pillar and held it next to Jamie’s left ear.

Jamie rolled his eyes heavenward, but shrugged and obligingly sang a note. The little man jerked back as though he’d been shot.

"No," he said disbelievingly.

"I’m afraid so," I said sympathetically. "He’s right, you know. He really can’t sing."

The little man squinted accusingly at Jamie, then struck his fork once more and held it out invitingly.

"Once more," he coaxed. "Just listen to it, and let the same sound come out."

Patient as ever, Jamie listened carefully to the "A" of the fork, and sang again, producing a sound wedged somewhere in the crack between E-flat and D-sharp.

"Not possible," said the little man, looking thoroughly disillusioned. "No one could be that dissonant even on purpose."

"I can," said Jamie cheerfully, and bowed politely to the little man. We had by now begun to collect a small crowd of interested onlookers. Louise de Rohan was a great hostess, and her salons attracted the cream of Parisian society.

"Yes, he can," I assured our visitor. "He’s tone-deaf, you see."

"Yes, I do see," the little man said, looking thoroughly depressed. Then he began to eye me speculatively.

"Not me!" I said, laughing.

"You surely aren’t tone-deaf as well, Madame?" Eyes glittering like a snake slithering toward a paralyzed bird, the little man began to move toward me, tuning fork twitching like the flicking tongue of a viper.

"Wait a minute," I said, holding out a repressive hand. "Just who are you?"

"This is Herr Johannes Gerstmann, Sassenach." Looking amused, Jamie bowed again to the little man. "The King’s singing-master. May I present you to my wife, Lady Broch Tuarach, Herr Gerstmann?" Trust Jamie to know every last member of the Court, no matter how insignificant.

Johannes Gerstmann. Well, that accounted for the faint accent I had detected under the formality of Court French. German, I wondered, or Austrian?

"I am assembling a small impromptu chorus," the little singing-master explained. "The voices need not be trained, but they must be strong and true." He cast a glance of disillusionment at Jamie, who merely grinned in response. He took the tuning fork from Herr Gerstmann and held it inquiringly in my direction.

"Oh, all right," I said, and sang.

Whatever he heard appeared to encourage Herr Gerstmann, for he put away the tuning fork and peered at me interestedly. His wig was a trifle too big, and tended to slide forward when he nodded. He did so now, then pushed the wig carelessly back, and said "Excellent tone, Madame! Really very nice, very nice indeed. Are you acquainted perhaps with Le Papillon?" He hummed a few bars.

"Well, I’ve heard it at least," I replied cautiously. "Um, the melody, I mean; I don’t know the words."

"Ah! No difficulty, Madame. The chorus is simplicity; like this…"

My arm trapped in the singing-master’s grip, I found myself being ineluctably drawn away toward the sound of harpsichord music in a distant room, Herr Gerstmann humming in my ear like a demented bumblebee.

I cast a helpless glance back at Jamie, who merely grinned and raised his cup of sorbet in a farewell salute before turning to take up a conversation with Monsieur Duverney the younger, the son of the Minister of Finance.

The Rohans’ house—if you could use a mere word like "house" in description of such a place—was alight with lanterns strung through the back garden and edging the terrace. As Herr Gerstmann towed me through the corridors, I could see servants hurrying in and out of the supper rooms, laying linen and silver for the dining that would take place later. Most "salons" were small, intimate affairs, but the Princesse Louise de La Tour de Rohan was an expansive personality.

I had met the Princesse a week before, at another evening party, and had found her something of a surprise. Plump and rather plain, she had a round face with a small round chin, pale lashless blue eyes, and a star-shaped false beauty mark that did very little to fulfill its function in life. So this was the lady who enticed Prince Charles into ignoring the dictates of propriety? I thought, curtsying in the receiving line.

Still, she had an air of lively animation about her that was quite attractive, and a lovely soft pink mouth. Her mouth was the most animated part of her, in fact.

"But I am charmed!" she had exclaimed, grabbing my hand as I was presented to her. "How wonderful to meet you at last! My husband and my father have both sung the praises of milord Broch Tuarach unendingly, but of his delightful wife they have said nothing. I am enchanted beyond measure by your coming, my dear, sweet lady—must I really say Broch Tuarach, or won’t it do if I only say Lady Tuarach? I’m not sure I could remember all of it, but one word, surely, even if such a strange-sounding word—is it Scottish? How enchanting!"

In fact, Broch Tuarach meant "the north-facing tower," but if she wanted to call me "Lady North-facing," it was all right with me. In the event, she quickly gave up trying to remember "Tuarach," and had since called me only "ma chère Claire."

Louise herself was with the group of singers in the music room, fluttering plumply from one to another, talking and laughing. When she saw me, she dashed across the room as fast as her draperies would allow, her plain face alight with animation.

"Ma chère Claire!" she exclaimed, ruthlessly commandeering me from Herr Gerstmann. "You are just in time! Come, you must talk to this silly English child for me."

The "silly English child" was in fact very young; a girl of not more than fifteen, with dark, shiny ringlets, and cheeks flushed so hotly with embarrassment that she reminded me of a brilliant poppy. In fact, it was the cheeks that recalled her to me; the girl I had glimpsed in the garden at Versailles, just before the unsettling appearance of Alexander Randall.

"Madame Fraser is English, too," Louise was explaining to the girl. "She will soon make you feel at home. She’s shy," Louise explained, turning to me without pausing to draw breath. "Talk to her; persuade her to sing with us. She has a delightful voice, I am assured. There, mes enfants, enjoy yourselves!" And with a pat of benediction, she was off to the other side of the room, exclaiming, cajoling, marveling at a new arrival’s gown, pausing to fondle the overweight youth who sat at the harpsichord, twisting ringlets of his hair around her finger as she chattered to the Duc di Castellotti.

"Makes you rather tired just to watch her, doesn’t it?" I said in English, smiling at the girl. A tiny smile appeared on her own lips and she bobbed her head briefly, but didn’t speak. I thought this must all be rather overwhelming; Louise’s parties tended to make my own head spin, and the little poppy girl could scarcely be out of the schoolroom.

"I’m Claire Fraser," I said, "but Louise didn’t remember to tell me your name." I paused invitingly, but she didn’t reply. Her face got redder and redder, lips pressed tight together, and her fists clenched at her sides. I was a trifle alarmed at her appearance, but she finally summoned the will to speak. She took a deep breath, and raised her chin like one about to mount the scaffold.

"M-m-my-name is…M-M-M," she began, and at once I understood her silence and her painful shyness. She closed her eyes, biting her lip savagely, then opened her eyes and gamely had another try. "M-M-Mary Hawkins," she managed at last. "I d-d-don’t sing," she added defiantly.

If I had found her interesting before, I was fascinated now. So this was Silas Hawkins’s niece, the baronet’s daughter, the intended fiancée of the Vicomte Marigny! It seemed a considerable weight of male expectation for such a young girl to bear. I glanced around to see whether the Vicomte was in evidence, and was relieved to find that he wasn’t.