Dragonfly in Amber (Page 46)

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2)(46)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

After a little while, I became aware of some slight change in Jamie’s attitude. Glancing toward him, I saw that while he was still holding a book open on his knee, he had ceased to turn the pages—or to look at them, for that matter. His eyes were fixed on me instead; or, to be specific, on the spot where my nightrobe parted, several inches lower than strict modesty might dictate, strict modesty hardly seeming necessary in bed with one’s husband.

His gaze was abstracted, dark blue with longing, and I realized that if not socially required, modesty in bed with one’s husband might be at least considerate, under the circumstances. There were alternatives, of course.

Catching me looking at him, Jamie blushed slightly and hastily returned to an exaggerated interest in his book. I rolled onto my side and rested a hand on his thigh.

"Interesting book?" I asked, idly caressing him.

"Mphm. Oh, aye." The blush deepened, but he didn’t take his eyes from the page.

Grinning to myself, I slipped my hand under the bedclothes. He dropped the book.

"Sassenach!" he said. "Ye know you canna…"

"No," I said, "but you can. Or rather, I can for you."

He firmly detached my hand and gave it back to me.

"No, Sassenach. It wouldna be right."

"It wouldn’t?" I said, surprised. "Whyever not?"

He squirmed uncomfortably, avoiding my eyes.

"Well, I…I wouldna feel right, Sassenach. To take my pleasure from ye, and not be able to give ye…well, I wouldna feel right about it, is all."

I burst into laughter, laying my head on his thigh.

"Jamie, you are too sweet for words!"

"I am not sweet," he said indignantly. "But I’m no such a selfish—Claire, stop that!"

"You were planning to wait several more months?" I asked, not stopping.

"I could," he said, with what dignity was possible under the circumstances. "I waited tw-twenty-two years, and I can…"

"No, you can’t," I said, pulling back the bedclothes and admiring the shape so clearly visible beneath his nightshirt. I touched it, and it moved slightly, eager against my hand. "Whatever God meant you to be, Jamie Fraser, it wasn’t a monk."

With a sure hand, I pulled up his nightshirt.

"But…" he began.

"Two against one," I said, leaning down. "You lose."

Jamie worked hard for the next few days, readying the wine business to look after itself during his absence. Still, he found time to come up and sit with me for a short time after lunch most days, and so it was that he was with me when a visitor was announced. Visitors were not uncommon; Louise came every other day or so, to chatter about pregnancy or to moan over her lost love—though I privately thought she enjoyed Charles a great deal more as the object of noble renunciation than she did as a present lover. She had promised to bring me some Turkish sweetmeats, and I rather expected her plump pink face to peek through the door.

To my surprise, though, the visitor was Monsieur Forez. Magnus himself showed him into my sitting room, taking his hat and cloak with an almost superstitious reverence.

Jamie looked surprised at this visitation, but rose to his feet to greet the hangman politely and offer him refreshment.

"As a general rule, I take no spirits," Monsieur Forez said with a smile. "But I would not insult the hospitality of my esteemed colleague." He bowed ceremoniously in the direction of the chaise where I reclined. "You are well, I trust, Madame Fraser?"

"Yes," I said cautiously. "Thank you." I wondered to what we owed the honor of the visit. For while Monsieur Forez enjoyed considerable prestige and a fair amount of wealth in return for his official duties, I didn’t think his job got him many dinner invitations. I wondered suddenly whether hangmen had any social life to speak of.

He crossed the room and laid a small package on the chaise beside me, rather like a fatherly vulture bringing home dinner for his chicks. Keeping in mind the hanged-men’s grease, I picked the package up gingerly and weighed it in my hand; light for its size, and smelling faintly astringent.

"A small remembrance from Mother Hildegarde," he explained. "I understand it is a favorite remedy of les maîtresses sage-femme. She has written directions for its use, as well." He withdrew a folded, sealed note from his inner pocket and handed it over.

I sniffed the package. Raspberry leaves and saxifrage; something else I didn’t recognize. I hoped Mother Hildegarde had included a list of the ingredients as well.

"Please thank Mother Hildegarde for me," I said. "And how is everyone at the Hôpital?" I greatly missed my work there, as well as the nuns and the odd assortment of medical practitioners. We gossiped for some time about the Hôpital and its personnel, with Jamie contributing the occasional comment, but usually just listening with a polite smile, or—when the subject turned to the clinical—burying his nose in his glass of wine.

"What a pity," I said regretfully, as Monsieur Forez finished his description of the repair of a crushed shoulder blade. "I’ve never seen that done. I do miss the surgical work."

"Yes, I will miss it as well," Monsieur Forez nodded, taking a small sip from his wineglass. It was still more than half-full; apparently he hadn’t been joking about his abstention from spirits.

"You’re leaving Paris?" Jamie said in some surprise.

Monsieur Forez shrugged, the folds of his long coat rustling like feathers.

"Only for a time," he said. "Still, I will be gone for at least two months. In fact, Madame," he bowed his head toward me again, "that is the main reason for my visit today."

"It is?"

"Yes. I am going to England, you understand, and it occurred to me that if you wished it, Madame, it would be a matter of the greatest simplicity for me to carry any message that you desired. Should there be anyone with whom you wished to communicate, that is," he added, with his usual precision.

I glanced at Jamie, whose face had suddenly altered, from an open expression of polite interest to that pleasantly smiling mask that hid all thoughts. A stranger wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but I did.

"No," I said hesitantly. "I have no friends or relatives in England; I’m afraid I have no connections there at all, since I was—widowed." I felt the usual small stab at this reference to Frank, but suppressed it.

If this seemed odd to Monsieur Forez, he didn’t show it. He merely nodded, and set down his half-drunk glass of wine.

"I see. It is fortunate indeed that you have friends here, then." His voice seemed to hold a warning of some kind, but he didn’t look at me as he bent to straighten his stocking before rising. "I shall call upon you on my return, then, and hope to find you again in good health."

"What is the business that takes you to England, Monsieur?" Jamie said bluntly.

Monsieur Forez turned to him with a faint smile. He cocked his head, eyes bright, and I was struck once more by his resemblance to a large bird. Not a carrion crow at the moment, though, but a raptor, a bird of prey.

"And what business should a man of my profession travel on, Monsieur Fraser?" he asked. "I have been hired to perform my usual duties, at Smithfield."

"An important occasion, I take it," said Jamie. "To justify the summoning of a man of your skill, I mean." His eyes were watchful, though his expression showed nothing beyond polite inquiry.

Monsieur Forez’s eyes grew brighter. He rose slowly to his feet, looking down at Jamie where he sat near the window.

"That is true, Monsieur Fraser," he said softly. "For it is a matter of skill, make no mistake. To choke a man to death at the end of a rope—pah! Anyone can do that. To break a neck cleanly, with one quick fall, that requires some calculation in terms of weight and drop, and a certain amount of practice in the placing of the rope, as well. But to walk the line between these methods, to properly execute the sentence of a traitor’s death; that requires great skill indeed."

My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I reached for my own glass. "A traitor’s death?" I said, feeling as though I really didn’t want to hear the answer.

"Hanging, drawing, and quartering," Jamie said briefly. "That’s what you mean, of course, Monsieur Forez?"

The hangman nodded. Jamie rose to his feet, as though against his will, facing the gaunt, black-clad visitor. They were much of a height, and could look each other in the face without difficulty. Monsieur Forez took a step toward Jamie, expression suddenly abstracted, as though he were about to make a demonstration of some medical point.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Yes, that is the traitor’s death. First, the man must be hanged, as you say, but with a nice judgment, so that the neck is not broken, nor the windpipe crushed—suffocation is not the desired result, you understand."

"Oh, I understand." Jamie’s voice was soft, with an almost mocking edge, and I glanced at him in bewilderment.

"Do you, Monsieur?" Monsieur Forez smiled faintly, but went on without waiting for an answer. "It is a matter of timing then; you judge by the eyes. The face will darken with blood almost immediately—more quickly if the subject is of fair complexion—and as choking proceeds, the tongue is forced from the mouth. That is what delights the crowds, of course, as well as the popping eyes. But you watch for the signs of redness at the corners of the eyes, as the small blood vessels burst. When that happens, you must give at once the signal for the subject to be cut down—a dependable assistant is indispensable, you understand," he half-turned, to include me in this macabre conversation, and I nodded, despite myself.

"Then," he continued, turning back to Jamie, "you must administer at once a stimulant, to revive the subject while the shirt is being removed—you must insist that a shirt opening down the front is provided; often it is difficult to get them off over the head." One long, slender finger reached out, pointing at the middle button of Jamie’s shirt, but not quite touching the fresh-starched linen.

"I would suppose so," Jamie said.

Monsieur Forez retracted the finger, nodding in approval at this evidence of comprehension.

"Just so. The assistant will have kindled the fire beforehand; this is beneath the dignity of the executioner. And then the time of the knife is at hand."

There was a dead silence in the room. Jamie’s face was still set in inscrutability, but a slight moisture gleamed on the side of his neck.

"It is here that the utmost of skill is required," Monsieur Forez explained, raising a finger in admonition. "You must work quickly, lest the subject expire before you have finished. Mixing a dose with the stimulant which constricts the blood vessels will give you a few moments’ grace, but not much."

Spotting a silver letter-opener on the table, he crossed to it and picked it up. He held it with his hand wrapped about the hilt, forefinger braced on top of the blade, pointed down at the shining walnut of the tabletop.

"Just there," he said, almost dreamily. "At the base of the breastbone. And quickly, to the crest of the groin. You can see the bone easily in most cases. Again"—and the letter opener flashed to one side and then the other, quick and delicate as the zigzag flight of a hummingbird—"following the arch of the ribs. You must not cut deeply, for you do not wish to puncture the sac which encloses the entrails. Still, you must get through skin, fat, and muscle, and do it with one stroke. This," he said with satisfaction, gazing down at his own reflection in the tabletop, "is artistry."

He laid the knife gently on the table, and turned back to Jamie. He shrugged pleasantly.

"After that, it is a matter of speed and some dexterity, but if you have been exact in your methods, it will present little difficulty. The entrails are sealed within a membrane, you see, resembling a bag. If you have not severed this by accident, it is a simple matter, needing only a little strength, to force your hands beneath the muscular layer and pull free the entire mass. A quick cut at stomach and anus"—he glanced disparagingly at the letter opener—"and then the entrails may be thrown upon the fire."

"Now"—he raised an admonitory finger—"if you have been swift and delicate in your work, there is now a moment’s leisure, for mark you, as yet no large vessels will have been severed."

I felt quite faint, although I was sitting down, and I was sure that my face was as white as Jamie’s. Pale as he was, Jamie smiled, as though humoring a guest in conversation.

"So the…subject…can live a bit longer?"

"Mais oui, Monsieur." The hangman’s bright black eyes swept over Jamie’s powerful frame, taking in the width of shoulder and the muscular legs. "The effects of such shock are unpredictable, but I have seen a strong man live for more than a quarter of an hour in this state."

"I imagine it seems a lot longer to the subject," Jamie said dryly.

Monsieur Forez appeared not to hear this, picking up the letter opener again and flourishing it as he spoke.

"As death approaches, then, you must reach up into the cavity of the body to grasp the heart. Here skill is called upon again. The heart retracts, you see, without the downward anchorage of the viscera, and often it is surprisingly far up. In addition, it is most slippery." He wiped one hand on the skirt of his coat in pantomime. "But the major difficulty lies in severing the large vessels above very quickly, so that the organ may be pulled forth while still beating. You wish to please the crowd," he explained. "It makes a great difference to the remuneration. As to the rest—" He shrugged a lean, disdainful shoulder. "Mere butchery. Once life is extinct, there is no further need of skill."

"No, I suppose not," I said faintly.

"But you are pale, Madame! I have detained you far too long in tedious conversation!" he exclaimed. He reached for my hand, and I resisted the very strong urge to yank it back. His own hand was cool, but the warmth of his lips as he brushed his mouth lightly across my hand was so unexpected that I tightened my own grasp in surprise. He gave my hand a slight, invisible squeeze, and turned to bow formally to Jamie.

"I must take my leave, Monsieur Fraser. I shall hope to meet you and your charming wife again…under such pleasant circumstances as we have enjoyed today." The eyes of the two men met for a second. Then Monsieur Forez appeared to recall the letter opener he was still holding in one hand. With an exclamation of surprise, he held it out on his open palm. Jamie arched one brow, and picked the knife up delicately by the point.

"Bon voyage, Monsieur Forez," he said. "And I thank you"—his mouth twisted wryly—"for your most instructive visit."

He insisted upon seeing our visitor to the door himself. Left alone, I got up and went to the window, where I stood practicing deep-breathing exercises until the dark-blue carriage disappeared around the corner of the Rue Gamboge.

The door opened behind me, and Jamie stepped in. He still held the letter opener. He crossed deliberately to the large famille rose jar that stood by the hearth and dropped the paper knife into it with a clang, then turned to me, doing his best to smile.

"Well, as warnings go," he said, "that one was verra effective."

I shuddered briefly.

"Wasn’t it, though?"

"Who do you think sent him?" Jamie asked. "Mother Hildegarde?"

"I expect so. She warned me, when we decoded the music. She said what you were doing was dangerous." The fact of just how dangerous had been lost upon me, until the hangman’s visit. I hadn’t suffered from morning nausea for some time, but I felt my gorge rising now. If the Jacobite lords knew what I was doing, they’d call it treason. And what steps might they take, if they did find out?

To all outward intents, Jamie was an avowed Jacobite supporter; in that guise, he visited Charles, entertained the Earl Marischal to dinner, and attended court. And so far, he had been skillful enough, in his chess games, his tavern visits, and his drinking parties, to undercut the Stuart cause while seeming outwardly to support it. Besides the two of us, only Murtagh knew that we sought to thwart a Stuart rising—and even he didn’t know why, merely accepting his chief’s word that it was right. That pretense was necessary, while operating in France. But the same pretense would brand Jamie a traitor, should he ever set foot on English soil.

I had known that, of course, but in my ignorance, had thought that there was little difference between being hanged as an outlaw, and executed as a traitor. Monsieur Forez’s visit had taken care of that bit of naiveté.

"You’re bloody calm about it," I said. My own heart was still thumping erratically, and my palms were cold, but sweaty. I wiped them on my gown, and tucked them between my knees to warm them.

Jamie shrugged slightly and gave me a lopsided smile.

"Well, there’s the hell of a lot of unpleasant ways to die, Sassenach. And if one of them should fall to my lot, I wouldna like it much. But the question is: Am I scairt enough of the possibility that I would stop what I’m doing to avoid it?" He sat down on the chaise beside me, and took one of my hands between his own. His palms were warm, and the solid bulk of him next to me was reassuring.

"I thought that over for some time, Sassenach, in those weeks at the Abbey while I healed. And again, when we came to Paris. And again, when I met Charles Stuart." He shook his head, bent over our linked hands.

"Aye, I can see myself standing on a scaffold. I saw the gallows at Wentworth—did I tell ye that?"

"No. No, you didn’t."

He nodded, eyes gone blank in remembrance.

"They marched us down to the courtyard; those of us in the condemned cell. And made us stand in rows on the stones, to watch an execution. They hanged six men that day, men I knew. I watched each man mount the steps—twelve steps, there were—and stand, hands bound behind his back, looking down at the yard as they put the rope around his neck. And I wondered then, how I would manage come my turn to mount those steps. Would I weep and pray, like John Sutter, or could I stand straight like Willie MacLeod, and smile at a friend in the yard below?"

He shook his head suddenly, like a dog flinging off drops of water, and smiled at me a little grimly. "Anyway, Monsieur Forez didna tell me anything I hadna thought of before. But it’s too late, mo duinne." He laid a hand over mine. "Aye, I’m afraid. But if I would not turn back for the chance of home and freedom, I shallna do it for fear. No, mo duinne. It’s too late."