“For my sake,” he said firmly, addressing the air in front of him as though it were a tribunal, “I dinna want ye to bear another child. I wouldna risk your loss, Sassenach,” he said, his voice suddenly husky. “Not for a dozen bairns. I’ve daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, grandchildren—weans enough.”
He looked at me directly then, and spoke softly.
“But I’ve no life but you, Claire.”
He swallowed audibly, and went on, eyes fixed on mine.
“I did think, though . . . if ye do want another child . . . perhaps I could still give ye one.”
Brief tears blurred my eyes. It was cold in the lean-to, and our fingers were stiff. I fumbled my hand into his, squeezing tight.
Even as we had spoken, my mind had been busy, envisioning possibilities, difficulties, blessings. I did not need to think further, for I knew the decision had made itself. A child was a temptation of the flesh, as well as of the spirit; I knew the bliss of that unbounded oneness, as I knew the bittersweet joy of seeing that oneness fade as the child learned itself and stood alone.
But I had crossed some subtle line. Whether it was that I was born myself with some secret quota embodied in my flesh, or only that I knew my sole allegiance must be given elsewhere now . . . I knew. As a mother, I had the lightness now of effort complete, honor satisfied. Mission accomplished.
I leaned my forehead against his chest and spoke into the shadowed cloth above his heart.
“No,” I said softly. “But, Jamie . . . I so love you.”
WE STOOD WRAPPED in each other’s arms for a time, hearing the rumble of voices from the other side of the wall that separated the house from the lean-to, but silent ourselves, and content with the peace of it. We were at once too exhausted to make the effort to go in, and reluctant to abandon the tranquillity of our rude retreat.
“We’ll have to go in soon,” I murmured at last. “If we don’t, we’ll fall down right here, and be found in the morning, along with the hams.”
A faint wheeze of laughter ran through his chest, but before he could answer, a shadow fell over us. Someone stood in the open door, blocking the moonlight.
Jamie lifted his head sharply, hands tight on my shoulders, but then he let his breath out, and his grip relaxed, allowing me to step back and turn round.
“Morton,” Jamie said, in a long-suffering sort of voice. “What in Christ’s name are ye doing here?”
Isaiah Morton didn’t much look like a rakish seducer, but then, I supposed tastes must differ. He was slightly shorter than I, but broad through the shoulder, with a barrel-shaped torso and slightly bowed legs. He did have rather pleasant-looking eyes and a nice mop of wavy hair, though I was unable to tell the color of either, in the dim light of the lean-to. I estimated his age at somewhere in the early twenties.
“Colonel, sir,” he said in a whisper. “Ma’am.” He gave me a quick, brief bow. “Didn’t mean to give you fright, ma’am. Only I heard the Colonel’s voice and thought I best seize the day, so to speak.”
Jamie regarded Morton narrowly.
“So to speak,” he repeated.
“Yes, sir. I couldn’t make out how I was to get Ally to come forth, and was just a-circling of the house again, when I caught heed of you and your lady talking.”
He bowed to me again, as though by reflex.
“Morton,” Jamie said, softly, but with a certain amount of steel in his voice, “why have ye not gone? Did Fergus not tell ye that the militia is stood down?”
“Oh, aye, sir, he did, sir.” He bowed to Jamie this time, looking faintly anxious. “But I couldn’t go, sir, not without seeing Ally.”
I cleared my throat and glanced at Jamie, who sighed and nodded to me.
“Er . . . I’m afraid that Miss Brown has heard about your prior entanglement,” I said delicately.
“Eh?” Isaiah looked blank, and Jamie made an irritable noise.
“She means the lass kens ye’ve a wife already,” he said brutally, “and if her father doesna shoot ye on sight, she may stab ye to the heart. And if neither of them succeeds,” he went on, drawing himself up to his fully menacing height, “I’m inclined to do the job myself, wi’ my bare hands. What sort of man would slip round a lass and get her with child, and him with no right to give it his name?”
Isaiah Morton paled noticeably, even in the dim light.
“She is,” I said, quite coldly.
“She is,” Jamie repeated, “and now, ye wee bigamist, ye’d best leave, before—”
He stopped speaking abruptly, as Isaiah’s hand came out from under his cloak, holding a pistol. Close as he was, I could see that it was both loaded and cocked.
“I’m that sorry, sir,” he said apologetically. He licked his lips, glancing from Jamie to me, and back. “I wouldn’t do you harm, sir, nor certain sure your lady. But you see, I just got to see Ally.” His rather pudgy features firmed a little, though his lips seemed inclined to tremble. Still, he pointed the pistol at Jamie with decision.
“Ma’am,” he said to me, “if might be as you’d be so kind, would you go on into the house and fetch Ally out? We’ll . . . just wait here, the Colonel and me.”
I hadn’t had time to feel afraid. I wasn’t really afraid now, though I was speechless with astonishment.
Jamie closed his eyes briefly, as though praying for strength. Then he opened them and sighed, his breath a white cloud in the cold air.
“Put it down, idiot,” he said, almost kindly. “Ye ken fine ye willna shoot me, and so do I.”
Isaiah tightened both his lips and his trigger finger, and I held my breath. Jamie continued to look at him, his gaze a mixture of censure and pity. At last, the finger relaxed, and the pistol barrel sank, along with Isaiah’s eyes.
“I just got to see Ally, Colonel,” he said softly, looking at the ground.
I drew a deep breath, and looked up at Jamie. He hesitated, then nodded.
“All right, Sassenach. Go canny, aye?”
I nodded, and turned to slip into the house, hearing Jamie mutter something under his breath in Gaelic behind me, to the general effect that he must have lost his mind.
I wasn’t sure he hadn’t, though I had also felt the strength of Morton’s appeal. If any of the Browns happened to discover this rendezvous, though, there would be hell to pay—and it wouldn’t be only Morton who paid.
The floor inside was littered with sleeping bodies wrapped in blankets, though a few men still huddled round the hearth, gossiping and passing a jug of something spirituous among themselves. I looked carefully, but fortunately Richard Brown was not among them.
I made my way across the room, carefully stepping through and over the bodies on the floor, and peered into the bed that stood against the wall as I passed. Richard Brown and his wife were both curled up in it, sound asleep, nightcaps pulled well down over their respective ears, though the house was warm enough, what with all the trapped body heat.
There was only one place that Alicia Brown could be, and I pushed open the door to the loft stair, as quietly as I could. It made little difference; no one by the fire paid the slightest attention. One of the men appeared to be trying to get Hiram to drink from the jug, with some success.
By contrast to the room below, the loft was quite cold. This was because the small window was uncovered, and quite a lot of snow had drifted in, together with a freezing wind. Alicia Brown was lying in the little snowdrift under the window, stark nak*d.
I walked over and stood looking down at her. She lay stiffly on her back, arms folded over her chest. She was shivering, and her eyes were squinched shut with ferocious concentration. Obviously, she hadn’t heard my footsteps, over the noises from below.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” I inquired politely.
Her eyes popped open and she gave a small shriek. Then she clapped a hand over her mouth and sat up abruptly, staring at me.
“I’ve heard of a number of novel ways of inducing miscarriage,” I told her, picking up a quilt from the cot and dropping it over her shoulders, “but freezing to death isn’t one of them.”
“If I’m d-dead, I won’t need to m-m-miscarry,” she said, with a certain amount of logic. Nonetheless, she drew the quilt around her, teeth chattering.
“Scarcely the best means of committing suicide, either, I shouldn’t think,” I said. “Though I don’t mean to sound critical. Still, you can’t do it now; Mr. Morton is out in the lean-to and won’t go away until you come down to speak to him, so you’d better get up and put something on.”
Her eyes flew wide and she scrambled to her feet, her muscles so stiff with cold that she stumbled awkwardly and would have fallen, had I not grabbed her arm. She said nothing more, but dressed as quickly as her chilled fingers would allow, wrapping a thick cloak around herself.
Bearing in mind Jamie’s adjuration to “Go canny,” I sent her down the narrow stair alone. Alone, she would be merely assumed to be going to the privy—if anyone even noticed her departure. Both of us together might cause comment.
Left by myself in the darkened loft, I drew my own cloak around me and went to the narrow window to wait for the few minutes necessary before I could leave, too. I heard the soft thump of the door closing below, but couldn’t see Alicia from this high angle. Judging from her response to my summons, she didn’t intend to stab Isaiah to the heart, but heaven knew what either of them did intend.
The clouds were gone now, and the frozen landscape stretched before me, brilliant and ghostly under a setting moon. Across the road, the horses’ brushy shelter stood dark, dappled with clumps of snow. The air had changed, as Jamie had said, and warmed by the horses’ breath, chunks of melting snow slid free and plopped to the ground.
In spite of my annoyance with the young lovers, and the undertones of comic absurdity attending the whole situation, I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for them. They were so in earnest, so intent on nothing but each other.
And Isaiah’s unknown wife?
I hunched my shoulders, shivering slightly inside my cloak. I should disapprove—I did, in fact—but no one knew the true nature of a marriage, save those who made it. And I was too aware of living in a glass house, to think of throwing stones myself. Almost absently, I stroked the smooth metal of my gold wedding ring.
Adultery. Fornication. Betrayal. Dishonor. The words dropped softly in my mind, like the clumps of falling snow, leaving small dark pits, shadows in moonlight.
Excuses could be made, of course. I had not sought what had happened to me, had fought against it, had had no choice. Except that, in the end, one always has a choice. I had made mine, and everything had followed from it.
Bree, Roger, Jemmy. Any children that might be born to them in the future. All of them were here, in one way or another, because of what I had chosen to do, that far-off day on Craigh na Dun.
You take too much upon yourself. Frank had said that to me, many times. Generally in tones of disapproval, meaning that I did things he would have preferred I did not. But now and then in kindness, meaning to relieve me of some burden.