Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Page 19)

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade(19)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

He shivered, then wrapped his cloak more tightly, resigned. The chill of the slate floor was seeping through his slippers; his feet had gone numb already. He thought of Fraser in his shirt, and shivered again at the thought of pressing his own bare flesh against the icy slates.

Respect, Fraser had said. It scarcely seemed respectful, such an extraordinary act. What, he wondered, would have happened, had he actually stepped on the man? He still held that overwhelming impression of Fraser’s presence, towering, cold as stone, and pushed aside a fleeting thought of what that frozen flesh might feel like, had he touched it. Restless, he stood and went forward, drawn like a moth to the glimmering white of the coffin.

More like something from the Middle Ages, he thought, and snorted, breath white in the dark air. Those Catholic buggers who walked barefoot through Paris or flagellated themselves to bloody shreds as an act of penance.

An act of penance.

He felt the words drop into place in his mind, like the tumblers of a lock. Recalled his sense of the Dunsanys, that some deep uneasiness tinged their grief.

“Oh, Geneva,” he said softly.

He saw again that vision of her at his window, pale-faced, wide-eyed, adrift in the night. So cold, and all alone. The outline of the stable behind her. From somewhere in the house, he thought he heard the creak of footsteps, and a far-off infant’s cry.

“Oh, my dear. What have you done?”

Chapter 8

Violent Hands

I am the Resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.

Well, he hoped so, to be sure. The words hadn’t yet been spoken, but repeated themselves in his mind, a comforting refrain. Though another bit from the Book of Common Prayer whispered a counterpoint in the background.

…not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.

He hadn’t gone to his father’s funeral—didn’t know if there had been one.

In spite of the weather, the church was full. The Dunsanys were liked by their tenants, friendly with most of the country gentry, and kind to their servants; everyone wished to comfort the family in its grief. Besides, it was the country, and entertainment was rare; no one would miss a good funeral, even if they were obliged to tramp through waist-deep snow to attend it.

Grey glanced over his shoulder, to see whether the tall figure of Jamie Fraser loomed among the crowd of grooms and chambermaids who stood at the back of the church, but there was no sign of the Scot. Fraser was, of course, forbidden to leave the boundaries of Helwater, but surely he would have been given leave to attend the funeral with the other servants—if he wished to.

Grey still felt the chill of his night watch in the chapel in his bones, but this deepened as he heard the rustle of anticipation at the door, and turned with everyone else to see the coffin of Ludovic, eighth Earl of Ellesmere, being brought in.

He made no attempt not to stare. Everyone was staring. The minister had come forth, and was waiting, stone-faced, at the altar, where Geneva’s coffin already stood. Grey himself had helped to carry that, dreadfully conscious of the silent weight within.

What was causing his bones to freeze within him now, though, was the sight of Jamie Fraser, tall and grim, serving as pallbearer with five other sturdy manservants.

Someone had given him coat and breeches of a cheap black worsted, very ill-fitting. He should have looked ridiculous, bony wrists protruding from the too-short sleeves, and every seam strained to bursting. As it was, he reminded Grey of a description he had read in Demonologie, a nasty little treatise discovered in the course of researches undertaken after his experience with the Hellfire Club.

The men set down the earl’s coffin and retreated to a bench set under the gallery. Grey was not surprised in the least to see Fraser sitting alone at one end, the other men bunched unconsciously together, as far away from him as they could get.

The vicar cleared his throat with an ominous rumble, the congregation rose, flustered and murmuring, and the service began. Grey heard not a word, his responses entirely mechanical.

Could he be right? He went back and forth on the matter, unsure. On the one hand, the thought that had come to him in the darkness of the chapel seemed incredible. A complete delusion, born of grief, fatigue, and shock. On the other…there was Lady Dunsany’s behavior. Grief-stricken, certainly, but grief covering a rocklike determination. Determination to put the past behind her and raise her grandchild? Or determination to perpetrate a daring deception in order to protect him?

And Lord Dunsany, the target of his own blame—and his wife’s. For arranging the marriage with Ellesmere, he’d said…but also for allowing Geneva too much freedom. What the devil had he said, mumbling in his cups? Something about her horse, spending hours roaming the countryside, alone on her horse. Not alone, surely. In the company of her groom, said a cynical voice in his mind.

And then there was said groom himself, and that remarkable encounter in the middle of the night. Even though Grey had not slept, it still seemed the product of a dream. He turned deliberately in his seat and looked at Fraser. Nothing whatever showed on the Scot’s face. He might have been looking back at Grey—or at something a thousand miles beyond him.

Isobel was seated next to Grey, her small, cold, black-gloved hand held in his for support. She was no longer weeping; he thought she had simply passed the point of being able to.

Not a one of the Dunsany family had so much as glanced at Fraser, though most of the congregation had gawked openly, and many were still darting looks at him where he sat on the bench, upright and menacing as a corpse candle.

Yes, there was evidence. But his knowledge of James Fraser was evidence, as well—and he found it inconceivable that Fraser could or would have seduced a young girl, no matter what the circumstances. Let alone the daughter of his employer.

His eyes settled on the pair of coffins at the front of the church, identical beneath their white shrouds. So tragic, so…solidly marital.

Yes, and you bloody knew Geneva, too, he thought.

The rain had turned to snow. It wouldn’t stick, sodden as the ground was, but the wind drove it against the windows, bursts of hard, dry pellets that struck the glass like bird shot.

Snowflake upon snowflake, silently accumulating into a drift of what seemed like certainty—but, he reminded himself, could as easily be pure illusion.

He was light-headed from lack of sleep, and the snow-darkened windows lent the church a mournful dimness. He’d sat through the predawn hours in the freezing chapel, watching the flicker of the candle flames, and thinking.

Was his refusal to believe it purely the product of his own pride, his own guilt? Not only his belief in Jamie Fraser’s honor, a refusal to believe he could be so mistaken in the man—but the knowledge that if it were true, he himself must bear a good part of the blame. He had introduced Fraser into the Dunsany household, his own honor surety for Fraser’s.

He hadn’t eaten this morning, too chilled and exhausted to think of food after his vigil in the chapel.

“Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.”

Fraser had closed his eyes, quite suddenly, as though unable to bear what he saw. What did he see? Grey wondered. The Scot’s face remained blank as granite, but he saw the big hands curl slowly, gathering fabric and flesh together, fingers digging so hard into the muscle of his thigh that they must leave bruises.

Was it Geneva he mourned—or his dead wife? The trouble with funerals was that they reminded one of loss. He had not seen his father’s funeral, and yet had never sat through one without thought of his father, the wound of his loss healing, growing smaller through the years, but always reopened.

And if ever I saw a man bleeding internally… he thought, watching Fraser.

“Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love.”

Well, that expectation would be a comfort, to be sure. He had no such expectation himself—only something too vague to be called hope—but he did have one certainty to anchor himself in this fog of grief and indecision. The certainty that he would get at least one answer from Jamie Fraser. Maybe two.

It was only four o’clock, but the winter sun had set, leaving a thin slice of pale light above the fells. The temperature had dropped and the snow had thickened; already the highest rocks showed a rime of white, and large, wet flakes struck Grey’s coat and stuck melting to his hair and lashes as he made his way to the stables.

He had seen the other two grooms helping to bring round horses and harness teams for those nearby funeral guests who were departing today, but there had been no sign of Fraser. Not surprising; Lord Dunsany preferred “MacKenzie” to remain out of sight when there was company. His size, his aspect, and, above all, his Highland speech tended to unnerve some people. Grey had heard some comments regarding the tall, red-haired servant who bore Ellesmere’s coffin, but most did not realize that he was Dunsany’s servant, rather than that of the Earl of Ellesmere—and few, so far as he knew, had realized that the man was Scottish, let alone a paroled Jacobite.

Sure enough, he discovered Fraser in the stable block, pitching feed for the stalled horses, and came up beside him.

“May I speak with you, Mr. Fraser?”

The Scot didn’t turn, but lifted one shoulder.

“I dinna see any way of preventing ye, Major,” he said. Despite the words, this did not sound unfriendly; only wary.

“I would ask you a question, sir.”

He was watching Fraser’s face closely, in the glow of the single lantern, and saw the wide mouth tighten a little. Fraser only nodded, though, and dug his fork into the waiting mound of hay.

“Regarding some gentlemen intimately connected with the Stuart cause,” Grey said, and received a sudden startled look—mingled with an undeniable impression of relief.

“The Stuart cause?” Fraser repeated, and turned his back on Grey, shoulders bunching as he dug the fork into a pile of hay. “To which…gentlemen…do ye refer, Major?”

Grey was conscious of his heart beating heavily in his chest, and took especial care that his voice might be under his control at this delicate juncture.

“I understand that you were an intimate friend to—” he nearly said, “to the Young Pretender,” but bit that off and said instead, “to Charles Stuart.”

“That—” Fraser began, but stopped as suddenly as he had begun. He deposited the forkload of hay neatly into one manger, and moved to pick up another. “I knew him,” he said, voice colorless.

“Quite. Am I to understand also that you knew the names of some important supporters of the Pretender in England?”

Fraser glanced at him, face inscrutable in the lantern light.

“Many of them,” he said quietly. He looked back to the fork in his hands, drove it down into the hay. “Does it matter now?”

Not to Fraser, surely. Nor to Hector, or the other dead of Culloden. But to the living…